The Ballroom Imbroglio
Normally, for a lady who unintentionally trod on a gentleman’s foot, it was best advised to settle such trifle mishap with a few bats of eyelashes and a coquettish smile, and the harassed toes would all be forgotten. On the other hand, for her to tread on a shoe of a certain gentleman whose darkening countenance was enough to make the pluckiest of soul quail, it was very likely that feminine charms wouldn’t do the trick after all.
Miss Lorrington, who had the singular misfortune of finding herself in such a predicament, mustered all the courage to speak once more. She stared back nervously at the daunting figure that was glowering down at her. Either because of the pain inflicted by her slipper or on the account of sullying his shoe, there was no reckoning yet. “F-Forgive me, my lord! How c-clumsy of me!” she stammered, her lovely face was flushed with mortification.
“Apparently you did not, ma’am. May I suggest you get your lovely person out of the way, for the last thing I wanted is to shove a lady for me to pass,” the gentleman returned quite uncivilly.
To be a recipient of such crude response would no doubt offend one’s sensibilities, as it did to Miss Lorrington’s. To add to her chagrin, it was loud enough to elicit a gasp of shock from those revelers who had, up to this point, pretended not to see what was going on. Even the dancing couples’ heads were straying from where they should be, all the while their bodies were twisting and turning at the beat of music.
Impervious to the reactions drawn around him, the offending gentleman only lifted one elegant brow and put further the young lady into jitters as he drawled impatiently, “Well?”
For the third time, Miss Lorrington murmured her apology, and with a downcast head, exited his vicinity in a frantic manner that was unbecoming of a graceful young lady. It did not take long for her to reach the other side of the ballroom where a flock of debutantes huddled together, looking very indignant from what had just transpired. The telltale flushed cheek and moistening brown eyes were enough to prompt sympathies and outrage amongst the occupants of the circle. Instead of giving in to tears however, Miss Lorrington, chose to fortify herself with a proffered glass of punch and consolation from her friends.
“But how rude of him, to say such things to you!” exclaimed one Miss Debery, after Miss Lorrington had substantially recounted her plight.
“No scruples at all!” concurred Miss Lennox, a thin young lady with a tendency to squint.
“Well, who says he has scruples, pray? Mama said he is fortunate to have secured an earldom and wealth, for the rest of him leaves much to be desired!” Miss Debery reasoned with remarkable vehemence. It was received with several eager nods from the party, followed by the fluttering of fans.
“It wasn’t really my intention at all and I begged his pardon, you see,” explained Miss Lorrington with a catch on her soft voice. “But his face… Well, this might sound quite foolish of me, but I must confess, it could give me nightmares!”
“There, now, my dear! Only the Lord knows how one could come to grips with him when he’s in one of his black moods! Only last week there was Lady Eckroth — ” Miss Debery’s speech was cut off, for a handsome young gentleman suddenly presented himself to their little circle and went straight beside her friend. “But my dear Miss Lorrington!” interposed this newcomer, clasping the lady’s hands to his heart, “What is this I’m hearing about? A nightmare, you say? Tell me!”
Lord Ethan Leethe was an eloquent young man whose passionate and rather volatile nature was known to the fashionable set. It was apparently regarded with impatience by the objects of his affection: one could not help but notice how Miss Lorrington contrived to be free from his clutches the moment it reached her.
“Indeed, there’s no nightmare! Only there’s Lord Stokeford!”
“Lord Stokeford — that cull! What did he do to you? Where is he?” His eyes narrowed dangerously as they searched the ballroom looking for his quarry. Miss Debery supplied the answer, although not without a little exaggeration. She said: “Only the most appalling thing, my lord! Lord Stokeford was intent to shove her, and was glaring at her in a most odious way possible, as though she did the worst thing. I daresay his shoe hasn’t a speck of dust on it, you take my word for it!”
Lord Leethe did, and cursed under his breath. A black look crossed his handsome countenance; it would seem that the young lord was more than ready for a bout of fisticuffs. Damn Stokeford for inflicting distress on his sweet and fragile lady! And to stay rooted there without doing something? Yes, by God, he would give him a piece of his mind, and after that… “Well, devil take me if I’d let this pass!” he declared with such ferocity that alarmed the ladies.
“Heavens! Whatever do you mean by that, sir?” demanded Miss Debery.
Before he could give any true meaning to his words, the indignant Lord Leethe replied: “I’ll demand satisfaction for offending Miss Lorrington!”
As if of one mind, the three ladies exclaimed, most emphatically, “No!”
No doubt such riveting conversation did not fail to reach the ears of the elder guests nearby, and no sooner had the young ones exhausted the topic than Lord Stokeford’s name was bandied once more in a discussion. The Duke of Carlton, a corpulent gentleman in his forties with a florid face, said with cynical amusement to his companions, “Stokeford’s as hot-head as ever, eh?”
“I rather think they’re cut from the same cloth and fated to be adversaries,” mused the Viscount Giles as he eyed the young lord, who was at the moment under the ministrations of the debutantes (whose protestations were presently keeping him from calling out the Earl). “Like a keg of powder ready to explode at the first spark. I lay you a bet,” added his lordship with a light chuckle, “before this night is over, something will no doubt turn up. I’ll stake my best pin on it: we shall have a duel early in the morning tomorrow!”
“Nonsense!” said his grace. “Intrepid he may be, but I tell you Giles: Leethe will be in no danger of damaging a tree limb even at a distance of ten paces.”
“Who says I am for Leethe? My money’s on Stokeford,” returned the Viscount, and thought uncharitably that Leethe, possessing more pluck than sense, would never stand a chance against a marksman like Stokeford.
“A handsome devil, to be sure. Such a pity he’s a misogynist,” sighed the coquettish Lady Mathilda.
“Leethe?” asked the Duke incredulously. She looked at him under her brows and replied rather impetuously, “Stokeford, of course! Goodness, have you ever consulted a dictionary, your grace?”
The Duke made a harrumphing sound at this jab, but wisely bit back a retort.
“But he isn’t at all a misogynist!” put in Miss Penningbrooke, shaking her head vigorously, making her curls ridiculously bouncing atop her head. “It’s only rare to see Lord Stokeford in a lady’s company, for half of the females in town is afraid of him!”
“I, for one, am not in the least afraid of him. I daresay those silly debutantes cramming on the wall embodied that half you’re saying,” replied her ladyship scornfully.
“It stands to reason, I should say. The man’s scowl is enough to take them to their heels,” the Viscount said and emptied his glass before adding, “And his temper — now, that’s a very formidable thing, indeed.”
Presently, the subject of this heated conversation put himself at the far side of the ballroom. Unaware of someone already contemplating his death at the other end of the room, or the uneasy glances thrown at his direction, Lord Stokeford observed the bustle before him under puckered brows with a glass of claret.
It could have been said that what had transpired was bound to happen whenever he was around. His lordship’s remarkable lack of civility never went unobserved by the Polite Society. If there was a more surly-faced, petulant young man who would make young ladies scurry away instead of setting their caps at him, and bend the usual ramrod spines of those who were putting airs, he was none other than Lord Stefan Beaumont, the Earl of Stokeford.
Eventually, he caught a young exquisite stealing a glance at him. This naturally annoyed his lordship and favoured the unfortunate young man with one of his black looks, whereupon the poor fellow chocked on his wine and had to be patted at the back by his companion to set his breathing aright.
“That wasn’t so nice of you, Stefan,” he heard someone spoke. Stokeford glanced at the dark-haired gentleman in blue superfine coat who appeared beside him. He was a pleasant-looking man, about the same age as the Earl; his figure, though lithesome, stood a few inches shorter. Unlike Lord Stokeford, he had a lively demeanour.
“No, it wasn’t,” Stokeford agreed. “But the fellow should do very well to remember that it is rude to stare at someone.”
“Lord, man, what has put you on a miff now?” Robert, Viscount March, demanded, partly amused and partly exasperated. “I’ve just heard you gave Miss Lorrington a rude cut earlier. Young Leethe’s practically eager to reach for your neck.”
The Earl frowned. “And how the deuce did you know that?” he demanded.
“If you think the ears around here aren’t as sharp as pike,” rejoined the Viscount wryly, “you’re entirely mistaken Stefan.”
“Ah, and yours too no doubt!” came the sardonic reply.
Robert chuckled and shook his head. “Egad, I’ve long since abandoned the pretensions of appearing uninterested when all these idle chatters have been feasting nothing but your name. Of course I had to do something.”
“Do they cast aspersions upon my person? They might as well make a habit of it for all I care,” Stokeford muttered.
“By God, isn’t that Miss Winscott?” exclaimed Robert suddenly. He nodded to the direction of a lovely blonde girl in primrose ball gown, standing at the opposite side of the wall with a herd of young men hovering at her elbow.
“Who?” Stokeford’s gaze shifted to where his friend’s sight was set. Oddly enough, the moment he laid his eyes upon this vision, his countenance faintly underwent a transformation: the pall was suddenly dispelled, making the unpleasant creases between his brows disappear. For the first time during the entire evening, Lord Stokeford appeared calmer.
“Miss Sophia Winscott,” supplied his friend, taking a glass of wine from a proffered tray. He tipped his glass forward. “Now, that, Stefan, is what I can only describe as a diamond of the first water. Received seven offers last year, and all turned down. And by the looks of it, the gentlemen would not be easily deterred.” Robert glanced at Stefan, who appeared momentarily struck by the Beauty. He remarked, with ill-concealed amusement, “Oh, you don’t know her, do you? I think you were off somewhere when I made her acquaintance last year—hang it, is that Melton at her elbow? Devil take that blockhead, he’s got the nerve!”
“Suppose you introduce me to her.”
Lord March who was helping himself with the rest of his wine at this exact moment nearly spitted it out. “Damme, Stefan,” he began, frowning, “couldn’t you choose a more appropriate moment? You nearly got me there!” His grey eyes narrowed as he peered at Lord Stokeford. “You’re not shamming it, do you?”
“No, I don’t. Why should I?”
A boyish grin swept across the Viscount’s face. “And to think that miracles don’t exist! Well, best get yourself out of that pucker, my dear chap, if you don’t want to scare the wits out of her before you can even utter a word.”
“Yes, thank you for reminding me, Robert.” returned Stokeford sardonically.
“A friendly warning, dear chap; only a friendly warning! I’d hate to see you bungle your first attempt at courtship.”
“I am sorry to disappoint; no one is attempting a courtship.”
“No. No doubt you only desire to know her name tonight and forget about it by tomorrow,” Robert said with bald irony. “Or perhaps you only want to commit it to memory, for it is almost a crime not to remember the name of such a fair creature.”
“If you commit to memory every name of every fair creature you meet, Robert,” responded Stokeford drily, “it would not surprise me if you eventually forget that of your mother’s.”
“Stokeford!” a harsh voice echoed in the distance.
Both men turned and saw Lord Leethe elbowing through the crowd and heading straight towards them. He stopped near enough for Robert to smell the fumes of alcohol as he spoke. “I demand an apology on behalf of Miss Lorrington sir, who, as I hope you remember, had suffered from your incivility earlier!”
Much taken aback, Lord March gaped at him. He did not like how the word ’demand’ fell into his ear nor, for that matter, did Stokeford, who was staring at his adversary half-incredulous, half-scornful. Circumspectly, the Viscount took a step forward, completely barricading Lord Leethe’s way and trying, somewhat desperately, to prevent the disaster that was brewing. “Now, see here, Leethe! Why don’t we all sit down at the adjoining room and talk, eh?”
“I protest, sir! I shall have satisfaction!”
Tossing niceties aside, Robert hissed: “Damn it, man! You can’t just call a man out in the middle of the ballroom —!”
“And what if I don’t?” Lord Stokeford interrupted, one eyebrow cocked in challenge.
The younger man’s eyes flashed at once; the muscles of his face were twitching from fury. “Then you definitely are the ill-bred cull I take for,” he responded with loathing on every word. Shock, and a sort of sardonic amusement overcame the crowd that was beginning to gather around them. Everyone was intent on seeing the outcome of this dramatic encounter, and even the music was dying away, replaced by murmurs.
The Earl, his temper worsening each minute, was oblivious to the attention he and Lord Leethe were attracting; he was only aware of the insult that he thought should never pass without retaliation. With equal asperity, he said: “And you, Leethe, are a spineless vermin I have the misfortune to encounter.”
It was the only response needed to throw the gauntlet down. “Very well, then,” came the grim rejoinder. “Name your seconds, my lord!”
Much appalled, Lord March instinctively brought his palms up on his chest. “No, damn it, Leethe, you’re too young to die!”
A withering stare returned this unfortunate remark. “I thank you for the warning, March, but my life’s no concern of yours!”
The Viscount responded, trying to make him see some sense: “No, but my friend’s reputation is. For God’s sake, have done now! You are kicking up a great deal of dust over nothing!”
“Nothing!” ejaculated the younger man, his fury escalated. “To insult a lady is nothing to you? I’d say, March, you have some pretty notion how to be a bloody gentleman!”
“Yes, I have,” retorted March, “And challenging a fellow to a duel in the middle of a ball is not one of them. Decidedly bad ton!” Leethe only glared at him, and turned to the Earl again.
Lord Stokeford did not bother to respond. He knew very well what he was capable of. Short of murdering this young fool in front of him, he somehow had to find a way out of this predicament without any bloodshed. However, the fact that Leethe had injured his pride, calling him such names in the ballroom — of all places! — with every busybody in town present overcame reason. The rascal should be given a lesson, he thought; if not in a duel, then fisticuffs would do!
He was about to suggest the very thing, but not before he saw Miss Winscott, whose anxious blue eyes seemed to implore him to desist. She was standing just within his reach, and the flickering glow of candles illuminated her lovely but tense face. Stokeford was a lesser human indeed if he could resist that kind of look.
Therefore, instead of striking his fist to Leethe’s glaring face, he astonished everyone by turning his back and stalked out of the room wtihout a word, leaving gasps and murmurs on his wake.
When he was out of earshot and made a considerable distance away from the ballroom, his mood was, as expected, as black as the night. He felt like a caged animal, wanting to pounce on someone to unleash his fury; to throw his fist to a human face over and over again! These malignant thoughts went ungratified. Unfortunately for him, there was no one around to be of use as his punching sack, and so he continued to brood along the dimmed hall, his steps echoing after him until he reached the landing of the stairs that led to a small conservatory below.
The garden came into view just then, displaying a tall and well-lit hedge maze. Lord Stokeford never liked mazes, but what had possessed him to walk straight inside it, he was damned if he knew. With an unhurried pace, he traversed around, carefully noting his way lest he got lost. He was deep in his thoughts when suddenly, a faint rustling sound broke in the silence, followed by a decidedly feminine voice that came out like a squeal.
“Sir, please let go of me!”
His listened intently, but couldn’t quite determine the direction of the voice. With mounting curiosity, he pursued the path, gingerly taking his steps so as not so make unnecessary sounds. As he traipsed further into the maze, the rustling grew louder until he heard the woman’s—definitely a young lady’s—voice once more.
“Let me go!”
“But Miss Davis!” Another voice spoke, and this time it was definitely that of a man.
“No!” the lady, undoubtedly Miss Davis, almost shouted back.
His steps became brisker as he made a turn to his left and then right, and then left again, until he was cursing and muttering about the inconveniences of hedge maze. One last turn to his right, and he finally discovered a small yard in front of a gazebo. A young lady, unmistakably a debutante, was struggling free from the embrace of what appeared to be an ardent suitor. Stokeford halted, observing furtively while shadows concealed him from the view.
“Let me go!” This time, the young lady in distress managed to shove her unwanted suitor away from her person and tried to run. He proved to be persistent, and seized her arms once more. At this point, Lord Stokeford crossed the yard in few strides, clutched the unsuspecting man’s shoulder from behind, and jerked him around with some degree of force.
Without so much as a warning, to the young lady’s astonishment, Lord Stokeford hurled his fist squarely to his face.