Cover of Hazard

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Second Excerpt from Hazard

Chapter 2

    "I'm sorry for putting you to such trouble, Lady Anne," the man said. "If you give me directions, I am sure I can find my way. And now I'm tracking more mud along the corridors..."
    He sat on a chair and pulled first one boot then the other off without difficulty. "Army ways," he said, standing with them in his hand. "Folly not to be able to get in and out of them by oneself."
    Anne felt a stir of interest. She admired practicality.
    "You were at Waterloo, Mr. de Vere?" she asked as they rounded the bend in the corridor.
    "Alas, no, Lady Anne."
    So much for that. He was a desk officer. He'd doubtless never disturbed his blond waves.
    She opened the door to the east room, and stood back to let him enter. "I will send washing water for you, Mr. de Vere. And of course, please ask for anything you need."
    She closed the door and retraced her steps, wondering why she felt so twitchy about this new invader.
    Race, Uffham had called him.
    Racy. It fit.
    An idle dilettante with racy inclinations.
    But Frances' suggestion tantalized. A lady could enjoy flirtation without sliding from there into marriage, especially with a man like that.
    She didn't flirt. It had always seemed unkind and unwise to encourage gentlemen whom she had no intention of marrying. She had begun to flirt a little with Middlethorpe, perhaps. She'd never felt inclined to flirt with saturnine Wyvern.
    She did need practice. She'd never been opposed to marriage, but she hadn't been in pursuit of it, either. Now, with the threat of life at Lea Park under some other young woman's rule, it was a whole other matter.
    Needing time to consider this, she went down the east stairs all the way to the kitchens to order the water. Of course the servants fussed about her going to the trouble -- but then she had an inspiration.
    "Please," she said to the agitated housekeeper. "My doctor tells me I must walk frequently or my limp could get worse. You must not deny me the opportunity."
    "Oh, well then, my lady. Of course, then..." But plump Mrs. Orwell didn't seem comfortable about it.
    "This wretched weather has stuck me in a chair for two days. It really isn't good for me."
    "Yes, quite, I see, my lady."
    Anne went back upstairs very pleased with herself. She'd spread the same word at Lea Park, and if necessary get Dr. Normanton to support her. She knew he would. He had always encouraged her to be active, and had helped persuade her parents to let her ride and drive. That had finally given her equal mobility and a form of exercise she loved.
    She paused in the chilly hall as she realized that she'd never shown such skills in society. Perhaps Frances was right. She had hidden away at Lea Park as much as possible, and when mixing with society she'd done her best to fade into the wallpaper.
    As she limped up the stairs, she resolved to actively pursue marriage, which meant spending more time in society. She pulled a face. It would be tedious and at times embarrassing, but she would do it. For that she did need more practice with men.
    She hovered for a moment outside of the boudoir, then detoured to her room. Her maid, Hetty, was there, putting away some freshly laundered clothing.
    "Oh, milady. Is there something you need?"
    "Just to tidy myself," Anne said, feeling suddenly as if the words "husband hunter" had appeared on her forehead.
    "Sit you down, milady, and I'll redo your hair."
    Forty-year-old Hetty had been Anne's maid from the nursery and Anne automatically obeyed. By the time the pins were out of her hair, she had come to her wits. "I don't have many minutes, Hetty, and I don't.... Just tidy it the way it was."
    "Right, milady." But Anne saw the twinkle in the maid's eye. As if to confirm it, Hetty said, "I hear Lord Uffham's brought a handsome young gentleman with him, milady."
    "Handsome is as handsome does."
    "Sukie Rowman caught a glimpse of him and said he looked like the angel in the window in the church."
    "What foolishness!" But Anne realized that Sukie Rowman was right. The angel in St. Michael's church wore a flowing robe, but she -- he? -- bore a flaming sword. It was a militant angel with a square chin and waving blond hair....
    "Who would marry an angel?"
    Hetty grinned. "That's the spirit, milady."
    Anne looked at the older woman in the mirror. Surely the news about Wyvern's marriage couldn't have made it to the servants' quarters yet. "Lord Wyvern is not the angelic type."
    Hetty pulled a face. "That he isn't, milady, unless you count Lucifer."
    "He's a good man, Hetty."
    "But carrying troubles. There's troubles enough come in life, milady. No need to marry them. You take your time in choosing."
    That was startlingly frank. "Wyvern is married. To a lady in Devon."
    Hetty's busy hands stilled. "Well I never. The warty toad!"
    Anne burst out laughing. Had the phrase passed from servants to children, or children to servants?
    "No, truly, Hetty. There was no commitment, and I'm happy for him. Now do hurry. I must get back to help my sister."
    Hetty twisted Anne's hair into a high knot and stuck in the pins. It was a little neater, but Anne noticed that it was also a little softer around her face. She thought of protesting, but there wasn't time, and she didn't want to reveal any special interest in her appearance.
    Hetty put down the comb. "You could change your dress, milady."
    Anne's blue dress was her plainest and she hadn't put on any jewelry this morning other than seed pearl earrings and a gold cross and chain...
    Enough. She rose and turned with the blankest expression she could find. "Why would I do that?"
    Hetty's mouth pinched, but she didn't argue. She did, however, open a drawer and take out the Norwich silk shawl with the deep cream fringe.
    Anne picked up her plain brown knitted one.
    "You can't wear that, milady!"
    "You didn't complain when I put it on this morning, and nothing has changed, especially the temperature."
    She flung it around her shoulders and marched out of the room, afraid that she looked her worst, but even more afraid of being a figure of fun by changing simply because a strange man had come to the house.
    A man who looked like a militant angel....
    She found both gentlemen with Frances. Uffham, now bootless, was still in the chair near the fire, but de Vere had taken the chair close to Frances. He was making her laugh.
    Not an angel. A court jester.
    A straw man.
    A man of no substance or use.
    But straw could be useful. It could be made into mats and mattresses, fans and baskets. And bon-bon holders.
    Her foolish, whirling mind was sign of extreme nervousness and she feared she'd start chattering as crazily as she was thinking. She was nearly twenty-one, not sixteen!
    As she went to her seat on the sofa, however, she heard de Vere murmur something to Frances, and when she glanced that way her sister's cheeks were pink, and her eyes shining.
    Flirtation. In fact, it looked more like seduction!
    Good heavens, surely Uffham wouldn't bring such a man here...
    She forced her mind back to reason. No man would try to seduce a woman within weeks of giving birth. But perhaps a woman within weeks of giving birth still likes to be flirted with...
    Was de Vere simply being kind?
    Tantalized by that, she took her seat on the sofa. When she realized that Pastimes for Ladies was still open to her project she closed it and put it face-down. "Have I missed any delightful new scandal?"
    "Would we sully your ears with scandal, Annie?" Uffham asked with a grin. "I was telling Frannie about Hester Stanhope, but now you're here...."
    She gave him the glare that promised sisterly retribution, and he laughed.
    "The account will be in your papers any day. Tale is, she's not only adventuring all over Asia Minor, she's now the leader of some tribes of Bedouin. And possibly," he added with a wink, "having a special relationship with an Arab prince."
    "Lady Hester?" Anne exclaimed. "She visited Lea Park with her uncle, Lord Pitt, when we were children. She did not seem that sort of woman."
    "Who knows what secret passions hide behind conventional appearances?" asked de Vere.
    Anne caught a speculative glance at herself.
    "What a shame," he continued, "if they remain hidden."
    Good heavens! Why would he think like that about her?
    "That could apply to the last Tregallows girl!" Frances interjected.
    "Why?" Anne asked, thankful for a change of subject.
    "Uffham says she's eloped. With a nobody! Even so, it must be a relief to all concerned. I doubt any of them would have married except for being duke's daughters with enormous dowries."
    Like me? Anne thought, but she knew Frances wouldn't have meant that. "Which Tregallows lady is this? They all have such strange names, and all starting with C. Cornissa, Candella..."
    "This one is Claretta."
    "And," said Uffham, grinning, "she's run off with a Major Crump! Claretta Crump. It's a positive tongue twister. And whoever has heard of a Crump?"
    Frances shook her head. "She must be extremely plain, poor thing. You'd think the name alone would have given poor Claretta pause."
    "Apparently her pause should have come sooner," Uffham said. "Rumor has it that she's already increasing."
    Frances smirked. "We'll know the truth in seven months or so."
    Anne couldn't stand it. "How sad!"
    "Claretta Crump's lowly marriage?"
    "Society counting off the months."
    "Piffle," Frances said. "She's forced a marriage to someone undesirable. She deserves everything she gets."
    "Or given in to passion, Lady Benning," de Vere said, as if talking about the weather. "Passion can drive anyone off the straight path."
    Anne saw Frances blush, and knew she was blushing, too. The Peckworth family was not showing well before a guest. Of course, he was a nobody, but even so....
    The tea tray, thank heavens, arrived then, and another piled high with sustenance suitable for young men. Anne made the tea to save Frances from the effort.
    De Vere rose to pass around the cups and a moment later Benning joined them, perhaps drawn by a young man's instinct for food. He was only thirty, though an increase of the waist and a decrease of the hair made him look older. Anne wondered what had drawn Frances to him. Passion?
    Love certainly was a mystery.
    "Any trouble on the road?" he asked Uffham.
    "None. Why?"
    "Damn colliers dragging coal wagons around, begging. People encouraging them by raising money. Luddites attacking manufactories. Laborers burning ricks and smashing agricultural machines. Country's going to wrack and ruin."
    Uffham took a slice of pie. "The authorities need to catch that Captain Ned Ludd and hang him."
    "He's a symbol, not a person," de Vere said, "and therefore, immortal."
    "Then the authorities can hang some of his mortal followers," Benning snapped. "Those hangings at Ely should give 'em reason to think."
    "Right," Uffham said. "They'll think twice before killing someone else who tries to stop their wickedness."
    Anne wished they were back to social scandal. She didn't approve of the rioters, but times were hard. Peace had proved to be a mixed blessing.
    Frances put her hand over her belly. "Don't talk of these things! I cannot sleep to think of those wicked people wandering the countryside at night burning, smashing, and murdering. It's like France all over again!"
    "Madmen," Benning agreed, which Anne didn't think helpful, but then he went to pat Frances's shoulder and assure her of safety.
    Uffham peered at the tray from a distance. "Pass me more of that cake, de Vere, there's a good man."
    Like a good servant, de Vere passed the cake to Uffham. Then he came to Anne to have his cup refilled. Then, he sat beside her.
    "You frown, Lady Anne. I cannot bring sunshine, but perhaps I can bring smiles."
    "Smiles? We were talking of unhappy matters, I think. You are from Derbyshire, where these problems are serious. Can you explain the true causes of the Luddite problem to me?"
    "I left Derbyshire to join the army eight years ago, Lady Anne."
    "But you must have spent your childhood there."
    "I suppose I must. But matters were better then, and I was carelessly young."
    She suspected that he, like Uffham, would be carelessly young till he was ninety if he could manage it.
    "And now?" she demanded. "You do not read the newspapers?"
    "They tend to be so depressing -- riots, destruction, and hangings."
    So much for flirting with him. He was as frivolous as her straw heart. "People are behaving badly because their trades are depressed, Mr. de Vere, driving them to try to destroy the machines that have replaced them."
    "A lady interested in industrial economics? How novel."
    "Not at all. Perhaps ladies do not express their views to gentlemen for fear of being mocked."
    His face settled into something close to seriousness. "Did I mock? I did not mean to. Are you saying that ladies together talk of industrial matters? That perhaps you and Lady Benning were doing so when we interrupted?"
     Anne found her own tea cup was empty and put it on the table. Even if he hadn't heard her words before entering the room, he must have heard laughter.
    She longed to lie, but said, "No."
    He put his cup beside hers. "Perhaps ladies hide their true selves even from one another. As, perhaps, Lady Hester did. Sad, would you not say? Imagine if her uncle had not died and left her enough money to go adventuring."
    His eyes were keen, heavy-lidded, and a smoky blue-gray that should have been dull but wasn't. She felt a tug of attraction, but then remembered his suspicious name.
    "Have you never felt the need to hide your true self, Mr. de Vere?"
    "All the time, Lady Anne. All the time."
    "A man of mystery! There is something tantalizing about that, is there not? Is that your intent, sir?"
    "To tantalize you? Are you hinting that you are thirsty, Lady Anne? Please, allow me." He picked up the teapot and went neatly through the business of pouring a fresh cup of tea for her.
    She watched, amused and slightly shocked. Gentlemen did not pour tea.
    That play on tantalize showed a mind as agile as his body. The sinner Tantalus had been trapped in a pool of water up to his chin, but never able to drink.
    Did de Vere plan to tantalize her? Would she be tempted but never allowed to... to what?
    She knew what, and she most certainly wouldn't!
    He passed her the cup and she saw that his hands were a little too brown for a man of fashion, but beautiful. Long fingered but not bony, his square nails neatly trimmed. Something about those hands made her almost fumble the cup.
    He put his hand over hers to steady her. It didn't help. A ripple of something went through her and she saw it reflected in the surface of the tea. She gathered her wits, smiled at him, and put the cup down.
    The room seemed suddenly too warm, then she realized that she still had her shawl on. Such a simple explanation! She began to shrug it off, but de Vere rose to help her with it. He folded it and draped it over the back of the sofa.
    A simple courtesy to make her feel as if she had been somehow stroked. Had the news and events of the day turned her wits?
    She picked up her cup and took a deep drink of tea. "So, Mr. de Vere, you think all people hide their true selves?"
    "Not at all, Lady Anne," he said as he sat down again. "Uffham, for example, hides little."
    "But you do?"
    "Of course."
    She sipped, watching him. "What parts do you keep concealed, sir?"
    His eyes twinkled. "All the naughty bits, of course."
    A hic of laughter escaped her, and she almost spilled her tea. The room heated up again, and this time she didn't have a shawl as excuse.
    "You are quite a wit, Mr. de Vere."
    "A wit and a madman, Annie," called Uffham from across the room. "Never take him seriously."
    When conversation among the others settled -- on the dull topic of the weather now -- Anne looked at de Vere. "That seems a sad obituary, sir."
    He looked down at himself and back at her. "I hadn't noticed that I was dead yet. Wasn't there a saint who prayed to God that he become holy, but not just yet?"
    Before she could form a ripost, he went on, "Doesn't that strike a chord in you, Lady Anne? That you die a worthy lady, but not be one just yet?"
    "Saints are esteemed for having sinned and repented, Mr. de Vere. Ladies of English society are not."
    "Dashed unfair, wouldn't you say?"
    She was rescued by the nursemaid entering then with little Lucy, making the modest room quite a fashionable crush. Anne welcomed the distraction. She couldn't believe she was having this conversation in the midst of her family.
    She glanced back at de Vere.
    Imp from hell more likely. He had a way of seeming angelically innocent while being completely outrageous.
    "Well, Lady Anne?" he prompted.
    "I have never found sin particularly appealing," she said in a tone designed to depress pretension.
    His brows rose. "No desire to steal a delightful possession from one of your sisters? No urge to stick pins into them for being cruel? Not a single sour wish directed at a person unfairly blessed by fortune? No envy, no sloth, no gluttony...?"
    "Of course. I'm no saint."
    "Ah! Then we were talking about the sin of lust."
    Shocked rigid, Anne glanced at Uffham to see if he might have overheard. He hadn't, thank heavens. "Mr. de Vere," she hissed, "you go too far."
    "Lady Anne," he murmured back, "you are enjoying it."
    And astonishingly, it was true!
    "That is because I am safe within the bosom of my family, sir."
    "Unwise to bring bosoms into this discussion."
    Even though her bosom was slight and entirely covered by sturdy blue cloth, Anne instinctively put a hand there.
    "So," the incorrigible man continued at an alarmingly normal pitch, "you think discussing lust would lead to it? It does make one wonder what orgies result when our worthy churchmen meet to discuss what passions we should not be permitted."
    She lost the fight with her lips. "Mr. de Vere!"
    He took her tilted cup from her and put it on the table. She saw Uffham looking at her with a hint of concern. For some reason she smiled to show everything was all right.
    "Why be tantalized," the impossible man asked, "when you can drink your fill? You can talk about any of the seven deadly sins with me, Lady Anne, and I assure you I will not act on any of them."
    "And I assure you, sir, that I have no desire to do so."
    Lying, she told herself, was not one of the seven deadly sins, but it offended against a Commandment. She wasn't sure which was worse.
    This had hurtled beyond flirtation. She mustn't permit this outrageous man to go on saying these things. He might get entirely the wrong idea. She called for little Lucy's attention, encouraging her to toddle over and show off her doll.
    But the wanton hussy headed for de Vere, beaming at him as if he were an old friend and demanding to be lifted into his lap. He obliged and admired her toy, but then looked at Anne from those wicked eyes. "Perhaps we should start with envy, Lady Anne...."
    An arrow straight to the heart. She had felt a spurt of envy that the child prefer him to her, which was ridiculously petty.
    She couldn't have met Mr. Racecombe de Vere before. She would remember the violent irritation of it.

Hazard's publication date is May 7th, but you might be lucky and find it a bit sooner.

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