Excerpt: Lady Bridget’s Diary
In which Lady Bridget Cavendish, of the American Cavendishes, falls flat on her back in a ballroom and makes the acquaintance of Mr. Wright and Looord Darcy.
And then, oh God, then.
While Bridget admittedly hadn’t been the most diligent student of Josephine’s lessons on deportment and such, she was certain that one was not supposed to find herself flat on her back, gasping for breath, in a ballroom.
Yet there she was, having slipped and fallen, the wind knocked from her lungs, staring up at the intricately painted ceiling of Lord and Lady Something or Other’s ballroom. There were big, fluffy clouds swarmed by an army of fat babies, armed to the teeth with bows and arrows. Cupid.
Perhaps if she just squinted a bit and looked very pensive she could pass this off simply as a uniquely American method of art appreciation. In a moment, when she’d caught her breath, she would stand up and declare that the brushstrokes in the clouds were evocative of a wild spirit in the artist, or some other nonsense statement.
Or not. Perhaps she might just lie here and wait for the floorboards to open up. Perhaps the haute ton would just trample her underfoot with their silk and satin slippers.
She imagined her tombstone: Here lies Lady Bridget Cavendish. She has fallen to her death.
It would technically be true.
Bridget ought to get up. Really. A lady couldn’t just lie there forever, wishing the floorboards would open and shut and whisk her away to a place where corsets didn’t dig into one’s skin, and reducing diets were unnecessary, and people didn’t gawk at her like she was on display at the circus.
And then a head popped into view.
A head with a handsome face. And, most importantly of all, a friendly face.
“Admiring the view, are you?” the handsome man inquired, peering down at her.
“You really cannot appreciate the artwork on the ceiling from any other position.”
Handsome Man smiled. It was like sunshine. And fireworks.
She accepted his outstretched hand; he helped lift her to her feet as if she were light as a feather. Once standing, she saw someone with him. Tall, dark-haired, a bored expression, and one fleeting, dismissive glance at her.
“I’ve always wondered why cherubs were so plump,” Handsome Man said, and Bridget turned to give him her full attention.
“No reducing diets for them. I was just wondering why they are always naked,” she added, even though she was quite sure the duchess would frown upon mentioning nudity in mixed company.
“And is it really the wisest course of action to arm small children with weaponry?” he mused, staring up at the ceiling.
“It doesn’t seem advisable, does it?” Bridget said, laughing.
“A disaster, waiting to happen.” Handsome Man demonstrated his possession of the sort of gorgeous smile that made a girl forget her wits.
His bored, disapproving friend coughed in that discreet way that everyone knows isn’t actually a cough but a gentle, oh-so-polite request to cease speaking immediately and quit the scene.
Bridget spared him a brief glance and saw just enough: he was another stuffy, boorish Englishman. This place was infested with them. He could hardly compete with his handsome, charming, and nice companion for her company.
“How remiss of me,” Handsome Man said. “We must find someone to introduce us.”
Bridget and he looked around at all the finely dressed guests around them. He probably wouldn’t find anyone to do the deed. Though the duchess had been introducing them all evening, there was no one she recognized. There had been too many names and faces to keep track of.
Not wanting to find herself left alone with his dark and brooding companion while he sought a mutual acquaintance, Bridget decided to just introduce herself. She stuck out her hand and said, “Bridget Cavendish, of the American Cavendishes.”
“I suppose everybody knows.”
“Mr. Rupert Wright, at your service,” he said with a bow. She grinned because his name was actually Mr. Wright. It had to be some sort of sign. “And this is my brother, Darcy. He is a stickler for propriety and probably having an apoplexy that we have violated the most basic etiquette by conversing before being introduced by a mutual acquaintance.”
“Well aren’t we living dangerously,” she murmured. Rupert’s eyes flashed and a smile teased at his lips.
“Indeed, it’s so very thrilling,” he murmured. Lord above, he was handsome. She would probably go home and write Rupert and Bridget in her diary. Repeatedly.
“I was just saying that an American family infiltrating the English aristocracy will surely lead to the downfall of English society,” Darcy said smugly. “As usual, I am correct.”
“Is that so?” Bridget inquired. “How exactly does that happen?”
“First, it’s an occasional informality; perhaps a conversation without a proper introduction. Then the rules are regularly relaxed, which, over time, leads to a general mayhem. Then we are all no different from the beasts. Or savages. Or Americans.”
“You sound like the Duchess of Durham,” she replied. “Or one of the conduct books on my bedside table. They are a remarkable remedy for insomnia.”
Aha! A flicker of feeling in his features! He seemed shocked and maybe, perhaps, a bit wounded to have been compared to one of the dragons of the ton. She felt thrilled to have gotten a reaction out of him.
Rupert burst out laughing. “Finally, Darcy, someone to stand up to you!”
“So happy to oblige,” she replied, smiling, because she made Rupert laugh with her instead of at her.
But her smile faded when she caught Darcy staring. Under his gaze, she became intensely aware of her dress, her hair, whether she was standing straight enough, and she involuntarily wondered if he liked what he saw or why she cared if he did. He made her skin feel hot.
Why this man should have such an effect on her was not something she was inclined to dwell on. Not when she could banter with his handsome and friendly brother. Rupert and Bridget did have such a ring to it.
“Oh, is that a waltz starting?” Rupert asked, groaning slightly. “I promised our hostess that I would dance with her daughter, and I live in fear of Lady Tunbridge’s wrath if I don’t comply. Lady Bridget, it has been lovely not officially making your acquaintance and discussing art. I hope to see you soon. Do take care for the rest of the evening.”
And with that, Rupert flashed her a grin and ventured off in search of Lady Tunbridge and her daughter.
She was left alone with his brother.
His eyes were dark and intensely focused on her. His jaw was set. If his brother was sunshine and cupid, this man was dark clouds, thunderstorms, that feeling of electricity in the air before lightning strikes.
They stood there, staring at each other, in an agonizing silence. In her opinion, extended silences were the worst. The longer they lasted, the harder it was to find something to say. And she often blurted out the first thing on her mind to avoid it. This moment was no exception.
“Do you dance, Mr. Darcy?”
“Lord Darcy,” he corrected. Of course. Everyone here was Lord or Lady or Your Grace or Your Lordship. Not only were there rankings, but also different forms of address, many of which changed depending on whether one was writing or speaking. Bridget remembered Josephine lecturing on this—and she remembered not paying attention.
She longed, intensely, for America, where everyone was either Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and that was that.
“I’m ever so sorry, Loooord Darcy,” she said, drawing out the sound and imitating his accent. Her attempt at humor was met with more silence. Dreaded silence. “Do you?”
“I do not.” Of course he didn’t. Because dancing was fun and she could already see that this man was where anything amusing and pleasant went to die.
Most ladies would take the opportunity to flee from a man who obviously had no interest in them. But she was not most ladies.
She accepted this Dreadful Darcy as a personal challenge. She would make him laugh, or at least crack a smile, if it was the last thing she did. Bridget leaned in closer, as if to whisper something scandalous. He stood still, like a statue. Barely breathing.
“Are you not speaking to me because we haven’t been properly introduced?”
“Tell me, Lord Darcy, do you find it amusing, this brooding and striking fear into the hearts of innocent young maidens?”
Was that a twitch at his lips? Laughter? She wanted to crow in triumph. But it was too soon. She was emboldened to continue.
“I wonder, Lord Darcy, if we have not been introduced, then has this conversation even happened?”
She lifted one brow, questioning.
He simply stared at her. Was he horrified by her outspokenness or was he actually considering the question? It was a good question, actually. One she would pose to Josephine tomorrow over breakfast. She was actually curious how this disapproving gentleman would answer.
“I think you will agree that it’s best we proceed as if this conversation has never taken place. Excuse me,” he said, ever so politely. Then he turned and walked away, leaving her alone in a crowded room.