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The First Impression

 
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Clare Grey
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PostPosted: Sat May 20, 2017 9:53 pm    Post subject: The First Impression Reply with quote

May 1887: London

May in London was a heady affair, filled with the arrivals of the ladies of the elite and their daughters, their husbands detained on business or present in Parliament. Those who were to come out into society were closeted away until the date of the presentation at Court, but those who had been presented before now were able to partake in the pleasures London had to offer several weeks before their debutante sistren could even consider it. Thus May was about seeing and being seen before the influx of marriageable ingenues flooded the balls and receptions and dinners, and one place to do just that was the opera.

The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden threw open its doors to welcome the ton with the first English performance of Otello, the great composer Verdi's first opera in almost fifteen years. Evening dress was compulsory, the air thick with the wafting of perfumes and heat from the stage as ladies fanned themselves. In the boxes, the best of the best did more audience-watching than stage-watching, sharing soft tidbits among themselves about those they could see about them. Lady Constance Stanley had spent the better part of two weeks learning all she could about the unmarried ladies of London and, behind the cover of her fan, she was busily pointing out those whom her brother might like to focus his attentions on.

"The tall blonde across and down, in Box Three," she murmured softly. "Red velvet and onyx necklace? That is Lady Amelia Pennyworth. She's an heiress, and approaching twenty-two, she seems to believe herself a failure and a spinster. The brunette sat beside her is her cousin, Vivienne De Worth - do not touch her with a barge pole, she has broken three engagements and refused to return the rings."

Though Lawrence knew it was pointless to admit it, he was actually more interested in the opera than in his sister's gossip; but he knew she had worked hard to learn as much as she could about any possible prospects and that she had pinned all her hopes on him finding a suitably wealthy bride. He knew what was expected of him, and yet, it still irked him a little that he was being forced into finding a bride whose worth was based solely on her family's ability to provide a generous dowry. He knew beauty was only skin deep, but he hoped he wouldn't have to settle for what amounted to the ugly stepsisters. He glanced over at the women his sister was pointing out, but it was hard to tell from a mere glance whether they might make a good match. "And why is Lady Amelia not yet married?" he asked, his voice barely above that of a whisper so no one overheard.

"That is uncertain," Connie admitted softly. "Though I believe she is of a retiring nature, and set against the more vivacious members of her circle, it is likely she fades into obscurity." She was not ignoring the opera, exactly, but this art form had never been her favorite. She was trying to give her brother some idea of whom he might like to be introduced to at the ball they would attend after the performance; her own activity would be largely to gossip with friends and dance with acquaintances.

"That is not necessarily a bad thing," he remarked. A quiet, unassuming wife who would not try to poke her nose into matters of business but be content with running the household was exactly what he thought he needed. Adelaide had been such a wife, though she'd been so quiet it had been difficult at first getting to know her, especially in the way a husband should know a wife. It was still better than a brash, bossy wife who would try to take charge.

"True, but a manner that is too retiring is a manner that is often taken advantage of," his sister warned him. "And apparently her nose is not so beautiful when viewed directly." That could only have come from one of the dowagers; only the older women in society would have phrased it so delicately. The younger, given their friendly rivalry, were more likely to coin a cruel nickname. Connie tilted her head, watching her brother for a moment. "Are there no ladies here who catch your eye at all, Lawry?"

Well, that decided that. He couldn't have a wife with a deformed nose, could he, though he felt a twinge of sympathy for the woman. He let his gaze move on, taking in blonde here and a brunette there - all of them looking perfectly poised to catch the attention of an eligible male. There was one head among them, though, that was different from the rest - a single redhead amidst a sea of blondes and brunettes. "Who is that?" he asked, with a nod of his head toward the woman in question.

Constance blinked in surprise - she hadn't actually thought he would pick someone out to ask about. Now she looked, however, she could see why. "That is Miss Clare King," she told him, her smile hidden behind her fan. "The older lady with her must be her mother. As I understand, Miss King is also on the cusp of spinsterhood, though the gossip is a little more sympathetic. Her father is a title-hunter, and makes no attempt to disguise his ambitions."

Though he was too far away to tell, the redhead hardly looked old enough to qualify as a spinster, at least as far as he was concerned. "And how much is a title worth to him?" he asked curiously. He hated himself for asking, but it was something he had to consider.

"An obscene amount," she murmured in return. "Our very own Albert paid court to her in her first Season, two years ago, and her father offered him £30,000 to marry her before he was even certain of his own attachment. There is an ugly rumor that the amount has increased each time Mr. King has attempted such a thing. I feel pity for her, for she is not without charms. The ladies speak highly of her, despite her mother's low birth, but her father's behavior has made a wallflower of a rose."

"Hmm," he murmured thoughtfully. The question was whether her father was merely eager to buy his daughter a title or to have her off his hands, and if that was the case, then why? "I do not recall Albert ever mentioning her," he mused aloud.

"Albert does not engage in gossip the way others of his age do," Connie pointed out quietly. "Indeed, he would not have told me had I not asked him directly. Yet others were not so discreet that first year, and so the lady's reputation is marred by the fashionable set's opinion of her parentage. She is the granddaughter of a minor baronet, but her mother is the daughter of a shopkeeper."

Lawry knew better than most what it was like to judged by the sins of one's predecessors, rather than one's own character, as was evidenced by his father's penchant for gambling and the subsequent loss of the family's fortune. "Will she be at the ball?" he asked, though he assumed that she would.

"I would assume so," Constance assured him, though she tilted a curious look toward her brother as she did so. She had not expected him to show such interest so soon in what she privately thought was a suitable young woman for what he needed. Money and manners was a desirable combination in his circumstance. "It is being held by her great-aunt, the Dowager Lady Greenville."

He murmured a thoughtful acknowledgement, his gaze lingering on the redhead, though she was just one of many eligible women who'd likely be in attendance at the ball and be clamoring for attention. He let his gaze drift onward to other pretty faces, but compared to the redhead, they all looked alike. "Can you arrange a meeting?" he asked, not wanting to get his sister's hopes up too high, just yet.
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Clare Grey
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PostPosted: Sat May 20, 2017 9:54 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Connie's brow rose in an echo of the teasing expression she had perfected on him when they were children. "Why, certainly, Sir Grey," she murmured in amusement, before sobering. "The Dowager is a fine hostess; she will have a Master of Ceremonies who will be only too happy to introduce you to her, I am certain. Don't forget to ask her to dance, though."

"Yes, of course," he replied. He was well aware of the usual decorum, though he couldn't help but wonder what she might think of him if she didn't know who he was. Otherwise, he was merely a title to be sold to the highest bidder.

Luckily for him, his sister knew the way he thought. There were no more young women pointed out to him during the climax of the opera, though Miss King seemed to become aware of curious eyes glancing her way. She could not seem to identify to whom they belonged, however, which might have been a blessing, for it meant that Lawry was offered a fine view of her face as she looked about the boxes in search of that elusive glance. When Connie's card was delivered to the King party at the end of the performance, then and only then did Miss King's eyes discover the gentleman whose gaze had set her skin prickling for the past hour.

Even across the auditorium, the soft flush on her skin was discernible as she inclined her head to Lawry and his sister, the suggestion of a smile on her face before her mother caught her attention for their leave-taking. She scribbled something onto a small card of her own, sending the usher back toward the box even as she left their sight. The card as delivered read : Miss Clare King, 4, Grosvenor Square - simple and to the point, yet she had written on the back. A pleasure, Lady Stanley. My thanks for your kind attention, and that of your companion.

There wasn't much for Lawry to do, but wait for the usual niceties to be tended to. Introductions would be arranged later, and he would find out first hand if Miss King was as alluring in person as she was from a distance.

The Dowager Lady Greenville's residence was in Park Lane, a grand mansion in the heart of Mayfair, and this evening it was lit up brightly. Music could be heard as the guests alighted from their carriages and were ushered inside, to be received by the Dowager herself. From there, they were directed into the ball room, and the state rooms opened on either side, and it was in that cheerful, noisy crush that Lawry came face to face with Miss King himself. His sister had connived with the Master of Ceremonies before making herself comfortable among the other married women, and as such, the method of introduction was not what others might have expected.

"Miss King, may I have the honor of introducing to you Sir Lawrence Grey?"

Clare raised her eyes to the handsome man whose gaze in the opera house had caused her to blush, inclining her head as she curtsied to him. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sir Grey."

In the better light of the ballroom, there was more to be seen of her - the bright copper of her hair, piled atop her head with artful curls escaping, a slender neck, a porcelain pale complexion that did not seem to need the powder other ladies applied by the ton. Blue eyes sparkled in the lamp light as she lifted her gaze to him once more.

Sir Grey, as Lawry was formally introduced, was pleasantly surprised to find that Miss King was even more alluring up close as she was from a distance. She was, in fact, almost too perfect, and Lawry couldn't help wondering what was wrong with her that she was still unwed - other than the unfashionable but flattering red hair and the fact that her father was a well-known title chaser. "The pleasure is all mine, Miss King," he said, one arm across his chest as he offered a small, courteous bow.

She smiled faintly at the courteous display of manners, unable to quell a small shiver of delight at meeting a handsome man who apparently did not know enough about her father's manners to avoid her like the plague. "Thank you, Mr. Collins," she nodded to the Master of Ceremonies, who bowed to them both and took his leave. "How did you like the opera, Sir Grey?"

"I found it enjoyable enough. Very different from Aida, though, wouldn't you say?" he asked, joining her in the pleasantries of small talk. He wasn't there to discuss the opera - what little he'd actually seen of it - but it at least made for the beginning of a conversation.

"I must confess, I have never had the pleasure of seeing Aida," she admitted with a winsome smile, clasping her gloved hands together at her waist. "You will no doubt consider me an uneducated savage if I were to reveal that I much prefer Mr. Gilbert and Sir. Sullivan's light operettas."

"Not at all. I am rather fond of them myself. And it doesn't hurt that they are sung in English," he replied with a pleasant smile that hinted at a sense of humor. So, it seemed they had found common ground and a place to start anyway.

"Apart from a few phrases, of course," Clare agreed, glancing about the ball room briefly. She knew she wasn't supposed to stare, but he was by far the handsomest man of her acquaintance. If only he'd had a title, he would have suited all of them quite perfectly. "Are you familiar with London society, Sir Grey?"

He arched a brow, a little surprised at her question and unsure just how he wanted to answer it. He was enjoying this little charade and curious just how far he could take it before she realized who he was. Would she treat him differently once she knew, or wouldn't she care? "Why do you ask, Miss King?" he asked, choosing to prolong the charade a little while longer.

"I have come across a name that I have not heard before this year," she explained herself. "Mama is anxious for me to meet a certain Lord Arden, but I have heard that he is an eccentric recluse fully fifty years or more in age. Do you know of him, Sir Grey? If you do, I beg you to tell me if my information is accurate." The pained look on her face suggested that her father already had plans in that direction, and she was mildly terrified of being forcibly married off to an old man with strange habits.

That made his brows tick upwards momentarily, as if he found the question unexpected or even surprising. He did his best to hide his amusement at the thought of advising her regarding himself, especially considering the fact that he was neither a recluse nor elderly, though some might deem him a little eccentric for his forward-thinking ideas. He cleared his throat to hide a chuckle, hoping she'd see it as him just being thoughtful. "Hmm, I have heard of him, yes."

The expression on his face was not the most encouraging, and Clare was acutely aware that she had not instigated a particularly tactful conversation with her curiosity. "Forgive me, I should not have asked," she apologized, blushing as she glanced away once again, watching the dancers with somewhat envious eyes. She had not danced with anyone but her father and cousins for almost three years. "I am sure you will be made aware of certain rumors regarding my purpose in London, eventually."

He noticed how her face flushed, even as she turned away to gaze at the dancers, and realized they were not so very different - both of them being forced to look for a spouse for reasons other than that of mutual affection and at the behest of someone else. "I am sure your purpose in London is no different than my own," he assured her, quickly changing the subject. "At the risk of being too forward, would you like to dance?" he asked, a little surprised at his own boldness.
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PostPosted: Sat May 20, 2017 9:55 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"I doubt you and I have the same constraints, Sir Grey, but thank for your kind words," she smiled back to him. His bold request, made so soon after her own terrible faux pas, brought her eyes blinking wide as she looked up at him, unable to hide her delight at being asked at all. To hell with propriety, it was likely her last Season, anyway. "I should very much like to dance with you, Sir Grey."

"Shall we, then?" he asked, a smile on his face that was more pleased than cordial as he offered her a hand to lead her onto the dance floor. She was by far the most stunning woman in the room, and though it was her looks that had initially captured his attention, he was interested in far more than that. Not only was she beautiful, but she was also charming and intelligent, as far as he could tell. She was a woman who would likely have attracted his attention, even if she was penniless, but it was too soon yet to tell if they'd make a good match.

"Thank you." Despite her attempt to seem aloof, the way the other fashionable ladies did, Clare was just too pleased to be asked to dance at all not to let her smile show as he lead her among the couples. The fact that he was certainly the handsomest man in the room did not dull that thrill, and though they had not had much conversation, she thought he would make a fine friend, if nothing else. She had to try not to hope for anything beyond that, she knew; the moment he was made aware of her father's vulgarity, he would likely drop her as abruptly as every other gentleman had.

Whatever else could be said of him, the man knew how to dance, leading her expertly around the dance floor, obviously well skilled in the social graces. "Tell me, Miss King ... Shall I assume that if I were to ask you to accompany me to the theater, you would prefer comedy to drama?"

"That would depend greatly upon the drama in question, Sir," she answered, surprised to find that she did not have to concentrate so very hard upon following his lead as he took charge of the dance for them both. "I freely admit that I enjoy comedy, yet I find there is a place for drama and tragedy as well. I may not have particularly enjoyed Otello this evening, but I have greatly enjoyed Othello at other times."

"I must admit to being too distracted to properly follow Otello this evening. Perhaps a second viewing would change both our minds?" he asked, subtly seeing if she'd be interested in accompanying him to the theater, without the pressure of being put on display for society's benefit.

She considered this for a moment, "Perhaps, though we may distract ourselves once more with conversation rather than longing looks upon a second attempt." Her smile was just coy enough to prove that she was teasing him, however subtly. She, too, was testing the waters somewhat. "I am afraid I should have to introduce you to my mother before you may invite me to the theater, sir. If you wish to avoid answering her somewhat probing questions, I would suggest H.M.S. Pinafore."

"And just how will Gilbert and Sullivan rescue me from your mother's interrogation?" he countered, brown eyes twinkling with a hint of amusement as he led her around the dance floor, only vaguely aware of the heads that discreetly turned their way.

"She would never admit it, but she adores their work," Clare laughed. For once, she wasn't aware of the eyes watching her, enjoying the company of the gentleman who seemed to have singled her out far too much to bother focusing upon the inevitable gossip that would spring. She had been a wallflower for two years; she thought she had a right to bloom a little before her father's arrival in town wilted her completely. "Indeed, my sister does, too, though she is rarely allowed to visit the theater."

"Well, then, Pinafore it is ... That is, if your mother is agreeable," he added, knowing it wasn't really up to her, even if she was of legal age and wanted to accompany him. It was her parents who decided such things, and they might not be very agreeable if they thought he was not suitable for their daughter.

"I shall endeavor to convince her to be most agreeable," she promised, surprised by her own boldness in stating such a preference so soon in their acquaintance. "Would you allow me to introduce you to her?"

"Yes, of course," he replied agreeably enough. If he wanted to see her again, he was going to have to meet her mother and win her approval, though he doubted he'd encounter a problem once the woman knew who he was. Her daughter, on the other hand, might find it a little surprising.

"Shall we, then?" The dance was coming to a close, and only now was Clare aware of the odd hostility on the faces of a few women she had thought were her friends. Was it simply because she had not refused to dance with Sir Grey? It was disconcerting, in the very least.

"As they say in the States, 'It's now or never'", he replied with a grin. Now or never to reveal his true identity, though he had not been purposely deceitful. He had given her his name, but not his title or his reasons for being in London. At first, he'd assumed she would know such things without being told, and then when he'd realized she did not, he'd wanted her to judge him only on his merits, without knowing he was the very man her mother wished her to meet.

Her gloved hand on his arm, Clare drew him through the chattering crowd, trying her best not to listen to the snatches of conversation around them.

" ... vulgar family ..."

" ... no connections to speak of ..."

" ... a pity about the mother ..."

"... why would he ask
her to dance ..."

Through it all, she kept her head held high, refusing to acknowledge the spiteful whispers of mothers and their daughters as she caught her own mother's eye. "Mama, may I have the honor of introducing to you Sir Lawrence Grey? Sir Grey, my mother, Mrs. Edith King."

He echoed the greeting he had given the woman's daughter only a short time ago, offering a respectful bow, despite the fact that the woman and her daughter might be considered beneath him. "Mrs. King, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
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Clare Grey
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PostPosted: Sat May 20, 2017 9:55 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Edith King was ever so slightly dumbstruck by the mere fact of his presence, even more so by the fact that he had not only danced with her daughter but had allowed Clare to introduce him to her mother. She had asked Lady Greenville who he was during that dance, and the answer had turned her knees to jelly. It took Clare pointedly clearing her throat for Edith to come to her senses. She offered him a curtsy of her own.

"And a great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lord Arden."

At Lawrence's side, Clare went very still, the shock of that title striking deep as she realized she had insulted this man to his face and he had not given it even a second thought.

He didn't bother to correct her, knowing it wouldn't do any good, though he hardly fancied the formality of his title. "Your daughter and I were just discussing our mutual admiration of Gilbert and Sullivan, and I was wondering if you both wouldn't mind accompanying my sister and myself to the theater one day next week," he suggested, making good on the offer to take her to the theater.

Edith's mouth hung open for a moment before she collected herself. "I am sure we should be delighted to accompany you, my lord," she managed, her glance toward Clare less than subtle as she tried to get her daughter to re-enter the conversation. "Clare delights in the theater. Don't you, my dear?"

Shaking her herself from her shocked stupor, Clare turned her eyes to her mother, then to ... to Lord Arden. Not an elderly recluse, then. "I do indeed, Mama," she agreed, twisting her hands together at her waist. "Thank you ... Lord Arden ... for your kind invitation. I daresay we will pass a pleasant while together."

"Might we call upon your sister, Lady Stanley, on the morrow, Lord Arden?" Edith asked hopefully. "It is to be hoped that we should make a merry party to the theater if there is more than a passing acquaintance between us."

"I am sure my sister would be delighted," he replied, agreeably, knowing it to be true. This was precisely what his sister wanted, though neither of them could have predicted he might have actually met someone he found interesting. He offered both ladies a bow, knowing it would not do to linger too long in their presence. "Until tomorrow then."

Both women curtsied, but it was Clare who answered him. "Good evening, my lord." Despite the shock of learning his identity, the boldness of her gaze had not altered, nor had the warm flicker of her smile. She liked him, despite the deception, regretting that propriety did not allow him to remain and talk for long.

As he stepped away, no doubt to find his sister somewhere in the crowd, a touch on her back brought her attention to Clementine Ackley, an earl's daughter who had never been all that friendly to begin with. "Title-hunting again, Clare? You are too far beneath him to even consider such a match. Let more deserving others take his time, and console yourself with a nice shopkeeper."

Despite her flush, Clare lifted her chin, her eye contact icy, unaware that Sir Grey could hear all of this. "Jealousy is not becoming, Clementine. Perhaps that is why you are looking so old in this lamplight. Do excuse me, my mother and I have another engagement."

Lawrence was still close enough to hear all this, of course, which only made him cringe in annoyance at the way the other woman was talking down to the only woman he'd found interesting since his wife's death. He turned back around on the pretense of forgetting something, only to offer a short bow again as he interrupted the conversation. "My apologies for interrupting, but what time did you say would be best for a visit tomorrow, Miss King? I do want to make sure we aren't late."

Startled by the interruption - and mildly mortified that he'd heard her being so insulting to a woman of his own class - Clare did her best to hide that first reaction. "I believe we shall be at home until 11 o'clock, Lord Arden," she told him, the flicker in her eyes betraying her appreciation for the way he had come to her rescue. She only wished she could see Clementine's expression.

"Very well, then. I am looking forward to it," he told her, turning to the other woman and offering a polite, albeit brief, nod, before turning back to Clare with a charming smile. "Good night," he said, before turning on a heel once again to locate his sister in the crowd.

Clare stared after him, unable to tear her eyes away even to look at Clementine's equally astounded expression. And for possibly the first time in years, Edith came to the rescue. "Well now, Clare, we really must be going," she said, her tone just jovial enough to set teeth on edge without being insulting. "Miss Ackley, you look utterly charming this evening. Clare?"

"Of course, Mama."

Smiling, Clare took her mother's arm, resisting the urge to look back as they made their way from the ball room. Let the gossips choke on that for a few days.
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