Henry approached the settee with a feeling of dread and presented his primroses. “Lady Caroline, how lovely to see you again.”
“Lord Thetford. An absolute delight.”
He sat beside her. After a moment, she leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “Pray tell me, my lord, which part of I never want to speak to you ever again taxed your understanding?”
“I’m here to apologize.”
“You chose an excellent venue for it, while I am in the midst of entertaining forty-three gentlemen callers.”
“How was I to know there’d be such a crush?”
“So, you expected I would be unpopular. How flattering.”
Well, that had come out wrong. Again. Fortunately, yet also very unfortunately, he was saved from having to reply by a young man with a shock of orange hair, who rose to his feet. “If I may,” he began, blushing as he peered at Lady Caroline over the top of the papers he clutched with white knuckles, “I would like to recite an original poem. It is entitled ‘Caroline.’”
He cleared his throat.
Caroline, oh, Caroline!
With eyes like stars and lips so fine,
What can I do to make you mine?
My heart will ever beat for thine,
To hold you, Oh! Would be divine!
You are my intoxicating wine,
“That doesn’t even scan,” Henry muttered.
“And I suppose you could do better?” Lady Caroline said.
“Indeed no, which is why I am wise enough to keep my mouth shut.”
“Trying something new, are you?”
Henry felt a grin spread across his face. “Touché, my lady.”
Tragically, the aspiring poet was not done.
Why must you my heart decline?
So cruel, my prickly porcupine,
“It will only get worse,” he murmured, unable to resist. “With this limited rhyme scheme, soon he will be on to swine.”
“Try not to be so charming, my lord. I am like to swoon, and Archibald Nettlethorpe-Ogilvy is occupying my favorite fainting couch.”
“And then bovine,” he mused.
“Asinine is the word you bring to mind.”
“Ah, but that rhymes with your name, not mine.”
“Nothing rhymes with Henry. It would appear that you are proof against poetry. In so very many ways.”
Lady Caroline’s serene smile was belied by her eyes, which were full of poison as she delivered this riposte. But Henry’s grin was genuine. What was this? The bland girl who had discussed the weather as if the fate of the British Empire depended upon it had an acid wit? That was… delightful, and Henry didn’t mind one bit that her slights were directed at him.
They were spared from the further effusions of the redheaded poet by her mother. “Thank you, sir,” the countess said. “Pray sit and be rested. Your heroic efforts to break through my daughter’s labyrinthine defenses during the six days you have known of her existence appear to have exhausted your poetical capabilities.”
The next poet launched into a Shakespearean sonnet, which was fortunate, as Henry wasn’t sure how much more original verse he could stand. He tilted his head toward Lady Caroline’s ear. “Lovely I suppose I cannot argue, but temperate? This man doesn’t know you at all.”
“What an outstanding apology you are making, my lord. What lady would not be moved in the face of such sincere remorse?”
“You have me there. Allow me to select something more appropriate from Shakespeare—forgive me, Lady Caroline. After all, ‘Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.’”
“Much to the contrary, I find that ‘Nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy.’”
“I know you despise me, but it is worse than I thought if you have taken Timon of Athens as your moral guide.”
“This from the man who just quoted Titus Andronicus.”
“In Timon of Athens, the title character vows to destroy all of his former friends, and then everyone wanders around the wilderness until they all die of venereal disease.”
“That your mention of venereal disease ranks as only the second most offensive thing you have ever said to me speaks volumes. Besides, Titus Andronicus is far worse. At least Timon of Athens doesn’t have any cannibalism.”
Henry found himself grinning anew. “Come, Lady Caroline—it is only the tiniest bit of cannibalism. You don’t need me to shoo Archibald Nettlethorpe-Ogilvy off your fainting couch, do you?”
“Must we discuss Titus Andronicus?” she snapped.
Tristan Bassingthwaighte, who had been standing near the settee, overheard, and interjected, “Indeed, Thetford, indeed. Why are you boring a pretty girl with talk of Shakespeare? Let us turn to the sorts of topics that might interest Lady Caroline. Shall we discuss last night’s party, my lady? Your favorite kind of flowers? How fetching you look in that gown?”
Beside him he saw Caroline stiffen. Her smile didn’t falter, but her eyes were flinty as she drew a breath through a clenched jaw.
Henry gave him a withering look. “Don’t be so condescending, Bassingthwaighte. She’s not an idiot. Anyone can see as much, after two minutes of conversation with her.”
She smiled as if grateful but murmured, “Well, isn’t this novel—you playing the part of my knight errant.”
“Would you prefer that I insult you?”
“I would prefer that you go away!” she hissed.
Henry was about to reply when the butler entered the room. “Lord Graverley,” he intoned.
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Excerpt from How to Train Your Viscount, copyright Courtney McCaskill 2021. All rights reserved.