“Really, Minerva, we need to work on your diplomacy.” Langley spared a glance at Lady Chudley and shook his head. To his delight, the old girl nodded in agreement.
“She’s always been overly blunt,” Lady Chudley confided.
He grinned back. “Fortunately, I find that one of her more endearing characteristics.”
“You’re the first,” Aunt Bedelia muttered as she tasted her tea, and then dug the tongs into the sugar bowl and selected another large lump to add to it.
“Oh, how dare you!” Minerva sputtered. “How can you find anything about me endearing when you don’t know me?”
“You would be amazed what a man can learn about a woman when he kisses her.”
Minerva’s mouth opened to say something but nothing came out.
Lady Chudley had no such so impediment. “Good heavens, Minerva! You’ve become quite indecent. Kissing strangers!”
“Betrotheds,” Langley corrected, glancing up from his scone. “Hardly strangers.”
“Well, I should hope so,” Lady Chudley declared. “For it is bad enough that you’ve gone and gotten yourself engaged without confiding in your only relative.” She paused for a moment and then her eyes widened. “I blame Lucy Sterling. Cheeky minx, that one. Living with her about probably put all sorts of notions in your head.”
“I’m indecent?” Minerva stammered at her aunt. “Have you not once considered that he is lying?”
“Whyever would I lie about kissing you?” Langley posed, reaching for the plate of scones and offering them to Lady Chudley, who took one and followed Langley’s lead by breaking it into pieces as well. “Actually it was quite enlightening.”
“Ooooh! Ooooh, you—” she stammered.
“You’re a handful as well, aren’t you?” Lady Chudley said to him, but there was none of the condemnation that Lucy Sterling had warranted a few moments earlier. In fact the old girl grinned at him.
“This has gone too far,” Minerva declared, now pacing at the end of the table. “So who is this witness you purport to have who can corroborate your story.”
“Why a lady, of course.”
“Not me,” Minerva said.
Langley winked at Lady Chudley and then grinned at his unwitting betrothed. “My dear, I wouldn’t think to call you that.”
Minerva’s mouth opened again, this time in a wide O. With her shoulders taut with indignation, she looked ready to club him with the salver. “You wouldn’t call me a lady?”
“Well, I must confess we aren’t that well acquainted so I can make the distinction. Rather, what I was trying to say is that I wouldn’t call you as a witness for my defense.”
“How about one for your funeral?” she shot back.
Lady Chudley began to chortle at the sallies flying back and forth across the table. But when Minerva shot her a hot glance, her aunt had the good sense to make it appear as if she was coughing.
“Then who is this witness?” Minerva demanded.
Really, she needed to learn the second lesson of spying. Right after learning how to stay alive, you never asked a question if you didn’t want to hear the answer.
And truly, Minerva did not want to hear this answer. But he told her anyway. “Miss Knolles.”
“Tia.” The name came out like a curse. Minerva had enough sense to realize she’d been outflanked and cornered. She sank into a chair, much as her aunt had earlier.
“So the little imp didn’t say a word?” Lady Chudley asked her niece.
She shook her head. “Not one.”
Langley snorted this time. “Of course she didn’t. She was too busy emptying my pockets every night playing vingt-et-un. If I had known what those Bath schools teach young girls, I would never have sent my Felicity and Thalia to one. I shudder to discover how they’ve turned out.”
“So does most of Society,” he thought he heard Lady Chudley muttering. “Lovely girls,” she amended when she found all eyes on her.
“Aunt Bedelia,” Minerva began, her hand resting on her forehead as if it were pounding with a megrim. “Whatever are you doing here this morning? Doesn’t your cook make breakfast?”
“I broke my fast hours ago. The early bird, my dear. The early bird.” She leaned over and confided to Langley, “Dr. Franklin had a bit of a tendre for me and I so adore his sayings.”
“From what I have heard of you, my lady,” Langley teased, “Franklin wasn’t the only one. You’ve always been the lady to court. I daresay, looking at you, you prescribe to his notion of air bathing?”
Lady Chudley blushed at the implication. “You wicked man!”
Across the table, Minerva groaned, her gaze rolling upward. “Truly, auntie, whyever are you here?”
“Tut tut,” the lady said, waving her napkin at her niece. “Don’t you remember, I promised that gaggle of nannies a shopping expedition today.”
Minerva’s gaze swiveled down to her aunt. “You were serious?”
“You of all people should know I never jest about shopping.”
And as if on cue, the ladies began trooping in, Brigid in a sapphire blue gown with Knuddles at her hemline, Lucia following close behind in a pink gown that only accented her dark hair and lithe figure, while Helga had gone with red—garnet red with touches of black here and there—and finally came Tasha, all in black. Tasha always wore black for it set off her fair hair and pale skin making her seem almost fragile inside it.
A mistake many a man had made thinking she needed to be rescued, protected, cared for. Langley cringed. He wouldn’t make that mistake again. About any of them. It would be like thinking one could pluck a jewel from the case at Rundell & Bridges and not be caught. Or punished.
“Langley, darling!” Tasha purred as she slid around the others with her catlike grace. “Did you sleep well?”
“The better question is how did you sleep, Lady Standon?” Lucia posed, her smile perfectly set but her eyes focused sharply on her opponent.
Langley had always suspected that the duchessa had more Borgia blood in her than she let on.
Tasha ignored the duchessa’s remark and replied with one of her own. “We mustn’t pry, ladies. What a betrothed couple does late at night in a lady’s bedchamber isn’t that hard to imagine.” She swung an assessing glance at Minerva. “Well, most of the time.”
“Good heavens, it is true!” Lady Chudley exclaimed. “You were in her bedchamber?”
“Guilty,” he replied with a grin.
“You see, I told you,” Lucia said. “This betrothal is madness. Not even the aunt knows of it.”
“Exactly!” Minerva agreed. “There is no betrothal.”
Lady Chudley got to her feet and faced her niece. “If there wasn’t an engagement before, there is one now.”