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"My brother said I was not to ride this morning?" Lady Olivia asked incredulously.
The embarrassed groom shuffled his feet and mumbled, "Said as how you was to spend the day greeting his guests, ma'am. Begging your pardon."
"He might have told me," Lady Olivia retorted coldly with an annoyed flick of the riding crop she held. More gently she said, "Very well, James. It is not your fault, heaven knows."
Nonetheless she felt disgruntled that her brother should have chosen such a shabby way to restrict her movements. She returned to the house to change from her riding habit into a morning dress, knowing it was highly unlikely that any of the Earl's guests would appear for several hours. There would have been time for a leisurely gallop across the estate, but it would only be perverse of her to disobey her brother, and would undoubtedly provoke his sharp tongue.
Olivia moved restlessly about the Gold Drawing Room, at one moment thinking to start a letter, at another drifting to the harpsichord. The Earl's extravagances were all about her in the room's gold silk and cotton damask covered walls, cut glass chandeliers, Carrara marble chimney-piece, carved gilt pine sconces and Aubusson carpet.
The guests, when they started to arrive, were no less elegant than the room, and were not in the least put out that the fifteenth Earl of Bolenham was not there to greet them. Peter, intent on a day's hunting with the guests already in residence, was granted an eccentricity usually reserved for the elderly; the fact that his friends and relations were arriving to celebrate his coming of age witnessed to their easy tolerance, or total indifference.
Olivia judged themall to be intent only on their own pleasure, and they were likely to be well repaid for their journey, as Peter had ordered a celebration which would last a week, with plays in the theatre, dinner parties, balls, and a staggering variety of other entertainments fit for royalty. The only relief offered her in the arranging of the festivities was that the Prince of Wales had been forced to decline at the last moment.
Although the number of guests had already exceeded those recollected by her brother in giving her notice of who was to attend, she had well prepared for his oversight by ordering an additional dozen rooms made ready. There were few occasions on which his memory had served correctly in the past, and she expected no improvement in the future.
A sigh escaped her as she glanced into the pier glass with its large ho-ho bird perched high above her on the cresting. She shared with her three brothers the raven-black hair of the Fullertons, the aquiline nose and pointed chin, but her eyes were set more widely apart and were a softer gray. Fortunately her complexion had escaped the swarthiness of theirs, and her reflection assured her that the printed linen with its trailing flower sprays in red, blue and green was becoming. With all the dignity of her recently achieved eighteen years, she imitated the haughty sniff and lifted brow of her aunt, who had just left the room.
"Excuse me, Lady Olivia," a voice spoke from the doorway, startling her out of her mimicry.
Olivia turned, flushing, to the young man who stood there. "I did not hear you enter, Mr. Evans. May I be of some assistance?"
James Evans advanced into the room before commenting, "I realize you are busy today, Lady Olivia, and I have no intention of imposing on your time, but Lord Bolenham left this morning without directing me in my cataloguing. He made some mention of a secondary library but did not indicate its whereabouts." He spoke respectfully but there was a hint of amusement in his eyes.
Olivia responded with a rueful smile. "How unlike the Earl to forget such a detail, Mr. Evans. He must mean the book room adjacent to the master suite. I will have Hawker take you there," she offered as she gave a tug on the pull.
Olivia was not unaware of the admiration in Mr. Evans' eyes as they dwelled on her and she could not but be flattered by it. After spending a day greeting old men who chucked her under the chin like a child; middle-aged men who ignored her; and young men who leered at her because she was her brother's sister, she was more than ready to approve of the quiet, respectful admiration Mr. Evans showed. His situation at Stolenhurst just now was particularly awkward. Before the guests had begun arriving for Peter's birthday, he had taken his meals with the family; now he was no doubt relegated to his own room or the housekeeper's, and Olivia determined to speak with Peter about the matter as soon as he should appear.
When Hawker arrived in answer to her summons, she watched Mr. Evans out of the room with a little disappointment. She would miss his amiable company when he finished his work and returned to London. It had become her habit to wander into the library while he worked, and, perched on the high stool there, she would hand him a volume as he needed it.
Only yesterday she had asked, "Do you ever see a volume you want particularly to read?"
"Often, and when I have the time I read it while I am in residence. But if not, Mr. Whittaker can usually run it down for me later. It has become my custom to do a quick survey when I first arrive. Then I have something to keep my evenings from boring me to tears," he has said with a laugh.
"And did you find anything here?"
He had reached down a volume from above her head and opened it. "This is James Thomson's Castle of Indolence. Most people are familiar with his Seasons, but I like this better, especially for reading aloud. Listen to how it flows:
Joined to the prattle of the purling rills,
Was heard the lowing herds along the vale
And flocks loud bleating from the distant hills,
And vacant shepherds piping in the dale:
And now and then sweet Philomel would wail,
Or stock-doves 'plain amid the forest deep,
That drowsy rustled to the sighing gale;
And still a coil the grasshopper did keep;
Yet all these sounds yblent inclined all to sleep.
Full in the passage of the vale above,
A sable, silent, solemn forest stood,
Where nought but shadowy forms were seen to move,
As Idlesse fancied in her dreaming mood."
He abruptly closed the book with a self-mocking grimace. "I should not bore you with my enthusiasms, Lady Olivia."
When he had moved to return the volume to its place, Olivia had stayed him. "No, if you please, I should like to take it with me. If I have read it before, I have forgotten it, and I should like to do so again. You read extremely well, Mr. Evans."
"It is not my reading, I assure you," he protested. "The poem itself is the melody of a lazy summer day."
Olivia toyed with the volume as she murmured, "I should hate to think of Peter selling the books. The thought of generation after generation adding to the library, and benefiting from it, is somehow important to me. That people should come and go, live and die here, and leave these treasures behind is reassuring. Then it does not matter so much that one Earl is a rake and a spendthrift while another is kindhearted and generous, for each succeeding generation has the opportunity through these works," she declared with a wave at the volumes on the shelves, "to learn again the nobility of the spirit." Olivia flushed at her own sentimentality and did not meet Mr. Evans' eyes.
"Yes, it is encouraging," he replied kindly. "Tucked away in many a library is the volume which will help shape a life and mold it into something better than it would otherwise have been."
She had smiled gratefully at him for his understanding. "Books seem so permanent. The race horses will grow old and die, and the little theatre will one day fall into disuse and be pulled down, but the library will be here. Or I hope it will."
Olivia frowned thoughtfully, for she could think of no reason her brother would go to the expense of having the library catalogued if he were not contemplating using it as a ready source of money. His debts were so great that even now, when he came into his inheritance, he would not be able to meet them. If he had not insisted on building the theatre, or adding so extensively to his racing stable, or entertaining his friends so extravagantly, he would not be in this fix.
"I do not understand how someone can spend so much more money than they have! This perpetual, frantic race to throw one's money away on trifles is madness!"
Cautiously, Mr. Evans agreed. "Searching for pleasure is an expensive pursuit, ma'am. And a wearing one, for what was new and interesting yesterday no longer holds appeal today. You are blessed with a more practical outlook on life than many, Lady Olivia," he remarked admiringly. "I could not tell you the number of young ladies I have met in my work who care nothing for how much they spend, so long as there are balls to attend and parties to be given."
Warmed by his praise, Olivia had confided, "I sometimes think that I am alone in my viewpoint. All the rest seem determined on extravagance, and here am I making my little economies like a drop in the bucket. I am a fool to butt my head against such a wall."
For indeed, she thought, there was no countermanding Peter's prodigality. No amount of reasoning, pleading or anger prevailed against his total lack of concern for his excesses. And her brothers Charles and Samuel were no less distressing than Peter, in fact probably surpassed him in mischief and profligacy.
Mr. Evans was sympathetic, but avoided any comment which might be construed as a criticism of the Earl. "You cannot go against your own inclinations, Lady Olivia, especially when you know they are right."
"Well, I could," she had laughed, "but I am too stubborn to do so." Determined to interrupt his work no longer, she had excused herself.
And now, as she watched him leave the room, she sighed. The cataloguing of the small book room would take him no more than a few days, and when he left she would miss their conversations. For Miss Stewart, her companion, was too familiar and too timid to provide the easy interchange Olivia had enjoyed with Mr. Evans. Shaking off an oppression of her spirits, she turned with a welcoming smile as Lady Elizabeth Blake and her cousin Mrs. Lila Dyer were announced.
Lady Elizabeth floated into the room and over to Olivia with outstretched hands. "You are grown into a woman since last I saw you, Lady Olivia, and Peter has not said a word." Her blonde hair peeked out from under a charming pink high-crowned bonnet, and her smile was determinedly cheerful.
"It is a pleasure to see you again, Lady Elizabeth, and you, Mrs. Dyer. I have put you in the East Wing in adjoining rooms, and will have you shown there immediately if you wish to refresh from your journey."
"Yes, for the roads were vile. Nothing but ice and mud," Lila Dyer complained cheerfully. Olivia noted that she was no longer in mourning for her husband, but dressed in a cream woolen dress, with a rose-printed stripe, cut alluringly low over her bosom. Undoubtedly the costume was strikingly suited to her perfect figure, but could not have provided much warmth against the cold January day.
"Is Peter not here to welcome us?" Lady Elizabeth pouted prettily. "He promised he would not spend a moment from my side."
"He has not returned from hunting as yet, but I am sure he will not be long now." Olivia glanced at the long case clock in the corner. Lady Elizabeth's steadfast pursuit of her brother both amused and upset her. There was no telling if Peter intended to take her to wife, but Olivia could not imagine how the two of them would manage it he did. Lady Elizabeth's extravagance was quite as well known as the Earl's. She was every bit as beautiful as her cousin Lila, however, and Peter was obviously not immune to her flattery and coquetry.
Olivia had the two women shown to their rooms and was on the point of seating herself when Hawker appeared once more, this time to announce Sir Noah Lawrence.
Olivia turned in surprise to the door where the baronet, impeccably dressed as always, entered with his customary proprietary stride. At her expression his eyes gleamed wickedly and he murmured, "I see Peter did not inform you of my attendance at his festivities, Lady Olivia. I hope it will be no inconvenience."
Olivia regarded him coolly. "I assure you, Sir Noah, that he specifically advised me that you would not be at liberty to attend."
"That was indeed the case until a week ago, ma'am, but fortunately matters have turned out otherwise, and I sent him a letter indicating my ability to join his party some days ago."
"Doubtless he forgot to apprise me of the change in your plans, sir. It is no matter; there is a room in the West Wing which will suit you admirably."
"Any closet will do, Lady Olivia."
She rang for a footman and turned to him again. "I trust your mother is well."
"Quite well, thank you. She sent her regards to you and your brothers." His eyes sparkled with mockery, for he was aware that Lady Olivia would not believe his mother had done any such thing.
Olivia considered Lady Lawrence somewhat of a harridan, who had no affection for Olivia and her brothers; the Earl, along with Charles and Samuel, had made Lady Lawrence the victim of one of their pranks some years previously. Although it did not seem fair for Lady Lawrence to tar her with the same brush, it was a matter of indifference to Olivia, for she did not often see the older woman.
Sir Noah's home, Welling Towers, was situated some thirty miles away, and though there was a distant connection between the two families, Olivia was not familiar with its intricacies. Nor did she have any desire to explore it, as she considered Sir Noah responsible for leading her three brothers astray, through their mutual interest in the turf. Not that her brothers had been paragons even as youths, but Olivia felt they might never have become so involved in their expensive pursuits had they not associated with Sir Noah, who was half a dozen years older than Peter and a confirmed rake, in Olivia's eyes. She had herself heard Peter say...
"I do not mean to interrupt your thoughts, Lady Olivia," Sir Noah said lazily, "but I wonder if you could inform me if Lady Elizabeth Blake and Mrs. Dyer have arrived."
Olivia reddened slightly to have appeared so inattentive to her guest. "Yes, sir, but half an hour ago, I should say. Peter has not returned from the field as yet, but I expect him shortly."
"Ah, no doubt Lady Elizabeth was distressed that he should not be here to welcome her," Sir Noah suggested laughingly.
Olivia could not stifle the grin that lightened her features immeasurably. "Yes, the subject was mentioned."
When a footman arrived to show him to a room, Sir Noah murmured, "Perhaps one day Lady Elizabeth will lift the burden of managing Stolenhurst from your youthful shoulders." He acknowledged Olivia's flashing eyes with a solemn nod and strode from the room as imperiously as he had entered it, his athletic form graceful for all the controlled energy it bespoke. He was well aware that he left Olivia fuming about his derogatory reference to her age; there was no comment more surely calculated to raise her spleen, and he enjoyed watching the color rise to her cheeks and the gray eyes glitter with annoyance.
In the hall he allowed himself a chuckle which she would not hear, but upon entering the bedchamber to which she had authorized the footman to conduct him, his amusement faded. The little hussy! It was very nearly the closet he had so rashly offered to accept, and nothing like the room he was usually given when he came to visit Peter.
"Tell Lady Olivia that this room will not do," he rasped to the footman, who obediently departed, leaving Sir Noah threateningly blocking the doorway of the tiny room.
Olivia calmly accepted the footman's apologetically delivered message. "I will see to the matter, Thomas," she replied staidly, her eyes sparkling with mischief. There was no haste about her journey up the branching oak staircase and through a maze of corridors to the furthest end of the West Wing. She found Sir Noah where the footman had left him.
"I understand there is some problem, sir. Is the room not to your liking?" Olivia stood on tiptoe to gaze over his broad shoulders into the freshly-cleaned room, a bewildered expression on her face.
"It might do for my valet," he remarked dryly, continuing to block the passage into the room. "I think Peter would not be pleased were he to learn that you had put me in such a ... closet."
"I dare say Peter will return shortly and you should not hesitate to speak with him if you wish."
Noah glared uncompromisingly at her and lifted a hand to point to the short French bed at the south end of the room. "You can hardly expect me to fit into that thing."
Olivia's eyes opened wide with surprise. "Well, of course I would not expect you to fit into it, sir. Had you some intention of sleeping in your own room on this occasion?"
"I will speak with Peter," Noah threatened, his brown eyes snapping with anger, while his hands clenched at his sides.
"Certainly, if you think it necessary. However," she offered generously, "if you wish to have a room where you can sleep, I shall show you to another one which is prepared. Follow me." Olivia glided regally down the corridor without a glance behind her to see if he followed. His boots were nearly soundless on the carpeted hall floors but she could hear the impatient drumming of his fingers on his gold-headed cane. She stopped before a door midway toward the front of the wing and dramatically swept open the door of a large bedchamber with an enormous half-tester bed, remarking pleasantly, "More than enough room for you, I think."
Noah stomped past her into the room and nodded a curt dismissal, which Olivia acknowledged with a mock curtsey before retreating happily to the Gold Drawing Room, where further guests awaited her. The encounter had improved her outlook on the house party, and she hummed cheerfully when she was once again alone, only to be interrupted immediately by her brother.