A week after the oranges had arrived and been eaten, Ailesworth visited Esther again. He was proud of his restraint. He’d dismissed his former mistress before he went on the hunting trip and had not sought another. That meant that he thought of Esther too much: those breasts and her soft belly. He’d always liked a little curve there. A woman who had a rounded belly for him to run his hands over always elicited his lust. And Esther had a lovely one. He’d let his hand rest on her belly when he’d kissed her in bed and it was as luscious as the rest of her. What would she look like if she was carrying a child?
Where had that thought come from?
When Ailesworth arrived, Esther had been reading a letter from Kay while Alma was embroidering a new handkerchief. Buying some new handkerchiefs was a small indulgence they’d allowed themselves with some of the money saved by their visit to Kay. Kay had written a cheery note, wishing Esther and Alma could come again soon. But there was another sheet enclosed, dotted with tears. It was Peter’s birthday, Kay’s brother. Kay had last heard from him before he went to France. His first wife,the tavern keeper’s daughter, had died and he’d married again. Kay knew he must be dead by now, but she mourned him every year at this time, privately, Abecause it upset Dear John to see her cry.
Alma started to put the embroidery away but Esther said, “No, that’s proper ladies’ work. Let him see it, so he’ll know we don’t need presents.”
The door banged open and Jessie bellowed, “Lord Ailesworth, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Jessie. Tea, please.”
Both ladies stood and curtsied. Ailesworth bowed to them both. “How do I find you, Mrs. Beryll, Mrs. Nelson?”
“Thank you, very well.” They sat down and she waved grandly to the armchair for him to be seated..
“The flowers you sent were very welcome, my lord. There are a few left. But you should not have sent the oranges,” and she frowned at him.
“The oranges were left over from a load that sold. They would have gone to waste.” And he smiled his buccaneer’s smile.
Alma was embroidering again and she smiled into her lap. What a complete hand he was!
Esther huffed and drew herself up. “Really, Lord Ailesworth, do you expect us to believe that?”
Before Ailesworth could reply, the door banged open and Jessie came in with the tea tray.
After they had their tea, with Ailesworth talking of his ships and what they carried and where, he asked to speak to Esther alone.
“Anything you say can be said in front of Mrs. Nelson.” Esther bridled up.
“All right. I wanted to tell you how adorable you looked when you huffed at me about those foolish oranges.”
Alma let out a little squeak and hastily left the room.
“Deserter!” Esther called after her. Her blush was back and she knew Ailesworth saw it.
Ailesworth suddenly became serious. “Mrs. Beryll, have you reconsidered my offer? I want to see you dressed in silks and furs. I’d like to see you in a little jewel of a house, with proper servants to care for you.”
“Lord Ailesworth, let me make myself clear. I do not wish to become your mistress. If that is all you have come to say, if that is your total intent in these visits, then you should not come again.:
He leaned back and stared at her. Her cheeks were flushed, her beautiful eyes alight with battle.
“That was my intent, Mrs. Beryll. But I can put that aside, and, if you allow it, I’d be pleased to visit and talk to you and Mrs. Nelson. A woman’s influence is very soothing. I need it in my life.
“Will you allow that?”
“And you won’t keep harping on your offer?”
“No. I won’t refer to it again.” At least for awhile. “I thought that you and Mrs. Nelson might enjoy the theater. Edmund Kean is on stage tonight in one of Shakespeare”s plays. I forget which one. I”d like you both to be my guests.”
He saw the interest in her eyes at the mention of the theater.
“I don’t know, that would be wonderful…. if you could excuse me”, and she left to find Alma.
Ailesworth smiled a self-satisfied smile.
The two women returned, both smiling, but Esther was uneasy. “My lord, we will not be fashionably dressed tonight. I’m not sure if you want to be seen….”
“Mrs. Beryll, Mrs. Nelson. Your beauty is sufficient. You will outshine all the other over- dressed ladies there.”
Alma asked a little wistfully, “Are they dressed so very beautifully, Lord Ailesworth?”
“The style of hair, all frizzed around the face, is particularly ugly. And yet, if one has it, they all have it,” he said with obvious disgust. “You’ll see for yourself.”
He went to the door. “I’ll be here at eight. Until then.” He bowed and left, leaving the two to examine their wardrobes. Thank God for Kay! They each had a dress only one year out of fashion.
They spent the rest of the afternoon on their dresses and deciding on accessories. As usual, Esther tacked a piece of lace into the neck of her silk dress so only a bit of cleavage showed. Alma left hers alone. Since she’d been living with Esther, she had regained her figure and decided there was no need to keep it a secret. Esther wore a blue to complement her eyes and Alma a russet gown with deep flounces.
That evening they were each other’s hairdresser. Alma wore an agate necklace Greene had given her, a lovely rich deep green to compliment her russet gown. Esther had no jewelry to wear except for a pair of small pearl ear bobs. As she sat facing the mirror while Alma dressed her hair,coiled in back but with a few wisps in front,she suddenly remembered seeing her father sitting in his study with a magnificent diamond necklace in his hand. Her mother, who ignored her, was demanding that she have the necklace to wear. Her father hadn’t replied and instead, had looked at Esther with an expression she couldn’t read. Then he’d gestured for her to go and she’d fled.
Ailesworth arrived promptly at eight, looking so handsome in his black evening clothes with a black vest embroidered in silver, that Esther felt her knees go weak.
“Good evening, my lord,” and Alma gave him a curtsey. He bowed to both and noted the expression in Esthe’s eyes. Was there a little heat there?
He smiled. “The men will suddenly find me to be a bosom bow tonight. I predict my box will be over run.”
“Do you own a box, Lord Ailesworth?” Alma asked as he helped them into their pelisses.
“No, Mrs. Nelson. I have borrowed a friend’s. Shall we go?”
The ride to Drury Lane was comfortable in the well-sprung carriage. Esther and Alma stared out the side windows at the sights along the way. Alma caught herself staring like a country know-nothing and said to Ailesworth, “Mr. Johnson said that to be tired of London, is to be tired of life. Do you agree, Lord Ailesworth?”
“Oh, yes. There’s always something new to see. Don’t you agree, Mrs. Beryll?”
“Oh, yes. Except for the stink.”
“Yes. That’s the other side of city life.” In the carriage, his teeth gleamed in a smile.
Oh, my, Esther thought. He could eat me up with those teeth. Then she blushed.
Ailesworth was delighted. In the passing street lights, he could see the color in her cheeks. He liked the blushing Esther, not the cool, sophisticated Esther.
The crowd at the theater was immense. Ailesworth leaped to the ground and turned to help the ladies down. How long would it take for people to notice that Lord Ailesworth, who never went anywhere, was at the theater with two beautiful women. He glanced at Mrs. Nelson. Her chin was up, presenting him with a pure profile. And the rest of her profile was fine also. If his heart weren’t already set on Esther, he…. Heart! No, his loins.
People began noticing them right away. Heads met as both men and women leaned to whisper. Ailesworth pushed forward, pulling the two ladies behind him. He heard them gasp, but that was the only way to get in, if they were to be seated before the farce came on before the play.
Ailesworth made it to Drum’s box without having to use his elbow more than once or twice.
“I didn’t know it would be so crowded.”
“It’s because of Kean, you know. Everyone wants to see him.”
The ladies sat on chairs at the front of the box and Ailesworth sat behind them.
“Won’t you sit beside us, my lord?” Esther asked.
“No. I need to protect you from the ravaging hordes who’ll be here at intermission.”
Her eyes grew round. “Oh,” and she turned to look at the other boxes. Many were staring, some with opera glasses.
Alma exclaimed, “Why are they staring?”
Ailesworth laughed, a deep, rich sound which made goose bumps break out on Esther’s arms. “They want to see who the Beast brought to the play. I never attend the theater, Mrs. Nelson. People think me a crude creature.
“And then there is the presence of the two beauties I’m escorting. Who are they? Where did he find them? And so on.”
His smile left his face as he spotted someone in the pit. “Well, surprise, surprise. My brother is here.”
“Your brother? Where?”
“The one frowning up at us.:
Esther looked down but saw too many faces looking up so she sat back and kept her eyes on the stage. Thank heavens the performance was beginning.
The brief farce was a tired one, Ailesworth decided. The manager hadn’t needed to trot out new entertainment with Kean to follow.
He let his eyes settle on Esther”s face. She was delighted with the silly action on the stage,the fat barber and his skinny wife. Ailesworth carefully moved his chair so he could see more of her face. He was pleased to see her happy.
Then Otello began and no one had any attention except for Kean.
At the first intermission, Esther and Alma sat as though stunned. It took them awhile before they could come back to the world of the theater.
A knock sounded. Ailesworth called out, “Come,” and a footman entered, carrying a tray with a bottle and four glasses. He put it on the table in the back of the box and left.
They turned in surprise. He had two glasses for them.
“Thank you,” and they drank.
“My lord, wasn’t that the most….”
Alma never finished her sentence as the door opened and a man walked in.
“Lord Grainger,” said Esther in surprise.
“Mrs. Beryll,” and he bowed and turned to Alma.
“My friend, Mrs. Nelson. Alma, Lord Grainger.”
He took her hand and bowed over it as though to kiss it. Alma smiled in delight.
“I have a glass for you, Drum. Better get it before the hordes arrive.”
Immediately there was a knock. Ailesworth sighed and put his glass down. He went to the door. De Sable stood there, all sleek elegance with other men behind him.
“Three of you. That’s all,” Ailesworth barked out and let de Sable and two others in, closing the door.
“Mrs. Beryll.” De Sable was bowing low over Esther’s hand. Was he going to kiss it? Esther and Ailesworth waited in suspense. Alma wanted to giggle and to keep herself quiet, looked up at Lord Grainger. His eyes were dancing. She had to bite her lip.
Finally he relinquished her hand, stood and gave her a languishing glance. He was the mirror of fashion, wearing a coat that fit him perfectly. His pantaloons were skin tight, even closer fitting than Ailesworth’s. Esther found herself faintly uneasy as usual, when facing a gentleman who stood close by. How did tonnish ladies deal with that? She felt very dowdy as de Sable leaned over her and complimented her on her gown.
Esther stared and then caught herself. “My lord. I thank you.”
“My pleasure, dear lady, all mine.”
Esther finally looked at Ailesworth to save her.
Ailesworth elbowed Stables away and introduced the two other gentlemen. Esther was so confused by de Sable’s behavior, that she couldn’t keep them straight,Biddles and Tiddles, she thought their names were.
Ailesworth took her arm and drew her to the back of the box to give her more champagne. “Don’t mind them. They’re fribbles.”
“Men of no substance. Fashion plates.”
She looked at them. They were resplendent in plum-colored coat, Mr. Biddles,and chartreuse colored coat , Mr. Tiddles. Each had madly clashing waistcoats and knee breeches with silver stockings.”And I thought the ladies were bright, with their silk gowns.”
“Ailesworth, is that fashion of gown all the ladies are wearing, so low-cut, is that in style?”
“Oh, yes, much to the gentlemen’s delight. Not for you, Esther?”
Absentmindedly she said, “Don’t call me Esther.”
He smiled to himself. She was getting used to him. He wanted badly to touch her. He took her glass and then her elbow to lead her back to the front.
Biddles and Tiddles pranced out on their yellow heels. De Sable moved like a lovesick dog, sending Esther a heavy-lidded glance. What was the matter with him, Ailesworth wondered.
Esther seemed not to notice. She sat in front and put her eyes on the stage. Alma settled beside her and Drum sat behind her.
Ailesworth looked for his brother in the pit and couldn’t find him. Why was he in London? On the Earl’s business? He doubted it.
Drum leaned over. “What was Stables doing gawking at Mrs. Beryll like a sick mule?”
Ailesworth shrugged. “He seems enamored of her. He kissed her hand at breakfast the day we left Dunphys. I mean kissed her hand while it had a piece of buttered roll in it.”
Drum let out a snort of laughter. Both ladies turned.
“Excuse him. I just told him of Stables kissing your roll, Mrs. Beryll.”
Both ladies gave way to laughter. “Sir! I’ll have you know it was my piece of ham he was after. He simply misjudged.”
“Why do you call him ‘Stables’, my lord?”
Drum answered Alma. “His name was such a mouthful at school. De Sable is too much but he wanted to be called ‘De Saa-bla’ in the French way. So we called him Stables.”
“I can’t imagine him liking that.”
“He hates it,” Drum said cheerfully.
The theater darkened and all put their eyes on the stage. By the time the evening was ended, Esther’s head was buzzing. While the theater was dark, she was caught up in Otello’s tragedy. When Desdemona was suffocated, tears filled her eyes. Then the lights came on and everyone was chattering as though they hadn’t witnessed the cruel Iago destroy a man.
At the second intermission, more men had filled the box, all of them curious about the two ladies. After only a short time, Ailesworth dismissed them. “Let them take their staring eyes elsewhere.”
My, Ailesworth had huffed like a lion. He looked adorable with that sulky frown on his face. Esther hid her smile and looked back down at the people. “Is your brother still here, my lord?” “No, he’s decamped.”
But he hadn’t. Charles had moved to the rear of the theater where he could watch Ailesworth and his two doxies.
Two of them! And he, Charles, had to pay for some cheap whore who probably had the pox. It wasn’t fair. Here he was, living in London and he had hardly any money.
Curse Ailesworth and curse Doggety for taking his money. He didn’t need him anmore.
De Sable went to his club, believing he’d made a fine impression on Mrs. Beryll. Her eyes had widened when he had fervently pressed her hand. He was sure she’d never had such a smooth gentleman pay court to her before. If he could win her, he’d have her lush body and bedroom eyes, along with her fortune. Ah! If only he could be the one to tell her of it; she’d fall into his arms.
He paused. Why shouldn’t he be the one to tell her? George said it was just a matter of time. But no, if she knew she had a fortune, she might look elsewhere.
De Sable frowned. His blood was pure. His ancestors had come over with William the Conqueror in 1066. He knew his features and face were pleasing. He kept himself in good shape and was proud of his Plantagenet nose.
But perhaps she wanted to be a countess. Ailesworth would never marry her. If only George would find out her direction. How was he to court a lady if he couldn’t visit her?
He frowned and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair, his brandy beside him forgotten. He’d need a campaign, something carefully thought out. George would help.
Satisfied he’d solved his problem, he leaned back and enjoyed his brandy, ignoring the eye of the club steward who was frowning at him. Money, money, always money! Perhaps he could drop a hint in the steward’s ear.
“Higgins, my good man,” he said to the steward who frowned even more.
“My lord, I’d like to speak to you,” Higgins said stiffly.
“Of course! Shall we remove ourselves?” and de Sable took his arm as though conferring a great privilege to Higgins.
Higgins frowned ferociously. De Sable”s club bill was becoming astronomical.
At Manchester Shipping the next day, Ailesworth and Drum sat in their manager’s office. The manager, Hassam, was out. Ailesworth was unhappy. He had to go to France. Some orders had become tangled and he felt he needed to handle them personally. One of the French merchants he was buying silk from would not deal with Hassam.
The merchant declared that he was descended from the noble de Guise family and tried to maintain the fiction that he was a blue blood while selling silks.
Ailesworth had his doubts about the blue blood but knew de Guise wouldn’t deal with a foreign-looking Hassam, despite his being London-born. Besides de Guise, there were two other merchants who needed attention. So a journey was in order.
“I’ll be leaving on Wednesday. Today is Monday and I’ll be able to visit Mrs. Beryll once more before I go.
“Next week, I want you to visit them.”
Drum looked surprised. “Why? Surely Mrs. Beryll won’t elope with Stables next week.”
Ailesworth sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “No, of course not. But I don’t want her to forget me, either.”
Drum smiled. “I doubt that, judging by the way she was looking at you last night.”
“How? How was she looking at me? I didn’t catch her looking at me.”
Drum wanted to laugh at Ailesworth’s eager expression. He looked boyish instead of beastly.
“She was giving you quick glances when you weren’t looking. She blushed a bit, too.”
Ailesworth looked pleased. “She blushes easily.”
“Really? I didn’t notice her blushing at Elmscourt. She certainly doesn’t blush talking to me.”
Ailesworth looked as pleased as a cat with its face in the cream pitcher. A large cat. “Will you do it?
“Of course. The ladies are a pleasure to look at and to talk to.”
“Do you know Mrs. Nelson’s history?”
“No, but I bet you a guinea it’s an interesting one,” Ailesworth replied.
The next day Ailesworth decided he would send a copy of The Corsair to Esther. He didn’t want to send anyone on this errand. He didn’t mind his manager knowing every detail of the firm’s business, he just didn’t want him to know details of Esther.
Ailesworth went to a new bookstore, Johnson’s at the corner of Bond and Oxford streets. It was shiny and new, with the books arranged according to interest. Ailesworth decided not to browse.
“Do you have a copy of The Corsair?”
“Oh, yes, sir, follow me.” A thin, weedy-looking fellow with flat pomaded hair led Ailesworth to a selection near the door.
“Here’s The Corsair, and here’s the first two Cantos of Childe Harold ‘s Pilgrimage, and here,” he paused and made a flourish, “here is Canto III” He waited, clearly expecting an enthusiastic response from Ailesworth.
Ailesworth stared at the books. The clerk saw that more explanation was needed.
“Lord Byron is working on his magnum opus.” The clerk seemed pleased with himself for being able to produce some Latin. “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is being read by everyone.”
Ailesworth stared at him, flustering him a bit. “Is it? Then that would be a better…. Yes, I want all three Cantos and a copy of The Corsair.”
:Send the three volumes of Childe Harold to this address,” He was writing on his card, “and I’ll take The Corsair.’
“Yes, sir. Do you wish to sign a card for inclusion?”
“Hm. Yes.” He took out another of his cards and signed his name. “That’ll do.” He waited for his book to be wrapped.
As he left the store, he met the Misses Blamesmore and brusquely nodded and gave a small, stiff bow. The two ladies, as usual were dressed completely in ruffles, or so it appeared to Ailesworth. They even had ruffles on their bonnets and gloves.
They simpered and wondered what Ailesworth was doing in a bookstore, for heaven’s sake. They saw the clerk wrapping three books by that scoundrel Byron and smiled at him.
The clerk, who’d seen Ailesworth bow to the ladies, smiled and greeted them.
“Dear Lord Ailesworth,” the first Miss Blamesmore cooed. “He does love books so.” A blatant lie. She had no idea if Ailesworth could read. She wanted to see the address on the package.
The clerk deftly slid the half-wrapped package under the counter and came out to say, “How may I assist you today, my ladies?” and he bowed.
Frustrated, they at least had one new titbit for afternoon tea: Ailesworth was buying books for someone. The idea that he might have ordered books delivered to his residence wasn’t worthy of a second’s consideration.
* * *
The next day he called at Cargill Street. The ladies smiled at him.
“Thank you for Lord Byron’s works. I shouldn”t accept gifts from you, Lord Ailesworth, but it is such a pleasure to own a copy instead of reading from a library copy. If one owns a book, one can make notes in it.” To her own ears, Esther sounded stilted and formal. She smiled up at him. “Thank you.”
Ailesworth smiled at her and said, “I’m pleased you liked my gift. Are you reading it aloud?”
Tea arrived and Esther began serving.
“We do indeed, my lord. It’s quite exciting to read and pace the room at the same time. Alma grinned at him. ‘Awake, ye sons of Spain! Awake! Advance!’ It quite enlivens our evenings.”
“I bought The Corsair, Mrs. Nelson, but I haven’t had much time to read, that is, read it again. Is Childe Harold better?”
“Oh, yes. I think so. What do you say, Esther?”
“I believe it is finer, although more personal. That is, Lord Byron refers to his daughter, Ada, from whom he is separated.” Esther put down her cup with a sigh. “How anyone could leave their child.”
“No woman of proper sensibilities,” he murmured, looking intently at her.
She gazed back, her cup in hand, suspended before her. His yellow eyes made him more leonine than ever. They were hot with desire.
Alma looked from one to the other and then cleared her throat, putting her cup noisily back in its saucer.
“Esther and I disagree about Lord Byron’s long-term contribution to English literature. I think he’ll be as well revered as Shakespeare, but she disagrees.”
Their glances broke and the talk became more general. Ailesworth didn’t try to get Esther alone; he just enjoyed the company of the two ladies and their spirited debate over poetry. He felt soothed and wondered if he’d gone too long without proper feminine companionship. He hadn’t visited his step-mother and sisters for a long time.
Esther turned and asked him questions about his shipping concern. He was pleased to tell her and Mrs. Nelson of the victory of one of his ships over a pirate in the Mediterranean.
“The Corsair!” breathed Alma. She put her head back and recited:
“Are all prepared?
“They are–nay more–embark’d: the latest boat
“Waits but my chief,
“My sword and my capote,'” she finished, raising her arm.
He smiled at her and nodded, hoping he wasn’t going to be asked to recite himself.
“Did you have any such adventures yourself, my lord?” Esther asked.
He told them one of his exploits while at sea, with most of the blood and gore eliminated. Alma looked thrilled but Esther looked alarmed. She imagined the blood and gore Ailesworth had left out.
When he finished, she asked, “Were you hurt, my lord?”
“Oh, no.” He was pleased to see the concern on her face. ” I have a few scars but they are mostly from accidents. I seem to be accident-prone on board ship.”
“I’d best be going.” Ailesworth stood up.
“It was pleasant to see you, my lord,” and Alma bobbed a curtsey.
“Mrs. Nelson,” and he bowed.
“I’ll walk you to the door.” Esther and Ailesworth left the parlor and walked to the front door. As Esther reached for the handle, he put his hand on hers, and when she looked up at him, he leaned over and briefly kissed her. She looked at him with wide eyes, startled out of speech. He smiled his predator’s smile and left, closing the door behind him.
She stood there for a minute, staring at the door.