Sylvester stared after her in genuine bemusement and, to avoid looking like a fool, half-heartedly speared a slice of nearly transparent ham from the sad looking display before him and deposited it on his plate. This was not the way he’d expected matters to proceed.
Surely the scorching looks Miss Brightwell had sent him could not have been misconstrued? Yet no sooner had he contrived to present himself once more to her when she was no longer in company with the oyster-velvet-clad gorgon, than she’d run off like a frightened rabbit…or a coquette. Which was it? Could she really have been playing games?
“Charming chit, ain’t she?” Bertram Brightwell’s bluff laugh cut into Sylvester’s musings and he turned to raise an eyebrow at the young man accompanied by his beautiful sister, the youngest, blonde—not to mention, scandalous—Miss Antoinette, who’d snared an earl and whose supposed antics behind closed doors titillated society.
He’d met Lady Quamby—though he could only think of her as Miss Antoinette—at the earl’s birthday celebration earlier that year, just weeks after she’d given birth, in fact. Not that one could tell. The girl was exquisite in pale pink silk with silver trimmings, and her bearing was confident, almost conspiratorial, yet when he glanced over her creamy bared shoulder towards the far corner of the room, where her lovely, chestnut-haired but less flamboyant cousin had just jilted him by the food table, she paled into insignificance.
“More of a charming enigma,” Sylvester responded.
“Pray enlarge?” Miss Antoinette’s blue eyes danced with mischief. There was nothing maternal about her, he thought. She was as flirtatious as he imagined she must have been before she’d become Lord Quamby’s countess. Forcing his gaze away from the more sober but more enticing—to his eyes, at least—Miss Brightwell he tried not to stare, but the stories he’d heard about Quamby’s wife were incredible; that the earl gave her complete licence to seek out pleasure discreetly as her reward for silence regarding his own peccadilloes. Dangerous ones, he understood, that courted the death penalty.
Before he had a chance to respond, Bertram said, with an intense frown, “No telling what a gel will do if she’s only got six months to live.”
It tumbled from Miss Antoinette’s lips with an expletive and Sylvester’s own as a gasp of dismay. “Six months?”
Miss Antoinette looked shocked. “What are you saying, Bertram?” she demanded.
Bertram sighed heavily. “I overheard Dr Horne telling Cousin Thea the terrible news. Don’t you wonder why she looks so sad and won’t dance? Her heart cannot be exposed to sudden shocks…although,” he looked contemplative, “I did also hear the doctor say that gentle pleasures and mild, controlled excitement might well prolong her life.” He cleared his throat, adding, “That is, by a couple of months or so only.”
Sylvester shook his head, his horror echoing Miss Antoinette’s, who clearly had not been privy to the news of her lovely cousin’s imminent demise. “Poor young woman,” he murmured. “So lovely and so…”
“Doomed,” Bertram supplied with a sigh. “Still,” he brightened, “she is to be commended on her stoic acceptance of her miserable lot. Her aunt has brought her to Bath to take the waters but sadly is so concerned for her niece’s health, she will allow Miss Brightwell no pleasure whatsoever.”
“She would not allow me to even dance with her,” Sylvester recalled, the rejection taking on a different hue. “Is she…so reduced in health?”
“Oh, Miss Brightwell would dance a jig if she were allowed. She simply craves something that will draw her out of the unhappy final few months she’s been allotted.” Bertram shrugged before fixing Sylvester with a long and meaningful stare. “But what chance is there of that?”