At seventeen years of age, the Honourable Thora Kingsley was considered to be a beautiful girl by anyone’s standards, and an excellent match for a nobleman in the British Isles or beyond. The brightest of sunlight shone down onto the highlights in her chestnut hair as she was riding Tansy, her favourite mare, across one of the meadows on her father’s country estate. Her green eyes flashed and danced mischievously when she laughed with her twelve year old sister, Candace, who was riding alongside her. It was as if they didn’t have a care in the world, and at the time, neither of them did.
The two girls were gossiping about the new maid who had been walking out with the footman neither of them particularly liked. Seriously considering the maid’s lack of wisdom in doing so. When she could have chosen any of the other young men in the household, who were clearly much more handsome. The girls’ voices were loud enough to be overheard by Samuel, one of their father’s grooms as his half-blind horse ambled along behind, alongside Miss Chloe. At ten years of age she was concentrating on proving that she had every right to be riding with her older sisters. Especially since neither Thora nor Candace had wanted her to accompany them.
Nevertheless Chloe was beginning to doubt her reasons for standing her ground, and insisting that she be allowed to come. Her older sisters had so far only talked to each other about really boring things. Samuel was boring too! He hadn’t spoken a word to her after he had helped her onto the horse. What she didn’t realise was that her father’s groom didn’t feel it was his place to converse with Viscount Fordham’s daughter, and had simply been told to take care that she didn’t have a fall. He was finding the conversation of the older girls much more agreeable, bringing him great delight. It helped him momentarily forget the earlier argument concerning the horses before their departure. This was due to the unexpected arrival of Miss Chloe at the stables, and the unfortunate lameness of the mare Miss Candace typically rode. This left them with a limited selection for a replacement.
Miss Thora had categorically refused to allow either of her sisters to ride the white mare she was seated on. Justifying her decision by telling them that, as far as she was concerned, Tansy belonged to her! If the excursion was to go ahead, as Miss Thora again absolutely insisted it should, Chloe should be given the oldest horse in the stable which was less likely to bolt. Candace would have to ride one of the others, and make the best of it. The least likely of which to cause her any trouble was nevertheless still highly strung.
Samuel privately took the view that it was their father’s fault in not providing the right sort of horses for his youngest daughters to ride. Despite its gentle nature the one he was seated on was only considered to be suitable for a servant, due to the impairment with its sight. Viscount Fordham had bred and trained horses at his stables for many years, to take part in racing events, but that had become a thing of the past. The thoroughbreds were all gone, and the stables almost empty. The Viscount rarely rode anywhere now, Samuel thought, leaving it to the other groom, and himself, to ensure that the horses which remained were given the exercise they needed. As an image of his employer’s bulky frame came to mind he grinned.
It wasn’t long however before his thoughts returned to the present since he was fully aware of the responsibility he had been given that morning in ensuring no harm came to the young ladies. He was relieved that Miss Thora had so far kept their pace to a slow one, and nothing untoward had happened. All of the ladies were using a side saddle which allowed them to ride gracefully, and daintily. Miss Thora was the only girl he had seen, sitting astride a horse on the type of saddle the gentlemen and he used, and that had been when she thought no one else would see her doing it. Once their outing that day didn’t seem to involve any other daredevilry on her part, Samuel began to relax and enjoy himself.
Thora meanwhile was feeling only too glad to be away from the restrictions her mother, Grace Kingsley, had tried her best to put on her since she had come out at the Assembly Rooms in Bath. Recently entering society, as a debutante. She fully intended to enjoy her first season, and have as much fun as she possibly could. She definitely wouldn’t be caught standing on the edge of the ballroom floor, looking shy, and unapproachable. No! She wanted to dance with as many handsome gentlemen as she could, before she decided which one she would marry. Although she had kept this opinion on the matter to herself. Not mentioning it to Candace who was known for being indiscreet, and certainly not to Chloe, who as far as she was aware still played with dolls.
Thora felt a sense of resentment towards her father after the sale of the horses, and that he had been unable to keep his promise that she should come out in London where the opportunities for her to make the best match would be. Even though this had always been his intention for her, and if he could arrange it, she would be presented to Queen Charlotte, it was never achieved. However, mama had told her not very long ago, in a whispered conversation, that she shouldn’t speak of it since this would only make her father angry. The Viscount apparently felt perturbed enough by the decline in his financial circumstances. Moreover he didn’t regard it as his fault that there was no longer sufficient money in the bank for them to travel to London, and rent a town house for the season.
Although Thora did as her mother had asked, being only too aware of her father’s temper, she secretly doubted that he hadn’t at least played some part in the loss of his fortune. Recalling the many nights he stayed away from home, apparently at his club, as mama had explained. As well as the evenings out at the theatre he often mentioned, which obviously had to be paid for. Although it wasn’t discussed she knew that her father liked to drink a lot of brandy, and wasn’t averse to gambling when the opportunity arose.
It also had to be said that although Viscountess Fordham was relieved that Thora didn’t argue with her father or her about the change of plan from London to Bath, she was equally unaware of her daughter’s intentions in relation to how she would spend the season. The Viscountess already took the view that Thora’s character and vivacious personality, which on the one hand meant she never seemed to be afraid of anything, also presented her with enough of a challenge. Making her feel sometimes beyond the point of despair that her husband, George Kingsley, expected her to prepare Thora for marriage. When so far as their daughter was concerned, this simply involved another attempt on her mother’s part to tame her spirit. Hence, something to be avoided at all cost.
Nevertheless it had to be done! Unknown to Thora and her sisters, the family fortune had been decreasing at an alarming rate. As a result the Viscount was hoping that his eldest daughter would shortly marry a high ranking nobleman who was extremely wealthy and thereby returning the Kingsley family status to its former glory. Even though this would now have to occur in Bath, he had told his wife privately, and at considerable length, that it was her responsibility to ensure that it was done. Moreover, he would blame her in the event that she failed, given that Thora was even by his own standards stunningly beautiful. If she didn’t get herself a husband, and a suitable one at that, she wouldn’t be at fault.
Furthermore, in the Viscount’s less than humble opinion, it was simply a matter of his wife helping her daughter make the right connections when they socialised. The same as he had seen the other ladies of the ton do for their offspring, if they had anything about them! Then encouraging an interest from the chosen suitor, which would lead to him making a proposal of marriage. All of which would mean his wife getting Thora’s wayward behaviour, and apparent love of mischief, under control. He had also regretted, when he had this conversation with his wife, the considerable sum of money he had parted with in sending Thora to the best finishing school, along with the cost of her coming out wardrobe. Viscount Fordham also believed that his eldest daughter had the kindest of hearts, but which didn’t cause him to doubt that it would be her beauty which held the key to the restoration of the family’s depleted fortune.
On that particular morning however, Thora was simply enjoying riding across her father’s estate. While she was also looking forward with considerable excitement to attending another ball in the evening. Despite not being able to call Candace and certainly not Chloe, accomplished horsewomen, she had let them ride further than usual. Feeling more reckless in the thrill of the moment. Suddenly, much to Samuel’s and her regret, they heard a gunshot coming from a nearby copse, breaking through the sweet birdsong which had previously been the only sound apart from their voices gossiping about this and that, accompanied by tinkling laughter when something had amused them.
Nevertheless all of this had changed in an instant when Samuel called out a warning to Thora that it had to be a poacher so they should go back immediately! He had been told by the Viscount’s land steward, Mr Frobisher, to be on look out for them. Furthermore, under no circumstances whatsoever, was he to allow the three young ladies to be put in danger. It was true that men had started to come from the village, trespassing on the Fordham estate, but this had usually been at night. Some of the tenants had also left the estate, which was again the Viscount’s doing, making it a much quieter place. Several of the villagers had already been warned off, for them to know they weren’t welcome poaching on his lordship’s land, but it would seem that this hadn’t been enough of a deterrent.
Samuel’s heart sank. Not having the confidence to ask Mr Frobisher, he still wasn’t exactly sure what to do if there should be a confrontation with a poacher. Whether he would need to use his fists, which he wouldn’t be averse to doing if it came to it, but maybe not in front of the ladies. Other than that he was flummoxed. When he had thought about it earlier he decided in the end to simply hope for the best. Although Mr Frobisher hadn’t said anything about it, Samuel knew why the estate wasn’t being run now quite as rigorously. It was rumoured that his lordship had made a number of bad investments, and could no longer afford the upkeep of such a vast estate ten miles from Bath. Along with the horses, his lordship had also been obliged to sell his livestock, and let some of his tenants go. It had worried Samuel at first that the Viscount would decide to do as the other rumour had suggested. Namely, move to less expensive accommodation closer to Bath for which it was known he had a preference instead of being in the middle of the countryside, some distance away from his favourite club.
Viscount Fordham also of course had three daughters to find husbands for. Miss Thora wasn’t much younger than him, only by a few months and Samuel couldn’t help thinking of how much he would like to kiss her! Knowing though full well that she wouldn’t look twice at him. She was a great beauty, and the daughter of a viscount. Whereas he was only a groom, at least for now. If the family did move to Bath he would most likely never see her again. Nevertheless, without the advantage of having an estate to his lordship’s name, this might well prevent some of the titled and more affluent suitors from showing an interest in any of the Kingsley girls. Let alone make a marriage proposal. Maybe that had so far deterred his lordship from selling his entire estate? A part of Samuel, albeit a very small one, still hoped he might one day make his own fortune and be in a position to ask for Miss Thora’s hand in marriage. All the while knowing that if he told anyone at all about this hope and dream he would be met with derision and, most likely, coarse laughter.
The latest gossip regarding the Viscount’s alleged sale of the esteemed Fordham estate reached his ears through Tess, the ladies’ maid in the service of Miss Thora and Miss Candace. Samuel seemed to have overheard Tess share this information with the housemaid, who he had a penchant of flirting whenever the opportunity presented itself. This conversation occurred while they were engaged in idle chatter, before the housemaid began courting the footman. He hadn’t of course done any such thing, or even tried to flirt with Miss Thora. Only looked her way a little longer than he should have done, which was bad enough if he had been caught. The maids and he were obviously concerned about losing their positions as there was no guarantee that the future owner of the estate would keep them on, or that the maids could go with the family to the new house closer to Bath. Except for Tess, who was possibly the best placed to do so as a ladies’ maid.
As all of this went through his thoughts, Samuel was quickly brought back to reality by the sound of another gunshot. The two girls in front of him had slowed their pace after the first one, presumably intending to ride past the poacher and return to the stables another way, but Miss Candace’s horse had become very nervous. She was clearly finding difficulty in restraining it. Samuel gazed upon her with consternation. The notion resurfaced within his mind, that it was most imprudent for her to have been granted permission to mount such a spirited steed, which promptly bolted forthwith, reaching what he later recounted as an alarming velocity.
Miss Candace was unable to stop it even though she tried her best to overcome her fear, and hold on as best as she could in her sidesaddle so that she wouldn’t be thrown to the ground.
Samuel was by this time blaming himself for daydreaming, and not being quite as observant as he should have been. He was also afraid of being dismissed for his negligence. Since it would undoubtedly be said that he should have been more careful, and not let the ladies ride as far as they had done. With a sideways glance at Miss Chloe to see if she could cope if he left her behind, he took the risk and spurred his own horse forward, intending to chase after them, but Thora was already ahead of him. She didn’t hesitate when she saw what was happening. That split second, along with her own horse being the fastest, meant that she reached Candace in time to prevent her sister from falling out of her saddle, and being badly injured. As she rode Tansy alongside Candace’s horse she managed to take the reins from her, and bring the frightened animal to a halt to let her sister dismount, without the groom’s assistance, so in a less than graceful manner in her haste to escape. However this was also much to Thora’s relief, especially after refusing earlier to allow her sister to ride the much quieter Tansy.
However before Thora could dismount by herself, with the intention of comforting Candace, there was the sound of another gunshot. It was closer this time, so much louder. That caused both Tansy and her sister’s horse to take off at a gallop. Taken completely by surprise and the speed at which Tansy was running, it wasn’t long before Thora fell off and her foot became stuck in the stirrup with the result of being dragged along the ground at the side of the frantic horse. Until her boot finally dislodged itself, releasing her, but with her face pressed downwards onto the stony ground.
Leaving a sobbing Candace with Chloe who had by this time arrived, Samuel finally succeeded in reaching Thora. He dismounted easily, and quickly, only to find that her ladyship groaned when he bent down, and he turned her over as gently as he could. Although part of him felt that it wasn’t his place to touch her, he was more afraid that she might be dead. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that she was still alive, although barely conscious.
Meanwhile Candace, who had picked up her skirt and ran until she reached them, screamed when she saw the right side of Thora’s face. It was completely covered in blood.
Chloe’s Coming Out Ball At Kingsley House
Seven years later it was eighteen fifteen, and there had been considerable excitement in the Kingsley household for several weeks. Not only was Chloe seventeen years old, but she was coming out that evening at her very own ball. Wearing her most favourite gown, so far as a debutante, made from the purest white muslin, with embroidery on the skirt. She tried to ignore the fact that it had originally been one of Thora’s, before being altered by her mother’s seamstress for her to wear tonight. As mama had said, no one else knew this and it had never been worn by her sister-since poor Thora had her accident, not long after she came out.
Many of the most important members of Bath society were present at the Kingsley residence, travelling some distance in several instances to be there. Mostly because of it being a quiet season generally for those who hadn’t gone to London. Candace was also already there accompanied by James, her husband who was the Duke of Ellington, whom she had married last year. Thora was at home as usual. On this occasion however, trying her best to stop trembling after the conversation she had with her mother less than an hour ago, before they came downstairs. She was standing now in her usual place behind her parents and younger sisters while they greeted their guests. Again, as she always did, wearing the veil which covered her face.
She couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened earlier. Tess had knocked on the door of her bedchamber, to tell her that she didn’t know what to do. Viscountess Fordham was inconsolable. She hadn’t asked to speak to Thora, but seemed unable to stop crying, causing Tess to be sufficiently alarmed to take the matter into her own hands, and ask her eldest daughter if she would go to her. Thora was glad that she had done, since it was easy to see from the Viscountess’ face that Tess had been right. Her mother’s cheeks were flushed an unpleasant red, and her eyes filled with tears.
Deciding to confide in Thora after only a moment’s hesitation, the Viscountess told her that she hadn’t for one second thought her life or that of her children, would turn out this way when she married George Kingsley. Moreover, he apparently felt the same way when he had looked at his wife’s tear stained cheeks earlier that evening, and remarked that he regretted she was no longer the beauty he had married years ago. Since she had come from humble origins and it wasn’t a love match, this had apparently been the only reason for him asking for her hand.
Thora was deeply shocked by this, and that Papa could be so cruel. Even more so to learn that he had taken her mother’s beautiful diamond necklace, which had belonged to Thora’s great grandmother, intending to sell it. Apart from being the only piece of good jewellery she had left, he had done it without his wife’s knowledge when she had been walking in the garden earlier that week, enjoying the display in the rose borders.
Thora knew that her father was in financial difficulty because of all the changes which had occurred, but she hadn’t thought it would be as bad as it obviously was. As soon as the words had left her lips, the Viscountess dissolved into another bout of tears, as a horrified Thora held her hand trying her best to comfort her. When her mother became a little calmer again, she was able to convey the remainder of what had happened. It transpired that as soon as she had discovered the loss of her necklace and confronted the Viscount, he had laughed scornfully, accusing her of foolishness. Furthermore enquiring how she thought the soiree that evening, since that was in reality the correct term for it and not a ball, could be paid for? When she dared to suggest that one of the heirlooms from his side of the family might have been sold instead, he became very angry indeed, telling his wife quite plainly that she had no right to question his decisions.
The paintings of his ancestors, ornaments, and stallions left in his stable would be the very last to go. However if she did her job well enough, as he expected her to, and Chloe caught the interest of Lord Pickering she would have nothing more to worry about. The Viscount had already spoken to him and Lord Pickering had agreed to restore the Kingsley estate, and the family’s fortune if a wedding could be arranged with Chloe as soon as possible. With the result that they would still have a roof over their heads, and not be thrown out by the Viscount’s creditors.
When Lady Fordham had tried to question the wisdom of her husband’s decision, that their youngest daughter should marry a seventy year old gentleman and the scandal this would cause, George Kingsley would again hear none of it. He resorted to shouting at her since his thoughts had by that time turned to the brandy he wished to drink in his study, without further delay, in celebration of how his own lifestyle would be saved by Chloe’s impending betrothal. At that point in the conversation, she couldn’t hide her feelings any longer. The Viscountess was obliged to admit to herself that she had married a brute.
Unbeknown to his wife however, the situation was even worse than that. The Viscount never had any great hope of Candace marrying well, since she had the plainest of faces, so he was delighted when she had caught the Duke of Ellington’s interest. James was moderately rich, and kindly disposed. So it wasn’t long before he had agreed to loan his father-in-law a reasonable sum of money to cover the running of the estate, and his expenses-ostensibly until the Viscount’s own investments had paid dividends, but which he said suffered badly because of the Napoleonic war. In all truth he secretly had no intention whatsoever of repaying this money to his son-in-law.
Thora sighed heavily under her veil, as her mother’s words continued to run through her thoughts, and the line of guests waiting to be greeted didn’t seem to be getting any shorter. She hadn’t so far seen Lord Pickering, with his wrinkled face and mean eyes, but she didn’t doubt he would arrive in plenty of time to dance with Chloe. Her poor, unfortunate sister who was expecting so much from tonight and least of all that! She still didn’t know the truth of what Papa had in mind for her with his old friend, as neither Thora nor her mother had told her. Rightly thinking she wouldn’t take the news at all well, and while it still hadn’t happened there remained the glimmer of hope something would occur to prevent it.
Thora had eventually thought herself fortunate that the accident seven years ago hadn’t been much worse. If her saddle had loosened, she could easily have slid under Tansy’s belly, and been trampled by her hooves. Although at twenty-four years of age, she was decidedly now on the shelf, as having an accident immediately after her own coming out ball had left her with a right cheek which was permanently scarred. She frowned then, when she recalled the numerous slights she had received from the ladies of the ton, because of her disfigurement. It had made her lose her confidence, and feel glad now to be able to stay in the background. Furthermore, she was undoubtedly disheartened by the realisation that she was improbable to secure a matrimonial union, for no gentleman of distinction would bestow his affections upon a lady burdened with a visible flaw.
Nevertheless Thora did her best most days to be positive, counting her blessings, although sometimes like tonight this was much more difficult to do. She also believed that adversity had made her stronger, and more sensitive to others’ suffering. For that reason her heart was aching for Chloe, and the miserable life their father was trying to push her into. How would she bear it? She felt a tear slide down her cheek, which she discreetly wiped away as she moved her veil slightly to do so. Lord Pickering was one of the most miserable men she had ever met! She sighed again, more deeply this time. At twenty-four years of age, it was her duty now to be brave and strong for her mother and sisters which meant being as cheerful, sensible, and reliable as she could be. Concealing though her own sorrow from them, that she would never be able to lead the life she aspired to.
It was a very warm evening in June, and Thora could feel herself getting very hot under her veil. She knew she would have been much better left to her own devices tonight, reading quietly in her bedchamber. But how could she plead a headache now, and ask to leave? She glanced sadly at Chloe who appeared to be filled with excitement and joy, then her mother. She was standing stoically between her husband and daughters, with a fixed smile on her face despite how miserable she had to be feeling.
However, when Thora looked in the opposite direction at those who were already in the ballroom, she was just in time to see a young lady slip on what appeared to be some champagne which had been spilled on the floor. The other guests closest to her were laughing uproariously at her misfortune finding it for some reason highly amusing that she had slipped. The poor girl’s face had reddened and she seemed about to cry. Realising how embarrassed she must feel Thora left her place behind her parents, to rush across the floor to help her, without any thought whatsoever of what she was doing. The young woman was exceedingly grateful for her assistance in getting up from the wet floor and quickly walked away with her arm safely linked through Thora’s. All she wanted was to stand next to the wall, beyond the scrutiny of what seemed to be every eye in the room.
Introductions were once again made, and after the usual pleasantries, the two started to get to know each other. Lady Charlotte Bainbridge was the younger sister of Alexander, the Earl of Burleigh, who arrived at their side as soon as he became aware of his sister’s unfortunate accident. He was accompanied by his best friend, Mr Lewis Trent, who held the title of Viscount Overton.
Charlotte didn’t waste any time in introducing Thora to Alexander and Lewis. Thora spoke to them both, before she looked curiously at the Earl as she was aware of his long standing reputation as a rake. She felt awkward and uncertain then, because of his dazzling good looks and charm, as he thanked her for her kindness. Quite overcome by this and not having received any similar attention for the last seven years, Thora began to feel the same as she had done years ago before her accident. She understood just how the Earl’s reputedly numerous paramours must have felt in his company. As if they were the centre of his world, and he would always love and cherish them.
Without any more delay, Alexander executed a graceful bow and gallantly pressed his lips against Thora’s delicate hand, paying no heed to her concealing veil. In that very moment, he was exhilarated by the mere glimpse he caught of her countenance, which led him to regard her as a woman of remarkable inner and outer beauty. Simultaneously, Thora experienced a delightful tingling sensation coursing through her arm, unlike anything she had ever felt before, as if an inexplicable bond had formed between them. It was indeed a marvel! Overwhelmed by this unforeseen encounter and finding herself in such intimate proximity to him, she was simultaneously beset by feelings of foolishness due to her intense response to his kiss. Hastily concocting an excuse, she averted her gaze and swiftly made her retreat, with the intention of reuniting with her kin.
Alexander couldn’t help, but watch her leave. Intrigued by her kindness, and from what he had heard earlier, that she had apparently worn a veil in public for the last seven years. He had been on the other side of the ballroom talking to Lewis, assuming that his sister was still close by when he had heard the loud crash she made when she fell. He had seen exactly how the other guests closest to her had treated her. Not one of them came forward to offer Charlotte a hand to stand up, or the opportunity to regain her dignity, but instead they behaved improperly by laughing at her misfortune. Although they had never been formally introduced to Miss Thora Kingsley before this evening he had heard of the woman who wore a veil, and risking being ridiculed for doing so, she had still helped his sister get up from the floor. Alexander was dismayed by the malicious comments which he had also overheard from some of the ladies, about the jagged scar which was said to run down the right side of her face. His dismay turned to disgust when he realised that all he had was admiration for Thora, and her obvious strength of character in doing what she believed to be right.
As a result his gratitude was deeply sincere, and when he had kissed her hand he was equally surprised by the delicious tingle which had run along his arm. When she had politely asked to be excused and turned away from them, he knew that he couldn’t let her go quite so easily. At that very moment a new dance set was announced, and when Lewis asked Charlotte to dance, she accepted him. Driven by impulse, Alexander knew then that he had to follow Thora, and ask if she would do him the honour of dancing with him.
He wasn’t aware that for the last seven years she had been sustained by her passion for books and music, becoming accomplished on the piano and harp, often entertaining her family. However her greatest love of all would always be dancing. When all she was able to do after her accident was watch others twirl across the floor, making her heart ache to think she had once been as carefree as them. Never invited onto the floor any more, other than occasionally by James following Candace’s encouragement, and not at all by her father who refused outright to step onto the dance floor at a ball. Moreover seeing the happy couples together usually reminded her of what she would never have, and yet, the exceedingly handsome Earl of Burleigh was waiting now for her to accept his invitation. Possibly even more exciting was the added attraction of his reputation, that over the years he had enjoyed countless dalliances. Some with single ladies, others with married ones, and even ladies who had themselves questionable reputations.
Thora’s curiosity was piqued, but so was the question why he had asked her, when everyone knew a scarred woman could never enter into a courtship, or marry. Especially a man as handsome as the Earl of Burleigh.
An Invitation To Dance With The Earl
Alexander repeated his question, as he continued to smile enticingly at her, sensing Thora’s uncertainty, but desire to dance, when she stole a glance past him at the others who were already on the floor. As a further means of encouraging her to accept, he offered her his arm then, and as soon as she saw that his smile had reached his eyes it made her knees feel exceedingly weak. Especially once she had observed his handsome face, and been drawn to the twinkle in his eye. Nevertheless she still hesitated, much to his surprise, since the Earl of Burleigh rarely if ever had any difficulty in persuading a lady to dance. Once she had observed his handsome face, and been drawn to the twinkle in his eye.
Thora meanwhile thought that she couldn’t accept, because he had most likely only asked her out of pity and not because he had any actual desire to dance with her. He must have seen that no one else had approached her, and taken the view that no one else would be likely to because of her disfigurement. Perhaps he might even have regarded her as some sort of peculiarity, to add to his reputation as a rake? To assert his ability to allure and captivate any lady with his allurements, even a pitiable soul such as Thora Kingsley. Acting as a compelling motive to finally connect with the young woman she once was, and who still languished within her innermost depths.
Fully aware that they were by now under the scrutiny of several sets of eyes, and had more than likely become the subject of the most recent piece of gossip which might well make the scandal sheets, Thora felt herself rising to the challenge. Trying hard not to smile, and quite forgetting how she had been feeling, she could see the headline now: ‘The Rake and the Veiled Lady!’ The very fact that the Earl had made such a request might be thought of as amusing, if it wasn’t quite so ridiculous! Despite the music the small orchestra was playing being a further inducement for her to take his arm, she took control of her senses when what her father had done and her family’s dire predicament came rushing back to her. Causing her a moment of dizziness, she reprimanded herself sternly. She had decided that she had to remain stalwart, as an example to her mother and sisters, being the only way she knew how to help them. Although she could barely look at her father now, dancing with the Earl would only invite more gossip and not help any of them in the least. She had to refuse him!
However, irrespective of her indecision and whether or not Cupid was involved in this, fate had clearly decided to intervene. As Thora’s heart sank even further than it had done earlier and Alexander’s smile was beginning to waver, her youngest sister was walking past with her hand on the arm of her latest dance partner on their way to the floor. Seeing Thora’s hesitation Chloe stopped, to whisper encouragingly in her ear, “please accept, Thora! It’s more than time that you had some fun. Please say, yes. You’ll enjoy it!”
Thora saw the kindness in her sister’s eyes, and realised with a start that she was trapped. A refusal to dance with Lord Burleigh could equally be taken as an insult to him. As a result of this and Chloe’s encouragement, she decided to accept the Earl’s offer, ignoring any inappropriate motive she had previously been attributing to it, and was immediately glad that she had done so. He was a wonderful dancer, light on his feet, and sensitive to every nuance in the tempo, and rhythm of the music the orchestra was playing. If that wasn’t enough, Thora couldn’t help but become even more aware of how handsome he was, attracted by his obvious physical strength and height. Moreover safe in his arms, he whisked her around the floor as if she was as light as thistledown. She knew then that dancing with Alexander Bainbridge was an experience like no other, and one she would never forget.
It also soon became obvious that the other ladies in the ballroom were looking at her with jealousy, which was something that hadn’t happened for a long time. What a strange evening it had been, she thought. Realising in that instant too much had changed for any of their lives to return to how they had once been. Similarly this single dance, as the Earl would never ask her again. She was certain of that. She reminded herself that she had to take the experience for what it was, without any expectations of where it might have led, something she would surely have done earlier as a young debutante. It would simply be a rare opportunity to feel like her former self, safe in his arms. Thora couldn’t help but immerse herself then into the music she loved, and the dance. Chloe was right. She needed to enjoy herself when the opportunity arose whilst remaining fully aware that the occasion was unlikely to be repeated.
However as they were dancing, they also began to talk. Again, much to Thora’s delight, she appreciated Alexander’s conversation which was very different from her father and brother-in-law’s as both of them had little, if any interest, in music or books. Lady Kingsley also much preferred to be outside in the garden, tending the roses and other plants. Especially since the Viscount had given instructions for the majority of the gardeners to be dismissed and left only Bates, and a son of one of the tenants, to try to keep control of what had once been such beautiful grounds. If she used her mother’s own words, and although she did what she could, it was truly an impossible task. Candace was married so naturally she was filled with thoughts of her new home and husband with her sisters no longer being the focus of her life. Her marriage to James had been a love match. It was a joy to see them together and also be able for a moment to share their happiness. On the other hand Chloe’s conversation had for months been solely based on her coming out, and the gowns she would wear.
As they began to discuss the orchestra and the interest in music which they both unexpectedly shared, Alexander became aware that he was highly delighted that he had accepted the Viscountess’ invitation to attend the Kingsley residence that evening. Until then he had been feeling restless, and a little saddened that he hadn’t been able to travel to London with his mother and sister, as he would usually have done at this time of year, missing any number of private concerts. However Lady Burleigh had been ill, so didn’t feel up to making the journey due to the sheer number of carriage stops they would need to make, and the length of time it would take them to get there. She claimed that she would for once make do with the Assembly rooms and Bath society, which wouldn’t be quite so hectic. Even though Alexander’s country seat was close to Bath and the Kingsley residence, she hadn’t even wished to accompany them this evening. She said that she would find the journey too exhausting. When Alexander told her that they wouldn’t go if she was feeling too ill, and as he didn’t at that point really wish to attend, his sister had begged him to accompany her. Due to how quiet she found the season in Bath compared to London where there would be a ball or other event; soiree; exhibition, or promenade every single day.
The more Alexander thought about it he couldn’t recall seeing Thora in the past, although he assumed they must have met at some event or another, but there was of course a difference in their ages. He was thirty years of age now, and she was clearly much younger. Alexander also hadn’t been involved in any business dealing with Viscount Fordham even though they were both local men. The Earl had inherited a large part of his wealth, and diversified his interests elsewhere. Mainly in Cornwall, where he had invested in the tin industry which had brought in good returns. He had however met Thora’s father from time to time at the gentlemen’s club in Bath that he enjoyed frequenting, but Alexander had to admit he had never taken to him. An overweight, overly large man who was somewhat unpleasant to the staff at the club. It didn’t surprise him to be able to add tyrant now to the Viscount’s list of faults. Having seen how he treated his family.
As far as he knew the Viscount’s money came from his estate, but he had heard that he was unable to keep a good land agent due to his vile temper. This resulted sometimes in him being without one at all. It was easy to see how the estate had suffered. On their way to Kingsley House the Burleigh carriage had taken them through a small part of it, and the grounds of what had once been a magnificent Elizabethan manor house, but which was obviously in a state of disrepair. Even the terraces at the front didn’t appear to be well maintained, although there was a profusion of stunning roses falling over the crumbling walls. In contrast to this, the south facing borders appeared to be well stocked with sunflowers and crimson zinnias, showing signs that someone there still cared for them.
Since Alexander couldn’t by any stretch of his imagination assume this would be the Viscount he thought it must be his wife, or possibly even Thora. However when he posed the question she had admitted that her mother was passionate about gardening whereas she much preferred her books and music. Although she did enjoy walking in the garden, and visiting the gazebo her grandparents had installed years ago. Her voice had become wistful then, and he tactfully changed the subject as he didn’t wish to cause her any distress in recalling happier times in her life.
“Thank you again for helping Charlotte,” he said, wishing to confirm his appreciation of what she had done and also being delighted that she seemed to be more relaxed now, even enjoying herself. However his words seemed to have made her flustered, a circumstance he instantly regretted. All he could do was hope she wouldn’t revert to her earlier silence, and apparent reluctance to be in his company. He would never harm her, or any other woman for that matter. Although he understood especially in Thora’s case that this would be a matter of trust, he was beginning to hope that he could gain hers before long. Her obvious lack of confidence simply wasn’t right, and he still attributed this to the way her family treated her. It was almost as if she was inconsequential or of little matter to them, presumably because of her accident. It was easy enough to see her father’s contempt for her. With this in mind, Alexander felt his heart begin to reach out to hers, as it filled with compassion and a tenderness he hadn’t felt quite so deeply before.
“It was nothing really. I wanted to help Charlotte. That was all,” Thora eventually said, almost too quietly for him to catch her words beneath the music. She was feeling embarrassed by this time to not only be in full view of the rest of the guests in the ballroom, but also by how much importance the Earl was placing on what she had done. Helping Charlotte had been the most natural thing in the world for her to do. At the same time acknowledging that despite what was generally said about him being a rake, Lord Burleigh appeared to have a kind heart. If his gratitude, and the care he had shown for his younger sister was the measure of it, then she was sure of at least that. Not having an elder brother Thora reminded herself that she couldn’t judge his reaction based on personal experience. Also she didn’t know her brother-in-law, James, well enough as yet to factor in his treatment of her. So this observation was only from the way it occurred in other families she knew of, where sadly not all of the gentlemen would have given the same degree of attention to the matter as the Earl of Burleigh had done.
Even more so when he said, politely, as he smiled down at her, “please forgive me, but I must insist that my gratitude is well deserved on this occasion. I can’t begin to imagine what tripping over like that must have meant to my sister. When she tries so desperately hard to do everything elegantly, and with the correct amount of decorum.”
Thora however wouldn’t hear of it, and attempted again to persuade him that she hadn’t done a lot, if anything at all. She had simply been the first to see what had happened. Even though the latter hadn’t been the case at all, in particular given the laughter which had soon followed Charlotte’s fall as she lay on the ground in a daze, Thora decided on the spur of the moment to resort to using this as an excuse for her actions. Feeling the need to respond and return the kindness the Earl had also shown to her, she continued impetuously to reveal the first thought that was running through her mind. She thanked him for his kindness in asking her to dance. At the same time as telling him that she completely understood, if it had been out of pity or a feeling of obligation to her.
However, as soon as she said it, Thora saw the look of dismay on the Earl’s face, and realised that it would have been far better not to have said anything at all. She deeply regretted her lack of wisdom, especially since her words appeared to have had the opposite effect to the one she intended and had just hurt Lord Burleigh’s feelings. In addition, they might also of course be deemed to be bad manners.
“I am saddened that you felt the need to say such a thing, Miss Kingsley,” he replied instantly, if not a little too brusquely and surprised by how much her opinion, and rebuttal had meant to him. “I must deny your accusation, most strongly.” Deciding then that the best way out of his predicament, and bad humour, would be to resort to what he had found in the past could easily endear himself to a young woman. In paying her the compliment he had used the most. “How I, a humble gentleman, could resist your charm and great beauty was quite beyond me. It was entirely my pleasure to ask you to dance,” Alexander said, with a twinkle in his eye. At the same time he acknowledged how pleasant it felt, holding Thora in his arms as they conversed and wished at the same time with all of his heart that he could look deeply into her eyes. It felt ridiculous that he was only permitted to see the shadow of them through her veil. But he hadn’t realised that this had added to her air of mystery, and the growing desire within him to get to know her better.
However if the Earl of Burleigh had been able to see what lay beneath Thora’s veil, he would have been met with a look of disbelief on her face. She had guessed immediately, and correctly, that he had already said the same words to innumerable other ladies. Nevertheless she couldn’t help but be amused by his gallant attempt to strenuously deny this when she had decided to reproach him for it. This was followed by her earnestly expressing her gratitude for his invitation to dance, employing a solemn tone of voice.
Strangely enough, although Alexander couldn’t quite see her lips beneath her veil, he sensed that Thora was smiling at him and did genuinely appreciate what he had done. Not only that, she had started to warm to him, as he most definitely had to her. There was definitely a lot more to Miss Kingsley than met the eye, and at times her pervading sadness, which he couldn’t help wishing to turn to joy.