Sir Raymond Steele sat in a dark corner of White’s nursing his brandy. When no one was looking, Wilkinson, the club concierge, would slip over with a fresh cup of tea, but for the purposes of appearance, something stronger was required. Sir Raymond flicked the broadsheet with each turn of a page, settling it on the table in front of him with a flourish and then raised a magnifying glass and began the process of carefully peering at the print. This was becoming increasingly more difficult and Wilkinson’s incessant fluffing about with lamps was not helping matters much. Slumping back, Sir Raymond pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment before continuing with his reading.
“Sir Raymond Steele?” The imposing dark haired figure, who stood before him, cast a shadow over the table causing Sir Raymond grimace. Instead of greeting the stranger, he waved him out of what little light there was still available. At least the lad had the good sense to get out of the darned way.
“The price of wheat is on it’s way back up again, Wilkinson.” The concierge paused mid-pour of Lord Entwhistle’s tonic and peered over his shoulder at Sir Raymond.
“Is this a cause for alarm, Sir?” Wilkinson could always be called upon to ask a knowledgeable question.
“Of course not, this might actually help get a few estates back on track.” Sir Raymond replied with a gruffly annoyed voice. One that said he was anything but.
“Yes, Sir. Do any of your tenants grow wheat?” The Grey brothers, who had been left unattended by either of the men looked back and forth between them with amusement. It seemed that for all his good points, Wilkinson might have become a little overly familiar with his patron.
“Well, I’m not entirely sure why the blazes they shouldn’t. I shall have to check with Mr Hyde when he comes in. Send him to me when he comes in, will you?” Sir Raymond’s focus remained on teasing out remnants of print from the blurred fields of his eyesight so he missed the look of consternation that Wilkinson gave to Captain Christian Grey.
“Yes, Sir Raymond.” Christian raised an eyebrow in silent question to the servant who replied with a small shake of his head. It seemed that Sir Raymond might be living under some illusions.
“Now, you Sir. What do you want?” A little common courtesy would be nice, Christian thought. He glanced at Elliot who looked just as baffled by the older man’s behavior.
“Sir Raymond, may I introduce myself. My name is…”
“Oh, confound it lad. I know who you are. You can tell that daughter of mine that I will not be returning to the country in the near future. Now be on your way.” Christian’s jaw fell open for a moment, while Elliot had the audacity to smother a chuckle.
“I think you might be confusing me with someone else, Sir Raymond.” Christian leaned in a little with an uncharacteristic softness to his voice, thinking perhaps that a gentle touch and some ocular proximity might bring his mind back to rights.
“No, no, no. That woman is a shrew and and she will badger and beat me to bring her back to London. I will not have it, do you hear? Anastasia, of all people, should not want her mother anywhere near a London season with her incessant manipulations. She seems to think that her own daughter is chattel to be sold and I will not tolerate it. Not one bit.”
“Your wife has tried to sell, Miss Steele?” Elliot had come to his sense and actually followed the train of Sir Raymond’s rant.
“Oh, my dear sir, you have no idea what that witch is capable of.”
“May I remind you, Sir, that you are talking about Miss Steele’s mother.” Christian took offense at the way the man spoke about his own wife. It wasn’t at all seemly.
“And my wife of twenty-five years, Sir. I think I should know if she were a witch by now, don’t you think?” Wilkinson had returned to top up Sir Raymond’s brandy. There was always the hope that the old codger would quieten down and fall asleep. He’d been known to do that of late. Wilkinson had also brought snifters to Elliot and Christian who under normal circumstances might have waved them away but given the turn the conversation had taken, felt compelled to medicate their nerves. This wasn’t going at all well.
“You say she tried to sell, Miss Steele. Could you tell us more?” Elliot had sat opposite Sir Raymond at the table. Christian knew that sitting would be a mistake and had moved himself to stand behind his brother. Perhaps, if Sir Raymond realised that Elliot was his brother, there might be some opportunity to make his case. From the harrumphing and gnashing of teeth going on at the other side of the highly polished mahogany table, he had grave doubts.
“That’s what I said, wasn’t it? She seems to think that Anastasia would snag the highest bidder amongst these awful manufacturing men from the North. There was that dreadful man from Nottingham, couldn’t abide him. The one from Lancashire was not much better. Thought they could simply sweep in and purchase the gel for a few pounds and I should be grateful for their assistance. I don’t know where she finds them. Now that my Anastasia is visiting with the Kavanaghs, she can’t do any more damage but goodness, have you ever heard of such a thing. A lady of my Anastasia’s standing, marrying some untitled businessman.” Sir Raymond paused for a moment and peered through his looking glass at Elliot. “Good heavens. Are you by any chance related to the Duke of Carrick? I knew him in my youth. Did a spot of grouse shooting and salmon fishing with him as a lad and did you know that you’re the spitting image?”
Christian felt his heart crash to the floor along with any hopes that Sir Raymond would grant his request. Elliot shuffled uncomfortably in his seat in a most ungentlemanly way. For a moment Christian wondered if he hadn’t caught something from one of Miriam’s whores. Elliot, to his credit, recovered quickly.
“Why, yes, I’m his son. Lord Elliot Grey at your service, Sir.” Elliot smiled broadly and Sir Raymond was up out of his seat, leaning over offering one slightly gnarled hand. Without a glance or grimace, Elliot took it and shook, clasping it with his other hand. “It is a delight to meet you, Sir. My father has spoken highly of you.”
“Has he indeed?” Sir Raymond looked pleased with the flattery. At first. A slight frown creased his eyebrows as he sat back down. “Well, m’Lord. What can I do for you?”
He looked suspicious and so he should be. To Christian’s knowledge, their father had never mentioned Sir Raymond. Be that as it may, the conversation was settling into something he felt he could manage so he approached the table once more.
“May I introduce my brother, Captain Christian Grey of the Ruby Queen.”
Christian offered his hand, which for an awful moment, he thought Sir Raymond was not about to take. Finally, with pursed lips and a deep look of consternation, Sir Raymond reached to grasp his hand.
“A pleasure to meet you, Sir Raymond.” There was very little confidence left in Christian at this present moment but his voice did not betray him. He ran over several possible approaches to his request in his head and none of them were arriving at the desired result. He had hoped to find a man who was a little desperate to marry off his only daughter, announce that she had been compromised and offer to make her an honest woman. Instead, he had the sinking feeling that that particular offer would be met by pistols at dawn, which although outlawed, Christian was certain that Sir Raymond would have conveniently forgotten that little detail.
“I take it that this is not a courtesy call.” The shrewd older eyes flickered between the brothers, leaving Christian momentarily at a loss.
“Well, yes. I wondered if you would accept my mother’s invitation to the family dinner tonight prior to her masque. You see, my brother here has had the honor of a chance meeting with your daughter at Lady Katherine’s townhouse and has become, I’m afraid, quite unreasonably enamored. He has insisted on having both young ladies in attendance tonight and when I heard that you were in town I thought it would be wonderful for you to renew your acquaintance with my father and have you escort the young ladies.”
“Did you just?” Sir Raymond was not exactly warming to Elliot. It seemed that he was fully aware when a truth was being stretched. Christian had to admire that and wonder how it was that the older man had ended up in such a predicament that resulted in Ana requiring paid employment. When he had said that Ana was visiting with Lady Katherine, Christian had presumed that he had been maintaining his pride. Perhaps he didn’t know. The man was a conundrum and although a little confused, was far from the pushover that he expected.
“Sir, I am sorry to be so forward, but the lady has quite stolen my heart.”
“Stolen your heart, eh? That doesn’t sound like my Anastasia, not at all.” Heavens above, it wasn’t as if he was claiming that her heart was engaged. Only his. For a moment Christian wondered if it were true but then disabused himself of that notion. She was a perfectly fine woman and there was indeed an attraction but not of the heart. He merely thought to rescue her, from Hyde, from her manipulating mother and her incompetent father. Only the man wasn’t as incompetent as he had hoped.
“Sir, I don’t want to overplay my hand, but I would like the opportunity to woo, Miss Steele.”
“You’re a Navy Captain, Sir?”
“Was, Sir. I continue now in service to the King but as a merchant seaman.” The look of distaste on Sir Raymond’s face at the notion of merchant anything would have been comical in any other circumstances. Christian was a believer in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work and had his doubts that Sir Raymond had done an honest day’s anything in his time.
“But you are still attached to the sea, Sir, and my understanding is that she is a jealous and possessive mistress. I’m not sure that marriage to someone who indulges himself in long absences would suit my Anastasia at all, Sir. She is a free spirit, a loyal and dedicated servant to her causes and she lives with great passion. That is not for every man, Sir. No. No I don’t know if you will do at all.”
“Any wife of mine will live as much of her life on ships as I do. Of course, that won’t be forever. I have property in Kent that requires my attention and more on the coast, where I should like to retire.” Christian couldn’t quite believe the words that were pouring out of his mouth as he attempted to sell the charm of his finer assets but suddenly it seemed very important, for reasons he could not quite fathom, that he should convince this man of his worth. Again, the look on Sir Raymond’s face made him want to pull back the words and kick himself. In fact, Elliot did exactly that under the table. Of course the man would not want his only daughter to be condemned to a life on the ocean. What the hell was he thinking?
“You would have a woman aboard your ship? Don’t you sailing types consider females bad luck?” And there it was. If he had been looking away in that moment, Christian would have missed that glint of humor in the older man’s eye. Instead, he had seen exactly the moment that Sir Raymond’s approval began to turn. He smiled.
“A ship is a woman too, Sir. A man is only at her service as he guides her through waters calm and rough, Sir. My wife would be as dear to me, if not moreso, than any ship.”
“And her wild passions? How do you think to tame those?”
“An asset, Sir. Who would want to tame those?” There was a mild stand off. Christian wondered if Sir Raymond had tried to do exactly that and Ana’s current predicament was directly attributable to her father’s heavy hand. The man’s answer put paid to that train of thought.
“Good, lad. You’ll do.” Christian breathed a sigh of relief. He had successfully brokered his marriage to Miss Anastasia Steele. Just as he was about to mentally congratulate himself the truth descended with the full weight of Sir Raymond’s next question.
“I take it you have already asked her and she has accepted?” Good Lord. When Christian caught that knowing smile he knew all hope was again lost. How the hell did the man know? “It’s perfectly fine, my lad. She refuses them all. You’re nothing special.”
Nothing special! Nothing special! Elliot’s boot landed full force on his foot and pressed hard. He needn’t have bothered. Christian had already drawn blood from his tongue.
“Oh, she refused. My brother does, however, have a plan to change her mind.” He did? Christian looked at Elliot and then back at Sir Raymond and nodded. Yes, he did. And for Elliot’s sake, he hoped it was a damned good one. “However, Sir, you might need to assist us in a small way.” A sigh of relief left Christian’s body. It seemed that Elliot had been putting that brain of his to good use. The discussion that ensued was one that he never thought to have with his future father-in-law but since he had never before planned on having one of those, it seemed fitting that the conversation be unusual. For his part, Sir Raymond was only too eager to contribute. Which was just as well because as Christian began to see just how much Miss Anastasia Steele took after her father, he began to panic that he would ever get her down the aisle.
Kate had gone into a state of apoplexy at the supper invitation that had arrived in the late afternoon. How could they possibly be expected to be ready for such an event at such short notice but as Anastasia took pains to remind, Kate, how could they possibly refuse. So it was, with great surprise to both of them, that Lady Katherine Kavanagh and The Honorable, Miss Anastasia Steele arrived at the mansion of the Duke of Carrick escorted by Anastasia’s father, Sir Raymond Steele. To add to that surprise, there was no shortage of murmured speculation when His Grace greeted Sir Raymond like a long lost friend.
Kate giggled with barely suppressed hilarity as Sir Raymond and His Grace reminisced on their boyhood escapades but was quick to stifle it when Lord Elliot arrived at her side to escort her in to supper.
“Lady Katherine, may I.” Anastasia observed as Kate, somewhat lost for words and blushing furiously, had her arm wrapped firmly around Elliot’s. She went to follow when another familiar voice murmured in her ear.
“Miss Steele.” There was no ‘may I’ in his request. Instead, he merely assumed and Ana fought the urge to cause a scene by pulling her hand away. The jolt of his touch was too much and her body stiffened but she continued to allow herself to be guided knowing that, at least, she would not have to sit with him. However, upon arriving in the dining room was thwarted by Her Grace who announced that precedent was being waived and that she hoped her guests would not take offense but indulge her on this auspicious occasion.
To her horror, she was seated near Her Grace, with Captain Grey on one side and her father on the other. Kate was opposite and seated next Lord Elliot. Her friend was by turns, flirting shamelessly with Lord Elliot while shooting daggers across the table and the Captain. Fighting for calming breath, Ana sank into her proffered seat with as much decorum as she could muster but managed to knock over a crystal water glass as she reached for it. Servants were quick to replenish and replace but her mortification was set.
The Duchess of Carrick reached past her father and touched Ana on the hand. “Do not trouble yourself, my dear. Upon my first meeting with His Grace’s parents, I was quite flustered myself. I broke a priceless heirloom tea cup and thought that Her Grace would never forgive me.” Ana swallowed hard and tried to smile.
“Oh, goodness Your Grace. She forgave you?” Kate took up the reigns of the conversation that Ana could no longer in all good conscience contribute to. She was very grateful for her friend’s tenacity.
“Heaven’s, no. That woman hated me until the day she died and I am sure it was all over that silly plate. That and the fact that I was marrying for love. Unheard of in her book and intolerable. So you see, in the end it didn’t matter.” Her Grace’s laughter rang around the room taking all the guests within hearing along with her. All except for Christian who merely smiled with an eye on Ana and Ana, who could not lift her mortified eyes off the gilt patterned edging of her dinner plate.
“I’m sure you won’t break it. And I know it isn’t a priceless heirloom.” His voice was reassuring but Ana was barely holding herself together. His kindness just felt like too much and a single tear snuck from beneath her lashes and to her horror splashed on the porcelain. He was simply overwhelming and having to sit next to him, knowing that this was all just fun and obligation to him, incensed her. Why did he feel nothing when she felt everything? Why did he have to kiss her and ruin everything?
To her credit, Kate kept the conversation lively and managed to include Ana from time to time but Ana knew that her friend was out of sorts and the strange comments between Sir Raymond and Her Grace were not helping at all. At least Lord Elliot was proving to be better company and a better ally to Kate than Ana could ever have hoped because both she and Captain Grey were of no conversational use whatsoever. Not that Kate had uttered one word to Christian since they had arrived. Ana felt herself becoming more sullen and silent as the evening wore on and Christian would not stop looking at her with overt concern. His intensity disturbed her equilibrium. If Her Grace was alert to the dynamic between the four of them, then she chose to ignore it.
“One would imagine that when one has the good fortune to have grandchildren running about the place, that there will be many sacrifices of one’s finest dinnerware.” Her Grace had returned finally to the topic of Ana’s demise. She probably only meant well but it really was not helping.
“Do you have any grandchildren?” Sir Raymond asked. Ana looked at him as if he had grown a second head. Of course, she didn’t have grandchildren. Everyone in London knew that Lord Elliot was both a scoundrel and a confirmed bachelor. Ana watched as a smiled spread across his face. Yes, that man would provide grandchildren but not legitimate ones.
“No, I have not been blessed, yet. Perhaps we shall have the good fortune to enjoy that particular first together, Sir Raymond.” Ana blanched. Oh, my goodness. What was the woman thinking? Captain Grey hated her and Lord Elliot, as a ducal heir, would never marry her so unless it was merely a statement of convenient timing? Yes, that was it. Perhaps she thought that Ana would marry at the same time as one of her sons and both women would give birth simultaneously. Stranger things had happened but that would be particularly strange given that Ana, herself, was destined for spinsterhood. No, the world had gone quite mad and Ana was merely watching them all lose their minds.
“Oh, I do hope so, your Grace.” Her father patted the Duchess’ hand and Ana nearly choked on a scallop. The whole conversation seemed about her but without any inclusion of her opinion or desires. Christian handed her her glass of water and patted her on the back as he tried to assist. Ana was sure that the gates of hell were opening for her. She pushed Christian’s hand away and in the movement managed to knock over a glass of wine. As she reached to save it, Christian upended his plate of scallops onto his lap. He pushed away from the table quickly but was now covered in buttery sauce and red wine. Ana’s hands flew to her mouth and before she could stop them, a fit of giggles emerged. Christian gave her a look of disbelief and full fury that made her bite her lip and then he gasped.
Christian couldn’t stay at the table. He was about to thoroughly embarrass himself by having some overly zealous servant touch him. And that woman, first laughs and then bites her lip? God, he was going to die. He stood rather abruptly, clasping the cloth napkin that he had managed to wrestle off a footman, in front of his groin and made his excuses. Laughter echoed from the table as he departed.
Ana watched as they all laughed feeling like she was having an out of body experience. She didn’t think that he was offended by their laughter but it really did feel like they were all in on a joke and they had failed to tell either Ana or Captain Grey what it was. She had an awful suspicion that she was, indeed, the punchline. To make matters worse, the Captain did not return to the table, nor did he return to the masque. Ana would have hidden herself away as well, but there seemed to be an endless stream of partners seeking her out and she barely got a moment to herself. And where was Christian? Why had he not returned? Did he hate her that much?
Kate and Ana had just returned from the ladies rest rooms prior to midnight when a murmur went through the room. If they hadn’t been passing Lady Elena Lincoln at the time they might have missed the cause. It seemed that a new guest had arrived and no one was quite sure what to do. He hadn’t been officially invited but then he had a tendency to turn up where he wasn’t expected and cause ladies to swoon and men to guard their pockets. So when Millicent Randwick, breathless, heaving and with a decided lustful twinkle in her eye, came rushing up to them and made her announcement, Kate and Ana were not completely taken by surprise.
“Ooooh, hold on to your reticules ladies. That dreaded Captain Blackheart has arrived!”