Elizabeth knew whatever they did to her that Mary would be behind it. Things were looking up. At least while she was forced to remain in London for the next two months she could have a little fun.
The sight that welcomed them was enough to sober her immediately. Their parents stood next to Lord Dumford, who was looking rather smug. Their mother's polite smile turned absolutely pleased when she spotted Elizabeth. “There you are, my dear.”
Elizabeth forced herself to smile. Lord Dumford took her hand and bowed, pressing a chaste kiss against her knuckles that left her cold. “Good evening, Lady Elizabeth.”
With a forced, barely-there smile, she curtsied. “Good evening, my Lord.”
Her father cleared his throat. “Elizabeth, Lord Dumford has been telling us of his lands in the lake region. It’s very interesting.”
“That sounds lovely, my Lord,” she said, trying not to cringe when she spotted several men walking towards them, probably hoping to steal her for a dance or a walk. Five of them were known fortune hunters and the others were known bores. She wasn’t sure which was worse, but at the moment she was in no mood to find out.
“If you would please excuse me, I believe that I could use some fresh air,” she said softly, relieved when her father gave her a small nod of approval.
“Should I accompany you, Lady Elizabeth?” Lord Dumford asked, looking expectant that she would agree.
She forced a polite smile. “No, thank you. I wouldn’t want to interrupt your evening, my Lord. I shall only be a moment.”
“Perhaps you’ll do me the honor of a dance when you return?”
Her father nodded slightly and she knew that her reprieve from this torture would only be short lived, but she would gladly take whatever she could get at the moment.
“That sounds lovely, my Lord. I look forward to it.” As she moved to leave, a few of the matchmaking mothers turned their attention on her and gestured for their sons to approach her. Realizing that she needed to leave immediately if she had any chance at all, she turned and walked slowly towards the terrace doors. Once she made it to the lawn and the safety of darkness she grabbed up her skirts and made a run for it, praying that no one would follow.
* * *
“Oh, Mr. Bradford, do come meet my daughters, Lady Penelope and Lady Emma,” a rather rotund woman said. Robert couldn’t for life of him remember her name, but he was positive that he’d seen her at one time or another speaking with his mother.
He pasted his most charming smile on his face. “It would be my pleasure.” He kissed the hand of Lady Penelope and noted that she was rather fetching. He then greeted Lady Emma, who was unfortunately her mother’s daughter. He was willing to bet the girl weighed two stones more than him and she was short, making the extra weight all the more tragic.
Lady Penelope fluttered her eyelashes at him in a very flirtatious manner. Even though he had no plans on marrying anytime soon, he wouldn’t mind spending a little time with a beautiful woman. “Lady Penelope, would you care to take a turn about the room with me?”
She looked down shyly, an act he was sure. “That would be lovely, Mr. Bradford. Thank you.”
Robert took her hand and placed it on his arm. He could barely feel her grip through his jacket. It was a shame that women of her class wore gloves everywhere. For once he would like to feel a woman’s bare hand on his arm. A firmer grip wouldn’t hurt either. Her touch felt cold and distant to him. He hated these games, but he would be willing to play them to make his mother happy, or if it meant that he could steal a kiss from a beautiful woman.
“Lady Penelope, have you been enjoying London?”
“Yes, the weather has been delightful,” she answered. Her answer was short and proper and without a trace of an original thought. He’d been hoping to engage in an actual conversation to pass the time. No, perhaps he hadn’t asked a good question. Maybe she wasn’t like the rest of these mindless drones who cared about nothing except finding a husband with a title and a large purse.
He cleared his throat. “Have you been to the theatre lately?”
She smiled brightly at that. He enjoyed the theatre himself.
“Oh, I’ve really enjoyed going. Papa allowed me to purchase three new gowns just for the theatre. I have one in light pink, one in light green, and a pretty violet dress. Also, I bought new bonnets and gloves. It was so delightful!”
He could cry. He really could.
“What play did you attend?” he asked, hoping there was a way to salvage this conversation.
“Pardon me?” she asked, clearly confused.
“What play did you attend? When you wore your new dresses, what play did you attend?”
“Oh!” she exclaimed as if this was a new and unexpected line of questioning. “I didn’t wear my new dresses to the theatre. I wore my yellow dress, because it went better with the gold curtains in my family’s box.”
“The play, Lady Penelope, what was it?” Please let her know this. Damn him and his standards. He didn’t consort with whores, married women or innocents. Well, he didn’t take more than a few kisses from an innocent. The one universal problem he had, he couldn’t stomach the company of empty-headed women.
As much as he enjoyed sex, and he truly did, the prospect of it had never driven him wild or distracted him to the point that he could ignore his ridiculous standards and risk being with a woman with a penchant for drama. Then again, he’d never had much of a choice in the matter thanks to Elizabeth Stanton. It had only taken her a few minutes one sunny afternoon to guarantee him a life of misery.
In a matter of minutes she’d turned his pleasant existence into something of a nightmare. After she’d dubbed him Robert Lemonade, he’d lost all his friends, his reputation and his life had been turned into a living hell. He’d been teased, taunted and humiliated thanks to her. He’d become a primary target for the other boys at school.
For two whole years he’d been pushed around, beat up and taunted. They found great fun in humiliating him and made damn sure that he was humiliated on a daily basis. Without the protection of a title, the knowledge of how to fight, or friends who could have defended him, he’d been an easy target. They enjoyed themselves immensely at his expense until the day that he’d finally had enough and started to fight back.
At first he’d lost more fights than he’d won, but it was enough to make some of the other boys think twice about throwing lemons at him, knocking down his books, or sneaking into his room and drenching his bed and clothes with vinegar. His sudden growth spurt hadn’t hurt either. While the other boys had grown slowly into manhood, it seemed as though he’d been shoved head first into it.
He’d grown into a man during the summer break of his fifteenth year just shortly after he’d finally had enough of Elizabeth Stanton’s bullshit. He shot up at least a foot and gained a few stones in muscles while the other boys only gained a few inches and a healthy fear of him. Along with his size, his temper had grown and he no longer put up with jests at his expense. His temper and reputation followed him through the years, making men fear him and woman wary of his company.
If it hadn’t been for his family connections and wealth, he had no doubt that the ton would have turned their back on him long ago. He would have gladly welcomed the exclusion and sought a different life for himself long before now. Life among the ton simply wasn’t for him. For his parents and brother he’d tolerated this existence until a few months ago when he’d finally had enough.