Now she was a little calmer and not looking directly at Rick, she could hear a murmur of voices coming down a short corridor off the main hall.  As they walked towards it, the murmur got louder, until they finally reached the door of a drawing room, filled with men in dinner attire.  One or two of them turned around and stared openly at Jen and Rick, but mainly Jen, as they entered the room.  Jen caught several more covert glances in their direction.  They made her feel a little uncomfortable, but Rick squeezed her hand discreetly, reassuringly, and murmured, “Ignore them.  Would you like a drink?”

Jen remembered her talking-to, then thought, “Oh – to hell with it!” smiling up at him gratefully, and nodding.

He steered her over to a table that was groaning under the weight of glasses, bottles, decanters and ice buckets.

“What would you like?”

“Vodka, please, if there is any.”

“Ice?”

Nod.

“Anything in it?”

“Um, orange juice?”

Rick mixed the drink and handed it to Jen.

“Thanks,” she said, taking a grateful sip.  “Ooh, it’s a bit strong.  Are you trying to get me drunk, your honourableness?” she said quietly, playing the wide-eyed ingénue.

Rick chuckled, pouring himself a glass of whiskey.  “Why, of course, Miss Alexander.  Surely you don’t think the son of a lord wouldn’t try to get a beautiful young lady drunk?”

She smiled.  “Rick, I told you to stop that!  You’ll make me blush, then what would all of these respectable gentlemen think?  My credibility will be in ruins and I won’t be able to persuade them that my head isn’t full of fluffy kittens!”

“Speaking of which, I really ought to introduce you to a few of them before dinner.”

“Oh, Rick, do you have to?  Can’t I just hide in a corner somewhere?”

“Certainly not!  It would be terribly rude, not to mention cruel to deprive me of the opportunity of being smug that I’m the one with the lovely girl on my arm.”

“Rick, please!” Jen said desperately, feeling another blush beginning.

Rick laughed.  “Oh, all right.  Come on then, you old trout!”

Jen laughed as he led her back into the main body of the room and began to introduce her to people.

A while later, Jen was thanking her lucky stars that she did have Rick there as her guide and protector.  As they went around the room from person to person and group to group, it became quite obvious that he knew most, if not all of the people there.  And they knew him.  He was as quiet as he had been when they had first known each other, and the wariness was there – with some more than others, but it was present, nonetheless.  She wondered how much of it was for her benefit, to cushion the shock of meeting so many new people all at once.  Whatever the reason, she was grateful for it.  What he said to and about people was concise, to the point, and often very funny.  She had never dreamed what a sly wit was lurking there, under that shy and wary exterior.  Most of the humour, too, was subtle; meant for Jen alone.  For this reason, she had to work very hard to keep her laughter concealed, often having to feign a coughing fit or use some other time-honoured way of doing so.

At one point, they found themselves alone in a corner by the French windows, which were open to admit the evening breeze to cool and refresh the stifling air in the drawing room.  Jen tugged Rick’s arm, and they slipped out on to the terrace just outside, around the corner so they wouldn’t be seen or heard.

Jen burst out laughing “Rick!” she gasped, “You’ve got to stop!”

“Stop what?” he asked, innocently.

“Stop saying things like you just said to poor Professor Majors in there – I nearly suffocated trying not to laugh!  They’re all going to think I’ve got consumption or something!”  A fresh wave of laughter swept over her, and she had a very hard time stopping.

She ended up leaning against the wall, gasping for breath.  Rick was laughing by this time, too, and Jen really hoped nobody came out to find them giggling like a couple of school kids.

Fortunately, they soon heard the sound of a gong being rung somewhere in the house.  Rick pulled himself together and said, “That’ll be dinner, then.  Come on, pull yourself together, Miss Alexander, and put your serious face back on.  We don’t want to upset any of the stuffed shirts, do we?”

She did her best, as did he.

“Ready, then?” he asked her for the second time that evening.

More confident now that the ice had been broken, she squared her shoulders and said “I think so.  How’s my serious face?”

“Serious” he said, gravely.

Jen giggled a little, and he said “Oh, don’t start all that, again!  Come on!”

As he grabbed her hand to lead her back towards the door, a bolt of lightning shot up her arm, down her spine and made her toes curl.  She stumbled in surprise, grabbing on to his arm for support.  He twisted and caught her before she fell any further, exclaiming “Hey!  Steady on!  Did I put too much vodka in your drink?”

Jen was about to protest that she wasn’t that much of a lightweight, but as she looked up, the words died in her throat.  Suddenly, her heart was beating faster again, and she could feel the flush rising to her face.  She looked away quickly, muttering, “Stupid shoes!” as she managed to straighten and stand again, with Rick’s help.

As they re-entered the drawing room, the last stragglers were just leaving and heading down the corridor and across the hallway to the dining room.  Jen held on to Rick’s arm as they moved slowly through, still feeling somewhat light headed.

“Are you ok?” Rick asked with some concern.

“I’m fine,” muttered Jen, weakly, somewhat embarrassed and trying desperately, once again, to regain her equilibrium.  “Just give me a moment.”

She sat down on the arm of a nearby chair, closed her eyes and breathed deeply.  Rick brought her a glass of iced water.  She ran an ice cube around the back of her neck whilst drinking the water, shooting Rick a look of gratitude as she did so.

After a few moments, she opened her eyes again and said, “We’d better get going.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather cry off?”

“No, I’ll be fine.”

“Damn!”

Jen smiled, stood up, and took Rick’s arm.  “Let’s try again, shall we?” she said.  “After all, it would be a shame to waste this dress.”  She giggled.  “Or,” she added, “That bow tie.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my bow tie,” he said, defensively.

“No, there isn’t” she agreed.  “It looks rather fetching on you, actually.  But I didn’t really have you down as a bow tie kind of guy.”

“Well, I’m not.  You’ve seen what I normally wear.”

“Yes – scattered all over your bedroom floor!”

Rick blushed slightly and harrumphed, then decided to ignore the interjection.  “You have to wear the uniform to these sorts of things,” he added quietly, as they were entering the dining room.  Or, more accurately, hall.

Fortunately, no one seemed to take any notice of the late arrivals, being mostly engaged in conversation with each other, or distracted by the people rushing around serving.

They took their seats as unobtrusively as possible, and Jen looked around as she did so.  There was Lord Ambrose at the top of the table, of course.  No one at the other end, she noticed.  Jen realised that she hadn’t seen him in the reception room, but decided that he must have been in here, supervising the last-minute preparations.  Servers were rushing around with platters and jugs, and Jen noticed a few unfamiliar faces amongst them.  Then she remembered what Mags had said about getting in outside help for a big do.  She couldn’t see her anywhere, but imagined her in the kitchen, organising the stream of people and food going in and out.  Rick nudged her, and she realised that her starter had appeared as if by magic in front of her as she had been looking around.  She looked helplessly at the array of silverware arranged around her plate, then turned a pleading look to Rick.

“What do I use?” she whispered, with a slight edge of desperation in her voice.

“Outside in” he whispered back with a small smile, picking up the appropriate utensils.  Jen did likewise and began to eat.

“Are you sure you’re ok?” he asked again, in a low voice.

“I’m fine, honestly.  Just not really used to having to negotiate more than one knife and fork at a time.”

He laughed quietly.

“Don’t worry,” he said, reassuringly.  “Just watch me.”

“With pleasure” she replied with an impish grin.

Now it was his turn to blush and say quietly, “Now you stop that!  I’ve got to get through this dinner without embarrassing myself too, you know.”

“Well, we’ll get through it together, then,” said Jen, decisively.

As they continued to eat, Rick’s neighbour engaged him in conversation.  Jen felt a tiny bit abandoned, but supposed it couldn’t be helped, so she attempted the same.

Her mind immediately went blank.

“Oh, come on,” she thought, “he looks nice enough – say something!”

“Erm, nice food,” she ventured.  Then she mentally smacked herself on the forehead.  What a pathetic way to start a conversation!  She quickly tried to come up with something else to cover up the stupid remark, whilst attempting to remember the name that went with the face.  “Are you enjoying it…” …think, think…aha!… “…Dean Quinlon?”

Dean Quinlon, who had looked as if he had been mentally scratching his head for a way of responding to Jen’s opening gambit, smiled, saying, “Yes, yes – it’s delightful.  But then, Ambrose has a marvelous cook, does he not?” in a slightly fussy voice, tinged with an Irish accent.

“Indeed he does,” said Jen, with relief at having broken the ice.  “She’s a marvel, actually – mothers us all outrageously, too.”  Jen’s smile turned to a frown as she thought of all the times that Mags had come to the rescue of herself and probably everyone else in the house at some time or another.

“Mothers you?…  Oh, yes – you must be the young lady who Ambrose got in to sort out that disaster of a library of his.  Must be a terrible lot of work.  Tel me, how are you getting on with it?”

They continued the small talk through that course and the next.  Jen found it easier than she had expected to and, after a while, their conversation flowed smoothly, even though it wasn’t really about anything much.

 

When they had finished and the plates were being cleared away and the wineglasses busily replenished, ready for he next course, Dean Quinlon said, with regret, “Well, miss Alexander, it’s been delightful chatting with you, but I’m afraid that I really must speak to my other neighbour.”

“Of course,” smiled Jen.  She turned to face forward, looking down at the empty space where her plate had been, wondering what came next.

“Hey,” said Rick’s voice, so close to her ear that she could feel his breath tickle her neck.

She jumped, turning to see his face closer than was probably etiquette at a formal dinner.  She was becoming increasingly aware, however, that it wasn’t close enough for her satisfaction.  Determined not to let her growing attraction to him paralyse her – especially as she’d been doing so well at the whole ‘formal dinner party let’s all talk to strangers’ thing – she managed to swallow, smile, and say, “How am I doing, your honourableness?”

With a comical roll of his eyes at the honorific, Rick said, “Really well, I’m proud of you.  But you won’t be for much longer if you keep calling me that.”

Her eyes sparkled and she said, “That sounds like a threat to me, your honourableness.”

“It is,” he growled, softly.

“Why, what are you going to do if I don’t stop?” she challenged.

Rick leaned even closer.  “I’ll spank you until you can’t sit down, Miss Alexander.”

She gasped in mock horror and hissed: “I was right about you!  It must be your aristocratic upbringing.  Well,” she continued, “You can’t spank me at the table.”  She giggled.  “Half the company would have heart attacks.”

“I can wait – I’m very patient.”

“Really?  Well you’ll still have to catch me,” she grinned.  Then the grin faded and her eyes widened as, swift as a snake, his hand shot out and grabbed hers where it lay on the table.

“Gotcha!” he said, in a low but triumphant tone.

Jen looked down at her captured hand and said, “Damn!”  Then she looked up at him and said, impishly, “I could scream, you, know”

“But you won’t, will you?” he said, gravely.

Jen looked down at their hands, then back up at him, and replied softly, “No, actually.  I won’t.”

Rick held her hand for a moment longer, then suddenly stiffened and let it go as abruptly as he’d seized it.

Puzzled and a little hurt, Jen looked at his face.  The closed, guarded look was back in place.  Jen’s stomach gave a tiny lurch.  She swallowed and asked, in a small voice, “What’s up?”

Rick stared fixedly at a table decoration in front of him.  Through gritted teeth, he said, “Ambrose is watching us.”

Jen felt a prickle of… What?  Unease?  Annoyance?  It ran up her spine and made the back of her neck tingle.  She glanced curiously at the head of the table, just catching the flicker of movement as Lord Ambrose turned back to speak to his neighbour.  Whatever expression it had held when Rick had noticed had dissolved into smooth neutrality.  She returned her gaze to Rick.  His back was still stiff.  His hands, though, which had clenched at the same time as his teeth, were beginning to uncurl.

“Rick, whatever’s the matter?” Jen asked with concern.

“The look in his eyes.”

“Look?  What look?”

Rick turned a bleak face to her.  His eyes looked haunted.  “Hungry,” was all he said, before turning back to stare at the table decoration.  Jen was puzzled and worried.  What on earth was going on between Rick and his brother to make him change so suddenly?  Surely, it wasn’t simply a look?  Rick had withdrawn almost completely into the carapace she’d first seen him wearing when she arrived at Harrington Hall.

She began, very quietly, to panic.

Since she’d been here, Rick had been gradually warming and opening to her, like a flower.  She really liked what she saw in there, and she was unwilling to let it slip away so easily.  Tentative, she reached forward and laid her fingertips on the back of Rick’s hand, where it lay on the table.

“Rick?” she said quietly.

Glancing down at their hands, he said, “That’s not such a good idea at the moment, you know.”

Stung, Jen moved her hand away quickly.

“Why?”

Rick sighed.  “When we were young,” he said, “Ambrose liked to break my toys,” as if this explained everything.

Jen tried very hard not to be offended, but didn’t quite succeed.

“Toys?” she said, hurt creeping in at the edges of her tone.

Rick was so sunk in gloom that he missed it.

“He’d stamp on them, or snap bits off; whatever he could to make it so that I couldn’t play with them.  As we got older, he didn’t stop – he just changed the way he did it.”

“Really,” said Jen, flatly, “And that affects me how, exactly?”

This time, Rick noticed her tone, and his eyes widened with horror as he heard what had come out of his mouth as Jen must have.  His eyes widened in consternation.  “Oh, no Jen.  I didn’t mean that the way it sounded!”

“Really,” she said again.

“Yes, really,” he said, softly.  “Oh, Jen, I’m so sorry.  I was trying to explain.”

Jen gave him a hard look.

“Not very well though, obviously,” he said, miserably.

Jen continued to give him that hard look.

“Jen…” he sighed, frustrated.  He looked down, trying to collect himself, then looked up into her face.  “Jen, I…”  His eyes flicked nervously to the head of the table and back again.  He quickly grabbed her hand again and tried a third time.  “Ambrose has a destructive streak.  He delights in pointing it in my direction.”  He thought for a moment.  “Or rather, towards that which he knows I wouldn’t want to see destroyed.  He gets a thrill from hurting the things that I hold dear.”

Jen was glad she was sitting down as he looked into her eyes, pleading.  “Do you understand, Jen?”  His eyes flickered again, and he let go of her hand, muttering, “Damn!”

Jen was stunned.  Slowly, quietly, she said, “…I think I do…”

Now they were both staring at the table decorations, their minds whirling.

At length, Jen said, “Rick, I think we might want to talk about this later.  When we have a bit of peace and quiet.  However, it has to be later.  Just now, we need to get on with this.”  She waved her hand, indicating the table, and the staff arriving with the dessert course.

Rick looked around, blinking, as if arising from a deep sleep.  He turned back to Jen with the ghost of a smile.  “You’re wrong, you know.  I think we definitely need to talk about this.  As soon as possible.”

Jen smiled at the release of the tension.  “I thought you were patient?”

“Mostly,” he shrugged.

“I suppose we’d better talk to our neighbours again.”  Jen sighed.  “Smokescreen.  See you on the other side.”  She turned away to re-engage Dean Quinlon, who had fortunately finished talking whatever business he had with his other neighbour.

 

Towards the end of dessert, there was a movement at the head of the table as Lord Ambrose rose to his feet.  The chiming of a spoon on a wineglass sent ripples of quiet gradually settling down the table as heads turned one by one in response to the noise.

“Gentlemen,” began Lord Ambrose.

Jen bristled.

“Thank you all for coming.  As I’m sure most, if not all of you are aware of my reasons for hosting this dinner, I will not waste time on explanations.  The reason we are all here at this time is, in fact, located in the library.  Shortly, therefore, coffee, brandy, cigars and other post-prandials will be served there.  I would ask you all,” here he glanced at Jen and Rick, as if he had divined their wish to slope off somewhere quiet to discuss various matters that had nothing to do with their presence at the table, “To accompany me there when all is in readiness.  Please continue to enjoy your dessert until that time.”

 

Accordingly, when dessert was finished and the library, presumably, readied, they all rose, with a mighty scraping of chairs, and began to make their way out of the grand dining room and across the hall towards the stairs and the library.  Jen and Rick found themselves at the back of the group.

“Rick, were you really serious about putting your brother off the scent?”

“Yes,” he replied, firmly.  “You don’t know what he can be like.  And I really, really don’t want you to find out.”

Jen nodded.  “Ok, then – I trust your superior knowledge of your brother.  We should probably stay away from each other when he’s around.  At least until we’ve had that talk, anyway.”

Rick didn’t look too happy at the prospect, but he said, “I suppose you’re right…”

“Of course I am!” she smiled.

“Are you going to be ok, though?”

“Oh, I expect I’ll muddle through.  It’s not so bad now that I’ve met a few of them.”

“I don’t like it,” he said.

“Well, neither do I, much.” Jen replied.  “But we’ll just have to lump it for the time being.”

He squeezed her hand, discreetly.  “See you later, Jen,” and moved off into the crowd.  “Oh, I certainly hope so,” she thought, as she watched him go.