No boots yet, and someone unexpected wandered in.
"Covy, do say you'll come tonight. It'll be a crashing bore if you don't." The Honorable Putnam Spinhatch asked, adjusting his multiple collars as he lounged in his phaeton.
Covington Ashford, Earl of Idlerat and heir to the Duke of Hightower, put a hand out to calm his new grey stallion. He said, "But things are always such a crash at Lady Hawkridge's parties. And mama *will* insist I dance with every heiress she can dredge up. Now, *that*, my dear fellow, is a bore. I am in no hurry to tie myself by the leg."
"You get a properly brought-up girl, and that should be no mind at all. Why, my brother's wife managed to meet his mistress at Grosvenor's last week, and no one could have acted more the lady. You'd have thought they were dear friends instead of the worst of rivals. My brother was fit to burst from pride."
Covington frowned and said, "It seems a poor sort of marriage, Spin. I am sure my father has never looked upon another female, and if he *had*, he'd never have the poor taste to flaunt her in front of Mama. I should not like to break my word to any lady I'd choose as my future duchess." His horse tossed his head again.
"You do not need to dance. You know the gaming is always good at Hawkridge's and I need you in case…" Putnam broke off with a blush.
"In case you need a loan of a sudden?" Covington laughed heartily enough that a barouche of ladies passing by turned to smile at the famous sound. "I should be happy to oblige. Tonight, then." He flipped his bridle lightly and allowed his new grey to carry him down the path to his family's town house.
He left Ashford House that night in a flurry of white muslin-clad sisters, all chattering loudly about the ball, as if they had not attended balls on a weekly basis, or, indeed had not had one of their own only a month earlier. Mama sat among them, more soberly clad but as excited. "Oh, Covington, " she cried. "You look so very handsome in that new coat - it is not every young man who can wear such a severe style so well. Lady Anna and the Miss Douglases will all be so happy when you partner them, my dear. And they are all such eligible young ladies."
"Mama, I have no intention of dancing tonight. There should be no shortage of partners for my sweet sisters - nor would there be even if there were two young ladies for every gentleman - and you do not dance. You know I do not care for the sport."
"La, brother, how you do talk!" Lizzie smiled behind her fan. "You dance uncommonly well for one who does not care for it, and Lady Anna will be abominably disappointed, and she is such a dear friend of mine."
Covington resolved to be nowhere near Lady Anna during the course of the evening. He escorted his bevy into the ball room, made his bow to his hostess and departed as soon as proper to the card room.
The sport there was as challenging as promised - he knew many of the players, although the darkly handsome young sea-officer at the whist table was unknown to him.
"Covy! I am so happy you have come!" Putnam waved to him from a different table.
"Has the time come for your loan, dear friend?" Covington said as he took a seat beside him.
"Not tonight. The luck is with me, " he said. "I have not lost a hand this evening."
"Best not to brag, Spin." He greeted the other men at his table - acquaintances all, ranging from dandies more exquisite than Putnam to sporting gentlemen who could barely be trouble to dress for evening, and waited for the next hand to be dealt. He spent the time watching the sea-officer defeat his table. "Who is that captain? The new fellow?"
"Him? He just got promoted. Brilliant commander, from what I hear - devilish at whist. Made an entirely unfortunate marriage - tradesman's daughter, completely unsuited to him. She's in Portsmouth now with their son, and he's staying with the Pellews."
Just as they were about to repeat the deal, one of the gentlemen at the captain's table rose with a sade expression, shook the captain's hand and left.
Immediately, Covington walked over. "May I join you gentlemen?" he asked.
"If you don't mind losing to the captain here, by all means." The elderly man to the captain's right smiled. "But you will get a capital game for your money. Well worth it."
And, indeed, the captain's play was more brilliant than he'd ever seen. If he fought his sea-battles as well, it was no wonder he wore gold lace so young.