He looked at her shrewdly. She was a lovely girl, he thought. She did not seem the least flattered by his attention, and the way she had been arguing with Percy was admirable. Not a trace of the simpering debutante he had met last night. What a shame she was Ambel’s daughter, for it meant he could indulge in only the lightest of flirtation. He excused himself with the promise that he would be available when she was ready to leave and wandered off to have a word with his hostess.
“I do believe you have tamed the captain,” Liza said softly in Helene’s ear. “What say you, Percy?”
Helene laughed. “Hardly, Liza. Mama provoked the captain last night with some ill-chosen remark, and I suspect he is out to prove her right.”
Both Percy and Liza nodded. “That sounds like the contrary creature he can be,” Percy said with a grin. “Now, back to what I was saying about Benedict Arnold…”
Liza groaned. “Not again, Percy, please,” she begged. “I swear I am beginning to wish we had never heard of the Americas.”
“I’ll let you off this time,” Percy said indulgently as he turned to Helene. “I hope that I have the pleasure of seeing you here next week, for I am sure you are more interested in the affairs of the world. Maybe you can convince Liza that there is more to life than writing novels.” Without waiting for an answer, he bowed gracefully and moved away.
“Men!” Liza exclaimed jokingly. “They really are monstrous. Even these enlightened ones are interested only in discussing subjects they feel comfortable with. Beware! For should you start on about the white slave traffic, or mesmerism, they will deftly change the topic to something else.”
“I am afraid it is the same reaction you got to The Gold Chain, although people know that child farms exist, they do not want to talk about them,” Helene said earnestly. “I am fortunate though in that my father feels that such things should be discussed in our household.” She paused as she thought of the horror her mother lived with that one of her children would inadvertently let slip in polite circles some snippet that had been discussed at home. “Poor Mama is terrified lest I forget myself at Almack’s and actually give voice to some of my opinions.”
“Whatever will she say when she discovers how you have spent the afternoon?” Liza asked.
“I think it best to leave her in ignorance, for she will, of a certainty, prevent me from attending next week. I shall tell her that Lady Ambrose is in fine health and we had a great discussion on the merits of Oriental furnishings. And that,” Helene added triumphantly, “I am sure, will dissuade her from accompanying me next week.” She looked across the room and found that Captain Longford was watching her. She smiled and indicated with a nod that she was ready to leave. “I have enjoyed meeting you, Liza,” she said. “And I look forward to seeing you again.”
She bade farewell to Lady Ambrose and eagerly accepted the invitation to return the following Wednesday. “Though, if you do not mind, Lady Ambrose, I would prefer to come alone, for I do not think Mama would fully understand.”
“Of course, child,” Lady Ambrose replied understandingly, an appreciative gleam lighting her eyes. “I shall invite you both for tea some other time.”
Captain Longford was waiting for her. His curricle, drawn by two of the blackest horses Helene had ever seen, was outside the front door. He helped her up into the seat and lithely sprang up into the driver’s seat before taking the reins in his hand. “You are aglow, Lady Helene,” he remarked casually. “It would seem the afternoon agreed with you.”
“Why, thank you, Captain,” Helene responded, dimpling her cheeks flirtatiously. “To have met someone I have admired from afar for so long was an exhilarating experience….”
Captain Longford looked at her quizzically. “As we met yesterday, I assume you mean Percy.”
“No, ’twas not Percy Farthingale, for I had never heard of him before today. I am talking about Liza Esdale, whom I consider to be one of the most talented writers to emerge in recent years.”
Captain Longford’s look turned to one of surprise. “Your mother does not mind you reading such books?” he asked in amazement.
“I have never asked her permission,” Helene said. “But Papa encourages me, so I do not think Mama would dare express disapproval, even if she felt any.”
“I have only read The Gold Chain,” Captain Longford remarked. “But I found the plot somewhat hackneyed and the point belabored.”
“Nonsense,” Helene responded waspishly. “It was a fresh outlook on a sordid subject. I think she handled the problem of child farms and…and…”
“And…” Captain Longford asked wickedly, enjoying Helene’s discomfort.
Helene swallowed hard, finding it difficult to continue as she realized where Captain Longford had led the conversation. She saw the amused look in his eyes and continued determinedly. “…and…houses of ill repute.”
“A surprising subject for you to be knowledgeable about,” he goaded.
“An unkind thrust, Captain, but one I shall not heed. My father taught me long ago that people resort to such remarks when they cannot think of anything sensible to say. Will I see you at the Croydons’ masked ball tomorrow?” she asked, in an attempt to steer the conversation into more comfortable channels.
Captain Longford looked at her in appreciation. He had not been planning to attend, but now he was tempted. After a long pause he shook his head regretfully. “I am afraid not, for I am engaged elsewhere.”
Helene shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, hiding the disappointment she felt. “’Tis a shame, for I hear that the entertainment promises to be spectacular. Fancy, Lady Croydon has lured a band of gypsies that were encamped on Hampstead Heath to read our fortunes.”
“I am surprised that you believe in such things, Lady Helene,” he teased.
“Actually, I don’t ‘believe,’” Helene responded quickly, “but I enjoy listening to their nonsense. It is an age since I crossed anyone’s palm with silver. In fact, the last time was four years ago, and the Romany promised me adventure and excitement.”
“Why, the very next day my horse bolted, tossed me and I spent the next three weeks in bed with a sprained ankle.”
Captain Longford chuckled. “I hope you have better luck this time, for I would not like to think of you spending another few weeks in bed.”
He turned his attention to the horses as he swung them deftly into Hans Crescent. Minutes later they drew up in front of Lord Ambel’s house. Before he could spring down, Helene had jumped to the ground.
“Thank you, Captain Longford,” she said, a little breathlessly. “There is no need to see me to the door, for I am sure you would not wish to leave your horses.” With a careless wave she turned and disappeared inside the house, leaving Captain Longford staring after her thoughtfully.