The Belle Dames Club

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Authors: Melinda Hammond
decided.’ He bent a quizzical smile upon her. ‘Has this interrogation anything to do with your stepmama?’
    Clarissa chuckled.
    ‘Perhaps I should ask you if your intentions are honourable.’
    ‘And how would you respond if I said they were not?’ he countered .
    A dimple peeped. Clarissa said demurely, ‘I should be sorry for you. Mama-Nell has already told me she will not take a lover.’
    Sir Robert put back his head and laughed aloud, causing several of the other guests to look up. Clarissa threw him anenquiring glance and he shook his head at her, grinning.
    ‘I do not know which shocks me more, Miss Wyckenham. That you should repeat such a thing, or that Lady Wyckenham should discuss it with you.’
    ‘Shocking, is it not?’
    ‘No – refreshing and delightful!’
    ‘Pray do not encourage me to be outrageous, Sir Robert.’ Clarissa was ready to continue her tour, but as she stepped back and turned she collided with a solid body behind her. ‘Oh, I am so sorry – oh … Lord Alresford!’
    ‘Your pardon, Miss Wyckenham, the fault is mine, of course.’
    ‘No, no, how could it be? You could not see me behind you.’ She gave him her ready smile, but could see no softening of the hard features as Lord Alresford bowed and walked away. Stifling a sigh, she cast a rueful look at Sir Robert. ‘You see, sir, my levity is not to everyone’s taste.’
    ‘I met Lord Alresford for the first time this evening, and admit I find it odd that such a sober gentleman should be great friends with Barnabus Norwell, who is such a lively spirit. I am told Alresford suffered a tragedy some years ago and has never recovered.’
    ‘You sound disapproving, Miss Wyckenham.’
    ‘I am sorry, I should not be, especially when I know the gentleman disapproves of me , but …’ Clarissa paused, and when Sir Robert remained silent she continued with some difficulty , ‘I have no doubt that we have all suffered some tragedy in our lives, but we do not wear our heart on our sleeve. Indeed, what right have we to inflict such gloom upon our fellows? There is enough sadness and suffering in the world, we should not add to it without good reason.’ She looked up, feeling a little self-conscious. ‘Goodness, how dreadfully pompous that sounds! Pray, Sir Robert, let us move on before I infect us both with a fit of the dismals. Tell me what you know about this creature: it looks like a perfectly ordinary little beetle….’

    The press of guests had thinned a little when Lady Wyckenham found Sir Robert Ingleton at her side.
    ‘So, sir, you have shown my stepdaughter all your fine drawings ? Sir Joseph Banks himself was kind enough to take me round, so I have been well entertained.’
    ‘Good. I am sorry I could not get back to you earlier. Your stepdaughter is very charming, Helen. She was certainly most appreciative of the illustrations from the voyage. She tells me she is come to live with you?’
    My lady sighed and plied her fan.
    ‘Ah, so this attention is a ploy: you are smitten with Clarissa.’
    He grinned. ‘The devil I am! I have only just met the chit. But now you come to mention it, she is a beauty.’
    The fan snapped shut and landed smartly across his knuckles . He laughed at her.
    ‘Jealous, Nell?’
    ‘Not in the least,’ she replied with great dignity. ‘Merely, I will not have you speaking so lightly of my stepdaughter.’
    ‘Then tell me how it comes about that she has been out for three years and has not been in Town before now?’
    ‘She was presented shortly before Wyckenham’s death. Her season was cut short and since then she has been acting as companion to her sister.’
    ‘Companion?’ he raised his brows. ‘Your daughter a companion , Nell?’
    ‘It is true. Her sister Anne was newly married to an army man when their father died and then Anne’s husband was sent off to America very soon afterwards. Clarissa chose to keep her company.’
    ‘And she has been

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