The Season

Page 27


Kit smirked at his brother. “See? Even our baby sister knows it.”
Taking a glass of lemonade from Ella, Alex continued, “However, given the choice between speed and intelligence, I’d say you made away with the better part of that deal.” Everyone laughed at Kit’s narrowed eyes and, with a smile, Alex extended a plate of roasted quail to him as a peace offering.
“Did you bring Lord Stanhope with you?” asked Alex. “Or is it coincidence that he’s heading in this direction?”
Nick shook his head. “Stanhope called on us this morning at Worthington House. After some conversation, he decided to join us.”
Vivi looked straight at Alex and queried innocently, “Oh? He just stopped by Worthington House this morning? By chance?” Alex shot her friend a quelling look. Vivi popped a grape in her mouth and smiled around it. After swallowing, she continued, not looking away from her friend, “How interesting.”
Stanhope heard the tail end of the conversation and spoke as he climbed the last few feet of the rise to the picnic blanket. “I hope you don’t mind my intrusion, my ladies.” Bowing low, he granted the girls one of his trademark lopsided grins, letting his gaze linger on Alex. “When I heard such a trio would be here, I couldn’t resist tagging along.”
“By all means, Lord Stanhope, there is plenty to be shared, including this lovely spot.” Ella spoke from her perch on the corner of the blanket. She had extracted her journal and begun sketching the scenery that lay before them.
“Indeed.” The tenor of Stanhope’s voice deepened and he winked exaggeratedly at Alex, who couldn’t contain her laughter at his obvious flirting. In return, he offered her another broad grin, and seated himself on the blanket, leaning back against the trunk of the oak and accepting an oat cake from a basket proffered by Vivi, who was struggling to keep her smug look unnoticed.
Alex rolled her eyes at her friend and turned so that Vivi wasn’t in her direct line of sight. “Lord Stanhope, I seem to recall Will saying that you have a talent for art. Is that still the case?”
Stanhope shook his head. “To be honest, Lady Stafford, it’s been years since I’ve had a hand in artistry of any kind. I’m sorry to disappoint.” Redirecting his gaze to Ella, he continued, “But Lady Eleanor, I see that you are quite the accomplished artist. Would you be willing to show us the contents of your sketchbook?”
Ella looked up from her work, appearing not a little like a doe caught unawares by a hunter. After clearing her throat daintily, something that her friends knew she did to gain time to think of a proper response, she seemed to realize that Stanhope was not the type of person to take no for an answer. Add to that Nick’s encouraging, “Lady Eleanor is too modest—she has a remarkable eye for charcoal drawings,” and she knew she couldn’t escape.
Flipping to the front of her sketchbook, Ella quickly turned the pages, past landscapes and still life drawings, saying, “It’s all quite boring, actually…”
When she reached a page in the book that held a stunning portrait of Alex, Stanhope spoke quietly, “That’s not at all boring.” Vivi coughed into her hand; Alex shot her an exasperated glance.
“May I?” He reached for the sketchbook, which Ella turned over reluctantly.
Looking down at the drawing, Stanhope spoke, his voice thick with appreciation. “It’s a remarkable likeness, Lady Eleanor. You’ve captured movement and life here—something that is virtually impossible for most who try their hand at being artists.” Smiling at Ella, he continued, “Now I understand why I rarely see you without paper and pencil.”
He continued to flip through the sketchbook, pointing out places where Ella had drawn a perfect line, or shaded a figure just so. The two were soon deep in conversation about Ella’s art, and his compliments were so heartfelt that Alex had no doubt that Freddie Stanhope was far less of a rake than he let on.
Even Nick and Kit were distracted from their discussion of the new curricle that had just passed the group; they appeared slightly dumbfounded at the earnestness of their friend. Alex couldn’t resist saying, “You see? It wouldn’t hurt the two of you to take some interest in something other than horses, hunting, and cards. Perhaps you should consider taking up a pursuit or two which are slightly more cultured?”
Vivi spoke up, laughing at Alex, “At the risk of betraying our friendship, Alex, it’s not as though you’ve been consumed by artistic tendencies yourself.”
Alex smiled broadly. “On the contrary…I’m just not good at them, so I leave them to you and Ella. Instead, I endeavor to be an excellent champion of the arts. I think I’m quite a success at that.”
Stanhope looked up from his appreciation of Ella’s work and smiled back at her. “Champions are certainly as important as the artists themselves, Lady Alexandra.”
She laughed. “Thank you, Lord Stanhope, you’re very kind, although I’ll admit I’m not sure I believe you.” Her response brought a rich laugh from him, reminding her of how much she had always enjoyed his company.
He moved closer, replying with a gleam in his rich brown eyes, “Then I shall have to attempt to convince you.”
Vivi cleared her throat delicately and made a production of speaking brightly to Ella across the picnic, “Ella, you should try your hand at drawing a collection of figures…perhaps Nick and Kit and I should be your subjects this afternoon?” With a graceful movement, she settled herself nearer the Worthington brothers, conveniently upwind of Alex and Lord Stanhope, and produced a deck of cards. “It’s not the most masculine of games, my lords, but may I tempt you into a round of whist?”