WARNING: Some rudeness.
Charlotte takes break from adventuring to have some fun with Brussel sprouts.
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London – 1840
‘The thing about etiquette,’ Lady Arton said, ‘is that it’s all appearance. Bet you can’t hit him. Never paid a tailor in his life.’
I loaded a Brussel sprout onto the fork I’d filched and fired. The green cannon ball arced over the crowd and struck Lord Wentworth on his bald patch. He looked round but my projectile had disappeared into the crowd.
‘That’s ten pounds you owe me,’ I said and leaned against the balcony banister to spy another target.
‘You’re a fiend,’ Lady Arton muttered.
If anyone had told me when I went to the Ellington’s afternoon tea I’d find a kindred soul in the richest woman in the room I’d have thought them mad. But they were hardly going to refuse to invite the wife of a man Mr Ellington owed a small fortune to, whatever they secretly thought of her.
‘Sir Walter. Far right,’ she said.
Another successful strike. ‘Double or nothing?’
‘Where did you learn that?’ she asked.
‘Misspent youth?’ I grinned.
‘I didn’t learn anything like that in mine but I do give an amazing suck. Mr Quentin.’
Quentin swung round twice, red with fury.
‘Twenty,’ I said. ‘Not Bran’s favourite. Just as well, gives me jaw ache.’
‘Lucky woman.’ She nodded to the left. ‘Ellington. Moving target.’
I got him right on the side of the face. Lady Arton rested her elbows on the banister to laugh hysterically. People around us looked over but it didn’t seem to occur to them that the bag on the rail beside me was full of vegetable weaponry. Given how much of my life I’d spent starving you’d think I wouldn’t be so wasteful with food but sprouts were an abhorrence and, frankly, playing Hit the Bill Dodger was worth it. For some reason rich folk didn’t seem to think that they needed to pay for things and they frequently sent tailors, butchers and other business owners to the workhouse without a thought. It made sprout projectiles fully justifiable in my view.
‘I never understood men’s obsession with having their cocks sucked,’ I said. ‘Putting the most sensitive part of their anatomy in a mouth full of teeth? Foolish.’
She laughed harder until she lapsed into corset-induced coughing and had to fan herself.
When she caught her breath she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, got me where I am today. Lady Arton, most impressive.’
‘As long as you don’t go saying anything against Bran again.’
‘How was I to know you were fun?’
‘And Irish,’ I added.
‘Impressive accent you have. I’d have pegged you for nouveau riche, though the hands give it away.’
I shrugged. ‘Not technically inaccurate.’
We laughed, garnering more looks and mutterings of disapproval but we were the wives of rich men, they weren’t going to throw us out, they might want our husbands’ money one day.
What I really wanted to talk about was what to do about Josef telling me Bran’s secret. Bran was around somewhere and, with those sensitive vampire ears, might hear such a question and, even if it was phrased in the hypothetical, he’d figure out what I was talking about.
Not that it mattered. I knew what her answer would be. Ours’ was a profession of secrets; we learnt them and we kept them. She would tell me that I shouldn’t tell Bran, and if he should ever reveal his secret to me I should act surprised. The idea simply didn’t sit well with me. Had I continued to dig about to find it I would have told him then, so I didn’t know why I was hesitating.
‘You’re looking at Mr O’Conner as if you’ve forgotten you’re his employee,’ Lady Arton said.
‘Hm?’ I came back to the moment and realised my gaze had found and fixed on Bran who was across the room talking to some men I’d never made the effort to learn the names of.
He stiffened slightly, so I knew he’d heard her, despite the fact he didn’t glance our way. Too practiced at pretending he couldn’t hear everything that was going on, I supposed.
‘I have to say,’ she continued. ‘You’ve done good work with him. I always thought he was such a scruffy little thing and it turns out he’s not little at all.’
In a roomful of men around five and a half feet tall when Bran stood straight he was noticeable, though he wasn’t that much taller. But, I suspected, Lady Arton didn’t see Bran’s actual eye catching quality, he might not be handsome but without his vampire magic to mask it he did draw the eye.
‘Are you saying he’s scruffy?’ I asked.
‘Not now.’ She chuckled. ‘It’s surprising what a few sweet words can do for a man.’
I gave her a look. ‘You said you wouldn’t be rude about him.’ She had a point, however, I had to admit Bran did look like a down-on-his-luck drunk when I met him. I could claim I’d tidied him up but he’d done that himself. Except for the stubbly beard, I had made him shave that off, I didn’t mind it to look at but it kept rubbing my cheeks and chin raw.
‘I said I wouldn’t be rude about his Irishness,’ she corrected. ‘Besides, it’s a well-known fact that a man doesn’t know what’s good for him until he finds a wife.’
Her gaze drifted over to her own husband, in the sight of God and the law and everything, and her expression softened. I smothered a smile and pretended not to notice.
‘It’s nice though,’ she said. ‘Don’t you find?’
‘A man who realises you’re more than a womb.’
I fiddled with my stolen fork. ‘It is.’
She nodded slowly. ‘We did alright, don’t you think?’
I wasn’t sure if she was being very English or as she’d risen from the middle-classes the gap was small enough to be measured in ‘alright’. Given where I’d started I thought ‘alright’ was bit of an understatement.
‘Yes, we have,’ I said. ‘Double or nothing again if I can get a second hit on Ellington?’
I loaded up my fork and struck him square in the back of the head. He looked around but couldn’t seem to figure out what had hit him or from where.
‘I hate you. Why am I friends with you?’ she asked.
‘Which other woman here would flick Brussel sprouts at people for amusement?’
She sighed. ‘Fair point.’
I grinned. ‘Time to relocate before they realise where they’re coming from.’
She nodded and followed me away from the edge of the balcony.