That her sisters were unable to distinguish a vampire from a rake was not a subject which usually troubled Lady Matilda. Vampires were hardly commonplace in London society, and had such terribly low boredom thresholds that when they did make an appearance they usually avoided chattering debutantes like the plague.
Indeed the ability to detect vampires was not part of any young ladies schooling, and Lady Matilda might have remained ignorant of the art herself had she not been both a voracious reader and a logically minded young woman who saw no reason to dismiss a story if events proved it to be true.
There were a few gentleman who unfailing refused invitations to any cavorting during daylights hours, who possessed marked aversions to garlic and had never set foot within a church – when polite enquires amongst the older ladies confirmed that such gentleman were the spit of men they had known in their youth, Lady Matilda had concluded that the stories were largely accurate.
Which explained the frown upon her usually serene features as she saw Viscount Hofham offer her youngest sister a kiss on the hand. The Viscount was not ineligible, provided you were willing to excuse a small blood lust and an unfortunate tendency to provoke strenuous barking from the local dogs. Lady Matilda would not have said that her concerns for her sister stemmed precisely from his vampiric nature, but rather from the fact that he was prone to write atrocious poetry about that nature, and would never have endangered his unhappy existence by doing anything so mundane as marrying.
‘I find it strange you would risk wrinkling that define countenance by frowning so, Lady Matilda.’
Lord Alaric had blindsided her, Matilda realised. He was speaking into her ear, and when she turned he gave her a grin which bared his long white incisors, and told her just how unrepentant he was about surprising her.
‘I would be better disposed to Hofham if he worked less on his poetry and more on his fidelity.’
‘I did not realise you sister had him shackled.’ Lord Alaric came to stand beside her, raising a gold quizzing glass to better examine the couple. ‘She seems a little young for marriage if you ask me’
‘She is, and she has not, and you are well aware that I don’t mean his fidelity to my sister in particular but rather his fidelity in general. The man is a positive fribble of broken engagements, heartbroken maidens and bad poetry.’
‘Fribble?’ Lord Alaric raised an immaculate eyebrow, and Matilda had to stop herself from slapping his superior cheek with her fan.
‘You know full well what I mean.’
‘Indeed. The man is something of a popinjay, and I must confess I would despair of the intelligence of any sister of mine who found him pleasant company.’
‘Hyacinth is just young.’
‘and yet for such a young woman she has already been shown to possess particularly poor taste in men. Did you not have to chase off that idiot Stockton last month?’
‘At least Sir Stockton was amenable to reason. Hofham has so far proved to be most dense on the subject.’
Lord Alaric made a non committal noise which fell halfway between a laugh and a snort.
‘I fail to see what you find so amusing my lord. It is hardly as though you have any sisters to worry over, and whatever relations of yours are still extant are probably not of an age to cause you any great concern. You have never been a disregarded spinster whose sisters considered her to old to mind and whose mother schools them in impropriety least they find themselves old and unmarried like their spinster sister.’
She was shaking with annoyance, and while her voice had never crept above a polite whisper, the tone had been fractured with anger. Lord Alaric’s face lost it’s smile and Matilda was surprised to find that his hand took hers in something which she could only have termed sympathy.
‘I am sorry, my dear. I did not mean to cause offence.’ His fingers rubbed over hers in a placating gesture and Matilda could feel some of the tension leave her shoulders as he spoke. ‘Hofham is not so bad, he will not ruin Hyacinth, though he might make her unhappy for a time.’
‘She does not know what he is.’ Matilda said, voicing the thing which really worried her about Hyacinth’s infatuation with the personable Hofham.
‘What he is?’ Lord Alaric’s fingers stopped rubbing her hands and his eyes looked straight into her.
‘You know very well what I mean my lord. He is like you, he is…’ She trailed off as Lord Alaric’s two blue eyes narrowed and his lips straightened into a single flat disapproving line.
She did not see Lord Alaric again that summer. At least not to converse with. There were fleeting glimpses of him at the edge of a ton gathering, or across the floor at a ballroom, but no more conversations. Matilda found she missed him, not that they had been firm friends, but she missed the odd snatched aside and whispered remark that had characterised their acquaintance. Her sisters spent the season playing their gentleman off against each other, Hyacinth’s romance with Hofham fading once he discovered the impossibility of using her name as a rhyme.
The next season found both her sisters engaged and Matilda relegated to the edges of the ballroom with the chaperones.
‘Alaric barely seems to have aged a day. Would never have though him in his late thirties.’
Matilda sidled closer to the two ladies whispering to each other. One she recognised as Lady Bettle, an inveterate gossip.
‘Thirties? Really? I could have sworn he’d been around years longer than that. My brother used to go out drinking with him when he was down from Cambridge. Lost his shirt on more than one occasion.’
‘Carstairs?’ The ladies as a group looked across the room t where Lord Carstairs, a florid faced man in his late forties was helping to ensure none of the wine was wasted.
Matilda didn’t wait to hear anything more. She slipped behind the gossips and slid round the edge of the ballroom. Lord Alaric was listening to the chatter of some young bloods, his eyes wandering round the room, while he made occasional noises of approval. There was nobody close to him that Matilda might conceivable have reason to speak to, so relying on his lordship politeness she walked firmly towards him and bobbed a neat curtsey the moment his eyes alighted on her.
‘Lady Matilda’ The gentleman he’d been listening to stopped talking and stared at her. Their eyes raking over her dowdy dress, their lips turning upwards in a slight sneer.
‘Lord Alaric. I did not know you were in town this season.’
‘Indeed. Well I won’t detain you my Lord. Though I would like to say how well you are looking.’
Lord Alaric raised an immaculate eyebrow, and Matilda smiled, and waved her fan in the direction of Lady and her little clique. ‘I’ve heard several ladies comment on how well preserved you seem.’ A chorus of suppressed titters from the gentlemen beside Lord Alaric made her stop. She bobbed a curtsey and stalked away, the laughter of the gentlemen ringing in her ears.
Matilda toed off her shoes and curled her feet up onto the bench. The summer evening was still light, and the cool air was refreshing after the crush of her sister’s wedding celebrations. Hyacinth had been engaged three times before finally dragging a slightly overwhelmed, but seemingly happy Sir Methers to the altar.
She heard the tap of shoes on the path and looked up to see Lord Alaric standing a few feet away.
‘I apologise for intruding Lady Matilda, but I read the announcement in the Times and thought I should pay my respects.’
‘You weren’t at the wedding.’
‘No. I climbed the wall.’
‘May I?’ He gestured towards the seat, and Matilda nodded, curling up in a tighter ball so he might have enough space to sit beside her. ‘I didn’t thank you before I left for you kind warning. You were quite right about it being time for me to find pastures new.’
‘I was worried the gossip would be troublesome and…’
‘We were friends.’
‘Then might a friend ask how you intend to spend you time now you have successfully shackled your two delectable siblings to two unsuspecting gentlemen?’
Matilda shrugged. ‘My mother is happy for me to keep her company at home, and my sisters have both promised to invite us t visit when they are able.’
‘I thought you wanted to travel?’
Matilda smiled. She remembered that conversation, if only because her mother had scolded her about it for half an hour when they had returned home. She’d not long been out, and there had been a boring dinner conversation which had somehow ended in a discussion of exotic travel. Lord Alaric had been talking about the pyramids, and Rome, and a hundred other places which she’d known she’d never see, and she’d hung on his every word, and wished so hard that she night marry someone, anyone, who’d take to even a quarter of the places he’d been. Her mother had thought it terrible of her to be so infatuated when there were other far more eligible men at the table.
‘I never thought I would. I thought, perhaps I might marry someone who would take me to Paris, or possibly Italy. But then I didn’t, and short of marrying my sisters to foreign ambassadors there was nothing for it but to resign myself to seeing only London and some green English counties.’
‘That seems a pity.’
She shrugged. ‘It is my life, my Lord.’
‘Then I would propose that you need a new one.’
‘A new life?’ Matilda stared at him, wondering if perhaps there was something age did t a vampires brain that rotted it. ‘You are not talking sense, my lord.’
‘That, Lady Matilda, is entirely your fault. I had this very well thought out before I saw you, and now I find I am talking as though I have given it no consideration whatsoever.’
Lord Alaric stood up, and dug one hand into his pocket, pulling out a small black box.
‘For obvious reasons, I cannot ask your mother’s permission, nor, I am afraid, can I offer more than a hurried elopement and a quick marriage over the anvil at Gretna, but if those things do not weigh to heavily with you, and if you have no other objections.’
He passed her the box, and Matilda clasped it in both her hands.
‘You are making me an offer of marriage?’
‘Yes, and of turning you, should you wish. A vampire’s life is not wholly without it’s charms, although the blood does tend to stain.’
‘Because I love you. You were why I stayed so long in society in the first place. Usually I move on after a year or two, but you were so engaging. I couldn’t ask you, not when there was a chance you’d met someone else and get married, settle down and have lovely little children. But then … your sisters both married and I thought I should take a chance on you preferring me to your mother.’
‘I’d never see my family again. Would I?’
Lord Alaric shook his head. Matilda looked towards the house, with it’s brightly lit windows and faint sounds of music and laughter. She though of the years she’d spent telling her sisters to behave, and the years her mother had spent lowering her necklines, rouging her cheeks and telling her to flirt more. She doubted they would even miss their dowdy elder sister. But Lord Alaric had missed her, missed her enough to risk coming back to London to find her.
She stood up and gave him back the small black box. He looked stricken and she leaned forward to kiss him, a quick touching of their lips which changed his expression to one of confusion.
‘I don’t have any pockets in this dress. So if you want me to climb the wall to elope with you my Lord, you’ll have to carry the ring.’
Lord Alaric smiled and Matilda though it would be worth giving up sunlight if only she could see that smile for the rest of her days.