by Kimberly Keagan
Sir James Thorpe stretched out his long legs and yawned.
The Viscount Mardale paced the drawing room floor. He stopped and snapped his fingers. “We should call on your new neighbors.”
“Whatever for?” James stared at his old school chum, who must have banged his head.
“It’s the neighborly thing to do. Or did you welcome the family already?”
“Goodness, no.” James had no use for loud Americans. “I’ve seen them around town. The mother and two daughters were at Lady Hammersmith’s ball last night. A shame you missed it.”
Mardale nodded. “I understand the daughters are quite pretty.”
“They’re fine, I suppose. A bit dimwitted.” James tried to tell himself that he had no interest in the oldest daughter, Isabelle, with her auburn tresses and luminous green eyes. “All these American heiresses want is a grand title purchased through an alliance with an indebted Englishman.”
“I am an indebted Englishman. With quite a good title.”
“So you are.” Unable to endure his friend’s hangdog look any longer, James pushed himself off the settee. “It is against my better judgement, but let’s go.”
James walked into his foyer with Mardale close behind. “I warn you. They keep animals in that townhouse. I’ve heard cats and dogs at all hours.” James shook his head and muttered, “Maybe a cow once or twice.”
“What’s wrong with animals?”
“I cannot abide them in the home.”
“But you have dogs at Dunswich.”
"And I’m very fond of each one. They reside in their kennel, however, not on my hearth rugs.”
The two men gathered their coats and hats and strolled outside.
“You’re a good friend.” Mardale slapped James on the back when they reached the sidewalk. They turned and walked the few steps to the Americans’ doorstep.
“Just so you know,” James gave a pointed look, “we’re not staying long.”
“Americans will natter for hours if you let them.”
“My, you’ve a low opinion of our cousins across the pond.”
“I met the Vanderbilts.”
A bird warbled a tune from an open window above their heads.
“Add a songbird to the list of pets,” James grumbled.
Isabelle Oakley lifted her head from her reading long enough to take in the quiet scene of their rented townhouse. Beatrice stood at the window watching the comings and goings of London high society, and Mother sat on one of the easy chairs by the fireplace, embroidery in hand. In the next room, their bird tweeted a sweet song.
Belle jumped when her sister let out a high-pitched squeal.
“He’s coming!” The lace curtain fell, and Beatrice spun around, eyes wide.
“Who’s coming, dear?” Mother stood and dropped her embroidery on her chair.
“Sir Thorpe.” Beatrice wrung her hands. “And he has someone with him.”
Moments later, the Oakley’s stalwart butler entered the room. “Sir Thorpe and Lord Mardale are calling, madam.”
“Please show them in, Thomas.” Mother smoothed her skirt with a shaky hand. “Oh my! I didn’t think the baronet would ever grace us with a visit.”
“We should be so lucky,” murmured Belle as she put her book on the table beside her and stood.
She’d felt a tug of attraction to the dark-haired Sir Thorpe when she’d seen him around Mayfair.
He was jovial with his friends and respectful to his aging mother. He’d even asked her to dance the night before. However, he said little during their quadrille, and Belle concluded that James Thorpe was a handsome but surly man.
“Lord Mardale and Sir Thorpe,” Thomas announced.
Their neighbor stepped into the room, followed by a man Belle didn’t recognize. From behind the visitors, a voice cackled, “Sir Thorpe. Handsome but surly.”
Belle clapped a hand over her mouth. Bertie could never keep a secret.
Sir Thorpe arched his eyebrows and looked behind him. The hall was empty.
Mother curtsied and carried on as though nothing was amiss. “Lord Mardale, Sir Thorpe, so good of you to pay us a visit.” She glanced at the butler, who waited by the door. “Thomas, please have tea brought in.”
“Tea and biscuits. Tea and biscuits.”
Belle turned her eyes heavenward. Bertie was in rare form.
“Please, gentlemen, have a seat.” Mother fluttered her hand toward the empty seats.
Lord Mardale sat next to Beatrice on the settee and they proceeded to converse about the fine weather. Sir Thorpe took the chair next to Belle.
Belle caught a hint of bay rum shaving soap as the baronet fidgeted in his seat. “Did you enjoy yourself at Lady Hammersmith’s, Sir Thorpe?”
“I did.” Sir Thorpe shifted his tall frame and knocked Belle’s book from the nearby table. As he collected the tome from the floor, he glanced at its cover. “Is your father reading The Life and Work of the Earl of Shaftesbury?”
“No, I am.”
“Really?” Blue eyes sparkled with interest.
“Did you think me empty-headed?”
He had the decency to blush.
A screech came from another room, followed by an excited bark.
Sir Thorpe tilted his head. “Sounds like a dog is attacking your cat.”
“We don’t own any cats or dogs.”
“Now who is making assumptions about intelligence?”
Belle laughed. She stood and beckoned him with a wave of her hand. “If you can accept being wrong, come with me.”
She led him to a sunny room overlooking the street. Her beautiful but mischievous parrot sat in his cage near an open window.
“Meet my African Grey, Bertie.”
“So, you don’t have animals, other than Bertie, in your house?”
She grinned and shook her head.
Sir Thorpe returned the smile. “May I be frank, Miss Oakley?”
“I don’t need your father’s money to save a crumbling estate.”
She beamed. “And I am not after a lofty title.”
Bertie ruffled his feathers. “Give us a peck.”
“Smart bird.” The not-so-surly baronet chuckled.
Belle’s heart tumbled as James took her hand and grazed her knuckles with a soft kiss.