“Lady Clara! Lady Clara!” a voice called out.
The Right Honorable Claramina Evangelista Pemberton, Countess Chadsworth—the very image of propriety in her dainty hat, rose velvet walking gown, white gloves, and pearl-buttoned boots—stopped very still, took a deep, imperious breath that was warning in itself, and slowly pivoted on one heel. Her already alabaster skin paled further until it bore the aspect of shaved ice as her brown eyes darkened to the hard luster of anthracite. The gentry swarmed the park this afternoon, impeccable in their finery, quite eager to see and be seen. All around her she heard their murmurs and gasps, and not a few sly titters from those glad to witness her touched by even this slight scandal. The rumormongers were in bliss. Though she careful schooled her expression to display nothing of the sort, within she was mortified.
Seemingly unaware, Fritz Langstrom, wearing a leather duster marred by oil and dirt and scorch marks, hurried toward her, a battered set of goggles perched atop his head. The man was coarse…American…brilliant. And, it would seem, completely ignorant of the conventions of polite society. Stepping quite above his station, he reached out, ready to clasp her arm in a most unseemly manner. Beside her, Lionel, Lord Barrington, a distant cousin and her escort of the afternoon, drew a sharp breath and stepped forward, deflecting the commoner’s touch.
Langstrom barely blinked as he went on. “Lady Clara, wait ’til you see…I dare say…we have success!” His words came out in something of a pant, hurried, urgent, but certain enough to cool her anger. In the barest of touches, Clara laid her gloved fingertips on Lionel’s sleeve but kept her attention full upon the inventor’s words. “You instructed me to inform you immediately….”
“Cousin,” Clara said to her companion, cutting off the interloper before he could say too much. “Might I impose upon you to summon the carriage?”
The gentleman stared at her with shock and affront clearly visible in his gaze, if not his expression, but he did not argue and went to do as she bade. Clara allowed him a slight, encouraging smile before he looked away. That smile quite disappeared as she turned to the inventor upon whom she bestowed her patronage. “You,” she said in quiet, clipped tones that carried no further than from her lips to Langstrom’s ears, “will return yourself to your laboratory by whatever means took you from it, and you will never again accost me so, am I understood?”
“But you will come?”
“I shall, and may God or the Devil help you if your achievement does not out-strip your offense, for no mere man will be able to. Now go!” The man hurried away as she instructed, clearly content to know that she would follow, and obviously overeager to return to whatever breakthrough had inspired such unacceptable behavior. Drawing her proud demeanor firmly about her, Clara remained straight and proper where she stood and waited for her escort to return. Deep within, however, excitement akin to that which Langstrom openly displayed coursed through her noble veins. Outwardly, a spark of satisfaction glittering in her eyes betrayed the only sign she felt anything at all.