“You do not seem much bereft.”
“I am not, actually. Had he still been here I might have felt compelled to apologize.” Rose fingered her injured arm.
“To Foy? No, my dear. I feel sure he had it coming. Did he bruise your wrist?” Bennet came to take the glass from her and put it on the desk.
“Probably, but I wear gloves most everywhere.”
“I am sorry, Rose,” he said, keeping hold of her hand. “If only I had not been detained.”
“Oh, do not regard it. Axel and I always clash. I only hope I have not distressed Harriet.”
“How could that be so?”
“She saw Axel dancing with me.”
“She will get over it.”
Rose sighed. “What... what did he say about me?”
“That you are a dangerous woman. But I had already surmised that.”
“My antagonism toward Axel is of long standing, but I do not know why he thought he could get away with dragging me in here.”
The smile suddenly left Bennet’s face. “Did anyone see you leave the room with him?”
“Bennet, everyone saw.”
“Then you must go back in on my arm.”
“I do not care so much for myself,” she said, letting him take her arm, “but if there is talk, Stanley will never forgive me.”
“Do not worry. We shall put a stop to it.”
As they entered the ballroom during an interval between two dances, the buzz of talk and the subsequent lull that followed them through the room convinced Rose she had been the subject of conversation. She scanned the crowd for some friendly face, or at least a familiar one. There was only Alice standing near Cassie, and Axel talking earnestly to a stone-faced Harriet. Fortunately Stanley was nowhere in sight—probably still in the card room.
Bennet ignored them all. He spoke to the musicians and had them strike up a waltz. Rose admired the masterful way he got just what he wanted. Other couples joined them on the floor after frantically checking dance cards and discovering that this waltz was nowhere on the program. Rose wondered how much of the gossip was about her hasty exit with Axel and how much sprang from what he might have said about her. It hardly mattered. She could not show her face again in London. But the Walls were poised to launch themselves toward Europe. They should be able to stay ahead of even Axel’s agile tongue. And in four or five months she would go to live at her mother’s house in Bristol, a city that had run its length gossiping about her.
It was worth facing them all down to stand up just once with Bennet Varner, the only man she had ever met who was worth talking to. She forgot about the rest of them and focused her attention only on him and the music. These few minutes made up for the whole interminable evening. He smiled at her and she sailed around and around almost as though they were one being. Only his stopping signaled her that the music had ceased as well.
“Come, I shall lead you in to supper.”
“Surely there are many with precedence over me.”
“None, in my estimation. At any rate I have no idea who they would be.”
Rose let Bennet escort her into the formal blue and white room, fill her plate with all manner of delicacies and supply her with a glass of iced punch. The table seemed to go on for miles and no one sat close enough to disturb them. Except for an occasional glare from Harriet or Mrs. Varner, Rose could have imagined she was some quite ordinary girl enjoying a first flirtation with an extraordinary man. He rattled on about the Celestine, his ship, and how much fun she would have in Italy, just as soon as the mainmast was replaced.
“The mainmast?” she asked, swallowing a bite of lobster cake the wrong way. “But that sounds rather serious.”
“The work of a day or two—no more.”
“You make everything sound so easy, when actually I am quite sure it is an enormous undertaking, to change a mast and get it fastened to the ship.”
“No, were you thinking that the deck held it up?” he asked, standing a candle in an aspic jelly and watching it fall over.
“Yes, well, I have never thought much about it. I have stayed in Bristol, of course, and watched the ships but I have never been on one.”
“What holds the masts up is all of the rigging. It is most important that for every line pulling forward there is one pulling backward with an equal amount of tension. The same thing left to right.”
“It all makes such perfect sense when you explain it, but does not that put our departure off even farther?” she asked astutely.
“What do you mean?”
“All that rigging will have to be taken down, then put back up again.”
“Oh what is another day or two when you are making such a hit in London?”
“A hit? I am no such thing. I am probably the most talked-about woman in town this night.”
“Yes, that is what I meant,” Bennet said, staring into her eyes.
“Do be serious, Mr. Varner,” she said sternly. “You cannot want to be in the company of an infamous woman.”
“My friends call me Bennet.” He rested his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand to study her better.
“What do your enemies call you?”
“I see to it that I have no enemies,” he said with that determined smile of his, and Rose wondered if he did not make them or if he simply eliminated them.
“You have one—Axelrod Barton, Lord Foy. He is looking daggers at you this very moment.”
“Like yours, my antagonism with Axel goes back so far he is like a bunion. It feels odd when he is not rubbing at me.”
Rose laughed and then sobered herself. “Unfortunately Axel is more dangerous than a bunion. He is at home here and I am the outsider. Whatever he says will be believed.”
Bennet forcibly drew his gaze away from the slender mounds of her bosom and got lost in Rose’s eyes again. “Oh, I think if you are accepted by my family your character will bear scrutmy.”
“If my acceptance hinges on your family’s approval, then it is fortunate that it does not matter to me what people think.”
“I can take care of Mother and Harriet. But if you do not care what people think, then why did you come back into the library when another woman would have run off and had the vapors.”
“Because I do care what you think of me...friend.”
“And I care—what is it?” Bennet said impatiently to the footman whispering in his ear. “I must leave you for a few minutes, Rose. Forgive me.”
The glow of Bennet’s safe aura lasted only a moment after he followed the footman out. Rose now found herself to be the object of scrutiny from so many pairs of eyes she felt she had to do something. She brushed at an imaginary stain on her gown, then got up in mock frustration and went upstairs to find one of the chambers prepared for the ladies to withdraw into to relieve themselves or repair torn hems. She was not lucky enough to find an empty one so she did not stay to listen to the idle chatter. The talk seemed rather forced after her entrance.
She crept back down one flight and stole into the unoccupied library. Such a delightful room, a fire burning in the grate and her pick of books. She chose a volume of Diderot’s encyclopedia and seated herself in the high-backed armchair turned toward the fire. She curled her legs up in the chair, thinking that the cozy leather must have embraced Bennet often. The dark paneled room said Bennet to her, from the highly polished furniture to the shelves and shelves of well-used books. No matter how much she tried to apply herself to the text her mind kept wandering to her friend and that provoking smile of his.