The Gathering Storm (The Jacobite Chronicles Book 3)(5)

By: Julia Brannan

Beth and Alex ignored the mountain of cards, unwilling to return to the empty whirl of concerts, dinners and card parties. Then Beth received a somewhat wordy letter from her cousin Isabella, in which she expressed a wish to visit the following day to discuss the arrangements for a dinner party she intended to hold next Wednesday to welcome her dear cousins home.

They bowed to the inevitable, and while Beth penned an insincere reply, stating that she and her husband were delighted at the honour Isabella was according them, Alex gloomily combed and curled his wig, and unearthed his cosmetics from the bottom of his travelling trunk.

At Smith Square, the Cunningham sisters were beside themselves with joy. Their dinner party would be the first occasion on which Sir Anthony and Lady Elizabeth would appear in public since their return from France, and everyone wanted to be invited. Isabella pondered the enormous list of would-be guests for a time, then tentatively approached her brother for his advice.

Lord Edward was no help at all, declaring that he would have nothing to do with the organisation of this ridiculous dinner, being neither partial to his cousin or her husband, although he did agree to be present at the meal itself. After all, Sir Anthony had promised to put in a good word for the peer with the king, and a dinner would be an excellent opportunity to remind him of his promise. He just hoped that Sir Anthony had made it very clear to his wife that he would not tolerate such wanton behaviour as she had engaged in in France, if all the rumours were true. It was almost impossible to imagine that ridiculous apology for a man actually challenging anyone to a duel, let alone killing him. Hopefully it had given him the courage to tame his headstrong wife. She certainly needed it.

Left to her own devices Isabella, with an unerring talent for the inappropriate, invited all the people Beth would least want to spend an evening with, only adding Edwin and Caroline to the list after Beth insisted quite forcefully that they be included. Sir Anthony, resplendent in royal blue satin, an ingratiating smile plastered on his chalk-white face, said that he would be quite happy to attend any dinner of Isabella’s, no matter who was invited, as he was on good terms with almost everybody he could think of, and for himself he would trust to the excellent Cunningham taste to ensure the guests were of a suitably eclectic mix to provide an entertaining evening.

The three sisters had beamed, and the sycophantic Sir Anthony had then been dragged straight round to the Harlows’ house by Beth to personally deliver the invitation, which was for six o’clock, three days hence. And to see the sweet, docile angel of a baby with the most beautiful blue eyes and most endearing smile, that Sir Anthony had enthused about to Isabella.

When they were shown into the drawing-room, Caroline was pacing up and down the carpet, rocking the tiny angel in her arms, now christened Frederick John, Sir Anthony having had no objections to her using his middle name, which was common enough not to cause problems later, although he had steadfastly refused to be a godfather. She looked up at her guests.

“Now might not be the best time to visit,” Caroline roared to make herself heard over the sweet, docile baby’s furious screams. “He’s got wind, and he’s not in the best of moods. And neither am I, to be honest.”

“Nonsense!” shouted Sir Anthony amiably, arranging himself gracefully on the sofa. “It’s never a bad time to visit friends.”

Caroline hoisted the baby impatiently onto her shoulder and tapped his back wearily. His roars doubled in volume, his face turning bright red and his tiny fists waving angrily about in the air. Beth looked at her husband uncertainly.

“Isn’t he gorgeous?” Sir Anthony enthused, with absolute sincerity.

Both Caroline and Beth looked at him with disbelief.

“Yes, he’s beautiful,” Beth agreed lamely, thinking she had never seen such a hideous crumpled thing in her life, although she would not have admitted that to Caroline, even under torture. She sat down next to her husband. “We’ve come to invite you to a dinner next…”

“What?” cried Caroline. “I can’t hear a thing, I’m sorry. God, I love him dearly, but he’s driving me mad today. At times like this I wish I had hired a nurse, as everyone keeps telling me I should.”

“Here,” said Sir Anthony, to Beth’s surprise. “Let me try. You sit down for a minute.” Without waiting for Caroline’s permission, he deftly removed the screaming bundle from her arms and cradled it to his chest, the tomato-coloured face resting on his shoulder.

Caroline plopped herself down next to Beth, watching with interest as the baronet paced slowly across the room, alternately patting then rubbing the baby’s back with a firm circular motion. There was something very endearing about a large man holding a tiny infant with such infinite tenderness, as Sir Anthony was doing. The two women watched him for a short while, mesmerised. The racket continued.

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