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Which meant she must focus on the other man, the lanky one with the foolish smile. Pity – she gave a small sigh – I’d have enjoyed climbing Mount Olympus.
Olympus winced when his friend titled her with that ridiculous moniker. Sensitive mountain.
She issued a tinkling laugh, not too brittle, just enough to subtly hint that she was hurt but not angered – playing upon sympathies.
“Jack, dinna be an idiot,” barked the Scotsman.
Preshea assessed him from under her lashes. He held himself like a soldier, with the confidence of a man who has nothing to gain or lose in any given social situation. He was, without doubt, a danger to her schemes.
“Pray do not concern yourselves. I’m aware of the regretful stylings of the popular press.” In point of fact, Preshea was proud of Mourning Star. It had taken two dead husbands before they called her anything special at all, and when it stuck through the next two, she knew herself to be infamous. It could have been worse; some of her American counterparts got monikers like Black Widow. Absolutely ghastly.
The Scotsman gave his companion another quelling look and then doffed his hat. “Captain Ruthven, at your service, Lady Villentia.” His hair was brown. However, dry and in the sunlight, it might be flecked with gold. He gestured with one massive hand. “This feckless blighter is Mr Jackson.”
Preshea bowed her head graciously. “Captain Ruthven, Mr Jackson, delighted. Shall we get on? If we make good time, we may arrive before tea. Captain, if you wouldn’t mind, my bags?”
The Scotsman gave her a measured look. She widened her eyes, keeping them soft and limpid, knowing that even the best of men were prone to sink into them. He did not succumb, did not even look dazed, only inclined his head and went to supervise the loading of the luggage.
This, as Preshea intended, ensured that Mr Jackson must assist her into the dirigible and see her settled.
“Traveling without your maid, Lady Villentia?”
“Afraid for your reputation, Mr Jackson? Or mine? How thoughtful. I’m afraid the deed is done. That very reputation ensures I’m rarely impinged upon.”
Reminding him of her history might be going a step too far, but the young man laughed as if she had made a rollicking joke. “I’m not afraid of you.”
She smiled then and watched his eyes dilate. Too easy. Why is it always so easy? “I should hope not, Mr Jackson. A gentleman like yourself would never be influenced by the base opinions of scandalmongers.”
“Exactly so, my lady.” He puffed with pride.
“So, shall we be friends?”
Mr Jackson was delighted by this premature offer. “At once!”
The Scotsman joined them. His large frame shook the dirigible, tilting it towards the ground as he hauled himself inside.
“I canna believe this contraption will float with Jack and me weighing it down. Helmsman?”
“No fear, milord.” The helmsman was visible out the back window, directing the aircraft. He drew up the mooring rope. They bobbed easily into the air.
Captain Ruthven took great care with his movements. Here was a man accustomed to his size and circumspect about applying it. He would be deadly in a fight when he finally let those coiled muscles free. Let us hope it never comes to that. But oh, it would be glorious to see.
He settled, with ill-disguised discomfort, onto the reverse bench next to his friend. Both men were big, although the captain had a good deal more mass than Mr Jackson. The dirigible bench did not easily accommodate the pair.
“Well, then, gentlemen, how do you know our host?”
This pleasant opening set Mr Jackson chattering – first about the Blingchesters, who would also be in attendance (the Scotsman rolled his eyes and called them “England’s foremost cadgers”) and then about the reason for his invitation. His ladylove. The woman Preshea had been hired to prevent his marrying.
“And what is her name?” Preshea deployed politeness.
A long pause.
Captain Ruthven grinned. “Dinna say you’ve forgotten?”
Mr Jackson whacked his friend with a rolled-up newspaper. “I was marshaling my thoughts, the better to do her justice.”
“Weel, now you’re in for it, Lady Villentia.”
“Oh, dear, what have I wrought?”
Mr Jackson found his voice. “Lady Violet is Duke Snodgrove’s eldest daughter. She’s absolutely topping. A divine mango from heaven. Or do I mean banana from heaven? Well, she’s both. An elegant bastion of womanhood.”
The flowery turn to his phrasing indicated a worrying degree of affection for the lady. Was it possible that this fortune hunter actually believed himself in love with the chit? That would be a complication.
Preshea probed gently. “I myself have never met the lady. She sounds pleasant indeed.”
“Prepare to be delighted,” promised the lovesick swain.
“Well, if she is so fortunate as to secure your attention, I cannot help but be so.”
Mr Jackson chuckled. “I’m known as an expert judge of character.”
Captain Ruthven made a pained face.
Preshea was moved to be coy. “The good captain disagrees with this assessment?”
“Jack is pally with everyone.”
“Thus making himself agreeable through lack of discretion. You object to this approach?”
“Nay. ’Tis one of his charms. I myself am na one to jump in so.”
Jack turned. “And thus you limit your enjoyment.”