Colonel Fleet and the Dancing Master

A false start at a m/m Regency romance (if you stumbled across this by accident, you can find the full story in this blog post). It’s a first draft, and incomplete, so full of all the little faults my wonderful editors usually iron out.

I

“There is no reason why you should not take this opportunity to remarry,” Lady Crondall informed her brother.

Colonel Fleet, who had been happily anticipating a long retirement, looked up at his sister and demanded, “Why the devil should I?”

“Surely you want a son? To inherit Pilcott, if for no other reason.”

“Why should I need a son for that? I’ve got Tommy. She’s as good as a boy.”

“Better than,” added Miss Thomasina Fleet, from where she was perched on the windowseat, no longer even pretending to mangle her embroidery. “I’ve got a much better eye for horseflesh than most of the boys in the brigade, and every taste of punch I’ve had was ghastly, so I won’t be drinking to excess. I’ll not be letting my pockets out while I’m foxed, and I’m not pudding-brained enough to put my money on the cards sober. And I’m certainly not going to get into any trouble in the petticoat line, so all in all, I’m a much safer prospect for an heir.”

This speech having reduced Lady Crondall to silently mouthing her displeasure, Colonel Fleet said mildly, “Not quite the thing, Tommy.”

“There’s only you and Aunt Augusta to hear, Papa.”

Lady Crondall regained the power of speech. “For which you should be very thankful, young lady. You will be presented to the ton in three weeks, Thomasina, and your manners are still more fitting for a barnyard than a ballroom!”

“Nicely phrased,” Fleet remarked, picking up his paper again. “Tommy, listen to your aunt. She has your best interests at heart, and you can always go back to your hoyden ways once you’re safely leg-shackled.”

“Papa!”

“Nathaniel!”

Faced with dual feminine ire, Fleet eyed the door. Surely an Englishman’s home was his castle, and not to be besieged from within. He had a vague recollection of his father paying absolutely no mind to his wife and children, merely benignly paying bills and delivering occasional caustic comments on reckless spending. Despite his frugality, he had not hesitated to buy his younger son a commission, and Nathaniel had not spent more than a few weeks at a time back in England since, even including his brief and tepid courtship of his late wife.

He had never managed to develop more than a fond regard for Maria, but Tommy had been a delight since the moment she was born. She had been motherless since she was ten, and he had never considered sending her back to England. Tommy Fleet had followed the drum all her life, and it showed in her language, her priorities, and her general sense of decorum. Which would all have very well if she was a boy, but her father was slowly beginning to realise that he might have neglected some of the education she would need to win a husband.

“I wish you’d been a boy, Tom,” he told her now. “I’d have bought you in by now.”

“I know,” she said wistfully, but then lifted her chin. “Not that it matters. The war’s over, and I’d be on half-pay and kicking my heels in town like everyone else. Might as well do something useful and find someone to manage Pilcott.”

“And give you a home,” the Colonel corrected. “If all I wanted was an estate manager, I’d put a notice in the paper.”

Tommy grinned at him. “Sounds much less of a fuss than a ball. Can’t we—”

“No,” Lady Crondall said firmly, but she sounded less indignant than before. Shaking her head, she commented, “I’m not sure which of you is worse. Ah, well, I always did like a challenge.”

“Provoked a few in your day, if I remember rightly,” Fleet remarked.”I remember Bertie planting young Crookham quite a facer.”

“I wouldn’t know of such a thing,” Lady Crondall proclaimed, but couldn’t quite keep her lips from twitching. “Crookham was a boor. Still is.”

“Uncle Bertie hit someone?” Tommy asked, her eyes wide. “Truthfully?”

“We weren’t always old men,” Fleet told her.

“You’re still not old,” Tommy said staunchly.

Fleet, who felt every one of his fifty years aching around his bones on damp mornings, gave her a fond smile and turned back to his sister. “Whatever are you going to do with us, Gus?”

“Educate you,” she said. “For a start, I have arranged for Cecilia’s dancing master to call here at eleven tomorrow and three times a week thereafter.”

“I already know how to dance,” Tommy said indignantly. “I wasn’t the only officer’s daughter out there, and I’m not completely ignorant of everything.”

Lady Crondall sniffed. “Perhaps. However, Mr Cody is a master of the art. His musicians play at the best balls in London and his teaching is much in demand. He is a master not merely of movement, but of all the proper forms and behaviours expected of a polite young lady. You may be able to dance, Thomasina, but you clearly have no idea how to conduct yourself at a respectable ball. Mr Cody will see to that.”

Tommy’s face registered her horror at the idea, but she just said meekly, “Yes, Aunt Augusta.”

“Cecelia will join you for the lessons, of course, and your father and I will attend.”

“The devil!” Fleet interjected.

“I shall act as Thomasina’s chaperone, of course, but you should be prepared to make your presence known at a few events. It must not be thought she is lacking in male protectors. Since I do know how long it has been since you have attended a ball, I think it best that you also benefit from Mr Cody’s lessons.”

Fleet opened his mouth to tell her exactly where she could take her bedamned dancing classes, but then hesitated. She already had a daughter of her own to bring out this Season. Taking on Tommy’s debut as well was a considerable favour on her part. If she really thought this was an essential, he couldn’t argue.

“I shall look forward to it,” he said, and managed not to grimace at the thought.

Later that night, after Tommy was asleep and the house was quiet, he sat by the fire in his study and thought back to Augusta’s question. Marry again? Older men than him had done it, scooping up some sweet but penniless chit to warm their old age. He’d seen men of eighty with wives of seventeen, and thought it sickening.

He wasn’t eighty, and he had no interest in girls younger than his daughter.

He had no interest in women at all.

As a youth, he had tried his best to transfer his interests to more natural directions, but neither camp followers or a respectable wife had stirred any ardour in him. He had managed to father Tommy, and then given up his marriage bed in relief. Maria had been a steady, calm presence in his life, and he had grown fond of her over time, but he had never loved her with the wild heedless passion that boys had for their inamoratas. His passion had all been turned to more irregular directions. For a crime whose very name was unspeakable, there were a surprising number of boys for hire across the cities of Europe. There had been other men of his inclination in the army too, and their identities were one of those unspoken open secrets of marching life. Some officers travelled with their wives, and there were always a few wives of common soldiers with each unit, keeping the men fed, clean and nursed. Beyond that, there were the camp followers or other men, and irregularities of his type were not altogether rare. Some encounters even became friendships of a more lasting type.

But he was not in the army now. After Waterloo, there was not such a need for soldiers. When his older brother had died without issue, it had seemed sensible to buy himself out and bring Tommy home. He wanted to see her happy and secure, and she was a heiress now. Pilcott wasn’t the wealthiest of estates but, if well-managed, it could support a family comfortably. Tommy deserved to have a life of her own, which meant marriage, however much it made his heart ache to think of losing her.

He didn’t feel old enough to be a grandfather hobbling around in a cap and gown, which was the inevitable next step, but he was definitely too old to endure another sham marriage with another sincere, naive girl whose dreams would slowly fade from her eyes. He couldn’t do that again, still felt small and ugly at the memory of it.

His life would be very quiet without Tommy.

Perhaps he could look for some discreet man, a valet or footman, perhaps, who would be willing to offer a few extra services in exchange for a place in a respectable household.

What a truly wretched prospect that was.

He sipped his scotch, and stared around the room. It felt very oppressive, being alone here, in the study of a rented house, closed in by someone else’s books. Even the street outside was too quiet for his liking, with nothing more than the occasional rattle of a passing carriage. Wasn’t London supposed to be bustling? Wasn’t it meant to be full of vice and danger? Not if you were sitting in a townhouse on the less fashionable edge of Mayfair.

He had never cared much for fashionable life, but perhaps he should ask around and see if anyone would introduce him to their club or recommend him to a boxing or fencing master. He was quite unaccustomed to being useless, but still had no idea what to do with his time. Pilcott had an outstanding estate manager, and he wasn’t about to overturn a system that worked just to alleviate his boredom. He had no taste for politics, and no artistic bent. What was he supposed to do with his life now it had no strategic purpose?

At this rate, he might even welcome Augusta’s blasted dancing master, just to alleviate his boredom.

II

The dancing master, when he arrived, was not what Fleet had been expecting. He wasn’t French, for a start, nor flamboyantly overdressed. His cravat was neat, but not extravagant, his clothes were well-cut but plain in colour, and his shoes were immaculately polished but not in possession of large gilt buckles. He carried a fiddle case and was accompanied by an equally demure woman of around forty.

When the butler showed them into the parlor Lady Crondall had decreed most suitable for a lesson, she rose to her feet with a smile. “Punctual as always, I see. Nathanial, may I introduce Mr Cody and his assistant Mrs Turner. My brother, Colonel Fleet.”

Fleet shook Cody’s hand and bowed to Mrs Turner, who smiled at him warmly. “Delighted, I’m sure.”

Tommy, who had been alternating between excitement and the sullens all morning, came forward, her hand outstretched. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, sir. I do hope you are a patient teacher, for even at my best, I am likely to be a very poor pupil.”

Mr Cody regarded her coldly, his eyebrows rising steadily. Then, without another word, he turned away, lifting his shoulder. It was the most studied cut Fleet had ever seen, and his heart rose in indignation. Nobody was allowed to treat his daughter like that.

Tommy’s welcoming smile faded, and she let her hand drop quickly.

Mrs Turner gave her a kind smile, and said, “Miss Fleet, you should never speak to a gentleman to whom you have not been introduced. Even where the man is known to you, it is proper to allow him to approach you.”

“Oh,” Tommy said.

Cecilia, whom Fleet generally considered to be a wet goose of a girl, came over to touch Tommy’s arm, her face solemn with sympathy. “Mr Cody is a stickler, cousin Thomasina, but he is the soul of kindness if you display proper manners.”

Mrs Turner laughed brightly. “Oh, don’t say such things, Miss Cecilia. You’ll put him quite out of temper. He rejoices in his curmudgeonly ways. Now, come, have your aunt make a proper introduction and we will proceed with our lesson.”

Lady Crondall took pity on Tommy and said obligingly, “Mr Cody, may I introduce my niece, Miss Thomasina Fleet.”

Mr Cody turned back to face Tommy. “An honour, Miss Fleet.” He executed a perfect slight bow.

“The honour is mine,” Tommy said and then, after Cecilia hissed an instruction at her, bobbed an awkward curtsey.

“Better,” Mr Cody murmured. “Now, let us see what we have to contend with here. You have been asked to call the dance. Your suggestion?”

Tommy blinked, swayed back on her heels, and said hesitantly, “Sir Roger Coverley?”

“A safe choice, although likely to have been called already, unless you are opening the ball. Nonetheless, we will proceed. Muisc, Mrs Turner, if you would be so kind. We lack other pairs, but take the gentleman’s part, please, Miss Cecilia. I shall observe. Are we all ready. On my count. One, two, three, begin.”

At the pianoforte, Mrs Turner struck up the tune. Cecilia gave a delicate bow, Tommy bobbed a hasty curtsey in reply, and the dance began.

Fleet knew full well that he was a foolishly doting papa. Tommy was his only immediate family, after all, and was too straightforward to be much spoilt. Even he, however, could best describe her dancing style as sprightly. He could possibly have ventured so far as “energetic” or maybe even “impassioned,” but he could find no more delicate and feminine epithet, not least because his train of thought was repeatedly interrupted by Cecilia’s muffled squeaks as Tommy stomped on her toes.

When the music finally ended and the girls made their bows, Tommy turned to her father with a woeful face. “You could put my horse in a petticoat and it would be more graceful, wouldn’t it? Oh, Cece, I’m sorry. Did I trample you too badly?”

“I’ve had worse,” Cecilia said, putting her up in her uncle’s esteem. “Some of the gentlemen are as bad and they tend to be much heavier.”

“Cecelia!”

“You know they are, mama,” Cecelia said placidly. “You called Mr Draycott the Heifer of Hyde Park at breakfast last week.”

“A veritable hit, Gussie,” Fleet said. “And I thought marriage had squashed all the wit out of you.”

Mr Cody cleared his throat politely. His face was still stern, although Fleet thought he detected the faintest of twinkles in the man’s blue eyes. “Perhaps a dance you are more familiar with, Miss Fleet,” he suggested.

“That is my best dance,” Tommy said glumly. “I don’t know many others. I was only a brat in Spain and still too young for the balls in Brussels. Mrs Hendricks had a daughter my age, and so she taught us a few steps. She even tried a quadrille, but had only danced it once herself, so we made a hash of it.”

“One dreads to think,” Mr Cody said. “So, we will make this dance our first study. I have yet to hear of a ball where it has not been called, and at least you will have one dance you need not sit out.”

Fleet stopped paying attention after that. When he did look up, Tommy seemed to be moving somewhat more gracefully, and that was enough. He’d met the man, and approved of what he saw. Surely he could escape now?

When he tried to sidle out of the room, his sister fixed him with a steely glare. “And where are you going, Nathaniel?”

“My study. It hardly needs both of us to chaperone the girls.”

She nodded sharply. “I quite agree. I’ll send the carriage round for Cecilia at one.” She gathered up her reticule.

“That was not—”

“Are you or are you not asking me to throw a coming out ball for your daughter?”

“For which I am paying, let me remind you.”

“Are you intending to write the invitations, set the menu, interview the musicians, or negotiate with florists? No? In which case, allow me to return to that work. Observe Mr Cody. You may learn something.”

And she swept away before he could frame a reply, leaving him to slump irritably in the windowseat and supervise two nineteen-year-old girls at their dancing lesson. At least his regiment couldn’t see him in these straits. What a dull and inconsequential thing civilian life had turned out to be. It made a man long to get back into the fight.

Except there weren’t many fights to be had now, not now the wars in France were done, not unless he was willing to be posted to America or India. If Tommy married, though, that would mean being halfway across the world from his last family, and he wasn’t bored enough for that. If only there was something to enliven his retirement.

The April sun was warm through the window, falling onto his shoulders. The steady tinkle of the music and the scuff of shoes was only punctuated by occasional soft-voiced instruction from Mr Cody. Fleet didn’t doze off, as such, but he did relax into the peaceful atmosphere enough that he was startled when Cody suddenly addressed him.

“I don’t suppose you play the pianoforte, Colonel?”

“As a matter of fact,” Fleet said, rousing up. “I do. Can I be of service?”

“I would like Mrs Turner’s assistance. If you would be so kind as to play for us, it would be most helpful.”

“I haven’t the lady’s talent,” Fleet said, rising to his feet in relief, “but I am happy to oblige.”

His ability to pound out a recognisable tune had been a handy talent in various dives across Europe. He had never played for such a prim looking audience, though, and found himself suddenly sympathising with Tommy’s gloomy discomfort. He had a nasty feeling that Cody would not hesitate to correct him if his playing was not up to scratch.

And that, alas, is where I stumbled to a halt. I must admit to being rather fond of Tommy and her father, but the last few hundred words of that took a week to write and still didn’t catch light.

©Amy Rae Durreson 2015

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