Chapter One: The incorrigible Henrietta Healy
The Countess of Walrafen -- who in a long-ago life had been known as Cecilia Markham-Sands -- was newly possessed of a most fashionable villa in Park Crescent. Mr. Nash's latest spurt of architectural genious boasted every modern convenience, including flushing lavatories, an elegantly stuccoed facade, and pale yellow paint so sumptuously applied it looked like butter running down the walls.
There was nothing of the old or the venerated about Park Crescent, though the earldom of Walrafen was both. In fact, to her ladyship's way of thinking, the Walrafen title was so old and stuffy it was well nigh to moldering. She could smell the musty self-righteousness drifting all the way across Marylebone.
The official London address of the earldom was situated deep in the heart of Mayfair, in an imposing brick town house in Hill Street, from which her ladyship had taken her congé as soon as her elderly husband had breathed his last at the ripe old age of seven-and-fifty. Her stepson Giles, two years her senior, lived there alone now and was very welcome to do so.
For her part, the Countess of Walrafen was the unpretentious descendant of a title even older than that of her late husband, a fact which had always needled him a bit, and for no good reason that her ladyship could see. What good was a coronet, she often asked herself, when the generations of Markham-Sands men had been -- and still were -- such a luckless and clueless lot?
Indeed, the first Earl of Sands had been ennobled by old William the Red himself. In a reign pockmarked by avariciousness, arrogance, and atheism, the Sands family had been one of the few Saxon dynasties that had not only survived but also prospered in the Norman yoke.
And that circumstance had, so far as Lady Walrafen could determine, been the last bit of fortuity to befall her ancestors. After the War of the Roses, most of their land had been seized. During the Dissolution, they had been faithful papists, and following the rise of Bloody Mary, they had somehow become staunch Protestants. Sometime in the seventeenth century, they had spread their ill luck to the moneyed Markham family, by means of a financially motivated marriage.
And following that, the succeeding noblemen of the Markham-Sands dynasty had managed to situate themselves on the wrong side of every political conflict, civil disturbance, cockfight, dog scrap, horse race, and bear baiting which came their way, all of it culminating with the Divine Right of Kings debacle, which they had assiduously supported, and the Restoration, which they had not.
Cecilia sighed aloud. She had never understood that bit of perversity.
All she had understood, and from a very young age, was that it fell to her to look out for both herself and her misbegotten elder brother, the current Earl of Sands. Until her sister-in-law Julia had joined their household and taken that little job off her hands. Cecilia still wasn't sure how she felt about that, but at least Julia's subtle pressure had propelled her out of the family brick pile and into a wedding dress.
At that recollection, Cecilia sighed and leaned a little closer to her dressing mirror. Oh, was that a wrinkle at the corner of her right eye? Indeed it was. And was that another on the left? Well. At least her life held some consistency. At least her wrinkles matched.
She took up her hairbrush, then thumped it back down again, staring pensively across the dressing table full of bottles and vials. Cecilia simply could not escape the dreadful feeling that her life had ended even before it had begun. The first anniversary of her husband's death was now six months gone. Yet here she was, at the grand old age of four-and-twenty, unable to shake the sensation of being in deep mourning. And why? Had she loved him?
No, not as a husband.
Did she miss him?
No, not greatly, but --
Suddenly, a piercing shriek rang out from her dressing room. Etta!
Cecilia let her face fall forward into her hands. Lord, what had the girl done now?
At that moment, Etta emerged from the dressing room holding a length of emerald green sarcenet before her face, peering straight through the big brown hole in the middle of it. Even through the hole, Lady Walrafen could see that tears were already rolling down Etta's narrow face.
"Oh lor, Lady Walrafen!" the maid squalled, rolling her damp eyes dramatically. "Look 'ere what I've done! Yer ortter 'ave me whipped, and that's a fact. Yer ortter 'ave me skinned, that's what -- then ship me right back to the King's Arms t'make a livin' on me tail."
Cecilia managed a smile. "It's perfectly all right, Etta. I shall wear the blue silk."
But as usual, the maid did not listen. "I just put the iron down for the veriest wee second, and now look!" Etta shook the scorched sarcenet for emphasis. "Look! And what you'd be wantin' with a dresser the likes of me, mum, is more'n I'll ever know. I'm too witless to iron a little bit of fluff like this -- " Again, she rolled her watery eyes and shook the ruined shawl. "And I reckon I'm not apt to learn, neither."
At that, Cecilia rose from her stool and snatched the green sarcenet from her maid's hands. "Now, just hush, Etta!" she commanded with an impatient stamp of her foot. "I'll not have such talk, do you hear? It's a silk shawl, for pity's sake! I've a dozen just like it. Now, stop crying and stand up straight! Who will believe in you, if you don't believe in yourself?"
"Oh, very well!" Etta gave a last dramatic sniff. "I'll fetch the blue. But I'm telling you straight out now, it don't look near so good as this green. And I mean for you to look your best when you go to that Mrs. Rowland's sore-ay tonight, since you know bloody well -- "
"Perfectly well," corrected her ladyship gently.
"Perfectly well," echoed Etta without missing a beat, "that old high-in-the-instep Giles'll be watchin' your every twitch."
Cecilia watched as Etta, still chattering, hastened into the dressing room, pitched the ruined shawl into one corner, and began to shake out the blue silk evening gown, all without pausing for breath. "And d'ye know, Lady Walrafen, I sometimes suspicion but what 'e ain't got it a little hot for you, stepson or no. Don't mean to say 'e likes it none too good -- but there! A fellow don't always get to pick what pricks his -- er, his fancy, if yer takes my meaning."
"Why, I daresay I do," murmured Cecilia a bit unsteadily, lifting the back of one hand to her forehead. Good Lord! After three weeks, Etta still seemed incorrigible. "But Giles simply feels responsible for me, that's all. Now, pray talk of something else. How shall we dress my hair for tonight?"
It was as if she had not spoken. "And what about that Mrs. Rowland?" continued Etta, picking through a handful of lawn undergarments. "Coo! Ain't she a downy one? Mean looking, too, with all them sharp bones and high eyebrows. And her husband a cousin to that nice Mr. Amherst! It don't figure."
"Like the rest of us, the Reverend Mr. Amherst did not get to choose his relatives," murmured Cecilia dryly. "And as to Edmund and Anne Rowland, I daresay even they have their uses. If they are so shallow as to crave fine society above all else, then very well! But there is a price to be paid for folly, and I'll gladly extract a pound of flesh on Mr. Amherst's behalf."
From the dressing room, Etta hooted with laughter. "Now 'oo's the downy one, I arst you, mum? That hoity-toity Mrs. Rowland'll soon be buying new mattresses for the good vicar's mission house, or my name ain't 'Enrietta 'Ealy."
"Right, mum!" The maid stuck her head through the dressing-room door long enough to flash a wicked grin. "Won't Mr. Amherst get a laugh out 'er that! And bless me if that wouldn't be a sight to fair heat up a room, 'cause that smile o' his has melted gamer gals 'n me. It don't seem quite right for a parson to be so purely 'andsome, do it?"
Cecilia had risen from her dressing table and had begun to pick through her jewel chest for something to wear with the blue silk. "Oh, to be sure, he is most striking," she wryly admitted, pulling out a heavy topaz pendant and laying it across her palm. "But do not mistake him, Etta. He's deeply devout, though perhaps not in the conventional way. His mission has done a great deal of good in east London."
Etta, now with pins stuck in her mouth, nodded and rattled on. "Aye, there's many an uprighter what wants savin' from them petticoat merchants, and he's just the gent to -- "
Her ladyship dropped the necklace with a ker-thunk! "An...an uprighter?" she interjected sharply.
"A whore, mum," came Etta's garbled explanation around her mouthful of pins. "Beggin' your pardon 'n all. And speaking of that 'andsome Mr. Amherst, I knows one a sight prettier. That friend of 'is -- or friend of the wife's, more like -- that fancy Lord Delacourt. Coo! 'Ave ye ever laid eyes on 'im?"
"Really, Etta!" chided Cecilia uncomfortably. "Do stop dropping your h's! And we need to know nothing about Lord Delacourt!" Cecilia felt the heat flush up her cheeks.
"Aye, well," said Etta with an amiable shrug. "He's a right handsome swell, that's wot I knows of him," she announced, leaning heavily on her h's. "Now, mum, you've 'eard me talk o' me Aunt Mercy, the one 'oo owned a flash house orf the Ratcliffe Highway?"
"Yes," agreed Cecilia hesitantly. Etta's family was legion, and none of them above the law.
"Well," announced Etta, "she knew a gal 'oo'd been in the theater, very fine in 'er ways, and this Lord Delacourt took a liking to 'er, see? Set 'er up in a grand style, 'e did. Two servants, a carriage, and a little trained monkey with a red waistcoat and bells 'round its neck. Went everywhere with 'er, that little monkey did -- "
"Really, Etta!" interjected Cecilia for the fifth time, hurling herself onto her bed in despair. "I have no interest whatsoever in Lord Delacourt's trained monkey!"
Indeed, Delacourt was the last man on earth Cecilia wished to think about. She had made a deliberate effort these last six years to not think of that self-indulgent libertine. It didn't matter that his lips were as sinfully full as a woman's. Or that his sleepy green eyes were as unfathomable as the ocean at dusk. And that hair! As heavy and rich as burnished mahogany.
Yes, even superficial elements -- the low, mocking sound of his laugh in a crowded ballroom, the reflection of candlelight in his eye as he whirled across the dance floor -- any of these things could awaken a wrath she did not understand. And that was before one even considered his sadly lacking morals.
But in a society as limited as London's, it had been impossible not to see him. And to her acute discomfort, he'd grown leaner, harder, and harsher with the passage of time. And certainly more dissolute. Lord Delacourt's intrigues made for most common sort of gossip. When he passed through a room, the less discerning ladies of the ton would draw a collective breath, strike simpering smiles, and snap open their fans, fluttering them back and forth as if kindling a fire.
But no decent woman would let a man like that cross her mind. Certainly, she had no wish to remember him. None at all. Oh, but how often in her dreams she had felt his hand skimming up her thigh, his mouth hot against her throat, only to wake up burning with lust and shame? Delacourt had awakened in her the baser side of her nature long before she had even realized she had one. Still, Cecilia had never been a fool. She knew lust for what it was.
"Righty-ho," agreed Etta cheerfully as she tugged out a pair of new silk stockings. "Got orf me subject again, didn't I? What I meant to be telling you was that I seen 'im meself once. With Aunt Mercy in the Haymarket, it was, and Gawd bless me!" The maid's eyes rolled back in her head. "A finer set of shoulders and a snugger rump I never did see on a gent! And they do say Lord Delacourt is about the best thing a gal can get between 'er legs on a cold ni -- "
"Etta!" screeched Cecilia. "That will do. Really! It's excessively vulgar! Moreover, I have seen Lord Delacourt and his -- his fine shoulders. I see nothing in him at all. Nothing but a handsome debauchee. And where is your aunt's friend now, Etta, I ask you?"
Etta shrugged. "Couldn't say, mum."
"Well, I can!" Cecilia's fervor ratcheted sharply upward. "She's starving in some workhouse, old before her time and riddled with the pox, I do not doubt. Whilst his lordship and his snug rump are being cosseted by a bevy of expensive servants down in Curzon Street."
It was precisely half-past six when Lord Delacourt and his aforementioned rump arrived at his sister's imposing brick town house in Brook Street, just as he did at least four times a week. Lifting his gold-knobbed stick, he rapped his customary brisk tattoo upon the door, and, as always, it was immediately flung open by Charles Donaldson, her ladyship's butler.
"Ah, good evening, Charlie," said the viscount, just as usual. Smiling widely, he slid out of his elegant black greatcoat. "How the devil are you?"
Donaldson lifted the coat from Delacourt's fine shoulders and gave his standard reply. "Weel enough, m'lord. Yerself?"
The viscount forced a bland expression. "Ah, Charlie," he routinely replied, "you know there's not a fellow in all of England more content than I! Now, where might I find her ladyship? Not, you understand, that I am fully certain that I wish to." He flashed the butler a dry smile.
Donaldson nodded knowingly and draped the coat over his arm. Of late, one small aspect of their age-old routine had altered -- uncomfortably so. "Aye, my lord, she's a wee bit fashed t'day," Donaldson warned. "And wearin' out the rug in the book room."
0 "A bad sign, that," muttered Delacourt. "Is there brandy, Charlie?" He really didn't know why he asked. There was always brandy. And always his brand, the very best cognac money could buy. Donaldson made sure of it.
"Aye, m'lord. I've set a bottle o' your favorite atop the sideboard."
Then, very discreetly, the butler cut a glance up and down the corridor and bent his head to Delacourt's. "And if ye dinna mind a word o' warning, m'lord, she's scratching out anither o' those lists. It does'na look too gude for you."
"Hmph!" Delacourt's dark brows drew together. "Has Mother's footman been 'round today?"
Grimly, Donaldson nodded. "Brought anither note."
Delacourt's jaw hardened. "Plaguey, conspiring women," he grumbled. "Where's Amherst? Out saving more harlots from a life of sin and degradation?"
"Aye, gone off tae the mission 'til dinner. Ye'll have tae manage her w'out 'im."
* * *
But in the end, all Delacourt managed was his thirst. He'd downed but half a snifter of his sister's fine cognac before she set about her business. Watching her brother out of the corner of one eye, Lady Kildermore paced thoughtfully back and forth along the rich Turkey carpet of her book room, pencil and paper in hand. Outside, the early evening traffic rumbled up and down Brook Street. Impatiently, she sighed.
It was very hard to concentrate amidst all the racket of town when one had grown so used to the country. But her husband's work here was pressing. Nonetheless, he had faithfully sworn that they would soon return to Elmwood. And her husband was a man who always kept his promises.
Comforted by that thought, she paused to bite the tip of her pencil. "Very well, David. Here's one I think shall do quite nicely," she announced, turning the paper a little to the candlelight. "Miss Mary Ayers. She's young, biddable, and has very large -- "
Suddenly, Lord Delacourt set his cognac down with a clatter. "I don't want large anythings, Jonet!" he interjected, shoving back his armchair with a vengeance. "You need say no more! I do not want a wife. Not Miss Mary Ayers. Not Lady Caroline Kirk. Not -- good God! Not anyone. Stop bedeviling me!"
Jonet tossed her paper down with a huff, slid one hand beneath her stomach, and eased herself gingerly down into the chair opposite. With a resigned sigh, she settled one hand atop the baby to feel it kick. Arabella, Davinia, and Baby Fiona were already in the nursery, and this one certainly seemed eager to join them. She did not remember ever having been so tired. And now, her brother meant to drive her mad.
"David, my dear," she began, her voice exasperated, "Lady Delacourt is seven-and-sixty! She wishes to see her grandchildren before she dies! If you cannot marry out of choice -- out of love -- as I have done, then marry for her, and for the sake of the title."
David tossed off the rest of his glass, eyeing her swollen belly and weary countenance. "You look as if you've had a shade too much love in your life, my dear," he said dryly. "Moreover, I do not give one bloody damn about the title, Jonet. And you know why."
Jonet refused to be baited. "Perhaps, but what of your sister Charlotte? Someone must retain the viscountcy and take care of her."
"I have provided for Charlotte," he insisted hotly. "And not out of the Delacourt coffers, but with my own money. I do have a little, you know!"
Jonet shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Yes, I know. You're rich as Croesus. But that does not make a man happy."
David looked at her derisively. "Oh? And you and Mama -- with your damned lists and smuggled missives and your Miss Marys and Lady Carolines -- that will make me happy? I swear, I wish I'd never introduced you two meddling women."
Jonet's angular brows snapped together. "Lady Delacourt wants what's best for you, yes. And Cole says that a man cannot be truly fulfilled until -- "
"Oh, no!" David cut her off at once. "No, no, no, Jonet! You'll not drag your husband into this! Cole does not concern himself with my affairs, nor I with his. Men, my dear, do not meddle. Which is as it should be."
Jonet threw back her head with laughter. "Oh, David! For such a clever man, you can be shockingly naive! Do you really imagine men do not meddle?"
"Indeed not! They have better things to do."
Again, she laughed. "Oh, my dear! Women are cast utterly into the shade by men when it comes to manipulation. Indeed, do not men always think they know best?"
"And they often do!"
"Yes, sometimes," she graciously admitted. "But I know my husband. And of the two of us, he's by far the more devious."
David let his eyes drift down her length. "Really, Jonet. You say the most outlandish things when you're increasing."
Smugly, Jonet smiled. "What you need, David, are children of your own. I see the desire in those wicked green eyes of yours every time one of my girls crawls into your lap. You'll get nowhere playing the hardened rake with me."
David cast her a disparaging glance and bent forward to refill his snifter from the round crystal decanter. "Come, darling! Have done tormenting me. Let us speak of something else."
"Very well," said Jonet silkily.
Her voice settled over David with an uncomfortable chill. It was frightening when his sister feigned surrender. Absently, he picked a bit of imaginary lint from his fine wool trousers. "Speaking of the girls, how do they go on? Has my Bella stopped biting her governess?"
Jonet's gaze was drifting aimlessly about the room. "Oh, yes. Almost."
"Good! Good! And by the by, I wish to give Davinia a pony for her birthday. I trust you have no objection?"
"No, no. None whatsoever." Jonet made an impatient little gesture with her hands, then clasped them tightly in her lap.
David lifted his brows inquiringly. "And what of you, my dear? How do you feel?"
"Fine, David, I feel fine." Nervously, her thumbs began to play with each other.
"And Cole? The...the Daughters of Nazareth Society -- he is pleased?"
"Oh, yes! Donations are picking up."
"Ah! Capital. Just capital."
The hands twitched again. Jonet could obviously bear no more. "Listen, David -- just tell me this. Are you happy? Truly happy? That is all I wish to know. I wish only for you to be content, as I am content. I know it makes no sense, but I cannot bear thinking that you might be lonely or sad."
Jonet watched as her brother pushed his glass disdainfully away and jerked from his chair. "You simply cannot leave it, can you, Jonet?" he answered, striding toward the window. With one hand sliding through his thick, dark hair, he pulled open the underdrapes with the other and stared out into the cold winter night.
"You've already cast off that red-haired dasher I saw you with in Bond Street last week, have you not?" she said softly.
"I'll likely find another soon enough," he returned, speaking to the windowpanes.
"Will she again possess masses of red-gold curls?"
"Perhaps," he lightly admitted. "I hope you do not worry, dear sister, that I lack for feminine attention."
"Not at all," agreed Jonet easily. "Indeed, there seems to be an overabundance of it. She was the second you've broken with this year, and it is but February."
"Your point?" he sharply returned. "I'm not sure I take it."
"And there were eight last year. Darling, that's a new mistress every six weeks."
"Not quite -- but what of it? I see to their every comfort whilst they're under my protection, Jonet. And I provide for them well enough when it is over. No one suffers." He laughed a little bitterly. "Indeed, many have profited quite handsomely."
"And what of you, my dear?" she asked softly. "What have you profited? Have you gained the whole world yet lost a little bit of your soul?"
Jonet had risen from her chair to join him at the window, and she shivered at the chill which pervaded the glass. She leaned closer to David's warmth, and in the murky light of a street lamp below, she could see that a silvery fog had settled over Mayfair, riming the cobblestones with a dull sheen of ice and shrouding the scene in a cold, depthless beauty. It made her think of her brother's heart, and for a moment, she wanted to cry.
Lightly, she laid one hand against his back, feeling the tension which thrummed inside him, and slowly, David turned from the window, his face suddenly stripped of all pretense. For one brief instant, Jonet feared he might truly lash out at her this time. But then, almost reluctantly, he opened his arms and drew her hard against his chest. "Ah, Jonet!" he sighed into her hair. "Have we no secrets from one another?"
"No," she softly admitted. And, indeed, they had not. Few siblings were as close, even those who shared both parents instead of just one dissolute father.
They were much alike, she and David. Too proud, too unyielding, and often far too alone. Before Cole had come to change her life, she and David had had no one but each other. Well, she had had a husband, but that marriage had not been a good one. And of course, David had a widowed mother, as well as his elder sibling, Charlotte -- a sister of the heart but not the blood.
But Jonet was both. For to be coldly precise, David was Jonet's father's bastard. It was the appalling family secret. Her father's blackest sin. The result of an innocent young woman's rape.
In her brother's arms, Jonet shuddered, unable to imagine the horror of rape. Certainly, David thought of it often enough, though he hid it well. His mother, well bred but impoverished, had served the late Lord Delacourt as governess to young Charlotte. During a raucous party at the Delacourt country house, she had been violated by the dissolute Earl of Kildermore when she'd crept innocently down the back stairs to fetch a cup of milk.
Jonet had been but a toddler, living quietly with her mother at Kildermore Castle. The secret had never reached them, or anyone else for that matter. Lord Delacourt, appalled, had seen to that. But when it became apparent that there was to be a child, the elderly Delacourt had married his servant to give the babe a name.
Perhaps he had thought it just restitution for having befriended a scoundrel like the Earl of Kildermore and for allowing him into a home where an innocent young woman lived.
Cole knew it all, of course. And on their fourteenth birthdays, David and Jonet had told each of her two sons in turn. But knowing was not the same as understanding, and Jonet would never understand. And oh, how she wished that David knew nothing of it. She would have given up David's companionship a thousand times over, could she but snatch back her father's deathbed confession.
Had her father believed that God would forgive him if he sent such a letter to his only son? No, Kildermore had helped no one but himself by his actions. He had gone on to his great reward with his conscience unburdened, leaving David with an awful knowledge: that the tainted blood of a dissolute Scottish rogue pulsed through his veins, instead of the noble Norman blood of the man who had raised him.
But life was not fair, and one wasted time grieving over it. Abruptly, she pulled back from her brother's embrace. "Was there ever a time, David, when you felt yourself on the verge of true happiness? What would it take? Can you tell me?"
He jerked her back to his chest and let his chin rest atop her head. It was as if he refused to look her in the eyes. "Ah, Jonet," he said, the words soft and fraught with despair. "I hardly think I know."
For long moments, the book room fell silent as David listened to his sister's low, rhythmic breathing. Against his chest, Jonet felt warm and comforting. But it was not enough. In truth, it never had been.
Why did she torture him so? Jonet knew better than anyone why he ought not wed. His estates, his titles, and yes, even his very blood, felt alien to him. He was not Delacourt. He was nothing. Not noble, not titled, and barely even respectable. Though, admittedly, the latter was his own fault.
Still, how did a man properly explain such an unfortunate bloodline to a prospective bride? What if she then refused him? Or betrayed the confidence? But the alternative was worse. For how could a man wed a woman without being honest about who and what he was?
There had been an extraordinary situation once -- a situation in which he'd been almost compelled to marry because of a dreadful misunderstanding. But as dreadful as that misunderstanding had been, and as shoddily as he had behaved, his actions had not been as intentionally wrong as courting a bride while willfully misrepresenting the blood which coursed through his veins. Not when it was the blood her children would share.
But in the end, he had not been compelled to marry, despite his willingness to make reparation. He had misunderstood, it seemed. They had been victims of a tasteless prank. The lady had not wanted him at all. So he'd silenced Wally Waldron by thrashing him within an inch of his life -- a rare, bare-knuckled brawl it had been -- and continued his efforts to make amends to the girl.
And yet, he'd been a fool, perhaps, to persist when all reason was past. She had turned out to be colder and less forgiving than he had hoped. Arrogant, really. She had insulted him, belittled his efforts, and, ultimately, she'd made him a laughingstock.
But at least he had escaped a leg shackle. And of course, he was grateful. Certainly, he would not now seek another one. It was a risk he had no wish to take.
Oh, he knew -- yes, he knew that something was missing from his life. But it most assuredly wasn't marital bliss. Still, he was thirty-two years old, and the years since Jonet's second marriage had been hard ones, for he'd somehow lost his grounding.
Tucked away in the country with her beloved second husband, Jonet had found true happiness and had begun a wonderful new family. But David, deprived of his best friend -- indeed, his moral compass and the only person whom he'd ever really taken care of -- had found himself painfully alone. David had somehow let himself run to dissolution. And he had done it quite deliberately, too, in some futile hope of outrunning the darkness which chased him ever more intently with every passing year.
He was glad for Jonet. Truly happy. And she was right. It really was time to stop wasting his life. The certainty of it was dawning on him. A man could not spend the whole of his life flitting from one elegant drawing room to the next -- as well as a few less reputable places -- without becoming jaded and useless.
And yet, he felt thwarted, as if an invisible wall had been thrown up in his face by forces he could neither see nor understand. But to whom could he turn for advice? Certainly not Jonet, for she already felt irrationally responsible for the whole bloody mess.
Certainly not his mother; it would crush her to realize the depth and breadth of the hatred he felt for his circumstances. Cole? Perhaps. Though in his more honest moments, David could admit that he was deeply jealous of his brother-in-law.
Yes, he envied the man his quiet confidence and steadfast restraint. And yet, David often found himself aching to talk with Cole -- and about something less mundane than horses, hounds, and the weather. But he could never quite get out the words, for they always caught on his damnable pride before they left his mouth.
Inwardly, David sighed and set Jonet a little away from him. There was no point in all this introspection. Nothing good ever came of it.
Suddenly, Nanna threw open the door and presented him with a reprieve. A tide of little girls burst in, surging about David's feet in a froth of white nightclothes.
"David, David!" Six-year-old Arabella threw one arm about his thigh and looked up at him. "My toof fewel out!" she announced, pointing inside her gaping mouth. "Can I have a guinea for it?"
Arabella was the very picture of her mother with her slick raven tresses and flashing eyes. "Heavens, what a greedy little Scot you are!" proclaimed David, grabbing her up and lifting her high in the air. In response, Davinia tried to clamber up his leg. She looked very like her father, with a wild mane of blonde hair and brilliant golden eyes. David fell back into the nearest chair, taking both girls with him.
"Bella cried when it came out," tattled four-year-old Davinia, grunting as she scrabbled onto his left thigh.
"Did not!" protested Arabella, scowling across David's lap.
"Did too!" challenged Davinia, turning her warmest smile on David and raising her lips to his ear. "Have you brought my pony?"
Alone on the floor, and clearly feeling neglected, little Fiona fell back on her rump and burst into tears.
"Davinia!" Jonet chided, leaning down to pick up Fiona. "Don't carry tales! And don't wheedle gifts from your godfather!"
"Hush, goose!" David whispered to Davinia. "You weren't to say a word yet. Now! Why do we not move to the sofa, where we may all sit together? Your mother wishes to tell a new bedtime story."
"Do I?" asked Jonet archly, bouncing Fiona on her hip. "Which one would that be?"
David scooped up Davinia in one arm and Arabella in the other. "Oh, surely you must remember my dear -- ? It is the one about the little girl who kept poking her nose into other people's business, until it somehow got chopped off."
"Eeeew!" said Arabella appreciatively. "That sounds like a good one!"
Lord Walrafen's equipage rolled up Portland Place and made the sharp turn into Park Crescent at precisely two minutes before the appointed hour. With her hair perfectly coifed and the blue silk neatly pressed, Cecilia stood in her foyer and watched Giles's footman put down the steps.
She felt a strange, sinking sensation as her stepson alit from the carriage. She had almost hoped he would be unable to accompany her to the Rowlands' tonight. After all, she was a widow, was she not? Did she really require an escort? Oh, she cared very deeply for Giles. Beneath all his cool formality, he was kind. He took great pains to oversee her welfare. Giles was the sort of man who made a woman feel safe. So why, then, did Cecilia sometimes feel stifled?
But it was too late. Giles was coming up her steps, looking resplendent in his flowing black evening cloak. His heavy black locks were still damp from his bath, his evening attire severe yet elegant. Cecilia sighed. At least Giles was willing to help her with her charity work -- when he wasn't busy chiding her for traveling into the East End. Tonight, they would have much to discuss en route to the Rowlands'.
Her butler let him in, and swiftly Giles bent to kiss her cheek. "My dear, how lovely you look!" He gave her his usual smooth smile and carefully veiled appraisal. "Surely I shall have the loveliest step-mama at tonight's affair."
And then they were off into the chilly February night, rolling toward Regent Street and into Mayfair. The Rowland residence was but a short distance away -- a regrettable circumstance, Cecilia soon decided. Within an hour of their arrival, she had greeted all of those few friends whom she shared with Anne Rowland. Then true boredom settled in.
For better than an hour, she moved from one dull circle of people she did not like to an equally dull circle of people she did not know. And thus went the evening, for there were a great many such circles. The air was stale, the food tasted like sawdust, and Cecilia wanted desperately to go home. But she could not. Not until she had seen what might yet be had from the Rowlands. She had not risked Etta's hapless ironing to go home empty-handed.
But at present, Edmund Rowland appeared to be deep in conversation with a tall, balding gentleman who leaned heavily onto a carved walking stick inlaid with silver. They stood just beyond the wide, arched entrance which gave onto the main corridor, seemingly oblivious to those within the drawing room. Amongst the guests inside, Anne Rowland was nowhere to be seen. Discreetly, Cecilia slipped through the crowd into the corridor, brushing behind Edmund and making her way into the shadows in search of a moment's peace.
She paused on the threshold, looking just beyond Edmund's shoulder toward the front door where two somnolent footmen awaited any departing guests. In the other direction, however, were the stairs to the ladies' retiring room. Hastily, Cecilia picked up her skirts and started in that direction, but as she swept past a tall mahogany secretaire which stood against the wall, she very nearly tripped on a length of red silk which trailed from its shadows. Had someone dropped a scarf?
Abruptly, she bent to retrieve it, but with a soft rustle, the fabric slithered from her grasp. "Why, good evening, Lady Walrafen," drawled a refined feminine voice from beyond the secretaire.
With a bemused smile, Anne Rowland stepped out, her red skirts gathered into one hand as she drew up the scarf in the other. "Heavens, I did not intend to startle you," she said softly, giving Cecilia a quizzical smile. "How good of you to join our little entertainment."
Cecilia quickly regained her aplomb. "It's my pleasure, Mrs. Rowland," she glibly lied. "I collect we have a great many acquaintances in common."
"Indeed," returned Anne. "Then we must become better acquainted, my lady. Will you take a turn down the hall with me? I've just come out for some fresh air."
But at that moment, Edmund Rowland turned to stare over his shoulder at his wife. Mrs. Rowland held his gaze for a long, steady moment. "Your pardon," she finally said, lowering her eyelashes with a sweeping gesture. "I must rescind my offer. I perceive that I am needed elsewhere."
Suddenly, Cecilia felt terribly awkward. Had Anne Rowland been eavesdropping on her husband? And if so, why? For once, his behavior looked innocuous.
But Edmund had not looked precisely surprised to see Anne there. Nor had he looked at Cecilia, but given the furniture and the shadows, it was possible he did not know to whom his wife spoke. Still, it mattered little, for Edmund had turned away to stroll toward the front door with his guest, while Mrs. Rowland's long red skirts were already swishing down the hall and around the corner.
Hastily, Cecilia rushed up the steps to the ladies' retiring room, only to find it too busy. Pausing just long enough to fix her face into the relentlessly poised smile she'd perfected during her come-out, she hastened back down the stairs and plunged into the crowded withdrawing room. It was time either to make her move or go home.
At that very moment, however, she saw Edmund yet again. His elderly friend with the walking stick was gone, and her host was now wading through the room toward her. Good. It was as she had expected.
A waiter brushed past her shoulder, and in a tiny act of desperation, Cecilia snatched another glass of champagne and discreetly pitched back a big swallow. It was her third glass, but she was very much afraid she would have need of it. Men like Edmund Rowland made her nervous. But at least she had a great deal of experience in fending them off.
Since her entrée into society four years ago, Cecilia had often felt the heat of Edmund's eyes sliding up and down her length. Her marriage had merely worsened his efforts. While he apparently thought himself a very dashing blade, she found Edmund to be little more than a vain popinjay who possessed -- if rumor could be believed -- some exceedingly nasty habits.
Nonetheless, upon his father's recent death, Edmund had come into what was accounted a moderate inheritance, along with a lovely home in Mayfair, and it seemed that his occasional brushes with the insolvency court were a thing of the past. Now, with her staid old papa-in-law laid to rest, Anne had set about entertaining in high style and wanted nothing so much as a guest list littered with old titles and wealthy nabobs. And Cecilia was among the former.
Edmund swept into an elegant bow, almost brushing her glove with his lips. "Lady Walrafen," he warmly purred. "Such an honor! Mrs. Rowland is almost beside herself."
Forcing a smile, Cecelia baited her hook. "Indeed?" she returned, sipping more delicately at her champagne. "One would hardly think your wife the excitable sort."
Edmund's thin mouth twitched with some indefinable emotion, and then he smartly offered his arm. "Will you take a turn about the room with me, ma'am?" he oozed. "All of London is pleased that you've put off your black and can again give us the pleasure of your company."
Just then, a second waiter passed and Rowland snagged his own glass from the tray. "Now, tell me, my dear lady, however do you occupy your time now that you are...all alone?"
Cecilia could not miss his silky undertone. She cast her line for all she was worth. "How kind you are, Mr. Rowland, to think of us lonely widows!" she answered, lowering her lashes and cutting a glance up at him. "But I can scarce imagine your having any interest in hearing about or -- oh, dare I say it? -- joining in any of my little pursuits...?"
Slowing to a near halt, Edmund Rowland gave her a wide, wolfish grin. "I believe you very much mistake me, ma'am. I have always found everything about you inordinately interesting. And I am always looking for a pursuit worthy of joining."
Cecilia lifted her glass and stared languidly across the crystal rim. "Oh, my!" she said softly, deliberately holding Edmund's gaze. "I am so very glad to hear it. So many men, you know, merely feign an interest in a poor widow's most intimate concerns."
"Indeed?" Edmund lowered his gaze suggestively.
"Oh, yes," breathed Cecilia. She decided to jiggle the worm a bit. "And yet, they seem incapable of, er, following through any measure of satisfaction. It's simply crushing when a man fails to uphold his -- ah, his promise."
Cecilia watched his eyes light up. Rowland steered her toward a potted palm in one corner of the room. "Oh, it would take a worthless sort of fellow indeed to fail a woman of your enduring charms, Lady Walrafen," he returned, swallowing the hook in one greedy gulp.
"Oh, yes," he said, leaning a little nearer. "And for my part, I can pledge myself most assiduously -- and most vigorously -- to your long-neglected interests."
"Indeed?" she whispered, mentally setting the hook into his flesh.
"Of course! In a more private moment, you need only tell me precisely what you wish of me, and I shall make all the appropriate efforts."
"Oh, how wonderful!" she said breathlessly, tapping the rim of her glass against his in salute. "Though I'm not too concerned with the privacy of the thing, you've greatly relieved my mind, sir! It's embarrassing to confess that I came here with the express hope of capturing your attention."
"Did you?" Edmund sounded momentarily flattered. Then he looked into her eyes and seemed to choke ever so slightly. "I -- I would never have guessed."
Yes, the slick, shiny fellow felt something in his throat, didn't he? It had been too easy, and he was just beginning to wonder...
Cecilia tossed off the rest of her champagne, flashed him her brightest smile, then tapped him teasingly on the arm with the empty bowl. "Oh, Mr. Rowland!" she effused. "I knew I could count on you as soon as I learned that you were the Reverend Mr. Amherst's cousin!"
Some of the color drained from Edmund's face at that. "My cousin, do you say?" He laughed a little nervously. "I suppose I must remember to thank dear Cole."
"Oh, we all should, do not you think?" Cecilia cast her eyes heavenward and tried to look suddenly pious, but it was a stretch. "And I must be doubly grateful, for I have no notion how I would have survived dear Walrafen's death had I not devoted myself to Mr. Amherst's mission."
"Oh, yes." Cecilia shot him another blinding smile and gave her rod one last jerk. "Now! Precisely what might you be able to do for me, Mr. Rowland? Don't be shy! I need to know your preferences, you see."
"Preferences?" Edmund's eyes began to dart about the room as if searching for an open door, or perhaps some opportune hole in the floor which might swallow him up. Sharply, he gave a strangled little cough.
Lightly, Cecilia laid her hand upon his sleeve. "My dear Mr. Rowland! Are you perfectly all right? I say, I do hope there's nothing irritating your throat. After all, it is February. The slightest inflammation might turn to quinsy!"
Edmund coughed again. "No," he rasped. "Throat's fine."
"No swelling, then? Excellent! Now, as I was saying," Cecilia continued, slowly reeling in her fish, "I daresay that a man of your importance must be exceedingly busy, so perhaps one big cash donation would be best? Of course, we always have need of volunteers -- if, that is, you do not mind venturing in into the East End slums? In truth, the stench is not all that bad."
"The -- the East End?"
Cecilia dropped her voice to a confessional tone. "Yes, some people, you know, do not care for it at all! It is one thing to wish to help the lower orders, and another thing altogether to actually associate with them, is it not?"
Edmund lost the rest of his color. "Associate with?"
"Indeed!" answered Cecilia, nodding more fervently. She studied Edmund's face. On second thought, he wasn't exactly a fish. More of an eel, really. "Why, just last week, I attended a soiree very like this one -- at the home of a very dear friend of the Duke of York. Oh, but I should not name names, should I? Anyway, the gentleman in question was very like yourself."
"Like me -- ?"
"That is to say, well placed in good society and very desirous of helping our cause. But he just gave me a bank draft for five thousand pounds. I daresay you might find it expedient simply to do the same? And to be sure, you needn't feel one bit ashamed of it."
Cecilia's fish fell metaphorically at her feet, flopping about and gasping for breath.
Suddenly, someone touched her lightly on the arm. It was Giles, bringing a death cudgel in the form of a rotund, purple-turbaned matron who wheezed and creaked on his arm. How fortuitous!
"Oh, look," Cecilia squealed. "Here is Giles! And dear Lady William! Giles, my dear, you shall never guess! Mr. Rowland wishes to make a donation to the mission! Indeed, he wishes to donate -- ?" Cecilia arched one eyebrow and looked at Edmund delicately.
Edmund looked witheringly at the matron, Lady William Heath, a notorious gossip and inveterate blow-hard. Again, he cleared his throat with an agonizing harumph. "F-f-five thousand pounds, I believe it was."
Giles sucked in his breath. "Good God!"
"Indeed!" exclaimed Lady William Heath appreciatively.
"Oh!" chirped Cecilia, reverently clutching her empty glass to her bosom. "How very good you are, sir! Your generosity warms my heart! That is by far our largest contribution to date."
Her fish gave another little twitch and flop. "B-b-but the Duke of York," Edmund stuttered. "Did you not say...did not his friend...give five thousand pounds?"
Cecilia let her eyes roll back down from heaven to catch his gaze. "Oh, dear!" she innocently exclaimed. "How silly I am! Did I misspeak? It was five hundred pounds. Of course, if I have confused you -- that is to say, if you wish to reconsider..."
Lady William lifted her lorgnette to peer at Edmund, leaning forward until her stays creaked and her purple-feathered turban protruded into the midst of the conversation. The timing could not have been better.
Edmund's eyes widened in alarm. "Do you mean renege?" he asked haughtily. "Certainly not!"
With a pained expression, Giles watched Edmund Rowland walk away. At that moment, Lady William turned to snatch another dollop of the goose liver pâté.
"Really, Cecilia!" Giles whispered disapprovingly. "I tell you, I won't be a party to this sort of thing again. Unlike you, I cannot call it Christian duty. I daresay I ought simply to write you a bloody bank draft myself and be done with it!"
Cecilia flashed him her most radiant smile. "Oh, Giles! That wouldn't be nearly as much fun. And by the way, your timing was sheer perfection. And Lady William! A true touch of genius."
"I beg your pardon?" Lady William turned back to face them as she swallowed her pâté. "Did I hear my name?"
Again, Cecilia beamed. "Oh, indeed, ma'am. I was just telling Giles that I have not had the pleasure of seeing you in ever so long. You must come up to Park Crescent for tea soon. And in truth, I have been wondering -- "
Lady William threw up a staying hand as she swallowed one last lump of goose liver. "No, no, my dear! You'll not suck me in with those pretty blue eyes!" She paused introspectively. "Though I must say, I was rather proud of the way you handled Edmund Rowland. That man is not known for his charitable nature, to say the least!"
But Cecilia did not cut bait quite so easily. "Oh, Lady William! How can you not support the Reverend Mr. Amherst's efforts when he is working so diligently to save the souls of innocent women who have been compromised and mistreated by men? Wealthy, well-placed men, for the most part."
Sardonically, Lady William chuckled, the purple plumes of her turban bouncing merrily. "Oh, my dear -- indeed, my very naïve Lady Walrafen! Decent women do not end up in compromising situations unless they are morally deficient! Everyone knows that!"
There but by the grace of God, thought Cecilia as an unsettling memory stirred. "Everyone knows?" she challenged, clutching her empty wine glass until she feared the stem might snap. "And just who among us might constitute this omniscient everyone, Lady William? For in my experience, I have found that decent women are often put upon very much against their will and that -- "
"Cecilia, my dear!" Giles interrupted with a firm tug on her arm. "You must forgive my forgetfulness. I sent for my carriage a quarter-hour past. You look terribly wan. It is time I saw you home."
Cecilia looked about the room just as the clock struck eleven. Giles was right. Lady William was hopelessly narrow-minded, and it was time to go home. A few of Edmund's guests had already left, and at an hour which was rather early, even for London's off-season.
Forcing a bright smile, Cecilia looked up at her stepson and lightly laid her hand upon his arm. "Why, how attentive you are, Giles! I am perfectly drained. Do let us go."
Copyright © 2001 by Liz Carlyle