Lady Be Good CHAPTER ONE
London, August 1886
His name is William Pilcher,” said Catherine’s brother. “And it’s no wonder if he stares. He has proposed to marry you.”
Catherine choked on her champagne. From her vantage point across the crowded room, William Pilcher made a very poor picture. It was not his looks to which she objected; he had a blandly handsome face, square and straight-boned, and a full head of brown hair. But he hunched in his seat with the gangly laxity of a scarecrow leaking its stuffing.
No doubt that posture was intended to telegraph a fashionable insouciance. But it looked distinctly foolish on a man in his forties. Indeed, his confidence annoyed her. At the beginning of the musicale, she had noticed how fixedly he gazed at her. That was not unusual; men often stared. But by the third aria, Mr. Pilcher’s look had grown lecherous. Realizing now that he had finally caught her eye, he offered her a thin, twisting smile. He was congratulating himself, no doubt, on encouraging a spinster’s dreams.
Catherine snorted and turned to her brother. At last, she understood his mood tonight—the high color on his face, the poorly restrained excitement. “Peter.” She spoke in an undertone, as the soprano launched into Verdi’s “O Patria Mia.” “For the final time. You will not choose my husband.”
It was a matter of private regret that she resembled her brother so closely. The cross look that came into his face, and the temper that narrowed his lavender eyes, mirrored her own. “You make no effort to find one. And Mr. Pilcher is a fine prospect. Assistant chairman in the Saint Luke’s vestry, with no small prospects. Besides, he has agreed to your terms.”
Astonished, she opened her mouth—then thought better of it as the soprano descended into a low, soft note that provided no cover for arguments. Instead, she clutched her program very tightly and glared at the small type: “An Evening of Musical Delights from Italy.”
For weeks now, ever since her broken engagement to Lord Palmer, Peter had been harassing her to find a new suitor. He claimed to think of her happiness. She was nearly twenty-seven, he pointed out. If she did not marry this year, she would remain a spinster. By the terms of Father’s will, you cannot assume equal governance in the company until you are wed. Isn’t that your wish?
But her happiness did not truly concern him—much less the power she might gain once she married and became his full partner at Everleigh’s. What he wanted was to marry her to some man who would forbid her to work at all. Then, Peter would have free rein to loot the place. He was already embezzling from the company to fund his political ambitions. He imagined she didn’t notice, that her attention was swallowed wholesale by her duties. But he was wrong.
And now he’d solicited a stranger to accept her terms? He could only mean the marriage contract she had drawn up with Lord Palmer. But that had been the product of a different moment: Palmer had needed her aid in drawing out a villain, and she, having just discovered Peter’s embezzlement, had felt desperate for a powerful ally who might force her brother into line.
In the end, fate had saved her from the rash plan to marry. Palmer had fallen in love with her assistant, Lilah. Their elopement had left Catherine feeling nothing but relief. She did not want a loveless marriage—or any marriage at all. It was not in her nature to be a wife: to subordinate her own desires and needs to a man’s, knitting patiently by the fire in expectation of his return from the office. She had her own office, her own work, and a gentleman would never allow that. Better to muddle on independently, then, and find some other way to stem Peter’s thieving.
But how? Unless she married, she had no authority to challenge him.
The aria soared to a crescendo. Peter took the opportunity to speak into her ear. “Only say the word. The contract is signed; the license easily acquired.”
She snorted. “Lovely. I wish him the best of luck in finding a bride.”
The sharpness of his voice drew looks from those nearby. Pasting a smile on her lips, she rose and walked out of the salon.
In the hallway, Peter caught up to her, his hand closing on her arm. She pulled away and faced him, still careful to smile, mindful of the guests chatting in an adjoining drawing room. “This isn’t the place to discuss this.”
He raked his fingers through his blond hair, then winced and smoothed it down again. Always the peacock, ever mindful of his appearance. “At least meet him.”
“No.” She should have known something was awry when he pleaded so sweetly for her to accompany him tonight. Like husbands, polite society had little use for women who worked. Nor was this crowd known to her from the auction house, for it represented the second tier of political and social lights in London—those who aspired to bid at Everleigh’s but lacked the funds to merit an invitation. The truly rich were summering now in their country homes, in preparation for hunting season in the north.
Peter, on the other hand, had every reason to associate with this lot. He nursed dreams of a political career. He had managed to gain a seat on the Municipal Board of Works, but such power meant nothing outside London. Among these minor MPs and political cronies, he hoped to lay the groundwork for his future.
The family business had never held his interest. He was looting it in service of his true ambitions. But for her, Everleigh’s was everything. Their father’s legacy. Her sacred birthright. Everleigh’s made her who she was—which was not merely a spinster, the “Ice Queen” that rude wits had dubbed her. She was a person of business. An expert in the field of arts and antiquities. A learned professional, regardless of her sex.
And she was done looking for common ground with her brother. “I am leaving,” she told him. “Fetch my coat, please.”
“You will meet him.”
She started toward the cloakroom. He caught her wrist, his grip bruising now. “Listen carefully, Catherine. I have practiced patience with you. But you have mistaken it for indulgence. I have given my word to Mr. Pilcher that you will—”
“It will not help your prospects to be seen abusing me.”
Peter’s hand fell away. Far better to quarrel with him in public than in private, in this regard.
“You have given your word,” she said in a fierce undertone. “Not me. When he asks where I have gone, simply explain to him the arrogance of your presumption—if indeed you can explain it. For it is perfectly incredible.”
Peter took a breath through clenched teeth. “If you won’t think of yourself, then think of Everleigh’s. Don’t you wish for children to carry forward the company? What is the future of the auction rooms, if not—”
“Stop it.” Anger buzzed through her, her thoughts scattering like a swarm of livid bees. If Peter had his way, there would be no auction house for her fictional children to inherit. He was trying to tap into the principal now. Did he truly think Mr. Wattier, their chief accountant, would not have informed her of that attempt?
But she could not confront him before she had devised a way to check him. She had sworn Mr. Wattier to secrecy, for surprise was the only advantage she possessed. “Think of your own children. Find yourself a spouse. But you will leave me be.”
“I think of your welfare,” he said flatly. “If you do not wish to find yourself homeless and penniless one day, you must marry.”
Now he was speaking nonsense. “I am far from penniless. I will remind you that half of Everleigh’s belongs to me.”
His smile made her uneasy, for it smacked of some secret satisfaction. “But you are not a partner in its directorship,” he said. “Not until you are married.”
That fact never failed to burn her. No doubt Papa had anticipated that she would marry long before the age of twenty-six. But he should have foreseen that Peter would abuse the authority granted to him in the interim.
What she needed, Catherine thought bitterly, was a puppet husband—somebody she could control, or somebody so indifferent that he permitted her to do as she pleased. But Mr. Pilcher would not suit. He was Peter’s creature. What she needed was a creature all her own. “Regardless,” she said. “Your threats hold no water.”
“I have made no threats,” Peter said softly. “But I will tell you a fact. If you do not marry, you leave me no choice but to safeguard your future through other means.”
She stared at him. “What means that, precisely?”
He shrugged. “I have been thinking of selling the auction rooms.”
The breath escaped her in a hoarse gasp.
“Naturally,” he went on, “half the profits would go to you.”
Had he struck her, here in public, he could not have stunned her more completely. “You . . . you’re lying. This is a ruse to make me entertain Mr. Pilcher.”
As though her words had summoned him, the scarecrow came into the hall. “Ah!” Pilcher manufactured a look of surprise. “Mr. Everleigh, how good to find you here tonight. And this lovely lady must be—”
“I fear I am no one to you, sir.” Catherine kept her eyes on her brother, who must be bluffing. But he looked so pleased with himself. Rage roughened her voice. “My brother, however, has an apology to make.” She inclined her head the slightest degree to Pilcher—the only courtesy she could bring herself to pay him—then turned on her heel for the cloakroom.
Peter’s voice reached her as she rounded the corner. “She is shy,” he said. “Only give me a little time to persuade her.”
“For such a vision,” said the scarecrow, “I will gladly grant as much time as it requires.”
A chill went through her, followed by a surge of panic. She needed a method to deter Peter from this mad course. There was no time to waste.
An idea seized her. Perfect madness—but what other recourse did she have? She knew just the man to bring Peter to heel. All it would require of her was a great deal of money . . . and a reckless disregard for decency and the law.