A true gentleman must take care never to seem dark and mysterious.
-- LORD CHESTERFIELD, 1776,
The Fine Gentleman's Etiquette
Terrible accidents can befall anyone who plunges into the unknown. Catherine knew that all too well. And yet the fog which lay before her, slate gray and cloying, did not give her pause as it should have done. Instead, she pressed heedlessly forward, allowing the damp to envelop her like cold, wet wool. Orion's rapid hoof beats were muted by the soft earth as she mindlessly urged him into the thatch of rhododendron ahead.
Much of her behavior had been just so of late, impelled not by logic but by an inexplicable need to flee something which lay behind, with little thought to what risk might lie ahead. She had let grief and confusion drive her from Gloucestershire. Then into London. But perhaps she should not have permitted it to drive her into this fog alone. Perhaps she should have waited until full daylight, instead of rushing into the distant reaches of Hyde Park before dawn had scarce broken. But as usual, the silence inside the house -- inside her heart -- had been suffocating.
With an impatient signal, she urged Orion on, vaguely considering how her brother Cam would scold if he learned of her recklessness. Suddenly, a noise sounded in the fog ahead. Sharp yet muffled, like the snapping of a twig beneath a layer of wet leaves. And then she saw him -- at the precise instant Orion did. Like a pagan warlock summoning up a dragon's breath, the big man loomed up before them, his long black cloak swirling in the mist, his height eclipsing the path beyond.
With a shrill cry, her horse reared and spun right, pawing wildly at the mist. Floating from the fog, the man snared the gelding's bridle, dragging down his head as if the beast were little more than a willful pony. Orion's eyes flashed with white, his hindquarters wheeled nervously, kicking up divots of turf. But with relentless calm, the tall man held his head. At last, the horse gave a final snort of censure and yielded.
For a long, uncomfortable moment, silence held sway in the gloom.
"Your pardon, ma'am," the man finally said, his voice like gravel. "I fear the dampness muffled your approach."
Catherine stared down at him, then let her gaze slide to his impervious grip on her bridle. "I can hold my mount, sir," she snapped. But, inexplicably, blood was pounding in her ears.
At once, his spine stiffened, and she watched, intrigued, as his long, elegant fingers slid away from the leather. "I thought perhaps you could not," he said coolly, his gaze burning through her. "Apparently, I was mistaken."
"Quite," she managed.
Suspicion was etched on his face, and as he glanced up and down the path, Catherine had an uneasy sense that the man could see things which she could not. "Madam, you ride unaccompanied?" he asked, his tone deceptively casual.
Catherine realized her folly at once. She was completely alone in a pea-soup fog with an intense, intimidating stranger. Straightening herself in the saddle, she looked down her nose and feigned her elder brother's haughty glare. "My business is my own, sir," she retorted. "But if we're to remark upon the obvious, one might mention that you were strolling rather carelessly on the bridle path."
A flash of what might have been acquiescence lit his eyes, and he cast her an odd, sideways look. "Regardless, this is no place for a lady alone."
To her chagrin, Catherine realized he was right. Quickly, she took his measure. Lean and dark, the man was younger than he'd first appeared, though his face was edged with the weariness of age. His eyes were more shrewd than kind. And with his high, hard cheekbones, one would not call him handsome. But he certainly was...arresting. Oh, yes. Oddly, he spoke with just a hint of an accent. German? Italian? But it mattered little. Despite the heavy, silver-knobbed stick he carried and the grace with which he wore his somber clothing, the man was no English gentleman. He looked far too dangerous for such a civilized term.
The man must have heard her soft intake of breath. His cold, black gaze returned, capturing hers. "Take yourself home at once, madam," he said tightly. "Hyde Park is not safe at this hour."
Catherine wasn't sure why she lingered. "I must confess, you gave me quite a start," she said, deliberately arching her brows. "Do you always lurk about in the fog like that?"
Orion tossed his head uneasily. With a quiet oath in some foreign tongue, the man seized his bridle once more. "Trust me, madam, my lurking should be the least of your concerns," he snapped. "The worst of London's rabble has yet to see their beds."
He was, she saw, entirely serious. Reining her mount back a step, Catherine inclined her head in agreement. "Perhaps you are right, Mr....?"
His expression inscrutable, the man swept off his top hat and bowed in a gesture which was both graceful and insolent. It was also oddly...un-English. Then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he walked past her and vanished, his greatcoat swirling into the mist, absorbed by it.
Only then did Catherine notice the huge black beast which followed at his heels. Catherine cut a sidelong glance down, but even on horseback, she had not far to look. A dog -- ? God in heaven. She hoped it was a dog.
A little shaken, Catherine found that her wish to escape the confines of town had suddenly flown with her nerve. And so she did precisely as the stranger had ordered. And an order it had surely been. He had snapped out the command as if he were a man to whom authority came easily.
After winding back along the path for a few minutes, Catherine cut Orion sharply left and uphill, bursting from the trees into the open green space. Here, the muted light of a late April morning had finally leached through the cloud cover, and she could see her way clear for some distance. It was then that she caught sight of him again, standing high on the ridge to the northwest, leaning his weight gracefully onto his walking stick. His stern eyes followed as her horse picked its way along the path up to Oxford Street. Such scrutiny should have made her uncomfortable, but it did not. It felt oddly reassuring. As if he had waited to ensure her safety, or perhaps even hoped to speak with her again.
But she was mistaken. As soon as she emerged, the man stepped onto the footpath and set a determined pace in the opposite direction. At the last possible moment, however, he paused, glancing back at her over his shoulder. In acknowledgment, Catherine inclined her head, lifting one gloved hand in thanks.
The man did not bother to return her gesture.
Scarcely a mile away, daylight had not yet made its way over the high, easterly roofs of Princes Street. In the hearth of Lord Sands's drawing room, a newly lit fire struggled against the damp, the silence broken by nothing but the hiss of coal and the somber rhythm of the longcase clock which stood between the heavily draped windows. In a chair near the hearth, Harry Markham-Sands -- or the Earl of Sands, as he was properly known -- sprawled gracelessly, looking every inch a country gentleman, complete with the requisite ruddy face, receding hairline, and slight paunch.
The mood inside the room was not a happy one. Lord Sands was a miserable man, and had been so for more years than anyone -- especially his sister, Cecilia -- cared to count. A less charitable woman would have simply shrugged and said that Harry had brought his misery upon himself. And Cecilia was generally a very charitable sort. Today, however, her feet hurt, her back ached, and her breasts were leaking. Eight years of restraint finally snapped under the weight of it all.
"Well, Harry!" she declared, pacing about the room. "You brought this misery on yourself!"
Harry simply tugged a silver flask from his dressing gown. "Daresay I deserved that," said her brother equably. But he tipped the brandy toward his coffee cup with a trembling hand.
Like a falcon on a field mouse, Cecilia leaned over his chair, snatching away the flask. "And blister it, Harry, this doesn't help one whit. You'll not drown this latest scandal in French oblivion."
Harry's face grew even redder. "It ain't a scandal, Cely." The word yet hung unspoken.
"Your wife is nothing but a scandal, Harry!" Cecilia insisted. "And when you threatened to hurl her out of your theater box last night, you added fuel to a bonfire!"
Tentatively, Harry brushed his knuckles over the raw scratches down his face. "I didn't really mean I'd do it."
Cecilia gave no quarter. "How much had you had to drink, Harry?" she pressed, waving the flask between two fingers. "And did Julia claw your hide off then and there? Or did she wait until you could thrash it out in the middle of the lobby?"
Harry threw his arms over his chest and slumped lower in his chair. "No one overheard, Cely," he mumbled. "Well, only those in the adjoining boxes."
Abjectly, Cecilia sank down into a giltwood armchair opposite her elder brother. "Oh, Harry," she whispered, letting her head fall forward into her empty hand. "This is the ton, my dear. It only takes one. Already I have heard -- and it's scarcely dawn!"
"I'm an embarrassment to you," he murmured miserably. "To you and Delacourt."
At that, Cecilia lifted her head and stared at him. "Oh, Harry! David and I are fine. It's not us for whom I worry," she said plaintively. "It's you."
Morosely, Harry shook his head. "Too late, Cely. I married her, more's the pity. I've been a cuckold for years, and all of London suspects. Only thing to do now, what with Julia getting so blatant about it, is sue for divorce. Been threatening her for months, you know."
Thoughtfully, Cecilia chewed at her thumbnail. "Well, I daresay it might be done, Harry," she finally said. "But it won't be easy. You've little influence in the House, and there are too many so-called gentlemen in Parliament who mightn't want any names bandied about. I think you know what I mean."
"Oh," said Harry softly. "Never thought of that." He ran one hand through his already disordered curls.
Poor Harry. He wasn't the most brilliant jewel in the family crown. Urgently, she scooted forward and set the flask to one side. "Listen, Harry, give up the lease on this house and drag her back to Holly Hill. Or...or cut off her allowance! Blister it, she hasn't even given you an heir."
At that, Harry sneered. "No, and she shan't get the opportunity to do so," he vowed. "I can't trust her an inch, and I'll bloody well let the title go to Uncle Reggie ere I'll see another man's brat take it. As to managing her, a fellow might as well draw water with a sieve. Julia's pin money very nearly exceeds my income. Her marriage settlements saw to that."
Cecilia muttered a most unladylike oath, then surrendered the flask of brandy to her brother.
With a miserable grin, he took it, tipped a generous measure into his cup, then crooked one brow in invitation. For a moment, Cecilia was tempted. Then she shook her head and lifted the unadulterated coffee to her lips. She sipped but once, however, before slowly setting it back down again. "Listen, Harry -- who was she with this time? Lord Bodley? Mr. Vost? Or one of the others?"
Morosely, Harry shook his head. "Didn't get a good look. Unmarked carriage."
"Rot. What luck." In silence, brother and sister finished their coffee, and then Cecilia rose to take her leave. "Well, Harry," she said, holding his gaze earnestly. "David and I will stand by you, no matter what. You know that, do you not?"
Mutely, Harry nodded.
Cecilia lifted her hand to cup his bristled cheek. "In a few days, my husband will return from Derbyshire," she said with a reassuring pat. "I shall ask him what's best done about Julia. I daresay David shall know just how to manage her."
At the mention of his rather ruthless brother-in-law, Harry brightened just a bit. Impulsively, Cecilia stood on her tiptoes and kissed her brother. To her surprise, Harry's hands clasped her shoulders, his fingers digging into her flesh with a desperation his voice had not revealed.
"Everything will be fine, Harry," Cecilia whispered against his ear. "It will. I promise." But as her lips drew away from the warmth of her brother's cheek, a bone-chilling scream tore through the house. Suddenly, Cecilia knew that she was wrong. Very wrong.
Everything would not be fine.
Just a short distance south of Princes Street, a far more pleasant morning interlude was being slowly staged in a tall brick mansion on Berkeley Square. By half past ten, the efficient Isabel, Lady Kirton, had already kissed her lover good-bye, ordered her hearths swept and her drapes drawn, directed that breakfast be laid in the small dining room, and then commanded that her niece be fetched down from Mortimer Street to eat it.
Filled with a sense of well-being, and fortified by a wealth of maternal intent, this most worthy woman now gazed across her dining table at Lady Catherine Wodeway, who was stabbing just a bit too violently at a piece of bacon. Discreetly, Lady Kirton gave her footmen the signal to withdraw.
"I am so pleased," she tentatively began, "that you've surrendered to the pleas of a tiresome old woman and come to town at last, Catherine."
In exasperation, Catherine gave up on the bacon. "Is that why I'm here?" she responded, lifting both her fork and her brows. "To amuse my dotty old auntie?"
Lady Kirton laughed, a light, girlish sound which contrasted with her matronly figure and silvery hair. "I want you here for the season, my dear," she insisted. "What with my daughter gone off to India, I am left all alone."
Catherine tossed her aunt a dubious glance. "You have Colonel Lauderwood."
Lady Kirton dropped her gaze to her teacup. "Oh, Jack enjoys only his charities and his military club. He cares nothing for polite society."
"Oh? And you do?"
"Yes, indeed!" Lady Kirton smiled impishly. "I've done nothing but look forward to the season's balls, soirees, and picnics. It is simply not to be missed!"
Catherine laughed. "What nonsense," she proclaimed, setting down her fork and staring straight into her aunt's wide blue eyes. "You've never cared a jot for society."
After a long moment of silence, Lady Kirton leaned forward. "My dear Catherine," she said quietly. "Will was my sister's son, and I loved him, too. But you cannot remain a widow forever. Nor, I collect, would you wish to?"
Catherine felt a rare blush heat her cheeks. "No," she admitted. "No, I don't. But neither do I wish to be placed upon the marriage mart. Or to go about in society."
Lady Kirton turned up her palms in a gesture of exasperation. "My dear girl, can you think of another way?"
"Isabel, I know scarcely anyone in town," she protested weakly.
Lady Kirton smiled benevolently. "I fancy you're making my point, Cat, not yours."
"Good heavens, Isabel! I'm a country mouse. I never even came out! I married Will when I was just seventeen, and I have always known a quiet life. And I prefer it. But it's just that...that...."
"That you wish for a husband and a family," finished Isabel softly.
"Well, I don't wish to be lonely," Catherine slowly admitted. "But I'm not at all sure I could find it in my heart to remarry."
For a long moment, Isabel toyed with a crust of dry toast. "Then take a lover, as I have done," she finally said, obviously struggling with the words.
"Yes," confessed Catherine. "I'd considered it."
Isabel set her shoulders back a notch and lifted her chin. "Well, as long as one is discreet," she began airily. Then, unexpectedly, she gave her head a sharp, impatient shake. "But oh, my dear! You are so very young! Why ever would you wish to do such a thing?"
Catherine was silent for a very long moment. "Will and I were married for eight years, Isabel," she said, her voice very small. "I think...well, I think I must be barren."
For a moment, Isabel studied her, as if judging Catherine's strength. "Yes, I do fear that might be the case, my dear," she gently admitted. "So perhaps a widower? One with children. There are a dozen such fellows in town this year -- fine men, some of them. And all of them hoping to escape the fate of marriage to some simpering idiot. They could do no better than you, Cat. You are capable and beautiful, and you have a wonderful wit."
"A wonderful wit! Oh, that quality must be at the top of every gentleman's list of wifely virtues!"
"It is if he wishes to grow old with her in some measure of happiness, yes," answered Isabel sagely. "Now! On to other matters. Your elder brother has written at last. I'd hoped he might be persuaded to come to town and take his seat in the House this year. But I'm afraid Treyhern is not as amenable as you, my dear."
"I told you he would not come," warned Catherine. "Besides, Helene is again enceinte. Cam would never stir far from Gloucestershire under such a circumstance."
With a sigh, Isabel shrugged and set down her cup with a clatter. "Then why do you not close up his big house in Mortimer Street, my dear?" she begged. "God only knows where your younger brother Bentley may be bedding down, so you will surely wait for him in vain. Come stay with me. Nothing would give me more pleasure."
Gently, Catherine thrust out one hand. "I would merely be in the way of your romance with Jack," she protested laughingly. "Besides, there is that matter of the lover I mean to take. Perhaps I, too, shall want my privacy?"
"Oh, dear me." Isabel looked fleetingly ill at ease. "Treyhern may have my head for this."
Again, Catherine laughed and picked up a pot of jam. "Oh, my sainted brother shall know nothing of my clandestine lover, Isabel. I can keep a secret, depend upon it."
Bemused, Isabel shook her head. "Sometimes, Cat, I cannot make out which of your brothers you most resemble. I begin to fear it's that scamp Bentley after all."
"Enough about my brothers, Isabel," Cat demurred. "Tell me, how does Jack go on? Will I see him at all this season?"
Isabel looked a little wistful. "Oh, he says he's too old for society," she answered. "But I am counting on you to keep me young, Cat, so hand me that stack of invitations. You've brought them as I asked, thank goodness. And I know you've several, for I've seen to it."
Obediently, Catherine produced them, and soon Isabel had sorted them into three little stacks. "Good, good," she mused, taking up one large ivory card for closer scrutiny. "Lady Merton's musicale tonight...then Lord Walrafen's charity ball on Thursday."
"A ball?" asked Catherine archly. "With dancing?"
"It is customary to dance at a ball, yes," said Isabel, fanning the card madly back and forth. "And this one is a must! Indeed, we must go straightaway to have the dark blue taffeta fitted. Walrafen is a particular friend of mine -- and an exceedingly eligible bachelor!"
Copyright © 2002 by S.T. Woodhouse