Propositions and Proposals
HE WAS MAGNIFICENT. Rosalie had only ever seen him from afar: in the theatre, parks, or streets of London during the last weeks of the winter social season. She struggled to retain her composure as she strode toward him in the wide corridor of the castle. Close now, she noted the black eyes that shone beneath smooth black brows in a sun-browned face of chiselled planes framed by the sleek black waves of hair that had been bound at his nape to tame them. His Highland colouring came from his mother’s side, she had heard from a trusted source, while his father’s gift had been the Norse blood by which he had grown to at least three finger-widths over six feet in height. But the brawny form that stretched the fine midnight-blue wool of tapering trousers across his thighs and buttocks and enhanced the matching fitted wasp-waist jacket that needed no padding at the shoulders he owed solely to his years in His Majesty’s army, fighting foreign troops and, rumour had it, digging ditches and building fortifications alongside private soldiers and native labourers.
He was not only beautiful but unusual in character. What other nobleman would dirty himself performing menial tasks? What other nobleman had carried a wounded comrade through snow and wind to escape the enemy and return to the English lines that had staggered back under heavy bombardment to re-form a mile away? What other nobleman had sat beside a young corporal while the lad drifted across the Styx, and then taken the man’s few possessions to his mother in a remote Welsh village? Some said he had even given the woman a hundred pounds sterling to maintain her until the army’s paymaster got around to sending the boy’s final pay and the meagre pension she was owed.
A pity, she mused, that the engagement with which she was about to present him was a sham, a counterfeit meant only to last the next few days. Such a man she might possibly come to respect. Perhaps even to love. If she could tolerate his legendary appetites. Ah, well, she sighed. Best to enjoy the ruse while I can.
It was Lord Benton who first looked up from the gentlemen’s conversation to appraise her as she approached. At the thinner and fairer man’s expression, Lord Dalton glanced aside. He cocked a brow and turned toward her as his appreciative eyes slid from her face to her toes and back, taking in her diaphanous milky gown over a white lawn under-dress, both sewn in the high-waisted style popular in London. She had bound her auburn hair simply, with snowy ribbons and a few discreet metal pins, and she wore her signature teardrop earrings and long rope of pearls—the former a legacy, one might say, from the pirate who had put an abrupt and violent end to her first marriage; the latter a gift from the African prince who had relieved her of the obligations of her second marriage.
She had never wanted to marry. Heaven knew her father’s demands had been burdensome enough, throughout her motherless childhood. She had expected a husband’s requirements to prove even more onerous; though, in her youthful naïveté, she had thought there might be some romantic compensation. Alas, experience had proven otherwise. But marry she had, at her father’s insistence, when she was but fourteen. He had effectively sold her to Lawrence Whiticombe, the Jamaican plantation owner who had come to England to seek investors. Little had her father known, when he contrived to foist his penniless daughter onto the middle-aged farmer, that Whiticombe was almost a pauper, himself. His trip to England had been a desperate attempt to salvage his enterprises. And although he had met with some success, and thus had had no particular frustrations to vent upon her, the portly Englishman’s perpetual drunkenness and lewdness had repelled her. So, when their ship was boarded on the high seas, she had not been saddened when Whiticombe’s outraged protests at the removal of his young bride to the pirate vessel resulted in a bloody divorce proceeding.
She had not been entirely unfeeling, mind. The loss of life as the Spanish privateers had slaughtered the crew and most of the passengers of the English ship had angered her, unnecessary as it had been. But men have their own ways and most of those are brutal and mindless, she had concluded. Subsequent adventures in Africa had reinforced her view of the male gender.
Her second marriage, to Jean-Philippe, had also been reluctant. She had once more found herself penniless, this time in a foreign land, and in a moment of weakness and despair had taken the Frenchman’s offer in order to avoid a slow death by starvation or a life in a brothel. Jean-Philippe had by no means improved her outlook on marriage or men with his constant whoring and his gambling. His promises to take care of her had soon been replaced by insistence that she earn her keep by taking outside employment. Managing his household and cleaning his shop and warming his bed had not been enough. Now, he offered her services to his favourite madam—merely to clean and cook for the ladies, he had told her. He had lied, of course, and she had run away into the night before the madam’s brute could catch her, to confront her husband in the shop where he sat with bottle and brunette, pissing away the last of their funds. He had threatened to beat her, but their argument was interrupted by an Arab with a sword, and both soon found themselves sold to a slaver for twice what Jean-Philippe owed in gambling debts. North-African politics being what it was, the slave caravan had been attacked and captured. She was just exotic enough, with her red-brown hair and green eyes, to attract the attention of the prince who led the assault, and he had quickly and summarily dispensed with her husband’s objections.
The prince had tired of her, as he did of all his toys, but he had been generous enough to send her off with parting gifts. Thus, she had made her way across the Mediterranean, through the Continent, and on to Britain, stopping in London to gather funds and arrange for passage to the colonies in hope of establishing a new life in a land of opportunity less constrained by notions of class than the nations of Europe. But the approaching winter had forced her to delay and to take a residence where she must await spring and a ship to the Americas.
There in the city, in the theatre after a performance of Love’s Labours Lost, with the first signs of spring lightening her mood, she had met Viscount Benton.
He was certainly a charming devil, his face evincing light-heartedness and humour. Handsome enough, in that almost effeminate way common to the peerage. And she had decided he might prove an amusing diversion after months of dreary English winter. But his proposition, when they were alone in her rented house, had astonished her: He wished no amour for himself, he had claimed. Instead, he wanted her to pretend to be affianced to Lord Dalton. His purpose, he had assured her, was simply to prevent his friend from making a terrible mistake, for he feared the young earl would accede to his grandfather’s demand and hastily choose a bride from among the bevy of young ladies of rank to be invited to the old duke’s estate. Worst among those was The Honourable Margaret Beaumont, daughter of a baron and a scheming social climber with her eye on the title of Duchess that was assured her if she married the duke’s heir. She was just clever enough, he said, to trick Dalton and secure a marriage contract. If the girl succeeded, she would make his life hell. Dalton was too proud and honourable a man to go back on his word once given; he would simply put up with her and probably drink himself to death.
Rosalie had balked at the fraud, sure it was illegal. But Benton had convinced her that their little conspiracy would work, if she brazened it out, for Dalton had already taken to too much drink at the bleak prospects and the deadline looming before him. With Benton’s help, and the ring of the earl’s late mother that the Viscount asserted he could pilfer during his next visit to Graymere Castle, she could pose successfully as His Lordship’s fiancée and foil Margaret Beaumont’s intentions as well as those of the families of many of the other young women to be paraded before Dalton like so many prize sheep. Further, if she flaunted her background, the old duke might be scandalized enough to give his grandson more time to choose someone who was both appropriate and to Dalton’s liking.
Eventually, after much coaxing and a solemn promise on his word as a gentleman that the viscount would not allow her to be imprisoned if all went badly, that he would shoulder the blame should aught go amiss, Rosalie had agreed. (She rarely put faith in the promises of a man, but she judged him the sort of English nobleman who set great store by his word of honour.) Benton had bought her a new wardrobe and a massive trunk in which to carry it, and had hired the carriage that had brought her to Dalton’s northern home, along with Madge, the youngest daughter of a fishmonger, as her lady’s maid.
Now, presenting herself to her faux intended, she smiled winsomely and offered her right hand. “Darling Brian,” she gushed. With a glance to Benton, she added, “Do introduce me to your friend, my love.”
Lord Dalton blinked and stared at her.
His blond companion rushed to take her hand. “George Cawley, Viscount Benton, at your service.” He kissed her gloved knuckles.
In an aside as he stepped back, Benton reproached his friend, “Really, old man, you might have told me.” As if thinking aloud, he mumbled, “Though perhaps I should have guessed from all that blather about your finding the perfect woman.” He straightened and declared accusingly, “Nonetheless, I had to hear it from my man Peters, who got it from your man Redley.”
Rosalie blenched. A lie so easily probed could jeopardize the plan.
Dalton’s jet brows furrowed and he blinked again. “Got what?”
“Your engagement, old son!” Benton’s tone carried of hint of pique as well as impatience.
Dalton looked from his friend to the stranger, his round eyes clearly conveying the belief they were both mad.
At voices from the upper gallery, Rosalie clasped Lord Dalton’s arm, pulling him to the open door of the library as she urged, “Come, dear. We need to talk.”
“Obviously,” Dalton muttered as she led him into the large, book-lined chamber and closed the door while Benton stayed outside.
The earl turned, eyes flashing, and he demanded, “Who are you and how dare you claim we are engaged?”
Her belly aflutter, Rosalie took a deep breath to calm herself as she stood to her full height, pursed her lips in wounded indignation, and said with misty eyes, “Brian, if you have thought better of our understanding, I would have hoped you would tell me honestly rather than feign ignorance to break it off.”
He gaped at her a moment before his brows drew down once more and his jaw twitched. “Madam,” he said through his teeth in a low, dangerous voice, “I will not be made a fool. I have never laid eyes upon you, and I am quite certain I would remember asking for a woman’s hand in marriage!”
She held his eyes with difficulty, her lips pressed tightly and trembling. Finally, she snapped, “Very well. If that is how it is to be, I shall leave at once!”
“Good,” he grunted.
Summoning all the outrage she could muster, Rosalie went on, “And don’t worry about my trousseau. All that finery must have cost you a pretty penny and I would not wish to put you to the expense for nothing. I shall leave it behind. Along with this!”
She grasped the ornate old ring of gold and pearls that Benton had surreptitiously brought to her upon her arrival. She tugged, but it did not budge. Startled, she frowned and blinked at it as she tried again.
“Your mother’s fingers must have been smaller than mine,” she muttered as she struggled with the band.
All at once, a large hand grabbed hers and pulled the ring up to view. Lord Dalton hissed, “Where did you get this?”
Her belly liquefying at the rage in his eyes, she glared back and shrilled, “I stole it and came here to bluster my way into a rank in the peerage—is that what you choose to pretend?”
He flinched as though she had slapped him. Now that she put it that way, it did sound ridiculous. But why did he not remember her?
Her face softened to a look of concern. “Do you truly not remember, Brian?”
He drew a breath and acknowledged, “No.”
She tisked and reached up to press a gentle hand to his bruised left cheek. “Oh, my dear. Perhaps your injury is more serious than I thought.”
His head had been paining him for days, since he had been embroiled in an altercation outside the supper club where he and Benton had spent an evening talking over old times as though they would never see each other again. He half-chuckled to himself: What bacchanalian folly to think of marriage as a death sentence!
But could a blow to the head, albeit from a sailor with a fist like a club, have caused him to forget meeting a woman, wooing her, pledging to wed, fetching Mother’s ring to give to her, and buying her finery, as well? Surely that would have occurred over a matter of weeks? Yet he felt no sense that he had lost time.
But how could he explain the ring?
And, what had Benton said about his claiming to have found the perfect woman?
He groaned as he closed his eyes and pressed fingers to his temples.
“Oh, my dear,” Rosalie exclaimed, feeling truly concerned despite herself. “Please come and sit yourself. You must rest.”
He allowed her to lead him to a large bergère of gilded wood and maroon plush upholstery. As he leaned back on a sigh, she positioned herself behind and began to rub his forehead and temples softly, the caress gentle but firm. Benton had told her about the fisticuffs in the street. Had Dalton suffered more than anyone had realized? A notion that Benton had arranged the attack to excuse the apparent memory loss flashed through her mind, but she dismissed it as unlikely; the viscount would surely not harm his friend. No, she decided, Lord Dalton’s recent tippling would have provided the needed explanation for his apparent forgetfulness, and the fight was mere happenstance.
A bell gonged somewhere nearby. It must be the call to supper she had been told to expect.
She stepped to his front and asked, “Would you like me to make your excuses so you can go up to your room and rest?”
He fixed her eyes a moment and judged her solicitude sincere. After a heavy exhalation, he murmured, “No. I’ll introduce you.”
THE GUESTS GLITTERED to rival the dining hall’s dazzling array of gleaming silver and gold, sparkling crystal and china, and old wood shining with years of waxing and polishing. Glancing about, Rosalie took in the silk brocade wall coverings bordered by gold braid shimmering above the wainscot, the glistening gilt-framed paintings of former dukes and their duchesses, the beeswax candles that glimmered from wall sconces and from the elaborate candelabra placed equidistant along the table clad in damask linen. The old oak board easily seated the more than twenty guests. (Indeed, it could have seated fifty, she was sure.)
The men and women in silks and jewels gazed at her with expressions ranging from simple curiosity to astonishment to outright hostility. She ignored her fellow diners as Lord Dalton escorted her to a place at mid-table.
Despite her long-held disregard for the peerage and their haughty ways, she felt strangely nervous. Did she harbour some secret awe of these people accustomed to considering themselves the betters of the likes of her? In an attempt to stifle her discomfort, she concentrated on her surroundings. She noted the mellifluous scent of the candles mixed with the heady fragrance of hothouse flowers in bowls dotting the table. Exotic perfumes overlay the soap smells of the guests and the body odours of the servants. The footmen wore simple but well-tailored livery of black wool piped with silver silk and worn over snowy linen shirts. Immaculate white cotton gloves protected their hands from the heat of the serving-dishes. She watched as the solemn servants, most of them young, set the first course before the diners with care and under the stern eye of the butler, Mr. Erskine.
She turned her attention to Lord Dalton as he took his place at the end of the table opposite his grandfather. He had introduced her merely as Mrs. Delacroix. (She had “reminded” him of her name.) While he was loth to dismiss entirely her claim to be his fiancée, he hesitated to accept it fully. That uncertainty was all she needed to keep everyone guessing. Though she could see his reticence had not gone unnoticed among the men and women around her, nor had his gentle manner and his seating her as though she belonged among them. The Honourable Margaret Beaumont’s eyes held daggers. Others looked Rosalie over with wariness. The Dowager Countess of Oglesby and the duke both scrutinized her with lips pursed in disapproval.
Rosalie took a deep breath and forced a smile. This would surely prove a very long evening.
BRIAN STORR, EARL OF DALTON, studied the stranger surreptitiously. She was not what most would call pretty, unlike several of the young ladies round the table, and she was certainly older than any of those presented for his consideration. He guessed she might be nearing thirty. Her green eyes and auburn hair suggested Irish or Scotch heritage, and her skin, though smooth, evinced more than a passing acquaintance with sunshine. Her hands, he noted, bore scars and signs of strength like those he had observed among peasant women and servants, indicating she was accustomed to hard work. Where on earth could he have met her?
On a glance to the far end of the room, he saw his grandfather’s patent disapprobation. But the old man would not make a scene, however he might disrelish the presence of a low commoner at his table. Dalton stifled a sigh at the knowledge the duke’s choler would manifest in full force later, when they were alone. His gut tightened at the invective he could imagine he would soon hear.
He cast his eye to Benton, currently engaged in conversation with Sir Edwin Raphael, one of several gentlemen invited to balance the guest list. Dalton hid a sardonic smile in a glass of wine at the hypocrisy of the social pretensions in which his grandfather masked this parade of heifers by including a few bulls.
Surveying his fellow diners, and in particular the distaff members, he tensed again with anger at the duke’s ultimatum: Marry or be disinherited. Not that he cared a whit for titles and not that he could not make his own way financially. But the possibility that his grandfather might settle the inheritance upon his cousin Gerald set his teeth on edge. Gerald was a scoundrel and a spendthrift. Always had been and, no doubt, always would be. The man was charming, of course, which was why he had got away with his mischief for so long. But as heir to the dukedom, he would bankrupt the estates and likely bring the family into such disrepute as to provoke official disentitlement. Dalton’s own reputation was by no means pure, but he took his responsibilities seriously. He would do nothing to jeopardize his family or those who lived under their protection.
At that thought, he glanced again at the prospective brides displaying themselves to best advantage with silks and laces and jewels, their hair curled and beribboned, their lips rouged. Next to them, Mrs. Delacroix appeared almost plain, with her simple dress and single rope of pearls. As he watched, she cut a piece of the white-fleshed fish on her plate and forked it to her mouth as daintily as any of her rivals. Common, she might be, but she was no crude slattern dredged from the slums. It struck him, as he continued to regard her, that he did, indeed, find her attractive. He found himself imagining her presiding at his table, managing his household, attending to the concerns of the estate. Despite knowing nothing of her but what he saw, or remembering nothing, he suspected she would make a fine wife, a fine Countess of Dalton, and eventually a fine Duchess of Norfell.
A high-pitched voice drew his attention.
“Mrs. Delacroix,” said Margaret Beaumont, emphasizing the appellation that pointed to her rival’s lack of virginity, “do tell us of Mr. Delacroix. What is his business?”
Dalton glanced to the addressee. She set down her fork and knife gently while she unhurriedly finished chewing. Finally, she swallowed and replied, “The late Monsieur Delacroix owned a shop in Algiers.”
“And have you any children?” the blonde persisted in her interrogation.
“None,” said Mrs. Delacroix. “A blessing, under the circumstances.”
The baron’s daughter had not finished toying with her prey. Her smile did not warm her eyes as she opined, “Well, at your age, with no history of children despite your marriage, perhaps you are barren?”
The older woman’s lips curved slightly as she held the younger’s gaze. She responded, “Indeed, it is possible, Miss Beaumont.”
The latter’s triumphant smile vanished when Rosalie added, “As it is equally possible that you or any woman here could be barren.” She said sagely, “One can never know with certainty unless one looks back upon years of childless marriage.”
As she picked up her utensils and began to cut another piece of pale flesh, she said with downcast gaze, “Of course, it is also possible for a husband to be incapable of siring a child.” She looked up and quickly glanced to each of the men present as she added, “Even one quite capable of…performance.”
Several gentlemen squirmed and reddened.
Lady Oglesby took charge of the awkward conversation. “I have always thought when one is dining one should confine discussion to topics conducive to comfortable digestion.” She glared first at Mrs. Delacroix and then at Margaret Beaumont.
Again Dalton hid a smile behind his glass of wine. Benton, on the other hand, did not bother to conceal his amusement.
“WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD were you thinking?”
As expected, the duke had directed him to the library as soon as the guests had returned to their respective bedchambers after sherry and brandy in the music room. Dalton drew a deep breath to answer wearily, “I don’t know.”
“What the devil do you mean, you don’t know?” His Grace had stopped pacing to face his grandson squarely.
The younger man worked his lips and swallowed, glancing sheepishly from his elder to the floor and back. “I have no recollection of the woman or of our engagement.”
The duke blinked several times. His white brows tinged with the gold of his former colouring drew together and his dark eyes narrowed. He demanded, “How can you not recall such a thing?”
Dalton inhaled deeply once more as he considered what to say. Finally, he confessed, “As you know, I had been hurt in an altercation outside my club—Benton was there—and I seem to have lost all memory of her.”
Harold Storr’s right brow arched. “Or perhaps you were never engaged, then. Perhaps this woman is perpetrating a hoax.”
His tone uncertain, Brian Storr said, “She seems genuine enough.” He admitted, “And I cannot deny the injury, nor that I find her attractive.”
“Then bed her and be done with it,” the duke growled impatiently. “If you were fool enough or drunk enough to ask her to wed you, we’ll pay her off and ship her somewhere safely away. But if she is practising upon you in hope of gaining position and wealth, or perhaps intending blackmail, she’ll surely show her true colours when you break the engagement and we’ll deal with her accordingly.”
The venerable duke paced thoughtfully. In a moment, he turned back to his grandson to say, “But best she be put to the test after our guests leave. It would not do to create a scandal.” He drew himself fully erect, adding to his height the inches that the years had subtracted. “In the meantime, I will suggest quietly to the dowager countess that I have reservations concerning your ‘intended,’ that I think you will soon see the light and end this folly.” His mouth pulled into a wry grin. “We both know all will hear of it before the next meal, and so the young ladies will continue to make themselves available for your consideration.”
Dalton said nothing. As always, the duke had cut to the core of the matter and decided upon an expedient solution.
But as he climbed toward his bedchamber, the young earl revisited the evening’s events. Seeing in his mind’s eye flashing green eyes and shining auburn hair and beaming smiles, he dared to wonder if he had somehow, somewhere stumbled upon the perfect woman, as he had apparently told his friend George. His lips quirked slightly at a vision of the duke’s countenance were he to be presented with this commoner as his granddaughter-in-law after all.
Propositions and Proposals
HE LOOKS LIKE A SULKING HAWK, Lady Barton had said. Ginette Pendarvis wondered absently whether Lady Barton had ever seen a hawk, much less one that sulked. She rather doubted the woman had ever noticed anything so mundane as a bird, for all she ever did was gossip about the ton. She wondered also why they were travelling all this way to visit a wool merchant. To be sure, the man was rich. And the late viscount had maintained some interest in the man’s business; so, presumably Lady Barton still had some dealings with him. But why lumber so far from civilization when all one need do was wait until the man came next to London?
She toyed with the pearls at her neck, a single rope of cultured spheres she had kept despite its associations. Stifling a sigh and forcing a smile, she glanced back to Lady Barton to murmur agreement with whatever the impoverished widow of Viscount Barton was saying. When the elder who had employed her as lady’s maid-cum-companion chattered on oblivious of the younger woman’s inattention, Ginette again stared out the window of the coach that rattled over a roughly paved road on its way to Falworth Hall, home of Mr. Edward Lewis.
Wisps of cloud scudded across the sky where birds flew high into the wind, tiny forms dark against the pale blue. Below, the coach rolled through a crossroads marked by a small inn and huddling houses, all of rough stone under thatch. On again they road into greening countryside cut into rectangles by dense hedges and rubble walls. Beyond, forests hugged the lower hillsides that rose higher and crowded closer the farther north they drove. Having lived all her life in the south, in London with its vast parks and wide avenues and huge buildings and broad stretch of the Thames that alleviated the cramped closeness of tenement housing and narrow back lanes, Ginette felt claustrophobic in these northern reaches. With a shudder, she turned back to her mistress.
The viscountess would rather have travelled to Graymere, where her dear friend Lady Oglesby was overseeing the marriage mart arranged for the grandson and heir of the Duke of Norfell. Perhaps they would stop by the castle on their way home, Lady Barton had suggested (though it was at least sixty miles farther than Falworth, as the crow flies). Ginette could not quite suppress a smirk at the presumptuousness of the elderly peeress who would dare invite herself to the home of a duke. Of course, the viscountess knew everyone in the nobility, not to mention most of their secrets. And she was getting on in years, which might make her less intimidated by the conventions and protocols that governed the behaviour of younger members of Society, as well as fostering a greater forbearance toward her than would otherwise be granted. Ginette realized the woman would probably insist on imposing herself upon the duke, if she did not become distracted by some other caprice. She flinched inwardly, imagining the embarrassing confrontation that could ensue if the duke were irritated enough to vocalize his displeasure.
When the prattle faded and Lady Barton’s eyes closed, Ginette opened out and draped a grey wool blanket over the elder and gently settled her pliant form firmly against the squabs to sleep in peace despite the rocking of the carriage.
Sitting back on the other side of the landau, she regarded her employer. Lady Barton had been a beauty in her day, there could be no doubt. Her round and plump countenance had a pleasing aspect thanks to the lines of mirth around her eyes. There were signs of cares, too, on forehead and by mouth, but those were fewer and less pronounced than one might expect on a woman of her age. Her fine black-silk mobcap, its flounce edged with delicate lace that haloed her face, she wore over her snowy tresses and ears even indoors these days, for the slightest draught chilled her. When travelling, she topped it with a second hat. Although she had been widowed more than ten years past, she still wore black from head to foot. Of course, her circumstances did not allow extravagance, as evidenced by the out-of-date gowns and pelisses, the spare and sparsely furnished apartment in town, and the carriages and hackneys she rented because she could no longer afford to own a vehicle and horses. Still, she had not parted with her jewels, and her monthly allowance covered the services of a cook and a housemaid as well as the rental of her home in London, albeit in a less fashionable district than she might have wished.
Lady Barton’s resources were not limited to her annuity, though. Ginette had discovered quickly that the elder peeress lived rather well on invitations to dinner in the homes of friends and acquaintances, to tea in stylish establishments, to theatre performances, and to occasional parties. Her company was particularly popular among women on the fringes of Society, who avidly listened to gossip old and new. Some even paid her to introduce them to persons of note to whom they would normally have no access. The lady was discriminating, mind. She sized up such prospects with a sharp eye and quietly delved into their backgrounds and associations before deciding whether to accept their request and their payment.
Despite an appearance of frivolousness, even downright vacuity at times, the woman was canny. Ginette suspected that façade of empty-headed loquaciousness had gulled many into letting down their guard to unintentionally reveal what secrets they knew. Or had. Moreover, the viscountess was as astute at judging the character of servants as of peers. Which is why Ginette wondered what had possessed the lady to hire her.
True, she had been well presented at the time, her clothing finely made if not embellished in the most current manner. And she had always retained the accent of her father, a minor clerk in a minor ministry. Indeed, she could read and write, and she could perform sums to the satisfaction of a banker.
But she had a past of which she was ever aware.
Her history could be easily ascertained, though she knew few would bother because of her obvious middle-class origins. When she was but thirteen, Langford Pendarvis had tossed her into the street when he discovered her brother’s unnatural interest in her. Just as, years before, the misogynistic little martinet had cast out her mother over a misunderstanding, he had blamed and punished Ginette instead of her brother. As a result of his callous disregard for his own flesh and blood, she had become easy prey for a thief-master. And so she had ended up in prison for a time.
Upon leaving that hell, she had drifted from place to place and worked as a barmaid here, a charwoman there, until a well-heeled shopkeeper took her first as his assistant and then as his mistress. That is how she had come by the pearls and gowns that she had kept when he chose a new amour to install in the suite above his establishment.
Finding herself in the street once more, a circumstance not entirely unwelcome given the loathing she had acquired for the merchant who had used her roughly, she had canvassed modest but well-tended homes in a district on the north side of the Thames, far from her prior haunts. At last, after three days living in a chilly garret over a bookshop and seeking employment as a maid (she dared not suggest governess, as that would surely lead to an investigation of her antecedents), she had met Lady Barton in the avenue as the woman emerged from the home of one of her neighbours. A brief chat led to the “gel” being given a trial as lady’s maid.
She smiled ruefully to herself at how easily Lady Barton had winkled her history out of her soon after. To her own astonishment, she had laid bare all the sordid details of her life one afternoon as they shared tea together in the small parlour. Yet, even more surprising, the viscountess had kept her on and taken to including her on her social outings, insisting that others treat Ginette as a companion rather than a servant. And so, Ginette had come to be more than a maid to the elderly lady whose garrulous nature masked a penetrating shrewdness.
It still astounded her that the widow had accepted her so fully. She wiped a tear from her eye.
ALERTED BY THE SOUND OF A CARRIAGE on the lane, Edward Lewis glanced out the window of his ground-floor study. He cursed when he remembered Lady Barton had notified him she would visit his country estate in spring. Confound the woman’s presumption! Peeress though she be, it was damned arrogant of her to foist herself upon him without so much as a by-your-leave. And damned inconvenient at this time. Not that he could afford to offend the nosy old bat. Her husband might have left her virtually penniless, but the viscountess still counted among her friends the wealthiest families in the realm. And he did owe her husband his own start in business, after all.
He heaved a grimacing sigh, slid the raft of papers on his desk into the drawer, and locked it. Slipping the key to the simply but solidly built oak escritoire into his waistcoat pocket, he rose, donned his tailcoat, and stalked to the front door of his manor-house.
Silent, he stood just outside the entry to observe as his major-domo, Ewert, supervised the debarkation of the passengers and the unloading of the baggage from the dusty and unembellished coach-and-four. The merchant’s brows elevated at sight of the young woman who stepped down first and turned to help the elderly Lady Barton. Until last he had seen her, the viscountess had always been accompanied by a grey-haired and nervous little creature whose darting eyes had affixed her to his memory. Perhaps the older maid had finally been retired from service, he mused, to be replaced by this significantly younger and, now that he got a closer look, not altogether unattractive one. His brows briefly leapt higher when he spotted the pearls at her neck and noticed the comely gown, evident beneath her pelisse, shaped in the latest high-waisted fashion, its fabric, while an unassuming light brown in colour, being of the finest wool. A curious costume for a servant.
A genuine smile curled his lips as he strode to meet his guests. Taking the hand of the elder, her pale fingers bared of the black lace that wrapped her palms, he said, “How good it is to see you, Lady Barton. Welcome to my home.” He brushed his lips over the old woman’s knuckles and then stood up to turn toward the younger as he inquired, “And who might this be, My Lady? A niece, perhaps?”
He was mildly surprised to hear the reply.
With a glance to her retainer, Lady Barton said, “Oh, Edward, this is Ginette Pendarvis, my companion and….” The viscountess waved a hand to encompass the varied duties for which the young woman was employed before adding, “She’ll be sleeping in my chamber. Please find her a truckle-bed.”
“Of course,” Lewis said with a bow of his head to the peeress, followed by a meaningful look to his butler, who nodded acknowledgement.
With a sweeping gesture, the merchant invited, “Do come in, ladies.”
As the two walked ahead, the younger woman taking the arm of the older, he ambled behind with a speculative half-smile.
GINETTE’S INITIAL IMPRESSION of Falworth Hall from the road as they turned into the drive had been that it resembled a long grey outcrop surrounded by heath and scattered hummocks. Behind, to the north and east, lowland forest climbed to give way to moorlands carpeting a height, while a ragged ravine cut away to the west to separate the manor from a precipice of bare grey rock that soared to a tapering heathered ridgeline. As the coach had neared, the low outcrop had formed itself into a clustered collection of stone cubes attached haphazardly and squatting among lawns and gardens. A flock of sheep grazed to the southward, tended by a pair of smock-clad shepherds.
Now, from below its grey mansard roofs, she gazed up the walls of Falworth in awe at the actual size of the mansion dwarfed in appearance by its setting. According to Lady Barton, the place had been built by a baron whose great-grandson’s financial embarrassment had caused the heir to sell the house to Edward Lewis twelve years ago. Since then, the bachelor fled to his country retreat when the pressures of business and the chaos of life in town overwhelmed him.
Stepping between the massive carved oak doors into the vestibule, she surveyed the polished dark granite of the floors and the paler grey limestone walls bare but for a few intricately figured tapestries that could each carpet the entirety of Lady Barton’s compact suite of rooms. She gaped as they passed the shelf-lined library that contained more books than she could read in a lifetime. And her eyes rounded at the staircase that seemed to curl forever upward, its galleries open to the ground floor and its ceiling a glazed rectangle cut into the roof. She climbed the burgundy-covered stairs illumined by the light of the sky, wonderstruck.
“The Lords Falworth always were pretentious and extravagant,” Lady Barton observed as they ascended. “It was Phineas, fifth Baron Falworth, who removed the original mica panes of the windows aloft to put in glass.” She tisked disapproval. “Foolish expense for no sensible purpose. But so like him and his line.”
Their host commented, “And it heats up the galleries and lower hall unbearably when the sun shines.” He added judiciously, “Though that would be welcome in winter. The place is cold as a tomb and costs a fortune in coal.”
Lady Barton remarked, “Fortunately, there is coal aplenty in Yorkshire.”
When they arrived on the main level, the merchant ushered the women to a parlour flooded with daylight from the serried banks of tall lattice-paned windows that stretched across its outer wall, each casement topped by a Gothic arch included to give an appearance of venerability. Edward Lewis brought his guests to a long, particoloured tapestry settee and waited until they had seated themselves before he subsided into a deep-blue wing chair facing them across a narrow mahogany table.
As a footman liveried in stormy grey placed a tea tray upon the table, the merchant inquired, “What brings you to Falworth, Lady Barton?”
Her brows high, she replied, “Didn’t I tell you?”
He said, “Your letter indicated you would come in spring, but not your purpose.”
Lady Barton cleared her throat, frowned, and tapped her pursed mouth with a finger as though trying to remember why she had travelled to the north. Edward Lewis waited expectantly, stifling a chuckle because he knew too well the woman was much more in possession of her faculties than she let on.
Presently, her brows rose, her eyes sparkled, and she beamed with feigned realization. “I remember,” she said. “I meant to ask your advice on some investments I have been considering.”
His tolerant smile froze. Had she heard already? Good God! Had she heard when she wrote him over two months ago, when he first got word of possible trouble?
He said carefully, “I’m sure I would be happy to help you in any way I can, Lady Barton. Do please tell me which investments you had thought to make.”
Ginette had noted their host’s sudden rigidity and wary tone. She glanced from him to her employer.
Lady Barton smiled benignly as she poured tea from the rose-painted pot into a matching cup. “I had heard good things about the Colbert holdings in China and the East Indies. And Egypt has some intriguing possibilities, I’m told.”
Blast! She’s heard! How is that possible?
He sighed. “You know of my difficulties.”
She handed him a cup and saucer, her smile kindly.
He took the cup, and she poured for her companion and herself. The three sat in silence until all had finished their tea.
At last, Edward Lewis admitted, “Three ships were plundered. My entire investments in silk and cotton lost. And the linen and wool I had sold will now never reach its destination and I will not be paid.” His face contorted with rage. “Damnation! Piracy is supposed to be dead!”
Remembering his visitors, he apologized for his profanity in a much subdued tone. “I beg your pardon, ladies.”
“My dear Edward,” Lady Barton chided gently, “surely you do not think thievery of any kind will be extirpated forevermore?” She clucked and shook her head sadly. “No, Edward. That will not happen in this world as we know it.”
He swallowed, his anger gradually transmuting to resignation. “I’ll manage,” he said softly. His mouth pulled to a sardonic grin. “I can always sell this monstrosity to some fool as pretentious as I was when I took it off the baron’s hands.”
He snorted a rueful chuckle at his own folly.
“You could rent it out.”
When Mr. Lewis and Lady Barton blinked at her in surprise, Ginette blushed at their attention and at her own presumption in daring to speak.
The merchant’s brows furrowed and he queried, “What do you mean?”
Glancing to her employer, who regarded her without censure, Ginette cleared her throat and turned back to her host to explain, “I meant only that a place this big would make a wonderful hotel.” She looked to each of her elders uncertainly. “Especially if there is good hunting here? Or it could be promoted as a retreat for those who simply want to get away from all their responsibilities for a fortnight or two.”
Now thoroughly embarrassed, she bowed her head and sat silently awaiting the ridicule she expected. After all: What need of a retreat had anyone with enough money to afford a stay in such a place? Most already owned a country house. What was she thinking!
She looked up in shock at Edward Lewis’s thoughtful response.
“That could work.”
Lady Barton agreed heartily. “Indeed! Many members of the ton would pay a king’s ransom to escape their wives or husbands for a time.”
Her belly fluttering, Ginette smiled shyly at their approbation.
EDWARD LEWIS WATCHED after the ladies as his housekeeper, Mrs. Burns, led them away to their chamber to freshen themselves before dinner. While he had no intention of turning Falworth into an hotel (the prospect of dozens of flighty, demanding strangers and their attendants invading his home on a regular basis appalled him), he had to admit to himself it was a potentially profitable idea that would never have occurred to him. Damn clever of the girl. Showed imagination to have come up with the notion, and spunk to have spoken up among her betters.
Not that he considered himself her better. But he had noted that she thought him so.
He smiled, recalling how prettily she had blushed. And how her nut-brown hair shone in the light from the windows and formed a widow’s peak that shaped her slim-jawed face into a heart. The sparkle of her dark-brown eyes. And that mouth! A pink cupid’s bow of a mouth that begged to be kissed.
He exhaled noisily. She might be a servant. And rather slight of build, with breasts too small and hips too slender for the liking of many men he knew. But she was pretty enough to snare a husband even above her class.
More to the point, she would not be likely to want a man such as him. A glance into the mirror above the fireplace confirmed his self-assessment: He was tall, and broad of shoulder as a man should be. Sturdy enough, though a little thin. But his thatch of dark hair that would not be ruled, his brows bushed over the storm-grey eyes that sank into dark circles, and his full mouth that looked out of place in the long narrow face with its hawk nose did not invite kind description. No, a craggy countenance like his would never be called handsome, and pretty women liked handsome men.
He sighed. He would be fortunate to marry a woman whose only concern was his money. At the thought, he wondered if he would manage to stay afloat after the losses he had sustained this winter. He returned to his study to tally his liabilities and assets. He could surely sell the pieds-à-terre in Leeds and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, though he would prefer to keep the one overlooking the harbour in Whitby….
THE VISCOUNTESS EYED her protégée as the younger woman unpacked the trunks and placed the more frequently used items in drawers and wardrobes. The tortoise-shell brush and comb set she placed on the dressing-table along with the bottle of perfume and the jar of soap that had been sequestered in a small leather case.
The elder asked out of curiosity, “Why Ginette? Why did your parents give you a French name?”
The younger woman shrugged. “I recall that my mother liked to read French novels. Perhaps that’s why.”
“Mmm.” The viscountess did not hold with novel reading. When did she ever have time for such frivolity? But she supposed that a woman of no rank might have few social engagements and therefore much time to fill with solitary pursuits.
She commented, “That was an interesting notion, my dear. An hotel.” She chuckled. “I trow there is many a lady of my acquaintance who would gladly avail herself of a discreet hideaway like Falworth.”
She noted, “Of course, the proprietor would best rent his rooms with an eye to a ladies’ season and a gentlemen’s season.” She winked mischievously at her companion. “To keep the husbands and wives apart.” Lady Barton’s small shoulders shook with her laughter.
Interpreting the remark as ridicule of her idea, Ginette said humbly, “It was just a thought, My Lady.”
“And clever it was, too!” the viscountess praised enthusiastically. Frowning slightly, she mused, “Though perhaps a little ahead of its time.”
“I do hope Mr. Lewis can recover from his reversals,” said Ginette. She had decided she liked the man.
Lady Barton heard the hint of wistfulness in her companion’s tone. She turned to hide the smile that played at her lips, and she sauntered to the silk-covered screen in the corner to avail herself of the chaise-percée before her bath.
DINNER PROVED AMICABLE enough, the three ensconced at one end of the gleaming walnut dining table that could have sat thirty, at least. Glancing about the outsized hall with empty walls where once a baron’s family portraits had surely hung, Ginette wondered if this room had been used in the past twelve years. Likely not, she reflected. Mr. Lewis seemed a solitary sort not given to entertaining. And when alone, he probably ate in his study or in the morning room or perhaps even in the kitchen with staff. Considering the last, she decided that, no, the master of Falworth would maintain some distance from his retainers, lest affability be misconstrued as weakness and lead to disrespect.
Listening quietly to the conversation between the merchant and the peeress, a colloquy dominated by the lady, she wondered what might be the true reason for coming here. The matter of investments was a ruse, she was sure. And while Mr. Lewis smiled and nodded and occasionally offered comment, anyone could see he was not the least interested in gossip about the London crowd. Nonetheless, Lady Barton prattled on and on about plays and parties, rumours and scandals. Indeed, when Ginette had tried to turn the talk to farming or weather or local festivals for the sake of their host, the matron had touched her hand in silent reproof and given her a severe look that Ginette knew to mean she should pay close attention. So, she had forced a smile and listened. And listened.
After that tiresome meal, they had withdrawn to the parlour. The butler served sherry to the ladies and port to Mr. Lewis. A brief respite ensued as Lady Barton shifted uncomfortably for several minutes and then tried another chair, and another, until she found one to her liking. A sip of wine fortified her and she launched into a fresh round of tattle, concentrating now on the histories of various prominent families. Ginette felt as though she were being instructed by a stern governess, and her glance to Mr. Lewis told her he felt the same.
At last, after a second glass of sherry, Lady Barton announced that she would retire. Ginette rose with her, but the elder quickly said, “No need to join me, my dear. Young people should not be forced to adhere to the schedule of an old woman.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Go on. Enjoy yourselves.” Then, she left.
Ginette blinked, nonplussed, as she watched her employer’s exit. When the door closed behind the viscountess, she turned with an uncomfortable smile and sat on the edge of her chair.
Equally disconcerted, Edward Lewis offered, “Shall I have Ewert bring you another drink, Miss Pendarvis?”
“Thank you, no,” she replied. “One is my limit.”
“Sensible,” he said.
The silence stretched oppressively until the two abruptly spoke at once.
“Have you any—”
“Would you like—”
Edward Lewis inquired, “What did you want to ask?”
“Oh, nothing important,” she responded shyly. “I just wondered if visitors often come to Falworth.”
“No,” he answered. “I do not invite guests.”
At her blush, he rushed to say, “Not that I mind your staying a’tall. No, indeed.” He lied, “I was looking forward to Lady Barton’s sojourn.”
She protested, “You needn’t pretend we are not an inconvenience, Mr. Lewis. I know that Lady Barton imposes herself upon people, and most tolerate her presumption only because she is old.”
Nodding, he admitted, “This is perhaps not the best time she could have arrived. I am expecting….” He trailed off, not wishing to embarrass the young woman.
“Oh!” Ginette exclaimed at a conclusion she had drawn from earlier revelations. “You’re expecting business associates and we will be in the way.”
“I….” Edward Lewis drew a long breath and said, “Well, yes. I have much to do.” He added kindly, “But I confess that now you are here, I do not mind the company. Perhaps especially given my circumstances.”
Recognizing there was more he would not divulge but also sensing a need in the man, she smiled and said, “If there is anything I can do to be of assistance, Mr. Lewis, you have only to ask.”
His voice soft, he said, “Thank you, Miss Pendarvis.”
EDWARD LEWIS SAT before the fire in his bedroom, nursing a snifter of brandy and staring at the flames that hugged the coals. He should have told the young woman the truth. Perhaps she could have persuaded Lady Barton to leave before his guests arrived. But he had suddenly felt a need to keep Miss Pendarvis here, an inexplicable sense that her departure would leave a hole in his life that could never be filled.
He frowned. Why on earth would he feel such a thing for a woman he had known but a few hours?
And not really known, in point of fact, for she had managed only a few interjections, now and then, between Lady Barton’s monologues.
Yet he wanted to know her.
He snorted sardonically. He wanted to know her in the biblical sense, if he was honest with himself.
But did that preclude other kinds of knowing?
For, indeed, he had been drawn to her from the moment she stepped out onto the cobbles of his drive. He gulped his brandy and let it burn pleasantly in his mouth before he swallowed it.
Resting the snifter on his thigh, he leaned his head back against his plush chair and closed his eyes. What was this madness that had seized him of late? He had been a bachelor all his forty-three years and quite happy for it. Or at least content, he allowed. But for no apparent reason, this winter had brought with it a sudden desire to take a wife.
His first inquiries had been discreet and hesitant to the point of being obscure. Thus, his early failures had forced him to simply state his intentions without veiling them in tentative language. At last, a solicitor of his acquaintance had brought his wishes to the attention of several fathers of nubile daughters and arranged meetings with each. One had rejected him as too old for his child. Another had demurred on the basis of religion. A third wished to hold out for a titled man. But four more had agreed to bring their daughters to Falworth to discover whether a match might be made. Their journey was to be cloaked as a family vacation at the home of a business associate, that Lewis and the young ladies might have a chance to become acquainted and a choice be made without leaving those not chosen to feel rejected.
It had all seemed eminently practical. But as the day of his guests’ arrival had drawn near, Lewis had begun to wish he had left well enough alone. What if none of the young ladies agreed to marry him? What if he found all of them repulsive? What if he liked two or more and could not make up his mind? (Granted, the last was unlikely. He had never been unable to make decisions, even when faced with equally appealing or equally undesirable choices.)
But the young women and their families were due in a week, along with his solicitor, Derek Keats, and his closest friend, John Hadley. So, if she stayed as she seemed to wish, Lady Barton would witness the event, whatever its outcome, and broadcast his humiliation to the world.
Edward Lewis started and nearly dropped his brandy. It sloshed enough to spill a few golden drops on his hand.
His humiliation. He had not realized until this moment that he saw his pursuit of a wife as shameful. Other men romanced women as sport and easily wooed a bride. He had to buy one.
Perhaps, if he had not been so driven in his quest for wealth in order to prove himself, he might have made some effort to learn the social arts, thus to make himself more attractive. After all, women had been known to wed men who were downright ugly. So why not him?
He tossed back the last of the brandy and set the glass on the little round table at his side. It was late. His solicitor would arrive on the morrow. Within the fortnight he would be betrothed. Or not. He must rest.
GINETTE LAY STARING into darkness in the low cot by the grand canopied bed in which Lady Barton snored softly. To her surprise and dismay, the old woman had roused from her fireside dozing when she entered the room and had insisted on regaling her with more tales of the foibles and weaknesses of the aristocracy as Ginette helped her undress.
Thinking back on it, she realized there had been a subtle urgency in the manner of the viscountess. Indeed, now that she recalled her months as maid-cum-companion, she recognized that she had felt yet dismissed a sense of impendence. At first, she had wondered was it she who anticipated something vaguely threatening, or was it Lady Barton who expected some event? Now, a certainty filled her that Lady Barton’s choosing to employ her signified much more than she had guessed.
Unable to imagine an answer to the question, she closed her eyes and tried to sleep.