One Scandalous Season, Book 2
4 Stars from RT Book Reviews! “In the second of the One Scandalous Season series, Dalton stirs the plot with sensuality, mistaken identity, danger, a woman’s risk of scandal and a man’s vow of retribution, and blends it all in this very touching love story.”
A Deception Most Reckless…
Lady Daphne Bevington would do anything for her maid Kate—including masquerading as Kate and sneaking around the wrong side of London to settle the poor girl’s debt. Yet her innocent ruse takes a scandalous turn when “Kate” runs into a handsome gentleman on a secret quest of his own. A moment of passion could cost Daphne her reputation, but how can she ignore the stranger’s searing kiss?
An Arrangement Most Wicked…
Lord Cormack Northmore is determined to find the immoral peer who ruined his sister. So when he learns that the irresistible woman he knows as “Kate” is the Season’s most sought-after debutante, Cormack plans to use her connections to help him set a trap. Now, the closer Cormack gets to uncovering the villain who haunts the ton’s ballrooms, the more he realizes that the lovely lady is in danger herself. Will he abandon his quest for revenge—or risk losing his one chance at love?
At the first glimpse of stonework through the trees, Cormack Northmore exhaled at least half of the breath he’d been holding.
“There she is, as lovely as ever,” he softly announced, smiling and easing away from the window. From the opposite bench, his three dark-haired traveling companions—his two mastiffs, Hugin and Munin, and his newly hired footman, Jackson—studied him, bracing themselves against the cushion as the carriage bounced and rattled over the country road.
Relieved, he rubbed a hand across his face. The gesture, combined with the perspiration that had gathered there, caused his upper lip to sting like the Devil, his skin still being tender from yesterday’s visit to a London barber and his first proper English shave in months.
He added, “Bellefrost has not collapsed into a pile of rubble, as I had feared. All is well, just as I hoped it would be.”
All was well. Of course it was!
And the disturbingly realistic nightmares he’d suffered in the five months since setting sail on his return journey from Bengal had been only that—nightmares inspired by the smothering heat and endless rise and fall of the sailing vessel as it crossed the ocean to bring him home.
Home. He was almost home. He’d been away so very long, but now excitement welled up inside him in an effervescent rush.
Again he addressed his fellow travelers. “You, more than anyone, must have known how worried I’ve been.” At that very moment the house appeared again through a break in the trees. Prideful warmth swelled within his chest. “But look there, the ancestral home still stands. I have not stayed away too long.”
And yet…there was still the other half of that breath, hovering at the back of his throat.
Lord, he prayed he’d not stayed away too long.
Again, he shifted to the edge of the carriage seat, feeling as though an army of beetles marched through his veins.
“I shouldn’t worry so…it’s just that the most recent letters I received from my mother and father, and likewise from my sister Miss Northmore, are months old, delayed as all letters are when one has taken residence on the far side of the earth. So much could have happened. I realize that lives change and events occur, but my family has suffered enough hardship. Certainly when I cross the threshold of Bellefrost, I will find everyone well.”
But did he truly believe that? Nearly suffocated by impatience, he pushed open the window, granting entrance to a brisk northern wind and at long last simply breathed. Hugin and Munin joined him at the window, whining and drooling. They were dogs, after all, his protectors and companions for the last six years. The conveyance rumbled down the familiar rutted road, lined on both sides by towering black pines. No matter where he had wandered, this had always been home.
“How I’ve craved that smell,” he said. One formed of earth and rain and all things rich and green.
“It is delightful indeed, sir,” said Jackson, straight shouldered and proper in his uniform. Not whining or drooling.
Cormack had taken an instant liking to the young man, and when he’d grown bored of the ride and of talking to the dogs, he’d insisted Jackson travel inside with him rather than the perch on the back of the carriage, which seemed more designed to rearrange a fellow’s bones than to provide him with a comfortable means of travel. He would have invited the driver as well, but unfortunately someone had to mind the reins.
Jackson continued on, “It’s been a long time since I’ve smelled anything but the soot and stench of London.”
“I myself have always preferred the country.” Cormack returned to the window and inhaled again.
But there, in the furthest reaches of his nostrils, or perhaps only in his mind, hung the stench of saltpeter, proof his experiences in Bengal had stained him to his very bones. But Bengal—and the fetid fields that he’d worked and cultivated until his soul bled, had made him rich. That was because his efforts had resulted in mountains of saltpeter, an ingredient necessary for the production of gunpowder, for which England’s war machine had an unquenchable thirst.
Without question he would do it all again and suffer those hardships just to be able to give his family the gift he was about to bestow upon them: an absolute peace of mind—and the means by which to regain possession of ancestral lands that seven centuries of Northmores had married and warred and died to keep. The very same properties his dreamer of a father had been forced to sell nearly ten years ago after a series of calamitous investments in the fanciful electric and mechanical inventions that had always so intrigued him.
“Miss Northmore, sir, will she be here to welcome you as well?”
“Unfortunately, no,” he answered, remembering his sister as she’d seen him off that day, with tears in her eyes and sharp words on her tongue that he alone should bear the burden of correcting their father’s mistakes. Of course, the moment Cormack had disembarked from England, she had secured employment for herself, determined to contribute. “She is a governess in the neighboring county, for a family by the name of Deavall, in charge of their three boys. According to her letters, they love to fish and climb and play mischievous tricks—which makes her a perfect companion for them, because she is adept in all of those activities as well. But they will have to make do without her now.”
It would give him such pleasure to travel there tomorrow and inform her that she could give her notice. Though like him, Laura had passed beyond the first blush of youth, she was still young. With the very generous marriage settlement he could now bestow upon her, she could marry well and have the family of which she’d always dreamed. But he had not worried about Laura as much as he had his parents. His father had grown frail over the years, burdened by the toll his dreams of fancy had taken on those he loved. But Cormack had never loved him less. How could anyone despise a dreamer? And his mother, of course, loved his father to distraction, so the elder Northmore’s pain—and shame—had been hers as well. He could not wait to see them, to let them know the dark days they had endured were now over.
Cormack tugged the leather cuff of his glove. “It will only be a moment now.”
All at once, Jackson jerked and sat straighter.
“Curse me for a fool!” he muttered.
He rapped his gloved knuckles on the roof.
“What is it?” Cormack asked, as the carriage slowed.
Jackson grinned. “It won’t do for you to arrive sitting in a carriage in the company of your footman. We’ve got to give you a proper entrance.”
When the conveyance slowed his manservant leapt out, leaving Cormack alone with the dogs who did their best to follow, butting their heads at the closed door and woofing in complaint. Moments later, the carriage again jostled to a halt and Jackson held the door as he descended the carriage steps.
“Welcome home, sir.” He winked, standing with his chest puffed out.
Hugin and Munin, penned inside, whined from the window as he left them behind. With each step toward the door, happiness welled higher inside him, a bubbling, elated fountain of love and affection and memories, both joyous and painful. There had been days where he’d doubted this moment would ever come. Interestingly, a horse and wagon already occupied the drive, likely only the vicar, come round for his obligatory monthly visit. The house had thronged with visitors once, but everything had changed with the collapse of their fortune. Invitations from the local landed gentry had become rare, and social callers had simply ceased to call.
Soon all that would change. While today the gardens were overgrown and fractured slate shingles marred the expanse of the roof, tomorrow he would hire men from the village to undertake all the necessary repairs, and of course a full staff to tend to the house, much of which had simply been closed off in recent years and gone unused. In no time, Bellefrost would be returned to every bit of her former splendor—splendor being a relative term, of course, as the Northmore estate could truly only be considered modestly splendorous when compared to the great country estates of the titled wealthy. Such as the home of his father’s second cousin the Marquess Champdeer, who in the Northmores’ time of need had refused them all assistance and taken every opportunity since to chide them over the loss of their fortune and lands.
On the top step, Cormack took a moment to pause and glance over his shoulder.
Perhaps he wasn’t a nobleman like Champdeer—but by God, he looked like one. He could not imagine that under any circumstances the Almighty would consider the pride he felt in this moment a sin. In London he’d chosen every glorious, ostentatious detail with care, from his boots to his coat and hat, to his magnificent equipage, intending to convey his wonderful surprise without words. Piled high on top of the vehicle were chests and boxes, packed with luxuries brought with him from Bengal and Bond Street. Perhaps even now, his father looked out from the window of his study and wondered what illustrious visitor paid him a call.
With those fine thoughts foremost in his mind, he rapped on the door and waited…yet his knock brought no answer.
Anxiety tripped along his spine, but no…he felt certain that their elderly butler, old Jessup, who had remained with the family even after their decline into poverty, had simply not heard the knock. Perhaps even time had claimed the old fellow, a sad but very real possibility.
After the third attempt, Cormack opened the door himself and peered into the darkness of an unlit house with all its curtains drawn. The scent of damp and soot met his nostrils, the result of chimneys and carpets and plaster gone too long without the daily attentions of a skilled staff. For a moment he feared the place had been abandoned. But then, from out of the darkness shambled a familiar figure.
“Jessup!” Cormack laughed, immensely relieved, and strode forward to greet the old man.
Jessup wore a rumpled suit of clothes and an off-center cravat. Wiry gray hair encircled his bald pate. He froze upon seeing Cormack, his gaze rheumy and wet behind rectangular spectacles.
“Oh, sir.” He lifted shaking hands toward Cormack, and then turned toward the interior of the house, gesturing. “You must hurry. The doctor says there isn’t much time.”
It took a moment for the words to filter through, and as they did, the smile faded from Cormack’s lips. The doctor? Not much time?
Everything inside him, every nerve and muscle and cell, seized in instantaneous grief. Let his father be alive and lucid. Let there be enough time, at least, to tell him he had done as he had promised, that they could at last buy the family lands back from their neighbor, Sir Snaith, and that the good name and the pride of the Northmore family had been restored.
He rushed past Jessup, his heart already half-consumed by grief.
“Laura has come home to be with my mother?” he asked of the old man as he passed. He would not want his mother to have been alone at a time like this.
Jessup nodded, his lips turned downward in sadness. “Upstairs.”
On the landing Cormack gripped the banister and launched himself up, two at a time, and traveled the dark corridor until he arrived at the doors of his father’s room. He pushed inside, expecting to see Laura there beside their father’s bed, his mother and the physician—
But the room was dark and empty, and the bed neatly made.
“No, sir,” said Jessup, who lumbered behind him, breath wheezing from his lips. He pointed down the hall.
Down the hall to—
Realization trickled like shattered ice along Cormack’s spine.
In that moment, Jessup appeared to age another ten years, as his mouth sagged and his shoulders slumped. “I thought you understood, that you must have heard somehow—”
No, God, please. No.
As if bound by a terrible dream, he continued to the end of the hall, to Laura’s room, across the corridor’s threadbare carpet from the one he had occupied as a boy. There, instead of his sister’s familiar lilac scent, the sharp tincture of camphor weighted the air.
At the door there stood a thin, kind-eyed woman dressed in the apron and cap of a nurse. Her gaze met his, wide with regret and then she blinked and looked away. Inside, two small lamps provided light. Dr. Graham, who had tended them when they were children, stared out the window, arms crossed over his chest. Cormack’s mother sat in a chair beside the bed, in a dark gown, her eyes closed and her hands clasped, whispering prayers. In the six years since he had last seen her, her hair had turned from brown to completely gray. His father stood beside her, narrow and gaunt and impossibly old, his hand on his wife’s shoulder.
Laura lay in the shadows of her curtained bed, small and thin beneath a neatly turned blanket, her face turned to the wall. Her dark blonde hair streamed across the pillow, the same color as his own.
“Laura?” He’d intended to speak in a tone of reassurance, but his voice broke under the weight of his emotion.
His sister did not turn her head—she did not move—but his father jerked toward him and his mother stood, her Bible thunking to the floor.
“Cormack,” they cried, together all at once, and rushed toward him.
He pressed a kiss to each of their faces, and glanced into their stricken eyes, but broke free of their embrace. Somehow he forced one foot in front of the other, over the dark green carpet. His heart pounded so hard that he could scarcely breathe. He wanted nothing more than to see Laura’s smile and to hear her voice, the one he’d heard so clearly in his mind when reading her letters for the past six years, always charming and convivial, so like her. Yet at the same time, his heart demanded that he turn and run out of this room and out of this house, because seeing her would make the tragedy real.
The doctor says there isn’t much time.
Most certainly he had misunderstood. Laura was too young, and too healthy. Always the picture of springtime and life. Laura wasn’t going to die—he wouldn’t allow it.
He rounded the bed, and for one confused moment didn’t recognize the woman lying there. Though similar of appearance, here unquestionably laid an imposter, with bloodless lips and dark hollows beneath her eyes and cheeks. But in the same moment his mind acknowledged the truth his heart did not wish to believe.
“Laura?” He leaned over her, taking her limp hands in his. “It is Cormack. I’ve come home.”
Her eyes fluttered, and she whispered, “Mack.”
Her countenance blurred, because now he saw her through tears. “What has happened to you, my darling? How can I make you better?”
His father made a sound of wordless grief. His mother sobbed quietly. Because, he realized, nothing could be done.
He’d never felt so helpless. The hardships of the past six years…all the finery parked outside the house…it all seemed so stupid and pointless now. He should never have left. He should have stayed here, and kept everything together, kept everyone safe.
Laura’s lips moved, producing a whisper of a sound. She said something, a word or a name, he could not make out.
“Sweetheart, what did you say?” He lowered himself closer, nearer to her face.
“For…Michael.” The linen at her throat rose and fell. Tears beaded against her lower lashes.
He sensed metal, pressed against his palm and glanced down to see something gold and circular clenched within Laura’s hand, which with a sigh, she released into his. A medallion he had never seen before, with a blank-eyed Medusa embossed at its center.
“Laura, did you say ‘Michael’? Who is Michael?”
But she only closed her eyes and her breathing slowed.
“Oh, Cormack—” His mother whispered, clutching a hand to her mouth.
His father closed his eyes and bent his head.
Cormack looked to his parents, and then to the physician, but no one said anything.
“What has happened to her?” he demanded in sudden desperation. “Would someone please explain?”
Beside him, Dr. Graham spoke quietly, offering a clinical recitation of words that included perforation and toxic and peritonitis.
His mind could not process them, nor assign them any true meaning. Why did Dr. Graham not look into his eyes?
“She shouldn’t have waited so long to come to us,” choked his mother. “We would never have turned her away.”
His father grasped her shoulders, pulling her into an embrace. “She wanted to protect us.”
“Protect you from what? Her…illness?” Cormack stared at his sister.
“No, my dear boy.” His mother stared at him through swollen eyes. “From—from—” Her voice broke into a sob.
His father pressed a hand to his eyes, and whispered, “The scandal.”
“Scandal?” Cormack repeated. “What sort of scandal?”
The doctor straightened from where he’d bent over Laura, his features grimmer even than before. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid she’s gone.”
Cormack stared at the man’s lips, not believing. Laura, gone? She couldn’t be.
“Laura?” he demanded, taking hold of her hands.
Just then a sound came from somewhere in the house, a wailing cry that filled the room and chilled his blood and made him want to cover his ears. The nurse disappeared from the doorway to rush down the corridor, but the sound only continued, increasing in intensity and volume until he feared he could bear it no longer.
That sound. What sort of creature made such a sound?
But then, Cormack realized…
London, in April
Two years later.
“I think it all sounds perfectly horrid,” Daphne Bevington declared, glancing toward the door of the conservatory to be certain that no one had overheard any part of her and her two sisters’ conversation—most especially their mother, Lady Harwick, who would no doubt be horrified by the scandalous topic of discussion.
Only when she’d confirmed they remained unobserved did she look back to her older sister, Sophia, the Duchess of Claxton, and urge with a sly smile, “But don’t let that stop you from telling us more.”
Clarissa, the youngest of them, bit into the corner of her bottom lip and toyed with a tendril of her hair. “It also sounds vexingly strenuous. And sweaty. Is it…very sweaty?”
Their rattan chairs creaked in unison as they both leaned forward, eager for whatever bit of forbidden knowledge Sophia would share next. In a large gilt cage in the corner, two love birds fussed and flitted about.
Sophia laughed, her eyes sparkling. “Sweaty. Hmm, well, it certainly can be.” She took after their dark-haired mother, while Daphne and Clarissa were both sunshine-and-fair like their father, the late viscount. Sophia had married the Duke of Claxton two summers ago. “But only when it’s especially good.”
The three of them fell into another round of stifled giggles. They could have shut the door, but knew from collective experience that nothing would draw their mother’s suspicion more quickly than that. They sat around a narrow table, surrounded by lists and envelopes and various tea accoutrements writing out invitations to Daphne’s debut ball, to be held in two weeks’ time.
Utterly flustered, Daphne scrutinized her portion of the list. The Ns. Wasn’t that where she’d left off? She attempted to compare the names on her list against the invitations she’d already written out, to be certain no one had been omitted, but her mind couldn’t seem to make sense of things. Sophia’s wicked revelations had scrambled her thoughts!
“No wonder mothers wait until the morning before the wedding to have the talk,” Clarissa said, with a dramatic wave of her ostrich quill. Yesterday, while out shopping on Bond Street, they’d each purchased one, each dyed in a luxurious shade of emerald, peacock, and, in Clarissa’s instance, scarlet, certain such decadent writing implements would make the dreaded task of writing five hundred invitations pass all the more quickly. “If we all realized our fate, none of us would ever agree to a season. Daphne, can you imagine granting such liberties to your Lord Rackmorton—”
Daphne grimaced at the mention of the named gentleman, who of late always presented himself at her side and remained there as if he owned her, glowering at any other man who approached. He had sent her roses the day before, and the day before that, which made her exceedingly uncomfortable despite her mother’s assurances that she would receive flowers from many gentlemen this season.
“He is not my Lord Rackmorton.” She rocked the blotter across the envelope she’d just addressed. “I have not encouraged him in the least, and do not intend to do so.”
“Good, because I don’t like him,” said Sophia, placing another envelope on the stack, flap open. On Friday two of the footmen would finish them all with the earl’s distinctive green wax seal. “Not one little bit. He has cold eyes, and I swear I caught him staring at your bosoms more than once.”
“I thought I was the only one who noticed,” Clarissa sniffed. “I also overheard him being rather cruel to one of Lord Bignall’s footmen at the end of the evening when his hat and coat were returned. Can you believe he accused him holding the hat too tightly and smudging its brim? Why, he threatened to speak to Bignall and have the poor fellow dismissed, and I do believe he would have followed through, except…well, let’s just say that Daphne entered the foyer, and that the footman has her bosoms, and the distraction they provided, to thank for his continued employment.”
Daphne sighed heavily. “I just knew he was a Cretin.”
For any young woman tasked with finding a match, the challenge of distinguishing a potential husband from a terrible mistake could be disconcerting. What a relief she had no intention of ever marrying.
She’d even gone so far as to officially inform her family, because everyone knew the London season was above all a marriage mart, and her conscience wouldn’t allow her to proceed under false pretenses. Her grandfather and mother had told her not to be rash and to keep her mind open to possibilities—and most of all, to enjoy her debut season. Her sisters just pretended as if she’d never said the words, and they looked amused whenever she reinforced her decision.
None of her them had taken her seriously, of course, and they thought she was just being skittish about standing upon the precipice of womanhood. But eventually they would come to accept the finality of her decision, the same way she had. They just needed time to understand the person she’d become. Not wanting to hurt their feelings or worry them, she’d done as they encouraged her to do—and yes, she’d gotten caught up in the excitement, which truly made her very happy, because in the end how could she disappoint Clarissa?
Since their days in the nursery, they had dreamed of a season together and delightedly planned every last detail a thousand times over. It would break her sister’s heart if they didn’t partake in all the festivities together. Not only that, but Lady Margaretta had privately begged for Daphne’s assistance in watching over the wildly romantic Clarissa, who she feared would lose her heart to the first determined scoundrel who paid her court. London abounded with them, men consumed with personal ambition—Rackmorton being a prime example, more eager to wed to increase his wealth and political connections than for any care of a young woman’s heart. But Clarissa saw right through him, which gave Daphne renewed hope for her sister’s future.
Sophia reached for another card. “Clarissa and I weren’t the only ones who noticed Lord Rackmorton ogling you, Daphne. Claxton was prepared to call His Lordship out over it last night, but I calmed him, saying any uproar would only embarrass you, rather than the culprit. I hope I wasn’t wrong to intervene.”
“No, you weren’t. I’d have told His Grace the same.” Daphne sighed, still pleased to hear of the duke’s concern. “Claxton is such a dear.”
Indeed, Claxton treated their sister like a queen, and spoiled her and Clarissa with the sweetest of brotherly affections. To think they’d all been two seconds from murdering him just last year. Which made the whole subject of men even more confusing, because if Claxton had undergone such a transformation, couldn’t others? Still, she didn’t believe Lord Rackmorton was at all salvageable. She certainly wouldn’t choose him for Clarissa.
“Claxton is indeed a dear,” Clarissa agreed. “But Lord Rackmorton is a toad. And yet by the opinion makers of the ton he is considered to be a highly prized catch. I think we all know why.” Her eyes narrowed in discernment.
“He is very rich,” murmured Sophia, dipping her blue quill into the indigo. “And connected.”
“Handsome is as handsome has,” Daphne declared wryly.
The youngest Bevington harrumphed. “How many times have we heard that ridiculous statement, as if all that matters is a man’s title and fortune?” She chuckled. “Those awful Aimsley sisters are clearly in agreeance. Every time Lord Rackmorton speaks to you, Daphne, they both turn crocodile green and grow sharp pointy teeth to match. But do you think they would want him so badly if they knew about the rest?”
Daphne lifted her teacup. “All young ladies certainly understand that intimacies will be expected when they marry.”
The thought of being touched by Rackmorton in the way Sophia had described just moments ago made her queasy.
Clarissa poked her sleeve with the end of her quill. “But no one talks about the details, and that might make quite a bit of difference to some if they knew beforehand what to expect. Why, it’s wrong for us to be kept in the dark. If not for Sophia thinking it proper to share with us, we’d have no idea of the wild passions that may very well ensue during those private times…the heat and nakedness, and all the touching and squeezing and the…the…”
Her mouth worked to produce another word.
“Turgidity?” Sophia calmly supplied, her green eyes bright with mischief. She, too, glanced toward the door.
“Tur—tur—GIDity!” Daphne sputtered, half-choking.
Her sisters must have conjured much the same images, because their faces contorted with mirth.
“Yes! The turgidity!” exclaimed Clarissa, her flush on her cheeks darkening from pink to scarlet. “Why, I had no idea.”
“I’m still trying to comprehend that particular phenomenon,” Daphne blurted. She had seen nude male statues, of course, but none that depicted such an inflamed state.
Clarissa gasped for breath. “If it’s true that male bodies transform so bizarrely—”
“Oh, it’s true!” Sophia interjected, eyebrows raised.
“Well, then it’s no wonder they don’t tell us anything more.” Clarissa hovered on the edge of hilarity, lips trembling and eyes watering. “Why, if word got out, there would be anarchy in the drawing rooms of Mayfair and Belgravia.” She threw her arms wide.
At the thought of London’s well-bred debutante population unanimously declaring revolt, Daphne’s throat closed on another sudden rush of laughter. She coughed, and coughed again, before reaching for her teacup, which she lifted to her lips.
Sophia leaned forward in her chair, her countenance aglow. “It would be the end of civilization as we know it. Can you imagine? The streets would be jammed with curricles full of young ladies fleeing town for the safety and seclusion of the country, never to return for another assembly or musicale or ball.”
At the idea of scores of young ladies vacating London in a wild jumble of pastel ribbons and flowered hats, Daphne gave a little yelp. Only she’d just taken that sip—
Everything stung, from her nose to her brain.
“Ow! I think tea came out my nose!” She planted her teacup onto its saucer, where it clattered.
“It did,” Sophia gasped, nearly sobbing. “I saw it, you spurted. Watch out, the invitations!”
She thrust a napkin at her, which Daphne seized to her nose.
They all laughed until they could laugh no more.
Clarissa collapsed back against the cushioned rattan headrest. “Sophia, now that you’ve shared these secrets from the marital boudoir, how will we ever be able to look our suitors in the eye?”
“All I intended was a nice sisterly talk.” Sophia dabbed tears of laughter from her eyes. “How did things turn so…so…so prurient? It’s because the two of you urged me on, and coaxed me into saying things I ought never to have said.”
“Such as the detail about you actually enjoying it?” Daphne gave her sister a wicked wink.
“Yes!” the duchess exclaimed, wide-eyed. “That. I should never have told you.” She pressed both hands to her cheeks.
“Claxton, that rascal, has turned you into a wanton.” Daphne sighed, then added in a quiet voice, “I can’t imagine ever actually wanting it to happen.”
Yet her sister appeared deliriously happy. What would it be like to wake up each day in love with one’s husband? Daphne found a number of male acquaintances attractive and interesting, but no one made her feel warm and jittery and anticipatory inside. No one inspired dreams of forever. All for the best, she thought. Not everyone was meant to experience a grand love affair, or else such love affairs wouldn’t be grand at all, but common.
“Oh, but you will,” assured Sophia, once again proving she did not accept Daphne’s self-recusal from the state of marriage. But…how could Daphne be angry when she knew Sophia only wished for her happiness?
With a blissful sigh, Sophia eased back in her chair, looking drowsy and flush cheeked. She rested her hand on the barely visible swell of her stomach. Prurient? No, not prurient at all, because as a result of all the marital love and passion described by Sophia, in five months there would be a sweet new baby for them all to adore and spoil. “But as I said, only if you marry someone that you respect and love—”
Daphne wouldn’t, though. She didn’t intend to ever fall in love. To one day lose a beloved spouse or a cherished child? Thank you very much, but no. She would not accept an invitation to that painful future. She had lost quite enough loved ones in her life already with the death of her brother at sea, and then her father two years later to an equine accident…one that should never have happened. Instead she would devote herself completely to her widowed mother and her elderly grandfather, for as long as life allowed, and become a favorite aunt to her sisters’ children. Truly, she wanted nothing more.
“Of course,” Sophia concluded. “It also helps to find whomever you marry to be immensely attractive.”
“We can’t all marry someone as handsome as His Grace,” said Clarissa, but her eyes were full of hope that she would.
Their elder sister shook her head, her expression earnest. “I didn’t say ‘handsome.’ I said ‘attractive,’ which means something very different for all of us. You’ll see. You will. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Wait for something special to happen, because it will. And it’s worth it.” Sophia smiled and exhaled. “Oh, my dear sisters, is it ever so worth it.”
“I’m very happy for you,” Daphne reached for her sister’s hand and squeezed. “That you and Claxton worked through your difficulties.”
At that moment, their mother, Margaretta, Lady Harwick appeared in the archway of the conservatory door, dressed in a meadow-green morning dress. Her eyes widened in dismay. “Daphne and Clarissa, why are you still here when I told you to watch the time? I know each of you has a perfectly accurate timepiece, because Aunt Vivian gave them to you as gifts for your last birthdays. Up, up! We leave for Lady Buckinghamshire’s in one hour.”
Clarissa’s shoulders slumped. “Can’t we miss just one party, Mother? There will only be the same people there who we saw yesterday…and the day before.”
Daphne knew the real reason why Clarissa wasn’t interested in attending. The night before, a certain Mr. Christopher Donelan had informed her that he had other obligations and would not be in attendance. The handsome and well-connected Mr. Donelan was Clarissa’s latest fascination—since Tuesday evening, to be precise. Before then she’d been completely enamored of the dashing Captain Musgrave, who on Tuesday afternoon had sadly had lost her love when he’d bent to kiss her gloved hand with an unfortunate glob of clotted cream nestled in his tawny mustache.
Daphne had witnessed the whole tragic incident. It didn’t matter that the poor fellow hadn’t realized his unintended faux pas. By then it was too late. The moment Musgrave’s back was turned, Clarissa had discreetly pulled a change of gloves from her beaded reticule, and after brief soliloquy of regret shared only with Daphne, released him from her heart.
They could be friends. Of course they could. Always! But anything more was now impossible.
While her sister was exceedingly romantic, she also had highly idealized expectations of what an amour should be. Unfortunately for Captain Musgrave, when he had smeared Clarissa’s glove with the remnants of his tea plate, he had disqualified himself from that category forever. It wasn’t that Clarissa was shallow, not at all. Quite the opposite. It was as if she felt so intensely and too quickly, hoping to find true love, that the slightest crack in the mirror of perfection could shatter her perceptions completely. It was why their mother, and Daphne as well, feared that the wrong man could win her quickly and later, when it was too late to turn back the clock, break her heart.
But in this moment Clarissa did speak the truth. At Lady Buckinhamshire’s Venetian breakfast—which of course wasn’t to be a breakfast at all, but an afternoon party—they would see all the same people they had seen the day before. Thus far the season had been a blur of activity, and wouldn’t it be nice to spend an afternoon at home, and to be done with the invitations, once and for all?
Hoping to support Clarissa’s cause, Daphne added, “And Sophia and Claxton have only just returned from Belgium. We’ve barely visited with her, with all the coming and going.”
Margaretta tilted her head and spoke with gentle authority. “Of course you can’t miss the party. Lady Buckinghamshire has taken a special interest in seeing the both of you successfully matched and wed, which I don’t have to tell either of you is quite an honor.”
Daphne exhaled, biting her tongue, for this was just another indication no one took her declaration never to marry seriously.
A potted red amaryllis stood on a small three-footed table beside her. Lady Margaretta plucked off a wilted bloom and dropped it into a rubbish receptacle near her feet. “It would be ill-mannered to miss her breakfast. It’s all she’s talked about for weeks. Sophia, you will stay here and recover from your travels. Mother’s orders.”
“And husband’s orders,” said a male voice behind her.
Claxton appeared, dwarfing their delicate mother. He had spent the morning with their grandfather, escorting Wolverton to breakfast with Lord Liverpool and elsewhere about town. Dark-haired and tall, his cool blue gaze found his wife and, in an instant, warmed with adoration. Just like that, a snap of electricity came into the air. The heat of their attraction took Daphne’s breath away.
“As if you give me orders,” Sophia retorted softly, yet she reached for him.
The duke strode past them to take her hand. Bending low, he pressed a kiss to her lips.
“I shall delight in continuing to try,” he murmured in an intimate tone.
Clarissa sighed audibly, her attention fixed on the couple. Only then did Daphne realize she too stared, enraptured.
Biting her lower lip, she glanced downward to the invitation list, a blur of paper and ink. It wouldn’t do to pine for a similar passion when she’d already resolved not to have it.
“Out now, the both of you,” the viscountess ordered suddenly, a telling blush on her cheeks. “There is no time for delay. I will see you in the foyer in one hour. Don’t forget your parasols.”
Daphne accompanied Clarissa up the marble staircase, where they separated to go to their own rooms. She couldn’t wait to share all the turgid details with Kate—
Oh, fig! Kate wasn’t in residence today!
Kate Fickett, her lady’s maid, and truly, her dearest friend in the world who wasn’t a sister and obligated to love her. For the last three years, Kate had awakened her with breakfast every morning, except for her day off, which was Monday. Only this morning, Hannah the upstairs maid had awakened Daphne, saying Kate hadn’t slept in her bed the night before.
She’d told herself not to worry, that Kate had likely stayed another night to assist with all the work at the Fickett family’s new haberdashery shop. After all, with the season in full swing, the store would be teeming with customers and orders and bespoken work to be done.
Still, Daphne did worry and would continue to do so until she knew all was well.
She found her door ajar and stepped inside to hear the rustle of brocade as the draperies was drawn back from her window.
“There you are, Miss Bevington. I was about to come for you.” A pretty oval face, made even prettier by a sprinkle of freckles across the nose, peered back at her.
Kate, her auburn-haired lady’s maid, pulled back the remainder of the curtain.
“Kate.” Relief bubbled up inside Daphne. “You’re here. I was worried about you.”
“Just a bit of trouble at the shop, but it’s all resolved now.” She set off to bustle about Daphne’s gold-and-cream-papered room, which her grandfather had commissioned to be redecorated in honor of her debut season. He’d done the same for Clarissa, who of course had chosen her favorite color, pink.
Oddly, Kate didn’t look her in the eye, and her voice seemed artificially light in tone. Daphne knew Kate. Something wasn’t right. Intuition told Daphne that whatever sort of trouble there had been at the shop, everything wasn’t completely resolved.
Daphne said, “You needn’t have rushed back, if there were matters requiring attention. You should have just sent word, and taken the entire day—”
“The day?” repeated Kate incredulously. “All day?”
Daphne’s heart twisted at that. She felt such an enormous affection for Kate. Every morning Kate—like all of Wolverton’s servants—woke up and devoted herself to the service of the family, not necessarily by choice, but because of the circumstances of birth and their absolute need to earn a living, not only for themselves but their families. They all took such pride in their employment, and made everything look so effortless, but Daphne understood the hardships that went with the work. The long hours and the time spent away from family. She admired them all so much.
“Fickett, you have never, ever asked for so much as an extra day off, or three, or ten, and you know very well, if you should ever need to, the request would be granted. Hannah can always step in. I’m certain your mother and father would appreciate the help, being that this is the busiest time of the year at their shop.”
“What, and miss out on all of this?” Kate laughed, her expression vivid, but her eyes…suspiciously damp. With a flutter of her lashes, she quickly turned away, her voice hushed and thick as if she were trying to keep her emotions in check. “Even if it’s not my season, it’s all very exciting and I don’t want to miss out on a single moment. And besides, someone has to dress you properly for Lady Buckinghamshire’s Venetian breakfast, and it won’t be Hannah, not again.”
Daphne watched in silence, even more certain something wasn’t right. Her friend was upset about something.
After a brief pause, in which Kate straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat, she briskly took up Daphne’s petticoat and dress from the chair, where Hannah had neatly abandoned them the night before. “Dear girl, she does her best, but she ought not to have allowed you to wear the blue silk last night. Now your entire wardrobe is thrown out of sequence. The blue had been set aside specifically for the Vauxhall Gala next week. Each dress is clearly labeled, so I don’t understand how this happened—”
“It isn’t Hannah’s fault,” Daphne asserted quietly, twining an arm around the bedpost, and leaning against it. “The lace on that atrocious green dress itched under my arms, and I rather insisted on the change.”
Kate disappeared into the dressing room, only to emerge again moments later with a different dress, this one delicate yellow with puffed sleeves and four inches of pleated ivory lace at the hem.
“I did not doubt that for one moment,” Kate responded with her customary pluck. “Which is why it’s best I’ve returned to attend to you. Your insistence means absolutely nothing to me.” Her gaze then settled on Daphne’s head and her lips thinned with disapproval. “I see Hannah used the frizzler on your hair. I suppose you talked her into that as well?”
Daphne raised a hand to touch her hair.
“I wanted something different,” she answered, only mildly exasperated. “Everyone else frizzles.”
With a roll of her eyes, Kate continued past the bed. “All those tiny curls, so inelegant and impossible to smooth out the next day. Your hair is far too delicate for such torment.”
Kate was jabbering, and still avoiding eye contact.
She crossed the carpet to stand behind Kate, who stood at the window. Kate held the dress to the light, allowing the sunshine to filter through the muslin.
Kate grumbled, “I’m of a mind to make you wear the blue again to the gala, even with the lemonade stain on the sleeve. Hannah ought to have treated the spot last night, immediately upon your return. Now I fear I’ll never get it out—”
“Fuss, fuss, fuss,” Daphne chided softly.
“Things ought to be done right, or not at all,” Kate retorted.
“I don’t know why I suffer your continual impertinence,” she teased. It was a continuing jest between them, because they both delighted in impertinence.
Kate laughed. “After three years, I’m afraid you’ve no other choice.”
Yet on the last word, her voice faltered again. Her head dipped and she dashed her fingertips against her eyes.
Daphne touched a hand to her back. “Kate?”
Kate turned, tears spilling over her cheeks. “Oh, Daphne.”
She fell into Daphne’s open arms and sobbed into her shoulder.
“Kate, what is it? What is wrong?”
The girl’s shoulders heaved between sobs and gasps. Daphne squeezed her tight. Kate never cried. She never lost her composure.
“Everything, Daphne. Everything is terribly wrong.”
Daphne pulled away, just enough to look Kate in the eyes and see tears streaming down her cheeks. “Tell me.”
“My father, he…he…he borrowed a lot of money to invest in the new shop, hoping to attract more customers of a wealthier class. Fine carpets, rich draperies and furnishings, and also a large and expensive inventory.”
“A smart investment,” Daphne declared softly. “He is a good businessman.”
“Always before, yes, but unbeknownst to me or my mother, he borrowed the money from the most unsavory man—” She flinched, her face paling a shade more.
“And now what has happened?” Daphne pulled a handkerchief from her skirt pocket and dabbed at her friend’s eyes.
“The term of the loan was to be two years, but of course, there was a tiny notation in the contract that it might change at any time at the lender’s discretion, and suddenly he has demanded that my father repay the entirety of the loan with all its interest. Immediately.” Kate’s bottom lip trembled, and tears spilled over her cheeks. “It’s just all very upsetting. Mother has sold her heirloom silver, and Grandmother offered up her pension monies from when she served at the palace. But worst of all, Robert may have to come home from school.”
Daphne’s heart broke at hearing that. Kate referred of course to Robert, her younger brother, who at just nine years old already boasted advanced scientific and mathematical honors at the exclusive Mr. Gibbs Academy. They were all so very proud of him, and they’d had such high hopes for his future.
Daphne recalled all too vividly the dark days when grief had devastated the Wolverton household. Daphne’d had her grandfather, mother, and two sisters for comfort, but understandably they’d all been consumed by their own private grief. And she in particular, who after the death of her father had suffered the most terrible guilt. It had been Kate, then newly hired, who had been her rock.
Now Kate found herself faced by a terrible difficulty. Shouldn’t she be there for Kate just as unwaveringly as Kate had been there for her?
Daphne reached for Kate’s hand. “Let me help in some way. You know I love everything in the shop, as do my mother and sisters. If we all went shopping there this afternoon—”
“No, no, Daphne.” Her face pallid and drawn, Kate shook her head. “Thank you, but…I’m afraid the amount of the debt quite exceeds that sort of simple solution.”
Daphne nodded, feeling spoiled and sheltered from the dreadful financial realities of life that so many suffered. Most of all, she felt helpless. She lived such a life of privilege, but had no money of her own. Just pin money, and accounts at several shops which her grandfather’s accountants paid, as long as the expenditures remained within reason.
“Kate, how much?”
“I can’t even say it.” Her hand curled on Daphne’s sleeve. “I’ll become ill, right here on the carpet.”
“Go right ahead,” Daphne urged. “I don’t give a fig about the carpet. I want to know.”
“I’m not going to tell you,” Kate replied, her eyes tightly closed. “So don’t press me.”
Daphne’s frustration only grew.
“There has to be something I can do.” She worked her bottom lip, trying to conjure a solution, but already Kate was shaking her head and scowling at her.
“Don’t say that.” Kate took the handkerchief from her hand and dabbed her own eyes. “It only makes me feel worse that you’d feel the need to intervene, and besides, that’s not why I told you. You’ve helped me just by listening. Everything will be fine, and we’ll get through it.” She nodded and smiled bravely, and nodded again. “We will. This hardship will only make the family stronger, and bring us closer together.”
That much Daphne knew to be true. Her own family had become immeasurably closer in the dark days after her brother’s and father’s deaths. But now she needed to concentrate on Kate’s well-being, not on her own tragic memories. Kate, who stared over her shoulder, at nothing, seemingly a thousand miles away.
Daphne inquired softly, “You are certain everything will be all right?”
Kate blinked, appearing to break free from whatever spell that held her. “Yes, Daphne. Of course it will, without a doubt. Thank you for being such a friend.”
With a glance to the clock, her tearstained eyes widened.
“Look at the time. Come along now,” she said. “To the dressing room with you. I have less than an hour in which to transform you into the ne plus ultra everyone expects you to be. When you return I want to hear so many compliments about your appearance today that even I become morbidly conceited!”
Kate’s enthusiasm eased her concerns just a little, but Daphne wouldn’t forget. They would revisit the matter soon, and she would press for more details, just to be certain the Ficketts’ difficulties resolved completely. Still, what a relief to return to the easy banter that usually transpired between them. They always had such fun together.
“Kate, just wait until I tell you what Sophia just told Clarissa and me, downstairs, when we were in the conservatory.” Daphne sat on the tufted stool at her dressing table.
Kate peered over her shoulder, and their gazes met in the mirror. “I can’t wait to hear.”
“It’s very wicked,” she warned.
“All the better!”
Only three hours later, Daphne and Clarissa stood at the entrance to the female servants’ quarters, having just returned with Lady Margaretta from Lady Buckinghamshire’s Venetian breakfast. Though the afternoon was young and there was the Heseldon ball to attend, a note from Daphne’s grandfather, Lord Wolverton, had summoned them home with word that a number of the staff had been stricken by an undetermined malady. From the distant end of the corridor came the sounds of someone suffering from the most wretched effects of illness.
“Oh, my, I do believe that was a lung,” Daphne fretted, curling her fingers into the straw summer bonnet she held at the front of her skirt.
A door opened and Lady Margaretta emerged, accompanied by the housekeeper, Mrs. Brightmore. They both wore frowns of concern.
“They are very ill then?” inquired Clarissa.
That was rather obvious, Daphne thought, given the sounds of misery still emanating from behind the row of doors.
A housemaid moved briskly past, carrying a stack of fresh linens and several tin buckets on her arm. With a knock, she disappeared into the first of the rooms.
“I’m afraid so,” answered Lady Harwick.
“What of Miss Fickett?” Daphne asked, having been told Kate was one of those who had fallen ill.
It had taken every bit of Daphne’s will to remain in the corridor as her mother had insisted, rather than barging inside to assess her condition herself. Hadn’t Kate suffered enough from the shocking news of her family’s financial predicament?
“Unfortunately the dear girl is in no condition to assist you for the Heseldons’, and Hannah has been stricken as well, but there is sufficient time for Clarissa’s maid to dress your hair.”
“Oh, indeed, Miss Randolph is exceedingly efficient,” agreed Mrs. Brightmore. “I will speak to her and make her aware of this temporary arrangement.”
“I don’t care a fig about the ball or my hair,” Daphne retorted, stung by the superficial bent of the conversation. “I care about Miss Fickett!”
How was it that those closest to her sometimes seemed to understand her the least? She couldn’t go to a ball and smile and dance and charm while her dearest friend lay confined to her bed. For a moment, her fears got the better of her. What if the illness was of a serious nature? She’d already lost too many loved ones. She couldn’t lose Kate too.
Clarissa put an arm around her shoulder. “I care about Miss Fickett, too, and I hope she and the others feel much better soon.”
“We all do,” added the viscountess. “But there is nothing to do now but await the arrival of the physician. Depending on what he tells us, we may need to make changes in the household to protect His Lordship from exposure.”
The aging Lord Wolverton had largely recovered from the infirmity that had left him an invalid throughout the winter, though his aged muscles and weakened limbs still necessitated the use of a bath chair. Lady Margaretta and his granddaughters, not to mention his valet and other devoted staff, remained in constant vigilance with regard to his health, which at times led to his complaints of being treated like a child.
“By Heaven, I pray it’s not the influenza,” murmured Mrs. Brightmore, a hand pressed over her heart.
As if Mrs. Brightmore had voiced Lady Margaretta’s exact fears aloud, Daphne’s mother extended a hand in the opposite direction. “Come now, let us all return upstairs. There is nothing more we can do here at present.”
Her voice bordered along urgency, as if removing her daughters from the corridor would protect them from all threat of illness and danger, though they all knew Providence would selfishly do as it wished, as it had done with her eldest son and her husband. Out of consideration for her mother, Daphne accompanied Lady Margaretta and spent the next two hours writing out the remainder of the invitations with Clarissa’s help. Lord Wolverton sat nearby, reading aloud any details of note or amusement from the morning newspapers.
Eventually it was time to prepare for the Heseldon ball, and Daphne abandoned her inkwell and pen. Yet while Clarissa ascended the staircase, Daphne quietly slipped away and returned to the servants’ hall. Peering down the corridor to be certain she would remain unobserved, she knocked on Kate’s door.
“Come in,” came a feeble reply.
As a lady’s maid, just a notch in the household hierarchy below the housekeeper, Kate enjoyed the privacy of her own room. To Daphne’s surprise, however, Kate wasn’t in bed. She stood, pallid and gaunt, struggling to don her cloak. “Kate Fickett, where do you think you are going?” Daphne rushed inside, reaching a hand to steady her.
“Daphne, please leave,” Kate answered, her voice weak. She wobbled, unsteady on her feet, as if she might topple over at the slightest draft. “Her Ladyship would not approve of your being here, not with everyone else being so ill.”
“Everyone else being so ill? Including you, do you mean? Kate, you look dreadful.”
“It is nothing, I assure you,” she insisted faintly, listing to the left. “The others have it much worse than I.” Kate’s hair had slipped from its usual neat knot, and most of it now hung limp around her face. For someone who always took such pride in their appearance, her dishevelment told a different story.
“I don’t believe you, not for a minute.”
“Truly, I have only the mildest of stomach pains, with none of the other symptoms.” Kate let out a sudden gasp. Bending at the waist, she moaned. Perspiration dappled her forehead and upper lip.
“Ah, do you see?” Daphne said, guiding her by the arm into a wooden chair. “You really should be in bed.”
“But I must go,” Kate protested. As soon as she was seated, she stood from the chair again but teetered, lacking balance. “I’ll rest later. If you could please just hand me my hat.”
Shadows, almost as deep as bruises, darkened the skin beneath her eyes.
Daphne scowled at her friend’s continued obstinacy. “I forbid you to go. You can’t even stand up straight, let alone walk down the street.” With a gentle push to Kate’s shoulders, Daphne urged her down again.
“You don’t understand,” Kate declared, throwing a glance at the door and looking trapped. “I can’t remain here. I’ve a certain obligation to which I must attend.”
“Yes, I understand, your family. You feel as if you need to return home, and I understand. If my family were suffering, I’d want to go home as well. Allow me to send word that you are ill and being cared for here.”
“Not that obligation,” Kate whispered with desperate intensity. She twisted in the chair, refusing to meet Daphne’s gaze. “Not exactly.”
The young woman balled her hands into fists, looking miserable, and lifted them to her temples. “Please, Daphne, I beg you not to press me.”
Seeing Kate so anguished caused Daphne no small measure of alarm. Clearly there was more at issue here than getting home.
“How can I help you if you don’t confide in me?”
“It is a distressingly private matter,” whispered Kate.
“I have the feeling you didn’t tell me everything. The situation is worse than you led you to believe. Fickett, you don’t think I’ll understand?” She rested a hand on Kate’s arm.
With a sudden jerk, Kate wrenched her arm free. She glared at Daphne, eyes wild and feverish. “You couldn’t possibly understand. You’ve not a care in the world. Everything is so easy for you going from party to ball, your only responsibility to look pretty and marry well—or not. Whatever you decide, because you are wealthy and have that freedom.”
Daphne froze, as if she’d been struck.
Certainly their lives were different. They’d been born into disparate circumstances. But to think that Kate had felt this way about her all along when Daphne had actually dared to believe them close friends. Kate was wrong, of course. No amount of money could buy the one thing Daphne’s heart desired most. Neither wealth nor influence could turn back time and allow her to repair her life’s greatest regret.
“Oh, no.” Kate’s face crumpled and she sank to the bed, her hands covering her face. “I didn’t mean what I said. You have been nothing but constant and understanding, my dearest friend. Please forgive me.”
Daphne sighed, relieved to hear the words, but at the same time she knew Kate did hold that opinion of her in some way. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have said it. And why should her feelings be so bruised, when just a few hours earlier she’d thought the same thing, that she was a spoiled girl compared to Kate, who’d had to work in some form or fashion since the age of twelve?
“Forgive you for what? It’s already forgotten,” she replied, hoping to soothe her, and to show she did indeed understand. But of course she hadn’t forgotten. “I can only imagine you have taken another position at night for extra earnings to pay off your father’s debt. Is that it?”
Was it possible that Kate turned a shade greener? Daphne grabbed up the empty bucket from the floor and handed it to her.
“Of a sort,” the young woman whispered, grasping the edges and staring inside.
“While I hate that you’d exhaust yourself that way, you mustn’t fear that you’d endanger your position here. And surely this employer, whoever they are, will understand. You’re ill. They wouldn’t want you present for duty in this condition.”
“They won’t understand.” Kate closed her eyes, but even so, tears spilled down her cheeks. “He won’t understand. Don’t you see? I must go.”
There was so much pain in Kate’s face, Daphne’s heart nearly broke with the magnitude of it.
“Kate, what aren’t you telling me?” Daphne squeezed Kate’s shoulders. “Have you gotten yourself into some sort of trouble?”
“Oh, yes, Daphne, of a terrible sort—” Kate hiccupped, shoulders hunched.
“Everything will be all right.”
“No it won’t.” She shook her head morosely. “My father is indebted to the most horrible man.” Her words spilled out in a rush, accompanied by tears. “He has threatened to see my family turned out from our home, and committed to the debtor’s prison if we do not comply with his demands. My father, my mother, and my grandmother—who as you know is already frail. And the children! He showed us a signed order from the magistrate, who is his brother-in-law, and said he can use it at any time.”
“Kate, no.” Daphne’s temper caught flame. It wasn’t fair that any person could prey upon weaker souls, by wrongly and falsely enforcing the word and power of the law, but it happened all the time against those who did not have sufficient fortune to protect and defend themselves.
“How much is owed? You must tell me.”
The number Kate whispered made Daphne’s head spin. Kate had been correct earlier that afternoon in saying there was no way Daphne herself could produce the required funds.
“Your family can’t pay off the debt as quickly as he demands!” she exclaimed. “Certainly some sort of an arrangement can be made to pay off the monies over time, on a schedule.”
Kate cried, “Oh, yes, there is an arrangement indeed. My parents don’t know, but last week I sought him out, Daphne, and he has very kindly”—she gritted the words out—“allowed me to work off the remainder of the debt, which is why I really must go.” Suddenly she rocked forward in her chair, and her hands tightened on the bucket. She grimaced in pain.
“Work off the debt?” Daphne didn’t like the sound of that. Not at all! Her eyes narrowed.
“I can’t tell you.” Kate shook her head vehemently. “It’s too mortifying.”
Daphne’s concern increased tenfold. Now she felt ill as well. “Fickett, please tell me you haven’t—”
“No, not that. I—I haven’t prostituted myself, though he…he certainly extended the opportunity, saying the outstanding amount would be satisfied more quickly if I were willing to do so, starting with him as my first client.” Her lip curled in revulsion.
“Then what, Kate?” Daphne exclaimed, relieved but still alarmed. “You are going to tell me every mortifying detail, so that we can solve this problem.”
“It’s not your problem to fix Daphne,” Kate whispered, looking dazed and rubbing a hand over her face. Perspiration shone on her forehead, and her upper lip. She moaned, appearing one fraction away from being insensible. “It is mine, and I must be there by midnight, else he’ll send those men to my home—”
A knock sounded on the door, and the housekeeper stepped in. “The doctor is here to see Miss Fickett. May we come in?”
At that, Kate buried her face in the bucket and retched.
“I hope you have a marvelous time,” Daphne urged, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, as she walked Clarissa toward the vestibule from the conservatory, where they’d chosen a fragrant gardenia for her sister’s hair.
She had to get Clarissa and their mother out of the house as quickly as possible.
“I still wish you were coming.” Clarissa pouted.
She looked like a princess in blush-pink silk, a color Daphne would never choose to wear as long as she lived. She’d developed an aversion for the color in her youth, when Lady Harwick had oftentimes insisted on dressing her and her sisters in matching pink dresses. Daphne shivered at the memory but reminded herself not to lose focus.
“But you understand how fond I am of Miss Fickett.”
“Of course I do, and I pray her health improves. You’re such a dear to offer to stay and nurse her and the others.” Concern warmed her blue eyes. “At least it’s nothing contagious. Tainted sausages on the servants’ midafternoon tea sideboard!”
Indeed, it was the only reason her mother had agreed to allow her to remain behind at all. Daphne had further persuaded the viscountess with the argument that once she was in charge of her own household she would need to tend to ill servants, and this was the perfect opportunity for practice.
“Poor Kate. She ought to have chosen the mutton.” Daphne forced an easy laugh. “Why, did you see Cook when he left to confront the butcher? I thought I saw smoke coming out from his ears. Thankfully no authorities were called—”
“Like last time?” Her sister giggled. “When he threatened to burn down the butcher’s shop and Wolverton had to travel all the way across town to intercede on his behalf.”
“I remember,” Daphne said, but inside her mind raced and her heart pounded, so hard and rapidly she could scarcely breathe.
She’d told Kate not to worry, that she’d take care of everything, and poor Kate had been too depleted by her illness to do anything but collapse into an exhausted sleep. She simply had to do something. Daphne could no more allow the Ficketts to be turned out into the streets or sent to a debtor’s prison or workhouse than she could allow the same misfortune to befall her own family.
Clarissa said something about Lady Grant’s charming nephew, and hoping she would meet him tonight, but all Daphne heard was the thunderous tick tock of the clock inside her head as the moments passed.
“Er…what about Mr. Donelan?” Daphne asked distractedly, peering hopefully up the stairs. Lady Margaretta, always prompt to a fault, was nowhere to be seen. She considered sending one of the maids to let the viscountess know they were waiting.
“Mr. Donelan has turned out to be a terrible disappointment.” She sighed. “Why don’t we sit, and I’ll tell you everything while we wait?”
She gestured in the direction of a large potted palm, behind which a bench was situated.
“No!” Daphne blurted, catching her hand and drawing her back toward the center of the room. “Ah, I’m certain Mother will be right down. I heard Lady Heseldon has arranged for wandering minstrels and pantomimes. You won’t want to miss a moment of the fun, so the moment Her Ladyship arrives you had best hurry her posthaste into the carriage.”
She prayed Clarissa did not discern the urgency in her voice—an urgency she would be unable to explain. Kate, having sworn her to secrecy, rightfully feared losing her position if it became known that she had spent her nights this past week in the seediest district of London, working as a dancer in a bawdy house. Clarissa had always been terrible at keeping secrets. Not intentionally, of course, but she was unfailingly honest—and, as a result, dreadfully inept at concealment, especially where their mother was concerned.
“Promise me you’ll look after Mother. I don’t want her to spend all evening in a corner chair worrying about me.” Or coming home early. Heavens, no. “Now tell me all about Mr. Donelan.”
Clarissa adjusted the folds of her glove at her elbow. “In all the excitement this afternoon I forgot to tell you that I have heard a very reliable rumor that he is swimming, up to his aristocratic nose, in gambling debts, which of course puts the motive for his interest in me in question—”
“Tell me that’s not true.” Daphne frowned, seeing the depth of disappointment in her sister’s eyes.
“Oh, it’s true all right,” a man’s voice drawled from nowhere, echoing through the rotunda.
Startled, they both whirled round to see a pair of legs, clad in dark trousers and gleaming ankle boots, extend from behind the same potted palm where Clarissa had only moments before attempted to lead her. Two steps in that direction revealed a man they had only just met the year before, a man their grandfather’s investigators had informed them was very likely a cousin, Mr. Kincraig. He sat, half-sprawled on the bench, red-eyed and rakishly disheveled. He always looked like that, libertine that he was. After the deaths of their brother and father, Mr. Kincraig had become their grandfather’s solitary heir and the reason Wolverton and their mother wanted Clarissa and Daphne to marry well, so their futures would not be dependent on his whim.
“It’s ill-mannered to eavesdrop on a private conversation,” said Clarissa, her voice elevated.
Daphne crossed her arms at her waist. “Any proper gentleman would have announced himself.”
“When have I ever claimed to be that?” he muttered, scowling.
Daphne could not disagree with him on that point. There was no love lost between her family and the man standing before them. He had been a disappointment in every respect, to say the least, not only for the scandals in which he involved himself, but his general air of unreliability. He was also rumored to have won and lost fortunes several times over.
“Besides, I wasn’t eavesdropping on your little”—he waved a hand in the air—“female conversation. I nodded off while waiting for you ladies to appear. Where is Lady Harwick? Are the three of you always so vexingly late?”
“Late for what?” Clarissa demanded, faintly alarmed. Certainly, like Daphne, she already knew the answer: he was here to be their escort for the evening. Suffice it to say, they would have preferred to go alone. Sometimes, Mr. Kincraig behaved like the perfect gentlemen. Other times, he did not. There was just no predicting. At least tonight he did not smell atrociously of perfume and drink.
“The Heseldon ball,” he confirmed, nostrils flared in arrogance and he stood to glower down on them both. With his dark, longish hair brushing his jaw and sliding over his eyes, and his devilishly pointed mustache and beard, he looked like a pirate. “Wolverton requested—” He raised a finger. “No, let me reword that—he rather commanded that I present myself to escort the three of you this evening.”
Wolverton did that on occasion, more recently of late, hoping that Mr. Kincraig would abandon the life of a rogue and rise to the family’s expectations. The earl had explained more than once it was in all their best interests to bring him into the fold so that after the earl was gone, the transition would not be so difficult. The knowledge loomed over them always! At any moment, Mr. Kincraig might become master of their lives, though Wolverton had made arrangements, as well as he could, that none of them would be destitute if Kincraig drank and gambled their family fortune away.
“That’s just prime,” Clarissa muttered. “The least you could do is dress properly.”
“What do you mean?” he scowled, glancing downward over his attire.
Daphne gestured in the general direction of his throat. “Your cravat, sir, is an abomination.” She did have to admit, the rest of him looked very fine.
His eyes flashed in response and the muscle along his jaw tightened. He touched his hands to the named item of clothing. “Well, then, since you have both been so kind as to point out the flaw, I would be much appreciative if one of you would repair it.”
They both stood motionless, staring at him.
“Please,” he gritted through clenched teeth.
Clarissa broke ranks first. “Oh, very well.” She reached for the tangle of linen and efficiently set about its rearrangement. “So tell me, how would you know anything about Mr. Donelan’s situation?”
At that, his scowl transformed into a rakish grin. “To whom do you suppose it is that Mr. Donelan is indebted?”
“Why am I not surprised?” Daphne muttered.
Could this night be any worse? She felt like screaming out in impatience.
Clarissa froze, her hands falling away. “Mr. Kincraig, is that a bruise around your eye?”
“Ah—” His gaze shifted to the stairs. “Lady Harwick.”
There! At last, their mother appeared at the top of the stairs, a vision in a vibrant yellow gown that they’d had to convince her to purchase. For a moment, Daphne forgot all about Mr. Kincraig, Kate’s situation, and the time.
Though the viscountess had ceased wearing the colors of a widow before Christmas, she’d continued to choose muted shades, evidence of her continued grief over the deaths of the viscount and her son. But tonight her mother looked radiant. Beautiful even.
“Oh, dear, you’re all staring.” Lady Margaretta blushed. “Do I look like a canary? I’m still doubting my decision, both about this dress and about letting Daphne remain behind this evening.”
“The dress is lovely,” Daphne effused. “You are lovely.”
Her sister nodded approvingly, her eyes damp and shining. “Just as we said at the dressmaker’s shop, canary is your color.”
Even Mr. Kincraig appeared affected. “Indeed it is, my lady,” he said, rushing with uncustomary gallantry to assist her down the final stairs.
“Mr. Kincraig.” Her mother greeted him with a smile, albeit a reserved one, no doubt wishing in that moment that it was her husband or her son who greeted her. Mr. Kincraig and Vinson would have been much the same age, but were of course nothing at all alike. Mr. Kincraig was more akin to a pirate than a gentleman in his complete unwillingness—or perhaps a genuine inability—to submit to any social expectation or practice of manners.
With a start, Daphne remembered the matter at hand, and the time. “You had all best be on your way. You don’t want to miss a moment of the fun.”
The footmen reached for the doors, opening them for the party’s anticipated passage.
Clarissa waved a gloved hand. “I’ll tell you all the on-dits tonight when we return—what everyone wore and who asked me to dance.”
“As will I,” Mr. Kincraig added drolly, pressing a hand over his heart, which inspired a dramatic roll of her sister’s eyes. Yet Daphne did not miss the little twitch of a smile on Clarissa’s lips—one that mirrored her own. Even the viscountess smiled.
In that moment her heart softened just a degree toward the man who had, through no fault of his own, taken her father and her brother’s rightful place. Perhaps…perhaps they could all one day accept Mr. Kincraig as a true member of the family.
“Tomorrow at breakfast,” Daphne responded. “Most likely I’ll be asleep when you return.” Balls always ran late, and it would be two or three o’clock before they arrived home. At least that was her hope.
At last, in a shimmer of pearls and diamonds, her sister and mother were gone, in the company of a man who remained so much a stranger to them. Daphne breathed a sigh of relief.
Finally—time to help Kate! Thank heavens Wolverton had decided to make an early evening of it and take dinner in his room. She’d glimpsed O’Connell, his valet, descending the servants’ staircase some thirty minutes before, having already been dismissed for the night.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she whispered to herself, as she rushed down the stairs, returning again to the servants’ corridor.
She’d already considered every option. For her, simply paying off Kate’s debt wasn’t possible; despite her privileged life, she had no access to money of her own, not of the magnitude required. She couldn’t sell her dresses or her jewels. Anything of value that went missing would be noted immediately either by her mother or the keen-eyed Mrs. Brightmore, and the loss construed as theft. The servants would be questioned, and she would be forced to step forward and declare herself the guilty party in stealing from…well, from her own self. A strange predicament, indeed.
If only she could go to her grandfather or her mother and simply ask for the money, but she knew from experience her grandfather, no matter how generous he might be, would soundly reject the lending of money to a servant. The problem had presented itself before, and she had heard his reasoning. What he did for one, he must do for all. There would be no loans granted, only fair wages earned, and never in advance.
She could only imagine the earl’s explosive reaction, as well as her mother’s dismay, if they learned that she’d involved herself in the financial affairs of a servant. Likely by opening her mouth she would only find herself on the receiving end of a lecture about proper boundaries between herself and the staff—and Kate in search of a new position.
She couldn’t even go to Sophia, who very well might take pity on Kate’s plight. The Duke and Duchess of Claxton had departed that afternoon for a week at their estate outside of Lacenfleet, where Sophia could rest and be doted on by Mrs. Kettle, the elderly caretaker’s wife, while His Grace approved recent renovations to the manor house, necessary after a fire had destroyed much of the main hall just before Christmas.
Daphne hadn’t felt this helpless since the day her father died. She’d been powerless to change the course of that tragedy. Now, having knowledge of the danger Kate’s family faced, she had no choice but to act.
Hurriedly, she spoke to the nurse who had been brought in to tend to the stricken. Afterward, she visited each of the female servants, fluffing pillows and coaxing spoonfuls of weak beef broth through pale and unwilling lips. All the while, her brain churned out one useless idea after another before returning to the only one that made sense. At last she again arrived at Kate’s door. Inside, thankfully, Kate was sleeping, her face pallid against the linen pillowcase.
Hands shaking, she took up Kate’s reticule from the table and searched inside until she found what she wanted—a scrap of paper upon which all the necessary particulars had been neatly inscribed in her friend’s familiar handwriting.
Cormack stared at the doorway from across the road, the scent of rubbish filling his nostrils. Had he, indeed, found the Blue Swan? By all appearances, he stood outside an abandoned warehouse. Just then, a hackney clattered down the pavestones and slowed in front of him, only to speed off again. But there, in the shadows, he caught just the barest glimpse of a man who rapped his fist on the door two times. The sound echoed outward. After a moment, he rapped two times more.
He observed a flicker of movement, but not so much as a glimmer of light. Men’s voices sounded, a quiet rumble in the night, and the newly arrived visitor disappeared inside.
Crossing the road, he replicated the knock against the door.
A panel slid open, behind which he perceived the shadowed features of a very large man who stooped to peer out at him. “Say th’ word, govna.”
Hmmm. Entrance, it appeared, required more than a special knock, but he’d come prepared for that possibility.
“The precise word slips my mind.” From his coat pocket, he produced a heavy pouch and on his open palm, presented it to the man. “Might you be able to give me a hint?”
The bully quickly took possession of the offered bribe, and behind the door, appeared to weigh the pouch in his hand.
With a squint, he muttered, “The word is slippin’ me own mind at the moment—I’m tryin’ me best to remember—”
Another pouch, and the door swung open to darkness. “Enjoy your evenin’, sir.”
Cormack walked with outstretched hand until he touched a heavy velvet curtain, which he pushed aside, only to be met with more darkness and a second curtain, but also sounds—voices and female laughter. He swept aside the drape and entered the Blue Swan.
Cormack intercepted the fist that drunkenly hurtled toward his face. Grabbing the red-nosed fellow by his shoulders, he spun him round and shoved him in the direction of his intended opponent.
Lord, he despised bawdy houses. If only vengeance had not commanded him here tonight.
Tobacco smoke clouded the air, dimming his view of the men who crowded around the faro tables, gentlemen in evening dress intermingled with tradesmen in dark suits and rough-hewn men off the wharves. Gilt-framed mirrors cluttered the walls, and lopsided chandeliers hung from the ceilings, trappings of faux luxury. A ramshackle quartet was assembled in the distant corner. The establishment had the feel of transience, as if every fixture, table, and drape could be snatched up at any moment, thrown in the back of a wagon, and installed elsewhere for the same effect. Understandable, as Cormack’s source had warned him the club changed locations often so as to avoid discovery by the constables. Predators with painted lips and rouged cheeks circled him, already taking note of the newcomer in their midst.
“Looking for a bit o’ company t’night, good sir?” inquired a redhead, boldly assessing him with kohl-lined eyes.
“Two is company. Three is a party.” The brunette sidled closer, offering Cormack an unrestricted view of her breasts, only barely constrained by a bodice of sheer muslin. “You look like the sort of man who requires more than just one.”
Hmmm…perhaps. But his tastes were far more refined than what he would find here.
As far as London brothels went, the Blue Swan was the seediest he’d visited thus far. But he wasn’t here to drink, gamble, or to whore. He was here to find the man he had sworn to destroy. If only he knew who the hell he was looking for.
His hand passed over his coat pocket, confirming the existence of the hard lump within—the gold amulet he’d accepted from Laura’s hand in the moments before her death, one bearing a severed Medusa’s head and the Latin word Invisibilis.
Two years had passed, but in many ways time had stood still. His parents remained mired in grief for the death of their beloved daughter, still unable to fathom the mysterious circumstances in which she met her end—circumstances that Cormack now felt compelled to avenge.
From what his parents had told him, he knew that Laura arrived at Bellefrost on the back of a farmer’s wagon, in rags and with no possessions of which to speak, already in the throes of childbirth labor. This had come as a shock, as they’d believed her to be contentedly serving as a governess at the Deavalls’. Her letters had come with all regularity, never giving the slightest hint of distress. Their questions had brought no answers—only tears from his sister. In shock, they’d called for the doctor. Within hours of what had seemed to be a normal birth, her health suddenly failed. She died, never revealing the name of the man who had left her to give birth alone to a pale-haired little boy. Was it because she wished to keep her seducer’s identity a secret, or because she hadn’t expected to die?
Left with no answers and his sister’s honor to defend, Cormack had asked questions of his own. Against the wishes of his parents, who wanted only to grieve and raise Michael with as much dignity as possible, he had traveled to the Deavall estate, only to be informed by the housekeeper that Laura had abruptly left her employment some five months before. It did not take long for him to discover she had spent the first week after leaving holed away at an inn in the neighboring village before moving to another, this one much shabbier than the first. Before long, she had simply…disappeared.
He wasn’t a fool. He knew she’d gone into hiding to conceal her condition from the world. From her own family. But Laura had always been so smart, and so strong and self-disciplined. She wasn’t that woman. How had this happened to her? The questions ate him up inside. Who was the child’s father, and why, in the end, had Laura suffered such a shocking dishonor alone, and left her child to suffer the lifelong stain of illegitimacy?
Of course, his suspicions had immediately fallen to the Deavall estate, but a chance encounter with a local tavern girl—very pretty, except for the shadows in her eyes—had provided a more shocking answer when she glimpsed the medallion in his hand. She shared of her harrowing experience with a group of aristocratic young hell-raisers at the Duke of Rathcrispin’s hunting lodge, which lay adjacent to the Deavall estate. For two weeks the libertines had gambled, drank, and done their best to debauch every woman within a ten-mile radius of the place, including herself, which was why she now had a little girl of her own and no husband.
Desperately accepting the coins Cormack pressed into her hand, she’d told him she knew from intimate experience that several of the men had worn a medallion identical to the one in his possession. She believed them dangerous and powerful enough for her to warn him against showing the medallion freely. Perhaps, like her, Laura had been momentarily dazzled and seduced, she’d said. But she would not exclude a more sinister explanation, had his sister been unwilling. The men exuded entitlement and a lifetime of privilege. They had no qualms about taking what they wanted.
Truly, it was all the answer he needed, save for a name.
Simmering with rage, not only for the wrong done to his sister but to the girl as well, he had gone to the hunting lodge, even though the men were no longer in residence. He had been seeking answers. Seeking names. The place teemed with guests, a house party, yet in his attempt to make inquiries he hadn’t made it past the door. Though he had been raised as gentry and possessed a fortune from his time in Bengal, he was no aristocrat. He might as well have been a street beggar in rags in the haughty eyes of those he sought to question. He had been rebuffed like so much rubbish.
So for two years he’d tended to his parents and little Michael, ostracized by their neighbors now not for their poverty, but because of scandal, so much so that even their neighbor, Sir Snaith, had declined to honor his gentleman’s agreement to sell their lands back to them. Yet winter had delivered to him an unexpected gift—the key to obtain the answers and, yes, the vengeance he sought. An unexpected series of deaths had made his father the new Marquess of Champdeer and him an earl. At last Cormack had the necessary entrée to step behind the high wall of aristocratic protection that had held him back for so long.
For that reason he had come to London for the season when twelve men who remained unnamed—and one who remained unpunished—would in all likelihood converge from all corners of England, like the others of their kind.
Having arrived one week ago, he found himself woefully without connections, but at night he frequented their favorite gaming hells and discreetly asked questions, not of those men of privilege with whom he rubbed elbows, but of those who found themselves trampled beneath their well-polished heels, who in common whispered one word, but only after glancing fearfully over their shoulder: Invisibilis. At last, he felt…close.
His hatred renewed, Cormack made his selection carefully and caught her wrist as she moved past, a woman in an ill-fitted, jade green gown. Older than the others, with a faded complexion and dull hair, perhaps she would be more eager than her competitors to earn a bit of coin in exchange for a whispered, forbidden secret.
“’Ay!” The harridan’s eyes widened in outrage, but upon assessing him, softened into heavy-lidded seduction. “Well, ’ow do you do, ’andsome?” she breathed. “’Aven’t seen you ’ere before. I’m Nellie. What are y’ lookin’ for tonight?”
“I’m looking for you, Nellie.” He took care to remain in the deepest of shadows. Though few would recognize him in London, he expected that might change, depending on how long this business of retribution kept him here.
In the crush of the crowd, she pressed against him, curling her hands into his lapels. “I’ve a room upstairs, nice and cozy. What do you say? I’ll get us a bottle, just for ourselves.”
“Actually, I’ve become separated from friends, and would like to rejoin them. I was hoping that perhaps you know them?”
“Friends?” Her eyes narrowed. “What sort of friends?”
He pressed a crown into her palm.
After a quick glance to assess the coin’s worth, a smile eased onto her lips. “Per’aps I do know them. I’ve known everyone ’ere, at one time or another, it seems. Tell me about them.”
He spoke near her ear. “They follow this club from place to place, but keep to themselves, perhaps in a back room, rarely if ever mingling with the other customers.”
Her face went slack, but she said nothing.
He continued, “Each of them wears a gold medallion depicting—”
“A woman,” she murmured. “With snakes for hair.”
The beat of his heart increased. He nodded, keeping his face expressionless so as to not reveal the depth of his excitement. “Those would be the same gentlemen. The Invisibilis.”
“You’re not one of ’em, ’at much I know. And I very much suspect they aren’t your friends.” She chuckled wryly. “A mysterious lot, they are. Don’t come ’ere for the entertainments, for the most part, though when they do, they pay the girls well, though some of them can be a bit…rough.”
“Can you provide their names? Even the name of an associate or lackey?”
She glanced over her shoulder before whispering, “Never actually seen their faces. They wear ’oods, fashioned of black silk, y’ see, but gentlemen they be, all of them, with fancy clothes and carriages. They’ve not yet arrived, but soon, I think. Keep an eye over there, beside the stage. If they’re ’ere tonight, they’ll come through the back.”
“Thank you, Nellie.” He stepped away, and her hands fell from his coat.
“Wot, that’s all?” She pouted, a saucy smile tilting her carmine lips. “You paid for better than just a bit of chitchat.”
“If anyone comes asking later, forget about me. That’s all I ask.”
“Beshrew me, forget ’at ’andsome face?” Her gaze traveled over him longingly. Regretfully. She sighed. “Don’t think ’at’s possible, but Nellie don’t tell tales on her favorites.” She came near, her voice lowered. “But be careful w’ those ones. They’re dangerous men.”
“How do you know I’m not the same?”
She answered softly. “You still have a soul. I can see it in your eyes.”
Cormack wasn’t so sure about that.