Authors: Sandra Heath
Tags: #Regency Romance
It was late on a misty April night in the year 1800, and Sir Sebastian Sheringham, one of London’s most eligible gentlemen, had spent an evening unexpectedly alone in his private box at the theater. As his gleaming town carriage conveyed him back to his house in Berkeley Square, he had no idea that before the night was out he would have ended the constant speculation concerning his matrimonial intentions, or that the unlikely bride he would have chosen was a woman he had as yet never even heard of.
He lounged lazily back upon the coach’s magnificent velvet upholstery, his long legs stretched out upon the seat opposite. He wore the formal attire considered
for gentlemen at the theater, a dark, tight-fitting velvet coat with ruffles at the wrists, pale knee breeches with silver buckles, a dress sword, and on his rather unruly golden hair a cocked hat which was tipped back at a nonchalant angle.
There was a diamond pin in his lacy neckcloth, and it flashed each time the carriage passed a streetlamp. He was a handsome, elegant man, and at nearly thirty was considered a little overdue for marriage. Popular and much sought after, he was seldom left to his own devices, and that was why his solitary evening at the theater had been such a very pleasant experience.
The house had been half-empty and so for once he had actually been able to watch the entire performance, appreciating to the full the excellent acting and being able to hear every single word the players uttered. There had been no constant coming and going of friends, no fashionable conversation throughout even the most important parts of the production, and no predatory married ladies intent upon winning him as their latest lover.
Nor, and for this he was most thankful of all, had there been any hopeful parents endeavoring to secure for their daughters the man who was considered to be one of the two greatest catches of the moment, the other being his cordially loathed cousin Felix, Duke of Calborough.
Sebastian leaned his head back wearily. For the most part he enjoyed the exclusive world of which he was part, and he accepted that it all revolved around the Marriage Mart itself, but of late it had all begun to irritate him. He felt more than a little
at the thought of the coming Season, which would once again be filled with attempts to marry him off, and for reasons of his own he now wished himself well out of it. Society was right to pronounce him in need of a wife, never more so, but it was not right to presume that that wife would come from its own exclusive ranks. No, the woman who was to be Lady Sheringham had to be very different, very different indeed.
The carriage drew up outside his town house and he alighted, pausing for a moment to glance across the misty square to the dimly seen lights of the houses opposite. There was a bitter chill in the air, a certain raw dampness which seemed to creep up from the Thames at this time of year, catching the city unawares after the warmth and brightness of a particularly fine April day. The daffodils were in bloom, but this cold came from the very heart of winter, if winter had a heart. He smiled a little wryly and then turned to enter the house.
The black-and-white-tiled vestibule was cool in spite of the fire in the marble fireplace. The light blue walls did not help, for they seemed always to add a certain chill that lingered even in the height of August. There were chandeliers suspended from the domed ceiling high above, and their crystal droplets shone like fragments of ice, whereas in summer they glowed like warm diamonds. Sebastian teased off his white gloves, dropping them onto the console table next to the bowl of spring flowers and the silver dish of calling cards. The butler hurried to remove his cloak and unfasten the dress sword. “I trust your evening was agreeable, sir.”
“A package has been delivered for you, sir—it came by special messenger a little while ago.”
Sebastian frowned. “Who is it from?”
“I do not know the gentleman, sir, but his name is Mr. Leon St. Charles, and his address is in Ireland. I took the liberty of placing the package in the drawing room.”
Sebastian nodded. “Very well.”
The butler withdrew as his master went up the grand staircase. Sebastian flung open the double doors of the drawing room and went in. It was an elegant room, with cream silk walls and crimson-and-gold furniture. The ceiling was intricately decorated in beige, white, and gold, and the carpet on the floor mirrored the design exactly.
The room was filled with costly ornaments and paintings, and everything had been chosen to reflect the taste of the owner—that taste was impeccable. Lighted now by candles and the flickering glow of the fire, it was a soothing place to be, and for a moment he was tempted to merely pour a glass of cognac and lounge back on his favorite sofa, but he was too curious about Mr. St. Charles and his mysterious package.
The little parcel lay on the inlaid table, and Sebastian gazed at it for a moment, toying with the spill of lace protruding from the cuff of his velvet coat. His eyes were thoughtful as he picked up the parcel and turned it over to read the name and address of the sender.
Mr. Leon St. Charles, Liskillen House, Liskillen, County Down, Ireland.
With a shrug he broke the sealing wax and pressed back the brown paper. Inside there was something small and flat wrapped in a soft white cloth. Taking it out, he found himself looking at the silver-framed miniature of a young woman of about twenty, her pretty face framed by a tumble of light brown ringlets, her green eyes laughing and happy. There was an accompanying letter.
As he read it, he was for a moment too astonished at what it said to do anything but stare at it. Thinking he had misunderstood, he read it again, but there was no mistake: Mr. St. Charles really was proposing his daughter Bryony as the future Lady Sheringham, and what was more, he was in all seriousness! Sebastian laughed a little incredulously, shaking his head a little at the sheer impudence of the man.
Leon St. Charles claimed to have once been a very close friend of James Sheringham, Sebastian’s father, when both had been youthful officers together in the same regiment. So close had their friendship been, claimed St. Charles, that they had made a solemn pledge that if ever one became the father of a son and the other of a daughter, then a match would be arranged between the two. It was possible that there had been such a pledge, conceded Sebastian a little reluctantly, for where James Sheringham had been concerned anything was possible, but James had been dead for five years now and during his lifetime he had never once mentioned a pledge—indeed he had never once mentioned Leon St. Charles!
Sebastian crumpled the letter and tossed it into the wastepaper basket. It was obviously a ploy to secure a grand match for a young lady whose hopes would otherwise have been very slender indeed, and for that Sebastian supposed he had to admire the resourceful Mr. St. Charles, who was evidently prepared to go to great lengths on his daughter’s behalf. About to consign the miniature to the wastepaper basket as well, Sebastian suddenly stopped, glancing at it again; then he poured himself a glass of cognac and lounged back on the sofa, looking much more closely at the beautifully painted face.
He did not hear the carriage draw up outside, or the front door being opened to admit a lady. She was tall and very stylish indeed, her long red hair worn up beneath a peach silk turban. There were dazzling diamonds and pearls at her throat, and her slender hands were thrust deep into a white fur muff which matched the trimming of her costly evening pelisse. The long train of her silk gown dragged over the tiled floor behind her as she turned to give the muff to the attentive butler, who informed her that Sebastian was in the drawing room.
She shook her head when he said he would announce her, and with a slight smile the man withdrew again. Petra, Countess of Lowndes, was the only woman in London with
to enter this house whenever she chose, a right she used very frequently indeed, much to the interest of society and the chagrin of her estranged husband, the earl.
Her skirts rustled on the staircase as she went up to the drawing room. Sebastian looked up immediately as she entered. “So, the delights of a Carlton House assembly couldn’t hold you after all,” he said with a smile.
“Lowndes was there,” she replied flatly, going to sit next to him.
“How disagreeable for you.”
“It was.” She took off her little satin slippers and wriggled her toes toward the warmth of the fire; then she settled luxuriously back. “Oh, that’s better, I’ve been standing for simply
It was a boring evening, and it was quite the last straw when I found myself looking at Lowndes’s surly phiz. He’s so disagreeable that I can’t help wondering what on earth possessed me to accept him instead of you.”
“Perhaps it was simply that you didn’t get an offer from me.”
“Oh, yes, I seem to recall that you were being difficult, pursuing low actresses and such like rather than ladies of breeding and superior quality.”
“It was but a passing phase, I promise you.”
“I sincerely hope it was, for it’s most insulting to be passed over in such a way.”
“Come now, Petra, the truth of the matter is that although you may conceivably have had a soft spot for me, you absolutely adored the thought of being mistress of half Cornwall. My paltry acres in Worcestershire did not hold the same allure.”
“True. However, although I
Cornwall, and Tremont Park in particular, I absolutely
“One goes with the other, I fear.”
“So I discovered.” She smiled then. “So, you don’t believe what society is whispering about it all?”
“What is it whispering?”
“That I married Lowndes only because Tremont lies barely two miles away as the crow flies from Polwithiel Abbey, where at the time you were residing with your uncle and aunt while nursing a heart broken by a certain henna-headed actress.”
“Is that what they say?”
“Yes. Do you believe it of me?”
believe it or not is immaterial, for I’ll warrant you’ve done absolutely nothing to contradict the story.”
“Of course not, I’m positively reveling in it. What woman wouldn’t? I
having my name so openly connected with London’s most handsome and sought-after gentleman.”
“You flatter me, I think.”
She glanced wickedly at him, nodding in agreement. “Yes, perhaps you’re right, your cousin Felix is the more handsome. You trail in a poor second.”
“Not at all.” She wriggled her tired toes again, leaning her head back and sighing deliciously. “All I could think of tonight was getting out of Carlton House and back here so that I could toast my feet before your fire.”
“You should toast them before your own.”
“What, and risk dispelling all those highly flattering rumors? That wouldn’t do at all.”
“How was Prinny?” he asked, changing the subject.
“In fine fettle, and a little the worse for maraschino, as usual. He’s decidedly indiscreet, telling everyone that he hopes the poor king will remain hopelessly mad so that he will be made Regent. That will never come about while Mr. Pitt is first minister, and I rather fancy it will take more than Prinny to remove
from office. The sooner the Prince realizes that, the better for his indigestion, to say nothing of his liver.” She gazed at the slowly moving flames. “Actually, the most interesting talk concerned you.”
“Surely you are not surprised? Society has been most interested in you, and in Felix, for some considerable time now.”
He groaned. “Not
“What else? To be honest, I found it all extremely amusing tonight.”
“I’m afraid that I no longer find it humorous.”
“So I’ve noticed, but I think even you will smile when I tell you about a certain scurrilous racing card. Ah, now I see that I have your interest. The card truly is very entertaining and clever, it is a list of fillies of truly noble and ancient lineage—no, I must be honest, some of them are definitely mares, their ages a matter of pure conjecture. The distance is from the church porch to the altar, the prize is to become either the next Duchess of Calborough or to be Lady Sheringham, whichever title takes the fancy. But oh, the starting prices make
reading! I curled up with mirth at some of them, picturing the fury of the ladies concerned when they see how poorly their chances and their charms are rated!”
“And what were your own odds?”
“Actually they were gratifyingly short. It seems that society is of the notion that I will soon try to seek a divorce from Lowndes in order to legalize my shocking liaison with you.”
She smiled a little slyly. “So I thought I would cause another little stir and set the tongues wagging again by flirting most outrageously with Felix.”