Read A Waltz in the Park Online

Authors: Deb Marlowe

A Waltz in the Park

BOOK: A Waltz in the Park
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

A Waltz in the Park

© 2014 by Deb Marlowe

Cover Design by Lily Smith

 

 

 

 

Don’t Miss the Other Books in

The Half Moon House Series

 

The Love List

An Unexpected Encounter

A Slight Miscalculation

Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

and coming soon:

The Leading Lady

 

For Ava Stone, who won’t turn her cell phone off on the plane, but who will listen, laugh, share stories, share burdens, share Bailey’s and drop everything for an emergency Burlesque show.

 

 

 

Chapter One

London, England

1814

 

“I see that you are still keeping company with that whore.”

Mr. James Vickers stiffened, his fists and shoulders going tight at the sound of the familiar, heavy rasp.  He turned slightly.  “Good evening, Father.”

Lord Vickers sneered and gestured toward the glass he held.  “And still getting soused in public, too, I see.”

Vickers promptly tossed back the rest of his no-longer-chilled champagne.  In truth, he hadn’t been foxed in a good long time—but he was fiendishly glad that his father hadn’t noticed.  He raised the empty glass in a mock salute once he’d finished.  “I’m very well, thank you.  And I see that you are still masquerading as a gentleman.”

He had to speak up to be heard over the din in Lady Dalton’s ballroom.  He took spiteful pleasure in delivering the barb in a tone louder than strictly necessary.

Beside him, Hestia Wright smiled brightly, causing at least one of the men on the nearby dance floor to stumble.  “Good evening to you, Lord Vickers.”  Her volume nearly matched his own.  “Thank you!  Of course we at Half Moon House will be happy to accept your donation.”  She winked as she began to sidle away.  “I’ll send ‘round a note to your man of business tomorrow to make arrangements.”

With a commiserating glance, she faded into the crowd.  Vickers watched her go with resignation.  Hestia Wright didn’t get invited to every Society ball, but she greatly improved each one she attended.  Lady Dalton had apparently invited
everyone
in London to her crush of a ball.  Clearly they all had accepted too.  Hundreds, from Society’s elite to the hangers-on at the fringe of the beau monde, had come to see and be seen, to dance and gossip, to fight for a bit of heavily perfumed air and a spot to breathe it.  Rumor had it even the reclusive Duke of Aldmere was in attendance.

His father glared after Hestia.  “I should have thought you would have tired of her long ago.” 

Vickers sighed.  “Father, you know Hestia Wright is a philanthropist now.  Everyone knows it.  She is a dear friend to me.  And in any case, she was never a mere whore.  She was, simply put, the most beautiful, accomplished and charming courtesan to ever grace England or the Continent.”  He shook his head.  “And I would be careful how you speak of her, were I you.  There are statesmen, royal princes, and wealthy and powerful men aplenty who are most displeased to hear her spoken ill of.”

The viscount harrumphed.  “Once a whore, always a whore.”

“Well, if anyone was in a position to know, it would be you, sir.  You’ve kept company with enough of them.”  Vickers perked up suddenly and allowed the corner of his mouth to quirk in sudden mockery.  “In fact, I danced earlier with one of your old amours—the widowed Lady Athbert.  Is that what is bothering you?”

At his father’s grimace Vickers gleefully drove the stake home.  “In point of fact, she’s not the only one of your past concubines I’ve seen recently.   Marjorie Potts—she held residence in your cozy Compton Street love nest at one time, did she not?”

Color blazed in his father’s face.  He made a strangled sound.

“She’s dealing cards at the Velvet Nook these days.  I do believe you ruined her for other men.”

He meant that literally.  It must have been about Marjorie Potts’ time that the philandering men of the
ton
had figured out they had no wish to take up with his father’s leavings. 

“She asked me to pass on her greetings, by the by, and tell you that she’d rather die in a gutter than come back to Compton.”

His father hissed like a steam valve about to release.  His flush grew dangerously deep.  James watched, enjoying the sweet, smooth flood of satisfaction starting to run in his veins.

“Ungrateful, unnatural son—”

“Now, now,” he interrupted.  “Do not cast aspersions upon my mother’s good name.  The gossips would surely rejoice if I called you out, but I don’t believe you would enjoy the experience.”

The viscount fought to control the fury bubbling just beneath his florid surface—even as Vickers gloried in his struggle.  This.  This was his life’s work.  Once he’d been a blind fool, believing that duty and family honor comprised his purpose.  Now he knew better.  He was the silent witness to his father’s sins.  The constantly pricking thorn in his sire’s side—and he’d developed an inventive knack for the work.

“Wicked ingrate!”  His father pointed a shaky finger at him.  “You disgrace your name with every breath you take.  Bad enough you must spend your life rolling about the gutters.  I’ll thank you to stay far away from anyone associated with me.”  He whirled on his heel and stalked off.

Frowning, Vickers watched him until he was lost in the crush.  What about that little exchange had shaken his father so?  They’d had far more acrimonious encounters in the past.

“Good heavens,” Hestia said from behind him.  “I haven’t seen him so angry since our friendship first began.”

“Yes, it’s been too long since I’ve touched a real nerve.”  And as always, his father’s anger fueled his own.  Hestia, thanks to all the powers that be, had shown him how to tame the beast, pulled him from the brink of destruction and taught him how to focus his fury so that it did not destroy himself or others.  But the old rage still lurked in the basement of his soul. 

“Not for lack of trying, surely,” Hestia said with a grin.  “What did you do to rile him up?”

“I’m not sure,” Vickers mused.  “I think perhaps he’s annoyed that I’ve had contact with a couple of his old mistresses.”  He flashed Hestia a grin.  “You know what that means.”

“Do I?”

“It means that now I must speak to them all!”  His chuckle lacked humor.  “God knows the list is long enough.  I should be able to annoy him all Season long.”

Hestia gazed thoughtfully after the old man.  “Be careful, my dear.  Something tells me there’s more here than meets the eye.”

Vickers grinned.  “Good.  I’ve been
quietly
humiliating him for too long.”

“And now?” Hestia asked.

“Hmmm.”  James still stared thoughtfully after his father.  “Now I find I’m in the mood to create a scandal.”

 

* * *

 

“The very image of propriety.  That is what you
must
project this season.”

Miss Adelaide Stockton jumped when her Great-Aunt Delia poked her in the side.

“Listen now, my young miss.  You’ve looks enough.  That picture of innocence you portray is appealing to many men and you’re prettier overall than most of these hen-wits.”  She gestured and nearly struck a passing gentleman with her quizzing glass.  It was getting to be a tight fit in Lady Dalton’s crowded ballroom tonight—even in the matron’s corner, where they sat on spindly chairs and watched the dancing.  “But your dowry is merely adequate—no inspiring amount—and you’ve your mother’s sins to live down.”

Addy bit back a protest.  Her mother had been in love and acted accordingly—which didn’t count as a sin in her book. 

“Almost worse—you’re saddled with my alley cat of a daughter for a chaperone.”  Great-Aunt Delia snorted.  “It all adds up in the columns stacked against you.”

Addy sighed.

“I know.  It doesn’t look good for you, gel.  Your father should never have accepted that position with the East India Company.  What was he thinking, taking off for the East, abandoning that baby daughter and leaving before he saw you settled?”

“He wasn’t thinking,” Addy replied.  She knew well enough why Papa had gone.  He’d been
feeling
—feeling as if he couldn’t bear to stay here and be reminded of Mama at every turn.

“How just like a man, to cater to his own shortcomings and leave you here, stranded with the likes of my Rosamond.”  The old woman shook her head.  “In any case, he took pains to tell me that you are not like other girls.  Spirited, he says you are.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “I know what that translates to, missy.  Trouble.”

Addy tried to look innocent.

Her great-aunt shook a finger at her.  “It’s true enough, a bit of fire in your belly would have been a boon back in my day.  My generation knew how to live life with spice and a taste of drama.”  She sighed.  “Those days are gone now.  It’s all rules and propriety now, girl.  These modern gentlemen want a girl prim and proper and laced up tight—so that’s what you’ll have to give them.  There can be none of the shenanigans you got up to at home.”

“You wouldn’t call them shenanigans had you been there, ma’am.”  Addy felt compelled to come to her own defense.  “Unfortunately, the young men at home found my dowry to be more than adequate—especially the parcel of land that comes with it.  Two of them made a bet—each convinced they could gain my hand—and the land—before the other.”

Her aunt looked suddenly interested.  “And what did you do about it?”

“When I found myself being maneuvered into a compromising position by Theodore Longlath, I spun him a vivid tale about the red, itchy rash I’d been plagued with—all over.”

“Effective,” her aunt remarked.

“True.  He was too busy scratching to try anything else.”

“And the other?”

“He got a bit more inventive.  He feigned an accident on our estate, so that he would be brought back to the house to have his injuries tended to.”

Her aunt merely raised a brow.

Addy smiled.  “He’d already heard about the rash, so I rubbed stinging nettles into all of his bed linens.  After that he recovered quickly and was on his way.”

Great-Aunt Delia laughed.  “I do admire your creative thinking, my dear, but it must come to an end now.”  She looked around, frowning.  “If I weren’t so cursed old, I’d oversee your debut myself, but there’s no question of it, I’m afraid.  My bones won’t stand for it.”  She winced as a woman behind her screeched a greeting at a friend.  “Nor my nerves.”  She sighed.  “No, it’s Rosamond you’re stuck with—and she’s no great bargain.  I’ve promised to add to the budget your father gave her for the Season—in exchange for a promise that she’ll be on her best behavior.   But I’ll make no bones about it—her morals will likely last only as long as the money.”

The older woman reached out a hand.  Addy took it, marveling at how soft and fragile it felt, so at odds with her favorite relative’s irrepressible personality.

“The situation is not ideal, my dear.  You must make the best of it, and you’d do best not to dawdle over the matter.”

Addy nodded, turning away so her great-aunt could not see the utter bewilderment she felt at her own predicament.  Did she even want to marry?  It was what was expected of her.  It seemed her only path—especially if she ever hoped to reclaim her sister.  She closed her eyes against the pain of missing that sweet baby grin.

But having daily witnessed a great love—could she marry without it?  And could she risk all the potential torment that came with it—the same pain that had led her father to leave her and little Muriel? 

She didn’t know.  She didn’t possess the answers to any of the many questions that beset her.  She only knew that she couldn’t function with the weight of it all pressing down upon her. 

Deliberately, she pulled in a deep breath—and let all the unanswered questions and worries go out with it.  She had a Season in front of her—and two goals to pursue.  She was going to listen to her great-aunt, explore what opportunities came and see where the fates led.  And she was going to fulfill her mother’s last request and somehow arrange a meeting with Hestia Wright—famed ex-courtesan and philanthropist pledged to help any woman in need.  Exactly how she was to make that happen, especially without violating Great-Aunt Delia’s rules, she wasn’t sure. 

Luck might be with her tonight, though, as the rumor in the receiving line had been that Hestia Wright was actually here tonight.  Addy could scarcely believe it, but the ladies were atwitter and the gentlemen were buzzing with delight.  Perhaps she could just meet her here, exchange a few words in a situation that looked merely like a social encounter, and arrange the rest through the post?  It would be wonderful indeed to make the woman’s acquaintance and accomplish her mother’s mission so soon.

She let her gaze drift, thinking she would surely be able to pick out the famous beauty.  She’d seen her caricature in the broadsheets.  Not the most reliable reference, but how many ravishingly beautiful blondes could be here tonight?

She eased to the left so she could search another section of the ballroom.  Ah.  There.  An elegantly coiffed head of blonde hair, set aflame by the chandelier as if the light had been manufactured only for such a purpose.  But the woman faced away from her.  Addy waited and watched while the she conversed with her group.  The lady shifted to the side, moving with easy grace—

And Addy suddenly lost every sensible thought in her head.

Good heavens.

What was that?

Not what—
who
?  She recognized the what—a man.  A
nobleman
.  Surely he must be the designated illustration for his kind—the ideal gentleman.  Tall and slender, save for the wide breadth of his shoulders.  Close cropped hair.  Smoldering dark eyes over a finely crafted nose and a strong, stubborn-looking jaw.  Almost unfair that any man should look so undeniably masculine—and yet utterly elegant at the same time. 

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