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Authors: Candace Camp

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BOOK: A Winter Scandal
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“Yes. I got in Lord Byron’s new poem.”

“Did you?” Thea’s eyes widened appreciatively. She understood now why Damaris had been so startled by her lack of response to the news. Thea was an avid reader, and until Damaris arrived, no one else in Chesley shared her love of books except her brother, Daniel—and his tastes ran more to the scholarly. Books of history or even the philosophical and religious texts her father had enjoyed were all very well, of course, and Thea read whatever her father or brother ordered from London. But she also had a love of poetry and novels and satire, which were all too scarce in the study at home. When Thea first met Damaris, and their conversation had turned to books, Thea knew she had found a friend. “Is
Don Juan
terribly shocking? It is supposed to be, but I confess, I cannot wait to read it.”

Damaris laughed, and Thea joined in, though afterward she said, “I would not tell anyone but you that. I fear I am not a very good example to Daniel’s flock.”

“Well, they are his parishioners, after all, not yours.”

“I know. But I do have a certain duty.” Thea let out an unconscious sigh.

“I promise I shall not tell anyone that you are borrowing it.”

“Have you read it yet?”

“My dear, the very evening I got it! Though I shall go back for a longer perusal, of course. But it is wonderful. You will not be disappointed, I assure you.”

“I am sure that I will not. It is very kind of you to lend it to me.” Thea glanced toward the front of the hall, where the Squire and his wife were still receiving guests. She noted that she was not the only guest who kept turning to look at the entrance. Everyone, it seemed, was awaiting Mrs. Cliffe’s “very special guest.”

“If Lord Morecombe does not attend, it will spell disaster for Mrs. Cliffe’s party,” Damaris said, following Thea’s gaze.

“It is foolish in the extreme, of course, to put so much interest in the appearance of one person,” Thea said, feeling a bit guilty at being caught looking. Resolutely she turned so that her back was toward the door.

“No doubt it is, but still, ’tis difficult not to be caught up in it.”

Thea glanced around and let out a little sigh as her eyes fell on the row of people seated against the wall. “I had better pay my respects to the Squire’s mother. Would you like to come?”

Damaris chuckled. “Thank you, but I have already done my duty there this evening. I am afraid you must face the gorgon on your own.”

Thea had to smile at the comparison. The old woman, who was wrapped in a shawl and grimly studying the occupants of the room, often made one feel as if she could turn one to stone. “If you think the experience is treacherous for you, think of those of us whose every childhood misstep is known to her!”

Thea bade good-bye to her friend and made her way toward the rear of the room to make her curtsy to the elder Mrs. Cliffe.

“It’s good to see you, ma’am.” The polite lie slid off Thea’s tongue with the ease of long practice. “I hope you are well this evening.”

“Hmmph.” The old woman cast a baleful glance at Thea. “As well as I can be, I suppose, with one foot in the grave.” She thumped her cane against the floor and nodded toward the chair beside her. “Sit down, sit down, girl, can’t crane my neck looking up at you like that.”

Thea sat down beside the old woman. She could not see the door from here, which would serve to keep her from glancing toward it all the time.

“Bunch of ninnies,” Mrs. Cliffe declared, glaring at the rest of the room. “All agog over seeing some lord no better than they are, when all’s said and done. Well, at least you aren’t as big a fool as the rest.”

Thea was not sure how to respond to this halfhearted compliment, so she merely nodded.

“Look at my granddaughters—putting on ribbons and lace and airs, just to meet some popinjay from London who won’t take a second look at them. And their silly mother encourages them—as if some lord from London would have any interest in a bunch of young chits who’ve never been farther than Cheltenham. Isn’t as if any of them are beauties, either. I always say, you only make yourself look foolish acting like you’re a diamond of the first water when anyone can see you’re merely paste.” The old lady turned to Thea and gave her a sharp nod. “Now, you my girl, look just as you should. Neat and no-nonsense.”

Thea felt a sharp, familiar burn in her chest, but she told herself not to be foolish. She could hardly fault the Squire’s old mother for expressing the very sentiment Thea had used as her own watchword tonight: it was better to be thought a dowd than a fool.

“Course, no telling my son’s wife that. Maribel’s pumped the girls’ heads so full of nonsense, they can hardly see straight. She’s been in a tizzy all week, half the time up in the boughs over her catch and the other half worrying herself to a frazzle that he won’t come. Hah! Serve her right if he didn’t, for going around puffing it up to everyone that he’d accepted.”

“Still, I am sure that you would not really wish to see her disappointed.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that.” The old lady slid a dark, glittering glance at Thea, then let out a heavy sigh. “No, you’re probably right. She’d spend the next week nattering on and on about it till I’d have to keep to my room just to avoid her.”

Thea looked down at her hands to hide her smile.

“Well, tell me, girl,” Mrs. Cliffe went on, “is that sister of yours coming home for Christmas?”

“Oh, yes.” Thea smiled. “I am quite looking forward to it. We get to see her and her children so rarely. But it is always delightful to have all their noise and activity. It makes the house seem truly alive and filled with the spirit of Christmas.”

“That is the life of a naval wife, I fear, stuck off in some seaport somewhere.”

Thea did not point out that Portsmouth was hardly the ends of the earth, saying only, “Well, she will be here in just a few more days, so we are happy about that.”

“Pretty girl, Veronica,” the old woman mused. “Not surprised she made a good marriage. But I never did hold with her having a Season and you not. I told your father so, as well. ‘Vicar,’ I said, ‘you’re slighting your youngest, and she’s got as much right as anyone to have a go at catching herself a husband.’”

“I was needed at home,” Thea replied somewhat stiffly. “And, indeed, I had little interest in a London Season.”

She hadn’t wanted to have a Season; she really hadn’t. Thea had known as well as anyone—better, really—that she hadn’t the sort of looks necessary to make a splash in London. Veronica was the acknowledged beauty of the family. Whereas Thea’s hair was a nondescript color, neither red nor brown, Veronica’s hair was a lush, deep auburn, a beautiful contrast to her creamy white skin—which never, ever was touched with the freckles that decorated Thea’s cheeks if she forgot to put on her bonnet when she went out into the garden. And no one would compare Thea’s solemn gray eyes, hidden behind her spectacles, to the color of bluebells, as more than one young swain had said about Veronica’s eyes. Veronica’s form was sweetly curved and delicately feminine, and next to her, Thea’s tall, thin frame looked distinctly storklike. Clearly, just as her father had decreed, it did not make sense to spend the money on Thea’s Season, and anyway, her father had needed Thea to copy out his sermons and keep the house and the vicar’s life running smoothly.

“Nonsense. Don’t try to tell me you wouldn’t have liked to go to London. I wasn’t born yesterday, far from it.” Mrs. Cliffe let out a cackle of laughter. “But you’re a good daughter not to brook criticism of your father.”

There was a rustle of movement near the door, and a swift susurration of noise swept around the room. Thea lifted her head, her pulse suddenly pounding in anticipation.

“Well?” Mrs. Cliffe demanded. “What’s happened? Did he come? Don’t just sit there, girl. Stand up and see what’s going on.”

Thea was happy to oblige. She popped to her feet, but too many people were between her and the door to see anything. All of the guests were shifting toward the front of the room, their faces turned toward the door.

“I think he must be here,” Thea told her companion. “But I cannot see.”

The elder Mrs. Cliffe grimaced and brought her cane down with an irritated thump. “Never mind. She’ll bring him over to introduce him to me—Maribel won’t be able to resist tweaking my nose with it. Sit down, and we’ll pretend we didn’t even notice. Always better to look like you don’t care, I say.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Thea retook her seat. She wondered what it said about her that she found herself in sympathy with this crotchety old woman.

“Tell me about this silly live Nativity that Maribel says you’re planning for Christmas Eve.”

“I think it will be quite affecting, ma’am. St. Thomas Church in Holstead-on-Leach did it last year, and I believe it was very successful.”

“Quite chilly, I’d say,” Mrs. Cliffe snorted. “Hope you know what you’re in for, letting my granddaughter play Mary. Course, you had no choice there. Maribel would have hounded you to your deathbed if her eldest weren’t chosen.”

Thea decided it was probably better not to comment on that. Instead, she launched into a description of their efforts to mount the production, knowing that the mishaps that occurred at each rehearsal would arouse Mrs. Cliffe’s prickly sense of humor. As Thea talked, she kept an eye on the room in front of her. The guests, after the initial movement forward, began to part down the middle like water before the prow of a ship, and before long Thea could see the younger Mrs. Cliffe moving slowly through the room beside a tall, dark-haired man. Two other men were with him, but Thea noticed only the one to whom Mrs. Cliffe clung.

His hair was thick and black, swept back from a sculpted face. His brows were as black as his hair, sharp slashes over large, intense dark eyes. He was, as gossip had rumored him, sinfully handsome, and his black jacket and breeches were elegantly tailored to fit his muscular frame. His pristine white neckcloth was tied simply and held in place by a sapphire stickpin; he wore no other adornment save a gold signet ring on his right hand. Tall and broad-shouldered, he walked with the confident stride of one who was accustomed to being the center of attention.

Gabriel Morecombe. Thea’s heart thudded so hard she feared it might leap right out of her chest. The blood seemed to rush from her extremities to her center, leaving her face pale. She tried frantically to pull her thoughts together, to have a smooth, polite greeting ready. The group moved slowly, Mrs. Cliffe stopping to introduce her prize to each guest. Beside Thea, Mrs. Cliffe’s mother-in-law rumbled with a low laugh.

“Wants him to get a long look at all four of the girls—and Meg’s just sixteen. Poor little sparrows; she’s got their heads stuffed full of nonsense about catching a peacock.”

Lord Morecombe looked, Thea thought, rather glassy-eyed. No doubt he was stunned by the succession of simpering Cliffe daughters—not to mention every other halfway marriageable female in the room. The thought made Thea chuckle, and it eased her nerves a bit. But then Mrs. Cliffe pivoted and led him toward where Thea sat, the other two men trailing along behind.

“Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Robert Cliffe, my husband’s mother. Mother Cliffe, this is my honored guest, Lord Morecombe. And his friends, Sir Myles Thorwood and Mr. Alan Carmichael.” Thea noticed that her cousin Ian had apparently not joined the group.

Gabriel stepped forward and executed a formal bow to the old lady. “My pleasure, madam, though surely you must have married very young indeed to be the Squire’s mother.”

Mrs. Cliffe let out a short crack of laughter. “Ah, you’re a smooth-talking devil as well as a handsome one.”

“Mother!” The young Mrs. Cliffe’s face flooded with color. She rushed on, “And this is another of our lovely young ladies, Miss Bainbridge.”

Thea rose on somewhat shaky legs. “My lord.”

Lord Morecombe turned to her, his eyes moving over her without interest. “Miss Dandridge.” He sketched a polite bow before moving on with Mrs. Cliffe.

Morecombe’s two companions bowed to her in turn, greeting her by the same name. Thea nodded to them instinctively, not really hearing them, aware of nothing but the hard, cold knot forming in her chest.

Gabriel Morecombe had not remembered her.

Two

T
hea sat back down with
a thump as the men walked away.

“Well, I must say, he’s a handsome one. They didn’t lie about that,” old Mrs. Cliffe said, turning toward Thea. “Are you feeling quite right? You look pale as a sheet.”

“Yes, I mean, no—I—I’m not sure. If you will excuse me, ma’am, I do think I should leave the room. It’s a trifle warm.”

Scarcely waiting for Mrs. Cliffe’s response, Thea slipped out the nearest door. A short distance down the corridor, she ducked into a small room, unlit except for the light spilling in from the hallway. She dropped into a chair and leaned back, closing her eyes.

Gabriel Morecombe had not remembered her. There had been not even the slightest glimmer of recognition in his eyes when he looked at her. She had tried to prepare herself for his reaction, whatever it might be. She had thought he might look at her, unsure, and she had little doubt that he would probably not remember her name. After all, it had been ten years since they had met at the wedding of Lord Fenstone’s eldest daughter. She had even braced herself for the possibility that Lord Morecombe would remember everything, down to the last embarrassing detail, or that, even worse, he might blurt out something about that night. It had been her first ball of any consequence, and while Veronica shone as she always did, Thea had merely watched, hoping and yet dreading that the handsome young lord would take notice of
her
. In the years since, Thea had often thought of him as one would a fond dream—wistfully and without expectation of seeing it again.

But while she knew their encounter was for him nothing of consequence, she had not really considered that Lord Morecombe would not have even the smallest recollection of having met her. Danced with her. Kissed her.

Thea braced her elbows on her knees and buried her face in her hands, humiliation burning through her. The night that she had remembered so well had been such a small thing in his life that it had entirely slipped his mind. She had not expected him to recall it as vividly as she did. After all, he was a sophisticated London bachelor. No doubt since then he had kissed scores of girls—hundreds, even—whereas she … well, that had been the only kiss that the spinster Althea Bainbridge had ever received. But it scalded her that it had been so commonplace, so meaningless, so utterly forgettable that he registered not even the faintest recognition or, at least, some degree of discomfort.

She leaned back against the chair, and her mind went back to that long-ago evening at Fenstone Park when she had first met Gabriel, Lord Morecombe.

Thea’s father, Latimer Bainbridge, was cousin to the Earl of Fenstone. Latimer’s father had been the youngest brother of the family, and the Earl’s father, the eldest. Latimer, in turn, was the youngest son of his family and had, in accordance with family tradition, gone into the clergy. He received his living from the Earl, as his son would receive it from the Earl after Latimer’s death. While Thea’s family moved in an entirely different world from the Earl’s, on special occasions, when the entire Bainbridge family gathered for one reason or another at their family seat, Fenstone Park, Latimer and his wife and children were invited.

One of those occasions was the wedding of the Earl’s oldest daughter ten years ago. Fenstone Park was packed with relatives and friends, so that not only did Thea and her sister, Veronica, share a chamber, but they shared it with their mother, as well. Latimer and Daniel were in another, equally small room. They were shunted off into the oldest wing of the house, and Veronica was acutely aware that their dresses were not of the first stare of fashion, as were those of most of the other girls. Thea frankly had not cared; she was simply glad that she was old enough to put her hair up and her hems down and participate in all the festivities as an adult instead of being thrust in with the nursery group as she had been three years before.

She saw the handsome Gabriel Morecombe the evening before the wedding when she came down for supper, but of course at the table she had been placed far away from the heir to the Morecombe title, and she wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to catch his attention later in the evening when everyone mingled more freely in the music room and drawing room. No one in the village of Chesley, she knew, would have branded her shy, for she tended to take charge of matters, but the size and elegance of Fenstone Park, as well as the glittering sophistication of the people therein, intimidated her. Besides, Thea knew that when it came to social situations, she had little to offer. In the only area that counted among young women, beauty, she lagged behind the others. So she sat quietly beside Veronica, looking on as her pretty sister flirted with first one young man, then the other.

Once, when Veronica was for a moment free, Thea leaned in close to her sister, covering her mouth with her spread fan, and whispered, “Who is that young man? The one standing with Lord Wofford.” She nodded her head toward where the handsome young man stood with their second cousin Ian.

Her sister looked in the direction Thea indicated, raising her own fan to hide the smile that curved her lips. “Ooooh,
him
. He’s Gabriel Morecombe; he’ll be a lord when his father dies. He and Wofford have been friends forever. He’s a terribly good catch. Not only handsome as can be, but possessed of a nice inheritance, I hear.” Veronica released a soft sigh. “Quite above our touch, I’m afraid.”

“Oh.” Thea felt her cheeks warm, and she looked down, twisting the fan in her hand. “I didn’t mean—I never considered
that
. I just thought … I wondered who he was.”

She raised her eyes again, unable to keep them from returning to Gabriel. He was flirting with two girls in satin evening gowns that Thea was sure cost more than her entire wardrobe at home. She watched, aware of an odd little clutch in her chest. She knew that her father would tell her she was being covetous, but right now Thea could not bring herself to care. For just a moment, she ached to be a fragile blonde with limpid blue eyes, dressed in satin and lace.

The next day Thea’s eyes found Gabriel Morecombe wherever he was—sitting six rows in front of her in the chapel during the wedding, laughing as he walked down the hall with another young man, sitting on a bench in the garden south of the house, the sun glinting off his black hair. Once he glanced over at her, and she quickly looked away, her cheeks flaming with embarrassment. Had he seen her staring? Did he realize that she could not keep from looking for him wherever she went?

That evening she went down to the ball wearing her best evening gown—well, it wasn’t hers, really, but the pale blue gown Veronica had worn to the County Assembly last month. Still, it was the nicest dress she had, and Veronica had given it up only because she was wearing one of the new dresses bought for her debut this year. Its blue color had been chosen with Veronica’s dark auburn hair and blue eyes in mind, but it was a flattering enough shade for Thea, as well. And Veronica had insisted on doing Thea’s hair herself, so that it hung in long curls from a knot at the crown of her head, and the soft, fine hairs that tended to pull out from their pins were twisted and tamed into feathery little wisps around her face. Thea had indulged in a final bit of vanity by removing her spectacles and leaving them on her dresser.

Without her glasses, she could see little more than a blur beyond a few feet in front of her, and at first, as she descended the stairs, she felt a little frightened by her lack of vision. However, when she followed Veronica into the ballroom and realized that the crowd spread out before her was nothing more than soft, fuzzy shapes and colors, she relaxed. It was quite pleasant, actually, not to see the people around her. She was, she thought with some amusement, rather like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand—unable to see anyone with clarity, she felt herself somehow invisible.

She took her usual place beside Veronica and her mother against the wall of the large ballroom. A small orchestra played at one end of the room, and couples danced in a haze of color and motion in front of her. Before long, Veronica was asked to dance, and Thea’s mother, blessed with the same sort of easy social grace Veronica possessed, was deep in conversation with the wife of Sir Joseph Symonds. Thea plied her fan gently in the warmth and wondered what Gabriel Morecombe was doing. At least she could not embarrass herself this evening by looking for him since she could see only a few feet past the end of her nose.

After some time she was roused from her reverie by her mother’s voice, saying, “Thea, dear, Lady Fenstone is here.”

“Hmm?” Thea turned, somewhat reluctantly letting go of the daydream about a dark-eyed man that she had been spinning in her head, and looked over at her mother. The Earl’s wife was standing in front of Mrs. Bainbridge, looking at Thea, and beside her stood Gabriel Morecombe.

It was all Thea could do to keep her mouth from dropping open in astonishment. “M … ma’am.” Thea shot to her feet, sending the fan that had been resting in her lap tumbling to the floor with a clatter. “Oh!”

She bent to retrieve the fan, but Morecombe had already scooped it up. He did not offer it to her, just smiled at her, his dark eyes sparking with laughter. Thea didn’t know whether to reach for the fan, so she just twisted her hands together awkwardly and turned once more toward the Countess. Remembering that she had not curtsied to the older woman as she should have, she did so now, thinking miserably that she must look even more gauche.

The corner of the Countess’s mouth twitched, whether from irritation or amusement Thea was not sure. She gave a small nod to Thea and said, “Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Morecombe.” The Countess turned toward the young man. “Mr. Morecombe, my cousins, Mrs. Latimer Bainbridge and Miss Althea Bainbridge.”

“Ma’am.” Gabriel executed a perfect bow over Thea’s mother’s extended hand, then turned to bow to Thea. “Miss Bainbridge. ’Tis a pleasure to meet you. May I ask for the honor of this dance?”

Thea gaped at him. “Me?”

She heard the Countess emit a little sigh, and Alice Bainbridge said quickly, “That sounds lovely. Go ahead, Althea, it was good of you to keep me company, but I shall be fine here by myself.”

A flush spread across Thea’s cheeks. She was being thoroughly graceless, and she knew that Mr. Morecombe was laughing at her. Though his smile could be mistaken for polite interest, the light in his eyes could be nothing but laughter. She supposed she should be grateful that he was reacting in such good humor. He could have been sullen about Lady Fenstone’s dragging him across the room to ask the wallflower cousin to dance—for Thea was well aware that that was what was going on here—but he did not betray even the slightest disdain. Still, Thea could not help but surge with resentment that he found her ineptness comical; it made her doubly irritated because she knew she did, indeed, look comical.

“Very well.” Thea knew her words came out grudgingly, but she could not manage to twist them into anything else.

Morecombe’s brows went up just a little, but he said nothing, only offered her his arm. Thea put her hand on his arm, praying that he would not feel the trembling in her fingers, and walked with him toward the dance floor. It made her a trifle breathless to be this close to him. She could feel the warmth of his body and smell the trace of cologne that clung to him, tinged with a hint of brandy and smoke. She imagined him in the smoking room with his friends, a glass of brandy in one hand, bringing a cigar to his lips with the other. Thea wondered if his lips would taste of tobacco and alcohol, too, and she blushed yet again at the wayward turn her thoughts had taken.

“You might give me back my fan,” she told him crossly.

He chuckled and flipped the fan in his hand, catching it neatly by the other end. “Oh, no, I think I shall hold it hostage.”

“Hostage! For what?” She glanced at him, frowning.

“A smile, I should think.” He cocked a brow impudently at her. “I fear that will be the only way I shall gain one from you.”

He was even more handsome up close, impossible as it seemed. His lashes were thick and black, deepening those already dark eyes until they seemed fathomless, yet light glittered in them, making them spark with life. Something coiled deep inside Thea, warm and twisting, and she had to look away. “Don’t be absurd.”

“You see? Already I have offended you.” He let out a mock sigh as he handed back her fan.

“You haven’t offended me. You simply talk nonsense.”

“But isn’t that what we are supposed to talk?” Gabriel grinned. “Everyone does at a party.”

“I can’t imagine why anyone wishes to go to them, then.” Thea kept her voice tart even though his grin did even more peculiar things to her insides.

“I am sure we should not if we were all so serious. But a little nonsense can make the time pass pleasantly, especially if it can make a lady smile. Come, Miss Bainbridge, cannot I wrest even one small token of appreciation for saving your fan?”

“For saving me from the ignominy of being a wallflower, you mean.” She cast a sharp sideways glance at him and caught the surprise that flickered across his face. “Come, Mr. Morecombe, surely you don’t think I am naïve enough not to realize that you were pressed into service by Lady Fenstone to make sure all the young women had a chance to take to the floor.”

“Clearly you don’t know me well, Miss Bainbridge, for I am rarely pressed into anything. It is one of my many faults, as I’m sure a number of people would be happy to tell you.”

“You did
not
ask Lady Fenstone to introduce us,” Thea said flatly. She was not sure why she was pressing the matter, but somehow it was important to her pride to let him know that she was undeceived about his act of courtesy.

He cast a long look at her, then said, “No, I did not.” He paused. “But neither did I hesitate.”

Thea looked away, not sure what to say. Fortunately, they had reached the dance floor, making it unnecessary to speak. She took her place in line across from him, relieved to see that they would be participating in a country dance rather than one of the waltzes that had become all the rage in London. Veronica had learned the waltz, of course, and insisted on teaching it to her sister, but it was still considered a bit scandalous in the country, so Thea had never actually danced one before. At least she had stood up at a County Assembly a time or two in a country dance so she would hopefully not disgrace herself.

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