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Authors: Barbara Metzger

Bething's Folly

BETHING’S FOLLY

Barbara Metzger

A NOVEL OF REGENCY ENGLAND

In spite of her youth, Miss Elizabeth Bethingame is managing nicely as owner of Bething’s Folly, the racing stable she inherited from her father. Handsome Lord Alexander Carleton is satisfied with life as a Regency buck, has no liking for the current crop of debutantes, and is in no hurry to marry. They are brought together when Carleton’s father, the Duke of Carlyle, anxious for an heir, tricks his son into a “deathbed” promise to marry.

Elizabeth goes reluctantly to the ball arranged to parade the county’s eligible young women for Carleton’s inspection; her reluctance has the result of intriguing the young lord. When her curmudgeonly guardian threatens to withdraw Folly’s Pride, her prize horse, from the race that could spell certain success for the stable, she agrees to marry Carleton in order to be free of her uncle’s authority.

The two young people quickly come to view one another in a much rosier light than as partners in a marriage of convenience. However, an unfortunate misunderstanding on their wedding night, compounded by Carleton’s stubborn temper and Elizabeth’s pride, threatens to put paid to any prospect of happiness for either of them. Further enraging Carleton is Elizabeth’s friendship with the unsavory Comte de Rochefonte—a friendship that sets tongues wagging among the scandal-loving
ton
of Regency London.

It takes a daring move on Elizabeth’s part, a heart-stopping horse race, and a real threat to the life of the couple’s dear friend, Lord Ferddie Milbrooke, to unravel the misunderstanding and its consequences.

Elizabeth Bethingame is one of the genre’s most independent and delightful young heroines, and the way she stands by her guns and tames her impetuous husband makes a story that will have readers cheering them both.

 

ONE

“Shut yer bloody trap! Don’t yer know ’onest folks ’as got to sleep a’ nights?”

This and other irate shouts from various windows was followed by the tossing of a slop jar onto the cobbled road, with the intention of hitting at least one of the two gentlemen disturbing the honest rest of London’s working people. One look at the men in question would show that they neither worked for their livings nor had much dealing with those would-be sleepers who did. One of the gentlemen, the shorter of the two, was presently maintaining his balance with the aid of a street lamp, while the other wiped at a smudge on his coat of blue superfine with a lace-edged handkerchief with, it must be admitted, the concentration of one well in his cups. As he turned back to his friend, the lamp’s light caught on his fair curls and handsome face, flushed now, showing him to be in his mid-twenties, well-built, and more than a little on the go. In fact, he was none too steady on his feet either.

“Come on, Ferddie. We’re obviously not welcome in this neighbourhood.”

“Can’t think we’ll be welcome in many neighbourhoods, come tomorrow,” Ferddie replied, more to the lamppost than to his friend. The thought merely started him laughing so hard he lost his grip on the post and reeled off down the cobbles. The second gentleman caught up with him and, putting one arm around the other’s shoulder, half-led, half-supported his friend away into the darkness, their loud conversation and hoots of laughter echoing back through the empty streets.

Many a young woman in London might have hoped to be the topic of conversation between these two young Bucks, distinguished as they were by breeding, appearance and wealth—until, of course, she realised the nature of this predawn debate. For these two of London’s most eligible bachelors, finest products of polite Society, were happily and loudly enumerating the perfidies of womanhood.

“Women, I tell you, Ferddie, are all Harpies. Scheming connivers, only out for what they can wring from a man.”

“Just like my aunt,” agreed Ferddie, Lord Ferdinand Milbrooke, that is, nephew to Lady Ashton-Milbrooke, hostess of the highest
ton
. His elaborate neckcloth was definitely askew and he paused at a stair grille, propping himself up to tug it into more comfortable looseness. The usual smile seemed to leave his face as the cloth unfolded, as he remembered his aunt’s chilling demands. “Threatening to write m’mother if I missed her damned debutante ball. Serves her right that we didn’t dance with that ... that pasty-faced pack of pattern cards.”

“You mean those sweet young ladies in their white lace and bows? Such innocence, with each calculating our yearly incomes to the penny. Why, it took nerves of steel just to walk the gauntlet of the dowagers’ row. And if we had danced with their precious darlings, the scandal sheets would have us each engaged to one of them before dawn.” The thought served to return the humour to Ferddie’s merry countenance, especially when he recalled Lady Ashton-Milbrooke’s befuddled anger at their departure.

The lady had not been surprised to see her nephew at her daughter’s come-out ball, of course, having laid dire threats concerning some unsavoury stories at his door. Her expression of delight at his arrival had more to do with his companion, the Marquis, Lord Alexander Carleton, only son and heir to the Duke of Carlyle. Lord Carleton’s appearance
had
to elevate her standing with the other hopeful mamas at the ball. Here was prestige indeed, despite Carleton’s determinedly unmarried state and somewhat unsteady behaviour. In a less exalted noble, his erratic associations with opera-dancers, elegant Frenchwomen and certain dashing widows would have been shameful, but Lord Carleton’s charm, and his family’s social standing, were such that he was always forgiven and much sought after. He did not go often into Society, and was generally known to disdain any activity which smacked of the Marriage Mart. In fact, Ferddie and Carleton, together with some of their sporting or Corinthian circle, had even founded a bachelors’ club, with wagers and forfeits. Most knew they would have to forego the pleasures of their carefree bachelorhoods some day, either to carry on their lines and guarantee succession to their titles, as in Carleton’s case, or simply to please their families, as in Ferddie’s, or to repair financial difficulties, as was the situation with many of their friends. In the meantime, none of this group eschewed female company entirely, vowing that one needn’t own the vineyard in order to enjoy the wine. Enjoy it they did, especially Carleton, with his wealth, his charm and his handsome blond looks, thus far avoiding parson’s mousetrap.

Whatever the cause, and no matter how plain the daughter, hope was eternal in a mama’s breast, and Lady Ashton-Milbrooke was hoping Carleton’s time had come. It was with him in mind, of course, that she had insisted on her nephew’s appearance; for though Ferddie was himself eligible and pleasing and well set-up, with a generous income to boot, his most promising attribute was Carleton at his side.

With all of these hopeful strategies wafting ahead of her, Lady Ashton-Milbrooke had gracefully crossed the dance floor to greet the arrival of the gentlemen long after the dancing had begun, wondering upon which of the young ladies, beside her own Clarice, of course, she should bestow them. As surely as she knew Ferddie would appear, she was guaranteed having him for at least two so-called duty dances, and his friend as well. She was justifiably beaming at matrons to either side as her nephew made his bow. She had no more turned to look for her daughter than my Lord Carleton firmly grasped her arm and swirled her, the hostess, long past this sort of thing, out to the floor in the middle of a dance. She was swooped and twirled with a masterful grace she was quite unused to and found herself instantly out of breath. She had one flustered glimpse of Ferddie, dancing with Clarice, before the music ended.

“One’s duties as a guest should always be such a pleasure, ma’am,” Carleton said, raising her hand to be kissed, causing the dizzy lady to look for the irony; all she saw was a lopsided grin showing a dimple, no less.

Graceless scamp, she thought, before recalling herself. But Carleton was already taking Clarice’s hand for the next country dance. Quite properly, too, the mother felt, enchanted in spite of her own better judgement. The figures of the dance made conversation difficult; Miss Clarice’s shyness at being confronted with her first genuine Rake made it almost impossible. Perhaps it was her silence, or some other deviltry, which prompted the Marquis to pluck a flower from an urn as he led the young lady back to her mother at the end of the dance. He solemnly tucked it in the curls of her hair and, bending, whispered so only she could hear: “Just wait, darling, till you are an elegant married lady.
Then
we’ll have a lot to say to each other.”

Bowing once more to Lady Ashton-Milbrooke, Carleton took Ferddie’s arm and, turning, the two most prized matrimonial catches of that London Season departed, downing a glass of champagne each from a tray by the door. They left behind them a furiously blushing young lady and a just furious older one. Never had Lady Ashton-Milbrooke seen social duties performed with such elegance, granted, but neither with such expediency! The memory of being glided around like a young girl clashed with the necessity of finding partners for a whole clutch of giggling be-ribboned misses. Ferddie Milbrooke’s mother would certainly be informed of his all-too-brief appearance. There would even be slurs on Carleton’s character—whatever had he said to poor Clarice, who would now be tongue-tied for the rest of the evening?—and a warning that soon no respectable parents would permit even Ferddie to approach their daughters, if he persisted in such fast company.

The two friends, many hours later, were still chuckling over Lady Ashton-Milbrooke’s consternation.

“Did you see Aunt’s face after your dance with her? It was as purple as her turban!”

“But did you see all those debutantes she had lined up for us? Like so many fancy dolls in a shop window, and with about as much to say,” now commented that same fast company, fumbling with his buttons after relieving himself behind a drayer’s cart.

“Well, your little thrush at the dance hall didn’t have much conversation either.” Ferddie laughed at the memory, which again threw his balance off, causing him to clutch at Carleton’s arm, not aiding that gentleman’s difficulties. “But at least she was dressed better than my cousin.”

“Only because she was dressed less!”

“Well, what was her name, anyway?”

“Your cousin?” asked Carleton, finally taking the other’s arm and continuing on the way.

“No, of course not. She’s Lucinda. No, Lucinda is the one that got married last year. This one must be Clarice. Yes, I think that’s it. But what was the name of the girl at Covent Gardens?”

“Damned if I know,” was the reply.

Upon leaving Lady Ashton-Milbrooke quaking behind them, the two noblemen had repaired to the dance hall. There was talk in the clubs of a new girl singing there, and bets were being recorded at White’s on which of the young bucks would receive her favours. Odds of her remaining independent, without a protector, past one week’s time were very low. Carleton and Ferddie had seen enough in the scanty costume during the show to pass backstage to the dressing rooms for an introduction and a closer look shortly before the closing curtains. There had been a whole queue of stage-door Johnnies hanging about, laughing and joking, until they saw Carleton.

“Damn, Carleton,” called Lord Rutley, a friend and member of the bachelor club. “Did you come just to ruin all our chances?”

“What, did you think you had any? I heard she was holding out for higher stakes.” And the gentlemen had all laughed some more, many of them ruefully acknowledging the truth of this, and sheepishly counting themselves out of the running. Some of the others, well aware of Carleton’s reputation—both of his appeal to women and his temper—also left, feeling it was not worth the trouble when there were so many other pretty, less demanding, already soiled doves to entertain them. Granted, Carleton no longer issued challenges over the merest fancied insult, nor instigated brawls, as in his schoolboy days; but he was still no one the younger men chose to cross, especially with Ferddie along to back him up, so they departed. This left only Lord Cleighchester, a paunchy, middle-aged baronet. When a query into the health of his good wife and children only served to redden the man’s face somewhat, it was followed by curiosity as to the ages of the happy progeny. Lord Cleighchester was finally discomfited by the pointed observance that the lady in question was some five years younger than Cleighchester’s own daughter, and wasn’t it strange how some girls could count on their fathers to protect them and others were at the mercy of the streets. Mumbling about a prior engagement, the baronet hurried off, leaving the two friends alone and laughing when the dressing-room door was opened.

“See how easy success can be?” Carleton asked Ferddie.

The manager, quite readily recognising Milbrooke and Carleton, stepped aside to let them enter, calculating his share if an arrangement should be made with Milbrooke. Regrettably, Carleton was known to maintain a mistress in Bank Street in elegant style, unless, of course, he had tired of the lady and was looking for her successor. The manager’s hopes rose, for Carleton was the wealthier of the two. He was sure the new girl would prefer the strikingly handsome Marquis over the pleasant-looking Milbrooke, but much her opinion would matter.

The actress herself smiled prettily up at the two callers and invited them to be seated, then offered them brandy from a decanter. As she poured, her eyes flickered from Carleton’s elegantly embroidered waistcoat to Milbrooke’s single gold fob, noting Carleton’s diamond stickpin, Milbrooke’s ruby signet. Carleton’s angel blue eyes made her catch her breath, but Milbrooke’s friendly smile warmed her nervousness. Her smile widened in return, and her eyelashes fluttered as the lady finished her inspection and passed the drinks, well aware that she in turn was on review. She thrust her shoulders back and tossed her silvery curls, seeing her dreams come true right before her eyes. All difficulties with the manager would be resolved, and uncertainties about her future. She had been right to leave the small farming town and find her fortune here, with either of these fine gentlemen—the cool, handsome one with all his fine clothes and taut muscles, or the easier, plainer, but somehow cozier one. She closed her eyes to picture herself wearing the cameo brooch in the Bond Street window, coming back to the theatre in a closed carriage to flaunt her good fortune at the other girls. All this took place in minutes, during which not a word was said.

Ferddie, looking a little uncertainly at his friend, tried to start a conversation. “That was a very, um, lovely performance you gave tonight. The audience enjoyed it.”

The girl simpered in acknowledgement and sipped at her drink, congratulating herself on how well things were going. She repeated to herself the manager’s orders: “Look pretty and keep yer trap shut.” These fine gentlemen would never talk to a lady like that, she didn’t doubt. She turned to Carleton, casting her eyes down in expectation of
his
compliment, thus permitting Milbrooke to view her delightful profile. This meant, of course, that she could not see the looks which passed between the two men. She only looked up in time to see both callers rising and hear Carleton say, “Good evening, madam. It has been a pleasure to converse with you. I am certain you will be a great success at your chosen career.” And both opportunities withdrew from her dressing room and daydreams, leaving the poor girl almost swooning—no act this time—then a lot nearer to a tantrum when she realised that all of her other admirers had deserted her.

What sounded like a perfume bottle crashed into the door behind the departing guests, followed perhaps by a rouge pot or a mirror before they were out of hearing, laughingly enjoining a waitress to find them a table and bring them a bottle to celebrate yet another escape.

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