Authors: Wendy Soliman
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
“That’s understandable,” Beth said. “I don’t think it kind of the new marquess not to invite his step-mama for a prolonged visit. But still, we don’t know what caused them to become estranged and so are not in a position to judge.”
“You may not be, young lady,” Aunt Augusta said severely, “but I know my friend is incapable of base behaviour and does not deserve to be treated so shoddily.”
“I’m sure Beth didn’t mean to imply—”
“The marquess is also the Duke of Dawlish’s heir,” Aunt Augusta informed them. “The Duke is his uncle. He never married and lives a reclusive life in his castle in Devon.”
“He will be quite a force to be reckoned with one day, if he isn’t already,” Leah said.
“Well, I must be getting along.” Aunt Augusta stood, as did the girls. “There is so much to be done before tomorrow. Be sure to be ready at six. Your uncle and I will collect you at that hour, and it wouldn’t do to keep the marquess waiting.”
“We’ll be ready,” Leah assured her.
“What did you make of all that?” Beth asked, as soon as their aunt left them.
“I think that our aunt thoroughly disapproves of the new marquess because she’s biased in favour of her friend.”
“That’s hardly to be wondered at,
her friend hasn’t been treated well.”
“We only know one side of the story, Beth.”
“True, and I can’t believe that Flick would be unkind to her half siblings, especially as she is so keen for a sister of her own.”
“Aunt Augusta’s attitude puzzles me.” Leah nibbled thoughtfully at her forefinger.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if she was such an intimate friend of Lady Denby’s, it seems rather disloyal to accept an invitation to her despised stepson’s house.” Leah shrugged. “Still, she clearly won’t let such considerations sway her. Being able to tell her friends that she’s been invited to dine at the Hall will outweigh any crisis of conscience she might temporarily experience.”
“Yes.” Beth nodded. “If she’s considered her friend’s feeling at all, she’s probably told herself that she’ll be in a position to report back on the sorry state of affairs at the Hall.”
“There has to be more to this family rift than we know.” Leah mangled her lower lip between her teeth as she thought it through. “I wish I could find out what it is.”
“Leah, promise me that you won’t try to.”
“Why would I do such a thing?” Leah asked, feigning incomprehension.
“You don’t deceive me with that innocent expression.” Beth shook a finger at her. “I saw how you reacted to Aunt Augusta’s narration. You think it will be of interest to Mr. Morris.”
“Don’t! Don’t do it.” Beth became quite agitated. “I know you think we need the funds but are you really prepared to betray our new friend’s trust simply to place food on the table?”
Leah sighed. “You’re right, of course.”
right. It would be the height of bad manners to abuse Felicity’s hospitality, but Leah was forced by circumstances to be practical. She must harden her heart and do whatever it took to keep their heads above water.
Leah examined her reflection and barely recognized herself. The gown slithered over her curves, fitting her like a second skin, shimmering in varying shades of silver as the light caught it at different angles. Long resigned to being the plain sister, she felt a rush of excitement as she twirled in front of the mirror, understanding now why Beth took so much pleasure from her wardrobe. She felt feminine to her fingertips and even her punctilious aunt wouldn’t be able to find fault with her.
“You’re a miracle worker,” she told her sister, kissing the top of her head.
“The corset makes all the difference. I did tell you that it would.”
“Yes, for once I don’t mind the discomfort.” Leah screwed up her nose. “Besides, my aunt would probably disown me if I appeared at the Hall not wearing one.”
Beth giggled. “Now that’s good enough reason not to wear one.”
“What about you, darling? Let me look at you.”
Beth wore a muslin gown in a shade of blue that exactly matched her eyes. Leah had always liked that particular dress but was unsure how it fitted her sister so well when she’d lost so much weight. Presumably she had adjusted it, so why couldn’t she have adjusted the silver?
“You look lovely.” Leah embraced her carefully to avoid crushing their gowns. “Although I rather feel as if I’ve been manipulated.”
Beth smiled radiantly. “I haven’t even started on you yet, sister dear. Now sit down and let me attend to your hair.”
“Oh, there’s nothing to be done with that,” Leah said with a rueful smile. “You know very well that it has a mind of its own. I shall simply pin it up and hope for the best.”
“Not tonight you won’t.”
Beth looked so determined, so much like her old self, that Leah didn’t have the heart to argue.
“Oh very well, do your worst.”
Beth picked up a brush and set to work. Half an hour later Leah could hardly believe the results. Her unruly corkscrew curls were piled neatly on top of her head, not a single strand daring to make a bid for freedom. Beth had somehow threaded silver beads through the resulting arrangement, leaving a few curls to obediently frame her face.
“What in the world have you done to me?” Leah asked, cautiously shaking her head.
Beth grinned, looking incredibly pleased with herself. “Just proving a point.”
“Your talent is wasted on me, sweetheart.”
“That’s where we disagree.” Beth linked her arm through her sister’s as they descended the stairs. “You have much to recommend you physically, as well as a quick mind and a sharp wit. I look forward to seeing you display all of those qualities in exalted company this evening.”
“Well, for you I’ll willingly try.”
They were ready when Sir Percy’s carriage arrived at the door. Aunt Augusta looked them over critically but apparently found nothing in their appearance to take exception to.
“Well, girls, I suppose you’ll do,” she said, actually smiling as though she approved. “I’m glad to see that you’ve make an effort. Just remember your manners, and don’t put yourself forward, Leah.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
“It’s so pleasant to be going to the Hall again and we have your friendship with Lady Felicity to thank for that.”
Another smile slipping past her aunt’s usually disapproving lips. She was nervous, Leah was surprised to notice. She had never before seen her show any signs of self-doubt but was pleased to have earned her approval for once and returned her smile. Content to allow her uncle’s bright chatter and Beth’s dutiful responses to fill the time it took them to travel the five miles to Forster Hall, Leah’s mind wandered. She wondered what would await them there and, specifically, if anything she might discover would interest Mr. Morris’s readers.
Beth’s plea for restraint filled her ears and she experienced a moment’s guilt. But no more than that. She didn’t like what she intended to do. Exploiting Felicity’s friendship for profit was not an honourable course but Leah had little choice in the matter. The limited funds their parents had left them were fast dwindling. Had Beth not taken ill it might have been different, but her doctor’s bills had almost been their ruin. Leah would do whatever was necessary to keep them until such time as Beth could make a good marriage and save them both from the workhouse.
The carriage was obliged to halt at the gates to the Hall, just as Mrs. Wilkinson’s had done two days previously. Leah thought that was rather strange.
“The marquess does so enjoy his privacy,” Aunt Augusta muttered, looking inordinately pleased when they were given leave to drive on.
Leah noticed several armed men patrolling the perimeter of the estate as their carriage traversed the long driveway. She didn’t think she was supposed to see them. None of the others appeared to, but Leah was deliberately looking, wondering about this excessive level of security.
The carriage rattled to a halt and Leah returned her attention to the more immediate necessity of alighting from the conveyance gracefully. Two liveried footmen dashed forward to let the steps down. Uncle Percy descended first, holding out a hand to Aunt Augusta. Her haughty air obliged Leah to stifle a giggle. The girls trailed behind their aunt and uncle into the sumptuous entrance vestibule where they handed their outer garments to yet another waiting footman.
“Let the entertainment begin,” Leah muttered, clutching Beth’s arm and ascending the stairs to the reception rooms on the first floor.
* * *
The prospect of spending the evening in the same room of Lady Wantage didn’t put Hal in the best of tempers. He disliked his stepmother’s ambitious friend almost as much as he disliked Lady Denby herself. However, if Lady Wantage was the price he had to pay for Miss Elliott’s company—a prospect that filled him with strong feelings of a very different nature—then so be it. Following their interlude in the tavern, the little minx and her motley protector had, according to Rob’s man, gone straight back to Sir Percy’s gatehouse without speaking to anyone or behaving in any way suspiciously. No one other than Rob’s man had followed them, or taken any particular interest in Miss Elliott.
Hal tied his neckcloth with precision, securing the resulting arrangement with a sapphire pin. He straightened the hem of his waistcoat and slipped his arms into the coat Spencer held out for him. Dressed in black, with only the intricate pattern on his blue waistcoat to relieve the severity of his attire, his appearance perfectly matched his mood.
“Right, Spencer. I suppose that will do.” Hal tightened the ribbon that held his hair back and grimaced at his reflection. “Be extra vigilant tonight.”
“We have additional men patrolling the grounds and more still keeping the ship under watch. You don’t need to worry, m’lord. Everyone knows what to do.”
“Make sure that they do. If word of this entertainment has spread abroad, our enemies might well decide to strike, thinking my attention to be diverted.”
“I rather thought that was the point.”
Hal nodded grimly. “Perhaps.”
It was certainly the impression that he’d given his brothers and trusted staff. Hal disliked entertaining. He had more important business to attend to the majority of the time and so this deviation would not have gone unnoticed by his foes.
“Interrupt if you need me,” he said to Spencer, walking through the door his man held open for him.
Hal made his way to the family sitting room and found Flick already there—a vision in pink silk—along with his brothers.
“Right, minx,” he said to his sister. “I suppose we had better show ourselves.”
“Stop pretending that you’re not excited at the prospect of entertaining,” Flick said, taking his proffered arm. “You know very well that you’re looking forward to it.”
Hal elevated a brow. “How do you make that out?”
“Quite easily.” She shrugged. “Why else would you have asked me to arrange it?”
“I don’t recall making any such request.”
“Oh, you didn’t ask me in the usual way. If you ever do that, I shall probably think you’re sickening for something. You merely said that it would be a fate worse than death if you were obliged to entertain my new friends.” Flick offered him a transfiguring smile. “Naturally, I immediately understood that was precisely what you wished to do.”
Gabriel laughed. “She has you there, Hal.”
“You think so?”
“She’s full of herself because Darius Grantley will be here.”
“I invited his mama,” Flick said, a little too insistently. “Since Darius is presently at home, I could hardly exclude him.”
“Of course you couldn’t.” Rob tweaked her nose.
“Well, he is one of your closest friends, Rob, so I thought you’d be pleased to see him. After all, he’s hidden away in London half the time nowadays, working away at being a barrister for the poor and needy.”
“Ah, so you did it for me then?” Rob laughed. “I beg your pardon, squirt. I didn’t realise that.”
“I admire Darius’s determination to stand up for those less fortunate, who couldn’t normally afford the services of a good barrister. Someone has to take the part of the common man.”
“Won’t pay the rent though, will it?” Rob remarked. “I doubt the poor beggars he defends are able to pay much at all.”
Hal shook his head. “What motivates you, Flick? You turned down all the eligible gentlemen who could have kept you in style, yet you encourage an impecunious landowner.”
encourage Darius,” she protested. “And he will soon be a great deal more than a landowner. He’s making quite a name for himself in legal circles.”
“He’s making a name for himself as a supporter of lost causes,” Hal said, raising his eyes. “Is he ever tempted to accept briefs from wealthy clients?”
“Money isn’t everything,” Flick said defiantly. “He has principles. It’s a rare trait in a gentleman, and one I admire. What’s more, he makes me laugh.”
Hal glowered. “Just as long that’s all he makes you do.”
“Absolutely.” Rob exchanged a loaded glance with his brothers.
Gabriel sprang to his feet. “I say, he hasn’t made inappropriate advances, has he, Flick?”
“Oh, you three are impossible!” Flick whirled on her heel. “I do so wish—”
“I think we’re needed,” Gabriel said, downing his drink. “I hear arrivals.”
Hal stood at the top of the stairs, ready to greet the first guests. Flick clung to his arm, still chattering away, denying her attraction to Grantley a little too vehemently. She had invited sixteen people altogether, which suited Hal’s purpose. With the four of them, they would be an even twenty at table. Lady Wantage wouldn’t be so annoying in a crowd. Besides, the numbers would provide Hal with the necessary cover to observe Miss Elliott whilst he endeavoured to fathom out what precisely she was up to and how it affected his business.
The Grantleys were the first to arrive. Hal turned a barking laugh into a cough as Flick blushed when Darius took her hand. Flick rarely allowed anything to embarrass her. He shot a quick glance at Rob. Should they take her infatuation with Grantley seriously? He thought it would have passed by now but appeared to have stood the test of time. He was a handsome rogue, and charming too. Hal could see why he’d appeal to a sheltered young miss like Flick. His connections were respectable, as was Grantley himself, having applied himself to his career in the law with some distinction. But was he a fortune hunter? Perhaps he’d overprotected his sister and there could be no real harm in her having a little fun. Even so, Hal would keep a close eye on that young buck. No one, but no one, would take advantage of Flick’s kind heart.
Hal inwardly groaned as he observed Lady Bentley ascending the stairs, her daughter Charlotte trailing in her wake.
“I couldn’t exclude her,” Flick said sweetly. “It would have been an unpardonable slight.”
“Perhaps not, but there’s no need to look so pleased with yourself,” he muttered out of the side of his month, resigned to having Lady Bentley renew her efforts to interest him in her daughter.
“I was not aware that my appearance was in any way altered.”
“Just so long as you don’t spring the Wilkinsons on me as well.”
“Even I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Ah, Lord Denby.” Lady Bentley stood before Hal, panting and wheezing after her climb up the stairs. “So here we all are.”
“Indeed, Lady Bentley. Welcome to my house.” He greeted Charlotte with polite cordiality, now thoroughly regretting this soiree. There had to be an easier way to find out what Leah Elliott thought she was playing at.
“Charlotte has been perfecting her performance at the pianoforte, Lord Denby,” Lady Bentley informed him. “Lady Felicity said there was to be music after dinner and I know how much you enjoy a decent performance.”
Hal shot Flick an accusing gaze. It was the first he’d heard about music.
“No doubt Charlotte will be persuaded to exhibit,” Lady Bentley added with determination.
Hal didn’t doubt it. Somehow he managed not to groan aloud, watching as Flick smoothly ushered the Bentleys into the drawing room and ensured that they were supplied with champagne.
“Music?” he said to his sister when she returned to his side.
“Certainly. What else did you expect?”
“Anything. Why could we not have cards?”
“Because you get irritated with people when they don’t attend to the game. I don’t recall a card evening here that hasn’t ended in unpleasantness. At least if we have music, you can sit at the back of the room and fall asleep.”
How Hal wished that was true. He contented himself with a grunt, wondering at Lady Bentley’s tenacity. To some degree he could understand her bafflement at her lack of progress. Charlotte Bentley was pretty enough, well-mannered and, as the daughter of an earl, very much a part of his world. She was also wealthy in her own right, thanks to a large legacy left to her by her grandfather. She had gentlemen queuing for her attentions but, encouraged by her ambitious mother, had set her sights on Hal. Her mother’s estate adjoined the Hall and, as an only child, it would become the property of Charlotte’s husband one day. Hal appeared to be the only person in the locality blind to the advantages of such a match.