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Authors: Catherine Coulter

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BOOK: Lord Harry's Folly
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Lord Harry went suddenly pale, but since the interior of the carriage was in dark shadows, Sir Harry and Mr. Scuddimore didn’t notice. Lord Harry asked in a voice of casual interest, “Do you recall the lady’s name, Scuddy?”

Mr. Scuddimore shook his head and shot a hopeful glance at Sir Harry.

Sir Harry shrugged. “Sorry, Scuddy, it was before my time. Remember I was over in Spain at the time.”

Lord Harry said quietly, “Did the lady’s name happen to be Springville?”

“Yes, that was it Springville. Elizabeth Springville. Lovely little filly she was. Dead now, really quite a pity. Life does sometimes serve up the most unexpected and revolting dishes.”

“Ho,” Sir Harry said. “We’re finally here.” He leaned his blond head out of the carriage window. “Damnable crush tonight, and being late doesn’t help.”

Lord Harry said nothing more. Since all of Mr. Scuddimore’s attention was focused upon extricating his ample body from the carriage, and Harry didn’t want to be bothered by ancient history, it would simply have to wait. It was enough for now that Lord Harry had discovered there had been a wager, and that Lord Oberlon and Damien had been a part of it.

As the three friends made their way into Drury Lane Theater, Lord Harry had but one goal, to find Jason Cavander, the Marquess of Oberlon.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

“You’re naughty, your grace,” she said in a voice so soft and tempting that it would make any man’s toes curl, even his grace’s. “You give me this lovely ruby necklace and then hold me prisoner. Would you not like someone other than yourself and my maid to see its beauty?”

Her eyes glittered at the thought of the many envious glances that would come her way. It would serve those twitty young misses and their prune-lipped hypocritical mamas right to see her, Melissande Challier, more richly jeweled than they. Let them put their noses in the air, let them thrust out their bosoms and sail past her, as if she were a bad smell to be ignored. Her escort would be one of the most eligible peers of the realm, and her gown and jewels unparalleled. It was a delicious thought.

Jason Cavander touched his fingers lightly to the ruby necklace, an expensive bauble he’d bought in Italy on a whim. Having no one else upon whom to bestow it, he’d willingly given it to Melissande. It was a welcoming present, he’d told her. Welcoming him home from Italy and welcoming her to his protection. Since the exquisite necklace was the only item of apparel she was wearing, his fingers soon strayed to her soft shoulders and white breasts. Actually, he admitted to himself, he was quite sated, Melissande having most superbly seen to his pleasure. But he was tired, tired of the seemingly endless stream of agents, advocates, solicitors, and tenants who had occupied his waking hours since his return from abroad. He would have preferred to spend the evening quietly with Melissande, perhaps allowing himself to emerge from her charmingly furnished apartment on the morrow, not a tired, but an exhausted man. But he saw the gleam of excitement in her eyes, really quite a dazzling sight, and knew without her telling him that she wished above things to tempt and bewitch the gentlemen and ladies at Vauxhall Gardens this evening.

He lazily propped himself up on one elbow, gazed appreciatively once more at her very nicely arranged body, then smiled. She was exquisitely beautiful and she didn’t yet bore him. He didn’t mind in the least giving her what she wished. He wondered though, in the dark hours of the morning when sleep didn’t come easily, what it was that he wished. And, he’d wondered, even if he ever did figure out what he wanted, who would be there to give it to him? He had no one, not a blessed soul. He’d been home from Italy for only a short time, a trip he’d not wanted to take, not really, but he’d had to leave England because of the speculation, the interminable sympathy shoveled at him by friends and enemies alike upon the death of his wife in childbed. Ah, she’d been so young, so beautiful to die so tragically, so needlessly. He’d not been able to bear it, all the mournful expressions, the endless silences around him because of his sorrow, a sorrow so deep that he simply wouldn’t speak of it or refer in any way to his dead wife. And there’d been Sir William Filey, of course, that damnable bastard, who’d delighted in questioning Elizabeth’s death, raising rumors that had no substance to them. Not that anyone had believed Filey or the rumors, but he’d had to leave else he’d have likely killed Filey. He shook his head, picked up his breeches, and left Melissande in the hands of her maid, Ginny.

He had to see to himself, a small mirror in the adjoining dressing room his only assurance that his appearance wouldn’t shame the exquisite rubies around his mistress’s white neck.

Ginny was carefully tugging a long curl of rich auburn gently into place on Melissande’s shoulder when Lord Oberlon returned to the bedroom. Melissande rose and smiled at him with the confidence of a lady who knows herself to be the elixir of pleasure and beauty. She touched her fingers to the ruby necklace that lay nestled in the hollow of her throat. “You approve, your grace?”

She had pleased him. The darkness deep within him was at bay. She did look as succulent as a prime partridge. “You’ll make all the other ladies present want to go hide themselves in the shrubbery.”

Ginny paused a moment from straightening her mistress’s brushes when she heard Melissande say with great relish to her lover as they left the room, “How I hope that Lady Planchey will be in attendance this evening. Why the effrontery of her ladyship to believe that you could be interested in her spotty-faced daughter.” Although Melissande was very much aware that wives and mistresses were poles apart in a gentleman’s mind, she knew that even the loveliest of young misses would receive no more than a disinterested glance from Lord Oberlon while she was leaning gracefully on his arm.

He smiled down at her, knowing exactly what she was thinking. He appreciated her predictability, was amused by her fascination with herself. She soothed the bleakness, made him forget how bloody serious life could be.

 

Miss Henrietta Rolland nearly cracked her jaw on a prodigious yawn the next morning. She only opened her eyes when Millie made a loud snorting noise for the third time, this third time, not more than three inches from her ear.

“That’s it, Miss Hetty. Open your eyes. Your father will no doubt miss you if you don’t join him for luncheon.”

“Yes, you’re right about that, Millie.” She stretched and groaned. “Goodness, but I’m tired.”

“You can’t expect much else if you stay out until the chimney sweeps begin their work.”

While Hetty bathed from the porcelain basin atop the marble commode, Millie, with practiced efficiency, told her mistress of the previous evening’s events. “You should know that your father was engaged with Sir Richard Latham, Mr. Alwyn Settlemore, and Sir Lucius Bentham. These gentlemen arrived at about eight o’clock. They drank sherry in the drawing room until half-past eight, discussing politics all the while, then left for Sir Mortimer Melberry’s house. Of course, your father didn’t think to say good night to you, so we had no worry there. Grimpston informed me that Sir Archibald returned just after midnight with two of the gentlemen, drank more sherry, and held more political discussions until just after two in the morning. Sir Archibald rose at his usual time of nine o’clock and repaired to the study after breakfast. And,” Millie finished, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece, “If you don’t soon finish pulling up your stockings, miss, you’ll ruin his blessed schedule and then we just might be in a rare mess.”

“A rare mess that could prove fatal. We must never interfere with his schedule. Indeed, I imagine he’s already planning how he will talk God around to his way of thinking once he arrives at the Pearly Gates. It boggles the mind, Millie, it truly does.”

Millie quickly brushed out her mistress’s short blond curls, threaded a white ribbon through the hollows and fastened it at the nape of her neck. “There,” she said, stepping back to survey her handiwork. “No one could accuse you of not looking the perfect young lady of fashion except that your gown is two inches too short, but Sir Archibald wouldn’t notice such a thing, thank the lord. Now, go, Miss Hetty, I just heard the clock chime twelve.”

Hetty ran down the carpeted stairs into the small entrance hall. “Good morning, Grimpston,” she said to the Rolland butler, who’d dandled her on his thin knee and burped her as well.

“Good morning, Miss Hetty. Off with you now, Sir Archibald is already at the table.”

Hetty sped past him down a small corridor that led to the dining room. She turned and waved a friendly hand before disappearing through the open door. She stopped short, took a deep breath, and smiled. Her father, Sir Archibald Rolland, esteemed member of the House of Lords, Tory by birth, economic persuasion, and passionate conviction, sat at the head of the long table, his head buried behind the Gazette.

Mrs. Miller, the Rolland housekeeper, stood at his elbow, a look of patient resignation on her face, waiting to discover his preference of soups. It was a sacred rule among the servants that Sir Archibald was never to be interrupted in his ritual reading of the newspaper. She looked heavenward and Hetty could almost hear her silent sighs.

“Good day, Father,” she sang out, carefree as any nightingale, and walked to her father’s side.

“Father,” she repeated, as his silver head didn’t emerge from his newspaper.

“Damned idiots,” he said to himself. “I ask you, why can’t they understand the simplest economics? Their constant, radical inveigling against the Corn Laws makes me wonder if they share an entire brain amongst the lot of them.” He jerked his head up. “Eh? Oh, Hetty? My dearest child, I trust you slept well?”

“Excellently, Father,” she said fondly and dropped a kiss on his smooth forehead. “And you, my dear?”

“Like a top, my dear, like a top. I wonder where that odd saying came from? Why a top, I ask you? Well, I suppose it’s far less important than the Corn Laws. If it were not for these infernal, cursed Whigs, I’d sleep even better than a top. How I’d like to send the lot of them to perdition.” He chuckled at the thought and Hetty smiled, somewhat surprised that her father could joke about the Whigs, the bane of his political existence.

“Sir Archibald, may I now serve the soup? Would you prefer the turtle or the potato?” Mrs. Miller’s very matronly face was nicely matched to her patient voice.

“I say, Mrs. Miller,” Sir Archibald said, giving a start. “You really ought not creep up on one like that. Ah, turtle soup, did you say? Yes, the turtle soup will be fine, Mrs. Miller. Cook has a fine hand with the turtle. Not at all the thing with the potato soup, though, thick fleshy things, potatoes are. Come, dish it up. We mustn’t dawdle all afternoon. Man wasn’t meant to live by bread alone. Ah, my dearest Hetty, you do look lovely, my child, but your gown is rather short, isn’t it? Is that a new fashion? Or have you grown again? Aren’t you rather old to be still growing?”

She just smiled at him, biting her tongue so she wouldn’t blurt out that she was thirteen years old and still growing. She wondered if he had any notion as to how old she was. But he had noticed her gown was too short. That was something she didn’t like. That was scary. She would have to be very careful around him.

She shook her head and thought her father’s condemnation of the potato soup had naught to do with Cook’s inability, but rather with the circumstance that potatoes had the disadvantage of being a vegetable. And that, she decided, grinning to herself, reminded him of the Corn Laws. Not wishing to sound like a reprehensible Whig, no matter how farfetched her vegetable comparison, Hetty hastily concurred with the turtle soup.

As Mrs. Miller suffered from arthritis in her knee joints, Hetty, as was her habit, dismissed the housekeeper. After standing ten minutes by Sir Archibald’s chair, unnoticed, Mrs. Miller wanted nothing more than to take the weight off her aching legs. She dipped a stiff curtsy and left father and daughter to their luncheon.

As Hetty spooned a mouthful of turtle soup to her lips, she thought about her activities for the afternoon. Sir Harry Brandon had insisted that they ride to Cowslip Hollow to see a local mill. She had no particular liking for prizefights. Yet, not to show a tad of enthusiasm for one of the most popular of the gentleman’s sports would surely not hold her in good stead with her companions. At least, later, they would ride in Hyde Park. In all likelihood, Lord Oberlon would be among the glittering ton that made their daily appearance during those fashionable hours of four to six in the afternoon. She smiled, her turtle soup for the moment forgotten. How very grateful she was that Mr. Scuddimore did not possess the most awesome of intellects. He’d offered her the use of a hack without the slightest hesitation, and more importantly, without questioning her feeble story that her father needed her own bay mare for stud purposes.

“Studding, eh? Laudable solution. England has need of more bay horses. Mares love it, my papa told me.”

Hetty looked up to see her father smiling at her in that vague way of his. He surprised her by saying, “I trust poor Drusilla’s sick sister hasn’t hampered your activities, my dear child. Your first trip to London and all that I would not wish you to be bored.”

She could but stare at him. He’d noticed her gown was too short yet he’d not realized that poor Drusilla Worthington had left London a good four months ago? She reached out and clasped her father’s hand. “Dear sir, I assure you that I am never bored. I have made many friends and am never at a loss for something interesting to do. In fact, after luncheon, I am promised to meet friends and go to, ah, Richmond Park to walk through the maze. Have you ever been there, Father? Do you know the secret of the maze?”

He looked at her as if she’d asked him for a key to Bedlam. She wondered if he even knew what Richmond Park was. “Never mind, sir. I shall find my own way.” She saw Sir Archibald couldn’t manage to hide his relief. She knew he was delighted that she’d settled so quickly into London life. He wanted her to attend all the routs, balls, but the thought of chaperoning his daughter to such affairs would never even occur to him.

BOOK: Lord Harry's Folly
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