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Authors: Emily Hendrickson

Tags: #Regency Romance

Miss Cheney's Charade

BOOK: Miss Cheney's Charade
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MISS CHENEY’S CHARADE

 

Emily Hendrickson

 

Chapter One

 

Emma paused at the top of the stairs, peeping over the banister while listening for any sign of Oldham, the portly and rather self-important Cheney butler. Hearing no sounds, other than the usual racket from the street beyond the front door, and seeing no sign of life, she quietly skimmed down the stairs until she reached her goal.

“Ah,” she whispered in satisfaction. The mail had arrived and Oldham had placed the neat stack on the hall table. Ignoring the bills and other letters intended for her papa, she searched for and found the one she had hoped would come. After tucking it inside the reticule she had thought to bring along, she caught sight of a strange-looking missive addressed to her brother, George. Naturally curious and quite unable to resist such an intriguing missive, she hesitated.

With a furtive glance about her, she tucked this peculiar letter in her reticule as well. After all, George had been gone for two months and wasn’t expected back any time soon. The letter might be important, for a message printed on sand-colored paper with blue and green stripes along the edge was certainly out of the ordinary.

Once in the safety of her room, Emma locked her door then pulled out the two letters. Sinking onto the pretty, if somewhat worn, chair near her window, she opened hers.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she cried softly in relief. She hadn’t realized how much she had counted upon the
Lady’s Magazine
to buy her embroidery designs. Her pattern for a cap had been purchased for more than she expected, and they would be pleased to accept additional patterns from the talented hand of Miss Cheney. Since the magazine didn’t publish the name of the designer, Emma felt there was no reason to be secretive over her identity. However, she did not wish her parents to know that she sought a source of extra pin money. While Cheney was a proud old name, the family had seen better days. Hopes for the future were fastened on both George and Emma contracting good marriages.

Emma thought—based on what she had seen of Society so far—that that particular hope grew dimmer by the day.

The other letter slid down her lap. Emma hastily grabbed it up, then slit the red wax seal with growing curiosity. Unfolding it, she gasped at what she saw.

Sir Peter Dancy, At Home, Monday 5th June, 1815 ... A mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at Half-past Two.

“A mummy! How utterly marvelous! Lucky George. He always has the fun, while I am stuck with teas and routs and every manner of dull things,” Emma said wistfully.

She leaned back on the chair, allowing herself to dream of the exotic collection she had heard about from several of the
ton.
Of course. Sir Peter was often spoken of with derision, for he appeared to scorn the dictates of Society. He set his own rules and lived to his own pleasing. But what a man he must be.

Emma hadn’t met the elusive gentleman. He was reputed to be the finest swordsman in all of England, in addition to owning an amazing collection of Egyptian artifacts. She’d heard he was tall and slender with thick sandy hair and strange green eyes. Apparently he didn’t care for the tiresome parties of the
ton
any more than did Emma.

London had been a bitter disappointment to her. She had hoped for so much. She soon realized that without a fat dowry the Cheney name counted for little. Had her father been a peer it might have helped. But he was merely gentry of fine and distinguished background. Emma knew no great expectations.

Turning her gaze to the letter once again, she wished with all her heart that she might change places with George, just for a day. Mind you, she wasn’t an improper girl, falling into scrapes and whatnot. But... it would be wonderful to see a mummy from Thebes unrolled. Imagine. If only ...

A rap at her door brought a halt to her musings. Swiftly crossing the room, she turned the key and let in her maid.

“Letters, Miss Emma?” Fanny said, studying the papers in Emma’s hand with prying eyes.

Quickly refolding the two pages, Emma walked to her desk to tuck them into her writing folio for the moment. “One for me and one for George,” she replied, truthful as ever. Emma never lied, although she sometimes neglected to reveal all of a matter.

“When will Mr. George come home?” the maid asked. “He’s a nice, quiet young man, never chasing maids like some young gentlemen do.”

Amused at this assessment of her rather unusual brother, Emma shook her head. “He remains off somewhere in the wilds of Suffolk, digging for ruins or something of the sort. Heaven knows when he will remember to return.”

“Your dear mama wishes you to join her in the morning room. I ‘most forgot to tell you.” Fanny set to work at making up the bed, then putting away Emma’s pretty bed gown of sheer cambric and her dainty nightcap.

Glancing at the clock, Emma found she had daydreamed for an hour. Her mother rose promptly at noon and sought the warmth to be found in the south-facing morning room. She expected her only daughter to bear her company.

Knowing she would be in for a scolding if she dawdled, Emma hurried down the stairs. Her thoughts remained in her room, however. Sir Peter Dancy and the mummy from Thebes seemed far more alluring than planning which rout or party to attend.

Her mother and two of her friends were sitting in the morning room, gossiping over tea and dainty biscuits.

“Emma, my dear. How nice to see you have kept yourself busy this morning.” Matilda Cheney gestured to the pretty bowl of flowers Emma had placed on the low table near her mother’s favorite chair. One of the few luxuries allowed, fresh flowers were a great favorite of the fragile Mrs. Cheney.

“You are fortunate to have such a dutiful daughter. Pity she has not found some nice gentleman who appreciates her,” Mrs. Bascomb intoned in her pompous manner.

Emma glanced at the quizzing glass leveled in her direction by the overbearing Mrs. Bascomb and managed a smile.

“Emma never puts a foot wrong,” Mrs. Cheney replied with complacency.

“Now, Mama,” Emma demurred, knowing that if any of them were privy to her thoughts, they would be scandalized.

“Do you go to the Titheridge affair this evening?” Lady Hamley inquired, blinking like a nervous cat.

“That woman?” Mrs. Cheney said in a wondering voice.

“I know she is a trifle eccentric, but ‘tis hoped her nephew might attend,” Lady Hamley concluded with a significant glance at Emma.

“I trust you refer to Sir Peter Dancy,” Mrs. Bascomb boomed out, startling Emma who had drifted off into a daydream again.

At hearing the very name that figured in her dreams, Emma straightened in her chair, listening attentively for once.

“I doubt if even she can persuade him to attend her gathering, no matter how select it might be,” Mrs. Cheney replied with a hopeful look at her pretty daughter.

Knowing full well what she had seen in the looking glass this morning, Emma smiled back, resigned to her fate. There was nothing unusual in gray eyes and dark curly hair, certainly nothing to capture the eye of a notable like Sir Peter.

“Her chin is a trifle too pointed, my dear, but her eyes are quite pretty,” Lady Hamley said in what she no doubt perceived as an effort to be comforting.

“Pretty is as pretty does. Now, if George would just marry a fortune, we might have a chance to find Emma a husband worthy of her.” Mrs. Cheney compressed her lips in annoyance at her neglectful son.

Emma longed to explode in whoops of laughter. Worthy of her? And who did her dear mother think fit that bill?

“There are not so many fortunes to be had this Season,” Mrs. Bascomb reflected.

“But most of the girls are bran-faced and lacking wit,” Lady Hamley added with a smile at Emma.

Knowing she didn’t fit this description, Emma smiled back.

It was settled that the trio of ladies with Emma in tow would grace the Titheridge affair this evening. Once this decision was reached, the matter of clothes became the topic of earnest discussion.

Emma went back to her daydreams, for she knew full well that she would be consigned to her best white muslin with the two flounces and low white-embroidered bodice. She thought she looked insipid in it, for her face was not fashionably pale nor was she properly petite. Perhaps her carnelian brooch and earrings would add a nice bit of color?

Lightly tanned from her many sketching walks and taller than average, Emma did not fit the current mode of fashion. She did not delude herself that merely because her dark hair was in crisp curls about her face and her eyes gazed out in a dreamy haze of gray that she might sweep any man, much less a wealthy man, off his feet.

But Sir Peter was supposed to be tall, very tall. And Emma bet her pin money that even if he hovered over a mummy and other exotic things, he wasn’t pale and languid either.

“If Sir Peter does attend this evening, you must be sure to let him know how talented Emma is with her drawing pencil and watercolors,” Lady Hamley said, blinking her eyes in her usual fashion.

“But,” Emma protested, “many young ladies draw and paint. I am nothing out of the ordinary.”

The three women studied Emma until she shifted uncomfortably on her straight-backed chair.

Lady Hamley sighed with regret, blinking over her teacup.

Mrs. Bascomb frowned, then brightened. “But you do very detailed and accurate drawings, my dear. Sir Peter might appreciate that.”

Emma smiled wryly, wondering what difference that could make.

At long last she was released when the callers left and her mother went to inspect her gown for the evening.

Back in her room Emma sank down on her favorite chair and stared out of the window. Placing her elbows on the sill, she put her unfashionably pointed chin on her hands. What was she to do? No great beauty, how could she hope to catch his interest? Would he permit George’s little sister to view the unrolling? No thought of capturing him as a husband entered her mind. She merely wanted to see his mummy.

She didn’t need to take the invitation to Sir Peter’s unrolling out again for study. She knew it by heart. She also suspected that no women were invited, it being deemed a scandalous thing for a female to see. But why? What would be revealed when the linen wrappings were removed? Just a body.

She paled at that actuality, then grew more thoughtful. Surely a body—after all those years and preserved with some sort of substance—would bear little resemblance to a living person. She had glimpsed a skeleton once when George had dug up an unmarked grave while hunting for Roman treasure. It was not so terrible, and it could not hurt you.

If
Sir Peter attended the party this evening and
if
she had a chance to speak with him, she fully intended to ask him if she might make use of George’s invitation. With that decision made, she settled into a daydream that involved Sir Peter, who strongly resembled the knight in her childhood book of fairy tales.

It was with nervous anticipation that Emma entered the Titheridge establishment that evening. Dressed with more than her usual care and listening for once to her mother’s admonitions, she hunted through the throng of people for a tall, sandy-haired man with green eyes.

He was not there.

Not giving up quite yet, she followed in her mother’s wake, entering the main room where the concert of foreign music was to be held.

Lady Titheridge had traveled over the world, collecting peculiar objects wherever she went. Emma longed to examine the items she saw more closely. Perhaps during the intermission she might slip away.

Then the music began. While her mother tried to conceal a pained expression, Emma thought the sounds exquisite, if out of the common way. Flutes and other strange instruments played music such as polite Society had never heard before. Emma felt it came from jungles and dark exotic places, creeping about and twining through one’s mind.

When the intermission came, Emma tried again to find Sir Peter. She thought she had espied him in the rear of the room, but by the time she reached that spot, he had gone.

So she wandered about, heedless of her mother’s little nods and motions, fascinated with the exotic jade statues and Ming bowls, the wood carvings, and intriguing jewelry displayed in glass cases and on shelves set into the walls.

“You are interested in unusual things, my dear?” Lady Titheridge asked, popping up at Emma’s elbow.

“I find these fascinating,” Emma replied truthfully. “I could study them for hours.”

“Allow me to introduce you to a gentleman who shares your taste for the beautiful and unusual.” She turned to a man who stood a few feet away and said in a quietly commanding voice, “Mr. Brummell, do come here.”

Emma felt her heart sinking to her toes. It was not Sir Peter as she had hoped, but the notable Mr. George Brummell, the man who rivaled the Prince Regent himself for leadership of the
ton.
She had heard of his famous set-downs and dreaded meeting the man. Her gray eyes worriedly sought his, wondering at the twinkle she found in the depths of his gray orbs. He was dressed in his usual dark blue coat, its tails modestly long. Black pantaloons added to his somber garb, and his white waistcoat was unpretentious. Only his neckcloth was a miracle of perfection, drawing the eye to its quiet elegance.

BOOK: Miss Cheney's Charade
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