Featherton House, London, Late Autumn 1817
iss Margaret Elizabeth Lucinda Featherton, second daughter of Viscount Featherton, glanced down at the missive in her lap. The letters were rounded, much like a child’s would be, but the spelling and grammar were correct.
Dear Miss Featherton,
I pray this letter arrives in time to save you from making a horrible mistake. Lord Tarlington is not what you think him. I do not expect you to take my word for it. However, if you go to number Twenty-Three Basil Street in the neighborhood of Hans Crescent around seven in the morning, you will find the evidence for yourself.
The first time she had received such a letter, the warning had concerned her last suitor, the Earl of Swindon. She shuddered at how close she had come to marrying such a monstrous man. A heaviness lodged in her chest, making it hard to breathe. What would she discover about Tarlington?
The following morning at half past six, Meg and her maid, Hendricks, sallied forth as if taking their usual early stroll in Hyde Park. However, instead of walking down Charles Street toward the Park they headed in the opposite direction to Hay Hill, then on to Bond Street and hailed a hackney.
The day was cool but sunny. A clean, crisp scent, which reminded her of newly-harvested apples, unusual for London, filled the air. Trees were showing off their brilliant autumn colors. It was altogether too pretty a day for their mission. Meg was tempted to go back and hide in her chamber as if she had never received the missive. Yet if she did, she could end up wed to a man as bad as or worse than Swindon.
Twenty minutes later, she and her maid were situated two houses down from Twenty-Three Basil Street. The town house consisted of three stories and a cellar area. Flowers in pots stood on either side of the well-maintained front door. The brass knocker gleamed as if polished regularly.
Hendricks drew back the leather shade in the hackney, keeping watch on the house as Meg pressed back against the thin, poorly cushioned squabs. She resisted the urge to pleat her skirts, which would surely draw a rebuke from her maid, and waited.
Wondering if, yet again, she had fallen in love with a fiend.
After several minutes, she shifted on the hard bench. Two women carrying baskets hurried past the coach, staring at the vehicle as they went. If Meg and Hendricks remained here much longer, they would begin attracting attention.
Frustrated with waiting, Meg blew out a puff of air. “Do you see anything yet?”
“No.” Her maid started to shake her head, then stopped. “Oh, wait. The door is opening.”
. She slid to the other side of the hackney and glanced out the window. A handsome gentleman with curling dark blond hair stepped out of the town house holding an infant. Lord Tarlington smiled down at the woman standing next to him, who clutched the hand of a small child still in skirts. For a moment the smile appeared to be the same as the ones he had given Meg on numerous occasions. Then his smile deepened and his face lit with love as he embraced the woman before kissing her and handing her the baby. As the woman’s hand rose, a glint of gold on the third finger of her left hand appeared.
Married! The cur was already wed!
Fury swept through her. The pain in her breast deepened as her heart broke into sharp shards. How could she have been so gullible to fall in love with a man who so obviously did not return her affections and was not even free to give them?
Unable to watch any longer, she slid back to the other side of the coach. Lord Tarlington might not be the ogre Swindon was, but he had lied to her and had deceived her, and, worst of all, he had pretended to love her. For that she would never forgive him.
“That snake!” Hendricks’s outraged gasp broke the silence. “And he just spoke to your father yesterday.”
“It would appear”—Meg’s throat closed painfully, but she refused to give in to the tears threatening to fall—“that he has a previous commitment. One he has kept well hidden.” Reaching up, she knocked on the roof of the carriage. “Take us to Gunter’s.”
The famous ice cream shop was located at the other end of Berkeley Square from her house. They would leave the hackney there, thus disguising the direction they’d come from anyone at her house.
A deep line formed between her maid’s brows. “What will you do now, miss?”
Take the only action she could under the circumstances. “I shall write to him, refusing his offer, and instruct Benson that I am not at home to his lordship.”
“Mark my words, miss. He’ll try to see you.”
“I do not think he will.” Despite the fact that unmarried ladies were not supposed to be aware of secret wives, or lovers, she had every intention of telling him she knew of his.
Then again, she had been receiving quite an education. Her “friend” seemed to be extraordinarily conversant with Meg’s suitors. It was as if she had a real guardian angel.
Last Season, she had discovered Lord Swindon had whipped his mistress almost to death. She could never even have imagined such a thing was possible. Then her friend had written with an offer for Meg to meet the woman, Rose. She had turned out to be younger than Meg, with red hair and green eyes. Rose had dropped her robe. Scars covered her back and buttocks. If Meg had not seen the damage done to the young woman, she most likely would not have believed it. Her stomach twisted into a knot as she thought of the hell her life would have been if she had wed Swindon.
She applied herself to her current dilemma. The hard part would be explaining to her parents why she was turning down yet another offer. One she had initially received with enthusiasm. As when she had visited the courtesan, Meg would never be able to disclose her trip to the Basil Street house. Even her fairly liberal parents would certainly not approve of her conduct.
A half hour later, she and Hendricks completed a brisk stroll around the square before arriving home. As Meg and her maid made their way up the front steps, the door opened, and her father’s butler bowed. “A good walk, miss?”
“Very good indeed, Benson.” She removed her bonnet. “If Lord Tarlington calls, I am not at home.”
Meg was quite sure that the entire household down to the newest tweenie knew of the proposal, but Benson did not reveal his surprise by even a twitch of his eyelashes. “Very well, miss.”
Upon entering her chamber, she handed Hendricks her gloves and bonnet, then went straight to her desk, pulling out a piece of pressed paper before sitting to write her letter to his lordship.
Meg held her hand steady, being careful not to leave smudges or any other indication of her distress.
I find I cannot accept your offer of marriage. It has become clear to me that you have given your heart to another. Please do not attempt to convince me that she and the children are not important. If that was the case—
Meg brushed angrily at the tears blurring her eyes
—I still could not wed you, as I would never trust a man who could leave his lover and children.
Do not attempt to speak to me or approach me. The dances you requested will be given to another.
She sanded the letter, reading it over again before applying her seal. It was better that she had used the term
. She did not want to leave him room to argue. That ought to do it. “Hendricks, please arrange to have this delivered to Lord Tarlington.”
“Yes, miss. I’ll ring for tea.”
Tea, the answer to all ills. “Thank you.”
The door clicked shut, and Meg clutched her handkerchief, waiting for the tears she had been keeping at bay to come, but after one lone drop rolled down her cheek, her eyes dried. Perhaps she had become used to betrayal. She supposed she should be grateful that her guardian angel was watching over her. For some reason she seemed to attract the wrong type of gentleman. If only she did not wish to marry. The problem was that being a spinster held no lure for her. Yet, perhaps it was time to give up on love in a marriage. She could search for an amiable, undemanding gentleman to wed, have her children, and live a comfortable, if unexciting, life.
The tears finally came, streaming down her face in a torrent as her heart crumbled into dust.
The following morning, Lucinda, Dowager Viscountess Featherton, sat in her favorite chair directly in front of the fireplace in the Featherton House breakfast room. “Did you tell Meg she could not accept Tarlington?”
Her son David, the current Viscount Featherton, glanced up from his newspaper. “It wasn’t necessary. She sent a note to me first thing this morning, informing me that she had decided that she and Tarlington wouldn’t suit.”
Lucinda raised her brows so that she would appear surprised, and in an innocent voice said, “How fortuitous. No doubt she felt something was wrong.”
“I would take her home,” her daughter-in-law Helena said, “but if she leaves on the heels of Tarlington departing Town, it is bound to appear odd.”
Lucinda carefully spread apricot marmalade on her toast so that it completely covered the small piece of bread she held. “Indeed it would. You are correct. It is much better for her to remain in Town for another week or so.” That would also give the match she wished for Meg time to bloom. “Poor girl. Perhaps next Season she will finally meet the gentleman for her.”
Last spring, at the prompting of her good friend Constance, Dowager Duchess of Bridgewater, Lucinda had hired a Bow Street runner. Constance’s nephew had made a cryptic remark about the Earl of Swindon, which caused her suspicions to rise. What they discovered prompted them to warn her granddaughter. Then this autumn, when Meg appeared to be forming an attachment to Tarlington, Lucinda had hired the same runner, simply to ensure that there was nothing wrong with the man. Unfortunately, it appeared he had either contracted a marriage with an ineligible woman, or allowed his mistress to pretend to be his wife. In either case, he clearly would not do for Meg. Lucinda sighed. She wished she could have simply told Meg, but what young lady in love would listen? And her daughter-in-law would not have appreciated that Meg knew of such depravities.
your assistance.” Helena’s tone was dry and a bit hard.
“Oh yes. I have learned my lesson,” Lucinda lied.
Last spring she, Constance, and their dear friend Almeria Bellamny, had arranged a match between Lucinda’s grandson Kit and Constance’s granddaughter Lady Mary.
Although successful in the end, there had been problems, and Helena had not been best pleased with Lucinda or her friends. That was just before Constance had told them about Lord Swindon. Thankfully, no one had traced the notes Lucinda had sent to her son or granddaughter back to her. Not that she had written the letters herself.
After the Swindon debacle, Lucinda, Constance, and Almeria made a list of eligible gentlemen, and had found the very man to win Meg’s heart: Damon, Marquis of Hawksworth, heir to the Duke of Somerset. He was handsome, honorable, had a good fortune of his own, and in need of a wife. All Lucinda and her friends had to do was throw them together for a long enough period of time and the two young people would realize they were made for each other. The only problem was that Meg had fallen in love with Tarlington before Hawksworth had had time to fix his attentions with her. It was not until later that Lucinda had discovered Meg had met Tarlington during a visit to her maternal grandmother in Bath. Lucinda hoped that Hawksworth would now have his chance to win her heart.
Later that day, she waited in her carriage while one of her footmen knocked on the door of Bridgewater House. Within a few short minutes, Lucinda was bowed into a warm parlor and was pleased to find Almeria, Lady Bellamny, already present. “Well, the deed is done.”
“Excellent.” Almeria’s remaining chin juggled as she nodded. She had been on a reducing diet, and it appeared to be working. “I sent the invitation to Hawksworth before I came here.”
“How did Meg take the news?” Constance asked.
“Badly.” The sobbing Lucinda had heard coming from her granddaughter’s chamber had broken her heart.
When she and her friends had hatched this plan, she had not realized Meg would be dealing with double betrayals, nor how hard she would take this latest matter. Lucinda was very much afraid that her granddaughter would be much more difficult to coax into marriage than Hawksworth. Nevertheless, both of them needed to be settled before his father decided to take the matter of Hawksworth’s marriage in hand, and so they would be.
Damon Hawksworth lounged against a convenient pillar in Lady Cowper’s crowded ballroom. A glass of wine dangled from his fingers. Directly across from him, another brittle smile appeared on Miss Margaret Featherton’s normally happy countenance. Her latest suitor, the Earl of Tarlington, was nowhere to be seen and had not been for the past two days or so. Rumor had it that he had gone to the Continent. The only question Damon had was whether she had given the man his congé or if it had been the other way around. He rather thought something had occurred to cause her to break it off with Tarlington. His godmother would know. If anyone knew the inner workings of the
, it was Almeria Bellamny.
Ever since Rupert, Earl of Stanstead’s wedding, when she had introduced him to Miss Featherton, he had developed a fascination for the lady. Her intelligence was sharp, and several times he had seen her hold back a witty retort. Her beauty was not at all in the usual mode. Her mouth was too wide for the current fashion, yet it complemented her high cheekbones and finely arched black brows. Her thick, dark chestnut hair almost begged him to run his fingers through her tresses as they tumbled down. Yet for some reason, the feature he was most fond of was her completely straight nose with a rounded tip. More importantly, she was poised beyond her years. He doubted she had ever been a missish young lady. Even when they had argued over an interpretation of poetry, she had always appeared in complete control and secure in her knowledge.