Authors: Anne Ashley
Dressed in the impeccable style advocated by George Brummell himself, and with black hair cropped short and artistically arranged in the windswept look, he seemed to make nearly all the other gentlemen present appear slightly ill-groomed in comparison.
So striking was the change in appearance that Georgiana didn't immediately appreciate precisely who it was. Only when stark recognition on his own part replaced affectation, and those unforgettable dark eyes stared fixedly in her direction, did she know for sure. Then she very nearly forgot the movements of the dance, almost disgraced herself by missing a step, when heavy lids lowered and a look of such contempt took possession of those rugged features, a moment before he swung round on his heels and walked awayâ¦.
Miss in a Man's World
Historical #318âOctober 2011
was born and educated in Leicester. She lived for a long time in Scotland, but now lives in the West Country with two cats, her two sons and her husband, who has a wonderful and very necessary sense of humor. When not pounding away at the keys of her computer, she likes to relax in her garden, which she has opened to the public on more than one occasion in aid of the village church funds.
The Reluctant Marchioness
A Lady of Rare Quality
Betrayed and Betrothed
Lord Hawkridge's Secret
Lady Gwendolen Investigates
The Transformation of Miss Ashworth
The Viscount's Scandalous Return
Miss in a Man's World
he firelight flickered across the Dowager's face, making her appear more intimidating than usual. Even her staunchest supporters, her closest friends, would never have called her a beauty; not even five decades before, when she had surprised so many by her betrothal to the sixth Earl of Grenville, thereby achieving a truly splendid alliance. Nonetheless, not even her severest critics, and there had been numerous of those during her lifetime, would ever have stigmatised her as the least light-minded, or as a woman who had failed in her obligations. On the contrary, she had been renowned throughout her adult life for putting duty first, even if this had meant going against inclination. She had always been steadfast in her resolve, a veritable pillar of strength to all those who had come to rely on her support and good sense down the years.
Yet today, finally, after seeing the last of her six children placed in the family vault, much of that zest for life, that spark of determination, had faded from her eyes. Much, it was true, but not quite all, as the only
other occupant of the comfortable parlour discovered when the Dowager finally ceased her silent contemplation of the glowing fire in the hearth and raised her head.
âI do not make this request of you lightly,' she revealed at last. âI appreciate there is a very real possibility that you might be putting your own life in danger by agreeing to my request, should the person responsible for my son's death discover your quest. But the truth of the matter is there is no one I trust so implicitly.' The Dowager gave vent to a wheezy half-chuckle. âA sad admission for someone of my advanced age, whose acquaintance over the years has been extensive, and yet, it is true. Should you accede to my request, I know you will do your utmost to discover just what my son meant.'
âAnd you are sure, ma'am, that he said, “No, not a strangerâ¦It could only have beenâ¦one of the five. One of them must have been involved”?'
âQuite sure. It is something I am unlikely ever to forget, as they were among the last words he ever spoke to me. But, just what he meant by them, I have no notion. My son's acquaintance was vast, much larger than mine. He might have been referring to any number of different peopleâpeers of the realm, members of the government, high-ranking officers in the army or navy. Or maybe even a secret society. Who knows? But when I do know for certain, that will be the moment to take matters further. Until such time, it would be best if the world continues to believe my son died at the hands of unknown assailants. Which, of course, is most definitely the caseâ¦ But the one I am determined to bring to justice is the person who organised the attack.'
The silence that followed was broken only by the
ticking of the mantel-clock, and the crackling of logs in the hearth, until the Dowager's companion finally said, âIt is still your intention to remove to Bath in a few weeks, is it not? That will give me time to ponder on how best to discover what we both dearly wish to know. Delay writing to your good friend Lady Pickering in London. Involving her might not be the ideal solution. A better way might yet occur to me, my lady.'
hy don't you change your mind, Finch, and spend a week or two with Louise and me? You know how very fond of you she is. Why, she has come to look upon you as a brother! She will adore having you to stay.'
Viscount Fincham regarded his companion from behind half-closed lids. Anyone studying him might have been forgiven for supposing he had been on the verge of sleep during the past few minutes, for he had not uttered a single word since seating himself by the window in the crowded hostelry. Nor had he attempted to sample the tankard of ale the landlord had placed before him. None knew better, however, than the gentleman seated opposite that behind that languid air of blissful unconcern lurked a razor-sharp intellect, an astuteness that was frighteningly keen and occasionally quite disturbing.
An expanse of fine lace fell over one long-fingered hand as the Viscount reached for his tankard and finally
sampled its contents. âYou are in error, my dear Charles. Being heartily bored with life at present, I should make sad company for Louise. Or anyone else, come to that. Besides which, your darling wife has enough to contend with. She would not choose to put up with my megrims so close to her confinement.'
Knowing better than to attempt to persuade his friend to change his mind and accept the invitation, Charles Gingham merely said, âWhat you need, old fellow, is what I've been blessed to have these past yearsâthe love of a good woman.'
White, even teeth showed behind a wickedly flashing smile. âEvidently you forget I have one already. Caroline is, without doubt, the most skilful I've ever had.'
Charles gave vent to a derisive snort. âI'm not talking about your birds of paradise, Ben. Good Lord! You've had enough of those down the years. And not one of 'em has meant so much as a groat to you, if I'm any judge. No, what you need is a wife, a lady you will love and cherish, someone who will give your life a new direction, some purpose.'
This time the Viscount's smile was decidedly twisted, revealing more than just a hint of cynicism. âI hardly think that is ever likely to happen, my dear friend. No, perhaps in a year or two I shall marry, if only to beget an heir. After all, a fellow in my position is never short of candidates for a wife. I have the hopeful little darlings parading before me with tiresome regularity every Season in the Marriage Mart. I'm sure if, and when, I take a serious look I shall find at least one female who will meet my exacting standardsâdivinely fair, impeccably mannered and dutifully biddable.'
Charles Gingham stared across the table, a hint of
sadness in his expression. âDo you still ponder over what might have been? I know I do. If I hadn't dragged you across to France with me all those years ago, you might now be a blissfully contented married man.'
âDo not do offence to your feelings on my account, Charles,' the Viscount urged him, once again sounding distinctly bored with the topic of conversation. âYour sympathy is quite misplaced, believe me. Charlotte Vane, that was, no longer enters my thoughts. She chose to overlook the understanding between us, and marry Wenbury. Had she chosen to await my return from France, she would undoubtedly have eventually become my Viscountess. My brother's untimely demise was a shock to everyone, not least of all to me. I neither grudged him his superior position in the family, nor craved the title for myself. Fate decreed that I should inherit, however. Had he produced a son, not a daughter, I should have been more than happy to run the estate until my nephew came of age. I would be a liar if I said I do not now enjoy the agreeable benefits the title has afforded me, because I do. And I believe I have carried out my duties with diligence, and consideration towards all those who look to me for their livelihood. I also believe I have a duty to marry one day. But let me assure you that love will never enter into the equation. So long as my future bride, whoever she might be, conducts herself in a ladylike manner at all times, and provides me with the heir I desire, she will not find me unreasonable or exacting in my demands. For the most part she may go her own way, as I fully intend to go mine.'
Charles was appalled by such blatant apathy, and it showed in his expression, and in his voice as he said, âI cannot believe you would be so indifferent to the
lady you should one day choose to marry. You might fool most all the ton into believing you're cold and indifferent, but you'll never persuade me. I know how much Charlotte Vane meant to you. I know what you're capable of feeling.'
âWas capable of feeling,' the Viscount corrected in an ominously quiet tone. âUnlike you, Charles, I am no longer a romantic. I leave all that nonsense to the numerous poets of the day. I do not look for love in marriage. Dear Lady Wenbury taught me a very valuable lesson eight years ago. I've learned to guard against theâerâmore tender emotions. No, I shall be content with a female who behaves at all times with propriety and fulfils all her obligations as my Viscountess.'
No one could have mistaken the note of finality in the deep, attractively masculine voice, least of all the gentleman who had had the honour of being one of the Viscount's closest friends since the far-off days of their boyhood, and so Charles wasn't unduly surprised when his lordship tossed the contents of his tankard down his throat and rose to his feet, announcing that they had best leave, or risk missing the start of the mill.
The market town was a hive of activity. Not only was there a prize fight being staged in a field on the outskirts of the thriving community, there was also a horse fair taking place in an adjacent meadow. Visitors wishing to enjoy one or both attractions were making their way along a crowded main street, their ribald comments and guffaws of merriment mingling with street hawkers' cries as they attempted to sell their wares. So it wasn't wholly surprising that his lordship, leading the way out of the inn, quite failed to detect that single cry warning him of possible danger. It wasn't
until someone cannoned into him, thereby successfully thrusting him back against the inn wall, out of harm's way, that he realised one of the drayman's large barrels had come perilously close to doing him a mischief. He watched it roll harmlessly by before turning his attention to the youthful rescuer at his feet.
âGood Lord, Ben! Are you all right?' Charles enquired, emerging from the inn just in time to witness the incident.
âIt would appear I fared rather better than my gallant deliverer here,' his lordship responded.
Clasping a hand round a far from robust arm, his lordship then helped the youth to his feet, and saw at once a small quantity of blood trickling down the stocking below the left knee. âHere, take this, lad!'
After having thrust a square of fine lawn into a surprisingly slender hand, his lordship watched as the youth tied the handkerchief about his leg. âAre you hurt anywhere else?'
âN-no, I do not believe so, sir,' a gruff little voice answered, before the youth retrieved his tricorn from the dusty cobbled yard, and raised his head at last.
Taken aback slightly, the Viscount found himself blinking several times as he gazed down into the most vivid violet-blue eyes he'd ever seen; framed in long black lashes, they were remarkably striking, and quite wasted on a youth.
Drawing his own away with some difficulty, he requested his friend to locate the landlord's whereabouts, and then returned his full attention to his unlikely rescuer. âDo you live locally? If so, my carriage is at your disposal, and my groom can return you to your home, as soon as the landlord's good lady wife has seen to your hurts.'
âThere's no need to trouble, sir. 'Tis naught but a scratch,' the boy protested, but his lordship remained adamant.
âIt's the very least I can do, child, for someone who selflessly saved me from possible injury. Ah, and here's the very man!'
Tossing the landlord a shiny golden guinea, he bade him take care of the boy by providing whatever his youthful rescuer might request. In view of such generosity, mine host was only too willing to comply, and ushered his somewhat reluctant young customer toward the inn's main entrance, leaving the Viscount staring after them, his high forehead creased with a decidedly puzzled look.
âWhat's amiss, Ben? You're not hurt yourself, are you?'
âWhatâ¦?' His lordship managed to drag his mind back to the present without too much difficulty. âNo, not at all, Charles,' he assured him, as they set off down the road. âIt's just that young ladâ¦ Did you notice his eyes, by any chance?'
âNo, can't say as I did. Why, what was wrong with 'em? Not crossed, were they?'
The Viscount frowned yet again. âNo, there was absolutely nothing wrong with them at allâ¦ They were perfect, in fact! Perhaps the most striking I've ever seen in my life.'
âNo doubt he'll turn a few fillies' heads, then, when he's older,' Charles suggested, fast losing interest in the topic, for his attention had been well and truly captured by something he considered far more diverting. âLooks as if the mill's about to start. Let's see if we cannot attain a good vantage point.'
By the time Viscount Fincham had returned to that certain well-kept hostelry, late that same afternoon, he too had successfully thrust the incident earlier in the day, and his youthful rescuer, to the back of his mind. After taking leave of his friend, who lived a mere mile or so the other side of the thriving community, his lordship didn't delay in heading back to the capital.
As his well-sprung travelling carriage picked up speed, leaving the habitation far behind, Lord Fincham stared absently out of the window, and was considering how best to entertain himself that evening, when he caught sight of a solitary figure, carrying a somewhat battered portmanteau, trudging along the road. Just what it was about the person that instantly captured his interest he was for ever afterwards to wonder. It might have been the set of the slender shoulders, or the brief glimpse of a slightly worn and faded tricorn that struck a chord of memory. All his lordship did know was that he had instinctively reached for his silver-handled walking stick in order to beat a tattoo on the conveyance's roof, without giving the matter a second thought.
His head groom responded in a trice, and as the carriage drew to a halt his lordship let down the window, and leaned out in order to watch the solitary figure's approach.
As the youth drew closer, surprised recognition was clearly discernible on the young face. âGreat heavens! Why, if it isn't you, sir!'
The boy was more dishevelled than the Viscount remembered. His clothes were now liberally covered in dust, and there were streaks of dirt across his face. He looked decidedly weary, too, as though he had been walking for some considerable time.
A surge of annoyanceâborne, he could only suppose, of a guilty conscienceâsuddenly assailed him, and Lord Fincham found himself saying more sharply than he had intended, âWell, don't just stand there, leaving my horses champing at their bits, lad!'
There was a moment's hesitation before the youth clambered inside and settled himself opposite, placing the portmanteau carefully on the seat beside him, as though it contained all his worldly goods.
Which was possibly the case, the Viscount ruminated, before his youthful companion asked where he was bound. âMore importantly, what is your destination?' his lordship enquired by way of a response. âWhen weâerâbumped into each other earlier, I assumedâquite wrongly, I should imagineâthat you resided in the market town.'
âOh, no, sir! I was merely exploring the place while I awaited the arrival of the stagecoach to London.' A rueful expression flickered over delicate features. âUnfortunately, the innkeeper's wife was so very obliging. Not only did she attend to my slight hurts, she also insisted I had something to eat when she learned I hadn't had a morsel since breaking my fast early this morning. I'm afraid I simply couldn't resist the offer of sweet game pie and a bowl of broth, and returned to the coaching inn on the other side of town only to discover the stage had departed some thirty minutes previously. The innkeeper there told me of a carrier he knew on the outskirts, but by the time I'd located the premises the carrier had long since departed for the capital, so I decided to continue walking until I found a suitable inn where I might put up for the night.'
âIn that case, your luck's in, child, for I am bound
for the metropolis myself, and can take you wherever you wish to go.'
âOh, thank you, sir! That would be most agreeable!'
The smile that accompanied the response was so enchanting that his lordship was quite startled by it. Then the astounding possibility that had momentarily occurred to him at their first encounter once again crossed his mind.
Leaning back against the velvet upholstery, he studied his youthful companion beneath half-shuttered lids. Hair, every bit as black as his own, was confined at the nape of a slender white neck with a length of ribbon. Beneath the tricorn hat the delicately featured face turned slightly, thereby offering him a perfect view of a profile that boasted high cheekbones, a small straight nose, a sweetly shaped mouth with a slightly protruding upper lip, and a perfectly sculptured little chin. Although a frock-coat of good quality adequately concealed the upper body, there was no mistaking the slender straight limbs beneath the knee-breeches and soiled stockings.
âYou have yet to inform me precisely where you are bound, child,' his lordship reminded his companion, with a satisfied half-smile, as he drew his eyes away from narrow feet shod in buckled shoes.
Those striking orbs once again turned in the Viscount's direction. âOh, if you could just set me down at some respectable inn, sir, I would be immensely grateful.'
âWould you, indeed,' his lordship purred silkily, as he once again cast a speculative glance over his companion's trim form. âYes, I feel sure we could come to some mutuallyâerâsatisfactory arrangement,' he added, before he watched one slender hand delve into
the portmanteau and draw out a surprisingly bulging leather purse.