Authors: Mary Brendan
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Historical Fiction, #Historical Romance, #Regency
‘Me?’ Helen choked a shocked laugh.
George dismissed the subject with a terse flick of a hand and stalked off to glare through the window.
Helen was aware that her brother and Jason Hunter had fallen out many years ago. She had been about fifteen at the time of the estrangement and shielded by her papa from knowing the sordid details. But she had heard whispers that they had fought over a woman. At the time she had felt sad that Jason no longer visited, for she had liked him. More honestly she had harboured a juvenile
for him. But now all that was inconsequential. Over a decade had passed and there were far more vital matters at stake than two grown men sulking over past slights.
‘This is quite ridiculous.’ Helen sighed. ‘It is reprehensible of you not to have done your duty by us.’
‘And it is reprehensible of you not to have done your duty by me!’ George thundered. ‘Do you think that I would have promised our father to support you had I known that seven years later you would still be a burden on me? Father was under the impression that, after a decent mourning for Marlowe, you would remarry, and so was I.’
Helen’s face grew pallid. ‘Papa didn’t say that …’
‘Indeed he did.’ This time not a hint of shame betrayed the untruth that flew from George’s mouth. ‘He thought that by the time Charlotte had left the
schoolroom, and was ready to make her début, you would have done the decent thing and removed yourself elsewhere. You accuse me of selfishness! You ought to look to your own behaviour.’
Helen stared, stricken, at her brother. ‘Papa never mentioned anything of the sort to me,’ she cried. ‘I was always welcome in his house …’
‘He probably thought he did not need to be blunt. He probably thought your conscience would guide you on it.’
George eyed his sister with calculation. ‘Hunter wants Westlea House, he told me so at Almack’s. I detest the man, but I shall sell it to him. I need cash quickly and he has a plentiful supply of the stuff.’
‘You can’t!’ Helen emphatically shook her brother’s arm.
‘Indeed I can! Philip Goode ought to swallow his damnable pride and beg his cousin for assistance. Hunter has connections in the city. There are lucrative positions to be had in banking and so on.’
Helen stared at her brother, silently entreating him to reconsider.
‘I can tell you think Goode too spineless a fellow to act. Believe me when I say Hunter is a different kettle of fish. He is a ruthless man and, once the deal is done, he would not hesitate in sending the bailiffs to evict you.’
Jason Hunter turned his grey eyes on his aged servant. He wasn’t certain that he had correctly heard the message, for his visitors were creating a din that had smothered Cedric’s croak.
The old fellow whispered again, ‘A lady is here to see you, sir.’
‘Yes, that much I gathered. What name did you say?’
Mark Hunter’s second ribald anecdote caused the gentlemen congregating in Jason’s library to resume guffawing.
Jason heard the husky sibilance through the noise and his mouth thinned before a low oath exploded through touching teeth. Enraged by the damnable
audacity of the Kingston woman to bother him at home, he gave Cedric a curt nod and snapped, ‘Put her in a side room and tell her to wait.’
Cedric dipped his wispy head, understanding exactly why his master was so put out. His weary bones might not allow him to venture far from the house these days, and his deaf ear might prevent him getting all the gossip, but he knew that a woman named Kingston was making a fool of herself over Sir Jason. Brazen hussy she was, too, with her haughty look. All airs and graces! He’d known her station straight away. Ask her to wait, indeed! It wouldn’t have happened in the old master’s days. Cedric wagged his head to himself. Oh, he’d find the baggage a place to wait!
‘What was that all about?’ Mark demanded as he watched Cedric slowly amble from the room.
‘None of your business,’ his brother rebuffed bluntly. He refilled his glass from the decanter and asked Peter Wenham what price he wanted for his hunting lodge. The Wenham estate edged his own land at Thorne Park and the lodge and surrounding fields would be a fine addition to his Surrey acreage. A quizzical smile met the ambitious price his friend cited, but Jason gave that more charitable consideration than the accursed female waiting for him below.
He would see Iris … eventually. But he’d let her kick her heels. Perhaps a little blatant incivility
would finally penetrate her vanity; she might come to understand that, far from finding her attractive, her behaviour disgusted him. If she could not take the hint, he would have to clearly tell her some truths. He was sick of being stalked and spied on when out; he certainly did not intend having her hound him at home. If she repeated to George what must, of necessity, be an unpleasant incident between them this afternoon, so be it.
One hour and five minutes later, when his brother and their friends had noisily departed, Jason descended the stairs of his opulent mansion in Grosvenor Square. He quite hoped his unwelcome visitor had tired of waiting for him and had removed herself. However, that would leave matters unresolved. He swore beneath his breath in exasperation. It would be as well if Mrs Kingston were still loitering about the place somewhere. Not by nature inhospitable, he nevertheless hoped that Cedric hadn’t been plying her with refreshment to wile away the time. Within one step of the marble-flagged hallway he halted, and watched curiously as Cedric emerged, shaking his head, from a cloakroom.
Cedric glanced up and, seeing his master’s bemused expression, hobbled across to glumly impart, ‘I am afraid she has gone, sir. Mrs Kingston can’t be found.’
‘Did you think she might be lurking in there?’
The mildly amused comment caused Cedric’s loose jowls to take on an unusual sanguinity.
Jason had hoped that Iris hadn’t been mollycoddled; from his butler’s guilty look it seemed he had little to fear on that score! ‘Where exactly did you show her to wait?’ he demanded to know.
Cedric’s withered lips puckered mutinously on understanding the reprimand in Sir Jason’s tone. He had been working for Hunters before this fellow was a twinkle in his sire’s eye. He was the old master’s servant, not this young pup’s. Sir Gordon Hunter had been happy to leave the welcome … or otherwise … of uninvited callers to his discretion. Had Sir Gordon been alive, the Kingston woman wouldn’t have put one foot over the threshold, let alone been given the courtesy of a seat. ‘Bold as brass and looking at me with those cat’s eyes …’ he mumbled out defensively. A watchful, watery eye slanted at his employer. He had been subjected to that scowl before, and caught the sharp side of the fellow’s tongue. Cedric now knew to quickly curb his insubordination, for he was aware the boy kept him on simply because his father had said he must.
‘Cat’s eyes?’ Jason echoed exceedingly quietly.
‘Eh?’ Cedric cocked his good ear towards his master.
‘You said she had cat’s eyes.’ Jason’s tone held much volume and scant patience.
‘Yellow … like a cat.’ It was a statement accompanied by a wag of Cedric’s head. He continued to mutter to himself. In his opinion he’d put the baggage where she belonged.
Jason frowned. He took little notice of Iris Kingston, avoided her when possible; nevertheless, he had been close enough at times to know her eyes were blue.
‘What else can you recall of her appearance?’
‘Thin … black hair … prim.’ Cedric listed out each trait as though it was a sin.
Jason’s eyes narrowed as he pondered on whom it could be the old fool had insulted. ‘And she gave her name as Mrs Kingston?’
‘Gave her name in full, she did. Mrs Margo May Kingston, she told me.’
The furrow in Jason’s brow deepened. He knew no other Mrs Kingston. If for some bizarre reason an impostor were masquerading as the Mrs Kingston he did know, she surely would introduce herself correctly. Noticing that Cedric was sliding wary glances at him, he dismissed him with a flick of a hand and a caution. ‘We’ll speak further about this.’
As Cedric trudged away Jason took out his watch. Diana was expecting him to traipse around the warehouses
with her this afternoon and he was already late. If his tardiness provoked a fit of the sulks he might be sorely tempted to go instead to White’s and find some uncomplicated male company. He strode to the door, the question of his visitor’s identity now submerged beneath thoughts of another exasperating female. At times he doubted Diana’s delightful attributes were compensation enough for her juvenile nature.
‘Please accompany me inside, Jason. How am I to know if you would rather see me in blue satin or lemon silk …?’
Jason felt tempted to honestly say that he couldn’t care less in what Diana chose to garb herself. The only reason he paid for any woman’s finery was to see it in a crumpled heap on the floor. ‘If you can’t decide between them, buy both.’
Diana showed her pleasure at his generosity by sliding along the phaeton’s seat to rub her hip on his thigh.
Jason acknowledged the artful caress with a cynical twitch of the lips. He then tilted his head to watch a man beckoning him from across the street. ‘I’ll join you inside in a short while. Peter Wenham’s over there and I want to speak to him on a matter of business.’
Diana limited her pique to a pretty pout. A most pleasing aspect of having hooked such a distinguished and wealthy protector was being able to show him off to envious females. There was no better place to parade her triumph than in Baldwin’s Emporium, for women of every class were to be found browsing the sumptuous array of wares.
Diana’s sulky expression brightened when she spied an acquaintance of her own. Mrs Bertram was approaching with a servant trotting behind. Obviously the woman had started shopping early, for the poor maid was bearing evidence of numerous purchases.
Georgina Bertram was the mistress of Lord Frobisher and an erstwhile playmate of Diana’s. The two young women were of similar age and had been reared in rags in the shadow of the east London docks. Both had been blessed with abundant female charms and a most canny instinct on how to exploit such assets to escape the drudgery their mothers endured. They engaged in quite a good-natured rivalry when it came to finding rich gentlemen to keep them. With an affectionate squeeze for Jason’s arm, Diana nimbly alighted, with a groom’s help, from the smart phaeton. ‘Don’t be too long,’ she breathily nagged over a coquettish shoulder. Soon she was entering the shop arm in arm with Mrs Bertram.
Jason sprang down from his high-flyer and, with an instruction for his groom to handle the horses, made to cross the road. He’d barely taken two paces when a rickety vehicle pelted past, far too close. He fell back against his phaeton, aiming a voluble string of oaths at the cab driver’s head.
The jarvey seemed unaffected by being so eloquently damned and, with barely a look at his victim, continued blithely on his way. Obliquely it registered in Jason’s mind that a female passenger was within the contraption and that she seemed vaguely familiar. Suddenly she shifted closer to the window and from beneath a wide bonnet brim glared at him with large topaz eyes.
Helen sank back into the battered upholstery of the cab with her heart drumming wildly and a startled look on her face. She had not set eyes on Sir Jason Hunter for years, yet had recognised him instantly. Less than an hour ago the odious brute had snubbed her in an outrageous manner. He had allowed her into his house, then made her tarry in a cloakroom for an audience she was certain he had never intended bestowing. Hah! He’d been destined to see her after all! And be punished for treating her so abominably!
Now that the shock of the close shave had passed,
she allowed a throaty chuckle.
The Lord pays debts without money,
her papa used to quote when some misfortune was visited on a deserving recipient. Sir Jason Hunter might have escaped being flattened by her conveyance, but he certainly looked as though his dignity had taken a knock.
On rare sightings in the past she had exchanged a nod with Jason Hunter. A feud might exist between him and her brother, he might now be rich and important, but he was gentleman enough to be polite. Or so she had previously thought when appreciating his good manners. Now she knew differently. He had become an arrogant boor since last they had acknowledged one another. It was a pity his uncouth character didn’t show in his appearance. She might have only had a brief look at him just now, but he was undeniably still a fine figure of a man. Suddenly a thought entered her head that made her squirm: she could understand why her sister-in-law was so smitten by him.
She quelled that thought by dwelling on the appalling incivility dealt to her less than an hour ago. When she had been shown to a seat in a cupboard filled with packing cases she had imagined that the butler had simply been confused, for he seemed a doddery old cove. When forty minutes later he put his head about the door and told her, with a crafty
squint, that Sir Jason still wasn’t ready to receive her, Helen came to the wounding conclusion that she was being intentionally insulted. She had quickly deduced that Sir Jason was spiting her because he hated her brother. With her head held high, she had swiftly exited the house without leaving a message of any sort with the footman who showed her out.
She had dredged up every ounce of courage she possessed to go and visit the swine. She had set out without a cogent plan, only hoping he would listen sympathetically to her family’s predicament. She had considered requesting he delay buying their home, at least until her sister’s marriage to Philip Goode could be arranged. To persuade him at that point she might have made much of the fact that the prospective bridegroom was one of his own kin. Such a squandered effort that would have been! She doubted such a man would care a fig for the nuptials of an impoverished distant cousin. It would have been better to set out this morning to again do battle with George, for this ridiculous situation could no longer continue.
Her brother might plead poverty and pretend to be an injured party but he lived well, far better than did Charlotte and she. He might not have ready cash, but he had assets to sell. The new landau in which his wife sashayed around town was just one such valuable item.
The cab drew up outside Westlea House and Helen handed over some coins to the jarvey. She gave his impassive wrinkled countenance a sharp look, wondering whether she ought to bring to his attention the fact that he had almost knocked down one of the
most notable personages. She decided against it and, unusually, added a small tip to the fare.
Helen removed her grey velvet gown and carefully hung it on a hook. She had dressed with such care that morning in the few garments she possessed that were elegant, if dated in style. She had not wanted Sir Jason to see her looking like a waif and stray come abegging. A small smile twisted her lips; she might just as well have called on him dressed in her washed-out twill; all her painstaking
had been in vain.
Feeling chilled, she quickly donned her old day dress, then knotted a woollen shawl over it for warmth. She studied her reflection, lips tilting wryly at the incongruous sight of her faded blue gown hanging loosely from her slender hips whilst her hair was still primped to perfection. Briskly she removed the pins from her sleek coiffure and brushed through the silky coils. As she was about to loop it into a neat chignon, a loud noise startled her. She heard the doorknocker again being forcefully employed.
There was only one person she knew of who felt entitled to so imperiously announce himself: Mr Drover, of Drover’s Wares and Provisions in Monmouth Street. Helen had been expecting him to call for a week or more. She felt sure she knew what the grocer wanted, and was tempted to pretend nobody was home. But that would simply delay the inevitable and deny them further supplies. With a sigh she quickly went below, her mind foraging for plausible excuses for delaying payment of what they owed whilst inveigling for another delivery soon.
‘May I come in?’
Helen sensed her heart stop beating, then start to hammer in a rapid irregular rhythm. Obliquely she realised she had been terribly rude in instinctively pushing the door almost shut. She strove for self-control as she made wider the aperture by a few inches to blurt, ‘What do you want, sir?’
Jason tilted his head to try and see more of the petite woman stationed behind peeling green paint. Merely a tantalising sliver of her figure was now visible and her features were concealed behind a curtain of loose dark hair. ‘What do I want? I want to know what you want, Mrs Marlowe … apart from trying to assassinate me with a hackney cab….’