Authors: Valerie Bowman
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For my sister, Leslie Bowman Stauffer,
one of the best people I ever met.
Your strength inspires me.
Surrey, the country estate of the Duke of Huntley, July 1813
Being fifteen years of age and a bit plump and unconventional when one's elder sister was eighteen years of age and willowy and etherealâif waspishâwas decidedly unpleasant. Being sent to bed early and told in no uncertain terms to stop lurking at the top of the staircase leading down to the ballroom was also unpleasant. But if Alexandra Hobbs strained her ears, she could just make out the soft chords of a waltz floating up from below. It was a curse to be so young when one's elder sister was already having her come-out ball. Alexandra spun slowly, holding out the skirt of her dressing gown, pretending to curtsy to a handsome gentleman who had just asked her to dance.
The door to her room flew open and cracked against the wall. Alexandra whirled toward the sound.
Not this again.
Her thirteen-year-old brother came trotting in. His shirt was mussed, as was his dark hair, and he had a large streak of dirt across his jaw.
“Thomas.” Alexandra dropped her skirts and plunked her hands on her hips. “I thought I asked you to knock.”
“It's just me, Al. Why would I want to do that?” He sauntered past her toward the window. Alexandra knew precisely what her brother was about. Her bedchamber just so happened to have much better access to the roofline and a shorter jump to the terrace below than his did. Thomas faced the window, wrenched open the sash, and leaned out. He braced his hands on the wooden sill and stuck out his head and shoulders.
“You there, Will?” he called in a half whisper, half shout.
A soft whistle was the only response. Will, the stable boy, was meeting Thomas below. This was their nightly ritual while Thomas was home from Eton.
“I'm off.” Thomas stretched one leg out the window.
“Be careful.” Alexandra turned her face away for a moment. “You know I cannot bear to see you climb onto the roof that way. I live in fear that you'll break your neck.”
Thomas looked back at her through the window and grinned. “Where's your sense of adventure, Al?”
Alexandra sighed. “You've always had more sense of adventure in your smallest toe than I do in my entire body.”
“Being adventurous is an acquired skill. Give it a try sometime. You might find you like it. At any rate, I cannot stay in my bedchamber all evening and listen to that awful racket,” Thomas added, then nodded toward the door.
“Racket? You mean the music?” Alexandra spun around again, a dreamy smile on her face. “I think it's beautiful.”
Thomas scrunched up his nose. “I'll never understand girls as long as I live.”
Alexandra perched her hands on her hips again. “I don't see why not. We're quite simple to understand. We appreciate music, and laughter, and beautiful clothing, and flowers, andâ”
do, Al,” Thomas interrupted. “Lavinia enjoys cutting people to shreds with her tongue and throwing fits when she doesn't get her way. That's why I like you so well. You'd never tell Mother and Father that I use your window to sneak out. Lavinia would set the guard on me.”
Alexandra bit her lip. It was true; their elder sister was decidedlyÂ â¦ difficult. “Be back before midnight, won't you? I dread it when Miss Hartley comes around, asking questions.”
Thomas rolled his eyes at the mention of the governess. “Just pretend you're asleep.”
Alexandra wrapped her dressing gown tighter around her waist. “I'm rubbish at pretending.”
“I know,” Thomas replied with a laugh.
Alexandra sighed and spun around again. “I want to sneak downstairs and watch all the lovely ladies in their gowns and handsome gentlemen in their formal evening attire. Instead I'm stuck up here, dancing alone.”
Again, Thomas nodded toward the door. “Sneak down there, Al. You can do it.”
Alexandra put her hands back to her hips for the third time, a common pose when speaking to her brother. “You are a horrible influence, Thomas Marcus Devon Peabody Hobbs.”
His grin widened. “I know.”
Another faint whistle indicated that Will was getting impatient below. Thomas inserted two fingers on either side of his mouth and let out a soft whistle of his own.
“What are you two planning to do?” Alexandra asked, though half of her didn't want to know the answer. No doubt it was some boyish bit of trouble that would cause her anxiety should she be privy to the details.
“We're going to the stables to play cards,” her brother said. “Will's uncle used to work in a gaming hell in London. He taught him all the tricks.”
Alexandra pressed her hand to her cheek. “Don't cheat, Thomas!”
“I would never cheat,” Thomas replied, a chagrined look on his boyishly handsome face. “But I must learn
to cheat, Al; otherwise, how'll I ever know if I'm being cheated?”
Alexandra contemplated that for a moment with a frown wrinkling her brow. “I suppose you have a point.”
“I'd better go,” Thomas said, “before Will's whistling attracts attention.”
It was true. The terrace below could be accessed by French doors that led directly from her father's study. An enterprising guest in search of air might very well happen outside.
Alexandra watched, wincing, as her brother climbed through the window, scaled the roofline, and then jumped like a silent cat to the terrace below. She tiptoed over to the window to close it but stopped to watch her brother greet his friend. She shook her head and sighed again. Thomas, at the age of thirteen, was self-confident and carefree. Alexandra longed to be like him, daring and adventurous. She couldn't help it if she became nervous at the prospect of breaking rules and doing things she ought not. She spun around again in time to the music, but a thought struck her and she stopped abruptly. Thomas had said that being adventurous was an acquired skill. Was he right? If she tried it, would she enjoy it? Leaving the window open, she trailed over to her writing desk nearby, where she sat and opened her new leather-bound journal. At her age, it was high time to list the principal things she hoped to accomplish in life.
1. Become brave and daring like Thomas.
2. Become beautiful, willowy, and poised like Lavinia. Never stain my gowns with food, et cetera.
3. Have a come-out during which an exceedingly eligible gentleman asks me to dance, thereby making the affair a smashing success.
4. Marry my true love. Must be handsome, dashing, witty, kind, true, and honorable. Name to be determined later.
Alexandra sat back and surveyed her list. Becoming brave and daring would take a great deal of work, and she had little idea how she would accomplish such a thing. She tapped the end of the quill against her cheek. She must be on the alert for opportunities. Yes. That was the way to go about it.
As for becoming beautiful, willowy, and poised, it seemed more difficult than the first task. She was pretty at best, if dull brown hair and dull brown eyes could even be considered pretty. “Poised” was not a word that would ever be used to describe her. In fact, “clumsy” was probably more apt. And “willowy” was beyond an impossibility for her body. She'd already begun to develop hips and breasts and a little belly that her mother despaired of when they went to the modiste. Alexandra sighed yet again. Unless she became beautiful and poised and willowy, she had little chance of accomplishing a smashing success of a come-out in three years. Let alone one during which an exceedingly handsome and eligible gentleman asked her to dance. And if that didn't happen, how on earth would she have other gentlemen interested enough to find her true love out of the lot of them? It was a conundrum, no question about it.
Raised voices coming from behind the house caught her attention. Dropping the quill, Alexandra hurried back over to the window, where she pushed aside the curtains and blinked out into the dark night sky. A few scattered candles resting on a table on the terrace below illuminated the space. Two young bucks stood there, speaking to someone who was hidden under the eaves.
“Say that again!” one of the bucks shouted.
“I s-said I d-don't have no qu-quarrel with you two gents.”
Alexandra froze. She recognized the stutter of Will, the stable boy.
“You d-d-don't?” the second buck teased.
Alexandra scowled and clenched her hands into fists. How dare those young men make sport of Will? The poor boy was barely thirteen, whereas these two had to be in their early twenties at least.
“N-n-no. I d-don't,” Will replied. His stutter always worsened when he was anxious.
“Leave him alone!” This clearly came from her brother, who moved into her view. Thomas's fists were raised, obviously willing to defend his friend from males who were far older and taller than he.
The two bucks laughed. “Or what? You'll take a swing at us, lad?”
“Yes!” came Thomas's sure voice. She admired him for his bravery, but that didn't make her less worried. What should she do? Fetch Father?
“Try it, and we'll lay you flat in the span of two seconds,” the first buck answered.
Alexandra held her breath. Thomas could easily tell these two fools that he was the future Duke of Huntley, but that was something else she admired about her brother. Even at his young age, Thomas never acted entitled to anything, nor desired special treatment.
“If you don't stop harassing my mate here, I'll lay you flat in one,” Thomas retorted, his fists still held at the ready in front of him. He bounced around anxiously, brandishing his knuckles.
“I daresay you'll regret that, lad.” The second buck stepped forward and raised his fist to Thomas.
That was it. Alexandra couldn't stand the injustice of the thing. How dare these two young men try to fight her brother and his friend? She'd been looking for an opportunity to be brave. Perhaps this was it.