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Authors: Patricia Veryan

The Wagered Widow

BOOK: The Wagered Widow
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For Audrey and Sheldon

CHAPTER
1

London. May, 1746.

“'Tis not as though she was a foolish girl.” Mrs. Albinia Boothe completed another loop of the rosette she was crocheting, held up the embryonic tablecloth, and surveyed it dejectedly. “You know,” she went on, apparently addressing her creation, “that dear Rebecca is prodigious resourceful.” She sighed and clicked her tongue, and her powdered curls danced a little beneath the constraint of the dainty lace cap she wore. “
Too
resourceful at times, for a gently nurtured Lady of Quality. Indeed, one worries, for if she sets her mind to something one never knows what she may do next.” The crochet hook slowed. Mrs. Boothe, a prettily petite lady of middle years and amiable, if somewhat apprehensive, disposition, raised large dark eyes to gaze at the Sèvres clock on the mantelpiece, as though in search of support.

The clock ticked on, far too secure in its own ordered setting to be disturbed by the woes of the little lady and, receiving no encouragement, Mrs. Boothe let her gaze drift aimlessly around the parlour. It was a charming room and properly reflected the polite prosperity of John Street, on which the small house was located. Pale morning sunlight slanted through snowy lace curtains to puddle the rich carpet with lighter patches; the furnishings were discreet but expensive and tastefully arranged so as not to clutter the space available. But although this May morning was decidedly cool, no fire was lit in the hearth of the fine Italian fireplace, and Mrs. Boothe pulled the shawl closer about her shoulders as she took up her work once more. She missed the loop she had been about to complete, however, the crochet hook jumping when a clear, feminine voice called an imperious, “Aunt! Only look at me!”

A simple enough request but, glancing to the top of the three steps that led to the hall, Mrs. Boothe uttered a squeak and sprang to her feet in dismay.

The girl who posed there was not much taller than her diminutive aunt. Her complexion was clear, and as light as her brows were dark. Her hair, beautifully powdered, was dressed in thick coils upon her proud little head, with one lone ringlet swooping to her shoulder. Eyes of a dusky darkness danced with mischief, and red lips, full and sweetly shaped, fought a smile as they parted to reveal even white teeth. “Is it not marvellous?” she said innocently. “I feel alive again!”

She looked very alive indeed, but Mrs. Boothe did not felicitate her upon that fact, instead pressing one hand to her bosom while remarking in a failing voice, “Rebecca! You have—oh!—you have put off your blacks!”

This was certainly true. The widow of Mr. Forbes Parrish looked a veritable sprite of Spring in the pink silken robe
à la Française
that hugged her slender body to the waist before sweeping out over its hoops. The twinkle in her eyes very pronounced, but her tone repentant, Rebecca asked, “Are you very much shocked, love?” She trod down the steps, holding up her hoops to reveal dainty little feet and shapely ankles. “It
is
a year since Forbes died, you know.”

“A year today!” Mrs. Boothe sank back into her chair and wailed, “Rebecca—do you not think you should wait?”

“I
have
waited! A whole year! Oh, Aunt, I thought it would never end! Lucy Farrington put off her blacks only ten months after Harley was killed.”

Mrs. Boothe watched, aghast, as her lovely niece crossed to sit on the small loveseat. She remarked in a troubled voice that Rebecca did look quite in bloom again, which was nice, “Only—Harley was killed in
battle,
dearest.”

“Does that make a difference? I cannot see why it should.
His
was an honourable dying. More so than poor Forbes—to be slain in that unforgivably wretched duel! Oh, how I despise duellists!”

Refusing to be diverted, Mrs. Boothe argued, “But Harley Farrington fought on the wrong side! He was a Jacobite!”

“He fought for a cause he believed in.” Rebecca's dimpled chin tossed upward. “As did many other fine gentlemen.”

Mrs. Boothe uttered a shocked cry and peered nervously around the room. “What a terribly reckless thing to say!
Do
have a care, my love!”

“Fiddlesticks! Even should Falk or one of the maids chance to hear, they likely feel as do I. Besides, they are so loyal, bless them, despite the fact I've not been able to pay them for weeks! They would never betray me. And I did not say that I
approved
of Prince Charles or his Cause—only that I hold it more agreeable to give up one's life for an ideal than because of a foolish quarrel over the turn of a card.”

Mrs. Boothe said earnestly, “But you surely will own that poor Forbes died in striving to bring us about? You know, love, how
hard
he tried.”

Rebecca was silent. Her late husband, she thought rebelliously, might better have tried to repair their fortunes by some other means than those which had ruined them. Yet, despite his carefree lack of common sense, she had been genuinely fond of the debonair gentleman who had been her husband, and she knew that her aunt's grief at his death had been intense. She tightened her lips over an instinctive response, therefore, and stood, saying gently, “Yes, I know. Come, dear, it is a lovely day, and I must get to the bazaar, for Anthony simply
has
to have a new suit. We can be back in good time for luncheon, do we hasten.”

Before the ladies had reached the end of the street, however, Mrs. Boothe was questioning her niece's idea of “a lovely day.” The sun was bright, but a stiff breeze sent cloaks fluttering, and it was necessary to hold one's hood when a gust came up—a practice the lady found lowering. “For who can look graceful when one is clutching at one's hood and likely to have one's ankles revealed at any second by so pranksome a wind?”

Amused, Rebecca said promptly, “You can, dearest. And such a sight would gladden the hearts of many gentlemen in old London Town!”

“Rebecca!” Mrs. Boothe's cheeks were as pink as her eyes were bright. “Why, you saucy puss! Oh, dear, here is the corner, and we will be blown to— Ah, that is better, after all! Where was I? Oh, yes, if any gentlemen were so unmannerly as to be leering at ladies' ankles, your own would claim all the attention, I am sure, and no one so much as notice my elderly limbs.”

“Mr. Melton would notice.” Rebecca chuckled to see her aunt's blush deepen. “He has noticed you these many months, and with so yearning an eye.”

“Re …
becca!
Really!”

“And truly! As well you know. And as for being elderly—”

“Never mind! I declare you grow more naughty each day! Besides, if Mr. George Melton
has
noticed I am alive, one might never guess it. He stands. And he stares—when I am not looking. And says nothing! I begin to think 'tis merely that I remind him of someone. But—it is all of a piece.” She shrugged. “Pray tell me now, why do we essay this blustery walk when your seamstress is quite beyond our present means? Little Anthony must surely have a suit can be turned, or patched, or something?”

“Not good enough, dear. He is no longer a baby and must have proper apparel. Why, in a year or so he will be off to Eton.”

At this, Mrs. Boothe was so astonished as to stop in the middle of the flagway and stare at her niece with eyes as round as saucers. “
Eton…
? We can scarce afford wax candles for the drawing room, and I declare my eyes smart each evening when I go to my bedchamber and endure those dreadful tallow monstrosities! And you speak of
Eton?

Rebecca took her arm and they continued once more, encountering few acquaintances upon their way, since the morning was so brisk and most ladies would walk, or drive, after luncheon, rather than at this unfashionable hour.

“Why not Eton?” Rebecca's chin took on the mulish tilt her aunt knew so well. “Something will turn up, I am sure of it.”

“You are?” Peering hopefully at her, Mrs. Boothe ventured, “Have—have you a new admirer, dearest? Is that why you are come out of blacks so precipitately?”

“I wish I might find such an article!” And seeing her aunt's mouth opening in indignation, she added hurriedly, “I mean—one who is eligible, comfortably circumstanced, and with matrimony in mind!” Another protest was imminent, so that she rushed on, “The gentlemen who were interested in me when I married poor Forbes are now all wed, love. Most of those who are eligible now are either hanging out for rich wives, or unwilling to take on a lady with a six-year-old son!”

“Hilary Broadbent is—”

“Is no more than a good friend—or ever has been. Oh, he's fond of me, I grant you, but I doubt his heart has been touched by any lady as yet. And besides, I've no wish to follow the drum. Nor will I wed a man old enough to be my grandfather, if it is Lord Stoker whose name trembles on your tongue!”

Lord Stoker was exactly the name that had trembled on Mrs. Boothe's tongue. She sighed and pointed out wistfully, “But you would be a
baroness,
love! And they say he is full of juice, so—”

“Aunt
Alby!

“Oh! My goodness! Only see how distraught you make me, wicked one! But you know what I mean. No more worries, Rebecca. The butcher and the servants and the carriage. It was so sad when we had to let the matched team go—and your own Saracen.”

Rebecca's eyes fell. The parting with her loved Arabian had been more cruel than even Aunt Albinia could guess. Dear Saracen, so gentle and yet so full of fire, and with a silken gait that— She put such painful recollections away and asked, “How can you be sure his lordship has marriage in mind? The gentlemen are more like to offer me a slip on the shoulder now that I am a widowed lady.”

Aghast, her aunt exclaimed, “Never while you are in mourning! Have they?”

“Not quite openly, perhaps. But the insinuations have been there this three months and more.”

“Good heavens! How wicked some men are!” But after a brief pause, Mrs. Boothe asked tentatively, “Anyone—suitable, my love?”

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