he Honorable Mr. Christopher “Kit” Featherton, heir to Viscount Featherton, waited behind a young gentleman at the entrance to Almack’s. The other man was patting his suit, desperately searching for something. Kit, as he was known to his family and close friends, stepped around the individual, gave his hat, coat, and cane to a footman before addressing Mr. Willis, Almack’s gatekeeper. “Good evening, Willis.”
The older man bowed. “Good evening, sir. Her ladyship and Miss Featherton arrived not long ago.”
“Thank you, Willis.”
As Kit strolled into the assembly room, the young man complained, “I don’t see why you didn’t ask him for his voucher.”
“Mr. Featherton is well known to us and all in the
,” Willis replied sternly. “You, sir, are not.”
Kit couldn’t help but feel bad for the gentleman, but the patronesses of Almack’s were extremely particular about who gained admission to the rarified assembly rooms. He lifted his quizzing glass, surveying the attendees. Unfortunately, the one person he’d hoped to find was not present, and had not been for two years.
“Mr. Featherton, precise as a pin as usual.” A light hand touched his sleeve. Lady Jersey, one of Almack’s several patronesses, or Silence as she was called because she rarely ceased talking, smiled up at him. “Would you be so kind as to ask one of the young ladies to stand up with you?”
He inclined his head. Her ladyship had no need to ask. Unlike many gentlemen, he would do his duty. “Naturally. Is there anyone in particular?”
“Yes, Miss Caudle. The young lady in green next to the lady with the large red feather in her turban. She is painfully shy. I shall introduce you.”
A few moments later Kit led the girl to join the group of gentlemen and ladies making up a set for a country dance. Bending his head slightly, he said, “Don’t let anyone frighten you. This is really no different from your assemblies at home. You have only to stop worrying and you’ll be fine.”
A smile trembled on the girl’s lips, and she nodded tersely. “Thank you.”
Miss Caudle was light on her feet, managing the complicated steps perfectly. In a few moments, she began to enjoy herself. After the set he was pleased to see other men lining up to beg her to dance with them.
He made his way to his mother and sister Meg.
“That was well done of you, Kit.” Meg grinned, and nodded to indicate Miss Caudle. “She was so afraid of doing something wrong, and I didn’t know how to reassure her.”
“I was glad to help. Do you require a dance partner?”
“No, mine is coming now.” His sister’s eyes twinkled. “Although if you could arrange to have Lord Beaumont ask me, I’d be forever in your debt.”
“I hate to disappoint you, but there is only one reason he is attending.” He motioned with his head to where his friend was standing next to a stunning woman with auburn hair.
“Oh, I know. Unfortunately, Lady Serena is too nice to be jealous of.”
Kit glanced around to see a tall gentleman a few years younger than himself approach. “Swindon.”
“Featherton.” The new Earl of Swindon gave a short nod, before turning to Meg. “My dance, I believe.”
His sister held out her hand and curtseyed. “Indeed it is, my lord.”
After Meg left, he raised a brow to his mother. “Now that would be a good match, if he wasn’t such a cold fish.”
Mama gave her head an imperceptible shake. “She will pick when she’s ready, and not before.” She focused her steady blue gaze on him. “I’m much more concerned about you. It is all very well for you to be the perfect gentleman, but is there no lady who interests you?”
He did not want to have this conversation now. “Perhaps you have a lady in mind?”
Her lips thinned. “You know perfectly well how I feel about matchmaking mamas. I shall not be one.”
Thankfully, Lady Cowper, another patroness, intruded. “Mr. Featherton, I wonder . . .”
“I’ll be happy to, ma’am.”
He spent the rest of the evening doing the pretty, then retired to his rooms on Jermyn Street. Evening shoes off, brandy in hand, Kit stared into the fire. Until this past year, he might have gone to his club and enjoyed a night cap or two with his friends. But now they were mostly married. Late nights drinking brandy couldn’t compete with the soft, warm arms of their wives. The others were either out of Town, or pursuing their lady loves.
Kit heaved a sigh. His mother was right. It was past time he’d thought of marriage. Still there was only one lady it had ever occurred to him to ask, and he hadn’t seen her in a couple of years. Even then, she’d appeared in Town only briefly. Surely if she’d wed, he would have heard. Perhaps he should make a serious effort to track down Barham and asked him where his sister was.
September 1816, near Market Harborough, England
Lady Mary Tolliver heaved a sigh of relief. She’d been at her brother, the Earl of Barham’s, dower house with her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Bridgewater, and her widowed aunt, Lady Eunice Phipson, for two weeks now. Thankfully there was still no sign of her cousin, Gawain Tolliver. Perhaps he’d finally given up attempting to compromise her. She’d been taking her regular walks after breakfast for the past week. But this morning she had remembered advice given to her by a friend to vary her schedule as long as Gawain was after her and had decided to go earlier.
She was about a half mile from the house when a familiar male voice asked, “How much longer?”
Mary stopped and scanned the woods. Suddenly, the dark green she’d taken for leaves ruffling in the slight breeze moved revealing a jacket.
Blast it all!
It was Gawain, and she’d almost stepped into his trap. She’d known her luck wouldn’t hold. She slipped behind a tree, and listened.
“About another half hour,” a man with a rougher voice answered.
“Have the coach ready,” Gawain ordered. “I want to get away as soon as we grab her.”
She backed up carefully, keeping the dense foliage between herself and her cousin, until she could no longer see Gawain clearly.
“Did you hear something?”
Mary stifled a groan. How far was it to the house, and could she outmaneuver them? She glanced around. It was eight, maybe nine, feet to the old oak tree where, as a child, she’d won many a game of hide and seek. Gathering her skirts, she dashed to it and hid in the hollow part of the trunk. Gawain would have to know exactly where to look to see her. Still, she could not remain in the tree all day. She would have to hope they gave up waiting for her and left, planning to return another day.
“Nah, sir, just a deer or something.”
Several minutes later, Mary shifted and dirt fell around her. This space had been far more commodious when she’d been younger. Something landed on her arm and began to crawl. Stifling a scream, she swatted at it, dislodging more debris. Her heart thudded, making it hard for her to breathe. It was certain her cousin wouldn’t leave until at least the time when she normally passed by. She would just have to run. As they began to converse again, she picked up her skirts and dashed out of the home wood. Once she reached the outer part of the curtilage she raced through the rose garden, staying off the flagstone and gravel paths to the nearest door and darted in.
“My lady,” Cook exclaimed. “You look like the devil hisself is after you.” The old woman narrowed her eyes. “What have you got into? Shake out your skirts before you come in any farther. Is that a dead spider on your arm?”
Mary leaned back against the door, sucking in great gulps of air as she caught her breath. “That might be an apt description.” She briefly considered asking Cook not to tell Grandmamma, but that would only insure her grandmother heard about it sooner. “I’ll be down for breakfast as soon as I wash my hands.”
“No rush, Lady Eunice isn’t down yet either.”
Attempting to avoid her grandmother and aunt, Mary made her way up the servants’ stairs to her chamber.
Her maid, Mathers, was waiting. “I saw you tearing across the garden, my lady. Did your cousin show up?”
“Yes.” Mary’s shoulders drooped as she removed her damaged bonnet. “I’ll not have any more long walks now.”
Somehow she’d have to find a way to avoid him for good, or at least until she could fall in love and wed.
“Thought it was too good to go on for long,” Mathers said, as she took a sprigged muslin morning gown out of the wardrobe. “If you ask me, someone ought to do something about him.”
ought to be the eldest of Mary’s brothers, the Earl of Barham. Unfortunately, he was much too good natured, not to mention concerned about scandal.
“When pigs fly,” she mumbled.
“Did you say something, my lady?”
“Nothing of import.” It was a shame there were no convents in England. She could hide in one of them rather than moving from estate to estate. Then again, it would be hard to meet an eligible gentleman, or indeed any gentleman at all, in a convent. On the other hand, it was proving impossible to meet a suitor under her current circumstance. “I wonder what Grandmamma will come up with this time.”
A couple of days later, Mary joined her grandmother and aunt in the dower house’s elegant but cozy morning room. Small paintings and miniatures encompassing generations of Tollivers covered the walls and surfaces. In the Queen Anne style, the furniture was old, but comfortable.
Long windows gave a view over the rose garden and the marble fountain in its center. The curtains had recently been changed from the velvet used during the colder seasons to a cerulean blue watered silk trimmed with gold braid. Even though they were experiencing one of their few warm days this spring, a log spat and popped in the fireplace.
In fact, the only disturbing part of the normally tranquil atmosphere was the conversation.
Doing her best to keep her jaw from dropping in shock, Mary stared at her grandmother. The older woman’s thick silver hair was fashionably dressed, and even at more than seventy years of age, her face held few lines. Her gaze seemed as sharp as ever. Generally she was the picture of health, except for this recent burst of incipient insanity, for that was all it could be.
Mary opened her mouth, then closed it again. Several moments passed in silence as she struggled to make sense of what she
she’d heard. After rejecting retorts such as,
Grandmamma, are you feeling quite well?
are you sure you wouldn’t like a nice room in Bedlam?
And finally unable to come up with another way to ask her question, she simply voiced the nicest thought in her mind. “Surely I have not understood you properly. You want me to do
“Well, I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
Mary shifted her gaze to her aunt. Perhaps madness had always run in the family and it had been kept a secret so as not to ruin them socially. After all, who would deliberately marry into a family where lunacy was rampant?
“He has a face like a fish.” Aunt Eunice opened her eyes wide and moved her lips in a fair imitation of a fish.
“Hake.” Grandmamma nodded decisively. “It’s the way his eyes protrude.”
Mary closed her eyes, repressing a shudder. “I agree, but surely there must be less drastic measures I can take.”
Grandmamma leaned forward and pounded her silver-headed cane on the floor. “He may look like a fool, my girl, but he’s canny, and, if what Cook told me is true”—Mary should have expected that—“which I have no doubt it is, he almost caught you a few days ago.”
“Yes, well.” Not the cleverest of replies. Surely, she could think of something more to say. “I got away from him,” she ended lamely.
“This time.” Grandmamma’s lips thinned. She rammed the cane into the thick Turkey rug again.
“And every other time previously.” Mary let out a frustrated huff. Unfortunately, her grandmother did have a point. It
becoming more and more difficult to evade her cousin. “Did Barham receive an answer to his last letter to Uncle Hector?”
After a few moments, during which Grandmamma turned so red it appeared as if she would have apoplexy, Aunt Eunice replied, “Yes. But it won’t serve. Barham said Hector continues to insist your father promised you would marry Gawain, and he will not release your funds until either the marriage takes place—”
“In which case that spendthrift, Gawain,” Mary almost growled, the anger in her voice surprising her, “would control everything.”
Thus far she’d been satisfied to allow her brother to handle the whole ridiculous situation. Truth be known, she’d been so battered by her parents’ successive deaths, she hadn’t wanted to deal with it. Yet when Gawain had followed her to London for her first Season in two years and tried to compromise her, she had been jolted out of her complacency.
“Or you turn five and twenty.”
Her aunt’s voice interrupted her silent railing. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“When the trust ends,” Eunice replied patiently.
Another two years of trying to evade Gawain. “Has there been any movement in our Chancery suit to replace my uncle as trustee?”
Eunice shook her head.
“Unless you plan to spend the next two years inside the house,” Grandmamma said, emphasizing her speech with another loud thump of her cane, “you will do as your aunt and I advise.”
Mary eyed the silver headed stick. What would her grandmother do if she hid it? Still, what they were suggesting was complete insanity. “But I—”
“He’s found you everywhere we’ve tried to hide you, my dear.” Eunice stared at Mary, a compassionate look on her face. “Drastic times call for drastic measures.”
Mary slowly shook her head. “I don’t think I could pretend to be someone else for that long a time.”