Authors: Dangerous Lady
“Indeed, ma’am?” Letty said, hardly knowing what else to say. She looked at the fourth female, a girl of no more than fifteen years, who stared back at her with a vapid expression on her pale, homely face. Beginning to think she had entered a madhouse, Letty glanced at Raventhorpe. That gentleman’s countenance was unreadable, but she thought she detected a gleam in his penetrating dark blue eyes.
“Abigail, that will do,” Mrs. Linford said on what clearly was a warning note. “Letitia, my dear, do take some time to make yourself known to us. We know that you came to London from Paris, and Justin tells us that the two of you have met already, so we need stand on no further ceremony.”
Irrepressibly, Miss Abigail interjected, “But I do think you ought to introduce Liza to her, Miranda. She will see her whenever she chooses to call upon us, which I, for one, hope she means to do quite frequently.”
“Liza lives with us, and we look after her,” Mrs. Linford said. “That is sufficient for anyone to know. Tell us all about your journey, Letitia.”
“It was uneventful, I’m afraid, ma’am. Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me about the house instead. I am quite curious about it—and about Mr. Augustus Benthall, whom I was never privileged to meet.”
Lady Sellafield spoke for the first time. “Is that true, indeed, that you never knew Augustus? How very odd it was of him, then, to have left you his house.”
“Yes, ma’am, it was,” Letty said frankly. “Moreover, I would not blame you in the least if you despised me as an interloper, for surely you must have expected to inherit it yourself. He was much more nearly related to you than to me.”
“Yes, he was,” Lady Sellafield agreed. “However, Augustus was eccentric, my dear, so there was no relying on him at all. He did as he pleased, and I promise you, I do not resent it in the least. It
his house, after all, and he took care to see that my aunts will not have to leave it, which is the only important thing.”
“You are kind to say so, ma’am,” Letty said sincerely.
“Augustus was always kind to us,” Miss Abigail said with a reminiscent air. “We saw him, you know, in his coffin.”
“Well, we did, Miranda. You know we did, and he looked ever so odd, Letitia, because they had put his spectacles on his nose, but his eyes were shut, of course, and so it looked as if he had gone to sleep and forgot to take them off.”
“That must have seemed strange indeed, ma’am,” Letty said faintly. Feeling Raventhorpe’s gaze upon her, she turned, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “I did not know that you played the pianoforte, sir.”
“No, how could you?”
“Justin!” His mother gaped at him in surprise.
“I beg your pardon, Mama. I am sure that Lady Letitia’s skill with the instrument far surpasses my own.”
“I only wish it did,” Letty said frankly. “I have had lessons, of course—years of them—but I dislike practicing. Thus my skill, as you are kind enough to call it, sir, is limited at best. You, on the other hand, play exceedingly well.”
“I like to hear Justin play,” Liza said. “Justin always plays for me when he comes to our house. Oh, here’s Puss,” she added in much the same even tone when a large marmalade cat strolled through an open doorway opposite the one through which Letty had come. “Come, Puss. Come to Liza, dear.”
The cat glanced at her but padded straight to Letty, sniffing her skirt, then sitting with front paws neatly together to look up at her with unblinking amber eyes.
“He is deciding if he likes you,” Miss Abigail said. “I hope you are not one of those very odd persons who dislikes cats, my dear.”
“No, ma’am, I am fond of all animals.”
The cat sniffed again, made a spitting noise, then got up, collected its dignity, and left the room with its tail held stiffly erect.
Liza gave a cry of dismay, leapt to her feet, and ran after it.
Miss Abigail said, ”Oh, dear, he seems to have taken you in dislike. I cannot imagine why.”
“I can,” Letty said dryly. “It’s possible that he does not approve of monkeys, and I’m afraid I keep one as a pet. No doubt he detected its scent on my clothing.”
Mrs. Linford said austerely, “That would certainly explain his distaste.”
“But a monkey, Miranda,” exclaimed Miss Abigail, clapping her hands in a childlike expression of delight. “Only think how dear! What is his name, Letitia?”
“Jeremiah, ma’am. I have had him since I was eight, and I can assure you, he is just as finicky about choosing his friends as your cat seems to be.”
“You must bring him to visit us,” Miss Abigail insisted. “I should very much enjoy making the acquaintance of such an exotic beast.”
“The house has seven rooms on each floor,” Mrs. Linford said in a tone that ended any further talk about animals. “You will be interested only in the reception rooms, Letitia, which all lie on this floor and open onto the landing. This room adjoins the dining room, which adjoins the library, and so forth. Jackson or Mary, or one of the other maids, can show you through them when you are ready to depart.”
“But I want to see the whole house,” Letty protested. “And I daresay there must be a stable and coach-house, as well.”
“There are three coach-houses in the mews behind the house, and stables that can accommodate ten horses,” Mrs. Linford said. “However, it is not convenient to show you over the whole place today. I am sure you must understand. Perhaps if you give us notice of your next visit, we can arrange for our housekeeper to set aside time for a proper tour.”
“Yes, of course,” Letty said.
An awkward pause followed before Raventhorpe said gently, “I have other engagements this morning, Aunts. I know that Mama wants to enjoy a good long visit with you, however, so perhaps you will let me show Lady Letitia the other reception rooms on my way out, if she does not object.”
“That would be kind of you, sir.”
“Indeed, it would be just the thing, Justin,” Miss Abigail said. “You can tell her all about Mr. Robert Adam and how he came to design this house. I am sure you know as much as we do about that, and far more than Mrs. Hopworthy does.”
“I will attempt to tell her whatever she desires to know,” Raventhorpe said. “If you are ready to depart, Lady Letitia …”
“But she’s not had any refreshment yet,” Miss Abigail protested.
“I really should go, ma’am,” Letty said with a smile.
As she got to her feet, Lady Sellafield said, “Do not forget that we are to dine at Devon-Poole House this evening, Justin, my dear. Susan and Lady Devon-Poole will be disappointed if you forget.”
“I won’t forget, ma’am. I shall be home in good time.”
“Excellent, because your father very likely
forget, and Ned is not to be depended upon either, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll engage to bring them up to scratch,” he said. “Shall we go, my lady?”
With Jenifry following silently in their wake, Letty allowed him to guide her into the dining room. When he began to tell her about the architect, Robert Adam, however, she cut in, saying, “I know about the Adams, sir, the father and his equally talented sons. I know also that Robert Adam designed this house. Indeed, I’m told it’s one of the three finest examples of his work in London.” After a pause, she added, “I have met Miss Devon-Poole. Is it a particular object with you to please her?”
“It is not my intention to disappoint her. I intend to make her my wife.”
She had hoped to disconcert him with the impertinent question, but to her astonishment, his casual reply brought a surge of dismay that seemed to tie her tongue in knots. Choosing her next words with more care, she said, “I had not heard of your engagement.”
“There isn’t one, so there is no reason that you should have heard.”
“Does the lady know of your intent?”
He grimaced. “She does not, and I’ll thank you not to tell her.”
“Oh, Letitia dear,” Miss Abigail said from the doorway, “don’t forget to bring Jeremiah when next you come, and do come soon. Do say you will.”
“Yes, ma’am, I will. I am to ride with Her Majesty at the riding school near the palace tomorrow, and I may have to attend church services with her on Sunday. Perhaps I can manage to come to you Sunday afternoon or on Monday, if one of those days will suit you and your Mrs. Hopworthy.”
“Oh, there can be no objection to either one! I’ll tell Miranda.”
“If you will accept my counsel,” Raventhorpe said when Miss Abigail had taken herself off again, “you will not—”
“Raventhorpe, do stop offering me advice. It does nothing more than make me want to run counter to it. What a fine library this is, to be sure.”
“You, my girl, had better be careful at the riding school,” he said grimly. “You are quite clearly ripe for a fall.”
“I am sure you will look out for me,” she said with a sigh.
“I won’t be there,” he retorted. “I leave for Newmarket tomorrow. If my horses run well, I expect to stay there through Wednesday.”
Hiding her disappointment, and wondering if Miss Susan Devon-Poole also meant to attend the Newmarket races, Letty turned the subject by asking about the contents of the library. Nonetheless, the unexpected train of thought both startled and dismayed her, for she could not imagine what attracted her so to a man like Raventhorpe. Not only was he arrogant and dogmatic, but he was a Whig, his politics thus guaranteed to run counter to those of her family and friends.
Determined to overcome her odd attraction, she managed by the time they reached the street outside the house to persuade herself that his allure lay in nothing more than that he had been the only person at court to pay her any heed. Doubtless she was grasping for friendship with anyone, out of sheer loneliness and isolation.
During the next few days, she did manage (for the most part) to put him out of her mind. The riding school proved interesting, although it was not a particularly stimulating arena for one who was an expert horsewoman. Letty soon discovered that Queen Victoria did not love riding like she did, that the royal rides were sedate and generally boring. Attending the royal chapel proved no less so. Most people clearly attended only to see and be seen.
By Sunday afternoon she was more than ready for a second visit to Upper Brook Street, but when she sent her card round to inquire if the ladies would be at home, she received a polite reply from Mrs. Linford, informing her that they would be out all afternoon. They would, however, be happy to receive her on Monday at one, if that would suit her.
Letty decided that it suited her perfectly, even if she had to send word to the palace of an incipient illness. As it transpired, however, although the queen required her presence again at the riding school, Victoria intended to spend the rest of the day closeted with her ministers. Thus Letty was free to do as she pleased.
At one o’clock precisely, she and Jenifry stepped down to the pavement in front of the Mayfair house. Shifting the large muff she carried, and petting its small, furry occupant, Letty said, “You need not knock, Lucas. I want you and Jonathan to take the carriage round to the back. There are coach-houses in the mews, I’m told, and I want you to see if they are well tended.”
The front door opened as they approached it, and the porter, Jackson, greeted them politely. “The mistress is expecting you, my lady. She is presently entertaining the vicar, but I am to take you straight up, so perhaps you would like to leave your cloaks here in the hall. Ah, Lady Sellafield,” he added when that lady appeared in the stair-hall doorway, “I’ve sent for your carriage, ma’am. It’ll be round directly.”
While Letty exchanged pleasantries with Lady Sellafield, Jenifry took off her own cloak then moved to help Letty with hers. As she did, the porter reached for Letty’s muff, but she said, “I’ll keep it, thank you. I think we should go up now.” Smiling at Lady Sellafield, she added politely, “if you will excuse us, ma’am.”
“Indeed I will, for Aunt Miranda will be glad to see you,” Lady Sellafield said. “She finds conversing with Vicar somewhat tedious, I’m afraid, but I could not lend her my support any longer, for I am to take tea with my mama-in-law at two. It is pleasant to see you again, dear. You must come to Sellafield House to visit me.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Lady Sellafield smiled. “I’m giving a dinner party soon. I shall send you a card. Take them up now, Jackson. I’ll watch from the window for my carriage.”
“Yes, my lady,” the porter said, draping their cloaks over the one chair and leading the way into the stair hall.
Letty and Jenifry followed him to the first landing, but when he turned toward the doorway through which he had taken them before, a feline hiss and snarl startled them all. At the sound, Jeremiah came to life inside Letty’s muff and with a shriek, slipped free before she realized his intent. The cat, with another snarl of fury, gave chase; and, chattering wildly, the little monkey sprang to the banister and leapt to the next landing, disappearing with the cat in hot pursuit.
“Merciful heavens, he can’t go up there,” Miss Abigail exclaimed from the anteroom threshold. “Jackson, catch him! Quickly!”
“I’ll go,” Jenifry said, but Letty caught her arm.
“Stay here, all of you,” she ordered, snatching up her skirt with her free hand and hurrying after the monkey. Over her shoulder she cried, “You would just frighten him more. He’ll come to me. I’ll only be a moment, I promise you.”
Miss Abigail cried, “But, my dear, you mustn’t!”
Letty paid no heed. She had reached the landing and at the end of the corridor ahead, she caught a glimpse of Jeremiah tearing around a corner with the cat skidding wildly in his wake. She ran after them, rounding the corner in time to see the little monkey hurl itself at a door at the end of the hallway. To her astonishment, the door flew open and he disappeared inside, still chattering at the top of his lungs. Another, definitely human shriek accompanied his.
Reaching the doorway, she stopped, amazed at the sight that met her eyes. Jeremiah, perched atop a nearby curtain, still chattered angrily, and the marmalade cat clung determinedly, swaying, halfway up the curtain. The couple in the bed was what astonished her, however. Recognizing the wide-eyed, clearly embarrassed, and quite naked Catherine, Letty deduced that the man who had flung the covers over his head before she had entered was not Catherine’s husband.