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Carla Kelly

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SIGNET REGENCY ROMANCE

The Lady’s Companion

Carla Kelly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INTERMIX BOOKS, NEW YORK

To Metta Lieb and Laurie Sampson, good friends and readers

To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven: . . . a time to die . . . a time to plant . . . a time to kill and a time to heal . . . a time to laugh; a time to mourn . . . a time to keep silence, and a time to speak . . . a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes

Chapter One

It takes a birthday to bring out the worst in a woman, Susan Hampton decided as she propped herself up on one elbow and watched the maid of all work ration out the morning coal. Already I am wearing my father’s socks to bed, and goodness knows that is an old-maid thing to do, she thought. But it was warmer that way, considering that this was January, money was tight, and coal was dear.

“Jane, do you know that I am twenty-five today?” she asked the maid.

Jane straightened up from the hearth and stared at her in honest amazement. “Gor, miss, you can’t be that old!”

Susan winced, then collapsed onto her back, giggling in spite of herself.

“Oh, miss, I didn’t mean . . .”

“It doesn’t matter, Jane!”

It really didn’t, she told herself after Jane left the room in a blush of apology. She pulled the covers back, then thought better of it, because the room was so cold she could see her breath. She huddled herself into a ball and remembered summer, and luncheon alfresco beside the lake.

Except that there won’t be any more lazy times sitting on a blanket, eating strawberries. Hampton Hill was gone now, swallowed up in Papa’s debts and sold at auction to a raw-faced industrialist from somewhere north, and his overdressed wife.

With a sigh, Susan snuggled down deeper into her pillow. The pillow slip wasn’t ironed, because the laundress had been let go two years back, along with the downstairs maid, the upstairs maid, both footmen, and the stable hands. Papa’s last horse found itself under scrutiny at Tattersall’s, and the butler’s wages were reduced, thanks to Sir Rodney Hampton’s run of bad luck at faro. Jane, the maid of all work, did most of the household tasks now. She used to pull on a frilly apron when the doorbell rang, but Susan couldn’t remember when she had stopped doing that. Ironing pillowcases had gone from the necessary to the frivolous category. And besides all that, the doorbell didn’t ring often anymore.

“At least we have this house,” Susan spoke into the pillow. There was less furniture in it now, after Papa’s disastrous weeks at Newmarket last fall, but that meant less dusting. She sighed again and flopped onto her stomach. If only Papa hadn’t sold the iron-bound leather trunk that was new during Elizabeth’s reign. It had been Mama’s, and Papa had promised he would always keep it for her. “I forgot, my dear,” he had told her after the carters removed it. He gave her his most charming smile, as if that made things right.

It used to, she thought as she sat up and hugged the pillow to her. Charming Sir Rodney could woo the bark off the trees, Mama used to say. Susan lay down again, wishing, as she did with more frequency these days, that Papa had other skills. Nothing vulgar, mind, she assured herself. Papa was a gentleman and couldn’t be expected to work, but what a pity he had never learned how to manage his resources. Too bad he could never look farther ahead than tomorrow’s appointment with the tailor.

Susan sat up and draped a blanket around her shoulders, the pleasure of sleeping late gone with each new reminder of Papa’s misdeeds. She was being unfair; he hadn’t been to the tailor in over a year. At least, not since that much-tried tradesman had sent letter after letter that Papa only allowed to pile up on the bookroom desk. She had worried about the other mounting piles of bills on Papa’s desk, going out of her way sometimes to detour into the bookroom and just stand there, looking at the desk, willing them all to disappear. Then she did not go in the bookroom anymore; the sight was too painful. Papa wore last year’s clothing and shined his boots himself, his valet having fled to greener pastures.

The feeble ration of coal was no good against a January colder than any Susan could recall. She would dress herself and hurry downstairs. They kept the little salon warm with a cheery fire, in case someone should chance to call. Few did anymore, and never any young gentlemen. Sir Rodney Hampton had seen enough bad luck in clubs up and down St. James Place to discourage any bachelor interested in Susan Hampton. True, her face was as pretty as any seen in recent years. And while there were some generous of pocket who could have overlooked her lack of dowry, there was no one in pants foolish enough to take on the present and future liability of Sir Rodney himself. A husband with such a father-in-law would be wooing his own financial disaster, no matter how lovely the wife who hung upon his arm and warmed his bed.

It had taken several years for Susan to bring herself to face that bit of pain. When she was eighteen, anything had seemed possible. Papa had promised her a Season, and beautiful clothes, and what remained of Mama’s portion. When the Season was at its height, and she was still not part of it, Papa had come to her, contrite but smiling his charming smile, and assured her that next year would be her turn.

So she had waited, and had made a few plans—fewer than the year before, but still plans. Next Season’s beauties were already primping and pouting in the foyer, ready for their turn to dance and flirt and marry. She had reason to hope; Papa had promised that her nineteenth year would see her presented and suitably wed.

Susan took a deep breath and leaped from the bed, tugging on her clothes and standing close to the hearth and its paltry fire, which gave off no more warmth than colored-paper flames. Shoes in hand, she snatched up the hairbrush on her dressing table and hurried downstairs. She would return and make her bed later.

It almost happened during her twentieth year. Papa had a wonderful two-year-old named, oddly enough, Hampton’s Promise, that should have won at Newmarket. That he did not, Sir Rodney blamed on the rainy weather (“Ah, Susan, you should see Promise on a dry stretch!”); his groom (“Dear me, how could the man have left all that grain around for Promise to gorge upon?”); and even Waterloo (“My dear, I never suspected that all those officers would come home and set up their stables!”). And always there was Papa’s charming smile to make things right.

That Newmarket year, and the selling of the estate (“Oh, I’ll win it back, my dear, just you wait.”), had marked the end of Susan Hampton’s plans. If her smile was no more than automatic now when Sir Rodney spun his cobweb schemes, he did not notice. Perspicacity was never a strong suit of the Hamptons. If she was quieter now, contemplating the marriage of her former friends and rejoicing with them in their increasing waistlines and the anticipation of babies, Papa did not notice. He barbered his own hair now, shaved his own face, brushed his own clothes, and assured her that everything would come out fine.

Breakfast was everlasting porridge, eaten off Mama’s beautiful china, to be sure, but tiresome day after week after month after year. She ate thoughtfully, skimping on the cream and wondering if anyone would call today. Aunt Louisa would remember that it was her birthday. Last year she had sent around gloves, and followed them with an afternoon visit, breathless with news of Amanda’s own comeout. (“Of course, dear Susan, I wish I could do the same for you, but this is Amanda’s moment to shine, and I know you would not begrudge her.”)

Susan poured herself some tea. She missed the oolong, but gunpowder was not as bad as she had feared. It warmed her middle and sat sturdily on top of the oatmeal. Amanda’s Season last year had been rewarded at the eleventh hour with a proposal of marriage from a second son with a Northumberland estate. Aunt Louisa had swallowed her pride and given her permission. If she was secretly grateful that Amanda, who had freckles and gap teeth, had found a man at all, Aunt Louisa did not admit it.

Susan rested her elbows on the table and contemplated her cup. “And now, dear Aunt, you are avoiding me,” she murmured, watching her breath ruffle the smooth surface of the tea. “You know you do not wish the expense of bringing me out this year, and Papa will only promise and forget. I have become an obligation.”

It pained her that Louisa was avoiding her. She had so few relatives, that the defection of one—even an imperfect specimen like Aunt Louisa—brought its own discomfort. As she sat blowing on her tea, it never occurred to Susan to wish for improvement in their character. What she saw was what she got, and she was used to the uncertainty that accompanied being a Hampton.

Still, she considered as she left the breakfast room, brushing her hair, how novel it would be to have relations that could be depended upon. Her friends had parents, aunts, and uncles who were almost boring in their dependability. She stopped in front of the mirror to part her hair. Susan eyed herself, smiling to notice that twenty-five years didn’t seem to set any heavier on her shoulders than twenty-four had. “For my birthday, I would like someone, anyone, to rely on.”

Susan had finished braiding her hair into two neat plaits when she heard Papa’s quick footsteps. He whistled as he hurried down the stairs, and she smiled in spite of her mood, knowing that he was probably giving his neckcloth one last twitch, and tugging at his waistcoat, impatient to be off—where? She knew that Papa’s friends all crossed the street when they saw him coming, hoping to avoid being touched for a loan. Sir Rodney dressed with a flourish every afternoon and left the house with some importance, but where he went, he never said, and she had not the courage to ask.

But it was still morning, and here he was now, smiling at her from the doorway of the little salon. He surprised her by pulling a long, comical face. “Susan, why so glum? It’s your birthday!”

“My twenty-fifth,” she reminded him, amused that he actually noticed her sobriety. It was so unlike him to be aware of others, unless they sat across from him at a gaming table. Then they had his full attention, or so said one of her former suitors when she asked him what Papa did, night after night, in White’s.

Papa came to her and leaned across the back of the sofa, rubbing his cheek against hers. She breathed in the familiar smell of bay rum, content for a brief moment, and crossed her fingers that he would not spoil the moment with any of his extravagant promises. She hoped in vain.

He struck a pose and gave her his elegant profile. “My dear, this very day will see the end of any discomfort you may have endured over the last few years. How fortunate that good luck should come on your birthday.”

He was in such a good mood that Susan hoped he did not notice her little sigh. He came around the sofa and sat down beside her, looking around the room.

“We’ll have new draperies before the week is out, and I’ll get the plasterer in to do something about the ceiling. Just see if I will, Susan.” He kissed her cheek. “Happy birthday, my dear.”

She smiled at him, but said nothing, knowing well that Papa would supply the text, if she was reluctant.

“Susan, I have been invited to such a card game at White’s!” he said when she continued her silence.

“Papa, no . . .” she began, but he cut her off with one elegantly shaped finger to her lips.

“Susan, trust me to know what’s best. There now. He is an industrialist from somewhere to the north,” he explained, gesturing vaguely in the direction of Scotland. “Lord Kinsey tells me that he is ripe to pluck, has a face as easy to read as a mirror, and a hammy hand with wagers.”

“No, Papa,” she cautioned more urgently, but she might have addressed the fireplace for all the attention he paid her. Sir Rodney Hampton was on his feet now, pausing in front of the mirror for one final prink at his collar points. She started toward him, but Wilde stood in the doorway now, extending Sir Rodney’s coat to. him.

He allowed the butler to help him into the coat and accepted his hat before turning to his daughter again. “Susan, sometimes I wonder if you are really a Hampton,” he scolded, his voice light and teasing. “One could almost call you stodgy.”

“One could almost call me sensible,” she said to the window glass a moment later as she watched her father pick his way down the icy sidewalk. The glass fogged over, and by the time she had wiped it clear, Papa had settled himself into a hackney. She sighed. He would ride it to within a block of his destination, then get out and walk the rest of the way, so no gentleman looking out of White’s big bay window would suspect that Sir Rodney Hampton had sold his carriage horses. But if she could believe the arch looks that she endured when they were out in public, the only one fooled by his charade was Sir Rodney himself.

Her heart burned for him, but she did not know what to do, beyond saying a little prayer that he would not be fleeced beyond his means, and that he would remember to come home in time to share her birthday dinner. Cook had promised Georgiana pudding with fruit sauce, one of her particular favorites. She grinned at the windowpane, fogging it again.
At least I need not fret and starve myself like my cousin Amanda
, she thought. We Hamptons may not be blessed with too many coins of the realm, but we do have slender figures.

“Even if I am now facing the perils of my twenty-fifth year, I can do it with a little waist,” she said out loud, then hurried upstairs to make her bed.

***

She ate her Georgiana pudding alone, her ears pricked for the sound of Papa’s key in the lock. It didn’t taste as good as she remembered, but she knew better than to allow Jane to take even a stray spoonful belowstairs. Cook would mope and stew and create scenes that would require all of Wilde’s patience, so Susan forced herself to eat it all, even though her mind and her heart were on Papa.

He did not come in at bedtime, and she allowed herself the luxury of a little hope. If he was having a successful run of cards, she reasoned, he would stay. When she finished the last of her mending, she lingered a few minutes more in the sitting room, soaking in warmth to carry upstairs to her cold bedroom. I am too old for a comeout now, she thought, spreading her fingers over the cooling fire. But if there is a respectable dowry, even a small one, perhaps I could attract a widower.

And that, she concluded, would be better than no man at all. Susan hurried into her nightclothes and leaped into bed, blessing Jane for providing a rare warming pan in honor of her birthday. I would like it if he were not bald, or paunchy, or lacking teeth, she thought, after she said her prayers in bed (The Lord would understand how cold the floor was, she was sure, and it was her birthday). If he liked to carry on conversations about books, and didn’t mind her sketches, that would be so much leaven in the loaf.

BOOK: Carla Kelly
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