Authors: Holly Bush
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Victorian, #Regency, #Romantic Comedy, #Historical Romance
“I liked Miss Sheldon, Your Grace,” Jonah said, followed by a sniffle and shuffling in the huge armchair.
The valet was about to correct Jonah for speaking when not being spoken to. Thornsby knew the man was vastly insulted the five-year-old had free roam of his domain.
“And why’s that, Jonah?” Thornsby said. Crumbsby glared and returned his attention to insuring not one speck of lint mar his employer’s black jacket.
“She reminds me of my mum, sir, with her bucket and rags,” Jonah said.
Thornsby couldn’t have agreed more. Matilda Sheldon looked like a servant when he saw her that day at her orphanage. He had tossed that conversation around in his head one hundred times since the day it happened. She’d denied Alice and Jonah shelter and told him to raise them himself. Ludicrous thought. Granted, he enjoyed the children’s company and their trust, but soon he would have his own heirs to teach.
Thornsby had made a systematic search of every orphanage in London and some farther away than that. It had been a dreadful experience. He’d left Jonah and Alice at Winterbourne now while he did his investigation. Thornsby didn’t need repeat their tears and terror when they
accompanied him. The mistress of the home he visited with the children was the sort one reads about in books. She was ugly and wicked-looking, all the while gleaming at the diamond stickpin in his lapel. The children he saw there looked wan and thin. It had taken him two hours to remove Jonah from his leg after the ride home.
As his coach pulled up to the steps of Ruthershire, he could see all the long windows lit from within and knew the ball was in full swing. He made his greetings to the Hollingberrys and found a suitable spot from which to watch the assembly. Ladies looked over their fans nervously and gents nodded. It was easy to assume the demeanor he’d relied on most of his days. Bored, aloof, well-bred and, he hoped, dashing. Thornsby lifted one corner of his mouth in a half grin at a young woman courageous enough to pass by him and meet his eye. She scurried away in a titter to a group of young misses. All the young women surrounding her were fanning her as if she was about to swoon. The mothers of these young girls were, while assessing him head to toe, hurrying their charges out of his line of sight.
* * *
“Please, Mother,” Matilda said. “I have work to do and nothing to say to any guests of the Hollingberrys.”
“You’ve been working too hard, dear. Your father commented just today that you were looking tired. An evening out will surely be the thing to revive you,” Frances said. Matilda sat at her dressing table while Mimi worked her hair.
“Where are my damnable glasses?” Matilda said irritably. “Mimi, whatever is taking you so long to braid my hair?” Her mother’s rationale that a ball that began at ten and wasn’t concluded till the cock crowed could erase the dark circles under her eyes was unbelievable.
“Don’t say ‘damnable,’ dear. Terribly unbecoming to curse. Your glasses? You took them off to bathe, I presume?” Frances asked.
“And where is the blue gown, Mother? My dressing room is nearly bare,” Matilda announced.
“I haven’t touched your wardrobe, Matilda,” Frances said honestly. However Mimi and Juliet had spent the afternoon dumping drab dresses in a heap in the attic. “Wear the gold gown. It becomes you so.”
Matilda sighed in resignation. She was going to Ruthershire whether she wanted or not, in a fashionable dress, yet. The evening may not be a total waste if she could raise more funds for her orphanage, but who would take her seriously in yards and yards of filmy fabric?
Matilda tugged the gown on while Mimi frowned her disapproval.
“You’ll tear it, mademoiselle,” Mimi cried. “Have a care.”
“The thing doesn’t cover half of my bodice, Mother.” Matilda shouted. She tugged and pulled at the neckline and dropped her arms at her sides in defeat. There was no neckline. It was a breast line. Mimi inched white gloves up to her elbows as Matilda stepped into matching slippers.
“You look lovely, my dear,” Frances said softly from where she stood behind Matilda peering over her daughter’s shoulder at the full-length mirror.
“How would I know what I look like? I can’t find my glasses,” Matilda said.
Frances inched her closer to the mirror until Matilda’s image lost its edge of fuzziness. Matilda touched her hair, a mass of soft ringlets framing her face. The gold dress exposed her shoulders, as the sleeves were purely tightened fabric in a loop about her upper arm. The dress hung in diaphanous waves over an undersheath of shining gold fabric, cinched tight around her waist, and spread over stiffened petticoats.
“Oh, Matilda,” Juliet said. “You are absolutely beautiful.”
“Oh, yes,” Alexandra agreed.
Matilda could not actually see her sisters but knew without a doubt they were smiling. She knew her ensemble was a far sight better than her usual brown dresses and sensible shoes. She looked rather pretty, she supposed, had that sort of thing mattered to her.
“Smile, Matilda. We’re not going to scrub windows. We’re going to a lovely party,” Frances said.
Lately her mother compared everything disagreeable to scrubbing windows as if her ten minutes had been a lifetime.
“I just hate this sort of thing,” Matilda whined.
Frances turned her daughter to face her. “Try and enjoy yourself tonight. For me?”
Matilda smiled. And she would continue to do so. Her family had hauled, cleaned, swept, and supported her in every way concerning the orphanage
Other than the dreadful scene with Thornsby, they had made her work easier.
was what they cared about. She supposed she could return the favor.
“I promise to enjoy myself, Mother.” Frances eyed her speculatively. “I will smile and make merry and after all . . . I do look rather marvelous tonight.”
Matilda’s father gushed and kissed her cheek, repeating the word stunning over and over. Franklin and Suann agreed with his assessment. Even Fitz had noticed the change.
“Not used to seeing you outfitted like this, Matilda. Quite a shock. But you do look lovely tonight,” Fitz said. They rode with Alexandra and Juliet in the second carriage. “Spectacular set of bosoms, Matilda. Don’t let anyone stick his hand down your dress.”
“Fitz!” Juliet cried. “Gentlemen don’t stick their hands down ladies’ dresses.”
“Some do, Juliet,” Fitz mumbled.
Matilda stared out the carriage window. It was a delicious thought in a wicked way. Someone, a man, not her brother of course, reaching his hand past her neck line. Breast line, she reminded herself. Ruthershire came into view, and Matilda promised herself, for her family’s sake, to enjoy.
Unbidden, Thornsby’s face came into her head. Even though she’d been dreadfully embarrassed at the orphanage with her mother’s conniving and Ethel’s manipulations, she wondered if he’d be there this evening. She wondered why she cared, but it would be a terrible waste of a dress and a hair style if he didn’t see her in it. He’d probably die of an apoplexy on the spot. After all, he’d never seen her in anything as fine as what she wore tonight. Matilda doubted he’d mistake her for a scullery maid this evening. That thought put a natural smile on Matilda’s face.
* * *
“Why, Miss Morgan. You do look lovely this evening,” Thornsby said. The Morgan’s had apparently denied conventional logic and approached him, eligible daughter in tow.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Cicely Morgan crooned.
“Quite a crush this evening, Thornsby,” Morgan said as he beamed at his daughter. “A room full of beautiful ladies does a man’s heart good, I’d say.”
Thornsby nodded and turned his attention to the daughter. Cicely Morgan was of a fine family. She probably knew where to place the silver and how to manage a household. One look at the forbidding mother confirmed this girl had learned her household lessons. She was passably attractive and staring at him. He’d best speak to the girl. He didn’t.
“How’s the stable, Morgan?” Thornsby asked in a dry, affected tone.
Lady Morgan frowned and dragged her daughter off in a huff. Morgan espoused at great length his stables, his home, his bloody antique coin collection until Thornsby was sure he’d gone asleep standing up. The man finally wandered away.
“Thornsby,” Millicent Marsh cooed in his ear.
Miss Marsh was outfitted in a pale dress, nearly see-through. Although Thornsby had, as late as a year ago, seen all of Millicent’s charms up close and unencumbered by clothing.
“Where have you been keeping yourself, Thornsby,” Millicent purred.
“Been busy, my dear.”
“Rumor is you’re wife hunting,” Millicent said.
Thornsby’s brow shot up. “Where ever did you hear a story like that?”
“Your sister. Ran into Athena and her husband in Italy.”
Thornsby was shocked Athena had exposed this family secret. No secret now, with Millicent Marsh knowing it. She was exactly the kind of woman Athena loathed. Widowed at a young age and left a fortune. Beautiful and dangerous and she knew it.
“Was Smithly actually that gave it away,” Millicent laughed. “The two of them
. I was quite shocked. They just don’t seem to . . . to suit.”
Thornsby understood that she’d implied Athena was not attractive enough. Even with Smithly’s lack of title, the women of the
had swooned when Andrew batted his blond lashes and rolled his shoulders.
“Love doesn’t always suit what we expect it to, my dear,” Thornsby said.
“Love! How clever! Do you imagine them in love?” Millicent sighed. “Athena possibly, but I doubt she’ll equal Smithly’s appetite for very long. Would hate to see poor Athena’s heartbroken, though. It pains me surely, Thornsby.”
Thornsby could see Millicent’s brain working as if it were exposed. Her specialty was wooing married men. She’d told him that he was the exception only because he was so magnificently handsome. Not that he’d believed her.
“Smithly and Athena will live a long and faithful life, I believe, Millicent.”
“Oh, of course, darling,” she tittered. “And what about you? You were the only man to sway me even slightly from my commitment to never taking a man’s hand in marriage again.”
Millicent Marsh would marry him in an instant. She would host elegant parties and purr naked in his bed. Her family background would serve suitably as a duchess. Thornsby harrumphed. Excepting he’d never be quite sure the children she presented him were, in actuality, his own.
“I . . .” Thornsby began and stopped. Over Millicent’s blond curls he spotted new arrivals. The Sheldons. And who was the woman hanging on to the sisters’ arms? The graceful figure in gold with upswept hair put the other two to shame. She turned and Thornsby’s mouth dropped. The wren!
His feet shuffled as if willed by his groin to take closer inspection. Thornsby could not take his eyes from her. But he would not give into the urge to demand boldly what she was doing here, looking like a siren. It was her impudence that resulted in two orphans making themselves comfortable in his home.
He turned in a start to Millicent’s enraged face. He wondered briefly what she had been saying. He bowed curtly and angled past Millicent to get a better view of Matilda Sheldon.
* * *
“Step down, Matilda. That’s right,” Juliet said.
“The Hollingberrys are on your left,” Alexandra whispered.
Matilda was not as blind as her family perceived. She curtsied and took one step back to allow Alexandra room to greet their hosts. Her foot did not encounter solid ground. For one brief second she envisioned herself flat out on the Hollingberry’s marble entranceway, her gold dress covering her head. A hand on her elbow steadied her.
“Best not to fall flat on one’s behind at the outset,” Thornsby whispered in her ear.
“Thornsby,” Matilda said with a nod even as her face flamed. “Thank you.”
“Where are those dreadful spectacles you wear?” he hissed.
“Your Grace! How do you do?” Fran Sheldon said bowed. “Look, my dear, it’s the Duke of Thornsby. Alexandra, Juliet. The Duke of Thornsby is here.”
Matilda’s father was calling to Fitz to make his greeting. “We’ve established the Duke’s presence, Father,” Matilda grumbled.
Frances Sheldon curtsied and straightened. “Why look, it’s Matilda’s dance card,” she said and pointed to the floor near Thornsby’s feet. He knelt, retrieved the card and handed it to Matilda.
“There is a quill on the small desk behind you,” Frances said, smiling broadly.
“I would be honored if you would dance with me, Miss Sheldon,” Thornsby said.
“My dancing is comparable to my vision sans glasses, Your Grace,” Matilda said.
“How silly, Matilda. You dance divinely. Alexandra, Juliet, wasn’t I just remarking last week that Matilda is the finest dancer of all my children. Fran, don’t you agree?” Frances said.
“I thought you said I was the finest dancer, Mother,” Alexandra said.
Juliet flashed Alexandra a frown. “It was Matilda, Alexandra. Do pay attention.”
“But Fitz said . . .” Alexandra began.
Matilda was going to end this discussion immediately before Alexandra cried or Juliet stuck her tongue out. “Have you placed Jonah and Alice, Your Grace?”
Suddenly they were quite alone. The Sheldons had made their escape. Thornsby took Matilda’s arm and escorted her into the ballroom. “No, I have not. No thanks to you. Perhaps I should have allowed you to fall flat a moment ago.”
Matilda fingered her beaded reticule with no reply. Something other than her lace edged hanky was in there. She popped the metal clasp and pulled out her glasses. “How did they get in my bag?”
Matilda looked at him, clearly now and he was as devastatingly handsome as when she had first laid eyes on him. She was still mortified about the scene at the orphanage but was not about to allow him to know that. “What will you do with them?” Matilda asked. “The Gilbert children, I mean.”
“I’ve visited a few homes. None were suitable. I will continue my inquiries.”
“Where are they now?” Matilda asked.