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“Oh, nonsense, Caroline. The man’s stable burned to the ground and all his cattle with it. Naturally he was called away. Indeed, I understand he is to return for the Season this year. Perhaps you will find it amusing and profitable to reattach his sentiments. He is quite wealthy, you know.”

“Of course I know, Mama. Else I’d not have wasted all last Season encouraging him to the exclusion of the rest. Quite a waste of my valuable time that was.” She flung herself up from the divan she had only just flung herself down upon, and stalked to the window again. “And if I am so much the toast of the Season, where is everyone?”

“Now, Caroline, you know the Season has not quite begun. No one is calling yet. It simply isn’t time. We’re only here early to get settled in this house before things do get underway.”

“I still say the whole idea is dreadful, Mother,” retorted Caroline, turning from the window with a pout. “Elspeth is entirely unpresentable. Bookish and plain, an absolute country bumpkin. Why she’s at least twenty-five, isn’t she? Quite nearly a spinster. I shall be trapped beside her at every function, and no one will come near us, save the old men, widowed and senile. Everyone will think we are two old crows standing together hoping for carrion to feed upon! I declare, if that malodorous old fool, Sir Richard Sommers, requests a dance of me one more time, I shall kick his cane out from under him. The very idea that I might be desperate enough to dance with the likes of him!”

And that was precisely what Bettina feared—that Caroline might indeed grow desperate enough that the likes of Sir Richard was the best she could hope for. And, Bettina thought, suppressing a shudder, the rank old goat was her own elder by several years.

“Ah, but you are not looking at it from quite the right perspective, my dear,” said her mother with a conspiratorial smile. “It is exactly Elspeth’s slightly shopworn appearance that I seek. You are, even if it is I who say it, a splendid-looking girl—or, at least,”—she raised an eyebrow—“you would be if you didn’t pout so. At any rate, no girl in the marriage mart today can approach you in beauty.” She ignored the rolling of Caroline’s eyes. What she said was true—as far as it went. Still, there was that certain, indefinable quality that a young woman took on after perhaps one too many years on display. Perhaps it was really there, perhaps those around her simply relished thinking it was, but after a few Seasons a young lady began to look rather—well—desperate. It was just this look Bettina wished to avoid at all costs for her beautiful Caroline. “But, as you say, you have just past one-and-twenty, and your age is something from which to divert attention. Next to Elspeth, who I thought appeared quite spinsterish at her father’s funeral, you will look positively dewy. Why, the girl’s spectacles alone give her the appearance of her own grandmother. I am led to understand she does not so much as rise in the morning without donning them for the rest of the day.”

“Exactly! Her clothing would scare away the crows. She was quite dowdy when we attended Uncle’s funeral. I don’t believe she owns more than two day dresses. I certainly saw no more. I was quite embarrassed for her. And I do not much fancy trumpeting to the
ton
that we have such paltry connections.”

“Well, of course, I shall do what I must to make her presentable, Caroline,” her mother countered, trying to tamp down her growing annoyance.

“But I need my own wardrobe refurbished, Mama! How much are you planning to spend on my cousin?” Caroline asked, with the maddening illogic that made manipulating the girl so difficult. “As it is, the old biddies are sure to recognize several of last Season’s dresses, even remade as they are.”

“Indeed, my dear, I was thinking of handing several of them down to Elspeth, You are an inch or two shorter than she—no more than that. Indeed, she is too tall. But you are much the same figure, and I think your old dresses can be recut quite nicely for her. And then, of course, you shall have new.”

The magic words spoken, Caroline’s mutinous expression turned crafty, then pleased, like a cat who had just stumbled into the dairy and found no one there, just a large bucket of warm, thick cream....

 

Chapter Two

 

He was bored. He hadn’t yet been in Bath a full forty-eight hours and he had never been so bored in all his life. Unless one counted the last time he put in an appearance at the London Season, some two years ago.

This was a bad idea. Bath in any Season ran a close second to London for bad ideas. Life here was parochial, rigid, choreographed down to the seemingly negligent flick of one’s cuff.

Not that he’d been given any choice in the matter, with family responsibilities piling upon him, one atop the other. He had been near to suffocating from the weight before the events of last week.

The final straw had been his father’s stroke, which had left the once vital and virile man looking frail, and terribly old, half-paralyzed, and weak, eyes rheumy with the pain and indignity of it all. His father’s wavering voice had been barely audible as he had begged his only son to let a pitiful old man die happy. It was the pity that had finally done what hints, sharp words, cajolery and tricks had failed to accomplish in happier times. He was here in Bath so that some lovely young thing could make him the happiest of men, or at least marry him.

It had been impossible to say no this one last time, to pull yet one more excuse out of his hat, to make a vague promise that, yes, of course, Father, but next year, when I get this drought problem solved, or when the irrigation trenches are completed, or the stable renovations finished, or this, or that, or another of the unending stream of activities that could immerse a gentleman farmer of substantial estates. Particularly one who found the
ton
and all its trappings far less absorbing than a thumping good experiment as to which particular mix of swill could best fatten up the pigs.

“I say, Julian, are you going to play that card or are you going to stare at it all night?” Wesley Ames asked, eyeing his own hand with obvious annoyance.

“Oh, they all look alike anyway,” Julian muttered, snapping the card to the table and hoping it was the right one. He couldn’t see a blasted thing in here. The light was too dim, chandeliers blazing away with candles a few hundred feet in the air. How could they expect anyone to see anything? At least the pips on the cards were large enough to count. Not for the world would he bring out his spectacles, lurking temptingly inside an inner pocket of his waistcoat. The few times he’d worn them among the
ton
, his cronies had had great fun at his expense, and “four eyes” had been the kindest of the taunts.

“You have the devil’s own luck with cards, Julian, and I’d swear you don’t pay the least bit of attention,” Wesley said, good-naturedly, when it became apparent that Julian would take the trick.

“Bad luck with the ladies, though,” Benjamin Watkins drawled. “Are you sure it’s safe to return? I rather thought Lady Helen Sneed would set up a hue and cry after you the last time you graced us with your presence.”

Julian ground his teeth and made no reply. It was just this sort of gossip he wished to avoid. Lady Helen’s daughter, Honoria, had been a lovely girl in her way, but her prodigious physical charms had palled upon further acquaintance. Actually, his pigs were more intelligent, not to put too fine a point on it.

“I suppose that’s why you’ve chosen Bath, instead of braving the full London Season?” Edgar Randall asked, with his usual feigned disinterest.

One must be quite careful what one said to Edgar. It was always repeated, and not with the greatest of accuracy. “I prefer Bath at this time of year, actually. It’s a little less tedious than London,” Julian responded. He flicked another card to the table. It made his head ache to fight with the bad lighting, and the room was too close. At home he’d be abed by now, long since, indeed, as he rose with the dawn. The
ton
went to bed with the dawn. It would take some getting used to, and he wasn’t sure he wished to be bothered.

“I picked up the most delicious piece of information today,” Edgar said, tossing a card to the table. He was an indifferent player, to say the least. His objective seemed never to be the pot, rather, the
on dit.
He let the remark hang in the air, waiting for some fish to snap at the bait.

“Do go on, Edgar. You know you can barely contain yourself,” Wesley said with a laugh.

“It seems that Perennial Toast, Caroline Quinn, is importing a country cousin for the Season. Now, can anyone imagine the beautiful but conceited Miss Quinn sharing the spotlight with a lovely demoiselle having her first Season? My suspicions are aroused.”

“My word, yes,” said Wesley. “Gel must be a positive Antidote. Else Caroline would never tolerate the sight of her on the premises. I daresay they’ve brought in a repellent spinster so as to invite favorable comparison. This promises to be most entertaining.”

“One must wonder whether or not Mrs. Quinn’s ruse will work, however,” said Benjamin Watkins, eyeing his cards dubiously. “My recollection is that the disdainful Caroline can attract multitudes of admirers, but that her waspish temper soon drives them off.”

“You had a rather narrow escape there, yourself, Julian, a few years ago, as I recall,” put in Edgar, with enough of an amused edge to his voice to indicate that he hoped he’d poked a sore spot.

“Not at all. Lovely girl,” replied Julian, keeping his voice nonchalant. “Should have offered for her, indeed. Perhaps this Season I will, at that,” he finished, triumphantly trumping Randall’s last throw.

“Perhaps your prize pigs will fly, Julian,” laughed Benjamin. “Let’s see,” he went on, fiddling idly with the few cards left in his hand. “You’d insist upon returning to the country to live. Then she’d be bored to tears and would have to take on the steward as her lover, and have you stabbed to death with a pitchfork through the chest. I can see now that it wouldn’t work out. Wise choice, my lad.”

“Well, yes. That was rather how I thought things would turn out,” said Julian, smiling in spite of himself. Benjamin had a way of making him see the humor in any situation.

“Well, I do recall that you and the Perennial Toast were quite the talk of a few Seasons back,” said Edgar. “Her first Season, I believe it was, although one does find one’s memory fading for ancient history.” Edgar threw down a card, paying no obvious attention to his hand whatsoever, now that he had fresh game in his sights. “Refresh my recollection, Julian. Were you the Jilt or the Jilted?”

“There was no question of a jilt, Edgar,” replied Julian, trying to hide his annoyance. “Caroline and I are friends, nothing more. We would never suit in a serious relationship.”

“Well, that may have been true then. But this is Caroline’s...what? fifth Season? Sixth?”

“Oh, not so many as that, Edgar,” Wesley broke in, obviously sensing that the jibing had gone too far. “Third or fourth, I’ll warrant. And it is Caroline, of course, who is being particular—though I do believe she liked you best, Julian. She certainly gives the cold shoulder to every new crop of young smitten swains.”

“Why don’t we pay a call on Mrs. Quinn and her arrogant offspring tomorrow? They’ve let the late Lord Ewell’s place, I understand,” said Edgar. “Welcome them to Bath, you know. Perhaps we might catch a glimpse of the sacrificial victim, this cousin from the country.”

“It sounds unkind to say the least,” Julian snapped. “Do you go to gawk at the country cousin or to annoy Caroline?” His head was pounding like the very devil. He never got headaches at his estate in the country.

“Oh, my, aren’t we holier than thou this evening?” put in Edgar, with a wicked gleam in his eye. Julian cursed himself for giving the man the opening to needle him. “But you will come with us on the morrow, of course,” continued the relentless Edgar. “To renew your fond friendship with the lovely, not-jilted Caroline.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think....”

“Nervous, Julian?” needled Edgar. “Frightened of her most formidable mama? I heard a joke recently...can’t think of the whole thing, but the punch line involved Bettina Quinn being the odds-on favorite at a match at Gentleman Jackson’s. Quite amusing, it was. Still,” he went on, with the a flick at an imaginary speck on his lace cuff, “I can see why, friends or no, you’d be simply knee-knocking terrified at the thought of facing either of those two dragons again.”

Julian did not consider himself a cowardly man by any means, but five minutes alone in a room with Caroline, or her formidable mother, for that matter, might well have him cringing in terror among the divan cushions. Still, what could be worse than failing to rise to Edgar Randall’s obvious challenge? If he refused to go, by tomorrow at this time the entire population of Bath would be laughing at his cowardice, and the blood sport would be on.

“What time do we plan to set out?” he made himself ask, playing his last card.

“Oh, latish, to be sure. It would never do to roust Caroline from her repose. No doubt she sleeps till noon.” Unexpectedly, Edgar swept up the last trick. Very little money ever changed hands among this particular set. Edgar, often with pockets to let, could not afford high stakes, and Julian would not allow his friend to be put in an awkward position at cards.

“No doubt,” replied Julian dryly. “Well, I am for bed, myself, gentlemen. I shall not improve my fortunes playing cards with any of you, certainly.”

“Julian, you’ve become a country bore, sir,” laughed Wesley. “P’raps you and the country cousin will do well together at that.”

“P’raps she weighs as much as one of his prize pigs,” added Edgar, wickedly.

“Good night, gentlemen...although I use the term loosely,” replied Julian.

* * * *

“Go away!”

“Sha’n’t!”

“Please, Harry. I’ll only have a few minutes to myself. Then they’re sure to want something. Let me have just a little time here and I’ll tend to you later.”

“Roderick is a pig!”

“Hush, Harry! Someone will hear.” Elspeth said quickly, looking over at the door that Harry had, at least, remembered to close behind him when he’d tracked her to the library. “Remember these are not our servants. Things we say unwisely will be repeated.”

BOOK: Corey McFadden
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