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Authors: Joan Smith

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Love's Harbinger

BOOK: Love's Harbinger
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LOVE’S HARBINGER

 

Joan Smith

 

Chapter One

 

Lady Lynne sat, sipping a cup of cocoa while nibbling a macaroon, and wondered why she was suddenly putting on a little weight. She was still a decade from that sad time of life when she would turn gray and quarrelsome—her brindled hair was not frosted with white at all. Since Sir John’s death she had begun having her gowns constructed in Paris, and at the moment she was upholstered in an extremely fashionable yellow sateen that made her look like a rutabaga. She was well aware of this and resented it deeply.

But she was easily distracted from unpleasant thoughts, for she was basically an optimistic lady. What else could account for her volunteering every Season to find a
parti
for one or another of her country nieces? This year it was Lady Faith Mordain, her companion in cocoa and macaroons, who had been blasted off, or soon would be.

Only it was very odd that Lord Thomas Vane had not come to call this afternoon as he was supposed to do. She sometimes feared that sly Lord Thomas meant to slip the leash. He had been behaving oddly lately. Still, it would not do to put such an idea into Faith’s head, so she said, “Get the
Harbinger
, will you, dear? I sent Basset for it, and just heard him come in.”

Lady Faith lifted a well-shaped brow and stared at her aunt with a pair of intelligent gray eyes. “I don’t know why you read that scurrilous rag,” she said, but she rose and went into the hall. Faith was tall and slender, and carried herself nobly as befitted the daughter of an earl. Her short hair, black as jet, shone when she passed the window. Despite the small purse her father had sent to take care of wardrobe requirements, a decent toilette had been acquired for Faith. Fortunately, she looked best in rather plain gowns, which cost so much less to have made up than fancy ones. There was a serious air about the girl that made ribbons and furbelows ineligible.

Lady Lynne reached eagerly for the newspaper and explained to her niece, “I read it for Mam’selle Ondit’s gossip column, my dear, like all the ladies. Mam’selle never misses a beat. Mind you, the
Harbinger
is finding its way into all the more enlightened homes. The gentlemen read it, too, for the hard political and money news. They do say Guy Delamar is becoming the conscience of England.” She opened the paper at the gossip column and began to read avidly.

“Setting up in competition with William Cobbett,” Faith replied, and resumed her seat.

Her eyes roamed the tables for something more informative than the
Harbinger
, but saw only
La Belle Assemblée
. She glanced at her aunt, drew a deep breath, and looked at the clock. Four-thirty. Thomas wouldn’t be coming now. What could have happened to him? He had missed more than one appointment during the past week. It was his business venture with Mr. Elwood that accounted for it, no doubt. She had no adverse thoughts on this matter. If there was a flaw in her beloved Thomas, it was his lack of a fortune, but the investment company he had instituted would overcome that. It appeared to be succeeding even beyond Thomas’s expectations. Hundreds of people wanted a share in it. Still, he might have let her know if he had a new investor to interview this afternoon.

But she could not be angry with him long. If it were not for Thomas, it would be back to the country for her, her one chance at winning a
parti
gone forever. Next year it would be Hope’s turn. With four daughters to be disposed of, Lord Westmore allowed them only one chance each. The Mordain daughters were all named for virtues and were encouraged to pay special allegiance to their own particular one. She would have faith in Thomas, then.

Something had come up at the last minute. Tonight he would explain everything, when he walked through the door, wearing his reckless smile and looking so handsome her heart would do somersaults in her chest. How had she had the great fortune to catch the interest of the handsomest man in London? He might have had anyone, but he had chosen her, she who had no particular beauty and only a small fortune.

Everyone had thought he would marry some undistinguished commoner with a fat dowry to allow him the carefree, dashing sort of life he favored, but there was an unexpected strength of character in him. “I shall bestow my name where I have already bestowed my heart,” he had said. And with luck in his business venture, he would bestow a fortune as well.

Her Aunt Lynne put down the paper and emitted a girlish giggle. “Listen to this, Faith. ‘The Honorable Margaret deVigne was lovely, as usual, in pink. No one likened her to a sow, which refutes the rumor that the English are uncharitable.’ Oh, my, what a vitriolic pen Mam’selle has.”

“I wonder if she’s really French,” Faith remarked idly.

“French? My dear, it is no secret that Delamar writes the column himself.
He
is Mam’selle Ondit.”

“How would a person like Delamar learn the on-dits of society?” she scoffed. “Why doesn’t he pick on the peccadilloes of his own class?”

“Why, he is accepted in the best saloons nowadays, though I have not had the pleasure of his acquaintance myself. Who would be interested to read that John Farmer or Tom Merchant had run off with his neighbor’s wife? That is not news, except to their few friends and neighbors, who probably cannot read in the first place. Mr. Delamar knows the value of his betters and writes of the aristocracy. They say he’s made a tidy fortune with this paper. I know I would never miss an issue.” Her eyes returned to the paper and soon a stifled shriek rose in her throat.

“What is it?”

“Listen to this, Faith. ‘Investors in the Anglo-Gold Investment Company are upset at the rumor that its founder, Lord Thomas Vane, is planning a protracted and highly secret visit abroad. This paper’s investigation shows that the Anglo-Gold Investment Company has not been registered, nor have shares been issued. More to follow.’ I gave Thomas five thousand guineas to buy me shares! He means to take the money and run.”

Faith looked at her aunt’s face, which had turned snow white. In that white mask, her aunt’s brown eyes flashed in horror, and she clutched the paper nervously in her fingers.

Faith also showed signs of severe agitation. Her eyebrows rose an eighth of an inch and she said firmly. “That’s ridiculous! Thomas wouldn’t do such a thing.”

“He’s been acting very havey-cavey ever since he took up with that Elwood fellow. Twice this week he missed an appointment. Before today, I mean.”

“And both times he was busy with his investors,” Faith reminded her.

“What shall I do? I’m sending Basset straight off with a note to Thomas.”

In her distracted state, she went after the butler, then returned to pick up the paper and read the item again. “It’s true, I know it’s true. I feel it in my bones. I never did trust Thomas Vane above half. Five thousand pounds! I am ruined!” This was a gross exaggeration, but the loss of five thousand pounds would certainly require a few unpleasant stringencies in the comfortable Lynne household.

“Auntie, calm yourself. You can’t take the word of that horrid old paper. Thomas would never do such a thing. It is a cur’s trick to increase the paper’s circulation. There is nothing Delamar wouldn’t sink to.”

“Delamar is always right, Faith,” her aunt countered. “They call him the Bloodhound of Fleet Street. I’m going to see him. He wouldn’t dare print an item like this without some proof.”

“Wait till Basset returns. It is all a hum, you’ll see.”

“Get your bonnet and pelisse. I’m calling for the carriage, and when Basset returns, we shall go to the office of the
Harbinger
. I’ll have my money back from Vane if I have to beat it out of him with my bare hands.”

Faith didn’t stir a finger. She sat calmly waiting for Basset’s return while her aunt had their bonnets and pelisses brought down. At least she looked calm, though even a lady trained in the virtue of faith was prey to one little doubt. It was close to half an hour before Basset entered. He wore a long face and came in shaking his head.

“His lordship’s flat is empty. I hammered at the door for five minutes and then asked around at other flats. Nobody’s seen him since this morning. Lord Thomas left with a trunk.”

“Impossible!” Faith said bravely, but her heart trembled within her. Had she lost Thomas, then? She had felt from the beginning that her luck was too good to be true—that Thomas was too good to be true, and much too good for her.

Lady Lynne gave her niece a hard, accusing glare, though it was she who had pushed this match forward. She set Faith’s bonnet on her head and handed her her pelisse. “I told you so!” she said, and strode angrily out the door.

Neither lady spoke much as the carriage drove them to the Strand, eastward toward Fleet Street. Though Lady Faith found much to admire in Samuel Johnson, she could not agree with him that Fleet Street was the most cheerful scene in the world; it was only the noisiest and the busiest. It was the highway from Charing Cross to St. Paul’s and was full of traffic, wagons and pedestrians as well as coaches. On the sidewalk, men streamed in and out of taverns and coffeehouses and browsed at bookstalls. Boys no older than eleven or twelve were in abundance, looking remarkably black of face and hands. The carriage slowed down at Printing House Square, a handsome building fronted with iron palings.

“Is it possible Mr. Delamar has amassed such a vast fortune from his rag that he works here?” Faith asked.

“Widgeon! That is where Mr. Walters puts out the
Times
,” her aunt said.

Their driver only stopped to inquire for directions, then turned into a back alley where the buildings were much less grand. The
Harbinger
sign was blazoned in white on black paint across a row of low, wooden buildings. Lady Faith felt it was no place for ladies to venture, but her aunt was adamant.

They lifted up their skirts to avoid the dusty clutter of the road and went to the door. The first sight that greeted them inside was a sign proclaiming
ADVERTISING OFFICE.
The door was closed and no light shone within. The dim shadows suggested that the building was empty. One of those extremely dirty boys seen in the street came flying through the front door and gave them a saucy look.

“Who are you looking for, ladies?” he chirped.

“We would like a word with Mr. Delamar,” Lady Lynne informed him. “Where is everyone? And why are you as black as the ace of spades, lad? Go and wash yourself.”

“This paint don’t come off. It’s ink. I’m a printer’s devil!” he said proudly. “The rag’s put to bed. There won’t be no one here till tomorrow morning. Just let me run up and see if Guy’s still in his flat.”

He ran off to the rear of the office, turned, and disappeared. They heard the echo of his little feet flying up the stairs. Soon he came back to invite them up to see Mr. Delamar. It was necessary to lift their skirts once more, for the narrow, wooden staircase wore no carpeting save dust.

“It’s strange Mr. Delamar lives in a hovel when he has reputedly made his fortune,” Faith mentioned.

Her aunt pulled in her lips and said, “I begin to wonder if the stories of his success haven’t been exaggerated.”

Mr. Delamar’s living in such squalor gave both ladies the courage to take high ground with him. They tapped at a derelict wooden door, and another of those ebony boys admitted them. The chamber they entered was no better than the rest. A brown horsehair sofa was the main furnishing. The presence on it of a pillow and blankets indicated that it served as not only sofa but bed. An undistinguished desk littered with papers, a chair, and lamps completed the furnishings. The windows bore no draperies, only a coat of grime.

“Have a seat. Guy’ll be out as soon as he’s finished shaving,” the boy said.

They looked at the sofa and elected to remain standing. From the rear of the flat, a sound of whistling carried easily to their ears. Soon the echo of a razor being stropped followed it, then water running and other indications that Mr. Delamar was making a leisurely toilette. Lady Lynne was not a patient woman, and when two minutes had passed, she walked to the near end of the corridor, raised her voice, and called imperiously, “We are waiting for you, Mr. Delamar.”

“I’ll be with you in a minute. Help yourself to a glass of wine,” he called back in a deep, authoritative voice.

Lady Lynne ignored the offer but said sotto voce to her niece, “At least he
sounds
like a gentleman.”

“A pity he doesn’t act like one,” Faith snipped.

Whatever his social status, Lady Lynne had to acknowledge that Mr. Delamar was certainly extremely striking when she first clamped a lustful eye on him. She was partial to handsome gentlemen of all ages, and the detail of Delamar’s being at least a decade younger than her own forty years in no way invalidated him as a potential flirt. He had an air of
diablerie
that she soon interpreted as a preference for older ladies. She quickly assessed the elegant jacket that fit his body like paper on a wall, and while it was not the work of London’s premier tailor, Weston, it was not from the hand of the outlandish Stutz either. Scott, she thought, was responsible for the jacket. But who or what was responsible for Mr. Delamar—that dashing, angry, savagely handsome man who stared down a generous nose at her from a pair of topaz tiger’s eyes? He took a step forward, strengthening the first impression of a tiger.

BOOK: Love's Harbinger
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