Authors: Amelia Grey
Copyright © 2010, 2001 by Gloria Dale Skinner
Cover and internal design © 2010 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Andrea Ho
Cover photography © Claudio Marinesco
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Originally published in 2001 by The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., New York
Will This Be the Year?
Another Season opens and the patient Miss Mirabella Whittingham begins one more year waiting for her long-absent fiancé to return. One would hope that Viscount Stonehurst would appear this year to claim his bride. Hmm. Lord Stonehurst certainly knows how to keep everyone in the
Society’s Daily Column
“Mirabella, what’s this I hear about you being
free with your affections?”
Mirabella Whittingham froze at the sound of her uncle’s voice. Heaven have mercy, she was caught. And she’d bet the amethyst earrings she wore that Sir Patrick Stephenson was the young gentleman who’d given her away.
She forced herself to remain calm and formulated a plan to pretend she had no idea what Uncle Archer was talking about. But as sure as she knew her name, she knew what he intended to say.
She wrinkled her nose and tried to come up with an expedient prevarication to explain her recent actions. Nothing coming to mind, she decided on the truth—at least part of it.
“Now, Uncle. I haven’t been free with my affections.” In fact, what she was doing would end up costing some young man a great deal when she was through with these London dandies. But her uncle didn’t need to know that. “I’ve only kissed one or two.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized
hadn’t been the way to go. Archer Hornbeck’s round face flamed red, and a telltale vein popped out on his wide forehead.
“Blue heavens, Mirabella. I can’t have your father or anyone else hear you say something like that, even in jest.”
Guilt pricked her. The last thing she wanted was her ill father to know what she was doing. At all costs, she wanted to keep her plans from him. If he found out, she’d never accomplish her goal.
Her uncle’s pale blue gaze darted across the empty dance floor, around the perimeter of the great hall and back to Mirabella. He touched her elbow and ushered her to a secluded corner of the brightly lit room. There was no dancing or music at the moment, but it was far from quiet at the party. Dowagers chattering, men chuckling and young ladies laughing behind fluttering fans filled the air around them.
Mirabella had to strain to hear her uncle’s whispered voice.
“I’m happy to be your escort while your father is ill, but I cannot allow this sort of behavior.”
Indeed Archer Hornbeck was her chaperone for the Season, but he wasn’t her true uncle. He had been her father’s friend since Mirabella was a little girl, and had insisted she call him uncle ever since.
He was looking to make a match for himself and often found reasons to excuse himself from her during parties so that he could dance with an eligible young lady or wealthy widow. No doubt her father would be furious to know Uncle Archer had not remained faithful to his duty, but right now it worked to her advantage that he was neglectful.
“I won’t have gossip about you making the rounds while you are in my care.” Pallor washed his face. “If your father should get wind of this, he would look to me for answers.”
“You are a sweet, dear man to worry so about me.” She reached out and gingerly patted his forearm.
Archer’s expression softened, and he sighed. He took her gloved hand and squeezed her fingers affectionately. Looking down into her eyes, he said, “I’ll do anything for you, my lovely Mirabella. That includes stopping scandalous talk. But you must do your part and stop this… this kissing.”
Mirabella hated putting him through such an ordeal, but she’d made her choice. She couldn’t stop now. Certainly not for fear of scandal. She had been an enigma in Society since she’d made her debut. She attended the parties and balls each Season, but she wasn’t eligible to make a match. She had been betrothed for six years to a man she had never met. A man who had made no attempt to marry her despite his promise.
“There’s no fear, Uncle. I’m sure the gossip will pass. It always does. Next week someone else will be on the tips of all the loose tongues.”
His thin lips widened into a forced smile. “I must insist that you don’t put yourself in a position to catch the attention of the gossipmongers. They can be fierce and unforgiving when given a reason. If any hint of this should hit the Society papers, you’ll be ruined. Not even marrying a duke would save you from their scorn.”
Mirabella kept a strained smile on her face, too, as she searched for the right thing to say this time. She hadn’t made her decision lightly, and she couldn’t make any promises. There were only five weeks left of the Season— five weeks in which to carry out her plan.
“You have no cause to fret about me, Uncle.” She slipped her hand from his. “This is my fourth and final London Season. By now, I know how these things work.”
“If that were the case, you wouldn’t allow yourself to be alone with a gentleman.”
“I have nothing in common with the young girls making their debuts each year, which is where all the attention will be. All of my friends have married and have babies to occupy their time.” She swallowed a sigh. “Given my unfortunate betrothal situation, I’ve come to accept my fate, so what does a little gossip matter?”
Uncle Archer opened his mouth to speak, but a bevy of young ladies suddenly rushed by them in a flurry of satin skirts. Mirabella noticed that a short, pretty blonde deliberately knocked his arm. When he looked at the young woman, the blonde smiled at him and winked before rushing away with the others. Archer watched her all the way down the corridor until she moved out of sight.
He cleared his throat and said, “There is no such thing as a little gossip. And of course you’ll marry someday.”
She was thoughtful a moment while she considered his words. “Perhaps when I’m old and gray,” she answered, stating almost verbatim what she’d overheard her fiancé say that day so long ago when she was listening outside her father’s library. She never saw Viscount Stonehurst’s face, but she would never forget the words he spoke.
“Nonsense. Your father told me he sent word to Earl Lockshaven stating that if his errant son doesn’t show his face by the last party of this Season he’ll consider the engagement broken, and the dowry will have to be repaid. You’ll be free to make a match with another young man.”
“Oh, Uncle, I am not a fanciful debutante anymore. Who will want me if the man I’m betrothed to won’t return to London and marry me? Everyone already looks at me as having been put on the shelf.”
“Pure rubbish, my dear girl. With your beauty and your father’s wealth any man would want to marry you.”
His words reminded her of Sarah and the reason she was having this conversation with her uncle. Her dear friend had had only a very small dowry, no beauty and no offers of marriage. Gentlemen had always confounded Mirabella. Why would they seek beauty and money when looking for a wife and ignore the kind of love and attention Sarah could have given? She would have been a devoted wife and loving mother.
Mirabella turned away from her uncle and looked at the crowd of people gaily dressed in their finest clothes milling about the great hall. Her fiancé perplexed her more than most. She could understand him rejecting her had they met and he had found her unsuitable. But he hadn’t broken the engagement, and he hadn’t come for her. She had not heard one word from him since he left London six years earlier.
“Should Lord Stonehurst ever return to London, I shall be forced to marry him to please my father, but if he continues to stay away as he pledged he would, I shall be happy to remain an old maid.”
“Blue heavens, girl. Your father would never allow you to remain unwed and neither would I. Not marry indeed.” Uncle Archer took hold of her upper arm, and she turned to look at him. “I am your father’s closest friend. I would marry you before I’d let you be an old spinster.” He smiled. “I would consider it an honor.”
“An obligation would be more like it. Even if I didn’t consider you family, I couldn’t take you away from the ladies who are fighting for your attention at all the parties we attend.”
“I would be foolish to contemplate a match with another woman if there were any chance I could have you.”
There was something too serious about his tone. She stepped away from him and said, “Enough of this talk, Uncle. I need a moment to collect my thoughts before the next dance. Would you please excuse me?”
His thick, gray eyebrows shot up, wrinkling his brow into a deep frown that settled his features in a questioning glare.
“Don’t worry. I shall behave,” Mirabella quickly said before he had the chance to protest further.
She didn’t tell him that she intended to collect her thoughts outside. She wanted to get away from the party, away from the people and the merriment that crackled in the ballroom. She wanted to feel the night air against her skin.
It was well past midnight when she slipped out the side door, having been stopped twice by young men who wanted to remind her that they were on her dance card. She took in a deep breath of air heavy with moisture. A full moon shone down on her from a velvet sky. Scattered mist lingered and wafted across the garden in front of her.
Mirabella gathered up the hem of her skirt and stepped onto the dew-covered lawn. She stayed on the stone walkway that split a lush garden. Her mind swirled with thoughts as she passed through a wooden gate and followed the footpath that led away from the house. Between patches of openings in the tall shrubs and blooming bushes that lined the edge of the road she could see horses and carriages. She heard snatches of muted conversations from the drivers who waited on nearby streets for their employers to call for them.
The smell of tobacco smoke and wet horse hair mingled with the fragrant scent of dampened foliage. Mirabella stayed well away from the wide hedgerow and, not wanting to be seen, stepped noiselessly onto the pebbled path.
Sarah should have been with her tonight. They should have been sharing whispered conversations about the cut of the young gentlemen’s hair, or the styles and colors of the young ladies’ dresses. Mirabella missed her.
Despite what her uncle had said, she was determined to find the man who had seduced Sarah and caused her death. And if kissing the dandies was the only way to get it done, so be it. As far as Mirabella was concerned, kissing was far overrated anyway. The pressing of dry lips upon hers left her cold and uninspired. She certainly hadn’t felt any of the warm, tingling feelings or breathless sensations she’d heard other young ladies whisper about in the retiring rooms.
Taking her time, Mirabella had carefully and accurately made a list of all the young bachelors Sarah had danced with more than once last Season who fit the description Mirabella had read in Sarah’s diary. That had been a wearisome task, which would have been impossible had Sarah not kept her dance cards that listed each gentleman. At any given party there were never more than two or three names written down.
One by one, Mirabella was allowing each young gentleman to take her into the garden for short interludes. While he kissed her, she would carefully brush her hand along his neck, letting her little finger quickly slip beneath his neckcloth in search of a wide, raised scar. That was the main clue she had to the despicable man’s identity. When she didn’t find the scar, she would just as quickly disentangle herself from the man and make her way back inside. The men rarely knew what had hit them since it happened so fast.
Perfunctory kissing had proven to be the only foolproof way Mirabella had come up with to get close enough to determine if a man had the scar. She had tried searching their necks while dancing, but it was impossible with the high collars and wide, fancy cravats and neckcloths covering the very area she needed to inspect.
Her plan had been progressing very well until tonight. All the young gentlemen she’d encouraged throughout the Season had been easy to manage. Some had even been polite and apologetic, but earlier in the evening Sir Patrick Stephenson had lived up to his brash reputation. After she determined he didn’t have a scar, he had refused to let go of her. She shuddered remembering how tightly he held her, laughing and forcing her to remain in his arms while he kissed her cheeks, her neck and behind her ear. She was sure she’d still be fighting off his advances if they hadn’t heard someone approaching the secluded garden nook where they stood.
She hadn’t decided on this course lightly. When the idea first came to her, she had rejected it completely. But she hadn’t been able to keep the possibility of it from drifting back into her mind. It had consumed her for more than two weeks before she’d made her decision to proceed. She’d labored over all the possible consequences. The price for success would be high.
Mirabella knew she would be talked about and possibly shunned if word got out, but she hadn’t expected the gossip to start so early in the Season. The truth was, she had never been known for agreeing with what Society thought was of the utmost importance: parties, beauty, the latest fashions and whom to marry. Not to mention one’s reputation. She grimaced at the thought. Her main concern was to keep her father from finding out what she was doing. She didn’t want to cause him undue distress in his weak condition.
But no matter, she had gone too far to turn back now. She had made it through the easy part of her list. The rest of the gentlemen would be more difficult if Sir Patrick Stephenson was any indication of how the older bachelors behaved. In future encounters she would be more careful.
The distant sound of carriage wheels clanking over rough ground caused Mirabella to stop and look around. With a start, she realized she’d been so deep in thought that she had made her way past the back garden and had ended up on the street behind the house. Rows of high town houses and tall shrubs lined each side of the road.
She was without her velvet pelisse and the damp nighttime air penetrated the thin layer of lavender skirt and shift she wore, making her shiver. Her satin party slippers were wet from the dew-soaked grass. Thankfully, her gloves covered her arms all the way up to the capped sleeves of her gown.