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Authors: M.C. Beaton,Marion Chesney

Tags: #Historical romance

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“Indeed!” said the earl, startled at the common expression which had dropped so gently from Miss Emily’s pink lips.

Rainbird passed with a tray of glasses of champagne. Emily put her empty glass on the tray, took a full one, and drained it in one gulp. “I was very thirsty,” she said apologetically, remembering too late she was supposed to sip it.

“It is a problem finding a genuine French chef,” said the earl. “So many of them claim to be French who have never been south of Dover.”

“MacGregor, the cook, is Scotch,” said Emily, “but a real treasure and not a bale of flat cater traes. I mean,” she explained with a deep blush, “that he is genuinely a good chef and not …”

“Like false dice,” said the earl, completing her explanation. “I am well versed in cant, Miss Goodenough, but I am surprised that
you
are so well acquainted with it. Do you plan to bring it into fashion?”

Emily took a deep breath and decided to lie. She was already acting a lie. What would one more falsehood matter?

“You must forgive me, my lord,” she said. “English is not my first language.”

She looked up into his eyes as she spoke and saw little imps of mischief dancing in them as those blue eyes of his looked down into her own.

“You are fortunate, Miss Goodenough,” said the earl, “for I speak many foreign languages. In which one would you like to converse?”

Emily looked at him miserably wondering what to say, but she was saved by Rainbird, who threw open the door to the front parlour and began to announce new arrivals.

They came in droves, pushing and shoving to get in, apologising for being late, the ladies lisping and cooing and the men bowing, waving lace handkerchiefs, and flicking little snuff-boxes open.

The earl backed away as Emily was surrounded by eager and curious London society.

Emily found she was not expected to say anything but merely to listen and smile. Joseph’s jaunty music continued to liven the rooms of the thin house, which was slowly being crammed with people.

The earl caught Fitz’s eye and signalled they should take their leave. Emily had retreated to her throne and was holding court as men and women clustered around her. Then, just as the earl was edging his way through the press to make his farewells, one excitable young miss waved her glass in the air and half the contents went over Emily’s gown and the other half on the breeches on Lord Agnesby, an elderly fop who was standing next to Emily.

Emily dabbed at the spilled champagne on her gown with a handkerchief and said mournfully in her clear, carrying voice, “Dear me, I am soaked through to my dicky.” There was a startled, shocked silence, for to refer to one’s petticoat as a dicky was to use the lowest possible form of slang.

Trying to cover up her obvious gaffe, Emily made matters worse by turning to Lord Agnesby and saying, “I trust your breeches are not ruined.”

There was an indrawn hiss.
No
lady ever let that word “breeches” fall from her lips. She might coyly refer to them as inexpressibles but never by any other name.

Emily’s social future hung in the balance.

Then into the silence came the Earl of Fleetwood’s pleasant husky voice. “Your Royal Highness,” he began. Then he started and appeared to collect himself. “I beg your pardon, I mean Miss Goodenough. Mr. Fitzgerald and I wish to thank you for a handsome entertainment. I shall call on Your … on you tomorrow in the hope I can persuade you to come driving with me.”

There was a little excited fluttering and whispering about him. One young lady hissed excitedly to her friend, “I
told
you she was a princess. After all, our dear Princess Charlotte talks as if she had lived all her life in a stable!”

The earl and Fitz bowed and withdrew. It took them quite ten minutes to fight their way out.

“Whew!” said Fitz, mopping his brow after they had walked a little way away from the house. “You saved her. You certainly saved her. What an angel, but what language! Who do you think she really is?”

“I don’t know,” said the earl thoughtfully. “But I mean to find out!”

Emily thought her guests would never leave. She smiled until her face felt stiff. She was deeply grateful to Mrs. Middleton, who, enlivened by several glasses of champagne, was talking away with great panache, and fielding all the questions thrown at Emily like a social expert.

Emily managed to murmur to Rainbird that she was anxious for the evening to be over.

Rainbird retired to the back parlour, told Joseph to stop playing, and the sulky orchestra that it might resume its labours.

The orchestra began where it had left off with that dreary pavane. As steady as a dead march, the measured notes fell on the guests’ ears.

It is only the right music that can soothe the savage breast and lie sweetly on the spirit. The orchestra’s selection was like a death’s head—slow and mournful notes to remind society of the futility of life and the instability of the spleen.

At first they began to leave in ones and twos and then in great groups. There were a few gentlemen who seemed determined to worship at the shrine of Emily’s beauty forever, but when Rainbird stopped passing around with glasses of wine and champagne, it occurred to them that the night was still young and that Emily could be worshipped just as easily on the morrow. Soon the last carriage had rolled off down Clarges Street.

Emily and Mr. Goodenough retired to a corner of the dining room upstairs and left the servants to clear up the mess, Emily wondering if she would ever get used to being waited on.

“Well, that went very well, my dear,” said Mr. Goodenough. “But it might have turned out to be a disaster had not the Earl of Fleetwood stepped in. You do have an awful tongue, Emily. And you should have warned me you meant to pass yourself off as a princess.”

“I know,” said Emily. “I should be grateful to Fleetwood, but there is something about that man which frightens me. I sometimes suspect he knows exactly who I am and is laughing at me, and, yes, laughing at society at the same time for being such fools as to believe my story.”

“You cannot hope to marry an earl,” said Mr. Goode-nough with a little sigh. “It is not likely you will see him again. He did not seem very much interested in you and only stayed for a little.”

“Why cannot I marry an earl?” asked Emily curiously, although she herself had never thought such a thing possible. “When we first hit on this plan for a Season in London, you said I could marry a duke.”

“We are dreamers,” said Mr. Goodenough. “But even dreamers such as we must face reality. It is not just because Fleetwood is an earl, it is because he is a very
rich
earl. Should, say, he propose to you, then I should be confronted by a battery of his lawyers, all firing questions at me, talking about marriage settlements, and demanding particulars of your ancestry. No, no. A poor gentleman—well, not too well-heeled—is what you require. A poor gentleman’s lawyers, if he can afford any, are not going to disaffect a good parti with probing questions.”

“Then it is as well Fleetwood does not interest me.” Emily laughed. “What is this business about this house being unlucky?”

“Ah, we should have known there was a reason for the low rent. I gathered from various guests that all sorts of frightening things have gone on under this roof: a beautiful girl murdered, her murderer unmasked while trying to kill one of the tenants, a family ruined, and even a dreadful suicide.”

“What was the dreadful suicide?” asked Emily faintly.

“That of the former Duke of Pelham.”

“Merciful heavens! I am surprised anyone dared to call!”

“Oh, they felt the bad luck only applied to those who live here. I do not believe in such stuff and nonsense. Do you?”

“No,” said Emily stoutly.

But when she went to bed that night, she asked Joseph to light the way upstairs, and lay awake for quite a long time, watching the patterns made by the rushlight on the ceiling, and remembering that mischievous mocking look in the earl’s eyes.

“Trouble is coming,” thought Emily with a shiver. “I can feel it!”

Chapter
Six
 

Come to our fête, and bring with thee
Thy newest, best embroidery!
Come to our fête, and show again
That pea-green coat, thou pink of men!
Which charmed all eyes, that last surveyed it;
When Brummel’s self inquired “who made it?”

—Thomas Moore

 

“And how was your drive in the Park with the fair princess?” asked Fitz the following evening as both gentlemen with their bicornes and canes tucked under their arms made their way to the opera.

“I did not have an opportunity to take Miss Goodenough driving. Her drawing room was packed with curious society, all content to stare at her as if she were a freak at Bartholomew Fair. I presented my compliments, promised to call again when I should find her not so besieged, and took my leave,” said the earl.

“She must be enjoying all the attention.”

“Not she,” said the earl, tossing a coin to a crossing sweeper. “She remained calm and stately, but at the back of her eyes was a flicker of fear. Our princess is not only not a princess but, I should think, of quite common clay. That uncle of hers looks as if he should be a servant rather than a gentleman.”

“Come now! You are too harsh. I found Mr. Goodenough very gentlemanly.”

“But there is a deference there, a whole attitude of
service
. It is hard to explain.”

“Perhaps Miss Goodenough
is
a princess. That would explain her unease and her odd English.”

“She did try to tell me English was not her first language. I do not believe it. Now, our young ladies of the ton affect to be shy and timid and to have excessive sensibility, but you can tell from their eyes that they know their station in life and know what is due to them. This afternoon, I intercepted several glances cast by the fair Emily in the direction of her butler, glances of appeal between equals. Yes, I think I shall find Miss Goodenough is an adventuress.”

“Is that such a terrible crime? Society abounds with opportunists, and most of them not half so pretty.”

“Not a crime in my eyes, unless she proves to be a servant who has run off with her mistress’s dresses and jewels. Low origins are one thing, servants another. When Clarissa was found dead, that staff of mine tattled and gossiped fit to beat the band.”

“You must often wonder who actually killed your poor wife.”

The earl’s face wore a closed, hard look. Then he said, “Let us talk of better things. My book will be out next week. Do you think I shall be savaged in the
Edinburgh Review?”

“Only if you have pilloried the reviewer,” said Fitz.

Both men preferred to be unfashionable and walk to Covent Garden, neither seeing the point in spending hours in a crush of carriages, waiting to be set down outside the opera house.

On their arrival, they found that the famous Catalini, who was billed to sing that evening, was unwell and had been replaced by a minor diva.

“There will be so much noise,” said the earl, “it is hardly worthwhile going in.”

“What an odd creature you are!” said Fitz with a laugh. “You must be the only person in London who goes to the opera to hear the music. Everyone else goes to be seen. Come along. I have this new coat which has not yet had a chance to stun society.”

“If your shoulders become more padded and your collars any higher,” said the earl drily, “they will begin to take you for a headless man. Besides, a noisy opera house always generates heat, and heat makes your rouge melt.”

“I have a becoming colour,” said Fitz stiffly.

“You are not going to tell me that noisy sunset across your cheeks is your own!”

“It is helped a little, that is all.”

“My dear friend, I can dimly remember the days when you were well-scrubbed. Your face is not pock-marked, nor is it sallow. Why the desire to wear so much paint?”

But Fitz could not explain. Since his injury had left him feeling like half a man, he had become a peacock. The pain in his back seemed bearable when he was dressed in the extremes of fashion, as if the mask of fashion briefly turned him into someone else.

The opera house was already crowded when they entered. The prostitutes were doing a roaring trade in the centre boxes, and the bucks in the pit were buying oranges to hurl at Catalini’s substitute.

“There is your princess,” said Fitz.

Emily sat in a side box, with Mrs. Middleton beside her and Mr. Goodenough dozing in a chair at the back. People began to enter her box and soon she was blocked from their view.

“Poor girl,” said Fitz. “She is still society’s latest interest. Can she stand the pace, think you?”

“She is very young,” said the earl. “She has, despite her coarse speech, a great amount of sensibility. I should think she is already under a great strain.”

“The days of knight-errantry are gone,” said Fitz, shaking his head. “We should create a diversion, something that will make society focus on something else.”

The orchestra struck the opening chords of the overture to the opera. The crowd about Emily left. She sat there, in the blazing light cast by the huge overhead chandelier, her face very white, her hands shredding a handkerchief in her lap.

BOOK: The Adventuress: HFTS5
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