Authors: Mischief on Albemarle
by Vivian Roycroft
Published by Astraea Press
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.
MISCHIEF ON ALBERMARLE
Copyright © 2013 VIVIAN ROYCROFT
Cover Art Designed by For the Muse Designs
This one's for Mama. Mamaaaaa…
The right man refuses to admit he
s wrong. Until he does, the wrongest man in London is rather charming.
Mischief on Albemarle
Love in Napoleon’s War
A Different Sort of Perfect
The Scoundrel of Mayfair
Scandal on Half Moon Street
Monday, March 15, 1813
Golden hair, brilliant as the noontime sunshine, glowed in the light spilling through the coffee house window. A fringe of distracting curls peeked from beneath the rose-endowed bonnet, framing the owner's enchanting face, sensuous and appealing as springtime. Anne Kirkhoven, now Mrs. Frederick Shaw, seemed none the worse for her marital adventure as she breathed in the steam rising from her poised cup. Her eyes flickered open, as if she sensed his gaze through the window, and when she glanced up into his stare, over her new husband's shoulder, no surprise showed in her expression, only warmth and secretive delight. Of course she'd associate the coffee house with him.
Or at least, with his hunt of her.
Tasty little morsel that she'd been.
Another game completed. Another wonderful, beautiful woman whose dream had come true. Ernst Anton Oldenburg, His Grace, the Duke of Cumberland, dropped a wink through the coffee house window and strolled with the fashionable promenade into the Strand. He'd done what he could for sweet Anne.
And so it was time for his next target.
Who should be slamming out of the Olympic Theater any moment now. And yes… there she was, just ahead, near the corner with Wych Street, her scarlet pelisse askew and flaring to either side like a billowing flame. With grinning, red-faced Finian Fitzwilliam on her heels.
Just as he should be.
When His Grace had first seen Beryl Wentworth, he'd thought her a little slip of a waif with enormous eyes and copper curls. Now that he'd done his homework, he'd modified his opinion: she was a little slip of a waif with enormous eyes, copper curls, and a flaming temper to match. In the weeks he'd been observing the pseudo-couple of Miss Beryl and Mr. Fitzwilliam, they hadn't yet enjoyed an entire entertainment of any variety without a violent emotional tempest exploding between them. Like the sun rising in the east and falling in the west, one could set a clock by their societal
His Grace slipped into position behind them, stretching his longer legs to match her furious pace as she stalked across Holywell, heedless of the cursing from a curricle's driver as he hauled his matched Hackneys to a slithering stop. No need to get close; neither elegant combatant chose to modify their raised voices, and a number of merchants and walkers along the Strand turned and stared at their onrushing rampage as she led them past the church's pilastered and niched southern side.
"I can't believe you compared that horrid wig to Violetta's curls. They're nothing like and you know it." Deft hands straightened the scarlet pelisse's fur collar without slowing. The hemline seemed glued to Fitzwilliam's brown trousers by the winds of her passage.
"They're much like and any honest person will back the opinion, sure as I'm standing. Or walking. Same shape, same size, same ridiculous sausageyness—"
"Ooo-oh!" She whirled on Fitzwilliam, bringing their little caravan to a halt in the middle of the narrow, busy sidewalk and jabbing one exquisite finger into his cravat. With her outerwear, copper curls, and sparks flying from her eyes, she looked like a torch, flaring brightly, among the ordinary townspeople edging around their little scene. "That was a comedic wig, designed to look ridiculous. Violetta's curls weren't. She's very proud of her appearance—"
"Well, perhaps she shouldn't be, elegant lass though she be—"
The clear choice His Grace faced was to walk past their combat zone or pause and not even pretend to not notice them. No need to consider, really. His choice was not the most polite, perhaps, but far more entertaining than the alternative.
"—and perhaps you shouldn't be such an outrageous, opinionated boor—"
"—and perhaps Miss de Lisle should find a new abigail—"
"—I cannot believe you would so wantonly injure her in such an unfeeling manner—"
"—or at least look through a few more fashion plates; surely she'll find a more appealing hairstyle if she just tries, all sorts of other ladies do—"
Both of them seemed to become aware of his looming, listening, vastly entertained presence at the same moment. Fitzwilliam glanced up with a scowl. Miss Beryl's eyes widened even further, huge glistening green pools a man could swim in and never need to come up for air. For a fraction of a second she seemed nonplussed.
Then her glance cut sideways to Fitzwilliam's red face. His intensely scowling red face. Just for a moment. And then she flashed
a smile and dipped a curtsey.
Brilliant. She knew how the game should be played.
"Good day, your grace."
"Miss Beryl, good day." He bowed over her hand, breathed gently onto the underside of her wrist, and let his fingers trail through hers as she shivered deliciously and withdrew. "It's been far too long. Was it Lady Baldwin's soiree?"
Another flashing smile, accompanied by a delighted dimple. "That was only last week."
"Indeed yes. Far, far too long a time." He'd maneuvered for the introduction between the Baldwin niece's Italian aria and her accomplished, intricate performance on the floor harp. Of course, Lady Baldwin had been too busy talking up her niece to oblige, but adorable Lady Gower, her predatorial eyes glittering with a hope of scandal, had been only too happy. And then she'd stood nearby, watching his performance as he'd charmed Miss Beryl, with more attention than she'd given sweet Miss Baldwin's. "It seems we never meet, certainly not sufficiently often. Forward rogue that I am, might I inquire as to your social schedule? There's the Holly Hall dinner tonight, the Kirkhoven card party—" not that he'd be invited to that one "—the public assembly tomorrow night at the Hanover Square Rooms—"
"I'll be with a party at the assembly rooms." Her voice was breathy, eager, tantalizing. She didn't glance aside again, instead leaning forward, toward
. Those huge eyes widened even more, their dark centers expanding and driving out the green. Oh, yes, a man could get lost in those eyes. Well, some men.
Miss Beryl promised to be the most intriguing of targets. And tasty wouldn't begin to describe her.
She was all but begging for the obvious question. So of course—
One afternoon. That was all she wanted. One afternoon spent with Fitz and their friends, without an argument breaking out between them.
It seemed Beryl's desire was more than the universe was willing to grant.
Fitz. Delightful, enchanting, fun-loving Fitz. Frustrating, irritating man that he was.
She loved his trick of looking at her sideways, with his head turned away and one eyebrow cocked to the same angle as his hat, his clear green eyes sparkling with mischief and his mouth twisted into a wry grin. The way sunlight tangled with his chestnut curls and highlighted the planes of his forehead and cheeks. His playfulness, boisterous as a winsome child and graceful as the most polished of dancers. The gleam in his eye before he laughed.
And if she could stop the train of events with his laugh, she'd do it. Anything in her power that could be sacrificed would be fair game.
Because after his laugh faded away came the teasing. And oh, Fitz's teasing! Once upon a time she'd found his words amusing and responded in kind, but that had been childish and she'd set aside childish ways when she'd matured. Now, the teasing didn't delight her, but only infuriated. Because the gentle verbal prodding circled about her tightening, coiling soul. It became more forceful, more dry and cutting, the longer she held her temper. It only ceased when she snapped.
And an argument began.
It never failed. No matter how formal the occasion, no matter the rank of the guests present, once his sense of humor had been tickled, Fitz always pressed her beyond forbearance. And when she ripped at him in turn, he always acted surprised, as if he'd had no idea how monstrous had been his behavior. And he never let the argument go, never cried for peace nor apologized nor admitted to any fault.
She could only assume that Fitz loved to argue. No matter how much she hated it. No matter how many times she stalked away from him, swearing she'd never see him again. Because doubtless he knew that, when he came by the next day for tea or a talk, she'd relent and let him in.
Because she loved him. No matter how blind, unfeeling, childish, and ridiculous his behavior. She loved him.
No matter that he did not love her.
One time at Almack's she'd gotten dust in her eyes and he'd loaned her his embroidered handkerchief to staunch the stubborn, emotionless tears flowing down her cheeks. She'd never returned it, and never would, even if he ever remembered to ask for it. Now when she wept, her tears had a cause, a
, and the handkerchief of the man responsible for her distress absorbed them.
The loss of a fine linen handkerchief, embroidered with the Fitzwilliam crowned helmet, seemed a reasonable price to exact for his tawdry behavior.
And in the meantime, out on the crowded sidewalk of the Strand—
She'd widened her eyes until it seemed logical they'd stick that way, begging for the question (
) with every ounce of her being. Unlike the boor standing at her shoulder, this charming Duke of Cumberland, this gallant and utterly wrong rake, knew precisely what a woman wanted. And while nobody could ever take Fitz's place in her heart, perhaps His Grace would help Fitz realize what that place should be.
And if not, perhaps she'd at least have a delightful evening. Just this once.
Was it too much to ask for the unfeeling universe to grant
The sidewalk and street seemed to stand still around them. Sounds faded away, even the dreary clop-clop-clop of the iron monger's old cart horse, hauling a load out from the shop's courtyard. If ever the environs of Mayfair could be said to stop for a deep, hopeful breath, it did at that moment.
And His Grace's lips turned up, just at the very tips. The gleam in his pale blue eyes brightened and turned mischievous. "If you'll be there, then I have no compunction whatsoever against requesting your bewitching hand for the first two dances."
Beryl restrained the exultant squeal. But it surely cost her something ruptured inside. "How delightful! Indeed, yes." Lady de Lisle would suffer an apoplexy. Couldn't be helped, and she couldn't resist another sideways glance.
A strange, mottled shade of brick had worked its way up from Fitz's perfectly tied cravat and vanished beneath his hat.
There. That would show him she'd not put up with his trifling any longer.
The heat in Fitz's face threatened to explode out his ears.
A ruddy, flaming
Cumberland. The rakehell from the nether regions. No less.
And she accepted his hand. For two dances. She actually meant to dance with him. In public. In front of everyone, their entire set, their friends, their enemies. In front of God Himself. With eager delight she'd accepted, the silly girl, as if the mumping miscreant was actually flattering her with the request.
What on earth was the wretched wench thinking? She could have enjoyed those dances with
, her childhood friend, the man who'd never let her down and never would, the one who'd always found fun in every entertainment. Who'd never left her bored. No matter how much she might enjoy a little boredom occasionally. Silly idea. As his old Latin professor would say,
She wouldn't. Enjoy boredom, that is. Not Beryl. As for dancing with a duke—
She had to be trotting Cumberland around Rotten Row for a bit of fun. Playing them both for fools. Leading the swine along like a goose on a string.
Not leading him toward the altar.
again. Not Beryl.
And then the ruddy, flaming duke lifted his gaze over Beryl's shoulder. He'd finally noticed the third person in the group. See, he wasn't the brightest scholar in the gymnasium, no matter his rank. Just a male, titled perhaps, wealthy certainly, but not anyone worth fawning over.
The little smile faded from Cumberland's lips. The eager keenness in his eyes stilled. Replaced by—
Nobody had the right to look at
, the second son of the Fourth Earl Fitzwilliam, Ireland's finest export, Cambridge graduate and casual man of elegance about town, in such a condescending manner.
And what the devil was Beryl smiling about? She'd no reason for wearing a smile of such devilish satisfaction. None.
That sun was getting downright
. It certainly didn't feel like April. Not April Grantholm, of course, he'd no idea how
"Miss Beryl." Cumberland's voice was dry, drier than Saharan sand. "Will you introduce your… companion?"
Her smile widened, actually widened, as if she found the entire fornicating situation to be some sort of insipid dream come true. "Your grace, allow me to present Finian Gerard Fitzwilliam, of the Donegal and South Yorkshire family." When she turned to Fitz, her smile twisted a bit. "And Fitz, of course you already know…" the pause was infinitesimal "…
His Grace, the Duke of Cumberland." She batted her eyelashes in the most provoking manner. "Some say a foreign prince."
Chattering chit. "Well, you shouldn't believe everything you hear." But introductions were sacrosanct. Fitz gave the briefest bow he dared.
Cumberland only dipped his chin. Arrogant booby.
Her smile softened as Beryl turned it toward Cumberland, softened into something charming. Was she…
"I don't." Her voice edged down into a breathy whisper.
Beryl was flirting with the most outrageous rake in the
. With the man who'd singlehandedly ruined more females than any self-respecting male had any right to aspire to. When Fitz delivered her back to Albemarle, he'd shake some sense into her.
As for Cumberland…
"Indeed not." The duke's voice dropped, too, in his case an octave. And if her smile was charming, his was charmed. But again he glanced at Fitz, and again his expression twisted into blatant condescension. "I look forward to our acquaintance."
Again dry. As if addressing some fleecing fool silly enough to challenge a Continental warrior to a duel. It was the first thing Cumberland had said that Fitz utterly believed.
There are twists in conversations, moments when a listener realizes that what he's been hearing isn't what the other conversants were saying. Fitz's blood pounded in his ears. The brilliant sunshine scorched his face. He, the Cambridge graduate and casual man of elegance about town, had been duped. He'd stood there listening to what he'd thought was an accidental chit-chat. But it couldn't be. It was too neat, too well organized. Cumberland had planned this. Perhaps he'd followed their party's carriages from Beryl's home, their gathering place, on Albemarle Street. No matter how he'd done it, he'd arranged his steps to "accidentally" run into Beryl.
Which meant he was planning an assignation. With Beryl. Something far more intimate than an accidental chit-chat in the middle of the Strand. And she was racing, with that charming smile, straight into Cumberland's ambush.
Fitz had to save her before she did something beyond stupid.
As soon as the rascal left, strolling down the Strand and vanishing into the crowd, Fitz whirled on her. "What the devil do you think you're doing?"
She had the grace to redden, even as her eyes widened. "Precisely what do you mean by that?"
"Have you forgotten your cousin Dorcas? Or Anne Kirkhoven? The baron's daughter, the one Cumberland ruined, the one who's now married to a barrister and no longer invited to all the elegant events?"
Her face stiffened. All lingering traces of charm and laughter vanished from her eyes and lips. "Except, of course, for Lady Kringles' entertainments and weekly literary salons. That barrister is a thoroughly respected author—"
"—of trifling novels, yes. How about Lydia Townshend? He toyed with her and she vanished from London. Utterly vanished, d'you hear?" She tried to interrupt; he plowed over her spluttering attempt. "Don't repeat that rumor about her marrying a civil servant and sailing away, happy and carefree, to India. You and I both know her parents wouldn't have stood for it."
He paused. Beryl had drawn herself up to her full petite height. Her forehead barely reached the level of his chin; not a threat he needed to take seriously. Yet still, the way she glared at him, as if the entire ugly situation were his fault and not her own silly naïveté, contributed to a strong suggestion that he needed to take a step in reverse.
This wasn't going the way it should have.
"Are you actually suggesting that I would allow myself to be compromised in such a manner?" The whisper she aimed at him couldn't be called breathy and flirtatious by the most optimistic of fools.
actually suggesting you're going to dance with the most atrocious rakehell in Mayfair?"
Her eyes flashed. With pure delight.
suggesting it. No, she had every intention of fulfilling Cumberland's request.
Every intention. Of making a display of herself in the Hanover Square assembly rooms.
And all he could do was be there, to do — whatever little she allowed. Perhaps she'd come to her senses and let him protect her, as he'd done since their childhood together. Perhaps all he'd be able to manage would be the witnessing of her social downfall, helpless to intervene.
"So be it."
He'd walk back home. To his home, not hers. The exercise would help him sort this through. But his first step entangled him with a bystander. No, buff and red livery, dancing aside away from his path. It was Paul, Beryl's personal groom-footman-factotum, assigned to keep an eye on her by a father worried about his boisterous daughter. Well, as it proved, he had every reason.
Fitz dodged Paul and stalked off. There had to be something he could do. He just had to think about this.