EXCERPT:

Chapter One

Queen’s Walk, Green Park, London, 1821

 

“He’s down there again.”

“Come away from the window, Diana. He might see you.” Helen eyed her sister as she arranged the cups and saucers over the table. “The sun’s shining directly on your hair. You’ll attract inappropriate attention.”

“I will, in a minute.”

Unable to resist a peek, Helen rose and joined Diana at the window. Down below, in the line of trees rimming the park, a man stood half in shadow. He stepped forward, and sunlight fell on his face. A chiaroscuro of light and shade delineated strong cheekbones, a chiseled chin, and a determined set to his shoulders before the shadows claimed him again.

Helen turned away, unwilling to give such a masculine figure another thought. “The tea will get cold.”

“I can’t see him. He must have gone.” Diana let the lace curtain fall back into place and joined her at the table. “Another man has just walked away down the path.”

“Were they together?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Helen finished buttering each scone and added strawberry preserve. She found small domestic tasks soothing, although Diana had accused her of using them to hide from the world. “Did you send the footman yesterday to inquire if the man needed assistance?”

“I did, but he’d vanished into the park before Jeremy reached the bottom of the garden.”

“Odd how he stands there alone for half an hour or more, a few yards from our back gate. He must be waiting for someone.”

Diana sat beside her on the threadbare crimson plush sofa. She took the thick white ceramic cup and saucer that was part of the schoolroom china and stirred in sugar. “If it was someone from Kinsey House, he would have inquired at the door.” She added a scone to her plate.

“If he comes again tomorrow, tell a servant to invite him down to the kitchen,” Helen said. “Some have fallen on hard times since the war. We mustn’t forget Father’s wish to care for the less fortunate.”

Diana chuckled. “He didn’t look hungry, not in fashionable clothes and Hessians, and he carried a brass-topped cane.”

“Then his business does not concern us.” Helen arranged the small triangles of sandwiches neatly on a plate.

Diana dabbed her mouth with her napkin. “He’s quite handsome.”
“Can you discern that from the schoolroom window? We are three flights above ground.” She’d thought the same. The cake knife poised to slice seed cake, she quickly dismissed an annoying flush of interest. It was merely him standing so still and intent when most strolled leisurely past along the Walk.

Helen offered Diana the plate, aware that her impulsive sister was about to indulge in one of her flights of fancy, some of which had led her into some awful scrapes in the past. “Your imagination is taking hold again. Next, you’ll be saying there are ghosts living in the attic.”

“Ghosts don’t live, silly. They metamorphose and float around.” Diana sipped her tea. “Perhaps I couldn’t see his face so well, but he is tall and broad-shouldered. At one point, he took off his hat and ran his fingers through his wavy dark hair.” She grinned. “It’s the reason I first noticed him.”

Helen smiled. “Perhaps he’s one of Papa’s classical scholars from Cambridge, composing a sonnet on wood nymphs. They’re a peculiar lot if you ask me.”

“But they all look pale and weedy, and he’s not at all—”

“Papa isn’t pale and weedy,” Helen interjected.

“But Papa is always away riding camels and visiting hot climes.” Diana gazed into space. “Perhaps this man is involved in a romantic liaison. And the lady has not kept her promise. She might have broken his heart.”

Helen shook her head and laughed. She envied her sister’s romantic view of the world. Helen’s view was more than a little suspicious. Men who did not behave as one might expect were deserving of suspicion.

Their lanky younger brother entered the doorway and crossed the worn patterned carpet stalked by a black cat. “Who’s broken whose heart?”

Diana shrugged. “It’s of no importance. Purely a hypothetical supposition.”

Helen dashed milk into a saucer and placed it on the floor. “Here, Plato.”

The cat graciously accepted the offering and lapped the milk with its pink tongue.

Toby perched on the old rocking horse. Gripping its moth-eaten mane, he rocked gently, his knees almost under his chin. “Ham sandwiches, cake, and scones? Good, I’m starving. Pour me some tea, would you, Helen?”

“Toby, would you like to play shuttlecock on the lawn tomorrow?” Diana brushed cake crumbs from her muslin skirt.

Dismounting, Toby sat down on the patched wing chair beside the low table. He piled his plate high with everything on offer. “We haven’t played for ages. Why now?”

“I have a yen for it,” Diana replied.

Toby’s freckled nose twitched, reminding Helen of one of those inquisitive red squirrels in the park. “I remember you saying it was unladylike to launch yourself around the grass after you’d turned seventeen, Diana.”

“Well, I’m eighteen in two weeks and much more mature. A lady can change her mind.”

“Tomorrow then. After breakfast.” He took the teacup and saucer from Helen. “I’ll have to make do with you for entertainment, I suppose, now that my Eton pals have gone off to the country.”

“Fool!”  Diana grinned, leaned across, and poked his arm. “Not after breakfast. Helen and I have an appointment with the dancing master and after that a French lesson. About three o’clock.”

Eyebrows lifted, Toby looked from Helen to Diana. “I suspect an ulterior motive.”

Diana dissected her cake with her fork. “We have little enough to do while Papa is engulfed in the depths of some Eastern library. He won’t return for weeks. And there’s a mystery to be solved.”

“A mystery?” Toby turned to Helen. “What’s afoot? Has Diana been reading one of Papa’s books on Ancient Greece?” He gave an exaggerated shudder. “Or, worse, Mama’s Gothic novels?”

“You’d best tell him, Diana.” Helen rose to add hot water to the brown china teapot from the decorative gold and white samovar their father had brought back from his travels in Russia.

Diana frowned. “As you well know, I don’t read Greek. That’s a privilege only available to you and Harry.”

“I doubt Harry is interested in ancient history while discovering the joys of Paris.” Toby wrinkled his nose again. “You can attend my lessons for me, anytime. Well? Are you going to tell me about this mystery or not?”

“It’s merely an instinct. There’s not much to tell.” Diana described the intriguing gentleman she’d been watching in the park. “This is the third time he’s been there.”

“I say!” Toby jumped up, rushed to the window, and threw up the sash. “No one down there now. Anyway, there are always people strolling the Queen’s Walk to the Queen’s Basin and back again. Queen Caroline had that reservoir built to provide water for St. James’s. She had the library erected too.”

“Heaven knows what will happen to them now. It’s said that the king wishes to divorce her,” Helen said.

“Well, the gentleman disappeared from the park some time ago. A good thing too.” Diana gave a huff of disgust. “You’re so mutton-headed you would have scared him off. You’d make a dreadful spy, I must say. But he’s the reason we need to be down there tomorrow. If he comes again, we can confront him.”

“What if he’s a thief working out how he can break in and rob us?”

“He’s not.”

“How do you know that?” Toby asked, his mouth full of ham sandwich.

“He’s too well dressed to be a thief.”

“Well, if he is a rook, I’ll plant him a facer!”

“My goodness, Toby. As if you could!” Helen said with a huff of dismay. “Your imagination is worse than Diana’s.”

The door opened, and the nanny came in, holding the hand of their young brother. “Here is Lord Alexander, Lady Helen. If you could just watch him for an hour until milady returns from the lending library.”

“Please give our best wishes to your mother, Miss Prince,” Helen said. “I hope you find her in better health.”

When Diana and Toby added their best wishes to Helen’s, Miss Prince smiled. “Thank you. I must hurry or I’ll have little time to spend with Mother. And I plan to buy her some of those wonderful scotch eggs Fortnum and Masons make.”

As the door closed, Helen opened her arms. With a joyful cry, the chubby four-year-old boy climbed into her lap. She stroked his copper curls as he struggled to reach the food on the table. “You may have a sandwich and a slice of cake, Zander. I’ll be in trouble if you don’t eat your dinner.”

“Thank you, Helen,” Alexander said in his endearing baby voice. He took the sandwich and slid off her lap to investigate the toy chest in the corner.

“Do you intend to find a husband this Season, Helen?” Toby asked with his usual lack of tact.

“My goodness no. It’s Diana’s debut. I don’t intend to marry.”

“Oh, but you must, Helen,” Diana said.

“Not every woman must.”

Helen looked away from Diana’s concerned gaze. After her own Season ended in disaster some years ago, she’d reluctantly come to London and endured hot crammed ballrooms, Almack’s dances designed to marry one off, and horrid routs, while missing Bertie, her dog, and the beautiful spring at Cherrywood, their country home. She supposed at twenty-four she was fast becoming a spinster, but it ceased to worry her now that she had decided what her future would be. It lay ahead, soothing her as she tidied up the cake crumbs.

Diana gave a puzzled frown. “You seem to want so little from life, Helen. I remember how your first Season ended so regrettably, but you have discouraged several suitors since then. You would make a wonderful mother. Unlike me. Father says I’m adventurous while Mama accuses me of being too impetuous.”

“I’m sure they’re both right,” Toby said, leaping in with both feet and receiving a sharp poke in the side from Diana.