Unedited excerpt ©
Chedworth, The Cotswold’s, April 1818
In her bedchamber Thea raised her nightgown before the mirror. Only one chickenpox scar remained on her body. It was more like a dimple really near her navel. It would be there forever. For the span of her life. She would take it to the grave. She supposed it hardly mattered for a spinster. A gentleman would never see it. Unless, when she became a famous writer, she took a lover. Such a bold thought made her catch her breath, but she expected she’d grow used to the idea.
Smoothing down the hem of her nightgown, Thea sank onto the bed. Confined to her bedchamber for a month thanks to contracting this infectious disease from a cousin had been such a bore. A whole month she should have been in London. A whole month of the Season gone! And now she was well enough to go to Grandmama, who loved the Season and seemed only too happy to chaperone her, but Mama still wished to wait another fortnight to be sure she had completely recovered and looked her best. Thea was in such good health, she felt as if she was bursting out of her skin.
She had no wish to find or be bound to a husband. She preferred to search for intriguing matters to write about to send to magazines and newspapers. Two years ago, fired up by the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, and inspired by her Aunt Margery who was a published poet, Thea had decided to be a writer, not of poetry nor philosophy but to bring current stories of importance to readers, and she’d spent her time browsing through everything in the library as well as her father’s newspapers, while awaiting her trip to London where she was sure there would be any number of subjects to choose from.
It was so dull here in the country! Anything interesting rarely occurred to be worth writing about. She had penned a story about their previous vicar who disgraced himself by drinking the altar wine and calling Mrs. Lamont a dreadful snob, but her mother ripped up the pages.
London was such a vibrant, busy place, teeming with scandals and skullduggery. She could not fail to find something significant there to make her eager to put pen to paper.
But her mother intended her to marry. Thea considered it essential for women writers to remain single. Husbands demanded too much. Just look how her brother Robert treated his wife. Violet gave birth to three children in three years and was always knitting small clothes. She talked of nothing but babies when she used to have Opinions. Even Thea’s father was content to have Mother fuss around him. No, a husband would be far too disruptive.
She stood and gazed wistfully at the garden. Sunlight danced on the pond, and the leaves of the gnarled old chestnut tree outside her window swayed in the breeze. The spring flowers were glorious this year. Mr. Thompson, their gardener, who worked so diligently on their behalf, deserved praise. And her mother forbade her to leave the house.
Thea felt dreadfully hemmed in. Here she was, having turned eighteen and still treated like a child! She rummaged in her cupboard and brought out a pair of gumboots she’d borrowed from the gardener when it rained for weeks and turned the lawn to mud. Slipping her arms through the sleeves of her dressing gown, she firmly tied the belt. With her waist-length braid shoved over her shoulder, she mounted the windowsill. She tossed the gumboots down. Then leaning forward, her foot found the nearest branch, and she climbed out. The cool breeze swept over her, carrying the sweet scent of lilacs.
How heavenly to be outside. The sun warmed her back, and sparrows fluttered around a nest in the topmost branches. Selecting a sturdy branch below, she descended cautiously. She’d climbed this tree many times and was as surefooted as a mountain goat. Down she went until, perched on the lowest branch, she gathered the folds of dressing gown about her knees, preparing to jump down.
A piercing shriek rent the air. That could only be her older sister, Catherine. She was sure no one but an opera singer could hit that high note. And for so little reason!
Oh bother! Cathy had spotted her. “Whatever is the matter, Cathy?” Thea called crossly. She couldn’t quite see her from the tree and leaped down. Her bare feet met soft, sun-warmed grass, and she flexed her toes appreciatively. “Why must you be so hysterical?” She turned toward the garden gate.
Open mouthed, her sister stood with her hand resting on the arm of her fiancé, Lord Crispin Braithwaite, who looked very stern. But then he always did.
Behind them, a very tall gentleman observed Thea, his dark brows arched over amused blue eyes. He removed his hat, his hair a glossy chestnut brightened by the sun, and bowed. He ran lightly over the ground and swooped up her gumboots. “Your slippers, Cinderella.”
For a long moment, Thea, mortified, stood as still as a stature, her mind racing. Then she grabbed them from him as Cathy’s annoyingly little terrier, Crosby, ran to investigate. Overly excited, he danced around Thea’s bare feet with sharp barks. Aware her face flamed as red as one of Grandmama’s pampered roses, Thea sprinted over to the open French doors without pausing for a word of greeting, the gumboots hugged to her chest. While the deep chuckle of the mysterious gentleman made Thea want to cover her ears, her sister, so strictly correct in all things, apologized profusely, and led he and Crispin along the path to the front door.
Thea ran upstairs and gained her room, meeting their maid, Sarah, on the way. Thea held a finger to her lips to silence the giggling girl and shut her bedchamber door. The gumboots discarded, she ran to the window and peeped from behind the curtain. Her sister still rambled on, talking nineteen to the dozen, as Williams, their butler, opened the front door. The stranger strolled slowly behind them. He paused before mounting the porch, and glanced up toward Thea’s window as if he knew she was there. As she darted back behind the curtain, the vision of his laughing blue eyes stayed with her.
At the washstand, she poured water from the jug into the basin and wrung out a flannel to cool her hot cheeks. How much had he seen of her as she came down from the tree? Nothing, surely! She frowned. Cathy was sure to complain. Thea would never hear the end of it! There was no point asking her sister not to tell Mama. Not even the promise she could wear Thea’s pearl earrings left to her by Aunt Wilmot would work this time. She groaned and held the flannel over her eyes. She would be in disgrace.
What form would her punishment take? Heavens! It didn’t bear thinking about. She sank back onto the bed. Who was that gentleman with Cathy and Lord Crispin? It was unlikely she’d meet him again. She certainly didn’t want to after he’d seen her bare legs and found her so amusing. She could ask Cathy who he was, but if her sister suspected Thea was interested, she’d clam up like an oyster, or tease her unmercifully. She would have to ask Williams who knew more about what took place in the Tothill residence than anyone else.
Saturday evening, Mayfair, London
Ashton Grainger strolled into the Duchess of Worthing’s ballroom accompanied
by his friend Freddie Cooper-Jones.
“Another dull evening, where I must do my duty by Mother and dance with the debutantes,” Freddie said, his long face a picture of gloom.
“I’m sure Mrs. Rollinson will be happy to smooth your ruffled feathers later,” Ash said.
“Damn right. And incredibly good she is at it, too.” Freddie raised his auburn eyebrows. “If the earl were here to observe you, Ash, he would force you to choose a bride. Hasn’t he ordered you to wed before he dies?”
“My grandfather remains in sound health. Don’t sound so hopeful I’ll be called to task, Freddie.”
Freddie chuckled. “Misery loves company, my friend. Just look at the array of debs we have this year, not a beauty among them.”
Ash turned and cast a subtle glance over the young women all dressed in white or varying pastel shades clustered together on benches. “They look anxious,” he observed. “Perhaps they’re no keener than you to dance.” One caught his eye, a remarkably pretty strawberry blonde, sitting apart from the rest, her glasses too big for her small, heart-shaped face. She looked vaguely familiar.
“Oh, I say,” Ash murmured when he remembered. He chuckled.
“What’s that?” Freddie turned to him.
“I recognized one of the debutantes.”
“I suppose you’ll have to dance with her then,” Freddie said with a slight shudder. He clapped Ash on the shoulder. “I’m for the gaming tables. Coming?”
“Later. I believe I’ll stay awhile.”
“Don’t get yourself engaged while I’m away.” With a devilish laugh, Freddie turned and made his way to the door.
The musicians took their place on the dais for a country dance. Gentleman crossed the floor to claim a lady.
Miss Tothill did a very odd thing. As the gentlemen sought partners, she rose from her seat and hurried from the ballroom.
Ash watched a fellow pull up and change direction. “What was this impish young lady about? She didn’t wear glasses when she so nimbly climbed down that chestnut tree, offering him a tantalizing glimpse of endlessly long slim legs.
He put the incident out of his mind and retreated to the games room. He played faro with Freddie and two of his friends, Brandon Cartwright and the baron, Gareth Reade, both of whom engaged in similar work as himself. Both happily married, they often teased him about his single state.
“A friend of my wife wishes to be introduced to you,” Cartwright said with an amused curl of his lips.
“Please tell Letty that the last young lady she foisted on me at that garden party decided I was hers for the evening, and damn near followed me into the gentleman’s convenience. Extricating myself proved a decidedly tricky endeavor.” Ash tossed down a card. “Can’t you control your wife, Brandon?”
Reade chuckled. “The answer to that is no.”
“I don’t see you having any better success with your lady wife,” Cartwright observed with an amused lift of his eyebrows. He studied his hand. “But the trouble arises when we make rash promises which enable us to continue our work for the crown, which the ladies consider too dangerous.”
“Exactly,” Reade threw in his hand. “We will do or say almost anything to keep the hearth and home running peacefully.”
“And you want me to marry.” Ash grimaced and laid down his cards. “Mine, I believe.” He gathered up the coins. “I’ll stick to my guns. I’m only twenty-seven. I am enjoying my freedom and have no need to look for a wife until well into my thirties.”
Reade grinned. “Can we make a bet on that?”
“Count me in,” Cartwright said. “And deal another hand, will you, Ash?”
Ash pushed back his chair. “Forgive me, gentlemen, extremely bad manners to win and run, but I promised my grandfather I would dance at least twice. I’ll survey the ladies here tonight.” He grinned. “And no, Brandon, not Letty’s friend. Once bitten, twice shy.”
He couldn’t help thinking of his grandfather as he left the card room. Grandfather’s heart had never recovered from the terrible loss of their family. Ash’s father and mother and grandmother had been travelling together on their way to Ascot in a carriage. A careless boatman had crashed his boat into the struts of a bridge, weakening it. Not long afterward, Ash’s father’s carriage had fallen into the river. They had all drowned. Ash and his grandfather were following behind in his curricle. They arrived just after the accident. The view of their loved ones fished from the cold waters, returned to haunt him at night, and his grandfather suffered it too, having lost his beloved wife, son, and daughter-in-law. The loss robbed him of his love of life. He became a virtual recluse. And now concentrated on Ash, the only member of his family left. Ash was to take care not to drive too fast or ride recklessly, and expected to marry and produce an heir. But the tragic accident had the reverse effect on Ash. He tended to ride too fast and drove his curricle at high speed. As if to tempt fate. It was the reason he now did dangerous work for the crown. And he did not want to fall in love and marry. His dalliances were brief and light-hearted and that was the way he intended to keep it for many years to come. And while that worried his grandfather, he seemed powerless to change. So he played the game, dancing with debutants at balls he’d rather not attend to give his grandfather hope.
They announced a quadrille as he entered the ballroom. Not wishing to insult a lady by approaching her at the last minute, Ash leaned against a pillar and watched Miss Tothill. Sure enough, as a gentleman made a move in her direction, she was off. And this time it wasn’t toward the ladies’ retiring room.
Intrigued, Ash left his position and strolled after her. To his surprise, Miss Tothill, with a nod at the footman, passed through the French doors at the far end of the ballroom.
Ash followed, stepping out onto the deserted terrace where a stiff, chilly breeze blew. He expected to find her here, but there was no sign of the intrepid young lady.
He descended the steps onto the lawn. The rustling bushes alerted him to her presence. Was this an assignation? If so, he would turn about and leave the lovers to it. But she appeared to be alone, where she lingered in the shrubbery beneath an open window.
Tobacco smoke drifted out the window above them, along with men’s voices. Ash moved closer and listened. “We shall have to decide tonight,” a man said. “When he returns to London, we must get him while he’s alone. It’s his practice to walk along Cheyne Walk beside the Thames before retiring. A simple matter to cut his throat and toss him in the river. Remove anything valuable. The magistrate will view it as a robbery.”
“Good grief, Farnborough, that’s decidedly bloodthirsty,” another said, his voice vaguely familiar.
“Nor will it be so easy,” said a third man Ash couldn’t identify. “Let me close that window. Someone might overhear us.”
A shadow loomed at the window.
Miss Tothill, in her white dress, stood out among the greenery.
In a swift tackle, Ash pulled her down on top of him, and rolled to one side to hide her with his body clad in black evening clothes. He clapped his hand over her mouth. She squirmed in outrage; her voice muffled against his palm. He enjoyed the novelty of the situation until she sank her teeth into his finger. He tightened his lips on a rebuke but kept a firm hold of her, longing to give her shapely derriere a good slap.
Farnborough appeared at the window. He peered out for a moment before slamming it shut.
“Be still!” he hissed. “If they see you, you’re dead.”
He would have shocked her. She went limp, her fragrant, curvaceous body still pressed against his. The drawn curtains blocked out the candlelight, and shadowy gloom descended.
“Let me up!” she demanded, wriggling pleasingly against him.
Who was the doomed man? He would need to look into the matter, but first… He drew her to her feet.
She gasped. “Who was at the window? Did… did he see us?”
“Lord Eugene Farnborough.” Ash caught hold of her hand. “Now we’ll go somewhere quiet, and you can explain just what you are doing here.”