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The first week of the Season draws to a close with a flurry of elegant parties and delicious news. The dashing Lord Colebrooke has returned to London to attend the rest of the Season. Word has it he is determined to make a match before Season's end. There is news about a group of young ladies who meet in the home of Miss Isabella Winslowe. Hmm-can anyone report on what mischief those damsels might be up to?
-Lord Truefitt, Society's Daily Column
Daniel Fletcher Colebrooke, the seventh Earl of Colebrooke, folded the broadsheet before letting it drop to the floor by his feet. He settled into the comfortable leather-covered wing chair in the book room of his London town house. Leaping flames flickered and crackled in the fireplace, casting pleasant shadows on the bookshelves, the furniture, and the lean face of his best friend.
The brandy in Daniel's glass, warmed by his hand, slid smoothly down his throat as he took a sip. It was an unusually cold spring afternoon. The brandy and the fire took the chill off the dreary gray day.
"You know, Chilton, I could not care less what the gossips say about me."
Sitting opposite Daniel, his impeccably dressed friend eyed him with unconcealed doubt. "Liar. I remember when you used to take great delight if any of the scandal sheets saw fit to mention your name."
When Daniel was second in line to the title, that used to be true, but things had changed. Back then he was young and restless and enjoyed the excitement of doing things that brought the eyes and ears of Society to him and away from his older brother.
"Those days were a lifetime ago," Daniel said, more to himself than to Chilton.
"Merely two and a half years. You used to be an adventurous friend and a sought-after rake by all the young ladies, Danny. Now you are as dull as a lamppost."
Daniel laughed and remained relaxed in his comfortable chair by the low-burning fire. The warmth of the familiar room and the banter with his close friend made him aware of how much he'd missed being in London and enjoying the company of his friends and family.
"That's what I call an endearing remark from a friend of more than a dozen years. No chance of a man feeling melancholy when you're around."
"Everyone in the ton was upset that you chose to skip all the parties last Season and make a pilgrimage to your lands and holdings throughout the country."
"Damnation," Daniel muttered with no real frustration in his voice. "I was in mourning for my father and my older brother as well as trying to comfort my distraught sister. I needed to get away from London and see to my estates. I hadn't exactly been groomed to take over managing the properties."
Chilton stretched his long legs out before him and crossed one booted foot over the other. "Not an excuse, Danny. Eight months had passed. As the new earl, Society thought you should have at least attended the parties and looked over their eligible young ladies."
Daniel gave his older, dark-eyed friend a knowing smile. "The way you do every year? You look whether or not you intend to take."
"It keeps the pushy mamas and eager fathers at bay."
"You would be a handsome catch for any lady," Daniel told him.
"If I were interested."
"And why aren't you?"
Daniel couldn't help noticing that Chilton hesitated before he answered, and it wasn't contentment that Daniel heard in his voice. It was more like resignation. Daniel wondered what had happened in Chilton's life in the year he'd been gone.
"Has it escaped the ton's notice that you look over the young ladies every Season, but at thirty-three you have yet to make a match?"
Reflections of the fire flashed in Chilton Cummerford's eyes as he warmed to the debate. "Ah-but don't let your memory fail you so quickly. The ton doesn't care as much about the second son of a title as it does a title."
"Oh, the title again."
"You can't escape it. Society considers it downright vulgar when an eligible earl leaves Town and doesn't attend even one party of the Season."
Daniel's smile turned to a grin. "It sounds as if someone is trying to intimidate me. Did anyone send you to speak to me about my neglected duties?"
Chilton shook his head, but the movement was so slight Daniel might have missed it in the dim firelight had he not been watching his friend so closely.
"Right now you are the most eligible gentleman on the market in London, and the ton wants you to attend the parties and act like you know it."
"What a wretched thought," Daniel muttered, and then took a deep breath.
"I understand that you don't want to be leg-shackled, but it's expected of you."
"I'm beginning to believe you are the one responsible for telling the gossips that I was returning to London to find a wife."
Chilton's lips curved in a roguish smile. "Why would I want to tell on my best friend?"
"Jealousy, of course."
"Right." Chilton huffed under his breath and stirred in his chair. "I'm filled with envy because you are now an earl with all the responsibilities the title carries, and I am still merely a second son with a generous income and absolutely no responsibilities whatsoever."
Daniel shrugged and wondered why he couldn't decide if Chilton was mocking him or himself. There was something about his friend that was different, but Daniel couldn't quite put his finger on what it was. Yet.
He chose to ignore Chilton's comment and said, "No doubt Gretchen or Aunt Mattie let it slip to someone that I intended to come back to town for the purpose of making a match. It appears that my returning to claim a bride has made the ton happy."
"If not myself."
"You don't matter. It's the title that is important. There's already a wager in the book at White's that you'll have your first offer from some young lady's father tomorrow morning before you've finished dressing."
Daniel inhaled the deep, satisfying aroma of the brandy before he sipped his drink. He then looked at Chilton and asked, "How much did you wager?"
"Danny, do you think I would bet on my oldest and dearest friend?"
"In an instant."
"Ouch. Why so little?"
"I expect to lose."
Daniel laughed again. He'd missed Chilton and the carefree days of their youth. In the past they had enjoyed spending their nights gaming at the private tables and drinking until dawn broke the sky. Most of their days had been spent gambling or racing horses. But Daniel knew those times of ignoring all the rules were behind him. His destiny was now to be a respectable, married member of the ton, not a rakish bachelor in search of debauchery.
"Back in Town, and in less than twenty-four hours, I'm in White's book? I'm flattered."
"Now, that sounds like the old Daniel."
"Damn, Chilton," Daniel said, letting his guard drop for a moment as he stared into the fire. "Life was so much easier before I came into the title. Back when I was merely the Honorable Daniel Colebrooke, with no thought of ever stepping into my father's shoes."
Chilton drained his glass before saying, "You're up to the task."
There were times over the past two years when he didn't think he was. Daniel had no idea of the magnitude of his father's wealth until the earl's death. Being the second son born, Daniel had no thoughts of ever becoming the Earl of Colebrooke. That honor should have fallen to his brother. Not Daniel. He had been content to live in London playing the carefree role of the gentleman rogue.
Daniel picked up the brandy decanter from the table beside him and passed it to Chilton. "I don't relish the idea of having a wife," Daniel said.
"What man does? It's just an easier life when you have no one depending on you."
"But you must choose a girl suitable to be your countess if you don't want the title to pass to your cousin and his son. You have no choice," his friend reminded.
Daniel's gaze met Chilton's. "I won't let that happen. Bradford would gamble the fortune away before a year had passed. No, I'm committed to marry before I'm thirty."
"By autumn, then?"
Chilton splashed a generous amount of the fine brandy into his glass and handed the decanter back to Daniel. "You have a late start."
"Now that I've set my mind to getting the job done, it shouldn't take too long to find an acceptable lady to be my wife."
"I can tell you've never seriously considered marriage if an acceptable lady is all you're looking for."
"No, I haven't. Have you?"
Daniel didn't know what made him ask the question, but he wasn't prepared for the troubled expression that flashed briefly across Chilton's face.
Chilton didn't immediately answer but sipped his drink instead. The fire crackled and hissed as the silence stretched. "No, not seriously," he finally answered and immediately added, "Look on the bright side, there is always a chance you'll walk into a party and see the lady of your dreams and fall madly in love."
Daniel nodded. "And there is always a chance it will snow in July, but it doesn't. I need a wife to give me sons. Not love. Besides, if you haven't found anyone you want to marry this Season, I don't hold out much hope for finding the perfect lady for me."
"I'll take that as a compliment to my high standards." Chilton smiled a bit wickedly at Daniel and lifted his glass to him, the earlier sign of concern gone. "But as you know, my mistress serves me well. I have no need to look for a wife. You, on the other hand, need an heir."
Daniel groaned. "Perish the thought."
Chilton swirled his brandy in his glass and for a moment seemed mesmerized by the dark amber liquid. "I should get to the reason I'm here."
"I thought we had."
"Truly? You thought I came out on a dreadfully cold afternoon such as this just to talk about you?"
"Well, you did give me the scandal sheet to read as soon as I poured the brandy."
"Yes, but the reason I'm here is about the other bit of news written in the column."
"Really?" Daniel could see in Chilton's dark eyes that he was serious and tried to remember what he'd read. What was it-something about a lady and mischief?
"It's about Gretchen."
Daniel perked up. "My sister? I didn't see anything in the column about Gretchen." He bent to pick up the sheet of paper he'd dropped to the floor earlier.
"Don't bother looking at it again. Her name isn't there."
Leaving the paper where it lay, Daniel said, "Then what the devil are you talking about? I instructed Aunt Mattie to see to it Gretchen was invited to all the right parties and to secure her vouchers for Almack's."
"I'm sure your aunt has done a splendid job. I don't think the parties are the problem. It's whom she dances with at the parties and with whom she has tea."
"I'm not sure you'll be happy with one of the bachelors who might be pursuing her."
Daniel shifted forward to the edge of his chair. The fire and the brandy heated his face. "Tell me."
"Damnation! That drunken wastrel. Are you sure?"
Daniel shook his head in disbelief. "Before they left for London, I instructed Aunt Mattie to make sure Gretchen was presented to acceptable fellows like Thomas Wright and Harry Pepperfield."
"I'm sure she was. I've seen her dance with both Tom and Harry."
"Then what the bloody hell is she doing dancing with a gambling scoundrel like Throckmorten?"
"Neither man is as handsome as Throckmorten. I'm sure she's flattered by his attention."
"What was Aunt Mattie thinking to allow Gretchen to know him?"
"She probably had no choice. You have to admit that Throckmorten is a charmer when it comes to ladies. I'm sure Gretchen prefers him to Pepperfield or Wright."
"But what would a man like Throckmorten see in a young lady like Gretchen?"
"Spoken like a true brother."
Daniel pulled on his tight collar and neckcloth. Suddenly the chill had gone out of the air. "Don't get grumpy, Chilton. You know I only meant that she's always been so shy, and she can't see a damn thing without her spectacles. She hates to wear them, but she trips over things and bumps into furniture when she doesn't."
"How long has it been since you've spent any time with your sister?"
Daniel thought back. "I saw her in the Cotswolds not more than a month ago, but only for a day or two. Why?"
"You look at her through a brother's eyes. I think you might be surprised at how she's changed."
"In what way?"
"She's no longer shy for one thing. She does wear her spectacles." Chilton paused and looked thoughtful a moment before adding, "But even when she has them on, it's clear she's blossomed into quite a lovely young lady."
Daniel had missed that. He had to admit that with his travels, he hadn't taken the time to really look at Gretchen, and certainly not the way another man would look at her.
"Do you really think Throckmorten is pursuing her?"
"Or her dowry," Chilton said without hesitation.
Daniel eased back into his chair. It had never crossed his mind that someone like Throckmorten would take an interest in Gretchen. The man usually went for the prettiest of the young ladies, but then Throckmorten would assume Gretchen's dowry would be substantial. And to a big gambler like him that would be important if he were seriously considering marriage.
"I think you may be right, Chilton."
"It's only a possibility, Danny. As I said, Gretchen is quite fetching."
Fetching? Gretchen? Daniel would take a closer look at his sister when she returned home.
To Chilton he said, "I want to see her married to a decent man-not some fancy-dressed dandy who lives off his winnings and can't stay out of his cups or the gaming hells."
"Yes, I saw Throckmorten at White's placing his bets only a short time before I came over here, and he was already quite foxed."
It appeared Daniel had come to town not a moment too soon. "No doubt Throckmorten wants the steady income a generous dowry would afford him."
"Could be, but he is only part of the problem."
There was more? "What do you mean? Just spit it out, Chilton. I don't have the patience to pull each word from you."
"Gretchen has also become part of a group of ladies who are being talked about in an..."
"Unflattering way," he finished. "Some of the young bachelors are calling them the Wallflower Society. The group mentioned in the newspaper."
Daniel rose from his chair and stood before the fire. "Gretchen? In a group called Wallflowers and said to be up to mischief? Good Lord. First, Throckmorten, and now this. What is she thinking? And what is this group about?"
"The name only pokes fun at the ladies, of course. I think they call themselves a Reading Society or something like that. I really don't know any details. I just wanted to make you aware of everything that's going on since you've only just returned. I didn't want you to be caught off guard by any of this when you attend your first party. I don't think harm is intended by this group, but..."
"Some of the young ladies who visit with Miss Winslowe on Tuesdays and Thursday are, shall we say, considered the least likely ones to make a match their first Season."
"Hence the term Wallflowers?"
"Exactly. I can't help wondering if Miss Winslowe is a troublemaker."
"She's probably just some lady with nothing better to do than befriend a few young ladies. What kind of trouble could a Reading Society get into?"
"Perhaps you're right."
"Who is this Miss Winslowe, and why does she have such a gathering?"
"I'll leave you to form your own opinion of the lady when you meet her, as no doubt you will when you attend your first party this evening. Suffice it to say her little gathering started last year with only a handful of ladies, but this year her group has grown to about a dozen. It appears the mothers don't seem to mind because it makes their daughters appear more sought after when they are part of a select group."
"How, if they are called Wallflowers?"
"That term is not widely known among the ton. Only a few of the confirmed bachelors are having a bit of fun with it. Somehow, once a part of the group, some of the ladies seem like anything but wallflowers."
"I wonder why Gretchen would want to be part of a group like that."
"Apparently whatever they do helps the young ladies overcome their shyness."
Daniel looked into the fire. He'd come back to London in the nick of time. "Well, that can't be all bad, but I agree about one thing. No mother should want her daughter associating with a group called Wallflowers. If that name got out, it could prevent Gretchen from making a good match."
"My thoughts exactly."
"I'll speak to her immediately when she returns. She won't be attending any more of Miss Winslowe's Wallflowers meetings."
Elizabeth's eyes opened to cold darkness and the eerie feeling of not knowing what disturbance had stirred her slumber.
She rose on her elbows and listened, trying to ascertain what had startled her. Her pale green eyes scanned the darkened corners of her bedchamber. Her sight slowly adjusted to the moonlit room. No one was there. Nothing appeared out of place.
This was the first time Elizabeth had spent the night in the drafty old house on Glenberry Hill.
Suddenly from the adjoining chamber came a noise-like someone thrashing in his sleep. Elizabeth's eyes widened in fear. Should she stay in her bed or pursue the noise? The decision was made quickly. She crept from her bed, tiptoed across the Turkey carpet, and peeked through the door that stood ajar between the rooms.
The shadowy figure of a man loomed toward her, his shoulders broad and rugged; his chiseled features visible even in the dim light.
Isabella Winslowe slammed the book shut. The young ladies sitting in her parlor jumped and gasped. Isabella smiled. "That's all for today, ladies. We will start a new chapter on Thursday."
"You can't stop now, Isabella," Abigail Waterstone moaned. "We must read on!"
"Oh, please read one more chapter," the soft-spoken Amanda Wright breathed.
Isabella looked over the room of eager ladies muttering and talking among themselves about the intriguing horrid novel. She had a delightful time every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon drinking tea and reading with the ladies. They were never ready to go home when the hour was up.
"Just one or two more pages, Isabella, please. I simply must know if Elizabeth sees a man or a ghost," Lady Lynette Knightington pleaded without shame.
"Oh, we know it's not a ghost," Abigail argued, looking at Lady Lynette. "But we want to know who the man is."
"How do you know the shadow is not Lord Pinkwater's ghost?" Lady Lynette said, taking umbrage at Abigail's claim.
Isabella remained quiet and let the ladies talk for a while. She enjoyed listening to their comments. Lady Lynette, who sat to her right, was a tall, buxom young lady who had a lovely face except for a dark brown birthmark that spilled down her cheek. She was not afraid to speak her mind. Beside the duke's daughter sat Miss Abigail Waterstone who was short and slightly built. She fell down a set of stairs when she was a young girl and was left with a bad limp.
Miss Beverly Smith, who occupied a small ottoman, was really rather pretty until she opened her mouth. Her two front teeth had been knocked out when she was younger and now even with her fake teeth, she never smiled or laughed when she was around gentlemen. Lady Gretchen Colebrooke had to wear spectacles to see anything. Completing the group were other young ladies like Miss Amanda Wright who were either plain in appearance or extremely shy.
Isabella liked to think she'd helped them all to feel more confident and to be more accepted in a Society that seemed to demand beauty above all else.
"Ladies," Isabella said, rising from her chair. "I suggest that you don't miss Thursday and we'll see what the author has to say about the shadow. Now, Aunt Pithany is standing at the door with Mrs. Dawson who has your cloaks and gloves. Your maids have had your carriages brought around front, and they are ready for you."
One by one, the elegantly clad young ladies strolled to the front door. Isabella and her aunt spoke with each of their guests as they donned their wraps and left. After a final wave to the last girl, Isabella closed the door against the chill and leaned against it with a shiver.
She looked at her aunt and smiled. "I do enjoy the group, but it seems to take longer and longer to get them out of the house."
"That's because they have such a delightful time, dear. They are in no hurry to leave. Remember one of the reasons they are here is because there is no pressure on them to please or impress anyone. They feel free to chat and be themselves."
Miss Pithany Winslowe was the best liked spinster in all of London. Tall and robust, she always had a twinkle in her eyes and a smile on her face for everyone she met. After more than two years living with her aunt, Isabella was still trying to attain Pithany's sunny disposition.
Isabella absently nodded to her aunt as something niggled her mind. Instinct told her something was wrong. Suddenly she realized what it was. Auntie Pith was still holding a dark blue cloak. She opened the door again and looked out. Cold air stung her face.
There were two carriages left on the front street. She watched Amanda Wright climb into one of them. The driver shut the door, jumped up on the driver's seat, and they left. The other carriage, a handsome landau, remained. Amanda was the last young lady out the door, so why was one carriage and one coat left behind?
Could one of the ladies from her reading group still be inside the house? That seemed unlikely.
She turned back to her aunt. "Did someone leave without taking her wrap?"
Auntie Pith looked down at the cloak in her hands. "Oh, my. I didn't realize I was holding this. I thought we said good-bye to everyone, but who left without their cloak and gloves?"
"I think one of the ladies must still be here. There's a carriage outside."
"Let me see." Auntie Pith hung the items on the hall stand and peeked around Isabella and out to the street. "That's odd. You stay here, I'll find out whose carriage it is. Maybe there's a reason the landau hasn't left."
Isabella watched as her aunt walked to the coach and spoke to the maid inside before returning.
Auntie Pith had a puzzled expression on her face. "It's Lady Gretchen Colebrooke's carriage. She must be somewhere inside the house. I told her maid to stay by the coach and we would see the young lady out."
"I suppose it's possible she wandered away from the group," Isabella said, refusing to be alarmed, but knowing something wasn't quite right. "You check the bedrooms. Perhaps she felt a bit faint and-"
"Without letting anyone know?" Auntie Pith said, aghast at such an idea.
"Perhaps she asked Mrs. Dawson. Just look and I'll check the rest of the house."
The four ground-floor rooms were empty and the kitchen held only the housekeeper and a scullery girl who was washing teacups.
"Have you seen anyone in the house, Mrs. Dawson?"
The stout Irish woman gave Isabella a curious look. "When, miss? Not five minutes ago there were a dozen ladies in the house."
Isabella smiled at her. "Yes, of course, but I meant since we've been standing at the door seeing them out."
"No, miss. I'm sure they are all gone," Mrs. Dawson said and moved to retrieve a kettle from the fire.
Auntie Pith called out, "No sign of her up here." Which meant there was only one other place to look. The back garden. Isabella opened the door and immediately saw Gretchen standing over to the side near a bench, her back to Isabella.
Curious about why she would be on the grounds without her cloak on such a cold afternoon, Isabella stepped outside and closed the door behind her.
"Gretchen," she called as she started down the four steps. When Gretchen turned toward her, Isabella's steps faltered. Gretchen's face was white, and her eyes wide with fear. She held a small marble cherub in her hand. A man lay sprawled at her feet.
A man in her aunt's garden? Where did he come from and why was he on the ground?
"Gretchen, what's wrong?" Isabella asked in a calm voice. "What happened?"
Gretchen's pale face registered shock. "I was angry with him." She looked down at the statuette in her hand and suddenly dropped it as if she'd been holding a hot poker. "I hit him, but I didn't mean to kill him."