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The Thames lapped against the shore, the tide beginning to turn, pulling things better not noticed along with it. One of the royal swans paddled past her, ignoring most of what lay beneath the surface. The sight of the elegant bird added to the unreality of the scene before her.
Sibyl Eagleton tugged her heavy shawl more closely about her, staring across the far side of the river where buildings rose like ghostly specters in the early morning mist. It was a dream world with menacing spires on a silver fog.
What a silly fool she was, to be sure. Last night had been an utter disaster. Poor Mama, she had nurtured such high hopes and now was so disappointed. And to think Sibyl had ended up half concealed behind a potted palm.
All the shopping for pretty clothes, the entire trip to London for her come-out, what a sad waste. She had truly enjoyed getting new things, as any girl would, but to what end?
It was not as though Sibyl had not warned her parents. She had pleaded with them, for she was quite comfortable at home, and had not wished to travel to London in the first place. The very thought of all the Society people, with their odd priorities and peculiar starts, made her shy away from parties and the like. Had it not been for the threat of Alfred Norton, she'd have insisted on staying home.
The kindest thing one might say about Alfred was that he was a nodcock. He rather frightened Sibyl. He had come upon her in the garden, breathing fumes of ale, bad teeth, and garlic in her face until she reeled. And he had demanded that she marry him, for he obviously considered himself to be the best catch in all of Mablethorpe?a squire's only son with great prospects. Perhapshe was. That did not mean she would wed him. She shuddered at the very thought and took a step closer to the river.
"I would not do that were I you. The water is cold and dirty, not fit for a bath."
Sibyl spun around, frightened at the voice so close to her. She had been sure she was alone here. She had expected the mists and early hour to discourage most people. This was not in the commercial area, nor were there likely to be hawkers and sellers about. She had thought herself to be safe.
"I do not intend to, sir." She stared at him, her gaze caught in his. Even in the misty light she could note his soft gray eyes, so understanding and kind. He was not as tall as some, but she thought him just right. He had strong features and a solid, trim build. There was nothing of the dandy about him.
"Just plain mister will do ... Miss?"
"Just miss," she decided. No names. "And thank you for your concern." She could detect the gentility in his speech, and certainly his clothes were of the latest cut and finest fabrics. That gray coat was undoubtedly made by a master tailor, so well did it fit. "Although, I confess, the river would solve quite a few problems." She turned to look down again at the swirling dark waters.
"Is that why you are here? To flee from your problems? How could a pretty young miss like you have such serious dilemmas? I would have wagered the worst of them was deciding what gown to wear, or which beau to accept." He joined her to lean against the ramshackle railing, watching her rather than the river.
"You sound like my stepmama. It is not that simple. For example, last evening I went to an assembly," she confided, not pausing to consider that she was able to discuss such a painful subject with a total stranger. "Once there I was introduced to a perfectly acceptable young man. At least, I suppose he was. He asked me to dance. I knew how," she assured this man.
Her feet performed a few of the steps quite unconsciously before she recalled where she was. "What I do not know how to do is converse. My tongue was tied in knots. He rattled off various names I suppose I ought to know, and parties, none of which I had attended. When the dance was over, he escaped, and in a way, so did I. Never in the history of assemblies has a young woman had so many torn flounces. And," she peeped up at him, her eyes alive with mischief, "I had not one flounce on my gown."
She firmed her mouth. "If that is a sample of the young men from whom I am expected to choose, I want none of them. I believe I shall remain a spinster. Potted palms are a deal more companionable. They do not expect answers to stupid questions."
He gave a rather endearing chuckle, and her heart warmed to this man, this stranger in the mists.
"Silly girl. He was nothing but a sad fribble, if that is all he could manage to say to a lovely young miss at her first assembly. Come, let me give you an example."
He bowed most elegantly. She curtsied, frowning slightly in bewilderment.
He extended his hand to her, a charming grin tilting his well-shaped mouth. She took one look into those beautiful gray eyes and accepted his gloved hand. Then he began to hum a melody she recognized. She joined him to make a soft duet.
In and out and around they went, through delicate patterns, following one of the dances Sibyl had learned. Seeming satisfied she would hum the tune, he said, "Lovely weather we are having for this time of year, what?" He gave a significant glance at the fog, one that made her smile.
"Lovely," she said breathlessly. "Never have I seen a more misty mist."
"Not half as lovely as the lady in my arms."
"Oh, fie, sir, what flummery." She giggled, her soft eyes lighting up with delight at this nonsense.
"I shall compose an ode to your languishing blue eyes, or perhaps that rosebud mouth." He gave her a considering look, then said, "No, your innocent expression, like that of a newly-opened flower. Ah, but then, that beautiful English complexion must merit a few lines. It glows like the finest satin, petal soft, begging to be kissed."
"Oh, sir, you go too far!" She laughed as he whirled her around in perfect meter, her voice ringing out in sheer joy. It seemed like such a long time since she had laughed at such foolery.
"And then the gentleman ought to reserve a second dance, no more, mind you. He should follow your progress with hungry eyes, watching with many sighs as others beg for your attention. Soon, you ought to have a veritable train of young men, officers, gentlemen of title, all at your beck and call."
"What, no prince? I insist. I have dreamed of living in a castle on a hill," she declared with a mocking, imperious manner. She smiled then, her gaze softening, and said, "I have no need for titles. My new uncle is an earl, and although kindly, strikes me quite silent when we meet."
"I shall tell you a secret. Underneath all those fine clothes, they are all much the same. Next time you go to a ball, or something of that sort, just think how each of the people you meet would look in his or her nightrail."
"Sir," she declared, trying not to laugh, "what a shocking thing to say."
"It does work." Those eyes twinkled down at her with great charm, and she wondered what lady was so fortunate as to receive his homage.
"Does it, indeed?" She pushed the image of this man arrayed in a nightrail from her mind with great difficulty, returning her attention to the river. "It never stops, does it? How I should like to get on a boat and sail and sail far away from here. I have never been on a boat, but I suspect it would be intriguing."
"Farther down river there are boats one may take to places like Margate and Gravesend." He pointed to a pier that could barely be seen through the rising mist. It was a distant gray smear on the river's edge.
"That sounds like an enchanting prospect?especially at this moment, as I am. Graves end. Rather gloomy, I believe." She shuddered at the depressing thoughts that flooded into her mind.
"None of that. I promise all will get better. You must make an effort, and suspect there are others equally alarmed at the snobs of Society. Try again."
His smile was terribly appealing, she decided in a fit of great charity with the stranger. Now, had she someone like him ... But, someone like him was undoubtedly spoken for by one of those elegant society women who put her in such a quake.
"You sound like my stepmama. She reads tea leaves, you see. In my cup she saw a musical note, which foretells good luck. She also saw a moon, which means a love interest. According to her, the castle she saw means security and safety. For all I know, it could mean nothing more than I might have the good luck to be carried off to a castle on a moonlit night by my true love." She gave a reflective sigh, then turned her face toward his. "Do you believe in such things, sir?"
He also sighed, and looked as though he wanted to reassure her that all the good things would come true.
"Never mind. I can see it is difficult for you. Perhaps you may meet her one day. If you do, ask for tea, then have her read the leaves in your cup. I fear she has been dreadfully accurate. Although one never knows how events will turn out precisely, you know."
"That is a truism. If you talk like this to your young gentlemen, they will be enchanted. Your stepmama will have them standing in line to have their fortunes read."
Sibyl chuckled. "I do not know if that will give me the splendid match she wants."
"Come, the mist is rising. You must go home before anyone sees you." He stretched out an arm, to escort her up the bank, she supposed.
"You have seen me. I feel I may trust you not to say a word, however. Do you suppose there are ghosts in the mist that whisper secrets?" She accepted his hand and assistance up the steps until they stood on the walkway. Behind them the parliament buildings loomed, ghostly shapes picked out by a filtered sun.
"Promise me one thing." He had grown quite intent, his face assuming a serious mien, like one about to give a lecture. "Never come here again like this. You were fortunate this time, that I saw you. Another time you might not be so lucky."
As he spoke two young men staggered down the street, obviously three sheets to the wind. Yet they espied her, making horrid suggestions that caused her cheeks to flame, even if she did not understand them completely.
When the two had turned a corner, her stranger from the mist gave her a serious look. "An excellent object lesson. You see what I mean, I collect?"
"I do," she replied in a small voice.
"Where do you live?"
She gave him an alarmed look, wondering if the man she thought so nice was something else.
Apparently he correctly interpreted her wide-eyed stare, for he chuckled. "I want only to take you a part of the way, to assure myself you come to no harm. My carriage is waiting over there." He gestured toward his curricle, where a handsome pair of grays were being walked by his groom.
She gave her stranger a tremulous smile, suddenly aware that she felt safe with him, totally safe. She almost chuckled at that thought, for she suspected most gentlemen would not think it a compliment for a woman to say he made her feel so.
Although he did have a devilish twinkle in those gray eyes at times. And his laugh had a wicked little catch to it at odd moments. How peculiar that she should feel so close to him. They were spirits of the mist, kindred spirits. Perhaps they would be wafted away?
She agreed to his offer, as the path across the park and the streets to Cranswick House would likely be filling with vendors now. She walked with him to the curricle. Once seated, they began to go in the general direction of Mayfair. He handled the ribbons with a casual skill she admired.
"I live this way, I believe. At least that building seems familiar," she pointed out as they reached the corner of Piccadilly and Half Moon Street. They wound their way along until South Audley.
"You walked all this way?"
"I am a country girl, you know. I suppose that is why I went out this morning. I could not bear to be cooped up in a building when I am used to wandering about in the lanes and byways."
The streets had been eerily silent on this Sunday morning. Fog had muffled the sound of the church bells. Now the cries of London were ringing out, the muffin man, the milk maid, and all the others who roamed the streets hawking their wares, the discordant music of the city.
They had driven along in companionable silence. He abruptly broke it. "I am frightened quite out of my skin to think what might have happened to you this morning. Promise me you will never, never consider such a trek again!"
"I gather it is more serious than I dreamed," she said contritely, some of his anger penetrating with effect. "I am not so foolish as to ignore your advice. I promise." The memory of the words hurled by those two castaway men would linger in her mind for some time.
His look of approval was not noted by her, for she concentrated on looking at each corner as they turned to proceed along South Audley.
At last she saw the church ahead, one she recognized as being close to her house. "You may leave me here, sir. And I thank you. I was most fortunate to meet such a gallant gentleman."
He took her hand, holding it lightly in his while he searched her face. He could see a brown curl teasing him from under the shawl. Her eyes were too trusting, her face too innocent. How would she cope with a come-out in this sometimes cruel society? ?Perhaps we may meet again?"
"Perhaps," she agreed, thinking it highly unlikely. "Thank you again for your kindness, sir." She stepped from the curricle, then looked back at him.
"Not at all," he smiled, "fair maid of the mist." He saluted her, then flicked his whip lightly above the horses. The carriage moved on down the street.
She slipped inside the church for a moment, listening to the strains of the early service choir. Her heart was performing such peculiar antics, ones she had not known before and suspected a little.
* * * *
In his curricle, the gentleman continued to the corner, then hurried in the direction of his home on Mount Street, his fatigue returning with a vengeance now. After being up all night, he almost wondered if the enchanting and innocent angel of the mists was nothing more than an illusion.
Nothing was to be seen of her as he glanced back, and he wondered who she was and if he might see her again. He ought to have persisted in knowing her name, yet in the confines of Society, he doubtless could find her if he so chose. She was young and pretty, delightfully naive in her trusting, virginal manner. He was very glad he had happened along and caught sight of what he imagined to be a contemplated suicide. She might not be in that same state of innocence at this moment, had he not stopped. His look became grim.
* * * *
"La, Sibyl, where have you been? Do not tell me you have wandered about in the little park in the square again?" Lady Lavinia Eagleton impatiently questioned the charming girl who now stood hesitantly in the breakfast room doorway. Becoming a stepmother had brought a number of surprises, not the least of which was discovering a miss who did not long for a London come-out.
"All right, Mama, I shall not tell you. I am a bit homesick for the country." She resolved not to say anything regarding her early-morning expedition. As it was, the entire thing had become more like a dream. Her poor stepmama would be horrified beyond belief, and Sibyl would be hedged around with further constraints. She felt confident that the stranger would say nothing, for indeed what could he say? She doubted if she would ever see him again.
Lady Lavinia watched Sibyl take a chair opposite to where she sat, contrition flooding over her. "I must tell you how sorry I am for last evening, dear girl. I ought not to have sat chatting with old friends. I was terribly remiss in my duties and I intend to make up for it."
Sibyl gave her an alarmed look. "How, pray tell? By taking me to another of those tedious assemblies where I may be insulted by another sprig of nobility? I did not care for my introduction, you may be sure." She ought not to have spoken so plainly, indeed, she was sorry to cause any wounds, but she could not wish for more embarrassment.
"Oh, dear, this is not at all how I envisioned it." Lady Lavinia glanced up to welcome her dearest brother. "William, do tell this silly girl that she must not give up after one assembly."
The dignified Earl of Cranswick was a remarkably well-preserved gentleman who greatly reminded Sibyl of her cousin George, his son. The earl had lived alone at Cranswick House since the death of his beloved wife following the birth of their daughter, the delightful Samantha. Presumably he had not felt the need to marry again.
Sibyl had heard snippets of gossip. He lived a somewhat rackety life, a member of the Carlton House set, a friend of the Prince Regent. A life of gay dissipation had not left its mark on Lord Cranswick. His chestnut hair and sherry-brown eyes were as vivid as his son's. His figure was trim and manner quite elegant. She was not surprised at the tales of his conquests among the fair set. He promptly turned Sibyl into that tongue-tied mouse she complained of to the stranger.
"What happened?" His look down that aristocratic nose sent Sibyl's heart plunging.
"Well," Lady Lavinia explained virtuously, "we went to the Stanley assembly. After one dance with the Wingfield boy, she rather faded away into the woodwork."
"Actually, it was a potted palm," Sibyl inserted wryly, forgetting to be intimidated by the earl in the interest of accuracy.
"Wingfield? If he is anything like his father, the lad is a stuffed prig."
Sibyl laughed for the first time since leaving the stranger. "I should say that probably suits him well, sir. He seemed a bit fond of titles and important places." She looked down at her teacup. "I had thought to take ourselves back to Mablethorpe and restore your house to peace and quiet," she said by way of apology for interrupting what must be a highly agreeable life for a bachelor.
"Rubbish," the earl declared, his eyes lighting with amusement at this young miss. "I believe I have had quite enough of peace and quiet for a while. Stay and do as my sister suggests. I think it hardly fair to judge Society on the basis of the Wingfield boy."
Lady Lavinia glanced with relief at her husband as he entered the room. Here, most clearly, was an excellent reinforcement for her argument.
"Henry, Sibyl is not persuaded in the least to make another attempt. It is all my fault," she burst out, suddenly rushing from the room in a flutter of white and pink draperies, her morning cap askew and a white handkerchief at the ready in her hand.
"Now, now," Lord Eagleton, formerly a general in his majesty's army, said as he followed his new wife out the door, his commanding manner deserting him in the face of womanly tears.
"And they wonder why I have not remarried." The earl poured another cup of coffee, then accepted a plate of his favorite foods from his butler.
Sibyl tilted her head, studying this much more human person. "It seems to me that we are in much the same pickle. I want to retreat to the country, you want to stay as you are."
He glanced up at her, the surprise clear on his face. "I suppose you might say that," he agreed reluctantly. "Was it actually so bad?"
"Horrid," she seconded with growing amusement. Seen in the light of morning, the event had lost some of its humiliation. That alteration along with the kind words from the stranger made it seem less terrible. He had teased her from the mood that had settled on her like some bleak, funereal cloak.
"What you must do is acquire something unusual," the earl declared, punctuating his words with the stab of his fork. "I know a lady who had a pink poodle," he added by way of being helpful.
"I play the pianoforte and do the tiresome bit of embroidery. I should like to do something different," she said with a wistful air. "But not, I think, a pink poodle. Nor a tan terrier."
"A diversion," he supplied, waving his fork in the air. "One not done by every young woman, something to set you apart."
"That is precisely what I do not like?to be set apart."
"Collect something," he urged, then reapplied himself to his beef, the subject seeming closed as far as he was concerned.
"Collect? You mean like seashells or butterflies?"
"Butterflies," he nodded. "Just the ticket. I shall watch with interest to see what happens."
"Say nothing of this to Mama for the present, sir," Sibyl requested. "I believe I should like her to do a bit of considering first. I am not totally reconciled to this stay in the city. I should not wish another Mr. Winfield, if you please."
"God forbid," he agreed.
"And," she added as an afterthought, "I shall give the matter of butterflies some consideration." Sibyl lingered, wishing she might ask him if he knew the identity of the stranger from the mists. But she had no name, and she doubted her romanticized description would be a bit of help. Melting gray eyes, a figure just the right height for her, and manners fit for a king were hardly to produce recognition on the earl's part.
"Do," said the earl, then swallowed that last bite of a hearty breakfast. "You ride, of course."
"Papa brought my mare to Town with us."
"Good. Take one of my grooms with you when you go out. London is less kind and not at all forgiving of a lapse, should you err."
She watched him leave the room, her little pink tongue nervously teasing her upper lip while she thought over the scene by the river. She could trust the stranger of the mists, she was sure of it. Nevertheless, she rose from her chair and wandered about the lower floor in an abstracted state, wishing she had been more prudent.
The house was intimidating, although the manor house in Mablethorpe was pleasant in its Tudor way. Cranswick House rose five stories, with a fine portico in front. She thought it the finest house on the square, which said a great deal, for the area seemed a most excellent address.
The first floor had many tall windows across the front. She floated up the stairs, then went to look out one of them, watching the earl ride off to the park on his chestnut gelding.
Fiddling with the ribbons on her pale blue muslin, she wondered what she ought to do. Should she actually collect butterflies? What a nonsensical notion, to be sure. Yet was it? It would give her something to pursue while in town. Certainly, it would offer a subject for conversation, a safe, neutral topic while navigating the dance floor.
And if they raised an eyebrow at her, she would look down her nose just as the earl had done. She walked over to a tall, gold-framed looking glass above the fireplace. There, she practiced until she dissolved in laughter.
"I am glad you are in better humor, puss," her father said from the doorway. "Your mama is most upset."
Contrite, for she truly was a tender-hearted girl, Sibyl quickly hastened to his side. "She did leave me, but I doubtless would have found the potted palm in any event."
"It is my fault, for keeping you at that remote spot for so long." His remorse tore at Sibyl.
"But, Papa, that is where I met Marianna, the lady who captured George's heart. Had I not been at Miss Chudleigh's school, you would not have met Mama. None of your new happiness would exist. It is best I learn to live with her desire to see me launched. But I warn you, if they are all such fribbles, I shall return to Mablethorpe. And," she added, "I shall not wed Albert."
"Never," Lord Eagleton agreed. "Perhaps I can find a way to introduce you to a few fine young men."
He turned to wander down the stairs, leaving Sibyl curious as to what was going on in his mind. She would far rather have the selecting of her future husband left to her own hands. But, she was an heiress, a matter they chose to keep concealed for the moment. One hint of money and the men at point-non-plus would be after her in a flash.
Her papa wanted to see her well-fixed, with a good husband. She just hoped the entire family could agree on the man selected.
Deciding to do as the earl suggested, she went up to her room to change into her habit, after sending word to the stables for her mare and a groom to go with them.
The habit shirt with its lace ruff reconciled her to the severe cut of her blue riding dress. With its simple lines, she had but one petticoat beneath and wore pink drawers that she had been assured were the latest rage of the ton.
The groom rode close enough to give her directions to the park, and the best place to ride. He was a kindly man, yet he did not offer the sort of company she would have truly enjoyed. Once they were on a path, he remained silent, only occasionally pointing out a person for her.
It was a lonely ride, as she knew no one. The earl was nowhere in sight. It served to highlight the difference in coming to London.
"There be the hussars, miss. Capital group of riders," offered the groom as Sibyl turned her head to watch the smartly dressed men riding toward the Horse Guards.
Her papa would undoubtedly know some of these men, or, more likely, they would know him. Yet that did her little good now. How dashing they looked.
Not far from where she rode, she observed a lady gowned in pink flirting with a handsome gentleman. Not the man of the mists, she noted after checking.
Turning her mare in the direction of Cranswick House, she said, "I believe I shall go back. It is not at all like home." The groom looked askance at her remark, probably wondering how any young miss might take exception to the wonders of Hyde Park. She doubted if he had ever left the city. He couldn't know how delightful a dash across a field might be, instead of this staid place.
Lady Lavinia watched the drooping figure of her stepdaughter from her bedroom window. Sighing with apprehension that her plans were sailing out to sea on an empty boat, she wondered what she could do. Having Sibyl make her come-out was not going to be as simple as she had hoped. Would that she not make a mull of it. She got one last glimpse of Sibyl before she rode through to the mews. Lavinia wondered frantically what in the world she was going to do to salvage the situation.