Read an Excerpt
Freddie? Startled, Laura pricked her finger with the needle and quickly put it in her mouth before the welling drop of blood stained Lady Denham's shawl. Despite her husband's unusually long absence from home, she had not really expected to see him till next month--he would not miss the first Newmarket race meeting of the year.
Through the window, open on this unusually balmy March afternoon, came the sound of several pairs of boots on the flagged path.
Sally burst into the tiny, shabby parlour. "'Tis the master, madam, wi' three more gentlemen. I were upstairs dusting and I seen 'em in the lane." Pink-cheeked with excitement, the youthful maid swung round as the front door slammed open, shaking the cottage.
Freddie appeared in the parlour doorway, fair hair ruffled, a casual Belcher handkerchief knotted at his neck. At thirty he was still a good-looking man. If the blue eyes were a trifle bloodshot, the regular features blurring, the lithe figure somewhat thickened, Laura still recognized the handsome, dashing buck who had once captivated her.
Sally bobbed a curtsy and giggled as he set his dusty beaver atop her mob cap and thrust gloves and whip into her hands.
He turned to Laura, grinning. "Well, old girl, I've something for you." Reaching into the pocket of his multi-caped greatcoat, he pulled out a heavy leather sack, plunged his hand in, and dropped a handful of gold guineas in her lap.
"Oh, Freddie, just a minute." The familiar feeling of mingled fondness and exasperation crept over her. "Lady Denham's shawl--"
"To the devil with Lady Denham's shawl." He plucked the offending garment from her hands and tossed it on thefloor. "You'll have no need to take in embroidery for a while, m'dear. I've had a run of luck."
"Picked three nags in a row that didn't fall over their own feet," confirmed the plump, dandified young man who had followed him into the room. "How d'ye do, ma'am?" He bowed.
"Hello, Sir John." She had no time for more as Freddie upended the sack and deluged her with a clinking shower of gold. With a gasp she tried to contain it in her skirts, hoping the worn grey calico would not split. A few coins escaped to glint on the canvas-work rug at her feet.
"Not bad, eh?" Freddie beamed at her astonishment. "Buy yourself a new dress. Grey don't suit you. Tell you what, you can come with us into Newmarket tomorrow. We're going to tour the stables, check the form."
Cambridge had better shops, but Newmarket was cheaper. Laura expressed proper gratitude, then asked, "Shall you stay home for a while, Freddie?"
"Damned if I know. You're not going to start nagging, are you?"
"Oh no, but I have something to tell you."
She blushed. "It's private."
"Cut line, old girl," he said, impatient. "Jack's an old friend and the others don't mind."
"Won't breathe a word," vowed Sir John Pointer. Squeezed in behind him and Freddie, the two unknown gentlemen nodded with solemn faces.
Arguing with Freddie was utterly fruitless, and now his curiosity was aroused, he would badger her until she told him. Since he insisted, let him have it plain, without roundaboutation or polite euphemisms. "I'm pregnant," she said bluntly.
He stared at her for a moment, then, with a whoop, he seized her hands and pulled her up out of her chair. Gold coins rang on the brick floor, rolled under furniture and into corners as he swung her round, knocking over a small table.
Jack picked it up. "I say, congratulations, old fellow."
The strangers murmured agreement, looking uneasy.
"At last!" Freddie exclaimed. "This calls for a toast. Bring us a bottle, Sally."
"Please, sir, there's nary a drop in the house."
"You have been gone three months, Freddie," Laura reminded him. "Since December. You were on your way to a Christmas hunting party with--"
"Never mind that. We'll have to go down to the Bull and Bush to celebrate, fellows. I'll need a spot of the ready rhino." He stooped, collected half a dozen guineas, and dropped them in his pocket. "See you later, Laura." Patting her cheek, he herded his friends out of the parlour. A moment later they tramped back down the path to the lane.
"Now you just sit you down, madam," said Sally. "It won't do you no good crawling on the floor in your condition." She plumped down on her knees and started gathering guineas.
Laura pushed the loosened pins back into her dark hair, and straightened her cap. She sank into her chair, then reached over the arm to retrieve the shawl. Smoothing it between restless fingers, she wondered why she had imagined her news might induce Freddie to change his way of life.
Not that she wanted him at home all the time. The cottage was too small to contain his energy. He was always bored to irritability in Swaffham Bulbeck within a week, even with Newmarket nearby.
She had built a contented life for herself in the little hamlet in the years since she insisted on buying the cottage with the proceeds of an earlier run of luck. Her neighbours, both villagers and gentry, were friendly and helpful. Lady Denham not only paid well for Laura's exquisite embroidery, she brought commissions from her acquaintances. Sally, a farmer's daughter, was honest and hardworking, glad of the chance to learn. One day the girl would seek a better position at Baldwin Manor or Swaffham Prior House; in the meantime she was cheerful company.
Freddie's infrequent visits sometimes brought welcome funds, but they disrupted the even tenor of Laura's days. However unsatisfactory his presence, when he departed he left a gaping hole that took time to paper over. Once again she would have to bear the commiserating glances, the whispers behind her back, the scarcely concealed pitying scorn of women whose husbands seldom strayed far from home.
How different things might have been if he had found her attractive! Folding her hands on her barely swelling abdomen, Laura blinked away the tears that rose to her eyes. Freddie had married her out of careless kindness and had never come to her bed sober. Small wonder it had taken five years of marriage to conceive a child.
"That's all I can find, madam. Two hundred yellow boys, near as makes no odds." The maid sat back on her heels, regarding the gleaming heap with satisfaction.
"Thank you, Sally. Take your wages for last quarter and the next, and put the rest back in the bag. Then we had best start preparing dinner in case Mr. Chamberlain brings his friends home. How fortunate that the squire brought a rabbit this morning."
Laura was not in the least surprised when Freddie failed to return to dine, with or without his friends. Nor did she wait up when ten o'clock came and he still had not put in an appearance. She had just donned her white cambric nightgown, unpinned her hair, and picked up her hairbrush when she heard a commotion in the lane.
A rush of footsteps on the path. The doorknocker's clangour beneath her window. A group of dark figures at the gate, silent now. Laura opened the casement and leaned out, holding her candle.
"What is it?"
Jack's round face turned up to her. He doffed his hat and clasped it to his chest. "Mrs. Chamberlain, there's been an accident," he panted, his words slightly slurred.
She froze. "Freddie?"
"He was dancing on the table, you see, celebrating, merry as a grig, and he took a notion to swing from the lantern hook on the ceiling. Stands to reason it wouldn't hold a grown man. Broke his neck."
When everyone had gone, Laura bowed her head in her hands and wept, not for the past, or the present, or the future, but for what might have been.
"Damme if you shouldn't be banned from the Marriage Mart as a heartless flirt." Captain the Honourable Rupert Wyckham stretched his long legs across the width of the carriage, careful not to brush against his brother's impeccable white stockings.
"Hardly likely, when half the Ton has rushed off to Paris, leaving London thin of company." Gareth laughed, his teeth gleaming by the light of the gas lamps in the street. "Besides, the lady patronesses will never turn away a wealthy peer with an unblemished reputation, as long as he turns up in knee-breeches."
"And arrives at Almack's by eleven o'clock. But why the devil do you go, Gareth? A more insipid evening cannot be imagined. Nothing to drink stronger than ratafia; whist at sixpence a point; and the patronesses always dragging one off to stand up with some fubsy-faced chit scarce out of the schoolroom."
"Why do you accompany me?"
"There's always the chance of meeting a dashing widow." Rupert preened his blond mustache and flourishing side-whiskers. "Your mistresses are always Birds of Paradise, and you're not looking for a bride."
"It's amusing to keep Society wondering where I'll toss my handkerchief," said Gareth lazily, "even if I've no intention of getting leg-shackled."
"Aunt Sybil was asking me the other day when you mean to do your duty and provide an heir. I pointed out that you're only eight-and-twenty. Plenty of time to put your head in parson's mousetrap."
"My thanks for your defence, Rupert, but I see no need of yet another heir when I have you and Cornelius and Lance and Perry all perfectly able to succeed me. I shouldn't wonder if you each produce several sons. They seem to run in the family." He paused, and his next words were not the non sequitur they doubtless seemed to the captain. "Do you remember Mama?"
"Of course. I was eight when she died. I remember--well, not very much." The stalwart young Guardsman ploughed on, embarrassed but game. "Mostly just how kind and gentle she was, and loving her, and Father being jolly and playing cricket with us. He never did after she died."
"No, never. Ah, here we are." Gareth picked up his chapeau-bras as the carriage turned into King Street.
Heads turned when the Wyckham brothers entered the assembly rooms. Tall, broad-shouldered, with dark blue eyes and thick, wavy fair hair, they both had the resolute Wyckham chin to save their aristocratic good looks from mere handsomeness. Rupert boasted an inch or two over his noble brother, and the scarlet and gold of his uniform coat drew every maiden eye. Gareth, elegant in sober black, was the choice of the more discerning matrons, and their husbands.
Inevitably, wealth and title counted for the greater part of that preference, but by no means for all. The baron was known as a kind-hearted gentleman who did not have to be pressed into duty to dance with unhappy wallflowers. He had a dry sense of humour lacking in the gallant captain, four years his junior. More important, he had already sown his wild oats, settled down to tend his Shropshire acres and take his seat in Parliament, with a particular interest in foreign affairs.
He must surely be ready to choose a well-bred, conformable wife to fill his nursery. Each fond mama knew with absolute certainty that her own dear daughter was the perfect bride for Gareth, Lord Wyckham of Llys.
Gareth enjoyed dancing. He raised the spirits of two shy and three homely young ladies, and the hopes of five matrons, before retiring to the supper room in search of sustenance.
Ruefully acknowledging Rupert's accurate description of the refreshments, he surveyed the buffet table. He filled a plate with thin-sliced bread and butter--the cakes were invariably stale--and stood there pondering the respective demerits of lemonade, lukewarm tea, and sickly-sweet ratafia.
The booming voice was unmistakable. "Aunt Sybil." Sighing, he turned to greet his late father's only sister.
She sat with a crony at a small table, sipping tea and undoubtedly gossiping. Lady Frobisher prided herself on knowing everything there was to know about the Ton. A large, elderly lady with the Wyckham jaw, she was an impressive sight swathed in violet gros de Naples, the Frobisher amethysts gleaming on her ample bosom.
"Join us, Wyckham," she ordered.
"Mrs. Payne." Gareth bowed to her friend and seated himself, abandoning his bread and butter with little regret.
"We have been talking about your Cousin Frederick," said the Honourable Mrs. Payne in a thin, high voice. "Most regrettable..."
"Freddie Chamberlain? What has he done now?" he asked, not greatly interested in his second cousin's latest disgraceful exploit.
"He's dead," said Lady Frobisher, never one to mince words. "Swinging from a lamppost, I gather."
"Good gad, he hanged himself?"
"Hanged by outraged citizens, à la lanterne, à la française?"
"Merely foxed and up to his usual high jinks. Bound to come to grief sooner or later."
Gareth noted Mrs. Payne's gleeful expression and wished he had not voiced his unwarranted surmises. Within twenty-four hours, every tattlemonger in Town would be convinced that the ne'er-do-well Freddie had either done away with himself or been done in by revolutionaries.
"Happened a month or two ago," his aunt continued.
"There was no notice in the Morning Post as the Chamberlains cast him off years ago. I daresay the widow did not care to remind anyone of her existence."
"Widow?" asked Gareth, startled. "I'd forgot he was married, I confess."
"He ran off with Medway's eldest daughter," Mrs. Payne reminded him with malicious pleasure. "She was ruined and the earl cut her off without a penny."
He frowned. "Surely Lord Medway will make her some allowance now she has lost her husband."
"Called on Lady Medway this afternoon." Lady Frobisher savoured her triumph. "Wanted to make sure she knew about her son-in-law's demise. She made it plain the girl disgraced herself beyond redemption and need not expect anything more from her family. If you ask me, there was more to the business than a simple elopement." She exchanged a significant glance with Mrs. Payne.
Whatever her misdeeds, Gareth could not help but pity the young woman. "Freddie is unlikely to have left her anything approaching a competence," he said slowly. "I had best offer her a home at Llys."
"Not respectable and not your responsibility," his aunt pointed out.
"Freddie was my cousin, and I am head of the family." When he spoke in that tone, his relatives knew better than to argue with him. "Have you any notion, ma'am, where I may find his widow?"
"Understand Sir John Pointer was with him when he died. He may know, if you can find the fellow. Another ne'er-do-well here-and-thereian, just like Freddie."
"Pointer? Ah yes, another devotee of the Turf, I believe. If he's not in Town, I shall try Newmarket."
On the way home to Albany, to the comfortable bachelor lodgings he shared with Rupert, he told his brother of his plans.
"By Jove!" Rupert groaned. "Not another female at Llys. Isn't Maria enough for you? Not to mention her devilish brood."
"Aunt Sybil didn't mention children, and she would have, the way she was ghoulishly gloating over the poor woman's misfortunes. With luck, Lady ... Dammit, I didn't think to ask her name. With luck she will be company for Maria, take her mind off her grievances."
"Or else they'll put their heads together to plague you."
Another horrid possibility dawned on Gareth. He echoed Rupert's groan. "That would be better than having them come to cuffs! Still, no use repining. I cannot abandon her, and if I set her up in her own household, Maria will feel justified in demanding the same."
"She already does," the captain pointed out.
"In any case, you have no cause for complaint, so rarely as we see you in Shropshire."
"Now that Boney's safely put away on Elba, I've some leave coming, which I'd intended to spend at Llys." Rupert sounded injured. "I was going to try for the Long Vac, when Lance and Perry will be home."
"I hope you still will." Gareth was pleased that the swaggering young officer did not disdain the company of his younger brothers. "If you can take a day or two now, come with me to fetch her. Perhaps you will be agreeably surprised."
"Devil take it, you're right, as usual. Perhaps she'll turn out to be the dashing widow I didn't find at Almack's."
Gareth laughed, but warned, "None of your philandering while she's under my roof."
The next day, they both made enquiries as to the whereabouts of Jack Pointer. As a result, Sir John himself turned up on their doorstep that very evening.
"Heard you was looking for me?"
Rupert was on duty, and Gareth was about to leave to dine with friends at his club, but he invited the chubby young baronet in and offered him a glass of wine.
"I thought I'd have to chase you to Newmarket," he said.
"Fact is," said Sir John gloomily, swigging the best Mountain Malaga as if it were ale, "it just ain't as much fun following the nags without Freddie. Freddie Chamberlain--friend of mine."
"My second cousin."
"Oh? Expect you know he kicked the bucket, then."
"Yes, that is why I wanted to see you."
Jack Pointer looked alarmed, as if he expected to be blamed for Freddie's unconventional demise. "I told him that lantern hook wouldn't hold him, damme if I didn't. Tried to stop him swinging from it, but to tell the truth I was a trifle bosky. We all were. Stands to reason, seeing it was a celebration for Freddie's wife."
"She just gave Freddie the news. Can't tell you about that, promised her to keep mum, but Freddie was full of frisk, prime for a lark. Sobered us up pretty quick when he broke his neck, I can tell you. Nasty shock."
"I'm sure it was. May I enquire why my cousin was swinging from a lantern hook?"
"Dancing on the table, happened to see the thing. On the ceiling, you know." Jack's abbreviated style of speech reminded Gareth irresistibly of Aunt Sybil. He added earnestly, "Just a bit of fun and gig. Not an ounce of vice in Freddie."
"I daresay. However, I am more concerned with Freddie's widow."
"Not an ounce of vice in Mrs. Chamberlain, neither, assure you."
"Mrs. Chamberlain? Does she not use her title?"
"The Honourable?" Jack sounded puzzled. "No, she ain't one to ride the high horse."
"As daughter of an earl, she is entitled to call herself 'Lady'."
"Lady Laura? Well, if that don't beat the Dutch! Freddie never let on. Lay you a monkey she didn't want it known, living in that hovel."
Dismayed by the word 'hovel,' but relieved to reach the point at last, Gareth said, "So you know where she lives?"
"Little place between Cambridge and Newmarket. Dammit, what's its name? The tavern's the Bull and Bush."
"And the village?" He refilled Jack's glass, envisaging days spent scouring the Cambridgeshire countryside for a tavern called the Bull and Bush.
"Dashed odd name. Damme, it'll come to me. Begins with a P. On the tip of my tongue. P-p-p ... or is it M? Ha, Swaffham Bulbeck. I say, you don't mean to make trouble for the lady, do you, old fellow? Because if you do, you'll have me to deal with." The belligerent expression sat ill on his round, easygoing face. "Friend of mine, Freddie."
"No trouble. I wish to assist her."
"Offered her blunt. Wouldn't take it."
"I, however, am the head of the family," Gareth pointed out with a degree of hauteur.
"Yes, right, so you are," said Jack, abashed. "Well, if all's right and tight, then, I'll be off."
Lord Wyckham had several social engagements in the next few days, and a certain amount of political and financial business to clear up before he left London. He saw little of Rupert. The captain slept in barracks, taking extra duty for friends who would cover for him for a few days leave. After accompanying his brother into Cambridgeshire, he intended to visit a friend who had sold out after Toulouse.
"I'll have to be back in Town at the beginning of June," he told Gareth as the brothers rode northward one bright, summery midday. "The Russian Tsar and King Frederick of Prussia are due to arrive for the victory festivities. There'll be parades, reviews, guards of honour, processions--I tell you, I'd a sight rather be fighting Boney."
"Gammon, you revel in cutting a dash for the crowds. I daresay I ought to put in at least a brief appearance in honour of Prinny's royal guests. What a bore!"
"Gammon, you revel in ton parties."
"I'd rather spend June in Shropshire. I'm glad you could get away now. I've been thinking over what Jack Pointer said, and I may need your support."
"Don't tell me she is a game widow?" said Rupert, grinning.
"I'd hardly go so far. Yet I gathered from Pointer that she was present at their drunken spree in the tavern. They were all bosky, he said, and it was a celebration on her account, for something Pointer promised her not to reveal."
"Therefore doubtless discreditable."
"It's possible," Gareth reluctantly agreed. "He did tell me she has 'not an ounce of vice' in her, but since he said the same of Freddie, one cannot rely upon his judgement."
"I should say not! If ever there was a rakeshame--"
"Exactly. You see my dilemma. I cannot leave her destitute in a hovel, nor do I wish to introduce a woman of uncertain morals into Llys Manor."
"Lord, no. Aunt Antonia would skin you alive. I'll tell you what," he suggested with a lascivious leer, "give the jade a purse and I'll take her off your hands."
Gareth laughed. "I'll consider your generous offer. Look, the road is clear. Let's spring 'em."
Neck and neck, they galloped up the turnpike.
Meeting Gareth's travelling carriage in Cambridge, they spent the night at the Eagle, then in the morning enquired the way to Swaffham Bulbeck. As the carriage rolled between the flat green fields, Gareth began to wish he had never embarked upon his errand of mercy. If Lady Laura Chamberlain were obviously a hussy he would know what to do, but suppose she had the outward appearance of a respectable female?
Scarcely half an hour later, having asked at the Bull and Bush for Mrs. Chamberlain, they pulled up before a flint and brick cottage. A pair of dormer windows peered from beneath symmetrical eyebrows of thatch. The tiny front garden, separated from the lane by a clipped beech hedge, was bright with orange pot-marigolds and purple stocks.
"No palace," said Gareth, straightening his top hat as he descended from the carriage, "but hardly a hovel."
Rupert followed him. "Methinks Sir John is given to exaggeration. I wonder to what extent he exaggerated the lady's virtue?"
"This is an unlikely setting for a confirmed doxy." He opened the white-painted gate and started up the flagstone path.
"I don't know. It's a sort of midway point between a haystack and a mirrored boudoir."
"You had best keep your mouth shut until we discover what's what," Gareth commanded severely. He knocked on the door. The mob-capped maid who opened it had a scrubbing brush in her hand. She curtsied, her dazzled gaze fixed on the glory of Rupert's scarlet and gold, behind Gareth. "I am Lord Wyckham," Gareth informed her. "I wish to speak with Mrs. Chamberlain. Is she at home?"
Sparing him a brief glance, she curtsied again and said in a breathless voice, "Aye, my lord, in the back garden, but you can't come through for I be a-washing the kitchen floor. D'you want me to show you round the side?" she asked hopefully, addressing Rupert.
"Thank you," Gareth answered, amused, "I expect we can find our own way."
"I did ought to announce you, my lord."
"That will not be necessary." He was glad of the opportunity to take Lady Laura unawares, before she had a chance to assume an air of propriety.
The path led them round the corner of the cottage and under an arched trellis festooned with yellow laburnam. Emerging from the arbour, Rupert at his heels, Gareth saw a girl seated on a bench in the filtered sunlight under an apple tree in bloom.
He stopped, raising his hand to silence his brother while he studied her.
Her dark head, crowned by a small, simple cap but hatless, was bent over some task in her lap, about which her hands were busy. Heavy braids, neatly pinned up, emphasized a graceful neck. She wore a plain gown of black cotton, unrelieved by any touch of white, with long sleeves and a high neck. Nothing could have been more demure.
She reached into a basket at her side, a plain gold band gleaming on her finger, and Gareth realized that she was shelling broad beans. Not the sort of chore one might expect a trollop to stoop to! His doubts withered.
She looked up, startled, revealing a complexion as delicately pink and white as the apple blossom. As she stared, the colour fled from her cheeks and she raised one hand to her parted lips in ... dismay? Alarm? Then she shook her head, relaxing. "Oh, foolish!" Her voice was sweet and low. "How very like Freddie you are. Lord Wyckham?"
"Yes." Disconcerted, he bowed. "How did you guess?"
"We met once." Setting aside the colander in her lap, she rose and came to meet them. Her face was pretty, if not beautiful, with particularly fine eyes of an unusual greenish grey, but her figure was over-plump and she moved awkwardly.
"I'm sorry," he said, contrite, as Rupert bowed over her hand, "I don't recall the occasion."
She chuckled wryly. "There is no need to apologize. It was during my Season, and you, like every other gentleman, had eyes only for my sister. I don't regard it."
Before Gareth, taken aback for the third time, could respond, his brother said with automatic gallantry, "Had I had the pleasure of making your acquaintance, ma'am, nothing could have driven the memory from my mind. Captain Rupert Wyckham, at your service."
Rosy lips curved in a warm smile. "How do you do, Captain. How kind of you both to call. Are you on your way to Newmarket?"
"As a matter of fact, no," said Gareth. "We came from Town especially to see you. I learned just the other day of Cousin Frederick's unfortunate accident. Allow me to present my sincere condolences."
"Thank you, my lord." Her direct gaze was a trifle skeptical. "I was under the impression that the Wyckhams, like the Chamberlains, had cast out the black sheep."
"My aunt and uncles did their best to ignore his existence, but I ... er ... was able to oblige him on one or two occasions."
"He touched me, too," said Rupert cheerfully.
Lady Laura flinched. "I see. If you will tell me the amounts, gentlemen, I shall repay you as soon as I am able."
"Good gad, no!"
"Jove, I should say not!" Rupert sounded as outraged as Gareth felt. As though they would dun a widow!
"You mistake us, ma'am. As head of the family, I have come to offer you a home at Llys Manor, my country seat." His duty done, he awaited her effusive gratitude for rescuing her from a life of penury, wondering whether it would last any longer than Cousin Maria's.
"You are most generous, sir," she said quietly, "but I fear I must refuse."