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Two Weeks Later
If they didn't change the subject soon, she was going to make a scene. A loud, unladylike scene that would ruin her disguise and foil her plans.
Her gloved hands clenched in her lap, the woman known as Mrs. Brownley sat in the grand ballroom near a group of gossiping matrons. All around her swirled the sounds and activities of the party. Hundreds of candles winked in chandeliers and wall sconces, the scene slightly blurred by her borrowed spectacles. Footmen bearing silver trays of champagne and punch circulated among the throngs of aristocratic guests. Rich perfumes scented the air, and at the far end of the vaulted chamber, an orchestra played music fit for the angels.
It was an extravagant feast of the senses for someone who had never set foot into society before tonight.
Until a moment ago, Claire had been enjoying herself, much to her surprise. At the sedate old age of five-and-twenty, she was supposed to have her feet firmly planted on the ground. She was conscious of her duty to keep a close eye on beautiful, young, flighty Lady Rosabel Lathrop, whose white gown and blond hair could be glimpsed on the dance floor among the two long rows of ladies and gentlemen.
Yet as Claire watched their graceful moves, a wistful yearning had struck from out of nowhere. Beneath her shapeless gray gown, her foot had tapped in time to the lively tune. She had found herself longing to join in the festivities instead of languishing here in the role of paid companion. She had even entertained the traitorous thought that if matters had been different, she too might have grown up in this world of wealth and privilege.
Then someone had mentioned the Wraith.
And her desperate purpose had come crashing back over Claire.
"It's a relief that criminal is behind bars at last," Lady Yarborough declared now, her vehemence jiggling the fleshy folds beneath her chin. The tight gray curls that ringed her rotund face looked too stiff to be real. "The effrontery of him to prey upon his betters, to steal our jewels from right beneath our very noses."
Clucks of agreement came from the other matrons. In this flock of old hens, the viscountess clearly ranked first in the pecking order.
"The Wraith made off with my ruby brooch," Mrs. Danby said in her gravelly voice. Her clawlike hands gripping the knob of her cane, she glanced around as if half-expecting a masked figure wielding a pistol to leap out from behind a potted fern. "I vow, my nerves shall never recover."
The woman looked too peevish to suffer from any such weakness, Claire judged. Mrs. Danby's features were gaunt with charcoal shadows beneath sunken brown eyes. She was like all the ancient beldams of society, haughty and pretentious, radiating self-importance.
"The Wraith filched my favorite diamond earbobs," wailed another lady, clad in a tight green gown more suited to a younger, slimmer figure. "Along with the pearl necklace Ralph gave me on our fortieth wedding anniversary last year. Yet that ruffian claims he didn't do it."
"There can be no doubt the fellow is guilty," Lady Yarborough pronounced. "The Runners searched his rooms and found a diamond bracelet belonging to Lady Rockford."
"And he is a Shakespearean scholar," said a pucker-mouthed matron. "Was not a quote from the Bard left at the scene of each crime?"
"Indeed, Gilbert Hollybrooke is a thief, a liar, and a beast." Mrs. Danby's nostrils flared in her cadaverous face, and she rapped her cane on the parquet floor. "A beast, I say!"
No, he's innocent! They've arrested the wrong man!
Her body rigid, Claire concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths. She didn't dare speak her mind here, not in this enemy encampment where no one knew her true identity.
"There is no need for histrionics," Lady Yarborough chided. "Do have a care for Lady Hester's sensibilities."
The gossip died down. A few ladies gasped. Everyone's eyes turned discreetly toward the plump woman sitting at Lady Yarborough's right. Several in the group looked genuinely concerned for Lady Hester Lathrop, and Claire supposed there must be a few good souls in society, for her own mother had come from these hallowed ranks.
Lady Yarborough addressed the lady at her side. "Do forgive us, dear Hester," she said, a trill of sympathy entering her voice. "The events of the past week must have come as a dreadful shock to you."
As one, the ladies leaned closer so as not to miss a single word of the exchange. Their jewels glowed in the soft candlelight, and their wrinkled faces showed varying degrees of distaste, pity, and curiosity.
In the background, the orchestra music swelled in a crescendo. The other guests danced and chatted, unaware of the drama unfolding in this corner of the ballroom, where wallflowers wistfully awaited a dance partner and sour old ladies condemned a blameless man.
Like an actress on cue, Lady Hester lifted a lace handkerchief and dabbed at imaginary tears on her florid cheeks. In her pink gown with the chocolate ribbons, she resembled a large bonbon. "You may speak as you will. It is no use pretending that ancient scandal never happened. Nor in denying my family's unfortunate connection to the Wraith."
A collective gasp met the statement, and Lady Hester paused-obviously for dramatic effect.
Her employer was every bit as formidable as the viscountess, Claire thought cynically. Lady Hester presented herself to the world as a frail, ineffectual female, but nothing could be further from the truth. She had found a brilliant way to turn the scandal to her advantage. Like the heroine in a tragedy, she would milk all the dubious glory of possessing inside information to feed the gossip mill.
In the face of such agonizing honesty, even Mrs. Danby subdued her strident tone. "Dear me, Hester. Do you mean . . . he is the one who
"Alas, yes." Lady Hester sniffled daintily. "Many years ago, Gilbert Hollybrooke was hired as a tutor for my dear departed John and his elder sister. John's parents trusted Hollybrooke, but he repaid their kindness by luring sweet, foolish Emily into an elopement." She pressed the handkerchief to her brow. "John said it was horrible . . . simply horrible! Poor Emily didn't realize until it was too late that Hollybrooke coveted only her fortune."
That's a lie! They were madly in love. Money didn't matter to them.
Claire clenched her teeth to keep from voicing those incriminating words. No one here knew that she was really Gilbert Hollybrooke's daughter, or that she had formulated a desperate scheme to free her father from prison.
Lady Hester musn't discover that Claire had taken a leave of absence from her position as a teacher of literature at the Canfield Academy in Lincolnshire. Or that she had forged her own references, attesting to be the respectable Mrs. Clara Brownley. But most importantly, Lady Hester mustn't know that the widow she had hired to chaperone her daughter was her own niece by marriage.
"Of course, John's father cut them off without a penny," Lady Hester went on sadly, as if she mourned the loss of the sister-in-law she had never met. "John never saw Emily again-nor ever even heard from her."
Another falsehood. Mama had written to her family many times.
Emily Hollybrooke had been a blithe, sunny person who had cast sunshine on everyone in her sphere. But one day when Claire was ten, she'd been shocked to find her mother weeping at Papa's desk while composing a letter. Mama had summoned a smile and contrived an excuse, but when Claire had told Papa, he'd said that Mama wrote once a year to her noble father, who had shunned her for marrying a commoner. Never once had she received a reply to her letters. Papa's fury at the Marquess of Warrington had stunned Claire, and he'd refused to answer any more questions.
But now was not the time to set the record straight. Especially to Lady Hester-Aunt Hester, though Claire scorned to claim any relation to the indolent, self-absorbed woman she had known for only three days.
Lady Hester's ample bosom lifted and fell in another sigh. "It was by chance that we learned of Emily's death fourteen years ago. Oh, my poor, darling John suffered so at the news. Never will I understand how she could have abandoned her own family to run off with that . . . that villain."
"There now," Lady Yarborough said, reaching out a wrinkled, beringed hand to pat Lady Hester's arm. "Emily isn't the first lady to be taken in by a scoundrel. But at least now he'll get his just punishment."
"He'll be imprisoned for life," ventured a timid, gray-haired woman.
"Transported to the colonies," said a hunchbacked crone.
"He deserves far worse," Mrs. Danby declared, her gaunt features showing an unladylike relish. "I shan't rest easy until Gilbert Hollybrooke is sent to the gallows."
A small moan escaped Claire. She pressed her hand to her mouth, but luckily no one heard, no one saw, no one paid any heed to the hired chaperon. For once, she was grateful for the anonymity of her position. These ladies had no notion that her palms felt icy inside her kid gloves, that her stomach clenched and her heart pounded.
She had known the danger Papa faced, agonized over his desperate situation, wept to see him imprisoned in a cold, dank cell. She had conceived a reckless plan to clear his name. But to hear him condemned now so bluntly and with such spiteful intent struck straight into the center of her fears.
Her father could be executed. For a crime he didn't commit.
"Mrs. Brownley. Mrs. Brownley."
It took a moment for Claire to surface from the depths of her dark thoughts, to realize that Lady Hester was addressing her.
She turned to gaze into the hazel eyes of her late uncle's wife. Lady Hester had a round face, seamed with wrinkles and flushed from the heat of the ballroom. The façade of defenseless debility was gone, and a thunderous frown furrowed her brow.
Claire froze. Had Lady Hester noticed Claire's distress? Had she seen a portrait of Claire's mother and realized Claire's identity?
Ridiculous. Emily Hollybrooke had had green eyes and blond hair, while Claire was a brunette under the voluminous widow's cap. She wore spectacles that dulled her blue eyes and a plain, high-necked gray gown that turned her complexion sallow. She had made herself mousy and meek and entirely unlike the vivacious Emily.
With studied humility, Claire said, "Yes, my lady?"
"The music has stopped," Lady Hester hissed under her breath. "Where is my daughter?"
Claire swung her gaze toward the dance floor. The lines of ladies and gentlemen had dissipated, the orchestra was tuning their instruments in the corner, and the guests chatted in clusters. But Lady Rosabel was nowhere to be seen.
"I'll go in search of her. If you'll excuse me."
Claire made to rise, but Lady Hester caught her sleeve. Her expression displayed the fierceness of a mother bear defending her cub. "You are to keep watch over Rosabel at all times. But I vow, I saw her dancing with that scoundrel Lewis Newcombe."
"Isn't he Lord Frederick's friend?" Claire asked cautiously, remembering a suave gentleman with fair hair and a charming smile.
"Not anymore," her aunt snapped. "My son no longer associates with rakes and gamblers. Especially not a villain like Newcombe. Good heavens, his mother was a common actress!"
Claire swallowed a retort about judging a person by his pedigree. "I'm sorry, I didn't know."
"Then you must make it your business to know, Mrs. Brownley." Leaning closer, Lady Hester added sternly, "I will not allow any blot upon my daughter's virtue. I've had to let go three other companions because they failed in their duties. Do I make myself clear?"
Nodding, Claire rose to her feet. It was abundantly clear. If she failed, she would forfeit her post in the Marquess of Warrington's house.
She would lose her one chance to prove that someone in her mother's estranged family had conspired to send her father to prison.
"The nursery noose."
The moment Simon Croft, the sixth Earl of Rockford, uttered the phrase, he had cause to regret his rashness. In the dimness of the coach, the man opposite him straightened his languid posture. A puzzled frown flitted across his affable face; then a slow grin displayed a flash of white teeth beneath a large Roman nose and blue eyes.
"The nursery noose, eh? The time in a man's life when he must find a wife and beget an heir." Sir Harry Masterson slapped his gloved palm against his thigh. "By gad, that's a prime one. I must remember to tell it to the fellows at the club."
Simon grimaced. He had no interest in sharing witticisms. Nor in discussing the private issue that had sparked his pronouncement.
But Harry had known him too long to let the matter rest. As the well-sprung coach swayed around a corner, he gave Simon an amused stare. "Something tells me you've had another tiff with the dowager. No doubt she wants you to put the noose around your neck."
"My mother is not the dowager," Simon corrected. "She remains Countess of Rockford until such time as I acquire a wife."
His smile broadening, Harry shook his head. "You shan't distract me with lectures on the fine points of etiquette, old chap. The countess won't rest until you're as happily shackled as your sisters."
Outside the coach, candles glinted in the windows of tall, stately town houses, and the occasional gas lamp appeared like a hazy moon against the misty darkness. Happily was a matter of degree, Simon reflected. Unlike his three younger siblings, he preferred his freedom too much to go willingly to the altar. But his mother was right; duty called. At the age of three-and-thirty, he needed to set up his nursery and ensure the continuation of his noble lineage.
He could accept his fate. He could take a rational approach to the obligations required of his title. But he wasn't looking for happiness in a marriage.
He would find that elsewhere. With a real woman, not the virginal milk-and-water miss he must select to be his countess.
One eyebrow lifted in casual hauteur, he corrected, "I have decided to take a bride. Perhaps you should do the same."
"Misery loves company, eh? But pray recall I have two younger brothers to inherit."
"Not all of us can be so fortunate."
"Indeed." Looking cheerfully carefree, Harry lounged against the burgundy velvet cushions. "Well, well. I never thought I'd see the day you'd consent to be joined in holy matrimony. So who's the lucky lady?"
"I'll find out tonight."
"Tonight? Good God, don't tell me you've allowed your mother to pick her out for you, too."
"Certainly not." Simon crossed his legs, matching his friend's casual posture. "Stanfield will have invited most of the season's debutantes. It should be a simple matter to make my choice."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
His friend looked skeptical, and Simon knew Harry wouldn't understand. Harry threw himself exuberantly into love affairs, sampling women like fine wine, declaring each one his perfect mate, and in the next moment moving on to another pretty face. He wore his heart on his sleeve, flirted with everything in skirts, and in general, thrived on chaos.
Simon, however, thrived on order and logic. Passion, he believed, could be controlled through mental discipline. By keeping his perspective, a man could live in peace and avoid emotional turmoil. Consequently, he kept a mistress only for so long as she abided by his rules. The instant she became possessive or demanding, he extricated himself from the relationship.
He intended to handle a wife in the same manner, with firmness and detachment. If she grew tiresome, he would banish her to his country estate in Hampshire and visit her from time to time, enough to ensure the succession of his line. There, she could preside over local society, while he pursued criminals in London.
"But"-Harry waved his hands expansively-"there are so many to choose from, I wouldn't know where to start. Miss Gorham with her sparkling blue eyes. Lady Ellen Reed, so shy and sweet. Lady Rosabel Lathrop, who has the most exquisite bosom-"
"Lathrop?" Simon said sharply. "That's the Warrington family name." Pity and triumph warred within him. Pity for the marquess who had suffered the loss of his daughter to Gilbert Hollybrooke, only to have the old scandal rear its ugly head again. And triumph that the Wraith now awaited trial in Newgate Prison.
Harry gazed askance at Simon. "Lady Rosabel is Warrington's granddaughter. Have you a particular interest in her?"
Simon kept his expression bland. Not even Harry knew about his secret work as a fighter of crime. "Certainly not. Any girl of good birth will do."
Uttering a harumph, Harry folded his arms. "You must have some qualities in mind. Fair or dark? Short or tall? Quiet or loquacious? Let me guess. You'll prefer a tall, slim brunette, a woman with a tongue sharp enough to fence words with you."
"Short, blond, and naïve will be fine. So will average, auburn, and gauche. The point of the matter is not her appearance so much as her suitability for the role of countess."
"She must have impeccable lineage, enjoy good health, and be malleable enough to train."
Harry whistled softly. "Excellent criteria, if you're seeking a pedigreed puppy."
"In a manner of speaking, I am." Annoyed by the way that sounded, Simon frowned. His sisters would have his neck if they'd heard him talk so cavalierly.
But of course, he thought highly of his younger siblings. Elizabeth, Jane, and Amelia were sensible and quick-witted, hardly qualities he expected to find in the current crop of giddy debutantes. Indeed, each of his sisters had been the stellar catch of their respective seasons, and he was damned proud of them, as proud as if they were his own daughters.
After his father's violent death when Simon was fifteen, he had seen to their schooling. In a society where most girls learned only womanly arts like playing the pianoforte and stitching needlework, his girls had read Plato in the original Greek and Cicero in Latin. They had studied mathematics and geography and astronomy-albeit grumbling at times-and now they could carry on an intelligent conversation.
When they weren't talking about babies and household matters, that is. It seemed not even an excellent education could dull a woman's interest in domestic topics.
Harry looked disgusted, so Simon clarified, "I would never imply that women are like dogs. But even you must agree that the typical girl has little rattling around inside her head beyond fashion and flirting."
"No, I don't agree. I wholeheartedly disagree." Harry leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "If you'd spend more time in society you'd see what I mean. Girls are mysterious and fascinating, each and every one of them. They're soft and sweet and-"
"Silly. Nevertheless, I intend to take one to wife and mold her into my countess."
Harry shook his head. "You're a coldhearted bastard."
"Quite the contrary," Simon said dryly. "My mother will attest to my legitimacy."
The coach slowed as they neared the magnificent façade of Stanfield House near the Strand. Harry gave him that calculating look, the one Simon had known since their days together at Eton. "Since you regard every young lady as essentially the same, then you might as well choose the first one you meet."
Chuckling, Simon shook his head. "I won't be drawn into one of your challenges."
"Aha! Then you don't stand by your word. You'll admit you're wrong-or you'll accept my dare."
He was being manipulated, Simon knew. Only a fool would fall into such a scheme. But in all honesty, he had dug his own pit. He had proclaimed his beliefs in no uncertain terms. And although it was stupid and illogical, he felt compelled to prove he was right.
He fixed Harry with a cool stare. "As you wish, then. But certain standards must be met."
Harry flashed a wide grin. "Certainly! She must be pretty, I'll allow. I wouldn't expect the Earl of Rockford to wed a bucktoothed Amazon."
Simon ticked off each point. "Yes, reasonably attractive. From a good family. And no older than twenty."
"Thirty," Harry amended. "Look at Lady Susan Birdsall, on the shelf these past ten years, but not for want of suitors-"
"Five-and-twenty," Simon compromised. "And she must be a virgin. I will have no doubt about the paternity of my firstborn son."
"So you'll order her to have a boy first, eh? Very sensible of you, old chap." Glancing out the window of the coach, Harry rubbed his hands together with relish. "What do you say we hop out here and enter straight into the ballroom from the garden? Then all the young ladies will have a fair chance at winning your hand."
Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Dawson Smith