“At best we can bag an earl, or perhaps an earl’s heir for Allegra,” Lady Olympia Abbott, Dowager Marchioness of Rowley, told her brother-in-law, Lord Septimius Morgan. “Pandora’s behavior ain’t helped her daughter, but there it is. My sister was always selfish, and do not glower at me, Septimius; it is the truth even if you have never faced it.” She sipped her tea from a Wedgwood saucer thoughtfully. “We won’t know what opportunities we have until the season begins, and we see what unmarried young men have come; but I can guarantee that Allegra’s extraordinary beauty and wealth will attract only the best. The bluest of bloods, of course, will ignore her, but we’ll do very well nonetheless. This tea is delicious, Septimius. Who is your importer? I must have some for myself.”
“The tea comes from my own plantations, Olympia. I will see you are supplied with it from now on,” Lord Morgan said.
“Your own plantations in India? I never knew,” his sister-in-law replied, surprised. She slurped from her saucer appreciatively.
“Ceylon. My holdings are quite diverse,” he explained. “It is not wise to put all of one’s eggs in a single basket, Olympia. I have taught my daughter that lesson.”
“I don’t know why you bothered,” Lady Abbott responded. “Allegra is going to be someone’s wife, m’dear. She needs little knowledge other than how to manage a household efficiently, how to direct her servants to live moral lives, how to paint pleasing watercolors, play a musical instrument, sing, dance prettily, and of course give her husband an heir as promptly as she can do so. After that she must raise her children as God-fearing and mannerly, with a strong sense of their English heritage.”
“Allegra is my heiress, Olympia. She should know how my many businesses are managed else she lose them one day,” Lord Morgan told his sister-in-law, who only shook her head at him.
“Septimius!” said the exasperated lady. “Allegra’s husband will be in charge of her inheritance. You know that we women are not capable of such things.” She laughed. “How you dote on that girl, but she is still a girl.” Then she grew serious. “I know you miss James Lucian, but your son is gone, Septimius. Allegra cannot replace him.” The Dowager Marchioness of Rowley’s soft blue eyes filled with tears, and she put a comforting hand on her brother-in-law’s arm. “He was a great hero, my nephew, God rest him. A hero, and a true gentleman.”
“Do not speak on it!” Lord Morgan said harshly. “While Allegra is indeed just a girl, she is extremely intelligent. Whoever her husband is to be he must appreciate that. Until the day I die my daughter will have a personal allowance from me of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds a year. And after I am gone my estates will continue to see Allegra receives those monies. I don’t intend my daughter be at the mercy of some charming blue-blooded wastrel who will mistreat her after he has captured her heart, use her dower to pay for his vices and his mistresses, and then drink himself into an early grave leaving her and my grandchildren helpless to his family.”
“Septimius!” his sister-in-law cried, shocked. “What kind of men do you think we are offering Allegra to, for mercy’s sake?”
“I know the kind of men who inhabit the ten thousand, my dear Olympia. Most of them are useless, and all of them are snobs. As Lord Morgan’s daughter, Allegra must of necessity choose one of them for a husband, but I will not leave her unprotected.” His fist slammed upon the mahogany side table causing Lady Abbott to start.
“But whatever you give her the law says is her husband’s,” she protested. “You cannot circumvent the law, Septimius.”
He looked at her, amused, thinking that Olympia was a good soul, but entirely too naive for a woman of her years. “Of course I can skirt the law, my dear. That is one of the advantages of being the richest man in all of England.” He chuckled. “When I want something there are those only too glad to accommodate me. My occasional gratitude is both known and appreciated. No husband will be able to confiscate Allegra’s monies for his own purposes. Now, let us speak on more imminent subjects.
“You will, of course, be staying at the house in town for the season.
“Allegra is to have the finest wardrobe that can be made. She is not to be outshone by lesser lights, Olympia. It is very good of you to take her under your wing, especially considering the youngest of your daughters is also making her entry into society. I hope you will allow me to cover the cost of Lady Sirena’s wardrobe as well. It will help you to get Allegra to stand still for the modiste if her favorite cousin is also suffering the same fate.” Lord Morgan smiled. “Do not stint on either girl, my dear. Charles Trent, my steward and secretary, will see that they have the proper jewelry. The safe in the London house is full to overflowing.”
“You are very kind, Septimius,” Lady Abbott said gratefully. Her son, the young Marquis of Rowley, was married. His income was adequate, but hardly allowed for a generous allowance to be expended on his youngest sister. And worse, when she had returned home from Morgan Court, his wife had voiced objections to Sirena having a season at all.
“Augustus,” Charlotte had said pettishly to her husband while in his mother’s presence, “Sirena’s dowry is hardly worth mentioning. I don’t know who will have her. Couldn’t we find a husband for her here in the country? I understand Squire Roberts has a fine son who is ready to take a wife. It seems foolish to expend our monies on a season in London for your sister.”
The dowager marchioness had been outraged by her daughter-in-law’s mean words. She had always tried to keep a good relationship with Gussie’s wife, but this was intolerable. “My dear Charlotte,” she said in icy tones that sent a shiver down her only son’s spine. “Your dowry was not particularly overgenerous I recall, and yet you managed to attract my son’s affections. You are married five years now, and have produced no heir. Still, I do not complain. Sirena’s dowry was set aside by her father, God rest my darling husband, as were the monies for Sirena’s debut in London. My daughter shall have her season!”
“And where will you reside?” the foolish Charlotte demanded. “We may go up for the season.”
“I am sponsoring my niece, Allegra Morgan. Lord Morgan has invited us to live in his house on Berkley Square,” Lady Abbott replied silkily. “Everything is already arranged, and we shall leave for London on the first of March.”
“You could stay at Abbott House, Mama,” her son said generously, to his wife’s pique.
“Good heavens, Gussie, I should hope not!” Lady Abbott said loftily. “It is much too small, and not on the most fashionable of streets, I fear. We do want Sirena to make a good impression, don’t we? Besides, I expect you and Charlotte will be filling the house with all your friends. It will hardly be the place for a young girl.” She smiled at the couple.
“The house my father gave us as a wedding gift is on a perfectly good street!” Charlotte burst out, stung.
“Perhaps, my dear,” her mother-in-law purred, “but it is not Berkley Square now, is it?” She smiled again, pleased to have put the aggravating chit back in her place. “I’m certain Septimius will invite you to all the parties he is giving for Allegra. After all, she is Gussie’s cousin, isn’t she?”
“She is a most delightful, but naughty puss,” the Marquess of Rowley said with a fond chuckle. “I have always been quite taken with Allegra. But when she and Sirena get together all hell is apt to break loose!” He chuckled again. “You are going to have your hands full, Mama,” he said, waggling a finger at her.
“Which is why I shall enjoy a quiet summer back here in the country,” his mother said with a smile.
“If the girls bag themselves husbands, Mama, you shall have no peace at all this summer, for you shall be busy planning their weddings. I know that my uncle Septimius depends upon you in such matters, and when Allegra marries, it will be quite the spectacle, I think.”
“Miss Morgan has little hope of making a particularly distinguished match,” Charlotte interjected. “She may be rich, but her blood is barely blue, and her mama’s disgraceful behavior can hardly recommend her, or be overlooked. Is there not a saying, like mother, like daughter?”
“Allegra’s mother, you may recall, Charlotte, was my youn- gest sister,” Lady Abbott said. “Her unfortunate conduct cannot reflect on my niece any more than it can reflect upon me, or any children you might finally bear. What twaddle you babble, my dear!”
“Have you ever heard from Aunt Pandora since she ran away, Mama?” Augustus asked, curious.
“Because you ask me, I shall tell you, Gussie, but it is never to be discussed with Allegra, or anyone else for that matter. Yes, I know where my sister is. She married her count, and they live outside of Rome. They are quite well liked, I am told.”
“How could a divorced woman be remarried?” Charlotte asked.
“Pandora’s first marriage was not performed in the Roman Catholic faith, and therefore not recognized by that church. My sister was first baptized into the old faith, and then married to her count. Septimius knows, but Allegra has never been told.”
“She can hardly remember her mama,” Augustus said. “She was only two when Aunt Pandora ran off.”
“She doesn’t remember her at all, but for the portrait of my sister which hangs at Morgan Court. Septimius has never taken it down because he has never stopped loving Pandora. My sister did not deserve such a good man.”
“Why, madame,” Charlotte giggled inanely, “you sound as if you had a tendre for Lord Morgan.” She looked slyly at her mother-in-law, giggling again in a particularly irritating fashion.
What had Augustus seen in this ridiculous girl, Lady Abbott thought. Her dear husband had been dead a year, and Lady Abbott was barely out of mourning when they had met. Charlotte’s parents, the earl and his countess, had been delighted with their daughter’s prize catch. They certainly should have been! They had rushed the young couple to the altar almost immediately, hosting a large wedding at St. George’s on Hanover Square, followed by a wedding breakfast afterward at their rented town house. There had been no time to point out to her son that Charlotte was a featherbrained chit who could be both selfish and mean. Still, she seemed to make Augustus happy, even if she had not yet produced a child. Her son said that Charlotte was afraid of childbirth, having been treated to horror stories from her mother, a brainless creature who had easily managed to produce three offspring despite her alleged fears.
“Will you need the coach to get up to London?” the marquess asked his mother, ignoring his wife’s silly outburst as indeed he hoped his mama would. While he loved Charlotte, even he was ofttimes embarrassed by her tactlessness.
Lady Abbott gave her son a small smile, and patted his hand reassuringly. “No, m’dear, I will not. Septimius’s traveling coach will convey us all to London in style.”
“I hear the fittings on his vehicle are real silver—not gilt,” Charlotte said.
“I believe they are,” Lady Abbott replied. “Sirena and I are going to travel to Morgan Court in a few days, and from there up to London. I should appreciate the use of your carriage, Gussie, for that short journey.”
“Of course, Mama,” the marquess replied dutifully.
From the Trade Paperback edition.