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Why the devil had Sir Thomas looked at him so oddly? As Justin crossed St. James's Park from Whitehall towards Mayfair, he pondered the curious reaction of the man to whom he had just tendered his resignation.
His reasons for quitting the diplomatic service were by no means out of the ordinary. His widowed father, Lord Wooburn, was alone at Wooburn Court. As the earl's heir and sole offspring, Justin felt his place was at home now that Boney was beaten. He had stated as much in the sober, discreet, unemotional manner expected of an English gentleman, and more particularly of a diplomat.
No hint had passed his lips of his fear that his aging, reclusive father must be desperately lonely. So why had Sir Thomas appeared first surprised, and then thoroughly embarrassed?
Crossing the Mall, Justin dismissed the question from his mind. He was back in England at last after two years' absence; it was time to marry and settle down to learn to manage the estates that would one day be his. The important question now was whether Lady Amabel had waited for him.
Lady Amabel of the raven locks, Toast of the Town, cool, elegant, sophisticated daughter of the Earl of Trenton--he scarcely dared hope to find her still unwed. Though he could not but be aware that he was a highly eligible parti, he had not wanted to tie her down while he was abroad. Any understanding between them had been unspoken, far too informal to allow such a breach of propriety as an exchange of letters.
Now he wondered whether he would find Lady Amabel in London. The Season was coming to an end. The trees in Green Park were taking on the darker hues of summer. On sunny days like this, the noondaystreets were hot, dusty, noisome, and a pall of smoke from sea-coal cooking fires settled over the city.
Many members of the ton had already departed to their estates, but Lord Trenton was very much involved with the government, and his daughter was no lover of the countryside. Nonetheless, she might well be attending a house party anywhere in England.
In that case, should he follow her, or go straight to his father in Buckinghamshire? Of course, if she were married, or betrothed, he'd not have to make that decision.
He reached Curzon Street. The knocker had not been taken down. He made use of it.
As the porter admitted him, the butler approached across the pink-and-white marble floor. "My lord! If I may say so, it's a pleasure to see you back in England."
"Thank you, Roberts." A good memory for names had been an advantage in the diplomatic service. "Is Lady Amabel at home?"
"I believe her ladyship is about to drive in Hyde Park, my lord."
"Lord Amis, is that really you?" The high, clear voice made him swing round. Lady Amabel was descending the stairs, carrying a driving whip. She was a perfect vision in pale rose, frilled and beflounced, with a crimson spencer. The high crowned bonnet set upon her dusky ringlets boasted three curling ostrich plumes, crimson and white. "My dear Amis, I shall take you up with me instead of my groom. I am driving my high-perch phaeton, but I daresay that will not alarm you."
"Not in the slightest, Lady Amabel. I know you for a prime whip." His cool composure matching hers, he bowed over the gloved hand she held out to him. "I should have liked to see you handling the ribbons of a troika."
She tapped his shoulder with her whip. "Ah yes, you have been in Russia, have you not?"
"And Vienna, for several months."
"And are you about to leave again for some distant post?"
"No. I was offered a position in our embassy in Paris, a much-coveted assignment, but I have resigned. I have done my small part in defeating Bonaparte by keeping our Russian allies happy."
"Yes, of course. Waterloo was a splendid victory, was it not? So you are come home for good." Her flattering air of satisfaction vanished as her rosy lips tightened with annoyance. "Roberts, why is my carriage not at the door? I ordered it half an hour since."
"It is just pulling up, my lady," said the butler quickly.
Justin gave her his arm and they went out. The phaeton was a dashing, fragile vehicle with huge wheels, the body, slung between springs, five feet above the ground. Despite his bold words, Justin was relieved to see that at least Lady Amabel drove a pair, not a team of four horses.
He handed her up, admiring her graceful movements in such a perilous ascent, and followed her. Behind the high-stepping but sluggish greys, they set off for the nearby park.
"Tell me about your travels, Lord Amis," she requested, turning south towards Rotten Row.
Knowing she would have no interest in the wretched condition of the Russian peasants, Justin concentrated on the splendours of St. Petersburg and the gaiety of Vienna. As they tooled along, he described the superb Winter Palace, the tsar's fêtes at the Summer Palace, and the magnificent balls that had at times seemed the chief purpose of the Congress of Vienna.
"I should have liked to be in Vienna, and Russia might be quite amusing, for a short while," she said carelessly. "La, how boring it is here, I vow, with everyone going into the country."
"I was fortunate to find you in Town."
"We are off tomorrow to Kent for a week--the Seagrams, sadly dull but Lady Seagram is an intimate friend of my mama's. Then I shall go on to the Parringales, in Somerset. You are acquainted with the Parringales, are you not? Such amusing people. I am sure you can obtain an invitation."
Encouraging words! In fact, she had undoubtedly rejected other suitors to await his return from Russia, he realized. "I must speak to your father before I leave Town," he said.
She gave him an approving glance before returning her attention to her horses. "I am sure Papa will be glad to receive you this evening. We dine at home. If you are not otherwise engaged, perhaps you will join us?"
"With pleasure. However, I shall not be able to join you at the Parringales', I fear. I must go down to Wooburn."
"Of course. How could I forget? A simply shocking situation. I feel for you. Amis, indeed I do, but I dare say you will know how to deal with it."
Justin frowned. "Deal with what? What shocking situation?"
"My dear, never say you do not know! Lord Wooburn has remarried."
"My father married?" Stunned, he stared at her, quite unable to appreciate her delicate profile.
"To a woman he met at Bath, or was it Cheltenham? He was taking the waters somewhere. A common, vulgar female, Pamela Parringale told me, half the earl's age and deeply in debt. They say she claims to be a widow, no doubt to account for her offspring."
"Offspring?" He groaned.
"A dozen or so, on dit. La, one cannot blame the creature for wishing to provide for them. Doubtless your papa will come down handsomely, at least while he is in the first throes of infatuation."
"Not if I have anything to say in the matter!" Justin said grimly. How could his father have betrayed the memory of his beloved wife? But no, he was not to blame. The jade had entrapped him. Given half a chance, she would make him miserable and feather her children's nest at his expense. Well, she'd not have that chance, he vowed. "Forgive me, Lady Amabel, if I cut short this delightful outing. Will you be so good as to return to Curzon Street now? I must leave for Wooburn at once."
"Jack has got his trousers very dirty," observed Priscilla with a seven-year-old's inimitable self-righteousness. "Jimmy is even dirtier. I am perfectly clean." She smoothed her faded blue muslin skirts and adjusted her blue-ribboned chip-straw hat.
"Which is scarcely to your credit, since you hate to be dirty," Ginnie pointed out. The twins were indeed both muddy and wet, but it was only to be expected when the frogs were croaking enticingly among the reeds of the ornamental lake.
"I'm dirty, too," said Nathaniel proudly, holding out his arm to show his sisters a smudge on his sleeve. Anything the twins did was perfect in his eyes. At nine, they were his heroes, his older brothers being too distant in age to be imitated.
Ginnie held his hand tightly. He was too little to join Jack and Jimmy at the water's edge. When they reached the beech wood sheltering the east end of the lake, she'd let him climb on a fallen tree trunk.
This was her favourite walk in her stepfather's park. The water reflected the deep, cloudless blue of the late-afternoon summer sky. Yellow flags grew among the bulrushes, and here and there patches of forget-me-nots bloomed on the bank. She had seen herons here, standing hunched unnaturally still in the shallows or wading with the gravity of aged lawyers. Once, passing one of the occasional willow trees, she had caught the azure flash of a kingfisher as the shy bird darted into the shelter of the long, narrow leaves.
No chance of that now, with the twins creating riot and rumpus, she thought, laughing as she turned to glance back at them.
"Ginnie, look at my frog!" Jack dashed up to her. She could always tell them apart, though she wasn't sure how. Perhaps by the pattern of freckles across their noses and cheeks.
The little greenish brown creature sat in his cupped hands, its throat pulsating, seemingly unafraid. Priscilla backed away, making ughish noises. Ginnie touched it gently.
"You were clever to catch it, Jack, but you must put it back. It will not be happy away from the water."
"I'll give it to Judith. She'll like it, not like silly Pris."
"Me, too." Jimmy, mud to the knees and wet to the elbows, arrived with another captive. Then his gaze travelled beyond the group. "Look! Who's that?"
Turning round, Ginnie saw a horse and rider emerge at a gallop from the shade of the woods. Hooves drummed as they moved from soft leaf-mould onto the close-cropped turf, speeding nearer. The rider saw them and abruptly drew rein. The horse, a magnificent bay stallion, reared. The gentleman slid ungracefully over its croup and landed flat on his back, his tall hat flying from his head.
Ginnie started towards him. The chalky ground was hard after a dry week and she feared he might be injured. However, he sprang to his feet unaided, so she turned to comfort Nathaniel and Priscilla, who clung to her in fright.
Their frogs escaped and forgotten, Jack and Jimmy clung to each other, rocking in fits of laughter. "What a clunch!" Jimmy snorted.
"Hush!" she admonished them. "You will embarrass the poor gentleman. You know you must not laugh at the misfortunes of others."
"Gammon!" said Jack vulgarly. "That wasn't misfortune, he muffed it."
"Pray mind your tongue, Jack. See, he is coming."
The gentleman approached, his beaver and whip in one hand, the stallion's reins in the other. He was a little above middle height, slim, but with the appearance of lithe strength. Though top-boots and buckskin riding breeches were powdered with road dust, his brown coat fitted like a glove and his neat neckcloth had not suffered in the fall.
Nor, it seemed, had he, except in his dignity. His light brown hair was ruffled, and so was his temper. In fact, his expression was thunderous.
His face was vaguely familiar to Ginnie. Without the scowl he must be quite handsome, she guessed.
He looked her up and down in a shockingly insolent manner, from the shabby chip-straw bonnet hiding her golden ringlets to the half-boots of worn jean. Sneering, he said, "So you are the gull-catcher. Mutton dressed as Iamb! You need not expect to profit by your chicanery, strumpet. By all the devils in hell, I'll see you damned first!"
Before she could catch her breath, reft from her by the startling attack, be vaulted into the saddle and galloped up the hill towards the house.
Nathaniel burst into tears, understanding the stranger's tone if not his words. Priscilla's lips trembled, and the twins stared after the man, their identical faces aghast.
Struggling to contain her anger, Ginnie crouched to hug her littlest brother. "It's all right, darling. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
"Why did he call you a trumpet?" asked Jimmy.
"Strumpet!" she corrected, outrage sweeping away discretion. "A strumpet is a wicked woman."
"You're not wicked." Tears overflowed Priscilla's eyes.
"What's chickery?" Jack wanted to know.
"Chicory's that blue flower, sapskull," his brother advised him and added, puzzled, "That man must think Ginnie grows it to sell. Why is it wicked to profit from selling chicory?"
"He said 'chicanery.' Trickery. Oh, how dare he!"
"What about gull-catcher?" Jimmy enquired, cautious now. "Judith had that pet seagull once, the one with the broken leg, 'member? But you never caught one, did you, Ginnie?"
"Never," she said grimly. The identity of the churlish gentleman began to dawn on her. "A gull-catcher is someone who lays snares for innocent fools and robs them."
"You're not a robber," wailed Priscilla.
Jack glowered fiercely. "You're not wicked and you're not a robber. Why did that dolt call you names?"
"He said bad words, too," Jimmy pointed out, his sandy brows drawn together.
"You're not even dressed like a lamb," Priscilla said through her tears. "Lambs wear white wool and you're wearing lilac muslin."
Mutton dressed as lamb! Somehow that affront hurt the worst. She was only twenty, after all.
"I like lambs," Nathaniel assured Ginnie, his arms round her neck. He pressed a damp kiss on her cheek.
She returned the kiss, loosened his arms, and stood up. "I have a feeling the gentleman must be the viscount, Lord Amis, our stepfather's heir," she said thoughtfully. "And I believe the odious brute mistook me for someone else. Come, let us go back to the house. I must talk to Gilbert and Lydia."
Gilbert, at sixteen, had a good head on his shoulders despite his choosing to bury it in Greek and Latin tomes. Lydia, a year older and the Beauty of the family, had inherited from their mother a placidity that her more-volatile elder sister always found soothing. Ginnie meant to tell them everything.
Not for the world would she let her younger brothers and sisters know that she had been mistaken for Mama. The new Lady Wooburn deserved such insults no more than her eldest daughter. Less, in fact, Ginnie acknowledged to herself with a twinge of guilt. On her own. Mama would never have made a push to attach the earl. Her eldest daughter had managed the entire business for her.
And a well-managed business it was! That boorish Lord Amis had no notion of the situation and no right to abuse anyone concerned.
Nathaniel's short legs scuttled to keep up with his sister's angry stride as she stalked up the hill to the splendid early Georgian red-brick mansion that was now their home.
"Take good care of him.''
Justin tossed Prince Rurik's reins at the groom, with an abrupt nod in acknowledgement of the man's stammered, "Welcome home, my lord." He strode into the house.
What a ridiculous figure he had cut! Prince Rurik had never thrown him before, but then he had never required the noble, well-mannered beast to stop on a sixpence. Blinded by the bright sun as he left the woods, he had not seen the little group on the bank of the lake until he was too close for comfort.
That the hussy was a most attractive female only made his humiliation sting the worse. A pretty piece despite her simple gown, fit to twist an old man round her little finger. Those filthy brats with her were no more than ten years old, so she was probably under thirty, less than half his father's age. She looked younger, doubtless a credit to the cosmetic arts of the Cyprian.
A fitting subject for the London scandalmongers! The thought of his loved and respected father held up to ridicule made him shudder.
Reaching the front hall, he dropped hat, gloves, and whip on the table, noting the vase of gladioli, scarlet, white, and yellow. Impatiently he brushed at the dust on his coat and breeches as he glanced around. The place breathed an indefinable air of comfort, a far cry from the gloomy atmosphere that had reigned since his mother's death and his father's withdrawal from the world.
Nonsense! Sheer imagination, the influence of the sun shining in through the clerestory below the dome, throwing patches of light on the portraits of his ancestors.
"Reynolds!'' he shouted.
Before the echoes of his voice died away, the stout butler puffed into view from the servants' wing. "Welcome home, my lord," he cried, beaming.
Reynolds had ruled the household as long as Justin could remember, and besides, he already regretted having treated the groom so curtly. "Thank you," he said. "It's good to be home. Is my father in the library?"
"No, my lord. His lordship has taken her ladyship out in the carriage, to call upon the Frobishers and the Rills, I believe. That is why no footman was here to greet you. His lordship will be disappointed ... is something wrong, my lord?"
Justin realized he was gaping. Her ladyship gone out? Then who the devil was the female he had nearly ridden down in the park, had bitterly castigated as a gull-catcher and a strumpet? A governess, possibly, but he had a mortifying suspicion he had mistaken his stepsister for her mother. That would explain her appearance of excessive youth. He groaned.
"Are you unwell, my lord?" Reynolds asked anxiously. "Your chamber is prepared, has been ready since his lordship received your letter from--"
"I am perfectly well," Justin snapped. "I rode from London, so my valet will not be here for some hours. Kindly send up hot water and someone to pull off my boots."
Taking the stairs two at a time, he made for the apartments that had been his since he left the nursery. Everything was familiar, yet somehow strange, giving an impression of brightness, newness.
That was it: newness. The new countess had already begun her extravagances. He strode to the window of his dressing-room. Yes, these curtains were similar in colour--ochre with a design in dark green--to those that had always hung here, but they were new. The ragged corner, chewed by his setter puppy and badly mended, was now whole.
Why the jade had troubled to refurbish his rooms puzzled him for a moment, until he saw the flowers on his dressing-table. Of course, she hoped to win him over. She'd soon learn how vain was that hope.
He took the yellow roses and tossed them dripping out of the window.
As he sucked on a thorn-stabbed finger, his fury burned higher. After two years abroad, to come home to this catastrophe! At least he might have expected his father to be at home to welcome him; but no, he had taken his bride to call upon the Rills and the Frobishers. Years had passed since he had visited or entertained the neighbours. Not only were Lady Wooburn and her family living in clover at the earl's expense, she was a gadabout who was cutting up the old man's peace.
Justin reaffirmed his resolve to spike her guns. He'd begin his campaign this very evening.