Paris -- March 1828
"No. It can't be," Sir Bertram Trent whispered, aghast. His round blue eyes bulging in horror, he pressed his forehead to the window overlooking the Rue de Provence.
"I believe it is, sir," said his manservant, Withers.Sir Bertram dragged his hand through his tousled brown curls. It was two o'clock in the afternoon and he'd only just changed out of his dressing gown. "Genevieve," he said hollowly. "Oh, Lord, it is her."
"It is your grandmother, Lady Pembury, beyond doubt-and your sister, Miss Jessica, with her." Withers suppressed a smile. He was suppressing a great deal at the moment. The mad urge to dance about the room, shouting hallelujah, for instance.
They were saved, he thought. With Miss Jessica here, matters would soon be put right. He had taken a great risk in writing to her, but it had to be done, for the good of the family.
Sir Bertram had fallen, among Evil Companions. The evilest of companions in all of Christendom, in Wither's opinion: a pack of wastrel degenerates led by that monster, the fourth Marquess of Dain.
But Miss Jessica would soon put a stop to it, the elderly manservant assured himself as he speedily knotted his master's neckcloth.
Sir Bertram's twenty-seven-year-old sister had inherited her widowed grandmother's alluring looks: the silken hair nearly blue-black in color, almond-shaped silver-grey eyes, alabaster complexion, and graceful figure-all of which, in Lady Pembury's case, had proved immune to the ravages of time.
More important, in the practical Withers' view, Miss Jessica had inherited her late father's brains, physical agility,and courage. She could ride, fence, and shoot with the best of them. Actually, when it came to pistols, she was the best of the whole family, and that was saying something. During two brief marriages, her grandmother had borne four sons by her first husband, Sir Edmund Trent, and two by her second, Viscount Pernbury, and daughters and sons alike had bred males in abundance. Yet not a one of those fine fellows could outshoot Miss Jessica. She could pop the cork off a wine bottle at twenty paces-and Withers himself had seen her do it.
He wouldn't mind seeing her pop Lord Dain's cork for him. The great brute was an abomination, a disgrace to his country, an idle reprobate with no more conscience than a dung beetle. He had lured Sir Bertram-who, lamentably, was not the cleverest of gentlemen-into his nefarious circle and down the slippery slope to ruin. Another few months of Lord Dain's company and Sir Bertram would be bankrupt-if the endless round of debauchery didn't kill him first.
But there wouldn't be another few months, Withers reflected happily as he nudged his reluetant master to the door. Miss Jessica would fix everything. She always did.
Bertie had managed a show of surprised delight to see his sister and grandmother. The instant the latter had retired to her bedchamber to rest from the journey, however, he yanked Jessica into what seemed to be the drawing room of the narrow --and much too expensive, she reflected irritably -- appartement.
"Devil take it, Jess, what's this about?" he demanded.
Jessica picked up the mass of sporting papers heaped upon an overstuffed chair by the fire, threw them onto the grate, and sank down with a sigh into the cushioned softness.
The carriage ride from Calais had been long, dusty, and bumpy. She had little doubt that, thanks to the abominable condition of French roads, her bottom was black and blue.
She would very much like to bruise her brother's bottom for him at present. Unfortunately, though two years younger, he was a head taller than she, and several stone heavier. The days of bringing him to his senses via a sturdy birch rod were long past.
"It's a birthday present," she said.
His unhealthily pale countenance brightened for a moment, and his familiar, amiably stupid grin appeared. "I say, Jess, that's awful sweet of --" Then the grin faded and his brow -- furrowed. "But my birthday ain't until July. You can't be meaning to stay until-!'I meant Genevieve's birthday," she said.
One of Lady Pembury's several eccentricities was her insistence that her children and grandchildren address and refer to her by name. I am a woman," she would say to those who protested that such terminology was disrespectful. I have a name. Mama, Grandmama ..." Here she would give a delicate shudder. "So anonymous."
Bertie's expression grew wary. "When's that?"
"Her birthday, as you ought to remember, is the day after tomorrow." Jessica pulled off her grey kid boots, drew the footstool closer, and put her feet up. "I wanted her to have a treat. She hasn't been to Paris in ages, and matters haven't been pleasant at home. Some of the aunts have been muttering about having her locked up in a lunatic asylum. Not that I'm surprised. They've never understood her. Did you know, she had three marriage offers last month alone? I believe Number Three was the straw that broke the camel's back. Lord Fangiers is four and thirty years old. The family says it's embarrassing."
'Well, it ain't exactly dignified, at her age."
"She's not dead, Bertie. I don't see why she should behave as though she were. If she wishes to wed a pot boy, that's her business." Jessica gave her brother a searching look. "Of course, it would mean that her new husband would have charge of her funds. I daresay that worries everybody."
Bertie flushed, "No need to look at me that way."
"Isn't there? You appear rather worried yourself. Maybe you had an idea she'd bail you out of your difficulties.
He tugged at his cravat. "Ain't in difficulties."
"Oh, then I must be the one.