The large town house in prestigious Berkeley Square had come to Lady Leticia Hackett via her maternal grandmother in lieu of a dowry, and tied up in so many clever legal strings that her ladyship's high-living, deep-gambling father could not sell it to settle his debts.
Reginald Hackett, Leticia's loud, crass, uncouth, shipping-merchant husband, had come to her courtesy of that to-let-in-the-pocket father, the Earl of Mentmore, bartering her good name and impeccable lineage to the highest bidder, a climbing cit who suffered from the delusion that his deep pockets could buy him entry to Society.
Her daughter and only child, Regina, was a gift from the gods and the only reason Leticia didn't imbibe more wine than the considerable amount she did.
The two women were closeted in Regina's boudoir, the single room in the place, other than his wife's bedchamber, Reg Hackett dared not enter. The last time he'd had an itch he wanted scratched without the bother of leaving hearth and home for the mistress he kept in Piccadilly, Lady Leticia had unearthed a small silver pistol from beneath her pillow and taken off his left earlobe with a remarkably precise shot. If she'd been sober, she probably would have missed him entirely.
He didn't enter his daughter's bedchamber because, although other than using his brain to lie, cheat and steal his way to a fortune, he wasn't what anyone would term a particularly intelligent man, he did know enough to realize that Regina despised him.
And that was all right with Reg. His daughter was a commodity, rather like a full hold of India silks safely pulled up at the London Docks that he would sell at inflated prices to idiots who would otherwise be forced to do without. That's what business was all about. Buy at one price, sell at another, higher price. He'd bought his well-born, titled lady, and now he would sell her whelp to a title.
The girl was pretty enough, if she kept her mouth shut, and Reg had a strong desire to be related by marriage to one of the premier families in England. Thank God she hadn't been born a boy. He wouldn't have known how to shop a boy any higher than he'd shopped himself. Regina should snag him an earl, at the worst, even if a duke was out of the question. When you'd been born in a gutter, being able to point to an earl and say "mine" was as good as ten thousand prime shares in the Exchange.
Reg was right about his daughter's looks. She seemed to have been hatched entirely without his help, for she bore no physical resemblance to the man save a small mole just above the left, outer corner of her upper lip, which looked just fine on her, he supposed.
For the rest of her, she had her mother's dark brown hair with hints of red to it, eyes so blue they were startling and made dramatic by long, curling black lashes and winged brows above a straight nose so aristocratic it made Queen Charlotte's look like a plum pudding in comparison.
Oh, yes, Regina was a beauty, all right. Cold as her mother, but what else was to be expected? As long as she kept her legs crossed until he got her bracketed to a title, that's all Reg would ask of her.
"Turn around for me, darling," Lady Leticia said, waving her wineglass in her daughter's general direction. "It's your first Season. We can't have too daring a neckline."
Regina looked at her reflection in the pier glass and put both hands to her neckline, tugging it higher. Her mama, bless her, had always been a little bit embarrassed about her daughter's fairly ample bosom. She'd gone so far as to say it wasn't ladylike and was a sure sign of the inferior blood passed along to Regina by her paternal grandmother.
Regina had never met the woman, who had died before Regina was born, but if there were anything wrong, lacking or overdone in Regina, blame could always be laid on her father, her grandmother or "inferior blood." When she was five and accidentally broke one of her mama's favorite figurines, she had been quite astonished when her mama had not accepted her declaration that, "I didn't do it, Grandmother Hackett did."
"The neckline is fine, Mama," Regina said as she turned around, doing her best to "back" her breasts into herself, which she did by rounding her shoulders forward. "I'm very nearly acceptable."
"You are completely acceptable," Leticia declared hotly and then took another large swallow from her wineglass. "They have to accept you, they've no choice. I can trace our family bloodline back to"
"Back to the fifteenth century, and the family fortune all the way to last Tuesday, when Papa once more had to pay off more of Grandfather Geoffrey's and Uncle Seth's gaming debts before they both could be tossed into debtors' prison. Yes, I know."
"Impertinence is not a trait you inherited from my side of the family," Leticia said sulkily, reaching for the wine decanter. "The blue suits you, by the way. A wonderful match for your eyeswhich you will keep lowered, if you please, along with your chin. Debutantes are shy. Gentlemen are piqued by shyness."
"I can't imagine why. I should think they'd be bored spitless. Thank you, Hanks," Regina said as her maid clasped a single string of perfect pearls about her throat. She then crossed the room to her mother and bent down to kiss the woman's thin, papery cheek, holding her breath because her mama thought to cover the smell of spirits with copious amounts of perfume, which in reality only made things worse on both counts. "Aunt Claire and Miranda will be here shortly. I should go downstairs now. Will you be all right?"
With a sidelong glance at the cut-glass decanter, Le-ticia nodded her head. "I have company."
Regina opened her mouth to remonstrate with her mother but thought better of such a useless exercise. Instead, she looked enquiringly to Hanks, who winked at her. The wine had been watered. Good. After the first decanter, Leticia's palate must turn numb, as Regina's watering of the second (and sometimes third) decanter had yet to be noticed.
"Then I'll be on my way. I believe Miranda said something about our hostess's fine desserts, so I'm taking my largest reticule along with me so I can bring home a sampling for you."
Leticia brightened. "Lemon squares. If it's Lady Montag's soiree, there will be lemon squares. Simple, but her cook is wonderfully talented."
"It's not too late to accompany us," Regina suggested, wishing her mama would go out in Society more than she did. Cousin Miranda was a pleasant enough companion, but prone to recklessness and, more than once, had to be scooted out from behind some potted palm and away from some half-pay officer when it was time to leave.
"I'm certain your aunt Claire will prove sufficient as chaperone. Now go along. Hanks and I will be fine. Won't we, Hanks?"
"Yes, my lady," the maid said, dropping into a curtsy.
With one last, warning look at Hanks, Regina picked up her reticule and shawl and headed for the staircase, arriving in the foyer just as a footman announced that the elaborate Mentmore coach awaited her in the Square. The Mentmores hadn't had a fine crested coach until Reginald Hackett had purchased one for their use during the Season, with the caveat that his Regina was never to be taken about town in anything else.
She hastened outside and was handed up into the dark coach, seating herself on the rear-facing seat, beside Miranda's maid, Doris Ann. "Am I late or are you early?" she asked her cousin and then frowned as she noticed that her cousin was alone on her seat. "Miranda? Where's Aunt Claire?"
Her cousin's laugh tinkled (Regina might have said tittered, but everyone else thought it delightful), and she patted at the golden curls that were Regina's secret envy. Anyone could have dark brown hair, but Miranda's locks were extraordinary and highly in fashion at the moment, as were her fairer-than-fair skin, petite stature and, it would appear, her nearly flat chest.
"Mama is enjoying a rare evening at home as Aunt Leticia is serving as our chaperone this evening," Miranda explained, and then the tinkle-titter was repeated.
Regina's eyes narrowed. "That's not amusing. I told Mama Aunt Claire was accompanying us."
Miranda gave a dismissive wave of her tiny hand. "As if you've never lied to her before. And if you haven't, then it's high time you started. Not that Aunt Leticia probably remembers half of what anyone says to her, what with the Oh, I'm sorry, Reggie. I talk without thinking, I do it all the time, don't I?"
"You do a variety of things without thinking," Regina told her, squeezing her hands together on her lap. "Now tell me where this coach is heading before I knock on the roof and have it turned back to Berkeley Square."
"No, you can't do that! I can't go alone, and I simply must go. You complain that no one wants you save for your papa's money. Well, nobody wants me at all. Papa may be a viscount and Grandfather Geoffrey an earl, but the entire world knows we're all next door to paupers. Oh, Papa will find some rich merchant for me, I suppose, as Grandfather did for Aunt Leticia, if no one more suitable falls madly in love with me before the Season endsbut not as rich as Uncle Reginald and probably twice as crude. Before that happens, I want to have some fun. I've been planning all week. Doris Ann, show her." She motioned to her maid, who then reached down to the tapestry bag at her feet. "What do we want with a horrid, boring recital, when we can go to a ball?"
"A ball? I'm not dressed for a What are those?"
"Dominos," Miranda said proudly, grabbing at a mass of emerald-green silk and pulling it onto her lap before Doris Ann passed a similar silk creation, this one in scarlet, to Regina. "And the masks, Doris Ann. Show her the masks!"
One after the other, two half masks were lifted from the tapestry bag and handed to Miranda and Regina.
"Aren't they glorious!" Miranda exclaimed, holding hers up to her face. It was cunningly flirtatious, almost catlike, sewn all over with closely set green glass stones that matched the emerald silk, with larger stones topping off the many curving tips, which fanned up and out at the sides and top, rather like emerald flames. "See? These satin ribbons tie behind the head. They're both pretty, but I really like this one best, if you don't mind?"
"You look like a cat," Regina said, looking down at the mask in her hands. "And I mean that in the nicest way. Mine's
"Ivory, Regina," Miranda corrected. "It's shaped much like mine, except for that part that covers your nose, and isn't that the most gorgeous lace? And all those tiny seed pearls curling all over? And those tiny little silken rosebuds? And the lovely satin ribbons? Oh, stop frowning, Reggie. It's pretty!"
Regina looked at the mask again. Yes, there were rosebuds, three of them. One at either side of the mask and a third that, once she had it on, would be smack in the middle of her forehead. She plucked them off even as Miranda eeked in protest before breaking into a wide grin and clapping in delight.
"Then you'll go?"
Regina looked down at the mask. She fingered the decadent scarlet silk puddle in her lap. She wavered.
"I'm certain I was told that masquerade balls are not as acceptable as they once were."
"Well, of course they're not, silly, or else I wouldn't have had to steal the invitation from my brother's desk, now, would I? But since Justin is out of town at some boxing mill, in any case, why should the invitation go to waste? Besides, the hostess is Lady Fortesque, and I know Justin has spoken of her more than a few times, so the whole thing is still
Regina fingered the silk once more. Scarlet. Debutantes did not wear scarlet. They didn't wear masks, either, she felt fairly sure. She knew for certain that they didn't attend balls without a parent or other chaperone present.
"What happens at a masquerade ball?"
Miranda shrugged. "I would suppose that everyone hides behind their masks until such time as they're told to take them off. Not that we'll do that, of course. We'll be long gone by then. But while we're there
" She paused, probably for dramatic effect. "While we're there, we tell no one our true names, and we're free to dance and flirt and Oh, Reggie, please say yes!"
Being a debutante was boring. It probably was supposed to be boring, so that everyone would quickly find someone suitable, marry and never have to do it again. Being a Hackett, daughter of the poor, martyred Lady Leticia and the totally unacceptable Reginald, Regina had endured her share of impolite stares, snide innuendo and even a few horrified mamas, who had physically escorted their sons in the opposite direction when there was a chance of having to stop and exchange pleasantries with the wealthy but socially inferior Miss Hackett. Except for those titled but poor as church mice peers who might entertain lowering themselves to courting her father's money. Those she avoided, much to her papa's chagrin.
To be able to danceyes, and to flirtwithout anyone knowing her name? To not be the coarse, jumped-up shipping merchant's daughter or even the sad, drunken Lady Leticia's daughter, just for a few stolen hours?