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The lush fragrance of late spring flowers mingling with the pungent scent of burning candles drifted over the assembled guests seated in the elegant vastness of St. George's, Hanover Square. What was assuredly the wedding of the year was in progress and Society had come forth en masse to view the union of the beautiful and well-dowered Miss Katherine Talbot to the wealthy, highly eligible Marquess of Torrington. Beautiful blooms graced the altar; the groomsmen and the bridal attendants were exquisitely garbed and the ladies in particular were suitably demure. All was as it ought to be.
The urbane and fashionable gentleman seated prominently near the front crossed his arms across his chest while he surveyed the pair at the altar. They were well matched, both in looks and fortune. It was a good marriage, one of which he highly approved, being nominal head of the family. His gaze shifted from the pair to the maid of honor--Torrington's sister Lady Jocelyn, then to the bridal attendant.
He'd been informed she was a cousin of the bride. Miss Timothy, he believed. The Honorable Miss Persys Timothy, although one who looked less like a Persian woman he could not imagine. She far more resembled an exotic waif with her delicate features and faintly slanted eyes. The wreath of pink rosebuds perched on her ash-brown hair added to her piquancy. She intrigued him. As he watched her while the vows were concluded, he caught a swift look of anguish cross her face. Why such a pretty young woman should know pain at the wedding of her cousin he couldn't imagine. Jealousy? Possibly. On the other hand, perhaps it was but a momentary twinge. He resolved to take note of her behavior at thebreakfast to follow.
Persys clutched her small posy with determined hands. She would endure this ordeal. She would. And, she vowed, no one would ever know that her heart was shattered into a hundred tiny pieces, never to be repaired. The very sight of the handsome groom smiling down at his bride cut her into ribbons of pain. Oh, that she might exchange places with her cousin!
The final words of the ceremony rolled forth from the severe and rather daunting bishop. In a flurry of slight confusion the happy couple retired to sign the register. Persys reluctantly followed, knowing she must appear as happy as she ought.
There was to be a sumptuous breakfast following the wedding. Persys wondered if she would survive the ordeal intact. Surely she could conceal her feelings for another few hours? After that, nothing really mattered, did it?
There was a slight breeze once they reached the outside. Dust swirled about the bridal party while they laughingly gathered on the sidewalk, then entered the awaiting carriages. Persys nodded politely when spoken to and smiled in reply to the groomsman's light chatter. He was Torrington's younger brother. Lord Charles, and a shadow of his handsome sibling.
Chin up, that's what was required.
The spacious rooms where Aunt Talbot had organized the breakfast fairly bloomed with flowers. An incredible array of foods graced the tables. An epergne overflowing with exotic flowers and fruits was centered between her prized silver candleholders and surrounded by bowls and dishes that vied in an extravagant display to tempt any jaded palate.
Persys could not eat a bite but she pretended, pushing a small selection of food around and around on her plate.
"I should have thought you would be hungry after all that business," a well-modulated and highly cultured voice said dryly for Persys alone to hear. "I'll wager you scarcely ate earlier this morning. Are you sure you feel quite all right?"
Surprised at the note of concern she detected in his tone, Persys turned her head to look at the speaker. Heavens above, it was none other than the man she had been cautioned not to approach, the noble Duke of Eddington.
"Indeed, Your Grace, while what you say is true, I find I am not interested in food at the moment. Nerves, perhaps?" She gave him a polite smile, turning away and taking one step when he spoke again, halting her in her flight.
"I have no one with whom to speak." He managed to sound wistful and lonely, which had to be errant nonsense. Yet he appealed to something deep within, and ignoring her instructions she paused to look at him. "Stay and keep me company. I would avoid those toad-eaters who edge close in hopes of snaring a bit of conversation with a duke and those who would invite me to some event I really don't wish to attend. It's a devil of a coil to be polite when not desired."
Startled, Persys half-smiled and nodded. "I can see that would be a dilemma. I am fortunate not to worry about that."
"But something is worrying you, is it not?" he gently queried while guiding her across the room to a somewhat sheltered spot blessedly obscured from her aunt's view. Potted palms conveniently offered rather whimsical refuge. Persys doubted if her aunt was the least concerned about her reputation, but it would not do to be found speaking to the most important guest, one her aunt hoped to parade before her friends as proof of the groom's excellent connections in the unlikely event they didn't know of them already.
Her back to the cool comfort of the wall, Persys faced him, her puzzlement at his interest unconcealed. "I cannot think why you should be concerned, Your Grace. I am quite pleased at my cousin's most excellent marriage and happy to have been of help to her during the time of her come-out. If I seem a trifle blue-deviled it is merely that I shall miss her excellent company." Persys studied the elegant gentleman before her to see if he accepted her remarks without question.
"You have been her companion?" he asked, his rich voice revealing nothing more than polite interest.
"Indeed, Your Grace. Upon the death of my parents Aunt Talbot graciously invited me to live with them, later to keep Katherine company until such time as she married."
"And now?" he persisted gently, not seeming greatly interested. Yet there was a quality about him that made Persys reply honestly, without evasion.
"Now? I do not know what will happen. Perhaps my aunt will take me as her companion. While I have a modest dowry, it is scarcely sufficient to tempt anyone of merit. Besides, I have no interest in becoming married." she concluded with a hint of defiance and a peek at the man of her dreams, the ... dashing Marquess of Torrington, her cousin's new husband.
"Curious," he commented. "I thought all young women were interested in marriage. After all, what else is there?"
True," she replied almost bitterly, in her melancholy state far more open than she normally was. "But then, I have the disadvantage of three and twenty years on my plate. I am quite on the shelf, I suspect."
"Indeed, I had not thought you to be so elderly," he replied with a teasing smile. The duke appeared to lose interest in their admittedly uninspiring conversation and turned to gaze at the overladen table. "Your aunt and uncle have certainly done well by their daughter."
"Their only daughter, Your Grace. That does make a difference." Persys gave him a wry smile.
"They'd not do the same for you, their niece?" He gave her a knowing look. She elected not to answer.
"Excuse me. I have no doubt there is something my aunt wishes me to do. There usually is." With a polite curtsy, she whisked herself around him to seek her aunt. She suspected her relative actually would think of some duty for Persys to perform. It seemed to irk Aunt Talbot if Persys were not continually kept busy at something or other.
"There you are." her stout and vastly overdressed aunt declared as Persys slipped into place in the receiving line.
"I felt in need of a restorative, dear aunt." Persys responded mildly. "Knowing how concerned you are for the health of all who live here, I felt certain you'd not mind. I am scarcely required at the moment."
"Now that you mention it, there is a matter of some import we must discuss, Persys," her aunt began, only to be interrupted by a guest.
Left to wonder precisely what it might be that her aunt sought to discuss, Persys automatically greeted the various guests entering the house with her customary cool charm.
From his position in the haven of potted palms, the duke watched the much-too-slim girl converse with her aunt. There was little doubt in his mind that she possessed good breeding. She carried herself with an elegance that could only come from a proper background. She was a brave young thing, unless he missed his guess. She also possessed a most amazing pair of violet eyes--large, thickly lashed, and most expressive. He wondered how she would fare with her aunt. Something told him that she had little to hope for from that quarter. Lady Talbot possessed a hard look about her, without the least sign of softness, not even when she glanced at her daughter. Only when she looked at her son, a rather weak-eyed creature of dandified perfection, did she appear to unbend, and then only slightly. But then, David Talbot was the sort who could only inspire warm thoughts in the heart of his mother.
"Ha? There you are!" The duke's good friend and sometimes companion Ninian Hervey appeared at his side, carrying a plate heaped with delicacies. It always amazed the duke that Ninian could eat such prodigious quantities and never gain a pound.
"As you see," the duke replied wryly. "I gather you are enjoying the repast at any rate. Any comments on the affair?" A grin flashed briefly before he added, "Do you know any of them?"
"Know Torrington fairly well. Met his bride--the fair Katherine--at numerous balls and so forth. You know how it is. Fellow don't dare spend much time with any female, else he finds himself leg-shackled." Ninian forked a morsel of crab cake into his mouth, then added, "Not ready for that, myself."
"Most of us prefer the unmarried state until that fatal moment when we meet the one we cannot live without," the duke said lightly. His gaze strayed to the slim elegance of Miss Timothy as she bent an ear to listen to her aunt. Whatever she heard was evidently not pleasing for she started with alarm, her usual pallor increasing. He wondered what the old biddy had to say that produced such an effect.
Across the room Persys trembled at her aunt's words.
"You must see that it is time for you to leave," Aunt Talbot said firmly. "It is not that you have been idle while here, child. It is simply that you are no longer needed. I feel certain that you will find a suitable position in no time at all. There are any number of governess openings, I fancy. You would be capable of such. Or perhaps you may prefer to be a companion to a lady of quality? You are three and twenty now, and ought to be either married or in a suitable occupation."
Persys swallowed carefully. To be bluntly informed while in the midst of a large gathering of Society that she was to leave as soon as possible was something only her thoughtless aunt could manage. There was little Persys might do but nod gracefully as though her aunt had not uttered such dreadful words, and retreat. She turned to escape.
"Persys," her aunt demanded.
Persys pretended not to hear. She needed a moment to herself, to consider her options. Of course, in the very back of her mind she had known this was coming. She merely had not expected it to happen quite so soon and without the slightest warning.
"Miss Timothy," someone said nearby as she slipped through the throng. Again she pretended not to hear the voice. There was such a crowd it was quite possible. She was not conscious of the duke's gaze. Nor would she have cared in the least that anyone observed her in her flight. She only knew that she must leave this house and soon, and however was she to do it? Where could she go? Did one find positions listed in the newspaper? Or perhaps one went to an agency? She must ask.
She entered the hall and hurried along until she reached the library to find sanctuary there. Moments later her peace ended. Intruding footsteps brought her whirling about to face the one who entered her refuge. "You!"
"I trust I am not unwelcome. I shall leave the door open to still any gossiping tongues." The duke pushed the tall mahogany door back as far as it would go, then sauntered forward. "Although I must add that most of the throng seems intent upon the food and the conversation, not in refuge, nor in books." He gave her a cool smile. "'Tis unlikely we shall be disturbed."
"How lovely," she replied tartly, wrapping her slender arms about her as though to ward off a chill. She gave him a curious look, then walked slowly around the room, glancing at the shelves lined with books, most of them unread.
"I believe you have a problem. May I help?" He didn't know what had prompted him to leave the gathering to follow the distressed young woman. Nor did he understand what it was that now urged him to offer his assistance. The chit clearly wished him to the devil--or at the very least far away.
"I seriously doubt if there is a thing you can do--unless you can conjure a position for me on a moment's notice. My dear aunt informed me just now that I must leave--the sooner, the better. I confess I had not expected to be put out quite so promptly." She tossed him a hurt look. "This is the only home I can remember and as such I had thought to remain a little longer. But it appears I have no choice."
"It seems rather heartless," he commented, crossing to lean against the fireplace mantel. A fitful fire burned to ward off any chill that might dare invade the splendid interior of the Talbot mansion. He glanced at the flames that licked at the sole log and handful of coal then added, "You have no one else?"
"Not a soul," Persys admitted. "No grandmother to welcome me to her bosom, no other aunts that I know of, certainly none have stepped forward to offer me a place beneath her roof. It would seem I am quite, quite alone in this world. What a pity I have such a small dowry."
"Why do you say that?" He nudged the lone log with a polished shoe and a few sparks shot up.
"Why, so a gallant gentleman would whisk me off to Gretna Green and perhaps a not unpleasant fate." She gave him a scornful look, then shrugged her shoulders as though acknowledging the futility of her words. "It is a damnable position to be in!" she whispered fiercely. Surely her aunt wouldn't push her out the door until she had a place to go? Or would she? Lady Talbot was quite capable of ordering Persys to leave, then taking herself and her docile husband off to some spa after giving instructions to the staff that Persys was to be gone immediately.
"But you told me not minutes ago you had no desire to marry. Have circumstances altered your determination?" He flicked her a casual look that saw far too much. "You would do well to team up with Ninian Hervey--he is of like opinion."
"This is no joking matter, Your Grace," she said, stiff with indignation.
"No, I don't suppose it is," he replied quietly. "Never having been in such a position I scarcely know, do I? I suffer from the opposite. I am always in demand and seldom for my own charming self. Rather it is my title they desire. Rather humbling, you know," he concluded meekly.
She laughed at that bit of nonsense. "You hardly strike me as the humble sort, Your Grace. But I suppose it can be annoying, having to suspect the motives of every person you meet. Well, you needn't suspect mine. I am far more concerned about a roof over my head than your title, however impressive it might be. Am I a heretic? I fear I often annoy my aunt with my little irreverence's."
"What shall you do?" he persisted.
"I have money--nothing much by your standards, I imagine, but enough to live on if I am not too demanding. However, I am not permitted to live alone and there's the rub. I have sufficient for myself but not an establishment such as would be deemed proper." She mocked, not him but the dictates of Society.
"Perhaps you would allow me to make inquiries among my female acquaintances? Surely something can be found." He moved away from the fireplace, restlessly pacing along the perimeter of the Persian rug.
"I haven't the least notion as to why you would want to help me, but I shan't cavil at the offer. While I might wish to be independent, I am all too aware of the difficulties in such behavior. It simply will not do for a gently bred woman to reject help--particularly yours."
"I am well and truly put in my place," he said with an air of humility that returned a faint smile to her lips.
Harry--as known to his family and closest friends--noted that in spite of her slim figure her mouth was full and ripe. Enticing. And although she was slender, she still possessed womanly curves in all the right places. He turned his gaze to a particularly repellent painting of a dead pheasant draped across a platter with suitable garnish around it. He studied the oil a moment, then turned to her. "Let me think on it awhile. Something is bound to occur to me."
Persys nodded, then urged, "You had best go from here before someone chances to see you. The last thing you can wish is to have gossip heaped on your head." She made shooing motions with slender, well-gloved hands and as he strolled from the library the thought occurred to him that Miss Timothy was an amazing young woman in more ways than one.
Persys gave up her seclusion, knowing full well that did she not return to the gathering, someone was bound to seek her out and ask questions she might not wish to answer.
"Persys ... there you are!" Katherine cried, walking swiftly to her in a flurry of cream silk. "It is time for me to change and I would that you join me. I am so happy I wish to share it."
"Of course." Persys wondered if her smile looked as strained as it felt.
They made their way up the stairs and to the luxurious room that had been the bride's. While Katherine bubbled joyously about her bridal trip, Persys and Lady Jocelyn assisted her with the changes of clothing. The maid of honor appeared as reflective and absent-minded as did Persys. Perhaps she also wondered what would befall her once her brother and his bride returned to the only home she knew. Weddings! It was surprising how they could upset so many plans and people.
"I hope it will not be long before you find the man you wish to marry, Persys," Katherine caroled, her eyes twinkling. Nothing was said about Lady Jocelyn, for it was known that she had no desire to wed, as she was still mourning the fiancé who had perished in the war.
"It is unlikely," Persys replied. "I fear you have captured the cream of the crop. Find me one such as he and perhaps I shall reconsider."
"There are few like my brother, Miss Timothy," Lady Jocelyn murmured.
Persys blinked and nodded, quite determined she would not turn into a watering pot.
"Now let us finish with the last of the buttons so Katherine may join her impatient husband," Lady Jocelyn said with a glance at Persys.
"She is the most lovely bride the Season has seen, I declare," Persys announced brightly.
They stood at the top of the stairs, watching as Katherine sped down and into the swift embrace of her new husband.
"You may not think so at this moment, but life does go on, you know," Lady Jocelyn said with an abruptness that startled Persys.
"I do not know what you mean, my lady--" Persys began, only to be stopped by a wave of the other's hand.
"I rather think you do. I have seen you look at my brother when you thought no one was watching. Dear girl! Never mind, one with your looks will marry. Perhaps not as soon as you would like, but it is inevitable. Those violet eyes, you know."
"I scarcely know what to say," Persys whispered, utterly undone that her secret had been uncovered.
"You might well wonder how I can be such an expert in matrimony and love when I am single at such an age. Christopher teases me with it, said I ought to get away and find my own life once again. Now I fear I must. I would not intrude on their happiness." With a resigned smile. Lady Jocelyn walked regally down the stairs to be followed by a very thoughtful Persys.
It took quite some time for the assembled guests to leave. Lady Talbot was in alt that her little wedding breakfast had drawn the very cream of Society, particularly the elegant and reserved Duke of Eddington. Naturally, he might have felt compelled to attend the ceremony, but to spend such a long time at the breakfast was certainly a feather in her cap. She cast frequent, rather fatuous smiles his way.
Persys stood near the door, smiling until she thought her face would freeze and shaking hands until hers felt numb. She watched the duke approach with a sinking heart. He had promised to help her and not another word had been uttered since then. Well, it was not so surprising that he would change his mind. He must be overwhelmed with requests and demands from near-strangers. Small wonder he would forget about a woman dimly related by marriage.
His hand engulfed hers gently, drawing a reluctant smile to her lips. "I saw you wince at that last hand clasp. I'll not add to your woe."
"I trust you enjoyed the wedding, Your Grace," she replied, ever mindful of her aunt's proximity. It would not do to appear on friendly terms with this man.
He glanced about them, then said in a barely heard voice. "Meet me at five in Green Park tomorrow. I shall have my carriage and we can discuss matters then."
The shock she felt must have shown in her eyes. But then, nothing mattered now but to get away. Almost anything he suggested would be welcome. He gave her hand a faint tightening of reassurance, then left the house.
"Now there's a man for you," her aunt mused. "I confess that not even my new son-in-law can touch him for elegance."
Persys wanted to deny such heresy. She had considered the Marquess of Torrington the height of masculine perfection. That Katherine's mother would say such words seemed perfectly dreadful. As soon as might be Persys excused herself and hurried to the security of her room.
Not for her the elegance of the daughter of the house. She had a simple little chamber on an upper floor. But it had been hers all these years and she hated to leave it.
"Fetch some cases for me, will you, Libby?" she asked of her maid when she entered the room.
"Going somewhere?" Libby said in surprise.
"I do not know where, but I had best be prepared to leave as soon as may be," Persys grimly replied.
The next afternoon found Persys--feeling rather much the fool--strolling through Green Park at the fashionable hour of five.
Her aunt had expressed sarcasm at the notion of such a walk. Persys had calmly pointed out that she might make some useful connection while there, which had the effect of silencing her aunt completely.
"Libby, it is possible I may see someone who was at the wedding," Persys said with care. "Should someone wish to speak with me, you will tactfully retire and be careful to say nothing to anyone at the house. Promise?"
Intrigued at this most unusual behavior of her proper mistress, Libby nodded hastily.
It was some time before Persys saw the duke. His carriage was notable for its simplicity, the elegance of design, and lack of ostentation. Much like the man, she reflected.
He drew his perfectly matched chestnuts to a halt, then handed the reins to his groom. He stepped down to join her on the path, bowing most correctly. "Good afternoon, Miss Timothy. This must be a pleasant diversion for you after the bustle of the wedding."
Persys dipped a graceful curtsy while nodding in agreement. "Indeed, Your Grace. The weather is most agreeable this time of year."
"I would speak with you. Would you join me in my carriage?"
Persys met his gaze and held out her hand. "Of course." She gave Libby a significant look, then entered the carriage with a feeling that her future had appeared.
Libby remained with the groom while His Grace tooled the carriage expertly along the park road.
The silence broke when Persys ventured into speech. "You had something to tell me?"
"Indeed. I have been wondering how to approach the matter. I would not have you misunderstand my offer."
"Your offer?" she echoed faintly, somewhat alarmed at the sound of it.
"Quite simple, actually."
For something simple, he had a peculiar way of telling her about it. "And?" she encouraged.
"My mother has injured her knee rather badly and is all but helpless. What she needs is a companion to amuse her--something her maid is scarcely able to do."
"I see." Persys thought she had a glimmer.
"I should like you to travel to my country home and reside there with her until such time as she can manage on her own. Normally she is a very active woman, certainly not sedentary, as she must be now. She finds her situation most vexing." His mouth tightened as he considered the scene to which he was treated on his last trip. "I should warn you that she is inclined to be capricious. She has many interests and is curious regarding a great many things."
"It seems almost too good to be true," Persys said slowly. "You are not inventing this position merely from the goodness of your heart, feeling sorry for a spinster who must make her way in a cold world?"
"Truly, I am not that considerate. I fear you will earn every penny you are paid." He then mentioned a sum that seemed princely to Persys. She had managed to live on her meager allowance for years. To have an added sum would be delightful. It would mean that she would have new clothes and perhaps set a bit aside for the inevitable rainy day.
"I will be more than happy to help your mother. If she is an active woman I can see where it would indeed vex her to be still for long."
"How soon can you leave?"
Persys looked up at the duke, then darted her gaze about as she thought. "Whenever you wish to leave."
"Admirable woman!" he exclaimed. "The day after tomorrow. And best say nothing to your aunt. While not a malicious person, she does love to gossip. I'd not have you put to the blush with innuendos."
At this bit of plain speaking Persys did indeed blush, and delightfully so, to the duke's point of view.
"I shall be ready early in the morning two days hence, Your Grace. You will send a traveling carriage, I fancy?" Persys wondered precisely what manner of equipage the duke elected to use for travel. She suspected it would be elegant and in excellent repair. She also expected it would have a telltale crest on the doors.
As though he guessed her thoughts, he said, "I imagine your aunt will not be up at that hour of the day, will she? I suppose you will say your good-bye the evening before?"
"I shall see you early the morning after next, then."