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"It is with true love as it is with a ghost; everyone talks about it but few have seen it." As the new Season begins, many lovely young ladies will be looking for love among the ton's of unattached gentlemen. And none will be more sought after than the last remaining bachelor of the once famous Terrible Threesome. Andrew Terwillger, the Earl of Dugdale, is back in Town, but is he looking to make a match?
-Lord Truefitt, Society's Daily Column
Olivia Banning folded the week-old edition of the Daily Reader and handed it back to her aunt. "Lord Truefitt is colorful with his tittle-tattle, Auntie. I wonder if anyone in London's Society ever tries to find out who he is."
Agatha Loudermilk laid the paper on the bed beside her and looked up at Olivia. "I'm sure there have been hundreds over the years who would like to know, but not me. If his identity were discovered, he would no longer have access to the ton and couldn't write any more columns. He's so clever with his quotes and so delicious with his gossip that I don't want him to stop."
Olivia smiled down at her great aunt, who was propped against fluffy pillows having her morning chocolate and toast in bed.
"He does have a way with openings. Remember, last Season he started every column with a quote that had something to do with horses."
"Yes, I do. And the year before that every column of gossip started with a quote from Shakespeare. It looks as if this Season he is starting each daily with a quote about ghosts."
Olivia gave her aunt an indulgent smile. "You are looking much better today. It must be because spring is in the air."
Her aunt's lively green eyes sparkled as she said, "I am much better indeed, but the reason is not the sunshine or the passing of winter. Come and sit beside me, Livy." She patted the bed. "I've been making plans for us and it's time to tell you about them."
Intrigued by the excitement showing on her aunt's aged face, Olivia pushed the newspaper aside and sat down. If Agatha was making plans for a party, it was a sure sign she was over the serious illness that had gripped her for most of the winter.
"I must go to London soon and I need you to go with me."
Surprised by this statement, Olivia said, "Auntie, you were in bed with that terrible cough for weeks. You're not well enough to take a trip to London. Besides that, I'm sure the roads are still boggy and treacherous. It's best you forget about traveling for a while."
"I say nonsense to both your concerns, Livy. I'm feeling better than I have in years, and as far as the condition of the roads, they should be in passable shape by the time we're packed and ready to leave."
Olivia knitted her brows together in bewilderment. "I don't understand. You haven't been back to London since you came to live in Kent and take care of me a dozen years ago. You've always said there is nothing for you in London anymore. Why do you suddenly need to go now?"
Her aunt leaned forward and in a whispery voice said, "Lord Pinkwater wants me to come to him. He has something to tell me."
Obviously her aunt wasn't as healthy in mind as she was in body if she was talking to someone from the afterlife. Olivia eyed her aunt with concern, for Lord Pinkwater had been dead for years.
"I think you're confused about something, Auntie," she said softly, hoping not to upset her aunt's delicate hold on reality. "You do remember that Lord Pinkwater died more than thirty years ago, don't you?"
Agatha laughed softly. Her bright eyes danced with intrigue. She suddenly looked very mischievous for a lady well past her prime.
"Of course he did, my dear. How good of you to point that out. I should have said that his ghost is beckoning me to come to him."
At first Olivia didn't know how to respond to that shocking revelation, so she merely repeated her aunt's words in the form of a question. "A ghost is summoning you to London?"
"Yes." Agatha picked up her warm chocolate and sipped it.
There wasn't even a hint of a tremble or a shake in the blue-veined hand that held the delicate china cup, but something was wrong. Her aunt appeared as lucid as Olivia, but there was no way Agatha could be.
Concern quickly turned to apprehension and a shiver of disquiet stole over Olivia. She wouldn't allow herself to panic-yet. There had to be a logical reason for Agatha to think a ghost had visited her. Perhaps she was taking the opening of Lord Truefitt's column a little too seriously.
Agatha looked better and stronger than she had in months. The luster had returned to her long, silver hair. Her appetite was adequate, and she was taking long walks in the garden each day. Her face, while showing lines of age around her eyes and mouth, was glowing with good health.
But what could have happened to her sound mind?
Olivia cleared her throat and rearranged the folds of her pale blue morning dress while she thought about what to say. She certainly didn't want to upset Agatha, so a calm approach was in order.
"I don't think you're feeling well, Auntie. Perhaps I should take your tray and let you nap. We can continue our conversation later in the day."
"Oh, heaven's angels, Livy, don't make me sound like I'm on my death bed. My cough is gone, my strength has returned. I've been going downstairs for a month now. I am not sick in body nor am I weak in my mind."
Not knowing what else to do, Olivia rose from the bed and plumped the goose feather pillows behind her aunt. If mollycoddling wasn't going to pacify Agatha's fragile hold on reality she'd pursue a different approach and take charge of the situation.
Firmly she said, "And apparently your activities of the past four weeks have been too much of a strain on you. Clearly you are not yourself. You just said a ghost told you he wants you to come to London."
"He does," Agatha said without a hint of embarrassment or doubt. "And my pillows are fine, thank you very much. Listen to me, Livy. I'm not going insane. I know Lord Pinkwater is calling to me and I must go to him."
Olivia let her arms drop to the sides of her muslin skirt. Not willing to give in to Agatha's pronouncement, she said, "But that's absurd, Auntie. Even if Lord Pinkwater's ghost is alive-I mean, if he is real or present or whatever ghosts are-why would he be summoning you to London?"
A faraway expression settled on Agatha's face. Her eyes held an unusual glimmer and her thin lips settled into a wistful smile. Olivia had the feeling her aunt was looking into the past, at days long gone but often remembered.
"You know that Lord Pinkwater was the man who broke my heart all those years ago, and that he is the reason I never married."
"Yes," Olivia answered, wondering what could have happened to trigger Agatha's reflective mood on the past.
"I never gave up hope. I always felt he would come back to me some day. And now he has."
Olivia's breath caught in her throat at the sadness she heard in her aunt's voice. She'd always known that Agatha had never married because the legendary Lord Pinkwater jilted her when she was eighteen and ran off with another young lady more than forty years ago.
In the twelve years Agatha had lived with Olivia she'd seldom mentioned the man. Olivia had assumed that after all these years her aunt had finally gotten over him, but apparently her heartache had only deepened.
"But you knew he was a rogue who had many lovers before you agreed to the betrothal. He didn't even marry the woman he left you for. I don't think he ever loved anyone but himself. Why did you wait for him?"
"I had to. It didn't matter that he never really loved me. I loved him and that was enough. It still is." She turned her gaze to Olivia. "At last, he wants me to come to him."
Suddenly Olivia reached over and put the palm of her hand to her aunt's forehead. Agatha brushed it aside.
"Stop that, silly girl. Don't fuss or worry about me. I don't have a fever, and I've not suddenly gone mad."
"I don't think you're crazy," Olivia said, wondering if she really believed that. "Perhaps you've had too much tonic and you are imagining him calling to you in your dreams."
Olivia needed a logical explanation for her aunt's sudden revelation.
"I haven't had any laudanum in weeks. Ask Susan, she will tell you."
"The maid will say whatever you tell her to," Olivia insisted.
"Then take all the tonics and elixirs in this house and throw them away if you don't believe me." She reached up and took hold of Olivia's hand. Agatha's skin was warm and her grip was as steady and firm as her eyes. "I'm not imagining this. Lord Pinkwater's spirit is as real as you and I. This is very important to me, Livy. I must go to London and find him."
Olivia was moved by her aunt's passion, but all that did was fuel her unease about Agatha's state of mind. Olivia wasn't even sure she believed in ghosts. She'd never had serious reason to think about it. She'd read about them in any number of books and heard stories, but she'd never seen one.
And even putting all that aside, this wasn't a time in her life when she wanted to leave Kent and travel to London. She was looking forward to the spring dances, house parties, and the continued attention of a certain young gentleman who had recently caught her eye.
"If Lord Pinkwater has a ghost, I mean if he is a spirit or whatever he is, why doesn't he just fly through the air and come to you?"
Agatha let go of Olivia's hand. "I don't know the answer to that yet," she said with all conviction. "I suppose he can't. Or, perhaps it's because London is where we met and where we last saw each other. Maybe he wants to tell me why he left me for Lady Veronica. Maybe that's why his soul is not at rest. It doesn't matter. I'll ask him when we find him."
An anxious feeling shimmered down Olivia's spine. "When we find him?"
"Yes. I know he resides at a house in London but not which one."
"Auntie, surely you aren't suggesting we go searching homes for a ghost."
Agatha smiled as sweetly as if she were talking to their minister after Sunday morning worship. "That's exactly what we're going to do. I have it all worked out. I've decided to give you a Season in London. That way we will be invited to all the best parties in private homes in Mayfair."
"You know he's in a house in Mayfair but not which one? How do you know that?"
Her aunt looked aghast that Olivia could even ask such a silly question. "Lord Pinkwater wouldn't dream of staying in any other section of London, dead or alive."
Olivia felt sufficiently rebuked. "All right, but how will you determine which house he is in?"
"I'll know when we enter the house whether or not he resides in it. I'm not sure if I will sense his presence or if he will show me a sign. But I will know when I reach the house he inhabits."
Olivia lifted her skirts and knelt down beside the bed. "Auntie, you know I would do anything for you, but how can I help you find a ghost? I'm not even sure I believe in them. And you know I have no desire for a Season in London. I'm hoping to get to know Mr. Yost better when the spring assemblies begin."
Agatha patted Olivia's cheek with her warm, soft hand and smiled at her with affection. "I know you think this young man pleases you, and perhaps in certain ways he does, but I think he is much too weak for you. You need a stronger, more prosperous gentleman."
"Nonsense. Look where my mother ended up with a strong, prosperous man. She spent all her days alone in the quiet countryside while her husband maintained a full social life in London. I'd rather have a country gentleman for a husband who will love me and live with me than an absent titled lord."
"And perhaps you will have such a country gentleman. But in the meantime, it will be good for you to spend the Season in London with me and meet gentlemen more fitting to your station in life than Mr. Yost. You might even catch the eye of a viscount or an earl."
It was obvious her aunt wasn't listening to her. Attracting some peer was the last thing Olivia wanted. Her mother had married the youngest son of an earl but the union hadn't brought her happiness.
"I'm pleased to have caught the eye of Mr. Yost, Auntie, and you know that."
"Oh, heaven's angels, Livy, I'm not asking you to choose a husband in London, but why would you want to settle for a common man in Kent before you at least look over the available gentlemen in London? I'm only asking that you go with me and help me search for Lord Pinkwater's ghost, and then you can come home and marry Mr. Yost or whomever may catch your attention-if that is still what your heart desires. I don't want to go without you, but I will. I must settle this part of my past which has haunted me for years."
Her aunt was serious. She would go alone.
As a young child, Olivia remembered hearing many stories from her mother about how well-respected her Aunt Agatha was in London and what an exciting life she lived. Agatha Loudermilk, twice removed cousin to the powerful Duke of Norfolk, had sat at the tables of kings and at the feet of queens, but she'd only given her heart to one man.
The undeserving Lord Pinkwater.
Agatha had left her active life in London to come to the country and take care of her grandniece Olivia after Olivia's mother died and her father didn't want the responsibility of seeing that an eight-year-old girl had the proper upbringing. It was just as well since her father, whom she never really knew, died a year after her mother.
Olivia couldn't bear the thought that Agatha would return to London and be seen as a batty old woman no longer in her right mind looking for a ghost. She didn't want that for her aunt. Olivia owed her. Agatha came to her aid when she needed it and now Olivia would help her. She would go to London and protect Agatha's exceptional reputation.
"Of course, Auntie," she said with a resigned smile. "I will go with you, but I have one request."
The sparkle returned to her aunt's eyes instantly. "Anything."
"Let's not tell anyone we're searching for Lord Pinkwater's ghost. I think it will be best if we keep this between us."
Agatha patted Olivia's hand. "I won't say a word to anyone but you, my dear."
The low rumble of chatter filled the club room at White's as Andrew Terwillger, the fifth Earl of Dugdale, looked across the table at his two friends. A bottle of the best port money could buy stood in front of them. The first pour was still in their glasses and already Andrew sensed Chandler and John were restless and eager for the evening to be over.
At the far side of the room a warming fire crackled and hissed, taking the chill out of the air. The gentlemen's club was filled with men Andrew had known for years. Some played billiards in the next room; others participated in heated games of whist or some other card game, while a few were just drinking, talking, and laughing. Everyone seemed to be having an enjoyable time, except the two at Andrew's table.
Andrew was trying to figure out why he hardly recognized the men who'd been his best friends for over fifteen years. They hadn't changed in appearance but were both different in demeanor.
He'd just returned from having been gone almost a year and he was ready to give in to some well-deserved debauchery. But his friends couldn't be less interested in drinking, gambling, or seeking the bed of a shapely young woman.
Andrew asked, "Why do I get the feeling that I'm keeping the two of you from something?"
Chandler Prestwick, the Earl of Dunraven, and John Wickenham-Thickenham-Fines, the Earl of Chatwin, glanced quickly at each other before looking back to Andrew.
"I don't know," Chandler said. "It's not me. How about you, John?"
"Certainly not me," John answered cautiously and picked up his glass of port and raised it in salute to Andrew. "I have plenty of time. It's good to have you back in Town."
"I'll drink to that and add it was good news to hear your financial troubles were settled once you learned the problem was that your estate manager was stealing from you," Chandler added.
Andrew picked up his port and clicked it against his friends' glasses. "Right. I should have checked up on Willard Hawkins long before I did."
"All that matters is that you got to the bottom of this mess. Though, too bad he took a shot at you and escaped before you could turn him over to the local magistrate."
"Yes, the bloody criminal needs to be chained to the walls of Newgate," John said.
Andrew had made light of the fact that Hawkins had shot at him. He didn't want his friends to know the bullet had grazed his arm. It hadn't occurred to Andrew that his estate manger might carry a pistol, so he hadn't been prepared to be shot at.
"He will be caught soon enough," Andrew assured them. "I met with a Runner from Bow Street today. He's heading to Derbyshire first thing tomorrow to find him. Hawkins has relatives in that area so I'm thinking he's hiding out somewhere around there."
"Sounds reasonable," John agreed.
Chandler laughed suddenly. "In our younger days, we wouldn't have even thought to ask for help from a Runner, the Thames Police, or anyone else to find the thief."
"We would have gotten on our best horses and ridden after the bastard ourselves," John added.
"And we wouldn't have stopped until we found him," Andrew said.
"I still have my pearl-handled rapier. That would put a scare in him."
"I was always better with a pistol. He wouldn't get past a shot from me."
"Well, if you both remember I'm pretty good with sword and pistol," Andrew bragged good-naturedly.
Chandler gave him a friendly punch on one shoulder while John gave him a thump on the other.
They all laughed and tipped their glasses together again before taking another drink. For a moment Andrew felt like his old friends were back at the table with him. They were having a good time, bragging and drinking just like they used to. There was the possibility of an adventure in the air.
The year Andrew had spent at his country estate had been good for him. Instead of spending his nights drinking and gambling and his days sleeping he'd taken the opportunity to study and learn about his lands. He spent time with his tenants, helping them break horses and tend fields during the day and was so exhausted in the evenings he'd had no trouble sleeping. His body was firmer, stronger, and healthier.
His mind was sharper, too.
Doing physical labor was uncommon for anyone of the gentry or the peerage, but Andrew was glad he'd done it. Being with the farmers and seeing what they produced helped him know that the figures in Willard Hawkins's books had to be wrong.
"You know, we can still do that," Andrew said when he put his glass down.
"What?" Chandler asked.
"Go to Derbyshire and find Willard Hawkins ourselves. I wouldn't need the Runner if I had the two of you helping me."
"Are you serious?" John asked, the smile fading from his face.
"Why not? No one rides, hunts, or fights better than we do. As I recall, there was a time when if we set our minds to it, we could do anything we wanted. That hasn't changed, has it?"
Chandler and John glanced at each other again and Andrew felt the excitement that was between them just moments before ebb away.
"No, we haven't changed, but our lives have," John said.
"You know we'd love to do it, Andrew, but we have responsibilities now. Best you let the Runner handle it for you this time," Chandler said.
In that moment Andrew knew what it was that stood between him and his friends.
John and Chandler were no longer carefree bachelors who could take off at a moment's notice. And Andrew was also getting the feeling they were both quite pleased with their new lives as husbands rather than rogues. The Terrible Threesome, the name they had each worn with honor, was a distant memory to them.
He looked at his friends in a whole new light. They looked happy, and Andrew didn't understand that. He couldn't imagine loving one woman enough that he'd rather be with her than out gaming, drinking, and carousing with his friends.
Andrew might not like the change in their relationship, but he had to accept it-not that he was going to let them know that.
He leaned back in his chair, lifting the front legs off the floor and chuckling low in his throat. "You're both unbelievable."
"In what way?" Chandler asked, lifting a brow.
"Marriage has made weak-kneed sops out of the both of you."
John's dark eyes narrowed and he scowled at Andrew. "That's going a bit too far, even for a best friend."
"Really?" Andrew challenged again, a hint of a smile lurking at the corners of his mouth. "How so? You're not interested in adventure anymore. Now that I have money in my pockets neither of you are willing to gamble the night away with me. And I think it's safe to say you've both given up your mistresses since marriage."
Chandler answered, "That doesn't make us sops. We're both quite happy with our wives. We were actually thinking that maybe you had come back to Town to tell us you were ready to consider making a match."
Andrew laughed again and let the legs of his chair hit the floor with a thud. He was content with his life. He was free of any responsibility and he had no hankering for married life and all the chains it put on a man.
"Not a chance in hell. Look at you two. You're both squirming like worms in hot ashes. You can't wait for our conversation to be over so you can go back to your quiet homes with your beautiful wives. No thank you. I'd rather chase the likes of Hawkins."
"And what do you think is wrong with being happily married?" John asked.
"Boring comes to mind. So tell me what's right with it?" Andrew asked. He spread his arms wide and looked around the room.
"Are you suggesting we don't have a good time when we are with our wives?" Chandler said.
"If so, nothing could be further from the truth," John added.
John and Chandler gave each other that now familiar quick glance. Andrew threw up his hands and said, "I give up. I'm completely uninterested in spending the rest of the night watching you two with these ridiculous happy home expressions you keep giving each other."
Andrew pushed back his chair, ready to rise and seek his pleasure elsewhere.
"Hold up, we're not leaving yet and neither are you." Chandler picked up the bottle and added port to all three glasses on the table. "When you fall in love you'll come around to appreciating the simple pleasures of married life just like we have."
"God save me from such a dull state. I'd just as soon be in prison."
"That's a lie," John said with a laugh.
"You're right. Maybe that is going a bit too far." Andrew grinned. "But I'm glad to know what took the starch out of the two of you. I'm definitely staying away from love and marriage."
"To do that you will have to stay away from all the young ladies."
"That's right. John and I certainly weren't looking for love."
"It found us. So, are you ready to swear off all women but your mistress?"
"Hell no. I'll just have to prove to you both that I can enjoy the young ladies without getting caught by one of them."
John and Chandler laughed.
"What's so funny?" Andrew asked, still not knowing if he was ready to forgive his friends for getting married and leaving him to his own devices every evening.
"You, thinking you can run away from love," John said.
"I managed to outwit fate and not marry when I was down to mere coins in my pockets. I think I can dodge Cupid's arrow for a few more years." Andrew picked up his glass and saluted them. "So I won't become a squeeze like you two, victims living under the cat's paw."
"You are cocksure tonight," John replied, not the least offended by his friend's accusations.
"I have reason to be. When I left London last year I didn't know if I would ever have enough money to return. But I'm back, I have money, my estates are prospering better than ever. In fact, I intend to see about finding an agreeable mistress."
"With your attitude, a mistress is just what you need. A wife would never put up with you."
Andrew smiled. "Yes, but I need the parties, too, and I'm ready for them to begin. In fact, my Aunt Claude has planned an evening at my house the first week of the Season."
"A party? You don't say," Chandler said.
"Naturally, I want to have a first look at all the young ladies who are making their debuts."
"There's nothing wrong with that," John told him.
"And I'll add: May love always be chasing you," Chandler added with a grin.
"But never catch up to me," Andrew said.
John and Chandler picked up their glasses and drank to Andrew's proclamation.