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'Nonsense, my dear! There is nothing sinister in it. Boys like to go off gallivanting once in a while. You're worrying unnecessarily, I tell you!' Mr Cecil Beaumont gave his beautiful blonde daughter a beaming smile. 'Don't look so glum. He'll turn up when he's good and ready.'
'Tarquin is not a boy, Papa,' Emily Beaumont pointed out quietly. 'He is a man of twenty-seven and I suspect he has got himself into one scrape too many. Perhaps he has not succeeded in stalling his creditors and is in trouble.' Her silver-blue eyes took on a faraway look as she pondered on instances when her older brother had brought himself close to ruination through gaming and wild ways. But he had never yet disappeared for more than a few days before turning up, like the proverbial bad penny, sober and remorseful. 'Perhaps we ought to check with the authorities in case he is again in the Fleet.'
Mr Beaumont waved a dismissive hand. 'No need no need, my dear.' He picked up his pen, idle on a page of his ledger, and set about using it.
His daughter was not so easily put off. Emily paced to the window of her father's den, stared out sight-lessly, before wandering back into the room, deep in thought. With a sigh she sank into an old armchair.
Tarquin had been due to come to their parents' home in Callison Crescent and take their brother Robert to the outfitters. But he had failed to arrive at the appointed hour five days ago and had not contacted his family to make his excuses or his apologies. Emily thought it highly irregular behaviour, even for someone as self-centred as her brother.
Mrs Beaumont's reaction on that afternoon was to mutter about the inconsiderate knave before she got her husband's valet to take Robert to the tailors instead. When Emily had earlier today approached her mother about Tarquin's lengthy silence, she showed herself no more concerned over her eldest son's whereabouts than did her husband.
Mr Beaumont raised an indulgent paternal eye to his daughter. He tossed his quill on to the blotter and clucked his tongue. 'Come, my dear, no long face, I beg you. If Tarquin had been threatened with prison, he would have by now summoned my help, you may take my word on it.' Cecil gave a cynical little laugh. 'I'll not go looking for him to sort out his troublesif troubles he hasfor they always find me soon enough.' A nod concluded his philosophy and he resumed his writing. A quiet moment passed. Warily he peeked up to find his daughter still in the room and looking no less melancholy. 'Emily!' he expostulated with a hint of impatience. 'If you're unable to put your mind at ease over it, I'll call in to WestburyAvenue and see if his landlady knows where he might be.'
Emily brightened. 'You promise you will do that, Papa?' she asked.
Cecil nodded affirmation. 'I can go that way to Boodle's later.'
A smile erased the strain from Emily's lovely features. Her father bowed his head over his ledger once more, gave a couple of short coughs, firmly letting Emily know their conversation was definitely concluded.
Emily rose gracefully from his armchair and went upstairs to her bedchamber.
Feeling lighter in spirits, she gazed out on to the street scene. She watched with an amount of amused interest as their neighbour's footman strutted back and forth on the pavement, trying to catch the eye of the housemaid scrubbing the front step of the house opposite. The young woman's complexion was as fiery as her hair and she looked too hot and bothered to presently entertain any thoughts of flirtation. Emily glanced up at a clear azure sky, then at fat green buds beginning to break on the lime trees guarding the crescent of townhouses. She decided she would call on her friend Sarah Harper who lived just a few turnings away. They could go for a stroll if Sarah was amenable to the idea of whiling away the afternoon with a chat and a browse in the shops. The day was clement and after a week of unremitting rain it would be nice to get out of the house and into the fresh air.
Emily was donning her coat by the front door when her mother appeared and frowned at her. 'You must take Millie with you if you are going abroad,' she lectured. 'That crone made a point of telling me that she recently saw you out without even a maid.'
Emily signalled her insouciance with a delicately arched eyebrow. She knew exactly to whom her mother was referring, for the two women were archenemies of long standing. 'Well, Mama, you must tell Violet Pearson that I am a woman of four and twenty and perfectly able to take care of myself.'
'Your age is not the point, and you know it,' Mrs Beaumont began, but her intention to furnish a lesson on etiquette and how it applied to spinsters came to nought. Her daughter gave her a little wave and skipped down the front steps. For a moment longer Penelope Beaumont stared at the front door. She shruggedshe was long used to her daughter's headstrong ways. It was just a nuisance when hags, with nothing better to do than cause trouble, sought to bring it to her attention. She turned about and headed towards the parlour and a fortifying nip of sherry.
'It is very odd behaviour,' Sarah commented and looked thoughtful. 'Surely your brother would at least pen a note to let you know if he is out of town.'
The two young ladies linked arms and promenaded towards Regent Street. They had decided to peruse the window displays of the new French modiste who had recently opened for business.
Sarah's frown lifted in tentative enlightenment. 'Perhaps Tarquin has fallen in love and has been lured to the country to do his courting.'
Emily chuckled. 'I'd like to think such a noble reason exists for his absence. Unfortunately, Tarquin is besotted with Lady Luck. No real woman could compete with such a possessive mistress.'She flashed Sarah a wry smile. 'I expect Papa is right and I am worrying needlessly. My thoughtless brother is probably just gone off on a revel with one of his chums. But it is bad of him not to say so and odd that he has let Robert down. He and Robert are friends, despite the age gap between them.' She frowned. 'It was not nice to see Robert's disappointment. He has gone back to school now and missed seeing Tarquin entirely.'
Emily's arm was given a tug as Sarah drew her towards Madame Joubert's shop. Behind small mullioned panes were draped a shimmering array of silks, artfully arranged to highlight their quality.
'The sea-green colour is divine but the gold is an unusual shade.' Emily tilted her head to peer through the door. 'They have more inside '
Sarah interrupted Emily's appreciation of the sumptuous cloths with a hissed, 'Look who is coming!' Emily's ribs received a dig. 'You ought ask him if he knows of Tarquin's whereabouts. They are friends after all.'
Emily glanced along the road and her eyes fixed immediately on the man to whom Sarah had breathlessly referred. Indeed, it would be hard not to notice him. Mark Hunter was tall and broad with darkly attractive features that excited female attention. Emily recognised the elegant lady at his side who had her hand curved possessively over his arm. It was an open secret in polite society that Barbara Emerson was Mark Hunter's mistress.
'I see Mr Hunter has his chère amie with him,' Sarah whispered.
'I think it is more than that between them,' Emily returned on a little huff of laughter. 'I've heard a rumour that Mark Hunter is expected to marry Mrs Emerson. I imagine she considers herself to be his unofficial betrothed.'
Sarah arched an eyebrow. 'I wonder who started that rumour?' she said drily. 'And until he makes it official, there is still hope for us all. Goodness, he is handsome!' she breathed. 'I think I might swoon.'
Her friend's theatrical tone made Emily cast at her a small scowl. Sarah was quite aware that Emily did not like the man. 'Handsome is as handsome does ' Emily muttered in response to Sarah's teasing. Her eyes returned to the object of Sarah's admiration and lingered. Indisputably Mark Hunter looked a personable gentleman, but Emily had reason to believe him mean and callous. Was he not the fellow who had in the past had Tarquin imprisoned in the Fleet because he owed him money? Yet despite that betrayal her brother still liked Mark and classed him as one of his friends. On the few occasions Emily had quizzed him over his odd attachment to a man who had betrayed him, Tarquin had simply said Mark wasn't a bad fellow.
Emily pondered on Sarah's comment that this meeting might prove useful. Perhaps Tarquin's friend might know if he had recently gone off to Brighton or to the Newmarket races or some other such place where fashionable gentlemen chose to congregate. It was an opportunity to find out and she ought take it.
Her eyes flicked up as she realised that the distinguished couple were almost upon them. 'Miss Beaumont Miss Harper.'Mark dipped his dark head and slowed his pace, allowing the young ladies time to respond. Sarah did so immediately. A shy smile accompanied her curtsy.
Emily sketched a bob and muttered his name. He was steadily watching her and boldly she met his eyes. They were an unusual shade of blue, she realised, not unlike the lustrous peacock silk she had moments ago admired in Madame Joubert's window.
A faint smile touched Mark's lips as he acknowledged her cool response and she glimpsed humour far back in his vivid eyes. Of course, he was aware that she didn't like him given that she had once frankly told him so. She hoped he was also aware that she found his good looks and ready charm quite resistible, even if her entranced friend did not. Emily shot a stern look at Sarah.
Aware that her lover seemed more interested in gazing at Emily Beaumont than conversing with her, Mrs Emerson quickly filled the silence. 'I have not seen you in a while, Miss Harper.' She turned to Sarah. 'How is your mother? When last we spoke she was afflicted with the rheumatics.'
'She is improved, I thank you, ma'am,' Sarah replied. 'When the weather is better, her condition is too.'
Barbara Emerson murmured her pleasure at knowing it, then turned to Emily. 'And you look very well, Miss Beaumont.Are your family in good health?'
Emily gave the elegant woman an affirmative and a fleeting smile. She guessed that Barbara Emerson was probably no more than a year or two older than was she, yet Barbara had an effortless air of sophistication that made her feel girlish in comparison.
Barbara had married a wealthy man at nineteen, been widowed and left his property and fortune at twenty-one and was now the mistress and aspirant future wife of one of society's most eligible bachelors. Emily charitably allowed that Barbara had earned her quietly superior attitude.
Noting that her attempt to distract her lover's attention from Miss Beaumont had failed, Barbara subtly urged Mark to move over the shop's threshold by squeezing the muscle beneath her fingers.
Emily felt Sarah's elbow nudge her side as word-lessly her friend reminded her to speak of Tarquin before the opportunity was lost.
Mark smoothly extricated his arm from Barbara's control in a way that was uncompromising yet courteous. With a faint flush livening her olive complexion, Barbara swished about and started to peruse the silks that had drawn Emily and Sarah to a halt by the window. Sarah stepped over to her and gamely indicated the colour she preferred.
'Is your brother at home, Miss Beaumont?'
'No, he went back to school this morning,' Emily immediately answered.
A wry smile tilted Mark's mouth. 'I meant your older brother,' he gently corrected.
'Oh I thought you were referring to RobertI imagined you would know Tarquin is not with us.' Emily's small tongue stroked moisture to her dry lips. She felt faintly embarrassed by her gaffe, but her nervousness stemmed more from being constantly under his penetrating gaze. 'Actually, I was about to ask if you know where Tarquin might be.'
Mark frownedhe had discerned the quiver of anxiety in Emily's voice. 'I have not seen him since last week at White's when we played cards. I went this morning to his lodgings in Westbury Avenue, but his landlady said she'd not seen him for some days. I assumed he was staying with all of you at Callison Crescent. I'm not pursuing him for a gambling debt, I assure you,' Mark added mildly, noticing her sharp look. 'Tarquin expressed an interest in coming to Cambridge with me, that is all.'