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A Winter Scandal One
The Squire’s house was ablaze with lights in the crisp December evening, and the boughs of evergreen branches festooned across the lintel added to the festive air. A groom hurried forward as the vicar’s pony trap pulled to a stop in front of the house, and Daniel handed him the reins before going around to help his sister out of the open-air vehicle. It had been a cold ride over to Cliffe Manor, and despite the lap robe across their legs and the hood Thea had drawn up around her head, she was chilled, her cheeks pink. As soon as Thea stepped into the warm house, of course, her spectacles fogged up, and she had to take them off and wipe them before replacing them on her nose.
“Vicar! And Althea! How delightful to see you,” Mrs. Cliffe, the Squire’s wife, greeted them effusively, squeezing Thea’s hands in both of hers. The Squire’s wife, like her husband, was built along generous lines, and her rather square form was encased in a gown of green velvet with a wide, low neckline that revealed an alarming amount of white bosom. A pearl necklace, elbow-length white gloves, and a green turban with a long, curling peacock feather completed her ensemble.
Next to her, the Squire was far more soberly dressed, but his hearty greeting equaled his wife’s. He shook Daniel’s hand vigorously and bowed to Thea with more enthusiasm than grace. “Well met, Vicar, well met. Miss Bainbridge. It’s a pleasure to see you. I am sure your dear sainted father would be proud of you both.”
Daniel responded with only a bow, so Thea hurried to add her thanks. “It is kind of you to say so, sir. I know it is very important to my brother to strive for the excellence that our father achieved for St. Margaret’s.”
What Thea actually knew was that it was a small source of irritation to Daniel to be always compared to their father, Latimer Bainbridge, who was a most learned as well as spiritual man. She and Daniel were aware that Latimer had felt some disappointment that not all his children had measured up to his expectations. Their sister, Veronica, had been exactly as a girl should be, pretty and pleasant in nature, and she had made a good marriage, so Latimer had not been bothered by her lack of interest in intellectual pursuits. But while Daniel and Thea both had a scholarly bent of mind, the truth was that Daniel was more interested in exploring Roman ruins than in examining the human soul, and Thea, unfortunately, was a female. Thea could not follow in their father’s footsteps, and while Daniel did take over the living at St. Margaret’s, he did not invest the same time and interest in it that Latimer would have liked.
“If I know you, Vicar, you have been hard at work on your Christmas sermon,” Mrs. Cliffe offered with a waggish smile. “I do so love to hear your thoughts on the Holy Word.”
Thea wondered how the Squire’s wife would view her brother’s sermons if she knew that they were mostly written by Thea herself. Of course, Thea was not about to tell her that, but she could not think of another comment to make to Mrs. Cliffe, so she merely smiled. She was finding it more difficult to concentrate tonight than usual.
“Here, here, have a cup of Christmas cheer,” Mrs. Cliffe went on, guiding Thea over to a narrow table, which held several cups of steaming broth. ’Twill warm you right up.”
A footman came up to take Thea’s cloak, and she picked up one of the small ceramic cups, gratefully curling her hands around the warm drink. While her hostess continued to chatter, Thea sipped at the spiced soup, to which a generous amount of negus had been added. The mulled Madeira in the negus was potent enough to make Thea’s eyes water, but the heat of it sliding down her throat and filling her insides was delightful. She hoped it would serve to unknot the tangle of nerves in her stomach, as well. It was foolish to be on such pins and needles, but she could not seem to bring her rebellious nerves into order.
“Don’t you look nice, my dear,” Mrs. Cliffe went on. “So neat and orderly. I always say to my girls, take notice of Althea Bainbridge, that is just how a lady ought to conduct herself. She doesn’t put on airs to make herself interesting or flirt with young men or spend her time fussing with her hair. She knows that there are more important things than looking pretty.”
“Indeed,” Thea murmured, with long practice turning aside the implied slight. She was well accustomed to being plain, after all, and could hardly fault others for realizing it.
“Of course my girls are still so young—all they think about is how they look. Sometimes I think there aren’t enough mirrors in the house.” The middle-aged woman let out a hearty laugh and looked down the great hall to where her daughters stood in a cluster, giggling and talking animatedly. There were four of them, all dressed in white, with enough ribbons and ruffles and frills to decorate a whole host of young ladies.
If the girls were being taught to emulate her, Thea thought, looking down at her own unadorned gray gown, they certainly seemed to have missed the mark. “Your daughters are all quite lovely tonight.”
“Thank you, my dear.” The Squire’s wife gave Thea a self-satisfied smile. “They are a pretty sight, aren’t they? They are absolutely humming with excitement about our ‘very special guest.’ No doubt you are above all that sort of silliness after all these years. But my little misses are like to faint from the anticipation. Even I, I vow, am awaiting Lord Morecombe’s arrival most eagerly. No doubt it is different for you, since you are related to the Earl of Fenstone, but I have never played hostess to one of the peerage before.”
“We are only distantly related,” Thea demurred. Her father had been the youngest son of the youngest son of an earl, making him a cousin to Lord Fenstone, which meant that while their bloodline was unquestionably good, her family had never had an adequate fortune to take part in the life of the ton—not, of course, that Latimer, or she herself, for that matter, would have wanted to be a part of that society. “There is every reason for you to be excited,” she told her hostess. “You scored a veritable coup in landing Lord Morecombe for your Christmas ball. I am sure everyone here is all agog to meet him.”
Lord Morecombe, a bachelor of some note, had a few weeks ago purchased the house known hereabouts as the Priory, which had belonged to the Earl of Fenstone. Lord Fenstone had rarely made a visit to the Priory in all the years he had owned it, but Lord Morecombe had arrived for a stay two weeks earlier, bringing with him a number of his friends. Since that time, his lordship, his friends, and the goings-on at the Priory had been the central theme of all gossip in the village of Chesley. No matter how high or low, how old or young, how distant or near, everyone seemed to have a story concerning the newcomers, and everyone was always eager to hear more about him.
“Well, I must confess—” Mrs. Cliffe leaned a little closer and lowered her voice a trifle. “I did wonder if I should have done so. I mean, inviting these young men to be around young, impressionable girls? One has heard such unsavory tales. … Still—” She brightened. “I thought, after all, he is friends with Lord Fenstone’s son. Indeed, the Earl’s son is one of the young men staying at the Priory with him. An excellent family, of course, and doubtless Lord Morecombe is from a good family, as well. And one must expect young gentlemen to sow a few wild oats, now, mustn’t one?” Her eyes twinkled merrily. “Of course, I should not be discussing such things with an unmarried girl like you. Though you’re not really a girl anymore, are you? But still …”
Thea clung a little grimly to her pleasant expression. She was well aware that she was considered completely “on the shelf.” It was little wonder, given that she had reached the ripe old age of twenty-seven without the slightest hint of a proposal from an eligible man … or, indeed, even from an ineligible one. Still, she had not yet become immune to such dismissals. She wondered when a woman did become accustomed to them. Her voice was a trifle brittle as she responded, “No, indeed, ma’am, you need not watch your tongue with me. I am well past the age of being an impressionable young girl.”
“You have always been such a sensible young lady.” Mrs. Cliffe beamed her approval at Thea. “Now, you should run along, dear; you have spent enough time talking with an old woman like me. Go join the younger set. Your friend Mrs. Howard is already here, though I’m not sure where she’s got to.” Mrs. Cliffe glanced around vaguely.
“Is she?” Thea brightened. “Indeed, I will go find her. Thank you.”
Thea strolled through the great hall, nodding and smiling and stopping now and then to talk to someone. Her progress was slow, for she had lived in the village of Chesley all her life and was well known by its residents. She found Damaris Howard near the rear of the large room, standing with Mrs. Dinmont and a woman she recognized as the wife of the Squire’s younger brother.
“Thea!” Damaris turned toward her, smiling.
Damaris’s thick, lustrous black hair was pulled up and pinned in intricate arrangements of curls. Her almond-shaped eyes were an unusual shade of blue-gray that seemed almost lavender, an effect heightened today by the deep purple of her stylish silk gown. Her creamy white skin was in sharp contrast to the vivid color of her hair and eyes. Jet earrings and a simple jet-and-ivory cameo around her slender neck were the only adornments she wore other than a spray of diamonds in her hair. She looked, as always, far too beautiful and sophisticated for a remote village such as Chesley.
She had lived here for less than a year, and no one knew where she had come from. She had a faint aura of mystery about her that was both intriguing and difficult to pinpoint. Her rich contralto voice held no hint of accent. Mrs. Howard was obviously genteel, but she never spoke of her family connections, and though she said she was widowed, no one knew anything about her deceased husband. She was clearly familiar with London and Bath, as well as several foreign cities, yet she never really spoke of any place as her home. And though no one knew much about her, she never seemed secretive, so that one was left with a vague sense that one knew Damaris without really knowing many details of her life.
For one brief moment, Thea felt a pang of envy for Damaris’s rich gown of royal purple and her artfully upswept hair. Both, she knew, were quite outside her reach. Thea could not have afforded such a glorious dress, and even if she could have, it would be foolish to waste so much money on a ball gown that would be worn only two or three times when she had a perfectly good one from last year. The vicar’s family, after all, was always in the public eye, and it would not do for the vicar’s sister to appear wasteful or vain.
And as for her hair—well, it was nonsense, Thea knew, to rail against the fate that had given Thea her wayward curls, which often managed to escape from mere hairpins and frizz wildly all over her head until she looked a fright. The best way to subdue her unruly mane was to braid it and wind the plaits tightly into a coil atop the crown of her head. The style did not enhance her looks, but at least it was practical.
Thea wore her spectacles for the same reason. When she was young, she had often abandoned her spectacles when she attended parties in an effort to show off her best feature, her large gray eyes. However, she had gotten over such vanity through the years. It was silly to sit through a dinner or go to a party and be unable to see clearly three feet from her face. And what good did it do, really, to pretend for a few hours that she did not look as she did?
As Damaris excused herself from the other two women and came over to Thea, smiling, Thea pushed aside her moment’s longing for beauty. It was one’s heart and soul that mattered, after all, as her father had always told her.
“Thea, I am so glad you have rescued me,” Damaris murmured as she slipped her arm through Thea’s and started to stroll away with her. “I vow I have been positively drowning in tales of Lord Morecombe.”
Thea chuckled. “I have no doubt. Were they talking of the carriage full of women of doubtful character who drove over from Cheltenham? Or the wag of brandy and ale coming by night in a very suspicious manner?”
“Smuggling in liquor to his cellars? I doubt that would raise many eyebrows around Chesley,” Damaris retorted. “Though the amount he brought in might. No, Mrs. Dinmont was regaling Mrs. Cliffe the younger with stories of shooting contests that involved picking out the candles of the chandelier. Mrs. Cliffe countered that the man has no maids in the house because no self-respecting female will work there. Of course, they both agreed that they are nevertheless waiting with bated breath to meet the legendary lord.”
“Mm. Everyone seems to be.” Thea refused to think about her own dancing nerves. “I am sure his fortune and the fact that he is a bachelor will overcome any objections anyone may have to his moral character.”
“I believe his face plays a role, as well. Everyone agrees he is as handsome as Lucifer before the fall.”
“Yes. I suppose.” Thea could feel heat rising in her face, and she looked down at her glove, rebuttoning the little round button through its loop.
“Have you ever seen him?” Damaris went on. “I have not.”
Thea shrugged as she turned her gaze out on the crowd. “His friend Lord Wofford is my second cousin, though I scarcely know Cousin Ian more than to say hello.”
Damaris looked at Thea thoughtfully, but if she found it odd that her friend had not really answered her question, she did not say so. “Well, I shall be interested to see him, I admit, but I am growing rather weary of hearing about our local lord. Let us turn to a more interesting topic. You will be pleased to know that I received a shipment of books this week. You shall have to come round and look at them.”
“Really? How delightful.”
“They included Cantos I and II of Lord Byron’s Don Juan.” When Thea did not respond, her friend glanced at her, surprised. “Thea?”
“What? Oh, I am sorry.” Thea blushed. “I am afraid my mind wandered.”
“Are you all right?”
“Oh, yes, of course. I am just a bit distracted tonight. I am sorry. I fear you said something that I was not attending to—something about the books you received?”
“Yes. I got in Lord Byron’s new poem.”
“Did you?” Thea’s eyes widened appreciatively. She understood now why Damaris had been so startled by her lack of response to the news. Thea was an avid reader, and until Damaris arrived, no one else in Chesley shared her love of books except her brother, Daniel—and his tastes ran more to the scholarly. Books of history or even the philosophical and religious texts her father had enjoyed were all very well, of course, and Thea read whatever her father or brother ordered from London. But she also had a love of poetry and novels and satire, which were all too scarce in the study at home. When Thea first met Damaris, and their conversation had turned to books, Thea knew she had found a friend. “Is Don Juan terribly shocking? It is supposed to be, but I confess, I cannot wait to read it.”
Damaris laughed, and Thea joined in, though afterward she said, “I would not tell anyone but you that. I fear I am not a very good example to Daniel’s flock.”
“Well, they are his parishioners, after all, not yours.”
“I know. But I do have a certain duty.” Thea let out an unconscious sigh.
“I promise I shall not tell anyone that you are borrowing it.”
“Have you read it yet?”
“My dear, the very evening I got it! Though I shall go back for a longer perusal, of course. But it is wonderful. You will not be disappointed, I assure you.”
“I am sure that I will not. It is very kind of you to lend it to me.” Thea glanced toward the front of the hall, where the Squire and his wife were still receiving guests. She noted that she was not the only guest who kept turning to look at the entrance. Everyone, it seemed, was awaiting Mrs. Cliffe’s “very special guest.”
“If Lord Morecombe does not attend, it will spell disaster for Mrs. Cliffe’s party,” Damaris said, following Thea’s gaze.
“It is foolish in the extreme, of course, to put so much interest in the appearance of one person,” Thea said, feeling a bit guilty at being caught looking. Resolutely she turned so that her back was toward the door.
“No doubt it is, but still, ’tis difficult not to be caught up in it.”
Thea glanced around and let out a little sigh as her eyes fell on the row of people seated against the wall. “I had better pay my respects to the Squire’s mother. Would you like to come?”
Damaris chuckled. “Thank you, but I have already done my duty there this evening. I am afraid you must face the gorgon on your own.”
Thea had to smile at the comparison. The old woman, who was wrapped in a shawl and grimly studying the occupants of the room, often made one feel as if she could turn one to stone. “If you think the experience is treacherous for you, think of those of us whose every childhood misstep is known to her!”
Thea bade good-bye to her friend and made her way toward the rear of the room to make her curtsy to the elder Mrs. Cliffe.
“It’s good to see you, ma’am.” The polite lie slid off Thea’s tongue with the ease of long practice. “I hope you are well this evening.”
“Hmmph.” The old woman cast a baleful glance at Thea. “As well as I can be, I suppose, with one foot in the grave.” She thumped her cane against the floor and nodded toward the chair beside her. “Sit down, sit down, girl, can’t crane my neck looking up at you like that.”
Thea sat down beside the old woman. She could not see the door from here, which would serve to keep her from glancing toward it all the time.
“Bunch of ninnies,” Mrs. Cliffe declared, glaring at the rest of the room. “All agog over seeing some lord no better than they are, when all’s said and done. Well, at least you aren’t as big a fool as the rest.”
Thea was not sure how to respond to this halfhearted compliment, so she merely nodded.
“Look at my granddaughters—putting on ribbons and lace and airs, just to meet some popinjay from London who won’t take a second look at them. And their silly mother encourages them—as if some lord from London would have any interest in a bunch of young chits who’ve never been farther than Cheltenham. Isn’t as if any of them are beauties, either. I always say, you only make yourself look foolish acting like you’re a diamond of the first water when anyone can see you’re merely paste.” The old lady turned to Thea and gave her a sharp nod. “Now, you my girl, look just as you should. Neat and no-nonsense.”
Thea felt a sharp, familiar burn in her chest, but she told herself not to be foolish. She could hardly fault the Squire’s old mother for expressing the very sentiment Thea had used as her own watchword tonight: it was better to be thought a dowd than a fool.
“Course, no telling my son’s wife that. Maribel’s pumped the girls’ heads so full of nonsense, they can hardly see straight. She’s been in a tizzy all week, half the time up in the boughs over her catch and the other half worrying herself to a frazzle that he won’t come. Hah! Serve her right if he didn’t, for going around puffing it up to everyone that he’d accepted.”
“Still, I am sure that you would not really wish to see her disappointed.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that.” The old lady slid a dark, glittering glance at Thea, then let out a heavy sigh. “No, you’re probably right. She’d spend the next week nattering on and on about it till I’d have to keep to my room just to avoid her.”
Thea looked down at her hands to hide her smile.
“Well, tell me, girl,” Mrs. Cliffe went on, “is that sister of yours coming home for Christmas?”
“Oh, yes.” Thea smiled. “I am quite looking forward to it. We get to see her and her children so rarely. But it is always delightful to have all their noise and activity. It makes the house seem truly alive and filled with the spirit of Christmas.”
“That is the life of a naval wife, I fear, stuck off in some seaport somewhere.”
Thea did not point out that Portsmouth was hardly the ends of the earth, saying only, “Well, she will be here in just a few more days, so we are happy about that.”
“Pretty girl, Veronica,” the old woman mused. “Not surprised she made a good marriage. But I never did hold with her having a Season and you not. I told your father so, as well. ‘Vicar,’ I said, ‘you’re slighting your youngest, and she’s got as much right as anyone to have a go at catching herself a husband.’”
“I was needed at home,” Thea replied somewhat stiffly. “And, indeed, I had little interest in a London Season.”
She hadn’t wanted to have a Season; she really hadn’t. Thea had known as well as anyone—better, really—that she hadn’t the sort of looks necessary to make a splash in London. Veronica was the acknowledged beauty of the family. Whereas Thea’s hair was a nondescript color, neither red nor brown, Veronica’s hair was a lush, deep auburn, a beautiful contrast to her creamy white skin—which never, ever was touched with the freckles that decorated Thea’s cheeks if she forgot to put on her bonnet when she went out into the garden. And no one would compare Thea’s solemn gray eyes, hidden behind her spectacles, to the color of bluebells, as more than one young swain had said about Veronica’s eyes. Veronica’s form was sweetly curved and delicately feminine, and next to her, Thea’s tall, thin frame looked distinctly storklike. Clearly, just as her father had decreed, it did not make sense to spend the money on Thea’s Season, and anyway, her father had needed Thea to copy out his sermons and keep the house and the vicar’s life running smoothly.
“Nonsense. Don’t try to tell me you wouldn’t have liked to go to London. I wasn’t born yesterday, far from it.” Mrs. Cliffe let out a cackle of laughter. “But you’re a good daughter not to brook criticism of your father.”
There was a rustle of movement near the door, and a swift susurration of noise swept around the room. Thea lifted her head, her pulse suddenly pounding in anticipation.
“Well?” Mrs. Cliffe demanded. “What’s happened? Did he come? Don’t just sit there, girl. Stand up and see what’s going on.”
Thea was happy to oblige. She popped to her feet, but too many people were between her and the door to see anything. All of the guests were shifting toward the front of the room, their faces turned toward the door.
“I think he must be here,” Thea told her companion. “But I cannot see.”
The elder Mrs. Cliffe grimaced and brought her cane down with an irritated thump. “Never mind. She’ll bring him over to introduce him to me—Maribel won’t be able to resist tweaking my nose with it. Sit down, and we’ll pretend we didn’t even notice. Always better to look like you don’t care, I say.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Thea retook her seat. She wondered what it said about her that she found herself in sympathy with this crotchety old woman.
“Tell me about this silly live Nativity that Maribel says you’re planning for Christmas Eve.”
“I think it will be quite affecting, ma’am. St. Thomas Church in Holstead-on-Leach did it last year, and I believe it was very successful.”
“Quite chilly, I’d say,” Mrs. Cliffe snorted. “Hope you know what you’re in for, letting my granddaughter play Mary. Course, you had no choice there. Maribel would have hounded you to your deathbed if her eldest weren’t chosen.”
Thea decided it was probably better not to comment on that. Instead, she launched into a description of their efforts to mount the production, knowing that the mishaps that occurred at each rehearsal would arouse Mrs. Cliffe’s prickly sense of humor. As Thea talked, she kept an eye on the room in front of her. The guests, after the initial movement forward, began to part down the middle like water before the prow of a ship, and before long Thea could see the younger Mrs. Cliffe moving slowly through the room beside a tall, dark-haired man. Two other men were with him, but Thea noticed only the one to whom Mrs. Cliffe clung.
His hair was thick and black, swept back from a sculpted face. His brows were as black as his hair, sharp slashes over large, intense dark eyes. He was, as gossip had rumored him, sinfully handsome, and his black jacket and breeches were elegantly tailored to fit his muscular frame. His pristine white neckcloth was tied simply and held in place by a sapphire stickpin; he wore no other adornment save a gold signet ring on his right hand. Tall and broad-shouldered, he walked with the confident stride of one who was accustomed to being the center of attention.
Gabriel Morecombe. Thea’s heart thudded so hard she feared it might leap right out of her chest. The blood seemed to rush from her extremities to her center, leaving her face pale. She tried frantically to pull her thoughts together, to have a smooth, polite greeting ready. The group moved slowly, Mrs. Cliffe stopping to introduce her prize to each guest. Beside Thea, Mrs. Cliffe’s mother-in-law rumbled with a low laugh.
“Wants him to get a long look at all four of the girls—and Meg’s just sixteen. Poor little sparrows; she’s got their heads stuffed full of nonsense about catching a peacock.”
Lord Morecombe looked, Thea thought, rather glassy-eyed. No doubt he was stunned by the succession of simpering Cliffe daughters—not to mention every other halfway marriageable female in the room. The thought made Thea chuckle, and it eased her nerves a bit. But then Mrs. Cliffe pivoted and led him toward where Thea sat, the other two men trailing along behind.
“Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Robert Cliffe, my husband’s mother. Mother Cliffe, this is my honored guest, Lord Morecombe. And his friends, Sir Myles Thorwood and Mr. Alan Carmichael.” Thea noticed that her cousin Ian had apparently not joined the group.
Gabriel stepped forward and executed a formal bow to the old lady. “My pleasure, madam, though surely you must have married very young indeed to be the Squire’s mother.”
Mrs. Cliffe let out a short crack of laughter. “Ah, you’re a smooth-talking devil as well as a handsome one.”
“Mother!” The young Mrs. Cliffe’s face flooded with color. She rushed on, “And this is another of our lovely young ladies, Miss Bainbridge.”
Thea rose on somewhat shaky legs. “My lord.”
Lord Morecombe turned to her, his eyes moving over her without interest. “Miss Dandridge.” He sketched a polite bow before moving on with Mrs. Cliffe.
Morecombe’s two companions bowed to her in turn, greeting her by the same name. Thea nodded to them instinctively, not really hearing them, aware of nothing but the hard, cold knot forming in her chest.
Gabriel Morecombe had not remembered her.