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Lady Mathilda Tyrewhitte-Wilson studied the unused horse stall with a judicious eye, then nodded decisively, seized a pitchfork, and proceeded to cover the floor with fresh straw. It was a decidedly unladylike occupation, and one that would have caused scandalized consternation among her social peers, but Tilda had no thought to spare for such possibly dire consequences. Appearances and etiquette were not matters with which she particularly concerned herself, and this fine indifference, which would have resulted in ruin for one of less exalted birth, only earned her a reputation for eccentricity.
That particular task done, Tilda leaned her pitchfork against a stable wall and strolled across the rolling lawns to her home. Her expression was one of thoughtful determination, as if a decision had been reached that she meant to carry through, in the face of probable opposition. So great was her concentration that she paid no heed to the solitary horseman who watched her, amusement stamped on his swarthy features. This gentleman dismounted lazily, but made no move to follow his quarry inside the sprawling structure.
Tyre's Abbey was a pleasant, meandering house of gray and ancient sun-warmed stones that nestled into its country setting with an air of settled ease. The horseman had little time to spend in appreciation of this architectural beauty, however, for Tilda soon reappeared, her dark skirts caught up to contain a litter of squirming, squalling puppies. An exquisite underslip was thus revealed. At her heels whined a setter bitch. The gentleman gave a whoop of laughter, and the object of his attention paused, peering nearsightedly at him.
"Micah!" she declared, as hervisitor approached. He was a tall, muscular man whose arrogantly sculpted features were etched with harsh lines. "I did not know you to be again among us. Ruralizing, my friend? Have you come to the country to be quiet for a time and to recover from your various debaucheries?"
Micah Marryat, last in the long and illustrious succession of the Earls of Wilmington, was noted for his various accomplishments, among them the ability to administer masterful set-downs. But Lady Tyrewhitte-Wilson was destined for no such fate, for the gentleman's habitually sardonic expression relaxed into a smile. "What a reprehensible tongue you have, to be sure! What would you know of my 'debaucheries'?"
Tilda grinned, and took a firmer grip on her struggling skirts. "Word of your excesses reaches us even here," she replied. "Why, think! We are so dull that we must have something to divert us--and you must admit yourself to be an admirable topic of conversation. The dissolute Earl of Wilmington. The latest on-dit to reach me concerned a gypsy dancer, though I suspect the more tantalizing details were withheld, alas."
"Do you still bemoan your humdrum existence, Tilda? Shackled by propriety!" The Earl's fascinated gaze was fixed on her yapping burden. "May I be so forward as to ask why you are so encumbered?"
"Yes on both counts, and you may also be of assistance." Micah obligingly rescued one courageous pup that threatened to tumble from its precarious perch, and obediently followed his hostess to the stables. "Trixie seems determined that her brood shall share my bedchamber, and I am removing them to more suitable surroundings. For the fifth time, I might add." Tilda glanced up at her companion. "I repeat, what brings you here? Shall you stay?"
"No," he replied. "I go to London to fetch my godmother, and merely stopped to tell you that she'll be spending a brief time at the Hall." Tilda noticed idly that the Earl's smile seemed to light even his hazel eyes. "Her presence should liven your boredom, Tilda."
"The Duchess? I should think. We'll be gay to dissipation, I doubt not." She settled the pups in the stall and closed the door. "I daresay Trixie will find some way to fetch them to my rooms again, but I hope not before tomorrow. Come, let me offer you some refreshment."
"From Dominic's cellars? Certainly." The Earl noticed the shadow that crossed his companion's features. "Tilda! Still? It's been a year and more."
"Since he so thoughtlessly broke his neck?" Her tone was light, but anyone acquainted with the lady could not have mistaken the shadow that touched her fine features. "Yes, and I do not claim to remain prostrated with grief. It is only that I have been so dull." Tilda smiled ruefully. "But this is a very pretty way of talking, when I have not seen you for so long! Hush now, and follow me. Puggins heard an owl hoot three times last night, and has refused to do a stitch of work in hope of forestalling her consequent bad luck. And Eunice, upon whose shoulders the burden of housekeeping might be expected to fall, has suddenly succumbed to a summer cold. If she hears your voice, she will immediately arise from her bed to play chaperone. We will go on much better without her, I think."
Like two conspirators, they entered the cool house and made their way to the study. Mathilda firmly closed the door. "There!" said she, with satisfaction.
"Why do you tolerate that insipid female?" inquired the Earl. He watched as his hostess poured two glasses of brandy. In an ornate gilded case, a plump parakeet, named Wordsworth by his exasperated mistress, who had long since abandoned hope that he would ever utter noises resembling human speech, trilled and sang. "Send her packing: you're mistress here."
"Dominic's only relative?" Tilda shrugged. "It would be too cruel. Eunice is devoted to me, in her fashion. We rub along well enough together." It was common knowledge that Eunice Scattergood had succumbed to strong hysterics upon receiving the information that Dominic Tyrewhitte-Wilson, the cousin upon whom she doted, had been so inconsiderate as to have, after long and lengthy debate with his solicitors, left his entire fortune to his wife. But Tilda did not care to discuss this particular matter with the Earl. She raised her glass. "Now we may be comfortable," she said, and sank into a chair. "Tell me, how do you go on?"
"You know most of that, I think." Micah's attention wandered to the painting of Dominic, Lord Tyrewhitte-Wilson, that dominated one wall. "That's an uncanny likeness."
Tilda, too, turned to the portrait, and studied it in silence, not for the first time since her husband's death. But the painted canvas afforded no explanation of the enigma the man had been. "Yes," she said.
Tall and distinguished looking, haughty and aloof, Dominic Tyrewhitte-Wilson had commanded his wife's devotion to the point of adoration, but although he had been remarkably lenient with her and had encouraged her eccentricities, Tilda knew that she had been merely another of the unusual, sometimes beautiful objects with which he surrounded himself. His death had truly grieved her, for she had hoped to someday turn his liking for her into a stronger emotion. "He was a fascinating contradiction." She turned away from the portrait's cold, dark eyes and met the Earl's considering gaze.
"Why do you look at me so?" she demanded crossly. "Have I a smudge?"
"Not at all," Wilmington replied with amusement. "You remain a diamond of the first water, Tilda, for all you're nine and twenty."
"Thank you: you are very good." Tilda's brown eyes twinkled. "Wretch! I am well aware of how I look, and I certainly don't need to be reminded of my age! Next you will tell me I'd best take steps lest I dwindle into a prune-faced old hag."
"Nothing of the sort," Micah replied calmly. "I would not be so vulgar. All the same, it's a great shame to hide yourself in the country. Your company has always been greatly in demand."
"No more of this," Tilda interrupted, with deceptive calm. "I am quite content with my lot. I do not subscribe to the adage that any husband is better than none. Nor do I aspire to a life that would find me dangling my heels in a drawing room, listening to idle conversation, when not involved in my duties as a brood mare!"
"Tilda!" The Earl quirked an amused eyebrow. "Such sentiments are hardly fitting for a young lady of quality."
"As you have already pointed out," Tilda retorted, "I am no longer young. You also forget to whom you speak. The behavior of young ladies of quality has naught to do with the eccentric Lady Tyrewhitte-Wilson, and I thank God 'tis so!"
Instead of being crushed by this quelling speech, the Earl succumbed to mirth. The eccentric Lady Tyrewhitte-Wilson regarded him with a flashing eye, then reluctantly smiled. "Why must you always goad me to appear at my very worst?" she inquired. "You are the most provoking man! Now tell me, where do you come from? Not the Hall, for I must have known if you were there." She studied his attire. "Some disgusting meeting of depraved sportsmen, I'll wager. What was it? Cock fighting, a horse race? Perhaps a mill?"
"You're too unjust!" Micah protested. "Confess, Tilda: you'd like of all things to witness such depravity yourself."
"Yes," sighed his companion. "I would. Though I imagine I'd care little for cock fighting, it would be nice to know. What was it, Micah? A prizefight?" Her late spouse's tolerance had not extended to permitting his wife to mix with low company.
"No, a horse race. It's a pity you couldn't have been there, Tilda, you'd have enjoyed it immensely. I won a tidy sum on an unknown charger called Rasher-of-Wind."
Tilda greeted this tale of triumph with throaty laughter. "You jest!" she gasped. "Micah, not really Rasher-of-Wind!"
"I swear it. There were long faces in plenty, for he beat the favorite by a nose."
"How exciting." Tilda's amusement was replaced by pensiveness. "I do wish something exciting would happen to me!"
"You tempt fate by such loose talk." Micah prepared to take his leave. "Why not accompany Agatha on her return to London? You'd have little time to be blue-deviled there."
"Perhaps I shall," Tilda said, with a notable lack of enthusiasm. "But I've been boring you with my megrims. Forgive me! And do give Agatha my love."
The Earl paused at the front door. "Be assured I shall. She speaks often of you." He smiled lazily and lifted her ungloved hand to his lips. "Poor Tilda, you've had a humdrum year. Come to London and we'll make you lively again. Now I must take my leave of you. There's a dark-haired charmer who'll suffer pique if I'm absent from her throng of admirers tonight."
"Not your gypsy, I perceive?"
"Ah no, this is but a child. An amusing one, I grant you, but she'll be Haymarket ware before long." The aloof, sardonic expression was again on Micah's face.
Tilda watched her visitor depart, then turned to study herself critically in the hallway's ornate mirror. She certainly was not fashionable: flaming red hair surrounded an expressive face that boasted an aristocratic little nose, a determined chin, and large brown eyes. Unfortunately, the nose was lightly freckled from injudicious exposure to the sun, and the planes of the face far too well sculpted to satisfy the current notion of well-rounded beauty. As for her neck, it was long and slender, two adjectives that might well apply to the rest of Tilda also, for she towered above most of her female acquaintances, one of the factors that had rendered her come-out an ordeal.
"A diamond of the first water, indeed!" Lady Tyrewhitte-Wilson snorted, and suspected Micah of being kind. Further reflection led her to admit that magnanimity was not a virtue commonly ascribed to the present Earl of Wilmington. She scowled at the mirror. Carroty curls clustered around her face, but the angelic impression conveyed by this burnished halo was offset by its owner's decidedly worldly demeanor. Lady Tyrewhitte-Wilson was no green girl. A good-hearted person might categorize her as interesting.
"Tempt the gods, do I?" Tilda snapped at her reflected image. Unfortunately, those celestial beings were not so easily influenced by puny mortal dreams.
It could not be said that Whipple House nestled among its bucolic surroundings, nor that Claude de Villiers approached it with anything remotely resembling an amused air. Rather than conveying pleasure, his grim features settled into an expression even more dour, as if the strange conglomeration of brick, stone, and weathered wood, creation of countless generations of misguided Whipples and brought into Claude's possession by his wife, offended his fastidious tastes. The Lady Henrietta had been well dowered, and Claude might have been grateful for the house, being as it was the only remnant of the considerable fortune that he'd gamed away, but in fact he considered the structure an abomination. Each time Claude saw Whipple House anew, he could not refrain from comparing it to the Chateau de Ledoux where his elder brother resided in true manorial style. As usual, this exercise did nothing to restore Claude's evenness of temper.
With an oath, he flung open the massive front door, thus nearly causing grave physical damage to the butler who hovered in the dark hallway. That worthy was prepared to carry glad or sad tidings to the remainder of the staff, all of whom shared a great curiosity concerning their master's fortunes, an interest that stemmed equally from their devotion to Lady Henrietta and the fact that their wages were sadly in arrears.
"Imbecile!" snapped Claude. Claygate, the butler, surveyed his master solemnly, evincing no sign of emotion other than a slight downward tremor at one corner of his mouth. This involuntary twitch was the bane of Claygate's existence, for it had caused his dismissal from a far grander establishment. "Tell your mistress that I desire her presence in the library immediately."
"Very good, my lord," Claygate replied with calculated insolence, his countenance unstirred by this indication that the master had failed to make his hoped-for recovery. Claude de Villiers utilized the library only for the discussion of monumental matters, and judging from all present auguries, such present concerns could only be dire. It was unfortunate for the rest of the family, but Claygate couldn't dispel a smug, somewhat self-righteous satisfaction in the knowledge that this time the master had gone his length.
Lady Henrietta approached the library cautiously, still clutching the threadbare linen that she had been engaged in mending when news of her husband's return reached her. She placed little reliance on his latest plans to recoup his losses; the de Villiers family, if Claude was any example, possessed abominable luck. It seemed to Lady Henrietta that one would be more prudent to cease play altogether when one's luck was consistently bad, but, as Claude had scathingly informed her, she knew nothing of such matters. If one continued to play, one was certain to eventually come about. Lady Henrietta foresaw that they would all be ruined in the process, but long experience with her husband had taught her that such sentiments were best unvoiced.
Upon her entrance into the room, Claude turned away from the window through which he'd been staring balefully. "I've serious matters to discuss with you, madam. Pray be seated."
Lady Henrietta's heart sank to her toes. This pompous tone could only mean that her husband's endeavors had proved unsuccessful and that he was consequently on his dignity. "Certainly." She obediently seated herself in a comfortable chair, the upholstery of which was sadly frayed. "But first, Claude, won't you please tell me if your horse didn't win?"
Claude reflected bitterly that things had reached a sorry pass when even his wife knew not only that he had attended a racing meet, but that he had gambled heavily on a certain horse. He wondered if the rest of the household was equally well apprised of his financial affairs. However, Lady Henrietta was blinking at him with sincere anxiety, and Claude felt in dire need of sympathy.
"No," he replied bitterly. "It did not. Need you even ask? My luck seems to be singularly out."
"Whatever happened?" Lady Henrietta settled back, prepared to play confidante, and busied herself again with darning. "Someone--Motley, I believe--told me your horse was to be a sure thing."
"Motley?" Claude was momentarily diverted from the galling sight of his wife doing servants' chores. "What in the name of heaven would my daughter's governess know about horse racing?"
"Motley is very practical," his wife soothed, "and has a wide variety of interests. I suppose it's not surprising that she should know about such things."
"Well, this time Motley was wrong." Claude seemed to derive satisfaction from the thought. "Neck-or-Nothing was beat out by a nose, and by some unknown nag called Rasher-of-Wind. Infamous! It couldn't have happened, but it did. Neck-or-Nothing was oddly sluggish today, and there was nothing for it but to behave in a sporting manner and pay up."
"No," agreed Lady Henrietta serenely. "To do otherwise would have been unthinkable, I'm sure."
Claude surveyed his wife suspiciously, but Lady Henrietta's countenance was innocent. At times Claude found his wife's well-bred impassiveness difficult to understand. "You take this news damned calmly, madam," he snarled. "It will mean stricter economies, I fear."
Lady Henrietta questioned whether anyone could pinch pennies more severely than she, but merely bit off her thread. "Did you lose a very great sum?"
"Hardly," Claude retorted, "since we haven't a great sum to lose. But I tell you frankly, I don't know how we are to go on."
Lady Henrietta, who had wondered that very same thing for a great many years, remained placid. "I daresay you'll think of something, dear. You always do."
Claude suspected his helpmeet of wifely sarcasm, but forbore to comment on such perfidy. "It is concerning that very matter that I wished to speak with you." That he might desire the pleasure of her company occurred to neither of them.
But Lady Henrietta uncharacteristically interrupted him in midspeech. "Claude?" she inquired, rethreading her needle. "Don't you think it might be wise to apply to Emile? I'm sure he'd render assistance, were he to be made aware of the straits we're in. After all, Maddy is his niece."
"Emile!" Claude pounded an inoffensive table with a vigor that made even Lady Henrietta start. "Were I to die in debtors' prison, I wouldn't apply to Emile!"
"I do hope it won't come to that!" Lady Henrietta snapped, then withdrew again behind her unruffled shell. "I only thought that, being your brother, he might care to know how things are with you."
"That is one notion that you may put straight out of your head! And since we speak of my delightful family, I must tell you that I visited with Letty today." Claude seemed to consider that this admission might provoke his wife to a further outbreak of temper, but Lady Henrietta refrained.
"Indeed?" she inquired. Claude's sister inspired her with a great deal less enthusiasm than did Emile. Letty Jellicoe was a frivolous creature, with no thought beyond that of her own comfort in her empty head. "What prompted you to such conciliatory action? I thought you had not forgiven her for Emile's decision to make her son his heir."
This bald statement did little to soothe Claude's exacerbated temper, for the loss of his brother's considerable fortune made him seethe with rage, particularly since Letty's son had inherited the Jellicoe wealth and had little need of Emile's, but Claude needed his wife's compliance in his new plan for the reinstatement of their resources. He tempered his wrath. "That sniveling whelp! It's a great pity young Kenelm has taken Emile's fancy to so great a degree. Perhaps something may yet be done to remedy the situation."
Lady Henrietta looked at her husband's unpleasant smile and dropped her mending. "Claude! You don't mean to--"
"Nothing of the sort!" Claude had, in fact, toyed with the notion of forcibly disposing of his inconvenient nephew. "I only meant that fortune might smile on us and young Kenelm so displease Emile that he finds himself dispossessed in turn. Which, since Emile has no offspring, would leave only me." He smiled at his wife's expression. "Don't fear, my scheme is a great deal better than that." Having masterfully whetted her curiosity, he was at a loss to proceed.
"What is this plan of yours?" Lady Henrietta inquired helpfully. Claude took an abrupt turn around the room.
"Where's Maddy?" he demanded with studied nonchalance. "What I have to say is also for her to hear." His wife's suddenly watchful air made him feel that his collar was a great deal too tight.
"As to her whereabouts, I couldn't say," Lady Henrietta replied in a gentle voice that effectively masked her apprehension. When Claude was in this humor, one could not predict what he might do. "I believe she walked to the village to visit her old nurse, who is ill. But pray, enlighten me: just what part does Maddy play in these schemes of yours?"
"It's like her to be roaming the countryside unaccompanied!" Claude took refuge in indignation. "Your daughter could easily be taken for a tinker's wench, madam! And in spite of that expensive schooling Emile provided for her. Had she been more conciliating, he might have done a great deal more for her--but there it is. I'm forced to provide for her myself, and a deuced problem it's been. But I fancy I've hit upon the very solution."
Lady Henrietta refrained from pointing out that he had rendered a certain assistance in the accomplishment of Maddy's birth. "And what might that be?"
"Letty is going to bring her out," Claude announced triumphantly. Lady Henrietta blinked several times, speechless. "She'll take her in hand, teach her how to go on, and she'll snap up a rich husband in no time at all."
"But the expense!" Lady Henrietta protested faintly. "We are already reduced to near-penury."
"We've enough for that," Claude interjected, hoping fervently that his wife wouldn't discover the absence of her pearls until some far-distant time. "Maddy's a deuced taking little thing. We can trust her to make a good match."
Lady Henrietta regarded him suspiciously. "A rich match, you mean. Claude, you can't have thought: Maddy has no portion! You expect her to make a brilliant match when we haven't a feather to fly with ourselves!"
"Don't put yourself in a taking!" Claude retorted. "Our daughter is of unexceptionable birth, and Letty will do her utmost to promote a match. It won't be surprising if Maddy attracts the attention of a wealthy gentleman, and all our troubles thereby solved."
Lady Henrietta seriously doubted that any gentleman's ardor would be sufficient to withstand the shock of Maddy's lack of fortune, no matter how charming the young lady unquestionably was; but other considerations also exercised her mind. If Maddy remained isolated in the country, she would either dwindle into an old maid or wed some ham-handed red-faced country squire. However, Lady Henrietta could hardly consider Letty Jellicoe a fit chaperon for a young and impressionable girl. But Maddy possessed a fair amount of common sense, and she deserved this chance to enjoy the pleasures of Society.
Claude considered his wife's silence encouraging and pressed his point. "Letty is willing to bear a large portion of the expense," he added, not thinking it necessary to explain Lefty's generosity as a last-ditch effort to avoid the scandal that her brother's impecuniousness must cause. "Just consider, she's bringing her own girl out, too. Maddy won't be any bother at all."
"And what if Maddy doesn't oblige you?" Lady Henrietta inquired. "What if she instead falls in love with some penniless younger son?"
This was striking very near home indeed, for Lady Henrietta had done that very thing, and Claude was hard pressed to maintain his smiling affability. "Put those fears to rest," he advised. "Maddy is a good, obedient girl. She'd not be so thoughtless as to whistle a fortune down the wind."
Lady Henrietta was a good deal better acquainted with their daughter than was Claude, and thought fleetingly of the despairing reports she'd received from Maddy's select school. But she thought, too, of an unknown gentleman who might possibly appreciate her daughter's worth. Long years with a gambler had left their mark on her. "It utterly sinks my spirits to lose her," Lady Henrietta murmured doubtfully, "but I'm persuaded you are right. Maddy must go to London."
Claude repressed a triumphant grin.