Jean Lindsay lives a rather dismal life with her nasty, drunken uncle, and has little to live on but her romantic daydreams—which frequently star the dashing Marquess of Fleetwater.
She was used to being an object of others’ ridicule. Then she received an unexpected inheritance—and as news of her good fortune spread, suddenly her worn dresses became “quaint,” and her forthright manner turned magically to “charming.” But while some seek to flatter her, one person seems to want her dead—and she may need the marquess to save her pretty neck . . .
Originally published under the name Marion Chesney, this is a twist-filled tale of romance and suspense in Regency England by a beloved New York Times–bestselling author.
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It was not the first time that Miss Jean Lindsay had entertained unchristian feelings toward her uncle, the Reverend Hamish. But as she sat in the chill manse parlor, staring at the gold-embossed invitation which he had put into her hands before leaving for the church, thoughts of slow torture, mutilation or just plain murder burned in her heart. Her first ball, and less than twenty-four hours to prepare for it!
"I do not let my mind run on worldly matters," her uncle had snapped by way of an explanation as to why the precious invitation had reposed in his desk drawer for the past two weeks. "And don't expect me to waste good money on finery. There's a trunk full of your mother's clothes in the attic. Find something there."
There had been talk of little else in the village of Dunwearie but the ball to be given by the Duke and Duchess of Glenrandall. The villagers were very proud of living in the vicinity of a real duke and duchess and as proud of Glenrandall Castle as if it were their own. For the castle, perched on a cliff above Loch Garvin, facing down the sea loch to the rocky Atlantic shores of the Scottish West Highlands, was modern, and since the famous brothers Adam who had designed the castle had kept to their policy of employing local craftsmen, the building and maintenance of the great pile brought some small prosperity to the village of Dunwearie itself.
Jean had sadly assumed she was not to be invited, for although her social background was impeccable, her life of drudgery at the manse had not taught her to think much of herself.
Her grandfather, General Sir Duncan Lindsay, had been a famous Far Eastern explorer and had died a wealthy man. He left three sons: Jean's father, Sir Philip, who inherited the bulk of the estate, Hamish and Joseph. While Hamish took holy orders and Joseph sailed to India to seek his fortune, Sir Philip gave up the days of his bachelorhood in his late forties to marry a pretty but feckless and impoverished lady, Venetia Harrington, and then settled back to dissipate his wealth in every gambling hall from Land's End to John O' Groats with the help of his wife.
The spendthrift couple had met their death a few months after Jean was born when their carriage had plunged off one of the treacherous Highland roads into a ravine. Venetia Lindsay had long before alienated the affections of her stiff-necked family who objected to her profligate way of life, Joseph was presumed dead in some tribal uprising in the strife-torn North-West Frontier of India, so only the Reverend Hamish was left to give the baby a home.
The girl would have become little more than a drudge but for the intervention of her godmother, Lady Harriet Telfer-Billington, a childhood friend of her mother. Although Lady Harriet resided in London, she had persuaded the Duchess of Glenrandall to allow Jean to share her schooling with the Duchess's twin daughters, Lady Mary and Lady Bess. Hamish grumbled about the waste of educating a mere girl, but the thought of getting anything at all free was too much for him. Jean was allowed to visit Glenrandall Castle each weekday for two hours to be taught the art of ladylike accomplishments.
Jean's angry thoughts turned from her uncle to her classmates, Lady Mary and Lady Bess. The twins were as pretty and empty-headed as china dolls, forever giggling and whispering in corners and excluding Jean from their conversation. They had prattled on for weeks about the dresses and jewelery they would wear to the ball and speculated about the gentlemen who would be present, but never once had they intimated that Jean was to be one of the guests.
The ball was in honor of Mary and Bess's eighteenth birthday and was to be a prelude to their removal to London the following week where they were to make their come-out. The Duchess of Glenrandall also nourished hopes that the romantic setting of a ball would prompt their houseguest, the Marquess of Fleetwater, to develop a tendre for one of her daughters. Jean wished them all success with the marquess. She had only seen him from a distance, and although she allowed him to be extremely handsome, he seemed very cold and proud.
That evening, Jean wearily waited to be dismissed from the dining room while her uncle ranted and raved over the shortcomings of his parishioners, the meager dinner, and the insolence of their housekeeper, Agnes, who had pointed out that it would take another miracle of the loaves and fishes to provide a decent meal out of the beggarly housekeeping allowance.
At last he fell asleep over his brandy, a thin, cadaverous figure in rusty blacks, periwig over one eye, snuff stains overlaying wine stains on the clerical white cravat. With a sigh of relief, Jean picked up her candle and made her way up three flights of dark, narrow stairs to the attic.
Throwing back the lid of an old black trunk, Jean picked out dress after dress, putting aside the ones with great hoops and panniers until she came across one of a simpler cut than the rest. It was of straw-colored satin, scooped low over the bosom but narrower than the others. It had an overdress with panniers à la bergère which was surely long out of style, but the heavy sheen of satin felt luxurious to fingers used to serge, cotton and calico. It would have to do. The current mode was for evening slippers of kid tied with delicate ribbons. The only footwear available was a pair of gold shoes with high heels of crimson. She decided that they would not show under the long skirt — and who would ask her to dance anyway!
When Jean arrived at the castle next day, the whole household seemed to be in a tremendous bustle with preparations for the ball. Escaping up the stairs to the comparative quiet of the schoolroom, she found the governess, Miss Taylor, waiting alone.
"Lady Mary and Lady Bess have persuaded Her Grace that they are now too old for the schoolroom, so my job here is finished," said the little governess. "I shall receive a pension of course, but what is to become of you, my dear?" She looked sadly at her pupil and friend.
At seventeen, Jean had grown into a slim, dreamy girl with a heavy mass of carrot-colored hair, slanting green eyes and a small, pointed, freckled face which no amount of Denmark Lotion would leave unblemished. It seemed unfair, mused Miss Taylor, that two such silly chits as her ducal charges had all the wealth and the clever Miss Lindsay none at all.
"I shall manage," said Jean. "I can't think of the future, only of this evening. I shall be wearing a dress of my mama's. It is not the height of fashion but the color is exceeding pretty."
Miss Taylor threw up her hands in horror. "Do you mean your uncle has not bought you a dress for the ball?" Jean shook her head sadly. "He says 'tis sinfully wicked to be thinking of clothes."
"Well, goodness knows we're far enough away from London," said Miss Taylor bracingly. "I doubt if many of the ladies will be the crack of fashion."
Jean looked moodily out of the window across the sunlit terraced gardens to the loch below. The water, rippling in the chill winter wind, darkened and changed like the expressions on Jean's face. It was hard to remember that in the summer, orange blossoms grew around the urns and balustrades of the terraces and one could pick peaches and apricots in the walled garden.
"It doesn't really matter what I look like," she said, savagely stabbing her needle into the tambour frame. "What man there is going to be interested in a dowerless girl from the manse? Then I never know what to say to people and I keep dropping things and forgetting things."
"You daydream too much," said Miss Taylor. "I should never have encouraged you to read novels. Life does not work out that way in real life. If only your uncle could be persuaded to let you visit your godmother in London, then your chance of meeting a suitable husband would be great. You are not lacking in looks."
"He says that London abounds in fleshpots and hellrakes and all manner of sinful goings-on," sighed Jean. "He will never let me go."
The night of the ball was clear, frosty and cold. Jean drew her cloak tightly around her as she went downstairs to where her uncle was waiting, attired in rusty black silk, the lace at his throat and cuffs so worn and old, it looked like cobwebs. If he saw the depth of her neckline, she would not be allowed to go or — horrors — be sent upstairs to put on her best Sunday black which was so funereal that the youths of the village danced after her shouting out, "Here comes corbie Jean," and a trifle immodesty was better than looking like a crow.
As they walked up the long driveway to the castle, Jean felt a lifting of her heart. Perhaps it would not be so bad after all. Perhaps the man of her dreams would be there. "I do not care if your niece is dowerless, Mr. Alexander, I must make her my wife. When I saw her walk into the ballroom...."
"Stop dreaming like a gowk," hissed her uncle. "We're here."
Jean left her cloak in a downstairs room assigned to the ladies and joined her uncle before ascending the staircase to make her curtsy to the duke and duchess.
Characteristically, Hamish's horror at his niece's appearance was not because she looked as if she had stepped down from one of the family portraits in the hall but because the Georgian cut of her dress revealed a good part of two excellent white breasts.
"Ye shameless hussy," he spluttered. "Get your cloak and I'll get you out of here. We'll say you have the vapors."
The fact that Lady Mary and Lady Bess were in uncontrollable fits of the giggles at the sight of their schoolmate's ball gown brought a high flush to Hamish's face. Both girls were in the latest Regency mode of simple, high-waisted silk dresses which also showed a great deal of bosom but that did nothing to allay the minister's wrath. He was such a confirmed old snob that the aristocracy could walk around naked and he would consider it quite the thing.
Jean stiffly made her curtsy, her face flaming as she caught a loud whisper from Bess. "La, what a quiz!" Her prayers that she would suddenly become invisible or that a thunder bolt would strike down the entire family of Glenrandall were obviously not going to be answered. She pushed out her little chin and marched into the room, her antique red heels clacking on the polished floor.
The ballroom was like a fairytale, decorated with masses of exotic hothouse blooms and the walls hung with great swaths of rose silk more in keeping with the duchess's rather florid taste than with the severe classical design of the brothers Adam.
The reverend bowed to various acquaintances and led Jean behind a pillar. "Now stay there out of sight. We will remain but a respectable bit of time. You will then go straight away to get your cloak when I tell you and leave me to make our good-byes as best I can. The shame of it! You did it deliberately. This is what I get for giving a home to a thankless orphan. You are a viper in my bosom. A veritable viper!"
The viper had never felt so miserable in all her life and there was no one to tell her that her outmoded dress was strangely becoming and that the rose silk on the walls turned her hair to a fascinating, deeper shade of red. She moodily stared down at her fan — depicting a Georgian couple, flirting happily, quite unaware in their painted Eden that they were out of fashion — and tried to think of something else.
"Did you think it was a masquerade?" Lady Bess was at her elbow, all mock solicitation. "Well, well, if you stay here you will be all right and perhaps I can persuade Jamie to take you in to supper." Jamie was a distant cousin of the family who did not appear in company much because it was said he was touched in his upper works.
"Look over there," said Bess, momentarily distracted from the delicious game of humiliating her clever schoolmate. "That's John, the Marquess of Fleetwater, who is staying with us. He is said to be a very Corinthian and as rich as Golden Ball. Thirty years and not married, my dear. But so handsome for all that he is a trifle old."
Jean looked across the ballroom to the gentleman in question. He was without a doubt the handsomest man in the room, tall with blond hair in a Brutus crop, his cravat a miracle of sculptured perfection and his gray, heavy-lidded eyes surveying the room through a quizzing glass with a fashionable air of boredom. "I don't like his eyes," said Jean. "He could at least pretend to be enjoying himself."
"Oh, hoity-toity, miss," laughed Bess, tossing her butter-colored ringlets. "You're jealous because you haven't a chance of dancing with him. But I have — and a good chance of becoming a marchioness, too." With that, Lady Bess flitted off, leaving Jean to look enviously after her.
For poor Jean was only human. It would be lovely, she thought, to have money, a title, and wear pretty dresses. As was her habit when life seemed too difficult, she began to daydream, leaning her head against the pillar, her dance card empty of names, dangling on her wrist.
The duchess would appear with the marquess at her elbow. "Lord Fleetwater has begged me for an introduction," she would say. The marquess would smile into her eyes, his own no longer sleepy and bored. They would dance. He would whisper in her ear, "I am enchanted by your beauty. We must marry. I can wait no longer ..."
"Jean!" said the Duchess of Glenrandall imperiously. "I have been trying to present Lord Fleetwater to you for this age. Wake up, girl." Jean blinked her green eyes and brought the ballroom back into focus and realized that the marquess was surveying her but, unlike in her dream, he looked bored and faintly irritated.
"May I have the honor of this dance unless you are already bespoke?" said the marquess, trying not to notice the nervous little hand covering the dance card.
"Yes ... yes ... p-please, I'd like to dance," said Jean blushing. "It is the waltz," said the duchess. "I told Lord Fleetwater you are not yet come out but since this is a family party, I see no reason why we should maintain too high a form."
Blessing Miss Taylor who had taught her the steps of the waltz, Jean allowed herself to be swept onto the floor and into seventh heaven. Although the marquess held her the regulation twelve inches away, Jean found it very strange and exciting to have a man's arm around her.
The marquess looked down at the dreamy face below his chin and mentally cursed the soft heart of Honoria, Duchess of Glenrandall.
"Come, John," the duchess had insisted. "You are surely not so high in the instep that you cannot favor one of our local girls with a dance. Now, there's little Jean Lindsay. Yes, yes, I know she's wearing that impossible dress but it's all the fault of that old miser of an uncle of hers and I hate to see the child unhappy."
The child in question floated around the ballroom, her little red heels hardly touching the floor, oblivious of the jealous stares that followed her progress, for in her mind, she and the marquess were already married.
It would be a marriage of equals, she decided. Not like some of the poor bullied slaves in the village. If she did not like any of her husband's orders and he tried to become too masterful, she would put her foot down. And she did. And found herself staring up into the hard, angry eyes of reality.
"You stamped on my foot!" hissed the marquess.
Appalled, Jean heard a malicious whisper from Mary to Bess. "Poor Lord Fleetwater. Mama should never have made him give Jean a dance."
Her eyes full of tears, Jean sobbed, "If you will but return me to my place, my lord. I wish to go home. I have the headache."
But the marquess had also heard the whisper. Compassion was a foreign emotion to him but during his stay he had taken the duchess's spoiled daughters in dislike and considered they needed a set down. He had been the biggest marriage prize in London for many seasons and knew his worth. The company bored him and had it not been for the excellent shooting on the duke's estate, he would have cut his visit short.
"Come now," he said, his voice warm with a sympathy, which surprised him as much as it did Jean, "it is time for supper. I shall escort you and you shall feel more the thing when you have had something to eat." And taking her arm in a firm grasp, he led her toward the supper room, pleased at the little gasp of dismay from the ladies behind him.
He piled Jean's plate high with food but prepared to entertain her with conversation as she nibbled a little of it delicately as was the custom. To his surprise, the odd girl set to with a will and demolished her plateful in what seemed a matter of seconds.
He blinked. "Would you like some more?"
"Oh, yes!" said Jean with delight. The marquess seemed to be human after all. "I'm terribly hungry."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Regency Gold"
Copyright © 1980 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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