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The Indomitable Miss Harris
By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 K Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
The front hall of the house in Berkeley Square was a spacious chamber with a minimum of furniture, boasting only an occasional table or two; a carved and gilt side table with scrolls, swags, and a grotesque mask, surmounted by a huge mahogany-framed mirror; and several small carved wooden single chairs. The focal point of the hall was a grand winged staircase that swept back from the center of the highly polished floor to a point halfway to the lofty painted ceiling before branching into a graceful, circular railed gallery.
Sunlight filtered into the hall through a magnificent Venetian stained-glass window located above the front door and depicting a classical welcome to Spring in shades of green and gold. Filling nearly the entire upper half of the front wall, the window arched regally as it approached the domed ceiling.
Seated upon the only other piece of furniture, a high-backed settle near the front door and opposite the imposing side table, were two young females. The first, sitting bolt upright with hands folded primly in her lap, was outfitted in a drab cloak over a gray uniform dress, her brown curls tucked neatly under a mobcap, and was obviously of the serving class.
The other young lady, presenting at least an outward appearance of poise and composure as she steadily regarded the grotesque mask on the table before her, was dressed according to the height of fashion in a bright green walking dress and tan kid half boots. A chip hat trimmed with daisies was tied firmly under her pointed chin with lemon ribands, and she wore gloves of a matching color. A fur-trimmed pelisse lay upon the settle beside her. She was Miss Gillian Harris, age nineteen, and she had been sitting there cooling her heels for quite half an hour, having come in response to the curt summons that had accompanied her breakfast tray.
The author of the note, in firm black script, had ordered her to present herself in Berkeley Square without delay and had signed himself, briefly, though properly, "Landover." He was, in fact, Benjamin Charles Darracott, Marquis of Landover, a distant relation on her mother's side, and principal trustee for the Harris fortune. Gillian and her brother, Sir Avery Harris, nearly three years her senior, had met him on two previous occasions—the first a year before when he had paid a brief visit to arrange for the management of their Sussex estates after their parents' fatal accident, and the second but three weeks past, when he had greeted their arrival in London with the information that he had hired an elegant little house in Curzon Street where they would live with Amelia Periwinkle, the elderly widowed cousin who was Gillian's chaperone. In the ensuing time, Gillian herself had not so much as exchanged a word with Landover, though she had twice caught sight of his elegant figure at Almack's Assembly Rooms and several times riding or driving in Hyde Park.
If she wondered why, after such a summons, she was being left to vegetate in the hall, she was nonetheless not particularly anxious for the interview to begin, for she had an awkward feeling that she had made an error in judgment by convincing herself that, as a mere trustee, Landover would not interest himself in her activities. He had seemed so aloof that she had decided he would put no rub in her way while she suited her own wishes. Perhaps she had been a shade too gay, even daring. She rather feared he had heard of her latest escapade. She very much hoped he had not.
Gillian was not left many moments longer in doubt. The green baize door at the right under the staircase opened quietly, and a very properly attired butler emerged. He let the door swing to behind him and made his way with quiet dignity to the double doors by the side table. Pushing these open, he stepped aside to allow another man to emerge before entering the room beyond. The second gentleman, a good deal younger than the stately butler, cast a brief glance of appraisal at Gillian before passing on to another small door at the left of the staircase. The butler's words carried easily.
"You rang, my lord?"
A deep, mellow voice wafted its way to Gillian's ears from the interior. "Yes, MacElroy, you may show Miss Harris in now."
The butler turned and made a slight gesture to Gillian. Signaling her maid to remain where she was, she arose with careful poise, smoothed her skirts, and crossed the hall to the open doorway.
"Miss Harris, sir."
Looking up into the butler's gray eyes, Gillian thought she detected a spark of something like sympathy, which seemed to intensify when the deep voice spoke again. "Thank you, MacElroy. That will be all." Recalled to her senses, Gillian stepped over the threshold, thus allowing the butler to close the doors.
She found herself in a room smaller than she had expected and furnished with masculine taste. The wall to her right was filled with a long sash-door bookcase, while a hooded fireplace of dark walnut stood opposite her, its low fire crackling merrily. To her left, a set of triple casement windows flanked by maroon velvet curtains looped back with matching cords gave a view onto the misty square. In front of these windows, on a large Axminster carpet, sat the dominant article of furniture in the room, a tremendous pedestal desk of lustrous walnut with an inlaid top and ornately carved side pieces.
The tall, dark-haired gentleman who had risen from his chair behind this imposing piece now walked around to the front of it and indicated one of a pair of upholstered Kent chairs trimmed with brass-headed nails, which sat to either side of the fireplace. "Sit down, Miss Harris, and be so kind as to favor me with an explanation of the news with which I was regaled at my club last night, or rather," he amended, "early this morning."
Gillian stood where she was. Her face had been pale, but confusion now heightened her color. She had no idea which particular bit of news had reached his ears. In an attempt to cover her embarrassment, she straightened her shoulders, lifted that determined little chin an extra fraction of an inch, and in a nearly haughty tone, spoke the first words that came to mind. "My activities have not concerned you in the past, my lord."
"It must certainly appear that they did not," he replied grimly. "I realize without your telling me so that I have been remiss in my duties. But that is about to change. As you see, I have sent for you." He gestured toward the Kent chair once more. "Are you going to sit down?"
She shook her head. "No, thank you, sir. I prefer to stand." She could not sit down while he towered over her like the Grand Inquisitor, and it didn't occur to her that he might sit if she did.
"As you like." He leaned against the hood of the fireplace and folded his arms across his broad chest. At another time, she might have admired his well-cut coat of blue superfine, the tight-fitting cream-colored breeches, or the Hessian boots, polished to such a shine that she could see the reflection of the fire in them. At the moment, however, she did not notice such details. Nor did she contemplate what she had learned about him since her arrival in London from such undeniable authorities on the subject as his sister, Lady Harmoncourt, and her outspoken eldest daughter, Sybilla.
The Marquis of Landover was a gentleman who, according to these two well-informed ladies, knew himself to be one of the most eligible bachelors in London. His title and wealth were his two greatest assets, of course, but he was also handsome, polished, elegantly dressed, and generally easygoing. That he was also self-centered, often peremptory, always lazy, and interested primarily in his own comfort did not in the least disgust a single one of the horde of matchmaking mamas whose daughters were consistently urged to set their caps for him. He accepted such attention as his due and was not cynical, having realized long since that it was in the very nature of things for parents to desire to establish their daughters as creditably as possible. He had, after all, watched the procedure firsthand when his own parents had arranged Lady Abigail Darracott's marriage to Lord Harmoncourt, an earl in easy circumstances. Landover ignored the lures cast his own way for the simple reason that he considered himself, at thirty-two, to have several good years ahead of him before it became necessary to set up his nursery. When that time came, he expected merely to look about him for the most eligible damsel and to ask for her hand in marriage. That it might be denied was a possibility too absurd to be contemplated.
As head of his family, he had many responsibilities, but he employed a large and able staff for the purpose of sparing himself the necessity of dealing with any of them. Having accepted trusteeship of the Harris fortune only because he had been unable to avoid it, he had then visited the Sussex estates because he was required to sign various papers and because his sister bullied him into the trip, saying that while it would certainly be more convenient to authorize his man of business to act for him, it would be a gratuitous insult to the Harrises as well. The trip did not occupy him above three days, and as Sybilla had confided to Gillian, the feeling of having done a good deed made him feel quite pleased with himself.
His charges had not worried him at all while they spent their year of mourning in Sussex. However, just after the Emperor Napoleon was forced to abdicate and retire to his island exile, Sir Avery had written to say that he and Gillian wished to visit London. Lady Harmoncourt told them that Landover's first inclination had been to refuse funding, but her ladyship had informed him in no uncertain terms that it was time to present Gillian and that he had no right to deny them the pleasure of a London Season. Gillian, said her ladyship, had already been buried in the country for a dangerously long period of time and must, at the age of nearly twenty, be practically on the shelf. Under duress, Landover had finally agreed and ordered his secretary to arrange the details. He met with the young Harrises upon their arrival and, after introducing them to his sister, had seen them off to the handsomely appointed little house in Curzon Street, no doubt believing that nothing further would be required of him beyond an introduction or two for Sir Avery to such places as Jackson's Boxing Saloon and one or another of his clubs. He had clearly expected his sister to shoulder the burden of seeing to Gillian.
Unfortunately, Lady Harmoncourt, five years older than he, felt she had more than attended to her duty by bullying him into complying with Sir Avery's wishes. She had her promising first daughter to launch, with a second who would emerge from the schoolroom in time for next year's Season, and was not interested enough or generous enough to exert herself on behalf of a girl whose dusky tresses and rosy cheeks had a tendency to cast her own dear Sybilla's pale-blond beauty into the shade. Consequently, after bringing Gillian to the attention of her bosom bows Lady Jersey and the Countess de Lieven, thus assuring her vouchers to Almack's, she sponsored her upon the event of her presentation, then magnanimously escorted her to one assembly and two balls before leaving Gillian to her own devices. That these had been many and varied was no doubt the fact that had finally roused his lordship from his customary lethargy and the reason for the present confrontation. He crossed one shining Hessian over the other.
"Well, Miss Harris?"
Feeling her careful poise begin to slip away at his stern tone, Gillian raised her clear blue eyes to his. "I ... I don't know precisely what you have been told, my lord."
He frowned. "What you mean to say, miss, is that you have been involved in so many escapades that you know not which of them is the reason for my summons this morning. Is that not so?" The ominous note in his voice caused a tremor somewhere in the neighborhood of her stomach. She nodded, feeling wretched and a bit frightened. He gave a sound very much like a growl as he straightened himself, hooked a thumb in his lapels, and took a step toward her. "I am speaking of your whereabouts last evening. Do you realize that if what I have heard about your activities is true, you may be denied further admission tickets to Almack's? The patronesses will not be pleased with that sort of conduct, you may be certain."
Gillian could not repress a slight gasp of dismay. To be barred from the assembly rooms at Almack's would cause her social ruin! Then, striving to regain her crumbling composure, she lifted her chin again. "You are perfectly right to be angry, my lord," she said. "I should not have gone to the masque. I see that now. But I thought it would be quite safe and that no one would recognize me, especially since I was not with Avery."
His hazel eyes hardened. "A matter that I shall presently discuss with your brother," he said dangerously. "You were recognized, Miss Harris, and in circumstances which do not enhance your credit. Lord Petersham recognized you and informed me of your presence at the gardens when we chanced to meet later at White's. He professed to have been greatly amused by your behavior, said he had observed you flirting outrageously with all manner of questionable persons and also mentioned that you were unattended by so much as an abigail, let alone a proper chaperone."
She dared to interrupt him, a note of near indignation tingeing her words. "I had an escort, sir."
"Ah yes. Petersham mentioned Lord Darrow." The touch of sarcasm in his tone brought flame to her cheeks. "According to Petersham, your so-called escort appeared only when one object of your flirtations allowed himself to be carried away by your charms. I collect that Lord Darrow interrupted his own dalliance long enough to draw the fellow's cork for him. For you to have been part of such a scene is beyond the line of what is pleasing, I assure you. Now," he finished sternly, "I should like an explanation, if you have one."
Gillian regarded him with innocent amazement. "But, sir, I have already agreed that I should not have gone to the masque, and in London no lady is ever required to explain or apologize for her behavior!"
"Who the devil told you that?" he demanded.
"Mr. Brummell, my lord."
It was Landover's turn to be amazed. "I beg your pardon?"
"Yes, sir," she replied staunchly. "He said a true lady of Quality should never have to apologize for her actions." She lowered her eyes to the floor in order to avoid meeting the wrathful expression she expected and thereby missed the glint of appreciation that crept into his eyes. Had she seen it, it would have surprised her, for no one had thought to mention that he might have a sense of humor.
His voice remained stern, however. "I doubt George meant you to take such a meaning from his words, Miss Harris. Whether he did or not, however, hardly signifies. He does not hold your purse strings. I do. And, by God, you shall favor me with an explanation of your conduct whenever I require one or suffer the consequences. Now, I should like to hear how you came to attend a public masque at Vauxhall Gardens as well as your own version of what transpired there." When Gillian eyed him speculatively, wondering how little she could tell him, he added firmly, "I want a round tale, if you please. It may help your memory to know that I have also sent for Lord Darrow."
Her mouth dropped open and her head snapped up. "You did not," she whispered, truly horrified.
"Oh, my lord, I only wanted some adventure!" She clasped her hands together to keep them from clutching at each other as words suddenly began to tumble from her mouth. "I never thought to cause such a fuss. I have been used to a good deal of freedom in Sussex, even this past year, and the rules here seem absolutely cloisterish by comparison. Mrs. Periwinkle told me I was not to go to Vauxhall, and she can be so stuffy sometimes that I thought it must be an exciting place. I wanted to go so much, and the masque seemed the perfect opportunity, for I was certain I should not be recognized. Avery would not take me, so I teased Lord Darrow until he agreed to be my escort." A guilty frown fluttered across her brow, and she looked down at the floor again, muttering, "I told him you would not care what I did, that he needn't be afraid of you. He said I was absurd to think he feared you, but I think he had every intention of refusing my request before I said that. Anyway," she continued hastily, looking up at him again, "after we arrived, I began having such an exciting time that I didn't realize I had become separated from him until that odious man pulled off my mask and tried to kiss me." She blushed at the memory. "Lord Darrow came then and knocked him down. He took me home right after that ... Lord Darrow, I mean." Her voice seemed to die away at the last words, and her throat felt uncomfortably tight.
Excerpted from The Indomitable Miss Harris by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1983 K Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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