January 28, 1823
“Never has God created a more devious creature,” Christopher Avery Courtland, Earl of Vanewright, declared as he walked the vale of Blackmoor one early morning in January with his friends, the Marquess of Sainthill and the Duke of Huntsley, as they hunted hare. Cold and hungry, the earl, who was often acknowledged by the abbreviated version of his title, wished they had taken their horses on the trail hunt.
Squinting at the pack of baying harriers on the horizon, the duke spared a glance at Vane. “What are you muttering on about?”
Huntsley, or simply Hunter to his friends, was aptly named. He excelled at sports whether they involved pursuing game on the frost-crusted low-lying meadow or more challenging quarry, the ladies of the ton. Perhaps it was because his days as a free man were numbered. Though he rarely spoke of it unless he was deeply in his cups, his wily grandmother had betrothed her twelve-year-old grandson to a young girl barely out of her swaddling clothes to increase the family’s landholdings.
Now that his own mother, the Marchioness of Netherley, had decided it was time for her surviving son to marry, Vane had nothing but sympathy for his friend.
Simon Wyndham Jefferes, Marquess of Sainthill, or Saint, on the other hand, did not possess the temperament or patience that his nickname implied. Having severed his ties to his family in his youth, the twenty-nine-year-old marquess lived only for himself. It was an enviable position to be certain, when Vane could not seem to prevent his own family from meddling in his life.
“Likely his new mistress,” Saint said, the butt of his double-barreled gun nestled in the crook of his arm.
“No, have you not been paying attention for the past hour? I am speaking of my mother,” Vane said, scowling at Saint. “She is determined to ruin my stay in London this season. I feel it like a damp chill in my bones.”
Hunter looked askance at Saint. “Care to wager on it?”
Saint’s gaze sharpened with interest. “Will a hundred pounds suffice?”
“Two hundred,” Hunter countered.
Irritated—it was on the tip of his tongue to increase the wager to five hundred pounds—Vane kicked Saint in the calf, causing him to stumble. Hunter, regrettably, was too far away to punch. “Have some respect, gents! This is my cursed future both of you are discussing with such disrespect. Not that either one of you seems to care. If my mother gets her way, I shall be wed by summer.”
Hunter dismissed Vane’s accusation with a casual wave of his hand. “Your charming seventy-two-year-old mother has been determined to see you leg-shackled for the past two years. Nothing has come of it.”
“You have deftly avoided all her elegant snares,” Saint pointed out. “You will best your dear mother again.” To Hunter, he added, “And I am willing to wager three hundred pounds on our dear friend’s victory.”
Hunter’s brows came together as he mulled over Saint’s terms. “A reckless wager, to be certain. However, I’ll accept.” He sent Vane an apologetic look. “No disrespect to you, of course.”
“Of course.” Vane took no offense at the wager. The Lords of Vice—as he and his six friends had been dubbed by the ton—thrived on outrageous bets and impossible odds.
Hunter must have been feeling slightly guilty for not siding with his friend. His gait slowed as he added, “Cynical as I may be of Lady Netherley’s triumph, it would be rude not to offer the dear woman my support.”
Vane gave the two men a morose glance. “Both of you are underestimating my mother. Two failed seasons in London have made her desperate. As far as she is concerned, I am as unmarriageable as a toothless spinster without a penny to her name.”
Hunter and Saint chuckled at Vane’s absurd comparison.
“Never yield to a woman, my friend,” Hunter advised. “It’s an indisputable fact that they are ruthless if they believe they have the upper hand.”
March 20, 1823, near the village of Cotersage
Thoroughly exasperated at her sister’s ability to disappear at a moment’s notice, Isabel Thorne stood stiffly at the bottom of the narrow staircase as she awaited a response.
A lady never has to raise her voice to oversee the household.
Isabel mentally winced as one of her mother’s pithy little sayings grated on her already frayed nerves. Had Sybil not retired early to her bedchamber to sleep off the tea she laced liberally with laudanum and brandy every afternoon, Isabel was certain she would have been scolded for her rudeness.
She forced a smile into place when their housekeeper’s face appeared over the polished wooden balustrade on the second landing. “I have looked high and low, Miss Thorne. There is just no sign of her.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Dalman. You may return to your duties,” Isabel said, her eyes narrowing as she contemplated where her sister might have wandered in an attempt to avoid the chores given to her. “Delia, you cannot keep running off when it pleases you. This household is showing signs of neglect, and we cannot afford to hire more servants.”
Of course no one was listening to Isabel’s quiet complaints.
With a sigh escaping her lips, she pivoted and strode toward the back of the house. There was the informal parlor to check, and the kitchen. Delia might have even escaped the house to flirt with one of the many gentlemen who seemed to show up at all hours of the day to court her.
Even though Delia accepted their small tokens of esteem and fluttered about prettily under their fervent regard, Isabel could have told all of them that they were wasting their time. Much like their mother, Delia had a high opinion of herself. As the granddaughter of Viscount Botly, her sister thought she could do better than a hardworking farmer or tradesman when it came to finding a husband.
Delia was certainly beautiful enough to aspire higher.
“Isabel,” Mrs. Willow said, stepping out from the study. “There you are. I was just about to go upstairs and check on your mother.”
The thirty-nine-year-old woman was a blessing. Widowed nine years earlier, she was a close friend of the Thorne family. When Isabel had difficulties handling her mother’s bouts of melancholy, Mrs. Willow had always been on hand to assist the young girls.
Isabel smoothed an errant tendril of hair back into place. “There is no need. Sybil retired with her tea. With luck, she will sleep the entire afternoon. Have you seen Delia? A thousand things need to be done, so naturally my sister has gone into hiding.”
“Have patience, Isabel,” the older woman instructed. “Delia is young. She will find a good man, marry him, and give up her flighty ways.”
She did not share Mrs. Willow’s faith in Delia. Her sister’s volatile moods and vanity reminded her too much of their mother. Sybil was a forty-three-year-old widow with two grown daughters and a dwindling annual income. If her responsibilities had not curbed her reckless nature, what hope did Delia have?
“I almost forgot.” Mrs. Willow offered the letter in her hand to Isabel. “This arrived for you. I was going to put it on your father’s desk, but I was worried it might get overlooked.”
Puzzled that anyone would be writing her, Isabel accepted the letter with a slight frown. “I wonder who . . . why, it is from Lady Netherley!”
It was toward the end of summer that Isabel and Delia had had the pleasure of being introduced to the elderly Marchioness of Netherley. Distinguished visitors such as the marchioness were rare in Cotersage, so word quickly spread throughout the tiny village that Mrs. Whitechurch’s cousin was spending the fortnight at her house.
When her mother had learned of the noblewoman’s visit, she’d naturally insisted that the three of them call on their good neighbor. Sybil had argued that Lady Netherley would be insulted if she was not properly introduced to Viscount Botly’s granddaughters. She was quite happy to ignore the unpleasant detail that their grandfather had disowned his only daughter for marrying a commoner. As far as he was concerned, his granddaughters did not exist.
It also had not boded well that their initial visit with their neighbor and Lady Netherley had been an appalling disaster. Agitated and most likely drunk, their mother had managed to insult Mrs. Whitechurch within minutes of their arrival. The conversation had been stilted and the visit blessedly brief. On the drive home, Sybil had railed at the injustice of it all. She told her daughters that their neighbor was envious of their beauty so she had deliberately portrayed the Thorne women in the worst light to the visiting marchioness.
Needless to say, Isabel was quite surprised when Mrs. Willow approached her days later with an invitation from Mrs. Whitechurch for a second visit. The good woman had claimed that Lady Netherley had enjoyed meeting her and Delia. It was also politely suggested that their mother should refrain from joining her daughters. When Sybil learned of the invitation, she reacted in her typical manner by throwing a tantrum and sulking. However, even she could not deny that a connection to Lady Netherley could open doors for her unmarried daughters. She did not try to discourage their visits.
During the fortnight of the marchioness’s stay at Cotersage, she and Delia called on the Whitechurch residence five times.
“Well, girl, are you going to just stand there woolgathering or are you going to open the letter?” Mrs. Willow teased.
Isabel smiled mischievously, sensing that Mrs. Willow was just as curious as she about contents of the missive. “Later. First, I must find Delia. She will want to hear what Lady Netherley has to say, too.”
Knowing it was useless to press Isabel further, the older woman hugged her. “Off with you then. You might want to try the back of the house near the gardens. I’ve caught Delia fluttering about the hedges with the rest of the butterflies.”
Isabel was still smiling as she passed through the kitchen, sparing a moment to chat with the cook about their dinner before she stepped outdoors.
It was a brisk sunny day. Wishing she had thought to collect a shawl, Isabel wrapped her arms around her chest and started for the hedges Mrs. Willow had mentioned. There were a dozen places Delia could have picked to avoid her household chores, and if Isabel had her way, she intended to add a few more tasks to her sister’s list as punishment.
Before Isabel had walked halfway across the weed-choked yard, she heard a soft giggle coming from one of the outbuildings. Changing directions, she marched over to the building, noting absently that it needed a new coat of paint. As she opened her mouth and prepared to blister Delia’s ears for her laziness, Isabel skidded to a halt at the sight of her sister in the arms of Mr. Ruddel.
Her Mr. Ruddel.
Well, not hers exactly, she silently amended. Isabel considered the thirty-one-year-old gentleman a good friend. At respectable three inches taller than her own willowy five-foot-seven-inch stature, the handsome, softly spoken blond stranger had come into her life quite by chance eighteen months earlier when a mutual friend brought about an introduction because of their shared interests.
Like her father, Mr. Ruddel was an inventor and natural philosopher. Over the course of their acquaintance, she had sought his opinion on numerous occasions as she quietly sold off her father’s papers to keep the creditors at bay. Mr. Ruddel had offered her friendship, and had seemed to be on the verge of offering more if his somewhat chaste kisses had been any indication.
There was nothing chaste about the kiss he was sharing with her sister.
Isabel’s right brow arched as the gentleman, overwhelmed with passion, cupped Delia’s backside in his hands.
Oh, for heaven’s sake, enough is enough!
“Pardon me,” she said, despising the waspish quality in her voice. “I was not aware that we had a guest, sister.”
Mr. Ruddel practically shoved Delia away from him. Isabel might have laughed if her throat hadn’t constricted with unexpected anguish.
“Oh, my, Isabel!” he said, taking out a folded handkerchief and dabbing the wetness from his mouth. Mr. Ruddel looked profoundly embarrassed to have been caught in a torrid embrace. “I can explain.”
Delia, on the other hand, was staring at Isabel with smug satisfaction on her beautiful face. Her sister had known that Isabel was rather fond of Mr. Ruddel. It was as if Delia had deliberately set out to ruin her happiness.
“That will not be necessary,” she said coldly. “Delia, Mrs. Dalman is waiting for you indoors. She will give you a list of tasks.”
Her sister’s lower lip jutted out mutinously. “But I do not want—”
“Your wants are of little concern, Delia. Go. Now!”
It was a silent battle of wills as the two sisters locked gazes. Isabel was not a person who condoned violence, but if Delia thought to defy her, she would not be accountable for her actions.
Mr. Ruddel took a wary step toward her. “Isabel . . . Delia . . . please, I feel responsible for this.”
“You are, sir,” Isabel snapped, leaving the stunned man sputtering in wordless outrage. “However, not in the manner in which you believe. If you wish to make amends, you may do so by taking your leave.”
From the corner of her eye, she observed that the man had sent Delia a beseeching look. She could have told him that her sister only looked after her own interests.
“Perhaps you are right, my dear,” he said, when Delia remained silent. “I will call on you another day.”
“Do not rush back on my account, sir,” Isabel said in chilling tones. “I have neglected my work of late and cannot promise to be home.”
Mr. Ruddel hastily bowed, and backed away. “I shall return when cooler heads prevail. Good day, ladies.”
Delia broke eye contract, and bent over to pick up a stick. Both women watched Mr. Ruddel’s harried stride as he disappeared around the corner of the cottage. “You frightened poor Malcolm. What do you intend to do if he calls on us again—wave our father’s old pistol under his nose to protect my honor?” she teased.
Isabel blinked, fighting back the sting of tears now that Mr. Ruddel was gone. She would not cry in front of Delia. “You have no honor, sister,” she said bluntly, causing her sister to gasp. “And that will be your downfall. Now be useful and go help Mrs. Dalman.”
“You are just being hateful because you are jealous that Malcolm would rather kiss me than you!” Delia cried before she dashed off toward the house.
With unshed tears blinding her, Isabel ran in the opposite direction. She kept running until the sharp pain in her side caused her to stop near an unused shed. Leaning against the wall, Isabel finally allowed her tears to fall.
Oh, she knew she was making a fool of herself over Mr. Ruddel. He had just been so helpful and kind and she had been so lonely. Delia was right. Isabel had been hateful to her because she had been jealous. And why not? Everyone paid attention to Delia while Isabel seemed to blend into the wallpaper. She was considered the good daughter, the responsible one.
For once in her life, she would not mind being the one who tossed caution in the wind. Unfortunately, recklessness did not pay the creditors or keep the household running.
Isabel wallowed in self-pity for several minutes, an indulgence she rarely afforded herself. It wasn’t until she started to retrieve her handkerchief that she recalled Lady Netherley’s letter. Using the back of her hand to wipe away her tears, Isabel took a fortifying breath and broke the wax seal on the letter.
“Dear Miss Thorne,” she read aloud. “I trust my letter finds you in good spirits. I have thought of you and your sister often these passing months.” Her gaze skimmed over the flattery and usual pleasantries about health and weather. Then Lady Netherley got down to business. “I have a proposition for you, Miss Thorne, and I do not make this offer lightly since this is a matter of utmost importance to me. I hope I can trust you to be discreet. This involves my son and your sister, Delia . . .”
In disbelief, Isabel read the marchioness’s letter three times before she could put it down. She carefully folded the paper and tucked it into the top portion of her bodice. Although she was chilled to the bone, she crossed her arms and stared off into the distance at the apple orchard as she contemplated Lady Netherley’s outrageous invitation.
Was she daring enough to accept?
Copyright © 2011 by Alexandra Hawkins. Published in January 2012 by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher or Author.