It was the bewitching hour at Almack's, 11 p.m., and a very startled Lady Jersey was both pleased and irritated to see the Marquess of Jarrod stroll complacently into the hallowed halls of the Marriage Mart just as the doors were being closed to all comers. Had the man not said publicly, on more than one occasion, he would set foot in there only if the world were coming to an end?
Lady Jersey's eyes narrowed in contemplation before opening wide, seemingly without guile.
"Do hurry, my lord," she called sweetly, sweeping up to the tall, blonde man in stark black and white evening dress, "lest the sky fall upon your head!"
The marquess bowed to acknowledge the hit and made to move on, but Lady Jersey would have none of it. Attaching herself to his arm, she quietly informed him he was about to offer recompense for his previous remarks concerning her establishment.
"I have a few ladies lacking partners this evening," she said with a mock sigh. "We're so thin of young male company this evening."
"A pity," he replied.
"A pity," echoed the countess. "It seems they are of a mind to follow the lead of a noted Corinthian, who has intimated we are not worthy of his attentions unless it were the end of the world. I am pleased to know you, a gentleman of no little sense, would never listen to such drivel."
"Never," the marquess agreed, his cool demeanor doing nothing to unattach the countess from her companion. The truth was, if his mother had not sent an urgent message to his club, asking him to attend her immediately, he would not have ran her to ground at Almack's. When he learned, from her butler, that the message must have been sent from the assembly rooms, he hastened there at once, never minding his previously spoken words in his concern for his parent.
However, had the duchess been less than hale and hearty, he believed even Lady Jersey would have removed him to her side immediately. Much relieved on that score, he would, for now, play along with the countess' game.
Still, an hour later, after dancing with several wallflowers, the game had begun to pall. Miss Cornwallis had a decided squint and couldn't keep a partner in sight, Lady Vanessa Hightower was a roly-poly dumpling, and Miss Marshall was a horse-faced chit with a neigh, er, laugh to match. Unfortunately, she laughed at his every word.
Then either Lady Jersey had decided he had had enough, or his mother had asked the countess to relinquish her plaything, for he was finally led to her grace, the Duchess of Rothwell. With a self-satisfied little smirk, Lady Jersey retreated.
The duchess, clad in purple satin and waving a chicken-skin fan painted over with little fairies, looked at her son, and then Lady Jersey, and shrugged.
"You sent for me, mother?"
"Sit down, Jarrod - you make me nervous, towering above me like a giant."
"And you make me nervous, mother, summoning me to Almack's in such a havey-cavey fashion. Even your major domo thinks you have managed to collapse in the holy of holies."
"Pritchard? Fustian! Now look, Jarrod - there she is! No, don't look!" The marquess glanced toward a far corner and back again so quickly, the muscles in his neck ached.
"It's that Wade female!" the duchess hissed. Jarrod swiveled his head in the direction of his mother's fan once more.
"I said, don't look!" her grace whispered harshly, smacking her son's shoulder with her fan.
"What of Lady Wade?" he wanted to know. "Aside from being so unattractive?"
The duchess hid a grin behind her fan. "Lady Wade is your wards' stepmother."
"Yes? Is that a crime?"
"Of course not! But if Lady Wade is in Town, where the devil is your female ward?" The duchess' voice rose to a fever pitch and several heads turned in her direction. She only smiled and nodded to a few acquaintances, confident that a few unsuitable words from a duchess could be overlooked, even at Almack's.
But the marquess would have none of it. Snatching her fan away from her face, he peered deeply into brilliant green eyes that matched his own.
"Do you mean to tell me, your grace, that I have been forced against my better judgment to enter Almack's to discuss my ward?" His voice was calm, but icy cold.
"Well, of course you have - I want to know where she is!" his mother demanded.
"My ward, mother dear, is in Berkshire where she belongs. She is but a mere school chit."
"Fustian!" The duchess gave an unlady-like snort, also ignored by those in her immediate vicinity, excepting her elder son. He was momentarily taken aback, giving her ample time to peer intently at his handsome face.
"You've never even met her, have you?" she gasped.
"Of course not! Why should I? I did not ask Sir Stephen Wade to die and leave me saddled with his siblings. I send money to the stepmother every month for their care, and to keep them in school - what is it, mother?" Jarrod was concerned to see his mother nearly apoplectic. Perhaps this conversation was best held elsewhere...
Summoning up the courage to approach Lady Jersey, he apologized for his mother's health, sent his carriage on ahead to Rothwell House and then accompanied the duchess home in her carriage. He then settled her against the squabs, withdrew a silver flask from his coat and watched her take a healthy swig of brandy.
She relaxed with a sigh. "It might interest you to know, Jarrod," she started again without preamble, "that your ward, Penelope Wade, is of an age to be married. Furthermore, Lady Wade has been in town for two months, and dressed in the height of fashion, mind you, when the truth is, she hasn't a feather to fly with."
"Impossible!" he replied, but what he found impossible, he did not reveal. "I have heard from Lady Wade herself that her stepdaughter wants for nothing, and that she is happy at school. Are you saying, perhaps, that Lady Wade is lying?"
"No!" the duchess sarcastically replied. "Well, of course she would say such things to you - you are the one keeping her in funds, m'boy!"
"How do you know all this?" he demanded.
"I knew Sir Stephen when he was a mere pup, and the younger ones were still in their cradles. Didn't you know their mother was my own dear goddaughter? Why did Wade have to remarry - and to that witch, Hortense Wharton? Why did Sir Stephen have to fall at Waterloo last year, leaving his brother and sister with that woman? Why didn't he leave the children in my care?"
Now the duchess had worked herself into a lather all over again. Fortunately for Jarrod, the carriage had arrived at Rothwell House and he hastened his mother inside. With the help of Pritchard, who was waiting at the door, he had her ensconced in front of the drawing room fire in moments, another glass of brandy in hand, before picking up the thread of discussion.
"You know Sir Stephen was in my outfit, mother," he reminded her, not unkindly. "The night before the battle he signed a paper giving me guardianship of his siblings. I never thought he would - you know how men are when they think they might - I never even saw him fall."
Jarrod sat down hard on the sofa and stared into the fire, and his mother's heart flared with compassion for this man whom she loved dearly. It had broken her heart, too, several years before when he had insisted on buying into the army. She had been dead set against it, but the duke had sided with their son, and the boy had gone off to war. That boy had come home a man, a cold, cynical man with a slight limp and two unwanted wards. To see him now, giving her a glimpse of his own feelings in the situation, startled her to words.
"But Sir Stephen was declared dead, was he not?"
"Yes," he replied dully, his cool mask in place once more. "Although I never recovered his body. And how do you know Miss Wade is of an age?" he demanded, changing the subject. "Sir Harry is only twenty and still at Oxford."
"Didn't you know, Jarrod, dear? The younger Wade siblings are twins."
Penelope Wade sat up in a gnarled old apple tree in the Oak Hill orchard, feeling decidedly un-twinlike. Disgruntled with Harry for ignoring her mental summons, a trick that had seemed infallible in the past, she cursed his name aloud.
"Blast that Harry. The devil take him!"
One brother declared dead and the other missing in action, so to speak, her only solace was that her stepmother was in London, temporarily out of her life.
Throwing one leg over a limb of the tree, she hoisted herself higher, inhaling the beautiful fragrance of apple blossoms as she climbed. Her own mother had loved the scent and had distilled it into an eau de toilette so that she always smelled of spring. That thought almost brought tears to Penelope's eyes, but she bravely staved them off.
Mother had died when she and Harry were ten, leaving her father a girl he was unprepared to raise. For the next six years, she had been brought up like a son. She and Harry hunted, shot and fished, rode and swam in the lake. She had been allowed to dress in her brothers' castoffs as long as she stayed on estate grounds, and could often be seen tagging along as her father instructed both sons in estate management and farming.
Then Sir Peter had decided to remarry, and a sixteen-year-old Penelope had been forced to discard her breeches and put on gowns. She found herself criticized for cropping her dark curls and sliding down the banisters. She was forced to keep her favorite hunting dog in the kennels, and not her bedchamber, and she had to endure tea parties and morning callers. Her father had approved, Stephen was away at Oxford and then in the army, and Harry had to spend hours with his tutor, leaving Penelope at the mercy of the household's newest addition.
But if Penelope found life uncomfortable, it became downright torturous two years later, when her father died and Harry was sent away to university. Penelope's pride refused to let Stephen know the new hell she had plummeted into, and he never knew she was now a mere prisoner in her own home.
To the outside world she was still Miss Wade, beloved stepdaughter, but always indisposed whenever there was company. That had suited her just fine, until she had overheard rumors that her father's death had made her a candidate for Bedlam, and that she was kept secluded for her own good.
Penelope had not hesitated to report this to Harry, who was breezing his way through Oxford, but her brother had been preoccupied with his new life and new friends, and her pleas for help had fallen on deaf ears. Then Stephen was reported as dead at Waterloo, something she refused to believe - where was his body? - and the Marquess of Jarrod had become her guardian.
Not that anything had changed, she thought with a sniff. Only now her stepmother had the funds for a season or two in London, giving Penelope a reprieve. She had not been invited to join her, nor would she have accepted such an invitation.
Last spring had been the first trip, leaving Penelope with a skeleton staff and the freedom to roam the estate once more. She was soon a familiar sight, riding the land with the steward, clad again in Harry's castoffs. The estate tenants were pleased to see a hale and hearty Miss Penelope, after the alarming rumors of her decline. She found herself both welcomed warmly and pitied. Her management skills, however, soon proved her mental competence, and she was much in evidence whenever her stepmother was not in residence.
When Lady Wade was in London for the Little Season that past fall, Penelope had helped bring in the harvest before enduring a long winter with the woman. But when the new season in London beckoned in the spring, Penelope urged her to go, and resumed her own pursuits. If Lady Wade knew of Penelope's work on the estate, she gave no indication, much to everyone's relief.
Today, however, she had foresworn estate matters because Harry was being incredibly stubborn about listening to her mental pleas for assistance.
"Blast him to hell!" she cried, throwing a old dead branch from the top of the tree.
"Devil a bit, Pen!" Harry roared from below. "I'm here at your summons and this is how you repay me?" She looked down to where Harry was holding the branch in one hand, the reins of his horse in the other. She must have been truly preoccupied not to have heard their approach.
"Harry!" she cried. "Where the devil have you been?"
"I don't believe that is any of your business, Pen," he loftily replied. "A baronet does not need to explain himself to anyone, especially his sister."
"You would have to explain yourself to Jarrod," she reminded him.
He sobered visibly. "I have no intention of being anywhere near Jarrod to explain myself. He's in London, I'm in Oxford, when I'm not here, and he is not likely to be either one of these places. Ever. If he had wanted to concern himself with us, he would have already. I wish Stephen were here." He was only repeating what was in his sister's heart.
"Yes!" Penelope cried, climbing rapidly down out of the tree. "Harry, would you believe me if I told you I think Stephen might still be alive?" She took the horse from her brother and began to walk toward the stables. Horse and twin followed her like puppies.
"Of course. I've seen too many instances where you were right, not to believe something like that."
"I hoped you would say that. I think we should go to London."
"What? Didn't you just hear me? Jarrod is in London. We are not going to London. Of all the idiotic..."
"Harry! It is not idiotic! We can get some rooms..."
"Blast it all, Pen! It just ain't done! Getting rooms!" he scoffed. "And ruin your blasted reputation? I think not! You'd have to be a man to get rooms...Oh, no, Pen! I don't like that look, I truly do not!" He took the reins back, and turned the other way. "I think Oxford will be safer, summons or not!"
"Henry George Xavier Wade, you attend me this instant!" she cried. "We must go to London! We need to know about Stephen, and we need go to the War Office for that! We can't stay with Lady Wade, so we will have to get rooms. I can't stay in those rooms as a lady, so I will have to dress like a lad. Do you have an alternative?"
Harry stopped, but he didn't turn around. "No. But how are we to afford this? I'm strapped until the end of the quarter..."
"Oh, Harry," Penelope said softly. "Have you gambled away your allowance again?"
"It was easier when I wasn't a baronet, Pen, and everyone knew I hadn't the funds for deep play. You should be there instead of me, you are the one who always wins at cards..."
"That's it!" Penelope ran to her brother, grabbed the reins once more, and led the horse around until he was facing the stables. "If I were a young man, I could safely play cards for money, and that would keep us in funds. Oh, do say yes, Harry, please?" When Harry grinned, Penelope knew she had won. They would go to London.
"Devil take it, Pen, you cannot have gone and taken cold!"
Harry paced up and down the small sitting room in the lodgings they had taken in London, eager to be about their business, and now his sister had ruined their plans with ill health.
"If you had not gone and secured us seats atop the mail coach, and it had not rained, I should not be in such a position, I vow. Achoo!"
"But seats atop the coach are all the crack, Pen! I told you that."
"Not to mention less expensive," she teased, a handkerchief held to her dripping nose. She was stretched out on the battered old sofa that held prominence in the room, although she had pushed it up to the fireplace as close as possible. "Now what had you planned for today that I have ruined?"
"A trip to Weston's."
"I am not presenting myself to your tailor, and well you know it," she tartly replied. "But you may take that sack of Stephen's clothes that I have marked for alteration. Tell them your cousin is ill, and unable to attend the fittings. I can make any additional alterations once they are done. I will be unable to do anything else in the meantime, but you are free to move about, visit friends... Achoo!"
"Truly, Pen? I had hoped to call on Coddy, who is with his family in town." Having decided to go to London, he had completely forgotten, it seemed, his vow to stay away from anywhere his guardian might possibly be. Being a good sister, Penelope wisely said nothing.
"I remember Viscount Coddington. Handsome blonde man, somewhat dim, but rather nice."
Harry grinned, his dark brown eyes dancing with merriment. "He is at that. It is doubtful he will even connect my sister Penelope with my cousin Pen. Would you stay in those clothes of Stephen's you have on, though, should I bring him back here with me? What shall I tell him about you?"
"Have you forgotten our story already, Harry?" She rolled her eyes to the heavens in mute appeal. "I am your cousin, Mr. Pennington Wade, lately of the West Indies. If anyone wants particulars, say Jamaica, where my mother and I have a modest plantation. Nothing too large, and there is very little of the ready. I don't need any matchmaking mamas with grand designs on me while I am here." She chuckled at the thought. "At least that will absolve us from attending Almack's."
Harry sighed in relief. "I was afraid you had included that in your plan."
"The card play there is for chicken stakes, Harry, and neither of us is hanging out for a wife..."
"Heaven forbid! I will return as soon as I can, Pen dear. Stay indoors if you can, but if you must venture outside, stay on this street."
"Yes, Harry. Bring back a couple of chops and I will grill them for our supper. Oh, and I found cups and a teapot in the cupboard. Our landlady has promised me a kettle and a skillet, but I will need some tea. Some fresh bread would not be amiss, either, and a small amount of butter."
"No. I brought a few books with me, and I shall be well situated until your return. If I feel better later, perhaps I will take that walk."
She did venture outside after several hours of forced inactivity. The cold spring wind that whistled down Half Moon Street almost knocked her off her feet, but at least she did not have to worry about it flying up her skirts, as it did every other female brave enough to be about in that weather.
She wandered up and down in front of the row of houses lining the street, and was almost ready to go back inside when she heard an altercation coming from a house several doors down from her own.
"Go on with you now," a large, drunken man snarled from a doorstep to a much smaller one holding his hat and carrying a valise. "I don' need you fussin' and prissin' around me li' that! Get out, and don' expect mush in the way of a ferference." He threw something bulky at the little man, who was knocked off his feet and down the cold, wet stairs. Pen grew concerned when the big man just ignored where the other man landed and went back inside. She raced over.
"Are you hurt? Can I help? What did he...?" She saw the little man holding a covered basket, from which came a most pitiful meow. "Oh, dear, come with me, sir and let me get you and your cat more comfortable. I have rooms several doors down..."
Penelope helped the man to his feet, and took his hat, valise and basket from him. Offering an arm, they went slowly down to where she lived, and once inside, she settled him on the sofa near the fire and released a scrawny black cat to roam the room, her cold forgotten as she bustled about making tea. Thank goodness the landlady had given her that kettle and a bucket of water, and a little bit of tea to tide her over, before she went for her walk.
"Really, miss, there is no need to - "
They both froze. The man found his tongue first.
"I'm sorry, miss. I realize there must be some reason you are dressed as a young man, but I fail to see that it has disguised you overly much. On the other hand, as a valet, I often see things of that sort that others would not. Mr. Adolphus Franklin, formerly employed by that great drunken sot you saw earlier, at your service." He stood and bowed.
"Miss Penelope Wade, lately of Berkshire, at yours, sir." She swept him a curtsy that was graceful, even in Stephen's breeches, her brown eyes showing concern with his injuries. "Now sit back down and let me tend to your cuts and bruises. When my brother returns, I will send him out for milk for..." She looked pointedly at the cat.
"Winkle is his name, and winkle you out of whatever he wants, he will."
"Very well, I will send Harry out for food for Winkle, and have him acquire an extra chop. You could do with some fattening up, Adolphus."
"Please, Miss Wade, Franklin will do." His expression was pained, as if she had insulted him by using his first name.
"I beg your pardon. But then you must call me Mr. Wade and my brother is Sir Harry. He will be returning shortly, and may have a friend with him, Viscount Coddington." Franklin looked alarmed.
"No need to be afraid of Coddy. He probably won't even know I'm a girl, and he won't even see you at all. The man is completely blind to servants," she added, remembering his attitude from a school holiday visit to Oak Hill. "Now, as to your employment, I could use a man of discretion. Do you sew?"
"Sew, cook, clean, transform young ladies into gentlemen, keep secrets... All for a mere pittance." He named a ridiculously low sum.
Penelope laughed. "Yes, well, that is the crux of the matter, I fear. We have hardly a feather to fly with. We are in town to investigate the disappearance of our elder brother, Sir Stephen Wade, who was rumored to have been killed at Waterloo. I know better, but so far, not much has been done to try to locate him. Harry and I are now under the guardianship of the Marquess of Jarrod, but he ignores us and we do not wish to be discovered. But we must have more blunt. I have proposed that we obtain a few invitations and see if I cannot win us some more at the card tables. Harry took some of Stephen's clothes to the tailor today for alterations. Then I can go out and about with him. But not until ... achoo! ... I have gotten over this blasted cold!"
The little valet only sat there and nodded, as if he approved of her plan, which he could not. Still, Miss Wade was kind enough to take him into her home, and had also welcomed his cat ... He would help her keep her secret. And nurse her back to health.
"You did what?" Harry whispered harshly. Having returned home, minus Coddy, but with an invitation to take tea at his family's home in a couple days' time, he found not only his sister, but a manservant and a cat. He was whispering now, because the man, Franklin, was busying himself at the fireplace with the skillet and chops.
"I hired a servant. Come now, Harry, you know we will need someone to tend to our things, cook our meals, keep our secrets. The man needed a place to go, he saw right away that I am female, and I like his cat."
"Of all the cork-brained ... How are we going to afford him? And the blasted cat?"
"I still have a little money left, and we do not have to pay the tailor right away. I have a feeling Franklin can be very resourceful..."
"Oh, you and your feelings! Look where they got us so far! Barely existing in a couple of rooms in London!"
"Hush, now, Harry, and be a good lad and go fetch another chop, and some milk for Winkle. See if you can procure us some eggs, too. We can have those for breakfast with the rest of the bread." At least Harry had brought home the food items requested. Tomorrow, if she felt better, she and Franklin would go to some of the shops and see if they could set up accounts. That should tide them over for the next week or two, until they could manage a few invitations. It was imperative they call on Coddy's family. The countess was sure to be able to introduce them to a few matrons, especially when Penelope let her know Harry and his "cousin" were not adverse to dancing with wallflowers. What hostess could resist?
She was correct, she thought smugly four days later, sitting in the countess' drawing room, a cup of tea balanced on her knee. Lady Markworth had taken the bait like a trout, barely able to contain her glee at the hints Penelope had dropped as she paraded the twins about the drawing room like prize cattle.
"Well, the cousin is barely able to support his mother, but he is so kind, the ladies will adore him. Sir Harry, of course, is the new baronet, and Jarrod's ward, so you know the money is there, my dear," she overheard one lady tell another after introductions had been made and small talk indulged. The two put their heads together for more gossip, and Penelope did not hear what else they might have said. She was having a bit of a problem in the form of Lady Juno, Coddy's sister.
A plump, pretty little brunette of eighteen years, Lady Juno had taken almost instantly to her brother's friends, and, most specifically, to Mr. Wade of Jamaica.
"So tell me," she purred, letting her hand linger a mite too long as she passed Penelope her cup of tea, "how you like London? It must be dirty and smelly and dark compared to the tropical splendors of the West Indies?"
Penelope had to hand Lady Juno one thing. She knew her geography.
"I like London just fine, Lady Juno," Penelope admitted. "I-" She didn't get the chance to say more. Lady Juno had dug an elbow in her side, sending the tea sloshing onto her new trousers.
"Oh! I am so sorry, Mr. Wade. Here, let me help..." Penelope sat, helpless, while Lady Juno took a handkerchief to her wet knee. She was still having her knee swiped, ineffectually for that matter, when the butler announced a new arrival.
"The Marquess of Jarrod."
Jarrod! Oh, no! Penelope almost stood and dumped the rest of her cup's contents on Lady Juno. It would have served that young lady right, she thought smugly. As it was, she caught herself just in time and cast a speaking glance at Harry. Lady Juno was still sponging her knee when the marquess was introduced to the Wades.
"And here is your own dear ward, Sir Harry Wade," Lady Markworth cooed, bringing him to their side, "but you already knew that." Penelope contained her pride as her brother calmly nodded to their guardian, acting for all the world as if they met on a regular basis. "But I wonder if you have met Sir Harry's cousin, Mr. Wade, come all the way from Jamaica, I believe it was, to visit."
"Which would account for his cousin being away from school, I suppose," the marquess drawled. Harry turned pale, but the marquess did not see it. He was staring at the wet spot on Penelope's trousers.
"But we are home for Easter, mother," Coddy nervously reminded his parent, who was giving him the evil eye.
"Oh, yes," Lady Markworth trilled. "I had forgotten."
"You do not see fit to stay with your guardian while in town?" the marquess asked Harry after his hostess had moved away.
"We, I, felt it better, sir, with my cousin in tow, not to disturb you."
"I see. But you must give me your direction, Sir Harry. I would call on you and concern myself on the point of your continued welfare." He listened patiently while Harry gave him the address, but he was staring at Penelope, and she tried not to squirm under his gaze. Truly, the man had a piercing stare, and she could not shake the feeling that he was dangerous, as well. Not dangerous as in "fear for your life," but dangerous as in "fear for your soul." And she never doubted her feelings. She would have to avoid the marquess as much as possible.
"I will also wish you to dine with me while you are in town," he was now saying. "Your cousin, too, naturally. Shall we say Tuesday next, at Jarrod House? Now I must see the earl about a horse. Good day Sir Harry, Mr. Wade. Your servant, Lady Juno." Nodding at all of them, he allowed Lady Markworth to show him to her husband's study.
Penelope did not even realize she was holding her breath until the marquess quit the room.
"I believe we have another meal taken care of," Harry said with glee in a low whisper to his sister.
"Are you dicked in the nob?" she whispered back. "That was Jarrod! If he discovers what we are up to, he could banish us to ... to ... Jamaica, if he had a mind!"
"Come off it, Pen, you've already passed the test. If he was going to expose us, he would have already done so," he insisted. But Penelope was not convinced. First, they were in a room full of women. Gossipy women, at that. Had he even suspected something, this would not be the place to reveal it. Second, they had met briefly, not enough time for the man to place her under real scrutiny, although she had to admit, he had done his level best in the short time allotted. At her side, Lady Juno gave a great sigh.
"Jarrod is handsome, is he not? His parents' estate borders ours in Dorset, you know, and one day, although I pray not anytime soon, he will be the next duke." Penelope laughed at Lady Juno's gushing, and that young lady realized to whom she was speaking. Coloring slightly, she made some flimsy excuse and left the twins to speak to one of her mother's guests.
But Lady Juno was correct, Penelope thought rather dreamily as she and Harry walked home to their rooms. Jarrod was a handsome devil. Tall, with broad shoulders and silvery-blond hair that was either in the latest fashion or in need of a trim, she was unsure which, and glittery emerald eyes like that in the great golden cobra her stepmother had sitting by the fireplace in the Egyptian-themed drawing room back home. And like that cobra, infinitely dangerous to her plans. He would have to be watched closely so as not to throw a spoke in her wheels. As for his personality, she had yet to see any from which to draw any conclusions.
The chance to earn some money came swiftly the morning after the tea party in the form of an invitation to the Duchess of Rothwell's annual gala, set for the next evening in Berkeley Square. The accompanying note apologized for the lateness of the invitation, but Penelope very quickly made Harry write a reply in the affirmative, not realizing their hostess was Jarrod's parent.
"Here is our chance, Harry! Franklin, is that coat of my brother's ready? Harry and I are going to a ball tomorrow night." Her biggest worry had been evening slippers, because both Harry and Stephen had larger feet. Franklin, already worth his salt, had produced a pair of smaller slippers, sheepishly admitting to having bought them second-hand from one of the other gentlemen in the building. Now she had him making the final alterations on the coat that had come back that day from the tailor.
"When I am finished, miss, you will never be mistaken for a lady."
Penelope beamed, not the least bit missish about discussing such matters with the valet. Harry, however, was not pleased.
"Devil take it, Pen, I cannot like you living in bachelor digs such as these!" he exclaimed for the hundredth time. "I passed two doxies on the stairs last night, and I fear you may see or hear something not in keeping with your ladylike sensibilities."
"I fear more for your sensibilities, Sir Prude," she retorted, and he had let the matter drop. For the moment. He started up again when Penelope insisted Franklin re-style her already short curls.
"But I must be au courant!" she insisted. "Else I truly will look like a little girl playing dress-up in her brother's breeches!" Franklin nodded, and Harry backed down once more. "I saw a hairstyle on the man upstairs, Franklin," she added, "that would look very good with my curls."
"Ah, very good miss. The Brutus." The little valet, seemingly more resigned now to Penelope's masquerade, ran for his scissors.
"You ain't giving my sister a Brutus!" Harry all but shouted.
"Shhhh! These walls have ears, Harry!"
"I know..." he glumly replied. "That's why I don't want you here. Mayhap we should move in with Jarrod..."
"Not bloody likely!" came Penelope's shouted reply as Franklin got to work on her head.
"Excuse me, miss," the valet asked a few moments later. "I've only heard Jarrod spoken of with admiration, even by the servants, yet you have a real aversion to the gentleman."
"I have a real aversion to anyone who spends money like water and leaves his wards in near penury! He has nothing to do with us, as well, and I cannot like being ignored. If he had wanted us to live with him in London, he could have sent for us anytime these past few months." She didn't add that she gotten one of her feelings for him at Coddy's house. She hadn't been pleased, and Harry, had he known, would have shipped her home immediately. Then she would never be able to learn more about Stephen!
Rothwell House was graced with a long line of carriages the evening of the duchess' ball, each discharging its elegantly-clad passengers before the front of the house in Berkeley Square. Penelope and Harry, though, had merely strolled over from Half Moon Street and walked right in, smugly giving their names at the door.
Penelope was pleased that Franklin had finished altering her evening clothes, and had proudly tied her own cravat in a complex waterfall. Her hair was cut in the new style, the valet had managed to find her a good second-hand cloak, and he had brushed Stephen's old beaver hat to a shine.
She almost turned tail and ran, though, when it came to the sticking point: The reception line. There were three people in it, and the third one was Jarrod! How could he be ... unless ... she wanted to smack her forehead with the heel of her hand - Jarrod's parents were the Duke and Duchess of Rothwell.
First there was his grace, the duke, a kindly older man with salt and pepper hair and a twinkle in his blue eyes. The duchess was next, and she felt so sweet and motherly to Penelope's senses, she almost fell, weeping and confessing all, into her arms. Especially when she mentioned their mother to Harry as having been a most beloved goddaughter. Penelope was pleased to have studied the family history, too, when the duchess recalled a cousin of the late Sir Jonas Wade's having moved to Jamaica.
Then came Jarrod, standing tall at the end of the line. This evening he was in dark green velvet, a snowy white cravat held in place with a glittering emerald, and his silvery-blond hair sparkled in the candlelight. He shook hands with Harry, remarking that he was pleased to see his ward in attendance that evening, and then it was Penelope's turn.
"Mr. Wade," he acknowledged with a bow. "My mother has charged me with the pair of you for the first part of this evening. She wishes you to be introduced to a number of our guests."
Penelope nodded graciously, and allowed that she and Harry were interested in the dancing.
"Indeed?" was Jarrod's startled reply. What young man willingly subjected himself to such purgatory?
"We wish to assist her grace in entertaining those young ladies not often in demand on the dance floor," Penelope told him bluntly. "In a word, wallflowers."
"Ah, wallflowers. That alone would make you popular with the majority of dowagers lining the floor." He chuckled at the thought. "As I have had a similar evening only recently, and not by my design, I believe I may ensure your evening lives up to your expectations."
"Why did you have to go and do that?" Harry whispered as they followed Jarrod into the crowded ballroom.
"Get us partnered with every single ape leader from here to Scotland!" came the terse reply.
"It's part of the plan, you nodcock! Besides, have you ever been a wallflower?"
"Gads, no! Hope to never be one, either, unless you want me to pretend to be your sister." He didn't see the pain flash across Penelope's face. He didn't know their stepmother had seen to it that his sister had lacked partners at the few assemblies she had been allowed to attend before their father's death.
"Then shut your gob and dance with these poor ladies - to be ignored is not desirable in the least!"
True to his word, Jarrod found a roly-poly partner for Harry and a chit with a squint for Penelope. After that, as word got around to the eager mothers, the "gentlemen" did not lack for partners. When the supper dance was announced, though, Harry finally found himself being presented by Jarrod to Lady Juno as a suitable partner. The lady expressed her dismay at the absence of Mr. Wade, but Penelope was nowhere to be found.
The duchess beamed at her son's ward as he circled the room with Lady Juno. The two made an excellent pair. But where was Mr. Wade? Beckoning her son, who had deliberately declined to take a partner to supper, she sought to use this moment as a chance to convince Jarrod to call on Miss Wade in Berkshire.
"I am most pleased to have finally met your ward, Jarrod. So kind of you to bring him to London. Is he staying with you and Michael? Where is Michael? He should have returned from Scotland by now," she wondered, casting about for her younger son, whom had not been to visit her in a number of weeks.
"Young Wade has brought himself and his cousin to London, and they are staying in rooms of their own choosing. Michael is still out of town," he replied.
"But Jarrod, you must remove them to your own house, and then you must go to Berkshire and call on Sir Harry's sister. What if she is unhappy? What if her stepmother beats her? What if she is not at school?"
"I do not wish to discuss this at present, mother." He did not wish to discuss it at all, the subject boring him intensely. He was, in fact, relieved that Sir Harry had chosen to stay elsewhere. He thought he would be unhappy having to escort a young pup about town. "Shall I find father and send him to you? I believe he is in the card room and there are several chits present unable to procure partners for the supper dance." Without waiting for a reply, he bowed to his mother and left her side.
The duke, it was discovered, was not in the card room. But Mr. Wade was. Jarrod stood near the door, head and shoulders above the other men gathered around one table, and watched his ward's cousin as he played.
The man must have nerves of steel, he noted, as Mr. Wade calmly but surely won game after game, the amount of blunt and vowels piling up at his elbow ensuring him of a profitable evening. The man was intelligent enough, Jarrod saw, to temper his play with humility, never gloating when he won, always gracious after the rare game that he lost.
After one particularly close hand, when everyone was unsure whether or not Wade was going to carry the game, even Jarrod found himself holding his breath. Then he looked at Mr. Wade's hands.
Damnation! The man had beautiful hands! Long, graceful, elegant ... blast it all, this was a man! He continued staring, however, until he became physically uncomfortable. Unnerved, and disgusted with himself, he fled the card room, walked right past his mother without a farewell and took himself home. On foot, barely telling one of his mother's footmen to have his carriage sent behind him; without waiting for his coat or hat.
Attracted, blast his hide, to another man! It was not to be borne!
The cool evening air did nothing to dispel his unease, and he was quite put out with the world when he stormed into his own home, startling the servants, who had, for the most part, retired, certain he was to be out of the house for many more hours.
Only a footman, on duty in the hall, and his valet, Dobbs, were wide awake.
"Go to bed, Dobbs, I shall attend to myself," the man was ordered. As usual, the servant ignored the marquess and began to help him off with his coat.
"I said go to bed!" his lordship barked.
The valet ignored him with a knowing eye. "My, my," the old and valued servant said, having no qualms about replying to a man he knew when he was in leading strings. "Having female trouble, are we? I remember when your uncle would come home from a night on the town, all in a pucker because some woman had..."
The valet droned on, reminiscing about the years he had spent as the duke's brother's manservant, but Jarrod had heard only one word: Woman.
That had to be it. That had to be why just the thought of Mr. Wade caused a physical reaction in him he usually reserved for opera dancers and Cyprians. Harry was harboring a female in his rooms, one bent on disguising herself as a young man.
He wondered who she could be as Dobbs removed his clothing and placed a nightshirt over his head. It was possible she really was a cousin... but would young Wade allow a female of his family to masquerade in such a reputation-damning way? Not likely. She must be some unsuitable female intent on getting her clutches into Wade's fortune.
The money was there, and there was plenty of it. However, it was tied up in his guardianship for a few more months, until Wade turned twenty-one. Then he would be free to order his own circumstances. The woman must be hanging around until then, entrenching herself into his life so that when he came of age, there would be no doubt as to whom was controlling the finances. Already, he could see that Wade deferred to her.
If she was already in charge of young Wade's movements, it was possible, then, that she had no little control over his sister, as well. He would make certain Miss Wade was protected, and then come back to town and set about exposing this woman pretending to be Wade's cousin.
He sat down at the writing desk in his room and began to compose a letter. "Have someone take this over to her grace this evening, Dobbs, and then pack a few things for me. I'm heading to Berkshire after breakfast tomorrow to check on my ward."
Two days later, in the village of Cookham Dean, not too far from Maidenhead, Jarrod was directed to Oak Hill, where he found the manor house in good condition, at least from the exterior, and a skeleton crew inside.
Mrs. Plimpton, the housekeeper, ushered him into her office with all ceremony due his position, however, and found herself charmed into sharing details of the family over a pot of tea.
"Sir Stephen, of course, was the biggest scrapegrace, and the twins! I could tell you stories..." she prattled on. Jarrod, taking his ease after traveling, sat back and let her talk, until finally, a chance comment about Miss Wade brought him back to the present.
"Ah, yes, Miss Wade..." He was staring at his tea cup and did not see the nervous dartings of the housekeeper's eyes. Lady Wade had instructed her most specifically on what to say when others enquired about the young lady of the house, but she did not think Jarrod would buy the line about her being indisposed due to the death of her brother. Besides, how was she to produce the young lady if he should ask for her?
Miss Penelope had told her that she was to stay in Bath with the Duchess of Rothwell, and that Master Harry would escort her, but if so, why was her grace's son now here, enquiring after his ward?
Jarrod made mention of Miss Wade being at school, giving Mrs. Plimpton a straw to grasp, and when his lordship asked outright if the young lady was happy there, Mrs. Plimpton assured him that she was.
"Although I am sure she will soon return home," she added. "She is not much longer for school."
Jarrod, pleased to hear his ward was exactly as he supposed her to be, only nodded in a bored manner, surmised that Lady Wade had plans to present her stepdaughter soon enough, and left it at that.
After a little more small talk, he took his leave and began his journey back to London.
Mrs. Plimpton, however, knew exactly which side her bread was buttered on, and posted a letter to London almost immediately after his lordship's departure.
"She is what?" Lady Wade screeched upon receiving an express from her housekeeper and watchdog, Mrs. Plimpton.
"What is it, love?" a gentleman enquired from her ladyship's bed, where he had been for the past several hours, enjoying himself with the elegant Lady Wade. Until now. "Come back to me, Hortense, and tell me what is troubling you."
Lord Hinton watched as she began to pace her room, a sheer dressing gown her only cover, with apparently no intention of returning to her nice, warm bed.
"My stepdaughter is being extremely difficult is all," she finally admitted after seeing she was wearing a hole in the already-thin rug. If she had more money, she could redecorate her shabby town house...
"Giving you the cold shoulder again, eh?" His lordship had heard countless times from his lover her complaints against her stepdaughter. Hinton, of course, was all admiration for the chit, who appeared to have more intelligence than her stepmother, that was obvious, although he had never met her first-hand. But he could never tell that to Hortense.
"She has run away, the ungrateful wretch. At least, I think she is gone."
"Good riddance and all that?"
"Perhaps...unless she ran straight to the duchess. Her grace would love nothing better than to put me in my place, I am certain. However, if the duchess has her, she is keeping her well under wraps. I must be on my guard - I do not want her throwing the chit in my face."
"Come back to bed," Hinton coaxed, "and let me occupy you in a more pleasant diversion..."
"I suppose so," she said with a frown. "For now."
Back in London, the marquess was free to forget his female ward and concentrate instead on her brother. And that female who had her hooks in him.
Eschewing the sensible solution, which would be to hire someone to monitor the situation, he took to haunting Half Moon Street himself. The house was like so many others on that street: Several stories high, with sets of rooms let to bachelors and their menservants, and a steady traffic of less-than-reputable women coming and going at all hours. The house where his ward resided was particularly busy, but from what he had seen of the lad, young Wade was not really in the petticoat line.
Why should he? He had his own woman already.
Patience was rewarded the very first day of his watch, and Jarrod noted with interest that afternoon as a woman, dressed entirely in black, including a dark bonnet and widow's veil, came tentatively out of the house.
Hailing a hackney, she seemed nervous, looking up and down the street as if aware she was under surveillance.
He was sure then this was his prey, and as she rode off, he hailed his own carriage from down the street and vowed to follow her.
"Where are we?" he asked his driver when the man stopped suddenly. They had been following Sir Harry's mystery woman, who had left his rooms dressed in mourning from head to toe, and now they were at...
"Whitehall, my lord," said the driver.
Whitehall? What were they doing here? Telling his coachman to wait, he followed the shadowy lady to the War Office, where he heard her ask to speak to someone in charge.
"And you are..." a slimy little clerk enquired with a sneer.
"Lady Wade, here to see about recovering the remains of my dear, departed stepson, Sir Stephen Wade." She sounded as if she had been weeping, and he marveled at how well she could act. Perhaps she was an actress. There had been more than one green lad caught in the clutches of a female who thought she was good enough to be on the stage.
"Just one moment, my lady." The clerk's voice became more solicitous, but he leered at her as she was directed to wait on a bench.
Leaving her to wait, Jarrod strolled down the hall to a friend's office, and went inside just as the oily little clerk was bowing his way back out again.
"Ah, Jarrod," Lord Varney called. "Just the man I was thinking about."
"Sir Stephen Wade?"
"Yes! How did you...never mind. I've learned never to doubt your sixth sense, man. It kept us all alive many a day and night. Any luck?"
"No." Jarrod sat down with a sigh. "I have my own brother in Belgium now, trying to discover what happened."
"Nasty business, this. No one saw the man fall, no one could find his body. It was if he had just vanished off the face of the earth."
"I know. He must be somewhere, dead or alive. As you can see, I am not alone in this."
"Well, I wish you luck. But what should I tell the lady?"
Jarrod frowned. "Tell her the case is closed."
"I do not wish to have anyone, regardless of their ties to Wade, interferring with this investigation." So I can stop being a guardian and go back to my own life, he silently added, and keep Harry safe from upstart little fortune hunters. "I'll keep in touch."
Placing himself just outside, he watched as the lady in black stormed out of the building a short time later and angrily hailed herself a ride. So, she did not like the news. It must have put a period to some of her plans. You are going to like what I'm about to do to a whole lot less, he silently told her as he watched her hackney carriage drive away.
Jarrod spent the afternoon in his study, catching up on business and plotting his expose of the woman who had her clutches in his ward. His plans were just getting interesting when there came a knock at the door.
"I do not wish to be disturbed..." he called. Whomever it was ignored his words.
"Fine, I will go back to Belgium," Lord Michael complained from the doorway. "Although I don't think they appreciate me there, either. I was making a dashed nuisance of myself, or so I was told."
"You're making a dashed nuisance of yourself, here, too. But come in and tell me what you discovered. Any sign of wade?"
He watched as a slightly shorter, younger and slimmer version of himself poured a glass of wine from the grog tray and made himself comfortable in front of the fire. Jarrod gave up the work on his desk and joined him, the brothers stretching their long legs out towards the warmth of the hearth.
"Nary a one. I've taken to going from farmhouse to farmhouse, though. A couple of them still harbor some of our men. I investigated each of those claims, however, and not one of 'em was Wade. One was named Saunders and he was hiding from his wife and children in Manchester, and a Mr. Morton was just regaining his strength after a serious leg injury. I left him some money for passage home when he is able, and have written to his family for him."
Jarrod frowned. "What about Saunders?"
"I gave him a lecture about responsibilities and left him some money, too. I hope his conscience gets the better of him, but just in case, I'm going down to Whitehall tomorrow morning and getting his family's direction. I think they will be pleased to hear their dear old husband and father is very much alive."
The marquess laughed along with his brother, but inside he was wondering what to do next. For the time being, he needed his brother at home. "If I increase your allowance from father, would you do me a favor?"
"I was hoping I could stay home for awhile, Gabe. I want to sample some of the delights of the season," he admitted.
"And so you shall. Young Wade is in town with his cousin, and while he doesn't need a keeper, I still feel responsible for him."
"Why don't you just ask him what his plans are every morning at breakfast? And his cousin is with him, you say? Is she pretty? Is she staying with mother?"
"Why would you think the cousin is female?" he asked suspiciously. He didn't want anyone else thinking along those lines, or his plans would be ruined. "Sir Harry is staying in rooms on Half Moon Street, and his cousin is a gentleman. A Mr. Pennington Wade, recently arrived from Jamaica."
"So no pretty cousins..." Lord Michael's face fell. "Does he have a sister?"
"Yes, and she's in Berkshire, which is where she will stay. For the time being, at least. I had thought to send her to mother, who suggested it in the first place, but I would rather find her brother and let him deal with her."
"You don't want to deal with young Wade, either, do you?" his brother correctly surmised. "Didn't anyone ever tell you that was included in the guardianship?"
"Devil take it, Michael! It was a guardianship I did not welcome. All I want to do is be left alone." He was angry, but his words did not reflect anything but mild annoyance. Still, his brother had not lived with him on and off for twenty-five years without learning to read his moods. It was a matter of survival.
"So you want me to keep an eye on Wade and his cousin? Lead 'em around a bit until they get their bearings? It's going to take extra funds, old man."
"I am prepared to give you a generous allotment." He named a sum that made his brother gasp. "Furthermore, I have a list of entertainments I wish you to engage them in, so that they are allowed to taste many of the delights the season has to offer to a young man. Manton's comes to mind, but I do not know if they can afford to shoot a few wafers. Hence the allowance."
Michael looked at his brother, as if trying to ascertain what kind of game he was playing. It was unlike Gabriel to pawn his ward off on his brother and then offer to keep them all in funds. He wondered what kind of gentleman Sir Harry was that his brother, despite protesting Wade's need for a keeper, was providing him with one after all.
"I have no problem leading the Wade cousins about by the nose. But why do you not just hand the lad the blunt and be done with it?"
"I believe the boy is proud, as is his cousin. Wade has probably already spent his allowance this quarter, and I found the cousin earning his in the card room at mother's ball. I do not want them to feel they should accept my charity. However, if you make friends with them and casually offer to pay every time you propose an entertainment, I believe you will find them willing to join you."
"And you. Will you be joining us as well?"
"Oh, yes," the marquess told him, green eyes glittering with a strange light. "I would not miss this for the world."
"So when do we begin?"
"Tonight. They are coming to dinner."
"I do not like this, Harry. Jarrod makes me nervous. Why in hell did you have to accept his blasted invitation?" She had been harping on the subject for a good half a day, her anxiety increasing the closer it came time to present themselves at Jarrod House.
They were met at the door by a wizened old butler with warm, sherry-brown eyes and wispy white hair who introduced himself as Parker and showed the gentlemen into the library. A younger copy of Jarrod sat in front of the fire, blowing a cloud, but jumped to his feet when he heard the Wades announced.
"Thank you, Parker. Come in, come in," he invited the twins. "I'm Lord Michael Roth, and you must be Jarrod's ward, Sir Harry," he guessed correctly, holding out his hand to Harry. "And you are Mr. Wade. Welcome to Jarrod House. I hope once you dine here you will reconsider Jarrod's invitation to stay..."
"Actually..." Harry began just as the door opened and Jarrod himself, in stark black and white evening dress, appeared.
"Actually, Michael, Sir Harry is an independent soul who relishes the company of his cousin and does not wish to impose on his poor, decrepit guardian. Did you not offer them a drink?" he asked lightly of his brother.
"We had only just met," Michael replied, frowning at Jarrod's overly-jolly demeanor. He only acted like that when he was...well, acting. Michael had gotten in trouble plenty of times in their childhood until he learned that jovial manner hid one of Gabriel's schemes. He did not see Penelope narrow her own eyes in distrust of Jarrod's tone of voice.
"In that case, may I interest you in some Scotch whisky, Sir Harry? I have some rum here, Mr. Wade, directly from Jamaica." He did not wait for an answer, but poured them each a healthy glassful. Harry looked at his doubtfully, but took a sip and began to cough. Penelope tasted hers, declared it perfect and then took a large gulp. She could feel Jarrod's eyes boring into her as she drank, but she had always been better at holding her drink than her brother, and did not embarrass herself at all. She wanted to raise her glass in salute to his lordship's ploy, but held her hand. Her nervousness having fled with the tot of rum, she relaxed and prepared herself to play whatever game his lordship had in mind.
Dinner was announced shortly thereafter, and the four "gentlemen" dined sumptuously on beef and lamb, with several side dishes, a fruit and cheese course of pears and Stilton, and then port and cigars. If Jarrod was tormenting her for some reason of his own design, he was going about it the wrong way, she thought with glee. She expertly lit her cigar and blew her smoke in his direction.
Jarrod was watching her carefully and plying her with port whenever her glass became empty, but he was silent.
"I have a proposal, young Wade," he finally said to Harry.
"It seems I have been remiss in not providing you and your cousin with entertainment while in town."
"But that's not necess-"
"Yes, it is. I am your guardian, absent as I sometimes seem..."
Penelope snorted. Absent as you always are.
Jarrod looked in her direction but said nothing to her. "You must see something of London while you are here, but I would be remiss in not sending you out without a guide. Michael has volunteered to assist me in showing you around. Not that I believe you are too green to navigate the town by yourselves. Far from it. However, Michael has inside knowledge you might not have available. What do you say?"
"I say, Jarrod, you're a regular out and outer!" Harry exclaimed. "When shall we begin?" If Penelope had been sitting any closer to her brother, she would have kicked him.
"Why not tonight?" the marquess replied, a small smile on his face. Penelope was immediately on her guard, but even she was not prepared for his next words. "I thought we would start at White's."
After a moment of shock, where she noticed the marquess was staring at her once more, Penelope shrugged and allowed White's was as good a place as any to begin an evening.
"And you, Mr. Wade, I believe, are the card player. I'm sure there will be something to amuse you at White's along those lines."
"I'm sure there will be," she said in her husky voice.
If Jarrod looks at me for a reaction one more time, Penelope told herself after short hops through White's, Brooks' and Boodles', I'm going to scream. Just what he hoped to accomplish by exposing her to every gentleman's club in St. James, she did not know, but she was beginning to have her suspicions. Fortunately, she could act male with the best of them, or her goose would have already been cooked.
He suspects something, she surmised, but he's waiting for me to hang myself. She had news for him - she was about as stubborn as the day was long. Fortunately, she was as sober as a judge, as well. Lord Michael was bosky by time they left Brooks', and when they ended back at Jarrod House for a nightcap - at three o'clock in the morning - Harry was properly shot in the neck as well. Only Jarrod and Penelope had stayed relatively sober, both because they had been a tad more temperate in their drinking than their more extroverted siblings, and, also, they seemed able to hold their alcohol a bit better.
The four were clustered back around the fire in the study, Lord Michael snoring loudly in a large leather chair, Harry curled up on the hearth rug singing softly to himself, and the other two sitting on the sofa with their feet stretched out. Jarrod nursed a brandy, and Penelope was sipping rum once more, again not of her choosing. She hated rum, making it easy for her to drink slowly.
"So, Wade, how do you like Jamaica? You must keep a lot of slaves on your cotton plantation..."
"All of my workers have been freed. Perhaps that is why it is less profitable at my plantation than at others. But we do not grow cotton, we grow sugar cane." Feeling another test coming on, she steeled herself for more questions, having crammed as many facts about the Caribbean into her head before she left for London. Just in case.
"And what did you do during your leisure time?" he wanted to know.
Penelope thought about that one for a moment. Her own favorite pastime would fit into her reply perfectly and her eyes assumed a far-away look. "I would go fishing. We are not far from the water," and her mind took her to the little stream running through one end of the Oak Hill property, "and I even had special fishing clothes. My, er, mother does not like me wearing my better clothing for such an activity. Down to the edge of the water I would go, with little lures I made myself. I have a hat that keeps my lures for me when not in use..." She tried not to choke on that one. Stephen had often complimented her on the variety and excellence of her lures. "The fishing is good there..." It wasn't Jamaica, so she didn't mention the trout, hoping he would not ask what type of fish she might catch.
But Jarrod was silent and must have given up the fight for the moment. She turned slightly and watched his profile as he sat staring into the flames. She wished she knew what the man was thinking.
A soft snore was her only reply.
She sat there for a long moment, watching him. In sleep, his face relaxed and he looked positively angelic. Lucifer was an angel before his fall, she reminded herself with a sigh, and nudged Harry with her foot, determined to get him home.
Franklin slipped into Miss Wade's room that morning, quiet as a mouse, to check on her. The twins had arrived back at their rooms very early that morning, Miss Wade having to support her brother, who was still very much well to go. The valet had already been in to see Sir Harry, whose snoring was rattling the windowpanes, and figured that gentleman would be out another couple of hours. When he woke, Franklin was prepared with his special "morning afters" concoction. He had some for Miss Wade, too, but when she popped up from her bed with clear eyes and a smile, he was so surprised, he backed away and almost stepped on his cat.
"Here, kitty, kitty," Penelope called, unperturbed at the sight of the valet in her room. Winkle jumped up on the bed and began to purr as she scratched him under the chin. "Might I have some tea, Franklin?" she asked. "What is in that cup?" she added, seeing him with something in his hand.
"Some of the hair of the dog that obviously bit only Sir Harry," he replied with a sniff, a little put out that Miss Wade was immune to hangovers.
Penelope laughed, catching his mood immediately. "Do not fret, Franklin. I've been known to cast up my accounts a time or two from a night of hard drink. Once, Stephen, Harry and I took port from our father's cellar and sat up in the hayloft all night drinking. I was ill in the extreme. Harry, too. Of course, Harry always is... I was perhaps eleven at the time, so I believe I have had several years in which to practice the art of holding my drink. Harry never learned," she added with a grin. "I must have the same constitution as Stephen." She sobered at the thought.
Franklin cast her an understanding smile, having heard all about the Wade family quest for the return of their brother. It was, indeed, the only part of Miss Wade's masquerade he could approve.
"Is it late enough, do you think, to go to Whitehall? Today I shall appear as Mr. Pennington Wade. Being a poor widowed stepmother did not work, so perhaps being a gentleman will."
But she did not get the chance. No sooner than she had dressed for the day when Lord Michael and Jarrod called, the marquess looking none the worse for wear. Lord Michael appeared almost as downcast as Harry did when he was finally roused from his bed, and it was decided that the two men would stay there and recover under the tender ministrations of Franklin and Winkle. Penelope allowed herself to be persuaded to attend Manton's Shooting Gallery with the marquess.
She was quiet on the way to Dover Street, where the gunmaker had his shop and gallery, and she stayed that way almost the entire time she stood there and shot wafers. She was bored, for one thing. These were not the same as shooting birds at Oak Hill, and she tired of the sport quickly. Also, as Jarrod limited his own conversation to one-syllable words and grunts, she felt no need to entertain him. Instead, she concentrated on matching him shot for shot, collecting a large crowd around them eager to watch two such superior marksmen.
Again, as he did the evening he watched her play cards, Jarrod found himself unable to look away from her hands. She cradled the pistol gently, like a mother with its child, caressing the polished barrel with one slim hand as she lined up each shot. And yet he saw calluses, too, that denoted some labor on her part, wherever she had lived before coming to London. Having spent months on his estates helping his own workers, for he refused to expect any more from his own laborers than he, himself, was willing to give, her calluses might have matched his own.
Rejecting the urge to take her hands in his and outline each work-worn area with his own fingers, he became even more reticent and had already started to walk away by the time they finished. As she was surrounded by other gentlemen eager to congratulate her on her fine shooting, she did not realize he had quit her company until she found herself alone, pistol still in hand.
Returning to the front of the shop, she saw him in discussion with John Manton himself, and waited respectfully while the two finished their conversation. At a nod from Jarrod, she went with him to the carriage, an elegant barouche pulled by four bays.
"Shall we go for a short drive before returning to your lodgings, Mr. Wade?" he asked. He ordered the carriage out of Dover Street and down Piccadilly toward Green Park. As they approached the park, a contretemps ahead had stalled traffic and they were forced to keep the horses standing for a few moments. That was when Penelope spied the boys.
There were three of them, ragamuffins from the looks of it, and they were torturing a very small terrier, who cowered in fear.
"Oh, that I will not allow!" Penelope exclaimed. Without waiting, she leaped from the carriage and approached the boys, no regard to her person whatsoever. "You lads!" she called in her husky voice, and three sets of mean eyes looked in her direction without flinching. "Let that dog go this instant!" Aware, suddenly, that these boys were much larger than herself, frame-wise, she brought herself up short and was amazed when the lads took flight. She did not know the traffic had decided to move and the marquess, after ordering the carriage to be driven around the block, had come up behind her and was sufficient enough to scatter the boys. Heedless of all this, but knowing the little dog was safe, she knelt by its side and held out a fist.
The dog sniffed it and raised adoring brown eyes to hers, giving her a tentative lick. "Oh, you will be just fine now, my handsome lad," she crooned softly. "I must take you home with me."
"But will your landlady allow it?" the marquess asked.
Penelope jumped at the sound of his voice. "Most likely, no. But what am I to do?"
"You could bring him to my house. I have servants aplenty to aid in his recovery, and then we shall see about his future, shall we?"
She looked up and saw his green eyes soft with compassion for the little creature, and she was hard-pressed to hate him at that moment. "If you have a carriage rug, I could wrap him up," she offered.
Fortunately, the carriage had returned by then, and the marquess wasted no time in securing a rug for the dog. Penelope almost cried when the little thing whimpered, and she didn't wonder that it might be injured. Jarrod gave the order to return to his town house, and the dog nestled down onto Penelope's chest as if he planned to stay that way forever.
Penelope and the dog were ushered into Jarrod House with little fuss and escorted to the kitchens, where she was given a blanket for the pup.
"His lordship has called for a physician, sir," Mrs. Finch, the housekeeper, told her, "and Parker will bring him here when he arrives."
"You are too kind," Penelope told her, and sat with the poor little thing in her lap for more than thirty minutes before a doctor arrived, Jarrod hot on his heels.
"This is Dr. Timmons, Mr. Wade, and he has graciously consented to look at our injured little friend."
The doctor, who normally attended people, was an old friend of the marquess and used to his lordship having his way, and not very surprised to find himself examining a dog. What did surprise him was that Jarrod was on speaking terms with what was clearly a young lady dressed as a lad. But it was none of his business what people did in their private lives, and the dog required medical attention, so he bandaged what he determined was a sprained leg, and then took his leave without saying a word.
"Thank you, sir, for helping me with this poor creature," Penelope said to the marquess after the doctor had left.
"He will need a name," came the reply, which startled her. She was not aware he planned on committing himself to the canine that completely; she had been sure he was the type to just call it 'dog.' "He has been lucky in his escape from those lads," he continued, "and lucky, it seems, in his choice of companions. I believe Lucky would be an appropriate name."
"Then Lucky it will be," she agreed.
"Wherever have you two been?" Lord Michael wanted to know when they returned hours later to the Wade rooms. "I had thought a few rounds at Manton's would take about an hour of your time, and then you could return and we could have nuncheon together."
"We went to Manton's," Jarrod said. "Shot off a few rounds - my ward's cousin, it appears, is an excellent shot."
Penelope, who had come in from Harry's room, heard this last with much surprise. He had not thought to compliment her to her face.
"Well done, Wade!" Lord Michael called. "Your cousin, as you can see, is still unwell. Perhaps we should all leave him to that paragon of a manservant of yours. Wherever did you find such a treasure?"
"Franklin practically landed on our doorstep. But you two gentlemen run along to your meal. I will stay and keep Harry company." And make another trip to Whitehall, she decided.
"Nonsense!" Jarrod insisted. "Luncheon will be served soon at my house, and you will wish to check on the dog."
"Dog?" Lord Michael came to attention. "What dog? Jarrod, your dogs are never-"
The marquess put a finger to his lips to hush his brother. "Mr. Wade rescued a dog today, a dog that now resides at Jarrod House. Shall we repair there now and view his progress"
"As soon as I inform Harry of our direction," Penelope insisted and went back to her brother's room without so much as a by-your-leave from anyone.
"Harry, we are to go to Jarrod's for our meal. May I purchase you anything while I am out?" She looked at Franklin, still hovering over his patient, and asked him, too, if anything was needed.
"We are sufficient for the present, Mr. Wade."
"Go on, Pen, have a good time. If that's possible..."
"Oh, I believe I shall," she told him, beginning to warm nicely to Jarrod's game. The implications of her discovery notwithstanding, she was beginning to find her guardian an intelligent and engaging opponent.
She was having second thoughts about the "game," as she referred to it internally, later that evening, when she and Harry went with Lord Michael to the Sanderling ball.
Lord Michael, of course, was amused at Mr. Wade's propensity for dancing with wallflowers, thought it would be a lark of the first order, and entered into the scheme willingly, delighting a bevy of mamas. Lord Michael, although a second son, was to inherit his maternal grandmother's earthly possessions upon her demise, and the dowager's coffers were well filled.
Sir Harry, of course, would claim his whole inheritance in several months, and although rather young (and looking rather peaked that evening, if the truth be told, said one mama to another), was a worthy catch as well. Mr. Wade was not considered a secure catch, although a plantation in Jamaica was not to be sniffed at, but Lady Juno thought otherwise, and spent the better part of the evening, to her mother's chagrin, hounding her brother to secure her a dance with the gentleman. Not just any dance, either, but the supper dance, for she was sure if she staked her claim now, he could not possibly disappear at that time, as was his wont.
The viscount, tired of his sister's blatherings, caught up with Penelope just as she was about to quit the ballroom, and the hang-dog look on his face was too much, even for her. She found herself agreeing to partner Lady Juno for the supper dance, and was then taken by Coddy to greet his mother and sister so that she might tell Lady Juno the good news in person.
"Good evening, Lady Markworth, Lady Juno." Penelope executed a fine leg to the ladies. "Your brother has indicated your interest in dancing with me, Lady Juno, and I would be pleased to solicit your hand for the supper dance."
Lady Juno twittered behind her fan, as if she had not suggested any such plan, but she was quick enough to accept his invitation. Declaring herself ready for punch, she took Penelope's arm and insisted she escort her to the refreshments. Once there, Lady Juno made a special point of parading Penelope in front of all her friends.
"Isn't he handsome?" she asked one young lady. Penelope could only surmise that Lady Juno was an arbiter of fashion when it came to young men, because no sooner than she had announced Mr. Wade to be comely, but three young ladies all made a point of wanting to dance.
Penelope, seething with anger because she could not now retire to the card room gracefully, was forced to solicit dances from all three chits.
"I do not foresee cards in your near future this evening, young Wade," Jarrod said rather snidely just as Penelope was forced to stand up with Lady Juno for the supper dance. "But would be glad to take the three of you up with me afterwards, to White's."
Penelope could only nod as Lady Juno pulled her out onto the dance floor.
In a far corner of the room, Lady Wade watched with interest as her stepson, Sir Harry, made the rounds. Why he was dancing with stupid, uninteresting chits, she could not fathom. Then a chance remark from someone nearby made her sit up with interest.
"...And his cousin, Mr. Wade, is not worth much at all, but he is amiable and kind to my niece, who is such a wallflower! Wade, Mr. Pennington Wade. Sir Harry calls him Pen, isn't that amusing?..."
Lady Wade's eyes narrowed in thought and the wheels in her head began to turn.
It had been a long day, and even longer evening, by time Penelope and Harry returned to their rooms. Harry, jug-bitten once more, was singing a song about a dock worker and a doxy at the top of his lungs as he prepared for sleep, and Penelope, who had limited herself very carefully as regards to drink, was trying to ignore him. However, she could not blame Harry for his high-jinks. A chance conversation with Coddy, who had chosen to sit his partner with his sister at supper, revealed Harry to be rather studious at Oxford, even after his elevation to baronet had given him cause to shirk his school work.
"He don't get much of a chance to kick over the traces, as it were, at university," Coddy had admitted. "Takes his studies that seriously." She nodded, distracted by the large quantities of food being consumed by Lady Juno. It being her privilege to prepare that lady's supper from the buffet, Penelope had piled the plate as full as possible, hoping Lady Juno would concentrate on her food and ignore her; her wildest dreams had been realized. For the first portion of the meal, at any rate.
Once she determined herself to be full, Lady Juno superseded her brother's conversation and began to ask questions about Jamaica. To make matters worse, Lord Michael and his partner had joined them at that time, and all three young ladies at the table wished to know more about her alleged plantation.
"I hear you have more than three hundred black slaves working for you, Mr. Wade," Lady Juno admitted, batting her eyelashes at her above the table, squeezing Penelope's leg below.
"I have no such thing, Lady Juno. I have approximately one hundred workers, none of them slaves. They are all freed people."
"Yes," a Miss Partridge, Lord Michael's partner, interjected, "but they are so small!"
Penelope and Lord Michael exchanged glances, neither quite sure what she had meant by that comment.
"You are a silly!" Coddy replied before Penelope could think of an answer. "You are basing your opinion on seeing one blackamoor in your life, Lord Moreby's little page, Thaddeus. In the West Indies they are all above six feet tall and as broad as oaks. Even the women!"
"Oh, cut line, Coddy!" Lady Juno admonished her brother. "Everyone knows the women are even taller!" She took one little slippered foot and ran it up the length of Penelope's leg.
The conversation went downhill from there, and when Miss Partridge allowed that Mr. Wade was her partner directly after dinner, Penelope made some excuse and fled the room, Lord Michael directly behind her. The two escaped to the library, where their whoops of laughter brought Jarrod in to investigate. Penelope, who longed to share her added mirth at Lady Juno's antics with the other men, was particularly done up over the incident.
"If you lot are quite finished," the marquess said at one point, while Lord Michael and Penelope laughed themselves into tears, "I will make your excuses, Wade, and we shall all repair to White's." Without waiting for an answer, and indeed, the two were incapable of giving any, he returned shortly with Harry.
At White's, Penelope found herself seated at a card table with Jarrod while Lord Michael, eager to converse with friends, had taken Harry with him for introductions.
"No doubt Michael would have taken you, too," Jarrod drawled, "but I am in need of a partner who is up to snuff when it comes to cards. I've seen you play, young Wade, and have wondered if I should not have named that mongrel after you, instead." After that, he got down to business, and between the two of them, they fleeced all comers.
"Today, Harry, I must storm the gates at Whitehall and discover what I can about Stephen."
"No time, Pen. We're to go to Angelo's this day with Lord Michael."
"Fencing!" she scoffed. "How can you think of such things when Stephen is out there somewhere waiting for us to rescue him?"
"I'm thinking of such things," Harry retorted, "because I hope to get on Jarrod's good side and let him handle the job of finding Stephen. I have only one week before I must return to school. Let me enjoy it while I can."
Penelope, remembering Coddy's words from the evening before, softened and said she would go to Angelo's with them.
"Capital! And here is Lord Michael now, ready to take us!"
Penelope went along with the others to Bond Street, and looked longingly at Jackson's boxing saloon next door before entering the fencing academy. Fairly handy with her fives, she knew she could strip to advantage, but did not dare do so. It would prove too revealing. However, if she got the chance to see what was going on at Jackson's, she would not hesitate.
Even so, stripping off her coat and cravat at Angelo's was enough to almost put her to the blush. Almost. Especially when Jarrod entered in his shirtsleeves, carrying a couple of foils. Penelope found herself watching the way his shirt fitted across his chest, and staring at the blond hairs on his arms.
"Ah, well met Mr. Wade. I don't suppose you would care to fence?" Tossing her a foil without waiting for a reply, he raised one silvery brow as she caught it neatly with one hand. She had been given only rudimentary lessons in fencing, from Stephen, but she decided she could use that to her advantage, as well.
Jarrod was looking at her now, a very strange expression on his face, and Penelope glanced down at her person to make sure she was still in sufficient disguise. She had, in fact, left on her waistcoat, and the thin lawn of her shirt was only able to show her arms and her neck, but she still felt undressed in front of him.
"I would not mind receiving a lesson or two in fencing, my lord," she replied. "I fear I have only had basic instruction. Perhaps Lord Michael would be a more suitable partner for you?"
"Nonsense! Michael knows less than you, I imagine. In fact, I believe you fence very well, sir, more so than you realize."
Penelope understood him to be referring to more than just the sport, and she smiled. "Perhaps I do at that. It might surprise your lordship to know I have my share of 'foils.'"
"Oh, no, sir," Jarrod said softly. "I know exactly just how many 'foils' you have."
"I sincerely doubt that," Penelope said briskly, eager to change the subject before she said something she would later regret. "En garde!"
The two began to fence, drawing Lord Michael and Harry's attention, the parries and thrusts from Penelope just as skilled and controlled as Jarrod's.
"I believe you were not telling the truth," Jarrod exclaimed as he was forced to launch a counter-attack in the face of one of Pen's sudden onslaughts.
"Whatever do you mean, my lord?" Pen asked easily, pleased to find Stephen's few lessons remained in her head.
"You are either a quick study or had more than the scant lessons you claim."
"I must be a quick study," she told him cheerfully, happy to be holding own and trying very hard not to watch the way his muscles rippled underneath his shirt as he parried and thrust. It would not do to become distracted.
"We seem to be drawing a crowd," he noted after a few moments of trying to disengage his opponent. Penelope chose that moment to retreat, just as she had been instructed so long ago by her brother.
"Hurrah!" Harry cheered from the sidelines. "Stephen taught you well!" he cried, bringing Penelope and Jarrod to a sudden halt.
"Stephen?" Jarrod queried.
"Er, yes," Penelope prevaricated. "I had, on one occasion, the honor of visiting Oak Hill, a number of years ago. Cousin Stephen was most kind in giving me my 'scant lessons.' You remember, Cousin Harry, do you not? He tried to teach us both, but I am afraid I was the only one interested."
Harry laughed nervously and tugged at his cravat. "Heh, heh, I remember. My sister was..."
"His sister was most interested in the proceedings," Penelope said smoothly, "for I was fortunate enough to meet all my cousins on that occasion."
Jarrod's eyes narrowed dangerously. Protective feelings for a ward he had neither met nor wanted welled to the surface and he fought them down. It was true Miss Wade must be protected, but as long as he had this female under personal surveillance, there seemed to be no immediate danger.
"You are quite the worthy opponent, Mr. Wade," he admitted to Penelope, and again she felt he was discussing more than their fencing.
"I thank you, my lord. I believe, however, I have done enough fencing for one day."
"I would not be too sure of that," Jarrod said under his breath. "Shall we all adjourn to my house for luncheon and then visit my stables and choose mounts for a ride in the park?"
Everyone was in agreement, and after Penelope and Jarrod returned their wardrobes to their former elegance, the four strolled through Jackson's saloon, watched a round or two and then stepped out onto Bond Street.
That was when Penelope saw the beggar. The wizened old man was dressed in rags, in desperate need of a bath and a razor, and thin to the point of emaciation. But she would know those watery blue eyes anywhere, and it was all she could do to run over and fling her arms about him.
Her good sense came to the fore, however, and she calmly pulled Harry aside.
"Harry, do you see that poor old man over there?"
"No - where?" Penelope rolled her eyes. Harry could be as dense as a pudding when he wished.
"That one! The one that looks like Carver, you bacon-brain!" Mr. Carver had been Stephen's batman.
"By Jove, that is Carver! Carver!" he called, running over to the beggar. "Carver was Stephen's batman," he told the marquess and Lord Michael. "My word, Carver! You look all done in!"
Penelope stood watching, holding back tears, not realizing Jarrod was watching her and not Harry, who was, by now, on his knees in front of Angelo's, his arms about the beggar.
"Come, Carver, you must come home with us," Harry was saying. "I have my own manservant," he began, but realized that Franklin was, in fact, more of Penelope's devoted slave. But while there might not be enough room for another servant, there was no way he was about to let an old family retainer sit out on the street. He and Penelope, who had come to his assistance in getting Carver to his feet, were surprised, then, when Jarrod insisted the man come to his home to recuperate.
"I daresay there is not enough space at your lodgings, and I have already become Mr. Wade's home for neglected animals. What is a person to that?"
Penelope, however, took offense at his words. "If it is that little to you, my lord, I wonder you even bother to offer your assistance," she snapped. "Franklin should be glad of the company and will be able to put the man to rights soon enough. I am sure we would never pawn my late cousin's batman off on strangers, would we, Harry."
Harry, who had actually thought Jarrod's suggestion a rum one, was now confused. Pen wanted Carver well taken care of, so why should she balk at Jarrod's offer of care and feeding? He said as much, and Jarrod nodded.
"Indeed, when I was going to set my own man to watch over him? Come, Mr. Wade, surely Mr. Franklin has plenty to do without having to nurse a man back to health? Besides, I would hardly call myself a stranger, even on such a short acquaintance."
Harry, considering the matter closed, insisted on personally escorting Carver to the carriage, where he settled him with care and allowed Jarrod to give direction back to his home.
Jarrod raised one eyebrow at the thought of Sir Harry gaining the upper hand, but for some reason, Mr. Wade did not seem to be as put out as he had expected, and he had to be content with knowing his ward was not quite the flat he had first taken him to be.
With Carver settled, Lucky inspected for improvement and a splendid luncheon of roast beef, potatoes and haricots vert out of the way, the gentlemen went to the stable to choose mounts for their ride in the park.
"Mr. Wade, I have the perfect mount for you," Jarrod told her, letting Lord Michael and Harry wander off to look at the rest of the well-filled stable. "I have had him brought up from the country in hopes you would ride."
"You flatter me, my lord. I am certain I will-" She had reached the stall and found herself brought up short by a large chestnut gelding so like the one she used to have before her stepmother sold it out from under her several years ago, she almost cried out. He even had a small white spot above his nose...
"His name is..."
"Homer!" The horse whinnied at the sound of her voice and she hurried to his side. "Homer! It is you! I..." She turned and saw the marquess watching her carefully. "I beg your pardon..." Fortunately, Jarrod did not say anything to her. Instead, he called for the stable lads to saddle Homer for Mr. Wade, and went to see to his own mount, leaving her to whisper and nuzzle her former horse. "Oh, Homer! I have missed you! Excuse me," she asked one of the stable hands. "Do you know where his lordship acquired this animal?"
The lad nodded and said the big bruiser had been purchased at Tattersall's just a few months prior, and that the poor boy had had several owners before that. "He do seem to be taken w' you, sir," he added, and Penelope had never hated her stepmother more than she did at the moment.
"Hinty," Lady Wade whined, "where would one go to hire a man to follow someone else?"
"What?" Lord Hinton was not paying attention to her ladyship, as he was trying to tool his phaeton toward Hyde Park, something that kept his attention, as he was not known to be much of a whip.
"I want to have someone followed," she said with a pout.
"Now why in the devil would you want that?" he asked. "It ain't me, is it?"
"Of course not, darling. It's that blasted stepdaughter of mine!"
Hinton's eyes came alive with the thought of that stepdaughter. Hortense truly hated her, when her only misdeed was to have been born, as far as he could see. He never could believe half of what she said about the girl, which included how she hunted, fished and rode, refused to follow her stepmother's lead and be a lady, and how she was a dab hand at cards. Shaking his head, he thought he was going to have to stop thinking about some young lady he had never even met. If he could just get Hortense to quit harping about her, it might not be a problem.
Lady Wade, however, had gone off on a tangent he was only half listening to, insisting that Miss Wade was in London and masquerading as a gentleman.
"Nonsense! But if you want to have this fellow followed to make sure he ain't who you think he is," he told her, "I will have Slippery Ned, a man who does the odd job for me, come round to see you tomorrow and you may direct him as you see fit."
Satisfied with that answer, Lady Wade changed the subject. Much to his lordship's relief.
Hyde Park at the fashionable hour was filled with Corinthians, fribbles, dandys, sporting bucks, fops, Bond Street beaus, rakes and nonpariels of every sort. These gentlemen, quite naturally, were paired with and pursued by every sort of female, including chits, tabbies, ape leaders, diamonds of the first water, dowagers and members of the demimondaine. In Penelope's eyes, it was bang-up entertainment, reminding her of her first visit to Astley's as a child. Only this circus was much more amusing.
What she did not find amusing was how Lord Michael and Harry deserted them at the first possible moment, for a quick race, leaving her alone with her guardian.
"I do love an afternoon in the park," she said finally, not at all eager for conversation.
Jarrod eyed her with some amusement. "And what do you find so entertaining, Mr. Wade?"
Penelope chuckled. "Why, the people, my lord, the people."
"Anyone in particular?" he asked slyly, catching sight of a couple of acquaintances. "Good afternoon, Coddington, Lady Juno."
Penelope tried not to groan. Of all the people to meet in the park, only Lady Wade could have been worse. As fate would have it, a gentleman Penelope had never met pulled up to their party in a high-perch phaeton, her stepmother seated smugly at his side.
"Ah, Jarrod," Lord Hinton called. "Good afternoon." He nodded to Coddington and his sister, and then looked at Penelope. "I do not believe I have had the pleasure of meeting your ward, Sir Harry."
"Then you shall be obliged to wait until his return, Hinton. This is his cousin, Mr. Wade of Jamaica. Wade, Lord Hinton and your cousin's stepmother, Lady Wade."
"Hinton, Lady Wade..." So this was the infamous Lord Hinton. Penelope was pleased to say she had never met her stepmother's lover, although she had spent many an evening this past winter listening to that woman ramble on and on about how she was irresistible to the man. He didn't look like much to Penelope, but then beauty was in the eye of the beholder. He was too short, for one thing, especially when compared to someone like Jarrod. He was losing his hair and he was almost as round as he was tall.
"Can't keep my horses standing then," Hinton told them with some relief. He really did not relish meeting the stepson.
Penelope, too, gave a sigh of relief when the pair had trotted off. She did not quite trust the oily smile her stepmother had given her.
"Do you think she is pretty?" Lady Juno had brought her mount up next to Penelope's. "Lady Wade, of course. I think she is rather ugly."
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Penelope repeated aloud, not wishing to say anything else on the subject.
"Perhaps. I think your horse likes my little mare," she said coyly. "Don't you?" She fluttered her eyelashes at Penelope, who was surprised to see Homer actually touching noses with Lady Juno's mount.
"So it seems. You know, however, Lady Juno, that Homer is a gelding?"
Lady Juno shrugged. "What has that to do with anything?"
Penelope roared with laughter, and the lady turned bright red. "What did I say? Coddy!" She demanded, just as Lord Michael and Harry returned from their race. "What is he talking about?"
The viscount told his sister he was dashed if he knew. Lady Juno then repeated the conversation to Lord Michael, and everyone but she and her brother laughed again. Even Jarrod cracked a smile, and Penelope was amazed to see the man's face transformed. She wondered why she had ever thought him to be so evil. He had helped rescue the dog, and Carver, and he had inadvertently rescued Homer, too. If he had not also been so adamant in exposing her as a fraud, she might have even liked him. As it was, he still had much to answer to. She also had the sinking feeling he was not finished seeking his satisfaction where she was concerned. But what else could he do to her?
She had known the marquess was not finished with baiting her, but she did not think he would go this far, she thought with a shudder as his carriage took the four gentlemen out on the town the next evening. They were escorted from the conveyance into a nondescript house in a clean, but inelegant, part of London, and met at the door by a woman whose dress announced her to be of little virtue. Harry goggled at the abbess of the house, and even Lord Michael had a difficult time keeping his eyes off the woman's décolletage. Penelope had no problem adopting Jarrod's cool demeanor as they swept into a parlor filled with scantily-clad females.
"Good evening, sir. May I help you?" the woman asked Jarrod.
"Indeed, I am the Marquess of Jarrod and I have several young men looking for companionship this evening. I believe you may be able to help them."
Penelope started when she heard this. Obviously, Jarrod had never been to this particular house before. She felt relief wash over her upon knowledge of that fact. She wasn't so ignorant as to believe Jarrod had never been in possession of a mistress. A man of his consequence would have had several, at the very least. But this was different.
"Mr. Wade first, I believe," he said with a wicked grin. Harry could not protest without revealing his sister's identity, but Penelope noted that he had gone rather white about the lips.
"Ah, yes, I have someone perfect for Mr. Wade, sir," the proprietress told them. "Claudette!" A petite blonde with warm brown eyes presented herself to her employer and was instructed to take Mr. Wade upstairs. A Tyburn-faced Penelope felt like she was being led to the gallows as she followed the female to her room.
"I am in here," Claudette said in a delightful French accent. Penelope wondered if it was real. "You come in and get comfortable, no?"
"I suppose..." Penelope prevaricated, not exactly sure what was expected of her in this instance. She watched as the girl shut and locked the door, and then led her to a plush sofa in a corner of the room.
"Now, sit down, madamoiselle, and tell me why Monsieur le Marquis wishes a young lady to be entertained by a trollop such as I?"
Penelope shrugged. It did not surprise her that a female of this sort would see right through her disguise, as used to being around men as she was. There were probably plenty of people, she surmised, that could distinguish her sex, but chose not to reveal her for whatever reason. Jarrod included, of course. She was under no illusions there. He was probably waiting for her to crack so that he could pack her off to Berkshire without a backward glance.
"I wish I had the answer, Claudette. I am not exactly privy to his thoughts. Now, tell me, what shall we do? Have me run back downstairs screaming that I'm a lady and should not be subjected to such base dealings as this?"
"If mademoiselle wishes...but I do not recommend."
"No, and I am no namby-pamby little miss that I would react that way. Should I stroll back downstairs and announce that I am not pleased with the selection? No, I shall sit here all evening and get to know you, Claudette, for I vow I am vastly interested in you as a..."
"...whore? Prostitute? Courtesan?" Claudette smiled as she spoke.
"Bit o' Muslin?" added Penelope, entering into the spirit of the game. "Cyprian? Demimonde? Barque of Frailty?"
"Mademoiselle wishes to hear about me?"
"Oui! I do wish. Not, perhaps, about your current position, but tell me, if you were not here, what would you rather do?"
"Me? I would be a modiste!" She said it with stars in her eyes, and Penelope was immediately intrigued.
"That is most commendable. Are you any good at it?" If she had hurt the girl's feelings, Claudette did not let her know. Instead, the courtesan rushed to a trunk by the bed and began to pull out sketches, swatches and actual garments, chattering in excited French.
"Come look!" she beckoned and Penelope got down on her knees next to Claudette and helped her spread the sketches around on the floor.
Penelope may have been raised mostly by male relatives, but she was female enough to appreciate high fashion when she saw it. Sucking in her breath, she sat there and stared at confection after confection on paper. There were morning gowns, walking dresses and riding habits, each with that extra little touch that proclaimed them in the first stare.
"And I can make them into gowns, too," Claudette said proudly. Standing up, she held a ball gown in front of her, and Penelope sighed.
"That is exquisite!"
"You must try it on!" Claudette cried. "It would fit!"
"Oui! Let me help!"
Taking off Penelope's coat, Claudette quickly undid both the cravat and her waistcoat, and Penelope stood in awe of the courtesan's undressing skills.
"Penelope," she supplied. "Just Penelope."
"Penelope, you must take off the shirt and breeches, and allow me to put the gown on over your head."
Penelope did as she was told, giggling at the thought of being undressed after all, and then wondered what Jarrod was doing while he waited for the rest of them to finish. She sincerely doubted he was the type to choose his own girl for the evening, but she wouldn't put it past Lord Michael or Harry to enter wholeheartedly into whatever Jarrod suggested.
"Now look, Penelope, look at how well this gown becomes you!"
She turned to look in the cheval mirror and gasped. Despite the haircut, she looked like a young lady. A beautiful young lady!
"Oh, Claudette," she said breathlessly. "Look at me!"
"I see, Penelope. Tres chic!"
"You are truly a genius, Claudette. You must leave this place and become a modiste. Anyone with taste would surely patronize your establishment! What would it take? How much money do you already have?"
"I have some," and she named a large sum. "But it would take more."
"I agree. I have been fortunate enough to win at cards, and have almost that much, but then I would be left with nothing. But perhaps you could stay with my brother and I until I won enough to set you up?" The wording of that phrase made her laugh. "It sounds as if I am offering you a carte blanche, does it not?" Claudette laughed, too, and their friendship was set.
"I cannot believe what this dress does for me," Penelope murmured in front of the mirror, still admiring the way the peach silk folds gave her skin a warm glow. "I look almost beautiful."
"Penelope, you are beautiful, ma cherie," Claudette insisted. "Monsieur le Marquis does not have eyes in his head if he believes otherwise. But you are here on a lark?" Penelope shook her head.
"No, it is not so simple as that. I am his ward, although he does not know that, or if he does, he does not let on. Since my brother's death, when he assumed guardianship of my other brother and I, he has ignored us completely. I have reason to believe, however, that Stephen is alive, and so we have come to London to investigate. That is not going as planned," she glumly added, "and when we met Jarrod, he insisted on sponsoring us about town. I have been to White's, I have fenced with his lordship, he has tried to drink me under the table, and now he has brought me here. I do not know what he will plan next, now that I have once again refused to reveal my identity. But enough of me. How do I get you out of here?"
"It cannot be tonight," Claudette insisted, "but soon. Give me your address and I will send a note. There are evenings I am not watched so carefully..."
"I will be waiting. Now if you don't mind, it is midnight and Cinderella needs to turn back into a pumpkin. Would you help me with the dress?" Sadly, she returned to her men's clothing, Claudette once again lending an expert hand, even tying her cravat. They parted reluctantly, Claudette because her dream was now in view, and Penelope, because she could not bear to leave the little French girl to her fate until such time as she could arrange matters herself.
Her one consolation was that when she returned downstairs, Jarrod was still seated in the same place he had been earlier. She joined him for a drink and they waited for Lord Michael and Harry without saying a word.
Penelope firmly turned down an invitation to White's, although she knew she could have indulged in some deep play. Pleading fatigue, for once, she could not wait to get home to tell Harry about her evening. A retelling of his activities she refused to listen to, though, and rightly so, he told her piously. He then flew into the boughs when she related her story.
"No, Pen, no! I won't have it! I cannot believe you actually made friends with a... a..." Harry fumed.
"Whore?" Penelope helpfully supplied. Harry shot her a dirty look. "I believe her first name for herself was a trollop. Personally, I prefer Claudette. Oh, Harry, we must help her! She is terribly important to us, I can feel it!"
"I'm not listening to you and your feelings ever again! Do you know where we were tonight?"
"Yes! Dammit, Pen, quite using that word! If anyone found out you had been there..."
"Personally, I blame Jarrod," Penelope calmly replied, lounging on the sofa in front of the fire. One leg hung negligently over the other, and she studied her nails as she talked. "He is the one who suggested it, and I did not hear any complaints from you or Lord Michael..." The two had come downstairs later with extremely smug smiles on their faces, smiles she had wanted to wipe away almost instantly.
"It all comes back to Jarrod, doesn't it?"
"Why, yes, it does. Fortunately, I am not blessed with your particular brand of hero worship, else I would have already bared my soul, not to mention my waistcoat, at his feet, and proclaimed myself a penitent ward. And been shipped back to Berkshire and locked away forever for my troubles! Cut line, Harry, and tell me what is truly bothering you?"
"You are, peacocking it all over London as a man...I think it is time you went home. Let me stay and try to work things out with Jarrod. I should have come by myself in the first place."
"What, and made no impression on the man at all? Let's face it, Harry, it is my prowess and my masquerade that has caught his attention, else he would have washed his hands of you long ago." When Harry gasped indignantly, she waved him away with one hand. "You know I do not deal in Spanish coin! Would you rather I flattered you and said you could shoot, ride, fence and play cards better than I? We both know it's not true..."
"No," her brother mumbled. There was a noise in the doorway and Franklin stood there, looking sorrowfully back and forth between the twins.
"Excuse me for interrupting, Sir Harry, Mr. Wade, but I have taken the liberty of making tea on Mr. Wade's hearth. Won't you have some?" As a buffer between the two, Franklin was a godsend, Penelope thought as she and Harry put aside their differences and allowed Franklin to bring in a late-night repast.
"I'm sorry, Harry. I know you could make Jarrod pay attention without me, but I would have gone off my noggin waiting for word."
"I know, Pen, and I'm sorry, too. You are actually doing very well, even if the end results are not what we planned. Jarrod would never have spent as much time on me alone. I wonder why he is doing so with the both of us?"
Penelope had her suspicions, but she did not want Harry in a pucker all over again, so she kept her mouth firmly shut.
"I have my suspicions," Lady Wade said to the filthy creature that was Slippery Ned as he stood in the middle of her drawing room that same evening. He had long, straggly black hair that fell in strings from his wooly cap, and clothes that reeked of the sewer. "I believe the man who says his name is Pennington Wade is actually my stepdaughter, Miss Penelope Wade, and I want proof! Then I want her disposed of!" She chuckled at the thought. With Penelope out of the way, Harry would be easily manipulated. Jarrod would only have control of the finances for another five months, and then she would be able to influence the poor lad.
"And how much would yer ladyship be willin' ter pay?" he asked, with suspicions of his own. "'is Lordship ain't deep in the pockets, yer know, and I gets me money up front!"
"Yes, yes, you shall have your money, you awful creature! I shall give you four guineas now, to discover proof of my stepdaughter's masquerade, and then another 12 pounds when you dispose of her."
"An' what should I do wid the leddy?"
"I don't care! Sell her to a flash house, or ship her off to a white slaver - kill her for all I care! Just get rid of her!" Then she would bide her time until Harry came into his fortune ... fortunately, Harry had always been a biddable boy.
Upon returning from the brothel, Jarrod sent Michael and the servants to bed, and then sat in front of the library fire nursing a brandy and thinking about Pen. What kind of blasted female spent the evening with a whore and didn't run screaming from the house? In ill-bred one, for certain.
And yet...that blasted female was also pluck to the backbone. Jarrod was beginning to think she could do anything she set her mind to. She had certainly passed all of his tests. He still had to get her away from Harry, but instead of sending her packing, a different plan was beginning to form in his mind.
It was a noddy thing to do, he supposed, but there seemed to be little more than a sibling-like attachment between the woman and his ward. She might be persuaded, then, to switch allegiance to himself, and leave Sir Harry's keeping for a quaint little house in Chelsea, servants, all the clothes and jewels she cared to keep, a carriage and four, and Homer. That she had some past history with the horse was evident; perhaps a former lover had been his owner at one time? It might be a selling point. Besides, what did Harry have except a few shabby rooms and a valet? For now, at any rate.
The idea of keeping that blasted female began to appeal to him in the extreme, and he decided then and there not to subject her to any more "tests." She had passed with flying colors.
A well-pleased marquess took himself off to bed with pleasant dreams of his soon-to-be mistress floating through his head.
That same night, Penelope woke up in a sweat, the feeling of dread uppermost in her mind. Her visions included a nameless face and Jarrod's beloved one, but when she calmed down, it was Jarrod's face that lulled her back to sleep.
"Today is the day I visit Whitehall," Penelope announced at breakfast, and was encouraged by the hearty well-wishes of Harry and Franklin that her call be successful.
It wasn't, of course, Mr. Wade being told that the case was still closed. Being male did not seem to make a bit of difference, and she was positively glum as she took a hackney to Gunter's, hoping to cheer herself with a treat.
Unfortunately, the delicious ices were drowned out by the high-pitched voice of Lady Markworth.
"My dear Mr. Wade," she gushed, "I am to have a musical evening this Friday, and Coddington says your cousin can truly sing. I believe you and Lord Michael and Coddington should join him!"
"A famous idea!" Lady Juno added, coming up behind her mother. Penelope tried not to roll her eyes, but she began to see why that lady's children were so queer in the attic.
Still, there was no way out, because Lady Markworth would not take no for an answer.
"I suppose Lord Jarrod suggested this?" Penelope finally asked, for it smacked of his hand, even if he had been strangely silent since the brothel incident.
"Jarrod? Why on earth would he do such a thing?" the lady remarked. With that, Penelope had to be content the marquess was not involved.
He was, however, involved in other matters, such as having the Chelsea house cleaned and staffed, and keeping the Wades entertained in the meantime. He had also had several informative chats with Carver, who was improving in health but had, unfortunately, shed very little light on Stephen's last days.
That evening, the Wades were to go with Jarrod and Lord Michael to Boodles' for some more deep play. They had stopped in at White's first, for supper and a few drinks, and then decided to amble over to the other club. Lord Michael and Harry, now very firm friends, walked ahead of Jarrod and Penelope, who were content to silently stroll through the foggy April night air.
Suddenly someone leapt from the shadows and landed on Penelope, sending her flying. She cried out, but only Jarrod was close enough in the fog to come to her immediate aid. He saw two shadows on the ground, rolling about, one punching wildly, the other one running his hands over his opponent. Jarrod, unsure which one was Wade, reached in and grabbed the closest to him and pulled him from the fray.
By this time, the other two men had realized something was wrong, and called back to them. Jarrod had no time to answer, because he had picked the ruffian up by the scruff of the neck and was in time to see Pen plant the man a facer. She then grabbed the man by the shoulders and threw him off to one side, falling to her knees as she did. He scrambled to his feet and ran off into the shadows, chased by the now-comprehending Michael and Harry.
"Are you hurt?" Jarrod exclaimed. "I could never forgive myself..." He pulled her to her feet and into his arms, and there, in the shadows of the clubs of St. James, fiercely kissed her.
She found herself unable to say anything as Jarrod ran his hands over her, ostensibly ascertaining her injuries. She felt as if he were trying to memorize her frame, instead, and a shiver of delight ran up her spine.
"Shhhh!" he admonished when she finally found her voice and tried to speak. "It will be all right," and his lips descended once more.
Jarrod kissed her! It had frightened her, and elated her, and she forgot to even wonder at his motive, all thought of his continuous challenges flying out of her mind the moment his lips touched hers. But she had to put it into perspective. The way things stood between them, there was no call to develop a tendre for the man. Still, it had been her first kiss, and it was exciting.
Jarrod, for his part, was having second thoughts about a carte blanche - that was no kiss of an experienced female, or else she was an even better actress than he supposed. But if this woman was not the hardened adventuress he had taken her for all along, who the devil was she?
The attack, too, concerned him. Was it deliberate, or just chance? And if chance, why the search of her body - a body Jarrod was even now admitting should belong to him. Even if she was an innocent, her reputation, he was sure, could not now stand up to scrutiny, having lived these past few weeks with Harry. Perhaps the carte blanche was not so bad an idea after all. At least she could live in comfort, and she would be his.
Now determined to protect Pen, Jarrod began to spend every waking moment possible with her. He insisted the four men rehearse for Friday evening's musical soiree at Jarrod House, he took her to a mill and a horse race, and he indulged her every evening with high-stakes card games at the finest clubs. He was amazed, as usual, at her skills with cards, and encouraged her to win copious amounts of money from his friends.
Penelope herself was beginning to feel rather flushed with success at the table. The constant attention from Jarrod removed any fear of further attack. After that incident, and their shared kiss, he had gone back to acting as if nothing happened, much to her relief. His treating her much the same as he always had, albeit with heightened security, only increased her comfort level.
The she got word from Claudette. Friday night would be a busy evening at the brothel, and she hoped Penelope would be able to help her that evening.
Friday evening began pleasantly enough. After dining at Jarrod House in good company, she spent some time playing with Lucky while Harry made a point of visiting with a much improved Carver. A short time later they all left for Lady Markworth's, where she was immediately accosted by Lady Juno.
"Coddy says you have a fine tenor voice," she cooed. "Perhaps you will sing a solo tonight? For me?"
"I am afraid, Lady Juno, this is ensemble work this evening." To cover my voice for one thing, she thought, relieved that the lady's brother could not tell the difference between an alto and a tenor.
"Then I insist you sing a private solo for me sometime soon."
"I shall see what may be arranged," Penelope fibbed, eager to get that female off her back. The truth was, she was beginning to feel uneasy about the entire evening. She wondered if this was not a warning to go home, pull a blanket over her head and stay there till dawn.
The gentlemen were on the program early in the evening, and Penelope was pleased when no one thought strangely of the rather high-ranged Mr. Wade, who had been fortunate enough in her youth to have learned to adapt her voice to the males in her family. Warned by Coddy to expect an encore, the foursome followed their first piece, which had been a love song, with a funny little tune about a duck-stealing fox, which was also well-received by the company.
Afterwards, with Coddy and Lord Michael on hand to accept the majority of the congratulations, Penelope skirted the room to avoid Jarrod and Lady Juno, and Harry went off to make their excuses to their hostess.
The two finally slipped out of the house with no one the wiser, except for a footman or two, but they wouldn't be listening to a conversation about someone named Claudette, Penelope was certain. They got into their hired carriage, waiting down the street with the faithful Franklin, and headed for the brothel. Claudette's note said that because she was under a contract, her leaving the brothel would have to be done secretively.
"What is the plan? Harry wanted to know for the fifth time that evening.
"Harry," Penelope said with no little exasperation, "I have told you already. You stay in the parlor and chat up some of the girls. Give me a few minutes to go up to Claudette and get her down to the back door. You meet us there. If it gets sticky, run Claudette out to Franklin in the carriage and come back and help."
"I think I have it..."
Penelope rolled her eyes.
At first it seemed too easy. Harry swaggered in swinging a cane, and proceeded to charm the ladies. A few moments later, Penelope strolled into the brothel, paid for time with Claudette and went up to her room. It was simple enough to drop a few bundles of her belongings out the window to Franklin, who really did not approve of any of this, but was willing if Miss Penelope wished it.
The valet secured Claudette's items in the boot of the carriage and then climbed in to wait.
Penelope and Claudette, dressed in a long cloak and mask, made their way down to the kitchen, where Harry - in a state of lucidity that amazed even his sister - had convinced the kitchen maids that a high-ranking lady had made use of the house and was leaving out the back so that she would not be seen.
Penelope shook her head at this as she followed Claudette out the door and down the alley toward the waiting carriage.
Disaster struck when they were halfway to their means of escape. Penelope had Claudette on her arm, with Harry bringing up the rear, when Claudette was grabbed away and thrown forward. A knife came flying through the darkness straight at Penelope. It hit her in the shoulder and she cried out, at the same time urgently motioning Claudette to get up and run.
Harry, roaring out his anger, pulled a sword from his cane and charged one of the ruffians. His blade pierced the man's leg and, with a howl, the attacker loped off into the darkness.
The other man had pulled the knife from Penelope's shoulder and had it raised for another plunge. Harry was too far away to do anything more than shout "Pen!" but another figure calmly stepped out of the shadows behind Penelope's assailant and brought his own cane down on the man's head. He then reached down and Penelope crumpled into his arms.
"Take Wade to the carriage," Jarrod ordered her brother, "and see that she gets to your rooms as soon as possible. I'll take care of this rogue and bring a doctor. Now hurry."
Harry didn't even hear his guardian call Penelope a "she," but Penelope did and she moaned in frustration. Harry, however, thought she was in pain and he thrust her into the carriage with Claudette and Franklin, and then climbed up on the box himself to drive them home.
Jarrod had lost sight of Penelope and Harry after their performance, and as he stood in a corner of the room looking for them, he could not help but overhear the conversation of two dowagers.
"I received a letter from my son today and rumor has it Miss Wade has gone into another mental decline. Poor, sweet Penelope! It's not her fault her horrid stepmother dislikes her! Even kept her at home under her thumb all those years instead of letting her go away to school. Why, it was just a few weeks ago I saw her at Oak Hill - the dear had been out in the fields keeping an eye on things for Harry's sake, and running through the house in those clothes of Stephen's, so eager she was to change into a decent gown in which to receive me! She's such an eccentric, but everyone in the neighborhood adores her."
The ladies probably rambled on, but Jarrod could have cared less.
Fool! How could he have been so blind! Cursing himself every which way he could, he strode from the room only to be stopped by his brother.
"Gabe! You look like you've seen a ghost!"
"Michael! Have you seen the Wades?"
"No, I was just going to ask you the same thing."
The two strolled out to the foyer of Lady Markworth's house and accosted one of the footmen.
"You!" the marquess barked. "Did you see two young men leave recently? One of them tall, blonde and youthful-looking?"
"Yes, sir, about twenty minutes ago, my lord."
"But why?" Michael wanted to know. "Where would they go?"
"One of the gentlemen said something about a Claudette, my lord," the helpful footman added.
"Who the devil is Claudette?" Michael wanted to know.
"Not nearly the passing 'fancy' I thought she was," Jarrod admitted, knowing exactly where he had heard that name before. "Now I know where to go."
But a search of the front rooms of the brothel revealed nothing in the way of either Wade.
"Maybe around back?" Jarrod suggested. The two men came out of the house and were walking toward the mews just as the heard Penelope's cry.
"Bloody hell!" Jarrod exclaimed and took off, swinging his cane in front of him.
The scene he faced when he turned the corner froze his very marrow.
There was Penelope - he could call her nothing but that now - on her knees in the alley, clutching her shoulder, a man with a knife poised above her, ready to strike once more.
Harry was too far away to do anything more than shout, but Jarrod, spurred on by that shout, stepped out into the dim light and brought his cane down squarely on the attacker's head.
He fell and the knife went clattering over cobblestones and into the darkness.
Jarrod, scooping Penelope tenderly into his arms, held her out to her approaching brother and ordered him to take her home immediately.
"See that she gets to your rooms as soon as possible. I'll take care of this rogue and bring a doctor. Now hurry!"
Michael was right behind Jarrod as he unwound his cravat and used it to tie the hands of the villain.
"What can I do to help?"
"Go get the doctor and take him to Wade's rooms. Penelope needs to have that shoulder looked at now."
Michael hesitated only a moment. "Penelope?" he croaked.
"Penelope Wade, to be exact. What a fool I've been. I'm glad, however, to know I was not the only one who was blind!" Clapping his brother on the shoulder, he urged him on his way. "And send our carriage round here. You take a hackney."
The man was taken to Jarrod House for extensive interrogation, and after an hour or so, the marquess had ascertained much of the truth. He went to his study, penned two letters, and saw to their delivery before running upstairs to change his clothes. He went out again, this time to dine on crow at a certain lodging on Half Moon Street.
The tall clock in the front hall of Jarrod House struck midnight just as he headed out the door.
The second-hand clock on the mantle struck midnight, but the only one who noticed was Penelope, in bed and refusing to take laudanum from Dr. Timmons.
"But you will be in such pain," Harry pleaded, worry etched all over his youthful face. It hadn't helped much, either, that he had watched as the doctor had cleaned the wound and then stitched it back together.
"But it makes me ill," Penelope insisted. "And I'm very sleepy, Harry..." She stifled a yawn with her good arm. "If you left me now, I would probably sleep till dawn." She doubted it, but she wanted to be left alone.
The doctor insisted someone call if there was a change in her condition, especially a fever, and left. Franklin then began the arduous task of coaxing Harry out of the room. Indeed, he only left once Penelope feigned sleep.
In the main room, Michael sat in a chair in front of the fire and Claudette was curled up on the sofa, but not asleep. Harry was pacing the room and that was how Jarrod found them.
"Jarrod!" Michael exclaimed, unmindful of Miss Wade.
"Where is she?"
"In there," Harry indicated a closed door. "But you can't go in there!" he protested when Jarrod strode to the bedchamber door.
Jarrod's laugh revealed anything but humor. "I'm her guardian, Harry," he softly reminded him. "Yours too, for that matter. Don't!" he commanded when Harry would have followed him. "I think the time for propriety is well past." He went in the room and shut the door behind him.
Penelope was awake, sitting up and looking expectantly at her guardian.
"Well, Miss Penelope Wade, what have you to say for yourself?" he asked.
She eyed him warily, trying to gauge his mood, but she didn't know what he was thinking. It was possible the way he was standing rigidly, as if at attention, that he was angry... She decided to put herself on the offense.
"I'm incredibly angry with you!" she told the marquess. He seemed taken aback at her attack.
"Oh? How so?" His voice dripped ice.
"Well, for starters, you have been our guardian for how many months, and you have never come to see us?"
"I am looking at you now, Miss Wade," he stiffly replied.
"This does not count! Then you kept us at point non plus by giving all our money to Lady Wade!"
"She is your mother."
"She is our stepmother, more's the pity - and she squandered my allowance!"
"But you were away at school!"
"I have never been away to school in my life!"
"But your housekeeper said..."
Penelope dismissed that woman with the wave of a hand. "And you believe everything you're told?"
"Since when have you had such a sassy tongue?"
"Since you came in this room and started treating me as a different person just because I'm not in breeches!" She plucked ineffectually at the man's nightshirt she was wearing.
Jarrod turned away, surprised something as simple as a nightshirt should suddenly inspire improper thoughts of his own ward.
"Don't you dare turn your back on me, Jarrod!" she demanded. "I may have an injury now, but I still have determination!"
"That was never in question."
"And when I am recovered, I insist you do something about recovering my brother!"
"I do not believe Sir Harry needs to be recovered from anything except maybe a few unsavory drinking habits, Miss Wade."
"Damn it all, Jarrod, I'm talking about Stephen!" She waved her arm about and immediately regretted that action, the pain causing tears to form in her eyes. She was dashed if she would let him see her like this. "Go away," she said quietly, closing her eyes and ignoring the two fat drops slipping down her cheeks. "I need some rest."
"Very well. But we shall speak again soon."
He strode into the parlor area, and several pairs of eyes looked up in eagerness.
"Michael, take Harry back to Jarrod House, if you please, and hand him over to Carver. He is waiting to attend him. Harry, you are not to return until you have had some sleep, a bath and breakfast. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir." Harry meekly followed Michael from the rooms.
"Miss Claudette, might I have a word..."
"Certainment. You wish to know about Mademoiselle Penelope." It was not a question. "I will tell." Without waiting to hear if this was exactly what he wanted to know, she launched into the tale of how intrepid Penelope had been to go to her room that first evening. "Monsieur le Marquis is naughty, no? To tease the mademoiselle into revealing herself... But the mademoiselle, she is generous, too. She rescued me this evening so that I might be a modiste. That is why she plays the cards. And to find her brother. Do not be too difficile on her, sir. She is the rare person who truly cares for others. Monsieur le Marquis has been that way in the past, no?" She patted his hand and rose from the sofa, as if he had been the one to ask advice. "I shall take Sir Harry's chambers and get some sleep. You may sit with the mademoiselle... I think she will be calmer now that she has, as you say, blown her head? She needs you, too." Claudette walked gracefully into Harry's room and shut the door.
It was a thoughtful Jarrod that quietly re-entered Penelope's room. She was asleep, but rather restless, and he sat down in a chair next to the bed and began to speak softly. She calmed a little, and emboldened by her response, he took her hand in his. Still talking in a low voice, he found himself telling her all about the Army, and Stephen, and his despair at ever finding her brother in the aftermath of the battle, and how he had hardened himself in order to live with the guilt.
When he had finished, she was sleeping peacefully, and so he continued. His hand still holding hers, he told her how he had balked at the guardianship, how he had taken that out on his wards and how he had blindly allowed Lady Wade to dictate to him the needs of her stepchildren. He told her how he had been attracted to her from the start, how he had tried to hide his feelings, and how wrong he had been, regardless of who she was, to try to force her into revealing her gender. As she slept, Jarrod told her how much her kiss had meant to him and how angry he was at allowing her to be injured. How the anger was for himself, for letting down his guard. Slowly, he talked himself to sleep, sitting in the chair next to the bed, her hand in his. His last thought before succumbing to the arms of Morpheus was how sad he was for what he was about to do next.
Franklin, creeping in an hour later to check on Miss Wade, saw the two hands intertwined, their owners fast asleep, and he very carefully left the room, a little smile on his face.
"I won't go!" Penelope shouted at her guardian the next morning. If Franklin had not already removed her breakfast tray, she would have flung it at him. He tried not to smile. For someone who was so insistent that she be treated equally, she could act so delightfully feminine.
"I said this is not open for discussion, Miss Wade. You will leave tomorrow morning for my grandmother's home in Brighton. There you will continue to recuperate, taking long walks, breathing in the fresh country air and, when it is time, bathing in the sea. The dowager is already expecting you, and will keep you at her home until it is time to return to London for the little season.
"Five whole months?" she wailed. "Harry!" she appealed to her brother, who had returned that morning, much refreshed. "It is not to be borne!"
Harry, who had already had his own interview with his guardian, was smugly pleased about something, and only shrugged. "You are the one who insisted on coming to London," he reminded his sister. "You are now required to deal with the consequences."
Penelope, only half thwarted, turned to where Lord Michael and Claudette stood in the doorway. "Michael!" she pleaded. "Claudette?"
"Monsieur le Marquis, he has the right of it," Claudette replied.
Michael only nodded. "Come on, Harry, we need to get you packed."
"Packed?" Penelope cried. "Where are you going?"
"Scotland," was the reply.
Completely routed, Penelope could only sit and pout as Franklin packed her belongings; the few Jarrod would allow her to keep. She was to be denied Stephen's clothes, and a few dresses had been hastily purchased. When she protested that she needed more clothes, Jarrod said she had sufficient and refused to discuss that matter, either.
She was to travel the next day to Brighton with Franklin as an escort, and although it was to be done comfortably in one of Jarrod's well-sprung coaches, she knew it would not be the same if he were not there.
Because her temper became uneven, everyone, including Claudette, who had taken over Harry's room after he has moved to Jarrod House, began to avoid her. Only Jarrod would brave the lioness in her den, but he refused to change his mind.
Her one consolation had been the packet of money he pressed into her hand before putting her in the carriage and seeing her off on the five-hour journey to the seaside. Her allowance had been given directly to her.
One of Jarrod's letters had been to his grandmother in Brighton. The other had been a request to call on Lady Wade. As it was time for him to forward Penelope's allowance, he had hoped she would agree to see him, and she did.
"My Lord Jarrod," she purred when he was announced into her drawing room the next day.
"Lady Wade," he curtly replied. "I have come to see you about my wards."
"Oh, yes, Penelope wrote from school and that reminded me it was time to send her allowance. I see you have taken young Harry under your wing... and, his cousin?"
"His cousin, I fear, is in poor condition. I understand he was attacked by ruffians yesterday evening and it is said he many not live through it."
"Oh? Poor Harry must be devastated. I have seen how he dotes on this cousin of his. It's as if they were siblings..."
"Hmmm, yes, it is, rather."
"As I said, poor Harry. It would behoove me to visit the dear boy and see if there is anything I may do to help him through these trying times."
"I fear that is impossible."
"'Poor Harry,' as you put it, was so distraught over his cousin, I have allowed him to take the rest of the term off and I sent him to Scotland to relax in the company of my brother."
"Indeed..." Jarrod could see the machinations of Lady Wade's mind at work. "And where did you say his cousin was recuperating?"
"I did not, but since you ask, he is at Jarrod House. Here is my ward's allowance," he concluded, and handed over a draft. "I hope she spends it wisely."
"It will be wisely spent, my lord..."
The Bow Street Runner assigned to watch Lady Wade began work that afternoon.
After a month at the shore, Penelope wondered why she ever balked at recovering in Brighton. The dowager duchess lived in a beautiful little jewel box of a house several miles of town, right on the edge of the sea. Shell House, as it was known, consisted of the dowager, several older family retainers and a giant dog known as Rogue. Penelope thought of Lucky and wondered if he could be sent down to rusticate with her.
Franklin, discharging her into the care of the dowager, had driven back to London in Jarrod's carriage, and Penelope was left in the dark as to his fate until he returned a month later, bringing Lucky, a carriage full of trunks and a letter from Harry.
"Having fun in Scotland," was basically all it said. Where she was once jealous of his opportunity, she now had to admit Brighton was the better choice for her.
"Is that all?" she asked Franklin, who was plainly nervous at having been invited to sit in the morning parlor with a dowager duchess and Miss Wade, looking decidedly feminine now that her hair was growing longer. She sat fondling her dog as he gave his report.
"To the letter, Miss Wade? Or in the carriage?"
Both, she wanted to answer, having hoped there would be some sort of missive from her guardian. He had sent a letter to his grandmother, but there was nothing specific for Penelope.
After Franklin had been shown to a room and Lucky and Rogue sent out in the garden to get better acquainted, Penelope and the dowager retired to her room to inspect the trunks.
There were five of them, and upon further inspection, they were all marked with Penelope's initials.
"Look at the gowns!" the dowager exclaimed, opening the first trunk with her houseguest's permission. "I've never seen such beautiful clothes! I worried that Jarrod had not provided you with a sufficient wardrobe, but now I see he was just having it made!"
Penelope gasped as the first dress was pulled from the trunk - it was one of Claudette's designs, one she had seen that first night at the brothel! But that could not be! Penelope felt guilty that she had been blithely packed off to Brighton without a thought for her new friend, but it seemed someone had been busy setting her up in her own shop. Jarrod? Was that all he had set up with the lovely courtesan-turned-modiste?
"I have never heard of this Claudette," the dowager admitted, pulling a note printed with the name of the shop from the top of the second trunk. "Is she a new modiste? Her designs are so elegant, she is sure to be an instant success!"
Penelope beamed as she read the letter; it was much more informative than Harry's had been.
As you can see, I am now a modiste! I have a salon on Bond Street, a sales assistant and an army of seamstresses! God bless you for the rescue and for the funds with which to set up shop. Please accept these gowns as a repayment.
Penelope was confused. She had never been able to give her money to Claudette! Jarrod had sent her away before she could ... it had to be Jarrod!
"Penelope!" the dowager called, gaining her attention once more. "There is the most horrid gown and hat in this trunk, and I do not know what you wish done with them." She held up a threadbare gown and tattered hat covered in fishing lures, and Penelope squealed in delight.
"My fishing clothes! Where did these ... I thought they were at Oak Hill ... Harry must have - " There was no way Harry would ever think to send her fishing apparel to her, even if he was home, which he wasn't. Underneath the clothes lay her fishing gear.
"You actually wear these?" her hostess enquired. "How ... interesting." She sighed, but she did not press the issue. Having been in correspondence with her grandson, she had the impression this young lady was well on her way to becoming a marchioness - not that Jarrod had said so, but she could read between the lines - and had tried to deal with her accordingly. However, she drew the line at fishing.
"I shall send up the maids to help unpack these. You are... Penelope? Where are you going?"
"To change into my fishing clothes."
"But it's time for tea, and-"
"I'm not hungry, your grace. I'll be back in time for dinner, but I am going down to the rocks for a couple of hours to try out this gear."
"But, Penelope-" It was a lost cause, so she gave up the fight and went down to tea with her surprise guest, who showed no amazement that his ward would rather be fishing.
"I suppose you are going to send the girl to London for the Little Season?" she quizzed her grandson. "That wardrobe is fit for a princess and would be a shame to waste. That modiste has an incredible sense of what would suit your ward."
"She is a genius, I'll admit. I brought a trunk full of designs for you, too, grandmama," he told her, and she beamed.
"And what news of Michael? I understand he is in Scotland?"
"He was," he replied, although the two young men had never been north at all. It had all been a ruse to throw off Lady Wade - and Penelope. "He is now in Belgium," he truthfully admitted. "Miss Wade's brother is with him, but I do not believe Miss Wade needs to be told that at this time. She might worry," he added. Or become jealous.
"Hmmm. Delightful girl, Miss Wade..." The dowager was not above fishing for information, she just refused to do any of the piscine sort.
"Yes, delightful. She has not been too much trouble for you, Grandmama?"
"Heavens, no! A sweet, biddable girl - most of the time. She will make an excellent marchioness," she hinted.
"Not while I have the guardianship of her!" he insisted. He tried to picture Penelope as sweet and biddable, and failed miserably. Fortunately for him, sweet and biddable were not on his list of requirements for a marchioness. Not any more. Leaning back in his chair, he draped one leg over the other and emitted the air of one who was completely unconcerned. His grandmother, however, was not fooled.
"Yes, well, as to that, she insists her brother is still alive, so you might want to follow up on that hunch, m'boy, or you can wait until her birthday in October and let her look for him. Your mother wants her for the fall in London, but I am sure she has already told you that. I might even accompany her..."
"You?" He was amazed. His leg came down with a thud. His grandmother was a well-known recluse.
"And why not? It is not every day one gets to see a chit like her take the ton by storm."
Twice, Jarrod thought with no little irritation. And it would be just like that 'sweet, biddable girl' to choose someone out of hand the minute she turned twenty-one. Or try to turn her guardian up sweet before the birthday.
"Besides, I wish to be present when the mighty Marquess of Jarrod falls prey to a pair of dark brown eyes and the most ridiculous of hairstyles. Not that we won't have her looking more like a young lady in the next couple of months. Now I am going to take a nap. You might want to investigate the rocks and see what's biting!"
Jarrod found Lucky and Rogue on the rocks, but no sign of Penelope.
"Penelope!" he called several times, becoming increasing worried when there was no answer. A thin whistle pierced the air.
Lucky, scrambling down and running along a creek that fed into the ocean, barked once and then headed off through the trees. Rogue followed suit, but not before almost knocking Jarrod down as he lumbered by.
"Bloody hell!" There was that whistle again, but he was dashed if he was going to answer it like the dogs had.
"Penelope!" he called, this time into the woods. The whistle beckoned him once more. Only this time it was closer, and it was less a signal than it was a tune.
She was whistling while she ... while she what?
Creeping very slowly into the woods - the dogs, at least, knew him by scent and sight and did not even emit a whimper - he heard her again, but he couldn't see where she might be.
The whistling grew louder and he was almost on the old oak that jutted out over the stream before he knew where she was. The minx was straddling the limb out over the water and was dangling her line down in the deep pool underneath. Straddling?
He looked again and realized the gown he had gone to so much trouble to obtain actually had a split skirt so that she could move about freely.
Slipping back out of the woods, he headed for the house and the room his grandmother always kept available for him. A few things he had stored there would serve him in good stead at a time like this.
Awhile later, having changed into older, looser clothing and armed with his own fishing gear, Jarrod headed upstream and cast his line into the water. He knew where the prime spots were, having fished that stream since he was a child, but Penelope had chosen, without a doubt, the best spot there was. Still, he wanted his arrival to look natural, so he trolled downstream in an unhurried manner, finally reaching the point where he had seen Penelope earlier. Her pole was secured to the oak limb and still dangled in the pool; she was nowhere in sight.
An acorn dropped from the tree and hit him on the head, followed in rapid succession by several more. Marauding squirrels or something else?
He cast his line out into the pool and sank his pole down into the soft bank before skirting the back of the oak, where he knew the best footholds, and began to climb. Fortunately, he had not forgotten how to climb the old tree, and he soon reached Penelope, still picking off acorns and tossing them at her guardian.
"The squirrels are not going to have enough to eat this winter if you do not quit squandering their food supply," he said, and winced. It had come out so pompous to his ears. Whether Penelope thought so or not, she didn't say, but she stopped plucking acorns off the tree.
"Catch anything yet?" he wondered. "You've picked the best spot on the stream."
"No, not yet. But it looks like you have a bite," she said matter-of-factly, pointing to where his line was taut. He swore and climbed quickly out of the tree, her laughter following him down, but it was too late. The fish had freed itself from the lure and swam off to the safety of the bottom of the pool.
"The one that got away," Penelope said softly from just above his head, straddling the thick oak limb once more.
"Just so," he blandly agreed.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Visiting my grandmother."
"I was having a wonderful time, too, until you appeared!"
Jarrod only smiled as he reeled in his line and cast it out once more. "Is that any way to greet your guardian?"
"My absentee guardian?"
"You are looking at me right now, Miss Wade. Do I look absent to you?"
"Then where have you been this past month?"
"I had business to attend to. As did you. How is that shoulder?"
Penelope would not look at him. "It is a little stiff, but nothing some fishing and a little sea water cannot cure."
"Excellent! Did you see the gowns?"
"They are nice," she said curtly, not wanting to admit that this man had done several wonderful things for her lately, including saving her life. "Claudette is to be commended. Especially since she managed to set up shop without any capital whatsoever."
"Ah, I wondered what you would make of that. Your brother transferred your funds to an account for Miss Claudette before he left town. I trust that is satisfactory?"
"Then you didn't ... she isn't..."
"I didn't what, Miss Wade? Give her the money and say it was from you? Give her the money and say it was from me? Are you asking if Claudette is my mistress in exchange for setting her up in business? Tsk tsk, Miss Wade. I had hoped you knew me better than that." He hoped, too, she never learned of the carte blanche he had been prepared to offer her.
"I suppose I do know better. On Claudette's part, at least."
"And just what does that ... I got a bite!" Jarrod cried, suddenly all boyish enthusiasm.
"Here!" Penelope cried, sharing the excitement. "Let me reel it in for you!"
Jarrod passed the rod to her and she tugged on the line, giving it some slack and then reeling it back in, expertly toying with the trout that she eventually brought just to the surface of the stream when...
"Ahhhhhh!" Leaning over, she lost her balance and tumbled headlong into the water. And came up laughing. "It's cold!" she cried, making her way quickly to the bank. "Help me out?" she called to the marquess, holding out the pole.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, grinning. Until she pulled him into the stream with her. He came up sputtering and swearing, but she just laughed once more and sprayed water at him. Not to be outdone, he splashed back. "Bloody hell, but it's cold!"
"I told you!" She splashed him again, threw the pole on the bank and then tried to clamber up onto the sandy shore. Jarrod would have none of it, and pulled her back into the water, where he playfully tried to dunk her.
"Why, you!" she screeched, and when she went under, pulled one of his legs out from underneath him, sending him splashing down onto the mossy rocks below.
"Ow! You minx!"
The insults flew harder and faster than the water around them, until finally Jarrod had had enough, and he grabbed Penelope by the tops of her arms. Her hair was streaming down into her face, her eyes held more than a hint of fire, and her gown was completely plastered to her figure, proving what he had known from the start. She was definitely female.
"Penelope," he whispered.
"Gabriel," she replied, threading her arms up around his neck and molding her soft, wet lips to his. He groaned, relaxed his grip and kissed her back, the two standing in the stream, water rushing about their waists, lost in their own little world.
How long they stayed there, Penelope did not know, but reason returned to her first. She was kissing Jarrod - in running water! Pushing him away, she scrambled onto the bank, squishing in her boots, the back of the dress conforming to her shape. "I hate you!" she yelled over her shoulder as she squelched her way back to the house.
Jarrod waited until she was well on her way to the house before he laughed out loud, startling the dogs, who had stayed behind.
The joy of dressing as a young lady that Penelope had discovered in Claudette's brothel room returned that evening, at least temporarily, as she dressed for dinner.
A leisurely bath, including washing her hair with delicious, violet-scented soap, came first, after which Penelope was made to sit by the fire while Jenny, one of the dowager's maids, dried her hair and pulled it off her face with a pair of ivory combs. She was absolutely, positively not dressing for Jarrod's benefit, she told herself, even as she allowed the maid to pull the peach silk gown over her head.
"You're beautiful!" Jenny breathed as she laced her charge into the dress. "Lord Jarrod will-"
"Lord Jarrod will find himself wasting his breath," Penelope muttered, thinking about that kiss, even as she admired herself in the mirror. Just when they were getting along, why did he have to ruin everything? She vowed to speak to him that evening about efforts to locate her brother. She planned to be stubborn about the topic, but Jarrod, to her dismay, proved even more stubborn.
She came down to the drawing room just before dinner was announced, unwilling to spend a moment more in his company than she had to. This did not seem to bother him, which angered her even more.
The dinner gong sounded and Jarrod blandly escorted his grandmother into the dining room, leaving Penelope to follow on her own. At least he had the good manners and good sense to seat her at the table, but once seated, he launched into a story for his grandmother concerning people Penelope neither knew nor cared about, ignoring her completely. If the dowager suspected his motives, she said nothing, but let him ramble on through the first two courses before she finally put a stop to him.
"Jarrod," she said sweetly as dessert was served, "I have decided to go to London for the Little Season. I shall escort Penelope to Rothwell House and stay for a month." She looked at her guest and smiled. "At least long enough to see this young lady established. I believe you will be a sensation, my dear. Won't she, Jarrod?"
"Undoubtedly..." he drawled, leaving one to wonder.
"Oh?" Penelope wondered, speaking for the first time since they sat down at the table. "You don't believe I could take the ton by storm?" Her expression was one of disbelief and challenge at the same time as she waved away the proffered dessert.
"I believe, Miss Wade, that you can do anything you set your mind to. However, in this instance..."
"In this instance?"
"In this instance, if you are finished, Penelope," the dowager interjected, noting the young lady's sudden lack of appetite, "we shall retire to the dining room. At your leisure, Jarrod," she added, knowing her grandson would not enjoy sitting there alone. She was correct, and he offered his arm when they rose as one.
"I am going to forego tea, my dears." The dowager had paused in the front hall. "I will leave you here. You may visit with your guardian for a half hour, Penelope, before retiring." It was more than courting couples were allowed, she surmised, but there was something between these two this evening...
"I shall see you tomorrow before I leave, Grandmama," Jarrod said, kissing the elderly lady's cheek.
"See that you do. Good evening, Penelope."
Penelope felt like a lamb being led to slaughter as she took Jarrod's arm and allowed him to escort her to the drawing room. Not one to back down or wait for him to take the initiative, she launched into a small speech of gratitude even before he seated her on the sofa. He remained standing, after helping himself to a liberal portion from the grog tray in one corner of the room.
"My lord, I wish to thank you for saving my life last month. I know I am not exactly what one would call a model ward, but the attack, and the one before it..." She would have said more, but he held up one hand.
"You may spare me the platitudes, Miss Wade. I would caution you to have a care, though, even here in Brighton. The man I captured the night of your attack claims his accomplice is one Slippery Ned. I do not know yet who hired Ned to attack you, but I have my suspicions."
"Now, why would you say that?" She was his first and best guess, too.
"Who else? It is no secret she hates me. I wish I knew why. She was always jealous of the attentions my father paid to Harry, Stephen and I. Speaking of Stephen..."
"You wish to discover what happened to him ... By last account, he was dead."
Penelope gasped. "Don't you ever say Stephen is dead, do you hear me?" she all but shouted, rising from the sofa and standing directly in front of him, hands on her hips. "I know things, and I know he is not dead!"
"Shhh! My grandmother is a light sleeper."
"Let me write to Harry - I know he will believe me," she continued at a whisper. "That's the only reason he would let me go to London in the first place. Unfortunately, Harry's letter did not give his direction in Scotland."
"You may write your brother, Miss Wade, and I will frank the letter for you to the appropriate location. If you will bring it to me before ten o'clock tomorrow, I will take it with me."
"You...you're leaving?" Penelope appeared so crestfallen; it was all Jarrod could do not to take her in his arms. However, that was going to have to wait for another day. Today's incident in the stream must not be repeated, at least not over the next couple of months, for his own peace of mind.
"Tomorrow. I am leaving Franklin and Lucky here, and you may bring them with you when you return to London. I would ask you again to please be careful, Miss Wade. It's possible you may be safe here, but let's not take any chances, shall we? I would not like to see any of Claudette's creations come to any harm." Nor the charming creature wearing them.
Penelope, insulted - didn't he care about the wearer? - raised her nose in the air and stalked out of the room, telling him over her shoulder that she would retire for the evening. She was talking to him, though, and not watching where she was headed, and ran into the wall, completely missing the drawing room door. Embarrassed, she mumbled something and found her way out.
This time Jarrod did not laugh; it was all he could do not to run to her side and check her for injuries.
Jarrod left the next morning, after breakfast, which was silently eaten by his ward. Before she went fishing, though, she handed him a letter for Harry and bid him a safe journey. She watched from the woods as his carriage drove out of sight, and then she, Lucky and Rogue went to the deep pool to try to catch trout.
She sat on the bank, though, next to the hole made by his lordship's fishing pole the day before, and gazed at the place in the stream where he had kissed her.
Completely ignoring her pole, and not even noting she had a bite and lost it, Penelope spent an hour just staring into space. Finally trudging back to the house, she allowed Jenny to help her change clothes and then she went downstairs in a pretty day dress of white sprigged muslin and joined the dowager for luncheon.
"You look lovely, my dear," the dowager said as they strolled into the dining room. "What do you think of this gown?"
"It is uncommonly beautiful, your grace." It was. Of lavender muslin, it was matronly without being dowdy, feminine without being overly frilly, just the type of gown one would expect of... "Claudette!"
"Why, yes! My grandson was kind enough to bring me a few new gowns. He is a very thoughtful man, as you no doubt know."
"Er, yes." Penelope wanted to know more. "Does he visit often?" The ladies were seated and a cold collation was served.
"As often as he can, which is not often enough for his lonely grandmother. Michael is a much more frequent visitor. You have met my other grandson?"
"Ah..." How did one explain that? "No, ma'am, I do not believe I have had the pleasure."
"What a pity. Michael has always been a charmer. Jarrod...well, he was rather wild in his youth, but that changed when he went into the Army."
"But why was he in the Army?" Penelope wondered. "He is the eldest, has the title, and did not have to serve."
The dowager sighed. It was a subject much discussed by herself and her daughter-in-law. "He wanted to serve," she simply said. "His mother and I were very much against it, but my son insisted he be allowed to purchase a commission. In one way, it was the making of him. He came home much matured. In another, it was his downfall. He returned mature, but broken, as if he had failed somehow. Well, this is all very maudlin, and you, no doubt, wish to speak of other things," that lady continued briskly.
Penelope, however, was deep in thought. How much of Stephen's disappearance had to do with his lordship's refusal to deal with his wards? She had never thought of it from that perspective before, but the idea had merit. Perhaps he was even more closely involved in Stephen's incident than she had surmised...
"Please, your grace, tell me what his lordship was like as a child?"
The dowager smiled indulgently. "He wasn't even a marquess then, because his father had the title at the time; my dear, late husband was still the duke, and we all lived at Wycliffe together. The house is huge, of course, and both families had their own personal suites, but it was a noisy place, filled as it was with the antics of two small boys. Boys are a right nuisance, as I can attest to, but they are never boring.
"Michael was less rambunctious than his elder brother, with a sweet nature and a cheery disposition, but Gabriel ... well, Gabriel was a handful."
"Some things never change," Penelope muttered. The sharp-eared dowager laughed.
"Yes, some things never change. However, I don't suppose one will find him hanging off the roof of Wycliffe by a rope these days, having miscalculated its length."
"Oh, yes, and then there was the time he came home to Yorkshire after a trip to London, and insisted he and Michael learn to ride horses like they do at Astley's. Michael refused to stand on the back of a riding horse, but Gabriel had no such qualms and fell and broke his arm. Two weeks later, his arm in a sling, he was back on the horse."
"What else?" Penelope begged, hungry for more details of his life. "Where did he go to school?" To her surprise, the dowager duchess frowned.
"Actually, he had tutors. Michael is the one who went to Eton and Oxford. Gabriel had a lung condition as a child and young man, and his mother did not want him leaving her. It was probably for the best, but he never had those friendships one develops when they are forced to live away from home at such a young age. That, perhaps, accounts for some of his reputation as a recluse. That did not stop him," she said acerbically, "from getting into further mischief. With Michael away, his activities stemmed from loneliness, I am certain. Also, denied a glimpse of the larger world, he began to range about more freely in his smaller one. Much to everyone's chagrin. You never saw such a lad for gambling at the local inn or drinking more than was good for him. He wasn't much in the petticoat line, thank goodness, or we would have heard about that, I am sure. Everyone for miles around was quick to point out every other little indiscretion. Then..." The dowager faltered somewhat. "Then his grandfather died, and he buckled down to his studies, began to spend time around the estate with our steward, and finally, begged to go into the Army. Difficult to realize the man leaving for war was the same boy who had been caught writing terrible limericks about the vicar on the drawing room wall. Among other things," she added dryly. "I'm warning you now, my dear, so when your own sons repeat history, you will not be surprised."
Penelope's cheeks flamed, and she looked down at her luncheon plate. "But I...that is...he would never..." The dowager's words implied something she was not quite ready to accept. As if reading her mind, the old lady chuckled.
"Don't fret, child. Everything will right itself in the end."
Fall arrived in London, just in time for the Little Season, that period between September and mid-November when the ton repeated the activities of its regular Season before heading off to the country for Christmas. With the change in weather came Penelope, gowned in Claudette originals, her hair a ladylike crop of short curls and swearing like a sailor as the carriage pulled up to the Duke of Rothwell's residence. She did not want to be in town, paraded around like a side of beef. She did not look forward to becoming the wallflower she knew herself to truly be.
The fact that the dowager duchess sat next to her in the carriage did not affect Penelope's behavior, or lack thereof, one jot. However, she said nothing, only smiled and thought how like Jarrod this child was, and what a remarkable marchioness she was going to be. It did not surprise her that only an Original could have captured the attention of her eldest grandson.
If Penelope expected a larger reception committee than the duke and duchess, she was to be disappointed. However, the duchess was ecstatic at the thought of shepherding Penelope through the season.
"I cannot see that Wade woman doing as much for the girl as I can," her grace had told his grace that afternoon at luncheon.
The duke only nodded and read his paper. He put the paper down again a moment later when his mother was announced, bringing with her a tall, willowy beauty. An older, grayer version of Jarrod, he escorted her to the table with delight as the older ladies sat there and beamed.
"We are so pleased to finally meet you, Miss Wade," the duchess gushed. "Are you hungry? Might we get you something to eat before I show you to your room? Oh, and here are two gentlemen most eager to see you, my dear."
"Harry!" Penelope squealed as her brother came into the room. He looked tan, fit and so much more mature than he had several months before, and she threw her arms around his neck. "I have missed you!"
"And I you, Penelope. Let me make you known to Lord Michael Roth, Jarrod's brother. Lord Michael, my sister, Miss Wade."
They looked at each other in amusement as he bowed and she curtsied.
"An honor, Miss Wade. I look forward to the coming season, knowing you are to be a part of it."
"The pleasure is all mine, Lord Michael."
"Michael and I are to be your escorts this season, Penelope," Harry said. "And I know you won't mind that Franklin is to valet for me while I am here," he added as the duchess led them all to the drawing room and rang for tea.
"When are you and Sir Harry moving in?" her grace asked as they were all seated.
"Moving in?" Penelope wondered.
"Jarrod suggested they would make better attendants if they were constantly on hand. I have to agree, because goodness knows there may be a lack of escorts otherwise," she added, and the duke had the grace to flush at his wife's words.
Into all of this walked Jarrod, surveying the room before striding over to his grandmother and giving her a kiss on the cheek. He saluted his mother in the same way, shook hands with his father, brother and male ward, and then approached Penelope.
"Miss Wade," he said in a deep, resonant voice. "Welcome to Rothwell House. I hope your season is a profitable one."
Penelope wondered what he meant by that, but only nodded. "I know I am in good hands here."
"Just so." He sat down next to his mother and ignored her the rest of the afternoon.
And so she was ignored the rest of the day, by the two young men in the household at any rate. Where they had been the best of companions several months earlier, she was now relegated to the role of proper young lady, and it did not sit well with her. Not only that, but some adventure of theirs, possibly while they had been in Scotland, had brought about a tight bonding, and the two were now closer than brothers.
She finally ran them to ground that evening, well after their elders had retired, in the billiard room. Cigars sat smouldering on trays, a bottle of port had been broached and the two were arguing good-naturedly over whose turn it was to play.
"May I be allowed to join you?" Penelope, who had retired earlier, had not permitted the maid to dress her for bed, so she remained in her evening attire, a pale yellow gown with a low neckline. She had removed her elbow-length gloves, but her short curls were still dressed with silk flowers.
"Penelope! What the devil!" Harry barked. "If Jarrod found you here, he would skin us alive! Go to bed!"
Taken aback, Penelope stared at Harry as if he were a two-headed dog. "Go to bed? Did I hear you correctly, Harry Wade?" she tightly replied. Behind her, the ever-faithful Lucky growled at the men.
"I think we had better let her play," Michael quickly replied. "Neither of us wants to tangle with that dog..."
Harry shrugged. "Grab a stick, Pen, and I'll go first."
Penelope did not wait to be asked twice. She took a quick drag of one of the cigars, poured herself a glass of port and chose a cue from the large selection available.
"Gads, Pen, I did not say make yourself at home! Put down that port!"
"No! And before either of you says a word, may I remind you both that I am perfectly able to drink you under this table?"
Neither said a word, and Penelope quickly showed them both just how capable she was of beating them soundly on top of the table, as well.
Once they had congratulated her on her win, she graciously stepped aside and watched from a nearby chair as they continued their game. That was where Jarrod found her a good half hour later, wagering on the game, drinking port and puffing on the cigar she had appropriated for her own enjoyment.
"What the devil is going on here!" he shouted. Michael and Harry, with guilty expressions, dropped their cues. Penelope sat there, appraising her guardian with a challenge in her gaze, daring him to deny her.
"Michael, Harry," he said in a deceptively smooth voice, "perhaps it is time for you to retire." Both younger men quit the room without a backward glance. "Penelope?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," she apologized, fishing about on the table for an empty glass. "Port?"
"A cigar, perhaps? I have not smoked one this age!"
"A game of billiards?"
"What would be the purpose?"
"A wager, perhaps?" she said in a silky voice, confident of the outcome.
"All right, then, Miss Wade. A round of billiards. The winner may concede a favor to the one losing the game. You may go first."
"A favor to the winner," she agreed, "and you may go first."
"Oh, no, my dear. Ladies first."
"All right." Penelope began, and was doing well at first, but missed her third shot because Jarrod always seemed to be standing where he could view her décolletage, making her uncomfortable. She tried to pull the front of her gown up, nervously, but he only laughed, making her feel worse. After he missed a shot, and it was her turn once more, he did not stand across from her, but next to her, and the scent of bay rum made her dizzy, causing her to miss the very next shot.
"Do you mind?" she asked between clenched teeth.
"No, not at all," he said with a laugh. He laughed again, later, when she lost the game. "Now, for that favor."
"Yes?" She was certain he was going to ask her to give up the billiards, cigars and port...
"Only this, Miss Wade." He gathered her in his arms and bent her back over the billiard table, taking her mouth in a hot, quick kiss before bringing her upright and releasing her, striding from the room before she could even say a word.
"Good evening, Miss Wade," he called over his shoulder. "Sleep well."
She was damned if she was going to do that!
Several weeks went by, and after the duchess and the dowager decreed Penelope ready to face the ton, she found herself standing on the threshold of Almack's, the holy of holies, on a Wednesday evening.
Wearing a deceptively simple Claudette creation of palest blue silk, with probably the lowest neckline she had ever sported and a delicate white lace stand-up collar, she could not help but feel underdressed amongst the rich satins and glittering jewels of her chaperons. She wore no ornaments save a pair of small silver and blue topaz eardrops and a matching bracelet lent to her by the duchess for the evening.
On one side of her stood tall, blond Lord Michael, resplendent in black and white evening dress, and on the other, a bookend except for his darker coloring, stood Harry. She laughed as they each offered her an arm to escort her in, the dowager leading the way as they approached Lady Jersey for an introduction.
After that they moved further into the assembly rooms, where Penelope expected to be seated with the elder ladies and then abandoned. As abandoned as she had been in assemblies she had attended at home with Lady Wade. That night she was pleasantly surprised.
"Miss Wade, may I have the honor of the first set?" Lord Michael asked.
"I believe that set is already spoken for, pup," Jarrod interjected smoothly, appearing behind his brother. "I would like to open the assembly with my ward."
Penelope looked up and gasped. First, Jarrod was here after a remarked absence - since the evening of the billiard game, actually - and now he was standing over her, absolutely breathtaking in his evening attire.
Undaunted, Lord Michael insisted on the second, and Harry said he would take the third. A tiny spark of hope appeared in Penelope's breast at the thought of not having to sit out the first three dances.
"Oh, Penelope," Harry said. "Here is a friend of mine to meet, as well. Coddy, my sister, Miss Wade. Penelope, Viscount Coddington."
Penelope stood and curtsied and he bowed. "Let me make known to you my sister, Lady Juno. Juno, Harry's sister, Miss Wade. May I also bespeak a dance, Miss Wade, and if you are not otherwise sitting with someone at supper..."
"She is," Jarrod said. Penelope raised one eyebrow at him, but he only said, "with her guardian."
Penelope, being steered to chairs away from the gentlemen by Lady Juno, did not hear.
"You look just like your cousin!" she exclaimed. "I was so saddened by his illness ... have you seen him since he was removed to the country?"
Penelope was startled, but quickly recovered. "No, I'm sad to say, I am not allowed to visit..."
"In case of infection," Lady Juno finished with a nod. "No, I suppose not. Last spring was very much enlivened by his presence."
"No doubt," Penelope said with a straight face. "I remember my cousin from previous visits from Jamaica, and he was always interesting."
"Very intriguing young man," Lady Juno mused. "And here is my first partner," she said, nodding to an approaching man. "I am so pleased to have made your acquaintance, Miss Wade..."
Penelope nodded graciously and allowed an amused Jarrod to collect her for the first dance.
"Would you like to share?" he asked, and she grinned.
"I resemble Mr. Wade much too much for Lady Juno's fine sensibilities, for one thing," she said with a smirk.
Jarrod was surprised. He had thought Lady Juno too much of a nodcock to notice the resemblance. The very strong resemblance. They made inconsequential small talk, and after the dance ended, they were waylaid by a gentleman intent on an introduction.
"Varney," Jarrod acknowledged, nodding to his Whitehall friend. "Lord Varney, my ward, Miss Wade. Miss Wade, Lord Varney."
"My lord," Penelope said smoothly, but she was surprised when he requested a dance. She added him to her card, and was about to put him down for the waltz before supper when Jarrod put a staying hand on her arm. "That one is mine," he said, and directed her to a slot further up.
"Until later, Miss Wade." Varney walked away, only to be replaced by Lord Michael, coming to claim his dance. Penelope, who had never been collected for a dance before she had even returned to her chair, was befuddled.
"Should I not return to their graces first?" she asked. The two gentlemen laughed at the expression her face, but it was Jarrod who peered into her eyes before answering, reading both hurt and confusion.
"My god!" he exclaimed. "You don't even know, do you?"
"Know what?" she demanded.
"You don't even know you are the most beautiful lady here!"
Lord Michael gave his brother an odd look and tried to lighten the mood. "Enough of that, Gabe, or you'll turn the chit's head and then she will never dance with me!" Taking Penelope by the arm, she was steered reluctantly away from her guardian and onto the floor.
"Why did he say that?" Penelope wondered as the music began. "Why would he say something that is patently untrue?"
Michael laughed. "Who said it wasn't true? Gads, Penelope, don't you have a mirror? Every man here has been clamoring for an introduction! Don't you know you make an even better young lady than you do a young man?" he said softly.
She just shook her head and kept dancing. It would take more than a few pretty comments to undo years of conditioning.
Harry was an uninspired partner, and in fact, seemed distracted to the point of only providing grunts and non-verbal expressions to her many questions concerning his summer in Scotland. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought he hadn't even gone.
Viscount Coddington wasn't much better in the conversation department, she thought later, trudging through a quadrille. All that man did the entire time they danced was stare at her as if she were on the refreshment table.
Lord Varney, however, was much more entertaining on the dance floor, and by time he returned her to their graces, her cheeks were pink from exertion and her eyes sparkled with laughter. She glowed even more when Varney brought her hand to his lips, seeing neither the jealous look on Lord Michael's face nor the dark glower on Jarrod's.
"I have been asked to go for a drive in the park tomorrow with Lord Varney," she told the duchess. "Should I accept?" The duchess looked at her son, who nodded.
"Of course, child, you may. That new carriage dress will be perfect!" Having deemed Claudette a worthy modiste, she had declared Penelope's new wardrobe sufficient for the first few weeks of the season and then had promptly taken her mother-in-law and son's ward to Claudette's for more outfits.
Penelope recalled the rather tearful greeting she had received from her friend, and the awed reception she had afforded the duchess and dowager. It had been such a relief to see Claudette so settled.
Franklin was at Rothwell House, assisting Harry, but Lucky had been taken to Jarrod House instead, the duchess being sensitive to dog hair. Penelope had asked after Carver and was told he had been taken into service to the marquess as a courier of some sort, and she had not pressed for a more complete answer.
The only thing left to settle, she supposed, was herself.
Jarrod was presented to her later that evening as a suitable partner for the waltz, and she graciously allowed him to take her out onto the dance floor. She couldn't help but chuckle at one point during the dance, thinking how she had been waltzing for nights on end in the spring without any consent at all.
"Don't do that!" Jarrod commanded.
"Laugh like that," he insisted. "How do you like your accommodations? Are my mother and grandmother keeping you well-occupied?"
Penelope, quite distracted by the feel of Jarrod's hand on her waist, only stared at him for a moment. "Pardon?"
"I said, are the ladies in my family keeping you entertained?" As his hand moved slightly against her side at that moment, she simply stared at him again, dumbfounded.
"Don't do that!" she commanded.
"Touch me like that," she insisted. The dance could not end soon enough for either of them.
Toward the end of the evening, as the duchess and dowager prepared to leave, Penelope was finally returned to their side, having been constantly in demand as a dance partner from the moment she walked in the door. Such success was like champagne to her brain, and she was slightly giddy as she strolled to the entrance of the assembly rooms with her companions.
A glimpse of Lady Wade, in the corner talking to a dissipated older gentleman, though, caused her to stop in her tracks, the blood draining from her face. Jarrod was instantly at her side.
The venomous look shot in her direction by her stepmother boded ill for Penelope, but she lifted her chin slightly, put a steadying hand on Jarrod's arm and swept out of Almack's like a princess.
It was a practice of the day to send or deliver flowers to those young ladies you had danced with the evening before, and when Penelope came skipping down the stairs for breakfast the next morning, the drawing room was already full of floral tributes.
A quick turn about the room revealed a little posy of violets from Lord Varney and a large spray of gladioli from Viscount Coddington. Harry had sent lilies and Lord Michael was represented as well.
A large urn of red roses in a corner, though, caught her attention and kept it. She held her breath, knowing that red roses meant love - of course, they meant respect and courage as well, but she did not think their meaning any other than the first. At least she hoped... She read the card and let out a sigh of relief.
Jarrod had sent the roses.
Penelope was delighted, and sat down on the sofa next to the vase, staring at the boldly written name on the card. There wasn't another word on it, but she did not need anything else to show her what she must have known all along. She was in love with her guardian.
Penelope had never felt so wanted in her life. Everywhere she went gentlemen of every shape, size and bank account under the sun besieged her. Her three main admirers, since the evening of Almack's, were Lord Michael, Viscount Coddington and Lord Varney. Her guardian, however, had been conspicuously absent for more than two weeks.
"I can't imagine why he does not call," she fussed one afternoon, tired of the men who flocked to the Rothwell House drawing rooms, even the Triumverate, as she had dubbed her most persistent suitors.
"Can you not?" the dowager replied with a sly wink to her daughter-in-law. "I would have thought it was obvious."
"Now, mother," the duchess admonished. "The girl doesn't have a clue, and we mustn't tease."
"I don't have a clue about what?" Penelope asked innocently.
"See?" the duchess said with a tender smile. "I told you," she said to the dowager.
Penelope shrugged and was called by the Triumverate to settle a burning question. She tried to approach them lightly, but all three made her extremely nervous.
Lord Michael looked at her like she were a diety, and that she could not abide. It was as if he had found a goddess, he had told her one afternoon on a ride in the park, who was not only beautiful, but could best him in any sport she chose. Aside from making her uncomfortable, the fact that she could best him did nothing to earn her respect.
"Yes?" she wondered now, striding across the drawing room in a pale blue muslin creation by her favorite modiste. The duchess had tried working on the young lady's walk, having deemed it too masculine, but the dowager had insisted she leave the girl alone in the deportment department.
"Which of the three of us shall have the honor of driving you in the park today?" Coddy asked.
"But none of you has asked me," Penelope insisted truthfully, having never learned to be coy. Lord Michael knew this, of course, and sat back smugly and waited. Unfortunately, Coddy and Lord Varney thought she was playing with them, and both immediately implored her to drive with him.
"But... No, I do not wish to go to the park today," she finally insisted. As their visiting time had stretched out longer than was proper, the two gentleman sadly took their leave.
"What are you looking at?" she asked crossly when she returned to Lord Michael's side.
"I'm looking at you, beautiful Penelope. I may call you Penelope, may I?
"No. Go away," Penelope said, but he only laughed.
She did the only thing she felt suitable in this instance. She left the room, stomping off to the library for some peace and quiet.
Jarrod slipped into his parents' house quietly, having told the footman on duty that he would announce himself, and went to the library. He needed to discuss some estate business with his father, but the duke was not available.
The marquess, deciding to wait, settled on a sofa facing away from the door and picked up the book lying next to him. It was a book on fencing, and he laughed, imagining the way she must have stretched out on this same leather, reading her book in front of the fire...
Following suit, he extended his long length along the furniture and opened the book to read.
The library door opened and slammed a moment later, and he could hear Penelope huffing, puffing and muttering to herself as she paced on the other side of the room. He willed her to find him, until he heard the door open again, softly this time, and shut in the same manner.
"Lord Michael!" Penelope exclaimed. "I thought I asked you to go away?"
On the sofa, one of Jarrod's eyebrows raised slightly. Dissention in the ranks? What had they quarreled about?
"But Penelope ... Miss Wade," he heard, "I would speak to you of an important matter."
"What is so important it cannot be said in front of your mother and grandmother?" she demanded. There was silence. "Well?"
"Miss Wade, it could not have escaped your attention the marked preference I have shown for your company these past few weeks..."
"I had noticed," Penelope allowed, sounding as if she refused to be mollified. "That does not mean I have to like it."
"But Miss Wade, I want you to like it! Please say I may ask Gabriel for permission to make you an offer?"
Jarrod almost came off the sofa at the pup's declaration, but something rather haughty in Penelope's voice stayed him. He would let this play out before interfering.
"I beg your pardon? I will do no such thing!"
"But Penelope! I mean, Miss Wade! Can't you see? Next to you, all other females pale in comparison! How many other young ladies of my acquaintance can I say shoot, fence, enjoy cigars, swear and drink me under the table?" He laughed. "I sound like a looby, don't I?"
"Well, yes." Penelope chuckled. "Can't you see?" she echoed. "Those are not the things you are really looking for in a wife. No one is," she added sadly, thinking of Gabriel.
"Yes, but you are also beautiful, smart, entertaining, adorable..."
Penelope held up a hand to stop the flow of words.
"I beg you, please, do not try to turn me up sweet. Besides, these things are not all that important, either. You need someone who will listen to you, who is kind, gentle, sweet and refined. Someone who will challenge you, yes, but not to the point of trouncing you soundly in everything. I could not respect you if I defeated you at every turn. In the end, you would not be able to show regard for me, either."
"I suppose you are correct. I ... I guess I was just looking at what I wanted to see, and not the entire picture."
"No, I suppose not," Penelope agreed softly. "We are still friends, though?"
"Yes, still friends. I will see you at dinner, then?" he asked. "And perhaps later you could show me how you managed to give us a rare trimming at billiards the other night?"
"Billiards?" she squeaked, thinking of that same night, but after that game, when she competed with Jarrod. "I imagine I could... Is your brother expected to dine with us tonight?" If Jarrod was here, there was no way she was going anywhere near the billiard room.
"I will check with mother," Michael instantly volunteered and went swiftly from the room.
"Actually, the thought of billiards after dinner sounds amusing," Jarrod said suddenly from the sofa, where he still reclined. He smiled when he heard Penelope gasp. "Why don't we play?"
"I think not," she said stiffly. "You heard everything?"
"Everything," his disembodied voice assured her. "Remind me later to give my brother instructions on the finer points of making proposals," he added with a laugh. "One does not make an offer and then proceed to point out every vice the lady enjoys."
"I suppose what you consider sporting in a man is to be considered a vice for a female? I wonder how you managed to allow your ward to get away with so many vices for so long, then?"
"I did not know the lady in question was my ward at the time, else I would have curtailed all such activities immediately."
Penelope moved close enough that she could see his Hessians propped up on the far arm of the sofa. "Is that so? Some guardian, not to have put two and two together in the first place!"
"Does that bother you?" Jarrod came up off the sofa, concern written on his face. Taking one of his surprised ward's hands in his, he patted it in an avuncular fashion. "Penelope, please forgive me for that, and several other bacon-brained notions I had while you were posing as Harry's cousin. I think we need to talk."
"We do?" She allowed him to settle her on the sofa, but he did not sit.
"A number of years ago I bought into the army. I was happy there, and the military lifestyle had a calming tendency on some of my, er, wilder ways. I made a number of friends, something I had never had the chance to do before." He didn't go into any details, but he did not need to. The dowager had seen to that.
"One of those friends was your brother, Stephen," he continued. Penelope nodded. "Stephen was younger than I, but we were good companions, and I valued his friendship, as, I like to think, he did mine. Why else ask, two nights before that last battle, if I would consent to be guardian for his younger siblings, should anything happen?
I agreed, of course, confident that nothing was going to happen, that such an obligation would never have to be mine." He laughed without mirth and began pacing back and forth in front of the hearth. "I never dreamed he would fall, never dreamed we would never find him. One minute he was there, and the next, it was if he had never been."
Penelope bit her lip to keep from making a sound; tears fell silently down her cheeks.
"I searched longer than I should have, I suppose. In the end, I had to admit defeat. Then, to make matters worse, there were these two siblings of his that needed my attention. I didn't want them to know I failed, nor did I need constant reminders of my failure to find Stephen. When Lady Wade approached and offered to help, I accepted. One less obligation, so to speak. Without even looking into the situation!" he said loudly, as if castigating himself all over again.
Penelope jumped, but continued to say nothing.
"Not very good reasons, I know, for abandoning my wards, but there you have it. By refusing to fail, I set myself up for failure all over again. You know what happened next." He didn't look at her, and was surprised when he looked down and her hand was on his sleeve.
"Do you now regret those unfortunate wards?" she whispered.
"No," he said, still looking away. "And yes, I still do," he added, not thinking of Penelope's feelings, but of his own. If he were not her guardian...
"Oooh!" she exclaimed, reining in a desire to kick him in the shin. "What a perfectly horrid thing to say after you ... after we ... ooooh! Some days I really do hate you!" she cried, and ran from the room.
She passed Michael in the hall as she headed for the stairs.
"Penelope, good news! Jarrod is invited to dinner!"
"Good!" she exclaimed. "I shall be in my room the rest of the evening, but I hope he chokes on a bone!" With a sob, she ran upstairs.
Michael went back to the library, curious as to what had set Penelope off. He saw his brother, still standing in front of the hearth, and began to understand.
"What did you say to Penelope, Gabe, that got her into such a pucker?"
"Come here, pup," Jarrod called. "I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb," he muttered to himself. "I couldn't help but overhear your proposal to Miss Wade."
"The devil you say!"
Jarrod just shrugged. "It was unfortunate, but unavoidable, as I was already in here. It is not the thing one interrupts, is it? If you're going to make it a practice to wander about and propose to young ladies, lad, you're going to have to perfect your speech."
"One has to have a speech? I thought you just told the young lady what is in your heart and let it go from there?"
"Really. Now where did you hear that?"
"I don't rightly know. But it sounds good to me. Now, Gabe, if you were going to propose to Miss Wade, what would you say?"
Jarrod sat there for a moment and gave it some thought...
Penelope, on second thought, finished crying, dried her eyes and decided not to give her guardian the satisfaction of seeing her in tears. She would go downstairs to the library, collect her book and then take it, looking unconcerned, into the drawing room, where she would sit until it was time to dress for dinner.
She followed her plan until she got to the library door. It was open a crack, and she could hear Gabriel and Michael discussing something inside. Pushing it open a hair more, she heard them talking about her.
"Now, Gabe, if you were going to propose to Miss Wade, what would you say?" Michael asked his brother. There was absolute silence for a couple of minutes, and Penelope found herself holding her breath.
"First, I would bring her a gift. Not just any gift, mind you, but one of such uniqueness, no one could ever top it in originality. It would also have to be something no one else could ever give her. Once I have established my ability to provide the unattainable, I would appear again at an assembly, or a ball, and secure her hand for a waltz. But not just any waltz; it would have to take place on a terrace, or in a garden. The setting has to be just right. Moonlight, flowers... and after I had taken her into my arms, I would..." he paused for a moment, unaware that both members of his audience were hanging on every word.
"Yes?" Michael encouraged, suddenly understanding a great deal more about his brother than he had before. This was no hypothetical situation; this was really the way Gabe planned to propose to his ward. "Wait a minute, Gabe! You cannot possibly propose to Miss Wade! You are her guardian! It's not quite the thing, you know."
"I am all too well acquainted with that fact, Michael," he said rather coldly. "But surely I will not be her guardian forever."
"No," he agreed. "So then... Gabe! Two weeks! Her birthday is in two weeks' time!"
"Yes, I know. I have been counting the days, believe me."
"Well, I'm no poacher, Gabe, and if I had realized..."
"Quite all right, pup, I know you did not realize, and it hasn't done Miss Wade any harm, has it? She turned you down nicely enough. I'm more worried about you."
"Oh, I am fine. She was right; she and I should just be friends. She will make an excellent sister, though," he said slyly.
"Just you keep thinking that, pup," Jarrod growled.
Penelope could not believe her ears! Gabriel was going to propose - on her birthday!
Her heart beat fast and her feet moved even faster as she ran upstairs, rang for a maid and began to dress for dinner.
The sea-green gown she chose was one of Claudette's finest. The gathered bodice and cap sleeves were trimmed in point lace, and a straight, silky skirt fell from the raised waistline to swirl about her feet. The maid carefully dressed her short curls, and the overall effect was feminine and elegant.
She practically flew downstairs, but when she entered the drawing room sedately, Gabriel stood at the door in evening dress and she almost turned around and ran - almost. Only her own sense of self and the knowledge that his proposal was in her future buoyed her enough to make a calm entrance.
"Good evening, Miss Wade," he said politely, although his eyes glowed as he bowed over her hand.
"Lord Jarrod..." She swept past him to greet everyone, and then spent the next half hour chatting amiably with her hosts under the warm gaze of her guardian.
It wasn't until they sat down to dinner, though, and she found herself next to Gabriel, that she finally chose to speak to him.
Under the guise of polite dinner conversation, she apologized for her behavior in the library. For once, he seemed to accept her apology; then he tendered one of his own. Penelope would have been suspect if she hadn't had further knowledge of his intentions, but then he went one step further.
"Your brother says you wish to ride in the park. Might I send Homer over from my stables to be your mount? Harry says you raised him from a colt, and although he is a fine addition to my stable, I believe you both would be much happier if he were here, at your disposal. Actually, he will be yours to keep."
Penelope's eyes shone and her heart melted. Here was her unique gift! He was giving her Homer!
Her sigh was deep, and if she had not been in the dining room surrounded by those she was fast recognizing as her family, she would have kissed him.
She still might, she thought slyly, wondering how she could separate him from everyone else so she could express her love and gratitude in a more intimate manner.
Something of what she was thinking must have been reflected in her eyes, because even as Gabriel covered one of her hands with his, he leaned over and quietly asked her to save her gratitude for a later date.
To his surprise, Penelope only nodded. What did she suspect? What did she know, he wondered. He would worry about that later. This totally feminine impulse to drag him off wherever, however, intrigued him, and did he not have a definite goal to obtain, he would have taken her up on her silent invitation. Two weeks was a damned long time to wait.
The priceless gift of Homer meant a ride in the park, but Penelope was more than willing to pass up that pleasure when she realized the Triumverate was lined up ready to join her.
"Who needs a groom, Miss Wade?" Lord Varney asked smoothly as Penelope came into the drawing room in a black riding habit with white frogging, another Claudette original. "Especially when we are escorting the loveliest lady in town?"
Lord Michael scowled, feeling it his duty now to protect Penelope when Gabe was not present, and even Penelope frowned. The man was too slick and practiced, she thought grimly, but she allowed the three gentlemen to accompany her to the park.
Even as they rode easily down Rotten Row, though, Penelope allowed Michael to pair off with Varney, leaving her with the tongue-tied young Coddington. She did not view him as warily as she did the other man. Coddy reminded her more of Harry than anything, and she treated him as easily as she would her brother. That, unfortunately, was her mistake.
"M-m-might I have a w-w-word with you, Miss Wade?" Coddy stammered. "Shall we dismount?"
Penelope agreed only because she had seen Gabriel ride into the park and she wasn't sure how to greet him. It was becoming difficult to talk to him at all. She was too afraid of giving anything away.
The two strolled down the lane as others rode by, horses by the reins, and when the viscount stopped walking, so did Penelope. She did not see the man on horseback waiting patiently behind them. Coddy's face was contorted as he swallowed nervously several times, and she was much too arrested by his strange grimaces to notice anything else. Quietly, so as not to disturb the moment, the marquess slowly dismounted and stood patiently behind his ward's horse, listening to every word.
"I...I say, Miss Wade, you are a pretty girl and all, and well, my mother has said it is time I found a girl to court, and...and do you think Jarrod would agree...that is...uh..." He fidgeted nervously with the top edge of his cravat. "I should like to pay my addresses to you, Miss Wade, if Jarrod would give his..." He caught sight of the marquess, squeaked and ran for his horse, leaving Penelope to stand alone on the edge of Rotten Row.
Jarrod started when he saw her shake and wipe tears from her eyes, but when she looked up into his green eyes, he could see she was convulsed with laughter.
"That...was the funniest...thing..." she gasped, holding her sides. "I..." She accepted the square of linen he held out, and wiped her eyes. "Thank you," she managed to wheeze. She tried to give his handkerchief back to him, but he waved it away.
"Another proposal like that and I shall have to buy you a box of them."
That set Penelope off again, and when she tried to climb back into Homer's saddle, she slipped and held onto the horn, shaking once more. "Another proposal like that and I will be ripe for Bedlam!" she chuckled.
"Allow me," Jarrod offered, and easily lifted her back onto her mount. He held her steady at her waist until she was secure, and he was glad he had a moment later, when Homer whinnied in protest and took off like a shot, Penelope clinging to the saddle.
"What the-!" Mounting quickly, he took off after her, worried that she had not been able to right herself yet; if she could not, there must be something seriously wrong.
In horror, he watched ahead of him as her saddle came completely off to one side, the same side she sat on the horse, and Homer ran ahead while Penelope and saddle lay on the ground.
"Penelope!" Jarrod made quick work of the space between them, swung out of his own saddle and ran to her side. "Penelope!"
"Ohhh!" she moaned.
"Michael, see if you can't catch Homer!" Jarrod barked at his brother, who had finally noticed Penelope's peril. "Varney, ride back to Rothwell House and order a carriage for Miss Wade!" The two men accepted his orders without protest. "Penelope! Are you all right?" he gingerly checked her for injuries.
"It hurts," she complained, rubbing her hip and shoulder, which had taken the brunt of her fall. Her habit was torn at the shoulder and there was a tear up the side of the skirt, opening to reveal white petticoats underneath when she shifted. He hastily pulled the habit back to cover her.
They sat there, Penelope bruised and battered in his arms, until Michael returned with Homer.
"I wonder what spooked him?" Penelope asked.
"I wonder who spooked him," Michael said grimly, holding up her saddle and showing where the strap had been cut almost completely through. "See, the cut is clean on all but the edge, where it snapped once Homer was set in motion."
Jarrod nodded his agreement. "Someone has noticed Miss Wade's return to town," he said. They waited silently until Lord Varney returned with her grace's barouche, and then Jarrod picked up a protesting Penelope.
"Put your good arm about my neck," he instructed. He kept his face impassive, but Lord Michael stood behind Penelope, a grin threatening to split his face. Penelope was too concerned with her shoulder to notice anything. Once inside the carriage, the marquess kept her on his lap and instructed they be returned to Rothwell House at once. Michael was charged with bringing the saddle and the horses home, and Lord Varney was left to fend for himself, with Penelope's thanks ringing in his ears.
"Obviously, we are going to have to keep an eye on Miss Ward every waking moment," Michael insisted later that afternoon, meeting with his brother and Harry in the library. "We cannot allow her to get hurt again." Penelope had been duly fussed over by her grace and the dowager, a doctor had declared her nothing more than bruised, and she had been put to bed for the rest of the day.
"But what about the sleeping ones?" the marquess wondered.
"Harry can stay with her - that would be proper enough as he will be her guard. She has that blasted dog, too."
"Why can't we just tell Penelope the whole truth and move her to Jarrod House?" Harry wanted to know. "It's not as if you are truly our guardian anymore, Jarrod."
"I know," he said softly, "but to tell Miss Wade of your brother's restoration and recovery at this point will disrupt several plans, including one to expose whomever went out of their way to have Stephen disappear. We cannot take the chance that someone will discover his existence if she were to know differently."
"Why?" Harry wanted to know.
Jarrod ran his hand through his hair and sighed. Part of his continued deception included a reluctance for Penelope to discover his birthday present before her natal day. It also stemmed from a need to be able to continue to stay in close contact with her. He did not doubt her independent nature would insist on her removing herself and Harry from Rothwell House and returning home with their brother before Jarrod was ready for her to leave.
"I do not want anyone remarking on the difference in her actions," was his only reply to Harry, who shrugged and let it go. "Tonight we leave Harry in her room and one of us in the hall, should we be needed," he finally decided. "Michael, you and I will take turns in the hall."
It was easy enough to have Harry guard his sister. Penelope had been uneasy all evening and the duchess had slipped laudanum into her tea, causing her to sleep dreamlessly through most of the night.
Harry, however, was having a difficult time staying awake, and nodded off in his chair about two hours after midnight.
The little man slipping into the bedroom window grinned as he watched the siblings sleep. Yes, he was going to kill two birds with one stone this evening, and earn hisself a hefty bonus from the lady. He made his way stealthily toward the bed, but did not know Lucky was the fortunate canine allowed to sleep at Penelope's feet.
Lucky, alerted when he heard the window open, watched carefully as a strange-smelling figure crossed the room. As he drew nearer to Lucky and his mistress, however, the more the hair rose on the dog's back.
"Nice boy," the man tried to soothe as he got closer, hearing a low growl from the dog's throat.
Lucky wasn't taking any chances. Rising up on the bed he began to bark, rousing Harry, and bringing in Jarrod, who had been seated just outside the door.
The shadowy figure sprinted back for the window, but Lucky was having none of that. He sprang into action and clamped his jaws down on the man's bottom, sending him sprawling. Before the man could get up, he was covered by both Jarrod and the dog.
Jarrod and Harry escorted him from the room, determined to receive some answers, and Penelope slept on, oblivious to everything. Lucky, tail held high, walked proudly back to the bed, jumped up and snuggled down next to his mistress once more.
"Why should I talk, yer lordship?" Ned wondered several hours after dawn, under interrogation in the cellar at Jarrod House.
"Because you've already been identified as the person behind the attacks on Miss Wade," Jarrod said coolly, "and if you tell us more, I am in the position to make your life less miserable then it is about to become."
"Let me give him a douse on the chops!" Michael cried. Harry nodded.
"Let's dress his hide neatly and then hand him over," he added.
"Perhaps I should give you over to these two gentlemen," Jarrod mused. "Would save me the trouble of summoning a constable."
"You don't has nuttin' on me, yer honor!" Ned cried, even as he looked warily at the two younger men. Harry was cracking his knuckles.
"I have a witness that places you at the attack in the alley behind the brothel... and I have a dog that will identify you in a heartbeat."
"Dog, pah!" Ned spit out.
"I could arrange for that dog to sit guard over you for a couple of days," Jarrod offered.
"No, no, no," Ned pleaded. "Not the dog! It was her ladyship's idea, anyways..."
"Let's have that discussion now, shall we?" Jarrod said grimly.
Penelope woke with a headache that morning, in addition to her bruised muscles, and was rather confused to find Lucky curled up close to her back instead of sleeping on the floor at her feet.
She had the nagging feeling she had missed something the night before. The last thing she remembered was feeling like Homer had run over her, and the duchess bringing her a cup of tea.
There was a knock at the door and a maid brought in a cup of chocolate and a roll.
"Her grace says for you to stay in bed if you wish, miss, but a Lord Varney is in the drawing room, asking after your health."
"I suppose I had better get up then, before I harden in this position." She and the maid, who was rather shy and sweet, laughed together and set about perfecting Penelope's toilette.
"Good day," she called as she walked rather stiffly into the drawing room, wearing the simple sprigged muslin that was easily her favorite gown. "Lord Varney..." She extended her hand and the duchess and dowager exchanged glances as the military man bowed over it.
"I hope you were not seriously injured yesterday, Miss Wade," he said. Producing a posy of violets, he gave them to her.
"Hmmm," Penelope murmured as she buried her nose in their sweetness. "I like violets." She made a mental note to tell Gabriel she liked violets as well as roses. "And I am still sore today, my lord, but I believe I will recover."
"That is good news, Miss Wade. Is there...that is... is it possible that I could speak with you alone?"
Penelope eyed him with some dismay. Not again, she almost wailed. However, she was polite enough, and when the dowager and duchess quit the room under the flimsiest of excuses, she turned to Lord Varney with a fixed smile.
Out in the hall, the duchess sagged against her mother-in-law with relief as Jarrod strode toward them.
"Oh, Jarrod! Just in time!" she cried. "Penelope... stop... Varney... proposal..."
"She's trying to say Varney is in there proposing to Penelope, and she thinks you should stop him!" his grandmother said.
"I wouldn't dream of interrupting a proposal," Jarrod said with mock severity. "A girl should get as many under her belt as possible." 'Until the best one comes along...'
"Run along, mother. I will take it from here. I have much faith in Miss Wade, and if for some reason she accepts, her guardian still has the final say."
The duchess was much relieved, knowing her son to be the guardian in question.
Amusement warring with irritation, Jarrod went down the hall to the music room, which opened into the drawing room from behind a painted Chinese screen. He opened the door discreetly, pulled up a chair and settled down to hear the latest in a series of proposals being made to his future marchioness.
"I have been an admirer of yours for some time," Varney was saying.
"Yes... I am aware of that," Penelope said rather rudely. Not only was Varney on one knee in front of her, but he had kept her standing, and her body ached. Not waiting for his reply, she decided to sit down on a sofa several paces away, leaving him to crawl after her.
Penelope rolled her eyes. His lordship would have looked a lot less foolish had he risen, walked over to her and repositioned himself on that knee again.
Behind the screen, Jarrod could hear a strange swishing sound, and he was bursting with curiosity.
"Miss Wade, I would very much like leave to pay my addresses to you."
"Really? I'm afraid you will have to petition my guardian for that right. I'm a helpless female dependent on her male protectors..."
Varney made a rude comment under his breath, but instead of being offended, Penelope only laughed. "Can you not do better than that, my lord?" She repeated an expression that made his hair curl, and then laughed with delight when he blushed.
"I am serious, Miss Wade!" he protested.
"And I am not." She rose from the sofa and began to pace near the Chinese screen.
"But it would be a good match!"
"For whom?" she wondered. "Me? No, I think not. I am not particularly fond of marriages where the husband is totally in charge and the wife has no say in any matter. I do not approve of marriages where the wife has absolute power and her husband is constantly under cat's paw. I want a marriage where the husband and wife have equal say in everything - everything of importance, that is. Where a healthy argument produces a healthy compromise. Where there is much love and affection between the two partners." Her voice had dropped to a soft whisper. "And I know of only one gentleman able to give me that life," she added. "So that settles it," she said briskly. "I thank you for the kind offer, sir, but I do not believe we will suit. Good day." She was pleased to note Gabriel was nowhere in sight for this proposal.
She strode from the room before Lord Varney could reply, and she did not see him take the bouquet of violets and rip them to shreds before storming from the house.
Jarrod, from a vantage point down the hall, saw the man leave, and wondered what men scorned did for revenge.
He did not have long to wait for Lord Varney's revenge. The duke and duchess were to escort Penelope to Lady Smythson's musicale that next evening, to be met there by their younger son and Harry.
"What a waste," Harry murmured to Michael as they waited for their family to appear. "We could be at Jarrod House blowing clouds with Stephen and fortifying him with port to get his strength back."
Lord Michael shook his head. "You know what Gabe said the last time we did that..."
"Oh." Harry shuddered as he recalled the cold fury that was his former guardian. "I would not like that to be inflicted on my person," he admitted. Lord Michael agreed. What Gabe had proposed to do to them should they corrupt Stephen's recovery did not bear repeating.
Oddly enough, that same threat had not worked on Slippery Ned the other morning. Only the threat of Lucky had seemed to turn the tide. Now they had hard evidence against Lady Wade, and he was waiting eagerly for them to put their plan into action. Gabe had said it would be soon.
"Lord Varney does not look pleased to be here tonight," Harry noted as that gentleman came into Lady Smythson's drawing room. "He has been remarkedly absent from Rothwell House since Penelope's accident."
"But he seems to have zeroed in on the lady now," Lord Michael added, watching as Varney made straight for Penelope. "I wonder where they are going?"
The two young men watched as Varney and Penelope strolled off into another room, where refreshments had been laid out for the guests.
"Should we alert Jarrod?" Harry wondered.
"Not just yet," Lord Michael advised. "Let the man have his say. Perhaps he is tendering a proposal..."
"Ahhh, then it would not do to interrupt the blistering set-down Penelope is sure to give him. I don't believe she likes him above half."
"I wish to apologize, Miss Wade, for springing my proposal on you in such a havey-cavey manner yesterday. Please accept my apology."
"Accepted," Penelope agreed.
"But I would tell you of something important while we are alone, Miss Wade, and I do not know how to say it, as it concerns your guardian, Lord Jarrod."
"Believe me, Miss Wade, I do not say this lightly..."
"Pray continue." She was curious to hear what he would say.
"As you are well aware, Jarrod has long worked with Whitehall in the recovery of soldiers missing in battle, trying to account for those we could not confirm as dead or injured."
Penelope did not know this, but it did not surprise her. Especially after the guilt he had displayed over Stephen's disappearance. She nodded, allowing him to continue.
"Last spring, we were visited by Lady Wade, your stepmother, I believe, looking for information on your late brother."
"Oh?" Penelope knew it well; it had been she who had visited Whitehall that day.
"Yes. By coincidence, Jarrod was in my office that day, when word came that she had called. He and I discussed how your brother had vanished off the face of the earth, and then he ordered the case closed."
Penelope gasped. "He can do that?"
Varney nodded. "He is in charge of the project to account for these men, so I imagine he can do whatever he wishes. The fact remains, though - Jarrod ordered your brother's case closed, just when there was hope he might be found."
"I don't believe it!" Staggered, Penelope groped for a chair and sat down. "I...I thank you for that information, my lord."
"Can I get you something to drink, Miss Wade? You do not look well," he said somewhat insincerely.
She waved him away and Varney, with a smug smile on his face, bowed and left her to her thoughts in the refreshment room.
Lord Michael and Harry came rushing in, immediately concerned as they took in Penelope's pale face. Without question, they made her excuses to their hostess and the duchess, giving her recent accident as a reason for leaving, and bundled her into the Rothwell carriage.
Penelope allowed them to move her about like a large rag doll, the implications of Varney's tale vivid in her mind. Jarrod ordering the case closed at the time of her arrival in London was no coincidence. Was it possible he had lied when he said he had been consumed by guilt over Stephen's death? For the thousandth time since she had met him, Penelope's extra sense failed her when it came to her guardian.
He was going to hear about this!
Penelope got her chance to confront the marquess when they returned to Rothwell House.
"Master Gabriel is in the billiard room, Master Michael," the butler told his employer's son as they entered the house.
"I need to speak to him," she told Lord Michael and Harry. "You two run along to your club, or wherever you are headed this evening. I wish to speak to him alone."
The two gentlemen resisted the urge to nudge each other and wink suggestively, but nodded and excused themselves as quickly as possible.
Penelope walked slowly into the billiard room, where her guardian was reading a book, a cigar and a glass of claret at his elbow.
"Care to join me?" he asked. When she nodded, he lit a small, thin cigar for her and poured her a glass of wine. She settled down on a sofa opposite Jarrod, took a sip and blew a cloud.
"I missed you this evening at Lady Smythson's. It was deadly dull without you there..." she all but purred.
He glanced warily at her over the rim of his glass.
"I believe you had sufficient entertainment in our brothers."
"Not for the type of entertainment I'm thinking of now..."
"Penelope? Are you feverish?" He stood up and leaned over, putting a hand on her forehead. "You feel flushed. Perhaps you are trying to do too much too soon?"
"I think this is a case of too little, too late, my lord," she hissed, jumping to her feet and rounding on him like a tiger. "Do you deny closing my brother's case at Whitehall at the same time I was making enquiries into his existence?"
"I do not deny that," he said stiffly, knowing all too well whom would have been responsible for giving her this information. Revenge, indeed.
"I don't believe this!" she railed. "I thought you felt guilt over his disappearance! I thought you were doing everything in your power to locate him. I thought... I don't what to think anymore! This entire time you had his case closed and were sitting back, leading me on, making me believe... Ooooh! I thought I loved you! I thought... You don't even want to know what I think right now! I..." She continued in this vein for some minutes, punctuating her tirade with strings of unmentionable words and phrases.
Jarrod stood by and let her. It would be so easy to take her in his arms and offer an explanation, but he could not, not when word of Stephen's existence might get back to Lady Wade and tip her hand. He would have gladly revealed her brother's existence but for that fact.
"I hate you!" she finally screeched and threw her claret in his face. "Now get out of my sight!" she demanded. "I never want to see you again!" She was hanged if she was leaving first. She lived there, he did not.
With a heavy heart and no reply to her accusations, he left the room and the house.
Penelope sat down on the sofa once more, and cried.
With a week to go until her birthday, Penelope threw herself into plans for the ball. No task was too large or too small, however, to keep her mind off Jarrod's perfidy. Of all the things he had done to her - and there had been plenty - this is the one that put Pen in a bad loaf. How the devil was she supposed to love him now, when she hated him so much?
Fortunately, Jarrod was avoiding her. Only once did they find themselves in a room together. Penelope had sat down for breakfast one morning, with the duke for company, only to hear the marquess announced. She excused herself immediately, even as a footman served her a cup of tea and a brioche; she was never so glad to see luncheon served later that day in all her life.
To their credit, both Lord Michael and Harry tried to help. Unaware of the particulars, only knowing that the two had been in another altercation, they spent several days trying to cheer Penelope. For their pains, Harry received a kick in the shin and Michael was threatened with Penelope's fives.
By the day of the ball, Penelope's bad humor had begun to fray even the duchess's nerves, and she found herself armed with solitary tasks that did not require supervision. She was in the music room that afternoon, cleaning harp strings, a large pinafore tied about her day dress of pale blue muslin, when Jarrod came in.
"What do you want?" Her tone was surly and she plucked a string, making a sour note.
"I wish to talk to you. First of all, happy birthday, Miss Wade, and many happy returns this day." Jarrod looked immaculate in a bottle green coat, tan inexpressibles and a snowy white cravat, whereas Penelope felt hot and dowdy next to him, her hair about her face and dirt smudges on her cheeks. She didn't know the marquess found her absolutely adorable.
Penelope said something insulting under her breath and continued running her cloth along the harp strings.
"I wish to present your birthday present before the ball, Miss Wade," he continued, as if she had not said a word, "but first, a few explanations. It was not my intention to deliberately conceal your gift from you. I would have given it to you sooner, but it was not my decision to make. You will understand in a moment."
His penitent attitude caught her attention and she ceased dusting.
"But even before that, I have a confession to make. It is one I want to make now, because it will either clear the air between us somewhat or make it worse, but I cannot, in all conscience, continue without an admission."
Jarrod, who was still standing, began to pace back and forth in front of the pianoforte. "When you were masquerading as Mr. Wade, I thought you to be an adventuress of the worst sort."
"Oh? Really...I had not noticed," she grumbled.
He laughed, but it was not a humorous sound. "You don't miss a thing! You know damn well, Miss Penelope Wade, how I treated you - like a woman of easy virtue! I was even to the point of offering you a carte blanche when I discovered you were my own ward!"
"You were?" If he thought to anger or frighten her, he was mistaken. She was actually pleased. "I'm flattered," she said. "I thought you were only interested in exposing me as female. What were you going to do?"
"I had a little house in Chelsea lined up for you, as well as servants, and a hefty bank account..."
"And once you realized I was your ward?"
"I canceled the account and found new positions for the servants."
"And the house?"
"The house I signed over to Claudette, so that she might have a place to live and work from while she searched for a shop location," he admitted. "I did not need it, and she did. I told her to consider it an investment from a business partner. My only relationship with Claudette has been one of a true business nature."
"I knew that," she said softly. "You didn't need the house? Why not? You could always find yourself another mistress..."
"At that point I knew there were not going to be any more mistresses, Penelope."
She did not miss his use of her Christian name. "I see... Gabriel. Is this your only confession?"
"No. I wish to clear the air on the matter of your brother Stephen. It is true that I officially closed the case, but only because you were becoming too inquisitive, and I did not wish my private investigations to be compromised. Even before you came to London, Michael was in Belgium, ferreting out soldiers who had been left behind for one reason or another, all the while trying to locate your brother."
Penelope gasped. "Is this true?"
"Ask Michael if you do not believe me, and at this point, I would not blame you for not trusting my word. I can in all honesty say I have bungled and mismanaged this entire situation from the moment I met you. But yes, I have been searching for your brother for months. When you thought Michael and Harry were in Scotland, I had them on the continent... I did not like deceiving you, but the fewer people who knew everything, the better. Especially when... No, I will take you to your present now, and then answer more questions later. I am not the only one with answers, as you will see. Will you come with me?"
A curious Penelope ripped off the pinafore and threw it over the harp before taking his offered arm.
"I believe you will find this present to be unique, and at a price far above rubies," he quoted.
A unique gift? She stopped before they reached the connecting doors between the music and the drawing rooms. "This is my unique gift? I thought that was Homer!"
Jarrod looked down in surprise and his eyes narrowed in thought. "You knew?"
"Well..." Penelope actually blushed, and urged him forward once more. "I had come back downstairs that day to apologize and, er, the door was open, and - and you have been known to eavesdrop on me!" she insisted. "You overheard your brother's proposal, and Coddy's, too!"
"And Varney's," he admitted.
"What? There was no way in..." They had reached the doorway, and when Penelope saw the screen, she realized how he had managed to listen to that third proposal, and started to laugh.
"I always enjoy hearing you laugh, Penelope, my love," a familiar voice said from the drawing room.
"STEPHEN!" Penelope shrieked. Dashing around the screen, she found her elder brother seated on the sofa, and threw herself into his arms. "Stephen!" she repeated, and promptly burst into tears. "Where have you... I knew you weren't... I've missed you so much!"
Penelope never realized there were other people present in the drawing room, but it was a moot point, as the marquess ushered everyone out, leaving her alone with her brother.
"Shhh! It's all right now, Pen, it's all right," he soothed, stroking her hair as she sobbed quietly on his coat.
"Oh, Stephen! It has been too long! What happened? I've been so worried... And Harry knowing these last few months! Imagine that!" Stephen chuckled.
"Probably the first time in the lad's life he has been able to keep a secret!"
"But where have you been? Have you been in London long?"
"I've been at Jarrod House since the end of August. Before that I was at first a captive and then ill, and then recovering in Belgium."
"I was kidnapped, actually, in the midst of the battle. That was why Jarrod was not able to find me. I was held in a barn for a number of months, while my captors negotiated for a ransom. It wasn't until I overheard the order to kill me that I knew I had to escape."
"When was this?" Penelope demanded, knowing the answer before he even spoke.
"I knew it! Stephen, I felt it! I knew you were alive! Who in the world would want you..." Again, she knew the answer to her own question. "Lady Wade!"
"Exactly. It wasn't until I discovered I was to be snuffed out that I heard her name spoken. I don't believe she ever meant to pay ransom - it was all a ruse to get me out of the way. I knew I had to get word to you and Harry, fearing for your lives as well, but after my escape, I fell ill and was unable to send a warning."
"But Stephen, what are we going to do? She can't be allowed to continue, and there is a man out there somewhere who keeps trying to kill me." Stephen frowned.
"Didn't Jarrod tell you what happened? They caught him last week and he has already been transported."
"They did? He was? No one told me..."
"Fools - did they think they were trying to protect you?" Stephen laughed. "Don't any of those clodpoles know you better than that?"
"I suppose not," Penelope said with a smirk.
"But there is one who would like to get to know you better..." he teased. "All through Belgium, all I heard was 'Penelope this' and 'Penelope that,' till Harry and I had to threaten to drown Lord Michael." He watched as his sister's face fell.
"Oh, I've already turned him down," she said, recovering her composure.
"Good for you. He's a nice lad, I grant you, but not exactly your style."
"Oh? Have someone in mind for me, then, oh, guardian?"
"Happy birthday, dear sister," he said with a quick kiss to her forehead. "Which means I am no longer your guardian. You are free to choose where you will. However, should you make the wrong choice..." He left it at that, but she only laughed.
"I don't believe my choice will disappoint you."
"Have one in mind already?" he asked, surprised.
"Perhaps. Now, what are we going to do about Lady Wade?"
"Unfortunately, although there are general plans, we do not know when she will force our hand. We hope it will be tonight. Word has already gone out that I am alive and back in town."
"I'm so glad you are!" Penelope cried, throwing her arms about her brother's neck.
The duchess came in quietly at that point and beamed at the siblings.
"I hate to interrupt, Sir Stephen, but it is time for Penelope to prepare for the ball."
"Of course, your grace."
"Yes, your grace. I shall be up momentarily." Giving her brother another hug, she rose from the sofa and headed for the music room door. "I have to remove my cleaning supplies first," she told her brother and rounded the screen.
The connecting doors were closed, but when she went in for her dust rag and pinafore, Gabriel was seated at the harp, running his fingers down the strings. Her pinafore was lying across his lap.
"Gabriel!" she exclaimed. "You should be preparing for the ball!"
"I could say the same of you," he replied, rising from the instrument.
"I just came in to..." Suddenly shy, she ducked her head and snatched the pinafore from his hand. "I must be going now, or your mother will have my head." She did not see the tender expression on his face.
"Yes?" She refused to look him in the eye, but she allowed him to take her hand.
"Happy birthday. Will you open the ball with me?"
"And will you save the supper dance for me?"
"Good. I will see you later."
Flustered, Penelope ran upstairs and reached her bedchamber before she realized she had not thanked Gabriel for her gift. Her unique gift. The gift she was to receive before his proposal. Would that proposal be tonight at the ball?
Penelope followed the duchess upstairs, where the dowager and a maid waited to assist her in dressing for the ball.
"The gown is going to be perfect," the duchess gushed. The dowager was more interested in hearing about Penelope's reunion with her brother. Penelope gave them both as much attention as she could as she bathed behind a screen, and when she was through, was ushered in her undergarments to the front of a cheval mirror, where the serious dressing could begin.
"This blush silk gown is going to do wonders for your complexion," the duchess remarked as the gown was slid over Penelope's head.
"I wonder what Sir Stephen will do now that he is home?" the dowager asked.
"No, Marie," the duchess said to her French maid. "The curls must be brushed back from the face and held with these." She produced a pair of ivory combs and the maid continued her work.
"I imagine he will have to do something about your stepmother..."
"What do you think - the topazes or the garnets?"
"I suppose young Harry will be heading back to school..."
"Oh! I have some presents for you!" The duchess retrieved a basket from somewhere in the room and brought a pile of tissue-wrapped packages over to the mirror. "These are from all of us..."
The first gift was from Stephen, and it was a string of perfect pearls. A matching bracelet was a present from the duke and duchess. Lord Michael had sent a silver flower holder filled with light pink roses, and Harry, a fan made from the same silk as her dress.
"And these," the duchess added with a smile, "are from Jarrod." She produced roses matching the ones from Lord Michael. They were a tight bud, a half-open rose and a blossom in full bloom.
The story went that a man offered three roses to his lady, and she let him know her feelings for him through her choice. A bud meant she would not consider his suit at all. A half-open rose meant he could hope, and a full-blown rose meant she would seriously consider the gentleman. If the lady wore all three, it was tantamount to accepting an offer.
Penelope was faced with a decision. To wear only the bud, of course, was unthinkable. Even the half-open blossom was less than he deserved. The dilemma was in wearing either the rose in full bloom or wearing all three. In the end, she decided only all three would serve, and she asked Marie to pin them together in her hair, just above one of the ivory combs. The dowager, however, had a better idea.
"Pull the short ends of her hair together at the back, Marie," she commanded, "and then fasten the roses to the nape of her neck. It will give the appearance of longer hair, and will make Jarrod work harder for his answer..." She and the duchess giggled together like schoolgirls, and Penelope rolled her eyes. In the end, she agreed.
An hour later, she came down the grand staircase to join the family in the receiving line, and if she looked for one person waiting there, it was only to be expected.
"Where is Stephen?" she asked Harry when he met her at the bottom of the stairs.
"In the drawing room lying down for the moment. He still tires easily..."
The duchess corralled her into the line at that point, as the guests were arriving, and she stood between the dowager and Gabriel while Harry and Michael went to assist Stephen.
They were all lined up, still greeting guests, when Lord Varney entered the house. Right behind him were Coddy and Lady Juno, and Penelope greeted them all kindly. Then an imp of mischief appeared on her shoulder, and she stayed Lord Varney with a hand.
"My lord, have you met Viscount Coddington and his lovely sister, Lady Juno?"
Juno, not one to pass up an opportunity, pushed her brother aside. "Lord Varney?" she asked politely enough, but with a predatory gleam in her eyes.
"Why, yes, Lady Juno," Penelope sweetly replied. "Worth a fortune," she whispered, thus ensuring Varney's participation in the "Let's Avoid Juno" game for the rest of the evening. Penelope chuckled as they walked off together, Juno's arm holding his in a vise grip as she informed him he was the lucky gentleman chosen as her partner for the first dance.
"Very nicely done, my dear," Gabriel approved. Penelope turned her head back to the next guest in line, exposing the roses to his sight, and she smiled secretly when she heard Gabriel's sharp intake of breath. She just knew tonight was the night for his proposal, and she had every intention of accepting it - she did love him, after all - but that did not mean she wasn't planning on making him work for it. Penelope: 1; Gabriel: 0.
Coddy, however, was hovering nearby, and Penelope was surprised when he took the arm of a very pretty blonde lady in an ice blue gown. He escorted her over to Penelope and introduced her as his cousin, Lady Alyson Blaine. "Her father, my uncle, is the Duke of Wolverton," he said proudly.
Penelope nodded a greeting, as did Gabriel, and then the lady reached Lord Michael. Penelope heard another audible male gasp, but this time it was from Gabriel's brother. Even as she turned back to more guests, she heard him ask the lady for a dance. The guest she turned to face was Lady Wade.
"Good evening, Lady Wade," she said cooly. "I think you remember my former guardian, Lord Jarrod ... But perhaps you have not seen my brother yet." Her fan pointed to a young man further down the line. "Sir Stephen has recently returned to town. Is it not remarkable?"
"Remarkable..." her stepmother agreed, turning pale at the sight of her eldest stepson. She hurried around the people ahead of her, neatly avoiding Penelope's brothers.
"Don't worry about her for now," Gabriel whispered warmly against her neck. "It is time to open the ball."
"With you," she agreed.
"Yes, with me." Tucking her arm up under his, he led her into the ballroom and out onto the floor. At the sight of the couple, the orchestra struck up the opening strains of a waltz. Penelope hesitated.
"But, Gabriel, this is a waltz. One does not open a ball with a waltz."
"Whose birthday is this?" he wanted to know.
"Do you like to waltz..."
"Do you want to waltz with me?"
"Yes, but..." She saw his determined gaze and the curious stares of those waiting for the dancing to begin. Closing her mouth, she stepped into his arms and allowed him to start leading her about the floor. Other couples quickly followed suit.
"Thank you for my birthday present."
"You are very welcome."
Penelope enjoyed the feel of her hand in his, and the way his other hand curled about her waist. There were times, she had to admit, being female was its own reward. As if he sensed her approval, he pulled her slightly closer, earning him a smile.
"People will talk," she teased. One of Jarrod's eyebrows went up in surprise.
"Are you flirting with me, Miss Wade?" he asked, pretending to be affronted.
"Am I?" she asked. "I thought I was only remarking on the situation. People talk, I believe, when all you do is enter a room. I remember the first time I saw you..." Her lips curled up into a dreamy smile. "Lady Markworth's drawing room..."
"I was awful those first few weeks, was I not?"
"Moderately awful, yes," she agreed.
"And now?" he queried playfully.
"Still moderately awful," she replied.
"I beg your pardon?"
"There is nothing wrong with your hearing, my lord." Penelope inched closer and allowed his hand to rest on the small of her back. "However, I have reason to believe you will reform in the future. The very near future."
He grinned. "You have been listening to idle gossip, Miss Wade."
"Oh, no," Penelope protested. "I heard it straight from the, er, horse's mouth."
"The horse, hmmm?" Without giving her warning, he pulled her even tighter and they were dancing scandalously close to each other. "Now people are really beginning to talk," he noticed. All around them, heads were together, whispering. "I say, let them..." Penelope: 1; Gabriel: 1.
The waltz ended soon afterward, and Penelope was in demand all evening. She was not sufficiently diverted enough, however, not to know where Lady Wade was at all times, and noticed that Lord Michael was making a rather conspicuous cake of himself over Lady Alyson.
The supper dance finally arrived, and Penelope was disappointed when the orchestra began to play a quadrille. She wanted another waltz. Gabriel came to collect her from a circle of admirers, and she decided a half loaf was better than none. However, he steered her not toward the dancers, but out onto the terrace.
Her heart began to beat wildly, and her mouth went dry. Merciful heavens - it was time! She thought she was prepared for this, was going to be able to make a cool, confident answer to his most important question, and here she was, sweating profusely and barely able to contain her excitement. She shivered deliciously when he backed her up to the edge of the terrace and put an arm about her waist.
"I believe you know why we are out here, Penelope..." He gave a little laugh. "If it helps, my love, I feel as nervous as you look!"
"My love?" she croaked.
Gabriel moved in closer. "Aren't you?" he whispered against her lips. He bent to kiss her, barely touching mouths, when there was a click behind him and he stiffened in surprise.
"You'll find her good enough to dally with, my lord," Lady Wade sneered, "but she's no lady." Penelope gasped and peeked around Gabriel's shoulder to see her stepmother standing there, a gun trained on his back.
"She spent the better part of last season masquerading as a young man, you know. Very indecent of her, I think."
"She is none of your concern," Gabriel said through gritted teeth, still standing in front of Penelope.
"I beg to differ, my lord ... And I believe I could shoot now and put a bullet right through the both of you," Lady Wade noted. "It would take care of one of my horrid stepchildren, and her misguided lover, and I can put the gun down and disappear. Everyone will think one of your rejected swains has killed you both in a fit of jealousy," she added, clearly delighted with that thought. "Stephen eluded me in Belgium, but he will not be so heavily guarded with Jarrod dead..."
Gabriel still stood with his back to Lady Wade, protecting Penelope with his body. He looked down at his coat and then to her hand several times, and she smiled as brightly as she could before reaching into his pocket and retrieving a small pistol.
"When I give the word," he whispered, "I'll jump aside and you shoot her. Aim for the arm holding the gun."
Penelope nodded and tensed, waiting for his signal. When he gave it, however, loud shots rang from four different directions, and Lady Wade crumpled to a heap on the terrace.
"What?" Peneope cried as Stephen, Michael and Harry all emerged from the shadows, smoking guns in their hands. Gabriel was already on his knees checking Lady Wade for vital signs. He found none.
"Stephen, will you take Penelope inside and see that she gets something to drink? Put her in a private room away from wagging tongues. Michael, take Lady Alyson in through the other terrace door, so as to not place her here, and make it look as if you had spent the entire dance chatting in a corner somewhere. Harry, I trust you can bring a constable in discreetly through the garden gate? Put a footman in front of the terrace doors and don't let anyone else come out."
He turned back to Lady Wade, and Penelope, shaken at what she thought she had done, allowed Stephen to escort her indoors. She almost balked when he took her to the billiard room, but was numb with shock by time he sat her down and handed her a glass of whisky.
"Drink this and stay put. I'll send the dowager in to sit with you, if you wish..."
"No, I am all right now," she said, the alcohol warming her down to her toes. "Did...did I kill her?" She felt she had the right to know.
"I don't know without further inspection, but I doubt it. You were not aiming for anything vital, were you?"
"No," Penelope said in a small voice.
"Then I know you did not kill her." Stephen knew who had, though, and would take that knowledge to the grave.
Two hours and three glasses of whisky later, Gabriel ran Penelope to ground in the billiard room.
"Stephen thought you might have gone to bed," he said, strolling in with his coat over one shoulder, his cravat undone. He threw the coat down on the green baize table and sat down next to Penelope. She had already poured him a glass of liquor, which he downed in one gulp, holding it out for more. She murmured something and obliged.
"Lady Wade?" she asked when he had polished off the second glass of whisky.
"Gone." He would not elaborate.
"I see. I'm glad," she added. "Stephen?"
"Giving his statement even as we speak. Father and Harry are doing the pretty to your guests, and Mother escorted Grandmother upstairs. Michael is somewhere entertaining Lady Alyson," he added with a grin. Penelope gave him an equally pleased smile.
"And us?" he wondered.
"What about us?"
"Where do we stand?" he wanted to know.
"About what, my lord?"
"About us, Penelope. Don't make me go through this again, please..."
"I haven't the faintest..." She rose from the chair and sauntered over to the table, taking his coat and throwing it over a bronze statue of a rearing horse. Taking a stick, she leaned against the table, looking soft and feminine in the candlelight. "Care for a rematch?"
"What are the stakes?"
"Hmmmm, if I win, I get to retire for the evening."
"Penelope!" he cried.
"And if you win..."
"I do not have to finish saying what I had intended on the terrace."
Penelope was enveloped by one of her feelings, and, pleased to know they had not deserted her completely when it came to Gabriel and her heart, she nodded, allowing him to break.
This time, however, she played with a lesson learned in mind, leaning over suggestively while watching him line up shots. Distracted, he missed several, and she gained the advantage.
"Penelope!" he cried at one point as she sat on a stool, whisky in hand.
"Yes?" she purred.
"Can you not put on more clothes?"
"No. Do you wish to concede, my lord Jarrod?"
"No, damn it!" He had to wait, though, because it was still her turn; she didn't miss again. Playing the winning shot, she set the cue down on the table and walked to the door. Turning, she blew him a kiss.
"Good night, Gabriel. You may call on me tomorrow morning. Early," she added with a sweet smile. Turning around again, she walked out the door.
Penelope: 2; Gabriel: 1.
Penelope had won the game of billiards, and the latest round of one-upmanship she figured she and Gabriel would be playing for the rest of their lives.
She, had, however, underestimated her opponent. He had agreed she could retire and retire she did. After all, a bet was a bet. However, he had no constraints over what he did once she retired. And he was not going to wait until morning for his kiss.
There was a little balcony outside her bedchamber window, and Jarrod knew the trellis leading up to it would bear his weight. He quickly slipped through the French windows of the billiard room, ran along the wall, and up the flower strewn trellis, grasping some blooms as he went. He entered the bedchamber before Penelope had even made her way up the stairs and nonchalantly sat in the armchair by her fire.
When Penelope entered the room the first thing she saw was the smiling countenance of her love, as he rose and proffered the lush blooms.
“Oh! However did you manage to beat me here?” she asked.
“When it comes to you, there is no keeping me away.” He strode forward with an intent look on his face, casually tossing the flowers over his shoulder onto the brocade counterpane.
Penelope: 2; Gabriel: 2
“What do you want?” asked Penelope, backing away half-heartedly. She did not feel any compulsion to back up. Every instinct was urging forward action.
“The answer to my question.” Jarrod stood directly in front of her now. So close that it would not take much for Penelope to rest her chin upon his shoulder. “If you do not give me your answer in words, I will simply take it that the flowers speak for themselves, and go on to what comes next.”
“The flowers?” asked Penelope. She could barely breath. The bay rum he wore was teasing her senses.
“The ones at the nape of your neck,” said Jarrod as he reached round to detach them. He dropped them to the floor and kept his hand cradling the back of her head.
“So what does come next, Gabriel?” asked Penelope raising her face to his and parting her lips expectantly.
“This,” said Jarrod tenderly, and he bent to kiss her slowly. At first his lips were as soft as petals upon hers, but then he groaned and pulled her to him, their bodies fusing. His kiss lengthened and deepened, and Penelope responded eagerly, putting her arms around his neck and running her fingers through his dark curls.
Game, set, and match. For life.
Penelope sat up in bed in a cold sweat until she recalled her dream. A warm glow enveloped her, and she trained her eyes about the room, hoping against hope it had been real.
If only, she thought with a sigh. Groaning, she flopped her head back down on the pillow and went back to sleep, where she dreamed of something completely different.
She was seated in a summerhouse, the green trees creating a leafy bower overhead. Lilacs bloomed, roses clambered over every available surface and bees buzzed in the background.
Penelope held a blonde-haired, green-eyed cherub on her lap while another, older tow-headed child played with a menagerie of wooden animals on the floor at her feet.
Gabriel appeared, and the children ran to him to be kissed, hugged and held. She tried to rise from the chaise she lounged on, but, heavy with a third child, she was stayed with a firm, loving hand...
Daylight streamed into Penelope's bedroom, waking her for the day. She moaned and buried her head.
"Gabriel!" she cried a moment later. Springing up from the bed, she rang for a maid and then set about preparing for her proposal.
She rejected three different gowns before settling on her favorite sprigged muslin. The maid arrived in time to wind a blue ribbon through her short hair. Penelope sipped tea and nibbled a bun while the girl worked. She was much too nervous, though, to eat much of anything.
"A visitor for you in the drawing room, Miss," a footman said as she came downstairs. Penelope fairly flew into the room, only to be met by Stephen and Harry.
"Stephen! Should you be out and about this early?"
"Did you have to demand a proposal so early?" Harry replied.
"What does that have to do with you?" Penelope sat down next to Stephen and took his hand in hers. She felt a need for physical contact with this brother, as if he would disappear if she as much as let him go.
"Didn't you know? We're here to give our blessing," Stephen said.
"Oh, really ... do you feel that is necessary?"
"We do not," Harry said bluntly. "However, we have been commanded to do so. I think it's a waste of time."
"Oh? How so?" Penelope's eyes narrowed dangerously.
"You know, Pen - you practically lived in each others' pockets when we were in Town last spring. This is a mere formality..."
"What is this?" Stephen wanted to know. By mutual consent, no one had yet told Stephen that Penelope's ploy to bring him home had included her masquerade as a young man.
"I shall tell you later," Harry said. Penelope breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing must mar what she hoped to be the most perfect of days.
"I have one question, though," she said. "Actually, two. First, why ever was our stepmother trying to put periods to our existence?"
"The terms of father's will state that in the event his children are deceased before his wife, she would receive the entire estate - none of it was entailed."
"But why wait until now?"
"She was receiving enough money at the time from your guardian. It wasn't until you arrived in London that she decided something needed to be done before Jarrod discovered the truth. Also, she knew I was still at large, and still a danger to her plans. Question number two?"
"Where is Jarrod?"
Harry laughed at his sister's insistent question. "I know the answer to that one, Pen! Try the..."
"... Billiard room," she finished with a grin. "I think I shall." She rose, bent over to kiss both her brothers' cheeks, and then fairly skipped out of the room.
The door to the billiard room was open, but Gabriel was not to be found. A cigar sat smoking in a dish and a billiard cue lay across the table, giving the appearance that he had just been there. A door at the far end of the room was ajar, and she walked swiftly across the room and peeked around the corner to discover ... a back entrance to the library.
She entered, facing the sofa Gabriel had reclined on the day he overheard Michael's proposal. A book lay facedown on the leather seat, and she picked it up and read the title. "Taming of the Shrew." Well! Tossing the book back down, she was starting to get annoyed. The main door to the library was open, though, and she being curious, and determined to find Gabriel, went through it and out into the hall.
No clues in the hall, she thought, looking about. One end led to the main hall and the drawing rooms. The other opened up to the breakfast parlor and dining room. The only other thing she could see were - rose petals?
A little path of petals, already being tidied by an industrious maid, led to the breakfast parlor. Stepping over the maid, she raced to the sunny little room that led to the duchess's gardens. As she suspected, the petals led out through French doors.
The October wind was chilly, and she wished she had brought a shawl as she stood among swirling leaves and rose petals, wondering where to head next. A fluttering above caught her attention, and she inhaled sharply. The curtains blowing wildly were from her own bedchamber - this was just like her dream!
There was only one way to go, she thought with a shrug. Up. Not exactly dressed for climbing, she bravely attempted it anyway, putting her thinly-slippered feet into the trellis and holding her gown up about her knees. Muttering about the things she was prepared to do for the man she loved, she finally reached the top and fell face-first into her room with a thud.
Picking herself up off the plum and blue Axminster rug, she saw no one in the room, not even Lucky, who was usually found curled up in front of the fire. On the bed were several blossoms, but there were no signs of occupation.
Now she was getting really incensed. Where the hell was Gabriel and her damned proposal? It was just as well he was not in her room - she was tired from her late evening and did not feel up to finding herself in a compromising position on top of everything else.
But where was he?
Stepping out into the upstairs hall, she saw more rose petals, and this time there were no maids to clear them. They led up to the next floor, where she had never been before, and when she reached the top of the stairs, they trailed down a dim hall to a set of slightly open double doors. More blossoms adorned the doorknobs and she gave one a push, opening up to a brightly lit nursery filled with toys.
A rocking horse sat watch in a corner and one wall was almost covered with a doll house that vaguely resembled Jarrod House. It was open, and the little people had been moved about, and she wondered who had recently played with it. Upon further inspection, she noticed the people inside were a family: Mother, father, several children and a little dog. A gray-haired couple played with the children in the nursery, the dog was in the miniscule garden, and a gentleman and lady were seated side by side in front of the library fire. Charming, but what did it mean?
"I didn't think you played with dolls," Gabriel said softly from directly above her. Penelope did not turn around, but she visibly relaxed.
"I played with dolls when I was younger," she admitted, "until I found horses and pistols to be much more interesting. However, I have always found doll houses appealing. Someone else must, as well. This house has been played with recently." Moving over, she patted the floor at her side. "Won't you join me?"
Gabriel settled down at her side and began to pick up the dolls. "See the grandparents? You would never know they were among the most prominent aristocrats in the land. They actually play with their grandchildren, as they did with their own two sons, many years ago."
"I suppose this gentleman here, then, is their son?" She picked up the man sitting in the library. "The one who reads 'Taming of the Shrew'?"
"I don't believe he ever read it - he just leaves it around so people will think his wife is under his thumb, instead of him being wrapped around her little finger."
"I see ... he is something of a jokester, then, I take it."
Penelope rose gracefully from the floor. "Then I think Lord Michael and his wife will be very happy together, don't you?"
"What? Where did you get the impression this was Michael?!"
"You said the gentleman was a jokester..."
"I had someone else in mind."
"Oh. I see." Hiding a grin, she sat down again and went back to rearranging the dolls. "I like the children. There seem to be three of them."
"For the moment. I could not find any more, else the nursery would be more populated."
Penelope laughed. "I hope for the lady's sake some of these are twins."
"Speaking of the lady," Gabriel said softly in her ear, "I like to think she is modeled after you."
"Me? You flatter me, my lord."
"Not at all! See her little gown? No one knows it, but it hides a knife in her shoe, a pistol in her pocket and a pair of dice in her bodice."
"And she is allowed all these things, even after being married and bearing her husband a houseful of children?"
"Her husband would put up with elephants in the garden, breeches when she rides astride and entertaining courtesans-turned-modistes at dinner, if it made her happy and kept her by his side for the rest of his life."
"Lucky lady." Penelope set the doll down and leaned back, her arms behind her, supporting her torso. "Would that I could be so lucky..."
"You could." Gabriel leaned with her and took her in his arms, supporting her body so that she might wrap her arms about his neck, which she did. "All you have to say is yes."
"Yes to what, though? For all I know, I could be agreeing to polishing your boots every day for the next year! You have to say the words, Gabriel," she whispered, pulling herself up until they were face to face, lips to lips. "Say them, my love, and I will be yours."
He lowered her down to the floor, cradling her head in his hand. "Penelope, will you marry me?"
"Why should I?"
"Penelope," he groaned, "you are not making this any easier..."
"Why should I?" she repeated, an impish grin lighting her face.
"Penelope, I am deeply and hopelessly in love with you - I have been almost from the start. I think about the first time I saw your hands and all I can think is how they will feel caressing me at night..."
"Very nice beginning..." she said clinically.
"Penelope," he said with another groan. "I want to argue with you all day and make love with you all night, and still you torture me..."
"Yes, I am torturing you. Yes, I love you, too. Yes, I'll marry you... Is that enough consent for you, my love?"
Gabriel's reply was to kiss her, and she figured if he needed more affirmations, she would give them to him later, and every day for the rest of their lives.
Epilogue (three years later)
The Marquess and Marchioness of Jarrod were enjoying a leisurely drive through Hyde Park at the fashionable hour. It was late spring, the sky was bright and the weather was mild.
Penelope smiled at her husband and then at two-year-old Lord Peter Roth, their blonde, sunny cherub, and put her hand in Gabriel's. It was hard to believe it had been three years since she had married her former guardian. It was such a wonderful life, she hardly thought it real.
Stephen had made a full recovery, and he and Harry were working together to keep Oak Hill for the next generation, although neither of them had yet married. Lord Michael, as had been expected, had married Lady Alyson, and was the proud father of an infant son.
Penelope returned her thoughts to the present and focused once more on her own son. Lord Peter was more interested in the small wooden toy he held in his chubby hands than he was in the looks and touches exchanged by his parents, and amused himself by making animal noises under his breath.
The open carriage stopped to acknowledge Lady Jersey and several other patronesses of Almack's, but Lord Peter ignored the ladies gushing over his light curls and dimples. He had heard it all before. Mama spoke like that all the time, as did his grandmothers, and even his uncles. Only his father and his grandfather talked to him in a sane manner.
"I understand there will be another one in the nursery soon," Lady Jersey said, although it was plain to all present that the marchioness should already be in confinement. Penelope only shrugged. She had refused to stay indoors the last few months of carrying Peter, and she would do the same with this one, regardless of what anyone thought. Gabriel, of course, had sided with her.
"I vow, Jarrod, that little angel looks just like you must have at that age!" Lady Cowper exclaimed. They all agreed the child was the spitting image of his father and watched as the little boy dropped his wooden animal in the bottom of the carriage.
"Bloody hell!" the cherub exclaimed even as he dived for his toy.
The patronesses turned several shades of crimson, his little lordship was too busy searching for the plaything to care about anything else, and Penelope and Gabriel looked at each other and then roared with laughter.
"Oh, I believe our 'little angel,' as you call him," Gabriel said when he could catch his breath, "takes very much after his mother!"
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