"Let go!" The girl - young lady, actually - who had been set upon by three larger lads, was fighting to retain the basket they were trying to take from her. "That's mine!"
"Not no more," one of the boys said, giving a final tug and relieving her arm of its burden. Samantha growled and grabbed the handle, intent on its ownership.
"I believe the lady said the basket belongs to her," a deep, masculine voice interrupted. Samantha let go and looked up into the face of a handsome gentleman.
He was not overly tall, but he had kind eyes and dark, curling hair that nestled a fashionable beaver hat. His coat was gray, like his eyes, and he daringly sported a ruby in his starched white neckcloth, something most would not dare do in this part of town. Yes, definitely a gentleman, in looks as well as action.
Not that she had seen many gentlemen. Her father was the vicar of a poor East London parish that catered mostly to elderly women. The parish was so destitute, in fact, most services were conducted in the parlor of their small house, attached to one side of St. Matthew's, because the old ladies complained of the lack of heat in the cavernous sanctuary.
Samantha gawked at the man, much like the boys were doing, and she was as amazed as they when he insisted they hand over the basket. They complied.
"Run along with you," he said coldly. The boys disappeared more quickly than her household allowance at the market. The gentleman indicated his carriage. "May I offer you a ride to wherever you are headed, miss?"
Samantha gasped. He had saved her only to offer her... whatever! "No, thank you," came her stiff reply. "I am not far..." She waved vaguely in the opposite direction of her home, thinking to make her escape. Unfortunately, the gentleman still held her basket.
"I do not like the idea of those lads coming back for your..." He lifted the basket's cloth covering and found two small eggs, a length of sausage and an apple. "...Your dinner."
Samantha almost choked. That basket held dinner and breakfast. "Thank you again for your assistance, but I shall be fine now,” she assured him.
The gentleman knew what direction she had been heading, but could see she was uncomfortable in his presence and did not make an issue of it. He had no intention other than to rescue her from those boys, after all, but had not missed the cultured tone of her voice, so out of place in this part of town. Checking his watch - the meeting at the charity hospital had gone on longer than planned - he nodded, wished her a safe trip home and walked on.
Samantha waited until he was out of sight before scurrying home, not realizing he had sent a young footman to see where she lived.
There was no time that week to dream about tall gentlemen with curly hair and gray eyes who rescued damsels in distress, just as there was no time to dream about anything not connected with cleaning house, keeping her father fed with what little they could afford and ensuring everything was ready for the Sunday morning service.
If her mother had just made amends with her family after running off with a dancing master at age seventeen, Samantha might have been able to afford a few dreams. But the former Lady Vanessa had ended up married to a kindly, older vicar, with a daughter born more than a year later, and had forbidden her husband - and in later years, her daughter, as well - to discuss that side of the family.
On Sunday, the old ladies gathered in the parlor as usual, and Samantha was collecting their meager tithes when there was a commotion at the door. She looked up from where she was holding the basket in front of Mrs. Bledsoe as her rescuer strolled in the room, bleary eyed and wearing evening dress, as if he had not yet gone to bed.
"There you are, little lady!" he said, his slurred words accompanied by the reek of strong drink.
A few of the women gasped, but most of them tittered and declared Miss Howard had a "rum one" coming to services, giggling at their own joke.
"Yes, er, well..." The vicar was at a loss for words, not quite connecting the gentleman's appearance with his own daughter.
"He was just leaving, Papa," Samantha said over the whispers and nudges.
"But Mary, God's house is open to all," her father said in some confusion, calling her by her hated first name.
The gentleman nodded vigorously, rooted to the spot and clearly enjoying the attention. "That's right, Mary. Especially sinners."
"Not this sinner!" she insisted, pinching his arm and using his surprised yelp as the impetus to shove him out of the parlor. "How dare you go in there smelling of liquor!" she hissed as they went into the hall.
"But the old man in the sant... the sanch... the church said services were in here." He swayed toward her. "Don't I need sav...san... sal... saving?"
"You need to go home and sleep it off!"
"Some gras...graf... grat... help you are!" he said with a pout. "I save your dinner and you won't save my soul?"
"Only God can do that - check with your local clergyman at St. George's or wherever you go to pray. If you pray. I'm sure he will tell you to contribute some money and then you can go your merry, dissipated way." She shoved him toward the front door, a militant gleam in her brown eyes.
"But I want to confess all, here and now," he insisted.
"Repent on your own time, sir." With those words, she pushed him out the door and onto the street, the lock clicking in place with an audible snick. She watched from behind a window covered in threadbare hangings as he picked himself up out of the mud and lurched off.
It wasn't until later that day she discovered someone had filled the church's poor box with a large handful of gold sovereigns.
The gentleman's drunken appearance went a long way to curing Miss Mary Samantha Agnes Howard of her daydreams, so much so that when she became an orphan less than a month later, she no longer harbored a wish that he would return and sweep her off her feet.
There was no time for such wishes, really, what with selling off as many of her father's possessions as she could and trying to find a position as a governess. The woman who ran one of the agencies she had applied to, however, had advised her to become a companion.
"You're much too pretty to get hired to teach children, even if your knowledge is superior to many who come through these doors. Find a nice old lady with a full social life, so you can attract a wealthy husband."
Samantha wasn't so sure about the husband part, but a nice old lady would suit her just fine. Snatching up a copy of the Gazette someone had left in the front of the agency, she went back to the vicarage to look through the advertisements. She had one week before her father's replacement was to arrive.
There was nothing suitable in the paper.
Sending the only servant, Gertie, out the next morning to buy newspapers with funds she could ill afford to squander, she spent the day packing her few belongings and writing to the three positions she found throughout the different newspapers.
The first reply, from a Lady Stanton, came the next afternoon and said the position had already been filled.
The second came the morning after that, in the form of a small, harried-looking woman in black who poked about the house like a bird about to take flight, declared Samantha neat enough, but too pretty to suit her mother-in-law, and left.
Three days later, on the eve of her removal from the house, a summons came from the Duchess of Halbourne to appear at 3 p.m. that afternoon for an interview.
Samantha pressed her best gown, an old muslin that had seen better days and which had refused to take black dye, leaving it a respectable shade of gray. It would have to do and she did not want to appear too much to advantage. Companions were supposed to fade into the background.
Her brown bonnet and cloak, and a pair of York tan gloves that had belonged to her mother, rounded out her ensemble, but at least the cloak was warm and whole, and the bonnet trimmed in a scrap of velvet the year before.
Halbourne House was grand, in a fashionable part of town, and Samantha did not worry about not being able to find a hackney to take her home. A white-haired butler let her in with a rather shocked expression on his face, but he quickly schooled his features and admitted her to the house, saying the duchess was expecting her. After leading her down a long hall, he entered the doorway of an elegant gold and cream salon, and announced her.
The duchess, a beautiful woman in her sixth decade, glided forward as if Samantha was a long-lost friend and escorted her to a brocade sofa.
"Tea? I don't usually conduct interviews in here, you must understand, but I am hiring you for a friend of mine, Lady Seawright, who lives in Bath, and she has some very specific requirements."
"Yes, ma'am," Samantha said politely, although she was still in awe of the lady and the surroundings.
"Now, if you will pour out for us, I'll take two lumps, please. Eustacia wants a young lady well-versed in the social niceties, and I have yet to..." The duchess looked closely as Samantha gracefully poured tea and added the sugar. "You are very pretty, Miss Howard." Her face was suddenly pale, as if she had seen a ghost.
Samantha flushed. "I hope that will not be a problem, Your Grace."
The duchess shook her head. "Oh, no. Eustacia wants a pretty chit like yourself. She's had enough of Friday-faced spinsters. Said her friends are tired of them, too. It's just..."
"Nothing. Tell me about yourself, Miss Howard. Who are your parents?"
"My father was a vicar and my mother was a lady, but I do not know her family name. She taught me how to do needlework, draw and play the pianoforte, and my father gave me a well-rounded education..."
"Pianoforte? Will you play something, then?" She indicated the instrument in the corner of the room. Samantha obliged by performing a smattering of her mother's favorite pieces.
The duchess motioned her back to the sofa afterwards, even paler than before, and then all but ran from the room.
Samantha sat in silence, occasionally taking a sip of tea and wondering if she had done something wrong. When the duchess returned, she had two people in tow, an elderly gentleman who took one look at her and broke out into a visible sweat, and a middle-aged lady whose blonde hair was just beginning to go gray.
"Come, Papa, I think you need to lie down..." the woman said to the man.
"No, I would like to meet the young lady..." He approached, and Samantha stood and curtsied. The duchess looked on with approval, but the younger woman scowled. "Come, Papa!" she said sharply. The old man gave Samantha a gentle smile and did as he was told.
"Am I not suitable, then?" Samantha wondered aloud. The other lady seemed to dislike her for some reason.
"You are just perfect, my dear. Will you excuse me once more?" Without waiting for a reply, she left the room again.
"She should move in immediately," the duke insisted to his daughter.
"We don't even know who she is, Papa," Lady Valerie retorted.
"She's obviously a relative," the duchess said, entering the study and shutting the door firmly behind her. "She might even be Vanessa's child," she said in an accusing tone to her daughter. Really, Valerie had become so irritable these past few years, and she used to be such a sweet girl.
"If she is, she is a bastard!" Lady Valerie insisted. "We all know what Vanessa was!"
"Valerie!" the duke barked. "We know no such thing!"
"Did she pass the interview?" his daughter asked, ignoring her father.
"Perfectly." The duchess had not told them about the music. Nor was she going to, for the moment.
"Then I suggest we send her to Lady Seawright without delay and see what we can discover about the girl's past in the meantime." Valerie's smile spoke volumes, as if she expected it to be filled with scandal and squalor.
"I suppose you are right," the duchess said with a sigh. "She will be content with Eustacia until we figure out who she is. When the time comes to declare our kinship, we will know where to find her."
"If we claim her." Lady Valerie said under her breath.
Samantha liked Lady Seawright and she liked Bath. There always seemed to be time in the mornings for walks along the Crescent, just as there was always a maid or a footman available and willing to accompany her. Many times she had protested to the countess that she felt more like a family member and less like a companion, but that lady would smile and call for a shopping expedition.
The diminutive, gray-curled lady, her bright eyes twinkling merrily, had agreed with Samantha that a companion in mourning should wear black, but had insisted her companion must wear fashionable gowns in black. She then had the modiste add touches of white here and there, so that Samantha came off more like Diane de Poitiers instead of a little crow of an employee.
That garnered her attention wherever she went, and she had only been in Bath a month when she received a proposal of marriage. That it was from a handsome young buck she had met in the Pump Room had not hurt his chances, but she had turned him down kindly just the same.
"I don't understand why," Lady Seawright had said that next morning over breakfast. Samantha was calmly eating ham and eggs while the countess read her post, and she shrugged.
"I did not turn him down completely. I merely suggested we get to know each other better. I know a companion lives a precarious life, but..." But she did not love the gentleman, and she did not feel the need to marry him to escape her current position. If Lady Seawright had been less a friend and more a demanding employer, she would not have been the first young lady to jump at such an offer. Fortunately, she and the countess had taken to each other immediately.
The older lady nodded, even as she scanned the letter in her hand. She suddenly let out a shriek.
The countess started to laugh, and jumped up to give her companion a hug.
"Oh, my dear, I had so hoped it was true! I knew all along that you were being considered... Oh, this is just perfect! You are going to be so happy!"
Samantha was confused. "But I am happy..."
"Oh, nonsense! Who could be so, being a companion to an old lady like me?"
"You are not old!" Indeed, the countess, in her late fifties, was healthy and energetic.
"I like you, child," she happily replied, patting Samantha's cheek. “But we must think of you now. Her Grace is expecting you Tuesday next, so there isn't much time. You'll need some decent traveling clothes, and you must take my best carriage. Oh, dear me, yes!"
"But... her grace? I don't know any duchesses... I don't understand."
"Of course you know a duchess! The Duchess of Halbourne hired you for me. Now I'm sending you back to her."
"She needs a companion?"
"Oh, no! Didn't she tell you?" She gave Samantha an appraising glance. "I suppose she didn't. Valerie would have... Dearest Samantha, I'm so pleased to tell you that you are the granddaughter of the Duke and Duchess of Halbourne!" She announced this with a flourish.
Samantha stared at her. This could not be. Papa was only a poor clergyman, and Mama had been...
"Lady Vanessa, the eldest daughter of their graces," the countess said, as if reading her mind.
That explained some of her mother's past, and the strange behavior of the duchess, Samantha surmised, but it created more questions than it answered. "But Mama never..."
"I know," Lady Seawright said with a sigh. "It was all so very sad. Your father, from what I understand, was not the man she initially ran away with. Thank goodness there is proof that the Rev. Howard was your father. That helps your claim tremendously."
Claim? Samantha let her babble on, a little insulted that her grandparents had her investigated instead of asking her outright for the information. She was upset that they did not accept up front that she was her father's daughter. That would not make her any less their granddaughter. To ensure her legitimacy before acknowledging the connection was degrading.
She ought to refuse their graces, but she was certain the countess would not understand and probably not allow her to remain her companion. Samantha felt trapped. She had to accept the ducal invitation to join the family or find another position. She was never going to find another employer as sweet and generous as the countess, and why should she live in poverty when there was the promise of luxury in her future? She had been poor all her life. Now that she had seen how the other half lived, she did not think anyone could blame her for choosing that option.
"I suppose I had better present myself to her grace," she said aloud, resigned to her fate. The countess broke off her ramblings to stare in amazement at her employee.
"Of course you had! And there is no time to lose." She rang for her servants and began to give orders concerning Miss Howard's luggage, sending a footman for her writing desk to pen a note to the modiste.
"It is not that far to London," Samantha protested. Lady Seawright laughed.
"But you are not going to London. Their graces are to meet you at Vinelands. That is in Devonshire, which will take longer to get to. Oh, dear. We need to buy you some more gloves and stockings, and at least one new bonnet... I've been to Vinelands before - it's quite remote. Not a decent shop in sight, at least not one up to my standards."
Samantha could only sigh and head off to hunt up some cloaks and reticules. When one lived with Lady Seawright, shopping was a way of life.
Samantha left Bath in Lady Seawright's carriage, blessed with a maid and a footman for companionship, assistance and protection, and laden with almost another entire wardrobe.
"I know you are in mourning, my dear, but a few lilac gowns will not go amiss, especially in company."
Samantha had not thought about the duke and duchess - she could not yet bring herself to call them grandpapa and grandmama - having company, and said so.
"They are wealthy and influential," the countess explained in her usual airy manner. "Even if they do not have houseguests, I dare say there will be dinner parties and such..."
Samantha had relented and allowed herself to be fitted for a couple of pale gowns, one in silk for the evening.
The Seawright cook had packed a large hamper for a picnic luncheon for the first day, and arrangements had already been made for overnight stays at what the countess assured her were clean, comfortable inns.
"I shall miss you, my dear," that lady had said, embracing her now former companion as she saw her off on her journey. "But we shall meet again soon enough. Lucinda and I are good friends. You may write to me, if you wish. I should like to know how you are getting on, although I am convinced you will deal famously with your grandparents."
"Yes, ma'am. I would be very happy to write. Thank you for everything," she added, returning the embrace. "The clothes, the carriage, the companions..."
"Think nothing of it, child. Have a good time in Devonshire!"
It was time to leave, and Samantha waved out the window as long as she could, her last sight of her ladyship was that of the countess waving back.
After a long, weary day of riding, Samantha, Jenny the maid and Thomas the footman were all happy to see the Red Lion Inn. The servants had stayed there with her ladyship before, and wasted no time in securing their rooms. The countess had insisted Samantha take a private parlor for her meals, but the innkeeper apologized and said none were available, having already been spoken for.
Samantha assured the servants that a tray in her room would be more than satisfactory, as she was tired, and she headed up the stairs after a chambermaid. Sounds of male laughter reached her ears, but she blocked it out, her head throbbing from the strains of the day.
Jenny assured her that she could lie down while her clothes were retrieved for the next day, and that the maid would bring her food up personally after sponging the wrinkles from her gown.
With a weary sigh, she allowed Jenny to undress her and tuck her in for a short nap while she awaited her meal.
"I must recommend you in my first letter to her ladyship," she said in a small voice as the raucous noise from the taproom and private parlors receded, leaving her to sleep away her headache.
Ryder had spent the last week running from a most persistent widow at a shooting party in Wales, and while he could head home to Devonshire, given his current proximity, he was traveling with a group of friends and they were all going to London. He had planned to return to town, close the house for the winter and spend the holidays with friends. However, he had learned that the widow had been invited to the same holiday house party, so he knew he would have to pass.
His mother and sister had both written, requesting his presence in Devon for the holidays, but he truly hated the old family pile - his father had run it into the ground and Ryder had spent the three years since his death rebuilding the family's fortune. To do so, he had found it easier to be in London, where he could manage his investments in person. Fortunately for him, his mother was intelligent enough to keep up the estate, as much for his sister's sake as his own. It seemed that now, thanks to his own hard work, and that of his mother, and the investments that had come to fruition in the past few months, he could provide Arabella with a decent dowry.
Tonight, however, his mind was not on his family as much as it was on the young lady he had so easily rescued one day a couple of months ago in the east end of London, the one he had so easily (and foolishly) embarrassed not a week later. He knew she was no longer in the miniscule house attached to St. Matthew's. He had gone back to apologize and found her father had died and she had obtained a position somewhere as a companion.
At least he knew her name: Miss Mary Howard. She was one of the reasons he had refused to allow the Merry Widow to catch him this past week. That, and the fact that Mrs. Meredith Dale had not earned her moniker by having buried just one husband. No, she had buried three, all elderly, leaving her most of their wealth. When he learned she was on the prowl and in search of younger prey, he was not surprised when she had appeared at the same house party as himself and two of his friends, Lord Cosmo Villiers and Sir Robert Ainsworth. What had surprised him was her single-minded pursuit of the Earl of Ryder.
Now he sat in a private parlor with Cosmo and Ainsworth, drinking more port than was good for him and discussing the Merry Widow.
"She's hanging out for a title this time," Ainsworth surmised.
"Then why not Lady Cosmo Villiers or Lady Ainsworth?" Ryder wondered.
"No good," Cosmo drawled deprecatingly. "Villiers is the second son of a marquess and Lady Ainsworth would make her a baronet's lady, not a countess. Besides, you have the prettiest face."
"But not the largest fortune, which she would know if she were not blinded by the title," Ryder insisted, ignoring Cosmo's comment.
"If fortune were more important than a title, Ainsworth would win hands down," Cosmo agreed. They all knew a tidy sum had been discovered in the man's stable after his miserly father died. "And anyone who snares old Rob here would have to put up with Lady Healy," he added with a snort. "And she is not about to let him out from under her thumb."
"Caroline isn't controlling, just demanding," Ainsworth said in defense of his sister.
"Same thing," Ryder said with a snort, opening another bottle and pouring more port all around.
"Says the man who hasn't had a mistress in three years," Cosmo teased.
"I could lend you the blunt," Ainsworth offered.
"He don't need it. Seduces the birds right out of the trees whenever he wishes," Cosmo said. "Respectable mamas like him, too."
That Cosmo was as handsome as Ryder and almost as wealthy as Ainsworth did not seem to make a difference with the matchmaking mamas of the Ton. He was a second son, was notorious for refusing to take any young lady seriously and had been known to insult the most influential leaders of society. To their faces. He also had a dragon of a mother whom no one cared to deal with, leaving him virtually unscathed when it came to running the gauntlet of the marriage mart.
"I don't seduce women," Ryder hotly denied.
"Because they all fall so willingly into your arms," Ainsworth teased.
"Just so," Cosmo agreed. "In fact, I'll wager a monkey that the next female that passes in front of our door is a willing participant."
"Not necessarily," Ryder protested once more. "But I'll take that bet. Ainsworth?"
"I'm staying out of this." Hands were shaken between Ryder and Cosmo, but no one made a move to get up and open the parlor door.
"You go, Cosmo - it's your wager," Ainsworth said with a belch.
"Ryder can do it - he's got to charm her anyway," Cosmo said with a pointed look at the earl.
Ryder sighed and opened the door just as a familiar young woman in black came down the hall. Taken by surprise, and suddenly unwilling to involve her in this wager, he slammed the door. "No females out there," he explained when his friends frowned.
"She must be ugly," Cosmo said at once, rising unsteadily to his feet.
"Or fat," Ainsworth chimed in. Joining the earl, they opened the door. A young lady stared back at them, a tray in her hands and her mouth still forming an O of alarm.
"She's pretty!" Cosmo exclaimed. "And not a ladybird or a tavern wench at all."
"Nor is she fat," Ainsworth helpfully added. Ryder tried to block her from their view, but his cronies were having none of it.
"This gentleman could have you at the wave of a hand, pretty lady. Please say you will go upstairs with him and put me out of my misery."
"Cosmo! This is a gently-reared lady!" Ryder exclaimed.
"How do you know?"
"He's had her before?" Ainsworth suggested.
Samantha woke to a darkened room with no Jenny in sight and just one candle burning by the bedside. A tray of food sat on a table nearby. Her stomach growled with hunger and when she rose to investigate, she discovered her dinner was still hot and completely palatable. She quickly demolished roasted beef and potatoes, and a warm fruit pudding, and then waited for Jenny or a chambermaid to retrieve the empty dishes. But when it appeared no one was coming to attend her, she washed up and took the tray downstairs herself.
When she reached the first floor, she almost dropped everything in surprise when a parlor door opened and there stood the gentleman who had saved her in London. He slammed the door before she could speak, and she found herself rooted to the spot until the door opened once more. Now there were three of them. And all three gentlemen were intoxicated, from the sound of them.
To say Samantha was insulted by their words was an understatement. She wasn't surprised at her rescuer's state of inebriation, however - she had seen him this way before.
"I'm sorry to say, sir," she said almost kindly to the blond man, "that someone is going is about to be sorry."
"What?" her previous acquaintance croaked, and Samantha could only infer that he had boasted of his prowess, prompting the wager. His next question clinched it for her. "Not even one little kiss?"
"A kiss! A kiss!" the other men chanted. "Give him a kiss!"
"No, thank you," Samantha said sweetly, picking up a dish of gravy from her tray and tossing the contents into her savior's face. The men paused. "I'd throw my tea at you other two scoundrels," she threatened, "but I fear you are already soaked." She grinned with satisfaction as they all withdrew meekly into their parlor and quietly shut the door.
Setting her tray on the floor, Samantha retreated to her room, suddenly aware of why the countess had sent servants to protect her. A female alone at a strange inn could come to some serious harm! She had to tell a white lie to Jenny later and claim a chambermaid had fetched her dinner tray, but the maid accepted her word and set about preparing them both for bed.
Samantha was like a puppet in her hands, allowing her to undress her and throw a nightdress over her head. They were to share a bed, and Samantha was grateful - it was cold in the room despite a fire. Poor Jenny was tired and went right to sleep, but Samantha, having napped earlier, sat up against her pillows and thought about that night's experience. This is what happens every time I meet this man! Well, almost every time, she amended in her heart. He must be a bounder of the worst sort, always intoxicated, always insulting. When he wasn't saving her from ruffians...
Samantha did not like being unsettled, and she was already too much so, having had to pick up and move twice in several months' time. Her encounters with this specific gentleman only added to her agitation. At least she would not have to worry about him again. She was going to Devonshire to live a quiet life with her grandparents and her aunt. If she were fortunate, it would be months before she returned to London. He was obviously one of those bucks or blades her father often railed against who frequented gaming hells and brothels, squandering their inheritance and living an overall sinful life. She need have nothing to do with the likes of that.
Not that she expected her own family to be free from sin. Even her saintly father had been fond of the odd cigar and a glass of wine. Samantha herself had a quick temper that she sometimes found hard to check. Who knew what sort of vices her new family had? Somehow, she doubted they lived on the same plane as the rakes downstairs. With any luck, they would still be abed in the morning when she left.
"Now that was a female!" Cosmo exclaimed, even as he forked over the blunt. "If I could find a vixen like that to pour gravy on me, I'd marry her in a heartbeat."
"Why not that one?" Ainsworth wondered.
"Because Ryder has already staked his claim. Look at him!" They shook their heads over their friend, who sat staring at Cosmo's money, a rather silly smile on his face.
"He hasn't even tried to wipe off the gravy!"
"Her name is Miss Mary Howard," Ryder said softly. "I know that much."
"You know her name? You do work fast!" Cosmo said, his voice tinged with admiration.
"I never heard her say it," Ainsworth added.
"Because you did not meet her several months ago in London," Ryder said dreamily and related his previous encounters with the young lady.
"I would have paid good money to see her toss you out on your ear!" Cosmo roared with laughter after hearing the tale.
"Good money," Ainsworth echoed. "What are you going to do now?"
"I don't know... I need some more information, don't I?" He sat up straight, suddenly sober. "And I think I know how to get it."
While Cosmo and Ainsworth were sleeping off their port the next morning, Ryder did some digging around concerning Miss Mary Howard. Unfortunately, all he could discover were three things: She had already left the inn, she was traveling in the Countess of Seawright's carriage, and she was headed south. That made no sense at all. Lady Seawright traveled as little as possible, and only between Bath and London. He was unable to get to Bath before the holidays, but he could always call on her son once he returned to London. Seawright might have some information regarding the girl...
She was possibly the countess' companion, as that had been the position Miss Howard was last known to be in, but why, then, would she be traveling without her employer? What if the countess had an ill friend and thought to send her companion for assistance? One of Lady Seawright's greatest friends was his own Cousin Lucinda, and she lived south, in Devonshire. But surely the duchess was not ill, or his mother would have said so in her latest letter.
He would start, then, with Seawright in London.
After a few more days of thankfully uneventful travel, Samantha arrived at Vinelands. Butterflies had built up in her stomach the last twenty miles of the journey, once Jenny began pointing out familiar landmarks.
"Her ladyship visits Vinelands every Christmas season," she explained. "So we'll be coming back soon enough to see you, Miss. But if you want to send a letter back tomorrow, when we head fer home, I'll be more'n happy to deliver it."
Samantha said she would be pleased to do so and then fell silent, trying to recall what she had seen of her grandparents and aunt the day the duchess had conducted the interview. Her grace, she remembered, had gray hair piled regally on her head, so different from the countess' playful crop of curls. Yet, underneath, she sensed the lady to be as kind-hearted and as flighty as her friend.
Some of that giddiness may have come from thinking Samantha was a relation of some sort, but perhaps not. The duke seemed rather absentminded, but in a dear way, and not crusty at all. He reminded her of her own father, the one they had investigated for paternity reasons.
That still rankled, but it also cast a shadow on her mother's past. Samantha found it difficult to believe that Lady Vanessa had been so foolish as to run off with a man. Her mother had been an intelligent woman, and practical to a fault. Even cynical on occasion. But she had loved Samantha's father. Samantha had no doubt about that. Whether it had been a love born of gratitude, though, she would never know.
Lady Valerie... Samantha was not sure of her at all. Was she their graces' only living child, or was there a marquess, perhaps, with a wife and children... young cousins she could play with and keep out of the adults' way? Or was she doomed to loneliness in the Gothic-style house that now loomed large in the horizon?
"It's a mausoleum!" she exclaimed to Jenny as they passed through a dense woods filled with the twisting vines that gave the estate its name.
"You ain't even seen it up close," Jenny whispered. "It's got them gargoyles on it, and towers, and lots of that diamond-paned glass..."
The maid shuddered. "Once, Miss, I saw a monk walking in the kitchen garden and 'bout got my head snapped off by the butler, Mr. Cole."
"Was the monk a ghost?"
"Oh, yes! Passed right through the garden wall, he did! It was enough to have me shakin' in me boots!"
"I'm sure their graces discourage ghost stories among the servants, else they would not be able to keep their help."
The maid shook her head. "Her grace is a firm believer, and his grace goes along with her. It's Lady Valerie what turns them out without a character if they spread tales. I've shared a room with one of the maids - she told me that. Begging your pardon, Miss, but you'll be wantin' to keep an eye on Lady Valerie, even if she is your aunt and all. Her ladyship don't like her none, either. But you didn't hear that from me."
"Oh? Is there a reason why her ladyship doesn't like Lady Valerie?"
"A very good one! Lady Valerie used to be engaged to Lord Seawright, but she jilted him."
Samantha received a better reception than she had expected, but that might have been due to the absence of Lady Valerie on the wide marble steps of Vinelands. The duke and duchess were both waiting for her, having been alerted to the approach of a carriage, and Samantha's grandmother folded her into her arms as soon as she alighted.
"Welcome to the family!" she exclaimed. "Please forgive us for our earlier doubts. We had no idea who you were when we met in London, only that you must surely belong to us somehow!"
Samantha was much mollified by this declaration and was handed over to the duke for another embrace. "I knew you could only belong to our beloved Vanessa," he whispered. When he held her away for a moment, there were tears in his eyes. The duchess tucked Samantha's arm into hers and led her into the front hall.
"Come inside, where it is a bit warmer. This old house is like a crypt," she said. "But we try to make it as homey as possible. We're so happy you are here!" She directed a servant to bring tea and cakes to what she termed the 'family parlor,' which turned out to be a cozy room at the rear of the first floor.
Samantha was not quite prepared for such a warm, lived-in space after climbing a large staircase of marble and polished ebony wood. Even the hall, cluttered with cabinets of objets d'art, elegant chairs in more dark wood and ancestral portraits did not give away the battered sofas, old chaise and piles of books in what appeared to be their graces' favorite room. Samantha was invited to take the chaise for her own.
"I hope you will plunder the library for some books and bring them here to read. We spend quiet evenings in here, and would be pleased to have you join us."
"This is Hera," the duke added, indicating an ancient retriever stretched out on the threadbare hearthrug. Upon hearing her name, the dog twitched, but she did not rise. "Her bones are about as old as mine," the duke said with a fond smile for his canine friend.
Samantha knelt obligingly to offer a hand and then pet Hera's grizzled head, and was rewarded with a lick.
"You brought her in here?" Lady Valerie said from the doorway, disdain for something - the room, her niece or life, perhaps - apparent on her face. "Come, Mama, you should be in the grand salon, as befits a duchess. I am sure Miss Howard will wish to be treated to all the splendor of Vinelands after the poverty of St. Matthews' vicarage."
"I hadn't thought..." the duchess said vaguely.
"But I should like to stay here," Samantha insisted, rising from the hearth and sitting down hard on the chaise. She bravely ignored the dust that rose in a cloud about her. Lady Valerie's smile was strangely triumphant, but all she said was "Suit yourselves" and left.
"Well!" her grace exclaimed. "I'm sure I do not know what has come over your Aunt Valerie lately."
"Middle age?" the duke suggested.
His wife frowned. "Really, now, Avery, was that very nice?"
The duke shrugged, gave Samantha a quick wink and laughed with delight when the tea arrived, carried by a large retinue of servants.
"My dear, you must meet the servants. Many of them have been here since the Flood, so they will well remember your mother. Cole is the head butler - if he looks familiar, his brother is our Cole in London. So convenient... And this is Hettie, and Rose... Jane and William."
Each servant bowed or curtsied as their name was called. They set the trays down on a scarred sideboard and stood at attention, awaiting further orders.
"I think... I think Jane shall do nicely as a personal maid," the duchess told her granddaughter. The butler coughed. "Yes, Cole?"
"I believe Lady Valerie has tapped Hettie as Miss Howard's maid, your grace."
"But Hettie is too old! And no offense, Hettie, but you have no style! No, Jane shall be her maid."
"Yes, your grace." Cole kept his countenance austere, but Samantha saw Hettie scowl at Jane and then shot a look of pure hatred at herself.
Later, after a repast with two elderly people who appeared to be well on their way to doting on her, Samantha sat dozing in front of the fire with the dog while the duchess rang for a footman.
"Have Jane come here, Arthur," she requested. He bowed and went immediately for Miss Howard's new maid. Samantha could only marvel at the way the duchess knew everyone's name.
"It is important to know those who depend on you for their livelihood," her grandmother counseled. "You will find that easy to do with Jane. That is one of the reasons I insisted she attend you instead of Hettie."
"Hettie is Valerie's spy," the duke mumbled.
"What was that, dear?"
"Hettie wants to give it a try."
"I am sure that she does, but Samantha needs a younger maid. What was Valerie thinking?" she mused.
"That Samantha needs to be kept under surveillance?" the duke asked no one in particular. The duchess ignored him as the maid curtsied in the doorway.
Jane escorted her new charge out after the duchess declared Samantha as looking "most seriously fagged after her journey." As Samantha was exhausted, she went readily with Jane up to the next floor. Jenny was in the pretty blue and white room helping unpack trunks, and she continued to work cheerfully on Miss Samantha's clothes while Jane fussed over Samantha.
Before she knew it, she was dressed in a soft, white nightgown, given a cup of warm milk and tucked into bed.
"Her grace won't be expectin' you fer dinner, what with your traveling an' all," Jane said, smoothing out the bedclothes. "So sleep as long as you like, Miss, an' if you wake up later an' are hungry, I'll bring you a tray."
Samantha was about to drift off to sleep when she remembered that she was to write a note to Lady Seawright, and alarmed both maids when she hopped out of bed and padded over to the writing desk set in a corner of the room.
"Just a short letter," she promised when Jane squawked about not wearing slippers, and Jenny said her ladyship would understand if there was no note this soon. But Samantha wished to repay the countess' kindness with a few words, and moments later she was back in bed, as promised, a letter tucked into Jenny's apron pocket.
The next morning, after tea and toast in her room, and once Jane had dressed her in a black gown, Samantha went on a self-guided tour of the house. She poked her head into bedchambers (counting about twenty in one wing alone), parlors and the occasional dressing room before reaching the main floor.
There she found a library, a conservatory that overlooked a walled garden, and a music room. She had already started to inspect that last one when she realized she was not alone. A young lady with dark hair was leaning against a door that opened into an adjoining room.
"Hello," she said softly, not wanting to disturb the voices floating in from next door. The other girl flinched, but didn't move except to hold a finger to her lips.
The girl rolled her eyes and took Samantha by the hand, pulling her out into the hall.
"If you want to go back in there, you will have to be quiet," she ordered. "Else, I cannot hear what they are saying about you."
"But, if you wish to know about me, why not just ask? Here I am."
"Don't be silly," the girl scoffed. "What they are saying about you is surely more interesting. Besides, you will just give me dry facts. I want the good gossip and all the speculations, too!" She slipped back into the music room, leaving Samantha not knowing whether to laugh or cry. The girl returned before she could decide.
"Oh, pooh! Now they're talking about the London Season and that bores me to tears. Especially because I cannot go."
"Why not? Samantha Howard, by the way," she added, holding out a hand. "You already know that, of course," she said dryly.
"Oh, yes, indeed!" the girl responded with pleasure, shaking the proffered digits. "I am Lady Arabella Pryce. My mother and I - and my brother, when he is home - live but two miles from here, at Ryder. And I don't want to hear about the Season because you are going and I am not. Mama could borrow the blunt from Cousin Lucinda, of course, but she will not, and neither will Ryder."
"I thought your estate was named Ryder."
"It is. It's the principal seat of the Earl of Ryder. We have the title, just no money to go with it. I know if I were allowed to go to London, I could find a wealthy husband and help out my family."
"Did you learn that through keyholes?"
"Of course! Where else? No one tells me anything, so I have to learn it all somehow. Even now I've been sent to find you so Cousin Lucinda might have a comfortable coze with Mama without Cousin Valerie about. What do you think of her?" Arabella asked, linking her arm with Samantha's. "No, you don't have to answer that," she said with a chuckle. "She is a piece of work."
"She's also standing right behind you, Lady Arabella," Lady Valerie said sternly. "Why don't you take Miss Howard into the drawing room to meet Lady Ryder?"
Arabella shrugged and pulled Samantha down the hall to the double doors of the drawing room.
"There you are!" Lady Ryder called as they entered. "Come here, my dear," she said to Samantha. "Let me look at you. Why, Lucinda - she is the spitting image of Vanessa!"
The duchess beamed and nodded, and Lady Valerie scowled.
"Come sit by me, dear, and tell me all about yourself," the countess requested.
Arabella snorted and Samantha hid a smile as she went to sit by the dark-haired lady. It was obvious Lady Ryder already knew about her. "That will be enough, Arabella," her ladyship admonished her daughter.
"Perhaps Lady Arabella needs to be sent to the nursery," Lady Valerie said sweetly.
Samantha watched Arabella as she struggled to keep from sticking out her tongue, an action sure to get her sent upstairs.
"I understand you have been living in London until recently," Lady Ryder said.
"Yes, ma'am." Samantha took the tea her grandmother had poured for her. "For a couple of years. Before that we were in Danbury, in Essex."
"That is where you were born and raised?" The countess seemed surprised, despite the fact that she obviously thought she knew everything about Samantha.
The countess frowned and looked at Lady Valerie, as if that lady should have known this.
"You have a problem with that, Melissa?" the duchess asked.
"Oh, no, Cousin Lucinda. I just thought... well... we all know..." She paused. "Arabella, dear, be a darling and take Miss Howard out and show her the gardens."
"Yes, Mama," the girl said dutifully enough. She and Samantha left, but went straight to the music room. Even Samantha was curious now as to what was being said.
"Now, Melissa, what did you think?" they could hear the duchess demand.
"Well, everyone knows Vanessa ran off with that man," she replied. "And everyone knows he is from here."
"I don't know where you are getting your current information, Melissa," the duchess said haughtily, "but my granddaughter was born in Essex, to Vanessa and the Rev. Howard more than a year after their marriage. I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head from now on concerning Samantha and her quite respectable origins.”
Samantha shook her head and ran out of the house into the gardens, where she had been sent, but only because she needed some fresh air. It was one thing for her to know her mother's background, but quite another to hear someone discuss it so blithely.
"It's true, then?" Arabella asked, sitting down on a marble bench next to Samantha.
"Yes, and I've always known it. Mama made sure I did not follow in her footsteps, although she was happy with Papa."
"But it is not the same hearing it from someone else, is it? It is like when the vicar's wife called on Mama recently and said what a tragedy it was that I was unable to afford a season. I already knew that, but it hurt to hear it from her."
"It is exactly like that," Samantha agreed. The two looked at each other and smiled, marking the beginning of a friendship. Samantha confessed that she was glad to have someone her age close by, and Arabella agreed.
"And we are cousins, as well," she remarked. "Somewhere along the line. Papa was the duke's second cousin, I believe, so we have always called each other 'cousin,' and Ryder is the duke's heir."
"Yes, but my brother refuses to trade on that expectation, even when it comes to a London Season. Personally, I think Cousin Valerie has talked Mama out of asking Cousin Lucinda to sponsor me. She is such a bitter old maid, she doesn't like it when anyone has fun!"
As if thoughts of that lady brought her to life, Lady Valerie rapped on the drawing room window and motioned for them to return.
"See? She is an absolute witch! Try not to think of her too much and she should stay away," Arabella advised. Samantha giggled and the two girls walked arm in arm back to the house, grateful for the warmth after sitting on a cold bench in the late autumn chill.
A larger spread had been served while they were gone and the duke had joined the ladies. Both girls went immediately to his side and kissed his cheeks, picked up fresh cups of tea and a couple of buttered muffins, and retreated to a quiet corner.
"Cousin Avery is a dear," Arabella said to Samantha. "And I know you will be one, too. Shall we make plans to meet tomorrow? Do you ride?"
"No," Samantha said sadly. "I've always wanted to, but..."
"Then you can learn! I'll come over tomorrow morning and we shall begin. Excuse me a moment." Arabella rose and approached the duke, whispering in his ear. He grinned and nodded and, with a smug expression on her face, the girl returned to Samantha's side. "It's settled then - his grace and I will meet you in the stable yard early tomorrow."
"Do you have a habit?"
Samantha shook her head.
"Not to worry." Arabella stood once more and went to speak softly with the duchess. Her grace seemed surprised and whispered something in reply, something that sent Arabella out of the room in a flash.
"I despair of that child ever learning some decorum," Lady Ryder said with a sigh.
"When does Ryder come home?" the duchess asked.
"Another one I despair of! He seems to think London is where he can best manage everything, and I do have things settled here, of course."
"You are doing an excellent job with the estate, Melissa," the duke said, warm with approval. The countess smiled radiantly.
"I do try, but I could not have done it without you and Jack. I am hoping my son comes home for the holidays," she told Samantha. "We shall have to devise some entertainment for you young people."
"Thank you, ma'am."
Lady Valerie sniffed. "On your income, Melissa?" The countess turned red.
"You know I always plan activities for the children at Christmas," the duchess interjected. "And there is always the Twelfth Night Ball," she reminded her daughter.
"The ball!" Arabella said reverently as she entered the room. "And I can attend! I could have last year, but I had caught a chill and was bedridden for a week. You will adore Cousin Lucinda's Twelfth Night Ball, Samantha. May I call you Samantha? Please call me Arabella, won't you?" She ignored Lady Valerie's frown. "It is a masked ball. Oh! We shall have to design a costume for you!"
The duke, duchess and Lady Ryder exchanged amused glances.
"I suppose I could attend," Samantha said carefully, knowing she was in mourning.
"Miss Howard is still in black," Lady Valerie said smugly, "and it would not be proper."
"Oh, not proper for her to dance, perhaps," the duchess said quickly. "But there is no reason she cannot attend. She will be wearing a mask, after all. I'm sure you will enjoy it, Samantha dear."
"Then I shall be glad to come."
The Pryces left soon afterward, but not before Arabella confirmed their meeting the next morning at the stables.
"Don't worry about a riding habit. It has all been arranged," she assured Samantha with a wink.
When Samantha returned to her room later, a black wool habit had been laid out on the bed and Jane was waiting there to help her try it on.
"Where did this come from?" she wondered as the maid unbuttoned the jacket.
"It belonged to Lady Vanessa," Jane said softly. Even though the skirt had to be taken in around the waist, the cut had not gone out of fashion and the fabric was still good. And Samantha had something that had belonged to her mother.
With daily riding lessons, frequent visits between the two estates and the occasional trip into the local village, the friendship of Samantha and Arabella grew by leaps and bounds.
Even though Arabella continued to remark on her lack of a London season, she readily joined Samantha in the lessons the duchess and Lady Valerie deemed necessary for Samantha's debut. It seemed, in this instance, Lady Valerie approved of Samantha going to London, as she would be in half-mourning by then.
"And so she can find you a husband and get rid of you," Arabella said bluntly one cold, wet afternoon as they walked up and down the portrait gallery, balancing books on their heads.
Samantha, under no illusions as to her aunt's intentions, giggled, causing her book to drop to the marble floor with a bang. "I know, but there is one gentleman I hope never to see again."
"Someone you met in Bath?" Arabella's dark eyes were wide as she pulled the book off her head. She knew all about Samantha's life as a paid companion, including the marriage proposal. She had not heard about this.
"No, someone I met before I left London."
"Oh, do tell!" Arabella urged, pulling Samantha over to a padded bench under one of the long windows overlooking the grounds.
"Papa was ill after Mama died, and church officials sent him to London to work at St. Matthew's." She was bitter about that still - he might have recovered had they remained in Danbury. "We were quite poor and it fell to me to procure food with what meager income we had."
"Oh, you poor dear." Arabella knew what it was like to go without a new gown, but there was always food on the table. "Do go on."
"One day, as I carried a basket of food home, I was attacked by some ruffians, but a gentleman rescued me and my provisions."
Arabella sighed. "How romantic!"
"I know! And if he had left it at that, I would have been satisfied."
"Oh? Did he..." Arabella's voice dropped to a whisper. "Did he try to seduce you? Abduct you? Offer you carte blanche?"
"Arabella!" Samantha was shocked at the breadth of the girl's knowledge.
"Oh, come now, Samantha. I am not a child."
"No, but most young ladies of ten and eight do not speak of such things."
"Neither do ladies of twenty," was the pointed reply. "So, did he?"
"No. But that next Sunday, he came to Papa's morning service."
"Even more romantic!"
"If you find intoxicated gentlemen romantic," Samantha replied.
"He showed up drunk? How did you know?"
"We had been meeting in the vicarage, because it was warmer. He reeled in late and spoke to me. I couldn't help but notice."
"What did you do?" Arabella was hanging on her every word. This story was even more entertaining than those she heard through keyholes.
"I threw him out."
"Brava, Samantha! It does appear as if he deserved that. I've never seen a gentleman interrupt a church service in my life, let alone do it while drunk."
Samantha shuddered. "It was not pretty."
"Well, that was that and you shall not have to worry about him again. Even if he saw you in London, he would probably be too embarrassed to approach you."
"Yes, I suppose so," Samantha weakly replied, not willing to bring up the incident at the inn when Arabella seemed to think the story was closed.
"Jack is not like that," Arabella continued, launching into what Samantha knew was the girl's favorite subject after the London season. "He always goes to church when he is home, and Mama says he escorts her to St. George's whenever she is in town."
"Your brother is quite the paragon, isn't he?" Samantha teased. Starved for companionship her age, she quickly learned Arabella was not at all sensitive to gentle jesting, and responded accordingly. In return, she found a friend who stood up for her to Lady Valerie and seemed to know the people to approach to get what she needed.
"I would not go that far," Arabella said with a grin. "And he has been a stranger this past year. We know that not all of his excuses have to do with business. I think he is trying to find a wealthy wife to recoup some of our losses." Marriage to a rich person seemed to be Arabella's answer to everything.
"Perhaps he does not come home because he knows your mother would want to entertain for him," Samantha suggested. She was well-versed in household economies, and that could be a driving force behind his lordship's continued absence.
"Perhaps," Arabella tentatively agreed. "At any rate, he can be a wonderful brother. He just sent a length of pink silk for my costume. Mama says one of the ships he invests in docked recently and he was allowed to view the cargo as it was unloaded. I think I shall be a fairy. Let's go up to the attics and see what we can find for you."
It was a good day to dig around through a room of dusty trunks, but the first three chests revealed nothing they wanted. "Unless you wish to dress like a macaroni," Arabella said with a laugh. "These must be his grace's clothes from the end of the last century. Oh, wait!" she said breathlessly when she unearthed a tricorn hat covered in purple velvet.
Samantha giggled when it was placed on her head.
"Maybe I will be a macaroni!"
"No, I have a better idea! But we are going to need something in a heavy satin... And a half mask..."
Arabella finally found a gown in a deep golden color, trimmed in black lace, from the same era as the hat. Samantha discovered scraps of teal, black and violet satin, and some jet beads that Arabella pronounced perfect.
"We shall ask Cousin Lucinda for a black lace fan and you will be complete!"
"But what shall I be?"
"A lady from the Venetian Carnivale. I have a book at home with a picture of one. We'll get Jane to sew diamonds of satin, edged in the beads, on the gown, cover a mask in black velvet and shroud your hair under the hat in a piece of silk. No one will even recognize you!"
The two girls dug about for more black fabric, and then took their bounty downstairs to Samantha's room.
"But Lady Valerie has already ordered a costume," Jane said when consulted. "Not that I think you should be dressed as a witch," she confessed.
"A what?" Arabella was incredulous.
"I think she was only considering a costume that would be black," Samantha said in her aunt's defense.
"Still an' all, she's having it done up already."
"I cannot stop her from ordering it made," Samantha reasoned, "but I do not have to wear it for long."
"Just long enough to make an appearance in front of her," Arabella said, warming to the idea. "And then you can slip upstairs, change costumes and come in from the terrace!"
"No one will know me either way - the only people I have met so far are you and your mother, because you are family, and the vicar."
"Isn't he handsome?" Arabella asked dreamily. The well-featured and unmarried clergyman was her third-favorite subject.
"Prodigiously so," Samantha agreed. She and Jane exchanged indulgent smiles.
"Don't worry about not meeting all the neighbors," Arabella told her. "Most of them are not exactly worth knowing intimately, and the young ladies only like me because of Jack." She dismissed the locals with the wave of a hand.
"I find that hard to believe. I like you and I don't even know your brother."
"You are sweet, Samantha, but the truth is, they think I am beneath their notice because I am not wealthy."
Samantha said something sympathetic and let the conversation switch to another topic at that point, but later that evening, as she joined her grandparents in their private room, she was still thinking about Arabella and her lack of a season.
"You are even more quiet than usual," the duchess noted after Samantha sat on her chaise for a few moments, staring off into space.
"I am thinking about Arabella."
"We are so happy that the two of you get along so well," the duchess said. "You haven't had a falling out, have you?"
"No, ma'am. We are rubbing along famously."
The duke chuckled at her use of a cant phrase, learned, no doubt, from her new relative.
"Arabella has been a font of information, and a more than satisfactory companion," Samantha told her relieved grandmother. "I wish she could come with us to London."
"But she is!" the duchess cried. "She isn't to know until Christmas Day, but that is next week, so there is no harm in telling you now. Isn't it exciting?"
"But her family..."
"It is all arranged between your grandfather and Ryder, my dear. We are going to provide the funds to keep Arabella in frills and furbelows, and Ryder will lend his escort as his time permits. He wouldn't accept our offer of a dowry, but Melissa says there is enough for a modest one, just the same."
Samantha was overjoyed. She knew how important this opportunity was to the girl, and she was not unaware of how it figured into her own future. After all, she would be expected to make a match, too. She would not make one only because Lady Valerie wished it, however. She planned to marry for love, or not at all, and if she had to return to Vinelands over the summer without even a beau in tow, her aunt was just going to have to get used to it.
Surely there would be someone she liked. A nice widower who needed a mama for his children, perhaps, or a scholarly fellow who liked quiet evenings at home. She was sure she did not want any of the three men at the inn - drunken and disorderly rakes who tried to make wagers concerning innocent young ladies, never mind that she should not have been roaming unescorted about the premises.
No, she did not want a man such as the one who had shown up at St. Matthew's. He was the worst of the lot. With any luck, he would not appear at social functions in town, preferring to slum about with lowlifes in sleazy taverns near the docks, associating with all the riff-raff her own father had fought so hard to save from themselves.
Thoughts of her father and his work made her suddenly ashamed of the route her mind had taken. Shunning that gentleman was not what her father would have advocated. He would have expected her to be kind, compassionate and tolerant of someone with a drinking problem.
She picked up a book and stretched out on the chaise, trying to look occupied while her mind was busy thinking about her gentleman. He was handsome enough... with dark hair and gray eyes that seemed to whirl about in a maelstrom of confusion when he had imbibed too much. If she could find him again, she would offer her friendship and hope she could save him from a life of dissipation.
Having reached that newfound resolve, she flipped back to the beginning of the book, prepared to throw herself into the problems of the Misses Dashwood. Her own were settled, for the moment.
Christmas came and went, and everyone at Vinelands turned their attention toward the Twelfth Night Ball.
The duke and duchess had already decided against their usual merry house party, out of respect for their granddaughter in mourning, but the drafty old house was still filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the season.
Arabella was in alt, having finally been told she was to go to London with Samantha, and she took to walking about with Ackermann's Repository and La Belle Assemblee, dreaming of the gowns she would have. She only came back to earth when it was time to go riding or when they hid in Samantha's room and worked with Jane on the Carnivale gown.
The vicar, and even her brother, had been forgotten in their excitement. Samantha was amused by Arabella's flightiness, but she was almost sorry not to hear more stories about Ryder.
"Mama and I have given up bothering Jack about coming to the ball. He has said he is needed in London later in the week, and would have to leave the next morning to make it to town on time."
Samantha sighed and continued to sew beads onto her gown. She had been looking forward to meeting the earl.
Vinelands was aglow with the light of hundreds of candles, both in the ballroom and in all the windows, with footmen patrolling the front rooms in case the votives stopped burning or began to set something on fire. Samantha wished she could step out onto the frosty lawn to see the effect of so many lights, but she had been asked to stand with her family in the receiving line. Also, her witch gown was too thin to allow her out into the cold.
Her grandmother had been aghast at Lady Valerie's choice of costume for Samantha, but when the child did not make a fuss, she let the matter drop. After all, it was black.
Lady Valerie had wanted to use cosmetics, but Samantha refused to be smeared with a green-tinted maquillage or touched with rouge. Instead of returning the rouge, however, she had secreted it in the dressing room table. She and Jane had decided to brighten her cheeks and lips later in keeping with her alternate costume.
Samantha stood patiently in line and allowed herself to be introduced to the friends and neighbors of her grandparents. She could see they were intensely curious about her, and she felt the same about them, but this was not exactly the occasion for doing more than making small talk around the punch bowl.
She nodded to kings and magical creatures, including a pretty pink fairy, Shakespearean and nursery rhyme characters and any number of animals. A horse, Romeo and a prince of some sort all asked her to dance, no mean feat when she was dressed like a minion from Hell. She gracefully declined, citing her mourning as the reason. Whether the gentlemen would still seek her out remained to be seen. Then again, she was going to change her costume momentarily and they might not find her at all. It was a fun thought - she had never been a mystery to anyone in her life.
Ryder reached his home early that evening only to find his mother and sister already at Vinelands, dining with their graces, Lady Valerie and Miss Samantha.
Samantha... His mother's letters mentioned the girl, the duke had made her central to his negotiations for Arabella's season, and his sister's letters spoke of no one else, not even the vicar. He was eager to meet this paragon, if only to thank her for the much-needed friendship she had brought to Arabella's life. There were times, in the past year especially, he did not think he was adequately performing his brotherly duties. He ought to be home helping pave her way socially in the neighborhood.
It angered him that the local chits put such little stock in that imp's winning personality, and judged her on income alone, but he had learned, in the few years since his father's death, that almost everything came down to money. At least no one was forcing him to marry for it, which was just as well. He had his pride. Arabella should keep hers, too - and he planned to remind her about that before she was launched into London society. He did not want her to think she had to marry for financial gain. Even their wastrel father had married their mother for love.
Ryder's valet laid out a simple black domino for his employer, knowing his lordship hated dressing up for costume balls, even her grace's annual fete.
"But duty calls and I promised Arabella to join her, if I could make it," he told his man.
"Very good, my lord. In that case, you will wish to search for a pink fairy."
Ryder shook his head. Only Arabella would want to be a fairy in this weather. It was too cold and damp to walk to Vinelands, and there was no sense taking another carriage... He ordered his horse saddled. He would ride.
Once the reception line had petered out, Samantha excused herself and slipped into the crowd. The dancing was about to begin and she saw her fairy friend speaking with a bear. She hoped that was Arabella's first partner of the evening and that she had a full dance card.
Once she could no longer see her grandparents and aunt, she went out a side door and up the back stairs to her room, where Jane waited with suppressed excitement to help her change clothes. Then she ran back downstairs and out through the gallery door, into the gardens and up onto the terrace, giving the appearance that she was just returning from a breath of fresh air.
Ryder, having been welcomed by his relatives and about to search for his sister and mother, saw the lady as she stepped back inside. The gown caught his attention first: heavy gold satin and jet beads blazing in the candlelight. She paused and seemed almost confused as to where she should go, and he hastened across the room to offer his assistance, drawn by the rouged mouth below the mask that covered the top of her face.
"Buona sera... signorina?" he queried. He did not dally with married women and he did not wish to discover later that she was a signora.
"Si, signorina, sir," she replied, lapsing back into English at the last. Indeed, the previous words were all the Italian she knew. "But do not expect me to converse in Italian all evening. Languages are not my forte."
That voice! He knew it from somewhere...
"Mine, neither, I fear. I know a smattering of French and Italian, and some Greek and Latin, but my professors soon realized I would never be proficient in any of them." He wondered why he was standing there speaking of his lack of scholarship when he was faced with a beautiful Venetian lady who probably danced divinely. It was time to find out.
"Will you honor me with the next dance?" he asked.
"Alas, I do not dance this evening," she replied. "I am in mourning."
That, and the voice, clinched his suspicion - this was his Mary Howard. He was sure of it.
After reaching several dead ends in his search for the girl, including an inconclusive interview with Lord Seawright, he had given up. But now that he had found her once more, he could not scare her off. Their past few meetings had been less than satisfactory, due, he knew, to his own behavior, and for that he needed to atone.
"Then allow me to sit out this dance with you. It is perfectly acceptable, you know," he said, leading her to a chair on the sidelines, an area where few people sat. Most were on the dance floor or strolling about the room. "Now, tell me something about yourself, signorina."
"I am from Venice," she teased, her carmine-red lips curling up into a smile.
"Where do you live now?"
"Devonshire is a large county. Perhaps you could narrow it down for me?"
She shook her head. "I cannot, sir. It would not be proper."
Ah, she must still be a companion. He would let the question slide for now. There were ways of discovering her whereabouts now that he had it narrowed down. Perhaps Arabella could help. No, she would not understand his fascination with the young lady, especially as a companion with no dowry to bring to marriage. Not that he was thinking marriage, of course. And not that he would marry for money. His interest in Mary Howard was better kept to himself until he figured out exactly why he needed to know more about his mystery lady.
Samantha was startled to be approached by a gentleman in a black domino almost as soon as she entered the ballroom, but she played along when he spoke in Italian. She was entertained by his flirtatious attitude, at first, and then realized she knew this man. Not that she would let on, of course. Every time she met him, he said or did something embarrassing, and she was not about to let that happen again. Not at her grandmother's ball! She kept her personal answers to his queries to a minimum, and when he gave up the inquisition, she was relieved on two counts - one, he could not discover that they had already met, and he would not be able to find her if he did.
Unfortunately, just as she was about to excuse herself and find someone else to talk to, Lady Valerie, dressed as a milkmaid of all things, and another lady came into view.
"She can't see me!" she squeaked, standing quickly and stepping behind a potted palm.
"Who can't see you?" He rose and joined her amongst the shrubbery.
"Her! I need to get out of here!" If Lady Valerie caught her, in a different costume and sitting alone with a gentleman, she would be in trouble. That her aunt did not like her was evident. There was no need to give the lady ammunition against her, as well.
"Follow me!" The gentleman took her by the hand and pulled her in the opposite direction of Lady Valerie, along the row of long windows flanked in heavy velvet curtains, and out a door into a walled garden, one of several attached to the house.
"Thank you! I did not want to get caught..."
"Playing truant from your regular duties?" he teased.
"Er, yes, you could say that. Where are we?" She had never been in this particular little sanctuary before, but she could see it was kept up. Someone had trimmed vines back from the wall, a couple of cold-sensitive plants had been shrouded in sheets, and a little pond in the middle of the area was covered in glass to protect a few goldfish. Oil burners sat next to the water to provide warmth to the fish.
"His grace's private retreat. Not many people know about it, not even some family members."
Samantha would have agreed to that statement if she could. This was the first she had seen of it, and then she realized she had not made an extensive tour of the grounds. After all, it was winter, and the stables were in the other direction. But she would gladly keep her grandfather's garden a secret.
"How do you know about it, then?"
"I am a friend of the family."
"And you live nearby?" She was suddenly curious about this gentleman she had vowed to reform. If she kept him occupied, perhaps he would not go in search of a drink.
"My estate is not too far away. But I live in London most of the year. Will you be attending the season?"
"May I hope you will recognize me if we were to meet in town?"
"Y-y-y-y-e-s-s-s," she said, her teeth chattering. The garden was protected from the wind, but it was still cold and she could feel the chill air through the satin of her gown.
"We need to get you warm." He steered her over to one of the oil burners. "Better?"
"A little. Perhaps I should go back indoors. She will have passed by now, and I could find..." Samantha stopped. She had been going to say 'a glass of punch,' but she did not want to place that particular image in his head.
"Something warm to put over your gown?" he suggested.
"Yes. That's it. Something warm."
"Then allow me to escort you inside. I'm sure Lady Valerie or the duchess has something you can borrow..."
"No! I mean, yes! That's it! I shall go find one of them. It was nice meeting you, sir," she said, backing away from him. As much as she wished to keep him from the punch, she wished to keep herself away from her relatives, too. She was going to have to go back upstairs now and change costumes once again.
"No, wait!" he called, catching her by the hand. "I don't even know your name," he lied. "How am I to find you once you come to London?"
"I'm sure, sir, we shall meet," she said. After all, fate had been quixotic enough to arrange three meetings so far. What was one more? One where they could meet as themselves and behave with civility and perhaps even get to know each other properly.
"At least give me something to remember you by," he pleaded.
She wondered what she could offer him and recalled that she was going up to change clothes.
"Wait here. In five minutes, look on the handle of the door leading back into the house. My token will be there." She slipped from his grasp and ran to the door, pulling the mask from her face and leaving it hanging for him. Taking the door that led to her grandfather's study, she circumvented the ballroom and went upstairs once more.
Ryder woke the next morning with a mission.
When his mother and sister heard, after a late breakfast, that they were all to call at Vinelands, they did not see anything untoward in that command. After all, they were family. They had enjoyed themselves the evening before and it was good manners to let their host and hostess know this in person.
"And I may finally introduce you to Samantha," Arabella said happily as they approached the ducal manor house. She had lost track of her friend at the ball, because the fairy had been a popular dance partner, but she was sure she had seen a witch sitting out with a horse at one point.
"I cannot wait to meet this paragon of a cousin," he teased.
"She's what?" Arabella wailed a short time later upon hearing that Samantha was indisposed.
"She has caught a cold, poor dear, and I'm sure it was from all that riding you two did last week..." the duchess remarked, having told them several times to remain indoors. "I was so hoping you would meet her this trip, Ryder, but it is not important. You shall see her in a few
months in London."
"Oh, yes!" his sister chimed in. "She and I are going to have so much fun! I haven't decided yet if I want to live with you while in town, Jack, or stay with Cousin Lucinda. Mama says she will be wherever I am, so if you wish to keep your household to a bachelor establishment, just say the word."
"I think I could tolerate a mother and a brat for a few months, just long enough to puff you off to the highest bidder," he teased and was rewarded with the sight of Arabella's tongue.
"Arabella!" her mother admonished, but the girl just laughed.
"I think we might just stay with Cousin Lucinda and Samantha, if that is how you are going to be."
"As you will, brat. How are all the neighbors?" he asked the duchess. "I thought since I was home for a few days, I would make a couple of calls, but if someone else has a cold, I should not like to catch it."
The duchess launched into a discourse on the locals - how there was a new addition to the Harvey nursery, but a poor relation had come to live with them to help out, because there were just so many children in that family... How old Lady Farthingay was forced to take on a companion to keep from embarrassing the family ("She thinks she is Queen Elizabeth," she confided). And there was a new governess at the Malvern estate. Other births, deaths and additions to households were noted and Ryder made a mental list. The first few sounded quite promising, and he vowed to begin there with his rounds.
Samantha was bedridden with a runny nose, scratchy throat and barking cough. After changing costumes once more, she had taken pains to avoid the man in the black domino, but she kept an eye on him all the same. She had not seen him near the rack punch once, but then, she had been sought out by the gentleman in the horse costume and they had sat out a dance together. His conversation had been a bit dry, though, so when her nose began to drip just as he was asking to take her into supper, she excused herself and headed up to bed.
Jane had been all that was solicitous as concerned her charge, and had given her a posset and a mustard plaster before finally allowing her to sleep.
The next morning, after a meal of weak tea and unbuttered toast, she was beginning to feel bored and cranky, and she only cheered up when Arabella appeared in the doorway.
"I danced every set last night!" she said in greeting, bringing a smile to Samantha's lips. "Cousin Lucinda said you are ill, so I shall come every morning and stand here for a little while and entertain you. Guess what? Jack is home! He arrived last night and was at the ball!"
"Oh?" This was news. "What did he wear?"
"Oh, something dark," Arabella said airily. "He spoke to me once, but it was from behind as we stood at the refreshment table, and then later, I saw him in plain formal wear, so he was probably wearing that all along." She summarily dismissed her brother from her mind and regaled Samantha with little on-dits from the ball until she was called for. "We're off to pay calls on some of the neighbors..." She made a face.
"While you are about today, would you try to discover which neighboring gentleman was dressed as a horse? He was rather boring and I'd like to know his identity before I meet him formally," Samantha said with a wry smile. As she expected, Arabella dissolved into giggles.
"That is Lord Malvern. I danced with him last night. He's quite a puppy, at least that is what Jack calls him. I'll tell you more about the ball on the morrow, after I glean some good gossip from everyone else," Arabella promised, blowing Samantha a kiss before disappearing from the
Ryder might have well gone home or back to London, as fruitful as his search for Mary Howard seemed to be.
The Harvey’s poor relation was a young lady, but she had red hair and protruding teeth. He made the mistake of asking for her specifically, and by the time they were ready to move on, she had attached herself to him and had him agreeing to a dance at Almack's.
His mission went from bad to worse when he mentioned Lady Farthingay's new companion to the dowager's daughter-in-law, and then nothing could be done except for him to go upstairs and visit the lady and her new employee. After five minutes watching him bow and scrape to 'her majesty,' the elderly companion took pity on him and escorted him back to the drawing room.
By the time they had reached Malvern, Arabella was looking at him strangely.
"Don't tell me you want to meet the companion here, too," she said curiously as their mother moved ahead and greeted the family first.
"No. The governess. How are we to get ourselves in the schoolroom?" he wondered.
"I don't understand you, Jack - why are you looking for a companion, or a governess, or whatever in the first place? You haven't compromised one and are looking for her now to salvage her reputation, are you?" she asked, wide-eyed.
"Arabella!" He admonished his sister, but her words were almost too close for comfort. He had not compromised Miss Howard, but he still felt guilty about placing her in several awkward positions. "I have not. But I am looking for a young lady..."
"I knew it!" Arabella informed their hosts that she and Jack were going to look in on Miss Malvern, who was in the schoolroom, and Lady Malvern could not get rid of them fast enough. It was one thing for Lady Arabella to call and wish to go upstairs, but the baroness' eldest was almost seventeen and if Lord Ryder showed any interest... It was best to encourage it. The sister might not have a feather to fly with, but rumor had it Ryder had gone far in recouping the family’s losses. And he was an earl.
Oblivious to these thoughts, the Pryce siblings went up to see the young lady. They were back downstairs with her later, for tea, Miss Malvern hanging onto Ryder as if he were a prize. He bore it manfully. After all, she had been a good excuse for investigating the governess, who turned out to be in her mid-thirties, if she was a day.
"Tell me all about it," Arabella urged later that afternoon, once they had returned home. She had cornered her brother in his study, bringing a pot of tea and a plate of his favorite jam tarts. Setting them down in front of the fire, she patted the chair next to her and invited him to take a break from the estate accounts he was checking for their mother.
"There is not much to tell. I insulted a lady recently, have learned that she is now residing in Devonshire, and I wish to find her and apologize."
"I've never known you to insult a lady!"
"It happened this time, and not once, but twice," he admitted, sinking into the leather of his chair.
Arabella poured him a cup of tea and then went to the grog table for a tot of brandy to add to his drink. "You must have been intoxicated," she said matter-of-factly.
"Why do you say that?" He pushed the brandy away.
"Because Papa used to do that sometimes, remember? He would say all sorts of things when he was in his cups, and they were not always nice. Suit yourself," she said concerning the alcohol, adding a few drops to her own cup. "What happened the first time?"
"I was in London... I had gone to White's with some gentlemen I had been trying to line up as investors, and before I knew it, a little too much port had been imbibed."
Arabella nodded sagely. "Papa used to drink port to excess."
"Stop that! I am not Papa!"
"Never said you were. Please continue."
"It was so late, it was early the next morning, and all I could think about was this young lady I had rescued from some brutes the week before, and I found myself in the east end of town."
"Dangerous place, the east end." Her eyes narrowed in thought. "Not too many ladies living in that section..."
"She was a vicar's daughter. I disrupted a church service."
"You don't say..." Arabella was doing a few calculations in her head. After all, what were the odds there were two vicar's daughters in that part of town with drunken gentlemen on their doorsteps. "What happened next?"
"You really don't want to know."
"Oh, I really do! Confession is good for the soul," she said piously.
Ryder snorted. "She kicked me out of the house."
Arabella chuckled. Knowing Samantha, she could see that happening, if only to protect her father. "You deserved that."
"I know. But that is not as bad as what happened when we met again."
This was new... "You met again? When? Where?"
"At an inn between here and Bath. I was coming from a house party in Wales with Cosmo and Ainsworth. I was on my way to London. She was traveling south."
"The trouble twins," Arabella said under her breath. She liked Ryder's friends, really she did, but sometimes they were not the best of companions for him. "What happened there?"
"I was drinking with Cosmo and Ainsworth, and I had a bit too much port. Cosmo wagered I could, er, ah, seduce the next lady I saw. I did not take the bet," he hastily assured her. "But Ainsworth did and as my luck would have it upon opening the door I found myself face to face with the same young lady. They egged me on to kiss her, but I could not. She's a very nice lady," he said dreamily.
Arabella sat back in her chair and stared at the fire. Why had she not seen it before - Ryder and Samantha would be perfect for each other. And obviously, they had already met. She had not heard the story about the inn from Samantha, but no doubt it correlated with Ryder's. It seemed as if they had both been taken with each other, although one would have to read between the lines of Samantha's tale to know that.
Too bad Samantha had a cold. Arabella could just imagine what could have happened today if they had met. A good thing they had not. They might have been embarrassed, and they would have been in front of other people, too. This was going to take a little bit more coordination, and some privacy, and it was going to have to wait. Samantha wasn't going anywhere until the spring and then she was headed straight for Ryder. Arabella would have to arrange their next meeting in London.
"So that is why you have been searching for her today. You know she is a companion somewhere..." Or had recently been a companion, Arabella thought with a snicker. "...and that she is in Devonshire. It must be a different part of the county. Will you try elsewhere tomorrow?"
"Perhaps." Perhaps not. He did have business in London, after all.
"I think you should check with friends as you travel back to town," she suggested, proud of how calm and collected she sounded, when inside she was bouncing with excitement. A sister she could love, an excellent wife for Ryder, someone with a hefty dowry and a distant cousin, to boot. "And you should leave soon. Can't forget your business, after all."
"I'll leave for town tomorrow."
Arabella's excitement for the London Season was infectious, and as soon as Samantha had recovered from her cold, the two launched themselves into an orgy of preparations.
There were more deportment and etiquette lessons, conducted by Lady Valerie, and dancing sessions with Lady Ryder. The duchess was already planning wardrobes so that first trips to modistes and mantua-makers could be dispatched with ease.
Lady Valerie's classes, where she seemed to grasp everything more quickly than Arabella, were the only place Samantha earned her aunt's approval. Not that she would admit it in front of everyone else, but Lady Valerie constantly held Samantha up as a perfect example of proper decorum. Arabella joked behind the older lady's back that if she had seen Samantha toss that gentleman out of her house, she might not be so quick to credit her niece with good manners.
Arabella had almost said "toss Jack out of her house," but she held her tongue. Instead, she worried that she was not as fast a learner as her friend. "I can't seem to do anything right," she wailed one afternoon as the two sat embroidering in the portrait gallery. "But if anyone is earning accolades from the teacher," she added, nudging Samantha with her elbow, "I am glad it is you."
Samantha had to agree. "She dislikes me otherwise, and I am not even allowed to call her my aunt. I know her attitude stems from when she jilted Lady Seawright's son, but I do not know why."
Arabella had not listened at keyholes for nothing. She knew the entire story.
"As far as I can tell, this whole situation is your mother's fault. Now, before you get offended, I'm operating from hearsay. I doubt Lady Valerie has spoken of this in her entire life, and I can only relate what speculation I have heard from Mother and Cousin Lucinda. Why did your mother run away?" she asked. "I've always wondered."
"I don't know. She never told me. I only know that Papa rescued her from an intolerable situation and that I came along later. But if Lady Valerie thought it was a deliberate gesture on her sister's part to run off, I can see where she would not want any reminders about it, namely me."
"You are most likely correct. Rumor has it that Lady Valerie broke off her engagement because she didn't want Seawright to think she was either a charity case or much like her sister. Again, no offense." Arabella held her hands up in mute appeal.
"None taken. Do you think she truly loved him? I should think a duke's daughter could ignore society and just marry the man."
"Your mother did, and I think, from what you have said, she had a happy life."
"It was mostly happy. I think she regretted not reclaiming her family. I'm glad I could do that for her. But what if Lady Valerie thought she was doing the right thing in rejecting Lord Seawright, but still nursed a broken heart? That would cause me to be a bitter old maid."
"If that is so, we should try to get them together again. Unfortunately, Lady Valerie never goes to London."
"Never?" Samantha found that hard to believe. "Then we shall have to devise a good reason why she must come with us."
In the end, it was a simple task to get Lady Valerie to pack for Town. Samantha insisted Arabella was going to be trouble if someone was not there to remind the girl constantly of the rules. Her aunt blanched at the thought and called for her maid.
"Thank you very much for bringing me into this," Arabella said sarcastically when she heard the news. "But Cousin Lucinda said we may share a suite in her townhouse, and that is definitely a consolation."
The trip to London was undertaken as soon as the roads became passable, and if Samantha were not so nervous about seeing her gentleman once again, she would have enjoyed the spring scenery. Lambs gamboled in the fields, the first green leaves had appeared on the trees and birds' nests tucked among the shrubbery and fences were filled with little speckled eggs.
She also would have appreciated Arabella's high spirits, too. The younger girl was full of ideas, activities and outings, none of which she planned to invite the ladies of Devonshire, not after they had snubbed her. Samantha did not blame her. Once she had been introduced to the neighbors, she found they did not have much to recommend them.
The closer they came to the capital, the more excited Arabella became. And the more butterflies multiplied in Samantha's stomach. Would other ladies like her? Would the gentlemen? Would her mystery man find her?
"Are we there yet?" Arabella had asked for the hundredth time just as the ducal caravan pulled up in front of an elegant Mayfair mansion.
It was a house Samantha recalled well. Only this time she was not entering as a potential employee. She was, she told herself proudly, the granddaughter of the house, and should remember to act accordingly. She, Arabella and Lady Ryder alighted from their carriage just as the duke was helping the duchess and Lady Valerie from another, and then servants boiled out of the house to welcome their master and mistress. Lady's maids and a valet began directing others to take luggage from the third carriage, admonishing them unnecessarily, or so it seemed to Samantha, to be careful with everything. Jane was to be maid for both Samantha and Lady Arabella, and she was especially militant about their
trunks and bandboxes. Samantha gave her an encouraging pat on the back as she followed her elders into the house.
Lord Ryder called the next morning, when everyone but Samantha was still in bed. She had taken pity on Arabella earlier, when the girl had thrown a pillow over her head and pleaded for more sleep, citing the fatigue of several days in a carriage. Samantha could have mentioned several days with a bouncing Arabella in a carriage, but she was feeling no ill effects from the journey and let her friend go back to bed.
Exploring her new surroundings, Samantha found the library, and once she was curled into a chair, engrossed in a book on ancient Egypt, she forgot about everything else until a footman entered the room.
"Lord Ryder to see the family, Miss."
Samantha smiled. Here was her chance to meet the brotherly paragon of virtue Arabella spoke of so incessantly. "No one else is about - would you show him in here?" She was family, she reasoned with herself, ready to receive her first London visitor. She was not prepared, however, for the gentleman who entered the room.
"Lord Ryder?" she asked incredulously, standing quickly, her book falling to her feet unheeded.
"Miss Howard?" he replied, equally dumbfounded. "What are you doing here?"
"I live here," she said, somewhat confused by his question.
"Why didn't you tell me you were employed by the duchess when we met at the ball?"
"Why should I tell you something that is not true?"
"But you are a companion, and I..." He almost said he had looked everywhere for her, but he held himself in check. "We called the day after the ball. Where were you?"
"I caught a cold and could not come down. I fail to see why you are grilling me for all this information, Lord Ryder, if that is, indeed, your real name."
"It is, Miss Mary Howard. But you are one to talk. No one seems to know a Mary Howard anywhere in Devonshire."
"How would you know? And I do not go by that name. I'm Samantha. Mary Samantha Agnes Howard, if you wish to look it up somewhere."
"You're Samantha? The Samantha? You've been with Cousin Lucinda all this time?" He sat down suddenly, as if he was unable to take in all the information at once.
"Yes, I am Samantha. Believe it if you wish," she said haughtily, tired of his inquisition. "And where I have been is none of your business. If you had only asked my name at the ball..."
"You knew it was me? Why didn't you say something?"
"Do you blame me for saying nothing? Our two previous meetings had been less than pleasant, if I recall." And not too much worse than this one was going, actually.
"But I came back to the vicarage to apologize!" he insisted.
"A month later?" she scoffed, crossing her arms across her chest.
"Yes. Terribly rude of me not to have done so before then, but you were not there."
Samantha sat down, aware that Lord Ryder should be standing if she was standing and thinking it indicative of all their encounters that she was accommodating him once again.
"And the next time? Why did you not apologize then for your previous actions?"
He flushed. "I was not alone and I did not think it proper to mention the church service..."
"...In front of your friends," she finished for him, suddenly wishing he would just go. Forget her grand plan at reformation. Forget their interlude in the walled garden. Forget everything. "I think you should leave."
"I said, I think you should quit the house and call back later when other people will be more than happy to receive you." She would not be one of them.
"Perhaps that would be for the best," he said curtly. Rising, he bowed deeply and left the room.
Once out on the walk, in front of his phaeton, Ryder let out a string of expletives that blistered even the ears of his tiger, a scrappy fellow known for his salty tongue. Ryder did not understand that girl. Yes, she had every right to be angry, but she had not been that way at the ball, and now that they had established that she had recognized him there, what was the problem?
His problem, he realized as he headed home, was that he had hoped for a better reception once they realized they had already met.
"You wanted her to fall into your arms and confess undying love?" he asked himself aloud.
"M'lord?" the tiger asked.
"Nothing." Merciful heavens - now he was talking to himself! Perhaps he just had this fantasy built up around Miss Mary Howard. Perhaps the reality was far more interesting. Perhaps he was already ripe for Bedlam. The fact was he was quite enamored of the chit already and he had just officially met her.
I think you should quit the house and call back later when other people will be more than happy to receive you.
Oh, but he made her so angry! Drunkeness, womanizing (she thought of the wager at the inn as womanizing, at any rate) and now examining her as if she were an insect under a glass! If Samantha wanted to be grilled, she could always present herself to Lady Valerie for inspection. She did not need him doubting her or complaining that he did not know Miss Mary Howard and Samantha were the same person. How had he learned her first name? She recalled the day he had come to the church service and sighed. The ladies had been vocal enough, and he had returned later to apologize. No doubt someone had mentioned her then.
And now? Now she had been given a chance to rail at him and he was gone.
Samantha was rather stunned that she had literally kicked Lord Ryder out of a house once more. Not that she could truly rid herself of him - he was family, after all, and this was not her establishment. She leaned over and retrieved her book from the floor. If someone walked in they would see a quiet, demure young lady learning about ancient Egypt. If Ryder returned, she would have something to throw at his head.
Ryder did return to their graces' townhouse later, but Samantha was nowhere to be seen and he refused to ask about her. Not only would he have to explain that he had called earlier, because he doubted she had mentioned it, but he would also have to face her again when either Arabella or the duchess insisted they meet. Arabella, characteristically, brought the subject up anyway.
"It’s sad Miss Howard is indisposed after such a tiring journey. I so wanted to introduce you. You will meet her eventually, I dare say."
He agreed politely and asked his sister if she would like to go for a drive.
"I should love to."
"But you don't have the right clothes yet!" their mother protested.
"I am not going to set foot out of Jack's phaeton, Mama. Besides, you can have no objection to the yellow bonnet and pelisse."
Her ladyship did not, having designed them for her daughter, and sent her children off with the admonition to stay in the carriage.
Ryder took Arabella to Hyde Park. It was not the fashionable hour to be seen, but it was fairly full, and he found himself stopping constantly to make introductions.
"You know so many people!" she exclaimed after three separate gentlemen hailed him. No doubt to investigate the lady at his side, he thought, as the third man in a row introduced the subject of Almack's to Arabella. He watched proudly as she neither simpered nor giggled, as some girls were wont to do. By the time they had reached one end of the park and had turned around, she admitted to actually looking forward to the assemblies.
"And you must dance with Samantha,” she insisted. “In fact, you should bring her here tomorrow. Then she shall have her dance card almost filled, as I have managed to do. Won't it be great fun?"
"If you like stale cake and watered-down lemonade," he muttered, hoping she meant Almack's. It would be no fun at all to bring Samantha to the park, where she would no doubt garner as much attention as his sister. He did not think he could bear to watch other men fawn over her as they had done to Arabella today.
She shrugged. "One must make a few sacrifices."
Ryder pulled his matched bays up under a tree and turned to her.
"I have a problem and I need your assistance."
"You've discovered your mystery lady is our cousin, Samantha, and you wish to atone for your drunken disorderliness, and you want me to help," she said angelically.
"How did you...? Never mind. Yes, that is it in a nutshell." He would never understand how Arabella managed to know everything going on around her. He wasn't sure he wished to, either.
"First we need to arrange a meeting. In a public place, where she cannot cry off or plead the headache, or any of those things I've always employed to avoid unpleasant situations."
Again, he did not want to know details. He only nodded in agreement.
"Once you two realize you've know each other all along, you can apologize for your appalling, boorish behavior, Jack, and ask her if you may have a new beginning."
"What if she won't want to start over?"
"Then we knock her unconscious, tie her to a chair and force-feed her tripe until she breaks. I don't know!" she said in exasperation.
"You are the mastermind behind the plot," he reminded her.
"Even masterminds cannot prepare for every contingency, Jack."
"I beg your pardon," he said sarcastically.
"Use your natural charm. It... oh, no," she said with a sigh. "It's Bozo and Ainsworthless..."
"Cosmo and Ainsworth, you cheeky chit," he instructed before hailing his friends.
"Oh, joy," she muttered as they approached before cheerfully adding her own greetings.
"Ryder!" Cosmo exclaimed. "And the lovely Lady Arabella. Welcome to London. I must tell Mother that the duchess has arrived."
"You do that," Arabella said softly, adding a vacant smile when her brother frowned at her.
"And Caroline will want to call, as well," Ainsworth said of his sister.
The conversation deteriorated rapidly at that point, as far as Arabella was concerned. The men lapsed into a discussion concerning a prizefight and she did not care to follow along.
Samantha supposed her next meeting with Lord Ryder was destined to be that same day and she was not surprised when the duchess invited him to dinner.
She was instructed to dress simply for the evening, as they were not going out, and her new lavender silk was suitable not only for her complexion, but society's notions of half-mourning.
Arabella had been full of news upon her return, and they dressed together in her room so Jane did not have to rush back and forth between them.
"You must allow Jack to take you to the park tomorrow," Arabella said slyly. She was sprawled out on the bed in her shift and corset while Jane dressed Samantha in front of the cheval mirror. There could be no time for her brother to speak privately to Samantha that evening, but the next day, on a drive, would do nicely. Samantha would be a captive
audience and they could put all that other nonsense behind them. That would leave Arabella with the task of making Samantha her sister.
Arabella was no slowtop. She had read enough romance novels to know Jack and Samantha were meant for each other. She was intelligent enough to realize it was going to take her assistance in bringing that about. She was not going to be deterred in her plans.
"We are going shopping tomorrow," Samantha reminded her. "I doubt I shall have the time or the inclination to visit the park."
"Nonsense! Jack will do all the driving." And talking, if she had her way. "All you have to do is listen, er, go along for the ride."
"I suppose," came the muffled reply as Jane dropped the lavender gown over Samantha's head. "Did you meet any interesting people while you were out?"
"Oh, plenty! I even have a number of dance partners lined up for Almack's."
"But the assemblies don't even begin until next Wednesday!"
"I know!" Arabella crowed. "Isn't it wonderful?"
"Just the sort of thing one would include in a letter to the Malverns," Samantha said innocently.
"You're absolutely right!" Arabella sat up so quickly, she slid off the satin counterpane and onto the floor with a thud. "I shall tell Mama - she may include it in her next missive to Lady Malvern." She was delighted with this idea. "But one dance does not a conquest make. I shall have to cultivate several beaux, in case gossip gets back to Devonshire."
"You plan to set yourself up as a flirt?"
"Why not? I'm young enough yet, and while it would be nice to find a man who can take care of me so I won't have to be a burden on my family, I might as well enjoy myself. You should, too."
"I'm not a forward person, so I shall leave the flirting to you. But I would like to meet some nice, steady men," she admitted.
"And so you shall! Starting this evening! Don't forget Jack is coming to dinner..."
Samantha sighed. She could not forget that.
It was easier to approach Lord Ryder with civility when they were in a group. The duke reached the earl first when he was announced, shook his hand and brought him forth immediately to Samantha.
"It's about time you two met. Samantha, my dear, this is your cousin Jack Pryce, Lord Ryder. Ryder, my granddaughter, Miss Samantha Howard."
Pleasantries were exchanged under the watchful eyes of the other ladies, and then Arabella rescued her from having to make small talk by insisting she needed to speak privately for a moment with her brother.
"Probably wants to squeeze some extra pin money out of him," the duke said jovially as Ryder was whisked away out from underneath their noses. "A good man, Jack. Takes care of his family and he does not live in dissipated excess," he said to his granddaughter. Samantha begged to differ, but only in her mind.
"Oh, goodness, yes. Poor dear is recouping the family losses nicely, isn't he, Melissa?" the duchess asked Lady Ryder. "His father did everything to excess. Jack is nothing like his sire," she whispered to Samantha.
Samantha thought she could tell the duchess a few home truths, but she stilled her tongue. On this subject, even Lady Valerie seemed to be on Lord Ryder's side.
"He is to be commended," Samantha's aunt said.
Fortunately, the butler announced dinner. The duke escorted Lady Ryder and the earl brought in the duchess, leaving Lady Valerie, Arabella and Samantha to bring up the rear. Luck was again on Samantha's side a few moments later when she was seated between her aunt and Lady Ryder, and his lordship was across the table next to his hostess.
What she failed to realize was that this was a family dinner, and the formality drilled into her by Lady Valerie was not applicable. Indeed, Lord Ryder seemed to want to include her in every conversation.
"How do you like your first day in London?" he asked. She quelled the urge to smack his smug face. He knew she could not accuse him of baiting her without the entire story of their first meetings coming to the fore.
"I have lived in London until recently, my lord. This is more a homecoming for me," she sweetly replied. "Not unlike when you visit Devonshire, I am sure." She bent her head to examine the soup in front of her and hoped he would go away.
"Your father was a vicar?" he asked, ignoring his food. The duchess and his mother were happily eating, letting the two young people converse across them as if by unspoken agreement.
"Yes, my lord. St. Matthew's in the east end. I'm sure you have never heard of it."
"Actually, I know it quite well. By location, at least. I pass it weekly on my way to and from a charity hospital where I sit on the board. I may have stopped in there once or twice," he said with a straight face.
Her hand tightened about the spoon she was holding, her knuckles turning white. "Perhaps I can take you and Arabella for a drive over there one day. I am sure my sister would like to see your former home."
"I should love to!" Arabella enthusiastically replied. Samantha glared at her and she dropped her spoon on the floor. "Well, perhaps, if we have time. But not right now, Jack, there is so much to be done for the season. Beginning with a court presentation. Did you know I have three dances already secured for Almack's next week?" she told the duke.
"We are not surprised, my dear. You are a taking thing."
"One can assume Lady Ryder has approved of these partners?" Lady Valerie asked with a sniff.
"I introduced them to her," the earl said, suddenly every inch the aristocrat. "And I am the head of the family. Begging your grace's pardon," he said with a grin towards the duke.
"One day you shall be head of everyone, Jack, and I cannot imagine a better heir if I tried," the older man replied.
Samantha looked over at the earl. She vaguely recalled Arabella or someone saying Lord Ryder was the duke's heir, but she had forgotten. Now she realized that should something happened to her grandfather, she could be at this man's mercy. That would never do. She would have to put more effort than she had originally planned into finding a husband.
Lord Ryder, as if reading her thoughts, lifted his spoon in a mock salute and then dove into the bowl in front of him.
There was another thing Samantha was confused about. When the ladies excused themselves from the dinner table, the gentlemen followed almost immediately, eschewing port and cigars.
"Don’t get used to this," the duchess muttered to her granddaughter. "Sometimes they can sit in there for hours. Now come, Arabella," she called as the entered the smaller salon. "Play for us. And in a little while, you may sing for us, Samantha. I know Ryder has not heard you yet."
Samantha groaned. This man was going to know all her strengths and weaknesses before she even entered society at this rate, and she would know nothing about him. Except for the conflict she felt between her observations and the views of her immediate family. She would have to observe the man more closely and maybe draw some new conclusions.
The tea tray arrived with the gentlemen and Lord Ryder sat down next to her on a sofa. No one considered his interest in her anything but a natural curiosity concerning a newfound relative.
Arabella seemed to be watching them more than her fingers, though, and after a few discordant notes, her brother took pity on her. Moving to the pianoforte, he motioned her off the stool and sat down. Flashing Samantha a grin, he began to play.
"What do you think of Jack?" Arabella whispered, taking his place on the sofa.
"Interesting," Samantha admitted cautiously. Sometimes she had the feeling Arabella knew more about life in general – and her life in particular – and it made her nervous. "He is very good." She nodded toward the pianoforte.
"He is a great lover of music." If Arabella had gushed more about his talent, Samantha might have been less impressed. Arabella was quiet after that, however, leaving her cousin to draw her own conclusions
The next afternoon, despite spending the morning being poked, prodded and pinned by the duchess’ modiste, Samantha found herself accepting Lord Ryder’s invitation for a drive in the park. Both her grandmother and Arabella were present when he called and asked her, and she could not politely refuse.
"I know I should not have asked," he admitted once they were in the phaeton, "but I need a chance to apologize yet again."
"Oh?" She had been staring straight ahead, but now she gave him a sideways glance.
"I should not have questioned you yesterday or taken my surprise out on you."
"No, you should not."
"Forgive me? I should like us to be friends, for Arabella’s sake, and for the family, if nothing else."
Put like that, she could not refute him. "A truce it shall be, then," she agreed and lapsed back into silence.
Once again Ryder was put through his paces as he stopped constantly to introduce Miss Howard, and once again he sat by while the young lady at his side garnered her share of attention. But while he had not minded certain gentlemen fawning over his sister – he had her future to secure, after all – it was different with Samantha.
The girl was in purple once again, this time in sprigged lavender muslin with a bonnet and pelisse in deeper shades. All were vastly becoming to her, but he did not want to offend her once again by saying so. He was going to have to work hard at couching compliments into acceptable accolades. She did not like them coming from him.
But she had no problem accepting flattery from other gentlemen, he noticed jealously as she accepted a dance offer from yet another man. Two had even asked if they could call at Halbourne House when their female relatives came to see the duchess. Samantha handled this all well, but what if she should find a man she liked better than him?
"Now I am up to Arabella’s count," she said happily as they reached one side of the park. "I just need one more partner to top her…"
"I could be that partner," he eagerly replied and then mentally chastised himself for sounding like such a puppy. "After all, we did not dance on Twelfth Night."
"That is so. I will agree, if you promise not to drink that evening."
"Not even lemonade?" he teased, but he could appreciate her request. She probably thought he was a drunken sot, based on previous encounters.
"I suppose that will be acceptable," she said primly, but there was a decided twinkle in her eyes.
Much relieved that they were finally on a friendly footing, they turned to leave the park when he was hailed, as he had been the day before, by Cosmo and Ainsworth.
"By Jove, Ryder – two females in your carriage in as many days," Cosmo began. When he spied Samantha, he sucked in his breath.
Ainsworth, though, bowed from his horse. "Aren’t you going to introduce us, Ryder?"
"Rob…" Cosmo said, but Ryder cut him off with a gesture.
"Miss Howard, I would like you to meet my friends, Sir Robert Ainsworth and Lord Cosmo Villiers. Gentlemen…" He stressed the word for their benefit, as well as hers. "May I present Miss Samantha Howard?"
"How nice to be introduced to you both."
"Miss Howard is the granddaughter of their graces’ the Duke and Duchess of Halbourne," Ryder informed his friends. Both men eyed her with some trepidation. This was no vicar’s daughter, no paid companion. Halbourne might be getting on in years, but he was still a duke, and still a power to be reckoned with. Besides, Cosmo’s mother was a close acquaintance, and Ainsworth knew how to be a proper gentleman, for the most part. Thankfully, of the two, he was the one who recalled the least.
Still, it would be better to keep Samantha at a distance from them until he could explain a few more things to his cronies. Cosmo seemed to read his mind.
"I’m sure we shall be catching up with you later this evening," he said. Ryder agreed, knowing they could discuss the matter at White’s. His friends moved on and he took Samantha home.
"This is a nice to-do," were the first words out of Cosmo’s mouth that night as the three sat down over a friendly game of cards at their club.
"What?" Ainsworth wondered. "You have been going on and on about something all afternoon, Cosmo, and I just don’t understand what you are saying."
"Ryder has found his vicar’s daughter – his paid companion," Cosmo explained.
"It’s about time! Is she in Devonshire?"
"She was. She’s in London now."
"Where is she?"
Ryder shook his head. Ainsworth could be rather dense. After all, Ryder had only spoken of meeting his mystery lady at the duchess’ ball almost nonstop since he had returned to London. Cosmo was tired of it, but Ainsworth barely remembered from one conversation to the next.
"One of these days, Rob, when you meet the right lady, you won’t forget her as quickly as you do every other female in your life," Ryder teased the baronet.
"You will have to fall in love for both of us, as well," Cosmo remarked. "Ryder is already gone, but I am never getting married."
"Never say never," Ainsworth counseled. "And you don’t have to get leg-shackled. You aren’t under pressure to carry on a title."
"But with Miss Howard, Ryder has the best of both worlds!" Cosmo said.
"The devil you say!"
"I do! And it solves a lot of your problems, Ryder. You are the duke’s heir. Miss Howard is his granddaughter and bound to have a hefty dowry. Marry the chit and gain some of your inheritance early."
"You are such a romantic!" was Ryder’s dry reply.
"I know," Cosmo said with a smirk.
"It is a pity there is a problem with your suggestion. Miss Howard and I have called a truce, but she is not interested in me. I do not believe I am considered husband material, based on two of our previous meetings."
"Not husband material?" Ainsworth asked. "Why, you are practically a saint compared to almost every man in this club!"
"You are putting me to the blush, Ainsworth. But I am certainly not as black as even I have painted myself in her eyes."
"Heavens, no!" Cosmo said with a laugh. "And it seems to me now is the perfect time to convince her otherwise. After all, what good is the season if you don’t use it to convince a young lady of your regard?"
"Are you saying I should woo the young lady?"
"No, I’m saying you should ignore her completely and then expect her to come running when you whistle," was the sarcastic reply. "Of course I’m saying woo her!"
A footman approached and Cosmo and Ainsworth ordered port.
"I’ll take cider," the earl said. His friends hooted with laughter.
"What brought all this on?"
"The lady has already made it clear she would not appreciate an excess of liquor passing these lips. I’m practicing now." It was truly no hardship, he realized, but his friends continued to laugh.
"Back to the business at hand. We have to think of ways for Ryder to win Miss Howard," Cosmo said once the footman was gone. "What do young ladies like?"
"Flowers," Ainsworth said decidedly. "Sweets, too."
"Poetry," Cosmo added. "Or Lord Composer here could write a song."
"You could take her on a picnic."
"Definitely ask her to waltz. They like that and you will, too." Cosmo waggled his eyebrows at Ryder and they all chuckled.
"Surely the waltz was invented by courting couples," Ryder noted. "But what if she doesn’t waltz? I don’t know what sort of dances she has learned, but I doubt with Cousin Valerie around, her education has included such a thing."
"Perfect!" Cosmo exclaimed. "If the lady does not waltz yet, you are in the right position to teach her, ensuring extra time holding her in your arms and making sure she knows the steps when the time comes to try it on a dance floor. Even better, you can present yourself as a suitable partner when you ask a patroness to grant her permission."
"Cosmo, you are a genius!"
The footman returned and passed their drinks around and Ryder raised his glass of cider.
"Gentlemen? A toast to my success!" They drank on that and the conversation moved on to other matters.
Much buoyed by his friends’ suggestions, Ryder called the next afternoon at Halbourne House.
"Jack!" Arabella squealed, abandoning her hated needlework to embrace her brother. "Are you here to take me to the park? Please?" she whispered. "I hate sewing, and I need something interesting to do to recover from our court presentations yesterday."
"I have a better idea, especially as you must have been so engrossed in your sampler as not to notice it is raining."
"What do you propose, then?" she asked after he recalled his manners and greeted everyone else.
"Do you waltz?"
"I do! Are we to have dancing practice? I don’t believe Samantha knows the steps," she slyly added.
"She doesn’t?" he asked in mock disbelief. "We can’t have that."
"No, indeed. Come on, Samantha," she called to where their cousin sat embroidering a handkerchief and trying to ignore the fact that they were talking about her.
"Come on! We’re going to the other room to teach you how to waltz!"
“But… But…” Samantha began to sputter when she was told she was to have waltz lessons – with Lord Ryder.
“I know you wish to learn,” Arabella said, pulling her to her feet. I’ll play and you can dance. We’ll call you to come see when we are ready,” she told the older ladies. Lady Valerie sniffed and looked away, but the duchess and Lady Ryder nodded.
They adjourned to the music room down the hall and Arabella settled down happily at the pianoforte, warming up her fingers while she let her brother explain the steps.
“This dance is quite different from the country dances most often seen, Cousin Samantha. I may call you Cousin Samantha?”
“Of course you can,” Arabella called. “After all, you are cousins. Distant ones, to be sure, but still related…”
“Yes, well, anyway,” Ryder continued, coughing to cover a smile when Samantha reluctantly agreed to be called by her Christian name. “I am going to have to put my hand on your waist.”
“Honest!” Arabella interjected. “Let him touch you, Samantha!”
Part of Samantha wanted to run from the room, but she was caught by Lord Ryder’s gray eyes. They were the color of a soft tabby cat, or the mare who used to pull her father’s cart.
“All right…” She felt his hand, warm at her waist, and she looked down as he took her other hand in his.
Samantha knew any number of country dances. Being the daughter of the vicar of Danbury entitled her to many invitations. But the waltz was still considered scandalous by some in that small community. Her mother had reminded her, at the time, that she must remain above gossip for her father’s sake, as well as her own, so she had not had the pleasure before of a man’s hand on her like that.
“You’re holding her too far away, Jack!” Arabella complained. “It is proper to hold her closer.”
Ryder sighed. “I am giving this lesson,” he said to his sister, who was leaning over her instrument, watching. “Cousin Samantha needs to see our feet first.”
Arabella apologized, ducked sheepishly behind the pianoforte and began to play.
“Hear that, Samantha?” he asked. “Count with me and watch my feet. One, two, three… One, two, three…”
She nodded and began to count along softly, and then he requested that she follow his lead. Once she could match him step for step, move for move, he called her name and she looked up into his tabby gray eyes once again.
“Don’t look down now,” he said. “The trick to all this is conversing with your partner while you dance.”
She looked panic-stricken. “I have to talk, too?”
“You already are,” he said gently, keeping her gaze. “And we are slowly circling the room, as well.”
“We are?” She didn’t dare look away.
“We are,” he assured her in a soothing voice.
“Do you make a habit of teaching the waltz to every young lady not privileged enough to know the steps?” she wondered. He was an excellent instructor.
“Only to female relatives. Or almost all female relatives. My Aunt Estelle wished me to teach her, but she is about the size of Hyde Park. I tried, but when I could not find her waist, I had to give up.”
Samantha laughed. “Poor dear.”
“I know I am – it was so traumatic, I took to my room for a week!”
“I wasn’t talking about you! I meant your poor Aunt Estelle. I should have been devastated.”
“Never. Besides, you don’t eat an entire side of bacon for breakfast.” He glanced down at her slim figure. “Do you?”
“You are being very silly, my lord.”
“I know. It’s a whole other side you haven’t seen before. I should be silly more often. Perhaps I can invite some of my friends over one evening for an impromptu night of games.”
“I imagine you are quite good at playing games,” she teased.
“Quite. As is Arabella.”
“Your sister has an incredibly sharp mind. She is such a dear, though; I would be lost without her.”
“I should be thanking you. I have never seen her happier, and I can only attribute that to you.”
“Then I shall have to keep it up, whatever I am doing. I should hate to witness an Arabella in the doldrums.”
“It is not a pretty sight,” he agreed.
Arabella finished the music off with a flourish and Samantha paused. “Done already?”
“Already? I have played the piece through five times!” Arabella complained with a good-natured grin. “My fingers need a rest. Why don't you play? I could dance with Jack. Brother and sister do not get the chance at a real party.”
“You wish to dance?” her brother asked. “I think we can manage.” He held out a hand to her, and she jumped up from her stool and ran to his side.
He bowed and Arabella curtsied before they stepped up to touch hands, shoulder and waist. Ryder began to sing, his baritone rumbling about the room as brother and sister whirled around. When Samantha saw Arabella begin to speak, however, she picked up the tune on the pianoforte so that the siblings could converse.
“Who is the better dancer, me or Samantha?” she asked.
“Cousin Samantha, of course.”
“Jack! Would you say it was me if Samantha were to ask?”
“Naturally, but Samantha would never ask. It is not in her nature to be a brat, like you.”
“Jack! I am only teasing, you know. I think Samantha dances divinely. You will secure a waltz with her before Almack’s, won’t you?”
“She didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“She has already agreed to save me a dance.”
“Splendid! You know…” she added. “I am here to help if you need it.”
“I think I can do quite nicely on my own, sister dear, but I shall keep you in mind.”
Samantha got to put her new dance skills into practice that next Wednesday evening at Almack’s.
She and Arabella were both dressed in white, as befitted debutantes, and only Lady Valerie had been scandalized that Samantha had dropped all the outer trappings of mourning.
“I know I will never forget either of my parents,” she had explained to her grandmother. “I don’t need to wear the willow for them the rest of my life.” As she was the one who wished to see Samantha wearing white, the duchess could only agree.
Almack’s patroness Lady Jersey greeted guests as they arrived, and was rather effusive towards their graces and Lady Ryder as they entered the assembly rooms. She smiled at Samantha and Arabella as if they had passed an inspection of sorts.
As soon as he could, the duke went in search of the card room, but he promised, first, to come back when the dancing began. He was to lead Samantha out for the first set. Arabella was to partner one of the gentlemen she had met in the park, and she bounced lightly on her feet as she anticipated that happy event.
“Please, Arabella…” her mother wearily admonished. “You ran about all day, you would not sit still to have your hair done and now you are hopping around like a rabbit.”
“But she is not shy like a bunny,” Ryder, wearing black and white evening dress, said over his mother’s shoulder. “Her energy should serve her in good stead this evening.”
“I suppose so, but if you come to me later, wishing to go home early, young lady…” The countess let the thread hang.
“I always like it when a female is respectful to her elders,” a gentleman said in Arabella’s ear. She stiffened and did not turn around.
“If it isn’t Bozo and, I can assume,” she added, looking at Samantha for confirmation, “Ainsworthless.”
Samantha nodded. She had never seen one gentleman without the other.
“Behave, Scarabella,” Lord Cosmo warned, “or I might ask you to dance.”
“Heaven forbid it should come to that! For either of us...”
“While the children are playing, may I ask you for the third dance?” Ryder requested, drawing Samantha off to one side.
“I see you are wearing my flowers…”
Samantha blushed. She was, indeed, wearing in her hair the freesias he had sent earlier that day. The other ladies also wore his flowers, but he had included a note in hers.
“A token of friendship,” it had said. She had to believe it. The flowers themselves meant the same. It had put her at ease, because she had been afraid at first it was a lover’s note. She was not quite ready for one of those. From anyone.
“I say, Miss Howard. If you are available, I should like to offer myself as a partner,” Ainsworth interrupted.
“Yes, of course, Sir Robert.”
“I’d ask Lady Arabella,” he said, “but she seems to be monopolized by her nemesis. I do not mind being Ainsworthless, you see,” he confided. “But Cosmo absolutely hates his name.”
The three of them laughed and made small talk until the duke claimed his granddaughter for the first dance.
After the second dance, Samantha began to worry. She heard in passing that the next one was a waltz, and she knew, from Lady Valerie’s drillings, that one needed permission to do so.
“Miss Howard!” Lady Jersey barked imperiously, rousing Samantha from her musings.
“My lady.” She curtsied gracefully to the patroness.
“Lord Ryder has presented himself as an acceptable partner for the waltz.” She indicated the earl, hovering at her elbow. “Lucky girl,” Samantha thought the lady said under her breath. When she looked up at the patroness, the lady had the same stern gaze of the moment before.
“I give you permission to dance with him. Lady Arabella?”
“Ma’am?” Arabella had not yet secured a partner.
“Lord Cosmo respectfully requests permission on your behalf. Granted.” The countess stalked off in pursuit of other hapless young ladies, leaving Ryder smiling down at Samantha and Cosmo bending over Arabella’s hand.
“I thought you might like to waltz, Scarabella, but if you would rather not…” Cosmo said.
“She would love to,” Ryder and Samantha replied in unison. They looked at each other and laughed rather nervously before he led her to the dance floor.
“I would love to,” they heard Arabella say weakly just as the music began.
“Are they always like that?” Samantha asked the earl.
“Always. A couple of years ago, Cosmo and Ainsworth came with me to Ryder for a few weeks, and it was dislike at first sight.”
“Are you certain?” Samantha wondered, glancing at the other couple. They were speaking with animation and several smiles were being exchanged.
“Hmmm…” Ryder said thoughtfully. “I had better keep an eye on Cosmo and make sure he is not trifling with my sister. He has vowed not to marry, you see.”
Samantha was so engrossed in observing the other couple, she did not even realize they all were already on the other side of the floor from where they began. “Methinks the gentleman and the lady might protest too much,” she deliberately misquoted. “Did you ever notice that waltzing is a bit like floating?”
“I shall take that as a compliment, as I am the only partner you’ve ever had. Believe me, when you’ve waltzed with others, you will see a difference.” If he allowed her to waltz with others.
Suddenly, he decided he wanted to keep her to himself. Always. Forever. He once thought he wanted a wife that was docile and took orders easily and willingly. That was the sort his father had always advised him to find. But he didn’t want one like that. He wished – no, needed – one who prodded him to action, who did not tolerate certain behaviors and who gave back as good as she got. Someone like Samantha, who did not blindly accept the world around her. A lesser young lady would not have tossed him out of a church service or refused him at the inn. She would not have sought to support herself, or stood up to Lady Valerie.
He finally understood what he should have known all along. A strong man needed a strong woman by his side. He was in love with the lady in his arms, dammit, and if he did not stake his claim as soon as possible, she would be someone else’s. He was going to present himself to the duke the very next day.
Samantha was having a wonderful evening. She had waltzed with Lord Ryder, danced with the gentlemen she had met in the park, and had even been partnered by both Lord Cosmo and Sir Robert.
Lord Cosmo had led her to a refreshment table after their dance, but Arabella was there and she and Samantha’s dance partner had become embroiled immediately in their usual exchange of insults and both seemed to forget Samantha’s existence.
“…Ryder. He has spent several years recovering family losses… father was a wastrel, you know,” she heard a female voice say nearby.
“Don’t I know it,” a second female responded. Samantha knew she should not eavesdrop, but she could not help it. She moved in for a clearer listen, determining that the voices were coming from just behind her.
“That’s her. Halbourne’s granddaughter. Ryder had better get there early, if he knows what’s good for him. One needs to keep all that lovely money in the family. If he marries the granddaughter, he doesn’t have to wait till the old man dies…”
“How convenient,” the other drawled. Both ladies laughed.
Samantha had heard enough. Touching Lord Cosmo lightly on the arm, she said the lemonade was as bad as he had painted it and could he take her back to her grandmother?
Her evening went down from there. Arabella got into a flaming row over something so ridiculous, Samantha couldn’t even recall what it was later that evening. Lady Ryder declared it time to leave. Samantha had a headache and she barely spoke to anyone, she felt so disagreeable. Even the duchess agreed that their charges should be taken home. The duke was found winning in the card room and he was rather disgruntled about leaving just when he was having a run of luck.
Ryder had done a few duty dances and when he returned to the dowagers, they had gone.
Samantha sat up for a while that night, mulling over the gossip she had heard. Common sense and her mother’s voice told her it was just that – gossip. Idle speculation, if you would. She had to believe the ladies speaking were simply jealous of her dowry.
The dowry was enormous, from what the duchess had intimated, but Samantha did not dwell on her own net worth. Not having seen it, it was of no import to her. Indeed, it was only a gift – and an unnecessary one at that – from doting grandparents.
What if Ryder needed it? His fortune had been diminished through no fault of his own, but he seemed to manage, from what Arabella had said. He wasn’t so strapped for funds that he was going to call on the duke the next day and ask for her hand.
Having decided that was definitely not going to happen, Samantha finally drifted off to sleep. Her last thought, however, was on the earl and what it would be like to receive a proposal from him.
Ryder was up early the next morning, on a mission once again. This was the most consequential thing he had ever done in all his twenty-five years – propose marriage.
Correction: Gain the duke’s permission and then propose.
He dressed carefully for this all-important interview. His man helped him into a crisp linen shirt and dove gray pantaloons, and he tied his cravat into a simple knot. He was too busy contemplating what he was going to say to Cousin Avery to notice that the valet had added a smoky topaz stickpin and then helped him into his dark blue coat.
What was he going to say to the duke? To Samantha?
Taking a deep breath, he thanked his man for his assistance and headed to Halbourne House.
Once he had arrived, he asked to be shown directly to the duke, who did not notice his younger cousin and heir looking different from any other day, and invited him to sit and take some whisky and snuff with him. Ryder declined. There must not be any alcohol on his breath when he spoke to Samantha, and he was not very interested in snuff.
“I have come on a mission of some importance today, Avery,” he said, sitting on the edge of his chair.
“Your latest ship has come into port and the hold is full of treasures from India,” the duke said with a smile.
“I… how did you know? It only docked last night!”
“Servants…” he explained.
“But that is not why I am here. I…” Ryder stood and started pacing the rug on the hearth. “I know it has only been a short while, but truly, it has been longer than you realize…”
“You wish to take over the stewardship of Vinelands?”
“No. I’m doing just fine in London, and mother has good control of Ryder…” He paused and then hit on a good way to proceed. “May I tell you a story?”
The older man sat back in his chair and surveyed his young relative. “Certainly. I like stories.”
Ryder took a deep breath and continued. “Last year, I was on my way back from a hospital meeting when I saw a young lady being attacked for her food. I flatter myself that I was the one who routed the ruffians, but I did not expect my heart to be routed, as well.”
“You’ve fallen in love with someone unsuitable?” The duke was not too alarmed, but he did raised one shaggy white eyebrow.
“No, I have not. I’m in love, yes, but she is definitely suitable. More than suitable, actually.” And had she not been, he would have found a way.
“Then why the story? If she is eligible, just ask her. That is what you wish to do, isn’t it? Ask the suitable chit to marry you?”
“Yes. But I would like her guardian’s blessing first. You see, I had the young lady followed home and discovered she lived in a vicarage, and her father was the minister at St. Matthew’s.”
“St. Matthew’s? Why, that was…”
“It was Samantha?” Now the duke was incredulous. “What are the odds?”
“Indeed. But that is not all. I might as well come clean with you, your grace. After all, you are her guardian and her grandfather.” He continued his story, so intent on watching his feet as he talked, he did not see the wide smile on the duke’s face.
“You interrupted a church service when you were more than a trifle disguised?”
“And accosted her at an inn when you were ape-drunk?”
“And then you took her to my private garden at the ball and didn’t even tell her who you were?” He hooted with laughter. “You have made quite an impression, lad!” He laughed so hard he choked on his whisky and Ryder had to pound him on the back.
“I’ve changed since then.” He outlined some of the promises he had made to Samantha and how he had stuck to his guns.
“Well, my boy, it seems as if you have made a few improvements in your life since you met my grandchild, and she seems to have had a positive influence on you. Not that you were all that bad in the first place,” he admitted. “But you seem to be in a good way of changing her misconceptions. I’m glad to give my permission, but the decision is ultimately up to her. She has a generous dowry, you know – her grace and I have seen to that.”
“I don’t care about the money, Avery. We live comfortably enough at Ryder, despite not being able to afford new wardrobes every year. There is always food on the table, and I would not deny her whatever she wished anyway. I don’t need the dowry.”
“I know that – and she truly has few needs, having had to make do now for a number of years. But I would give it to you anyway, to collect interest and to put in trust for any great-grandchildren you gave me.” He chuckled when Ryder actually blushed.
“No need to think about all that, yet, sir. As long as I have your permission… Where should I speak to her? Not here – too many eyes and ears, Arabella being the worst of the lot.”
“Why don’t you take her to Green Park, or Kensington Gardens?” the duke suggested. “Fewer people than Hyde, and you can just tell her you are going for a drive.”
“We aren’t going to Hyde Park?” Samantha asked as they drove past its gates.
“No, we are going to a different park today. It’s a place just past here – Green Park.”
“Oh!” She knew about it, of course, and its connection to St. James, but she had never been there. “That will be fine.”
“I think you will like it.” He pulled his phaeton in at the gates and gave his name. They were expected. Once they had alighted and his tiger had taken charge of the carriage, Ryder offered his arm to Samantha.
She looked about in awe as they walked – the park was beautiful, and much more quiet than Hyde Park would ever be. “It’s lovely,” she breathed and then lapsed into silence.
“Not as…” No, he had to go slow on this, now that he had made up his mind and gained permission to pay his addresses.
“All right. Did you enjoy yourself last night at Almack’s?” she asked. “I would not have figured you for a person who attended the assemblies there.”
“I usually do not, but it did not hurt for Arabella or yourself to have a show of familial support.”
“Yes, and thank you. Arabella enjoyed herself immensely until she and Lord Cosmo almost came to blows over something. I do not recall what that was – I had a headache and we left early.”
“I know. I came to see if you wished to dance once more, and you were gone. Are you feeling quite the thing today?”
“Yes. Much better, thank you.” She fell silent once more.
“Miss Howard… Samantha…” He escorted her over to a bench by his usual method, pulling, and set her down on it. “We have known each other for some time, and while we got off to a bad beginning, I believe we are friends now.”
Samantha looked at him rather pensively. Was he going to start all that again? Why not wear sackcloth and ashes while he was at it? “Yes, we are friends,” she tentatively agreed, not sure where this was headed.
“And I have thought that you and I would suit as more than friends…”
He droned on a moment about the value of friendship inside and outside of matrimony, and she inwardly cringed. He was going to propose! In her wildest dreams, she never would have imagined this, and it was not something she wanted. Not at the beginning of the season, not now, when she had just entered this world her mother had come from. She was still getting her bearings.
“Lord Ryder?” She had to stop this now.
“Yes, darling?” He knelt by her side and took her hand.
Samantha looked away. If she stared into those eyes for too long, she would be undone, and she had to keep her composure. “Please do not propose.”
“What?” He stood abruptly and stepped back, as if he had been singed.
“I said, please do not tender a proposal. You might be ready to say it,” and she had her doubts about that, but it would be impolite to voice them, “but I am not ready to hear it.”
“You aren’t? I thought young ladies were always ready to at least hear offers being made.”
“Not this lady,” she insisted.
“Will you ever be?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered, her hands mangling her reticule. It began to sprinkle, and she wished then she had not left her parasol in the phaeton.
“How can I prove myself worthy?”
“You might already be worthy, sir.”
“Jack,” he insisted.
“Jack… but I am not at a point where I can give an honest answer.”
“You will let me know?”
“Let us get you home again before it rains harder.” He offered a hand to help her up from the bench and they set back out for his carriage.
Samantha made the drive home in silence and when Lord Ryder escorted her to the door, she whispered a goodbye and ran to her room. She did not see Lady Valerie’s maid, Hettie, in the rear of the front hall.
Once in her bedchamber, she threw herself down on the silky counterpane and tried to come to an understanding of what had just happened.
Lord Ryder had been about to propose, that much she understood. Her cheeks flamed as she remembered the gossip from the evening before. Could it be true he only wanted her for her money? Perhaps she should have let him finish speaking. Not that he would have admitted coveting her dowry. He wasn’t that much of a fool, but what if he had been about to say something else?
She had not given him a chance, not because she was afraid he only wanted money, but because she wasn’t sure she was ready to hear any lover-like declarations. She didn’t think she was ready for that. Tears of frustration rolled down her face and then she let out a wail and buried her head in her pillow.
She had not remembered to close the door between her room and Arabella’s.
Arabella had gone to her room to fetch a shawl. Lady Valerie was in charge of the household and she was such a miser when it came to heating even the main rooms. If Arabella had wanted to pinch pennies, she would have stayed home in Devonshire.
Seeing the connecting door open, she went to close it and heard Samantha crying. Not knowing the particulars, but almost certain it concerned her brother, she left the door as it was and went back to her own room. One of the advantages of being Jack’s sister was access to and working knowledge of his household. Sitting down at her little writing desk, she penned a note to his housekeeper.
The air was rife with tension that evening, although her mother seemed oblivious to the heavy atmosphere. Their graces looked anxious, Samantha was tight-lipped and Lady Valerie kept darting suspicious looks at them all.
Arabella was relieved when everyone went to bed early, citing Wednesday’s late night and a ball on Friday as reasons to get some rest. She did not mind. One had to get up fairly early if one wanted to best one’s brother on his own turf.
Ryder House was much the same as the last time she had been there, several years before when she had been allowed to visit for a few weeks during the spring. It was still full of moldy old family portraits and it was still shabby in a genteel sort of way. Fortunately, the sunny breakfast parlor she had been escorted to was less moldy and shabby then some other parts of the house. She was still glad she was staying at Halbourne House – even with parsimonious Lady Valerie in charge, - it was much more comfortable.
Breakfast was set out as she had requested, and she poured herself a cup of tea and helped herself to the food on the sideboard as she waited for her brother to arrive.
"What are you doing here?" he grouched, stumbling bleary-eyed into the room after being told Arabella was downstairs.
"Have you been drinking?" she asked suspiciously.
"Why not? My reason for quitting could care less if I do or not." He sat down and a footman brought him a cup of black coffee. Ryder took it and waved the man out of the room.
"Samantha," Arabella said softly when they were alone.
"You are too clever by half," he said sarcastically.
"She refused me. Well, she would have if she had let me finish."
"She interrupted you?"
Ryder flushed. "Actually, she wouldn’t even let me get started."
"Smart girl," Arabella observed, reaching for the jam. "But you really should not have proposed so soon."
"Oh?" He drank half the coffee in his cup and then sat there staring at her. "What should I have done? Said nothing and let every man with sense run tame through Halbourne House?"
"You run tame in Halbourne House," she pointed out with the silver knife she was using on her toast.
"That’s different," he mumbled.
"So you tried to make an offer, she acted all dicked in the nob and you went on an elbow-crooker. You nodcock!"
He frowned at her use of so many cant phrases.
"I’m just trying to help."
"Well, don’t. I think I can handle this on my own." He rose from the table and stalked from the room.
Arabella frowned and tossed down her toast. She wasn’t hungry any more.
"What’s the matter, Scarabella?" Lord Cosmo asked from the doorway. "Ryder deny you a new gown?"
"Go away, Bozo. I’m trying to think." She rested her chin on her hands, heedless of her elbows on the table.
"Don’t strain yourself," he requested.
She looked at him in disgust. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"I was worried about Ryder. I hadn’t seen him around last night and wondered what had happened."
"Evidently he tried to make Samantha an offer yesterday afternoon and didn’t even get a chance to express himself before being turned down."
Cosmo whistled. "So he sat home and drank by himself last night," he surmised. Arabella nodded.
"She was in tears. We need to do something to help them both."
"We?" he queried. "What do you mean, we?"
"You and I, bacon-brain. Why do I bother speaking to men?" she asked, looking up.
"Because you find us irresistible?" Cosmo moved into the room and sat down by her side. "You know we should not be in here together, don’t you?" She shrugged.
"You could have stayed in the doorway and then left."
"Females!" Cosmo exclaimed, raising his own eyes to the heavens. "Why should I leave when there is a beautiful lady in the room?"
"I do not deal in Spanish coin, sir!" she exclaimed.
"I’m not offering false flattery. You truly are beautiful, Arabella," he said, getting her name correct.
She put her arms down and stared at him as he leaned in toward her.
"What are you doing?"
"I’m getting ready to kiss you."
"Oh." She leaned toward him, curious and rather breathless at the same time. She had never been kissed before, unless one counted the time she was six and scraped her knee. Her nanny had not been present and she had insisted Lord Malvern’s son kiss it to make it feel better. She smiled as she recalled that he had done as she had commanded. Would that work now? "Well? What are you waiting for?"
Cosmo didn’t need any more invitation than that. His lips touched hers gently at first, and then more firmly, and she slid over to the edge of her chair so that she might be close enough to put her hands on his arms. The gesture was to hold herself steady more than anything and when his mouth insisted she open hers to him, she was glad she had braced herself under that onslaught.
"Well?" he asked huskily as he finally broke it off.
Arabella had her eyes closed, her mouth open and she was strangely short of breath. "That was…" She had no words for the sensation.
"I had better leave now."
Her eyes flew open. "Why? We were just getting started!"
"And who knows where we would finish?" he asked, standing abruptly and almost falling backwards. Their chairs had locked legs as they had moved forward to lock lips. "I can’t… I won’t…I have to go," he said. "The last thing I need is pistols at dawn with Ryder," he said and ran from the room.
"A duel!" she exclaimed to the empty room. "Over me!" Humming a happy little tune, she picked up another piece of toast and reached for the jam pot.
Blue-deviled, Samantha kept to her room all morning. She didn’t even know that Arabella had gone to Ryder House for breakfast. When a knock came at the door, she barely acknowledged it. She was dressed for the day but she was curled up on her pillow once more.
"Are you going to come out sometime today?" Lady Valerie asked. She was always exquisitely gowned, and today was no exception. Her dress was coral muslin, with flounces about the neck and hem, and she wore a strand of coral stones about her neck. Samantha wondered why she bothered with the elegance, when she so rarely set foot out of the house. "Mama is asking about you. Do you need a physic?" she added, coming to the side of the bed and looking intently at her niece.
"No, ma’am. I’ll be all right…" In another hundred years or so, she thought unhappily.
"You would do well to steer clear of Ryder."
"He drinks too much," Samantha said, nodding, not even questioning how her aunt knew this involved their cousin.
"All men drink too much," Lady Valerie said in soothing tones. Samantha did not know her aunt well enough to be alarmed at this sudden change of mood.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a female on the side somewhere."
"They all do that, too, my dear." She patted Samantha’s arm.
"And I think he only wants me for my money."
"I would not deny that an influx of funds would do wonders for his estate…"
"What am I going to do?" Samantha wailed. "I cannot ignore him, because he is family. I have no idea how to get the message across that I do not want him, however, without being rude."
"Encourage other gentleman? Ryder would get the idea soon enough…"
Samantha looked at her in wonder. "I should! I will! Tonight at the Peabody ball!"
"That’s the spirit!" Lady Valerie encouraged. "What will you wear?"
"The new white silk?"
"No, no, that is too childish. You want to attract men, not have them ask to push you in your pram! But I have an idea… Come with me," she said, holding out a hand. "I have something you might be interested in."
Samantha could not resist going anywhere with Lady Valerie. The lady had remained an enigma these many months and she longed to know better the woman who was her mother’s sister.
They went to Lady Valerie’s suite, a bedchamber, dressing room and private parlor all decorated in pale blues and yellows. Samantha was led to the bedroom, settled in a blue toile tufted chair and told to wait. Lady Valerie disappeared into the dressing room and returned almost immediately with a gown in ice blue satin.
"It’s beautiful!" Samantha said breathlessly.
"Then it is yours. I had ordered it this winter, but when it came, I knew at a glance it was more your style than mine. Come – try it on."
"Don’t be shy. Hettie is waiting to help you into it, and I have the perfect set of diamonds you may borrow to go with it."
Samantha did not like her aunt’s sly-faced maid, but she allowed Hettie to put her in the gown. It did suit her, she thought, as she stood in front of the dressing room mirror, even if the bodice was almost immodestly low.
"Don’t tug at the neck, Samantha dear, it is supposed to fall where it does. Oh, you will be the belle of the ball!"
"You think so?"
"I know so!" Lady Valerie put an arm around Samantha’s waist and looked at her in the mirror. "And I know I have not been very welcoming… It takes me a while to get to know people, but I hope you shall forgive me. May we be friends? Will you call me Aunt Valerie?"
Samantha nodded, moisture threatening to spill out of her eyes. "Yes, Lady… I mean, Aunt Valerie. I should like that above all things. Thank you"
"Good. Let us get you back into your other gown and go down to sit with Mama and Lady Ryder, shall we? And don’t cry – we may not be able to get your face repaired before this evening."
Jane eyed the blue ball gown warily when Samantha produced it that evening. She was washed and curled and wearing appropriate underclothes when she finally sprang the dress on her maid.
"I don’t know, Miss Samantha. It ain’t exactly a young lady’s gown, fer all it’s light blue. I suppose if you’ve your heart set on it… I’ll go ask her grace’s dresser if you can have some of the sapphires to go with it."
"I do want to wear it, Jane, and I have jewelry already."
"Pearls it is, then," the maid said with a sigh. His grace had presented a strand to both Arabella and Samantha upon their arrival in London.
"Not pearls." Samantha rummaged in her dressing table drawer and produced Lady Valerie’s diamond necklace and a pair of earrings to match. Jane gawked at her a moment before shaking her head. "I ain’t gonna let you wear those, Miss Samantha! All the other young ladies…"
"Hang all the other young ladies!" she said with a pout. When her maid just stood there, she resorted to begging. "Oh, please, Jane!"
When her young charge turned on her puppy-dog eyes, Jane was lost.
"All right, but if her grace says anythin’, I’m innocent."
Samantha had the sense to put a wine-colored velvet cloak over her gown, only the veriest bit of ice blue satin peeking out from underneath. No one noticed at the house, but when she pulled off her cape at Lady Peabody’s house, the duchess, Lady Ryder and Arabella all gasped.
Diamonds dripped from Samantha’s ears and neck, and dipped low into her very revealing decolletage. She looked like a courtesan.
"I think I might be faint," the duchess moaned. Lady Ryder seemed at a loss for words.
"Don’t you like it?" Samantha asked, clearly confused.
"You look…" Arabella struggled for something nice to say.
"Smashing! Simply smashing!" a gentleman just behind them exclaimed. "I say, Lady Ryder, won’t you introduce me?"
"Lord Hambly, this is my daughter, Lady Arabella Pryce, and our cousin, Miss Howard. Ladies, Lord Hambly." The girls greeted him in unison.
"Would you honor me with the first set, Miss Howard?"
Lord Hambly was an older gentleman with definite lines of dissipation, and Samantha’s first instinct was to turn tail and run. Especially as he kept eyeing her cleavage. Else she could wear her cape all evening. But she could not refuse, unless she did not wish to dance the rest of the evening. She reluctantly agreed.
Once they had been welcomed by their hostess, who had raised her lorgnette when Samantha curtsied, but otherwise did not say a word, Samantha was besieged by men seeking introductions, dances and, she was sure, a peek down her bodice.
"Where on earth did you get that scandalous gown, child?" the duchess demanded once they had found chairs along one side of the ballroom.
"I…" She did not dare implicate her aunt, even if her grandmother did believe her. She feared Lady Valerie’s retaliation, for one thing, and what would her aunt do anyway? She would either deny the entire thing or affect innocence. Samantha was stuck either way, just as she was now stuck with all these fawning, leering men.
Arabella smelled a rat – a middle-aged rat named Lady Valerie to be exact. Who else had access to such jewels, besides the duchess? Who else had an agenda one could only guess at? Who else could have ordered such a gown to Samantha’s exact measurements? (And Arabella could see the measurements had been exact!) No one else was going to, so it had to be her.
Spying Ryder standing by himself next to a nearby potted palm, she excused herself and joined him.
"Who is the Incomparable surrounded by all those men?" he asked after they had exchanged greetings.
"Are you sober?"
"Yes, I am sober," he said in a resigned voice. "I was last night, too, which you would know if you did not jump immediately to conclusions."
"But your eyes… And you said…"
"I know what I implied, and as for my eyes, they tend to look like that when one sits up half the night trying to figure out what went wrong. Not to mention being woken by one’s sister’s arrival after only two hours of sleep."
"Oops!" Arabella said, a guilty expression on her face. "But I only asked if you were sober, because if you were, you would see that the Incomparable is Samantha."
"Samantha?" He let out a low whistle. "Where is she getting her clothes these days? A brothel?"
Arabella frowned. "Actually, I believe she may have fallen victim to the kindness of her aunt."
Ryder rolled his eyes. "Something needs to be done about that old girl."
"And soon. I don’t know what happened between you and Samantha, Jack, and I don’t want to. But we need to protect her from herself if she has begun to put her trust in Cousin Valerie."
"You are right. Why don’t you snoop about the house and see if you can figure out what is going on."
"I can do that!" Arabella was pleased to be of some use and get a chance to indulge in some skullduggery at the same time.
"I’m sure you can. In the meantime, I think I know someone who can help."
"Don’t worry about that right now. I’ll tell you when I know more."
"Do you always make a habit of questioning your elders?" a familiar voice asked.
"Only those widgeons who don’t know what they want," she said without looking. "Are you here to ask me to dance, Bozo?"
"Of course, Scarabella. What else would I be here for?"
"I don’t know… Perhaps another kiss?" she asked coyly.
Ryder stared at his friend, then his sister and then his friend again.
"You’ve been kissing my sister, Cosmo?" he demanded to know.
"It was just a little kiss, Ryder, nothing to get excited about," he said hastily.
"One little kiss?" Arabella was incredulous. "You stuck your tongue down my throat! All in all it was a rather enjoyable experience. Let’s do it again sometime." With an airy little wave, she headed back to the rest of her family, including the ice blue tart. At least Samantha had not dampened her petticoats.
"You’ve been kissing my sister?" Ryder repeated once Arabella was out of earshot. Cosmo cleared his throat.
"Can we talk about it later, Ryder? I believe I am developing a rash."
"You’re going to be developing a bullet in your body if you don’t tell me exactly what happened between you and Arabella!"
"Can we truly speak of this some other time, Ryder? The important thing this evening is extracting Miss Howard out from underneath that pile of gentlemen over there."
"I know," Ryder said glumly. "But she doesn’t want my help."
"I am certain she will adore you if you help her out of this predicament."
"Of course I am! And you would do well to remember that when it comes time to discuss your sister."
Ryder growled but he didn’t have time to deal with Cosmo. He had a young lady to rescue.
Samantha was growing increasingly uncomfortable and the dancing had not even begun. Moreover, this large contingent of men had descended upon her, none of them with anything honorable on their minds, and she began to look for a way out. At this point, she only wished to go home and hide in her room. What people must be saying about her!
It was a pity the duke had not provided escort that evening, instead of going to his club to dine with an old friend. Fortunately, Ryder suddenly appeared, Lord Cosmo in tow, and ignored everyone as he waded through her court of admirers.
"Good evening, Miss Howard. Gentlemen… Miss Howard, I have a message for you, from your aunt."
"My aunt?" she quizzed.
"Yes, your aunt. The one who thinks she is a French modiste who escaped Madame Guillotine only to end up clothing bits of muslin in London," he said with a straight face. "She’s a bit daft," he confided to the men. "It runs in the family."
A couple of men looked alarmed and began to back off, but Samantha had already caught on.
"My aunt – the one who is crazy – didn’t happen to mention my gown, did she?"
"No, but the lady – whose insanity rarely skips a generation – wishes you to come home and attend her. She is very ill."
"My poor aunt!" Samantha wailed. "And poor me. I will require an escort, my lord. Do you think…" She looked about, but only Lords Cosmo, Ryder and Hambly remained.
"I shall be honored to escort you," Lord Hambly offered.
"There is no need," Arabella assured him, joining the group. "My brother and I will do."
"Perhaps we can dance again some other time," he conceded.
"Perhaps," Samantha faintly agreed.
"Ready to go? Cosmo, please fetch my carriage. Arabella, wait at the front door with our cloaks. I’ll take Miss Howard around through a back hallway." Linking arms with her, he affected a leisurely stroll towards his mother and the duchess.
"Arabella and I will take Cousin Samantha home and return as soon as possible."
‘Of course," the duchess agreed. "I am so sorry you are unwell, my dear," she said loud enough for others to overhear. "I daresay the heat in this room does not help. What was Lady Peabody thinking to have a fire burning in that enormous hearth?"
Ryder did as promised. He took her to the front of the house by an alternate route and Arabella helped her quickly into her cloak. They did all this in silence, and even the ride home was quiet.
Ryder would not leave until he was certain her maid had collected Samantha in person.
"You aren’t angry with me, are you?" she whispered as he bid her goodnight
"I could never be angry with you."
Samantha felt a weight lift from her chest as Jane took her off to her room.
The house was still. Miss Howard had gone directly to bed upon her return and the rest of the quality was still at the ball. That fool Jane was asleep up in her garret, and Hettie slipped into Miss Howard’s bedchamber through Lady Arabella’s door.
The necklace and earrings were on the dressing table, as expected, and it was easy enough for the maid to pocket them all, the young lady in the bed not even stirring as she bent over to check her.
Tomorrow should be interesting, she thought with a grin as she went back through Lady Arabella’s rooms and directly to her mistress. There would be a big show of retrieving the diamonds the next day, followed by accusations and, if Hettie was lucky, a new post for herself. She patted her pocket with satisfaction.
The next morning, Lady Valerie knocked on Samantha’s door and made a big show about needing the diamonds back in the family vault.
Samantha, suspicious after the evening before, put on a mask of innocent gratitude and went directly to her dressing table to retrieve the jewels. She opened a drawer only to find they were not there. Thinking she had put them in the wrong place, she checked the other drawer. Not there, either.
Perhaps they were overlooked the first time. She searched both drawers once more. No diamonds.
Lady Valerie waited while her niece retrieved the jewelry and now she watched Samantha intently.
"I cannot find them. Perhaps Jane put them elsewhere for safekeeping," she said.
"Then ring for her and let us get this settled," her aunt replied.
Samantha continued searching while they waited for Jane, who insisted, when she arrived, that the diamonds had been put away in the dressing table. She began rummaging about, becoming more frantic by the moment as the jewelry failed to appear.
"But I put it away in here last night before Miss Samantha went to bed!"
"Are you saying the diamonds are missing?" Lady Valerie queried, sounding surprised. "That is too bad. I shall have to have all of the servants and their rooms searched now."
"Yes, please do," Samantha begged, even though she disliked the idea of someone being caught and punished by her aunt.
"Excuse me," Lady Valerie said. "Jane, please come with me." Jane followed immediately and Samantha was right behind her.
An hour later, after all the rooms had been searched by the butler, a grim-faced Lady Valerie returned, holding up the necklace and earrings.
"The magistrate has been summoned," she said to the assembled servants. Samantha thought there was a ghost of a smile about her lips, as if she enjoyed the suspense. "Everyone is now dismissed back to their duties, except Jane."
"What?" Samantha cried. "I’m sure Jane wasn’t the thief!"
"The diamonds were found under her mattress," Lady Valerie replied as if that settled it. "The magistrate can take it from there."
Jane stood there with a stricken expression that proved to Samantha, at least, that her maid was innocent. But what could she do? She could appeal to the duke, but he was not yet abroad for the day. Arabella…
"Excuse me," Samantha said. "I do think you are innocent," she whispered to Jane as she exited the room.
Arabella was still in bed, but she was sitting up drinking chocolate and eating a roll when Samantha strode in without as much as a by your leave. The look on Arabella’s maid’s face as she set out her mistress’ gown for the day told Samantha she knew at least part of what was happening elsewhere in the house.
"Samantha! I trust you are better this morning?"
"No, but for an entirely different reason than last evening. Did you enjoy the ball?"
"It was pleasant enough, but it wasn’t the same without you. Are you unwell?"
Samantha sat down on the foot of her cousin’s bed and related that morning’s incident. By the time she was finished with the story to date, Arabella was out of the covers and hugging her friend.
"Lady Valerie cannot be trusted, no matter how nice she appears. Jane was obviously framed for this, and I think I know by whom. But I doubt there is any proof at the moment. I shall have to think about this…"
"Who would take the diamonds and hide them in Jane’s room?"
"Hettie, of course," Millie, the maid, said. She sat mending a torn flounce and listening to the conversation. "She is Lady Valerie’s henchman, and she also wishes the position of your maid, Miss Samantha. So she could report everything you do back to your aunt."
"What if someone placed something valuable in Hettie’s room?" Samantha asked.
"Too risky, don’t you think? Besides, they aren’t going to want to conduct another search. The magistrate will interview a few people and make a decision based on that," Arabella replied.
"Perhaps Hettie could be one of those interviewed…" Samantha wondered. "Or… Who shares a room with Jane?"
"I do," Millie piped up.
"Hmmm… What if Millie’s story matched Jane’s, or she could provide an alibi of some sort, enough to cause the magistrate to doubt at least half of the testimony?"
"That might work," Arabella agreed. "And it is better than what we have already." She dressed quickly and then loitered in the front hall until the magistrate arrived. Instructing the footman on duty to place the gentleman in a drawing room, she followed him in and began pouring her heart out to the kind-faced old man.
"So you see," she said in conclusion as he waited patient, "those are the servants to interview. Hettie and Millie."
"Good day, sir!" Lady Valerie called from the open doorway. "What are you doing here?" she snapped at Arabella.
"Being friendly," came the pert reply. "It was so nice to meet you, sir," she added, curtseying to the gentleman and going off in search of a more substantial breakfast.
In the end, Jane was absolved of any wrongdoing due to a conflict in testimonies and a lack of evidence.
"Lack of evidence?" Lady Valerie had screeched. Samantha had never seen her so upset. "The diamond were found under her mattress!" The servants interviewed were lined up once more and this time, the duke was present.
"Anyone could have placed them there. Besides, both maids were abed last night and both were busy this morning. I just do not see enough reason to prosecute," the magistrate explained. He did not stay long after that, and the duke saw him out.
"I would reconsider the continued employment of a maid named Hettie," the duke was informed as they walked to the front of the house.
"When I asked what she knew about the jewelry being found on the right side of the mattress, she corrected me. The diamonds were discovered on the left side during a search. The only other person who knew that was the butler. Hettie was not present during the search."
"Thank you for the information," the duke said gravely.
"It was nothing, your grace. I would hate for an innocent maid to get charged for a crime she did not commit. Let’s keep the courts open for people who deserve it."
The duke agreed as they shook hands.
Jane was absolved and Samantha was wiser in the ways of Lady Valerie, but both she and Arabella knew something needed to be done to prevent a similar incident from happening.
"Ryder even says we need to take care of this situation," Arabella noted. They had gone for a walk that afternoon in the park so they might speak freely. A footman escort trailed behind.
"He is a good sort, you know. I’m not quite sure why you two are at odds once again, but he would defend us both to the end."
"I know," Samantha whispered.
A driver hailed them and Lord Hambly called for his tiger to take the reins so he might hop down and converse with the ladies.
"You are better today, Miss Howard?" She could feel him sizing her up in her form-fitting spencer. The wind was blowing her skirts about, pressing them to her limbs, and she felt only half-dressed under his scrutiny.
"Yes, thank you." Fortunately, they were then called by two young men on horseback, Lord Cosmo and Sir Robert, who dismounted to pay their respects.
"Is the gentleman bothering you, Miss Howard?" Sir Robert asked her quietly as the others discussed Lady Peabody’s ball.
"No, sir." Not yet, she wished to add.
"Here is Ryder, then, just in case," he replied as the earl approached on foot. "Cosmo and I have appointments at our tailor and must leave," he explained, "but Ryder will deal with this bounder, if needed."
Samantha was relieved. She felt they could get rid of Lord Hambly much faster if Lord Ryder was at their side.
Lord Cosmo and Sir Robert greeted their friend and moved on, leaving the baron, the earl and the two young ladies. Ryder let it be known he was there to escort the ladies elsewhere and once Lord Hambly got the hint and left, Ryder turned to them with a smile.
"Shall we get ices before I take you home? My carriage is over there."
"Yes, please!" Arabella exclaimed. "We have so much to tell you concerning Lady Valerie, and none of it is good!"
Taking the young ladies’ information to heart, Ryder called the next day at Lord Seawright’s townhouse. He could see, not to mention hear, the household in an uproar, but was told the earl would see him in the study.
"Only room in the house my mother won’t set foot in, so it is the only quiet room available," Seawright explained.
Ryder was invited to sit and was offered a drink and a smoke. He took the smoke. After they had gotten comfortable, Seawright asked what brought the younger man to call.
"It concerns Lady Valerie.
"I have no concern as regards her life," Lord Seawright said coldly.
Ryder just stared at him until he flushed. "That is a whisker if I ever heard one! Why have you never married?" he asked. "Any female would have done at that point, and it would have been prudent to provide yourself with an heir."
"I’ve never wanted anyone else, but you are wrong about an heir. I have a cousin who will fill my shoes admirably, and he already has a son."
"You’ve never wanted anyone but Valerie? Then why did you not fight for her at the time?"
"That stubborn fool? I tried! She dug her heels in and refused to budge. I even tried running off with her to Gretna, but that made her worse. She said she was not going to be like her sister. When I saw how distressed she was," he said sadly, "I turned the coach around and took her home. Why do you need my help now?"
"Something cagey is going on at Halbourne House, and it seems to be revolving around Lady Valerie. She tried to embarrass her own niece and she tried to have the girl’s maid arrested for theft."
"Valerie did not approve of anything her sister did, and she felt it ruined her own life and chances, even though I tried everything I could think of to convince her otherwise. Neither myself nor my mother could bring her around…"
"Would you be willing to try to help again?"
"Of course. Valerie needs to be reined in before she ruins not only her niece’s future, but her future with her niece."
"Exactly. Will you come to the duchess’ card party on Monday? Perhaps just getting her used to you being around will help."
Seawright looked warily at the earl. "If you think it will do some good, I suppose I can. You will need to help me provide a buffer between Valerie and my mother…"
"I don’t think that will be too much of a problem."
"Your mother’s former companion is their grace’s granddaughter. She and Lady Seawright get along famously, and she will keep the countess occupied while you reacquaint yourself with an old flame."
Seawright sighed. "I can but try. And please…" he said with a wince as the butler began to berate a maid about the waxing of the hall floors. "Bring your young ladies over before Monday. Mother could use a diversion."
"So could you, it seems."
As the daughter of a clergyman, Samantha had been raised to turn the other cheek. She had tried and failed with Ryder, although she prided herself on the fact that she was giving him another chance – she just wished him to go slow. Lady Valerie’s betrayal, however, was devastating, and she holed up in her room to lick her wounds and did not come out for two days.
Her aunt had assumed an injured air that fooled no one, and was persona non grata at the moment, so she, too, had retired to her rooms for a few days. Hettie was sacked without a reference and Lady Valerie had not yet had a chance to cultivate another household spy.
Arabella was sympathetic to her friend, but the silence was driving her insane and she finally ventured into Samantha’s room. The girl was curled up on the bed, in one of her old gray gowns, reading a book. Arabella flopped down beside her.
"What are you doing?"
"Reading." Samantha held up the Minerva Press book, as if Arabella could not see it before.
"What are you reading?"
"Something rather Gothic."
"Ooooh, I love those stories! Old, creaky houses, dark castles and damp burying grounds! Love, murder…"
"Betrayal," Samantha added with a twist of her mouth.
"I’m so sorry. We’ve all been burned by her so many times, we forget others can fall prey even after warnings. It’s easy to do, you know. She’s like a spider, luring you in, getting you caught in her web…" Arabella said dramatically.
"So I gather," came the dry reply.
"I was six when she first snitched on me to Mama. I took my pony out without permission."
"Six? You had your faith in an older person shattered when you were six?" Samantha asked incredulously.
"Oh, earlier than that, and it wasn’t Lady Valerie, but my own father. He liked to drink, and he also liked women, and to gamble. I think I was five when I discovered him with one of the maids. I remember running to my mother and her telling me not to repeat it. She was so sad, and I vowed I would never, ever marry anyone like that."
Samantha felt rather foolish after that. If Arabella had been treated thus at a tender age, no wonder she was rather cynical when it came to others. "Your brother is not like that, either," she said softly.
"No, he is not." Arabella was quick to defend him. "I’m not saying he is a saint, but he rarely gambles and hardly ever drinks to excess. He used to, but once he became the head of the family, he was more responsible and left such vices to special occasions. I think you might have been on the receiving end of some of those occasions."
"I have, but I have come to realize they were not the norm."
"As for women, well, I’m sure he is no saint there, either, but he has never accosted our maids."
"How do you know?"
Arabella’s smile was smug. "Because when Mama did not listen to me when I was five, I got that one maid let go, and I asked the housekeeper to let me know when it happened again. It’s one of the reasons I began to listen at keyholes," she said with a flush. "I used to devise all sorts of plans after that to get rid of promiscuous servants. I’ve heard plenty of stories about subsequent maids over the years, but not one of those stories involved Jack. Now, I’m not saying he doesn’t have females in his life, but I don’t believe he takes advantage of the lower orders."
Samantha marveled at her cousin’s matter-of-fact tone regarding this seamier side of life.
"But enough of that. Guess what? We have received an invitation to call on Lady Seawright tomorrow after church!"
"Lady Seawright?" Samantha perked up immediately. "She is in London?"
"Yes, indeed! Isn’t she the most delightful lady? You will get a chance to meet her son, as well." She got a devilish gleam in her eye. "Do you know what we should do? We should insist Lady Valerie go to the Seawright’s house with us!"
Samantha did not wish to have anything to do with her aunt, and she crossed her arms over her chest. "No, thank you. I wish to enjoy my visit with the countess."
"Oh, you will," Arabella said with a wicked grin. "Remember, Valerie was betrothed to the earl. And Lady Seawright dislikes her intensely!"
Samantha giggled and lowered her arms. "Truly?" She had never been on the receiving end of Lady Seawright’s tongue, but she had heard the countess make several cutting remarks when she was her companion, and to have Lady Valerie be her target would be satisfying. Then she remembered her upbringing. "No, I would not wish that on anyone, really, and besides, I doubt Lady Valerie would go."
"She will if the duchess drags her there. I’m of a mind to go ask her to."
"No!" Samantha protested. "Really…"
"As you wish. It’s time to help the duchess and Mama with afternoon callers, anyway… Will you come down with me? There are bound to be several people who will cheer you up, and Lady Valerie has been playing least in sight."
"I suppose I shall, then," Samantha agreed, rising to search for a suitable gown. "But remember, not one word to the duchess!"
"Oh, no – I shall not speak a word to her grace unless spoken to!" Arabella promised.
The main drawing room was full to bursting when the young ladies went downstairs, and Samantha was glad she had changed into a sprigged yellow muslin with a flounce. Many of the ladies attending had brought their daughters, all of them overdressed, as if they were trying to impress the duchess. Samantha could have told them not to bother, that the duchess was not taken in by such outer trappings, when Ryder strolled in and everyone turned their attentions to him.
He looked elegant in a dark blue coat and biscuit-colored trousers, and she heard at least three girls sigh in unison as she helped pass out teacups and plates of biscuits. She watched as he made his way to the duchess and got herself snapped at by Lady Winterbottom when she almost poured tea on that lady’s daughter.
Miss Winterbottom apologized to Samantha, but Lady Winterbottom told her daughter a paid companion was not worth the effort. When the girl leaned over and whispered Miss Howard’s status in her mama’s ear, the baronet’s lady became instantly solicitous. Samantha backed away in disgust, but Miss Winterbottom caught up with her moments later.
"Please forgive Mama. She is a social climber of the worst sort, and she will never get anywhere because she never remembers what one’s status is. I do not care about that, but I do have to be on my guard to keep my mother from embarrassing me as much as possible."
"It is all right," Samantha said kindly. "I was a paid companion until recently and I am not ashamed of that.
"Nor would I be," Miss Winterbottom said stoutly.
Arabella came by as she handed around cups for the duchess, and introductions were made.
"I have heard you are an excellent horsewoman, Lady Arabella," Miss Winterbottom said.
"Who told you that?" Arabella was immediately suspicious.
"My cousin, Lord Cosmo Villiers."
Lord Ryder was coming towards them and Samantha held her breath. She prayed that Miss Winterbottom was not forcing friendship on the pretense of getting close to Lord Ryder, and she prayed Lord Ryder would not find the pretty girl more attractive than herself. She gave herself a mental shake, surprised at her thoughts. Arabella, for all her cynicism, seemed to be taking this young lady at face value.
"I’m sure I am a superior horsewoman when compared to him!" she was saying. Miss Winterbottom laughed out loud, drawing frowns from her mother and some of the dowagers.
"I’m glad to see you ladies getting along," Ryder said with a smile. "Miss Winterbottom…" He bowed to his friend’s cousin. "How nice to see you in London."
"It has been an age, my lord," she replied with a curtsey.
Samantha could detect no preference for Ryder in her manner, but she was still watching the girl like a hawk. Arabella was smiling about something, but she wasn’t sure what it was, because she was attending Miss Winterbottom’s every action, every word.
"Isn’t that right, Samantha?" Arabella asked.
"Just agree with me."
"Yes," she said promptly, and everyone laughed but her. "What did I just agree to?"
"To ride Monday in the park."
"No buts, dearest," Arabella insisted. "Miss Winterbottom, you and I, Jack, Lord Cosmo and Sir Robert. It’s a plan," she said to her brother. "And you had better get back to making the rounds." He bowed and excused himself.
"I wish I could find a man like that," Miss Winterbottom said enviously.
"You can’t have that one," Arabella said smugly. "He’s already spoken for."
"I know," she replied, giving Samantha a bright smile. "And you may stop glaring at me now, Miss Howard. I was not going to poach on your preserves."
"Don’t worry," Arabella assured her. "Your name is written all over him, and those who cannot see it already are too idiotic for words. You were vastly entertaining, though. Perhaps we should trail Jack about and stare down anyone who dares flirt with him!"
"An excellent idea!" Miss Winterbottom exclaimed with another loud laugh. "However, my mother is signaling that it is time to go, and I believe her grace is trying to gain your attention, Miss Howard. I am so pleased to make your acquaintance, even under such embarrassing circumstances, and I shall see you both again Monday." She nodded politely to Ryder as she went to retrieve her mother and then glanced over her shoulder to watch Samantha glare once more. With a giggle, she collected her parent and they went to say goodbye to their hostess.
"It’s not funny!" Samantha insisted when she heard Arabella snicker behind her.
"Yes, it is." She linked an arm with her cousin and they went back to passing around cups, as an entire new group of people had arrived.
"What an exhausting day!" Arabella exclaimed that evening as the two girls prepared for bed. "I am so relieved we did not have any social obligations this evening on top of all that. I must have counted two hundred visitors today."
"I do not think there were that many…"
"Nonsense! There were fifty alone at one point, and I daresay the scullery maid is still washing all their cups and saucers! I especially liked it when you accidentally dropped a plate of biscuits in Lady Margaret Danvers’ lap."
"That was no accident," Samantha admitted. "She was making sheep’s eyes at your brother. I could not let her embarrass herself further."
Arabella fell back on Samantha’s bed in peals of laughter. "Why don’t you just marry the man and then you can put to rest all these stares and glares."
"I really should!" she indignantly replied. "How dare he accept their flirting when he is as good as promised to me?"
"He is?" Arabella was instantly sober. "But I thought…"
"What did you think? I only asked him to wait, that I needed a little more time. But that does not mean I will never listen to an offer from him. In fact, the more I see him in a crowd of females, the more I am thinking I had better put a ring on his finger."
"Oh, he’s branded already," Arabella assured her. "And he is perfectly happy to be so. I think making him wait is an excellent idea, though. After all, this is your first season. Your chance to attract as much attention as possible before you make a brilliant marriage and settle down to wedded bliss. Then you can have me for a sister, make me an aunt several times over, do good works in the village and eventually become a duchess. "
Samantha blushed at the thought of making Arabella an aunt several times over.
"I should like that very much," she whispered.
In the end, the duchess took care of the situation concerning her daughter visiting the Seawrights. The entire family attended church together at St. George’s, Hanover Square, with Samantha staying as far from her aunt as possible.
But it did not matter. Lady Valerie seemed to have lost interest in harassing her niece. Samantha heard later that the duke had given his daughter a tongue-lashing and threatened to cut off her allowance if she ever pulled a trick like that on anyone, Samantha in particular, again. Arabella heard about it from Millie, who had also seen Hettie, now a scullery maid in another house.
Arabella thought it all poetic justice, but Samantha was just sorry. Perhaps after a suitable length of time, she could help find a better situation for the maid.
At St. George’s, the duchess led Lady Valerie into the pew, followed by Lady Ryder and Arabella, with the duke bringing up the rear. Samantha found herself on the outside, with room for one more. That space was filled, moments later, by Lord Ryder.
"I thought you didn’t go to church," she whispered.
"I have turned over a new leaf."
"I never thanked you for filling the poor box that day. It helped a lot of people."
"Yourself, as well?"
"Sadly, no. Papa should have kept some of it to pay for a physician, too, but he gave it all away."
"I’m so sorry."
Samantha looked up. His gray eyes were soft. "Thank you."
Under the watchful eye of the duke, they were quiet and concentrated on the service. But, as everyone settled down for the sermon, Samantha’s hand crept into Ryder’s, sitting between them on the seat. The side of the pew was, fortunately, high, as was the back, and no one but themselves could see.
Afterwards, Arabella and Samantha were invited to share Ryder’s open carriage, as he was to go with them to see Lady Seawright. It wasn’t until they stopped at the house on Curzon Street that they could hear Lady Valerie making a scene.
"Really, Valerie!" her mother scolded. "You just sat through a lesson on the milk of human kindness and now you won’t spread any of it around?"
"I am not a cow, Mama!" A face appeared in a front window of the house next door and she calmed down enough to follow her parents reluctantly into the Seawright townhouse.
They were all shown to a drawing room where the countess and her son sat playing cards.
"Darlings!" she cried, rising to embrace the duke and duchess. "And Lady Ryder! Oh, my goodness! Is this my little Arabella?" She hugged the girl fiercely and turned bright eyes on Samantha.
"And look at you! I declare, I almost did not…" She caught sight of Lady Valerie. "Who let in the cow?"
"Milk of human kindness, milk of human kindness," Lord Ryder muttered in her ear. Samantha flashed him a thankful look and distracted Lady Seawright by asking to be introduced to her son.
"Of course!" She moved Samantha away from Lady Valerie and made the introduction of Samantha and Arabella to the earl. "You will remember my mention of Samantha in the fall?"
"And it has been a long while since you saw Arabella!"
"Yes, Mama." He was craning his neck to watch as Lady Valerie seated herself next to her mother.
"Are you listening to me, Seawright?" she demanded.
"Yes, Mama," came the dreamy reply. Samantha, Arabella and Ryder exchanged amused glances.
"Well, isn’t this pleasant?" the duchess asked as silence fell over the group. "It is so nice to see you again, Eustacia. We owe you so much for reuniting us with Samantha."
"I was glad to be the reason you met her." Lady Seawright glanced at Samantha and smiled brightly before her gaze moved on to Lady Valerie. "I am certain some family members do not deserve her, however."
Lady Valerie opened her mouth to speak, saw her father frown and shut it like a trap. Lady Seawright grinned evilly.
"Perhaps the younger ladies would like to see my latest acquisition?" Lord Seawright interjected. "Then you three may talk freely about us."
Ryder chuckled. "Is this acquisition in your study, perhaps?"
Lord Seawright winked at him. "But of course. Ladies?" His gaze took in Lady Valerie, as well as the girls, and the five of them left the room together.
Arabella had taken Seawright’s arm after Lady Valerie refused it, and Ryder came between Samantha and her aunt to escort them both. Once they reached the study, Lord Seawright had them gather around his desk. Pulling out a square of velvet, he unfolded it and then, reverently, set some old coins on top. He handed Arabella a magnifying glass.
"What do you think? Impressive, aren’t they?"
"They look like old lumps of metal to me," Arabella said.
"Give me that!" Lady Valerie snapped, snatching the glass from the girl’s hand. She bent over the desk, inspected the coins and whistled, a sound that surprised her three relatives. "Roman?" she asked with authority. "Did you find them at Seacrest?"
"I did." The two older people bent back over the coins and promptly forget the rest of the people in the room. Ryder propelled Arabella and Samantha away so they might have some time together.
"Isn’t that sweet?" Arabella said rather sarcastically. "And at their age!"
"Hush!" her brother told her. "What do you know?"
"I know love doesn’t last, else these two never would have parted. I know people stray, betraying their marriage vows and their families…" She was getting worked up, but she could not stop. Samantha pulled her down in the sofa with her and put an arm about her shoulders.
"Will you get her some wine or brandy?" she asked Ryder.
He raised an eyebrow at her. "At this time of day, little vicar’s daughter?"
"Medicinal purposes only," she assured him. When he complied, she handed the small glass of brandy to Arabella. "Drink up." The couple at the desk had still not glanced their way.
Arabella drank and choked on the strong liquid, and then she sighed and sagged against Samantha. "I am sorry I got upset," she told her brother. "I was just thinking of…"
"Father," Ryder said sympathetically. "Fortunately, he is gone, and we are not. You’ll never have to live like that again. Which is why, dearest sister, I intend to keep a strict eye on your beaux."
Arabella giggled. "Such as Lord Cosmo?"
The visit concluded with tea in the drawing room, with Lord Seawright and Lady Valerie conspicuously absent. When the others had left the study, they were assured the couple were old enough to take care of themselves, in one way or another, and spent the next half hour listening to Lady Seawright and the duchess reminisce about their school days, and their first season. It was highly entertaining, and when Lady Seawright was not around Lady Valerie, Samantha found her as gay and charming as she had in Bath.
In the study, Valerie waited until her relatives had disappeared before speaking. "I told you Seacrest was a treasure trove of Roman artifacts," she said rather tartly. "But you never believed me."
"There was little historical evidence…"
"The place was near a Roman fort, for goodness’ sake! What else have you found?"
"Some bronze, a few pottery shards… the usual refuse pile scraps of bone and flint…"
"Could be Roman, could be later," she concluded.
"Precisely. But these coins are definitely Roman."
"Definitely," she agreed.
"Valerie? Why did you break it off?"
She glared at him. "That is none of your business!"
"It most certainly is! This was my future, just as much as it was yours! It was my happiness, too!"
"You would not have been happy with me…"
"How do you know."
"Because… because you would have thought me just like my sister."
He shook his head. "You know that is not true, Valerie. Don’t you know I loved you no matter what happened? I even asked you to move up the wedding date due to your sister’s unfortunate disappearance. I didn’t want people to talk about you."
"Of course I did. Your father had you holed up in that mausoleum of a house in Devonshire, so I wrote you a letter. Didn’t you get it? I gave it to your maid, Hettie…"
"Hettie!" Valerie was horrified. "She never gave me anything! I would have remembered that!" She burst into tears. He moved her over to the sofa in an instant.
"Oh, Valerie, Valerie, Valerie," he chanted. "It’s all right, truly it is."
"No, it is not!" she cried, taking the handkerchief he produced from his waistcoat pocket. "All that time wasted! I should have known you would not desert me!"
"Shhh!" He wrapped her in his arms. "I never have deserted you, really. And I’m here right now, aren’t I?"
"Are you?" she wondered.
"Let me try to make up for lost time. How are you at being courted, Val?"
"What do you suppose they are doing in there?" Arabella wondered as she ate cake and made small talk.
"Arabella!" Samantha was appalled at her lack of manners sometimes, but Lord Ryder only laughed. "And you can be just as bad!" she insisted.
"I only asked," Arabella said innocently. "You are the one who is making it sound worse than it probably is. After all, they are rather old for that sort of thing, aren’t they?"
"Probably not," Ryder said. "Perhaps we should collect Lady Valerie," he said to his elders.
"Absolutely not!" the duchess cried.
"Absolutely!" Lady Seawright insisted.
"Perhaps you should," duke said with a faint smile towards Ryder. The earl nodded and left the room.
Inching down the hall to the study, so as not to disturb whatever was going on inside, he was surprised to find the door open and voices coming from in there.
"You should have them appraised," Lady Valerie was saying.
"And alert someone to what else may be found at Seacrest?"
"You can have it done discreetly, Anthony," she said patiently, as if speaking to a child. "I suppose you have sectioned off pieces of land for a dig? How did you find these?"
"My men were digging for a well when they noticed round little pieces of dirt in the sludge. They were rinsed off and I was sent for, so when I got to the estate, I began rummaging about in the fill for more pieces. And every time the sludge was brought to the surface, I poked about in it."
"What will you do with everything?"
"I thought some of it could be donated to the British Museum, but the coins are going in my own vault."
"I should think so." Ryder watched, amazed, as she leaned over and kissed Seawright’s cheek. "I would be available for more consultations," she suggested.
"If they are anything like this, I am all for it. Shall I call on you tomorrow and bring you back here to see more of my finds?"
"I should like that."
Ryder cleared his throat and knocked on the open door. "Are you ready to leave, Lady Valerie? His grace is asking for you." That was close enough to the truth. She nodded, but she took Seawright’s arm, leaving Ryder to feel like a third wheel as he walked behind them to the drawing room.
"You have missed your tea!" Lady Seawright exclaimed, looking at her son as he entered the room. "Is that how she takes care of you?" she demanded, not missing their tender glances or the way Lady Valerie had not yet let go of the earl.
"We shall discuss this later, Mama," he said with some finality.
Their graces, Lady Ryder and the girls thought this was a good time to leave, and once again, Lord Ryder insisted Arabella and Samantha ride with him.
"I shall be over early in the morning for our ride," he said, making a mental note to invite Seawright and Lady Valerie.
Samantha came downstairs the next day in a new pale blue riding habit, Arabella trailing behind in a serviceable brown velvet. No one, not even the duchess, could persuade her to replace it. She, whose confidence never seemed to flag, told Samantha that her old, familiar habit made her feel more like herself.
"With all these new trappings, and constantly being on show, I forget sometimes who Lady Arabella really is."
"Couldn’t you get her grace to replace that ratty old thing?" her brother now wondered, waiting for them in the front hall.
Samantha shook her head, warning him off the subject, and he changed it to one he knew they would not be able to resist. "We are just waiting on Lady Valerie. She responded in the affirmative when I wrote her an invitation yesterday."
The two young ladies gaped at him. "Lady Valerie?"
"Here I am," that lady called from the top of the stairs, clad in a dark blue habit and a matching hat with the brim turned up in front. "I hope I did not keep you waiting." She was actually smiling.
"What is her new maid slipping into her tea?" Arabella muttered to Samantha. Samantha could only shrug and wonder the same thing.
Horses were waiting out front and they were all quickly mounted, but while the park was just across the street, Miss Winterbottom had to be be collected first. Once she was added to the party, they met the other gentlemen in the park. To no one’s real surprise, Lord Seawright was one of those waiting, looking rather dashing atop a roan gelding.
"You are rotten," Lady Valerie said to Lord Ryder, but there was no rancor in her voice.
"Samantha’s happiness is everything to me," he said softly in reply.
She nodded, knowing to what he referred. "I suppose it is. I wish you well in that quarter."
"And an apology will be tendered today," she assured him.
"I cannot ask for more. And don’t worry. She is a sweet lady who is quick to forgive. If you don’t believe it, ask me sometime what I did to her."
Without waiting for a reply, he spurred his mount ahead so he could greet the rest of the riders. Introductions were made and pairs were silently formed. Ryder kept Samantha by his side, Lord Seawright and Lady Valerie fell in behind, and Arabella, not happy with Lord Cosmo, lined up with Sir Robert. That left Cosmo to pair off with Miss Winterbottom.
"Who can know the mind of a female?" he grumbled as Arabella moved off next to his friend.
"Not even females know their own minds some days, Lord Cosmo," Miss Winterbottom assured him with a laugh.
"But you lot always expect us to!" he protested.
She could only shrug. "Perhaps her mood has nothing to do with you, my lord."
He seemed doubtful. "How in the world did you get mixed up with Scarabella?" he asked loud enough for that lady to turn around and glare.
Miss Winterbottom was undaunted. "I met Lady Arabella and Miss Howard at one of her grace’s at-homes."
"What day was that?" he asked, in a panic. "Last week?"
"Two days ago."
"I was going to attend with my mother and sister!" It was suddenly all too clear what he had done wrong. "Was Lord Ryder there?"
"Yes, he was. He has quite the tendre for Miss Howard, doesn’t he?"
Cosmo laughed out loud, earning another glare from Arabella. "That is putting it mildly. I am not so sure about Miss Howard’s feelings, however."
"I can relieve you on that score, Lord Cosmo. The lady was green with jealousy at the thought of all us girls flirting with her beau."
"Good." He looked longingly at Arabella and Miss Winterbottom took pity on him.
"Sir Robert!" she called. "How is your sister these days?"
Cosmo, trading places with his friend, came up beside Arabella.
"Good day to you, Lady Arabella." From the sour expression on her face, restoring her good humor was going to require some imagination. "Did I tell you about the peddler I met Saturday afternoon on my way home from Tattersall’s?"
"You went to Tatt’s?" Her eyes brightened considerably at the thought of going to that bastion of horseflesh and masculinity.
"I did, indeed. I was looking for a gentle mare for my sister, Henrietta. You would have met her that day, but, alas, I was waylaid by the peddler."
"What had he to do with it?" she wondered.
"The man wagered I could not stand on my head. I proved him wrong, of course, and won a small token from his wagon."
"I still fail to see…" she said, curious in spite of herself.
"Unfortunately, I did not stop there. I, in return, wagered he could not balance a stack of dishes on his head. I chose dishes, because he had some for sale at one end of his cart. I had no idea he was a damned acrobat!"
Arabella grinned. "Perhaps that will teach you not to make blockheaded wagers, my lord."
"I doubt it. At any rate, I lost more than he did. Or perhaps not, considering what I lost."
"What did you lose?"
"The marchioness," he said with an absolutely straight face.
"Your mother?" she asked incredulously.
"Well, I had been trying to get rid of her this age, so it appears I actually won, doesn’t it?"
Arabella howled with laughter. "I suppose that is why neither your mother or sister called on the duchess on Saturday."
"Precisely. I had to hand Mother over to the peddler personally, and it took all bloody afternoon."
Arabella was still shaking with laughter, mostly because of the man’s audacity. "I will accept that excuse, my lord, having met your mother. But I expect you to win her back at some point."
"I shall. Eventually," he assured her with a saucy wink.
Ahead of them, Lord Seawright and Lady Valerie were speaking of organizing a dig.
"You shall have to come for several months, to supervise, of course."
"Of course," she murmured with a little smile. "But who shall be the chaperone?"
"Do we need one at our age?"
There was only one reason he could think of as to why they would require chaperonage. He looked at Valerie with wide eyes. "Honestly?"
"Perhaps I should rethink this." On a more permanent basis. He had never stopped loving her, and obviously she felt something for him on a physical level, else she would not insist on a chaperone. Or did she think he needed the chaperone? She might be right.
"Perhaps you should," she said a little tartly. "Let me know when you’ve decided."
"I didn’t mean… perhaps we should rethink this."
"That’s more like it. But not here."
"Too many people about," he agreed. "This is a private discussion. We need to be alone again… Shall I call tomorrow?" He would speak to the duke first.
Samantha rode ahead of her aunt and Lord Seawright, trying not to laugh at their discussion. It wasn’t kind of her, and it was a private matter, as Lord Seawright pointed out.
"A penny for your thoughts," Ryder said.
"I was listening to the lovebirds behind us," she admitted.
"I was, as well. Do you think they will finally make a match of it?"
"Over Lady Seawright’s dead body, but yes, I think so. I’m glad. I can’t believe this was all my mother’s fault. She might have had something against her family, but look how many people she hurt. Including myself." She hung her head.
"You are not responsible for anyone’s actions but your own, sweet Samantha," he replied. "I think…" It didn’t matter what he thought. Lord Hambly had pulled his mount up on the other side of Samantha and had interrupted the conversation, a most unpardonably rude thing to do.
"Good day, Miss Howard. Ryder…" he drawled as an afterthought.
Ryder shot daggers at him while Hambly engaged Samantha in idle chat, but he calmed down as he realized she was uncomfortable in the man’s presence. She kept glancing over to him, almost begging to be rescued as she had that night at the Peabody Ball, and she shifted away from the man several times when he rode too close.
"Would you care for a gallop, Miss Howard?" Hambly asked. "We could leave all this behind," he added, sweeping an arm out to include the rest of the party.
"No, thank you, my lord. I am not all that good a horsewoman, and I would prefer to stay with my friends," she politely replied.
"Then what say you to a race, Ryder?"
"No, thank you, my lord. I am the host of this small party and will stay with my guests. Feel free to ride ahead," he invited, "if your horse needs the exercise."
"I am content for now."
Too bad, Ryder thought.
Fortunately, Cosmo had heard the word ‘race’ and he pulled up on the other side of Hambly. "I will race, sir. What do you say to around that oak and back," he suggested, indicating a large tree.
"And what shall be the prize?"
"No wagers, please," Cosmo said. "On Saturday, I lost my mother in a bet and now I have to try to get her back. Perhaps Mother has made the rounds and you have her, in which case I shall have to try to win her, because Lady Arabella says I must. Simple for her to say - she doesn’t have to live with her. But if you have her, I daresay you are aching to get rid of the old…" He cleared his throat before he said something true, but unkind, about his parent.
Hambly knew when he was being made sport of, and if he didn’t, the broad grins on the rest of their faces would be a clue. "I do not find that amusing, Villiers."
"I tell you what. We shall wager your mother on this race, my lord. If I win, I’ll take her in lieu of the marchioness, and if you win, you get to keep them both."
"But I don’t have a mother, and I don’t have yours!"
"Then I suggest you run the race yourself, because those are the only stakes I will race for."
"I don’t understand you people," Hambly said, pulling away from Samantha. "Good day!"
As Hambly rode off, Cosmo moved his horse back in line with Arabella’s, looking rather pleased with himself. She reached over and patted his arm.
"Well done!" Ryder congratulated him. "You will tell me if he bothers you again?" he asked Samantha and was pleased when she nodded emphatically.
"I do not like his attentions. But I fear we have insulted him, and I do not think he is one to take that lightly."
Ryder had to agree. "I shall tell his grace, for one thing, and alert Seawright, Cosmo and Ainsworth. We will strive to keep an eye on him."
Ryder, as unofficial host, brought the party to a shady area where they all dismounted and tethered their horses to a low tree limb. Several blankets had been spread for the ladies, and a servant waited with wine and some savories for them all to nibble.
"I had a splendid idea, one I hope everyone approves of," he announced after they were settled with food and drink. "A progressive nuncheon, of sorts. Befores out here, the main meal in my conservatory, and dessert back at Halbourne House."
Everyone, even Lady Valerie, voiced their approval, and they took their time, knowing the activity was just beginning, instead of ending. Just as they were rising, preparing for their ride to Lord Ryder’s house, Lady Valerie approached Samantha.
"I need to speak to you," she said in an almost penitent tone. "Could you give me some of your time when we get to Ryder House?"
Samantha nodded and realized she was not only ready to forgive her aunt, but she was no longer afraid of the woman.
At Lord Ryder’s townhouse, Samantha whispered a request of the earl. He readily agreed and showed her and Lady Valerie to a small parlor. While they had their talk, he ushered a group of curious onlookers into the conservatory, where a cold collation was laid out.
"You wished to speak to me?" Samantha asked when they were alone.
"Yes…" Lady Valerie paced a few moments, as if gathering her thoughts. "I’ve done you a serious wrong, and I wish to make amends. Even had I not just received some interesting news about my own past, I would apologize profusely for my recent behavior. It was inexcusable."
"I think I know why you did it," Samantha said softly. "And I accept your apology. But please, do not take out any frustrations you have concerning my mother on me."
"I promise. I realize now I should not have done that. My sister’s actions hurt me, it is true. I felt betrayed not only then, but for a long time afterwards, when she would not acknowledge us. I have no idea how she ended up with your father when she had run off with someone else, but I’m glad she had you."
Tears trickled down Samantha’s cheeks, not only for her aunt’s words, but for what could have been between her mother and her aunt. She gave Valerie a hug and let the older woman cling to her for a while. When they released each other, they let out watery laughs. Both were crying.
"Shall we join the others, Aunt Valerie?" Samantha dared to ask.
"Just a moment. You need a little attention." She whipped out a handkerchief and wiped Samantha’s face. "I advise you not to cry. You look frightful."
Samantha chuckled and let her have her way. When some of the damage had been repaired, they joined the rest of the party in the conservatory. No one said a word concerning their tear-streaked faces, but Lord Seawright, who had stood on their entry, went to prepare Valerie a plate of delicacies. Ryder solicitously settled Samantha in a cushioned chair next to Arabella. He fetched her a glass of wine and some food and sat down at her other side.
"Is everything all right?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, fine, thank you. More than fine."
What shall we do?" Arabella asked when everyone had finished eating. "Shall we play a game before we head home for dessert?"
"What do you suggest?" Cosmo drawled. "Hunt the slipper? Charades?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of riddles. Shall I go first?"
Everyone agreed to the game and allowed Arabella to begin.
"How many letters are there in the alphabet?" she asked the room at large.
They thought about that for a moment, Samantha even going as far as counting the letters in her head. She would have used her fingers, but she was in front of a group of people.
"I know!" Cosmo exclaimed. "Eleven!"
"What?" Miss Winterbottom protested. "Surely not! There are twenty-six!"
Lady Valerie chuckled, drawing surprise from those who had never heard such a thing from her before. "There are twenty-six if you count all the letters in it. There are eleven letters in the words ‘the alphabet,’" she explained. "And because Lord Cosmo guessed correctly, he should ask the next riddle."
"All right. A man walks up to you and says ‘everything I say to you is a lie.’ Is he telling you the truth or is he lying?" Cosmo wondered.
They all thought about that one for a while and finally Lord Seawright said, "He’s lying."
"How do you know that?" Samantha asked.
"Because even though he is lying when he says ‘everything’ he says is a lie, some of the things he says can be a lie, and this is one of them."
"That makes my head spin!" she confessed and everyone laughed. Then it was Lord Seawright’s turn. He thought about it for a moment and then fixed the company with a wicked grin.
"A woman has seven children and half of them are boys. How is this possible?"
"It isn’t possible!" Cosmo insisted. "How can you evenly divide seven children?"
"That one is actually easy," Arabella declared, "when all seven children are boys. Then half are boys and the other half are boys! I get to go again! He starts and ends two common words, one painful in love, one painful in everyday matter. Do you know what those two words are?"
"Lady Arabella!" Ainsworth exclaimed.
"No, not the two words I was looking for," she said with a grin.
"I know this one," Ryder announced, "as I am the one who taught it to this minx."
"No fair!" she said with a pout.
"Very fair. The two words are heartache and headache. Very suitable for my sister, don’t you think?" Everyone laughed. "And I shall end the game with one last riddle. Our sweets await us, you know. I soar without wings, I see without eyes. I've traveled the universe to and fro. I've conquered the world, yet I've never been anywhere but home. Who am I? A prize to the first person to figure this out before we reach Halbourne House," he announced.
The party discussed this at length, even as they traveled the streets of Mayfair, but it was Samantha who finally figured it out as they pulled up to the front door of her grandparents’ house.
"Is it imagination?" she asked.
"Yes, it is. You are very clever, Cousin Samantha."
"Not really. Your sister is much quicker than I. But I do recall having heard this one before. I just needed to wrack my brain as to when."
"Then I salute you on your memory skills."
"What is the prize?"
"For you… I shall give it to you later. At the card party."
"Of course," she said, thinking no more of it for the moment.
That evening, after dinner, a variety of people arrived for her grace’s party. For some it was a stop in a busy schedule of events. For others, it was the highlight of their evening. Either way, the duchess enjoyed having guests, and she flitted about the room setting up tables of people, ensuring all her friends were acquainted with each other and that everyone had their needs met.
Samantha had been given the task of looking out for people in need of diversions, while Arabella held court at a table, surrounded by a group playing Commerce. Lady Valerie and Lady Ryder were responsible for starting whist games and then finding people to take their places to keep the tables going, and the duke sat in the library with a group of gentleman, smoking and drinking brandy. That is where Ryder found him when he arrived.
"Ryder, m’boy!” the duke called. “How goes the courtship?" he added in a softer voice. "I have yet to hear of an announcement…"
"She would not let me ask, your grace. She insinuated that it was too early in the season and she needed more time."
The duke only smiled. "She’s a rare ‘un, Ryder. Don’t let her take too much time, else she might go to someone else."
Ryder was stricken. "Has someone else offered for her, then? Was it Hambly?"
"I wouldn’t let Hambly get that close, boy! The man is a bounder! No, I’ve not been approached by anyone else. Yet," he added, laughed and turned back to his drink. "Go play, Ryder. You’re much too young to be in here, and Her Grace will never forgive you if you do not help ensure her party is a success. Never mind that it already is," he said with a smile, waving the younger man out the door.
Ryder found Samantha settling two shy young ladies at Arabella’s table, where they were welcomed profusely by the others sitting there. He smiled. His sister enjoyed being the center of attention, but she was generous enough to share it with others, as well. He would wager those two young ladies went home feeling as if they were fitting in somewhere.
Slipping his arm into Samantha’s as she moved off to help another guest, he propelled her out the open doors of the drawing room and into the hall.
"May I speak with you a moment, Cousin Samantha? In here…" He led her into a smaller parlor that had been considered not large enough for the company.
"You hardly give me a choice, Cousin Jack," she said as he sat her down in a chair.
"I know. But this cannot wait. First, I was very sad after our visit to the park the other day."
"I thought you liked playing host, leading us from house to house and participating in our antics!"
"I do. I did. I was speaking of the day we went for the walk in Green Park."
"Oh." That was different.
"Yes. Oh. You thought I was being premature with my offer, but you have not yet heard it. How can you decide something that important without even hearing me out?"
She shrugged. "I am here now. Let us hear this offer, then." To tell the truth, she thought later she had been a bit hasty that day in the park. Now she shivered a bit with excitement to think that Ryder – no, Jack – was going to actually propose. She had spent the past few days wondering what he was going to say. Would it be a dry business proposition, as she had feared after hearing the gossip at the ball? Would it be a hearts-and-flowers, rather overblown declaration? Or would he speak simply from his soul, as she always imagined the man she accepted would?
"If you continue to sit there and daydream, Samantha, you will not even know I am ready to speak," he teased, seeing her far-away expression.
"I beg your pardon." She folded her hands primly in her lap and gave him her utmost attention.
"That’s better. Now…" He paused. "And now my declaration has flown completely out of my head."
"Why don’t you just tell me what is in your heart, Jack?" she softly prompted.
He knelt at her feet. "I think I have loved you from the moment I handed your basket back to you that first day. A pair of brown eyes were my undoing, I think, or it could have been your ‘damsel in distress’ situation. Either way, I had to see you again."
"I was not happy with our second meeting, though."
"I cannot blame you. I had been at a wedding breakfast, where I had imbibed in too many toasts to the bride, and all I could think of was you. You were smart to toss me out on my ear that day. And then there was the inn…" He groaned, but she only laughed.
"I see much humor in that situation now, but I was scared witless by you and your friends. I understand now that while none of you is exactly harmless, you were not the fiends my mind painted you at the time."
"And that day we first met here!" he continued. "And every time we have met since… All I think about is that day I would not have to leave you, the day I can wake up and you would be at my side. The day we can go riding alone, the day we can attend balls together… I love you very much Samantha, I wish to be with you always, and I would like you to become my wife."
"Oh!" Samantha exclaimed. "That was lovely." She had pulled a handkerchief out the neckline of her gown and dabbed at her eyes.
"You will accept my proposal?" he asked eagerly.
"I will admit there are hardly any minutes I do not think of you, as well. I’m glad I allowed you to tender your proposal, and now I will consider it."
"Consider it?" he asked, stricken. "You have had other proposals?"
"No, but I do not feel this is a decision to be made lightly. You may have my answer tomorrow afternoon. In Green Park."
Samantha could have approached Arabella with her decision to accept or not accept Jack’s proposal, but she knew what the girl’s answer would be. She felt the same about her grandparents, especially when the duke had made a sly comment the evening before at the card party about landing a fish. She felt somehow that her Aunt Valerie also would not be averse to her marrying the earl, now that she had been reunited with her own.
That left Lady Ryder, who should be informed of the proposal at any rate. Now would be a good time to see if she approved. Samantha had Jane keep her alerted as to Lady Ryder’s activities, and when she heard the countess was breakfasting in her own rooms, she went to visit.
"Good morning, my dear!" Lady Ryder was sitting up in bed in a quilted jacket and a pretty sheer cap over her still-dark hair. "What brings you to visit a lowly countess this fine morning when you should be out for a walk, or sitting in her grace’s sunny breakfast parlor with Arabella?"
"I wished to speak to you of a matter of utmost importance, and I fear if I joined Arabella downstairs I would be distracted from my purpose."
The countess indicated a chair next to her bed and gave the girl a warm smile. "I have been so pleased with the friendship between you and my daughter. She had such a difficult time of it in Devonshire until you came along. And now that she is in London… I am pleased with the success she has had making friends."
Samantha nodded. "She is such an outgoing personality, one cannot help but be drawn to her."
"Whereas you are more timid?" the countess asked lightly, knowing she was not shy, but rather cautious. "My son does not think so."
Samantha colored prettily. "It is your son I have come to discuss."
"Has he been aggravating you again? I have to apologize for my daughter, but she recently confided in me how the two of you came to meet. I hope you think better of him now. He really is not as black as those meetings have painted him."
"What can I help you with then, my dear?"
"I just wanted some advice. You see, Lord Ryder has made me an offer and I am trying to decide if I should accept it."
Lady Ryder dropped her cup into its saucer with a loud clack, but regained her composure almost immediately. She had been rather involved in Arabella’s life lately to pay any attention to either her son or her cousin, but she was flattered that the girl had come to her to talk about this. She had no objection, should the lady accept him, but she sensed now was not the time to wax enthusiastic on the subject.
"Let us think this out, then, shall we? Give me your reasons for accepting him, first," she suggested.
Samantha blushed, but agreed, although she warned the countess that some of her reasons were aesthetic.
"Of course they are – there is nothing wrong with wanting a man who is easy on the eyes. Although, sometimes," she said sadly, "that is all one sees. I hope some of your reasons are internal."
"They are," Samantha assured her. "External first, to get them out of the way. One, he is handsome. As you said, there is nothing wrong with that. Two, he has a lovely smile. Three, I like the way he gets tiny little wrinkles around the corners of his eyes when he laughs."
"You have been looking rather closely, then."
"I want to point out that both families like both of you. I think you would make a lovely daughter." Lady Ryder smiled warmly and Samantha flushed.
"Thank you. Now the real reasons… One, he takes good care of his family. If I was going to be a closer family member than I am now, I know I should be in good hands."
"Jack has always been there for Arabella and I, even when other people have not."
"Two, he is a very nice person. He is a good friend. But the main reason I should accept is because he loves me. And the feeling is mutual."
"Oh, my dear!" the countess exclaimed. She climbed out of bed and gave Samantha a hug and kiss. "That is the very best reason of all! When are you to give a reply? Today?" Samantha nodded.
"We are to go for a drive. Oh, my goodness! A drive! I need to be dressed perfectly! I…" She returned Lady Ryder’s kiss and ran to the door. "I have to go! Thank you, Lady Ryder, for everything!" She disappeared.
Lady Ryder chuckled and went to her jewelry box. The girl never did tell what her answer was going to be, but since she had not acted as if she were headed for her own funeral, the countess could only guess it would be in the affirmative.
Samantha was still upstairs when Ryder called, but his mother had left word that he was to come to her rooms. He went up and found her rummaging through a pile of jewels on her dressing table.
"What are you doing?" he asked, bending to kiss her cheek.
"Trying to find Grandmother Pryce’s ring, of course. Samantha is going to love it."
"Samantha…" He choked "What do you know about Samantha?"
"I know she is well on her way to becoming an engaged young lady…" she teased.
"Don’t play coy with me, Jack. Actually, I don’t know her answer. She did not tell me."
"You spoke to her recently?"
"This morning. She came to see me. Such a darling girl. We spoke briefly about this afternoon and I’m trying to find that ring. Just in case." She looked up to see his gaping reflection. "Close your mouth, dear. It’s quite unbecoming. Ah, here it is. If I’d had more notice, I would have sent it out to be cleaned and resized. Your grandmother had tiny fingers and I fear it may not fit. If she says yes, will you stop at Rundell and Bridge on your way home and drop it off?"
"Yes, mother." He took the ring and tucked it into his waistcoat pocket.
The park was more beautiful in the sunshine, and if the wet weather of the previous visit was any indication, today’s lovely conditions boded well for Ryder. They left the phaeton with his tiger once more, and strolled arm and arm through the green grass.
Samantha had chosen a white gown with a pale blue pelisse and a straw bonnet trimmed with white roses. A blue parasol dangled from her free arm, as did a little white reticule. Ryder had never seen her look lovelier and he hoped it was for him. But her quiet demeanor did not encourage him, and he was mostly silent.
"So peaceful," she murmured, her hand slipping down his arm to link her fingers with his. It was the boldest move she had ever made, but she could see her reticence was unnerving. He probably wished to have this moment over with. She did, too, but she also wished it to be a moment to remember.
She indicated a bench and invited him to sit with her. "We both know we are here for a specific reason, Lord Ryder… Jack… but would you please repeat your offer for me one more time?"
He grinned. She did not seem to be rejecting him, else she would have stayed at the house. Thank goodness his mother had given him the ring, although he was in agreement that it was probably too small. For the moment.
"I won’t kneel this time, my love."
He cleared his throat and looked into her dark eyes. "Samantha. Ever since we first met I haven’t been able to forget you. I despaired of finding you again every time I lost you. And each time you were just around the corner, as if it were fate. I’m beginning to believe our meetings were designed by a higher power. I can take no credit for any of it." He picked up her hand. "Would you do me the honor of making me the happiest of men? I love you, Samantha, and I wish you to be my wife."
Tears flowed down her cheeks, but she was smiling as he brought her hand to his lips.
"Yes, I will be your wife."
He laughed and embraced her and then rummaged in his waistcoat for the ring. "This belonged to my Grandmother Pryce. I fear it will not fit yet, but it is for you. If you like, we can stop by the jeweler on the way home to have it cleaned and made ready for you."
"I should like that." She lifted her gaze innocently to him and he kissed her lightly on the lips, aware they were in a public place.
"More of that later. Shall we take care of the ring and then tell the family?"
"How convenient for us that we are all one family!"
They went hand in hand back to the phaeton, called at the jeweler’s store and then returned to Halbourne House. How long it took and what was happening around her did not register with Samantha. She was rather dazed that she had just agreed to become Lady Ryder.
The family was gathered in anticipation of their return. Lord Seawright was there, having called while they were away, to make his own application to the duke. He had been accepted by his lady, as well, and there were two happy couples to toast.
"I shall send announcements to the papers on the morrow," the duke assured them. Lords Ryder and Seawright, and Lady Seawright, had been asked to join them for dinner, and excuses were made to the hostess of the ball they had planned on attending that evening. There would be plenty of time to be congratulated by members of the ton on Wednesday, at Almack’s, after the notices appeared. Until then, they would keep to themselves.
"Oh, dear," Arabella murmured to Samantha at one point. "Lady Seawright…"
Samantha grimaced. "She is not going to be pleased with that engagement above half."
It was as they expected when they came down later for dinner. Lady Seawright sat on a sofa as rigid as a board and spoke to no one except their graces and Samantha, whom she hugged and congratulated as if she were the only person becoming engaged that day. Valerie she ignored, and Ryder had not yet arrived. Everyone else was inconsequential, it seemed, and she drank more than she had intended, Samantha was sure.
In fact, she was asleep by time dinner was announced, and while everyone else filed into the dining room, the butler made sure Lady Seawright was placed in a guest room. With her out of the way, the party grew merry. The meal was delicious - the cook had outdone herself, even on short notice.
There was beef, a baked hen, roasted pork and a variety of vegetables, a thin soup and three different desserts to choose from, as well as more wine with which to toast the two couples.
After dinner, the men did not linger over their port, and Lady Seawright had been woken from her nap. She spent the next hour sniping at her future daughter-in-law, veiled insults in every sentence, until even Arabella, who was rather adept at slinging them herself, pleaded a headache and went upstairs.
Samantha and Ryder were allowed ten minutes alone in another parlor to say goodnight, where Ryder gave her a little bit more to dream about than just the chaste kiss from the park. Her grandmother finally had to lead her to her room in a daze, laughing as she handed her over to Jane to prepare for bed.
"Sleep well, darling. I can see that you will." She was still chuckling as she left her granddaughter in capable hands.
Almack’s, that assembly room known as the Holy of Holies, was full to bursting on Wednesday evening, everyone hoping to see Ryder and his betrothed, as well as the reuniting of Lord Seawright and Lady Valerie.
Even Arabella, who was thrilled for her friend and her brother, was in high gear and, as she had informed Samantha earlier that evening, she was now in no hurry to secure her own matrimonial prize.
"What about Lord Cosmo?" Samantha had wondered earlier that evening as they prepared for the assembly.
"What about him?" came the coy reply. "We like each other, and we enjoy insulting each other. We like kissing each other, too, for that matter. But I am not ready to settle down yet."
"Despite words to the contrary this past winter?" Samantha teased. Arabella had only shrugged.
"Things are different now. I do not have to worry about family finances – I heard his grace’s settlement for you is enormous! – and I will be more than happy to live at Ryder with you as my sister."
"But we are not going to live off that settlement," Samantha admitted. "Jack has insisted it be held in trust for any children we might have. We have plenty to live on in the meantime, and I daresay we shall reside mainly in London. But I do not think we shall be strangers to Devonshire, not with so much loving family there."
Her grandparents were not only going to get older, but they were losing her aunt. Samantha thought now perhaps the dogs would be allowed to roam the Vinelands halls, but someone also was going to have to be there to make certain meals were organized and their graces remained in good health. Fortunately, Jack had a plan for that – he was going to ask his mother (and sister, if she was not married by summer) to move to Vinelands. That would ensure the duke and duchess were taken care of, and would afford more privacy for the newlyweds at Ryder.
For now, however, there was the rest of the season to get through, and two weddings to plan. All of this began at Almack’s, their first public appearance since the announcements had appeared in the papers that morning.
The patronesses were all clustered near the front door, eager to be among the first to congratulate them, and sweet Lady Cowper even gave Samantha a hug.
"My dear Miss Howard! We are all so delighted to see you bring this young man to heel! Is it true you met in Devonshire and fell in love before the start of the season?"
"We are distant cousins," Samantha replied, "so it stands to reason we should meet at some point."
"I wish you every happiness," Lady Jersey was saying to Ryder. "She is quite the catch and now you can keep it all in the family."
Ryder sighed. He was going to have to deal with this eventually, so he might as well start speaking up now, before the rumors outstripped the truth. "Miss Howard’s dowry is not going in my pockets, Lady Jersey, and until such time as we succeed her grandparents in their titles, we shall live here in London. It is what we both wish."
Lady Jersey had released him as soon as possible so she might spread that tidbit around, and Ryder wondered if he should wager with Samantha how long it took to come back to them that they were going to live in poverty while someone else rented his estate.
They spent most of the evening talking to people and accepting their congratulations, and hardly had a chance to speak even to their own relatives, who had become surrounded by their own friends and acquaintances, everyone wishing to know the details.
Arabella held court near her mother, surrounded by the young people she had met at the card party. The shy young ladies had been encouraged to join her once their mothers had seen her three-deep in eligible men, and they had been accepted immediately, despite their timidity, having been remembered as sweet girls from the game table.
"I, of course, had to help true love along some," she was telling the crowd. Miss Winterbottom, at her side, was giggling and nodding her head. "I kept everyone informed of what each party was telling me." She would never reveal information concerning two of her brother’s meetings with Samantha, but she could – and did – embellish everything else, including her future sister’s changing of costumes at the Twelfth Night ball.
"Why do I get the feeling we are the topic of conversation over there," Samantha noted at one point to Jack. He turned toward his sister and frowned. "It is not that bad, is it?" she queried.
"No. But Hambly is coming over," he warned her.
"Play nice," she murmured. "And remember who got the girl."
"How could I forget? Hambly! Nice to see you again!" he called in a friendly voice.
"Ryder," the other man said stiffly. "Miss Howard." His expression was sour, but Samantha could not dredge up any sympathy. After all, she had never considered him seriously for her hand. "I understand congratulations are in order."
"Miss Howard has consented to be my wife, yes," Ryder said proudly. The look he and Samantha gave each other could only be described as fatuous. Indeed, when asked later, Arabella described it as absolutely sickening. But as she said it with a wide grin, no one took her seriously.
"So I understand," Hambly said. "However, you are not wed yet."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Ryder demanded.
"Are you worried?" the other man taunted. "You don’t seem to have much confidence in either yourself or your betrothed with those words."
"I don’t think there is a lack of confidence on either side, Lord Hambly," Samantha interjected. Too many people were watching and she did not want there to be a scene in the middle of the assembly, no matter how much others might wish such a diversion.
"We should listen to the lady," Ryder said.
"Because it allows you to hide behind her skirts?" he sneered.
"No, because if you are not quiet, my lord," Samantha said, "I shall have to… What is the expression, Ryder? Ah, yes. Darken your daylights."
Hambly laughed loudly, bringing even more attention to them. "That is something I do not wish to put to the test." With a bow, he moved on.
Samantha blew out a sigh of relief. "I would have done it, you know."
"I have no doubt, my love. I have been thrown out of a house by you and believe you are perfectly capable of dealing with Hambly."
"I am also capable of dancing this evening," she hinted strongly. "Just because I am betrothed does not mean I cannot dance."
Ryder looked about furtively. "Do you think I shall get in trouble if we waltz together?"
"My fiance is a kind man. He will not mind."
"Tell me more about this gentleman you have become engaged to," he prompted.
Samantha pretended to ponder the request.
"He is a handsome man, but I am not necessarily attracted to physical beauty." She laughed at his expression. "But I shall not mind looking at him across the breakfast table."
"Kind… Handsome… What else?"
"He is a great fisherman," she said with a bold chuckle. "He is always trolling for compliments. Quite the vain peacock, if you ask me."
"Let me know when you get tired of watching him strut about. I find you most attractive. Inside and out." The orchestra had struck up a waltz and they conveniently did not have to discontinue their conversation in order to dance.
"Is that so? I can hardly fish for compliments now, can I? Especially after criticizing my own fiance for the same thing."
"Allow me to assist. I know the reasons your beloved was wise enough to secure your affections as soon as possible."
"Please elaborate," she said with a smile.
"With pleasure. You are a beautiful young lady, but you are not vain like your peacock. There is a lack of vanity in you that is refreshing."
"I can be vain," she assured him. "Indeed, I went through five different gowns before choosing the one I wished to become engaged in."
Yes. And I fretted over my hair this evening. It had to be just right."
"Vanity aside, however, you are a forgiving person. How are you faring with Lady Valerie?"
"She will not change overnight. I realize that. But she has made a few friendly overtures, and says we must come visit them once they have begun their excavations."
"You are interested in ancient artifacts?"
"Let us say just say I am not uninterested in them."
"See how good you are?" he asked. "I doubt I would visit based on a moldy old pile of crockery pieces and crumbling aqueducts."
"I am sure you would," she said warmly. "Family is as important to you as it is to me."
"As long as they don’t prose on about long-dead people I could possibly have no interest in, I should be fine."
"I am certain once they get settled they shall have plenty to talk about with us. But if you get bored, what do you propose we do?"
"The estate is near Bath and I understand you enjoyed your stay there. We can call on the countess and listen to her moan about the unsuitability of her daughter-in-law."
Samantha laughed. "She is quite vocal about it. Perhaps if they present her with a couple of grandchildren she will come about."
"Grandchildren!" he exclaimed. "Surely they are too old for that?"
She giggled. It was much easier for her to discuss someone else’s children and not the possibility of their own. That conversation would have to come later.
"Aunt Valerie is not yet forty years old! Of course she is young enough! It will not be without risk, but no one giving birth is safe from complications. Not even me," she said soberly. "But that is the chance one takes when one’s task in life is to provide their one’s husband with children. It will be a privilege for me, my lord."
"Not to mention a pleasure," he told her with glowing eyes, bringing a deep blush to her cheeks. "You may depend upon that."
"I shall let you know after the fact," she teased, even though her face was still red.
Elsewhere in the ballroom, a dark-haired beauty watched Lord Ryder and his betrothed as they engaged in an intimate conversation on the dance floor.
"If it isn’t the Merry Widow," Lord Hambly drawled from behind Mrs. Dale. "Looking quite unmerry. Could it be you had designs on Ryder?"
"I wouldn’t tell you if I did," she said waspishly.
"You’ve only stood here and stared at him and Miss Howard for the entire dance."
"And if I have? They are an attractive couple and the main topic of discussion this evening."
"Indeed, they are."
"You were rather interested in them yourself a little while ago. I thought for a moment you and Ryder were going to come to blows."
"The coward chose to hide behind Miss Howard," he said.
"Much to your relief, I am certain," she said with an unkind laugh, turning to him to display a tight bodice and dampened petticoats.
He gave her the once-over and thought she was mutton dressed as lamb. But not unattractive. She might be available for the moment, or at least until he was able to get his hands on Miss Howard. Then Ryder would be accessible.
"If you want Ryder, I can help," he said smoothly. "It would be in my best interest to get him out of the way."
"What exactly are you proposing, my lord?" she asked suspiciously.
"A liaison. I shall take care of Miss Howard, and when she is out of the picture, you may step in to console poor Ryder."
"I like that idea. But in the meantime… We shall need to get together, my lord, and discuss the particulars. Among other things," she added with a seductive purr. As far as lovers went, she could do worse than Hambly.
"Tonight? My house?"
"Perhaps around midnight?"
"The bewitching hour…" She trailed one soft, white hand from his ear to his chin and placed a rouged kiss on the cleft there. "Midnight it is…" she whispered.
That next week, once the crowds of well-wishing callers had dropped off, plans were made for outings with the two engaged couples and their friends. Lady Valerie wished to visit the British Museum, while Samantha’s choice was to view the paintings at Somerset House. Arabella suggested a ride to Richmond for a picnic. As that was better than her first two suggestions – a prizefight and Tattersall’s – everyone thought the picnic idea had merit.
The party to the British Museum consisted of Lord Ryder and Samantha, Lord Seawright and Lady Valerie, Arabella and Lord Cosmo, his sister, Lady Henrietta Villiers, and Miss Winterbottom. Her first name, she informed the ladies, was Rachel.
Lady Henrietta was a plain-featured, petite brunette whom Arabella fell instantly in love with, taking the shy girl under her wing. She showed so much marked attention to her, Lord Cosmo was heard telling Miss Winterbottom that the two ladies were calling the banns on Sunday.
Arabella merely stuck out her tongue and declared Cosmo jealous of attention not directed at him. Henrietta laughed quietly as they went up the steps to the museum, but she paused when she saw a slant-eyed lady staring intently at them from one side of the front doors.
“Do you know that lady?” she asked Arabella, discreetly indicating the beautiful voyeur.
“No,” her new friend said and Lady Henrietta held her tongue. She was not comfortable enough with the rest of the company to point her out again, except for Cosmo, but he had a tendency to ignore her and today would in all probability be no exception.
The Rosetta Stone, on display, was marveled at by all, except for Lord Seawright and Lady Valerie. They thought being able to interpret hieroglyphics could only lead to the further desecration of Egyptian monuments.
“And don’t get me started on the Elgin Marbles,” Lady Valerie announced.
“Then why did you wish to come?” Arabella asked.
“I just adore the Bronze Age pieces,” was the reply.
Arabella sighed and trudged on. “Truly, I would be happier at a boxing mill,” she confessed to Henrietta, who giggled, drawing Cosmo’s attention.
“A mill? Next thing I know, you will be asking to shoot wafers at Manton’s!”
“And fence at Angelo’s, too!” Arabella brightly added. “I don’t know how to fence, but I am a deuced fine shot.”
“The devil you say!”
“It’s true,” Ryder said. “She is an excellent marksman. I take her hunting with me so that we can stock the larder. Otherwise I have a tendency to bring home only what my dogs have found.”
Arabella beamed at her brother’s praise. To her relief, none of the other ladies decried shooting as being unladylike.
“Do you carry a gun on your person, Lady Arabella?” Miss Winterbottom wondered.
“Of course.” She pulled a little pearl-handled pistol from her reticule and showed it to her friends. “Jack gave this to me a couple of years ago. I carry it with me everywhere. Except maybe the ballroom. Ladies tend to get rather wiggly about such things.”
“I should like to learn,” Samantha said to Ryder. She knew he would protect her, despite his lack of a good aim, but London was a dangerous place and she could not quite shake the feeling that Lord Hambly was not satisfied with the way things were left the other night at Almack’s.
“Then you shall.” He was at that stage, she knew, where he was still indulgent to her wishes, no matter how unorthodox. That was sure to change once they were married.
“We could set up a range in the back of Halbourne House,” Arabella suggested, warming to the idea immediately. “Rachel and Henrietta should join us.”
“Mama would have an apoplexy should she find out,” Henrietta demurred.
“If she finds out,” Cosmo said to his sister. Arabella gave his arm a squeeze. He could be so nice when he tried.
“And you, Valerie?” her intended asked. “Do you wish to learn, as well?”
“I already know how,” she said, surprising them all. “There is not much else to do in Devonshire when your family has gone to London for the season. I shall be happy to help teach the young ladies, though.”
That settled it and plans were made to include shooting lessons in their schedule.
In the meantime, the picnic at Richmond was set for the next Tuesday. They would all ride, and this time the party had expanded to include Sir Robert and one of his friends, a Mr. Stewart. Mr. Stewart was an introverted young man that Arabella took pains to match with a blushing Henrietta.
It was a good pairing, as neither of them sat a horse very well, leaving Arabella and Cosmo to provide not only supervision of their persons, but supervision of their mounts.
“As a friend of Lord Cosmo’s, I am surprised his mother did not try to match you up with Lady Henrietta,” Samantha commented as they all rode out of London. She had finally met the marchioness and she could see that lady prized titles above all else. That had been evident when she had made a comment about Arabella only being the daughter of an earl.
“Not enough money to suit her, I suppose,” Ryder replied with a shrug. If he had been at all attracted to Lady Henrietta, he might have pushed the issue, he told her. “After all, I am heir to a dukedom, which is an excellent prospect. And she is the daughter of a marquess.” Evidently Arabella had told him of the situation. “But Lady Corbridge never liked me. She doesn’t particularly like Cosmo and Henrietta, for that matter. Or Cosmo’s younger brother. All her attention is focused on finding a bride for her eldest before he sticks his spoon in the wall. The gentleman is very sickly, but she doesn’t want Cosmo or Reggie to inherit. An heir of Arthur’s would take care of that nicely.”
“What about Lady Henrietta?”
“The marchioness is often quoted as saying her daughter is too plain, but if she had been more beautiful, she would expend more energy making a brilliant match.”
Samantha was appalled and looked back at the young lady in question. She would have to make certain the girl was always included in their activities, as she seemed so starved for company. Under Arabella’s tutelage, and Mr. Stewart’s attentions, she had already started to blossom. “Mr. Stewart is considerate of her feelings,” she remarked.
“He will do wonders for her confidence, if nothing else. And his father is a baronet which, should this come to something, would be more comfortable for her than being a duchess. You, on the other hand, are now trapped,” he teased.
“You will eventually have to take your grandmother’s place, you know. Hopefully, it will be many years from now.”
“Duchess?” she asked, panic written across her face. “But…”
“Don’t worry, darling. You will do fine. I believe her grace already has plans on how to groom you for the position. Consider yourself warned.”
“All right,” she croaked. Duchess! Samantha was terrified. She had known all along that Jack was her grandfather’s heir, but it finally hit home that when he became the Duke of Halbourne, she would be his duchess.
As if he could read her mind, he reached over and took one of her gloved hands. After he pried it off the reins.
“Anyone who could toss me out of a church service and tell me to repent on my own time deserves such an exalted position. Think about it. You can tell the vicar when his theology is incorrect, and cite your own father,” he teased, trying to lighten her mood.
She laughed nervously and nodded. “And preside over the opening of fairs and organize all sorts of fetes and celebrations.”
“Exactly. And you will also be in the position to fund schools and orphanages, sit on the board of other institutions and spread your own money out where you wish.”
“My own money? But I thought my dowry…”
“Your dowry shall be completely separate from your allowance. Don’t spend it all just yet, however. The countess’ funds are much less than you will eventually gain. You don’t mind, do you?”
“A lack of funds?” She was almost in tears. “Do you recall our first meeting, when you rescued my basket? That was two meals for my father and I. I could have twice as much and consider myself wealthy! I promise you I shall never complain about using a clothing allowance to put a roof over someone else’s head – or my own for that matter – as long as there is food on the table.”
“You poor darling! I vow there will always be enough to eat.”
They rode in reflective silence until they reached the ruins of the palace at Richmond. It had been completed in 1501 by Henry VII at the site of an earlier palace, and was also the residence of Henry VIII until Cardinal Wolsey gave him Hampton Court Palace. It had been the home of Anne of Cleves after her divorce from Henry, and his daughter, Elizabeth, had died there. It had since burned, but it still had a sweeping view of the Thames and plenty of places for picnics.
They found a convenient spot for their repast and unloaded the fare from saddlebags on their horses. Cosmo grinned when he opened his bags to discover several bottles of wine wrapped in green baize for protection.
“If I had known, I should have already broken one out for us to pass around!”
“The exact reason I did not tell you,” Ryder remarked. Everyone laughed and worked quickly to set out their luncheon.
After the wine had been consumed, along with meat pies, fruit, cheese and spicy little cakes, they decided to stroll the grounds. No one remarked much at all when Ryder and Lord Seawright took their ladies off for private walks. After all, Arabella said, there was not much mischief they could get into here, unless Lord Seawright and Lady Valerie found more Roman ruins and started their dig early. She linked arms with both Rachel and Henrietta, and they headed for the river.
At one point, Henrietta came to a halt, thinking she had seen the slant-eyed lady from the museum steps, but when she looked again, the woman was gone. She must have been imagining things. After all, the woman was wearing the same yellow gown as had been seen at the museum. Not saying a word, she allowed Arabella to drag her along to the Thames.
The picnic was declared a success and as they were riding back toward the city, Arabella, who was in the lead, seemed to have lost her way.
“How can someone with such supposed good aim get us lost?” Cosmo wondered.
“I didn’t see you up here helping out!” she crossly replied.
“Fortunately for you, I know a side lane back to the main road,” he said condescendingly.
“Cosmo,” Ryder warned. “This is my sister you are speaking to, and a lady. Why don’t you ride up with her so she knows the way next time?”
Arabella, who had flushed red and dropped back, shot her brother a grateful smile and spurred her horse up to the front of the group.
Samantha reached over and patted Ryder’s sleeve. He was a very good brother. She also kept her own eyes open as they traveled down the road. It was getting dark and the only house around was an abandoned-looking one that she easily thought could be haunted, if its dilapidated appearance was anything to go by.
She was relieved when they finally came to the main road once more. There was an inn, and they stopped for tea and mulled wine and sent a lad into London with a note for the duchess. They did not wish her to worry.
Ryder wasn’t sure how it happened, but the day a representative from Manton’s met the young ladies at Halbourne House so they could select their own small pistols, they managed to turn it into a shopping party.
Samantha arranged for tables so the gentleman from the gunmaker’s shop could display his wares. Arabella, not to be outdone, ordered cakes, tea and rack punch. She then earned Cosmo’s admiration when she stood there and mixed the punch ingredients as well as any gentleman of his acquaintance. She only shrugged.
"I am full of surprises," she said with an enigmatic smile.
When Lady Henrietta and Miss Winterbottom arrived, it was time to peruse the dainty little pistols Ryder had thought appropriate for the ladies, and they, with Lady Valerie’s help, chose their weapons.
Arabella favored one of highly polished wood with metal trim, resembling a dueling pistol in miniature. Miss Winterbottom chose a similar one with an engraved handle, and Lady Henrietta and Samantha selected pearl-handled ones. All were small enough to be carried in reticules.
The gentleman from Manton’s handled the sales and then showed the young ladies how to load the pistols. Samantha thought it complicated at first, but once she got the idea of it, they all moved out to where Ryder and Lord Seawright had erected a range. Targets were placed at the far end of the small garden and Lady Valerie showed the girls how to line up their shots.
Not surprisingly, Arabella, who had received the most practice in her life, was the best, but Lady Henrietta was not too far behind. Rachel Winterbottom and Samantha amused themselves by commiserating with each other over their lack of aim, but they were having so much fun being shown personally by Ryder and Sir Robert how to hit the target, they could not complain much.
Once the ladies had received some practice, and the gentleman from Manton’s went back to the shop, the men began to discuss who amongst them could hit the target the most out of ten shots. Ryder excused himself and offered Arabella in his place, saying she could compete as long as she did not wager too much pin money.
"But I shall place enough down to make it interesting," he told her. "I have the utmost faith in your abilities." He received hugs for his compliment, a public one from his sister, a private one later from Samantha.
Lord Seawright also deferred his spot – to Lady Valerie. "I have a feeling she is the better shot."
The contestants lined up, with the ladies to perform first. Wafers had been erected for the sharpshooters and footmen stood by to help change targets and reload pistols.
Arabella and Lady Valerie had flipped a coin to see which of them was to go first, with Arabella taking the honors. She put shots through the wafer seven out of ten times and everyone applauded wildly. Bowing to her audience, she smirked at Lady Valerie.
Her smirk was wiped off moments later as Lady Valerie went Arabella one better and hit the target eight times. The gentlemen exchanged further bets and then it was Cosmo’s turn. He did as well as Arabella, but not any better. Sir Robert got six out of ten and then Mr. Stewart took a turn, tying for first place with Lady Valerie.
"Well done, everyone!" the duke called from his study window, where he had been watching the proceedings. "Come inside now and get warm," he urged. They did not need a second invitation.
Inclement weather kept the target practice to a minimum, and plans were made to tour the Royal Academy. Samantha and Arabella had already invited Lady Henrietta to visit several times, and once they went shopping with Lady Ryder. The young ladies, having learned Henrietta had her own clothing allowance, were bent on helping her make attractive wardrobe purchases. Some of her former gowns had not flattered her in the slightest.
Now that she was more presentable, as Arabella declared her, Lady Henrietta seemed to have gained some of that confidence Ryder had predicted she would.
She arrived at Somerset House with her brother, dressed in pale pink muslin with a darker rose bonnet and spencer. The Halbourne House ladies had all become quite fond if her, as she hid a dry wit under her shyness, and her needle skills put both Arabella and Samantha to shame.
The fact that she took such delight in doing something well was not lost on her friends. In their circle, she began to blossom, and gentlemen had begun to take notice. Even her mother had noted an increase in young men during her at-homes, even if she was not quite ready to give up the timid spinster daughter who catered to her demanding self.
One gentleman, in particular, was Lord Hambly. She did not care for him much, but he paid such careful attention to her when he called on the marchioness, she hugged the information to herself and did not tell any of her new friends about him. Even Cosmo did not realize Hambly had been dangling after his sister, because he avoided his mother’s gatherings like the plague.
In fact, he had said he would meet her that day at the Royal Academy, wanting to be introduced to her friends. She had readily agreed, but she had her doubts that he would show. After all, he had expressed interest in her other activities, such as the museum trip and the ride to Richmond, but in the end, after being pressed to come, he had failed to appear. This outing, no doubt, would be like the previous ones and she kept mum, just in case. She did not wish to look foolish in front of her new friends.
Nor had she wished to mar Lord Hambly’s opinion of herself, so while she entertained him with stories of her more mundane entertainments, she had not mentioned target practice, or the fact that she now carried her little gun with her wherever she went.
Even as she greeted her friends, however, she still looked about for his lordship.
A lady in yellow, the perfect foil for her dark hair and slanted blue eyes, entered Somerset House not too long after the larger party. Once inside, she checked her appearance in a mirror on the wall and declared herself perfect. As well she should be – she had spent enough of Hambly’s money to pamper herself back into the state of perfection she had maintained before her husband’s death. It was a luxury she could only afford when a generous protector footed the bill. She was pleased enough with Hambly for the moment, but she would much rather be a duchess. That was going to take Ryder to accomplish.
She thought she had him snared the year before, at her cousin’s house party in Wales, but he had gotten word somehow (no doubt through Lord Cosmo) that she was on the prowl, and he had avoided her the rest of that week.
That had caused her no end of trouble, especially with the cousin, who had gone to the expense of having unwanted houseguests after being assured by the widow that Ryder was a sure bet. Now he was betrothed to someone else and her cousin, who read all the London papers, was demanding remuneration. She was going to have to get Hambly to pay for that, as well.
She watched as Ryder’s party went into a room to look at portraits and then signaled to Hambly, who was waiting down at the other end of the gallery. This plan was all his idea, so if it went wrong, she refused to take the blame. She did, however, want to be there when Ryder had to pick up the pieces of his life and move on.
"Good afternoon, everyone!" Lord Hambly approached the group as it emerged from the portrait gallery. He bowed to them all and then attached himself to Samantha without a glance at Henrietta.
Henrietta felt rather let down, even though she did not truly care for the man, but then the lady in yellow appeared again and she was diverted to watching her peruse pictures. She said nothing, however, because the lady was not observing their crowd this time, but seemingly minding her own business.
"What a coincidence being here on such a dreary day," Lord Hambly remarked. Samantha murmured a reply, but when she looked for Ryder for support, she realized they had been cut off from everyone else and a large body of people separated her from her friends.
"I think, my lord, that we…" she began in a faint voice.
"Are you feeling quite the thing, Miss Howard? How dreadful. Here is a friend of mine, Mrs. Dale, who would be more than glad to take you outside for a breath of fresh air." He handed her over to Meredith, who had slipped behind a pillar to await her next cue.
"I don’t think…"
"It’s no trouble at all," Meredith assured her, linking arms and walking her swiftly out of the gallery. "You are looking dreadfully pale. How did you become acquainted with Lord Hambly? Have you known him long?" She rapidly fired questions at Samantha, leaving the girl confused, but distracted, as they stepped outside Somerset House.
"I… We met…" Where had they met? Her mind was in a whirl from the rain and the crowds and the lady dragging her about, and being separated from her friends. "Not long…"
"Here. Sit in my carriage until your party emerges. I am sure they will not be long, and Lord Hambly will find them and make your excuses until then."
Samantha could only nod and climb into the woman’s coach.
"Where is Samantha?" Ryder growled in Hambly’s ear when the crowd finally parted and he realized the other man was alone.
"She was feeling faint and a lady friend took her outside for some air," Lord Hambly said innocently enough, and Ryder did not even feel a twinge of alarm.
"All right. We shall catch up with her outside then, or back in here later if she is feeling better," he conceded.
"An excellent idea. Lady Henrietta!" he said, sidling over to her. "A pleasure to see you again. I had not noticed earlier, in this mob, that you were one of this party."
She nodded, but slipped her arm in Arabella’s. She did not wish to disappear like Samantha had, and she did not trust his lordship. In fact, she wondered if she and Arabella should not go out and check on Samantha. She did not like her being gone. Murmuring their excuses, she and Arabella went outside, where Samantha was nowhere to be found.
"I was so sure he would try to stop us," she said.
"Lord Hambly. He was the last person except for his mystery woman to see Samantha. I don’t trust him," Henrietta admitted.
"Perhaps she is feeling better and has gone back indoors?" Arabella suggested.
Henrietta was about to agree when she saw the lady in yellow once more. She was climbing out of a carriage, which was strange, when she had been in the gallery only a short while before, and now the coach was driving off, leaving her alone. Henrietta had no choice but to agree with Arabella and they returned to their party.
"We cannot find her," they said upon their return.
"I don’t like this, Jack," Arabella said softly to her brother. "But Lord Hambly could have nothing to do with it, could he? He has been here the entire time."
They alerted the guards in charge of the establishment, and a search was made for Samantha, but everyone came up empty-handed.
"Perhaps she has already gone home," one of the guards said. "Why don’t you try there, my lord?"
Ryder could only concede and he rounded up his friends. He was going to have to give Samantha a talking to when he found her – even if she was feeling poorly, she should have sent word to them that she was leaving.
Samantha had entered the lady’s carriage, hoping to rest a moment before joining her friends, when her face was covered with a sickly-sweet smelling cloth and she drifted into unconsciousness. She never heard the lady leave or give orders for the driver to move out. When she awoke, she was in a dark, damp room in a crumbling old house, laid out on a mattress on the floor, her hands tied together in front her.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Lord Hambly drawled from a chair by her side.
“Wha?” She was still befuddled, and she could use a drink of water and she wanted Jack. How did she get here and what was going to happen to her? “Where am I?”
“In an old house in the middle of nowhere. The perfect place to hold you until tomorrow, when we shall be married. I only play to win, Miss Samantha Howard, and when you chose Ryder, I could not take that lying down.” She started to protest and he smacked her across the mouth. “No talking back, my little bride.” The sudden squeaking of a mouse brought a look of alarm to her face and a smile to his lips. “I don’t think I need to have you guarded. You won’t be going anywhere, will you?”
“No one will marry us unless we both consent, and I refuse to consent,” she said, her mind becoming clearer by the moment.
“Too late. I have already found a gentleman who likes money more than God or the law. He has already been paid to turn a deaf ear to your protests, my sweet. And now, I have an appointment in town. With a pretty little widow who not only allows me to enjoy her favors, but plans on continuing our liaison once she is Lady Ryder. How convenient…”
He left the room, locking the door behind him, seemingly confident that she could not escape. She didn’t like the sound of the mice scurrying about, but she waited until she heard Hambly’s carriage leave before she pulled herself up off the floor. An investigation revealed an unlocked door leading to a dressing room and another bedchamber, although she was still locked into the suite itself. First things first, she thought, casting about for something sharp.
Ryder was beside himself with worry. Samantha had never returned to Halbourne House, as expected, and he feared the worst. Everyone had stayed to help as needed, except for Mr. Stewart, who had offered a ride to Miss Winterbottom when she said she must return home. The rest of them sat about in the drawing room.
Ryder was wracked with guilt over not protecting Samantha, as promised, and he had no idea where to begin. He wanted to suspect Hambly – that appearance at Somerset House had been a little too pat for his liking – but the man had been with them all along. Except…
“I’m going out,” he said abruptly. “I think I know where to get more information.”
“Lord Hambly?” Lady Henrietta asked. Up until this point she had been quiet, but now she felt she needed to speak. “I have been seeing quite a lot of him lately, at mother’s at-homes. He has…” She blushed. “He has been interested in my social activities and I fear I have been feeding him information without even knowing it. And then there is the slant-eyed lady…”
“Slant-eyed?” Ryder exchanged glances with Cosmo and Ainsworth. “Blue eyes? Dark hair? Did she ever wear yellow?”
“I never saw her in any other color,” Henrietta admitted.
“When did you see her?” Ryder asked gently, although his heart was racing.
“She was at the British Museum, Richmond and today at the Royal Academy. At the museum and Richmond she just seemed to be watching, but today I saw her all over the place, including getting out of a carriage after I had seen her inside.”
“I think we need to pay a call on Mrs. Dale,” he said to the gentlemen.
“I’m going, too!” Arabella insisted.
“And I!” Henrietta added. “If she can lead us to Lord Hambly, I have a score to settle for being used.”
“I think we should all go,” Lady Valerie said, the first she had spoken through all this. “For one thing, no one would suspect three ladies of having pistols in their reticules. We are all good shots and we might be needed to provide an element of surprise. Oh, we shall let you all attempt to protect us, at first, but we will be there if needed.”
Lord Seawright only nodded and held out his hand to help her to her feet.
Mrs. Dale was not at home, they were told, when they paid a call on the widow. She was visiting Lord Hambly, the butler told them, recognizing Lord Ryder as someone who might be interested in such things. He did not particularly like the designs his employer had on the gentleman, and was determined to throw a spoke in her wheels. She also owed him three months’ wages.
Ryder thanked the man with a handful of guineas and they were off to Hambly’s establishment. His major domo insisted he was not home, but Lady Valerie pulled out her gun and told the man they were going inside regardless. He hastily admitted them.
“Very nice,” Arabella said with admiration as they walked down the hall behind the gentlemen.
Fortunately, when they all filed into Lord Hambly’s drawing room, he was sitting there with Mrs. Dale, the two of them toasting something. Ryder had an idea what it might be.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
“Where is who?” Hambly calmly replied. “Mrs. Dale? She is right here and she is all yours, my lord.”
“I don’t want her – I want Samantha!”
“Samantha is gone,” the widow said smoothly. “Just like her mother, she ran off with another man.”
“Why would she do that?” Lady Valerie wondered, coming to the forefront of the group. “When she had everything she wanted. Everything you wanted, most likely.” She stepped forward, ready to wring the information out of Mrs. Dale, when the click of a pistol was heard.
“I don’t believe you will do that, Lady Valerie,” Hambly replied, pointing his gun in her direction. “I wouldn’t want anything to hurt your matrimonial chances this time. It was bad enough that your sister ruined your life twenty years ago. This will be your own fault, won’t it?”
“You snake!” Valerie cried, but she backed off. Mrs. Dale took that moment to run from the room, leaving everyone a bit startled, including Lord Hambly, judging by his surprised expression.
“Want me to go after her?” Cosmo asked Ryder.
“No, I’m sure she was just an accomplice. We still have Hambly…”
“Are you so sure?” Lord Hambly asked.
“Fairly sure,” Arabella said sweetly right before she shot the pistol out of his hand, causing him to cry out. Ryder and Ainsworth jumped him together, knocking the man out cold.
It took a long while for Samantha to cut her rope on a sharp-edged fender in the other bedroom, cutting the side of one wrist in the process, but when she found an old sheet, and began to rip part of it into strips for a bandage, she got an idea.
Rummaging about, she found another sheet, moldy and threadbare. It would have to do. Binding her wrist, she pulled the rest of the fabric into wide strips and began knotting them together. It seemed like something out of a gothic novel, to be making a rope to climb out the upper-story window with, but when one was locked in, mice were abroad and there was a wedding planned on the morrow, it was time for desperate, clichéd measures.
There were only two problems with such measures she thought a while later when it was time to climb out the window. One, she was afraid of heights, and two, the sheets were not long enough once she tied one end to the bedpost. The bed was too heavy to move and she did not have time to unknot the sheets and retie them into longer, less-stable strips.
Holding her breath and grabbing her reticule, which no one had thought to remove from her arm, she let herself fall as far as the sheets allowed. It wasn’t enough, but the old linens had other ideas, at any rate, and ripped, dropping her into an old bed of roses, complete with thorns.
Samantha’s words were heated at that point, but, thankfully, not of the caliber of Arabella, or Ryder.
Ryder! He would never find her. She didn’t even know where she was. Pulling thorns and old rose canes out of her backside, she ducked back down in the bushes when she heard a carriage approach. She didn’t know who it was – possibly Lord Hambly – but she was not going to wait to find out.
Oddly enough, it was a hackney, only there to drop someone off, she saw as she peeked around a corner of the house. The woman who alighted from the cab and went into the house was someone she recognized from the day before and someone who had come specifically for Samantha, if the screech that echoed from the upstairs windows was any indication. And the language she was using would put a Billingsgate fishwife to the blush.
Samantha realized she was going to have to cross the front of the house to reach the road and ran, but she was not quick enough to escape the other woman.
“Not so fast, Miss Howard,” the woman called. Samantha kept running. “I have a gun.” Samantha was brought up short by that news, but she did not turn around.
“That’s right, Miss Howard. If you run, I shall only hunt you down like a rabbit.”
“What do you want with me?” Samantha called.
“I don’t want anything to do with you. I only want Ryder. That is why you are going to turn around and come back into the house with me. I cannot dispose of you as easily out here.”
“Lord Hambly will be here any moment,” Samantha threatened, realizing this was the widow he had made mention of. The female only laughed.
“Hambly, unfortunately, met up with the wrong group of people. There will be no one to save you now. If you can call what Hambly had planned for you a rescue.”
“Then Ryder shall save me,” Samantha bluffed, careful to remove her gun with as little movement as possible.
“I doubt it. Even now he has already gone home, resigning you to your mother’s fate. Too bad you won’t live long enough to imitate her. Now turn around and come inside!” she commanded.
“No!” Samantha shouted. She spun about and fired, her bullet burying itself in the other woman’s leg.
“You witch!” her assailant screamed. She dropped her own gun to clutch at her limb and Samantha dove for the other firearm.
Straightening up, she got her first real look at the house, and she smiled. She was in Richmond and she knew the way to the inn, where she could send word to her family.
She motioned to the other female to follow her, injured leg or not, as a carriage pulled up and her friends and relatives spilled out. Arabella reached her first and she handed over the guns without a word. She was too busy looking for Ryder when suddenly he was standing in front of her with tears in his eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t protect you when you needed it most and now you have rescued yourself. I am not worthy of you.”
“You’re here now,” Samantha said, crying as she threw herself into his arms. “And I still need you,” she whispered. “I’ll always need you, Jack.”
He nodded and kissed her fiercely. They stood there in each other’s arms as everyone filed back into the coach and the widow had been secured on the carriage box. She was screaming at Cosmo to let a dying woman loose.
“Meet you at the inn,” he called as he whipped up the horses, leaving Samantha and Ryder to walk.
“How did you find me?” she asked as they headed slowly, arms about each other, away from the house.
“Lady Henrietta was a font of information,” he admitted, “and Hambly has confessed all. It was either that or Valerie and Arabella were going to make a target out of him.”
She giggled. “You did rescue me, you know. From that woman’s mouth. She would have put you to shame.”
“She would? What made you think to aim for her leg?”
“Who said I was aiming for her leg?”
“I’d suggest more practice for you, young lady, but you are going to be too busy.”
“Oh?” And what shall I be doing?”
“Becoming my countess.” It took quite a while longer for them to continue their walk, because that comment deserved at least a dozen kisses.
It was summer, and a large party of family and friends had gathered at Seacrest for the beginning of Lord and Lady Seawright’s Roman dig.
Lady Seawright, having finally called a truce with her mother-in-law on the announcement that she was increasing, sat under a tent over the grassy area to be excavated, surveying the expanse like a queen. At her side was a young woman also expecting a child, Lady Ryder. The two had been coddled to the point that they had feigned exhaustion from the heat and had settled in the shade just to escape the attention.
Arabella was in alt over the thought of becoming an aunt, although, as she had bemoaned to her brother, it was a tragedy that she and her mother now lived at Vinelands just as Ryder was becoming interesting. She was also looking forward to the Little Season in town. Marked attention from Lord Cosmo had brought her to the notice of some other eligible bachelors and she was eager to resume her court of admirers in the autumn.
“What do you think is in there?” Ryder asked Seawright as they walked the perimeter with the duke, the three of them keeping one eye out for movement from the tent.
Lord Seawright shrugged. “Could be anything. Mosaics from a former villa… jewelry and coins… Or nothing at all. But the boss says to dig, so I dig.”
The boss, of course, was Lady Valerie, who had become Lady Seawright in April in a double ceremony with Ryder and her niece, just two weeks after the abduction of Samantha. Lady Halbourne had insisted on a large wedding, but Ryder had said it would be as large as possible in the two weeks he was willing to wait to be wed, but anything after that would just have to be a celebration ball.
Once Hambly and Mrs. Dale had been deported, the couples were married with as much pomp as the duchess and the now-dowager Lady Seawright could muster on such short notice, in St. George’s, Hanover Square, the church Samantha had once suggested Ryder attend rather than her father’s small parish church.
Ryder and Samantha spent two weeks in Brighton after that, but Lord and Lady Seawright had come here, to their estate, to immediately map out where their dig was to take place. Once the season had concluded, everyone else had been invited to join them as they officially opened the section to a few selected archaeologists. Lady Seawright had been about to join them when she discovered a woman not quite forty truly could provide her husband with children, and she had not been allowed to help dig.
“Do you mind not being able to assist?” Samantha asked as they watched their spouses walk about together.
Valerie stretched and propped her feet up on a stool. “I am still the site supervisor. It will be enough. And it is always good to be in charge.” They looked at each other and grinned, considering themselves the most fortunate of women.
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