On their way to a ball, eighteen-year-old Lady Margaret is reminded by her affectionate brother, the Earl of Saunton, to consider her choice of words before she speaks. Despite his warning, she voices her controversial opinion to Lady Sefton, one of Almack’s lady patronesses, who can advance or ruin a debutante’s reputation. Horrified by her thoughtless indiscretion, Margaret runs from the ballroom into the reception hall where she nearly slips onto the marble floor.
Baron Rochedale, a notorious rake catches her in his arms to prevent her fall. Margaret, whose family expect her to make a splendid marriage, and enigmatic Rochedale, who never reveals his secrets, are immediately attracted to each other, but Rochedale never makes advances to unmarried females.
When Margaret runs out into the street, out of chivalry it seems he must follow the runaway instead of joining his mistress in the ballroom, where anxious mothers would warn their daughters to avoid him.
Rochedale’s quixotic impulse leads to complications which force him to question his selfish way of life.
Entangled by him in more ways than one, stifled by polite society’s unwritten rules and regulations Margaret is forced to question what is most important to her.
April 2nd, 1818
Ill at ease, the Earl of Saunton watched his eighteen-year-old sister, Lady Margaret, descend the stairs of his house in Cavendish Square. He found no fault with her wheat-coloured hair, arranged in a knot on the crown of her head, or her white silk gown partially covered by a sapphire-blue velvet cloak. Nothing, he admitted to himself, could be more appropriate than her pearl necklace and earrings for a young lady recently launched on the sea of exclusive London society after her presentation at court.
He stepped forward with the hope that throughout the ball his sister would remember this afternoon’s tete-a-tete in the library, when he had not minced words. With justifiable bitterness, he had said. “By God, sister, if you were a young filly I’d have you bridled and keep you on a short rein.”
Saunton glanced at his mother who stood near the door with his stepfather.
Her hand pressed over her heart, she smiled at her second husband. “Sir Peter. You must agree Margaret is beautiful.”
“Yes, Hortense, she is,” the good-natured gentleman replied.
Mama waved her forefinger at Margaret, who now stood at the bottom of the stairs. “This evening you must keep a close guard on your tongue.”
His sister rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mama, I shall, but please say no more about that subject.”
Saunton’s teeth clamped together. Although he loved Margaret, if it would prevent her from making ill-judged remarks in future he would seize her shoulders and shake some sense into her. He almost groaned, when he thought of four more lively younger sisters for whom it would be his duty to steer through society’s shoals to marriage.
Amelia, his adored wife, who stood next to him, stepped forward to fasten the cloak at Margaret’s throat. “It would not do for you to catch a chill. Although it is spring the evenings are cold. She put her arm around Margaret. “After Saunton spoke to you this afternoon, I am sure that you will choose your words carefully, so, this evening we may enjoy the Hempstead’s ball.
With less faith in his sister than his beautiful wife, Saunton ushered them outside to his commodious town coach.
Settled inside, their mother spoke. “Margaret, I hope you will make a match as splendid as Charlotte’s and be as happy as she is. For your own good, your brother and I have given you good advice.”
* * * *
Margaret scowled. Maybe Mama prayed for her to marry as well as her older sister, Charlotte, now Duchess of Midland. Rebellious, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hands. She never wanted to be shackled to a husband. Saunton’s lectures were intolerable. A husband’s animadversions would be worse.
She sniffed, resentful of men’s total power over women. No bride knew how her bridegroom would behave after marriage. He had the right to chastise his wife provided he did not kill her, to confine the unfortunate lady indoors and to control every detail of her life.
No! She would not marry. Too often she had seen Mama’s torrents of tears because Papa had kept mistresses, whom she had explained were his special friends.
Before Papa’s death he had gambled so heavily that he was on the verge of bankruptcy.
All of life’s cards were stacked in men’s favour. After Saunton had tied the knot with his wife, he controlled her vast fortune. If he wished, nothing Amelia could do would prevent him from frittering it away until they were penniless.
Pity for Cousin Jane also convinced her she would always prefer to be a spinster. Of course, there were matters she was not expected to know about, but she had overheard their mothers discuss the shocking truth.
“Hortense,” her aunt had commenced, “after Jane refused to…” she lowered her voice too low to be overheard then raised it again, “the brute beat and kicked her in a drunken rage so badly that she was confined to bed for a month. Although it will be very expensive, her father has decided to pay for her to apply for a separation through the ecclesiastical court.”
Margaret could not imagine what her cousin refused to comply with which provoked her husband’s violence. She shuddered. Lady Luck played an important part in the lottery in which a wife’s stakes were high. It was safer not to marry even a gentleman such as Midland’s friend, Mr de Vere the handsome, wealthy nonpareil.
She frowned, glad of the hood of her cloak pulled down over her face and the dim interior that shielded her expression. If Mama saw it, she would warn her it would cause unacceptable wrinkles. In competition with other young ladies and their hopeful parents, to snare a suitable husband during her first London season she was expected to present a picture of demure radiance. What would her mother and her brother say if she told them she would refuse every offer for her hand in marriage?
“Margaret.” Hortense smoothed her light grey satin frock over her knees.
“Remember you don’t have permission from one of Almack’s patronesses to waltz.”
“Why should those ladies have the right to decide?”
Amelia leant across the space between them and clasped her hand for a moment. “I don’t know, but if you disobey the unwritten rule, your voucher to attend Almack’s might be withdrawn. It would cause gossip which would damage your reputation.”
“I am tired of the regulations that govern the society ton,” Margaret declared.
“I daresay, but you will obey them or suffer the consequences,” Saunton said with a note of steel in his voice.
His warning confirmed she did not want to marry and be subject to another gentleman. “What would you do? Lock me up and only allow me bread and water?” she muttered as loudly as she dared.
Her brother’s laughter stung her pride before he spoke. “I admire your imagination. Don’t be so foolish. Sweetheart, please understand this. As your guardian I am forced to be strict because I want the best for you.”
Hortense nodded. “So, do I, but at Mrs Farley’s soiree, when you compared her face to her bad-tempered pug’s you did yourself a disservice.”
Margaret wanted to stamp her feet as though she were a child. Why must her mother and Saunton dwell on her indiscretions?
“I am sure Margaret did not intend her comment to be overheard and repeated,” Amelia said.
“No, I did not, and I have apologised to you, Mama,” Margaret muttered grateful for her sister-in-law’s intervention.
“Yes, you have, but you must not upset Lady Hortense. Is that not right, my little hothouse flower?” He gazed at his wife a fond expression. Only her complacent stepfather would make such a comparison. Margaret stifled her laughter while she looked suspiciously at Saunton whose cough seemed to muffle his amusement.
“My dear sir, thank you for your elegant compliment,” Hortense murmured as she adjusted her diamond necklace.
She should not laugh. After her unhappy first marriage, Mama deserved happiness.
“Margaret, remember not to utter one ill-considered word that will cause offence,” Saunton said, this time his voice so sharp that it could have sliced effortlessly through a block of ice.
She bent her head to avoid looking at him. Despite Saunton’s tedious lectures, she loved her brother and knew he loved her. “I shall not say anything you could object to.” Honesty compelled her to add. “At least, I shall try not to.”
* * * *
In the ballroom, Margaret’s feet tapped to the rhythm of The Sussex Waltz. Taught the steps by her dancing master, she longed to be twirled around the ballroom by one of her beaux.
The dance ended. With Amelia, Saunton, one of the most handsome and well-dressed men present, his short black hair arranged to tumble over his forehead, and his cravat tied in the complicated style called Cascade, returned to their seats.
Mother, who sat next to her on a gilt wood chair, exchanged a few words with Lady Sefton, one of Almack’s Lady Patronesses.
Margaret stood to make her curtsey.
“Are you enjoying the ball, Lady Margaret?” the amiable countess, appreciated for her kindness, asked.
“Yes, thank you, Lady Sefton, but I would like to waltz, and don’t understand why I need permission from you or one of Almacks’ other patronesses to do so.”
“A pretty child, but too forward, it would be unfortunate if her voucher is withdrawn,” the countess murmured as she walked away.
Hortense sank onto her chair and fanned herself vigorously.
With mingled anger and indignation, Margaret looked down at her. “What right does that woman have to threaten me?”
“Silence,” Hortense hissed. “You will be ruined.”
Too angry to obey or consider the consequences, Margaret glared. “Why should she be accepted as one of the arbiters of polite society and have the power to decide if I may waltz?”
Heads turned. A few people, who had overheard her outburst, seemed amused. The majority appeared shocked.
“Margaret, you have said more than enough.” A white line formed around Saunton’s mouth. “You have disgraced yourself.” Anger blazed in his eyes. “We will return home at once to consider your immediate future,” he said too quietly for anyone to overhear.
Where would he send her? Margaret pressed her hands against her hot cheeks. Why could she never resist the temptation to speak out? Why had she allowed her indignation to triumph over good sense?
Margaret turned around. Unable to bear the attention her comments had attracted, she ran past De Vere, through a crowd of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and down the stairs into the large reception hall. She nearly slipped on the marble floor. A gentleman caught her in his arms.
“Alexander Symonds, Baron Rochedale at your service, ma’am.”
“Thank you, sir. I mean, not for your service, but for saving me from a tumble.”
She gazed up into a pair of large dark eyes in a handsome face, the only blemish a scar from his right cheekbone to his square jaw.
The gentleman chuckled.
To calm herself, Margaret took a deep breath. Appreciative of his cologne, lavender with an unmistakeable hint of lemon, something pleasurable and unfamiliar stirred within her. Confused she gazed into his eyes. They seemed to burn a pathway into hers. She should not stand here in the arms of the tall, muscular gentleman. If anyone of consequence saw them and gossiped, her reputation would be in shreds and Saunton would never forgive her. “Please let go of me, sir.”
“You are trembling. Are you certain you want me to release you? I don’t wish you to fall.”
“Yes,” she answered, although she did not understand why she wished to remain in the circle of his arms.
In a second, he freed her. She stepped back then fled into the street away from her handsome rescuer, and her unpardonable folly.
* * * *
Rochedale hesitated for a moment. The reason for the young lady’s precipitous flight was not his concern. He half turned around to go upstairs.
Confound it, who knew what harm might come to a proverbial damsel in distress alone in London after dark. If he had a daughter in the same situation he hoped someone would rescue her. Out of chivalry, it seemed he must follow the runaway instead of joining his mistress in the ballroom, where doubtless anxious mothers would caution their daughters to avoid him.
Outside the Hempstead’s house, Rochedale looked along the wide street lit by new-fangled gas lamps. At the corner, he sighted his quarry fleeing towards Regent’s Park. His anxiety increased. If she were not assaulted by a lusty man, a kidnapper might take her to one of London’s many brothels.
A horse. He didn’t have a kingdom to exchange for one, but ahead of him a boy held a chestnut’s reins. Without compunction, Rochedale snatched them and mounted the horse. His lips twitched with amusement as he compared himself to a gallant knight of old, albeit a somewhat reluctant one, prepared to save the lady from any dragons she might face. He laughed. Never, even in the furthest reaches of his imagination, could he have envisaged himself playing a hero’s part.
“Oi,” yelled the boy. “What about my three pence for looking after the gentleman’s horse?”
Rochedale fumbled in his pocket and found a coin. He tossed it to the urchin. Gold glinted.
“Lawks!” the child exclaimed.
Rochedale frowned. By now, Caroline Clifford, his voluptuous mistress, who had promised to save him the dance before supper, would be furious.
Ahead of him, half way up the long street three men emerged from steps that led from the basement of a house. One of them grabbed their victim. “Damn them to hell,” Rochedale swore and spurred the sluggish horse forward.
“Easy pickings,” another rascal gloated.
The lady’s captor yelled when she kicked his calf.
Rochedale whistled. A damsel with high spirits.
“Help! Let go of me. You will go to the gallows for this.”
Too intent on their prey to be wary, one man caught her from behind. Another grabbed the neckline of her tiny bodice with such force that her frock ripped from her bosom to her waist.
She swore at them as though pursued by the hounds of hell.
Rochedale drew level with them. He sprang from the saddle onto the pavement. “Guttersnipes! Unhand the lady.”
He rushed forward and aimed a blow at one of their faces. The small, skinny man yelled and ran away followed by one of his companions, but the third attempted to drag his victim in the same direction.
With skill learned at Jackson’s famous Academy for Gentlemen Pugilists, Rochedale, aimed short arm jabs followed by a horizontal blow straight from the shoulder. The criminal yelled, his nose flattened. Blood pouring down his face, spitting out dislodged teeth, he fled after his companions.
Rochedale turned towards the young lady, who was trying to draw the edges of her torn gown together across her stays. Embarrassed by an involuntary surge of lust at the sight of her partially revealed breasts, he concentrated on undoing the last button of his black, tight-fitting evening coat. He tugged his arms out of the sleeves, then held the coat out to her and helped her to put it on.
Her hands shook too much to fasten the buttons.
“With your permission.” He did them up with unsteady fingers, still conscious of the exquisite curves of her bosom.
The girl stepped back. “I shall never forget the horror inflicted on me by those animals and their stink.”
Rochedale admired her. Although she shook from head to toe she had tried not to sound cowed. This was not the moment to point out she should not have run out alone onto the street. “Please give me your address, I shall take you home in a hackney.”
Wide-eyed, she shook her head.
The scent of her fragrant perfume reminiscent of a summer garden further titillated his senses. He resisted a strong temptation to forget that, despite the gossip about him, he was an honourable man, “Ah, you have been warned not to travel in a hackney and to never be alone with a gentleman other than a close relation.”
“Yes, I have, but I would go with you if I could go home.”
Rochedale frowned. “If?”
“I cannot return to my family. I am ruined.”
“No such thing, you are not to blame for the attack on you.”
“You don’t understand. I am sunk beneath reproach. They will never forgive me for my indiscretion, which is why I ran away from the ball.”
Her hair loosened in the struggle tumbling over his coat, she seemed little more than a child. “I don’t believe whatever you did is past redemption. By now, your relatives must be very worried.”
Gaslight revealed her tearful face. “You are mistaken, sir. My father is dead. My mother, who remarried, cares little for me. This time, my guardian, who frequently scolds me, will punish me with extreme severity.”
Rochedale imagined a cruel custodian who might apply the cane to this delicate young lady. He stroked the scar on his face with his forefinger. “Have you no relative you may turn to?”
She hesitated. “Not one who would help me.”
By now, it must be long past the time for his rendezvous with his hot-tempered mistress. Because he had neglected her, if he were not wealthy, out of pride she would probably threaten to end their liaison. Thoughtful, he looked up at the night sky embedded with stars over which the full moon presided. Did he care enough to placate her? Perhaps not. Maybe it was time to sever their relationship. In recent months, the married lady’s indiscretion and possessiveness annoyed him. Besides, he did not wish to be challenged to a duel by her husband.
He hesitated for a moment before he offered her a carte-blanche. “If you will permit me, I shall provide for you and protect you.”
She smiled. “Thank you for your kindness.”
“Do you understand what my suggestion entails?”
A pair of large hazel eyes gazed into his. “Yes, sir, it means you will take care of me.”
“Indeed, I shall,” he confirmed, but questioned whether she really understood the full implication of his offer. He shook his head. His conscience stirred. Should he retract his offer to this young, well-bred lady? Suspecting he might live to rue this day, Rochedale decided to take her to his house on the banks of the River Thames.
The boy from whom he had snatched the horse’s reins ran around the corner.
“Oi, give me back me ‘orse.”
* * * *
Saunton watched his mother, who continued to fan herself vigorously. “Oh, my poor child. My dearest Margaret, where are you?”
“Calm yourself, my love. Dismiss the ungrateful girl from your mind.” Sir Peter stroked her hand. “Do you need your smelling salts?”
Saunton ignored them. “Amelia, please find out if Margaret is in the ladies’ retiring room.”
Foolish girl! He doubted Lady Sefton would accept even the most abject apology, but even if she did many doors would now be closed to Margaret.
He clenched his fists. Since Charlotte’s marriage ceremony, when he gave her away to her husband, he had looked forward to giving Margaret in holy matrimony to a gentleman who would love and cherish her.
When he found Margaret, he would send her to Longwood Place. At his country estate, she would have time to reflect on her folly. He would ask his wife’s former chaperone, Mrs Deane, to accompany her. He clamped his lips together. Alternatively, he could send his sister to their formidable Great Aunt Augusta. If anyone could tame Margaret, she could.
Aware of glances at them, he sank onto the chair beside his mother, who applied her tiny silver flask of smelling salts to her nose. “Mama, please try to overcome your distress. We must make light of Margaret’s thoughtlessness. After all, she expressed an opinion which many other people probably share.”
“I daresay, but none of them would express it in a loud voice at a ball. She has ruined her good name,” Hortense whispered. “Oh, the shame of it. I shall never recover. People will think I am an unfit mother.”
His selfish parent would overcome the humiliation, but her words proved her unworthiness. She cared more about the effect of his sister’s latest indiscretion on her than on Margaret. His nostrils flared. As for Sir Peter, he took no interest in any of his unmarried step-children. Saunton decided they would make their home with him and his wife.
Once more he resented the responsibilities he inherited from his spendthrift father, but he loved his siblings too much to shirk his duty as their guardian.
Filled with self-reproach he shook his head. When he served in the 26th Hussar Regiment, his junior staff accepted his reprimands and did not repeat their errors. So, why did he fail to find a way to persuade his eighteen-year-old sister not to be bold and imprudent?
He forced himself to remain seated instead of leaving the ballroom to search for Margaret, thus giving rise to more gossip and speculation.
Elegant in her ice blue French silk, diamonds around her slender throat, and a silver tiara set with the same precious stones, his wife returned from. She looked at him across the crowd and shook her head almost imperceptibly.
His throat constricted. When Margaret ran out of the ballroom where did she go? He must make discreet enquiries.
When Amelia returned, he watched her pause to speak to acquaintances as though nothing were amiss.
Sir Peter stood. He opened his gold snuff box ornamented with a heart pierced by a Cupid’s arrow on the lid. “Try some my boy? Blended it myself. Tell me what you think of it.”
Saunton shook his head. Sir Peter should be concerned about his step-daughter’s whereabouts not the quality of his snuff.
“Sorry to say it. Margaret is shocking bad ton. I have told her ladyship to marry her off. Your sister has a long way to go, dash it, but there is still hope. With her beauty and a large dowry, you can find a gentleman in need of funds who would welcome a brood mare in his bed.”
Saunton contained his outrage. At this moment, to take umbrage with his step-father would serve no useful purpose.
Sir Peter looked sideways at his wife. “Depend on you, Saunton, not to repeat my words to your mother. She might not like it. But you understand me, don’t you? Must not upset a delicate flower of womanhood like my wife, must we? Our duty is to protect the fair sex.”
Damn the man, he should be prepared to help him find his sister. Before he could fire the first quietly spoken round at Sir Peter, someone touched his hand.
He turned around and stared into eyes filled to the brim with laughter. “Amelia!”
“I am sorry, I should not be so amused by Sir Peter’s description of his wife when we are so worried about Margaret,” she whispered. “My grandmother frequently warned me about dangers that threaten a lady alone in London streets.”
He hoped his wife had not heard Sir Peter’s comment about a brood mare.
“Margaret is not in the lady’s withdrawing room,” Amelia continued. “The maid on duty there has not seen her.” She looked anxiously at him. “Although Margaret has not collected her cloak, I fear she might have run out of the house. Perhaps you should make enquiries in the hall.” She clasped his hand. “Don’t look so worried. Charlotte’s house is near here. Maybe Margaret has gone there. If you find her, please don’t be very angry with her. By now she will be extremely sorry.”
“Yes,” Saunton said, his voice grim, “after she lets loose a verbal cannon, she is always repentant, but by then the harm has been done”.
Hands on her lap in the hackney carriage, which reeked of stale straw, sickly perfume, tobacco and sweat, Margaret glanced at Rochedale. What was he thinking?
He inclined his head towards her. “It is time for you to introduce yourself.”
Margaret hesitated. If she revealed her identity he might insist on taking her to Cavendish Square. She shivered at the thought of Saunton’s justifiable anger. Yet again she had disappointed her eldest brother.
“You are?” Rochedale prompted.
Unless you have a female chaperone, never travel in a closed carriage with a gentleman unless he is one of your brothers, her mother had instructed her. To spare her family finding out about her reckless conduct she must keep her identity a secret.
A name popped into her head. “I am Miss Moore, Claire Moore.”
The gentleman chuckled. “Moore? Unless my memory is at fault, no family with that surname has a young relative who received a voucher for Almacks.”
His height, broad shoulders and the powerful punches he had delivered to one of her attackers combined to intimidate her. Margaret swallowed. If she went home no words could express how much she regretted her hot, intemperate words to Lady Sefton.
“The truth, if you please,” the baron said in a level tone.
Something indefinable advised her not to displease him. She shrank back.
Rochedale cupped her chin with one hand and tilted her face towards him.
She tried to draw away, but his hold increased. “Let go of me,” she protested, unnerved and close to tears. “I have already endured enough from those brutes who attacked me.”
“I shall release you after you tell me your real name.”
The baron released her. “Don’t be frightened. Unlike your guardian I will never hurt you.”
Hurt her? Saunton had never given her more than a tongue lashing.
Seated side by side, his muscular thigh touched her. Unnerved, she edged away from him. What would he do if she refused to reveal her identity? “I…I am Lady Margaret, the late Earl of Saunton’s daughter.”
“Devil take it!” The words seemed to explode from him. “Saunton’s sister! Well, this is a pretty kettle of fish.”
“What do you mean?”
“M’dear, were I wearing my boots, the notion of Saunton in the role of an avenging angel with his sword drawn would make me shake in them.” He looked down at his feet. “And, if I may say so, my Wellington boots are a remarkably fine pair.”
Margaret frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Do you not? It is clear to me. I have no wish for my nephew to inherit them.”
“Why should he? You seem healthy.”
“Saunton survived the Peninsular campaign and the battle at Waterloo so, I presume, he is an expert with a sword and firearm, and it stands to reason that he is reputed to be proud of his honour. He will challenge me to a duel. If I accept, I fear he might kill me for abducting you. If I refuse to accept his challenge I will be judged a coward.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said with her usual forthrightness. “He will be grateful to you for rescuing me from those who wanted to rob me. At least he would be if I could ever go home.”
“M’dear, are you or are you not an innocent?” Rochedale murmured as though he spoke more to himself than to her. “I said that, with your permission, I shall protect you. When I asked if you understood what it entails, you answered in the affirmative. To avoid misinterpretation, please tell me what I meant.”
Although her family would disapprove, her only option was to reside with this gentleman who would be her friend? “Do you think I am lack-witted? It means I will live with you and you will look after me if you want to.”
Her forehead creased in response to his rich chuckle.
“You may be sure I do want to, my lady.”
“Then we may be friends.”
“Friends?” His voice sounded full of laughter. “Yes, Lady Margaret, I suppose we may be. Among other things.”
Before she could say anything else, the hackney halted. Rochedale got out then helped her to step down onto the forecourt. While he paid the driver, she stared at Rochedale House, an imposing four storey mansion.
The baron held out his arm. “Are you sure you have made the right decision? After you cross the threshold your reputation will be ruined, and you will never be able to resume your place in the ton.”
Only two years ago, Saunton banished her to boarding school for speaking out of turn. This time, she could not imagine what action he would take.
“What have you to say, Lady Margaret?”
“My reputation is already in shreds. I don’t want to return to my brother. Heaven alone knows what he would do to me.” She clutched Rochedale’s warm coat around her with one hand and rested the other on his smooth linen shirt sleeve.
“So, you are sure you wish to become my intimate friend?” His eyes focussed on her with peculiar intensity.
Embarrassed, she lowered her eyelashes. “Yes, since we will be living under the same roof of course I want you to.” She nodded to emphasise her words. “I am sure you will be a true one.”
“I shall do my best to please you and promise never to heartlessly abandon you. Tonight, we shall stay here. Tomorrow, we will go to my manor in the country.”
Margaret smiled. How silly of me to feel frightened of him He is very kind and too much the gentleman to mistreat me. Her footsteps light, she ascended a short flight of steps.
A dignified butler opened the door. As Rochedale ushered her into a hall, the man’s swift, contemptuous glance shocked her.
Her cheeks warmed. Uncertain of her position for the first time in her life, she faced Rochedale. Why has he helped me? Cut off from my family, what does my future hold?
* * * *
In the Hempstead’s hall Saunton beckoned to the butler. “Did you see a young lady leave the house on her own?”
“Yes, my lord. I took notice because she did not wear a shawl or a cloak. But when I asked her if I could be of assistance she ran outside.”
With an almost imperceptible nod, Saunton reached into his pocket.
The butler pocketed a bright gold coin. “Thank you, my lord. You may be assured that I shall not speak about Lady Margaret’s departure to anyone.”
Too early to leave and search for his sister without causing more gossip, Saunton returned to the ballroom. Amelia raised her eyebrows in a silent question.
He shook his head briefly.
“Saunton?” Hortense fanned herself faster than before but did not lose control of her sensibilities.
Thank God! Mother has decided not to enact a tragic part in public.
Sir Peter stared through his quizzing glass at the decorative palms in ornate pots. “Those trees are very fine specimens. I shall ask the duchess who supplied them for her ball. I would like to purchase some for the conservatory at my manor in Kent.” He looked at his wife. “Do you like them, my love?”
“Sir Peter! You are heartless,” she hissed. “A pox on your palms and conservatory. My only concern is Margaret.”
“My love, I did not mean to offend you. I shall fetch a glass of Madeira to calm you.”
Hortense snapped shut her fan. “Thank you.”
Before his mother remarried, Saunton had wondered how Sir Peter, who lived the well-regulated, comfortable life of a wealthy bachelor would deal with lively step-children. When he had suggested his unmarried siblings should live with him and his wife, Sir Peter had been hard put to conceal his relief and set about soothing his wife’s qualms. After several mild protests she agreed. Now, Sir Peter’s indifference to Margaret’s fate revealed his true colours.
After Amelia sat on his mother’s left, he seated himself at her right on the chair Sir Peter vacated.
“When we leave, I shall send an urgent message to Charlotte and Midland,” Saunton murmured torn between anger with his foolish sister and fear for her safety.
Hortense opened her fan and shielded the lower part of her face. Amelia, bless her, smiled and laughed as though she had shared a joke with her. Onlookers eager to chin wag would assume he and his family had no reason to be concerned about Margaret, but they could not be more mistaken.
Saunton clenched his fists. His guts heaved as he imagined the dangers a young lady out on her own at night faced. Every impulse urged him to dash out of the house and search for her but the need to scotch tittle-tattle and the unlikelihood that he would find her kept him in the ballroom.
“We must find Margaret without delay.” Hortense sounded as though she wanted to convince herself they could.
“It is some time since she left so I doubt we can find her,” Saunton said slowly. “Let us hope she has returned to Cavendish Square.”
“Shall we leave?” Hortense asked.
Saunton shook his head. He could plead urgent business, apologise to his hostess, but if he did he would contribute to the gossip he wanted to avoid. “If we go home so early, it will be impossible to ever scotch the scandal. We shall stay until the last dance ends and behave as though nothing troubles us.” He pressed his mother’s hand to encourage her to be calm.
Their hostess approached them and spoke to Amelia, who stood. The musicians played the first notes of a quadrille, which prevented Saunton from hearing what the duchess asked his wife.
Amelia laughed and shook her head. “No, no, ma’am you misunderstand. My sister-in-law meant no harm,” she said in a loud voice unlike her usual one. “There is a new game called Truth or Dare. A foolish young gentleman, who shall remain nameless, challenged Lady Margaret to say whatever she thinks for a month.”
Hortense’s mouth gaped.
“Never heard of it,” mumbled Sir Peter while he handed her a glass of wine. “Damned silly challenge! Beg your pardon for swearing my love.”
Saunton sighed with relief. Soon, Amelia’s quick-witted explanation would spread from person to person.
“What are the rules?” the duchess asked somewhat frostily. “My guests neither come here to insult anyone nor to be insulted.”
“Lady Margaret did not appreciate that the game, should neither hurt nor offend anyone,” Amelia explained. “She is merely young and thoughtless. Blame should be attributed to the gentleman who persuaded her to play the game. She is mortified. Later, she will apologise to you and Lady Sefton.”
The duchess looked uncertainly at Amelia. “Very well, I accept your explanation and shall offer it to others.”
“Thank you, your grace,” Amelia said.
Saunton looked appreciatively at his wife. They had only been married for two years, yet his countess, a mere four years older than Margaret, spoke with the assurance of a matron of many years standing.
Throughout the rest of the evening, several anxious parents cross-questioned them about the rash new game. After Amelia explained the rules of her impromptu fabrication, some declared if their daughters played it they, at least, would never be guilty of fatal indiscretion.
* * * *
At home, while her dresser prepared Amelia for bed, Saunton went to his dressing room and drank a glass of excellent brandy. Of course, his sister was safe, he tried to reassure himself because the alternative was too dreadful to contemplate. Although Charlotte had sent a hastily scrawled message to inform him their sister was not at her house, Margaret might be with a friend. Saunton squashed the thought that a friend’s parents would have sent his sister home.
He could not sit here in comfort while Margaret’s whereabouts were unknown. Although few honest people would be about at this hour of the night, he must try to find her.
Towards dawn, after tramping the streets, questioning road sweepers and night-watchmen, searching for clues to Margaret’s whereabouts, he returned, anxious and dispirited.