Since the day her oldest sister entered society, Lady Elizabeth imagined the pleasures of her first London Season. Unfortunately, when she is old enough to make her debut, no member of her family is available to chaperone her in London. She accepts her Great-Aunt Augusta’s offer to bring her out in Cheltenham. Elizabeth looks forward to living at Augusta’s grand house near the lively, popular town where people drink mineral water at pump houses and enjoy the social life. Determined to be the perfect debutante, she cannot imagine creating a scandal. It is fortunate she cannot foresee the future. Modest, loving and giving. Elizabeth is blessed with beauty and a fortune. It would not be surprising if her ‘head is turned’ by admirers but she is not a flirt. When she sees Mr Yates she sets her heart on him, but she is not attracted to Sir Victor who has an exotic background, and amber eyes like a tiger’s which unnerve her. Both gentlemen made their fortunes when they served in the East India Company. Will they lead her into trouble? Will one of them be the perfect match for her?
April 1822. Cavendish Square, London
Since the day seventeen-year old Lady Elizabeth’s oldest sister was presented at court she longed for the pleasures of her first London Season.
Lady Elizabeth gazed at her reflection in the mirror on her dressing table. Mama would have approved of her white silk gown made by a famous London modiste. No more black bombazine gowns worn for six months after her dear mother’s demise, followed by six months during which she dressed in grey or lavender. She had mourned for Mama, whom she would always miss, but the time had come to put grief aside. Elizabeth dried her eyes with a cambric handkerchief.
Elizabeth sighed. The cards life had dealt were unjust. She did not have a chaperone to guide her through the shoals of society. In August she would celebrate her eighteenth birthday. If her introduction to the ton was delayed until next year, prospective suitors might be more interested in younger ladies. “What will my future be?” she asked her mirror image from which her grey eyes fringed with long black lashes stared back at her.
Of course, her heart went out to her sister-in-law who was increasing for the third time. Twice Amelia, Countess of Saunton, had failed to bear a living child. This time, the doctor had ordered her to take little exercise and spend most of her time either on a chaise lounge or in bed. No balls, theatres, picnics and soirees for Amelia this year.
“You are so loving and giving, Elizabeth,” Amelia had said yesterday. “Thank you for reading to me every day and for all the time you devote to me. I know how much you looked forward to this year’s London Season. It would have been a pleasure to chaperone you. Now, instead of taking you out and about, here I am like a queen bee with your brother and the rest of the family hovering around me.”
In despair, Elizabeth caught her lower lip between her teeth. While Amelia and Saunton waited, hoping they would have a son to inherit the title and estates, it would not have been unreasonable to expect one of her three married sisters to chaperone her. She drummed her fingers on the dressing table. Dear Hero divided her time between her husband, children and society and rarely came to England.
“If I ask her, Hero would arrange for you to make your debut in Dublin and chaperone you,” Saunton had suggested, but Elizabeth did not want to seek an eligible husband in Ireland.
Her sister Charlotte and her husband, the Duke of Midland, were in Paris on a long-deferred visit to those of his French grandmother’s aristocratic relatives who had survived revolution and war. And Margaret, with whom she had giggled and shared confidences before Margaret married Mr de Vere, a nonpareil, expected the birth of her second child in July. To have been chaperoned by one of them would have been a delight.
Elizabeth walked around her dressing room appreciative of the luxury surrounding her. Instead of indulging in self-pity, she should be grateful for the fortune inherited from her godfather and thank God for her good looks. They guaranteed that upon marrying she would become the mistress of her husband’s estates.
A knock on the door preceded the entry of her youngest sister, eleven-year-old Cassie. With hair as black as a blackbird’s feathers and an extremely fair complexion, she looked more like her than their other sisters.
“Dear Lizzie, busy as a bee,” Cassie teased.
Elizabeth ignored the lively child’s impertinence. “You should be in the schoolroom.”
Cassie, adored by the entire family, perched on the edge of a chintz covered chair. “Saunton sent for ice cream from Gunter’s to tempt Amelia’s appetite. There is more than enough for her. Do you think you could send some to the schoolroom for Sophy?”
“Must you always speak for our sister?”
“I suppose you don’t want any.” Elizabeth tried not to laugh while she remembered the days when she and Margaret had asked Charlotte to provide treats.
“I do but I only asked for some because Sophy would enjoy it. Anyway, I hope Great-Aunt Augusta will not guzzle so much that there is none left for us.”
“Great-Aunt! When did she arrive?”
“While you changed into your evening gown.”
“Why is she here?” Elizabeth murmured.
“I don’t know, but Saunton did not look pleased to see her.” Cassie swung her legs backward and forward. “I hope she won’t ask me to say my catechism.” She scowled. “Sophy says she will use the servants’ stairs to avoid her. That will not help, Great-Aunt will send for us. If we displease her, she will give Miss Harrington an ear-wigging.”
Fond of her former governess, who now taught Cassie and Sophy, Elizabeth hoped her Great-Aunt would not, but she always sailed into deep waters like a man-of-war with all its sails unfurled. There would be a battle between the old lady and Saunton if she uttered even one critical word which upset Amelia. But why had she left Bath and come to London? To congratulate Saunton and Amelia on the prospect of a possible son and heir? Yet, even if Amelia only presented Saunton with daughters, the succession was assured by their younger brothers, Julian and Giles.
“If you send us some ice cream, please make sure there is enough for Miss Harrington? It would also be a treat for her” Cassie said.
“Yes, I will. Now, go back to the schoolroom before you develop a halo and wings.” Elizabeth braced herself to go downstairs and face the marchioness.
* * * *
Elizabeth accompanied her Great-Aunt Augusta, Marchioness of Armitage, to the small drawing room.
“Will do well,” Augusta said.
“Do well for what? Elizabeth hoped Saunton would not linger for long drinking port in the dining room. She ignored her impulse to flee but remained near the door, too anxious to sit down.
Augusta crooked a finger. “You may approach me.”
With reluctance Elizabeth obeyed, conscious of her gown which had a more natural waistline than the gowns with tiny bodices popular earlier in the century.
“Turn around,” Augusta ordered and raised her quizzing glass.
Great-Aunt’s eyesight had not failed. She used the quizzing glass to intimidate. Her head unbowed, Elizabeth obeyed.
How rude! She should not command me as though I am a pet dog!
Elizabeth pressed her lips together in a firm line as she sat.
Widow of one of the foremost peers of the realm, sixty-five-year old Great-Aunt Augusta’s opinions were forthright. A word of disparagement voiced in public could damage the unfortunate recipient’s reputation. Elizabeth gripped her hands together. Although her cantankerous relative was unlikely to criticise her in public because it might ruin her opportunity to marry well, she shuddered at the possibility of the sharp edge of Great-Aunt’s tongue being applied to her.
“So, Elizabeth, this season, there is no one available to introduce you to society.” Augusta looked down her nose. “Saunton’s wife, the vulgar tradeswoman’s granddaughter, should have chaperoned you but due to her condition she cannot.” Her grey eyes narrowed. “I told Saunton not to marry Amelia. He should have chosen a wife with a good bloodline.”
“I don’t understand,” Elizabeth protested, unable to tolerate Great-Aunt’s forthrightness. “When Saunton buys a new stallion, he says new blood is desirable.”
Augusta chuckled. “So, you are not a milk and water Miss. Blue blood runs through your veins. Provided you are not as indiscreet in public as your sister Margaret was before she married, we should deal well together. Oh, don’t look so surprised. I shall-” She broke off when the door opened and Saunton strolled into the room.
“Ah, there you are. I hope you are not inebriated,” Augusta greeted him.
“No more than you, madam.” His eyes revealed a trace of irony. “I trust you enjoyed the burgundy.” He sat on the sofa at right angles to her chair.
“Armitage would not be so impertinent,” Augusta reproached her great-nephew.
“I am sure your son is all that he should be,” Saunton countered.
“Indeed!” Augusta exclaimed as though she dared him to disparage her only offspring.
Elizabeth bit her lip to force herself not to reveal her amusement. Everyone in the family knew Great-Aunt was disappointed by her conscientious but tedious, unmarried thirty-year-old son.
“I shall stay with you for a week before I go to Cheltenham where I will reside in future.”
“Why?” Saunton asked. “I thought you were content in Bath.”
“Too many of my friends have departed,” Augusta replied.
“Where have they gone?” Elizabeth asked, surprised because Great-Aunt had hesitated for a moment before she spoke.
“To a better place,” Augusta replied.
Puzzled, Elizabeth frowned. “Have they gone to Cheltenham? Is that why you are going to live there?”
“Great-Aunt means that her friends are in heaven,” Saunton explained.
“Oh,” Elizabeth exclaimed, embarrassed.
“Saunton, I approve of my great-niece and consider her suitable.”
Her brother narrowed his eyes, Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “Suitable for what?”
“Allow me to explain. Miss Gerard, my companion is no longer with me,” Augusta began.
Elizabeth did not blame the poor woman if she left due to Great-Aunt’s incessant demands. “Why?”
“Miss Gerard had no choice,” Augusta said slowly.
Elizabeth opened her mouth to ask where the lady went but Saunton forestalled her. “You are obtuse, Elizabeth. It is to be hoped Miss Gerard is enjoying eternal rest.”
“Oh, she is dead, I am sorry Great-Aunt, I am sure you miss her.”
Augusta sniffed. “Not entirely. The woman’s, fussing and tittering, which I doubt you are guilty of, annoyed me.”
“I only fuss over Sophy and Cassie if they are ill or overwrought and I never titter,” Elizabeth said.
Augusta looked at Saunton. “Good. Now allow me to explain why I am here. Elizabeth may accompany me to Cheltenham where she shall make her curtsy to polite society in the summer and be of assistance to me.”
Alarmed, Elizabeth gazed at the Marchioness.
“Assistance?” Saunton’s nostrils flared. “I hope you don’t expect my sister to act as an unpaid companion?”
“Don’t be foolish. I know what is due to our family. I merely hope Elizabeth would not object to visit the library to collect a book for me or, for example, to choose a new ribbon for my hat.”
“No, I would not but-” Elizabeth began.
Augusta ignored the interruption and addressed Saunton. “Of course, whenever I don’t accompany her, Elizabeth will be escorted by a reliable maid and have a footman to protect her and carry her parcels. I shall take great care of her. You may be certain I will not permit fortune hunters, penniless younger sons or other undesirable men to pay court to her.”
“Madam, you speak as though the matter is settled. Elizabeth might not accept your offer.”
Augusta waved a finger at him. “’Pon my word, as her guardian it is for you to make decisions on her behalf. Allow me to reassure her.
“Elizabeth, Cheltenham has much to offer, balls every evening at the Assembly Room except for Saturday and Sunday, theatres, and spas with pump rooms. Moreover, we will be invited to dine at great houses and to soirees and routs and picnics. So, what is your answer?”
Elizabeth took several deep breaths. Had she glimpsed pain in the depths of those dark eyes from which a single glance intimidated an unfortunate recipient? Did sadness dwell behind the old lady’s crusty façade? Rank and wealth did not ensure happiness. Since Miss Gerard’s death was Great-Aunt lonely in a houseful of servants? Could she help her?
For reassurance and with the hope of approval, Elizabeth glanced at her brother. Neither he nor Amelia needed her, but maybe her elderly relative did.
“Great-Aunt, if Saunton does not object I accept your invitation.”
Refreshed by an excellent night’s sleep, Augusta sat up in bed. Supported by a bank of feather pillows she drank hot chocolate and ate a slice of thin cut bread lavishly spread with butter and planned her day. First a visit to Amelia, followed by breakfast, then an inspection of Elizabeth’s wardrobe. In the afternoon if there were no April showers, perhaps a ride in the barouche in Hyde Park with her great-niece before dusk.
After she changed her clothes with her dresser’s help, she stood in front of the pier mirror. Her bow-shaped lips, much admired in her youth, curved in response to the sight of her fashionably plump, but not fat figure, controlled by tightly laced stays to emphasise her waist. Satisfied with her dove grey challis gown confined above her waist with a silver buckle, she tweaked one of the small white curls around her temples and across her forehead into place. Known for her superb style, Augusta smiled and congratulated herself on her elegant appearance.
She turned away from her reflection, her mind occupied with plans to visit her favourite modiste on the following day. She would order new gowns for herself and for Elizabeth, who must be dressed in the latest fashion when she was launched into society next month.
Her dresser opened the door, stood aside for her to leave the bedchamber, then preceded her along the wide corridor and knocked on the door of the countess’s apartment.
“Thank you, Deane,” Augusta said.
Blythe, Amelia’s dresser announced her.
Perfume cloyed the stale air in the room where Amelia lay in bed. “Draw the curtains and open a window,” Augusta ordered Blythe in a tone no servant dared to disobey.
Augusta peered through the gloom at Saunton’s countess. “Good day, Amelia, I trust to God that you are well.”
“Yes, thank you, Great-Aunt.” Amelia pressed a hand to her throat “My physician would disapprove of an open window.”
Sunshine streamed through the glass. Her great-niece by marriage looked ill. “Hum.” Augusta seated herself on a chair by the four-poster bed with a sky-blue velvet canopy and velvet curtains.
“How are you, Great-Aunt?” Amelia asked.
“With less to hope for than you. Have you breakfasted?”
Her face pale and her eyes anxious, Amelia nodded.
“What did you eat?”
“A bowl of gruel. My physician says I must rest and not strain my digestion.”
“Poppycock!” Augusta scoffed.
“I beg your pardon, Great-Aunt?”
“Have you become deaf? I don’t approve of the regime he prescribed for you. When we last saw each other, you were a healthy young woman with clear blue eyes and pink cheeks. Today, you look like a wraith.” She sniffed. “Don’t coddle yourself. Stop languishing in bed, enjoy fresh air and eat well but don’t overindulge.”
I must follow my doctor’s advice,” Amelia protested.
“Nonsense! It is not infallible. Princess Charlotte’s death and the birth of her perfectly formed stillborn son might have been avoided if she had not followed the reducing diet prescribed by her physician.”
Amelia blinked tears from her eyes. “I don’t know what to do for the best.”
“Dismiss the fool.”
“My husband might refuse. He engaged him because he has an excellent reputation.”
“Saunton will agree after I have convinced him you are not the first woman to have miscarried twice, and that if you are half-starved you and the baby will be at risk.” She waved her forefinger at Amelia. “Don’t sniffle.”
“I am not,” Amelia fibbed.
“Yes, you are. You think I don’t understand you submit to the doctor’s ridiculous orders because you would do anything to have a baby. Don’t indulge in self-pity. You are not the first or last woman to be desperate to be a mother. I was.”
“You,” Amelia exclaimed.
“Yes. Married when I was twenty years old, I was in despair until I conceived at the age of thirty-four. Until I held Armitage cry for the first time before I held him in my arms, I did not believe in miracles.” She stood. “Close your mouth, Amelia. I daresay you are too polite to ask me to mind my own business and go to the devil.” She laughed. “Instead, put your trust in me and God. I shall not mince my words when I speak to Saunton.”
About to leave the room, Augusta looked back at Amelia. “You have one blessing which I did not have. A husband who is devoted to you.” She choked back the memory of her father’s refusal to allow her to marry the man she loved and the arranged marriage she and her husband had endured.
* * * *
After breakfast, Augusta looked appreciatively from the polished parquet floor and oriental rugs, to the maps hung on the walls in the library where Saunton sat at the large, oak desk.
“A word with you,” she said.
The earl stood. He gestured to one of a pair of chairs opposite his desk. “Great-Aunt.”
Saunton waited for her to be seated, her back as straight as one of the lances pointed at him by the cavalry on the battlefields. To judge by the fierce expression in her eyes, she was about to engage him in a different conflict. “You wish to speak to me about something?”
“Yes, your wife. No, don’t poker up. You know I always come straight to the point. If you hope for a child, dismiss her doctor. The man’s a fool who should bear in mind that a reducing diet was the tragic reason for Princess Charlotte’s demise. Of course, we must always accept God’s will, but maybe the princess’s death was premature. As for your wife, her face is almost as pale as her sheets, her hair is dull, and her eyes are red-rimmed.”
As though he were in despair Saunton shook his head. “I agree, but her doctor has an excellent reputation.”
Augusta sniffed. “Which in your wife’s case is not deserved. How can the baby flourish if your wife eats little more than broth and gruel?”
“That question had crossed my mind,” Saunton admitted, “but-”
“You are afraid your wife will suffer another miscarriage or die in childbirth. And, I daresay, your countess shares your natural anxiety,” Augusta said in a much softer tone of voice than usual.
Saunton’s jaw clenched. “I would prefer to face the enemy on the battlefield to being a victim of your blunt speech.”
“Imagination is your enemy, but don’t be downhearted,” Augusta continued. “take your countess to Longwood where a quiet life, country air and good food will benefit her.”
The harsh lines on Saunton’s face decreased. “I shall,” he said slowly. “Thank you for your excellent advice. I have been almost out of my mind with worry.”
Augusta straightened her shoulders. “I will make enquiries and recommend a man-midwife or, to use the term more common these days, an accoucheur to attend her at regular intervals and at the birth.” She smiled, then added. “In six months, God willing, I look forward to meeting your heir?”
“And I am eager to meet my son or daughter,” Saunton murmured.
* * * *
Surprised by the sight of her sister-in-law seated on a chair in her parlour, Elizabeth stepped across the threshold and halted.
“Should you not be in bed or on a chaise longue?” she asked as she admired Amelia’s turquoise blue silk evening gown.
Amelia shook her head. “Great-Aunt Augusta gave me good advice and persuaded Saunton to dismiss my physician.”
Elizabeth sat down on one of the chairs covered in red and cream striped silk. “Does this mean you are well?”
Amelia patted her stomach. “I must take care, but I may be up and about. After you go to Cheltenham, I shall go to Longwood.”
“Oh!” Elizabeth breathed. For a moment she had thought her sister-in-law might be able to chaperone her. Ashamed of her selfishness, she sought for something to say before she spoke. “What will you name your child?”
Colour filled Amelia’s cheeks. “We have not discussed it, but if we have a son, I would like him to have the same Christian name as Saunton,” she replied her voice tender, “and if we have a daughter, for my husband to choose her name. Now, Elizabeth, please tell me what you did today.”
“Great-Aunt Augusta inspected my wardrobe. She decided to add to it, so we will visit a modiste tomorrow. I accompanied her on some morning calls and,” Elizabeth’s cheeks warmed, “I was introduced to Viscount Bartlet’s youngest son, Mr Yates, who returned recently from India.” The thought of the handsome Right Honourable gentleman caused unfamiliar, but not unpleasant sensations. “In the afternoon Great-Aunt and I took the air in Hyde Park, where Mr Yates reined in his horse by the barouche. My sister Sophy is jealous because I met someone who has been to India. She wants to go there one day and buy an elephant,” Elizabeth babbled. “When we returned Great-Aunt unnerved me.”
Amelia frowned. “How?”
“She said I have very pretty manners. You can imagine how shocked I was because it is the first time, I have ever heard her pay a compliment.”
“Yes. I can She is usually an outspoken, critical old lady but I hope you will discover that beneath her shell is a softer centre than I suspected until today.”
“Would you like me to stay with you at Longwood and keep you company instead of going to Cheltenham?”
“Thank you, but it would be too great a sacrifice. Besides, who knows what your future holds? You might meet Geoffrey Yates again in Cheltenham. If my memory is not at fault, his father owns an estate in the vicinity.”
* * * *
Geoffrey enjoyed a lavish meal with his parents. Afterwards he escorted his mother, Louisa, Viscountess Bartlet, to the double doors opened by two footmen, who wore red and gold livery.
“Enjoy a glass or two of port with your father, then join me in the drawing room.” His mother hugged him. “Thank God you have returned from India in good health. So many young men, who go there with the hope of returning with a fortune, are cut off in the flower of their youth.”
Lord Bartlet’s eyebrows drew together. “Don’t indulge in sentiment, my lady. If God had decreed that they should be cut off, as you put it, they would have been wherever they were.”
Geoffrey extricated himself from his mother’s fond embrace. She patted his cheek, adjusted the opulent Kashmir shawl he had bought for her in India and left the room.
A wave of his father’s hand dismissed the butler and the footmen.
Geoffrey returned to the table conscious of the change in his appearance since he went to India seven years ago when he was eighteen. “Lucky dog, you will return home with a fortune” each of his three older brothers had said.
When Geoffrey left England, determined to make the best of his opportunity, he could not afford to patronise the best tailors. Today he was wealthier than his father and brothers. This evening he wore a frilled shirt, a superbly cut Bristol blue, single-breasted coat over a pale blue silk waistcoat, white pantaloons that fitted without a wrinkle, and the luxury of silk stockings. His tailor had clapped his hands because his coat did not need to be padded to enhance his figure. His valet’s approval and a mere glance in the mirror confirmed he had changed from a skinny youth to a gentleman with broad shoulders, a slim waist and legs to be proud of. Moreover, his thick, guinea-gold hair, healthy complexion and a pair of large, hazel eyes, made deliberately eloquent. caused fluttering in the hencoop of match-making mothers and their daughters.
“Proud of you,” his father said, not for the first time, in a gruff voice. He helped himself to an almond from the silver dish placed on the table after the damask cloth was removed.
“I am glad, sir.” Complacent, Geoffrey looked at his father.
“Time to forget the Indian beauties I imagine you dallied with and settle down with a well-bred wife,” Father said.
Geoffrey’s starched neckcloth seemed to choke him as he remembered a pair of lotus-like dark eyes and a waterfall of glossy, straight black hair. “You misjudge me, sir. For fear of contracting the pox, I did not…er…dally indiscriminately,” he said truthfully.
“Very wise.” His father passed the port to him. “As a youngster without a fortune you could not aim high for a wife, but your circumstances have changed. If you buy a grand estate, you could marry a Duke’s daughter.”
“Are there any of a suitable age?” he asked, not sure whether he wanted to.
“I don’t know, but your mother will be pleased to introduce you to potential brides who are either heiresses or have large dowries. Although it is ill-bred to speak about money, a gentleman can never have too much,” Father said.
Geoffrey agreed. His intention was to return to India and build on his business interests. It had been easy to use his position in the East India Company to accept bribes and further his investments.
He leant against the back of his chair. The spices, silks, shawls and other items he had shipped to his agent in Bristol arrived safely and every consignment made a large profit. One day, he would be more than a so called ‘chicken nabob’ who had amassed over thirty-thousand pounds. Instead, he would be a fully-fledged nabob, with a much larger fortune, able to afford every conceivable luxury.
Father eyed him. “Don’t waste your blunt on a mistress or at the gaming tables.” He sipped his port. “Do you know the Earl of Saunton?”
Father shook his head, his face composed in grave lines. “His father was on the verge of bankruptcy caused by betting on the turn of a card. If Saunton had not won the government lottery, he would have been completely done up, but he had the luck of the devil. He also married one of the richest heiresses in the kingdom. Beautiful girl but tainted by her grandmother who was in trade. When you marry, ensure you keep our bloodline pure.”
Geoffrey almost choked on a walnut. He inserted a finger between one of the stiff points of his shirt collar and his neck. “Yes, I will,” he said a little too loudly.
Father looked down his Roman nose. “My boy, if you left any by-blows behind you, I hope you provided for them and severed the connection with their mothers.”
Geoffrey’s neckcloth seemed to strangle him. “If I had any, I would have, but I don’t.” To forestall any questions which would prompt more unwelcome memories, Geoffrey stood. “Shall we join her ladyship?”
“If you wish. Your mother is delighted to have you home. She fretted about you while you were across the ocean and read each of your letters many times.”
Appreciative of the large house in St James Square where he, his brothers and sister had stayed in the nursery whenever his parents visited London, he followed Father out of the room.
In the drawing room hung with gold and crimson wallpaper, Geoffrey glanced at oil paintings in large gilded frames, then looked at his mother, who sat on a sofa upholstered in velvet as red as his eldest brother’s uniform
“Please sit next to me, Geoffrey.” His mother waited for him to settle before she spoke again. “I must have been the proudest mother in England when I introduced you while we paid calls this morning.”
Geoffrey knew she had asked him to accompany her to provide an opportunity to introduce him to some of the most recent batch of debutantes. A glance at his father confirmed he shared his amusement. Geoffrey swallowed for fear of bursting into unmannerly laughter.
“If you return to India as a married gentleman, will you take your wife with you?” his mother asked
“When, not if I go back. As for my future wife, the decision must be hers. I would not force her to accompany me.”
“Very considerate of you,” she said, “but what of your children if your wife chooses to live in India?”
Geoffrey held up his hand, the palm towards her. “You speak as though I have already given you a daughter-in-law and grandchildren.”
Her hands fluttered. “Yes, but it is prudent to give thought to every eventuality.” She cleared her throat. “When they are five or six-years-old you would be obliged to send them to England to be educated.”
Geoffrey struggled to hide his irritation. “Dear Mama, I cannot visualise the future.”
Father rolled his eyes. “Don’t plague the boy.”
Mother’s forehead wrinkled. “I beg your pardon, Geoffrey.”
“You are the best of mothers and have nothing to apologise for.” He employed his carefully rehearsed smile, designed to soften female hearts. From the corner of his eye he noticed his shrewd father’s raised eyebrows and addressed him. “Tomorrow morning, shall we ride in the park before breakfast? In India, it is the custom to ride before the sun blazes when the land shimmers and the heat becomes unbearable. Here the dew is refreshing, but there the relief when the monsoon rain falls is almost indescribable.”
“The horses will be saddled by eight o’clock,” Father said.
Geoffrey toyed with his mother’s plump hand decorated with valuable rings. “I doubt I can tempt you to join us.”
“No, but I hope we will make some more morning calls.” Her hazel eyes gleamed by the light of candles. “Did you admire any of the young ladies you met today?”
He shrugged to feign indifference, although the Earl of Saunton’s sister, an heiress, who looked as though she had recently emerged from the schoolroom, aroused his interest.”
Mother’s well-modulated voice broke into his thoughts. “I hope you will not be impossible to please. Did you notice Lady Armitage’s great-niece, Lady Elizabeth?”
“She would be a good catch,” his father remarked. “Her family dates back as far as ours and she inherited a fortune. You could do far worse if she is not as outspoken as her sister, Lady Margaret, was before she married.” He wrinkled his forehead and looked at his wife. “Was there scandal attached to her name and Baron Rochedale’s? Well, no matter. That nonpareil, de Vere, would not have married her if the gossip were true. Besides, even if Lady Elizabeth is as indiscreet as her sister was, when she marries it will be her husband’s responsibility to mould her.”
To the devil with gossip about the chit’s older sister. Geoffrey checked an incipient grin. He liked the idea of moulding the pampered beauty, particularly in the confines of the marital bed.
“The gossip about Lady Margaret was ill-founded,” his mother commented, “and there is nothing to object to concerning her other older sisters. Saunton would look higher than a younger son for his sister but your success in India means you would be acceptable.
“Lady Elizabeth’s Great Aunt, Marchioness Armitage plans to take her to Cheltenham, a town as agreeable as Bath,” she mused. “I suggest you go there, put up in the house your father bought while you were overseas and become better acquainted with Lady Elizabeth.”
His father nodded. “Good advice, my boy. And while you are there, you could do much worse than buying a property on its outskirts.”
And, if I court the girl, the only person I would have to contend with is an old lady.
In what amounted to an excited fever, Elizabeth listened to Great-Aunt Augusta and Madame Lucille, a talented modiste patronised by the rich and famous, discuss fabrics. “Lady Elizabeth’s gowns will depend on superb cut and simplicity,” Augusta instructed Madame. “They will be designed to emphasise her admirable figure and will not have excessive trimming.”
Elizabeth blushed at the mention of her figure which no one had previously praised.
“The hyacinth blue velvet mantle is to be trimmed and lined with white swansdown for my great-niece, and for myself the violet velvet pelisse must be bordered with ermine,” Augusta concluded when she made the last order.
Elizabeth’s head filled with visions of a high-necked French lawn morning gown, and a white satin ballgown with a décolleté bodice, puffed sleeves and pearl rosettes around the broad, padded hem. She could not think of adequate words to thank her great-aunt. Would Mr Yates admire her in her new gowns, pelisse-robes and riding habits all in the latest fashion? Nevertheless, she harboured doubts. Her clothes lacked the frills and furbelows, bows and other trimmings she yearned for.
“Thank you, Great-Aunt.”
“No need to thank me, Saunton will foot the bill.”
They stepped out of the carriage and hurried indoors as the first drops of rain fell.
Elizabeth sped upstairs to her bedroom. Too impatient to wait for her dresser to help her take off her mantle and straw hat, she removed them. After a quick glance in the mirror to make sure her hair was tidy, she hurried to Amelia’s apartment.
Saunton, seated on the sofa beside his wife with one arm around her shoulders, looked up. “Don’t you knock, or ask to be announced before you enter a room?” He removed his arm.
Chastened, and embarrassed because she had disturbed them, with one finger she traced the outline of the silver buckle on her narrow belt. “I apologise, Saunton, but I thought you would be at your club or at Jackson’s, although I can’t imagine what pleasure men take in boxing.”
“I don’t expect you to.” Her brother stood. “Amelia, I must answer a letter from our bailiff at Longwood; if you wish to take the air later, shall I give orders for the barouche to be ready at four o’clock?”
“Yes please,” Amelia replied.
Maybe she could accompany them. Elizabeth’s heart beat a little faster. Would Mr Yates ride in the park? Perhaps he would draw rein by the barouche to speak to them.
“Did Great-Aunt choose many clothes for you?” Amelia asked.
Impatient to wear them, Elizabeth nodded.
About to leave the room, Saunton turned around. “For which I shall receive the invoices. I hope they won’t bankrupt me.”
“Oh! The order can be cancelled.” Elizabeth said dismayed by the possibility. “Or they can be paid from my inheritance.”
“Goose, do you think I’m a cheese parer?” Saunton laughed. “Cinderella shall go to the balls in Cheltenham.”
“Don’t tease her,” Amelia intervened. “You dote on all your sisters and don’t begrudge them anything.”
“Are you sure? But, my love, you may be certain I dote on you and don’t begrudge you anything.” Saunton kissed his wife’s cheek.
Her face tender, Amelia watched him leave the room and then faced Elizabeth. “You know Great-Aunt Augusta has faults, but she always combines fashion with superior taste. I trust her judgement and am sure you will be one of the elegant, if not the most elegant, debutantes in Cheltenham.”
“I don’t think I will. Most of my gowns are plain compared to those Camille suggested. Great-Aunt rejected a design for a gown with four bands of chinchilla around the hem, and a tippet and muff made with the same fur,” she said in an awed tone. “When I admired it, she asked me if I want to look like an overgrown rabbit.” She sighed. “And she will only allow me to wear my pearls, my gold locket or cross and my gold arm clasps. Oh! Please don’t laugh at me.”
“I apologise, Elizabeth, but the comparison to an overgrown rabbit is both hilarious and typical of the Marchioness’s tart tongue. To be honest, I suspect the gown would be too elaborate. Simplicity will draw attention to your beauty instead of outrageous fashion and a plethora of popular coral jewellery, cameo brooches and gold chains from which scent bottles are suspended.” Amelia held up her hand. “If you are about to say you wish to wear the diamond and ruby parure you inherited, you may not until you are married.”
“I know,” Elizabeth said, momentarily reluctant to give up a vision of herself with her hands snuggled into an enormous chinchilla muff.
Her resentment faded as the ridiculous comparison to a giant rabbit tickled her sense of humour. She grinned as though she were still a child.
Elizabeth wanted polite society to approve of her. She still hoped to make a match her family would whole-heartedly approve of. The thought chased away her amusement. Since they were young, she and her sisters had been warned about fortune hunters and impecunious younger sons, no matter how charming and well-born they were. She should dismiss Mr Yates from her mind. Yet, as impeccably dressed as Saunton, who only patronised elite tailors and boot makers, that gentleman appeared prosperous.
“Are you still hankering for the rabbit fur?” Amelia asked.
“What?” Elizabeth dragged from her memory a pair of hazel eyes which seemed to convey silent messages. “No, I know little about the art of presenting the right appearance to the ton. I trust both your judgement and Great-Aunt’s.”
“Good, but in time you will develop your own sense of what suits you.” Amelia laughed. “My grandmother’s personal choice of clothes was flamboyant, yet when I entered society, she did not allow me to make any compromises. I remember sobbing because she refused to buy a scarlet pelisse which I had set my heart on.”
If she wore scarlet, would Mr Yates admire her? “Did you -” Elizabeth began, but reined in her curiosity.
“No, I cannot ask you because you will think I am impertinent.”
Amelia smiled. “I doubt it. If I don’t wish to answer your question I am not obliged to.”
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “I know you and my brother love each other, but did you tumble into love when you first met?”
Amelia blushed and looked away from her. “I shall be honest and hope you will not judge me too harshly. When I was a little older than you, I imagined I loved Saunton. I am ashamed to admit I trapped him into offering for my hand. I accepted his marriage proposal but, when he re-joined the army before the battle at Waterloo and expected me to follow the drum. I refused to. At the time you were very young. Afterwards, I doubt anyone spoke to you about our broken betrothal.”
Almost wishing she had not embarrassed Amelia but still curious, Elizabeth shifted her position on her chair. “After your grandmother died, why did Saunton become your guardian?”
“Grandmother respected him because he was not tempted by my future inheritance.” Amelia’s face softened, her bright blue eyes became luminous and her mouth curved into a smile.
Elizabeth waited for her to continue.
Her sister-in-law sat a little straighter. “When I first saw Saunton, I was little more than a foolish child attracted to a handsome gentleman. After I became his ward, I…that is … we learned to appreciate each other and when he asked me to marry him, I agreed.” She held a hand up. “Elizabeth, before you accept a marriage proposal, make sure you and your future husband are well-acquainted and be advised by those who want you to be happy.”
Head bent, certain she was attracted to more than Mr Yates’s good looks, Elizabeth hoped to have the opportunity to become, as Amelia put it, well- acquainted with the gentleman.
Amelia looked at the clock on the mantlepiece. “I am looking forward to taking the air in Hyde Park with Saunton, so, I must change my gown. Would like to join us?”
Her sister-in-law stood. About to enter her dressing room, she smiled. “Elizabeth, you will meet many eligible gentlemen in Cheltenham. Remember my advice. Be sensible. Don’t be impatient to wed.”
* * * *
Eager for her new dresses to arrive, Elizabeth stared at two carriage gowns laid out on her bed. One with a deep flounce that edged the skirt which belled out, the other with a hem padded with cotton wool and embellished from ankle to knee with pin-tucks, gathered lace, satin ribbon and bows. She decided to wear the first one with full sleeves gathered at the wrist into a wide band and with a ruff at the throat. Her pearl earrings, a sage green mantle with several capes, a chip hat, white kid gloves and a parasol completed her ensemble.
Did she look a little pale? Not bold enough to use rouge she pinched her cheeks to force them to bloom for Mr Yates.
“Thank you, Polly,” she said to her young dresser.
Elizabeth hurried downstairs to the hall. A footman held the front door open for her brother, sister-in-law and Great-Aunt, who raised her quizzing glass and scrutinised her.
“Your hat is vulgar. It has too many artificial flowers and ribbons. Tomorrow we shall visit a milliner.” Great-Aunt’s magnified eye glared at her.
Elizabeth’s cheeks burned. If they encountered Mr Yates in the park, she hoped he would not condemn the hat she had been very pleased with.
* * * *
Elizabeth twisted and turned on the seat of the barouche trying to see if Mr Yates was among the equestrians in Rotten Row.
Seated next to her, back as straight as an iron poker, Great-Aunt pinched her arm. “If you don’t stop fidgeting, I shall dose you with wormwood.”
Mortified, Elizabeth caught her lower lip between her teeth.
Great-Aunt tutted and pinched her arm again, an unspoken warning for her to release her lip.
If she nips me once more, I will have so many bruises that I will not be able to bare my forearms.
Her lip freed from her teeth, she noticed a gentleman with hair as black and glossy as his magnificent stallion’s coat salute her brother.
The barouche halted. The stranger reined his horse in next to it.
“No need to salute, Sir Victor,” her brother said. “We have sold out of the regiment.”
Another former hussar! That accounted for Sir Victor’s splendid posture. He and her brother had served in the same regiment, the Twenty-Sixth Hussars, nicknamed The Glory Boys, because, when their mortally wounded colonel lay on the ground, he repeatedly called out, “On to victory, my glory boys.” Elizabeth imagined the gallant officer watching his men gallop forward.
She glanced at Sir Victor, who must have looked as imposing as Saunton dressed in his black uniform with sable that edged his pelisse, and gold cord slanted across his busby, did in his portrait.
“Elizabeth, with your permission, I am pleased to present you to Sir Victor, who recently returned to England from India.”
She tilted her head towards the officer. “Good day, sir.”
“Sir Victor, my Great Aunt, Marchioness Armitage and my sister Lady Elizabeth.”
The gentleman’s smile revealed evenly spaced white teeth. “My lady, I am delighted to make your acquaintance.”
“Sir Victor,” Amelia began, “It is a pleasure to see you again. If you have no other engagement, please dine with us in Cavendish Square at eight o’clock this evening.”
Sir Victor inclined his head towards her. “Thank you, Lady Saunton, I accept with pleasure.”
“I shall expect you at half past seven when we gather to have wine before dinner is served.”
“Lady Saunton, you may count on me to be prompt.” Sir Victor bowed to her from the saddle.
Elizabeth observed his face, a square jaw, high cheekbones, a broad forehead and a straight nose. A shiver ran down her spine. Not a gentleman to thwart. She glanced down and almost giggled. Where had that foolish fancy come from? Over his shoulder she saw Mr Yates approach mounted on the chestnut he rode when she and Great-Aunt spoke to him in the park two days ago.
Her cheeks warmed when he reined his horse in at the side of the barouche opposite Sir Victor, whose jaw had tightened.
“Saunton, Amelia, this gentleman is Mr Yates, Viscount Bartlet’s youngest son,” Great Aunt said, then introduced Sir Victor and Mr Yates to each other.
“No need, Lady Armitage, our paths have crossed,” Sir Victor interrupted, the expression in his eyes as hard as stone.
Mr Yates inserted a finger between his cheek and the high, stiffly starched point of his collar and his jaw.
“I hope neither your collar nor something else has…er… irritated you, Mr Yates,” Sir Victor said, his voice bland, the depths of his eyes, the colour of dark amber, fierce.
“My valet cut me when he shaved me this morning,” Mr Yates answered a little too quickly.
“I am sorry, it must be painful,” Elizabeth said.
“So am I.” Sir Victor’s tone and subsequent smile implied he did not believe Mr Yates.
Puzzled, Elizabeth looked from the baronet to the gentleman she admired. Why did Sir Victor treat soft-spoken Mr Yates with disdain?
“It is not serious, my lady, there is no cause for alarm, but thank you for your concern,” Mr Yates said.
“Good day.” Sir Victor touched the brim of his black top hat, which complemented his severe black riding habit relieved only by his white neck cloth, then rode away.
“An exotic gentleman,” Great-Aunt commented. “One cannot fail to notice his slightly unusual complexion. Do you know him well, Mr Yates?”
“We were introduced in Calcutta where we exchanged a few words,” Mr Yates replied. “I must bid you adieu, my mother expects me to dine at home with her and my father before we go to the theatre. Her ladyship missed me so much when I was in India that I must make up for lost time and never disappoint her,” he said, hand over his heart, his eyes brim full of tender emotion.
“Mr Yates, I hope you and Lady Bartlet will pay us a morning call,” Great-Aunt said with total disregard for Amelia’s position as mistress of the Cavendish Square house.
Elizabeth’s toes curled in her shoes while she waited for his answer.
“Thank you, Lady Armitage, I am certain my mother will be pleased to and maybe my father will join us.”
“Then we bid you good afternoon.” Saunton nodded at Mr Yates and ordered the coachman to drive on.
* * * *
Her hair arranged in a chignon from which short ringlets fell, delighted with a new white gros de Naples evening gown, Elizabeth entered the small drawing room, where Saunton, Amelia and Great-Aunt Augusta had gathered.
Amelia’s King Charles spaniel bounded towards her, his tail wagging. “Yes, yes, Scamp, you are pleased to see me. No need to thank me for taking you for walks in the park while that nasty doctor banished you from your mistress’s apartment.” Elizabeth bent with difficulty due to her stays and caught hold of his collar. “No, don’t jump up at me, you will ruin my gown.”
“Sir Victor,” the butler announced.
Scamp tugged so hard to free himself that Elizabeth tottered.
Sir Victor stepped forward and held out his arm. She grasped it, regained her balance and let go of the dog’s collar. “You see me at a disadvantage with this naughty fellow.” A little dizzy and breathless, she pressed her hand to her head when she stood straight.
“Bad dog, come here,” Amelia ordered.
Scamp ignored her.
Great-Aunt sniffed. “As I have said before, that ill-behaved creature should not be allowed to enter the drawing room.”
About to warn Sir Victor that Scamp might attack him in the mistaken belief strangers posed a threat, Elizabeth watched the baronet bend over to scratch a sensitive spot behind the dog’s ear.
Scamp’s tail thumped against the floor.
“Sit,” Sir Victor commanded in a firm, but level tone.
Surprised when the ebullient pet sat, Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “How did you make him obey you?”
“Animals and young children recognise a tone of voice that commands obedience,” Sir Victor replied. “Not that I am well-acquainted with many members of the nursery brigade,” he added.
“A tone we lack where Scamp is concerned,” Saunton said. “I would be obliged if you would teach us how to employ it.” He gestured to a chair which formed one of a group around a low table. “Please be seated.”
“Come,” Sir Victor ordered Scamp. With the dog at his heel, he crossed the floor and sat down.
“Have you lost your wits, Elizabeth?” Augusta asked. “Why are you standing there? Sit yourself down.”
Elizabeth found it difficult to accept Great-Aunt’s animadversions. Did she want to go to Cheltenham and be at the mercy of the autocratic old lady? Yes. If she did not, her entry to the polite world would be delayed.
Sir Victor turned his head toward Great-Aunt. “If I may say so Lady Armitage, in my opinion your great-niece does not have the vacant appearance of one whose faculties are impaired. You should be proud of her. She is a beauty to be admired. I daresay she will become a toast of the town.”
“’Pon my word, sir,” Augusta began, “you are free with your compliments. I suspect you visited Ireland and kissed the Blarney Stone.”
“You are mistaken, and you misjudge me. I am never insincere.” He accepted a glass of wine from the butler. “Thank you.”
Grateful to Sir Victor for his kind words, Elizabeth sat opposite him and compared him to Saunton. Each had black hair parted on the right and arranged in curls. They were equally fashionable. Saunton was dressed in dark green coat, jade-green waistcoat and cream pantaloons, while Sir Victor wore black coat and black pantaloons. If his waistcoat were not gold silk, she would suspect he was in mourning. The comparison was superficial. Saunton, the best brother imaginable, had the air of a gentleman at ease with the world. Sir Victor gave the impression of a magnificent tiger illustrated in one of Sophy’s books about India. “He is splendid, but I want to own an elephant not a tiger,” Sophy, had explained. “Imagine riding in a – what-do-you-call-it – oh yes, a howdah – observing the world like an Indian princess from an elephant’s back.”
But there is no comparison between me and a princess looking at down at the people with a sense of superiority.
Apprehensive, she peeped at Sir Victor through her eyelashes. Why was she ill-at-ease in his presence? The gentleman had not said one word to make her nervous.
“Sir Victor, are you pleased to have returned to England?” Great-Aunt asked.
“Yes, Lady Armitage, but I confess my heart is divided between this country and India.”
“Why? I could name several families whose sons went there to make a fortune and died in an unchristian land without the comfort of their relatives. I am told the climate is disagreeable, the heat unbearable, poverty rampant and disease prevalent.”
Elizabeth gasped. When her sister Margaret’s reputation was damaged, Great-Aunt had suggested sending her there to seek a husband.
“There is more, much more to such a vast sub-continent which ranges from the mighty snow-capped Himalayas, to the plains and broad rivers that flow to the oceans,” Sir Victor said. “It is a land with temples and mosques, maharajas with treasure houses of gold and jewels, merchants, farmers and the poverty stricken.”
“The Bible states that the poor are always with us,” Great-Aunt interrupted. “They should work hard to alleviate their situation.”
“What of the soldiers in this country who have been discharged from the army and due to the Corn Laws, which forbid the import of cheap wheat to protect our farmer’s income, cannot afford the price of bread?” Elizabeth asked. “I am proud of Saunton, he never neglects a man who served in his regiment, he speaks out in the House against those iniquitous laws and on behalf of half-fed little children who slave in factories. And he takes good care of those who work at the cotton factory Amelia inherited.”
Great-Aunt sniffed. “Young ladies should not have opinions about matters they do not understand, or if they do, should not voice them in public.”
Saunton raised his eyebrows. Amelia shook her head in silent reproach.
Sir Victor clapped. “Lady Armitage, may I express my opinion?” he asked before she could reply. “I had begun to think every young lady I have been introduced to is a bread and butter miss with little more than fashion and frivolity in her head.”
Augusta glared at him. “Upon my word, sir, you are plain spoken.”
Elizabeth tried not to laugh at the pot calling the kettle black.
The gleam in Sir Victor’s eyes hinted he shared her amusement.
“Please forgive me, Lady Armitage, I merely expressed my sincere admiration of your great-niece, who has not forgotten Jesus Christ’s words: – Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”
Despite his praise, the intensity with which he focussed on whomsoever he spoke to Sir Victor made Elizabeth nervous.
The double doors opened. “Dinner is served,” the butler announced.