The Captain and The Countess


The Captain and The Countess

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London. 1706

Why does heart-rending pain lurk in the back of the wealthy Countess of Sinclair’s eyes?
Captain Howard’s life changes forever from the moment he meets Kate, the intriguing Countess and resolves to banish her pain.

Although the air sizzles when widowed Kate, victim of an abusive marriage meets Edward Howard, a captain in Queen Anne’s navy, she has no intention of ever marrying again.

However, when Kate becomes better acquainted with the Captain she realises he is the only man who understands her grief and can help her to untangle her past.

Chapter One

London. 1706

Edward, the Right Honourable Captain Howard, dressed in blue and white, which some of the officers in Queen Anne’s navy favoured, strode into Mrs Radcliffe’s spacious house near St James Park.

Perkins, his godmother’s butler, took the captain’s hat and cloak. “Madam wants you to join her immediately.”

Instead of going upstairs to the rooms his godmother had provided for him during his spell on half pay—the result of a dispute with a senior officer—Edward entered the salon. He sighed. When would his sixty-one year old godmother accept that at the age of twenty-two, he was not yet ready to wed?

He made his way across the elegant, many-windowed room through a crowd of expensively garbed callers.

When Frances Radcliffe noticed him, she turned to the pretty young lady seated beside her. “Mistress Martyn, allow me to introduce you to my godson, Captain Howard.”

Blushes stained Mistress Martyn’s cheeks as she stood to make her curtsey.

Edward bowed, indifferent to yet another of his grandmother’s protégées. Conversation ceased. All eyes focussed on the threshold.

“Lady Sinclair,” someone murmured.

Edward turned. He gazed without blinking at the acclaimed beauty, whose sobriquet was “The Fatal Widow”.

The countess remained in the doorway, her cool blue eyes speculative.

Edward whistled low. Could her shocking reputation be no more than tittle-tattle? His artist’s eyes observed her. Rumour did not lie about her Saxon beauty.

Her ladyship was not a slave to fashion. She did not wear a wig, and her hair was not curled and stiffened with sugar water. Instead, her flaxen plaits were wound around the crown of her head to form a coronet. The style suited her. So did the latest Paris fashion, an outrageous wisp of a lace cap, which replaced the tall, fan-shaped fontage most ladies continued to wear perched on their heads.

Did the countess have the devil-may-care attitude gossips attributed to her? If she did, it explained why some respectable members of society shunned her. Indeed, if Lady Sinclair were not the granddaughter of his godmother’s deceased friend, she might not be received in this house.

The lady’s fair charms did not entirely explain what drew many gallants to her side. After all, there were several younger beauties present around whom the gentlemen did not flock so avidly.

He advanced toward the countess, conscious of the sound of his footsteps on the wooden floor, the muted noise of coaches and drays through the closed windows and, from the fireplace, the crackle of burning logs, which relieved the chill of early spring.

The buzz of conversation resumed. Her ladyship scrutinised him. Did she approve of his appearance? A smile curved her heart-shaped mouth. He repressed his amusement. Edward suspected the widow’s rosy lips owed more to artifice than nature.

“How do you do, sir,” she said when he stood before her. “I think we have not met previously.” Her eyes assessed him dispassionately. “My name is Sinclair, Katherine Sinclair. I dislike formality. You may call me Kate.”

“Captain Howard at your service, Countess.” Shocked but amused by boldness more suited to a tavern wench than a great lady, Edward paid homage with a low bow before he spoke again. “Despite your permission, I am not presumptuous enough to call you Kate, yet I shall say that, had we already met, I would remember you.”

“You are gallant, sir, but you are young to have achieved so high a rank in Her Majesty’s navy.”

“An unexpected promotion earned in battle, which the navy did not subsequently commute.”

“You are to be congratulated on what I can only assume were acts of bravery.”

“Thank you, Countess.”

The depths of her ladyship’s sapphire cross and earrings blazed, matching his sudden fierce desire.

Kate, some four inches shorter than Edward, looked up at him.

He leaned forward. The customary greeting of a kiss on her lips lingered longer than etiquette dictated. Her eyes widened before she permitted him to lead her across the room to the sofa on which his godmother sat with Mistress Martyn.

With a hint of amusement in her eyes, Kate regarded Mrs Radcliffe. “My apologies, madam, I suspect my visit is untimely.”

Her melodious voice sent shivers up and down his spine; nevertheless, Edward laughed. Had the countess guessed his godmother, who enjoyed match-making, wanted him to marry Mistress Martyn? No, he was being too fanciful. How could she have guessed?

“You are most welcome, Lady Sinclair. Please take a seat and partake of a glass of cherry ratafia.” Frances said.

“Perhaps, milady prefers red viana,” Edward suggested.

“Captain, you read my mind. Sweet wine is not to my taste.”

In response to the lady’s provocative smile, heat seared his cheeks.

Kate smoothed the gleaming folds of her turquoise blue silk gown. The lady knew how to dress to make the utmost of her natural beauty. Her gown and petticoat, not to mention sleeves and under-sleeves, as well as her bodice and stays, relied for effect on simple design and fine fabrics. He approved of her ensemble, the elegance of which did not depend on either a riot of colours or a multitude of bows and other trimmings. Later, he would sketch her from memory.

Kate inclined her head to his godmother. “Will you not warn your godson I am unsound, wild, and a bad influence on the young?”

Edward gazed into Kate’s eyes. Before his demise, had her husband banished her to a manor deep in the country? If it were true, why had he done so?

Kate’s eyebrows slanted down at the inner corners. She stared back at him. He laughed, raised her hands to his lips, and kissed each in turn. “I look forward to furthering my acquaintance with you.”

“High-handed.” Kate gurgled with laughter. “Captain, please release me.”

What did he care if she were some nine years his elder? He wanted to get to know her better. Edward bowed. “Your slightest wish is my command.”

His godmother fluttered her fan. “Edward, Lady Sinclair, please be seated.”

They sat side-by-side opposite Mrs Radcliffe on the sofa upholstered in crimson damask.

Although Kate smiled at him, the expression in her large blue eyes remained as cool as it had been when she first entered the salon. “Tomorrow, please join those who visit me daily at my morning levee.”

“I fear my voice would be lost among many, thus casting me into obscurity,” Edward replied, much amused.

“I don’t take you for one to be ignored, sir. However, I respect your wishes. Besides those who seek my patronage, there are many gentlemen eager to wait on me. ’Tis more than my porter’s life is worth to deny them entry.” She looked at his godmother and raised a pencilled eyebrow. “Mrs Radcliffe, do you not agree it is pleasant to lie abed in the morning while indulging in conversation with one’s admirers?”

Frances toyed with her fan. “Receiving one’s admirers does help to pass the time.”

“Come, come, madam, confess you value their advice,” Kate teased.

“Sometimes.” Frances looked at her most favoured admirer, Sir Newton.

Kate turned her attention to Edward. “I have no doubt you would become a cherished member of the group of those who seek my favour.”

“Countess, life at sea teaches a man to be wary of enemies, not to compete with them. I am not a flirt who is given to haunting ladies’ bedchambers.”

“If I seclude myself with you tomorrow morning, may I have the pleasure of your company?”

“Alone with you in your bedchamber? How improper. Are you always so careless of your reputation?” he asked with a hint of laughter in his voice.

Her eyes widened. “I have no reputation to guard, Captain.” She had spoken in a forward manner he was unaccustomed to in polite society.

“Have you not?” Edward needed a plunge in icy water.

A frozen glimpse of despair deep in her eyes unsettled Edward. Did he imagine it? He could not speak. Why should a lady like the countess despair?

He recovered his voice. “If it is your custom to take the air in The Mall, I shall be pleased to be your sole escort.”

Kate fidgeted with one of the diamond buckles that fastened her satin-covered stays. “Are the battle lines drawn?”

“Don’t confuse battle lines with a mere skirmish at sea.” His voice hinted at the chuckle he restrained.

“There are those who would welcome an invitation to a tête-à-tête with me.”

He preferred to take the lead in affairs of the heart. “Perhaps I am not one of them,” he teased. “Maybe I would like to be your friend.”

“My friend? Is that all you want of me?”

His eyes widened.

Kate laughed. “No, I thought not.”

Chapter Two

Kate breakfasted in bed, drinking hot chocolate and eating two slices of thinly cut bread and butter. With pleasure, she breathed in the perfume of narcissi arranged in a pair of tall blue and white Delft flower vases, which stood on two small inlaid tables on either side of the marble fireplace.

Later, Kate washed her face and hands with the finest Smyrna soap. Before she returned to her bed, she first painted and powdered her face with particular care.

At eleven o’clock, the porter admitted the first of her guests to the house. Each time the door opened, she looked across the bedchamber with the expectation of seeing the captain. Unaccustomed to any gentleman declining her invitation, her annoyance and disappointment increased as the minutes passed. An hour dragged by. Still Captain Howard had not come. Wasted time, and what was more, it had been an equal waste of time to send her tirewoman, Jessie, to Lillie’s for perfume. Kate put her scented handkerchief to her nose to inhale the fragrance of the distillation of roses and sandalwood. Delicious! Indeed Mister Lillie deserved his title, “The Prince of Perfumers”. Soon, however, the levee would end.

She glanced at her most persistent admirers, Mister Tyrell, both dashing and bold, and Mister Stafford, conservative and somewhat hesitant. As usual, they had arrived before her other admirers. Now they sat at their ease on gilt-legged chairs near her canopied bed.

Kate decided she could delay no longer. She rose to make her toilette behind a tall screen, still conscious of the rose-pink night robe she had ruffled around her shoulders with great care before Tyrell and Stafford arrived.

With Jessie’s help, after Kate removed her nightgown and night rail, she donned her under-linen, stays, and a bodice, cut lower than the current fashion and loosely laced in front to reveal gold buckles inset with pearls, which clasped her satin-covered stays so tightly that she could scarce draw breath. “Gentlemen, which petticoat shall I wear?” she asked, giggling deliberately and playing the part of an indecisive female. “Jessie, please show both of them to Mister Tyrell and Mister Stafford.”

Over the edge of the lacquered screen, Jessie dangled the full petticoats to be worn displayed beneath skirts parted down the front.

Kate stood on tiptoe. She peeped over the top of the screen, decorated with a blue and white pot containing tulips, passion flowers, lilies, roses, and sprigs of rosemary.

“Gentlemen, the cream petticoat is made of Luckhourie, a newly fashionable silk from India. The lavender one is of the finest quality Pudsay.”

“Stap me, they are uncommon plain,” said Mister Tyrell.

Kate knew he admired feminine apparel trimmed with folderols such as gold or silver lace, ruched ribbons, bows, and rosettes. She suppressed a chuckle in order not to offend him.

“My mother approves of modest attire,” Mister Stafford said.

Before she withdrew her head from their sight, Kate choked back her laughter. Stafford’s contemptuous glance at his rival did not escape her notice.

She doubted Mrs Stafford found much about her to praise, but she cared naught for Stafford’s mother, a creature with the languishing airs of a pseudo-invalid, who bound her son cruelly to her side. Indeed, the gentleman’s determined courtship surprised Kate. It proved he was not, as the saying went, completely under his mother’s thumb.

“Which one shall I wear?” Kate repeated. Although she had already decided to wear cream, she followed the custom of prolonging what amounted to “The Art of the Levee”.

First, Jessie retrieved the petticoats. Next, she dressed Kate in the Luckhourie one, a gown, and lace-edged apron.

Stafford spoke first. “I have no doubt her ladyship will favour the cream petticoat, which will enhance the natural delicacy of her appearance.”

Delicate? Heaven forbid. She did not want Captain Howard to consider her delicate. “’Pon my word, Stafford, I have no wish to give the impression of one who suffers from lung rot.”

Mister Tyrell laughed. “I am sure you don’t, Lady Sinclair. For my part, I beg you to wear the lavender. It will enhance the colour of your blue eyes.”

“I shall surprise both of you.” Kate ignored their petty war of words and wondered why she yearned to see Captain Howard.

Oh, the young gentleman was tall and broad of chest, and she supposed his face was handsome enough. In her mind’s eye, she tried to reconstruct the captain’s high cheekbones, broad forehead, and square jaw. Well, of one thing she could be certain; his was the complexion of a gentleman accustomed to being out in all weathers.

Restless, she smoothed her apron. There were many good-looking men in town, some of them far more handsome than the captain. Why did an insignificant naval officer occupy her thoughts? Kate shook her head, unable to build a complete mental picture of him and capture the fiery light of his eyes in her memory. Whatever his complexion, it did not matter because the very essence of him would remain the same.

She shrugged in an attempt to convince herself she was not piqued. Why should she care if Captain Howard chose not to visit her? Her lips tightened. She did care.

Jessie twitched the last fold of the lavender gown—worn over the cream petticoat—into place.

Kate left the shelter of the screen. “Behold, gentlemen, have I not pleased both of you?”

Mister Tyrell laughed. “May I say you are a minx, madam?”

She fluttered her eyelashes. “You may not, sir.”

Kate sat at her dressing table to complete her toilette. She greeted yet more of her admirers, who praised her to the skies and offered their advice, while Jessie also admitted purveyors of fine wares, an artist, and a playwright who sought her patronage.

By the time Jessie pinned a wisp of point lace to Kate’s hair, it lacked a quarter hour before one of the clock. Kate gave up all hope of the captain’s arrival. “’Odds’ bodikins!” she exclaimed to vent her irritation. “Go,” she said to the purveyors of fine goods and the playwright.

Mister Stafford sighed as he shook his head. “Lady Sinclair, I never expected to hear such an oath issue from your pretty lips.”

“Upon my honour, Stafford,” Mister Tyrell began, “your objection to such a pretty little oath smacks of the schoolmaster.”

Someone knocked on the door. Hope bubbled through Kate. Perhaps the captain had changed his mind.

Her tirewoman answered the summons. “Flowers, my lady.”

John and Simon, two of Kate’s lackeys, entered the bedchamber, their arms overflowing with red roses which filled the room with fragrance more potent than that of the narcissi.

“How beautiful! Please hand me one of the flowers, Jessie.” Kate looked at her lackeys. “Who sent them?”

Simon inclined his head. “Captain Howard brought them with his compliments.”

“Is the captain still here?”

“No, my lady,” John said.

She indicated the Delft vases on either side of the marble fireplace. “Have them refilled with the roses.”

Mister Tyrell’s eyes narrowed. “Such extravagance. I would not embarrass a lady thus.”

Her face alive with curiosity, Gertrude Corby, Kate’s plump, widowed mother, bustled into the room. “What beautiful roses. Pray tell me who sent them?”

Stafford and Tyrell bowed to her mother while Kate peered into her mirror, a treasure from the east, framed with carved rosewood. She scrutinised her face, grateful because her mask of powder and paint concealed her heightened colour.

Satisfied with her appearance, she shortened the stem of the rose with scissors, stripped it of its thorns, and tucked the fragrant blossom into the bosom of her gown.

“What a sweet boy,” Kate mused. “Where did he find roses in May?”

“The weather is mild enough to advance the season,” Gertrude remarked. “If they were picked in bud and brought indoors, I think they opened in the warmth.”

Mister Tyrell clenched his fists. Stafford’s tight pressed lips reminded Kate of a baited mousetrap. A clock chimed the hour of one. Both gallants made their farewells, bowed, and withdrew with the other visitors.

Gertrude sank onto a chair. “A boy, you said, Daughter, I hope you are not about to trifle with yet another green youth’s affections.”

“I don’t trifle with any man’s affections. ’Tis not my fault if I am admired.”

“Be warned. One day, when you are old, no one will admire you.”

Kate scowled. Heavens above, she would never allow anyone to treat her in the manner her odious husband had treated her, carping and criticising, as well as punishing her for minor misdemeanours. She shifted on her chair, imagining she could still feel the sting of his cane. “What do I care, Mother? I live to amuse myself.”

Gertrude’s weak chin quivered. “You will care one day. You have never suffered. For now, you are too heartless to understand what it is like to be alone and unloved at my age.”

Her parents had never dealt well together. Kate knew her mother frankly preferred widowhood, so the words did not touch her heart. “Oh, don’t be so histrionic. You are not alone in this house full of people.”

Kate’s brow furrowed. Could anyone blame her for not loving a parent, who, when she was a small child, relinquished custody of her as though she had no more importance than an unwanted kitten? A mother, who had not even been concerned with her education.

She shrugged. Nothing could change her past, so why waste time blaming her impoverished parents, who handed her over to her father’s elder brother and his barren wife in the expectation of him settling his fortune upon her. They could not have foreseen that Uncle Matthew would lose everything at the card tables. A young girl’s voice, hurt and betrayed, whispered deep within her. Mother should have done her utmost to dissuade Father from consenting to my uncle marrying me off to Sinclair. By law, Uncle was not my legal guardian so Father could have prevented the marriage but he did not want to.

Gertrude tapped her foot on the floor. “Have you nothing to say?”

“I trust you don’t think I have failed in my duty toward you, Mother,” Kate replied, unable to bring herself to make a false declaration of daughterly love. “Please have the goodness to excuse me. I am going to shop at The Exchange.”

* * *

Halfway to the famous shopping mart, Kate changed her mind and ordered the men carrying her sedan to proceed along the narrow streets to Mrs Radcliffe’s house. She alighted from the sedan with the firm intention of obtaining Captain Howard’s address. Near the doorstep, she attempted to justify her decision. After all, politeness required her to either thank the captain in person for the roses or to leave him a note of thanks. She fingered the fragrant blossom at her bosom while gazing down into its golden heart.

When she raised her head, she saw Captain Howard walking toward her with brisk footsteps. Upon catching sight of her, he increased his pace.

“Good day, Lady Sinclair. I trust you are well.” His dark eyes gleamed. He indicated the rose. “I am flattered to see red and white nestled so charmingly together.”

For a moment, she did not understand his comparison of the skin of her partially revealed bosom to a white rose. When she did, she pressed her hand to her breast. “Captain, you make me blush. I cannot imagine what prompted you to speak thus.”

“Can you deny it is as though the red rose of Lancaster, and the white rose of York, battle within you?”

Kate stared over his shoulder. “It is nonsensical of you to allude to the ‘Wars of the Roses’, Captain.” She scrutinised his face. “Sir, I came to procure your direction from Mrs Radcliffe so that I could write a note of thanks for the roses. Our meeting spares me the task. Thank you for sending such beautiful flowers. Good day to you.”

“I am honoured, milady, because you came in person instead of sending your foot page to make enquiries.”

Kate bent her head, hoping he did not guess she had wanted to see him again.

“Milady, I am staying with Mrs Radcliffe. Will you not come inside and partake of refreshment?”

“No. Thank you. I must go.”

“Good day, milady.” The captain emphasised the word but did not seek to detain her. In silence, he tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, and then led her to the sedan emblazoned with the Sinclair coat of arms.

“The Exchange,” Kate ordered her coachman.

Captain Howard’s luminous eyes looked into hers for a moment before he broke the spell and handed her into the conveyance.

Chapter Three

Edward watched Kate’s sedan until it turned the corner at the end of the street. Her pride, high spirits, her vivacious manner and unique style of dressing, intrigued him.

He turned to stare at Mrs Radcliffe’s house. His godmother’s superfine gallant of gallants, Clarence Newton, stood by the railings.

Edward’s lips twitched. Older than Mrs Radcliffe, Sir Newton dressed like a youngster newly come into an estate; his slim body encased in finery like a sausage in a skin. Edward grinned. No doubt “stays” compressed his lordship.

“Good day, m’dear boy,” Newton said.

“Good day, sir.”

“Ah, can’t help noticing you are looking at m’hat. A fashion entirely m’own.” He stroked his hat as though it were a pet. “Why, I asked m’self, do gentlemen always wear black beaver hats? So, for a change, I chose cherry red felt.” He patted the hat. “A bold venture is it not?”

“Yes,” Edward said, on the verge of laughter. “You will cause a sensation both at the coffeehouse and your club.”

“So say I. If the ladies, bless ’em, cover their heads with red mantles, why then, I said to Paine—he is my valet you know—Clarence Newton can wear a red hat.”

Edward did know. Since boyhood, he had been acquainted with Newton’s devoted, but long-suffering valet. He laughed to himself, imagining Paine’s horrified expression when confronted with the reality of that hat.

Newton looked at his headgear with evident satisfaction. He perched it on top of his full-bottomed grey wig. “Enough of hats. Though your business is not my affair, I must say I don’t care to see you keeping company with the Countess of Sinclair.”

“You are right, Sir Newton, my business is not your affair.”

“No need to take umbrage with me, m’boy. I recall the day when your nurse said,Pull up your skirts and piss like a man. Now, will you come into your godmother’s house with me?”

“Yes, sir,” Edward said, chastened by the elderly gentleman’s words.

After Sir Newton ascended the shallow flight of steps, he applied the brass knocker in the shape of a ferocious dragon’s head.

Edward sighed, ashamed of his anger toward an old man with naught but his best interests at heart. “It is always a pleasure to see you, sir.”

Newton turned around. His smile explained why his godmother liked Sir Newton so much. Despite the gentleman’s vanity, he possessed a heart as warm as his smile. He did not gossip and had no known vices in this age of debauchery and excessive gambling.

Edward decided to make a peace offering. “Do you know the Countess of Sinclair well?”

Newton nodded. “Yes, she is a distant relative of mine. I must say I pity her. Old beliefs concerning men’s rights over women die hard, but her husband’s treatment of her was deplorable.” The front door opened while Newton continued. “I am not one for tittle-tattle so I must not say more. Forgot m’self for a moment. Forgive an old man.”

Edward’s jaw tightened. Why had the late earl banished his countess? He kept pace with Newton while they followed the butler to the salon, with walls hung with wallpaper imitating white marble, a foil for many mirrors and oil paintings.

Seated on a sofa opposite the tall, narrow windows, his godmother held court among her afternoon callers. Several ladies, including Mrs Martyn and her daughter, and half a dozen or more fashionably attired men, filled the salon.

“My two favourite gentlemen,” Frances said, a smile in her eyes when Edward approached with Newton.

Edward disengaged his arm before he kissed her cheek, his mind filled with thoughts of the bewitching countess.

Sir Newton lowered himself onto the sofa beside Frances Radcliffe and kissed each finger of her white, diamond-ringed hand while she cooed with appreciation.

All his thoughts still of Kate, Edward retreated to the opposite side of the salon. He stood between a pair of tall potted palms, recreating Kate’s unique smile in his mind’s eye.

The movement of a fan, wielded by a young lady seated on a sofa opposite him, attracted his attention. Upon recognising Mistress Martyn, his brow creased. He choked back his amusement, well aware of Mrs Radcliffe’s determination to alter his bachelor state.

Well versed in the language of fans, he understood what Mistress Martyn meant when she put her fan near her heart. You have won my love, the unspoken message stated. To whom was the silent message addressed? Bold of Mistress Martyn to risk such a declaration while seated by her mother, yet the sly puss had chosen her moment well. Mrs Martyn’s head was turned away from her daughter while she conversed with another matron seated beside her.

Edward glanced around the room. Had Mistress Martyn signalled to the foppish youth neatly attired in puce and cream who stood to one side of the fireplace? He raised his eyebrows. Could the chit have been foolish enough to communicate with Cyril Fenton, a man of mature age, whom, at the very least, gentlemen considered a very strange card? Thoughtful, he gazed at Fenton, who stood on the other side of the fireplace.

Despite his dubious reputation, Mister Fenton—a man of good birth and heir to his rich uncle, a baron—knew how to charm the ladies, although his heart never seemed to be in his fulsome compliments. Edward shook his head. Rumour said the baron’s days were numbered while he lay on his sickbed, and Fenton would soon inherit the title, together with a large fortune.

Edward watched the fellow advance toward Mistress Martyn. Fenton bowed. “Good day to you, sir,” Mrs Martyn said. “Will you not join us? I am sure my daughter is delighted to see you.”

Mistress Martyn’s hand gripped her fan until her knuckles whitened. She bent her head, her cheeks suffused with a rush of colour.

Edward frowned. It seemed his godmother’s protégée disliked the gentleman. So, why did Mrs Martyn encourage him? Had she set her heart on a title for her daughter? Surely the woman could find a better match for the girl. Was she fool enough to be blinded by Fenton’s superficial charm?

Mrs Martyn and the other matron stood. Fenton sat next to Mistress Martyn. To Edward’s disgust, Fenton not only greeted Mistress Martyn with a prolonged kiss on the mouth, but also grabbed her hand and kissed it. Like Kate, would Mistress Martyn be offered up on the altar of unhappy matrimony?

Edward made his way to his godmother’s side. “I am surprised to see that reprobate, Fenton, in your salon,” he said under his breath, although Mistress Martyn’s fate was not his concern. “Does your young friend need to be rescued from him?”

“Bah, reprobate is a strong word for a delightful gentleman, Edward.”

He decided not to disillusion his godmother by repeating the rumours about Fenton circulating at clubs and in coffeehouses.

Frances snapped her fan shut. “I daresay you have some reason for calling Fenton a reprobate. Please be good enough to ask Mistress Martyn to join me. Sir Newton, would you be kind enough to make room for her to sit next to me?”

With good grace, Newton stood.

Edward, determined not to do anything in regard to the young lady that might be misconstrued by either his godmother or her mother, inclined his head to Newton. “My dear sir, please oblige me by conveying my godmother’s request to Mistress Martyn?”

A quiet laugh escaped Sir Newton. He inclined his head. “Mrs Radcliffe, I told you the boy is not ready to tie the knot, but you ignored me.”

Edward refused to allow his irritation at being called a boy to show. “Sir Newton is right.”

“Indeed.” Frances pursed her rouged lips.

“Godmother, to be blunt, I am not ready to be hand-fasted and request you to cease your endeavours on my behalf.”

“But, Edward, dear Jane is so eligible. Look at her, she is pretty and her manners are pleasing.”

“I think,” Edward began, “that Mrs Martyn desires a title for her daughter. Besides, my taste does not run to chicks newly hatched from the schoolroom. What is more, my means are sufficient for my needs. I don’t need to marry money. My brother is generous. Also, I have my inheritance and my prize money which are more than sufficient for my needs. Please don’t inconvenience yourself by introducing me to any more eligible ladies.”

To take the sting from his frank declaration, Edward kissed his godmother’s cheek. He wished his conscience had not prompted him to draw her attention to Fenton and Mistress Martyn. The chit did not interest him. How could she, when no lady compared favourably to Kate?

* * *

Frances snapped her fan shut. Provoking boy! Earlier on, she had seen Edward tête-à-tête with Kate from her window. Obviously, his taste ran to more sophisticated ladies than dear Jane. She pressed her lips together, worldly-wise enough to know she was powerless to prevent a man from pursuing his inclinations, even if they would lead to disaster. No matter how much she wished to, it would be impertinent to speak of her misgivings to Kate.

“Mrs Radcliffe.” Jane executed a perfect curtsey.

Sir Newton bowed. “Now I have brought Mistress Martyn to you, I hope you will be good enough to excuse me.”

“And please excuse me, madam,” Jane said. “I am faint and need some air. With your permission I will take a turn in your garden.”

The young lady looked at her mother, who, with her back to them, sat deep in conversation. Mistress Martyn gathered her skirts in her small hands before hastening across the salon.

“What extraordinary conduct,” Frances remarked. “But ’pon my word the chit must not sally forth alone. Edward, see no harm comes to her.”

* * *

Edward noted the young fop to whom Mistress Martyn earlier signalled was following her. His lips twitched. “I doubt she is at risk in your garden.” Perhaps the youngsters fancied themselves in the roles of those blighted lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

“Edward,” Frances insisted.

“I am pleased to obey you, madam, provided Sir Newton will accompany me.” Edward had spoken, aware that if by malign chance Mrs Martyn discovered him on his own in the garden with her daughter, it would be tantamount to his making an offer for the young lady’s hand in marriage.

In the vestibule, Edward grinned at Newton. “I doubt Mistress Martyn wishes for our presence.”

Fenton rushed out from the salon. “Where is Mistress Martyn?” he asked a lackey.

Edward exchanged a knowing glance with Newton.

Before the lackey could reply Newton stepped up to Fenton. “Good day, tell me what think you of m’hat,” he said with the obvious intention of preventing Fenton from finding Mistress Martyn.

“Your hat, Sir Newton?” Fenton asked, with palpable surprise.

“Yes, m’hat.”

“A monstrosity, sir.”

“You are too unkind, but I feared you might say so,” Newton murmured as he seized Fenton’s arm. “M’dear sir, do me the honour of coming to m’club to discuss the merits of red hats.”

Edward grinned. Few gentlemen would turn down an invitation from wealthy, influential Newton.

“Come,” Newton urged Fenton with the manner of one interested in nothing more in the world than fashion.

At the precise moment at which the lackey closed the front door behind Newton and Fenton, Mistress Martyn entered the vestibule, the colour in her cheeks heightened.

“Captain Howard, I did not expect to see you here. The garden is beautiful, is it not? I must return to the salon. My mother might be looking for me.”

He took pity on her incoherence. “I trust the fresh air benefited you.”

After Mistress Martyn nodded, she hurried back to the salon. A minute or two later, the handsome, puce and cream clad youth followed her.

Edward sighed as he went up to his rooms. There was more to Mistress Martyn than either his godmother or her mother suspected. He dismissed the young lady from his mind. When would he see Kate again?

* * *

Edward smiled. Glorious to lounge, at ease, with money enough to suffice in this, the queen of cities, with its bustling River Thames, the skyline of Sir Christopher Wren’s beautiful churches, and a peaceful rural landscape on its fringes. He linked his hands behind his head. In comparison to the cramped conditions on board ship, it was luxury to stretch out on a four-poster bed in his godmother’s London house—although his body, toughened by conditions at sea, had always adjusted to austerity without difficulty. Yet, when ashore, he could not relinquish his passion for the sea, and he painted seascapes, as well as landscapes of foreign countries.

He looked up at the red velvet canopy, embroidered with threads of gold, and sighed with satisfaction. An excellent hostess, his godmother placed great importance on physical comfort and good food. However, he must remain vigilant to avoid gaining weight and letting his teeth rot from over-indulgence in sweet dishes.

Maybe Kate would enjoy a picnic in the country. Edward smiled. He sat up, imagining a tryst that would not compromise her reputation. He knew the very place to take her.

The countess aroused his curiosity. Yes, she was high-spirited, but he had seen fleeting sadness in her eyes. Was it due to her unhappy marriage or something else?

She was a lady without comparison, beautiful, mysterious, and vivacious. After he dined, he would take the air in Hyde Park in the hope of encountering her.