Authors: Miss Gordon's Mistake
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Copyright © 1991 by Anita Mills
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First Diversion Books edition May 2013.
Also by Anita Mills
The Fire Series
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dropped the curtain guiltily, but not before her aunt chanced to see Jess and Lord Sturbridge riding in. The older woman’s mouth, which had been drawn into a smile, flattened perceptibly in disapproval. Her eyes narrowed as Kitty flushed.
“If Sturbridge would fix his interest with you, how is it that he is forever with Jessica?” she wondered aloud, the edge in her voice unmistakable.
“I had the headache, and as ’twas too pretty a day to waste, I asked them to go on without me,” Kitty answered, crossing her fingers behind her at the untruthfulness.
Her aunt stared sharply for a moment, assessing her shrewdly, then she relented. “Be that as it may, Catherine, if you do not have a care, you will have whistled Sturbridge’s not inconsiderable fortune down the wind,” she warned, “and I should hate to see it.” She lifted the curtain herself and peered out regretfully. “As it cannot be Jessica, I should be grateful ’tis you he pays court—I have hopes on that head at least.” She sighed, shaking her head. “If only—well, it does not signify …” Her voice trailed off, and she met Kitty’s eyes resolutely. “Surely after a year and more of his attentions, he means to come up to scratch soon.”
“I know the Trevors are dreadfully high in the instep,” the older woman mused, ignoring her, “and her ladyship cannot quite like it that you are American—half-American,” she amended quickly—“but with this unpleasantness now past us there, I should hope …”
Kitty smiled faintly at the thought of Charles’s mother. “She calls me ‘brown,’ ” she admitted. “And an ape-leader, I am told.”
“Brown?” For a moment Bella was at a loss. “But you are not brown at all!” Her eyes traveled over her niece, reassuring herself of the girl’s exquisite blondness, of the clear blue eyes, the rose-blushed fair skin. “What nonsense! ’Tis a hum, I’ll be bound, Catherine! Now if she had said you are a trifle too forward or that your American manners are too free, I should have believed that—but
? There’s not so much as a freckle on you! No, she cannot fault you for your looks, my love—not at all,” her aunt decided definitely. “Although I own ’tis fashionable to be a trifle taller, but we shall not repine too much on that. I am quite certain that Sturbridge does not think you
“Lady Sturbridge believes all Americans to be somehow relations to the Indians,” Kitty murmured.
“What a preposterous notion, to be sure—why you are Gordon and Whitwood through and through! As though my dear brother should have consorted with Indians! Though I must own that I find your fascination for pistols most disconcerting, my love, and I cannot think of any reason—” She stopped, perceiving that she heard the young couple in the hall, then turned her attention to Kitty again. “Pinch your cheeks and put your best looks before Sturbridge. Ten to one, ’twill not matter what his mama thinks in the end, for I know a besotted man when I see one!”
“Aunt Bella, I do not think—”
“And if you are fearing that
thinks you an ape-leader, he does not. You cannot be faulted for a war, after all, and had there been the time or the place for a come-out, I am certain your papa would have done as he ought. Sturbridge is not so blind that he does not know you would have been taken on the instant had you been presented.”
The door opened behind them, causing the older woman to start. “La, but ’tis Sturbridge, my love!” she announced a trifle too brightly. “No doubt he is come to see if you are better!”
The tall, fair-haired young man entered after the slender, flushed girl. Both stopped guiltily at her words. “You are ill?” Jessica demanded. “Why did you not say—?”
Casting a warning glance at her cousin, Kitty smiled. “Had I complained, the two of you would have sat cooped up in here with me, would you not? And then we should all have missed the beauty of a rare sunny day.”
“I say, Miss Gordon, but you ought to have apprised us,” Lord Sturbridge chided. “I am sure that Jessica would have—” He stopped, aware of Mrs. Merriman’s frown. “I am sure that
Merriman would have forgone the ride,” he finished lamely.
“And why should you?”
“But you are never ill—I did not know—” Jessica floundered.
“Nonsense,” Kitty interrupted the other girl quickly. “I am often given to these little megrims—’twill pass.”
“I have never known you to have an ill day in your life,” Isabella Merriman declared flatly. “You must not make poor Sturbridge here think otherwise,” she added significantly. Then, reaching to pinch her daughter’s elbow, she told her, “As soon as Sturbridge will excuse you, I’d have you come up to me. The latest plates are arrived from Paris, and I’d share them with you. Besides, I cannot but think that if dear Catherine would show him how the bulbs are blooming, the air would do her good.” She smiled at the young man, holding out her hand. “So kind of you to take my poor Jessica up today, my lord,” she murmured.
He bowed over her hand and lifted it to his lips. “Dear lady.”
“Be done with you—you must not think I require you to dance attendance on me. Jessica, I will be awaiting you.”
After she left, the girl turned on her cousin. “Really, but I did not know you were ill.”
“I wasn’t,” Kitty admitted baldly. “But I had to tell her something, since she believed you were casting lures at my beau.” Noting that they exchanged glances and colored, she nodded. “Just so. ’Tis a devil of a coil, is it not?” she observed wryly. “And I absolutely refuse to wed Sturbridge so that you can have him, Jess.” Her blue eyes met the young man’s. “ ’Tis where we are headed in everyone’s mind, you know.”
“What! Oh, no, but—” Jessica protested.
“Miss Gordon, I assure you—”
“My aunt is expecting you to come up to scratch momentarily.” Even as Kitty said it, tears welled in her cousin’s eyes. And Lord Sturbridge’s hand reached reassuringly to clasp the young girl’s hand. “You cannot keep on courting Jess, my lord, under the guise of seeing me,” Kitty continued gently. “It makes all of us into less than admirable sneaks. And I am done with it.”
“Kitty!” Jessica wailed.
“I repeat—I absolutely refuse to wed him for you, Jess.” She turned to face her cousin. “I don’t suppose ’tis called wearing the horns when one is a female, but whatever it is, I won’t do it.”
“Miss Gordon!” Sturbridge choked.
“Which brings us to the unthinkable,” Kitty went on resolutely. “Either you will have to cease this—or a way must be discovered for you to be together.”
“You know there is no way! ’Tis cruel, what you suggest!” Jessica cried.
Ignoring her cousin, Kitty appealed to the young man. “My lord, think what you do. I collect that Jess has told you of Haverhill, hasn’t she? While ’tis not common knowledge, ’tis still an impediment, you must own.”
“Don’t listen to her, Charles! Kitty, how
But Charles met Kitty’s eyes and nodded. Exhaling slowly, he conceded, “You are quite right, of course. To continue this way is to invite disaster on her head, but—”
The color draining from her face, the younger girl stared at her beloved in disbelief. “Charles, you cannot mean that is—I should perish without you!” she wailed dramatically.
“Jessica, I have not the right to ask you—I’d not make you an
for the gossips!” He ran his fingers through his pale hair in distraction, and his handsome face betrayed his helplessness. “ ’Tis foolish to mire ourselves deeper when we cannot act, but—”
“Charles!” Then, perceiving that he was serious, Jessica burst into tears, covered her face, and fled.
He would have gone after her, but Kitty stepped into his path. “Since you appear to have the sense, I believe we ought to speak plainly, my lord.” He reached out his hand toward the doorway, then dropped it helplessly. Kitty walked to the door and carefully closed it. Then, with her hands clasped together, she faced him. “There is no future for Jess like this,” she said simply.
He nodded dumbly.
“Do you love her?”
“More than my life.”
“More than your mother?” she persisted.
“I fail to see what that is to anything, but—” He stopped, quelled by the look in her eyes. “Yes,” he answered finally.
“Enough to take a divorced woman?” she continued brutally.
For a moment, his eyes betrayed hope, then he shook his head. “He will not divorce her,” he decided heavily.
“He might. It has been years, and there’s not been so much as a word exchanged between them since the wedding.”
“He has abandoned an angel. How any man could look on her and—”
She cut him short. “Marriage was not on his mind, or so I surmise,” she snapped with a trace of asperity. “Angel or no, he had no wish to tie himself to her. Indeed, but if Jess can be believed, he was too disguised to compromise her,” she added in disgust. “I doubt he even recalls what she looks like. After all, she was but sixteen and still a schoolroom chit.”
“No man could forget her,” Sturbridge maintained loyally.
“Well, apparently Lord Haverhill has. It has been six years, and he’s done naught but send her an allowance through some man of affairs. If he’d had the least interest, he’d have done something beyond that, I’d think,” she observed practically. “No doubt he is content to keep his mistresses and his barques of frailty instead.”
“Miss Gordon, ’tis improper to say such,” he pointed out feebly. “Gently nurtured females do not speak of such things here.”
But she’d walked away suddenly, moving to stand at the window, and she stared out, chewing pensively on her thumbnail. “No, ’twill not be an easy task,” she mused aloud. “An annulment would be best, of course, so we will attempt that first.” She swung back around. “Well—if she were free, would you marry Jess?”
“But she’s not, and—” Her blue eyes held his, making him wonder how it was that people said she was a delicate female. “Yes,” he answered. “But—”
“No ‘buts,’ ” she declared firmly. “And if your mama objects?”
“My mother does not have the ordering of my life,” he retorted. “But I fail to see—I mean, ’tis all very well to speculate, but just how do you think I am to persuade Lord Haverhill to give Jessica a divorce?”
“An annulment would be better,” she repeated.
“All the same, I fail to see how that I—well, I cannot but think that her family would not wish me to know of the matter. Indeed, but I was utterly shocked myself when first Jessica told me.” He stopped. “You do not think that
should approach him, do you?”
“No, no, of course not, my lord. And if you were directly involved, the scandal would be too great. No, it will have to be one of her family, I think. But if you will not cavil at taking her despite the scandal, I am hopeful she can be freed of him.” She looked up at him again, searching his face. “You might have to take her away for a while, you know.”
“I have an estate in Ireland,” he answered, warming to the thought. “Miss Gordon, if it meant that I could have Jessica, I should be happy to go into exile.”
“And you would wed her?”
“Yes—how could you think anything else? Surely you do not think that I would wish it otherwise,” he protested.
“I think Haverhill might be persuaded,” she decided. She smiled up at-him. “ ’Tis the best answer, don’t you think? Otherwise, I am expected to wed you, and I am certain we should not suit.”
“Be honored to have you, but—” he began gallantly.
“Fustian. You require someone who both likes and admires you, my lord.” Her blue eyes sparkled mischievously for a moment. “You are too comfortable for me, you know.”
“Miss Gordon, if you can persuade Rollo to approach Haverhill, I will be forever grateful,” he promised, grinning.
“Rollo?” She started to give her opinion of her young cousin, then thought better of it. “Oh, yes, I daresay he might do it.”
Much later, after he had gone, she sat for a time considering what she’d suggested, and the more she thought on it, the more she believed it could be done. Surely Lord Haverhill could not wish to keep a wife who clearly meant nothing to him.
She closed her eyes, and the homesickness washed over her. Why could no one see that she did not belong here? That she longed to be useful again? She could almost smell the cotton and tobacco that came into her father’s Carolina warehouses, and she could almost hear him say, “Cat, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders.” Much good it did now, for there seemed to be none to value a good head here.
But her papa was dead, carried off by a tidewater fever contracted in Virginia, and there’d been no other relations there. Even now she could remember her shock when his will had been read and she discovered she was to live with his sister in England. His business had gone to his partners and her money had gone into trust. A stranger in London sent her a quarterly income, and in that at least, she was no better off than Jess. Despite her financial competence, she was still constrained to be what the
accepted as a lady.
Resolutely, she drew her thoughts away from her own problems. ’Twould take some doing, some subterfuge, but she meant to get to London to see this odious Lord Haverhill. Maybe she’d come back in such disgrace that everyone would cease throwing eligible
at her head. Maybe they’d even consider sending her to her real home. As it was, her American sense of independence had little patience with the matrimonial games expected of her. No, she would help Jess, and maybe her Aunt Bella would come to realize that it was too late to make Kitty Gordon into an English lady.
With that happy thought, she rose to fetch her papa’s pistols. Today, when Jem showed her again how to use them, she meant to see if she could hit the cider jar rather than the tree several paces to the left of it. In the weeks she’d been practicing, she’d gained a greater respect for the soldiers who could not only actually hit moving targets, but who could also load, wad, prime, and fire often enough to be effective. The way she saw it, she’d have been dead before the powder ignited.