Authors: Elizabeths Rake
“I met the most divine gentlemen while at Emma Fenwick’s for tea,” Hyacinth cooed, trailing her soft woolen scarf of peacock blue paisley behind her as she drifted across the room of her aunt’s country home.
The small morning room at Montmorcy Hall was a favorite gathering place for Lady Montmorcy, her daughter Chloe, and two nieces who lived with her, cousins Elizabeth Dancy and Hyacinth Dancy. They were daughters of her two brothers, and while quite unlike, she considered them charming additions to the household.
This February day proved no different. Outside, a strong breeze swept the Surrey countryside, and it looked to rain before long. Inside, a cozy fire warmed the air and cheered the eye.
Elizabeth Dancy gave her cousin an impatient glance from troubled blue-green eyes before returning to the difficult execution of a winter scene on the copper plate before her. “Lovely,” she murmured, quite accustomed to Hyacinth’s transports of fancy after several months of her company. How Aunt Bel tolerated it was a mystery to Elizabeth.
“Well, and you ought to have been there.” Hyacinth preened before the mirror above the fireplace before making her next announcement.
Knowing what was expected of her, Elizabeth dutifully asked, “Why?”
“Well ... the Marquess of Norwood, for one. And”—Hyacinth darted a complacent look at her favorite cousin—”the Viscount Leighton as well.”
The immediate stiffening of Elizabeth’s spine gave the only clue of her reaction to this news. Drat and double drat, she fumed silently. She had escaped from London hoping never to see the man again. And here he popped up almost on her aunt’s doorstep. She had avoided his calls, claiming the headache. What would the rake want with her, anyway? Their friendship in London had not flourished.
Fixing her dear cousin with the blandest of looks, Elizabeth said mildly. “How nice.” She hoped her clenched jaw allowed her to be understood.
“Nice! That is all you can say to having two of Society’s most desirable bachelors practically under our noses?” Hyacinth ceased her posing and dropped into a chair close to where Elizabeth worked at her engraving.
“I am not interested, at least not in those gentlemen,” Elizabeth said quietly. “You may have both of them with my blessing. I do not care for rakes,” she added, thinking of Lord Leighton, “nor do I long for a title. A simple life in the country is all I desire.” And, she added to herself, a man who does not stir up such scandalous yearnings within.
“Oh, mercy,” Hyacinth said in disgust. She looked at her dearest Aunt Bel for support, and received a cautioning nod.
Isobel, Lady Montmorcy, widow of the esteemed Marquess of Montmorcy, had welcomed her nieces into her Surrey home to keep her daughter company. Not yet out, Lady Chloe Maitland ached to rush to London to make her come-out and find a husband, not necessarily in that order. Lady Montmorcy hoped that her nieces would provide distraction.
“I think it is marvelous!” Chloe breathed, her eyes wide with the excitement which might be expected in a seventeen-year-old girl.
“They will scarcely bestow a look on a girl barely out of the schoolroom,” Hyacinth said in deprecating accents.
Elizabeth tossed her younger cousin a sympathetic glance, then added, “You would not wish to be thought
Chloe. I know you are impatient, but your time will arrive, and you had best savor every day, not wish it gone.” Elizabeth spoke with the wisdom that comes with being nineteen and having a Season behind one.
“True,” added Lady Montmorcy, looking thankful that her nieces were the ones to pour cold water on the impetuous Chloe’s auburn head, and not herself.
“Elizabeth has had a Season, and she did not accept anyone. I do not see how you could pass up several proposals,” Chloe said, giving her cousin a reproachful stare.
“I knew we should not suit.” Elizabeth glanced up, then resumed her work with a somewhat faster heartbeat. How could she have accepted anyone when she nurtured a highly improper
for the most shocking rake in all of London?
“Well, I shall find someone, I can assure you of that,” Chloe declared in ringing accents. “I have no wish to dwindle into a thornback.” Then, giving Elizabeth a stricken look, she added, “Not that you fall into that group, for you are too young and beautiful. It will be years before you are past praying for.” That these words were scarcely better was brought home to her by the frosty glare from her mama. It wouldn’t do to be thought an old maid when one was nineteen.
“You met Viscount Leighton before, Elizabeth, didn’t you?” Hyacinth said. “I recall that he served as groomsman at Victoria’s wedding. Since you were also an attendant, I fancy you first met him then? Or perhaps at one of those many parties you attended?”
“I cannot understand why you did not come to London yourself,” Elizabeth said, hoping to change the subject.
“I detest the city. The air is injurious to the health and the atmosphere not to my liking. I far prefer life in the country.” Hyacinth tilted her pen nose a trifle, while staring off into the distance.
“Where she could be a queen bee,” Chloe added, giggling at the scowl directed at her from her mother.
Ignoring her teasing, Hyacinth returned to her original topic—the gentleman from London.
“But you did meet Lord Leighton? Did it have something to do with the daring deeds Victoria performed?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth admitted.
Chloe frowned. “You have said nothing about it. Explain, if you please. I hate not knowing things.”
“Victoria served as a government spy while doing her sculpting,” Elizabeth revealed. “That is how she met Sir Edward. I fear I did no more than engrave banknotes for our spies to use in foreign countries. Only Julia did not join us. We all learned a bit about codes and ciphers, spy work in general. It is not as exciting as one might think.”
“I have a feeling there was a great more involved,” Hyacinth murmured, directing a curious look at her mild-mannered cousin.
“I believe we ought to invite both of the gentlemen to the Valentine’s Day ball you are to give. Aunt Bel,” Hyacinth coaxed with demure propriety. “ ‘Tis my understanding that while Lord Norwood is but visiting in this area. Lord Leighton is a resident.”
“He is the son of the Earl of Crompton,” Lady Montmorcy said with a hint of curiosity in her voice. “But he has not frequented his father’s company for some time. Once a young man has a taste of London, he is seldom found languishing about the family estate . . . unless he has come to grief. Elizabeth?”
“If the gossips are to be believed, he is the worst rake in London, ma’am.”
“A rake!” Hyacinth uttered in ringing tones of horror and fascination.
“I wonder what has brought him home, then.” Lady Montmorcy gave Elizabeth an expectant look, like an inquisitive robin listening for the sound of a meal.
“It was my impression that his father is ill, ma’am.”
“Ill? Oh, I do hope not.” Lady Montmorcy subsided into solemn reflection that lasted some moments.
Elizabeth wondered at the wistful smile that lingered on her aunt’s face, but said nothing, pleased to have the attention turned elsewhere.
“Well, perhaps he will not attend, but would it not be proper to send invitations to them both?” Hyacinth queried in dulcet tones that fooled only her aunt, who thought her the epitome of propriety and grace.
“I doubt they would wish to join in anything so terribly countrified,” Elizabeth said in an offhand manner, as though it mattered not the least to her if the dashing beaux from London crossed the Montmorcy threshold to attend the annual Valentine Day’s ball.
She had purposely avoided Lord Leighton from the moment she had glimpsed his tall, handsome figure on the main street of the nearby town. Recalling he had left London to visit his father, she prayed that august gentleman had recovered, and that Lord Leighton was merely pausing nearby. It had meant some skillful dodging, paying a call or two she’d not intended, and shopping for things she’d not the least notion of buying as a means of evasion.
At last she decided to remain at home. It had not been easy. And now, to have him right in the house? At the ball? She knew her aunt and all the wild superstitions she believed. What did she think happened on Valentine’s Day? Elizabeth knew enough to be extremely wary.
“Do as you wish, of course,” she offered quietly. Then, deciding she had best be prepared, she continued, “What traditions do you hold for that day. Aunt Bel?”
“Oh, there are a number of delicious beliefs, my dear. Let me see ... well, there is the matter of the first man you see on that day. The custom varies, but
believe that the very first man an unwed girl sees on that day will be her husband.”
“I thought him merely to be her valentine for that day,” Elizabeth objected in what she hoped was a reasonable manner.
“No, no,” Aunt Bel denied firmly. “I have seen it work many times, although not for Chloe, but she is too young as yet.” She gave her precious girl a fond look.
Hyacinth sat up with a calculating expression on her face, but erased it when she caught Elizabeth watching her.
“I believe I shall remain in bed the entire day, if that is the case,” Elizabeth said at last, giving up on guessing what might be going on in Hyacinth’s mind.
“I shan’t,” Hyacinth said firmly. “I shall address the invitations right now, and hope they will not be offended at the lateness. The ball is almost upon us, and I think they ought to see that there are acceptable entertainments to be had in the country as well as in London.”
Elizabeth repressed a sigh and bent to her work. It was a foolish dream for Hyacinth to fancy they might compete with a London hostess, not to mention the extraordinary diversions found in the city. Elizabeth had missed Lady Tichbourne’s
and the other gay amusements she had known in London. But, she reminded herself, her expulsion from that mad whirl was voluntary. She had fled—for Lord Leighton had merely teased her when Elizabeth wanted something else entirely.
With Victoria on her way home from her wedding trip, and Julia at Viscount Temple’s country estate. Aunt Bel’s home proved just the right sort of haven. Or had.
Elizabeth could execute her engravings while deep in the country as well as in the heart of the city. The commission from Mr. Ackermann for a series on country life was a godsend. It gave her an excuse for doing something she enjoyed, and permitted her to refrain from going about with her cousins if she chose. Memory of Lord Leighton’s stolen kisses had haunted many a night’s sleep. The wretched man most likely had forgotten all about them. Not so Elizabeth.
“Is that a skating scene, Elizabeth?” Chloe said, frowning over Elizabeth’s shoulder at the lines being cut into the copper sheet. “I do hope we can go skating this winter. Last winter was too mild. But if the cold weather continues, we just might.”
“I think it would be lovely if we could have a skating party in that event,” Hyacinth said, folding her hands properly in her lap as she bestowed a demure look on her aunt.
“I suppose so,” Aunt Bel said without a great deal of conviction.
“Is everything ready for the ball? What decorations do you plan this year, Aunt?” Elizabeth prompted, again hoping to change the subject.
“Nothing terribly unusual, I fear. I have had the footmen set up the cupids in the ballroom, and Hyacinth and Chloe are nearly finished with the satin hearts. There will be flowers from the greenhouse, and the cook is making a confectionery heart from spun sugar.”
“Ordinary, indeed. I vow it will look splendid. I’ll have you know that the white and red satin hearts are quite exceptional,” Chloe declared stoutly.
“I feel certain it will be the best yet,” Hyacinth added, throwing a significant look at Elizabeth.
Not misunderstanding the matter in the least, Elizabeth responded, “You know an invitation to your Valentine’s Day ball is eagerly sought by everyone who is anyone. Aunt Bel. I venture to say this one will top them all.”
“If only people are not too tardy,” her aunt replied, taking note of the time on her locket watch. “I do not approve of this Town fashion, arriving late to functions.” She rose, glanced at Chloe, then said, “I had best confer with Cook again,” and marched out of the room with a militant expression on her face.
“I vow, Chloe, even if she is your mother, there are times when Aunt Bel positively gives me the shivers,” Hyacinth declared.
“I think we ought to write down a list of all her superstitions so we shall be prepared,” Elizabeth said. “Chloe, my love, be an angel and find a paper and pen. You ought to know them nearly as well as your mother, and I would be aware of what to expect.” Elizabeth fixed a compelling gaze on her cousin, who obediently rose to do as bidden.
“Pansies and verbena she believes to be love potions,” Chloe began.
“Thank heaven it is February,” Elizabeth declared.
“Well, you already know about the first man you see being your future husband. Are you really going to remain in your room, Elizabeth?” Hyacinth said with an appraising gaze.