April 1816 – Hyde Park, London
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Lady Elspeth MacLaren’s morning could not have been better. Not only was it a bright, sunny day – a rarity, most certainly – and not only had she recently acquired her older brother’s vow to attend the remaining social functions of the Season – a feat thought impossible a mere sennight ago – but strolling down Rotten Row, in the opposite direction, and staring quite pointedly at her, was the most devastatingly handsome man in all of London. And he was most definitely the reason Ellie was in Hyde Park today.
Sebastian Alder, the oh-so-handsome-and-charming Earl of Peasemore. Just the sight of him could make her heart flutter and her breath catch.
Lord Peasemore touched the brim of his beaver hat in greeting, his hazel eyes twinkling a bit devilishly, and Ellie somehow managed not to stumble or faint. She didn’t even outwardly sigh. Doing so would only tip her hand and that was the very last thing she intended to do. No, with a man like Peasemore, one had to be witty, crafty, and make him think that falling in love with her was all his idea. He was halfway in love with her as it was. After all, he wasn’t tipping his hat to anyone else along the row, now was he?
She did allow the briefest smile to grace her lips before she and Sophie Hampton passed the earl as they continued on the path before them. Thankfully Sophie waited all of two minutes before she whispered, “He looked right at you.”
Ellie’s heart lifted at the memory, though it was only moments ago. Still, she would think about that look, that tip of his hat the rest of the day. Now if only she could somehow devise a way to learn which event the earl planned to attend this evening. It would be nice if Ian could ferret out that sort of information, but her brother was still ill-humored at having been out-witted into attending the remaining functions of the Season with her. He would not be in the mood to conduct espionage, no matter how little effort it would take, on her behalf.
She cast a sidelong glance at Sophie and wished her friend was in the possession of a brother who might be of assistance. Cousins Sophie had in spades, but nary a brother to be found. More’s the pity. Still, it couldn’t hurt to make an inquiry, could it? Ellie smiled at her friend and said, “You don’t have any plans to see Mr. Winslett today, do you?”
Sophie giggled. “Isn’t it enough you have Lord Peasemore’s notice? Now you want Chase Winslett’s attention too?”
Mr. Winslett was hardly Ellie’s sort. For one thing, he didn’t seem the least bit devilish and for another, he…Well, he wasn’t the heir to anything. Ellie could never utter those last words aloud, however. They would make her sound like the worst sort of social climber. But she was the daughter of the late Earl of Ericht and sister to the current earl. She hadn’t begged, manipulated, and pleaded her way out of Scotland only to end up married to some Englishman without a title. What a complete waste of her efforts that would be. “I only thought he might be persuaded to find out which event Lord Peasemore planned on attending this evening.”
“Heavens,” Sophie muttered under her breath. “And that officer over there—” she cocked her head slightly towards the right “—can’t seem to take his eyes off you.”
Officer? Ellie glanced in the direction Sophie had indicated and standing next to a park bench stood not one, but two army officers in regimentals, and… Oh, good heavens! It couldn’t be! Her eyes locked with his, and her heart leapt.
Was it really?
Without a thought about decorum, Ellie unlinked her arm with Sophie’s and bolted across Rotten Row. “Griffin Reid!” she cried, then she threw her arms around the army captain’s neck. Heavens, it had been too long since she’d seen him. And how wonderful it was to see him now! Griff’s arms tightened a bit around her waist, and she tightened hers about his neck.
“Elspeth,” Sophie said from behind her, “you’re making a scene.”
“Oh!” She probably was. Ellie slid from Griff’s embrace and smiled up at him. He was indeed, a sight for sore eyes. Heavens, how long had it been? “I just couldn’t believe it was ye! I thought ye were at Achmore. Ian will be so glad to hear ye’re in Town. How long are ye staying? Ye must come to MacLaren House this afternoon!” Her words all flew out in a rush, but she couldn’t help it. How wonderful to see him, so whole and hale and standing right before her.
“Afternoon, Ellie,” Griff grumbled faintly.
“Oh, good heavens!” she gushed. “Ye hardly look like yourself.” And he didn’t. Griffin Reid had left the shores of Lake Ericht a small, skinny lad with bony knees all those years ago. But now, standing before her, was quite an impressive sight as far as Highlanders went. He’d filled out quite nicely since she’d seen him last. His shoulders were twice as broad, and he must have grown nearly a foot. And handsome, he was most definitely handsome in a dangerous sort of way. His dark hair that brushed the top of his collar, his silvery eyes that seemed as though they’d seen quite a bit of the world. But then, that probably came from years spent upon one battlefield or another and trekking across the continent for nearly a decade.
“I could say the same about ye,” Griff returned softly as his eyes appraised her from the top of her head to the tips of her slippers. A bit of awareness washed over Ellie and her cheeks warmed. Of all the people she expected to see today, Griffin Reid was not one of them. And how dashing he looked in his regimentals.
“Who is this, Elspeth?” Sophie asked, breaking Ellie from her reverie.
“Sophie, this –” she smiled at Griff “—is Captain Griffin Reid. He’s a neighbor and an old friend of the family.” Then she turned her attention to the other fellow, a tall dark-haired man standing with Griff and said, “And, well, I don’t know ye, sir.”
“Lady Elspeth MacLaren, Lord Healeyfield.” Griff gestured between the two of them with a sweep of his hand.
“She hardly looks like a bairn to me.” Lord Healeyfield lifted his brow in amusement. Though what that meant, Ellie had no idea, nor did she truly care. It was hard to focus on anything other than Griffin Reid at the moment.
“No one asked you,” Griff muttered under his breath.
Ellie felt Sophie’s eyes on her and she glanced towards the girl. “Oh, and this is my friend, Miss Sophia Hampton,” she said as she once again linked her arm with her friend’s. “Sophie, Captain Reid and Lord Healeyfield.”
“A pleasure to meet you both.” His lordship nodded in greeting.
Griff grunted something, but Ellie couldn’t quite hear what. He was behaving oddly. Was he not happy to see her? He had been at first, hadn’t he? Had she said something that annoyed him?
“I am hoping you can be of assistance,” Lord Healeyfield said, breaking Ellie of her reverie. “We are looking for someone.”
Perhaps that explained Griff’s odd behavior. “Someone?” Ellie echoed, her eyes darting back to the strapping Highlander. “Who?”
Griff heaved a sigh and said, “We’re trying to find Miss Throssell, Ellie. If ye see her, do point her out please.”
Miss Throssell? Ellie blinked up at the handsome captain. Why in the world would he be looking for that odd girl? “Wilhelmina Throssell?” she clarified.
“Indeed.” Griff nodded, his jaw firmly set.
Ellie’s heart squeezed a bit. “Why are you looking for her?” And how would he even know her? Wilhelmina Throssell was the strangest girl of Ellie’s acquaintance. Always speaking nonsense and keeping to herself. Odd in every way. Certainly not someone who should have ever captured Griff’s notice. That he should be looking for her didn’t make any sense at all.
“Have ye seen her or not, Ellie?”
“I don’t see her right this moment,” she returned, hoping she kept the waspishness from her voice. But really, that was slightly difficult to do. Griff seemed more than determined to find Miss Thorssell for some reason, but didn’t look pleased in the least to have stumbled upon Ellie instead. That wasn’t terribly complimentary, all things considered. “Why are ye looking for her, Captain Reid?” she asked once more.
Griff shrugged. “We served under her father. We heard she was in the park today and just wanted to say hello is all.”
Served under her father? An odd reason to seek someone out. In fact, it didn’t sound as though Griff knew anything about the girl, other than her name. Why would he want her to point Miss Throssell out otherwise? “Hmm.” There was definitely something he wasn’t telling her. Ellie leveled her eyes on the captain, hoping she could figure him out as well as she’d once been able to do. “Ye wanted to say hello to her, but ye don’t know what she looks like. Am I understanding ye perfectly?”
“Just point out the girl’s direction, Ellie,” Griff growled.
He was most definitely up to something, but she wouldn’t get the answer out of him by simply asking. That was quite obvious. So she’d just have to find out using a different tactic. Ellie shrugged coyly. “I’ll be happy to help ye, Griffin, b—”
“How very kind of you,” he cut her off.
“But,” she pressed forward, “I need a little help myself.”
“Of course ye do. What do ye want, Ellie?” He folded his arms across his chest, just like he always had when he was being more than stubborn.
She shrugged once more, determined not to seem flustered by his temperament. Besides, she did need something and Griff was the perfect man to help her with her current predicament. “Well, I was hoping someone could find out which event a certain earl planned on attending this evening. I would ask Ian to help me, but he’s being rather difficult of late.”
Griff’s mouth dropped slightly open. “A certain earl?” he echoed incredulously. Not that he had any reason in the world to sound that way. He was the one searching out the very strange Miss Throssell and being rather evasive about his motives, after all.
“The Earl of Peasemore to be exact,” she told him. “If ye could learn his plans, I would be quite happy to help ye locate Miss Throssell.” Well, not quite happy, but Griff didn’t need to know that part.
Griff’s jaw tightened. “Ye haven’t changed one bit.”
She flashed him her most charming smile. “Does that mean we have a deal?”
Griff snorted in response. “Making deals with MacLarens never turns out well for anyone.”
“What an uncharitable thing to say.” Ellie tipped her nose slightly higher in the air. “I am happy to help ye, Captain Reid. It’s only fair I should get a little help in return, don’t ye agree?”
“Never mind. We’ll find her on our own,” Griff replied as his gaze turned to the pedestrians walking along the row.
Blast he was stubborn! One way or the other she would find out what he wanted with Wilhelmina Throssell, and one way or the other she was going to get his assistance with Lord Peasemore.
Ellie batted her eyelashes. “Please, Griff,” she said, stepping closer to him. “Ye could easily find out for me. All ye’d have to do is go to one of the clubs he frequents and ask the question. That’s all.”
“What do ye want with this Peasemore?”
“Well, that’s none of yer concern,” she retuned quickly. Besides, why should she tell him her plans for Lord Peasemore if he wouldn’t share his for Miss Throssell? “But if ye help me, I’ll help ye in return.”
Griff glanced over his shoulder at Lord Healeyfield. “I do hope ye realize what a good friend I am.” He didn’t wait for his lordship to respond, but turned back to Ellie and said, “I’ll find out about Peasemore. Now tell him—” he cocked his head towards Lord Healeyfield “—where we can find Miss Throssell.”
Well, that was something. At least she’d find out which event Lord Peasemore meant to attend. She smiled brightly at Lord Healeyfield. “She keeps very much to herself, my lord. I don’t believe I have ever seen her walk along Rotten Row. In fact, I’m not certain if I have ever seen her outside of a ballroom, but even then she stays to the far edges as though she’s afraid someone will speak to her.”
A crease settled on his lordship’s brow. “She was supposed to be here. In the park today. She must be here.”
Ellie wasn’t certain why they would think such a thing, but the idea was most definitely a ludicrous once. “I haven’t seen her.”
“Neither have I,” Sophie added. “But perhaps she isn’t walking the row. Perhaps she’s enjoying a picnic or talking to the squirrels or something like that.”
That did sound like something Miss Throssell would do.
“Talking to the squirrels?” Lord Healeyfield echoed, incredulity lacing his words.
“That is possible,” Ellie agreed. “She did tell me once that one only had to pay attention to what birds were saying. I thought it was some sort of metaphor, but after giving it more thought, I do believe she meant actual birds and not something else.”
His lordship’s frown deepened. “We are talking about the same lady? Wilhelmina Throssell.”
Ellie nodded. “I don’t imagine there are two of them.” Just the idea made a chill race up her spine.
Lord Healeyfield heaved an unhappy sigh. “Can you at least tell me what she looks like?”
This entire exchange was very odd. Almost as odd as Miss Throssell herself.
“She has dark hair,” Sophie said. “She usually wears it in a chignon.”
“Light eyes. Grey, silver, light blue. Something like that. I’m not entirely sure,” Ellie added. “She’s slender, about my height. A nice smile, though she doesn’t smile all that much.”
“She’d be pretty if…” Sophie shrugged. “Well, if she wasn’t so odd.”
Truer words were never spoken. Miss Throssell was pretty, until one spent time with her. Then one couldn’t quite look at her the same any longer.
“I suppose we should see if we can find her,” Griff said. “And if that should fail, we do know she’ll be at the Ridgemonts’ this evening.”
The duo was quite adamant about finding Miss Throssell, which made less sense the more Ellie thought about it. She certainly didn’t believe that Banbury Tale about wanting to say hello to the girl simply because they’d served under her father. They had some sort of agenda. Very odd, that. But she’d find out what Griff was up to, one way or another.
“Griff,” she began, making her voice a bit more breathy than it had been up ‘til now. “When ye learn where Lord Peasemore plans to be this evening, do come to MacLaren House to tell me. I’m certain Ian would love to see ye.” And without Lord Healeyfield or Sophie Hampton about, she’d get the truth out of him, once and for all.