Monday, February 27, 2017

A Scandalous Deception


Astwick House, London – May 1816
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Lady Felicity Pierce could not quite believe her eyes. Was that Phineas Granard? Viscount Carraway? At an actual ball? Heavens, was someone blackmailing Fin, or was there a dueling pistol to his back? He certainly wouldn’t be here of his own volition, that was for sure. The overly serious viscount hadn’t been remotely social in years, despite Lissy’s best prodding that he stop sulking and get on with his life. 
Fin started across the ballroom and greeted Lord Liverpool with an outstretched hand. Ah, that explained everything. Fin wasn’t being blackmailed, and he hadn’t suddenly become social. He was doing what he always did - politicking. 
“The dolt is more starched than his cravat,” came a deep voice from behind her.
Lissy glanced over her shoulder to find the decidedly despicable Marquess of Haversham standing just a few feet away. Handsome devil that he was, the marquess’ light blue eyes twinkled as he cast her a smug expression, one that a more foolish girl might have found charming. But Lissy had endured more than her share of that sort of man to last her a lifetime, so Haversham’s attention was completely wasted on her. 
She gave the marquess the back of her head, but said loud enough for him to hear, “I’m entirely certain Lady Astwick didn’t invite you, my lord.”
Lord Haversham chuckled, moving closer to Lissy, so close the scent of his citric shaving lotion invaded her senses. “She never does,” he agreed. 
“An intelligent man might make something of that. His continual lack of invite, that is.” And yet the scoundrel attended every last event the dowager Marchioness of Astwick hosted anyway, as though daring the old dragon to personally drag him, kicking and screaming all the way to her front stoop.
Haversham laughed once more. “You are more direct than most chits your age. Do you know that?”
“My widowhood allows for a certain directness.”
“Among other things,” he added silkily. “But I imagine your directness stems more from being one of Prestwick’s daughters. Not certain you’re quite as direct as Lady Juliet, but she does possess a fortune you do not, doesn’t she?”
Lissy didn’t need her sister’s fortune. Fin had made certain her allowance from Prestwick’s holdings was more than generous. She glanced back at the staid viscount across the ballroom. He was starched. Haversham was right about that. And while she had accused Fin of that very thing herself more than once over the years, she hated hearing the disreputable Haversham voice the same criticism. 
She tilted her head to the side in order to better see the marquess. “Shouldn’t you be off chasing after Lady Staveley’s skirts?” The lady in question wouldn’t have a thing to do with him, but at least it would get the rogue away from Lissy.
Haversham’s rakish grin spread wider. “I have no need to chase anyone’s skirts, I’ll have you know.”
No, he probably didn’t. The man was more than handsome with his dark hair and light, piercing eyes. He exuded masculinity and raw sexuality. Despite his fascination with Lady Staveley – a most happily married woman who was quite devoted to her husband - Haversham most likely had a throng of widows and unhappily married women lining up for a turn in his bed. Widows. 
Lissy narrowed her eyes on the libertine. Her widowhood did allow for a certain directness. However, it also had been the source for more than one inappropriate suggestion to her over the years. “I am so happy to hear that, my lord. Perhaps you can go entertain one of your many paramours then and leave me to myself.”
Haversham chuckled. “You are charming, Lady Felicity.”
“And here I’m trying so hard not to be.”
“A word of advice?” His light eyes twinkled once again.
“Could I possibly stop you?” she countered.
“If you smile a bit more, Carraway might actually notice you.”
Lissy’s mouth fell open. Did he think she wanted Fin’s attention? Fin was like family. He was, in fact, her half-brother’s uncle. He had, in fact, almost married Lissy’s oldest sister before her untimely death. He would have been her brother otherwise. He was nearly like her brother as it was, for heaven’s sake. A rigid, humorless brother who liked to tell her what to do, but a brother just the same. 
“I doubt it would take much encouragement. You are supremely more beddable than Liverpool, after all.”
What a perfectly ridiculous thing to say. “Well, I am so relieved to hear it as I’d considered Lord Liverpool my main competition on the marriage mart this year.”
Haversham laughed once more, a sound Lissy was quickly coming to despise. “Something tells me the last thing you’re looking for is another husband.” 
For a moment, Lissy’s heart stopped, and a dreadful chill washed over her. At her tender age, everyone assumed she wanted to marry again, to have a second chance at a happily ever after, but even if that was a possibility, she would never willingly go through such an experience ever again. But how in the world did Haversham know that? Was she so very transparent to everyone or just to him?
“That is, I’d wager you’re as anxious to find another husband as I am to find another wife.”
“Your own wife or someone else’s?” she asked.
“Touché.” His eyes danced with mirth, then he sobered a bit, cocking his head toward the dance floor. “One of your suitors, I’m sure.”
Lissy glanced in the general direction Haversham had indicated and suppressed a groan when she spotted Lord Richard Shelley approaching her. 
“I’ll give Carraway this. He’s more interesting than him,” the marquess said under his breath, just loud enough for Lissy to hear. 
She looked up at the scoundrel beside her and said, “I’m not certain you’re the best judge for what constitutes an interesting gentleman, my lord.”
“My dear Lady Felicity—” he smirked “—I am more qualified than most to make such assessments.”
“Lady Felicity,” Lord Richard began softly once he reached her. “I had hoped I might persuade you to stand up with me for the next set.”
Lissy smiled, as warmly as she was able, at the far-from-interesting gentleman before her. “Thank you, my lord, but I’m not dancing this evening. I am a bit parched however, if you’d like to bring me some punch.”
A bit crestfallen, Lord Richard nodded and then started off for the refreshment table. 
Haversham slid so close to Lissy she could actually feel him chuckle beside her. “I think you wounded that poor man’s heart.”
“I’m certain he’ll survive.”
“Heartless wench. I’m liking you better and better.”
* * *
“Good God!” Phineas Granard, Viscount Carraway, couldn’t quite see straight as the edges of his vision were tinged slightly red. 
“Beg your pardon, Carraway?” Lord Liverpool replied, but Fin barely heard the Prime Minister. 
Honestly, with the ringing in his hears, he couldn’t even hear himself think. What the devil was Lissy doing? Had she lost her fool mind? Was she actually flirting with the Marquess of Haversham? 
Fin gritted his teeth. Keeping that chit out of trouble was a never-ending chore. He cursed Lucas Beckford for holing himself up in Derbyshire. The blasted man should be here keeping an eye on Lissy, not playing nursemaid to Juliet. All right, so the man’s wife was expecting, Fin begrudgingly acknowledged. Beckford did have a perfectly reasonable excuse not to be in Town for the season, but why the devil he and Juliet had allowed Lissy to stay in London alone made no sense at all. They knew what a flighty little thing she was! And now she was cavorting with Haversham, of all the damned people in Town. 
Truthfully, Lissy probably didn’t know how dangerous the marquess was. Very few ladies her age did, but she was most definitely aware Haversham possessed a blackened reputation. Everyone was aware of that. Good God, Georgie would roll over in her grave if she knew the company her little sister was keeping this evening. 
Fin took a steadying breath. One would have thought that sometime within the last three years, he’d have gotten over her, that the pain of losing her would have dulled a bit, that he’d have made a step or two towards getting on with his life. But he hadn’t. Fin wasn’t certain how to move forward or if he even wanted to. Georgie had been everything to him. She was perfect. Perfect for him. He could search the world over a hundred times and he’d never find a woman like her in his lifetime. 
Fin’s gaze stayed on Lissy, her flaxen curls bobbing up and down as she laughed at something her scurrilous companion had said. How the devil she and Georgie were sired by the same man was a complete mystery. The two of them must have inherited the traits from their respective mothers. That was the only answer. They didn’t think the same, behave the same or even look the same. Yet, Georgie had fretted over all of her younger siblings, more like a mother than a sister. If she were still here, she would have been more than upset by Lissy’s sudden friendship with Haversham. 
“I say, Carraway,” Lord Liverpool’s voice pushed through the deafening roar in Fin’s ears. “Are you all right?”
Fin shook his head, not wanting to go into the particulars, but he didn’t really have a choice. “It looks like my nephew’s sister is in over her head, is all.”
Lord Liverpool turned his attention towards Lissy and Haversham across the room. “Prestwick’s sister?”
Fin nodded. “I am sorry, sir. I’d love to continue this conversation, but I really—”
“I completely understand, Carraway. I have female relations my own.”
Lissy wasn’t really his relation, but there was no point in wasting time explaining the intricacies of his connection to the chit. Not when she was looking up at Haversham as though he’d personally hung the moon in the sky. “Thank you. I’ll see you soon, sir.” 
Fin started across the ballroom, his temper rising with each step. Foolish girl. What in the world was Lissy thinking? Was she even thinking at all, that was a better question! Spending time in Haversham’s company could ruin nearly any girl’s reputation. Just because she was a widow didn’t mean she didn’t have her good name to protect. 
“Lissy,” he grumbled in way of greeting when he reached her. “What exactly do you think you’re doing?”
“Carraway.” Haversham nodded. 
Fin speared the malevolent marquess with a look that said better than words ever could what the man could go do with himself, then he turned his attention back to Lissy, whose blue eyes flashed with something Fin couldn’t quite identify. Annoyance, humor, mischievousness. A combination of the three, perhaps.
“Uncle Fin.” She smiled innocently, though she knew full well he hated it when she called him that. 
“I’m not your uncle,” he said, and if he had a farthing for every time he’d had to utter those words to her…
“You can call me Uncle Marc, if you’d like,” Haversham tossed in. The suggestive tone to the man’s voice grated Fin’s nerves like an electric jolt to his nether regions.

“She’ll call you no such thing,” Fin growled. He narrowed his eyes on the marquess. “In fact, she shouldn’t even be seen in your presence.” Then he gestured towards the main entrance with his head. “So why don’t you take your leave, Haversham?”

Monday, February 20, 2017

Promises Made


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. 
Griffin Reid! 
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.