Authors: Sandra Heath
Some maids were still busy inside as Louisa followed Pattie in. The windows had been hastily thrown open, and the bed was being made up with lavender-scented sheets. Finishing their tasks, the maids lowered the windows again before respectfully retiring, closing the door behind them.
Almost immediately it opened again, and a footman carried in Louisa’s solitary valise; then he too retired, leaving her alone with Pattie. The maid relieved her new mistress of her gypsy hat and plain mantle, and then efficiently attended to the unpacking of the valise. Louisa stood by the window, gazing down at the garden in the center of the square. How different a view it was from that at
Lawrence Park. There was no parterre, no croquet lawn, and no river, just the elegance and grandeur of one of London’s foremost squares.
Pattie finished her tasks and came shyly toward her. ‘Begging your pardon, madam, but is there anything you wish me to do for you?’
Louisa turned, giving her a quick smile. ‘No. Thank you.’
The maid hesitated. ‘I – I’ll try to serve you well, madam.’
‘I know you will, and I’ll try to be a good mistress.’
‘Miss Cherington… ?’
‘Was Mr Tom Cherington your relative?’
Pattie’s eyes were compassionate. ‘We were all very sorry to hear what happened, madam. He was a very fine and kind gentleman, always ready with a smile.’
‘Thank you, Pattie.’
The maid bobbed another of her neat little curtsies and then went out.
Louisa returned her attention to the scene outside in the square. Tears shimmered in her eyes, but she blinked them back; she wasn’t ready for tears.
ouisa took luncheon with Kit, but what conversation there was, was stilted, and by the end of the meal she knew very little more about him than she had at the beginning. The fault lay mostly with her, and she knew it. She felt ill at ease and a little overwhelmed by the amazing changes in her life in this single day.
In the afternoon Madame Honorine Coty’s well-known light-blue carriage drew up at the door, bringing the dressmaker, several assistants, and a surprisingly large selection of beautiful garments. Madame Coty was not usually available at a moment’s notice, not even to ladies of such rank as the Duchess of York, who only the week before had been most put out when the dressmaker had declined to attend her at home, but such was the careful wording of Kit’s brief note that she sallied forth to Grosvenor Square immediately.
Louisa was resting in her room when the dressmaker’s carriage drew up, and Kit received the caller in the library, the French windows of which looked out over a narrow walled garden at the rear of the house.
Madame Coty was a diminutive, bustling Parisienne, always perfectly turned out in charcoal taffeta gowns with blond lace fichus. She had straight brunette hair, which she wore pushed up beneath a large day bonnet, and she spoke perfect English, although with a very heavy French accent. With an imperious gesture to her attendants to wait in the entrance hall, she followed the butler to the library.
Kit rose to his feet the moment she entered. ‘Ah, Madame Coty, how very good of you to come.’
She gave him a gracious smile, always prepared to be obliging to a gentleman as handsome and charming as this one. ‘Milord, how could I possibly resist such a mysterious note? Provide a wardrobe for the lady who is disgracefully soon to become Lady Highclare, and be rewarded by being the first in town to know all about what is bound to be the most-talked-of match for months to come? Sir, you have the measure of me, I think.’
Yes, he did. The dressmaker’s capacity for gossip was legendary; indeed, she was frequently used as a means of spreading tales, and so he knew that receiving such a note as his would be bound to prove too great a temptation to ignore.
He went to her, drawing her hand dashingly to his lips. ‘Madame, I know that you are the personification of generosity and that you’ll help me if you possibly can, and in return I think I can promise you the sort of interesting information that will give you an immense advantage in conversation for weeks to come.’
She smiled, tapping his arm a little reprovingly. ‘Milord, you are wicked to tempt me so. I’m ashamed to say that I’m most definitely at your disposal. I’ve brought all the clothes I have in stock, but since your note gave no indication of the lady’s, er, proportions, it is not easy for me to say if the garments will do or not. Is she slender? A little embonpoint?’
‘Slender, and not too tall.’
‘Ah, then I’m sure I can accommodate, sir.’ She surveyed him then. ‘But first, milord, you have to tell me all about it.’
He led her to a chair. ‘Very well, madame. The lady’s name is Miss Louisa Cherington, and she is the sister of the late Mr Tom Cherington, of whose sad demise you’ve no doubt heard.’
‘I have indeed, milord,’ she replied in some surprise, ‘but I did not know he had a sister.’
‘Nor did I, until the night before last.’
She stared at him. ‘You did not know her until then, and yet you are now to marry her?’
‘Yes. Affairs of the heart are so unpredictable, madame, but then you are from Paris, you understand such things.’
She smiled and fluttered a little. ‘I do indeed, sir. Oh, how romantic your story is. Love at first sight.’
‘Indeed so. Perhaps you will find it even more so if I tell you that until this morning Miss Cherington was the governess at Lawrence Park.’
She blinked. ‘A-a governess?
And she will one day be the Countess of Redway.’
‘She’s under my protection – in the most proper sense of the word, of course – and will be residing here until we leave for Cowes toward the end of next week. Before then she’ll attend her brother’s funeral with me.’
‘And when will you marry, milord?’
‘That has yet to be decided, but it will be before we leave.’
‘But her reputation …’
‘Will be protected. She’s a lady, madame, without a stain on her character, and it is my wish that we marry as quickly as possible, so that her reputation does not suffer unfairly.’
She sat back, totally bemused by what she’d been told. She’d expected to hear his fiancée was an heiress or a rich widow, she certainly hadn’t expected this. ‘As you say, milord, it will be a talked-of match. Lord Highclare and a governess.’
‘And a lady of gentle birth,’ he corrected. ‘Her family fell on hard times, madame, and she was reduced to seeking a position. But you understand such things, don’t you? You are a lady too, a lady of considerable breeding, but circumstances conspired to thrust you into the world of business. You’ve risen magnificently, and now you’re the undisputed queen of London fashion. I admire your talent and spirit, madame, and certainly don’t think you less of a lady because of your situation.’
She blushed, very susceptible to such praise. ‘You’re so right, milord. I understand such things only too well. Miss Cherington must not be judged as a governess, but as a lady who has suffered misfortune.’
‘I knew you’d understand, and that is why I do not hesitate to entrust you with the story. You’ll tell it as it should be told, madame, because you’re the soul of discretion.’ May God forgive him such a monstrous fib, for the woman wasn’t in the least discreet.
The dressmaker knew nothing of his thoughts. She smiled warmly at him. ‘Rest assured, milord, for I will see that all the chatter is
‘You’re too kind, madame,’ he murmured. ‘Now, then, I won’t waste any more of your valuable time in idle conversation. I’ll have the butler show you up immediately to Miss Cherington.’ He rang the bell.
When she’d gone, he sat down again, leaning back in his chair to gaze thoughtfully at the walled garden outside. It was a peaceful place: long and stone-flagged, with an elegant classical temple at the far end. A raised lily pond adorned the center, with a stone-dolphin from the mouth of which a fountain played, and the whole was dappled with leafy shadows from the cool willows draping their fronds low over the ground.
He was well and truly set upon his promised course now, for by telling the dressmaker he’d made certain of a fanfare over town. The Frenchwoman might or might not attempt to see that the story was told sympathetically, but was bound to repeat his claim that the match was a matter of love, and nothing less. He wanted the furore to be over and done with as quickly as possible, and if that meant causing a sensation, then so be it. Let them make what they would of Louisa’s sudden appearance on the scene, of her improper residence beneath his roof, of their marriage only a day or so after Tom’s funeral – at the end of it all she’d be his wife and society would accept her as such. So would Thea.
He drew a long, heavy breath. Thea seemed to hover close to his thoughts all the time. No doubt word of his marriage would reach the Isle of Wight before he and his new bride did.
Leaning forward, he unlocked a small drawer in a table. Inside lay a sheaf of letters bound with ribbon. He extracted one and began to read it.
My dearest, most beloved Kit,
It’s only an hour since I was in your arms, but it seems a lifetime. I cannot believe that such ecstasy exists, but exist it does when I am with you. You’re my life and soul, my adored Kit, and only the thoughts that one day I’ll be free of my mockery of a marriage to be with you forever sustains me through each day.
Come to me again soon.
My love forever,
He smiled bitterly. What a sham her words were, for she’d never had any intention of leaving Rowe. Tom had been right, it was the thrill of an illicit affair that she wanted, and that was all.
Crumpling the letter, he tossed it angrily away. It rolled across the floor, coming to rest behind one of the curtains at the French windows. Then he locked the little drawer again.
There was a discreet knock at the door. ‘My lord?’
‘Yes, Miller? What is it?’
‘Sir Reginald Carruthers has called, sir.’
A spontaneous smile broke across Kit’s face. Reggie Carruthers? The very man to brighten any dark mood. ‘Show him in, Miller, and be so good as to bring a bottle of my best cognac.’
‘Very well, sir.’ The butler’s steps went away.
Kit rose to his feet. It wasn’t often that Reggie sallied forth from the wilds of Devon, and when he did, it was always a pleasure to receive his company. His arrival would also solve a certain problem, that of finding a suitable groomsman for the wedding, which was so soon to set London by the ears.
Reggie entered, striking a pose in the doorway. He was a tall, angular bachelor of about Kit’s age, with a pale, freckled face, soft brown eyes, and a frizz of mousy hair. He was much given to wearing blue, and today he had on a sky-blue coat, a sapphire-blue silk neckcloth, and trousers of such an indefinite gray that they too could have been taken for blue. He flicked open his snuffbox and took a pinch or two before surveying his friend. ‘ ’Pon me soul,’ he drawled languidly, ‘what a wreck of a fellow you are. Sink me, but you’ve a strange air about you. What’s afoot?’
Kit grinned. ‘Reggie, my lad, you’ve no notion of what a dark horse I am. Come, take a pew.’
Reggie flung himself on a sofa, carefully flicking back the lace spilling from his cuffs. ‘I heard about Tom Cherington. A bad business.’
‘Yes.’ Kit said no more, for at that moment Miller brought the cognac, setting the tray on the table from which Kit had a short while before taken Thea’s letter. When the butler had withdrawn again, Kit poured two large glasses and handed one to his friend.
Reggie swirled the amber liquid, sniffing the bouquet and smiling appreciatively. ‘You keep the best French brew in town, and that’s the only reason I keep in with you.’
‘Thank you very much.’
‘Not at all.’ Reggie sipped the cognac and then settled back, looking shrewdly at Kit. ‘I’m ready for anythin’ now. So what makes you a dark horse, my dear fellow?’
Kit embarked upon the tale, being careful to tell him the same version he’d told the dressmaker, namely that his match with Louisa was an affair of the heart.
Reggie listened in astonishment and then whistled. ‘ ’Pon me soul, you
been busy! But I can’t believe you mean to go through with it. Tom Cherington may have been a stout fellow, but that don’t make his sister suitable for you. Dammit, Kit, she’s a governess! I hardly imagine that will make her acceptable to your grandfather.’
‘He’s been badgering me for years to do the right thing.’
‘Yes, but …’
‘I’m going to marry her, Reggie.’
‘All right, marry her if you must, but do you have to do it so damned hastily? Don’t rush into it like this, give yourself a little time. If it’s a matter of a chaperone for Miss Cherington, I know my aunt would be only too delighted to come up from Devon to do the honors.…’
‘Thank you, but, no, Reggie. I intend to marry Louisa Cherington before I return to Cowes next week. All I need from you is your presence as my groomsman. Will you do that for me?’
Reggie smiled and nodded. ‘You know I will. Sink me, but she must be quite a girl to have so completely turned your fool head like this. The great Kit Highclare,
catch, and he’s gone to a little governess!’
‘Dine with us tonight and judge for yourself.’ Kit grinned as Reggie raised his glass in acceptance.
While the two friends took their glasses of cognac amicably together in the library, Louisa’s room on the second floor had been virtually taken over by Madame Coty and her assistants. Pages of sketches lay on the dressing table, and a half-finished list of the various accessories a lady of the future Countess of Redway’s standing would require had been left casually on the windowsill. It was a long list, comprising patent shoes, satin bottines, ankle boots, overshoes, reticules, fans and gloves, hats, bonnets, shawls, boas, and mantles.
Beautiful garments were scattered everywhere: on the bed, draped over chairs, lying on the floors like rags, and sometimes hanging neatly on the picture rail. Each garment had a story attached to it, and the dressmaker made certain that Louisa knew every word. The peach morning gown had been ordered by the Duchess of Blyss, who’d then been inconsiderate enough to visit hot climes and succumb to some fatal foreign fever. The blue silk evening gown should have been worn at Carlton House by the Marchioness of Holworthy, but she’d been caught deceiving her enraged husband, who’d refused point-blank to pay any of her bills, including those outstanding to Madame Coty. The wine velvet traveling cloak had been intended for the famous and much-respected actress Mrs Siddons, but she’d been overheard criticizing a gown of which Madame Coty was particularly proud, and so had been refused delivery of any further garments. And so the stories went on, each one recounted in detail as Louisa was assisted in and out of the succession of beautiful clothes.
Louisa was a little overwhelmed. She still could hardly believe her life had changed so completely since the morning, and she was a little in awe of the dressmaker, but not so much in awe that she couldn’t detect sly questions intended to extract interesting snippets of gossip. She gave nothing away, and a disappointed Madame Coty knew she’d have to be content with what Kit had told her.
With a sigh, the dressmaker snapped her fingers at a waiting assistant, who immediately stepped forward with a very fine oyster silk evening gown trimmed with heavy lace. Its skirt was split, to reveal an underskirt stitched with thousands of tiny glass beads. As Louisa was helped into it, the dressmaker regaled her with the story of its intended owner, despicable Lady Codrington, who’d gone on for far too long without even attempting to pay her outstanding bills. The voice with its heavy French accent seemed to drone. Louisa looked at her reflection in the mirror. It was like looking at a stranger.