Authors: Sandra Heath
he storm had gone by the next morning, and England awoke to brilliant August sunshine. At Lawrence Park, the grounds seemed to have been refreshed by the overnight rain, and the flower beds in the parterre were particularly bright and colorful. The fountains splashed like diamonds and on the croquet lawn the white peacocks moved like delicate living fans, their shrill calls carrying clearly over the park and nearby meadows. On the horizon the outline of London shimmered in a heat haze, while closer the spires and rooftops of Brentford seemed very still and clear. At the top of the river steps, surrounded by flowering shrubs, stood a small summerhouse; in the past it had been used by elegant parties taking wine and wafers while watching the river.
As Louisa rose from her bed, she looked from her top floor window and decided that on such a beautiful morning, poor Emma’s extra lessons should at least take place in pleasant surroundings, and what could be more pleasant than the summerhouse?
She and Emma breakfasted alone in the schoolroom, as they always did because the new Lady Lawrence disapproved of children at the breakfast table – or at any other table, come to that. Afterward they dressed to go outside. Emma put on a neat white lawn dress with a wide blue sash, and frilly pantalettes that protruded beneath its dainty hem. She had red morocco shoes, and wore her brown hair in ringlets beneath a little straw bonnet tied on with blue ribbons. Louisa wore one of her three day dresses, the peach seersucker with small puffed sleeves and a very high waistline gathered in by a ribbon of matching silk. Her dark-red hair was worn up beneath a wide-brimmed gypsy hat, and there was a light white shawl resting over her arms. After they’d selected the various textbooks they’d need for the lessons, they proceeded down through the house to the entrance hall, with Louisa exhorting Emma to walk, not canter like a small pony on the stairs.
Sir Ashley and Lady Lawrence were emerging from the breakfast room. He was a gray-haired, kindly faced gentleman, thin and frail-looking. He had on a long green paisley dressing gown, and there was a tasseled cap on his head. His hand rested fondly over his young wife’s as she walked at his side. He doted on her, and had yet to see her in her true colors.
Anne, Lady Lawrence, had a doll-like face and raven hair, and her lips were sweetly shaped. She looked angelic in her fine pale-pink jaconet gown by Madame Coty, London’s foremost couturière, but there was a steely glint in her green eyes as she perceived Emma and the hated governess coming down toward the entrance hall. Her humor was already poor this morning, for she’d guessed why Geoffrey had left the reception at Devonshire House the night before, and over the breakfast table she’d been endeavoring, without success, to persuade Ashley that his brat of a daughter really would benefit from a sojourn at Miss Ryden’s School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk in Kensington.
Emma was delighted to see her father, whom she adored, and she ran impulsively toward him. ‘Good morning, Papa,’ she cried, flinging her arms about him and hugging him in a most undisciplined way.
He didn’t seem to mind, smiling and patting her head fondly. ‘Good morning, m’dear.’
Emma then looked at her stepmother, and her face became a little surly, although she executed an accomplished enough curtsy. ‘Good morning, Stepmama.’
Anne’s eyes flickered coldly and she gave a brief inclination of her head. ‘Good morning, Emma. Would it be too much to ask that you conduct yourself with a little decorum? This is a house, not a barnyard.’
Emma’s lips were pressed together sulkily, and she said nothing.
Anne’s glance moved on to Louisa. ‘Am I to understand from your clothes that you intend to go outside, Miss Cherington?’
‘Yes, Lady Lawrence.’
‘I understood that mornings were to be set aside solely for lessons. I also seem to remember ordering that she had to do extra lessons today.’
‘You did, my lady, and she will do them; it’s just that I thought it would be pleasant for her to do her work in the summerhouse on such a lovely morning.’
‘Lessons are for learning, Miss Cherington, not enjoyment.’
Emma’s face fell and she looked imploringly at her father. ‘Oh,
let me go outside, Papa. I promise to learn everything. I’ll learn a whole poem and recite it for you afterward, and two new French verbs,’ she added.
Sir Ashley patted his wife’s hand. ‘There, m’dear, is that not a valiant offer?’
‘No, sir, it is not,’ she replied icily. ‘Emma’s lessons must take place in the sober surroundings of the schoolroom if she’s to achieve the necessary standards. Her boisterous behavior this morning must surely have gone some way toward convincing you that what I’ve been saying is only too correct.’
A new voice interrupted them from the staircase. It was Geoffrey, his dark-blue uniform as splendidly attractive as ever as he descended. He’d been listening to every word, and it didn’t suit him that Emma should stay inside this morning; it certainly didn’t suit him that she should be sent away from the house, not yet anyway, for he had to conquer the governess first. He came toward them, his glance resting rather angrily on Anne. ‘Come now,’ he said to her, ‘aren’t you being a little severe? What harm is there in the lessons taking place in the summerhouse?’
She was equally angry, for she knew why he was interfering. ‘This isn’t any concern of yours, Geoffrey.’
‘On the contrary, it’s very much my concern, for if you do not relent, then I shall be forced to sulk and refuse to go riding with you today.’ He smiled and spoke in a bantering tone, but he meant every word. He wanted the lessons to take place in the summerhouse, for then there would be an opportunity of getting the governess on her own.
Anne colored. He was impossible to please these days, finding fault with everything she said or did. His interest in her was waning, whereas hers in him was as strong and vital as ever. She was losing her hold on him, and the reason stood watching in the shapely form of Miss Louisa Cherington. Anne knew that if she was to stand any chance of keeping his interest, she had to be with him whenever possible, and that meant giving in now or forfeiting the chance of riding alone with him later on. Managing a stiff smile, she nodded. ‘Oh, very well, let the lessons take place outside if it’s so important, but I’ve no doubt that in the end I’ll be proved right about all this, for Emma will become unmanageable, and it will all be due to the influence of a governess too weak to impose the necessary discipline.’ There was a serpentine chill in her green eyes as they swung to Louisa. ‘Miss Cherington, I believe you wish to be permitted to meet your brother in Brentford in a day or so’s time.’
Louisa’s glance fled toward Geoffrey. He must have said something. ‘Yes, my lady.’
‘I’m afraid I cannot see my way clear to granting such permission, for Emma’s education, such as it is, must come before your personal pleasures.’ With a cool nod of her head, Anne walked on. Her jaconet skirt hissed as she mounted the staircase, and soon the columns and chandeliers obscured her from their view.
Sir Ashley looked and felt most uncomfortable. He loathed awkwardness, and there seemed to have been so much of it recently. Maybe Anne was right and it was all due to Emma’s misconduct. He’d have to give the matter of sending her away his full consideration. His hands clasped behind his back, he followed his wife.
Geoffrey glanced at Emma. ‘I trust you’re suitably grateful for my interference on your behalf.’
She looked stormily at him. ‘You were horrid to me last night.’
‘Then I’ve made amends,’ he replied shortly, his glance moving on to Louisa. ‘Good morning, Miss Cherington, I trust you slept well in spite of everything.’
‘Very well,’ she replied coolly, her dislike shining only too clearly in her gray eyes.
He waved Emma away. ‘Run along to the summerhouse with your French verbs. I want to speak privately with Miss Cherington.’
‘Oh, but, Geoffrey—’
‘Do as you’re told!’
Emma’s eyes filled with tears and without another word she hurried away, leaving the main door open as she dashed out of the house.
Louisa looked angrily at him. ‘That was inexcusable,’ she breathed. ‘Why must you hurt her? It isn’t her fault!’
fault, and I’m not angry with her, I’m angry with myself. I behaved monstrously toward you last night, and I’m thoroughly ashamed of the fact.’
She stared at him, caught completely unawares. ‘I-I beg your pardon?’
He smiled a little, having intended to catch her off guard. ‘Can you forgive me, Miss Cherington?’
‘For what? Your gross miscalculation?’
‘Yes. You thought that your charm was irresistible and that I’d succumb. You were very wrong.’
Behind his smile he was angry, but he’d decided on a new approach this morning, and that meant concealing the truth. ‘I’m afraid to say that you’re right, Miss Cherington, but it wasn’t what it seemed. If I hoped my charm was irresistible, it was because I’m so very drawn to you. I want to redeem myself in your eyes, because if it’s possible to start again—’
‘There’s nothing to start, sir,’ she replied quickly, not trusting such a complete turnabout.
‘But there is. I hold you in very high regard, Miss Cherington, too high to be happy with my conduct last night. You must at least allow me the chance to redeem myself. Please say that you will.’
‘Sir, I am only the governess, and you—’
‘And I’m the son of the house. I know. I am also a man very much attracted to you, and as such I’m your equal, not your better.’ A door opened and closed on the floor above, and he looked up sharply. ‘We can’t talk here, please say you’ll meet me somewhere tonight.’
She drew back. ‘Certainly not.’
‘Please, I beg of you. I promise on my honor to behave like a gentleman. My parents have a card party tonight, but I’ll be able to slip away at ten. We could meet at the summerhouse. Please agree, for I need the opportunity to speak properly to you.’
‘I said no, sir, and I meant it. You revealed yourself for what you really are last night, and I’d be a fool indeed to expose myself to more of the same. Well, I’m not a fool, sir, so please don’t treat me like one.’
He dissembled again. ‘I know you’re not a fool, Miss Cherington, and I also know that you set great store by fair play. Last night you were very quick to point out that I was wrong to condemn your brother out of hand, but now you’re condemning me out of hand, and what could be more unfair than that? You mustn’t deny me the chance to prove that I’m truly repentant. I’ve tried already this morning to right a little of the wrong.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I mentioned the matter of your wish to meet your brother in Brentford. Maybe I wasn’t successful, but I did try. I feel truly appalled about what I did last night, Miss Cherington, you must believe me.’
‘Meet me, for I must speak properly to you,’ he pressed, his brown eyes bright with earnest imploring.
She hesitated. She
insisted on defending Tom’s good name, and now she was being equally insistent that Captain Geoffrey Lawrence didn’t have a good name to defend. But what if last night had been a momentary transgression? What if he was genuinely repentant? She was torn, and in her quandary forgot all his other sins, such as embarking upon the distasteful affair with his father’s new bride.
‘Do me the honor of hearing me out,’ he said softly, knowing that she was wavering.
‘Very well,’ she said reluctantly.
s Louisa was making her ill-judged assignation with treacherous, predatory Geoffrey, Kit was posting with all haste toward London to see her brother. The passage across the Solent had been worse than he’d expected, and the
had been delayed outside Southampton Water for some time so that it was well after dawn when at last she’d entered the port. He’d intended to rest awhile at an inn before continuing with his journey, but the delay meant that there wasn’t time for that, so he’d immediately hired a post chaise, only to find his progress hampered by flash floods after the night’s torrential rain.
It was almost dark and the streetlamps were being lit as the chaise at last reached the capital, traveling through Mayfair and turning into New Bond Street. Glancing wearily out of the window, he saw Brindley’s famous bookshop on the left, one of several such emporiums in this most fashionable and stylish of all London’s shopping streets. It was a thoroughfare created for gentlemen, renowned for its hotels, bachelor apartments, tailors, bootmakers, and other such masculine establishments; after dark, it was also renowned as the haunt of prostitutes and other persons of a lower order. During the journey, he’d thought of little else but the breaking up of his relationship with Thea, but now she was far from his thoughts, for it was Tom Cherington who was his prime concern.
The friend whose apartment Tom shared resided above the premises of Messrs. Lucas & Mackintosh, tea merchants, on the western side of the street, almost on the crossroad with Bruton Street and Conduit Street. As the chaise halted at the curb outside, Kit prepared to alight. He felt decidedly jaded after traveling for so long, and wished that he’d driven first to his house in Grosvenor Square to change, but seeing Tom must come before anything else. Besides, Tom was hardly likely to be in the mood to notice any lack of sartorial excellence.
Tapping his top hat on his head, he climbed down from the chaise, paying the postboy and tipping him a little extra to go to Grosvenor Square and leave word that his private carriage was to come to the rooms in New Bond Street an hour before dawn. Pray God it wouldn’t be needed, for by then Tom might have been persuaded to retract. As the chaise rattled away, Kit entered the narrow alley beside the tea merchant’s and went up the wooden steps to the door of the first-floor apartment.
It was opened by Dudley, valet to Mr John Partridge, whose apartment it was. He was a small, whippetlike man, a former jockey whose career had been ended by a terrible fall from one of the Prince Regent’s horses at Newmarket. His wizened face was anxious as he opened the door, but he smiled with relief as he recognized Kit. ‘You’ve come at last, my lord. Do come inside.’
Removing his hat, Kit stepped past him into the candlelit rooms. John Partridge was a follower of the fancy, and his taste was immediately evident. There were prints on the walls, a collection of weapons above the mantlepiece, and copies of
Bell’s Weekly Messenger
Woodfall’s Daily Advertiser
on the table, both of which publications were renowned for their accounts of sporting events, especially pugilistic matches. There was no sign of Tom, or of his friend, and Kit turned inquiringly to the valet. ‘I take it they’re both out?’
‘Mr Partridge is away in Scotland, my lord. His father passed away last week. Mr Cherington is at the Prince of Wales Coffee House.’
Kit sighed, tossing his hat on the table. ‘And how long has he been drowning his sorrows there?’
‘Several hours, my lord.’
Kit glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was just gone nine. ‘If he’s not here by half-past, I’ll go and drag him out.’
‘Thank you, my lord,’ said the valet gratefully. ‘I didn’t know what to do, for it’s hardly a servant’s place to tell a gentleman to come home.’
‘I’m not sure it’s my place either. How is he?’ Kit flung himself onto a shiny brown leather sofa.
‘Very low, my lord.’
‘What on earth possessed him to face it out with Rowe, of
‘I don’t know, sir. He’s been a little odd these past few weeks, not at all his usual self.’
‘In what way?’
‘It’s hard to say. He seems to have something on his mind, but when Mr Partridge asked him what was wrong, all he’d say was that he’d failed in his family duty in the past, and was continuing to fail in it.’
‘Continuing? How can that be when his family’s dead?’
‘Precisely, my lord. Mr Partridge didn’t know what to make of it; he reckoned Mr Cherington was in drink.’
‘And was he?’
‘No, sir. Not to my knowledge.’
Kit leaned his head back thoughtfully.
‘Can I offer you some refreshment, sir?’
‘Is there any cognac to be had?’
‘No, sir, but Mr Partridge always keeps a bottle of fine Scotch whisky in readiness.’
‘A heathen beverage, but it will have to do.’
‘Very well, sir.’ The valet went to a cupboard and took out the bottle and a glass, which he placed on the table by Kit’s arm after pouring a generous measure. ‘Will there be anything else, sir?’
‘No, you can get on with whatever it was you were doing.’
‘I was polishing and cleaning Mr Cherington’s dueling pistols.’
‘I didn’t know he had any.’
‘I understand they were his father’s, sir. The late Mr Cherington collected such items, and this pair is all that Mr Tom has left.’
Kit smiled a little. ‘I had no idea that Tom’s father collected firearms. It’s a strange coincidence.’
‘My grandfather collects them as well. The walls at Highclare are arrayed with a veritable arsenal, enough to equip Wellington’s whole army, I fancy. I spent more than an hour yesterday standing before one particular pair of dueling pistols, while my grandfather saw fit to lecture me about failing in
family duty by not marrying before now and producing the required heir.’ He picked up the glass and raised it to the valet. ‘Your health, Dudley.’
‘Sir.’ The little man gladly withdrew. There were times when he simply didn’t understand gentlemen. Didn’t understand them at all.
Kit sipped the whisky and glanced at the clock. The hands were creeping toward the half-hour; no doubt he’d have to go and winkle Tom out of the Prince of Wales.
Carriages were still passing to and fro in the street outside, and he could hear the jingle of spurs as groups of gentlemen strolled along the pavement. Just as the clock struck half-past nine, he heard someone coming up toward the apartment door. It opened and Tom Cherington stepped inside.
He was of medium height and slender build, with the same dark-chestnut hair and gray eyes as the sister of whose existence Kit knew nothing. He wore a rather creased light-brown coat and fawn trousers, and his simple neckcloth boasted neither gold pin nor jewel. His expression was heavy as he entered, but Kit saw immediately that he wasn’t very much in drink. His steps were steady and his aim deft as he tossed his top hat onto a hook on the wall.
‘Good evening, Tom.’
‘Kit!’ Tom whirled about, his face breaking into a grin. ‘You’re here at last! I thought you wouldn’t get my note in time. Thank you for coming, you’re the best friend in all the world!’
‘I’m overwhelmed by such a warm welcome. Actually, I’d have been here sooner but for the damned weather.’
‘But you’re here, and that’s what matters.’ Tom went to the cupboard to look for the whisky.
‘It’s here, dear boy. And should you be indulging?’
‘Dutch courage,’ replied Tom, bringing a glass to the table and pouring himself a liberal helping.
‘Dutch courage has a habit of turning into a morning after, and that’s the last thing you need.’
‘I want your company, not your advice, Kit.’ Tom sat on a chair opposite, stretching his legs out. ‘I meant it when I said that you’re the best friend in all the world, for although we haven’t known each other for all that long, I regard you as the stoutest fellow I’ve ever known.’
‘It’s the truth. A man needs a good friend at his side at a time like this.’ Tom swirled the whisky, smiling in a way that revealed how strained he was. ‘It was an ill wind that brought the
together in the spring. But for that singular misfortune, Rowe would have been safely away in Cowes by now, making it impossible for you and Thea to meet, instead of dawdling back here and having the execrable taste to sit down at the same green baize as me.’
‘Which brings me neatly to my most immediate duty as your friend and second; that of persuading you not to proceed with this nonsense.’
‘Rowe was guilty of cardsharping, Kit, and I won’t retract a single word of my accusation.’
‘Is his cheating worth your fool life?’
‘My honor is at stake.’
‘No, Tom,’ replied Kit quietly, ‘your life is at stake.’
‘I saw him cheat, and I won’t let it pass this time.’
‘What’s so special about this time? Damn it all, Tom, you’ve seen him cheat before and it hasn’t bothered you. The man’s a blackguard of the first order, a maggot, and he simply isn’t worth all this.’
I’ve seen him cheating in the past,’ corrected Tom, ‘but I was never absolutely sure.’
‘Oh, come off it, man. You were perfectly certain before; you were just wise enough to put your neck before your urge to be noble.’
Tom hesitated, avoiding his gaze. ‘Very well, perhaps on those occasions I wasn’t as tipsy as I was this time.’
Kit gave an incredulous laugh. ‘Don’t try to gull me, Tom. I know you like a glass or two, but you’re never soaked. You’ve got some other reason for charging into this duel, haven’t you?’
Tom smiled a little. ‘You’re too damned perceptive for your own good. You’re right, of course, I do have a reason, but I’m not about to divulge it, except to say that a guilty conscience is a dreadful burden.’
‘Guilty conscience? About what? Surely not about turning a blind eye to Rowe’s misconduct? If so, then a great many other gentlemen must have the same burden.’
‘It isn’t about Rowe. Don’t ask me any more, Kit, I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘As you wish. Perhaps you could give me some details about the duel. I trust it’s to be within an hour’s reach of dawn, I’ve sent word for my carriage to be here—’
‘It’s at Kensington. A secluded meadow on Holland House land. His lordship’s away and the house is closed. Rowe chose the place.’
‘Trust Rowe to know a suitable venue.’
‘He’s a past master at duels.’ Tom took a large gulp of the whisky. ‘How was Cowes?’ he went on, changing the subject yet again. ‘I take it you’ve deserted the delightful Thea on my behalf?’
‘Cowes was a crush, and yes, I’ve deserted Thea because of you.’
‘I’Il warrant she wasn’t pleased.’
Kit didn’t reply.
Tom glanced shrewdly at him. ‘How is she?’
‘Still very much married to Rowe.’
‘You should be thanking your lucky stars.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because the lady simply isn’t worthy of you.’
‘I don’t wish to discuss it,’ replied Kit shortly.
‘We’d better change the subject yet again,’ said Tom with a sigh, ‘Maybe it’s safe to inquire after your grandfather?’
‘I was with him at Highclare yesterday when your message arrived. He’s in his usual fettle. He lectured me endlessly about failing in my family duty by remaining unmarried.’
‘He’s right, you
failing in your duty,’ said Tom candidly. ‘You have to marry if the Earls of Redway are to continue.’
‘Don’t you start. I’ll marry when I’m ready.’
‘When Thea’s ready, you mean. You’re a fool, Kit.’
‘Tom, I’m warning you.…’
‘And I’m warning you. Don’t speak lightly or disparagingly about family duty, because there could come a time when you will bitterly regret neglecting it. You could leave these rooms tonight and break your damned neck on the steps. What price your family duty, then? The earldom’s future would be snuffed out at a stroke, and your grandfather would be left grieving for what might have been – the great-grandchildren he would have had but for your selfish and nonsensical obsession with a vain and mischievous strumpet who has no intention of leaving her husband for you, but every intention of indulging in an affair because she thrives on the danger of it.’
Kit rose angrily to his feet. ‘God
you, Tom. Can’t you leave Thea out of this?’
‘God doesn’t have to damn me, Kit, I’m damned already,’ replied Tom quietly. ‘And when it comes to spouting knowledgeably about the sorrows caused by neglected family duty, believe me, there’s no greater expert in the whole world than my good self.’
Kit looked perplexedly at him, remembering what Dudley had said earlier. ‘Tom, what
all this about? You haven’t got any family anymore, so how—?’
‘Oh, but I have, my friend,’ interrupted Tom. ‘I have.’ He got up and went to a chest of drawers, opening the top one and taking out a miniature, which he held out to Kit.
Kit took it and found himself looking down at the likeness of a pretty young woman, with Tom’s hair and eyes. ‘Who is she?’ he asked.
‘My sister. Louisa Cherington.’
Kit looked incredulously at him. ‘Your sister? Why haven’t you said anything about her before?’
‘Because I’m ashamed of having failed her. Look at her. What do you see?’
‘A very attractive young lady.’
‘Yes. She’s also sweet, charming, intelligent, and accomplished. With such qualities she had every right to expect an excellent match, but I robbed her of the opportunity because I selfishly frittered away the family fortune at the card table. She’s now a governess, to Sir Ashley Lawrence’s daughter at Lawrence Park near Brentford. Do you know him?’
‘Slightly. I know that he’s recently made a monumental misalliance with a woman whose past doesn’t bear a close inspection.’
of little real class,’ agreed Tom with feeling. ‘Rather like Thea, if you ask me.’