Authors: Stephanie Laurens
hey were twits—foolish, fashionable, and frivolous.
Reggie Carmarthen stood in Hyde Park beyond the end of Rotten Row, and studied the tonnish females currently gathered about the Avenue with a distinctly jaundiced eye. Especially the younger ladies, those desirous of finding a husband.
Their shrill laughter reached him. The ton was drifting back to the capital for the September and October round of balls and parties. In and about their mamas’ coaches lined up along the carriageway, the unmarried young ladies chatted avidly, exchanging the latest news, every one of them hoping, soon, to feature in the latest story. Sun glanced off artfully arranged curls or was deflected by fringed parasols. The breeze flirted with full skirts, teasing the myriad ruffles currently in vogue.
Fashions had changed over the last ten years, but little else had—he felt not the slightest wish to marry any one of the young things parading in the morning sunshine.
With an inward humph, he swung away and determinedly strolled west across the lawns, leaving the fashionable horde behind.
Despite his antipathy, he had to think of marrying. He was thirty-two. His mother had dropped hints, increasingly pointed ones, over the past decade, but she knew she could push him only so far—after a few failed attempts, she’d refrained from pressing specific young ladies on him. This morning, however, the dam of her patience had broken, ruptured by the news of his great-uncle’s failing health.
His great-uncle was the Earl of Carlisle; his father, Herbert Carmarthen, presently Viscount Northcote, was the earl’s heir. Which meant he, Reggie, would, on his uncle’s death and his father’s accession to the earldom, step up to his father’s present title.
Those facts were widely known, yet waking one morning to find himself Northcote was guaranteed, as his mother had waspishly informed him that morning, to focus the attention of every last matchmaking mama on him.
He could either exercise his prerogative and select a wife forthwith, or be inundated with candidates.
Reaching the carriageway that separated Hyde Park from Kensington Gardens, he paused. The looming threat filled his mind. Crossing the gravel, he walked into the heavily shaded walks of the gardens; in the less fashionable area there were only a few nursemaids and matrons quietly strolling.
The idea of marriage had gradually been gaining ground in his conscious mind. Visits, summer and winter, to old friends like the Fulbridges and the Ashfords were largely to blame—impossible not to notice the satisfaction, the stability, the strength that successful marriage wrought. The Cynster twins, now Amanda Fulbridge and Amelia Ashford, had been his closest friends from childhood and had remained so through the years; the Cynster family in all its various branches numbered among his parents’s closest acquaintances. If ever there was a case to be made for marriage, the Cynsters as a group exemplified all that was best, all that could be achieved in that sphere.
Other friends, too, had succumbed; most were quite contented now, even if that had not been their initial expectation. A few male friends remained bachelors, yet the companionship and activites they shared no longer satisfied as once they had.
His mother was right—it was time he took the plunge. And far better to make the choice himself rather than have it thrust upon him.
He was naturally inclined to laissez-faire—to leaving well enough alone—yet in this case letting matters slide was not an option; to simply stand waiting and let the matchmaking mamas have at him would be the action of a lunatic.
He had to make up his mind and act swiftly.
So whom should he marry? In which direction should he look?
What he had to offer was easily catalogued—a family ranked within the haut ton, sufficient wealth to make actual amounts of no account, and ultimately the earldom and all that meant. He possessed an even temperament, was not given to excess in any sphere, was experienced and assured in all tonnish matters, and was handsome enough—admittedly not the sort who drew eyes or stood out in a crowd, yet the ladies with whom he’d shared liaisons over the years had never complained.
His lips twisted wryly. He suspected his quiet, unassuming handsomeness was viewed as less threatening by many ladies, in some cases as less in competition with their own beauty. Regardless, he was content with his appearance, confident in it.
So what of the lady he would wed? An infinitely more difficult question. He hadn’t met her, or any like her, yet. He felt not the slightest connection—physical, intellectual, or emotional— with the young things paraded by their mamas through the ballrooms, the silly, giggling horde from which society would expect him to make his choice.
He wanted…someone different. Not, as some might suppose, a lady like Amanda or Amelia. Some of their traits he appreciated, like their honesty and courage, their intelligence, their understanding of their world; others, like their wildness, their willfulness, underpinned by their inherent Cynster strength, he could do without—such traits were too powerfully disruptive.
He wanted…a lady with whom he could converse sensibly, who shared his views and his liking for a peaceful existence, a lady with whom he could share a pleasant life…
Voices reached him. A gentleman’s, tones harsh, denying; a lady’s, soft and urgent.
The sounds jerked him back to the here and now; he realized his feet had led him down one of the garden’s winding paths. The voices came from just ahead, the speakers screened by the next bend.
His first impulse was to retreat undetected, but then the lady spoke again. Memory pricked— instinct came to the fore.
Apparently nonchalantly, he strolled on.
Jaw stubbornly set, Anne Ashford kept her gaze fixed on Lord Elderby’s face.
“What you are suggesting is preposterous!” El-derby shifted his cane to his other hand and frowned at the young boy Anne held firmly by the hand.
She could feel Benjy quiver, but he didn’t cower as any child might if faced by Elderby’s black scowl; she wondered if Benjy recognized the face he would see if he frowned into any reflecting surface.
“The truth is not preposterous at all, my lord. The evidence is clearly before you.” She resisted the urge to wave at Benjy; the resemblance between the nine-year-old foundling and his lordship was too marked to require further comment. She lifted her chin. “I’m sure if you consider the matter you will see there is only one reasonable course of action.”
Elderby shifted his dark gaze to her face; she thought he paled.
“My dear Miss Ashford.” For all he was shaken, he spoke incisively. “You have patently no idea what such a revelation might mean, or in what matter of subject you are meddling.”
Tall, thin, well-dressed, he cut a figure of some distinction.
“On the contrary, my lord, we move in the same circles, as you are well aware. I know precisely what the evidence before us demonstrates.” Greatly daring, she added, “What I have yet to hear is what you, and your family, propose to do about it.”
Elderby very nearly goggled. It was a moment before he could speak; when he did, his voice was low. “Are you threatening—”
“My lord!” Anne opened her eyes wide. “I’m shocked at the notion you could in any way connect the concept of threat with this subject.”
Elderby blinked; she’d left him very few avenues of escape.
After a moment, he compressed his lips, then said, “This has come as a shock. You will have to let me consider—”
He broke off and looked past her. Gravel scrunched behind her; instantly Elderby glanced down at Benjy.
She drew Benjy closer.
A pleasant voice said, “Good afternoon, Miss Ashford. Elderby.”
She turned as Reggie Carmarthen joined them, nodding urbanely to Elderby. With his customary lazy, good-humored grace, Reggie reached for her hand; she’d given it to him before she’d thought. He met her eyes with an easy smile, shook her hand, but didn’t release it. Calmly he set it on his sleeve, as if he were her cavalier and she’d been waiting for him to join her.
“Odd place to stroll, although it is quiet, I grant you. Thought I saw your mama’s carriage—we should head back before she gets impatient.”
That was a lie; she hadn’t come with her mother. Reggie smiled innocuously at Elderby; he couldn’t see Benjy, on her other side, screened by her wide skirts.
Elderby threw her a dark yet uncertain look, then bowed stiffly. “If you’ll excuse me, Miss Ashford.” He hesitated, then added, “I’ll be in touch in due course.”
It was, realistically, the best she could hope for; suppressing her mental curses at Reggie’s interruption, she inclined her head. “Indeed, my lord. We’ll look forward to hearing from you shortly.”
With a last glance at Benjy, Elderby nodded curtly to Reggie, set his hat on his head, and strode away.
Reggie watched Elderby go, then let his expression of amiable idiocy fade. He turned to Anne. “What the devil was that about?”
The look she threw him was complex; she was irritated with him for interrupting, but there was stubbornness and a certain assessment in her gaze. She hesitated, then drew the young lad who’d been standing on her other side forward. “Allow me to present Benjamin. Benjy, this is Mr. Carmarthen.”
The boy glanced at her, then at him, then bowed, a trifle awkwardly. “Good afternoon, sir.”
Reggie blinked. Anne had not supplied the boy’s surname—hardly necessary. The striking features borne by all male Caverlocks, currently numbering the old Duke of Portsmouth, his heir, Hugh, Marquess of Elderby, and his second son Lord Thomas Caverlock, a peer of Reggie’s, looked up at him as the boy straightened.
He held out his hand, and solemnly shook Benjamin’s. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
What the hell was going on?
Releasing Benjamin, Reggie looked at Anne. He’d recognized her soft voice, and all notion of politely retreating had vanished. Anne was Amelia’s sister-in-law, Luc Ashford’s second sister, known to all family and close friends as highly nervous in crowds.
They hadn’t met for some years; he suspected she avoided tonnish gatherings. Rapid calculation revealed she must be twenty-six. She seemed… perhaps an inch taller, more assured, more definite, certainly more striking than he recalled, but then she wasn’t shrinking against any wall at the moment. She was elegantly turned out in a dark green walking dress. Her expression was open, decided, her face framed by lustrous brown hair caught up in a topknot, then allowed to cascade about her head in lush waves. Her eyes were light brown, the color of caramel, large and set under delicately arched brows. Her lips were blush rose, sensuously curved, decidedly vulnerable.
As were the curves of breast and waist revealed by the tightly fitting bodice…
Jerking his mind from the unexpected track, he frowned. “Now cut line—what is this about?”
A frown lit her eyes, a warning one. “I’ll explain once we’ve returned Benjy to the House.” Retaking Benjy’s hand, she turned back along the path.
Reggie pivoted and fell in beside her. “Which house? Is Luc in town?”
“No. Not Calverton House.” Anne hesitated, then added, more softly, “The Foundling House.”
Pieces of the puzzle fell, jigsawlike, into place, but the picture in his mind was incomplete. His long strides relaxed, he retook her arm, wound it with his, forcing her to slow. “Much better to stroll without a care, rather than rush off so purposefully. No need for the ignorant to wonder what your purpose is.”
The look she cast him was, again, assessing, but she obediently slowed.
“This House—I vaguely recall hearing that you and your sisters had become involved in some charity of that sort.”
Anne nodded, fighting to quell the peculiar skittishness dancing along her nerves. This was Reggie; she’d known him for years. She couldn’t understand why her senses were leaping, let alone explain the fact it wasn’t in fear. She drew breath, aware of a tightness in her chest. “Portia and Penelope became involved first, when it was merely an idea. You know what they’re like.”
“Two more determined and opinionated young ladies it would be difficult to find.”
“Yes, well, they joined with three other ladies and established the Foundling House for training some of the foundlings who pass through the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury. Some of them are quite presentable.” She paused, then added, “Like Benjy.”
She sensed Reggie’s glance but didn’t meet it; she was acutely conscious of him as he paced beside her. “We train as many as we can for work as maids, footmen, and so on. It gives them a means to earn their way.”
Reggie glanced at Benjy, striding manfully along on her other side, but he asked no more.
They reached the edge of the park. Reggie hailed a hackney, handed her up, then waved Benjy in. Reggie followed and sat opposite her. To her surprise, he engaged Benjy, drawing the boy out about his life at the Foundling House.
Gaining Benjy’s trust.
She realized that when, without any prompting, Benjy offered, “ ’Course, afore—
that, I lived with my mum. Up Clerkenwell way. But she died.” A shadow passed over his young face.
“And was that when you came to the hospital?”
Benjy shook his head. “There were others in the street—old Mrs. Nichols, and the Patricks, and Mrs. Kieghly—they looked after me for a while. But then Mrs. Nichols died, and the Patricks moved north. Seemed best, they said, for me to go to the hospital then.”
Anne took Benjy’s hand, smiled when he looked up at her. “Benjy’s a star pupil of Penelope’s. He’s been at the Foundling House for a year now.”
While they’d dithered and wondered, until age had stripped enough from Benjy’s face to establish the Caverlock features beyond doubt.
Benjy looked at Reggie. “It’s good there. Better’n a lot of other places I might have ended at.”
Reggie smiled easily and sat back, apparently amiably content; Anne wasn’t so gullible as to believe it. She caught his eye, glimpsed the underlying seriousness behind his easygoing, almost foppishly unthreatening mask. A mask that, with the years, sat increasingly ill; she was perfectly aware Reggie was no fool, but often hid his perceptiveness— his knowledge of the world, of the ton and its intrigues—behind an inconsequential facade.