Authors: Kathryn Caskie
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Within a short minute, his horse charged past Quinn’s. Rogan whooped in triumph. He turned to look at Quinn. “No one ever gets the better of the Black Duke!”
Quinn drove his mount harder until the two horses were nearly neck and neck. He laughed as his bay galloped past Rogan’s. “No one?” the fair-haired brother shouted back.
Rogan grinned and snapped his short whip against the horse’s right haunch. The bay shot into the lead once more. “No one—and that includes
Fat drops of rain splattered the ground around the
sisters as they reached
excitedly positioned the missive before Mary’s eyes. “We’ve arrived. There it is, do you see? Number Two, straight ahead.”
“So I see.” Mary did not move from her place on the
, even though the tempo of the rain had increased twofold within the past minute.
“You may dawdle here if you like, Mary, but I do not wish to see my new morning frock ruined by the rain.” Anne charged up the narrow walk to the steps that led up to the grand house. As she reached the first step, she turned and looked back at her sisters. “At least you are coming, Lizzie, aren’t you?”
turned her gaze to Mary, then reached out and pushed a damp sable lock from Mary’s cheek. “Please, sister. I know you believe this may be naught but a lark, but I have to know if this Lord
can tell us anything about our births. Please come with us. You are most clever and will divine the truth faster than Anne or I ever could.
Mary gazed up at Anne, who now stood with her hand menacingly poised about the brass doorknocker.
“I’m going to do it—I am going to knock this very instant.” Anne lifted the heavy ring. “You two are going to look quite the ninnies when the door is opened and you are still standing in the street, wet as river carp.”
turned a pleading gaze upon Mary.
She had walked all the way here, had nearly been killed doing so. Might as well go inside. “Very well,” Mary said, “but if this little adventure yields nothing to support your fanciful story of our births, you must promise me you will give up your investigation and concentrate on your futures.”
“Oh, what a goose you can be sometimes,”
laughed. “You know we can never agree to that.” She grabbed Mary’s hand and hurried to the door, arriving just as Anne slammed the brass hammer down twice upon its base.
Before Mary could offer even a syllable of reply, the door swung open and a portly manservant ushered them inside and out of the rain.
The house appeared quite grand from the outside, but it was only once they were inside that its true enormity could be realized.
The entryway walls soared three stories, following the sweep of a staircase edged with gilded balustrades. The polished marble entry floor glistened like a mirror, which pleased Mary’s eyes, at first—until she realized that the marble reflected the white of her underskirts.
Best to walk with knees pressed firmly together.
A trio of young footmen suddenly surrounded the sisters, startling them. The servants’ gloved hands quickly plucked off all wraps and snatched away the girls’ dripping umbrellas. Then the footmen disappeared as quickly as they had come.
“My lady will receive you in the library,” the manservant said as he tipped his head and turned, as though he expected them to follow. “She is about to take tea.”
Mary stretched her hand outward and tapped his shoulder before he could leave the foyer. “I beg your pardon, but I believe we might have been given the wrong direction.”
The manservant turned to face her, appearing more than a little perturbed that she had had the audacity to touch him. But Mary was not about to be put off.
handed the card to Mary, who took it and pointed out the address to the manservant. “
The man blinked his
eyes and peered at the vellum, then turned his gaze back to Mary. “No, you have the right of it, miss. You are the
family, are you not?”
“Why yes, we are,” Mary began. “But we—”
The manservant broke in as if he did not hear her. “As I said, Miss
, if you will all please follow me, I will take you to my lady.”
“Stop, please! We have not come to see a
” Anne, who was clearly growing impatient, folded her arms over her chest.
“We have come to call upon our guardian, a gentleman... um... Lord
.” In her confusion,
’s brilliant green eyes had grown as large and round as the manservant’s.
“Quite right.” The manservant nodded his head. “And you shall see his lordship soon. Right this way, if you please.”
Elizabeth and Anne each clutched one of Mary’s arms—for support, or to ensure she wouldn’t turn on her heels and escape, Mary wasn’t sure—and they followed the squat little man down a long passage and into an expansive library.
Leather-bound books filled the shelves to the gold-framed mural painted on the ceiling. A mingling of leather polish, candle wax, and mustiness permeated the cool air of the room.
In the center of the rectangular chamber, a diminutive, elderly, onion-shaped woman sat upon a silk-sheathed settee blinking up at them.
So startlingly small was she, other than in girth, that her dainty slippers did not come close to reaching the Turkish carpet stretched across the floor.
The manservant walked into the middle of the room and promptly announced them. “My lady, the Misses
.” Then he quickly quit the room.
The old woman on the settee grew noticeably excited. “Oh, oh, at last I can see you with my own eyes. I am so glad that you have come—we weren’t sure that you would, you know. But here you are and every bit as beautiful as I imagined. I have heard so much about you three gels, so much!” Her little feet, shod in silk slippers with surprisingly high heels, kicked merrily.
Her hand dropped down below the curved arm of the settee and pulled a wooden lever. At once a tufted footstool shot out from beneath the settee. The round lady hopped down upon it, then stepped lightly to the carpet.
“Stand up straight and let me see you properly. So lithe you all are. Tall, too, all of you!” The old woman’s gaze fixed on Mary. “Which are you, dear?”
“I-I am Mary.” Her cheeks began to heat, especially when the old woman raised a lorgnette and studied her. She did not like one bit being the subject of scrutiny, especially by someone she did not know.
“Since you are triplets, I had expected you to greatly resemble one another, but you don’t. The color of your hair is completely different. Even the shape of your faces—not at all alike.”
The old woman turned her lorgnette upon each of the sisters.
“No, you are as different as morn,
, and eve. Only your commanding height and your eyes give your kinship away.”
She turned back to Mary. “Look at you, gel, such long, dark hair, and why, you are nearly the height of a man.” The short woman chuckled with delight. “You have the blood for certain. Spectacular height often reveals itself in women of royal lineage.”
was clearly enthralled.
“Oh, indeed.” The lady turned her gaze upon
. She waddled close, then stood on the tips of her toes to finger
’s bright copper hair. “You must be
. Look at that fiery crown of yours. Queen Elizabeth had hair like yours, dear—and she stood nearly six feet in height.”
gave Mary a smug look.
Oh, good Lord.
Mary fought the urge to roll her eyes.
As if any of these inane observations mean anything.
The lady followed
’s gaze, then added, “Her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, quite matched her height, you know.”
Then the woman’s pale gray eyes sought out Anne. “Ah, such delicate features, and hair like spun gold. Beautiful, so, so beautiful.”
Anne colored becomingly.
“I vow, when the
gazes upon the three of you, there will be no question—for it is clear you have the blood of kings and queens surging in your veins.”
Mary could endure this prattle no longer. The woman, whoever she might be, had offered no support for her words. And no good could come out of exciting her sisters this way. The tale of their births was naught but a
“I beg your pardon, madam, but I fear you have the advantage.” Mary smiled at the old woman. “We have yet to make your acquaintance.”
“Oh, mercy.” The elderly lady clapped her hand to her bountiful bosom. “I do apologize. I thought Lord
would have mentioned me in his missive. I am Lady
Though evidently Lady
believed that this revelation would hold some meaning for them, it did not. The three
sisters stared mutely back at the frosty-haired old woman.
“Then, you have not heard?” Lady
smiled broadly and filled her lungs with a deep breath before speaking. “
has asked me to be your
—your entrée into
“Our sponsor? I-I do not understand.” Mary struggled to comprehend how such a claim could possibly be true. “Lady
, I do not wish to appear ungrateful, but until three minutes ago, my sisters and I had not even gazed upon you—had not heard your name.”
“Dear me, I suppose I can understand how an offer from a complete stranger to launch you into society might seem rather unbelievable. But it’s all true, I assure you.” Lady
took Mary’s hand into her own. “I promised your father I would do it when the time came. Promised
as well. And I shall. Once I give my word, I keep it.”
Promised their father?
“When?” Mary blurted. “I mean... when did you make our father this promise?”
The elderly lady grew very quiet and thrummed her small fingers upon her painted lips. “I suppose it must be almost twenty years ago. After the rakes and I heard the circumstances of your birth, how could I deny your father anything? Of course, the three of you were but babes, but he was concerned, even then, about the course of your futures.”
Surely her ears deceived her. This could not be happening. Why, their father had never mentioned anything of this. And would have. Certainly.
“You mentioned having heard the circumstances of our births.” Anne stepped forward and stole the old woman’s hand from Mary. “You... and the
“Oh, yes. He told us all—my husband, sadly, he departed some years ago, and his fellow members of the Old Rakes of Marylebone.”
Anne’s eyebrows drew close in her apparent confusion. “Father was a member of a gentlemen’s club? I cannot imagine such a thing.”
“Indeed he was. As was...
gave herself a mental shake, then withdrew her hand from Anne’s. “In fact, I think it is time you gels should meet him.”
spun around on her teetering heels and shuffled her way to the bookcase situated to the left of the cold hearth.
She flashed the sisters a mischievous smile, then positioned the flat of her hand over the face of a goddess column and pushed. The masterful carving of the goddess’s nose depressed beneath her hand, and suddenly, from somewhere behind the bookcase, came a loud metallic click.
turned back to the young ladies and raised her brows nonchalantly. “Are you ready?”
sisters exchanged nervous glances, then, as if cued, they nodded their heads as one.
All except Mary.
“Very well then, in you go.” Lady
gave the bookcase a firm nudge, and at once the lowermost six feet of the shelves opened like a door to reveal a dark passage.
Anne started forward without hesitation, with
at her heels. When they reached the opening, they stopped and looked back at Mary, who had not taken even a single step.
Suddenly, Mary felt rather light in the head. When she had agreed to call on Lord
with her sisters, she had been fairly certain that nothing more would come to pass than her sisters coming home with another useless packet of letters or the like.