Authors: Kathryn Caskie
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
This turn of events, however, was unimaginable. She could not have prepared for this.
Not for a grand lady prepared to install them in to
Not for a secret membership of old rakes.
Certainly not for doorways hidden within walls of old books.
“Hurry now, Mary.” The old woman beckoned her forward. “The gentlemen will be waiting.”
“G-gentlemen?” Mary swallowed deeply. “I thought we were to meet Lord
“Oh yes, dear, but there are two others who heard the story of your birth that night. You will wish to make their acquaintance as well. Come now. Do not tarry.”
Mary moved her feet slowly toward the open bookcase. At that very moment, Anne and Elizabeth disappeared into the darkness beyond.
A cool draft from the secret passage lifted the fine loose tendrils of Mary’s hair, making her shiver. Still, she stepped forward.
The moment the thick darkness of the secret passage enveloped her, Mary heard the bookcase begin to move closed again. She whirled around.
In the waning light of the library, she could just see Lady
smiling face. “You are not joining us, Lady
?” she asked.
grinned at that. “Oh goodness no, child. It is a gentlemen’s club, after all. I am but the gatekeeper. It would not do for you three to be seen entering the club, so
sent you to my house. Go on with your sisters, gel. Follow the small circle of light you will see in a moment. Follow it until you reach the passage. Then knock twice. Hard. I daresay
hearing is not what it once was.” Without another word, Lady
closed the bookcase behind Mary.
“Are you coming, Mary?” came
’s whisper a short distance down the passage.
Mary dragged a breath of musty air through her nose. “I am.”
No more than a clutch of moments had passed before Mary felt the presence of her sisters beside her. As Lady
had said, a thin wand of candlelight sliced through an eye-shaped hole at the end of the passage. The sisters, hands instinctively clasped, moved together toward the end of the passage.
Mary released Anne’s hand and made to rap twice upon the wall, as Lady
had instructed. But her sister stopped her.
“Look through the peephole first and tell us what you can see.”
Mary tilted her head and gazed up at the oval. “I am not nearly tall enough,” she whispered.
“I will do it.”
began moving about in the darkness. “Come now, Mary, give me your knee and help me onto Anne’s shoulders—like we used to do in Mr.
“This is madness.” Mary braced a leg behind her, then bent her forward knee for
A great wheezing sound burst from Anne’s lips as
’s legs came down upon her shoulders and her feet pressed at the sides of her sister’s back for balance.
Anne took a shaky step forward. “Go on, look through. What do you see?”
bent a bit at the waist and peered through the peephole. “It’s... a library. Why, it appears to be Lady
library—except in reverse... it is like viewing her library in a mirror’s reflection! I’d swear to it.”
In that instant, Mary heard the sound of metal moving against metal. Suddenly, the wall moved, depositing Anne and Elizabeth in a tumbled heap onto a Turkish carpet, leaving Mary standing alone in the shadowy passage.
A rail-thin man with a full head of thick gray hair looked amusedly from Mary’s sisters to two men who stood near the tea table. “What did I tell you, gents?”
He leaned forward to settle his pipe in a burled wood tray, then raised his quizzing glass to his eye and peered down at the two young women sprawled near the hearth. He lifted one wayward eyebrow and chuckled softly. “Are the gels not the epitome of grace and royalty?”
Mary swallowed deeply. She ought to have revealed her presence and spoken for her headstrong sisters, who, embarrassingly, had not yet even attempted to right themselves. Instead, they lay there in a tangle of skirts, legs, and arms and stared dumbly at the three men.
In truth, Mary could scarcely blame them. Though the gentlemen were at least as deep in their years as their father had been when he passed away, there was something different about these fellows. They had a quality about them, a vitality. Whatever it was, Mary couldn’t quite identify it. But even standing here in the darkness, she could feel it.
“Darling, please come in from the passage. You’ve naught to fear.” The thin gentleman rose from the settee and beckoned, though Mary was certain he could not see her.
Her momentary reprieve had evaporated. And so, Mary fashioned the most confident smile she could manage and stepped out from behind the bookcase and into the candlelight.
At once her sisters scrambled to their feet and came to stand beside her near the glowing hearth.
“I am Earl of
.” Then, with an agility Mary could not have believed a man of his advanced years could possess, the lord eased his fine coat from one hip, swept back his leg, raised one arm to his side, and honored her with the most rakish of bows.
Mary and her sisters dropped serviceable, if not elegant, curtsies in return.
held his bow.
sisters exchanged glances. Then, not knowing what else to do, they obligingly curtsied again.
Still, the old man didn’t move and surprisingly continued to honor them.
stepped slightly behind Mary and whispered in her ear. “I believe he means for us to curtsy lower, as must be proper in
society. Do try harder this time, Mary, or we may be curtsying all afternoon.”
“Very well.” Mary nodded to her sisters, and the three lowered their heads and dropped the deepest curtsies of their lives.
When they rose, Lord
still had not moved, but he was snapping his fingers madly now. “Good heavens, Lilywhite, a hand—a hand, if you will!”
“Do apologize, old man. Hadn’t realized your situation.” Lilywhite, a good head shorter than
, hurried to the lord’s side and bent to heave his shoulder into his friend’s armpit. He helped him straighten and stand. “Good bow though,
. Best you’ve achieved in years.”
grinned. “Do you really think so?”
“Oh, without question.”
“Wasn’t a proper bow.” The third man, who wore an absurd auburn wig upon his head, tilted a
glass of brandy to his lips.
grimaced. “What do you mean,
? I thought my bow was more than proper—it was... magnificent.”
“Hardly. Half of a truly magnificently crafted bow is sweeping upright again. Observe.” With that, the wigged gentleman bowed gracefully to the
sisters. Then, with hardly any popping or crackling of bones, he drew up again and clicked his heels together in triumph. “That, gentlemen, is a proper bow.”
For the fourth time, because it was the correct response to
Then, they curtsied twice more for propriety’s sake when Sir Lumley Lilywhite and the
To Mary’s way of thinking, it was now time to finish their mission. “My dear gentlemen, my sisters and I are standing in what I believe to be a private gentleman’s club—
a rakes’ club.
Mary straightened her spine and continued, “Despite our entering through Lady
home, which for some reason looks to be a mirror image of this club, I am sure you realize that our presence in the club is quite unseemly, as we are unmarried young women.” Mary pursed her lips, as she’d seen Anne do so many times before when wishing to impart the seriousness of any given situation.
“Therefore, I wonder if you might share with us the meaning of your rather cryptic missive so that we may depart as soon as possible and protect our family name. We have brought along the key, as you requested.” Mary nudged Elizabeth, who wore the key on a blue satin ribbon around her neck.
“Yes, we are keen to learn its dual purpose. But, before we do, sir, might I ask your opinion?”
asked as she stepped toward
. “Was my curtsy properly executed?”
When the gentleman merely stared at her, she stammered on. “I-I do wish to know. We were raised in the country and I believe largely unschooled in the ways of polite society.”
laughed and answered in
stead. “Your curtsy—
, rather—were splendid, my dear. And I seriously doubt your social schooling was lacking in any way, because your father traveled in the most select circles of
“He did?” Anne blurted. “Lady
hinted as much. But... but he was an ordinary country physician.”
“Oh, a physician he was, dear. But hardly ordinary. He was the Prince of Wales’
physician... as well as one of his boon companions—his drinking mates—and a founding member of the Old Rakes of Marylebone... though we were just the Rakes of Marylebone then. Handsome lot, we were. Not quite as wrinkled as we are now.”
grinned for a moment, then took in a deep breath and exhaled hard through his nose. “Do not misunderstand. I am no longer proud of the nature of our association, but I cannot deny that at one time, before the three of you were born, we were all intimates of His Majesty the Prince Regent.”
Father was an intimate of
Mary felt the blood racing from her head, and she made to the settee and collapsed upon it.
hand shook almost imperceptibly as he lifted a decanter of brandy from the
and splashed full a crystal glass for Mary. “Please take this, Miss
. It will ease your senses.”
“I-I’m sorry. This is all too much information for one day.” She looked up at the crystal he held before her. “Oh, no thank you, Lord
“Dear gel, I highly recommend some Dutch courage.” He lowered the drink into her hands. “For your visit is not yet at an end, and there is more I must tell you.”
, maybe she ought to take it.
She accepted the brandy from him and quickly raised the glass to her mouth.
True, she had no tolerance for spirits, none at all, but she drank down the nerve-bracing amber liquid without hesitation.
shoved his hand through his thick hair. “Damn me,” she heard him mutter beneath his breath. “Please forgive me, ladies. I should not have tossed your father’s past into the air as I did.”
Anne hurried to Mary and sat beside her. She looked up at Lord
. “We needed to know, my lord. You did nothing wrong by telling us.”
“Our Mary was simply not prepared to hear it.”
crossed to Mary and patted her shoulder. “You see, while Anne and I believed what my father’s documents suggested, enough to investigate the story of our births further, Mary did not.”
Mary’s head was already spinning a bit, and the conversation at hand was too fantastic to be believed.
Feeling more than a little uneasy, she lowered her gaze and set herself to the mindless task of straightening the wrist lacing on the underside of each of her kid gloves.
When she glanced up again, she was immediately pinned by Anne’s all-knowing gaze.
The edges of Anne’s lips lifted in that superior way of hers as she curled her fingers around Mary’s wrist. “Though I daresay, she cannot ignore the possibility of the story’s truth now. Can you, Mary?”
ary primly folded her hands in her lap and looked around at the five people gazing upon her.
“Father was educated and well mannered. It is not such a leap to imagine him well regarded in
society.” Mary paused then.
No one said a word. She was compelled to explain herself further. “Picturing him as a member of
retinue, however, is a lump of information not as easily swallowed, but still not outside the realm of believability.”