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Authors: Sue Swift

Tags: #Historical Romance" Copyright 2012 Sue Swift ISBN: 978-1-937976-11-8, #"Regency Romance

Lord Devere's Ward (9 page)

BOOK: Lord Devere's Ward
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“Is that ’er?”

“‘Ee said a dark-haired tib, but I ken she were older and bigger.”

“Blast him for havin’ so many young female relations.” said the first fellow bitterly.

“Shut yer gob! Just twig the cull, that’s what we’re paid for.” The pair fell silent as Hawkes passed by, swinging his hawk-headed walking stick. Sir Willoughby made a point of glaring at the two Captain Sharps, who were dressed in castoff finery which looked for all the world as though they had been rejected by footmen in a bawdy house. The tarnished frogging on the lapels of one rogue could not have done him credit even when new. Combined with the cauliflower ear and broken nose of its wearer, it created the image of a very tough customer.

The other character was dressed more plainly, in dusty black with an old-fashioned beaver drawn over his forehead.

Sir Willoughby hesitated. He had no reason to accost the rascally pair even if he thought they might have designs on the contents of his pockets or the property of his friends. He contented himself with warning them off with another glare. He whacked the ebony stick suggestively into the nearest pillar; it sank deeply into the soft wood. He jerked it out with a powerful twist of his wrist, and gave the toughs another frown.

“‘Ee’s a lively one, isn’t ’ee?”

The other hesitated. “‘Ee be awake to us. That’s bad, ’ee twigs our lay, and ’ee’s a friend of the H’earl.

All them gentry coves know each other.”

“Aye,” agreed his companion, sounding

impressed by his cohort’s knowledge of the doings of the Quality. “But we’d best not tell the old man.

Might lose this job.”

* * *

Sir Willoughby Hawkes was the undisputed holder of the title of the Most Notorious Rake in London.

He exhibited all the outward tokens of appearance which any aspirant to rakedom must: the height, the handsome face with lowering brow, the fine figure which would strip to advantage. He regularly traded blows with Gentleman Jackson, clipped wafers at Manton with his unerring shot, and purchased his nags at Tattersall’s. He was a dandy without any of the affectations of that accursed breed.

His collars were high without absurdity, his coat cut by Weston, and his cravat impeccable. His fine Hessian boots gleamed with a blacking made from champagne.

1820 heralded a fresh new era in England. The nation stood on the brink of empire. The mad old King had died, leaving the Prince Regent the undisputed claimant to the monarchy. The Industrial Revolution promised riches for those peasants who would show the imagination to seize the historical moment and courageously uproot themselves from their rural antecedents to relocate to England’s booming industrial heartland. London teemed with excitement as it filled with lords and ladies eager to resume the mating game as a new season began.

The thrills of the time evaded Sir Willoughby. For Wicked Willy, as he was known to the London wags and Covent Garden Abbesses, the accomplishments required of the Most Notorious Rake had palled; the seduction of virgins held no more mystery; the prospect of a duel bored him to tears, so much so that he could not be bothered to ravish his friends’ wives.

He felt disinclined to set new fashions or to depress the pretensions of upstart mushrooms of society.

Whereas his exploits had previously been attended with a certain lust for experience, he approached his thirtieth year with uncharacteristic ennui.

Then, all had changed, like a sudden thunderclap on the afternoon of a sultry summer day. He had beheld Purity and Love in the form of the Honorable Louisa Penrose, and he would never be the same man.

The day after his epiphany, Sir Willoughby presented himself at the front door of the Penrose home on Bruton Street. Discreet inquiries through servants led him to believe that an early visit would favor his suit. Hawkes had become aware that the mistress of the house would be occupied with housekeeping details, such as conferences with cook and butler, and that the master would be tutoring the younger children.

Hawkes knew his planning had borne fruit when he was escorted into the drawing room by an inexperienced footman. For a treasured moment, the object of his affections was both alone and completely unaware of his presence as she practiced the pianoforte. Mozart, thought Sir Willoughby. The Sonata in C major. And rather well done, he decided, listening to the rippling scales and cascades which flowed from Louisa’s clever fingers like a waterfall.

He saw that his nymph was one of those fortunate ladies who are flattered by the clear, harsh light of morning. The sunlight streaming through the window lit her aureole of blonde hair, turning it into a halo. She wore pink, and that very feminine color awakened mad thoughts of marriage in the breast of a gentleman who had previously referred to wedlock as

“a damnable state, fit only for weak-livered clerics and timorous virgins.”

As the footman announced Sir Willoughby, she looked considerably jolted. For the first time, Hawkes experienced a flash of regret over his misspent youth, and wondered if any breath of scandal had come to his fair darling’s ears.

Probably not, he thought with relief, for after the young lady had recovered her composure, she calmly ordered the footman to tell Lady Anna there was a visitor, and to bring tea. That task completed, Louisa was alone with the most notorious rake in London.

Hawkes saw that she was as nervous as a filly confronted by the bridle for the first time, but he couldn’t fault any aspect of her manner. She dealt with him with a degree of equanimity unusual in such a young lady.

“Good morning, sir.” She remained formal as she curtsied slightly.

“Good morning.” He bowed. “I ask your

forgiveness.”

“Pardon me?”

“I fear to address you incorrectly. Devere introduced three lovely ladies in rather quick succession. I am sure you are not Miss Tyndale,” he added with a sarcastic edge to his voice. “May I assume you are Miss Penrose?”

“Yes, I’m Louisa Penrose.”

“Your mother has been hiding you in the country, I daresay,” he remarked. “I could not fail to notice you had we previously met.”

“Yes, I’m to be fired off this Season,” she stated, with a trace of humor in her voice.

Though miffed, Sir Willoughby concealed his reaction. Fancy Devere keeping this diamond out of reach! Hawkes remembered he’d asked Devere if there were any eligibles making their debuts, and Devere had denied the existence of anyone who might suit the baronet. Hawkes’ brows drew together as he deduced that his friend had concluded Sir Willoughby was not a worthy match for Devere’s niece.
But I’ve no one to blame if my reputation is,
perhaps, a bit tarnished.

The door flew open and Lady Anna entered the room, followed by a footman with the tea tray. “Sir Willoughby, a pleasure,” she said through gritted teeth. She allowed him to make his bow over her hand, which he grazed with his lips before she snatched her hand away. “Tea?”

They had barely sat before another young chit rushed into the room, followed by the snappish Miss Tyndale, who curtsied and sat.

“Are there apple tarts?” the child demanded.

“Pauline, mind your manners and make your curtsey to Sir Willoughby,” Lady Penrose said. “Sir Willoughby, you have met my second daughter.”

“Good morning, I’m Pauline Penrose.” Pauline reached for the pastries. “Would you like a tart?

They’re very nice.”

With a grin, Sir Willoughby accepted a pastry and a cup of tea, which the footman placed on a small ormolu table near his seat on a Windsor chair. He liked the girl’s easy, unaffected behavior; despite Lady Anna’s obvious misgivings, he felt this was a family he would enjoy. Sir Willoughby was also the scion of a large clan, his parents being the fortunate progenitors of six children. Being the eldest, Sir Willoughby was accustomed to the happy disorder several siblings could create.

“The tarts are very good,” he remarked to Lady Anna. “My compliments to your cook.” He stared at Louisa, feeling like a complete fool as he uttered the commonplace sentiment.

“Did you receive an invitation to my come-out party?” Louisa asked. “It should have reached you today.”

Sir Willoughby frowned and thought. “I cannot recall seeing it, but I will certainly instruct my secretary to bring it to my attention.”

“You need not, sir.” Louisa went to a Buhl writing table and opened a drawer. She withdrew an extra invitation and presented it to Sir Willoughby.

“A ball, on Tuesday next.” He reviewed the solicitation, neatly written on a half-sheet of heavy, hot-pressed paper. “Well, I shall certainly attend, and I thank you for this honor.” Hawkes stood and bowed to her as Pauline and Kay giggled into their teacups.

He grinned as his nymph glared at her younger relations.

“Thank you for coming, sir.” Anna stood as he finished his cup of tea.

Louisa accompanied Hawkes to the door of the drawing room.

“There is one more matter.” Hawkes smiled at her, deliberately probing her eyes with his, noting with pleasure that she flushed slightly, but held his gaze without a waver. “May I be permitted to lead you out in a dance, perhaps your first waltz?”

“Ahem! I believe that honor will probably go to her father, sir.” Lady Anna interrupted the pair. “And only after she has been permitted to waltz at Almack’s.”

“Yes, of course,” murmured Sir Willoughby.

“Pardon me, I did not mean to presume.”

“Perhaps one of the quadrilles,” Lady Anna said.

Chuckling, he realized that he’d been ruthlessly consigned him to a dance during which little physical contact between himself and the object of his interest would take place.

Lady Anna opened the door to the drawing room and gestured for him to exit. A footman handed Sir Willoughby his hat and cane; Hawkes was ushered out onto the doorstep almost before he knew exactly what had transpired.

He turned and regarded the door, which the butler closed with a snap. He knew he should be insulted by the cavalier treatment meted by Lady Anna. Despite his reputation, his address and fortune were respectable enough such that he’d been a target of the matrimonial intentions of numerous scheming Mamas and minxes since his own debut a decade ago.

He had never been unceremoniously tossed out onto the Bruton Street pavement by a domineering matron who made clear his ineligibility for her precious daughter’s hand. He didn’t care because he’d see Louisa again within a very few days.

Laughing aloud, he twirled his walking stick as he strode to his home on Half Moon Street. He knew he had no one to blame but himself if a cautious parent looked at him askance, and he resented Lady Anna not a whit. He actually would enjoy his clashes with her. He liked the lady, who seemed awake on all suits. He would not approve of indulgent, casual breeding in any marital candidate.

The apple never falls far from the tree, he murmured to himself. He had more than once been frightened away from an otherwise charming damsel because her mother was a dragon of a female. While Lady Anna Penrose tried to act the stern matriarch, she was not convincing; she still stood on the near side of forty and was handsome withal. Should he select the Honorable Louisa as his bride, her mother was proof Louisa would not fade like a spring flower.

He could look forward to viewing Louisa’s fairylike beauty for many years of married life. Moreover, he could see by the behavior of the young dark sprite, Pauline, that the household was firmly but fairly run.

Chapter Six

The members of the Penrose household and their

“cousin” continued preparations for Louisa’s debut.

Ball gowns were duly completed and delivered from Madame Mirielle, and Anna finished decorating the ballroom of the Bruton Street manse.

“You’ve outdone yourself, Nan.” Dressed in his evening best for the occasion of Louisa’s ball, Quinn lifted his lorgnon and regarded the ballroom. Over two stories high, it ran the entire length of the back of the mansion and now contained a lavish display of flowers. Filled with the scent and freshness of springtime, the house gleamed.

“It’s early in the social season, but we’ll set the standard tonight,” she said. “I want this ball to be forever in Lou’s memory.”

“Well, she’ll be a hit,” Quinn predicted. By eleven o’clock, he knew he’d been right. Although the throng overcrowded the ballroom and the drawing rooms, flowing outside onto the back terrace, guests still drove up to the double doors of the house, and were greeted as they entered by the Honorable Louisa Anna Michaela Penrose, and her parents, the baronet Sir Michael Penrose and his Lady, Anna. Quinn thought his sister might burst with pride as Louisa greeted the scores of lords and ladies with admirable aplomb. Truth to tell, he was also delighted with the chit.

His niece, a fairylike vision in white satin and silver gauze, had a crown of white rosebuds in her coiffure. Few girls could carry off the starkness of the color, but it perfectly highlighted her golden hair, blue eyes, and rosy mouth. Anna, with similar coloring, wore clothing more suited to a matron: rose pink and gold. Sir Pen was in impeccable evening dress.

Far from arriving late and leaving early, his ordinary practice, Quinn had entered the ballroom punctually and led out his niece for her first dance, since Sir Pen still greeted late arrivals. At the behest of his sister, Quinn also made a point of cutting out Willoughby Hawkes from most of Louisa’s dances.

Quinn felt Anna held up well throughout all the bustle, but there was no reason to test Nan’s good nature by allowing one of London’s most notorious to monopolize the attention of her child.

Quinn left Louisa in the center of a circle of male admirers, all of whom were about her age, and who appeared to have suffered from the excessive attentions of tasteless valets. Quinn winced at the sight they presented. The young gentlemen who surrounded Louisa all sported padded shoulders, unnaturally nipped waists, and collars up to their cheekbones.

One of them, a stocky dark fellow whose thick hair had been crimped into a bad imitation of a cherub style, detached himself from the group and hesitantly approached Quinn. He twitched the lapels of his bottle-green coat as he neared.

BOOK: Lord Devere's Ward
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