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by Melissa McCann
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Just when Lady Winifred Westerly thought she had everything settled between herself and her fiancee Lord Danford, her mother Lady Alice, the Scandal of London, is accused of blackmailing and murdering her lover. The peculiar thing is that, though Lady Alice is many things and none of them good, she has never been a murderer. That seems altogether too much effort for the languid Lady Alice. Unfortunately, Freddy's father and godmother are more concerned with the damage to their own and Freddy's social standing than with the danger to Lady Alice. Freddy's godmother Lady Evans is determined to flee with Freddy to the country until the scandal blows over. Freddy's father is so furious at both Freddy and her mother for disgracing him that he issues an ultimatum. Freddy is to marry Lord Westerly's crony Lord Fordwether before the end of the season or she'll be packed off the country to end her days as a spinster. Not to be outdone, Lady Evans forbids Freddy to marry Fordwether and presses her instead to encourage Mr. Montmorecy, the grandson of one of Lady Evans' childhood friends. Freddy is not troubled by her father's threat. She will simply elope with Dickie. However, she is afraid for her mother. Lady Alice may have the maternal instincts of a crocodile, but she is Freddy's mother, and Freddy is determined to save her. Lady Alice is not cooperative. She has become friendly with Dickie's arch-enemy, Lord Inglestock, a sniveling coward who developed a stutter after engaging Dickie in a boxing match in which Inglestock was accidentally injured. Inglestock hints to Freddy that he has proof of Lady Alice's guilt which he will conceal if Freddy will agree to marry him. Surrounded by unwelcome suitors on all sides and unable to marry the one man she desires, Freddy must gather all her rather peculiar wits to vindicate her mother, find the real murderer, shuffle off her unwanted suitors and win Dickie's hand. Fortunately, Freddy at her strangest is a force of nature. Disaster is sure to befall all those who set themselves against her.
eBook Publisher: Awe-Struck E-Books,
eBookwise Release Date: March 2006
17 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [256 KB]
Reading time: 172-241 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
An elderly woman, so hunched and wrinkled with age she might have been a gnome in the straight-backed chair by the fire, let out a shriek. "Abominable. Inexcusable. Do you know what she has done now?"
Freddy said, "No."
Lady Evans snapped the pages of the Morning Post. "Come to a bad end. I said it time and time again. 'Come to a bad end,' I told her mother. Told your father, too. 'A mistake to marry her,' is what I said to him."
Freddy tilted her head. "You mean Mama."
"Of course I mean your mama. Listen to this. 'Regarding the violent demise of a certain Sir T at his home in cheapside two days ago, Bow Street has at last discovered a lead. It seems a certain Lady AW, whose friends call her The Diamond, but who is better known as The Scandal of London, was a friend of the baronet. She is known to have been blackmailing him and had good cause to wish him with the angels.' Did you ever hear such pap? Wish him with the angels indeed. And this blasted, simpering over initials and so on as though everyone were not perfectly aware who they are talking about. Hello, Laura. I hear you've remarried your husband. Mistake if you ask me. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing more ill-judged than divorcing him was marrying him the first time."
The duchess removed her gloves, and bent to kiss the old woman on her cheek. "Good afternoon, Georgiana. I must say, I cannot credit that Alice had anything to do with Sir Taverner's death. That just doesn't sound like Alice. Does it, Winifred dear?"
Freddy shook her head. "Mama is not usually a blackmailer."
Lady Evans snapped the paper again as if by abusing its pages, she could alter their contents. "It is only a matter of time until ... Dog!"
Her shout caused Freddy and the duchess to snatch up their skirts and do a little skipping sidestep. Beryl and Ruby stared at them. Suddenly, Beryl gave a shriek, and kicked out with one foot. A small dog which had been poised like a three-legged dust mop at the hem of her skirt let out a yelp and scuttled under the chaise-longue.
Beryl clutched her skirt. "That animal has soiled my gown."
Lady Evans rang a bell by her elbow. "You'll be quicker next time. Which one are you? Chalcedony or Pearl?"
Debutants with better sense than Beryl Picket had been known to reach for their vinegrettes when Lady Evans addressed them directly. Beryl leveled an offended gaze at the old woman. "I'm Beryl Picket, Ma'am, and I want to know what you intend to do about my gown."
The old woman's eyes glittered with something that could have been either malice or amusement. "Beryl is it? Sounds fishy to me. It doesn't do to give people a wrong name. Leaves a bad impression. Now who are you?" She addressed her last remark to Ruby.
The duchess said, "This is my elder stepdaughter Ruby. I promised their father I would launch them on the ton when I came back to England."
Lady Evans snorted. "I suppose you want me to give them my favor, don't you. Well, your luck has failed. I will have to take Winifred away from London until this latest scandalbroth of Alice's blows over. I may as well resign myself to having Winifred on my hands until I die. Which won't be long if I'm required to live with her year round."
A maid carrying a bucket and rags knocked on the door. "You rang for me, my lady?"
Lady Evans waved her hand in the general direction of Beryl Picket. "Dog again."
"Yes my lady." The maid approached Beryl. "If you please, Miss, I'll sponge your gown for you."
Holding her damaged skirts away from her ankles, Beryl minced toward a chair and sat down. The maid knelt at her feet and began to apply warm water to the fabric with a damp rag.
Ruby sat down beside her sister.
The duchess said, "Now Georgiana, don't do anything in haste. You don't want to give credence to gossip, and that is just what you would do by fleeing to the country at the beginning of the season."
Lady Evans puckered her wrinkled face at the duchess. "I suppose you have a better idea?"
"Brave it out, of course. Your credit is high enough to carry it off."
"Pooh. What if I don't want to spend the rest of the season defending Alice Westerly's latest scandal? What is that dog barking for? Dog, quiet."
The brown mop of a dog glanced once at his mistress and returned to barking at the door, sounding very much like a lady trying to muffle a fit of sneezing.
Heavy footsteps thumped on the stairs as though someone were taking them two at a time. The parlor door opened. Dog scuttled back to his lair under the chaise, and an elegant blond gentleman with well-shaped lips and eyes looked into the room. "Well, here we all are. There was no one at the door so I let myself in. Georgiana Evans, you look splendid."
Lady Evans raised her cheek. "Mr. Cobb, since when have you run tame in my house?"
Mr. Cobb crossed the room and delivered a kiss to the withered face. "Since I read the morning paper. I note you have already seen it. What do you intend to do about it?" He nodded toward the battered paper at Lady Evans's feet.
The duchess snorted. "She is planning to cower in the country with Cousin Winifred until it blows over. Come and greet me properly, Artemis dear."
Artemis Cobb obliged the duchess with a respectful buss on the cheek. "You can't be serious, your grace. Is she serious, Georgiana?" He turned an inquiring eye to Lady Evans.
"I'm too old to sit about pretending to be deaf while scandalmongers whisper about me behind my back, and the good Lord knows Winifred's reputation won't stand the strain."
"That reminds me. Delightful to see you again, Lady Winifred. You are in looks as always." Mr. Cobb awarded Freddy a wink and a bow over her hand.
Freddy regarded him gravely. "Have you come to tell us about Mama's adventure?"
Lady Evans stared at her goddaughter. "Winifred, did I hear you call murder and blackmail an adventure?"
Freddy furrowed her brow. "Or did I mean misadventure?"
Artemis Cobb snapped his fingers. "I did have something to say on the subject. Do you ladies care to hear the details that did not appear in the paper this morning?"
Lady Evans tossed her aged head. "We do not."
Laura Darke frowned at Lady Evans. "Yes we do, Artemis dear. Do tell."
Mr. Cobb bowed. "You can imagine my horror when, upon perusing the morning papers, I discovered the unfortunate misadventure of my good friend, Lady Alice Westerly."
Lady Evans sniffed.
"Naturally, I did not believe for a moment she had blackmailed anybody."
Freddy nodded. "It isn't like her."
"The murder charge, however, I felt bound to investigate. So I popped down to Bow Street and had a talk with the inspector general who's a decent chap and an acquaintance of mine. Here's what he told me.
"You all know that on the night before last, around two o' clock, a certain Sir Taverner of Cheapside was found by his servants in his study in a state of advanced mortification. In short, he was dead. Shot in the chest and left to bleed to death."
His listeners acknowledged general knowledge of this fact.
He went on. "When informed of the murder, his wife mounted the first post out of the village near their country estate and presented herself to the Runners. She had in her possession a letter addressed to her by Lady Alice Westerly. In this letter, Lady Alice revealed certain examples of immoral conduct on the part of Sir Taverner, and accused him of cheapness and a parsimonious nature. The letter also mentions specifically, that she is not attempting to blackmail anybody, but felt morally obliged as a fellow female to inform Lady Taverner of her husband's behavior."
Freddy said, "That does sound like Mama."
Mr. Cobb winked at her. "On the basis of this letter, Lady Taverner feels sure Lady Westerly had a hand in murdering Sir Taverner, and she has retained the services of the runners to prove it."
The duchess nodded. "Oh dear, I have not kept track. Was Sir Taverner?" She raised her eyebrows meaningfully.
Cobb nodded. "They were quarreling last time I saw her. He was tiring of her, and she was complaining of her bills which he was refusing to pay."
Lady Evans swatted at him with the newspaper. "Enough. I won't have you speaking of such things in front of Winifred. You ought to be wary of his talking so in the presence of your stepdaughters, Laura. You will never get rid of them if they learn to natter on such topics."
Beryl and Ruby cast their eyes down to their laps in a display of ostentatious modesty.
The duchess waved a negligent hand. "The girls know what is proper, and it will not hurt them to know some of the realities of a woman's lot."
Freddy beamed at Artemis Cobb. "Have you met the duchess' stepdaughters Opal and ... Dog!"
Mr. Cobb executed a light hop step and a brisk side kick, and the villainous canine let out an outraged yap.
"Ha. Missed, you blighter. Sorry, Lady Winifred, I believe you were presenting me to the Miss Pickets."
The duchess intervened. "My stepdaughters Beryl and Ruby, Mr. Cobb."
Ruby eyed Mr. Cobb from head to toe, took in his gleaming boots and tightly fitted coat. Her eyes glittered. She stood and curtsied. "How do you do, sir."
Beryl stiffly indicated the sponging process going at her feet. She said, "I beg your pardon. I cannot rise."
Cobb glanced down at the maid working diligently over Beryl's hem. "Perfectly understand. You've made the acquaintance of Dog."
Mr. Cobb turned to the duchess with an astonished expression. "But Laura, how do you keep your composure with two such beautiful, young rivals in your house?"
Laura Darke's lips twisted humorously. "My husband informs me I should be grateful I am already married and need not compete with young women anymore."
Cobb laughed. "Darke is teasing you, Duchess. It is the young ladies who should be grateful you are married. Now your lovely stepdaughters may have the field to themselves."
Lady Evans snorted. "By rights, your tongue should be tied in knots from trying to flatter everybody in the same breath, boy."
The duchess helped herself to a chair. "I must agree, Artemis dear, you have gone quite blue in the face."
Freddy tilted her head and examined Mr. Cobb's handsome features.
Laura Darke said, "Not literally, Winifred dear. More to the point, Artemis dear, I wish you will tell Georgiana she must not on any account leave the city."
Cobb nodded. "Absolutely the last thing you ought to do. Don't let them see your heels."
"You are all mad," Lady Evans snapped.
The duchess brightened. "Then you will stay?"
Lady Evans sniffed. "I don't know how I can expect to find Winifred a husband with this hanging over our heads, but I do hate to turn tail and run."
The duchess dimpled. "I shouldn't worry about finding Cousin Winifred a parti this season. I've a feeling she will satisfy you at last."
Lady Evans frowned and gave her a sharp glance. Her eyes moved to Artemis Cobb who was in the process of nodding and winking at Freddy. She stared until he turned his attention back to her. Lady Evans said, "After five years on the marriage market, I find I can't share your optimism."
The duchess said, "Speaking of which, Almacks holds its assembly tomorrow evening. If I can get vouchers for the girls, perhaps we might bring Winifred along. That would be the perfect thing to settle gossip and show the ton you are not driven to cover by Alice's latest contretemps."
"Think you can get those girls into Almacks?" Lady Evans said.
The duchess smiled. "My dear Georgiana, I think with your assistance, we might convince a few of the patronesses to stand behind us. After all, it's not as if the girls were not well connected on their aunt's side, and I am a duchess again--which will be considerable help."
Lady Evans scrunched her face into a mass of bad-tempered wrinkles. "I see what you're up to now. You want me to help you get these girls fired off. As if I hadn't got enough trouble with Winifred here." She cast a sharp glance at Artemis Cobb.
The duchess shook her head. "It's not as bad as all that. You need to make a few calls today anyway to show you intend to remain in town, and the social lionesses are the most important people to convince. And you won't find that my two girls are any more trouble than dear Winifred alone."
Lady Evans threw the last of her paper aside. "That's quite enough of that. You might as well come out and say it."
The duchess, Cobb and Freddy all stared at her. Beryl and Ruby Picket looked out of the corners of their eyes while trying to pretend indifference.
Lady Evans glared at Artemis Cobb. "Out with it, boy. Enough skulking around my back. I won't stand for it, make no doubt. Winifred is to marry a title, and that's the end of it."
The duchess said, "Georgiana dear, what are you ranting about?"
"Wouldn't melt butter in your mouth, would you, Laura? I don't miss the signs. You say Winifred will be no trouble to me this season. You say I'm sure to get her off my hands this season. Mr. Cobb shows up kissing everybody except Winifred. Treats her with perfect propriety, but I've caught him winking and nodding at her every time he thinks my back is turned. Winifred's gone and made a secret engagement, and you knew about it all along."
The duchess flushed. "Oh dear. I didn't think you would guess so soon. We wanted to break it to you gradually. But really, Georgiana dear, surely it's not so bad as all that. They're very much in love, and it's a brilliant match for her."
Lady Evans stared. "A brilliant match? He's a wastrel, barely acceptable in society. Winifred's reputation is none too steady as it is without her marrying a notorious dilettante."
The duchess shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "True, Richard has had some unfortunate adventures, but he didn't mean any harm, and his motives were misunderstood."
Lady Evans squinted her wrinkled face together. "Laura, what are you talking about?"
The duchess hesitated. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about Winifred getting herself engaged to marry Mr. Cobb."
A moment of shocked silence followed.
Cobb broke the stillness with a laugh. "Georgiana, how could you suspect me of such an underhanded dealing? Lady Winifred isn't engaged to me."
Lady Evans turned her basilisk eyes from one person to another. "Then what are you winking at her for? And what is Laura talking about?"
Artemis Cobb cleared his throat and glanced at Freddy for permission to speak.
She pretended she did not see him.
He sighed. "The truth is I'm standing in for my friend Danleigh."
Lady Evans glared at the duchess. "Your son?"
Laura Darke nodded.
Cobb continued. "Lady Winifred has pledged herself to marry Richard Ansley, Marquis of Danleigh."