A GEORGIAN HISTORICAL ROMANCE
Roxton Family Saga Book 3: Dair and Rory’s Happily Ever After
1770s London and Hampshire.
Alisdair ‘Dair’ Fitzstuart, hero of the American Revolutionary war and heir to an earldom, known by all as a self-centered womanizing rogue. But his dashing and rugged façade hides a vulnerable man with a traumatic past. He will gamble with his life, but never his heart, which remains his own.
Aurora ‘Rory’ Talbot, is a spinster and pineapple fancier who lives on the periphery of Polite Society. An observer but never observed, her fragile beauty hides conviction and a keen intelligence. Ever optimistic, she will not be defined by disability.
One fateful night Dair and Rory collide—the attraction is immediate, the consequences profound. Both will risk everything for love.
Romance. Drama. Intrigue. Family secrets. There’s never a dull moment for the 18th Century’s first family.
RONE Award Winner: Best Historical Novel (Post Medieval), Chatelaine Award First in Category Winner: Outstanding Works in Romantic Fiction, The Chatelaine Book Awards for Romantic Fiction: Official Finalist, Readers’ Favorite International Book Award Medalist in Romance- Historical and Finalist in Fiction-Historical, Night Owl Reviews Top Pick, B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree..
Audiobook performed by Alex Wyndham
Character-driven romantic adventure
Non-explicit, mild sensuality
Story length 148,000 words
The Highly Acclaimed Roxton Family Saga
Featured Reviews & Accolades
A joyous romp evolves into a mesmerizing page turner. Each book so far in this series of charmers definitely stands on its own merit but following along on the path each of these characters lives is a joy. Any fan of historical romance is sure to fall in love with this series and its author Lucinda Brant.
★★★★★ Top Pick
SWurman Night Owl Reviews
Politics and intrigue, at home and abroad, and secrets and lies a great and powerful family needs conceal! Readers avidly following the Roxtons will be delighted to pick up on clues from previous books. Ms. Brant has a way of intertwining those threads into a constantly developing tapestry. Highly recommended.
★★★★★ Medal Winner
Fiona Ingram Readers’ Favorite
Mr. Wyndham’s performance was flawless and sublime. The emotions, humour, pathos and pacing were stellar. I am running out of superlatives. Seriously, I can’t recommend his narration highly enough. Lucinda Brant made an outstanding choice when she picked Alex Wyndham for her audiobooks. I want them all.
Kaetrin Audio Gals
Rarely is a series gifted with such pure, unadulterated writing beauty than Lucinda Brant’s Roxtons. Nor do characters weave their way into a reader’s heart as readily as do Rory and Dair. The love story is pitch perfect, the setting so well-painted that their world dances with life in all its Georgian glory.
Ruth Lynn Ritter InD’tale Magazine
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CAVENDISH SQUARE, LONDON
THE FIRST WEEK OF MAY 1777
ALISDAIR ‘DAIR’ FITZSTUART pulled the white linen shirt up over his square shoulders, scrunched it into a ball and tossed it to his batman. Bill Farrier caught this crumpled article with his one hand and shoved it inside a large canvas haversack, atop his lordship’s midnight blue silk waistcoat and matching frock coat. His master’s black leather jockey boots he had set beside a high stone wall, out of the way of passers-by. Pedestrians, however, were unlikely given the location and the hour.
Red Lyon Lane was at the rear of a row of elegant townhouses that fronted Cavendish Square. Tradesmen and their ilk used it. It was not an address frequented by gentlemen, unless engaged in mischief. The three inebriated gentlemen taking hearty swigs from a wine bottle being passed amongst them were definitely up to no good. Bill Farrier knew this for fact. The phlegmatic ex-soldier also knew no good would come of their antics.
It was dusk and there was a new moon. It meant the night would be as black as soot. This was just as well, thought the batman. His master and two friends might have a chance of escaping into the night without being caught or recognized. He had every confidence in Major Lord Fitzstuart. Five years as his lordship’s batman had given Farrier a measure of the man. He would follow him to the ends of the earth, and fall off the edge if required. He did not have the same confidence in his master’s two civilian companions. They looked to have as much courage under fire between them as his lordship had in his pinky. But as they had been the Major’s boon companions since his days at Harrow, it was not his place to pass comment unless asked. Farrier had not been asked. He remained silent and patiently waited for his lordship to divest himself of the remainder of his clothing: stockings, buckskin breeches, and drawers. He then flicked a finger at a linkboy to step forward, as if illumination by a flaming taper would shed light on the discussion taking place, or, at the very least, provide a spark of warmth for the bare-chested Major.
Dair was oblivious to the cool spring air, toes curling in the cold earth beneath his stockinged feet as he unbuttoned the three covered buttons at his knees, and then proceeded to undo the fall of his breeches. He looked up when directly addressed.
“Hold on!” demanded a tall white-blond gentleman, stripped to his breeches. He pointed the neck of the wine bottle in his friend’s direction. “There was no mention of getting naked as a newborn babe.”
“To raid Romney’s studio as an American Indian you can’t be dressed as an Englishman,” Cedric Pleasant enunciated as if talking to a small child.
Dair let his breeches drop to his feet, stepped out of them, removed his stockings, wrapped these in his breeches and tossed the lot to Farrier.
“Breechcloth, Mr. Farrier, if you please.”
“So you do wear drawers,” Lord Grasby stated with satisfaction; he of the white-blond good looks. “That’s one wager I will win. A guinea is now owed to Yours Truly!”
Cedric Pleasant slipped his silver pocket watch into a deep frock coat pocket.
“Wager? About Dair’s drawers?”
“Whether he wears ’em, or not,” Lord Grasby said. “I said, contrary to what others might think, I know Alisdair Fitzstuart for a gentleman.”
“Thank you, Grasby.”
Lord Grasby saluted Dair with the neck of the wine bottle to his temple.
“Who the devil would wager otherwise?” Cedric Pleasant wondered aloud.
“Or care,” Dair added with a huff.
Lord Grasby drank heartily from the wine bottle before he said, “Brother Weasel. That’s who! Weasel said a soldier—a dragoon no less—would have no use for such a useless article of clothing as drawers, because a soldier is required to have his weapon at the ready at all times.” He snorted. “Did you hear that, Cedric? Weasel—weapon at the ready—at all times.”
Cedric grunted in acknowledgment and made a grab for the bottle Lord Grasby was swinging about, and missed.
Dair rolled his eyes to the blackening night sky and motioned Farrier to his side.
“Carriage up the laneway?”
“And the beadles paid off?”
“To be deaf as a plank of wood? Yes, m’lord. We won’t hear a cry for assistance from that lot.”
“Good. Once Lord Grasby and I slip through the garden door, you hare off with the kit and we’ll see you at the carriage in the Square. Not outside Romney’s house. Position it across the street. We’ll make a dash for it.” He caught Farrier’s glance of skepticism at his drunken blond school friend. “Don’t worry. I’ll sling him over a shoulder if necessary.”
“Very good, m’lord.” Farrier said no more about it. “Breechcloth?”
Lord Grasby propped a bony elbow on Cedric Pleasant’s shoulder, so he could lift a foot to remove his stocking without falling flat on his face. “Oi! Dair! Tell me again—Why we are undressing in a laneway?”
Cedric Pleasant sighed his annoyance and was about to answer when Dair said patiently,
“Two reasons: We are about to break in to a painter’s studio in an attempt to spark Cedric’s non-existent love life. Secondly: You want to embarrass your no-good-weasel-of-a-brother-in-law; your words, not mine. Thus, your best friends are obliging you with this piece of theater.”
Lord Grasby took a moment for this to penetrate his inebriated brain.
“Good. Glad to help, Cedric. Hope Weasel chokes on a lamb chop! Ugh,” he added, pulling a face as if he had tasted something unexpectedly bitter. “Why did I have to be shackled with Weasel Watkins for a brother-in-law? The man is a-a…” He searched his limited-by-alcohol vocabulary. “Weasel.”
Dair grinned. “That’s the spirit! Now get undressed.”
Lord Grasby obediently pulled off his other stocking. “You know what I detest about him more than anything else, more than his sanctimonious whining, more than his small-minded self-importance, more than the way he hovers about m’sister—”
“Surely that’s enough of a list—”
“—It’s that he had the vileness to put forward the opinion Charlie Fitzstuart would make a more fitting Earl of Strathsay than Dair. He even said that’s what Dair’s relatives think, too! Damned cheek!”
“My brother would make a more fitting earl,” Dair agreed, pulling on the drawstring bow of his drawers. “And, yes, my esteemed relatives think likewise.” He shrugged. “Nothing new there. The Weasel is a boot-licking understrapper, but I’ll grant he uses to advantage what brain matter he does have between his shop sign ears.”
“Cowpats to that!” Lord Grasby declared, and took another swig from the wine bottle. He wiped his mouth on the back of the hand that held fast to the discarded stocking. “I like your brother well enough, Dair, but Charlie ain’t you. Is he, Cedric?”
“Certainly not!” Cedric Pleasant agreed. “Charles is a bookworm; you’re not. What does a bookworm know except what’s on paper? Written by dead people, books. Ghastly lot, authors.”
“Can’t have a bookworm inheriting an earldom,” Lord Grasby stuck in. “Would make the rest of us look less than the full deck of cards. There’s nothing wrong with being all brawn and no brain, and so I told the Weasel. If it weren’t for you brave chaps in uniform, sniveling fellows like the Weasel would spend their days shivering with fright under their bedcovers! And so I told him.”
Dair gave a huff of laughter. “I’m not in uniform now, Grasby. But thank you for your spirited defense; well, at least I think that’s what your speech was about.”
“I’d take what Grasby says with a pinch of salt,” Cedric Pleasant said as a confidential aside. “The claret is doing most of the talking.”
Dair’s dark eyes held Cedric Pleasant’s gaze.
“But Weasel Watkins does not drink… Of course I won’t take it to heart, Cedric,” he said, forcing a grin when his friend looked uncomfortable. He clapped him on the shoulder. “As well as not having a brain, apparently I don’t possess a heart either. Ha! I wonder what internal organs Weasel Watkins will allow me to own?”
“No heart? That’s a new one on me,” Cedric Pleasant replied with a smile, following Dair’s nonchalant lead. “Perhaps he secretly thinks you’re an automaton? You come to life with the turn of a key. What do you think of that, Grasby? Mystery solved! The Major survived nine years in the army because he’s not flesh and blood, but made from cogs and coils!”
“Automaton? No brain and no heart? Well that explains why he’d accept a wager to tup a cripple for a shilling,” Grasby declared, rounding on Dair with an instant of lucidity. “Did you? Did you accept such a preposterous dare at White’s, Dair?”
Cedric Pleasant was astounded. “The devil he would!”
Dair shrugged a shoulder. “What of it? A dare is a dare. And if she’s halfway to being pretty and willing, why not?” He looked from one grim face to another, not comprehending the sudden tension between his two best friends and added; to make them laugh, “Don’t waste your blunt. Lame doesn’t mean lame-brained. As I don’t have a brain, she’d find me out for an automaton and remove my key before I could no more than kiss her luscious lips!”
His friends laughed and amity was restored, Lord Grasby proclaiming, “You’d not get close enough to do even that! My shilling on that.”
“Isn’t it about time you removed your breeches, Grasby?” Cedric demanded, steering the conversation back to the matter at hand.
Lord Grasby’s shoulders slumped.
“Is it absolutely vital I remove m’breeches and drawers?”
“It is,” Dair replied with a hint of apology. “It’s crucial to the success of our mission.”
“And the pocket watch is ticking towards the half hour…” Cedric Pleasant added with a lift of his eyebrows.
“All right. All right,” Lord Grasby grumbled as he reluctantly pulled at the large horn buttons of his linen breeches. Unable to stifle the bubble of air in his throat, he let out a loud belch and felt better for it. He chuckled. “Methinks I’ve drunk rather too much claret. Drusilla—Silla—my dear lady wife, will scold me severely when I return home. Harvel Grasby, you are drunk and will spend tonight in your own bed.” He looked up from tugging on the fourth and final button. “You know the wife, don’t you, Dair? Cedric?”
“Yes,” Dair replied, rolling his eyes at Cedric, who grinned. “We were both at your nuptials.”
“Dair wore his regimentals,” Cedric Pleasant added. “It was just before he was shipped over to deal with that ghastly business in the Colonies…”
Dair smirked at the word ghastly, as if the war in America was akin to suffering toothache. He stripped out of his drawers and, as had always been his practice, made no comment about his time in the army, particularly his involvement in the bloody struggle across the Atlantic, between those loyal to the crown and the troublemakers who had taken up arms against their king. He had made choices in life to which he now wished he had given more thought, but he had no regrets, and he was philosophical enough to hope he had learned something along the way.
When Bill Farrier handed him a thin braided leather belt, he slung it low on his bare narrow hips, fastened the leather ties into a knot and gave it a tug to ensure it was secure. He then slid the knot to sit just below his right hip so that the two rectangular flaps of soft calfskin sewn to the belt were positioned front and back, providing a covering between his legs. Looking up, he saw Lord Grasby frowning in puzzlement.
“It’s called a breechcloth. Farrier has one for you, too.”
Lord Grasby stared at his best friend, naked but for a strip of cloth between his muscular thighs, and his self-confidence plummeted into his stomach. He gawped.
“Is that all an American Indian wears?”
Lord Grasby gave a snort of panic. “You’re hoodwinking me!”
“No. It’s this or nothing at all,” Dair responded, comfortable in his own skin. “Make your choice.”
Lord Grasby made an agitated motion with his hand, as if shooing away a bee. His friend’s unperturbed attitude increased his panic.
“It might as well be nothing at all because that animal skin barely covers your gingamabobs. No reason to grin about it! Dair! Cedric! Oh?Ha. Ha. Yes, all right, so you need extra length in your cloth, but what about the rest of us, eh? What about the rest of me?”
“You weren’t this coy at school.” Dair asked casually, as he braided a section of his shoulder-length black hair. “We were the first to strip for a dare and run the quad, or out across the rugby field with our lobcocks free to the wind.”
“At school we were the same size; you weren’t so big and hairy then.”
Cedric Pleasant made a face. “With that pout you look no different to one of my eight sisters when told they can’t have a new pair of gloves, but not one of them is a pocket full of complaint! At least you have height. I was a runt at school. Still am. You don’t hear me complaining about that.”
Dair chuckled and clapped a hand to Cedric’s shoulder.
“With eight sisters, you’re six feet tall in my eyes, Cedric. One is enough of an inconvenience. Mary teased me mercilessly. Older sisters are particularly good at it. Damned awkward having chest hair and hairy calves at fourteen.”
Lord Grasby blinked. “What? Lady Mary has a hairy chest, too?”
Dair and Cedric Pleasant shared a startled look then fell about laughing at the picture in their mind’s eye of the pretty, petite and golden-haired elder sister of Dair Fitzstuart covered in chest hair. When Cedric could breathe enough to speak, he said between gasps,
“Not the divine Lady Mary, Grasby, you piece of burnt toast! Dair. Dair was a hairy oaf at Harrow. Still is.”
“Well, you’ve grown into your hairs. I’ve not changed,” Grasby admitted sulkily. “And you at least have width and muscle, Cedric. Just like Dair. Females admire width and muscle. I still look the undernourished ferret—That’s right! Keep the laughter coming! Kick a man when he’s drunk! It’s bloody true, I tell you!”
“You’ll feel less the ferret and more the warrior once the war paint is applied,” Dair assured him. “Every man can hide behind war paint. Now, do get a move on, Grasby, before the ladybirds flit away into the night.”
Lord Grasby liked the idea of hiding behind war paint. He whipped off his drawers, snatched the belt with breechcloths attached from the ever-patient Farrier, who had been standing at his side for some little while, and threw it around his waist. Being acutely self-conscious, he secured the belt ends in a rush, and breathed a sigh of relief to have completed the task in record time. Unbeknownst to him, the two breechcloths were not front and back as he thought, but left and right, against his bare flanks.
Cedric Pleasant could not contain himself. The laughter burst from him; the look of relief on Grasby’s face the final straw. Dair turned away to hide his grin, and the two friends staggered about, hunched over with uncontrolled mirth. Hands on hips, Grasby glared at them, wondering what was amiss. Finally, Cedric turned and, unable to speak because he was laughing so hard, waggled a finger in the direction of Grasby’s groin. His lordship glanced down, gave a start when he saw the source of his friends’ mirth, and was swift to try and set matters to rights, face ablaze.
“Blast it! It’s all caught up now!”
“May I be of assistance, my lord?” Farrier asked at his most bland, as his master and Mr. Pleasant continued to fall about, unable or unwilling to control their laughter.
“Yes. Yes. All right! And be quick about it!”
Grasby suffered the ministrations of the batman to adjust the sit of the breechcloths with chin in the air, and with all the dignity of a man in his dressing room and not naked in a laneway.
“If you would just check to see that the knot you tied is still secure, m’lord, then all will be well.”
“Can’t you do that for me, too, damn you?” Lord Grasby demanded through clenched teeth.
When the batman remained silent and held up his left arm, Grasby finally looked at him. Where the man’s hand should be, there was only air. Curiosity got the better of him, and he peered into the void of Farrier’s coat sleeve. In response, Farrier thrust his arm up through his sleeve and out popped a stump where his hand should be. It was capped with a small polished silver hook, the fitted silver cap secured by a leather strap buckled about his forearm.
Grasby leapt into the air.
Dair and Cedric Pleasant, who had just mastered control of their features, spluttered once more into uncontrolled laughter, and this time so hard they fell back, shaking shoulders against the high stone wall surrounding the garden of George Romney’s townhouse, as if needing its support to remain upright.
“For King and Country, m’lord,” was Farrier’s bland response to Lord Grasby’s reaction to his amputated hand.
“You scared me half to death! Damn you!”
The batman bowed, and with a flourish wriggled his arm so that the stump was again hidden, with only the tip of his hook visible within his coat sleeve.
“Thank you, Mr. Farrier,” Dair said, taking his bare shoulders off the stone wall. “You’ve had your amusement for the evening; ours is yet to begin. Time to fetch paint pot and ash.”
The batman bowed and retreated, leaving behind him a heavy silence.
“Nine years in the army and you come out of it with a few knocks and dents, but poor Farrier has the rotten luck to lose a hand,” Cedric Pleasant said into that silence. “Still, you both managed to keep a head on your shoulders, and that’s the main thing, isn’t it?”
“You could have damn well told me!” Grasby threw at Dair. “I’ll have nightmares for weeks.” He gave a shudder of revulsion. “Damned unpleasant…”
Dair’s face tightened. He was on the verge of reminding his friend that there were thousands of Farriers out there who had lost limbs, not to mention those who had made the ultimate sacrifice, all in the service of their King and Country. And all so gentlemen such as Grasby were at liberty to go about their daily lives undisturbed and unfettered. Instead, he pushed the unspoken diatribe back down his throat and turned away to take the paint pot from his batman.
“Watch and learn, Grasby,” he said, beckoning his best friend closer.
Dipping his index finger into the small ceramic pot of white paint, then peering into a hand mirror his batman held up in the soft orange glow of the link boy’s lantern, Dair painted a continuous stripe from cheekbone to cheekbone across the beak of his nose. Two stripes were added to each cheek and a singular stripe from bottom lip down the center of his square heavy chin. Satisfied with his war paint, he exchanged the paint pot for a cloth dusted in charcoal. This he rubbed into his closed eyelids, then blackened under his eyes, extending the blackness out across his temples into his hairline. He then applied soot to the beefy rounded tops of his shoulders. Peering back into the mirror, he grinned. The whites of his eyes were now stark and menacing, and the paint and soot somehow also made his large white teeth brighter and sharper.
Dair turned this macabre grin on his friends, who opened wide their eyes and smiled their appreciation of his transformation. And when he threw back his head of black hair and howled at the moon Grasby joined in, infected with his friend’s enthusiasm.
With both gentlemen sufficiently decorated in war paint, soot not only applied to Lord Grasby’s face but dusted through his hair to turn it gray to disguise its blondness, Cedric Pleasant took one last look at his friends and declared they were ready to carry out their mission. Lord Grasby, however, halted proceedings with one last reservation, saying diffidently,
“You don’t think my breechcloth rather smaller than Dair’s?”
Dair and Cedric gave a practiced start and looked at each other before solemnly shaking their heads. Both suppressed smiles, but there was a light in their eyes of mischief and anticipation, seen often in schoolboys playing a prank on an unsuspecting chum. Dair had instructed Farrier to trim the length and width of his friend’s breechcloth, so that when Lord Grasby ran about, he could not help but expose himself.
“Certainly not!” Cedric Pleasant lied. “It’s all in the perspective… You and Dair have the same size tackle, I’m sure of it. Hasn’t he, Dair?”
“Don’t ask me!”
“Not that, Cedric! I don’t require your reassurance about the size of my sugar stick! The cloth. It’s the cloth I’m worried about. Its coverage is—”
“I’d be more concerned about that birthmark,” Dair interrupted with a slow shake of his head. He sucked air through his teeth, and as he let out a slow breath, let his shoulders drop. “If anyone should recognize it, they’ll recognize you, and you don’t want that.”
“Yes we do!” Cedric Pleasant hissed in his ear.
Lord Grasby clapped a hand to the left side of his exposed groin to cover a caramel-colored stain the size of a snuffbox. He put his nose in the air. “No one will recognize it except for my dear lady wife.”
Dair put up his black brows. “Are you certain?”
“What are you suggesting? That I’m an unfaithful husband?”
“Is that what I’m suggesting?”
“I take the sanctity of marriage very seriously.”
“Good for you!” Dair slapped his friend’s bare back a little too hard. “I admire a man prepared to sacrifice himself for a cause, however lost. Farrier! It’s time, if you please!”
“Now look here, Dair! I don’t appreciate—”
But Dair had turned away from Grasby to hide a smile. A wink at Cedric Pleasant, and his friend realized Dair had successfully diverted Grasby from his concern over the size of his breechcloth, and shook his head in admiration of his gift for subtle subterfuge.
While Farrier and the linkboy gathered up the gentleman’s belongings, Dair went over the mission plan to raid the painter’s studio one last time, particularly the timing of Cedric Pleasant’s dramatic entrance with sword drawn. When his friends nodded their understanding of how events would unfold, he added,
“When Cedric threatens to stick me with his sword, that’s our signal to get the hell out of there—”
“—looking suitably terrified,” Cedric Pleasant added.
“We’ll be scared stiff, dear chap,” Grasby confirmed.
“You threaten to stick me and we make our dash for the front door. Understood, Grasby?”
“Perfectly. Cedric tries to stick you. We look petrified. I stop chasing dancing girls and dash out of the house after you. We make for the carriage across the square.”
Dair smiled. “Cedric saves the day, and the divine Consulata Baccelli has eyes only for her newfound champion. Couldn’t be easier.” He stuck out his hand. “Gentlemen, let the adventure begin!”
All three men shook hands, a gleam of mischief in their eyes, and wished each other luck before going their separate ways. Mr. Cedric Pleasant proceeded back down the laneway, a gloved hand to the hilt of his sword and a spring in his step. Major Lord Fitzstuart and Lord Grasby entered the garden of George Romney’s townhouse by stealth and the back gate.
At the very same moment, Lady Grasby, Mr. William Watkins, and Lord Grasby’s sister Miss Talbot, were being welcomed inside the townhouse by Mr. Romney’s butler.
~ ~ ~
MR. WILLIAM WATKINS noted the late hour under the light cast by a flambeau, then slipped his engraved timepiece on its silver chain back into his waistcoat pocket. He paused at the base of three shallow stone steps to allow his sister Lady Grasby and Miss Talbot to enter Mr. George Romney’s residence before him.
“Tell me again why you insist we view your unfinished picture now?” he asked Lady Grasby in a voice of resignation, waving away a footman who had stepped forward to take his cloak, a sure sign the visit was to be of short duration. “We do not have an appointment and Mr. Romney is possibly away from the house, or perhaps he is with a client…?”
“It will take but a moment, William,” Lady Grasby replied flatly, removing her gloved hands from an oversized mink muff. She shoved this at the butler. “As we had dinner two houses from this door, it would be foolish of me to be in such close proximity and not call. Mr. Romney is unlikely to refuse me. I have had nine sittings to date. Yet, there is something not quite right that has been keeping me up at night. I am so distracted by it I cannot remember any of the dishes at Her Highness’s table. Only that there was a centerpiece, an elaborate sugar confection of sheep grazing—”
“Cows? Were they?” Lady Grasby frowned, momentarily diverted. “Are you certain those sugar lumps were cows, Aurora?”
Rory (no one but her sister-in-law called her by her birth name) nodded, and pretended to cough, a gloved hand to her mouth to hide a smile at the pained look of tolerance on Mr. Watkins’ long face as he listened to his sister’s prattle.
“A delightful pastoral scene of bovines,” Mr. Watkins confirmed. “And there was a dairy maid—or were there two, Miss Talbot?”
“I cannot recall, sir. But it was delightful,” agreed Rory, allowing a footman to take her red wool cloak. “Lady Cavendish says Her Highness has the most talented confectioner in all England, and I believe her.”
Lady Grasby shrugged. “I am sure it was delightful, and I would have found it so, were I not worried over my portrait. I heard only one word in five of the conversation, though that prattlepate Lady Cavendish had a great deal to say.”
“As did her corpulent husband.” Mr. Watkins gave a loud sniff of derision. “Which was surprising, given he rarely pauses between mouthfuls to breathe, least of all speak. One day I fear Lord Cavendish will—pop.”
“Oh dear, I hope I am not the unfortunate sitting beside him when he does,” Rory quipped, amusement in her clear blue eyes. “One trusts Lord Cavendish will have the good manners to pop in privacy…”
“It is of no interest to me if Lord Cavendish bursts all over the dining room!” Lady Grasby announced, exasperated. “You both have the most extraordinarily tasteless conversations sometimes that I wonder at your good manners.” She glared at her brother. “You do want me to sleep at night, William, do you not?”
“Nothing is dearer to my heart, nothing more important to me, than your well-being, Silla, but—”
“Did you catch Lady Cavendish’s prattle over the trifle, Aurora?” Lady Grasby asked as she moved further into the hall, the butler following in her wake, her question to her brother, he realized too late, rhetorical. “Can it be true? Did a merchant’s daughter, a Miss Strang,reject an offer of marriage from Lord Fitzstuart?”
“That is what Lady Cavendish reported,” Rory replied. She paused in thought. “Though… I am more surprised that an offer was made, rather than one was rejected.”
“Why say you, Miss Talbot?” Mr. Watkins asked curiously.
“From my observation of him, Lord Fitzstuart does not seem the sort of gentleman given to flippant marriage proposals.”
Lady Grasby turned from addressing the butler and frowned in puzzlement at her sister-in-law.
“Miss Strang is a great heiress, is she not? Worth twenty thousand pounds or more. Her fortune has merchant roots to be sure, but William says Fitzstuart cannot afford to be selective in his choice of bride—the ancestral home is a crumbling pile of ruins and the fortune all but dwindled to dust by the absent Earl…”
When Rory turned inquiring eyes of surprise on Mr. Watkins, that he would know such intimate details regarding the Fitzstuart finances, and pass them on to his sister, he smiled his embarrassment that his sibling would air in public what he had told her in confidence.
“Not ruins, my dear,” he diffidently corrected his sister. “The estate in Buckinghamshire is not what it could be. The house is eighty years old and yet it stands incomplete. Understandable, as it has barely been lived in. And as the Earl remains resident on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean…” He sniffed. “There isn’t much the son and heir can do about it while his father is alive and remains an absentee landlord. Yet, I doubt Fitzstuart would, if he could. His peccadilloes mirror those of his father, and thus require what meager resources he has at his disposal.”
Rory cocked her head in thought. “By which you mean Lord Fitzstuart prefers to direct his munificence on a mistress and his children by her, than on the estate he will one day inherit?”
Rory’s direct approach never ceased to put William Watkins on the back foot. He gave a halfhearted laugh, blushed and looked to his sister to rescue him, which she promptly did by saying bluntly,
“Then he certainly needs a fortune! I may not approve of Fitzstuart, but under such circumstances it is understandable why he proposed to this Miss Strang. But why she would reject him is beyond my powers of reasoning.”
“Perhaps Miss Strang did not wish to marry a man who keeps a mistress and children?” Rory offered. “Regardless that he comes with the guarantee of a title one day, some females are not persuaded that is enough to accept a proposal of marriage.”
“Far be it from me to continue such a conversation in a painter’s hallway, but Miss Strang’s rejection of Lord Fitzstuart’s offer shows a good deal of sense on her part,” Mr. Watkins replied. He inclined his bewigged head to Rory. “I agree with you, Miss Talbot. His lordship is a reprobate and a womanizing scoundrel. No female in her right mind would accept such a man for a husband.”
Rory managed to suppress a smile. Leaning lightly on her ivory-handled walking stick, she said steadily, “I have not heard it said Miss Strang is anything but in her right mind. But perhaps that is debatable. She rejected the heir and ran off with the spare, if Lady Cavendish is to be believed.”
“She has eloped with Fitzstuart’s brother?” Lady Grasby was so astounded she shooed quiet the butler who was giving her the good news Mr. Romney was free to receive her. “Say it is not so! A girl who has the odor of the Covent Garden market about her person has the barefaced cheek to reject the heir to an earldom, in preference for a younger son who has no prospects and even less fortune? The girl must indeed be mad!”
“Or in love…?”
“Rot, Aurora!” Lady Grasby stated dismissively. “The children of merchants are raised to believe first and foremost in the value of a thing. Love is an ideal, an emotion of the highest order. As such it cannot be measured, so can hold little or no value for such practical people.”
Rory wondered if her sister-in-law was speaking from the experience of having a grandfather whose vast wealth had been accumulated over a lifetime as a Billingsgate fishmonger. But as she had used the third person, Rory could only hope, for her brother’s sake, that her sister-in-law had quite forgotten her own family’s fishy beginnings.
“Now let us say no more about this Miss Strang and her mental deficiencies. Nor do I want to hear another word about Lord Fitzstuart,” Lady Grasby continued. She covered her sister-in-law’s gloved hand with her own and said quietly, “Truth be told, it is your brother’s slavish friendship with Fitzstuart that keeps me awake at night. Sometimes I think… Sometimes I think Grasby cares more for that man than he does me! I wish—”
“Grasby is devoted to you,” Rory interrupted.
“—Fitzstuart had never returned from the Colonies!”
Rory gasped. “You do not mean it, Silla!”
“Unfortunately, he is possessed of the devil’s own luck,” Mr. Watkins said on a sigh, offering his tearful sister his perfectly pressed and folded white linen handkerchief. “The more dangerous the mission, the more daring the cause, the more willing Fitzstuart is to play the hero. And he came out of the army with all limbs and his head intact!”
Rory looked from sister to brother, stunned.
“I cannot believe my ears. Mr. Watkins, you may decry the man for being a reprobate and a womanizer, and you, Silla, may dislike him heartily and be jealous of the time Grasby spends in his company… Indeed, there is not much Lord Fitzstuart can say in his own defense for his want of conduct, but neither of you have the-the right to wish him dead. How-how uncharitable, and his lordship a war hero!”
“No. No, Miss Talbot. You misconstrue me,” William Watkins apologized. He smiled thinly and looked secretive. “As secretary to the Committee for Colonial Correspondence of Interest, I am privy to certain—communications and-and particulars about the war in America… There have been occasions—dangerous occasions, Miss Talbot—when his lordship was required to involve himself, and did so willingly, at considerable risk, not only to the men under his command but to his person. He is considered reckless in the extreme, so much so that I am not the only one who has wondered aloud if he has made a pact with—” He paused, looked over his shoulder at the butler, who quickly looked away, and pointed a gloved finger to the floorboards, and whispered, “You-know-who.”
Rory blinked at the man’s outrageous suggestion that Lord Fitzstuart had managed to undertake and survive perilous and often life-threatening missions only because he had sold his soul to the Devil. But before she could make comment, Lady Grasby confronted Rory, saying with a pout,
“No one mentioned wanting Fitzstuart dead. If you are not careful such a spirited defense of a gentleman you do not know in the least, and who would not know you from Eve, but whom you readily admit to observing, will be misconstrued as the unhealthy interest of a delusional and plain spinster for a handsome rake.”
Rory’s face ripened. Spinster she may be. Delusional she was not. Nor was she plain. Her hair might best be described as damp straw-blond. Her eyes were blue, but so pale as to be thought cold. But her face was heart-shaped, and her skin unblemished, so on balance, she was considered sweet and pretty, if not beautiful. If she was plain, it was only when in the orbit of the dark-haired beauties with warm eyes flushed from flitting about on the dance floor. But at two-and-twenty she had no expectations of marrying for love or anything else. With no fortune and not enough beauty to overcome a meager dowry, Rory was resigned to living her days as she had begun them, as her grandfather’s dependant.
Thus, for her beautiful sister-in-law, who was a remarkably pretty brunette with damp brown eyes, to underscore the reality of her situation, in such a blunt manner, and in public, was a piece of spite that bruised Rory to the core. She knew her sister-in-law was not cruel by nature, but having been indulged from an early age, Drusilla did not often think of others before herself, and thus could be unconsciously unfeeling. Rory was surprised yet grateful that Drusilla had not stated the glaringly obvious; that was left to William Watkins, who shared his sister’s unwitting lack of tact.
He made Rory mentally wince and wish she were a mouse to scurry through a hole in the kicking boards when he said with a sickly-sweet smile of understanding,
“I am certain Miss Talbot’s interest in Lord Fitzstuart goes no deeper than an appreciation of his exceptional athleticism. As is often the way, what is lacking in ourselves we greatly admire in others. You, my dear Miss Talbot, cannot help being lame, just as I cannot be blamed for my poor eyesight. It is God’s will, and thus we abide it with good grace and forbearance.”
“If you will follow me to the upstairs drawing room, Mr. Romney will be with you presently,” the butler intoned in the silence which followed Mr. Watkins’ homily, a toe on the first step.
“You do have your eyeglasses, William?” Lady Grasby asked, bunching up her apricot silk petticoats to ascend the staircase as rapidly as possible in high-heeled mules. “I so want you to examine the portrait, to tell me what it is about it that is vexing me.” She paused on a sudden thought and looked over her shoulder, a gloved hand to the polished balustrade. “Don’t trouble yourself to come up, Aurora. We will not be above half an hour.”
“That would be for the best,” Rory responded cheerfully, standing at the base of a staircase that would take her twice the time to ascend than anyone else but a child taking its first steps. “I know so little about art that I would be of no help to you whatsoever.” Her gaze swept the hall for a settee or a wingchair. “Mr. Romney must have a suitable vestibule for visitors on this level…”
She was talking to herself. The butler and Lady Grasby, with her brother a step behind, had disappeared up the staircase.
One of the painter’s assistants rescued her. He stepped into the hall from the studio at the back of the house, dressed in a smock covered in all manner of colored daubs, and in time to be privy to the conversation. He offered Rory to follow him to a small viewing room off Mr. Romney’s painting studio. There was a fire in the grate and a comfortable chair to sit upon and wait.
The fire was welcoming, but her interest was not in the many painted canvases stacked against two walls, or in those propped on easels ready for inspection, but in the sounds of commotion coming from the other side of a door left ajar by the assistant. Interest piqued, Rory entered the large well-lit room uninvited, and found it brimming with activity and laughter.
She was halfway across the room and beside a canvas propped on an easel before her trespass was finally noticed by those on the stage in front of her. She took only a cursory glance at the canvas of a half-finished painting, more interested in the group of scantily-dressed females whose modesty was saved by strategically draped diaphanous silks. While these draperies covered their torsos and flowed to their stockinged feet, the sheerness of the fabric did little to hide their limbs and female attributes. All possessed the long shapely legs of the opera dancer. This was confirmed when three of their number broke from the group and danced out across the stage, holding hands and twirling this way and that on the balls of their stockinged feet, slim graceful arms offering an elegant counterpoint to their footwork.
Their movements caused the silks pinned at their shoulders to slip and bunch at the blue sash tied about their trim waists. Long hair, carefully pinned and decorated with flowered wreaths, unraveled in heavy coils down narrow backs and across small rounded breasts that bounced free; petals dropped from the flowers and were strewn across the stage in the wake of their steps.
They appeared as Greek statues of glistening white marble come to life with their sculptured white limbs and powdered faces; their graceful movements, as they danced about the stage, mesmerizing. Rory delighted in their exuberance and agility, so much so that it was several moments before she realized she was being addressed, and by the principal ballerina fanning herself by the chaise longue.
“I beg your pardon. I was so taken with your companions I did not hear your question.”
CONSULATA BACCELLI did not immediately respond, taking her time to appraise Rory’s gown of striped mint green taffeta with underskirts of embroidered lilac silk, the outer petticoat ruched and bunched behind to affect the fashionable polonaise. Here was a lady of style, if not of the first society, and she wondered where the young woman’s male chaperone could be—a personal maid at the very least—particularly at this late hour. A lady of quality did not venture from her home on her own, and never into the homes of men, painters in particular; all sorts of riffraff could be present. She wondered if Rory had somehow slipped away from her minders, and if she intended to turn and flee in horror at having walked into a room of disreputable dancers.
Consulata did not have to wonder why the young woman used a walking stick. When Rory had silently crossed the room, it was evident in her awkward gait that she needed it to move about. The short hem of her polonaise, which was some three inches off the ground, exposed her trim ankles in their white clocked stockings and matching heeled silk shoes; an inwardly twisted right foot answered to the uneven gait.
Rory was all wide-eyed interest, and Consulata thought it a great shame the young woman would never dance or be graceful in her movements, which surely meant she could never show herself to advantage. But her spontaneous delight at watching the ballerinas playfully spin out across the stage decided Consulata here was a young woman without malice, and she immediately decided to befriend her.
“Signorina. Signorina Talbot,” Rory corrected with a smile, gaze turning to Consulata Baccelli, because the dancers were being ushered back into formation by a weary assistant; another hurriedly coming to his colleague’s aid to help adjust drapery and flowered headpieces. “They dance delightfully. I’m sure you all do.”
“Sí. We do. But me, Consulata Baccelli, I am the most delightful dancer of them all.” The principal ballerina laughed behind her fluttering fan at her conceit. “I would show you but for these outrageous robes Signore Romney he has made us wear.” She indicated the blue damask chaise. “Come, sit here with me.”
When Rory looked about her, as if a chair closer at hand would be more suitable than sitting upon the stage with the dancers, Consulata smiled and patted the damask cushion.
“Come. Amuse me until the excitement, it begins.”
Rory reluctantly climbed the three wooden steps and sat where requested, careful not to disturb the bunched petticoats at her back. Her walking stick she kept close to her side, a gloved hand about its mahogany stick.
“You must be thrilled to have a painter of Mr. Romney’s skill and reputation to immortalize you and your beautiful dancers.”
“Signore Romney he paints us not as dancers but as part of a Greek allegory. Me? I prefer to be painted as I am, a ballerina most famous. But this—” She waved a plump wrist covered in pearls at the large canvas propped on the easel. “—this painting that has us all dressed in these ridiculous sheets of annoyance, it is painted for the Duke of Dorset. He will hang it in the gallery at Knole.” Consulata leaned in with a sly smile. “And then, because Dorset he is my lover, he will have me painted, dancing. And that painting he will hang in his private apartments, for his eyes only.” Her large brown eyes danced merrily, adding so only Rory could hear, “Dorset, he wants Signore Romney to paint me nude. Perhaps I will allow it, eh?”
Without wishing it, Rory blushed. Consulata Baccelli’s suggestion was an outrageous one, and most inappropriate to a spinster who lived a sheltered existence in the household of her aging grandfather. He would have been horrified to learn his only granddaughter was in the company of a troupe of dancers whose morals were questionable at best. That Rory was conversing with the notorious mistress of the Duke of Dorset was an encounter she decided to keep to herself.
She knew she ought to take offence at the dancer’s lewd conversation, excuse herself and return to the small waiting room, but she was not the least offended. And lest she be considered prudish, she summoned her courage, looked into Consulata’s large lovely eyes, and said with a smile she hoped oozed a worldliness she did not in the least possess,
“The Duke is sure to treasure such a painting. A graceful figure as you possess is to be admired, and deserves to be immortalized.”
Consulata was pleased with this response and beamed.
“I think we will be good friends. Very good friends indeed, Signorina Talbot. I will have Dorset invite you to dinner. Then you and me, we can laugh and reminisce together about the little escapade Major Fitzstuart he arranges for his pleasant friend.”
Rory tried to keep the interest from her voice and the surprise from her features. “Major? Major Fitzstuart?”
She succeeded in appearing none the wiser as to knowing this officer, because the dancer’s dark eyes crinkled with amused mischief. Before enlightening Rory, she turned on the group of females giggling and jostling each other behind the chaise and slapped her fan down hard across the back of chaise’s gilt frame. The dancers instantly swallowed their mirth and were silent and still long enough to be chastised.
“Stop this instant or not one of you will dance at the Haymarket again.” She jerked her dark head in direction of the windows. “Keep your eyes on the windows, and when the handsome Major and his friend they appear, you will all do as instructed. Sí? Bene,” she added, when the dancers nodded obediently. “Now please to contain your impatience at seeing Major Fitzstuart in all his glory. When he comes through that window, then you have my permission to screech the excitement so loud, his pleasant friend will run into this room and save my life.” She turned back to Rory and said merrily, “Soon it will begin, and so you are not alarmed, me I will tell you what is to happen. But first promise me not to tell Signore Romney’s servants. It is most important to keep the surprise so the Major’s pleasant friend, who is naturally infatuated with me, believes I am terrified and he has saved me from a fate worse than death.”
Rory was so intrigued she could only nod. She shuffled down the chaise longue in anticipation of receiving Consulata’s confidence regarding Major Fitzstuart. But no sooner had she done so than the dancers at her back began jumping up and down and squealing their delight. This had Consulata Baccelli on her feet. At the same time, one of Romney’s assistants threw paints and brushes into the air as if in panic and fled the room, while two of the dancers swept up the trailing folds of their drapery, skipped lightly down the three steps of the stage and ran across the studio towards the three sash windows.
Such was the instantaneous outburst of excitement from the dancers that Rory instinctively swiveled to look over her shoulder—at them, not out across the studio to see what had caused their agitation. By the time she reoriented herself to look at the windows, an intruder, who had dropped silently into the studio via an open window, was chasing the two dancers across the room.
Rory was shocked into speechlessness by such outlandish behavior, and while she blinked several times in response, as if convincing herself the scene presented before her was indeed unfolding, she did not sense any immediate danger to her person, or to any of the dancers. This surprised her, because the intruder was male, and naked but for a belt around his waist that positioned a modesty cloth between his legs. Watching him chase after the giggling dancers, who were showing no resistance to being caught, the cloth proved no covering at all, and Rory’s face flooded with the heat of outrageous embarrassment
And then, within the blink of an eye, her acute embarrassment turned to profound shock, and from shock panic sprang, not for herself but for the intruder. When he came running up the room towards the stage and caught the two squealing dancers about the waist and held fast, Rory saw that his hair was powered gray, his eyes blackened, and his laughing face disguised with thick stripes of white paint. But it was a thin disguise and would fool no one who knew him. Rory knew him better than anyone else. The naked intruder was Harvel; Harvel Edward Talbot, Lord Grasby; her only brother.