Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
'Good gad! I thought you said you had an evening gown. Is that the best you can do?'
Face flaming, Marina stood rigid as the Dowager's sharp little eyes travelled over every detail of her drab appearance. She was wearing the best of her meagre Yorkshire wardrobe, a dove-grey gown made high to the neck, but relieved with a tiny ruff of precious lace. It was plain, and not in the least fashionable, but it was clean and neat. And, unlike most of Marina's other gowns, it bore no visible evidence of mending.
Lady Luce's distaste was manifest in the narrowing of her eyes and the slight thinning of her lips. She rose from her chair, shaking out her wide silken skirts. The fall of fine lace at her bosom quivered indignantly. 'I suppose that is your evening gown?' she said in withering tones.
'You are correct, ma'am,' replied Marina, refusing to drop her gaze. She would not be made to feel ashamed of her appearance. Her dress was perfectly adequate for a near-servant. 'This is quite my best gown,' she added daringly, remembering the lesson she had learnt when she first arrived. The Dowager relished a sharp opponent.
Lady Luce gave a snort which might have been suppressed laughter. With a tiny shake of her powdered head, she said, 'We shall see to your wardrobe tomorrow, as I promised. Don't suppose it will matter much tonight. Shouldn't be taking you to Méchante's in the first place, of course, not a gel like you.' She turned for the door, talking all the while. 'Too prim and proper by half.'
'Excuse me, ma'am,' began Marina, daring at last to interrupt her ladyship's meanderings, 'but who is Méchante and why--'
'Why should you not go there?' Lady Luce spun round to face Marina. She seemed remarkably nimble for her years. Her eyes were full of wicked laughter. 'My dear, Méchante--Lady Marchant--is not a proper person for a lady to know. She is the daughter of a Cit, and her history is... ah... more than a little colourful, besides. Most of the company at her card party tonight will be male. As to the ladies you may meet there...' She chuckled. 'Suffice it to say that you would do best to pretend never to have set eyes on them. You would be wise to make yourself as unobtrusive as possible. Try to blend into the background.' She looked Marina up and down once more. 'In that gown, it should not be difficult.'
Marina stared, but Lady Luce was already making for the door which opened, as if by magic, just as she reached it. The butler stood in the hall, waiting. No doubt he had been listening to every single word. Before morning, Marina's plight would be the talk of the servants' hall. She could feel herself flushing yet again as she followed Lady Luce to the door, head held high and eyes fixed on the Dowager's ramrod-straight back. The servants might mock in private, but they would never detect the slightest sign of weakness in Marina's outward behaviour.
Throughout the short journey through the still bustling streets, Marina worried at the information about the dubious Lady Marchant and her card party. Méchante--Marina knew it meant naughty, or wicked, in French. If the lady's past was as colourful as the Dowager had hinted, she probably deserved her nickname.
Marina quailed inwardly at the thought of this first test. Why did it have to come quite so soon? She began to rack her brains for ideas to stop the Dowager's gambling but came up with nothing practicable. If she claimed she was ill, the Dowager would simply send her home. If she tried to intervene in the game itself, the Dowager might well dismiss her on the spot. And if she betrayed the Earl's instructions, the Dowager would probably stake every penny she had, and more, just to spite him, for she had made no secret of the fact that she despised him. Marina chewed at her bottom lip. It did not help.
'Pull yourself together, child,' said the Dowager sharply. 'Méchante won't eat you, you know. You might even enjoy yourself…get rid of that Friday face. You do play cards, I take it?'
'Yes, ma'am,' replied Marina quickly. As a companion, she might be lacking in many ways, but she could certainly hold her own at the card table. Her father had delighted in teaching her how to play cards, and she had been an apt pupil, but she had never yet had an opportunity to discover whether she had inherited his appalling luck. Nor did she wish to. Captain Beaumont's gambling losses had been the major cause of his family's poverty. 'However, I never gamble. I believe that--'
'What you believe is of no importance. You will soon discover that everyone gambles, whether they can afford it or not.' She stared hard at Marina for a second. 'I collect that you have no money?'
'I believe that gambling is wrong, whether one has money or not,' said Marina stoutly. 'It ruins too many lives.'
The Dowager continued to stare, narrowing her eyes assessingly, but she said nothing until they had reached their destination and were preparing to alight. 'Do not share your puritanical opinions with the guests tonight, Marina,' she said. 'It would do no good. And it could do you a great deal of harm.'
Marina nodded dumbly and followed Lady Luce into the brightly lit entrance hall of Lady Marchant's extravagant London house.
'Why, Lady Luce, is it not? Good evening, ma'am.'
The Dowager stopped so suddenly that Marina almost collided with her. As it was, she stepped on the hem of her ladyship's train and had to extricate herself carefully from the fine material. By the time Marina looked up once more, Lady Luce was staring coldly in the direction of the handsomest man Marina had ever seen. He had stationed himself between Lady Luce and the staircase and his presence seemed to fill the marble hallway. He was extremely tall and dark, with beautiful features that would not have looked out of place on a statue in a Greek temple. His exquisitely cut clothes seemed to have been moulded to his form, yet he wore them with an air of nonchalance.
'Such a pleasure to meet you again, ma'am.' The gentleman's drawl had an unpleasant edge to it, Marina noticed, and his finely shaped mouth curled in disdain as he looked down at the tiny lady whose path he was blocking. 'It must be…what?…all of five years? I look forward to making your acquaintance again. You do still play, I take it?'
'Oh, I play, Mr Stratton, you may be sure of that.' Lady Luce's voice was acid. 'I had not thought Méchante was quite so short of guests, however, as to need to invite just anyone to make up her numbers. I see that I shall have to take more care in deciding which invitations a lady should accept.' With that, she marched forward, forcing her tormentor to make way for her. He did so with easy grace, Marina noticed, and he continued to watch with narrowed eyes as the Dowager mounted the elegant branching staircase to the reception rooms above. He spared not one glance for the grey companion.
By the time the Dowager reached her hostess's drawing room, she was white with anger. Her thin lips were pressed tightly together as if to prevent her from speaking words that she might regret.
'Have nothing to do with Kit Stratton, child,' said Lady Luce sharply before Marina had time to begin her question. 'He is dangerous. More dangerous than you could ever imagine.'
Rake's Reward by Joanna Maitland
Now available in The Regency Lords & Ladies Collection published by Mills & Boon®.
'Carriage stopped up ahead, m'lord.'
Lord Amburley did not spare a single sideways glance as he took his curricle past the stationary vehicle at the gallop and raced towards the bend in the wooded road.
'M'lord--' The groom made a move to look back.
'Keep your eyes on the road ahead, Brennan,' said the Baron sharply.
Brennan gave a grunt of surprise and turned to stare at his master, but Lord Amburley clenched his jaw grimly, ignoring the unspoken question. A moment later, they had rounded the curve and the groom was grabbing wildly for the side of the curricle, as the team was brought from headlong gallop to steaming halt in the space of a few yards.
'M'lord--' began the groom, sounding agitated.
'Keep your voice down. If he realises we've stopped, we'll never take him by surprise.' Lord Amburley reached under the seat with his free hand as he spoke. 'What are you waiting for?' he added in an exasperated whisper. 'Go to their heads, man. I've got my hands full as it is.' Extracting a pistol from its hiding place, he jumped down and started to make his way cautiously into the trees that now hid the curricle from the carriage they had overtaken.
Just before he disappeared into the thick cover, Lord Amburley threw a final instruction over his shoulder. 'Get the other pistol, Brennan. That ruffian may well be armed--and he may have accomplices, too. If you hear any shots, bring the curricle back up the road--at the double. And don't be afraid to shoot if you have to.' He did not wait for a reply. He knew his groom would obey his orders to the letter, whatever the risk.
It was probably no more than a few hundred yards to the stationary vehicle, but it took Amburley an infuriatingly long time to pick his way through the neglected woodland. The snap of the smallest twig among the dense leaf litter might betray his presence. And he was determined to retain the advantage of surprise. He had seen only one assailant raising his hand to attack the woman by the carriage, but the man was unlikely to be alone. Since the end of the war, the roads were full of bands of starving, desperate men, preying on unwary travellers, especially women. Nothing could excuse such crimes, in Amburley's view, even though many of the robbers were ex-soldiers, thrown on the scrap-heap by a wickedly ungrateful country.
He crept forward, silently cursing his failure to remove the white driving coat that might so easily betray his presence. He would need to use all the available cover, just as he had learnt to do when he was a soldier in Spain. Pity he had no troop of men at his back, this time.
At last he could see the outline of the carriage through the trees. Taking refuge behind a gnarled oak, he strained his ears. Only one low voice--a woman's--sounding neither distressed nor anxious. Remarkable, in the circumstances. In Amburley's experience, gentlewomen usually had a fit of the vapours at the first hint of danger. Perhaps she was only a servant, after all.
However much he tried, he could not quite make out what the woman was saying. Then he heard a second voice--male, deep, a little hesitant.
Amburley risked a quick glance from his hiding place. There was no one else among the trees. The assailant must be alone. Strange--but certainly welcome. It stacked the odds in his own favour.
Levelling his pistol, he walked slowly towards the stationary vehicle.
As he emerged from the trees, the woman started and gave an audible gasp. Everyone else turned, saw, and froze--the coachman on the box, the groom mounted behind, at least one other female cowering in the dark recesses of the carriage--and the woman's assailant.
Confronted by this petrified tableau, Amburley had time to wonder why neither coachman nor groom had made any move to overpower a single attacker who--he could now see--was neither young nor strong. The two servants appeared to have left the woman--a plain, worn-looking person of indeterminate age, her face hidden by the poke of her faded bonnet--to fend for herself. Odd, unless--
'Pray, what are you about, sir?'
On hearing her educated voice, Amburley's first thought was that this woman must be much younger than he had supposed. And fully in command of herself.
'Would you be so good as to put up that pistol, sir?' A slight edge of annoyance had crept into the shabby young woman's voice. This was surely no mere servant.
Keeping his pistol steady, Amburley half turned from the would-be assailant, who was looking increasingly shifty, as though he might take to his heels at any moment.
'Certainly, madam,' Amburley said evenly, not taking his eyes off the man. 'Just as soon as I have an explanation as to why this man was assaulting you.' He raised his pistol a fraction, so that the man would be in no doubt of his willingness to use it, if he attempted to escape.
The accused man took two steps back, eyes suddenly wide with fear at the sight of the gun's menacing little black muzzle. He made to speak, but no words came out.
The woman moved smartly between Amburley and his target, turning her back on the pistol and putting her hands reassuringly on the older man's arms. 'Don't worry, Jonah,' she said gently. 'I'll deal with this. Nothing will happen to you, I promise.'
She turned sharply then, shielding Jonah with her body. Fixing her gaze on the pistol, she said, in a voice that had lost all trace of gentleness, 'By your speech and your dress, sir, you are a gentleman. So I ask you again to put up your pistol. I have not been assaulted. And I have no need of your assistance.' She glanced up at his face for a second--without meeting his eyes--and then resolutely returned to staring at the pistol. 'Whatever you thought you had seen, sir, you were mistaken. Thank you for attempting to rescue me--but there really was no need.'
With that, she turned her back once more and began to reassure Jonah, who had not yet fully recovered from his fright.
Amburley stood for a moment before letting his pistol hand drop. By gad, she sounded anything but grateful for his attempted knight-errantry. Indeed, she reminded him of his mother's companion--sharp and shrewish, as most poor relations became, given half a chance. What a farce he had blundered into. He had been so sure the man Jonah was about to strike her--but it seemed he had been totally wrong. If his old comrades could see Major Amburley now... For a second or two, annoyance warred with amusement. Then he smiled to himself and shook his head resignedly. Heaven help him if this story ever got about. He would never live it down.
The woman had continued to busy herself with the man Jonah. She seemed to be intent on avoiding any further discussion. 'My apologies, madam,' Amburley said. 'Obviously, you do not stand in need of my assistance. I shall not trouble you further.' Still, she did not face him.
Amburley concluded wryly that he had attempted to rescue a mannerless harpy. Next time he saw a lady under attack, he would do well to drive past, if this was the thanks he could expect. He started back towards the trees but could not resist adding, with exquisite politeness, 'I wish you a safe onward journey. Good day, madam.'
A Poor Relation by Joanna Maitland
The Regency Lords & Ladies Collection Volume
5 by Joanna Maitland & Mary Brendan
Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
This page was last updated on 15 July, 2007