Still wearing a paint-spattered smock, Miss Athena Caldwell knocked on the door to her father's study.
"You wanted to speak to me, Papa?" Passing a mirror, she paused to smooth back the fair hair she had bundled into a hasty chignon. There was a smudge of cyan on her cheek, but she let it go.
"Come in, child," Sir Edward said kindly. Athena complied, but she was instantly on the alert. Sir Edward was not a cruel father, but he tended to neglect his brood unless he wanted something.
Athena, who was the eldest of the lot, had the responsibility of most of her siblings, and thought she knew what this audience concerned. She sat down calmly in a leather chair and gazed at her parent with bright blue eyes.
"I will not take Eve to London for her first Season, Papa. It's your turn and you know it."
"Now, Athena, I have work here. I'm between stewards and I have to oversee everything."
"Including the widow renting Fairview Cottage?" she archly asked.
"Now see here, daughter - that is none of your business!"
"Neither is puffing Eve off in Town. You are her parent. You take her."
Athena had been presented by her mother. Beatrice, the next daughter, had been taken to London by the baronet and Athena as soon as they were out of mourning following Lady Caldwell's death. Charlotte and Daphne, the next two in line, had been escorted to London by Athena and her Aunt Florence. Athena was tired. She was not overly fond of the capital city and wondered if Beatrice, who was a marchioness, might not be prevailed upon.
"Beatrice says she will not be coming to Town this year."
That figured. With a husband and two small children, Beatrice would not want the job of dealing with a younger sister, and this would be the easiest way to get out of what was her duty as well as Athena's.
Sir Edward laughed. "You know as well as I that Charlotte does not have the connections you do, my dear. For that matter, neither do I," he admitted.
"Aunt Florence..." His sister lived in London and it was at her house they always stayed.
"Too flighty. Really, Athena, you are Eve's best chance of finding a husband. Granted, Charlotte did not take, but neither of us expected her to. She's quite a bluestocking, isn't she? But Daphne. Ah, you did a grand job with her, daughter. Engaged to an earl!"
"An earl who has not visited nor sent a letter since Christmas! I fear if something is not done soon, she shall be engaged forever."
"Wexford will be in Town for Parliament, I'm certain. Maybe Daphne can..."
"No!" Athena protested. "If you want me to present Eve, it will be Eve, Aunt Florence and I, and no one else. If Wexford is desperate to see his fiancée, we are only a few hours from Town!" She thought perhaps the dowager countess might be keeping the earl from his beloved, but it wasn't her problem. She had just basically admitted she would take Eve to London.
"I knew we could work this out amiably," the baronet was saying, returning to his desk. "Have a good time!"
"Excuse me, daughter, but I have work to do. As do you, I might add..."
Athena sighed. She was having trouble with the cook. Her only consolation at this point was that she could forget to scold the woman for horrid meals, ensuring that food would be unpalatable for her father while she ate well in London.
For an hour every afternoon, Athena gathered her sisters - the ones still at home, which was all but Beatrice - and insisted they spend time together. Her mother had done it before her, and it was one tradition she insisted they keep. When she entered the family parlor, however, only Charlotte sat there, calmly eating muffins and drinking tea. Athena smiled thinly at her redheaded sister.
"Did you tell him?"
"I told him, for all the good it did me." Athena sat down on the settle with a sigh. Charlotte gave her a sympathizing smile and poured a cup of tea. "That means you will be in charge of the house."
"That will not be a problem. It runs well and will take little of my time. I might even get the cook to earn her keep."
"No!" Athena protested. "Let's make Papa pay for sending me to London."
"He won't be home much! You know he has taken a liking to..." Charlotte would have said more, but Eve stomped into the room, her arms folded, blue eyes flashing, light brown hair flying out of its pins.
"I won't go to London, Athena, so don't think you are taking me!" She flopped down into a chair and refused a cup of tea.
"Have you spoken to Papa about this?" her sister murmured.
"No, he won't see me. Says he is too busy."
Athena and Charlotte exchanged knowing looks just as Daphne, a blonde like her two eldest sisters, came into the room in tears.
"Milly says Eve is to go to London, but I cannot!" she cried. She arranged herself artfully on a chaise and put a tiny scrap of a handkerchief to her eyes. Athena was disgusted to see that while Daphne had been crying, she still looked beautiful.
"Your maid talks too much," she complained. "But yes, she is correct. Eve will be going to London..." She glared at the pouting girl. "And you will be staying here."
"If Wexford misses you so much, he is welcome to visit at any time."
"Yes, why have we not heard from the much-vaunted Wexford lately?" Francesca asked, strolling into the room in her riding habit, which she wore most of each day, hands in her pockets.
"Athena!" Daphne wailed. "Let me go with you! I won't be any trouble and I can help introduce Eve about."
"I need you here to help Charlotte with the house. You know she will put her nose in a book and forget to approve menus or tell the gardener to plant roses in the snow!" Charlotte, instead of being offended, only nodded her head in agreement and sighed.
"But I should dearly love to go to London myself. There is a series of lectures..."
"Athena! Athena!" Gabrielle, the youngest child but one, ran into the room in tears. Unlike Daphne, however, her eyes were red and her face was puffy. She threw herself on her sister and sobbed uncontrollably. It took a few moments for Athena to calm her down, stroking the fourteen-year-old girl's bright hair and uttering soothing words.
"What is the matter, dearest?"
"Papa! I just saw him in the garden with Mrs. Browne ... They were kissing!"
"Ugh!" Fran said, making a face. "I'm glad I did not see that. But I've had a capital idea, Athena! Let Eve stay home and take me in her place! I would dearly love to go riding in the park, and go to Tattersall's..."
"Ladies do not go to Tattersall's," Daphne said with a sniff. "And you are too young. If Eve will not go, take me. I would dearly love to see Wexford..."
"Eve is going, the rest of you are staying home, and that is final." Athena was so adamant, her sisters were quiet for a long while, concentrating instead on the tea and muffins that would tide them over until dinner.
"Harry would not like Papa kissing Mrs. Browne..." Gabby finally said. Harry was the youngest child and only boy, away at school. That reminded Athena that a letter from her brother had arrived in the post that morning, and she had stuffed it in a pocket, forgetting its existence as she stole away for a few hours of painting.
"I have a letter from Harry," she announced, pulling it out and breaking the sealing wax holding the page closed.
"Begging to come home?" Charlotte asked. Wishing she could have gone away to school, she could not fathom how her brother constantly asked to return to the bosom of his family and have a tutor instead.
"As usual," Athena said with a sigh. "But it appears he needs the schooling. His handwriting is atrocious." She showed the letter to Charlotte and Gabby, who sat the closest to her, with an indulgent smile. At twelve and the only boy, her brother was quite spoiled by his sisters.
"Do I truly have to go to London in a few weeks?" shy Eve asked plaintively.
"Papa has spoken."
Lord Miles Fletcher, His Grace, the Duke of Swindon, hated London. He attended every year just the same, knowing it was his duty to sit Parliament, but he tended to limit his social activities to strictly male pursuits. A noted Corinthian, he fenced and boxed for pleasure and exercise, was a member of the most exclusive clubs and had a gorgeous high-flyer for a mistress. He was constantly surrounded by people, every one of them with his or her hand out, but he knew who his real friends were. One of those was Lord Phillip Armstrong, the Marquess of Hayle, and his beautiful lady, Beatrice.
"Bored already, Miles?" Hayle said with a smile one morning as his friend was announced. Beatrice held out her hand.
"So good to see you again, Miles."
"I thought you were not coming to Town, Beatrice." He had not been expecting to see the marchioness, who had declared her second child too young for the trip up from Cornwall. Beatrice shrugged.
"I changed my mind." She shot her husband a glance. Athena's letter said Eve's debut was well in hand, and she was all set to stay home when her husband announced she was going to London to help launch her sister.
"But Athena will take care of it," she had wailed, to no avail. "I helped with Daphne!"
"Daphne is beautiful and outgoing and was the toast of the ton the moment she made an appearance," the marquess had retorted. "Eve is shy and needs your assistance. Besides, Athena has too much to do without having to puff off your sister by herself." He was under no allusions as to Aunt Florence's aid in the matter. The woman was too flighty above half.
In the end, her husband prevailing, Beatrice had loaded her two children, a two-year-old son and six-month-old daughter, with accompanying servants, into a carriage and headed north. She would wait until Athena was settled in town, however, before making her presence known. If she went now, with her sister being in town only a couple of days, it would not take much for Athena to leave Eve in her hands and return to Sussex. She had not counted on her husband.
"We are going to call on our family, Miles. Mrs. Evans, Miss Caldwell and Miss Eve Caldwell. Won't you join us?"
"We're going today?" Beatrice squeaked. "So soon? The children could not possibly..."
"No children today. I am sure Athena and Eve will call here this week to visit their nephew and new niece. You have not met our sisters, Miles." Lord Hayle said all this with such nonchalance, the duke was intrigued in spite of himself. He was not in the habit of making himself accessible to young ladies of a certain social status, but he had heard much of Miss Caldwell over the past few years and admitted to himself a curiosity at meeting this paragon.
"I have not. They are in town? I should like to make their acquaintance."
Beatrice stared at him in surprise and excused herself, saying she had to tell Nanny where she was going and to collect her outerwear.
"We might as well have a drink before we leave, then," Hayle said with a sigh. "It will take Beatrice an hour to decide on which bonnet to wear."
Athena was in one of her aunt's garrets, painting while the morning light was strongest, when a maid came upstairs to deliver a message. Lord and Lady Hayle had called and had brought the Duke of Swindon with them.
Athena frowned. Beatrice was in town? That rotten sister of hers was going to hear about this! She paused. Bea had brought the children, perhaps? And she did not know his grace the duke, but presenting Eve to him today would be the perfect chance to show off her sister's quiet charm.
Much distracted by her thoughts, she didn't even wait to send word with the maid, but went down to the drawing room immediately, not taking the time to check her appearance in a mirror. She was surprised, then, when Beatrice gave her an odd look as she stepped into the room.
Her sister saw the paint smudges, the smock Athena still wore over one of her oldest gowns and blonde tendrils sticking out every which way. Hayle saw a pretty sister who seemed disappointed not to see her niece and nephew. The duke saw a beautiful woman with bright blue eyes and not the least bit of interest in him other than as Hayle's friend as she made her curtsy.
"I had thought you were not coming to town," Athena said under her breath as Beatrice came forward to give her a sketchy hug. It would not do to have paint on her new pelisse.
"Hayle insisted," Beatrice sheepishly replied.
"I would have sent Eve to you directly," Athena chided the marquess as he gave his favorite sister-in-law an enthusiastic hug.
"I made Bea come to give you a hand."
"Thank you," she said sarcastically. "Eve needs all the help she can..." She noticed Eve was not in the room. "Where is Eve?" she asked her aunt.
Mrs. Hall shrugged. "She won't come down."
"What?" That could not be allowed else Eve would think she could keep to her room the entire season. "Excuse me," she said and quickly left the room. When she arrived at Eve's door, she knocked, but there was no answer. A twist on the knob revealed the door to be locked.
"Eve! Come out this instant! We have company. Bea and Hayle are here..." she said. There was no answer.
"Evangeline Caldwell! Come out now!" she shouted, forgetting that the guests were directly below her in the drawing room.
"No!" Eve yelled back. "I am not going to parade myself like a side of beef just so some duke can get a look at me! You do it - you are just as unmarried as I am, maybe even more so!"
Athena sighed and went downstairs, defeated, but only for the moment. The unmarried comment rankled, but only because there were days she felt she was spending all her time raising her siblings and not taking time to care for her own future.
"See?" Aunt Florence said, fluttering her hands in dismissal. Beatrice was pink with embarrassment over her sisters' shouting match, but the gentlemen were both trying to hide their smiles.
Athena, oblivious to her smock and hair, took a cup of tea from her aunt and sat down next to her sister. "Forgive me, your grace," she said to the duke, seated on the other side of Beatrice. "I must hear about my new niece."
"Why don't you call tomorrow morning?" the proud mother suggested. "Young Robert would love to see his favorite aunts, as well."
"I shall enjoy that." With that, the two sisters buried the hatchet. "And you, sir," she said, addressing the duke. "Do you..."
Whatever she was about to say went out the window as young Gabrielle burst into the room in tears. Her bonnet was falling down her back and she was wearing an old gray dress and spencer.
"Athena! It was horrid! Just horrid!" the girl exclaimed.
"What was, sweetheart?" Athena smoothed her sister's hair off her face and produced a handkerchief to wipe some of the tear-streaked dust off her cheeks.
"Papa and Mrs. Browne!"
Oh, dear. This sounded like something best discussed in private. She sat Gabby down on the sofa, introduced her to the duke rather absently and then stared at the girl in amazement.
"Gabrielle - how on earth did you get to London?"
Gabby took a sip of the tea her aunt handed her. "I rode in the back of a farmer's cart." She wrinkled her pert little nose. "Cabbages stink! Where's Eve?" she wondered, looking about her with interest.
"Never mind that now. When did you leave to just get here now?"
"Very early this morning. I left a note..." she said plaintively.
"A note?" Athena asked. "For whom?"
"Why, Fran, of course!"
Sure enough, the butler entered the drawing room and announced Miss Francesca Caldwell, and Fran swept into the room with the regality of a queen despite her dusty riding habit and sweaty face. Athena and Beatrice moaned.
"Tell me you did not ride horseback all the way into and through town?" her eldest sister asked. Fran stared at her as if she had sprouted two heads.
"All right, I won't tell. But I did! Hullo," she said, spying the duke. "I'm Francesca. If you are the owner of that bang-up rig outside, I must say, sir, the pair hitched to it look like a couple of sweet-goers!"
The corners of the duke's mouth twitched slightly, even as he allowed that those were his cattle. Francesca plopped herself down next to him and asked him a few more questions about his horses before she realized they were in company.
"Oh, hullo Hayle, Bea, Aunt Florence," Fran added, finally noticing her relatives. "I say, isn't Gabby incredibly brave, coming to town on her own just because she caught Papa and the widow in the..."
"That will be enough, Francesca," Athena said. "At least Charlotte and Daphne are home." She looked up as the butler returned to the room.
"Miss Charlotte Caldwell."
"There you two are! I found Gabby's note and I was frantic, and then I heard your horse was gone from the stables, Francesca, and I..." Charlotte looked up from her tirade and saw everyone staring at her.
"Would you mind telling us," Athena said wearily, "how you came to town?"
Charlotte nodded. "I took the gig."
"Oh, Charlotte, please tell me you did not! An open carriage? By yourself? All the way to London?"
"It's just the next county, for goodness sake! I was beside myself with worry. Papa was not about, and so I left Daphne in charge..." Athena groaned.
"It only needs Daphne, does it not?"
"Oh, Daphne would surely not come after me," Charlotte said confidently. "She knows her place. Besides, how would she get here?"
"Miss Daphne Caldwell," Pritchard, the butler, announced.
"If you are coming to London, Char, so am I!" she said, pausing for dramatic effect in the doorway.
During this entire time, the duke, Beatrice, Hayle and Aunt Florence sat mostly silent, watching Athena as she attempted to deal with her wayward family.
"I suppose you walked?" she said to Daphne sarcastically.
"Don't be ridiculous!" the beauty scoffed. "I took the mail coach." She shuddered at the thought. "Do you know what type of people ride the mail coach? I even had some woman try to take me off somewhere when we reached the White Hart, but I remembered what you taught me, Athena," she said proudly. "I kicked her."
Athena shook her head.
"Oh! I didn't know we had company," Daphne said and held her hand out to the duke. "Miss Daphne Caldwell. Have you met everyone else?"
"Charlotte Caldwell," Charlotte said quickly, elbowing Daphne out of the way. "And you are?"
"The Duke of Swindon."
"Pleased to meet you," Charlotte said matter-of-factly. "Bea," she added, acknowledging her sister. "Hayle. Did you bring the children?"
"They are at the townhouse," her brother-in-law replied conversationally. "Why don't you all come visit them tomorrow?"
"Wait, wait, wait!" Athena cried. "They can't! They are all going home this very afternoon! And not on horseback," she told Francesca firmly. All this circus needed was Harry.
Speak of the devil and his imp appears, she thought with exasperation as her twelve-year-old brother strolled into the room.
"I told you to wait downstairs!" Daphne insisted. "I haven't had a chance to talk to Athena yet."
"What is one more?" Athena asked, throwing her hands up in defeat.
"This is the Duke of Swindon," Francesca said to her brother. "Those sweet-goers downstairs belong to him."
"Famous!" Harry said. "I'm Harry." He put a hand out for the duke. "Athena! Did you know an abbess tried to procure Daphne at the coaching inn? It was absolutely famous!"
"I'm afraid my family does not sit much on ceremony," Beatrice murmured to the duke.
"It's quite all right, my dear Lady Hayle. They are very charming and completely without artifice. Is this all of them?"
"All except Eve, and our Papa, of course."
"And do we expect him next?"
"One hopes not."
"Do you think Miss Caldwell will deal sharply with them?"
Beatrice smiled. "Oh, not at all. Athena is quite soft when it comes to the sticking point."
"Ahhh..." The duke picked up his quizzing glass and inspected Miss Caldwell. She was very quietly tending to her youngest siblings, oblivious to her appearance, while her other sisters chatted amongst themselves, sharing their adventures with Hayle and Mrs. Hall.
Athena and Gabrielle stood and left the room, and while their elder sister was gone, the younger ones continued their quiet conversations. When the drawing room door opened once again, everyone looked up, expecting either Athena or the elusive Eve. Instead, Sir Edward and an older woman came in together.
"Papa!" Francesca squeaked. "What are you doing here?"
"Come to find out why all my children deserted me, perhaps?" he suggested. Athena returned on their heels and held out her hands to Mrs. Browne. Gabby might be jealous of the attention this lady received, but Athena thought she could be a good addition to the family, if they would but accept her.
More introductions were made, and then Hayle stood and suggested it was time for them to leave. The invitation to visit with the children the next day was repeated and accepted, and the duke made a point of thanking Mrs. Hall and her eldest niece for their hospitality.
"It was our pleasure," Aunt Florence said with a titter.
Athena linked her arm with Beatrice as they followed the gentlemen down the hall to the stairs.
"Will you let the children stay?"
"I'm not sure. It depends now on Papa and his plans," Athena admitted. "I cannot imagine him letting them stay, unless he has this grand idea of leaving them here in my care. As if I need the chaos. Today's fiasco has been quite enough to last me a good long while. With all that has gone on, what else could go wrong?"
The what else was Harry's portmanteau, left on one of the bottom stairs by the careless schoolboy and ignored by a distracted staff. The duke, unaware of its existence, stepped on the bag, lost his balance and pitched forward into the foyer.
Beatrice sat down on the steps in surprise, Hayle could only stare with his mouth open and Athena rushed down to the duke's side.
"Pritchard!" she called. "We are going to need a doctor!"
"Oh, dear," Athena moaned. "Are you badly hurt?" she asked the duke, who was lying on his back in Mrs. Hall's foyer after tripping over a portmanteau left on the stairs.
He looked at Miss Caldwell, her hair falling down around her ears, a paint-smudged smock covering her gown and a dab of blue on her face, and fell in love.
Perhaps it was her cool hands on his, her frowning over what surely had to be an increased pulse. Maybe it was all the stories Hayle had told about her and how she managed her family so well. It could have been the way she ordered that same family as they stood on steps and stairs and watched her handle the situation in a calm, competent manner.
"Fran, get a couple of pillows for his grace's head. Bea, have a room readied in case he needs to stay. Where does it hurt most?" she suddenly asked him.
The duke just stared up at her for a moment.
"My ankle," he said, his voice sounding a little unnatural to him. "I think I twisted my ankle." He struggled to sit up, uncomfortably sprawled on the floor, especially with the audience above him. Miss Caldwell turned around and glared at them.
"Charlotte, take everyone upstairs, please. Aunt Florence, will you ask Cook for some of her buns? Hayle, you and Papa stay here. We might need you. Did Pritchard go for the doctor himself?"
Miss Francesca tossed down the pillows, gave him a wink and linked arms with a young lady he had not yet met. The elusive Eve seemed to have let curiosity get the better of her.
He let Miss Caldwell fuss over him until the doctor arrived, and when it was decided to move him, he was pleased to notice she led the way. Once he had been settled on the bed in what she called the Red Room, he watched the lady usher out her father and Hayle and close the door behind her, leaving him alone with the physician, who introduced himself as Dr. Price.
"She's quite an efficient lady," the duke said.
"Hmmm..." The doctor removed the duke's Hessian and felt around the injured area. "I noticed you were more intent on Miss Caldwell than on any pain inflicted by your carriers."
The duke's grin was sheepish, as if he had been caught with his hand in a jar of candy.
"Is my ankle serious enough to warrant staying here for a couple of days?" he eagerly asked.
"Not really," the doctor admitted. "It's not even sprained."
The duke's face fell.
"On the other hand. There is no reason you can't stay here for a few days and sleep off some of your dissipation," the doctor said dryly.
"Is it that obvious?"
"Only to the trained eye. However, I doubt you will get much rest in this household."
"There do seem to be rather a lot of them," the duke agreed.
"I've been Mrs. Hall's physician for a number of years and without breaking her confidence, I think I can safely say you are just what the doctor ordered. You really should stay off that ankle overnight, at least. I'll couch your injuries in terms guaranteed to ensure your continued stay without overly alarming the ladies."
"I'll send your angel of mercy back into you now, shall I? She will want to know what you require for your comfort, no doubt. If I were you, though, I'd send for your manservant to help her out and not tell any of the other females in your life where you are." Without waiting for a reply, the doctor picked up his bag and left the room.
The duke heard murmurings outside and then Miss Caldwell, still wearing her smock and looking gloriously disheveled, returned to his side. She left the door open, as was proper, but there were, thankfully, no lurkers in the hall.
"I'm sorry about the accident and your injury, sir," she said in her soft voice. The voice he already knew could dish out orders better than a general. "Harry will be along shortly to apologize. Is there anything you need for your stay?"
"My valet?" he suggested. "He can take on some of the burden of caring for me."
"Of course," she said with a smile. "He will be most welcome and can help keep my family from bothering you further."
"That won't be necessary, Miss Caldwell. Your siblings are invited to call on me -- within reasonable hours, of course. Does young Master Harry play chess, by any chance?"
She nodded. "Although he is only a beginner."
"Ask him to bring a board and chess pieces when he tenders his apology, if you please."
The next morning, Miles' valet opened the bedroom door to admit the older red-headed Caldwell sister, who carried in breakfast on a tray and reintroduced herself as Charlotte.
"Because I can't expect you to remember all the names, especially after yesterday, now can I?"
The duke laughed and invited Miss Charlotte to have a seat while he ate.
"Oh, I really shouldn't. Athena says you need your rest."
"I rested all night. Now I'm ready for company. How did you manage to pull breakfast duty?"
Charlotte dimpled. "Athena always paints in the morning, so I help out, even at home. When I remember."
"Am I so unforgettable, then?" he teased, breaking open an egg and scooping out the soft contents.
"Well, yes," Charlotte admitted. "For the moment, at least."
"I'm honored." He was known for his aloofness among the ton, and his caustic wit. Perhaps it was because people had a tendency to toady to him and he was often required to put them in their place. He found the Caldwells intriguing because they seemed more natural and open -- less impressed with his title and more concerned with him as a human being.
"You should be!" Charlotte said with a laugh. "I'm known in the family for being unable to recall anything not contained within the pages of a book."
"Oh? What do you like to read? Fiction, I suppose." He took a bite of toast.
"Not at all. Right now I am interested in educational reform, especially for females. In fact, there are a series of lectures being given this week here in London..."
"Hence your concern for your sisters when they ran off?" he teased once more.
"Not completely. We really do care for one another, you know."
"I can tell," he softly replied.
"No siblings? I thought not," she said when he shook his head. "It rather shows. Yesterday you looked like a pole-axed cow when faced with all my sisters." She glanced at a small clock on the mantel and then at the open door. "I have to run now. If Athena finds out I have stayed this long... I have enjoyed our conversation, though. May I visit again?"
"I would be pleased if you would. Thank you for bringing breakfast. I'll have Dormer," he indicated the valet who entered the room, "take the tray downstairs when I am through. Dormer," he said after Miss Charlotte had curtsied and left, "I have an idea, but I'm going to need Woodley's help."
"Your secretary, your grace?"
"I'm sure he has papers and such for me to deal with. Why don't you have him pay me a call about, oh, three o'clock this afternoon. And ask Miss Charlotte around that time if she will also come visit." He shared a knowing look with his manservant.
Lord Adrian Woodley, the third son of the Marquess of Basingstoke, had been his grace's personal secretary for three years, ever since the duke had come home from war. He was a tolerably handsome man of six and twenty years with dark brown hair and light blue eyes. He enjoyed luxury and a healthy bank account thanks to his grace's generosity, and when the order for him to present himself at Mrs. Hall's house at 3 o'clock came, he did not hesitate to have a pile of business ready for the duke.
Pritchard admitted him to the house and showed him upstairs to his grace's temporary quarters, and when he put down the paperwork to bow to his employer, he noticed a redheaded young lady sitting by the side of the bed.
"Ah, Woodley!" The duke greeted his secretary with a smile, much to that man's surprise. His grace had been rather neutral of expression of late and Woodley wondered how much of the duke's new animation was due to the young lady at his side.
"You are just in time to listen to Miss Charlotte's opinions on the education of females," the duke said. "Come in and meet Miss Charlotte Caldwell. Miss Charlotte, my secretary, Lord Adrian Woodley."
Charlotte rose and curtsied, one of her red curls falling over her shoulder in the process.
"Lord Adrian. You are here on business, I suppose, so I will take your tea tray, sir," she said to the duke, "and leave you gentlemen alone. I'm off to a family meeting to see if we all might stay in London for a few weeks."
"I hope you may remain for awhile," the duke said, to the astonishment of his employee. "I wouldn't want you to miss the lecture on education tomorrow."
"You are attending the Royal Society lecture?" Lord Adrian asked. Charlotte nodded.
"Social reforms are an interest of mine."
"Perhaps..." He glanced at the duke, surprised to see the man beaming at both of them, as if had orchestrated the entire meeting. "That is ... if we had proper chaperonage and you had permission..."
"Would you allow me to escort you to the lecture?"
Charlotte's smile was radiant. "I should like that very much. Perhaps you have a moment now to meet my sister Athena? She would have to give permission..."
The duke cleared his throat. "Not your father?"
Charlotte laughed. "He would just tell me to ask Athena."
"I would be pleased to meet your sister..." Lord Adrian looked at the duke and then back at Miss Charlotte Caldwell.
"I'll be right here when you return," the duke said with a laugh.
Athena had asked Eve to take Harry out to the park in the center of the square, and because she had no ready reason why she could not, Eve had to comply. She had managed a small rebellion in the face of Athena's bossiness the day before, but now, in front of her entire family, she dared not push her sister further.
"I wish we were home," she grumbled as Harry chattered happily at her side. Eve ignored him. She was tired of hearing about the duke.
"Do you think they will get married?" Harry suddenly asked. Eve frowned. Hadn't her brother been nattering on about the duke?
"Who? Papa and Mrs. Browne?"
"No, silly! Athena and the duke!"
"Why would they?"
"Char says it's love at first sight," her brother said impatiently.
"There is no such thing!" Eve scoffed. "Now, go away and leave me alone," she said, sitting on a bench and making shooing gestures with her hands.
Harry stuck his tongue out and ran off. Eve crossed her arms and sat stewing over being stuck in London with her entire family.
Harry wandered over to the fountain in the center of the park, bent down and dipped his hand in the water.
"Is it cold?" a young voice asked.
Harry looked up to see a boy at his side, seated in a Bath chair.
"Not really. Our stream at home is much colder, but then it's covered by trees and it's much deeper," he replied. "That makes it easier to fish in, though.
"I wish I could fish!"
"Why can't you?" Harry wondered. "Don't those wheels go on grass?"
"They do, but my father doesn't like me to wander too far away from the house. I'm too busy having lessons with my tutor anyway. Papa says if my legs won't work for me, I have to develop my mind."
"You have a tutor?" Harry exclaimed.
"Mr. Johnson. He's right over there." The boy, who could not be more than seven or eight, indicated a young man reading a newspaper on a nearby bench.
"I wish I had a tutor," Harry said longingly.
""I wish I could go away to school," said the boy.
"Harry Caldwell, by the way," Harry said, sticking out his hand.
"Peter Marlowe." They shook hands. "You go to school? Eton? What are you doing here?"
"I don't like it there. I want to be home so I can go fishing and ride my horse and the worst thing in my life is having to live with a houseful of sisters."
"You have sisters? I don't have any brothers or sisters," Peter said sadly. "Not anymore."
"You had some?" Harry immediately began to think how he could give a couple of his away.
"I had a little sister, but she and my mother got sick and died."
"My mother is dead, too. My sister Athena takes good care of me, though. What happened to your legs?"
Peter frowned. "I was born this way."
Harry patted his arm sympathetically. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. It's been eleven years and I'm used to it."
"You're eleven? I'm twelve." They talked for a few more minutes and then Peter brightened visibly.
"I have an idea. Because you are not in school, why don't I have my Papa ask your sister if you can have lessons with me? Mr. Johnson won't mind -- he says I'm almost too smart for him and that it would be good for me to have some competition."
"I don't know if I will be competition..." Harry admitted. "But it would be fun to take lessons with you and your tutor."
"Good! Come meet Mr. Johnson now, then. He's a good sort, really." Peter wheeled his chair toward the tutor, but stopped in his tracks when Eve came into view, calling her brother's name.
"One of your sisters? She looks like an angel!"
Harry snorted. "She's just a pesty older sister. None of them are angels, except maybe Athena, and even she makes me go to school. I think it's because Papa went there. Personally, I don't think Papa even notices if I'm there or not."
"Mine doesn't either," Peter said gloomily.
"Eve!" Harry called. "This is my new friend, Peter Marlowe. He's..." Harry became quiet when another man approached the tutor. In fact, they all stared.
"That's my father, Sir Thomas Marlowe," Peter whispered. Harry looked at the man with interest. He was tall, with sandy brown hair and dark eyes, and weather-roughened skin, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors.
"And this is your new friend?" Eve asked, indicating Peter. "Son of Sir Thomas?"
"Something like that," Harry said, finding his voice. "I'm going to ask Athena if I can take lessons with Peter and his tutor." He thought Eve, who was staring at the two gentlemen, looked strange.
"Indeed. Well, time to go home!" she said brightly. "Lovely to meet you, Peter, but we have to be going. We'll be in touch!" she added, dragging Harry down the path, despite his protests. "We'll be in staying in London all season!"
"Athena?" Daphne poked her head into the garret where her sister painted. "Can I speak with you?"
"Of course." Athena wiped her hands on a rag and covered her current work. It wasn't something she wanted anyone to see just yet.
Daphne barely glanced at the canvas. She, like all her siblings, thought her sister a mere dabbler, and was usually wrapped up in her own problems to pay it much attention. "Wexford doesn't love me anymore!" she wailed.
"How do you know?" Granted, Wexford had been playing least in sight, but there must be a logical explanation. She said so to her sister.
"I sent a note to him yesterday afternoon and have not heard anything yet."
"I am certain he is busy. Parliament is in session, darling."
"So? A little reply to one's fiancée would not be remiss." Daphne paused, her eyes becoming as big as saucers. "This is not the first note I have written. What if he was with his mistress?"
"Wexford has a mistress?"
"I don't know!" Daphne wailed. "I was just guessing! Possibly! Why else would he ignore me? I have to find out!"
Athena sighed. This was beyond her comprehension or her authority. "I have no idea how to go about that, dearest, or if we should. It's none of my business."
"What do you mean it is none of your business?" her sister asked incredulously. "It concerns me, doesn't it?" When Athena had no reply, Daphne began to cry. "Why do I even bother?" She ran out of the room in tears.
"Why do I even bother?" Athena asked no one in particular.
The duke was sitting up in bed, his door open to view family members as they went about their daily routines. He saw Miss Daphne rush by, crying, and called out her name.
Daphne came back, sniffling. "You wish to speak to me, your grace?" She curtsied and gave him a watery smile.
"Why are you upset?"
If he had known it was going to open the floodgates, he would have held his tongue. The next thing he knew, Daphne was sprawled on his chest, sobbing uncontrollably.
He patted at her golden hair and uttered soothing words as best he could, but he was ill equipped to deal with such a situation. After she accepted an offered handkerchief and dried her eyes, he bid her sit in the chair at his bedside and tell him all.
"Athena hates me! I want to know why Wexford hasn't replied to any of my letters since I've arrived, and she says it is none of her business."
The duke wisely said nothing to this, although he thought Miss Daphne rather selfish. On the other hand, a missive from one's fiancée should not be ignored. He wondered what had happened.
"Parliament is in session," he reminded her.
"But not all day and all night, and a reply would have been appreciated. I think he has a mistress!" she declared.
"He must! What else would take up all his spare hours?"
The duke suppressed his laughter, knowing there were hundreds of other activities that could fill that time.
"But how am I to find out?" she continued.
"You could not find out, in all probability," the duke said.
Daphne only raised one eyebrow. "I shall ask my maid. Servants know everything, and if they don't, they can soon find out."
The duke shuddered. Not only was she correct, but he wasn't quite sure what she would do once she obtained her information.
"I beg of you, Miss Daphne - please do not investigate further at the moment."
"Because ... because I may be able to discover some information for you by more conventional means."
"You will have a Bow Street Runner follow him?"
The duke almost clapped a hand on his forehead in frustration.
"No. And I was not speaking specifically about a mistress. I only meant I may be able to discover how Wexford is spending his time in general."
"Oh, you are wonderful! Thank you!"
The family gathered in the drawing room for their meeting, including Beatrice and Lord Hayle.
"What has Beatrice to do with all this?" Francesca groused.
"She is still a member of this family," Athena gently reminded her. "She is allowed to help make decisions because she is not distancing herself from the current situation."
Beatrice looked at her husband and blushed. They knew how much she had wanted to separate herself at first.
"But that means the duke should be here, as well," Francesca insisted.
"No!" Athena said sharply. "What has he to do with us?"
"He accepted my apology," Harry said.
"He is offering his secretary as an escort so I may attend a lecture," Charlotte added.
"He did?" Athena frowned. The man was taking over her family.
"Oh?" Sir Edward bestirred himself from the chair where he had started to nap long enough to look at Mrs. Browne with one eyebrow raised.
"And he is going to investigate Wexford," Daphne said brightly.
"Oh, no!" Athena said with a moan. "He isn't!"
"Yes, he is!" Daphne said hotly. "You wouldn't and I can understand why," she said, as if explaining it to a child. "You are not able to go places a gentleman can. And I do believe he has better connections."
"But surely Papa could..."
"But he won't," Daphne blithely continued, as if her father were not sitting there.
"Athena," Harry said suddenly. "May I have lessons with a boy and his tutor who live across the square?"
"Not now, Harry," Eve warned.
"But I need someone to approach his papa..."
"I said not now." She covered his mouth with her hand. Athena could see something was going on there, but she did not have time to investigate.
"I just want her to leave now!" Gabby said, pointing to Mrs. Browne. The widow flushed and Athena gave her a sympathetic glance. Gabriella must be made to see reason - Mrs. Browne would make an excellent stepmother, and could take over the family problems. That thought brought a small pang of jealousy to Athena's heart.
"Not now, Gabby..." she started, but conversations broke out into an infernal din as everyone ignored her.
Sir Edward, alert now, fussed at Gabby for insulting Mrs. Browne, and the widow tried to defend Gabby, who wasn't having any of it. Eve and Harry argued over something that had happened earlier that day, and Daphne was apologizing to Hayle for not asking him to discover if Wexford had a mistress. Bea then scolded Daphne for even thinking such a thing about her fiancé, and Daphne burst into tears. Fran was quizzing Charlotte about the duke's secretary, and when her sister blushed, started teasing her about him instead. Only Aunt Florence was at a loss for words.
Athena shook her head at the chaos about her and knew who was at the root of her family's squabbles...
"Do you realize I cannot speak to my family now without your name coming to the forefront of the conversation?" Athena said tartly, storming into the duke's room without even a by-your-leave.
"Is that so?" he calmly replied. "What are they saying?" He resisted the urge to put his hands behind his head and act innocent. Athena was magnificent when she was angry - flashing blue eyes sparking with life - but he did not wish to take another tumble down the stairs, aided by Miss Caldwell's dainty foot.
"That you are taking responsibility for dealing with their problems. That you are going to make everything all better. That you can heal the sick and cause the blind to see," she said sarcastically.
"I never claimed to be deity, Miss Caldwell," he replied with a laugh. He should not have replied with humor. Athena seemed to have little of it when she was mad.
"I thank you to stay out of our business, your grace."
He frowned. "And why not? How else can I repay their hospitality - or yours, for that matter?"
"Mine?" Athena was nonplussed.
"Of course, yours. I am aware that you have taken on extra duties for my sake, and I thank you. The least I can do is keep your siblings from running to you with every little cut finger or hurt feelings."
"But..." She was visibly melting.
"But you are so used to being the center of their worlds, you don't know what to do when they run elsewhere. Haven't you ever wondered what would happen if you ever married and had your own family?"
Athena sighed and sat down wearily in the chair by the side of the bed. "I had never thought to marry," she admitted.
"No?" He reached for her hand and she gave it without thinking.
"I suppose I would have to give it all up at any rate, should Papa marry Mrs. Browne."
"And that would be a good thing?" he prompted.
"Yes. She seems the calm sort, and Aunt Florence said she has been helping her poor, overworked housekeeper without any fuss."
"Am I that much of a problem?"
"Oh, no, it's more the demands of all extra people in the house. I suppose as long as Beatrice and her family don't move in, we can all rub along fairly well," she said with a small smile.
Swindon nodded. Athena looked down and dropped his hand. "I... I must be getting back to the family now," she stammered. He asked her if Beatrice might have a few moments for him before she went home.
Athena assured him she would pass on his request and then hastily quit the room. She missed the smug expression on the duke's face as he put his hands behind his head.
Athena returned to the drawing room to find it empty except for her father. He was asleep.
"Wake up!" she said sharply in his ear.
Sir Edward jumped. "Don't do that!"
She ignored him and indicated the room. "Did you come to conclusions about anything?"
"I decided that Mrs. Browne stays..."
"Good. Perhaps you could take Gabby and Fran with you on a few outings, then."
"What?" Sir Edward was clearly alarmed.
"Of course, if you are taking the girls, Harry must be invited, as well," she mused. "Will you be sending him back to Eton?"
"The lad wants to try a tutor, and he and Eve assure me one may easily be procured."
"Of course." Was that their big secret? And why had all these important family decisions only been settled once she had left the room? They had been fighting like cats and dogs when she left.
Feeling unsettled, she went upstairs to paint. But as she reached the open door to the duke's room, she heard Bea's voice and remembered that his grace wished to speak to her sister. She paused a moment, even though she knew it was not very good of her.
Bea and Hayle had stopped by his room on their way home.
"Aren't you the cat in the cream pitcher?" Bea teased, taking in Swindon's smug pose and his lingering smile.
"Yes, I am. I have found the lady I want to spend the rest of my life with and I have the extreme good fortune to injure myself, thereby ensuring my continued stay in her aunt's home."
"You mean...? One my sisters?" Bea goggled at him and then burst out laughing.
"Do you mean to say you are not as injured as is believed?" Hayle asked.
"I have a mild sprain and that is all. The doctor has been most accommodating and says I may stay as long as I wish. Not only that, but I believe I am making some headway with the lady."
"Which one?" Bea demanded. "Eve? Charlotte? Daphne?"
"Don't be ridiculous. The first is charming, but definitely a child. Miss Charlotte, I believe, is impressed with my secretary, and Miss Daphne is engaged."
"Athena? Good choice, Miles!" Hayle exclaimed. The duke nodded. Bea was thrilled and she gave the him a hug.
"I agree. Athena is perfect for you."
"I just have to make her see that. What can you tell me about her? What does she do when she is not being mother to the entire family?"
"She likes to paint," Bea replied. "And she is good, too. But she is shy about it."
"And she takes long walks when she is at home, but that's not something you can join her in right at the moment, is it, old friend?" Hayle teased.
Athena heard the duke say he had found the perfect wife right here in this house. Which sister? And she was furious that he was staying in their home under false pretenses. How dare he? Bea began to rattle names off, but Athena did not want to hear the answer, and she turned around and headed upstairs by way of the servants' stairs.
Her path was clear -- she had to get whichever sister he preferred to accept him, and then get them both out of her aunt's house.
"Come, Harry, we have to go on an errand," Eve said imperiously the next morning. She had been waiting in the hall for her brother to finish his breakfast, and now she waylaid him in order to go out.
"Where to?" he asked suspiciously.
"The Marlowe residence, of course. I am to escort you over to see Peter." And hopefully get an interview with Sir Thomas in the process.
"Athena is letting you do this?" Harry suspected his sister's motives -- she had never been this nice to him before. But he finally agreed and they were putting on their coats at the front door when Athena hailed them.
"Where are you two going?" she asked brightly. Eve paused and Harry spoke up quickly, thinking his sister had changed her mind.
"Come with us, 'Thena! We're going to call on Peter Marlowe. He's my new friend. You'll like him -- he's in a chair with wheels and he only has a papa, too..." Harry chattered on while Athena agreed to go.
Eve was quiet as they walked around the square, but as they reached the house, she took charge and asked authoritatively for the young man. As she handed over one of her calling cards, her fondest dream came true. Sir Thomas was coming down the stairs.
"Caldwell?" he asked after receiving the card from his butler. "How do you do? I'm Sir Thomas Marlowe." He held out a hand to Harry first. "You must be Master Harry. I've heard so much about you. And these are your sisters?"
Harry nodded. "Miss Caldwell and Miss Eve Caldwell." The ladies made their curtsies.
"Harry wished to visit his new friend," Eve said, "but I am so glad you are here. I've been wanting to broach a specific subject with you, sir." But she had lost his attention almost as soon as she began to speak. He was staring at Athena. And Athena and Harry were staring at her in turn.
She resisted the urge to shrug, knowing exactly what her siblings were thinking -- that she was putting herself forward instead of being the family shrinking violet. And over a man, at that, one who seemed to have eyes only for her sister.
"Ahem!" Eve cleared her throat to call attention to herself once more.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Caldwell. Tompkins..." He called his butler. "Will you escort Master Harry up to the schoolroom?" Harry was all smiles and went off happily with the servant, leaving Sir Thomas to show the ladies into a parlor, where he invited them to sit. Eve was disgruntled to see him offer Athena a place on the sofa, and sit down beside her.
"Peter says he wishes Master Harry to share his tutor and lessons. I do not have a problem with that, and neither does Mr. Johnson. It would be nice for Peter to have a friend his age," he said almost wistfully.
"Well, yes," Athena said nervously, not quite sure what to make of all this. Eve cleared her throat again.
"What hours does your tutor set for your son, sir?"
"He takes lessons for two hours in the morning and four in the afternoon, with appropriate breaks in between. Will that be satisfactory, Miss Caldwell?" Sir Thomas turned back to Athena, who applied to Eve, for once, in mute appeal. Eve was much appeased by her sister's attitude.
"We would be more than willing to pay part of Mr. Johnson's wages," Eve said
"That will not be necessary, Miss Eve. Companionship for my son will be worth whatever I pay the tutor, which is already generous."
"That is very kind of you," Athena said.
"It will be worth it, indeed," Sir Thomas replied. Eve determined to give the tutor extra funds at any rate, especially if she could winkle her way into walking Harry over every day.
A light knock on the doorframe brought their attention to the butler. He had interrupted, he explained, in order to inform Sir Thomas that his morning appointment had arrived.
"If you will excuse me, ladies, I am required elsewhere. Tompkins will take you to your brother." After he left, Eve blew out a sigh of frustration, as did her sister.
How am I going to gain his attention? Eve wondered.
Athena was not only embarrassed by Sir Thomas' attention, but wondered how she was going to get Eve to visit the duke so she could gauge that reaction as well.
"You wish me to what?" The duke's valet was so astonished by the request, he forgot to add "your grace." That fact did not go unnoticed by his employer. But the duke only grinned and repeated his order.
"I wish you to help discover if Wexford has a mistress. He is betrothed to Miss Daphne, you know, and yet it has been a donkey's age since she has set eyes on him."
"I suppose I could nose about, talk to a few of his servants..."
"Excellent idea. In the meantime, I'll invite Fenton to call. There's nothing like a good gossip to give one the news they seek."
"Lord Fenton, your grace?" The valet wore a pained expression. Lord Fenton was an old friend of the duke's, but he was also extremely difficult to get rid of, and he didn't want the gentleman to burden the already burgeoning household. Fenton had been known to come for dinner and stay for a month, even in one's London townhouse. But the valet did as he was told and sent a footman to deliver his grace's message to Fenton's rooms.
When his lordship arrived, he was ushered directly to the duke's bedchamber.
"Swindon!" He strolled into the room and glanced about at his grace's incongruent surrounding. "I never thought I'd see the day you were surrounded by chintz!" Fenton laughed as he shook hands with his friend. "Or the day you would be in bed all day except with a beautiful woman."
Athena, upon her arrival home, had learned of his grace's visitor and had brought up a tea tray.
"Oh! I see I was not too far off the mark!" Fenton said.
Having heard both remarks, Athena blushed but kept most of her calm. After all, she was not the one who held his grace's regard. The duke made introductions and invited her to join them. She agreed just as Lord Fenton asked the duke how he had managed to get himself laid up in such lovely surroundings.
"I had a bit of an accident," Swindon replied, sounding as if it had been a bad experience.
"Oh, it was frightening!" Athena solemnly agreed. The man had barely injured himself, she knew now, but she found herself unable to reveal him in front of a stranger. Besides, she needed to find out which of her sisters he had fallen in love with, and she couldn't do that if he were gone. "And his grace cannot be moved for awhile yet. I have several siblings, however, and they do their best to keep him entertained."
"A difficult task at best," Lord Fenton jested. "But I am here now to share the latest on-dits with you, Swindon. Let us see how much that will brighten your day."
The duke settled in for a long session with the chatterbox and was not to be disappointed. Fenton rambled on until Athena begged to be excused, citing a planned coze with Mrs. Browne as her excuse.
As soon as she was out of the room, Fenton leaned in to impart the most important part of his news.
"Angelique is getting restless," he admitted, "and won't stay much longer under your protection. She claims you have taken another under your wing."
The duke yawned. "Angelique is free to find a new patron at any time. If she is distressed over my continued absence, she may look elsewhere for consolation."
Fenton nodded and eyed the duke with some speculation. The man was noted for his lack of sympathy when it came time to discard his women, but he wasn't sure if Swindon was growing bored with his current female or that he was turning his sights on a legitimate match. Could the man have fallen for the beautiful young lady providing his current care?
"I have a question for you, Fenton," the duke said, unaware of the thoughts running through his friend's head. "What do you see of Wexford lately?"
"Wexford? The man is tied to his mama's sash! Not a night goes by that he isn't seen escorting her hither and yon. Some say she dislikes his betrothed and seeks to keep them... Say, isn't Wexford's fiancée a Caldwell? A pretty blonde, name of Daphne?"
"You know it is, Fenton. Probably the reason you came running as soon as you received my note. Miss Daphne, as you can well imagine, is heartbroken by Wexford's continued absence. Lady Wexford's plan to keep him in leading strings seems to be working fine." The duke shook his head. Distracting a man from his mistress was relatively simple, but when a man was being a mama's boy, that was something completely different. Not that it couldn't be handled, but it would take more than what he could do from his bed.
"A pity," he said to Fenton. "But tell me... Does the lady still play deeply at Ruby's?" He named a popular gaming hell.
Fenton chuckled. "Why do you think she is joined to Wexford's hip? He keeps her in funds. I'm surprised Wexford even managed to get himself engaged last year, but if I recall, Lady Wexford was homebound for a couple of months in the spring after breaking her arm."
"Oh? How did that happen?"
"It was rumored she hit a faro dealer when accusing him of cheating her. It is said not only had she been imbibing heavily at the time, but that she tried to get the man fired. I heard Wexford found him a new place of employment."
"And Miss Daphne wishes to marry into that family?" the duke wondered aloud.
"In his defense, Wexford showed nothing but total devotion to Miss Daphne the entire time."
"So he needs to be separated from his mother?"
"Does Prinny need a corset?"
Athena found Mrs. Browne in the drawing room pouring out afternoon tea for herself and Francesca. The two were chatting amiably, and she thought it a good thing at least one of her younger sisters enjoyed the widow's company. But even as she sat down to join them, Gabrielle came into the room, saw who was there, snatched a muffin and left.
The widow sighed. "You, who should have the most reasons for disliking me, do not treat me as badly as does that child."
Athena could only agree. "Indeed, I have long relished a replacement where it concerns some of the duties Papa has given me," she surprised herself into saying.
"Such as introducing us to society," Fran piped up.
"Yes, such as that, although we have had this discussion before, Miss Francesca," Athena warned. "No season until next year."
"I see no reason why we cannot take Francesca about with us to card parties and such," Mrs. Browne said. "There are several of us to play chaperone now." Athena could not say anything discouraging to that, not after seeing the glowing light in her sister's eyes. Mrs. Browne leaned over and patted Fran's hand.
"We shall have fun, you and I."
Athena realized one more thing as slipping out of her grasp and she quickly drank her tea, leaving the other two to make plans to go shopping. Heading up to Charlotte's room, she discovered from a maid that her sister had gone out. She wondered if his grace's visitor was gone as well, or if they needed more refreshments, and went back to the duke's room.
He was alone, but appeared delighted to see her. Athena wondered if he wouldn't rather have other company, but she could not think of a polite way to ask.
"Quite the gossip, Fenton..." the duke said.
"Gave me a bit of information about Wexford, as well."
"Is he...?" Again, Athena was at a loss as she struggled for polite words.
"There is a female involved, but no mistress. The poor man is too busy dancing attendance on his mother to have time for a fiancée, let alone a paramour."
She blushed crimson at the thought of any man having a mistress.
"Lady Wexford is behind all this?"
"Apparently so. But I have an idea that might work to separate mother hen from her engaged chick and reunite him with his beloved."
"What do you propose?"
"First, we need to find out where they will next appear in society. Then we shall need..." He sat up straighter and snapped his fingers. "Uncle Thaddeus!"
© 2004 Copyright held by the author.