It was the bewitching hour at Almack's, 11 p.m., and a very startled Lady Jersey was both pleased and irritated to see the Marquess of Jarrod stroll complacently into the hallowed halls of the Marriage Mart just as the doors were being closed to all comers. Had the man not said publicly, on more than one occasion, he would set foot in there only if the world were coming to an end?
Lady Jersey's eyes narrowed in contemplation before opening wide, seemingly without guile.
"Do hurry, my lord," she called sweetly, sweeping up to the tall, blonde man in stark black and white evening dress, "lest the sky fall upon your head!"
The marquess bowed to acknowledge the hit and made to move on, but Lady Jersey would have none of it. Attaching herself to his arm, she quietly informed him he was about to offer recompense for his previous remarks concerning her establishment.
"I have a few ladies lacking partners this evening," she said with a mock sigh. "We're so thin of young male company this evening."
"A pity," he replied.
"A pity," echoed the countess. "It seems they are of a mind to follow the lead of a noted Corinthian, who has intimated we are not worthy of his attentions unless it were the end of the world. I am pleased to know you, a gentleman of no little sense, would never listen to such drivel."
"Never," the marquess agreed, his cool demeanor doing nothing to unattach the countess from her companion. The truth was, if his mother had not sent an urgent message to his club, asking him to attend her immediately, he would not have ran her to ground at Almack's. When he learned, from her butler, that the message must have been sent from the assembly rooms, he hastened there at once, never minding his previously spoken words in his concern for his parent.
However, had the duchess been less than hale and hearty, he believed even Lady Jersey would have removed him to her side immediately. Much relieved on that score, he would, for now, play along with the countess' game.
Still, an hour later, after dancing with several wallflowers, the game had begun to pall. Miss Cornwallis had a decided squint and couldn't keep a partner in sight, Lady Vanessa Hightower was a roly-poly dumpling, and Miss Marshall was a horse-faced chit with a neigh, er, laugh to match. Unfortunately, she laughed at his every word.
Then either Lady Jersey had decided he had had enough, or his mother had asked the countess to relinquish her plaything, for he was finally led to her grace, the Duchess of Rothwell. With a self-satisfied little smirk, Lady Jersey retreated.
The duchess, clad in purple satin and waving a chicken-skin fan painted over with little fairies, looked at her son, and then Lady Jersey, and shrugged.
"You sent for me, mother?"
"Sit down, Jarrod - you make me nervous, towering above me like a giant."
"And you make me nervous, mother, summoning me to Almack's in such a havey-cavey fashion. Even your major domo thinks you have managed to collapse in the holy of holies."
"Pritchard? Fustian! Now look, Jarrod - there she is! No, don't look!" The marquess glanced toward a far corner and back again so quickly, the muscles in his neck ached.
"It's that Wade female!" the duchess hissed. Jarrod swiveled his head in the direction of his mother's fan once more.
"I said, don't look!" her grace whispered harshly, smacking her son's shoulder with her fan.
"What of Lady Wade?" he wanted to know. "Aside from being so unattractive?"
The duchess hid a grin behind her fan. "Lady Wade is your wards' stepmother."
"Yes? Is that a crime?"
"Of course not! But if Lady Wade is in Town, where the devil is your female ward?" The duchess' voice rose to a fever pitch and several heads turned in her direction. She only smiled and nodded to a few acquaintances, confident that a few unsuitable words from a duchess could be overlooked, even at Almack's.
But the marquess would have none of it. Snatching her fan away from her face, he peered deeply into brilliant green eyes that matched his own.
"Do you mean to tell me, your grace, that I have been forced against my better judgment to enter Almack's to discuss my ward?" His voice was calm, but icy cold.
"Well, of course you have - I want to know where she is!" his mother demanded.
"My ward, mother dear, is in Berkshire where she belongs. She is but a mere school chit."
"Fustian!" The duchess gave an unlady-like snort, also ignored by those in her immediate vicinity, excepting her elder son. He was momentarily taken aback, giving her ample time to peer intently at his handsome face.
"You've never even met her, have you?" she gasped.
"Of course not! Why should I? I did not ask Sir Stephen Wade to die and leave me saddled with his siblings. I send money to the stepmother every month for their care, and to keep them in school - what is it, mother?" Jarrod was concerned to see his mother nearly apoplectic. Perhaps this conversation was best held elsewhere...
Summoning up the courage to approach Lady Jersey, he apologized for his mother's health, sent his carriage on ahead to Rothwell House and then accompanied the duchess home in her carriage. He then settled her against the squabs, withdrew a silver flask from his coat and watched her take a healthy swig of brandy.
She relaxed with a sigh. "It might interest you to know, Jarrod," she started again without preamble, "that your ward, Penelope Wade, is of an age to be married. Furthermore, Lady Wade has been in town for two months, and dressed in the height of fashion, mind you, when the truth is, she hasn't a feather to fly with."
"Impossible!" he replied, but what he found impossible, he did not reveal. "I have heard from Lady Wade herself that her stepdaughter wants for nothing, and that she is happy at school. Are you saying, perhaps, that Lady Wade is lying?"
"No!" the duchess sarcastically replied. "Well, of course she would say such things to you - you are the one keeping her in funds, m'boy!"
"How do you know all this?" he demanded.
"I knew Sir Stephen when he was a mere pup, and the younger ones were still in their cradles. Didn't you know their mother was my own dear goddaughter? Why did Wade have to remarry - and to that witch, Hortense Wharton? Why did Sir Stephen have to fall at Waterloo last year, leaving his brother and sister with that woman? Why didn't he leave the children in my care?"
Now the duchess had worked herself into a lather all over again. Fortunately for Jarrod, the carriage had arrived at Rothwell House and he hastened his mother inside. With the help of Pritchard, who was waiting at the door, he had her ensconced in front of the drawing room fire in moments, another glass of brandy in hand, before picking up the thread of discussion.
"You know Sir Stephen was in my outfit, mother," he reminded her, not unkindly. "The night before the battle he signed a paper giving me guardianship of his siblings. I never thought he would - you know how men are when they think they might - I never even saw him fall."
Jarrod sat down hard on the sofa and stared into the fire, and his mother's heart flared with compassion for this man whom she loved dearly. It had broken her heart, too, several years before when he had insisted on buying into the army. She had been dead set against it, but the duke had sided with their son, and the boy had gone off to war. That boy had come home a man, a cold, cynical man with a slight limp and two unwanted wards. To see him now, giving her a glimpse of his own feelings in the situation, startled her to words.
"But Sir Stephen was declared dead, was he not?"
"Yes," he replied dully, his cool mask in place once more. "Although I never recovered his body. And how do you know Miss Wade is of an age?" he demanded, changing the subject. "Sir Harry is only twenty and still at Oxford."
"Didn't you know, Jarrod, dear? The younger Wade siblings are twins."
Penelope Wade sat up in a gnarled old apple tree in the Oak Hill orchard, feeling decidedly un-twinlike. Disgruntled with Harry for ignoring her mental summons, a trick that had seemed infallible in the past, she cursed his name aloud.
"Blast that Harry. The devil take him!"
One brother declared dead and the other missing in action, so to speak, her only solace was that her stepmother was in London, temporarily out of her life.
Throwing one leg over a limb of the tree, she hoisted herself higher, inhaling the beautiful fragrance of apple blossoms as she climbed. Her own mother had loved the scent and had distilled it into an eau de toilette so that she always smelled of spring. That thought almost brought tears to Penelope's eyes, but she bravely staved them off.
Mother had died when she and Harry were ten, leaving her father a girl he was unprepared to raise. For the next six years, she had been brought up like a son. She and Harry hunted, shot and fished, rode and swam in the lake. She had been allowed to dress in her brothers' castoffs as long as she stayed on estate grounds, and could often be seen tagging along as her father instructed both sons in estate management and farming.
Then Sir Peter had decided to remarry, and a sixteen-year-old Penelope had been forced to discard her breeches and put on gowns. She found herself criticized for cropping her dark curls and sliding down the banisters. She was forced to keep her favorite hunting dog in the kennels, and not her bedchamber, and she had to endure tea parties and morning callers. Her father had approved, Stephen was away at Oxford and then in the army, and Harry had to spend hours with his tutor, leaving Penelope at the mercy of the household's newest addition.
But if Penelope found life uncomfortable, it became downright torturous two years later, when her father died and Harry was sent away to university. Penelope's pride refused to let Stephen know the new hell she had plummeted into, and he never knew she was now a mere prisoner in her own home.
To the outside world she was still Miss Wade, beloved stepdaughter, but always indisposed whenever there was company. That had suited her just fine, until she had overheard rumors that her father's death had made her a candidate for Bedlam, and that she was kept secluded for her own good.
Penelope had not hesitated to report this to Harry, who was breezing his way through Oxford, but her brother had been preoccupied with his new life and new friends, and her pleas for help had fallen on deaf ears. Then Stephen was reported as dead at Waterloo, something she refused to believe - where was his body? - and the Marquess of Jarrod had become her guardian.
Not that anything had changed, she thought with a sniff. Only now her stepmother had the funds for a season or two in London, giving Penelope a reprieve. She had not been invited to join her, nor would she have accepted such an invitation.
Last spring had been the first trip, leaving Penelope with a skeleton staff and the freedom to roam the estate once more. She was soon a familiar sight, riding the land with the steward, clad again in Harry's castoffs. The estate tenants were pleased to see a hale and hearty Miss Penelope, after the alarming rumors of her decline. She found herself both welcomed warmly and pitied. Her management skills, however, soon proved her mental competence, and she was much in evidence whenever her stepmother was not in residence.
When Lady Wade was in London for the Little Season that past fall, Penelope had helped bring in the harvest before enduring a long winter with the woman. But when the new season in London beckoned in the spring, Penelope urged her to go, and resumed her own pursuits. If Lady Wade knew of Penelope's work on the estate, she gave no indication, much to everyone's relief.
Today, however, she had foresworn estate matters because Harry was being incredibly stubborn about listening to her mental pleas for assistance.
"Blast him to hell!" she cried, throwing a old dead branch from the top of the tree.
"Devil a bit, Pen!" Harry roared from below. "I'm here at your summons and this is how you repay me?" She looked down to where Harry was holding the branch in one hand, the reins of his horse in the other. She must have been truly preoccupied not to have heard their approach.
"Harry!" she cried. "Where the devil have you been?"
"I don't believe that is any of your business, Pen," he loftily replied. "A baronet does not need to explain himself to anyone, especially his sister."
"You would have to explain yourself to Jarrod," she reminded him.
He sobered visibly. "I have no intention of being anywhere near Jarrod to explain myself. He's in London, I'm in Oxford, when I'm not here, and he is not likely to be either one of these places. Ever. If he had wanted to concern himself with us, he would have already. I wish Stephen were here." He was only repeating what was in his sister's heart.
"Yes!" Penelope cried, climbing rapidly down out of the tree. "Harry, would you believe me if I told you I think Stephen might still be alive?" She took the horse from her brother and began to walk toward the stables. Horse and twin followed her like puppies.
"Of course. I've seen too many instances where you were right, not to believe something like that."
"I hoped you would say that. I think we should go to London."
"What? Didn't you just hear me? Jarrod is in London. We are not going to London. Of all the idiotic..."
"Harry! It is not idiotic! We can get some rooms..."
"Blast it all, Pen! It just ain't done! Getting rooms!" he scoffed. "And ruin your blasted reputation? I think not! You'd have to be a man to get rooms...Oh, no, Pen! I don't like that look, I truly do not!" He took the reins back, and turned the other way. "I think Oxford will be safer, summons or not!"
"Henry George Xavier Wade, you attend me this instant!" she cried. "We must go to London! We need to know about Stephen, and we need go to the War Office for that! We can't stay with Lady Wade, so we will have to get rooms. I can't stay in those rooms as a lady, so I will have to dress like a lad. Do you have an alternative?"
Harry stopped, but he didn't turn around. "No. But how are we to afford this? I'm strapped until the end of the quarter..."
"Oh, Harry," Penelope said softly. "Have you gambled away your allowance again?"
"It was easier when I wasn't a baronet, Pen, and everyone knew I hadn't the funds for deep play. You should be there instead of me, you are the one who always wins at cards..."
"That's it!" Penelope ran to her brother, grabbed the reins once more, and led the horse around until he was facing the stables. "If I were a young man, I could safely play cards for money, and that would keep us in funds. Oh, do say yes, Harry, please?" When Harry grinned, Penelope knew she had won. They would go to London.
"Devil take it, Pen, you cannot have gone and taken cold!"
Harry paced up and down the small sitting room in the lodgings they had taken in London, eager to be about their business, and now his sister had ruined their plans with ill health.
"If you had not gone and secured us seats atop the mail coach, and it had not rained, I should not be in such a position, I vow. Achoo!"
"But seats atop the coach are all the crack, Pen! I told you that."
"Not to mention less expensive," she teased, a handkerchief held to her dripping nose. She was stretched out on the battered old sofa that held prominence in the room, although she had pushed it up to the fireplace as close as possible. "Now what had you planned for today that I have ruined?"
"A trip to Weston's."
"I am not presenting myself to your tailor, and well you know it," she tartly replied. "But you may take that sack of Stephen's clothes that I have marked for alteration. Tell them your cousin is ill, and unable to attend the fittings. I can make any additional alterations once they are done. I will be unable to do anything else in the meantime, but you are free to move about, visit friends... Achoo!"
"Truly, Pen? I had hoped to call on Coddy, who is with his family in town." Having decided to go to London, he had completely forgotten, it seemed, his vow to stay away from anywhere his guardian might possibly be. Being a good sister, Penelope wisely said nothing.
"I remember Viscount Coddington. Handsome blonde man, somewhat dim, but rather nice."
Harry grinned, his dark brown eyes dancing with merriment. "He is at that. It is doubtful he will even connect my sister Penelope with my cousin Pen. Would you stay in those clothes of Stephen's you have on, though, should I bring him back here with me? What shall I tell him about you?"
"Have you forgotten our story already, Harry?" She rolled her eyes to the heavens in mute appeal. "I am your cousin, Mr. Pennington Wade, lately of the West Indies. If anyone wants particulars, say Jamaica, where my mother and I have a modest plantation. Nothing too large, and there is very little of the ready. I don't need any matchmaking mamas with grand designs on me while I am here." She chuckled at the thought. "At least that will absolve us from attending Almack's."
Harry sighed in relief. "I was afraid you had included that in your plan."
"The card play there is for chicken stakes, Harry, and neither of us is hanging out for a wife..."
"Heaven forbid! I will return as soon as I can, Pen dear. Stay indoors if you can, but if you must venture outside, stay on this street."
"Yes, Harry. Bring back a couple of chops and I will grill them for our supper. Oh, and I found cups and a teapot in the cupboard. Our landlady has promised me a kettle and a skillet, but I will need some tea. Some fresh bread would not be amiss, either, and a small amount of butter."
"No. I brought a few books with me, and I shall be well situated until your return. If I feel better later, perhaps I will take that walk."
She did venture outside after several hours of forced inactivity. The cold spring wind that whistled down Half Moon Street almost knocked her off her feet, but at least she did not have to worry about it flying up her skirts, as it did every other female brave enough to be about in that weather.
She wandered up and down in front of the row of houses lining the street, and was almost ready to go back inside when she heard an altercation coming from a house several doors down from her own.
"Go on with you now," a large, drunken man snarled from a doorstep to a much smaller one holding his hat and carrying a valise. "I don' need you fussin' and prissin' around me li' that! Get out, and don' expect mush in the way of a ferference." He threw something bulky at the little man, who was knocked off his feet and down the cold, wet stairs. Pen grew concerned when the big man just ignored where the other man landed and went back inside. She raced over.
"Are you hurt? Can I help? What did he...?" She saw the little man holding a covered basket, from which came a most pitiful meow. "Oh, dear, come with me, sir and let me get you and your cat more comfortable. I have rooms several doors down..."
Penelope helped the man to his feet, and took his hat, valise and basket from him. Offering an arm, they went slowly down to where she lived, and once inside, she settled him on the sofa near the fire and released a scrawny black cat to roam the room, her cold forgotten as she bustled about making tea. Thank goodness the landlady had given her that kettle and a bucket of water, and a little bit of tea to tide her over, before she went for her walk.
"Really, miss, there is no need to - "
They both froze. The man found his tongue first.
"I'm sorry, miss. I realize there must be some reason you are dressed as a young man, but I fail to see that it has disguised you overly much. On the other hand, as a valet, I often see things of that sort that others would not. Mr. Adolphus Franklin, formerly employed by that great drunken sot you saw earlier, at your service." He stood and bowed.
"Miss Penelope Wade, lately of Berkshire, at yours, sir." She swept him a curtsy that was graceful, even in Stephen's breeches, her brown eyes showing concern with his injuries. "Now sit back down and let me tend to your cuts and bruises. When my brother returns, I will send him out for milk for..." She looked pointedly at the cat.
"Winkle is his name, and winkle you out of whatever he wants, he will."
"Very well, I will send Harry out for food for Winkle, and have him acquire an extra chop. You could do with some fattening up, Adolphus."
"Please, Miss Wade, Franklin will do." His expression was pained, as if she had insulted him by using his first name.
"I beg your pardon. But then you must call me Mr. Wade and my brother is Sir Harry. He will be returning shortly, and may have a friend with him, Viscount Coddington." Franklin looked alarmed.
"No need to be afraid of Coddy. He probably won't even know I'm a girl, and he won't even see you at all. The man is completely blind to servants," she added, remembering his attitude from a school holiday visit to Oak Hill. "Now, as to your employment, I could use a man of discretion. Do you sew?"
"Sew, cook, clean, transform young ladies into gentlemen, keep secrets... All for a mere pittance." He named a ridiculously low sum.
Penelope laughed. "Yes, well, that is the crux of the matter, I fear. We have hardly a feather to fly with. We are in town to investigate the disappearance of our elder brother, Sir Stephen Wade, who was rumored to have been killed at Waterloo. I know better, but so far, not much has been done to try to locate him. Harry and I are now under the guardianship of the Marquess of Jarrod, but he ignores us and we do not wish to be discovered. But we must have more blunt. I have proposed that we obtain a few invitations and see if I cannot win us some more at the card tables. Harry took some of Stephen's clothes to the tailor today for alterations. Then I can go out and about with him. But not until ... achoo! ... I have gotten over this blasted cold!"
The little valet only sat there and nodded, as if he approved of her plan, which he could not. Still, Miss Wade was kind enough to take him into her home, and had also welcomed his cat ... He would help her keep her secret. And nurse her back to health.
"You did what?" Harry whispered harshly. Having returned home, minus Coddy, but with an invitation to take tea at his family's home in a couple days' time, he found not only his sister, but a manservant and a cat. He was whispering now, because the man, Franklin, was busying himself at the fireplace with the skillet and chops.
"I hired a servant. Come now, Harry, you know we will need someone to tend to our things, cook our meals, keep our secrets. The man needed a place to go, he saw right away that I am female, and I like his cat."
"Of all the cork-brained ... How are we going to afford him? And the blasted cat?"
"I still have a little money left, and we do not have to pay the tailor right away. I have a feeling Franklin can be very resourceful..."
"Oh, you and your feelings! Look where they got us so far! Barely existing in a couple of rooms in London!"
"Hush, now, Harry, and be a good lad and go fetch another chop, and some milk for Winkle. See if you can procure us some eggs, too. We can have those for breakfast with the rest of the bread." At least Harry had brought home the food items requested. Tomorrow, if she felt better, she and Franklin would go to some of the shops and see if they could set up accounts. That should tide them over for the next week or two, until they could manage a few invitations. It was imperative they call on Coddy's family. The countess was sure to be able to introduce them to a few matrons, especially when Penelope let her know Harry and his "cousin" were not adverse to dancing with wallflowers. What hostess could resist?
She was correct, she thought smugly four days later, sitting in the countess' drawing room, a cup of tea balanced on her knee. Lady Markworth had taken the bait like a trout, barely able to contain her glee at the hints Penelope had dropped as she paraded the twins about the drawing room like prize cattle.
"Well, the cousin is barely able to support his mother, but he is so kind, the ladies will adore him. Sir Harry, of course, is the new baronet, and Jarrod's ward, so you know the money is there, my dear," she overheard one lady tell another after introductions had been made and small talk indulged. The two put their heads together for more gossip, and Penelope did not hear what else they might have said. She was having a bit of a problem in the form of Lady Juno, Coddy's sister.
A plump, pretty little brunette of eighteen years, Lady Juno had taken almost instantly to her brother's friends, and, most specifically, to Mr. Wade of Jamaica.
"So tell me," she purred, letting her hand linger a mite too long as she passed Penelope her cup of tea, "how you like London? It must be dirty and smelly and dark compared to the tropical splendors of the West Indies?"
Penelope had to hand Lady Juno one thing. She knew her geography.
"I like London just fine, Lady Juno," Penelope admitted. "I-" She didn't get the chance to say more. Lady Juno had dug an elbow in her side, sending the tea sloshing onto her new trousers.
"Oh! I am so sorry, Mr. Wade. Here, let me help..." Penelope sat, helpless, while Lady Juno took a handkerchief to her wet knee. She was still having her knee swiped, ineffectually for that matter, when the butler announced a new arrival.
"The Marquess of Jarrod."
Jarrod! Oh, no! Penelope almost stood and dumped the rest of her cup's contents on Lady Juno. It would have served that young lady right, she thought smugly. As it was, she caught herself just in time and cast a speaking glance at Harry. Lady Juno was still sponging her knee when the marquess was introduced to the Wades.
"And here is your own dear ward, Sir Harry Wade," Lady Markworth cooed, bringing him to their side, "but you already knew that." Penelope contained her pride as her brother calmly nodded to their guardian, acting for all the world as if they met on a regular basis. "But I wonder if you have met Sir Harry's cousin, Mr. Wade, come all the way from Jamaica, I believe it was, to visit."
"Which would account for his cousin being away from school, I suppose," the marquess drawled. Harry turned pale, but the marquess did not see it. He was staring at the wet spot on Penelope's trousers.
"But we are home for Easter, mother," Coddy nervously reminded his parent, who was giving him the evil eye.
"Oh, yes," Lady Markworth trilled. "I had forgotten."
"You do not see fit to stay with your guardian while in town?" the marquess asked Harry after his hostess had moved away.
"We, I, felt it better, sir, with my cousin in tow, not to disturb you."
"I see. But you must give me your direction, Sir Harry. I would call on you and concern myself on the point of your continued welfare." He listened patiently while Harry gave him the address, but he was staring at Penelope, and she tried not to squirm under his gaze. Truly, the man had a piercing stare, and she could not shake the feeling that he was dangerous, as well. Not dangerous as in "fear for your life," but dangerous as in "fear for your soul." And she never doubted her feelings. She would have to avoid the marquess as much as possible.
"I will also wish you to dine with me while you are in town," he was now saying. "Your cousin, too, naturally. Shall we say Tuesday next, at Jarrod House? Now I must see the earl about a horse. Good day Sir Harry, Mr. Wade. Your servant, Lady Juno." Nodding at all of them, he allowed Lady Markworth to show him to her husband's study.
Penelope did not even realize she was holding her breath until the marquess quit the room.
"I believe we have another meal taken care of," Harry said with glee in a low whisper to his sister.
"Are you dicked in the nob?" she whispered back. "That was Jarrod! If he discovers what we are up to, he could banish us to ... to ... Jamaica, if he had a mind!"
"Come off it, Pen, you've already passed the test. If he was going to expose us, he would have already done so," he insisted. But Penelope was not convinced. First, they were in a room full of women. Gossipy women, at that. Had he even suspected something, this would not be the place to reveal it. Second, they had met briefly, not enough time for the man to place her under real scrutiny, although she had to admit, he had done his level best in the short time allotted. At her side, Lady Juno gave a great sigh.
"Jarrod is handsome, is he not? His parents' estate borders ours in Dorset, you know, and one day, although I pray not anytime soon, he will be the next duke." Penelope laughed at Lady Juno's gushing, and that young lady realized to whom she was speaking. Coloring slightly, she made some flimsy excuse and left the twins to speak to one of her mother's guests.
But Lady Juno was correct, Penelope thought rather dreamily as she and Harry walked home to their rooms. Jarrod was a handsome devil. Tall, with broad shoulders and silvery-blond hair that was either in the latest fashion or in need of a trim, she was unsure which, and glittery emerald eyes like that in the great golden cobra her stepmother had sitting by the fireplace in the Egyptian-themed drawing room back home. And like that cobra, infinitely dangerous to her plans. He would have to be watched closely so as not to throw a spoke in her wheels. As for his personality, she had yet to see any from which to draw any conclusions.
The chance to earn some money came swiftly the morning after the tea party in the form of an invitation to the Duchess of Rothwell's annual gala, set for the next evening in Berkeley Square. The accompanying note apologized for the lateness of the invitation, but Penelope very quickly made Harry write a reply in the affirmative, not realizing their hostess was Jarrod's parent.
"Here is our chance, Harry! Franklin, is that coat of my brother's ready? Harry and I are going to a ball tomorrow night." Her biggest worry had been evening slippers, because both Harry and Stephen had larger feet. Franklin, already worth his salt, had produced a pair of smaller slippers, sheepishly admitting to having bought them second-hand from one of the other gentlemen in the building. Now she had him making the final alterations on the coat that had come back that day from the tailor.
"When I am finished, miss, you will never be mistaken for a lady."
Penelope beamed, not the least bit missish about discussing such matters with the valet. Harry, however, was not pleased.
"Devil take it, Pen, I cannot like you living in bachelor digs such as these!" he exclaimed for the hundredth time. "I passed two doxies on the stairs last night, and I fear you may see or hear something not in keeping with your ladylike sensibilities."
"I fear more for your sensibilities, Sir Prude," she retorted, and he had let the matter drop. For the moment. He started up again when Penelope insisted Franklin re-style her already short curls.
"But I must be au courant!" she insisted. "Else I truly will look like a little girl playing dress-up in her brother's breeches!" Franklin nodded, and Harry backed down once more. "I saw a hairstyle on the man upstairs, Franklin," she added, "that would look very good with my curls."
"Ah, very good miss. The Brutus." The little valet, seemingly more resigned now to Penelope's masquerade, ran for his scissors.
"You ain't giving my sister a Brutus!" Harry all but shouted.
"Shhhh! These walls have ears, Harry!"
"I know..." he glumly replied. "That's why I don't want you here. Mayhap we should move in with Jarrod..."
"Not bloody likely!" came Penelope's shouted reply as Franklin got to work on her head.
"Excuse me, miss," the valet asked a few moments later. "I've only heard Jarrod spoken of with admiration, even by the servants, yet you have a real aversion to the gentleman."
"I have a real aversion to anyone who spends money like water and leaves his wards in near penury! He has nothing to do with us, as well, and I cannot like being ignored. If he had wanted us to live with him in London, he could have sent for us anytime these past few months." She didn't add that she gotten one of her feelings for him at Coddy's house. She hadn't been pleased, and Harry, had he known, would have shipped her home immediately. Then she would never be able to learn more about Stephen!
Rothwell House was graced with a long line of carriages the evening of the duchess' ball, each discharging its elegantly-clad passengers before the front of the house in Berkeley Square. Penelope and Harry, though, had merely strolled over from Half Moon Street and walked right in, smugly giving their names at the door.
Penelope was pleased that Franklin had finished altering her evening clothes, and had proudly tied her own cravat in a complex waterfall. Her hair was cut in the new style, the valet had managed to find her a good second-hand cloak, and he had brushed Stephen's old beaver hat to a shine.
She almost turned tail and ran, though, when it came to the sticking point: The reception line. There were three people in it, and the third one was Jarrod! How could he be ... unless ... she wanted to smack her forehead with the heel of her hand - Jarrod's parents were the Duke and Duchess of Rothwell.
First there was his grace, the duke, a kindly older man with salt and pepper hair and a twinkle in his blue eyes. The duchess was next, and she felt so sweet and motherly to Penelope's senses, she almost fell, weeping and confessing all, into her arms. Especially when she mentioned their mother to Harry as having been a most beloved goddaughter. Penelope was pleased to have studied the family history, too, when the duchess recalled a cousin of the late Sir Jonas Wade's having moved to Jamaica.
Then came Jarrod, standing tall at the end of the line. This evening he was in dark green velvet, a snowy white cravat held in place with a glittering emerald, and his silvery-blond hair sparkled in the candlelight. He shook hands with Harry, remarking that he was pleased to see his ward in attendance that evening, and then it was Penelope's turn.
"Mr. Wade," he acknowledged with a bow. "My mother has charged me with the pair of you for the first part of this evening. She wishes you to be introduced to a number of our guests."
Penelope nodded graciously, and allowed that she and Harry were interested in the dancing.
"Indeed?" was Jarrod's startled reply. What young man willingly subjected himself to such purgatory?
"We wish to assist her grace in entertaining those young ladies not often in demand on the dance floor," Penelope told him bluntly. "In a word, wallflowers."
"Ah, wallflowers. That alone would make you popular with the majority of dowagers lining the floor." He chuckled at the thought. "As I have had a similar evening only recently, and not by my design, I believe I may ensure your evening lives up to your expectations."
"Why did you have to go and do that?" Harry whispered as they followed Jarrod into the crowded ballroom.
"Get us partnered with every single ape leader from here to Scotland!" came the terse reply.
"It's part of the plan, you nodcock! Besides, have you ever been a wallflower?"
"Gads, no! Hope to never be one, either, unless you want me to pretend to be your sister." He didn't see the pain flash across Penelope's face. He didn't know their stepmother had seen to it that his sister had lacked partners at the few assemblies she had been allowed to attend before their father's death.
"Then shut your gob and dance with these poor ladies - to be ignored is not desirable in the least!"
True to his word, Jarrod found a roly-poly partner for Harry and a chit with a squint for Penelope. After that, as word got around to the eager mothers, the "gentlemen" did not lack for partners. When the supper dance was announced, though, Harry finally found himself being presented by Jarrod to Lady Juno as a suitable partner. The lady expressed her dismay at the absence of Mr. Wade, but Penelope was nowhere to be found.
The duchess beamed at her son's ward as he circled the room with Lady Juno. The two made an excellent pair. But where was Mr. Wade? Beckoning her son, who had deliberately declined to take a partner to supper, she sought to use this moment as a chance to convince Jarrod to call on Miss Wade in Berkshire.
"I am most pleased to have finally met your ward, Jarrod. So kind of you to bring him to London. Is he staying with you and Michael? Where is Michael? He should have returned from Scotland by now," she wondered, casting about for her younger son, whom had not been to visit her in a number of weeks.
"Young Wade has brought himself and his cousin to London, and they are staying in rooms of their own choosing. Michael is still out of town," he replied.
"But Jarrod, you must remove them to your own house, and then you must go to Berkshire and call on Sir Harry's sister. What if she is unhappy? What if her stepmother beats her? What if she is not at school?"
"I do not wish to discuss this at present, mother." He did not wish to discuss it at all, the subject boring him intensely. He was, in fact, relieved that Sir Harry had chosen to stay elsewhere. He thought he would be unhappy having to escort a young pup about town. "Shall I find father and send him to you? I believe he is in the card room and there are several chits present unable to procure partners for the supper dance." Without waiting for a reply, he bowed to his mother and left her side.
The duke, it was discovered, was not in the card room. But Mr. Wade was. Jarrod stood near the door, head and shoulders above the other men gathered around one table, and watched his ward's cousin as he played.
The man must have nerves of steel, he noted, as Mr. Wade calmly but surely won game after game, the amount of blunt and vowels piling up at his elbow ensuring him of a profitable evening. The man was intelligent enough, Jarrod saw, to temper his play with humility, never gloating when he won, always gracious after the rare game that he lost.
After one particularly close hand, when everyone was unsure whether or not Wade was going to carry the game, even Jarrod found himself holding his breath. Then he looked at Mr. Wade's hands.
Damnation! The man had beautiful hands! Long, graceful, elegant ... blast it all, this was a man! He continued staring, however, until he became physically uncomfortable. Unnerved, and disgusted with himself, he fled the card room, walked right past his mother without a farewell and took himself home. On foot, barely telling one of his mother's footmen to have his carriage sent behind him; without waiting for his coat or hat.
Attracted, blast his hide, to another man! It was not to be borne!
The cool evening air did nothing to dispel his unease, and he was quite put out with the world when he stormed into his own home, startling the servants, who had, for the most part, retired, certain he was to be out of the house for many more hours.
Only a footman, on duty in the hall, and his valet, Dobbs, were wide awake.
"Go to bed, Dobbs, I shall attend to myself," the man was ordered. As usual, the servant ignored the marquess and began to help him off with his coat.
"I said go to bed!" his lordship barked.
The valet ignored him with a knowing eye. "My, my," the old and valued servant said, having no qualms about replying to a man he knew when he was in leading strings. "Having female trouble, are we? I remember when your uncle would come home from a night on the town, all in a pucker because some woman had..."
The valet droned on, reminiscing about the years he had spent as the duke's brother's manservant, but Jarrod had heard only one word: Woman.
That had to be it. That had to be why just the thought of Mr. Wade caused a physical reaction in him he usually reserved for opera dancers and Cyprians. Harry was harboring a female in his rooms, one bent on disguising herself as a young man.
He wondered who she could be as Dobbs removed his clothing and placed a nightshirt over his head. It was possible she really was a cousin... but would young Wade allow a female of his family to masquerade in such a reputation-damning way? Not likely. She must be some unsuitable female intent on getting her clutches into Wade's fortune.
The money was there, and there was plenty of it. However, it was tied up in his guardianship for a few more months, until Wade turned twenty-one. Then he would be free to order his own circumstances. The woman must be hanging around until then, entrenching herself into his life so that when he came of age, there would be no doubt as to whom was controlling the finances. Already, he could see that Wade deferred to her.
If she was already in charge of young Wade's movements, it was possible, then, that she had no little control over his sister, as well. He would make certain Miss Wade was protected, and then come back to town and set about exposing this woman pretending to be Wade's cousin.
He sat down at the writing desk in his room and began to compose a letter. "Have someone take this over to her grace this evening, Dobbs, and then pack a few things for me. I'm heading to Berkshire after breakfast tomorrow to check on my ward."
Two days later, in the village of Cookham Dean, not too far from Maidenhead, Jarrod was directed to Oak Hill, where he found the manor house in good condition, at least from the exterior, and a skeleton crew inside.
Mrs. Plimpton, the housekeeper, ushered him into her office with all ceremony due his position, however, and found herself charmed into sharing details of the family over a pot of tea.
"Sir Stephen, of course, was the biggest scrapegrace, and the twins! I could tell you stories..." she prattled on. Jarrod, taking his ease after traveling, sat back and let her talk, until finally, a chance comment about Miss Wade brought him back to the present.
"Ah, yes, Miss Wade..." He was staring at his tea cup and did not see the nervous dartings of the housekeeper's eyes. Lady Wade had instructed her most specifically on what to say when others enquired about the young lady of the house, but she did not think Jarrod would buy the line about her being indisposed due to the death of her brother. Besides, how was she to produce the young lady if he should ask for her?
Miss Penelope had told her that she was to stay in Bath with the Duchess of Rothwell, and that Master Harry would escort her, but if so, why was her grace's son now here, enquiring after his ward?
Jarrod made mention of Miss Wade being at school, giving Mrs. Plimpton a straw to grasp, and when his lordship asked outright if the young lady was happy there, Mrs. Plimpton assured him that she was.
"Although I am sure she will soon return home," she added. "She is not much longer for school."
Jarrod, pleased to hear his ward was exactly as he supposed her to be, only nodded in a bored manner, surmised that Lady Wade had plans to present her stepdaughter soon enough, and left it at that.
After a little more small talk, he took his leave and began his journey back to London.
Mrs. Plimpton, however, knew exactly which side her bread was buttered on, and posted a letter to London almost immediately after his lordship's departure.
"She is what?" Lady Wade screeched upon receiving an express from her housekeeper and watchdog, Mrs. Plimpton.
"What is it, love?" a gentleman enquired from her ladyship's bed, where he had been for the past several hours, enjoying himself with the elegant Lady Wade. Until now. "Come back to me, Hortense, and tell me what is troubling you."
Lord Hinton watched as she began to pace her room, a sheer dressing gown her only cover, with apparently no intention of returning to her nice, warm bed.
"My stepdaughter is being extremely difficult is all," she finally admitted after seeing she was wearing a hole in the already-thin rug. If she had more money, she could redecorate her shabby town house...
"Giving you the cold shoulder again, eh?" His lordship had heard countless times from his lover her complaints against her stepdaughter. Hinton, of course, was all admiration for the chit, who appeared to have more intelligence than her stepmother, that was obvious, although he had never met her first-hand. But he could never tell that to Hortense.
"She has run away, the ungrateful wretch. At least, I think she is gone."
"Good riddance and all that?"
"Perhaps...unless she ran straight to the duchess. Her grace would love nothing better than to put me in my place, I am certain. However, if the duchess has her, she is keeping her well under wraps. I must be on my guard - I do not want her throwing the chit in my face."
"Come back to bed," Hinton coaxed, "and let me occupy you in a more pleasant diversion..."
"I suppose so," she said with a frown. "For now."
Back in London, the marquess was free to forget his female ward and concentrate instead on her brother. And that female who had her hooks in him.
Eschewing the sensible solution, which would be to hire someone to monitor the situation, he took to haunting Half Moon Street himself. The house was like so many others on that street: Several stories high, with sets of rooms let to bachelors and their menservants, and a steady traffic of less-than-reputable women coming and going at all hours. The house where his ward resided was particularly busy, but from what he had seen of the lad, young Wade was not really in the petticoat line.
Why should he? He had his own woman already.
Patience was rewarded the very first day of his watch, and Jarrod noted with interest that afternoon as a woman, dressed entirely in black, including a dark bonnet and widow's veil, came tentatively out of the house.
Hailing a hackney, she seemed nervous, looking up and down the street as if aware she was under surveillance.
He was sure then this was his prey, and as she rode off, he hailed his own carriage from down the street and vowed to follow her.
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.