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Authors: Patricia Veryan

The wagered widow

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For Audrey and Sheldon

CHAPTER1

London. May, 1746.

“'Tis not as though she was a foolish girl.” Mrs. Albinia Boothe completed another loop of the rosette she was crocheting, held up the embryonic tablecloth, and surveyed it dejectedly. “You know,” she went on, apparently addressing her creation, “that dear Rebecca is prodigious resourceful.” She sighed and clicked her tongue, and her powdered curls danced a little beneath the constraint of the dainty lace cap she wore. “Tooresourceful at times, for a gently nurtured Lady of Quality. Indeed, one worries, for if she sets her mind to something one never knows what she may do next.” The crochet hook slowed. Mrs. Boothe, a prettily petite lady of middle years and amiable, if somewhat apprehensive, disposition, raised large dark eyes to gaze at the Sèvres clock on the mantelpiece, as though in search of support.

The clock ticked on, far too secure in its own ordered setting to be disturbed by the woes of the little lady and, receiving no encouragement, Mrs. Boothe let her gaze drift aimlessly around the parlour. It was a charming room and properly reflected the polite prosperity of John Street, on which the small house was located. Pale morning sunlight slanted through snowy lace curtains to puddle the rich carpet with lighter patches; the furnishings were discreet but expensive and tastefully arranged so as not to clutter the space available. But although this May morning was decidedly cool, no fire was lit in the hearth of the fine Italian fireplace, and Mrs. Boothe pulled the shawl closer about her shoulders as she took up her work once more. She missed the loop she had been about to complete, however, the crochet hook jumping when a clear, feminine voice called an imperious, “Aunt! Only look at me!”

A simple enough request but, glancing to the top of the three steps that led to the hall, Mrs. Boothe uttered a squeak and sprang to her feet in dismay.

The girl who posed there was not much taller than her diminutive aunt. Her complexion was clear, and as light as her brows were dark. Her hair, beautifully powdered, was dressed in thick coils upon her proud little head, with one lone ringlet swooping to her shoulder. Eyes of a dusky darkness danced with mischief, and red lips, full and sweetly shaped, fought a smile as they parted to reveal even white teeth. “Is it not marvellous?” she said innocently. “I feel alive again!”

She looked very alive indeed, but Mrs. Boothe did not felicitate her upon that fact, instead pressing one hand to her bosom while remarking in a failing voice, “Rebecca! You have—oh!—you have put off your blacks!”

This was certainly true. The widow of Mr. Forbes Parrish looked a veritable sprite of Spring in the pink silken robeà la Françaisethat hugged her slender body to the waist before sweeping out over its hoops. The twinkle in her eyes very pronounced, but her tone repentant, Rebecca asked, “Are you very much shocked, love?” She trod down the steps, holding up her hoops to reveal dainty little feet and shapely ankles. “Itisa year since Forbes died, you know.”

“A year today!” Mrs. Boothe sank back into her chair and wailed, “Rebecca—do you not think you should wait?”

“Ihavewaited! A whole year! Oh, Aunt, I thought it would never end! Lucy Farrington put off her blacks only ten months after Harley was killed.”

Mrs. Boothe watched, aghast, as her lovely niece crossed to sit on the small loveseat. She remarked in a troubled voice that Rebecca did look quite in bloom again, which was nice, “Only—Harley was killed inbattle,dearest.”

“Does that make a difference? I cannot see why it should.Hiswas an honourable dying. More so than poor Forbes—to be slain in that unforgivably wretched duel! Oh, how I despise duellists!”

Refusing to be diverted, Mrs. Boothe argued, “But Harley Farrington fought on the wrong side! He was a Jacobite!”

“He fought for a cause he believed in.” Rebecca's dimpled chin tossed upward. “As did many other fine gentlemen.”

Mrs. Boothe uttered a shocked cry and peered nervously around the room. “What a terribly reckless thing to say!Dohave a care, my love!”

“Fiddlesticks! Even should Falk or one of the maids chance to hear, they likely feel as do I. Besides, they are so loyal, bless them, despite the fact I've not been able to pay them for weeks! They would never betray me. And I did not say that Iapprovedof Prince Charles or his Cause—only that I hold it more agreeable to give up one's life for an ideal than because of a foolish quarrel over the turn of a card.”

Mrs. Boothe said earnestly, “But you surely will own that poor Forbes died in striving to bring us about? You know, love, howhardhe tried.”

Rebecca was silent. Her late husband, she thought rebelliously, might better have tried to repair their fortunes by some other means than those which had ruined them. Yet, despite his carefree lack of common sense, she had been genuinely fond of the debonair gentleman who had been her husband, and she knew that her aunt's grief at his death had been intense. She tightened her lips over an instinctive response, therefore, and stood, saying gently, “Yes, I know. Come, dear, it is a lovely day, and I must get to the bazaar, for Anthony simplyhasto have a new suit. We can be back in good time for luncheon, do we hasten.”

Before the ladies had reached the end of the street, however, Mrs. Boothe was questioning her niece's idea of “a lovely day.” The sun was bright, but a stiff breeze sent cloaks fluttering, and it was necessary to hold one's hood when a gust came up—a practice the lady found lowering. “For who can look graceful when one is clutching at one's hood and likely to have one's ankles revealed at any second by so pranksome a wind?”

Amused, Rebecca said promptly, “You can, dearest. And such a sight would gladden the hearts of many gentlemen in old London Town!”

“Rebecca!” Mrs. Boothe's cheeks were as pink as her eyes were bright. “Why, you saucy puss! Oh, dear, here is the corner, and we will be blown to— Ah, that is better, after all! Where was I? Oh, yes, if any gentlemen were so unmannerly as to be leering at ladies' ankles, your own would claim all the attention, I am sure, and no one so much as notice my elderly limbs.”

“Mr. Melton would notice.” Rebecca chuckled to see her aunt's blush deepen. “He has noticed you these many months, and with so yearning an eye.”

“Re …becca!Really!”

“And truly! As well you know. And as for being elderly—”

“Never mind! I declare you grow more naughty each day! Besides, if Mr. George Meltonhasnoticed I am alive, one might never guess it. He stands. And he stares—when I am not looking. And says nothing! I begin to think 'tis merely that I remind him of someone. But—it is all of a piece.” She shrugged. “Pray tell me now, why do we essay this blustery walk when your seamstress is quite beyond our present means? Little Anthony must surely have a suit can be turned, or patched, or something?”

“Not good enough, dear. He is no longer a baby and must have proper apparel. Why, in a year or so he will be off to Eton.”

At this, Mrs. Boothe was so astonished as to stop in the middle of the flagway and stare at her niece with eyes as round as saucers. “Eton…? We can scarce afford wax candles for the drawing room, and I declare my eyes smart each evening when I go to my bedchamber and endure those dreadful tallow monstrosities! And you speak ofEton?”

Rebecca took her arm and they continued once more, encountering few acquaintances upon their way, since the morning was so brisk and most ladies would walk, or drive, after luncheon, rather than at this unfashionable hour.

“Why not Eton?” Rebecca's chin took on the mulish tilt her aunt knew so well. “Something will turn up, I am sure of it.”

“You are?” Peering hopefully at her, Mrs. Boothe ventured, “Have—have you a new admirer, dearest? Is that why you are come out of blacks so precipitately?”

“I wish I might find such an article!” And seeing her aunt's mouth opening in indignation, she added hurriedly, “I mean—one who is eligible, comfortably circumstanced, and with matrimony in mind!” Another protest was imminent, so that she rushed on, “The gentlemen who were interested in me when I married poor Forbes are now all wed, love. Most of those who are eligible now are either hanging out for rich wives, or unwilling to take on a lady with a six-year-old son!”

“Hilary Broadbent is—”

“Is no more than a good friend—or ever has been. Oh, he's fond of me, I grant you, but I doubt his heart has been touched by any lady as yet. And besides, I've no wish to follow the drum. Nor will I wed a man old enough to be my grandfather, if it is Lord Stoker whose name trembles on your tongue!”

Lord Stoker was exactly the name that had trembled on Mrs. Boothe's tongue. She sighed and pointed out wistfully, “But you would be abaroness,love! And they say he is full of juice, so—”

“AuntAlby!”

“Oh! My goodness! Only see how distraught you make me, wicked one! But you know what I mean. No more worries, Rebecca. The butcher and the servants and the carriage. It was so sad when we had to let the matched team go—and your own Saracen.”

Rebecca's eyes fell. The parting with her loved Arabian had been more cruel than even Aunt Albinia could guess. Dear Saracen, so gentle and yet so full of fire, and with a silken gait that— She put such painful recollections away and asked, “How can you be sure his lordship has marriage in mind? The gentlemen are more like to offer me a slip on the shoulder now that I am a widowed lady.”

Aghast, her aunt exclaimed, “Never while you are in mourning! Have they?”

“Not quite openly, perhaps. But the insinuations have been there this three months and more.”

“Good heavens! How wicked some men are!” But after a brief pause, Mrs. Boothe asked tentatively, “Anyone—suitable, my love?”

“Wh-what?”Much shocked, Rebecca gasped, “You cannot be serious?”

“Oh, well, indeed it would be dreadful,” gabbled Mrs. Boothe, mending her fences. “And you will certainly be receiving far more proper—er—proposals, now that you are out of mourning.”

“Well, I should hope so!”

Mrs. Boothe blinked and murmured, “On the other hand … if you really feel yourself to be ineligible because we are penniless, love, and—since you are so hopeful for your son …dearAnthony! Such a precious little boy, and should have every opportunity in life…” Here, she peeped at Rebecca's stormy countenance and, not having been devastated by a furious denunciation, proceeded with care. “Dreams are very well, but—reality is so horribly … real! And there are the servants, dear, and the carriage, and—”

“And the candles,” Rebecca inserted, tartly. “Never! I shall be no man's mistress only to pay my bills! I place too high a price on myself to sell so cheap!”

Mrs. Boothe uttered a muffled yelp, produced a lacy handkerchief from her reticule, and, pressing it to her lips, wailed, “Oh! How outspoken you are! And now you mean to prose and preach at me, and perhaps send me away when indeed I never meant—”

Rebecca's sunny nature reasserted itself. She squeezed her aunt's arm and assured her that she meant to do no such thing. “For whatever would we do without you? I know your every concern is for me and Anthony, but—I've some plans of my own, and—”

“Aunt Alby! Rebecca!”

The horseman who pulled up his mettlesome grey steed waspoint-device,from the rakishly tilted tricorne to the spurs of his gleaming riding boots. “Good that I came up with you,” he said, swinging from the saddle to plant a buss on his sister's cheek and another on his aunt's forehead. “Stand still, you looby! Why in the deuce must you go trotting out on a windy day like this? I was sure you'd be still abed.”

Aware that the initial admonishment had been addressed to his mount rather than his relations, Rebecca smiled fondly into her brother's handsome face and reminded him that she had never been in the habit of snoozing her days away in bed. “How well you look, Snow.” She patted the sleeve of his full-skirted riding coat. “Blue always becomes you. I wishIhad inherited Mama's eyes.”

He said sternly, “Never mind trying to turn me up sweet. What are you about, miss? I was never more shocked than to see—damn it,willyou come down, you blasted whirligig!—than to see you tricked out like any dashed courtesan!” Having pulled down his horse by this time, he turned to his sister, indignation in the blue eyes that, contrasting so vividly with his black brows, played such havoc with the ladies.

“Courtesan?” Rebecca protested, dismayed. “Oh, surely not.”

Snowden Boothe was fond of his sister, and his eyes softened before the distress in her face. “Well—perhaps not that, exactly,” he admitted. “But it ain't the thing, Becky. You'd best get home before some court card fancies you to be, er … You must wait your year out, is what I mean.”

It was very apparent, thought Rebecca, that she was the only person to whom this year of mourning had seemed two years long. “But ithasbeen a year! How could you forget? The duel was just after Jonathan went to Europe, and he's been away a year last sennight.”

“Good God!” Incredulous, he said, “Has he? Oh, well, that's all right, then. Dashitall, I'd best mount this confounded glue pot!” He swung into the saddle again and, grinning down at his ladies, enquired, “Whither away? I'll escort you.”

Mrs. Boothe eyed the fiery stallion dubiously. “Do you think he will submit to it, dear?”

“Who? Pax? Oh, he'll be all right. He's a bit—” Snowden broke off, perforce, as his mount essayed a pirouette at the passing of a carter's dray. “He's a shade fresh,” he finished breathlessly. “Now, what I came to see you about was—blast and damn!”

The decidedly misnamed Pax reared to protest the approach of a carriage. The fine bay team, no less highly strung and nonsensical than he, reared and screamed, thus all but oversetting the light vehicle, whereupon the coachman pulled it over to the side of the street, and a groom jumped down to quiet the panicked horses.

“Sorry!” shouted Snowden, and went on jerkily, “What I came—to see you about was—I've heard from our Johnny.”

Both ladies gave exclamations of delight. Her mittened hands clasped prayerfully, Rebecca cried, “Oh, how splendid! Is my brother well?”

“I collect he is.” His mount having subsided a trifle, Snowden said with less erratic enunciation, “He sends his love to all, and says he will be home very soon.”

“How soon? Snow, does he speak of finances? Oh, if only he could help us come about! Do you think—”

“No, I don't,” he interpolated bluntly and, a frown puckering his brow, added, “See here, Becky, you ain't altogether in the basket, are you? You told me—”

“Yes, I know. Only—” She bit her lip. “There are so many bills. And if—”

He laughed. “Isthatall? Burn 'em, m'dear. Only sensible thing.”

“But—I cannot. The people I owe must be paid, 'tis only honest.”

“Oho! Do you mean to be honest, Becky, you'll find yourself at Point Non Plus quicker'n you can skin a winkle.”

“But, surely, the servants—”

“Will wait. They're all devoted to you. Won't mind a bit.”

Rebecca sighed and her eyes fell.

“Trouble with you,” he grumbled, “is you worry too much. Mustn't do that, Becky. It'll make you Friday-faced on Tuesday! Don't do a damned bit of good, neither. Tried it.”

She forced a smile. “I expect you are perfectly right, as usual.”

Mrs. Boothe, who had remained silent during this interchange, now put in a mild, “Rebecca does not worry for herself, Snowden. But there is little Anthony to consider, you see.”

Boothe frowned. He was an improvident, happy-go-lucky young gentleman, a fine sportsman cast in much the same mold as his late brother-in-law, and following a path that his much harassed father had been wont to prophesy would very soon bring him to ruin. There was no wager too preposterous for him to cover, no dare too foolhardy for him to take, no escapade from which he would back away. His temper was quick to flare and as quick to fade, but his pride was high, so that already he had been involved in two duels, both concluded satisfactorily, since he was a good swordsman. Full of energy, and chafing against the constraints of London's Society, he had toyed with the notion of joining the Jacobite Cause when the Uprising had again exploded the previous September, and only a stern letter from his elder brother, reminding him that he was the temporary head of his house, had dissuaded him. His wildness, however, had seemed to increase of late. Rebecca suspected he had already run through the small inheritance left him when his sire had succumbed to influenza some four years earlier, but he showed no signs of being in desperate straits, his brow as unclouded, his eyes as full of laughter as ever. His friends were legion, for besides being endowed with an unquenchable optimism he was generous to a fault, and his kindness and loyalty were legendary. It was this very kindness that now caused him to say slowly, “Yes. Of course. I should have thought of the boy. I collect you're wishful to send him away to school.”

“Yes. But you are not to worry, Snow. You've enough to do not to outrun the constable, I do not doubt, without having to—”

“Pooh! Nonsense!” He waited out two more hops and a dance, then said with the air of one who has solved the unsolvable, “Tell you what, Becky. I'm promised to a party of friends at Brooks' tonight. Three of 'em owe me a—er, good deal. I'll demand they fork over the dibs, and you shall have it. 'Twill be a start, at least. By the time Anthony's old enough to go away to school, there should be sufficient for the first year, at all events.”

Touched, Rebecca said, “How very good you are!” But as she reached out to him gratefully, her loving gaze shifted.

A gentleman had sauntered from the carriage and now stood at a safe distance from Pax, idly twirling an amber cane, and certainly able to have heard the last sentence or two. He was a tall, lean man of about thirty, clad in a caped cloak of dark red silk, flung carelessly back to reveal a white velvet jacket with enormous cuffs exquisitely embroidered in shades of pink and red, a waistcoat of red-and-gold brocade, and white knee breeches. His powdered hair was tied back with a riband of deep red velvet. A great ruby gleamed in the Mechlin lace cravat, adding to an over-all effect of dazzling elegance. Rebecca's gaze slanted to his face. The features were strong but gaunt, the nose Roman, the cheekbones high, and the chin a square and determined jut. His complexion was clear, if inclined to sallowness, suggesting that his hair must be very dark, as were his thick, sharply peaked brows. An interesting face, decided Rebecca, if not a handsome one, yet never had she seen such cold grey eyes, nor so mockingly cynical an expression.

Snowden Boothe glanced over his shoulder, and at once his own eyes hardened. “Give you good day,” he said with bleak formality.

“No trouble at all, my dear fellow,” murmured the newcomer. But he did not look at Boothe, his hard eyes continuing to scan Rebecca from the ruffles of her hood to the little pink slipper that peeped beneath her gown.

Again dismounting, and holding the reins with an unwontedly firm grip, Boothe enquired, “Your pardon?”

The heavy brows lifted, the grey eyes shifted lazily to meet Boothe's level stare. “Did I mistake?” he queried in a deep, insolent drawl. “I had fancied you apologized, Boothe. You came da—er, curst near to oversetting us, y'know.”

Rebecca, who had begun to believe herself clad only in her corset, was incalculably relieved by the removal of the rude stare, but at these words anxiety twitched her brows together. Snowden had such a swift temper. Her brother, however, having noted that another gentleman had left the carriage and was inspecting the knees of one of the horses, said a repentant, “The devil! Have I caused your cattle to be hurt, then? Now curse me if I don't have this clunch put to the plough!”

“I would curse you did you do such a thing to…” The cool appraisal slid again to Rebecca, “to—so splendid a creature.”

His thin lips eased into a smile, his admiration was obvious, and Rebecca was mortified to feel her cheeks become hot. She turned her head away with lofty dignity and stepped closer to her aunt.

Boothe, meanwhile, led his horse over to the carriage, where he apparently discovered an acquaintance, for there ensued an interlude of shouting and back thumping. Rebecca murmured something trite to her aunt and contrived to ignore Snowden's maddening behaviour, not daring to glance his way for fear of again meeting the smirking grin on the face of this flirtatious Unknown.

Boothe returned at last, bringing his friend with him, and calling cheerfully that they must meet “good old Ward. Peter, I present my aunt, Mrs. Boothe, and my sister, Mrs. Parrish—Sir Peter Ward.”

Pinning a smile upon reluctant lips, Rebecca turned about. Her smile died aborning and it was only with an effort that she restored it. A slender gentleman stood before her, and as he removed his tricorne to bow first to her aunt and then to herself, she saw that his thick hair, lightly powdered, revealed here and there a gleam of gold. Straightening, he smiled warmly at her, and she experienced the oddest sensation, as if she had left the ground and was floating off into the clouds. Surely, she thought dreamily, there had never been so perfect a gentleman. His hazel eyes were wide and deepset beneath arched brows of a light brown. The hair framing his high brow struggled to curl despite the severity with which it had been tied back. His nose was classically straight, his chin firm, his mouth well shaped and generous.

A polite cough jolted Rebecca back to earth. A sardonic voice remarked, “Boothe is forgetful, as ever, Peter. Pray present me.”

“Your pardon,” said Snowden hurriedly. “Ladies—the Honourable Trevelyan de Villars.”

“Honourable, is it?” thought Rebecca, dropping a curtsey in response to a graceful bow. “What a farradiddle! The man's a libertine if ever I saw one!”

“How glad I am that you persuaded me to venture forth at so ungodly an hour, Peter,” murmured de Villars. “Are you by any chance the widow of poor Forbes Parrish, ma'am?”

“She is,” Boothe put in curtly. “And has come out of blacks today.”

“Very good of you to point that out.” De Villars' smile was bored. “I'd never have noticed it, else.”

Uneasily aware of Snowden's tightening jaw, Rebecca asked, “Are you also an early riser, Sir Peter?”

“I am the despair of my friends,” he admitted with a wry shrug.

“True.” De Villars nodded, his quizzing gaze turned upon Rebecca. “But you do, occasionally, redeem yourself, dear boy.”

Boothe took a pace forward. The belligerence of his chin was alarming, and his blue eyes fairly sparked.

“You should invite these charming people to your ball,” de Villars went on with a wickedly amused glance at Boothe.

“What a capital suggestion!” Ward turned to the ladies and said in his pleasant voice, “It is to be on Friday next, at my house in Clarges Street. I shall have cards sent round at once, but—do say you will come.”

“But, of course they will come,” said de Villars.

“Thank you, Ward.” Still, Boothe's chin was high. “I shall be glad to attend. My sister is but out of mourning, however, and it would not be seemly for her to do so.”

“Have mercy on us, dear Mrs. Boothe,” pleaded Ward, who had not missed the bristling resentment in Boothe's voice and was well aware of de Villars' deadly and well-deserved reputation. “Can you not intercede with your nephew?”

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