About the book
He can’t be worse than her terrible step-sisters, can he?
Miss Dorothea Wells would go to great lengths to avenge her father’s death. And dressing up as a wealthy American heiress might be one thing. But attending his murderer’s ball and falling for his charms is quite another.
What the Ton know about Algernon Stratford, the Marquess of Northridge is that he is in search of a wife. But what he hides from everyone is that he suffers from a guilty conscience. And that he is in dire need of funds.
When a woman challenges him for the first time in his life, Algernon is positively besotted. And despite her literally running away the time the clock strikes midnight, he is eager to look everywhere for her. The problem? The heiress he has fallen for is nowhere to be found.
It was unfair for a monster to be so utterly beautiful, Dorothea reflected, as Algernon Stratford, the Marquess of Northridge, disappeared into a sleek, black carriage. Dorothea had only glimpsed the young lord—only seven or so years older than her three-and-twenty years—from behind. She’d observed his broad shoulders and trim figure, accentuated by his finely tailored coat and the hints of ink-black hair from beneath his hat.
But Dorothea knew that his face was beautiful: all sharp, strong lines with gleaming blue eyes that appeared to promise all sorts of wondrous delights. No one would’ve ever guessed that a murderer lived and breathed beneath such a lovely façade.
“If you stare any harder at that man, he’s going to burst into flames,” Amelia said, placing a hand on Dorothea’s elbow.
“Let him,” Dorothea replied darkly.
She smiled slightly at Amelia’s scandalized gasp. “Thea! How could you say something so awful?”
Across the street, the driver coaxed the horses into motion, and they began a steady trot through the street, which had yet to fully relinquish the mud and ice of winter for the green and life of spring.
A sharp breeze cut through Dorothea’s clothing and blew strands of her auburn hair into her face. She brushed them away roughly with a hand and blinked. Her eyes were brown-green, a muddled color which she’d never really liked. “Don’t lecture me,” Dorothea said. “I’ve no desire to set the man on fire.”
Just to hold him accountable for his crimes.
Amelia sighed. “Still, it’s unbecoming to say such things. Besides, what if you were overheard? You shouldn’t chance drawing the Lord’s attention to you.”
Usually, Amelia was a woman with good humor and a sharp wit, but it seemed she didn’t approve all that much of wishing harm upon lords.
“I’ve said worse on stage,” Dorothea argued, a sly grin stretching across her features. “Why, I’ve even rejoiced at a man’s killing on the stage, if you recall my performance as Lady Macbeth—”
“Acting has no place off the stage,” Amelia said, although with a teasing note. “Unless it’s meant to win you something free, of course.”
As if afraid Dorothea might somehow pursue the young Marquess and set him ablaze with her gaze alone, Amelia linked her arm with Dorothea’s. Together, the two women crossed the street, weaving through the bustling crowds. Their destination—Beaumont & Co. Publishers—was the same building which the Marquess of Northridge had just left, and despite Amelia’s undoubtedly dismissive attitude toward looking any further into his business, Dorothea couldn’t help but wonder why he’d been there.
Henry Beaumont rather chivalrously opened the door for them, adding an elegant bow. “Miss Cartwright and Miss Wells, what an unexpected pleasure!”
As always, Henry Beaumont had addressed Amelia first. Anyone with eyes could see that Henry was entirely besotted, except it seemed for Amelia. Or perhaps, her friend merely pretended not to notice. Amelia had admitted to enjoying Henry’s flirtations and formal mannerisms, but she was also not the sort of woman who cared for matters of the heart. Any time Dorothea tried to speak with her friend on the matter, Amelia only answered evasively.
“Thank you,” Amelia said. “You seem to be in high spirits. If I recall correctly, you’d taken ill when last we spoke.”
Dorothea pretended to be absorbed with gazing around the publisher’s office, which never changed very much. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Amelia—fair-haired and delicate—offer Henry the advertisement which they’d been asked to deliver.
A handsome man, Dorothea thought. He was tall and broad, a large man with a booming laugh and gentle, green eyes. His hair was a mass of thick, chestnut curls. If he were an actor, Dorothea was sure he’d have cut a rather dashing figure, perfectly suitable for a heroic warrior of a by-gone age. Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, perhaps. Or Marcus Brutus.
“Ah! A Midsummer Night’s Dream!” Henry said. “I imagine you’ll be rather busy with that one.”
“Yes,” Amelia said. “Mrs. Brooks anticipates making more changes than usual to the costuming. The last time the troupe performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it wasn’t quite the success we wanted. This is our redemption, so to speak.”
Dorothea eyed a nearby desk, laden with papers. Sugar pamphlets warred for space with letters, a contract of some manner, and what appeared to be a small collection of poems. Had the Marquess brought something here? She had to know.
“But we shouldn’t keep you,” Dorothea said. “You’ve had a busy morning, after all. Was that Lord Northridge who I saw leaving?” Amelia cast her blue eyes heavenwards, as if seeking patience from God Himself. Surely, she knew better than to really believe that Dorothea would give in so easily.
“It was,” Henry replied, sounding surprised. “How did you know?”
Amelia smiled tightly. “When she was a girl, Thea’s father did business with the Marquess of Northridge. A dreadfully boring affair, of course, as all business is.”
“And his father,” Dorothea said. “The current Lord Northridge had only recently become my father’s business partner when he—” It never became easier to say. Dorothea straightened her back and drew in a sharp breath, steeling herself.
“When my father died,” she said. Amelia gazed at Dorothea with a strange mingling of exasperation and sympathy. Henry just looked vaguely confused, as though he were missing something crucial. Really, he was. Aside from Amelia, no one knew even an inkling of Dorothea’s deepest, most secretive desire. And even Amelia didn’t know the full depth of Dorothea’s ambitions.
“Ah, well,” Henry said, toying with the cuffs of his jacket. “He wanted us to print invitations for him.”
“Is that usual practice for him?” Dorothea asked. Her heartbeat quickened. Even if she didn’t know if it would be in any way significant, this was information about the infamous Marquess of Northridge.
“It isn’t,” Henry replied. “Evidently, his—ah—usual printer is unable to fulfill his request, so he’s come to us by recommendation. We don’t often print or publish personal items, but we make exceptions sometimes.”
“Like for him,” Dorothea said.
“That’s very kind of you,” Amelia said. “I’m sure Lord Northridge is very relieved.”
“What did he want, though?” Dorothea asked.
Amelia gave her a warning look. “It’s hardly our business, Thea.”
“I’m curious,” Dorothea replied. “There’s no harm in asking. I’m sure Lord Northridge is asking for something respectable, after all.”
“He is,” Henry said. The poor man looked more and more awkward with every passing second. “It’s nothing scandalous—just invitations.”
Henry nodded and turned to the same desk Dorothea had been looking over. After a moment, he plucked a scrap of paper from the mess and held it out for her inspection. “It’s a ball. The Season begins soon; you know.”
Of course, she knew. The Marquess of Northridge was never very far from her mind. As Dorothea took the note, she saw in her mind’s eye, how he would’ve written it. His handwriting was elegant and tight, his letters all sharp points.
“A month away.” Dorothea paused. “He isn’t only inviting the ton?”
“No,” Henry replied. “He’s inviting every woman of means. I understand he’s looking to—er—choose his bride at this ball.”
“Isn’t that an odd choice?” Amelia asked. “I mean, unless he’s charmed by common seamstresses and milk maids; I suppose. Or pretty shepherdesses. I’ve played a shepherdess before.”
Amelia made a show of batting her eyelashes and smiling coyly. Dorothea recognized the same overly exaggerated expressions her friend had made when acting as Phoebe, the cold-hearted shepherdess in As You Like It.
Henry shrugged, his lips twitching into a smile. “I can’t say. I’ve worked with some of the ton before, but it isn’t as if they invite me to their events.”
Henry probably could’ve been invited if he and his father wanted to. Beaumont & Co. was a remarkably prolific and profitable publisher, but both father and son were sentimental and often neglected profits to aid their less wealthy clients. The publisher had distributed the troupe’s advertisements for decades nearly for free due to the elder Beaumont’s childhood friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, the couple who managed the troupe.
They’re too kind for that world, the world of the ton and all their deceptions.
Dorothea returned the paper to Henry’s waiting hand. The Marquess of Northridge had lived long enough to seek a bride, to begin his own family after so callously tearing Dorothea’s all asunder. It seemed unfair, unjust even. Cruel.
“Well, we must be going,” Amelia said. “Thank you for your time.”
“It was a pleasure as always, Miss Cartwright,” Henry replied, offering his usual bow. “And Miss Wells.”
Dorothea’s mind had wandered elsewhere, but she still offered Henry a small, polite nod. As she and Amelia left the shop, Dorothea crossed her arms, attempting to ward away a chill which had as much to do with the young lord as it did the last, lingering remnants of winter.
“Thea, you know I adore you,” Amelia said, “but you must cease with this. What do you imagine you’re going to do? Approach the Marquess like a highwayman and ransom a confession from him with a pistol?”
Amelia raised her hand and feigned pointing a gun at an invisible foe. She even went so far as to pretend being startled at an unheard shot.
“Point taken,” Dorothea replied.
“Are you certain?” Amelia asked. “I can make it again.”
Dorothea looked resolutely ahead, as they walked the familiar path to the theater. Still, she could sense her friend’s concerned blue eyes tracing her face, searching hopefully for any sign of resignation, but there would be none. “Amelia, if it was your father, you wouldn’t stop,” Dorothea said. “Would you?”
Amelia sighed and remained quiet for several moments. She kicked a bit of gravel and sent it skipping along the road. “I would be quite like you. For a time.”
“For a time?”
“Eventually, I would realize that my father’s greatest wish would be for me to live my life, to be happy and prosperous, and that would mean letting go of the past.”
“Maybe if the Marquess had only cheated your father at the tables,” Dorothea countered. “If he’d killed him—”
“You don’t know that he did kill your father.” No, Dorothea was quite certain he had. She just didn’t have the evidence she needed to prove that he had.
“And if he did,” Amelia continued, “you’re half-mad if you think pursuing the Marquess of Northridge is a wise course of action.”
Dorothea pursed her lips together. Perhaps, she was half-mad. But this was the man who’d killed her father and left her in the care of her stepmother, who although she’d tried her best, had never managed to build a home where Dorothea felt quite welcome.
Dorothea shook her head, as if to force the thoughts away. “It may not be wise, but it is the right course. The only course I can take if I want to have any closure after what he did.”
They’d nearly reached the theater. The troupe, called ‘Lord Burkley’s Men’ after their patron, kept their quarters in the small, adjacent building. Outside, it wasn’t much. The inside of the building wasn’t really any lovelier either, but it had been Dorothea’s home since she had only sixteen tender years.
“Fine. Let’s say you theoretically wanted to find proof that Lord Northridge murdered your father all those years ago,” Amelia said. “What evidence would you hope to find? Do you expect that he’ll just stand around and offer you a poetic confession of his crimes? ‘Forsooth, I hath slain the fair Dorothea’s father! I doth hope that no fair maiden overheareth the declaration of my most heinous villainy!’ Honestly, Thea.”
“Well, no,” Dorothea admitted. “I suppose it wouldn’t be quite that simple.”
“And how would you even get close enough to him to look for evidence? You can’t just wander into his townhouse and search for clues.”
Dorothea pursed her lips together, thinking. She entered the troupe’s lodging. It was small and cramped, and despite everyone’s best efforts to warm the place, it remained perpetually cold and damp. Sometimes, it made Dorothea long for her father’s home, which had always been so warm and inviting, capable of surviving even the harshest winter unscathed, but then, she’d left of her own volition. She’d never really complain about it.
“You’re right,” Dorothea admitted, “but I can’t just give up. I must know. This has haunted me since I was a girl.”
“I know,” Amelia said softly, her good humor vanishing like frost before spring. “I just worry that you’ll do something reckless.”
Dorothea smiled. “Reckless? When have I ever been reckless?”
She didn’t need to look at Amelia to imagine her friend’s deadpan, disbelieving look. Admittedly, that was probably deserved, too. Caution had never been Dorothea’s most shining characteristic. And at that precise moment, a burst of inspiration struck. “I can think of one way,” Dorothea said. “One way to get close to him.”
Amelia halted and took Dorothea’s hand between her own. The two women stood in the narrow entryway with no one else around, and even in the dim, unlit space, Dorothea could see that her friend’s blue eyes were wide and beseeching. “Whatever you’re thinking, you must not do it. I’ve no doubts that it’s a terrible plan.”
“Or a brilliant plan,” Dorothea replied. “You recall what Henry said, don’t you? About the Marquess hosting a ball?”
Amelia’s eyes widened, and her lips parted. If the situation weren’t so dire, Dorothea might’ve derived some amusement from just how closely her friend resembled a gaping fish at the moment. “You can’t be thinking about going,” Amelia said.
“That is precisely what I am thinking!”
Dorothea squeezed her friend’s hands tightly. She was nearly heady with excitement. This would be the Marquess in a public place, surrounded by so many people who’d be vying for his attention. It would be the perfect opportunity to search for evidence. Dorothea wasn’t precisely sure what evidence she might find, but at least, this presented an opportunity to try and find something.
“You can’t be serious! By God, it would be better if you just threatened him like a highwayman!” Amelia exclaimed. “If he caught you in your deception—”
“He’d what?” Dorothea asked. “Murder me, too? With all those potential witnesses around? I doubt it. And besides, I’ve no intention of getting caught. I’ll attend as a guest. I can hide in the crowd, and he will never notice me.”
“No?” Amelia asked. “Hasn’t he met you? What if he recognizes you? No amount of people will—”
“He won’t!” Dorothea said quickly. “I won’t attend as myself.”
“Dorothea, don’t,” Amelia groaned. “You know that I’m as light-hearted and mischievous as they come, but you’re talking about a Marquess! One of the ton! A Lord!”
Dorothea straightened her back and tipped up her chin, fixing Amelia with her most imperious expression. “Because I won’t be myself! I’ll be someone else! Don’t you see? You said that acting has no place that isn’t the stage, but here it is! I can pretend I’m someone else, someone wealthy but not a part of the ton! Someone he’d not have possibly met before but who would think they might have a chance to court a Marquess!”
Amelia dropped Dorothea’s hands and stepped back as if she’d been burned. “He won’t be tricked.”
“How do you know? You’ve never met the man.”
In truth, the greatest danger would likely be Dorothea’s own stepmother, Elaine Wells, who’d made it no secret that she intended to win the family a title by having one of her daughters—Caroline or Lydia—marry a wealthy man. A ball hosted by the Marquess of Northridge would be just the occasion Elaine was waiting for.
However, Dorothea hadn’t seen them in seven years, and she’d grown since then. She’d learned to act, too. Surely, they would not remember her face and mannerisms. Dorothea’s heart ached at the thought of deceiving her stepmother, who’d been kind to her even if her daughters were intolerably cruel.
Amelia fidgeted with her skirts and looked askance. “If…if you do this one thing,” she said slowly. “If you attend Lord Northridge’s ball and are able to look for—for evidence that he killed your father, will that be enough? Will you agree to put this matter behind you?”
“Amelia,” Dorothea said, her voice soft and pleading.
Amelia shook her head. “Don’t. Don’t make me the villain in this. I understand, Thea. As much as I can, I understand. But I also fear that this will be the end of you. You will go to your grave trying to find your answers, and that’s no way to live. So do you promise that this ball will be the end of it?”
Dorothea slowly nodded. “Yes. This will be the end of it. I promise.”
It wouldn’t be, though. Not unless Dorothea left the Marquess’ townhouse with all the evidence she needed.
“It’s done,” Algernon said, pulling his coat more tightly around himself.
His father’s grave marker was silent before him. Algernon sighed and turned his gaze toward the gray, bloated sky. It was nothing short of a miracle that the rain hadn’t arrived yet. Algernon felt a sharp longing for some warm place, although for a man of his status, he had never had the opportunity to travel as much as he would’ve liked.
He'd tried to live as modestly as he could, but that had been difficult when his father had died young and drowning in debt, leaving Algernon his holdings at the tender age of eighteen. Algernon’s grandfather still lived, but then and now, he’d been a solitary man and uninterested in aiding his grandson in anything. And Algernon’s first business venture with Mr. Cecil Wells had been—
Algernon drew in a sharp steadying breath. “It’s not a good day for thinking of Mr. Wells, is it?” he asked.
Algernon stared at the sky again, as if some magical solution to all his woes might emerge from the clouds. He didn’t know why he continued to visit his father’s grave every time he came to London, but not visiting seemed to violate some sacred ritual. Maybe it was guilt that he’d not been a better son. Or anger that his father hadn’t been a better father.
“At any rate, I’ll be wed soon,” Algernon said. “To a wealthy woman of some sort. If you were alive, I wonder what you’d think of that. Maybe not much. You married my mother because of her dowry.”
Algernon had a wild thought of fleeing to Massachusetts or New York and starting anew, as some nameless and faceless stranger, but he knew that would be utterly impossible. He didn’t know how to be anything other than a Marquess, and he wasn’t entirely sure he knew how to be that. Besides, there were people depending on him—his mother, the staff who managed all their holdings, and even some of the ton, who needed his support to bolster their political ambitions.
Algernon let out a breath and watched it frost in the air. “Farewell, Father,” he murmured.
Then, Algernon turned back toward his waiting coach. George, the Baron of Stockton, waited for him. He was a tall, spindly man with thinning brown hair and a face badly scarred from his time in France. And at present, he seemed very invested in a conversation with his driver, an elderly man whose name Algernon couldn’t quite recall.
Seeming to hear his approach, George’s head snapped toward Algernon. The Baron said nothing, but his brown eyes were soft with understanding.
“I’m ready,” Algernon said. “Thank you for being patient with me.”
“Ah, no need for thanks!” George replied. “James and I were just discussing his daughter Jane. It seems she’s a rather restless baby, and I was explaining what the old nursemaid Beatrice used to calm my own daughter.”
“Oh,” said Algernon, who knew nothing of children or babies.
He wanted them. Algernon wanted very dearly to be the fond, doting father he’d never really had. Sure, his father had tried, but Algernon had realized some time ago that his father simply had not been a warm man. He’d been cold-natured and solitary, and Algernon simply wasn’t.
The driver opened the door to the coach, and George entered nimbly. Algernon followed and settled into the seat across from his friend. The door closed, and they were alone.
“Well,” George said mildly. “What do you say to visiting the club this evening, Stratford? You could use some levity. I dare say you’re looking ten years older since coming to this dismal place.”
Algernon shrugged. “Whatever pleases you.”
“And what pleases you?”
“I don’t know anymore.”
George raised an eyebrow. “I’ve known you long enough to probably guess,” he said slyly. “Shall I try? Perhaps, a rather—ahem—well-endowed lady with loose morals?”
“Most likely,” Algernon agreed drily. “I’ve sometimes wondered if that makes us enemies rather than friends. Maybe you know too many of my secrets.”
“Surely, you know as many of my secrets,” George replied, winking. “Why, I’m sure you could extort me if you truly wanted to.”
George chuckled. “Although I have far less to be embarrassed by, admittedly. You’ve always been something of a terror. The instructors at Eton used to shudder at the sound of your name. Why, I’d warrant our old schoolmaster still wakes in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because of you.”
Algernon barked out a rather undignified laugh. The remark had been unexpected. “Eton? That’s the worst you have? My experience as a boy. Why, I expected much worse.”
“I don’t imagine your behavior improved much from Eton to Cambridge, although I wouldn’t know. I don’t know why you couldn’t just follow me to Oxford,” George said. “Traitor. I think you chose Cambridge just to spite me.”
“Yes,” Algernon agreed. “That was my reason for choosing Cambridge, to vex you.”
George nodded gravely, his expression not revealing the least hint of the mirth he doubtlessly felt. “I knew it.”
“They’re too formal at Oxford,” Algernon replied. “Besides, I disagree with their treatment of scholarship students. Cambridge was much more accommodating to them and more welcoming.”
George shook his head. “You weren’t a scholarship student. What a strange matter to concern yourself with.”
“It’s the principle of it.”
George hummed and grinned rakishly. “I’ve always admired your principles. I rather enjoy the freedom of not having them, but I respect them in you.”
Algernon’s smile was strained. He could hardly say the same of his principles. How could he claim to be a man of principles, a man of progress, when he abandoned those same principles when his own life became too difficult? How could he argue that he believed—for example—that society itself was broken, that the ton didn’t necessarily deserve all their privilege and power, when he himself was marrying a woman in a desperate attempt to maintain his own position?
Marrying was too kind of a word. Using a woman was more accurate. And sure, he liked to believe that once he’d managed to pay off his father’s debts, he’d be able to really work toward changing England for the better, but sometimes, Algernon wondered if he told himself that just to make himself feel better.
“In truth, I wish I cared more for principles,” Algernon said. “It’s one thing for a man to feel and know and another entirely for him to act on his convictions.”
“I’m beginning to think you should’ve become a theologian.”
Algernon turned his head to the carriage window. It was too covered in frost and mist for him to see much of London’s streets. “I’m far too sinful for something like that.”
“I think most theologians are too sinful,” George said. “They’re only too good at hiding their sins; I know more than most what a filthy sinner looks like, after all.”
Algernon nodded, conceding the point. He’d never really been a religious man, though, and had no particular opinions on the matter.
“I suppose it might be an option if you don’t find your wife a month from now,” George said. “You could flee to some mountaintop monastery and spend your days doing…well, whatever it is that men of the cloth do these days.”
That idea was significantly less appealing that Massachusetts. At least, Algernon might be able to work toward something in America. He could join the abolitionists, perhaps. He could spend his days in some small office writing pamphlets and probably being very hungry because he wasn’t a particularly eloquent writer.
“I meant that in jest, of course,” George said quickly. “I’m sure you’ll find your wife and settle easily into married bliss. My wife has informed me that most of the young ladies with whom she is acquainted have spoken of nothing else since the invitations were sent. I’m sure you’re delighted.”
“I only received them from the printer a few days ago,” Algernon replied. “It’s no difficult feat to be excited for a few days.”
“Oh, it must be dreadful for you,” George drawled, his eyes shining with mischief. “What a difficult life you lead, being desired by an army of fair damsels. I don’t know how you’ll survive, my friend.”
“It’s easy to look desirable if the marriage negotiations haven’t begun yet,” Algernon pointed out.
Still, Algernon wanted to find some comfort in George’s words. The invitations had been printed and sent to all the eligible ladies in the ton, although only those in London would’ve received theirs so quickly. Others would be placed around London in clubs, opera houses, and places frequented by the very wealthy. And hopefully, one of the women who saw the invitation would be his bride.
Logically, Algernon knew he had something to bring to a marriage. He had a title, his father’s properties, and several businesses. And besides, Algernon was competent enough at managing them. It was just that his father had left him in such substantial debt that it was impossible for him to claw his way out from it.
“Then, we’ll abduct a bride for you,” George said. “Like Helen of Troy or Nest of Wales.”
“I don’t see what could possibly go wrong with such a wonderful idea.”
George laughed uproariously. “The whole world is already at war. Why not add a little dispute in London? And one with a beautiful lady, no less! There are much less worthy reasons to fight, my friend.” Algernon’s eyes flickered to his friend’s scarred face. It was a mystery to him how George could still be so jovial and optimistic after his own experience fighting in Spain. Algernon was certain that such an experience would’ve broken him.
“I’d rather that war not break out due to my engagement,” Algernon said dryly. “But I appreciate you having a plan should this one fail.”
“Always for you!” George declared cheerily. “Let me know if you decide an abduction is needed. I’ll want to make sure I dress sharply for the occasion. What does one wear when abducting beautiful maidens, do you think?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
George heaved a dramatic sigh. “You’re useless to me. Do you know that?”
“I do aim to please.”
The carriage halted before George’s townhouse. It was an impressive structure built in a modern style, like something out of a painting. Unlike Algernon’s own poor finances, George was prospering. The man had loaned Algernon money, too, more times than he’d like to admit.
“How is your mother doing with the planning?” George asked. “It’s been some time since she’s planned an occasion like this, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Algernon replied. “I think she enjoys it. At least, she likes to be busy.” Algernon had never entirely understood his mother. Like his father, she’d been a solitary creature, and she never seemed excited about much of anything. Sometimes, though, the smallest of smiles would come to her face when she was really invested in planning something.
“That’s good. Perhaps, she might derive some enjoyment from the ball, also. She’s still a very striking woman, and the Duke of Livington was just recently widowed.”
George waggled his eyebrows, clearly insinuating some rather ungentlemanly thoughts. Despite being a man who barely seemed to like, much less love, his own wife, George certainly had no small amount of enthusiasm for other people’s relationships.
“Maybe. She’s never really expressed an interest in being married again, though,” Algernon replied. “If she were considering another marriage, surely, she’d have said something by now.”
George shrugged. “Who can understand women?”
The door opened, and Algernon exited the carriage first. As he straightened his coat, Algernon heard the sound of George’s feet striking the ground.
“I can’t understand women, and I’m a married man. What about you, James?” George asked.
“Not at all,” the driver replied.
Algernon pressed his lips into a thin line. Women didn’t seem any more complicated than men. No, his difficulties lay in the fact that he didn’t know how to communicate with them. He only had limited experience speaking with women outside of strictly formal situations, and he hadn’t the faintest idea how to keep one happy in marriage.
Had he ever been comfortable with a woman? He squinted, trying to remember. Maybe it had been the girl. Cecil Wells’ young daughter. Sometimes, she’d sneaked into her father’s study during his business meetings. Once or twice, Algernon had caught her before her father had, and the Marquess remembered vividly the young girl’s shameless smile and bright green eyes. Her finger raised to her lips, bidding him not to reveal her presence.
“See?” George asked, pulling Algernon from his thoughts. “No man can understand the complexities of a lady’s heart, so there’s no point in attempting to.”
“I don’t know if that’s necessarily true,” Algernon said. “It seems like that’s all the more reason to attempt it.”
George shook his head. “Once you’re married, you’ll think very differently, my friend. Marriage will destroy any knowledge you thought you had of women’s true nature.”
“Perhaps, you simply didn’t have that knowledge to begin with?”
George shook his head, clearly trying to keep his expression grave; Algernon wasn’t entirely fooled, though, as his friend’s lips kept twitching upward. “I suppose you’ll have to be wed and find out,” George replied. “At least, try to find a pretty lady, so you aren’t lonely at home.”
The two men set a quick pace toward the townhouse. George, being frustratingly tall and lank, had always walked absurdly fast. And Algernon, who was by no means a man of small stature, always struggled a little in trying to match his friend’s long stride.
The footman opened the door, and Algernon sighed at the pleasant warmth which wafted from the doorway and vanquished the cold of the outdoors. After his coat was taken, Algernon straightened his jacket, smoothing invisible wrinkles from the fabric. The garment was ancient and had been tailored to fit more recent styles, but Algernon wasn’t sure how much longer the poor fabric would survive. If anyone noticed the increasingly poor state of his clothes, they chose not to comment on it.
“Do you think—” Algernon began.
“Think what?” George asked. Algernon’s friend beckoned for him, and they crossed the familiar floor, decorated with a lavish Persian rug. Algernon followed. He’d been George’s visitor enough to know they were going to the man’s study, where there would be brandy or mulled wine waiting.
“Do you think the others know, or suspect, my poor financial situation?” Algernon asked.
“Of course not. And if they do learn of your debts, there’s a simple solution,” George paused. “I’ll challenge them all to duels in order to defend your reputation against any and all slander.”
“Isn’t that a little excessive?” Algernon asked.
George gasped and adopted a look of mock offense. “Of course, it isn’t! Are you daft?”
Algernon shook his head. Despite knowing George for several years, sometimes, Algernon was still taken aback by just how dramatic the other man was. If George hadn’t been born into a world of wealth and privilege, Algernon was quite sure that his friend would’ve made a truly remarkable actor.
“In all honesty,” George continued, his voice a little more serious, “you’d have heard already if the ton suspected you were in some sort of trouble. I think it’s more likely that you’re obsessing over your own situation and reading it into everything you do.”
“That is so.”
They entered the study. It was a warm, comforting room—all polished wood and blue velvet with a window overlooking the gardens behind the townhouse. George’s study was meticulously neat, something which Algernon always noted with a mingling of admiration and jealousy. His own study looked as though a printer’s shop had exploded inside it.
“At any rate, you won’t need to linger over this particular problem much longer,” George said. “Then, you can turn your attention to that ever-perplexing question of how to please a woman.”
“I’m aware of how to please a woman. Thank you.”
Algernon had admittedly had a few rakish years at Cambridge. He hadn’t been as wild as some others, but he’d still had a few more dalliances than he probably should’ve and behaved in a way that his dear mother most definitely would not have approved of.
George smirked. “It’s different with a wife.”
Algernon sank into a chair near the fire, which had already been lit in anticipation of George’s return. “Spare me all the torrid details,” Algernon said.
George bowed lowly and winked. “As you wish. You might be sorry later, though. Brandy?”
“I’ll take my chances on the first, and brandy would be nice. Thank you.”
Algernon watched idly as his friend retrieved the glasses and poured the familiar golden liquid inside them. George offered Algernon a glass before taking the vacant chair by the fire and sprawling in it, like some lanky, lazy cat. “It’s good to see you again, even if you’re as melancholy and brooding as ever,” George said, raising his glass. “To you and your ball.”
Algernon took a sip of the brandy, welcoming the slight burn of the alcohol against his throat. “To my future wife, the poor soul.”
“Any woman would be lucky to be wed to you,” George replied, ever loyal.
“I don’t know,” Algernon replied. “We’ll see; I suppose.”
“Don’t be so dark and dour. Marriage is just something that all men must do, whether they are common or not. You’re no exception, so you’d do better to accept your fate. Besides, I’ve heard that men who are wed often live longer than the ones who aren’t.”
Algernon smiled darkly. “And do you think that’s true of women? Or do you think they die younger because they marry us?”
George gave him a baffled look. “Now, that is a rather pessimistic view on the situation. Doubtlessly, they live longer. I can scarcely think of any woman—common or otherwise—whose life is not infinitely improved by my presence.”
As with many of the outlandish things George said, Algernon wondered if his friend spoke in jest or out of sincerity. Still, Algernon supposed he was being a rather poor friend at the moment.
“Apologies,” Algernon replied, swirling his glass and watching as the brandy climbed the sides of it. “It was a dark view, wasn’t it? Perhaps, it’s something in the air. I feel as though the chill of the air sunk into my very bones, and maybe it’s frozen my heart as well.”
“Maybe you should’ve become a poet. Ladies like poetry, or so I’ve heard. It certainly seems to have drawn Lord Byron his share of admirers,” George said. “How is your verse?”
“I’ve heard women like a mystery,” Algernon replied, taking a sip of the drink. “It’s the allure of the unknown rather than poetry which draws them to you.”
“And do you have a mystery? Because as far as I’m aware, you’re everything you seem to be and always have been. You’re a very expressive sort of man. Any secret you might have would’ve already been exposed to me.”
“Or perhaps, I’m just an accomplished liar, and you didn’t realize it.”
George laughed, his lips twitching in amusement. “Then, pray tell, what mystery do you have? What secret have I yet to unearth about you?”
Algernon smiled, trying to recall that same rakish expression he’d often used before doing something foolish at Cambridge. “Why, Stockton, I couldn’t possibly tell you. Then, it wouldn’t be a mystery, would it?”
A month had passed since Dorothea glimpsed the Marquess of Northridge in Henry Beaumont’s shop. She had counted the days until his ball and spent most of the time perfecting her disguise. This would be her grandest performance. She needed the bearing of Lady Macbeth in the earliest stages of the Scottish play. She needed the courage and moral fortitude of Samuel Richardson’s heroines, one of whom—Pamela—she’d played on stage.
Dorothea straightened her shoulders and adjusted her hair, gazing intently at her own reflection. She’d styled her auburn hair into the same curls which she’d seen the elegant women of the ton wear. Her gown was deceptively nice, one which had been made for Queen Titania in their upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Mrs. Brooks will scold me very heatedly if she finds out I’ve taken it.
But Mrs. Brooks didn’t need to know that the gown, made of white muslin and trimmed painstakingly with pearls and white embroidery, was missing. Mrs. Brooks also didn’t need to know about the jewelry which Dorothea was borrowing; it wasn’t expensive, but it looked like it was.
Amelia’s fair face appeared in the reflection of the mirror, her blue eyes doubtful. “I don’t suppose I can persuade you otherwise, now?”
“Of course, you can’t,” Dorothea replied. “I look like an heiress now, don’t I? It would be a shame to have done all this hard work for no reason.”
Dorothea blinked. The corner of her right eye itched a little. Likely, she’d gotten some manner of cosmetic in it. She wasn’t as skilled at applying cosmetics as Rebecca, who normally did the task for her, but Rebecca was incapable of keeping any secret for even the smallest amount of time. Had Dorothea gotten her involved, she’d never have been able to leave the theater unnoticed.
The cosmetics were tasteful and barely noticeable, just like what a woman of the ton would choose to paint her face with. Any deviation from expectations could easily be dismissed since—after some consideration and a great deal of practicing the accent—Dorothea had chosen to disguise herself as an American diamond heiress.
“I don’t know whether I ought to admire your resolve or hate you for it,” Amelia said, placing a fine, wool cloak over her friend’s shoulders. The garment was green and embroidered with roses, embellished with glittering red beads. It had never seen a production, but it had been altered several times in anticipation of various occasions.
“Admire me,” Dorothea said with a quick smile. “My stepmother always enjoyed that about me.”
Dorothea nodded, a fond smile coming to her lips. “She said that she was much the same as a girl and a young woman. Stubborn and ambitious. She was always kind to me and supported me in everything I did, except…well—”
“Running away and joining a theater troupe?” Amelia asked. “Yes, I’m quite certain that is precisely what your stepmother’s childhood was like. Mine, too.”
Amelia had joined the troupe as a young woman, which had been a surprise to precisely no one. Both her father and mother were involved in theater, although a small troupe in the countryside. Amelia had wanted more for herself and had gone to London, seeking adventure.
“To be fair to her, I didn’t ask if my stepmother minded,” Dorothea said. “I just did it and left a note. I felt horribly guilty about it at the time. I still do sometimes, but I suppose it was for the best. And she clearly respected my wishes to let me live my own life and forge my own path. Otherwise, she’d have contacted me.”
Amelia furrowed her brow. “I’ve never quite understood that. When you arrived here, it was about two years before I did. And I remember you talking about your two stepsisters and how horrible they were to you.”
Dorothea adjusted her position to face Amelia, being careful not to catch the delicate fabric of the dress on her chair. The garment was well-made, but it looked so delicate that Dorothea was sort of afraid it might fall apart if she so much as looked at it too hard.
“They were,” Dorothea said. “They said really…really cruel things to me. And sometimes, they would steal my clothes or jewelry and claim they hadn’t. As an adult, it was just…childish behavior. I suspect they were just hurt and confused. My father died not long after he married my stepmother, after all. My stepsisters had lost their father and had a stepsister. I don’t think they knew how to adjust to that. Maybe I didn’t either.”
“But if your stepmother was so kind, why didn’t she make her daughters treat you better?” Amelia asked.
Dorothea smiled wryly. “They didn’t listen much to my poor stepmother. She tried very hard to teach them how to behave graciously, and they just didn’t listen. I like to think that things might’ve somewhat improved with my absence.”
“I can’t imagine any place being brighter with you gone,” Amelia said.
“Even now?” Dorothea asked, her green eyes shining with mischief.
Amelia rolled her eyes, but her smile was warm. “Even now. Are you finished prying compliments from me, as if I’m some meritless suitor who is desperate to impress you? Be careful, please. You aren’t a Bow Street runner; you know. Go to the ball, see if you can find anything relating to your father, and come back. I’ll wait for you.”
“Oh, you don’t have to,” Dorothea said.
“I will wait for you,” Amelia repeated, more firmly. “I won’t be able to sleep anyway, knowing you’re out there in a murderer’s townhouse, no less. Besides, I might have to launch a daring rescue if you don’t return in a timely manner.”
Dorothea slipped from her chair and squeezed Amelia’s hands. “I’d hug you if I didn’t fear wrinkling the dress.”
“I know. You may hug me afterwards. Good luck.”
Dorothea grinned. “Thank you.” The two women headed toward the entryway, Amelia pausing to retrieve her cloak. Outside, a coach waited for Dorothea. The driver—a young man named Matthew Cunningham, who happened to be wed to Amelia’s sister—tipped his hat and grinned. “Ready?” he asked.
“Ready,” Amelia said, opening the coach door. “Bring her back around midnight, will you?”
Matthew scoffed. “Oh, ye of little faith! You don’t have to sound as if you doubt me so much!”
“I’ve seen you drive,” Amelia replied. “Return her in one piece, if you would.”
Matthew wrinkled his nose and looked as though he only barely refrained from sticking his tongue out at Amelia. “And I’ve seen you try driving a coach, Amelia. That was a sight more frightful than anything I’ve seen in my life.”
Dorothea gave Amelia a final, fleeting smile. “I’ll be fine. Don’t fret over me.”
“I won’t,” Amelia replied, although they both knew that was a lie.
Dorothea climbed into the coach and settled onto the cushions, as Amelia closed the door. Muffled sounds came from outside the coach, Amelia and Matthew exchanging some parting words that Dorothea couldn’t quite hear. Matthew didn’t quite know the purpose of their deception. He didn’t even know precisely where Dorothea was going, as he'd been instructed to leave her two streets away from the Marquess of Northridge’s townhouse.
Matthew probably assumed that it was a party of some kind, perhaps one meant to draw some new patrons or sponsors for the theater. If only it were something that simple.
Dorothea sighed. “This is it. You can’t be afraid now.”
The coach lurched into motion, so suddenly that Dorothea let out a sharp squeak of surprise. Her heart pounded so loudly that she heard its beats reverberating inside her skull. She knew that it wasn’t too late for her to abandon the plan. Dorothea could rap her knuckles against the roof of the coach until Matthew heard her. He would halt, and she could explain that she felt ill and needed to return to the theater. It was as simple as that.
If she abandoned the venture, she might never have another opportunity like this, though. It was hard for a woman who wasn’t high-born to get near a high-ranking man like the Marquess of Northridge. Even if the chances that she’d find some evidence of her father’s murder were so small, she couldn’t miss this opportunity.
“You have to do this,” Dorothea murmured to the empty coach. “You can do this. It’s just a role like any other.” She was Dianna Beckett, the diamond heiress from New York. She had come to London seeking high society and culture, and when she learned that a Marquess was having a ball, she simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to attend a party with the ton.
Hopefully, Dorothea wouldn’t be asked any particular specifics. Her plan was to make an appearance, declare a need for fresh air, and then to search the townhouse, while everyone was distracted with the festivities. If anyone encountered her in a place where she shouldn’t be, she would merely claim that she’d gotten lost and perhaps feign as though she’d consumed a little too much alcohol that night.
“I can do it,” Dorothea said, forcing her voice into an American accent. At least, her best approximation of one. Amelia had insisted that Dorothea didn’t quite sound like an American, but she didn’t sound English. That was the most important thing. She didn’t sound like a woman from London. Her strange, not quite American accent could be explained by traveling often and to far-flung places or to an unusual childhood.
“It’s easy,” Dorothea muttered. “I’ve acted since I was sixteen years of age. I can do this.” She swallowed back the lump in her throat and tried to fight away her nausea, which increased with every bump of the road and jostle of the coach along the rough, uneven street.
“It’s for my father. My dearest father, who left behind a child, a wife, and two stepdaughters. He deserves to have his killer brought to justice, and I deserve to have some peace.”
Dorothea squeezed her eyes shut and resisted the urge to wipe her sweating palms across the delicate fabric of her gown. This costume must be returned to Mrs. Brooks undamaged and unsoiled by everything, including her hands. Instead, Dorothea brushed her palms over the seat of the coach. The linen fabric was cold and stiff, drawn thinly over the cushions.
Her stomach lurched as the coach began to slow. Surely, they hadn’t arrived at the destination already, had they? Dorothea’s heart hammered against her ribs as the coach halted entirely. This was it!
“You can do this, Dorothea. For your father.”
The door swung open, and Matthew’s thin, freckled face peered at her. “Is this it?”
He’d halted the coach before a townhouse. Dorothea gave it a cursory glance, noting that light flickered from beyond the windows. “Yes,” she said.
Matthew offered her a hand, as she descended from the coach. “Well, then. Have a good night. I’ll pick you up here at a quarter to midnight.”
“Thank you,” Dorothea replied. Matthew offered her a quick grin and returned to the coach. He coaxed the horses into a trot. Dorothea watched him until he rounded the corner and vanished from sight. The sound of the horses’ hooves faded quickly into the distance.
“This is it.”
She set her shoulders and turned around the corner, opposite the way Matthew had gone. It wasn’t far to the Marquess of Northridge’s townhouse, and this was the expensive side a London, a place which Dorothea rarely went. She had a wayward, haunting thought that she might become lost on her way to Lord Northridge’s townhouse, despite having memorized the address and repeated it several times in her head.
“If I become lost, I will simply tell someone that I am a diamond heiress and going to the ball. It’s as simple as that.” The statement, uttered to the night air, didn’t comfort her quite the way she’d wanted it to. Surely, there was nothing to fear, though. Not all the ton were murderous, and those that were didn’t commit their crimes in their own part of London. No, their crimes were committed in the countryside, where there would be no witnesses to seeing a kind father slain by a young and cruel lord.
She swallowed. The townhouse was just ahead. She saw the lights flickering from its windows and the long line of coaches and elegantly dressed ladies. Already, the sounds of laughter and conversation rose in the air, although Dorothea wasn’t near enough yet to hear any distinctive bits of conversation.
“This is it,” she murmured. “Diamond heiress, remember.”
Dorothea mentally went through the few scattered pieces of her background. She was a diamond heiress, young and adventurous. Although she loved her home in New York, she’d grown bored of it and decided to visit London. Hopefully, no one would ask for too many details about New York. Dorothea only knew what she’d read about America, which wasn’t probably as much as was needed for this role.
Should she be questioned too heavily, she would try and turn the conversation toward morals and politics, as in her experience, men could be depended on for monologuing at length about such things. If a woman wanted to question her, Dorothea wasn’t sure if the same approach would work; she had no experience with the women of the ton. Maybe she could insist on a very careful upbringing to justify her seeming ignorance on certain topics.
“This is going to be a night to remember, Ladies!” Dorothea froze. The first bits of conversation had finally reached her ears, but that wasn’t what caught her attention. It was that voice, so melodic and filled with bright, infectious joy. Dorothea’s chest ached with longing. Was it really her stepmother? Here?
Dorothea had considered the possibility of her stepmother and stepsisters’ presence, but it had only just sank in how much more complicated this whole venture might become.
I have to know. Dorothea drew nearer, carefully keeping a few ladies before her. She swallowed hard, as she approached the crowd of women, who had spread onto the street and were making a slow approach to the townhouse. There was a stately woman, her black hair pulled into curls and tucked beneath a blue hat. Her coat was blue, too, and embroidered with swirls like the ocean waves. Dorothea recognized the thin face and slight nose. The dark, glittering eyes. It was, indeed, her stepmother.
Beside the woman, there were two young ladies. To her left, there was the elder daughter Caroline. Dorothea remembered Caroline as being a short, slight girl, but she’d grown since into a young, shapely woman. She looked beautiful, clad in scarlet with her brown hair pinned back with bejeweled pins. And then, there was Lydia, also in red; she was the younger daughter and had a sort of hurried look about her, as if she’d been engaged in some arduous activity before being told she must be prepared for a ball in only a few minutes.
Dorothea dug her nails into the palms of her hands. I can recognize them. Who is to say they can’t recognize me?
Was it worth the risk? Even if they recognized her, they might not guess the real reason for Dorothea’s presence at the ball. Sure, Dorothea’s stepmother and her daughters would’ve heard the same rumors whispered by the servants, that the Marquess of Northridge had slain Cecil Wells, Dorothea’s father. But that didn’t necessarily mean they’d assume Dorothea came looking for answers.
They’ll know I’m not really a diamond heiress, though, which will raise more questions. This was it, her final opportunity to turn back and return to the theater. Dorothea lingered on the road, trying to either find her courage or decide if it had fled her. If she went to this ball, she’d have to evade not only the murderous Marquess but also her own family.
Dorothea took a deep breath. She waited for her stepmother Elaine and her two daughters, Caroline and Lydia, to enter the townhouse. Then, before her courage could flee, Dorothea entered the townhouse of her father’s killer.
I feel as though all of London is here. The crowd was larger than she had anticipated, so rather than entering gracefully and darting immediately away to some secluded corner to search for her proof, she was forced to linger uncomfortably. Voices rose all around her, and the townhouse felt suddenly hot.
Without warning, she was jostled. Her elbow collided with rich, blue fabric. “Apologies!” a man exclaimed.
Dorothea barely heard him over the sound of her blood roaring in her ears. She’d only just realized that it was her own stepmother who she’d collided with. Her stepmother’s sharp eyes fixed on her in an instant. Thinking fast, Dorothea retreated behind a couple of young ladies and pressed her back against the wall. Her heart racing, she hid herself in the crowd.
Her stepmother looked confused, and for several long seconds, Dorothea thought the woman might meet her gaze and recognize her. But mercifully, she turned away without another word or glance.
I am safe. I wasn’t caught. But for how long?
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