Was there any greater satisfaction than the satisfaction of a party gone wonderfully well?
Miss Caroline Crispin didn’t think so. Or if there was, she hadn’t found it just yet.
She lifted her foot from the cool tile of the entry hall, curling her toes discreetly. She’d been on her feet nearly a whole day by then, and her soles were telling the tale. But as she recalled the sea of ruddy cheeks rolling across her parents’ grand ballroom, the echoes of wildly stomping feet, and the sweet, summertime heaviness in the air, she smiled. The sleepy, achy, sated ending to a ball was always her favorite part.
It was nearing dawn, but rest could wait.
Lords Strayeth and Chumsley were next in the queue to make their goodbyes to her, each of them puffing out their chests as if they’d just discovered a new continent in the retiring room.
“My lords,” she began in a low voice, returning their smirks. “Did everything meet with your approval this evening? Was the conversation stimulating? Were the ladies’ bodices…stimulating?”
“Indeed,” Chumsley replied, his mouth a tight line. He was short but sturdy-looking, with white-blond hair and striking blue eyes that some had compared to the waters of the West Indies. “Lovely evening, Miss Crispin.”
She shifted from one sore foot to the other. When had these gentlemen become so…straitlaced? Certainly, it was racy to talk this way. But she’d danced and flirted with them at countless social events since her seventeenth birthday, four years earlier. She had even kissed Strayeth once, at a public ball, behind what was perhaps the largest potted ficus in all of England.
“The conversation and the bodices were just to our liking,” Strayeth added, his eyes fixed elsewhere in the crowd. He was the lankier and more fashionable of the pair, with a floppy brown forelock he had to constantly shake back from his eyes.
“Both were rather deep then, I imagine?” she asked, trying to egg them on.
She no longer sought attention from men their age, really. They were beginning to look for wives, and the very thought of marrying sent a shiver all through her. She’d watched her mother toil silently beside her father her whole life; had seen her design the grand home in which they now gathered but give Papa all the credit; had heard her cry quietly in the studio when she thought everyone had gone to bed. Caro knew a husband of her own would expect her to leave her ideas unsaid, too; to give up her charitable schemes. And her ideas and schemes were like wildflowers: They were exuberant, plentiful, and deeply resistant to the forces of domestication.
But she so enjoyed a bit of good repartee! Couldn’t she jest with these gentlemen anymore? They had been friends of a sort, once.
“Thank you, Miss Crispin,” Strayeth replied, bowing and nudging Chumsley toward the door. “Your abilities as a hostess are…most remarkable.”
They hadn’t stepped more than a few feet away, however, when Chumsley leaned over and murmured something in his friend’s ear. She wasn’t certain, but it sounded a bit like, “Even my pointer has learned to shake hands.”
Now she was confused. And a little bit unsettled. But just as she was resolving to speak less of bosoms and bodices, a loud clang sounded from the ballroom followed by several whoops and whistles.
“Lud,” Caro said to herself, looking at the ceiling. “I asked Mr. McNabbins not to juggle the serving bowls anymore. His new assistant is hardly a proficient.”
Grinning now, Strayeth and Chumsley made a quick bow and trotted off toward the ballroom, in the direction of the clattering dishware (and in all likelihood, her guests from the Sadler’s Wells theater). She was confronted at once by another departing guest, a stooped older man in an unfashionable powdered wig.
“Where is your father?” Lord Tilbeth demanded, his mottled complexion growing pinker by the second. “I had but one moment’s conversation with him all evening.”
“He’s in the studio, my lord.” She rubbed her temple, glancing behind him at the long queue of guests that still extended through the spacious entry hall and into the ballroom beyond, all waiting to speak with her. “You know how it is.”
He looked at her blankly.
“You see, when a person is in trade, he often has to work. Rather hard. Sometimes even at night.”
“But your father is the Prince Regent’s favorite architect! Look at all of these…these people!” he fumed, gesturing at the assortment of aristocrats and merchants, entertainers and artists, professors and cabinet ministers, all drooping sleepily behind him. “Half of London wants him to build their next home or some such! The least he could do is make himself available.”
“They’re like fighters, my lord.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Champions must stay in top form, Lord Tilbeth! Other architects are waiting just outside the ropes, so to speak, eager to take my parents’ place.”
He scrunched up his face—possibly upon hearing the word “parents” when most people would expect to hear “father”—but just then his wife emerged from a group of ladies standing nearby. She gave Caro a curt nod, the feathers in her turban bobbing haughtily behind her. Then she tugged her husband forward with a lurch, through the open door, and into the earliest glimmers of dawn.
Caro turned back to her guests and was delighted to find her dearest friend awaiting her next.
“It always amuses me,” Edie whispered as they shared a firm embrace, “to watch the Tilbeths pretend to have fun at your balls.”
“They fear they’ll break into hives if they accidentally rub elbows with a shopkeeper,” she replied, her laugh fluttering Edie’s straw-colored hair. “Heaven help them if they ever bump into my butcher. He never misses my parties.”
She stepped back and watched as Edie bent down to pick up an enormous basket at her feet, its contents obscured by a piece of white linen.
“Dearest! What are you doing?” Caro asked.
“It’s your apples. I thought I’d bring them to the orphanage for you. Well done, Caro. Wherever did you get the idea to ask everyone to harvest the ornamental trees in their gardens? This might be your cleverest scheme yet.”
Just one basket? From three hundred guests? This was a disappointing result, indeed. “I suspect all the credit goes to a half-dozen servants,” she replied over a sigh, “as they were the ones who did the harvesting.”
“Actually, my brother picked all our apples,” Edie replied, looking into her basket. “Although he had to steal them, I believe—”
“Edie!” Caro exclaimed, cuffing her lightly on the shoulder. “Your own brother is here, and you haven’t introduced me?”
Edie cuffed her back, bobbling her basket a little. They’d spent many a year together at Mrs. Hellkirk’s Seminary for Wayward and Willful Girls, and had taken rather well to the unusual set of manners taught there. Like fish to water.
“I’m not his keeper,” Edie replied as she adjusted her heavy load. She nodded toward the ballroom. “He’s the big one.”
Caro whipped her head around and looked.
And then she looked some more.
That was Edie’s brother?
“Thank you for a lovely time,” Edie told her.
Caro had long been curious about Edie’s mysterious older sibling. He wasn’t a recluse, she’d explained, just a determined homebody with a preference for the country. Caro strained on her tiptoes, angling for a better look.
“I’m putting on my bonnet now,” Edie added, waving a hand in front of her face. “And my cape. And sword.”
Caro knew that Edie’s brother—Adam Wexley, the Earl of Ryland—had some notoriety as a fighter. Everyone did. But in school Edie had described him as “oafish” and “insufferable.” Caro had been left to imagine a lumbering, pasty sort of man. Weak-chinned, and prone to sneering at independent-minded ladies.
“And I’m taking your apples, Caro. I’m going to throw them into the River Thames, and dance a jig along the bank.”
But Lord Ryland appeared to defy Caro’s low expectations. He was standing rather far away from her, but she could see that he was indeed exceptionally tall and broad-shouldered. His hair was very dark—was it black?—and seemed shorter than most men were wont to wear it. Caro couldn’t make out any other details, but one thing was certain: Lord Ryland was striking. Even from the next room.
And his chin seemed perfectly fine.
Caro settled back on her heels and pulled her friend close.
A gentleman farther back in the queue cleared his throat, and Caro knew she must hurry things along.
“Nothing. Nothing of any consequence,” Caro replied as she leaned in for a one-armed embrace. “Give my regards to your mother. I do hope she feels better soon! And put down that basket, Lady Edith Wexley! It looks heavy. I can manage it.”
“Honestly, Caro,” Edie replied, smiling as three or four apples tumbled from the basket as Caro took it. “If you’re going to conduct all these schemes of yours, you’re going to have to accept a hand every now and again.”
Adam was struggling.
Struggling against the urge to let out a cracking-good laugh.
He was standing with one of the foremost Italian opera singers, and the poor soul was enduring a small torture of his own: that of having to pick apple peel from his lower front teeth.
“Does an Englishman always bring such gifts to a party?” the baritone asked, giving up on the remains of his first pilfered apple and moving on to a second, greener one.
Adam was accustomed to being the deepest-voiced person in a room, but he could swear he’d seen the candelabras tremble in the presence of the bushy-bearded performer’s low and sonorous authority.
“No,” he replied. “We’re not often asked to bring a hostess something we’ve found on the ground.”
The singer bowed and headed to the refreshments, so Adam was free to step into the loose queue of people waiting to leave the party. He wondered where his sister Edie had gotten off to, and lamented being torn away from the novel he’d begun earlier that day.
He glanced around the ballroom. Criminy! The view into Crispins’ back garden was unbelievable. The ceiling soared, and the windows were positively enormous. The room must be bathed in sunlight all day long. Now he understood why the crème of society had lined up to kiss the hand of Mr. Crispin’s only daughter and hostess: the architect’s talents were extraordinary, and his home showed it. No wonder everyone admired him.
What would Father say, if he could see the state of his own beloved townhouse?
He rubbed hard at his forehead, trying to banish the unflattering thought.
Father wouldn’t have neglected the place. And he wouldn’t have allowed Edie to run about without an escort. And Mother wouldn’t be recovering from a terrible injury.
The couple in front of him stepped forward a few paces, giving him a better view into the entrance hall. And for the first time Miss Caroline Crispin was in his view, too. He’d never seen the hostess before, but he could tell it was her by the way all of the heads in the vicinity oriented themselves toward her—watching her, hoping for a moment of her notice.
He could hardly blame them.
Edie had mentioned that her friend was confident and outspoken. Brash, even. She’d told him that she admired the architect’s daughter for the quickness of her mind and tongue, her bottomless generosity; her relentless pursuit of the things she wanted to accomplish.
What his sister wouldn’t have known, of course, was that such levels of confidence, when combined with an already-pretty countenance, tended to render a woman stunning. Unforgettable, even.
And Miss Caroline Crispin already had a pretty countenance.
Her hair was a dark brown—that was all Adam could tell of it, from a distance—and perhaps it was strange, but the next thing that struck him was her posture. She was of average height, but she carried herself more naturally than was fashionable. She gestured expressively with long, gloved arms, nodding and swaying, deep in debate with the gentleman standing before her.
The lucky devil.
Whomp—a man’s hand landed hard between his shoulder blades, sending him forward a full step.
“Ryland, old man! When did you get here? Been hiding out in the hinterlands again, pruning those pretty little flowers of yours?”
Adam swallowed a frown and made a quick bow. “Strayeth, Chumsley. I arrived in town last week, actually.” I’m just very good at avoiding you.
They hadn’t changed a bit. Clearly. He’d met them at his club some years earlier, when they’d been drinking hard and wagering over something awful—an upcoming cock fight, perhaps? He hadn’t wanted to know the details.
Strayeth grabbed and squeezed his shoulder, then gave him a light shake. “We need to get you brawling again, Ryland. Don’t we, Chum?”
Adam’s heart began tapping a little harder at his ribs. Father had often squeezed him on the shoulder, whenever Adam asked to stop sparring; when he craved the serenity of his small garden—the roses he could never get enough of, the shaded bench he could read on for hours. Father had been firm with him as a boy, but never rough; as if by placing a big, still hand on his shoulder he could infuse in him the drive not only to fight, but to win, and the mental fortitude to train for it. It never worked, though. Adam could not find the first of those traits within himself, though he could—and did—force himself to continue doing whatever Father had asked of him.
Adam both missed and dreaded that hand on his shoulder—and the memory of it—all at once.
“I have no plans to return to the ring,” he replied as he wiped a bead of sweat from his brow.
“What, now? You wouldn’t want to break the Ryland tradition, would you? Your father was a fine man, they say.”
“The very best,” Adam replied.
“Then why not honor him?” Strayeth continued, letting go of his shoulder and poking him instead, deep in the recess of his collarbone. “Besides, you can’t break the Duke of Portson’s arm and nose then retire to a life in the country, Ryland. Tell him, Chum.”
Adam took a deep breath as the heat in his skin ticked up still further. He so hated to be poked and prodded. “Right now, gentlemen,” he replied finally, turning back toward the entry hall for another look at Miss Crispin. “I’d just like to shake hands with our fair hostess and get back to the comforts of my own home.”
“Who?” Strayeth asked. “Caro?”
Adam winced at the use of the young woman’s given name.
“You know the lady?” he asked.
“Is that what we’re calling the opinionated young miss from Marylebone these days?” Chumsley asked, looking at Strayeth with a snort. “That honor is conferred a bit too broadly, is it not?”
Now Adam had had enough. He could only assume that they disdained Miss Crispin on account of her birth, and his patience for their arrogance had been worn to a husk. “Do watch yourself, both of you!” he growled, snapping back to them. “You are guests in this home!”
Strayeth took a step back, his chuckle bloating rapidly into a full-throated laugh. “Oh ho ho, Ryland! Didn’t realize you were such a friend of the lower orders! Want to take it outside, then? Is this how we finally get you brawling again?” He put up his fists and took a fighting stance, biting his lip and punching the air in front of Adam’s face.
Adam closed his eyes and leaned away from the jabs, regretting his angry outburst. He opened his eyes and bid them farewell, exited the ballroom, and gestured to a footman for his hat and cane.
He knew it was terrible manners to leave without a proper farewell, but he’d become rather adept at withdrawing from the world, at avoiding obligations whenever it was convenient for him. So with his accoutrements in hand, he strode briskly down a darkened corridor toward the rear of the house, where he expected there would be a servants’ staircase of some kind.
But as the voices faded behind him, he stopped. No. Not this time. He rapped his cane on the floor and recalled Father’s dying words: Be a gentleman, Adam. A true man. Always.
He’d been just fifteen years old when he’d heard them, and they’d gone with him everywhere, ever since.
He might never forgive himself for abandoning the family’s boxing legacy, but he could begin fulfilling other duties: He could fix the townhouse. He could better protect his family. He could step up his efforts to find a wife and get an heir. And he could stop avoiding people. Or at least, do so a little less often.
He was about to turn back when a familiar voice called out, “Ryland? A word?”
He turned to find an old schoolmate, Lord Quillen, approaching with Miss Crispin on his arm.
How does a person laugh without really laughing? Because that’s what Miss Crispin seemed to be doing, her eyes the color of tea left out in the afternoon sun. And then she smiled at him, those strong-brew eyes growing wide—unnaturally wide, he thought—as if they could absorb all the light from the nearly extinguished candles along the walls.
It was an expression that seemed to say: Finally, something exciting is going to happen.
“Our hostess just informed me that if I didn’t introduce her to the gentleman sneaking away from her party,” Quillen began, “that I’d find myself seated between two Tilbeths at all future card parties.” He gave an exaggerated grimace and performed the introductions.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Crispin,” Adam began, pulling at the bottom edge of his coat. Why did his throat feel so dry? Say your piece, Ryland. Look stern. Exit through door. “But my mother is quite—”
“You cannot blame this on your mother,” she interrupted.
He stilled. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your mother’s injury cannot be the reason you’re skulking through our portrait gallery, my lord! I saw Lady Ryland just yesterday, and she felt so well that she sang me the latest from Schubert. Loudly, and with feeling.” Her lips twisted into a wry sort of expression, raising the hair on his forearms in tandem.
You were in my house just yesterday, and I missed it? Clearly, I haven’t worked nearly hard enough at being a homebody.
Quillen glanced back and forth between them, a bemused expression stretching slowly across his face. Then he bid them farewell and headed back toward the entry hall. Adam was now quite alone with Miss Crispin, about a hundred feet from the nearest guests and servants.
“Do not vex yourself, Lord Ryland. I’m not going to check your pockets for silver,” she continued, adjusting the tops of her gloves. “Your sister warned me about these peculiar manners of yours.”
“She warned me about you, as well,” he replied in a rush, straightening and re-straightening his shoulders.
“Did she, now?” Miss Crispin opened her fan with an exaggerated crack, fanning herself theatrically. “And what did my dear Edie say about me, my lord? I’m all anticipation.”
“She said that you are—what was the word?” He stepped closer. He wasn’t sure what had come over him, but all thoughts of leaving seemed to have evaporated.
“Brash, I believe. Edie said you were brash.”
“Ah, yes. An American word. A good word.”
“An apt word?”
He found himself eager to impress Miss Crispin, to keep her eyes on him, to keep her talking. He scratched at the hair above his ear. “She also told me you had a quick mind,” he said softly, leaning down. He was now only a foot or so away from her.
“Oh, stop,” she replied. “I’m blushing now.”
“And a quick tongue.”
And with that, the loquacious Miss Crispin went quiet, her loose posture suddenly quite still.
He stepped back. Too bold, Ryland. Too bold by half! He feared he’d offended her, though she continued to smile and look him straight in the eye. “And you clearly have little sympathy for gentlemen who feel entitled to sneak away from your party,” he continued, more warily now. “Rightfully so, I might add. I must apologize.”
“Ah, yes,” she responded, her limbs suddenly fluid and easy again. She fanned herself some more. “What is it with you modern gentlemen, and your prodigious sense of entitlement? If only I could make a fuel from it, no one in London would so much as shiver, all winter long.”
He laughed aloud—he couldn’t help it—but she spoke again before he could think of a riposte.
“You are free to go, Lord Ryland. In return for your rather generous donation of apples this evening, I give you leave. Sneak away.” Then she curtsied and turned, heading back to her guests in the entry hall.
As he bowed and watched her go, he felt utterly strange. On the one hand, their exchange had been a burst of pleasure he hadn’t realized he’d been needing. Disappointment at the brevity of it coursed through him.
But he also knew that parting ways with Miss Crispin was for the best. He might not be well-practiced at moving in society, but even he knew better than to flirt unguardedly with a lady unless he intended to court her.
But then, what if he did intend to court Miss Crispin? He wanted to marry. His family wasn’t concerned about her birth, and seemed to admire her for more than her impressive position in society. And couldn’t everyone benefit from a few more bursts of pleasure in their lives?
Perhaps finding a wife would be one duty he could attempt with some ease.
“Toby, you’re a true prince! Just don’t tell ol’ Prinny that I said it,” Caro told the dog as they descended the stairs to the ground floor. She wanted to take him on a sunrise constitutional now that the last of her guests had departed, but they needed to see the housekeeper first. So she brought the beloved mongrel—half-bulldog, half-terrier—to a secluded nook off the entry hall where she could drop into a small chair and wait. Toby sank obediently to the floor, his foot landing hard on her slipper.
“You’ve a head like a small anvil,” she cooed, leaning down and massaging his velvety ears. He yawned back at her. “And a mouth like a small lion.”
A soft knock sounded on the wall. The tiny space was little more than a wrinkle at the edge of the room—the snuggest of snuggeries—and had a narrow opening that wasn’t visible when looked at straight-on. “Miss Crispin, you wanted to see me?” asked Mrs. Meary in her familiar lilt.
“Yes!” Caro replied, holding out a sack of coins. “May I give you this now?”
“For splittin’ amongst everyone, Miss?”
“That would be lovely, thank you. The evening went off so beautifully. And would you ask Stinson to take this beast on his walk?” Caro handed her the dog’s leash. “I thought I could manage it, but I’m not sure I could keep pace this morning, after all.”
As Mrs. Meary led Toby away, Caro leaned back and lifted her skirts, giving her feet a much-needed rubbing. She smiled at an assortment of pleasant memories from the ball: The pungent smell of the garden when the windows were opened at midnight. The shouting of witty parries over jubilant music. The refreshing tang of the lemonade after an especially brisk waltz.
And what about that exchange with Lord Ryland? Lud! Where was the oaf Edie had promised? The mythic fighter? He’d been positively timid with her—apologetic, even.
Perhaps he was simply good at play-acting. His words had eventually turned salacious, after all, and when her pulse had begun jumping and dancing in her veins she’d figured it must be her conscience, reminding her not to flirt with men of marrying age. She resolved, now, to make conversation that was a bit less personal—and not about bosoms or bodices—in future.
The sound of heavy boots clomping on the entry-hall tile roused her from her reverie. Who could possibly still be in the house? She stood up and brushed at her skirts but didn’t move fast enough; she was still out of sight when two gentlemen started speaking.
“All right, then. I will see you later on.”
“Right, Chum. At White’s, per usual.”
And Strayeth, of course. Perhaps they expected Barclay to come forward with their hats and canes? They wouldn’t know that the butler was already busy with the myriad extra tasks that awaited him after a ball. It was just like them to linger after giving their farewells, to claim the last of Cook’s delicacies and have a laugh about the nude portraits and sculptures throughout the home.
“I don’t understand it,” Chumsley sighed.
“What is it, man?”
“I do understand that everyone is quite desperate to put Crispin to work for them. But there’s got to be another way, without having to bow down to his whore daughter all of the time.”
She felt as if she’d been kicked in the chest by a horse. She exploded with pain and dropped into her chair with a shoosh.
Strayeth cackled in response, a loud crack suggesting that he also slapped himself rather hard on the thigh.
“I cannot be the only gentleman who finds it tedious to have to keep pretending that she’s respectable!” Chumsley went on. “Who on Earth does she think she is, with all that talk of bodices?”
“I don’t know,” Strayeth replied through his laughter. “Someone who hasn’t realized that a lady doesn’t speak of bare bosoms? But she’s always been quite the coquette, Chum. You know that.”
“True enough,” Chumsley said, sounding exasperated. “It’s as if a common whore has all of society wrapped around her little finger. I saw her with a bishop earlier, Stray. Do you suppose she spoke to him of stockings and petticoats?”
Caro burned behind the eyes, her chest still throbbing.
“She claims she doesn’t want to marry, but it’s just another one of her jokes, I’m sure,” Chumsley went on. “Anyone can see she’s set on marrying well. Can you imagine, Stray? Honestly, it’s embarrassing.”
The other lord snorted his agreement. “I make it a rule that once a woman’s been compromised by three of the men in my circle, I no longer dance with her.”
Compromised? Caro sat up again, suppressing a snort of her own. What in Heaven’s name are they referring to? That I’ve kissed a few men over the years?
And three? She looked down at her fingers and did some quick accounting.
Fair enough. Three it was. Possibly four, depending on how one looked at things.
“Pish!” Chumsley continued. “I wouldn’t hand that woman into a carriage!”
“She might not be suitable for proper courting,” he went on. “But she might be useful for other…purposes.”
His voice softened, and seemed to be moving closer to the nook. Caro stopped moving. Every bone, breath, and sinew, every hair and nail and thought and fiber—all of her stood as still and cool as a new headstone, gone fresh into the ground.
“I’ve long suspected she was mine for the taking,” Strayeth whispered, his voice a low rasp. “She flutters over to me whenever I enter a room. And she sometimes puts a hand on my sleeve!”
“Pish! You? You’ve a gift when it comes to the debutantes, Strayeth. But while you’ve been worshiping at the finer doorsteps in town, I’ve entered into many an enjoyable apprenticeship with the daughters of shopkeepers and newspapermen.”
“And what about the daughters of builders?”
“They might as well be next in my education.”
Really, it was the snickering that sickened Caro most of all.
“Well then, Strayeth. We seem to be at odds on the issue. Perhaps we can make it a wager?”
“Always! What did you have in mind?”
“Let’s do it this way: whichever of us gets under Miss Crispin’s petticoats by the end of the season, wins.”
“And what coin are you willing to put on it?”
Chumsley paused a moment. “The losing gentleman shall pay the other one hundred pounds.”
Caro heard the hollow clap of two hands coming together, and knew they were shaking on it. The dull click of the front door soon followed, together with the familiar rattling of frames against the walls. At these sounds, she slid from her chair—and into a large urn—before hitting the floor, a pile of limbs and fabrics and shards of fine porcelain. Tears of mortification plummeted down her cheeks.