June 25, 1778
There wasn’t a person in all England who’d have believed the boy who grew up to be Lord Alaric Wilde would become famous.
Infamous? That was a possibility.
His own father had given him that label after Alaric was sent down from Eton at the age of eleven for regaling his classmates with stories of pirates.
Piracy wasn’t the problem—the problem was the uncanny way young Alaric had depicted his small-minded Etonian instructors in the guise of drunken sailors. These days he avoided portraying self-righteous Englishmen, but the impulse to observe had never left him. He watched and summarized, whether he was in China or an African jungle.
He had always written down what he saw. His Lord Wilde books were a consequence of that impulse to record his observations, a drive that appeared as soon as he learned to write his first sentences.
Like everyone else, it had never occurred to him that those books could make him famous. And he didn’t think any differently when he rolled out of his berth on the Royal George. All he knew in that moment was that he was finally ready to see his family, all eight siblings, not to mention the duke and duchess.
He’d stayed away for years, as if not seeing his eldest brother Horatius’s grave would make his death not true.
But it was time to go home.
He wanted a cup of tea. A steaming hot bath in a real bathtub. A lungful of smoky London air.
Hell, he even missed the peaty smell that hung over Lindow Moss, the bog that stretched for miles to the east of his father’s castle.
He was drawing back the curtain over the porthole when the ship’s boy knocked and entered. “There’s a mighty fog, milord, but we’re well up the Thames, and the captain reckons we’ll be at Billingsgate Wharf any minute.” His eyes shone with excitement.
Up on deck, Alaric found Captain Barsley standing in the prow of the Royal George, hands on his hips. Alaric started toward him and stopped, astonished. Through the fog, the dock glimmered like a child’s toy: a blurry mass of pink, purple, and bright blue that separated into parts as the ship neared the pier.
The dock was crowded with women—or, more precisely, ladies, considering all the high plumes and parasols waving in the air. A grin tugged at the corners of Alaric’s mouth as he joined the captain.
“What in the devil is going on?”
“I expect they’re waiting for a prince or some such foolishness. Those passenger lists they print in the Morning Chronicle are utter rubbish. They’re going to be bloody disappointed when they realize the Royal George hasn’t a drop of royal blood aboard,” the captain grumbled.
Alaric, who was related to the crown through his grandfather, gave a shout of laughter. “You have a noble nose, Barsley. Perhaps they’ve discovered a relation you never heard of.”
Barsley just grunted. They were close enough now to discern that ladies were crowded as far back as the fish market. They appeared to be bobbing up and down like colored buoys, as they strained to see through the fog. Faint screams suggested excitement, if not hysteria.
“This is Bedlam,” Barsley said with disgust. “How are we supposed to disembark in the midst of that?”
“Since we’ve come from Moscow, perhaps they think the Russian ambassador is onboard,” Alaric said, watching a rowboat set out toward them, manned by a dockworker.
“Why in the devil’s name would a flock of women come looking for a Russian?”
“Kochubey is a good-looking fellow,” Alaric said, as the boat struck the side of the ship with a thump. “He complained of English ladies besieging him, calling him Adonis, and sneaking into his bedchamber at night.”
But the captain wasn’t listening. “What the devil are those women doing on the wharf?” Captain Barsley roared, as the dockworker clambered over the side from the rowboat. “Make way for my gangplank, or I won’t be responsible for the fish having a fine meal!”
The man dropped to the deck, eyes round. “It’s true! You’re here!” he blurted out.
“Of course I’m here,” the captain snarled.
But the man wasn’t looking at Barsley.
He was looking at Alaric.
Miss Wilhelmina Everett Ffynche was engaged in her favorite activity: reading. She was curled up in an armchair, tearing through Pliny’s eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
It was just the kind of narrative she most loved: honest and measured, allowing the reader to use her own imagination, rather than ladling on sensational detail. His description of seeing a cloud of smoke shaped like an umbrella spreading ever higher and wider was fascinating.
The door burst open. “Madame Legrand delivered my new bonnet!” her friend Lavinia cried. “What do you think?”
Willa plucked off her spectacles and looked up as Lavinia spun in a circle. “Absolutely perfect. The black plume was a stroke of genius.”
“I fancy it adds gravitas,” Lavinia said happily. “Making me look dignified, if not philosophical. Like you in your spectacles!”
“I only wish my spectacles were as charming as your plume,” Willa said, laughing.
“What are you reading about now?” Lavinia asked, dropping onto the arm of Willa’s chair.
“Pliny’s account of the eruption that buried Pompeii. Just imagine: his uncle headed directly into the smoke, determined to rescue survivors. And he wanted Pliny to go with him.”
“Lord Wilde would have gone straight to the disaster as well,” Lavinia said with a look of dreamy infatuation.
Willa rolled her eyes. “Then he would have perished, just as Pliny’s uncle did. I must say, Wilde sounds like just the type to run straight at danger.”
“But he’d be running toward danger in order to save people,” Lavinia pointed out. “You can’t criticize that.” She was used to Willa’s scoffing at the explorer whom she claimed to love above all else.
Except new hats.
“I am so happy my bonnet came in time for the house party at Lindow Castle,” she said, “which reminds me that the trunks are stowed and Mother would like to leave after luncheon.”
“Of course!” Willa jumped to her feet and tucked her spectacles and book into a small traveling bag.
“I am looking forward to seeing Lord Wilde’s childhood home,” Lavinia said, with a happy sigh. “I mean to sneak up to the nursery as soon as I can.”
“Why?” Willa inquired. “Are you planning to take a keepsake? A toy he once played with, perhaps?”
“The gardeners can’t keep the flowerbeds at the castle intact,” Lavinia said with a giggle. “People want to press flowers between the pages of his books.”
Willa could scarcely imagine the chaos if Lord Wilde himself made an appearance, but the man hadn’t been seen in England for years. If you believed the popular prints, he was too busy wrestling giant squid and fighting pirates.
Sometimes Willa felt as if a fever had swept the kingdom—or at least the female half of it—leaving her unscathed.
During the Season that just ended, young ladies had talked very little about the men whom they might well marry and spend a lifetime with, and a great deal about the author of books such as Wilde Sargasso Sea.
Wilde Sargasso Sea? Wilde Latitudes?
The only rational response was a snort.
Willa was fairly certain that in person, Lord Wilde would resemble every other man: likely to belch, smell of whiskey, and ogle a woman’s bosom on occasion.
She tucked her hand under Lavinia’s arm and brought her to her feet. “Let’s go, then. Off to Lindow Castle to burgle the nursery!”