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A Midsummer Night's Sin
November 2011 | HQN Books
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*Starred Review from Publisher's Weekly*
He didn’t follow fashion, he made it. He had the air of the finest salons of post-war Paris about him, fairly reeked of suave sophistication. When he’d taken to growing his blond hair nearly to his shoulders, half of the young fashionables had rushed to do the same, a few going so far as to resort to hairpieces.
He rode a strawberry roan stallion with a white diamond-shaped blaze. Sales of strawberry roan stallions soared, as did the profits of one Jacques Dupuis, former jockey and a true artist with whitewash.
He could make a violin weep, turn a pianoforte naughty, and played the flute because he thought it amusing. Unemployed music masters found themselves beleagured with demands for lessons, and those who would term any music “a beautiful noise” hadn’t yet had their ears abused by the efforts of dozens of tone-deaf young French fops.
He shunned the theater, and tickets sales plunged. He made a joke, and all of Paris laughed. Young ladies wept for him, young men fought to be seen with him. Hostesses showered him with invitations … to their parties, to their boudoirs.
They called him Puck, the name delighting them. He was so very unacceptable, yet welcomed everywhere.
He was le beau bâtard Anglais, the beautiful English bastard, the beloved pet of Paris Society, and completely, wholly delicious.
And now he had said his adieus to the openly distraught Paris and returned to the land of his birth, just in time for the new London Season.
Where he was known only as Robin Goodfellow Blackthorn.
Puck posed at the mantelpiece in the lavish drawing room of the even more lush mansion in Grosvenor Square, the very heart of fashionable Mayfair. He appeared nonchalant in his fine French clothes, his cravat a masterpiece, his tailor’s appreciation for his client’s fine physique evident in the exquisite cut of the broadcloth jacket and form-fitting trousers molded to his long, lean body.
He wore his most ingratiating smile with the ease of long practice, and concealed the intelligence in his fascinating blue-green eyes. Everything depended on how he handled the events of the next few minutes, yet to the casual observer, he seemed affably stupid and as dangerous as a dandelion.
In truth he was on his guard, wary of these two gentlemen whom he knew to be considerably more complex than just another pair of boring Englishmen who might be able to trace their ancestry back to the Great Flood, but couldn’t be trusted to otherwise know enough to come in out of the rain.
They’d been playing a game for the past quarter hour, speaking of this and that and the other thing, each pretending the other was anything but what they were. Who’d win this dance of wits and deception was anyone’s guess, but Robin Goodfellow Blackthorn invariably preferred to wager on himself.
“I do admire the English countryside,” Puck remarked, apropos of nothing that had been said thus far. “The area around Gateshead, for example, is quite laudatory. Why, I could wax on about the place for hours.”
Handed that sort of encouragement, Baron Henry Sutton at last cut through the aimless polite banter, which Puck had known the man had been itching to do since his arrival.
“You’d blackmail us?” The baron looked to his friend, one Richard Carstairs, and said, “And there it is, Dickie. The bastard’s attempting to blackmail us.”
“Oh, hardly, my lord, although I must remonstrate just a little, as I see no reason to bring the circumstances surrounding my birth into the thing,” Puck protested, stepping away from the mantelpiece and further into the game. “I was merely reminiscing on my earlier brief acquaintance with Mr. Carstairs here, when we were both passing a lovely evening in Gateshead last year. Charming place, if a bit off the beaten track for a gentleman such as Mr. Carstairs. Jack, however, one might discover anywhere, mostly when one least expects to, and up to mischief, of course.”
Dickie Carstairs, a fair skinned, round cheeked fellow whose rather soft body hinted that his main love in life would most probably be a toss-up between his cook and his next meal, turned to the baron, his eyes gone wide. “Hear that? He brought up Jack. Nobody’s supposed to know about Jack. His brother, for God’s sake. Bound to be as wily. Told you we shouldn’t have come here. Summoned. I don’t much care for that.”
The Baron, clearly the sharper of the two, both in looks and in manner, turned to glare at Robin. “Your brother will hear of this.”
Puck’s smile only broadened. “Oh, yes, indeed, I’m convinced he will. Jack seems to hear about everything, one way or another. He’s uncanny that way, don’t you agree? We call him Black Jack, inside the family, that is. He’s the most romantic of us. Give him my best, would you? And how is — what was the fellow’s name? Ah, now I remember. Jonas. And how is Jonas? I would imagine the nasty man is toes-up in some unmarked grave somewhere far from London and a more civilized English justice, but then, I have a dramatic bent of mind some times.”
“If you’re hinting that we took him out and —”
“Dickie, that will be enough,” the baron said silkily. “All right, gloves off, Mr. Blackthorn. Clearly you’re aware that your brother and Mr. Carstairs and myself, as they become necessary, occasionally perform some small services for the Crown.”
Puck held up his hands in protest. “Rather a disposal service, I would think, and damned handy into the bargain. But, please, no more details. I would much prefer we remain friendly.”
“There’s nothing of friendship about it. You sent us notes revealing just enough information to bring us here, and now you want something in return for your silence. Correct?”
Puck picked up the crystal decanter and gracefully went about refilling his guests’ wineglasses. “Well spotted, sirs. Yes, that’s exactly what I would like. Something in return for forgetting certain events that transpired in Gateshead last Spring and your presence there. Nothing earthshaking. A piddling thing, actually. I would like a small — not infinitesimal, yet nothing grand — entrée into London Society. A few introductions, taking time to be seen conversing amicably with me in the Park, perhaps an invitation to accompany you two grand and socially acceptable personages to a sporting event. I feel confident I can take it from there.”
“Do you hear that? Do you hear that! I will not!” Dickie Carstairs exploded angrily. “A bastard, foisted on the ton? With our blessing? Unheard of!”
The baron waved his companion to silence. “Your brother Beau tried that, years ago. Tried it twice, as I remember.”
“Yes, I know, and with varied results.” Puck took up his place at the mantelpiece once more.
He had them, he knew he had them. When they looked at him they had to see enough of Beau to know he wasn’t the sort to bow and scrape, and enough of Jack to think twice about doing anything to … upset him.
“I am not my brother Beau, gentlemen. Nor am I my brother Jack. We are all sons of the Marquess of Blackthorn, all born on that same sadly illegitimate side of the blanket, but we are not all the same person. Beau, bless him, once assumed he needed acceptance. Jack rejects all of Society. Privately, I believe he thinks you’re all fools.”
“And you?” the baron asked, his eyes narrowed.
“And I?” Puck shrugged, elegantly, in the French manner. “I ask little of life, actually. I simply wish to enjoy myself and my fellow man. I am a rather entertaining sort, you know. Why, you might even find yourselves liking me. Now, would either of you care for more wine — Dickie, I see your glass is empty again — while we discuss our initial foray into the social whirl? I might suggest Lady Fortesque’s masked ball, set for this Friday evening. A trifle risqué I understand, both the ball and Lady Fortesque, and most of the Haut Ton will avoid both, but certainly not above my touch, don’t you think?”
The Baron, clearly a man who had weighed Puck and found him impossible to ignore, put down his wineglass and stood, signaling for Dickie Carstairs to do the same. “Isobel will most probably be delighted with the notion of such a scandal. I’ll see that an invitation is delivered later this afternoon.”
“Perfect,” Puck agreed, clapping an arm over Dickie Carstairs shoulders as he escorted his visitors to the door. “I will see you both at the ball, then, won’t I?”
“But … but it’s a masked ball. How will you recognize us?”
“I won’t have to,” Puck told Dickie, really, a most strange assassin, no one ever would have suspected him of having an adventuresome soul. “You will recognize me, approach me. I am you see, pour mes péchés, rather singular.”
“For your sins? I don’t know if I like that,” the unlikely adventurer said, frowning as he looked Puck up and down. “I’ve been wondering if you commissioned that waistcoat here, or over in Paris. Damned fine. I probably don’t have the belly for something like that. Or too much belly for it, at any rate, but if you could give me the direction of your tailor, I’d —”
“Oh, for the love of — come along, Dickie,” the baron said on a sigh, and grabbed the man’s elbow as Wadsworth personally handed over their hats and gloves and held open the front door for them. Neither man slipped him a copper for his troubles, but that was the quality for you, cheeseparing, when recognizing a servant’s assistance in a monetary way had saved many a man from having his hat and gloves mysteriously and permanently misplaced.
Once the door was closed behind his departing guests, Puck looked to the butler. “That went rather well,” he said, displaying his pleased and pleasing smile. “Do you have anything interesting for me, Wadsworth?”
“Yes, sir,” the former soldier said, reaching into his pocket. “Found some scribbled note in the fat one’s hatband and copied it out here for you. Doesn’t seem to mean much of anything.”
Puck took the folded scrap when it was offered. He would never understand why so many men thought hatbands such a safe hiding place, but wasn’t it nice to know that Mr. Dickie Carstairs was so predictable. “Really? That would be too bad, wouldn’t it? In any event, you’re a jewel beyond price, Wadsworth. I’ll take it from here. Thank you.”
He unfolded the scrap and read its brief contents as he returned to the drawing room.
My apologies. Impudent rascal! Humor him, please. He’s harmless. Saturday, usual place and time. New assignment. J. B.
Puck smiled as he crumpled the scrap and tossed it into the fireplace. “Ah, Jack, and won’t it be lovely to see you again…”
The large town house in prestigious Berkeley Square had come to Lady Leticia Hackett via her maternal grandmother in lieu of a dowry, and tied up in so many clever legal strings that her ladyship’s high-living, deep-gambling father could not sell it to settle his debts.
Reginald Hackett, Leticia’s loud, crass, uncouth shipping merchant husband had come to her courtesy of that to-let-in-the-pocket father, the earl of Mentmore, bartering her good name and impeccable lineage to the highest bidder, a climbing cit who suffered from the delusion that his deep pockets could buy him entry to society.
Her daughter and only child, Regina, was a gift from the gods, and the only reason Leticia didn’t imbibe more wine than she did, which was considerable.
The two women were closeted in Regina’s boudoir, the singular room in the place other than his wife’s bedchamber, Reg Hackett dared not enter. The last time he’d had an itch he wanted scratched without the bother of leaving hearth and home for the mistress he kept in Piccadilly, Lady Leticia had unearthed a small silver pistol from beneath her pillow and taken off his left earlobe with a remarkably precise shot. If she’d been sober, she probably would have missed him entirely.
He didn’t enter his daughter’s bedchamber because, although other than using his brain to lie, cheat, and steal his way to a fortune, he wasn’t what anyone would term a particularly intelligent man, he did know enough to realize that Regina despised him.
And that was all right with Reg. His daughter was a commodity, rather like a full hold of India silks safely pulled up at the London Docks that he would sell at inflated prices to idiots who would otherwise be forced to do without. That’s what business was all about. Buy at one price, sell at another, higher price. He’d bought his well-born titled lady, and now he would sell her whelp to a title.
The girl was pretty enough, if she kept her mouth shut, and Reg had a strong desire to be related by marriage to one of the premier families in England. Thank God she hadn’t been born a boy. He wouldn’t have known how to shop a boy any higher than he’d shopped himself. Regina should snag him an earl, at the worst, even if a duke was out of the question. When you’ve been born in a gutter, being able to point to an earl and say “mine,” was as good as ten thousand prime shares in the Exchange.
Reg was right about his daughter’s looks. She seemed to have been hatched entirely without his help, for she bore no physical resemblance to the man save a small mole just above the left outer corner of her upper lip, which looked just fine on her, he supposed. For the rest of her, she had her mother’s dark brown hair with hints of red to it, eyes so blue they were startling, and made dramatic by long curling black lashes and winged brows above a straight nose so aristocratic it made Queen Charlotte’s nose look like a plum pudding in comparison.
Oh, yes, Regina was a beauty, all right. Cold as her mother, but what else was to be expected. As long as she kept her legs crossed until he got her bracketed to a title, that’s all Reg asked of her.
“Turn around for me, darling,” Lady Leticia said, waving her wine glass in her daughter’s general direction. “It’s your first Season. We can’t have too daring a neckline.”
Regina looked at her reflection in the tall pier glass mirror and put both hands to her neckline, tugging it higher. Her mama, bless her, had always been a little bit embarrassed about her daughter’s fairly ample bosom. She’d gone so far as to say it wasn’t “ladylike,” and a sure sign of the inferior blood passed along to Regina by her paternal grandmother.
Regina had never met the woman, who had died before Regina was born, but if there were anything wrong, lacking, or overdone in Regina, blame could always be laid on her father, her grandmother, or “inferior blood.” When she was five, and accidentally broke one of her mama’s favorite figurines, she had been quite astonished when her mama had not accepted her declaration that, “I didn’t do it, Grandmother Hackett did.”
“The neckline is fine, Mama,” Regina said as she turned around, doing her best to “back” her breasts into herself, which she did by rounding her shoulders forward. “I’m very nearly acceptable.”
“You are completely acceptable,” Leticia declared hotly, and then took another large swallow from her wineglass. “They have to accept you, they’ve no choice. I can trace our family bloodline back to —”
“Back to the fifteenth century, and the family fortune all the way to last Tuesday, when Papa once more had to pay off more of Grandfather Geoffrey’s and Uncle Seth’s gaming debts before they both could be tossed into debtor’s prison. Yes, I know.”
“Impertinence is not a trait you inherited from my side of the family,” Leticia said sulkily, reaching for the wine decanter. “The blue suits you, by the way. A wonderful match for your eyes — which you will keep lowered, if you please, along with your chin. Debutantes are shy. Gentlemen are piqued by shyness.”
“I can’t imagine why. I should think they’d be bored spitless. Thank you, Hanks,” Regina said as her maid clasped a single string of perfect pearls about her throat. She then crossed the room to her mother and bent down to kiss the woman’s thin, papery cheek, holding her breath because her mama thought to cover the smell of spirits with copious amounts of perfume, which in reality only made things worse on both counts. “Aunt Claire and Miranda will be here shortly. I should go downstairs now. Will you be all right?”
With a sidelong glance at the cut glass decanter, Leticia nodded her head. “I have company.”
Regina opened her mouth to remonstrate with her mother, but thought better of such a useless exercise. Instead, she looked enquiringly to Hanks, who winked at her. The wine had been watered. Good. After the first decanter, Leticia’s palate must turn numb, as Regina’s watering of the second (and sometimes third) decanter had yet to be noticed.
“Then I’ll be on my way. I believe Miranda said something about our hostess’s fine desserts, so I’m taking my largest reticule along with me so I can bring home a sampling for you.”
Leticia brightened. “Lemon squares. If it’s Lady Montag’s soiree, there will be lemon squares. Simple, but her cook is wonderfully talented.”
“It’s not too late to accompany us,” Regina suggested, wishing her mama would go out in society more than she did. Cousin Miranda was a pleasant enough companion, but prone to recklessness, and more than once had to be scooted out from behind some potted palm and away from some half-pay officer when it was time to leave.
“I’m certain your aunt Claire will prove sufficient as chaperone. Now go along. Hanks and I will be fine. Won’t we, Hanks?”
“Yes, my lady,” the maid said, dropping into a curtsy.
With one last warning look at Hanks, Regina picked up her reticule and shawl and headed for the staircase, arriving in the foyer just as a footman announced that the elaborate Mentmore coach awaited her in the Square. The Mentmore’s hadn’t had a fine crested coach until Reginald Hackett had purchased one for their use during the Season, with the caveat that his Regina was never to be taken about town in anything else.
She hastened outside and was handed up into the dark coach, seating herself on the rear-facing seat, beside Miranda’s maid, Doris Ann. “Am I late or are you early?” she asked her cousin, and then frowned as she noticed that her cousin was alone on her seat. “Miranda? Where’s Aunt Claire?”
Her cousin’s laugh tinkled (Regina might have said tittered, but everyone else thought it delightful), and patted at her golden curls that were Regina’s secret envy. Anyone can have dark brown hair, but Miranda’s locks were extraordinary, and highly in fashion at the moment, as were her fairer-than-fair skin, petite stature and, it would appear, her nearly flat chest.
“Mama is enjoying a rare evening at home, as Aunt Leticia is serving as our chaperone this evening,” Miranda explained, and then the tinkle-titter was repeated.
Regina’s eyes narrowed. “That’s not amusing. I told Mama Aunt Claire was accompanying us.”
Miranda gave a dismissive wave of her tiny hand. “As if you’ve never lied to her before. And if you haven’t, then it’s high time you started. Not that Aunt Leticia probably remembers half of what anyone says to her, what with the — oh, I’m sorry, Reggie. I talk without thinking, I do it all the time, don’t I?”
“You do a variety of things without thinking,” Regina told her, squeezing her hands together on her lap. “Now tell me where this coach is heading before I knock on the roof and have it turned back to Berkeley Square.”
“No, you can’t do that! I can’t go alone, and I simply must go. You complain that no one wants you save for your papa’s money. Well, nobody wants me at all. Papa may be a viscount, and Grandfather Geoffrey an earl, but the entire world knows we’re all next door to paupers. Oh, Papa will find some rich merchant for me I suppose, as Grandfather did for Aunt Leticia, if no one more suitable falls madly in love with me before the Season ends, but not as rich as Uncle Reginald, and probably twice as crude. Before that happens, I want to have some fun. I’ve been planning all week. Doris Ann, show her.” She motioned to her maid, who then reached down to the tapestry bag at her feet. “What do we want with a horrid, boring recital, when we can go to a ball?”
“A ball? I’m not dressed for a — what are those?”
“Dominos,” Miranda said proudly, grabbing at a mass of emerald green silk and pulling it onto her lap before Doris Ann passed a similar silk creation, this one in scarlet, to Regina. “And the masks, Doris Ann. Show her the masks!”
One after the other, two half masks were lifted from the tapestry bag and handed to Miranda and Regina.
“Aren’t they glorious!” Miranda exclaimed, holding hers up to her face. It was cunningly flirtatious, almost cat-like, sewn all over with closely-set green glass stones that matched the emerald silk, with larger stones topping off the many curving tips that fanned up and out at the sides and top, rather like emerald flames. “See? These satin ribbons tie behind the head. They’re both pretty, but I really like this one best, if you don’t mind?”
“You look like a cat,” Regina said, looking down at the mask her hands. “And I mean that in the nicest way. Mine’s … white.”
“Ivory, Regina,” Miranda corrected. “It’s shaped much like mine, except for that part that covers your nose, and isn’t that the most gorgeous lace? And all those tiny seed pearls curling all over? And those tiny little silken rosebuds? And the lovely satin ribbons? Oh, stop frowning, Reggie, it’s pretty!”
Regina looked at the mask again. Yes, there were rosebuds, three of them. One at either side of the mask, and a third that, once she had it on, would be smack in the middle of her forehead. She plucked them off even as Miranda eeked in protest before breaking into a wide grin and clapping in delight.
“Then you’ll go?”
Regina looked down at the mask. She fingered the decadent scarlet silk puddle in her lap.
“I’m certain I was told that masquerade balls are not as acceptable as they once were.”
“Well of course they’re not, silly, or else I wouldn’t have had to steal the invitation from my brother’s desk, now would I? But since Justin is out of town at some boxing mill in any case, why should the invitation go to waste? Besides, the hostess is Lady Fortesque, and I know Justin has spoken of her more than a few times, so the whole thing is still … reasonably acceptable.”
Regina fingered the silk once more. Scarlet. Debutantes did not wear scarlet. They didn’t wear masks, either, she felt fairly sure. She knew for certain that they didn’t attend balls without a parent or other chaperone present.
“What happens at a masquerade ball?”
Miranda shrugged. “I would suppose that everyone hides behind their masks until such time as they’re told to take them off. Not that we’ll do that, of course. We’ll be long gone by then. But while we’re there…” she paused, probably for dramatic effect “…while we’re there, we tell no one our true names, and we’re free to dance and flirt and — oh, Reggie, please say yes!”
Being a debutante was boring. It probably was supposed to be boring, so that everyone would quickly find someone suitable, marry, and never have to do it again. Being a Hackett, daughter of the poor, martyred Lady Leticia and the totally unacceptable Reginald, Regina had endured her share of impolite stares, snide innuendo, and even a few horrified mamas who had physically escorted their sons in the opposite direction when there was a chance of having to stop and exchange pleasantries with the wealthy but socially inferior Miss Hackett. Except for those titled but poor as church mice peers who might entertain lowering themselves to courting her father’s money. Those she avoided, much to her papa’s chagrin.
To be able to dance, to — yes, and to flirt — without anyone knowing her name? To not be the coarse jumped-up shipping merchant’s daughter, or even the sad, drunken Lady Leticia’s daughter, just for a few stolen hours?
Sensing that her cousin was wavering, Miranda pressed her case. “We’ll be wearing these lovely capes to conceal our clothing. Doris Ann and I found them in the attics, and they don’t even half smell of camphor, not since we aired them. Can you believe my parents once actually were young enough to have worn them, and these masks, eons ago? That’s why you get the scarlet one, since Papa is so short and you are so horridly tall, like your father. But not everyone is so boring as to just wear dominos and masks. Some of the guests will come in complete costumes. There will be knights, and shepherdesses — all sorts of fanciful things. Why, who knows, Reggie. Perhaps by the time midnight strikes, you will have kissed a devil. Isn’t that beyond anything exciting?”
“Neither of us will be kissing any devils,” Regina said, holding the mask to her face as Doris Ann tied the satin ribbons to hold it in place. “We’ll stay for an hour, no more than that, and then make a late appearance at the recital, just in case your mother or mine ever chances to speak to the hostess. We will be late because one of the coach horses turned up lame. Also, Miranda, you will not leave my side, nor I yours, for more than the space of a dance. Agreed?”
Miranda was already struggling to push her arms into the sleeves of the concealing domino. “Oh, yes, yes, agreed! Most definitely agreed!”
“And if we’re caught out, I’ll tell everyone it was all your idea, and that you kidnapped me.”
“Reggie! You wouldn’t!”
“No, probably not,” Regina agreed. “But I was just now remembering the time Mama and I visited at Mentmore and you blamed me for tossing me into the ornamental pond.”
“And they believed me and not you,” Miranda said, tying the strings of the domino under her pert little chin before pulling the hood up and over her hair. “That’s because I look so sweet and innocent and you look … well, never mind.”
“Oh no, you don’t,” Regina said as the horses drew to a halt outside a large building lit with flambeaux that cast strange shadows inside the coach. “I look so what?”
Miranda fidgeted on the seat. “Well, Mama says decadent, but Papa says exotic. And Justin …”
“Yes? My idiot cousin Justin says what?”
“He says you always look like you’re ready. And stop looking at me with your eyes all gone wide that way because I don’t know what that means, but Mama said he shouldn’t talk like that in front of me. Come on, Reggie. If we only have an hour, let’s make the most of it.”
“I suppose now I have Grandmother Hackett to blame for something else,” Regina grumbled as she tied the strings of the scarlet domino around her throat and covered her hair with the hood. “All right, I’m ready.”