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The walk from the Pulteney to the nearest club was too short for any but an old man or an utter twit with pretensions of grandeur to bother bringing round his curricle from the stables or hailing a hackney, or so Darby protested when Coop suggested they do the latter.
Daniella Foster, variously known to her family as Dany, The Baby, or, not all that infrequently, The Bane Of Mama’s Existence, eyed the purple silk turban perched on a wooden stand in the corner of the fitting room. It felt as if she’d been there for a small eternity, and she’d already inspected most every inch of the crowded room at the back of the dress shop.
She wasn’t bored, because Dany was never bored. She was interested in everything around her, curious about the world in general, which had led her, in her youth, to getting down on the muddy ground to get nose-to-nose with an earthworm, all the way up to the present, which just happened to include wondering how it would feel to wear a turban. Would it itch? Probably, but how could she know for certain if she didn’t try?
“I still say it’s pretty,” she announced, “and would fit me perfectly.”
Her sister, Marietta, Countess of Cockermouth, just now being pinned into the last new gown she’d commissioned, did not agree. “I’ve told you, Dany, purple is reserved for dowagers, as are turbans. No, don’t touch it.”
“Why not?” Dany plucked the turban from its stand. “That doesn’t seem fair, you know,” she said, demonstrating her version of fairness as she lowered the thing onto her newly cropped tumble of red-gold hair. “Do you see that? The color very nearly matches my eyes.”
“Your eyes are blue.”
“Not in this turban, they’re not. Look.”
Dany stepped directly in front of her sister, who was a good eight inches taller than her at the moment, as she was standing on a round platform for the fittings.
Marietta frowned. “Some would say you’re a witch, you know. That thing should clash with your hair, what you left of it when you had that mad fit and took a scissors to it. Your skin is too pale, your eyes are ridiculously large, and your hair is — I’m surprised Mama didn’t have an apoplexy. Yet you…yes, Dany, you look wonderful. Petite, and fragile, and innocent as any cherubim. You always look wonderful. You don’t know how to appear as anything less than winsome and adorable. Its one of the things I like least about you.”
Dany went up on tiptoe and kissed her sister’s cheek. “Thank you, Mari. But you know I don’t hold a candle to your dark, serene beauty. Why, it took only a single look at you across the floor at Almacks for Oliver to fall madly and hopelessly and eternally in love with — oh, Mari, don’t cry.”
Turning to the seamstress, who was looking at both of them curiously, and Marietta’s maid, who was already hunting a handkerchief in her mistress’s reticule, Dany quickly asked the women to please leave them alone for a bit.
“Increasing, is the countess, and good for her,” the seamstress said, nodding her grey head toward the maid. “They gets like that, you know, all weepy and such for no reason at all. I’ll be certain to leave plenty of fabric for lettin’ out the seams.”
“Crying,” Dany interjected quickly, squeezing Marietta’s hands so tightly her sister winced. “No, darling, of course you’re not crying. We neither of us think any such thing.” Then she winked at the seamstress, who reluctantly let the drape fall shut over the doorway, she and the maid on the other side of it. “You were going to blurt out the truth, weren’t you?” she asked — perhaps accused — as she helped her sister down from the hemming platform.
“I most certainly was not. I’m still wondering what on earth prompted me to say anything to you. I must have suffered a temporary aberration of the mind.”
“No,” Dany said flatly as she watched her sister gingerly lower herself onto a chair, making sure she didn’t encounter any pins on the way down. “You did that when you wrote those silly letters to your secret admirer. And Mama says you’re the sensible one, and I’m to imitate you in all you do. But you know what, Mari? I would have at least asked my admirer’s name. Oh, here, take this, and blow your nose,” she ended, fishing an embroidered hankie from her own reticule and all but shoving it in her sister’s face.
“Lower your voice, Dany.” Marietta looked left to right and back again, as if making certain no one was hiding in the cluttered room, possibly taking notes, and then whispered, “And it wasn’t my fault. All the married ladies of the ton have secret admirers. It’s just silly fun. Especially when our husbands desert us to go off to hunting lodges and gambling parties and whatever it is gentlemen who wish to avoid their wives call amusement.”
Dany replaced the turban on its stand. It had been interesting to see how she looked in the thing, but it definitely was beginning to itch. When she became a dowager she would make sure all her turbans were lined with soft cotton.
“Is that so? And is it all still silly fun for you now that your admirer is demanding five hundred pounds for his silence, his promise to return your notes to you? Is that just another part of the game?”
Marietta blew her nose none too delicately. “You know it isn’t. I don’t have five hundred pounds, Dany, and Oliver will be home in a fortnight. Oh, this is all his fault. If he’d only paid me more attention. It used to be I couldn’t budge him out of my bed, but — no, don’t listen to me, Dany. You’re an unmarried woman.”
“True, but I’m not still in the nursery. Oliver is sadly lacking in romance, isn’t that it?”
Her sister’s shoulders slumped. “He … he forgot my birthday. He went traipsing off to Scotland with his ramshackle friends, and totally forgot my birthday. Our first year together he bought me diamond eardrops, the second a ruby bracelet, and the third a three-stand pearl necklace. Now? Now nothing.” She looked up at Dany, her soulful brown eyes awash in tears. “I don’t want to be a wife, Dany. He’s clearly bored, having a wife. I want to be his love.”
Dany motioned for her sister to stand up, and began helping her out of the gown. “I remember when you nearly called off the wedding.”
“That was all Dexter’s fault,” Marietta pointed out as she bent her knees, her arms straight up over her head, and allowed Dany to remove the gown. “And we don’t talk about that.”
Dany, carefully holding the gown at the neck, stuck it past the slight gap in the curtain, feeling confident the seamstress would be standing there to receive it (and anything she might overhear). No, they didn’t talk about it, what Dex had said, not after their father had threatened to disown him if he did anything to cost his sister a wealthy, eligible earl.
Oliver Oswald, Earl of Cockermouth. Marietta had written those words in an old copybook at least two hundred times, along with Marietta Foster Oswald, Her Ladyship, Countess Cockermouth. She’d been so proud, right up until the moment Dex had whispered a less than civilized definition of the word as seen by youths who found such things giggle-worthy.
“Oliver explained it all,” Marietta said now, diving into the sprigged muslin gown she’d chosen for her shopping trip to Bond Street. “The name is derived from the proud and ancient town’s position—”
“—at the mouth of the Cocker river, just as it joins with the River Derwent. Yes, I know. Papa made me commit that to memory. He also gave me a pretty garnet ring when I promised to stop calling you—”
Dany held up her hands in submission. “I was only fourteen, still sadly innocent in the way of things, and didn’t know what I was saying. Which, as I’ve pointed out many times, you can blame on Mama, not me. Now strap on your armor, and let’s go home. We’ll put our heads together and find some way to get you out of the bramblebush you so blithely flung yourself into in the name of revenge.”
Marietta carefully smoothed on her gloves, finger by finger. “Never should have told her,” she scolded herself. “What in God’s name possessed me to think she’d be of the least assistance?” Still, now armed once again with her bonnet and gloves, outwardly she looked the epitome of calm, her fine features carefully composed in what Dany thought of as her sister’s smug face. Her I am a countess, you know face. If Marietta wasn’t so heart-stoppingly beautiful, and Dany didn’t love her so much, she would laugh.
“It’s going to be fine, Mari. It’s all going to be fine. I promise.”
“Hummph, hummph.” More than a polite throat-clearing, the sound was full of suggestion, or innuendo, or perhaps even hope. Or at least Dany chose to think so.
Both young women turned about to see the elderly seamstress had reentered the fitting room.
Lady Cockermouth raised her chin. “I believe we were not to be disturbed. However, as we’re finished here, you may simply send along the gowns when they are done, and we’ll be on our way.”
Marietta, embarrassed and caught off guard, was making an attempt at haughtiness, intending to put the seamstress firmly in her place by playing at the Grande Dame. So typical of her, and so wrong, at least in her sister’s opinion. Dany believed herself not to be so cork-brained. It would be much better, even safer, to play on the woman’s sympathy.
“Mrs. Yothers, I think it is? Was there perhaps something you’d like to say to Lady Cockermouth?”
“What could she possibly have to—”
“Mari, there’s a wrinkle in your right glove,” Dany interrupted, knowing it was one thing that would silence her. She abhorred wrinkles in her gloves, which is why they were so tight they nearly cut off her circulation. “Mrs. Yothers?”
“Yes, Miss, my lady. I apologize, I truly do, but so as to be sure no one else disturbed you two fine ladies, I took it upon myself to send your maid outside and station myself right on the other side of the curtain. I couldn’t do much besides clap my hands over my ears not to hear that her ladyship is in a bit of a pickle.”
“I am not in a—”
“Oh, I was wrong, it isn’t a wrinkle. Why, Mari, I do believe you’ve picked up a smudge. Go on, please, Mrs. Yothers.”
“Yes, Miss. And seeing as how we’re all women here, even you, young Miss, and with the poor dear increasing and all—”
“I am not—”
“Here, Mari, you don’t want to forget your reticule,” Dany said, shoving the thing in her sister’s gut, leaving the latter rather breathless. And mercifully silent. “Mrs. Yothers? You were saying?”
The seamstress shot a compassionate glance at Marietta. “I remember how I was with my first. It does get better, my lady, as the months go on. Before it gets worse again, that is, but that’s over quickly enough and you’re back to doing what got in the delicate way in the first place. But that’s not what I’m here to say. I think, your ladyship, what you need right now is a hero.”
Dany rolled her eyes. “A hero, Mrs. Yothers? What a splendid idea. Would you perhaps know where to locate one?”
The woman smiled as she reached into the pocket of her apron, pulling out a wrinkled, dog-eared chapbook. “I do indeed, yes. Here you go, Miss. You can keep it, seeing as how I know it all by heart anyways, and there’s a whole new one waiting for me upstairs when I go up for my tea. I hear it’s even better than the first.”
Dany was already reading the title on the front cover: The Chronicles of A Hero.
“A hero? But, Mrs. Yothers, surely this is just a made-up story? This man, this,” she looked at the cover again, “His Lordship, Cooper McGinley Townsend? He’s no more real than Miss Austen’s Mr. Darcy.”
“He looked passably real to me about an hour ago, when he and his companion sauntered past, out on the strut. Spied one of my girls, staring bug-eyed at him through the window, and gave her a tip of his hat, he did. Such a gentleman. Everyone knows him, Miss. Purest, bravest man alive, and bent on helping other people out of their troubles, especially pretty young ladies. Prinney himself handed over a title and an estate to him. I do nothing but hear about him in here, Miss. He’s a hero to all the ladies, who chase him something terrible, poor man.”
Dany looked down at the cover once more. What a ridiculous print. Nobody looked like that, at least nobody real. But if he did…
“Dany? Daniella, for pity’s sake, what are you staring at?”
“I wasn’t staring,” Dany answered quickly, folding the chapbook and stuffing it into her pocket. “I was thinking. Mrs. Yothers, you just might be right. Mari, shall we go? Thank you so much, and I’m certain Lady Cockermouth will return in the next week or less to order at least another half-dozen gowns, four of them for me as a matter of fact.”
“I’m what?” But even Marietta wasn’t that thick. “Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. And bonnets. And … and scarves, I do favor scarves. You know, the sheer flowy ones. And, and …”
A young boy hastened to open the door to the street for them, and Dany took her sister by the elbow, ready to pull her out of the shop if necessary before she bankrupted the earl. “Mrs. Yothers understands, don’t you, Mrs. Yothers, and is terribly appreciative of your custom?”
The seamstress blushed, and bobbed several quick curtseys. “I do indeed, Miss. As my son says, mum’s the word.”
“Thank you. Mari, we should be going now.”
“We should have gone long since,” her sister pointed out as her lady’s maid rose from a bench outside the shop and fell into place three paces behind them. “We shouldn’t have come at all, not in the delicate state I’m in, and certainly I shouldn’t have dragged your flapping mouth along with me. Now look where I am — beholden to Mrs. Yothers.”
“She’ll be worth every penny if she’s right, and she doesn’t really know anything. She was being nice mostly because you’re pregnant.”
“I am not — oh, the devil with it. Tell me what’s going on in your mind, Dany, even though I’m not going to like it, nor will I approve. Mama placed you in my hands, remember.”
“The answer’s obvious, Mari. You can’t fix what’s wrong, and heaven knows I have no idea how to fix what’s wrong. But a hero? Morally upright, generous of heart and spirit, wonderfully hand — handy. I think we should apply to him for his assistance.”
“Don’t even think such a thing,” Marietta said, her voice trembling. “The poor man is absolutely besieged with all matter of ladies of the ton, young, old, eligible misses and their mamas, married women — they’re after him day and night. Oliver told me the man had to flee London in fact, to get away from their flirtatious entreaties and embarrassing importunities. Now he’s back, according to Mrs. Yothers, and I’m certain the ladies are making utter fools of themselves yet again. I couldn’t possibly be so bold.”
And there was the smile that had launched a thousand nervous tremors within her family. “That’s all right, Mari, because I could. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it.”
“Dany, you wouldn’t dare! Oh, what am I saying. Of course you’d dare. But you cannot, Daniella. You simply cannot!”
“Why? At least I’d know his name, which is more than you took the time to find out when you were punishing Oliver with your unknown lothario, offering up your reputation to be shredded – and even signing your name to those dangerous notes. You couldn’t have scratched Your Beloved Snookums or some such equally cloying and anonymous?”
“That would have been silly. He already knew my name.”
“Exactly. You didn’t have to sign your notes at all. Oh, don’t start crying again. I’m merely pointing out the obvious. Now let me think more about how I’m going to approach your hero.”
“The Baron is not my hero, and you are definitely not going to attempt to run him to ground like some fox. I can’t let you do it. I’ll say it again. Mama sent you here to practice for the Spring season. I’m to tutor you, train you, set a good example for you.”
“And you’re doing a whacking great job of that so far,” Dany said, grinning. “Rule number one. I now know, as if I didn’t before, never to exchange silly letters with unknown men.”
Marietta probably hadn’t pouted so forcefully since she was twelve. “One mistake. I made one mostly innocent mistake.”
“And Oliver deserves half the blame for that. Possibly more, as there was jewelry involved. I remember. See? Lesson two, learned. If jewelry is involved, there may be exceptions to rule number one.”
“You’re being facetious.”
“And enjoying myself mightily. And more than slightly excited, I’ll admit that as well. How do you propose we go at this, Mari? If we knew the baron’s direction, I could simply pen him a formal note, asking him to meet with me on an urgent personal matter involving an innocent woman’s virtue. Or do you think my chances would be better if I approach him in public, perhaps at the theatre or one of the parties we’re committed to this week?”
She reached into her pocket and withdrew the chapbook. Truly, she could stare at the print for hours, just to look into those green eyes. “I believe I’d recognize him if I could somehow manage to casually bump into—oh!”
(You know whom she just bumped into, right? Let the games begin!)