Blackmoor Estate, Essex, England
The rain fell steadily on the slick rocks marking the edge of the Essex countryside, where the land fell in sheer cliffs to a frigid winter sea.
His horse was uncertain of its footing, shying away from speed and direction in favor of steady ground. The creature’s fear would ordinarily irritate him and mark it for sale or slaughter, but today the wet cliffs made him equally cautious. He hadn’t planned to make this particular journey today—but some things would not wait.
He had received word by messenger early that morning—critical information that pointed to the possibility that the scheme he had set in motion was about to be compromised. Someone was determined to ruin everything…and that someone had to be stopped.
He had done all he could to keep his work a secret. But the earl had somehow discovered everything. Well, not exactly everything. He didn’t know how closely his precious earldom was tied up in the whole plan. Wouldn’t that be a surprise? He couldn’t wait to see the look of shock on the earl’s face. That would make this whole miserable trek in this godforsaken rain worth it.
He turned his gaze to the ocean, where a ship was anchored not far from the bleak Essexshire cliffs. Thirty yards ahead, the path split into two. To the left began the steep descent to the sea—too dangerous for a horse, barely wide enough for a man. To the right, the passage continued along the tops of the cliffs and, not far from the fork, offered the perfect spot for anyone interested in watching the events taking place below. There, he would find his prey.
He dismounted just before the split and left his horse, continuing to the right on foot. Without a mount, the advantage of surprise was his. On foot, he moved by instinct. He knew every inch of these cliffs, having traveled them hundreds of times before. They provided the perfect cover for the work he was doing, the perfect rendezvous point for his partners, and, coincidentally, the perfect place to dispose of someone.
The earl had, at long last, made a mistake. And now he would pay.
Oof! I’ve been stabbed!”
The Duchess of Worthington did not look up from her needlepoint. “Perhaps that will teach you to fidget while at the hands of your dressmaker.” She cast a sidelong glance in the direction of her youngest child. “Besides, I highly doubt that Madame Fernaud ‘stabbed’ you.”
Lady Alexandra Stafford, only daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Worthington, heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes. She rubbed the spot at her waist that bore the mark of London’s finest dressmaker’s needle. “Perhaps not stabbed—but wounded nonetheless.” Garnering no reaction from either her mother or the unflappable modiste, Alex slumped her shoulders and muttered, “I fail to understand why I must suffer this fitting anyway.”
The duchess continued with her needlepoint. “Alexandra, there are plenty of young women who would happily assume your position, standing on that platform, ‘suffering’ through a fitting for that dress.”
“May I suggest any one of them take my place?”
Alex knew when she was fighting a losing battle. “I didn’t think so.”
The Duchess of Worthington had been waiting seventeen years for her daughter to be released, finally, into the social whirlwind of a London season. For the last three years, Alex’s daily lessons had been shortened to accommodate hours of ridiculous tutorials designed to make her most marketable to those unmarried men whom her mother deemed to be “good catches”—which is to say, titled, wealthy, and thoroughly dull.
Perfectly useful time in Alex’s days had been taken up with a rigorous schedule designed by her mother and her governess to break her of all her quirks, that is, anything about Alex that someone with a thimbleful of intelligence might find interesting. From “Poise and Posture,” a torturous half hour designed to keep Alex’s back straight and chin tilted just so, to “Proper Conversation,” a playacting session designed to help Alex understand what to say and what not to say to the various men she would be meeting over the course of her first season, to “The Subtlety of the Dance,” during which she learned the quadrille, the waltz, the cotillion…and any number of other dances that would give her a chance to try to “appear graceful and lovely” while practicing all she had learned about Proper Conversation, the lessons were a precious waste of time as far as Alex was concerned. Unfortunately, she didn’t imagine anything short of Napoleon’s army marching straight through the drawing room of Worthington House would steer her mother from the course of marrying off her only daughter and, even then, she didn’t put it past the duchess to question the Captain of the French Guard on his lineage and inheritance before surrendering.
After all, a carefully won marriage was far more important than affairs of state.
The lessons had taught Alex some of the rules of the London aristocracy, however. Do: pretend to be interested as men regale you with the boring details of horses, hunting, and themselves. Don’t: reveal any amount of intelligence. Evidently, it scares eligible gentlemen off. Also, refrain from suggesting that there must be men who are looking for a woman who knows the difference between Greek and Latin. That particular remark sends governesses into hysterics.
Without considering the repercussions, Alex let out a deep, resigned sigh. And received a needle in the backside for it.
Madame Fernaud may have been considered the most renowned dressmaker in all of England, but Alex knew better. Clearly, the Frenchwoman was waging a quiet war against her British enemies by poking the young maidens of London to death.
This was the final fitting of the most important of Alex’s new gowns—the one she would wear to her first ball at Almack’s in a little over a week’s time. An appearance at Almack’s was essential for any debutante. Here, London’s most revered aristocrats—collectively referred to as the ton—were given a good look at the fresh young faces of the season. Like livestock going to market, Alex thought to herself, a single eyebrow rising in wry amusement as the corner of her mouth kicked up. The simile was too apt. Of course, most of the other girls who would join Alex for her coming-out had been dreaming of the moment their entire lives. Alas, there was simply no accounting for taste.
A quiet throat-clearing came from the door of the room and Alex, being careful not to move too much for fear of being skewered again, craned her head around to look at Eliza, her lady’s maid.
“Excuse me, Your Grace,” Eliza directed her words to the duchess while dropping into a quick curtsy. “Lady Alexandra has visitors…Lady Eleanor and Lady Vivian are in the downstairs sitting room.”
“Thank goodness. I’m saved,” Alex muttered under her breath and snapped her head around to send a pleading look at her mother. “Please? I’ve been standing here forever. The dress must be perfect by now.”
Madame Fernaud stepped back from her work and spoke for the first time. “Perfect is right, Mademoiselle.” She turned to the duchess and said, “Et voilà. Your Grace…she is a masterpiece…do you not think?”
Alex pounced on this statement. “A masterpiece, Mother. I rather think we shouldn’t fuss with such a tour de force, don’t you?”
The duchess, ever a perfectionist, stood and walked a slow circle around her daughter, casting a critical eye at a seam here, a detail there. After what seemed like an eternity, she raised her gaze to meet Alex’s. “You are lovely, Alexandra. You’re going to set the ton on its ear.”
Alex knew she’d won. Her face broke into a wide smile. “Well, with a mother like you, how could I not?”
The duchess chuckled at her daughter’s blatant flattery. “Rather excessive, Alexandra. Off with you.”
Alex clapped her hands and hopped down from the raised platform where she had been standing, throwing herself into the arms of her mother and planting a kiss on the duchess’s cheek. “Thank you, Mama!” Alex bolted for the door, tossing back a complimentary, “Merci, Madame Fernaud! The dress is just gorgeous! Oui, c’est magnifique! Thank you!”
Behind her, Her Grace spoke to no one in particular. “What am I going to do with that girl?” If Madame Fernaud hadn’t been caught up in her own indignant sputtering at the atrocious treatment her creation was suffering at the hands of Alexandra, she would have detected a hint of laughter in the duchess’s voice.
Alex bounded down the wide staircase of Worthington House and skidded to a halt in front of the sitting room doors. Harquist, the long-suffering butler who had been with the Stafford family since Alex’s grandfather held the dukedom, was standing at the ready. As Alex’s heavy skirts swirled to a stop around her legs, he opened the door to let her into the room.
Casting a twinkling glance at the butler, Alex stiffened her spine and offered her most ladylike “Thank you, Harquist” in his direction as she exaggeratedly flounced into the room.
His somber “my lady” was still hanging in the air when two sets of giggles exploded from across the room. Alex’s serious expression dissolved into a grin as she threw herself most indelicately onto the nearest chaise—across from her closest friends in the world, Ella and Vivi.
The three had been friends since birth. Their fathers’ boyhood camaraderie had carried on into adulthood and fate had given them each a daughter, born in three consecutive weeks of the year. It was only logical that the girls would become friends, confidantes, and partners in crime.
Lady Vivian Markwell, the only daughter of the Marquess of Langford, was the eldest of the trio—tall and slender, with her father’s dark hair and violet eyes, Vivi’s beauty betrayed a sharp mind and a strong will also inherited from her father, who was not only wealthy and charming but also a national hero and a high-ranking member of the British War Office.
Vivi’s mother had died when Vivi was only seven years old and her father had never remarried. Instead, he had poured his energy into raising Vivi and her twin brother, Sebastian. While Sebastian spent his days at Eton, studying to inherit his father’s title and become a peer of the realm, Vivi had grown into a perfectly mannered, distractingly exotic beauty.
The youngest of the three by a mere five days was Lady Eleanor Redburn, the eldest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Marlborough. Ella’s delicate features and petite frame, combined with her corn-silk-blond hair and blue eyes, afforded her the exact features that most ladies of the ton would have sold their souls to have for themselves. Ella’s personality defied her porcelain looks—she preferred books to balls and had even less interest than Alex in the trappings of London society. While Ella recognized and embraced the fact that her interests would likely leave her without a husband, Ella’s mother was beside herself with horror at the prospect of such a life for her daughter. Not that such a reaction bothered Ella in the least…in fact, Alex had a sneaking suspicion that her friend considered irritating the countess an added bonus.
Vivi and Ella had been with Alex for every step of her life and she couldn’t imagine a day without them. And, at that particular moment, she couldn’t have been happier that they were there.
“I am thrilled to see you! You’ve saved me from history’s longest dress fitting. What perfect timing!”
The girls cast sidelong glances at each other.
“That would explain your odd attire,” Ella said drily.
Alex looked down at herself with a groan. “I was in such a hurry to get out of that room, I forgot that I was still wearing the gown.” She sat up on the chaise and fluffed her skirts. “I’ll change in a bit. I’m not venturing back up there until Madame Fernaud has gone. She takes pleasure in my pain.”
“Your mother will have fits if she finds you lying about in your coming-out gown,” observed Vivi. “But since you’re here…stand up so we can have a look at it.”
Alex stood, curtsied, and twirled for her friends. Vivi smiled broadly. “It’s beautiful, Alex. The color is perfect on you. Cruelly or no, Madame Fernaud knows how to wield a needle.”
Alex grimaced at the memory of the needle in question and spoke wryly. “Alas…if only she were as careful with skin as she is with silk.” The girls shared a laugh—they’d all been on the receiving end of the modiste’s needle—and Alex looked down at the dress she’d been wearing for most of the afternoon.
She had to admit that it was beautiful. A rich emerald silk, the perfect color to highlight her bronze complexion, green eyes, and auburn hair, the gown was perfectly fitted to her body from shoulders to neckline to waist—a style Alex had never been able to wear before, her age prohibiting her from donning something so revealing. At the waist, the dress fell in rich waves of luxurious fabric down to the floor. What made it truly remarkable, however, were the hundreds of tiny handmade rosebuds that were meticulously affixed to the fabric in a diagonal cascade. The flowers, in the same green silk, appeared sparingly at the top of the bodice and gradually spilled down the dress, increasing in number. The design played on Alex’s uncommon tallness, elongating her form and accentuating her height.
It really was a masterpiece.
Ella interrupted her study of the gown. “If you think you’re going to be able to steer clear of marriage in that, you’re sorely mistaken.”
Alex cast a scowl at her friend. Ella never minced words. And she was almost always right. Unfortunately, this situation was no exception. The gown was designed for one reason only…to catch her a husband. For more than a year, her mother had been in a whirlwind of preparation for this, the spring of 1815, when Alex would turn seventeen and be “introduced” to the world. Not that she hadn’t been introduced to the world for seventeen years. But this was different. This was her first season, when she would be paraded like a piece of horseflesh in front of every unattached male in London who happened to have a sizable inheritance and an acceptable title. Her mother’s goal was to have Alex married off by autumn.