Nick, always the most sensitive of the Stafford sons, spoke cautiously. “Had you expected the findings to be different?”
Blackmoor met his friend’s eyes with a dark look and then redirected his gaze to the ceiling as he leaned against the desk. “To be honest? I don’t know what I had expected. My father was a master horseman. I was there the day he rode out onto the estate—I heard him tell my mother that he was going riding. I heard him explain that he was checking on the drainage system in the rain. I saw his face as he left the house. He was a man on a mission.”
In the silence that followed, William spoke. “Your father was a great man. He took every part of his life seriously. I believe he would have considered even that small task a vital one.”
“Of course, you’re right, Will.” Blackmoor looked down at his hands. “I suppose I just want to believe there was a reason for his death—something more important than a soggy pasture.
“There was simply no reason for my father to be on those cliffs, no reason for his horse to be spooked, no way that, even if the horse had scared, my father would have lost his seat. In all our years of knowing each other, have you ever known my father to take a fall from the saddle?” He looked at the others, all of whom shook their heads.
“This report,” he said with quiet conviction, “is wrong. I can’t prove it, but I know it.”
He looked at the others in the room, each quiet, each waiting for another to speak first. He saw the shock in their faces, their concern, their uncertainty, and he checked himself. “Christ, this whole thing is taking its toll, isn’t it?” With a deep breath, he crossed to the hidden door that led back to the billiard room. Tripping the switch to swing the door open, he turned back to his friends. “No more macabre conversation. Fancy another game?”
There was a deep pause, as the Staffords considered the impact of the scene that had just unfolded and their own next steps. Will stood first and broke the silence; recognizing Blackmoor’s embarrassment and desire to end the awkward moment, he spoke with his trademark arrogance: “Certainly, if all of you don’t mind being roundly trounced…again.” Taking their cue, Nick and Kit groaned in mock disgust and, matching their older brother’s grin, stood up to follow Blackmoor back to the billiard table—just as friends should.
This whole process is really quite ridiculous, isn’t it?” Alex stepped from her scalding bath, receiving a large linen bath sheet from Eliza, who, seeing her charge wrapped in the dry cloth, wasted no time in guiding her to sit by the roaring fire on the other side of the room.
“Head down.” Alex flipped her hair over toward the heat of the flames, and Eliza went to work combing the long auburn tresses free of snarls and knots as the fire dried the wet curls. “Ridiculous?” the maid queried.
“Quite,” Alex said, her voice muffled by the curtain of her hair and the strange contortion of her body. “I mean, how long was I in that bath? An hour?”
“No’ even a quarter of that,” Eliza said, unable to keep the humor from her tone.
“Well, it felt like an hour,” Alex said grumpily. “I feel as though every inch of my skin has been scrubbed off. And all for what?”
“For beauty,” the maid spoke, focused entirely on her task. “The Prince shall think you the most beautiful lady he’s ever seen.”
Alex replied wryly, “Let’s hope that’s not the case, Eliza. History teaches us that things never end well when royalty set their eyes on ‘the most beautiful lady’ they’ve ever seen. Have a care; if you perform your tasks too well, I could be haunting the Tower of London without a head, alongside Anne Boleyn.” She looked up through her tresses at Eliza, eyes dancing with amusement the maid did not share—and received another shove, reminding her to keep her head down.
“Fine. For beauty, then,” she continued, waving one arm, her tone rich with boredom. She stayed quiet for a few moments, allowing the scent of the lavender soap Eliza had used so forcefully to envelop her before picking up her head and continuing, “Am I nearly done?”
“Nay. Head down.”
Alex sighed. “I hate this.”
“Yer in a funk.”
“I am not in a funk.”
Eliza made a noncommittal sound and Alex lifted her head to look at the maid, only to have her hair tugged. “Ow!”
“That wouldn’t ‘ave happened if you’d kept your head down.”
Alex snorted in disbelief but kept her head still. The truth was, she was in a funk. Eliza was right. Eliza was always right. Just three years older than Alex, Eliza had grown up alongside the Stafford children in the Essex countryside, the daughter of the cook and the stable master at Stafford Manor. While the difference in their stations was always clear, when the two girls were alone, they were as equal as they could be. From their earliest days together, the young maid had always had the uncanny ability to understand Alex’s moods—often before Alex understood them herself.
“Why don’t you tell me why you’re in such an ill humor?” Eliza prodded, continuing to comb Alex’s hair, which was drying quickly in the burning heat.
“I don’t really know,” Alex admitted. “I am rather dreading this day, this presentation, this…pomp and circumstance.”
“Whatever for? It’s your first day as a real lady. I’ve ne’er seen your mother so…well…she’s proud as a peacock. I should think you’d be excited. Up.”
Alex sat up and spun around on the little stool upon which she was perched, repositioning herself to dry the rest of her hair. Eliza kept combing the long tresses until they shone brightly.
Alex scoffed. “My first day as a real lady. What on earth does that mean? And my mother is excited because I’m one step closer to being married off.”
“You know that is no’ what she is thinking.”
“Not consciously. But it is there. Lurking in the background. A smart match is the future she’s always wanted for me. And today is the beginning of that future.” She paused, stretching out her legs and leaning back into the heat of the fire. “If only I wanted it as much as my parents do.”
“Perhaps tonight you’ll meet someone who’ll make you want it that much.”
Alex rolled her eyes at the idea. “It’s a night at Almack’s, Eliza, not an enchanted ball. Let’s not get too carried away.”
“You never do know, luv.”
“Finally!” Alex jumped up from the stool and paced across the floor of the bedchamber, happy to be freed from the tedious task of hair drying. “Now what?”
“Well”—Eliza tilted her head and looked thoughtfully at Alex—“I’m thinkin’ it won’t do for you to meet the Prince draped in damp linen.”
Alex grinned broadly. “Likely not.”
“Stockings.” Eliza pointed to two pieces of silk that were hanging over the top of the dressing screen, and Alex moved to pull them on while the maid went searching in the wardrobe for the rest of the garments necessary for this, the “biggest day” of a young woman’s life.
Just as Alex had finished tying her garters at the tops of her stockings, Eliza emerged, an enormous stack of white cotton and linen in her arms. Alex rolled her eyes again, saying aloud, “The things we are required to do in the name of fashion.”
Eliza was not considered to be one of the best lady’s maids in the history of the Stafford family for no good reason, however. She took little interest in Alex’s distaste for the process of dressing and handed her mistress a set of drawers. Alex pulled them on, letting the linen towel go and turning to give Eliza access to the tapes and ribbons on the pantaloons so they could be fitted to her waist and hips.
As the maid worked, Alex spoke. “Tell me something fascinating.” Eliza always had some terrific piece of gossip that she’d been saving up to share at just such a moment.
“Well, I do have something, but I don’t know how reliable my sources are.”
“Gossip from unreliable sources is always better than from reliable ones, Eliza,” Alex said with a wide smile. “Go on.” She leaned forward toward the pile of undergarments and pulled the wide-shouldered chemise over her head, letting it fall around her in a voluminous swath of fabric. This particular piece had little shape to it, and Alex was always rather amused by how thoroughly unfeminine a garment designed specifically for females could be.
Eliza set herself to arranging the chemise to Alex’s figure, folding the fabric here, pinning it there, as she said, “Well, it seems that John Coachman is smitten.”
“Really?” Alex had trouble envisioning her father’s coachman, an immense giant of a man who rarely spoke to anyone but the horses, smitten. “With whom?”
“Margaret, the butcher’s daughter.”
Eliza nodded, snatching up a stiff whalebone corset from where it lay on Alex’s bed. From a small box on the dressing table nearby, the maid selected a large corset needle, threading it expertly with a length of cord as she returned to Alex. “I must say, he does seem to be more willin’ than usual to drive the kitchen maids down to the meat market.”
Alex took hold of the corset, centering it on her torso and passing the sides back to Eliza, who deftly threaded the two halves together as they talked.
“And does she reciprocate?” Alex held the rigid stays to the natural curve of her waist, waiting patiently for Eliza to finish her task.
“I’m no’ certain, but Mary, the kitchen maid…?” Alex nodded in recognition. “She says that Margaret always has an extra sweet for John when he’s there, and that she always asks about him when he’s not. Hold on.”
“Excellent! Love comforteth like sunshine after rain! Oof!” Alex reached out and grabbed hold of the bedpost as Eliza began tightening the corset laces.
“I told you to hold on.” Eliza kept tugging, the stays growing tighter and tighter as both girls began to breathe heavily. “I thought you didn’t believe in love.”
“I never said that!” Alex exclaimed, her emphatic tone lost as she struggled for air. “Of course, I believe in love.”
She took one last deep breath, feeling the stays tighten to the point of pain, and couldn’t help herself from swearing roundly. “Enough!”
“Finished.” Eliza turned to retrieve the next layer of clothing. “I’m goin’ to forget that you just cursed like a dockside sailor.”
“Blame my brothers.” Alex gasped for air, perching on the edge of the bed. “It’s too tight.”
“It will loosen. You know that.”
She did know that. “I hate fashion.” Alex scowled.
“Tell me about this new belief in love,” Eliza said, distracting Alex and holding open a circle of petticoats. This piece was more elaborate than any of the others Alex had donned, a Madame Fernaud creation in cambric and linen with a stunning swath of beautiful green fabric affixed to the bottom, designed to match the dress Alex would wear that evening.
Alex paused to admire the delicate rosebuds that had been painstakingly added to the undergarment before allowing Eliza to throw the piece over her head. “Not new. It’s not love I’m opposed to. It’s marriage! The first reminds women that they’re free to be as they wish—because someone loves them for it,” Alex said, her voice coming from inside a mass of fabric as she pushed her way through the petticoats toward the light of the room. “And the other takes away that freedom.”
Eliza began securing the top of the petticoat, tying a small row of bows that ran down the bodice of the garment. “Seems to me that the right kind of marriage could increase that freedom, nay?”
Alex tilted her head to one side, thinking on Eliza’s point. “I suppose so…but how many of those have you ever witnessed?”
“Yer parents have one like that, I’m thinkin’…and yer grandparents before them.” The maid moved to the bed and lifted the rich green ball gown, giving it one final shake to loosen the folds of satin fabric before holding it out for Alex.
“That’s different,” Alex replied, stepping into the dress and helping Eliza to pull it up over her arms to fit her now perfectly shaped torso. Holding the bodice straight while the maid fetched a buttonhook and began fastening the long row of buttons on the back of the gown, she continued, “My mother and grandmother were notorious beauties with brains to match. And my father and grandfather were men who were not afraid to take wives who equaled them in intellect. There aren’t men like that outside the Stafford family.”
Eliza snorted, “Of course, you would say that. Yer a Stafford. But truly, Alexandra, I just cannot imagine that in all of history there has only been one man in each generation willing to let his mate blossom.” Her fingers flew across the buttons, expertly closing them.
Alex then sighed, waving a long arm. “Fine. However, my point is that there aren’t many men like that. And I am simply not interested in taking the risk.”
“Look here.” Eliza waited for Alex to turn to face her, then smoothed out the lush green skirts of the gown. “Well, Alexandra, you’ll be taking a risk this evening, I daresay—because any young man who sees you in this dress shan’t know what to do with himself. Yer just as much of a beauty with brains to match as the Stafford women who came before you.” Eliza pointed to the dressing table nearby. “Sit.”