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Lady in Disguise

ROMANCE

SUSPENSE

IMAGINATION

 

 

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Lady in Disguise

 

a Regency romance

 

by Jacqueline Diamond

 

A rollicking romantic comedy set in the era of Jane Austen

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Chapter One

 

The Marquis of Lansdon flicked a speck of nonexistent dust from his gleaming Hessian boot, a gesture that was his custom when confronted by an inquiry to which he did not wish to respond in haste. To one who did not know him, his posture gave the appearance of a man at ease: seated in the comfort of an aged settee in his library, right ankle resting atop his left knee, arms outstretched across the seat's worn velvet backing. In­deed, the entire room gave evidence of being the marquis's preferred habitation, from the disarray of books along the shelves to the shabby furniture and creased velvet draperies.

But Henry Smythe was well acquainted with the marquis and knew enough to press his point before his friend had occasion to give the negative response he was clearly contemplating. "You cannot be thinking of remaining in London now that the season is ended, Richard," said that red-haired young man, displaying the cocky grin that had shattered many a fluttering heart. "You have said often enough how you despise the stiff propriety of Bath and the abundance of ambitious mothers and encroaching cits at Brighton."

"Yes, but Ipswich?" asked the marquis with a scorn that would have quelled a less stouthearted Corinthian than his friend. "Pray do not say you expect that I shall develop an enthusiasm for the shipping trade."

"Nonsense." Henry laughed. "You know I shall do no such thing. I had other attractions in mind, to put the truth on it. And the estate is not in Ipswich itself, but a few miles into the countryside."

"I had rather thought to go up to Norfolk," said the marquis. "My steward is capable, but I wish to see that the breeding of my horses is proceeding as I directed."

"Capital!" replied Henry. "Suffolk will be on your route then."

"If I may inquire," said the marquis, watching his companion help himself to a glass of brandy, "why is it that you display such determination to have me accompany you? I hold your mother in the deepest respect, but I cannot say I care to pay her an extended visit."

"Nor do I," said Henry glumly. "Especially as my pockets are to let, as usual, and she will take every opportunity of pressing upon me the advantages of wooing Miss Fanny Rupper. She's the Friday-faced daughter of a squire whose great aunt, to my misfortune, contrived to stick her spoon in the wall and make her great niece an heiress at the age of twenty-eight."

"You mean you wish me to travel to Suffolk merely to rescue you from this ape-leader?" said his friend. "Indeed, Henry, I can conceive of nothing that would give me greater pleasure. Perhaps I could then betake myself to Brighton and rescue Angleland and Winster, who no doubt will be in need of extri­cation from some ill-bred heiresses of their own. I could achieve a great many good works in this line, I'm sure."

"I didn't intend that you should rescue me!" protested Henry. "But I do enjoy your conversation. Further, I have an inducement to offer."

"Let's have it, then, for this topic is beginning to weary me."

"It is Charlotte Tarlock," said Henry, and waited hopefully for a response. All that he saw was a twitch of the marquis's jaw, but it sufficed.

"Confess it," Henry pressed. "You are more than half-smitten with her. I had given up long ago on seeing you leg-shackled, but there was a wager at White's that you would come up to scratch this season, and you yourself hinted at the very thing. Why did you not?"

Why indeed? Richard wondered. At thirty-three, he had grown bored with the annual parade of insipid young ladies fluttering their eyelids at him and tittering at his every com­ment. It would have been difficult indeed not to grow wary, when half the young ladies one met at Almack's had their caps already set for him, and the other half were being urged forward by their mamas.

It was not that the marquis was given to conceit. True, he knew himself to be accounted handsome, with his dark hair and eyes, strong jaw, and muscular build kept in prime condition at Gentleman Jack's boxing establishment. But he was well aware that London was replete with handsome young men who were chained for life to the role of shipping clerk or footman. It was his title, and his estates, and his twenty thousand pounds a year that made him the target of so much matrimonial attention, and this realisation had rendered him quite cynical.

Charlotte Tarlock, however, was in a league of her own, he would be the first to admit. The granddaughter of a baron, she was ranked an Incomparable and a diamond of the first water, not for her fortune alone—which was near as great as his own—but also for her beauty.

His thoughts strayed to her figure, tall and well formed, and her lustrous violet eyes that seemed to glow almost shockingly against her peaches-and-cream skin and chestnut hair. Moreover, Miss Tarlock had style; he would give her that. She moved with the grace of a duchess, and she never, even in the presence of the Prince Regent himself, had been known to simper.

"She's rejected offers from a dozen men at least, including two baronets and the heir to an earldom," said Henry. "I'd have offered for her myself, had I thought I had a chance."

"I had supposed you were poised on the brink of it at Lord and Lady Sefton's ball," mused Richard. "You had two waltzes and the honour of escorting her to supper, and she seemed rather more lively than usual."

"I would have offered, you may believe, had I a title," Henry said candidly.

There was the rub, thought the marquis as his friend poured himself another glass of brandy. Two baronets and the heir to an earldom. She'd have taken the heir, he was convinced of it, but for the likelihood that she could win a marquis. Moreover, it was said her mother had wed Mr. Tarlock in expectation of his succeeding to the barony, and had been bitterly disappointed when he had died before his father.

"However, a man must marry sometime," Richard said aloud. "I cannot say I object to Miss Tarlock, although I believe my title is a stronger attraction than my person. Still, she is a lovely chit." He closed his eyes for a moment at the thought of being alone with her, a state he had achieved only for brief moments in the garden at sundry balls and routs. He had been allowed to kiss her on the cheek once, an occasion he recalled with pleas­ure, but he could not seem to bring to mind anything they had said of particular significance. Did the woman ever think of anything beyond polite chitchat?

"I suppose it would do no harm to call on her at her uncle's estate, if that is where she goes this month," he mused. "At least one would have the opportunity of seeing her without a horde of suitors pressing round."

"And would you credit it—her uncle's residence is situated a mere five miles from my mother's!" said Henry. "Furthermore, my mother writes that Miss Tarlock is expected there at any time. I believe Mama still maintains some aspirations for me in that direction, although she has more or less resigned herself to Miss Rupper."

"So this inducement you offer me is the proximity to Miss Tarlock," said the marquis. "In return for which, I am to distract your mother and extricate you from any compromising situa­tions involving your heiress?"

"Well, yes," said Henry. "And there is one other thing. ..." He ran one finger around the rim of his glass until it produced a squealing noise that inspired Richard to clench his teeth. "However it may not… that is, I do not know if she…”

"She?"

"Anna has no performances at the King's Theatre in August, and I have attempted to persuade her the country air would be beneficial."

"You cannot mean to take your mistress to Suffolk!" exclaimed the marquis. "That blonde wench would be as conspicuous—"

"No, no, not her," said Henry quickly. "That was Marie. Anna has dark hair, and she would travel under an assumed name and stay at an inn on some pretext. I thought that you and I could ride out together, and while you were calling upon Miss Tar­lock, I would be free to pay Anna a visit."

"I see." Richard rose and strode to the long French windows, staring out into the small garden that lay at the back of his London house. "You are in hopes that by next season I will be happily wed, and you happily unwed."

"Something of that nature," admitted Henry.

"There is, however, a difficulty." The marquis heaved what in a lesser man might have been mistaken for a sigh, and settled his broad shoulders a trifle lower.

"What is that?"

"If I am to consider marriage, there was an expectation of my mother's that I would wed the daughter of her closest girlhood friend," said the marquis. "There was never a contract, of course, and I have never promised to do so in as many words, yet there was a sort of plan, and I own that while my mother lived, I never gave anyone to understand otherwise."

"Anyone? Who is this anyone's family, if I may ask?"

"Her father is the Earl of Courtney," said Richard. "Lady Courtney has passed on."

"Earl of Courtney, Earl of Courtney," repeated Henry. "From somewhere in Somerset, ain't he? Can't recall meeting any daughter of his."

"No, and you won't, although she's a year past the age for her come-out," said the marquis. "He's lost his money—always had bad judgment in business, from what my mother said—and can't afford to present her."

"Have you ever met this chit?" inquired his friend.

"Once," said Richard. "Some four years ago. She was only a schoolroom miss, of course, but one would expect some indica­tion of beauty, or at least a presence. I found her plump enough for a baker's daughter and sufficiently mousy to be a serving maid. As for her visage or figure, I cannot even recall it; she was, I believe I may say, the most easily forgotten girl I have ever encountered. I cannot even recall her Christian name."

"Not all bad," said Henry. "You could settle her at Lansdon and lead your life in town, much as you do now."

"So I could," said the marquis. "But I haven't your enthusiasm for mistresses. I find them necessary, and should contrive to be satisfied with them if I had no desire for an heir; but if I must marry, I should prefer someone whose companionship was not entirely displeasing."

"Then you'll come to Suffolk?" said Henry.

Richard's mouth twisted into a smile. "Very well, you rascal, you shall have your way," he said. "And if Miss Tarlock proves as enchanting at home as she appears in town, I shall make her a marchioness."

 

At that moment, the most forgettable girl of his acquaintance bore more resemblance to a farmer's daughter than to that of a baker, and more certainly than to that of an earl. She had been berrying, and had succeeded in placing more of the succulent fruit in her mouth than in her basket. As a result, purple juice stained her cheeks, and her dark hair was falling about her neck.

"Lady Victoria!" cried Mrs. May, running down the front steps to meet her. The housekeeper, who had assumed the duties of several chambermaids and one of the cooks since the family fell upon hard times, had run out in her apron, greeting her mistress with the familiarity of one who has been in the household for most of her life. "Lady Victoria, a letter has come from the earl!"

"Oh!" Victoria thrust her basket into the housekeeper's hands and raced toward the door with unladylike haste, her stained blue cambric skirt hoisted in her hands. "Is it on the hall table? When did it come? What does he say?"

"I have not read it, my lady," clucked Mrs. May, following her through the open door.

Victoria seized the franked epistle and tore it open. Please, she thought, let him not have to sell Tintern Hall. Let him have some word of the ship that vanished in the Indies, or perhaps.... but she could not think of the marriage that would answer their needs, for in the two years since Lady Lansdon had died, there had been no word from her son the marquis, and surely the earl would not have humiliated his daughter by attempting to force Lansdon into an unwanted marriage.

Victoria's hands shook so badly that she dropped the letter, and then had difficulty focusing on her father's crabbed hand­writing. She read silently for what seemed an eternity to the anxiously waiting housekeeper.

When Victoria looked up at last, her cheeks had gone pale beneath the berry stains, and her green eyes were dilated.

"What is it, my lady?" cried Mrs. May. "Has he come to some harm? Oh, I knew it, him going off to London like that. Nothing good ever comes of his visits to town, if you'll pardon my saying so."

"It's ..." The clopping of hoofs and the sound of a curricle approaching in the drive stopped the words. "Who can that be?"

The housekeeper swallowed her eagerness and peered out. "It's Lady Susan Winters, and she comes every day. If you'll only tell me—"

"Susan! The very person!" Victoria ran to the door and called out, "Come quickly! I have some unexpected news of father, and I need you to advise me!"

The other girl, a pleasantly rounded young woman of medium height and colouring, gowned in a stylish yellow muslin with bottle green ribbons trimming the sleeves and high waistline, handed her reins to a groom and tripped lightly up the steps. "What is it, Vicki?" she asked. "Nothing amiss, I hope."

"Not at all." Victoria greeted her friend with an embrace and started to hand her the letter.

"My lady!" begged the housekeeper, unable to contain her­self further.

"Oh, pardon me, Mrs. May, I hadn't meant to leave you in suspense," said Victoria. "Father says... Father says he's found a wealthy widow to marry, and that is how he is going to solve all our problems!"

"Dear me, dear me," said the older woman, pressing one palm against her forehead. "Your poor father. I hope she is not a scold. The earl is an impulsive gentleman, if you will permit my saying so."

"Just so," agreed Victoria. "Worse than that, it appears he has already wed the woman, without so much as a word to me. I cannot absorb this, Susan, I simply cannot. But I do not mean to keep you standing here in the hall. Please come into the drawing room."

Susan obeyed, removing her chip straw bonnet to reveal curly brown hair cropped in the latest style. After a successful season, in which she had won several eligible hearts but failed to confer her own, Lady Susan remained as unaffected as before and took in her friend's unkempt appearance with fondness.

"I do not know how I can advise you, but I shall try," she promised, seating herself on one of the elderly sofas that had faded to an indeterminable color in the bright morning light from the windows. The drawing room was not overly large and sorely needed new furnishings, draperies, and carpet, but Lady Susan recalled that in her childhood, when Victoria's mother had been alive, the house had been fresh and sparkling.

“This widow—he refers to her as Emma—he says she's a gentlewoman by birth, or by her previous marriage. He's not very clear on the subject," Victoria said. "He describes her as exceedingly ladylike.... Here is some mention of her late husband, but not of any title. And I gather that she has a daughter, although he does not say her age, or whether she is married."

"Here, let me see," said Susan, taking the note and perusing it thoughtfully. "Why, is this not above all amazing? He has wed Mrs. Tarlock!"

"Do not tell me," moaned Victoria. "She is a wanton. Or perhaps she was on the stage."

"Nonsense." Susan laughed, returning the letter. "Her late husband was the heir to a barony, although he never succeeded to the title. She has a fortune in her own right, and her daughter, Miss Charlotte Tarlock, was all the rage this past season. Just think, Victoria, now you can be presented; and with Charlotte as your sister, all doors will be open to you!"

"I am not sure I want any doors to be open," said Victoria. "I like living here at Tintern Hall and doing as I please."

"But you are nineteen. You cannot rusticate forever!"

"Well, there is one saving grace," said Victoria. "Now there is no need for me to marry Richard, even if he would have me."

Mrs. May entered with a pot of tea and two cups, and was welcomed, as the girls were becoming parched in the August heat. After she departed, however, Susan attacked the subject once more.

"Richard?" she inquired. "Do you mean you have a beau you have been hiding from me? Do tell!"

"Not a beau," said Victoria, "but an arrangement of my mother's, one that thankfully was never made formal. He is the son of an old friend of hers, but we have met only once and did not care for each other. Or at least, he did not care for me." Nor, she thought ruefully, could she blame him; she had been a pudgy girl of fifteen then, stricken speechless at his dark, arro­gant good looks.

“Who is he?" Susan pressed. "Has he a title? Is he wealthy?"

"Yes to both," said Victoria. "He is the Marquis of Lansdon."

"What? You don't say!" cried Susan. "Well, then it is a good thing you did not become attached." She refilled her cup.

"Why is that?" Victoria was frowning at the letter, rereading the concluding paragraph for the third time.

"He is, well, as good as betrothed to Miss Tarlock, your new sister," said Susan. "He has been dangling after her all season. How very humiliating that would be if you had developed a tendre for him."

"Yes, wouldn't it?" Victoria sighed. The memory of those strong shoulders and intense brown eyes had flashed before her every time she stood up to dance at an assembly or chatted with one of her bashful admirers from the neighbourhood. Meeting him had spoiled her for every other man, and yet now not only was she denied his esteem, but she would also be forced to welcome him as her brother-in-law.

"Oh, Susan," she said. "Truth to tell, I liked him better than half, but the interest was not returned, and now it shall never be. What is worse, father bids me to go to my new mother and sister at Locke House, their home in Suffolk, and says he will be joining us in a fortnight from Manchester, where he is pursuing more of his wretched business projects. How can I bear this? To be alone in their presence—and heaven knows whether my stepmother is fonder of father or of being a countess—but worse, to smile and make polite conversation with the man who was by rights to have been my husband!"

"So that is how the land lies." Lady Susan toyed with her bottle green velvet reticule. "Then there is only one course open to you."

"I shall remain here," said Victoria. "Some day the new countess must come to her new home, and that will be time enough for me to make her acquaintance."

"Nonsense!" Susan's tone was unexpectedly sharp. "I had not thought you a coward!"

"It has never been my aim to emulate the heroines of Fanny Burney’s novels, if that is what you mean!" said her friend. "Shall I disguise myself as a boy and run off, perhaps?"

"Nothing so extreme," said Susan in milder tones. "But in­deed, Victoria, I do not mean for you to run away at all. You must fight for the marquis, if that is who you want."

"Fight for him? But he does not want me—and besides, that would be most improper."

"I'm not suggesting that you be disagreeable to your new sister, nor certainly that you propose to duel her." Susan laughed. "Rather, that you go and meet this man again, and ascertain what his likes are, and shape yourself accordingly."

"I find the idea distasteful and, what is more, dishonest."

"Fustian!" said Susan. "You recall, two winters ago, when the travelling players performed She Stoops to Conquer. That is the sort of thing I had in mind."

"I can hardly deceive him into thinking my stepmother's house is an inn, and I am the innkeeper's daughter!" retorted Victoria.

"Not precisely, of course. But it is her spirit to which I refer. She did not shrink from playing at her suitor's game to win him. The marquis is a man of the world; he can hardly be expected to fall in love with a ... a country mouse. You must determine what sort of woman would suit him, and become her."

"That would be false!"

"All is fair in love, they say," Susan replied. "And if he discovers your ruse, you have only displayed that you are a girl with spirit, and surely he must admire you for it."

"I do not believe I could carry out such a role," said Victoria. "But you are right in one respect, Susan. I shall go to Suffolk as my father requests, and face up to Lord Lansdon. If he cannot like me, then so be it, but at least I shall not lose without trying."

 

Richard's high-perch phaeton was passing just east of Chip­ping Ongar when Henry Smythe turned to his friend and said, "Oh, by the by, have you heard the latest on-dit?”

"If it concerns Beau Brummel, I am not interested," Richard returned. "I bow to his tailor and his wit, but I decline to spend two hours tying my cravat to meet with his fashion."

"Not at all," said Henry. "This one concerns the Earl of Courtney."

"Has he lost the rest of his funds?"

"In fact, he has come into a fortune, they say— by marriage."

Richard clucked soothingly to one of his matched bays, which was showing a tendency toward high spirits. "Then he has found a mate for his ill-favoured daughter? I am greatly relieved."

"It is he who has married." Henry then remained silent for a time, which was so unlike him when a bit of choice gossip was at hand that his friend felt moved to inquire as to the name of the earl's bride.

"It is Mrs. Tarlock."

"The deuce!" Richard halted his team and turned to glare at his friend. "You delayed telling me this until we were almost to Chelmsford? I've a mind to take you back to London!"

"But you will not, for my carriage has been sent ahead, and I haven't the blunt for the mail," said Henry calmly. "You would have to advance me funds and make this same journey again on your way to Norfolk."

"I shall deposit you at your parent's residence and continue on my way then," said Richard coldly, urging the horses for­ward. "This deception does not become you."

"I expected you would take the news in this unreasonable manner," said Henry, not at all perturbed. "So I have given myself all the way to Ipswich to point out to you the benefits of continuing with our plan."

This he proceeded to do, noting that the earl had not pressed Richard to wed his offspring even during his direst financial straits, and hence was unlikely to take umbrage at his paying court to the earl's new stepdaughter. Further, he ventured to presume that marrying one's stepdaughter was almost as good as marrying one's own daughter, so that, in a sense, Richard would be carrying out his mother's wishes—and have Charlotte into the bargain.

After an hour of being regaled with these and like arguments, the marquis felt himself weakening. He had, indeed, all but decided to make Miss Tarlock his bride, and nothing could be gained by turning back now. It would only delay the inevitable confrontation with her father, who, as Henry so thoughtfully pointed out, could be expected to be in a mellow a mood at present, what with a wealthy new wife to ease his path through life.

By Colchester he found himself leaning strongly toward his friend's persuasions, and by Dedham it was clear that the estate of Lansdon would have to wait some weeks longer for a visit from its lord.  

 

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      Copyright 1983, 2010 Jackie Hyman

 

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