Of the three gentlemen occupying the box nearest the Covent Garden stage, none could honestly be said to be paying much attention to the performance, their close proximity to the proscenium arch offering a vantage point better suited for inspecting the audience than for watching the actors. Nor, in fact, could all three be called gentlemen, in the strictest sense of the word. To be sure, Lord David Markham, second son of a marquess and a rising star in the House of Commons, was deserving of that appellation; likewise Sir Aubrey Tabor, holder of a two-hundred-year-old baronetcy, was far from unworthy of such an epithet.
The exception was their companion, Mr. Ethan Brundy, owner of a thriving Lancashire cotton mill and shrewd investor in the Funds. Alas, Mr. Brundy, though wealthier than both his compatriots combined, could not open his mouth without betraying his humble origins. But if he was aware of his failings, Mr. Brundy was blissfully undisturbed by them. He spent his money freely on such pleasures as London made available to young men of fortune but no breeding, and togged himself out in clothing that was obviously expensive, if sadly lacking in taste.
On this particular occasion, he and his friends celebrated a speech which Lord David had delivered that very afternoon to a most receptive House of Commons on the volatile subject of labor reform. The evening had begun earlier at Brooks’s, where the elated M.P. had treated his comrades to supper, and had progressed thence to Covent Garden and the box in which the trio were now ensconced. Still flushed with his recent success, Lord David recounted his triumph to Sir Aubrey.
Mr. Brundy, however, as one of the primary contributors to Lord David’s recent parliamentary bid, had watched his candidate from the gallery and therefore needed no second-hand account. Consequently, he soon lost interest in his friend’s monologue and contented himself with surveying the crowd through his quizzing-glass, until his attention was captured by a figure in one of the boxes on the opposite side of the theater. She was tall and slender, and although she looked to be no more than twenty-one years of age, she already possessed a regal air—an impression heightened, no doubt, by the jeweled tiara crowning her honey-colored hair. She was dressed all in white, and she held her chin at a haughty angle, observing the action on stage with a bored mien. To one whose formative years had been divided between an East End workhouse and a Manchester cotton mill, she might have been Helen of Troy, the Holy Grail, and the answer to the sphinx’s riddle, all rolled into one.
“Blimey!” breathed Mr. Brundy, interrupting Lord David’s thrilling conclusion. “ ‘Oo’s that?”
Lord David’s narrative faltered as both men trained their quizzing glasses in the direction of Mr. Brundy’s rapt gaze. The mystery was solved when Sir Aubrey’s glass lighted on the vision in white.
“Ah,” said Sir Aubrey, nodding sagely. “That, as you so succinctly phrased it, is Lady Helen Radney. One of the ton’s loveliest flowers, to be sure, but the rose has thorns—in Lady Helen’s case, a particularly poisonous tongue.”
“They call her the Ice Princess,” concurred Lord David.
“And ‘appy the man ‘oo melts ‘er,” said Mr. Brundy, his eyes never straying from the lady in question. “Gentlemen, that’s the lady I’m going to marry.”
Both his companions were momentarily shocked into silence. The first to recover was Sir Aubrey, who promptly fell into a coughing fit, leaving Lord David the delicate task of disillusioning his benefactor.
“Er, I would not wish to raise false hopes,” he began hesitantly, raking long aristocratic fingers through light brown hair which was already growing thin, even though Lord David had yet to celebrate his thirty-third birthday.
Mr. Brundy’s expressive countenance fell. “Already married, is she? I might’ve known.”
“Er, no, as a matter of fact, Lady Helen is not married.”
Mr. Brundy’s brow cleared. “Well, then!”
“The thing is,” explained Lord David patiently, “Lady Helen is the daughter of the Duke of Reddington. The family’s pedigree goes back almost eight hundred years. They’re rather a starchy lot, and Lady Helen can hold her own with the starchiest of them.”
Sir Aubrey put it more bluntly. “It’ll be a cold day in hell before the House of Radney allies itself with a weaver!”
“Per’aps no weaver ever asked,” suggested Mr. Brundy.
“Of that, my friend, you may be certain!” Sir Aubrey said emphatically. “But to show you I’m willing to give you a sporting chance, I offer you a wager: the day you take Lady Helen Radney to wife, I’ll give you a thousand pounds as a wedding gift.”
“I’ve no need of your money,” protested Mr. Brundy with an earnestness which sent Sir Aubrey into paroxysms of laughter, much to the displeasure of the party in the next box.
“Be reasonable, Ethan,” beseeched Lord David. “How can you hope to marry Lady Helen Radney when you have never even met? If you will forgive me for pointing out the obvious, you can hardly expect to move in the Duke’s circles.”
Sir Aubrey, having by now a vested interest in his friend’s courtship, was loth to give it up. “No, but you are well acquainted with the Duke, are you not, David? ‘Tis simple, then. You shall perform the introductions.”
Trapped between the cynical amusement of one friend and the unconcealed eagerness of the other, Lord David experienced a sudden longing for the comfort of hearth and home. Not that such comfort was likely to be found there, for although he was often seen in the company of Lady Randall, a dashing young widow and one of London’s premiere hostesses. Lord David demonstrated no eagerness to surrender his bachelor status. Nor, for that matter, was he eager to set his friend’s feet on a path that could lead, at best, to disappointment; at worst, it might result in heartbreak and humiliation. Mr. Brundy might be one of the richest men in England and in many ways wise beyond his eight-and-twenty years, but when it came to the workings of the ton. Lord David could not decide if his friend was supremely self-confident or woefully naïve. Lord David had no doubt that Lady Helen Radney could, if she chose, cut the wealthy weaver to ribbons with her razor-sharp tongue and laugh while her victim bled to death at her feet. On the other hand, a painful lesson well-learned might steer Mr. Brundy’s interests toward ladies better suited for his admittedly precarious position in Society.
“Oh, very well,” he agreed with obvious reluctance. “Ethan, although I will own you have a knack for getting whatever you want—”
“ ‘Tis no special knack,” objected Mr. Brundy. “All it takes is ‘ard work, perseverence, and a little bit o’ luck.”
“To be sure, you are well qualified on all three counts, but I must admit that in this case, Aubrey has the right of it. Nevertheless, I shall introduce you to Lady Helen, if that is what you wish—although I have the strangest feeling we both may live to regret it.”
* * * *
As the curtain fell on the first act, many of the theater’s patrons left their boxes in order to visit with those acquaintances whom they had ogled during the performance. His Grace, the Duke of Reddington, in anticipation of the crowd of gentlemen who always descended upon his box en masse during the intermission, betook himself to the refreshment room in search of liquid fortification, leaving his daughter to the nominal chaperonage of his son and heir, the nineteen-year-old Viscount Tisdale. Nor had the duke erred in his estimation, for he had hardly quitted the box before it filled with aspirants to the hand of the beauteous Lady Helen. Chief among these, and commonly held to be the most likely victor, was the Earl of Waverly, a raven-haired Adonis as handsome as the duke’s daughter was beautiful. Unlike his competitors, who fell over one another in their attempts to reach Lady Helen before their fellows, this paragon addressed himself first to her brother.
“You here, Tisdale? I thought you still at Oxford. Is the Easter term over so soon, then?”
“No, sir, I am in Town on, er, a brief holiday,” replied the viscount.
The earl cocked a knowing eyebrow. “Been sent down, have you? What did you do this time?”
Lord Tisdale grinned. “Oh, merely smuggled a pig into the provost’s bedchamber—just cutting a lark, you know.”
“Ah, the joys of a classical education,” said the earl with a reminiscent sigh before turning the full force of his charm onto his primary object.
“Lady Helen, lovely as ever,” he said, raising her gloved hand to his lips. “What think you of Mrs. Tree as Ophelia? I vow, I was almost moved to tears.”
Lady Helen retrieved her hand, which the earl showed no hurry to release. “Then I must warn you against forming too great an attachment, my lord,” she replied, unmoved. “She goes mad and dies in the end, you know.”
“Can one be so beautiful, and yet so heartless?” the earl wondered aloud. “Tell me, Lady Helen, have you no feelings at all?”
“No feelings?” Lady Helen’s green eyes opened wide. “But of course I have feelings! I have only to look at Lady Chadwick’s exquisite diamond necklace, and I am filled with the most virulent envy. Could they be paste, I wonder?”
“Gems!” scoffed Lord Waverly. “Surely adorning your fair neck with jewels would be gilding the lily, my dear.”
Lady Helen shrugged her white shoulders. “Perhaps I have a fancy to be gilded.”
“In that case, I stand at your service,” declared the earl, sweeping a bow. “You have only to say the word. What is it you want? Diamonds? Emeralds? Rubies?”
Lady Helen was startled into betraying a laugh, a silvery, musical sound that utterly banished her earlier hauteur. “As if you could give them to me, even if I so desired! All the world knows you haven’t a feather to fly with.”
Lord Waverly leaned closer, and his long slender fingers closed over her arm. “Marry me, sweeting, and we shall have no need of feathers to fly,” he murmured in a manner calculated to inform Lady Helen that he was not referring to the economic aspects of matrimony.
“If you are going to become a bore, Waverly, I shall be forced to seek more diverting company,” replied Lady Helen, and promptly turned her attention to the military gentleman just entering the box. “Why, Captain Wentworth, I thought your regiment had been transferred to Tunbridge Wells! Have they tired of you so quickly?”
“Why no, Lady Helen, ‘tis merely that I have already routed the enemy, and so have nothing more to do there,” replied the captain.
This sally finding favor with the lady. Captain Wentworth would have enlarged upon his imaginary heroics, had the curtain not parted at that moment to admit three new visitors. Sir Aubrey Tabor, the first to enter the box, appeared to be in high good humor, but Lord David Markham, following on his heels, bore the appearance of a man about to have a tooth drawn.
“Lord David, always a pleasure,” said Lady Helen, holding out both hands to the M.P. “Tell me, does the delightful Lady Randall accompany you?”
A wistful smile momentarily lightened Lord David’s melancholy expression. “Alas, no. Lady Randall, as you must know, abhors any activity which requires her to sit still for more than ten minutes at a time. Lady Helen, you are, I believe, acquainted with Sir Aubrey, but may I introduce my very good friend and a visitor to London, Mr. Ethan Brundy?”
“I’m sure any friend of yours, Lord David, must also be a friend of—” Lady Helen turned to give her hand to the newcomer, and her mouth all but dropped open.
“Good God!” murmured Lord Waverly at her elbow. “It’s Beau Brummell’s worst nightmare, in the flesh!”
Though solidly built, Mr. Ethan Brundy was not much above the average in height, and his dark curly hair was too long to be fashionable. He was not a notably handsome man, although Lady Helen acknowledged that few men showed to advantage beside Lord Waverly’s classical good looks. Nor was Mr. Brundy precisely ugly, but any discernable beauty in his countenance owed more to a certain openness of expression than to any symmetry of feature.
More remarkable than his face or form, however, was his raiment. His evening clothes, while obviously made of the finest fabrics, were cut far fuller than the current fashion for snug-fitting garments dictated. One might almost suppose they had been made for a larger man, and yet Lady Helen had the distinct impression that Mr. Brundy’s garments were not cast-offs—an impression which seemed to be confirmed by the garishly large diamond winking in the folds of his cravat. She thought of Lady Chadwick’s diamonds, and wondered if his, too, were paste.
“Charmed, Mr. Brundy,” drawled Lady Helen, offering her fingertips with the air of one bestowing an undeserved favor. “And what, pray, brings you to London?”
“I’m ‘ere on business, I am,” he replied, bowing over her gloved hand.
“Business?” echoed Lady Helen, repressing a shudder.
Mr. Brundy nodded. “I try to visit London twice a year to see to me ware’ouses. Otherwise I’m in Lancashire, where I’ve a m—”
“Mansion,” put in Lord David, before Mr. Brundy could further demean himself in the eyes of his goddess by revealing the source of his wealth. “Two, actually, for Mr. Brundy has just purchased a London residence in Grosvenor Square.”
“There goes the neighborhood,” was Lord Waverly’s whispered observation.
“Indeed,” nodded Lady Helen, although it could not be said with certainty whether this remark was in polite response to Lord David’s assertion or in agreement with Lord Waverly’s.
“I’d ‘ardly call me Lancashire ‘ouse a mansion,” protested Mr. Brundy. “Still and all, it suits me down to the ground, being close to the mill.”
Lady Helen’s eyebrows arched, and her smile became faintly mocking. “Then you are a tradesman, I collect?”
“Indeed I am,” the weaver said proudly. “I’ve a cotton mill near Manchester.”
“And while you are in Town, you have decided to cut a dash among the beau monde?”
Oblivious to irony, Mr. Brundy merely nodded. “Lord David ‘as been good enough to introduce me about in Society.”
“We stand forever in his debt,” Lady Helen drawled. “And what do you think of the social scene, Mr.—Brundy, is it? I should love to hear your impressions.”
“As to that, me lady, I find it much more to me liking now than I did just an hour ago,” answered Mr. Brundy, his expression frankly admiring.
Lord Waverly drew a small enameled snuffbox from the pocket of his coat and flicked it open with his thumbnail. “Then in addition to your, er, business interests, you are an aficionado of the theatre and an arbiter of taste. How vastly amusing! Pray favor me with your opinion of my signature blend, Mr. Brundy.”
The weaver shook his head. “I never touch the stuff meself, but I’ve no objection if others do.”
“Well, then, with your permission,” said the earl and, placing a small pinch on the inside of his wrist, raised it to his nostrils and inhaled deeply.
Lord David had listened in silence to this exchange, all the while growing increasingly angry for the sake of his friend, who lacked the sophistication to know he was being mocked.
“I think we had best return to our box,” he asserted hastily, judging it high time to intervene. “The second act is about to begin. We shall trespass on your hospitality no longer, Lady Helen.”
As the curtain rose on the second act, most of the patrons made their way back to their own seats. A notable exception was the Earl of Waverly, who lingered in the duke’s box long after the others had left.
“It appears you have made another conquest, my dear,” he remarked to Lady Helen. “What do you think of that?”
“I think I am very glad I do not live in Grosvenor Square,” she replied without hesitation. “Can you imagine having Le Brundy for a neighbor? I can readily imagine Sir Aubrey taking the man up for a lark, but I would have expected better of Lord David. Really, what can he have been thinking, bringing the creature here?”
A moment later Mrs. Tree took the stage, and Lady Helen was pleased to put Lord David and his odd acquaintance out of her mind. But twice during the second act her gaze strayed from the performance, and she was disconcerted to find Mr. Brundy watching her through his quizzing glass from across the theater. When Mrs. Tree’s Ophelia finally succumbed to madness in the last act, Lady Helen hardly even noticed.