Pausing at the top of St James's Street Justin Bembridge, Lord Fordington, waited for a recklessly driven chaise to pass along Piccadilly and at the last moment flung out a hand to prevent his companion, happily oblivious of the danger, from stepping straight under the hooves of the sweating horses.
'Eh? What? Oh, thank ye, my boy! Demmee, but it'sh fortunate you're coming my way,' the portly Sir Roderick Sharman ejaculated, attempting to give his rescuer a friendly clap on the shoulder, but succeeding merely in clutching wildly at his arm as he overbalanced, and almost fell at the feet of a disdainful link boy guiding a luxuriously appointed private sedan-chair along the road.
'Our ways lie together,' Lord Fordington replied coolly and a trifle regretfully as, taking his companion's arm, he steered him carefully across Piccadilly and towards Berkeley Street.
'Aye. Neighboursh in town ash well ash in Shushesh,' he pronounced triumphantly. 'We mush shee more of one another. Good fellow, sho I'm told!'
Lord Fordington shuddered slightly and wondered, not for the first time, why he had permitted himself to accompany the decidedly tipsy baronet home from Anthony's Club – a new, fashionable, but, in Lord Fordington's opinion, to-be shortlived establishment – where he had spent a most tedious evening.
'Musht meet me daughter! Enticing little puss,' Sir Roderick said confidingly, then laughed in delight as Lord Fordington foiled his attempt to wander back to the south side of Piccadilly. Lord Fordington, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that he would deliver the baronet successfully to his doorstep only with constant guidance, linked his arm through Sir Roderick's and directed him firmly into Berkeley Street.
The man must have imbibed deeply earlier in the evening, he was thinking, for he had drunk little enough in the few minutes he had spent at Anthony's, waiting for the game of faro to end so that he could attract Lord Fordington's attention. Sir Roderick was a crony of the Prince Regent, and his chosen companions had to possess exceedingly hard heads to keep pace with him. The night was comparatively young, only a couple of hours after midnight, but for Sir Roderick to be castaway already indicated excessive indulgence.
Dispassionately Lord Fordington considered his situation. He was not himself disguised, but he had consumed enough wine and brandy to make it imperative for him to think slowly and move with a certain care and deliberation. That in itself was unusual, he reflected in surprise, and the result of his mingled annoyance and indecision over the antics of his half-brother and the reproaches of his stepmother.
Ninian was twenty, fifteen years his junior, but like him until the previous year a soldier. After Waterloo they had both sold out, Lord Fordington to return to his estates and begin to pick up the reins from his devoted but ancient steward, and Ninian to fall into every scrape a high-spirited boy of his age could devise. It was Lord Fordington's refusal as his guardian to advance him any of the capital left him by their father for settlement of his racing debts that had led to the tears and recriminations of Ninian's mother that evening. The scene had ended with Lord Fordington's edict that Ninian should return to the country until his debts had been paid out of his allowance. Faced with his resentful brother and a complaining, tearful stepmother, wanting to come to Ninian's aid and yet knowing that if he did so too often the boy would not acquire the responsibility and sense he needed, Lord Fordington had left his house and gone to Anthony's, where he had attempted to take his mind off his problems by drinking deeply and plunging recklessly. The brandy had only mildly dulled his perceptions, and perversely he had risen from the table a considerable winner on the evening.
It was partly his reluctance to return to his house in Berkeley Square, as well as the fact he had to pass Sir Roderick's own house on the way there, that had made him accede to the older man's request for a business talk. Sir Roderick, whom Lord Fordington suspected of being heavily in debt, had proposed selling him a couple of farms. Not in need of more land, Lord Fordington was nevertheless interested because possession of these particular farms would extend his boundaries to the river, where it might be possible at some time in the future to construct a sheltered anchorage.
As they approached Sir Roderick's house, towards the northern end of Berkeley Street, the baronet appeared to recover his sobriety. His speech became less slurred and he expatiated on the benefits Lord Fordington might expect if he bought the two farms.
'I've a good map to show you,' he promised. 'You'll see from it how your estate will be rounded out with this land. If my own land were nearer to the sea I'd be more reluctant to sell, but this part don't border the rest of my estate apart from a stretch a couple of hundred yards long, and there's no sense in keeping it!'
He stopped and fumbled in his pocket for a key, then stepped up to his front door.
'No doubt they're all abed,' he said over his shoulder. 'I don't keep the servants up normally, for when I'm in attendance on Prinny there's no knowing when I'll be home!'
Not often as early as this, Lord Fordington thought wryly, and then flung out his hands. He was too late to catch aught but the flying tail of the baronet's coat as, with an oath, Sir Roderick leant upon a door which gave way unexpectedly under his weight, swinging inwards and depositing him unceremoniously upon a tiled floor in a narrow dark hall illuminated by the light of a single candle set upon a side table.
'The door was on the latch!' Sir Roderick gasped, having recovered the breath knocked out of him by his fall, his tone a mixture of surprise and indignation. 'The devil! What's goin' on? Here, help me up, my boy!'
He struggled to his feet and Lord Fordington assisted him to a chair where he sat puffing and exclaiming while Lord Fordington, discovering a taper beside the solitary candle, busied himself lighting the candles in the wall brackets.
'Baxter! Where are you, man?' suddenly bellowed Sir Roderick, and staggering to his feet crossed to where a large gong stood upon a table. He beat a defiant tattoo upon it. 'That'll bring 'em!' he muttered in satisfaction, subsiding onto the chair again.
Lord Fordington grinned, beginning to enjoy the bizarre situation he found himself in. Idly he wondered which of Sir Roderick's family or servants would be the first to obey such a peremptory summons, and reflected that he knew very little about his host, if such Sir Roderick could be termed. He had bought his estate only a few years earlier to be within easy reach of Brighthelmstone, and apart from vague comments from Lady Fordington about an ailing wife and a pair of schoolchildren his lordship knew nothing of the family.
* * * *
The first person to appear was a surprise to Lord Fordington, for it was a girl. In his experience he expected females to remain out of sight until reassured they were not being attacked by robbers. He knew full well his stepmother would not have emerged from her room in similar circumstances until certain all danger was totally banished.
The girl had thrown a brightly coloured wrap about her shoulders which imperfectly concealed her snowy-white nightgown. She held a candle above her head as she paused on the half landing, and the light revealed to Lord Fordington's appreciative gaze a tall slender figure, a lace-edged sleeve falling back from a shapely arm, and a pretty ankle and delicate bare foot stretched from beneath her gown as she hesitated before descending further.
Her eyes, large, and of a colour between green and blue, were set wide in an oval face. She had a determined, straight little nose, and red lips which curled into a smile of amusement as her gaze lit upon Sir Roderick. She wore a fetching lace cap, but it was loosely tied and had slipped askew. Several curls of a light-brown hue had escaped its confines and lay on her shoulder.
This could not be a schoolgirl daughter, Lord Fordington thought in some confusion, for the girl looked to be at least twenty years of age, and immediately, as she spoke in a low but clear voice, he found his judgement confirmed.
'Cousin Roderick! The house is not ablaze! How could you wake us all up in such an inconsiderate fashion?' she scolded, and then, as Lord Fordington moved into her line of vision, blushed slightly and hesitated again halfway down the last flight of stairs.
'The door was on the latch, Isabella!' Sir Roderick shouted. 'Why? That's what I want to know! Some rascally servant has crept out, or left it so for an accomplice to rob us and murder us all in our beds! Who is it?'
'Hush, now,' Isabella said coolly. 'Take comfort from the fact that you at least were not in your bed to be murdered! I've no doubt we'll find it was a mistake, but do, I pray you, be quiet, for Georgiana has a bad headache.'
'I locked it as usual, Sir Roderick,' a quavering voice said, and they all turned to see two men, with breeches pulled over their nightshirts, and somewhat sheepishly carrying pokers, standing by the baize door which led to the kitchen quarters.
'Baxter! What time did you lock it?' Isabella asked, forestalling Sir Roderick's angry exclamation.
'At ten, Miss, as usual, and then I went to bed,' the older of the two men replied aggrievedly.
'And you and Saddler are the only menservants to sleep in the house.'
'One of the maids!' Sir Roderick spluttered. 'I'll warrant one of the sluts has been creeping out! Find out who it is, Isabella, and send her packing as soon as she comes back!' He suddenly recalled Lord Fordington's presence and began to make a somewhat disjointed apology, calling at the same time for Baxter to kindle a fire in his study, fetch refreshments, and pour brandy for his guest. 'We'd better take a look at those maps while you're here, my lord,' he added.
* * * *
Isabella, still on the last stair, found herself looking on a level into the visitor's eyes. She blushed again, acutely aware of her inadequate and unconventional attire, but regarded him frankly and liked what she saw. He was tall, with an excellent figure that owed nothing to the superb tailoring of his evening dress. She guessed his age to be in the early thirties and noted a faint thread of grey at his temples that added, she considered, a touch of extra distinction to his dark good looks. Apart from the regularity of his features, the gleam of amusement in his eyes and the way his mobile lips twitched as he withstood her scrutiny confirmed her instant good impression, and she smiled briefly, then nodded as if in dismissal.
'I'll check whether any of the maids are missing, Cousin, but I am sure you will find it a mistake, for they are all to be trusted. Mrs Frensham would be certain to know it if any of them indulged in clandestine assignations,' she added, then turned as a discreet cough sounded behind her.
Lord Fordington looked up and beheld a stout, elderly female on the half landing. She wore a tightly belted dressing-robe and no indecorous strands of hair escaped from her closely fitting cap. Although her lips were pursed disapprovingly it was clear she was pleased with something, and the note of triumph was evident in her voice as she spoke, ignoring Isabella and addressing herself to Sir Roderick.
'I have ascertained, Sir Roderick, that none of the maids is out of her bed. I am not accustomed to permitting goings-on in establishments where I have authority. However,' and she paused portentously, 'Miss Georgiana's bed has not been slept in and I cannot find her.'
Isabella's mouth opened but no sound came. She paled and clutched the banister, and Lord Fordington instinctively took a step towards her, fearing that she was about to fall. She recovered herself speedily, however, and turned towards the woman.
'You must be mistaken! I will see for myself!'
Mrs Frensham shook her head slightly, making no move so that Isabella could pass her. She still addressed Sir Roderick, who was standing in the doorway of his study, his mouth opening and closing noiselessly.
'I assure you I am not mistaken, Sir Roderick. It is not my habit to make mistakes. I went right into Miss Georgiana's room and discovered a bolster placed so that it would appear someone slept in the bed.'
'Georgiana!' Sir Roderick eventually contrived to utter. 'She has run away!'
'Nonsense!' Isabella said briskly. 'It is some prank, doubtless. She has no cause to run away, and nowhere to run to!'
'Eloped!' Sir Roderick muttered distractedly. 'Why, just let me catch the villain and I'll tear him limb from limb!'
'Cousin, think! She is but a schoolgirl, she is not yet out and she knows no one!' Isabella protested. 'There is no elopement, I'll wager. But I wonder?'
'What? What else is there? Oh, my God! Kidnapped! My child, my darling daughter, at the mercy of kidnappers!' Sir Roderick moaned in horror at this new thought.
'No, of course not!' Isabella shook her head decidedly. 'It must be connected with Belinda Norton, for I left her there this morning. Her schoolfriend Belinda,' she added, seeing Sir Roderick looked puzzled. 'She did not wish to accompany me while I bought the things Fanny wanted, saying household shopping bored her, and begged me to permit her to visit Belinda instead. She has been so envious Belinda was making her come-out this season. She stayed with her and afterwards I took her to the dentist as arranged. Later she complained that her mouth felt sore, although the dentist had reassured her the pain she had been feeling was not due to a bad tooth and would go away of its own accord. She went to bed early saying she wished to sleep, but I suspect now she and Belinda plotted some escapade. No doubt they have merely gone to some party together.'
* * * *
Partly convinced and reassured by this explanation, Sir Roderick was for storming round to the Norton house immediately, but Isabella endeavoured to dissuade him, pointing out he could only create an unnecessary scandal. Lord Fordington, fully aware he should be discreet and offer to take his leave, was enjoying himself too hugely to wish to escape.
Recalling the difficulty he had had in escorting Sir Roderick home, he found a malicious pleasure in the baronet's dismay at the discovery of his daughter's prank. The reactions of the servants he also found entertaining. Baxter, presumably the butler, was endeavouring to press a glass of brandy into an unusually unresponsive Sir Roderick's hand. The other man, a small, spindle-legged creature, was creeping about on tiptoe anxiously retrieving the hat, gloves and cane Sir Roderick had let fall to the floor when he had himself been precipitated into the house, and clucking distractedly as he attempted to brush the hat with the sleeve of his nightshirt. Hands folded over her ample form, Mrs Frensham, with a chorus of twittering maids peering over her shoulders, smiled grimly at the consternation her words had produced.
It was Isabella who kept him there most of all though. No other girl he knew would have been so unconcerned about her own unconventional appearance in the middle of the night and in front of a stranger. Instead of falling into hysterics, as his stepmother would undoubtedly have done, she was calmly thinking out the possibilities, driving the giggling maids and Mrs Frensham upstairs and restraining Sir Roderick's wilder flights of fancy while she did so, in a cool and competent manner which aroused the former soldier's respect.
It was just as Isabella had calmed Sir Roderick sufficiently to persuade him to enter the study and sit down, while Saddler crept away with the discarded clothes and Baxter discreetly effaced himself, that an interruption occurred. The front door was pushed open cautiously, and framed in the doorway, her hands to her throat, was the loveliest vision Lord Fordington had ever beheld.
* * * *
She was of medium height, slightly built and fragile as Dresden china, with a pale, perfect complexion, flushed now a delicate pink as she gazed with enormous round blue eyes at the scene in the hall. Honey gold curls, short and feathery, clustered round her head, and a delectable lower lip was caught between small, even, pearly teeth.
'Oh!' she gasped in a frightened, trembling voice. 'I didn't – that is–'
'Georgiana!' Sir Roderick and Isabella exclaimed in unison.
'Where have you been?' Isabella demanded.
'Who is this?' Sir Roderick barked, and Lord Fordington dragged his gaze away from the enchanting damsel and saw behind her a young, obviously nervous, gangling youth dressed in pantaloons of an unfortunate shade of yellow which clashed with the pink-and-cream striped waistcoat, a coat cut with more care for a fashionable outline than the slender form of its wearer, and a once well starched but now wilting cravat drooping forlornly from the over-high points with which the wearer had commenced the evening.
'Sir!' the youth exclaimed, and snapped to attention, then flinched nervously as Sir Roderick, shaking off Isabella's hand from his arm, bore down upon the guilty pair.
'Who are you? What are you doing with my daughter?' he demanded fiercely, shaking his fist under the young man's nose.
To his credit the young man stood his ground, although he gulped and instinctively raised his arm to ward off the expected blow.
'S-Sir! My name is Reece, Sir! Clement Reece!' he stammered, apparently unable to take his eyes off the menacing fist a couple of inches from his nose.
'Reece? Reece? Who the devil is that? Never heard of you, sir! Damned upstart!'
'He is not! Mr Reece is an officer!' Georgiana declared, emboldened at the injustice of this, and stepped forward a pace, letting fall the domino she had been clutching about her.
It was a mistake to draw attention to herself. Sir Roderick, furious though he was, still retained some instincts of the correct behaviour of a host and had reluctantly restrained himself from attacking the young man within his house, but he had no qualms about venting his wrath upon his daughter. He turned on her so swiftly that she gasped and backed closer to her escort, who was thereby presented with the uncomfortable dilemma of placing himself between the beauty in distress and her outraged parent, or ignominiously leaving her to her fate.
'Where the devil did you buy that gown?' Sir Roderick demanded as his eyes fell upon his erring child, and his attention was distracted from her companion. 'It's downright indecent!'
Lord Fordington, no mean connoisseur of female raiment, studied the gown in question. Undoubtedly the low decolletage, and the thin sheer material which clung to her limbs in a fashion that made it obvious it had been dampened, revealed more of her maidenly charms than a prudent parent could have been expected to approve.
Georgiana blushed but flung back her head defiantly.
'It is not! It is all the rage! Everyone wears gowns like this and if you think this one is indecent you should have seen some of the others! Besides, I wore my domino all evening!'
Lord Fordington stifled a grin. Whether Georgiana was aware of it or not, it was by no means as startling a creation as those worn by the charmers the Regent and his cronies entertained, but he was well aware that what men approved of in their mistresses they frowned on in females of their own family.
Before the enraged baronet could utter further condemnation Isabella stepped forward, calmly wrapped the discarded domino about Georgiana and tried to draw her towards the stairs.
'If you wore your domino there was scarcely any point in going to such extremes,' she said calmly. 'It is rather too old a style for a girl not yet out.'
'That's not my fault! I'm old enough to be out. In any event, it was the only one we could find!'
'Where did you obtain it, and where have you been in it?' Sir Roderick, having recovered his breath, thundered.
Georgiana turned to him, but Lord Fordington noted how she moved closer into the shelter of Isabella's protective arm.
'Belinda. She lent it to me, it belongs to her sister!'
'That hoyden! She is encouraging you in this wickedness is she? Well, my girl, you'll see no more of her! I'll take care of that, you can be sure!'
'You cannot stop me for ever from doing what I choose!' Georgiana flung at her father, tossing her head defiantly and resisting Isabella's attempt to take her upstairs. 'You have refused to permit me to make my come-out this season, although I am scarce two months younger than Belinda, but you cannot imprison me for ever!'
'Pray do not be so foolish!' Isabella interposed, but her words were drowned in the roar from Sir Roderick.
'Imprison! You'd be better for a spell of confinement, Miss, aye, and a sound beating!'
It was the young man, summoning up the courage to intervene when it appeared that Sir Roderick intended to carry out his threat immediately. The baronet swung round, suddenly made aware of him again.
'You! Who the devil are you, sir! What have you been doing, stealing my daughter out of her house?'
'C-Clement Reece, sir. I must p-protest. I did not steal your daughter. She-she did me the honour to permit me to escort her to the P-Pantheon. They have masked balls there,' he explained kindly as Sir Roderick, rendered momentarily speechless, stared disbelievingly at him.
'The Pantheon! The hurly-burly place, amongst all the riffraff in town?' Sir Roderick exclaimed, and turned wrathfully towards his erring child. 'Have you no more sense than to let yourself be seen at such a place? You'll not have a shred of reputation left!'
'I'll do as I please when I'm married, you'll not stop me then!' Georgiana declared.
'Married? You'll not marry this young puppy! Who the devil is he, anyway? Where did you meet him?'
Georgiana and the embarrassed young man blushed and did their best to avoid one another's eyes.
'No-no such intention, I do assure you, sir! That is, I d-don't want to offend Miss Sharman, to be sure, but the thing is, you see, we've only just met, and I-I'm still under age!'
'We met at Belinda's, Clement is a sort of cousin of hers,' Georgiana said hurriedly.
'I doubt if any harm has been done, Cousin,' Isabella's cool tones cut across the incoherent mutterings Sir Roderick had been reduced to. 'After all no one who knows Georgiana was likely to have been there, and she was masked, and even the gown would not have been seen under the domino. I suggest we all retire to bed and discuss this when we have slept. Come, Georgiana.'
'You'd be wise to disappear too,' Lord Fordington said in a soft voice to young Mr Reece.
'I will not run away!' was the indignant reply.
'Wellington was an adept at the art of judicious retreat and saving his attacks for the proper moment,' Lord Fordington remarked. 'Come back in the morning – late in the morning, I would advise – and offer an apology and explanation then. You'll only make it worse for the girl if you insist on arguing now! Go on, you young idiot, her father won't kill her! She's well enough protected, better than she would be by you!'
Mr Reece, vaguely conscious that he was cutting no heroic figure, reluctantly permitted himself to be pushed out of the door. Lord Fordington, most reprehensibly, shut it to behind him and turned to listen to the tirade of abuse Sir Roderick was heaping indiscriminately on the heads of his daughter and her absent friend.
'You are neither of you fit to be trusted!' he concluded.
'It would not have happened if you had not broken your promise to allow me to be presented this year!'
'I made no such promise!'
'You know full well, Georgiana, your father merely said he would consider it. I'm inclined to agree with him, you are both silly children!'
'Isabella, it was as good as a promise! And Belinda is no child, she has had three offers already. Just think, three!'
'If you think such an indiscriminate collection demonstrates Belinda's maturity, it merely shows your own lack of it! She has been sought since her grandmother died and left her a fortune, and not so long ago she would have been betrothed before she was out of the cradle!' Isabella said with a slight laugh. 'Come, my dear, you must be tired. Bid your father goodnight and I'll take you up to your bed.'
'And in the morning you can take her down to Woodings,' Sir Roderick snapped. 'I'll order the chaise for ten. Be sure you are both packed and ready to leave before then!'
'That is impossible,' Isabella said calmly. 'I still have not executed all the commissions Fanny gave me. I have to visit several shops tomorrow, and there are more clothes to be delivered which she wishes me to take down when we return. I cannot leave tomorrow and probably not the next day either.'
Sir Roderick fumed impotently, but was forced to concede the point, and had to be satisfied with shouting after his daughter as she finally permitted Isabella to guide her up the stairs that she need not think to be gallivanting about town again, for she would be confined to her room until the time came to depart.
It was only then, as he turned to stalk into his study, that he became aware of Lord Fordington's continued presence. He looked puzzled for a moment, and then laughed uncertainly.
'Women!' he exclaimed in disgust. 'I do beg your pardon, my lord. Wouldn't for the world have inflicted that on you if I could have avoided it. I always say Prinny had more trouble with his women than ever he had with Parliament! But let us have that brandy, I could do with it!'
'Pray do not regard me,' Lord Fordington said soothingly. 'And if I may take a quick look at your maps, Sir Roderick, I will then leave you in peace.'