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The Wicked Proposal

The Wicked Proposal by Emily Hendrickson
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The beautiful and wealthy Lady Penelope Winthrop was searching for a husband—one who would marry her and then leave her alone. The dashing and cynical Earl of Harford was willing to assist Penelope in her search through the London marriage mart. But the best laid plans can go awry . . .

Regency Romance by Emily Hendrickson

Belgrave House; May 1992
199 pages; ISBN 9780451172341
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Wicked Proposal
Author: Emily Hendrickson

The young woman garbed in a soft blue pelisse to reflect her sensible blue eyes resolutely entered the attractive town house situated on Upper Brook Street. “Lady Penelope Win­throp to see Miss Winthrop, if you please,” she intoned in her best manner and with the regal air of one born to command.

Giving a significant look at her companion and former governess, Miss Nilsson, Penelope waited with not a few trepidations while the stout woman in black bombazine—the housekeeper, most likely—trotted off toward the rear of the house, mumbling something about hunting for her mistress. Clearly this was an unusual household.

Penelope glanced about with curious eyes. Although the place appeared respectable enough, peculiar touches could be seen here and there, like the Grecian bust with a paisley shawl draped over his head and a clutch of peacock feathers stuck at a crazy angle in the umbrella stand. She wondered if her cousin possessed a pianoforte, for Penelope dearly loved to play. She did rather well, finding music to be company.

“I do hope she received my letter,” she muttered to Nilsson in a soft aside.

“I warned you against coming ahead without a clear under­standing, my dear,” Nilsson replied in a similarly quiet tone. The basket at her feet gave a lurch, and an inquisitive nose poked from beneath the lid, whiskers quivering, followed by the tip of an orange striped tail and a questing paw. “It is to be hoped that she will tolerate your pet. Not everyone appreciates a cat, you know.”

An offended “Meow” followed this comment.

“I shall pay for any damages.”

“How many times must I remind you that you cannot always buy your way through life?” Miss Nilsson said with a touch of asperity in her usually mild voice.

Penelope gave Miss Nilsson a wry look. “So far it has proved to be remarkably effective. I have yet to see a person who will turn down money.”

“One day you shall discover the truth of the matter. I only hope it does not turn out to be a painful experience.”

An end to this familiar lecture came with the rustle of skirts. A short, plump young woman with untidy brown hair and gold spectacles perched on her little nose peered at the callers with obvious puzzlement as she hurried toward where they waited. She halted directly before Penelope, studying her with a disconcerting gaze. “Your face is familiar, but I fear I cannot recall where we met,” Miss Winthrop declared with disarming frankness. Tilting her head, she extended her hand in greeting. “At any rate, welcome.” A paisley shawl similar to the one on the Greek head was draped across her shoulders at a perilous angle, looking about to slide off.

“I am your cousin. You stayed at our home, Fountains, in Kent a few years ago while you painted butterflies and flowers. And this is my companion, Miss Nilsson,” Penelope explained patiently. “You urged me to visit you some­time.”

“Penelope!” Lettice exclaimed in recognition. “I believe I had a letter from you not long ago. At least, I think I did. I could not find my spectacles at the moment, and it was put aside.” Turning to the housekeeper, hovering in the back­ground, she added, “Where did I put that letter?”

The older woman sighed, then shuffled off down the hall, muttering softly to herself as she went. She disappeared through a door near the end of the hall.

Suddenly recalling her manners, Lettice nodded her head toward the hall, then led them along into the haphazardly furnished morning room. “She ought to have brought you in here, but one does never know.”

At Penelope’s silence, Lettice went on, “But of course you do not know, for how could you? You see,” she con­fided, “I am dreadfully absentminded and nearly everyone knows about my difficulty. Ladies sometimes seek my advice, although why they should is totally beyond me. I doubt I would be of help to anyone.”

Hoping the dismay she felt was not revealed on her face, Penelope glanced at Miss Nilsson, then back at her cousin. “I see. In that case, perhaps I had best leave you.”

“Nonsense! I declare, I am vastly diverted. Why have you suddenly turned up on my doorstep? You have changed a great deal, you know. I say that in defense of my not recognizing you at first. The alteration into womanhood can be most striking in some girls. You certainly have become a beauty,” she concluded without a trace of envy in her voice.

Clearing a restricted throat, Penelope replied, “I wrote you all about it.” Deciding she might as well plunge to the heart of the problem, now recalling how her cousin could take it into her head to wander off in the middle of a conver­sation, Penelope continued, “I need to find a husband, a not-too-unusual dilemma, I fancy. However, I do not wish Cousin Ernest or his mother to know about my decision to wed. One of these days Aunt Winthrop is sure to remember my age and get the idea in her head that she will marry me to Ernest. I assure you that would not be the least to my liking.”

“I fail to see how I may help you, although I can see why you’d not wish to many our toad of a cousin.” Lettice turned as the housekeeper bustled into the room with a piece of stiff cream paper in her hand. “Is this it? Wherever did you find it?”

“Stuck in the spotted fern, Miss Letty.”

“Fancy that,” Lettice mused as she broke the seal and began reading the letter that had been sent off two weeks before. “Yes, I see, it is just as you say.”

“Will that be all?” the housekeeper prompted.

“You had best prepare rooms for my cousin and her companion.”

The housekeeper eyed the basket at Penelope’s feet with a suspicious look. “And what’s that?”

“That is Muffin, my cat. I could not spend time away from her, for she would never forgive me,” Penelope replied.

Lettice nodded as though the statement made perfect sense.

Miss Nilsson exchanged resigned looks with the housekeeper, then stepped forward. “I’m Miss Nilsson, Mrs. . . .

“Flint, ma’am.” She edged toward the door, a harried expression settling on her face.

“Perhaps I may lend a hand, Mrs. Flint? I know how it can be when unexpected guests arrive on the scene.” Actually, Miss Nilsson had had little to do with guests, but she sensed the poor housekeeper would be grateful for any help she might get. Nilsson picked up Muffin’s basket and followed Mrs. Flint from the room.

As the door closed behind the older women, Lettice frowned again. “I have never heard that accent before. Is it Swedish? I believe it rather charming. I am surprised you have not caught it from her.”

“I doubt you can catch an accent, Lettice, even a Swedish one,” Penelope said, a smile lighting her eyes.

“I suppose not,” Lettice replied with obvious regret in her voice. “Now,” she went on, “I should like to know all the details not in your letter and omitted to this point. Like, what sort of husband do you seek? I suppose he must be wildly handsome and sinfully rich.”

“Not at all,” Penelope said with a hint of laughter lurking in her words. “All I require is a man who will marry me, then take himself off to wherever it is that men enjoy spending their days. As long as he does not bother me, I shall be glad.”

“Goodness! What a peculiar way of looking at marriage. Not very romantic, I must say. It offends the poet in my soul.” Lettice gave Penelope a thoughtful stare, then nodded for her cousin to continue.

“If you must know, I have never believed in love,” Penelope confessed. “I suppose my parents were examples of such. However, since I rarely saw them, I had little chance to judge for myself. I think it to be simpler and far less trouble to find a gentleman—for I must marry someone equal to my station, I suppose—and make it clear he is free to go as he pleases. I hope he will take himself off to the Continent, as my parents did, and never be seen again.”

“Pity, that,” Lettice murmured. “You might feel differently had your parents been home instead of forever traipsing about the world. But I still do not understand why you wish to select a husband in such a cold-blooded manner. No poetry in the least.”

“No interference, either. I like my life as it is. Herbs and medicine fascinate me. I enjoy cooking as well. Can you imagine a gentleman permitting me to indulge my fancy in the kitchen?” She gave a toss of her head, revealing the pure line of her cheek, an errant blond curl.

“Take off that bonnet, please.” When Penelope complied, Lettice rubbed the end of her nose while she studied her cousin, then said, “I should think your husband would indulge your fancy anywhere you took a notion to indulge, if you catch my meaning.”

“I am not certain I do, but let it pass. What I need is some­one to take me about, help me with a mantua-maker, and point out the man most likely to agree to my proposal.”

“Sounds wicked to me, tricking a man into marriage not intended to be a real one.”

“Even in the wilds of Kent, tales reach my ears of the London gentlemen. They gamble, wench, and generally enjoy their life of debauchery. I suspect that somewhere there is a man of acceptable birth who is in need of money, enough so he will not quibble at my proposal.”

At these firm words from her cousin, Lettice placed a hand on her heart, a dismayed gasp revealing her reaction all too well. “I can see you are determined to find such a man. I daresay there are enough of them around.” Giving her cousin a thoughtful stare, Lettice rose. “Come, you must be longing for a rest and change. I truly do not know what help I may be in your quest. However, we shall muddle along the best we can.”

Misgivings fluttering about Penelope like butterflies around a flowerbed, she followed her cousin from the room and up the stairs. At the door to a pretty little bedroom, they paused.

“This is a nice place in which to think. I believe you are in need of some serious thinking, Penelope. And call me Letty. It would be ever so much easier.” Taking Penelope’s silence as agreement, she continued, “I shall go out in the garden and commune with nature. Do you like to take walks? I hope so. I do not have enough nature in the garden here.” With those strange words, Letty turned away, bustled along  the hall, then marched down the stairs with a firm tread. Left alone, Penelope tested the bed, and finding it to be quite comfortable, leaned back against her pillow. Her plans had definitely taken a twist for the worse. Her memories of Cousin Letty had been those of a vague but sweet woman some five years her senior who liked to pen poems and paint watercolors. It seemed a lot had happened in the intervening years to change Letty into a rather eccentric person. What help she might be was clearly debatable.

A gentle rap at the door brought Miss Nilsson.

“A fine pickle this is!” Penelope declared, sitting up. “My cousin is a sweet person, but slightly bird-witted, if you ask me.” Penelope rose from the bed, then crossed to assist in unpacking a trunk that had been carried up from the coach in which they had traveled from Kent to London.

“Now, do not get yourself in a pucker, my dear,” Nilsson urged. “Perhaps she will be more help than you expect. Have a little patience. I feel certain it will all work out in the end.”

Penelope gave her closest friend and mentor a fond smile. “Dear Miss Nilsson, what would I do without you, I wonder.”

“Become a savage, what else?” came the immediate reply in the familiar accent.

Chuckling, they both set to, and in short order had the articles of clothing and all the other things considered necessary stowed neatly away.

Over the dinner table, Penelope had an opportunity to further assess her cousin. Since Letty had insisted upon Miss Nilsson joining them, Penelope was able to exchange a knowing glance with her from time to time.

A discreetly attired maid brought the food to the table and served with the help of the housekeeper. Penelope could not refrain from a curious glance at this departure from the customary.

“You have noticed this is a feminine household, I suppose,” Letty said after the maid had left the room. “I have heard horrid stories of nasty footmen who seduce the women of the house, and I’ll have none of it.”

“I doubt if they are very nasty if they are able to seduce the ladies in question,” Penelope replied thoughtfully. “However, I quite see your point, and it certainly is something to consider. How fortunate that my chef, Henri, is of an age to be my father. One scarcely thinks of an older man in a romantic light.”

Miss Nilsson was given to a fit of coughing, and the subject was immediately changed to one of health. Letty appeared quite fascinated with the work Penelope had done with herbs and potions, plying her with questions all through the meal until the apple torte was served.

“I can see we have much to learn from each other. I do hope your quest is not immediately successful. There are a great many things I wish to know,” Letty informed her as they strolled up to the small drawing room on the first floor.

“This is a charming house. I do not recall its being in the family. Is it a recent purchase, then?” Penelope ran a finger along the back of a damask-covered chair as she slowly crossed the pleasant room. Like the morning room off the entry, it was furnished in a bizarre, haphazard manner, with a character rather like that of its eccentric mistress.

“My elder brother was only too anxious to get me off his hands when he brought home his bride. I chose this house as being near the activities I enjoy and in a respectable part of town. I may be lost in poetry much of the time, but I do know what is proper.”

“That is indeed a comfort, Cousin.” Penelope’s smile took away any sting that might have gone with her words.

“It was partly furnished. The rest of what I needed came from the attics of the family house.”

“If the ones in town are like those out at Everton Hall, I can see you had a wide choice.”

“How did your parents leave you situated?” Letty inquired with a tilt of her head. “I’d not ask, but since you are here to find a husband, it is best to know. Sometimes one can drop a hint in the proper ear and do wonders, you know.”

Letty picked up Muffin, who had wandered into the drawing room to hunt for a comfortable spot. In minutes Letty had reduced the cat to a purring, blissful lump of fur.

Glad that her pet found favor, yet mildly annoyed she had sought another, Penelope replied in a slightly abrupt way, “Very well, I should say. Everything that was not entailed was placed in my name. That includes twenty thousand pounds per year in income, as well as the charming estate you saw in Kent. My guardian and the lawyer shall handle the settlement and the like.” Penelope gave her cousin a wistful smile. “My guardian spends most of his time climbing mountains in Austria. I last heard from him following the death of my parents years ago.” She took a deep breath, then concluded, “I suspect I am considered an heiress, sufficiently so that I ought not have the least trouble finding someone who will do just as I wish.”

“Ah, that again.” Letty frowned, exchanging a guarded look with Miss Nilsson.

“Mind you, I can only judge from what I have heard, but I rather believe it to be the case in regards to the desirability of money,” Penelope said with all due modesty. She looked to her cousin to see if she might refute the matter.

“I see,” Letty replied, her eyes behind her spectacles assessing her cousin in a most thorough manner. “I rather think we shall have to ward off the fortune seekers instead of hunting for a husband, should word get about that you are so well-to-do.”

Disconcerted by her cousin’s scrutiny, and feeling that somehow her search for a husband was out of the ordinary, when she was quite certain it was not, Penelope rose to drift across to the fireplace. What a peculiar room. How her cousin could tolerate this conglomeration was more than she could imagine. “Hodgepodge” was the kindest description one might make of it. Or perhaps “late attic.”

“I believe an invitation came in the mail that might be of interest to us. At least, I think I still have it.” Letty pushed her spectacles up on her nose, frowning in concern as she did. “As I recall, it is the Collison ball for their eldest daughter. Ought to be a splash that will draw the crowd you seek. Not that I am an adequate judge, but you could get an idea. Perhaps you might even see a gentleman who would suit your purpose while there? Young Collison is accounted quite a catch, or so someone told me. . . I think.” She gave a sad sigh and shook her head at Penelope. “I shall warn you right now that you will most likely fare better with Miss Nilsson than to depend on me for guidance. I fear I am totally at sea when it comes to fashion and the doings of the haut ton.”

“Oh, dear,” Penelope replied softly. She strongly suspected her cousin was more inclined to forget the necessary, rather than not know what was what.

The following morning Penelope was prevailed upon to produce a few of her herbal potions for Letty. A cream for dry skin, a light pomade to tame her unruly hair, and a lip salve with a ladylike hint of color to it began the list of things Letty desired.

“Not that I am at all vain, mind you, but I forget to take care of myself. I hope, once completed, these will prompt me when I see them on the dressing table.” Letty beamed a happy, if absentminded, smile on Penelope, then bustled off in the direction of her little study at the rear of the ground floor, where she usually retired to write her poetry.

Penelope was extremely curious to see what her cousin had composed, but so far her hints had brought about no offers to share the work from Letty’s pen.

Muffin wound herself about Penelope’s skirts, complaining of neglect, which Penelope knew to be a gross exaggeration. The cat had curled up on the bed during the night, seeking warmth and a comforting hand.

Penelope measured the prepared ox marrow for the lip salve, then added white pomatum, also ready for use. After properly blending, she stirred in the remaining ingredients, dropping in a hint of alcanet to color the salve a delicate red. When completed, she put the salve into a pretty jar with a nice tight lid. It was precisely the sort of thing a lady would enjoy having on her dressing table for very discreet use.

When Miss Nilsson peeked into the stillroom to see how Penelope fared, she was met with a frowning face. “What is it, my dear?”

“I do not have sufficient jars and bottles with me. I wonder if we might not find some attractive ones on Bond Street? Perhaps my cousin will take us there. I saw some lovely things in the last issue of the Lady Monthly Museum.” Penelope gave a final pat to the jar of lip salve, then turned to inspect the ingredients for the fine-quality pomade her cousin wished.

“Most likely we shall have to go on our own,” Miss Nilsson replied with a rueful smile. “Mrs. Flint tells me that once Miss Letty is into her poetry, she will not be bothered for anything. I suspect a shopping expedition to be at the bottom of her priority list.”

“Whatever shall I do, Nilsson?” Penelope asked, her concern clear in her voice. “It seems to me that I have made a mistake in seeking the help of my cousin, no matter that she seems a dear sort.”

“A trifle wanting in a few ways, perhaps, but you are correct to say she seems a good person. I do not know what manner of poetry she writes. I trust it reflects her heart. For now, we shall manage the best we can. Something will turn up,” Nilsson added in her pretty, lilting voice.

“We shall make a hasty trip to Bond Street, where I am persuaded the proper containers should be found,” Penelope declared. “Perhaps we can obtain a glance at London gentle­men as well while we are out and about.” She tossed a twinkling glance at her companion.

Miss Nilsson shot her employer a shrewd look, then nodded. “I trust it will do you no harm.”

They left word with Mrs. Flint that Lady Penelope required a number of items, and they set off for Bond Street with expectant hearts.

Purchase of the jars and bottles was amazingly simple. Of course, it helped that cost was no object and that all Penelope had to do was decide which of the lovely items presented for view she wished to buy. Once they left the little shop, the two women strolled along the street, admiring the contents of the various windows.

“This is rather exciting, Nilsson. Fancy seeing such love­ly things, and not on the pages of magazines!” Penelope gazed at each window with the rapt attention of a child.

They were passing Mitchell’s, the bookseller’s and stationer’s shop, when a young buck came tearing out the door, colliding with the bemused Penelope. He was followed by another gentleman, who hurried to catch Penelope, who looked about to fall.

“Oh, I say, miss, dashed sorry. Didn’t look where I was going, y’see. Hope no damage has been done?” The more slender of the men, the one who had crashed into her, peered anxiously at the lovely young woman now held lightly in the protection of his friend’s arms.

“You clunch, ‘tis a wonder she’s not swooned away at your thoughtless sprint.” The second man inspected Penelope’s pelisse and bonnet for damage, then stepped back, giving a proper bow. “Stephen Collison at your service, ma’am. Sorry to disturb you. This young fellow is inclined to rush about without a thought for the mayhem he causes.”

“I apologized, Collison,” the dasher snapped in a low aside to his friend. Then he turned his charm on Penelope with a smile. “Fair beauty, I count myself devastated if I so much as injured a feather of your bonnet. Allow me to atone? I shall escort you to safety.”

“Ha!” Collison declared in an amused voice. “She would be far safer with me, Willowby.”

“If you didn’t pause to bet on her chances of returning home in one piece, that is,” gibed the dashing Willowby.

It was far too much for Penelope to resist. Laughter gurgled up from within in a captivating way, enchanting both men, who had expected her to issue a scold at the very least.

“What scamps you are, to be sure,” she managed to say at last. “I am quite all right, though Mr. Collison is correct. You, Mr. Willowby, ought to look where you are going. To so madly dash about is to invite disaster.”

Willowby opened his mouth to say something, but was stopped by a discreet jab in his ribs.

“The fair lady supports my opinion,” Collison said. “We shall not delay you further, ladies. I hope we shall meet again soon. A proper meeting, when we may learn the identity of the newest charmer in London. My parents are giving a ball for my sister soon. Dare I hope that you will attend?”

The flicker of acknowledgment in her eyes and the faint nod of recognition brought a handsome grin to Mr. Collison’s face. His blue eyes danced as he again bowed. “Until then.”

Penelope watched the two gentlemen stroll down the street, the one named Collison swinging an elegant cane. The tilt of his beaver hat was precisely so, and that coat was cut by a master hand, she could tell.

“Vastly different from the provincials, would you not say, Nilsson?” She glanced at her companion, then gently urged her along the street again.

“I had heard London manners were better, but this is scarcely the case.”

“Perhaps they are better under proper circumstances,” Penelope replied while eyeing the retreating figures. “I wonder if either of them is in need of money,” she mused as they disappeared from sight. “Mr. Collison appears to enjoy a bet, from what was hinted at. Maybe...”

A repressive look from Miss Nilsson ended that line of speculation.

When they returned to the house on Upper Brook Street, Penelope was greeted by an indignant Muffin. Nothing would do but that she take her up and soothe wounded sensibilities with much stroking and gentle words.

“How you do spoil that cat,” Nilsson declared, a fond look in her eyes contrary to the asperity of her words.

“Other than you and Henri, she is the only one who gives me affection without expecting something in return.” And then Penelope acknowledged to herself that the two adults were both on her staff and well-paid for their devotion. “Most likely she would desert me if I failed to reward her with a kipper or two now and again.”

She turned away to remove her pelisse and thus missed the look of pity on her companion’s face.

“I found it!” a jubilant Letty cried as she sailed down the hall to greet them. “The Collison ball is tomorrow evening.”

“We met a Collison while on Bond Street. Young Mr. Collison saved me from a nasty fall.”

“Mister? Hardly, my girl. The only young Collison male is Lord Stephen. His elder brother is Viscount Bremerton. Nonetheless, Lord Stephen is possessed of a sizable income, as his father has settled a handsome estate on him, provided he can manage not to gamble it away. If you wish, you may be properly introduced tomorrow evening.”

“What did I tell you, Nilsson? One of them is most likely in need of money,” Penelope murmured to her companion.

Her cousin’s sharp ears caught the remark and she rounded upon Penelope with a narrow look. “You are a fool if you think to take on a gamester for a husband. Your fortune will be gone like a thistledown if you do. Have you forgotten that your husband will have complete control over your money once you wed?”

Penelope cradled her cat in her arms, absently scratching her under the chin while meeting the steady gaze from Miss Nilsson. “It seems that finding a husband will not be quite as simple as I had hoped.” It would be ideal if she could find someone else to advise her on the matter. But who might serve? What a pity she didn’t have another cousin in town, one more up to snuff.