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The Dashing Miss Fairchild

The Dashing Miss Fairchild by Emily Hendrickson
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While traveling to Bath, Miss Clare Fairchild discovered a baby in her carriage, and determined to take the child with her. Her arrival with a baby caused disagreeable Bath gossip, but the intriguing Mr. Richard Talbot assisted Clare in their confusing—and often dangerous—search for the truth.

Regency Romance by Emily Hendrickson; originally published by Signet

Belgrave House; January 1992
196 pages; ISBN 9780451171276
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Dashing Miss Fairchild
Author: Emily Hendrickson
 
Excerpt

The select of the ton shimmered and glittered beneath the soft glow cast by hundreds of wax tapers high above their heads in the Granvilles’ ballroom. Gowns of every hue were set off by the black garb of well-bred and somewhat bored-looking gentlemen as couples moved through the patterns of a quadrille.

On the far side of the long, high-ceilinged room a group of fashionably dressed men stood clustered before an extremely tall, beautifully painted screen, deep in conversation.

“Face it, Haversleigh, she’s as dull as ditchwater. Not even her respectable dowry will make it palatable for you there,” the socially eminent Lord Spencer-Jones avowed.

Foggy Thornback, who had just joined the select group of gentlemen standing so casually while all the time casting side glances at passing ladies, stared at one face, then another. “I take it you are discussing the local Juno, the Antidote of the First Water?”

“Right you are, old chap,” Haversleigh replied, wincing only a trifle at Foggy’s booming voice. “Although she is a lovely creature—if you don’t mind acquiring a stiff neck from looking up at her.” He chuckled at his witticism, sharing knowing looks with the others in the little circle of friends. Since the Honorable George Haversleigh was not above five feet and six inches, he seldom towered over any young lady, having to be satisfied with those of modest height.

“Needs a fellow like Montmorcy, if y’ask me,” Thornback boomed in his amiable way once he had ceased his loud laughter.

‘Think she’d manage to talk to him? Seems to me she could not say boo to a goose,” the elegant Lord Spencer-Jones offered in a bored voice. “However, I daresay she would remain quietly at home and not give a fellow a speck of bother. Cannot imagine she would ever do anything daring—too spiritless, don’cha know.”

“Sounds devilish dull to me,” Foggy replied with a frown crossing his plump face. “I’d not fancy that. Don’t care much for dreary females.”

“I say,” Lord Finlay inserted, “does anyone chance to know where Montmorcy is? He has been away for simply ages.”

“Took off to the Continent now that Nappy is out of the way,” Haversleigh said, referring to the incarceration of the once-dreaded Napoleon. “Lucky chap, Montmorcy—with pots of money, tons of good luck, and handsome looks to boot. Wish I knew how he does it.”

“Well, at least he does not have to face Miss Ingram, for he neither needs her money nor her name,” Lord Spencer-Jones concluded. Since his father had been obliged to adopt the name of the heiress he married, Spencer-Jones knew whereof he spoke. Only the exceedingly high ton of his father’s family had saved the name from social disgrace. And besides, lack of money and the quest for the same was an all too familiar matter to many of the peerage for that to be quibbled about.

The gentlemen then turned the conversation to the matter of traveling abroad and the topic of the unseemly tall Althea Ingram was dropped.

* * * *

Behind the exquisite screen painted in a classic Italian style, Althea Ingram, the young woman who had silently suffered the snide little digs and slurs on her appearance and personality, shut her eyes and clenched her fists in silent rage.

“Pay them no heed,” her companion Cecily de Lisle begged, placing a gentle hand on Althea’s arm. She had rapidly discovered that being chaperon to her tall cousin was no easy task. Poor Althea tried on one hand to appease her jealous new stepmother by remaining discreetly in the background, while on the other she attempted to please her father by finding an acceptable husband. It seemed a near-hopeless task.

“I had not thought, when I came to study this lovely screen, that I would be subjected to such crass stupidity,” Althea declared in her soft, low voice. She turned a bitter look on her dearest cousin and continued, “I believe I would like to leave now.”

“You cannot,” Cecily countered, shaking her head even as Althea took a step away from their place of concealment. “If one of those nasty men sees you exit from behind this screen, then leave the ball, it will be tittered about from one end of London to the other. If you think you have a problem now, that would be far worse,” she concluded with a sage nod.

“What am I to do?” Althea said quietly, her voice reflecting the anger and hurt within her. “Were I a delicate, fairylike creature such as you there would be no dilemma. Instead, I am belittled for something I cannot help—my height. As though I would choose to be this tall.” But Althea stood ramrod straight, refusing to stoop one bit in an effort to diminish her five feet and ten inches. She might not be pleased with her height, but she refused to give anyone the satisfaction of knowing it.

“You might try for a bit more conversation and sparkle, for I know you are capable of that.” Cecily chided.

“Of course, and I would bring down my dear stepmama’s wrath should I be so foolish.” Althea exchanged a look with Cecily that the other found uncomfortable. “I fear dear Beatrice does not wish me to shine. Although, you would think she’d be glad to be rid of me, see me married off to someone—anyone. She does not like me about, that is for certain. Nor does it please me to reside with her.”

“Well, if your papa did not spoil her so, it might be easier for you.” Cecily frowned at memories of Althea’s dear papa indulging Beatrice with all manner of expensive gifts and flowers enough to fill a conservatory.

“She produced an heir, and as her odious cousin, dear Jemima, so often says, that is something my own mother failed to do. It never does to have two women beneath one roof and now there are four! Heavens, ‘tis a wonder my father ever comes home, what with all the dissension that goes on within the house.”

“It is not your fault if Beatrice cannot bear to share the attention of your papa.” Cecily peeked around the screen now that the booming voice that belonged to the genial Mr. Thornback had faded from hearing. “They have gone away from here. I do believe it is safe for us to casually drift across in the general direction of the ladies’ retiring room if you wish.”

“I wish to crash a pot of ferns over the head of the not-so-Honorable George Haversleigh, if truth be known,” Althea muttered in her quiet way. “And I shouldn’t mind doing the same to that odiously stuffy Lord Spencer-Jones as well. What an obnoxious little man.”

They slipped from behind the elegant screen with the poise of young ladies carefully bred not to reveal their emotions, even when severely irritated.

Althea, head held high and delicate color tinting her ivory cheeks, glided smoothly across the polished floor. Her dark brown hair, drawn into a sleek and somewhat unfashionable chignon, gleamed with a discreet sprinkle of diamonds across the back. Her gown flowed smoothly about her, with the diaphanous scarf she carried floating in the faint stir of air created when she moved. She looked remote and regal, like a high priestess of a pagan religion, thought Cecily as she hurried along behind her.

“Oh, please,” Cecily finally pleaded in a breathless wisp of a voice. “Do remember that I have not your ability to cross the room in that effortless walk you have. Tall you may be, but you are wondrously graceful.”

“I am sorry, Cecily. I forget too easily, I fear.” Althea immediately adjusted her pace to a gentle stroll.

“Particularly when you are angry.”

“Which seems to be all too often as of late,” Althea admitted. She turned to her widowed cousin who had so providentially stepped in when Althea had been desperate for companionship. “Something must be done. But what?”

“We shall put on our thinking caps. Surely something will come to mind,” Cecily said gaily with a genial smile for a passing dowager.

“I believe the easiest thing would be to merely put on my caps, period, then settle in that charming little manor house left me by my grandmother. Would you join me there, Cecily?” Althea asked only partly in jest.

“I refuse to give up just yet,” Cecily swiftly replied, nudging Althea into the retiring room after a glance down the hall. “That dreadful Foggy Thornback is coming, and I fancy you would not wish to confront him at the moment, my love,” she explained at her unseemly haste.

“He is the least of them, I imagine. Well? Is my flounce torn? Do I have a smut on my nose?” Althea demanded with a wry smile, referring to the usual reasons given for a young miss to seek refuge in the retiring room. She glanced down at her elegantly simple gown of creamy ivory trimmed in coquelicot riband and sighed.

“Neither, and I think you have recovered quite admirably. I suspect most young women who heard such a nasty assessment of their appearance would have had strong hysterics. Men,” Cecily concluded derisively.

“That would only have made matters worse.” Althea gave herself a searching look in a tall cheval glass before turning to face her cousin again. While Cecily might be small, she was most resourceful.

“Can you think of anything I might do? To be thought boring and dull is beyond anything horrid. I vow I should like to do something outrageous if it did not distress dear Papa too much. While I have an ample allowance from the money Grandmama settled on me, Papa pays most of my bills. One does not upset the bill payer without incurring a penalty.”

“It is only proper that he foot your expenses, my love,” Cecily said in her most soothing voice.

Althea paused in her ambulating about the room to stare off into space. “I believe I should like to go far away from London.”

“Into the country at the height of the Season?” Cecily declared with surprise.

“No, no. I mean really far away. Like the Continent.”

“You want to go to Paris?” Cecily asked with a slight frown, then brightened as she considered the possibilities.

New gowns of the very latest style, bonnets of ravishing beauty and design, and dainty slippers to dazzle the male eye when cunningly revealed. She nodded with increasing enthusiasm.

“No,” Althea said with growing determination. “I wish to do the Grand Tour, just as my dear Papa did when he was about my age.” She ignored Cecily’s gasp of dismay to continue expounding her idea. “You shall be my equivalent of a tutor, and we could have a smashing time.” She watched her chaperon with a calculating gaze, wondering just what she would have to do to convince Cecily that this was the solution to Althea’s dilemma.

Cecily gave her cousin a dubious look. “Oh, I do not think so. Imagine all the arrangements, the trouble, all that is needful for such a monumental trip.”

“We could plan together, and I do believe it cannot be too difficult, for there are so many people who travel,” Althea declared, as though that would make it so. “Papa would know. And he could provide me with letters of credit from our bank, perhaps find me a courier. I believe I should like to cross France and see the Alps. Lord Byron has written marvelous things about them.” Her enthusiasm bloomed as she continued, “And think of those Alpine lakes in Switzerland we might paint—for you know I do very well at painting. I should like to see Geneva, I believe.”

“And then we could come home?” Cecily asked with hope, for she knew that one so determined as Althea would accomplish her goals.

“By no means,” Althea said indignantly. “Papa went to Italy. Think of romantic Venice, with the canals and all,” Althea said vaguely with a wave of her hand.

“They probably stink,” Cecily inserted with the hope of halting Althea before she became too carried away. At the rate she was going on, they might end up in Greece, or—heaven forbid—Turkey! That promised far more danger than Cecily dared to contemplate. Even Egypt seemed to be dangerous, albeit exotic, to her thinking.

“Well, then, we could go to Rome. Imagine, Cecily, the Forum and Coliseum, the romance of the ages.” Althea paused, lost in her rising excitement. “I heard of someone who went to visit the sculptor, Canova. I should like to view his workplace, I believe. I might even commission a statue done—of me.” She laughed a trifle self-consciously.

“Oh, my,” Cecily said in a faint voice, for it was quite clear that Althea was developing a decided partiality to the idea of foreign travel. It would be best to spirit Althea away from here and hope that by tomorrow this entire scheme would be forgotten. It must be the result of that wretched conversation they had overheard. “I shall check the hall again, and with any luck at all we can sneak out of here. The Granvilles’ ball has suddenly become not the place to be.”

“At least, for us,” Althea said in a grim voice. The pain was tolerable, however the knowledge that she’d not likely find a husband within the accepted circle hurt deeply. She wished to marry and have a family as much as the next girt. To think her height would stand in the way of achieving such happiness was more than a girl should have to bear. It was not as though she was an ugly or deformed antidote; rather it was her height that interfered with her hopes. Well, she had best come to terms with her future. It did little good to rage over what could not be altered.

They might joke about Lord Montmorcy, but Althea had vivid recollections about the time she first met him. He had taken one glance at her and muttered, “Good God, an Amazon!” Subsequent encounters had been no better, with John Maitland, now the Earl of Montmorcy, treating Althea with an almost unsettled regard, as though she disturbed him in some manner. She could only wish she might, for he was indeed a handsome man, and the one time she had chanced to dance with him had been pleasant. He was exceedingly tall—Althea’s head came nicely to his shoulder. And he possessed unusual green eyes that had the power to reduce Althea to helpless silence with no effort at all. Most likely he thought her a silly nodcock with not a thought in her head.

Cecily whispered, “The hallway is clear for the moment. Come, let us slip along me hall and down to the entry. Even if we must wait for our carriage, it would seem best to wait there.”

“Who knows, some desperate fortune hunter who has lost all hope of an eligible connection might seek me out. Poor Cecily, you are ignored, although you are the prettiest woman in the room.” Althea gazed at Cecily with fond regard.

“Well, I have neither money nor fascinating looks, it seems,” Cecily replied with her usual good nature. “Come now, do not dawdle or we shall be discovered.”

“I should like to bid Lady Granville good evening, but I believe it would stick in my throat to tell her that it was a divine party.” Althea chuckled, then drifted down the stairs with her customary grace.

Cecily checked behind them, then watched her elegant cousin as she swirled to a halt before the butler, sweetly requesting their carriage be summoned. Following at a more comfortable pace, she wondered just how she would convince Althea to forget this nonsense about a Grand Tour of the Continent. It was not done for women to go haring about the world, never mind that Lady Hester Stanhope had done such. Look what had happened to her!

“Miss Ingram, leaving the ball so early? I vow it will seem empty without your charming presence,” the Honorable George Haversleigh stated with more than a trace of pomposity as he neared the foot of the stairs directly behind them. “I am desolate,” he declared with a bow that seemed mocking to Althea. How the dratted man had managed to sneak down upon them like that neither woman could fathom.

“Do try to bear up, Mr. Haversleigh,” Althea said bracingly. “It would be a tragedy if the world were to be deprived of your company.” She gave him a sugar-sweet smile, then accepted her cape from the butler. With a queenly nod and regal grace she swirled around the open door and down the front steps as though marching off to view the troops.

“Good evening, Mr. Haversleigh,” Cecily said absently while wondering just what she ought to pack in her trunk. “I trust we shall meet again some year,” There was no doubt in her mind after that fatuous remark by George Haversleigh that Althea would not be reasonable about the trip nonsense.

The not-so-Honorable George, as Althea had called him earlier, stood with his mouth open, wishing the other chaps had been there to witness the amazing sight of Althea Ingram tossing off a bon mot like a royal before exiting the house in dramatic form. She had been cutting and almost bitter in her manner, but she appeared oddly magnificent, like some female warrior off to do battle. And what did Mrs. de Lisle mean about seeing him some year? She must be confused. Then he remembered what had brought him downstairs and hustled off in the direction of the billiard room.

The heiresses were a bit thin on the ground tonight, so he’d decided he might as well enjoy himself before heading in the direction of White’s. A good game or two of billiards was just the thing to do before sitting down to an evening of cards.

* * * *

Once settled in the carriage, Althea cast a sidelong glance at her cousin. “You see how it is? I shall never find a husband in London. If not here—where? I might as well resign myself to single blessedness.”

“Like Jemima?” Cecily thrust at Althea. Plump and plain Jemima Greenwood was a cross both young women had been forced to bear since she had come to visit, and then remain, with her truly adored cousin, the lovely Beatrice. It was doubtful that Jemima would ever wed, remaining a comforting companion to her precious cousin.

“Please,” Althea said in a pained voice, “leave the poor obsessed Jemima out of this. I find her devotion to my stepmother almost unnerving, were it not that she is so busy running errands for dear Beatrice that it allows us some manner of peace.”

“Well, then,” Cecily prodded.

“Well, then I shall travel. Not as daringly as Lady Hester Stanhope, you may be assured. I have no desire to investigate the interior of a Turkish harem or the private life of an Arab sheik as I have heard she has done. But in my own modest way, I intend to enjoy the world, see what is out there.” Althea tilted her chin with a resolve that was most familiar to Cecily.

“Oh, dear,” Cecily said, but with a game smile that told Althea that she would not be deserted.

“Do you ever consider what restricted lives women live in this country? We may be presented, attend balls and shop, direct our households once married, and go calling, or on visits to country homes. Diversions are not many, you must admit.” She gave Cecily a challenging look that good woman was able to avoid answering when the carriage drew to a halt before the Ingram home.

* * * *

If Cecily had the slightest hope that Althea might forget her scheme, that hope was dashed the following morning when they came down to breakfast. It was the one time of day when Althea might have the ear of her beloved father without incurring the wrath of her stepmother.

“Papa,” she said in a most bland manner, “did you find your Grand Tour edifying? And did you enjoy it a great deal? Was it worth your while to take it?” She buttered her toast, then sipped her tea with the calmest face in the world, not at all as though she planned something momentous.

“Indeed,” Lord Ingram said with a happy sigh. “Why, it was the highlight of my life.” He ignored both marriages and the birth of his two children in that sweeping statement, something Althea might have argued at one time.

She listened avidly while he told her again of the excitement, the stimulating meetings he had while in France, the pleasure of the views to be seen, the charms of Italy.

When he had done talking, she dropped her words into the ensuing silence with the effect of a bomb.

“I should like to do the same.”

“What? My daughter travel abroad without suitable escort? Wait until you marry, girl. That is when you may travel. Not hare off alone.” He sought to take refuge behind his morning paper, but Althea would not give up.

“Papa, I might not ever marry. You know I have had no offers these past two years. I would more than anything like to see a bit of the world. Oh, please, Papa. I have treasured your tales of adventure and the beauty to be seen for so long, wishing I might also partake of such a trip.”

“I would be with her,” Cecily chimed in with resignation to an uncomfortable and possibly dangerous journey.

“And I know whoever you hired to be my courier would do an admirable job of it, I am certain. And there would be outriders and a coachman. I would be no more at risk than going on our roads at home,” Althea said persuasively.

From the doorway Jemima stared at the scene before her. She entered at her usual brisk trot to join the trio at the table. Ignoring the quickly concealed look of dismay that had crossed Mrs. de Lisle’s face, she looked directly at her cousin-in-law, “Cousin Thomas, I would think that an admirable plan. In fact, it sounds so wonderful; I should like to go with Althea. With Mrs. de Lisle and myself along as chaperons, Althea ought not be censored. Indeed, I believe it would be a most educational time for us all.”

Althea stared at her stepmother’s cousin with barely concealed horror at what she proposed. Surely her father would not condemn his dear daughter to months spent in Jemima’s company. But a look at his face brought her hope crashing to grief. She knew he must chaff at times from the presence of the hostile females who intruded on his marital happiness. He must long to be alone with his adored Beatrice. Baby William held forth in the nursery, and unlike most fathers of the day, Thomas was an unfashionably doting parent. She knew that if she wished to flee England, not only Cecily but Jemima would be in the carriage.

“Cecily cannot face backward, and I also tend to become ill if I must. Our maid should be along. How do you propose to join our group,” Althea daringly inquired.

Jemima gave a dismissing wave of her hand. “The maid could travel with the baggage and other paraphernalia that must be carried with you…us,” she concluded with triumph. “I will be happy to face the rear as I am never ill when traveling.”

Her final hope shot down, Althea looked again at her father. He had the grace to look uncomfortable, yet Althea could see that indecision, that torn expression in his eyes.

“I fancy I could make the arrangements for you—letters of credit you will need, a courier to arrange housing for you as you travel. My secretary can handle the countless details, for I believe he once acted tutor on a similar trip.

“Then I may go?” Althea said, hoping against hope that he would allow her to go with Cecily and not Jemima.

“The three of you ought to have a splendid time,” he said firmly. “You do realize it will take many months? Perhaps upward to a year?”

“Yes,” Althea said with a narrow look at Jemima, “I am aware of that fact.” Then she said to the usually doleful woman, “Surely you’d not wish to be away from Beatrice all that time? Think of missing baby William’s first steps.”

Now it was Jemima who looked torn and indecisive. Then some notion must have hit her for she suddenly finned her mouth before saying, “I believe it to be my duty to go along with you. It is unseemly for two young women to go alone.”

Althea might have questioned Jemima’s wisdom but for another glance at her father’s face. He looked so wistful she had not the heart to deprive him of time alone with his Beatrice.

Jemima it would be.

“Well, then, we had all better do some planning. Before I take off for the shops, I must make lists of what we will need.” Althea finished her toast and tea, then rose from the table while awaiting her father’s final words on the subject. “Could Mr. Pursey be available to us soon, Papa?”

“Pursey will no doubt be very pleased to assist you. You will have more lists in hand than you bargained for, I daresay.” He finally succeeded in retreating behind his newspaper when Althea and Cecily swept from the room.

Jemima gave her relatives a narrow look, then determinedly applied herself to an ample breakfast. One never knew what would be available in foreign parts.

* * * *

“Of all the horrid things to happen,” Althea whispered to Cecily when they were in the relatively safe confines of Althea’s room. Neither trusted the servants, who had all been hired by the new mistress and knew where to place their loyalty.

“Drat Jemima, anyway,” Cecily muttered as she crossed the room to stare out of the window across the rooftops of London. “Will the cities of Europe appear much different, I wonder,” she mused to Althea.

“We shall find out. Oh, Cecily, do you realize what is ahead of us? Even if we are plagued with Jemima, we shall have a splendid time of it. I shan’t allow her to dampen our journey with her sour-grape view of life.”

“Perhaps we may meet up with other English citizens while traveling—tall gentlemen.” Cecily gave Althea a teasing grin, her eyes sparkling with delight.

Althea stiffened as though struck by a dead fish. “I sincerely hope not. No complications, please.” She glanced at the door, wondering if someone was out there eavesdropping. “I was once called an Amazon by a so-called gentleman. It was not the most happy of occasions.”

Cecily giggled at the affronted expression on Althea’s face, then sobered. “I know it must have been dreadful for you, but think—were not the Amazon women reckoned to be most forbidding to men? While ‘tis true they were deemed tall, they were a force to be dealt with. Warriors, I believe. Perhaps that is how he viewed you?”

“I doubt it,” Althea replied, but recalled that odd expression that had lingered on his face as though he felt uneasy and somewhat perplexed at his reactions upon meeting her. She turned her attention to the tasks facing them, but ventured to say, “Should I take a bow and arrows along, do you think?” she said to Cecily, forgetting she had not followed along in Althea’s thoughts.

“Heavens, I should hope not,” Cecily cried, not caring if anyone heard her.

“Well, perhaps looks can kill as well,” Althea muttered as she pulled out another paper to begin her own list. “Let me see, now, we shall need some sturdy, yet attractive clothing in which to travel. It will not do to look provincial, yet we would not wish to appear too prosperous. And in addition to those letters of credit we must have some letters of introduction to influential people along the way. And I intend to cut my hair—for it will be easier to care for when short.”

“Have you considered our route, then?” Cecily asked with caution, knowing better than to argue with Althea on the matter of cutting hair.

“South through France to the Alps and across to Italy.”

“Italy,” Cecily echoed. “It seems a dangerous trip to take.”

“Oh, pooh. This is eighteen-sixteen. What could possibly happen?” The likelihood of meeting the man she detested crossed her mind, then was dismissed. Europe was an enormous area.