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Little Coquette

Little Coquette by Joan Smith
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Lydia Trevelyn and her neighbor, Lord Beaumont, have thwarted family plans for a match. But when they discover a body in a local river, and it seems possible the dead woman was her father’s mistress, the two join forces to discover the villain who has murdered the young woman. Beau is intrigued when Lydia pretends to be one of the muslin company…

Regency Romance by Joan Smith; originally published by Fawcett Crest

Belgrave House; July 1998
ISBN 9780449001530
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Title: Little Coquette
Author: Joan Smith

“I wonder how poor Horace Findley is bearing up since his Alice died,” Lady Trevelyn said, peering at the embroidery pattern recently purchased from Mr. Wilks of Regent Street. She was a devotee of the new fad for Berlin wool-work.

The project on which she was presently embarked was a canvas to be framed and hung in Sir John’s study. It depicted a scene from Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering. In it, young Harry Bertram had been kidnapped and carried to Holland, which allowed the picture to include masses of tulips and a windmill. So pleased was Lady Trevelyn with her execution of the flowers that she was inclined to omit Harry from the scene.

“Such good neighbors the Findleys have always been. I ought to visit Horace more often,” she said, “but then one would not want to cause talk, calling too frequently on a widower.”

It would take an active imagination to cast Lady Trevelyn in the role of seductress. Her once pretty face was set in the rigid lines of propriety. The steel gray curls peering out from the edge of her cap might have been fashioned by a blacksmith. Her spreading girth was tightly compacted into a gown of puce lutestring, which was her notion of gaiety to welcome spring. In winter she wore black.

“Mr. Findley seems to be bearing up well,” her daughter replied. Lydia Trevelyn’s appearance was strikingly different from her mama’s. The classical lineaments of her face, her intelligent gray eyes and black hair, even her willowy frame were all inher­ited from her papa’s side of the family. At eighteen years she was in her prime. The flaw that marred an otherwise unexceptionable young lady was a ten­dency to willfulness.

She did not indulge in embroidery, watercolors, flower arranging, or any of the customary feminine pastimes. Papa’s sister, her aunt Nessie, had given her a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman for Christmas. Lydia had read it with a sense of revelation. At the beginning of the new year, she had exchanged her needle for a cudgel. She now had confirmation of what she always suspected, that ladies’ inferior position in society was due to their lack of education, and she determined on the spot to improve her mind.

It was not to the classics of the Greeks and Romans that she applied herself, but to the daily journals. Her father, Sir John, had inculcated the notion that his own sphere, politics, was what made the world go round.

She pored over incomprehensible political arti­cles, hoping that one day they would become clear to her. As her papa was now at home suffering from gout, she took every opportunity to quiz him. She was beginning to get a grasp on the Corn Laws. Her next object was the Holy Alliance, which appeared to have more to do with politics than religion.

“A pity Horace has no son,” Lady Trevelyn con­tinued. “I am happy to say I gave your papa a son, Lydia. It is a wife’s duty in marriage to give her hus­band a son and heir.”

“Yes indeed! It would be a great pity if a daughter were to inherit anything,” Lydia replied.

Her mama heard the words but failed to recognize the sarcasm. “A tragedy,” she said. “Mind you, daughters have their place. How else is the world to go on if gentlemen have no one to marry? If a young lady has the good fortune to marry a fortune and title, then a son is her foremost, one might almost say her only, concern.”

“Like a brood mare,” Lydia murmured.

“No need to bring the barnyard into a polite saloon, my dear. We are speaking of ladies and gentlemen—and marriage.”

The sharp look that accompanied this speech was a tacit reminder of the excellent title and fortune up for grabs at the neighboring estate, Pontneuf Chase, where the dashing Marquess of Beaumont had yet to bestow his title and worldly goods on a damsel. Who more fitting than his neighbor? And really, how else was Lydia to be bounced off, when she refused to be presented in London as she ought? As to calling the Marriage Mart a human cattle auction! It was too bad of Sir John to let Lydia wrap him around her finger. He had acquiesced so easily, one would almost think he did not want Lydia and her­self in London.

That Lady Trevelyn did not want to endure the commotion of a Season was beside the point. She would have gone if Sir John had insisted. Of course, Nessie could have handled all the details of the pre­sentation. She was good at that sort of thing, whereas Lady Trevelyn would have been out of her depth. After having presented her husband with the requisite son and a daughter, she had retired to Trevelyn Hall while Sir John spent most of the year in London, where he was a distinguished member of the Tory government. The arrangement suited them both down to the heels.

“I must see to your papa’s posset,” she said, set­ting aside her canvas and woolen threads with a sigh. “He is suffering so with his gout. You know how he hates to miss a day in the House. He is like a bear after losing a whole week. I hope he is well enough to return soon. Why don’t you go out for a walk, Lydia? You are looking peaky. It is what comes of living with your nose stuck in a journal. Ladies have no need to read such heavy stuff. It brings on wrinkles.” She scanned her daughter’s face for signs of this tragedy.

Lydia had no objection to escaping into the sun­shine of a warm spring morning. She decided to take her fishing rod down to the river that formed a border between Trevelyn Hall and Pontneuf Chase and try to catch that big trout that had eluded her papa for five years now, and herself for the two months since she had decided she would fish, since it was frowned upon for ladies. As her mama would either rant or cry at such unladylike doings, Lydia took the precaution of leaving her rod in the gar­dener’s shed. Martin, the head gardener, would attach the bait for her. That was one masculine perquisite she was not eager to assume.

“After Old Finny again, are you, Miss Lydia?” he asked, handing her the rod. He ought to have called her Miss Trevelyn, but Lydia’s quest for fair treat­ment extended beyond ladies to include all the oppressed. If a faithful old retainer wished to call her Miss Lydia, who was she to object?

“I’ll catch the rascal yet, Martin,” she replied, watching as he attached a fly to the hook.

“Mind you don’t scratch yourself,” he cautioned, and wrapped a leaf around the baited hook to pre­vent an accident.

Lydia usually resented being spoken to as if she were a child or an idiot, but she accepted Martin’s admonition without comment, as she knew he meant well. She tipped the rod over her shoulder and scampered down the grassy slope to the river. Pontneuf River was more like an overgrown stream than a river. It had a pretty humpbacked bridge that joined Lord Beaumont’s acres to her papa’s. It was from the bridge that she usually fished. She removed the leaf from the hook, cast her line into the water, and began to reel it in.

She didn’t really like fishing, especially when she accidentally caught a slimy old fish with its mouth open. In fact, she did not much enjoy reading the hard news either. At such moments of quiet reflec­tion as this, at peace with nature, she had an unset­tling notion that gentlemen’s lives were not all they were cracked up to be. Her own papa worked so very hard, he was hardly ever home.

As the sun glinted over the surface of the stream, she reviewed for per­haps the hundredth time what was to become of her. She would not inherit Trevelyn Hall. That would go to her brother, Tom, after Papa’s death. Tom was attending university. He had been invited to spend a holiday with a fellow student in Devonshire. Lord Henry Haversham had two well-dowered sisters, which was why Mama had not only allowed the visit but encouraged it.

Lydia would inherit her mama’s ten thousand dowry. Ten thousand, while it might buy a respectable husband, was hardly enough for her to live on her own in the style she was accustomed to. Yet she would not consider living at the Hall after Tom mar­ried, under his thumb—and his wife’s.

She wanted to engage in some meaningful work in any case, not fritter her life away, but the careers open to ladies were so few and so demeaning and so poorly paid that she had no taste for them. In her youthful idealism, she envisaged herself a famous philanthropist, helping the needy. Wrapped up in her dreams, she did not see the gentleman has­tening down the bank on the other side of the river.

Lord Beaumont saw her, however, and was careful to avoid the bridge where Lydia stood. It annoyed him that a female had invaded this mascu­line preserve. It was his favorite spot for being alone. Sometimes he indulged in Chinese fishing with no bait on his hook, just sitting, dangling a line in the water, thinking about life. He had taken his seat in the House that spring and was beginning to think seriously about this business of governing the masses.

He threw his curled beaver and blue superfine jacket aside and fished from his own bank, con­cealed by a thorn bush. Hot from the London Season, he was not impressed by Lydia’s provincial charms. Her hair was dark and modestly arranged. He preferred a fashionable riot of blond curls. He had never noticed what color her eyes were but he knew she didn’t manage them in the artful way the ladies in London did. While she was handsome enough, she was too prudish to suit him. No idea how to flirt. She had snapped his head off at the assembly Saturday evening. She had been com­plaining of the heat and he suggested in the kindest way possible that she might like to try the dampened gowns that were the latest craze in London.

“You might like to try wearing a wet shirt and see how comfortable it is,” she had snapped at him.

He didn’t blame Sir John for virtually living apart from his wife. Only thing to do with a harridan like Lady Trevelyn. The on dit in London was that his mistress was a charming redhead.

Beaumont felt a jerk on the end of his line and moved to the bank’s edge to reel in his catch. The weight told him he had caught a whopper. His rod bent under the force of it. In his excitement, he cried out, “I’ve hooked Old Finny!”

Lydia looked up and saw him, straining to reel in the trout. Without thinking, she hooked her own line under a strut of the bridge railing, hiked up her skirt, and ran toward Beaumont. Old Finny was a legend. If Beau had really caught him, it would be as great a marvel as finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or winning the state lottery. As she ran toward him, she noticed the rod was not jumping as it would if he had a large fish on the end of his line. There was tension on it all right, but it was a deadweight.

“You’ve got your hook caught on a sunken log,” she said, in that condescending manner that set his teeth on edge.

By this time, Beaumont realized his catch was not putting up much of a fight, but he disliked to be told it by a mere chit. He was sorry he’d let her know he was there. “No, it’s moving.”

“You’re going to break your rod. Why don’t you cut the line?”

He bit back the childish retort “Why don’t you mind your own business?” and said grimly, “It’s coming in, whatever it is. Weighs a ton.”

“Probably a fallen branch.”

“There’s a legend of buried treasure in this river. Some ancestor threw a chest of gold coin into the river to hide it from Cromwell’s men.”

Lydia lifted an eyebrow and said dismissively, “That old chestnut! The water is not deep enough. It’s only eighteen inches in late summer.”

With the excitement of catching Old Finny dissi­pating, Lydia just watched Beaumont reel in what­ever tree stump or debris he had hooked. Her mama had been puffing this neighbor off as a prime catch since Lydia first let down her skirts, and her aver­sion to him had grown apace. She suspected that Beaumont’s mama held the same cherished dream as her own, which would account for his aversion to her. In the old days, they had been as friendly as the eight-year disparity in their ages allowed.

She acknowledged that he was handsome, rich, and titled. There was no arguing with facts. His six-foot frame was broad shouldered, well muscled, long legged. Sunlight gleamed on bluish black hair so care­fully barbered, it sat like a silken cap on his head, with one little lock tumbling over his brow to ruin the elegant effect. A straight nose and rugged jaw lent masculinity to his finely chiseled face. His eyes, she knew, were a deep, inky blue, with long eye­lashes like a lady’s. She decided it was his looks and eligibility that gave him that overbearing, conde­scending air that so annoyed her.

“I would cut the line if I were you,” she repeated, and turned to leave.

“It’s coming—I’ve got it!” he exclaimed, and began reeling in his line more easily, but the deadweight was still attached, arching the pole until it was in danger of breaking. The muscles of his broad shoul­ders and strong arms firmed and bulged with the effort.

Lydia watched, unimpressed, and waited, ready to say “I told you so.” A sodden jacket was the first thing to surface. It was impossible to tell its original color. It now looked black.

“Someone lost his coat,” she said. Before she could have her laugh, a bonnet bobbed up. It had once been an elegant chapeau. Its high poke drooped, but one could still determine its original shape and color. Red—hardly a lady’s color. The feathers were waterlogged and bedraggled, which did not conceal either their length or excess of numbers.

“How strange!” she cried, staring at Beaumont as a shiver scuttled up her spine. She was familiar with all the stylish bonnets in the parish. She had never seen this one before. Beaumont was frowning at it and still reeling as hard as he could. The bonnet moved sluggishly, then slowly turned over. Beneath the gliding water, a ghastly white face appeared, with its eyes open and its mouth wide, as if frozen in a cry of anguish.

“Oh my God!” she gasped, and turned as pale as the face in the water. She quickly averted her gaze, then slowly turned back to see if she recognized the woman. She had never seen her before. Beaumont waded into the water up to the edges of his top boots to haul the body out by the shoulders. The head fell back like a rag doll’s. He laid the corpse carefully on the grass and arranged the dripping skirts around the black kid slippers.

“Do you know her?” he asked, staring in bewilder­ment at the awful spectacle on the ground.

Lydia was determined not to display any feminine weakness. Beaumont was behaving just as he ought, and she could do no less. She willed down a fit of nausea and forced herself to study the face. In a tightly controlled voice she said, “No, I have never seen her before. She is not from these parts. She hasn’t been in the water long. Who could she be?”

“I have no idea.”

Water dripped from the woman’s eyelashes and rolled down her cheeks, giving a ghoulish semblance of life, as if she were crying. “For goodness’ sake, can’t you cover her face?” Lydia said.

He drew out his handkerchief and placed it over the woman’s face. “I’ll stay here. You’d best go for help, Miss Trevelyn. My place is closer.”

She took one last look at the covered face and the bonnet, noticing the limp red hair that hung out beneath it in sodden clumps, before running up the hill on trembling legs.

Beaumont remained behind, wondering how a lightskirt had ended up in his river. When Lydia was gone, he lifted the handkerchief and studied the pale face. He didn’t recognize this woman, but he knew her calling by her clothes and the faint patches of rouge still visible on her pallid cheeks. Ladies did not wear red bonnets with such a super­fluity of gaudy feathers. They did not wear such low-cut gowns in the daytime, and it was a muslin afternoon frock the woman wore. The bonnet and slippers, all her toilette suggested she was dressed for afternoon. He guessed her age to be in the thir­ties. Not in the first blush of youth, but not hagged either. Her face was a pretty heart shape with a slightly retroussé nose. She must have been pretty when she was alive. The state of the remains suggested she had not been in the water for more than a day.

How had she come here? At least there was no sign of foul play. She had not been strangled or stabbed or beaten. She could not have come in a carriage or her driver would have reported her missing. The outfit, those kid slippers, said she had not ridden. Had she walked, stopped to look at the river, and slid down the bank? But the water was not deep enough to drown her. It was not over her head. Perhaps she had bumped her head? He hadn’t the stomach to remove her bonnet and examine her scalp. Let the sawbones do it. It was odd that her body had been so firmly lodged beneath the water. Almost as if some­one had tried to wedge her under a rock or sub­merged tree.

He looked down at the slippers and noticed the left one was badly scraped, the silk stocking torn. How was it possible, if she had accidentally fallen in? Per­haps she had not died here at all, but her body may have been brought here to conceal it. But why? If he had not happened to catch his hook in her jacket, she might have remained there for weeks or months, even years, until any hope of identifying her was gone.

He was sorry Miss Trevelyn had been exposed to such a horrific discovery. Not that she had seemed very upset. Any normal lady would have pitched herself into his arms, sobbing and swooning, but not that cold wench. “She hasn’t been in the water long,” she had said, as if it were a dead fish she was look­ing at and not a woman. Who could she be?

His gaze drifted across the river, to the soaring walls of Trevelyn Hall. Sir John’s mistress was said to be a redhead. No, it was impossible. The poor girl was some transient who had met with a mishap. It was ridiculous to think for a minute that this was his neighbor’s mistress. What the devil would she be doing here? Although it was odd that Sir John had been home for a week....