April 29, 1780
Berkeley Square, London
I will give it some thought, Admiral, but your daughter is nigh thirty and I need a countess who has better childbearing odds.
I understand your position, Commander, but with your history, you may not have a choice.
According to Elliott’s mother, he thought wearily as he relaxed back in his desk chair long after his interview with Admiral Lord Hylton, one always had a choice.
She was a very bright little girl, astonishingly bright, in fact. It’s possible her mind could be rehabilitated, but even if it is not, her madness cannot be passed on.
That was of some comfort, provided the woman could bear children at all. And tupping her—
Tavendish, please, I beg you, take care of my daughter.
He sighed. Well, that was what darkness was for.
The sounds of women returning after their first evening of Society rounds wafted up to him and he looked at the clock. Two in the morning. He had spent hours crafting the speech he intended to give on the House floor in the morning, and still was not entirely happy with it.
He began putting away his writing tools, losing himself in the soothing routine of it, and thought of Fury and her rituals. He was just finishing when the sharp rap of knuckles on the door startled him.
“Who’s there?” he barked.
He sighed. “Come.”
She swept into the library, this decidedly not-hoydenish sister of his, in a dressing gown, her hair in a braid that fell over her shoulder. She, like the rest of them save Sophie, had raven hair that gleamed iridescent blue in the right light, complimented by ice blue eyes set in a pale face that would tan nicely if ever exposed to the sun.
She plopped down in the chair across from Elliott’s desk. He watched whilst she arranged her gown and fussed with her hair. His eyes narrowed when he saw a bit of red around her eyes.
“You’ve been crying.”
She stopped fidgeting and her mouth tightened.
“And you want to tell me why, but you’re embarrassed.”
“I was rebuffed by a man at Lady Spiffly’s ball tonight and everyone saw,” she muttered. “I’ll be a laughingstock by morning and we have only been here two days.”
Elliott’s eyebrow rose. Who would rebuff Camille? The girl was utterly fetching. And on top of that, charming, intelligent, and gracious. “Clearly the man is not in his right mind. Who was it?”
“Lord Covarrubias.” Elliott choked but she continued angrily, “’Tis Mother’s fault. She would not be happy with me until I signaled some interest, which, I will have you know, is nonexistent. He saw me acting the coquette, as did everyone else, and gave me the Cut Direct.”
Elliott grimaced, but she was not finished.
“And then Mother—who did not notice this—practically begged one of her old friends to introduce him to me and perhaps suggest he dance with me. Mother has no idea why her friend gave her the Look.” Here she demonstrated said Look. “Elliott, I am positively mortified.”
With that Look, he could see why. “Condolences,” he murmured with not a hint of amusement. Covarrubias was a tastemaker and his repudiation of a beautiful, wealthy Raxham girl would only make both Elliott and Camille more difficult to marry off than they already were.
Yet another thing for which he could hold the man responsible.
“Elliott, you must bring Mother under control. She has no idea what she has done.”
No, she wouldn’t.
She had not been in Society since Elliott’s arrest.
She had not been able to walk since the accident that had killed his father and brother, but everyone at home was accustomed to her chair; thus, she was unaware how unwelcome it would be to the ton.
And the years before that had seen her a beautiful, lively, scandalous Frenchwoman whose balls and routs were guaranteed to be a crush.
It would not have occurred to her that her standing in the haute ton had changed.
“What makes you think I can bring Mother to heel?” he muttered bitterly.
He was shocked when she stared at him in confusion. “You’re the earl,” she said simply.
Ah, so there was one person in his family who could grasp the concept. Excellent. His mouth pursed. “Do you know why she set her sights on Covarrubias?”
“Not him!” she cried. “She thinks I am so flighty I need any older, intelligent, and serious man to keep me in line. She has a list. In her estimation, a university professor who is also a count—in another country—would be ideal. It is not my fault I am flighty, but one would think the fact that I can speak French and German and Latin, and read the classics in the original Greek would disabuse her notions of my lack of intelligence, but no. In short, she thinks I’m stupid and need a keeper. Far away from her.”
Elliott sat through this tirade stunned.
“Lord Covarrubias was just the first one on that list who was at the ball, and Mother thinks I ought to be in raptures because he is also—so she says—handsome. But what good does that do me when God knows he is nearly on his deathbed.”
He barked a laugh. “He is not much older than I,” he said wryly.
Milly huffed and crossed her arms over her chest, staring at her knees with a pout. “He was dancing attendance on Miss Idiot all evening. There is talk he is the Lord Hylton’s top choice for her hand, and Mother was simply green that a man of his wit and beauty—that’s what she said—would choose an ugly old simpleton over me when my settlement is the same as hers.”
That might explain why the admiral was pressing Elliott to take the girl’s hand.
“Further!” she exclaimed, popping out of her chair to pace his sitting room. “She thinks I ought to apply myself to being more like Lucy. Lucy! Can you imagine? Lucy got swept away in a grand passion—” Here she clasped both hands to her bosom and released an overexaggerated melancholic sigh. “—and found herself enceinte when she was seventeen, for God’s sake. And see how she is treated just because her lover married her and bribed the rector to back-date the marriage, after which she produced ten more children, and became the estate steward. Her Royal Highness Lucille, the Princess of Tavendish.”
Elliott’s eyebrows rose when Camille made a deep, sweeping curtsey.
“And then there’s Sophie,” she recommenced once she had finished with that display, “upon whom you’ve settled her entire dowry and an estate under her sole control once she reaches her majority. It does not matter she has made a spectacle of herself with those damned dogs because she is not flighty! Do you know how much I hate those damned dogs? They invade my chambers and destroy my things, which both Sophie and Mother think is just the most adorable thing. But oh, no, she is far more sensible than I because she wears breeches as Lucy does, rides and works in the stables, and is, in general, without a manner to her name. ‘Why can you not try to be a little more like Sophie, Camille?’ Lucy says to me. I have Mother in one ear and Lucy in the other, urging me to be exactly what I am not, which is completely unacceptable in Society in any event. I daresay Mama would fight you to the death if you attempted to settle me without a husband the way you’ve done for Sophie.”
“Do you not want a husband?” Elliott asked carefully after having realized that he might be looking at the perfect accomplice for the scheme he had been laying for weeks.
“Oh, yes,” she said amiably enough. Then she stopped to dig in her sleeve. “In fact—” And yet here she pulled out a rolled-up parchment and handed it to him. “I have made my own list of acceptable names. Pick any one of them for me and I’ll be happy.”
Elliott did not think he’d ever been more stymied by a woman in his life. And he was developing a megrim to prove it.
“Sit down and be quiet for a moment.”
She cast him a moue, but did as she was told. He unrolled the parchment to see, in a tidy hand, nine names listed, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each. So far as Elliott knew of them, they were all hardworking, upstanding heirs of dukes all the way down to baronets. Their fathers were well-liked and respected in the House of Lords. The boys were also, to the last one, a bit dim and entirely innocuous. Camille would be able to lead every one of them around by the nose—and possibly all at once.
He rubbed his mouth, not knowing whether to laugh or be dismayed. “Well, are you not the little schemer.”
“Not that anyone would credit me with it,” she snapped.
“Milly,” he ventured, “it’s true that you and I don’t know each other very well—”
“I know you well enough to know you cannot be entirely without sympathy for my plight, considering we share the same place in the family. Beleaguered middle son. Unappreciated middle daughter. ’Tis why I decided to confide in you. As fortunately for me as for Sophie, you are the earl, but more than that, you have pulled Mother and Lucy into line. I knew you would. And you seem far more sympathetic to a woman’s plight than any other male.” She said that as if it were a crime to be male. Elliott hid his smile. “I could never have approached Father or Flip with this and God only knows how Niall would react. You cannot know how I prayed for rescue from Mother’s attempts to keep me on her potter’s wheel. She disapproves of everything about me.”
Every one of Camille’s complaints was eerily similar to ones he had had since he returned.
“Milly, forgive my confusion. I gathered you were excited about your Season, the gowns, the dancing, the suitors paying homage and writing bad poetry to your ravishing beauty.”
She sneered at him. “How am I supposed to react when I know my duty is to marry for position and wealth? The only power I have in the matter is to arrange things so that the meager choices I do have will not be completely repugnant to me.”
“I see,” Elliott said slowly.
“I want to wed one of those men. I don’t care which. And preferably by the end of the Season so I don’t have to go home with Mama.”
“Well!” he said briskly. “You’ll not have to worry over Covarrubias, as I would never approve such a union, even if he were amenable.”
“But I don’t like these other fellows for you any more than I like Covarrubias.”
She gasped and now there were tears in her eyes. “Elliott . . . ” she whispered, devastated.
“No, listen to me. These boys are perfectly acceptable, I’m sure, but you would get very bored very quickly and bored wives of rich men find themselves in all sorts of trouble or sent to the country to rusticate permanently.” He almost laughed, remembering Croftwood’s description. “Not only that, but each one of them has a very managing mama. If you think our mother is overbearing . . . At least you know Mother loves you in her way and you do know how to manage her.”
She stared at him, horrified.
“Ah, you didn’t think of that, did you? And clearly, it doesn’t appeal. Excellent. I need more time to formulate a better plan or at least sift through the available males to find you a suitable husband. But we will delve into that later. For the nonce, I have a problem to solve, and I believe you are the perfect person to help me.”
“I’m too flighty and—and—and stupid to help people with their problems,” she muttered churlishly.
“And you will continue to allow people to think that, especially once you realize this will be a great deal of fun for both of us.”
“Fun?” she scoffed.
“You may find yourself out of favor come morning, but that remains to be seen. I am most assuredly out of favor, but I have need of information I can only get in the thick of Society.”
Her brow wrinkled. “What information?”
“Marquess Rathbone may be able to identify Captain Judas.”
Milly clapped her hands to her mouth, her eyes wide in horror.
“Aye, now you see. And you, my clever little sister, are going to help me find out who knows what about whom.”
He recalled the night he and his crew had sneaked aboard the Thunderstorm to cut off its figurehead. The same rush of grand, wicked mischief now suffused him.
He grinned slowly.
“If we are going to be out of favor, we shall make ourselves so outrageously out of favor we will be the toast of the Season.” He laughed at her expression of amused calculation. “Consider it a play within a play.”