“I don’t suppose you would consider marrying me, would you?” Antonia Barnett asked in a hopeful voice.
“I’d rather throw myself in the Serpentine,” said Richard Keane. “You know I’d die a thousand deaths for you, old girl. Getting leg-shackled, however, is out of the question.”
She tried to work up a grumpy response, but Richard was her dearest chum, and she’d known him for so long that it was difficult to see anything but friendship between them. Besides, she was no great beauty, small and skinny to the point of angularity. Those characteristics served her well in certain circumstances, yet were decidedly detrimental when casting lures for a mate.
“You could do worse,” she said, “especially since I’m rich.”
“Confound it, Tony, keep your voice down,” Richard hissed, glancing toward the front of the supper box. “My mother would love for us to get riveted. She’s like a dog with a bone on the subject. I’ll never hear the end of it if you start up again.”
Rebecca Keane was sitting nearby with Antonia’s mother, eating Vauxhall’s paltry excuse for a supper and engaging in animated conversation.
Antonia’s father, as usual, stood and kept a watchful eye on the occupants of the other boxes and the crowds strolling along the colonnaded walks of the Grove. Papa had never been a fan of Vauxhall Gardens. He was convinced that it was a den of thieves, drunks, rakes, and prostitutes, all scheming to take advantage of respectable women like his wife and daughter.
He wasn’t entirely wrong, as Antonia had personally witnessed. But unlike her father, she loved Vauxhall, with its wide avenues and groves of trees glittering in the light of thousands of colorful glass lanterns. If Papa ever found out that she and Richard occasionally snuck off to spend evenings strolling those groves and peeking into secluded grottos, he would have an apoplectic fit.
As far as Antonia was concerned, parents were best kept in the dark about potential areas of conflict. It made life easier for all concerned.
“Our mothers can’t hear us,” she replied. “Not over the din of the orchestra. Why they must play an endless stream of military marches is beyond me. I can barely hear myself think.”
“They’re practicing for next week’s celebrations to commemorate our great victory at Waterloo.”
Antonia scoffed. “The Prince Regent is no doubt more concerned with celebrating his birthday than the end of the war. If there’s anything Prinny loves it’s a good party.”
The next few weeks would see a veritable orgy of balls, concerts, and fireworks to honor both the defeat of Napoleon and the Regent’s birthday. Many of the events would be held at Vauxhall Gardens. Like Prinny himself, the festivities were bound to be overblown, gaudy, and ridiculously extravagant.
The fact that they would undoubtedly be a great deal of fun too meant Antonia had every intention of attending as many as she could, even if it meant telling a few white lies to her parents. Top on her list was the prizefight rumored to take place a few days after the masked ball. While such fights were thoroughly illegal and no place for a lady, that simply made her all the more determined to attend—although certainly not as a lady.
“Maybe you’ll meet some new suitors during the celebrations,” Richard said. “Bound to be some fellow who will take a shine to you.”
“Richard, I’ve been on the Marriage Mart for three years, and we all know I’m an abject failure. It would take a miracle of monumental proportions to change that.”
Her friend’s gaze warmed with sympathy. “Is that why you came up with that cracked brain idea to marry me?”
“You must admit it would solve more than a few problems. Papa would stop worrying about me, and your mother would be deliriously happy. We could eventually run Nightingale Trading together, and we’d be as rich as King Solomon.”
“You mean you’d be rich as Solomon. My father is a minority partner, remember?”
“No matter. As my husband, you’d control my fortune. One day you’d be the head of everything.”
Everything would include one of the most influential trading companies in England. Under normal circumstances, Antonia should be a considerable prize as a result. Her circumstances, however, were anything but normal.
“Sorry, old gal, it’s still not enough to tempt me,” Richard said. “Besides, you’d bully me unmercifully. We both know you have a better head for business than I do.”
“Nonsense, you’re very good with numbers, just like your father. You’d be splendid running Nightingale Trading.”
“Not as splendid as you. And your father would make me walk the plank before he allowed us to marry. Only a rich aristocrat will do for his darling daughter, as he’s made abundantly clear.”
“Yes, and look how well it’s worked out,” she said gloomily. “It’ll be a miracle if anyone wants to marry me after last week’s incident.”
“Were you talking about marriage, my dear?” interjected Mrs. Keane, who’d obviously been eavesdropping. She smiled archly at Antonia’s mother. “I have said a thousand times that my son and your daughter would make the perfect match. After all, they are such good friends.”
“Yes, so good they are like brother and sister,” Mamma replied with a twinkle in her beautiful blue eyes.
“True enough, Mrs. Barnett,” Richard said with a grateful smile. “And we’d probably kill each other after a week, anyway, so there’s that.”
“Nonsense,” huffed Mrs. Keane. “Everyone knows friendship is the best foundation for marriage. Antonia and you are well-suited in all respects.”
Antonia’s father had been lounging against a railing at the front of the box, but Mrs. Keane’s brassy voice caught his attention. “We’ve discussed this more than once, Rebecca. As estimable as Richard is, he and Antonia are not suited for each other.”
Richard gave a dramatic shudder. “Can’t think of anything more dismal, actually.”
“Richard Keane!” his mother exclaimed. “What a terrible thing to say about your dearest friend.”
“He’s probably right, Mrs. Keane,” Antonia said, wrinkling her nose. “And his opinion is generally shared by everyone on the Marriage Mart. I suspect I’m doomed for spinsterhood.”
“Nonsense, darling,” Mamma said. “Everyone thinks you’re lovely.”
“And if they don’t, they’ll have me to answer to,” Papa said in a stern tone.
Antonia’s father was a tall, broad-shouldered man in his early forties. Rugged and imposing, his over-protective manner towards his only child—while endearing—was yet another impediment to her quest to find a suitable husband.
“I believe Lord Totten discovered that when you tossed him into the pond at Green Park,” she said.
“I didn’t toss him,” Papa said in a defensive tone. “I just gave him a little push. He insulted you, and I won’t have that.”
The viscount had simply made a veiled reference to Antonia’s eye color, an unusual golden-amber and the exact match of her father’s. Normally, one might take such a remark as a compliment. And given that she was rather ordinary looking, they counted as her best feature.
But though she’d inherited Papa’s eyes, he was technically her stepfather. Antonia’s parents had been childhood sweethearts and then young lovers until tragically separated by unfeeling relatives. Papa had been thrown out on his ear without a shilling, while Mamma had been hastily pushed into marriage with a wealthy baronet. Convinced the love of his life had abandoned him, Papa had set sail for the Americas, where he’d made his fortune in shipping.
Mamma had been forced to pretend she’d become pregnant by her new husband, not Anthony Barnett. Eventually, Sir Richard Paget had deduced Antonia was another man’s child. While he’d been decent enough to go along with the charade until he died, Sir Richard had never shown a scrap of affection to either his wife or Antonia.
When she was a little girl, she had always wondered why her father didn’t like her, and she’d never been able to shake the sensation that the fault rested with her.
A few short weeks after her twelfth birthday, Captain Anthony Barnett returned to London, seeking revenge against the woman he was convinced had betrayed him. To say he’d been stunned when he first set eyes on Antonia was an understatement. It had been a shock for her, too. All the questions of her life had been answered in the moment when she gazed into the eyes of the man who was obviously her real father.
Matters had been fraught for a day or two, but eventually Papa accepted that Mamma had been trying to protect everyone by her deception. They had married almost immediately, and Papa had adopted Antonia. To avoid scandal, they still pretended he was only her stepfather, and the polite world mostly went along with the fiction.
After all, Papa was very rich.
But only a particularly credulous person could fail to notice that they shared the same unusual eye color, not to mention, for all intents and purposes, a first name. It had the unfortunate effect of making Antonia less than respectable, and sometimes even the object of unfeeling gossip. She only gave a fig when Papa did something like tossing a would-be suitor into a pond.
“Lord Totten was just making an observation,” she said.
“One that has been made numerous times over the years,” Mamma reminded him. “I would think you’d be used to it by now, Anthony.”
“I will never grow used to anyone insulting my daughter. Or you, for that matter,” he said, taking his wife’s hand. “Anyone who does will regret it.”
When he gallantly kissed the inside of her wrist, Mamma blushed. Mrs. Keane giggled and fluttered her handkerchief like a debutante. Although Antonia rolled her eyes, it was hard not to admire her parents. They were like characters out of a novel—larger than life, with a love to match.
“Lord Totten certainly came to regret it,” she said.
“He caught a dreadful cold,” Mamma said ruefully. “His poor mother told me it was quite a violent taking.”
Antonia sighed. She’d rather liked Lord Totten, despite his occasionally smirking attitude. At least he made an effort to speak with her.
“That’s ridiculous,” her father protested. “He barely got wet.”
“He got soaked. The point is, Papa, if you keep threatening the few suitors I have, I’ll be an old maid in no time.”
She had yet to receive a decent offer in three years. There’d been a few young men who’d proposed, but it was clear they simply wanted her fortune. Antonia would never be so desperate as to accept an offer from a man whose only interest was in the state of her purse, not the state of her heart.
“I only threaten the ones who don’t respect you,” Papa said. “Nor am I responsible for the fact that most men are buffoons. You are exceedingly smart and nice, and you’re the prettiest girl in London. You take after your mother, so it’s no wonder.”
Antonia wasn’t a patch on her gorgeous mother. Still, Papa believed every word he said. It was terribly sweet of him, of course, but also painful because she was letting him down.
Richard poked her in the arm. “He’s right, Tony. After all, you’re lots of fun, and you never nag a fellow. You’ll make a splendid wife.”
“Just not for you,” she joked. “Or did I get that wrong?”
Mrs. Keane leapt in like an acrobat. “Of course my son would love to marry you. Just name the day, my dear.”
“Confound it,” Richard muttered.
“I repeat, Antonia and Richard do not suit,” Papa said to Mrs. Keane. “And your husband agrees with me.”
The older woman snorted. “As if Simon would ever disagree with anything you said. You quite dominate him.”
“I do nothing of the sort. I simply explain things in a rational manner, and then Simon agrees with me.”
They all rolled their eyes. Papa and Mr. Keane were partners and great friends, but no one doubted who ruled the roost at Nightingale Trading. Antonia’s father was a force of nature, always convinced he knew best. The fact that he was usually correct didn’t make the characteristic any less annoying.
Mamma tapped him on the arm. “Dearest, there’s Mr. Woods. Did you not say the other day that you needed to speak with him?”
Much to everyone’s relief, her intervention worked.
“I do. Thank you for the reminder,” Papa said, waving to his friend.
He was soon engaged in business discussions with Mr. Woods, while Mamma and Mrs. Keane resumed their chat about the latest fashions.
Richard pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. “Crisis averted. Don’t joke about us getting married, Tony. It’s not worth it.”
Antonia shook her head. “I’m going to have to do something about Papa. He simply won’t give up trying to marry me off, and he’s awful at it. Nothing Mamma and I say makes a difference.”
“Because it’s become a matter of pride for him.”
“His or mine?”
He grinned. “His, obviously. You don’t have any pride. Your father, however, won’t be satisfied with anything less than a duke for you.”
“I’d be lucky to snag a knight, given the gossip about my birth and the fact that Papa is a merchant.”
“True, but he’s a filthy rich merchant. That has to count for something.”
“Not so far.”
“Oh, I don’t know. There’s a fellow who seems very interested in you. He’s been staring like anything for the last several minutes.”
Antonia couldn’t help perking up. “Really?”
“He’s just to the left, first box over.”
The supper boxes at Vauxhall lined three sides of the Grove. Papa had managed to secure one near the end of a row, giving them a good vantage point for watching the festivities. Unfortunately, the crowd now milling about in front of the orchestra pavilion partly obstructed her view, forcing Antonia to crane sideways around her mother to see.
When she saw what Richard meant, she almost toppled over in shock.
There was a man staring at her, and with an intensity she felt in the pit of her stomach. He was big and broad-shouldered and looked rather menacing, even though he lounged informally, one booted foot propped up on the rail in front of him. His hair was dark and cut ruthlessly short, and a scar ran down the side of his face. Starkly garbed in unadorned black, but for a snowy white cravat and a gold hoop that dangled from one ear, he resembled nothing so much as a pirate. A dramatically handsome, even elegant, pirate.
She hastily retreated, her heart banging like mad. “If he’s staring at me in particular, it’s not with admiration. He looks like he wants to hang me from the nearest yardarm.”
Richard leaned forward to take another look. “That’s not how I would describe it.”
She frowned. “Then how would you describe it?”
“If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.”
“You are so annoying. Do you have any idea who he is?”
“Can’t say that I do. He’s not the sort I would likely forget.”
“Indeed not. He looks like a buccaneer.”
“Or a highwayman.”
“Maybe it’s a costume, and he got the dates mixed up,” she said. “The masked ball isn’t until later in the week.”
Richard snorted. “Any self-respecting man would go home and change rather than prance around dressed up like a confounded pirate.”
She peeked out again. The man was still staring at her with unnerving intent. Still, it was rather exciting. Men usually only stared at her if she’d done something clumsy or they were gossiping about her murky parentage.
Antonia tapped her mother’s shoulder. “Do you know why that gentleman is staring at us?”
Mamma gave her a distracted glance. “I imagine it’s because you look especially pretty tonight, my dear.”
Her father, having just said farewell to Mr. Woods, turned with a concerned expression. “Is someone bothering you, pet? Point him out this instant.”
“No one is bothering me. I simply wondered about that man in the box at the end of the row. He seems quite interested in me. Um, in us, I mean.”
“Where exactly—” Her father fell silent as he stared the mysterious gentleman.
“Do you know him?” Antonia prompted.
“Yes, and he’s not staring at you,” Papa said. “He’s staring at me.”
“Oh. That’s a relief, I suppose. I see he’s sitting with Mr. Steele. You know him, do you not?”
Her father’s sharp gaze whipped back to her. “Antonia, how do you know Steele?”
She mentally winced, since she wasn’t supposed to know people like Griffin Steele. Not that she personally knew the former crime lord, but she’d seen him more than once at Vauxhall during her secret excursions with Richard.
“I saw him at Gunter’s a few weeks ago. He was with his wife, having ices.” That, at least, was the truth. “Richard pointed him out to me,” she added, trying to sound innocent.
Papa frowned. “And how does Richard know who he is?”
Richard’s eyes grew round. “Ah…”
“Goodness, everyone knows Mr. Steele,” Mamma said, coming to their rescue. “He’s entirely respectable now that he’s married.”
“That is a matter of opinion,” Papa said. “I certainly don’t see him as fit company for our daughter, as is evidenced by the confounded blighter who’s with him.”
“And exactly who is the, er, blighter?” Antonia asked. “And why is he staring at you with such a ferocious expression?”
“Probably because he wants to gut me. And that is exactly what I wish to do to him.” With that trenchant remark, her father stalked out and headed toward Mr. Steele’s box.
Mamma let out a long-suffering sigh. “That dramatic-looking man must be one of your father’s business rivals.”
“If he is, they’re certainly not friendly rivals,” Antonia said.
As one of the most successful traders in England, Papa had plenty of competitors and even a few outright enemies. He was more than capable of handling anyone who challenged him, but this man seemed different.
Mrs. Keane looked worried. “Anthony appears to be extremely annoyed. I do hope they don’t get into a fight.”
Mamma rose from the table. “I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding. In any case, Anthony would never start a brawl in public—especially after I remind him of that.”
“I’ll go, Mamma,” Antonia said, jumping up.
“Certainly not.” Her mother made a grab for her.
Antonia deftly evaded her. “Don’t worry. I won’t start any brawls, either.”
Unless, that is, the mystery man threatened her father. Then he’d have Antonia Barnett to deal with, too.