“At least Denny and I didn’t wear real togas,” Kathleen Calvert said, as if that inane observation could forestall her impending doom.
“I think togas would have been terribly jolly,” Jeannie enthused.
“But not very practical,” Cara countered, as if they were having a perfectly normal conversation. “I’ve never understood how the Romans kept them on in the first place.”
It was sweet of Kathleen’s stepsisters to try to defend her from the storm of retribution headed her way. That storm went by the name of Helen, Lady Gorey. Kathleen’s stepmother was the bane of her existence.
Helen stared down her daughters before turning her icy glare on Kathleen. No one did icy better than Baroness Gorey. She never yelled or ranted, or disturbed one perfect hair on her perfect head. She simply buried one with cold contempt. This time, she would surely bury Kathleen as far out of sight as she could, and for as long as she could.
“Your persistent attempts to make light of your scandalous behavior are most distressing, Kathleen, especially for your poor father,” Helen said.
“Indeed, my dear child,” Papa began. “I do wish—”
“And one cannot begin to imagine the gossip,” Helen ruthlessly interrupted. “I doubt we will be able to leave the house for months.”
While that was a ridiculous assertion, it was true they were all but hiding out in the small back parlor. The inviting space was decorated with plump, chintz-covered armchairs, and a rather tatty velvet sofa piled high with cushions. Books, flowers, and needlework projects covered the tabletops. An easel with a half-completed landscape, along with a basket of sketching supplies, contributed to the cheerful atmosphere. Because the room’s cozy disorder offended Helen’s elegant soul, she rarely stepped foot inside, making it the sisters’ private domain.
This morning, though, was one of those rare occasions. The family was huddled around a mahogany tea table, as if preparing for an invasion by hostile forces, a fairly accurate description of Kathleen’s view of the ton.
Jeannie, sitting next to Kathleen on the sofa, snorted at her mother’s dramatic assessment. “It’s not as if Kath was dashing about with some loose screw, Mamma. It was just silly Denny Barlow, after all. His family practically lived next door to us in Ireland, and Denny is Kath’s best chum. Their race was just a bit of a rig.”
When Helen leveled her Medusa-like gaze on the sixteen-year-old, it was a miracle poor Jeannie didn’t turn to stone and splinter in a million pieces.
“I forbid you to use such dreadful cant, Jeannette. If you cannot behave with decorum, you will be sent to your room. Indefinitely.”
“But Mamma,” Jeannie protested. “It’s just that—”
Kathleen jumped in. “It’s just that I made a capital blunder this morning, and it doesn’t matter that I made it with Denny. It’s what I did that matters, not whom I did it with.”
“But you were just kicking up a lark,” Jeannie said. “You didn’t mean anything by it.”
Kathleen forced herself to say the words, for her sister’s sake. “It was still very wrong of me.”
Papa, sitting in an armchair near the fireplace, cast his wife a cautious but assessing glance. When he sighed, Kathleen’s heart sank. Her father rarely took Helen on, and today would run true to form.
“While I am pleased to hear you take responsibility,” he said, “it does not solve the problem, Kathleen. We must defer to your stepmother, since she has a better understanding of how this incident will be regarded by our friends and society at large.”
Cara, perched on a padded stool near her mother, grimaced. “Not well, I imagine.”
At nineteen, Cara already possessed a graceful maturity. Tall and willowy, with her mother’s blue eyes and wheat-blond hair, Cara had a gentle nature which, combined with her looks, had already won her several eligible suitors.
“That, my dear child, is an understatement,” Helen replied. “Really, to be racketing around at dawn on Hampstead Heath no less, with that ninny, Dennis Barlow. Your stepsister’s behavior is hardly to be comprehended.”
She laid her usual emphasis on that all-important qualifier, step, to emphasize the point that Kathleen was the wild Irish outsider and no true Gorey, as far as Helen was concerned.
Kathleen couldn’t help jabbing back. “Actually, Mother, it was more than racketing about. It was neck and neck, cracking the whip, just like the charioteers of ancient Rome. I’m sure we broke all sorts of speed records.”
In reality, it had been nothing more than a dash on a country road—corking good fun and a welcome escape from boredom. Thinking of it as a chariot race had simply been a silly jest between two old friends. But it might as well have been bread and circuses for the uproar it was already causing.
Jeannie flashed her an impish grin. “Did you stand up like charioteers, too?”
Kathleen was tempted to embellish but caught her father’s expression. “No, dear, we quite sensibly sat. After all, we didn’t wish to tip the carriages or injure the horses.”
She couldn’t blame poor Denny, who’d initially tried to wheedle her out of it. He’d never been able to refuse her challenges, going back when they were children in Ireland. Unlike Helen, Kathleen’s mother had never kicked up a fuss over their antics. Mamma had simply urged them not to hurt themselves before sending them back out to play in the woods and fields of Greystone Court, the Gorey family seat.
“I am fully aware of your actions,” Helen said, “since I received an unfortunately precise description from Mrs. Carling—who received an equally precise description from her son.”
Kathleen’s downfall had been the obnoxious Philip Carling and his equally obnoxious friend, Archibald Fenton. Those pair of idiots had been returning from a late night carouse somewhere out past the Heath. His mouth agape, Philip had pulled up his horse and taken a long look at Kathleen as she’d brought her phaeton to a halt. Then he’d promptly set heels to his unfortunate mare and galloped off, Archie drunkenly lurching along in his wake.
Cad that he was, Carling had immediately tattled to his mother. Mrs. Carling, one of the worst gossips in the ton, had promptly shot off a deliciously horrified note to her dear friend, Lady Gorey. Kathleen had barely managed to sneak back into the house before the hounds of hell were unleashed.
Stupid Philip and his stupid big mouth.
And stupid her, obviously.
“Philip Carling is no gentleman for carrying tales,” Papa said, surprising Kathleen. “A grown man gossiping to his silly mother. Ridiculous.”
Helen pressed a hand to the lace-trimmed bodice of her fashionable morning gown. “Olivia Carling is one of my dearest friends, my love. I share your opinion of Philip, naturally, but his deficiencies are hardly his mother’s fault. Philip’s father is far too indulgent of him. You, on the other hand, would never allow Richard to act in so disgraceful a fashion.”
Richard, Kathleen’s older brother and heir to the Gorey title, was spared this meeting by virtue of the fact that he was currently in Wiltshire, enjoying the hospitality of the Marquess of Bevington.
“Well, tut-tut, my dear,” Papa said.
“And Olivia was simply warning me,” Helen plaintively added. “This sort of incident always gets out, you know—”
“Thanks to her,” Kathleen interjected.
The fire from Helen’s gaze almost singed Kathleen’s side curls. But then her stepmother quickly regrouped and adopted an attitude both wounded and stoic, as if she were the one about to be socially martyred, not Kathleen.
“If you feel Olivia has overstepped, dear sir, I will convey that message. It will be vastly uncomfortable, but far be it from me to go against your wishes.”
Alarm flashed in Papa’s eyes. “Oh, I say, I don’t know a thing about managing society scandals. I leave that entirely in your hands, my love.”
As usual, Kathleen’s father had quickly capitulated to his wife.
No point in fretting about it.
“Well then, Papa, what must I do to atone for my crime?” she asked.
He tut-tutted again. “No need for dramatics, my dear. After all, it’s not as if our friends don’t realize you’re a bit…”
“Eccentric?” Kathleen wryly finished.
“Let’s say dashing,” he kindly replied.
Helen huffed an exasperated breath. “Kathleen’s conduct has gone beyond both dashing or eccentric. The impact of her behavior, particularly on Richard, could be disastrous.”
Papa frowned. “I do not follow, my dear.”
“We all have great hopes that Richard and Lord Bevington’s daughter will make a match of it,” Helen explained. “That is the reason for his trip, as you will recall.”
“There’s not much doubt of that,” said Kathleen. “Richard and Melinda have been making sheep’s eyes at each other for weeks. Denny said there’s even a bet at White’s about the impending betrothal.”
Helen looked like she’d swallowed a peach pit. “How distressing. May I remind you all that Lord Bevington has yet to give his approval to the match? He has extremely high standards, and the marchioness even more so. It is entirely possible that his lordship would refuse Richard’s offer if any scandal involving our family should surface.”
“Surely not,” Papa protested. “Richard and Melinda are extremely well-suited.”
“Melinda is not the sort to gainsay her parents.” Helen cast an ironic glance at Kathleen. “She is a good, obedient girl, and would never consent to marry a man without her father’s approval.”
Kathleen rolled her eyes. “That sounds rather chicken-hearted of her.”
“Mamma’s right,” Cara said. “Melinda does everything her parents tell her to do.”
Kathleen’s stomach plummeted right through the floorboards to the root cellar. “Truly?”
“I went to school with her. She’s very biddable.”
“And given Melinda’s excellent character and the size of her dowry,” Helen said, “I consider us fortunate that Lord Bevington is even willing to consider Richard’s suit.”
Kathleen bristled. “Hang on, now. Richard’s splendid. Melinda’s the lucky one, if you ask me.”
“No one asked you,” her father tartly put in.
He was clearly rattled by the reminder of the importance of the impending match. The Goreys weren’t pikers by any means, but Melinda’s family was exceedingly rich and influential. For Richard, who had political aspirations, the marriage would be a genuine coup.
“Sorry, Papa,” she muttered.
“Cara and Jeanette would also be affected,” Helen added. “If one daughter can behave so outrageously…”
“But I’m not even out till next spring,” Jeannie piped in.
“That won’t matter,” Helen impatiently said. “By this evening, the scandal will be all over town. I shouldn’t be surprised if we start receiving callers at—”
The sound of the doorknocker echoed from the front of the house, interrupting her.
“Blast it,” muttered Papa.
“Please do not suggest I marry Denny,” Kathleen said, feeling desperate. “For one thing, he’d never agree.”
“At this point, I doubt any decent man would marry you,” Helen replied.
“Mamma!” Jeannie exclaimed, jumping to her feet. “That’s an awful thing to say. If I were a man, I’d marry Kathleen right now.”
Kathleen gently pulled her sister back down. “It’s all right, love. We all know I’m not a patch on you and Cara. You’re both much prettier and nicer.”
“You are not without charms, Kathleen, if only you wouldn’t dress so oddly,” Helen said, momentarily diverted. “Take your carriage dress, for instance. Who in her right mind wears a white outfit to dash about in a dusty phaeton? Although I’ll grant it’s an attractive color on you.”
Kathleen blinked. Was that actually a compliment?
“We must be thankful, certainly, that you didn’t inherit the ghastly red hair so common in the Irish,” her stepmother added, instantly ruining the moment. “And if you would only bleach your freckles with lemon water, your complexion would be much improved.”
Kathleen’s mother, a true beauty, had been blessed with bright copper hair and emerald green eyes. Kathleen had not been so favored. She had ordinary brown hair and a changeable gray eye color that simply refused to settle on a specific shade. And while Mamma had possessed a charming dash of freckles, Kathleen looked like she’d been splattered with cinnamon from a cosmic fountain.
“Kath’s freckles are fun,” Jeannie loyally said.
Kathleen gave her sister a brief hug. “Funny, more like it. And there aren’t enough lemons in England to banish my freckles.”
“Since hardly anyone will be seeing you for some months, it hardly matters,” Helen said.
Kathleen sighed. “Rustication then, is it?”
“Yes, the country. For as long as necessary.”
Kathleen froze for a moment before her brain kicked into gallop. Could it really be that simple?
“I suppose it makes sense to send me home to Ireland,” she casually said. “Then I’ll be completely out of sight. No one will think of me for a minute.”
If she could only get back to Greystone, any amount of humiliation would be worth it.
Helen all but sneered. “Without a proper chaperone? Absolutely not.”
“My former governess, Mrs. Clyde, could stay with me. That would be perfectly respectable.”
“No. She was incapable of controlling you then, and I have no faith in her ability to do so now,” Helen said.
One of the first actions Helen took after marrying Papa was to give the boot to Rebecca Foster, Kathleen’s beloved governess. Fortunately, Rebecca had soon met and wed Mr. Clyde, a well-regarded barrister from Dublin, and she and Kathleen had remained close. She was certain Rebecca would willingly chaperone her for a spell.
She prepared to dig in her heels, because this was worth fighting for. “Perhaps I could stay in Dublin for a—”
A muffled yelp sounded from the hall. The parlour door flew open and in strode a tall young woman, dressed in the first kick of fashion. Their butler fluttered in her wake, wringing his hands.
Gillian Penley, Duchess of Leverton, came to a halt in the middle of the room and cast an amused gaze over the stunned Goreys. Then she winked at Kathleen.
“And how is the Gorey family on this fine day? It’s a perfect one for managing a scandal, don’t you think?”