Kathleen’s stepmother recovered first, if bristling like a hedgehog could be called a recovery. “Jensen, what is the meaning of this? We are not at home this morning.”
Their poor butler looked ready to cast up his crumpets. “My . . . my lady, I tried to explain to Her Grace, but—”
“Her Grace wouldn’t listen,” the duchess cheerfully interrupted. “And there’s no point in pretending you don’t need my help.”
“Your kindness is duly noted,” Helen frostily replied. “But the situation is a private matter, and entirely in hand.”
Gillian thoughtfully tapped her chin. “My husband does not share your assessment. The duke is dreadfully concerned about our dear Kathleen, which is why he asked me to rush over to lend a hand. And here I am, ready and willing to help.”
Given the Duke of Leverton’s well-known aversion to scandal, Kathleen strongly suspected that lending a hand had been Gillian’s idea. Still, His Grace was a powerful man, and Kathleen could only be grateful for his support.
Papa scrambled to his feet. “Your Grace, do forgive us. We’re simply surprised to see you under the, uh, present circumstances. And so promptly, too.”
Helen, recalled to her manners, rose to dip a shallow curtsy. “Indeed. We were not expecting callers so early in the day.”
“Drat,” Kathleen muttered. “The gossips are already making their rounds.”
Gillian waggled a hand. “Barely, but there’s no time to waste. We must come up with a plan.”
Five years Kathleen’s senior, Gillian was the illegitimate daughter of one of the royal dukes. She was raised on a remote estate in Sicily, and when she finally returned home to England, she’d struggled under the restrictions of London society. The distinguished tutelage of Charles Penley, Duke of Leverton, however, had allowed Gillian to adapt to the trickier elements of her new life. Even more importantly, Leverton had fallen madly in love with his erstwhile pupil. Gillian, now a wife and the mother of two adorable children, had become one of the most formidable and unconventional women in the ton.
Kathleen adored the duchess, now a fast and loyal friend.
Helen glanced at her daughters, who were staring at Gillian with dumbfounded expressions. “Girls, please stand and greet Her Grace.”
Cara rose and dipped into an elegant curtsy. “Forgive me, ma’am. It’s a pleasure to see you, as always.”
“Probably not this morning, Cara, but it’s sweet of you to say so.”
“Your Grace,” Jeannie said shyly, managing an awkward curtsy.
Gillian’s answering smile was kind. “Ah, Jeanette, you’ve certainly grown since I last saw you, and you’re as beautiful as your sisters. You must have legions of suitors already.”
“I’m not out yet. Besides, I don’t see many boys. And they can be . . .” Jeannie frowned.
“Confusing?” Gillian ventured. “They certainly can be.”
“I prefer horses, to tell you the truth,” Jeannie confessed.
“Personally, I find horses are more trainable than the average male,” Gillian replied. “And more intelligent, in some cases.”
Jeannie giggled. So did Cara, although she did her best to suppress it once she caught sight of her mother’s expression.
“My goodness,” Papa said weakly.
“Girls, you are excused,” Helen ordered.
“But—” Jeannie started to protest.
“Come along,” Cara whispered before dragging her reluctant sister from the room.
“That will be all,” Helen said to their still-paralyzed butler. “Try, if you can, to see that we are not disturbed again.”
“What, no tea?” Gillian drolly asked.
Kathleen could practically hear her stepmother grinding her teeth, while Jensen’s eyes rounded with panic.
“Um, ah . . .” stuttered the butler.
“Never mind,” Gillian said. “Away with you, Jensen, before your mistress has a fit.”
“Really, Your Grace,” Helen huffily said as their butler made a hasty exit.
“Yes, I’m completely outrageous.” Gillian gracefully sat next to Kathleen. “But I really am here to help.”
“How did you find out about this mess?” Kathleen asked.
“Charles was out for an early ride in Hyde Park, where he encountered Mr. Carling. The man was happy to rattle on about his son’s news.”
“I would truly like to murder that family,” Kathleen groused.
“Agreed, but we’ll manage with something less drastic.” Gillian’s smile was wry. “Scandals are my forte, you know.”
“Yes, everyone knows that,” Helen snapped.
Though Papa looked ready to expire from embarrassment, the duchess simply lifted a brow and studied Kathleen’s stepmother with polite disdain. The normally unflappable Helen flushed pink under that silent scrutiny.
“I do have a great deal of experience, as does my husband,” Gillian finally said, “and he wishes to help. We’re very fond of Kathleen.”
“Your assistance would be most welcome,” said Papa, flashing Helen a warning glance. “I’m sure my wife agrees.”
Helen fussed with her skirts before as she resumed her seat. “I beg your pardon if I conveyed a different impression, Your Grace.”
Gillian climbed off her high horse. “I’m sure you both wish me straight to perdition.” She shifted her gaze to Kathleen. “Not the best timing on your part, dearest. You could scupper your brother’s engagement.”
“Yes, I . . . I’m afraid I neglected to think about that,” Kathleen said. Truthfully, she’d not really thought about anything but having a jolly little lark.
Gillian patted her arm. “A tip for the future, dearest. Avoid scandals that bring others down with you. That way, if the whole thing blows up in your face, no one else gets hurt.”
“Did that work for you?” Kathleen asked.
“Not according to my husband. Fortunately, my scandalous days are over.” She tilted her head. “I believe it’s time for yours to be over, too.”
“We can all agree on that,” Helen said.
Kathleen suspected she had a few scandals left in her future but tried to look contrite.
“Your Grace, how did your husband respond to Mr. Carling’s accusations?” Papa asked.
“He told Carling to keep such rank speculations about Kathleen to himself. As Charles pointed out, his son and his dreary little friend can hardly be considered reliable witnesses, given that they were exceedingly drunk. Charles will also find a way to quietly relay that message to Lord Bevington. My husband will manage that piece of the puzzle, never fear.”
“Then I won’t have to leave town, after all?” Kathleen cautiously asked.
Not that she’d mind escaping London, but she’d probably end up with one of Helen’s dreadful relatives. They all seemed to live in damp manor houses in Yorkshire, with bad chimneys and worse plumbing.
“Oh, you’ll certainly have to leave,” Gillian said. “Can’t have the perpetrator hanging about as a reminder of the original crime.”
“No one will suspect a thing, I promise,” Kathleen replied. “I will fade into the woodwork like the biggest wallflower you’ve ever seen.”
“On the contrary, people will absolutely suspect a thing. Besides, you’re impossible not to notice.” Gillian flashed a smile. “It’s one of the reasons I like you.”
“I’m glad someone does,” Kathleen muttered.
“Chin up, old girl.” Gillian turned to Helen. “I’m assuming you have somewhere specific in mind?”
“I do. She should spend the winter in Scotland, with her cousin Sabrina.”
Kathleen practically fell out of her chair. The Scottish Highlands, in winter? That was worse than Yorkshire. Even with Sabrina there.
Gillian nodded. “Excellent.”
Kathleen gasped. “It’s not excellent, it’s horrifying. I’d rather go to Newgate than to the Highlands for the entire blasted winter. It’s the bloody back of beyond.”
“Kathleen, such language!” Papa exclaimed. “Besides, you love your cousin Sabrina.”
“Since Sabrina had a baby only a few months ago,” Helen interjected, “she’ll be delighted to have Kathleen’s company. How she bears the isolation of Lochnagar Manor is beyond comprehension. But it is, thankfully, well suited to our needs.”
The middle of nowhere, with babies.
Babies terrified Kathleen. She was always afraid she’d do something horrible, like drop them on their soft little heads.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “I’m not going there.”
Helen ignored her. “Because Sabrina’s character is beyond reproach, she can help Kathleen recover what little reputation she’ll have left after this incident. And a long stay is certainly preferable, given the extent of the damage.”
When she was ten, Kathleen had once coaxed her brother into a pretend boxing match. It had been great fun until Richard accidentally punched her in the stomach. She’d collapsed to the ground, wheezing, and felt the very same sensation now. The fact that neither Gillian nor Papa refuted Helen’s harsh assessment of her reputation made the impact that much worse.
“I understand I must go somewhere,” she blurted out. “But Sabrina has enough to manage without me hanging about like a noxious smell.”
Sabrina’s letters clearly illustrated that she was happy but also had her hands full with the duties of wife, mother, and mistress of a busy estate.
Gillian darted a sideways glance at Kathleen before smiling at her parents. “Lord and Lady Gorey, I’d like to speak with Kathleen alone now.”
Helen went from bristly to imperious. “The decision has been made, Your Grace, so I see nothing left to say.”
“Really? Because I have several things I still wish to say,” Gillian said just as imperiously.
“Of course, Your Grace,” Papa hastily said, jumping up and all but hauling his wife to her feet. “Just ring the bell when you wish us to return.”
He ushered Helen—who objected the whole way—out of the room.
Kathleen wilted against the sofa cushions. Her head throbbing, she was in dire need of coffee.
Or brandy. But she’d have to hide the glass, or Helen would have a fit.
“How do you put up with her?” asked Gillian. “I’d stab her after a day.”
If even half the stories about Gillian were true, that was not an idle threat.
“You certainly put Helen in her place, so fortunately no stabbing necessary.”
“My husband has taught me that words, or even looks, are often a more effective weapon than, well, weapons. Not that I don’t carry a knife at all times. You’d be surprised how often a good blade is just the thing.”
Kathleen burst into laughter, largely from nerves. It felt good after her ghastly morning.
“That’s better,” said Gillian, quirking a smile. “Now, shall we get down to hard facts? Because I think we must.”
Kathleen’s spurt of amusement faded. “It’s truly bad, isn’t it?”
“Yes, thanks to bacon-brained Philip Carling and his dreadful mamma. Even Charles won’t be able to keep that nasty old tabby down for long.”
Kathleen propped her aching head in her palm. “I don’t really even know why I did it. It was so stupid.”
“You were bored, I expect. I understand perfectly.”
“You’re probably the only one.”
“So, did you win?”
“Of course. Denny was in a complete snit about it.”
Gillian laughed. “At least there’s that. But we do need to get you out of town.”
“Fine, but not Scotland. While I love Sabrina, spending the entire winter in some frigid corner of the Highlands . . .” She shuddered just thinking about it.
If only she could get back to Ireland, with its lovely soft air, misty green fields, and the quiet beauty of Greystone Court.
“But Sabrina’s a pip,” Gillian said, “and her husband is anything but boring. He’s a Kendrick, after all.”
“I’m sure I’d be in the way. They’re still practically newlyweds. I’d be a . . . a . . .”
Most of Kathleen’s cousins and friends were now married and settled into their lives as young society matrons. Oh, she’d had suitors, but nothing had ever stuck. Not that she had a burning desire to wed. She’d take Ireland over a husband any day.
“I have a suggestion that might make the prospect more palatable, and still please your parents,” Gillian added.
Kathleen tilted a sceptical eyebrow.
Her friend smiled. “You’re still going to Scotland, but you’re going with me.”
Now that was a surprise. “Um, why?”
“As you know, Victoria Kendrick, Countess of Arnprior, is Sabrina’s sister-in-law and my cousin. Vicky is the only one in my family of royal by-blows that I have yet to meet in person. I very much wish to remedy that.”
Kathleen hesitated. “Would the duke and your children also be going on this trip?”
Gillian wrinkled her nose. “Charles has convinced me that it would be a ridiculously complicated venture with two small children. But I’d been thinking about a trip to Glasgow for some time. It’s a happy coincidence that your gruesome stepmother came up with much the same plan as Charles and I did.”
“But the duke cannot wish you to be gone for such a spell. And what about your children?”
“Charles is an excellent father, and we’ll all survive a short separation just fine. Stop trying to come up with excuses, Kath.”
Kathleen sighed. “Glasgow sounds fine, but once you return home, it’s off to the bloody Highlands for me.”
“Your stepmother will probably have forgotten all about you by then, and I’m sure Vicky will be delighted for you to stay in Glasgow for as long as you wish.”
“I hope so.” It sounded terribly uncertain, but Kathleen supposed she didn’t have a better option. And spending time with Gillian was better than what Helen might otherwise decree by a league.
Her friend rose. “Then it’s settled. I’ll make all the arrangements. You simply need to pack and be ready to depart first thing in the morning.”
Kathleen stood, dredging up a smile. “Thank you. Truly.”
Gillian gave her a sympathetic hug. “We’ll have great fun, you’ll see.”
“As long as I stay out of trouble.”
If anything went wrong, Kathleen was fairly sure she’d spend the rest of her life in a corner of Scotland barely on the map.
“Once you’re out of town, the gossip will die down and people will soon forget what happened. With a little luck, you might even be home by Christmas.”
Kathleen had the feeling her luck had run out—permanently.