Leslie Petersborough, the recently vested Marquis of Hastings, was used to being summarily summoned. He hadn't spent five years shadowing London's favorite scandal maker, Chas Prestwick, for nothing. He'd received requests to abduct opera dancers and purchase prize horse flesh. He'd even been coerced into helping steal a stained sofa, just so the high stickler to whom it belonged would not know of Prestwick's mischief in her home. Of course, those requests had halted abruptly last year when his friend had married the unflappable Anne Fairchild. To make matters worse, he'd gone and inherited a title, of all things. Because of the two events, Chas had determined that he must live the life of depressingly sedate respectability, leaving Leslie alone on the stage.
But there was always his father. Leslie was also quite used to receiving odd requests from the former Marquis of Hastings. Once he'd had to rescue a wagonload of smuggled French liquor. Another time he'd hidden a Prussian prince from assassins. When one was the son of the man who ran England's elite spy ring, one had to be prepared for anything. On the other hand, he was more often summoned into his father's presence to receive a dressing down for his latest escapade. His father had had distinct ideas on the role and conduct of a gentleman, and he and Leslie had been known to disagree. Still, the old bird had been a constant source of encouragement, companionship, and admonishment. Who would have thought his courageous father could have been carried off by something as simple as a sudden bout of influenza? Now, six months later, Leslie still wasn't fully recovered from the loss. He felt as if a part of himself had gone missing.
But it was most unfair of his godmother Lady Agnes DeGuis to take advantage of his moment of weakness to step into the roll of guardian. He glanced again at the note she had written him, pausing in his stroll up Baker Street.
"You promised me to marry after you completed mourning," she had written in sharp, black lines. "I understand you have recently put off the black. You may call on me at three in the afternoon on Tuesday next to discuss your choice of bride."
Leslie snorted, pocketing the note. His choice of bride? If he knew Lady Agnes, she didn't intend to give him a choice. Not that it appeared to matter. Each year's crop of debutantes seemed more vacuous and cloying than the last. He'd have sooner married his godmother. Not one female of his acquaintance possessed her unique blend of insight and plain-speaking. Of course, that was probably all to the good. If every female in London refused to talk unless she could fight, the Season would be a decidedly difficult feat.
It would, however, be a blasted sight more entertaining. As the Marquis of Hastings, he was expected to attend one tedious ball after another. If he had something better to do, he might have been able to come up with a plausible excuse to ignore his godmother's summons.
He continued up the street, looking for the rented house in which his godmother was staying for the Season. He couldn't help noticing that the houses here were a cut below those in more fashionable Mayfair. What was Lady Agnes doing in one of them? She had her own inheritance, he knew, and even if she hadn't, her nephew Lord Thomas DeGuis would have seen the old bird set up in fine style. By all that was holy, Leslie would have been happy to support her himself. She hardly needed to pinch pennies at her age. But then he could imagine what she'd say if he proposed to make her a kept woman.
His smile tilted up at one corner as he considered the other woman he hoped to keep in such a fashion. Miss Lolly Dupray was one of the most delectable opera dancers to perform at Covent Garden in years. Warm, willing, and wondrously built, Miss Dupray already had three titled gentlemen angling for the honor of paying all her bills. Leslie fully intended to be the winner. But first he had to fend off his godmother. That, he knew from experience, would be no easy matter. Lady Agnes had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. She held the singular honor of being the only person besides himself who could actually make his father angry. When his mother had been alive, Lady Agnes had visited often. He couldn't remember an early birthday without her smiling face at the table. But once he went to Eton, her involvement had dwindled to a regular supply of outrageously witty letters, which he had been sadly neglectful in answering, and an annual month-long sojourn at her country house near Castle Combe. He supposed, however, that with his father gone, she was all the family he had. The fact made him predisposed to do her bidding.
Except in a choice of bride.
He located the place, a drab stone townhouse crowded close to the street. Climbing the steps, which were mercifully clean, he banged the shiny brass door knocker and grinned at the dour-faced butler who answered.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Cowls," he said. "I believe my godmother is expecting me."
The tall, spare butler readjusted his white-powdered wig on his narrow head before answering, making Leslie step back to keep the dust from salting his navy superfine coat and gray trousers. "Lord Petersborough, is it?" he wheezed, peering at Leslie and wrinkling his long nose as if he could smell a falsehood.
Leslie knew he should correct the fellow's use of the title. With his father's passing, he was now Lord Hastings. But he had yet to feel comfortable with the title and merely nodded as Cowls opened the red-enameled door with a creak that could have come from the barrier or the butler.
Glancing about, Leslie was relieved to see that the interior of the house appeared to be in better order, if somewhat eclectic taste. The mirror on the wall opposite him had a Baroque frame, and the reflection in the amber-tinted glass made his dark hair and eyes look slightly faded. The half-moon table near the front door was of complicated black enamel with gold fittings. Reminiscent of the Egyptian furnishings that had been all the rage a few years ago, it clashed badly with the simple style of the oak-framed landscape above it.
"Your hat, my lord?" Cowls stood stiffly, swaying slightly. As Leslie handed him his top hat, he caught a whiff of camphor and beeswax. The man not only resembled an Egyptian mummy, he smelled like one as well. But then, he had been old when Leslie had been in his teens. The butler had served Lady Agnes at her country house and had obviously been brought to London to serve her here as well. Again Leslie wondered whether his godmother were in financial difficulty that she would resort to bringing the old boy out of what must have been a well-deserved retirement.
"How have you been, Mr. Cowls?" he asked politely.
The butler swung his head to peer at him through rheumy blue eyes. "I have been better, Lord Petersborough."
Leslie could well imagine that, but he decided it was safer not to say so as Cowls led him up the narrow, polished, wooden stairs to the drawing room.
His first impression when he entered the room was that his godmother had somehow shrunk. He knew he was considerably taller at six feet than he had been in his youth, but she had always seemed so powerful in his mind that he was shocked to find that she only came to the top of his ribcage. Her navy dress seemed to swallow her in its voluminous folds. It did not help that the sofa beside her had massive ball and claw feet with an ornate back that reached nearly to her shoulders, even with her standing. The rather sickly sea green paint of the lower walls of the room only made her papery skin appear more blue-veined. Though her hair was the same iron gray he remembered from childhood, she looked frail.
In fact, the only thing in the room that looked healthy was Hector, the bright green parrot Lady Margaret DeGuis had given her a few years ago. The fellow regarded him with a wicked black eye from his gilded cage, but, as seemed typical with the bird, he said nothing. Leslie wasn't sure he could talk; however, with the acerbic Lady Agnes as company, the bird might very wisely have decided not to compete.
The fire in his godmother's blue-gray eyes was not diminished as he stepped forward to bring her hand to his lips. That, and the strength in her slender fingers reassured him that she intended to torment him for a good many years to come. The thought was strangely reassuring.
"You are too thin," Lady Agnes declared as Leslie released her hand. "Has your cook forgotten her skills with your father gone?"
"Good afternoon to you too, Godmother," he replied with a smile. "I generally take dinner away from home and so did Father. Cook just serves to keep that army of other servants I inherited fed."
She shook her head at such ramshackle living as she perched upon the massive sofa. Leslie sank onto the scroll-armed chair opposite her. "You will take ill that way, you wait and see," she said. "I am quite glad I chose you a wife. You obviously need one."
Leslie kept his smile in place with difficulty. "Very thoughtful of you, to be sure. But I must insist on my ability to take care of myself and to chose my own bride, when I'm ready."
She frowned. "Why would you want to chose your own bride?"
Leslie blinked. "I have needs, preferences, if you will. Marriage is a serious matter, madam, and one that takes intimate knowledge and understanding." He was rather pleased at how mature he sounded.
His godmother snorted. "You can't even get yourself dinner," she pointed out. "Besides, you need objectivity. To pick the proper mate, you must have a certain distance and worldly understanding, neither of which you can claim to possess."
He couldn't help but smile at her audacity. He leaned back and crossed his legs, prepared to thoroughly enjoy himself. "And you can make that claim? May I remind you, madam, respectfully, that you are a spinster, and you've never been outside the country?"
"Precisely! I have learned by watching others, young man, countless others over the decades, making countless mistakes. I find myself in a unique position to assess marriages. In addition, I know you as well as your father did."
Leslie's smile widened. "I'll grant you that you know me better than most."
She grinned at him as well. "By the by, how is Miss Dupray these days? Has she accepted the duke's protection?"
"He offered! Blast the fellow! I could have countered anything but his title." Her grin widened, and he realized he was discussing his potential mistress with his godmother of all people. His face burned. "How the devil did you know about Miss Dupray?"
"Why do you think I brought up Mr. Cowls from the country?" Lady Agnes replied, chortling. "He has the best ear in twelve counties. I understand she is an empty-headed widgeon, by the way. From Dublin. She can't even spell her fancy French name. I am shocked you didn't see through that atrocious accent. And those red curls come from a bottle. They shall all fall out soon enough. You are well off without her."
Leslie knew his mouth was opening and shutting wordlessly and rather thought he looked a bit like Hector, green coloring and all. He shook his head. "Madam," he managed, "you astound me."
"Good," she declared, shaking out her skirts. "Now perhaps you will listen to me. It is high time you married, and I have just the girl."
"And can I assume she is without artifice?" Leslie asked with upraised brow.
"Quite," his godmother assured him. "In fact, she is already known to you. Cleopatra Renfield."
"Cleo?" Leslie's mind readily conjured up a picture of a stringy preadolescent young lady, twigs sticking out of her long dark braid, expensive gown frayed at the hem, her entire being smelling like leather and horse sweat. "Cleo Renfield? She's a child!"
"She will soon be nineteen," Lady Agnes said. "I am her chaperone for the Season. She has already been presented at court and has developed no little following."
He felt as trapped as the bright-eyed parrot in his gilded cage. Leslie put a hand to his head. "But she's like a little sister to me. I can't imagine her as a wife."
"You can't imagine her in your bed," Lady Agnes countered, bringing the blood to his cheeks once again. Confound the woman! He hadn't blushed since Chas Prestwick had introduced him to his first opera dancer. He squared his shoulders.
"Now see here, my good woman," he told her. "That is quite enough from you about my private life. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of my own affairs." She snickered, and he hurriedly amended himself. "My own life, I should say. Good God, the revered peers in Parliament saw fit to give me the titles and responsibilities of the Marquis of Hastings. I'm willing to admit I haven't earned the right yet, but I certainly should be able to pick my own wife."
She narrowed her eyes. "Are you reneging on your promise, then?"
"Promise?" He cocked his head. "I don't remember making you a promise."
She wrinkled her nose impatiently. "Can you be so quick to forget your father's funeral?"
"I will never forget my father's funeral," Leslie informed her with a frown. "And, yes, I vaguely remember speaking with you then. You made some remark about continuing the line, just the sort of sentiment one often utters at funerals, comforting and encouraging and somewhat lacking in substance."
"Precisely. You replied that you would consider marrying when your mourning was complete. And you promised to let me pick the bride."
Leslie surged to his feet. "I never did!"
She raised a silver-feathered brow. "Are you calling me a liar?"
He ran a hand back through his hair. How had he gotten himself into such a situation? He knew he had to start behaving like a marquis. Indeed, there were times when he was certain he could hear his father's voice telling him just how lacking he was. However, even his father would not have insisted that he honor Lady Agnes' wishes. He hated to hurt the old dear, but the last thing he needed was to be shackled to some fresh-from-the-schoolroom miss who preferred her pony to him.
"Certainly I would never wish to offend you, madam," he replied with care. "Might you, in fact, be mistaken?"
"Certainly not." She sniffed, raising her chin. "I know exactly what you said to me. And I am appalled that you would go back on your word to your own godmother. What manner of man have you become, sir?"
A rather desperate one, he thought. He sank back onto the chair and reached out to take her hands. "Lady Agnes, please. I don't remember promising to let you pick my bride. I cannot think why I would make such a statement. Perhaps I was deranged by grief. In your goodness, you cannot hold me to it."
She scowled at him for a moment more, then her gaze, usually so stern, softened. "No, I certainly cannot."
Leslie let out his breath in glorious relief.
"However," she continued, gaze once more implacable, "I can insist that you at least meet the girl. I am her godmother as well, you know, and I want her to be happy. That is more than I can say for the rest of her family."
Leslie frowned, releasing her hands and leaning back once more. "What do you mean? I thought her parents doted on her. They let her get away with almost anything when we were younger."
"Her parents have been dead for the last five years," Lady Agnes replied. "It is her sisters that concern me."
Leslie tried to dredge up a picture of them as well and only managed to form a shadowy memory of height, weight, and arrogance. "They were a great deal older than Cleo, if I recall. Have they not been happily married for some time?"
"Happiness is a relative word," his godmother said. "They are determined that she marry to advantage, even to the loss of her own happiness. She has no one to stand up for her but me; even her friends seem more focused on catching a husband than supporting her. Besides, the girl appears to have attracted that fortune-hunting Cutter fellow, who shows equally uneducated taste in Miss Dupray, if rumors serve."
"Rumors serve," Leslie replied, thinking that the dashing major was also out of luck if Lolly accepted the duke's protection. "But Major Cutter's not such a bad chap. Cleo could do worse."
"And she could do a great deal better," she scolded him. "She's much too fine for your Major Cutter. She's lovely, intelligent, and principled."
And likely completely over her head in society, Leslie thought. If he knew Cleo, she was probably clumping about drawing rooms in her fishing boots. Still, when he was younger, her unorthodox ways had taken the edge off the summer days away from the excitement of London and studies of Eton and Oxford. For that, he owed her his continued good will. Besides, his father would have said it was his duty as a gentleman to assist. Perhaps helping Cleo would help him learn to shoulder his other responsibilities.
"I suppose it would do no harm for the girl to be seen with me," he said. "But I refuse to agree to court her simply to please you."
"Just meet with her," Lady Agnes urged. "I think you will like what you see. I understand you've been invited to Lady Prestwick's ball at Almack's?"
Leslie nodded. "Purely as an onlooker, you understand. Every woman there will be out to snare Viscount Breckonridge. Anne told me as much."
"Widgeons," Lady Agnes replied with a shake of her head. "As if Breckonridge would chose a dewy-eyed bride. He'll want a woman with intelligence and breeding, you mark my words."
"Then of course you won't be taking Cleo," Leslie said blandly.
He had hoped to nettle her, which she so enjoyed, and was pleased when she bristled immediately, eyes bright with challenge. "I most certainly will. She must be seen in all the right circles if she's to catch someone better than that fancy jacketed major. But you are right that she would be wasted on Breckonridge."
Leslie rather thought she might. He had nothing against Breckonridge, but Lady Agnes was right that he'd surely want a wife with better social connections than a horse-mad orphan from Castle Combe.
"So, you'll dance with her at the ball?" Lady Agnes pressed. "Get reacquainted?"
"Very well," Leslie replied with a sigh martyrdom that he was sure would follow him through the event. "I promise to be a gentleman and meet her. I will even help her find her way in society. But I will not allow you to dictate my choice of bride, and there is nothing you or Cleopatra Renfield can do about it."