Lord Claymore's handsome brow wore a frown as he pelted down the steps of the mansion on Tiburn Lane and leapt into his curricle. His tiger, Black Cat, was too wise to make reference to the danger of springing the grays in the middle of town. lucky you didn't get the crop across your shoulders, saying a word when he was in this mood. Anyway, there was no one to speak of in the park at this unfashionable hour of the morning, and they would be on the Chelsea Road in next to no time, the way he was springing 'em. There he might run his bits o' blood into the ground without killing anyone save themselves...
So, Black Cat thought with a smug smile, she'd turned him down, and thank God for it! To be carting that China doll round town, going no more than five miles an hour and stopping at every carriage with a crest on the side of it, was not Blackie's idea of driving at all. A nifty piece she were, to be sure. Pretty as could stare, with her blond curls and blue glass eyes. The carriage hit rut in the road, and its occupants were lifted six inches from their seats. Milord's curled beaver left his head and went whirling down the road behind them.
"Eh, you've lost your lid," Blackie informed his master. "Shut your face," was his reply.
"A new one it were," he continued, undaunted.
Milord was obviously paying no heed, for Blackie escaped scot free for his impudence. The carriage continued bolting down the road at its dangerous pace, but its driver's heart remained behind at Tiburn Lane with her, Gloria Golden.
She had been the acknowledged queen of the season just closing. Beau Brummell himself had hardly more power than Miss Golden where it counted--in society. Every buck and beau in town had been at her dainty feet, heart in extended hand. It was one of the on dits that she'd had to hire a secretary to answer her invitations, and it was said, though the lady was too modest to confirm the rumor, that she had every week a box of trinkets received from her admirers hauled off to be sold, and the proceeds sent to her favorite charity, the London Orphans. She did blushingly admit, however, that the overflow of floral tributes was sent daily to St. Bartholomew's to be admired by the patients there. It was not within her power to deny Lord Cushington's having bred and named a yellow rose for her--the Golden Rose it was called--when everyone knew it had taken first prize at the Hampshire Flower Show. Inspired by the incident, Brummell had concocted a perfume for her sole use, and called it Rose d'Or. Lord Petersham had offered to make her up a batch of her own snuff, and though she was gratified, she had declined, having no desire to mar either her nose or her gown by this dirty habit. The Golden Rose bonnet, worn by her at an al fresco party given by the Prince Regent, had been an immediate success, and shamelessly copied by every lady with any pretension to fame or fashion. Her gowns, pelisses, coiffures, reticules, even her faint and enchanting lisp were similarly copied, till it seemed all of fashionable London was inhabited by a hundred Golden Roses. But always the original, unique, incomparable Golden Rose herself was at the lead.
It was not to be imagined that a connoisseur like Lord Claymore would be tardy in recognizing such an Incomparable, and be among the first to attach himself to the comet's train. Nor did it ever occur to him that his attentions were unwanted. His offerings--floral or otherwise--were never carted off with the others, for she frequently wore the corsage sent by himself, and had used every flummery bit of stuff he had ever conferred on her. Fans, satin roses (golden, of course), perfume bottle--all were displayed to the eyes of her goggling public, and their donor acknowledged ... Such encouragement gave him no cause to expect his offer of marriage would be unwelcome. In fact, he had even more explicit reason than this to think himself the one. Unbeknownst to any except himself and the Rose, she had twice allowed him to touch her rosebud lips--once fleetingly behind the pillar at Lady Castlereagh's ball, when Fate had conspired to give them a moment alone, and once in her garden just at dusk, behind the fountain her great-grandpapa had imported whole from Italy. And on that occasion it had been more than a touch. He had felt it as good as an acceptance. Had, in fact, from that moment on considered her his own.
He smiled secretly to hear the odds at the clubs were running two to one in favor of Everleigh, the Duke. As if the Golden Rose would attach herself to that black thorn, old enough to be her father. Leading comments that the Duke was a great friend of her papa, and had besides twenty-five thousand a year, were shrugged off. Even if he had three estates, besides his London residence and hunting lodge in the Cottsmore Hills, he had also a nose as long as a parsnip, and gray hair, to counterbalance those material advantages. Rose actually laughed at him behind his back, and called him "the old goat." Others, who were on Claymore's side, contented themselves with the banal reference to Beauty and the Beast. Obviously there would be no match between that mismated pair.
Yet she had not a quarter of an hour ago informed him that a marriage had been arranged between herself and the Duke of Everleigh, to take place a month hence. She had besides pokered up and pouted at him when he reminded her of those stolen kisses and her numerous stars on his grace. Even his impassioned plea that he be allowed to rescue her and spirit her off to the Border had been shunted aside.
"I don't want to escape, silly," she had said, tapping him on the wrist with her fan--the ivory fan with painted lace covering he had given her only a week ago.
"Miss Golden, you cannot mean you entered willingly into this match?" Lord Claymore asked, aghast.
"Of course I did. I must marry thomone," she lisped. "He is a duke, and I should like very much to be a ducheth."
"But--but I can make you a marchioness," Claymore reminded her.
"Yes, but a ducheth rates higher than a marchioneth," she had retaliated happily.
"Is that all our relationship has meant to you? You will turn your back on me only because of a greater title?"
"Oh, it is not only the title," she said pettishly, arising and pacing about the Green Saloon (which Mama had refused to have redone in gold) where she was receiving his offer. She was exquisitely aware that her perambulations showed off her figure and her Italian silk gown to advantage. "Our families have been connected forever, and besides, I am ever so fond of Iggy. He will deny me nothing."
Claymore was too overcome to argue further. It was plain as a pikestaff she was selling herself to the highest bidder. Pride overcame chagrin long enough for his youthful visage to assume a sneer, and he congratulated her on her conquest
"Now don't be like that, Clay," she said, dimpling adorably. "Let uth still be friends." She had come and laid her hand on his arm. He felt that if he tried to kiss her again, he would not be repulsed. Almost those pouting lips seemed to invite.
He was not to be won over. "You might have told me you had accepted Everleigh and saved me the bother of making an offer in form," he said stiffly.
"Oh, but I wanted to see if I couldn't bring you up to the mark, too," she returned pertly.
"You are to be twice congratulated in one day, ma'am," Clay said. "Good day, Miss Golden." Turning, he fled the room.
The remainder of that morning was never entirely clear to Claymore. He remembered only the wind whistling in his ears, and green fields whipping past him. He did not recall at what point Blackie had taken over the reins, but at noon he was being deposited at his own house on the corner of Curzon and Half Moon Street, and wafting up the steps in a sort of daze. He was heartbroken, incredulous still, mortified, and extremely ill-tempered. He rounded on his innocent butler and demanded of him if it was not possible to ever be greeted by a smile when he came home, and why was it his house must smell of fish? Decaying fish.
His friend, Rex Homberly, was awaiting him in his study, sipping a glass of ale and tossing cards into his hat, which he had placed on the floor halfway across the room.
"Why have you been put in this room?" Clay demanded. Rex looked at him in astonishment as it was in this cozy if shabby little study that they regularly conversed.
Rex did not consider himself a knowing one, but figured he knew at least what this fit of pique was an about. "Heard the news," he said by way of commiseration. "In the Morning Observer. Brought it over. Thought you might not have read it, but I see by your face you have."
Clay wordlessly accepted a glass of ale which a servant had been hurriedly sent off to get him. His domestic menials were not always so alert, but when his lordship came in lambasting a body for not grinning like a hyena when he went to the door, something special was called for.
"Thing is," Rex continued, tossing a card a foot wide of his hat, "no point in offering for her now. Good thing we found out before you went making a cake of yourself."
"I made an offer this morning," Clay admitted, and colored under the look his friend bestowed on him.
"What! She let you...? Oughtn't to have done that. Not the thing to be receiving you alone when she'd already accepted Everleigh. Dashed loose way for a young lady to be acting ... And you shouldn't have gone dashing off without reading the paper. Ought to have looked at the Social Column first, Clay. Told you it would be published any day. Everybody knew it. Pity to give her the satisfaction." He whizzed another card, and it landed by accident in the hat. It was the last, and he arose to his full five feet six niches and looked up at his miserable friend. There was ready sympathy in his bright blue eyes, and on his childish face.
Clay was not in the mood for sympathy. "No harm done," he said nonchalantly, willing down the urge to rant and rave.
"No, but she'll blab it all over town. Make you look a terrible fool. Oh well, you would have looked that anyway, the way you've been dangling after her all Season, showering her with flowers and cheap junk."
"As to looking the fool, who will look wise in this affair? Everleigh marrying a girl young enough to be his daughter ... Miss Golden latching onto a title and a fortune, and me, making a cake of myself over her, as you so kindly pointed out. Fools all!"
"I wouldn't call the Rose a fool," Rex said consideringly. "Not by any manner of means. As shrewd as she can hold together, it you want my opinion. Everleigh was the pick of the Season's beaux, not a doubt of that. The only duke in the race, and all those estates and what not. Quite a catch."
"An ugly old man in his forties!" This seemed an advanced state of decrepitude indeed to one who was not yet twenty-five himself.
"Thirty-nine," Rex corrected unhesitatingly. "Born within two hours of my Aunt Marjorie. They was neighbors, and it used to be talked up at home that she'd nab him, but then she developed that squint. Unfortunate."
"He is old enough to be her father in any case."
"He'd have had to marry awful young, and the Everleighs don't. His younger brother only got hitched last year, and he's thirty-seven. Anyway, he ain't her father, that's the thing."
"I trust they will not try to palm this off as a love match," Clay said, leaning against an old desk, much battered and strewn with debris.
"Easy to love twenty-five thousand a year," Rex replied in an attempt at lightness. He heartily disliked seeing his friend in such a fit of the sullens. Wouldn't be up for any sport all day if he carried on in this fashion.
"They're all alike," Clay said in disgust. "Money and titles, that's all women think of. Everleigh has bought Gloria with his twenty-five thousand a year and his coronet, and she has sold herself to become a duchess. A man may buy anything or anyone if he is rich enough."
"That's true," Rex admitted, assuming his "wise" face, which is to say he wrinkled his brow and pursed his lips. He then proceeded to mar the effect by sticking the head of his cane in his mouth and sucking it. Finding the flavor not to his liking, for the cane was tipped in silver and had a metallic taste, he removed it and added sagely, "Daresay I could attach Miss Simpson if I had a title, and a quarter of your fortune."
"Certainly. I shouldn't be surprised to see her have her legs amputated to please you, if only you had a handle to your name."
Miss Simpson was of a build currently described as Junoesque. She was close to half a head taller than Rex, and a more foolish sight than Mr. Homberly partnering her on the floor, his neck arched back to look up at her, was seldom to be seen.
"Yes, if I had a handle, like you," replied Rex. "No reason for you to fret, dear boy. You ain't a duke, but you're a marquis, next best thing to it, and your blunt must nearly match Everleigh's. Figures, if he gets first prize--the Rose--you ought to pick off the next plum, for you're second in title and fortune."
But there was an unbridgeable chasm between Miss Golden and the second plum. There was no one who came near her. "Whom do you have in mind?" Clay asked, with little interest
"Miss Sitwell, say."
"That mousey little thing." Clay waved a hand in dismissal of this unexceptional lady.
"Ain't mousey. Got nice teeth."
This only served to call up the bewitching smile of Miss Golden, who had, naturally, a set of matched pearls in her mouth.
"Or Miss Danfers. Striking woman."
"I don't recall Miss Danfers."
"That would be because you wasted the whole Season trailing after the Rose. Miss Danfers is a brunette. You like brunettes."
Clay scanned his mind for an attractive brunette. "I do seem to remember seeing a pretty dark-haired girl, early on in the Season. But she just--disappeared."
"Well, Miss Danfers didn't disappear, for you stood up with her at Marston's ball two nights ago."
"Course you did. So did I. Wore a flowered gown, with pink roses in her hair."
"Oh, that one," Clay said, already dismissing the girl from his mind. A plain, platter-faced woman. "That wasn't the one I meant."
"Don't know who you could have meant then."
"She was some connection of the Siderows, I believe. Looked a little like Lady Siderow."
"Ah now, there's a smashing-looking woman, or must have been five years ago. One of the Wanderleys, you know, neighbors of mine. Fine-looking women, the whole bunch of them. Lady Tameson was one of them too. Four girls in a row. Have a son now, though, the last born."
"Well, and was one of these Wanderleys presented this year?"
The cane not being to his liking, Rex stuck his thumb in his mouth and worried it a while, as he pondered this weighty matter. "Wanda," he announced at last.
"Yes, she was brought out by her sisters, Lady Siderow and Lady Tameson. That is, the mother was here, certainly, but I think it was the Siderow house that was used as a base of operations, for old Adam don't have a townhouse. Well, stands to reason you couldn't be growing orchids in a townhouse."
"Orchids?" Clay asked. He was accustomed to his friend's elliptical manner of speech, and felt secure that some sense would eventually emerge from his natterings.
"Yes, the father, Adam Wanderley, grows exotic flowers, you see. Has an orangery a couple of acres in size, full of the grandest flowers you ever saw, Clay, and not an orange in it. Has one in there that eats you."
"Yessir, or eats flies and midges and such things anyway. A vicious-looking little plant, all spikey around the edges. Showed it to me once. Put a fly in front of it, and it just snaps and eats it up whole. Ain't that terrible? A curst rum touch, old Adam."
"But a breeder of beautiful daughters, as well as flowers?"
"Four of them, before his good woman finally gave him a son. Must have been a vast relief to them, eh? Just goes to show you--if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again. I got the right number of trys in there? Four daughters, then a son comes along. Called him Abel. Papa's name is Adam, you see, and of course they wouldn't want to call the boy Cain, because of the mark and all, so they called him Abel. A good chap is Abel, but only seventeen."
With singular tenacity, Claymore recalled his friend to the main thread of the conversation. "And this Wanda Wanderley, would she be the dark-haired girl I saw early on in the Season, I wonder?"
"Very likely. Certainly she'd stand out in any room. Would have given the Rose a run for her money if she'd stuck around."
"But what happened to her? I don't remember seeing her but once or twice."
"Yes, I'm coming to that. The pox, was it? No, she'd have got over that in time to come back for the rest of the Season. Ah, I've got it now. She broke her leg."
His patience rewarded, Clay continued. "Will she be returning in the Little Season, then, in the fall?"
"Might be, if she ain't buckled by then."
"Ah, already been sold, has she?"
"Sold? No such a thing! Adam may be a fool, but he don't sell his girls."
"Let's them do the bargaining, does he? They must be singularly capable, for both Lady Siderow and Lady Tameson have made creditable matches."
"Yes, and with no dowry to speak of either, for old Adam squanders every cent he can get his hands on for his flowers. Paid five hundred pounds for a stupid old flower Abel was showing me. From Brazil it was, growing right out of a tree stump. Had the stump and all shipped in from Brazil."
"And what bargain has this Wanda struck? She can't have had had much time to look about her, for she wasn't at more than two or three balls, I think."
"Wouldn't take her that long. The fact is, though, she was as well as buckled to the squire's son before ever she came to London, and once she had to go home, he'd be forever hanging around. Crazy about her. The mama had hoped for a title, which is why she presented her."
"Only a squire's son? Come, come. Rex. You must know my title and fortune take precedence over a squire's son. I shall attach Miss Wanda before the month is out."
"Don't be such a sapskull, Clay. You're only saying that because you want to put the Rose's pretty nose out of joint. I know you. Too proud by half. Think she'll be boasting about her offer from you, and you want to saunter in with a pretty chick on your wing to show her how little you're suffering."
Clay concealed his sheepish smile behind his ale glass, and feigned deafness. "I was extremely taken with the young lady, I promise you," he replied blandly when he had drained the glass. In point of fact, he would not have recognized Wanda had she walked into the room that minute. He vaguely recalled a pretty dark-haired girl who had been around, then suddenly vanished. But as his obtuse friend had surmised, his reason for interest in Miss Wanda was to put the Rose's nose out of joint. Make a laughingstock of him, would she? And lead him to declare himself when she was already promised. His pride stung, he was determined to have the last laugh yet. If Miss Wanda was half so pretty as her sisters, she would be just the one to help him. Squire's son, indeed. He of all people knew the efficacy of a title and fortune!
"I daresay you were, and it's a pity she couldn't have stuck around to give the Rose some fair competition. Really nobody else worth a second look brought out this year. Just like the Wanderleys, though, to go breaking their legs. Hoydens, Clay, the whole lot of them. Joan rode astride till she was into her teens--that's Lady Siderow. And Caroline--"
"About Wanda," Claymore interrupted impatiently. "Took a tumble from her horse, I suppose?"
"No such a thing. She don't ride much, actually. She was climbing a tree, not to be outdone by Ellie, you know."
"The fourth of the Wanderley beauties. No, or is it third now? Yes, she was born a little before Wanda." He had to nurse his thumb after the strain of delivering this news.
"Some nine or ten months before, I must presume."
"No, it wasn't nearly that long." Claymore stared at this miracle, and Rex rambled on. "They was twins, you see, that's how it was."
"I see. And why was not Miss Ellie presented this year, then, being, er, older. Broke her head climbing a tree, did she?"
In spite of considerable thumb-sucking and ear-rubbing, Rex could not explain the mystery, though he assured his friend there must have been a good reason for it. Even if Ellie wasn't quite as pretty as the others, she would certainly get her crack at the London beaux; her mama and her married sisters would see to that
"Well then, my friend, you must present me to these wonderful Wanderleys," Clay declared magnanimously.
"Can't do it, Clay. For one thing, the Season's over, or next to it, and they ain't in town. As I said, Wanda's as well as hitched. Wouldn't be surprised to read the announcement any day."
"I have not read it yet, and I'll wager a pony we will not read any such thing once I have offered for her."
"Lord, you haven't even met her! You might not care for Wanda at all. I don't. Like her the least of the batch, and that's a fact. You'd do better to have Ellie, though of course she ain't so handsome, and wouldn't square you with the Rose at all."
"It is Wanda I have decided on."
"Well, if you ain't a loose fish, Clay. Getting yourself buckled to a girl you don't even know, just to spite the Rose."
"What does a man ever know of the girl he marries?" Does Everleigh know, for example, that his bride called him 'the old goat' behind his back, and showered her kisses on anyone who bothered to reach out and take them? No, indeed, all you knew was what you could see, and if Miss Wanda proved attractive to the eye, he would have her.
"You know Wanda don't love you, for I'm telling you she's powerful fond of George Hibbard."
"We'll see if she isn't powerful fond of a title and a fortune as well. I think I shall do you the honor of accepting your kind offer to pass a few weeks at the Abbey."
"The offer you are about to extend."
"I was thinking of going to Bath, Clay."
"Think again. You are about to go home and visit your mama."
"She's going to Bath, too."
"Not till July, I think?"
"Yes, but dash it, Clay, I want to get there before her, and have a bit of time to enjoy myself, for you know once she and my sister, Missie, get there, I shall be pressed into service taking them to Pump Rooms and libraries and such dull stuff."
"It is only early June, Rex. I shan't burden you with my presence for more than two weeks. That should be sufficient time to reach an understanding with Miss Wanda."
"I wouldn't wish that woman on my worst enemy, let alone my best friend. Just such a spoiled beauty as the Rose."
"That is precisely the sort of beauty I require," Clay returned firmly, even grimly.
"Yes, to flaunt in Miss Golden's face, and pretend you ain't all cut to ribbons by her having Everleigh."
"Well, we'll go to the Abbey, but Wanda won't have you, and I'm glad of it, for you two wouldn't suit in the least."
"We shall deal exceedingly," his friend replied. Then he walked to the center of the room, dumped the three cards that were in the hat on the floor, handed the hat to Rex, and ushered him to the door.
Once alone, Claymore felt very much like bawling, but he called for his housekeeper instead, and in a fierce tone demanded to know why he had not been handed the Morning Observer with his breakfast, and felt very foolish when she pointed out that it had been put on the table and he had not picked it up.
"Well, see that it doesn't happen again," he said.
His poor servant hardly knew whether she was to refrain from having it in the breakfast room at all, or to personally place it in his hands, and she frowned at him in perplexity.
"That will be all," his lordship said in a voice nearer normal, which did not enlighten her very much, but at least informed her that he "was getting over his snit."