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Excerpt from

The Portrait of
Lady Wycliff

Chapter 1

 London, 1812

 The scalloped rows of brilliant diamonds and emeralds laced through the long, manly fingers of Harold Blassingame, the seventh Earl of Wycliff. A lump balled in his throat as he remembered how the necklace had looked on his mother, whose beauty stilled eight years previously. Oddly, recovering the Wycliff Jewels did not bring the triumph he had expected. Even the recovery of Cartmoor Hall from nearly a decade in a usurper's possession had left Harry wanting. Vindication of the Wycliffs would not be complete until he regained Wycliff House in Grosvenor Square.

Edward Coke, the cousin who was as close to Harry as a brother, planted one booted foot on the Jacobean desk that separated the two young men. "How many quid to persuade Livingston to part with Aunt Isobel's jewels?"

Harry eyed Edward, a somber look in his black eyes. "Twice what Rundel & Bridge would have valued them."

His cousin winced. "Daresay Livingston knew you'd have come up with ten times the amount, though I bloody well don't know how he learned of your fat purse. 'Twas common knowledge when you left England eight years ago that Uncle Robert had left you penniless."

"The fact that I so handsomely paid Kindale to vacate Cartmoor Hall has no doubt carried through London like leaves scattering on the wind," Harry said.

“The Hall I can understand. Deuced fine stables you’ve got there, but to spend such blunt on some bloody stones?” Edward shook his closely cropped head of blond hair before leaning forward to pluck the Wycliff wedding ring from a heap of sparkling jewels on the desk. "Think you to find a suitable young lady to wear this, Harry?" He slid the emerald encrusted band on his pinky finger, but it stopped well short of his bony knuckle.

Harry shrugged. How could he tell Edward his reasons for returning to England? How could anyone else understand the magnetic pull of the land that had been in his family for three hundred years? How could he explain his need to restore the family’s good name or his need for a family? And a wife.

But as his tracks to redemption grew steadier, Harry's conscience burdened him. What decent and noble woman would have him if she knew what he had been doing these last eight years? Oh, he could avoid the truth. His title and fortune alone could likely snare any woman of his choice.

The problem was he did not desire a marriage based on deception. What he sought was a loving match. The kind his parents had enjoyed. His stomach twisted at the memory of his father’s perfidy. Yet his mother had never lost her love for the man she had wed when she was twenty. The two shared everything. It was almost as if their hearts beat in the same rhythm. And when his father's heart stopped, his countess followed him to the grave not a month later.

"Think you a woman would have me if she knew by what means I achieved my wealth?" Harry asked.

Edward's eyes rounded. "Surely you don’t have to tell a wife everything. Take my father. He bloody well shields my mother from any manner of his, er, activities."

A flicker of annoyance flashed across Harry's face. "You mean he doesn’t own up to his mistresses?"

Edward swallowed and did not meet his cousin's gaze. "Well, of course. Simply isn't done."

"Despite his grave faults, my father was ever honest with — and faithful to — my mother, admirable qualities in a marriage, I think." Harry drew his attention from Edward and looked at the tall casements that gave onto Upper Brook Street. "I doubt I'll ever have a wife with whom I can be completely honest."

"Enough talk about wives!" Edward shuddered. “Let us make up for the lost years of debauchery." A broad smile lighted his youthful face.

Harry could not repress his grin as he got to his feet. "I would prefer to see Wycliff House. I plan to make Mr. Godwin Phillips's widow an offer that cannot be refused."

Edward's slender torso rose to its full height, which was several inches shorter than his elder cousin's. "Hope she's not as unscrupulous as her husband was. By the way, I've learned who now possesses your father's diamond snuff box. What say you we also pay a call on Lord Cleveland?"

Harry whirled to face his cousin. "Whoever told you I wanted his snuff box?"

"I. . .I just thought you were going to great pains to reclaim everything---"

"I want nothing of his," Harry sneered.

* * *

As they rounded the corner to Grosvenor Square, Harry's heartbeat began to roar. He had not gazed upon Wycliff House in nearly a decade. Outwardly, the three-story edifice of creamy brick had not changed. It made up for in grandeur what it lacked in size. Lavish iron balusters lined the street level, save for the arched entry portico. Rows of tall, pedimented casements distinguished the upper floors that already stood out from neighboring houses because graceful Corinthian columns framed each window. A chiseled frieze of Grecian athletes banded the top of the building.

No other modes of transportation waited in front of the house where he and Edward tethered their horses. Harry could barely remember a time when a variety of conveyances had not lined this street. The old earl had taken seriously his duties in the House of Lords and had entertained often when Parliament was in session.

The front door was opened by a middle-aged butler to whom Harry presented his card. "It is a matter of a somewhat personal nature that I wish to discuss with Mrs. Phillips."

The butler's brows elevated slightly when he read the card. "Won't you come to the morning room, my lord?"

They strode across the broad entry hall’s marbled floor and settled in a small room his mother had called the morning room. "My mistress is presently engaged." The butler lowered his voice. "'Tis Tuesday, you know. Her meeting day. I shall inform her of your presence."

That the morning room looked remarkably as it had nearly ten years earlier pleased Harry. Elegant draperies of light blue moiré hung beneath gilded cornices on the windows facing Grosvenor Square. Blue silk damask sofas and chairs scattered about the room on a patterned carpet of gold and royal blue. A large crystal chandelier suspended from a ceiling bordered in ivory molding. Thank God the scoundrel Godwin Phillips had the good sense to change nothing.

A moment later the butler reappeared. "Mrs. Phillips said her meeting's almost over, that it would do an aristocrat good to sit in on the remainder of it."

Harry exchanged puzzled glances with Edward. What did the widow mean it would do an aristocrat good?

With a strange mix of emotions, Harry entered the drawing room at the back of the first floor. Like the morning room, it had changed little. Its walls were still the same asparagus green, as were many of the silk brocade sofas. However, the room's occupants had changed considerably. Harry could not remember ever seeing a more somberly dressed assemblage. And the drably attired consisted entirely of women. Good heavens! Had he wandered into a gaggle of bloody bluestockings?

From amidst the sea of gray and brown woolens rose one of the prettiest young women Harry had ever seen. Though she wore a dreary graphite-coloured morning gown of serge, the lovely blonde sparkled like a diamond in a bed of coal. Of rather small bones, her body curved gently in the right places, but it was her face that drew his attention, for it was flawless: a perfect oval with a perfectly chiseled nose and full mouth revealing even white teeth. She took two steps forward, looking at Harry, her expression inscrutable.

When she spoke, he realized her voice, too, was lovely. Smooth and clear and youthful without being flippant. "Which of you is Lord Wycliff?"

 He moved toward her and bowed. "At your service, madam."

She barely inclined her head, then indicated extra chairs. "You may sit until we're finished."

"There must be some mistake," Harry said. "I particularly wanted to speak with Mrs. Phillips." He could not remove his gaze from the young woman's extraordinary eyes. They were lighter blue than a robin's egg.

"I am Mrs. Phillips," she said impatiently.

"But---"

"You expected an older woman." Her careless response indicated a pattern grown tediously routine.

"You are the widow of Godwin Phillips?" It seemed incredulous this youthful beauty could have been married to Phillips. The man had been the age of Harry's father. The slim blonde who stood before Harry all defiance and arrogance could only barely be past the age of consent.

"I am." Indicating the dozen or so women who sat primly around the room, she said, "I will not bother you with introductions, my lord. If you and your companion will be kind enough to sit down---"

"Yes, of course," Harry said, taking a seat on a satin brocaded sofa beside Edward, who already had displayed the good sense to be seated and escape Mrs. Phillips' scathing gaze. For the first time in his life, Harry sensed rebuke at being called my lord.

He paid little heed to the words bandied about among the prudish gathering, so moved was he at once again sitting in the room which enfolded him in memories of the loving family he had been part of. He could almost see his mother sitting in the very chair Mrs. Phillips used, her golden head bent over her ever-present embroidery. With his brows lowering, Harry remembered, too, sitting at the walnut game table happily playing backgammon or chess with his father.

"What is fair about every peer of the realm having a vote when other men — men who are far harder working than the idle lords — have no vote at all?"

Hearing peers so maligned cut into Harry's reverie, and he looked up to see that the speaker was a matron whose age exceeded his own. She wore spectacles and heavy merino so shapeless it completely concealed any hint of feminine roundness.

A second speaker rose. "Certainly no consideration given to the greatest good for the greatest number. And something is inherently wrong with a franchise that extends only to freeholders."

Aghast, Harry watched this second speaker, a young woman who wore a three-cornered hat much like his father used to wear. Epaulets clung to her well-covered shoulders. A man-hating bluestocking, to be sure.

"Since we have digressed from the topic of injustices in the penal system," said the lovely hostess, "I would suggest we discuss Mr. Bentham's principles of utility at next Tuesday's meeting."

While the ladies stood up and began to leave the room, Harry stood, as any proper gentleman would do. None of them acknowledged his presence or that of Edward, who stood silently beside him. The men watched as Mrs. Phillips followed her guests from the room, chatting merrily.

When all the women were gone, Harry turned to his cousin and spoke in a low voice. "Bloody bluestockings."

"A good thing they've no guillotine," Edward said.

 Harry shook his head. "Violence, I should think, holds no appeal for these do-gooders."

A woman's voice responded. "That is absolutely correct, Lord Wycliff."

Peering at the angelic face of Mrs. Phillips, Harry could well believe violence was as alien to her as pock marks to her smooth, creamy skin. “I perceive you are a follower of Jeremy Bentham."

"I admire him greatly but am not a utilitarian purist," she answered.

"How gratifying," Harry murmured.

“Neither I nor Miss Featherstone,” the lovely widow said, turning to the plain young woman who stood beside her. Harry immediately felt sorry for the other female. How bloody unfair it was to have to be compared the stunning Mrs. Phillips, for Miss Featherstone, though of the same age and similar stature, was possessed of unremarkable brown hair and an unremarkable face. She was, in fact, exceedingly plain—though not unpleasant. “Permit me to introduce my friend Miss Jane Featherstone to you, my lord.”

That lady curtsied.

Jane was an apt name for this plain Jane. Harry raised a brow. “You are related to the Mr. Featherstone who rather rules the House of Commons?”

A tiny smile seeped across Miss Featherstone’s face. “He is my father.”

“I do believe he’s acquainted with one my greatest friends. Sinjin, er, Lord Jack St. John.”

Both ladies faces brightened.

“We admire your friend very much,” Mrs. Phillips responded.

He smiled, then his gaze whisked from one to the other. “I am curious to know  in what way do your views differ from Mr. Bentham's?"

The widow perused him through narrowed eyes. "Whereas Jeremy Bentham promulgates the greatest good for the greatest number of people — a belief that has much merit — I think that ignores the worth of the individual.”

Harry nodded. "Then you’re more of a Rousseau disciple?”

“If I were forced to choose between the two important thinkers, then, yes, I would prefer Rousseau.”

She looked skeptically at him and began to move from the room. "I suppose you would like to see your former residence?"

“Very much. In fact, I should like to make you an offer for the house."

She spun around to face him, her eyes flashing. "That you cannot do. I found out only this morning that I am not the owner."

"Then I beg that you direct me to the owner."

"That I cannot do."

Harry stopped in front of a massive painting of the Spanish Armada, a painting that had been commissioned by one of his ancestors in the early seventeenth century. "And why can't you, Mrs. Phillips?" Despite his efforts to conceal it, anger crept into his voice.

"Because I do not know who the owner is. My communication came through the owner's solicitor."

"Then if you will give me the solicitor's direction---"

"I will not." She stood in the doorway to the ivory dining room, framed in a golden radiance from the wall of uncovered windows.

Harry seethed. "May I ask why?"

She nodded, her manner haughty. "I dislike nobles."

Miss Featherstone gasped. “Really, Mrs. Phillips, you shouldn’t say that.”

“Oh, I don’t dislike you even if you are the granddaughter of an earl, nor does my dislike extend to Lord Jack St. John or his father, Lord Slade.”

“That I am happy to hear since St. John is easily a man for whom I would lay down my life.”

Harry had only barely resisted the urge to clasp his hands upon Mrs. Phillips’ shoulders and shake her. "Surely your study of equality has taught you that every man is an individual. Cannot I be given the opportunity to earn your respect before being dismissed as an idle noble?"

Edward pushed past Harry to confront Mrs. Phillips. "I'll have you know, my cousin here was left without two farthings to rub together, and by his own cunning has rebuilt his family fortune."

Harry watched the youthful beauty for a reaction, and when she turned her attention on him, he found himself reading her face as one reads Shakespeare, finding still another facet to admire.

"I hope you use your fortune," she said, "to improve the living of the cottagers who've toiled generations for Wycliffs." Presenting her back to him, Mrs. Phillips strolled toward the dining room.

“I say, Mrs. Phillips, that’s beastly unfair of you,” Edward said. “My cousin took care of all the Wycliff servants and cottagers before ever spending a tuppence on himself.”

The fair one looked contrite. “Forgive me, my lord. How rude you must think me.”

Harry stared her down until those pale blue eyes of hers blinked. “On the contrary, Mrs. Phillips, I think nothing of you. It’s my habit to reserve judgment until I’ve had the opportunity to get to know someone.”

Her lips pursed, and he detected a glint of humor. “Then as I’ve not had the opportunity to get to know you, I shall reserve my opinion as to whether you’ve just maligned me.”

He tossed his head back and laughed.

Which had the effect of cracking through his icy reception.

“I think you’ll find the dining room unchanged,” she said in a pleasant tone as she swept open its door.

Indeed, it was. Powerful emotions swamped him as he moved into the eerily silent room. These walls now so quiet had once echoed the lively conversations of prime ministers and heads of state, as much of England's business had been conducted at the very table Harry now surveyed. He could picture his father seated at the head of the gleaming mahogany table, surrounded by other members of the House of Lords and leaders of Commons. At the other end, his elegant mother would have sat, softly conversing.

His heart caught at the sight of the baroque family silver, the Wycliff crest etched on the footed teapot. His need to reclaim these possessions was as strong as his obsession to see them again.

A lump in his throat, he had to look away. Sunlight poured into the room from windows draped in faded gold silk. When he looked  at the wall behind the head of the table, disappointment crashed over him. A Flemish tapestry hung where the Gainsborough portrait of his mother had been displayed for as long as he could remember. He wheeled around to Mrs. Phillips. "Where, may I ask, is the portrait of my mother which hung where the tapestry is now?"

She gave him a blank look. "I remember no portrait. What did it look like?"

"A typical Gainsborough. My mother was. . ." His voice gentled. "Very beautiful. She had golden hair and large, honey-coloured eyes. In the painting she wore a gown the colour of - - -” He pointed to a bowl of pale pink camellias. “Those.”

Mrs. Phillips shook her head. "I have seen no such painting in the eight years I've lived here."

Eight years? She would have been but a girl. He almost commented on it, but his need to see his mother’s portrait was stronger than his curiosity about the youthful widow. “You’re sure? It’s not in another room?”

Her features softened as she shook her head.

"Daresay it’s in the attic?" Edward offered.

Harry cast a hopeful glance at Mrs. Phillips. "With your permission, I should like to have a look in the attic."

"Certainly, my lord. You know the way, I presume."

"Of course."  He and Edward went toward the stairs but turned back as Miss Featherstone took her leave. “I wish you luck, my lord.”

“Thank you, Miss Featherstone. It’s been a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

 

* * *

Louisa Phillips stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched the back of the handsome nobleman whose censure she had drawn. She bit her lip. His reprimand had been well deserved, given the unfairness of her blanket dismissal of him, based on nothing more than the circumstances of his birth. Why, it was no better than throwing out the baby with the bath water! Erroneous preconceptions had been the very topic of one of her well-received essays recently. Except the preconceptions cited in that tract dealt with lumping all cockneys in the batch with unsavory cutthroats because of their misfortune of birth.

Birth! She frowned as she retraced her steps to the drawing room. Lord Wycliff might not be an idle noble, but he was still an aristocrat. She bristled at the thought of them. They not only held all the land and wealth, they also hoarded legislative power, neglecting to write laws favorable to the individuals they repressed.

She had no admiration for those who sat back counting money earned by long-dead ancestors. Even though she was a woman who had been a dependent wife since the age of fifteen, she was capable of earning money by her own wits to put food on the table. She had managed to tuck away one hundred and fifty pounds from her essay writing. The money — as well as her authorship — had been hidden from Godwin. She had never willingly shared anything with her husband, much less her radical views which were so opposed to his Tory tastes. Never had he guessed the essayist Philip Lewis was his complacent young wife, Louisa Phillips.

Now she felt a tinge of remorse. Had she been saving the money from her writing so she could run away from Godwin? She had not allowed the intrusion of such thoughts while Godwin had been alive. And now it no longer mattered. She was free.

She felt wretchedly guilty over her lack of grief, but Godwin was not a nice man.

Her chest tightened. One hundred and fifty pounds would not go far if Godwin had not provided for her. She had always assumed this house would be hers. She was still reeling from the news that someone else owned the house she thought would come to her. Would all of Godwin's wealth also be taken from her?

What would she do? And how could she possibly make a home for her and Ellie if she were indeed penniless? Perhaps she should not have sent for her younger sister, Louisa thought, a sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was too late now to withdraw the invitation. Ellie should arrive in London the next day.

She thought again of Godwin, and her hands curled into fists. Once more he had let her down. She strode angrily from the hallway, forcing her irritation onto Lord Wycliff. Even if he had soiled his noble hands making a fortune, Lord Wycliff was still born to the title, still confident he could swagger into his old home, make an exorbitant offer and once again possess the town house for which he held such an affinity.

 She called for Williams. "You must put the chairs back as they were before the meeting," she told the butler.

"As you say, madam. A pity you must forever be telling me how to perform my duties. I should know that without having to be told."

Louisa looked kindly at him. "In time you will learn, my dear Mr. Williams. Remember, just a few months ago you were a gentleman's valet. You've learned much about being a butler, but it takes time."

With a mahogany chair in each hand, he strode across the room and replaced them at either side of the game table. "It's grateful I am that you've given me a chance."

"It's me," she reassured, "who is fortunate. You were a fine valet to Mr. Phillips, and you'll be an excellent replacement for Banbury, may God rest his soul." A sickening feeling surged through her. Surely Godwin had made provisions for Williams.

By the time she had instructed Williams in the drawing room, Louisa heard Lord Wycliff and his cousin coming down the stairs, and she hurried to greet them.

From the hollow expression in Lord Wycliff's dark eyes, she knew his search had yielded nothing but disappointment. "Any luck, my lord?"

"Unfortunately, no." He met her gaze, and she was taken aback by the grief she saw in his eyes.

"If I learn anything about the painting," she offered, "I will contact you."

He looked down at her. And she grew uncomfortable. The dark lord was exceedingly handsome. She had put away dreams of handsome lords when she abandoned dolls, already having been pledged to a well-to-do man who was older than her father. And in the eight years since, her eyes had never appreciatively swept across the figure of a good-looking man. Of course, she’d had no opportunity to do so — and of course, she loathed men.

With his sun-burnished face and well defined muscles, Lord Wycliff seemed out of place in a cut-away coat, freshly pressed cravat with silken vest, and pantaloons. She could imagine his muscled torso and generous shoulders rippling beneath the fine lawn of an unadorned shirt as he lunged booted feet and swished his saber in the defense of damsels. She could even picture him hammering at a blacksmith’s anvil, sweat sheening his strong-boned face. Yet, despite the power and blatant masculinity he exuded, there was also tenderness.

"That would be most considerate of you," he said as he walked to the front door.

She wanted to do something that could balm the man's hurt. She almost offered the name of the solicitor, but that she refused to do.

After all, Lord Wycliff was an aristocrat.

* * *

The cousins settled in the carriage, then Edward turned to Harry. "I say, Mrs. Phillips could not have been much more than a babe when she wed that vile Godwin Phillips."

"I daresay you're correct." Harry spoke with no emotion, his thoughts low.

"Did you not think the widow's good looks rather extraordinary?" Edward asked.

Harry thought of the slim young woman who was such a paradox. Barely more than a girl, she bespoke the determination of a well-seasoned dowager. "I did. A pity she's a bluestocking."

"I thought you admired women who had a head on their shoulders."

“True, but there must be a compromise between stupid women and the bloody do-gooder bluestockings."

"Think I'd rather have a slow-witted wife," Edward said.

  Harry’s dark eyes sparkled. “But I thought the idea of marriage was repugnant to you.”

“So it is. Never saw a girl more dazzling than a set of perfectly matched bays.”

A smile crept across Harry’s face. "Tomorrow, my dear cousin, we shall call on Mrs. Phillips for enlightenment."

Edward shot him a questioning glance.

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