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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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
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
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
"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
"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
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."
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.
"A good thing
they've no guillotine," Edward said.
Harry shook his
head. "Violence, I should think, holds no appeal for these
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.
“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 to 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.
Both ladies’ faces
“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
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
"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."
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
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
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?"
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
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?”
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.”
* * *
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
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
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
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
From the hollow
expression in Lord Wycliff's dark eyes, she knew his search had
yielded nothing but disappointment. "Any luck, my lord?"
He met her gaze, and she was taken aback by the grief she saw in his
"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.
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 with 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
"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
"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
"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