A woman of independent means with a healthy dose of cynicism about the male persuasion, Harriet Tremayne is content with her circle of spinster friends and their devotion to literature, women’s rights, and intellectual interests.
However, when she determines to take on a London Season for her beautiful but featherbrained niece, she concedes she must appear less a bluestocking and more fashionable to successfully sponsor this impossible young lady whose only real desire, it seems, is to consume chocolate.
Certainly her modish new appearance has nothing to do with the attentions of Lord Dangerfield, a wicked man of the world who has designs on the fair niece, yet spends an inordinate amount of time trying to sell Harriet on the virtues of his all-too-obvious attributes.
“The best of the Regency writers.” —Kirkus Reviews
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Miss Harriet Tremayne read the letter from her sister several times as if wishing to read something else altogether in it than what was there. The fact that her sister, Mrs. Colville, said she was dangerously ill did not distress Harriet. Mary Colville was always ill with some imaginary illness or another. What did upset her was that her sister was begging her to bring her daughter, Susan, out at the forthcoming Season.
To refuse, as the reclusive and intellectual Harriet longed to do, would mean that the whole Colville family would arrive at her town house in Berkeley Square and she would have them all for the Season instead of just one debutante. Mrs. Colville had six children, Susan being the eldest. Harriet frowned. She had not seen Susan for some years, for the girl had been secluded in an expensive seminary for young ladies in Bath, but she remembered her as a fat and rather pimply child.
After some hard thought she decided the best course of action would be to travel to her sister, who lived in the village of Parton-in-the-Wold, and decide when she saw Susan what to do. Should the girl prove an absolute antidote, then she would plead the excuse of foreign travel, tell the Colville family that they might have the use of her house for the Season, and then go into hiding until it was all over.
Harriet was rich, very rich. A magnificent legacy from an aunt who admired intellectual bluestockings like Harriet had saved her from having to go on the marriage market and find a husband. She knew she was damned as eccentric, but she was content with the company of her few female friends and had never pined for balls and parties. But she was well connected and knew that she could drum up the necessary invitations to launch Susan on a successful Season.
So she began to make preparations to leave for the country, wishing all the same that the weather might improve, for the month of January was bitterly cold and the Thames had been frozen so long that a Frost Fair was being held on it with booths and amusements from one shore of the river to the other.
She had her own traveling carriage and coachman and so did not have to endure the rigors of the mail coach or the stage. She set out three days later, sensibly dressed, for she had never troubled about being fashionable. She was wearing a dark blue wool gown, a fur-lined cloak, serviceable boots, and a serviceable bonnet. She knew she would need to spend two days on the road, but was armed with a collection of books. There were hot bricks on the floor of the well-sprung carriage and she planned to spend the first night at an expensive and well-run posting inn.
She traveled in some style. She had her maid, Lucy, with her inside, a groom on the roof with the coachman, armed with a blunderbuss, two footmen on the back strap, and two outriders, armed to the teeth.
Lucy was a quiet, middle-aged woman of grim visage and not much conversation. Harriet had employed her because of her silence rather than because of any talents she might have had as a lady's maid, and would have been surprised had she known that the quiet maid longed to see her mistress dressed in the latest fashions. But there had never been any man in Harriet's rich, well-ordered life to spur her on to "prettify" herself. She was a woman of middle height with thick jet black hair, large green eyes, and a thin, clever face.
Nothing exciting had ever happened to Harriet, and she dreamed of neither romance nor adventure. The immense relief she had felt when she had learned about her legacy had never left her, and she felt she was the most fortunate of women. Most of the friends of her youth produced baby after baby with clockwork regularity and were worn out by the time they had reached her age. Some were married to brutish men and some to fools. Her gratitude for her single state kept her tranquil and happy.
The sky outside the carriage windows was dark and leaden. She asked the maid to light the lamp inside the carriage so that she might see to read, and settled back to her book. Lucy did as she was bid and then sat down again opposite her mistress.
She had been employed as maid by Harriet shortly after the death of Harriet's parents. The late Mr. Tremayne had been a feckless gambler and had left little but debts. Then the week after the funeral the news of her legacy had arrived. Lucy remembered how she had assumed that after a period of mourning, the young Harriet would find a suitable lady to sponsor her at the Season. She had been amazed when Harriet, only twenty, had announced her determination to sell the family home and estates in the country and move to London to set up her own residence. For once the usually silent Lucy had found her voice to suggest that Miss Tremayne find a chaperone. But Harriet had merely looked amused and said she had been given a passport to freedom from marriage and childbearing.
The friends that Harriet had made in London, Lucy found boring. They were sensible, plain-featured, bookish ladies, much given to debating on subjects Lucy thought ought to be left to the men. The only social events Harriet attended were the playhouse and the opera. At the opera she did not visit anyone in the other boxes, and no one visited her, and she never went to the opera ball. At the playhouse she arrived at the beginning of the play and left at the end before the harlequinade.
There had been various suitors attracted by her fortune, but Harriet had managed to snub them all.
Lucy knew of the reason for this journey and hoped Harriet would sponsor her niece. The maid settled back comfortably, placed her feet on one of the hot bricks, and dreamed of showing off her handiwork to society. She did hope the girl would turn out to be pretty.
Harriet stopped for the night at the Cromwell Posting House at four in the afternoon. What light there had been during the day was fast fading from the sky, and snowflakes were beginning to whirl about the carriage as it drove under the game-festooned arch of the posting house. In the entrance hall, sides of beef and pies were exhibited in glass cases like precious objets d'art. The landlord came out, bowing and scraping. Harriet had stopped at his posting house before on her infrequent visits to her sister. She was conducted upstairs to a handsome bedchamber and told that her usual private parlor had been reserved for her. Dinner would be served at five.
Harriet washed and changed. Lucy, who had been feeling travel sick for the last stage of the journey, asked if she might have a tray in her room. Harriet agreed, saw that the inn servants had been instructed to look after her maid's comfort, made sure the other servants were comfortably housed, took a worried look out at the fast-falling snow, and then went to the private parlor at the end of the corridor, prepared to enjoy her dinner, for the posting house had a good cook and she found she was extremely hungry.
She stopped short on the threshold. A man was standing by the fireplace with one booted foot resting on the fender. He was extremely tall and powerfully built. As if conscious of her stare, he swung around and surveyed her. He had very red hair, which he wore unpowdered, a handsome face if somewhat harsh gray eyes, a proud nose, firm mouth, and long eyelashes that did not detract from the masculinity of his face but paradoxically seemed to highlight it.
He raised thin eyebrows and said haughtily, "Madam?"
Harriet bowed her head rather than dropping a curtsy. "Sir, you are in my private parlor."
"I must correct you. I hired it." He turned back to the fire as if the matter were settled. Whoever this man was, he expected lesser mortals to give way to his demands.
"Waiter!" shouted Harriet. When a waiter came hurrying along the corridor, she said, "Fetch the landlord. This is my parlor for my use and I wish this gentleman ejected from it as soon as possible. I shall await the landlord in my room." And with that, Harriet stalked off.
A few moments later the landlord scratched at the door and she went to open it. "Miss Tremayne," he said, "there has been a dreadful mistake. I was ill with the French cold" — he meant influenza, the French being blamed for most ills — "and my wife took the Earl of Dangerfield's booking."
"Then you will just need to unbook Lord Dangerfield," said Harriet waspishly.
"But he is an earl and ..."
"Do you expect me to dine in the common dining room?"
"There are very few customers because of the weather, and such that we have are most genteel," pleaded the landlord. "I could put a screen about your table."
"Oh, very well," said Harriet. "But I will not stay at this posting house again."
The miserable landlord went into the private parlor. "Who was that female?" demanded the earl.
"A Miss Tremayne, my lord. Do not worry, Miss Tremayne has agreed to take her food in the dining room."
"But you have other private parlors!"
"The roof was leaking so one is being painted, and the sweep is to clean the chimney in the other tomorrow, so everything there is sheeted."
The earl frowned. "I will eat in the dining room. Tell Miss Tremayne she may have the parlor."
"Thank you, my lord. It will be very quiet, most of the other guests having dined at four."
The landlord made his way toward the dining room, followed by the earl.
But when they entered the dining room, Harriet was seated at a table by the fire and already drinking soup. She listened with raised brows as the landlord explained that the earl had most graciously given up the private parlor.
"I wish he had done so in the first place," said Harriet tartly. "As you can see, I have already begun to dine. Let him have it."
The handsome earl, who was used to having females practically throw themselves at his feet, studied Miss Harriet Tremayne, and she looked straight back at him.
"The fire is pleasant here. I will join Miss Tremayne for dinner," he said. The landlord rushed off to find the waiter.
"This is too much," said Harriet evenly as he sat down opposite her. "There are other tables." She was at the only small table. The others were large and round, catering as they did to large parties or mail-coach passengers. Stagecoaches were not welcome at the posting house. "You are forcing your company on me."
Lord Dangerfield could not quite believe that his company was not welcome.
At that moment the door of the dining room opened and a party of bloods came in. They were the worse for drink, noisy, and staring about them.
Harriet had the grace to smile. "It looks as if I may need the protection of your company after all, my lord."
He was piqued by her indifference to him, he had to admit that, but his sense of humor came to his rescue, and he smiled back at her.
The men were seating themselves at a large table at the window. One stumbled and swore. The earl got to his feet and walked over to them. "There is a lady present," he said, "and if any of you uses language like that again, I will have to call you out."
The five men stared at him, and then one said, "It's Dangerfield, isn't it? I'm Tommy Burke. Saw you at Tat's the other day, buying a prime piece of blood."
"Then, Mr. Burke, perhaps you would be so good as to muzzle your companions?"
"No offense meant, Dangerfield, and none taken, I hope. We'll be as quiet as lambs."
"Coward," said one of Mr. Burke's companions as the earl walked back to join Harriet.
"Not I," said Mr. Burke. "There goes the best swordsman and shot in England."
That had the effect of reducing their subsequent conversation to a mumble.
"So," said the earl, "where are you bound?"
"To my sister, Mrs. Colville, who lives in Parton-in-the-Wold."
"An inclement time of the year to go traveling."
"My sister wishes me to bring out my niece at the Season. I have little wish to do so, and yet if I refuse, the whole family will descend on me. I thought it best to look the girl over first. She may be ugly."
He said with an edge of irritation in his voice, "How like the cattle market you do sound! Look over the animal, if it is a handsome beast, it will do, if not, leave it."
"Ah, yes, I did sound like that," said Harriet in surprise. "But, you see, I do regard the Season as a sort of cattle market, and so I am apt to consider the pros and cons of bringing out a young miss by the rules of society. How dreadful to consider one of my sex in that light. I must think again. If the girl is plain, then she will be more in need of my services than if she commanded any sort of beauty at all. I am grateful to you."
She was quite plain herself, he thought. Her face was too thin and too clever-looking. But she had beautiful eyes and an exquisitely passionate mouth. She was not married. Miss Tremayne. Had anyone ever kissed that mouth?
"You must have bad memories of your own Season, Miss Tremayne, to be so harsh."
"I was fortunate enough not to have a Season."
Her clothes were plain but expensive. "And why was that?" he asked curiously.
"My parents died when I was on the verge of being brought out. Then a relative left me a substantial legacy, and so as I did not need to marry, I did not need to have a Season."
"Do you mean you would have married solely for money had you not received that legacy?"
"I would probably have been obliged to, my lord, for my father was a gambler and I would have been expected to repair the family fortunes. Mind you, I did not know my father had gambled most away until he died, but it was certainly being borne in on me before he did that only a gentleman with a large fortune was going to be acceptable to him as a son-in-law."
"But once you had your independence," he said, pursuing the topic, "you could then pick and choose. Marry for love. Such a thing has been known."
Her green eyes sparkled with amusement. "You having married for love yourself, my lord?"
"Nearly. I was once engaged. She died."
"I am sorry."
"It was a long time ago, in my callow youth. Griselda was her name."
"As in the fairy tale?"
"Exactly." He leaned forward to embellish his tale further, wondering as he did so why he was going to such lengths to lie. "She had a sweet face and masses of golden hair and great blue eyes which looked at the world with a childlike wonder."
Harriet's empty soup plate had been taken away. She watched the earl as he drank his, at the firelight playing across the strong planes of his face. He did not look at all like the type of man to be so fascinated by a milk-and-water miss, which is what this Griselda sounded as if she had been. For the first time, Harriet was acutely aware of her spinster state, of the plainness of her clothes and face.
She waited until he had finished and said, "And so did you marry someone else?"
"No, Miss Tremayne. I found no other lady to match my Griselda."
Huffy was how Harriet was beginning to feel, but she put it down to a twinge of indigestion. The soup had been mulligatawny and highly spiced.
"But what of you, Miss Tremayne?" he asked, leaning back in his chair as his plate was removed. "At your age, you must have come across some man who sparked your imagination."
How Harriet hated that remark "at your age." "I should estimate you are the same age as myself, my lord. But, no, it is not necessary to adore a man to be happy."
"So how do you pass your days?"
"I read and study a great deal and have female friends of like interests."
"That is how the sneer describes us, yes. I go to the opera and plays and concerts. I have a comfortable and happy life."
"Except when trapped in posting houses in snowstorms."
"Such a thing has not happened before. But it is hardly a desert island or even a blasted heath. It is a well-run posting house. Hardly an adventure."
The bloods at the other table had been drinking heavily. One of them suddenly vomited on the floor.
"This is enough," said the earl. "Miss Tremayne, we can share the private parlor, and to save your maidenly sensibilities, we will leave the door open. Come, I beg you. Things with that crowd will only get worse."
Harriet hesitated. Then she saw one rise and fetch a pot from the sideboard. If she stayed much longer, she might have to witness worse than vomiting.
"Thank you," she said, rising hurriedly.
"Go directly there, and I will instruct the landlord to bring our food upstairs."
She hesitated outside her maid's door — Lucy always had the luxury of her own bedchamber when traveling with her mistress. She should ask the maid to chaperon her, but Lord Dangerfield would surely not allow a maid to sit at the table with them, and Lucy was probably asleep by now. She went on her way to the private parlor.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Chocolate Debutante"
Copyright © 1995 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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