... Hetsie VanWyk has secrets of her own. As much as she desires to be Philip's wife, she would never betray him and his family by marrying without first revealing her own scandalous secret - one that if discovered by London Society, could bring down one of the most powerful and beloved families in Regency Era England.
Who will be the first to trust their worst fears with the other? And is their love strong enough to give each other up, if need be to save family and personal honor?
Twelfth Night, 1818, Park Lane ~ London
Phillip Hastings, the former Viscount Wetherington, recently titled Marquess of Kenrick, casually leaned a broad shoulder against the pillar at the top of the balcony stairway that led down to the ballroom. As the major event of the holiday season, The Duchess’s Twelfth Night Ball swarmed with hundreds of people swirling on the dance floor. But he was alone up there and while he could look down on the glistening colors of the ladies’ dresses as they precessed around the floor, no one noticed him as he watched. His eyes followed the dark, unfashionably flowing tresses of Hetsie Van Wyk as she danced with his brother Logan, the equally new and recently named Marquess of Huntleigh. Her hair circled seductively around her shoulders as Logan spun her in a vigorous turn. They were laughing and enjoying the energy they expended in what was still considered by many to be a rather improper dance. He could see Logan’s wife, Juliana, watching them with a genuine smile of pleasure on her face. She and Logan were expecting their first child soon, so she was unable to accompany him in such vigorous activity. But knowing how much he loved to dance, he was sure she had encouraged both of them to take a turn on the floor. God, how he wished he could have a marriage like theirs. Each day seemed to bring Logan and Juliana closer together.
For a decade, he and Logan, dubbed “The Brothers” by the social elite of the ton, had been two very active rakes. The widows and unhappily married women of the ton grimaced in envy and displeasure at the obvious love Logan and Juliana held for each other. It was palpable proof that their chances of a liaison with the handsome marquess were over. His unexpected marriage to Juliana had come as an unhappy event to those women, while the young debs groaned with jealousy over his obvious enchantment with his wife. Because the vast majority of them would marry at the behest of their parents in order to gain a title or make a monetary match, they would never know the physical and emotional joy of marrying for love.
Unfortunately, while he himself was not married, his days as a man about town were over as well. His nearly fatal brush with scarlet fever had left him unable to, well, let’s just say, unable. The renowned Dr. René Laennec had finally been brought in to examine him. He was famed for his invention of the stethoscope and after days of testing him and listening to his heart with his strange little instrument, had assured him that his former prowess in bed would return in spades.
“One day it will be just like, pfsst,” the doctor had remarked, as he snapped his fingers and flipped his hand. While the physician had been correct about his heart healing, no amount of finger snapping, nor any other sort of finger manipulations had brought his other important organ back to full attention.
Nevertheless, it was time for Phillip to return to Society. He had hidden away as long as he could. In the past year he had attended but a handful of events. The first time had been that brief hour when Juliana had been introduced to the ton. And now, here he was at The Duchess’s Twelfth Night Ball.
He heard rustling behind him and turned to glance over his shoulder. “Tessa?” he asked, addressing Juliana’s younger sister. “What are you doing up here, sweetheart?”
“The same thing you are, I guess,” she replied with a shrug. “Just watching.”
“Why aren’t you down there dancing? You must be disappointing a lot of young men. I know for a fact that your dance card is full.”
“Yes it is,” she sighed, “but you know how hard it is to watch someone from down on the floor. Everyone sees you staring and tongues start to wag.”
“Poor Phillip . . . aren’t we a pair?” she giggled.
He snorted a laugh. “I could pretend I don’t know what you’re saying, but I guess we both know exactly what the other is doing.”
“Well, I know why I’m here, but I don’t know why you are. You could go down there and dance with her and walk her in to supper and any other thing you wanted. I just don’t understand why you don’t do it.”
“And you can’t do the same?” he asked, turning the question away from himself.
“Phillip! You know I can’t. A woman has no choice in these matters. And the difference is that she would be very receptive to you, whilst I am dealt with as the tag-along little sister. The only things missing are my leading strings. I expect to be patted on my head and told to go and find my nanny.”
Phillip laughed. “You know that Logan and Juliana believe Pieter to be too old for you.”
“Well, they should not be casting stones. The difference in our ages is exactly the same as between Logan and Jules, so I am getting tired of hearing that.”
“Oh, Tessa, you know the reasons for Logan and Juliana marrying were very different. Logan married because the doctors thought I would die. It was to save the earldom, pure and simple. That everything turned out so well is only a matter of luck. But my guess is, sweetheart, that Pieter may feel the same as Logan and Juliana do about the difference in your ages. If he does, I don’t know what you can do to change his mind.”
“I don’t either,” she sighed, then added with a sneer, “And now that he and Hetsie have brought that other woman back from Holland with them, I don’t think there’s much I can do. I had really hoped that by Christmas – by now, he would . . .” She stopped, then shook herself. “If I believed Logan was on my side I’d ask him for a plan. You know how he loves to orchestrate a plan.”
Phillip laughed again. “Right you are, Tessa. But I don’t believe Logan will help you out with this problem. I hate to say it, but I’m afraid in this matter you’re going to have to come up with your own plan sweetheart.”
“Do you have a plan for Hetsie, Phillip?”
Phillip groaned inwardly. Oh God, he thought, if only there were a plan that would solve his problem. He put his arm around her shoulders. “Come on Tessa, don’t worry about me. We’d best go down now. They’ll be looking for us and you don’t want to worry Juliana.” He offered her his arm and they started down the steps.
“She smiled up at him, “Yes, we don’t want to be caught alone together,” she teased. “Logan might have to call you out to protect his wife’s naughty sister.”
Phillip looked down at her with a wry smile and thought, “You don’t know how impossibly funny that is, sweet Tess.”
Pieter Van Wyk, Count Westhoven, saw the movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned from the small gathering of friends to make sure it was her. He watched Tessa and Phillip laughing together as they came down the steps. Mon Dieu, but she was enticing. Her hair, the color of sunflower honey, was piled high on her head, but tendrils fell down fetchingly as though a lover’s hand had pulled at it while in the throes of passion.
Pieter had been struck by her lively personality the first time he met her when she was a young girl. Logan and Juliana had brought her to a dinner party that he and his sister Hetsie had given, months before Tessa had made her curtsy to the queen. Although it was her first foray into society, all during dinner she had traded quips with him and no less a personage than the Duchess of Sinclair. Pieter thought, even then, that she would be a diamond of the first water when she finally made her come-out. But now, with her hair up on her head, and her dress too daring – he thought – for a first-year deb, he knew she was a force to be reckoned with. So beautiful. But so young. Too young for him. One false move on his part and The Brothers would have him eating grass.
The circle opened to make room for Phillip and Tessa as they approached. Juliana had been standing and watching the dancers with Pieter and the friend he and Hetsie had brought with them from Amsterdam, Miss Tekla Martijn. “Where have you two been?” asked Juliana.
“We were upstairs watching the dancers.” Tessa smiled at them. “What fun everyone was having. That’s the fastest waltz I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes it was,” agreed Hetsie with a laugh. “And I’m glad it was with Lord Huntleigh, who was strong enough to hold me up and keep me from falling into a puddle on the floor.”
“Are you too warm, my lady?” Logan asked. “We could always move toward the balcony and see if we can find a little cool air.” But then, putting an arm around his wife he asked, “Do you think it would be too cold for you, Jules?”
“Not at all, Logan. I think we could all use some fresh air. Even though I’m not dancing, I am always warm these days.” Her hand moved to curve protectively over her burgeoning belly. She waved her fan. “Does that meet with everyone’s approval?” she asked.
“If you don’t mind, Jules,” Tessa said, “I believe I have an apology to make to Sir Osgood for disappearing before this last dance.” She pulled her dance card up from the red ribbon draped around her wrist and consulted it. “And then I should allow Viscount Layton to find me before the next dance begins.”
Pieter saw Logan raise his eyebrows and look to his brother who gave an imperceptible nod.
“Viscount Layton?” Juliana scolded. “Tessa, that man is old enough to be your father! Whatever induced you to agree to dance with him?”
“He’s not that old, Julie. Just a little older than The Brothers.” She gave them a big smile. “Surely, you don’t think I would be out of line dancing with one of you or Lord Westhoven?” Not giving them time to reply she said pointedly, “And it so happens I like older men.” After a quick glance down at her dance card she added, “I think he is particularly fascinating. And I think he likes me,” she added with a knowing smile. Phillip coughed into his hand to cover a grin. Well, well, he thought, Tessa was wasting no time implementing her plan. She moved fast: he was impressed! In the time it took to walk down the steps she had obviously decided that a full frontal attack was the best way to achieve her goal. As the revered Admiral Nelson used to admonish his underlings whenever enemy ships were spotted on the horizon - clap on all sail and go right at them, whatever the odds. Nor did he think her intent was lost on anyone. Her strategy certainly served notice to Westhoven and to Miss Martijn, who, if she thought she had Pieter wrapped around her little finger, had best think again. If Phillip were a betting man, his money would be on Tessa.
Tessa continued to study her dance card as the group turned to move toward the balcony doors. She looked up to see the Count watching her. She smiled at him and then gave him a wink.
“Devil it,” muttered Pieter. She would be the death of him. He was having a hard enough time controlling his urges toward her. But she was just a child and no amount of her tossing other men at him was going to make him act on those urges. What kind of a disreputable kiddy fiddler would he be? And someone had best speak to her about Layton. Pieter knew things that made her interest in him dangerous. He didn’t know how far Layton would go with her, but her reputation would not withstand a man of his ilk trifling with her affections. One of The Brothers had better have a word with him and if they didn’t, then he would. He turned to follow the group and saw that Phillip was moving toward the dance floor.
Ah! That’s what that look had been about. Pieter sighed with relief. He was sure Tessa wouldn’t be dancing with Layton again. Oh God. It was the supper dance as well. She would be left with no one to walk her in.
As they approached the French doors leading to the outdoor balconies, Logan cracked one open to allow in a waft of cool night air. The ladies breathed sighs of delight and before long a crowd of people was doing the same thing. Logan leaned down and said something to Juliana and they began to move off as Phillip returned and walked directly to Pieter, taking his arm and turning him away from the crowd.
“I’ll take her into supper!” Pieter announced.
Phillip started. “How did you know what –?”
“What the hell, Kenrick. Do you think I couldn’t figure that out? I’m glad you handled Layton. I’ve heard some disgusting gossip about him.”
“What have you heard?”
Pieter grimaced. “Let’s just say that he prefers young, pretty girls.”
“Well,” Phillip laughed, “Tessa certainly fills that requirement.”
“No. I mean young girls. Word is that he’s part owner in some filthy house in The Seven Dials that provides little children for the right price.”
“Christ, Pieter! I didn’t know that. How did you hear of it?”
“Word is out around the clubs. I know you and Logan have had other family matters to deal with the last few months, and with you being ill for so long, it’s no surprise that I haven’t seen you at White’s or Boodles lately. But I was going to interfere if you hadn’t dealt with it. Hope you don’t mind?”
“I’ll make sure Logan hears about Layton.” Phillip looked around to make sure they were distanced from their crowd. “But perhaps you should be as concerned about Miss Martijn,” he said quietly.
“Concerned? How?” Pieter looked stunned. “She’s not interested in Layton, is she? We brought her to England because she and Hetsie are good friends and they thought doing the Season together would be just the thing. Is she in some kind of trouble?”
“No, no. Not that. But I believe she has no need of the Season if her purpose is to find a husband. I think she’s already made her choice.”
Pieter cocked an eyebrow, then smiled. “Ah, I see. But there’s no need to warn me off, Kenrick. I thought that you might be looking toward Hetsie – but if it’s Miss Martijn, believe me, it’s wide open for you. I wouldn’t dream of poaching on a friend.”
Phillip shook his head in disbelief. “How can you be so astute in business and such a slowtop in your personal life? It’s not me she’s aiming at, you divwit. It’s you!”
His jaw agape, Pieter slammed his fist against his chest. “God in de Hemel, Phillip,” he exploded, reverting to his native Dutch. “I didn’t see that coming.”
“Yes, well, we seldom do,” Phillip laughed.
“I’ll have to do something about it,” Pieter stated with conviction. “Perhaps a word to Hetsie will be enough. Tekla seems to be a nice person and a good friend of hers. I don’t want to insult or embarrass her, which is what would happen should I say anything. And what could I say?” He groaned aloud. “Dear God, why is it always so complicated when women get involved. Nothing is ever just straight forward as it is between men.”
“I’m afraid you’re right, Pieter. And one more thing, as long as we’re being so forthright. As far as you and Tessa are concerned, she’s Logan’s ward and Juliana’s sister. She’s under their guidance, and they have her locked up tight as a tick. But I warn you, Pieter, she has a mind of her own and if you think you have something to say about anything regarding the two of you, best you think again. She’s a very determined young lady.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” he said, wagging his finger. “There is no me and Tessa. By God, Kenrick, you think me another Layton? She’s still a child. I would never insult your family or touch that sweet thing.”
Phillip groaned. “As I said Pieter, you are a slowtop! A divwit! Have you looked at her lately? It will soon be her second Season and last year she turned down four offers of marriage, not to mention the ones that Logan refused out of hand. I’m just warning you. You will find you have nothing to say about it. She’s determined and you would do well to remember that.”
“Now, as you are taking Tessa into supper, I will escort both Hetsie and Miss Martijn. Perhaps I can redirect her attentions.”
“Ah. And you are sure you’re not interes —?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Phillip interrupted. “I’m afraid my interests where ladies are concerned, have been somewhat curtailed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the problem? Too much estate work, with your new title, or—?”
Phillip gave him a wry smile. “Indeed, Pieter. Let’s just say that’s what’s wrong.”
Pieter walked slowly around the perimeter of the dance floor, searching for Tessa. If Layton had disappeared as he had been ordered, she was probably too embarrassed to stand around while everyone else was escorted in to supper. Perhaps she was hiding in the ladies’ retiring room. If so, he would have to send Hetsie in to find her. At the far end of the ballroom he noticed what looked like a knot of young gentlemen causing a fracas. He turned abruptly and walked across the room, intending to break it up. The Duchess would not appreciate a fight breaking out at her Twelfth Night Ball. Reaching in to the crowd, he grabbed one young man by the arm and swung him out front and center.
“Here now, young man,” he admonished. “Where are your manners? No gentleman causes an uproar like this in public, let alone at the home of the double duchess. What’s the matter with all of you?”
Without letting go of the young man’s jacket he reached in with his other hand and grabbed a second young buck. “I say now, get a hold of yourselves.” Then, seeing that his demands were not receiving proper respect, he shook the two young men and shoved them into the backs of the next two in the circle. “Avast!” he cried out in his shipboard voice. “I say, belay that, you young fools!”
That got everyone’s attention. The circle opened and ten young men stood flushed with embarrassment, obviously abashed at being chastised by Count Westhoven. His size and demeanor would give pause to the staunchest of foes, let alone these green young whelps. In the middle of the chaos Pieter saw Tessa Neeley demurely holding court.
“I told you there would be trouble if you gentlemen didn’t calm down,” she scolded. “Now I’ll not go in with any of you. Instead, I shall enjoy the company of my friend Lord Westhoven,”
Pieter nodded in agreement. “There is no question you will enter on my arm and you, gentlemen, will find your hostess and give her your most abject apologies. And you will give me your names. I want to keep track of you and make sure your fathers are aware of your most ungentlemanly behavior.”
One by one they bowed before him and gave their names as though counting off for a commanding officer. “I expect an appropriate apology will be forthcoming to Miss Neeley before she rises tomorrow morning,” Pieter stated, not as a question.
Each young gentleman murmured an embarrassed expression of regret, then bowed again before the Count. He nodded his dismissal and offered his arm to Tessa.
Gently, she placed her hand on his sleeve. As they moved off, she looked up at him with an embarrassed grimace. “Are you angry with me?” she asked tentatively.
“Why would I be angry with you? Unless you tell me that you instigated that melee.”
“I really didn’t, my lord. It just sort of happened. I was teasing about who I would walk in with and they just started pushing and shoving and name-calling. Really, I tried to stop them. Thank you for coming to my aid.”
“That is why you must be more particular with whom you associate.”
“But, my lord, what am I to do? Did you see how Juliana and Logan reacted when I said that I truly enjoy the attentions of older men?”
“So you immediately jumped to the cradle?” Pieter chided. “And just how much older did you mean? Surely not Layton. You really must not associate with him again, Tessa. Trust me: he’s not safe for you to be with.”
“Why?” She glanced up at him with a look of devout innocence. “What’s wrong with him?”
“There’s a host of things wrong with him, but nothing that I could explain to a child like you,” Pieter snapped.
“Well, that’s the whole of it, isn’t it, my lord,” she snapped back. “You still think of me as a child and I can assure you that is one thing I am not.”
Tessa turned her face from him and inwardly groaned. How was she ever to make this man realize that she was no longer a child? She would soon be nineteen. Why couldn’t he accept her for the age she actually was? She would just have to look for someone other than Layton, as she now realized that any association with him would only cause both Pieter and The Brothers to be angry with her.
As they entered the dinner room, Tessa noticed a small table for two placed between the windows on the far side of the room. Perfect! She would have him all to herself. “My lord,” she said, pointing, “I see a table for us over there.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth they heard a call from a table to their left. “Lord Westhoven! Over here.”
They looked over to see Hetsie, Juliana and The Brothers, with Tekla wiggling her fingers at Pieter. She was motioning at them to come and sit.
“Do we have to sit with them?” Tessa asked quietly. “I had hoped to have some time away from the family watching and listening to everything I say and do.”
Pieter patted her hand. “How can we refuse them, ma petite? It would be too rude.”
Tessa sighed. “You’re right, of course. In a resigned tone she added, “As you wish.”
They walked to the table and greeted everyone politely.
“Oh, I’m afraid we have only one seat saved for you, my lord,” Tekla said in an overweening tone. “But I am sure Tessa can find a place with her little friends. She would certainly be bored sitting with us adults.”
Well done, thought Tessa, giving reluctant praise to the set-down. She had expected some backlash regarding her comment about liking older men, but she thought it would come from Juliana or The Brothers. It appeared that Tekla was going to be just as forthright about Pieter as Tessa had been. However, as she saw the looks of amazement and embarrassment on the faces of others at the table, she knew that Tekla had over-played her hand. Tessa’s comment about liking older men had been regarded as a teasing remark, while Tekla’s comment to her came across as a rude and dismissive remark made to a friend of her host’s family. Even Pieter was taken aback.
“Nonsense! Of course there’s room here.” Logan motioned at a footman to bring a chair. “Tessa, you can share my end of the table.”
Having just been advised by Phillip of Tekla’s interest in him, Pieter saw her actions for what they were. Time to nip this in the bud, he thought to himself.
“Not necessary, Logan,” he said, smiling. “There’s a table over there that Tessa and I had planned to use before we saw you.” Not waiting for Logan to belabor the point, he took Tessa’s arm and as they turned, said over his shoulder, “We’ll catch up with all of you later.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Tessa whispered.
Pieter squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry, Tessa. She was very rude to you.”
“It’s not for you to apologize, my lord. I know she does not like me and considers me a nuisance.”
As Pieter seated her at the table he leaned down to whisper in her ear. “What she considers you to be, should be kept to herself. What matters is what I consider you to be.” He straightened and said, “I’ll bring each of us a plate. Is there anything you especially like?”
“Just a lobster patty and a lemon tart. I never tire of those.”
“I’ll be right back, ma petite.’
Tessa looked toward her sister, Juliana, and saw her looking back with worry written on her face. Drat that Tekla, to cause her sister such concern. Tessa knew she could handle anything thrown at her by Tekla, but Juliana was in no condition to handle stress. They were all concerned about her. She was such a small person and had appeared ready to deliver two months ago. This was to be her last night in Society and Logan had argued about it with her. If he could have his way, he would keep his wife swaddled in goose down. But Juliana had especially wanted to bring Hetsie and her friend to The Duchess’s Twelfth Night Ball. It was always the most spectacular event of the Season and since they were living here at Park Lane until Juliana delivered, Logan had capitulated.
Tessa sipped her wine and carefully watched the table where Tekla was sitting. She looked somewhat disgruntled and Tessa could not help but feel somewhat exulted that Pieter had handed her such a put-down. She felt a hand on her shoulder and words spoken quietly in her ear: “And who has left you to sit by yourself? Whoever it is should be called to account. May I join you?”
Tessa turned her head to see Viscount Layton. Oh dear. What was she to do now? “Good evening again, my lord,” she intoned. “I am not alone. My partner has gone to fix me a plate. He’ll be right back. I was told you had been called away. I hope it was not anything dire.”
“I was called away by Lord Kenrick, my dear. But it will take more than him to discourage me from seeking your friendship.”
“I think perhaps you had better attend to what he had to tell you. I don’t know why, my lord, but there seems to be some reason why I am not to keep company with you.”
The viscount laughed. “A dance is far from ‘keeping company,’ Miss Neeley. But if I thought for one moment that my request to keep you company would be honored, you can rest assured I would ask.”
Tessa turned her head to hide a frown. So, she thought, here is another man who believes he can compare favorably with Pieter. But she felt she should warn him off. “What you say is true, my lord,” she said calmly. “But if Lord Kenrick is not inclined to give permission, you can rest assured that Lord Huntleigh agrees with him. That makes two rather formidable gentlemen for you to persuade.”
“Actually, there would be three rather formidable gentleman,” a voice intruded.
Tessa turned in her chair to see Pieter holding two plates.
Layton quickly removed his hand from her arm and asked haughtily, “And with what authority do you speak, Westhoven?”
“For the moment I speak as her escort. For the future I speak as her friend. And if required, I will speak as a protector of her innocence for as long as need be.”
“My word,” Layton scoffed. “You do take much upon yourself, Westhoven. Who gives you the right to speak as protector of Miss Neeley? Am I missing something here? Are you spoken for, my dear?”
“No, she’s not.” Pieter answered for her. “But should you wish to continue this conversation, you will find me at White’s tomorrow where I will be having lunch. If you join me, I will be glad to stand you a drink and explain exactly why Miss Neeley will not be in your company now or at any time in the future.”
Layton’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure why you feel you have any such power to tell me whom I will or will not speak with, Westhoven.”
“And now I realize why a polite warning did not work.” Pieter continued in a quiet, affable tone. “You are indeed a fool, Layton. But we are causing people to stare. Attend me at White’s tomorrow and I will explain in words even you can understand, why no one but the fool you are would attempt to naysay the,” he paused, “up to now – polite request of mine, plus the desires of two marquesses, a double duchess and double duke. If need be, I believe we could invite in a Prime Minister and even Prinny himself,” he said, referring to the Crown Prince,
“Dear God, Westhoven! Such passion!” Layton curled his lip. “I think it is not me that everyone should be worried about, but you, sir.” He looked down at Tessa who was staring open-mouthed at this display of male posturing. From the corner of her eye, she saw Logan rise and start walking around the tables toward them. Phillip arose and followed behind more slowly.
Both men, in understated black evening dress, were conspicuous by the lack of lace, preferring instead to wear pleated cuffs that accentuated their elegant hands, their crisp, white cravats held in place by modestly jeweled stickpins. Their sole concession to society’s usual flamboyance in style was the fobs that hung on gold chains draped across their waistcoats. Logan’s had originally been a sapphire brooch; a gift from his father to his mother on the occasion of their marriage. Phillip’s was a gift from The Duchess upon her marriage to their father. It was in remembrance of her first husband, whose name and title Phillip now bore. The Marquess of Kenrick had been their father’s best friend and he had felt as honored as Phillip when The Duchess had bestowed the gift on him.
Their fobs winked and glittered as The Brothers strode in long-legged elegance around the tables. With the power of magnets, the two men drew the eyes of every woman in the room. Their attention was shifted away from their plates or from Tessa’s table to watch them. All stopped eating, drinking, and speaking; most of them had their mouths open in varied expressions of curiosity, longing, lust and jealousy as The Brothers strode by. These two men were from the foremost family in England, other than the Royals, and were so similar in appearance that people often thought of them as twins. To see two such tall, dark and startlingly handsome men stroll gracefully across a room where everyone else was seated, grabbed the attention of the men, as well. Both Logan and Phillip had smiles on their faces as though what was about to happen was a perfectly congenial meeting of friends. The ton knew that Logan, the younger son, was married; but now the heir, Lord Kenrick was finally out in Society after a long illness. The widows and mothers of young debs were making plans!
Layton saw their approach as the threat it was. “It seems our conversation has invited reinforcements,” he said dryly, “and I have no wish to embarrass you, Miss Neeley, so I will look for you again. Perhaps we will yet enjoy our dance.” He sketched a bow to her and another at Pieter, then walked away.
Phillip veered off from following Logan, stopping to casually speak with friends, but continued to trail Layton out of the room. As they reached the stairway, Tessa watched as he seized Layton’s arm. Although it appeared at first as though Layton would object, he looked up at Phillip’s face and continued walking with him as they exited the ballroom and moved easily down the stairs to the ground floor. Phillip’s grip tightened as he continued ushering Layton along the hallway toward the front door.
“See here now, Kenrick.”
“Lord Kenrick,” Phillip quietly reminded him.
“Very well, my lord,” Layton sneered. “Just what do you think you are doing? I have no reason to leave and since I have been invited along with the rest of the people here, you have no right to put me out.”
“Oblige me, Layton,” Phillip said smoothly, his tone brooking no option. “Wait until we are outside and I shall be happy to listen to all the reasons why you should not be thrown out on your arse and refused entry in the future.”
Layton jerked his arm, attempting to free it from Phillip’s grip. But it was like trying to remove an iron shackle.
“Stop struggling,” Phillip said quietly. “It will do you no good and it will only make matters worse by drawing attention.”
Indeed, the footmen looked askance at them and Phillip noticed one starting to move toward him. He motioned him off and then steered Layton through the vast entry hall, all the while walking sedately and quietly. Anyone observing them might have thought they were just two men on a mission or searching for the men’s retiring room. Phillip pushed him through the green baize door that led to the downstairs’ servant’s quarters, and finally through a door to the outside. His arm released, Layton rubbed it where Phillip’s grip had no doubt left finger bruises.
“See here now, Kenrick!”
“Lord Kenrick to you,” Phillip admonished.
“My, my,” Layton spat. “Aren’t we feeling important with a mere courtesy title.”
“As a matter of fact, we are. And I suggest you show some deference, Layton, for the day will come when I become a duke and you will still be a viscount.”
Layton had sense enough to look somewhat abashed at that realization. “Well then, my lord, tell me what the hell this is all about. I have never been anything but respectful and considerate to Miss Neeley. You can’t make me believe this is all about a simple dance.”
“Quite right, Layton. It’s not about the dance, although I thought I had made my wishes quite clear regarding that. It’s about your activities in The Dials. If you can convince me you know not of what I speak, we’ll just pretend this evening never happened.”
Layton’s face whitened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he sputtered. “I have nothing to do with The Dials. Where would you get such an idea?”
“Don’t try to gammon me, Layton,” Phillip said dangerously. ”Word is out. You must have known that it wouldn’t take long for the ton to get wind of your sordid activities. With this kind of thing, word spreads faster than the pox, and I daresay the very men who enjoy the predilections of your house are the same ones who bruit it about. Obviously, their morals and their discretion are on the same level. What I don’t understand is, if little boys and girls are your bent, why are you pursuing a woman such as Miss Neeley? I suppose it’s a ploy so no one will suspect you of pederasty?”
“Dear God” Layton gasped. “I have no desire for little boys or little girls! It’s just an investment! Do you have any idea how much money those places bring in? This is better than anything I’ve found on the ’Change.”
“Better for whom, Layton? You or those little children? Just what do you think Miss Neeley would say if she knew of your ‘investments’?
“Why, why, but, well,” he stuttered. “She would never know. Women don’t care where the money comes from as long as they have plenty to spend on their clothes and fribbles. I could give her a very good life. She would want for nothing.” He went on, seemingly unable to stop himself. “I know that you and Huntleigh have had the burden of her care for a while. If you and he could come to an agreement over this, I could take her off your hands and—”
“Do I understand you properly, Layton?” Phillip interrupted. “You are asking for Tessa’s hand, and you feel you would enjoy being a part of the Hastings family and relieving us of this burden?”
Not noticing the depth of sarcasm in Phillip’s voice, Layton replied, “Well, of course. Who wouldn’t feel honored to be included in your family?”
“I daresay,” Phillip drawled. “Well, Layton, I think I had better set up a meeting with my brother. I believe it would be best to get this straightened out. You will, of course, need to bring all your financials. Our man of business will want to make sure everything is as you say.”
“But of course! You will find everything is tip-top and on the up and up, just as I’ve said. I’m so glad we have come to an agreement, Kenrick,” Layton added with a self-satisfied smile.
“Lord Kenrick and I’ll not remind you again.”
“Oh, right you are, ha, ha. But not for long, eh? After all, soon to be family and all.”
“Hmm, yes. Family and all,” Phillip drawled. “But I think until then, Layton, it would be best if you didn’t spend any time with Miss Neeley. We wouldn’t want word of this to get out. She is so enjoying herself this Season and if anything were to spoil that, her sister and my brother would be most upset. The Marchioness is in a delicate state right now. This is to be her last night out before her lying-in, and if anything or anyone were to cause her anxiety, well, I would not wish to be the one responsible. My brother, as well as His Grace, would become quite fierce should the well-being of anyone in the family be threatened. You do understand, don’t you, Layton?”
“Of course, my lord,” Layton replied in a groveling tone. Ahead, in his mind, lay a grand and glorious future. This was turning out to be more than he could ever have dreamed or hoped for. He knew that if he had merely called on Logan, he would likely not have gotten past the butler. “I would never want to do anything to discomfort the marchioness or anyone else in your family.”
“Good man!” Phillip answered dryly. “This may take a week or so before we can arrange an audit. Our man of business has been quite tied up, what with Logan and I coming into our titles at the same time. We’ll inform you as soon as we can set it up. I’m sure my brother will wish to revisit Miss Neeley’s dowry.”
Layton’s head snapped up. “Her dowry? Is there some problem with that? Because, you know, I understand if she has but a small one, growing up in the poorhouse and all.” He knew exactly what her impressive dowry had been reported to be, but he didn’t want to appear to be overreaching. Phillip looked at him from under lowered lids. “Wherever did you get the idea she grew up in a poorhouse, Layton?”
“Well, I’m sorry, my lord. I certainly don’t wish to be spreading gossip, but it has been well known that the two sisters came from nothing. That’s why this would be such an advantageous match for the chit.”
The chit? Phillip clenched his fists and slowly exhaled a breath to control his anger. “Yes, well, I don’t know why you would believe that, Layton,” he replied carefully, not taking his eyes from Layton’s face. “But you should know, if you are to marry her, that her bloodlines are every bit as blue as yours. And she comes with not just a dowry, but property as well.”
After Logan and Juliana married, Logan had his man of business lodge an investigation of the larcenous aunt and uncle who had taken over the girls’ lives and inheritances upon the death of their father, Baron Neeley. To further his crimes the uncle had them installed and put to work at the Community Home doing menial labor at the ages of thirteen and fourteen. He then collected their salaries as well as the rents from their inherited baronial home. Logan, with the help of his uncle, Trevor A. Chapman, Lord Bishop of London, had the girls’ uncle shipped to Botany Bay, never to be allowed to return. His wife Marcella Neeley had been transported to America. There she was indentured for seven years and, with her husband gone, their money seized for Tessa and Juliana and with no other relatives or any place to live in England, it was doubtful she would ever return.
Layton was nearly weak-kneed at this news. He knew that her dowry was the talk of the ton, but property as well? Now that her brothers-in-law were both marquesses and her sister’s father-in-law a double duke, there was no limit as to the power he, himself would wield. People would start listening to him and he would finally have a voice in Parliament. He looked carefully at Phillip’s face to make sure he wasn’t gulling him. What he saw gave him comfort: Phillip looked perfectly serious. But then, the word ‘audit’ rose from his subconscious and dealt him a grievous blow. “Now about this audit, my lord,” he asked, trying to sound casual. “What exactly will be required of me for that?”
“Just bring your financials, Layton,” Phillip said casually “This could be a lengthy proposal by the time we’ve checked your bona fides, but a proper audit must be done to assure that you receive all you are entitled to. After all,” he added purposely, “as her husband, you will become responsible for quite a large inheritance.” Against his will, Layton’s head jerked up. “But I assure you, it’s nothing to worry about.” Phillip shrugged as though to minimize the perceived gravity of an audit. “Are you familiar with our man of business, Richard Salisbury?”
“No, my lord. I don’t believe I’ve ever met him.” But you can bet I will be asking about him now!
“He worked for the earldom before my father became Duke of Warburton and Easton. Now he handles just my estate and that of my brother. The double duchess has had her own man since before her father died and my own father is using him now. We’ll also be using the firm of Quarles, Spence & Quarles for some of the legal work. You’ve probably heard of them. They’ve been around for generations. If you like, you could have your man call on Salisbury and if everything’s in order, that part could probably be handled in an afternoon.”
“That’s very considerate of you, my lord,” Layton hedged, “but I would certainly want to meet with Lord Kenrick to make sure I understand all the ah ... things ... that is legal ... ah, well as you said, it would be a large inher ... a lot to understand, that is. Well, you can imagine,” he faded off.
“Yes, I can imagine,” Phillip drawled, enjoying Layton’s discombobulating. “Well, you’ll be hearing from one of us soon enough, Layton. You can go right down the side of the house here and no one will see you.”
“Of course, my lord. I will be most anxiously awaiting word from you. And may I say, my lord, that I will be most discreet where Miss Neeley is concerned.”
“I’m sure you will be, Layton. It will be in your best interests to comport yourself in that manner.”
Layton all but waved goodbye as he walked sideways down the side of the house, smiling at Phillip along the way. When he turned to walk down the street to look for his carriage, he was almost skipping. His life was suddenly taking a stunning turn for the best. With the dowry and income from his future bride, he would soon have enough money to expand his business venture and move ahead with his plans for a brothel, the likes of which the ton had never before seen. His girls would be the best of the best. And the woman he had managing his kiddy brothel – wait until she heard of his plans and that he was to marry – and who he was to marry. That woman would be just the one to recruit girls from the higher classes. She spoke well and claimed that she had moved very near to the top of the upper ten thousand. He didn’t know if he believed that, but it had been at least close enough. And if he paid them well, she might be able to recruit girls from some cit who needed money to move up. He had no intention of using the usual whores that were dragged in from the gutters and then given a bath and a clean dress. Most of them could barely speak well enough to carry on a conversation with the class of customers he planned to attract. He found his carriage, gave instructions to his driver, and hopped in. Settling back against the squabs he continued musing on the miraculous turn his life had taken. Was it too good to be true? Lord Kenrick, he sneered to himself, seemed alternately polite and haughty. But that could be put down to his preoccupation with his new title. It certainly was an incredible story. The Duchess of Easton and Warburton, known to the ton as the double duchess, managed to acquire not just a dukedom for her lover, Kenrick’s father, the Earl of Thornewood, but through some long forgotten commandment of Queen Elizabeth, when they married, the earl became a double duke and his sons each took the courtesy title of Marquess from their father’s new dukedoms. The Duke and Duchess were now known by the ton as “the doubles”. And he would soon be a member of this aristocratic family that was as close to royal blood as existed in the realm. Not that Tessa Neeley was blood to them, but her sister was married to the double duke’s second son, who became the Marquess of Huntleigh upon his father’s marriage. Miss Neeley even lived in the same house with them. He imagined attending family dinners and celebrations at the homes of the doubles. And with Tessa as his wife, no one would dare question or criticize his connection to brothels.
He rested his head back against the seat and a triumphant grin settled on his lips. If he felt smug, he had every reason. He had handled this business with the delicious Tessa. She would probably be a handful from what he had observed, but once they were married, there was nothing she or anyone else could do. She’d settle down in a hurry or he’d have the pleasure of showing her who was in control. The thought of her servicing him whenever he pleased made his groin tighten. But in a few minutes, he would be at the Yum-Yum House, as the little ones called it, and he’d make use of that little blond tyke who was so adept at giving him the yum-yum he had become addicted to.
The carriage pulled up in Neal’s Passage, an alley next to the building. He never arrived out on the street where he or his coach might be recognized. In this manner, he could enter through a side door and disappear into the depths of his private apartment. “Call for me at ten tomorrow,” he ordered his coachman. It would be too late to return to his townhouse after he was through with his enjoyments and he wanted time in the morning to speak with his matron who managed his kiddy brothel.
Phillip spat in disgust, then went down the steps and slammed the servant’s door behind him. As he re-entered the ballroom, he saw that people were beginning to return in anticipation of another round of dancing. Approaching the supper room he saw Tessa and Pieter still sitting at their table. Tessa had a smug grin on her face and Pieter’s head was thrown back in laughter. Good for her! She had never had a problem entrancing him. He remembered that night at Pieter’s dinner party months before her come-out when she had openly flirted with him in French while holding court at her end of the table.
He sighed. That was the night he had met Hetsie and had thought, for the first time since his illness, perhaps with her he would be able to return to being a normally functioning man. She had piqued his interest, and while he continued during recent months to casually pay court to her, he kept hoping and praying to feel a jump in his loins – to feel some sexual itch. But there was none. Yet, he couldn’t stay away from her. Something about her stirred his heart.
He walked toward his table and saw everyone waiting for him. He knew Logan would be taking Juliana upstairs. That had been their agreement. Logan would escort her to this, her last outing, if she agreed to leave after supper. From the look of her, Phillip doubted she would object. She looked tired. If he was worried about her, he could only imagine his brother’s state of mind. Logan gave him an inquiring look and Phillip nodded briefly, indicating that he had confronted Layton.
“I know you are anxious to retire,” Phillip said to his brother, “but I don’t think Tessa is ready to end the evening. Pieter and I can continue to chaperone the ladies and I will see that Tessa gets safely upstairs before I leave.” Until Juliana gave birth, she, Logan and Tessa were all living here at Park Lane with the doubles, as his father and The Duchess were now known. “Do you feel comfortable leaving Tessa in my care, Juliana?”
She laughed. “I know you will watch over her much more attentively than I have been able to this evening, Phillip. And I know you will chase off every young man who does not measure up to your high standards. But I also know that Tessa will probably not be happy with all your decisions.”
“Let me worry about that, Jules,” Phillip assured her. “Don’t be concerned that I can’t handle Tessa. And I have these two lovely ladies to assist me. If Tessa doesn’t approve of my decisions, I am sure she will pay heed to Lady Van Wyk.” He smiled down at her. “Do you mind assisting me? You know how much Tessa admires you.”
“Of course not, my lord. You know I adore her. I am sure I can make her see eye to eye with me.”
“Thank you, my lady. Just let me inform Pieter of our plans and then I want to introduce you and Tekla to our friend, the Duke of Rimmington.” As he smiled at Tekla, he noticed Logan hiding a grin. Logan, he knew, understood quite well what his brother was about.
He bowed, then as he walked over to Pieter’s table he chuckled to himself. He would throw a duke at Tekla to see if that interested her. Rimmington had unexpectedly come into his title when he was just down from university and at first had acted as one would expect a young, untried, and green aristocrat to behave. The Duke of Wellington had called him a spineless lickspittle, but Rimmington had finally grasped the breadth and depth of his responsibilities. Phillip thought he might be just the ticket for Tekla.
Tekla grimaced slightly upon hearing these plans. But as she had already made a terrible gaffe over Pieter and Tessa, she bit her tongue and smiled at Phillip in agreement.
He returned a moment later, having accomplished his task. He kissed Juliana on the cheek and as they rose to leave, he quietly told Logan to come for breakfast tomorrow. Then, after wishing them a good evening, he winged his arms to the two ladies.
As they entered the ballroom, Phillip was glad to have a lady on each arm as it kept the dragon mothers from eagerly descending upon him with their daughters. His new status as marquess had made them even more aggressive. In years past, he and Logan had come to each other’s rescue with an urgent message to attend their father post haste. It had never failed. But now that Logan was married, they couldn’t work the room the way they used to. He would have to remember to keep a woman handy, preferably one on each arm. It seemed to be doing the trick.
He saw Rimmington heading toward the card room and being waylaid by Lady Aberdeen and her two spotty daughters shrouded in ruffles from neck to floor. “Time for a rescue mission, ladies,” he said to Hetsie and Tekla. They both gave him a puzzled look.
“Whatever do you mean, my lord?” asked Tekla. “Who are we to rescue?”
“You see that very handsome gentleman near the door talking to the two young ladies in ruffles? That is the Duke of Rimmington and he is going to be ever so grateful to us for saving him from Lady Aberdeen’s less than subtle supplications.”
“Oh dear. Those poor girls. Do you really think she believes they look attractive dressed like that?” asked Tekla.
“I can’t imagine why else she would do it,” commented Hetsie. “Surely she can’t be so mean as to do it deliberately.”
“I wonder if they come as a package deal,” Phillip joked.
Hetsie pinched his arm. “Don’t be cruel, my lord.”
He smiled down at her. “You don’t know the whole of it, my dear. Or even the half. Just wait.”
As they approached Rimmington, Phillip called out to him. “Rimmington, at last we are here. I suppose you thought I had run off with both these lovely ladies.”
The duke, not recognizing Phillip’s offer of rescue, peered in abject desperation over the heads of the two ruffled girls who stood rigidly beside their mother. Hetsie could see now that the girls were twins, each dressed in white with tiers of stiff ruffles, each one wider than the one above it. Phillip thought they were reminiscent of snow covered Christmas trees. One twin had tiny red bows attached randomly to the edges of the ruffles. The other girl had the same configuration in green.
“Good evening, ladies, Rimmington,” Phillip drawled. “May I make known to you Lady Van Wyk and her friend, Miss Tekla Martijn.”
Lady Aberdeen gave them a graceful curtsey. “Why, how pleased I am to meet you,” she replied. “In turn, I must introduce my daughters, Merry and Cherry. Curtsy to the ladies and their lordships, girls,” she prodded. “They are so excited,” she gushed to the adults. “This is to be their first year out.”
Tekla smiled. “Exciting indeed. And to be able to attend this wondrous party must be very thrilling. When did you make your come-outs, girls?” she asked them.
“Oh, they won’t make their come-out until February,” their mother was quick to answer for them. “And I realize they shouldn’t be here tonight, but we couldn’t miss this opportunity for them to be seen before all the other debs. And it is their birthdays.”
“My best birthday wishes to you both,” Tekla said. “And what unusual names you have. Quite apropos for birthdays in the holiday season.”
“They’re French, you know,” Lady Aberdeen announced proudly.
“Your daughters are French?”
“No, no Miss Martijn,” Lady Aberdeen laughed. “So droll. Their names are French.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard those French names.”
“Surely you are jesting with me. I know you must have heard of the beautiful but sad Queen of France? Merry,” she paused, “Anto-net? And my darling Cherry is, of course, a loving term of address in French. As in, ‘You are my cherry.”
Phillip nearly choked trying to suppress his laughter. She meant, of course, Marie Antoinette and the word cherie, meaning precious or dear.
“But of course, they are so exceptional, as you can see,” the doting mother continued. “So they had to have exceptional names.” She sighed audibly “I find it difficult to imagine which one will be named the Incomparable for the Season. I believe they will have to name two Incomparables, one for each of my daughters. I just knew His Grace would want to meet them before any others have the opportunity.”
“I’m sure you’re right, Lady Aberdeen,” Phillip said, struggling to maintain his composure. “Isn’t that so, Rimmington?”
The duke’s eyes finally focused on Phillip and the two ladies accompanying him. He saw the escape Phillip had purposely offered him; firmly placing Hetsie’s hand on his arm, he started toward the dance floor. “I know you will excuse me, Lady Aberdeen, but I fear I have kept this young lady waiting far too long. It was delightful to meet you Meery? Cheery?”
“No, no, Your Grace,” Lady Aberdeen hastily corrected him. “Their names are Merry and Cherry. How droll you are, Your Grace. I know now you will not forget my darlings when next you see them at Almack’s.”
But Phillip had not intended this turn of events. He was left with Tekla while the duke made off with Hetsie. Well, obviously he was not the successful planner his brother was. He was afraid that the rest of the evening had been spelled out for him. Rimmington wouldn’t return until he was quite sure that Lady Aberdeen and her two mute, Christmas tree daughters had taken their leave.
He looked down at Tekla and ever the gentleman, asked, “Would you honor me with this dance, Miss Martijn?”