Once upon a time, not so very long ago…
Beautiful girls in fairy stories are as common as pebbles on the beach. Magnolia-skinned milkmaids rub shoulders with starry-eyed princesses and, in fact, counting two eyes in each bright-eyed damsel would result in a whole galaxy of twinkling stars.
That sparkle makes it all the more sad that real women rarely live up to their fictional counterparts. They have yellowing teeth, or spotty skin. They have the shadow of a mustache, or a nose so big that a mouse could ski down it.
Of course there are pretty ones. But even they are prone to all the ills “that flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet had it in a long-ago complaint.
In short, it’s a rare woman who actually outshines the sun. Let alone all that business about pearly teeth, the voice of a lark, and a face so beautifully shaped that angels would weep with envy.
Linnet Berry Thrynne had all of the above, except perhaps the claim to lark-like melody. Still, her voice was perfectly agreeable, and she had been told that her laughter was like the chiming of golden bells and (though not larks) linnet songs were often mentioned.
Without even glancing at the glass, she knew that her hair was shining, her eyes were shining, and her teeth—well, perhaps they weren’t shining, but they were quite white.
She was just the sort who could drive a stable boy to heroic feats, or a prince to less intrepid acts such as whacking through a bramble patch merely to give her a kiss. None of which changed a basic fact:
As of yesterday, she was unmarriageable.
The calamity had to do with the nature of kisses, and what kisses are purported to lead to. Though perhaps it’s more accurate to point to the nature of princes. The prince in question was Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex.
He had kissed Linnet more than once; in fact, he had kissed her a great many times. And he had vehemently declared his love for her, not to mention thrown strawberries at her bedchamber window late one night (which had made an awful mess and had driven the gardener into a fury).
The only thing he hadn’t done was offer his hand in marriage.
“It’s a shame I can’t marry you,” he had said apologetically, when the scandal broke the evening before. “We royal dukes, you know…can’t do everything we’d like. My father is slightly deranged on the subject. Really, it’s most unfortunate. You must have heard about my first marriage; that one was annulled because Windsor decided Augusta wasn’t good enough, and she’s the daughter of an earl.”
Linnet was not the daughter of an earl; her father was a viscount, and not a very well-connected one at that. Not that she’d heard of the prince’s first marriage. Everyone who had watched her flirting with him in the last few months had unaccountably forgotten to tell her that he was apparently prone to courting those he couldn’t—or shouldn’t—marry.
The prince had bowed sharply, turned, and abruptly left the ballroom, withdrawing to Windsor Castle—or wherever it was that rats went when the ship sank.
This had left Linnet alone but for her dour chaperone and a ballroom of gentlepersons, a circumstance that led her to quickly realize that a great many maidens and matrons in London were eagerly—if not gleefully—certain that she was a hussy of the first degree.
Within moments of the prince’s retreat, not a soul would meet her eyes; she was faced with a sea of turned backs. The sound of upper-class tittering spread all around her like the hissing of a gaggle of geese preparing to fly north. Though, of course, it was she who had to fly—north, south, it didn’t matter as long as she fled the scene of her disgrace.
The unfair thing was that she wasn’t a hussy. Well, not more than any girl bowled over by a prince.
She had enjoyed snaring the greatest prize of them all, the blond and winsome prince. But she hadn’t had any real hope that he would marry her. And she certainly would not have given her virginity to a prince without having a ring on her finger and the approval of the king.
Still, she had considered Augustus a friend, which made it all the more painful when he didn’t pay her a call the morning following her humiliation.
Augustus wasn’t the only one. In fact, Linnet found herself staring out of a front window of her townhouse, the better to convince herself that no one was coming to call. No one. Not a soul.
Ever since she’d debuted a few months earlier, her front door had been the portal to the Golden Fleece, i.e., her dowered, delectable self. Young men pranced and trotted and strolled up that path, leaving cards and flowers and gifts of all kinds. Even the prince had lowered himself to make four morning calls, an unheard-of compliment.
But now…that path was nothing more than a row of flagstones shining in the sunlight.
“I simply don’t believe this has come out of nothing!” her father said now, from somewhere behind her.
“I was kissed by a prince,” Linnet said dryly. “Which might have counted as nothing, if we hadn’t been seen by Baroness Buggin.”
“Kissing—pah! Kisses are nothing. What I want to know is why it is being reliably reported that you are carrying a child. His child!” Viscount Sundon came, stood at her shoulder, and looked with her at the empty street.
“Two reasons. Neither of which involves a baby, you’ll be happy to learn.”
“I ate a bad prawn at Lady Brimmer’s morning musicale last Thursday.”
“So?” her father asked.
“It made me ill,” Linnet told him. “I couldn’t even make it to the ladies’ retiring chamber. I threw up in a potted orange tree.” She shuddered a little at the mere memory.
“Uncontrolled of you,” the viscount commented. He hated bodily processes. “I collect that was taken as a sign of childbirth?”
“Not childbirth, Papa, the condition that precedes it.”
“Of course. But you do remember when Mrs. Underfoot spewed in the throne room, narrowly missing His Majesty, the King of Norway? That was no prawn, nor a baby either. Everyone knew the lady had drunk herself into a standstill. We could put it about that you’re an inebriate.”
“Would that solve my problem? I doubt many gentlemen wish to marry a drunk. At any rate, it wasn’t just the prawn. It was my gown.”
“What about your gown?”
“I wore a new ball dress last night, and apparently my profile gave people cause to think that I was carrying a child.”
Her father swung her around and peered at her middle. “You don’t look any different to me. A bit chilly around the shoulders, perhaps. Need you show quite so much bosom?”
“Unless I want to look like a fussocking matron,” Linnet said with some asperity, “then yes, I do need to show this much bosom.”
“Well, that’s the problem,” Lord Sundon said. “You look like Bartholomew-ware. Damn it, I specifically told your chaperone that you had to look more prudish than anyone else in the room. Do I have to do everything myself? Can no one follow simple instructions?”
“My ball gown was not revealing,” Linnet protested, but her father wasn’t listening.
“I have tried, God knows how I’ve tried! I postponed your debut, in the hopes that maturity would give you poise in the face of the ton’s undoubted scrutiny, given your mother’s reputation. But what’s the good of poise if your neckline signals you’re a wanton?”
Linnet took a deep breath. “The affair had nothing to do with necklines. The gown I wore last night has—”
“Affaire!” her father said, his voice rising. “I raised you with the strictest of principles—”
“Not affaire in the French sense,” Linnet interrupted. “I meant that the disaster was provoked by my gown. It has two petticoats, you see, and—”
“I want to see it,” Lord Sundon announced, interrupting in his turn. “Go and put it on.”
“I can’t put on a ballgown at this hour in the morning!”
“Now. And get that chaperone of yours down here as well. I want to hear what Mrs. Hutchins has to say for herself. I hired her specifically to prevent this sort of thing. She put on such a priggish Puritanical air that I trusted her!”
So Linnet put on the ball gown.
It was designed to fit tightly over her breasts. Just below, the skirts pulled back to reveal an under-dress of charming Belgium lace. Then that skirt pulled back, showing a third layer, made from white silk. The design looked exquisite in the sketchbook at Madame Desmartins’s shop. And when Linnet had put it on last night, she had thought the effect lovely.
But now, as her maid adjusted all those skirts while Mrs. Hutchins looked on, Linnet’s eyes went straight to where her waist ought to be—but wasn’t. “My word,” she said, a bit faintly. “I really do look pregnant.” She turned to the side. “Just look how it billows out. It’s all the pleating, right here at the top, under my breasts. I could hide two babies under all that cloth.”
Her maid Eliza didn’t venture an opinion, but her chaperone showed no such reticence. “In my opinion, it’s not the petticoats so much as your bosom,” Mrs. Hutchins stated. Her voice was faintly accusing, as if Linnet were responsible for her cleavage.
Her chaperone had the face of a gargoyle, to Linnet’s mind. She made one think of the medieval church in all its stony religious fervor. Which was why the viscount had hired her, of course.
Linnet turned back to the mirror. The gown did have a low neckline, which frankly she had considered to be a good thing, given how many young men seemed unable to drag their eyes above her chin. It kept them occupied and gave Linnet license to daydream about being somewhere other than a ballroom.
“You’re overly endowed,” Mrs. Hutchins went on. “Too much on top. Put together with the way the dress billows out, and you look as if you’re expecting a happy event.”
“It wouldn’t have been happy,” Linnet pointed out.
“Not in your circumstances.” Mrs. Hutchins cleared her throat. She had the most irritating way of clearing her throat that Linnet had ever heard. It meant, Linnet had learned over the last few months, that she was about to say something unpleasant.
“Why on earth didn’t we see it?” Linnet cried with frustration, cutting her off before she could launch her criticism. “It seems so unfair, to lose my reputation and perhaps even my chance at marriage, just because this gown has too many pleats and petticoats.”
“Your manners are at fault,” Mrs. Hutchins said. “You should have learned from your mother’s example that if you act like a hurly-burly, people will take you for a jade. I tried to give you tips about propriety as best I could over the last months, but you paid me no mind. Now you must reap what you have sown.”
“My manners have nothing to do with this dress and its effect on my figure,” Linnet stated. She rarely bothered to examine herself closely in the glass. If she had just looked carefully, if she had turned to the side…
“It’s the neckline,” Mrs. Hutchins said stubbornly. “You look like a milking cow, if you’ll excuse the comparison.”
Linnet didn’t care to excuse it, so she ignored her. People should warn one of the danger. A lady should always look at herself from the side while dressing, or she might discover that all of London suddenly believed her to be carrying a child.
“I know that you’re not enceinte,” Mrs. Hutchins continued, sounding as if she were reluctant to admit it. “But I’d never believe it, looking at you now.” She cleared her throat again. “If you’ll take a word of advice, I’d cover that chest of yours a bit more. It’s not seemly. I did try to tell you that several times over the last two months and twenty-three days that I’ve been living in this household.”
Linnet counted to five and then said, stonily, “It’s the only chest I have, Mrs. Hutchins, and everyone’s gowns are designed like this. There’s nothing special about my neckline.”
“It makes you look like a light frigate,” she observed.
“A light frigate. A light woman!”
“Isn’t a frigate a boat?”
“Exactly, the type that docks in many harbors.”
“I do believe that it is the first jest you’ve ever told me,” Linnet said. “And to think I was worried that you might not have a sense of humor.”
After that, the corners of Mrs. Hutchins’s mouth turned down and she refused to say anything more. And she refused to accompany Linnet back to the drawing room. “I’ve naught to do with what’s come upon you,” she said. “It’s the will of heaven, and you can tell your father I said so. I did my best to instill principles in you, but it was too late.”
“That seems rather unfair,” Linnet said. “Even a very young light frigate should have the chance to dock at one harbor before she’s scuppered.”
Mrs. Hutchins gasped. “You dare to jest. You have no idea of propriety—none! I think we all know where to put the blame for that.”
“Actually, I think I have more understanding of propriety and its opposite than most. After all, Mrs. Hutchins, I, not you, grew up around my mother.”
“And there’s the root of your problem,” she said, with a grim smile. “It’s not as if her ladyship were a felt-maker’s daughter who ran away with a tinker. No one cares about that sort. Your mother danced like a thief in the mist while everyone was watching her. She was no private strumpet; she let the world see her iniquity!”
“A thief in the mist,” Linnet repeated. “Is that biblical, Mrs. Hutchins?”
But Mrs. Hutchins pressed her lips together and left the room.
End of Chapter One. Like it? Order it!
Ancestral Seat of the Dukes of Windebank
Piers Yelverton, Earl of Marchant, and heir to the Duke of Windebank, was in a considerable amount of pain. He had learned long ago that to think about discomfort—a blasted, silly word for this sort of agony—was to give it a power that he didn’t care to acknowledge. So he pretended not to notice, and leaned a bit more heavily on his cane, relieving the pressure on his right leg.
The pain made him irritable. But maybe it wasn’t the pain. Maybe it was the fact that he had to stand around wasting his time with a roaring idiot.
“My son is suffering from acute diarrhea and abdominal pain,” Lord Sandys said, pulling him closer to the bed.
Sandys’s son was lying in bed looking gaunt and yellow, like tea-stained linen. He looked to be in his thirties, with a long face and an unbearably pious air. Though that might have been due to the prayer book he was clutching.
“We’re desperate,” Sandys said, looking indeed quite desperate. “I’ve paraded five London physicians past his bed, and bringing him here to Wales is our last resort. So far he’s been bled, treated with leeches, given tinctures of nettles. He drinks nothing but asses’ milk, never cows’ milk. Oh, and we’ve given him several doses of sulfur, but to no effect.”
That was mildly interesting. “One of those fools you saw must have been Sydenham,” Piers said. “He’s obsessed with sulphur auratum antimonii. Gives it out for stubbed toes. Along with opium, of course.”
Sandys nodded. “Dr. Sydenham was hopeful that the sulphur would relieve my son’s symptoms, but it didn’t help.”
“It wouldn’t. The man was enough of a fool to be admitted to the Royal College of Physicians, and that should have told you something.”
“I joined purely as a kindness to them.” He peered down at Sandys’s son. He was certainly looking the worse for wear. “It likely didn’t make you feel any better to trudge all the way to Wales to see me.”
The man blinked at him. Then he said, slowly, “We were in a carriage.”
“Inflamed eyes,” Piers said. “Signs of a recent nosebleed.”
“What do you gather from that? What does he need?” Sandys asked.
“Better bathing. Is he always that color?”
“His skin is a bit yellow,” Sandys acknowledged. “It doesn’t come from my side of the family.” That was an understatement, given that Sandys’s nose was the color of a cherry.
“Did you eat a surfeit of lampreys?” Piers asked the patient.
The man looked up at him as if he had sprouted horns. “Larkspy? What’s a larkspy? I haven’t eaten any of it.”
Piers straightened up. “He doesn’t know the history of England. He’s better off dead.”
“Did you ask if he’d eaten any lampreys?” Sandys said. “He hates seafood. Can’t abide eels.”
“More to the point, he’s deaf as a post. The first King Henry ate lampreys, one of the many mad kings we’ve had in this country, though not as cracked as the current one. Still, Henry was thick-headed enough to have eaten a surfeit of eels and died of it.”
“I am not deaf!” the patient said. “I can hear as well as the next, if people would just stop mumbling at me. My joints hurt. They’re the problem.”
“You’re dying, that’s the problem,” Piers pointed out.
Sandys grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away. “Don’t say such a thing in front of my son. He’s no more than thirty-two.”
“He’s got the body of an eighty-year-old. Has he spent much time consorting with actresses?”
Sandys snorted. “Certainly not! Our family goes back to—”
“Nightwalkers? Hussies? Mollishers, mopsies or mackerels? Though mackerels brings fish back into this conversation and you already told me that the man can’t abide seafood. But what about fish of the female variety?”
“My son is a member of the Church!” Sandys blustered.
“That settles it,” Piers said. “Everyone lies, but churchmen make an art of it. He’s got syphilis. Churchmen are riddled with it, and the more pious they are, the more symptoms they have. I should have known the moment I saw that prayer book.”
“Not my son,” Sandys said, sounding as if he actually believed it. “He’s a man of God. Always has been.”
“As I was saying—”
“Hmm. Well, if not a mopsy—”
“No one,” Sandys said, shaking his head. “He’s never—he’s not interested. He’s like a saint, that boy is. When he was sixteen, I took him to Venus’s Rose, in the Whitefriars, but he didn’t take the slightest interest in any of the girls. Just started praying, and asked them to join him, which they didn’t care for. He’s a candidate for sainthood.”
“His sainthood is about to become a question for a higher authority. There’s nothing I can do.”
Sandys grabbed his arm. “You must!”
“But the other doctors, all of them, they gave him medicines, they said—”
“They were fools, who didn’t tell you the truth.”
Sandys swallowed. “He was fine until he was twenty. Just a fine, healthy boy, and then—”
“Take your son home and let him die in peace. Because die he will, whether I give you a solution of sulphur or not.”
“Why?” Sandys whispered.
“He has syphilis. He’s deaf, he’s diarrhetic, he’s jaundiced, he’s got eye and joint inflammation and nosebleeds. He likely gets headaches.”
“He’s never been with a woman. Ever. I swear it. He’s hasn’t any sores on his private parts or he would have mentioned it.”
“He didn’t have to be with a woman,” Piers said, nipping his coat out of Sandys’s hand and shaking his sleeve straight again.
“How can he have syphilis without—”
“It could have been a man.”
Sandys looked so shocked that Piers relented. “Or it could have been you, which is far more likely. The rosy ladies you visited as a youth infected the boy before he was even born.”
“I was treated with mercury,” Sandys protested.
“To no avail. You still have it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have important things to do. Like treat a patient who might live for another year.”
Piers strolled out, finding his butler Prufrock in the hallway. “I wonder how you ever get anything done,” he said to him. “It must be hard to run a household when you have to conduct all your business in the corridors so you can hear every golden word that falls from my lips.”
“I do not find it a particular problem,” Prufrock said, falling in beside him. “But then I have lots of practice. You don’t think that you were a trifle hard on Lord Sandys?”
“Hard? Was I hard? Surely not. I told him exactly what was wrong with his son, and what to do next—in short, go home and wait for choirs of angels, because there are no miracles on this side of the divide.”
“It’s his son that’s dying. And if I got you right, he gave the poor lad the illness. That’s a blow, that is.”
“My father wouldn’t have minded a bit,” Piers assured him. “If he had another heir, that is. But Sandys has a whole passel of children. An heir and more to spare.”
“How do you know that?”
“The church, you fool. He put this boy into the church and seems to have trained him up to it from an early age, too. The heir must be rousting about in brothels just like good old Pa. Sandys would never have allowed the spare near a Bible if he were, in fact, the heir. This one is expendable, which is a bloody good thing, under the circumstances.”
“Your father the duke would be greatly disturbed at the very idea that he’d passed on a disease of this nature,” Prufrock said.
“Perhaps,” Piers said, pretending to consider it. “And perhaps not. I’m amazed my father hasn’t married a fresh young thing of twenty. Or sixteen. Time’s a-wasting and at this rate he’ll never have another heir.”
“His Grace was devoted to Her Grace and wounded by the terrible events of the past,” Prufrock said with a palpable lack of attention to the truth.
Piers didn’t bother answering that. His leg hurt as if someone had stuck a hot poker into his thigh. “I need a drink, so why don’t you rush ahead like a good butler and meet me at the door of the library with a strong brandy?”
“I’ll keep walking next to you in case you keel over,” Prufrock said.
“I suppose you have visions of breaking my fall,” Piers said, giving his scrawny butler a sidelong glance.
“Actually, no. But I could call for a footman who could drag you along the corridor. It’s marble, so you might get a concussion, and that might make you a bit kinder to your patients, not to mention your staff. You had Betsy in tears again this morning. You seem to think scullery maids grow on trees.”
Thank God, they were getting close to the library. Piers paused for a moment, the idea of amputation flitting through his mind, and not for the first time. He could get one of those Egyptian bed-things that Cleopatra had herself carried about on. Walking would be a damned sight more difficult, but at least he’d be free of this infernal pain.
“Your father has written,” Prufrock told him. “I took the liberty of putting the letter on your desk.”
“Took the liberty of steaming it open, more like,” Piers said. “What does he have to say?”
“He expresses some interest in your marital future,” Prufrock said cheerfully. “It seems that last missive you sent him, the one listing all your demands for a spouse, did not dissuade him. Rather surprising, I must say.”
“The one that called him an idiot?” Piers asked. “Did you read that one too, you pestilent polecat?”
“You’re quite poetical today,” Prufrock observed. “All that alliteration in the service of mopsies and mollishers, and now for your lowly butler. I’m honored, I assure you.”
“What’s the duke writing about now?” Piers said. He could see the library door. He could almost feel the brandy going down his throat. “I told him that I wouldn’t accept a wife unless she was as beautiful as the sun and the moon. Which is a quote from literature, in case you don’t know. And I added quite a lot of other provisions as well, ones guaranteed to send him into a frothing fit of despair.”
“He’s looking for a wife,” Prufrock said.
“For himself, I would hope. Although he’s waited a bit long,” Piers said, failing to summon any particular interest in this news. “Men of his age don’t have the balls they once had, if you’ll excuse the vulgar truth of it, Prufrock. Lord knows you have more delicate sensibilities than I do.”
“I used to before I began working for you,” Prufrock said, pushing open the library door with a flourish.
Piers had one thing in mind. It was golden, tasted like fire, and would cut the pain in his leg.
“So he’s looking for a wife,” he repeated without paying any attention to the words, but heading straight for the brandy decanter. He poured out a hefty dose. “It’s been a rotten day. Not that it matters to me, or you, for that matter, but there’s nothing I can do for that young woman who showed up at the back door this morning.”
“The one who’s all swollen in the belly?”
“It’s not the usual swelling, and if I cut her open, I’ll kill her. If I don’t cut her open, the disease will kill her. So I took the easier of the two options.” He threw back the brandy.
“You sent her away?”
“She had nowhere to go. I turned her over to Nurse Matilda, with instructions to bed her down in the west wing with enough opium to keep her mind off what’s happening next. Thank God this castle is big enough to house half the dying people in England.”
“Your father,” Prufrock said, “and the question of marriage.”
He was trying to distract him. Piers poured another glass, smaller this time. He had no wish to stick his head in a bottle of brandy and never come out again, if only because he’d learned from his patients that overindulgence meant that brandy wouldn’t blunt the pain anymore. “Ah, marriage,” he said obediently. “About time. My mother’s been gone these twenty years. Well, gone isn’t quite the word, is it? At any rate, darling maman is over on the Continent living the good life, so His Grace might as well remarry. It wasn’t easy to get that divorce, you know. Probably cost him as much as a small estate. He should make hay while the sun shines, or in short, while he’s still able to get a rise every other day.”
“Your father’s not getting married,” Prufrock said. Something in his tone made Piers glance up.
“You weren’t joking.”
The butler nodded. “It is my impression that His Grace sees you—or your marriage -- as a challenge. It could be that you shouldn’t have listed quite so many requirements. One might say that it fired up the duke’s resolve. Got him interested in the project, so to speak.”
“The devil you say. He’ll never manage to find anyone. I have a reputation, you know.”
“Your title is weightier than your reputation,” Prufrock said. “Additionally, there is the small matter of your father’s estate.”
“You’re probably right, damn you.” Piers decided he could manage another small glass. “But what about my injury, hmm? You think a woman would agree to marry a man—what am I saying? Of course a woman would agree to that.”
“I doubt many young ladies would see that as an insurmountable problem,” Prufrock said. “Now, your personality…”
“Damn you,” Piers said, but without heat.
End of Chapter Two. Like it? Order it!
The moment Linnet returned to the drawing room, her father groaned aloud. “I turned down three marriage proposals for you last month, and I can tell you right now that I’ll never receive another one. Hell, I wouldn’t believe you a maiden myself. You look four or five months along.”
Linnet sat down rather heavily, her skirts floating up like a white cloud and then settling around her. “I’m not,” she said. “I am not pregnant.” She was starting to feel almost as if she truly were carrying a child.
“Ladies don’t use that word,” Lord Sundon said. “Didn’t you learn anything from that governess of yours?” He waved his quizzing glass in the air the better to illustrate his point. “One might refer to a delicate condition, or perhaps to being enceinte. Never to pregnancy, a harsh word with harsh connotations. The pleasure, the joy of being of our rank, is that we may overlook the earthy, the fertile, the…”
Linnet stopped listening. Her father was a vision in pale blue, his waistcoat fastened with silver buttons inset with ivory poppies, his Prussian collar a miracle of elegance. He was very good at overlooking anything earthy, but she’d never been as successful.
At that moment a long banging sounded at the door. Despite herself, Linnet looked up hopefully when their butler entered to announce the visitor. Surely Prince Augustus had rethought. How could he sit in his castle, knowing that she was being rejected by the ton? He must have heard about the disastrous events of the ball, the way no one had spoken to her after he left.
Of course, the prince had taken himself away while the news was still spreading through the ballroom. He had walked out the door with his cronies without a backward glance at her…and after that every face in that ballroom turned away from her. Apparently they were only waiting to see what his reaction was to being told she was carrying a child.
Yet he, if anyone, knew it to be a taradiddle. At least, he knew the child wasn’t his. Maybe that was why he threw her over so abruptly. Perhaps he too believed the stories and thought she was pregnant by another man.
The cut direct from an entire ballroom. It had to be a first.
The caller wasn’t Prince Augustus, but Linnet’s aunt, Lady Etheridge, known to her intimates as Zenobia. She had chosen that name for herself, realizing as a young girl that Hortense didn’t suit her personality.
“I knew this would come to grief,” she announced, stopping just inside the door and dropping her gloves to the floor rather than handing them to the footman just to her right.
Zenobia relished a good drama, and when inebriated was prone to informing a whole dinner table that she could have played Lady Macbeth better than Sarah Siddons. “I told you once, if I told you a hundred times, Cornelius, that girl is too pretty for her own good. And I was right. Here she is, enceinte, and all of London party to the news except for me.”
“I’m not—” Linnet said.
But she was drowned out by her father, who chose to avoid the question at hand and go on the attack. “It’s not my daughter’s fault that she takes after her mother.”
“My sister was as pure as the driven snow,” Zenobia bellowed back.
The battle was properly engaged now, and there would be no stopping it.
“My wife may have been snowy—and God knows I’m the one to speak to that—but she was certainly warm enough when she cared to be. We all know how fast the Ice Maiden could warm up, particularly when she was around royalty, now I think of it!”
“Rosalyn deserved a king,” Zenobia screamed. She strode into the room and planted herself as if she were about to shoot an arrow. Linnet recognized the stance: it was just what Mrs. Siddons had done the week before on the Covent Garden stage, when her Desdemona repudiated Othello’s cruel accusations of unfaithfulness.
Poor Papa was hardly a warrior like Othello, though. The fact was that her dearest mama had been rampantly unfaithful to him, and he knew it. And so did Aunt Zenobia, though she was choosing to play ignorant.
“I really don’t see that the question is relevant,” Linnet put in. “Mama died some years ago now, and her fondness for royalty is neither here nor there.”
Her aunt threw her a swooning look. “I will always defend your mother, though she lies in the cold, cold grave.”
Linnet slumped back in her corner. True, her mother was in the grave. And frankly, she thought she missed her mother more than Zenobia did, given that the sisters had fought bitterly every time they met. Mostly over men, it had to be admitted. Though to her credit, her aunt wasn’t nearly as trollopy as her mama had been.
“It’s the beauty,” her father was saying. “It’s gone to Linnet’s head, just as it did to Rosalyn’s. My wife thought beauty gave her license to do whatever she liked—”
“Rosalyn never did anything untoward!” Zenobia interrupted.
“She skirted respectability for years,” her father continued, raising his voice. “And now her daughter has followed in her footsteps, and Linnet is ruined. Ruined!”
Linnet’s aunt opened her mouth—and then snapped it shut. There was a pause. “Rosalyn is hardly the question here,” she said finally, patting her hair. “We must concentrate on dear Linnet now. Stand up, dear.”
Linnet stood up.
“Five months, I’d say,” Zenobia stated. “How on earth you managed to hide that from me, I don’t know. Why, I was as shocked as anyone last night. The Countess of Derby was quite sharp with me, thinking I’d been concealing it. I had to admit that I knew nothing of it, and I’m not entirely sure she believed me.”
“I am not carrying a child,” Linnet said, enunciating the words slowly.
“She said the same last night,” her father confirmed. “And earlier this morning, she didn’t look it.” But he peered at her waist. “Now she does.”
Linnet pushed down the cloth that billowed out just under her breasts. “See, I’m not enceinte. There’s nothing there but cloth.”
“My dear, you’ll have to tell us sometime,” Zenobia said, taking out a tiny mirror and peering at herself. “It’s not as if it’s going anywhere. At this rate, you’ll be bigger than a house in a matter of a few months. I myself retired to the country as soon as my waistline expanded even a trifle.”
“What are we going to do with her?” her father moaned, collapsing into a chair as suddenly as a puppet with cut strings.
“Nothing you can do,” Zenobia said, powdering her nose. “No one wants a cuckoo in the nest. You’ll have to send her abroad and see if she can catch someone there, after all this unpleasantness is over, of course. You’d better double her dowry. Thankfully, she’s an heiress. Someone will take her on.”
She put down her powder puff and shook her finger at Linnet. “Your mother would be very disappointed, my dear. Didn’t she teach you anything?”
“I suppose you mean that Rosalyn should have trained her in the arts of being as dissipated as she herself was,” her father retorted. But he was still drooping in his seat, and had obviously lost his fire.
“I did not sleep with the prince,” Linnet said, as clearly and as loudly as she could. “I might have done so, obviously. Perhaps if I had, he would have felt constrained to marry me now. But I chose not to.”
Her father groaned and dropped his head onto the back of his chair.
“I didn’t hear that,” Zenobia said, narrowing her eyes. “At least royalty is some sort of excuse. If this child is the result of anything less than ducal blood, I don’t want to hear a word about it.”
“I didn’t—” Linnet tried.
Her aunt cut her off with a sharp gesture. “I just realized, Cornelius, that this might be the saving of you.” She turned to Linnet. “Tell us who fathered that child, and your father will demand marriage. No one below a prince would dare to refuse him.”
Without pausing for breath, she swung back to her brother-in-law. “You might have to fight a duel, Cornelius. I suppose you have pistols somewhere in this house, don’t you? Didn’t you threaten to fight one with Lord Billetsford years ago?”
“After finding him in bed with Rosalyn,” Linnet’s father said. He didn’t even sound mournful, just matter-of-fact. “New bed; we’d had it only a week or two.”
“My sister had many passions,” Zenobia said fondly.
“I thought you just said she was white as snow!” the viscount snapped back.
“None of them touched her soul! She died in a state of grace.”
No one was inclined to argue with this, so Zenobia continued. “At any rate, you’d better pull out those pistols, Cornelius, and see if they still work. You might have to threaten to kill the man. Though in my experience if you double the dowry, it’ll all come around quickly enough.”
“There’s no man to shoot,” Linnet said.
Zenobia snorted. “Don’t tell me you’re going to try for virgin birth, my love. I can’t imagine that it worked very well back in Jerusalem. Every time the priest talks about it at Christmas time, I can’t help thinking that the poor girl must have had a miserable time trying to get people to believe her.”
“I can’t imagine why you’re bringing scripture into this conversation,” Linnet’s father said. “We’re talking about princes, not gods.”
Linnet groaned. “This dress just makes me look plump.”
Zenobia sank into a chair. “Do you mean to tell me that you aren’t carrying a child?”
“I’ve been saying that. I didn’t sleep with the prince, or anyone else either.”
There was a mournful pause while the truth at last sunk in. “God Almighty, you’re ruined, and you didn’t even eat the gingerbread,” her aunt said, finally. “What’s more, just displaying your waistline to its best advantage would be no help at this point. People would simply assume that you had, as one might say, taken care of the problem.”
“After the prince refused her to marry her,” the viscount said heavily. “I’d assume it myself, under the circumstances.”
“It’s unfair,” Linnet said fiercely. “With Mama’s—ah—reputation, people naturally expected that I might be rather flirtatious—”
“That’s an understatement,” her father said. “They thought you’d be a baggage, and now they know you’re one. Except you’re not.”
“It’s the beauty,” her aunt said, preening a little. “The women in my family are simply cursed by our beauty. Look at dear Rosalyn, dying so young.”
“I don’t see that it’s cursed you,” the viscount said, rather rudely.
“Oh, but it has,” Zenobia said. “It has, it has, it has. It taught me what could have been, had I not had the chains of birth holding me back. I could have graced the world’s stages, you know. Rosalyn too. I expect that’s why she was so—”
“So what?” the viscount said, leaping on it.
“Irresistible,” Zenobia said.
Linnet’s father snorted. “Impure, more like.”
“She knew that she could have married the finest in the land,” Zenobia said rather dreamily. “And you see, that same dream caught our darling Linnet in its coils and now she’s ruined.”
“Rosalyn could not have married the finest in the land,” the viscount said. “There’s a reason for the Royal Marriage Laws, you know.” He pointed a finger at Linnet. “Didn’t you even think of that before you created such a scandal with young Augustus? For Christ’s sake, everyone knows that he up and married a German woman a few years ago. In Rome, I believe. The king himself had to get involved and annul the marriage.”
“I didn’t know until yesterday,” Linnet said. “When Augustus told me so.”
“No one tells girls that sort of thing,” her aunt said dismissively. “If you were so worried about her, Cornelius, why didn’t you trot around to those parties and watch over her yourself?”
“Because I was busy! And I found a woman to chaperone her, since you were too lazy to do it yourself. Mrs. Hutchins. Perfectly respectable in every way, and seemed to grasp the problem, too. Where is that woman? She assured me that she would keep your name as white as the driven snow.”
“She refused to come downstairs.”
“Afraid to face the music,” he muttered. “And where’s your governess? She’s another one. I told her and told her that you had to be twice as chaste to make up for your mother’s reputation.”
“Mrs. Flaccide took insult last night when you said she was a limb of Satan and accused her of turning me into a doxy.”
“I’d had a spot or two of drink,” her father said, looking utterly unrepentant. “I drowned my sorrows after I was told to my face—to my face!— that my only daughter had been debauched.”
“She left about an hour later,” Linnet continued. “And I doubt she’s coming back, because Tinkle says that she took a great deal of silver with her.”
“The silver is irrelevant,” Zenobia said. “You should never make the best servants angry, because they invariably know where all the valuables are kept. Far more important, I expect your governess knew all about any billets-doux that royal twig might have sent you?”
“He didn’t write me any love letters, if that’s what you mean. But early one morning about a month ago he did throw strawberries at my bedchamber window. She and Mrs. Hutchins said at the time that we mustn’t let anyone know.”
“And now Flaccide out telling the world about it,” her aunt announced. “You really are a fool, Cornelius. You should have paid her five hundred pounds on the spot and shipped her off to Suffolk. Now Flaccide is out there turning one strawberry into a whole field. She’ll have Linnet carrying twins.”
Linnet thought her governess would likely leap at the chance. They’d never really liked each other. In truth, women rarely liked her. From the moment she debuted four months ago, the other girls had clustered into groups and giggled behind their hands. But no one ever let Linnet in on the joke.
Zenobia reached out and rang the bell. “I can’t think why you haven’t offered me any tea, Cornelius. Linnet’s life may have taken a new corner, but we still have to eat.”
“I’m ruined, and you want tea?” her father moaned.
Tinkle opened the door so quickly that Linnet knew he’d been listening in, not that she was surprised.
“We’ll have tea and something to eat along with it,” Zenobia told him. “You’d better bring along something for reducing as well.”
The butler frowned.
“Cucumbers, vinegar, something of that nature,” she said impatiently. When he closed the door, she waved at Linnet’s bosom. “We must do something about that. No one would describe you as plump, my dear, but you’re not exactly a wraith either, are you?”
Linnet counted to five again. “My figure is exactly like my mother’s. And yours.”
“Satan’s temptation,” her father said morosely. “It isn’t seemly so uncovered.”
“No such luck,” Linnet said. “I got a prince, but the king of darkness never made an appearance.”
“Augustus couldn’t be even a minor devil,” her aunt said consideringly. “I’m not surprised he didn’t manage to seduce you, now I think on it. He’s a bit of a nincompoop.”
“There shouldn’t be styles that make a young girl look like a matron with a babe on the way,” Lord Sundon stated. “If there is, I don’t want a part of it. That is, I wouldn’t want a part of it if I were the type to wear dresses. That is, if I were a woman.”
“You’re getting more foolish every year,” Zenobia observed. “Why my sister ever agreed to marry you, I’ll never know.”
“Mama loved Papa,” Linnet said as firmly as she could. She’d fastened onto that fact years ago, in the aftermath of a confusing evening when she’d encountered her mother with another gentleman in an intimate setting, engaged in a very intimate activity.
“I love your father,” her mother had told her at the time. “But darling, love is just not enough for women such as myself. I must have adoration, verses, poetry, flowers, jewels…not to mention the fact that François is built like a god and hung like a horse.”
Linnet had blinked at her, and her mother had said, “Never mind, darling, I’ll explain it all later, when you’re a bit older.”
She never got around to it, but Linnet had somehow managed to garner enough information to interpret what had caught her mother’s attention with regards to François.
Now her father’s eyes flickered toward her. “Rosalyn loved me the way Augustus loves you. In short: not enough.”
“For goodness’ sake,” Zenobia cried. “This is enough to send me into the Slough of Despond! Let poor Rosalyn rest in her grave, would you? You make me rue the day she decided to accept your hand.”
“It’s brought it all back to mind,” the viscount said heavily. “Linnet takes after her mother; anyone can see that.”
“That’s quite unfair,” Linnet said, scowling at him. “I have been a model of chastity this season. In fact, through my entire life!”
He frowned. “It’s just that there’s something about you—”
“You look naughty,” her aunt said, not unkindly. “God help Rosalyn, but this is all her fault. She gave it to you. That dimple, and something in your eyes and about your mouth. You look like a wanton.”
“A wanton would have had a great deal more fun this season that I had,” Linnet protested. “I’ve been as demure as any young lady in the ton—you can ask Mrs. Hutchins.”
“It does seem unfair,” Zenobia agreed. A golden drop of honey suspended itself from her crumpet and swung gently before falling onto the pale violet silk of her morning dress.
“I hope that you told the countess that I was never alone with Augustus at any point,” Linnet said.
“How could I do that?” Zenobia inquired. “I’m not privy to your social calendar, my dear. I was as shocked as the dear countess, I can tell you that.”
Linnet groaned. “I could strip naked in Almack’s, and still no one would believe that I wasn’t carrying a child, no matter how slim my waist. You practically confirmed it, Aunt Zenobia. And Papa dismissed Miss Flaccide, and I’m quite sure that she’s saying wretched things about me all over London. I truly will have to live abroad, or in the country somewhere.”
“French men are very easy to please, though there is that inconvenient war going on,” Zenobia said encouragingly. “But I’ve got another idea.”
Linnet couldn’t bring herself to ask, but her father asked wearily, “What is it?”
“Yelverton, Windebank’s heir.”
“Windebank? Who the devil’s that? Do you mean Yonnington, Walter Yonnington? Because if his son is anything like his father, I wouldn’t let Linnet near him, even if she were carrying a child.”
“Very kind of you, Papa,” Linnet murmured. Since her aunt had not offered her a crumpet, she helped herself.
“Reducing, my dear. Thinking reducing,” Zenobia said in a kindly yet firm tone.
Linnet tightened her mouth and put extra butter on her crumpet.
Her aunt sighed. “Yelverton’s title is Duke of Windebank, Cornelius. Really, I wonder how you manage to make your way around Lords at all, with your spotty knowledge of the aristocracy.”
“I know what I need to know,” the viscount said. “And I don’t bother with that I don’t need. If you meant Windebank, why didn’t you just say so?”
“I was thinking of his son,” Zenobia explained. “The man’s got the second title, of course. Now let me think… I do believe that his given name is something odd. Peregrine, Penrose—Piers, that’s it.”
“He sounds like a dock,” Lord Sundon put in.
“Mrs. Hutchins called me a light frigate this morning,” Linnet said. “A dock might be just the thing for me.”
Zenobia shook her head. “That’s just the kind of remark that got you in this situation, Linnet. I’ve told you time and again, all that cleverness does you no good. People would like a lady to be beautiful, but they expect her to be ladylike, in short: sweet, compliant and refined.”
“And yet you are universally taken for a lady,” Linnet retorted.
“I am married,” Zenobia says. “Or I was, until Philip passed on. I don’t need to show sweetness and light. You do. You’d better polish up some ladylike chatter before you get to Wales to meet Yelverton. His title would be Earl of Marchant. Or would it be Mossford? I can’t quite remember. I’ve never met him, of course.”
“Neither have I,” Lord Sundon said. “Are you trying to match Linnet off with a stripling, Zenobia? It’ll never work.”
“He’s no stripling. He must be over thirty. Thirty-five at least. Surely you remember the story, Cornelius?”
“I pay no attention to stories,” the viscount said testily. “It was the only way to survive under the same roof with your sister.”
“You need to do a treatment to clean out your spleen,” Zenobia said, putting down her crumpet. “You are letting bile ferment in your system, Cornelius, and it’s a very powerful emotion. Rosalyn is dead. Let her be dead, if you please!”
Linnet decided it was time to speak. “Aunt Zenobia, why would you think that the duke would be interested in matching me with his son? If that’s indeed what you were thinking?”
“He’s desperate,” her aunt said. “Heard it from Mrs. Nemble, and she’s bosom friends with Lady Grymes, and you know that her husband is Windebank’s half-brother.”
“No, I don’t know,” the viscount said. “And I don’t care either. Why is Windebank desperate? Is his son simple-minded? I can’t recall seeing any sons around Lords or in Boodle’s.”
“Not simple-minded,” Zenobia said triumphantly. “Even better!”
There was a moment of silence as both Linnet and her father thought about what that could mean.
“He hasn’t got what it takes,” her aunt clarified.
“He hasn’t?” Sundon asked blankly.
“Minus a digit,” Zenobia added.
“A finger?” Linnet ventured.
“For goodness’ sake,” Zenobia said, licking a bit of honey off one finger. “I always have to spell everything out in this house. The man suffered an accident as a young man. He walks with a cane. And that accident left him impotent, to call a stone a stone. No heir now, and none in the future either.”
“In fact, in this particular case,” her father said with distinct satisfaction, “a stone isn’t a stone.”
“Impotent?” Linnet asked. “What does that mean?”
There was a moment’s silence while her two closest relatives examined her closely, as if she were a rare species of beetle they’d found under the carpet.
“That’s for you to explain,” her father said, turning to Zenobia.
“Not in front of you,” Zenobia said.
“All you need to know at the moment is that he can’t have a child,” her aunt added. “That’s the crucial point.”
Linnet instantly put that fact together with various comments her mother had made over the years, and found she had absolutely no inclination to inquire further. “How is that better than simple-minded?” she asked. “In a husband, I mean.”
“Simple-minded could mean drool at the dinner table and lord knows what,” her aunt explained.
“You’re talking about the Beast!” her father suddenly exclaimed. “I’ve heard all about him. Just didn’t put it together at first.”
“Marchant is no beast,” Zenobia scoffed. “That’s rank gossip, Cornelius, and I would think it beneath you.”
“Everyone calls him that,” the viscount pointed out. “The man’s got a terrible temper. Brilliant doctor—or so everyone says—but the temper of a fiend.”
“A tantrum here or there is part of marriage,” Zenobia said, shrugging. “Wait until he sees how beautiful Linnet is. He’ll be shocked and delighted that fate blessed him with such a lovely bride.”
“Must I really choose between simple-minded and beastly?” Linnet inquired.
“No, between simple-minded and incapable,” her aunt said impatiently. “Your new husband will be grateful for that child you’re supposedly carrying, and I can tell you that your new father-in-law will be ecstatic.”
“He will?” Sundon asked.
“Don’t you understand yet?” Zenobia said, jumping to her feet. She walked a few steps, and then twirled around in a fine gesture. “On the one side, we have a lonely duke, with one son. Just one. And that duke is obsessed with royalty, mind. He considers himself a bosom friend of the king, or at least he did before the king turned batty as a…as a bat.”
“Got that,” the viscount said.
“Hush,” Zenobia said impatiently. She hated being interrupted. “On the one side, the lonely, desperate duke. On the other, the wounded, incapable son. In the balance…a kingdom.”
“A kingdom?” the viscount repeated, his eyes bulging.
“She means it metaphorically,” Linnet said, taking another crumpet. She had seen rather more of her aunt than her father had, and she was familiar with her love of rhetorical flourishes.
“A kingdom without a future, because there is no child to carry on the family name,” Zenobia said, opening her eyes wide.
“Is the duke—” Sundon began.
“Hush,” she snapped. “I ask you, what does this desperately unhappy family need?”
Neither Linnet nor her father dared to answer.
Which was fine, because she had only paused for effect. “I ask you again, what does this desperately unhappy family need? They need…an heir!”
“Don’t we all,” the viscount said, sighing.
Linnet reached out and patted her father’s hand. It was one of the rather unkind facts of life that her mama had been extremely free with her favors, and yet she had given her husband only one child, a daughter, who could not inherit the major part of her father’s estate.
“They need,” Zenobia said, raising her voice so as to regain her audience, “they need a prince!”
After a minute or so, Linnet ventured to say, “A prince, Aunt Zenobia?”
That gained her the beatific smile of an actress receiving accolades, if not armfuls of roses, from her audience. “A prince, my dear. And you, lucky girl, have exactly what he needs. He’s looking for a heir, and you have that heir, and what’s more, you’re offering royal bloodlines.”
“I see what you mean,” the viscount said slowly. “It’s not a terrible idea, Zenobia.”
She got a little pink in the face. “None of my ideas are terrible. Ever.”
“But I don’t have a prince,” Linnet said. “If I understand you correctly, the Duke of Windebank is looking for a pregnant woman—”
Her father growled and she amended her statement. “That is, the duke would perhaps acquiesce to a woman in my unfortunate situation because that way his son would have a son –
“Not just a son,” Zenobia said, her voice still triumphant. “A prince. Windebank isn’t going to take just any lightskirt into his family. He’s frightfully haughty, you know. He’d rather die. But a prince’s son? He’ll fall for that.”
“You’re right about that, Zenobia. Be gad, you’re a canny old woman!” her father roared.
Zenobia’s back snapped straight. “What did you say to me, Cornelius?”
He waved his hand. “Didn’t mean it that way, didn’t mean it that way. Pure admiration. Pure unmitigated admiration. Pure—”
“I agree,” she said in a conciliatory tone, patting her hair. “It’s a perfect plan. You’d better go to him this afternoon though. You have to get her all the way to Wales for the marriage. Marchant lives up there.”
“Marriage,” Linnet said. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
They both looked at her and said simultaneously, “What?”
“I’m not carrying a prince!” she shouted. “I never slept with Augustus. Inside my belly I have nothing but a chewed-up crumpet.”
“That is a disgusting comment,” her aunt said with a shudder.
“I agree,” her father chimed in. “Quite distasteful. You sound like a city wife, talking of food in that manner.”
“Distasteful is the fact that you are planning to sell off my unborn child to a duke with a penchant for royalty—when I don’t even have an unborn child of royalty!”
“I said this would all have to happen quite quickly,” her aunt said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s say that your father goes to Windebank’s house this very afternoon, and let’s say that Windebank takes the bait, because he will. As I said, the man is desperate, and besides, he would love to meld his line with royal blood.”
“That doesn’t solve the problem,” Linnet said.
“Well, of course not,” Zenobia said, giving her a kindly smile. “We can’t do everything for you. The next part is up to you.”
“What do you mean?”
Her father got up, obviously not listening. “I’ll put on my Jean de Bry coat and Hessians,” he said to himself.
“Not the de Bry,” Zenobia called after him.
He paused at the door. “Why not?”
“The shoulders are a trifle anxious. You mustn’t seem anxious. You’re offering to save the man’s line, after all.”
“Sage-green court coat with a scalloped edge,” her father said, nodding, and disappeared through the door.
“Aunt Zenobia,” Linnet said, showing infinite patience, to her mind. “Just how am I supposed to get a child of royal blood to offer to the husband I’ve never met?”
Zenobia smiled. “My dear, you aren’t a woman of my family if you have to ask that.”
Linnet’s mouth fell open. “You don’t mean—”
“Of course, darling. As soon as your father signs those papers, you have…oh…twelve hours before you really should leave for Wales.”
“Twelve hours,” Linnet echoed, hoping she was mistaken in what she was thinking. “You can’t possibly mean—”
“Augustus has been following you about like a child with a string toy,” her aunt said. “Shouldn’t take more than a come-hither glance and a cheerful smile. Goodness sakes, dear, didn’t you learn anything from your mother?”
“No,” Linnet said flatly.
“Actually, with your bosom you don’t even need to smile,” Zenobia said.
“So you really mean—” Linnet stopped. “I—I—”
“You. Augustus. Seduction. Bed,” her aunt said helpfully. “Twelve hours and only one prince…should be quite easy.”
“You are Rosalyn’s daughter,” her aunt said. “And my niece. Seduction, especially when it comes to royalty, is bred in your bones. In your very bloodline.”
“I don’t know how,” Linnet said flatly. “I may look naughty, but I’m not.”
“Yes, you are,” her aunt said brightly. She rose. “Just get yourself a child, Linnet. Think how many young women manage to do it and they haven’t nearly your advantages, to wit, your body, your face, your smile.”
“My entire education has been directed at chastity,” Linnet pointed out. “I had a governess a good five years longer than other girls, just so I wouldn’t learn such things.”
“Your father’s fault. He was burned by Rosalyn’s indiscretions.”
There must have been something about Linnet’s face, because Zenobia sighed with the air of a woman supporting the weight of the world. “I suppose I could find you a willing man if you really can’t bring yourself to approach the prince. It’s most unconventional, but of course one knows, one cannot help but know of establishments that might help.”
“What sort of establishments?”
“Brothels catering to women, of course,” Zenobia said. “I do believe there’s one near Covent Garden that I was just told about…men of substance, that’s what I heard. They come for the sport of it, I suppose.”
“Aunt, you can’t possibly mean—”
“If you can’t seduce the prince, we’ll have to approach the problem from another angle,” she said, coming over and patting Linnet’s arm. “I’ll take you to the brothel. As I understand it, a lady can stand behind a curtain and pick out the man she wants. We’d better choose one with a resemblance to Augustus. I wonder if we could just send a message to that effect and have the man delivered in a carriage?”
“I don’t want you to think that I would ever desert you in your hour of need,” her aunt said. “I feel all the burden of a mother’s love, now that darling Rosalyn is gone.”
It was amazing how her aunt had managed to ignore that burden during the season and indeed for years before that, but Linnet couldn’t bring herself to point it out. “I am not going to a brothel,” she stated.
“In that case,” Zenobia said cheerily, “I suggest you sit down and write that naughty prince a little note. You’re wise to choose him over the brothel, truly. One hates to start marriage with a fib involving babies. Marriage leads one into fibs by the very nature of life: all those temptations. One always orders too many gowns, and overspends one’s allowance. Not to mention men.” She kissed the tips of her fingers.
“But I wanted—”
“I am so pleased not to be married at the moment,” Zenobia said. “Not that I’m happy dear Philip died, of course. Ah well…”
Zenobia was gone.
And what Linnet wanted from marriage was clearly no longer a question worth discussion.
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