Chapter 1

"Let go!" The girl - young lady, actually - who had been set upon by three larger lads, was fighting to retain the basket they were trying to take from her. "That's mine!"

"Not no more," one of the boys said, giving a final tug and relieving her arm of its burden. Samantha growled and grabbed the handle, intent on its ownership.

"I said..."

"I believe the lady said the basket belongs to her," a deep, masculine voice interrupted. Samantha let go and looked up into the face of a handsome gentleman.

He was not overly tall, but he had kind eyes and dark, curling hair that nestled a fashionable beaver hat. His coat was gray, like his eyes, and he daringly sported a ruby in his starched white neckcloth, something most would not dare do in this part of town. Yes, definitely a gentleman, in looks as well as action.

Not that she had seen many gentlemen. Her father was the vicar of a poor East London parish that catered mostly to elderly women. The parish was so destitute, in fact, most services were conducted in the parlor of their small house, attached to one side of St. Matthew's, because the old ladies complained of the lack of heat in the cavernous sanctuary.

Samantha gawked at the man, much like the boys were doing, and she was as amazed as they when he insisted they hand over the basket. They complied.

"Run along with you," he said coldly. The boys disappeared more quickly than her household allowance at the market. The gentleman indicated his carriage. "May I offer you a ride to wherever you are headed, miss?"

Samantha gasped. He had saved her only to offer her ... whatever! "No, thank you," came her stiff reply. "I am not far..." She waved vaguely in the opposite direction of her home, thinking to make her escape. Unfortunately, the gentleman still held her basket.

"I do not like the idea of those lads coming back for your..." He lifted the basket's cloth covering and found two small eggs, a length of sausage and an apple. "...Your dinner."

Samantha almost choked. That basket held dinner and breakfast. "Thank you again for your assistance, but I shall be fine now," she assured him.

The gentleman knew what direction she had been heading, but could see she was uncomfortable in his presence and did not make an issue of it. He had no intention other than to rescue her from those boys, after all, but had not missed the cultured tone of her voice, so out of place in this part of town. Checking his watch - the meeting at the charity hospital had gone on longer than planned - he nodded, wished her a safe trip home and walked on.

Samantha waited until he was out of sight before scurrying home, not realizing he had sent a young footman to see where she lived.

There was no time that week to dream about tall gentlemen with curly hair and gray eyes who rescued damsels in distress, just as there was no time to dream about anything not connected with cleaning house, keeping her father fed with what little they could afford and ensuring everything was ready for the Sunday morning service.

If her mother had just made amends with her family after running off with a dancing master at age seventeen, Samantha might have been able to afford a few dreams. But the former Lady Vanessa had ended up married to a kindly, older vicar, with a daughter born more than a year later, and had forbidden her husband - and in later years, her daughter, as well - to discuss that side of the family.

On Sunday, the old ladies gathered in the parlor as usual, and Samantha was collecting their meager tithes when there was a commotion at the door. She looked up from where she was holding the basket in front of Mrs. Bledsoe as her rescuer strolled in the room, bleary eyed and wearing evening dress, as if he had not yet gone to bed.

"There you are, little lady!" he said, his slurred words accompanied by the reek of strong drink.

A few of the women gasped, but most of them tittered and declared Miss Howard had a "rum one" coming to services, giggling at their own joke.

"Yes, er, well..." The vicar was at a loss for words, not quite connecting the gentleman's appearance with his own daughter.

"He was just leaving, Papa," Samantha said over the whispers and nudges.

"But Mary, God's house is open to all," her father said in some confusion, calling her by her hated first name.

The gentleman nodded vigorously, rooted to the spot and clearly enjoying the attention. "That's right, Mary. Especially sinners."

"Not this sinner!" she insisted, pinching his arm and using his surprised yelp as the impetus to shove him out of the parlor. "How dare you go in there smelling of liquor!" she hissed as they went into the hall.

"But the old man in the sant ... the sanch ... the church said services were in here." He swayed toward her. "Don't I need sav ... san ... sal ... saving?"

"You need to go home and sleep it off!"

"Some gras ... graf ... grat ... help you are!" he said with a pout. "I save your dinner and you won't save my soul?"

"Only God can do that - check with your local clergyman at St. George's or wherever you go to pray. If you pray. I'm sure he will tell you to contribute some money and then you can go your merry, dissipated way." She shoved him toward the front door, a militant gleam in her brown eyes.

"But I want to confess all, here and now," he insisted.

"Repent on your own time, sir." With those words, she pushed him out the door and onto the street, the lock clicking in place with an audible snick. She watched from behind a window covered in threadbare hangings as he picked himself up out of the mud and lurched off.

It wasn't until later that day she discovered someone had filled the church's poor box with a large handful of gold sovereigns.

The gentleman's drunken appearance went a long way to curing Miss Mary Samantha Agnes Howard of her daydreams, so much so that when she became an orphan less than a month later, she no longer harbored a wish that he would return and sweep her off her feet.

There was no time for such wishes, really, what with selling off as many of her father's possessions as she could and trying to find a position as a governess. The woman who ran one of the agencies she had applied to, however, had advised her to become a companion.

"You're much too pretty to get hired to teach children, even if your knowledge is superior to many who come through these doors. Find a nice old lady with a full social life, so you can attract a wealthy husband."

Samantha wasn't so sure about the husband part, but a nice old lady would suit her just fine. Snatching up a copy of the Gazette someone had left in the front of the agency, she went back to the vicarage to look through the advertisements. She had one week before her father's replacement was to arrive.

There was nothing suitable in the paper.

Sending the only servant, Gertie, out the next morning to buy newspapers with funds she could ill afford to squander, she spent the day packing her few belongings and writing to the three positions she found throughout the different newspapers.

The first reply, from a Lady Stanton, came the next afternoon and said the position had already been filled.

The second came the morning after that, in the form of a small, harried-looking woman in black who poked about the house like a bird about to take flight, declared Samantha neat enough, but too pretty to suit her mother-in-law, and left.

Three days later, on the eve of her removal from the house, a summons came from the Duchess of Halbourne to appear at 3 p.m. that afternoon for an interview.

Samantha pressed her best gown, an old muslin that had seen better days and which had refused to take black dye, leaving it a respectable shade of gray. It would have to do and she did not want to appear too much to advantage. Companions were supposed to fade into the background.
Her brown bonnet and cloak, and a pair of York tan gloves that had belonged to her mother, rounded out her ensemble, but at least the cloak was warm and whole, and the bonnet trimmed in a scrap of velvet the year before.

Halbourne House was grand, in a fashionable part of town, and Samantha did not worry about not being able to find a hackney to take her home. A white-haired butler let her in with a rather shocked expression on his face, but he quickly schooled his features and admitted her to the house, saying the duchess was expecting her. After leading her down a long hall, he entered the doorway of an elegant gold and cream salon, and announced her.

The duchess, a beautiful woman in her sixth decade, glided forward as if Samantha was a long-lost friend and escorted her to a brocade sofa.

"Tea? I don't usually conduct interviews in here, you must understand, but I am hiring you for a friend of mine, Lady Seawright, who lives in Bath, and she has some very specific requirements."

"Yes, ma'am," Samantha said politely, although she was still in awe of the lady and the surroundings.

"Now, if you will pour out for us, I'll take two lumps, please. Eustacia wants a young lady well-versed in the social niceties, and I have yet to..." The duchess looked closely as Samantha gracefully poured tea and added the sugar. "You are very pretty, Miss Howard." Her face was suddenly pale, as if she had seen a ghost.

Samantha flushed. "I hope that will not be a problem, Your Grace."

The duchess shook her head. "Oh, no. Eustacia wants a pretty chit like yourself. She's had enough of Friday-faced spinsters. Said her friends are tired of them, too. It's just..."

"Your Grace?"

"Nothing. Tell me about yourself, Miss Howard. Who are your parents?"

"My father was a vicar and my mother was a lady, but I do not know her family name. She taught me how to do needlework, draw and play the pianoforte, and my father gave me a well-rounded education..."

"Pianoforte? Will you play something, then?" She indicated the instrument in the corner of the room. Samantha obliged by performing a smattering of her mother's favorite pieces.

The duchess motioned her back to the sofa afterwards, even paler than before, and then all but ran from the room.

Samantha sat in silence, occasionally taking a sip of tea and wondering if she had done something wrong. When the duchess returned, she had two people in tow, an elderly gentleman who took one look at her and broke out into a visible sweat, and a middle-aged lady whose blonde hair was just beginning to go gray.

"Come, Papa, I think you need to lie down..." the woman said to the man.

"No, I would like to meet the young lady..." He approached, and Samantha stood and curtsied. The duchess looked on with approval, but the younger woman scowled. "Come, Papa!" she said sharply. The old man gave Samantha a gentle smile and did as he was told.

"Am I not suitable, then?" Samantha wondered aloud. The other lady seemed to dislike her for some reason.

"You are just perfect, my dear. Will you excuse me once more?" Without waiting for a reply, she left the room again.

"She should move in immediately," the duke insisted to his daughter.

"We don't even know who she is, Papa," Lady Valerie retorted.

"She's obviously a relative," the duchess said, entering the study and shutting the door firmly behind her. "She might even be Vanessa's child," she said in an accusing tone to her daughter. Really, Valerie had become so irritable these past few years, and she used to be such a sweet girl.

"If she is, she is a b*****d!" Lady Valerie insisted. "We all know what Vanessa was!"

"Valerie!" the duke barked. "We know no such thing!"

"Did she pass the interview?" his daughter asked, ignoring her father.

"Perfectly." The duchess had not told them about the music. Nor was she going to, for the moment.

"Then I suggest we send her to Lady Seawright without delay and see what we can discover about the girl's past in the meantime." Valerie's smile spoke volumes, as if she expected it to be filled with scandal and squalor.

"I suppose you are right," the duchess said with a sigh. "She will be content with Eustacia until we figure out who she is. When the time comes to declare our kinship, we will know where to find her."

"If we claim her." Lady Valerie said under her breath.



Chapter 2

Samantha liked Lady Seawright and she liked Bath. There always seemed to be time in the mornings for walks along the Crescent, just as there was always a maid or a footman available and willing to accompany her. Many times she had protested to the countess that she felt more like a family member and less like a companion, but that lady would smile and call for a shopping expedition.

The diminutive, gray-curled lady, her bright eyes twinkling merrily, had agreed with Samantha that a companion in mourning should wear black, but had insisted her companion must wear fashionable gowns in black. She then had the modiste add touches of white here and there, so that Samantha came off more like Diane de Poitiers instead of a little crow of an employee.

That garnered her attention wherever she went, and she had only been in Bath a month when she received a proposal of marriage. That it was from a handsome young buck she had met in the Pump Room had not hurt his chances, but she had turned him down kindly just the same.

"I don't understand why," Lady Seawright had said that next morning over breakfast. Samantha was calmly eating ham and eggs while the countess read her post, and she shrugged.

"I did not turn him down completely. I merely suggested we get to know each other better. I know a companion lives a precarious life, but..." But she did not love the gentleman, and she did not feel the need to marry him to escape her current position. If Lady Seawright had been less a friend and more a demanding employer, she would not have been the first young lady to jump at such an offer. Fortunately, she and the countess had taken to each other immediately.

The older lady nodded, even as she scanned the letter in her hand. She suddenly let out a shriek.

"Lady Seawright?"

The countess started to laugh, and jumped up to give her companion a hug.

"Oh, my dear, I had so hoped it was true! I knew all along that you were being considered... Oh, this is just perfect! You are going to be so happy!"

Samantha was confused. "But I am happy..."

"Oh, nonsense! Who could be so, being a companion to an old lady like me?"

"You are not old!" Indeed, the countess, in her late fifties, was healthy and energetic.

"I like you, child," she happily replied, patting Samantha's cheek. "But we must think of you now. Her Grace is expecting you Tuesday next, so there isn't much time. You'll need some decent traveling clothes, and you must take my best carriage. Oh, dear me, yes!"

"But ... her grace? I don't know any duchesses ... I don't understand."

"Of course you know a duchess! The Duchess of Halbourne hired you for me. Now I'm sending you back to her."

"She needs a companion?"

"Oh, no! Didn't she tell you?" She gave Samantha an appraising glance. "I suppose she didn't. Valerie would have ... dearest Samantha, I'm so pleased to tell you that you are the granddaughter of the Duke and Duchess of Halbourne!" She announced this with a flourish.

Samantha stared at her. This could not be. Papa was only a poor clergyman, and Mama had been...

"Lady Vanessa, the eldest daughter of their graces," the countess said, as if reading her mind.

That explained some of her mother's past, and the strange behavior of the duchess, Samantha surmised, but it created more questions than it answered. "But Mama never..."

"I know," Lady Seawright said with a sigh. "It was all so very sad. Your father, from what I understand, was not the man she initially ran away with. Thank goodness there is proof that the Rev. Howard was your father. That helps your claim tremendously."

Claim? Samantha let her babble on, a little insulted that her grandparents had her investigated instead of asking her outright for the information. She was upset that they did not accept up front that she was her father's daughter. That would not make her any less their granddaughter. To ensure her legitimacy before acknowledging the connection was degrading.

She ought to refuse their graces, but she was certain the countess would not understand and probably not allow her to remain her companion. Samantha felt trapped. She had to accept the ducal invitation to join the family or find another position. She was never going to find another employer as sweet and generous as the countess, and why should she live in poverty when there was the promise of luxury in her future? She had been poor all her life. Now that she had seen how the other half lived, she did not think anyone could blame her for choosing that option.

"I suppose I had better present myself to her grace," she said aloud, resigned to her fate. The countess broke off her ramblings to stare in amazement at her employee.

"Of course you had! And there is no time to lose." She rang for her servants and began to give orders concerning Miss Howard's luggage, sending a footman for her writing desk to pen a note to the modiste.

"It is not that far to London," Samantha protested. Lady Seawright laughed.

"But you are not going to London. Their graces are to meet you at Vinelands. That is in Devonshire, which will take longer to get to. Oh, dear. We need to buy you some more gloves and stockings, and at least one new bonnet... I've been to Vinelands before - it's quite remote. Not a decent shop in sight, at least not one up to my standards."

Samantha could only sigh and head off to hunt up some cloaks and reticules. When one lived with Lady Seawright, shopping was a way of life.

Samantha left Bath in Lady Seawright's carriage, blessed with a maid and a footman for companionship, assistance and protection, and laden with almost another entire wardrobe.

"I know you are in mourning, my dear, but a few lilac gowns will not go amiss, especially in company."

Samantha had not thought about the duke and duchess - she could not yet bring herself to call them grandpapa and grandmama - having company, and said so.

"They are wealthy and influential," the countess explained in her usual airy manner. "Even if they do not have houseguests, I dare say there will be dinner parties and such..."

Samantha had relented and allowed herself to be fitted for a couple of pale gowns, one in silk for the evening.

The Seawright cook had packed a large hamper for a picnic luncheon for the first day, and arrangements had already been made for overnight stays at what the countess assured her were clean, comfortable inns.

"I shall miss you, my dear," that lady had said, embracing her now former companion as she saw her off on her journey. "But we shall meet again soon enough. Lucinda and I are good friends. You may write to me, if you wish. I should like to know how you are getting on, although I am convinced you will deal famously with your grandparents."

"Yes, ma'am. I would be very happy to write. Thank you for everything," she added, returning the embrace. "The clothes, the carriage, the companions..."

"Think nothing of it, child. Have a good time in Devonshire!"

It was time to leave, and Samantha waved out the window as long as she could, her last sight of her ladyship was that of the countess waving back.

After a long, weary day of riding, Samantha, Jenny the maid and Thomas the footman were all happy to see the Red Lion Inn. The servants had stayed there with her ladyship before, and wasted no time in securing their rooms. The countess had insisted Samantha take a private parlor for her meals, but the innkeeper apologized and said none were available, having already been spoken for.

Samantha assured the servants that a tray in her room would be more than satisfactory, as she was tired, and she headed up the stairs after a chambermaid. Sounds of male laughter reached her ears, but she blocked it out, her head throbbing from the strains of the day.
Jenny assured her that she could lie down while her clothes were retrieved for the next day, and that the maid would bring her food up personally after sponging the wrinkles from her gown.

With a weary sigh, she allowed Jenny to undress her and tuck her in for a short nap while she awaited her meal.

"I must recommend you in my first letter to her ladyship," she said in a small voice as the raucous noise from the taproom and private parlors receded, leaving her to sleep away her headache.



Chapter 3

Ryder had spent the last week running from a most persistent widow at a shooting party in Wales, and while he could head home to Devonshire, given his current proximity, he was traveling with a group of friends and they were all going to London. He had planned to return to town, close the house for the winter and spend the holidays with friends. However, he had learned that the widow had been invited to the same holiday house party, so he knew he would have to pass.

His mother and sister had both written, requesting his presence in Devon for the holidays, but he truly hated the old family pile - his father had run it into the ground and Ryder had spent the three years since his death rebuilding the family's fortune. To do so, he had found it easier to be in London, where he could manage his investments in person. Fortunately for him, his mother was intelligent enough to keep up the estate, as much for his sister's sake as his own. It seemed that now, thanks to his own hard work, and that of his mother, and the investments that had come to fruition in the past few months, he could provide Arabella with a decent dowry.

Tonight, however, his mind was not on his family as much as it was on the young lady he had so easily rescued one day a couple of months ago in the east end of London, the one he had so easily (and foolishly) embarrassed not a week later. He knew she was no longer in the miniscule house attached to St. Matthew's. He had gone back to apologize and found her father had died and she had obtained a position somewhere as a companion.

At least he knew her name: Miss Mary Howard. She was one of the reasons he had refused to allow the Merry Widow to catch him this past week. That, and the fact that Mrs. Meredith Dale had not earned her moniker by having buried just one husband. No, she had buried three, all elderly, leaving her most of their wealth. When he learned she was on the prowl and in search of younger prey, he was not surprised when she had appeared at the same house party as himself and two of his friends, Lord Cosmo Villiers and Sir Robert Ainsworth. What had surprised him was her single-minded pursuit of the Earl of Ryder.

Now he sat in a private parlor with Cosmo and Ainsworth, drinking more port than was good for him and discussing the Merry Widow.

"She's hanging out for a title this time," Ainsworth surmised.

"Then why not Lady Cosmo Villiers or Lady Ainsworth?" Ryder wondered.

"No good," Cosmo drawled deprecatingly. "Villiers is the second son of a marquess and Lady Ainsworth would make her a baronet's lady, not a countess. Besides, you have the prettiest face."

"But not the largest fortune, which she would know if she were not blinded by the title," Ryder insisted, ignoring Cosmo's comment.

"If fortune were more important than a title, Ainsworth would win hands down," Cosmo agreed. They all knew a tidy sum had been discovered in the man's stable after his miserly father died. "And anyone who snares old Rob here would have to put up with Lady Healy," he added with a snort. "And she is not about to let him out from under her thumb."

"Caroline isn't controlling, just demanding," Ainsworth said in defense of his sister.

"Same thing," Ryder said with a snort, opening another bottle and pouring more port all around.

"Says the man who hasn't had a mistress in three years," Cosmo teased.

"I could lend you the blunt," Ainsworth offered.

"He don't need it. Seduces the birds right out of the trees whenever he wishes," Cosmo said. "Respectable mamas like him, too."

That Cosmo was as handsome as Ryder and almost as wealthy as Ainsworth did not seem to make a difference with the matchmaking mamas of the Ton. He was a second son, was notorious for refusing to take any young lady seriously and had been known to insult the most influential leaders of society. To their faces. He also had a dragon of a mother whom no one cared to deal with, leaving him virtually unscathed when it came to running the gauntlet of the marriage mart.

"I don't seduce women," Ryder hotly denied.

"Because they all fall so willingly into your arms," Ainsworth teased.

"Just so," Cosmo agreed. "In fact, I'll wager a monkey that the next female that passes in front of our door is a willing participant."

"Not necessarily," Ryder protested once more. "But I'll take that bet. Ainsworth?"

"I'm staying out of this." Hands were shaken between Ryder and Cosmo, but no one made a move to get up and open the parlor door.

"You go, Cosmo - it's your wager," Ainsworth said with a belch.

"Ryder can do it - he's got to charm her anyway," Cosmo said with a pointed look at the earl.

Ryder sighed and opened the door just as a familiar young woman in black came down the hall. Taken by surprise, and suddenly unwilling to involve her in this wager, he slammed the door. "No females out there," he explained when his friends frowned.

"She must be ugly," Cosmo said at once, rising unsteadily to his feet.

"Or fat," Ainsworth chimed in. Joining the earl, they opened the door. A young lady stared back at them, a tray in her hands and her mouth still forming an O of alarm.

"She's pretty!" Cosmo exclaimed. "And not a ladybird or a tavern wench at all."

"Nor is she fat," Ainsworth helpfully added. Ryder tried to block her from their view, but his cronies were having none of it.

"This gentleman could have you at the wave of a hand, pretty lady. Please say you will go upstairs with him and put me out of my misery."

"Cosmo! This is a gently-reared lady!" Ryder exclaimed.

"How do you know?"

"He's had her before?" Ainsworth suggested.

Samantha woke to a darkened room with no Jenny in sight and just one candle burning by the bedside. A tray of food sat on a table nearby. Her stomach growled with hunger and when she rose to investigate, she discovered her dinner was still hot and completely palatable. She quickly demolished roasted beef and potatoes, and a warm fruit pudding, and then waited for Jenny or a chambermaid to retrieve the empty dishes. But when it appeared no one was coming to attend her, she washed up and took the tray downstairs herself.

When she reached the first floor, she almost dropped everything in surprise when a parlor door opened and there stood the gentleman who had saved her in London. He slammed the door before she could speak, and she found herself rooted to the spot until the door opened once more. Now there were three of them. And all three gentlemen were intoxicated, from the sound of them.

To say Samantha was insulted by their words was an understatement. She wasn't surprised at her rescuer's state of inebriation, however - she had seen him this way before.

"I'm sorry to say, sir," she said almost kindly to the blond man, "that someone is going is about to be sorry."

"What?" her previous acquaintance croaked, and Samantha could only infer that he had boasted of his prowess, prompting the wager. His next question clinched it for her. "Not even one little kiss?"

"A kiss! A kiss!" the other men chanted. "Give him a kiss!"

"No, thank you," Samantha said sweetly, picking up a dish of gravy from her tray and tossing the contents into her savior's face. The men paused. "I'd throw my tea at you other two scoundrels," she threatened, "but I fear you are already soaked." She grinned with satisfaction as they all withdrew meekly into their parlor and quietly shut the door.

Setting her tray on the floor, Samantha retreated to her room, suddenly aware of why the countess had sent servants to protect her. A female alone at a strange inn could come to some serious harm! She had to tell a white lie to Jenny later and claim a chambermaid had fetched her dinner tray, but the maid accepted her word and set about preparing them both for bed.

Samantha was like a puppet in her hands, allowing her to undress her and throw a nightdress over her head. They were to share a bed, and Samantha was grateful - it was cold in the room despite a fire. Poor Jenny was tired and went right to sleep, but Samantha, having napped earlier, sat up against her pillows and thought about that night's experience. This is what happens every time I meet this man! Well, almost every time, she amended in her heart. He must be a bounder of the worst sort, always intoxicated, always insulting. When he wasn't saving her from ruffians...

Samantha did not like being unsettled, and she was already too much so, having had to pick up and move twice in several months' time. Her encounters with this specific gentleman only added to her agitation. At least she would not have to worry about him again. She was going to Devonshire to live a quiet life with her grandparents and her aunt. If she were fortunate, it would be months before she returned to London. He was obviously one of those bucks or blades her father often railed against who frequented gaming hells and brothels, squandering their inheritance and living an overall sinful life. She need have nothing to do with the likes of that.

Not that she expected her own family to be free from sin. Even her saintly father had been fond of the odd cigar and a glass of wine. Samantha herself had a quick temper that she sometimes found hard to check. Who knew what sort of vices her new family had? Somehow, she doubted they lived on the same plane as the rakes downstairs. With any luck, they would still be abed in the morning when she left.

"Now that was a female!" Cosmo exclaimed, even as he forked over the blunt. "If I could find a vixen like that to pour gravy on me, I'd marry her in a heartbeat."

"Why not that one?" Ainsworth wondered.

"Because Ryder has already staked his claim. Look at him!" They shook their heads over their friend, who sat staring at Cosmo's money, a rather silly smile on his face.

"He hasn't even tried to wipe off the gravy!"

"Her name is Miss Mary Howard," Ryder said softly. "I know that much."

"You know her name? You do work fast!" Cosmo said, his voice tinged with admiration.

"I never heard her say it," Ainsworth added.

"Because you did not meet her several months ago in London," Ryder said dreamily and related his previous encounters with the young lady.

"I would have paid good money to see her toss you out on your ear!" Cosmo roared with laughter after hearing the tale.

"Good money," Ainsworth echoed. "What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know ... I need some more information, don't I?" He sat up straight, suddenly sober. "And I think I know how to get it."



Chapter 4

While Cosmo and Ainsworth were sleeping off their port the next morning, Ryder did some digging around concerning Miss Mary Howard. Unfortunately, all he could discover were three things: She had already left the inn, she was traveling in the Countess of Seawright's carriage, and she was headed south. That made no sense at all. Lady Seawright traveled as little as possible, and only between Bath and London. He was unable to get to Bath before the holidays, but he could always call on her son once he returned to London. Seawright might have some information regarding the girl...

She was possibly the countess' companion, as that had been the position Miss Howard was last known to be in, but why, then, would she be traveling without her employer? What if the countess had an ill friend and thought to send her companion for assistance? One of Lady Seawright's greatest friends was his own Cousin Lucinda, and she lived south, in Devonshire. But surely the duchess was not ill, or his mother would have said so in her latest letter.

He would start, then, with Seawright in London.

After a few more days of thankfully uneventful travel, Samantha arrived at Vinelands. Butterflies had built up in her stomach the last twenty miles of the journey, once Jenny began pointing out familiar landmarks.

"Her ladyship visits Vinelands every Christmas season," she explained. "So we'll be coming back soon enough to see you, Miss. But if you want to send a letter back tomorrow, when we head for home, I'll be more'n happy to deliver it."

Samantha said she would be pleased to do so and then fell silent, trying to recall what she had seen of her grandparents and aunt the day the duchess had conducted the interview. Her grace, she remembered, had gray hair piled regally on her head, so different from the countess' playful crop of curls. Yet, underneath, she sensed the lady to be as kind-hearted and as flighty as her friend.

Some of that giddiness may have come from thinking Samantha was a relation of some sort, but perhaps not. The duke seemed rather absentminded, but in a dear way, and not crusty at all. He reminded her of her own father, the one they had investigated for paternity reasons.

That still rankled, but it also cast a shadow on her mother's past. Samantha found it difficult to believe that Lady Vanessa had been so foolish as to run off with a man. Her mother had been an intelligent woman, and practical to a fault. Even cynical on occasion. But she had loved Samantha's father. Samantha had no doubt about that. Whether it had been a love born of gratitude, though, she would never know.

Lady Valerie... Samantha was not sure of her at all. Was she their graces' only living child, or was there a marquess, perhaps, with a wife and children... young cousins she could play with and keep out of the adults' way? Or was she doomed to loneliness in the Gothic-style house that now loomed large in the horizon?

"It's a mausoleum!" she exclaimed to Jenny as they passed through a dense woods filled with the twisting vines that gave the estate its name.

"You ain't even seen it up close," Jenny whispered. "It's got them gargoyles on it, and towers, and lots of that diamond-paned glass..."

"And ghosts?"

The maid shuddered. "Once, Miss, I saw a monk walking in the kitchen garden and 'bout got my head snapped off by the butler, Mr. Cole."

"Was the monk a ghost?"

"Oh, yes! Passed right through the garden wall, he did! It was enough to have me shakin' in me boots!"

"I'm sure their graces discourage ghost stories among the servants, else they would not be able to keep their help."

The maid shook her head. "Her grace is a firm believer, and his grace goes along with her. It's Lady Valerie what turns them out without a character if they spread tales. I've shared a room with one of the maids - she told me that. Begging your pardon, Miss, but you'll be wantin' to keep an eye on Lady Valerie, even if she is your aunt and all. Her ladyship don't like her none, either. But you didn't hear that from me."

"Oh? Is there a reason why her ladyship doesn't like Lady Valerie?"

"A very good one! Lady Valerie used to be engaged to Lord Seawright, but she jilted him."

Samantha received a better reception than she had expected, but that might have been due to the absence of Lady Valerie on the wide marble steps of Vinelands. The duke and duchess were both waiting for her, having been alerted to the approach of a carriage, and Samantha's grandmother folded her into her arms as soon as she alighted.

"Welcome to the family!" she exclaimed. "Please forgive us for our earlier doubts. We had no idea who you were when we met in London, only that you must surely belong to us somehow!"

Samantha was much mollified by this declaration and was handed over to the duke for another embrace. "I knew you could only belong to our beloved Vanessa," he whispered. When he held her away for a moment, there were tears in his eyes. The duchess tucked Samantha's arm into hers and led her into the front hall.

"Come inside, where it is a bit warmer. This old house is like a crypt," she said. "But we try to make it as homey as possible. We're so happy you are here!" She directed a servant to bring tea and cakes to what she termed the 'family parlor,' which turned out to be a cozy room at the rear of the first floor.

Samantha was not quite prepared for such a warm, lived-in space after climbing a large staircase of marble and polished ebony wood. Even the hall, cluttered with cabinets of objects d'art, elegant chairs in more dark wood and ancestral portraits did not give away the battered sofas, old chaise and piles of books in what appeared to be their graces' favorite room. Samantha was invited to take the chaise for her own.

"I hope you will plunder the library for some books and bring them here to read. We spend quiet evenings in here, and would be pleased to have you join us."

"This is Hera," the duke added, indicating an ancient retriever stretched out on the threadbare hearthrug. Upon hearing her name, the dog twitched, but she did not rise. "Her bones are about as old as mine," the duke said with a fond smile for his canine friend.

Samantha knelt obligingly to offer a hand and then pet Hera's grizzled head, and was rewarded with a lick.

"You brought her in here?" Lady Valerie said from the doorway, disdain for something - the room, her niece or life, perhaps - apparent on her face. "Come, Mama, you should be in the grand salon, as befits a duchess. I am sure Miss Howard will wish to be treated to all the splendor of Vinelands after the poverty of St. Matthews' vicarage."

"I hadn't thought..." the duchess said vaguely.

"But I should like to stay here," Samantha insisted, rising from the hearth and sitting down hard on the chaise. She bravely ignored the dust that rose in a cloud about her. Lady Valerie's smile was strangely triumphant, but all she said was "Suit yourselves" and left.

"Well!" her grace exclaimed. "I'm sure I do not know what has come over your Aunt Valerie lately."

"Middle age?" the duke suggested.

His wife frowned. "Really, now, Avery, was that very nice?"

The duke shrugged, gave Samantha a quick wink and laughed with delight when the tea arrived, carried by a large retinue of servants.

"My dear, you must meet the servants. Many of them have been here since the Flood, so they will well remember your mother. Cole is the head butler - if he looks familiar, his brother is our Cole in London. So convenient ... And this is Hettie, and Rose ... Jane and William."

Each servant bowed or curtsied as their name was called. They set the trays down on a scarred sideboard and stood at attention, awaiting further orders.

"I think ... I think Jane shall do nicely as a personal maid," the duchess told her granddaughter. The butler coughed. "Yes, Cole?"

"I believe Lady Valerie has tapped Hettie as Miss Howard's maid, your grace."

"But Hettie is too old! And no offense, Hettie, but you have no style! No, Jane shall be her maid."

"Yes, your grace." Cole kept his countenance austere, but Samantha saw Hettie scowl at Jane and then shot a look of pure hatred at herself.

Later, after a repast with two elderly people who appeared to be well on their way to doting on her, Samantha sat dozing in front of the fire with the dog while the duchess rang for a footman.

"Have Jane come here, Arthur," she requested. He bowed and went immediately for Miss Howard's new maid. Samantha could only marvel at the way the duchess knew everyone's name.

"It is important to know those who depend on you for their livelihood," her grandmother counseled. "You will find that easy to do with Jane. That is one of the reasons I insisted she attend you instead of Hettie."

"Hettie is Valerie's spy," the duke mumbled.

"What was that, dear?"

"Hettie wants to give it a try."

"I am sure that she does, but Samantha needs a younger maid. What was Valerie thinking?" she mused.

"That Samantha needs to be kept under surveillance?" the duke asked no one in particular. The duchess ignored him as the maid curtsied in the doorway.

Jane escorted her new charge out after the duchess declared Samantha as looking "most seriously fagged after her journey." As Samantha was exhausted, she went readily with Jane up to the next floor. Jenny was in the pretty blue and white room helping unpack trunks, and she continued to work cheerfully on Miss Samantha's clothes while Jane fussed over Samantha.

Before she knew it, she was dressed in a soft, white nightgown, given a cup of warm milk and tucked into bed.

"Her grace won't be expectin' you fer dinner, what with your traveling an' all," Jane said, smoothing out the bedclothes. "So sleep as long as you like, Miss, an' if you wake up later an' are hungry, I'll bring you a tray."

Samantha was about to drift off to sleep when she remembered that she was to write a note to Lady Seawright, and alarmed both maids when she hopped out of bed and padded over to the writing desk set in a corner of the room.

"Just a short letter," she promised when Jane squawked about not wearing slippers, and Jenny said her ladyship would understand if there was no note this soon. But Samantha wished to repay the countess' kindness with a few words, and moments later she was back in bed, as promised, a letter tucked into Jenny's apron pocket.



Chapter 5

The next morning, after tea and toast in her room, and once Jane had dressed her in a black gown, Samantha went on a self-guided tour of the house. She poked her head into bedchambers (counting about twenty in one wing alone), parlors and the occasional dressing room before reaching the main floor.

There she found a library, a conservatory that overlooked a walled garden, and a music room. She had already started to inspect that last one when she realized she was not alone. A young lady with dark hair was leaning against a door that opened into an adjoining room.

"Hello," she said softly, not wanting to disturb the voices floating in from next door. The other girl flinched, but didn't move except to hold a finger to her lips.


The girl rolled her eyes and took Samantha by the hand, pulling her out into the hall.

"If you want to go back in there, you will have to be quiet," she ordered. "Else, I cannot hear what they are saying about you."

"But, if you wish to know about me, why not just ask? Here I am."

"Don't be silly," the girl scoffed. "What they are saying about you is surely more interesting. Besides, you will just give me dry facts. I want the good gossip and all the speculations, too!" She slipped back into the music room, leaving Samantha not knowing whether to laugh or cry. The girl returned before she could decide.

"Oh, pooh! Now they're talking about the London Season and that bores me to tears. Especially because I cannot go."

"Why not? Samantha Howard, by the way," she added, holding out a hand. "You already know that, of course," she said dryly.

"Oh, yes, indeed!" the girl responded with pleasure, shaking the proffered digits. "I am Lady Arabella Pryce. My mother and I - and my brother, when he is home - live but two miles from here, at Ryder. And I don't want to hear about the Season because you are going and I am not. Mama could borrow the blunt from Cousin Lucinda, of course, but she will not, and neither will Ryder."

"I thought your estate was named Ryder."

"It is. It's the principal seat of the Earl of Ryder. We have the title, just no money to go with it. I know if I were allowed to go to London, I could find a wealthy husband and help out my family."

"Did you learn that through keyholes?"

"Of course! Where else? No one tells me anything, so I have to learn it all somehow. Even now I've been sent to find you so Cousin Lucinda might have a comfortable coze with Mama without Cousin Valerie about. What do you think of her?" Arabella asked, linking her arm with Samantha's. "No, you don't have to answer that," she said with a chuckle. "She is a piece of work."

"She's also standing right behind you, Lady Arabella," Lady Valerie said sternly. "Why don't you take Miss Howard into the drawing room to meet Lady Ryder?"

Arabella shrugged and pulled Samantha down the hall to the double doors of the drawing room.

"There you are!" Lady Ryder called as they entered. "Come here, my dear," she said to Samantha. "Let me look at you. Why, Lucinda - she is the spitting image of Vanessa!"

The duchess beamed and nodded, and Lady Valerie scowled.

"Come sit by me, dear, and tell me all about yourself," the countess requested.

Arabella snorted and Samantha hid a smile as she went to sit by the dark-haired lady. It was obvious Lady Ryder already knew about her. "That will be enough, Arabella," her ladyship admonished her daughter.

"Perhaps Lady Arabella needs to be sent to the nursery," Lady Valerie said sweetly.

Samantha watched Arabella as she struggled to keep from sticking out her tongue, an action sure to get her sent upstairs.

"I understand you have been living in London until recently," Lady Ryder said.

"Yes, ma'am." Samantha took the tea her grandmother had poured for her. "For a couple of years. Before that we were in Danbury, in Essex."

"That is where you were born and raised?" The countess seemed surprised, despite the fact that she obviously thought she knew everything about Samantha.

"Yes, ma'am."

The countess frowned and looked at Lady Valerie, as if that lady should have known this.

"You have a problem with that, Melissa?" the duchess asked.

"Oh, no, Cousin Lucinda. I just thought ... well ... we all know..." She paused. "Arabella, dear, be a darling and take Miss Howard out and show her the gardens."

"Yes, Mama," the girl said dutifully enough. She and Samantha left, but went straight to the music room. Even Samantha was curious now as to what was being said.

"Now, Melissa, what did you think?" they could hear the duchess demand.

"Well, everyone knows Vanessa ran off with that man," she replied. "And everyone knows he is from here."

"I don't know where you are getting your current information, Melissa," the duchess said haughtily, "but my granddaughter was born in Essex, to Vanessa and the Rev. Howard more than a year after their marriage. I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head from now on concerning Samantha and her quite respectable origins."

Samantha shook her head and ran out of the house into the gardens, where she had been sent, but only because she needed some fresh air. It was one thing for her to know her mother's background, but quite another to hear someone discuss it so blithely.

"It's true, then?" Arabella asked, sitting down on a marble bench next to Samantha.

"Yes, and I've always known it. Mama made sure I did not follow in her footsteps, although she was happy with Papa."

"But it is not the same hearing it from someone else, is it? It is like when the vicar's wife called on Mama recently and said what a tragedy it was that I was unable to afford a season. I already knew that, but it hurt to hear it from her."

"It is exactly like that," Samantha agreed. The two looked at each other and smiled, marking the beginning of a friendship. Samantha confessed that she was glad to have someone her age close by, and Arabella agreed.

"And we are cousins, as well," she remarked. "Somewhere along the line. Papa was the duke's second cousin, I believe, so we have always called each other 'cousin,' and Ryder is the duke's heir."

"He is?"

"Yes, but my brother refuses to trade on that expectation, even when it comes to a London Season. Personally, I think Cousin Valerie has talked Mama out of asking Cousin Lucinda to sponsor me. She is such a bitter old maid, she doesn't like it when anyone has fun!"

As if thoughts of that lady brought her to life, Lady Valerie rapped on the drawing room window and motioned for them to return.

"See? She is an absolute witch! Try not to think of her too much and she should stay away," Arabella advised. Samantha giggled and the two girls walked arm in arm back to the house, grateful for the warmth after sitting on a cold bench in the late autumn chill.

A larger spread had been served while they were gone and the duke had joined the ladies. Both girls went immediately to his side and kissed his cheeks, picked up fresh cups of tea and a couple of buttered muffins, and retreated to a quiet corner.

"Cousin Avery is a dear," Arabella said to Samantha. "And I know you will be one, too. Shall we make plans to meet tomorrow? Do you ride?"

"No," Samantha said sadly. "I've always wanted to, but..."

"Then you can learn! I'll come over tomorrow morning and we shall begin. Excuse me a moment." Arabella rose and approached the duke, whispering in his ear. He grinned and nodded and, with a smug expression on her face, the girl returned to Samantha's side. "It's settled then - his grace and I will meet you in the stable yard early tomorrow."


"Do you have a habit?"

Samantha shook her head.

"Not to worry." Arabella stood once more and went to speak softly with the duchess. Her grace seemed surprised and whispered something in reply, something that sent Arabella out of the room in a flash.

"I despair of that child ever learning some decorum," Lady Ryder said with a sigh.

"When does Ryder come home?" the duchess asked.

"Another one I despair of! He seems to think London is where he can best manage everything, and I do have things settled here, of course."

"You are doing an excellent job with the estate, Melissa," the duke said, warm with approval. The countess smiled radiantly.

"I do try, but I could not have done it without you and Jack. I am hoping my son comes home for the holidays," she told Samantha. "We shall have to devise some entertainment for you young people."

"Thank you, ma'am."

Lady Valerie sniffed. "On your income, Melissa?" The countess turned red.

"You know I always plan activities for the children at Christmas," the duchess interjected. "And there is always the Twelfth Night Ball," she reminded her daughter.

"The ball!" Arabella said reverently as she entered the room. "And I can attend! I could have last year, but I had caught a chill and was bedridden for a week. You will adore Cousin Lucinda's Twelfth Night Ball, Samantha. May I call you Samantha? Please call me Arabella, won't you?" She ignored Lady Valerie's frown. "It is a masked ball. Oh! We shall have to design a costume for you!"

The duke, duchess and Lady Ryder exchanged amused glances.

"I suppose I could attend," Samantha said carefully, knowing she was in mourning.

"Miss Howard is still in black," Lady Valerie said smugly, "and it would not be proper."

"Oh, not proper for her to dance, perhaps," the duchess said quickly. "But there is no reason she cannot attend. She will be wearing a mask, after all. I'm sure you will enjoy it, Samantha dear."

"Then I shall be glad to come."

The Pryces left soon afterward, but not before Arabella confirmed their meeting the next morning at the stables.

"Don't worry about a riding habit. It has all been arranged," she assured Samantha with a wink.

When Samantha returned to her room later, a black wool habit had been laid out on the bed and Jane was waiting there to help her try it on.

"Where did this come from?" she wondered as the maid unbuttoned the jacket.

"It belonged to Lady Vanessa," Jane said softly. Even though the skirt had to be taken in around the waist, the cut had not gone out of fashion and the fabric was still good. And Samantha had something that had belonged to her mother.



Chapter 6

With daily riding lessons, frequent visits between the two estates and the occasional trip into the local village, the friendship of Samantha and Arabella grew by leaps and bounds.

Even though Arabella continued to remark on her lack of a London season, she readily joined Samantha in the lessons the duchess and Lady Valerie deemed necessary for Samantha's debut. It seemed, in this instance, Lady Valerie approved of Samantha going to London, as she would be in half-mourning by then.

"And so she can find you a husband and get rid of you," Arabella said bluntly one cold, wet afternoon as they walked up and down the portrait gallery, balancing books on their heads.

Samantha, under no illusions as to her aunt's intentions, giggled, causing her book to drop to the marble floor with a bang. "I know, but there is one gentleman I hope never to see again."

"Someone you met in Bath?" Arabella's dark eyes were wide as she pulled the book off her head. She knew all about Samantha's life as a paid companion, including the marriage proposal. She had not heard about this.

"No, someone I met before I left London."

"Oh, do tell!" Arabella urged, pulling Samantha over to a padded bench under one of the long windows overlooking the grounds.

"Papa was ill after Mama died, and church officials sent him to London to work at St. Matthew's." She was bitter about that still - he might have recovered had they remained in Danbury. "We were quite poor and it fell to me to procure food with what meager income we had."

"Oh, you poor dear." Arabella knew what it was like to go without a new gown, but there was always food on the table. "Do go on."

"One day, as I carried a basket of food home, I was attacked by some ruffians, but a gentleman rescued me and my provisions."

Arabella sighed. "How romantic!"

"I know! And if he had left it at that, I would have been satisfied."

"Oh? Did he..." Arabella's voice dropped to a whisper. "Did he try to seduce you? Abduct you? Offer you carte blanche?"

"Arabella!" Samantha was shocked at the breadth of the girl's knowledge.

"Oh, come now, Samantha. I am not a child."

"No, but most young ladies of ten and eight do not speak of such things."

"Neither do ladies of twenty," was the pointed reply. "So, did he?"

"No. But that next Sunday, he came to Papa's morning service."

"Even more romantic!"

"If you find intoxicated gentlemen romantic," Samantha replied.

"He showed up drunk? How did you know?"

"We had been meeting in the vicarage, because it was warmer. He reeled in late and spoke to me. I couldn't help but notice."

"What did you do?" Arabella was hanging on her every word. This story was even more entertaining than those she heard through keyholes.

"I threw him out."

"Brava, Samantha! It does appear as if he deserved that. I've never seen a gentleman interrupt a church service in my life, let alone do it while drunk."

Samantha shuddered. "It was not pretty."

"Well, that was that and you shall not have to worry about him again. Even if he saw you in London, he would probably be too embarrassed to approach you."

"Yes, I suppose so," Samantha weakly replied, not willing to bring up the incident at the inn when Arabella seemed to think the story was closed.

"Jack is not like that," Arabella continued, launching into what Samantha knew was the girl's favorite subject after the London season. "He always goes to church when he is home, and Mama says he escorts her to St. George's whenever she is in town."

"Your brother is quite the paragon, isn't he?" Samantha teased. Starved for companionship her age, she quickly learned Arabella was not at all sensitive to gentle jesting, and responded accordingly. In return, she found a friend who stood up for her to Lady Valerie and seemed to know the people to approach to get what she needed.

"I would not go that far," Arabella said with a grin. "And he has been a stranger this past year. We know that not all of his excuses have to do with business. I think he is trying to find a wealthy wife to recoup some of our losses." Marriage to a rich person seemed to be Arabella's answer to everything.

"Perhaps he does not come home because he knows your mother would want to entertain for him," Samantha suggested. She was well-versed in household economies, and that could be a driving force behind his lordship's continued absence.

"Perhaps," Arabella tentatively agreed. "At any rate, he can be a wonderful brother. He just sent a length of pink silk for my costume. Mama says one of the ships he invests in docked recently and he was allowed to view the cargo as it was unloaded. I think I shall be a fairy. Let's go up to the attics and see what we can find for you."

It was a good day to dig around through a room of dusty trunks, but the first three chests revealed nothing they wanted. "Unless you wish to dress like a macaroni," Arabella said with a laugh. "These must be his grace's clothes from the end of the last century. Oh, wait!" she said breathlessly when she unearthed a tricorn hat covered in purple velvet.
Samantha giggled when it was placed on her head.

"Maybe I will be a macaroni!"

"No, I have a better idea! But we are going to need something in a heavy satin ... And a half mask..."

Arabella finally found a gown in a deep golden color, trimmed in black lace, from the same era as the hat. Samantha discovered scraps of teal, black and violet satin, and some jet beads that Arabella pronounced perfect.

"We shall ask Cousin Lucinda for a black lace fan and you will be complete!"

"But what shall I be?"

"A lady from the Venetian Carnivale. I have a book at home with a picture of one. We'll get Jane to sew diamonds of satin, edged in the beads, on the gown, cover a mask in black velvet and shroud your hair under the hat in a piece of silk. No one will even recognize you!"

The two girls dug about for more black fabric, and then took their bounty downstairs to Samantha's room.

"But Lady Valerie has already ordered a costume," Jane said when consulted. "Not that I think you should be dressed as a witch," she confessed.

"A what?" Arabella was incredulous.

"I think she was only considering a costume that would be black," Samantha said in her aunt's defense.


"Still an' all, she's having it done up already."

"I cannot stop her from ordering it made," Samantha reasoned, "but I do not have to wear it for long."

"Just long enough to make an appearance in front of her," Arabella said, warming to the idea. "And then you can slip upstairs, change costumes and come in from the terrace!"

"No one will know me either way - the only people I have met so far are you and your mother, because you are family, and the vicar."

"Isn't he handsome?" Arabella asked dreamily. The well-featured and unmarried clergyman was her third-favorite subject.

"Prodigiously so," Samantha agreed. She and Jane exchanged indulgent smiles.

"Don't worry about not meeting all the neighbors," Arabella told her. "Most of them are not exactly worth knowing intimately, and the young ladies only like me because of Jack." She dismissed the locals with the wave of a hand.

"I find that hard to believe. I like you and I don't even know your brother."

"You are sweet, Samantha, but the truth is, they think I am beneath their notice because I am not wealthy."

Samantha said something sympathetic and let the conversation switch to another topic at that point, but later that evening, as she joined her grandparents in their private room, she was still thinking about Arabella and her lack of a season.

"You are even more quiet than usual," the duchess noted after Samantha sat on her chaise for a few moments, staring off into space.

"I am thinking about Arabella."

"We are so happy that the two of you get along so well," the duchess said. "You haven't had a falling out, have you?"

"No, ma'am. We are rubbing along famously."

The duke chuckled at her use of a cant phrase, learned, no doubt, from her new relative.

"Arabella has been a font of information, and a more than satisfactory companion," Samantha told her relieved grandmother. "I wish she could come with us to London."

"But she is!" the duchess cried. "She isn't to know until Christmas Day, but that is next week, so there is no harm in telling you now. Isn't it exciting?"

"But her family..."

"It is all arranged between your grandfather and Ryder, my dear. We are going to provide the funds to keep Arabella in frills and furbelows, and Ryder will lend his escort as his time permits. He wouldn't accept our offer of a dowry, but Melissa says there is enough for a modest one, just the same."

Samantha was overjoyed. She knew how important this opportunity was to the girl, and she was not unaware of how it figured into her own future. After all, she would be expected to make a match, too. She would not make one only because Lady Valerie wished it, however. She planned to marry for love, or not at all, and if she had to return to Vinelands over the summer without even a beau in tow, her aunt was just going to have to get used to it.

Surely there would be someone she liked. A nice widower who needed a mama for his children, perhaps, or a scholarly fellow who liked quiet evenings at home. She was sure she did not want any of the three men at the inn - drunken and disorderly rakes who tried to make wagers concerning innocent young ladies, never mind that she should not have been roaming unescorted about the premises.

No, she did not want a man such as the one who had shown up at St. Matthew's. He was the worst of the lot. With any luck, he would not appear at social functions in town, preferring to slum about with lowlifes in sleazy taverns near the docks, associating with all the riff-raff her own father had fought so hard to save from themselves.

Thoughts of her father and his work made her suddenly ashamed of the route her mind had taken. Shunning that gentleman was not what her father would have advocated. He would have expected her to be kind, compassionate and tolerant of someone with a drinking problem.

She picked up a book and stretched out on the chaise, trying to look occupied while her mind was busy thinking about her gentleman. He was handsome enough... with dark hair and gray eyes that seemed to whirl about in a maelstrom of confusion when he had imbibed too much. If she could find him again, she would offer her friendship and hope she could save him from a life of dissipation.

Having reached that newfound resolve, she flipped back to the beginning of the book, prepared to throw herself into the problems of the Misses Dashwood. Her own were settled, for the moment.

Christmas came and went, and everyone at Vinelands turned their attention toward the Twelfth Night Ball.

The duke and duchess had already decided against their usual merry house party, out of respect for their granddaughter in mourning, but the drafty old house was still filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the season.

Arabella was in alt, having finally been told she was to go to London with Samantha, and she took to walking about with Ackermann's Repository and La Belle Assemblee, dreaming of the gowns she would have. She only came back to earth when it was time to go riding or when they hid in Samantha's room and worked with Jane on the Carnivale gown.

The vicar, and even her brother, had been forgotten in their excitement. Samantha was amused by Arabella's flightiness, but she was almost sorry not to hear more stories about Ryder.

"Mama and I have given up bothering Jack about coming to the ball. He has said he is needed in London later in the week, and would have to leave the next morning to make it to town on time."

Samantha sighed and continued to sew beads onto her gown. She had been looking forward to meeting the earl.



2005 Copyright held by the author.




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