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The early-morning May sun gilded the still figure of a woman seated near the waters of the Serpentine, picking out golden highlights in her dark russet hair. The haze that had drifted over the park at dawn had thinned, allowing shafts of sunlight to accent the woman so deeply in thought.
A viewer would have called her a lovely creature, a young lady of refinement. The pensive expression she wore somehow added to her beauty. She tossed a pebble into the water, a vehement splash that sent water arching.
Plainly, matters were not to her liking.
Regina stirred slightly. It was so blessedly peaceful here, so removed from the problems that beset her. What to do? How? She could see no way out of her dilemma.
A duck settled noisily in the water, splashing and quacking loudly. It was a beautiful sight, but, as she well knew, beauty was no guarantee of happiness.
How foolish she had been, to think that finding a husband would be a simple matter. She was not a diamond of the first water, true, but she was accounted a beauty--or so she had often been told--with odes to her charming face, her glorious hair, and elegant style heaped at her feet. Her dowry was more than respectable, and her parents both descended from the most impeccable lineage. However, she had not calculated on the vagaries of Society, nor had she contemplated how devastating gossip could be--spiteful and contemptible.
Could she remain in London? Never in her life had she been so unhappy. She had tried hard to be proper, to do all that Society deemed correct, to stifle her natural spontaneity.
Her upright posture, always so admired, drooped with her dejection. A bit of help would be nice. Alas,there was no one she might turn to for advice. Her father pooh-poohed her worries as nonsense, claiming that a good man would see the gossip for the malicious tittle-tattle that it was. Her mother knew well how difficult life was at present for her elder daughter, but Mama's health was delicate.
Regina had tried to shield her younger sister, Pamela, from the barbs of gossip that had been aimed at Regina, and she thought she had succeeded there. It was her only achievement to date in an otherwise dismal time.
She had not the least notion how to combat the snide remarks, the evil little darts of verbal poison that stung along with the insincere smiles of commiseration. Surprisingly, women were not the only ones to scorn her. So far she had received a great number of speculative looks from so-called gentlemen and one less than respectable offer.
What to do? Who could help? She wanted to fight! She braced herself as though preparing for battle.
From a distance Jules, Lord St. Aubyn studied the figure sitting in solitude, obviously wishing to be alone. Society being a small world, he well knew what caused her unhappiness. Miss Hawthorne did not look as though she was contemplating the cold waters as the solution to her predicament, but he decided to intrude anyway. One never knew. He rode closer to where she sat in silent contemplation.
"It is not the end of the world, you must know. Although I suspect you believe it to be at this moment." His voice broke into her reverie, startling her, as he had hoped it might.
She stiffened, rising to stare as he dismounted, looped his horse's reins over a stout branch, and then strode across the lawn to face her.
"Obviously, you have not only read the papers but you were also at the Oldershaws' ball last evening." Her mocking look dared him to offer pity. He admired her for that. Only a closer look at her blue eyes revealed the depths of her distress.
"You had expectations?" His remark was somewhere between a question and a statement. He suspected she had anticipated an offer from Torrington, but he did not know if she was in love with the man. Had her heart been broken? He well knew what a shattering effect such an emotion could have for a woman.
"You must know I did. It seems everyone else in London had the same notion." Her words were understandably tinged with bitterness, but her smile was heartbreakingly valiant. Jules wondered just how much of her heart had been engaged. He met her gaze with a steady one of his own, catching her curiosity and holding it.
"I know only that you have received particular attention from Lord Torrington and it was expected among some of the Society gossips that you would eventually make a match of it." He kept his voice carefully neutral, almost sympathetic.
"My Lord St. Aubyn, then you know as much as I do. I daresay you read in the papers that a wedding is to take place between Lord Torrington and Katherine Talbot. I thought he had broken with her, lost interest in her. After he danced attendance on me, I naturally had expectations. Obviously I was wrong." The bitterness was clear now, her voice ringing with anger and frustration.
She turned away from him, most likely to conceal tears. Whether they derived from hurt or regret, he could not know. He offered a square of white linen without saying anything and was pleased when she wiped her eyes, blew her nose, then crumpled the handkerchief into a ball, as though by doing so she could dispose of the hateful gossip.
"Yes, I heard the whispers last evening." Rejected Regina, they had called her. "Not the nicest, I must confess." Jules gave her a half smile and took a step closer.
Her beauty had a haunting quality as she turned back to him, particularly her eyes. Delicate rose tinged her pale cheeks, and violet shadows made her troubled eyes seem even bluer. Her courageous stance seemed poignant.
"Already I have received an offer from one labeled a gentleman. Needless to say, it is not a proposition I shall accept." She gave a short laugh, a mere catch of sound. "I never in my life thought to be offered a slip on the shoulder."
"I saw you when you entered the ballroom with your parents and your sister." He took another step forward, wanting to extend consolation, comfort, and not sure how to do so.
She looked away from him with a shrug of slim shoulders covered by a smoky-blue wool riding habit that reflected her eyes and flattered the russet glory of her hair. "The evening was not far advanced before I became aware of women who were only too delighted to see my situation. I had not thought their smug satisfaction could be so hard to endure."
"Satisfaction?" Jules frowned as he recalled some of what he had heard. Well, it was a far cry from sympathy, that was true. They both knew how catty some women could be. He did not know Miss Hawthorne well--they had danced, talked, but never been close. Society did not often permit that. After all, a few dances and a chap could find himself engaged!
"Glee, perhaps?" She exhaled deeply. "I do not see how I am to come about from this, for I sense those spiteful women will not permit such a splendid morsel to die a quiet death. 'Rejected Regina' will perhaps be my epithet for as long as I remain in the City. What gentleman will make an honorable offer for a woman so publicly rejected? I do not fear becoming a spinster. I do dread what might happen to my younger sister. She must not pay for any folly of mine."
"It isn't your folly," he objected. She was being very candid. Perhaps the bitter indignity of the previous evening had removed her caution. Or perhaps she thought him a safe repository for her thoughts--which surprised him a bit.
Her impatient hand waved his protest aside. "How silly of me to think that the Marquis of Torrington had any lasting interest in me." Her words snapped out, sharp and curt.
"It was beyond your control. Besides, it was not unreasonable for you to believe he intended to offer marriage." His voice proffered consolation, but it seemed she was not to be comforted, at least not by him. Jules wanted to ask her if she had cared deeply for Torrington, but such a question was not to be raised. He knew her slightly, and he had his reasons for extending pity, but would she understand?
She abruptly turned away from him toward her docile mare, which waited patiently not far away. "You are too kind, sir, to listen to my woes. I must go before someone sees us and leaps to strange conclusions. You might find yourself in the peculiar situation of having offered to make me your mistress." She glanced back, her smile brave and slightly mocking.
Jules gave her full marks for pluck. His estimation of the beautiful Miss Hawthorne had risen considerably in the past few minutes. She was not one of the empty-headed society misses. There was a depth to her he had not seen in other young women, certainly not in the blond beauty ranked as this Season's incomparable.
Jules stepped to Miss Hawthorne's side, tossing her up into the saddle with ease. "No one would dare to say such a thing of you or me."
"Lord St. Aubyn, you forget--someone already has invited me to assume such a situation. Strangely enough, he was a man I had considered a possible suitor, at the very least a friend. How lowering." Her face grew scornful, an expression that sat ill with her beauty.
Jules studied the exquisite face beneath the clever riding hat with its blue plume trailing along the tender line of her jaw. He looked away for a moment, thinking fast. "I would help you." How, he did not know at the moment. "May I come to call on you later--this afternoon, perhaps?"
"I would be pleased. Heaven knows I have no notion as to how best to proceed. 'Chin up, shoulders back,' as my father urges, does not quite do it, you know." Her gallant grin wobbled a bit.
"I admire your bravery. Miss Hawthorne. I am glad to see you are not about to seek oblivion in the lake."
"As I said, I do not fear being a spinster. And I am not about to take a coward's way out of my dilemma."
"You think suicide a coward's path?" He gave her a curious look, taking a step away from her.
"It would seem so to me." She glanced behind him, seeing what he heard--approaching riders. "Until later, my lord." Within seconds she was but a beautiful memory.
Jules had no desire for company at present, and so he swiftly mounted to ride in the opposite direction as quickly as possible, not casting any glances toward the riders, lest he feel compelled to join them.
And then he wondered what in the world had possessed him to offer his help. What could he as a single man, and one with a reputation--carefully cultivated, to be sure--of a rake at that, do to assist a young woman in regaining her reputation? It was near laughable when he considered the matter. Yet he also remembered what one whom he held dear had suffered.
He cantered out of the park, going straight to the mews where he stabled his mount. From there he sought a change of clothes before heading to White's. If he was to learn the latest gossip, that was a good place to begin.
Regina handed her mare to the groom, then made her way into the house, using the convenient back entrance. Taking the back stairs at a thoughtful pace, she mulled over the encounter in the park. Would he truly come to see her this afternoon? She hoped he might. He had offered sensible words, a reasonable attitude, and kindness.
"Dearest, is that you? You went riding so early." Lady Hawthorne approached her elder daughter along the dim hallway, a worried expression on her face. Regina was glad when people said she resembled her mother; she could think of no nicer accolade.
"Indeed, Mama. I had an agreeable ride this morning. It is rather nice to be out and about before the rest of the world." She reached out to pat her mother's shoulder, and the handkerchief she had balled up in her hand fell to the floor. Swift as she was to scoop it up, her mother noted the size of the linen square.
"That is not, I think, one of yours."
"True. A kind gentleman I met while near the Serpentine loaned it to me. I must have it washed to return it to him promptly." She evaded her mother's probing gaze.
"Gentleman? And who might that be?"
Regina gave a sudden grin. "Perhaps one of the few in London--Lord St. Aubyn!"
"Heavens, Regina! He has a scandalous reputation." Lady Hawthorne placed an arm about her daughter, drawing her along to Regina's room. Lady Hawthorne's curiosity fairly bubbled.
"Well, it would seem that we are two of a kind in that event. You must know that after last evening and that item in the papers I have acquired a similar standing." Regina raised her chin, giving her mother an impudent smile.
"Oh, my dear girl! What are we to do?"
"Lord St. Aubyn has offered to help me. What he might be able to do is more than I can think. However, I shall not turn away from any assistance offered, especially when it seems to be offered in a spirit of genuine concern."
"Indeed," Lady Hawthorne said briskly. "This Season is a far cry from what I hoped it would be. You know, I recall something about his family from two years past, but being so ill and deep in the country, I fear the details have escaped me."
Regina nodded, then slipped out of her riding habit to change into a highly respectable round gown of white muslin decorated with delicate blue embroidery. If Lord St. Aubyn actually did come later this day, Regina intended to look the part of a virtuous miss. If he came.
Jules sauntered to his club, considering the problem of gossip. How many young women in past years had been devastated by Society tattle-mongers spewing their malicious words? The harm done by these insensitive females to the young ladies making a come-out into Society was incalculable. One sneering look, one cut direct, and the damage began.
He well knew the effects of such words. It seemed to him that all that was needed after that was a few whispered sentences, scornful looks, snide little laughs, and the deed was accomplished. How could a young woman counter the whispers, the looks, the cuts? It took a brave girl to face them down. Few did. They usually fled London, finding relief one way or another--as he had reason to know.
Jules entered White's, tossed his hat toward the porter, then climbed the stairs with ears attuned to catch any conversation that might be going.
What he discovered while playing at cards in the hours that followed did not please him. Men, he decided, were just as vicious as women when it came to shredding the character of another, even a young woman of undisputed innocence like Regina Hawthorne, the baron's eldest child.
"Dashed pretty filly," Sir William Snyde exclaimed when another chap brought up Regina's name. "Heard that Wrexham made her an offer."
"Which she rejected!" Percy Botham slapped his friend on his shoulder in amusement. "Poor old Wrexham was fair annoyed, too. Thought he would get there first, you know."
"Just because Torrington returned to his first love doesn't make Miss Hawthorne less desirable, does it?" Jules inserted casually, while studying the cards he held in his hands. "He may have been trying to make up his mind, and concluded that Miss Talbot suited him the best. It does not follow that Miss Hawthorne should be rejected by others because of his choice."
"'Course it does!" Percy bestowed a scornful look on Jules. "But then, you are hardly acquainted with proper females, are you?" He guffawed at his witticism.
"Perhaps I have been missing something." Jules gave Percy a lazy grin, biting back his anger at the fool. "I just may have to rectify that omission."
"I suspect Lady Monceux wouldn't take such action kindly." Sir William studied Jules with curious eyes, as though wondering how serious he might be.
"Her ladyship and I have not met recently. I have no idea as to what she might or might not think." Jules was far too polite to reveal that he had found Lady Monceux totally lacking when it came to anything other than romantic dalliance. She might be clever in her own way, but she bored him beyond tolerance in spite of her luscious charms. Once he had reached that conclusion, his removal as her admirer was immediate.
"Oho!" Sir William said with glee. "The Monceux is on the prowl for a new, er, friend, is that it?"
"She might be. I have no idea." Jules tried to keep the distaste he felt from coloring his expression or words. He had never been one to flaunt his conquests before others. And if he intended to help Miss Hawthorne, he had better figure a means of doing so properly--without destroying her in the process.
"So, tell us who is now to be the recipient of your attention, St. Aubyn?" Percy Botham grinned, quite as though he had placed Jules in an uncomfortable position.
Jules returned the grin with effort. "You will have to wait to discover that, my friend. Surely you do not expect me to reveal her identity to the lot of you?"
Sir William chuckled. "All the young bucks in town would flock to her door at that. Likely beat you to it, if gossip travels as fast as I believe it does."
Jules gave Sir William a speculative look, wondering on which side of the fence he sat. Would he cheerfully mince Regina's reputation should Jules pay her any attention--as he now fully intended to do?
"Well, there are enough young women in the matrimonial bazaar this Season. You will have your pick, if I make no mistake." Sir William gave Jules a half smile that revealed none of his thoughts.
"Ha!" Percy retorted. "What fond mama is going to allow a gentleman of St. Aubyn's reputation near her little ewe lamb?" At Jules's hostile look he added, "Beg pardon, but you must know how you are viewed amongst Society."
"Perhaps that is why I ought to do something different," Jules countered. "Maybe I ought to flirt with one of the incomparables or perhaps a fledgling?"
"That will be the day," Sir William muttered quietly.
Jules decided he had had quite enough and rose to leave. "I am off to discover new fields of, er, interest, gentlemen." He gave them a mocking salute. "Wish me well."
"Wrexham won't," Sir William concluded thoughtfully.
Jules carried those words with him as he left the club. Miles, Lord Wrexham was a man he would rather not cross. Yet, if he were the one who had offered Regina a slip on the shoulder, it would seem that such a confrontation might be forthcoming. Jules was not a coward, but he did not go looking for trouble, either.
Late that afternoon, almost at the end of the proper time when people paid calls on others, the butler announced Lord St. Aubyn. There was a general shifting, and uneasy glances were exchanged among those few gentlemen who graced the Hawthorne drawing room--who were likely appearing there out of curiosity, Regina decided. The women, nosy to a fault, stirred with obvious interest.
Firm footsteps on the stairs were followed by the appearance of St. Aubyn in the doorway. His dress was understated, with a simple but elegant cravat tied above a corbeau waistcoat having the cut of a renowned tailor. His gray coat became him, accenting his dark hair and dark brown eyes nicely, while biscuit pantaloons molded thighs that needed no padding.
Regina studied his modish appearance and smiled. He eclipsed all the others completely. She had hoped he would. Why she pinned so much faith on this man she was not sure. Decisive, dashing, debonair--all fit him. He possessed that air of one who could do anything, and often did.
Her mother bestowed a pleased smile on him, quite as though she did not know his reputation. But then, she could scarcely cast slurs at Lord St. Aubyn, considering the pickle in which Regina had been placed.
Scandal was so delicious. Society fed upon it. Even now, the matrons present who were well aware of St. Aubyn's history were speculating on his appearance in this charming gold-and-blue drawing room.
"Welcome, Lord St. Aubyn. This is indeed a surprise," Lady Hawthorne said, a firmly fixed smile on her face. With a gracious gesture to the sofa upon which she sat, she urged, "Please join me."
After a quick glance about the room, Lord St. Aubyn did as requested. "Lovely day." He settled upon the sofa with a masculine grace that Regina could but admire.
Priscilla Carvil giggled; her mother looked mortified and pinched her arm. They rose, intent upon leaving.
The Honorable Olivia Russell smirked, clearing her throat rather loudly as though to draw his lordship's attention to her. Her mother pulled her to her feet and hastily murmured something about having to be on their way and what an interesting chat they had enjoyed.
It seemed that with the advent of Lord St. Aubyn most ladies felt it time to depart. A few curious gentlemen remained, desirous of learning what had brought the celebrated St. Aubyn to this house. Regina knew he had never before been known to dangle after a miss making her come-out. In fact, she had learned he usually confined his attentions to well-endowed widows or other fair charmers not likely to seek a permanent attachment, like marriage. She could imagine the speculation that would follow his call on the Hawthornes.
"How is your dear mother?" Lady Hawthorne said into the awkward silence of the room.
"Fine. You know her?" St. Aubyn seemed surprised.
Well, wasn't that a wonder, Regina thought, for Mama said Lady St. Aubyn rarely came to Town, and then only for a brief time to visit her mantua-maker and do a bit of shopping.
"We went to school together. Henrietta and I were dear friends in our girlhood. I have not seen her in years. I fear I am a bit of a recluse now because of my health."
"Mama," Regina whispered, "you are not overly tired?" To St. Aubyn she added, "It is a pity that the influenza taxed Mama so terribly."
"I would know something of my dear friend's son, Regina." She smiled at St. Aubyn. "If you are at all like your father, you are much sought after. I recall him so well. He was a dashing and kind gentleman."
Evidently deciding they were in for a rather boring time, the two remaining gentlemen took their leave, offering Regina significant looks and what almost amounted to flirtation right under her mother's nose.
Regina seethed beneath her calm demeanor, but she said her farewells with a graciousness that the nodcocks did not deserve.
When all were gone--even the pushing Mrs. Dudley, whose nose fairly quivered with curiosity and a desire for a tidbit of gossip--St. Aubyn rose from his place beside Lady Hawthorne to take a turn about the room.
"How long has this been going on?" He gestured to the chair that Mrs. Dudley had at last vacated.
Not misunderstanding him in the least, Regina spoke before her mother could reply. "This is but the second day of such intense curiosity. If I did not know the cause, I should be flattered. Do you not agree?"
"True." He gave her a wry grimace before pacing about in front of the fireplace, now devoid of any warmth. "However, since we know differently, we must do something to alter the circumstances."
Regina rose, clasping her hands before her, and went to the window to peer down at the street below. "They have all gone. I wish they might all stay away from here. I am quite sick of the lot of them."
"I can hardly argue with that assessment." Lord St. Aubyn crossed the room to take one of her hands in both of his. "There must be something, some way of halting this gossip."
"Well," Lady Hawthorne inserted, "my mother once said the best way to end one bit of gossip was to replace it with another."
"But what?" Regina looked first at her mother, then to Lord. St. Aubyn. At last realizing that he held her hand in his, she reluctantly withdrew hers from his surprisingly comforting clasp.
"I have considered this at some length," he said. "Lady Hawthorne is correct. We need to substitute some audacious tittle-tattle for the present item regarding Torrington. May I offer my services as an escort, beginning with the soiree this evening at the Beachams'? We shall stir the pot before bringing it to a boil."
"Oh, dear." Regina gave him a worried look, then turned to face her mother. "What do you think, Mama? It sounds a trifle risky to me. Not that you are not the crème de la crème, sir," she hastily added to St. Aubyn. "Any young lady should be pleased to have your escort."
He looked amused rather than offended, as he might well have been. He rubbed his chin, seeming speculative. "And I believe that we should attend that wedding. They are calling it the wedding of the year. Would it not set the cat among the pigeons were we to go together, arm in arm? It would make the gossip regarding you and Torrington seem rather foolish."
"I suspect that restoring Regina's good name will not be quite so simple a matter," Lady Hawthorne said dryly.
"Far be it from me to prevent you from trying, however. You do realize that you may be creating a hornet's nest of your own?"
"I cannot see that at all. Why, it is a simple matter of escorting Miss Hawthorne to a party, then the wedding. Perhaps a few drives in the park to top it all off? What do you think?" He made it sound like a picnic.
Lady Hawthorne smiled, albeit with seeming reluctance. She shrugged, then nodded. "Very well. It would seem the scheme has merit. I certainly cannot think of anything that is any better than what you propose." If she wondered at the reason for his assistance, she did not ask.
Regina gave Lord St. Aubyn a dubious look. Was he truly offering his escort, willing to shepherd her through the coming days? She was not certain it would work. On the other hand, it certainly ought to stir the pot, as he put it. Causing that pot to boil was a different matter entirely.
"What do you say, Miss Hawthorne?" His lordship again took one of her hands in a light clasp, his intent gaze fixed on her face. It was not as though he was asking her to wed him or anything like that. Goodness, he was merely offering help.
"Well, I cannot see that it will make matters any worse than they are now." She turned to her mother to add an observation. "His lordship is highly regarded in Society, Mama. I cannot think of any gentleman who would elevate me in better style than he."
Lord St. Aubyn cleared his throat, then smiled persuasively at Lady Hawthorne. She rose to join them.
This time her smile bloomed in full force. "High praise, indeed." She bestowed a fond glance on her daughter, then offered the freshly laundered handkerchief to his lordship, who promptly tucked it into a pocket. "I believe that belongs to you, sir. I thank you for what comfort you offered my daughter and commend you for the help you have now offered. It remains to be seen how it goes off."
"Mama!" Regina gave her mother a shocked look, then turned to St. Aubyn. "Sir, if you have any misgivings do not hesitate to reveal them now."
Put thus on his mettle, St. Aubyn stood a trifle straighter and bowed to Lady Hawthorne before capturing both of Regina's hands in his. "What color do you wear this evening? I would have us be a foil for each other."
Regina gave her mother a look of disquiet, then mentally went through her wardrobe. "I intended to wear a gown of white satin with an overskirt of spangled gauze."
He nodded with apparent satisfaction. "Fine. I cannot wait to see it." He released Regina's hands, then bowed to both ladies. "Until this evening--say at eight?"
"Indeed." Regina gave him a faint smile, then listened to his footsteps going down the stairs and to the door closing behind him.
"I hope the ruse works," Lady Hawthorne murmured as Regina supported her in her walk to her room.
Regina could only nod, while thinking that something was bound to go wrong. Everything else had. "I hope he won't regret this."