His Mysterious Lady - Chapter 1

London, 1813

Chapter One

Lord Anthony Gibson, Viscount Strangeways, exited the card room and surveyed the Countess of Fotheringill’s ballroom. It was alive with the usual elements: a string ensemble, people dressed in a rainbow of fabrics, and the unpleasant combination of too many perfumes. Chatter and laughter abounded. Everyone worked to give the appearance that they were having the very best of evenings.

Anyone looking at Tonyhim would have seen a tall, well-muscled man with stylish brown hair and a crooked smile. His evening clothes were beyond reproach—a dark blue jacket over a silver striped waistcoat with dark blue pantaloons. In fact, he belonged to the Corinthian set—inclined to sport and immaculate in matters of dress. Many a maiden’s heart had been lost through futile hopes that he might return her regard, but Tony was oblivious to most women. He did not know precisely what he was looking for in the fairer sex, but he knew without a doubt he would recognize it when he saw it.

At least, he thought he would.

He had already made a bad mistake in that regard, but kindly Providence had averted it. The intervention hadn’t felt kindly at the time. In fact, it had soured Tony more than a little bit on the character of the female sex.

Tonight he had not much hope of spotting anyone new, but his recently married friend, Beau Wellingham, advised him that it wasn’t too late, that hope sprang eternal, that love could be found in the most unlikely places. Beau had met his wife in Green Park at eight o’clock in the morning. That story had seemed suspicious to Tony— what could have taken either of them to that place at an hour when all the fashionable world was sleeping?  But Beau’s wife had confirmed the tales. Perhaps there existed a secret bevy of society ladies who met in Green Park at dawn to carry out some mysterious project. And perhaps he would go there one morning to catch a wife himself.

It wasn’t that Tony wished to marry exactly, but he envied his best friend’s happiness in this world of the ton where such a state was seldom found.

The other member of the triumvirate to which he and Beau belonged was Sir Herbert Backman, who now approached him. Looking very well indeed with his dark hair in the new Windswept style, Bertie asked, “Care to go out on the terrace for a cigar? Got a fresh supply from America today.”

“I didn’t know you dealt in smuggled goods, Bertie.”

His friend laughed uneasily. “No telling how far one would go for a good cigar. I’ll be deuced glad when this war with America is over.”

“I am ready for a whiff of fresh air, so I will accompany you if you blow your smoke in the other direction.”

The ballroom was uncommonly stuffy, so the terrace was crowded with people seeking relief from the close quarters. Tony heard snatches of conversation drifting on the night air along with the pleasant scent of night-blooming jasmine.

“. . . plain that the gel is no better than she should be—flaunting herself like that! I never saw the like!”

“. . . I tell you Midnight Jewel is a sure thing in the fifth race. Bet on her to place . . .”

“. . . but, my lord, something tells me this is not a good idea!”

To his surprise, the last voice revealed the flat vowels of an American lady. These days, he didn’t know of any Americans who mixed in London’s high society. The woman, a tall brunette, was now saying, “I do not really want to go down into the garden.”

She was being led to her doom by no other than Lord Freddie the Flyer, a dashed loose screw who loved fast horses and tarnished women.  The American lady probably knew nothing about the conventions of the ton. A single women courted ruin should she accompany a man into a darkened garden during a ball.

For some reason, her voice galvanized Tony. Almost without thought, he stepped over to where the pair had halted halfway down the steps. He said, “Freddie, I am sorry, old boy, but I am afraid the lady is promised to me for this dance.”

Looking up at him in surprise, the lady’s wide-set brown eyes registered relief. Freddie let go of her arm and she immediately put her it through Tony’s.

“How good that you remembered,” she said. He walked her back up the steps as she left Freddie with neither a word nor a glance.

Quick-thinking lady!

“Lord Anthony Gibson, Viscount Strangeways, at your service,” he said in a low tone.

“Miss Virginia Livingstone, of no particular rank or significance,” she replied with a smile completely lacking in guile. “Was he up to no good?”

“Undoubtedly. It was clear he meant to compromise you.”

She stopped just inside the ballroom and looked up at him, her heavily lashed eyes set under level dark brows. “What does that mean, exactly?”

Could she be such a babe in the woods? Well, she was American, after all. One must make allowances, he supposed. “Your reputation would have been ruined. You would have been cast out of decent society unless he married you.”

“But . . .” she stammered in confusion. “I don’t even know him!”

“It would not have mattered,” he told her, employing a gentle tone as though speaking to a child. “Such is one of the most absurd, hidebound traditions of the ton.”

“The ton?”

“Loosely translated: The upper ten thousand people who compose high society. Obviously you are American, but did no one prepare you for your debut?”

“I guess my dear, sweet uncle didn’t think anyone would have such designs on me. What a debt I owe you! How fortunate that you were there and kind enough to intervene,” she replied. “Thank you.” She smiled again, dazzling him.

A surge of protectiveness rose inside him.

She was not beautiful in the conventional sense, but her appearance was arresting with those level dark brows drawn together in concern, giving an emphatic character to her face despite a short tip-tilted nose. He found her guilelessness refreshing. With her long limbs and bottomless eyes, she reminded him of a doe.

“You are welcome, Miss Livingstone. Rescuing damsels is my specialty,” he said, laughing. “Shall we?” He indicated the set that was forming for a Scottish reel.

Though he hadn’t stopped to wonder until the dance began whether she knew the steps, she appeared undaunted. Her tall but delicate figure flew gracefully down the line. It was unusual to see a young woman enjoying herself without a scrap of artifice. Where had an American lady learned to dance a Scottish reel?

A sense of inevitability threaded through the dance, almost a feeling of déjà vu, as though they had done these same steps together many times before. Impossible! He had only just met the lady tonight. He tried to pull himself together. He only felt connected to her because he had rescued her from social ruin..

At the very moment the dance was over, Lady Ogletree appeared like an aged specter at Miss Livingstone’s elbow. Without acknowledging Tony, she said, “Virginia, I lost sight of you and was very worried. Come, my gel, it is time to leave. The carriage is waiting.”

Miss Livingstone allowed herself to be whisked away. As she left the ballroom, she cast one backward glance, and he smiled his crooked smile.

Why hadn’t Lady Ogletree acknowledged him? Did the older woman think him an objectionable dance partner for Miss Livingstone? He was generally regarded as a catch, unless a lady was looking for a more exalted title.

He could swear this was Miss Livingstone’s first time in a London ballroom. What was she doing here in the middle of the war between their countries? Frustrated, he went in search of Bertie. His friend knew all the current gossip.

He ran his friend to earth in the card room and waited for him to finish his hand before tapping him on the shoulder.

“A word?” Tony asked.

They strolled out of the room to a corner of the ballroom where they found a bit of quiet. “Freddie’s intended victim is a Miss Virginia Livingstone. Any idea what an American lady is doing in London?”

“Never seen her before,” Bertie said. “Good job rescuing her from Freddie. What say we adjourn to the club? Bet we could pick up word of her there.”

“I think I’ll call it a night,” Tony said. “I have a ten o’clock bout at Jackson’s in the morning. But let me know if you hear anything.”

His friend agreed, and they set off in their separate directions, Tony taking his carriage home to Larkspur House.

Hmm. Had she had just a hint, a mere sprinkle of tiny freckles across her nose? No English lady would have allowed such a thing. I rather liked them. Spontaneous.  

The butler, Daniels, met him at the door. “A good evening, your lordship?”

“Yes, Daniels. For once, it was a good evening.” He gave the man his hat and overcoat. “Is my mother in? My brother?”

“Mr. Gibson is not yet in; however, the viscountess went upstairs several hours ago.”

“You may lock up and retire. Mr. Howard has his key. I will be in my library.”

His father’s retreat embraced Tony with the scents of old leather, pipe tobacco, and beeswax. While in Town, the former viscount’s hobby had been the accumulation of the finest collection of volumes to be had on horse breeding. Now the new viscount  poured himself a whiskey and sat in his favorite armchair. He missed his father’s robust personality. It hardly seemed possible that he had been gone for over a year.

Now that Tony was head of the family, he had taken to reviewing his responsibilities every evening. His mother usually waited up for him, so the fact that she had gone up hours ago told him she was suffering from low spirits.

Perhaps he should have a visit with Lady Clarice Manton tomorrow, asking her to persuade his mother to take part in one of her charities, now that she was out of black gloves. Lady Clarice, an eccentric widow, was a delight, as was her companion, Miss Susannah Braithwaite.

And there is always the chance that they might know something of Miss Virginia Livingstone.

His thoughts strayed to the woman for another moment. She was dashed attractive to him, though he couldn’t have said precisely why. Most likely her openness was just an act—another sort of female lure.

Forcing his thoughts back to his family, he considered Howie. His brother was still angry with him about their father’s stud operation. Tony intended to sell off two of the three studs and all but four of the mares to use the money for upgrading the estate.

Howie complained that Tony’s new responsibilities had made him a dull dog. Did his brother have a point? Perhaps he should kick up his heels a bit more. When had he last indulged his sense of humor? And he hadn’t been to a horse race this age.

Of course, his brother didn’t guess it, but new responsibilities were not the only thing that robbed Tony of his former lightheartedness. Impatient with that thought, he refused to indulge it, but tossed back the last swallow of whiskey.

At least tomorrow he was taking part in some sport—boxing with the Duke of Ruisdell, who would offer him a smart challenge. Perhaps he had heard of an American lady in London. . . .

* * *

As usual, the duke put up a good show in Gentleman Jackson’s boxing ring, but, as usual, Tony defeated him.

“Miss Virginia Livingstone?” his friend asked as they sluiced themselves with buckets of water following their match. “I shall have to ask Elise. But I feel sure she would have mentioned such an oddity. I can’t help but wonder what an American lady would be doing here during the war.”

“Yes, that is the question. Her chaperone, Lady Ogletree, carried her away fast enough.”

“Ogletree? I suppose it’s possible they have family in America. She could be a niece. What a nice little mystery for you.”

“Still interested in buying Ares?”

“I need to free up some time to go down to your place in Kent and have a look at him. I don’t blame you for not wanting to auction him off at Tattersall’s. Your father told me often enough of his bloodline.”

The conversation thus switched to horses.

* * *

While lunching at White’s with Bertie, Tony asked him if he had had any luck with his inquiries about the American lady.

“No joy there. She is quite the mystery,” Bertie said over his lamb chops.

As usual, Tony felt relaxed and a little more human at his club—the high, paneled walls with their racing prints, the familiar Oriental carpets under his feet, the crisp white linen on the tables, none of which he was responsible for maintaining. He was free to slough off his other identities—viscount of a vast estate, son of a grieving mother, guardian to a brother with a gambling bent, rejected suitor . . .

“The Ogletrees come from Dorset, I believe,” he said. “Do you suppose they picked her up on the seashore?”

His friend laughed. “I find it all very odd. No one knew anything last night, but I am certain Lady Ogletree received her share of morning callers. Gossip shall surely be abroad by dinner time. Shall we meet here?”

“I’m dining at home with Mother and trying to convince her to go to a card party with me this evening. You know she never gets out anymore.”

“You have become such a domesticated beast, Tony.”

“So Howie tells me. I need to think of a caper that will restore my daredevil reputation, now that I am out of mourning. The duke’s balloon race should serve.”

“It wasn’t mourning that turned you, my friend.” Bertie’s blue eyes were sympathetic and knowing. His friend had been concerned for him for some time. There wasn’t a truer friend than Bertie.

Tony shrugged uncomfortably. “Ruisdell is thinking of buying Ares.”

“So you said. Wish I had the blunt to spring for him.”

The conversation thus switched to horses.

* * *

At loose ends before the hour Lady Clarice would be receiving afternoon callers, Tony decided to pay a visit to Hatchard’s. The iconic bookstore was holding a volume for him written by the French balloonist, Pilâtre de Rozier.

A small crowd stood gathered in front of the book emporium when his hansom cab dispatched him there. He heard the sounds of a fracas but could not see what was happening.

“Get away from him!” shouted a lady in familiar accents. Surely there couldn’t be two American ladies in London?

Moving through the crowd, he witnessed Miss Virginia Livingstone standing between a mangy black dog and an unlovely youth with a stick. The poor canine was visibly trembling, as was the lady, who stood with her umbrella raised.

The youth sneered, “’E’s my dog, lady. Oi’ll treat ’im as oi loike.” Darting around her, he attempted to spur the creature on by striking it with his stick. The dog yelped, and, like an avenging angel, Miss Livingstone brought her umbrella down on the boy’s head. He whirled on her, his stick raised.

Horrified, Tony stepped forward, grabbing the stick just before it made contact. “Here, now! You do not treat ladies or even dogs with a club!” With his other hand, he grabbed the youth’s dirty collar. Turning to the crowd gathered, he said, “Someone fetch a constable!”

With a look of stark terror, the boy yanked himself out of Tony’s hold and took to his heels. In a moment, he had disappeared down an alley.

The pitiful dog whined, and to Tony’s horror, Miss Livingstone picked it up and cuddled it under her chin. “Poor mite. There. We won’t let him hurt you again.”

“My dear Miss Livingstone,” Tony said. “I feel certain the creature has fleas.”

She looked at him with desperate eyes. “Oh! Lord Strangeways! Thank you. This poor thing has been beaten all over. He’s terrified and bleeding.”

Tony’s heart melted at her tragic look. Was there any other woman of his acquaintance who would have risked her own safety for a mistreated dog? He said gently, “What do you intend to do with him?”

Her brow puckered. “I don’t know. I didn’t think, I guess. My aunt will never take him in.” She smiled at him. “I don’t suppose you have use for a dog?”

He shook his head emphatically. The crowd began to disperse, and he saw a young woman in the clothes of a servant approach them. Good. Miss Livingstone had at least come out with her maid. If she were unchaperoned, that would have been an even worse situation. He prayed the gossips wouldn’t get hold of it.

Tony found himself saying, “Come, we’ll find a cab. I know exactly where to take the fellow.”

“Thank you, my lord. I feel certain he’s starving, as well. Every one of his ribs is protruding.”

At that moment, a cab pulled up and deposited two gentlemen for Hatchard’s. Tony hailed it, and in a trice he, Miss Livingstone, her maid, and the dog were on their way to Blossom House.

“I am taking you to Lady Clarice Manton’s. She is the kindest woman in London,” he said. “Her companion, Miss Braithwaite, is downright eccentric. She collects beetles and owns a tortoise. Between them, they manage several charities and have a fondness for pets.”

“This is awfully kind of you, Lord Strangeways. I do not know what I would have done had you not materialized the way you did. Again.”

“As I told you, I live to rescue damsels in distress. I had thought you were going to be my Cinderella disappearing the way you did last night.”

She threw him a startled glance. “I’m sorry. My aunt wished to go home.”

“So I gathered. Or did she have some objection to me?”

He could feel her grow uncomfortable. “Not at all,” she responded.

“That is good. I am sorry for the circumstances, but I am glad I was to hand today.”

“I might be lying unconscious on the street had you not been,” she said with a shudder. “I wasn’t thinking. I just reacted on instinct when I saw this poor creature being beaten.”

He sensed that there was more to her reaction that she wasn’t telling him, but he did not press her. They had arrived at Blossom House.

Pursley, Lady Clarice’s butler wearing his white Georgian wig, did not even blink when he saw an unknown woman carrying a filthy mutt. Instead, he promptly showed them into Lady Clarice’s Sitting Room for Gentlemen Callers—a dark blue room with maritime paintings and white moldings. He led the little maid into the nether regions of the house.

Moments later, their hostess sailed into the room. “Tony! How is your dear mother?” she asked. Lady Clarice was a buxom dowager with a head of white hair. As usual, she cradled her fat Siamese cat, Queen Elizabeth. The pet hissed at the sight of the dog. “Oh, my! Who have we here?”

“Lady Clarice, may I present Miss Virginia Livingstone, Lady Ogletree’s niece? The dog does not yet have a name, I’m afraid. Miss Livingstone, this is Lady Clarice Manton, rescuer of the unfortunate.”

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” Miss Livingstone said. “Lord Strangeways told me that this was where we should bring this poor creature.”

“I sense there is a story here,” the lady said.

Tony said, “This forthright and intrepid young lady rescued the fellow from an urchin who was beating him in front of Hatchard’s,” Tony said.

“Of course, you did exactly the right thing,” the lady said. Instantly, she rang for Pursley. When the butler stepped into the room, she said, “Bring Miss Braithwaite to me, if you please.”  Turning back to Miss Livingstone, she said, “Sukey will see to the poor mite. She is an expert with animals of any sort. I believe she even has a treatment for fleas.”

“You are terribly kind,” said Miss Livingstone. Her gratitude appeared to have brought her to the verge of tears. “I have no idea what I would have done with him.”

Tony’s heart was touched again. “I think it only right that you should have the honor of christening the poor little fellow.” He looked to where Miss Braithwaite’s large tortoise was waddling into the room. “Meet Henry Five.”

Miss Livingstone’s eyes grew round. The reptile was followed by the diminutive, gray-ringleted Miss Susannah Braithwaite, a woman who had always secretly terrified him with her intelligence.

He introduced the two women.

“Poor little fellow,” Miss Braithwaite said, taking the dog from Miss Livingstone. “You have brought him to the right place. He needs food, a bath, and some bandages, if I am not mistaken.”

“How will he get along with your tortoise?” asked Miss Livingstone.

“They will become accustomed to one another in time.” She held the dog up in front of her and studied him. “Now, what is your name, sir?”

“I think he should be called Nathan Hale,” Miss Livingstone said and then blushed ferociously. “I forget I am in England now.”

Intrigued, Tony said, “Please, tell us about Nathan Hale.”

She raised her chin, a twinkle in her eye. “He was an American patriot. I doubt that you have ever heard of him. Like this poor little dog, he sought liberty.”

Tony said, “Suitable for what I think is at least partly Scottish terrier. But you can’t go about calling the poor brute a given name and a surname. You shall have to shorten it.”

“Very well,” she said, looking him in the eye. “He shall be Mr. Hale. He is incognito in England, but when he returns with me to America, his full identity shall be known.” Turning to the ladies, she asked, “Shall you feel anxious, housing a fiery American patriot?”

Miss Braithwaite laughed. “For now, he has a sweet nature. I will let you know if I see any signs of sedition against the British Empire. Now I will take him into the scullery and get him some bread and milk to start with. It was good to meet you, Miss Livingstone. Another day, we shall have to have a longer visit.”

The woman left the room with her charge. Tony, no longer worrying about being saddled with a puppy, turned to Lady Clarice and began talking about his mother.

After settling that the woman should call on Lady Strangeways, their hostess turned to Miss Livingstone.

“Unless my ears deceive me, my dear, you are from the American South. Whatever can have brought you to England in the middle of a war?”

Trust Lady Clarice to get right to the point!

“It is a long story, my lady. I shall be visiting Lord and Lady Ogletree for some time. His lordship is my grandfather’s brother.”

Hmm. An evasive answer, Tony thought. Had she been orphaned? If so, how had she managed to get to England through the blockade? And how did she feel, fetching up in the enemy’s country? With the naming of her dog, he detected she was not one of those American ladies who had come to England prior to recent hostilities seeking a title. She was of Republican sympathies and bound to retain her own identity and citizenship.

At that moment, he noticed the giant tortoise eyeing his Hessian boots. The pet had a special fondness for them, having lived for many years in the household of the Duke of Devonshire.

Lady Clarice nodded. “Lord Ogletree is a lovely man. He gives very generously to our charities, though he does not come to London often.”

“Charities?” asked Miss Livingstone.

“Sukey and I feel very strongly that the best way to help the poor is to teach them to read. We have several plans in the works, but they will take money to put them in play. We stage several benefits during the Season to raise funds.

“There is to be a balloon ascension on Saturday. In fact, Tony dear, do you not have a balloon in the race?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Miss Livingstone. “A balloon ascension! I have never been to one. How thrilling!”

“Our committee is selling tea and cakes,” said Lady Clarice. “Would you like to join us, dear?”

“I would love to,” Miss Livingston said. “What a good idea.”

Henry Five had Tony’s boots in his sights, he was certain. He rose and walked to the mantle. “Shall I call for you that morning?” he asked “We shall be up very early filling the balloons, but the ascension is not scheduled to begin until eleven o’clock.”

“That would be lovely. I shall have to convince my aunt to accompany me, however.”

Miss Livingstone gave a little cry and looked at the watch that was pinned to her bodice. She rose hastily. “I must be on my way home! I am certain my aunt’s nap is over and she is wondering where I am. I wouldn’t like to worry her.”

Tony read alarm in her face. Was she afraid of her aunt or just concerned as a normal guest might be? “Of course. Let us leave at once before Henry Five takes a slice out of my boots. My valet would skin me alive!”

“We will be setting up at ten on Saturday,” Lady Clarice told Miss Livingstone.

“I shall be there, if possible,” the young lady said with a smile. “

After they had taken leave of their hostess and Miss Livingstone had thanked her graciously for adopting Mr. Hale, her maid joined them.

“Half Moon Street isn’t far from here, is it?” Miss Livingstone asked Tony. “Sarah and I can walk home.”

“It isn’t far, but I will see you to your door,” he said. As he took her arm in his, he felt a dart of energy course through him at their attachment. He did not know whether to be alarmed or pleased at the evidence of his feelings. It had been a while since he had felt such an attraction, and this was so sudden. There was too much he did not know about the lady.

The walk to Shipley House was short, and she promised to be waiting for him on Saturday just before ten o’clock. When they said farewell, her eyes were filled with gratitude.

“Thank you so much for coming to my aid today. And for introducing me to those lovely ladies. Now I must get inside before my aunt sends a constable looking for me!”

What an extraordinary woman! But he was safe from any temptation to indulge in his attraction. With her talk of taking to dog with her to America, it was clear she had no intention of staying in England. However, he couldn’t help but be curious about her. She was the most unusual lady he had ever met.

Upon his arrival home, Tony went to the library where the afternoon post was waiting for him. The letter on top caused his heart to lurch.

Pamela.

He could not imagine why she was writing to him. After staring at the missive for a moment, heart pounding, he ripped it savagely into four pieces, which he tossed on the fire, then went in to tea.