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Authors: Joan Smith

little coquette

Chapter 1

“I wonder how poor Horace Findley is bearing up since his Alice died,” Lady Trevelyn said, peering at the embroidery pattern recently purchased from Mr. Wilks of Regent Street. She was a devotee of the new fad for Berlin wool-work.

The project on which she was presently embarked was a canvas to be framed and hung in Sir John’s study. It depicted a scene from Walter Scott’s
Guy Mannering.
In it, young Harry Bertram had been kidnapped and carried to Holland, which allowed the picture to include masses of tulips and a windmill. So pleased was Lady Trevelyn with her execution of the flowers that she was inclined to omit Harry from the scene.

“Such good neighbors the Findleys have always been. I ought to visit Horace more often,” she said, “but then one would not want to cause talk, calling too frequently on a widower.”

It would take an active imagination to cast Lady Trevelyn in the role of seductress. Her once pretty face was set in the rigid lines of propriety. The steel gray curls peering out from the edge of her cap might have been fashioned by a blacksmith. Her spreading girth was tightly compacted into a gown of puce lutestring, which was her notion of gaiety to welcome spring. In winter she wore black.

“Mr. Findley seems to be bearing up well,” her daughter replied. Lydia Trevelyn’s appearance was strikingly different from her mama’s. The classical lineaments of her face, her intelligent gray eyes and black hair, even her willowy frame were all inherited from her papa’s side of the family. At eighteen years she was in her prime. The flaw that marred an otherwise unexceptionable young lady was a tendency to willfulness.

She did not indulge in embroidery, watercolors, flower arranging, or any of the customary feminine pastimes. Papa’s sister, her aunt Nessie, had given her a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s
Vindication of the Rights of Woman
for Christmas. Lydia had read it with a sense of revelation. At the beginning of the new year, she had exchanged her needle for a cudgel. She now had confirmation of what she always suspected, that ladies’ inferior position in society was due to their lack of education, and she determined on the spot to improve her mind.

It was not to the classics of the Greeks and Romans that she applied herself, but to the daily journals. Her father, Sir John, had inculcated the notion that his own sphere, politics, was what made the world go round.

She pored over incomprehensible political articles, hoping that one day they would become clear to her. As her papa was now at home suffering from gout, she took every opportunity to quiz him. She was beginning to get a grasp on the Corn Laws. Her next object was the Holy Alliance, which appeared to have more to do with politics than religion.

“A pity Horace has no son,” Lady Trevelyn continued. “I am happy to say I gave your papa a son, Lydia. It is a wife’s duty in marriage to give her husband a son and heir.”

“Yes indeed! It would be a great pity if a daughter were to inherit anything,” Lydia replied.

Her mama heard the words but failed to recognize the sarcasm. “A tragedy,” she said. “Mind you, daughters have their place. How else is the world to go on if gentlemen have no one to marry? If a young lady has the good fortune to marry a fortune and title, then a son is her foremost, one might almost say her only, concern.”

“Like a brood mare,” Lydia murmured.

“No need to bring the barnyard into a polite saloon, my dear. We are speaking of ladies and gentlemen—and marriage.”

The sharp look that accompanied this speech was a tacit reminder of the excellent title and fortune up for grabs at the neighboring estate, Pontneuf Chase, where the dashing Marquess of Beaumont had yet to bestow his title and worldly goods on a damsel. Who more fitting than his neighbor? And really, how else was Lydia to be bounced off, when she refused to be presented in London as she ought? As to calling the Marriage Mart a human cattle auction! It was too bad of Sir John to let Lydia wrap him around her finger. He had acquiesced so easily, one would almost think he did not want Lydia and herself in London.

That Lady Trevelyn did not want to endure the commotion of a Season was beside the point. She would have gone if Sir John had insisted. Of course, Nessie could have handled all the details of the presentation. She was good at that sort of thing, whereas Lady Trevelyn would have been out of her depth. After having presented her husband with the requisite son and a daughter, she had retired to Trevelyn Hall while Sir John spent most of the year in London, where he was a distinguished member of the Tory government. The arrangement suited them both down to the heels.

“I must see to your papa’s posset,” she said, setting aside her canvas and woolen threads with a sigh. “He is suffering so with his gout. You know how he hates to miss a day in the House. He is like a bear after losing a whole week. I hope he is well enough to return soon. Why don’t you go out for a walk, Lydia? You are looking peaky. It is what comes of living with your nose stuck in a journal. Ladies have no need to read such heavy stuff. It brings on wrinkles.” She scanned her daughter’s face for signs of this tragedy.

Lydia had no objection to escaping into the sunshine of a warm spring morning. She decided to take her fishing rod down to the river that formed a border between Trevelyn Hall and Pontneuf Chase and try to catch that big trout that had eluded her papa for five years now, and herself for the two months since she had decided she would fish, since it was frowned upon for ladies. As her mama would either rant or cry at such unladylike doings, Lydia took the precaution of leaving her rod in the gardener’s shed. Martin, the head gardener, would attach the bait for her. That was one masculine perquisite she was not eager to assume.

“After Old Finny again, are you, Miss Lydia?” he asked, handing her the rod. He ought to have called her Miss Trevelyn, but Lydia’s quest for fair treatment extended beyond ladies to include all the oppressed. If a faithful old retainer wished to call her Miss Lydia, who was she to object?

“I’ll catch the rascal yet, Martin,” she replied, watching as he attached a fly to the hook.

“Mind you don’t scratch yourself,” he cautioned, and wrapped a leaf around the baited hook to prevent an accident.

Lydia usually resented being spoken to as if she were a child or an idiot, but she accepted Martin’s admonition without comment, as she knew he meant well. She tipped the rod over her shoulder and scampered down the grassy slope to the river. Pontneuf River was more like an overgrown stream than a river. It had a pretty humpbacked bridge that joined Lord Beaumont’s acres to her papa’s. It was from the bridge that she usually fished. She removed the leaf from the hook, cast her line into the water, and began to reel it in.

She didn’t really like fishing, especially when she accidentally caught a slimy old fish with its mouth open. In fact, she did not much enjoy reading the hard news either. At such moments of quiet reflection as this, at peace with nature, she had an unsettling notion that gentlemen’s lives were not all they were cracked up to be. Her own papa worked so very hard, he was hardly ever home.

As the sun glinted over the surface of the stream, she reviewed for perhaps the hundredth time what was to become of her. She would not inherit Trevelyn Hall. That would go to her brother, Tom, after Papa’s death. Tom was attending university. He had been invited to spend a holiday with a fellow student in Devonshire. Lord Henry Haversham had two well-dowered sisters, which was why Mama had not only allowed the visit but encouraged it.

Lydia would inherit her mama’s ten thousand dowry. Ten thousand, while it might buy a respectable husband, was hardly enough for her to live on her own in the style she was accustomed to. Yet she would not consider living at the Hall after Tom married, under his thumb—and his wife’s.

She wanted to engage in some meaningful work in any case, not fritter her life away, but the careers open to ladies were so few and so demeaning and so poorly paid that she had no taste for them. In her youthful idealism, she envisaged herself a famous philanthropist, helping the needy. Wrapped up in her dreams, she did not see the gentleman hastening down the bank on the other side of the river.

Lord Beaumont saw her, however, and was careful to avoid the bridge where Lydia stood. It annoyed him that a female had invaded this masculine preserve. It was his favorite spot for being alone. Sometimes he indulged in Chinese fishing with no bait on his hook, just sitting, dangling a line in the water, thinking about life. He had taken his seat in the House that spring and was beginning to think seriously about this business of governing the masses.

He threw his curled beaver and blue superfine jacket aside and fished from his own bank, concealed by a thorn bush. Hot from the London Season, he was not impressed by Lydia’s provincial charms. Her hair was dark and modestly arranged. He preferred a fashionable riot of blond curls. He had never noticed what color her eyes were but he knew she didn’t manage them in the artful way the ladies in London did. While she was handsome enough, she was too prudish to suit him. No idea how to flirt. She had snapped his head off at the assembly Saturday evening. She had been complaining of the heat and he suggested in the kindest way possible that she might like to try the dampened gowns that were the latest craze in London.

“You might like to try wearing a wet shirt and see how comfortable it is,” she had snapped at him.

He didn’t blame Sir John for virtually living apart from his wife. Only thing to do with a harridan like Lady Trevelyn. The
on dit
in London was that his mistress was a charming redhead.

Beaumont felt a jerk on the end of his line and moved to the bank’s edge to reel in his catch. The weight told him he had caught a whopper. His rod bent under the force of it. In his excitement, he cried out, “I’ve hooked Old Finny!”

Lydia looked up and saw him, straining to reel in the trout. Without thinking, she hooked her own line under a strut of the bridge railing, hiked up her skirt, and ran toward Beaumont. Old Finny was a legend. If Beau had really caught him, it would be as great a marvel as finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or winning the state lottery. As she ran toward him, she noticed the rod was not jumping as it would if he had a large fish on the end of his line. There was tension on it all right, but it was a deadweight.

“You’ve got your hook caught on a sunken log,” she said, in that condescending manner that set his teeth on edge.

By this time, Beaumont realized his catch was not putting up much of a fight, but he disliked to be told it by a mere chit. He was sorry he’d let her know he was there. “No, it’s moving.”

“You’re going to break your rod. Why don’t you cut the line?”

He bit back the childish retort “Why don’t you mind your own business?” and said grimly, “It’s coming in, whatever it is. Weighs a ton.”

“Probably a fallen branch.”

“There’s a legend of buried treasure in this river. Some ancestor threw a chest of gold coin into the river to hide it from Cromwell’s men.”

Lydia lifted an eyebrow and said dismissively, “That old chestnut! The water is not deep enough. It’s only eighteen inches in late summer.”

With the excitement of catching Old Finny dissipating, Lydia just watched Beaumont reel in whatever tree stump or debris he had hooked. Her mama had been puffing this neighbor off as a prime catch since Lydia first let down her skirts, and her aversion to him had grown apace. She suspected that Beaumont’s mama held the same cherished dream as her own, which would account for his aversion to her. In the old days, they had been as friendly as the eight-year disparity in their ages allowed.

She acknowledged that he was handsome, rich, and titled. There was no arguing with facts. His six-foot frame was broad shouldered, well muscled, long legged. Sunlight gleamed on bluish black hair so carefully barbered, it sat like a silken cap on his head, with one little lock tumbling over his brow to ruin the elegant effect. A straight nose and rugged jaw lent masculinity to his finely chiseled face. His eyes, she knew, were a deep, inky blue, with long eyelashes like a lady’s. She decided it was his looks and eligibility that gave him that overbearing, condescending air that so annoyed her.

“I would cut the line if I were you,” she repeated, and turned to leave.

“It’s coming—I’ve got it!” he exclaimed, and began reeling in his line more easily, but the deadweight was still attached, arching the pole until it was in danger of breaking. The muscles of his broad shoulders and strong arms firmed and bulged with the effort.

Lydia watched, unimpressed, and waited, ready to say “I told you so.” A sodden jacket was the first thing to surface. It was impossible to tell its original color. It now looked black.

“Someone lost his coat,” she said. Before she could have her laugh, a bonnet bobbed up. It had once been an elegant chapeau. Its high poke drooped, but one could still determine its original shape and color. Red—hardly a lady’s color. The feathers were waterlogged and bedraggled, which did not conceal either their length or excess of numbers.

“How strange!” she cried, staring at Beaumont as a shiver scuttled up her spine. She was familiar with all the stylish bonnets in the parish. She had never seen this one before. Beaumont was frowning at it and still reeling as hard as he could. The bonnet moved sluggishly, then slowly turned over. Beneath the gliding water, a ghastly white face appeared, with its eyes open and its mouth wide, as if frozen in a cry of anguish.

“Oh my God!” she gasped, and turned as pale as the face in the water. She quickly averted her gaze, then slowly turned back to see if she recognized the woman. She had never seen her before. Beaumont waded into the water up to the edges of his top boots to haul the body out by the shoulders. The head fell back like a rag doll’s. He laid the corpse carefully on the grass and arranged the dripping skirts around the black kid slippers.

“Do you know her?” he asked, staring in bewilderment at the awful spectacle on the ground.

Lydia was determined not to display any feminine weakness. Beaumont was behaving just as he ought, and she could do no less. She willed down a fit of nausea and forced herself to study the face. In a tightly controlled voice she said, “No, I have never seen her before. She is not from these parts. She hasn’t been in the water long. Who could she be?”

“I have no idea.”

Water dripped from the woman’s eyelashes and rolled down her cheeks, giving a ghoulish semblance of life, as if she were crying. “For goodness’ sake, can’t you cover her face?” Lydia said.

He drew out his handkerchief and placed it over the woman’s face. “I’ll stay here. You’d best go for help, Miss Trevelyn. My place is closer.”

She took one last look at the covered face and the bonnet, noticing the limp red hair that hung out beneath it in sodden clumps, before running up the hill on trembling legs.

Beaumont remained behind, wondering how a lightskirt had ended up in his river. When Lydia was gone, he lifted the handkerchief and studied the pale face. He didn’t recognize this woman, but he knew her calling by her clothes and the faint patches of rouge still visible on her pallid cheeks. Ladies did not wear red bonnets with such a superfluity of gaudy feathers. They did not wear such low-cut gowns in the daytime, and it was a muslin afternoon frock the woman wore. The bonnet and slippers, all her toilette suggested she was dressed for afternoon. He guessed her age to be in the thirties. Not in the first blush of youth, but not hagged either. Her face was a pretty heart shape with a slightly retroussé nose. She must have been pretty when she was alive. The state of the remains suggested she had not been in the water for more than a day.

How had she come here? At least there was no sign of foul play. She had not been strangled or stabbed or beaten. She could not have come in a carriage or her driver would have reported her missing. The outfit, those kid slippers, said she had not ridden. Had she walked, stopped to look at the river, and slid down the bank? But the water was not deep enough to drown her. It was not over her head. Perhaps she had bumped her head? He hadn’t the stomach to remove her bonnet and examine her scalp. Let the sawbones do it. It was odd that her body had been so firmly lodged beneath the water. Almost as if someone had tried to wedge her under a rock or submerged tree.

He looked down at the slippers and noticed the left one was badly scraped, the silk stocking torn. How was it possible, if she had accidentally fallen in? Perhaps she had not died here at all, but her body may have been brought here to conceal it. But why? If he had not happened to catch his hook in her jacket, she might have remained there for weeks or months, even years, until any hope of identifying her was gone.

He was sorry Miss Trevelyn had been exposed to such a horrific discovery. Not that she had seemed very upset. Any normal lady would have pitched herself into his arms, sobbing and swooning, but not that cold wench. “She hasn’t been in the water long,” she had said, as if it were a dead fish she was looking at and not a woman. Who could she be?

His gaze drifted across the river, to the soaring walls of Trevelyn Hall. Sir John’s mistress was said to be a redhead. No, it was impossible. The poor girl was some transient who had met with a mishap. It was ridiculous to think for a minute that this was his neighbor’s mistress. What the devil would she be doing here? Although it was odd that Sir John had been home for a week....

Chapter 2

The body found in the river caused a great commotion in the neighborhood. Everybody except Sir John was speaking of it. Lady Trevelyn felt the death might upset him when he was ill and had ordered Lydia and the servants not to mention it. Lydia had been seeking an outlet for her energies and felt she had now found something worthwhile to do. She would drive into Kesterly and see what the constable had discovered. She would then undertake to notify the drowned woman’s family in some kind and thoughtful manner. There might be something she could do for them. The woman’s toilette had not suggested poverty to be sure, but it was not quite the toilette of a lady either. A milliner, perhaps, to judge by that gaudy bonnet. She would see that the woman had a proper burial.

This was the sort of good work Lady Trevelyn could approve of, especially when it cast Lydia in Lord Beaumont’s path. Naturally he would be taking an interest, as the body had been found in his river. He would see how kind Lydia was, how concerned for the less fortunate.

“I shall go with you, Lydia,” she said at once, and called for the carriage to be driven the two miles through pleasantly undulating farmland to Kesterly, the village where they bought life’s small necessities. For more important purchases such as bonnets, they went the extra few miles to Watford.

John Groom let the ladies out at the Rose and Crown and stabled the carriage. Lydia did not share her mama’s enthusiasm to see Lord Beaumont striding down the High Street toward them. She feared he was bent on the same errand as herself.

To show him she had not got the idea from him, she said at once, “We are just on our way to the constable to find out what we can of that unfortunate woman we found this morning, Beaumont. I want to discover if there is anything we can do for her family.”

She was not imagining the look of consternation that seized his handsome face. “Oh, I would not do that if I were you, Miss Trevelyn. I have already been there. The constable has assured me he will notify her family. No doubt they will be taking her home for burial soon.”

Her chin lifted instinctively at this blatant example of gentlemen thinking they ruled the world. “I shall speak to him all the same,” she said.

Her mama adopted a simpering smile. “I am sure there is no need if Beaumont is handling the matter, dear. So kind of him.”

“I should like to go, Mama,” Lydia insisted in the steely voice that her mama could see was displeasing Beaumont.

“It is really not necessary,” he said firmly.

“There might be something a lady can do that a gentleman cannot,” Lydia said. “Who is the woman? What is her name?”

Beaumont saw the mulish set of her chin and realized he had to protect Lady Trevelyn from the truth whatever Lydia said. He was not yet sure what the truth was, but his first idea had taken root and grown.

A pretty redhead found dead in the river adjacent to Sir John’s property, Sir John missing from London for a week when he virtually never missed a day in the House, and the woman not only dead, not drowned, but shot. The doctor who had written the death certificate had found a bullet had gone straight through her heart. Beaumont had not spotted the bullet hole in her gown. The water had washed away the blood. No identification had been found on her, but when word of the death got about, the constable had heard a rumor that she had been putting up at the Rose and Crown.

Beaumont was on his way there to examine her room in hope of learning her name and where she was from. Once he established her identity, he wanted to get Lydia away from her mama long enough to give her some notion of his fears. As her papa’s lightskirt was common knowledge, he assumed Lydia knew about her. If, as he thought, the woman had been Trevelyn’s mistress, he would visit Sir John and discuss with him how this awful thing had happened, and how they might protect Sir John and his family— and the Tory party. He did not think for a moment that Sir John had killed her, but he might have an idea who had done it. A jealous lover or husband, perhaps. It would not be unusual for a lightskirt to be mixed up in some dangerous illegal business either. Selling confidential government information was one possibility, blackmail another.

“I don’t know her name. I am just on my way into the Rose and Crown now to ask if they know anything of her there,” he said. Then he turned a smiling face to Lady Trevelyn. “I am convinced you would not wish to involve yourself in such an unpleasant affair, ma’am. Why do you not let Miss Trevelyn and me make the enquiries while you enjoy a drive or call on a friend. I shall undertake to see that your daughter comes to no harm and deliver her home.”

Lady Trevelyn was not likely to object to any scheme that threw Lydia in Beaumont’s path. “So very thoughtful. Is that not thoughtful of Beaumont, dear? You two run along and I shall drop in and beg a cup of tea from Mrs. Clarke.”

Lydia directed a suspicious glance at Beaumont before accepting the offer. “Thank you, Beaumont,” she said. “I shall see you at home, Mama.”

“Enjoy yourself,” her mama said, as gaily as if it were a social outing.

“What have you learned that you don’t want Mama to hear?” Lydia asked as soon as they were alone. “The woman means nothing special to Mama. They were not friends or even acquaintances.”

“No, I would hardly call Sir John’s bit of muslin a friend of your mama. Not that I am sure, but the coincidence of a redheaded lightskirt turning up dead on his doorstep looks suspicious, you must own.”

She stared at him in horror, as if he had struck her. “Papa’s bit of muslin!” she gasped. “You’re mad. Papa doesn’t have a mistress. How dare you say such a thing! That is slander, Beaumont. If you repeat that filthy lie, he’ll take you to court.”

He blinked in astonishment. “Didn’t you know? Why the devil do you think he spends so much time in town?”

“For his work, of course. He is very busy in the House. He is on half a dozen committees.”

Beaumont realized his error and wished with all his heart he could unsay the fateful words already spoken. He cleared his throat, blushed, and said, “My mistake, Miss Trevelyn. Sorry. Forget I spoke.”

“But where did you hear such a thing?”

He waved his hands as if batting away a gnat. “London is a hotbed of gossip. No doubt it was some other Sir John. Or perhaps it was Lord John. It is a common enough name after all.”

Strangely, it was his immediate retraction that half convinced her he was telling the truth. Such an idea had never entered Lydia’s head. She knew that plenty of other gentlemen entertained themselves with a mistress, but that her papa, whom she looked up to as a demigod, should sink so low knocked the wind out of her. Then an even worse notion seized her.

“Are you suggesting that Papa killed the woman?” she asked. Her eyes were like wild things, staring at him. “That she came pestering him at home and he drowned her?”

“Of course not. She wasn’t drowned anyway. She was shot.”

“You think Papa shot her!”

“I don’t think anything of the sort!” he replied angrily. “I am not even sure she was his mistress. I heard the woman was putting up at the Rose and Crown. I mean to discover her name and ask Sir John if she was his woman. That’s all. It would be a great scandal for the Tory party if it were true.”

Scowling like a gargoyle, he took a rough grip on her elbow and led her into the Rose and Crown. Lydia was too shaken to argue. She stood a few feet away while Beaumont spoke to the clerk. As the first shock of his accusation was digested, she began to accept what now seemed almost inevitable.

Her papa had a mistress. That was why he had not encouraged her to make her debut last April. He didn’t want Mama and her to find out. He had complained of the expense, and Mama had agreed that money was a little tight lately. He was squandering his money on a lightskirt. That was why he spent so much time in London, even in summer when the House was not sitting.

Lydia remembered going into his room only last evening to ask him to explain exactly what function the Chancellor of the Exchequer filled. Her papa had been writing something. She assumed it had to do with government business, and had been a little offended that he pushed the paper under the covers so hastily, as if he could not trust his own daughter. She had seen a corner of violet-colored stationery protruding from under the blanket and wondered at it. It had been a billet-doux from her, his mistress.

But surely his mistress was not that creature in the vulgar red bonnet with all the feathers? Her papa was a gentleman of refined taste. His own toilette was a matter of pride with him. No one for jackets but Weston. His boots must be by Hoby, of St. James’s Street, who shod the royal family and the Duke of Wellington, and his curled beavers by Baxter. No, if he had a mistress, it was not that woman found in the river. And even if, in the worst case, Papa had gone mad and taken up with such a creature, he could not have killed her, for he had been in bed with gout. He did have gout, didn’t he? It was odd, though, that he would not let Mama ask for Dr. Fraser to attend him as he usually did.

“I know the treatment well enough by now,” he had said. “Bed rest will cure me.”

But he didn’t spend all his time in bed. Late one night when everyone had retired she had heard him coming upstairs and had gone to investigate. He was walking without much limping and without his walking stick. She had taken his arm to help him back to his bedchamber.

“Papa! Surely you have not been downstairs! Why did you not call a servant if you needed something?”

“I mustn’t let my legs atrophy,” he had said. “Truth to tell, I was after a nip of brandy and didn’t want anyone to know. No need to tell your mama. I am feeling a little better this evening.”

“Don’t get better too quickly, Papa,” she had said, tucking him in. “We want you home a little longer.” He hadn’t been carrying the brandy bottle with him. His breath hadn’t smelled of brandy either, had it?

He often stayed in London when he had these attacks of gout. Why had he come home this time? In the first heat of anger, she could believe anything of him. Had he had a falling out with his lover? Had she jilted him, and in an excess of jealousy, had Papa killed her? But he would hardly do it here, on his own doorstep.

The answer came in a blinding flash. Papa had jilted her, and she had come threatening to tell Mama. She was holding him to ransom for some huge sum. That was why money was tight. If Papa had not done the deed himself, he might have hired someone else to do it. Lydia was in a chastened, uncertain state when Beaumont returned, dangling a key from his finger.

“The Daffodil Room, second floor,” he said. “It cost me a quid. We’re not to take anything. Oh, and he’s expecting the constable any moment, so we had best hurry.” They walked swiftly to the staircase and began climbing.

“What was her name?” she asked.

“She registered yesterday afternoon as Mrs. St. John, from London. She took the room for only the one night.”

Lydia wondered if it was a coincidence, her using a variation on Sir John’s name. “Did he not wonder when she didn’t return to the inn last night?”

“He suspected her vocation. It is not unusual for a member of the muslin company to stay out all night.”

“She would not have told him where she was going, I suppose?”

Beaumont hesitated a moment before replying, “She didn’t say.” Lydia looked on the verge of fainting. No need to let her know the worst.

The bedroom doors bore painted flowers to match the name of the room or suite. When they espied the daffodil, Beaumont inserted the key and they entered a spacious chamber done in daffodil yellow, with a view of the High Street through a pair of windows, one on either side of the canopied bed. The room smelled of musky perfume, powder, and stale air. A bottle of wine, half empty, and a single glass rested on the bedside table, along with a ladies’ magazine. Although the bed had not been slept in, the coverlet had been pulled down and the pillows tossed aside. The room bore other traces of occupancy as well. Lydia’s nostrils pinched in distaste to see such slovenly disarray.

Mrs. St. John had made a great deal of mess for someone who traveled so light. It was hard to believe that so many objects had come out of the one bandbox. The round cardboard box, covered in elegant maroon kidskin and lined in silk, had been tossed on the bed, with its lid beside it. A foam of lingerie tumbled onto the coverlet. One pink satin mule with a high heel and a puff of pink eiderdown decorating the toe was latched playfully over the rim of the bandbox. The other was on the floor halfway across the room, as if she had not just kicked it off but thrown it in a fit of temper.

On the toilet table sat an array of cosmetic bottles and boxes, along with a brush, comb, and hand mirror in chased silver. Lydia went to examine the articles, which held a strange fascination for one accustomed to seeing only a brush, comb, and talcum powder on her own and her mama’s toilet tables. Face powder, rouge, perfume, nail file, manicure scissors, and assorted small articles, perhaps for arranging the coiffure, sat in a jumble on the mahogany surface. All this for one day’s visit. A dusting of face powder was sprinkled over it all.

“Do you see a reticule?” Beaumont asked, lifting a drift of white, lacy peignoir and peering into the bandbox.

“No, she would have taken that with her.”

“We didn’t find it in the river. Perhaps whoever searched her room got it.”

Lydia jerked to attention. “What do you mean, searched her room?”

“Look around you,” he said, pointing at the slipper and the disarranged pillows. “Someone’s been here before us. He didn’t use a key. I asked the clerk if anyone had been asking for Mrs. St. John. With luck, the purse is at the bottom of the river. I’ll go swimming later and dive for it.” As he spoke, he continued rooting in the box. He dumped a pair of blue silk stockings onto the bed and held the box up. The silk lining had been ripped out.

Lydia just stared in silence. So Beaumont was right. The room had been searched. And she was glad, because her papa had certainly not risked exposure by coming to a public inn to meet his mistress. Someone else was involved in her murder. She suppressed the thought that it might have been an assassin hired by Sir John.

“What’s the matter, Miss Trevelyn?” Beaumont asked. “You look as if you’d seen a ghost.”

“Papa didn’t do this,” she said in a small, frightened voice.

“Good lord, I didn’t think for a minute he had. Er—do you think he might have been involved with Mrs. St. John?”

“I suppose it’s possible,” she allowed. “He is only human after all, and being away from home so much. ..”

Beaumont just shrugged his shoulders, relieved that she had accepted the inevitable. “Where there is marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.”

“But he does love us!”

“I am sure he loves you, Miss Trevelyn. You must not take this personally. Indeed, I am sure he is fond of your mama, or he would not have been at such pains to conceal from her all these years that he has a mistress. Such women are called a ‘convenience’ for a reason. That is all Mrs. St. John was, a convenience.”

Lydia latched on to that telling “all these years.” All these years her papa had been deceiving them, and Beaumont had known all about it. Very likely all the gentlemen knew and were in league to hide it from the ladies. She was as close to hating her father as she had ever been to hating anyone. She felt betrayed.

“Well, she is not so convenient now, is she?” she said angrily. “We must protect Mama at all costs, Beaumont.”

“I am relieved to see you acting so sensibly,” he said in accents of approval. Say that for Lydia, at least she wasn’t a demmed watering pot. Nor had her prudishness given her such a disgust of her father that she would go running to her mother with the tale. The news had shattered her, but she was taking it like a regular little guy.

“Of course, we are not sure Mrs. St. John was Papa’s mistress,” she said, darting a hopeful look at him.

“Actually, we are pretty sure,” he said, wishing it were not so. “She asked for directions to Trevelyn Hall before going out yesterday afternoon. I didn’t want to tell you....”

He watched as her face began to crumple. Her shoulders sagged in defeat, her head drooped, and her lower lip began to tremble in a way that made Beaumont want to comfort her. He made an instinctive move toward her, but before he touched her, her head came up and he saw her face stiffen.

“Thank you for telling me, Beaumont. It is not necessary to try to protect me, you know. So, what are we to do?”

“Find out what the deuce she was doing here, and who killed her.”

Her chin firmed and a martial light lit her gray eyes. “Yes, that is what I must . Thank you for your help, Beaumont. I shall look after things from here. This is my family’s problem.”

His lips twitched in amusement, but his brow was furrowed. Lydia trying to straighten out this mess would be like a kitten trying to solve a problem in algebra. He was looking forward to the solving of the puzzle himself and felt no qualms whatever about his ability to do so. It would pass the time agreeably until he left for his summer house in Brighton.

“And how will you do that, Miss Trevelyn?” he asked.

“When I discover where she is from, I shall go to London and—and look into it,” she said vaguely, “Speak to her friends, you know.” Even as she spoke, she realized the impossibility of the thing. What excuse could she make for going to London when her father wasn’t even there? How could she get away without Mama? Once there, how could she go unescorted to such places as lightskirts inhabited? She was bound in on every side by the mere fact of being a lady.

“An excellent plan,” Beaumont said. “If I cannot find her reticule and her address, we shall just have to ask Sir John where she lives.”

Lydia puckered her lips to say “We?” but thought again before offending Beaumont. He would be an excellent ally in her scheme. Her mama doted on him. He might even make an excuse to go to London. Some remnant of feminine guile remained with her. She smiled demurely and said, “That would be awfully kind of you, Beaumont.”

Beaumont felt only an instant’s gratification at her maidenly response. His chest had just begun to swell when he noticed the sly smile she was trying to conceal.

“My pleasure,” he said, in a voice that hinted at anything but.

Chapter 3

As the afternoon was far advanced when Lord Beaumont brought Miss Trevelyn home, the trip to London had to wait until the next morning. Anxious as Lady Trevelyn was to oblige Beaumont, she still felt constrained to utter a few objections to the scheme.

“With neither your papa nor I at the London house, my dear, who will chaperon you?” she asked her daughter.

“Why, Aunt Nessie to be sure,” Lydia replied. This was Sir John’s sister who kept house for him in London.

“I shall see she comes to no grief when she leaves the house, ma’am,” Beaumont said with his most charming smile that invariably made the mamas wish they were twenty years younger and single.

Lady Trevelyn simpered. “Well, it is odd she would not go to London when I wanted her to and insists on going now, but that is the way with girls.” She peered from her daughter to Beaumont, with curiosity gleaming from her eyes.

Lydia’s blush was as good as an announcement that romance was afoot.

“Headstrong,” Beaumont said, shaking his head.

“You know I have been wanting to attend Mr. Coleridge’s lecture, Mama,” the deceitful girl said.

Lady Trevelyn would have preferred a more romantic outing but poets were in vogue this season, so perhaps a lecture would not be such a dull scald as she imagined. “And Lord Beaumont has agreed to accompany you. So kind. I don’t believe Sir John will object to that, when Nessie is there to see no harm comes to you. When will you be returning?”

“The day after tomorrow,” Beaumont replied.

“If I stay another day, I shall write you a note, Mama,” Lydia added, in case her papa’s business took her a little longer.

“That might be best, dear. You will want a day to recover from the lecture.” Beaumont’s lips twitched at this telling speech. Lydia noticed and scowled at him. It was all right for her to find her mother a little ridiculous, but it annoyed her that someone outside the family should do so.

After he left, Lady Trevelyn had a deal more to say to her daughter, all of an admonishing nature. With all the restrictions as to propriety and remembering she was a lady, Lydia was still to let Beaumont know she was eager to become his bride.

Lydia interrupted the flow of exhortations in midstream. “It is only Beaumont, Mama, not the Prince of Wales.”

“I should hope not! As if I would let you associate with that— One hears such tales of his wickedness. We shall go up and tell your papa of the visit,” she said, and struggled out of her padded chair.

Lydia felt a pronounced revulsion to entering her papa’s room, but she could hardly leave without seeing him, and it seemed best to do it with her mama so that she would not have to say much.

Sir John, wearing a white linen nightshirt with a ruffled neckband, was propped up in a carved bed of imperial size, curtained in red damask. The elegant chamber had been turned into an ad hoc office, with papers and documents scattered over various tables and the desk. He had a folio of government papers in front of him and a pair of spectacles perched on the end of his aquiline nose.

Lydia observed him as if he were a stranger, for so he seemed to her now. He was an elegant figure, even in his nightshirt. Age had been kind to him. The silver wings that adorned his temples lent an added air of distinction to his lean, swarthy face. As he had heard no rumor of the lightskirt’s murder, it never occurred to him that there was any ulterior motive for Lydia’s visit to London. He felt a match with Beaumont an excellent thing and directed a kindly smile at her as he removed his reading spectacles.

“Enjoy yourself, Lydia. I have every confidence in your good sense. I don’t have to tell you not to run into trouble. Bring me my strongbox. You’ll want a little pocket money.”

Lydia brought the strongbox from his desk. He unlocked it and handed her a few bills of large denomination.

“Thank you, Papa,” she said in a failing voice. His smile was as gentle and loving as ever and seemed genuine. How was it possible, when he had been leading a double life all this time?

Lady Trevelyn enquired dutifully how he was feeling and if there was anything the servants could do for him. He said he was feeling somewhat stouter; then the ladies rose to leave.

“Aren’t you going to kiss me good night, Lydia?” he asked.

A jolt of anger smote her heart at the casual words. She had to quell the angry tirade that rose to her throat. She blew him a kiss from the door, fearing that if she touched him, she would burst into tears of frustration,

“I shan’t disturb you again tonight, John,” his wife said. “Good night, dear. I hope you sleep well.” Lydia noticed her parents had not exchanged a kiss, nor had her papa asked his wife if she was not going to kiss him.

“Good night, dear,” he replied, already putting his spectacles back on and drawing his papers forward.

After Lydia went to her room to change for dinner, it struck her as odd that her parents should say good night so early. They hadn’t dined yet. It wasn’t even dark out. Her mama was not going out, nor was there company coming. Did her mother know about the lightskirt? Was that why she treated her husband so coolly, hardly like a husband at all, but like a troublesome guest?

All this was so worrying that Lydia wanted to be alone to think about it. She used the excuse of packing to go up to her room immediately after dinner. It took Marie, the upstairs maid, only half an hour to pack up what was required for the short visit. When the trunk was ready, Lydia lay on her bed, looking at the window as the purple shadows of twilight dimmed to darkness. She tried to remember if she had ever seen any tokens of affection between her parents.

Her mama talked about Sir John a great deal. In theory, her life revolved around him, but when he came home from London, she just gave him a peck on the cheek and asked how everything was going at Whitehall. It was Lydia herself who flew into his arms and welcomed him more warmly. She was the one who asked the more detailed questions about what he had been doing. Her mama just sat, poking her needle into whatever piece of embroidery she was working on, listening with perfect contentment. When she spoke, it was about little neighborhood doings.