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What's up with the Gentlemen?

I wrote this book as the first book in the Gentlemen Quartet series, but in that same year I also published a book for the Inspy Kisses anthology, Mistletoe Kisses, which is the first book in the Lady Wynwood series.

Since then, I've been working on the next Lady Wynwood series book, but I do intend to go back to the Gentlemen Quartet and continue writing books for that series. If you belong to my email newsletter, you'll be sure to hear when the next book is available.

Prelude for a Lord

Book One in the Gentlemen Quartet series

An awkward young woman. A haunted young man. A forbidden instrument. Can the love of music bring them together . . . or will it tear them apart?

Bath, England—1810

At twenty-eight, Alethea Sutherton is past her prime for courtship; but social mores have never been her forté. She might be a lady, but she is first and foremost a musician.

In Regency England, however, the violin is considered an inappropriate instrument for a lady. Ostracized by society for her passion, Alethea practices in secret and waits for her chance to flee to the Continent, where she can play without scandal. 

But when a thief’s interest in her violin endangers her and her family, Alethea is determined to discover the enigmatic origins of her instrument . . . with the help of the dark, brooding Lord Dommick.

Scarred by war, Dommick finds solace only in playing his violin. He is persuaded to help Alethea, and discovers an entirely new yearning in his soul. 

Alethea finds her reluctant heart drawn to Dommick in the sweetest of duets . . . just as the thief’s desperation builds to a tragic crescendo . . .

"This very enjoyable book will appeal to fans of Jane Austen and Linore Rose Burkard." —CBA Retailers + Resources

“She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation. Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste. In music she had been always used to feel alone in the world; and Mr and Mrs Musgrove's fond partiality for their own daughters' performance, and total indifference to any other person's, gave her much more pleasure for their sakes, than mortification for her own.”

Excerpt from Persuasion by Jane Austen
I took this picture at Newstead Abbey in England. This is where I envisioned my heroine finding the spiritual solace she'd been craving.

I took this picture at Newstead Abbey in England. This is where I envisioned my heroine finding the spiritual solace she'd been craving.

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Excerpt

Cast of Primary Characters

Lady Alethea (al-EE-thea) Sutherton, daughter of the seventh Earl of Trittonstone. Alethea’s brother inherited upon her father’s death, becoming the eighth Earl of Trittonstone, but he died only a few years later and Alethea’s cousin, Wilfred Sutherton, inherited the title and became the ninth Earl of Trittonstone. Alethea’s mother died when she was very young, but her neighbor, Lady Arkright, loved Alethea like a daughter. Her closest friend is her half sister, Lucy. Contrary to the strictures of proper English society, Alethea has learned to play the violin, although she also plays the harp and pianoforte.

Miss Lucy Purcell, illegitimate daughter of Alethea’s father. Before Lucy was born, her mother married a sailor who died in the war, giving Lucy his name. However, everyone in Alethea’s village knew Lucy was the by-blow of the seventh Earl of Trittonstone. After the death of her mother, Lucy went to Bath to work as a maid, and she rose to become a lady’s maid. Her employer is Mrs. Ramsland.

Mrs. Ebena Garen, Alethea’s aunt. Ebena was younger sister to Alethea’s paternal grandmother, Darla. Ebena and Darla’s father was Baron Winterscomb. Darla married the sixth Earl of Trittonstone, while Ebena married Mr. Tar Garen, a younger son of the Earl of Danners.

Margaret Garen, twelve-year-old niece of Aunt Ebena’s late husband.

Lady Arkright, (deceased) Calandra was an Italian woman trained in music in the Ospedale della Pietà under the composer Vivaldi. It was in Italy that she met and married her husband, Sir William Arkright, and they lived nearby Trittonstone Park, Alethea’s home. They had no children. When Calandra died, she bequeathed her violin to Alethea.

Bayard Terralton, Baron Dommick, known as “Bay” to his close friends and family. Lord Dommick only recently inherited the title when his father passed away, about seventeen months before the story opens. (When his father was alive, Lord Dommick was known as Mr. Terralton.) He plays the violin and flute.

Miss Clare Terralton, Bay’s younger sister. Clare is about to make her debut in London in the coming spring.

Lady Morrish, Bay’s mother. She had been Lady Dommick until a few months before the story opens, when she married Sir Hermes Morrish.

Sir Hermes Morrish, Knighted several years ago and married Bay’s mother after the death of Bay’s father. His nephew is Mr. Morrish.

The Quartet, (Lord Dommick, Lord Ravenhurst, Lord Ian Wynnman and Captain David Enlow) four noblemen extraordinarily accomplished in music performance and composition who have been friends since they were in school together. After they graduated university, they performed for private concerts in London and became quite popular due to their wealth, handsome faces, and musical talent (in that order). Then Bay and David bought their commissions and became officers under Wellesley on the Iberian Peninsula, battling Napoleon Bonaparte.

Captain David Enlow, third son of the Viscount Enlow. He has one sister and two older brothers. He saved Bay’s life at the Battle of Corunna and helped him back to England. After a few months, he returned to the Peninsula to continue fighting against the French. He plays the pianoforte and the flute.

Arion Mercaren, Marquess of Ravenhurst, known as “Raven” to his close friends, inherited his father’s title when he was very young. He has two sisters, one of whom married the Earl of Windmarch. During the summer after Bay returned from Corunna, Raven took his friend to Ravenhurst Castle to recover. He plays the violoncello and pianoforte.

Lord Ian Wynnman, second son of the Marquess of Crallworth. His older brother is the Viscount Dinswell, and he has a younger sister. He plays the pianoforte and violin.



Prologue

October, 1809

Trittonstone Park, Somerset, England

Lady Alethea Sutherton sank into a thin-cushioned chair in the dark, dreary drawing room opposite her cousin and his wife. “Would you care for tea?” Alethea asked, which struck her as odd since her cousin now owned this house, and the master arriving at his new home could hardly be considered a visitor.

Wilfred, the new Earl of Trittonstone, frowned at the threadbare carpet. Alethea was about to mention how her father and brother had never spared the funds to refurbish the home when Wilfred slapped his hands on his knees and said, “No sense putting it off. Alethea, you have a week to pack up your things.”

It was the same sensation as when she was twelve, riding her horse through the woods. She’d arrogantly thought that as she knew every tree and twig, she’d be perfectly safe if she sped up to something faster than a walk. A low-hanging branch had thwacked her in the throat, dislodging her from her horse. She’d landed hard on her back, so in addition to her throat constricting, she hadn’t been able to make her lungs draw in air. She felt that way now.

“Good gracious, Wilfred, she’s going to faint.” But rather than assisting her, Mona leaned away from Alethea as if unconsciousness were contagious. “I told you to introduce the topic with more circumspection.”

“She should have expected it,” Wilfred groused. “It’s my house now, after all.”

Alethea managed to gasp in a breath. Yes, she had half-expected Wilfred to arrange for her to leave, but she hadn’t thought she’d only have a week to pack and say good-bye to her childhood home. “Where . . . where will I go?”

Wilfred’s wrinkled brow cleared. “Is that all that’s worrying you? You’ll stay with Aunt Ebena in Bath. You remember Aunt Ebena, don’t you?”

For Alethea, her brother’s funeral had been a blur of faces, but she did remember Aunt Ebena—tall and thin, with a pinched mouth, a gigantic beak nose and chestnut hair streaked with ash. “She wants me to stay with her?”

“I didn’t ask,” Wilfred said. “But she’ll do what I say, now that I’m the head of the family. Especially if I sweeten the deal with some money for your upkeep. Ebena’s always looking a little shabby.”

Alethea realized her cousin was against her like an icy north wind. A gust blew her down, and once she got her feet under her again, another gust knocked her over once more. She wanted to leave the drawing room, but she didn’t think her legs would support her. “I’ve lived here in the country all my life,” she said faintly.

Mona gave a lusty sigh. “Now don’t be melodramatic, Alethea. You had your season in London, after all.” Mona’s nasally voice had an edge to it, since her family hadn’t been wealthy enough to sponsor a season for her.

Alethea swallowed the metallic taste in her mouth. The majority of her time in London had been abject pain and humiliation, on account of her height and lack of social skills. And Trittonstone Park had been her haven from her father and brother.

But her father and brother were gone. She didn’t need a haven anymore.

And the last few years, with neighbors who avoided her because they thought she was odd, and with the two people closest to her heart gone, she had been fighting the bleakness of her life alone, the suspicion that there was something fundamentally wrong with her, the fear that the way her family had treated her was the way she would always be treated. Perhaps now was the time to find a new community. And hadn’t Wilfred said . . .

“Aunt Ebena lives in Bath?” Alethea asked.

“Of course. Isn’t that what I said?” Wilfred frowned.

Mona looked at her shrewdly. “Do you have acquaintance in Bath?”

“Yes, my sister.”

Mona’s nostrils flared almost as large as her watery blue eyes, and Wilfred’s narrow face turned purple. “How dare you mention—?” he sputtered. “You are never to mention such persons in this house.”

Considering they had ejected her from her home less than twenty minutes after arriving, Alethea had lost all pretense of politeness. In addition, she had an unfortunate tendency to rebel when someone told her what she could not do.

“Are you referring to my half sister, Lucy Purcell?” she said in a loud voice.

Mona’s narrow shoulders flinched. Wilfred’s grey eyes bulged and grew bloodshot.

Alethea’s anger sent strength to her wobbling knees and she rose, shaking out her brown woolen skirts. She had forgotten about the broken fingers on her left hand, and the motion sent a stab of pain up her arm, but it only stoked the fire in her chest. “Yes, Lucy lives in Bath. It will be nice to be close to her again. We have only exchanged letters since she moved two years ago to take a post as housemaid. Your cousin is a lady’s maid now, Wilfred,” Alethea said sweetly.

“She is not my cousin!” Wilfred choked out.

“Half cousin.” Alethea corrected herself. “Pray, excuse me.” She swept toward the door, half-amused when the butler opened the door from the outside of the drawing room before she reached it. She gave him an impudent smile, which the very proper servant did not return with so much as a crack in his stately facade, although Alethea could have sworn his chin twitched.

As she climbed the stairs, her smile faded, and her anger burned to ashes. This was no longer her home. Gone were the long hours walking the hills and running down them when no one was around to see her. Gone also were the long hours playing her violin . . .

She checked herself. She hadn’t played since the day her brother broke her fingers.

But perhaps in Bath she would find a better doctor, one who would enable her to play again. And Bath had more concerts she could attend, more access to published music. And Bath had Lucy.

What did it matter where she lived? She only had three more years to wait. She had thought she would spend them here, but instead she could spend them close to Lucy, where they could make plans and ready themselves.

Three more years before she would be free.



Chapter One

12 months later

A prickling sensation spread across the back of Alethea’s neck, which had nothing to do with the brisk air of Bath in the winter.

She looked up from the cabbage she was considering and glanced around the busy marketplace. People shifted in and out of her vision, none looking at her. She twisted to look in the other direction, but again no one paid her any attention.

So, why had she felt as if she were being watched?

The farmer, John, looked at her with brow wrinkled. “Something worrying you, miss?”

Alethea had never corrected him. By now, she was used to being called “miss” as opposed to “my lady.” After all, who would believe an earl’s daughter out in the market buying potatoes and parsnips? But today, it took her a moment to realize he was speaking to her. “What? Oh, I beg your pardon, John. Yes, I’ll take the cabbage.”

The prickling feeling returned. Alethea casually turned to the side as if considering some leeks, and quickly glanced up.

She caught a man staring at her.

He looked away as if her gaze burned him. Alethea continued to watch him, studying his grey thinning hair, dirty leathery skin, cadaverous build. She wasn’t sure what she was searching for, perhaps something silly like an indication he’d been watching her, but then he entered into a conversation with a man selling knives, apparently bargaining for something.

Had he been watching her or did he just happen to look in her direction? She would have been a terrible spy.

She slipped the cabbage into her market basket, then paid and thanked John before leaving. She was being ridiculous. Who in the world would care enough to want to follow her? She had no money of her own that she controlled, and no social connections since her one season in London had been so uneventful. Besides which, she was a tall, plain, eight and twenty year old and not some pretty, dewy-eyed young miss just out of the schoolroom.

She turned up Milsom Street, which bustled mostly with maids, manservants, and merchants this early in the morning. The more fashionable set would emerge in several hours, but for now she was relieved that, as usual, no one would recognize her. It was the reason she’d flown against convention and volunteered to do the cook’s marketing—the opportunity to stroll the streets of Bath, breathe in the crisp air, and walk for an hour or two with no young ladies to titter at her strong stride, no old biddies to disparage her rosy cheeks from the exercise.

A year ago, she had arrived in Bath with the hopes it would have a more diverse, broad-minded set of people. Instead, Bath contained a fashionable set who professed to be liberal and intelligent, but who all seemed to disdain Alethea’s passions as ungenteel. Their wit could cut as sharp as the people in London, and for some of them, politeness was merely a veneer.

She could not avoid them at the evening parties, but she could shake their influence loose from her mind during early mornings like these, when she could disappear into the servants of Bath. She strolled through a cluster of shopkeepers, completely unnoticed.

Almost.

A coach-and-four barreled down the street, much too fast for the narrow way. Several people leapt out of the way of the horses with cries of alarm, but the crowds forced the coachman to finally slow his headlong dash, right where Alethea stood pressed against a shop wall.

“Why are we slowing?” a deep male voice demanded from the depths of the coach.

Alethea had been breathless on account of being forced to the side, but now the air stopped in her throat.

It couldn’t be him. Not here, in Bath.

She glanced up just as a man from within the coach looked out—and met her eyes.

Dark eyes, shadowed, solitary. He had always reminded her of a hawk, its power and beauty, its lonely existence. But she now noticed that there was a dark pain, something that had aged him beyond the eleven years since she’d seen him last.

His eyes flickered, and she tensed. Surely he wouldn’t recognize her. She had been one woman in a crowd of hundreds at his concert in London, who had danced at the same balls, attended the same operas. Fallen half in love with dashing Mr. Terralton, son and heir to Baron Dommick.

No, he was Lord Dommick now—she had read that his father died last year, three months after Mr. Terralton returned to England, injured from fighting Napoleon on the continent.

But his gaze didn’t leave hers for a few heartbeats, as if trying to place her.

Then he turned away as the man sitting next to him said, “Bay, I’m sure it would hamper your rescue attempts if you were arrested for killing a bystander with your coach.”

Alethea recognized him as Lord Ian Wynnman, and sitting across from them was the Marquess of Ravenhurst.

Her heartbeat galloped. Three of the Quartet, here? She would have expected them to be wintering at their country estates, not mouldering in Bath with invalids taking the waters.

“Bay, your stepfather is a fool. A delay of a few minutes will not mean your sister’s ruin,” Lord Ravenhurst said.

Alethea recalled an announcement in the papers about Lord Dommick’s mother remarrying, although she couldn’t remember to whom.

“He may be a fool, but I know nothing of his nephew,” Lord Dommick replied as the coach pulled away from Alethea. “I intend to allow him no time for any malicious scheming . . .”

Alethea stared at the back of the coach as it continued down the street, her heartbeat returning to normal. For a moment, she’d thought the Quartet was in Bath to give one of their famous concerts, but that was a silly notion. After Lord Dommick and Mr. David Enlow had gone off to join the fighting on the continent, the Quartet had not played together in seven years. She had not heard anything about Mr. Enlow, but supposed he must still be in the army.

The Quartet’s concerts had been glorious, but the pain of the memory of her first meeting Lord Dommick made her insides twist like a kitchen rag being wrung of water.

She straightened her shoulders. She was a fool to allow old memories to hurt her. She continued up Milsom Street, although her steps resembled a march more than a stroll.

If those three bachelors were to remain in Bath, she would more than likely see them at the social entertainments of the winter months. One or all of them would be trapped by some well-meaning older woman into being introduced to Alethea, and she would need to admit they had already been introduced years ago in London.

But perhaps they were simply here for a day or two before travelling on to London or their estates. She might be worrying for nothing.

Alethea walked toward her aunt’s home in Queen Square. It had been a new, expensive development during the time Aunt Ebena’s husband had bought it, but in more recent years it had begun to fall out of favour, inhabited by a more dowdy set than the fashionable residents of the Crescent and Laura Place, and now the homes in Queen Square reminded Alethea of aging baronesses attempting to hide the ravages of time and neglect.

She was near her aunt’s home when she heard from behind her, “Pardon me, milady. Might I have a word?”

She froze, partly because of “milady,” and partly because the male voice was unfamiliar to her, uncultured, with a slick overtone that reminded her of cold congealed beef.

She should have simply walked on. After all, it could be nothing but trouble for a lady to be so rudely accosted on the street by a stranger. But because he’d startled her by knowing she was no ordinary miss, it gave him the opportunity to hurry around her stiff figure to stand before her.

She had anticipated the sticklike grey man from the marketplace, but she was almost relieved to find this man was different. He had a round belly that strained his bright yellow and green striped waistcoat, and spindly legs encased in puce breeches. The puce at least matched the amethyst stickpin in his starched cravat, and the yellow stripes almost matched his blond hair.

Something tight coiled in Alethea’s stomach at his audacity and the fact they were alone on this remote street. The general stamp of her neighbors were unlikely to bestir themselves to chivalry and rescue her.

“Mr. Golding at your service, milady. I wish only a moment of your time.” The man’s mouth curved in a strange V shape that tilted his eyes up at the corners and made his face seem to leer at her.

How did he know her rank? Was it a guess? Nothing in her plain straw bonnet, dark blue dress, and wool cloak indicated she was anything more than an upper servant. “Pray excuse me.” She attempted to sidestep him, but he blocked her way.

“I have a lucrative proposition for you.”

“Let me pass,” she said.

“Perhaps you have in your possession a violin?”

Of all things he could have said, that was the last she expected.

“My employer is willing to pay a substantial sum, if you were in the mind to sell it,” Mr. Golding said.

“Who is your employer?” she demanded.

“My employer wishes to remain anonymous.”

“Of course he would,” she said dryly, then realized the man hadn’t identified his employer as a man or woman.

“You may name your price,” he said. “Enough to buy another violin. Enough to afford better lodgings for yourself and your aunt.”

The cold of the season suddenly made itself known to Alethea through her woolen cloak. How did he know about her aunt? Perhaps the same way he knew about her violin and her rank. The words had been amiable, but the man delivered it like a faint threat.

No, she was being silly. This was exactly like the time the new butcher in the village had tried to insist that the rotting meat he had delivered was the same quality as always. As lady of the manor at Trittonstone Park, she had put him in his place when she had the cook prepare a piece and demanded the butcher take the first bite.

She drew herself up. “I refuse to have any interactions with someone of whom I know nothing.”

Mr. Golding’s brown eyes narrowed, and his V smile flattened.

“However, should your employer wish to call with a note of introduction, I would be pleased to receive him. Good day.”

She stepped around him and continued down the street as quickly as she dared. She half-expected him to follow her, but instead she heard the heavy stamp of his footsteps moving away. She peeked around and saw his broad back, encased in purple superfine, as he headed away from her. He had turned the corner and was out of sight by the time she reached Aunt Ebena’s door.

However, she was surprised by a post chaise stopped in front of her aunt’s home. The coachman who stood holding the horses’ heads gave her an insolent grin, which she froze with a cold glance. Raised voices sounded from behind the front door, causing Alethea to quickly enter the house.

The narrow front foyer was chaos. A trunk took up most of the space, while the rest was filled with a woman twice as broad as Alethea, shouting at Aunt Ebena, who stood firmly at the foot of the staircase.

“’Tis your responsibility now. I wash my hands of her!” The woman shook her meaty paws at Aunt Ebena.

Alethea’s aunt was a good stone lighter but taller than the woman, and her gimlet stare could have set a small fire. “I was present at the funeral. The solicitor clearly stated that the girl was the responsibility of her blood relatives. Of which I am not.”

A light voice piped up at Alethea’s elbow. “You might as well sit down. They’ve been at it for at least fifteen minutes.”

Alethea started. A small girl sat in one of the hallway chairs shoved against the wall. She had been partially screened by the door when Alethea entered the house and she hadn’t noticed her.

The girl calmly sat as though awaiting an audience with the queen. She could be no more than eleven or twelve years old, with light brown hair in rather wild curls. Her dress was too short for her, exposing tanned forearms and dirty shoes and stockings. She also had a dark smudge of something across her nose, and another streak across her chin.

Alethea had rarely interacted with children. She had not been close friends with the women in the neighborhood of Trittonstone Park since they did not understand her love of music and considered her something of an oddity, so exposing their children to Alethea’s unconventional notions had been the last wish of their hearts. At a loss, Alethea blurted out, “You have something on your face.”

“Oh?” The girl scrubbed at her cheeks with a sleeve, which caused a grey mark to appear.

“I think it’s from your dress.”

The girl peered at her sleeve. “That must have been from the dog at the inn. He was quite dirty.”

The woman in the hallway bellowed, “You are expected to undertake your husband’s responsibilities.”

“Expected by whom? The blood relatives who should be taking a more active interest in this matter?” Aunt Ebena shot back.

“What is happening?” Alethea asked the girl, feeling foolish doing so.

“They’re arguing.” The girl’s tone implied Alethea was a bit of a simpleton not to have deduced that already.

Alethea’s gaze narrowed. “That much is obvious. What are they arguing about?”

“Me, of course.”

“What about you?”

“Why, if I shall come here to live.”

***

Alethea had a coughing spell for a few moments. “Here? With Aunt Ebena?”

The girl’s eyes brightened. “She’s my aunt, as well. That means we are cousins.”

“Who are you?” Alethea asked belatedly.

“Margaret Garen.”

Garen. The name of Aunt Ebena’s husband. Alethea realized Margaret was looking at her expectantly. “I am Alethea Sutherton.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Margaret said as if they had been introduced over tea.

“Why would you stay here? Wouldn’t you rather be with your mother?” Alethea glanced at the strange woman, still arguing. The sounds echoed off the walls of the foyer.

“She’s not my mother. She’s my Aunt Nancy. My parents are dead.” Margaret said the words with unconcern, but Alethea noticed the tightening of the small mouth, the clenching of her hands in her lap.

“When did they die?” Alethea asked gently.

“Eight months ago. I have lived with Aunt Nancy since then, but she is terribly stuffy.”

Something about the way Margaret said the word made Alethea remember her own childhood, ruled over by nursemaids and governesses. Alethea had grown old enough to rather pity those poor women. “Does your definition of stuffy mean intolerant of frogs in the drawing room seat cushions or something of that sort?”

Margaret grinned. Her blue eyes lit up and twin dimples peeked out from her round cheeks. “I knew there was something about you I liked.”

Alethea realized with a powerful sense of dread that perhaps she was being punished for all the mice in shoes and charcoal drawings on bed sheets that she had inflicted upon her childhood servants.

“Try and stop me!” roared Margaret’s Aunt Nancy. She whirled around.

Alethea jumped aside before the large woman crashed into her and then was nearly clocked in the forehead by the front door being yanked open. She stumbled backward and ended up sitting in Margaret’s lap. The girl gave a great, “Umph!”

A swirl of chill wind, then the deafening slam of the door. Alethea was left staring at the suddenly quiet hallway, broken only by the sound of Aunt Ebena’s angry gasps. “How—! How dare she—?”

Alethea felt squirming beneath her.

“Could you get off me? You’re terribly heavy.” Margaret pushed at Alethea’s back.

Alethea regained her feet and stood. She caught sight of the butler, the housekeeper, and the cook peeking from around the corner of the stairwell, round-eyed and pale. The other servants were probably peeking from the top of the stairs.

Aunt Ebena pressed a bony hand against her chest, which showed up white against the black silk and lace of her gown. Her wide grey eyes took in Alethea, standing awkwardly next to the trunk, then Margaret’s small form in the hallway chair. Aunt Ebena took a breath as she straightened to her full height, pressing her thin lips closed and looking down her beaky nose at Margaret. “Hill, send for Mr. Garen’s solicitor,” she ordered the housekeeper. “We shall get to the bottom of this.”

Aunt Ebena turned and made her way back up the stairwell. A scuffling from the floor above indicated the other servants were scattering before being caught by their mistress. “I don’t know what she was thinking. I have no use for a child,” Aunt Ebena muttered.

Earlier, Margaret had borne the argument with an almost quirky sense of humor. Even now, she kept her chin raised and her back straight, but Aunt Ebena’s words made her eyes flicker downward. It was not there on her face, but Alethea could see the bruise formed on her soul. How often had Alethea heard her own father say, “What use is a girl to me?”

The sight of Margaret’s face caused a burning in Alethea’s chest. It had been the same as when the village women told her she should not play with Lucy. It was the sense of an injustice she had the ability to right, or to ease. Others had disregarded her existence, but she would ensure she did not do the same to anyone else.

“Did you ever try spitting crickets?” Alethea asked conversationally.

Margaret blinked at her. “Crickets?”

“They feel quite odd moving about on your tongue, and their flavor is distinctly earthy, but spitting is highly accurate for proper placement of said cricket into, for example, a governess’s teacup.” Alethea couldn’t quite believe she managed to speak with a straight face. “Or at least the vicinity of the tea tray.”

In addition to her dimples, Margaret’s wide smile showed a slight overbite that made her look like a darling fairy child. “That is quite a good idea.”

Alethea wondered if she were welcoming chaos upon her aunt’s home, but Margaret reminded her of how she had felt, abandoned to Trittonstone Park year after year by a father who despised her and a brother who only sought to use her. Alethea had been unwanted and unappreciated by any except her half sister, Lucy, and her widowed neighbor, Lady Arkright. She would not let this child feel as she had.

“Let’s get your trunk upstairs.”

Margaret looked distastefully at the battered trunk. “Don’t you have servants to do that for you?”

“Our aunts have chased the servants away, so I would need to send someone to collect them, and there is only the butler, who’s got sore knees, and the cook, who’s making breakfast. So, would you rather haul your own things or not eat?”

Margaret hopped to her feet. “Where is my room?”

Responds well to threats of starvation. She recalled being the same at that age. If Margaret was here to stay, it may not be too bad. Really, how difficult would it be to care for a young girl?

***

Bayard Terralton, Baron Dommick, leaned against the squabs of his coach as it continued down Milsom Street. That young woman had looked at him as if horrified.

“You’ve lost no time, Bay,” Ian remarked with a sly smile. “She seemed taken by you.”

“Who?” Ravenhurst demanded.

“That pretty young maid on the street.”

“She looked at me as if I were a corpse come back to life,” muttered Bayard.

“Did she recognize you as the Mad Baron?” Ian asked flippantly.

Bayard’s mouth tightened at the nickname his former betrothed had given to him during the season in London when she was spreading rumours about his sanity.

Raven’s foot shot out and kicked Ian’s boot where it rested atop his knee, knocking it down. Ian straightened more in surprise than anger.

Raven said nothing, simply gave Ian an ice-cold stare.

Ian grimaced, shrugged, and looked away.

Ravenhurst turned to Bayard. “We are here in Bath to rectify that situation.”

Bayard was not so certain, after the damage done by Miss Church-Pratton, the woman he had almost married. But he had to succeed for the sake of his sister and his mother. He would not cause them pain again. “Can’t this coach go any faster?” Bayard pounded his head against the leather squabs.

Raven wisely ignored his whining and addressed the root of his concern. “You’re certain Mr. Morrish is here in Bath?”

“My sister’s letter said he arrived the morning she wrote to me.”

“Your mother’s chaperonage in the house isn’t enough to guarantee your sister’s safety against Mr. Morrish?” Ian waggled his dark gold eyebrows.

Raven snorted. “Please. You know Bay’s mother as well as I.”

Bayard wasn’t offended. He knew that Raven, Ian, and David—his close friends since Eton—loved his mother as if she were their own. But Bayard’s mother, while kind and generous, preferred to be pampered rather than responsible for others.

“I didn’t tell you about this summer.” Bayard’s sister, Clare, would kill Bayard for revealing this, but he depended upon his friends to help protect her.

“Do tell.” Ian grinned, his dimples peeking out from cheeks showing a golden brown shadow.

“The squire’s younger son—a nasty piece of work, the kind to pull legs off of frogs for a spot of fun—tried to force himself upon Clare in an empty stable.”

Ravenhurst’s icy blue eyes glittered. “Did he, now?”

“The idiot also confessed he wanted to ruin her so she’d be forced to marry him.” Bayard’s knuckles ached, and he looked down, realizing he’d clenched his hands into fists.

“Please tell me your resourceful sister did not stand for such treatment,” Ian said.

“She remembered what David taught her and hit the boy in the throat with her closed fist. She then ran out.”

“That’s my girl.” Ian grinned.

Raven sighed. “I will never again complain about David teaching your sister those fighting tricks.”

“It was so she could hold her own against the village bullies. I was surprised she remembered after all these years.”

“Bullies, suitors. Same class of chaps, don’t you think?” A lock of straight blond-streaked brown hair had fallen over Ian’s eyes, and he swiped it away impatiently. He happened to catch the eye of a shopgirl as they rode past her on the street and he flashed her a smile.

Bayard was used to his friend’s easy way with the opposite sex, but after the disastrous end to his betrothal last year, the gesture now caused a pang in his chest. He did not have Ian’s charm, Raven’s title, or David Enlow’s powerful presence. He was simply . . . Bay.

“I will never understand how women flock to you even while you need a haircut and a shave.” Raven tugged at his immaculate cravat. “You look positively uncouth.”

“Artful disarray,” Ian corrected him. “And women prefer it to starchy.”

“Enough,” Bayard said before the insults escalated.

Ian’s grin widened. Raven’s white-blond eyebrow angled upward, but a smile hovered around his stern mouth.

“We need David around to keep us in line,” Ian said. “It’s boring for Bay to have to do it.”

But the fourth of their group, Captain David Enlow, was fighting with Wellesley somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula. Last year, David had returned to the war three months after saving Bayard’s life in Corunna.

The squeal of horses, the acrid smell of gunpowder, the screams of men dying . . .

Bayard drew breath and forced his mind from the memories before they overwhelmed him. Again. He needed to have more command over himself. Lord God, help me learn to control myself.

“Bay?” Raven’s voice was cautious.

“I’m fine,” Bayard said.

“We’re here.” Ian opened the carriage door.

The front door to the house opened and Bayard’s sister hurried down the steps to throw herself at him. He staggered backward even as he wrapped his arms around her. His injured shoulder twinged, but he did not loosen his embrace.

“Bay, thank goodness you’re here.” Clare was usually as correct as Ravenhurst, and the fact she embraced him so exuberantly showed her relief at seeing her brother.

“My welcome is distinctly lacking.” Ian gave Clare his most devastating smile, but it only provoked a frown from her that could have come from the strictest governess.

Raven interrupted her glare at his friend with his courteous bow. “Miss Terralton.”

She released Bayard to curtsey to Raven and then, grudgingly, to Ian. “Ravenhurst. Ian.” Clare turned to Bayard and shook his coat lapels, creasing them. “It took you long enough to get here.”

He frowned down at her. “I left within an hour of receiving your letter.”

“Mr. Morrish has been here every afternoon and Mama has given him permission to escort me to Lady Woolton’s ball next week.” Panic flared around the edges of her dark eyes.

He tucked aside a lock of fine dark hair where it had fallen across her nose. “I will be escorting you to the ball. And for good measure, one of the three of us will be within sight of you always.”

She was so relieved that she kissed his cheek, even with the servants watching from the house’s open doorway. “I knew I could depend on you, Bay.”

“Come inside, come inside,” called a jovial voice. Sir Hermes Morrish, Bayard’s stepfather, waved to them from the front step as he leaned upon a cane. “It’s too cold to stand about, and your mother is anxious to see you.”

“Has Sir Hermes pressured you in any way?” Bayard whispered to Clare as they headed inside.

“No. But he doesn’t prevent his nephew from pressing his suit. He seems to think it a lark.” Clare sniffed in indignation, then sobered. “Bay, I don’t like how Mr. Morrish looks at me.” She shuddered. “The way we used to look at the Christmas pudding.”

Bayard’s hand tightened over hers. “You will have no need to fear. I have a plan.” He nodded to his stepfather as they approached the front door. “Sir Hermes.”

“Good to see you, m’boy.” Sir Hermes gave a boyish grin that made him look decades younger. His curly brown-grey hair had been disheveled by the breeze, but he did not seem to notice. He ushered them into the house he had procured for the winter.

It was a fine house, not too far from the Roman Baths where Sir Hermes’ doctor had ordered him every day for his gout. The golden Cotswold stone looked warm even in the fitful sunlight, and the inside was richly furnished with classically inspired furniture boasting more gilt than the ancient Greeks had ever seen. In the drawing room, Bayard’s mother reclined on a chaise lounge, but she sat up as he entered the drawing room with Clare on his arm.

She held round, white arms out to him. “Bayard, how good of you to come.”

He stepped forward to take her hands, entering into the thick cloud of her perfume. He kissed her cheek. “Mama, how are you?”

“Bath is lovely.” Her soft, high voice, usually languid, was alight with excitement. “I have become reacquainted with several old school friends whom I have not seen in ever so long.”

“Your mother is well able to entertain herself while I take the waters.” Sir Hermes beamed at his wife as he sank into a nearby chair. He grimaced only slightly from his gouty foot, and rested his cane against the chair arm.

Lady Morrish greeted Raven and Ian like additional sons, and they both kissed her cheek in turn before seating themselves.

“Will you be staying in Bath?” Lady Morrish asked Bayard. “Clare said she has asked you.”

“Yes, and I have even better news.” He nodded to his stepfather. “Sir, this house you have let is very fine, but Ravenhurst has offered us the use of his house and servants here in Bath.”

Lady Morrish’s mouth opened in an O of surprise and delight. She turned to Raven with a rapturous smile. “But what of your mother?”

“Right now, she is with my sister at their estate in Devonshire,” Ravenhurst said.

“Ah yes, she wrote to me of your sister’s new baby boy.”

He nodded. “Mother has extended an invitation to you, madam, to stay with her at our home on the Crescent provided you and your family do not mind rattling around her house alone until she returns to Bath in a few weeks.”

“We should be delighted.” Lady Morrish clapped her hands. “It will be wonderful to see your mother again, and her home is so much larger than this one.”

“But my dear,” Sir Hermes said, “what of my nephew?”

Clare stiffened.

“What of Mr. Morrish?” Bayard’s tone was harsh.

“Just this morning Sir Hermes suggested we invite him to stay with us,” Lady Morrish said. “His rented rooms are small. But I am afraid we cannot invite him if we will be accepting Lady Ravenhurst’s generous offer.”

“Yes, Mr. Morrish is a stranger to her,” Bayard replied.

Sir Hermes frowned at this change of plans, but then his amiable nature reasserted itself. “Whatever makes you happiest, dear.”

Bayard had to admit that in the three months of his mother’s marriage to Sir Hermes, the fine lines of stress that used to radiate from her doe-brown eyes had faded in the light of his stepfather’s more easygoing nature. Bayard’s father’s stern nature had heightened his mother’s nervous temperament, but that nervousness had faded, and he owed his thanks to Sir Hermes’s influence.

At that moment, there was a rap at the front door, and moments later, the butler entered the drawing room and announced, “Mr. Morrish.”

Clare shot to her feet, her hands clenched together. Bayard rose also and reached out to fold her hands in his. She gave him a grateful look, and relaxed slightly.

Bayard studied Mr. Morrish as Sir Hermes performed introductions. The ginger-haired man looked only slightly like his uncle in his rosy cheeks and curly hair, but where Sir Hermes had an open artifice and bright, dark eyes, Mr. Morrish’s half lidded gaze shifted slyly from side to side. His smile toward them all, and especially Clare, was wide and ingratiating, but never reached his eyes. The man was not handsome—he had protruding front teeth and a weak chin that made him slightly horselike in appearance—but he carried himself with an easy confidence that made one feel he ought to be handsome.

“Lord Dommick,” Mr. Morrish simpered when they had all reseated themselves. “I had no idea you were coming to Bath. Were you not at Lord Ravenhurst’s estate for the past year?”

Bayard stiffened. While it was no secret he had been at Ravenhurst Castle since last winter, the sneering way Mr. Morrish mentioned it seemed to indicate he knew the truth about why Bayard had been buried in the country for the past twelvemonth. The specter of the ugly rumours threatened to overshadow Bayard, and he tightened his jaw.

“I had always intended to support my sister for her come out,” Bayard replied coldly. “When I heard she would be spending the winter in Bath, I naturally came to escort her about in society.”

“We all came,” Ravenhurst added. His icy demeanor seemed to make Mr. Morrish’s civility falter.

A flash of something ugly passed across Mr. Morrish’s pale face, then it was gone.

“Miss Terralton is like a sister to us,” Ian drawled, although Bayard caught the edge to his words. “It’s as if she has three older brothers.”

A twinkle shone in Clare’s eyes as she glanced at Ian.

To his credit, Mr. Morrish recovered quickly. “Why, that is how I feel about Miss Terralton myself. It is a relief to know she has other such friends as I.”

A wordless sound escaped Clare’s lips as she had difficulty containing her outrage.

“She has a great many friends,” Ravenhurst said. “My mother has offered to Miss Terralton and her family the use of our house here in Bath.”

Mr. Morrish started in surprise, then turned to Lady Morrish. “My dear lady, how fortuitous for you. Surely the Marchioness of Ravenhurst’s home is one of the most elegant in Bath.”

“We shall be very comfortable,” Lady Morrish said.

Mr. Morrish’s smile seemed to indicate he thought nothing more delightful than her removal to the Ravenhursts’ home, but Bayard noticed the man’s hand clenched in his lap.

The rest of Mr. Morrish’s visit passed with gentle gossip that delighted Bayard’s mother. Mr. Morrish had a rapier wit that sometimes bordered on cruel, and his manner of conveying a story seemed to indicate how he despised the characters he spoke of. He appeared to be watching Raven and Ian to see how long they would stay, but Ian brought up at least five or six times how they considered themselves family to Clare and her mother and seemed entrenched in the chair he lounged in. At last, despite the fact Sir Hermes was his uncle, propriety forced Mr. Morrish to depart.

Bayard made a point of walking Mr. Morrish to the door, accompanied by Raven and Ian.

Mr. Morrish had an assurance that was faintly like a challenge as he donned his beaver hat. “I bid you good day, gentlemen. I expect we shall see much of each other this winter.”

Raven stiffened but Ian said, “Good day,” and all but ushered Mr. Morrish out the front door.

“I should like to darken his lights,” Raven said in a chilly voice.

“What did you think of him?” Bayard asked Ian. Of the four of them, Ian’s ability to assess a person’s character surpassed them all. Perhaps it had to do with his successful interactions with the fairer sex.

“Completely mercenary,” Ian said. “Although there is something refreshing about a man so transparent about it.”

“Refreshing is not the word I would use to describe him.” Raven frowned at Ian.

“He should never be allowed an opportunity to speak privately to Clare, for he seems the sort of man who might press his advantage to force a marriage out of the situation.”

“That much is obvious,” Raven said.

“Pity you can’t forbid him to dance with her,” Ian said. “Although Bay, if you allow him to guide her outside a ballroom for a moonlit stroll in the garden, I should have to shoot you myself.”

“If Bay did that, I would suspect someone had slipped some tonic into his tea to make him stupid,” Raven said.

“I had forgotten how jovial and complimentary your company was,” Bayard replied.

Before they reentered the drawing room, however, Ian said in a low voice, “Be very careful, not only of your sister, but of your reputation as well. He is the sort of man to exploit any weakness he can ferret out.”

“I shall be careful.” Bayard could make no mistakes for the next year. His sister’s season, and his mother’s sensitive heart, depended upon him.



Chapter Two

Alethea’s half sister, Lucy Purcell, stumbled as she stepped outside St. Mary’s chapel after church on Sunday morning. “Surely you’re jesting.”

“I have had five exhausting days of attending to my aunt as she spoke to her solicitor and preventing Margaret from sliding down the bannister and terrorizing the shopkeepers as we acquired fabric for some new clothes for her. I assure you, I am not jesting.” Alethea breathed in the cool air after the musty atmosphere of the chapel. She appreciated that the church in the square was small and not as crowded as other more public churches, but the sermons and prayers wove around her ribcage like a corset pulled too tightly. None of those lofty rectors preaching obedience had been abandoned by God to a neglectful father and cruel brother. She had no use for a God like that.

“You, caring for a child?” Lucy peeked around the edge of her bonnet to study Alethea. “You, who have always been unfashionably direct with gentlemen where other women were demure, because you have no interest in marrying? If you did not look so unwell I should find this quite diverting.”

Alethea glared. Lucy laughed.

Alethea looked for Aunt Ebena, who as usual had not sat with Alethea and her sister during the service. Her aunt’s lined face made her seem to be forever frowning whenever directed at Alethea or Lucy, which made Alethea relieved she didn’t impose her company upon them, but she felt the pain of the slight for Lucy’s sake.

Aunt Ebena was speaking to one of her numerous friends, and would likely remain with them until Lucy left Alethea’s company to return to her employer.

“I take it Margaret is staying?” Lucy asked. As the day was fine, they made their way toward the formal gardens laid out in the centre of the square.

“Aunt Ebena’s solicitor found nothing in Margaret’s father’s will to allow her to refuse this responsibility.” At least Aunt Ebena had kept her disappointment to herself and Alethea, and had not expressed her reluctance to Margaret directly.

“But Margaret is niece to Aunt Ebena’s late husband. She is no relation of yours.”

“She’s a closer relation to that Aunt Nancy woman, who was third cousin to Margaret’s mother.” Alethea ran her hand through a shrub of rosemary along the path, breathing in the pungent scent. “However, I gather that Margaret’s . . . liveliness had been trying.”

Lucy crowed, “What did Miss Jenkins say to you before she quit her post? That she hoped you would one day have a child exactly like—”

“Miss Jenkins was the worst governess of the lot,” Alethea protested. “She wanted me to curl my hair. Every morning.”

“The curling iron did work for two entire minutes before it all straightened again.”

“Miss Jenkins’ curse has not come to pass,” Alethea said. “I have quite enjoyed having Margaret about.”

“Have you now?” Lucy regarded her sister with narrowed eyes. “And what of her education?”

The elms rattled in the wind like a thousand fingers shaking at her. “Education?”

“Is she adequately prepared to be enrolled in a ladies’ seminary?”

“Er . . . no,” Alethea said.

“I assume Aunt Ebena has not funds to hire a governess, so her schooling must fall to you.”

Alethea coughed. “Me? But . . . I haven’t the faintest idea where to begin.”

“Surely Margaret brought some school books with her?”

“None except an atlas that had belonged to her father and several books of published journals from personages who have travelled to various parts of the world.”

“So, . . . no French or history?”

“No. I must teach her French?” Alethea felt panic begin to set in.

“And not only book learning, but she must learn to sew, paint, and play music.” Lucy ticked off the items on her fingers. “And above all, genteel deportment.”

Alethea steered them away from the obelisk at the centre of the gardens. “Are you hungry? I am hungry. Let’s go have tea.” Anxiety always made her want to eat.

“Where is Margaret this morning?” Lucy looked vastly entertained by Alethea’s discomposure.

“She had nothing fit to wear to church. Her clothes are too small for her and apparently she spent a great deal of time roaming the woods near her Aunt Nancy’s home.”

A choked sound came from Lucy that sounded suspiciously like a snort.

Alethea ignored her and continued. “Aunt Ebena wouldn’t allow her to attend church in a muddy petticoat. So, this morning, Mrs. Dodd is teaching her to bake a cake.”

“Good. If she is like you, she will eat vast amounts of food.”

Alethea halted in the middle of the path. “I do not eat vast amounts of food.” She might need a bit of extra nourishment because of her active nature, but surely not vast amounts.

“To be fair, as a child, you spent a prodigious time out of doors, escaping your governesses.” Lucy gave her a toothy smile.

“As I recall, I often visited you and your mother.”

“Unlike you, I would have welcomed a governess with open arms. And now you will need to become one.” Lucy sounded positively gleeful.

Alethea continued walking out of the gardens and across the street. Her eye sought out her aunt’s door, a gold colour slightly darker than the Bath stones of the building. However, that uncomfortable prickling sensation at the base of her neck had her rubbing it roughly, and then a furtive shadow just at the edge of her bonnet made her turn toward the corner of the square.

Church-goers had filled the streets, walking and conversing, and Alethea did not recognize all of them. How to know if she were imagining things or if someone had been watching her?

“What is it?” Lucy asked.

Alethea didn’t answer, but hurried to the low, arched doorway to her home. The butler opened the door to her and Alethea didn’t breathe easier until it closed behind them. “Tea in the sitting room, please,” she said to the butler.

“What has upset you?” Lucy persisted as they entered the sitting room. The old-fashioned furniture, its shabbiness enhanced by the faded burgundy and blue colours, today appeared soothing and safe.

Alethea sank into a rickety chair. “I think someone was watching me at the marketplace a few days ago.”

“Watching you?” Lucy dropped onto the settee.

“I’m not certain. I had a peculiar feeling.” She explained what had happened, pausing only when the butler entered with a tea tray.

After he’d left, Lucy said, “I’ve told you that you shouldn’t be doing the marketing for the cook. The marketplace is not safe for you.”

“It is safe for you—”

“You and I, no matter how you pretend differently, are not the same.” Lucy stared hard at her sister, her face and dark eyes making Alethea almost feel she was staring at a mirror. Except she was certain she never looked at herself like a recalcitrant child as Lucy did to her now.

Alethea gave a cup of tea to Lucy. “Mrs. Dodd is grateful for the help when her rheumatism is acting up. And she makes sure I get extra seed cakes with my tea.”

“What were you saying earlier about not eating much?” Lucy took a sip of tea, which didn’t completely hide her smile.

“And if I did not help Mrs. Dodd, I should go mad within these walls. I enjoyed twenty-seven years of galloping across the fields and walking up the downs every day. Bath is a prison. It is not considered genteel to walk for the sake of walking—that sort of thing is much more acceptable in the country.” Alethea had not wanted a lack of her normal vigorous exercise to force her to adjust the fit her gowns, so she had kept active as best she could.

Lucy understood her sister’s energetic nature, and sighed as she nodded.

“I am not certain if it is related, but a man spoke to me on the street when I was returning from the market.” Alethea explained about Mr. Golding. “Did Calandra mention anything unusual about her violin?”

“Not at all. She would be more likely to speak to you about it than to me.”

“I know her husband bought it for her as a wedding gift,” Alethea said. “They returned to Italy for their wedding journey so she could visit her relatives. He bought it for her from a peddler. It was in terrible condition and not very expensive.”

“Is it very old?”

“I am not sure. I don’t know how to find out.”

“Do you or your aunt know anyone who might help?”

Alethea’s thoughts immediately flashed upon Lord Dommick’s lean, dark face in the window of the coach. He, along with the others in the Quartet, played their favoured instruments as well as any professional musician, which was unusual among noblemen. Lord Dommick was considered an expert in the violin, in addition to the violin compositions for which he was also famous.

He had also told her women ought not to play the violin. She would not ask him for help if he were the last man on earth. “Aunt Ebena’s friend Lady Whittlesby is a well-respected patron of music. She will perhaps know a violin maker or instrument repair tradesman.”

“Perhaps I should go in your stead. Those may not be places appropriate for an earl’s daughter.”

“You will not waste your half day running errands for me,” Alethea said.

Lucy glanced at the clock on the mantel. “That reminds me, I must be going.”

“So soon? It has been barely an hour.”

“Mrs. Ramsland requires me to return early today to help her prepare for a dinner party tonight.”

Alethea frowned. “She is an unreasonable employer.”

“She pays me every quarter,” Lucy said calmly. “And an abigail’s life is preferable to being an upper housemaid.”

Alethea grasped her sister’s hands. “Two more years. Then we shall be able to go to Italy and keep house for each other and you will never need to serve another woman again.”

Lucy smiled warmly before leaning over to kiss her sister’s cheek. “Two more years.”

Lucy had left barely a minute before the front door opened and Aunt Ebena entered the sitting room. Her thin eyebrows rose at the half full tea tray. “Had no appetite today?” Her deep voice was stiff.

“Lucy had to return early.”

“Ring for more tea.”

“I’ll get it myself.” Alethea took the cold teapot to the kitchen, where Margaret was washing dishes sulkily.

“This is most unpleasant,” the girl said to Mrs. Dodd. “Don’t you have maids for this sort of thing?”

“There are no fine ladies in this kitchen, so if you dirty the dishes, you wash them,” Mrs. Dodd told her. She turned to Alethea with a tray already prepared with a fresh pot and extra cup. “I heard Mrs. Garen come home. Your sister didn’t stay long.”

“Her employer requested her to return early.”

Mrs. Dodd sniffed. “And Mrs. Ramsland wonders why she can never retain her servants.”

“Who’s your sister?” Margaret said. “Is she my cousin too?”

“Yes. She’s my half sister.”

“Why doesn’t she live here?” Margaret scratched her nose with a wet hand.

Alethea, used to the scandal of her friendship with her sister, was suddenly acutely aware of the impropriety of explaining that relationship to a twelve-year-old girl.

She was rescued by Mrs. Dodd. “Never you mind,” the cook told the girl, and Alethea escaped the kitchen.

“It took you a long time.” Aunt Ebena frowned.

Used to her aunt’s complaints by now, Alethea ignored her and poured tea. After all, she had lived with her father’s and brother’s criticisms for too long for her aunt’s abrasive personality to affect her much.

Aunt Ebena had already appropriated a piece of seed cake for herself. “It’s cold,” she said with a touch of petulance.

“You could have joined Lucy and myself when they were still warm,” Alethea couldn’t resist saying.

Aunt Ebena sniffed. She took a sip of tea, then set the cup down. “Contrary to what you believe, I do not impose during your sister’s visits not because it is unseemly for me to take tea with a lady’s maid, even though that is still true.”

Alethea blinked at her aunt.

“I do not impose upon you and Miss Purcell because I cannot abide the giggling that inevitably erupts when you gather over tea and cakes.”

“We don’t giggle.”

Aunt Ebena gave her a speaking look that made Alethea’s cheeks grow warm, but she smiled at her aunt. The older woman did not return her smile, but it was not an unfriendly omission. It was simply Aunt Ebena.

Her aunt sipped her tea, marking the end of the topic. Alethea hesitated, wanting to say something but uncertain what to say, yearning for . . . she knew not what.

She’d had difficulty getting accustomed to her aunt, especially since Wilfred had forced them together. But did this comment about Lucy indicate Aunt Ebena was starting to unbend, perhaps even appreciate, Alethea more? Would they achieve more than this polite veneer?

The problem was that Alethea did not know how to relate to respectable women. The women in the area around Trittonstone Park had been polite, but they had also avoided her because they disapproved of the “low company” she kept. Alethea would never have changed her behaviour to gain their approval, but their neglect made her feel lonely.

Did she want to develop a closer relationship with her aunt? Or would it be better to be alone and unhurt by disappointments? She did not expect her aunt to treat her as her father and brother had, but Alethea’s experience with family members had been less than ideal. She realized she was idly massaging the two last fingers of her left hand and stopped.

She was simply missing Lady Arkright, she decided.

“Where is Margaret?” Aunt Ebena asked.

“Still in the kitchen. Cleaning up.”

“Allowing her time in the kitchen is acceptable until her clothes arrive and she is more decently attired.” Aunt Ebena didn’t quite sigh, but she breathed heavily as if the remembrance of Margaret’s wardrobe had been a particular trial. “However, since it is apparent the girl is staying, you must take her education in hand.”

Alethea looked at her aunt incredulously. “Not you too.”

“What?”

“Lucy said I should teach Margaret French.” Alethea shoved a bite of cake into her mouth.

“Among other things.” Aunt Ebena sipped her tea. “Lady Whittlesby’s youngest granddaughter has just left the schoolroom, so she may still have the girl’s schoolbooks. I shall ask her when next I see her.”

Lady Whittlesby’s name reminded Alethea of Mr. Golding’s interest in her violin, and it occurred to her that perhaps the man knew of her violin because of her aunt. “Aunt, did you speak to anyone about my violin?”

“Whyever would I do anything of the sort?” she said irritably.

“Many of your friends are fond of music . . .”

“They are also exceedingly proper. Why would I confess that my niece is so unladylike as to play a violin? And against my advice.” Aunt Ebena gave her a pointed look.

Alethea’s warmer feelings toward her aunt dissipated. Why must people insist on telling her what she could not do? She realized with a surge of annoyance that it had been Lord Dommick telling her that exact piece of advice during Alethea’s season which had spurred her to master her violin over her pianoforte and harp.

And why was she remembering that unpleasant experience with Lord Dommick? She must take herself in hand.

“Why would you think I have spoken to someone about this?” Aunt Ebena asked.

Alethea hadn’t decided if she ought to tell her aunt about Mr. Golding, but now she must. She explained briefly.

Aunt Ebena grew grave. “Why would anyone want your violin?”

“I must speak to someone about it. I thought perhaps Lady Whittlesby might know to whom to direct me?”

Aunt Ebena nodded. “That is a very good thought. She had an expert repair a violin that belonged to a great-uncle and could give you the tradesman’s direction. We shall visit her tomorrow. Is your violin safely hidden?”

“Yes.” Thanks to Lady Arkright’s husband and his woodworking abilities.

“Anyone passing by on the street would have heard you practicing,” Aunt Ebena said with a touch of asperity, for she considered Alethea’s hours of practice excessive. “But how would they know what particular instrument you owned?”

“Only Lucy knows.” And there was no one in Bath who would understand Alethea’s passion for an instrument unusual for ladies to play. Most of the ladies she knew would be shocked.

“I am curious to see it. Bring it down.”

Alethea headed upstairs to her bedroom. She doubted Aunt Ebena could shed any light on the affair, but this was the first time she’d shown any interest in her music. They attended every concert faithfully, which her aunt enjoyed although she did not play herself, but at such events, Aunt Ebena equally enjoyed the company of her cronies, who were more avid musicians.

It took Alethea a moment after opening her bedroom door to understand what she saw. Then she gasped, the air scraping against her throat. Her chest tightened until the ache blossomed down to her stomach.

Bedclothes were strewn across the rug. Dresses had been pulled from the wardrobe. Stockings and petticoats tumbled from drawers. Furniture had been shoved askew, leaving deep scores in the wood floor.

Someone had torn through her bedroom.

Possibly while she’d been inside the house.

***

Alethea found herself at the bottom of the staircase, her breath coming in heaving gulps and her body trembling. Her knees wobbled and she dropped to the bottom step.

She had to tell Aunt Ebena. Was the intruder still in the house? She grasped the bannister and hauled herself to her feet. She staggered to the sitting room and flung open the door.

“What is it?” Aunt Ebena’s voice was more irritated than alarmed.

“My room . . .” Alethea stopped, took a breath. She had to be rational or her aunt would never understand what had happened. “We have had an intruder in the house. May still be here.”

“Impossible.” Aunt Ebena rose to her feet.

“My room . . .” The vision of her things tossed about by unknown hands made her shudder.

Aunt Ebena exited the sitting room. Alethea followed her to her bedroom, and so was directly behind to catch her aunt when she cried out and stumbled backward at the sight of such disarray.

After a moment, Aunt Ebena shook Alethea’s hands off her and straightened. “Dodd!” She hurried back downstairs.

“Madam?” The butler appeared at the base of the stairs.

“Someone has been in Lady Alethea’s room. Make sure the intruder is no longer in my house.”

The butler broke his professional facade and stiffened for a heartbeat, but then quickly snapped his fingers at a footman who had found his way into the foyer at the commotion. “Come with me.”

Alethea wanted to go with them, as if facing the intruder would somehow help her face the violation of her room and give her a sense of control. She did not like feeling helpless and weak—she did not like feeling like a victim, as her brother had made her feel.

And was her violin still in its hiding place? Had the intruder searched beyond the more obvious places? Her panic grew from a simmering to a boiling. She could not lose Calandra’s violin. Its value, both emotional and professional, was undeniable.

“Alethea!”

Her aunt’s voice brought her attention back. Alethea followed her into the kitchen.

Soon all the servants except the butler and the footman had gathered in the kitchen, and Alethea stood against the back wall with Margaret by her side. Aunt Ebena spoke with precision. “An intruder has been through Lady Alethea’s room. Dodd is checking the house to ensure they are gone.” Aunt Ebena had to raise her voice as several people gasped. “Who was last in Lady Alethea’s room?”

The upper housemaid, Sally, began to tremble violently. “I was, to straighten up. Just before church, ma’am.”

“Did no one hear anything?” Aunt Ebena said.

“Most of the servants went to church,” Mrs. Hill said. “Mrs. Dodd and I were here in the kitchen with Miss Margaret.”

“I made a poultice for Mrs. Hill’s knees.” Mrs. Dodd swiftly inhaled. “I went to the herb garden and noticed some broken branches on the bushes against the back wall, but didn’t think much of it.”

“I cannot believe it,” Mrs. Hill said, her hand at her chest. “In broad daylight, with us in the house.”

Aunt Ebena questioned each servant in turn, noticing if anyone hesitated or seemed to recall something.

“Will we be safe?” Margaret whispered to Alethea.

Alethea feigned a confidence she was far from feeling. “We shall be quite safe.”

“Do you have a secret treasure?”

“What?”

“You must or someone would not break into the house to search for it.” Margaret’s eyes gleamed. “Is it gold? Jewels? Maybe a cursed pirate’s treasure?”

“If I had a pirate’s treasure, cursed or not, I would be on my ship, sailing the high seas, rather than taking you for dress fittings at the seamstress.”

“I would too. And I wouldn’t need dresses because I’d be in man’s breeches and wielding my deadly sword.”

Dodd and the footman returned now, confirming the intruder was no longer in the house. The room exhaled as one, and Alethea squeezed Margaret’s shoulders.

Aunt Ebena went to Alethea. “Go and see what has been taken,” she said.

“May I come?” Margaret asked.

“I am going to clean my room, not go to Astley’s Circus,” Alethea said dryly.

At the word “clean,” Margaret’s enthusiasm dimmed a trifle, but she quickly said, “I still want to come.”

Since it would keep her out of Aunt Ebena’s way, Alethea nodded and headed upstairs.

The sight of the room caused nausea to rise up on Alethea’s stomach, but she stood in the doorway and took quick, shallow breaths.

“A biscuit helps,” Margaret said.

“What?”

“I would steal a biscuit from the kitchen before I had to clean my room.”

“I have no need for you to steal a biscuit for me,” Alethea said. “And for your information, asking Mrs. Dodd politely will usually accomplish the trick as opposed to raiding her larder.”

“Oh,” Margaret said. “Our cook was not so nice.”

Alethea took a deeper breath and plunged into the fray. She first went to her trunk to ascertain her violin was still in its hiding place and breathed a sigh of relief.

It was not so terrible a mess once Alethea picked up her clothes from the floor. She shared Aunt Ebena’s lady’s maid, so she set aside the clothing she would give to the maid to be washed, pressed, or mended. Gradually she realized Margaret was depositing various items into the wardrobe willy-nilly.

“What are you doing?” Alethea said.

Margaret froze. “Helping?”

“Why did you put my hairbrush into the wardrobe?”

Margaret looked into the wardrobe at the pile of random items, then back at Alethea. “It was on the floor.”

“So, why not place it on the dressing table?”

Margaret looked at the dressing table. “I’ll put all that in the wardrobe too.”

“What? No. Why?” Alethea was beginning to feel as if she were in a farcical play.

“Aren’t we cleaning?” Margaret asked.

Understanding dawned. “Is this what you did when you cleaned your room? Throw things into the wardrobe?”

Margaret nodded. “It’s fastest.”

So she could go out to play as quickly as possible, Alethea would guess. “I have a thought. What if we put things back in their proper places?”

“That’ll take forever.”

“Things will be much easier to find than rooting through the wardrobe.”

Margaret looked at the wardrobe again. “I suppose so.” She picked up the hairbrush from the pile and placed it on the dressing table.

Alethea folded a petticoat. “Surely your mother did not allow you to fling all your things into the wardrobe that way?”

Margaret’s movements stilled for a long moment. Her back was to Alethea, so she couldn’t see her face. “No, she didn’t like it.” Margaret’s voice was softer than normal.

Alethea bit her lip. Margaret was so cheerful a child that she often forgot the girl was still in half-mourning for her parents.

Although Alethea still missed Calandra, she remembered that in the months after Lady Arkright’s death, it made her feel better to speak of her to others. There hadn’t been many in the neighborhood who were close to the widow because she was Italian, but when Sir William Arkright’s heir dismissed all of Lady Arkright’s servants, Alethea had visited them and helped them find new positions. Speaking to them of their mistress had given Alethea great comfort.

But how to get Margaret to speak to her? Alethea again felt that pang of awkwardness because of her lack of experience with children.

“So, um . . . tell me nice stories about your mother.” Alethea winced as soon as the words came out of her mouth. She half-expected Margaret to burst into tears or run from the room.

There was a long silence. Then the girl half-turned toward her. “Mama never let the maids clean for me. She wanted me to learn to be neat. She didn’t like it when I threw my things into the wardrobe.” Her voice was soft, but grew in strength as she continued. “So, one day, she sent the maid to tell me to clean my room. When I went to the wardrobe and opened the door, she burst out at me.” Margaret giggled.

Alethea laughed. “That is a good trick. I think I would have liked your mother.”

“I think so too.” Margaret picked up a shoe, then put it back in the wardrobe. “Papa was like Aunt Ebena, but Mama could always make him smile.”

And now she was here with Alethea and Aunt Ebena, with no mama to make any of them smile and an intruder alarming the household. What if Alethea or a maid had interrupted the intruder? Would he have hurt her before escaping?

Alethea needed to uncover the truth about her violin quickly. She prayed that Aunt Ebena’s friend Lady Whittlesby would be able to help her.

Pray? No, she had given up praying a year ago, the night she had been locked in her bedroom, still shaking from the pain of her broken fingers and from the fear that she may never be able to play again. God had not helped her then and would not help her now against this trouble. She could only depend upon herself.

She could not lose her violin. It was the key to all her hopes and dreams.