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"How can my own daughter be so foolish?" sobbed Lady Forley as their carriage pulled away from Hartleigh House. "You should have demanded Andrew's support. He could hardly have ignored both of us. You will never attract a husband without a proper come-out. Skimping on clothes and entertaining only lowers our credit."
She wrung her hands in exasperation when she received no response. "Why won't you listen to me? I was a respected London hostess for years before Andrew forced me away from town. How could my own son be so cruel? Or so stupid! If only your father were here! He would have sponsored a come-out ball. He would have provided a suitable wardrobe." She dabbed at her eyes with a lacy handkerchief. "And he would have escorted us to Lord Cavendish's masquerade, too."
Angela Warren sighed. Already exhausted from last-minute planning for the ball she was to share with Lady Sylvia, Lord Hartleigh's sister, she was in no mood for another confrontation--not that silence ever stifled her mother. Nor did logic, pleading, or cold, hard facts.
Lady Forley had already spent the afternoon arguing fiercely over every detail, determined to squander a fortune by staging the most lavish come-out London had ever seen. It had taken the combined efforts of Lady Hartleigh, Lady Sylvia, and herself to squelch her--not that any of them had heard the last of it. The woman continued her complaints long after they served any purpose. Lord Cavendish's masquerade was an example. It was over.
"Attending that ball would indeed have been foolish," Angela said wearily. "I was not out until the Queen's drawing room yesterday, and you know that none of Lord Cavendish'sentertainments are suitable for green girls--especially his masquerades."
"Fustian. Your father always took me."
"But you were married. I am not. My reputation would never recover."
"Nonsense! You may brag about your intelligence, but you are remarkably ignorant of London customs. You even admit it, so why do you persist in ignoring my advice? Your father and I never missed a Season."
"You have forgotten the strictures on innocents." Angela sighed. If only her mother possessed even the tiniest bit of sense. But Lady Forley was so excited over her return to London after a six-year absence, she often forgot that bringing out a daughter restricted them to marriage mart events. "Think, Mother! Would your parents have allowed you to grace one of his parties before your marriage? Grandmama Hollister was as high in the instep as Mrs. Drummond-Burrell. I doubt she approved that acquaintance even after you were wed. And you have forgotten the patronesses. Had we attended, Lady Sefton would have revoked my voucher so fast your head would spin."
Lady Forley snorted, but the words obviously struck home. She tugged on her hat to change its angle, twisting to glimpse herself in the coach window. Preening had always been her way of dropping a subject without admitting fault.
"Just look at the muddle you and Andrew have made," she charged once the hat had been adjusted to her satisfaction. "Cruel fate, to leave me under the thumb of so ungrateful a son. His pinch-penny ways will ruin us. Our consequence is already reduced after skipping five Seasons. How are we to recover if he insists on pretending penury? I will never forgive him for selling Forley House. Upper Brook Street was a perfect location, commanding respect and even envy from our guests. Society's elite ran tame in my drawing room. And the balls! Such crushes! You can never make a noteworthy come-out from Clifford Street. Who will dare visit us? Half the neighbors are cits; there is barely room for morning callers and none for entertaining. But refusing to sponsor a come-out ball is beyond enough. His miserly ways will condemn you to spinsterhood."
Their coach rocked to a halt behind a tradesman's dray that had broken a wheel. Carts and carriages jammed the street, their horses stamping and snorting. Shouts from drivers and pedestrians added to the pandemonium.
Angela sighed at the delay, resigned to hearing another diatribe. The subject of their rented house resounded a dozen times a day--its small rooms, its worn furnishings, its unassuming location in a mixed neighborhood. "We have discussed this too often already, Mother. Andrew had to sell the house."
"Fustian! In a fit of pique, he deliberately cast away our consequence and reduced our credit. Oh, that your father were here! He always insisted we go first class."
"You wrong him," she snapped. The woman refused to believe even truths that stared her in the face--which was why Angela was nearly prostrate from nerves after only a fortnight in town. "You insisted on first class. It is you who have brought us to this pass. Papa was a scholar who preferred to remain in his study, but he denied you nothing, nearly bankrupting the estate. Had he not died, we would have lost everything. Thank God for Andrew's good sense. Selling a house he could not afford saved us even worse indignities. Without the money it brought, he would have lost every last acre of unentailed land, requiring fifty years instead of five to dig us out of the River Tick."
"You exaggerate, as usual. And display a vulgarity that belies your breeding. Proper ladies care nothing about money. Making a good impression is far more important. How can you find a husband without holding a fashionable ball? You will never attract a wealthy, titled lord if you hide in the shadows and claim poverty."
"I cannot imagine that our ball will be unfashionable." But her protest covered another surge of uncertainty. Oh, God! What if her mother was right? She had to marry this Season. Was she really destroying her chances by sharing a ball? Sylvia swore not, but what did a seventeen-year-old know? Yet she had no choice. The Forleys could not afford to host a ball. Surely they were not the only family with a limited budget!
Grasping at her frayed nerves, she forced control over her voice. "Hart and Cassie have enormous credit, so this ball will attract all the best people." The earl would never approve something that might harm his favorite sister.
"But it isn't yours!" screamed Lady Forley. "Can't you understand so simple a truth? I swear all that reading has turned your brain to mush! No one of consequence would dream of forgoing her own ball. No one--"
Angela closed her ears. Why did she even try to make her mother see reason? The task was hopeless. Thirty years earlier, Lady Forley had married a fashionable viscount, believing that his charm and elegant wardrobe denoted fabulous wealth. Nothing had changed her convictions, not even the last six years of scrimping to rescue Andrew's inheritance from debt. Now that the woman had returned to town, she was determined to regain her position as a respected London hostess--in her eyes only the most extravagant entertainment was worthy of respect.
But Andrew lacked the means. Lady Jersey's annual income surpassed the value of Forley Court and all its contents. Others were equally wealthy. Thus Lady Forley had no hope of competing, and her refusal to admit this basic truth placed a huge burden on Angela's shoulders. Despite inexperience and uncertainty, she not only had to plan her own come-out, but must constantly recheck all arrangements to prevent her mother from making changes behind her back.
As had happened two days ago. What a fiasco! Though Lady Forley had already overspent her clothing allowance, she had ordered four expensive gowns from the very exclusive Madame Florentine. Andrew had had no choice but to confront the modiste, cancel the order, and announce that he would no longer honor his mother's debts. Such news hurt them all, but Lady Forley refused to accept responsibility for precipitating the crisis.
A cheer announced that the dray no longer blocked the street. Their carriage moved forward. Only another six blocks...
Lady Forley's litany of complaints shifted to her daughter's vulgar ideas and unladylike behavior.
Sighing, Angela stared out the window, determined to control her temper. Admittedly, her social training was inadequate. She had never learned to flirt--and didn't want to--but she could surely find a congenial husband anyway. She wasn't looking for love. There simply wasn't time.
She must return to Forley Court in June to prepare for Andrew's wedding, which added yet another burden to her load. Several burdens, actually. Once Andrew returned from his brief wedding journey, Sylvia would assume control of the household--a position Angela had held for years. Despite their growing friendship, Angela could not stay while another woman stepped into her place--especially a girl fully five years younger than she, who had little experience in household management. Nor could she face living in the dower house with her whining mother. Thus she had to marry, and with the wedding so close, she had only two months in which to arrange it.
"I will choose which entertainments to attend," Lady Forley was saying. "You have already done too much to lower our consequence. We cannot afford any more mistakes. Balls, routs, picnics, theater parties. Those are acceptable--but only if they are sponsored by reputable hostesses. You must avoid soirees, lectures, and similar gatherings that would label you as a bluestocking. The slightest hint of your faults will destroy your credit. It is bad enough that we must associate with Lady Sylvia."
Angela grimaced at this old argument. She hated to think that every member of society despised education, but even Sylvia had admitted that the matrons who controlled the marriage mart looked askance at bookishness. Sylvia had the freedom to disclose her interests only because she was already betrothed.
As the carriage rounded a corner, Angela stared through the window, grimacing over the challenge she faced. Hiding her edu--
"Stop!" she suddenly shouted at their driver. Without waiting for a response, she jumped to the pavement. Roberts cursed, jerking the team to a halt and tossing Lady Forley onto the floor.
Angela ignored her mother's outrage. "What is the meaning of this?" she demanded, pushing through a crowd to accost a burly man who was shaking a small child.
"Stay out of it, ma'am," he snarled. "'E's a thief."
Murmurs of agreement swept the crowd.
"A thief? What did he steal?" The boy held nothing in his hands, and only a wrinkled, half-rotten apple lay on the ground.
A backhanded slap snapped the boy's head around and raised a red welt on his left cheek.
"'E stole one of me apples, the snivelin' brat. A man cain't make a honest livin' these days."
A street vendor. She glared, grabbing his arm as he raised it to strike again. "Honest? For shame! If that apple represents your wares, then you are a knave. And vicious as well. Can't you see that he's naught but a baby? How dare you turn the full weight of a grown man on a starving child? Why not direct your anger toward his parents where it might do some good?" She turned to the crowd. "Does anyone know where the boy lives?"
Several onlookers had already stepped back, and some now slithered away, loath to be involved. Shouts and curses rose from drivers furious to find the street blocked by those watching the altercation. A saturnine gentleman leaned against a building, taking in every word.
She ignored them. "Well? Does no one know the child?"
"'E ain't got no 'ome," muttered a woman.
"Showed up 'round 'ere 'bout a month back," mumbled another.
"Is this true?" she asked the boy.
He nodded, his terror sending a dagger deep into her heart.
"'E's got a 'ome now," hissed the vendor. "'Tis off to the workhouse for you, me lad."
"No!" Astonished eyes stared at her. She pulled a coin from her reticule and pushed it into the vendor's hand. "For the apple and for your trouble."
"Don't interfere, ma'am," he growled. "Go back to yer fancy 'ouse an' forget it. The boy's nothin' but trouble. If ye lets him get away with this, 'e'll just take encouragement."
"No, he won't," she swore. "He doesn't belong on the streets. He needs shelter and food. But not the workhouse. I know just the place for him. He will never bother you again."
Murmurs greeted this pronouncement. Ignoring them, she crouched before the orphan, heedless that her skirts were dragging in filth. "Come with me, child. We will find you something better to eat than that horrid apple." She gently grasped one arm, glaring at the vendor until he reluctantly released his grip on the other. In a trance, the lad followed her to the carriage and let her help him inside.
"Mercy!" screeched Lady Forley. "What have you done now? Becoming an on-dit in fashionable drawing rooms will destroy you. We will be cut. I know we will. And he is undoubtedly crawling with fleas, or worse. Why are you determined to throw away your reputation?"
"Enough! Who would ever know?" A raised hand prohibited a response. "But even if word gets out, it matters not. If society can countenance such treatment for children, then I care not for society."
Lady Forley gasped for nearly a minute, giving Angela a chance to settle the boy comfortably on a seat.
"Who would know?" she squeaked as the carriage again crept forward. "Who would know? Did you not see that gentleman leaning against the wall? That was Lord Blackthorn--the Black Marquess. The tale will be on every tongue by dinner, for he despises sentimental gestures and cares nothing for female sensibilities."
"Nonsense. He doesn't even know who I am. Why would he bother?"
"Because he is the blackest blackguard ever spawned by the devil." Fumbling through her reticule, Lady Forley produced a vinaigrette. "After destroying so many others, he would think nothing of pillorying you. He is a heartless libertine who has ruined countless women, a confirmed gamester who has squandered a fortune at cards. But those are the least of his crimes. He publicly jilted his own betrothed, blackening her character so thoroughly that she fled town and hasn't been seen since. His father died of the shock. Grief drove hers to the bottle. I witnessed the whole thing, for it happened in Lady Jersey's ballroom scarcely a sennight before they were to wed. He denounced her as a fallen woman, though she was one of the sweetest girls in town that Season. Shocked by his unwarranted tirade, she lashed back, revealing his cruelty and debauchery."
"You exaggerate," Angela murmured, trying to soothe her mother's temper. "No one behaves so recklessly."
"You are naïve! That man is a demon the likes of which you cannot imagine. We had heard hints of his misdeeds for years, though he had successfully hidden the details. But no more. When Miss Quincy sobbed out the truth, he merely laughed, offering no explanation and no apology." The vinaigrette waved fretfully. "And he has made no effort to hide his crimes since. Two years later, he eloped with Lady Cloverdale, abandoning her overseas. They say he was as calm on his return as if he had merely misplaced a pocket handkerchief. Lord Cloverdale was heartbroken. But when he realized that she would not--or could not--come home, he had no choice but to bring a divorce suit against her, citing Blackthorn for criminal conversation. It was the most sensational crim-con trial in history, resulting in an enormous penalty. And I have heard other tales too awful to discuss in polite company."
Angela shook her head, unwilling to believe her mother's harsh judgment, though she could not deny the Black Marquess's impact. Recalling his face still robbed her of breath. It was long and thin with dramatic planes and heavy peaked brows above dark eyes.
This was not the first time she had seen him. Just yesterday she had spotted him on Piccadilly, talking to the three ragged soldiers who customarily begged there. Each had clutched a banknote in his hand. At the time she had thought little of it, for many gentlemen tossed alms to London's ubiquitous beggars. But now that she knew his identity, their murmured exchange took on a terrifying new meaning.
"Tonight," he'd ordered, staring at one of the soldiers.
The man had nodded briskly. "We'll be there, guv."
"Remember to keep my name out of it. You'll regret it if anyone learns I'm involved."
"As you wish."
Angela again shivered. Blackthorn's voice had held a very real threat. What had he hired those men to do? He had been opening his mouth to say more when his eyes had clashed with hers, then stuck, impaling her. Something akin to fear had flashed in his, but it disappeared before she could fully identify it, replaced by a piercing stare that banished further thought. She had no idea how long he'd kept her pinned, but when he turned to stride away, the soldiers were gone.
And that harsh face wasn't all that had stuck in her mind. He wasn't a man one forgot. Tall. Angular. Broad-shouldered. A man whose very appearance announced his disregard for convention. His black hair was long, curling over his ears and covering the nape of his neck. His coat fit loosely across his breadth, and his pantaloons were black instead of the light colors most men favored. Yet the stark appearance suited him--even more so now that she knew his identity.
Another shiver tickled her spine, this one leaving heat in its wake. Appalled that she could feel even a flash of attraction for so depraved a man, she focused all her attention on her mother.
"...which is why he would relish exposing your folly to the world." Lady Forley was sobbing as she reached the end of her recital. "The blackguard delights in hurting people."
Angela had missed hearing the full extent of his crimes, but their severity mattered not. No matter how black the marquess's character was, he posed no real threat. "Who would believe a man of his reputation? Surely he must be ostracized himself, so who could he tell?"
"Again you show your ignorance! His title is too lofty to ignore. While it is true that he is unwelcome in drawing rooms, he visits all the clubs, so his words will be repeated everywhere. You have ruined your Season." She burst into fresh tears, dropping her vinaigrette as both hands covered her eyes. "What could you be thinking? Inviting a street urchin into our coach! He will rob us blind. I know he will."
Angela retrieved the vinaigrette and sighed. Would this ride never end? She turned back to the window, only to find the Black Marquess's eyes again clashing with hers, much closer than before. They were mesmerizing--dark, dark gray glittering with silver highlights in the afternoon sunlight. Piercing. Penetrating clear to her soul while revealing none of his own thoughts. Was he plotting a crime or some other nefarious scheme?
Not until the coach moved past, breaking the contact, could she breathe. He was dangerous. Yet she still did not fear exposure. Glancing back, she watched him cross the street and disappear around a corner.
Why did she trust him? Pondering the question carried her all the way to Clifford Street. Her reaction lacked logic and sense, though they were her most consistent virtues.
Or did it?
Her mother dramatized everything, making the woman's claims suspect. After all, Blackthorn was still received in his clubs. But that was not why she trusted him. Those eyes had promised silence. She didn't know why, but he would not reveal her actions.
She was not reading his mind. Such a feat was impossible. Flustered by an impression unsupported by any fact, she concentrated on logic. His intentions or lack of them counted for nothing. He could not know her identity, for their coach had no crest--another of Lady Forley's complaints; Andrew was entitled to one. Thus she was safe. Even if he mentioned the incident, no one could connect it to her. Describing her appearance might make her momentarily uncomfortable, but she was not the only red-haired lady in town.
The carriage rocked to a halt. A footman helped the sobbing Lady Forley down.
Having convinced herself that she remained anonymous, Angela turned to the orphan. "Come with me. We will find food, and then we must talk."
Warily setting his hand in hers, he allowed her to lead him into the house.
Devall Sherbrooke, ninth Marquess of Blackthorn, scowled as the carriage moved past. The chit threatened his peace of mind--which was a ridiculous thought to have on a sunny afternoon. Nothing could disturb him. Certainly not so unconventional a hoyden!
He had seen her twice before, once on Bond Street--the memory momentarily distracted him, for it was the fact that she had not cut him that had drawn his attention to her, which only proved that she did not know his identity--and more recently on Piccadilly, where she had sneaked up on him.
He nodded. That second meeting explained his discomfort. His well-honed sense of danger always protected him when he was conducting business. So why had it failed? More importantly, how much had she heard?
That last concern had focused his eyes on her. She had still not known him. Why else had she held his gaze so long?
He usually had no interest in society misses--scheming opportunists, every one, with more hair than wit. Their only interests were gossip and parties. He'd known many of them in the years before his betrothal, and had approved none of them. Society hadn't changed since those days.
So why did he have to work so hard to drape the image around this newest arrival? Even yesterday it hadn't quite fit. That auburn curl escaping her bonnet had hinted at a passionate nature. As did the sparkle in her moss green eyes. Yet he had never expected this!
Good God! She had jumped from a moving carriage into a crowded street. She could easily have broken a leg, been kicked by a horse, or been knocked down by a wagon. And she'd risked a worse danger than injury.
She might have been seen.
He shook his head.
The only explanation was that she'd recognized the boy. The lad was a thief--hardly surprising in London. Perhaps he had accosted her as she exited a shop, stealing her reticule or a package. Most girls kept a footman at hand to prevent such an occurrence, but her behavior today proved that she was inadequately supervised. The lad's appearance was distinctive enough that his victims would remember him. Yet she had not turned him over to a constable. How naïve!
Was she stupid enough to think she could reform a London thief? She wouldn't be the first, but turning the boy into a page would be a big mistake. He would rob her blind. He probably lived in a flash house, where continued food and shelter depended on bringing in his daily quota of goods. For his master to move him into Mayfair, he had to be experienced.
Should he warn her?
Devall snorted. Even this unconventional chit would never believe him.
Pain stabbed his chest. It was so unexpected that it took a moment to realize that the admission hurt. Why should he care? Granted, she was different from most people--and not just because she had a soft spot for supposedly helpless orphans--but her opinions meant nothing.
Yet he could not get those differences out of his mind.
Again she had not cut him. Her eyes had bored into his as if she could see into his tortured soul. Yet they had held no censure. She'd recognized him--after yesterday, that was inevitable; someone would have warned her who he was--so why did she not despise him? She was not bad looking, either. A whole tangle of auburn curls had peeped out today, framing her heart-shaped face. A truly unique and delectable maiden.
He strode rapidly around a corner, resisting an urge to look over his shoulder. Were her eyes really boring into his back? Thinking about her was dangerous. Despite her odd behavior, she was obviously a lady, which widened the gulf between them. He had repudiated the hypocrisy of society six years ago, along with its cheerful back-stabbing and double standards. Thus respectable women were off limits. Aside from sex--which he could easily get without attached strings--he had no use for females. Especially for naïve girls like this one. Even if she did indeed prove to be different, he could not pursue her. The slightest attention from him would ruin her.
Again that delectable face distracted his thoughts, diverting his attention from business. She was older than most new arrivals, which only added to her attraction. Her eyes danced with intelligence. What had kept her from town earlier? Had her family suffered a series of deaths? He rarely spent much of the Season in London, but he surely would have noticed her if she had been here before.
Devil take it!
He was doing it again. He had more pressing problems than one intriguing hoyden. Banishing the incident from his mind, he concentrated on business.
Despite his lurid reputation, he took his position as head of the Sherbrooke family seriously. He did not tolerate misbehavior, even from those related only by marriage. Gabriel's transgression demanded satisfaction, but Devall had no interest in hearing his family's private affairs bruited about clubs and drawing rooms. Thus he needed another pretext. What insult would provoke Gabriel into issuing a challenge? And how soon could Devall complete this chore? He preferred the peace of Wyndhaven to the noise and filth of London.
Thoughts of his estate raised a lump in his throat that nearly choked him. He had renovated the house and grounds when he'd acceded to the marquessate, erasing everything that reminded him of his childhood. It was now his refuge from the world, his sanctuary, the one place where he could be himself.
The town house never let him relax, he realized, again distracted from business. It still reflected his father. He must do something about that. Family affairs and private interests were bringing him to London with increasing frequency. As long as he was already here, he might as well order its refurbishing. Cost was irrelevant. For all the man's faults, his father had made wise investments, expanding a comfortable inheritance into a fortune. It was a knack Devall had inherited, increasing his worth three-fold since gaining the title. Not that he cared.
How was he to initiate the necessary confrontation? Where? When? His reputation barred him from society gatherings, so he would have to study Gabriel's habits. Once he knew where to find him, inciting a response should be easy. Gabriel was too accustomed to adoration to tolerate contempt.
"Lord Hartleigh," announced Paynes, stepping aside so the earl could enter the drawing room.
Angela sighed in relief. Andrew was out. Her mother's complaints had given way to strong hysterics once they'd arrived home. Convincing the woman to rest before an evening excursion to the opera had drained Angela's last reserves of energy.
The orphan had remained silent, allowing as his name was Jimmy, but refusing to answer further questions. So she had sent for Hartleigh, who owned the estate next to Forley Court.
"Hart." She smiled as Paynes closed the door. "I was afraid you might have gone out, but Cassie was so tired when we left that I hesitated to disturb her by returning in person."
"Thank you. What happened?"
She sighed. "I realize I am not supposed to know this, but Cassie once mentioned your orphanage."
He raised his brows but said nothing.
"I found a child this afternoon. A vendor was beating him for stealing an apple."
"Poor boy," he murmured under his breath. "Where is he?"
"In the kitchen. I can have Paynes fetch him."
"No. He will be more at ease if we go to him. What do you know about him?" He followed her downstairs and through the door leading down to the servants' hall.
"Nothing, except that the bystanders claimed he is an orphan who moved into the neighborhood about a month ago. His name is Jimmy. Beyond that, he refuses to talk. I would estimate his age at around five, and it is obvious that he has not had enough food for some time."
Hart shook his head. "It couldn't be," he murmured, but gasped when they entered the kitchen.
Jimmy sat at the table, still eating, his thin body so frail it was a wonder he was alive. Even heavy grime had not muted his blazing red hair, but washing now revealed a blanket of freckles covering nose and cheeks. His growing bruises revived Angela's anger.
"Jimmy," she murmured soothingly. "This is Lord Hartleigh. He has a house full of boys where you can stay."
Fear coursed through the blue eyes.
Hart dropped onto a low stool, bringing his eyes to Jimmy's level. "It's not a flash house," he assured the lad, pausing to examine his face more closely. "Is your name McFarrell?"
Jimmy finally nodded.
"I thought so." Relief threaded the words. "Your brother Harry has been frantic about you."
"You know 'Arry?" Tears sprang to his eyes.
"Yes, I know him." Hart rested his large hand atop Jimmy's small one. "A month ago I rescued him from a beating. He was unconscious for nearly a day, but his first words on awakening were to ask where you were. I've been looking for you ever since."
"I was scared when 'Arry didn't come 'ome," he sobbed. "Then I 'eard 'bout a body nosin' 'round, askin' questions, so I ran."
Hart pulled the boy into his arms, letting him cry out his fear and loneliness against the superfine wool of his jacket. "It's all right, Jimmy. You needn't ever live on the streets again. Harry is waiting for you at a house in the country. As soon as you recover your strength, I will see that you both go to school."
"I can't believe you know him," said Angela, shaking her head. "Who is he?"
"The McFarrells were a poor but respectable family that fell on hard times," he answered, still patting Jimmy's back. "The father was a dock worker, but seven years ago--shortly after Jimmy's birth--he suffered an injury that left him incapable of lifting heavy loads. Without employment, they had to move into two rooms on a mean street. He did odd jobs until he died two years later. The mother found work with a seamstress, though they had to give up one of their rooms. But her eyes steadily weakened until she was no longer able to sew. Ten-year-old Harry tried to provide for the family, but soon fell into the clutches of one of the more reprehensible thief-masters, and the pittance he was paid barely kept the family in food. Mrs. McFarrell died three months ago. Harry kept things going for a time, but his master was dissatisfied with the goods he brought in and set on him as an example to the other boys. That was when I found him. If only he had been conscious, I might have recovered Jimmy then. This month must have been brutal for him."
"From his looks, he is near starvation."
Hart nodded. "Come, Jimmy." He swept the boy into his arms. "Let's go home. You can sleep in a soft bed, and we'll find you some clothes. Then tomorrow, I will take you to Harry."
"Thank you, Hart." She smiled damply.
Returning to the drawing room, Angela stared at the uninspired furnishings. Thief-masters and Almack's patronesses. London contrasts were even starker than she had imagined.
The city had seemed magical when she had first spotted it in the distance, its skyline dotted with church spires and dominated by the dome of St. Paul's and the bulk of Westminster Abbey. Yet her first close view was of mean streets, derelict buildings, and poorly dressed people. Disappointment had been settling over her when the streets suddenly widened into the opulent glory that was Mayfair.
Yet even here, contrasts were everywhere--well-dressed lords and ragged beggars, haughty matrons and cowering shop girls, nanny-tended children in the park and boys like Jimmy on the streets. Even her own class contained contrasts. Lisping fops minced about clad in outlandish costumes; formidable dandies wielded pretentious quizzing glasses; boisterous Corinthians endlessly relived the latest mill or race. They were joined by sober clubmen, starchy hostesses, pushy matchmakers, giggling girls fresh from the schoolroom...
Where did Angela Warren fit into this mosaic?
The emotional extremes were nearly as bad--terror over appearing at the Queen's drawing room; relief when she survived the ordeal; mortification at Lady Forley's insistence on vulgar extravagance; nervousness that tied her tongue in knots whenever the ton's highest sticklers appeared; fear that she might say something to alienate them; anger at Jimmy's treatment; painful sympathy for his story; trepidation about her upcoming ball ... Where in this muddle was pleasure? Or even contentment? So far, her London Season bore no resemblance to the glittering tales Lady Forley had spun since Lord Forley's death.
Blackthorn's face again hovered before her own. Now there was a man who wasted no time agonizing over what society thought. How much simpler life was for gentlemen. They could break any number of rules and still be welcomed at their clubs. Ladies did not have that freedom. Only through rigid compliance to every expectation could she expect to find a husband during her brief stay in town. Failure was unthinkable--and not only because she was losing her place at the Court. Andrew had made many sacrifices to provide this opportunity for her. How could she waste it?
I must marry!
She sighed. Conformity must become her watchword. Society's matrons had already made that clear. They had watched her like hawks when she first entered their drawing rooms, relaxing only when she proved to be quiet and deferential. But their attention was never far away. Any mistake could ruin her.
It would be difficult. She had so many faults--an unladylike education, questionable manners, an unfashionable concern for the lower classes. Revealing any of them would lead to failure.
Again she sighed. Why couldn't she just be herself?