It was time to dress for what was sure to prove a trying evening. As she climbed the stairs of her parents' house in Upper Brook Street, Henrietta Cynster mentally rehearsed the news she would have to impart to her friend Melinda Wentworth when they met as arranged at Lady Montague's ball.
Henrietta sighed. Reaching her bedroom door, she opened it, and halted on the threshold, arrested by the sight of her younger sister, Mary, riffling through the jewelry box on Henrietta's dressing table.
Mary acknowledged Henrietta's arrival with a flick of her eyes, and continued pawing through the jumble of chains, earrings, brooches, and beads.
Movement drew Henrietta's attention to the armoire beside her bed. Her maid, Hannah, was lifting out Henrietta's new royal-blue ball gown, simultaneously shooting disapproving glances at Mary's slender back.
Stepping inside, Henrietta shut the door. Like her, Mary was still in her day gown and hadn't yet changed. Curious, she studied Mary's intent expression; the baby of the family, Mary had the single-minded focus of a terrier when it came to anything she wanted. "What are you looking for?"
Mary threw her an impatient glance. Shutting one drawer, she reached for the last, the bottom drawer in the box. "The - aha!" Inserting, then withdrawing her fingers, Mary's face transformed as she held up her find, suspending it between the fingers of both hands. "I was looking for this."
Eyeing the necklace of fine gold links interspersed with polished amethyst beads from which a faceted rose-quartz crystal hung, then noting that Mary's expression now held the satisfaction of a general who'd just learned his troops had captured a vital enemy position, Henrietta waved dismissively. "It's never done anything for me. You're welcome to have it."
Mary's vivid blue eyes swung to Henrietta's face. "I wasn't looking for it for me." Mary held out the necklace. "You have to wear it."
The necklace had been gifted to the Cynster girls by a Scottish deity, The Lady, and was supposedly a charm to assist the wearer in finding her true hero, the man by whose side she would live in wedded bliss for the rest of her life. Pragmatic and practical, Henrietta had always had difficulty believing in the necklace's efficacy.
More, in the same pragmatic vein, she'd always considered it was unreasonable to expect that all seven Cynster girls of her generation would find love and happiness in the arms of their true heros, that it was on the cards that one, at least, would not achieve that outcome, and if that were the case, then the Cynster girl destined to die an old maid would, almost certainly, be her.
As she and Mary were the only two Cynster females of their generation yet unwed, her prediction of her spinster-forever state seemed well on the way to becoming fact. She was already twenty-nine, and had never been even vaguely tempted to consider marrying any gentleman. Conversely, no one in their right mind would imagine that twenty-two-year-old Mary, dogged, determined, and unswervingly set on defining and forging her future life, would not achieve her already trenchantly stated goal - namely finding and marrying her hero.
Sliding her shawl from her shoulders, Henrietta shook her head. "I told you - it's never worked for me. You may take it with my blessing. I presume that's what this is about - that you want to use it to find your hero?"
"Yes, exactly." Mary's expression hardened. "But I can't just take it. It doesn't work that way. You have to wear it and find your hero first, and then hand it to me just as Angelica handed it to you, and Eliza handed it to Angelica, and Heather handed it to Eliza before that - on the evening of your engagement ball."
Turning to set the shawl on a chair, Henrietta hid a smile - that of an older, more mature sister at her little sister's enthusiastic belief in the charm. "I'm quite sure it's not that specific. There's nothing to say it has to work for us all."
"Yes, there is." There was no mistaking the crisp certainty in Mary's tone; as Henrietta turned back to her, she went on, "I asked Catriona, and she asked The Lady, and it's The Lady's charm, after all. And according to Catriona, The Lady was very clear. The necklace has to go from one to the other of us in the stipulated order. Specifically, the necklace won't work for me if it hasn't already worked for you and you haven't had your engagement ball. So!" Mary drew in a breath and, jaw set, held the necklace out to Henrietta. "You have to wear this. From now until you find your hero-and pray to The Lady and all the gods that that will be soon."
Frowning slightly, Henrietta reached out and reluctantly lifted the necklace from Mary's fingers. Refusing it…wasn't really an option. Henrietta might be older, more mature, more experienced socially; she might be taller by nearly a head, and she certainly wasn't any weak-willed miss, but the entire Cynster clan knew that attempting to deny Mary something she'd set her heart on was a fool's endeavor, and that was doubly true if she had a logical argument to bolster her case.
Letting the links slide through her fingers, Henrietta once again studied Mary's face. "Why are you so eager to have the necklace now? You know I've had it since Angelica's engagement ball, and that was nearly eight years ago."
"Precisely." Belligerently, Mary narrowed her eyes back. "So you've had eight years to wear it and find your hero, and instead you've put it in your jewelry box and left it there. That didn't matter while I was still in the schoolroom. Even after I was presented, I wanted to look around myself, so you not wearing the necklace wasn't a problem. But I'm twenty-two now, and I'm ready to take the next step. I want to find my hero forthwith, and start my marriage and set up my own household, and all the rest that comes with marrying. Unlike you, I don't want to spend the next seven or more years doing other things, which means" - Mary jabbed a finger at the necklace - "that you have to wear that now, find your hero, and then pass it on to me. Only once I have the necklace can I get on with my life."
Others might have accepted that at face value, but Henrietta knew her little sister just a little too well. "And…?"
Mary held her gaze, vivid cornflower-blue eyes steady and unyielding.
Henrietta tipped her head, arched her brows, and waited….
"Oh, all right!" Mary flung up her hands in surrender. "And I think I might have found my perfect hero, but I need the necklace to be sure. The necklace is supposed to come to me, work for me, and then go to Lucilla, so it seems I'm supposed to wait for the necklace before I decide on my hero, and, well, it would seem to be flying in the face of fate and The Lady to make any final hero-decision before I get the necklace, and I have to have it in the proper way." Mary's expression firmed; her eyes bored into Henrietta's. "Which means you have to wear it and find your hero first."
Henrietta looked down at the necklace, at the innocent links draped over her hand. And sighed. "All right. I'll wear it tonight."
Mary uttered a whoop of delight.
Henrietta held up a staying hand. "But I don't expect it to work for me, so don't get your hopes up."
Mary laughed and darted in to plant a quick peck on Henrietta's cheek. "Just wear it, sister-mine - that's all I ask. As for it working" - eyes twinkling, Mary swung toward the door - "I'll put my faith in The Lady."
Smiling, Henrietta shook her head.
Mary paused at the door. "Are you joining Mama and me at Lady Hammond's tonight?"
"No - I'm expected at Lady Montague's." Given Henrietta's age, she often attended different events than those to which their mother escorted Mary. "Have fun."
"I will. I'll see you tomorrow." With a wave, Mary went out of the door, shutting it behind her.
Still smiling, the necklace in one hand, Henrietta turned to discover that Hannah had put her new gown back in the armoire and instead laid out a gown of purple silk.
Catching Hannah's gaze as the maid turned from the chest of drawers, a purple-and-gold silk shawl in her hands, Henrietta arched a brow.
Correctly interpreting the gesture, Hannah assured her, "The royal blue won't do miss, not if you're wearing that." Eyes bright, Hannah nodded at the necklace. "And if you're going out looking for your hero, we want you to look your best."
Henrietta inwardly sighed.
Two hours later, Henrietta joined Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth by the side of Lady Montague's ballroom. After exchanging greetings, they stood and watched the Wentworths' daughter, Melinda, who was dancing a cotillion.
Melinda's partner was the Honorable James Glossup.
It was James's motives in paying court to Melinda that had brought Henrietta there; she found herself studying him, absorbing all that his appearance and his expertise in the dance conveyed, and wondering - as she had for the past several days - why, given his transparent attractiveness and accomplishments, James had taken the tack he had with respect to finding a bride.
Mrs. Wentworth, a short, comfortably rotund lady in brown bombazine, sighed. "It's such a shame - they make such a handsome couple."
"Now, now." Mr. Wentworth, a solid, conservatively dressed gentleman, patted his wife's hand where it rested on his sleeve. "There'll be other handsome bucks that'll come sniffing around, and as Mellie's of a mind to find a gentleman who loves her…well, I'm just grateful to Miss Cynster for finding out what she has."
Henrietta smiled faintly and quashed an impulse to squirm. She didn't know James well, but he was her brother Simon's closest friend; James had been Simon's groomsman when Simon had married two years ago. Consequently, James's and her paths had crossed at several family functions, but beyond what she'd gathered through his association with Simon, she'd had no reason to look more closely at James.
Until he'd grown so particular in his attentions to Melinda that his intention to offer for her hand could not be doubted. At that point, Melinda, with her parents' approval, had turned to Henrietta for, as they'd termed it, "clarification of James's motives."
From her early twenties, Henrietta had found a calling in assisting her peers, the other young ladies of the haut ton, to discover the answer to the critical question every young lady had of the gentleman who sought her hand: Does he love me, or is there some other reason he wishes to marry me?
It wasn't always easy to tell, or, sometimes, to discover the true answer. Henrietta, however, born into the powerful Cynster clan, with all the connections and associations that afforded her, had long ago learned the ways of finding out almost anything.
She wasn't a gossip; she rarely told anyone anything they hadn't specifically asked to know. But she'd always been observant and her acuity had only sharpened with the years, with constant application and the resulting experience.
While mamas, matrons, and chaperons guided their charges through the ton's shoals, acting as matchmakers for those young ladies, Henrietta provided a countering service. Indeed, certain disgruntled gentlemen had labeled her "The Matchbreaker," but to the female half of the haut ton, she was the person young ladies set on marrying for love turned to for reassurance as to their would-be fiancés' matrimonial motivations.
With tonnish sentiment over recent years shifting in favor of love-matches, Henrietta's insights and expertise had been much in demand.
It was entirely possible that her extensive experience was the reason behind the nebulous niggle in her brain, the suspicion that something about James Glossup's situation didn't quite fit. But Melinda had asked, and Henrietta now knew, so despite that niggling but irritatingly unspecific reservation, she would oblige and tell her friend the truth.
Watching James turn elegantly with the music, surveying his broad shoulders, his long, lean frame, the ineffable grace with which he moved, his impeccable and stylishly subdued attire and fashionably ruffled brown hair, and the smile of true gentlemanly gentleness he bestowed on Melinda, Henrietta wondered yet again why he'd decided to take the tack he had and marry merely to secure extra funds, rather than searching for some lady to love.
He could, of course, simply be a coward too wary of love to take the risk, yet to Henrietta that explanation didn't ring true.
As an acknowledged wolf of the ton, James had prowled the salons shoulder-to-shoulder with Simon, but since the summer of Simon's marriage two years ago, James had drawn back and been little seen in London, not until the beginning of this Season. Regardless, as one of the Dorsetshire Glossups, one of Viscount Netherfield's grandsons, there were any number of suitable young ladies who would be entirely agreeable to falling in love with him, but instead he'd fixed very quickly on Melinda.
And Melinda was one of Henrietta's friends.
The measure concluded. James bowed; Melinda curtsied, then rose. Melinda glanced toward her parents, saw that Henrietta had arrived and, albeit with due courtesy and smiles, dismissed James, parting from him to thread her way through the crowd.
As Melinda drew near, Henrietta schooled her features into an expression of uninformative blandness, but after one good look at her face, Melinda glanced at her mother's - and knew.
Melinda's face fell. "Oh." Halting in front of her parents, she took her mother's hand, then looked at Henrietta. "It's not good news, is it?"
Henrietta grimaced. "It's not the news you wanted to hear."
Melinda glanced over her shoulder, but James had melted into the crowd and was no longer visible. Drawing in a breath, Melinda clutched her mother's hand more tightly and, head rising, faced Henrietta. "Tell me."
Mrs. Wentworth glanced meaningfully at the other guests. "This really might not be the best place to discuss this, dear."
Melinda frowned. "But I have to know. How can I face him again otherwise?"
"Perhaps," Mr. Wentworth suggested, "we might return home to discuss the matter in private." He looked at Henrietta. "If we could impose on Miss Cynster to oblige?"
Henrietta hadn't intended to leave the Montagues' house until later, but faced with three earnestly entreating expressions, she inclined her head. "Yes, of course. I have my parents' carriage. I'll follow you to Hill Street."
She trailed the Wentworths as they made their way to Lady Montague's side. While Melinda and Mrs. Wentworth thanked her ladyship for the evening's entertainment, Henrietta stood back and idly scanned the crowd. There were few present she did not know, few she couldn't immediately place in terms of family and connections.
She was absentmindedly surveying the heads when her gaze collided with James Glossup's.
Standing across the room, he was watching her intently.
The Wentworths took their leave and moved toward the door. Wrenching her gaze from James's, Henrietta smiled at Lady Montague and made her farewells, then followed the Wentworths.
She told herself not to look, but she couldn't resist glancing back.
James was still watching her, but his eyes had narrowed; the austere planes of his handsome face seemed harder, his expression almost harsh.
Henrietta met his gaze, held it for an instant, then she turned and walked out of the ballroom.
On the other side of the room, James Glossup softly swore.
"What I've learned is that Mr. Glossup needs to marry in order to release additional funds from his grandaunt's estate." Ensconced in an armchair by the drawing room fire in the Wentworths' Hill Street house, Henrietta paused to sip the tea Mrs. Wentworth had insisted they all required.
Seated in the armchair opposite, with his daughter and wife on the chaise to his left, Mr. Wentworth frowned. "So he's not a fortune hunter after Mellie's dowry?"
Setting her cup on its saucer, Henrietta shook her head. "No - he has funds enough, but to release the balance of his grandaunt's fortune he has to marry. As I understand it, the old lady wanted to ensure that he did, so she made it a condition of her will."
Mr. Wentworth snorted. "I suppose that's one way an old lady can force a whelp to the altar, but not with my girl."
"No, indeed!" Mrs. Wentworth agreed, then, clearly recalling that it was Melinda's opinion that, in this instance, carried the real weight, turned to her daughter. "That is…Mellie?"
Cup and saucer held in her lap, Melinda had been staring into the fire. Now she blinked, glanced at her mother, then looked across at Henrietta. "He's not in love with me, is he?"
Henrietta adhered to the absolute truth. "That I can't say. All I can tell you is what I know." She held Melinda's gaze, then gently said, "You would be a much better judge of that than I."
Melinda stared back for several moments, then her lips firmed. She shook her head. "He likes me, but no-he doesn't love me." She paused and took a long sip of her until-then neglected tea. Lowering the cup, she went on, "Truth be told, that's why I asked you to learn what you could of him. I already suspected from the way he behaved that there was some motive other than love behind his approach…" Lips twisting, Melinda waved and looked away.
Henrietta drained her cup, then set it on the saucer and shifted forward to place both on the low table before the chaise. "I should go. There's nothing more I have to add, and you'll want to think things through." She rose.
Melinda set down her cup and saucer and rose, too, as did her parents. "I'll see you out."
"Thank you again for being such a good friend to Mellie." Mr. Wentworth gruffly patted Henrietta's hand.
Henrietta took her leave of the senior Wentworths and followed Melinda into the front hall. As soon as the butler shut the drawing room door, Henrietta murmured, low enough that only Melinda, just ahead of her, could hear, "I'm truly sorry to be the bearer of such tidings."
Halting, Melinda swung to face her. Meeting her eyes, Melinda smiled, albeit weakly. "I admit I was hoping to hear I'd misjudged him, but, truly, you've been a godsend. I don't want to marry a man who doesn't love me, and all your information has done is confirm what I already suspected, and for that I'm truly grateful. You've made my decision so much easier."
Clasping Henrietta's shoulders, Melinda touched cheeks, then drew back. "So yes, I'll be glum for a day or two, but I'll come around soon enough - you'll see."
"I hope so." Henrietta smiled back.
"I know so." Melinda sounded more certain with every passing minute. "You've helped so many of us now, and I'm sure none of us know what we would have done without you. You've saved countless young ladies from disappointing marriages - quite honestly, you deserve an award."
Henrietta humphed. "Nonsense. I just have better-than-average sources of information." And, although in the present circumstances she wasn't about to mention it, she'd confirmed countless other matches as being soundly based on love.
She allowed the butler to settle her cloak about her shoulders, then he opened the front door.
Melinda accompanied her out onto the front step, and immediately shivered as a chill breeze whipped up the street.
Henrietta caught her hand and pressed it. "Go inside. You'll catch your death - and my carriage is right there." She nodded across the street to where her parents' second town carriage stood waiting by the curb.
"All right." Melinda squeezed back. "Take care. No doubt we'll meet again soon."
Henrietta smiled, waited until Melinda retreated and shut the door, then, still smiling to herself, reassured by Melinda's ready acceptance that her friend truly hadn't been in love with James, either, she started down the steps.
While she might have no faith in finding love herself, she was staunchly in favor of love-matches per se; to her mind, love was the one protection that guaranteed a lady a happy and contented married life -
A man barreled into her, moving at shocking speed. The collision sent her reeling.
"Oh!" She would have fallen, but the man whirled and grasped her shoulders, holding her before him, steadying her.
From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a silver-mounted cane grasped in one gloved hand, registered that the glove was exquisitely made, of soft, pliable leather. She blinked and glanced at the man's face, but he was wearing a cloak with the hood up; with the street lights behind him, his face was shrouded in shadow.
All she could see was the tip of his chin. As she watched, it firmed.
"My apologies. I didn't see you." The man's voice was deep, the diction clipped, but cultured.
Catching her breath, she replied, "I didn't see you either."
He paused; she sensed he was studying her face, her eyes.
"Miss! Are you all right?"
She raised her head; the gentleman glanced over his shoulder. They both saw her groom dropping down to the street, intent on hurrying to her aid.
Even as she called out, "It's quite all right, Gibbs," the gentleman looked back at her, released her, brusquely nodded, then swung away and strode quickly on down the street, disappearing into the gathering fog.
Henrietta mentally shook her head, briskly straightened her skirts and cloak, then crossed to where her groom stood waiting to hand her into the carriage.
The instant the door shut, she sighed and sank back against the leather seat. The carriage rocked into motion; Upper Brook Street was only minutes away.
Relaxing, expecting to feel the usual uplifting swell of satisfaction at another motivation-investigation successfully concluded, she instead found her mind unexpectedly focusing on something else entirely.
On the image of James Glossup standing in Lady Montague's ballroom, watching her intently. On his expression as he'd realized she was following his intended out of the room.
He was Simon's friend; he would know her reputation.
She wondered what he was thinking now.