Here is the sixpence we found all those years ago. I am passing it along to you as promised. There can be no doubts that your faith in its powers was well-placed as it has worked for me, and now, dear friend, it is your turn, even if it is, as your aunt Aldora writes, that you’ve already found an eligible parti. Still, I do hope and pray that this coin will ensure that he is the one and I insist you have this paragon accompany you to my wedding. How else can your aunts and I can pass judgment on him if you do not bring him to Hamilton Hall?
Your friend always,
Miss Cordelia Padley set the letter down and turned the old sixpence that had come with it over in her hand. For all her faith that this coin would bring the four of them happiness, Cordelia now found herself filled with doubts.
For here was Anne expecting her to arrive with the man she intended to marry.
Save for one small problem. She didn’t have a betrothed.
“Is that the fabled coin?” Kate Harrington asked. Her hired companion set down the morning paper and looked with nothing less than a raft of skepticism at the battered bit of silver.
Cordelia went to agree, but then she realized one thing. She’d never told Kate about the coin. “What do you know about this?”
Kate huffed a little bit and picked her paper back up, showing a renewed interest in the gossip columns. “Nothing more than what is written in your journal.”
“My journal?” Cordelia set the coin down beside Anne’s letter. “You read my journal?”
Nose in the air, Kate turned the page. “You needn’t sound so incredulous.”
“That is private.”
“Not when it is so dull. And now that I see that coin, it seems rather dull as well. Hardly capable of leading one to true love.”
“Apparently it worked for Anne,” Cordelia replied, holding up her school friend’s letter. “She’s betrothed to the Duke of Dorset.”
The mention of such a lofty prospect brightened Kate’s interest, but not in the way Cordelia might have supposed. “Is this Anne pretty?”
Cordelia nodded. “I haven’t seen her since I left school, but most likely she’s very pretty. She was as a child.”
That seemed to answer Kate’s curiosity. “Then I’d say her good fortune had more to do with her face and not some old coin.” She returned to her paper, then paused.
“What did the note from your father’s solicitor say?” She glanced at the unopened missive from the singular Mr. Abernathy Pickworth, Esq., the one Cordelia had pushed to one side earlier.
“I have no idea. I suppose I will have to meet with him soon enough.” If it was anything like when she’d left India, having had to use nearly all her money to pay her father’s remaining debts, it was a meeting she was going to avoid for as long as she could.
She might have had the comfort of her family’s fortune while she’d been at Mrs. Rochambeaux’s, but in the ensuing years, her father had lost nearly all of it in imprudent investments and reckless speculations.
At least there was still this house, well situated as it was in Mayfair. It had been let out for years, and would have to be again. Not that she was overly sentimental about the place. Cordelia hadn’t lived in it since she was nine, before . . .
Well, before her mother had died in Paris and everything had changed. With the loss of his beloved wife, Sir Horace had abandoned England, fleeing to India on a pretense of scientific explorations and leaving Cordelia at school. And then when he’d died the previous year, Cordelia had discovered that his true legacy hadn’t been one of intellectual discoveries, but one of debt and expenditures.
She wagered Pickworth’s note was going to be more bad news. So with one finger, she nudged it under a napkin and changed the subject.
Or rather, returned to the previous subject.
“Kate, don’t you believe in the magic of love at first sight?”
“No.” The answer was direct and firm. “Not unless the gentleman in question is standing before his vast and prosperous estate with a battalion of servants behind him ready to do my bidding. I’m quite certain I’d be vastly smitten at that point. As should you be instead of writing about lowly sailors.”
Cordelia blushed. “Whatever were you doing, going through my belongings?” After all, she’d kept her journal tucked in the very bottom of her trunk, beneath her undergarments, if only to ensure her privacy.
Kate sighed. “It was a long five months on that ship from Bombay. What else was I to read when you insisted on going up every night to look at the stars? And to answer your other great question, no, I don’t think you were in any danger of being kissed by that particular first mate—he rather fancied one of the lads.”
Cordelia shook her head. She knew hiring Kate, against the advice of every lofty matron in Bombay, hadn’t been the most proper decision of her life, but she liked the forthright widow for all the reasons that were now coming back to haunt her—mostly that Kate Harrington wasn’t opposed to a bit of unorthodoxy or impropriety. And her knowledge of the larger world, the world beyond drawing rooms and good society, had seemed more insurance than risk at the time.
Of course, that was before the woman had unearthed Cordelia’s journal and read it.
Meanwhile, Kate continued to stare at her as if expecting something. Knowing her companion, it was probably an apology. Or to be thanked for her insight as to the first mate.
So Cordelia returned to the original subject. “Yes, well, this is the fabled coin, though I hardly see how it will get me out of my current predicament.”
“You could always change your mind about that coal clerk,” Kate replied, glancing back down at the ads on the front page.
“Tallow,” Cordelia corrected.
From the wrinkle of Kate’s nose it was clear that she saw no difference.
Truly there wasn’t.
And there was the rub. The difference was lost on her aunts as well—all they saw was an eligible bachelor in need of a wife.
“I probably shouldn’t have written Aunt Aldora that letter,” Cordelia admitted.
Kate sniffed. There was no need for words, for her intent was clear. You think?
But she had. Written her aunts that she was betrothed to a perfectly eligible and amiable gentleman. She’d only done it so they would stop sending her lengthy letters extolling the virtues of their new vicar, or offering up Sir Randolph’s second cousin’s son—who, despite an unfortunate wen, had, as Aunt Aldora had written, “high hopes of a promising career in tallow.”
Tallow. Cordelia shuddered.
No, no, if she arrived at Hamilton Hall alone her lie would most certainly be laid bare, and her aunts would immediately set about scrambling to find another vicar (for fortunately theirs had found a bride), or another second cousin twice removed (for even Sir Randolph’s unlikely tallow-loving cousin had found a matrimonial candidate), or whatever fellow—breathing or otherwise—they could prop up beside her in front of the local vicar all to see her properly and promptly wed.
Picking up the coin, Cordelia turned it over a few times, remembering when she and the others had found it in that dreadful old mattress.
From across the table, Kate sniffed. “I hardly see how that coin can conjure up a likely fellow—you are far more apt to find a promising candidate in the gossip columns. Take this fellow Captain Talcott. You know him, don’t you?”
“Yes, but that was a long time ago,” Cordelia replied, not bothering to ask how Kate knew about Kipp.
Not when he was often featured in her journal. As in every time she spied a mention of him in the paper.
Which, given the captain’s splendid career in the navy, had been quite often.
“He’s a veritable rogue—if any of what I’ve read is to be believed. How unfortunate it’s his brother who’s the earl—a dull, stodgy one, from all reports.” Kate sniffed at the waste of a good title. “But your Captain Talcott, oh my stars! He’s a devil. Opera dancers. Some mention of the brokenhearted daughter of Lord W—” Kate paused for a moment as she tried to puzzle out who that might be, but then dismissed it as unimportant. “He’d do well.”
Cordelia shook her head. “Do well for what?”
“For a betrothed, you peagoose. You could borrow him for a sennight. He’d be the perfect fellow to toss you aside and break your heart.”
“Borrow him? It isn’t like he’s an extra hair ribbon or a spare stocking one can make use of in an emergency.”
Kate got straight to the point. “I’d say your current straits qualify as an ‘emergency,’ or do you like the idea of smelling tallow for the rest of your life?”
Well, Kate had the right of it there. But this wasn’t so much an emergency, more of a reckoning of sorts. Like seeing Kipp again.
A flicker caught her eye and she glanced down at the coin, which seemed to be winking at her, but when she blinked again, she realized it was just a bit of light streaming in from the window. And out the window, there lay the garden, where she had played as a child. The familiar curved path to the house next door with all its memories…
And of promises once made.
Cordelia stilled. No. She couldn’t. She didn’t dare. And yet, she couldn’t shake the recollection of something old and most opportune.
Rising from the table, she went to the window as if pulled by a thread, by that long-ago vow, and took a searching look at the house next door.
Perhaps Kate had come up with the perfect plan.
“I wonder…” she murmured, and knew very well that behind her, Kate was grinning like a well-pleased cat.