She held me spellbound from the first moment I spied her. For it was like a spark fell from heaven and lit my heart afire. I fear I will never be whole again without her in my life. —Lt. Throckmorten to his batman, Thomas Rivers in MISS DARBY’S DARING DILEMMA
The Season of 1817 should have begun like any other, in fact it should have been the most engaging Season in ages. Napoleon was no longer a threat. English officers and gentlemen alike were ready to celebrate, and more importantly, many were of a mind to marry.
The mothers of unwed daughters throughout the land should have been in alt.
Instead they were in a panic.
Their daughters were refusing to cooperate. Refusing to be wed!
Who had ever heard of such a notion? Not marry? Why not just announce oneself a savage and be done with the matter.
Well, such foolishness wasn’t to be borne. Especially not by Malvina Witherspoon, Countess of Tottley, the mother of Lady Lucinda. She hadn’t spent a fortune sending her darling daughter to Miss Emery’s exclusive school only to have her arrive home and declare that she would never take a husband.
“It is all this wretched Darby creature’s doing,” Malvina declared one morning to a circle of equally desperate mothers. “And it is time we put a stop to this nonsense once and for all.”
Heads nodded enthusiastically, since they knew the countess had good reason to want to see this state of anarchy put to an end.
If the rumors were true, and most likely they were given the ungodly hour Lady Tottley’s summons had arrived, Lady Lucinda had refused, yes, refused, the young and handsome Lord Barwick, heir to the Hemswell dukedom.
There wasn’t a moment to lose. It could very well be one of their daughters refusing such an eligible parti. And so it was that the good mothers of London had gathered together to formulate a plan of attack. The author of the Miss Darby chronicles, known only as M. Briggs, was probably hated with more ferocity and incurred more wrath by the occupants of Lady Tottley’s morning salon than Boney at the height of his despotic reign.
The murmurs of complaint and gossip were interrupted by a discreet knock at the door. Crumpton, Lady Tottley’s infamously stodgy butler poked his long nose through the crack in the door. “Ma’am, there is a gentleman here who claims to have been invited.”
His tone spoke volumes. That he no more believed the man in question was a gentleman, nor that this interloper had been invited.
So it was a rare treat for all those in the room to see Crumpton’s mouth fall open in dismay when her ladyship responded with an enthusiastic wave of her hand.
“Send him in at once, Crumpton.”
“But, my lady,” the butler protested, “this … this … person isn’t accepted. I have it on good authority that he’s considered—”
“Don’t be such a ninnyhammer, Crumpton,” the countess said. “These are desperate times and we can no longer cling to social boundaries if we are to see the world righted.”
Fans fluttered and more than one slanted glance asked the same question.
Who had Lady Tottley invited that had Crumpton in such a state?
They didn’t wait long to find out, for a few moments later the door opened a second time, swinging inward in defiance to the soft, hallowed confines of this oh, so very feminine sanctuary.
As their savior entered, filling first the doorway, and then, in many ways the room with his long-legged stride and wide shoulders, there was a soft echo of gasps and even a few sighs at the sight of this all-too-infamous man.
His dark gaze sped around the room, examining and discarding a hasty inventory of property and persons as if he suspected that danger lurked close at hand.
Not that the man wasn’t receiving the same detailed inspection from every woman in the room. It wasn’t his fashionable dress that caught their attention, for he wasn’t wearing anything of note other than plain buff breeches, scuffed and stained boots, and a black worsted jacket.
No, it was the man beneath the plain and unnoticeable wrappings that couldn’t be so easily hidden.
And what a man he was.
A hairsbreadth past thirty, Raphael Danvers stood well over six feet tall and his presence left no one in doubt that he was a man in his prime. Oh, he may have gained his proper English name and citizenship from his illustrious father, Baron Danvers, but his dark mien and rakishly foreign good looks spoke of thousands of years of Spanish nobility-hawkish, penetrating eyes, a jaw line hammered and tempered from a Castilian forge, and a masculine fire that emanated from him like the unforgiving Iberian sun.
Since his return from the Peninsular wars, there hadn’t been a happily married, matronly, or thankfully widowed woman in London who hadn’t wondered what it would be like to bask beneath his raw, untamed heat, strip the unfashionable clothes from his muscled body and see just how unacceptable Rafe Danvers could be.
And to Mr. Danvers’ credit, he was inclined to indulge them.
“My lady,” he said, nodding his head slightly to the countess.
She should have been miffed that he hadn’t managed a decent bow, but she knew, like most everyone else, that Rafe’s long years at war and unconventional upbringing had not garnered a healthy respect for his betters. Besides, at present, she was doing her best to set aside her own decadent notions of a deserted hunting lodge, ten foot snow drifts, and Rafe wearing only a …
“Ma’am?” he asked, an impatient edge to his query.
Malvina took a deep breath and cleared away her wayward thoughts. “Yes, Mr. Danvers, quite on time,” she managed, waving her hand at the only available chair. “Please, sit. I have need of your assistance with a most distressing matter.”
“Malvina, you don’t mean to …” This outburst came from her old friend, Harriet Bittleman, the Marchioness of Funtley. From the look of shock and dismay on Harriet’s face, it was obvious she’d deduced the countess’s plans. Furthermore, she’d also gauged the scandal that would embroil them all if anyone, especially their husbands, discovered what they were about to do. “Do you realize what will become of us, of our daughters, if anyone learns that we’ve … we’ve …”
“Yes, I do,” Malvina said, snapping her fan shut and tossing it down on the elegant side table at her elbow. “But I will not stand idly by while our long years of toil are ruined. I will see my Lucinda married, and I care not by what means.” She shot a meaningful glance at the others, one that cowed them all into considering a far more shameful future—one that had them being trailed for the remainder of their years by a bevy of spinster daughters.
“Uh-hum,” Mr. Danvers said, venturing a polite cough into the tense room, before he rose to his feet. “Did you say ‘marriage’? Now look here, I’m not going to be bartered away like some—”
“Sit down, sir,” Malvina told him.
It was rumored that Rafe Danvers had fought side by side with the Spanish guerillas during the war, that he’d partaken in skirmishes so dangerous, so gruesome, that nothing could frighten the man.
Obviously he’d never entered into an altercation against Lady Tottley.
“I’m not in the business of—” he began to argue.
“I said sit, sir!” Malvina ordered.
Not even a unit of French sharpshooters could match the countess’s ruthless intent when she’d set her mind to something. So when she issued her sharp retort, Rafe dropped to his seat as if ducking enemy fire.
“Now,” the lady said, “I would ask you to hear what I have to say before you dismiss our proposal.”
Mr. Danvers crossed his arms over his chest and heaved a sigh, one that suggested his patience was barely contained and that not even the countess’s legendary ire was going to hold him for long.
“Have you heard of the troubles?” she asked.
He shook his head.
She took a deep breath and added, “With this season’s debutantes?”
He shrugged off this bit of information. “As you may be aware, my lady, I don’t spend much time in society.”
“Oh, sir,” Lady Funtley enthused. “You haven’t heard what happened last week at Almack’s?”
Again his dark head gave a slight, insolent toss.
“No?” she asked. “I don’t know how you couldn’t have heard about it.”
The other women joined in, offering their own on dits.
“The ballroom was empty, mind you, empty …”
“Refuses to wear anything but mourning …”
“And then there was the duel—” one of them offered.
Mr. Danvers latched onto that piece of gossip as if it were a lifeline out of the cacophony. “Oh, yes. The duel between those two foolish chits. I did hear something about that nonsense.”
“Nonsense?” Malvina said. “Hardly nonsense. They could have been killed. All over whether or not this wretched Miss Darby will be wearing full mourning or half mourning by next Season.”
“Why didn’t they just ask Miss Darby?” he ventured, shifting in his seat, one scuffed and stained boot after the other stuck out in front of him.
“Ask Miss Darby?” Lady Funtley repeated as if she hadn’t heard him correctly. “Ask her, you say? Why that is droll, sir!”
His dark brows drew together. “No, I’m serious. Why didn’t they just ask this Darby gel and be done with it?”
This left Lady Funtley so flustered, she fell into an unprecedented silence.
“They didn’t ask the lady in question,” Malvina explained, “because she doesn’t exist. She is a mere fiction, a character in a spate of heinous novels. And it’s because she does not exist that she must be stopped. Don’t you see, sir, you must see her influence put to an end. Immediately.”
This explanation only left his brows furrowed deeper, as he tried to fathom how some fictional character could be behind the ruin of everything these ladies held dear. Or that he had a hope in hell there was a shred of sanity between the entire lot of them.
He rose again. “My lady, I can see that this situation weighs heavily on you and your friends, but I have far more important obligations to attend to than chasing after figments and fancies.”
Malvina rose as well. “This figment, as you so blithely put it, is bent on ruining the very fiber of English society.”
“Lady Tottley,” he said, slowly and calmly, “I don’t see that society is in any danger. Least of all here in Mayfair. Besides, I can’t take on any more cases right now. My current obligations are far too pressing.”
“Yes, yes. Codlin’s misfortunate accident,” she said, waving her hand dismissively as if they were discussing what color gloves to wear not the most grisly murder London had seen in fifty years.
The other ladies, at the mention of the incident, weren’t so unmoved. Most looked away and several drew delicate lace handkerchiefs to their now pale lips.
“I don’t consider a man being gutted like a mackerel as accidental.” He paused for a moment, ignoring the gasps around the room, his eyes narrowing to two dark slits. “The investigation into Sir Codlin’s murder is far too important for me to be wasting my time here.” He went to excuse himself, but Malvina blocked his path.
“I don’t see how some nabob’s indecent passing matters all that much,” Malvina told him. “Sir Codlin, indeed! His elevation last year was an abhorrence. Really, Mr. Danvers, the man is dead. There isn’t much you can do for him now.”
“I doubt Sir Codlin would agree with your opinion, my lady.” A wry smile twisted at his lips. “My talents lie in solving problems, my lady. Real problems. Living, breathing ones. Or at least ones that drew a breath at some time. Now if you don’t mind, I bid you good day.”
He started for the door, weaving through the crowded room like a man dodging out of the way of a wayward mail coach.
Malvina nodded at Lady Funtley, who immediately rose and stepped into Mr. Danvers’ oncoming path.
He skidded to stop but not before he nearly toppled into the brave marchioness.
Lady Funtley reached for his arm to steady herself, and when her fingers wound around his sleeve, her eyes widened at what must have been the heat and strength to be discovered beneath. “Oh, my,” she managed to say.
Every lady in the room knew what she meant. And every woman envied her the experience.
“You will be compensated, Mr. Danvers,” Malvina told him as he attempted to shake a determined Lady Funtley from his arm. “Well compensated.”
“I doubt even your pin money, my lady,” he said, “could begin to cover my fees. The East India Company is offering a thousand pounds for the discovery of Sir Codlin’s murderer and I intend to collect that reward.”
“I wasn’t talking about money, sir,” she said. “I was speaking of something more valuable.”
At this intriguing bit, Mr. Danvers found the wherewithal to extract himself from Lady Funtley.
Malvina stared directly into his dark gaze and was pleased to spy a flicker of interest in the man’s eyes. In the past fortnight, she’d gleaned every bit of information she could about Raphael Danvers and she suspected she possessed the one thing that could induce him to help her, help all of them.
“A house,” she said simply. “With land and income. The deed is yours if you uncover the author of this havoc. And more importantly, see that this M. Briggs never puts pen to paper again.”
Bramley Hollow, Kent
A fortnight later
“I won’t do it,” Cochrane said. “No, sir, I won’t do it.”
Raphael Danvers glanced over at his assistant, then nodded his head in the direction of the quaint little village in the valley beyond. “Come now, Cochrane, I thought you were braver than that. It’s just a village. Hardly even that. You’ve gone into the worst rat infested corners of Seven Dials for Pymm but this-” Rafe waved his hand at the view. “This frightens you?”
The young man nodded vehemently.
Rafe took another tact. “I hear tell the inn serves the finest beef pie in all of Kent.” Honestly, he had no idea if Bramley Hollow even had an inn, but if there was one thing his newly inherited assistant didn’t fear it was his next meal.
Cochrane bit his lip and eyed the village anew. Yet, after a few moments he shook his head. Apparently, not even his unrelenting appetite was enough to prod him into entering the infamous matchmaking village of Bramley Hollow.
“I promise I won’t let you be wed against your will,” Rafe told him.
The lad didn’t look the least bit convinced. “I hear tell it happens afore you know it. One minute you are asleep in your bed and the next you wake up married with a houseful of mouths to feed.”
“As long as they haven’t your stomach to fill, you should be fine.” Rafe nudged his horse forward and a few moments later smiled to himself when he heard the young man let out a long sigh and follow.
Cochrane had previously been employed by Mr. Pymm, the Foreign Office’s legendary spymaster. But with peace at hand and Napoleon securely locked away on St. Helena, Pymm had finally gained his ever-sought-after retirement. With nary a glance back at Whitehall, Pymm had packed his bags and left London, though not before he’d sent Cochrane over to Rafe’s lodgings—instructing Danvers to take the sixteen-year-old lad under his wing and see that the boy gained some gentlemanly manners.
Not that Rafe knew much about being a gentleman, or how he was going to keep the still-growing adolescent in potpies and shoes.
He suspected the infamously parsimonious Pymm had sent Cochrane into his care so as not to be beggared by the boy’s rapacious appetite.
“We could be in London,” Cochrane grumbled. “Finding Codlin’s killer and eatin’ a decent meal.”
Rafe had to agree with Cochrane; he’d rather be back in town. He’d been dead set against Lady Tottley’s offer. The house was probably a tumble down wreck and what did he care if the Marriage Mart had been declared officially closed for the Season?
Say he did find this Darby author and put everything to rights? He’d be run out of town by every unmarried man in London for ruining what was turning out to be the Season of the century.
Yet here he was, traipsing down this nearly forgotten country road in search of Lady Tottley’s villainous author.
In his defense, he would have stuck to his first reply to her offer, an unhesitant “No!” if Lady Tottley hadn’t then gone to Georgiana, Lady Danvers, his illustrious sister-in-law, and complained vehemently about his refusal to help.
Now Rafe loved Colin’s wife, Georgie, but damnation she had a way about her that was more interfering than an excise man. As it turned out, Georgie was in a fine state over the entire problem for it seemed their daughter Chloe was being just as stubborn about this Darby mess as Lady Lucinda Witherspoon.
To Rafe’s credit, he’d held strong against Georgie’s pleas and admonitions, until she’d demanded a family convocation.
Rafe hated family convocations. They usually involved a long table with his brothers and their wives at one end, him at the other and a lot of arguing.
Hardly his idea of an evening well-spent.
He much preferred the lively pursuit of an eventually willing lady, a hackney waiting to take him home before she got any further ideas about him staying the night, and once home, a good bottle of port ready for his indulgent hand to pull the cork and measure out a healthy dose.
No, instead, he’d squandered a perfectly good Thursday night listening to the Danvers’ wives threatening him with all sorts of invitations, escorting Chloe all around town, not only at night, but during the day when he was more inclined to be sleeping.
At this rate he’d never get any work done-pleasurable or rent paying.
So in a moment of utter desperation, he’d agreed to solve Lady Tottley’s case, if only to regain his blessed independence from female interference.
If there was a blessing to this case, Rafe decided, he’d gotten a good day’s ride out of the bargain. In Spain, he’d spent weeks at a time in the saddle, scouting and hunting French troops. He missed the freedom of the open country, something London and his work afforded him little time to enjoy.
“I’ve no mind to find myself married,” Cochrane was repeating.
“Then I promise I’ll keep you well out of the matchmaker’s way.” As Rafe intended to do for himself as well. “But into Bramley Hollow we must go, and Bramley Hollow we shall brave.”
To locate the elusive author, Rafe had gone to the publisher, Ahey and Sons, to ask for directions to M. Briggs, but the esteemed Mr. Ahey had laughed outright at such a request. Undeterred, Rafe and Cochrane spent the next week frequenting the inn favored by the man’s overworked and underpaid apprentices, and one night had treated the lot of them to a feast of beef steaks and bottomless tankards of ale. Before midnight, they’d had the directions that Mr. Ahey had declared “absolutely unavailable.”
And as luck would have it, the property that Lady Tottley had offered him wasn’t that far afield from the little village of Bramley Hollow, so Rafe would be able to assess his payment and make good his promise to Lady Tottley to see the author properly persuaded to give up his profession.
“I heard tell last night,” Cochrane said, “that the East India Company upped their reward for finding Sir Codlin’s killer to two thousand pounds.” The boy whistled. “You could pay the rent with that kind of blunt. You know, so we wouldn’t have to duck out the back all the time.”
Rafe ignored the jab about his less than reliable finances and got to the point. “Where did you hear about the East India offer?”
“I just ‘eard it,” the boy said, shrugging his shoulders and suddenly gaining a new appreciation for the scenery as if he’d never seen a tree in his life.
Rafe made a note to keep better track of the boy’s whereabouts. He could get into trouble wandering about London alone at night. Not that that had probably ever given Pymm a moment’s pause.
“Is this house you get worth more than two thousand pounds?”
This seemed to cheer up Cochrane, though not enough to dampen his suspicious nature. “Don’t you think it’s rather generous offer, giving you a house and all, when all we’ve got to do is to find some bloke and break his arms so he can’t write?”
“Cochrane!” Rafe sputtered. “We aren’t in the business of breaking people’s arms. We solve problems. Discreetly, professionally.”
“Like you did that Lord Harold last month?”
Rafe sighed. He would have to bring up that case.
Lord Harold, a worthless sot if ever there was one, had been attending house parties and using his hosts’ homes as a playground for pilfering-stealing silver and other small items of value to pay off his gambling debts. His family, notably his brother, the Marquess of Carston, had wanted to avoid scandal at any cost, as had Lord Harold’s equally well-heeled victims.
Rafe and Cochrane had caught up with the unrepentant thief in Surrey about to leave a party with his pockets and trunks stuffed with his latest plunder. Instead, they’d seen the goods returned and “escorted” the young wastrel to the coast where passage had been booked by his brother for a one-way trip to the lonely reaches of Halifax.
Needless to say, Lord Harold hadn’t taken to this turn of events all that willingly, and Rafe had finally planted a facer to end the young man’s caterwauling and whining.
“Lord Harold was the exception,” Rafe said.
“What about that fellow who was beating up the girls at Madame Rochelle’s? Or that bloke who thought he could run away with the viscount’s daughter? You gave them a bit of the business, didn’t you?”
“They both needed a little more attention, that’s all,” Rafe admitted, wondering if these were the sort of moral lessons that Pymm had intended Cochrane to gain under his tutelage.
Then he shot a second, more narrowed glance over at his assistant. “What do you know about Madame Rochelle’s?”
The boy shrugged. “You sent me there last week.” Again his interest in English flora rose to new heights as he intently studied the passing hedge.
Wait just a damn moment, Rafe thought. Sent his assistant to Madame Rochelle’s? “I did no such thing,” he countered.
“Yes, you did. You said quite specifically to go around and collect our late accounts and so I did.”
“Madame Rochelle’s account wasn’t late,” Rafe pointed out as they rounded a corner and came within sight of the village.
“It’s paid in full now.” Cochrane grinned, then he nudged his horse and raced the last length into town leaving a groaning Rafe behind.
While he was less than bemused with the idea of Cochrane at Madame Rochelle’s, at least he wouldn’t have to give the lad the talk he’d been meaning to. One Pymm had eluded to in his instructions as “explain to the boy the necessary evils of women and keep him free of pox.”
Rafe made a note to himself that from now on he’d take care of unpaid accounts and leave Cochrane behind to do the paperwork.
Beneath him, his horse pranced and sidestepped, as if it too were reluctant to enter the notorious little hamlet. Reaching down, he patted the high-strung animal and spoke softly in Spanish to it as his grandfather had taught him, then nudged the soothed beast forward.
Bramley Hollow seemed at first glance like any other English village-well tended, if not sleepy by London standards — but Rafe, like Cochrane, knew this village was unique in that it boasted a matchmaker, and had kept one at the ready for hopeless spinsters and wayward and unwitting men for over a thousand years. It was enough of a reputation that most avowed bachelors gave Bramley Hollow a wide berth.
Cochrane looked around the respectable little cottages and shops as if he’d just been dropped in the middle of a savage village and was ready to take flight at the least provocation from the matrimonial minded natives.
“How are we going to find this Briggs fellow?” he asked. Cochrane shared Lady Tottley’s opinion that the Darby author was a man.
Rafe wasn’t so convinced. After the family convocation, Georgie had pressed the four volumes of Miss Darby’s novels into his hands and told him to read them. He’d scoffed at the idea, but out of curiosity, and because he was currently between mistresses, he had picked up the first book and begun reading.
There on the pages of a book, Rafe discovered something, someone who left him intrigued.
From her headstrong ways to her fearless devotion, Rafe was captivated by this figment of a fervent imagination. Not that such a woman could ever exist in real life, but time and time again, he found himself wondering what it would be like to encounter such a lady.
And there were also clues to be found within the binding of the slim volume. The independent and outspoken heroine might have been created by a man, but Rafe knew women. He’d loved enough of them to have an inkling of their unspoken desires and this Miss Darby clamored of long-held hopes and undeclared dreams.
No, in his estimation the author was most likely some bluestocking with stars in her eyes, living out her dreary life through Miss Darby’s adventures. The type of chaste lady who’d never caught a man’s eyes, let alone a stolen kiss and would consider that insufferable bore, Lt. Throckmorten, a fine catch. Oh, yes, they’d find the lady with her twelve cats at hand, dreaming of a life that had passed her by.
And with a bit of his notorious charm and a warning hint as to how ruinous the lofty Lady Tottley’s ire could be, the spinster’s pen would be tucked away for years to come.
“This fellow isn’t going to want to be found,” Cochrane said. “We could be stuck here for days.” That prospect had him looking longingly over his shoulder toward London.
“We’ll ask at the inn to start.”
This caught Cochrane’s attention. “The one with the pies?”
Rafe laughed. “Business first, pies later.”
“Don’t see how we are supposed to break arms on an empty stomach,” he grumbled.
“We aren’t going to break any limbs.”
They continued riding into town when a sign caught Rafe’s eye.
Royal Post Office
Thaddeus Stone, Postal Master
Rafe grinned. Now here was a bit of luck. This Mr. Stone would be just the person to help them, without having to bribe an innkeeper for directions. This would save what few coins he did have, especially now that Cochrane had apparently used the Rochelle payment for purposes other than rent.
He reined to a stop and told the lad to wait for him as he entered the post office.
To his chagrin there was a customer inside, a woman chatting to the young lady behind the counter. He looked around for the postmaster, but saw no one other than the pair of females before him.
This could either work to his advantage or …
“Oh, Miss Tate, you must do something about the colonel. You simply must,” the postmistress was saying. “Everyone is talking about the other night.”
Miss Tate’s bonnet shook furiously. “What do you want me to do, send him—”
It Takes a Hero
The female chatter ended abruptly as the postmistress looked up from her gossip, her mouth falling open. Then she gave her friend a warning shake of her head.
Rafe shifted from one foot to the other, then doffed his hat. “Good day,” he offered, adding a smile meant to leave both of them weak in the knees.
The woman behind the counter shot him a quick narrowed glance and then moved closer to her friend.
Then Miss Tate turned around.
From behind, she had looked like the typical country mouse, in her plain brown bonnet and nondescript gown, market basket in hand. But as she first shot a glance over her shoulder and then slowly spun on one heel, he found himself wondering, but for a second, if he’d just discovered his very own Miss Darby.