“Entertaining and funny, Miss Goldsleigh’s Secret also has some mystery and suspense in it and that made the book even more enjoyable.”
Henry Cavendish, Marquess of Dalton, stood outside the chicest modiste shop on fashionable Bond Street. He awaited his sisters and aunt who had been inside, at his estimation, at least an hour. He reached into his pocket and withdrew his timepiece. Yes, indeed, sixty-five minutes. He snapped the watch closed and tucked it away. He debated going inside to see how much longer they would be and risk being roped into consulting on color or lace or some other insipid thing. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other and sighed in a huff. Several acquaintances passed on the street, and he nodded and doffed his hat politely, as serene as ever, but inside his impatience grew.
Henry’s family knew he was busy today. However, since it was late in the afternoon they’d been able to convince him to accompany them for a lemon ice after a quick stop at the dressmaker’s. God knows he loved them, loved each and every one of them, but they could try the patience of a saint.
He looked at his watch again. Sixty-seven minutes. Their definition of quick and his were substantially dissimilar.
He turned and peered in the window. He couldn’t see much past the dress form stationed there except for vague movements, and he doubted his family could see him either. Henry set his jaw, closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose. Then miracle of miracles, he heard the tinkle of the bell.
“The green one is my favorite, Penny.” Helen burst through the door. His youngest sister was always so excited to be included in the shopping trips with her older siblings. “You are going to be so beautiful.”
“Thank you, love,” said Penelope, the oldest of the sisters. She reached out her hand and stroked her younger sister’s hair. The two walked past Henry on the street, gracing him with two sweet smiles.
Cassandra and Daphne, the middle sisters, followed from the shop, engrossed in their own conversation—so much so, in fact, they paid no attention to their brother at all. Henry scowled at them as they walked by, arms linked, laughing.
The bell on the door chimed one last time as his aunt emerged. She bequeathed him a broad smile and tucked her arm around his. “I am sorry we took so long. You’re such a good boy for being so patient. Having two girls out this coming season is so much more work than just one.”
Henry endeavored to smile. “I know, Aunt Evelyn.”
She patted his hand. “Shall we go for that ice, then, before we head home?”
Why not? Really, the whole afternoon was wasted.
“You work too hard.”
Since his engagement hadn’t worked out several months ago, Henry had thrown himself into the restoration of a property he’d won in a card game. With that new venture, and the thousand and one other things involved in managing a marquessate, Henry admittedly had been wrapped up in his work. The women in his family were certain that meant he’d been crushed by the broken engagement, but the boring reality of it was he simply enjoyed working.
“I know you were fond of the girl—”
“Aunt Evelyn,” he interrupted. “I am hardly a devastated man, just a very busy one.” His tone greatly suggested the conversation need go no further.
Of course, his aunt was not going to take the hint. Evelyn never did. She was not one to avoid a topic simply because the rest of polite society did. Or even because she was expressly asked to do so.
“Your affairs are all well handled. You are a dutiful son, a wonderful nephew, and a complement to your title.” She lectured him gently as she deftly guided him away from the waiting carriage and in step behind his sisters leading the way up the street. “I am sure your father would be very proud of you.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence.” Still, in her usual way, his aunt soothed him. The tension bunching up his shoulders from the time wasted on waiting began to drain from his torso. This time the smile was real and unforced.
“You will find the perfect marchioness, of that I have no doubt. We all liked Francesca immensely, but you can hardly begrudge her a love match.”
“You misunderstand. I was only fond of the lady,” Henry protested. “In fact, I am still quite fond of her, and I don’t begrudge her a love match. For heaven’s sake, I pushed her into it.”
It was true. He had pushed Francesca into the adoring arms of Thomas Wallingham, Earl of Harrington. He often teased them both if he hadn’t done so they never would have managed on their own. He had proposed to the Duchess of Harrington when she was still the lovely Lady Bellings. His family had been ecstatic with the match, and the wedding date had been set, until the love of her life returned to town in the form of the dashing earl. It was so painfully obvious they were meant for each other that he couldn’t stand in their way. Or rather he took pity on them. However it happened, they were blissfully happy, and that warmed him, even while his family was harassing him to find his own wife.
Sometimes, when he was at his most irritable, he regretted taking the high road. His birthday was next month, his twenty-seventh, and he wanted to be married and on his way to begetting an heir before long. He yearned to be settled. The irony of it all was he was certainly in no need of more females in his house. That was for damn sure. As it was, he currently resided in a house completely filled with women. His mother, the Marchioness, occupied the mansion with his grandmother, his aunt and all four of his sisters. What in God’s name he was thinking about when he considered adding a wife to the mix, he had no idea. He often felt like he was drowning in lace and hairpins already without adding another woman. But that was exactly what he intended—at some point anyway, as soon as an acceptable young lady came along.
His sisters arrived at the ice shop before him, and now the little café was overrun by Cavendishes. He paused and watched the familiar scene play out. They were potent and elemental, these Cavendish ladies, and they would set a room a tumble every time they entered one.
“Your lips are turning blue from your blackberry ice, monkey face,” Henry teased Daphne, knowing it would make her squeal and pull out a glass from her reticule. He waggled his eyebrows and grinned at her when she turned to glare at him, her lips still perfectly pink.
Helen, the youngest at twelve, tried to entice him with her spoon. “There are more flavors than lemon you know.”
“That may be true, ladybug.” Henry placed a heaping spoonful of lemon ice on his tongue and, savoring it, comically rolled his eyes. “But lemon is the best.”
Afterwards, they walked in a cluster on the sidewalk the half block back to the carriage, Henry’s annoyance from earlier having melted away like the ice on his tongue. Penelope’s arm linked with his. She slowed her pace and then came to a stop, pulling him to a stop as well. Henry looked to her in question, and then followed her gaze to a woman and child across the street.
“What is it?” Henry asked her. He squinted at them trying to see if he recognized the woman. “Do you know her?”
“It looks like my friend Olivia,” Penny mused. She lifted the brim of her bonnet to get a better look. “I think it is Olivia.”
“Penny, isn’t that your friend Olivia?” Cassandra inquired as she drew abreast of her siblings.
“I’m not sure.” Penelope twisted her mouth in question.
If it was his sister’s friend, what had she gone through to look so haggard? He didn’t think his sisters had many acquaintances outside of the ton. The lady wore shabby clothes. Her hair was dirty and stringy where it fell from a messy updo. She looked painfully thin and pale. The boy was dirty and worn, too, but not as thin and haggard looking as the woman. Perhaps they were acquaintances met through one of their mother’s many charities.
Before Henry could stop her, Penelope dropped her hand from his arm and strode through the traffic.
“Penelope!” Henry started after his sister while he hollered back over his shoulder for the rest of them to stay put. Daphne was the first to ignore him and start across the cobblestones, followed, of course, by the rest of the group. Why God even gave them ears… Henry grasped Penelope’s hand, and together they navigated the busy street.
“Olivia?” Penny called. “Olivia!”
The woman turned at the sound of her name, eyes wide with fear, and clutched the boy closer to her side. He was eating a meat pie, devouring it actually.
“Penelope?” The woman spoke as if seeing a vision, one she couldn’t believe was real.
Penny took her friend by the hand. “Livvy? What has happened to you?”
“I escaped,” was all she uttered as she fainted.
Henry leapt forward and caught her before she hit the walk.