In a proper English drawing room on Clifford Street in London’s Mayfair district, Lady Poppy Smith-Barnes, daughter of the widowed Earl of Derby, threw down the newspaper and stood up on shaky legs. Finally, the secret passion she’d been carrying around with her for almost six years would have its day in the sun.
“He’s here,” she announced to Aunt Charlotte. “Sergei’s in England.”
She could hardly believe it. She’d resigned herself to being a Spinster—she was in good company, after all. But now … in a matter of a moment, everything had changed.
Her prince had arrived.
Aunt Charlotte, tiny in her voluminous, outmoded gown, stopped her knitting. “Are you sure?”
Poppy found the paper again and put it under her aunt’s nose. “He and his sister are touring with their uncle’s last portrait and unveiling it for the very first time here in London.”
“Oh, Poppy!” Aunt Charlotte’s eyes were a bright, mischievous blue above her spectacles, and her powdered white wig sat slightly askew on her head. “He’s the only man on earth who could coax you out of the Spinsters Club.”
“Indeed, he is.” She hurried to the front window and looked out, expecting something to be different. But the day appeared like any other day. She knew, however, that it wasn’t. It was special.
Sergei—the perfect boy, and now the perfect man—was in Town.
She spun around to her aunt. “Do you think he’ll remember me? It’s been six long years. I was fifteen. We had only a week. It seems a lifetime ago.”
“How could he forget you?”
She shrugged. “So much has happened to him. He’s been traveling, he was in the military—I kept up with him as best I could through the papers. I’m afraid he’ll see me at a ball and walk right by me.”
Aunt Charlotte laughed. “No one walks right by you, dear. Not with that fiery hair and impudent air.”
“Aunt.” Poppy’s cheeks colored. “This is a fine time to remind me I’m not the malleable sort.”
Aunt Charlotte calmly resumed her knitting. “Eversly will survive the turndown, and so will you. It’s not as if you haven’t had a great deal of practice.”
Eversly was due to arrive within the hour, and his would be the twelfth marriage proposal Poppy had rejected in the three years she’d been out. Two of those offers had rather predictably taken place during the fireworks at Vauxhall. Another two had transpired at Rotten Row in Hyde Park at the fashionable hour, both times while she’d sat astride docile mares (Papa wouldn’t let her take out the prime-goers). One proposal had taken place in front of a portrait of a spouting whale at the British Museum at eleven in the morning and two more at the conclusion of routs that had dragged on until dawn. One had transpired in the buffet line at a Venetian breakfast after she’d overfilled her plate with wedges of lemon tart to make up for the dull company, two had occurred in her drawing room over cold cups of tea—tepid because her suitors had prosed on so long about themselves—and one had taken place, inexplicably, at a haberdashery, where she’d gone to buy buttons for Papa’s favorite hunting coat.
Two barons, a baronet, three viscounts, four earls (one of them only nine years old at the time), and one marquess had proposed to her. Two had had large ears. Four had had small eyes. Three had smelled of brandy, and one had lost his breeches in a fountain. One had been missing his front teeth (and it hadn’t been the boy).
Stay calm, she told herself. More than ever, you have a reason to say no to Eversly.
As the clock ticked closer toward the earl’s arrival, Aunt Charlotte kissed her on the cheek and left the room. Poppy waited another agonizing twenty minutes. Finally, there was a knock at the front door, and she put her newspaper under a pillow. Kettle, Lord Derby’s elderly butler, greeted the visitor in his usual sober way.
Then she sat.
And then she stood.
Finally, the earl, a veritable Adonis, entered the room. He had gleaming blue eyes, a golden curl on his forehead, and shoulders so broad she should feel weak in the knees.
But her knees stayed firm.
“You’re alone.” Eversly’s eyes were warm. She could tell he had genuine affection for her, and she did for him, actually. He was sporting, congenial company, but she couldn’t help thinking of him only as a friend. It was always that way with her suitors, as if there were a big NO stamped on all their foreheads.
Thanks to Sergei.
“Yes,” she told Eversly, swallowing hard. “I am alone.”
They both knew what that meant. Without her father or Aunt Charlotte by her side, she was unchaperoned. Only an engaged or married woman could meet a man alone in a room.
But she wasn’t quite alone, was she? There was her mother—sedate, mature—smiling down at her from her portrait, her wedding rings sparkling on her pale, slender hand. Her hair was the same shining copper color as Poppy’s own wavy locks; her eyes, the identical emerald green.
The earl moved toward Poppy, skirting a small table and rounding a chair. He lifted her hand to his lips and brushed a soft kiss against her knuckles. “We shall do well together,” he said, in a low-timbred voice that should have sent shivers up Poppy’s spine.
But it didn’t.
She stole a glance at his perfect lips. She’d heard from her aunt’s maid, who’d heard from the maid of a widow who’d had an affair with him, that he was a splendid kisser.
“We should,” she said with a little intake of breath, “were we to marry.”
Lord Eversly arched an eyebrow. “Aren’t we?”
“No, we aren’t,” she said in a small voice.
“What?” The earl’s voice became a mere squeak.
Poppy bit her lip. It was always at this point she reminded herself of the Spinsters Club and the vow she’d made with her two very best friends, Lady Eleanor Gibbs and Lady Beatrice Bentley. None of them would marry except for love.
And then, to inspire herself further, she imagined herself kissing Sergei.
“I can’t marry you,” she said to Lord Eversly, feeling braver now. “I’m so sorry.”
And she did feel sorry. He was such a dear.
He winced. “But your father said—”
Poppy blinked. “He doesn’t know.”
“Doesn’t know what?”
She was reluctant to hurt him, but she told her usual story. “I’m to be engaged,” she said. “And it’s a love match. Surely you understand.”
“I demand to know his name,” the earl said rather breathlessly.
Sergei, she wanted to say. But instead she said, “The Duke of Drummond.” Her tone was firm but gentle. She’d been through this scenario many times before.
Her other suitors believed she’d met the Duke of Drummond on a walking tour she’d taken in the Cotswolds, but he was totally fictitious, actually, a product of Cook’s lurid imagination. Cook enjoyed making up tales as she stirred her pots and chopped her vegetables, but that was part of her charm (if a floury-faced, wild-haired harridan in the kitchen who tippled occasionally could be called charming).
Indeed, just this morning, Cook told Poppy another outlandish tale about the duke. Poppy already knew he was the mightiest, fiercest duke ever to have walked the earth. And she knew as well that his ancestral castle jutted out over a cliff above the swirling waters of the North Sea. According to Cook, he’d murdered his brother so he could become duke, and to forget his guilt, he regularly plunged off this cliff for a swim. Occasionally, he came back up from the depths with a writhing sea creature under his arm, usually one with large, snapping teeth.
Today, Poppy learned the dreaded duke had even fought an octopus the size of a Royal Mail coach—and won.
“Did you say the Duke of Drummond?” the earl demanded.
Poppy yawned. “Yes, he rusticates somewhere far away.”
Eversly drew in his chin. “Never heard of him.”
“He’s quite wicked.”
“Wicked?” The earl raised his brow.
“Wickedly handsome, that is,” Poppy recovered. She thought again of Sergei. “We met three years ago. Remember the year I missed that impromptu boat race on the Thames?”
“Oh, yes. I do recall. My side won, actually. I had a prime spot at the front of the boat, and Miles Fosberry fell in the river. We couldn’t fish him out until we’d finished.”
“Right.” She gave him a sheepish smile. “Well, while you and your team were rowing past your less-favored acquaintances, I was on a walking tour of the Cotswolds. The duke was on one, too. We met at a village fair.”
“But your father—” The earl’s brow puckered. “Lord Derby never mentioned it. He said you were free to accept my offer.”
“Drummond hasn’t exactly offered for me yet,” she explained. “But he’s”—she paused—“on the verge.”
She’d been quite clever to have come up with that phrase—on the verge. Her previous suitors had found it suitably vague, so that when they saw her dancing for weeks and months—and some, for years after her rejection of them—they didn’t think to question her story.
“It’s simply a matter of time,” she said. “I’ve never told my father. It’s my secret”—she laid a hand on her heart—“my secret of the heart.” She allowed her voice to go a bit trembly. “And I’m not willing to reveal it yet, even to Papa.”
Lord Derby would be furious, of course, that she’d turned down the earl’s suit. But surely he’d recover. He was far too busy toiling away for England to waste time being angry at her for long, especially if she cried and told him she was waiting for a true love match, like his and Mama’s.
The earl looked down at his well-polished Hessian boots, and when he looked up again, his gaze was both besotted and disappointed.
“I still like you,” Poppy protested. “As a friend. This little … engagement thing between us—let’s forget it, shall we? I’ll see you throughout the Season, won’t I? We can share a waltz.” Although her dream was to share her next waltz with Sergei.
She dared to lean forward and give Eversly a small kiss on his cheek. She wasn’t one to dispense her kisses lightly, and the whole ton knew this of her.
“I shall hold you to that waltz,” the earl said, a little gruff. She could tell he genuinely cared for her. Nevertheless, his old good cheer sneaked back into his tone.
“I look forward to it.” She smiled. “Meanwhile, I know I can count on you to be discreet. Please don’t say a word to anyone about our … conversation.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” The earl bowed and left the drawing room without another word.
She waited a few seconds for Kettle to open the front door, then she ran to the window and looked out. Lord Eversly descended the front steps rather slowly. Poppy recognized that walk. It was the gait of a jilted bachelor. She’d induced it in many men.
But by the time he ascended the steps of his fine carriage waiting on the street, the earl’s pace had picked up to his regular jolly one. And why shouldn’t it? He was a wealthy, handsome peer of the realm with tremendous charm. Plenty of women would accept his suit. Why, she’d put a bug in several girls’ ears this very week.
She turned around to see Aunt Charlotte standing in the door, a loose curl from her wig hanging in her eye and making her look quite the scamp. “I heard every word,” she whispered loudly. “I’m so proud of you for following your heart. But—”
“We’re doomed. I hope your emergency suitcase is packed.”
“It is,” Poppy said in a thin voice.
“You know the procedure. Now that Waterloo is behind us, Spinsters in untenable situations no longer retreat to the north of Scotland. We’re forced to go to Paris!”
Aunt Charlotte appeared delighted at the prospect.
“Poppy?” It was her father’s voice. She could hear him in his boots, clomping down the hall toward the drawing room. “That wasn’t the earl leaving, was it? I’ve brandy and cigars in the library to celebrate your betrothal.”
Outside, Lord Eversly’s coachman cracked his whip, and he was gone.
But Poppy’s problems had only begun.
Copyright © 2010 by Kieran Kramer.