London, June 1827
Twenty-two-year-old Lady Delilah Montebank peered around the corner of the servants’ staircase while her friends smuggled a small potted tree, an armload of paper moss, and a set of fake donkey ears down the back steps of her mother’s town house.
“J’adore the donkey ears,” she whispered, glancing over her shoulder to check for witnesses. Her chin brushed against the ruffles of her pink gown. “Shh. We cannot let Mother hear.”
Her friends, Owen Monroe, the Earl of Moreland, Christian Forester, Viscount Berkeley, and Derek Hunt, the Duke of Claringdon, all dutifully slipped out the back door, their arms full, without making a sound.
“Merci beaucoup,” she whispered to Derek, as his boots crunched the gravel on the way to his coach. “Please tell Lucy I’ll see her tomorrow.” She waved at the duke.
Derek inclined his head by way of reply.
Delilah turned and let out a deep breath. She’d been skittish all morning, hoping her mother wouldn’t find her friends smuggling the decorations for the play out of her bedchamber. But Mother hadn’t discovered them. Job well done.
Delilah was about to close the door behind her when a small red squirrel dashed inside. The squirrel sprinted down the corridor toward the front of the house.
Delilah winced. She may have met this squirrel before. She may have fed it, which meant she may be responsible for its entrance into her home. And if Mother or Cook saw it first, the poor little animal would be doomed.
Delilah hiked up her skirts and took off after the squirrel. The rodent dashed back and forth down the corridor, leaping left and right, heading directly for the front of the house as if he knew the layout. Mother was in the front drawing room receiving visitors. The door to the gold salon was open. She might see the squirrel dash past. Of course, Delilah knew this because she’d thoroughly researched her mother’s whereabouts before telling her friends to proceed with smuggling things out the back door.
The squirrel was already in the foyer by the time Delilah caught up to it. It paused and looked about. Delilah paused too, holding her breath. She stood panting and waiting, her skirts still hiked above her stockinged ankles. Mother’s voice drifted from the salon. Delilah swallowed, her eyes darting to the side.
The squirrel dashed across the marble floor and ran under a rosewood table, the same rosewood table that housed the expensive crystal bowl in which visitors left their calling cards. The same crystal bowl Mother was excessively proud of.
Mother’s voiced drifted from the salon again. She was saying good-bye to someone, which meant she was about to emerge from the room. Delilah didn’t have much time. She expelled a breath and eyed the squirrel warily. It sat under the table, sniffing the air and swishing its bushy tail. Delilah had no choice. Time was of the essence. She dove for the squirrel, catching her slipper in the hem of her skirt and ripping it, upending the table, and smashing the crystal bowl. She landed in an ignominious heap amid the jumble, her hands closed around the squirrel’s tiny, furry body.
A shadow fell across her, and she hoisted herself up on one elbow to turn and look at the straight-backed figure looming behind her.
“Um, bon jour, Mère. I mean, Mother.” Her mother disliked it when she called her Mère. Delilah’s use of French—specifically, her poor use of French—drove her mother to distraction.
Her mother’s dark, imperial eyebrow lifted. The frown on her face was both unmistakable and omnipresent. The Earl of Hilton stood to her right, an irritated smile on his smug face.
“She takes after her father, doesn’t she?” He eyed Delilah down his haughty, straight nose. “Clumsy.”
Lord Hilton had supposedly been Papa’s closest friend. Ever since Papa died over ten years ago, the man had been hovering about Mother. Delilah had suspected for a while now that they were courting. He and his hideous son, Clarence, had begun coming around more and more of late. Delilah guessed they were interested in money, and unfortunately, her mother had a great deal of it. Her uncle was the earl now, but Papa had provided generously for both her and her mother’s future.
Mother lifted her chin, her lips pursed. It was never good when her lips pursed. “This creature looks like my daughter, but I’m not certain I wish to claim her at the moment.”
Delilah scrambled to her feet. Her hair had come out of the topknot and a large swath of it covered one eye and half of her mouth. Her grip still tight on the squirming squirrel, she tried to blow the hair away from her face, but the swath simply lifted momentarily and fell back into place.
Mary and Rose, the housemaids, had already begun cleaning up the mess she’d made. “I’m awfully sorry,” Delilah said to them. They glanced at her, both offering sympathetic smiles. She’d been friends with them for an age, and they knew she was about to get a tongue lashing from her mother.
Mother’s gaze fell to the squirrel, and she gave a long-suffering sigh. “What in heaven’s name have you got there?” The countess’s nostrils flared slightly as she glared at the squirrel as if it were a rabid rat.
Delilah clutched the little animal to her chest. “L’écureuil,” she announced, hoping the word for squirrel sounded more acceptable in French. Most things sounded more acceptable in French.
Her mother turned sharply toward the front door. “I am going to see Lord Hilton out. I’ll give you five minutes to dispose of that thing and meet me in the salon. I need to speak with you.” She whisked her burgundy skirts in the direction of the front door.
Delilah glanced about. The front door was the closest exit. She rushed past Mother and Lord Hilton to reach the door before they did as Goodfellow, the butler, opened it. She hurried out into the spring air and glanced around. The park was across the street. It would be the best place for the squirrel. She watched for carriages and then dashed across the muddy roadway and into the park, where she found a spot in the grass to carefully release the animal. “Take care, Monsieur Écureuil,” she said, as she leaned down and gently opened her palms against the soft, green grass.
She watched the squirrel scramble away to safety before she turned and rushed back across the road, further muddying her skirts in the process. Mon Dieu. Just another thing for Mother to disapprove of.
By the time Delilah reached the foyer again with a ripped, stained hem, she was breathing heavily and her coiffure had become even more unwieldy. At least the Earl of Hilton was gone. She quickly flipped the unruly swath of hair over her shoulder. Best to pretend as if she couldn’t see it. She rushed into the salon and stopped short to stand at attention in front of her mother, who was seated, stiff-backed and imperious, like a queen upon a throne.
Mother eyed her up and down before shaking her head disapprovingly. “Take a seat.”
Delilah lowered herself to the chair that faced her mother’s. She’d learned long ago that if she kept her eyes downcast and nodded obediently, these sorts of talks were over much more quickly. Too bad she didn’t have it in her to do either. “About the squirrel, I—”
“I do not wish to speak about the squirrel.” Her mother’s lips were tight.
“About the vase and the table, I—”
Mother’s eyes were shards of blue ice. “I do not wish to speak about the vase or the table.”
Poor Mère. She would have been beautiful if she weren’t always so angry. Usually with Delilah. Her mother’s blond hair held subtle streaks of white, her eyes so blue they would have been heavenly if they weren’t so hard. She had a perfect, patrician nose and lines around her mouth no doubt caused by years of frowning at her only child.
Delilah looked nothing like her. Lord Hilton was correct. Delilah took after her father. She had Papa’s dark brown hair and matching eyes. A butter stamp, they’d called her, meaning she looked exactly like him. Delilah was of medium height while her mother was petite. Delilah was exuberant and talked far too loudly and far too much, while her mother was always calm and reserved. Delilah was a failure on the marriage mart, while her mother (even at her advanced age of three and forty) had a score of suitors. Hilton was the most aggressive, and her mother’s obvious favorite.
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