... four calling birds ...
... four calling birds ...
Christy Gronlund and Heidi Vanlandingham
Staring at her reflection in the mirror, Lady Catherine Swann sighed. The elegant young lady staring back at her would make her family proud. There was one problem, however. She was the youngest of Lord and Lady Cockswoods’ seven daughters—and most definitely not elegant nor a lady. Only eighteen, she had no wish to find a suitable husband. She wanted to see the world, not raise babies. She picked up her small, satin reticule, and wrapped it around her wrist then turned to face her sister. "I guess it will have to do."
Pippa frowned. "What are you talking about? You look quite proper. While I..."
Cat ignored her sister, knowing she only wanted to hear how pretty she was. “My dress is the problem.”
Pippa frowned. “I see nothing amiss. You are just being silly. Well? How do I look?"
"You know very well you look beautiful. Stop fishing for compliments, Pippa dear, it is unbecoming." She laughed at Pippa's quick scowl and walked over to her older sibling to give her cheek a quick buss.
“Catherine Swann—now look what you've done! One cheek has more color so I will be forever pinching so they look the same," Pippa wailed.
A sharp knock at the door stopped Cat's low, throaty chuckle. Turning, she found the dour-faced maid assigned for their stay filling the doorway. "Yes, Mrs. White?"
The woman thrust her thick arm toward Cat and handed her several folded pieces of thick vellum. “Your mother wants you to have these before you arrive downstairs, and she insists you transfer them to your dance card this time.” Message delivered, Mrs. White turned on her heel and clomped back down the hallway.
Cat stared at the cards, her mouth drawn into a small moue.
Pippa glanced at her. "What is it? You look as if you bit into sour fruit."
Cat held out the cards. "Here, you can have these."
Pippa rolled her eyes, shaking her head. "No, I have my own right here." She patted the small purse tied at her wrist then pointedly gazed at the items in Cat’s white-knuckled grip. “Those are for your dance card."
"That's what I was afraid of." Cat sighed. "Who must I suffer through tonight?" She flipped the cards open and stared. "This is horrible! How could Mother do this to me?" She stomped her slippered foot on the thick rug-covered mahogany floor. "I will not dance with these men. I want to have some fun, not fight my way through the evening," she wailed.
"For shame, Cat," Pippa reprimanded. “A lady doesn’t fight her way through anything. We simply make the best of a bad situation.”
Cat looked back down at the now trembling card. “The first four names are the Marquess of Finch, Lord Starling, the Earl of Kingfisher, and Lord Swift.” She moaned. “The evening is ruined.”
Her sister bit her bottom lip. “Oh dear. Well, that is bad.” She wrapped an arm around Cat and walked her out of their room. “As Father would say at a time like this, ‘Where’s that spirit I’m so fond of, little kitten?’ Never understood it myself, but for some reason, you always laugh then conquer whatever problem arises.”
Cat halted at the bottom of the stairs and shoved back her shoulders. “I have decided my pale lavender gown isn’t so awful anymore. Under the candlelight of the ballroom, it will actually look like a ghastly grey, which suits my mood perfectly.” With her nose flared and lips pressed into a thin line, she marched into the crowded ballroom. “Time to deal with those four calling birds.”
* * *
Lord Richard Sefton, Earl of Saxonhurst regarded the men sitting at the faro table. He couldn’t help but think of his older brother, dead this past year because of London’s notorious gaming tables. What a shambles he’d left their father’s estate in—almost bankrupt. The Lord Chancellor had given him one year to return their lands to solvency. The task had not been easy but he had worked hard, finally paying off the final creditor two weeks ago today.
Raucous laughter accompanied the placing of new wagers. He turned away in disgust.
Richard groaned. He had forgotten Thomas Worthington would be in attendance. Taking a small sip of port, he watched his old military acquaintance shuffle across the room.
“About time you showed your face at one of these things!” With a wide grin, Thomas accepted a glass of port from a beetle-browed butler then clapped Richard on the shoulder, almost spilling the remaining liquid in his own small cup. “Missed you at the Abbey. Been a dreadful bore this past year. Hell-Fire Club hasn’t been the same without you. ” Thomas took a large swig of port and wiped the remaining liquid from his thin lips with the back of one hand. The man’s manners were positively dreadful.
Hoping to escape, Richard ambled from the card room toward the ballroom. With luck, he’d lose Thomas amidst the crush of people. To his dismay, the man remained unshakable. He listened with half an ear to the other’s incessant chatter. Richard glanced about the dimly lit room, taking in the decorations—dark green garland-wound banister and columns. The room was draped to resemble a bloody forest. Heavy sprigs of mistletoe tied with elegant gold ribbons hung above the room’s two arched doorways and he made note to avoid those spots.
“So who has stolen your attention from our little club?” Thomas’s voice boomed at his ear.
“Not who but what. I’ve had to settle my brother’s estate, which took longer than I expected.” After a quick sip of port, he continued. “Believe me when I say I have sorely missed the light-hearted fun our little Hell-Fire Club offers. I was actually at the club a fortnight ago. Happened to be on hand to stop a young trespasser.” He rubbed the sore area on his thigh at the memory.
“Were you injured, Saxonhurst?” Thomas asked.
Richard forced his hand away from the aching bruise. “Not really. The lad put up quite a fight. Ended up giving my leg a good kick with his boot. It’s nothing really.”
Candlelit shadows danced among the patrons milling around the ballroom. He watched as a rather long procession of women made their way through the crowd toward the ball’s hosts. He spared only a quick glance as each girl passed—until his gaze fell on the last. A slip of a girl, thin and willowy in her light silvery gown. Tiny diamonds woven into her dark brown braid sparkled brilliantly in the room’s flickering light. Her dark eyes were large and wide-set, giving her an elvish air. He nudged Thomas, who was still babbling about some military skirmish. “Do you know her?”
Richard gestured toward the beautiful girl. “That one—in the silver gown. Do you know her?”
Thomas followed the direction of his finger then shrugged. “That’s one of Lord Cockswood’s brood. The youngest. Catherine, I think her name is. Why do you ask?”
“No particular reason. Is this her first season?”
Thomas chuckled. “No. If I remember correctly, she came of age last season. Are you sure there’s no interest?”
He shook his head, ignoring the quickened beat of his heart. “No, just curiosity. Which of the lot belongs to Cockswood?”
Thomas snickered. “All of them. The poor man has seven daughters.”
Richard choked. “Damn! Poor sap. One woman in the family is bad enough but seven?”
He swigged the last of his port and set the empty glass on a passing butler’s tray. Turning, he found himself staring into the decadent brown gaze of Lady Catherine Swann. He pressed the palm of one hand across his waist and gave her a slight bow then forced himself to walk away.
* * *
Cat watched the gentleman walk way, noticing his slight limp as he made his way toward a group of ladies. His brilliant blue eyes, although hidden under a bored scowl, had taken her breath away. His thick, blond hair defied fashion, curling underneath the bottom of his upright collar. She could just make out the gold and cream-striped waistcoat layered underneath his black woolen tailcoat. The firm muscles of his thighs tightened and relaxed as he moved, giving him a fine figure—a very fine figure indeed—and distinctly reminiscent of a swashbuckler. She perused his full magnificence and then a queasy sensation rumbled in her stomach. She had met him before tonight. A slight frown touched his face and she was now certain of where she had met him.
“He is the scoundrel who tossed me out of the Abbey.”
“What Abbey?” Lady Cecile Barrington peered around her then laughed as she glimpsed Cat’s expression. “You look as if you were just caught doing something you shouldn’t.”
Cat grabbed her friend and pulled her over to stand beside one of the room’s four massive pillars. “Can you keep a secret?”
“Of course!” Ceely fluttered her fan to hide her mouth as she spoke.
“I did something quite daring.”
Wide-eyed, Ceely leaned in closer. “What? Oh Cat, what did you do?”
“I went to Medmenham Abbey disguised as a boy.”
“You. Did. Not!” She snapped her fan closed. “Sometimes I wonder what goes on in that head of yours, Catherine Swann. Why would you do something so scandalous?”
“I couldn’t help myself. During a ball at Almack’s, I overheard my sister Georgie talking with a group of her friends about the Abbey. It’s supposedly the meeting place of the notorious Hell-Fire Club.”
Ceely let out a small squeal then clamped her hand over her mouth, her words jumbling together until Cat removed her hand. “…They are rapscallions and blackguards. Terrible things go on during their meetings. I overheard my brother one time saying they carried on with doxies and light skirts all the time.” She slapped at Cat’s hand. “How could you? Without even telling me you were going.”
“My endeavor wasn’t as fruitful as I hoped. Before I even got inside the Abbey, a man caught me and threw me out.”
“Who threw you out?” Ceely’s delicate brows drew together.
“He did.” Cat pointed toward the blond miscreant. “Ceely, you know everyone. Tell me who he is.”
“Why, that is Lord Richard Sefton, Earl of Saxonhurst." Ceely sighed. “Is he not one of the finest men here? He has the most striking blue eyes.”
Cat watched as Lord Saxonhurst led a pretty brunette into the fray of dancers. Not wanting to watch anymore, she turned and ran into a very thick, mushy chest.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, but I do believe my name has been written down for the first dance.” He attempted a wobbly bow then just stood staring at her somewhat slack jawed. Cat rolled her eyes at Ceely then let The Marquess of Finch lead her onto the dance floor. She pasted a smile on her face but her cheeks soon began to twitch. He took her hand and turned her around under his arm. Cat scrambled for something witty to say but her brain seemed frozen. The Marquess’s hand felt absolutely disgusting wrapped around hers, slick with sweat and he smelled like a horse. It was the smell that did her in. Her stomach rebelled and she swallowed, desperately trying not to embarrass herself by losing her supper on his shoes.
"I say, are you well, Lady Catherine?" She heard the concern in his voice but could only shake her head slowly from side to side as her vision wavered. Nausea rose as his fetid breath washed over her face, filling her nose with the stench of garlic and the bitter smell of wine. Did the man never wash his mouth? Just as she was about to pass out, a strong hand gripped her shoulder and pulled her a few steps from the marquess. She gulped in her rescuer’s wonderful woodsy scent.
“I believe I have the next dance,” a deep baritone interrupted and before she could catch a glimpse of his face, he had whirled her away from the repulsive man.
“Are you… You are not Lord Starling, sir.”
“I believe a thank you is in order for my rescuing you.” The man smiled and some of her indignation melted away. What a lovely smile, she thought then mentally slapped herself.
“If you will excuse me, Lord Saxonhurst. I am in need of the retiring room.” She whirled around and made her way through the crush toward the stairwell leading to the upstairs retiring room. No sooner had she placed one foot on the first step than an unfamiliar male voice addressed her from behind.
“Lady Catherine Swann? My name is Lord Starling. I believe we are scheduled for the next dance?”
Sighing, she turned and felt like laughing. Lord Starling was toothpick thin and almost a head shorter than she was. “I am sorry, Lord Starling, but I am a bit overcome from my last dance.”
His head bobbed up and down like a speckled hen in the farmyard. He took hold of her hand, patting it with his bony one until she wanted to scream. “I understand. I understand. Quite taxing really, dancing.” He led her to a doorway she had not noticed before. “I believe a bit of a rest in the drawing room would be just the thing.”
She tightly pressed her lips together and followed him inside the room, dimly lit with only one wall lamp. Lord Starling placed her on the dark-colored mahogany sofa then practically sat down in her lap. With her arms and hands protecting her face and upper body from his lecherous hands, she let out a squeal and tried to push him off her, quickly realizing he had her at a disadvantage.
“I believe you have overstayed your welcome, my good man.” a familiar voice growled above her, lifting the offensive man off her. She heard a solid thud and then she was hustled back through the door almost as fast as she had entered.
“What is the matter with people tonight!” Cat exclaimed.
“Do you always bring out the best in people like this?”
Cat glanced up at his face and caught the minute hardening of his features as if some errant thought had angered him. “How is it you keep appearing to rescue me? Are you following me?” She stood her ground, her foot tapping restlessly.
“I believe it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Will I receive your thanks this time?” He had the audacity to grin at her, the rogue.
Cat squinted, not quite sure if she should trust him. After the last two male encounters, she wasn’t sure she could trust any man. Shaking her head, she backed away. Returning to the ballroom to find Ceely or one of her sisters, she instead found her third dance partner.
“You received my calling card, I presume? I am Albert Aldin, the Earl of Kingfisher.” He made a wide flourish with his arm and bowed, kissing the back of her hand. So far, so good. Well mannered is positive.
“Yes, thank…” she began.
He took his arm and urged her toward the stairs. “I find dancing intolerable. My private rooms are much preferable."
Cat’s jaw dropped. Had this dreadful man truly asked her to his room? Horrified, she fled across the room and was caught by her fourth caller, to whom her mother had already introduced her—the Baron of Swift. With a hand pressed against her rapidly beating heart, she retreated into the warm solarium, taking no heed of the many perfumed plants and trees filling the room. A hand grabbed hold of her arm, pulling her to a quick stop. Adrenalin took over and she fought back, kicking and hitting. Sensing his withdrawal, she gave him one last kick in the groin, which dropped him to the ground in a dead faint.
Thinking only of escape, she raced through the maze of fauna in her frantic bid for freedom. Somehow, she had once again found herself in a completely unacceptable situation.
“Cat! Slow down. You’ll hurt yourself.”
She glanced over her shoulder and stopped, staring in amazement at the cool demeanor of the man strolling toward her. Her handsome rescuer. She frowned at his smiling face. “What are you doing here? Again, I might add!”
He chuckled and her insides danced. “Again no thank you for rescuing you?” He raised his hand and moved a wayward strand of hair off her nose, tucking it behind one ear. “This is becoming quite a habit.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I can take care of myself, thank you.”
He quirked an eyebrow. She didn’t like the smirk slowly curling one side of his mouth. “Yes, I can see that, judging by Kingfisher’s moans. However, I think it would be much better, and definitely safer, if I took care of you. Unless you prefer your four calling birds?”
She stared at him as if he’d lost his mind. “Good heavens, no!” She tilted her head as if studying him. “Why?”
“Why would you want take care of me?”
He leaned closer, cupping her cheek with his hand. “Because I do, sweet Catherine.”
“But…” He covered her lips with his finger.
“I have been drawn to your side all evening and couldn’t figure out why. I came to this ball tonight at the request of my mother who couldn’t make the trip. I stayed for you. The moment I saw your well-placed kick I counted myself a lucky man as you were the one who kicked me at the Abbey.” He chuckled again. The slow, caressing motion of his thumb across her lips caused her tummy to tumble. “You need a strong man to keep you on the straight and narrow.”
Cat arched one brow. “I will never walk the straight and narrow.” Her breath whispered across his thumb.
He grinned wickedly, “I know.”
Please join us tomorrow for the next chapter of My True Love Gave to Me ~ Five Golden Rings.