The Marquess of Attingsborough’s carriage delivered Claudia and the girls directly to the door of Viscount Whitleaf’s mansion on Grosvenor Square in Mayfair late in the afternoon, and Susanna and Peter were in the open doorway smiling their welcome even before the coachman had let down the steps. It was a very splendid home indeed, but Claudia only half noticed in all the bustle and warmth of the greetings that awaited them all. Susanna hugged her, looking radiantly healthy for a woman who had given birth only one month previously. Then she hugged Edna, who squealed and giggled at seeing her old teacher again, and Flora, who squealed also and talked at double speed while Peter greeted Claudia with a warm smile and handshake and then welcomed the girls. The marquess did not stay but rode off on his hired horse after exchanging pleasantries with Susanna and Peter, bidding Claudia farewell, and wishing Flora and Edna well in their future employment. Claudia was not sorry to see him go. Flora and Edna were given rooms on the nursery floor, a fact that delighted both of them after they had seen the dark-haired little Harry and had been assured that they would have other chances to peep in on him before they left. They were to take their meals with the housekeeper, who was apparently anticipating their company with considerable pleasure. Claudia was simply to enjoy herself. “And that is an order,” Peter said, his eyes twinkling, after Susanna had told her so. “I have learned not to argue with my wife when she uses that tone of voice, Claudia. There are dangers in marrying a schoolteacher, as I have found to my cost.” “You look like a man who is hard done by,” Claudia said. He was another handsome, charming man with merry eyes that were more violet than blue. Susanna laughed. But she already had an array of activities lined up for her friend’s entertainment, and since there was a letter from Mr. Hatchard’s office awaiting Claudia conveying the unfortunate news that he had been called away from town for several days on business and would, with regret, be unable to see Miss Martin until after his return, she relaxed and allowed herself to be taken on visits to the shops and galleries and on walks in Hyde Park. Of course, the delay did mean that she might have stayed at school for another week, but she did not allow herself to fret over that unforeseeable circumstance. She knew Eleanor was delighted to be in charge for once. Eleanor Thompson had come to teaching late in life, but she had discovered in it the love of her life—her own assertion. They did not see Frances until the day of the concert. She and Lucius had gone to visit Frances’s elderly aunts in Gloucestershire before coming to London. But Claudia enjoined patience on herself. At least she was to be here for the entertainment, and then she would be together with two of her dearest friends again. If only Anne could be here too, her happiness would be complete, but Anne—the former Anne Jewell, another ex-teacher at the school—was in Wales with Mr. Butler and their two children. Claudia dressed early and with care on the appointed day, half excited at the prospect of seeing Frances again—she and Lucius were coming for dinner—and half alarmed at the realization that the concert was to be a much larger affair than she had expected. A large portion of the ton was to be in attendance, it seemed. It did not really help to tell herself that she despised grandeur and did not need to feel at all intimidated. The truth was that she was nervous. She had neither the wardrobe nor the conversation for such company. Besides, she would know no one except her very small group of four friends. She did think of creeping into the back of the room at the last minute to listen to Frances as Edna and Flora had been told they might do. But unfortunately she expressed the thought aloud, and Susanna had firmly forbidden it, while Peter had shaken his head. “It cannot be allowed, I am afraid, Claudia,” he had said. “If you try it, I shall be compelled to escort you in person to the front row.” Susanna’s personal maid had just finished styling Claudia’s hair—despite Claudia’s protest that she was quite capable of seeing to it herself—when Susanna herself arrived at her dressing room door. The maid opened it to admit her. “Are you ready, Claudia?” Susanna asked. “Oh, you are. And you do look smart.” “It is not Maria’s fault that I have no curls or ringlets,” Claudia was quick to assure Susanna as she got to her feet. “She coaxed and wheedled, but I absolutely refused to risk looking like mutton dressed as lamb.” Her hair consequently was dressed in its usual smooth style with a knot at the back of the neck. Except that it looked noticeably different from usual. It somehow looked shinier, thicker, more becoming. How the maid had accomplished the transformation Claudia did not know. Susanna laughed. “Maria would not have made you look any such thing,” she said. “She has impeccable good taste. But she has made your hair look extremely elegant. And I do like your gown.” It was a plain dark green dress of fine muslin with a high waistline, a modest neckline, and short sleeves, and Claudia had liked it the moment she set eyes on it in a dressmaker’s shop on Milsom Street in Bath. She had bought three new dresses to come to London, a major extravagance but one she had deemed necessary for the occasion. “And you, of course,” Claudia said, “are looking as beautiful as ever, Susanna.” Her friend was dressed in pale blue, a lovely color with her vibrant auburn curls. She was also as slender as a girl with no visible sign at all of her recent confinement except perhaps an extra glow in her cheeks. “We had better go downstairs,” Susanna said. “Come and see the ballroom before Frances and Lucius arrive.” Claudia draped her paisley shawl about her shoulders and Susanna linked an arm through hers and drew her out of the room in the direction of the staircase. “Poor Frances!” Susanna said. “Do you suppose she is horribly nervous?” “I daresay she is,” Claudia said. “I suppose she always is before a performance. I can remember her telling the girls in her choirs when she taught at the school that if they were not nervous before a performance they were sure to sing poorly.” The ballroom was a magnificently proportioned room, with a high, gilded ceiling and a hanging chandelier fitted with dozens of candles. One wall was mirrored, giving the illusion of an even greater size and of a twin chandelier and twice the number of flowers, which were displayed everywhere in large urns. The wooden floor gleamed beneath the rows of red-cushioned chairs that had been set up for the evening. It was a daunting sight. But then, Claudia thought, she had never bowed to nervousness. And why should she now? She despised the ton, did she not? The portion of it that she did not know personally, anyway. She squared her shoulders. And then Peter appeared in the doorway, looking all handsome elegance in his dark evening clothes, and behind him came Frances and Lucius. Susanna hurried toward them, Claudia close behind her. “Susanna!” Frances exclaimed, catching her up in a hug. “You are as pretty as ever. And Claudia! Oh, how very dear and how very fine you look.” “And you,” Claudia said, “look more distinguished than ever and…beautiful.” And glowing, she thought, with her vivid dark coloring and fine-boned, narrow face. Success certainly agreed with her friend. “Claudia,” Lucius said, bowing to her after the first rush of greetings had been spoken, “we were both delighted when we heard that you were to be here this evening, especially as this will be Frances’s last concert for a while.” “Your last, Frances?” Susanna cried. “And very wise too. You have had a busy time of it,” Claudia said, squeezing Frances’s hands. “Paris, Vienna, Rome, Berlin, Brussels…and the list goes on. I hope you will take a good long break this time.” “Good and long,” Frances agreed, looking from Claudia to Susanna with that new glow in her eyes. “Perhaps forever. Sometimes there are better things to do in life than singing.” “Frances?” Susanna clasped her hands to her bosom, her eyes widening. But Frances held up a staying hand. “No more for now,” she said, “or we will have Lucius blushing.” She did not need to say any more, of course. At last, after several years of marriage, Frances was going to be a mother. Susanna set her clasped hands to her smiling lips while Claudia squeezed Frances’s hands more tightly before releasing them. “Come to the drawing room for a drink before dinner,” Peter said, offering his right arm to Frances and his left to Claudia. Susanna took Lucius’s arm and followed along behind them. Claudia was suddenly very glad to be where she was—even if there was something of an ordeal to be faced this evening. She felt a welling of happiness for the way life had dealt with her friends over the past few years. She shrugged off a feeling of slight envy and loneliness. She wondered fleetingly if the Marquess of Attingsborough would be in attendance this evening. She had not seen him since her arrival in town and consequently she had been her usual placid, nearly contented self again.

  When Joseph wandered into White’s Club the morning after his return from Bath, he found Neville, Earl of Kilbourne, already there, reading one of the morning papers. He set it aside as Joseph took a chair close to his. “You are back, Joe?” he asked rhetorically. “How did you find Uncle Webster?” “Thriving and irritated by the insipidity of Bath society,” Joseph said. “And imagining that his heart has been weakened by his illness.” “And has it?” Neville asked. Joseph shrugged. “All he would say was that the physician he consulted there did not deny it. He would not let me talk to the man myself. How is Lily?” “Very well,” Neville said. “And the children?” “Busy as ever.” Neville grinned and then sobered again. “And so your father believed that his health was deteriorating and summoned you to Bath. It sounds ominous. Am I guessing his reason correctly?” “Probably,” Joseph said. “It would not take a genius, would it? I am thirty-five years old, after all, and heir to a dukedom. Sometimes I wish I had been born a peasant.” “No, you don’t, Joe,” Neville said, grinning again. “And I suppose even peasants desire descendants. So it is to be parson’s mousetrap for you, is it? Does Uncle Webster have any particular bride in mind?” “Miss Hunt,” Joseph said, raising a hand in greeting to a couple of acquaintances who had entered the reading room together and were about to join another group. “Her father and mine have already agreed in principle on a match—Balderston was called to Bath before I was.” “Portia Hunt.” Neville whistled but made no other comment. He merely looked at his cousin with deep sympathy. “You disapprove?” But Neville threw up his hands in a defensive gesture. “Not my business,” he said. “She is dashed lovely—even a happily married man cannot fail to notice that. And she never puts a foot wrong, does she?” But Nev did not like her. Joseph frowned. “And so you have been sent back to make your offer, have you?” Neville asked. “I have,” Joseph said. “I don’t dislike her, you know. And I have to marry someone. I have been more and more aware lately that I cannot delay much longer. It might as well be Miss Hunt.” “Not a very ringing endorsement, Joe,” Neville said. “We cannot all be as fortunate as you,” Joseph told him. “Why not?” Neville raised his eyebrows. “And what will happen with Lizzie when you marry?” “Nothing will change,” Joseph said firmly. “I spent last evening with her and stayed the night, and I have promised to go back this afternoon before going to the theater this evening with Brody’s party. I’ll be escorting Miss Hunt there—the campaign begins without delay. But I am not going to neglect Lizzie, Nev. Not if I marry and have a dozen children.” “No,” Neville said, “I cannot imagine you will. But I do wonder if Miss Hunt will object to spending most of her life in London while Willowgreen sits empty for much of the year.” “I may make other plans,” Joseph said. But before he could elaborate on them, they were interrupted by the approach of Ralph Milne, Viscount Sterne, another cousin, who was eager to talk about a pair of matched bays that were going up for auction at Tattersall’s. Joseph had accepted his invitation to attend the concert on Grosvenor Square by the time he escorted Miss Hunt to the theater that evening. He was related to neither Whitleaf nor his wife, but he had long ago accepted them as cousins of a family that embraced more members than just his blood relatives. Certainly he felt that he ought to attend any entertainment to which they had been obliging enough to invite him. He wanted to attend also because he had heard good things about the singing voice of the Countess of Edgecombe and welcomed the opportunity to hear it for himself. He wanted to attend because Lauren—Viscountess Ravensberg, his cousin of sorts—upon whom he had called after leaving White’s, had told him that she and Kit would be there as well as the Duke and Duchess of Portfrey. Elizabeth, the duchess, was another almost-relative of his. He had always thought of her as an aunt though she was in fact the sister of his uncle by marriage. He wanted to attend because Neville’s wife, Lily, who had also been visiting Lauren, had invited him to dinner before the concert. And he was to attend, he discovered during the course of the evening, despite the fact that Portia Hunt was not. It was regrettable, he supposed, but unavoidable under the circumstances. During one of the intervals between acts of the play, Miss Hunt asked him if he was going to Lady Fleming’s soiree a few evenings hence. There was something quite new in her manner toward him, he had realized all evening—something rather proprietary. Clearly her father had spoken with her. He was about to reply in the affirmative when Laurence Brody interjected with a question of his own. “You are not going to the Whitleaf concert on that evening, then, Miss Hunt?” he asked. “I have heard that everyone is going there. Lady Edgecombe is to sing and the whole world is eager to hear her.” “Not the whole world, Mr. Brody,” Portia said with controlled dignity. “I am not eager to go, and neither is my mother or any number of other people of good taste whom I could name. We have already accepted Lady Fleming’s invitation. I expect to find superior company and conversation at her soiree.” She smiled at Joseph. He could have kicked himself then. Of course she would not be going to the concert. The Countess of Edgecombe was married to the man Portia had firmly believed for most of her life she was going to marry. It was during the days and weeks following the ending of that relationship that he, Joseph, had first befriended her. “I regret that I must miss the soiree, Miss Hunt,” he said. “I have already accepted my invitation to Lady Whitleaf’s concert.” He would have refused his invitation if he had remembered—as he ought to have done—that connection between the Edgecombes and Miss Hunt. And she was clearly not pleased with him. She was very quiet for the rest of the evening, and when she did speak, it was almost exclusively to other members of the party. He arrived on the appointed evening with Lily and Neville and paid his respects to Whitleaf and Susanna. The ballroom, he could see, was already filling nicely. The first person he saw when they stepped inside was Lauren, who had a smile on her face and an arm raised to attract their attention from the other side of the room. Kit was with her as were Elizabeth and Portfrey. And Miss Martin. He had thought of the schoolteacher a number of times since his return to town. He had liked her more than he had expected to during the journey to London. She was prim and straightlaced and severe, it was true, and independent to a fault. But she was also intelligent and capable of dry humor. But he had thought of her mainly for other reasons. He intended to have another talk with her before she returned to Bath, though tonight was probably not the right time for that. She was smartly dressed in green muslin, he noticed. Her hair was styled a little more becomingly than it had been at the school or on the journey to London. Even so, anyone looking at her this evening could surely not mistake her for anything other than what she was—a schoolteacher. It was something to do with the discipline of her posture, the sternness of her expression, the total absence of frills or curls or jewels about her person. As he approached with Lily and Neville, she turned to see them come. “Lily, Neville, Joseph,” Lauren said as they joined the group, and there followed a flurry of greetings and handshakes and kisses on the cheek. “Have you met Miss Martin? These are the Countess of Kilbourne, Miss Martin, and my cousins, the Marquess of Attingsborough and the earl.” “Miss Martin?” Neville smiled and bowed. “I am delighted to meet you, Miss Martin,” Lily said with her customary warm smile as Miss Martin inclined her head and bade them all a good evening. “We have already met,” Joseph said, extending a hand for hers and remembering that the last time he did so he had committed the faux pas of kissing it. “I had the pleasure of escorting Miss Martin up from Bath a week ago.” “But yes, of course,” Lauren said. “I have not set eyes on you since then, Joseph,” Elizabeth said. “How is your father?” “Considerably better, thank you,” he said, “though he chooses to believe otherwise. He is certainly fit enough to grumble about everyone and everything. My mother, meanwhile, appears to be enjoying Bath society.” “I am delighted to hear it,” Elizabeth said. “I know she was disappointed not to be coming up to town this year.” “Miss Martin,” Portfrey said, “both the Countess of Edgecombe and Lady Whitleaf were once teachers at your school, I understand?” “They were,” she said. “I still mourn their loss. However, I am exceedingly proud of my present staff of teachers.” “Christine tells us,” Kit said, speaking of the Duchess of Bewcastle, “that Miss Thompson is very happy there.” “I believe she is,” Miss Martin told him. “She was clearly born to teach. My girls love her and learn from her and obey her without question.” “I am fascinated by the idea of a girls’ school,” Lily said. “I must talk with you about it sometime, Miss Martin. I have a hundred questions to ask.” “All of which must wait, my love,” Neville said. “I believe the concert is about to begin.” “We should take our seats, then,” Elizabeth said. “Would you care to sit beside me, Miss Martin?” Joseph asked. But she was looking suddenly prim and severe again, he could see. “Thank you,” she said, “but there is something I must go and attend to.” He took a seat beside Lauren and prepared to be entertained. The Countess of Edgecombe was not the only performer, he had learned, though she was certainly the main attraction. He was about to make some remark to Lauren when he became aware that Miss Martin had taken only a few steps away into the center aisle and was now standing rooted to the spot, looking as if she might have seen a ghost. He got hastily to his feet again. “Miss Martin?” he said. “Do you feel unwell? May I—” “No,” she said. “Thank you. I will sit beside you after all, though, if I may. Thank you.” And she sat hastily on the empty chair beside his and bowed her head. She clasped her hands in her lap, and he noticed that they were shaking slightly. Now this was strange, he thought, coming from a woman who did not seem to be the vaporish sort. But it was impossible to know what had happened to discompose her, and she offered no explanation. “Have Miss Wood and Miss Bains been safely delivered to their new employers?” he asked her, hoping to distract her mi nd from whatever it was that had upset her. She looked blankly at him for a moment. “Oh. No,” she said. “Not yet. Mr. Hatchard, my man of business, has been out of town. He returned today, though, and sent word to inform me that I may call upon him tomorrow.” Some color was returning to her cheeks. She straightened her shoulders. “And have you been well entertained in the meantime?” he asked. “Oh, yes, indeed,” she said without elaborating. But the concert was about to begin. Whitleaf had moved to the front of the room and was standing on the low dais that had been set up for the performers so that they would be visible to everyone in the ballroom. There were some shushing sounds from the audience and then silence. The concert began. Joseph was impressed by the high caliber of the performances. There was a recital by a string quartet, a series of offerings by a young baritone who was engaged to sing in the opera house in Vienna during the autumn, and a pianoforte recital by the lame, dark-haired Countess of Raymore, who was a celebrity in her own right and whom Joseph had heard with enjoyment on other occasions. She also sang a melancholy folk song to her own accompaniment in her lovely contralto voice. And then, of course, there was the Countess of Edgecombe, whose soprano voice was rich and full, though she soon proved that she could hit some incredibly high notes. He could easily understand what all the fuss was about. Getting to his feet with the rest of the audience to coax an encore out of her with the volume of their applause after she had finished, Joseph realized that he would have been deprived of one of life’s great aesthetic experiences if he had gone to the soiree instead of coming here. Also, of course, he was interested to see in action the woman who had supplanted Portia Hunt in Edgecombe’s affections. He had set eyes on her before, it was true, but he had not appreciated her exquisite beauty until tonight, when her narrow, expressive face was lit from within and her very dark hair gleamed in the candlelight. By the time the countess had finished her encore, Miss Martin had her hands clasped very tightly together and was holding them beneath her chin. Her eyes glowed with pride and affection. The teachers at her school really had done rather well for themselves in the matrimonial market, he thought. It must be a very good school indeed to attract such charm and talent onto its staff. Miss Martin’s eyes were brimming with unshed tears when she turned to look behind her, perhaps to share her joy with Susanna. Joseph turned toward her, intending to invite her to join his family group for the refreshments that were to be served in the supper room. But she grasped his arm suddenly before he could make the offer and spoke urgently to him. “There is someone coming this way with whom I do not wish to speak,” she said. He raised his eyebrows. Most of the audience was dispersing in the direction of the supper room. But there was indeed one man making his way against the flow, obviously heading in their direction. Joseph knew him vaguely. He had met him at White’s. The man had arrived recently from Scotland. McLeith—that was the name. He held a Scottish dukedom. And Miss Martin knew him—but did not wish to speak with him? This was interesting. Did this have anything to do with her earlier perturbation? he wondered. He set a hand reassuringly over hers on his arm. It was too late to whisk her out of the man’s way.