Pheme’s Regret – Sue London

Miriam Spencer stirred a small lump of sugar into her tea. The teahouse was busy, which was why she had selected it. If there was one thing she learned over the years, it was the ease of hiding in plain sight. Most assumed that if you were visible then you clearly weren’t hiding anything. Those people made Miriam want to laugh. Everyone was hiding something. Some, such as Miriam herself, were simply better at it than others. A hush fell over the room. Not quite silence, as there was still murmuring and the soft clink of dishes and spoons. More a pregnant pause, as though everyone were suddenly holding their breath to see what would happen next. The hairs at the back of Miriam’s neck rose. She glanced to her left and saw Her Grace, Sabrina Telford, Duchess of Beloin standing at the door. The teahouse matron was bowing obeisance, undoubtedly wondering who she would uproot to give Her Grace the most prestigious spot in the room, but the matron was being ignored. Miriam was only mildly intrigued by this turn of events until the duchess made a beeline to Miriam herself! Setting her cup delicately in its saucer, she waited until the duchess arrived at her table before rising to curtsy. The toadying tea matron almost hopped about, wanting to please the young duchess.

As Her Grace was viewed as quite fashionable, Miriam understood the woman’s eagerness. “Your Grace,” Miriam said solemnly. It was best to be solemn with Quality until you knew what they wanted. The duchess pressed her gloves and pelisse on the tea matron, but addressed Miriam, “I hope you haven’t been waiting long, Lady Spencer.” “Not long at all,” Miriam said reflexively, her good manners saving her from looking completely flat footed. Her mind furiously churned. She was expecting to meet someone here, and although she hadn’t known their identity, she’d made a few assumptions. First, that it was a man, and second, even if something of a gentleman most assuredly not with a title. Now she had a duchess sliding into a seat at her table. Well.

Another thing that Miriam had learned was how to adapt quickly to her changing circumstances. “Your Grace,” Miriam said politely, as she slid into her own seat to play hostess, “is there a particular brew you favor?” “I’ll try yours,” the young duchess said, as though considering how wise a choice that might turn out to be. Turning to the matron who still hovered nearby, she said, “If we could have some cakes and biscuits, please?” Miriam kept a steady hand for pouring even though her mind worked at a furious pace. She had, of course, tried for years to divine who sat at the top of the information tree on which she suspected herself to be only a small, lonely branch. But it was impossible to think it was Sabrina Telford. The girl had only been, what, sixteen when Miriam had first been contacted. The idea of this tiny creature creating a network that relied on layers of double-blind contacts and passwords was ludicrous. At sixteen, Miriam herself had been foolish. So foolish that now, sixteen years later, she had decided to call in a favor to guarantee success in a wager she wasn’t willing to lose. Success in the form of whomever sat at the top of her information network backing her.

Perhaps it would be sadly fitting if that was, indeed, the young duchess. Miriam contemplated her knowledge of Sabrina Telford, neé Bittlesworth. Daughter of one of the most cunning and vicious men that Miriam had ever met, the Viscount Blaise Bittlesworth. Her mother was of minor Hungarian nobility and rarely out among the ton. Her brothers were both charming when they wanted to be. The eldest married a shipping magnate and was rarely in England anymore. The other married the daughter of a Cambridge scholar and bred horses. As for Sabrina herself, she had done quite well landing a young duke. Quincy Telford had been, of course, a prize on the marriage mart. That Miss Bittlesworth speared him after her unconventional tour of the Continent only increased the pique of the biddies and matrons.

Mamas didn’t like to think their daughters unworthy of a man’s notice, and that was precisely how the duke made them feel. As such, it was no surprise that many unflattering things had been murmured behind fans where Sabrina Telford was concerned. Only murmured, mind you, as it would be perfidy to cross the duke and duchess. Telford was known to be favored by the royal family, so regardless of how the duke’s attitude and decisions might annoy, there were few who would counter him openly. For their part, the ducal couple seemed completely unconcerned about what others thought. To have the duchess respond to her message would either be the very best or very worst possible outcome. *** Sabre tidied her skirt and then took a sip of tea, surreptitiously watching Lady Spencer under her lashes. When Bobbins brought her the note requesting this meeting she had been concerned. Of course, first she had to decode the note, then decode the information about the sender. Then she dug into Robert’s information, finding out the woman wasn’t quite the merry widow she made herself out to be.

Robert rated her as a highly reliable and productive source, but also very dangerous. Not in the physical sense. But Lady Spencer, it seemed, was also a dealer in secrets. The difference being that when she found particularly interesting ones she published them in a London gossip column. Robert undoubtedly considered that an anathema beyond thinking. Sabre, however, was intrigued. The tea house matron set a plate of sweets between them with a flourish before curtsying away from the table. Sabre took a moment to select a cake. “Try them,” she encouraged the widow. “You’ll only find better in the Earl of Harington’s house.

” “Thank you, your grace,” Lady Spencer replied tactfully, selecting a small cake of her own. The way the widow placed it so gingerly on her plate and then looked at it dubiously led Sabre to believe the cake would never be eaten. “May I inquire as to why we are meeting today?” Sabre asked. Lady Spencer looked around them as though gauging how close and attentive the other patrons might be. She leaned marginally closer. The pose of a friend sharing a confidence. “I need help with a delicate personal matter.” Sabre wondered which of the widow’s previous lovers was being inconvenient. There had been very little else from Robert’s files that would lead to such a request. “And you believe I can help you?” At that the widow sat back and sighed.

“I am only hoping you can.” “Why not go to one of your protectors?” Sabre inquired. She was truly curious. Having been given no strong reason for this meeting she had to conclude that Lady Spencer had been tasked with flushing out her contact. Robert never would have agreed to this meeting. At best he would have sent a trusted agent and had the entire meeting monitored. Lady Spencer had taken to staring at her cake. “As I’ve said, it is a delicate matter. One I would… prefer not be common knowledge. At least until it is resolved.

” “And you don’t trust the men with whom you’ve taken up?” She shrugged. “Some more than others. But this is very important to me.” Her tone hardened. “Nothing could be more important to me.” “And what are you hoping I can do?” At that she looked up, her expression flitting from concerned to hopeful to wary. “At a minimum I need recommended to me a solicitor in Paris who can be discreet.” “Aren’t all solicitors trained to be discreet?” The widow simply arched an eyebrow, and Sabre smiled back. “Just so,” the duchess said. “Is that all you require?” “I will also need,” the widow paused to clear her throat and take a sip of tea.

If Sabre wasn’t mistaken there was a sheen of incipient tears in the woman’s eyes. “I will need assistance smoothing my way back into Society when I return.” It was now Sabre’s turn to raise her brows. “You might understand that I require more information before granting such requests.” The widow took a shuddering breath. “I must apologize. I never speak of this and did not expect to be overcome.” She finally fixed her gaze with Sabre’s, looking more vulnerable and imploring than the duchess would ever expect of a woman with Lady Spencer’s reputation. “I want to bring my daughter home.” *** There.

She’d said it. Her most fervent wish, one she had buried deep in her heart for these sixteen years. It was difficult not to weep openly, just considering. The joy, the hope, the pain. She realized the duchess was staring at her, as though the announcement had frozen the girl on the spot, holding a butter knife barely aloft. It was actually quite comical. Miriam smothered a smile and said, “I’ve shocked you.” That finally set the girl into motion, resuming her somewhat blasé demeanor. “You surprised me.” “You understand why I need discretion and assistance.

” The duchess nodded thoughtfully. “The question is why you want it from me? You say you don’t trust your paramours, but you don’t even know me. How can you trust me?” At this Miriam leaned forward again, her voice low and intense. “I know the sort of information I pass along. I know what happens afterwards.” “Oh?” the duchess asked innocently. “What happens?” “Justice.” The duchess smiled at that. “Well, I suppose everyone deserves a little justice. Come to my townhouse tomorrow where we can discuss this without fear of other ears.

” *** After tea with Lady Spencer, Sabre went to Robert’s townhouse and demanded that Bobbins show her any records that Robert had squirreled away. The butler insisted he didn’t know of any, but Sabre was smart enough to know that Bobbins’ loyalty was still stubbornly affixed to her brother. She searched the premises herself, with Bobbins hovering like an anxious maid. But nothing she found pertained to Lady Spencer. Much less to some unknown child. Sabre knew from the previous records she’d read, however, that the widow had grown up in the north of France, moving to England at the age of seventeen. Had the child been born before that? Needing a solicitor in Paris certainly aligned with that supposition. However, it was just as likely that Lady Spencer would retreat to France, her homeland, to bear a secret child. The lady, most likely unintentionally, dangled before Sabre the one thing she could not resist. A mystery.

Now the duchess had a burning need to know about this child. She could barely wait for Lady Spencer to arrive the next day

.

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