Nothing was more unpleasant than a long coach ride, unless it was in the midst of winter. Fortunately, Meg was in the dowager’s coach and there was a brazier by her feet. She pulled her cloak closer and closed her eyes, trying to sleep. Or, if truth be told, trying not to be flustered. There was no need to be flustered. In point of fact, it was the height of foolishness to even imagine there was anything to be flustered about. She was going to see Jonathan again. That was all. They were friends. They’d grown up together in the wilds of Devon. They’d known each other their whole lives, though she’d only seen him in bits and spots since he married Tessa. Not that she’d been avoiding him. Once he married her best friend and all. It wasn’t that Meg had been jealous that Tessa had landed the son of a duke. She’d been happy for them.
After all, she loved them both. She’d just loved one of them more than she should have. When Tessa had died giving birth to their third child—who also passed—Meg had been brokenhearted. Everyone had been. Jonathan had taken it hard, blaming himself for some godforsaken reason. He’d sent his daughters to live with his mother in Devon and sequestered himself in his London house, making only intermittent visits home. This was the first time Meg would see him in two years. Of course, her life had changed immeasurably since Tessa’s death as well. And not in a good way. “Are you listening to me?” the dowager’s sharp tone captured Meg’s attention.
Anne Pembroke, the Dowager Duchess of Devon, was rarely sharp. Fortunately, her question was not directed at Meg, but at Mawbry, Her Grace’s long-suffering secretary, who sat at Meg’s side. “Yes, Your Grace. Of course, Your Grace,” he sputtered. He hadn’t been listening—clearly he’d been snoozing—but he made a good show of attentiveness. “I said, take out your pen and inkpot. We need to make plans.” “Plans, Your Grace?” Mawbry had the unfortunate habit of repeating everything the dowager said, which was annoying, even to Meg. No wonder Anne was snippy on occasion. “Yes,” she said.
“We are going to throw a house party.” “A house party?” Meg had heard Mawbry screech before, but not in this particular timbre. Anne glared him down and nodded. “Of course. It’s the perfect time for it, what with the holiday and all.” “But mum…” His eyes bulged in that way they had, making him resemble a bulldog. The muttonchops didn’t help. “No one will come to Sutton in the dead of winter.” Regal nostrils flared. Eyebrows arched.
A snort rounded the cab of the coach. Indeed, how dare he contradict Her Grace? He should know better by know. She was far too stubborn once she made up her mind. “Nonsense,” she clipped. “Sutton is only a few miles from London. And everyone is in London. Now take out your pen.” As Mawbry complied, with a resigned sigh, Anne turned to Meg. “What do you think? A Christmas theme?” “I think that would be lovely.” “Yes.
Of course it will be.” Meg cleared her throat and attempted a blasé tone. “Do you think the duke will come?” Anne’s brow wrinkled, as though she might have suffered the same worry. “Probably not. If we were having the party in Devon. But we’re not.” She winked. “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammed, and all that.” Jonathan was a large man, but far from a mountain. The dowager frowned and shook her head.
“Of course he will come,” she said, to herself, perhaps. “His entire family will be there. He cannot deny his girls a Christmas with their father.” That, of course, was true. If there was one soft spot in the Duke of Pembroke’s heart, it was his fiveyear-old twin daughters, whom he adored. Of course, he hadn’t seen them lately… “We must invite all the best families,” Anne said, waving her hand in the general direction of Mawbry’s poised pen. “Particularly the most eligible debutantes.” For some reason, Meg’s heart lurched at that. Which was ridiculous. Of course Jonathan needed to marry again.
He had not yet produced the all-important male heir. And of course, he would choose a young girl. It was what men did. “The Pickerings, Mountbattens, and Pecks for certain.” Anne tapped her lip. “Perhaps the Evertons?” She rattled off a plethora of other names, all the best families with the best breeding, all of whom Meg knew, if vaguely, from her own season. With each name, her mood darkened, though it had no cause to. She knew what Jonathan thought of her. He respected her, certainly, and remembered her fondly as the barefoot shadow who had wanted to be a boy and who had followed Jonathan, his friend Arthur, and her brother George on countless romps. In retrospect, the boys had been rather decent, making her feel a part of the crowd at every turn when she had been, she imagined, a monumental annoyance.
The coach lurched and Meg realized the dowager had moved on from the guest list and was discussing decorations. “We need greens throughout the house,” she told Mawbry. “Oh. And I want mistletoe. Everywhere.” “Mistletoe, mum?” “Yes, Mawbry. Everywhere. He cannot know if they are compatible without a kiss, now can he?” Mawbry’s face puckered even more, but he scratched that onto the list. “Oh, and a tree.” The secretary blinked.
“A…tree, mum?” “Queen Charlotte has them. And so shall we.” “But that is a German tradition,” Mawbry said with a quiver at the end of his pointy nose. “And now it’s a Royal tradition.” Mawbry glanced at Meg, then cleared his throat. “What does one do with a tree?” The dowager pinned him with a sharp glare. “One decorates it, I presume. A tree in the ballroom would be rather absurd otherwise. Wouldn’t it?” Meg felt the need to step in before this became an altercation. Altercations with the dowager were unpleasant enough when one wasn’t crammed in a coach.
“I believe the Germans decorate them with dolls and ribbons. And candles, of course.” “We must have the largest tree in Sutton, Mawbry. Make no mistake.” “Yes, mum. Anything else?” The dowager was precluded from answering when the coach made a sudden stop. She lifted the curtain and peered out the window. Meg peeped over her shoulder to see a smallish inn bathed in moonlight. “Whatever are we doing here?” Anne asked in a stentorian tone. In response, the coach door flew open, revealing the governess, Miss Friss, who had been riding in the lead coach with the girls.
Her hair was askew, her face a’flush and her eyes wild. “They are monsters,” she hissed. “Monsters, I tell you.” Anne reared back. “I beg your pardon?” “Those girls are monsters. I refuse to continue this journey with them.” “I say.” The dowager affected her most formidable expression. “They are children.” Miss Friss attempted to say a word or two, which came out as gibberish.
Then she cleared her throat, threw back her shoulders, and said, in no uncertain terms, “I quit.” “You cannot quit,” Anne sputtered, for the first time allowing her consternation to show. “We are in the middle of nowhere.” “I don’t care,” snapped the redoubtable Miss Friss, who had come with all the best references. “I will not be subjected to such…horrors.” And then, without another word, she turned tail, and stormed toward the inn. Anne glanced at Meg. “Well, I say.” “Indeed,” Mawbry added. The dowager huffed a frosty breath.
“I hope she knows she’s not getting a good reference from me.” “Of course not.” Meg patted her hand. “Shall I go talk to her?” “Oh, bollocks,” she snorted. “Let her be. Mawbry. You go ride with the girls to Sutton.” It was clear from the way his eyes bulged, the way his wormy lips worked, that he was mortified at the proposition, which Meg found irritating. Vicca and Lizzie were somewhat unruly, but they were not beasts from the bowels of hell. Most days.
“I’ll ride with them, dear,” she said patting Anne’s hand again. “The two of you have a party to plan and no time to spare.” Mawbry nearly collapsed with relief. “Are you sure, darling?” Anne asked. “Of course.” Meg gathered her coat and book and eased out of the coach. Though the sharp wind cut through her immediately, she turned back and shot the dowager a broad smile. “I’ll see you in Sutton.” “Bless you, dear,” Anne said. Mawbry nodded effusively.
“Bless you.” Meg had to smile as she made her way to the Coach from Hell waiting patiently just ahead. Poor Mawbry had had quite a scare. She came alongside the window and saw two adorable, perfectly identical faces peering out and she arranged her features into a glower so they would know she was cross. The faces disappeared. “We didn’t do it,” the two chorused as she opened the door and stepped inside. Meg surveyed them dourly. “Miss Friss was the best governess in the country, you know.” “Miss Priss, you mean,” one of them said. Meg suspected it was Lizzie, but in the shadows of the cab, it was hard to tell.
“And you’ve run her off.” The coach lurched into motion, barely covering their hurrahs. She tugged on her gloves and gave each of them a sharp glance. “Whatever will your papa say?” That sobered them. Their eyes widened and they shared a speaking glance, the type that twins often had. “You’re not going to tell him, are you?” “How do you propose I avoid telling him? When the first thing he will have to do when he arrives in Sutton is hire a new governess?” “Why can’t you be our governess?” Vicca asked, crawling into Meg’s lap. She knew it was Vicca; Vicca was the one who got her way by being charming. So like her father. “Because I am your grandmother’s companion.” That was a job in itself.
Meg didn’t mind, though. She was grateful to Anne for taking her in when George died and Cyril inherited the title… and everything. God alone knew where she would have ended up otherwise. “But we like you,” Vicca murmured. “Is it not possible to find a governess you do like?” And one who could manage their high spirits? Lizzie put out a lip. “We like you.” “And I like you.” Untrue. She loved them. They were a charming mix of Tessa and Jonathan.
There was no way she could not love them. “But you have to understand, proper young ladies do not terrorize their governesses.” “We didn’t terrorize her,” Vicca said. Lizzie nodded. “Not really.” But then, they both grinned, and they were alarming grins indeed. Meg blew out a breath. “What did you do?” “Nothing.” “Bollocks.” They both loved that she cursed, and laughed.
“All right,” Lizzie said. “We might have waited until she was asleep…” “And?” Vicca smiled up at her. Her little face was so sweet. It was almost unthinkable that she might say, “And then we set her shoe on fire.” Meg gaped. “You what?” Lizzie crossed her arms and huffed. “It was only a little fire.” “A tiny little coal.” Vicca held her fingers up, showing the smallest space. “You cannot set your governess on fire! Honestly.
What are we going to do with you two?” “It wasn’t our fault,” Vicca said. “She smelled funny.” “We didn’t like the way she smelled.” “It wasn’t our fault.” They stared at her then, two identical, beautiful, familiar faces, wide-eyed and innocent. She wasn’t taken in for a moment. “Lie down, both of you, and try to sleep. We’ll be in Sutton in a few hours and I don’t want any trouble.” They both did as she bade them and repentantly so, but she felt the need to say, in her sternest tone, “And do not set me on fire.” To which they giggled.
* * * Jonathan Pembroke arrived at the Sutton house long after dark. To his relief, the house was quiet. Given the letter from his mother, and its companion from Mawbry, he’d been expecting something akin to a circus. Sanders took his coat and pointed him toward the parlor when he asked after his mother’s whereabouts. Indeed, he found her there, snoozing by the fire with a glass of ratafia in her hand. He removed it and set it on the table, which woke her. “Mother.” He kissed her papery cheek. “Darling. You came.
” He huffed as he sat in the chair beside her. “Did you imagine I wouldn’t? Once I got your note?” “I wasn’t sure.” She took a sip of her drink to hide her smile. Of course she knew he would come. If only to divine what she was up to. “What’s this I hear about a house party?” His mother shrugged. She had that expression on her face, the one that made little hairs prickle on his nape. “Mother?” “Why not have a party? This is the season, after all.” “Yes. It is the season.
In London.” She waved her hand. “Sutton is practically London.” “Not hardly.” It was practically the back of beyond. Ten miles away. “No one will come to a party in Sutton during the season.” “Of course they will, with a duke inviting them.” “No one has house parties in winter.” “Exactly.
It’s a brilliant idea. People will be clamoring to attend. Besides, clearly, you are not adept at meeting people on your own.” “People?” He frowned at her. “I meet lots of people.” “In gaming hells? What kind of quality people are those?” Ah… “Dukes and earls, mostly.” Her face scrunched up. “You know what I mean.” “Do I?” He inspected his fingernails. Indeed, he knew where this was going.
It always went there. With her. “The last thing I want, after a brutal session in Parliament, is a hunting party.” “I have no idea what you mean.” “Mother, you are so transparent. You’re having a party to trot out all the young fillies for my delectation. Their mamas must be slathering.” “Honestly, Jonathan.” She sighed. “You are so full of yourself.
” He blinked. “Whatever makes you think the party’s for you?” “I’m the duke?” “Precisely. Dukes can find their own mates.” She gave him a quick up and down. “When they are so inclined.” “So who is this party for?” “Whom.” “Whom.” Honestly, she was so irritating at times. “Meg Chalmers, of course.”