Dear Aunt Katie,
I am tired of being a wallflower. Tell me what I must do to be the belle of the ball, I beg you. I am almost twenty and three, and invisible to every man except the ineligible ones.
Wilting and Wanting in Mayfair
Assuming you have already inspected your chin for unsightly long hairs, my advice to you is simple, yet it requires courage: imitate the enthusiasm and geniality you see in those you admire until it comes naturally. Confidence is attractive.
Lovers. They were everywhere, and they were deuced annoying. Philip Cavendish also hated the new coal-powered heating system nearly as much; it carried a variety of lascivious sounds through the vents and delivered them all too clearly to his burning ears. He should be content here as a visitor among every living relative he cared for. It was better than being alone on holidays. Still he wanted to pull his hair out.
Rhythmic breathy sighs floated from the vent in the ceiling, followed by a treble voice lamenting, “Oh, Wil! Yes!” and a decadent, long, “Mmm.” Dear Judas, was that the fourth time since midnight? Philip rolled his eyes, uncomfortable with the thought that his uncle Wilhelm Montegue, Lord Devon, was apparently quite the lover extraordinaire. It was nearly as bad as hearing his sister Elyse and her husband when he passed their door on his way to his second floor corner room.
Philip had wanted Lady Devon once upon a time when she was still Miss Duncombe, but she had regarded him like a stray puppy. Her hero was always Wilhelm, even when she feigned being aloof of them both. Small wonder Wil had already sired four children on his pristine goddess of a wife, and it seemed he was busy practicing for his fifth.
At least Aunt Louisa and her kindly middle-aged husband staying in the room below went quiet before midnight. Even the old men here fared better than Philip. He was well aware of his ignominy.
Worst of all was that infernal vent on the south wall of his sitting room. Philip couldn’t fathom why noise traveled from the opposite corner suite on the north end of the wing. The occupants of the north suite were still on round one, and it was well past two in the morning.
Alysia Tilmore’s silky alto voice in sensual murmurs… killing him. Only a year and a half ago she had seriously considered being Alysia Cavendish. If only he’d had more time, Philip was certain she would have accepted. He would have made her very happy. Alas she became Lady Preston, and his prize for winning second place in her affections? Standing witness at her wedding.
A long series of moans made him wince. He tried to suffocate himself with a pillow. All right— Philip conceded, scoffing aloud as she gasped through her “little death,” So I doubt I could have made her that happy… He tried not to imagine what on earth Preston was doing to her, since he was laughing.
Philip burst from the mattress in a flurry of twisted sheets and flying pillows. He clenched his teeth as a strangled growl escaped his throat. An experimental tug on his hair, and the dull stabs of pain marginally muted the sounds drifting from the vents.
Had everyone eaten ambrosia for supper? Or was it that rosy, sentimental feeling in the air that came with holidays? Philip wrenched the damp nightshirt over his head, rending the shoulder seams with his irate movements. The crisp air biting his sweat-slicked chest worked wonders for cooling his overheated skin, but only twelve fingers of cognac would do the same for his brain.
He knew it was no less than twelve, because that was how many it had taken the last time he drank himself stupid. It had only addled his wits, not dulled the sharp edges of his memories.
And then he’d been unfit to care for Jacob, who at age three, recognized when his papa was sloshed and delirious. The injured look in Jacob’s wide steel-gray eyes, deeply set under a strong brow like his own, had struck the fear of hellfire into him. Too much like looking in the mirror and remembering the child who memorized which bottles turned papa into the angry man who swung his fists. Alcohol only gave the illusion of escape; Philip vowed never again to be such a coward.
“I am a mess.” It was a confession he would have made in the dark to Olivia. She would have scolded him for pouting, then made him forget all about it. “Ah, Olivia,” Philip lamented to the ceiling, speaking past the plaster and lumber to the great expanse beyond. “I miss you, darling.”
If he concentrated, he could recall the feel of her slender fingers tousling the hair on the back of his neck. Her girlish sleepy voice, muffled when she burrowed her face in the slope between his shoulder and chest. Her swollen belly warm against his side and the periodic bumps and swirls that meant his child was almost ready to come.
That was his last good memory with her.
Sleepy chortling from the north suite yanked his attention back from the ether — the enchanting, disgustingly happy Alysia again. Philip paced circles around the bedchamber, tripping over strewn pillows and cursing under his breath.
When a man fell in love and married, he didn’t expect to turn around and find himself alone with no end in sight. Philip thrust the heels of his palms against his eyes to hold back the tingling burn. He’d sworn off tears long ago.
Perhaps he should lay claim to the first agreeable London debutante; he couldn’t say how much longer his honor would hold out. The next time a lonely widow or rosy-cheeked barmaid threw him a coy smile, he just might follow her upstairs. And then he would feel hollow and no less alone.
A muffled giggle from Alysia sent him over the edge. Philip growled back at the offending sound and snatched the nearest pillow. He marched through his apartments, throwing back doors, his bare feet slapping on cold marble tile until he looked down over the small bed in the nursery where his son slept. Jacob’s left thumb rested on his parted lips, his round shoulders rising and falling in the rapid rhythm of a child’s breathing. The sight of Jacob, a miniature copy of himself, grounded Philip and cleared his mind. No clandestine noises here. Just the gentle rasp of little snoring and the hesitant creak of rafters in the attic room.
None of the compact-sized beds here would accommodate his bulky frame, so Philip stretched out on the floor. He tucked the pillow under his head and tried to distribute his weight evenly over the thin support of the rug. He was growing too old for this; his twenty-something self had been a rangy soldier, but his thirty-year-old self would wake to a fierce backache.
Good. Perhaps it would wake him before he frightened the nursemaid in the morning. She might not appreciate finding a mostly naked man in the nursery, but Philip had stormed out of his rooms wearing only his drawers, and damned if he was going back there tonight.
He concentrated on the fairy tale murals painted high on the slanted walls, cast in grayscale by the silver moonlight. When the village church lower in the valley chimed thrice, he was nearly reasonable again, and blessedly, tired. With a cleared head he admitted that even the incomparable Alysia, when he had crushed her lush body against him and kissed her senseless, did little more than arouse his body. Philip knew what love felt like, and he did not love her — saints knew he had tried. For his own sake, and for Jacob’s. His boy needed a mother.
The thought of throwing himself at the mercy of the eager mamas of the ton made his gut ache with ulcers he didn’t even have yet. Those matrimony-obsessed meat market purveyors would do everything short of inspecting his teeth and slapping his flanks before introducing him to their nervous doe-eyed daughters. But how else was he to find a wife?
The bell tower chimed the quarter hour. Philip tucked an arm behind his head, closed his eyes, and conjured the sensation of rocking in a hammock, the humid brine on the breeze, and the lilted creaking of his ship, HMS Gladiator. Star charts and maps, currents and gales, rigging and sails, and the chorus of jolly, tired men relaying orders from the quarter deck to stern: a simpler existence. One he never failed at. He drifted to sleep, the lingering effects of frustration mixed with longing.
I want to go home.
He wasn’t sure where home was.
The day got off to a poor start; Philip did worse than frighten nursemaid in the morning. His tossing and turning in the night had worked himself half under Jacob’s bed with his lower half sticking out, sprawled on the floor. A demonic shriek woke him with a start, and he shot up, only to brain himself on the iron slats under the mattress. He growled and shouted a curse, which only made the wailing female crescendo into shrill screams fit to wake the dead. Of course it summoned half of the forty-member staff, and every father and mother whose children slept in the nursery dashed to the rescue.
By the time Phillip extracted himself from beneath the tiny toddler-bed-death-trap, he had quite an audience. With his drawers hanging loosely about his hips, his family and sundry observed him mostly naked and at more than half-mast with a morning erection he could not help. He snatched a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around his waist while Wilhelm shouted at the nursemaid to recover herself. Jacob’s bed was empty, and the obnoxious light through the attic windows meant Philip had slept far past dawn. His son had probably sneaked out of bed early and found his aunts, as he often did.
Everyone finally calmed, but the damage had been done. Wilhelm barked orders, dispersing the excitable female servants. The ladies in the family left blushing, and Lord Preston remained, wearing a gamely smirk next to Wil’s silent look of sympathy. Both angered Philip, and he stormed past them before either could utter a word. He was burning a short fuse and went straightway to douse it.
It was a long walk through the great house from the nursery in the attic to the ground floor rear entrance, but his centurion-like demeanor sent the staff scurrying away and left any lingering family members staring in astonishment. Only his valet dared protest, bidding Philip to be sensible and retreat to his apartments for a shave and bath. Philip marched past him without a word, still clutching the sloppily-wrapped blanket.
He stomped barefooted across the courtyard and past the garden, glad for the shocking cold of the dew-soaked grass. The bank of the pond finally welcomed him, and he marched through a screen of waist-high willows as his toes sank into spongy moss. He dropped the blanket, waded into the murky water then dove headlong into the pond. Below the current he let a garbled shout as glacial cold raked over his nerves, raising the roots of his hair and competing with the throbbing ache in his head from striking it against the iron bed frame. When he broke the surface, an offended gander ruffled his tail feathers and hissed, indignant. Philip hissed back and pulled a soggy weed from his hair.
The cold numbed his brain as well as his body, a welcome sensation. He knew from experience that hand-to-hand combat gave a man a cockstand as often as did the most alluring woman; now his mind demanded war while his flesh begged for feminine compassion. He treaded water until he convinced his loins there was neither love nor war present to justify the excitement.
When he finally emerged from the reeds, miserable and shaking, he found his sister Mary sitting on the ground upon a canvas square, clutching her shawl. Looking nonplussed, she held up his discarded blanket and waited while he wrapped himself and sat next to her.
“Queer news, Phil. This morning a strange man crawled into the nursery and died under the baby’s bed.” She looked straight ahead but smiled. “Astonishing thing was, he turned out to be not dead at all. Quite alive, is the word.”
“Did someone put the poor bloke out of his misery?”
“No. It seems there was considerable distraction for his state of dress. Or lack thereof.”
Philip tossed his head and gave his theatrical sister a cluster of verbose words she would appreciate, “I suppose I should go drown myself out of shame, but alas I confess to lacking the requisite impetus.” He turned to shoot her a knowing smile, which she returned. They were the most alike of the four Cavendish siblings; dark, stout, dimpled and sober-minded with a wry sense of humor. “Perhaps I will do it when the weather warms. That water is damned cold.”
“By then you may have committed another atrocity to supplant this scandal.”
“We can only hope.”
Mary gave a short laugh. “You should. The upstairs maids have already pooled a wager among the kitchen staff.”
“Whether you, Lord Devon, or Lord Preston is, ah, the better endowed. They are both quite tall, but you are as well-muscled and very stocky. Thus is the debate.” She leaned back and held her hands up in defense. “I am only repeating what I have heard. It is hardly my fault that you men have no modesty to speak of, and therefore provide the fodder for gossip.”
Philip scoffed and brushed the dripping hair away from his face. “I refuse to discuss such a thing with my sister.”
She was unflappable. “You are all three thought the most handsome, romantic of men and adventurers. It’s no wonder silly women speculate on such things. Incidentally, I have it on good authority that it is a man’s skill that matters, not the size of—”
“Mary, you are killing me.”
“Oh, drat, Philip. Don’t scold me. I am very nearly on the shelf and close enough already to be spared being treated delicately.”
“Hardly, Mary. What a peahen you are.”
“Hardly? A twenty-third birthday would make even a diamond of the first water nervous—”
“You are a diamond—”
“No, I am not. I’m too Rubenesque and far too impetuous. An incontrovertible omen of spinsterhood. Anyhow, that is not what I came to say to you.” She shook her head, tossing a profusion of coffee-colored curls about her head. “I suggest you mind the windows next time you use the bath house.”
“Thank you, I will.”
“And…” He knew she was stalling when she offered, “Jacob crawled in bed with me just before dawn. Sorry, Phil, I had no idea.”
“Don’t apologize. It was my fault.”
Finally she blurted, “I am sorry you are unhappy.”
“I am not unhappy.” He practically growled it.
Mary had the nerve to laugh. “Oh, Philip. You were always a dismally poor liar, but that was a feeble attempt, even for you.”
He watched the geese chase around the pond. He didn’t mind the silence; he waited while Mary no doubt prepared to launch into her latest rescue attempt.
Clearing her throat preceded the lecture he expected. “I have been silent too long on this matter. Brother, you were meant to be happy; you are not the sort to brood in torment poetically, like Lord Byron or Beethoven. It pains me to witness your messy attempt at it. So life has dealt you hardships which I fear has consumed your inner spark. In short, you need a woman.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Not a ladybird. A wife.”
“Another wife, you mean? Haven’t you noticed that I pick inappropriate women to fall for? Two are now married to Wil and Andrew, and the third I killed.” He managed it with minimal bitterness.
“Sophia was seven years your senior, and Alysia was always in love with Andrew. You never had even a fighting chance with either.”
“I appreciate your vote of confidence.”
“And how dare you speak of Olivia so irreverently? She died giving life to your son. Show respect, brother.”
“You suppose I don’t remember it, every time I look at Jacob? That it was her life for his? I have spent three years, four months and sixteen days loathing myself for it.”
“But why, Phil? The Lord took her, no failing of yours.”
“You don’t understand.” He turned to look at Mary and she recoiled. Apparently he looked as grim as he felt.
Her voice came as a whisper, “Tell me.”
Remembering her plea to be treated seriously, he confessed, “I knew she was not quite well. I could have prevented conception but chose not to.”
“Olivia was proud to bear your son.”
“Yes, she was,” he agreed, unable to keep the irony from his voice.
Mary let the turbulent silence dissipate until they were both neutral and thoughtful again. It took a long while. “Yes. I am determined this is the correct course: We shall seek the aid of Katie Calypso.” She sounded proud of herself, but Philip didn’t have the faintest idea what she meant. “Don’t say you have not heard of her. The Masked Matchmaker? The authoress of Dear Aunt Katie?”
“Oh, please. I would fare better playing roulette with my boll— never mind.” He sighed and shifted his weight. “Mary, you are the best of sisters, but you cannot fix me.”
“I’m not trying to fix you, Phil, I am trying to help you!”
“Yes, you are. You are a woman, and so you can’t help but meddle.” Two geese on the pond haggled over a captured minnow, making gestures that looked oddly similar to the ones he and his sister made. It confirmed how ridiculous this conversation was.
Mary leaned in and looked him in the eye. “I know Katie. She is not what you think. Very sensible and wise. And she really is a most talented matchmaker, but it’s all done in private. I can arrange a meeting, and here is what you must do: bring her a white lily. That is the code.”
“Mary, have you been reading mystery novels again?”
She frowned and the sparkle faded from her eyes, then he felt guilty for injuring her. Mary was constantly derided for her fanciful nature. He tried to tolerate it, as a rule.
“Forgive me, Mary. I am out of sorts this morning.” He kissed her forehead and stood, trying to keep the blanket around him. “I know you mean well, but I must put my mind to other matters. The Gladiator is due to leave port in only a month and I must still hire a crew and file the documents with the commerce office, and Admiral Banks has yet to order—”
“Yes, yes, all right, Phil,” Mary complained with exaggerated impatience. “But when you change your mind, come see me. Bring a white lily.”
Love Match by Moriah Densley
#3 in The Rougemont Series
coming Spring 2014!