The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount
THREE MONTHS LATER
In the back room of the smart Bond Street boutique, Mrs. Ramsey’s Haute Couture Dress Shoppe, Lady Phoebe Fairchild stood among dozens of gowns made of China silk, velvet, satin, and muslin, gaping in disbelief as Mrs. Ramsey calmly explained that her reputation, the future of her dress shop, and indeed her livelihood depended on Phoebe’s ability to deliver gowns.
When the tall and cadaverously thin woman had finished, Phoebe was dumbstruck. No words would come, no coherent thought, no stinging retort.
“If you are unable to do as I ask, Lady Phoebe,” Mrs. Ramsey said, “I shall have no choice but to expose you to the entire ton.”
Phoebe gasped. “Madam, what you are suggesting is blackmail!”
Mrs. Ramsey smiled, her lips all but disappearing behind tiny teeth. “Blackmail is a harsh word. Charlatan, imposter . . . now there are two words that are not harsh enough . . . Madame Dupree.” She cocked one brow high above the other, letting the words fill the air around them.
Phoebe could not think. She felt entirely incapable of it. The business of making gowns—the very thing Mrs. Ramsey had threatened to expose—was a plan Phoebe had hatched with her sister Ava and her cousin Greer two years ago. It was a plan that had been born out of desperation after the untimely death of Phoebe and Ava’s mother, Lady Downey. Their stepfather, Lord Downey, had commandeered their inheritance and had made it plain he would marry them to the first men to offer. The three of them had quickly determined they needed money to put in motion their plan for avoiding such a fate. Ava had determined to marry well, Greer had gone in search of an inheritance, and Phoebe . . . well, Phoebe had talent with a needle. It was the only thing she had to offer.
She’d always been talented with a needle, and made a hobby of making gowns for the three of them, or enhancing the ones they bought in exclusive Bond Street shops such as this one. The spring her mother had died, Phoebe had latched onto an idea. What if she took the gowns from her late mother’s closet and refashioned them into lovely ball gowns to be sold? Ava and Greer had agreed—it would bring in some sorely needed money.
There was only one small problem: to enter the business of making gowns would give the appearance to the rest of the ton that they were desperate—which, obviously, they were. But the ton would flee from desperate debutantes and their prospects would be reduced to nothing.
So they had invented a reclusive modiste—Madame Dupree—and had introduced Madame Dupree’s work to Mrs. Ramsey. They claimed the French modiste was in much demand in Paris, but, tragically, had been made lame and disfigured in a carriage accident, and
therefore could not and would not go out in society. Phoebe had very graciously offered to act as the liaison between Mrs. Ramsey and Madame Dupree. If Mrs. Ramsey would provide her customers’ precise measurements, Madame Dupree would make gowns that would delight them and be highly praised by the ladies of the ton.
It seemed the perfect ruse, and, indeed, to Phoebe’s way of thinking, it had worked very well for two years.
Until today, Phoebe had no inkling that Mrs. Ramsey suspected she was Madame Dupree. Apparently, the shopkeeper had suspected it for some time, for when Phoebe delivered two gowns that afternoon, Mrs. Ramsey had locked the door of her shop and then asked Phoebe if she could arrange a meeting with Madame Dupree.
That was the moment Phoebe had felt the first curl of doom in her belly. “Oh, I’m very sorry, Mrs. Ramsey. I’m afraid that’s not possible,” she’d said as congenially as she could.
“After all this time?” Mrs. Ramsey asked haughtily. “Surely she trusts me by now, Lady Phoebe. I have a very lucrative proposition for her—and she certainly seems to accept you readily enough. Why do you suppose that is?”
Phoebe had been so flustered she did not respond. She could not recall a time Mrs. Ramsey had been anything but courteous—but now the woman folded her bone-thin arms over her woefully flat chest, narrowed her eyes beneath a row of tiny pin curls, and said, “I know perfectly well what you are about and I am fully prepared to tell the world of your scandal.”
“What I am about?” Phoebe echoed with a desperate laugh as the sense of doom coiled tighter. “I assure
you, I am about nothing other than delivering the two gowns you commissioned from Madame Dupree.”
“And where, precisely, does Madame Dupree buy the fabric needed for the gowns she makes? Or do you do that for this poor disfigured woman as well?”
It had gone from bad to worse. Phoebe was woefully bad at lying and stumbled through her every response until Mrs. Ramsey had cut her off with an ultimatum: either Phoebe take on the account she had just established with a Lord Summerfield of Bedfordshire for an unheard-of number of gowns and other articles of clothing or Mrs. Ramsey would expose Phoebe’s deceit to the world.
It seemed this Lord Summerfield—a name that Phoebe had never heard before—was the son of the ailing Earl of Bedford. He’d recently returned from abroad and discovered his sisters had not been properly presented to society. Toward that end, he’d ordered new wardrobes for them both. He was prepared to pay a premium to have them done by late autumn: two thousand pounds.
Two thousand pounds.
Mrs. Ramsey practically drooled with glee when she reported the agreed-upon sum and made it quite clear she would not lose it merely because Phoebe had invented Madame Dupree and was the one who was really behind the gowns all the women of the ton suddenly could not do without. Mrs. Ramsey had already promised Lord Summerfield that she would send Madame Dupree to Wentworth Hall in a fortnight to make the clothing she could not readily provide from her shop. Her only problem being, of course, that Madame Dupree did not exist.
Nevertheless, Phoebe insisted she would not hie herself off to Bedfordshire as a servant to anyone.
“Indeed?” Mrs. Ramsey drawled. “I do not think your esteemed family would appreciate such a scandal at this point in their political lives—do you, Lady Phoebe?”
Phoebe gasped. Mrs. Ramsey was referring, of course, to the very thing Ava and Greer had feared most when they had tried to convince Phoebe to stop making the gowns this past Season. As they were both married now, and to very wealthy men at that, they no longer needed the money Phoebe’s clandestine sartorial occupation brought her. Particularly not now that their lord husbands, Middleton and Radnor, had been moved by their wives’ work with the Ladies’ Beneficent Society, a charitable organization that endeavored to help women who had landed in the poorhouse. Middleton and Radnor had drafted and proposed reforms that would give women who were forced to earn their livings some basic and decent rights. But opponents of the reforms saw such measures as opening the door to other untenable actions, such as woman suffrage and, God forbid, temperance.
A scandalous exposure of Phoebe’s deceit would bode ill for her brothers-in-law, and might cause the derailment of reforms they were trying to steer through Parliament.
“You wouldn’t!” Phoebe cried. “You are a woman in trade, Mrs. Ramsey! You stand to gain a great deal from their reforms!”
“Yet I stand to gain two thousand pounds with Lord Summerfield’s commission,” she snapped. “That is a year’s receipts!”
Phoebe scarcely recognized Mrs. Ramsey at that moment. She was the devil, and Phoebe could all but see the tiny horns sticking out of her wretched pin curls.
* * *
Phoebe had recently left her stepfather’s house to live with her sister, Ava, in the much larger and grander Middleton House. After a restless night through which she could see no way out of her predicament, she dragged herself to Ava’s dressing room. Ava, now the Marchioness of Middleton, was there with her nine-month-old son, Jonathan. So was Phoebe’s cousin Greer, the new Lady Radnor and Princess of Powys. She was cooing over her godchild.
Both women took one look at the dark circles under Phoebe’s eyes, the crooked buttoning of her gown, and knew something was very wrong.
The three of them sat on the floor in a tight circle with Jonathan at the center crawling over them and gurgling as Phoebe told them the awful truth.
“You poor darling!” Greer cried when Phoebe had finished. “That wretched woman won’t get away with this treachery! You mustn’t worry, Phoebe, we will think our way through this!”
The Last Unmarried Daughter of the Late Lady Downey—Phoebe was convinced the entire ton thought of her in exactly that way—rather doubted that.
“I knew it was a dangerous game you were playing!” Ava moaned. “Really, Phoebe, you live in fantasy without considering the consequences of fantasy becoming reality! Now what are we to do?” Ava asked, pausing to kiss the bottom of Jonathan’s foot. “It will be a horrible scandal! There are those in the ton just waiting for something like this to happen! And if it does, even Lord Stanhope won’t have you.”
“What?” Phoebe cried. “Is that all you care about?” She bent over, scooping up Jonathan onto her lap and burying her face in his neck. “I’ve told you a dozen times, Ava, I don’t want to marry Stanhope.”
“Yes, but it is my duty as your sister and your
friend to help you find a match, and I take that duty very seriously!”
“It is scarcely your duty, and really, Ava, you might as well face the fact that when a woman has been out an astonishing four Seasons without gaining an offer, to continue to pursue one only makes her situation worse.”
“Four!” Greer exclaimed. “Has it really been as many as that?”
“Four,” Ava said, wiggling four manicured fingers at Greer. “In her first Season out, she was the youngest of three unmarried Fairchilds and therefore, third in line to be considered,” she said, bending one finger. “In her second Season, Mama died and we were in mourning, weren’t we? There was no money for her to enter society in the third Season—”
“Not to mention the scandal you created by pursuing the marquis,” Phoebe reminded her.
“Yes, the scandal,” Ava said airily, and bent the third finger. “And in the fourth, Greer followed my scandalous path and returned to London married to the elusive Prince of Powys, much to everyone’s great surprise, and I had my confinement and gave birth to my darling, sweet boy.” She smiled lovingly at her child.
“That is four,” Greer said, nodding thoughtfully. “Astonishing. Thank goodness Stanhope is expected to offer.”
“Why? Because I am so desperately close to being put on the shelf?” Phoebe huffed. “I say again, I will not accept a match with Stanhope, and please do not try and persuade me with the fact he is one of Middleton’s dearest friends, for he is also destitute and in search of a fortune. Not a marriage.” She gave a kiss to Jonathan’s cheek. He grabbed her earring and pulled. “Ouch, ouch,”
she said, handing Jonathan to Greer so that she might extract her earring from his chubby fist.
“What do you expect?” Ava demanded. “How can we possibly arrange a marriage for you when you are so reluctant to be out in society?”
“That is simply not true!” Phoebe insisted, although she knew her sister was right. She did not care for London society. Never had. When they were girls at Bingley Hall, Phoebe had been content with her painting and drawing and her first sartorial creations, reticules (dozens of them, all haphazardly sewn and poorly beaded, but her mother had carried each one proudly), than going on the round of social calls that Ava and Greer found so delightful.
Granted, her first Season out had been very exciting, but Phoebe now found the routine of it tiresome. All of the so-called gentlemen bachelors seemed to believe that by virtue of merely being bachelors she must find them quite desirable, and they leered at her more often than not. If she paid the slightest attention to any one of them, rumors spread quicker than the plague that Lady Phoebe Fairchild desired a match with that particular gentleman.
Moreover, the older she became—two and twenty now—the more it seemed as if the conversations at social events with people she scarcely knew were entirely too vapid, and she could not abide sitting in overdone salons along with dozens of unmarried debutantes who all shared the singularly uninspired goal of gaining an offer of marriage. She felt root-bound in a society she did not care for, like some old bush whose limbs had become entangled with the others around it and could not be extracted.
“You are so difficult!” Ava said. “You are uncommonly beautiful, far more beautiful than me—look at
your lovely pale blond hair. Mine is a common shade. And your eyes, such an unusual color of blue, while mine are very plain. And you are more handsome than Greer with all that Welsh blood in her—”
“I beg your pardon!” Greer said, putting a hand to her inky black hair.
“You are handsome, Greer,” Ava said impatiently, “but Phoebe has always been considered the handsomest of us all. Really, I should think if only she would go out into society with a cheerful disposition, she would gain a half dozen offers instantly!”
“Thank you, Ava. I had no idea I was so handsome, yet so morbid.”
“You know very well what I mean.”
“I do not. But really, whether or not I am in society has little to do with Mrs. Ramsey’s threats.”
“She’s right,” Greer said as Jonathan began to babble. She handed him back to his beaming mother. “But what can Mrs. Ramsey do, in truth? Very little if you ask me.”
“Oh, I think she could do quite a lot,” Phoebe said morosely. “She stands to gain two thousand pounds and is quite determined to fulfill Summerfield’s order, no matter the cost to me.”
“Who is Lord Summerfield?” Greer asked. “I’ve not heard of him.”
Phoebe shrugged. “I know only from Mrs. Ramsey that he lives in Bedfordshire at a place called Wentworth Hall. The family rarely leaves the country for town and his sisters have not been presented to any society.”
“Does she truly expect Lady Phoebe Fairchild to go to this . . . this country place as Madame Dupree and make clothes like a common seamstress?” Ava cried.
“She does indeed,” Phoebe said solemnly.
“What a vile, wretched woman!” Greer added angrily.
She was vile, all right.
The more they talked, the more the three of them grew convinced there was no way to refuse Mrs. Ramsey without irreparable harm to Phoebe’s reputation and Radnor’s and Middleton’s Parliamentary work on behalf of poor women. The consequences were powerful instigators.
But how could she manage to meet Mrs. Ramsey’s demands and maintain her secret? Phoebe wondered.
At the very least, she had to keep her true identity a secret—nothing could make her predicament worse. After much discussion, the three women felt more confident about Phoebe’s ability to assume a false identity in Bedfordshire. As the Parliamentary season had closed, everyone was leaving the heat of London for the cooler breezes in the country, and wouldn’t return to London until late autumn, when Parliament would reconvene for a short session.
Further, they determined no one among their group of acquaintances hailed from or would be in Bedfordshire. They believed there were only three people in that county who might possibly know Phoebe, and actually, Phoebe had never been formally introduced to any of them.
The first was the elderly Earl of Huntingdon, who, by all accounts, was too infirm to receive callers. The Russell family lived in Woburn Abbey, but they were in France for the summer. And finally, there was the infamous Lady Holland, whose parties in London were legendary. She had a house in Bedfordshire, but Ava had learned from Lady Purnam—their mother’s lifelong friend and a general busybody—that Lady Holland would be in Eastbourne until the Little Season began in the autumn.
There was really very little danger of Phoebe’s encountering anyone she knew in that sleepy little corner of England. That left the real hurdle—Phoebe’s identity.
“A widow,” Ava insisted.
“How did her husband die?” Greer asked.
“I hardly know,” Ava said with a shrug as she rocked Jonathan in her arms. “How do men typically die? A fall from a horse or some such thing.”
“I scarcely believe scores of men are falling to their deaths from their saddles,” Greer said drily. “Perhaps a wasting illness. That is sufficient to keep the questions to a minimum.” The three of them wrinkled their noses.
“All right, then—where am I from?” Phoebe asked.
“The moors, north of Newcastle,” Greer said instantly. “No one ever hails from there. It’s practically uninhabitable.”
“And you mustn’t be too dreamy, Phoebe,” Ava warned her sternly. “You know how bird-witted you can be with your head in the clouds.”
“I beg your pardon, I am not bird-witted,” Phoebe protested.
“Yes, but you have a tendency to let daydreams cloud your common sense.”
“That is ridiculous! I do no such thing!”
“You do have a rather vivid imagination,” Greer said kindly. “You must have a care that you do not allow it to run away from you. You must concentrate on your work and your disguise if this ruse is to work.”
Phoebe clucked her tongue. “Honestly, with the number of gowns Mrs. Ramsey expects me to make in a very short time, there will hardly be time for sleep, much less daydreaming—or even talk, for that matter. What could possibly go wrong?”