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An Elegant Façade: Hawthorne House, Book 2



Perfection, even the fabricated appearance of it, was a nearly impossible feat. Lady Georgina Hawthorne should know. She’d spent the past three years carefully preparing and planning, determined to make her debut Season perfect or, at the very least, convince everyone else it was.

Exuding anything less than complete excellence could lead someone to the truth: that she wasn’t just imperfect—she was elementally flawed.

If the sparkling creation nestled in the tissue paper before her was a sign of things to come, her hard work was about to reap handsome rewards. The custom-designed mask was everything she’d hoped it would be.

“It looks even prettier than I imagined.” Harriette, Georgina’s lady’s maid and companion, released the reverent whisper as she extended a hand to brush the cluster of feathers bursting from the top left edge of the mask. “You are remarkable.”

Georgina smiled, unable to resist the urge to touch the mask herself. While acknowledgment of the craftsman who constructed the mask should certainly be made, Georgina felt comfortable taking some of the credit for herself. She had given the man very detailed drawings of exactly what she wanted.

“If everything else follows the plan this well, I’ll be married and settled by the end of the Season.” With a sigh, Georgina slid the lid onto the box, blocking the delicate creation from view. As much as she would enjoy looking at the mask for the next three days, she couldn’t risk marring the white silk or bright white feathers before the ball. “Has the dress arrived?”

“It came this morning.” Harriette took the box containing the mask and disappeared into Georgina’s dressing room. Moments later she reappeared with a large bundle of white in her arms. “It’s quite splendid as well.”

Georgina fought past her initial excitement over the dress to look at it with a critical eye. If anything needed to be changed they needed to do it now. The ball was only three days away. Even though it was a masked event, it would be Georgina’s societal debut. It needed to be more than simply perfect. It had to be exceptional.

It would take a fairly spectacular appearance to make everyone forget what a fool she’d made of herself chasing the Marquis of Raebourne last year before she’d even been officially out of the schoolroom. That was what happened when she let emotion cause her to stray from her plan. The marquis would have suited her needs perfectly, but his absurd interest in a woman of little significance put her prime marital target out of reach.

Even so, she should never have allowed the ensuing panic to convince her to share family gossip with Lady Helena Bell. She should have known Lady Helena wouldn’t be able to use the information to successfully break the couple’s attachment. It had all been horribly embarrassing, but Georgina had learned a very important lesson: No one else could be counted on to carry out any part of her plans.

This year she would rely only on herself. She looked at her maid, inspecting the skirt for loose threads. And Harriette. Dependable, loyal Harriette could always be relied upon. In fact, Georgina would be lost without her. “Your brother is due to start school soon, isn’t he?”

The maid looked up from the dress, plain brown eyes narrowing in her commonly rounded face. She straightened herself the full length of her average height and scolded Georgina with a voice laced with an extraordinary amount of intelligence and tenacity. “You’ve already taken care of it. I won’t take any more of your pin money.”

Georgina tried to hide her smile as her friend gave a decisive nod and turned back to the dress.

Though no one else in London would likely believe it, the two were friends. No one on earth knew Georgina as well as Harriette did. Without the other woman’s friendship as a child, Georgina would never have been able to keep her shortcomings hidden from her perfect, noble family. As it was, they all thought her a hopelessly spoiled brat, a condition she tried to use in her favor as often as possible. “I could tell Griffith to give you a higher wage. He wouldn’t doubt me. Probably thinks you deserve one.”

Harriette draped the dress over the bed and crossed the room to grasp Georgina’s hands. “Don’t fret. I’ve been with you since you were seven. I’m not going anywhere.”

It was hard to believe that Harriette was only two years older than Georgina’s eighteen years. Sometimes she seemed too settled and mature for one so young.

Georgina pulled her lip between her teeth. “This is going to work, isn’t it?”

“Stop that.” Harriette shook a finger at Georgina. “You’ll make your lips all cracked and wrinkly if you bite them.”

Georgina smoothed a finger along her bottom lip.

The maid nodded before continuing. “Of course it’s going to work. We’ve been through Debrett’s Peerage three times since last Season, making a list of all the options. We know every unmarried man who fits your requirements. One will come up to snuff. Four of them are even dukes.”

“I can hardly marry my brother, so we can consider there to be only three.” Georgina held the masquerade dress up to herself and spun around the room, enjoying the novelty of the Elizabethan-styled gown. “Spindlewood is most likely going to be escorting his granddaughter around this Season, though he’s been out of mourning long enough to consider remarrying.”

“You don’t consider him too old?” Harriette’s eyes widened as she sank into the chair at Georgina’s dressing table.

“I do, as a matter of fact. Were he to die, I would be a very young dowager with no firm ties to the next duke. There’s not nearly enough power in that position.” Georgina slipped her feet into her slippers and did a final inspection in the mirror. “It’s too bad that his grandson is so young. He’s not even out of school yet.”

Harriette tilted her head to the side. “You could wait for him. He’s sure to enter society within the year.”

As if Georgina could afford to wait an entire year in the hopes that the duke’s grandson would prove as socially proficient as the rest of the family.

Georgina shook her head before carrying the dress into the dressing room for storage. Harriette’s light footsteps followed her.

“What I need, Harriette, is for the Duke of Marshington to make a reappearance, seeking the most advantageous bride for his reentry into society. That would set me up for life. I might actually believe God was looking out for me if that were to happen.” Which meant she had little to no hope of it happening. She was certain God was up there somewhere, but she was just as certain that He’d tossed her aside long ago.

“There’s still one other duke, a marquis, and two earls on your list, though I do wish you would reconsider removing the Earl of Ashcombe. Your sister—”

“My sister should have married him when she had the chance.” Georgina checked the reticule she’d had made for the upcoming ball, ensuring it was packed with everything from a spare pair of slippers to a needle and thread for urgent dress repairs. Nothing could be allowed to ruin her night. “Ashcombe is popular, wealthy, and conscious of the importance of reputation. He stays on the list.”

Harriette said nothing as she laid a white velvet cloak on the shelf beside the white ball gown.

A pang of guilt nudged the back of Georgina’s thoughts. Ashcombe had courted her sister during her first Season, but Miranda was embarking on her fourth turn through the ballrooms this year. She’d had plenty of chances to win the man’s hand. Now it was Georgina’s turn.

The fact that she thought the man a supreme bore placed him a bit lower on her list, but she’d rather be bored than ruined.

Not for the first time, Georgina wished Miranda had gotten married last year. The threat of Miranda’s impending spinsterhood might make Georgina’s quest to be the Season’s Incomparable a little more difficult. Association carried its own form of guilt, after all.

She pressed her hand to her chest, as if she could reach through and force the nerves into submission.

“Everything is ready, my lady.” Harriette fluffed the skirt on the dress until the white-on-white embroidery was shown to perfection.

Georgina’s heart calmed as she looked over the ensemble she would wear as she took her first turn in society as an adult. It was the epitome of everything she’d been working to build. Entering on the arm of her brother, the powerful Duke of Riverton, would seal her as one the most popular girls of the evening.

The masquerade was going to be the best event of her life.

This was one the ugliest places he’d ever been in his life.

Colin McCrae glanced over his shoulder at the rickety stairs he’d carefully picked his way up. They looked even worse from the top than they had from the bottom, which meant he’d be holding his breath when it came time to travel back down them.

Assuming he lived that long. Calling on his friend Ryland without warning wasn’t the safest thing to do. Spies for the Crown tended to be a little wary of things like that. Fortunately, the man was inclined to look first and shoot second, a politeness that could probably be attributed to the fact that the man was also the Duke of Marshington. He may have dropped out of society for the past nine years, but he’d had eighteen years before that to learn gentlemanly behavior.

The passage at the top of the stairs looked as if someone had at least considered doing some maintenance in the past decade. In truth, it wasn’t the worst place Colin had visited Ryland in the five years they’d known each other, but it was close.

He took care to keep his greatcoat away from some of the grimier-looking shadows. Just because Ryland chose to eschew the finer things in life to pursue English justice didn’t mean Colin had to.

After three strong knocks on the grey wooden door, Colin stepped back, positioning himself so that whoever cracked open the door would be able to see him.

The door opened enough to reveal the face and shoulder of Jeffreys. The man was Ryland’s valet, though his duties included far more clandestine activities than simply shining the duke’s shoes. This was probably the only set of rooms in the entire building that could boast a manservant of any kind.

Colin grinned at the thin man. “Please don’t shoot me, Jeffreys. I’m quite fond of this coat.”

Jeffreys laughed as he opened the door wider and allowed Colin in. Sure enough, Jeffreys had been hiding a pistol behind his back as he answered the door.

Another, deeper, laugh came from the next room, and Colin followed it to find Ryland sprawled in a chair that could be called upholstered if one was feeling charitable. There were a series of threads covering whatever remained of the chair’s cushioning.

Ryland waved an arm toward the only other chair in the room, a plain wooden chair that looked old but sturdy. “What brings you by?”

Colin sat, crossed his booted feet at the ankles, and placed his hat in his lap. “Other than the joy of welcoming you back to Town, you mean?”

A single dark eyebrow lifted in an expression of condescension, the aristocratic arrogance of the duke showing through, despite the fact that Ryland looked considerably more like a dockside worker. “I haven’t officially returned.”

“And I’m not officially here.” Ryland worked for the War Office. Colin didn’t. At least not in any capacity that anyone would recognize as official. He had been known, on occasion, to use his business contacts and observation skills to assist them in one project or another. Though he made sure to say no often enough to keep the War Office from taking advantage, he never turned down a request from Ryland.

It was the developments from just such a request that had brought him to this decrepit building.

Ryland sat up a little straighter. “You have news?”

Colin nodded. Ryland had recently disguised himself as a valet on the Duke of Riverton’s estate. As the two were old school friends, Riverton was, of course, in on the plan and had agreed to engage in false correspondence in order to trap the group of Napoleonic spies operating on the estate. Colin’s contribution had been business letters about a doomed mining venture.

The decoy information, originally intended to be little more than fluff to fill out the fake correspondence, was actually being used. As only the people selling secrets to France had access to that information, the interest in the mine was certainly suspect.

While Colin filled Ryland in on the details, Jeffreys went about his business, moving quietly around the room.

A glaze of deep thought covered Ryland’s grey eyes. Colin settled into his wooden chair as best he could, knowing the other man could contemplate the ramifications of Colin’s news for five minutes or five hours, and he would expect Colin to be there when he was done.

“All the more reason to come out of hiding, Your Grace.” Jeffreys hauled a small trunk from under the bed and began folding clothes into it.

Colin sat up a bit, mild curiosity replaced with genuine surprise. Was Ryland truly planning to come out of hiding? It would be a good time for it, with the social Season prepared to start within the week.

Instead of berating the other man for interrupting his thought process, Ryland turned his intense gaze to the valet. Clearly there was a hidden meaning to Jeffreys’ proclamation. “And have you also planned where I shall make my debut?”

Only years of practice at remaining outwardly calm kept Colin in his seat. Ryland was not only returning to London but to society as well? Was this a new project? A new case that required he come out of hiding? Or was he truly following through on his intentions to stop spying?

Jeffreys extracted a small white card from his pocket and flipped it across the bed. Ryland snatched it out of midair, crumpling the corner a bit.

Colin strained to get a look at the card. It looked like an invitation. Who would have sent Ryland an invitation? Half of London thought he was dead.

“She’s going to be there?” Ryland ran a thumb along the edge of the card.

Jeffreys nodded. “The servants have been speaking constantly of the various costumes their lords and ladies have procured. That invitation was meant for your aunt. Price said it was a shame she never received it.”

Ryland looked over the card and grinned. Grinned. The jaded, world-weary spy grinned.

Colin rose and leaned over Ryland’s shoulder, his thoughts ticking through everything that had been said or done since he arrived. The invitation was for a masquerade ball, but that fact paled as the importance of Jeffreys’ statement became evident. There was a girl involved, and by the look on Ryland’s face, she wasn’t related to his work.

And since it was personal, Ryland wasn’t about to vol-unteer information. Colin turned instead to the valet. “There’s a she?”

“What is her costume going to be?” Ryland tapped the invitation against his palm, probably hoping he could learn what he wanted without letting Colin ask any questions of his own. Which made Colin all the more determined to know who the she was.

Jeffreys continued packing as he spoke. “We aren’t sure, though we know it’s blue. She and her sister and mother were all seen at the modiste ordering dresses for that event. The sister was quite excited. The mother was less so.”

“Not surprising.” Ryland’s face turned thoughtful once more. He seemed to have forgotten Colin was in the room. “Masquerades are not known for keeping the faint blush of youth in a young lady’s cheeks. I wonder at Lady Blackstone letting that be Lady Georgina’s first society appearance.”

Colin had never met the Ladies Hawthorne or their re-cently remarried mother, Lady Blackstone, but he had done business with their eldest brother, the Duke of Riverton—whose estate Ryland had recently been spying on in the guise of the duke’s valet.

This was going to end badly.

Colin coughed. “Lady Georgina Hawthorne?”

Even though Colin hadn’t met the young lady, he’d cer-tainly heard of her. And what he’d heard would have made her the last lady he’d have expected Ryland to become in-terested in.

“The hostess, Lady Yensworth, is a particular friend of Lady Blackstone’s—otherwise I’m sure they would be skipping the event.” Jeffreys pulled a pair of ruined-looking boots from the bottom of the closet. “Are we keeping these?”

Ryland raised a brow. “Why wouldn’t we?”

“Your Grace.” The valet tilted his head to the side.

Ryland’s brows drew together. “What?”

“Only reminding you that you are a duke. I don’t know a whole lot about the aristocracy, but I know they don’t wear boots that look like this.”

Normally Colin would have settled into the corner, content to gather as much information as possible from a personal conversation taking place in his presence. But this time he could not afford to misunderstand what was happening. It was simply too unbelievable.

He stood and grabbed Ryland’s shoulder, unable to keep the shock from his face. “You’ve intentions to court Lady Georgina Hawthorne?”

Colin couldn’t picture it. Ryland was a gentleman to the core, but he’d lived too long in the shadows for all of his edges to stay refined. He’d rip a delicate society flower to shreds.

“What? No.” Ryland shifted in his seat, looking as uncomfortable as Colin had ever seen.

Colin turned an inquiring look to Jeffreys. Something was disturbing the normally unflappable duke, and being the good friend that he was, Colin couldn’t wait to hold it over the other man’s head.

Jeffreys frowned at the old boots. “The older sister, sir.”

“Ah.” Colin relaxed considerably and grinned. He hadn’t heard as much about Lady Miranda, but he’d heard enough to know she’d be a much better fit for a man who’d spent the past nine years hiding in the shadows. Any woman willing to turn down multiple offers of marriage had to possess a considerable amount of courage. Something that could be necessary if danger decided to follow Ryland home.

Ryland glared at Jeffreys as the valet strode about the room gathering items. “Why are you telling Mr. McCrae my secrets, Jeffreys? Isn’t your loyalty supposed to be to me?”

“Of course, Your Grace. That’s why I didn’t tell Mr. McCrae that you’ve been brooding over the young lady since you left your position at her house several months ago.” Jeffreys threw the dilapidated boots into the trunk. “Only the least discreet of valets would reveal that you’ve actually paced the floor as you’ve contemplated what you’d do when she returned to London.”

Colin laughed so hard he fell back into his chair, holding his right hand to his side. Ryland had left Riverton’s house before Christmas, after sending the band of treasonists fleeing to hide in the large city. Spring was now nudging at London’s edges. The idea that he’d been pining for a woman that long was entertaining indeed.

Ryland turned his glare from the valet to send a calcu-lating look at Colin. “I don’t suppose you received an invitation to this dance?”

Colin swallowed his laughter and nodded. He should have known he wouldn’t escape being pulled into whatever scheme Ryland and his valet had concocted. In all honesty, if it included watching Ryland dangle on a hook, Colin didn’t want to miss it. “I have. I hadn’t intended to go, but if you’re going to be there, I’ll have to change my plans. The ton won’t know what to do with such an interesting piece of gossip.”

Ryland tapped the card into his palm. “I think a masquerade will do nicely. I can ease her into the idea of my being in Town without her recognizing me.”

A groan trapped itself in Colin’s throat. Lady Miranda had already met Ryland, only not in the form of a duke. She knew Ryland as her brother’s valet, the role he’d played while he investigated the French spies in Hertfordshire. Obviously the woman had made a considerable impression on Ryland, and it was possible he’d made an impression on her as well, despite his posing as a servant. No amount of esteem was going to make a woman happy that she’d been deceived for months, though.

And there was no easing someone into a revelation of that magnitude.

Not to mention the fact that Ryland was still, as far as Colin knew, actively seeking the Napoleonic spy who had gotten away. “What about the case?”

The other man shrugged. “Every lead but one is stone-cold. Another agent of the War Office can follow Lambert as easily as I can.”

Colin looked at Jeffreys, who shook his head, silently agreeing with Colin that there was nothing to be done to change Ryland’s mind. Clearly, the duke wasn’t thinking straight.

Ryland’s life was about to get very complicated. And Colin planned to be right in the middle of it.

After all, watching Ryland muddle his way through such a revelation was going to be too much fun to miss.

An Elegant Façade: Hawthorne House, Book 2
by by Kristi Ann Hunter