Her Unsuitable Match by Sally Britton
Three days after the Gillensfords’ ball, Myles went through the motions of his usual routine, though his mind didn’t dwell upon any of his actions. Indeed, as he walked from breakfast through the crowded streets of his neighborhood, his mind wandered far afield.
Moreton and Emmeline insisted that he get some semblance of fresh air from one of the pockets of green amidst the buildings of London. It was a request he honored without reluctance. His daily walk took him to different parks, affording him the only exercise he took outside of what he managed in the confines of his rented rooms.
He purchased a newspaper, then continued on to one of the larger parks in a more fashionable neighborhood than his. Keeping to the side streets and walking so his left side was to the shops rather than the other people passing by, Myles avoided meeting with anyone he knew.
He arrived in Green Park in between the two most fashionable times for people to ride about in the nearby, larger, more popular Hyde Park. Thus he found the place with few people wandering its paths. Mostly nursemaids and young mothers, leading children about and fussing when those children attempted any activity which might soil their fine clothes.
Green Park, adjacent to St. James’s Park, was a wild patch of green with only a few paths, including the old Queen’s Walk to the water reservoir that had served the royal palace for years.
Something about the neglected royal grounds appealed to Myles. The greenery was hardly tended, and in the past century had been a most popular place for duels, bandits, and the launching of hot air balloons. With such a varied history and bearing neither beauteous flowers nor elegant fountains or water features, Green Park reminded Myles of himself.
Myles found a patch of shade beneath an old oak tree, the likes of which might have stood in that place since the time of King James. He opened his newspaper, laying the wide sheet out across his lap to begin his study of contemporary history. Enough time had passed that the paper would report on the charity ball, at last, and likely hold information about how much of a donation the Gillensfords received for their hospital.
The first article he found on the subject, wedged between columns with news pertaining to Parliament, wasn’t complimentary. He scowled as he read the opening paragraph.
Despite the Royal Hospital Chelsea, patronized by the ruling families of England, being open to any veteran of wars past or present, the Gillensfords would have us believe our nation does not provide for our soldiers after they have done their sworn duty.
Myles gave the paper a shake, wishing he could do the same to whoever wrote the article. The Royal Hospital Chelsea, an institution over a century old, might have suited the nation during peacetime—but after decades of war such as the kingdom had experienced?
When Myles had returned home, wounded and recovering slowly, he’d fallen beneath that hospital’s supervision. The officer charged with informing Myles of his future—that of an invalid with a sum of money to be paid annually for the rest of his life—told him that the hospital itself housed just under five-hundred veterans of war. But over thirty-thousand pensioners lived outside of its walls, drawing their pensions from the government based on what their rank had been when they left the battlefield for the last time.
“And the hospital doesn’t care for the invisible hurts, or getting a man back upon his feet,” Myles muttered, glaring at the newsprint.
He kept going through the newspaper, and he found the first promising words about that evening much deeper in its pages. The writer here praised the Gillensfords for bringing the needs of young men cast adrift after war spent their health and left them without the means to provide for themselves as they had previous to taking up arms.
“More like it.” Then he found another bit of news listing himself and twelve other veterans who had been present, and he scowled at that. What did it matter that they had been there? Two of the men were titled, a handful more were third sons of important people, and the others were like him—barely even considered worthy of interacting with the gentry. Never mind that he’d been born a gentleman’s son. He lived in tiny, rented rooms and took income from a pension and the occasional prize money when he deigned to take part in bouts of fisticuffs.
Though Myles did not classify himself as a pugilist, he found the occasional friendly match kept his mind and body sharp. The activity saved him from complete boredom.
As had taking part in the Gillensfords’ scheme.
He snatched up the paper again and folded it into a small rectangle. He’d read what he most wanted to, and there wasn’t much else of interest to him. Except he felt a sudden desire, a thing which surprised him, to call upon Mr. Gillensford.
To get to the Gillensfords’ address, a house at Berkley Square, he need not walk far. He could at least leave one of his calling cards—one of his very few calling cards. He didn’t have much occasion to use them, thankfully. He hadn’t wanted to print them in the first place—a foolish expense, he thought, for one living in such reduced circumstances.
Starting on his way from the park, Myles rehearsed to himself why he found himself motivated to do something that mattered. The Gillensfords would surely ask.
If he could do more than idle his days away, and do something that mattered, he ought to take a step in that direction. Myles hadn’t trained for anything outside of the military. His birth position in his family, a third son with a healthy father and elder brothers, had meant choosing his occupation with care.
He’d no interest in the law. He had even less interest in joining the clergy. His family had scraped together enough money to purchase a commission in the military for him—and that was that. He couldn’t ask anything more of his father, mother, brothers, and three younger sisters. Two of those sisters were still unmarried, without suitable dowries to tempt bachelors.
If a position for one of his experience existed within the framework of the Gillensfords’ plans, if he could offer his help in even a limited way, Myles had to try.
With the newspaper under his arm, he made his way to Berkeley Square, ignoring when others on the walkways peered too long at his scarred visage. Let them stare if they wished. For the first time in months, he had a purpose beyond making it through the day.
* * *
Though Philippaand her mother normally stayed at the family’s Town house, Elaine had prevailed upon the dowager countess to stay at her fashionable address in Berkley Square. “Just for a few days,” Elaine had said. “I intend to host a tea, and your experience would be of great benefit to me, my lady.”
Lady Fredericka had given in to the appeal to her vanity, while Philippa and Elaine had exchanged a knowing glance. Elaine had wanted to make peace with her mother-in-law for some time, in part to smooth the way for her children, and also to give Philippa more time in Adam and Elaine’s home.
Three days after the successful veteran’s ball, Philippa sat in Elaine’s morning room holding her little niece, Isabelle. Elaine and Adam’s adopted daughter, Nancy, sat next to Elaine, learning a complicated embroidery stitch. Nancy’s governess sat near the window, reading.
The peace and felicity in the room laid upon Philippa’s heart like a warm quilt on a winter night. These were the moments she craved when she was away from her brother’s family. There had never been any moment in her childhood home as calm and happy. Philippa’s family always seemed at odds with each other, and never let an opportunity to sniff disdainfully at the misfortunes of others go by. Which was why Philippa had often sneaked away to visit her great-uncle, the man who had left Elaine and Adam his entire fortune. Her uncle had been unfailingly kind, like Elaine.
“You are such a fortunate little girl, Isabelle,” she crooned to the little darling in her arms. The baby smiled and cooed, making it necessary for Philippa to coo back at her. “How wonderful it is to have such a handsome papa, sweet mama, and an older brother and sister to look after you.”
“When will William visit again?” Nancy asked, looking up from her work at Elaine.
Elaine sighed and shared a commiserating glance with Philippa before she answered. “Your brother will come home with us to Tertium Park when we leave London. School is very important for young gentlemen.”
Nancy jabbed her needle into her embroidery hoop with more force than necessary. “I still don’t see why he cannot have a governess, like me. Miss Wilson could teach both of us. Couldn’t you, Miss Wilson?”
The governess, obviously at ease with her place in the home, turned a page in her book as she answered. “I should be happy to teach the young master how to play the pianoforte, paint water color portraits, and serve tea. Though I do not think he will find any of those skills of much use should he pursue the law, as he has said he wishes to do.”
Philippa had to bite her bottom lip to keep from giggling at the dark frown Nancy wore as she took another stab at her needlework. “Nancy, it isn’t so terrible. I missed Adam dreadfully when he went away to school. And look at us now. Still quite good friends.”
Elaine nodded her agreement. “Absolutely. William’s time away from us will only make the time he spends with us all the sweeter. You’ll see—”
A bang elsewhere in the house made everyone in the room jump. It sounded as though a door had been practically flung off its hinges, and then the shouting in the corridor began. “Ruined! My daughter is ruined!”
“Oh, dear,” Elaine breathed, gathering the sewing and putting it into a basket near her feet. “Nancy, be a dear and take Isabelle back to the nursery. I do not want her upset by your grandmother. Miss Wilson, if you’d take the children up the servants’ stair?” She kicked the basket under her chair.
Nancy huffed but came to take her baby sister with a smile. “Come along, Belle. We mustn’t let you see Grandmama’s fits.”
“Lest you think you’re permitted to throw one of your own,” Philippa added with a grin. “Thank you, Nancy.”
The governess led Nancy and the baby through a door to another room, and the moment that door shut behind them the door to the corridor opened. In came the dowager, as puffed up as an angry hen, and squawking almost as horribly.
“Philippa, I warned you to cease behaving in a scandalous manner. Now we must all pay the consequences for your rebellious ways.”
Adam’s deep voice echoed down the hall. “Mother? What in blazes are you shouting about?”
The dowager came into the room, holding a folded-up newssheet. “Right there, in the gossip columns, a report on the nature of your tête-à-tête with that horrid Lord Walter. If you’d just said yes to his suit, we wouldn’t be in this terrible mess.”
“What terrible fix?” Adam demanded as he entered the room. “Mother, you cannot gallop through the house declaring Philippa’s ruin. At least not until we have met to discuss it in private.” He shared a sardonic glance with Philippa. “Unless you don’t object to such proclamations.”
“I object most strenuously.” Philippa kept her expression calm. “Especially when Mother thinks saying yes to a man she admits is horrid would have prevented whatever dire circumstance we now find ourselves in.”
Lady Fredericka drew herself up to her impressive height, then growled like a bear. “You may have come of age, Philippa, but you will not speak to me that way so long as I am your mother and responsible for your well-being. If this disrespect is what comes of spending time in your brother’s company—”
“My lady,” Elaine said, rising to her feet and floating closer to her irate mother-in-law. “I think we are merely all confused. Let me order tea for you—or would you prefer something stronger? You are most distressed.”
Trust Elaine to treat the dowager countess with kindness, despite the fact the matron hadn’t ever wanted the seamstress as part of the family.
“Tea. Of course.” Lady Fredericka collapsed into a chair at the center of the arranged furnishings. Then she put a hand over her eyes and groaned. “What is to become of our family’s reputation?”
Elaine rang for tea, then sat on a couch and gave it a pat so her husband would come sit next to her. Philippa watched them with unconcealed fondness. She’d seen Adam grow into a more patient man since his marriage. The security he found in his wife’s affection had given him permission to be true to his heart, at last, and gave him the ability to slip loose of their conniving family’s reins.
If only Philippa could be so lucky. First, she had to get Richard to release her funds to her.
She really ought to speak to a solicitor or lawyer of some sort about that.
“What is all this about Lord Walter?” Elaine asked in a careful way, her expression serious and her tone quite gentle.
Lady Fredericka groaned again but lifted her folded paper and waved it above her head like a baton. “It is all in the papers. How any of you missed it this morning, I shall never guess.”
Adam and Elaine only read the papers when they had some investment in play, Philippa knew, or when they were paying particular attention to what went on in Parliament. Adam claimed papers did nothing but sensationalize nonsense. Elaine had too many other things keeping her busy.
Philippa read the gossiping bits and pieces, as well as socially important announcements, only after her mother finished with her copy of the Times. “None of us have had a chance to read the newssheets today, Mother.”
Thrusting the paper out toward Philippa, her mother raised an imperious eyebrow. Her wide-eyed-distress markedly changed to a superior lift of her chin. “I have already marked it.” Then she dropped the paper on a table, and the dowager countess swept out of the room without another word.
Dramatic exits were a specialty for her ladyship.
After glancing at Adam, whose furrowed brow and confused expression likely matched her own, Philippa rose and took the paper from the table. She unfolded it and swept the black ink until she found where her mother had meticulously drawn a box of blue ink around an article. The corners of that box were so sharp, Philippa briefly wondered how her mother achieved such exactness.
It seemed she had taken plenty of time to mark the words that had supposedly sent her careening through the house in a panic.
Which made everything about the circumstances most suspect.
“What does it say, Pippa?” Adam asked.
Though tempted to clear her throat in exaggerated theatrics, Philippa opted instead to read as though she found the entire thing one long joke. Horrid as it was.
Interested parties must want to know: according to a most reliable source, Lady P., sister to a well-known member of the House of Lords, was found in a most compromising position at that same brothers so-called ‘Event of the Season.’
We must confess to not being surprised, seeing as how Lady P.’s other brother made a similarly disappointing marriage last year. But how will her dear mother, a peeress so long at the forefront of fashion, ever hold her head up in Society again?
The young Lord W., a bachelor, is expected to defend the honor of said Lady P. by offering to marry her. Rumor is that her lordly brother is already in negotiations for this very outcome.
We do not think it will be long before Lady P. regrets her actions and flees London in hopes Society will forget all about her brazen behavior. Only an honorable marriage will see this tale to a happy conclusion.
By the time Philippa finished reading, she was grinding her teeth together over the last words.
“Who would publish such a thing?” Elaine whispered, her delicate features awash in shock. “And who would want to gossip about Pippa? She is the very definition of a proper English lady.” Though her sister-in-law’s defense warmed Philippa’s heart, her anger yet mounted.
“I know exactly who.” Philippa flung the paper down onto the table. “Lord W. himself! That disgusting toad has been trying to make me an offer all Season. When I turned him down at the ball—”
“Our ball?” Adam interrupted, a scowl appearing on his face. “He approached you there? While you were alone?” Had he been a protective hound, his hackles would’ve gone up. As it was, he certainly bared his teeth as though preparing to let out a growl.
Philippa briefly considered calming her brother’s ire, but she rather liked him taking her side. Richard and Mother never did. “And made quite a spectacle of himself, coming to look for me in the gardens.” Rising from the chair, she went to the window, glaring out at Berkeley Square. “If it was not he who saw to the publication of that loathsome article, it was one of the matrons he made a point of speaking to when he sought me out.”
“Why is he such a persistent suitor?” Elaine asked, putting a hand on her husband’s arm as though to temper his response.
“He is a younger son,” Philippa answered with a shoulder shrug. “He feels it the duty of our lines to bolster one another. He wants my fortune and my bloodline.”
Adam huffed and sat back, tilting his chin up so as to better glare at the ceiling. “A crony of Richard’s, it sounds like.” He took Elaine’s hand in his and released a put-upon sigh. “It might not be all that terrible, Pippa. Perhaps if we ignore the gossip it will go away?”
“You know as well as I do how much a matter of chance that is.” Philippa turned from the window and massaged her temples with both hands. “If something scandalous happens in the next week, people will forget what they’ve read in the paper today. But if a popular, gossipy cat sinks her teeth into the story, I might as well withdraw from London in disgrace. And come back in a year or two.”
“Surely there are other options.” Elaine, for all her intelligence, still gave London Society far more credit toward kindness than it deserved. The former seamstress was undoubtedly blessed that she did not grow up amid the conniving, scheming crowds of the upper nobility.
Adam chuckled, the sound lacking genuine mirth. “She could marry someone other than Lord Toad.”
A tingle went down Philippa’s spine. She had no intention of marrying. And yet. That solution would also force Richard to release her inheritance to her. Without a battle in court, as she suspected it must come to since he refused to release her inheritance. But who would she marry? A woman gave up much when she took a man’s name. She needed someone honorable, a man without expectation of controlling her or the use of her fortune. A man of which Adam and Elaine approved, but without other important connections in Society. Then he would be less likely to get the unsavory ideas people like her mother and Richard often entertained.
Where was one to find such a man?
The butler entered the room. “Mr. and Mrs. Gillensford, a Mr. Cobbett is here, seeking an audience with you both.”
Philippa went still. Mr. Cobbett. Her garden rescuer? She met Elaine’s eye and nodded, not objecting to the interruption of the conversation. Adam said nothing, merely continued his upward glare.
“Lovely. A distraction.” Elaine sent a soft smile to Philippa, her eyes full of sympathy. “Send him in, Hopkins.”
Adam rolled his head forward again, his eyebrows drawn together. “The military gentleman from the ball. You danced with him, didn’t you?”
Elaine gathered up the paper from where it sat on the table in the center of the room. “I did. I found him most amiable. Where should we hide this horrid thing?” She held the newsprint between two fingers, as though it was a dead rodent rather than ink and paper.
“Troublesome newsprint.” Adam took it from his wife and stuffed it behind a cushion on the couch. He caught Philippa’s eye and scowled. “We’re going to have to talk about it eventually, Pippa. I have the feeling Richard and our mother will not let the subject rest, even should the rest of Society forget about it.”
“It is a problem for another day.” Philippa came to stand before her favored chair, adopting a properly welcoming pose. “For now, I am interested to see why Mr. Cobbett has called.” Did she dare tell Adam the near-stranger had rescued her from Lord Walter? The former soldier was a witness to the innocence of her garden stroll.
The door opened again, and the butler announced, “Mr. Cobbett to see you, Mr. and Mrs. Gillensford.”
Adam and Elaine both rose, and everyone performed the proper bows and curtsies. Philippa kept her eyes up as much as she could, taking in the appearance of the man once more. He dressed well, though his clothing was cut for practicality rather than fashion. And looked a little worn. His black leather eyepatch covered his left eye, and his scars were as she remembered. The left side of his face looked as though a giant cat had raked its claws across him, leaving jagged scars behind.
Standing upright again, as stiff and proper as any soldier, Mr. Cobbett did not smile. His countenance was quite solemn. “Thank you for admitting me into your home today, Mr. Gillensford. Mrs. Gillensford. It is a pleasure to see you both. I have no wish to take up your valuable time.” He cut a quick glance at Philippa, and for the briefest moment his brow creased, as though he had not seen her there before. “I beg your pardon, Lady Philippa. I hope you are well.” His eyes seemed to communicate a question, and she had to smile at his lingering concern over their last interaction.
“I am quite well, all things considered. Thank you.”
He nodded his acceptance of that response, then turned back to Adam and Elaine. He reached into his coat, withdrawing a folded rectangle of newsprint. Philippa’s heart jolted. He’d read the gossip and known at once what it alluded to!
He brandished the paper before him like a saber, his solemn frown unwavering. “After reading the paper this morning, I knew I had to come and offer your family my services in whatever way will help most.”
With a groan, Philippa lowered herself into her chair and dropped her face into her hands. Through her fingers she saw Adam’s eyes go round as a clockface, and just as white.
Mr. Cobbett looked from Adam to Philippa, his frown turning to one of perplexity. “I am completely at your service,” he continued, sounding entirely uncertain of himself.
A strange sense of relief flooded her at his earnestness. Did he mean to provide a rebuttal to the newspaper’s statements? Or had he come—her heart sped at the very idea—to offer another sort of fix altogether?
“Mr. Cobbett,” Elaine said quickly, stepping forward with hand outstretched to his newspaper. “Might I ask to what you refer? None of us have read the paper this morning.” Ah, ever practical, Elaine wasn’t about to jump to conclusions. Philippa blinked. It hadn’t even occurred to her there might be something else in the paper worthy of a visit from Mr. Cobbett.
The visitor focused on Elaine, his frown lessening somewhat. “There are several descriptions of the ball. Remarks about your proposed hospital, too. I had hoped I might prove useful. In regard to the hospital project.” He glanced again at Philippa, the confusion resurfacing. “But if I have called at an inappropriate time, I will happily return later.”
Adam found his voice again. “Not at all. This is an ideal time. But perhaps we had better go into the study.” He gave Philippa a worrisome look, then held his arm out to Elaine. “My wife will join us, of course, as she is at the heart of this work. Pippa, you will excuse us.”
“Of course.” Philippa rose unsteadily to her feet. Why had her mind immediately jumped to her own plight as it had? And why, when Mr. Cobbett had offered his help when she thought it applied to her, had she experienced such a hopeful moment of ease? “It is good to see you again, Mr. Cobbett.” She curtsied as he took his leave, following behind Adam and Elaine, though she noted a brief glint of curiosity in his eye before he turned away.
Crossing the room, Philippa reached beneath the cushion to the hidden newspaper. She drew it out and sat down, her eyes sweeping across the pages until she found what had brought Mr. Cobbett to their door. Then she settled in to read about Adam and Elaine’s hospital for soldiers, trying to push her own difficulty from her mind.
Mr. Cobbett’s character interested her. First, he had spoken passionately about what England owed her sons returned from war. Second, he saved her, a stranger, from the advances of another man. Without thought or word of a possible reward for his kindness. Third, he came in person to offer his services to her brother and sister-in-law for their cause. Not once revealing the situation in which he had found Philippa.
By the time Philippa closed the paper, she had several seedlings of ideas in her mind. One of which included the noble former soldier.
“But first,” she murmured to herself, “I need to find a solicitor.”