London, March 1814
The townhouse of the Fourth Baron Popett looked unassuming on its outside, but within it had become infamous as a house of gambling and dissolute pastimes.
Helena Grey, as a proper young lady of the gentry, should never have known a thing about it, of course. But concern for her brother Lysander had brought her to a revelation of knowledge quite scandalous to her.
Now as she stood before the baron’s London home, she mustered her courage.
‘I beg your pardon,’ someone said.
Startled, Helena whirled to see a gentleman in red—an officer, accompanied by several more military men. For a brief moment she was frozen as if by a spell.
He was the handsomest man she had ever laid eyes on, with black hair and eyes almost as dark, fine features and a strong stance that spoke of unyielding bravery. Something in his expression conveyed cleverness and intensity.
He gave her a puzzled look and with a gesture indicated his intention to pass by on the pavement—a reasonable request given the busy nature of the street. With haste she moved aside and the gentleman tipped his plumed shako with its polished bronze badge in her direction and then went on his way.
Helena caught her breath and gave herself a moment to close her eyes and turn her thoughts back to the matter at hand. Then with a resolute sigh, she faced the door again.
Helena’s eldest brother, Oberon, had made a nominal search for Lysander over the course of the fortnight, but his efforts did not meet with Helena’s satisfaction. She took it upon herself at several dinners she attended with her family to press Lysander’s friends and acquaintances until one finally confessed that he was most likely here. Further prodding had resulted in a reluctant description full of euphemism and obscure phrasing, so that Helena could only conclude the baron’s townhouse was hardly better than a house of ill repute. The word ‘opium’ had been uttered before she was forced to end the interview when her mother showed herself too interested in what was being discussed.
It crossed Helena’s mind to tell Oberon and wait for him to take the matter in hand, but so great was her frustration with him that she could not bring herself to trust him with an errand of such grave importance. And, she had told herself, it was no great risk to pay a visit to a baron, no matter how licentious he may be, for he was a peer. The only danger, Helena assured herself, was that she might give offense, for of course she had not been introduced, nor was likely to be.
It quite took her aback to imagine Lysander had developed a friendship with a nobleman, come to that, as it was unusual for members of the gentry to mingle with the noble peerage. Helena Grey had never been one to let societal convention stand in her way, however. If Lysander was at Baron Popett’s, that was where Helena must go.
Nonetheless, she could not go alone, for such an action taken by an unmarried young lady would be cause for shock and scandal. Helena took her lady’s maid, Keene, and swore her to secrecy.
A firm knock on the townhouse’s door led to a white-haired butler in timeworn livery opening it and glaring at Helena and Keene.
‘And whom am I to announce, my lady?’ the fellow asked without preamble. His disdainful expression contrasted with the threadbare patches on the elbows of his coat.
‘Miss Helena Grey,’ said the lady, somewhat surprised at his brusqueness. ‘But I have not come to call on his lordship the baron. I am searching for my brother, Mr. Lysander Grey. Is he here?’
The butler’s eyes drifted upward and then came to focus on Helena again in a display of taciturn contempt. ‘If you please, do follow me, Miss.’
And so she did.
The smell of tobacco smoke permeated the air with an underlying, unsettling tang of sick. Helena resisted the urge to take Keene’s hand as she looked about her, the otherwise mundane furnishings, with mahogany predominating, provoking within her sensations she associated to the reading of gothic stories. The walls of the corridor the butler led them through had been painted a dark hunter’s green some time in the past—the distant past, if she had her guess, for it peeled here and there. There was nothing overtly frightening, and yet her heart rattled in her chest.
They ascended the central staircase and the butler took them to a door of the first floor hall. Inside it was a drawing room.
Helena only now began to wonder at the butler’s willingness to see her in. He seemed unsurprised that she would seek her brother and accustomed to delivering unexpected visitors to persons within. There appeared to be no expectation of her greeting the baron or his wife—if he had a wife. As she stepped into the drawing room, she began to understand why.
In the center of the room there was a table where four gentlemen sat playing cards and speaking rather loudly and uncouthly to one another. They had several crystal decanters on the table with them, and Helena wrinkled her nose as the scent of spirits wafted over.
Beyond, there was a sofa, with a gentleman reclining on it, and he did not wear a neckcloth. Helena was quite unaccustomed to seeing a gentleman in such a state of undress, and her feet froze in place. Many years ago she mightn’t have found such a sight so arresting, but her coming out in society had made her more sensitive to such niceties.
‘Perhaps I should have told Oberon,’ she muttered.
‘Perhaps, Miss, but now that we are here…’ Keene whispered back.
Of course, her maid was in the right. There was no sense balking now.
Beyond the sofa stood a large vase with palm fronds that quite obscured the rest of the drawing room. Helena could only assume that Lysander must be somewhere beyond.
For a moment she was seized with the urge to shout his name, but this she suppressed. Such an instinct would have suited her when she was a girl living on her family’s estate in Westmorland, as she had run a bit wild in those days. But she had been living in London for nearly three years now, and she had learned to comport herself with decorum.
Now, she squared her shoulders and with a glance at Keene, she marched into the room.
‘Look here, look here,’ declared one of the four card-players, a middle-aged man with receding brown hair and drooping eyelids. ‘Bless that Baron Popett, he’s invited some ladies to entertain us.’
Helena’s steps hesitated. What did he see when he looked at her and Keene? She knew herself to be pleasant-looking, with dark blonde curls and large blue eyes, but her pelisse and walking dress were of simple design—nothing to suggest she was some sort of wanton woman, as this rake seemed to think. And Keene was dressed similarly, in a dress that had once been Helena’s.
The other three men all leered at Helena without any attempt to disguise their unseemly thoughts. Their mouths were open. One licked his upper lip with his tongue.
Helena faltered, but she knew her destination to be beyond the vased palm, and pressed on.
At least the gentleman on the sofa has shown no interest in me.
The fellow who had spoken stood unsteadily from his chair and put himself in her way.
‘Devil it, y’wench, where d’you think you’re going in such haste?’
A stench of whiskey-breath struck Helena with force.
Another of the card-players gestured at the man collapsed on the sofa, whom Helena was approaching as she had to pass it by before reaching the vase. ‘He is quite insensible, you know.’
Helena, distressed, turned to look for the butler, but he had disappeared after bringing her as far as the drawing room doorway.
‘I beg your pardon, sir, for you have misconstrued my purpose in coming here,’ Helena said to the jackanape blocking her way. She made an attempt at evading him, to no avail.
‘Now, now, what’s your hurry?’ he asked, taking her chin in his hand with an unexpectedly strong grip. ‘She’s got a dimple in her chin, Mitchell.’
The odor of his breath was not improving with prolonged exposure.
Her heart was hammering fit to burst from her chest, but Helena had grown up wrestling siblings and dogs, and she knocked the man’s arm aside roughly. ‘What a shocking want of gentility!’ she exclaimed. ‘I shall ask that you restrain yourself from any further handling of my person, sir. Now, stand aside, if you please.’
Her eyes flashed and she raised her dimpled chin, but inside she quailed with fear. What if he refused to stand aside? What if he attempted to touch her again?
What a terrible mistake it was to come here all on my own.
The horrid man caught hold of her waist and tugged her toward him.
‘Unhand me! Odious slouch!’ Helena cried, and slapped at the man’s face. Beside her Keene was protesting as well and grabbing at the man’s hand closest to her.
‘Alright then, Sheffield, that’s quite enough,’ said one of the other card-players, a younger gentleman with thick brown eyebrows over pale grey eyes.
All at once she was free. Helena stumbled away and scowled at her assailant. The latter rolled his eyes and slumped back into his seat.
‘You never let me have any fun,’ he grouched at the one who had spoken.
‘You’ve had too much whiskey,’ the latter said. ‘You haven’t eyes enough to see she’s a gentlewoman? Though what she’s doing here, one can only guess.’
Helena smoothed her pelisse and composed herself. With a nod at the one who had assisted her she said, ‘I thank you for your intervention, Mr.—?’
‘Mitchell,’ said he. He stood and gave her a curt bow. ‘Bertram Mitchell, at your service.’
Helena was all confusion, for she had no wish to introduce herself to any of the denizens of this hive of disgrace. However, the gentleman had intervened on her behalf, so she said, ‘Thank you, sir. I am Miss Helena Grey, lately of Cavendish Square.’
‘How delightful to make your acquaintance,’ he said, and Helena had the strong sense that he was mocking her.
This is a detestable place. By heaven I do hope I shall find Lysander in short order and be on my way. And I dearly hope never to darken its door again!
She gave the gentleman a cold, tight-lipped smile and nod and turned away. Keene followed closely as they moved past the vase.
Helena was unsurprised to see another sofa and a chaise longue as she passed the palm fronds. Lysander lay on the latter.
Oh, how ill he looks.
He was sleeping—or insensible. His eyes appeared sunken in his face, dark bruising surrounding them. His brown curls looked unwashed and greasy, and his waistcoat was undone.
Pressing the back of her glove to her mouth, Helena suppressed a cry of dread. She hastened to his side, crouching to take his hand in both of hers.
‘Lysander,’ she said, hoping to rouse him easily. He did not respond. ‘Lysander, dearest, pray open your eyes.’
Glancing at Keene, she saw her maid’s pallor and it worsened her alarm.
‘Lysander, I beg you, pray awaken at once.’
Smoothing a gloved hand over his forehead, she was gratified to notice his eyelids twitch in response.
‘That’s it,’ she murmured. ‘That’s the way. Good afternoon, Lysander. Do open your eyes.’
A moment later he did, his green eyes meeting her own blue. ‘Helena?’
‘Indeed, it is I, brother mine.’
For a brief time he blinked and seemed confused, then his expression changed to one of alarm. ‘Helena! Here? The Devil confound it! How can this be?’
Helena ignored his swearing. ‘I came to find you, dearest. You have been missing these ten days.’
Lysander struggled to bring himself upright, soon sitting on the chaise instead of remaining prone. ‘Lena, ‘pon my soul, I never would have desired you to come into such a place—’
‘And yet here I am,’ Helena said with severity. She frowned at her brother. ‘There must be an end to this nonsense immediately, Lysander. That silly chit is hardly worth your doing yourself such a harm.’
Lysander sighed and gave her a hangdog look. ‘It’s not all her fault, Lena. Papa has his part of the responsibility, as well, I daresay.’
Helena snorted and immediately felt Keene bristle at her unladylike behavior.
With a deep breath, she schooled her expression and gave Lysander a stern look. ‘Now, I should like very much to quit this place immediately.’
Lysander gave her a weary nod and stood. Looping her arm through his, she guided him back through the drawing room, sparing not a glance for the card-players, who paid little mind to her either. Once they were descending the stairs, Helena continued, ‘And I shall demand a promise from you, brother dear, to never cause me to return to such an odious place.’
With a pained smile, Lysander gave her arm an affectionate squeeze. ‘How very fortunate I am to have such a concerned sister.’
‘You say that in a most unconvincing fashion, Ly,’ she scolded him. ‘But nevertheless, you shan’t be rid of me. I shall haunt your every step if you do not promise to change your ways.’
Even as she reprimanded him, doubts planted themselves in her heart. Having fallen so low, could Helena sensibly expect him to reform?
‘Lysander,’ she said as the butler held the door for the three of them and they exited to the busy London street.
‘Yes, dear Lena?’ he replied.
‘I have not forgotten your kindness to me, five years ago,’ she said.
Lysander sighed and rested his forehead against the side brim of his sister’s bonnet.
‘You never told a soul,’ she said.
Lysander met her eyes, his own full of love for her.
‘And I shan’t tell a soul about this, Lysander. You have my word. Only promise me you shall mend your ways.’
‘I promise, my Lena,’ he said softly.
And Helena embraced him in relief. But in her heart, she doubted, still.
London, May 1815
‘Lena! Rosie! I say, where are you?’
’Twas Lysander’s voice. Helena and Rose Wrencrest, Lysander’s fiance, were sitting in the upper parlor of the large townhouse which belonged to the Grey family. Helena called out as much.
It had been over a year since the incident at Baron Popett’s, and Helena was delighted to see that Lysander had kept his promise.
Thus far, her heart quavered, but she attempted to push aside such doubts.
It has been fourteen months. He has ceased all disappearances at night. I never find my purse mysteriously lighter. And the most compelling proof sits opposite me this very moment.
Rose Wrencrest was a lovely girl, although her hair was an unfashionably fiery color, Helena found it suited her. Her skin was like china porcelain, her fully lips calling rose petals to mind, and her dark eyes resembled a doe’s. She was simply the sweetest natured girl, as well. Perfect for Lysander, who had had the good sense to propose to her a fortnight prior; how pleased Helena had been when the lady accepted him, though not as pleased as the gentleman himself.
Lysander burst in, grinning from ear to ear and clutching a letter.
‘What news?’ Rose asked, standing.
Lysander hurried to her side and unfolded the letter, holding it for Rose to peruse. To Helena he said, ‘’Tis from Sir Warrick, Lena. He’s accepted the post as District Collector of Radhanpur. He’s asked me to come along as his clerk!’
‘Oh, Lysander, India…’ breathed Rose.
Lysander beamed at her. ‘Indeed, what an opportunity! We shall have to move up the date of the wedding. Warrick wishes to sail no later than mid June.’
Helena’s heart skipped. ‘Mid June!’
‘And you shall come with us, dear Lena,’ Lysander said, abandoning the letter to Rose and taking both of Helena’s hands in his.
A bubble of joy formed in Helena’s heart and expanded larger and larger until she became quite convinced it would burst, and her with it. ‘Do you mean it, Ly?’
‘Of course! Rosie shall need a companion, and as long as the arrangement is agreeable to you—you shan’t find a beau in India I daresay, Lena—’
‘Oh who needs a beau!’ Helena exclaimed. ‘India!’
Ever since she was a little girl in the great library at Greypeak in Westmorland, poring over Papa’s maps and the immense atlas there—a tome so large she needed assistance to move it from its stand to a table—she had wanted nothing more than to see the world for herself.
And to go there with Lysander, her beloved brother—to see him blossom in a new environment, far from the pressures and temptations of London society—what could be better?
‘India,’ murmured Rose.
‘I must tell Hermia!’ Lysander exclaimed and exited the room.
Rose sat on the sofa, still holding the letter, and her face, ordinarily pale, had gone white as snow.
‘Oh, Rose, do not say you have doubts about this venture,’ Helena cried, taking the spot next to her. ‘Are you afraid?’
Rose blinked at her. ‘How could I not be? Oh, Helena, it is so very far away!’
Anxiety tightened Helena’s chest and she wished she might somehow loosen her stays. ‘Oh, tosh,’ she said, attempting a light tone. ‘I suppose ’tis no surprise you might feel some trepidation. But Lysander is to be your husband, after all. You must follow where he leads. And I shall be there with you!’
Rose gave her a troubled look. ‘But my mama shall remain behind, and she cannot prefer London once I am gone. I cannot bear to imagine her all alone in our house in Dorset.’
‘What of your brother?’
‘Reggie is intent, it seems, on pursuing his career in the Army,’ Rose said mournfully. We are quite forgotten, as far as he is concerned.’
Yes, but the responsibility of caring for your mama falls to him, not to you and my brother, Helena wanted to say but did not. Quarreling with Rose would not improve the young lady’s disposition toward the move to India, and that was all mattered.
Lysander’s voice sounded in the corridor and a moment later Hermia came in, sitting in her wheeled chair today, which her lady’s maid, Ingrams, pushed. Lysander followed. ‘And Mr. Crenshaw spent a summer there, and said he’s never suffered so from the heat. We shall have to have a whole set of especially light muslin summer dresses for Rose and Helena, I daresay!’
Hermia, Lysander’s twin, smiled at Helena. ‘Well, dearest, you must be exhilarated!’
‘Not for all the fittings involved, I’m sure,’ Helena joked. ‘We shall both be pincushions if Ly has his way, wouldn’t you say, Rose?’
‘I imagine my dread of dress fittings may pale in comparison to the fearsome dangers of attacks by bandits or being lost at sea.’
Helena laughed rather more brightly than her feelings dictated. ‘Nonsense, what an idea! We shall have the time of our lives.’
‘Well, there you are, Ingrams!’ ’Twas Mama, leading a housemaid behind her who looked decidedly shame-faced.
Mama, a stout woman fond of overly ornate dresses, stormed into the parlour to confront Hermia’s maid.
‘Yes, Mrs. Grey?’ Ingrams, a powerful figure herself, turned and faced Mama.
‘Bessie here claims you sent her to fetch a book for you from the library,’ Mama said without preamble. ‘Is that true?’
‘A book?’ Ingrams echoed, blinking.
‘Yes,’ Mama said, the word sharp. ‘I discovered her with a book in her hands halfway to the servants’ quarters. Do you corroborate her claim?’
‘Oh, ’pon my soul!’ Lysander exclaimed, stepping so he stood somewhat between Ingrams and Mama. ‘This is all a great misunderstanding, Mama. My fault, entirely.’
Mama frowned at him in consternation. ‘Whatever do you mean, Lysander?’
‘Ingrams asked Hermia about the origins of our names,’ Lysander said, his eyebrows raised in a way that immediately told Helena that he was lying. ‘Isn’t that right, Ingrams?’
Ingrams narrowed her eyes at him. ‘If you say so, sir.’
‘Yes, yes, you remember,’ Lysander insisted. ‘Last night! “Such a strange assortment of given names,” you said.’
Ingrams said nothing, still peering at Lysander with bemused suspicion.
‘And I said, “They’re all from Midsummer,”’ Lysander continued. ‘Didn’t I, Hermie?’
Hermia was gazing at her twin in amusement. ‘Oh, certainly.’
‘But Ingrams had never heard of Midsummer. Can you imagine, Mama?’ Lysander said.
Mama gave Ingrams a startled look. ‘Never heard of Midsummer Night’s Dream? In this household?’
‘That’s what I said, Mama,’ Lysander put in swiftly, no doubt concerned that Ingrams might gainsay him. ‘So I grabbed the first housemaid I saw, this morning, and that was—erm—’
‘Bessie,’ Helena supplied.
‘Bessie! Of course,’ Lysander said. ‘“Bessie, old girl,” I said. “Fetch me the Shakespeare from the library.” But then I received a letter—oh Mama, I really must show it to you. Do you have it, Rosie?’
‘But ’twasn’t Shakespeare she had with her,’ Mama protested before Rose could reply.
‘Well, I Imagine it was an ill-advised mission to give the poor girl, Mama,’ Helena said with false gravity. ‘Bessie must have chosen the first book she thought might suffice—’
‘Mama, I insist you look at this letter,’ Lysander said, bringing the page to her mother to see. A moment later she was exclaiming over the news of his serving as a clerk for Mr. Warrick in India, and she had quite forgotten the poor maid, who slipped away silently.
Helena suppressed a smile.
Life was sure to never be dull so long as she remained with Lysander. What was marriage to that? She would leave for India tomorrow, given the chance. Adventure and good company—seeing the world—what could be better?
Colonel Reginald Wrencrest also carried a letter he considered precious, although ’twas not addressed to him. And he, instead of leaving to see the world, was returning home to England.
Colonel Wrencrest had served over much of the European continent and a portion of the eastern coast of the new United States of America. It had been over a year since his last leave allowed him to return to England for a visit. Now, he watched from the railing of the ship as they docked in London.
Seeing the teeming industry of the port always filled him with a mixed sense of distress and euphoria. Distress came at seeing the hardship so often on display, more often than not in the form of underfed, dirty children who ran about like busy rats trying to earn a coin or, failing that, to pickpocket unwary travelers. Euphoria came at being home in England once more, and soon to see his beloved mother and sister.
Even as the ship bumped up against the dock and the sailors set about with their ropes and the moorings, Reginald spied his fair-haired, be-spectacled cousin, William Oakley, waiting in a gig not far away. How William had known exactly where the ship would arrive was a testament to the gentleman’s quick mind and happy disposition, which Reginald had always admired as Oakley seemed to disarm everyone he met.
As Reginald handed out a few pennies to the children who swarmed him, his trunk was loaded behind the seat. Tossing the last of his change, Reginald sat beside Oakley on the gig.
‘Well, what a pleasure it is to see you, cousin!’ the gentleman exclaimed as Reginald settled himself.
‘Indeed, the pleasure is mine, Oakley. Very kind of you to go out of your way.’
‘Not at all! I was happy to do it, and you must know Father suggested it as well.’
Oakley’s father was the brother of Reginald’s mother, and often took an interest in the lives of Reginald and his mother and sister. ’Twas he who had written Reginald, prompting him to return despite the poor timing.
Napoleon shall have to wait, Reginald thought.
‘Right, then, let’s be off?’ Oakley asked, raising the reigns.
‘Yes, but I must beg your indulgence of one more favor,’ Reginald said grimly.
‘Oh? I shall endeavor to make myself useful, Wrencrest. What is it you need? I am at your service.’
‘And I am in your debt,’ Reginald said. ‘This address,’ he added, handing his cousin a paper. ‘Might we call there this afternoon? I have an errand I have been forced, despite my preference, to set aside for many months. Now that I am here in England I am anxious to have done with it.’
‘Milk Street?’ Oakley said, peering at the note through his spectacles.
‘Off Cheapside,’ Reginald confirmed.
‘What business have you there?’
‘Only the most disagreeable, I’m afraid,’ Reginald said. ‘I’ve a letter to deliver. From a soldier who died shortly after the battle at Fort Peter in February.’
‘Oh, how dreadful,’ Oakley said.
‘Indeed,’ Reginald said with a sigh. ‘But the lad required a promise that I deliver it by hand, and so I shall.’
‘Let us only have a light luncheon, and then I shall take you there directly,’ Oakley said. ‘You must be spent after such a journey.’
‘Thank you,’ Reginald said. He dreaded the interview which would necessarily take place with the deceased lad’s family, but it couldn’t be helped. He had given the young soldier his word, and he would see it through.
The morose nature of the errand they must soon undertake put a damper on the spirits of both gentlemen for a time, but Oakley soon recovered. After informing Reginald of his mother and sister’s good health, and then the equally good health of all their nearest relations, he said, ‘I say, Wrencrest, you’ve come home a bit early for the wedding, haven’t you?’
Reginald suppressed a wince. ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘But I felt it most prudent to acquaint myself with Rose’s betrothed well before the matter was entirely settled.’
‘Oh, I reckon you’ll find Lysander Grey a good sort. His family is distantly related to the royal Greys, you know.’
‘And he’s a pleasant fellow, with equally pleasant relations. The elder brother is married, as is the eldest sister. Lysander is a twin, had you heard? But one rarely has the pleasure of encountering his sister—Miss Hermia Grey, you know—in society, for her health is too poor.’
‘He has a brother and two sisters?’
‘A brother and three sisters,’ Oakley corrected. ‘All named for characters in Midsummer Night’s Dream, if you can imagine! A fancy of their father’s, if what Rose told me is to be believed. The gentleman is quite enamored of the play.’
‘All of them from Midsummer? What are their names?’
Oakley squinted through his spectacles at the back of his horse’s ears as he brought them to mind. ‘Give me a moment…Oberon, that’s the eldest. And I think the first daughter is Titania! What a name. Then, of course, Lysander, and his twin, Hermia—’
‘Weren’t they lovers in the play?’
‘No doubt, although to my recollection there’s quite a bit of exchanging of lovers that goes on.’
‘Oberon, Titania, Lysander, and Hermia. Who’s the last?’
‘Helena,’ Oakley said. ‘Rose is most fond of her. I gather she’s a bit of a bluestocking, though.’
‘With a father fixated on Shakespeare, who can profess surprise?’
Having uttered this opinion, Reginald pressed his lips closed, bringing what he could remember of Midsummer to mind.
‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’
I do hope the Greys shall not turn out to be quite so foolish as all of that, Reginald thought. Rose deserves better.
‘In a fortnight?’ Helena said, the last word of her utterance resembling a dissonant squeal. ‘Does Mama know?’
‘I daresay she does not,’ Rose said. They were together in Helena’s bedchamber, whilst Keene assisted the latter to dress for an afternoon walk. ‘I have yet to speak of it with my own Mama, you know. But Lysander is convinced we must be wed as soon as possible.’
Helena raised her eyebrows but said no more about it. ’Twas only mid May. If Mr. Warrick wished to depart in mid June, surely they could delay a bit before the nuptials. But Lysander was no doubt eager to have everything settled and ready for this new chapter to begin.
‘And thus I am bound for Cheapside,’ Rose said. ‘Oh, Helena, do say you’ll join me. I want lace to trim the gown and I detest choosing without someone else there to give an opinion.’
‘With pleasure,’ Helena said, although she had little fascination for lace. ‘I say, shall we invite Hermia? She might like a change of scenery.’
As Helena was now dressed, the ladies went in search of Hermia, whom they found in the parlour. Rose invited her to the shops, but Hermia said, ‘Oh, lud, my dears, I simply cannot fathom it today. I am dreary. My apologies.’
The family physician said that Hermia suffered from falling sickness. In practice it meant that Hermia kept to her wheeled chair more often than not, preventing her from leaving their home. Some days Hermia felt stronger, but it seemed today was not such a one.
‘Have you breakfasted?’ Helena asked as she and Rose sat together on the sofa.
‘Of course,’ Hermia said, the book she held sagging from her hands into her lap.
‘What did you take?’ Helena pursued, narrowing her blue eyes. ‘A drop of tea and a nibble of toasted bread, I’ll wager.’
‘And why not, pray tell?’ Hermia countered. Giving Rose a look as though to enlist her as an ally, she added, ‘A very pleasant breakfast it was.’
‘I suppose all I should like for breakfast is tea and toasted bread sometimes,’ Rose said in support.
‘Piffle. I shall speak with Ingrams,’ Helena said. ‘You should have kidney pie or a cut of meat, I daresay. To strengthen your blood!’
‘Oh, Lena, heaven forfend I should be henpecked by my younger sister,’ Hermia complained.
‘Dearest, you must keep up your strength. Lysander and Rose have moved the wedding up, you know. ’Tis only two weeks away!’
‘Is that so, Rose?’ Hermia inquired.
Rose flushed, her eyes alight. ‘Indeed it is,’ she said with a pretty shake of her fiery curls.
She truly is charming, Helena thought. Lysander chose well.
‘How delightful. I shall do everything I can to be fit for the celebration,’ Hermia said. She smiled and held out a hand. Rose took it, and Hermia patted her fingers warmly. ‘I am so very pleased to soon call you sister, my dear.’
‘To be sure, it is I who am most fortunate to acquire such pleasant sisters—Lysander has been blessed with three,’ Rose said.
Helena grimaced. ‘Hm, if you mean to speak of pleasant sisters, I am unconvinced you should include Titania in that number.’
‘Helena!’ exclaimed Hermia. ‘You are most ungenerous.’
Helena shrugged. ‘’Tis no fault of mine that she insists on irritating me at every turn. She takes her role as a minister’s wife far too seriously.’
‘Oh, how you exaggerate,’ Hermia said. She peered at Rose. ‘Helena shall convince you more of her own unworthiness with such talk than Titania’s, I daresay.’
‘Mrs. Eldridge has shown me nothing but kindness,’ Rose said with an arch look Helena’s way.
‘Et tu, Brute?’ Helena quoted, clutching her heart. Rose giggled. With an excessive sigh, Helena said, ‘Mock me if you like, but you shall both regret it if Titania ever tires of haranguing me and turns her attention to you.’
‘I say, Lysander, tarry a moment!’ ’Twas Papa’s voice in the corridor.
Lysander appeared in the doorway of the parlour but stopped and turned back.
Papa, a balding gentleman fond of wearing stripes, could be seen just beyond. ‘I’ve just had a word with your Mama,’ Papa said to Lysander. He was frowning. ‘I am most concerned, my boy. Most concerned. Is it true you lied to protect a servant from repercussions when Mrs. Grey discovered she had stolen a book?’
Lysander rolled his head so as to give the ladies in the parlor a look of exasperation, then turned to face his father, straightening his shoulders and assuming a solemn countenance. ‘Lied, Father? What a disagreeable accusation. Why on earth would a fellow lie to protect a thieving servant?’
‘If that fellow was conducting himself in less than an honorable way—’
Lysander snorted. ‘Perdition, Father. I’m on the verge of my own nuptials, you cannot possibly have decided that I have been trifling with a housemaid—’
‘Would it be the first time?’
Helena glanced at Rose, feeling her own ears begin to warm uncomfortably. The lady’s dark eyes widened as she overheard the exchange.
‘I was fifteen, Father, you might allow for my brief indiscretion to fade into memory by now,’ Lysander said with clipped words.
‘If I find out that chit’s sprained her ankle—’
‘Oh, so now you have me fathering bye blows?’
‘Refrain from vulgarity, Lysander—’
‘It wasn’t I who raised the specter of merry-begotten squeaks—’
‘Papa!’ Helena cried. ‘Oh, just the gentleman I was looking for.’ She glanced at Rose, whose eyes were as wide as saucers now. ‘I shall have to meet you at the shop, Miss Wrencrest,’ she said. ‘Will you be so kind as to write down the name and see that Keene has it?’
Papa was still glowering at Lysander.
‘Now, Papa, pray come with me,’ Helena said, steering him to his study and searching her mind frantically for a reason to give. ‘I…saw something in the Times. Yes, just this morning, and you simply must explain it to me.’
And with that she had diffused the argument, but she knew the ceasefire was only temporary.
The sooner we leave for India the better.
“A Colonel’s Sinful Dilemma” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Ever since she was a child, the unconventional Helena Grey has wanted to see the world more than anything. When her beloved brother, Lysander, accepts a position in India, she is more than eager to follow him on this exciting journey. A few years later, Lysander has mended his ways and old gambling habits and is engaged to the beautiful and kind Rose, with the future looking bright for all three of them. However, the last thing Helena expected was that Rose’s brother would be so irresistibly tempting… As soon as she lays eyes on him, her heart is set on a fire that can’t cool down. Will this dazzling Lady surrender to her burning desire and capture the Colonel’s body and spirit?
After learning about his sister’s engagement, Colonel Reginald Wrencrest, takes leave and returns to London for a brief stay. Inclined to approve of Lysander, Reginald is soon undeniably attracted to his eccentric sister. However, Helena’s mysterious affection towards her brother makes Reginald curious and, soon after, leads him to discover Lysander’s rakish past. Appalled, Reginald pressures Rose into breaking this embarrassing engagement, but he gets confronted by the fiery Helena, for his inflexibility and lack of faith in one’s ability to change. His fury at Helena is only worsened by the undeniable attraction he feels for her. Will he manage to tame his growing feelings, or will he succumb to her sinful seduction?
When Lysander disappears, Helena puts all of her hope in Reginald to help her find him. The task is anything but simple though, and before long, Helena finds herself in the midst of the Napoleonic War. With every passionate kiss sparking hotter desire, will Helena and Reginald’s love stand a chance? If only they could find their way through the endless conflicts that divide them and back into each other’s comforting embrace… Could this battle be lost once and for all or will the power of love conquer everything in the end?
“A Colonel’s Sinful Dilemma” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.