Excerpt 2: Too Clever by Half

Meet Lady Tessa Harmsworth

Tessa opened her fan and gently waved it, drawing the attention of Captain Lord Granston away from her friend, Miss Lucinda Wagner. He was an old school friend of the duke who listened politely enough to her plans for a women’s university program, but he seemed hard-pressed to stay focused on what she told him. She suspected he was developing a tendre for her pretty companion.

She stifled her sigh of exasperation as the duchess approached them. On the older woman’s arm was a strikingly handsome but serious-looking man. From a distance, she would have judged him to be somewhat more than thirty years of age, given his ease of interacting with the crème of the ton like Luci’s father and the duchess herself. Now Tessa saw he was probably not much older than Granston’s twenty-five years. But that serious face and the way he approached the captain… He was a man on a mission. And he was about to snatch the fish she’d finally gotten on the hook.

When the duchess and her escort reached the intimate circle formed by the captain, Luci, and Tessa, the duchess made introductions. Mr. James Alcott bowed toward the young women. His gaze held Tessa’s for a beat longer than she thought appropriate, until she realized she’d been as unwilling to look away from him.

“Your Grace!” Captain Granston held the duchess’s hand and gave her a sweeping bow made all the more dramatic by his height. “More beautiful than ever, I see.”

“Still the charmer, I see, Granston.” But the duchess’s wide smile proved she was hardly immune to the captain’s charms.

“James.” The captain grasped the interloper’s shoulder. “A sight for sore eyes, old man. Ladies, Mr. Alcott’s influence as prefect might have single-handedly saved the academic careers of Harrow’s Finest Five.”

Tessa recognized the name of the group of friends, comprised of five eldest sons and future peers who’d met at Harrow. The captain was one of them, as was Wrexham, the new duke. But Tessa knew of them because her dear friend Emme’s brother was one of the Five. She was sure Mr. Alcott hadn’t been part of the group, as she’d never heard his name, and his salutation indicated he was a younger son. Still, his obviously congenial affiliation with the Five, a few of whom she hoped to persuade to her cause, didn’t set well with her.

Luci smiled at Mr. Alcott, but after returning Luci’s smile, his turned his attention to Tessa. His hazel eyes—or were they gold?—held such gravity and intensity, she scarcely remembered how to blink. She had the irrational thought that he could peer right into her soul and see all her secrets laid bare. Which would not do at all, as it was merely by keeping her secret about Pettibone that she had even a prayer of winning the Wrexham’s Trust prize from the stodgy old men who would make the decision.

“Ladies, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” Mr. Alcott’s voice was silky smooth as a cup of cream. A practiced voice, though for what nefarious purpose Tessa couldn’t yet say.

By the time he glanced away from her—effortlessly, it seemed—the duchess had announced her desire to sit and had taken her leave. That was all a ruse, of course, as anyone who spent more than ten minutes in the woman’s company quickly realized the exhaustion she tended to claim and the limp she sometimes employed were merely for effect, and always for some purpose only the duchess understood.

Captain Granville didn’t spare Tessa another glance as he focused on his old friend. “I hear you’ve made a name for yourself at our old alma mater.”

Mr. Alcott shrugged. “Just doing my best to keep the place respectable.”

The captain laughed. “After I spent so many years trying to do the opposite.”

So they hadn’t remained close, and with the Trust prize now at stake, Mr. Alcott sought to reestablish a friendship. Circling around the duke’s friends for selfish purposes. She would have thought him diabolical if she weren’t pursing exactly the same plan.

“Speaking of Harrow, Percy, we could use—”

Tessa grabbed the captain’s forearm. “Good heavens! Do you see what I see? London’s most notorious widow is here, not six months since her husband’s demise, and she’s dressed in gold.”

They all glanced at the woman in question.

“Yes, striking,” Captain Granston said. “I mean shocking, of course.”

Tessa glanced at him sidelong and saw the curve of his mouth as he observed the widow’s ample assets.

When Mr. Alcott cleared his throat, Tessa spared a glance for him and caught the scowl on his face. She cleared her own throat, ever so quietly, and flashed a smile to charm him.

“Aren’t you the observant young lady,” he said so quietly, she doubted Luci and the mesmerized captain heard him.

“Yes, I am.” She narrowed her eyes. “I can spot an opportunist at fifty paces.”

“I have no doubt you can.” Mr. Alcott smiled. His smile was more dangerous than his scowl. Did he see her as worse than an opportunist? Did he see her for the liar she was?

Tessa fluttered her fan wildly as heat chased through her blood. The room must be overcrowded. But while she pondered it, Mr. Alcott re-engaged Captain Granston’s attention.

“I’d hoped to hear how Swimmer fares, if you’ve heard from him.” Alcott’s voice seemed to come from afar, and yet was too loud in her ear all at the same time.

As the heat threatened to overcome her senses, Tessa cut the fan through the air, desperate for a cooling breeze.

“Lady Tessa, might I request—” Mr. Alcott held out a hand to still her fan.

Tessa snapped it toward her shoulder, pulling it out of his reach. It connected with something with a sickening thwack.

Tessa turned in time to see a small red spot on Luci’s forehead the second before the startled woman, mouth agape and eyes tearing, covered the injury with her hand.

“Dear Luci, I’m so sorry! It was an accident.”

“I know it was.” Luci smiled, but she arched her eyebrow when she glanced at Tessa. “Perhaps I should leave you to chat with the captain, while I check on my father. I think the widow was making eyes at him. Mr. Alcott, would you mind helping me—”

“Ah, I can spot him across the room.” The captain stepped between Luci and Mr. Alcott. “I haven’t seen Fairbank in ages. I’ll join you, if you don’t mind.”

Luci widened her eyes at Tessa, but there was nothing either of them could do without being unforgivably rude. Her friend’s attempt to give Tessa time to speak to the captain without distractions had gone amiss, and now the captain bid Tessa and James adieu and steered Luci into the crowd.

“I hope there won’t be a mark on the lovely lady’s face in the morning,” James said.

Tessa clutched her fan tightly in her hand, too late for the precaution to do any good. “It was an accident. I feel dreadful about it.”

“So does Fairbank, it appears.” James tilted his chin in the direction of Luci’s father, who’d left the side of widow in gold and was now making his toward his daughter and the captain.

Given the concern on Fairbank’s face, it was quite probable he’d collect Luci and—as she was his guest this evening—Tessa and whisk them home. All because Mr. Alcott’s interruption had agitated her and made her careless.

Tessa faced Alcott, her nostrils flaring in anger. Anger made her look ugly, as her older brothers had repeatedly told her for the past twenty-two years. But she was beyond caring about appearances. “You and your opportunism have ruined everything, Mr. Alcott.”

He didn’t return her anger. Instead, he stared at her face with rapt attention, then grinned again. “My lady, I’m merely a student of poetry, taking the time to catch up with an old school friend. I can hardly be the one accused of opportunism. But shouldn’t you be focused on a lady’s noblest cause, following the romantic dream of finding a husband, at such an event as this?”

“How dare you!” She shook with rage, and pulled back her fan with a thought to cuffing him with it. But, remembering the awful sound the accidental slap had made, she rolled open the fan instead and waved it ever so gently in front of her face. “I, sir, am not a hopeless romantic, a state that no doubt afflicts you as it has every other male student of poetry I have ever had the displeasure of meeting.”

His smile faded and his intense and inappropriate stare returned. “One who has not read great poetry is in no position to judge students of it.”

Still waving her fan, she took a step closer. “Ah, but you see, Mr. Alcott, I have read great poetry. Everything from Shakespeare to John Donne to Lord Byron. My most recent favorite is the abolitionist poem “The Slaves of Martinique,” written by John Greenleaf Whittier. Surely a well-versed student of poetry such as yourself has read it. How did you find it?”

Alcott paled ever so slightly and her heart raced. She knew she’d hit the mark.

“I must confess, Lady Tessa, I’ve not taken to reading the American poets.”

She raised an eyebrow and gave him the quick, assessing scrutiny that one gives a horse that’s been found lacking.

“‘God be praised for every instinct which rebels against a lot/ Where the brute survives the human, and man’s upright form is not!

“Perhaps one day, when you’ve finished pursuing your own romantic dreams, you’ll have time to learn more about the world around you, Mr. Alcott. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must check on my friend.”

She swished her skirts as she turned and walked away from him. She resisted the urge to glance over her shoulder to see what must surely be the defeated look on his face. For the rest of the night, she would play the part of the demure representative of Mr. Pettibone. But tomorrow, she would devise a plan to rout Mr. Alcott.


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