Excerpt 1: Too Clever By Half

Meet Mr. James Alcott

London, May 1869

Because a gentleman should not fidget while waiting to greet a duchess, Mr. James Alcott maintained his serene façade as long minutes passed. He silently rehearsed his speech to her, in which he’d ask her to reintroduce him to her son Simon Wellesley, the eighth Duke of Wrexham. Simon, nicknamed Swimmer, was James’s old schoolmate from Harrow. As the new head of Wrexham’s Charitable Trust established by the sixth duke, he was also the man who held in his hands the future of James’s current position on Harrow’s board of governors.

The scholarship for young men of intelligence who lacked means to attend Harrow had become the school’s top priority since he’d drawn the courage to suggest it, and the Trust award was the perfect way to establish the fund and provide him with a secure position in overseeing it. He thought it unseemly to make a direct run at the duke to curry favor, but appealing to the duke’s small circle of confidantes to help reestablish their old friendship had been a stroke of genius.

Unfortunately, while there were but a few well-wishers between James and the duchess, she was entertaining the long-winded attention of a young woman—a dimpled blonde—bending the older woman’s ear. Viscount Fairbank, who was, like James, a Harrow man through and through, joined him in waiting.

“Mr. Alcott, you’ve not moved forward one inch since I left you here,” Fairbank said.

Much as he supported James’s cause, as an informal advisor to the Trust, Fairbank couldn’t cast a vote in deciding the winner of the Trust’s annual award. Every third year, its beneficiary was an educational concern. If James didn’t win the award this year, he’d be long gone from Harrow by the time he got another chance, as would the hope of a better education for many deserving boys.

“The duchess has been occupied with one of the guests for several minutes,” James said.

Fairbank glanced at the duchess and the young lady. “Ah. I see Lady Tessa Harmsworth has made an appearance. She’s a dear friend of my daughter.”

“Do you have any idea what the lady could have to say that’s of such importance to the duchess?”

“Something similar to what you’ll say, I’d imagine.” Fairbank gave him a small smile. “She’s your competition.”

“My competition? Is her husband or father here with her, then?” In his entire life, James had never turned up for a test unprepared. This competition was no different. He’d studied the forty-year history of the Trust, its board, and its prize recipients. In every case, they’d been gentlemen. The elderly trustees were reputedly quite conservative; thus, on the rare occasions a lady had brought forward a social cause, it had been represented by her father or husband.

Fairbank shook his head. “The lady is unmarried and to my knowledge, her father, the Earl of Brooking, isn’t involved with her cause. She represents an eccentric industrialist, one Mr. Pettibone, who plans to establish a formal university program for young ladies.”

“A university program for ladies?” James struggled to make sense of the idea. He thought of his mother and his brother’s wife, two of the smartest, most capable women in all of London. They both ran efficient households, hosted celebrated parties, and had worked tirelessly as their husbands’ helpmeets. But none of their achievements would have been enhanced by an advanced education. “What does Wrexham think of the idea?”

Fairbank frowned. “He hasn’t had much involvement with the Trust up to this point. Since his father’s sudden death eight months ago, he’s been focused on taking over the full estate. As for the contest, I only know the board was impressed with both Mr. Pettibone’s proposal and Lady Tessa’s presentation of it. It seems we have a race on our hands, after all.”

“I should like to have a word with this Mr. Pettibone.” James glanced around the room, trying to pick out the face of an eccentric industrialist among the well-bred members of the ton. Maybe he could talk some sense into the man, convince him of the importance of providing a wider education to the young men who would lead Britain into the next generation.

“He’s not here. Lady Tessa represents him because he doesn’t show his face in public.” Fairbank turned to James and lowered his voice. “Illness. Some say the white death. Others say”—he shrugged one shoulder—“the French gout.”

James meant to ask Fairbank if he was concerned that his daughter’s friend was consorting with such a man, but when he glanced at the young woman, Lady Tessa smiled at one of the mavens, revealing she had but one dimple, on her left cheek.

Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white/ Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose/ They were but sweet, but figures of delight/ Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.

It had been years since he’d been young and foolish enough to let a Shakespeare sonnet enter his head unbidden, drawn forth merely by a pretty face. But Lady Tessa wasn’t just pretty. She was exquisite, really, with pale blond hair, wide blue eyes, that unmatched dimple, and the slightest asymmetry to her full lips.

He pushed thoughts of Lady Tessa out of his mind and fixed a practiced smile on his face, as it was finally his turn to greet the grande dame of the ball. Up close, it appeared she’d barely aged a day in the five years since he’d seen her last, and she had always been a handsome woman—tall, with golden hair touched by gray, and delicate features.

Fairbank stepped forward and took her gloved hand—just the fingertips—and bent in a dramatic bow. “Your Grace, may I present Mr. James Alcott. Perhaps you remember him from your sons’ time at Harrow.”

“Of course, Mr. Alcott.”

The duchess held out her hand and James bowed over it. “Your Grace, it’s lovely to see you again.”

“If you’ll excuse me,” Fairbank interrupted, “I must check on my daughter.” He gave another bow, this one curt. “Your Grace.”

Anger flashed across her face as Fairbank stepped away from them. “Such an impertinent man.”

If Fairbank heard her insult, he gave no indication. The duchess’s anger quickly evaporated and was replaced by a warm smile. “Not to worry, Mr. Alcott. Fairbank’s ill manners are no reflection upon you.”

“Thank you, Your Grace. I was sorry to hear of your family’s losses.”

“Thank you, Mr. Alcott.”

“May I inquire as to your sons, Your Grace? Given the difficult circumstances.”

Her smile faded. “My younger son is…well, you know how Lord Robert is. You were there when he was nearly expelled from Harrow. You said very kind things about him. I always thought that helped his position immensely. I am in your debt.”

James bowed politely while his heart hammered in his chest. This was going better than he’d hoped. “And the duke?”

“Yes, the duke.” Her smile seemed forced, then faded completely. “My elder son has suffered too many blows this past year.”

James nodded. First, his old schoolmate had inherited the heavy mantle of the dukedom through the unexpected death of his father, then within the space of months, had lost his young wife to the same foe. “I sent him my condolences and received a note from him. He seemed to be coping.” But melancholic. The duke had quoted Byron’s “Oh! Snatched Away in Beauty’s Bloom” in the letter.

The duchess held out her arm to him. “Mr. Alcott, I’m in need of some refreshment, if you’d be so kind as to escort me.”

He took her arm as she smiled apologetically at the cluster of people behind him. Their hostess fluttered in from nowhere to greet the guests in the duchess’s stead. A minute later, in the much less crowded anteroom, James handed the duchess a serving of punch in a crystal cup.

She sipped the drink while peering at him over the rim of the glass. “You’re a poet, as I recall.”

He shook his head. “Only a student of poetry, I’m afraid.”

She looked thoughtful. “I’m pleased to hear it, given your position as an advisor at Harrow and the responsibility they place in your hands. I would hardly expect a hopeless romantic to do the school justice. It’s the hope of funding a scholarship program for them that brings you to me tonight, I presume?”

Had he been a shyer sort, her direct manner would have taken him aback. Instead, he saw this as his chance to recite his well-rehearsed speech. “You’ve found me out, Your Grace, and in record time. The scholarship is a worthwhile endeavor. You see, with so many changes in society, we at Harrow find ourselves at a crossroad.”

“And England’s education system must adapt to meet the challenges of our changing world.”

That had been the heart of his premise, but he hadn’t planned to get to it so quickly. Still, he smiled. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“Nor could I.” The duchess tilted her head toward the drawing room. Following the direction of her nod, James caught sight of the loquacious blonde. “I was merely borrowing Lady Tessa’s words from earlier this evening.”

“I see. Might I ask what else the lady had to say?”

The duchess arched one eyebrow. “Ah, so you’re studying your competition as well.”

He chafed at the words “as well.” As a second son, it was far too familiar a description of him for his liking.

“The lady—and Mr. Pettibone, of course—seek to establish a university program dedicated to the education of Britain’s young women.”

James choked on his own sip of overly sweet punch. “Yes, but why should that be necessary?”

“For the same reason colleges for women are being established in Scotland and the Americas, one would suppose.” The duchess gave him a pointed sideways glance. “To meet the challenges of our changing world.”

When James set down his cup, his hands were shaking. He couldn’t remember such nervousness ever overtaking him at any of the functions he’d attended in the years he’d been representing Harrow, but nothing was going as planned this evening. “I just meant, most women receive all the training they need through governesses and tutors. There were even a few who sat in on men’s courses when I was at Oxford.”

“Yes, some women manage that, but only after securing agreement from their guardians, the school administrators, the professors, and every man in their classes. One might see that as a bit of an impediment to higher learning, if one were to look at it objectively.”

This was going badly. So, so badly. No need to worry. Well, perhaps to worry, but not to panic. James had represented Harrow’s interests for years in the face of ever-present competition from the cutthroat sorts at Eton. Surely he could manage interference presented by one lovely woman and her addled benefactor, or whatever he was to her.

“I apologize if I’ve offended you, Your Grace.” He bowed. “No doubt Lady Tessa brings an enlightened view to such discourse. One does wonder, though, how she came to represent the reclusive Mr. Pettibone’s cause.”

“She does more than represent the cause, Mr. Alcott. She personifies it. She attends university with her brother—a brilliant scientist, I understand—to help him with some challenges he has with non-scientific subjects. She’ll never receive a degree to show for it, but she displays a keen intellect on any number of academic topics. I think the two of you would be fast friends, were you to get past your somewhat…démodé opinion of women’s education.” She held out her arm to him. “Come, I’ll introduce you.”

James, reeling from the insult, did his best to maintain a smiling, placid countenance. “I’m not sure that’s appropriate.”

“Nonsense.” She narrowed her eyes, assessing him. “If you do the sporting thing and meet our Lady Tessa, I’ll extend an invitation for you to visit Wrexham’s country house, where he’ll no doubt be holed up until the eve of the award ceremony. That’s why you sought out my company this evening, isn’t it?”

Lady Tessa might possess a keen intellect, but he wasn’t sure it could approach the duchess’s shrewdness. “As you wish, Your Grace.”

She nodded approvingly. “Good. It’s settled.”

James offered her his arm and they navigated past the dancers in the ballroom in search of his rival. He spotted her quickly, and even from a distance, he noticed her solitary dimple and the way her sky-blue dress so finely displayed her curves and set off her sparkling blue eyes.

And all that’s best of dark and bright/ Meet in her aspect and her eyes.

James shook his head to clear it of Lord Byron’s cloying nonsense and girded himself for his first—and he hoped last—meeting with his formidable opponent.


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