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A USEFUL WOMAN

Chapter One — The Little Scandals of the Little Season

The lady patronesses of Almack’s . . . carried matters—to say with a high hand seems almost inadequate—shall I write, with a clenched fist?

—E. Beresford Chancellor, The Annals of Almack’s

London, February 15, 1817

“Are you sure we may expect callers this early?” asked Mrs. Kendricks.

Rosalind orne smiled up at her housekeeper. She was breakfasting in her parlor with the small table drawn up close to the coal fire. In addition to providing extra warmth, this arrangement allowed her to surreptitiously toast bits of mu n on her fork. Rosalind made sure she’d eaten the evidence of this unladylike occupation before ringing the bell.

“They will be here,” she told Mrs. Kendricks rmly. “I expect we’ll be seeing Miss Littlefield first, followed by Mr. Faulks. I have laid the most tempting bait possible in front of them. Power is about to change hands. e world will not wait for polite visiting hours to discover the details.” Courtesy dictated that morning visitors did not present themselves before eleven ?o’clock, but the church bells, which tolled solemnly outside the frosted windows, declared it had just gone on nine.

“Well, that should make for a busy season after all.”

“Indeed it will, Mrs. Kendricks, if we’re lucky. I trust we are ready to receive?”

“Of course, miss.” Mrs. Kendricks was a thin, dark woman with severe eyes and narrow, calloused hands. Her long years in service had erased the element of surprise from her being, and taken a goodly portion of her ability to smile with it. “The coffee is ready, and I’ve baked some of my ginger biscuits as well.”

Rosalind had no time for further remarks, for at that moment the doorbell jangled, not once, but four times. She and Mrs. Kendricks exchanged a knowing glance before the housekeeper departed to open the door for the insistent visitor.

Or visitors. It was possible that Alice Littlefield had met Sanderson Faulks on the way to Little Russell Street. Gentleman that he was, Mr. Faulks would surely offer Alice a ride in his well-sprung and—more importantly—warm carriage. Winter had clamped down hard this year, and London’s streets were ankle deep in snow and frozen mud.

Rosalind folded her newspaper beside the large stack of her correspondence and stood to receive her early callers.

Upon first impression, Rosalind orne was often considered either striking or imperious. Unusually tall, she possessed the figure and bearing of a grand dame from a previous era—statuesque, confident, and thoroughly poised, despite the modesty of both her ?surroundings and her made-over blue dress with its sparse lace trim. Although her rich golden hair had been called her finest asset, she habitually wore it in a severe knot at the nape of her neck. Her wide-set blue eyes, on the other hand, were considered generally unremarkable, except for the unsettlingly direct way they had of looking at a person, any person, of any rank.

“Cold” was another word frequently applied to Rosalind orne.

As such, she was as much of a contrast to the persons who entered her diminutive parlor as they were to each other. Pretty, brisk, tiny, and dark, Alice Little eld breezed into the room, and straight up to Rosalind.

“I am not speaking to you!” Alice announced. “You’ve been keeping secrets and I’m quite put out!” Despite this declaration, she kissed Rosalind soundly on the cheek.

“May I also bid you good morning, Miss orne?” drawled Sanderson Faulks as he bowed over her hand with the weary politeness that was the hallmark of the dandy set. Mr. Faulks was tall, lean, and pale, and if he had ever moved briskly, Rosalind expected it was because either his life or his fortune was in imminent danger. “If you had not already discerned it from Miss Littlefield’s eloquent exclamation, you see here two wretched pilgrims come to present their humble petitions at the shrine of truth and knowledge.”

“Fiddlesticks, Mr. Faulks,” announced Alice. “Lovely, of course, but fiddlesticks still. Is there co ee?”

“Mrs. Kendricks is bringing it now. Good morning, Mr. Faulks. Good morning, Alice. Do sit down. I am so sorry my note forced you both out so early.”

“Really, Miss Thorne!” Mr. Faulks’s long, mobile face became the very picture of woe as he drew out a chair for Alice. “I strongly suspect you are now the one talking, as Miss Littlefield so quaintly puts it, fiddlesticks.” Dandy though he might be, Mr. Faulks betrayed no hint of discomfort or fastidiousness as he took his own place on Rosalind’s worn velvet sofa.

“Of course it’s fiddlesticks,” Alice plumped herself down on the cane-bottomed chair, flipped open her notebook and took up her pencil. Alice had been trained in deportment by the same masters who had drilled Rosalind in the rigors of their art. Unlike Rosalind, however, Alice had cast off this early instruction almost as soon as she had ceased to be a minor heiress and begun supporting herself by writing for the newspapers and magazines.

“Rosalind’s been up for at least two hours waiting for us. One can tell by the breakfast table, and the morning papers, already half read.”

“All right, you’ve caught me out.” Rosalind moved her letters and papers to one side so Mrs. Kendricks could set down the coffee tray. Very little of the ancestral plate had passed unscathed through the abrupt transitions in the Thorne family fortunes, but the silver coffee set had been kept intact. Rosalind at once set about the business of pouring out and fixing the first cup with two sugar lumps and a delicate dollop of milk.

“But surely we should wait until you’ve had your coffee before we discuss business?”

“Mr. Faulks, I may be about to commit murder.” Alice turned a cold shoulder toward her hostess, but not before she took her coffee.

“Heaven forbid, Miss Littlefield. I’ve not had my morning cup yet, and Miss orne knows my taste to perfection.” Faulks accepted the second coffee, took a long sip, and sighed like a man who has experienced true greatness. “Ah! Now. Miss Thorne, I beg you to spare your life and my susceptible nerves and tell us quickly. Is it true? Is one of the mighty Lady Patronesses from Almack’s Assembly Rooms about to retire her post?”

It was tempting to tease her friends a moment longer, but Rosalind decided against it. She needed their goodwill for several ?important matters yet today.

“Yes, it is true,” she said. “I’ve received confirmation from a highly reliable source. One of the ladies is to step down, and there will be a new patroness at Almack’s.”

“I knew it!” cried Alice. “Oh, George will be furious that I got to you before he could!”

A stranger to London and its gilded social season might have been startled to hear such breathless suspense raised over the question of a single woman on the governing committee of a single suite of assembly rooms; especially when the popular press regularly mocked Almack’s as a dull place that foolishly clung to tyrannical rules regarding dress and manners, not to mention its meager bread-and-butter refreshments.

Despite this, however, Almack’s remained far more than a set of assembly rooms where dances and dinners might be held. It was nothing less than the gateway to the uppermost strata of London society. To be admitted to one of Almack’s weekly subscription balls was to be given the chance to shine before the women who controlled social life across the length and breadth of the United Kingdoms. To be turned away, on the other hand, marked one indelibly as second rate.

Only a member of the Almack’s board—a lady patroness— could decide who would be admitted to the assemblies. Without their approval, it did not matter what a person’s rank or fortune might be. at person would be left to languish in the cold.

“Now quickly, Rosalind, which lady is leaving?” Alice Littlefield’s eyes shone with childlike enthusiasm—or perhaps it was simple greed. The lady patronesses were petted, courted, feted, and discussed throughout the fashionable world, and the newspapers observed their movements as closely as if they were royalty.

“It can’t be Lady Jersey. She’ll die in harness. The Princess Esterhazy? Or is it Lady Blanchard? ere’ve been whispers that Lord Blanchard is in line for a post abroad.”

Rosalind raised her coffee cup. A small smile played about her mouth as she took a swallow.

“I’ll tell you, but I’ll need something in return. From each of you.”

“Mr. Faulks . . .” Alice gripped her pencil as if she meant to squeeze blood or gold from it.

“Now, now, Miss Littlefield. Might I advise you to consider the look of delight on your editor’s face when you deliver this news, piping hot for his delectation? Not to mention the jealousy of your dear brother, George?”

“All right, all right,” muttered Alice. “You win, Rosalind. What is it you want?”

“A friend of mine, Mrs. Nottingham, is giving a party at her London house to help brighten the little season.” e “little season” was the name given to the time between Parliament’s opening and Easter Week. Usually it lasted most of February and on into March. During this time, fashionable society made its way back to London from the country and set about prepar- ing for the gaudy pageant that was the social season.

“I spy Miss orne’s meaning.” Mr. Faulks gave Alice a sig- ni cant nod. “Mr. Nottingham, MP, has something up his sleeve for the coming session of Parliament and Mrs. N. wishes to rally support in the drawing rooms.”

Alice rolled her eyes. “ ank you, Mr. Faulks, I do read the papers as well as write for them.”

“It will be an elegant and exclusive event,” Rosalind went on, unperturbed by Mr. Faulk’s aside. “Here is the guest list.” She lifted a sheet of paper from her correspondence and handed it to Alice. “I hope you’ll find a few lines in your column to mention it will be a magnificent a air; a sign of a delightful season to come for one of our most sparkling and sagacious political hostesses.”

Alice made a small, strangled noise. At the same time, her pencil flew across the page, setting down Rosalind’s words in practiced shorthand. “Any further dictation?”

“Not at this time, but I will let you know if anything else occurs.”

“You always do.”

“And what is the ransom I am to pay for this information which you guard so jealously?” inquired Mr. Faulks.

“You’re to attend the party.”

“In fact, your name’s already on the guest list.” Alice squinted at the page Rosalind had given her. “Sanderson Faulks, noted collector and art critic. You forgot pride of the dandy set, Rosalind. I’ll make sure it’s added.”

“Oh, no.” The blood drained from Faulks’s cheek. “Not a political party. You may speak as much flummery as you please about Mrs. Nottingham being sparkling, but she’s a fusty old cat and we all know it. I will not open my season in an over lled drawing room being bored to tears about reform bills.”

“Mrs. Nottingham’s son is an artist,” Rosalind told him. “He’s back from the Continent. ey’ve some of his work in their gal- lery. If you like what you see there, you’ll have a new nd to grace your season.”

“I said no. Not even should you refuse to name the retiring patroness.”

“Mr. Faulks,” said Alice darkly. “Rosalind is not the only one risking her life at this moment.”

“A political party given by a parvenue mama from a pocket borough whose son has artistic pretensions? You won’t have to kill me, Miss Little eld. Miss orne has done the deed.”

“I have seen young Nottingham’s work.” Rosalind leveled her direct gaze at the collector. “He is worth a few hours at the start of your season, or any other time.”

Faulks held his silence under Rosalind’s full attention for almost ten seconds, which was more than many men could manage. At last, he sighed. “Only for you, Miss Thorne. Now, out with it.” He rapped his knuckles smartly against the sofa’s arm. “Which of the lady patronesses will retire this season?”

“Alice guessed it,” replied Rosalind. “Lord Blanchard has received a diplomatic posting to Konigsberg. At the rst ball of the season, Lady Blanchard will announce she is withdrawing from the Almack’s board so she can accompany her husband abroad.”

Both visitors expelled the breaths they had been holding.

“Who is to be her replacement?” Alice turned a fresh page in her notebook.

Rosalind shook her head. “That I cannot yet tell you.”

“And won’t be able to for some months,” said Mr. Faulks shrewdly. “If I know Lady Jersey and her cronies, they’ll spend the entire season vetting the candidates, and incidentally setting the cream of ambitious haut ton matronry at each other’s throats.”

“There’ll be blood in the ballrooms.” Alice tapped chin with her pencil. “Unfortunately, I don’t think my editor will care for that turn of phrase.”

“An affable a ray to light a fire betting books in White’s and Brook’s,” said Faulks. “And you may not quote me on that, Miss Littlefield.” He reached out and closed Alice’s notebook firmly. “ at is a bon mot of my own composing and I don’t care to hear myself repeated all over the gossip sheets.”

“Besides,” said Alice, “you’ll need it for your own use when you’ve a wider audience than a couple of spinsters.”

Faulks laid one manicured hand over his breast. “I would never use such a vulgar epithet when describing two such excellent ladies. But otherwise, you are correct.”

“Excuse me, miss.” Mrs. Kendricks entered, carrying a silver tray with a single letter in its center. “ is just came, by hand. e boy said he was to wait for a reply.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Kendricks.” Rosalind picked up the letter and looked at the direction. “You can stop craning your neck, Alice. I recognize the hand. It’s from Tamwell House.”

“Is it?” Alice opened her book and began writing again. “ at means Honoria Aimesworth and her mother are nally back from Switzerland? ey left so very suddenly last year . . .”

“Alice,” said Rosalind sternly. “Leave this one alone. You know very well that Aimesworths have been back for months, and spent a quiet Christmas at their country house.”

“I do know it,” said Alice. “I was just wondering if you did.” “Of course I did. Why wouldn’t I?”?Alice bit the end of her pencil and made no answer. Rosalind

frowned.?“How stimulating it is to see a professional engaged in the

delicate cut and thrust of social intercourse.” Mr. Faulks rose to his feet. “I could watch all day. Alas, however, I have business of my own and must bid you ladies adieu. Miss Littlefield, is there anywhere I may drop you?”

Alice hesitated, apparently debating whether Rosalind might be convinced to yield more information. is time, however, discretion proved the better part, and Alice also rose.

“Thank you, Mr. Faulks. It seems I also have work to do and should go at once to my paper’s offices.”

“My carriage and my person are entirely at your service, Miss Little eld. If I may?” He rang the bell for Mrs. Kendricks and requested his hat and cape as well as Alice’s wrap. “Adieu, Miss Thorne.” He bowed to Rosalind.

But although Mr. Faulks turned to go, Alice didn’t move. “I’ll be there in a moment. I’ve dropped my pencil.” Alice said this directly to Rosalind and so missed the signi cant way in which Mr. Faulks glanced from her to their hostess before he retreated into Rosalind’s small foyer.

“Rosalind,” Alice said as soon as the parlor door shut, “if you are going to be spending any time with the Aimesworths this season, you should know you will probably be seeing a great deal of Devon Winterbourne. Only, he’s Lord Casselmain now.”

Rosalind did not blanch. She had too many years of practice at self-control for any such display.

“I knew, of course, his brother had died,” she said softly. “But why should he be connected to the Aimesworths?”

“There are rumors in the air beyond the ones regarding Almack’s, and they’re linking Lord Casselmain with Honoria Aimesworth.”

Rosalind lowered herself gracefully into her chair. She was certain Alice noted how she kept her hand pressed at against the table to prevent it from trembling.

“It, of course, can mean nothing to you personally,” Alice prompted her. “But it is always good to be informed.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly. You needn’t be concerned about me.”

“Only I had thought you once cherished a certain preference for Lord Casselmain.”

The smile that turned up the corners of Rosalind’s mouth was entirely arti cial. She was sure Alice saw that, too. “Once. For about an hour, I think, when we were both younger and my social standing was rather different.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll consider staying away from Tamwell House?” Alice asked.

“I might, but as things are . . . Lady Aimesworth has been generous in displaying her gratitude for my assistance in the past.” “You mean with helping smooth things over when Honoria got jilted by Phineas Worth.”

Rosalind didn’t bother to answer that. “If she invites me for even part of the season, I may not be able to turn her down.”

“I do understand.” Alice pressed Rosalind’s hand once. “Good luck. Be sure to call on me if you need anything.”

“I will, dear Alice. Thank you.”

They made their farewells and Alice took herself o after Mr. Faulks. Rosalind Thorne stayed as she was for a very long time. It was only when she was certain her hands had stopped shaking that she picked up the new letter and broke its seal.

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