Almack’s Assembly Rooms
King Street, London
A Thursday morning
The ormolu clock on the chimneypiece was striking seven as Annabel, Lady Fellbridge, slipped into her seat in the white-and-gold paneled room and glanced around the table, taking a quick count. Ah, good—she was not the last to arrive. Even after more than a year, being the newest member of the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s still made her feel like a young girl allowed to dine with the adults for the first time: she’d thought about sneaking in under a concealing shadow in case she was late, but fortunately that had not been necessary.
“Good morning, Emily,” she murmured, untying her hat. Seven o’clock! A bracing cup of coffee would be very welcome just now, even though she’d retired early last night.
Next to her, Lady Emily Cowper brightened. “Oh, coffee is an excellent idea, Annabel. Might we order some, Sally?”
“Hmm?” Lady Jersey looked up from the paper she’d been studying. Her forehead was uncharacteristically creased with worry lines. “Coffee? Oh goodness, yes. Indeed, I should have thought of it.” She rang the bell on the table in front of her.
Annabel gave her friend a small smile. Emily was usually very good about staying out of her friends’ minds, but it was seven in the morning, after all.
“I know,” Emily whispered. “I do beg your pardon. I had just been hoping that someone would suggest coffee and forgot myself.”
The door banged open, and Countess Dorothea Lieven stalked into the room. “At seven o’clock of a morning I am usually still asleep,” she announced, glaring around the table—besides Annabel and Emily and Sally, there was Lady Sefton, Mrs. Drummond-Burrell (who looked exhausted, Annabel thought), Lady Frances Dalrymple, and grim-faced Lady Bathurst. “I trust that there is a good reason for me to be so rudely drawn from my bed at this barbaric hour.”
“I enjoy getting up early.” Maria Sefton smiled her sweet but rather silly smile. “The birds are more willing to talk to me then. Very important source of news, the birds.”
Dorothea snorted and sat down. Despite her complaints about the hour, she was as elegantly turned out as always in a corded muslin walking dress and Pomona green spencer. Her black curls bristled around her face like Medusa’s snakes. One of them stirred and hissed, and she flicked it with a finger. “Hush. You could still be asleep, unlike me.”
The curl subsided.
“I think you’ll find that there’s an excellent reason for our meeting so early, and not on a Monday.” Unlike Dorothea, Sally looked tired and rumpled. “Ah,” she said, as a footman scratched at the door. “Come in. Coffee for eight, if you will. And bring an extra cup.”
Emily raised an eyebrow. When the footman had left she asked, “Are we expecting a guest?”
“Not quite.” Sally glanced at the watch pinned to her gown. “Mr. Almack will be joining us this morning.”
Annabel sat up a little straighter, as did the other ladies around the table. Mr. Almack was retired from the management of the assembly rooms which bore his name and where they sat today—in fact, he’d died nearly thirty years before. But he still kept a firm (if spectral) hand on the other, more covert side of his business. Even so, he did not attend every meeting. If he were coming today, whatever was going on must be serious.
“Can Mr. Almack drink coffee?” Frances Dalrymple, on Annabel’s other side, whispered to her. Her blue eyes were even wider than usual. “I don’t see how a ghost—”
“I expect he enjoys the scent,” Annabel murmured back.
“Once he arrives, we can proceed.” Sally sighed and tapped her pencil on the table.
Clementina Drummond-Burrell cocked her head. “He’s already here.”
“William?” Sally frowned.
A deep chuckle came from the seemingly empty chair next to Maria, who jumped. “My apologies. I didna mean to startle you, Lady Sefton.”
Georgiana Bathurst frowned. “Hmmph.”
The coffee arrived. After Sally had poured for everyone, an expectant silence fell. She cleared her throat. “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. You will, I think, forgive me for using the new warning messenger when you hear why we have gathered.”
“Doubtful,” Dorothea muttered.
Annabel couldn’t help agreeing with her a little. Having a ghostly footman appear in one’s bedroom to urgently request her attendance at a special meeting at Almack’s was a bit of a shock, though it was marginally better than the talking pigeons that had done the job last year, when Annabel first joined. They had frequently been incomprehensible and almost always left messes on the windowsills—
She started. “I’m sorry, Sally. Waiting for the coffee to take effect.”
Mr. Almack chuckled again. Annabel wondered if he’d been so jolly whilst in corporeal form. “So am I, Lady Fellbridge, though I expect my wait will be a wee bit longer than yours. Pray begin again, Lady Jersey.”
Sally sighed. “Very well. You weren’t at last night’s ball, Annabel—we understand, of course.”
“Thank you.” Last night’s ball was one of Almack’s regular Wednesday night subscription balls. It was also the anniversary of poor Freddy’s death, and while she had long since left off wearing black for her late husband, she had not felt a busy social evening to be quite the thing, even after three years.
“You’re welcome. Those of us who did attend, however, were appalled to notice a number of persons who should not have been there.”
Good heavens. “What persons?”
Clementina Drummond-Burrell looked as though there were a bad smell in the room. “Mushrooms. Cits. Merchants, and a—a fishmonger!”
“A very wealthy one,” Maria assured Annabel. “I doubt he actually sells the fish himself anymore. But still…” She shook her head.
“You are très énervé because he asked you to dance,” Dorothea said with what could only be called malicious glee. “Were you afraid he still smelt of fish?”
Clementina scowled. Her preternaturally acute senses would probably have detected if the man had even thought about fish that evening. “You’re just annoyed because his wife got her gown from your mantua-maker.”
“Now, ladies—” Sally began.
“A fishmonger?” Annabel interrupted, to head off any further quarreling. “But how?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out. This may seem like a small matter, but you all must understand its potential import.” Sally looked at each of them, her expression somber. “Much is at stake here.”
Annabel nodded. The Wednesday night balls at Almack’s in King Street were the most exclusive social events of the London season. Only those of superior birth and breeding were given the vouchers that permitted them to purchase tickets, and the vouchers were only bestowed by the Lady Patronesses—the ladies now assembled in this room. Almack’s reputation as “the Marriage Mart,” the place where the sons and daughters of the upper classes could meet and conduct courtships under the protective gaze of their mamas and of the Lady Patronesses, was an important one. No one wanted their gently-bred offspring to fall for someone not of their sphere, so this matter of strangers at a ball was a serious one: Almack’s very raison d’être was being threatened. Without its reputation there would be no point to Almack’s, and Almack’s Lady Patronesses would not be needed and unable to use the cover of Almack’s to fulfill their other mission—the guarding of London from supernatural dangers.
“You are very right, Sally, but I don’t understand,” Maria said. “None of us gave vouchers to these people—”
“Are we certain of that?” Georgiana Bathurst interrupted. Annabel winced at her acid tone; perhaps her sciatica was troubling her again. Being able to change one’s body to take the shape of any animal seemed to lead to a tendency to rheumatism. Or it might just have been Georgiana being Georgiana.
“They certainly weren’t on the voucher list,” Sally replied, almost as acidly. “I checked. Would you care to corroborate?” She indicated a thick pile of paper on the table in front of her. Georgiana grimaced and shook her head.
“They weren’t at the ball last week.” Emily sipped her coffee thoughtfully. “So that means something happened over this past week to enable them to get vouchers and purchase their tickets.”
“What do you mean, ‘something happened?’” Georgiana snapped.
“Well, isn’t it obvious? Someone must be forging vouchers.”
There was a momentary stunned silence.
“Forging vouchers?” Maria Sefton finally said. “But…but that’s wicked!”
Dorothea groaned and leaned her forehead in her hand. A few of her curls writhed in protest.
“Indeed, Maria. But that is what appears to have occurred.” Sally glanced at Mr. Almack—or the chair his incorporeal form occupied—and nodded. “Annabel, I believe you’re probably the best person to take this on. Your shadow-shaping will no doubt prove useful in an investigation where stealth will doubtless be required.”
“Me?” Annabel’s voice squeaked. Surely one of the older, more experienced ladies should lead an investigation of such importance to their organization. “That is, thank you, Sally. I shall do my best.”
“I’m sure you will. Frances would be a good choice to assist you.” Frances was a spinster in her thirties, eldest daughter of the Duke of Carrick, and devoted to her King Charles spaniels and to reading three-volume novels—and anything else that came her way; she could hold an object and sense its origins or who had last touched it. “We’ll meet again Monday, an hour earlier than usual. That is all for today. Thank you for coming on such short notice. Annabel, a word before you go?”
Annabel waited while the other ladies gathered their wraps and left the room. Sally probably wanted to have an encouraging chat to prepare her for her first investigation. But Sally’s face when she turned to her was anything but encouraging. “Please be seated, Annabel. I wanted to explain why I gave you this investigation.”
“I am aware it is a great honor to lead my first,” Annabel said cautiously.
“Of course it is,” Sally agreed. “But it’s not just that. Forging vouchers strikes at the very heart of Almack’s. If this isn’t stopped, its reputation might be irretrievably ruined. Customarily a more senior lady might have been expected to take this investigation. I might have myself, except for one thing.”
Sally fixed her with an unwavering look. “According to Mr. Willis, all the questionable vouchers have been signed by you.”
“I b-beg your pardon?” Annabel swallowed hard. Her name. On the vouchers. Someone had used her name— “You can’t think—you don’t really believe I would—”
Sally reached out and touched her hand. “No, Annabel, I don’t. I should have said that straight away. I know you well enough to be perfectly certain that you would never do such a thing. And that’s why I want you to investigate this. You should be allowed to clear your own name—hopefully before next Wednesday’s ball.”
Annabel took a deep breath, and then another. “Why did Mr. Willis give tickets to whoever came for them if he suspected the authenticity of the vouchers that were presented to him?” she asked, her voice mostly steady.
“He didn’t have any doubts at the time. It was only when I spoke to him this morning that he recalled anything out of the ordinary—and that was merely that some of the footmen who came to purchase the tickets wore unfamiliar livery. When he thought about it further, he realized that all the unfamiliar footmen bore vouchers signed by you. I think that in the future we must supply him with a voucher list to check names against.” She sighed. “More paperwork.”
Now that the initial shock was past, it was easier to think. “If they all had my name on them, that suggests they came from the same source.”
“And probably a not very experienced criminal one,” Sally added. “A cleverer person would have used more than one of our names to avoid notice.”
“Yes.” Annabel swallowed. “But why me?”
“That is the interesting question. Do you have any notion why someone would have chosen to use your name on their forged vouchers?”
“I haven’t the faintest—oh, no…” Annabel closed her eyes. Because suddenly she was sure she knew precisely why her name had been used on the forged vouchers.
* * *
Early last week, she had been out paying calls and ordering new shirts for her sons, who would be home shortly for the Easter holiday from their first year at Eton. Her unflappable butler Hanscomb had, as usual, opened the door for her on her return.
“Good afternoon, madam. Lady Andromeda Colerain has called and is presently leaving you a note in the library,” he said, helping her off with her pelisse.
“Lady Andromeda? Thank you, Hanscomb. I’ll go directly up to her.”
Annabel had not seen her old friend in some weeks. They had made their come-outs together; Andie, though lovely, accomplished, and a considerable heiress, had remained unmarried, much to the despair of her doting parents. She was a dear, but her taste in men could only be described as execrable. Was something wrong? If she were paying a purely social call, she would not have cajoled Hanscomb into letting her write a note.
“Andie!” she exclaimed as she entered the library. “It’s lovely to see you.”
Andie looked up from Annabel’s desk, where she was frowning over a heavily blotted piece of Annabel’s notepaper. “I hope you don’t mind—Hanscomb said I might leave you a note. This pen is quite dreadful, you know. I’ve already spoilt half a dozen sheets.”
Annabel sighed inwardly. Her stock of writing paper had been sadly diminished since becoming a Lady Patroness; she had hoped to not have to reorder it quite so soon. “You never could trim a pen properly. Leave it alone and come tell me what your urgent matter is about. Do you know, I’ve scarcely seen you this spring.” She went to the sofa near the fireplace and sat down, patting the cushion next to her.
Andie obediently rose. “I know. I’ve been so wrapped up in—in—oh, I have been desperate to speak with you, but Mama barely lets me out of the house these days. You’re the only one I can confide in.”
Oh dear. “Your mother loves you dearly. Whatever it is you have to confide, can you not do so in her?”
“Of course not! She and Papa never understand.”
On the contrary, they understood all too well. “Very well, who is it this time?”
“Who is who?” Andie was all affronted dignity.
“Your latest Prince Charming.”
Andie’s hauteur dissolved like a lump of sugar in hot tea. “Oh, Annabel, you always know—that’s why I love you. He’s—I—I’ve never met anyone like him before.”
“Good Lord—you haven’t gone and fallen in love with a rat-catcher, have you?”
“How could you say such a thing?”
Annabel sighed. “You’d never met anyone like the man who trained fighting cocks, or the wild animal keeper at Astley’s Amphitheatre, or the draper’s assistant who hung your mother’s new drawing room curtains, or the mesmerist you met God-knows-where.” She ticked them off her fingers. “That leaves us a rat-catcher, a publican, or a prize-fighter.”
A radiant smile broke across Andie’s lovely face, and she took Annabel’s hand and squeezed it. “Oh, darling—how did you guess? Yes, my Tom’s a boxer—and a very, very good one, I am given to understand. My brother Miles says his purses are almost as high as Molineaux’s.”
Annabel closed her mouth, which had dropped open in astonishment. The fighting cock trainer had been bad, but this was worse. Far worse. “Where in heaven’s name did you meet him?”
“Walking with Miles in Hyde Park—he knows the most interesting people—and it was love at first sight! I can’t wait for you to meet him—he’s so big and strong and manly and has the dearest little crooked nose. He says it’s been broken at least six times—can you imagine? Once—was it the fifth time?—it was broken by Cribb himself. Tom’s so proud of that—why are you looking at me that way?”
Andie’s parents might want to have a talk with her brother about the company he kept. “Your father’s the Earl of Allston. You can’t marry a boxer.”
Her soft brown eyes filled with tears. “But I love him!”
“You loved the other ones too, if you recall.”
“No I didn’t. Those were just—just the fleeting fancies of an impressionable child. But I’m twenty-six now—it can’t be that.” She clutched Annabel’s hand harder.
Oh, Andie. Under her friend’s starry-eyed radiance Annabel could feel the bewilderment of an over-indulged girl who was waking up to the fact that her girlhood had passed and that she had little idea of how to be a woman. This would take delicate handling. “How can I help you, dear?” she asked gently.
Andie’s smile came out from behind the rain-clouds. “I knew I could rely on you. Annabel, can’t you get Tom a voucher for Almack’s? If Mama and her friends can see what a fine figure of a man he is—I’m sure he’ll blend right in. He wears the prettiest waistcoats—they’re always pink because his mother’s name was Rose. Isn’t that sweet of him? If only his hair were a little longer to cover that cauliflower ear of his,” she added in a less confident tone. “But no one will notice a little thing like that. And if he smiles with his mouth closed, they won’t notice the missing tooth. They’ll see that he’s—he’s—one of nature’s gentlemen, just like that Gentleman Jackson my brothers are mad about.”
Annabel refrained from retorting that Gentleman Jackson was enough of a gentleman to not try to insert himself where he would not be wanted. “Andie, you cannot be serious.”
“I am very serious!”
Patience, Annabel. She’s not in her right mind just now. “But it isn’t just up to me, you know,” she said aloud. “All the Lady Patronesses have to agree to give someone a voucher. And I’m afraid that most of them simply won’t be able to accept a prize-fighter at Almack’s, no matter how gentlemanly he is.”
Andie frowned. “It’s not fair. If a man is honest and upright, he should not be barred from anywhere. And Tom has vowed that he won’t do any house-breaking ever again—he promised me that he only served as look-out the last time. Oh, Annabel, you will try, won’t you?”
Dear heaven—far worse than the cock trainer. “No, Andie, I will not.”
Andie’s eyes filled with tears again. “But—”
Annabel took both her hands and held them tightly. “Andie, listen to me. We’ve been friends for years, and I love you dearly. But I will not do this. For one thing, it is impossible; your parents will never approve of your marrying a prize-fighter, no matter how much of a nature’s gentleman he is—though I don’t think nature’s gentlemen serve as look-outs in robberies. And second, I will not cause my fellow Lady Patronesses to wonder if I’ve taken leave of my senses. Asking for a voucher for a prize-fighter with a dubious past? They’ll fall over laughing…and never trust me again. I’m sorry, darling, but no.”
Andie wrenched her hands from Annabel’s. “I thought you of all people would understand. You’re just as bad as Mama and my father!” She leapt to her feet and scowled at Annabel. “And I thought you were my friend.”
“I am.” She reminded herself that Andie had reacted in much the same way when she had refused to help her elope with the mesmerist. “That’s why I won’t help you.”
“Oh, you—you traitor.” Andie’s voice positively throbbed. “You’ll be sorry—you’ll see! My Tom and I will dance at Almack’s whether you like it or not!” She stormed from the room in a manner that would have drawn much applause at Covent Garden. Annabel heard her steps fleeing down the stairs, heard someone—Hanscomb, most likely—inquire if Lady Andromeda needed assistance, heard her inarticulate response and the sound of the front door closing with a bang.
She sat back against the cushions of the sofa and closed her eyes for a moment. It was easy to forget how tiring these grand emotional scenes could be—or was tiresome the more apt description? Both, probably. In a moment she would go down and apologize to Hanscomb for subjecting him to Andie’s—
Footsteps hurrying back up the stairs made her open her eyes and sit up. Hanscomb flew into the room, looking more agitated than she’d ever seen him. “Your ladyship—Lady Andromeda—she’s been hurt!” he blurted.
“What?” Annabel was already off the sofa. “How?
“Just now—” The poor man could hardly catch his breath. “She ran out the door and directly into the street—didn’t seem to notice the carriage—” He scurried after her down the stairs. “I think she—was crying.”
Annabel flew down the last few stairs and out the door into Chesterfield Street.
Andie lay in the street, evidently knocked senseless. A few feet down the road the high phaeton that had been the cause of her injury was being held by a groom who was trying to calm the horses hitched to it. Three men knelt at her side; one of them held her wrist in a reassuringly professional manner. “Don’t you dare try to lift her, you young idiot, until I can ascertain whether she has broken any bones,” he was saying as Annabel joined them.
“Oh, surely not!” The man thus addressed sounded young, frightened, and Scottish—and was very handsome, with auburn curls and bright blue eyes.
“If you’ve gone and murthered Lady Andromeda, m’lord will have your guts for garters.” The third man, whom Annabel recognized as Andie’s father’s coachman, spoke with gloomy relish.
“Is she badly injured?” Annabel addressed the wrist-holder, who had finished taking Andie’s pulse and was gently turning her head from side to side.
“Not badly from what I can tell from such a cursory examination, though she will want to spend several days in bed. Are you any relation to this young woman?” The physician—for surely he must be one—looked up at Annabel with cool gray eyes. He was younger than she had expected from his words and manner.
“She ain’t no woman, she’s a lady,” the coachman muttered.
“She’s my friend. She was paying a call and, er, grew upset over the course of our discussion.” She looked down at Andie anxiously. “She—she has a great deal of sensibility.”
“The poor bonny lassie,” the handsome one said softly. “I didn’t see her—I swear it, ma’am. She wasn’t there—and then suddenly she was. It’s my first time driving in London—I daresay I was distracted.” He swallowed. “What can I do to help?”
“Get your ridiculous rig out of the road, for one thing,” the physician snapped at him. “And you—you’re her coachman? For God’s sake, stop standing there like a highway milestone and help me lift her into your carriage so we can take her home.” He rose, reached into his coat pocket, and handed Annabel a card. “I was paying a call on one of your neighbors, ma’am. It’s fortunate I happened to be near.”
Annabel glanced at the card—Doctor Cyrus Quant-Roper, of Harley Street. The name sounded familiar… “I’m glad you were, sir. I am Lady Fellbridge, and this is Lady Andromeda Colerain. Her father is Lord Allston.” It was strange to be making introductions for an unconscious person.
She watched as the doctor and the coachman discussed the best way to lift Andie into the barouche, while the young man, who had helped his groom calm his horses and move the phaeton out of the road, hovered alongside. “May I ask who you are, sir?” she asked him pleasantly but pointedly.
“Oh!” The young man fumbled in his pocket. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m so upset that I can’t think straight. I’m Stranraer.”
He handed Annabel a card. She just had time to register the fact that it bore a ducal coronet when a low moan quickly drew her attention back to her injured friend. Andie was regarding them blearily. “What…where am I?”
The three men all started speaking at once. Annabel tried to shush them but it was the young duke who did the trick by bending over Andie and sweeping her into his arms. “It was all my fault, ma’am. But you’ll be back in full bloom in no time, says the good doctor here.”
Andie stared up at him as he carried her to the barouche and stepped right up into it before tenderly depositing her on the seat. “But who are you? How—oh, my head.” She screwed her eyes shut and winced.
Annabel came forward. “Andie, let’s get you home. We’ll worry about introductions later.”
“I will, of course, accompany you,” Dr. Quant-Roper put in.
“And I,” said the Duke of Stranraer.
In the end both men did, Stranraer following Andie and the doctor in his phaeton. Annabel would have gone as well, but Andie refused her company and would not even look at her.
* * *
Sally sat back in her chair after Annabel told her about Andie’s accident. “Hmm. Do you think she might have taken blank vouchers from your desk while she was writing the note?”
“I fear that it’s possible. I shall check to see if there are any missing. She did have the opportunity, though, and when she’s in love her judgment isn’t…good. I’ve sent her several notes but she hasn’t replied. When I wrote to her mother, Lady Allston’s reply was polite but didn’t say much more than that Andie was on the mend.” Annabel tried not to let her hurt show in her voice. “All I can conclude is that she’s still in love with her prize-fighter and doing a good job of ‘making me sorry.’”
“Hmm. Yes, it certainly sounds as if you should keep that possibility in mind.” Sally sighed. “If it is she, it will be a ticklish situation to deal with.”
“It’s a ticklish situation no matter what.”
“Very true.” Sally rose. “Well, see what you and Frances can discover. And good luck.”