Sir Gareth Ludlow is a sought-after bachelor in London high society—wealthy, noble, handsome...and brokenhearted since the death of his true love many years ago. Resigned to remarry, Sir Gareth solicits the hand of a woman he respects and admires—Lady Hester Theale. But fate takes an impish turn when, on his way to ask for Lady Hester, Sir Gareth encounters a saucy young lady who identifies herself as "Amanda Smith."
Amanda is alone and unchaperoned, and her imaginative tales take on a life of their own, sweeping up Sir Gareth, Lady Hester and several other hapless victims in a series of unexpected adventures. And no one, especially Sir Gareth, will ever be the same again....
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Georgette Heyer's historical novels have charmed and delighted millions of readers. She wrote over 50 books, including Regency romances, mysteries, and historical fiction. She was known as the Queen of Regency romance, and was legendary for her research, historical accuracy, and her extraordinary plots and characterizations.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Mrs. Wetherby was delighted to receive a morning call from her only surviving brother, but for the first half hour of his visit she was granted no opportunity to do more than exchange a few commonplaces with him over the heads of her vociferous offspring.
Sir Gareth Ludlow had arrived in Mount Street just as the schoolroom party, comprising Miss Anna, a lively damsel within a year of her début, Miss Elizabeth, and Master Philip, were returning from a promenade in the park under the aegis of their governess. No sooner did these delicately nurtured children catch sight of their uncle's tall, elegant figure than they threw to the winds every precept of gentility, so carefully instilled into their heads by Miss Felbridge, and, with piercing shrieks of: "Uncle Gary, Uncle Gary!" raced helter-skelter down the street, to engulf Sir Gareth on their doorstep. By the time Miss Felbridge, clucking but indulgent, had overtaken them, the butler was holding open the door, and Sir Gareth was being borne into the house by his enthusiastic young relatives. He was being pelted with questions and confidences, his eldest niece hanging affectionately on one arm, and his youngest nephew trying to claim his attention by tugging violently at the other, but he disengaged himself for long enough to offer his hand to Miss Felbridge, saying with the smile which never failed to set her heart fluttering in her chaste bosom: "How do you do? Don't scold them! It is quite my fault—though why I should have this shocking effect upon them I can't conceive! Are you quite well again? You were suffering all the discomfort of a bad attack of rheumatism when last we met."
Miss Felbridge blushed, thanked, and disclaimed, thinking that it was just like dear Sir Gareth to remember such an unimportant thing as the governess's rheumatism. Any further interchange was cut short by the arrival on the scene of Mr. Leigh Wetherby, who erupted from the library at the back of the house, exclaiming: "Is that Uncle Gary! Oh, by Jove, sir, I'm devilish glad to see you! There's something I particularly wish to ask you!"
The whole party then swept Sir Gareth upstairs to the drawing-room, all talking at the tops of their voices, and thus deaf to a halfhearted attempt on Miss Felbridge's part to restrain her charges from bursting in upon their mama in this very irregular fashion.
It would have been useless to have persisted, of course. The young Wetherbys, from Leigh, undergoing the rigours of coaching to enable him to embark upon a University career later in the year, to Philip, wrestling with pothooks and hangers, were unanimous in giving it as their considered opinion that nowhere was there to be found a more admirable uncle than Sir Gareth. An attempt to whisk the younger members off to the schoolroom could only have resulted in failure, or, at the best, in a fit of prolonged sulks.
In the well-chosen words of Mr. Leigh Wetherby, Sir Gareth was the most bang-up fellow that ever drew breath. A noted Corinthian, he was never too high in the instep to show a nephew aspiring to dandyism how to arrange his neckcloth. Master Jack Wetherby, unconcerned with such fopperies as this, spoke warmly of his open-handedness and entire comprehension of the more urgent needs of young gentlemen enduring the privations of life at Eton College. Miss Anna, by no means out yet, knew no greater source of joy and pride than to be taken up to sit beside him in his curricle for a turn or two round the Park, the envy (she was convinced) of every other, less favoured, damsel. As for Miss Elizabeth, and Master Philip, they regarded him as a fount of such dizzy delights as visits to Astley's Amphitheatre, or a Grand Display of Fireworks, and could perceive no fault in him.
They were not singular: very few people found fault with Gareth Ludlow. Watching him, as he contrived, while displaying over and over again for the edification of little Philip the magical properties of his repeating watch, to lend an ear to the particular problem exercising Leigh's mind, Mrs. Wetherby thought that you would be hard put to it to find a more attractive man, and wished, as she had done a thousand times before, that she could discover some bride for him lovely enough to drive out of his heart the memory of his dead love. Heaven knew that she had spared no pains during the seven years that had elapsed since Clarissa's death to accomplish this end. She had introduced to his notice any number of eligible females, several of them as witty as they were beautiful, but she had never been able to detect in his gray eyes so much as a flicker of the look that had warmed them when they had rested on Clarissa Lincombe.
These reflections were interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Wetherby, a dependable-looking man in the early forties, who grasped his brother-in-law's hand, saying briefly: "Ha, Gary! Glad to see you!" and lost no time in despatching his offspring about their several businesses. This done, he told his wife that she shouldn't encourage the brats to plague their uncle.
Sir Gareth, having regained possession of his watch and his quizzing-glass, slipped the one into his pocket, and hung the other round his neck by its long black riband, and said: "They don't plague me. I think I had better take Leigh along with me to Crawley Heath next month. A good mill will give him something other to think of than the set of his coats. No, I know you don't approve of prizefighting, Trixie, but you'll have the boy trying to join the dandy-set if you don't take care!"
"Nonsense! You don't wish to burden yourself with a scrubby schoolboy!" said Warren, imperfectly concealing his gratification at the invitation.
"Yes, I do: I like Leigh. You needn't fear I shall let him get into mischief: I won't."
Mrs. Wetherby broke in on this, giving utterance to the thought in her mind. "Oh, my dear Gary, if you knew how much I long to see you with a son of your own to indulge!"
He smiled at her. "Do you, Trixie? Well, as it chances, it is that subject which has brought me to see you today." He saw the look of startled consternation in her face, and burst out laughing. "No, no, I am not about to disclose to you the existence of a lusty love-child! Merely that I believe—or rather, that I hope—I may shortly be demanding your felicitations."
She was for a moment incredulous, and then cried eagerly: "Oh, Gary, is it Alice Stockwell?"
"Alice Stockwell?" he repeated, surprised. "The pretty child you have been throwing in my way? My dear! No!"
"Told you so," remarked Mr. Wetherby, with quiet satisfaction.
She could not help feeling a little disappointed, for Miss Stockwell had seemed to be of all her protégées the most eligible. She concealed this very creditably, however, and said: "I declare I have not the least guess, then, who it may be. Unless—oh, do, pray, tell me at once, Gary!"
"Why, yes!" he replied, amused at her eagerness. "I have asked Brancaster's leave to address myself to Lady Hester."
The effect of this announcement was somewhat disconcerting. Warren, in the act of taking a pinch of snuff, was surprised into sniffing far too violently, and fell into a fit of sneezing; and his lady, after staring at her brother as though she could not believe her ears, burst into tears, exclaiming: "Oh, Gary, no!"
"Beatrix!" he said, between laughter and annoyance.
"Gareth, are you hoaxing me? Tell me it's a take-in! Yes, of course it is! You would never offer for Hester Theale!"
"But, Beatrix—!" he expostulated. "Why should you hold Lady Hester in such aversion?"
"Aversion! Oh, no! But a girl—girl? She must be nine-and-twenty if she's a day!— A woman who has been on the shelf these nine years, and more, and never took, or had countenance, or the least degree of modishness— You must be out of your senses! You must know you have only to throw the handkerchief— Oh, dear, how could you do such a thing?"
At this point, her helpmate thought it time to intervene. Gareth was beginning to look vexed. A charming fellow, Gary, with as sweet a temper as any man alive, but it was not to be expected that he would bear with complaisance his sister's strictures on the lady whom he had chosen to be his bride. Why, from amongst all the females only too ready to receive the addresses of a handsome baronet of birth and fortune, he should have selected Hester Theale, who had retired after several unsuccessful seasons to make way for her more marriageable sisters, was certainly a baffling problem, but not one into which Warren thought it seemly to enquire. He therefore cast an admonitory look at his wife, and said: "Lady Hester! I am not particularly acquainted with her, but I believe her to be an unexceptionable young woman. Brancaster accepted your offer, of course."
"Accepted it?" said Beatrix, emerging from her handkerchief. "Jumped at it, you mean! I imagine he must have swooned from the shock!"
"I wish you will be quiet!" said Warren, exasperated by this intransigent behaviour. "Depend upon it, Gary knows what will suit him better than you can! He is not a schoolboy, but a man of five-and-thirty. No doubt Lady Hester will make him an amiable wife."
"No doubt!" retorted Beatrix. "Amiable, and a dead bore! No, Warren, I will not hush! When I think of all the pretty and lovely girls who have done their best to attach him, and he tells me that he has offered for an insipid female who has neither fortune nor an extraordinary degree of beauty, besides being stupidly shy and dowdy, I— oh, I could go into strong hysterics!"
"Well, if you do, Trixie, I give you fair warning that I shall empty over you the largest jug of water I can find!" responded her brother with unimpaired cordiality. "Now, don't be such a goose, my dear! You are putting poor Warren to the blush."
She sprang up, and grasped the lapels of his exquisitely cut coat of blue superfine, giving him a shake, and looking up into his smiling eyes with the tears still drowning her own. "Gary, you do not love her, nor she you! I have never seen the least sign that she regards you even with partiality. Only tell me what she has to offer you!"
His hands came up to cover hers, removing them from his lapels, and holding them in a strong clasp. "I love you dearly, Trixie, but I can't permit you to crumple this coat, you know. Weston made it for me: one of his triumphs, don't you think?" He hesitated, seeing that she was not to be diverted; and then said, slightly pressing her hands: "Don't you understand? I had thought that you would. You have told me so many times that it is my duty to marry—and, indeed, I know it is, if the name is not to die with me, which I think would be a pity. If Arthur were alive—but since Salamanca I've known that I can't continue all my days in single bliss. So—!"
"Yes, yes, but why this female, Gary?" she demanded. "She has nothing!"
"On the contrary, she has breeding, and good manners, and, as Warren has said, an amiable disposition. I hope I have as much to offer her, and I wish that I had more. But I have not."
The tears sprang to her eyes again, and spilled over. "Oh, my dearest brother, still? It is more than seven years since—"
"Yes, more than seven years," he interrupted. "Don't cry, Trixie! I assure you I don't grieve any longer, or even think of Clarissa, except now and then, when something occurs which perhaps brings her to my memory. But I have never fallen in love again. Not with any of the delightful girls you have been so obliging as to cast in my way! I believe I could never feel for another what I once felt for Clarissa, so it seems to me that to be making a bid for the sort of girl you would wish me to marry would be a shabby thing to do. I have a fortune large enough to make me an eligible suitor, and I daresay the Stockwells would give their consent, were I to offer for Miss Alice—"
"Indeed they would! And Alice is disposed to have a tendre for you, which you must have perceived. So, why—?"
"Well, for that very reason, perhaps. Such a beautiful and spirited girl is worthy of so much more than I could give her. Lady Hester, on the other hand—" He broke off, the ready laughter springing to his eyes. "What a wretch you are, Trix! You are forcing me to say such things as must make me sound like the veriest coxcomb!"
"What you mean," said Beatrix ruthlessly, "is that Lady Hester is too insipid to like anyone!"
"I don't mean anything of the sort. She is shy, but I don't think her insipid. Indeed, I have sometimes suspected that if she were not for ever being snubbed by her father, and her quite odious sisters, she would show that she has a lively sense of the ridiculous. Let us say, merely, that she has not a romantic disposition! And as I must surely be considered to be beyond the age of romance, I believe that with mutual liking to help us we may be tolerably comfortable together. Her situation now is unhappy, which encourages me to hope that she may look favourably upon my proposal."
Mrs. Wetherby uttered a scornful exclamation, and even her stolid spouse blinked. That he rated his very obvious attractions low was one of the things one liked in Gary, but this was coming it a trifle too strong. "No doubt of that," Warren said dryly. "May as well wish you happy at once, Gary—which I'm sure I hope you will be. Not but what— However, it is no business of mine! You know best what will suit you."
It was not to be expected that Mrs. Wetherby could bring herself to agree with this pronouncement; but she appeared to realize the futility of further argument, and beyond prophesying disaster she said no more until she was alone with her husband. She had then a great deal to say, which he bore with great patience, entering no caveat until she said bitterly: "How any man who had been betrothed to Clarissa Lincombe could offer for Hester Theale is something I shall never understand—nor anyone else, I daresay!"
At this point, Warren's brow wrinkled, and he said in a dubious tone: "Well, I don't know."
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