What did one wear to discuss the details of a duel? Margaret suspected that, out of all the ladies’ magazines and vade mecums
printed in London, not one covered this particular social occasion. For men it was so easy: pantaloons, shirt, cravat, and jacket. Simple for them, but what was her best choice? Silly, really. Best dress as she would for any shopping expedition. The idea was to blend in with the other shoppers, not to stand out.
However, her plan to wear sensible and politely fashionable street wear was rather altered the next morning by the sound of heavy rain dashing against her bedroom window. Not the nicest weather for a stroll toward the park and along Piccadilly.
Before breakfast, she sent word that she’d have need of a hired carriage at nine thirty.
During breakfast the atmosphere was strained. Robert ate, but with a sulky and peeved expression that did nothing for poor Isabel’s obvious anxiety. Her dark-rimmed eyes suggested the poor child had had no sleep. Quite probable, since Margaret herself had lain awake for hours. Literally praying that the aggrieved Lord Belkenham would accept an apology. He had to.
She well remembered him from years back, but could she rely on an old and tenuous connection?
“Will you be gone for long, Aunt?” Isabel asked, bringing Margaret right back to the worrisome present.
“No longer than I have to be, and I plan to return with news that everything is settled.”
Robert looked ready to speak. To insist, doubtless, that he could manage things fine on his own, with Tommy’s doubtful assistance, of course.
She did not want to hear any more.
“Have Sally clear the table when you are finished,” she told Isabel. “I am going to get ready.”
Relenting a little, she looked across at Robert. “This is the only way. Highly preferable to having you maimed or killed or forced into exile to avoid being hanged.”
Leaving him with that thought, Margaret headed for her room.
Not thirty minutes later, armed with an umbrella against the downpour, Margaret entered her hired carriage and directed the coachman toward Green Park. Mr. Wallace was actually waiting when she drove up, a sure indication that he took this affair with appropriate seriousness, even if Robert still seemed to fail to grasp the full consequences.
“So glad to see you, Mrs. Houghton,” he said as he climbed into the carriage and seated himself opposite her. “Sodden day, isn’t it?”
She couldn’t help but agree. “I considered leaving earlier and picking you up at home but decided that would occasion too many questions on your parents’ part.”
“Oh, Lord, yes. Mother was curious enough about you dropping off the pattern so early yesterday. I don’t want her asking questions.”
Given how Julia Wallace loved to gossip, Margaret wholeheartedly concurred. “Never mind. My current concern is that, given the inclement weather, the arcade may be even more crowded than usual, but that can’t be helped. Now, understand this, Tommy. I will do most of the talking. I’m thinking they will be a trifle nonplussed at negotiating with a female, and that will give us an edge. I will make it clear: there will be an apology, and that will be that.” Or so she hoped and prayed.
“Well I never, Mrs. Houghton,” Tommy commented as he handed her down from the carriage. “You were right about the crush. Half London seems to be here today.”
Not half—just the privileged few without need to be employed and possessing enough money to spend of luxuries—but nothing was to be gained by pointing that out. Tommy had more than enough to concern his young head. “Maybe that will work to our advantage. A knot of people talking will hardly occasion notice.” If they were fortunate.
Since they were early, Margaret suggested they stroll toward the Bond Street entrance, pausing every so often to look in the shop windows, as if they were genuinely shopping.
Tommy’s enthusiasm for enameled snuffboxes and silk cravats kept him occupied. How easy it was for the young to be distracted. So easy, in fact, that he failed to notice the arrival of two gentlemen.
She spied Archie Jameson before he saw them. Understandable, since he and his companion were no doubt expecting two gentlemen. A nudge brought Tommy’s attention from a rather exquisite snuffbox that he declared was just bang-up perfect.
“Good Lord! Yes! Mrs. Houghton, that’s him!”
At the moment Archie—perhaps she should call him “Sir Archibald”; they were no longer children after all—spied Tommy. And her. His face registered recognition, then confusion.
Time to intervene.
Margaret stepped forward, hand outstretched. “Do you remember me, Archie?” Darn convention. As children they’d scampered through the woods playing hide and seek—and even swam in the river until the grownups caught them and forbade it.
“Magpie!” The girlhood name came easily but then right away it was. “Good heavens, Miss Broadwell?”
“Of course, I remember.”
How could any of them have forgotten?
“You’re here to meet Mr. Wallace and myself, I believe, and I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Lord Belkenham’s other second.”
It was hard to say who was the most bowled over, Archie or his silent companion, who simply stared.
“I’m Margaret Houghton,” she said to break the silence. “Robert Cartwright’s aunt, and I’m here to speak for him.”
“Indeed, Madam,” the gentlemen said, taking her offered hand. “Justin Woald at your service, but this is unexpected.”
“You expected a gentleman? I’m certain you did, but I want as few people as possible to know about this affair. I stand in loco parentis
whilst Robert is in Town, and therefore believe I am best suited to speak for him.”
“Robert Cartwright is Angela’s son?” Archie asked, as if finally getting a grasp of the situation. “I had not connected the name.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t have. It was many years ago.” And not a subject to be broached here and now. “I thank you for meeting here and being patient with a somewhat unconventional second.” That should take care of any objections.
”You are aware,” Mr. Woald said, obviously feeling it was high time he put his spoke into this extraordinary meeting, “that Mr. Cartwright not only accused Lord Belkenham of cheating but also threw wine on him.”
“By Robert’s account the latter was an accident, but that’s a minor consideration. Just add that to his apology.”
“He will apologize?” Mr. Woald asked.
“You know he refused to earlier?” Archie asked.
“He was also drunk at the time.” Might as well be blunt rather than tiptoe around. “He’s now sober and will apologize wholeheartedly at Lord Belkenham’s convenience.”
The two seconds exchanged looks of surprise. Had they really expected the two principals to meet on Hampstead Heath at dawn one cold morning?
“I will convey that to Lord Belkenham,” Mr. Woald said. “You are certain Mr. Cartwright agrees to apologize?”
She doubted he’d question a man’s word, but never mind. “I assure you, he will.”
Was that a chuckle from Archie, or a cough? “I believe we can take Mrs. Houghton’s word on this matter,” he said. Then he added, “You haven’t changed, Margaret.”
“I think I have. We all have, haven’t we? Time does that to us but never mind. I will await word from Lord Belkenham.”
“We’ll get you Lord Belkenham’s reply by morning,” Mr. Woald said. “If not before.”
“Thank you.” The sooner this was all tied up and put away the better. And pray God, Simon Francis accepted the apology. What if he were bellicose and demanded satisfaction? No, she would not even consider that possibility.
“Our business is concluded for now,” Archie Jameson said. “Did you walk here, Margaret? If so, may I escort you home?”
“In this inclement weather, Archie? I have a carriage waiting, but I would be delighted if you would walk me back to the Piccadilly entrance.” She took his offered arm, and they set off.
“Will you be in London long?” he asked.
“I have lived in the City for some years but recently took a house in Half Moon Street so Robert and his sister could enjoy a season.”
“And how are their parents?” he asked—a trifle hesitantly.
“Major Cartwright is frequently absent. We are unsure of his current whereabouts. Angela is in poor health. She seldom travels, so I often take charge of Robert and Isabel.”
“I see.” She doubted he did, but she was not elaborating. “And you, I heard you married.”
“After my broken engagement, yes. My husband was a city merchant,” she added, sensing his curiosity. “I was very happily married to him. “
“You speak in the past tense.”
“Micah died two years ago. Since he left me with a comfortable independence, I am able to do much for Angela’s children.” Although at times like this she truly wished their mother would face her responsibilities. “But what about you? You married Eleanor Baynes, I believe.” She had read that in the Morning Post
not long after her own wedding.
“I did indeed. We have five children and one more to come. So you can imagine, we have a loud and busy house.”
“I’m sure you do. Micah’s two younger brothers had large families, and holiday gatherings were like company musters.”
They reached the end of the arcade. Rain still bucketed down as they waited for her carriage to arrive. Despite the apparent success of their unconventional meeting, she still harbored anxieties. “Archie,” she had to ask, “do you truly believe Simon will accept the apology?”
Surprise flashed across his face. “Simon? Dear heavens! You did not know, did you?”
“Know what? Was not Simon, in line for the title?”
“He was indeed, but died in a boating accident, along with John’s elder brother a few years ago.”
She had to look confused, as she was most certainly stunned. “How? And who pray, is now Lord Belkenham? Not you.” He was only some sort of third cousin. “Dear Lord!” It was not possible.
“John inherited the title. He came back to England after the others drowned.”
She barely heard the last few words. Robert had challenged John Francis, the man she’d loved. The man she’d been forbidden to marry.