A deck of fools, p.1
A Deck of Fools, p.1Miranda Meyers
A Deck of Fools
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The Wedding Feast of Rogues
The County of Berkshire, England – March 1809
The cold, spring air carried the last frosts of winter across the bleak countryside and nipped the exposed cheeks of the burly coach driver who steered the stately coach carefully through the wide wrought iron gates and into the grounds of the Branton estate. Frost-covered poplars lined the gravelled driveway and footmen in warm, long, woollen coats touched their hats in respect as the coach rolled by, wheels clattering on the small pebbles and steam swirling from the backs of the tired horses.
‘Finally,’ whispered Tabitha Branton, the elder daughter of the Baron whose family had borne the noble name of Branton for nearly eight hundred years. She pushed her hands deeper into the fox-fur muff that kept her hands protected from the bitter cold and smiled. ‘Home at last and we have arrived whilst it is still daylight.’ Her governess tried to smile but looked tired from the journey. Miss Cowper was a strict and severe spinster of some fifty summers, a woman whose main responsibility was to chaperone the pretty young sixteen-year old girl, teach her how to run a household as only a good and obedient wife should, and keep her out of mischief. The governess shifted her bony frame on the hard, leather-bound coach seat.
‘How may we even know if the sun still exists beyond those dark clouds and the bitter cold? If I don’t have warm tea to revive me, child, I fear I shall expire from the ague!’
Tabitha tried not to laugh for she knew that her governess would sooner revive her spirits with a glass or two of her father’s excellent Madeira. She sighed. It felt good to be home once more and she was more than excited to see her loving father again and her beautiful little sister, Regina. Ever since their dear mama had died in a cholera epidemic when Regina was only four, Tabitha had tried to assume the role of mother and she naturally felt deeply protective of her sister. The younger girl often behaved more like a boy and seemed to prefer playing in the garden and getting herself covered in mud and leaves rather than learning to sew and embroider and excel at the feminine arts. But their father loved them both dearly and indulged them in whatever ways might make them happy. Despite the constant shadow of their mother’s tragic death, it was still a happy household and a wonderful place to grow up. Regina’s insatiable curiosity had even prompted her father to consider appointing a tutor for his younger daughter and he was weighing the issue in his comfortable library with a pipe of fine Virginia tobacco and glass of good cognac when he heard the carriage wheels and the horses’ hooves approaching the mansion.
Clouds of hot breath surrounded the horses as they pulled the carriage across the frozen ground and finally slowed to a welcome halt outside the grand entrance hall of Baron Branton’s elegant home. Servants hurried to open the carriage door and unfold the steps that would help the passengers to alight. They were smiling as Tabitha stepped down, obviously pleased to see Her Ladyship safely returned from her journey. They fussed around her, almost ignoring the governess as she struggled to step down without lifting the hem of her heavy skirt and revealing her bony ankles. It was important to observe the correct proprieties at all times, she felt. Especially in front of the servants.
‘Papa!’ Tabitha cried as she caught sight of her father at the top of the steps. She raced up the broad stone stairs and hugged the Baron, who could barely contain his tears of joy as he held his lovely daughter in his arms and gave thanks for her safe return. ‘You look so much like your beloved mama, my dear. How can I look upon you and not see the radiance of her grace and beauty? It warms my heart and cheers my soul!’
The governess coughed loudly behind Tabitha’s back to announce her presence. ‘Miss Cowper. Well met and welcome back. You must join me in the library for a glass of light refreshment and tell me how went your visit to London.’
Tabitha had just celebrated her sixteenth birthday and the baron had finally bowed to pressure from his precious elder daughter and allowed her to visit relatives in London. The Baron’s cousin was a favoured member of the royal court and was a well known and popular guest in the salons and elegant drawing rooms of London’s high society. The cousin and his wife would provide the perfect opportunity to introduce Tabitha to the elegant nobility of the nation’s capital. At sixteen, the baron was also aware that his daughter would soon be eligible for marriage and that it would no harm for her pretty face and lovely smile to be seen in the discerning circles of the gentry. The hard fact was that the endless wars with Napoleon had taken far too many young men away from England’s shores to offer their service in His Majesty’s Army and Navy. And too few of them ever came back. The result was that there simply were not so many young, eligible nobles around who might pay court to Baron Branton and seek Tabitha’s hand in marriage. Introducing the young woman into London society might possibly draw the attention of a noble young suitor and then the ageing baron could rest easier in the knowledge that at least one of his daughters had made a good match. It was all he wanted for his girls. To see them happily married and presiding over a great and noble household. It wasn’t too much to ask for but the baron was aware of his age and his growing infirmity. Time, he felt, was not on his side.
London had been a revelation for the young Lady Tabitha Branton. She’d been thrilled to see the well-dressed young bucks in their expensively-tailored attire, seated around card tables and wagering loudly on the outcome of every hand. The games had been exciting to watch and when one of the young nobles had spied Tabitha and nodded his head at her with a courteous smile, it was all she could do to contain herself. She’d blushed and the young man had laughed, his headful of carefully-oiled locks a mass of dark curls set off with a black silk ribbon tied in a bow at the back. He’d looked back at the table and roared with delight as he turned the winning card and gathered up his winnings. His companions had groaned as they threw their cards on the table and Tabitha had turned to her hostess and asked who the young man might be.
‘That is Lord Daniel Fitzwarren of Buckley, my dear, a fine young man who should be alongside his father in the King’s uniform, fighting the French in Spain. But he prefers to spend his days slug-a-bed and his nights gambling at the card tables and carousing.’
With her heart beating and her pretty eyes widening, Tabitha was utterly convinced that he was by far the most handsome young man she had ever seen. Ever.
During the following days, Tabitha had conspired with her hostess to attend as many social functions as possible, overtly to meet as many noble ladies and gentlemen as possible but secretly with the hope that she might catch sight once more of the dashing Lord Fitzwarren. Her hopes were not in vain. Many of the great salons offered cards and the sport of wagering on the outcome, a pursuit that might have been reserved for the candlelit interiors of the gentlemen’s clubs, but was widely accepted as a fashionable way to offer entertainment and draw the young bucks into the well-lit reception rooms where eligible young ladies might be viewed and appreciated for their potential as future brides. Lord Fitzwarren was considered to be a most fortunate card player for he displayed remarkable skill at the gaming tables. He always smiled and offered his fellow players a warm handshake when the games were done and he was filling his purse with his p
On the final night of Tabitha’s stay in London, she was sipping her glass of punch and watching the other guests in the elegant ball room when someone touched her bare shoulder and gently moved a lock of her lovely auburn hair behind her neck. She turned and stared into the pale grey eyes of Daniel, Lord Fitzwarren, and her heart nearly stopped beating. He bowed his head and when he looked up again he was smiling. ‘Your servant, my Lady.’ Miss Cowper had seemed on the verge of apoplexy when she’d noticed that the young Lord was being far too familiar with her charge. He looked into Tabitha’s eyes. ‘Pray, my Lady, would you grant me the boon of your favour and let me hear from your lips the sound of your name? For ‘tis a perfect misery to my heart to behold your loveliness and not know how to address you.’
Miss Cowper coughed so loudly that people in the vicinity turned to see if she were having a spasm or a fit of the vapours. ‘Sir!’ she finally spoke with a steely edge to her voice. ‘You may address that question to me for I am sure that you have not been formally introduced to the young lady and that you presume too much by speaking to her!’
The young lord laughed. ‘The fault is entirely mine for forgetting my manners in the presence of such beauty. I was bewitched and enchanted by the lady’s smile and I no longer know what I do.’
Tabitha nearly clapped her hands in delight but managed to restrain herself beneath the watchful gaze of the disapproving Miss Cowper. ‘Sirrah, I will have none of your poetry and nonsense! This is the elder daughter of the Baron Branton who holds estates and titles but two days ride from London and whose name and family are well enough known to His Majesty the King!’
Fitzwarren bowed deeply before Tabitha, his forefinger touching the marble floor at the young lady’s feet before drawing himself up to his full height and declaring, ‘And I am Daniel, Lord Fitzwarren of Buckley, my Lady, and I am at your service.’
Tabitha stuttered in the presence of the young lord. ‘Am I not supposed to be introduced by another before I may speak with you, Sir?’
‘Those foolish conventions apply only to the lesser mortals who strut but briefly upon this globe of dust and dreams. But you are divine, my Lady, a goddess, Venus herself come down from lofty Olympus to earth to torment the hearts of mere men and you have stolen both my wits and my heart, which I give to thee most gladly!’
Tabitha began to suspect that her heart would burst out of her chest as her face lit up with undisguised joy. ‘I am Lady Tabitha, good Sir,’ she said as she curtsied,‘and I pray that I do not intrude too heavily upon your sensibilities.’
‘The intrusion is an oasis of perfect delight in this warren of the mediocre. Does a goddess require refreshment? More punch perhaps?’
Miss Cowper chose that moment to step purposefully between the couple. ‘You have a way with words, Sirrah, and a pretty turn of phrase. Perhaps we should all go to the punch bowl to seek refreshment and ensure that the lady’s honour and reputation remain as pure and unsullied as they were when first we arrived.’ With that, the governess took a firm grip on Tabitha’s elbow and guided her in the direction of the long, white damasked refreshment table. ‘It is insufferably warm in here and I believe a glass of punch would be most welcome to my poor dry throat.’
Daniel took up station on the other side of Tabitha as the trio walked towards the crystal punch bowl. He waved away the servant with a brush of his hand. ‘Dearest Lady, permit me.’ He filled a glass with a small measure of the bright red liquid and offered it to Tabitha. As she took it in her lace-gloved hands, Daniel filled a second glass to the brim and handed it to the governess. ‘Your good health, Madame,’ he nodded at Miss Cowper as he raised his own glass in a simple toast. ‘And here’s to your happiness and the loveliness of your eyes, Lady Tabitha.’ He noticed how quickly the governess downed her glass and quickly offered her a second. ‘Thank you, Sir. I had not realised quite how thirsty one may become on these grand occasions.’
By the time Miss Cowper had consumed her third measure of punch, she was beginning to feel a little dizzy and a little unsteady on her feet. ‘Pray, child, but the heat is becoming too much for me and I fear I must sit.’ Tabitha helped her to an elegantly embroidered couch and eased her onto the seat where the governess promptly closed her eyes and fell soundlybut not noiselessly asleep. Tabitha placed a cushion beneath the governess’s head for comfort and support and the older lady began to snore softly. A small chuckle caught her attention.
Daniel was standing behind her when she turned her head. ‘My dear Lady. It would appear that the kind hand of Fate has cast us adrift without the restraining anchor of your governess.’ He smiled broadly at the young woman. ‘Perhaps you would care to accompany me for a while and perhaps enthral me with tales of life on your father’s estate?’
They spent the next half hour standing in front of a wide fireplace, chatting to each other as the split logs crackled and the dancing flames lent their warmth and gaiety to the room. Daniel proved to be a most attentive listener and smiled at every nuance and detail that Tabitha shared with him. For his part, he said very little, preferring to listen to the young heiress and eluding her questions with humour and evasive replies, implying that, despite his wealth and titles, he really didn’t take himself too seriously. He seemed effortlessly charming, an open book, a man of wealth and position who only played cards for the fun of the sport, a man who enjoyed seeing his wealthy young friends squeal with horror whenever they lost. Which seemed to happen a lot.
A sudden and dramatic cough interrupted the young couple as Miss Cowper approached with a bleary eye and a slight waver in her gait. ‘Ah! There you are, Tabitha. I was resting my eyes for a moment and when I opened them again, you were gone.’
Tabitha tried not to laugh. ‘Yes, Miss Cowper, I saw you were resting and I could not bring myself to disturb you. So I waited for you here by the warmth of the hearth and Lord Daniel kindly volunteered to keep me company until you felt refreshed.’
The governess cast a critical eye over Lord Fitzwarren and nodded her head. ‘I see. Very thoughtful of the gentleman. Very thoughtful indeed. Well, we must be going. It is already late and I shall away to summon our carriage, for night is upon us and our beds are waiting for us.’ She turned on her heel to find a footman and Daniel murmured in Tabitha’s ear, so close that she could feel the warmth of his breath upon her skin, ‘She could probably outdrink half the men under service in His Majesty’s Navy!’ Tabitha laughed yet felt an electric tingle as the young Lord touched the tips of her fingers with his own. ‘And I would see you again, if you would permit me, sweet Lady Tabitha.’
She smiled as she looked into his pale eyes. ‘We leave for my father’s estate tomorrow morning but I am sure you would always be welcome to visit.’ She hesitated for a heartbeat. ‘For I would always be pleased to see you, Lord Daniel.’
Miss Cowper stepped back into the room and immediately seized the hand that she saw was far too close to the young Lord’s fingertips. ‘Time to go, Tabitha. Time to go. Lord Fitzwarren, it was a pleasure meeting you, Sir. We shall take our leave and be on our way now.’
‘Farewell, Lord Daniel,’ Tabitha spoke as she was half coaxed, half pulled from the room. ‘Til we meet again.’
He bowed his head and blew a gentle kiss to her that she could’ve sworn had sailed across the widening gap that was opening between them and brushed against the smoothness of her beautiful cheek. She raised a gloved hand to her face in an attempt to hold the impression of the kiss upon her face for the rest of eternity.
Lady Tabitha Branton, Lord Branton’s beautiful elder daughter, was hopelessly in love.
Night had settled upon the great house as the baron sat back in his favourite chair and felt the warmth of the fire in the library’s ornate hearth. ‘So you have been presented into society and I believe you made a fair impression on the good people you met, my dear.’
Tabitha’s eyes shone with excitement as she recounted tales of the car
‘And I hear you met a young gentleman who seems to have paid you a great deal of attention.’
Tabitha could not prevent herself from blushing.
‘And may your old father not learn of the name of this young gentleman?’
His pretty daughter giggled and looked down at her hands. ‘Of course you may, papa. He is the Lord Fitzwarren. Of Buckley.’
The baron nodded for a few moments and lit his fine-stemmed clay pipe. ‘Buckley, you say?’ He took a moment to draw the flame onto the tightly-packed tobacco before exhaling a plume of sweet, blue smoke. ‘Buckley. Yes. I believe I am acquainted with his father.’
Tabitha looked up at her father. ‘I heard the Earl is away in Spain, fighting the French, papa.’
‘Indeed he would be. Then perhaps we should ask ourselves why his fit and able-bodied young son is not at his father’s side, thwarting Boney’s plans to take over the whole world?’
‘I cannot answer that, papa, but I’m sure Daniel will be willing to offer his sword in the King’s service as soon as he is needed.’
The ageing aristocrat laughed. ‘Needed, my dear daughter? Sure enough but every sword and ship is needed right now!’ There was a pause as the logs in the fireplace settled and sent a shower of sparks up the chimney and out into the cold, night air. ‘I hope he isn’t one of those damnable fops who parade around London in their silken breeches with their oiled hair and foolish fashions, instead of serving their King like true men in the defence of English freedom!’
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