The Honorable Heir
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Waterfall Press
Catherine VanDorn Is No Thief
Catherine, Lady Bisterne, returns to Tuxedo Park cloaked in scandal, the widow of a nobleman who’d loved only her fortune. As she sets out to repair her family’s reputation, another Englishman in her midst is seeking reparations of a different sort.
While Lord Tristram Wolfe may suspect that Catherine has stolen the Bisterne jewels, he looks at her in a way her husband never had.
As Tristram’s investigation continues, one thing becomes clear: the only thing Lady Catherine has ever stolen is his heart. But can he convince her to trust another English nobleman…and take a second chance on love?
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Tuxedo Park, New York
November 1, 1900
“The young widow should wear deep crepe for a year and then lighter mourning for six months and second mourning for six months longer. There is nothing more utterly captivating than a sweet young face under a widow’s veil, and it is not to be wondered at that her own loneliness and need of sympathy, combined with all that is appealing to sympathy in a man, results in the healing of her heart. She should, however, never remain in mourning for her first husband after she has decided she can be consoled by a second.” Emily Price Post
She felt his gaze upon her from the instant she stepped into the clubhouse ballroom. That ballroom, all white pillars and blue velvet benches around the circular walls, fell silent the moment Catherine VanDorn, now Lady Bisterne, strolled through the white painted doors from the great hall, and a hundred pairs of eyes swiveled in her direction. Yet the intensity of one man’s bold stare drew her own past the gowns and jewels of the New York elite to meet the audacious dark eyes of a gentleman at the far side of the room.
Her heart skipped a beat. Her gold-shod feet stumbled. Skin-deep cold from the rainy November evening crept through to her bones, and for the first time that evening, she accepted that Mama was correct to tell her not to wear the mauve satin ball gown a mere thirteen months after her husband’s death. It was too bright, too frivolous, proclaiming, however falsely, that the debutante who had departed from Tuxedo Park in triumph on the arm of an English lord, a scandal in her wake, intended to seek a new husband.
Behind her, her sister Estelle poked Catherine in the spine. “If I have to be here, at least let me in.” She spoke in a whisper loud enough for the staring gentleman to hear.
It unleashed a buzz of other voices. A rising tide of exclamations, speculations, and a handful of greetings broke through the waterfall of words. “She doesn’t look to be mourning anyone,” came from a pretty matron in lavender tulle, and “I wonder whose fiancé she’ll run off with this time,” emerged from the pouting lips of a slip of a girl in white lace. But Mama’s circle of intimate friends glided forward to embrace Catherine in wide sleeves and perfume and niceties like “I know your family is happy to have you here” and “You’re too young to stay in blacks forever.”
Pompadours and powdered cheeks blocked Catherine’s view of the staring gentleman. Warmth began to steal back into her limbs, clear through to her heart, giving her hope that perhaps she could make this homecoming work out well for everyone, especially her family.
She smiled back at the ladies, then some older gentlemen, friends of her parents. She shook hands. Orchestra music rose from the stage, rising into an invitation for the annual ball to commence. Onlookers and interlocutors began to drift away in pairs to take their places in the center of the circular room. Catherine’s parents strode off arm-in-arm, a young man claimed his dance with Estelle, and their brother, Paul Henry VanDorn the Third, claimed the hand of the doll-sized girl in white lace.
Catherine stepped back so her ruffled skirt brushed the blue velvet of a curving bench. She should seat herself and remain unobtrusive after her explosive entrée back into Tuxedo Park society. But sitting felt like surrender. Standing, on the other hand, looked too much as though she were inviting one of the still unattached gentlemen to ask her to dance. Indeed, two youthful-looking males headed in her direction. She glanced away so she didn’t meet their eyes, as she had those of the man who had stared without subterfuge, and nearly choked on a suppressed groan that tried to leave her throat.
“You aren’t dancing, are you, Lady Bisterne.” Delivering the words as a statement, not a question, an older lady who’d worn black for longer than Catherine’s twenty-four years, stomped forward with the aid of an amber cane and seized Catherine’s hand in a crushing grip. “We may all recover from you returning in mauve, and perhaps even those jewels in your hair, but if you dance tonight, you may as well take yourself back to England, as no one worth knowing will receive you.”
Catherine granted the lady a curtsy. “I doubt you’ll receive me regardless of whether or not I dance, Mrs. Selkirk.”
“On what, ma’am?”
“Whether or not you’re sorry for what you did to my granddaughter.”
“Oh, I’m sorry if I hurt her.”
Though she had, in truth, done Georgette a favor in keeping her from marrying Edwin, the Earl of Bisterne.
“Perhaps she’ll let me tell her just how sorry I am.” Catherine sought out Georgette Selkirk.
She spotted her gliding around the floor to the rhythm of the Strauss waltz—in the arms of the staring stranger. He caught Catherine’s eye and inclined his head before the swirl of dancers carried him and Georgette out of her sight again.
“Is that her new beau she’s dancing with?” Catherine asked.
“A mere friend of my grandson’s, but Georgette seems to have a growing fondness for him.” Mrs. Caroline Selkirk rapped her cane on the floor dangerously close to Catherine’s toes. “So keep your distance from Lord Tristram.”
“Lord Tristram Wolfe?” Invisible hands seemed to have gotten hold of Catherine’s stay laces and drawn them tight enough so she could no longer breathe.
Mrs. Selkirk leaned forward to peer into Catherine’s face, though she was a full head shorter. “Do you know him?”
“No, I never met him. But his cousin was with my husband when he died.”
And if she didn’t get away from Mrs. Selkirk’s reek of peppermint and the overcrowded ballroom, Catherine was going to expire right there.
“If you will please excuse me, ma’am . . .” Catherine slid her right foot a few inches over in preparation to glide out of Mrs. Selkirk’s reach. “I should ensure my sister’s instruments have gotten stowed away behind the stage safely.” She added a smile to convince the older lady of the truth of her words. “Would you like to sit for the upcoming performance?”
The cane thumped on the floor loudly enough that it could have been the bass drum in the orchestra. “I’d like you to assure me you won’t hurt my granddaughter again.”
“On the contrary, I wish to make amends for the past.” Catherine steeled herself against rejection. “May I call on your family in the near future?”
“I don’t want you near our house.” The clipped words and thump of the cane resounded like blows against Catherine’s heart.
She winced, blinking hard against blurriness in her eyes, and half turned away. “Then I’ll be on my way.” Not waiting for a fare-thee-well nor permission to depart the older lady’s company, she swept around fast enough to send the green-velvet-trimmed ruffles on the bottom half of her skirt flaring out like a dozen fans.
With Estelle swooping around the ballroom floor, Catherine did need to ensure her younger sister’s instruments had reached the clubhouse. Being allowed to provide part of the night’s entertainment, along with some of the other young people from Tuxedo Park, was the only real reason why Estelle agreed to attend the ball that launched her into society. If so much as a fingerprint marred the cello, violin, or the banjo especially, Estelle would leave the launching of the season, even if she had to walk uphill to her home at Lake House through the rain. Having endured enough trouble getting Estelle to the festivities, Catherine was not about to let her younger sister conduct herself with even a hint of scandalous behavior.
Catherine slipped around a group of gawking young men she didn’t recognize and headed for the doorway.
“Heed my warning.” Old Mrs. Selkirk’s voice rang out in the sudden lull as the waltz concluded.
She heeded. She heeded. She heeded. She would have to find a way other than a social call in order to talk to her old friend. Right now, she needed to escape from Mrs. Selkirk and the folly of her imprudent decision to wear mauve and green to announce she had left first mourning a few months early. Around her, the crowd eddied and flowed like wavelets on the shore. Several people nodded greetings to her. She returned the salutations and continued to flit past and around the handful of guests between her and the exit.
“Lady Bisterne.” A drawling English voice cut through the hubbub of the throng. An all-too-familiar voice.
Her heart lurched in her chest like a badly sprung carriage. She halted and turned back toward the speaker, for not doing so would be insufferably rude. He strode toward her with two other gentlemen in tow. Before them, the company parted as though the men were royalty.
They weren’t. Two of them could scarcely call themselves part of the aristocracy. She didn’t know the third gentleman. Even if his looks likely opened any door he wanted, his choice of friends didn’t recommend him as someone she wanted to meet, nor did the fact he’d stared at her upon her arrival.
“What are you doing here, Ambrose?” In as chilly a voice as she could muster, she addressed the man who had called to her, the man who had been with her husband when he died.
He stopped before her and bowed. “I had an invitation to visit this fair land so took advantage of it.”
“How nice for you.” Her tone was sweet. Her stomach churned. “And you didn’t come alone.”
Ambrose’s teeth flashed in a grin. “You know I never liked being alone.”
Neither did she, but she had been for too many years, thanks to men like Ambrose Wolfe.
“I have my cousin with me.” He gestured to the stranger in the mix. “Lord Tristram Wolfe.”
She’d never met the younger son of the Marquess of Cothbridge, but she’d heard of him, mostly in less than favorable terms. He was rather better looking than the gossip rags led her to believe. He was rather better than good-looking, with high cheekbones, a square jaw, and eyes the color of fine, dark Chinese jade in perfect contrast to hair the color of caramel sauce with a rather delightful cowlick.
“Pleased to finally meet you, my lady.” Lord Tristram bowed.
“How do you do?” She dropped a perfunctory curtsy, then glanced at the third man, her husband’s cousin, Florian Baston-Ward.
He sidled closer to take her gloved hand and raise it to his lips. “Cousin Kate, I see you’ve come out of mourning already, complete with wearing stolen Bisterne jewels.”
Later, Lord Tristram would take Florian to task for tipping his hand about the jewels. For now, he saved his concentration for the lady and how she responded to the careless remark.
“Stolen?” Other than that single word and a widening of her long-lashed eyes, Lady Bisterne gave no telling reaction. Her complexion maintained its porcelain purity. No color drained from her cherry-ice-colored lips, and her gaze remained fixed on Florian’s face. In short, she didn’t look guilty despite the fact that two of the jeweled pieces Tristram had crossed half of Europe and then the Atlantic to find shimmered and sparkled against her rather glorious dark auburn hair.
“Not a discussion for the ballroom.” Tristram tore his regard from the lady to scowl at the younger son of his mother’s cousin and his father’s oldest friend. “Badly done of you, Baston-Ward. You should ask her to dance, not make careless accusations.”
“I’m not dancing,” she said at the same time Florian exclaimed, “You expect me to ask her to dance? It’s bad enough she’s wearing colors—”
“Florian, be nice.” Ambrose punched the younger man in the shoulder.
“Go foist yourself on some pretty American girl.” Tristram added his voice to Ambrose to be rid of the youth and leave him alone with Lady Bisterne.
Florian’s blue eyes flashed with lightning. “When she left me penniless?” He waved a hand toward her ladyship. “No American girl would be interested in me.”
“Try a wallflower.” Tristram glanced around to locate the inevitable row of young ladies with whom no one wished to dance because of their poor looks or their lack of money.
A lack of money wasn’t prevalent in that land of the elite wealthy. Some plain-faced young women did perch on the edges of the cushions as though about to jump up and run, or lounged back as though they wanted to sit out the dance. One of the latter wasn’t plain faced at all. Indeed, she looked too much like Catherine, Lady Bisterne, not to be related.
“I see any number of young ladies not dancing.” Tristram jostled Florian’s elbow to get him thinking with reason about going away.
Florian opened his mouth as though to protest, then shut it again and stalked off toward the wallflower row. Ambrose followed with a mumbled, “Wouldn’t mind another dance or two myself.”
Tristram turned back, but Lady Bisterne had gone. She’d been heading for the door when Ambrose had waylaid her, presuming upon their acquaintance back in England. Tristram could follow her. He should follow her in the event she disposed of those bejeweled combs in her hair. Not that doing so would change the fact that she wore them, that a hundred people had seen her wearing them like she possessed a right to do so.
Tristram’s mouth hardened, and he headed for the exit. The sooner he learned the truth from her ladyship, the sooner he could return home and settle matters with his father.
“You’re not going to go hide away with the old men, are you, Tris?” His host, Pierce Selkirk, clapped Tristram on the shoulder. “Never used to be the type to drink spirits and smoke cigars.”
Tristram shuddered. “Not in the least.” A fact that hadn’t gone over well with his fellow army officers. “I wished to . . .” He trailed off, unwilling to admit he wished to go after a lady. Ambrose and Florian knew why he was there in Tuxedo Park, but to his host, Pierce, his friend from university, he was doing what hundreds of other titled men from all over Europe had been doing in the past decade or two—looking for an American heiress as a wife.
Not that he would object to one if he loved her. If he found the proof he needed that Lady Bisterne had stolen the jewels from her late husband’s family. If he met his father’s requirements to prove his younger son could succeed at something, even if Tristram had failed to bring military glory to the family.
Pierce was watching him with one sandy brow raised in enquiry, and Tristram struggled for a truthful response. “I wish to avoid another dance so soon.” He touched the back of his head, where his hair now sprang up in an unruly cowlick from a ridge of scarring beneath.
“Ah, the old head not up to more twirling about?” Pierce laughed. “Mine doesn’t like it much either, and I don’t even have your excuse. But no worries. After this dance, there’ll be an entertainment. Some of the younger set will perform.”
“Sounds like a good reason to escape.”
“Most of it, yes, but Miss VanDorn is worth listening to.” Pierce’s gaze flicked to the dance floor and an auburn-haired young lady whirling about with Florian.
Lady Bisterne’s sister.
“She’s an extraordinary talent,” Pierce added.
“And pretty. Do I detect some interest there?” Tristram smiled.
“About as much as you have in my sister.”
Tristram’s smile died. Fortunately, the music faded to a close. Dancers and chaperones cleared from the dance floor and politely jockeyed for seats on the blue velvet benches along the walls. Abandoning their partners to their own families, Georgette, Ambrose, and Florian joined Tristram and Pierce near the doorway.
“Miss VanDorn is one of the performers.” Florian’s eyes gleamed. “She plays the banjo. I’ve never heard one.”
“They’re all the rage with the ladies here.” Pierce grimaced. “Most should burn theirs.”
“Burn instruments?” Both Florian and Ambrose protested such a notion, being musicians themselves.
“Pierce is referring to my attempts.” Georgette’s sweet voice held a laugh. “But Estelle is quite different. You’ll enjoy her part. Now, do excuse me. I see Grandmother beckoning to me.”
The old lady waved her cane in their direction, much to the peril of those around her.
“She’s going to brain someone with that one day. Sometimes I think—”
Lights in the ballroom darkened except for over the stage. A hush settled throughout the attendees, and several young ladies in fluttery white dresses filed onto the stage escorted by young men with dark coats and stiff collars. From behind them, an unseen musician gave them a pitch, and the chorus began to sing in voices angelic enough to grace any church.
A theatrical sketch followed the ballads. When she forgot her lines, the leading lady dissolved into nervous titters. As though this were part of the drama, the audience laughed with—or perhaps at—her, someone prompted her from the rear of the stage, and she proceeded without another hitch.
“How long does this go on?” Ambrose whispered a little too loudly.
Tristram elbowed him in the ribs. “You’ll never catch an American wife if you are rude.”
“I’ll never catch an American wife without a title,” Ambrose countered. “Even your poor excuse of a courtesy title is worth something here.”
“I think—” Florian began.
Several people nearby hushed him.
The attention of the guests shifted from polite to interested, with those standing slipping a step or two closer to the stage and some of those previously seated standing, as pretty Miss VanDorn glided onto the stage.
She settled a peculiar-looking stringed instrument onto her lap and began to play. She played it like a professional musician. The notes hummed and trilled and tumbled over one another like gemstones caught in a waterfall. At the conclusion of each piece, the audience applauded with the enthusiasm the performance deserved. After three selections, Miss VanDorn rose, bowed, then swept off stage.
Lights from the chandeliers overhead blazed through the room. Like wind from an approaching storm, voices rose to fill the circular chamber. On the stage, the orchestra returned, while on the dance floor, the guests began to mill about and again pair off.
Ambrose punched Tristram’s arm. “Time to start solving your mystery, Sherlock Holmes.”
Tristram shook his head. “There is no mystery here. I need to gather my proof, or we can take no action against an American dowager countess.” He scanned the room for that countess. Surely she had returned to hear her sister’s performance. If she had, though, she must have entered from somewhere near the stage, or she would have passed by his position near the doors. With his height advantage, he should have been able to see her. But no jeweled combs flashed in dark reddish-brown hair. Pierce had wandered off, so Tristram was free to leave the ballroom in search of Catherine, Lady Bisterne.
“Oh no you don’t, Lord Tristram.” Georgette swooped up beside him, her sky-blue eyes sparkling. “We need all the men we can catch to stay and continue partnering the debutantes. Let me introduce you to a few.”
Those debutantes seemed to consist of a few dozen ladies of all ages. Whether cool matron or giggling girl, one factor they shared was their reaction to learning he could, by way of his father’s status, place “Lord” in front of his first name. Their smiles widened, their fans fluttered faster, and they leaned a little closer.
Weary of Georgette Selkirk shepherding him forward like a lost lamb, Tristram chose a plain but lively young lady to be his partner in the first set. Miss Hudock executed the figures of the dance with light steps and not a great deal of chatter.
“You’ve likely already seen what Tuxedo Park has to offer, my lord, so do tell me about where you live. Is it a castle?”
Tristram laughed. “It’s rather a larger and older version of many of the houses I see here in the Park. Half-timber.”
“And stone. Yes, isn’t it pretty? How old?”
“Three hundred and twenty years.” He talked as they rounded the circular ballroom.
How many dancers grew dizzy or lost their way without sides and corners?
“It belongs to my father, though, not me.” He scanned the room for Lady Bisterne or her sister, still not seeing them.
“The windows are rather gray because the glass is so old.”
“Will it be yours one day?”
“Not if God and I see eye to eye on the issue.” They passed the entrance door, one of the few landmarks to give him spatial perspective on the room.
Before him, the young lady’s gray eyes widened. “You don’t want to own a manor house?”
Only for the good he could do with the income. But he didn’t think she would understand that.
“Sometimes,” he admitted. “A great deal of responsibility and privilege comes with it.”
“My papa says privilege is a form of responsibility.” She spoke as the music slowed and ended.
“You have a wise papa.” Tristram bowed, and when he straightened, he caught a glimpse of pinkish-purple satin through a door near the stage.
With more haste than the charming lady deserved, he returned her to her mama, then skirted the room as quickly as he could manage without knocking anyone over. Still, when he reached the doorway, he didn’t see a sign of her ladyship’s luxurious gown.
He did, however, catch a glimpse of something sparkling against the floorboards.
In two strides, he reached the gemstones and scooped them up. Diamonds sparkled and gold and pearls gleamed against his white glove. Above the teeth of the comb, the setting arched on a twist at the edges, an unusual design. Save for its partner comb, a unique setting brought into the Bisterne family over a hundred years earlier. It belonged to the estate, the new Earl of Bisterne, his father’s oldest friend. Yet the twenty-four-year-old Dowager Countess of Bisterne calmly walked off with this and a host of other jewels that did not belong to her.
Tristram curled his fingers around the comb until the filigree setting and stones marred his gloves. Eyes narrowed, he scanned the corridor for her larcenous ladyship.
“I’ll find you before you can rid yourself of the other comb.” He headed down the great hall, nearly empty during the dance. Despite Georgette’s claims, this early in the evening, most of the men hadn’t abandoned the ladies in pursuit of more manly diversions.
But her ladyship appeared to have abandoned the festivities. Tristram spotted her on the other side of the massive fireplace and stalking toward the clubhouse’s front door.
He started after her. A few older gentlemen and couples impeded his progress and line of sight. He paused, his way blocked by a cluster of young people. “I beg your pardon, but may I please get through?”
“We’re terribly sorry.” They started back as though he’d spoken a foreign language. A gap formed he could pass through.
Nodding his thank-you, Tristram lengthened his stride. “Lady Bisterne.” He kept his voice low.
She either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore him.
She grasped the faceted crystal doorknob.
Tristram closed his free hand over hers, feeling the chill of her fingers through the thin gloves. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
She emitted a squeak of a gasp and reared back. Her other comb lost its anchor on her hair and dropped to the floor with a clatter.
“What are you doing?” She yanked her hand free and clapped her hands to hair still anchored by pearl-headed pins.
“I need to talk to you about this.” He held out the first comb, then stooped to collect the other.
She set her foot upon it. “These were a wedding present from my late husband. That is all you need to know.”
“That’s not what the new earl claims.”