Mari Powel’s only warning that disaster had come to Hyde Park was when the parakeet said a new word. Normally, the thing said slightly rude words like “clodhopper” or “bawdy basket.” But this time, clear as the spring sky, the creature said, “Winner, winner!” Mari immediately used the excuse to set the heavy cage down. She’d been carrying the blasted thing throughout Hyde Park while Lady Illston showed it off. Lord Illston had brought it back from India a month ago, and it was a ton favorite. So popular, in fact, that Lady Illston allowed a different eligible young lady to carry the cage across Hyde Park during the fashionable hour. Today was Mari’s turn, but she seriously doubted her shoulders were up to the task.
“My goodness,” Mari said as she surreptitiously shook out her arms. “I believe that’s a new word. Did you hear it?”
Lady Illston adjusted her parasol to peer owlishly at her. “A new word? Are you sure?”
“Quite sure.” Mari looked hopefully at the two gentlemen who had just joined them. Both were young and handsome but sadly dim.
“Did you hear it?” “I was listening only to your beauteous voice,” crooned one.
She’d mentally labeled him Dim #12. She’d already exchanged pleasantries with Dims number one through eleven.
“I wasn’t speaking,” she responded, wondering if she dared smile indulgently at him, as one might a slightly stupid younger brother. “He said ‘Winner, winner.’”
“By Jove, are you sure?” asked Dim #13. “Yes, I’m—”
“That must mean he’s here,” Dim #13 interrupted. He popped off his hat and spun around, scanning the park with narrowed eyes.
“Winner, winner, of course,” answered Dim #12, joining his friend in searching the crowd. “By Jove, there he is!” He immediately waved his arm quite forcibly. “Over here! Over here! There’s a parrot for you!”
Actually, the bird was a parakeet, she thought idly as she tried to see what had gotten them so excited. Mari wasn’t tall enough, and neither was Lady Illston, so the women were relegated to an awkward patience as the Dims continued their vulgar display. They did everything but jump up and down, and Mari suspected their restraint was simply an awareness that jumping would likely splatter mud on their boots.
“There’s no need…” Mari began, but then the men finally parted enough for her to see the object of their adoration. “Winner,” she whispered, dread lodging in her throat. Of course, it was him. The one man who always won, making her the woman who lost.
As fast as she was able, she picked up the birdcage, trying desperately not to groan. Then she smiled as brightly as she could and tugged on Lady Illston’s arm. “Do you know, I believe your dear friend Lady Tennesley is over there. Let’s go see.”
“What? No, I want to meet—”
“Oh, she’s waving. I believe she might have some delightful gossip to share.”
Even the lure of gossip wasn’t enough to distract Lady Illston. “Really, Miss Powel, it’s quite ill-bred to tug on someone’s sleeve.”
Well, of course it was, but the lady hadn’t objected to the gentlemen’s behavior, had she? And she certainly didn’t know that Mari was desperately trying to avoid the social disaster that was a few feet away and closing fast.
“Winner! Winner!” cried the parakeet.
Then it happened. A deep voice she remembered in her nightmares spoke in that jovial tone of his.
“Hullo, Greenie, how are you today?”
“Of course you are. Such a magnificent bird.”
Then Lady Illston tugged on Mari’s sleeve. “Quick. Give him a treat. We must reward proper behavior.”
Trapped. The man had spoken to them and was even now bowing his greeting.
Stay calm, she told herself, but it was no good. She could feel six years of bitter resentment rising in her gorge, despite her best efforts to swallow it down. Then her arms gave out, and she dropped Greenie’s heavy cage back on the ground. Next she decided to hide her face as she fished around in her reticule for a treat. If she didn’t look at the man, maybe she could keep a civil tongue.
“Miss Powel, I do believe you’re looking more lovely than possible.”
Worse and worse. He wanted to converse with her. She resolved to remain excruciatingly polite and tried to think of something innocuous to say. “That’s a logical incongruity, you know. I cannot be more lovely than possible. It is obviously possible if I am it.”
“Well, my goodness,” Lady Illston gasped, and no wonder. Despite her best intentions, Mari was being rude. Fortunately, the jackanapes was laughing with good humor.
“Always so clever. What a delight to see you again.” Then he extended his hand for hers, and she must, of course, give it to him. And with half the ton in the park right then, whatever she did now would be whispered to everyone within the half hour.
She could do this. She could be polite and not say exactly what she thought. She extended the tips of her fingers for him to kiss, then dropped into a stiff curtsy. “Lord Whitly,” she ground out. “I thought you were in India.” Or hell, which was where she wished he’d stay.
“Just returned. One cannot remain forever in a foreign land. Eventually a man’s thoughts must return to his native country and settling down.”
That did it. Her gaze jumped to his on instinct. A man could not make a clearer statement that he was on the prowl for a wife, and she’d been on the hunt for a husband ever since he’d destroyed her chances over five years ago. And now he stood in front of her and declared his eligibility?
Lady Illston lost no time in leaping upon his statement. “Oh, my lord, what a coincidence! I’m having a ball in a few weeks. Plenty of lovely young ladies there. All of them delightful.”
“Capital,” he said as he turned his beaming smile on Lady Illston.
“Winner! Winner!” agreed the parakeet.
Then he looked at her. The sun was full on his face, highlighting the ruggedness of his square jaw and large frame. His light brown hair had turned more gold in India, and its soft curls made him a dashing figure. Broad shoulders, big hands, and muscles everywhere, exquisitely revealed by perfectly tailored attire. He was everything handsome, rich, and eligible. A maiden’s dream, and he was smiling at her.
“And you, Miss Powel? Will you be at the ball?”
“Not if you’re there.”
She clapped a hand to her mouth, horrified that she’d spoken her true thoughts aloud. She hadn’t done that in five years. Five long years of watching her tongue, never stepping an inch out of place, of simpering, smiling, and carrying fans, not to mention shawls and birds—all of it gone in a second. She’d said the words that leaped to mind, and everyone about her gasped.
Everyone, that is, except Lord Whitly who arched his brows in every semblance of shock. “Miss Powel, have I offended you in some way?”
If she didn’t still have her hand on her mouth, she would have gaped at him. Did he know nothing? She looked about her at the growing crowd. It wasn’t just Lady Illston and the Dim pair. They now had four other parties joining them. And still her dratted tongue kept wagging. “Five, nay, six years ago, my lord, you did indeed offend me. Most grievously.”
“Six years?” Dim #12 sputtered.
“But that’s ancient history,” agreed Dim #13.
“You labeled me the Wayward Welsh, though I didn’t deserve the name. And what you did to my sister was worse.”
He frowned. “Your sister? Oh, the Wild Welsh. I’d heard she’d married. Most happily.”
Yes, Josephine had married and was deliriously happy, but that was only after five years of agony, fighting the epithet this man had given her.
“Nevertheless, that doesn’t mitigate your crime.”
“Crime!” Lady Illston gasped, and she was echoed by the Dims plus the Misses Montgomery and their escorts. Meanwhile, Lord Whitly was defusing the situation with deep chuckles.
“I beg to differ with you there, Miss Powel. All’s well that ends well, and all that.”
“Winner! Winner!” the parakeet squawked.
“But it has not ended well,” she said, wishing she could make him understand the hell she’d been living in. No man would marry a wayward woman. So she’d spent the last six years suppressing every instinct, every breath of life for fear of reviving that label.
“Naturally, I beg pardon for any unwitting insult.”
“But I cannot think that a casual word from me five or six years ago has caused the damage of which you speak. Truly, Miss Powel, can we not cry pax?”
Six years of guarding her every word, and still no suitors. He’d done that to her, and now he wanted to dismiss it as nothing. “My lord, some things cannot be mended with an apology. Look about you. Do you see how even now you wrong me? They think I am a shrew, and you the clever man.”
“Surely they do. You gave me a reputation six years ago. One that has dogged my every breath and prevented me from marrying. And now, just when I was set to escape, you return to dredge it all up again.”
“But I didn’t,” he said, his voice betraying a hint of annoyance. “You did. I merely asked if you were attending a ball.”
“Your very presence brings it up again, and well you know it.” Except he didn’t seem to know it. He seemed completely confused by her animosity, which made her hate him even more. To have such power to casually destroy her life, and he wasn’t even aware of what he’d done.
Meanwhile, he was staring at her, his expression tight, his mouth curled down. “Surely you see that you give me too much credit.”
“On the contrary, my lord, look about you. You have them hanging on your every word.”
“Our every word, I believe.”
Well, that was certainly true. Which left them at a stalemate. She would not forgive him, and he was left standing accused but unapologetic. Then he echoed her thoughts, which was disturbing indeed. She did not like to think they had anything in common.
“It appears we are at an impasse.”
One glance around told her that he had the bulk of the sympathy. It would be up to her to appear gracious or attach “shrew” to her “wayward” epithet.
“My lord—” she began, but that was when Dim #12 interrupted her.
“Why not settle it in the usual way?”
“What usual way?” Lord Whitly asked, and again, he was exactly echoing her own thoughts.
“A wager!” cried Dim #13. “Whoever gets the forfeit receives the apology.”
“Oh yes,” agreed Lady Illston. “That sounds like a great deal of fun.”
“I will not wager on—” Mari began.
“I don’t believe that ladies wager on such things,” Lord Whitly said.
“Pish posh!” interrupted Lady Illston. “Ladies wager all the time. And the forfeit shall happen at my ball. Whoever wins shall have the apology from the other.” She twirled her parasol in excitement. “But whatever shall be the contest?”
“Winner! Winner!” Greenie screeched again.
“Hush!” Mari said to the poor bird. “You really must learn another word.”
Lord Whitly clapped his hands together. “An excellent suggestion. I accept.”
To which the Dim pair heartily agreed with a back slap and “Jolly good,” repeated multiple times.
“What?” Mari said, startled into looking right into her enemy’s green eyes. “What do you mean, you accept?”
Lord Whitly smiled down at her as if she were a lackwit child. “Whoever teaches Greenie a new word first wins the wager.”
“What? But I wasn’t suggesting anything. I merely—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Lady Illston said with obvious glee. And why not? She and her bird had just become the center of a contest that would keep her in the forefront of the ton entertainment for the entire Season.
“An excellent suggestion, my lord. Excellent indeed.”
“You are suggesting,” Mari said slowly, “that whoever teaches Greenie a new word first gets a public apology from the other?”
“Yes, yes,” said Lady Illston. “It’s a perfect idea.”
It was a ridiculous idea, but the thought of him on bended knee before her, begging her forgiveness, was something she’d imagined for six years. It was her nightly ritual. She looked at the bird and thought things through. She’d spent a great deal of time with Greenie lately. It was a necessary evil in order to get through this dratted walk Hyde Park. Which meant she had much more rapport with the creature than Lord Whitly could possibly have.
“But what word am I to teach him?” she wondered aloud.
“Can’t tell,” said Dim #12. “Otherwise everyone else would take sides and be forever speaking it to the bird.”
“Very true,” agreed Dim #13, “but we must have a judge. Someone who knows the words.”
“And equal time to teach Greenie,” inserted Lady Illston. “I shall be the judge of that, as they must come to my house.”
Lord Whitly’s charm began to ooze from every pore as he bowed to Lady Illston. “You will make the most honorable judge, my lady. I feel secure in your hands.”
The lady pinkened to an alarming degree as she tittered beneath her fan. Which meant he’d already gotten her in his pocket.
“But the words,” Mari pressed. “They must be simple. I shall whisper them to you, Lady Illston, and you cannot tell anyone, or you shall end the whole contest.”
Mari thought herself very clever for that part, because truthfully, Lady Illston could not keep a secret any more than she could keep her parasol still. Within a day, all of Society would know the words, and that would be the end of this charade.
“Well, come on then,” Lady Illston urged.
Mari leaned over and whispered, “Happy day.”
Lady Illston seemed to approve. “Very proper,” she said with a nod. “Now, Lord Whitly, it must be two words. Come, come, what do you select?”
“This is a difficult decision, but I believe I must say what comes first to mind. Lady Illston, forgive the impertinence please.” Then he leaned over and slowly brushed the hair away from her ear.
The woman giggled as he made a show of whispering in her ear. And when he was done, she gasped, and her eyes were round with shock. “Oh my, Lord Whitly. Oh my, indeed!”
“Not a word, or the game’s up. You can do that, can you not, Lady Illston?”
“Oh my, yes. Oh my, of course.”
Good Lord, he’d reduced the woman to a babbling idiot. Just what had he said? Lady Illston’s color was up, and her eyes were bright.
“Just a moment,” Mari said. “If I am to be the center of gossip again, I should like the forfeit to be worth it.”
“An apology isn’t enough?” Lord Whitly asked.
What Mari wanted was a great deal more specific than words. She lifted her chin and said her fantasy in detail. After all, she’d been dreaming it for six years now.
“I want you on one knee, my lord, with flowers in your hand and the apology on your lips. And you will not get up from that position until you make me believe you are sincere.”
“Oh, brilliant!” cried Dim #7. The man had joined the group during that last pronouncement. “He’ll be there for a week.”
Yes, he would, and that would be her revenge. She looked at Lord Whitly and knew a moment’s triumph. After all, no man would open himself up to such a forfeit. He’d be humiliated and possibly physically damaged. But instead of crying off, he bowed his head.
“I accept. But I shall add to your forfeit then as well.”
“Am I to be on bended knee?”
“Certainly not. You will allow me a kiss.”
She shook her head. “I cannot!” she cried.
“Oh, but you can,” returned Lady Illston. “I am the judge, and I declare that a kiss will be proper. No one shall think the worse of you for it.”
Of all the idiotic things to say. “You cannot promise that, Lady Illston.”
“I can,” she said. Then she looked to the crowd. “Come, come, don’t you agree? This kiss will be perfectly proper. Lady Castlereigh? Lady Jersey?”
No. No, it couldn’t be. This wager couldn’t already have garnered the attention of two of the exalted patronesses of Almack’s. And yet, while she stared, the press of bodies separated to reveal those two ladies plus a third. Lady Cowper, also a patroness of Almack’s. If the three of them agreed, then everyone else must perforce follow.
“My ladies,” Mari began, “this is not at all proper. I cannot—”
“And yet it seems it is already done,” interrupted Lady Jersey. “Acquaint me of the particulars, if you will.”
More than one person leaped into the discussion. The details of the offense and the wager itself were recounted a dozen times. If Lord Whitly had meant to capture the attention of all of Society, he had managed it neatly.
When the recounting was done, the three patronesses looked to one another, and then Lady Castlereigh gave the verdict. “We wish to see this apology,” she said in ringing tones. “Therefore we declare it proper.”
In the general roar of approval, the parakeet declared the future. “Winner, winner!” it cried.
“Not him,” Mari said loudly as she picked up the bird. “In the future, Greenie, that shall be my name.”
And in this way, she began her war.