Masquerading the Marquess

By: Anne Mallory

Spies & Secrets – Book 1

Chapter 1

London, 1823

What was a caricaturist to do when she ran out of material?

Calliope Minton observed the pitch and sway of an aging duke and a newly launched debutante as the two waltzed across the terrazzo floor. She could cast the duke as a tortoise and the young girl as a fresh minnow. No, what about the duke as a long-toothed wolf and the girl as a sheep? Calliope grimaced. The duke and debutante were about as appealing as the ideas floating through her brain.

Calliope was prepared to do something drastic. Even if she had to strip to her shift in the middle of the Killroys' lavish ballroom, at least the ton could discuss something besides the weather.

"Spring certainly has kept its grip on winter. Is it going to be warmer anytime soon?" Miss Sarah Jones asked the small group gathered on the fringe of the Killroys' crowded ballroom.

Clasping her hands to keep from shaking the pretty debutante, Calliope focused on a leafy philodendron in the corner. She had long since decided the foliage was the most interesting thing in attendance.

A mousy girl stepped into view, looking nervous and uncomfortable. Calliope smiled, prompting the girl to straighten her shoulders and tentatively smile in return. Beneath the girls’ self-conscious exterior was a warm and intelligent spirit. Next time one of the fashionable girls criticized her, maybe they’d be in for a surprise.

That image was one Calliope dearly wished to publish in the London papers. Too long had the same insipid ladies and feckless gentlemen reigned supreme over the ton. Just once she wanted to see the plain but intelligent girls and lads give back as good as they got. Perhaps if they were to do it en masse . . . She could form a group, create a revolution of sorts. Rise up, normal young people! Break down the social barriers! Overthrow the haughty elite! Calliope’s thirst for vengeance against the upper classes took root in the idea. Yes, she could lead them. Overthrow one noble at a time.

Which one first?

Voices rippled through the room, interrupting her thoughts. Lady Killroy motioned for someone to join their group and Calliope froze as she registered the man’s jet-black hair and intense onyx eyes.

The too-handsome Marquess of Angelford prowled toward her. Dark locks framed his patrician features, and wealth and privilege clung to him like a winter cloak. He was looking directly at her, his gaze washing over her.

Calliope’s heart skipped several beats and she tried to still her racing pulse. Matrons and debutantes preened as Angelford passed. Calliope shifted her feet, caught between irritation and anticipation. The only thing she detested more than his conceit was her own physical response to him.

One noble at a time, a voice in the back of her head said.

He reached their group and acknowledged their hostess, Lady Killroy.

"I am so pleased you could attend our gathering, Lord Angelford," Lady Killroy gushed. Angelford’s arrival marked her ball a complete success.

One noble at a time, the voice urged.

"We were discussing the dreadful weather, my lord," Sarah said, "Isn’t it wretched?"

"Mmm, yes. We were unable to run the horses last weekend." His rich voice sent warm ripples down Calliope’s spine.

Sarah giggled along with Lucinda Fredericks, another pretty young debutante who tried Calliope’s patience.

One noble at a time. The voice became more insistent. She plunged into the conversation.

"Considering the inconvenience, I can’t believe Aeolus didn’t command the winds for you, my lord. "

There was a collective gasp. Her once-brave internal voice hesitated and then fled. Calliope wanted to retract the sarcastic comment, but Father Time refused her entreaty. Lady Simpson looked irate. Her fan hammered against her leg.

Calliope could have sworn a fleeting smile crossed Angelford’s features, but his expression became even more arrogant. "Perhaps someday he will. Sometimes behavior must be taught." His deep, dark eyes mocked her.

She willed the redness from her cheeks and inclined her head. A discussion of the weather, an internal call to arms and her finest adversary. A disastrous combination. What had she been thinking, to berate him in front of the others? He drove her mad, but she should have waited to discreetly slice him.

The titters from Sarah and Lucinda grated.

"No better than you deserve," Sarah said just loudly enough for Calliope to hear.

Her fingers itched for ink and paper. The mass call to arms once again returned to a personal vendetta. Sarah would lose her smile when she saw the rendition of her vapid look and tart tongue in print, the image of which was already forming in Calliope’s mind.

Lady Simpson snapped her ever-present fan closed, interrupting Calliope’s thought. "Sometimes a bad apple sneaks past even my watchful gaze, my lord. I do try to be ever vigilant, but from time to time recommendations from some of the gentry are suspect. They tend to be less discerning than those of us with higher standards."

Worry crept into Calliope’s mind. She had definitely made a strategic mistake, and probably compromised her position as Lady Simpson’s companion. Lord, how she hated society. It was a game she could never win.

Lady Killroy seized the pause, obviously eager not to waste the opportunity of having Angelford at hand. "Yes, it’s always hard to find good help. On a more interesting note, Miss Jones was commenting on the new Italian marble being used at the palace. She and Miss Fredericks were recently presented at St. James’s."

Sarah took her cue. "Oh, yes. The marble is the loveliest shade of gray. And they found these lovely plants. They looked lovely in the . . ."

Calliope blotted out Sarah’s lovely voice, which could continue inane conversation for hours. She noticed Angelford’s boredom and felt a dash of good humor return at the thought of his being cornered by the two twits all evening.

Lady Simpson and Lady Killroy walked a few steps to the right in an obvious matchmaking attempt. Putting their heads together, unmindful as usual of being overheard by Calliope, Lady Simpson said softly, "Angelford has been out quite frequently this season. I figured his absence this past week meant he had once again disappeared, but his appearance tonight is promising."

"Do you suppose he could be in the market?"

"Anything is possible, though the mamas haven’t picked up the scent. If l had a daughter of marriageable age, I would be battle-ready."

"He's one of the ripest plums in England, although Killroy is of the mind he’ll never marry," Lady Killroy said.

Lady Simpson’s fan flicked open. "They all do eventually."

"Yes, but there’s something different about Angelford. He doesn’t chase the ladies of the ton, though I know many who would love to snare him."

"He likes the muslin well enough."

"Yes, well, every man likes their kind."

"Some more than most."

"You don’t suppose he will end up like the former Viscount Salisbury?"

"Besotted of his mistress? I tend to think Angelford will be more like the Duke of Kent, he’ll come through when duty calls."

The Viscount Salisbury. A shiver traversed Calliope’s spine. The biddies never tired of the topic of men who refused to marry proper ladies, but slavishly attended to their mistresses. In their lofty opinion, it was a crime against society.

Calliope tamped the emotions their words caused and once again examined the assemblage. It was the same thing she saw every evening. The debutantes held court in their virginal white dresses, the scantily clad widows and married women flirted brazenly and spun in rainbows of dazzling colors, the dandies pranced in even brighter shades and the ever-present rakes leered at anything in a skirt. They melded together on and around the dance floor, their choreographed movements keeping time with the orchestra’s melody and society’s rhythm.

The scene was nothing new and Calliope cursed her own folly for her present predicament. It had been two years since she had become a caricaturist and begun satirizing the nobility. Two years since she had started devising elaborate ruses to gain entrance into society’s hallowed halls, where she could view the inner workings and shadowed secrets of London’s finest.

Drawing caricatures had begun as a lark, but striking back at the nobility had become her passion.

A pink-faced Mr. Terrence Smith appeared at Calliope’s elbow with two glasses of lemonade. He puffed from exertion. "I came across as quickly as I could."

The two matrons continued gossiping, although Lady Simpson took a moment to cast a pointed look at Terrence.

"What’s wrong, Mr. Smith?" Calliope asked.

A fretful look crossed his unremarkable features. He shoved a glass in her hand. "I thought something might be amiss, Miss Stafford. You looked distraught."

She smiled. He had used her present pseudonym. No one in the hall knew her real name. "Everything’s fine, though I appreciate your of concern."

Terrence nodded and scowled at the marquess. Calliope smiled at the reproach by the otherwise timid little man. He was such a dear.