The Importance of Almack's
Genre: Regency Romance
Banished and disowned for saving a stranger’s life…
In Regency England, lineage and vouchers to Almack’s are everything, but Pamela Clarkdale has neither. After her father casts her out, she considers herself fortunate to have obtained a position as a companion to an elderly widow.
Kitt Covington has sworn off Almack’s and marriage. Why attend one when he has no interest in the other? Guilt, however, is a powerful motivator. Knowing he caused Pamela to be thrown out of her home, he proposes a sham betrothal between them to ease his conscience.
Kitt’s offer is tempting and Pamela agrees, with the caveat that the betrothal will disappear at the end of the season. But not only is Pamela refused vouchers to Almack’s, her family is scheming to destroy her to protect a secret she doesn’t realize she knows. When the twenty-year-old web of lies and deceit begins to unravel, will Pamela and Kitt discover that Almack’s isn’t really that important after all?
The Importance of Almack's
Yorkshire, March 1816
The stranger lay completely still as Pamela approached the stream. Positioned on his side, he faced away from her. She hesitated before continuing down the embankment. The sound of Midas’s hooves, only slightly muffled by the foliage, should have disturbed him but apparently did not. Urging the horse forward, she studied the area, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. When Midas balked at moving closer, she concentrated on the stranger, willing him to move. He didn’t.
Thankfully, there were really no places for accomplices to hide if he wasn’t alone, and she looked around her carefully before dismounting.
For a clear day, the mid-morning sun provided almost no heat, and although it was not unheard of for Yorkshire to still have snow on the ground in the middle of March, she was glad there was none today. When the man still didn’t move at the sound of her approaching footsteps, she feared the worst.
What was he doing out here? Where had he come from? How had he gotten here?
“Dear God, don’t let him be dead.”
The first thing she noticed as she dropped down beside him was that he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. Midnight waves covered his head, a lock of the dark hair falling forward over his forehead. His sharp, slightly angular features were softened by his repose, but she had the feeling he could freeze with a look, and she found herself wondering what color his eyes were. He was dressed in the height of fashion, a dark brown riding jacket over a white shirt and cravat; his black boots were scuffed but expensively made, as were the leather gloves he still wore.
“Please, God, don’t let him be dead,” she repeated as she grasped his shoulder.
With little difficulty, she pushed him on to his back then put her ear to his chest. His heartbeat was faint, but there. Relief flooded her limbs. Looking him over carefully, she finally noticed a dark stain on the shoulder of his jacket. Shock immobilized her for a moment as she realized he’d been shot.
“Now what?” She checked the area again. “Lord Crandall isn’t going to like this.”
Thankful the man was only unconscious, she quickly tore off a strip of her petticoat and hurried down to the stream. Soaking it in the icy water, she folded it into a pad as she moved back toward him. She knelt beside him and unbuttoned his jacket, only to realize she couldn’t get it off. She cursed roundly, and in a very unladylike manner, the fashion that dictated clothing fit like a second skin. Rocking back on her heels, she stared down at him in frustration. At least he didn’t have a fever, but she wondered how long he’d been unconscious.
Unbuttoning his shirt, she was momentarily distracted by the first naked male chest she’d ever seen. Ridges of muscle and bone covered by tanned skin and dusted by dark curly hair caused her mouth to go dry. Cleaning the wound would be nearly impossible, but she noted the bullet had apparently gone completely through the soft tissue of his shoulder and the bleeding had slowed to a trickle. Sliding her hand beneath the shirt as best she could, she pressed her wet pad against the wound and wished she knew whether she was helping or hurting.
Squinting up at the sun, trying to judge its movement, she hoped Barlow had not disregarded her parting comment.
“I won’t be out long,” she’d told the stable master. “You can send Seth out after me if I’m not back in an hour. I’m only headed down by the stream.” She’d wanted some time alone. A chance to be outside in the cool, crisp air and enjoy the gradual coming of spring.
He was too large to lift, but she managed to move him out of the pool of dried blood she found beneath him. She shivered as the cold air began to seep through the thin riding habit she wore. Retrieving her heavy woolen cloak from Midas’s back, she returned to her stranger to wait. Time crawled and she wondered again if Barlow remembered.
She didn’t dare leave him. He was chilled already and she chafed first one hand, then his other to warm them. The bullet hadn’t killed him, but he could freeze to death if he remained out here much longer.
She grunted as she shifted his broad shoulders, trying not to jostle his injured shoulder too much, and turned him onto his side, supporting his head in her lap and attempting to share her cloak. Leaving his good shoulder resting on the ground, she hoped she wouldn’t get any blood on her skirts. Once back at home, she didn’t want to have to make explanations.
“Please don’t die,” she whispered and looked around, hoping she’d been gone long enough that Seth had been sent to find her.
Movement, and a groan, drew her gaze back to her patient.
Blue, was her first thought as she looked down into indigo eyes. She felt the shudder that racked him. “Don’t move. You have a hole in your shoulder and I don’t want it to start bleeding.”
Kitt came to slowly. His head lay on something soft and warm, but the rest of him was decidedly chilled. Opening his eyes gingerly, he remained still, breathing in a light, flowery fragrance he didn’t recognize. Taking a few moments to become accustomed to the light, he was stunned to find an angel leaning over him, her bright hair haloed by the sun. His shoulder throbbed, causing him to groan before he could catch himself.
She spoke, her voice gentle, but his brain registered only a few words as a shudder went through him.
“I’m glad you’re awake.”
“Where am I?” He was amazed at how strong his voice sounded compared to how he felt.
“Near Clark Hall. Where’d you come from?”
“That’s a long way. What happened?”
“I was set upon and treated to Yorkshire hospitality,” he answered tersely.
“Oh,” was her only comment, but her eyes narrowed slightly.
The silence stretched and he regretted his shortness. She was obviously trying to help him. And he had no reason to believe she was in league with the footpads who’d relieved him of his horse and purse. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his shoulder, he tried to sit up.
“Be careful,” she cried, reaching out to help him. “Remember, you’ve been shot.”
Once in a sitting position, Kitt felt a little more in control of himself, but he was still cold. I should be thankful, he mused. At least I’m still alive.
The sun was high in the sky, reflecting weakly off the water of the small stream before him. It must be fairly late in the morning and he wondered how long he’d lain unconscious before she came along. He couldn’t remember what time he approached the stream to water his horse. Right now, he thought grimly, he was lucky to even remember his name.
“I don’t know how long you were here before I came, but I’ve been here for nearly an hour, I think. Are you hungry?”
The girl sat beside him. She wore a riding dress which had once been of very high quality, but the fine brown velvet was worn thin in many places. Her hair, a fiery gold and red mix, was pulled back into a loose knot at her nape.
Pamela felt the blood rushing into her face under his scrutiny. Wyatt never affected her like this, and she once thought herself in love with him. Stop gawking! she chided herself.
“I…I have some food,” she stammered. “It’s not much, but…” Rising as she spoke, she was surprised when he reached out and grabbed her wrist. The contact jolted her and, losing her train of thought, she dropped back to the ground as fear flashed through her.
“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
“N-no,” she stuttered, flustered by the tingling in her wrist where his hand held it.
“I’m Kitt. And you are…?”
“Pamela. Pamela Clarkdale.”
“Pamela.” The name rolled off his tongue. “I like that.”
His deep voice sent a small frisson of awareness through her. She found herself blushing and chastised herself inwardly. Stop acting like a lovesick fool! He’s injured.
“I…I have a little something to eat, if you’re hungry,” she said hesitantly. “It’s not much…I didn’t expect to have to share.” She smiled as she chattered on. “But you can have some, that is…if you…I mean…if you’re hungry, that is.”
She knew he smiled at her nervousness.
“Relax,” he told her gently. “I won’t hurt you. Perhaps just a little water and I can walk to the nearest village to get some help.”
Aghast, Pamela declared, “You can’t walk all the way to the village with a hole in your shoulder. Besides, someone ought to alert Lord Crandall. He’s the local magistrate.”
He grimaced. “It’s only a scratch.” He moved his arm experimentally and his lips whitened in pain. “Well, maybe not. But I sincerely doubt the ruffians are still in the area—they took my horse and purse.”
“I’m sorry.” She rose to her feet and went back to where Midas stood. Unhooking the small sack from the pommel of the saddle, she returned to Kitt. Opening the sack, she produced an apple, some biscuits and a small flask which she filled with water from the stream.
She watched him eat the apple, all the while wondering what to do with him. Her father distrusted strangers and, to her mother’s chagrin, refused to provide hospitality to travelers. Even one as injured as this gentleman would garner no sympathy from her father.
“I could take you to Lord Crandall’s home,” she offered. “He could send for a doctor.”
If he thought it odd she did not offer to take him to Clark Hall, he kept it to himself.
“I don’t want to cause any trouble. If you can just help me to the nearest inn, I should be fine.” He started to stand as he spoke, but sudden dizziness assailed him and he collapsed in a heap.
“Be careful,” she cried, moving to help him. “You’re not strong enough to go anywhere alone. Seth should be here soon.”
Nearly two hours later, safely ensconced in a small room at the rear of the stables, his wound cleaned and bandaged, Kitt discovered more about his savior. Miss Pamela was the oldest and apparently the favorite of the three children of Sir Maurice Clarkdale. The favorite among the servants, that was. Her younger sister Sheila was apparently the master’s favorite, while her brother Stephen, needless to say, was the son and heir. Master Stephen, however, was off at a school, so only the two girls were at home.
Miss Pamela was twenty-three and still unmarried, while Miss Sheila was a beauty at eighteen and expected to make a grand match. The rumor among the servants was that the master was promoting a match between Miss Sheila and Lord Crandall, but that Lord Crandall had courted Miss Pamela. The fact that he hadn’t proposed marriage worried those among the servants who saw Lord Crandall as Miss Pamela’s chance to get out from under her father’s thumb. With Lady Clarkdale gravely ill, the servants felt Pamela was being shamelessly taken advantage of by her father and sister. The two of them had essentially relegated her to the role of housekeeper and treated her more like one of the servants than the mistress of the house—which would be her proper role during her mother’s illness.
Pamela hurried through breakfast and was headed for the stables when she heard her sister coming down the stairs. “Pamela? Pammy? Are you down here?”
Now what? Pamela thought as she turned back to meet Sheila at the bottom. “I’m here. Do you want something?”
“I can’t find my new blue shawl,” Sheila whined. “Have you seen it?”
“Why should I have seen it? Did you leave it in the sitting room? Or the salon?”
Sheila pouted, her blue eyes darkening in irritation. “How should I know where I left it? I didn’t leave the house with it, so it must be here somewhere. That silly Bess can’t keep track of anything.”
Pamela looked up at the unadorned plaster ceiling in exasperation. Sheila was completely careless with things. When something went missing, she always blamed it on someone else, usually their overworked maid, Bess.
“Sheila, you have to help when it comes to these things. You can’t just leave them lying around here and there and expect something to appear when you want it. Who do you think retrieves them?”
“Obviously not you. You’re too busy playing ‘lady of the manor’ and ordering people around.”
Pamela sighed. “We’ve been through this before, Sheila. Someone has to keep the household running with Mother so sick. You don’t seem to care one way or another, unless you can’t find something.” Forestalling another outburst, she continued, “I’ll check with the laundress. If she doesn’t have it, I’ll check with the housekeeper and downstairs maids to see if anyone has seen it. Until then, why don’t you just wear your white one over that dress. It will look lovely.” She eyed Sheila’s blue and white striped morning gown. The blue shawl would have highlighted the pure gold of her hair, matched her eyes and, of course, accented Sheila’s flawless skin.
Turning toward the back of the house, she heard Sheila flounce back up the stairs. With a sigh, she put those thoughts from her mind and went in search of the laundress and housekeeper.
An hour later she slipped into the room where Kitt sat on a cot with his back propped up against the wall. He no longer looked pale and his eyes were clearer. Smiling, she perched on the chair beside him.
“How are you feeling today?”
“Much better. The shoulder is still painful, but the seepage has stopped. Barlow says it is healing nicely.”
Kitt watched her as she settled onto the chair. Today she was wearing a gown many years out of date, which must have been altered to fit some time ago. Even so, the ill-fitting, odd-colored gown could not disguise the feminine curves beneath. Her skin was clear but, against the dress, looked sallow. Her red-gold tresses were restrained firmly into a no-nonsense bun at the back of her head. Her most interesting features, by far, were her eyes. He still could not put a color to the mixture of green and brown, but they intrigued him immensely.
“Would you like to send someone a letter? I could get you some writing paper and post a letter for you if you would like someone to know where you are.”
The suggestion brought Kitt up short. In the three days he’d been here, it did not occur to him to write to let anyone know what happened. With his father’s death four years ago, his only relative was a distant cousin. While on good terms, they were not regular correspondents. But his friends might wonder what happened to him if he suddenly ceased all contact. And he needed funds to get back to London. Having learned more about this unusual household from the stable hands, he realized there was little help to be had from that quarter.
“I would like that very much,” he answered. “Thank you for thinking of it. I must confess I have been enjoying my convalescence somewhat and forgot others might be worried about my whereabouts.”
“Do you have any family who might worry?”
“No, no family, but I do have friends and acquaintances who might wonder at my uncharacteristic silence.”
“I’ll go and get you some paper right now.” She rose and shook out her dress.
“Thank you,” he replied as she hurried out of the stable.
Kitt put his head back and closed his eyes. Pamela’s face swam before him. He was drawn to her, he knew that. That she didn’t seem to notice was almost comical. He was well aware the reason it never occurred to him to write to anyone was that someone might come to his aid if he did—and right now aid was the last thing he wanted. Picturing her smiling face, the concern in her eyes, the worry over his shoulder, gave him a pleasant feeling he’d never experienced before. Her natural warmth and generosity soothed his cynical, world-weary soul.
He nearly laughed out loud at his predicament. He was the Earl of Kittridge, the most sought-after peer in London, a rake, and confirmed bachelor…attracted to a slip of a woman who had no idea of his identity, imaginings, or feelings. At thirty, he’d had more than his share of women, but never had any of them looked at him like she did. Her thoughtfulness touched him.
Pamela returned with writing utensils and a small lap desk. As she put it down on the chair, he reached for it and their hands touched. Automatically, he gripped her hand gently as she raised startled eyes to his. His thumb caressed the back of her hand as he watched her. Awareness flared deep in her eyes and he realized she was not indifferent.
“I haven’t thanked you for everything you’ve done,” he said slowly, testing her reaction.
“I…you…you’re welcome,” she stammered. “I…it was not much…really.” She swallowed and his eyes were drawn to the smooth skin of her throat.
Raising her hand to his lips, he savored the softness of the back of her hand before turning it over and placing a kiss on the pulse point on her wrist.
Pamela was so surprised she didn’t react. For a moment she stared at the dark head bent over her hand, nearly giving in to the impulse to run her fingers through the inky locks. Sensation sizzled up her arm as he pressed his lips first to the back of her hand, then her wrist. She trembled, unsure whether her legs would continue to hold her up. When Kitt raised his head to look up at her, she was suddenly embarrassed at her response. Mumbling something about chores to do, she straightened and pulled her hand from his, then fled the small room. Once outside the stables, she paused to recover.
Her hand felt warm, and she looked at it as if it was a foreign object attached to her arm. Lifting it, she pressed the back of her hand against her cheek and felt again the tingling sensation of Kitt’s lips settling there. She was lost in a daydream until the voices of the stable hands intruded.
She shook herself. It’s time to get to work, she admonished herself as she headed toward the house. There was still Sheila’s shawl to find.
“How’s the patient today?” her mother asked when Pamela slipped into her room for a visit much later.
Sunlight streamed through large windows, casting bright patterns over the carpet and furniture. Lady Clarkdale sat in a large overstuffed chair, her small frame swathed in shawls, a colorful knitted throw covering her legs. The sun haloed her hair, the same pure gold as Sheila’s. Not for the first time, Pamela wondered where the red in her own unruly mane came from.
“Mending.” She sank on to a stool beside her mother’s chair. “I sent a letter off for him to a friend in Devon. I told him to have his friend address his reply to Mrs. Creal. I just hope that I intercept it first when it arrives.” She sighed. “I didn’t know how else to do it.”
A frail, blue-veined hand reached out and patted her on the shoulder. “That was for the best. But have you learned anything more about him?”
Only that he can make my heart stop, she nearly replied. Instead she said, “No. I haven’t asked. I suppose I should inform Lord Crandall, but he said it wasn’t important enough to bother the local magistrate.” She looked up into her mother’s faded blue eyes. “Do you think that means he’s hiding something?”
“Possibly. But since we don’t want your father to find out about him, for now it’s best to leave things as they are.”
Pamela pondered this for a moment. “I asked Barlow about him. He said Kitt had a fever the first night and talked about two people named Denny and Geoff, but little else. Since the fever broke, he’s been a model patient. But he’s obviously a gentleman, possibly a lord.”
Lady Clarkdale’s pale brows drew into a frown. “I wish I could meet him.”
Pamela smiled. “I could smuggle him in.”
Her mother smiled in return. “That would be nice, but it’s too risky. We do not want your father to discover his presence.”
“I suppose not.”
Pamela and her mother shared a conspiratorial silence. Neither liked deceit, but when it came to hospitality, her mother felt the ends justified the means. Pamela did not understand her father’s antipathy toward strangers, and her mother simply refused to turn anyone needing aid away. Fortunately, not many strangers ventured near Clark Hall since it was not close to a main road. The locals all knew better than to come here for aid, despite her mother’s instructions to Barlow to come to her or Pamela if he knew of someone who needed help.
Their nearest neighbors were the residents of the small village of Timpvale, Lord Crandall and Squire Halston. The city of York was a two-hour ride away to the east, and the nearest posting inn was three miles to the south.
The door to the room opened, startling her from her thoughts. Sheila entered, coming to a stop as she noticed Pamela.
“Here you are! I thought you would be in the stables.”
Pamela frowned. “Why would you think that?”
Maddie, her mother’s abigail, followed Sheila into the room.
“You practically live there, except when you’re playing ‘lady of the manor’.”
“Sheila!” Lady Clarkdale exclaimed.
“Well, it’s true,” she said defensively. “And I still can’t find my blue shawl.”
Pamela restrained herself from rolling her eyes. Sheila always expected her needs to be addressed first. If it didn’t revolve around her or something she wanted, it didn’t exist. Her self-absorption was further exacerbated by their father, who indulged her every whim.
“Your blue shawl, miss?” Maddie spoke for the first time. “Why, you left it in here just yesterday.” The abigail crossed the room to the overstuffed chair in front of the fireplace and picked up something hanging over the back.
“Oh, Maddie. You’re wonderful!” Sheila grabbed the shawl and draped it over her shoulders. Twirling for the admiration of the rest of the occupants of the room, she smiled brightly. “It’s perfect.”
Pamela struggled unsuccessfully to keep her irritation at bay, all the while reluctantly admitting that her sister was exceedingly beautiful.
“Sheila, a number of the maids and I spent a good portion of the day looking for that shawl. A good portion of the day, I might add, we could have spent doing other things.”
Sheila looked over at her. “Oh, pooh. That’s what servants are for.”
“Sheila!” Lady Clarkdale’s tone indicated her disappointment.
“How could you be so thoughtless?” Pamela said, angry now. “I swear I wonder how we could be so different. How can you be so unconcerned about what others have to do to satisfy your whims?”
“They get paid to do that.”
“I don’t,” Pamela shot back.
“Girls…” Lady Clarkdale tried for calm.
“Maybe you ought to,” came a voice from the doorway.
Their mother gasped as all eyes turned to the open door. “Maurice! You cannot possibly mean that.”
Pamela noticed Maddie left the room as her father entered, closing the door behind her. She rose from her stool.
Sheila, unaware of the suddenly charged atmosphere in the room, turned to her father. “Look, Papa, I left my shawl in here when I was visiting Mama yesterday.”
It took all of Pamela’s willpower not to grab Sheila and shake her. How could one person be so selfish? It didn’t take much looking to find the answer. Sheila had been outrageously indulged from the day she was born. All attempts to curb her selfishness by their mother, governess, or anyone else were ignored by their father.
Recognizing that her time with her mother was over for today, Pamela leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“I will come see you again tomorrow, Mama.” Crossing the carpet to the door, she greeted her father. “Good afternoon, Papa.”
His dark eyes narrowed at her, but he responded in a neutral tone. “Good afternoon, Pamela.” Then he dismissed her by turning toward Sheila. “You run along, too, Poppet. I wish to speak to your mother.”
Pamela didn’t wait to hear any more. She opened the door and slipped out, closing it behind her. Heart heavy in her chest, she headed down the back stairs toward the kitchen.
She wished she didn’t feel as if her father didn’t like her, let alone love her as a father should. Why? It was a question she asked herself often. She wasn’t the beauty that Sheila was, her hair was more red than blond, but she had his brown eyes, although hers had green flecks in them. She was sure being able to look him directly in the eye unnerved him, but there was nothing she could do about her height. Her brother Stephen was tall. Her mother said he took after their grandfather. So why did it seem so wrong for her to be tall as well?
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