Every unmarried gentlewoman who comes to London for the Season must accept that finding a husband is the business of her life. Neither her family nor society offers any other honorable provision for her future. Therefore, until she forms an attachment with a man of respectable family, decent habits, and comfortable income, a sensible woman will make use of every available means to put herself in the way of eligible parties and will devote her time and her energies to determining who among them is both suitable for the purpose and susceptible to her charms. To waste even a single evening in idle flirtation or to pin one’s hopes on unreasonable expectations is to risk no less a thing of lasting value than her own happiness. The purpose of this slim volume, then, is to guide the Husband Hunter through the perilous waters of the Season to the calm shores of wedded life.
—The Husband Hunter’s Guide to London
Jane Fawkener looked up from the little blue book in her hands at the two solemn gentlemen seated opposite her in the office of her father’s bank. The book’s title in ornate gilt script must be a joke, a cruel joke. Surely, she had not journeyed a quarter of the way around the globe for news of her father only to receive the little blue volume.
She found it difficult to breathe, some pressure squeezing her chest, not just the unfamiliar stays. She had come to the bank straight from the Foreign Office where Lord Chartwell, the official in charge of the near East, had shared with her a letter her father had written to his cousin Teddy Walhouse. Chartwell had no letter for her. She had known better than to expect one from her father through such a compromised channel, but from her father’s bankers, his most private and secure means of communication, she had expected a letter of her own. Not a book, and certainly not this book.
She turned the worn little volume over in her hands. “Marry? My father wants me to marry?” She tried to keep her voice steady.
Both men nodded with grave and awkward sympathy. She was unaccustomed to pale English faces, but she did not detect in either man any of the signs of duplicity or avarice her father had trained her to recognize, nor any of the indifference with which Lord Chartwell had met her inquiries earlier.
George Hammersley, the older gentleman, had blunt, sober features and black hair peppered with gray, while his son Frank had a youthful, open face in which the same features were softened and refined, but contracted by just a pinch of pain in the expression. The younger man leaned heavily on a cane whenever he stood.
She wondered what they made of her. She did not recognize herself in her borrowed mourning clothes. Before her ship docked, a pair of well-intentioned lady missionaries who had been in Greece to bring translations of the Bible to the warring factions there, had taken her aside and helped her to dress for her arrival in London. Today she wore her first stays, laced tight under three layers of petticoats, and a heavy black gown of a dull, stiff fabric. Her usual clothes, her loose pants and bright tunics, lay folded in her trunk.
George Hammersley cleared his throat. “Miss Fawkener, an entail of this sort is very common in England to keep an estate within a family, but your father’s will does authorize us to provide two hundred pounds for your use until such time as you…marry.”
Jane regarded the book in her hands. It could not be all that remained of her father. She could understand why he had not written to her through the Foreign Office, but she could not fathom why he had not sent her a direct message through his bankers. With what composure she could muster, she refrained from flinging the little book on the glowing fire in the grate. It surely deserved all the curses of Arabia.
May you crumble into dust finer than the smallest grains of sand in the desert, may weary asses and camels grind you underfoot, and may the four winds blow the specks of you to the ends of the earth.
Silently, she sent the curse into the fire-warmed air of the office, and wished it up the chimney flue and out into the sky. Her father was missing somewhere along the vast mysterious network of trade and intrigue from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas. The British Foreign Office, which had swooped her up from her father’s house in Halab and hustled her onto a ship in Koron Harbor, now refused to help her discover his fate. Instead they promised to bestow upon her father a knighthood and a piece of shining silver that meant nothing. He would be Sir George Fawkener, deceased. Lord Chartwell had turned from her to the paperwork on his desk as if he had already forgotten the existence of her father and expected her to do the same.
But it was impossible to forget one had a father, that he had taught her Greek and Arabic and taken her with him everywhere, that he had been endlessly funny and energetic and reckless and brave, that he’d had crinkles around his clever blue eyes, did magic tricks with his big hands, and filled his pockets with almonds and pistachios.
She had been delayed at the dock while some customs matter was resolved, and while someone apparently searched her trunk. Her father’s previous letters remained in her possession, but she recognized from the alteration in the ribbon with which they were tied, that the bundle had been opened. Someone in London was spying on her.
In those circumstances she had felt an unreasonable burst of hope a few moments earlier when the Hammersley’s produced a brown-paper package from her father. Whatever he sent through them had escaped the scrutiny of his enemies. But all hope of a personal message from him had died when she unwrapped the little book. Her father had washed his hands of her. Her head felt like mush while her heart felt squeezed in her chest. She stared down at the little book lying on the voluminous folds of her black skirts.
A moment of dizziness overcame her. She was not at sea, not bobbing and dipping in an unsettled way over vast gray waters, but in the grip of an odd uneasiness that had started the moment she stepped off the ship.
The cursed book remained clutched in her hand. She was far from any desert where camels might trample it underfoot. She flipped it open, looking for a message, a word in her father’s looping scrawl, but there was no inscription, no hint of his intention. There was, however, a map, folded inside the front cover, along the interior edge of the book’s binding. She opened its folds, a map of London in watercolor pale greens, pinks, and browns with the great blue ribbon of the river, the Thames, snaking through it.
She straightened her spine. The map meant there was more to his message than the unexpected advice to marry. His bankers might believe him dead. The Foreign Office might believe it, but Jane refused to believe he was dead without confirmation. After all, he had only gone on one of the trips he had been making for the British government for nine years. He’d always come back before. She just had to figure out what he meant by leaving her the little guide. It had to be one of her father’s games, a game she could learn to play.
She closed the book. When she looked up, the motion again triggered that feeling that she was at sea with her chair pitching under her like a rowboat in rough swells.
Frank Hammersley watched her face. “Miss Fawkener, the Foreign Office is sending a protocol officer to take charge of you, but as we are a little ahead of our time, may I bring you a restorative? A glass of wine, perhaps?”
She lifted a hand to refuse the wine, wishing she could refuse the Foreign Office functionary as well. A flock of questions stirred in her head, but the two earnest gentlemen across from her did not look the least bit ready to answer them. They both jumped at a light knock on the office door.
A striking young woman, with a merry face framed by glossy black ringlets, and figure that announced her to be with child, stopped abruptly midstride, looking abashed for interrupting.
“Oh, I beg your pardon. I didn’t realize you two were with a client.”
“Come in, Violet, my dear.” The elder Mr. Hammersley hurried to her side as if she might escape. “You may be able to help us if Miss Fawkener is willing to share her circumstances with you. Miss, Fawkener, my daughter, Lady Violet Blackstone.”
Smiling, Lady Violet turned to Jane and offered her hand. “Hello. Have these two bankers offended you, Miss Fawkener?”
Jane shook her head cautiously. “Not at all. It’s merely that…”
Frank Hammersley chimed in, leaning on his cane. “It’s merely that the subject of marriage came up, and two males found themselves of no help in the matter.”
Lady Violet turned a bright, curious gaze on Jane. “Oh dear, how awkward for you. If you would feel more at ease talking with me, we could retire to my office. I have a friend with me at present. We were about to take tea, if you’d care to join us.”
“You have an office here?” Jane could not help her surprise.
Lady Violet’s eyes brightened. “I do, the privilege of being a banker’s daughter. Shall we go? I’ll call for some tea, or would you prefer wine?”
“Tea, thank you.” She did not ask for coffee. The English did not drink it as she would at home from a copper pot hot off the fire with a rich sweet foam on top of the tiny cup.
“When you are refreshed, you may share as much as you like with me. I will treat anything you say in the strictest confidence, of course.”
Frank Hammersley offered Jane his hand, and she rose, still clutching the book. “My sister will take good care of you, Miss Fawkener, and we’ll look out for your visitor from the Foreign Office.”
Jane thanked him and took her leave of the two gentlemen. She followed Lady Violet to another office, less grand and austere than the first, but with a businesslike desk in spite of some feminine touches. Seated on a small sofa was an elegant lady a few years older than Lady Violet, who introduced her friend as Her Grace the Duchess of Huntingdon.
The lady with the bright green eyes and Titian hair laughed. “Violet likes to announce my title, but believe me, I’m just her copper ‘Penny’ when we are having a heart-to-heart talk.”
Lady Violet and Jane settled in pretty blue and white chinoiserie wing chairs, opposite the sofa, and Jane let the friends talk until tea arrived. Lady Violet made a face at a pair of round, flowered pots. “I’m afraid I’m only permitted herbal tea these days, Miss Fawkener, but you and Penny may have some of this lovely bohea.”
With a steaming cup in her hands and under the influence of her new companions’ easy manners, Jane found herself explaining her dependence on certain funds, which she could only obtain, according to her father’s will, by marrying. She did not mention the Foreign Office’s interference in her affairs. At the word entail both ladies shook their heads.
“And you find that you are not conveniently in love with some eligible gentleman?” The Duchess shook her head. “I’m afraid that puts you at the mercy of the London marriage mart.” She spoke with a sympathetic frankness that warmed Jane as much as the tea.
“I admit I don’t know the first thing about getting on in London, let alone finding a husband here. But surely a woman doesn’t find a husband with a guidebook?” She hefted the little book in her hand.
Lady Violet raised one dark brow. “I suspect that many a miss would consume that volume quite eagerly. You’ve no enthusiasm for the hunt?”
“Only to know how fast it may be done,” Jane confessed. Her throat ached in spite of the comforting tea. She needed money to search for her father, but marrying to gain money would mean accepting that her father was truly gone.
Lady Violet put down her tea. “All you have from your father is this guidebook? May I see it?”
Jane passed the book to her.
A tiny crease appeared on Lady Violet’s brow as she opened the book and read its title page. Her eyes flashed with interest as if she were trying to solve a puzzle. “I wonder what your father was thinking, Miss Fawkener? Presumably, from your knowledge of his character, you can see some hint of his intention. We must assume that he has your best interest at heart, but even to acquire certain funds, a hasty marriage hardly seems the sort of thing a wise father would advise.”
“But fathers rule, don’t they?” Her grace commented with a wistful laugh. “In my experience a dead father’s will has a powerful influence on a living daughter’s life.” She looked embarrassed at the strength of her opinion and turned to their hostess. “Violet, I really must take my leave and let you get to the bottom of this dear girl’s situation with all the privacy you need. But”—she turned to Jane, her eyes alight now with mirth—“I can offer one service I know to be of value to the husband hunter—an invitation to one of my Thursday evening gatherings. You may depend on me in this matter, Miss Fawkener.”
Lady Violet saw her friend out. Jane heard their parting laughter and it struck her that the lady missionaries on board ship, who had lent her the proper clothes to wear, had not laughed. At the time Jane had not recognized the lack, but now she realized how strange it had been not to laugh.
Lady Violet returned and settled in the blue chair, refreshing both their cups of tea. “My friend, Penny, has a great deal of influence in the fashionable world, and I think you’ll find her sincere in her offer.”
Of one thing Jane was sure. If her father wanted her to have the book, and if he had used his bankers rather than the Foreign Office to get the book into her hands, she needed to find its hidden meaning. Once her world stopped rocking unreasonably, she would study the cursed book again.
After a moment of silent contemplation, Lady Violet spoke. “Miss Fawkener, whatever you decide, your confidences are safe with me, but tell me, what are your immediate plans?”
“I’ve been advised to take rooms at Mivart’s Hotel.”
“You do not go to your family then?” Lady Violet did not conceal her surprise.
“None opened their doors.” It was one of the difficulties of Jane’s situation. She had no wasta as her neighbors in Halab would call it, no person in a position of influence to support her cause. The English consul in Halab had simply turned her over to the Foreign Office, and no one there wished to do a thing for her father.
Lady Violet made a sympathetic murmur. “Mivart’s costs can be quite steep. You’ll need additional funds. Have you any?”
“You think my two hundred pounds will not permit a hotel stay of any length?”
Violet looked grave for the first time in their conversation. “It might get you through months of frugal living in London, but it will last less than a fortnight at Mivart’s. The hotel will charge you for each bag a footman carries, the number of coals on your fire, and who knows what else.”
“I see.” Jane set down her tea. The hotel would consume the money she needed to launch the search for her father.
“Do not despair.” Violet reached out and gave Jane’s hand a squeeze. “As your bankers, we would be remiss if we did not help you reduce your expenses. You must have time in which to decide the future partner of your life. We also have the resources to…how shall I say it…investigate any gentleman not fully known to your family. Now, what may I do for you straightaway? I’m afraid you’ve been taken here and there, subjected to our government’s high-handedness, when what you most need is time to restore your powers.”
An aching lump rose in Jane’s throat at the unexpected kindness. “Thank you. I’d like to go to the hotel, if I may.”
“Of course.” Lady Violet stood. “You may wait to thank me, for I must warn you I can be of no very great help should you wish to pursue a match as The Husband Hunter’s Guide recommends. In the eyes of polite society, as a banker’s daughter, I’ve trespassed on exalted territory in marrying Lord Blackstone, a peer. I’ve only escaped total censure because Blackstone himself was considered too scandalous and too impoverished for a noble bride.”
Jane watched her companion. The lady’s eyes sparkled happily. “Of course, I suspect that sometimes, the least eligible gentlemen make the most remarkable husbands.”