The Rise & Fall of Reginald Everheart
At the tender age of twenty-three, Miss Dulcie Middleworth, the youngest daughter of Viscount Middleworth had just been declared a social failure.
Dulcie stared at the nearly blank sheet of laid paper affixed to the board in front of her and tried to concentrate on her preliminary pencil drawing of a fragment of ancient pottery. The barely started work was part of her continuing commission to document in pen and paint the endless collection of the Explorers Club. Her efforts at the moment were pointless really. She simply couldn’t focus on her work. As much as she didn’t care for the most part about her standing in society, it was rather bothersome to be considered a failure. Mother was certainly upset.
Oh, there hadn’t been a notice in the Times or any sort of official announcement in Notes for Ladies, the London ladies’ magazine her mother and sisters devoured for the latest news on society’s approved activities as well as scandalous escapades. The latter were discreetly detailed and rarely mentioned anyone by name, although determining who was the subject of the latest bit of gossip usually took no more effort than an afternoon of calls and a few cups of tea. No, in the world of London society, there were no official announcements as to who had done what, but the end result was the same.
For the first time since Dulcie had come out in society, she had not been invited to Lady Scarsdale’s grand ball, the acknowledged start of the social season ever since Lady Scarsdale’s daughter had been a debutante some twenty or so years ago. Mother had long said to ensure Lady Scarsdale’s daughter a position of some power in society as well as guaranteeing she would not be overlooked. According to Mother the girl was not one of that season’s great beauties but she did have a certain wit and cleverness about her that was not apparent simply by looking at her. By the time the Scarsdale offspring had indeed married well—her fourth season, Mother said—Lady Scarsdale’s ball had become the place to be and be seen for any young woman looking for entry to society and to make a good match. While the new season’s crop of debutantes in its entirety was routinely invited to the ball, those who were in their subsequent seasons were given the prized invitation based on any number of mysterious factors known only to Lady Scarsdale and her cohorts.
This year—Dulcie’s fifth in society—the invitation to Lady Scarsdale’s ball had not been forthcoming. Mother was livid and blamed Father. Her three older sisters were nearly as distraught over the slight and vowed to redouble their efforts to find Dulcie an appropriate match.
It wasn’t as if Dulcie didn’t wish to be married. She did but she wanted to marry for reasons of affection. Dulcie Middleworth wanted love and rather feared she had found it. Pity it appeared to be one-sided.
She casually glanced across the large library in the impressive Bloomsbury mansion that housed the Explorers Club to the only other person currently in the room and tried not to sigh. Not that he would have noticed.
Michael Shepard’s gaze shifted back and forth between the book opened to his left and the notebook in front of him. His dark hair was slightly disheveled as if he had just run his hand through it as, no doubt, he had. His pen flew across the notebook page with a life of its own. Any minute now, he’d stop to push his spectacles—which had an endearing tendency to slide down his perfectly straight nose—back into place. He didn’t look up but she knew his eyes were the deepest shade of gray, like the sky on a stormy day. His shoulders were broad, which bespoke some sort of physical exercise, and he stood a good head taller than she. Not that she had ever been close enough to measure.
Dulcie and Michael—she couldn’t possibly think of him as Mr. Shepard—had each separately occupied one of the six tables in the library on very nearly a daily basis for the last three months and yet had scarcely exchanged more than a handful of polite greetings. Their conversation rarely varied.
“Good day, Mr. Shepard,” she would say when he had arrived before her. “Pleasant day” or “dreadful weather we’re having,” she would add, depending on whether or not the day was pleasant or dreadful.
“Indeed, Miss Middleworth,” he would respond with a polite smile.
Or, if she was in the library when he arrived, he would acknowledge her presence with a courteous, “Good day, Miss Middleworth.”
To which she would inevitably reply, “Good day, Mr. Shepard,” and then comment on the weather when what she really wanted to say was, “Goodness, Michael, don’t you think it’s past time you took me in your arms and kissed me senseless or threw me onto a table and had your way with me?” She would never say such a thing but she did consider what might happen if she did. He would no doubt be horribly shocked, which would at least be something.
Dulcie had never had the tiniest problem talking, even flirting, with gentlemen before. But there was something about Michael Shepard that turned her from a self-assured young woman into the worst sort of shy, retiring creature. But then most gentlemen were far more eager to talk to her than she was to talk to them whereas Michael barely acknowledged her existence.
He was not substantially older than she, four or five years perhaps, and was acknowledged to be brilliant in matters of history and botany and any number of other disciplines encouraged by the Explorers Club among those promising young men who showed a legitimate interest in exploration and discovery. In spite of his scholarly bent, there was an air of anticipation about Michael. A promise of adventure and excitement just waiting to come to fruition. It permeated the library when he was present and was both intriguing and most intoxicating. Indeed, Michael was set to join an expedition in another month. Which was rather awkward as it did limit the time Dulcie had to earn his affections. If that was what she wished to do.
She already knew a great deal about him. Information was not at all hard to come by in the rarified atmosphere of the Explorers Club. While ladies were not allowed to be members—God forbid one should even think of such a thing—wives of members had banded together years ago to form the Ladies Committee. They were graciously permitted to plan social activities, dinners honoring outstanding members—even if they were not always allowed to attend—as well as assist in the management of the club’s library and extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia from its supported expeditions. Dulcie had become acquainted with several ladies who were frequently in the library. Many of whom had a great deal of free time as their husbands were off in some barely accessible part of the world, hacking their way through tropical jungles or digging for evidence of ancient civilizations.
The ladies were an interesting lot with the sort of freedom usually allowed widows and an independent spirit that was most admirable. But then they had little choice. Their husbands had decided to explore the unknown and their wives were left behind to make certain home was ready and waiting for those rare moments when they chanced to be in England. It didn’t seem at all fair but it was the way of things. Dulcie had become quite good friends with one of the ladies. Mrs. Persephone Fitzhew-Wellmore was here somewhere today although she did have the oddest tendency to vanish and then reappear at the most unexpected moments. She had taken an interest in Dulcie’s work as she had confided she was something of an artist herself and was most impressed that Dulcie was actually being paid for her labor. She insisted Dulcie call her Poppy as Mrs. Fitzhew-Wellmore was a bit of a mouthful.
The fact that Dulcie had the opportunity to work at her art at all was thanks to Father. Dulcie was twelve years younger than the sister nearest to her in age and, after three daughters, Father had hoped his last, unexpected child would be male. When yet another daughter had appeared, Father was resigned but determined. His youngest daughter would be the son he never had. He encouraged her to become an excellent horsewoman and a superb shot. While Mother tried to instill in her all those attributes needed to run a household and be an accomplished hostess, Father taught her the details of managing an estate and had passed on his interest in all things ancient and all parts unknown. And indeed, while her sisters were everything her mother could wish for in dutiful daughters, Dulcie was her father’s child. When she wanted to study art after she had completed a level of education above that of her sisters, Mother was appalled. But Father declared even females should be encouraged to pursue higher learning should they be blessed with natural abilities. Dulcie would never forget the shocked look on Mother’s face as Father was not known for his progressive attitudes. Even so, he not only allowed her to attend the South Kensington School of Art but used his influence at the Explorers Club to secure her current position. Father had been a member of the Explorers Club nearly forever even though he had never explored anything beyond a good brandy and a fine cigar.
Perhaps Father was tolerant of her dreams because he had once had farfetched dreams of his own. While there were a handful of female illustrators making their way in the world, there were even fewer English lords abandoning responsibility for the excitement of following poor Dr. Livingstone into the jungles of Africa. Still, there was nothing Father liked better than inviting those gentlemen who pursued such adventures into his home for a fine meal, excellent brandy and even better conversation. Dinner was often host, as well, to interesting young men who were hoping to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Burton or other explorers, although Father hadn’t started inviting them until after her sisters were married. They were indeed quite exciting and usually somewhat flirtatious, at least when Mother wasn’t glaring at them. Mother did not consider them suitable marriage material. Dulcie knew full well she was somewhere in the middle in terms of appearance with her older sisters but they were, all in all, a pretty lot. Dark hair in varying shades, blue eyes and fetching figures. Although her forthright demeanor and obvious intelligence soon dampened the ardor of most gentlemen visitors. Still, there had been one or two…
That Michael Shepard had not shown even a modicum of interest in her might well be one of the reasons why he was so undeniably appealing. It couldn’t possibly be anything more significant than that. She certainly couldn’t claim to know him although it was shocking how much information Poppy and her friends had about the man. Surely she couldn’t be so shallow as to be swept away by the fact that he had no interest in her. No, if that were the case, she would have been able to say something to him by now because it would not have seemed so frightfully important. And her heart wouldn’t flutter in her chest whenever he was in the room.
Dulcie Middleworth, who had never been afraid of anything in her life, apparently was now.
Making life even more awkward at the moment was the fact that her sisters and mother had increased their efforts to find her a match. It would only get worse thanks to Lady Scarsdale. But they seemed to have high hopes for the latest sacrificial lamb they had thrown at her.
Preston Drummond was the youngest son of an earl and a decent enough sort, if more arrogant than either his nature, his prospects or his appearance would justify. He too hoped to explore the world at some point or at least he said he did. Dulcie suspected his membership in the Explorers Club was more for appearances than any true desire for adventure. Dulcie had made it clear to Preston that he could continue to call on her if he so wished but she had no feelings of affection for him save that of friendship. He wasn’t the least bit discouraged, apparently thinking this was her manner of flirtation—how could any woman not want him? It was far easier at the moment to allow Preston’s attentions then to incur Mother’s wrath at her throwing away a perfectly good prospect. Preston had the unwavering support of her mother and all of her sisters with the possible exception of Livy, the youngest of the three, who had always been more inclined toward Dulcie’s way of thinking. He was, as well, one of those rare men who wasn’t completely disapproving of Dulcie’s straightforward manner and obvious intelligence. Or at least so it appeared. Which was a point in his favor but not an overly significant one. She simply had no interest in the man.
No, in spite of their minimal conversation, her hesitance to approach him and his usual lack of awareness as to her very existence, it was Michael who pulled at her heart. She knew from Poppy that, while not titled, his family had a significant fortune as his grandfather had founded Shepard’s department store, an establishment nearly as large and prestigious as Harrods. He had attended Oxford, he spoke three languages fluently and several others passably and he was well versed in ancient Greek, Roman and Coptic texts. Every now and then he would look up from his work to catch her staring at him and she would pretend to be staring into the distance, contemplating whatever it was she was working on and not thinking about the way his lips would feel on hers. Now and again she would look up to find him studying her and she would smile politely in response and immediately look away.
But regardless of their lack of conversation, Dulcie knew the sound of his laughter and the cadence of his speech. She had overheard any number of discussions between Michael and gentlemen who wandered into the library with the express purpose of engaging him in conversation. None of whom ever seemed to realize—or care—that Michael was not alone in the room. Under the strictest definition of the term, one might consider her attention eavesdropping but she made no effort to hide her presence and any idiot could see she was there.
It was fascinating to be privy to these chats even if she was not included. Just as it was impossible to overhear those discussions that were quiet and discreet—she was on the far side of the room after all—it was equally impossible not to listen to the more raucous debates on the most fascinating topics. Was Mr. Calvert really correct in his theories of where the legendary city of Troy might be located? Would Dr. Livingstone ever be found or had he perished in the jungles of Africa? Had all the tombs of the kings and queens of Egypt been discovered or were there still untold historic treasures and riches waiting just under the sands? In even the most amicable of these voices would rise, words would fly and passion would fill the air.
The first time Michael’s gaze had met hers with any significance had been in the midst of a debate on the relative merits of Lake Victoria versus Lake Albert as the source of the Nile. He’d appeared quite startled but hadn’t paused in his discussion and had acted as if his gaze hadn’t meshed with hers for one glorious moment of unique and perfect communication. It then happened again and again. Sometimes she would nod in agreement with something he had just said or frown when she thought he was wrong. His eyes would narrow slightly but he didn’t seem to mind.
Even if they never spoke directly, there was something between them. Something fraught with potential and possibility. Something that might well be quite wonderful.
Obviously Michael’s courage—and there was no question as to the bravery of any man preparing to head into the unknown—did not extend to furthering their connection.
Unfortunately, neither did hers.
now, read the rest of the story . . .
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