Henry Davenport was broke. He’d frittered away most of the fortune his father had left him – wine, women and cards were expensive hobbies – and was down to his last few hundreds.
“You need a rich wife, Harry,” Josiah remarked as they cantered through the forest one fine autumn afternoon. “A girl with enough money to keep you in the manner to which you’re accustomed.”
Henry nudged Lady’s reins gently. The mare was spirited, but he managed to let her know who was in charge. Women were a lot like horses: once you’d broken them in, you could easily steer them in the direction you wanted.
“There’s a ball at Grantleigh Manor this Saturday,” Josiah continued. “Bound to be a few fine fillies there, what?”
Henry considered his friend’s words gravely. At twenty-three, he felt he was far too young to be shackling himself to a wife; still, needs must where the devil drives and all that rot. He’d put on his best frock coat and the breeches from France and he’d jolly well bag himself the prettiest little thing he saw – provided she had enough cash, of course.
As Lady trotted over the bracken, he began planning how he would spend his new wife’s money.
Lady Lavinia Grantleigh was one of the richest women in the county. She was also one of the most foolish. Slightly too tall and well built to look entirely feminine, her eyes were just a little too pale and her nose just a trifle too long for her to be regarded a beauty, but Henry would say anything necessary to convince this prize specimen that he was marriage material.
“Have I mentioned how musical your laugh is?” he murmured, bending low over her hand – ostensibly to kiss it but in actual fact counting how many rings she wore. Why, just one of those sparklers would cover his losses at the card table for a week!
Lavinia let out a self-conscious peal of laughter. It reminded Henry of a corncrake, but he pressed on, determined to clinch this transaction.
“I wonder if I might beg a keepsake of the woman I love,” he tried next, gazing soulfully into her anaemic eyes with a look that hinted at barely bridled passion. (He’d been practising in front of the mirror all week.)
Lavinia blushed, staining her cheeks an unbecoming red somewhat at odds with her rather carroty hair. Some women could carry off auburn locks; unfortunately, Lavinia was not one of them.
“Lord Henry,” she simpered, fluttering her fan in what she hoped was a suitably flirtatious manner, “you should not say such things! We have known each other only an evening.”
“Is that all?” Henry replied gallantly. “It seems much longer.”
It really did seem much longer. Lavinia had to be one of the most boring women he had ever met. She knew nothing about horses and less about dogs. Still, by the time he managed to extricate himself from her presence, he had acquired a rather ugly looking ring containing a large garnet. No formal promises had been made – at least on his part – but she had been so desperate for a suitor that she had pressed the ring on him fervently as soon as he admired it.
It was as he was riding home that an idea struck him – why get married at all? If it had been as easy as this to persuade that frightful-looking girl to part with some of her jewellery, why shouldn’t he court as many women as he could and amass the funds he needed by sweet-talking them into parting with rings and lockets?
Impressed with his own brilliance, he withdrew to the wood panelled library as soon as he reached the modest eight-bedroomed pile left to him by his father. Fetching the copy of Debrett’s Peerage from its place on one of the bookshelves, he began turning the pages. He would limit himself to girls who had no brothers, he decided – after all, he didn’t want to be challenged to a duel by some angry chap who decided Henry had besmirched his sister’s honour.
And so it was that Henry found his true vocation. Like any other modern man of the early 1800s, he applied himself seriously to idle pleasure. Always impeccably dressed, he was the quintessential dandy; conversationally, he was a rattle par excellence; and above all, he was a fastidious flaneur. What Henry didn’t know about the well connected simply wasn’t worth knowing. He kept a small, leather-bound notebook in which he recorded every conversation he had with a woman – along with details about her likes and dislikes and how easy it was to part her from her jewellery. One typical month’s entry included no fewer than six different women, each one accompanied by a description of the ‘gift’ she had given him. So far, he had amassed an emerald necklace, two strings of pearls, six diamond rings, three pairs of earrings, several tie pins and sets of cufflinks, and an incredibly vulgar ruby pendant. His modus operandi was simple yet effective: no matter what the girl looked like, you just told her she was pretty then gazed at her for while with what she construed as desperate longing while you let your mind wander into more interesting realms.
He had perfected the art of making it seem as if he were proposing marriage without ever actually using the words – that way, he could not be sued for breach of promise. He was careful, too, to choose impressionable girls who would believe his claims that their reputation would be ruined were they to tell anyone what had transpired between them. His objets d’amour were too inexperienced to know that every woman indulged in a little dalliance now and then, finding excitement in the secrecy.
It was on a beautiful spring afternoon that he thought up his finest plan yet. A gentleman by the name of Mountebank had recently begun renting Rugely Hall, a well-appointed establishment on the other side of the park. The man was a widower with five daughters – all of them of marriageable age. There was some sort of unmarried sister who acted as chaperone to the girls, but Henry decided she wasn’t important. He had learned from experience that most young women possess a devious streak when it comes to matters of the heart and he was convinced that these newcomers would be like all the others and would endeavour to find ways of being able to talk to him alone. What a triumph it would be for him to court all five simultaneously without any of the girls knowing what her sisters were up to!
An initial visit to leave his card was a great success. Henry had never been more charming; his conversation never wittier; his attire more flamboyant. Colonel Mountebank himself was confined to his chamber with gout, but every one of the five daughters turned out to meet him and pretty things they were too – each one of them as different as if they had not been related. Under the pretext of wanting to see the garden, he managed to persuade the eldest, dark haired Maria, to step outside with him for a few moments and then declared his undying love for her in the rose garden. The location was a nice touch: he was able to present her with a rose, deliberately pricking his finger on a thorn as he did so and telling her piteously, “My heart bleeds for your love – far more than that finger.”
The following day, he called again and somehow contrived to find himself alone with green-eyed Louisa – how convenient that she had twisted her ankle and could not join her sisters on their walk! He knew she would not tell anyone he had declared his feelings for her: it was not done for a younger sister to have found a potential husband before the eldest.
The third day saw him begin his campaign to capture Sophia’s heart. Her brown hair and blue eyes were pleasing to look at, and she had a rosebud mouth that seemed to demand kisses. She did not complain at any rate when he demonstrated his ardour for her by letting one of two land on her lips rather than her hand. “Of course, you can’t tell your sisters about this,” he murmured in her ear. “I wouldn’t want to be the cause of any jealousy.”
Her large, innocent eyes widened in surprise before she dimpled prettily and agreed that some things were best kept secret.
By some stroke of luck, he was able to begin his charm offensive with Eleanor, the fourth sister, only a day later. Eleanor offered to play for them and Henry gallantly said he would stand by the piano and turn the music for her. That gave him ample opportunity to murmur endearments to her whilst out of earshot of the others. The sunlight catching her red gold curls was not as bright as the dazzling smile she gave him in return.
Rosamund was the last to fall under his spell. Only just eighteen, she had large, blue eyes and golden ringlets and had not yet lost her childhood plumpness. She reminded him of a puppy: quite adorable and with no sense at all. When he told her he loved horses and would like to see the stables, she was more than happy to offer to take him there – and she didn’t complain when he kissed her in the tack-room. No doubt she was over-excited at the thought of being the first of them to have a beau, but he made her swear solemnly not to tell anyone else that she was as good as engaged.
He’d been a frequent visitor to Rugely for three weeks when he began to wonder if it were a mistake to court five women simultaneously. So far, they had all seemed receptive to his advances, but not one of them had offered him a present and he was used to being able to wheedle wealthy young women out of their jewellery in half as much time. However, things took a surprising turn when the girls’ aunt approached him one afternoon as they were embarking on a walk en masse and asked if she might converse with him.
Strolling through Rugely’s ample grounds, they let the girls wander ahead of them, smiling to see them enjoy the morning sunshine. “You have been very kind to my nieces,” Miss Mountebank remarked.
“They are delightful young ladies,” Henry said carefully. Attempting to change the subject, he added, “You seem an excellent chaperone to them, although I confess you do not look much older than they do.”
It was true. Colonel Mountebank must have been approaching fifty whereas his sister seemed not to have reached thirty.
“He is my half-brother,” Miss Mountebank said. “Edwin’s mother died when he was a boy and his father re-married some fifteen years later. He has always been very good to me and offered me a home with himself and his wife when my father passed away. It was fortunate that he did so, for poor, dear Allegra died soon after Rosamund’s birth. I have cared for all five of them ever since.” She paused. “They are as dear to me as daughters, Mr Davenport. I would not see any of them hurt.”
“Nor I,” Henry protested. “Why, I have been the soul of propriety…”
“Not so.” She cut him off. “I rather fancy that you have let each and every one of my nieces believe that you intend to marry her.”
Henry’s heart stood still.
“You have not been entirely honest with them, have you?” she continued. Then, as he started to protest, she laughed. “Did you really think I would not notice? You and I are cut from the same cloth, Mr Davenport. I too have mastered the subtle art of dalliance in order to gain men’s confidence and inspire them to shower me with gifts.” She smiled roguishly. “An unmarried woman must resort to whatever tools she has at her disposal.”
Henry began to relax. She was just like him! He could not help feeling admiration for her.
“Please, call me Harry,” he said.
“Very well, Harry – and you can call me Letitia. Now, let us discuss how we can use this situation to our mutual advantage.”
A week later, Henry invited the Mountebank sisters and their aunt to visit his home. Although not on the same grand scale as Rugely, it had a fine library and Letitia had expressed an interest to see some of the first editions his father had collected.
“Besides,” she said, dimpling prettily, “it will further the pretence if the girls think you intend for one of them to live there with you as your wife.”
And so it was that Henry found his house filled with women. Leaving the girls to exclaim over the wallpaper in the parlour, he led Letitia to the library. However, once inside, she closed the door and motioned to him to sit down on one of the dark green Chesterfields.
“Have you noticed that each of the girls is decked out in her finest jewellery?” she muttered. “I know it is not usual for an afternoon occasion such as this, but I persuaded them, thinking this would be an ideal opportunity for you to relieve them of their gems. I take it you have a safe?”
Striding to the fireplace, Henry reached up and removed the oil painting that hung there, revealing a small door built into the wall. Taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked it and showed her the items he had collected so far. It really was a most impressive haul.
“You’ve done well,” she said approvingly. “Oh, Harry, just think of the life we could have together if we teamed up. I’m tired of playing nursemaid to my nieces – once you’ve filled your safe with their jewels, we should elope together. We could live in luxury for years on what you have here.”
“I’m not really the marrying kind,” he protested.
“Nor I. But there are certain… benefits… to a man and woman working together.”
She was suddenly very close to him. He became aware that the dress she was wearing was exceptionally low-cut – almost scandalously so – and that her diamond necklace only accentuated her decolletage.
“I see you are admiring my own jewels,” she murmured. “The stones were a present from an admirer – they are worth hundreds.” Again, she paused. “With what you have here already and my nieces’ jewellery, we have a small fortune.”
Her eyes held his. Mesmerised by her diamonds as much as her beauty, he found his mouth reaching for hers. He did not really want a partner in crime – she would be old one day, and women only appealed to him if they were attractive to look at. But there was no harm in making her think that they could work together. After all, she could not expose him without compromising herself.
“You may have my diamonds as a sign of good faith,” she said, slipping them off and presenting them to him. “Now, shall we return to those girls? I think we both need a little refreshment.”
Despite the fact that it was only mid-afternoon, someone had laid out glasses and a decanter of sherry. He should have really offered some to his guests first, but Henry needed a drink to steady his racing heart. Damn the woman! She was incredibly bewitching – but then she wouldn’t always look like that. He grabbed the glass from the table and downed its contents hurriedly. And then he knew no more.
When Henry came to, he was back in his study, sitting on one of the hardbacked dining room chairs, his hands bound behind his back and his feet tied to the chair rungs with what looked like a silk scarf. What was happening?
“Letitia?” he croaked. His throat felt dry and parched.
Her lovely face loomed above him. He noticed she was wearing her diamonds once more, and that the door to the safe stood open. The cupboard was completely empty.
“I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, Harry,” Letitia said, watching his gaze travel from the empty safe back to her. “Only, you made it far too easy. Did you really think no one would realise what you’ve been up to these past six months?”
Surprise and shock numbed him.
“Not one of these young women is my relative,” she continued. “They have merely been bait used to inveigle an invitation to your home. I knew you must have stowed your ill-gotten gains somewhere – and I was not wrong.”
Not her nieces? Henry struggled to understand.
“Colonel Mountebank is not my brother,” she went on, “and nor are these girls his daughters. We are friends who work together to relieve scoundrels like you of the wealth they have stolen from others. We don’t return the money and jewels, of course – if the victims are stupid enough to let themselves be gulled, they deserve to lose everything.”
“You won’t get away with this.” Henry’s voice came out in a croak.
“I rather think we will,” she replied smoothly. “How can you complain that you have been robbed when what has been taken from you was not really yours in the first place?” She bent and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “It couldn’t have happened to a more worthy opponent, Harry. And perhaps, in future, you will think twice before you try to swindle innocent women out of their jewellery.”
As she and her five accomplices quit the room, Henry was left staring at his empty safe. Six months’ hard work for nothing. He would have to marry after all.