London, June 1827
Twenty-two-year-old Lady Delilah Montebank peered around the corner of the servants' staircase while her friends smuggled a small potted tree, an armload of paper moss, and a set of fake donkey ears down the back steps of her mother's town house.
"J'adore the donkey ears," she whispered, glancing over her shoulder to check for witnesses. Her chin brushed against the ruffles of her pink gown. "Shh. We cannot let Mother hear."
Her friends, Owen Monroe, the Earl of Moreland, Christian Forester, Viscount Berkeley, and Derek Hunt, the Duke of Claringdon, all dutifully slipped out the back door, their arms full, without making a sound.
"Merci beaucoup," she whispered to Derek, as his boots crunched the gravel on the way to his coach. "Please tell Lucy I'll see her tomorrow." She waved at the duke.
Derek inclined his head by way of reply.
Delilah turned and let out a deep breath. She'd been skittish all morning, hoping her mother wouldn't find her friends smuggling the decorations for the play out of her bedchamber. But Mother hadn't discovered them. Job well done.
Delilah was about to close the door behind her when a small red squirrel dashed inside. The squirrel sprinted down the corridor toward the front of the house.
Delilah winced. She may have met this squirrel before. She may have fed it, which meant she may be responsible for its entrance into her home. And if Mother or Cook saw it first, the poor little animal would be doomed. Delilah hiked up her skirts and took off after the squirrel. The rodent dashed back and forth down the corridor, leaping left and right, heading directly for the front of the house as if he knew the layout. Mother was in the front drawing room receiving visitors. The door to the gold salon was open. She might see the squirrel dash past. Of course, Delilah knew this because she'd thoroughly researched her mother's whereabouts before telling her friends to proceed with smuggling things out the back door.
The squirrel was already in the foyer by the time Delilah caught up to it. It paused and looked about. Delilah paused too, holding her breath. She stood panting and waiting, her skirts still hiked above her stockinged ankles. Mother's voice drifted from the salon. Delilah swallowed, her eyes darting to the side.
The squirrel dashed across the marble floor and ran under a rosewood table, the same rosewood table that housed the expensive crystal bowl in which visitors left their calling cards. The same crystal bowl Mother was excessively proud of.
Mother's voiced drifted from the salon again. She was saying good-bye to someone, which meant she was about to emerge from the room. Delilah didn't have much time. She expelled a breath and eyed the squirrel warily. It sat under the table, sniffing the air and swishing its bushy tail. Delilah had no choice. Time was of the essence. She dove for the squirrel, catching her slipper in the hem of her skirt and ripping it, upending the table, and smashing the crystal bowl. She landed in an ignominious heap amid the jumble, her hands closed around the squirrel's tiny, furry body.
A shadow fell across her, and she hoisted herself up on one elbow to turn and look at the straight-backed figure looming behind her.
"Um, bon jour, Mère. I mean, Mother." Her mother disliked it when she called her Mère. Delilah's use of French—specifically, her poor use of French—drove her mother to distraction.
Her mother's dark, imperial eyebrow lifted. The frown on her face was both unmistakable and omnipresent. The Earl of Hilton stood to her right, an irritated smile on his smug face.
"She takes after her father, doesn't she?" He eyed Delilah down his haughty, straight nose. "Clumsy."
Lord Hilton had supposedly been Papa's closest friend. Ever since Papa died over ten years ago, the man had been hovering about Mother. Delilah had suspected for a while now that they were courting. He and his hideous son, Clarence, had begun coming around more and more of late. Delilah guessed they were interested in money, and unfortunately, her mother had a great deal of it. Her uncle was the earl now, but Papa had provided generously for both her and her mother's future.
Mother lifted her chin, her lips pursed. It was never good when her lips pursed. "This creature looks like my daughter, but I'm not certain I wish to claim her at the moment."