Lessons in Ruin by Avery Maitland

Chapter One

Constance Blackwood

It was far too cold to pretend that warmer days were approaching. No matter what the almanac promised, Constance Blackwood dreaded the final days of winter, for it was impossible to know when those dreary temperatures would, indeed, fade away.

To her mind, London always seemed to be cold and wet, regardless of the season.

The garden parties that she longed to attend seemed so far away, and no one was brave enough to dare host one so soon after March had ended.

She wrinkled her nose at the thought of an unexpected snowfall. Snow was lovely, of course, but only when one was indoors with a fire lit, a blanket over one’s knees, and three layers of woolen stockings beneath.

“Hideous,” she muttered as she looked out the window.

“Are you paying attention, niece?”

“I confess I have not been,” Constance said with a small sigh.

Samuel Blackwood’s brows pinched together as he looked at her. “How—”

“I still do not understand why it is that you wished for us to accompany you, Uncle,” Oliver said, and Constance tried not to smile. Her brother had been in an irritable mood for some weeks now, and she could not determine the cause of it.

Their uncle’s already thin mouth pressed into an even thinner line. “I know you would rather be shooting or at the club, my lord,” he hissed. “But it is high time that you began to participate in the activities that call attention to a gentleman’s wealth, his education, and his appreciation for finer things.”

Constance poked her brother in the ribs. “And you must be seen in polite circles sometimes, brother.”

Oliver glared at her. “Not you, too, Stanzi.”

She smiled at the use of her childhood nickname. It had been some time since they had been able to speak so casually.

“If you are not careful, I shall start dropping your name in my conversations,” she teased him. Oliver had been avoiding his duties for far too long, something that their uncle reminded him of on every possible occasion. He could not ignore his title for much longer… As much as Oliver wished to pretend that nothing had changed, Constance knew that their father’s death had taken a toll on him.

She had felt it, too, of course, but she had been in Germany with their mother when it had happened. But Oliver had been with him—

“It might do you some good,” their uncle huffed. “Perhaps you would stay at Highbury more often if you had a wife to entertain.”

“I should think I would be away more often,” Oliver snapped.

The sharp smack of wood upon wood interrupted their conversation, and Constance was relieved for the distraction.

“Gentlemen, if you please! The auction is about to begin.”

A footman approached them, but Constance’s uncle strode past the man without acknowledging his presence.

“This way, my lord,” the man said, unruffled by Lord Blackwood’s departure. Constance smiled and laid her hand upon her brother’s arm.

“I know you wish to escape this event,” she said as they followed the footman to the drawing room where the auction was to be held.

His eyebrow rose. “Is it so obvious?”

“To everyone, I can assure you.” She was teasing him, but Oliver had always been far too free with his emotions and rarely took the trouble to hide them.

He muttered something under his breath, and Constance leaned against his shoulder and patted his arm. “Do not fret. I am certain that our uncle will forgive you if you do not stay to watch the whole catalog.”

“Why would anyone come to such a thing?” Oliver sneered. “To think, we are paying good money to pay the expenses of a gentleman who has run away from England to pursue what? A life of leisure abroad?”

Constance laughed. “What do I care how Lord Byron decided to spend his days? He is a famous writer. Would you not wish to own something of his just to say that you did?”

“I should think not,” Oliver snorted. “Who would care that I was in possession of a book that had lately sat forgotten upon a shelf in Lord Byron’s library?”

The drawing room was filled with people, and Constance directed a smug smile at her brother. “A great many people, it would seem.”

Oliver grumbled something else she could not hear, but Constance did not care. She had little interest in the auction, but since the Season had ended, she was delighted to be at any event that was not a thinly disguised attempt at social manipulation.

She saw many faces that she recognized, including the Countess Keaton. Constance’s jaw tightened as she observed the poor woman speaking animatedly with her husband. The earl looked paler than usual and more irritated as well. The rumors that swept through the court were not kind, and the countess had been at the center of several high-profile scandals since their marriage. More than Constance would have been comfortable with if she were in the same position.

She could hear the Duchess of Lincoln’s voice in her mind. “That is what comes of marrying a commoner. His Grace should have been more careful.”

The duchess sat just across the aisle, and Constance knew that she was watching the countess’s every move. At other events, Sophia played the part of the countess’s friend, but in private, her conversation suggested quite the opposite.

Trust was a difficult and dangerous companion in the upper circles of society. As her own star continued to rise at court, Constance was not entirely certain who she could count among her allies. It was almost certain that a good many of her new friends could be plotting her downfall. Loyalty was a troublesome thing.

Two seats had been reserved for them beside their uncle, and Oliver crossed his arms over his chest and glared moodily at the auctioneer.

The portly man stood behind a lectern that had been brought in for just this purpose. He stroked a hand over his whiskers and looked over the crowd.

“Quiet now,” he huffed. “Ladies. Gentlemen.” He nodded to Earl Keaton. “My lord.”

Another nod was directed to a young lady who perched upon the edge of her chair at the very front of the crowd. Her hair was a striking shade of red, and Constance pursed her lips as she realized she did not recognize the young woman’s face.

Oliver shifted in his seat as the auctioneer shuffled his papers, and Constance resisted the urge to poke a finger into her brother’s ribs again. If Oliver spent more time in society and less time shooting at pheasants, perhaps people would know who he was, too.

He did want the respect that came with their father’s title, but he had been unwilling to work for it. She wondered what it would take to bring her brother’s focus back to the earldom—no doubt her uncle pondered the very same thing.

But as she cast a sidelong glance at Samuel Blackwood, she could not be certain whether he had grown tired of putting pressure on Oliver to fall into line and take up the responsibilities he had inherited.

“As you well know, Lord Byron has departed London—” the auctioneer began. A murmur rippled through the crowd and the flutter of fans as the poet’s female admirers whispered to their friends.

He was, indeed, a very popular figure, and Constance did not doubt that many of the ladies present could count themselves among his conquests. Or wished to.

The auctioneer cleared his throat. “He has departed London and has left with his solicitor instructions that his library and possessions be sold, and the proceeds donated to the—” He paused for a moment and leaned down to say something to one of his assistants. “Shall we begin?”

A smattering of applause accompanied these words, and the auctioneer smiled.

He gestured to one of his assistants, and the gentleman produced a fine leather-bound book edged in gold leaf.

Beside her, Oliver sighed heavily. “Is it all to be books?” he muttered.

“It is the contents of his lordship’s library,” Constance whispered back. “What else might it be?”

Oliver rolled his eyes and sank lower in his chair.

The auctioneer tapped his gavel upon the lectern. “We shall start the bidding at five guineas.”

After a flurry of bidding, the book was purchased by an elderly gentleman in the back row, much to the delight of his young wife, who clapped loudly as the final bid was called.

The other lots passed in much the same way. Large leather-bound tomes, sheafs of writing paper, several fine quills tipped in silver, a golden box containing several teeth belonging to an unidentified animal—

“A werewolf he slew in Germany,” someone behind Constance whispered. “I have no doubt of it. Did you not hear the story?”

Constance shook her head, fanned herself gently, and tried not to laugh. How ridiculous.

Lord Byron would have been thrilled to hear that there were rumors swirling about London regarding his prowess in battling the supernatural, of that she was certain.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, we have an oddity of great significance to his lordship.” The auctioneer’s assistant brought forth an item swathed in a length of blue velvet, which he unwound with great ceremony before holding it up for the crowd to see.

“Quite a unique item, as you can see. It is a silver sepulchral urn made with great taste. Within it are contained human bones taken from the long wall of Athens in the month of February 1811. The urn weighs one hundred and eighty-seven ounces and would make a wonderful conversation piece for any drawing room—do you not agree? Let us begin the bidding at twenty-eight guineas?”

“How horrid,” the woman behind Constance said. “Do they even know whose bones are inside that urn? It could be anyone!”

“Awful,” her friend agreed.

But it seemed that other members of the audience did not agree. Several bids were called, and the price rose higher and higher.

The young woman at the front of the room raised her hand, demurely at first and then with more and more conviction.

Constance watched with fascination as her expression became determined.

“The daughter of an earl,” the woman behind Constance sniffed. “Do you suppose her father would approve of her bringing home such an atrocity?”

“The urn is lovely—”

“It is full of bones, Lydia,” the woman hissed.

“But—”

The auctioneer’s gavel smacked against the lectern. “My Lord Rutledge, the winning bid is yours.”

The red-haired young woman’s shoulders slumped, but her eyes were focused on the assistant who carried the next item up for auction.

“Ah, yes,” the auctioneer said with a smile. “A most intriguing item. A silver cup containing ‘root of hemlock, gathered in the dark’ according to the instruction of the witches in Macbeth. My notes here indicate that the hemlock was plucked at Athens by the noble proprietor in the summer of 1811. The silver cup weighs twenty-nine ounces—inclusive of the hemlock.”

The auctioneer acknowledged the small murmur of laughter that followed this pronouncement with a gracious incline of his head.

“Shall we start the bidding at twenty guineas?”

“Thirty!” the red-haired young woman called out.

A gasp from behind her made Constance sit up straighter.

“Thirty, of course,” the auctioneer said, but his smile was nervous.

The bidding progressed only a little, and the young woman met every bid with a higher number until the gentlemen who were bidding against her resorted to staring at their knees or casting bitter glances in her direction until the final bid was called.

“At fifty guineas, Miss Rowe, you are the winner of this item.”

A ripple of applause followed this announcement, but the women seated behind Constance did not seem to think that the purchase was a prudent one.

“I cannot believe that the countess would allow such an item to be in her house.”

“Indeed not,” the other replied. “How shocking, indeed. I would never allow such a thing.”

Constance pressed her fan against her lips. If they did not approve of Lord Byron, why would they be here?

“Lord Byron was a scoundrel of the highest order,” the first continued.

“Does he not still owe you money?” her friend asked after a moment.

Ah, there is the reason.

“He does.” The stiffness of the woman’s reply said more than it should have, and Constance fought the urge to turn around to look at the women. Even a glimpse would have helped to satisfy her curiosity.

Constance’s gaze traveled back to the young woman at the front of the room. Her smile was broad, and her blue eyes sparkled with victory as the auctioneer’s assistant presented her the polished maplewood box that held the silver cup and its withered sprig of hemlock.

Miss Rowe was a young woman to watch, Constance decided, and that much was certain.