Lady Phoebe Batten

The youngest of the Batten Family, Phoebe longs for her debut into society…if her disability doesn’t prevent it.

Heroine of Dearest Rogue.

Also appears in Notorious PleasuresScandalous DesiresThief of Shadows, Lord of Darkness,  Duke of MidnightDarling Beast, and Sweetest Scoundrel.

* * *

Hero turned down the hall to her own room. It was well past midnight, but oddly she didn’t feel at all sleepy. 

She opened her door and wasn’t too surprised when Phoebe’s mob-capped head popped up from the covers of her bed. “Hist! Hero!”

Phoebe was the youngest of the Batten children and looked nothing like either Hero or Maximus. Where both her sister and brother were tall, Phoebe was short—barely an inch over five feet—and rather on the plump side, much to Cousin Bathilda’s consternation. A fine cloud of curly light brown hair, already falling from her night braid, framed her face and her eyes were hazel behind small round spectacles. In her white lawn nightrail, she looked all of twelve, though she’d been seventeen for half a year now.

“What are you doing still up?” Hero closed the door behind her then kicked off her slippers. Four candelabras lit the room, making it bright and warm. “And what have you done with Wesley?”

Phoebe hopped from the bed. “I sent her away. I’ll play maid and you can tell me all about the ball.” Phoebe wasn’t yet out and hadn’t been allowed to attend the engagement ball—much to her vocal disgust.

“Hmm. Well, I don’t know that there’s much to tell,” Hero began.

“Oh, don’t tease!” Phoebe was already working at the hooks to Hero’s bodice. “Was Mrs. Tate there?”

“Yes, and you wouldn’t believe her gown,” Hero said relenting.

“What? What?”

“Scarlet. Almost the same shade as her hair. And her bodice was so low it was nearly indecent. I swear I saw Mr. Grimshaw stumble over thin air, he was so busy craning his neck around to ogle her bosom.”

Phoebe giggled. “Who else was there?”

“Oh, everyone.” Hero helped take off her bodice and then they both began on the tapes fastening her skirts. She kept her eyes on her fingers and made her voice casual. “I met Mandeville’s brother.”

“I thought he lived in the north of England?”

“He came down for the ball.”

“Is he like the marquess?”

“Only a little. They’re both tall and dark, but other than that, they’re completely different. Lord Reading has such pale green eyes, startling really. His face is more lined than Mandeville’s and thinner. He seems merrier, laughing and joking, but I think he’s less happy than Mandeville. And the way he moves…”

Hero looked up and realized that despite her carefully neutral tone, she must’ve given something away. Phoebe was watching her quizzically. “Yes? How does he move?”

Hero could feel heat stealing into her cheeks. She made a production of stepping from her skirts and shaking them out before draping them over a chair for Wesley to clean and put away tomorrow. “It’s rather odd. He seems to be doing everything slowly, and yet when he wants, he’s faster than other men.”

“Like a cat,” Phoebe said.

Hero straightened and looked at her, eyebrows raised.

“You remember that big marmalade tom that hung around the stables at Wakefield House?” Phoebe began work on Hero’s stays. “It was always sleeping or lounging about, but when it saw a rat—bang!—it would be off like a lightning bolt and have that rat in its jaws in seconds. Is Lord Reading like that?”

“I suppose so,” Hero said, remembering how fast Reading had moved just before Lord Pimbroke had entered the sitting room. “Like a great cat.”

“He sounds lovely.”

“No!” Her voice was overloud and Phoebe looked startled. “I’m sorry, dearest. It’s just that Cousin Bathilda spent the whole carriage ride home warning me about Lord Reading’s reputation. You must stay away from him.”

Phoebe pouted. “I never get to meet the really interesting people.”

Unfortunately, Hero had a little too much sympathy with Phoebe’s complaint. She might be out, but she was only allowed to mix with the very best of society–no one with even a hint of scandal.

“There are plenty of perfectly respectable people who are interesting as well,” she said to Phoebe with more confidence than she actually felt.

Phoebe looked at her doubtfully.

Hero wrinkled her nose and capitulated. “At least one can look at the scandalous people while conversing with more respectable gentlefolk.”

“It doesn’t sound as interesting as meeting them.”

“No, but I assure you watching Mrs. Tate’s progress across a ballroom full of silly gentlemen is quite fascinating.”

“Oh, I wish I could’ve been there.” Phoebe sighed.

“Next season you’ll be eighteen and we’ll have a grand coming out ball for you,” Hero said as she sat at her dressing table.

Phoebe picked the pins from her hair. “But you’ll be already married by then and off doing married lady things. I’ll have only Cousin Bathilda to accompany me, and you know I love her, I truly do, but she’s so very old and—oh!”—Hero glanced in the mirror in time to see Phoebe’s head ducking behind her—“Dash it, I’ve dropped a pin.”

“Don’t worry about it, dear.”

“But it’s one of your emerald ones.” Phoebe’s voice was muffled.

Hero turned on the stool and saw her sister on her hands and knees patting the carpet. Hero’s heart squeezed. The emerald pin was right in front of Phoebe not more than a foot from her nose.

Hero cleared her throat, feeling a sudden constriction. “Here it is.” She bent and picked up the pin.

“Oh!” Phoebe stood and pushed her spectacles up her nose. A frown marred her sweet face. “Silly me. I don’t know why I didn’t see it.”

“Never mind.” Hero gently placed the pin in the glass dish on her dresser. “It’s dark in here with only the candlelight.”

“Oh, of course,” Phoebe said, but her frown only deepened.

“Shall I tell you how the ballroom was decorated?” Hero asked.

“Do!”

So Hero went into great detail about the decorations at Mandeville House, the refreshments, and each dance she took part in as Phoebe brushed her hair. Gradually her sister’s expression lightened, but Hero’s heart remained heavy as she watched the reflected light of the four candelabras in her mirror.

They made the room as bright as day.

–from Notorious Pleasures