The Fortune Hunter


Chapter 1

It was a merry party in the kitchen of Stonycourt in Lincolnshire, seat of the de Lacy family. For once a generous fire was roaring in the grate, a chicken had been sacrificed to make a feast, and the precious store of medicinal spirits had been raided to make a fiery punch. The four young de Lacys and their aunt sat around the scrubbed deal table toasting their good fortune and making grand plans for the use of their newfound wealth.

Stonycourt's two remaining servants - aged specimens - hunched on a high-backed settle close to the fire like two black crows, nursing mugs of hot punch but casting a jaundiced eye on the jubilation.

"A horse!" declared Sir Jasper de Lacy, youngest of the family and yet nominal head. "A hunter. A prime bit of blood and bone."

"New gowns," put in his twin sister, Jacinth, with a blissful smile. "Bang up to the mark and not homemade."

At sixteen, the twins were still very alike, for Jasper was of a slender build, fine boned for a boy, and Jacinth had insisted in following fashion by having her curly brown hair cropped short. She had declared that it was the only fashionable gesture that came free.

"A Season?" offered the eldest daughter, Beryl. She added, in the tone of one who speculates on fabulous wonders, "Almack's?"

Amy de Lacy, the middle daughter, smiled sadly. Beryl was one who dreamed of wonders, but always with a question mark after them. In truth, life had not served to raise Beryl's expectations. Though she had a sweet nature and a great many useful skills, no one could deny that she was plain - the sort of lumpy, sallow homeliness which could not be disguised by discreet paint or a stylish haircut.

As the daughter of Sir Digby de Lacy of Stonycourt and with a portion to match, Beryl could have expected to marry. That had all gone up in smoke two years ago when their father died and the tangle of bills and borrowings which had supported them in elegance had come crashing down.

Amy had suffered on her own behalf, for it was not at all pleasant to be poor, but she grieved more for Beryl, who was the kind of woman who should marry and have a home and children and now, doubtless, would not. Beryl was kind, skillful, and endlessly patient. She would make an excellent mother and she deserved a good, prosperous man to make her dreams come true.

"That's right," said the older lady seated at the head of the table, merrily tipsy beneath a tilted blue satin turban. "That's what's needed, Beryl pet. A Season. It'll be grand to be back in London, especially now peace is in the air. We'll soon have you married, then Amethyst, then Jacinth."

Amy winced. She had persuaded everyone else in the world to give up her ridiculous name in favor of Amy, but Aunt Lizzie would not be moved. "My dear sister chose your name with loving care, Amethyst," she would protest, "and I will not betray her now she is in her grave." Put like that it made a simple change of name sound like a heinous sin.

But since Georgiana de Lacy had taken it into her head to call all her children after precious stones, why could Amy not have been Agate or Onyx? Or Sardonyx. Yes, she'd rather have liked being Sardonyx de Lacy.

But she would much rather have been called Jane.

She also wished Aunt Lizzie would not encourage the family tendency to flights of fancy. What else was to be expected, however? It seemed to be a trait which ran strong on both sides of the family tree.

After all, Amy's maternal grandparents - prosperous London wine merchants - had named their daughters Georgiana and Elizabeth after the famous Gunning sisters, clearly with social advancement in mind. In fact, they had achieved mild success. Lizzie had not married, but the beautiful Georgiana had married Sir Digby de Lacy of Stonycourt.

It was a shame, thought Amy, that this had so dizzied the Toombs family that they had sunk into penury trying to live up to their daughter's social heights. Some prosperous relatives would be very useful these days.

The trait of impracticality was strong on the paternal side, too. Amy's father had been a devout optimist and so delighted with his beautiful bride that he had been unable to deny her anything. He had extended his indulgence to each child without thought to his resources. They