Authors: Charis Michaels
Something about the way the sentence trailed off, about the look of determination in her keen, gray eyes, signaled the end of their discussion about his “castle” and heralded weightier topics. Her tone, certainly, could not have been more clear. He felt the stares of everyone at the table but kept his face impassive.
“My curiosity has nearly eaten me alive over the topic of your
, Lord Rainsleigh,” the old woman began. “Your sire is dead, of course, but tell meâwhat of your mother? The viscountess. Lady Rainsleigh?”
For a moment, Rainsleigh said nothing, allowing the footman to place a plate of vegetables before him. When the man was gone, he said, “My mother resides in Spain.”
“Spain?” repeated the marchioness. “She will not relocate to Henrietta Place?”
“And you have a brother, have you not?”
“I do. Mr. Beauregard Courtland. A retired naval officer and current merchant marine. He is in residence now, actually. You may have seen him in the street. He
I can assure you, be a guest in my home when he is not at sea.”
He had expected this, of course. Some manner of interrogation. Not necessarily here, during the meal, with a captive audience, and certainly not in front of the disdainful niece, but he had given some thought to what he might say. Direct answers. Levelness. No shame. He'd answered for his parents often enough. It was the wrong play to grow defensive. It only showed weakness and guilt, and he felt neither.
Lady Banning obviously discerned his waning patience and strove to intercept. “I know
would relish a tour of Lord Rainsleigh's house, if the offer extends to more distant neighbors,” she enthused. “The papers describe quite a marvel of modernity and high art. Won't you tell us of your architect, my lord? I read you had him brought over from France?”
He forced a smile. “Germany.” He turned back to the small woman now examining a hank of potato on her raised fork. “But I wish to satisfy Lady Frinfrock's curiosity,” he said. “Please, my lady. What other questions have you for me? Not more offenses piled on my house, I hope.”
“The less I know about your German-built atrocity, the better.” She took a small, skeptical bite.
He took up his glass. She stared back, chewing. Rainsleigh went on, “But surely you do not intend to tick off every relation I have, asking if they each have a bed. Come now, don't be shy. What do you
want to know?”
“Very well. What I
really want to know
,” she said, inclining her knife at him in little taps, waving it like a composer's baton, “is what manner of person
may be, Lord Rainsleigh. The reputations of your parents precedes you, as I'm sure you are aware. But what of you, my lord? So far, all I know is that you commissioned a towering mansion for a family of
, and that you spent a fortune to do so.” She paused, took another bite, and chewed.
Rainsleigh crossed his arms over his chest as the marchioness went on. “Your late father could scarcely keep a roof over his head by the end. He commissioned nothing, built nothing; certainly he funded nothing.” Another bite. “The obvious question from a concerned neighbor is, what of you, my lord?” A fourth bite. “Do the differences between you and your disreputable sire begin and end with houses and money? Or do you go your own way in all things? I will not tolerate a reprobate in Henrietta Place, I don't care how much money he has, and furthermoreâ”
Beside him, the countess's niece, Lady Elisabeth suddenly, inexplicably, surged to her feet and planted her hands on the table.
“I beg your pardon, Lady . . . Lady . . . Forgive me. Aunt Lillian?” She turned to her aunt. “Pray, remind me of the name of your esteemed guest.”
A table full of heads swiveled to the countess. Lady Banning appeared as shocked and speechless everyone else, Rainsleigh included. Only the diminutive old woman casually stabbed a third potato, showing no alarm.
Lady Frinfrock took a bite of potato and eyed Elisabeth levelly. “The Marchioness of Frinfrock,” she answered. “And who, pray tell, are you?”
“I am no one of consequence,” said Lady Elisabeth, “but I am a guest at this table, along with other friends and well-meaning people, and I should like to speak for all of us when I ask you, with respect, to cease your interrogation of the viscount. 'Tis uncomfortable and unnecessary and rude.”
Rainsleigh's jaw would have dropped into his plate if his manners were not bolted so tightly in place. He stared at the woman beside him.
Lady Elisabeth went on. “You need only read the papers to learn of Lord Rainsleigh's years of quiet work to build his shipping company and his subsequent devotion to philanthropy. Of his serious and thoughtful influence on political debate. The care with which he has rebuilt his family's home in Wiltshire, including new prosperity for the land and tenants, advances in agriculture, and the restoration of historic relics. If these very public acts do not convince you of his character, then an extemporaneous defense of his parentageâa circumstance of which he is wholly innocentâwill do even less.” She sat back down. “Now, I implore you. Please. Leave the man alone. For God's sake. Let someone else or some other topic draw breath at this table.”
All around the dining room, white faces stared in stunned silence.
Rainsleigh glanced at the marchioness, still eating potatoes.
He looked at Lady Elisabeth beside him. She stared into her full plate. Her chest fell and rose. Color stained her cheeks. One lone red-gold curl had worked its way free from her coiffeur and fell against her face.
Beside him, Rainsleigh heard Lady Banning make a small, desperate sound. She cleared her throat. “Lady Frinfrock, perhaps you remember my niece and ward, Lady Elisabeth Hamilton-Baythes? Her late father, Lord Cay, was my brother.”
“So she is,” the marchioness said, her voice unchanged. “Then let us hear from you, my lady.” She turned her gaze to Elisabeth. “What business is it of yours? And don't
know quite a bit about a man who, by all accounts, has just moved to town?”
lisabeth's lone consolation was that Aunt Lilly had
Nay, Aunt Lilly had
The party. Her insufferable friends. Pretense. Gossip-mongering.
But most of all, proximity. To
The result was, of course, she'd embarrassed herself by calling out a marchioness. She'd embarrassed the viscount by leaping to his defense. She'd embarrassed her aunt forâoh, well, Lillian received nothing more than she deserved. But now Elisabeth must see it through.
“I was . . . unacquainted with the viscount before tonight,” she told the marchioness, “but I . . . I intend to apply for his charity donation on behalf of a cause that I support. Naturally, I learned as much about the man and his history as possible. In order to have every advantage. For my charity.” Taking up her fork, Elisabeth stabbed a carrot and ate.
The marchioness waved away a hovering footman. “A charity, you say? And what is this cause you support?”
Elisabeth weighed her options. This question would be next; it was
next. It was one thing to defend the viscount but quite another to defend her own life's work. Not with any delicacy. Not in a way that did not betray the girls she fought to save or put off small-minded people. And here the stakes were very high indeed. She glanced around the table. The busybody marchioness. A roomful of esteemed strangers. Young, sheltered debutantes. Andâ
If she intended to apply for his charitable gift, she would need to term the whole thing very vaguely. Too much detail had scared away legions of well-meaning benefactors. Not to mention, the specifics might trigger a memory she would rather not share. With the viscount. Not now. Not ever.
She looked up, smiled brightly, and said, “The charity is called âThe Well,' and it is a foundation for lost girls and young women of London.”
“Lost, you say?” asked the marchioness.
“Hmmm,” Elisabeth confirmed. “Lost. Without parents, proper homes, food, access to a doctor's care. The foundation offers these poor souls a way to get on in the world. A path to a future that is less bleak.”
The marchioness shocked Elisabeth by nodding knowingly. She waved her fork in the air. “A worthy cause, no doubt, and I salute it. Rainsleigh would do well to support it, if he's in the business of giving away money. Certainly any money redirected from that house of his would be a gift to us all.”
Of all responses, Elisabeth had expected this one the least. She was momentarily speechless. She stole a look at Aunt Lillian, who sat back in her chair and silently watched the exchange, a small smile on her face.
In no way
, Elisabeth thought,
does she appear to be suffering her due. In fact, she looks gratified.
The Marchioness of Frinfrock appeared entirely unfazed by the conversation and was presently dickering with a footman about the cut of her fish.
Slowly, softly, chatter emerged up and down the tableâcouples whispering among themselves, debutantes giggling, oohs, and ahhs as the footmen set down the trout. Without thinking, Elisabeth stole a look at Rainsleigh. He looked up too, catching her gaze.
Their eyes locked, and Elisabeth's breath seized in her chest. Every part of her, in fact, seemed to tense and freeze. She felt immobilized by his very look. By great force of will, she was the first to look away.
Oh, God, his eyes were so blue, they shone. At this range, she could see the roughness of his emerging beard. She wondered absently what it would feel like to trace her fingertips across the stubble.
It was ridiculousânay, it was
because her priority at the moment should be to stew over her own mortification and determine some way to make amends for her outburst. Instead, all she wanted to do was study him again, compare the man he had become to the boy of that night fifteen years ago. She wondered, and not for the first time, how he could not yet have married. How he enjoyed London. How he chose his home and the changes he made. Why he did not recognize her.
No, not that.
Thankfully, a footman appeared with the platter of fish, and they shifted to be served. Aunt Lillian took the conversation skillfully in hand, drawing in each guest, allowing everyone to bid some self-serving welcome to the viscount. Lady Frinfrock, she was surprised to see, did not insinuate herself againâin fact, she did not speak at all. She ate heartily, scolded the footmen consistently, and listened closely, but she did not interject.
When at last the meal ended, the ladies went through to the drawing room while the men lingered over port and cigars. Elisabeth was compelled by Lady Beecham to lead a game of Whist among the other young ladies. Ten minutes later, Quincy knelt beside her to whisper that Stoker had returned through the kitchen door and wished to speak to her. She could have wept with relief.
Elisabeth glanced at her aunt. Lillian discreetly shook of her head.
No, you would not.
She stood up.
Yes, I would and I will.
Beside her, Quincy cleared his throat discreetly. “Perhaps you would consider meeting the lad just there?” He inclined his head to the double doors of the balcony at the far end of the room. “The rain has prevented us from opening them tonight,” he said, “but you may safely step outside. It's dry enough under the eave, and you will be away from the party but not too far.”
Quincy. Please, tell Stoker.”
“Very good, my lady.”
Just as she made her way to the balcony, the men came through. Before she could stop herself, she sought out the viscount. He looked too, and their eyes locked again. Awareness tingled at the back of her neck and her arms above her gloves. She felt herself blush. For the first time in her life, she understood the need for a fan in an otherwise comfortable room. She hurried to the balcony.
The air was cool and damp, and she sucked in two gulps. The debutantes' heavy perfume had been suffocating. Now, perhaps, she could breathe again and reclaim some measure of calm, and
. Now, perhaps, she could answer how she'd managed to progress from shy and speechless in the stairwell to bold and verbose at the table. Or why she kept staring at this . . . this . . . man. No, not simply staring; she had been
Ultimately, she'd spoken to him very littleâthere had been no opportunity for private chatter at the lively tableâbut oh, how she'd wanted to do. And not about the weather. Or anyone's failing health. She'd gritted her teeth with each vapid new topic. Did no one want to learn about the viscount's life? His opinions on the current Parliament or prime minister? His impression of London? Where he'd been? What he read?
Elisabeth opened her eyes and blinked. She was being ridiculous. Of course no one else was interested in what he read. Why then, could she think of little else? Even while Stoker and his crew were darting around South London in the rain, risking their very lives.
And if they had spoken, where could it all lead? She had no wish to revisit their past. Almost certainly, he would eschew her charity work. She felt an interestâwell, perhaps, if she was being honest, she could term it closer to an
not that it mattered. Whatever it was, it had absolutely nowhere to go. Her interest (or attraction) was not greater than her desire to remain anonymous in their shared past.
She heard Stoker then, effortlessly scaling the garden wall, and she shook her head to clear it and straightened her shoulders. The youth deserved her full attention now. He rarely called on Denby House after sunset, and this was his second visit in one night. God knew what had happened with the scouting mission.
He leapt the railing and sank to the balcony floor, ever cautious.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “What is it? Is someone hurt?”
“Brothel's gone,” he said, rising. “The whole lot, moved on. Again.” He wiped his hands on his shirt. “Building's abandoned, neighbors won't talk. I could tell it as soon as we took position in the alley.”
“Gone? But where? You were there not two nights ago!”
He nodded. “No accounting for it. They haven't left a trace, either. Some of the women had little dogs, street mongrels they fancied as pets, and they're gone too. Everything's gone.”
Elisabeth turned away and clutched the railing. “We spent two months closing in.”
Stoker grunted and shrugged. “I left the lads outside to watch for blokes who turn up without knowing. Sometimes there's a coded sign on the doorframe . . . something only regular customers would know. Gives them an idea where to find the new location.”
“Don't approach these men, Stoker,” she said. “Stay back, and for God's sake,
. It's almost like they knew we were watching. It frightens me.”
“I'm not frightened, Lady E.”
She smiled sadly. “Yes, of course you're not. You are never afraid. I sometimes think your courage is our most valued asset. I don't know what I will do without you.”
He grunted and moved to the edge of the balcony, putting one leg over the railing.
She went on. “But I hope you are aware this does not change things about the school . . . ”
He threw the other leg over the railing and began to pick his way down, disappearing into the rain.
Elisabeth leaned over and whispered fiercely, “I haven't forgotten, Stoker!”
He looked up. “Can I take a fresh horse?”
“Yes, yes, of course. Tell the grooms that I said so. Tell them, Quincy's horseâhe's working tonight. But Stoker, did you hear? I haven't forgotten about the school!” His only response was the scrape of boot, rustling vines, splashing puddles. The fog and dark closed over him, and he was gone.
Elisabeth clutched the railing and stared into the mist. How would she ever replace him? Hiring anyone at all would take money away from the girls, and hiring someone remotely as effective and devoted as Stoker would require a fortune. But what choice did she have? Stoker had never accepted even a shilling of payment for his work, except the occasional coat or boots in winter, perhaps a hat at Christmas. The school would be his payment. He'd earned it and so much more. Anyone else? They would require a salary.
She turned and stared into the glow of the party, thinking of Rainsleigh in practical terms. His charity donationâone thousand pounds. If he did not know her after tonight, after she'd burst up from the table and spouted off his accomplishments like a devoted biographer, perhaps he never would. Perhaps she could safely apply to win the donation after all. Perhaps if she explained the specifics of her work in the vaguest terms. And limited their contact as much as she could. And never spoke to him again after the contest was over.
The chances of her foundation winning the money were very slim, indeed, but the need was surely as great as any other charity that might apply. Stoker would go away to school whether he liked it or not, and that would leave her without anyone to raid the brothels. She'd have to hire the work out. Not to mention, the building in Marylebone that she used as the foundation's headquarters was one of the oldest in the street, and its list of needed repairs seemed to grow longer every year.
She could not
apply, she decided, not in good conscience. If there was money to be had, she needed to have a go at it. Now more than ever. If she'd been a responsible, selfless person, she would have leapt at the chance to win the money as soon as Aunt Lillian mentioned it. Instead, she'd dickered around with her own delusions about the viscount and their history together, and their . . . their . . .
She shook her head. He did not remember her. He'd stared at her all evening, and he'd said nothing, alluded to nothing, and gave every indication that he had never seen her before, ever, in life.
It was a blessing, really. She could interact with him only enough to apply for his donation and then go her own way. After that, she would never see him again.
As for her own attraction to him? This could be tamped down. Bryson Courtland was a flash of girlish fancy, nothing more, and she'd buried it long ago. So now life had unearthed it (or rather, Aunt Lillian had)âbut was the spark still there? Or was it a self-indulgent daydream, outdated and outgrown, too tarnished by the passage of time to shine?
She jumped and spun around. Lord Rainsleigh stood in the doorway of the balcony.
“I hope I am not disturbing,” he said. “Your aunt said I might find you here.”
Oh, I'm sure she did,
she thought, but she said, “By no means. I . . . I needed some air.”
“You'll not get wet, I hope?”
She shook her head. “The rain has stopped.”
The moment she said it, lightning cracked, a great wind swept from the east, and the skies opened. Cold, fat raindrops pelted the red oak beside the balcony and splatted against the bricks of the garden below. Elisabeth laughed and hopped beneath the narrow overhang of roof. He reached out to steady her, catching her around the waist.
“Here,” he said, whipping off his evening jacket, “take my coat.” Before she could refuse, he settled it on her shoulders. The soft wool, warmed by the heat of his body, closed in around her. It smelled like sandalwood and shaving soap and . . .
. She sank into the warmth, clasping the lapels together, holding it around her.
“Thank you,” she said.
Rainsleigh studied her. “The charity prize . . . ” he began.
The rain fell harder, faster, coming down in loud, rolling sheets. They were dry under the strip of roof, but the sound was deafening.
She raised her voice. “Yes! You are very generous! I . . . I intend to apply. On behalf of my foundation.”