Authors: Barbara Metzger
“Oh?” Darla asked, looking at the luggage that surrounded Allie and Harriet, obviously wishing for an explanation.
Allie did not feel she could discuss the situation with anyone but Captain Endicott, so she said, “It is a private matter, I am afraid.”
Now Darla was even more curious, her green eyes opened wide as her imagination took wing. “Well, you'll have to tell it to Mr. Downs or you won't get in. Those are the rules.” She stood up, heading for her place on the opposite bench, closer to the desk now that another woman had left while they were talking. “Good luck to you, then.”
“And to you,” Allie said, wondering if Darla would think it lucky to be employed in this house, or why all the redheads and raven-haired women were here if they could not claim to be the missing young lady. Before she could ask, another female entered the waiting room, a beautiful redhead this time.
Her flame-colored tresses were piled on the top of her head, and one dyed-green feather was fixed there, to trail down her porcelain cheek. She wore a green velvet gown that hugged every curve of her body. There were a great many lush curves.
She ignored the women on the benches, curled her lip at Harriet, who curled hers right back, and sailed past Darla without a nod. Instead of taking her place at the end of Darla's bench, however, she glided down the length of the room, nodded toward Mr. Downs, and sailed through the door behind him.
“She has weasels around her neck!” Harriet exclaimed before the door could shut. A few of the other women laughed.
“Dead ones,” Allie whispered, trying not to show her own distaste. “A fur tippet.” Then she leaned toward Darla and asked, “That is not Mrs. Endicott, is it?” Such a cold woman would not want Harriet around, or Allie.
“Cap'n Jack married?” One of the women slapped her knee.
Another gave a snicker. “Don't she wish, though.”
Darla stepped back closer to Allie, glaring at the door where the Diamond had disappeared.
“That's Mademoiselle Rochelle Poitier, who's as French as I am. She's nobbut Rachel Potts, putting on airs now that she's become the captain'sâ”
Allie clapped her hands over Harriet's ears. She was all too aware of what place a woman like Rochelle Poitier held in a rake's life. Harriet was too young to understand. Or so Allie prayed.
Once more her prayers went unanswered.
“Ow! If she's his mistress, will she be my mother?”
Now Allie put her hand over Harriet's mouth, before any of the women could overhear. Harriet bit her, but not hard. “Will she?” she asked when Allie pulled her hand away.
“No. Gentlemen, especially not the sons of earls, do not marry their, ahâ¦”
Allie could accept that, barely. “Their ladybirds. And they do not discuss such things as, ah, ladybirds, with gently bred females, especially not young girls. So do not let him think you are a rag-mannered guttersnipe, speaking of matters of which you should have no knowledge.” Captain Endicott might blame Mrs. Semple for the child's precociousness, and Allie by association. “Remember, we need to make a good impression.” She tried to fix Harriet's hair ribbonâher hair ribbonâagain.
“Then maybe you ought to unbutton your collar and pinch your cheeks and puff out your chest. Although I don't suppose you have much to puff out. Not like Darla and the rest.”
Allie wondered if she ought to speak to Captain Endicott herself, without Harriet. Happily, as one woman after another went up to the desk, some to leave, some to pass through the portals to the next test, Harriet fell asleep, leaning against Allie. Allie did not have the heart to awaken her, nor the desire. So when newcomers entered the room, she simply said, “I am after Darla,” and stayed in her place at the bench. After what seemed like hours, only Darla was ahead of her.
The plump redhead must have passed the first test, for she turned and waved to Allie, grinning. Allie stood up before Mr. Downs could call “Next,” and gently laid Harriet's head down on the bench, cushioned by Allie's cape.
“Will you keep an eye on her?” she asked the young blond woman who was after her on the line, the one who wore such a pretty black bonnet.
The girl nodded.
“Thank you. Oh, and your brothers' names are Jonathan and Alexander, you do not remember your first pony's name, or anything about your family.”
The woman bit her lip again, and nodded again.
Just as Allie was about to take the seat in front of Mr. Downs's desk, a clock started chiming.
“Five o'clock,” he said, sounding relieved. “No moreâ”
“No more after me,” Allie insisted, quickly lowering herself onto the cushioned chair and placing both hands firmly on its wooden arms, indicating that Mr. Downs would need brute force, and a lot of it, to dislodge her. “My name is Allison Silver and I am not leaving until I speak with Captain Endicott. And no, I am not here to seek a housemaid's position or to claim any long-lost legacy.”
The man, who appeared to be about Allie's age of five and twenty, shook his head. “You are not his type for anything else.”
“And you, sir, are offensive. You do not know what my business is with your employer and yet you assume the worst.”
Downs squared his shoulders. He recognized a determined female, and a well bred one at that. No lightskirt by her dress, no common wench by her accent, Miss Silver was an enigma. Downs did not like riddles. He hardly liked women anymore, after the past few harrowing days. “You are not with that Women's Decency Society, are you?”
“No, but I might join if I do not get to see Captain Endicott soon.”
“Perhaps if you told me your business.” He looked toward the end of the room where the other women were filing out. He saw Harriet asleep at the end of the bench, and luggage. He frowned. “That and the child's. You have five minutes, but I warn you, I've heard all the stories before.”
Downs steepled his fingers and leaned back in his chair wearily. He tipped the front legs backward and checked his watch.
Allie had five minutes. She only needed two.
Then she needed another one to help the man off the floor and right his chair.
“Deuce take it, Downs, you know better than to burst in here like this. And it's after five. Go home and get your dinner. We have a busy night ahead.”
Downs averted his eyes from his employer, who was already busy. But his message was too urgent. “A, a lady,” he sputtered, pointing toward the waiting room. “And a little girl. Red hair. Yours.”
For the second time in minutes, a rump reached the floor. This time it was a well-rounded derriere as Jack jumped to his feet, dumping Rochelle Poitier to the ground. “The hell, you say!”
“She says it, not me!”
“Who, by Harry?”
“Miss Allison Silver.”
“That's all right then. I never heard of the lady.” Jack sat back down, ignoring the indignant protests as Rochelle realized her feather was broken, to say nothing of the mood and Jack's amorous intentions. He was pouring a glass of brandy from a decanter on his desk. One glass. “Send her away.”
“Not until you hear me out,” came a voice from the doorway.
Someone growled, but Jack could not be certain whether it was Rochelle or his old dog, Joker.
A slim woman of medium height was standing in the doorway, her hands in fists. She was past her first blush of youth, but not long past, Jack knowledgeably estimated, although her appearance was calculated to give the impression of rigid, righteous maturity. She wore a shapeless gray frock that covered every inch of skin, and an uglier bonnet, sadly limp. Mostly scraped back under the wretched hat, her hair was a nondescript color halfway between blond and brown, and her face was pale and pinched looking. Everything about her bespoke untouchability, an old maid by choice. Which was a pity, for the woman did have magnificent eyes, Jack could not help noticing, storm-cloud gray, with glimmers of fair-weather blue.
She cleared her throat, making him aware of his rude inspection, and then she tapped her foot, like one of his nannies used to do. That's what Miss Silver reminded him of, a dour, disapproving governess. Which also reminded him that he was a gentleman, by birth if not by trade. He stood and fastened the buttons on his white marcella waistcoat, wishing his jacket was not draped on a chair across the room.
“I did not hear your knock, Miss, ah, Silver,” he said, trying to shift the blame and the rudeness.
“But I heard something fall, so came to your assistance.”
She had a husky voice, one that did not fit her looks. That voice belonged to a sultry siren, not a sour spinster. Then she cleared her throat again and coughed. She was not a seductress; she was sick. The sooner he got her out of here, the better.
“I do not believe I have ever met you, Miss Silver.”
He expected her to try to claim some forgotten incident while he was at university or home on leave, or at a drunken house party. He supposed he might have fathered a child some time in his youth, although his big brother had pummeled the dangers and the disgrace into his head often enough.
He did not for an instant suppose he had lain with Miss Silver. Not a stiff-backed, slight, and unshapely female who wore her virtue the way Rochelle wore her furs. He much preferred his women ripe and ready, full-bodied and free of pesky morals.
Miss Silver appeared full of indignation as she said, “No, I have never had the pleasure.”
Now Downs coughed, but Jack did not think Miss Silver meant any double entendre. He doubted the woman had an innuendo in her. And yet Miss Silver had a child.
He spoke the thought out loud. “And yet Downs mentioned a child.”
Color flared in her cheeks at the mention of her daughter. She looked almost pretty, Jack thought, and felt sorry for a woman in her unfortunate situation. Still, she was not going to pin some other chap's sins on his shoulders. Jack had enough of his own.
One was tugging on his sleeve. “C'mon, then, Jacko. You promised me dinner, you did.”
Suddenly Rochelle sounded common and coarse. Jack felt himself embarrassed, and decided to be angry at Miss Silver for the uncomfortable feeling. She was the one who had walked into his club of her own free will, dash it. Why should he be ashamed of his way of life? And who was she to look so pure when the proof of her own fall from grace was sitting in his waiting room?
He looked down his formidable nose, which never ceased to intimidate his junior officers, and spoke in his coldest voice. “Forgive me, Miss Silver, but I do have other commitments, as you can see. And since we have never met, I do not suppose that we have anything to say to each other.”
She met his stare without flinching, only raising her slightly pointed chin. “Would you prefer to speak to the solicitor?”
Lud, he'd dragged the Endicott name through enough mud by opening a gambling parlor. Playing his own games with the lady dealers had been fun after the deprivations of wartime, but had added fuel to the raging gossip fires. He had even taken on a mistress to stop some of the rumors that he was an insatiable satyr. Rochelle was not nearly as much entertainment, but Jack's name had not been in the scandal columns in at least three days. His big brother ought to be happy Jack was settling on one woman, instead of one every night. Hell, his brother the earl ought to be happy Jack was no drain on the family estate, and neither were his inamoratas.
A breach of promise suit or whatever Miss Silver was threatening was bound to make headlines. His brother would not be happy, no matter who had to settle the accounts, but Ace would recover. He would grumble and lecture, and pay whatever it took to keep Jack from prison or penury. Jack worried more about his lovely sister-in-law, though, heavy with child and still fretful of the skeletons in her own family's closet. Nell did not need another scandal in her dish.
“Very well, Miss Silver, speak your piece.”
“In private, if you please.”
He did not please, nor did Rochelle. She pulled on his arm, leaving creases on his sleeve. Miss Silver blushed again, at the brazen display of familiarity and possession. Good grief, how had she borne a child if her sensibilities were so easily shaken? Hell, how had she
Truth be told, Jack was not enamored of Rochelle's grasping ways either, not her clinging nor her carping for more of his time, more of his money. Besides, he was not willing to air more of his dirty linen in public. Downs had served with him in Belgium and was as loyal as they came. Rochelle's fidelity was for sale to the highest bidder. She was not even faithful to her own name, so what should she care about his? “Would you wait outside, Rochelle? This will not take long.”
“What, you mean to listen to some gentry mort's lies? That's the oldest trick in the books, Jacko, claiming some brat needs your blessings and your blunt. You're too downy a cove to fall for that faradiddle, so come on, love. I'm hungry.”
Miss Silver did not try to refute Rochelle's accusations. She did not retreat, either, which the soldier in Jack could not help admiring.
“Downs,” he said, “will you be so good as to escort Mademoiselle Poitier to dinner? I made early reservations at the Grand Hotel.”
Downs looked as if he'd rather go back to the front, facing French cannons. He gulped and nodded, holding out his arm. Rochelle did not accept it. A lowly clerk? A mere former lieutenant? A cripple with a limp? She walked past him, the broken feather tickling her nose, and dog hairs showing on the back of her gown from her encounter with the carpet.
Jack could hear her angry footstepsâand Downs's halting gait hurrying to keep upâall through the waiting room. The outer door slammed. He winced, knowing he would be paying for that later.
“Very well, Miss Silver, you have cost me a dinner and a pleasant companion. Now what is this private matter? And it had better be good, or I will call the Watch and have you taken off to jail, I swear I will. What is this about a child?”
The child had been awakened by the slamming door. Now she stood in the entrance to Jack's office rubbing her eyes, dragging a lady's cloak behind her. “I told you we were not staying,” she said.
Miss Silver muttered something incomprehensible, and possibly blasphemous, under her breath, but made the introductions. “Captain Endicott, may I present Miss Harriet Hildebrand, your ward.”
“Hildebrand, you say? Nelson Hildebrand of Northampshire? Damn if she is not his butter stamp with that curly red mop and that space between her front teeâMy ward?”
“Captain Hildebrand named you as Miss Hildebrand's guardian,” Allie lied. It was growing dark. This was not entirely the non sequitur it sounded. She was willing to do nearly anything to have this settled before night fell. If she was out in the streets, alone, she wanted to see where she was going.
Jack sank back onto his seat, belatedly remembering to offer the opposing chair to Miss Silver. “No, he must have meant my brother, the earl. We all grew up together, but Ace was always the respectable, responsible one of us.”
“You are Jonathan Endicott?”
Jack heard his name reverberate like a death knell. “It's only till Hildebrand comes back from the army, right?”
Miss Silver shook her head and lowered her eyes. “He is not coming back. I am sorry.”
“He was a good man,” Jack said. “I will miss him.” Then he remembered hearing the stories about Hildebrand's wife and brother. Who hadn't heard them? “Gads, the poor poppet.”
The poor poppet had sat down on the floor next to the dog, an old hound of some sort that had gone back to sleep near the fire after his one feeble effort at protecting his household.
“Do not bother the dog,” Miss Silver called.
“Oh, old Joker is as gentle as a kitten. He would never hurt a little girl.”
“I was not worried about the little girl,” Miss Silver murmured. Then she proceeded to explain about Lord and Lady Hildebrand, Mrs. Semple and the schoolâwithout mentioning the suspicious nature of the fire that had burned down the placeâand the solicitor.
“You say Hildebrand named me in his will?”
“I saw it with my own eyes. You can see for yourself at Mr. Burquist's office tomorrow. That is, on Monday, tomorrow being Sunday.”
Jack had not taken his gaze off the child in the corner. “Good grief, he must have been foxed.”
Miss Silver did not disagree.
Jack sighed. He looked longingly at the brandy decanter, knowing he could not drink alone in front of the lady. “May I offer you some refreshment?”
“Tea would be lovely. And milk and some toast for Harriet. We missed our midday meal.”
She looked like she had missed more than a few meals, and the childâGads, there was a child in his office!âwas skin and bones. Hildebrand had been a beanpole, though, so perhaps she had inherited his physique too, along with the red curls.
Miss Silver coughed again.
“Oh, yes, refreshments.” Milk? Toast? This was a gaming club, not a lady's drawing room! Where the deuce was he supposed to get nursery fare? Jack stepped out to the hall, the one that led to the public rooms, not the applicants' waiting room, and bellowed for Sergeant Calloway.
Miss Silver winced, but Jack did not apologize. When Calloway arrived, Jack's former batman and current major domo looked as if he was ready to fend off an ambush, singlehandedly. Jack told him to fetch tea, cold meats, bread and cheese, and milk.
Calloway's mouth was hanging open, seeing the brat and the beldam in his boss's office. He would have swallowed his wad of tobacco if he had not spit it out at the captain's call.
“You're goin' to feed them?”
“I am not going to devour them for dinner, so yes, I have invited Miss Silver and Miss Hildebrand to share a meal with me.”
Calloway kept staring. Miss Silver nodded as if she were the queen, and the halfling stuck her tongue out at him.
“Milk, sergeant. Tea, food, you know. I keep an expensive chef in the kitchen. Surely he can provide us a light repast while we decide what to do.”
“What to do? I says run 'em off like we did the Frogs.”
Oh, how Jack wished he could. Before he could say anything, Miss Hildebrand piped up. “I would like chocolate, please,” she said in a sweet little voice, “Mr. Snake.”
Miss Silver started coughing. Jack looked at SnakeâCallowayâpleadingly.
“Right, cap'n, tea and chocolate. An' another bottle of brandy.”
That was why Jack kept a former convict on his payroll. The man understood his needs. After Calloway left, Jack turned back to Miss Silver. “While we are waiting, why do you not tell me your part in this?”
“My part? My last duty as an instructress at Miss Semple's School was to deliver Harriet to her grandparents. I do not wish to sound mercenary, but the funds given me for the journey were insufficient, soâ”
Jack brushed that off. What were a few coins in the face of catastrophe? “I shall reimburse you, of course. But what were your plans?”
“I fear you have not been listening, sir. I admit I was hoping to be asked to stay on as governess with Lord and Lady Hildebrand until I could find another position or they found another school for Harriet, but that was all.”
“You came to London with no position and no place to go?”
“I had no choice.” She stood, and bent to reclaim her cloak from where Harriet had dressed the old dog in it. “I think I will leave you now, though, now that I have fulfilled my commission. You and Harriet need some time to grow accustomed to each other, and as you pointed out, I have to find a place to stay.”
“You are going to leave? Like hell! That is, not without supper. And not without a plan for Miss Harriet's future. I do not know anything about little girls!”
Allie sat back down. She was hungry, and her throat was sore. Tea sounded heavenly. So did Captain Endicott's desire for her to stay with Harriet. She would not have to go off on her own in the city this very night, thank goodness.
Relieved at the schoolmistress's silent acquiescence, Jack continued his inquiry. “Very well, let us think. Have you anywhere you might take Harriet? Family? Friends in town?”