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Henrietta started, setting her feather a-tremble. “Marriot has been in Cornwall—something to do with his holdings there and a bailiff who turned out to be less honest than he should—I do not know the whole of it, because the Towers is at sixes and sevens, as you might imagine—although Marriot professes himself displeased with all the fuss.”

Lady Katherine was stricken with a similar dissatisfaction, result of her informant’s paucity of detail. “Faith! What about the quarrel with his wife?”

Henrietta’s awe of her companion was in no way lessened by this display of vulgar curiosity; Henrietta liked nothing better than to have a cozy chat with someone as fond of tittle-tattle as herself. Unfortunately, she could not provide enlightenment. “I don’t know!” she sighed. “Whatever it was about must have been very dreadful, to cause Marriot to set out for Cornwall in the middle of the night.”

Lady Katherine’s raddled face was avid. She leaned closer, balancing on her cane. “Do you think she—er?” she delicately asked.

“‘Er’?” Henrietta looked puzzled. “Ah! No, I don’t think it. At least she hasn’t while I have been at Marcham Towers—I do assure you that, had Eleanor’s affection strayed, I would know! That is what has me in such a puzzle. When I asked Marriot why he had chosen such a queer way to go about his business, he said he must have been three parts disguised!”

Lady Katherine pursed her bloodless lips. “Is the man a drunkard?” she inquired.

“A—” Henrietta would allow no outsider to serve her family up as gossip fodder, fond as she herself might be of tossing out the occasional juicy tidbit. “Nothing of the sort! It is merely that Marriot does not have a hard head, and when he drinks more than is prudent— which he does not do often!—his thinking goes astray. Or so Eleanor has it!
I
would not be surprised if he returned home in that condition, because he did so in the same manner as he left, in the middle of the night!” People were making a habit of midnight arrivals, Henrietta reflected; first Mab, now Marriot. Every instinct hinted that mischief was afoot at Marcham Towers. The precise nature of that mischief, Henrietta could not guess, but she did not intend to budge an inch before she found out. “Last night Marriot certainly was not in residence—yet when I went to see Elinor this morning after I had dispatched my note to you, there he was!”

“After?” Lady Katherine’s attention had been caught by a discrepancy in the chronology of Henrietta’s account. “If you didn’t mean to tell me March had returned, what was the purpose of this meeting to be? It had better be good, Dougharty! To be out in this abominable weather is
not
what I can like!”

Lady Katherine had liked it well enough only moments past, reflected Henrietta, her military feather trembling anew with the force of the reprimand. Nonetheless, that reprimand did not long deflate her spirits. Denied the opportunity to console Eleanor for tragic tidings of her husband, Lady Katherine would make an excellent second best. Not that Lady Katherine’s lamented spouse had indulged in shockingly irregular conduct. A pity the same could not be said about her son! “You must prepare yourself,” Henrietta said with relish, “to hear very bad news.”

“Bad news?” Lady Katherine snapped. “What the devil are you prosing on about?”

There were few things Henrietta enjoyed better than to let drop dire hints. “Never has there been anything equal to it!” she prophesied in tones of doom.

“Equal to
what
?” Lady Katherine did not care to be made participant in a cat-and-mouse game. Irritably, she raised her cane.

Though Henrietta flinched, she would not be balked of her triumph. “We must be discreet!” she murmured, looking sharply around. “One does not know
whom
one may trust, what with all these robberies—not that I have anything worth stealing, but it doesn’t hurt to take precautions, all the same! That is why I wished to meet you here instead of at Marcham Towers. Not that we might not be robbed, of course, but so we might not be overheard!”

Lady Katherine considered it most likely that they would be overheard in the Temple, so thick was the press of people in the aisles. This contradictory viewpoint she promptly put forth.

“Oh yes! I do not doubt it!” Henrietta responded serenely. “But we shall not be overheard by Mab.”

As result of this simple statement, Lady Katherine experienced a sinking sensation in her midriff. “Stab me!” she said.

“I feel for you, Lady Katherine!” Henrietta’s glance was sympathetic. “Truly I do! To discover in such a manner that your own son—oh dear, oh dear! I promise you I doubted the fidelity of my own eyes.”

Her companion would no longer have a problem with her vision, Lady Katherine thought grimly, did she succumb to the impulse to scratch out those sharp orbs. “Discover
what,
and in what manner?” she snapped. “In plain English, if you please!”

Henrietta did please; seldom was opportunity granted her to strike such a blow. “I fear your son has fallen victim to Lady Amabel,” she confided. “Unless he goes about kissing young females as a matter of habit, he must!”

“Goes about—” In an attempt to avoid swooning from the shock of the intelligence that her son was earning some notoriety as a philanderer, Lady Katherine groped for her vinaigrette. “There is some mistake!”

“None at all, I promise you!” Henrietta had the temerity to pat Lady Katherine’s hand. “I walked in on them embracing—it was in the solar. Such a distasteful business! I would not have expected such goings-on, even from Lady Amabel. So you may be sure I told her, and read her a very stern scold.”

A scold was far too mild a retribution for the young lady who had left Lady Katherine’s son debauched. “That scheming hussy!” moaned Lady Katherine into her vinaigrette. “She has led my poor lamb astray! Never have I been so dismayed!”

“Of course you have not.” During moments of disaster, especially disasters of her own devising, Henrietta was at her best. “Anyone must have been disgusted with Amabel’s conduct, and so I told her! Even though your son seemed to feel that
I
should come under the gravest censure for having intervened. Meddling, he called it—but I do not hold it against him! Between you and me, Lady Katherine, I suspect I arrived in the very nick of time!”

Lady Katherine did indeed in that moment resemble a gorgon, one of those snake-haired sisters whose terrific aspect turned beholders to stone. “The nick of time!” she echoed. “Has it gone so far as
that?”

“No.” Henrietta was very sorry to admit that it had not. “But there is no saying it might not have! Clearly Lady Amabel is no better than one of the wicked, else she would not have lured your son into a squalid little debauch. This is such a dreadful business! You have my utmost sympathy.”

Lady Katherine was in much greater need of a means of revenge, some method by which Amabel’s presumption might be repaid. How
dared
the minx cast out lures to Fergus—and how dared he rise to the bait? Lady Katherine would have several sharp words to say to her offspring regarding his newly developed penchant for amorous vagaries. In such a dreadful manner did Lady Katherine glower that the aisles closest to the ladies were rapidly cleared.

“I won’t have it!” For emphasis, Lady Katherine pounded her cane on the floor. “I won’t have it, do you hear?”

Henrietta could hardly have failed to do so, along with anyone else in the bookshop; the proprietor himself came forward to ascertain who was assaulting his floor. As result of this intervention, Lady Katherine limped haughtily to the door. “Curst busybodies!” growled Lady Katherine, as they passed outside.

Henrietta did not think her companion referred to themselves. “What will you do?” she asked. “It is no good applying to Eleanor or Marriot regarding Amabel; they are a great deal too wrapped up in themselves.” And very queer it was that they should be so affectionate, she thought. Marriot’s homecoming was very warm for a fellow who had disappeared for quite six months following a quarrel. “And I fear that Amabel herself showed not the slightest remorse, or intention of mending her wicked ways.”

“She’ll mend them, or I’ll know the reason why she doesn’t!” Lady Katherine’s ruined face was a study in mingled outrage and chagrin. “But I shall have to be very subtle. I think I must require your assistance in this matter, Dougharty—fiend seize the wench!”

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

While Lady Katherine was pulling a long face over Henrietta’s accounting of Lord Parrington’s misdeeds, and both dowagers were heartily wishing Lady Amabel to perdition, Mab was putting Henrietta’s absence to very good account. At this particular moment, she was fluttering her eyelashes in a wholly outrageous manner. “You could not stay away!” she murmured, highly gratified. “I know how it is! But I would not wish to get you in trouble with your mama.”

“If you did not wish to land me in the briars, you shouldn’t have asked me to kiss you!” he snapped.

This was no loverlike tone, surely? Mab’s long lashes ceased to flutter, and she blinked. Perhaps Fergus was merely ill at ease? “I know what will cheer you! We will enact another bacchanalian scene!”

Lord Parrington did not find this sally amusing. “No, we shan’t!” he retorted, and for good measure fell back a pace. “Am I not already in difficulties enough? When I think what Mama will have to say— She will be devilish out of humor. My thoughts are of the most desponding cast.”

Lady Amabel peered through her long lashes at Lord Parrington. It must be obvious to even the most casual observer that the baron was in the dumps.

Herself resourceful, Mab had little patience with young men who shilly-shallied around the helm of their own ship of fate. “Fergus,” she said bluntly, “if you did not wish to see me, why the blazes did you come to Marcham Towers?”

It occurred to the baron that he’d been less than diplomatic. “Naturally I wish to see you,” he responded, in tones that were as unenthusiastic as they were polite. “But the purpose of my visit was
to speak with that female who burst in on us, the bosom-bow of my mama’s! What was her name? Dougharty?”

He thought to persuade Henrietta not to relate his transgressions to Lady Katherine? Definitely there was a craven streak in Lord Parrington, Mab decided sadly, else he would not lower himself to try and turn Henrietta up sweet. She derived a certain perverse satisfaction from informing the baron he had come too late.

“Too late!” Fergus blanched. “Say you’re hamming me, Mab. Admit it, there’s a good girl!”

“But I’m not.” In proportion to Lord Parrington’s unease, Lady Amabel’s patience grew short. “Henrietta has gone to report your misconduct to your mama. Good gracious, Fergus, you have put yourself in a regular taking over this business. What do you think she may do to you? You are a grown man!”

Not surprisingly, this unsympathetic attitude did nothing to reconcile its target with its source. “Mama will not do anything to me,” Fergus responded stiffly, “except fly into the boughs and make a dreadful kickup. No one can raise a dust like Mama, as you would know, had you ever seen her in a pelter—and you may be grateful you have not.” Were there justice in the world, it would be Mab who suffered his parent’s wrath, Fergus silently added. Was not this cursed business her fault?

Happily, Lord Parrington kept this last reflection silent, else Lady Amabel might have grown so exasperated that she boxed his ears. As it was, she barely managed to refrain. “You had better come in and meet Marriot,” she said repressively, and gestured toward the door of the solar. “Since you’re here. Don’t raise your eyebrows at me, Fergus! I assure you Marriot is within, and Nell also. Believe me, I have no more desire than you for another
tête-à-tête
.” So saying, she swept before him into the solar.

Lord Parrington did not dislike the notion of further
tête-à-têtes,
precisely; the disruption of his last such encounter had only temporarily soured him on romance. No opportunity being given him to explain these nuances of sentiment, he followed Lady Amabel into the solar. Lord March was indeed present, as Mab had promised, and Fergus was privileged to make the acquaintance of this mysteriously disappearing and reappearing gentleman, who was dressed casually in a morning coat of superfine with plated buttons, buckskin breeches, boots with wide turnover tops of light brown. “Hallo, Parrington!” said Lord March. “So you are the young man who’s been leading our Mab astray.”

“Oh no, Marriot!” With an unfriendly glance at Fergus, Mab resumed her place beside Lord March on the chocolate red daybed, where before the baron’s arrival she had been receiving instruction in how to play macao. “It is I who have led Fergus astray. Perhaps we must assure him that I did so in a brief fit of madness.  Which has since passed.”

“Ah. It was a misunderstanding.” Lord March cast an experienced eye on Mab’s sulky face. “We shall say no more of it. Least said, soonest mended, brat!”

Thus reminded of the sometimes unfortunate results of her hasty temper, Lady Amabel returned Lord March’s glance. Ruefully, she smiled. “That’s the ticket!” said his lordship, and gave her a little hug.

Lady March, meanwhile observing Lord Parrington, understood why Mab considered the baron a veritable Adonis. Certainly he was very near perfection, at least in form. Eleanor was considerably more interested, however, in substance. She suspected, from Lord Parrington’s frigid demeanor, that his nature was cold. But Mab must be the best judge of who she wished to kiss.

Since Mab in these moments did not seem to care to converse with the baron, let alone kiss him, Nell stepped forward. “May I offer you some refreshment?” she inquired.

“Thank you, no!” Fergus was relieved to be diverted from the spectacle of Mab rubbing shoulders with Lord March. Marriot’s charm was as palpably experienced by members of his own sex as the opposite, and consequently Fergus was piqued. Lord March was deucedly friendly with Mab, the baron thought. He also thought it very strange that Lady March didn’t seem to mind. “I called in hopes of persuading your cousin not to repeat, er, certain erroneous impressions she had received.”

BOOK: Maggie MacKeever
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