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Lady Amabel’s father claimed she was fit for something better, but Mab seriously doubted whether something better existed than the well-heeled and well-situated, perfectly correct and unassuming and gloriously handsome Baron Parrington. Perhaps Marriot might be persuaded to put in a good word for Fergus with her papa? It was a consideration. This was no moment to intrude the topic, judging from the lack of attention that Lord March awarded the much more pressing question of where he’d spent the last six months.

Mab cast his lordship and his lady an envious, exasperated glance. Then her gaze fell upon his shabby valise. Perhaps therein lurked a clue as to his recent whereabouts. Mab rose from her chair, grasped the valise and deposited it at—and inadvertently upon—Lord March’s feet.

Thus recalled to his surroundings, Marriot awarded Lady Amabel an ungrateful frown. “Limb of Satan!” he remarked. “Will it satisfy you if I vow upon my solemn word of honor that I don’t know where I’ve been?
will you go to bed so that Nell and I may, er, talk privately?” He winked at his countess. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

“How I missed you, Marriot!” responded Lady March with her endearingly crooked smile. “But Mab is right, as usual—even if her papa
accused her of acting like a loony! We must apply ourselves to this puzzle of where you’ve been. It will be the first question Cousin Henrietta asks upon discovering you’ve returned, and you may be sure that whatever you tell her will be speedily spread all about the town. Even if you cannot remember, we must have some story ready, I think.”

“Cousin Henrietta!” Lord March’s mobile features wore a look of keen distaste. “You cannot mean to tell me that wretchedly interfering female is in this house.”

“I am afraid so. She descended upon me immediately she heard of your disappearance, and has had me cudgeling my brain as to how I may be rid of her ever since.”

“Damnation!” muttered Lord March bitterly. Withstanding the temptation to cradle her husband’s mistreated head against her breast, Nell turned away. Her reflection in the oriel window caused her another, wryer smile. How carefully she had dressed in this lilac silk gown with white satin sleeves, and edged with lace, as she had dressed countless other nights, on the slender chance that Marriot might come home. This night he
returned, to find her rumpled and disheveled from the heavy cloak, her gown stained with Mab’s copious tears. Not that he had seemed to mind. Eleanor turned back to gaze dotingly upon her spouse. How she loved the man.

That glance Mab intercepted, as well as the keen manner in which Lord March returned it; hastily, she cleared her throat. “Mayhap we may find an answer to the mystery in Marriot’s valise. I’ll just open it, shall I?” She suited action to words. Then her blue eyes opened wide, and her pretty lips formed a perfect O. “Lawks!” she said.

‘Lawks’? Lady March was very curious as to what had inspired her friend to make noises like a chambermaid. She, too, approached the valise. Her amber eyes also widened. “Mercy!” she breathed.

By the conduct of his companions, Marriot’s own interest was aroused. He lowered his fond gaze from his wife’s startled face to the contents of the valise. By the sight that greeted him, Lord March was bereft of speech.

Mab brought forth a candelabra. Twinkling in the soft light were countless expensive jewels. Emeralds and rubies, diamonds and pearls—“Good God!” he breathed, at length.

Lady Amabel plunged reckless fingers into the valise, held up an enormous diamond, cut as a rose, in a simple gold setting with a hanging pearl. In quick succession she brought forth a bracelet set with diamonds, emeralds and rubies in enameled gold; a brooch composed of a diamond spray of leafy flowers set in silver; a parure of rubies and emeralds. Then she looked quizzically at Marriot. “I did not think you would go
far,” Mab murmured. “Even in your altitudes!”

“In my—” Lord March’s blank expression changed to consternation. “You don’t think I stole these things?”

“What else
we think?” Mab dropped the jewels back into the valise and closed it. “Whether you stole the jewels or not, you are in possession of them, and therefore in the devil of a fix.”

Eleanor stirred. “No! Marriot could not do such a thing. I forbid you to even think it, Mab!”

“But we must think about it, my darling!” Lord March fondly pointed out. “Having the things, we must decide what to do with them. Unfortunately, one cannot just toss such expensive baubles in the trash.” His own smile, as he studied his wife, was crooked. “What a pretty pickle! You will be sorry I have come home.”

“Never, Marriot!” Eleanor was less stricken by the suggestion that her husband might have engaged in skullduggery than by his obvious distress. “I would not care if you robbed the—the Bank of England! And I know very well you didn’t, or anyone else.” She hugged him. “It is very late and we are all very weary! Things will seem less difficult in the morning. I suggest we retire.”

“An excellent idea.” Lord March put his wife away from him, picked up the valise, and approached the wainscoting. “I will take up residence in the attics until we have determined what must be done.”

“In the attics?” Lady March was saddened that her husband’s long-awaited homecoming should end on so sour a note. “Then I will come with you, Marriot.”

To turn down so generous an offer when in sore need of his wife’s companionship was the act of a true nobleman. Noble Lord March was, whether or not he had recently taken up burglary as a sideline. “No,” he said firmly. “Not until this mystery is cleared up. I would not have you waste yourself, my darling, on a man who may be a common thief—or worse!” So saying, he stepped back through the wainscoting. The panel swung shut.




If Lord and Lady March were less than thrilled with the puzzle into which they had been so abruptly plunged, Lady Amabel was enthusiastic enough for all three. She did not like to see her friends made miserable, of course, but the energy required to amend this topsy-turvy situation must very effectively distract a damsel from her own sore heart. Not that Mab’s heart was
precisely; it was merely severely wrenched. Nor did she despair of persuading her papa of the injustice he had done her. How this miracle might be accomplished she was not yet certain, but trusted enlightenment would come.

These optimistic reflections having occupied her until she arrived at her destination, Mab paused outside the door of Lord and Lady March’s bedchamber, hand upraised to knock. Voices came faintly from within.

Had Marriot overcome his scruples? Unhesitant, Mab pressed her dainty ear to the door. Those peevish tones definitely did not belong to Lord March; were indeed gloomily prophesying his lordship’s fate. “Perhaps,” said Cousin Henrietta as Mab entered, “he has been taken by a press gang.”

“Moonshine!” commented Lady Amabel with all the self-assurance of a young lady to whom nothing save the object of her girlish dreams had ever been denied. “If this is the way you have been going on, Henrietta, it is no wonder poor Nell has fallen into a melancholy. We must try and elevate her spirits, not cast them down!”

Upon being interrupted in mid-lament, the object of Lady Amabel’s strictures blinked and stared. Cousin Henrietta was a short, plump, wispy white-haired female midway through her fifth decade. Her round face might have been attractive had it not been marred by lines of discontent. “Lady Amabel!” she tittered. “I did not expect—that is, how do
come to be here?”

“By coach, how else?” Frankly curious, Mab gazed about her. The bedroom was charming, incorporating a small fireplace decorated with imported colored marbles; small mullioned windows with lozenge-shaped panels and ancient soft green glass; plaster walls painted in brilliant shades of greens and reds, yellows and blues, featuring a running design of humans and animals amid a large quantity of leaves. “Like you, I have come to be with Nell in her hour of need.”

The irony of this statement—Henrietta served no needs but her own—the older woman let pass. “Poor, poor Eleanor!” she cried, and clasped her hands to a plump bosom swathed in an unhappy shade of puce. “I have been endeavoring to discover just why Marriot may have left in so clandestine a fashion. Are you certain, Eleanor, that you and he did not have a falling-out?”

Having completed her inspection of the chamber, Mab turned toward the huge four-poster bedstead that stood on a dais at one end of the room. From the depths of the formidably carved structure came a single word. The tone in which the word was spoken was irritable. The word was “Poppycock!” In less hostile accents the speaker added, “Come here and sit by me, Mab, and share my chocolate! Perhaps between us we may persuade Henrietta that Marriot has
stuck his spoon in the wall.”

Lady Amabel was not slow to accept this invitation; her stylish high-necked morning dress with tucks around the hem was not designed for arctic temperatures, and Mab was shivering despite her shawl. The bedroom was very cold, Cousin Henrietta’s bulk absorbing the large portion of the fire’s warmth.

“I did not say Marriot had ‘stuck his spoon in the wall,’ as you so inelegantly phrase it,” that worthy protested, while with a disapproving expression she watched Lady Amabel climb onto the huge bed. In spite of her efforts at comfort and consolation Henrietta had never received so hospitable an invitation from the bed’s occupant and was consequently feeling very ill-used. “I only seek to prepare you for what I fear must be a very unpleasant event. We must face facts! Were Marriot able, he would have long since sent us word.” Meaningfully, she hesitated. “Providing, that is, that he

Mab had paused to admire the hangings of the ancient bed, white linen embroidered in red and blue and green silks. The glance she awarded Henrietta was a great deal less appreciative. “Are you hinting that Marriot has developed petticoat-fever, ma’am? I think you must
to see Nell in the pathetics. It is nonsense anyway, because Marriot would have to be drunk as a wheelbarrow to give another female a second glance, and he isn’t addicted to the bottle, so there!” She disappeared from view. “I daresay we shall have word of him any day.”

Henrietta frowned at the bedstead; unless she was very much mistaken, she had just been given a sharp set down by a most impertinent chit. Lady Amabel had no proper way of thinking, else she would not speak so rudely to her elders. But Henrietta had known for years that Mab was a hoyden and a madcap, a sad romp upon whose unseemly spirits a check should have been imposed. Unfortunately, Mab’s father did not adhere to Henrietta’s belief that young ladies should look very demure and never say a word.

Henrietta’s own voice betrayed none of her chagrin. “I am very much afraid that any word we have of Marriot must be unhappy at this point, and so I have warned Eleanor. She will not heed my advice, unfortunately. Perhaps you may help me persuade her that she must prepare herself to receive very bad news, Lady Amabel.”

What Eleanor was prepared to do was throttle her cousin, thought Mab, a sentiment that she heartily endorsed. “But I don’t think she
receive bad news,” Mab responded, nudging Nell, who was staring murderously at an intricately carved bedpost. “I’ve the oddest notion that Marriot will turn up any day.”

Had she heard Eleanor
wondered Henrietta, eyeing the four-poster. Surely not! “I hope we may not have Marriot brought to us with his toes turned up! You do not perceive the evils that await the unwary, Lady Amabel. There are ugly customers in the world, and devilry afoot. Look at Bonaparte—I mean, I hope we shall not
to look at him, but I wouldn’t count on it! I have heard that he has under construction a monstrous bridge by which his troops will pass from Calais to Dover, directed by officers in air balloons; and also that a Channel tunnel is being engineered by a mining expert. Mark my words, we shall all awaken one morning to find we have been murdered in our beds!”

The bed upon which Lady Amabel currently reclined was very comfortable, even though its owner was in possession of all the blankets and was trying so hard to contain an untimely onslaught of giggles that the whole structure shook, not to mention the lavish lace that trimmed her huge, absurdly flattering nightcap. “I am not certain who you expect to murder us,” Lady Amabel remarked. “Marriot or Bonaparte? This is a very foolish conversation. Marriot has come to no harm.” She nudged the giggling Nell. “I feel it in my bones!”

All that Cousin Henrietta felt in
bones was a continuous dull aching, the result of being confined during inclement weather in this drafty old mansion. Henrietta was not among the numerous admirers of Marcham Towers. Those individuals with a passion for antique architecture and furnishings might alter their opinions, she thought sourly, if obliged to winter in the house. Not that Henrietta
obliged to do so, save by her sense of duty, which was almost as strong as her fondness for prying into the intimate details of other people’s lives. Henrietta was not a prattle-bag precisely, but more a parasite. She was positively agog to learn why Lord March had deserted his lady. Now Lady Amabel had appeared on the scene to distract Eleanor just when Henrietta had been in momentary expectation of becoming her confidante. It was very bad. “You cannot be certain to what lengths Marriot may have been drawn,” she ominously remarked.

Having wrested from her hostess a fair share of the blankets and accepted from her a cup of rapidly cooling chocolate, Mab was very luxuriously disposed. “That is very true,” she responded solemnly. “I have already considered that Marriot might have run afoul of Bonaparte’s agents—perhaps even the Mad Corsican himself! I have heard it said that Bonaparte has disguised himself as a British sailor and is patrolling English shores at night aboard a fishing smack! Women should be allowed to join the militia, I think.
would not fire the beacons by mistake. But if not by Bonaparte’s agents, perhaps Marriot has been abducted by some other fiendish sort. Perhaps even tinkers! Although I do not know why they should abduct a grown man in the heart of London—but one never knows with that low, vulgar sort!”

BOOK: Maggie MacKeever
6.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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