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A
cozy fire crackled in the grate, throwing softly undulating waves of light and
shadow across the rose and green florals of the Aubusson carpet on the floor,
and a Louis XV gold ormolu mantel clock ticked its way toward the hour, which
was nearly four, the time at which Madame had indicated she would be taking tea
and their interview would be at an end.

Dressed
in a soft rose dressing gown of watered silk and cream-colored Alencon lace,
Madame was holding court from her seat on a George II green damask-covered
armchair. A handsome woman of fifty-eight years, she had once been the foremost
beauty of her time, a courtesan who, it was whispered, had enjoyed the favors
of kings and dukes on both sides of the Channel before settling at last on
English soil during the time of the French Revolution. She was of medium
height, but appeared taller, owing to a pair of exceptionally long legs that,
even now, as she crossed them under the parting folds of her dressing gown,
displayed a youthful shape. Her hair had once been a deep honey-gold, though
now it bore more silvery tones, but it was still abundant and shiny, something
Madame fervently believed she achieved with the warm olive-oil treatments she'd
been giving it since the day she'd learned of this beauty secret from an
Italian
principessa
who used it to barter for her husband's release from
the young Madame's amorous clutches. In her youth, when she was the toast of
London, as she had been in Paris before that, it was said she owed her delicate
coloring with its fair, porcelainlike skin, to an aristocratic English father,
while her angular, Gallic features were the legacy of a long line of French
courtesans, of which her mother had been the last.

Now,
as she arched one delicate red-gold eyebrow while surveying the two women who
sat across from her, those still-handsome Gallic features spoke of a keen
shrewdness.

"If
I understand you correctly," Madame was saying, "you want me to find
the girl some sort of honest employment elsewhere or the pair of you will leave
my employ immediately and take Ashleigh with you." Madame's pale
gray-green eyes were riveted on Dorcas as she spoke. "Is that the gist of
it?"

Dorcas's
clasped hands twisted nervously in her lap, but thoughts of what might happen
to Ashleigh if she failed her now, forced her to return Madame's look and,
after swallowing hard, answer, "Yes... yes, it is."

The
shrewd eyes shifted and focused on Megan. "Megan, this business bears your
signature more than anyone's, I'll warrant, so I'll put my question to you. Do
you have any idea what has happened to girls who have endeavored to leave my
employ without my assent?"

Until
now Megan O'Brien's emerald eyes had been cool and watchful during the
interview, revealing little as she and Dorcas had laid out their terms, but now
Madame detected an ever-so-faint glimmer of heightened interest in their cool
green depths.

"My
dear," Madame continued, "surely you cannot tell me you've forgotten
the tale of Liza Fairchild, who was going off to become that young earl's
mistress and was found by Drake, months later, lying in the gutter, drunken
senseless with a babe in her belly and rags on her back?" She uncrossed
her legs and leaned forward in her chair. "Or what about that headstrong
brunette from Dorset—what was her name?—ah, yes... Marion. What of her and her
grandiose scheme of setting up her own house with that young seaman lover of
hers who claimed he could supply her with no end of Oriental beauties fresh
from ports like Shanghai and Hong Kong?"

Suppressing
a shudder, Megan suddenly rose to her feet. She had no wish to recall the
details of how the foolish Marion had been found, brutally raped and abused,
with her throat cut, near one of the docks of Liverpool only a month after
she'd left Madame's house. Rumors had flown that she was only one of almost a
dozen such victims of the devil who'd pretended to be a sailor going into
business with an unsuspecting whore. "I'll not pretend we relish the idea
o' moving out on ye, Madame," she said, carefully watching the older
woman's eyes as she spoke. "Dorcas and I have been treated well here, and
we've come t' regard Hampton House as our home." She cast a brief glance
at Dorcas, who nodded solemnly. "But as ye know, we've both become fond o'
the wee mavourneen downstairs, and we've sworn not t' allow her t' be sucked up
in a life here, Madame—we've
sworn
it!" Finding that her voice had
gained more inflection than she'd intended with this last statement, Megan
collected herself, softening it somewhat, to resume speaking. "Therefore,
Madame, we have prepared ourselves... t' go t' considerable... lengths t'
protect the lass."

Madame
caught something in Megan's eyes as she spoke these last words, and whatever it
was—she wasn't certain, but her instincts told her to pay attention to it—she
picked up on the signal with keen interest. "Threatening to leave Hampton
House and rob me of my prized cook and one of the best girls I've had in
years... those aren't the only clubs the two of you have to hold over my head,
are they, Megan?" She watched the tall redhead's face with avid interest.

Megan
smiled and gave her a look that acknowledged her respect for the older woman's
ability to perceive things quickly. She'd always admired Madame's astute mind.
"Ah, no, they aren't, Madame. Ye see, Dorcas and I, we've made it our
business over the years t' become acquainted, shall we say, with some o' the
quieter doin's at Hampton House... doin's ye'd be wishin' we weren't privy
t'... like—" she cast a brief appraising glance at Madame's anxious
expression and then hurried quickly onward "—like what goes on in the
stables on certain nights when 'tis extra dark because there's no moon... or
things that have t' do with a certain king's minister who frequents these
chambers fer reasons other than us lovelies—although we're well aware that his
lordship isn't above liftin' a skirt or two while he awaits the true business
he's after."

"There's
an ugly word for what you're up to," said Madame. "It's called
blackmail."

"There
are uglier words I can think of," snapped Megan. "They're called
smugglin' and spyin'."

"Touché,"
acknowledged Madame with a small smile. Whatever her misgivings about having
trusted the girl with too much carelessly dropped information, she had always
admired Megan for her spunk and the wit behind that amazing beauty. She heaved
a small sigh. In fact, if she were to admit it, she had always known Megan
O'Brien to be a cut above the rest of the clever and not-so-clever beauties
she'd seen come and go over the years, and she listened to the voice inside her
now that told her the beauteous redhead would probably find a way to take
herself beyond the walls of Hampton House one of these days; it was inevitable,
really. "Very well, Megan, Dorcas—" she nodded at each in turn
"—it seems you two have me over the proverbial barrel. Ashleigh may
go." She watched as Megan smiled and Dorcas heaved an obvious sigh of
relief.

"Now,
the problem remains as to how. Hmm...." She tapped two long,
well-manicured nails on the arm of her chair, deep in thought. At length she
brightened with a smile of accomplishment. "I have it! Baron Mumford was
complaining to me only last Saturday night of the loss of a governess he'd
engaged for his young twin daughters. As the two of you may not know—" she
gave them a quick look of appraisal "—then again, perhaps you do.... Well,
at any rate, I have had the chore, from time to time, of placing some of my
girls, those who haven't worked out for one reason or another, in various positions
in the houses of some of the gentry with whom I've— ah—had the pleasure of
becoming acquainted. With Ashleigh's background in academics—yes, Dorcas, I
know all about Monsieur Laforte and his able tutoring—it shouldn't be too
difficult to place her in the good baron's household. I'll write the dear
fellow today, and if he agrees—and I have no doubt of it—his written reply
will, I shall inform him, constitute a formal promise of employment for our
dear Ashleigh.... Well, what do you say?"

Dorcas
was quick to respond with a question of her own. "Madame, this Baron
Mumford, is he a decent sort? I mean... he won't be one t' compromise the dear
gel, will he?" Dorcas was hardly able to believe they'd won their case so
quickly with Madame, and her skepticism showed.

Madame
laughed and glanced at Megan. "Tell her, Megan, dear."

Megan's
low, throaty laughter joined Madame's. "Baron Mumford is completely under
the thumb of his dowager mother, his wife and his five daughters, all of whom
live with him in a henpecking order in which
he
is at the
bottom!
It's
the chief reason the poor man escapes and comes here whenever he can. No, rest
your fears on that one, Dorcas. Our gentle lass will be safe in such a
household."

"Well,
then, Madame, I guess 'tis settled," said Dorcas, rising. She gave her
employer a sheepish look. "Beg pardon fer our—our..."

"Tactics?"
questioned Madame as she escorted them to the door. She laughed. "Never
mind, Dorcas, I have every intention of allowing the two of you to make it up
to me—in spades! And you can begin by preparing me a dinner of roast swan with
truffles for tomorrow evening. I'm expecting none other than His Royal
Highness, the prince regent, for dinner."

"Prinny?
Here?" questioned Megan with a show of mild surprise. "But I thought
he was in Brighton."

"He
was supposed to be," replied Madame, "but some recent antics of his
despicable German wife have sent him into a major depression, and I, as a dear
old friend, have offered to help him shake it off. Dinner will be served at
nine, Dorcas. Do not fail me."

"No,
Madame," murmured the cook. She disappeared down the hallway muttering
about where on earth she was to come by decent truffles on such short notice.

When
both women had gone, Madame rang for her tea before settling back into the
chair she had recently vacated, her thoughts filled with visions of Ashleigh
Sinclair's perfect features.

A
pity,
thought
Madame as she rearranged the skirts of her dressing gown.
She would have
made such a lovely whore.

 

CHAPTER
TWO

Ravensford
Hall, Kent, May 27th, 1814

 

John
Westmont sat in a sunny patch of light that warmed a bench beside a eucalyptus
tree in the conservatory of his country house, vainly trying to absorb enough
of the heat from the sun's rays to warm his withered frame. It had been a long
time since he had felt truly warm inside his aging bones, and he realized that
he would never feel warm again. He was dying, and he had known it for some time
now, despite the empty words of consolation offered by his physicians.

Well,
no matter,
he
thought to himself in what was becoming a familiar attitude of philosophical
reflection.
I have done what was necessary to ensure the safety and
continued health of the dukedom. Brett is all I could have hoped for, I can go
to my grave in peace, and—

The
opening of the conservatory door interrupted the duke's ruminations, and he
looked up to see Lady Margaret approaching; spying her tall, spare frame, he
could not help admiring the manner in which his twin carried the weight of her
years. They'd both turned seventy-eight last November, yet where time had left
John's body shrunken and racked with pain, it had done little to denote the
same passage of years in his sister. She walked toward him now, as lean and
straight-backed as she'd ever been, with a mildly lined face that could have
belonged to a woman twenty years younger.

Annoyed
with himself that he should be feeling a twinge of envy at this, he made an
effort at clearing his throat, as if by the action he could clear his mind, and
glanced up at his sister. "Well, what news?"

"He's
home," replied Margaret. "His carriage just came up the drive, and
I've instructed James to have him come to the library once he's settled in his
chambers, in about half an hour." She waited a moment, giving her
brother's face a careful scrutiny. "Those
were
your instructions,
were they not?"

"Yes,
yes," answered her twin with an impatient gesture. "Now, help me up
and to the library. I want to be behind my desk when he arrives."

As
Margaret did his bidding, handing him his cane and offering her arm as well,
John asked himself whether he was being foolish in attempting to disguise his
state of health from Brett. It wouldn't be long before the lad found out
anyway. He allowed a small smile to crease his withered lips.
He's hardly a
tad anymore. Though I haven't laid eyes on him in over ten months, I can
picture him as well as if he'd stood by my side yesterday... tall and
strapping, with a healthy bronze color to his skin from all that seafaring....
Ah, Brett, I've missed you, boy!

Margaret
led him to the library with slow, measured steps, stopping frequently to allow
him to catch his breath and recoup his strength, but even so, he arrived at his
desk exhausted and paler than before, and they barely had enough time to secure
a lap robe about his lower torso when a firm knock at the door signaled Brett's
arrival.

"Come
in!" called the duke, trying to sound heartier than he'd felt in months.

BOOK: Sattler, Veronica
12.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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