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Susan Carroll (5 page)

BOOK: Susan Carroll
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Phaedra was seized by an impulse she could
not have explained, not even to herself. Her fingers shot upward,
tugging at the strings above the marquis's ear which held his mask
in place. The tie came undone, the mask fluttering to the
floor.

His lordship straightened, anger flashing in
his eyes. The anger passed quickly, leaving a cold stare in its
wake. Phaedra's breath caught in her throat at her first full view
of Armande's face. He was more handsome than she had supposed, with
high cheekbones and an aquiline nose. His brows were dark slashes
above those ice-blue eyes. But never had she seen any man's face so
dispassionate. He might well have still been wearing a mask.

"I am sorry," she said, "I fear my curiosity
got the better of me."

He said nothing, bending to retrieve the
mask. As he did so, his coat shifted, revealing a silver hilt of a
rapier that nestled beside the silk-shot folds of his pale blue
waistcoat.

Why had she not noticed the slender sheath
before? A tiny gasp escaped Phaedra as she stared at the hilt
devoid of all ornament, a stark bit of steel wrought for lethal
service, not fashion.

"Is something amiss, my lady?" With slow
deliberation, Armande refastened the mask about his face.

"I was but noticing your sword. So few
gentlemen wear them nowadays, especially not to a ball."

"The streets of your fair city are teeming
with danger for the unwary. I wear the sword.for protection. It
also provides an excellent deterrent for the overly curious."

Was that meant to be a warning to her?
Phaedra arched her neck and stared defiantly up at him. "Yes, I
daresay curiosity could be a nuisance to a man who had something to
hide."

Before she could prevent it, he cupped her
chin firmly between his long, powerful fingers. There was nowhere
else for her to look except into the hypnotic depths of those eyes
peering at her through the slits of the mask.

"Your grandfather described you to me as a
young woman with an excessively inquisitive nature. It would have
been far better if you had taken my advice and remained in Bath.
But now that you are here, I suspect you are intelligent enough to
understand me when I say how very much I dislike anyone trying to
interfere with my affairs."

Phaedra struck his hand aside. "As much as I
dislike anyone interfering with mine! So monsieur, I strongly
advise you to keep your opinions about widows to yourself and stay
away from my grandfather. Otherwise I might be obliged to-to-"

"Yes?" he prompted.

"To find some way to be rid of you," she
said,

For the first time that evening, Armande
smiled, a smile nowise reflected in the dangerous depths of his
eyes.

"How amusing," he drawled, in a voice silken
with menace. "I was thinking exactly the same thing about you."

Chapter Three

 

Phaedra stared at the playing cards in her
hand. Her eyes, bleary from lack of sleep, refused to focus, and
the morning breeze drifting through the open window did nothing to
clear her groggy senses. The library at Blackheath Hall, her
grandfather's house, was a small, narrow room set at the back of
the second floor. Sawyer Weylin could not see wasting any of his
grander apartments upon a set of rubbishy books. The closely packed
volumes that lined every available inch of wall space exuded a
strong odor of leather and dust. Even though it was but the first
of June and the hour not advanced past ten, the air was humid and
stuffy. The summer promised to be a hellish one.

Aye, it would be hellish indeed if she
continued to be afflicted with such dreams as had tormented her
last night. Every time she had closed her eyes, Phaedra had found
herself back in Lady Porterfield's ballroom, circling through the
steps of the dance with a silver-masked stranger. Sometimes she
would wrench away the mask to see a grinning death's head. But
other visions were worse. She would see Armande de LeCroix, his
blue eyes glinting with the intensity of a candle flame, his
seductive whisper ensnaring her in a silken web. His mouth had
sought hers, hot and moist.

It was fortunate, Phaedra thought, that she
had been able to force herself awake. No lady would have such
wicked dreams- which were all the more disconcerting because the
man was her avowed enemy, Varnais. Ewan had always told her that
she was possessed of a harlot's nature.

"Are you going to play that jack, my girl?" A
good-humored male voice with an Irish lilt broke into her
reflections. "You might be better advised to lay down your
queen."

With a start, Phaedra realized she was
holding her hand too low.

Leaning across the mahogany card table, her
cousin Gilly unabashedly perused her cards. She raised them and
directed a half-embarrassed glance at the young man sprawling in
the slender-legged Chippendale chair, which looked too fragile to
bear the weight of his lanky frame. How much of her shameful
thoughts had her cousin read upon her face?

Patrick Gilhooley Fitzhurst grinned at her,
flicking aside one of the strands of hair that drooped in front of
his twinkling green eyes. His riotous mass of brown curls defied
confinement in the queue he had attempted to form at the nape of
his neck.

"'Tis a fine hand you have there, I'm
thinking," he said. "Would to God it pleased you to play some of
it."

"I intend to, Gilly, if you would cease
interrupting me."

Re-sorting her hand, she tried to concentrate
on her game. But the vision of steely-blue eyes kept rising between
her and the cards. She kept remembering the marquis's final words
of warning: he would find a way to be rid of her if she pried into
his affairs. Of course, she had made the first threat, but she had
been angry and blustering. He had meant it. What sort of deadly
game must the man be playing, if the mere hint of a few questions
provoked such a response? Phaedra had a feeling that she would
never know a peaceful night's sleep again if she did not discover
the truth about de LeCroix.

"Phaedra!"

She started, almost dropping her cards. "Oh,
very well, Gilly."

She flung down a jack, little thinking what
she did. With a snort of disgust, Gilly trumped her, taking the
trick.

Phaedra strewed the rest of her cards across
the table. "You've won."

"Won, is it?" Gilly wrinkled his snub nose.
"For all the challenge you offer, I might as well have been playing
with my old grandmother, and herself half blind. Here, look at
this."

Phaedra watched as Gilly tugged one
threadbare cuff of his rateen frock coat, shaking it until several
aces dislodged from his sleeve, fluttering onto the table. "And you
not noticing a blessed thing! I thought I'd taught you better."

"And I thought you would have outgrown such
childish tricks." She began to gather up the cards, but she paused,
regarding him gravely. "Gilly, you have not been using these tricks
elsewhere. Not when really playing for money."

The jade eyes widened to the full extent of
their innocence.

"Now, by the grave of my sainted mother-"

"Gilly!"

He sighed, then stood up to remove his frock
coat, revealing the patched canvas work on the back of his worn
silk waistcoat. "There, now do I look as if I were making my living
fleecing gentlemen at cards?"

She smiled. "I do beg your pardon, Mr.
Fitzhurst."

"And so you should, my girl." He donned his
frock coat, adding, "You were such a gloom-faced chit this morning.
I only thought to amuse you by reminding you of the old days when
we used to play at being cardsharps. Lord, don't you remember how
we planned to run off together and live by our wits? We even
practiced picking pockets. That, of course, was only supposed to
sustain us until we saved enough for pistols and could take to the
High Toby."

"Yes, I remember. What dreadful, wicked
children we were."

She chuckled, but her laughter held a hint of
wistfulness in it. She remembered well the old days. Her Irish
days, she was wont to think of them. When she had run wild with
Gilly, barefoot down the dusty lanes like a pair of urchins,
scrumping apples from Squire Traherne's orchard, scaling trees as
if they were castle walls, galloping bareback across the meadows on
half-wild ponies. It was a wonder they both hadn't broken their
necks. Never again in her life had she felt so free.

Gilly, her mother's nephew, was all that she
had left of those days. Her English grandfather, angered by his
only son's elopement, had always hated her Irish mother. With both
her parents dead, Sawyer Weylin had done his best to sever all
Phaedra's connections with Ireland, but her affection for Gilly
proved too strong a bond even for the old man to break.

Phaedra became aware that Gilly had come
round the table to her side. His fingers, roughened from handling
the leather of his horses, chucked her lightly under the chin.

"Out with it, Phaedra, my girl. Sure and your
mind hasn't been on the cards. What's troubling you?"

She sighed. "It seems I have acquired an
enemy."

"The devil you say! And you, with your sweet,
gentle disposition. "

"I am serious, you rogue," Phaedra said,
although she was forced to bite back a smile. "What have you heard
of a man who calls himself de LeCroix?"

"Is it the Marquis de Varnais you're meaning?
Well, he appears to be far wealthier than me and I've heard half
the ladies in London would willingly cuckold their husbands in his
bed."

"Is that all you know of him?"

Gilly regarded one of his worn sleeve cuffs.
"The marquis and I do not exactly attend the same supper parties,
colleen."

"I would have also thought him to be above my
grandfather's touch, but apparently they have become boon
companions."

Phaedra's chair snagged on the thick
Axminister carpet as she shoved it back, rising to her feet. She
paced about the small chamber while she recounted for Gilly the
entire tale of her meeting with the Marquis de Varnais, beginning
with the nobleman's advice to Sawyer Weylin that she be kept in
Bath, and ending with a description of Armande's warning.

"And he as good as threatened to kill me if I
asked any more questions about him," she concluded.

To her disappointment, Gilly looked
unimpressed. He perched atop one corner of the library's heavy
desk, tapping a boot against the claw-foot leg in negligent
fashion.

"Astonishing." He exuded his breath in a long
low whistle.

"Not back in town but one night, and already
after picking a quarrel with someone. It must be the Irish in you,
my dear."

"It was far more than a quarrel. There is
something sinister about the marquis. The man is plotting some
mischief, and I have an intuition that it concerns both Grandfather
and myself."

"And you intend to make sure that it
does."

She glared at her cousin, but he disarmed her
with a smile.

"Admit it, Fae. You were piqued by this
meddling marquis, so you sought out the fellow and provoked him.
You've a devilish sharp tongue, enough to rouse a saint to
murder."

"It was nothing of the kind. But I cannot
expect you to comprehend. You were not there. You didn't dance with
him."

"Aye, and I don't suppose there's much
likelihood of his ever asking me to do so, either," was Gilly's
cheerful reply. "I think your marquis is simply too top lofty to
give an account of himself to anyone. My advice is to leave the man
alone. But I see from the mulish look on your face that you're not
about to do that."

"No, I'm not. I do not like those who intrude
themselves in my family. Nor do I like being threatened." Phaedra
stalked over to where Gilly perched upon the desk. "Despite your
marked lack of sympathy, I am glad you happened by this
morning."

"Happened by, is it? You had me summoned from
my bed at the crack of dawn."

Phaedra ignored this grumbling remark.
Instead, she leaned past her cousin, indicating the sheets of
parchment stacked on the desk behind him. "I have another delivery
for you."

Gilly glanced over his shoulder. The next
instant he leaped off the desk as though it had caught fire. His
air of nonchalance vanished, and he paled beneath his tanned
skin.

"Mother of God! Are you daft, woman, to be
leaving this about where any dim-witted housemaid might chance upon
it!"

Phaedra proceeded to gather up the sheets. "I
assure you, no one has been in here this morning but myself. I just
wrote it last night." She didn't add that the pages had been
scratched out here in the dismal hours before the dawn, when her
garret room was too hot and her bedchamber far too confined, far
too full of the Marquis de Varnais.

She ran a hasty eye over some of the
paragraphs, pleased to see that at least she had been coherent at
that hour. But she drew up short at the last page.

"Lud! I almost forgot my signature." She
reached for a quill pen, dipping it into the pot of ink. At the
bottom of the final sheet, she hastily scrawled the name, Robin
Goodfellow. The signature looked bold and masculine enough to fool
anyone, even her sharp-eyed publisher, Jessym. As she proceeded to
sprinkle sand to dry the fresh ink, Gilly peered over her
shoulder.

"What the deuce have you been writing about
this time?"

"Read it and see."

While Gilly edged himself atop the desk once
more and began his perusal, Phaedra picked up a blank sheet of
parchment and fanned herself with it. The front of her
loose-fitting sacque-style gown already felt uncomfortably damp and
clinging. She stalked over to one of the narrow window casements to
see if she could force it open further.

Sawyer Weylin's estate lay far north of
Piccadilly. The sprawling Palladian-style mansion was nestled in a
parklike setting, simulating a country gentleman's estate. But one
never quite escaped the reminders that the bustling city of London
was not far away. Phaedra crinkled her nose. Even out here, one
occasionally caught a whiff of the coal-smoke and that pungent odor
peculiar to the River Thames.

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