The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match (10 page)

BOOK: The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match
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Like a little boy with a blister on his foot: a blister that went unnoticed until it was too late.

She gazed at him silently, while the angry lines flattened from her face. As if she were somehow reading that last thought, which had gone unsaid.

“I see,” she whispered.

He said, as gently as he could, as
steadily
as he could, though his voice wanted very much to shake, “And do you understand, my dear, why I wish you to take the greatest possible care in your dealings with Miss Harris?”

She removed her arm from his grasp, but she didn't step away. He could still smell the orange-blossom scent of her skin, the hint of wine on her breath. She was still so close to him.

“I understand what I have understood from the beginning of this voyage, sir. What I've understood since the moment my late husband's will was read before me, leaving me with nothing. I have no one to trust but myself, no one to rely on except myself and God. My personal inclinations”—her voice wavered, her gaze slipped for an instant to his lips—“my personal inclinations, least of all.”

She turned to leave.

“Mrs. Schuyler,” he said. “Penelope.”

“Yes, sir?” She faced the door, hand on the knob.

“No one will harm you aboard this ship. I promise you that.”

She opened the door and stepped into the corridor.

“How kind, Your Grace,” she said, and shut the door behind her.

Day Four

SS
Majestic

At sea

Penelope was not surprised when, five minutes after she tucked herself underneath a woolen blanket on the lee side of the promenade deck, another deck chair appeared at her side in a clatter that brooked no objections.

She sighed and picked up her book. “Good morning, Mr. Penhallow.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Schuyler.” The Duke of Olympia sank into the deck chair and arranged a blanket over his long legs. “You were waiting for me, I see. Has the sun risen? I can hardly tell, behind all that cloud.”

“I was
not
waiting for you,” she said, but as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she caught the familiar scent of him, the sweetness of his shaving soap and the spice of his cigar, and she realized, heart tingling, that she had been.

Waiting for him, on the lonely promenade deck at dawn.

“I've brought champagne,” he said.

Day Five

SS
Majestic

At sea

“Admit it,” said the duke. “You take almost as much enjoyment from these clandestine meetings as I do.”

“Oh, is
that
what you call them? Clandestine meetings? I regard them as unfortunate encounters I can't politely avoid.”

They were making their way up the promenade deck at the end of the evening, bundled up beyond recognition. The duke was wearing his brown whiskers, but they weren't really necessary: nobody else was so hardy (or so foolish) as to brave the wind and the chill, which weren't quite so fierce as they had been the night of the gale, but still enough to deter the pampered denizens of the first-class cabin.

Except her. Except Penelope and Olympia. Her arm lay in his, but only for safety. She would draw it away, as she always did, when they reached the door to the deckhouse.

“Nonsense,” he said. “Nobody could possibly lure
you
into a meeting you didn't desire. I'm easily avoided.”

“Easily avoided? You turn up everywhere I go. I might as easily avoid breathing.”

He shrugged. “I did promise, after all.”

“Promise what?”

“To keep you from harm. In any case, if you wish to avoid my company, you have only to stay in your cabin.”

“I won't allow you to change my habits.”

They had reached the end of the deck and turned around to stagger back down. As always, the duke took the seaward side, protecting her from the spray and the worst of the draft, like a giant silver-haired bulwark.

“Besides,” he said, “you like my company.”

“I endure your company.”

“You haven't had so much rational and sympathetic conversation in years, with a person someone so near you in intellect and character.”

“Character! I should hope not.”

They walked on a few more steps before he answered her. “The great crime is what has been wasted in you. You should have been traveling the world, feeding your exceptional mind, instead of putting yourself at the beck and call of a Mrs. Morrison.”

“That sort of thing requires both money and daring, neither of which I possess.”

“Oh, I think you have plenty of daring, Mrs. Schuyler. You have so much potential, it alarms me nearly as much as it excites me.”

She didn't reply to that. How could she? Such an improper thing to say.

But she thought about it. She returned early to her cabin—Ruby hadn't yet returned from her evening visit to her parents' stateroom—and lay fully dressed on her back in her brass-framed bed and thought about what the Duke of Olympia had said.

You have plenty of daring.

You have so much potential.

The great crime is what has been wasted in you.

A knock sounded on the door.

Penelope swung her feet to the floor and padded across the carpet. “Who is it?” she asked, through the door.

“Mrs. Morrison, dear.”

She opened the door. “Is something the matter? Where's Ruby?”

“Oh, she's back in the stateroom, having a nice cozy with her father. I just wanted to steal out for a moment and
thank
you, dear Mrs. Schuyler.”

Penelope regarded the matronly figure before her, a comfortable cushion of a woman, still draped in her evening silks. She stood near the dresser and waved away the invitation of a chair. Her round face shone with smug pleasure.

“Thank me?” Penelope asked.

Mrs. Morrison placed a bejeweled hand on the brass bedpost. “I'm so pleased with the way everything's turning out. The duke is just
enthralled
by her, don't you think?”

“So it appears.”

“And I appreciate how you've stayed away, letting them get
on
with it without any distractions. It's—well, it's a very kind and generous thing to do, for a woman in your
position
.” There was something in Mrs. Morrison's left hand, hidden among the undulations of silk. She revealed it now, holding a paper forth to Penelope: a banker's draft.

“What's this?”

“Five hundred dollars. Just a little token of our appreciation. Take it! You can change it in London and buy yourself a few nice things.” Mrs. Morrison smiled widely at her own generosity. Five hundred dollars to a humble companion! What a liberal patron.

Penelope looked down at the check, pinched between Mrs. Morrison's thumb and her first finger, on which an emerald and diamond ring of several carats wedged into the space between knuckle and joint. The words
five hundred dollars
wobbled like a ribbon in the slight shake of Mrs. Morrison's hand. Penelope tasted bile at the back of her mouth.

“How kind,” she said softly, “but I'm afraid I can't accept this. It's far too much for a woman in my position, and in any case, I have only ever done what I thought best for Ruby. No reward is possible, other than seeing her happy.”

“Come on.” Mrs. Morrison shook the paper at her. “Take it. That's a very nice sentiment, but Mr. Morrison and I agreed you should have it. After all, it wouldn't do for you to appear at all Ruby's bridal functions in—well.” She stroked a contemptuous gaze along Penelope's figure.

Penelope folded her hands behind her back. “Thank you so very much, but it is impossible for me to accept such a sum.”

Mrs. Morrison heaved her bosom like a bellows, releasing a withering sigh. She folded the check neatly and placed it on the dresser. “There you are. Take it or leave it. I'm off to bed.”

“Good night, Mrs. Morrison.”

The woman turned and swished to the door, where she paused to tap her finger on the handle.

“Yes, Mrs. Morrison? You had something else to say?”

“Well, it's nothing, really. But I happened to catch sight of you the other night, coming off the deck with a gentleman companion.”

“Yes. Mr. Penhallow. He's from Buffalo.”

“It's none of my business, I guess, since my Ruby wasn't around. You have a right to your own affairs, in your own time. But I feel obliged to offer you a little warning, Mrs. Schuyler.” She smiled, in the manner of a woman who feels no happiness in her duty. “These little shipboard connections, they're just convenience, at least on the man's side. I hope you don't think this Mr. Penhallow means anything by it.”

“What excellent advice, Mrs. Morrison. I am so grateful for your wisdom in the matter.”

“Yes, well, I think I know a little bit about men. They're like children, you know. They'll play with whatever toy's at hand. But a woman in your position can't be too careful. Of course you know that.”

“Of course. Good night, Mrs. Morrison.”

“Good night, Mrs. Schuyler. I'll send Ruby over as soon as I get back.”

The door opened, and Mrs. Morrison swept through, a bit like the
Majestic
herself. There was a whoosh of air, smelling like rosewater and talcum powder, and when it subsided Penelope went to the dresser and picked up the folded check that lay by Ruby's ivory-handled hairbrush.

Five hundred dollars. Enough to make her grateful, even awed at the generosity of her benefactors. Enough to give a thirsty woman a little taste of luxury, but not enough to make her independent. Heavens no! Five hundred dollars: the perfect little present to keep Penelope Schuyler in thrall.

She grasped the paper in the center and tore it in two, and then she went on tearing until the check lay in minuscule pieces in her palm, and she emptied every one of them into the wastebasket.

Later, when she and Ruby had undressed for bed and brushed each other's hair and turned out the lights, Penelope stared at the black ceiling and heard the Duke of Olympia whisper, over and over, against her inner ear:

You have plenty of daring.

You have so much potential.

The great crime is what has been wasted in you.

He only wants you for a mistress, she reminded herself, and probably not even that. Probably he just wants to seduce you into giving him the papers.

Damn them all. Damn every last one of them, the duke included, even Margot de Sauveterre included. None of them saw her as a person in her own right, did they? They saw her only in relation to themselves, as a thing to be used. A woman from whom a certain measure of juice could be extracted, like an orange, and then discarded.

But why should she care if the duke's intentions were honorable? Why should she care what the world might think, if she accepted his invitation? She found him attractive. She wanted to know what it might be like, to share his bed. She also had a mission to carry out, in which the duke blocked her way like a giant aristocratic boulder. So why shouldn't she use him as he meant to use her?

A few feet away, Ruby stirred and turned on her side, letting out a few short snores as she settled herself back into slumber. Ruby, who so fearlessly took her future in her own hands, not giving a damn what her parents wanted from her.

Penelope had spent twenty barren years following the strictures Society laid out for a penniless widow. She was past childbearing age. She had no one to answer to, except herself. Nothing to lose, except a small and precarious place in a world that didn't give a damn for her. A family that didn't give a damn for her.

Why not commit an act of unthinkable daring?

Or, as the saying went, to have her cake and eat it, too.

Day Six

SS
Majestic

At sea

When Penelope arrived back in her stateroom at half past seven the next the morning, in an energetic swirl of salt and ozone, she found Ruby already awake, sitting at the dressing table and brushing her hair. Penelope shut the door carefully behind her. Ruby, still gazing into the mirror, cast Penelope a wise glance from the corner of her eye.

“How was your lover this morning?” she asked.

“My
lover
?”

Ruby swiveled around, brush in hand. Her mouth wore a wide and conspiratorial smile. “A little birdie told me you've been gadding about on the sly with a very attractive gentleman.”

Penelope removed her damp coat and hung it on the hook by the door. Her hat followed, pin by pin. “You must mean Mr. Penhallow. He's a friend, that's all. A man from Buffalo. We share an interest in geography.”

“And in walking the decks at all hours, in all weather.”

“Yes, in fresh air.” Penelope looked at her sternly. “I don't know what you're trying to imply, my dear, but you're quite wrong. It's a shipboard friendship, that's all. We'll part on the docks in two days, and never think of each other again.”

“You mean a day and a half.” Ruby turned back to the mirror and began to pin up her hair in expert jabs. She wore her chemise and petticoats, her shirt and her skirt. The expensive little jacket lay on the bed, ready to button up around her small waist. “Only a few more hours, Schuyler. You'd better make your move, or you'll be stuck with us Morrisons forever.”

Penelope picked up the brush and helped Ruby smooth her hair into place. “I can think of worse fates.”

But that was a lie. She heard the words again—
stuck with us Morrisons forever
—and a drab sepia-toned future appeared before her, filled with overstuffed chairs and overheated rooms and grubby little bank drafts.

Just a few minutes ago, she had parted from Olympia at the door to the promenade deck, and she had said:
You see? There's nobody after my papers except you.
And he had cupped a protective hand around her elbow and replied:
I assure you, my dear, they're only waiting for the chance to strike, the instant I let down my guard.

Waiting for the chance to strike.
The words should have filled her with alarm, but instead she'd felt a stringy and eager excitement. As if her life were about to begin.

“I'll miss you, of course,” Ruby went on, turning her young face this way and that. “You have to promise you'll stand godmother to our children, at least.”

“Whose children?”

“Mine and Robert's, of course. Who else?” Ruby gave her lips a last rub and rose from the stool, radiant and youthful, ready to take on breakfast in the grand saloon. Her hazel eyes went sharp at the corners, in an expression that might have meant mischief, or else determination. The two were so indistinguishable in the young. “I've finally figured out what Mama fears most.”

***

The Duke of Olympia, that impervious monument of the British nation, confidant of queens and prime ministers, uncle of rulers, builder of nations, landlord of thousands, spymaster, father, grandfather, had never been so frustrated by a single human being.

He fastened his watch chain to his pocket and examined his face in the mirror. The cheeks and chin were still rather pink from the adhesive—whiskers did not stay on by themselves—but nobody on board the SS
Majestic
ever dared to examine him too minutely.

Except for Penelope.

Under ordinary circumstances, he would have delegated her protection to someone else and spent his own valuable time and skills on the more stimulating task of unmasking the villains who were after the papers she carried. (Naturally, he didn't count himself among the villainous.) One might say he had developed something of a specialty in this line: matching up a certain splendid woman with a certain ideal champion, inevitably resulting in the kind of saccharine emotional display that the duke tried at all costs to avoid, whenever he could.

In this case, however, he had no agent available to take on the duties of the lady's bodyguard. What was more, he had no desire to find one. He was, he realized mournfully, quite happy to follow Mrs. Penelope Schuyler about the ship from dawn until midnight, flirting dutifully with her charge while keeping a beady eye set on Penelope's comings and goings, her breakfast and lunch and tea and dinner, her morning strolls and afternoon parlor games, her smiles and arch looks and concentrated frowns.

Like now, for example.

She was talking with Miss Harris, exactly and expressly against his orders. He knew this because she had just sent him one of those arch looks over Miss Harris's sturdy shoulder, daring him to break up the tête-à-tête.
Aren't I naughty,
that look said, quite plainly, and while Olympia's mouth continued to trade bland little witticisms with Miss Morrison, he really wanted to march across the length of the deck, snatch Mrs. Schuyler by the hand, and take her inside to Stateroom A to show her what naughtiness really was.

Miss Harris, meanwhile, droned on as if she didn't notice a thing. He could hear her voice all the way down the deck, above Miss Morrison's happy chirp: a low, flat monotone rumbling that could only be conveying a subject of irretrievable dullness. He'd become familiar with that voice over the past few days, pleading for butter a few yards down the table at mealtimes, popping up here and there in the various corners of the first-class accommodation. He knew its accent, its intonations, the little squeak at its upper end when the owner forgot herself in a description of the growth cycle of Florida mosquitoes.

It was not, however, Miss Dingleby's voice.

He had given up that possibility as soon as he'd gotten a better look at her, over breakfast. He knew every square inch of his onetime protégé, and there were certain personal characteristics that even the canniest student of disguise couldn't mask. No, this woman wasn't Miss Dingleby.

To be sure, there
was
something familiar about Miss Harris. The set of her shoulders, maybe, or the unwholesome, twangy timbre with which she uttered the words—

“Do we have a deal, Your Grace?”

Olympia blinked and returned his gaze to the agreeable landscape of Ruby Morrison's face. “I beg your pardon?”

A petulant sigh. “Haven't you been listening to me at all, sir?”

“Of course I have. Something to do with safety.”

“The safe, sir! I'll get you those papers from the safe.”

Olympia removed his handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes, which stung from the salt wind. Also, to cover his shock. “Papers, Miss Morrison? I'm afraid I don't know what you mean.”

“Now, don't tell me you don't remember the papers my dear Mrs. Schuyler gave me to put in the ship's safe.”

He replaced the handkerchief and snapped his fingers. “Ah, yes. There was some fear that your cabin had been burgled.”

“A little birdie told me you'd like to get your hands on those papers yourself, and—as I said—I'm perfectly willing to fetch them for you, in exchange for just the smallest wee little favor.”

“What favor is that, Miss Morrison?”

She leaned forward, eyes sparkling. “The use of your stateroom tomorrow evening.”

“Miss Morrison!” He put his hand on his heart. “I am shocked, shocked to the core.”

“No, you aren't. We both know it's the only way. My mother would do anything to avoid scandal, and if I were to be . . . well, if Robert were to . . . and then nature takes its course . . .” She dropped her gaze to the buttons of his overcoat. Her cheeks were already pink from the sea breeze, or she would have blushed.

“Miss Morrison. Do you mean to say that you wish Mr. Langley to . . . that is, to put you in the family way?”

“Yes! I mean, only because Mama hasn't left me any choice.”

“Mr.
Langley
?”

“I've heard your stateroom is the most private and luxurious on the ship. I'm sure, with a little champagne, he'll give up his silly notions about what's proper. It will be just like a wedding night, don't you think?” She was still staring at his buttons. As well she should. Was he really so benign and harmless that she would talk to him freely about
wedding nights
?

It was the American in her, he decided. No doubt these young ladies were taught all manner of indelicate subjects in the schoolroom.

He decided to return her frankness.

“But you do realize that the odds are not in your favor? A single night?”

“I don't understand.”

“I mean that, nature being what it is, the miracle of conception is quite often not so easily achieved as that. In fact, in my own experience, life often requires repeated urging to bring about.”

Ruby's beautiful brow took on a puzzled line. “But . . . well, that doesn't make sense. In all the books—”

“Reality, I'm afraid, bears little resemblance to novels. Which is why we read them.” Olympia lifted his chin and gazed off toward the horizon. The weather had steadied over the past two days, but the ocean was still fitful, the sky still steel-gray and liable to tantrum. The scent of ozone lay heavily in the air, like a warning.

A little birdie told me.
Which birdie was that? Mr. Langley, perhaps?

The frustration rose up in him again. Since the apparent burglary of the Morrison-Schuyler cabin—in which nothing had, in fact, been taken—Olympia had detected no sign whatever of any other interested party on board the
Majestic
. He had searched Miss Harris's stateroom, part of a suite with Miss Crawley, and found nothing suspicious or revealing. He had contrived to inspect Mr. Langley's small cabin in the second-class section, and seen nothing but what an ordinary love-struck chap might pack in a very great hurry: hair pomade, two suits, and a few changes of shirt and underclothes. If some other person lurked about the ship, trying to reach Mrs. Schuyler's papers, he or she remained frustratingly out of sight.

“Let us return the subject of the papers, Miss Morrison. I confess I'm at a loss. Who is this feathered friend of yours?”

“I'm not telling.” She set her lips in a playful line and looked back up at his face.

“I could make you tell me.” Whisper-soft.

She laughed. “How funny! Say that again, in just that tone.”

God help him. And just when he'd been looking forward to reaching dry land again, where he could nick the portfolio easily from Mrs. Schuyler's amateur grasp and set about the far more agreeable business of getting the lady to forgive him for it. Now Miss Morrison had decided to upset his neat, efficient plan with an alternative.

Well, he wouldn't do it, by God.

He turned to her with his most grandfatherly gaze, the kind that should return any reckless young lady to a proper notion of decorum. “My dear Miss Morrison,” he said. “I'm afraid I cannot allow myself to become party to such an immoral transaction as the one you propose.”

Miss Ruby Morrison smiled and patted him fondly on the arm, as one did to the senile. “Excellent! Tomorrow evening, then. If you can manage to leave behind a bottle of iced champagne and a dish of strawberries, I'd be most obliged.”

God help him. He really
was
losing his touch.

***

“I am not, by nature, a teller of tales,” said the Duke of Olympia, as they walked along the promenade deck that evening, arm in arm, like an old married couple. “But I feel compelled to inform you that your charge is contemplating an act of extraordinary indiscretion.”

“I'm shocked,” Penelope replied serenely.

“You don't wish to know the details?”

“I'm sure your sense of gentlemanly honor will forbid you to tell me. Anyway, if she's told you about it, you have the power to stop her yourself.”

Olympia responded with a harrumph that would probably have appalled his younger self. Or so she imagined; she could picture him as a strapping young man, setting out to conquer the world, rich and handsome and brilliant and impatient. Not a single harrumph would have passed those youthful male lips. Of course, he wouldn't have given her a second glance then. If it weren't for the forced intimacy of shipboard life, he wouldn't be giving it to her now.

“There's another thing,” he said. “I am not convinced that Mr. Langley is quite what he seems.”

“Oh, for heaven's sake. First you suspect poor Miss Harris of being an enemy agent, and now it's Mr. Langley. I suppose next you'll be accusing Mrs. Morrison.”

He paused and turned his face to the moonlight. “Now, there's an idea. The disguise is flawless, after all.”

The clouds had begun to lift after dinner, and the sky was now partly clear, though the ocean still twitched around them. The air was cold but less damp, and for the first time they had a few other bodies for company out on the promenade deck at eleven o'clock post meridiem. Nobody seemed to pay them any attention, however. Olympia wore his brown beard and hat; Penelope was bundled from head to toe, leaving only her eyes and cheekbones to face the world. They reached the end of the deck, near the bow, and instead of turning to walk back down, Olympia led her to the rail.

“Two more days,” he said.

“One and a half.”

“And I'm gratified beyond measure, Mrs. Schuyler, that you've chosen to spend them amicably with me, instead of seeing me as an enemy to be avoided at all costs.”

“Oh, I see you as an enemy, all right. But there's no reason we can't fraternize comfortably anyway. Business is business, after all, while . . .” She let her words drift softly on the wind and lifted her face to meet his.

“Pleasure is pleasure?”

Her heart began to smack against her ribs. His eyes were so blue, even here in the darkness, lit only by one of the nearby electric bulbs on its string. An act of unspeakable daring. Could she do it? So easy, wasn't it, to be brave in the comfort of one's stateroom. Here on the promenade deck, in the chill and intimate evening, faced with the physical reality of an enormous and all-powerful duke—well, could she do it?

BOOK: The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match
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