The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match (5 page)

BOOK: The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match
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“Oh, what nonsense,” said Miss Morrison. “Doesn't he talk nonsense?”

“Indeed,” said Mrs. Schuyler, who hadn't lowered her eyelashes a millimeter. She watched him instead as a sleek black pussycat, without blinking, without even moving. Altogether too patient.

“I think the duke speaks with great eloquence,” said Mrs. Morrison, “and it reminds me that I haven't yet told you the rest of my story, about the liner to Paris, oh, what was the name of that—”

The Duke of Olympia turned to Ruby. “Miss Morrison, perhaps you will favor me with your company for a moment or two. I should like to point out to you the numbering of the lifeboats, in case you missed a detail or two during the drill. I find one's attention wanders rather dangerously during these formal exercises, and yet, when you consider the matter, one's life—or the lives of one's less-nimble companions—might very well hang in the balance.”

“Sir,” Ruby said prettily, taking his arm, “I should like nothing more in the world.”

He swept her away, but not before experiencing the keen satisfaction of Mrs. Schuyler's disapproving gaze striking him neatly between the eyebrows.

***

“They do make a handsome couple, don't they?” said Mrs. Morrison, gazing at the two figures against the opposite rail.

Like grandfather and granddaughter,
Penelope thought.

“Yes, very handsome.” She drummed her fingers on the rail, calculating how many minutes of Mrs. Morrison's preening she would be forced to endure.

“It would be a shame, don't you think, if the duke were to find himself distracted, after such a promising start.”

Penelope's fingers stilled on the rail. “Distracted?”

“Oh, by some other woman, I mean. There are so many older women on board, you know.
Designing
women. Horrid things. The kind that might see a chance for a bit of excitement. Or
profit
. You know how these women can be, don't you, Mrs. Schuyler? Never minding that they might ruin an innocent girl's chances of being settled in life. And of course, men being men . . .” Mrs. Morrison shrugged her comfortable shoulders. “They sometimes prefer the
easier
course, even if it isn't the most
picturesque
. If you know what I mean.”

“I'm afraid I don't,” Penelope said icily. “I have no experience in such matters.”

“Oh, of course not. Heavens, no. You're not that kind of woman
at all
. If you were, we would
never
have taken you in the way we did, ha, ha.” Mrs. Morrison made a few more brittle, high-pitched chuckles, and then went on. “Now, of course, if Ruby were to marry well, we'd be so
grateful
to you. My goodness, you wouldn't want for anything. In fact, I'm sure I could persuade Mr. Morrison to set aside a little something for you. A very nice present of some kind, something to make you quite comfortable, as you head into your declining years.” She put a kind little emphasis on the word
declining
.

“How thoughtful.”

“Or maybe Ruby would take you with her. She so adores you. I'm sure she would love to have your advice as she gets on in married life.” A giggle, so sharp. “And I can see the dear duke likes you already. He wouldn't object, I'm sure, once he saw the advantages of the situation.”

“I think you're mistaken about the duke, Mrs. Morrison.”

“Oh, I don't think so.” The woman put her hand on Penelope's cheek and turned it gently toward her. “I think I know that look in a man's eye.”

Mrs. Morrison's own eyes had a look of their own, right there in the middle of her soft, round, pink-cheeked face. They were hard and flat enough to step on.

“There is no look, Mrs. Morrison,” Penelope said gently. “I think you must be imagining things.”

A smile formed at the ends of Mrs. Morrison's plump mouth. “I'm so glad to hear that, Penelope dear. We do love you so much.”

“Laura! Laura, darling! There you are!”

Mrs. Morrison's eyes softened instantly. She dropped her hand from Penelope's cheek and turned, arms outstretched toward a pair of white-clad matrons of a certain stout age. The women greeted one another with the usual squeals and cackling and pecking. After a decent interval, Penelope made her way forward, where the draft was more brisk, and leaned her torso over the railing as far as it would go. If the wind thundered loudly enough in her ears, perhaps she wouldn't hear the happy trill of Ruby's laughter—so witty, the Duke of Olympia—or the incessant rattle of Mrs. Morrison's chatter, delivering the promising news to her friends.

Not that she was in any way
jealous
. Goodness, no! Mrs. Morrison was quite right. Dukes were designed for heiresses, and dependents were designed for . . . well, for no one at all, really. Themselves. For small adventures, like the one that had fallen her way two days before departure, when she had just finished arranging the packing of the trunks, and was looking forward to an hour's unremarkable conversation with an old friend over tea at the Plaza Hotel.

Which had turned out to be not so unremarkable, after all.

Still, it was an indignity, to be spoken to like that by a woman like Mrs. Morrison. As if she hadn't been avoiding such snares since she first found herself in the position of a penniless yet still attractive widow. As if she didn't know exactly how much stock to put in the Duke of Olympia's idle and fleeting regard, if it even existed.

She thought of the portfolio in her trunk, and the conversation with the duke in the deckhouse last night. “I warn you,” Madame de Sauveterre had said, “there may well be others on board this ship, seeking to know the contents of these papers, and I implore you above all not to draw any suspicion to yourself. Do not, I say, let a single person know of this matter.” And then, leaning forward, blinking her beautiful gray eyes with rapture: “Secrecy is of the gravest importance,
ma vielle chère amie
. You must trust no one, do you hear me?
No one
is to know that you have received these papers.” And finally, sitting back again, smiling with that peculiarly French satisfaction, sipping her tea: “You are such a dear little widowed mouse, of course, no one would suspect you in ten thousand million years. You have the perfect . . . what is the word?”

Cover,
Penelope had said, a little sadly, but a little thrillingly, too, because—

“Miss Morrison, isn't it?”

Penelope turned in aggravation. As a rule, she didn't allow herself to be snuck up on, not since her husband's death, which had made her feel as if life would never be secure again. She had developed all kinds of watchful habits, large and small, in an attempt to regain that firmness of ground beneath her feet, and none had succeeded. Still, to be snuck up on! She could only blame her deep desire to separate herself from the people on deck.

“Yes?” she said, in her most unwelcoming voice. But she softened by the time she reached the
s
, because the intruder was only Miss Crawley's ugly attendant, whose circumstances in life seemed even grimmer than her own. That unfortunate nose! At least Penelope still possessed the nose of her youth, an elegant line that had seemed too severe when she was nineteen, but into which she had grown, as one eventually grew into cheekbones and a strong jaw, so unsuitable on a debutante.

“I was hoping to find you alone,” said the attendant, holding out her hand. “I'm Harriet Harris.”

“Penelope Schuyler.” She shook the woman's hand. “You're with Miss Crawley, aren't you?”

A long-suffering sigh, one familiar to Penelope. “Yes. Our third ocean voyage this year.”

“Oh, I wouldn't mind that. I enjoy travel.”

“Yes. You look like the sort who does.” Miss Harris regarded her critically through those bottle-thick spectacles that made her eyes seem twice as large and rather alarmingly goggly, like an overgrown blue-eyed insect. “I understand we have a mutual friend.”

“Do we?”

“Yes. An acquaintance back in New York. Madame de Sauveterre?”

The coincidence was so sudden, Penelope struggled not to start. “I beg your pardon?”

“Margot de Sauveterre. We went to school together, many years ago. The Hellenic Academy, in Switzerland. I believe you attended as well?” She pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose. “I was older than Margot by a few years, and you were younger. I don't think our paths ever crossed.”

“How extraordinary.” It would be pointless to deny the connection, wouldn't it? Pointless and even suspicious. “I must confess, I don't remember you. Harris, did you say?”

“Harriet Harris. We never met.” She leaned a lank elbow on the railing. “I would have remembered.”

“But it's always a great pleasure to meet a fellow Academian. Are you and Madame de Sauveterre close friends?”

“Not all that close, no. Our circumstances, of course, are so different.” Miss Harris made a deprecating gesture. “I never married, and she—well.”

“Yes. I attended her wedding in Paris. A prince, my goodness! She certainly outshone us all.”

“I wasn't invited. I am a bastard, you see, and while my father's money could buy me an education at the finest Swiss academy, it couldn't buy me an invitation to the wedding of the Prince de Sauveterre.”

“But surely Margot—”

Miss Harris shrugged. “Oh, she couldn't help it. And we weren't bosom friends or anything like that, so there was no reason to remember me. Anyway, I was back in New York by then. We only met up again recently. I had no idea she was living stateside.”

“Her husband's death, of course.”

“Very tragic.” Miss Harris levered herself off the railing and adjusted her battered straw hat, which had become a little lopsided in the draft. The ash-brown hair beneath crackled with static electricity. “Anyway. Just thought I'd say hello. Raise the flag for old Hellenic.” She lifted her fist.

Penelope lifted her own. “Hurrah.”

“I'll see you again at lunch, I expect. We're on B deck, stateroom twelve. If you want to find me, that is.” Miss Harris managed a dour grin and turned away. Her plain navy skirt was a little crumpled and over-mended beneath an ill-cut jacket that didn't quite match. From across the deck, Miss Crawley's voice carried toward them like a screeching gull, and Penelope realized she was shouting Harriet's name.

The din quite drowned out the peal of Miss Ruby Morrison's well-dressed laughter as she stood elbow-to-elbow with the Duke of Olympia, tucked in the shadow between lifeboats nine and ten.

***

He tracked down his quarry in the library, that refuge of ladies aboard ship. She sat on one of the long sofas lining the massive table of opaque glass in the center of the room, reading a small leather-bound book that engrossed her so completely, she seemed not to notice his entrance at all.

He came to a stop before her. “Why, Mrs. Schuyler. What a pleasant surprise.”

She didn't look up. “Perhaps you expected to find me in the gentlemen's smoking room, sir?”

“No. But I understand there's a rousing game of charades taking place in the main saloon. Your young friend is carrying all before her.”

“I've never liked charades.”

He studied the part of her hair, neat and sharp in the exact center of her head. As if Moses himself had stood at the top of her forehead and commanded the angels to separate the two rich waves. “Neither have I.”

“Really, sir?” Mrs. Schuyler looked up at last, eyes bright, brows pointed with amusement. She laid a long finger in the crease of the book and closed it in her lap. “I had the impression that you enjoy such games above everything else.”

He flicked a speck of dust from his cuff. “I can't imagine why.”

She smiled. “To what do I owe this honor, sir? A summons from the Morrisons? I wouldn't have thought they'd dare to send you.”

“Americans will dare anything, I find. But no. I came of my own accord. May I sit?”

She made a gesture with her hand. They spoke in hushed library voices, even though the room was otherwise empty. The allure of charades, he supposed; God knew why. There was only one parlor game he enjoyed, and he was playing it now.

“My thanks.” He settled himself on the sofa, a few correct feet away. “Ah, what a relief.”

“A relief?”

“To sit down for a moment's conversation with someone rational.”

“Oh, Miss Morrison is pretty rational, most of the time.”

“Yes, for a girl of her age. But then, one knows everything one needs to know about her in five minutes.” He released a sigh of ennui.

“What's this? I thought the two of you were making progress.”

“Why, my dear Mrs. Schuyler. Dare I hope to detect a note of jealousy?”

“You can hope whatever you like, of course. You have the luxury of being able to make as much a fool of yourself as you please. I, however, do not, and I
hope
”—she allowed a little drawl on the word—“you'll remember that.” She made as if to rise.

“Tut, tut, Mrs. Schuyler. I had not the slightest intention of offending you.”

“You haven't. I'm simply not in any position to return the flirtation, however kindly it was meant. I haven't got any more relatives left to take me in, and the Morrisons aren't really all that bad.”

She was sincere, he realized. Absolutely sincere. There was nothing coy about the expression in her face, no amusement dancing in the eyes and all that. Perhaps a wry little twist to her mouth, which was full and a very pale pink, as if she'd been drinking lemonade.

Her brows began to take on a quizzical slant, as he remained helplessly silent.

“I'm a widow, you see,” she went on. “My husband lost everything in the late financial panic, and then he decided that wasn't enough, so he shot himself. He tried to make it look like a hunting accident, but the insurance men weren't fooled. So I'm what's called a dependent, though of course you knew that already. A pretty miserable thing to be, most would agree, but at least I knew what it was like to be otherwise, once. I know what happiness is, which is more than most people can say.”

BOOK: The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match
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