The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match (8 page)

BOOK: The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match
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“Don't go, Mrs. Schuyler.”

“Why not? You've had your fun.” She folded up the blanket and set it on the seat. Olympia was already rising from his chair, discarding his own blanket.

“I apologize,” he said. “If I gave you the slightest offense, I had no—”

“I'm not the least offended. You're only doing your job.”

He reached out his long arm and cupped her elbow. “That's not true.”

Penelope smiled. “Oh, you're very good, aren't you? You nearly had me, for a moment.”

The hand fell away. The blue eyes facing her seemed, inside their frame of whiskers and cap, to fill with remorse. All puckered up at the brows, all crinkling at the corners. Or maybe that was part of the game.

“I
am
so very sorry about your son,” she said. “If it's any comfort, at least you had him at all. At least, for seven years, he lived and breathed and belonged to you, and you loved him. I would have given anything, even for that.”

“Wait,” he said, in a choked voice—real, or pretended?—but she didn't stop to decide. She staggered up the deck, only to lurch sideways as she reached the door to the deckhouse, nearly colliding with a tall figure who clung to the railing.

“I beg your pardon,” she said, looking up, and then: “Oh! Miss Harris. Do excuse me.”

“Not all all,” said Miss Harris, moving aside. “In fact, I believe I'll duck inside myself.”

***

Miss Ruby Morrison lowered her splendid eyelashes and said, in a debutante's dulcet whisper, sweet and just slightly atremble, “I think we've got Mama good and skunked.”

“Skunked?” Olympia said delicately. They had finished breakfast an hour ago, and sat now in the library amid a cacophony of hushed female voices and febrile glances. Altogether the atmosphere was not to his liking, and the addition of skunks threatened to overpower his resolve entirely.

“Fooled, I mean. Just look at her.” She giggled. “She's already arranging the flowers in her head.”

“The denouement will be a bitter one, poor dear.”

“She deserves it.” Ruby looked back up at him, and by God she was beautiful, there was no denying that. Her eyelashes looked absolutely wet against her peachy skin. Would she have stirred him, thirty or twenty or even ten years ago? But even then he hadn't been interested in this sort of girl, even for play. Like his wife, he realized. Terribly pretty and a bit sly and knowing about her beauty, as if she didn't need to cultivate anything else. As if beauty and breeding were enough. As if she had somehow
earned
all this good fortune, instead of having it heaped on her so wantonly, by accident of birth and someone else's labor.
She deserves it.
Poor Mrs. Morrison, who only wanted the best for her daughter, as any mother—American or English—would.

He picked up Ruby's hand and ran his thumb along her knuckles, for the benefit of anyone watching. “I have delivered your reply to Mr. Langley. He returns his heartfelt regards.”

“What did he say?” she asked eagerly.

“The usual rubbish. Everlasting adoration. I stopped listening when my teeth began to ache.”

Ruby put her other hand to her heart. “Oh, Robert.”

“Indeed.
Oh, Robert.
And now I have a question for you, Miss Morrison.”

“Anything. You've been so very
selfless
, helping us like this.”

He coughed. “Yes, quite.”

“I don't know how we're ever going to repay you. What's your name?”

“My
name
?” As he might say,
The state of my bowels?

“So we can name our first child after you.” She blinked at him adoringly, the kind of adoration a little girl might have for her grandfather, and he thought,
My God, I'm ancient to her, aren't I? I'm a living fossil.

“I assure you, I neither desire nor expect such a—ahem—such an honor.” He paused. “I was hoping, in fact, for a word of advice.”

“Advice? From
me
?”

“Indeed. I was wondering if you or your family have had occasion to use the ship's safe this voyage. I've heard rumors of a cabin being burgled, and I should like to place a few valuables there. Nervous chap that I am, you see.”

Miss Morrison leaned forward. “Oh, but haven't you heard? The burgled cabin was ours!”


Yours!
Never say it.”

“Yes! Nothing was taken, however—Mama keeps all our jewels with her—but it gave Penelope an awful fright. She made me take a few papers to the safe for her. They were very nice, the officers who helped me. And the safe certainly looked sturdy enough.”

“My dear.” He pressed her hand. “What a terrible shock.”

“Oh, I think it's rather exciting. Fancy a burglar on board, traveling first class!” She looked furtively about the library, causing a number of heads to snap back virtuously to their books. “Just think, it might be any of them!”

“Do you think so? Not a rogue stewardess? Not someone sneaking in from second class or even”—he lowered his voice and shuddered—“
steerage?”

“Oh, I hope not. It's ever so much more delicious to find a burglar among us. Imagine a nobleman in disguise, plotting to steal our jewels to give to the poor.”

Olympia regarded her keen and innocent face as he might regard an alien species of flora. “Imagine,” he said.

“But I suppose it will turn out to be someone quite dull and predictable, like that Miss Harris.”

“Miss Harris?”

“Yes,” she said. “Miss Crawley's companion, the tall, thin one with the awful spectacles and the musty skirts. She's right over there, at the center table, writing a letter. Don't look.”

“I wouldn't dream of it.”

Miss Morrison leaned over for another one of her confidential whispers. “Would you believe she went to school with Penelope in Switzerland, all those years ago? And now she's reduced to wiping the crumbs from the folds of Miss Crawley's neck. I'll bet she wouldn't mind getting her sticky fingers on a diamond or two, to get a new start in life.”

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “Did you say she went to school in Switzerland with Mrs. Schuyler?”

“Yes. Isn't it amazing? Of course, that was
centuries
ago.”

“I don't suppose you happen to recall the name of this school, do you?”

She pressed a thoughtful finger against her chin. “Something Greek, I think.”

“The Hellenic?”

“Yes, that's it! You're so clever. Are you leaving?”

He gave her hand a squeeze and released it. “I'm afraid I have just recalled a very pressing engagement below. You will forgive me, Miss Morrison.” He turned and bowed to the assembled audience, who very industriously pretended to read. “Ladies. I believe you may now safely return to your studies.”

***

The second-class promenade deck perched at the bow of the ship, ahead of the first-class accommodation and taking a great deal more weather, especially on a day like today. Penelope had wound her thickest woolen scarf beneath her sturdy brown mackintosh, and still the wind and the spray seemed to lie against her skin as if she hadn't bothered at all. As if she were stark naked.

Which she wasn't, of course. Mrs. Penelope Schuyler would never do such a thing, even if the sun were hot and shining, unless she were on the other side of the world and quite alone. She dreamed of that, from time to time. A few years ago, she had scraped together the necessary five dollars to subscribe to a new society devoted to geographical study, and its journal now arrived faithfully every month on the Morrisons' doorstep, to be pored over at night, or during the placid afternoon when Mrs. Morrison and her daughter paid calls. She read the lush descriptions of Borneo and the Silk Road; she ran her fingers over the beautiful photographs and drawings. She imagined what it would be like, to leave the overstuffed baroque caverns of Fifth Avenue behind, the dirty New York streets, the country houses with their rigid etiquette and five daily changes of dress. To plunge one's unclothed body off a rock and into a tranquil turquoise lagoon in the South Pacific. Oh, the liberty of it!

She braced her hands on the railing and stared at the steel-gray horizon to the south. Somewhere above all that heavy cloud, the sun burned. Somewhere on the other side of that horizon, a vast geography teemed, a whole and beautiful Earth she had never seen.

“There you are, Mrs. Schuyler,” said a soft male voice, near her right shoulder. “Thank you for meeting me here. I hope it wasn't inconvenient?”

“It's very inconvenient, as well as unwise, Mr. Langley.” She refused to turn. “In fact, I think you've been very foolish altogether, stowing aboard the ship like this. I can't imagine what you hope to gain by it.”

“For one thing, I hope to prove to Ruby and to her parents that I'm just as game—that I'm just as worthy as any of her suitors.”

“A fine way to prove that, sneaking in and meeting her after dark. Sending messages back and forth.”

“You know about that?”

“I'm not stupid. I don't suppose you're going to tell me who's helping you.”

“Helping us?”

“You must have an accomplice. I can guess who he is.”

“Well,” said Robert, toeing the bottom of the railing, “that's really why I asked you to meet me here. I don't know if—I'm not sure—the thing is, I don't trust him!”

“The Duke of Olympia, you mean?”

Robert braced his hands next to hers. “Yes. There's something shifty about him. I can't put my finger on it, exactly, but—well, it's just a feeling I get, talking to him.”

“How curious. As if your blood is racing a bit too quickly in your veins?”

“Yes!”

“And your fingers tingle? Your hair rises on end? Your stomach goes all queasy and your head tilts?”

“Yes! Yes, exactly!”

“Then I suggest a glass of soda water and a rest. You are seasick, Mr. Langley.”

He hung his head. “You're making fun of me.”

“No, I'm not. But I think perhaps you should give up all this nonsense and approach Mr. and Mrs. Morrison in a sensible, up-front manner when we reach England. And for heaven's sake, stay away from the duke.”

“But he wants to marry her!”

“Does she want to marry him?”

“No!”

“Then you have nothing at all to worry about, Mr. Langley. Is that all? I'd really prefer to return to my cabin now. The weather's getting worse.”

He put one hand gently on her forearm. “One more thing.”

“Yes, Mr. Langley?”

“Ruby wrote in her note that your cabin was burgled yesterday.”

“Nothing was taken. In fact, I may have been mistaken altogether. I just thought some items might have been disturbed, that's all. Looking back, I was probably only overcautious.”

“But you had Ruby put some papers in the safe.”

Penelope tightened her grip on the railing. The weight of Robert's hand sank through the layers of mackintosh and wool, a little too heavy. She bucked her forearm suggestively, but he didn't seem to notice.

“Yes, I did. Our passports and things. Discretion is the better part of valor, they say.”

“To be honest, I don't trust these company safes, not for a second. I have a special locked trunk in my room. I'd be happy to take those papers and keep them safe for you.”

Penelope released the rail and drew away, and at last Robert's hand fell back to his side. “That's not necessary.”

“You don't understand, Mrs. Schuyler.” He turned to face her, almost forcing her from good breeding to do likewise. “I've heard there's a dangerous person on board the ship, some kind of anarchist.”

“What?”

“It's true! I heard the crew talking about it. What if that's the person who burgled your cabin?”

“In the first place,” Penelope said crisply, “I'm not at all sure my cabin was burgled. In the second place, I doubt this anarchist of yours would bother with two American ladies traveling to England as mere tourists. There must be some mistake.”

“There isn't!” He took her shoulders. “It's true! He's on his way to France, to commit some terrible act, and—”

“For heaven's sake, sir! Remember yourself!”

The hands dropped.

“I suggest you report this matter to the proper authorities, Mr. Langley, and I'm sure they will manage to stop this lunatic before any public harm is done.”

“But don't you see the danger? If the anarchist thinks you're involved somehow, he might do something to harm you or Ruby.”

“You're not making any sense at all, Mr. Langley. Why would this—this
person
, if he exists, think we're
involved
, as you put it?”

“But he obviously does, or he wouldn't have searched your cabin. You must give those papers to me, Mrs. Schuyler.” His brown-sugar eyes gazed at her imploringly. “You must allow me to protect you both.”

When Madame de Sauveterre had stopped by the new Morrison townhouse on Fifth Avenue and delivered the leather portfolio—a very ordinary thing, brown and a bit scuffed, the kind of portfolio in which a lady might keep her drawings or her travel papers—Penelope's pulse had throbbed so forcefully at the base of her neck, she could almost hear the rush of blood. “Can you at least give me some idea of what's inside?” she asked, fingering the edges reverently.

“You're welcome to look, of course,” her friend had said, smiling with her thin and inscrutable lips. “In fact, I expect you probably will—I know
I
would, in your place—but I'm afraid it's all in code.”

“So I'm to risk my safety for a few pieces of paper, without knowing what they contain?”

“That's the general idea, I'm afraid.” Madame de Sauveterre had sipped her tea, all serenity. “You simply have to trust me.”

BOOK: The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match
12.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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