The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match (9 page)

BOOK: The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match
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“And it's nothing that would compromise the peace and security of the United States?”

“My dear! Of course not. Very much the opposite. I'm American, too, if you'll recall, and I will do anything in my power to further the alliance between my adopted country and the country of my birth.” She leaned forward, and that serene face went suddenly sharp. “But I must have your
word
, Penelope, your solemn word that you'll deliver this to our man as we discussed, and
only
to our man, whatever happens. No one else is on our side.”

“But why not?” Penelope had asked. “Why not, if the contents are innocent?”

“Because everyone acts according to his own interest, Penelope. Don't you know that? Men and countries alike. You can never tell what a man's true motives are. Deliver this parcel to the appointed fellow on the appointed day, as I've directed, and you won't have to worry about whether or not someone's on your side or his own.”

Penelope had smiled and held up the portfolio with her two hands. “And how do I know what side
you're
on? How do I know I can trust
you
, dearest Margot?”

Madame de Sauveterre had thrown back her well-preserved head and laughed. “Oh, darling! What an excellent question. I knew you were perfect for the job.”

Penelope had laughed, too. It had all seemed so simple at the time, so theoretical. Trust no one else. Deliver the portfolio to its designated recipient at all costs. What could possibly hinder her from completing such a simple mission?

But this wasn't a comfortable drawing room on Fifth Avenue. The pitch of the ship, the whistling wind, the state of her cabin that might or might not have indicated an intruder: it was all so doubtful and precarious, so laden with a sense of danger she couldn't quite name. Robert's face yearned toward her, smooth and guileless and eager. He had that well-scrubbed beauty of youth, the bland handsomeness of a nicely bred college boy: the kind who played football in the fall and baseball in the spring, and went sailing with his father in the summer. You shook his hand and thought,
What a good-looking fellow
, but five minutes after meeting him you had forgotten exactly what he looked like. You certainly wouldn't suspect him of any connection with the portfolio now resting in the ship's safe.

But wasn't that the point?

She gazed up at him and ironed her expression free of any intelligence. “Do you really think so?”

“Yes! Do let me take charge of those papers, Mrs. Schuyler. And any other valuables you might be carrying,” he added quickly. “I will guard them with my life, I promise.”

The ship pitched beneath her feet, and a concurrent gust of wind caught her in the small of her back. She staggered forward, catching his arm for balance, and the strength of his bicep surprised her. A faint waft of shaving soap found her nose, touched with the familiar smell of hair pomade. He used the same brand as her husband had.

“Thank you,” she gasped, righting herself.

“Please,” he said in her ear. “
Please
give me those papers.”

Penelope put up one mittened hand to secure her hat. With the other, she reached out and patted the side of his shoulder. “Mr. Langley, I think your enthusiasm has gotten the better of you. It's only a few passports and letters of credit. Nothing at all to interest an anarchist. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must return to my part of the ship before I'm missed.”

“But Mrs. Schuyler—”

“Good day, Mr. Langley. And do take care with your footing. I've heard the weather is only going to get worse.”

He said something back, but Penelope was already hurrying away, and the words escaped into the draft.

***

The Duke of Olympia braced himself against the corner of the deckhouse and turned up the collar of his overcoat, but the wind still found the cracks at the edges of his clothing and went inside to shave his skin. He reached into his breast pocket and consulted his watch against the electric light. Five minutes past midnight, and in another minute he would give up. The weather had built almost into a gale—
Dirty night, sir, isn't it?
some crewman had said, passing by a moment ago—and she was a sensible woman, after all.

Another gust slammed against his back. An instant later, the air filled with spray. Yes, he would certainly give up and go to bed in his warm, dry stateroom. Tomorrow morning, he would put on his brown whiskers and find Penelope in her deck chair, before anyone else was up. That was soon enough, wasn't it? He was too old for this. She was just a humble American widow. He would give up and go to bed.

No, he wouldn't.

The deckhouse door flew open, nearly catching him in the face. A figure paused on the threshold and gasped for breath.

“Mrs. Schuyler!” he shouted. “There you are!”

Before she could object—she would surely object, he knew—Olympia took her arm and guided her in a lurching zigzag down the deck and around the corner, into the relative shelter of the deckhouse lee. Together they leaned against the steel wall, panting, almost laughing at the shared triumph over nature.

“What the devil did you think you were doing, coming out on deck tonight?” he demanded.

“What the devil were you doing, lying in wait for me?”

“Because I knew you would be so foolish.”

“I had to get out.”

“Yes, I know,” he said, and he put his arms around her and drew her into the wet breast of his overcoat.

She was so surprised, she stayed there for a moment, nestling against him as if in relief. Her back moved a little with her breath, but that was all, and he closed his eyes and drew his fingers up the nape of her neck to touch the fine strands of hair at the bottom of her hat.

“Oh!” She pushed away and flung herself back against the wall. “Why did you do that?”

“That's not the question,” he said. “The question is why I haven't done that before.”

“I wouldn't let you. I shouldn't have let you now, only you took me by surprise.”

He turned to lean his shoulder against the wall, staring down at the top of her dark hat. “Whatever the reason, my dear, I thank you for allowing me the privilege.”

“It won't happen again.”

“Why not? We are both adults, who act only for ourselves. We are both immensely interested in each other.”

“The difference, sir, is that
you're
interested in me as a possible mistress, or maybe not even that. Maybe only as a very temporary companion to lessen the ennui of an Atlantic voyage. Whereas I . . .” She stopped.

“Yes, Mrs. Schuyler? Tell me. What is your interest in me?”

Without warning, the deck tilted to starboard, sending her crashing back into his chest. He felt rather than saw the approaching wave, and flattened her against the wall of the deckhouse, covering her with his large body, just as a heavy tongue of cold salt water lashed against his back. She made a breathless
oomph
, as if the air had been knocked out of her, and gripped his waist.

“Are you all right?” he said.

“Yes. Please let me go.” But her hands still clung to his coat.

“You haven't answered my question.”

“I have no interest in you at all, sir. I have no business having any interest in you.”

“Yet you do.” He pressed his lips to her cold forehead. “You
are
interested.”

She ducked beneath his arm and turned away, bracing her hand against the wall for balance.

“Wait!” he said.

“Why were you waiting for me here?” she said. “Just to seduce me, in the middle of an Atlantic gale? Are you that mad?”

A very good question. He shook his wet head and realized he was soaked through. They were both cold and damp; he should get her inside immediately. “Come along,” he said, taking her arm. “We'll go indoors, to my cabin.”

“Your cabin! Are you out of your mind?” She had to shout over her shoulder, over the howl of the wind.

“It's the closest place where we can be private!”

“I don't want to be private with you!”

He dragged her around the corner of the deckhouse under the shelter of his arm. The starboard door was just a few yards away. “I'm afraid I must insist!”

Of all the privileges that accrued to the title and position of the Duke of Olympia, the occupation of the coveted Stateroom A—one of only four on the topmost deck of the SS
Majestic
, boasting sitting room and bathroom en suite, to say nothing of the magnificent views of the surrounding ocean—had to rank among the highest. At this particular wet moment, even more so. He hurried Penelope inside before any straggling matron could stumble upon them and turned on the electric lamp in the sitting room.

“Here we are. Take off your coat at once, before you catch a chill.”

She obeyed, and he handed her a blanket, which she flung around her shoulders. He shrugged off his own overcoat and found a dressing gown from the wardrobe.

“For heaven's sake, don't ring for tea,” she said, huddled inside the blanket, looking up at him with a wan and wide-eyed expression that plowed straight through his breastbone and the cartilage between his ribs to slip inside the left ventricle of his heart, which had not been occupied by an adult female in thirty years. He took a single step back, a stagger. The muscles jumped in shock, and then steadied into a hard and regular beat that sounded in his ears.

Why her? Of all the women. Beautiful ones, witty ones, charming ones, clever ones. Hundreds of desirable women, and not one of them had ducked beneath his breastbone. Not one of them had shared with him an instant of connection, communicated by a clear-eyed American gaze that met his without awe or fear. Why her?

And then: Because it fits. Because
she
fits, that's all. That chamber in his heart, the unoccupied left ventricle, pumping away faithfully all those years, had the shape of Mrs. Penelope Schuyler.

Of all the women in the world.

“Why not ring for tea?” he said.

“Because they talk. The stewards will talk.” Her lips were a little blue. He wanted to kiss them warm again.

“I don't happen to give a damn about that.”

“Of course not. You're the Duke of Olympia. I, however, am a woman without fortune or position, and I am forced to give a damn about what people say. So you'd better be quick, because I'm going to walk out of this door in two minutes, before Miss Morrison sends out to ask why I haven't returned to my cabin.”

Olympia took off his wet hat and ran a hand through the hair beneath, which was still thick and silver-white, thank God. He was conscious suddenly of his age, which hadn't bothered him before, and how old he must seem to her. He didn't feel old. He still felt a young man's urge to kiss this woman, to lay some sort of claim to her, to know her.

“I will be brief, then,” he said. “These papers you're carrying, the ones you had Miss Morrison place in the ship's safe—”

She stood up. “Oh, for God's sake.”

“There's no point in denying it. I am, as you perceive, too old to waste time in a lengthy pas de deux that will only result in the same outcome. You have some sort of connection with my old friend Madame de Sauveterre, I expect, and I deduce that she's given you a little package to deliver to someone on our arrival. A package which, I believe, you have sensibly consigned to the honorable custody of the
Majestic
ship's safe.”

Penelope pressed her lips together.

“Very well,” he went on. “I don't expect you to confirm it. Only listen to me. I have, I'm afraid, been tasked with intercepting this communication. Your friend de Sauveterre, you see, has been something of a thorn in our British sides these past several years—it seems she feels a certain contemptuous disregard for proper diplomatic procedure, in forging closer ties between France and your own noble country—and I am determined to perform this duty without regard to any personal sympathy.”

She shrugged off the blanket and reached for her sodden coat. “If you'll excuse me, sir. I must return to my cabin.”

“Wait.” He put his hand on her arm. “Listen to me. Let me assure you, I'm the least of your worries. I have not the slightest intent of harming you; quite the opposite. There's another person aboard this ship, a great deal more bloody-minded than I am—”

“That I find difficult to believe.”

“As you like. I have searched this person's stateroom and found nothing to confirm my suspicions—”

“Who?” she said. “Who is it?”

He paused. “Miss Harris.”

“Miss Harris?” She laughed.

“Don't be a fool. I can't be sure, but I suspect she may be an agent I recruited and trained myself many years ago, a woman for whom I had very high hopes indeed, who once attended the Hellenic with you and Madame de Sauveterre. She has since betrayed me. I had thought her safely exiled to America—”

“Oh, how good of you, to dispose of your refuse on our shores.”

“Don't be indignant. It is all in the nature of the sort of game we play, tweaking each other's noses and so forth.”

“Game?” she said, incredulous. “Noses?”

“So to speak.”

“But what about the danger? My God, don't you care at all? Or is everything a game to you, and nobody's human, nobody has feelings or grieves or despairs? We're all just pawns to be moved about on your chessboard. Or marionettes, dancing on your strings.”

Her eyes were fierce and colorless, her lips tensed. He was close enough to see the tiny lines at her corners, the evidence of her life, and he wanted to understand each one.

“That is not true.” He kept his hand on her arm. “I care deeply.”

“You don't show it.”

“No. You are quite right. I have learned, in the course of a long and varied life, peppered with grave disappointments and unforeseen tragedy, that one must exert the most careful and delicate protection over what one loves most, the most exquisite possible care, or else it will be lost.”

BOOK: The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match
11.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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