Authors: Maggie MacKeever
Tags: #Regency Romance
“So it would.” Giuseppe removed the scarf from round his neck and used it to wipe his brow. “If one had access to the Hall. I am but a poor traveller,
Jael prodded a piece of broken statue with her foot. “What is this damned tale of a ghost?”
“Imagine it.” His smile flashed. “A gaunt and ghastly figure, clad in a tattered shroud, wailing in a gruesome manner about past sins for which payment is long past due. That’s how I would have played the ghost. Not as a country squire out for an evening stroll, which is how
ghost has been described.”
“This is the truth? You’re not responsible?”
“Would I rob you or pick your pockets? Nor will I lie when I cannot gain from it so much as sixpence. Another began this. I merely lend my efforts. Imagine the talk there will be when it’s discovered that the fountain in Lady Margaret’s Garden is flowing once again.” Giuseppe threw down his shovel and took the pipe from Jael’s hand. “Good Sir Wesley Halliday, who let the dirty tinkers camp on his land. Who was so generous as to let us occasionally hunt the beasts in his park.” He spat.
Jael hitched up her skirt and unsheathed a sharp-bladed dagger. In a desultory manner, she hacked at the vines that wound around the bench. “You should come to London. I can do little for you here.”
Giuseppe drew in the pipe’s sweet smoke. “You would see me as fettered as yourself.”
“Fettered?” Jael threw back her head and laughed. “I am as influential as any baroness, if in another manner, and not among the swells. Unlike you,
I have no need to roam.”
“Yet you came here.”
Jael’s amusement fled as quickly as it had come. “God’s bones, what choice had I, once I learned of Sir Wesley’s death? You say Lady Halliday came to you to have her fortune read. What did you say?”
Giuseppe handed her the pipe and retrieved his shovel. “ ‘A stranger, a journey; you’ll remember all your long life what the gypsy tells you this day.’ Do dogs eat dogs, or are all the
dead in the land, that you doubt me now?”
“I doubt the lengths to which you may go.” Jael resumed hacking at the vine. “You haven’t told me what brought you to Sir Wesley, your cap in your hand.”
The flickering lantern cast shadows on Giuseppe’s lean face. “You think I came begging? Some food and blankets, master, so that the poor tinkers might not freeze or starve.”
“I think you have a hundred gold coins buried beneath your campfire.” With a flash of scarlet skirts, Jael rose from the bench. “You strain my patience, Giuseppe.”
He plucked more dead leaves from the fountain. “I knew Sir Wesley visited his hothouse most mornings. I saw him go into Lady Margaret’s Garden that morning, followed, and found him here.”
“Looking as if he’d glimpsed a fiend from hell. And then you left before anyone could discover you alone with the body.” Jael plunged her dagger into the earth. “Swear to me this is how it happened,
For the true blood.”
The fountain clear now of debris, Giuseppe sought the water’s source. “My mother dead and Janthina gone also, from this garden, twenty years past. Should I not crave revenge?”
Jael wiped her knife on her skirt, her glance as sharp as its blade. “It’s not for me to tell you what you should and should not crave. But tread carefully, Giuseppe. The past is not a book you can rewrite to suit yourself.”
He made no response. Jael tucked her knife away, and then the pipe; walked to where her horse was hidden among the trees. Giuseppe followed, made a stepping-block of his hands, and tossed her up on the mare’s back. She nodded at him, curtly, and touched her heel to the horse’s flank.
Deep in thought, Jael rode through the night. She arrived at the Castle stables, unsaddled and curried her horse. When she stepped outside again, a figure detached itself from the shadows. Jael drew her knife.
“You wound me, my treasure.” Hubert gazed with a pained expression upon the gleaming blade. “Like Diogenes with his lantern, I have looked into every nook and corner; but unlike Diogenes, I have found she whom I sought. At the cost of appearing rather prudish, I must observe that to be racketing in a solitary manner about the countryside, and in the dead of night, is not at all the thing.”
Jael made a vulgar remark concerning what Hubert might do with his hypothetical lantern. He smiled and gently plucked the knife from her grasp. “This, from the charmer of my heart and soul. I wonder at myself. Now, my pet, I think you must explain to me why you were prompted to play least-in-sight. And,” he dropped his bantering tone. “I warn you that my temper has been sorely tried already tonight.”
It was a measure of the man that this remark, despite his effeminate appearance, caused Jael to eye him cautiously. “I should think it was clear as noonday.”
“Am I to conclude that you are tired of my company, and have chosen this extremely circuitous way of informing me so?” Hubert asked her. “Appalling to discover in oneself a dog-in-the-manger attitude, but there it is. What is to be done? Will you allow yourself to be frightened into submission, or shall I offer up tears and threats of suicide?”
Jael accepted the knife that he held out to her, replaced it in its sheathe. “You surpass belief.”
“So I flatter myself.” With fingers whose strength belied their aristocratic appearance, Hubert grasped her arm. “In the normal progression of events, you’d be offering to slit my throat in return for my aspersions upon your virtue. Am I to conclude, therefore, that you
Ever so slightly, Jael winced, due to the pressure of his fingers. Hubert released her at once. “You’re a prosy devil,” she said, with a flash of her perfect teeth. “Do you mean for us to stand here all the night? ‘Twould be a fit punishment for playing you false, were I to catch my death.”
“If the shoe fits,” murmured Hubert. “Still, despite appearances, I don’t think it
fit. You have been with me long enough that I shan’t mistrust you quickly, though that sentiment isn’t one you share. It isn’t an especially comfortable state of affairs, if you will forgive the expression, but I strive to make the best of it. You don’t make it easy, Jael.”
A more sentimental woman might have been touched by so sincere a speech, and from so satiric a source; might have recalled the long time it had taken her to progress from posing as an artist’s model to sharing the artist’s bed. Jael said, dismissively, “Why should I? You’ve had it made easy for you all your life.”
The Honourable Hubert displayed no indignation at being so maligned. Odd as it may have been, in light of his conviction that his
was seeking mightily to throw him off the scent, he was enjoying this exchange.
“What a bizarre effect you have upon my heart, my shrew.” Hubert placed a hand on either side of Jael’s face and forced her to meet his gaze. “That too will not serve. Sir Wesley’s death is garnering a great deal of attention from first my aunt and now, I’ll wager, you. It must be apparent to even a block, which I most definitely am not, that the pair of you doubt the old man died of a simple heart attack. Which leads me to another question: why should you care?”
Jael was a strong woman, if perhaps not so strong as Hubert, whose willowy figure was deceptive; she might have wrenched out of his grasp. Instead, she moved closer into his embrace. “It’s naught to me who or what caused the death of Sir Wesley Halliday,” she murmured, against his warm neck. “As to what the Baroness may think, I neither know nor care.”
Hubert was distracted. Jael could when she wished stir him mightily, despite the familiarity attendant on an association that had endured so many years. Nevertheless, he was no pigeon for her plucking. Even as he kissed his
Hubert contemplated the sweet smell of opium that clung to her clothing, and the leaves his sensitive fingers found entangled in her hair.
Livvy woke early on the following morn, weary and heavy-lidded. The Baroness’s impromptu gathering had not been a notable success. Though Lady Halliday chattered gaily all through the meal, her stepson had been a great deal less sociable. Ned’s account of the hostilities at Talavera (the battle lasted two days and a night, during which a running flame caught the grass on the Medellion, scorching the wounded and roasting the dead), Connor condemned as unfit accompaniment to hot-house fruit and Indian preserves and comfitures; Hubert’s ironic essay into the popular sport of lampooning royalty, he declared unsuitable for delicate ears, a comment that caused Mr. Humboldt to take such umbrage that he left the room with the ladies and did not reappear.
Nor did the gentlemen linger long over their port. Livvy, weary of watching her husband eye Amanda as if she were a tasty morsel and he a starving man, was relieved when Connor Halliday and his step-mama at last took their leave.
After their departure, Dickon didn’t speak two words to Livvy for the remainder of the evening. She had lain awake long hours, pondering her situation, trying to decide what she was to do.
Now she must endure another day’s amusements, chief among them a tour of the Castle grounds, with particular emphasis on the keep, last refuge when the outer defenses had fallen, within its walls a well. One might think the Baroness meant to exhaust her houseguests so they had no inclination for any pursuits not planned by herself.
Livvy slid slowly out of bed, careful not to disturb her slumbering spouse. Even open-mouthed and snoring, the wretch remained a heartbreakingly handsome man.
Whereas she was becoming more pregnant and unlovely by the moment. No wonder Dickon found Amanda attractive.
wouldn’t disgorge her dinner all over his exquisitely polished boots.
Shrugging her dressing gown around her shoulders, Livvy slipped out of the room. An air of suppressed excitement hung over the Castle. She hoped it had to do with the approaching festivities, and feared it did not. When Dulcie was on the scent of a mystery — and when was Dulcie
on the scent of a mystery? — everyone in her vicinity, from maidservant to maharajah, found themselves pressed into service on her behalf.
Livvy padded down the cold corridor, and tapped on her hostess’s bedchamber door. “Come in!” Dulcie called.
The Baroness sat propped up amidst her pillows. Strewn across the counterpane were several sheets of notepaper. Around her head was wrapped a towel from beneath which escaped several damp lilac curls.
“Blue didn’t suit you?” Livvy asked. The means by which those thick curls so rapidly changed hue was a secret jealously guarded by the Baroness and her abigail.
“It suited me quite nicely,” said Dulcie. “But it put Casanova’s nose out of joint.”
Livvy eyed the large ball of orange fur snuggled up against Dulcie’s feet. “Shoot the cat,” suggested Bluebeard, from the headboard where he perched.
The room was large, with deeply recessed windows. A tallboy chest of drawers veneered with finely figured dark mahogany stood against one wall, across from it a dressing table inlaid with strings and bands of satinwood, surmounted by a shield-shaped toilet-glass. A silver ewer rested on the washbasin, covered with a clean towel. Dominating the chamber was Dulcie’s vast four-post bedstead. When the curtains were drawn, it would be a room within a room.
“Heaven knows what shocking things this old bed has seen,” said Dulcie, displaying her disconcerting tendency to guess thoughts one would prefer she did not. “Chocolate, Lavender?” A table drawn up near the bed held a pot of chocolate and two cups.
The Baroness had been expecting company? Livvy doubted Bow Street’s Chief Magistrate drank so innocuous a brew. Not that she believed—
But, alas, she did. Once one began to suspect infidelity, one saw it everywhere.
Livvy poured the chocolate, then settled on a charming window seat with scrolled ends and straight legs. “Dickon doesn’t care if I indulge in a flirtation. He told me so himself.”
“Did he?” Dulcie gathered up her writing materials and set them aside. “I shouldn’t try it, my dear.”
“As if anyone would want to get up a flirtation with a female in my condition.” Livvy kept firm grip on her cup, lest she succumb to temptation and hurl it across the room. “It is unconscionable of Dickon to be philandering when I am grown so dowdy-looking I cannot retaliate in kind. Don’t try and tell me he’s
philandering, because I have two excellent eyes in my head. Oh, curse the man!”
Lady Bligh heard out this tirade calmly. “My dear, you are making a storm in a cream-bowl. Dickon has supplied no material for the scandalmongers since the two of you were wed. Flattering as it may be that you think he must be irresistible to every female who crosses his path, I doubt he would appreciate—”
Livvy interrupted. Dickon was lazy and careless and arrogant; he was afflicted by a natural inconstancy; and the woman did not live who could resist his devastating charm. Including Amanda Halliday. She burst into tears.
Lady Bligh sighed, threw back the bedcovers, crossed to the window seat and took her sodden niece-by-marriage into her arms. Livvy sobbed all the harder. Dulcie patted her. “My dear Lavender, you haven’t the least cause for these fidgets. Lady Halliday has caught Ned’s eye. Dickon feels a responsibility for his cousin, as it is right he should.”
If only that were true! But Livvy knew it wasn’t. Inconceivable that a rakehell with Dickon’s history should look with an avuncular eye upon a pretty wench. “There, there,” soothed Dulcie, and patted Livvy again.
Bluebeard ruffled his feathers. Casanova stirred, tucked his nose under his paw, and went back to sleep.
Dulcie’s abigail, a stern, prim, grey-clad woman, entered the room. Feeling foolish, Livvy removed herself from Dulcie’s embrace. Culpepper bundled her employer closer to the fire, vigorously toweled her damp lilac locks, and scolded that the Baroness would catch her death of cold. Livvy’s tears, with exquisite tact, she ignored.
Dulcie pushed aside the towel that was covering her face. “Have done, Culpepper! What did you learn?”