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Authors: Joan Smith

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BOOK: The Great Christmas Ball
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Mama soon took
Debrett’s
to the lamp for close perusal; Rodney retired to his study, and Cathy sat by the moldering grate, waiting for Gordon’s return.

 

Chapter Four

 

Gordon returned at eleven o’clock, cold, cross, and by no means sure Lord Costain was as sharp as he had first believed. “We have to talk,” he said aside to Cathy as he entered the saloon.

Then to his mama he gave a brief description of his outing. “Nobody was out this evening. You could shoot a cannon down Bond Street without hitting a soul. I am frozen to the marrow and shall go directly to bed. Good night all.” His commanding eye suggested that Cathy should also excuse herself.

Within minutes they met in the hall abovestairs. “Did he come?” he asked. She needed no reminder of who “he” was.

“Yes, as he said he would.”

“What did he say?”

“He wants us to take the carriage tomorrow when we spy at Whitehall, in case the intruder sees us.”

The lure of further involvement cheered Gordon and raised Costain a notch above odium. “A good idea. I mean to run along to the park tonight, just in case,” he said.

“He told you he would handle it.”

“How would you feel if he turned up dead in a ditch?” Gordon asked with a menacing squint. “Of course I must go. I daresay Costain expects it, but does not like to put a layman in jeopardy. Professional ethics," he explained vaguely.

Cathy pictured Lord Costain, his handsome features frozen to immobility in a ditch, and said at once, “I shall go with you.”

She was still uncertain about falling in love with Costain, but his conversation that evening had tipped the balance in favor of it. He had not seemed the least boastful when Gordon was absent. Besides, the Russian princess Katherine Bagration had strongly advised her, when she was fourteen years old, that she should have her heart broken as soon as possible, as it would inure her to cupid’s arrows in future. Lord Costain appeared eminently capable of breaking a lady’s heart.

“This is man’s work,” Gordon informed her with a condescending look.

“We shall go out by the study door” was her reply. “Rodney is not in his office tonight. Will you take a pistol, Gordon?”

Gordon did not argue further. Although more or less a man, he was five years younger than Cathy and somewhat accustomed to doing as she said. “I don’t have one. I keep mine at Manton’s Shooting Gallery. I must bring it home now that I shall be needing it.”

“Then we must take some other weapon. Take your malacca cane, and I shall take Uncle Rodney’s old blackthorn.”

“You’d best not wear your emeralds” was Gordon’s only animadversion. “Meet you in the study at eleven-thirty.”

“The park is only five minutes away.”

“The early bird catches the worm. We shall be there early and hide behind the bushes.”

“That’s a good idea.”

Cathy nipped into her room and removed not only  her necklace but also her gown. After her chilling earlier in the day, she wore a warm suit under her oldest pelisse, with sturdy walking shoes and a large woolen shawl for extra warmth. The shawl could also be used as a headdress, as it would offer concealment if necessary.

They met in the study at the appointed hour. Gordon had arrived first and lit a lamp. He cast one glance at his sister and said, “Thank God it is dark out. You look like a beggar. I am ashamed to be seen with you. Here.” He handed her Rodney’s blackthorn walking stick, they extinguished the lamp, and crept silently out the door.

“Do you have the key?” he asked before closing it.

“No.”

“Then we shall leave it on the latch to slip in later. There is nothing worth stealing in the study.”

They hastened through the newly fallen snow that whispered underfoot. The storm had passed, leaving a black velvet sky sprinkled with stars. A crisp, cold wind snatched at their garments. No one else was about on this cold December night, but there were a few foot tracks in the snow. The only sound was the wind soughing through the trees, and the sussuration of their own feet in the snow.

St. James’s Park was a vast black menace of ninety acres stretching before them. Nude branches etched a pattern against the sky. The untrodden snowfall at the park’s edge told them they were the first to arrive.

“We shouldn’t leave footprints. It might put the spy off,” Gordon said.

They walked west along Birdcage Walk and entered the park from the southern side, working their way back through the concealing trees toward the southwest corner. Mist rose from the lake within the park, lending a dank atmosphere. Gordon did not think the rendezvous would take place deep within the park, but at the very edge. With this in mind, they stationed themselves behind a thick growth of shrubbery near the corner and hunkered down to wait.

The sound of nocturnal animals rustled from time to time, causing a flutter of excitement. It seemed an age that they waited. Gordon complained variously that his fingers were frozen solid, his legs asleep, he was certainly catching his death of cold, and he had never enjoyed himself so much in his life. One lone man passed within their view on Birdcage Walk.

“That’s Lord Eldon, ain’t it?” Gordon whispered. “I’d know his old hide in a tanning factory.” The man lurched past without stopping.

At ten to twelve by Gordon’s turnip watch, they espied a man slip into the park in a stealthy manner and station himself behind a tree. Like them, he had taken a circuitous route to avoid leaving footprints at the crucial corner.

“It’s Costain!” Cathy said excitedly. “He came early, like us. Should we let him know we are here?”

“Best not. We’ll just lie low and keep an eye on things.”

Before long, a carriage drew up at the curb and another man in evening clothes descended. He stopped, looked all about, then walked into the shadows, to be swallowed by the night.

“Is that our intruder?” Cathy whispered.

“Damned if I know. We’ll wait and see who else comes.”

The next arrival was a lady, who came in a fashionable black carriage. She was accompanied by a footman. She was tall, and draped in a concealing black habit. The man who had arrived after Costain darted out to meet her. The couple climbed into the lady’s carriage, but the carriage did not leave immediately.

“I daresay the spy could be a lady,” Cathy said, frowning.

“More likely that lady is a man,” Gordon replied. “She was tall as a ladder. By the living jingo, she’s a man in disguise. We’d best accost them.”

“Or—perhaps follow them?” Cathy suggested.

“We don’t have a carriage. Why the deuce don’t Costain make his move?”

Even as they spoke, the carriage began to draw away. Gordon left his place of concealment and called, “Lord Costain! Are you going to sit there and do nothing while they escape?” The echo of his voice shattered the stillness of the night.

Lord Costain’s answering voice was drawn thin with aggravation. “Sir Gordon?” he called.

“Of course it’s me. Let us take after them.”

Gordon headed in the direction of Costain’s voice, with Cathy darting after him. The night had been a sorry letdown. She had expected some heroics from her hero. An attack, gunshots, an arrest, perhaps, would have been interesting.

“Costain?” Gordon called again, for he could not seem to find his mentor. A dozen trees loomed before him, any one of which might conceal Costain. Why did he not answer? He heard a rustle in the bushes ahead, then the sound of rapidly retreating footsteps.

“By Jove, he’s turned tail and run. Costain!” he called after the fleeting footsteps. “Well, if that don’ beat the Dutch!” He took another step, stumbled, and fell on his face.

An inhuman sound rent the air. “Aaargh!”

“What is it, Gordie?” Cathy asked, rushing forward to help him up.

“A body! I’m lying on top of it.”

He leapt up as if the body might be infected with the black plague. Peering down, he saw a dark head, with a curled beaver lying beside it. The body was covered in a dark cloak.

“We’d best have a look and see who it is,” Gordon said in a hollow voice. He already had an idea who it was. That black head had a familiar shape. He leaned down and gently turned the body over.

Cathy saw a pale face wearing the features of Lord Costain. A trickle of black moved inexorably down the side of his forehead, into his hair. She had never swooned before in her life, but she swooned then, sagging against her brother. “You’ve killed him!” she gasped.

“I? No such a thing. I don’t even have a gun.”

She leaned down and touched his cheek. “He’s cold,” she said.

“Of course he’s cold, lying on a bed of snow. Check his heart.”

Her trembling fingers moved his cloak aside and slid under his jacket. She felt his body warmth emanating from the strong wall of his chest beneath her fingers. There was a faint heartbeat. She looked at his face, as still as death, and her heart stopped. “Get a doctor at once,” she said.

Costain’s eyelids fluttered open, and he gazed at her in confusion. “The left flank!” he said, distracted. “For God’s sake, cover the left flank. There are hundreds of them.”

Cathy jumped back. “He is delirious, Gordon.”

“Thinks he is back in Spain, I daresay. At least he is alive. I say, Costain—”

Lord Costain looked up at the sky and frowned. What was that white stuff on the trees? Snow? Snow! “Good Lord,” he said, and sat up, shaking his head. “Did you see him? Did you get a good look at him?”

“We saw him right enough,” Gordon said. “Why did you not follow him? It is my thinking that the lady he met was a man in disguise.”

“No, it was Angelina Me—er, it was a lady right enough. The billet-doux was just a billet-doux after all, but your intruder mistook it for a code. I meant, did you see the fellow who cracked me on the skull.”

“We never got a whiff of him,” Gordon said. “He must have come in t’other way and slipped up behind you.”

“Are you all right, Lord Costain?” Cathy asked.

He touched his head tenderly. “I shall be as soon as you two stop spinning in circles.” Gordon helped him to rise, and steadied him on his feet.

“You must get that bruise looked at, Lord Costain,” Cathy said.

He drew out a handkerchief and patted the blood away. “How do you two come to be here?” he asked, his manner stiffening. “I told you I would handle this. This is no place for a lady, Miss Lyman.”

“I told her so, but you might as well talk to the hat stand,” Gordon said. “Anyhow, it is well we came, or you might have lain in the cold all night and come down with pneumonia. Go on home, Cathy. I’ll get Costain to a sawbones. Did you bring a carriage, milord?”

“No, I came in a hansom. I do not require an escort home,” Costain assured his young rescuer. “I shall find a hackney cab. You take your sister home, Sir Gordon.”

“We cannot let you wander the streets alone in your condition,” Cathy said firmly. “We live around the corner. You must come home with us.” She turned to Gordon. “We’ll take him into the study. No one will know.”

“A capital idea. A good thing I thought to leave the door on the latch.”

Costain said, “Just accompany me until I find a cab. I shan’t bother you further.”

There was no cab to be found, however, and when they reached King Charles Street, Costain felt so faint that it seemed best to stop a moment. He was helped along with great solicitude, guided up the steps and onto a sofa before the cold grate. While Gordon built up the fire, Cathy poured him a glass of sherry.

“Ask Simmons for a bowl of water and a plaster, Gordon,” Cathy said. “Tell him you cut your finger.”

Gordon wrapped his handkerchief around his hand and went after Simmons for the necessary supplies. Gordon took the water and plaster to the study.

“I am sorry to be such a nuisance,” Costain said two or three times, while Cathy attended to his wound. He was very pale.

“I hope I am not hurting you,” she said, daubing tenderly at his cut.

He smiled wanly. “Our nurses at Belem, in the Peninsula, did not have such a gentle touch,” he said.

As she worked over him, he noticed the sweep of dark lashes against her cheek. Then she glanced up, and he observed the concern in her youthful eyes. His look caused a flush to brighten her cheek. She moved to arrange his pillow, and he was struck by the litheness of her form. Something stirred in him. Miss Lyman’s beauty was not of the sort that leapt out and assaulted a man at first view. It was a more quiet charm that showed best under duress. He suspected she was shy.

“You will be wishing me at Jericho,” he said.

“I think the shoe is on the other foot, milord. It is our fault. If Gordon had not shouted your name, perhaps the man would not have discovered your presence.”

“There is no saying. He did strike immediately after Gordon called, but he must have been creeping up on me before. I am a poor advertisement for a
guerrillero.
I was taught to be able to handle myself in such situations. I shall blame it on the snow. It muffled his footfalls.” He winced as she bathed his wound.

“Sorry. You didn’t catch a sight of him?”

“Not so much as a glimpse. He came from behind. Just as I heard him and turned, he struck me. I fancy he was only trying to get away unseen.”

“Then he must have feared you would recognize him,” she said.

“All I saw was a hand,” Costain said.

“With stubby fingers?” she asked with a facetious smile.

Costain felt an answering smile creep across his lips. He enjoyed her fussing over him, which was strange, as he had particularly disliked such attentions at Belem. It was because she was a woman, of course. Really quite an attractive woman when she smiled. “Actually he wore a glove. It may have been a common thief—but no. A thief would not have struck when he knew I had help close by.”

“Help, or hindrance?” she asked, shaking basilicum on the plaster.

“Let us say colleagues, to avoid calling a spade a spade.”

“I wonder if a spade minds being called a spade. Is your money purse missing?”

He felt for it. “No. And my watch is still with me. I think we can assume your intruder went to the park in hope that the lovers’ rendezvous was something else. A pity he saw me there.”

BOOK: The Great Christmas Ball
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