Authors: Edith Layton
To Martee Hensley, M.D., and Paula, and all
the other good, patient, and kind souls at Sloan
Kettering Hospital in New York City
The duke glittered. Sunlight streaming in the windows of hisâ¦
So he's gone? Just like that?” the thin young womanâ¦
Now,” Lord Montrose said, when their table had been clearedâ¦
The large swarthy gentleman sitting in a deep chair byâ¦
The flickering candles on the dining table's top, the glowâ¦
I haven't offended anyone, have I?” Lady Carstairs asked.
Shall I congratulate you, or saddle up your horse andâ¦
Pippa went to bed in the dark and awoke atâ¦
After much thought and trying on and casting off, Pippaâ¦
What were you thinking?” Whitley asked.
Isn't London grand?” Lady Carstairs sighed, looking out her hotelâ¦
It's impossible to be a wallflower in scarlet,” Pippa managedâ¦
She forgot one thing,” Maxwell said as he leaned againstâ¦
The first thing Lady Carstairs did when she arrived atâ¦
I don't know a thing about you,” Pippa said suddenly,â¦
Now this is Paris, we've been to teas and receptions,â¦
But I didn't want to leave yet,” Lady Carstairs complained.
I will admit that it might seem awkward to you,”â¦
This,” Pippa said in wonder as Maxwell helped her downâ¦
Bad form,” Duncan said.
Pippa sat in a chair in the blue salon andâ¦
The Chestertons lived in a huge old town house nearâ¦
Your grandfather would like to see you in his study,â¦
It was a perfect morning for a wedding, and soâ¦
he duke glittered. Sunlight streaming in the windows of his front salon made his diamond stickpin sparkle enough to hurt the eyes and set the gold buttons on his waistcoat afire. The silver buckles on his shoes flashed every time he crossed his long legs. The sun lit his ice blue eyes until they looked blind and only capable of radiating light. That wasn't why the boy didn't meet his eye, or why he looked down at his own shoes. The dazzle didn't bother him. He didn't stare because he was very careful around his father.
“Well, there he is,” the duke said in a careless drawl as he waved a languid hand flashing with jeweled rings at the boy. “My first born. You wanted to see him. Not much to look at. He has seven years to his name. Surprised everyone by at
taining his great age. Sickliest infant the world had ever seen. Nonetheless, she doted on him.”
The boy looked up at his father's guest. The man was older than his father. He was mild-looking, soberly dressed, with an old-fashioned gray wig and not his own unpowdered hair pulled back in a queue the way his father wore it. But then his father was always in fashion, or so everyone said. Today he wore shining silk hose and gray breechesâandâbut his son dared look no higher.
“Good afternoon, Lord Montrose,” the older gentleman said to the boy in a kindly voice.
The boy didn't know the man's title, and so didn't know whether to bow or only nod his head. But since his father hadn't bothered to introduce him, he reasoned that the old gentleman was lower in rank than he was. So he sketched a short bow and then stood still again.
His father picked up a goblet of amber liquid. “Kind of you to call after all these years, Vicar. Kind of you to ask after my lads too. This one don't say much. To tell the truth, he don't do much either. Somber little fellow, always looking grieved. Always was little too. M'lady, m' late duchess, doted on him. She was a fragile creature too. Made me promise not to send him off to school until he was ten. Ten! A new boy at ten? He'd be easy
pickings for the older, stronger boys. But she was dying, so I promised. She quite ruined him, if there was anything to ruin,” he added as he drained the goblet again.
The other man gave him a sharp look. Of course all adults spoke freely in front of children. But this was the lad's own father. And his grace was getting thoroughly soused.
“I knew your lady well,” the old gentleman said. “She was a fine woman, God rest her soul.”
The duke waved his hand again. “Aye. Pretty as she could stare. A French doll. But she had no stamina. Died after birthing the boy.”
The boy looked up again. He was a slight lad, with dark hair, finely etched features, and astonishing eyes for such a youth.
The vicar gasped. “But he has her eyes, your grace! The very mirror of them!”
“Aye,” the duke said, signaling a footman to refill his glass. “Big, brown, and with his soul showing through. They looked better on a female,” he muttered as he raised the refilled goblet to his lips. “This fellow has soul, all right, but no stamina. Still,” the duke mused, “if this one succumbs to some infection as she did, or an act of fate, there's his brother. I'll send for him, you'll see what I mean. Two years younger than this lad and a yard
strongerâ¦I mean a foot taller. Solid as a rock. A different dam, but he's his mother's image too. She was a wild creature,” he added with a half-smile. “Beautiful. Strong. She had health and courage but chose to ride a horse that didn't have any. Her son looks like her and has all the spirit this one lacks.”
Nothing in the boy's expression showed he was listening. He wasn't heard and it seemed he could not be seen; at least, not by his father.
The older gentleman squirmed in his chair.
“Ah well, accidents can happen even to the strongest,” the duke murmured into his glass. “Certainly they can happen easily enough to the weakest too. Or at least, so one hopes betimes.”
“Your Grace!” The older gentleman cried, half rising, forgetting his host's higher station, and remembering his own offices. “The boy, your son, is still here!”
“Is he?” The duke waved his hand at the child. “Go away, Maxwell. Tell Nurse to bring your brother to me.”
The boy ducked a bow, turned and walked stiffly from the room.
“Your Grace,” the older man said sorrowfully, “surely it isn't meet that your son should hear you
looking forward to some accident that might kill him.”
The duke looked up blearily. “What? I? Never said such a thing. Dreamin', Vicar, that's what you are.” He slumped back in his chair. “Ah, I've got the megrims. An' who'd blame me?” He ran a hand over his ice-colored eyes, covering them. “I've eight and twenty years and too much sorrow on my plate. Two wives within four years, both fine ladies, both dead,” he murmured. “And now, this new one and I don't get on. I've no luck, Vicar. None at all.”
After Maxwell Andre Sutton, Lord Montrose, told the butler to relay his father's message to Nurse, he left the manor house. He was free. Father was drunk, and Nurse would be busy, and his tutor was in the icehouse, tickling Dolly the undermaid. Maxwell made it his business to know such things. So he took the Whitt path, out of sight of the front salon, and paced down to the big square reflecting pool at the side of the house. He stared back at himself through the blur of golden fish that came swarming up to the surface to be fed.
His brother was not a foot taller than he was. Duncan was the same height, only sturdier; at least everyone said so. But he himself hadn't been sick
since wintertime. His father's words stung. They weren't new. Nothing he'd heard was new. Except for the last thing his father had said. That didn't make him unhappy so much as it made him very frightened. He sat by the pool, deep in thought.
At last, he rose and walked toward the stables. The man he sought stood at the door to the barn, currying his father's favorite horse, a pale thoroughbred. The duke said he liked to ride him because then he was a pale rider upon a pale horse. Maxwell didn't understand this. It didn't matter. His father never looked for his reaction.
The man with his father's steed was a short fellow. Stolid and solid, the strongest man Maxwell had ever known. He was gruff, but kind and fair.
“Hello, Osgood,” Maxwell said.
Osgood whipped off his cap and touched his forehead. Boy or not, this lad was the heir to the title. “My Lord?” he said.
“I need a favor. A great favor,” Maxwell said. He raised his dark, serious eyes. “And it's to be a secret, between you and me.”
Osgood's eyebrows went up. “Can't promise that until I hear the favor you'll be needing. Could be treason, y'know. Could be murder you're planning.”
Maxwell giggled. It was a strange sound coming
from a boy who rarely smiled. It pleased Osgood.
“It's actually to prevent a murder,” Maxwell said, suddenly serious.
Osgood squatted down beside the boy. “I'll be your protector, if you want.”
Maxwell shook his head. “A man has to be able to protect himself. You always say that. I'm being taught to fence and shoot like a gentleman. I want you to teach me more; all the other things you know. You always talk about how it was in the war against the Americans. I need to know how to hear people behind me who don't want to be heard. I want to learn what you did from the red Indians. I'm not weak. I was, I suppose, but I'm not anymore. I'm not big, but I can learn. Will you?”
Osgood nodded. He thought a moment. “You think someone wants you dead?”
Maxwell shook his head. “No. I know it,” he said.
Maxwell remained silent, biting his lips. Then he blurted, “Can't say. But I know.”
Maxwell looked up at him. “Sure enough. And if I'm wrong, well, I'll be going to school when I'm
ten years old. I'll need to know then, won't I?”
Osgood sat in thought. “It will be steady, hard work.”
“I want nothing more,” Maxwell said.
Osgood rose to his feet. “Tomorrow morning,” he said. “Sunrise. Before your maths tutor arrives. Meet me here. Mind, I won't be easy on you.”
Maxwell's face was illuminated. He smiled broadly, for the first time in a long while.
o he's gone? Just like that?” the thin young woman asked incredulously.
The young woman she was sitting with shrugged. “Like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “Or that,” she added, opening her hands to show she had nothing in them. “He's gone. No one knows where.”
“Quite possible. And true.”
“Oh! Pippa, you poor thing,” her friend said. “But don't grieve. He may return. It's not as if he ran away from you. That is to say, who would? Why, even here,” she said, sweeping a hand to indicate the whole scene before them, “every male has eyes only for you.”
Pippa looked around the room they were sitting in.
It was a vast public room with high ceilings, tall windows that let the sunshine stream in, and chairs, tables, and settees placed everywhere. Most of the people in the room, at least those not already in wheeled bath chairs, needed a place to sit. The Pump Room and the Assembly roomsâactually, the entire town of Bath, had once been the place to gamble and gambol, as one wit put it. That had been in the last century, and even centuries before that, when the Romans were said to have built shrines and holy wells here. But time had gone on, and Bath itself had not. Now invalids from all over Britain, not just from the aristocracy, came to take the waters, rather than to play and amuse themselves.
The hot, sulfurous-stinking waters at Bath were said to bring health. All that Pippa could see now was that they brought the ancient and the unwell looking for health. Her smile was sad. “Yes. Those males that can see; see me. Most can't see anything farther than their noses though. Or if they can, they're so old they can't do anything about it. And those gentlemen who are under the age of fifty have eyes only for each other, or their wealthy protectors.”
Her friend hid a giggle under one gloved hand.
“It's all very well for you, Adele,” Pippa said morosely. “You're married, and enceinte. But me?” She sighed. “Oh well, at least I'm out of the house at last.”
“Shocking,” Adele said, shaking her head. “That this could happen to you!”
Pippa didn't answer. To disagree would be foolish; to agree would be vain. She was neither. Phillipa Carstairs was absolutely lovely; so everyone had said since the hour she entered the world. She was now four and twenty, and even lovelier than ever, with silver-gold hair, tilted amber eyes, a small shapely nose, a mouth that was a jot too plump, and a slender figure that was astonishingly feminine. Any male that saw her saw that and often nothing more. She knew that, and regretted it. As for her own opinion of her looks: she felt it was silly to be proud of something she hadn't actually done, and equally silly to be unaware of it.
“It's been seven months?” her friend asked.
Phillipa nodded. “Going on eight.”
“Well,” Adele said, eyeing her friend's slender form, “at least no one can say you're in the dismals because he left you with bread in the oven!”
Pippa laughed as her friend blushed at her own outburst. “Not nearly. But he left me in a worse situation; I'm not a disgraced woman or yet really a
jilted one. I'm nothingâjust deserted almost at the altar. My case is an even a worse fate than being a widow. If he'd died and we'd already married, at least I'd be free in a year and pitied, instead of being wondered about and judged by everyone. I can't end the engagement yet. I don't know enough. I can't see other gentlemen without seeming to be heartless either. There hasn't been a word of him, or from him. Not a letter, not a message. He's simply vanished.
“The world's in turmoil,” she went on, sighing. “In spite of this new peace pact with France, there are still spies and secret missions everywhere, or so Grandfather says.” She looked at her friend with a hopeless expression. “It would be one thing if he'd simply jilted me, another if he was met by highwaymen and killed on his way to London to get things in order for our wedding, as he said he was going to do.
“But what if Noel is, or was, a patriot?” she asked. “I'd look fine, wouldn't I, trotting about, partying with new admirers while he molders away somewhere. He may be in prison on the Continent. He may be dead, for all we know. He may have wed someone else. Whatever he is, or was, I can't go on with my life until I know.”
“You loved him so much?” Adele asked.
Pippa shook her head. “I thought so. Now, I don't know. To tell the truth I was dazzled by him, swept off my feet by his charm. He was nothing like the gentlemen I meet at home, and you know I never found anyone I wanted when I had my time in London. It had been years since London anyway,” she added sadly. “My life was slow and pleasant. I didn't note the passage of time until Noel came to visit Grandfather; and when he did, he brought energy and excitement to my humdrum existence. In fact, I didn't even know it was humdrum until he arrived. Nor did I realize how many years had passed since I had come to live with Grandfather and Grandmamma.
“But you see, he'd been everywhere, and he seemed to know everything. He woke me to the world again. He made me laugh, and not only that, he made me remember I was a woman.” She stopped and raised a warning forefinger. “But he never, ever trespassed or presumed. He was always a perfect gentleman. He was handsome, well groomed, and well educated. He made me feel as if he'd been waiting to meet me as long as I'd been waiting for him. Which was ridiculous, of course. But I was thrilled that he actually wanted me. I was eager to be married to him and be off to see his glittering world for myself.”
She shrugged. “Grandfather approved. Noel's credentials were good, and though he was an orphan like me, he came from old stock. We put the notice in the papers, set the day, posted the banns. We had a great party to celebrate and invited everyone in the district and beyond. In fact, I invited you.”
Adele blushed again. “I was newlywed, Pippa, and going on my wedding trip. The Lake District was lovely.”
“I imagine,” Pippa said. “But we had a fine party for our engagement. The last party I attended, actually. Because after it, Noel said he had some business to take care of before the wedding, and he rode off. He never came back. Too much time has passed with no word of him or from him.”
Pippa's hands closed to small fists. “I can't even grieve for him. I don't know whether to hate him or weep for him. Did he desert me willingly? Or was he compelled? How shall I ever know? It's unbearable. Seven months, Adele! I've been living in waiting. I must move on. That's why we're here. Grandmamma said that the cream of Society comes here, and if anyone knows anything about his travels or his disappearance, this would be the place to find out about it.”
“And have you discovered anything?” Adele asked.
“The cream,” Pippa sighed, “has obviously curdled. We have one more gentleman to speak with, and then we'll move on. This fellow is said to know everyone and everything too or, at least, everything he wants to know. He does favors for his friends as well, Grandfather said. We'll see.”
“Why don't you employ a Runner?”
“That way the whole world will know. This way, only the privileged few do.”
“And if you find Noel is alive?” Adele asked.
“I'll kill him,” Pippa said.
Her friend's eyes opened wide. “You're joking, of course.”
Pippa only sighed again. She glanced around the room. Old women and old men, a few crushed relatives sitting with some of them, and a sprinkling of maiden daughters and sad-looking young men met her gaze. Then she sat up straight. “Oh!” she breathed. “Here comes Grandmamma.”
Her statement didn't match the look on her face or the odd sound in her voice, so her friend looked to see what had so affected her.
Pippa's grandmother was short and shaped like a dumpling. The current style didn't suit her at all. Perhaps that was why she chose to have her short curling hair such a strange bright yellow color. This afternoon, Lady Carstairs was beaming and
excited. That might have been because of the gentleman at her side. Pippa and her friend frankly stared. The man was slender, a bit above average height, dressed in the height of fashion. But they weren't looking only at his clothing.
As he bent his head to speak to her grandmother, Pippa saw a finely etched profile. As they came nearer, he turned his head to look at her. She caught her breath. His face was incredibly handsome, or so she thought. His hair was shining and dark brown, his skin was clear, his cheekbones sculptural, and his mouth beautifully shaped. His eyes were thickly lashed and intensely brown, and in them she swore she saw a sudden spark of such rich, deep intelligence and interest in her that it took her breath away. She felt her heart flutter, and yet she'd always believed that only happened to ingÃ©nues in novels.
“Pippa, my love,” her grandmother trilled in an excited voice, “here is Maxwell, Lord Montrose. He's the gentleman your grandfather suggested we speak with. Isn't this a lucky happenchance? He says he'll be glad to help us in our search for poor Noel.”
For the first time in a very long time, Pippa didn't know what to say. That was, not until Lord Montrose spoke.
“Utterly charmed,” he drawled in a bored voice that belied what he said. He nodded in what might have been a bow. When he lifted his head, he took a golden eyeglass from his pocket and raised it to look at her. Pippa could no longer see anything but bright malicious amusement in his magnified eye as he examined her. “Delighted to be of service,” he said in that same flat, insincere tone.
“Indeed,” Pippa answered stiffly, ignoring him and turning to her grandmother. “He says he'll help us? But why ever should he?”
She'd been incredibly rude, reducing the nobleman to a servant or an object by talking about him in front of him, but he only smiled at her. Their gazes locked.
“For your grandfather's peace of mind, of course,” he said, his voice again belying his words. “And for this delightful young lady,” he added with a wry smile directed down at her grandmother, which made the lady titter.
No, Pippa thought, and her grandmother positively simpered. The fellow was an affected popinjay of the worst sort. What was her grandmother thinking, becoming involved with the likes of such a creature?
“Indeed?” Pippa said again, keeping her expression calm, and ignoring his gaze. “And here is my
dear friend Mrs. Standish,” she said, in as bored a tone as she could muster. This time, his lordship bowed his head.
“Mrs. Standish,” he said.
Adele colored, and ducked her head.
But his lordship smiled at Pippa again. “Well met,” he said, and lowered his eyeglass.
She pretended not to be aware of it. “And so,” she asked her grandmother, “how do we start this quest? Have you told him our objective?”
“Of course,” he said, not giving her grandmamma a chance to answer. But he glanced curiously at Adele.
“Yes,” Pippa said, embarrassed, but her head still high. “Quite right. This is neither the time nor place. I'm so sorry to involve you in this Adele, and so near our teatime too.” Now she gazed directly into Lord Montrose's eyes. “This is such a personal matter, my lord. Can we not perhaps meet somewhere more private to discuss it?”
“Certainly,” he said. “At dinner? At your hotel, so as to avoid comment? Which would certainly happen if you came to my rooms.”
“Excellent,” Pippa's grandmother said.
“At eight then,” he said, bowed, and left them.
They watched him walk away.
“Now, there's a fascinating fellow,” Adele breathed.
“So charming,” Pippa's grandmother sighed.
“He minces,” Pippa said.
Pippa inspected herself in the glass. She wore a simple pale pink high-waisted gown flowing down from beneath her breasts to her slippered toes. A pink ribbon held up her flaxen hair, and a shell pink cameo rested on her snowy breast. She nodded. Shell pink and lily white, a perfect English lady. She turned and inspected her derriÃ¨re in the glass. A perfect fit. She looked fashionable and self-assured, and yet appealing. The subtle flow of the gown flattered her high breasts and pert derriÃ¨re without emphasizing them. Still, there were other frocks in her wardrobe that made her look even better. But this one was so simple there was no way to know she'd spent an hour trying on gowns to find one that made it look as though she had no intention of impressing anyone.
“Perfect,” she told her maid.
Then she picked up her hem and made her way down the dim hallway of the inn to her grandmother's room. It was time to go to dinner, and since that would be the first time she'd been alone
with that lady since they'd met Lord Montrose, it was past time to find out why she approved of him. Whatever he'd said, he wasn't the sort of gentleman her grandfather would have cared for. Of that, Pippa was certain.
Her grandfather had worked in politics and won himself a title for service to His Majesty long before he'd retired to the countryside. He didn't move in Society, but he had inherited a fine manor house, the Old Place, and more. They had enough funds to be welcome anywhere, if they ever went anywhere. He now devoted himself to the scholarly pursuits of research and writing and was much respected, not least of all by his wife and orphaned granddaughter.
He was quite old, but not infirm. Still, he seldom traveled farther than his front gate these days. But the world found a way to his front door. That was how Pippa had met Noel. He'd been making an inquiry about a fourteenth-century poet as a favor to his own grandfather. Peasants, poets, statesmen, and politics; her grandfather was known to know everything, and he gladly shared his knowledge with the world and his granddaughter. Pippa believed she had as good or better an education than any man, thanks to him.
Now she paused at her grandmother's door.
Lady Carstairs wasn't a flighty lady. Although not very interested in philosophy or politics, she was as clever and in her own way as wise as her husband. So her being enthralled with the arrogant nobleman they were about to have dinner with was surprising. Pippa thought it might be the effect of having left the remote countryside after so many years, and finding herself in the world of fashion again.