Authors: Susannah Bamford
Edward had perhaps taken a proprietary interest in the handsome Andre Maubert, but such an interest could be misconstrued by a nosy parlormaid. She remembered Annie clearly, for Darcy had liked her and was surprised when she'd been dismissed. Her father had hinted that Annie had been pregnant, and if that was the case, what better reason than for Annie to lie to get back at the employer who had fired her? What was important was that Claude was fully prepared to blackmail her father, hold it over his head for as long as it suited his purpose to do so.
That meant to get free of her husband, she had to clear her father. For Darcy realized that if she left Claude now or in two months' time, Claude would methodically destroy her father's reputation. Claude had said that he had letters. If it were true, they could only be in one place: Claude's third-floor private office. It took up a large portion of that floor, and it could only be reached by a private staircase that Claude kept locked. But there had to be a way. She would find it.
It was that dull ten minutes before luncheon, when guests slowly trickled into the drawing room and waited to be called. There had been chatter and laughter, but when the ten minutes had stretched to twenty, conversation sputtered and died.
Claude had retreated and sat by the window, smoking. Edith Taft played with the black Brussels lace on her sleeve, then started in on her Etruscan bracelets. Her husband, Newland Taft, and the handsome bachelor Ambrose Hartley stood by the French doors, their laughter occasionally making the restless Maud Valentine shake her skirts and scowl noticeably. It was common knowledge that Maud's friend Cora Van Cormandt had invited her to felicitate her capture of Ambrose Hartley. Cora was said to be anxious for her friend, since Mr. Hartley was inexplicably taking a long time to commit himself. And Maud was no longer young, twenty-four on her next birthday. But Cora had been making her pretty concern too obvious, and tongues were waggingâwere the rumors about Cora and young Ambrose a few years ago true? Could she be playing a double game? By the look on Maud Valentine's face, it was a distinct possibility.
If Adelle were there she would certainly know every detail and would have slipped into Darcy's bedroom after her breakfast tray had arrived to discuss it in thrilling whispers. Thank heaven Adelle was not here. Darcy had absolutely no interest in sulky Maud Valentine's marital hopes. Oh, if Ambrose Hartley didn't commit himself, someone else would, someone interchangeable with him. Maude would hardly notice the difference.
Cora rustled into the room, resplendent in rose-colored satin trimmed with white velvet and Valenciennes lace. “Lunch will be delayed just a few more minutes,” she said. “Ned should be arriving in a moment with another guest from town. He went to get him at the station.”
“Ah, a newcomer. Who?” Edith Taft demanded.
“Yes, Mrs. Van Cormandt, who is keeping me from your excellent hock?” Ambrose Hartley asked jovially.
Cora wasn't listening; she'd turned away, her head cocked toward the hall. “Oh, here they are, I heard Ned's voice in the hall. I must tell Jackson that we're ready.”
She scurried out through one door and Ned Van Cormandt came through the other. By his side strode Tavish Finn.
Confusion shot through Darcy with an alarming charge that almost lifted her from her chair. She felt her face grow warm. She stood and quickly walked to the opposite end of the room from the two men. Behind her, she heard Ned present Mr. Finn to several of the company. She heard Claude's cold how-do-you-do.
It was impossible. Couldn't she escape the man? Darcy looked out at the famous Van Cormandt gardens, now frozen and bleak, and prayed that Tavish Finn would have sense enough not to remark on their meeting under Columbine Nash's roof. She'd never told Claude she'd called, of course. If he should catch her in a lie â¦
She turned. Tavish Finn caught her eye. She didn't bow. From the corner of her eye, she saw Claude watching them as he moved across the room toward her. Fervently she hoped that Tavish would know that the absence of a bow meant that she did not wish to recognize the fact that they'd been introduced. Would this rangy stranger from the West know that fine nuance of etiquette?
His pale green eyes showed no emotion as they recognized her intent. Then his gaze moved past her and he bowed to Mr. Taft.
Claude reached her side. “You look flushed, my dear,” he murmured. “We've had to wait so long for luncheon, I fear you have become ill.”
“I'm fine, Claude.” What was he doing here, how could he be here, what was she to do? Why was her heart beating so? Why were her hands shaking this way?
“That silly Cora Van Cormandt, holding us up for this Mr. Finn of hers.”
“Yes, I wish we would go in.”
Darcy turned slightly away from Claude, and was face to face with Ned and Tavish Finn. Ned introduced her.
Determined not to show her agitation, Darcy looked at Tavish squarely as she acknowledged the introduction. “And did you have a pleasant trip up, Mr. Finn?”
“Oh, yes,” Tavish answered. “It's beautiful country up here. I had my nose pressed to the window during the entire journey.”
“You've never been to the Hudson Valley?” Darcy asked, and while they traded the usual observances on the river and the landscape she felt Claude beside her, not saying a word, but watching. Was he seeing her confusion? There was something in the air suddenly, some charge between her and Tavish Finn. Was it merely from the fact that they shared a secret? Try as she might she could not seem to act normally. Surely Claude would see it.
Tavish Finn was a danger to her; he could ruin her father once more with this business scheme. Edward had told her it involved buying up a bankrupt shipping line and refitting it in order to compete with Jay Gould and Collis Huntington's Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which held California transport in a stranglehold. But was there such a company, and was the scheme feasible? She didn't know, and she feared another collapse for her father. It sounded like another of the many schemes he'd invested in and then lost his money.
She had so many reasons to dislike the man, and even more to fear him. And yet her heart had lifted at the sight of him!
What is happening to me?
Darcy wondered crazily.
Tavish began to talk to Claude, who answered grudgingly, his full, wet lips pursed with distaste. Tavish continued to chat amiably. Occasionally, his eyes flickered over to her. Each time, Darcy would steel herself not to drop her own gaze.
Cora called them to lunch. Darcy knew she should eat, she knew Claude would notice her full plate, her untouched glass of wine, but she could not choke anything down her constricted throat. She spoke, she nodded and laughed, and she could have wept with joy when lunch was over and, pleading a headache, she had an excuse to escape to the privacy of her room.
She followed the chattering and laughing women from the table. They stopped as Maud Valentine paused to throw a last gay remark at Ambrose Hartley. Her heart beating, Darcy felt Tavish behind her, close, closer than he should be. A wrapped package was pressed into her hand. She had to take it, or run the risk of dropping it and having the others see. Her fingers curled around it, and she hid it among the folds of her dress.
When she reached her room, she unwrapped it eagerly.
Leaves of Grass
. Smiling, she ran her fingers over the leather. The forbidden, enticing book seemed to burn against her skin, reminding her of the danger of her rebellious heart.
Tavish waited until Ned and Claude had entered the carriage. Then he hesitated, his hand on the door.
“Gentlemen, I hope you don't mind. But I had a sudden vision of Miss Valentine shrieking her way down a toboggan slide, and I believe I've made the wrong choice for the afternoon after all.”
“Maud Valentine, eh?” Ned Van Cormandt laughed. “Don't blame you a bit, Mr. Finn. It's a much more delightful prospect than Mr. Statton, myself, and a consultation about a piece of property near the river.”
Tavish grinned and touched his hat to hide the foreboding he felt as he waved them off. He'd expected Claude Statton to scowl, or perhaps to urge him to accompany them anyway. But those yellow cat eyes had merely sent him the briefest of messages:
I am watching you
Tavish knew the man had seen his interest in his wife. That was unfortunate. Not only did he not want to arouse Claude's suspicions for any reason, he didn't want to make things difficult for Darcy.
He had maybe twenty minutes or so to nose around Ned Van Cormandt's papers before there was a chance he would be discovered. Darcy was in her room with a headache and Columbine's copy of Whitman. The rest of the party, with much protesting laughter at being forced to move directly after lunch, had been bundled into carriages and driven off to a toboggan slope with an assortment of servants and maids and hampers full of small delicacies that Tavish knew would be devoured despite the ingestion of a full meal but an hour or so before.
So he had twenty, possibly thirty, minutes. It would take him another twenty to walk to the toboggan slope in time to take a run or two and flirt with Maud Valentine while Ambrose Hartley glowered, just so Mrs. Van Cormandt could tell her husband that there was a
of drama going on underneath their noses, and wouldn't it make the house party a success after all? Columbine had briefed him well.
Tavish quickly made his way to Ned's private study. He felt strangely divided about his task. He knew something or someone had put fear into Ned's eyes, but he felt badly about trying to find out behind his back. He liked Nedâthough not as much as Columbine, most certainlyâand he told himself he was helping him, but even Tavish didn't believe that palaver wholeheartedly. He was still nosing through a man's private papers, no matter what justification he used.
With an approving eye, he noted the fine solid furniture, the Turner on the wall. Ned was one of the few millionaires these days who didn't decorate his rooms as though he expected to receive the Sun King in them. He was famous for his disdain for things Frenchâexcepting wines, of course. And Cora Van Cormandt set a good table, as well. Excellent wines and a perfectly done piece of turbot were hard to come by. If only, Tavish thought, stopping in his tracks in the middle of the room, if only he hadn't been too distracted to enjoy it. Just his luck. He finally got an excellent meal, and he spent all his time trying not to look at moonlit skin and a pair of dark gray eyes.
With a sigh, Tavish moved toward the desk. For the thousandth time, he wished he and Jamie had stayed in Solace where they belonged.
Darcy waited. Her room was in the front of the house, and she heard the crunch of the carriage wheels as they drove away. The house was quiet. Even Claude had been induced to go out.
Now that she was finally alone, she was restless. She turned the pages of the book. As much as she wanted to read, she couldn't concentrate. The print blurred in front of her eyes, then focused. Whitman wrote of love with a frankness that shocked her. But it was so exhilarating, all the same. The words sang with a rhythm that felt new. It seemed to capture the feeling of her skin, her heart, her limbs. Her body felt as electric as the poet described, altogether different, suffused and tingling, aching and full of energy all at once.
Suddenly, she couldn't bear to stay in her room. Perhaps a walk in the famous Van Cormandt gardens, now frozen and still, would calm her.
Solange had undressed her for her nap. Darcy laced her corset loosely, then quickly slipped into her white wool dress. She knew she needed every second of the two hours or so she'd be alone to compose herself for when she would next have to be in the same room with Claude and Tavish Finn.
She could hear the clatter of china and silver from the dining room as the servants set the table for dinner, but there was no other sound. Darcy slipped down the hall toward the conservatory in the rear. There was a small door to the gardens there, and no one would be about.
As she passed Ned's study, she heard the noise of shuffling papers. Surely Ned had gone out; she'd seen the top of his beaver hat as he'd climbed into the carriage and took the reins. Curious, Darcy pushed open the door a few inches. She nearly jumped back when she saw Tavish Finn at Ned's desk.
It took her a moment to realize that he was rifling it. Her heart thundered in her ears with the knowledge. He was an adventurer then, a swindler.
“Mr. Finn.” She had to hand it to him; he didn't jump. He looked up composedly.
Silence hummed between them while Darcy slowly became aware that he was not about to explain to her why he had his hand in Ned Van Cormandt's drawer. He was counting on the discretion bred in her bones to close the door and withdraw.
“Mr. Finn,” she said at last, “you are going through Mr. Van Cormandt's desk.”
“Yes. Ned graciously offered me the use of the room to write my letters. I'm searching for a pen.”
Darcy walked into the room. “I see. But there are two on top of the desk, there.”
“So there are,” Tavish replied genially. “Perhaps if you lend your help, we'll find the ink.”
He cocked his head and smiled at her, but Darcy responded with a frown. She was furious that he would think he could charm her out of this. And there was something else, a fury that felt so hot it must be personal.
felt betrayed; it wasn't just her anxiety for Ned. “I think not,” she said icily. “I think I'd rather wait for Mr. Van Cormandt's return to inform him of what his guest was doing in his absence.”
“Ah, Mrs. Statton, you leap to a conclusion whichâ”
“I did not leap, sir. And well you know it.”
They stood, facing each other, Darcy obdurate, Tavish seemingly at ease. The slight smile on his face infuriated her even more.
“Mrs. Statton, perhaps we should talk.” He skirted the desk and came toward her. He touched her arm.