Authors: Susannah Bamford
He'd have been less nervous if the voice wasn't so calm. Tavish turned slowly. As he'd expected, Claude had a small gun tucked into a very steady hand. And he was alone.
“Hang on, darlin',” he said to Darcy quietly.
“Put me down,” she said. Her eyes were on her husband. “I can walk now, I think. The air helps. I'll talk to him.”
“I'm not letting you go now,” he said. “Not now.”
“Mr. Finn,” Claude said, “I suggest you turn my wife over to me.
“No, sir. I'm not leaving her here to be butchered.”
“Put her down, sir!”
Tavish considered his options and found them wanting. He did still have his caneâsomehow he'd had the presence of mind to hang on to it. It was in his left hand, hidden under the material of Darcy's long robe. But a cane wasn't much defense against a gun, no matter how small and prettily pearl-handled the gun was. And he'd have to put Darcy down to use it.
“Keep moving toward Fifth,” Darcy said in his ear. “Tell himâscandal.”
Of course. Tavish took a step backward. “Millionaire's Row, this stretch of Fifth Avenue is called,” he said softly to Claude. “The twin Vanderbilt mansions start at Fifty-first. William Kissam and Alva are just a a block away on Fifty-third, aren't they? And Cornelius is a few blocks north of us. Not to mention the Goelets, Darius Mills, Huntington, Hinkleâthey're all around us, aren't they?” He took another step.
“Are you giving me a lesson in New York geography, Finn? If you take another step, you're a dead man.”
Tavish stopped. He was in a dilemma, to be sure. He didn't want to let go of Darcy, but as it was, she was shielding him from a bullet. “Times may be changing, but scandal is scandal. Divorce is less offensive than murder, Mr. Statton. Especially when the wife involved is more than willing to be carried away. Especially when servants have eyes and ears and access to Colonel Mann.”
Claude laughed. “Colonel Mann is in my pocket.”
“But is Mrs. Astor in your pocket, Mr. Statton? And are the Rhinelanders, the Roosevelts, the Joneses, the Cuttings, the Van Rensselaers, theâ”
Claude's lips bared back from his teeth. “Shut your mouth, sir!”
“Do you really think,” Tavish said in a low, steady voice, backing away again toward Fifth, “that the blessed four hundred you craved acceptance from would accept the word of a Statton, even with all his money, and not a Snow? You know the Old Guard would not. And they are what matters to you, aren't they? Times are changing, but not that rapidly. Money cannot win out over blood. Not yet.”
“Claude, please.” Darcy twisted to look at her husband. “Please let me go. There will be no scandal, I will say nothing about tonight. Just pleaseâ”
“You don't understand, do you?” Claude said, and he took several strides forward, eliminating the distance Tavish had managed to gain. “I
you, Darcy. I
you! I saved your pathetic father, and I saved you. This is my reward! Tonight. This when you pay. Were you such an innocent? Were your eyes not open five years ago when you accepted me? Did you not live with me for five years and eat my food and wear the diamonds I placed around your neck? Did you think I would let you get away when you are just as guilty as I?”
Tavish could feel her shrinking against him, wetness against his neck. She was crying. “No,” he whispered fiercely. “Don't listen to him.”
Claude reached out then, before Tavish could move, and fingered her black velvet gown. “This is mine.” He ripped off a satin slipper from her foot and crumpled it in his hand. “This is mine.” And then he slid his hand up her bare leg, even as Tavish, horrified, struggled to back away as Darcy shook and sobbed against him. “And this,” Claude said in a voice thick with insinuation, “this white, perfect limb is mine, has been mine. Many, many times.” His yellow eyes gleamed, and he smiled.
Tavish cracked. He wrenched backward from Claude, and without planning it, Darcy was sliding down the length of his side and his cane was flashing out from beneath her skirts. He transferred it to his free hand, and it whistled through the air, coming down on Claude's thin white wrist.
Claude howled and stepped backward. He raised the gun. Tavish struck out again, this time at Claude's temple. Claude's slight body crumpled, and he fell to the pavement.
Tavish grabbed her hand, and they started to run.
Then behind them he could hear the footmen, the bodyguards coming, spilling out of the kitchen door. Perhaps Claude had told them to wait, had wanted to take Darcy back himself. Whatever the reason, they were there, and Tavish knew he couldn't fight them. He pulled Darcy's wrist, urging her on, faster. She was running unsteadily from missing one slipper, but she kicked the other one off, and she was able to keep up.
They made it to the cab seconds ahead of the largest pursuer. Tavish pushed Darcy into the cab ahead of him, then lashed out with his cane at the man with fists like hams who was too damn close. The cane was nothing more than an intrusive fly, and the man ignored it and kept coming. Still a bit off-balance from his attempt with the cane, Tavish saw one huge fist heading for him. And then a whip appeared from nowhere and slashed in the giant's face. The fist glanced Tavish's shoulder with enough power to send him sprawling back against the cab. Blood was in his attacker's eyes, and it gave Tavish time to haul himself upright. He leaped into the cab, screaming at the driver to hurry.
The driver flashed the helpful whip again, this time over the horse's head, and they were off, streaming down Fifth Avenue with Darcy sobbing helplessly against his chest. Free.
ARCY SPENT ALMOST
all the next day sleeping. She woke occasionally to find Columbine at her bedside, and once she swallowed some broth, and once some tea and toast. She asked for Tavish, and Columbine said she had sent him away until Darcy was better. Darcy slept againâshe seemed to have a voracious appetite for sleepâand it wasn't until she woke the following morning that she felt anything like herself.
Columbine had left a soft blue merino dress for her. The underclothes and stockings looked brand-new. Darcy woke early and dressed herself, though she occasionally had to sit and rest. She hoped her weakness was due only to the lack of solid food over the last few days and would dissipate.
She peeked out into the unfamiliar hall and made her way down the stairs. The house was so small that she had no difficulty finding Columbine's front parlor. She'd thought she'd be alone this early in the morning, but she was surprised to see Columbine already up, reading a book with a tea tray in front of her.
“I'm sorry,” Darcy said, hesitating at the door. “I don't want to disturb youâ”
“Whatever are you doing up and dressed?” Columbine rose and hurried toward her. “You're as weak as a kitten. Why didn't you stay in bed, you silly? I had everything planned. I was to bring you your breakfast in bed, and Bell would help you dress. You've spoiled it.” She led Darcy to the armchair across from her. “Now, sit here for just a moment, and I'll fetch some fresh tea. I don't like to disturb Bell so early.” Columbine ran out and Darcy sat, feeling her usual warm rush of confusion in Columbine's presence.
She also felt out of place. Why had Tavish brought her here instead of her father's? She barely knew Columbine, for all that she liked her. But the lamps were lit on this chill morning, there was a fire in the grate, and Columbine had tucked a soft quilt around her knees. Tea was on its way, and Darcy decided to revel in her contentedness for the moment.
Columbine came back quickly and poured a cup of steaming tea for Darcy. She sipped it gratefully; it was good and strong. They drank their cups in a companionable silence.
When she'd eaten a biscuit and Columbine had poured her a second cup, Darcy felt stronger. “Thank you,” she said. “I didn't know food could taste so good.”
“Mrs. Hudson will fix a proper breakfast for you later,” Columbine said. “But until then, have another biscuit. Mrs. Hudson is from New Orleans, and there's nothing like Southern biscuits, I always say.” She held the plate out to Darcy.
Darcy took a biscuit and put it on her plate. “You mentioned to me that Tavish had called yesterday,” she said. “I thinkâit's difficult to remember what I dreamed and whatâ”
“Yes. He called, and I sent him away. Lord knows I'm not one to follow the proprieties, Darcy, but I feel I should point out to you that there will be less talk if you don't see Tavish for a little while. Your husband can make things â¦ very difficult.”
Darcy spooned some jam on her biscuit, but she put it down before taking a bite. “Has Mr. Statton called?” she asked hesitantly.
“No, he has not. I wouldn't think he'd have the gall, would you?”
“I would think he had the gall,” Darcy said softly.
Columbine gave her a long, steady look. “Heaven only knows what you suffered. Do you know what he was to do to you, Darcy?”
“Tavish told me a bit in the cab. Iâ”
“I am sure he left the worse of it for me, Darcy, for I can be blunt. Your husband wanted to render you childless and sexless. Once Dr. Arbuthnot did his work, not only would you be unable to bear children, but you would not be able to receive pleasure from the sexual act again.”
Darcy set her teacup down. “I see.”
“It was an abomination. It was not enough for him to keep you there, locked away, to monitor your movements and read your mailâoh, Tavish told me. That wicked, evil manâ”
“Don't!” Darcy cried. She rose, knocking over her teacup on the table in front of her. “Don't speak of him that way. Can't you see what it means when you say such things?” she said wildly, clasping and unclasping her hands. “It means that I, too, am evil. I, too, am guiltyâ”
“No! Darcy, youâ”
“I stayed!” Darcy fell to her knees in front of Columbine. Tears streaked down her face. “He told me that night that I allowed myself to be bought and paid for. That I closed my eyes to his character and allowed him to place jewels around my neck and drink champagne at his table. And what he knows and the rest of the world does not is that I also allowed him rights that â¦ that perhaps no one, not even a husband, has a right to inflict â¦ I allowed him to degrade me,” she said with difficulty. She raised her brimming eyes to Columbine. “Was I not as guilty as he of crimes, perhaps even more so?”
Columbine wrenched Darcy's hands apart and took them in her own. “What did you know of Claude Statton when you married him?” she asked urgently.
“I knew that he was rich. And I knew that I did not like him,” Darcy said bitterly.
“If such a thing were a sin, women everywhere would be damned for eternity,” Columbine said dryly, “and I among them. Darcy, if this was the best of all possible worlds, such things would not happen. If the world was as I would wish it, women would not be forced to do such things. What were your alternatives? To watch your father be ruined? It wasn't as though you could use your brain and go to work, Darcy. You had been bred for your destiny of idleness since the day you were born. And even if you had wished to, what doors would be open for you, with no education, no skills? Why, you couldn't even have been a decent prostitute, I'll wager! No, you did what you had to do. And you were a child!”
“Hardly. I was twenty-two.”
“A child,” Columbine repeated, “not a woman, for you were shielded from reality, cosseted, not talked to as a person, not encouraged intellectually. What decision
you have made?”
“So I have no responsibility for my life?” Darcy asked her.
“Of course you do,” Columbine said impatiently. “You made a bad choice with Claude Statton, and in a better world you would have made a different one. In a better world you would not have felt compelled to wifely loyalty to a man who did not deserve one
of such fealty. You made your choices, and you did your duty for as long as you could, but you
Are you guilty?” Columbine shook her head so violently that her silver earrings danced. “No. I will not allow you to say such a thing. I will not allow you to feel it!”
Darcy smiled at Columbine's vehemence. “So what am I to feel, then?” she asked, gently teasing.
Columbine smiled, then stood and gently raised her to her feet. She gripped her hands. “You are to feel proud of your bravery, and lucky. Sad for a time, but not for long. And you will begin your life today, your life as a woman. You will escape the rules of the four hundred, and you will find your own rules. You will take one step forward, and then another, and one day you will look behind you and see that you left the horror behind long ago but had been too busy to notice.”
“But what shall I do?” Darcy asked. Panic shot through her at Columbine's vision of that strong, resolute figure. She felt rather helpless in the face of it.
Columbine laughed her loud, exuberant laugh. She placed her hands on Darcy's shoulders. “Oh, Darcy. Whatever you choose! That is the best thing of all.”
Darcy and Columbine were reading by the fire when Adelle was announced. Columbine looked over her spectacles at Darcy, whose face was flushed with surprise and pleasure.
“Do you wish to see her?”
“Of course,” Darcy said. “She's come here, imagine. Adelle has always been a good friend to me, Columbine. I want to introduce you.”
Columbine nodded shortly and removed her spectacles. “Of course. Show her in, Bell.”
Adelle seemed cool at the introduction Darcy gave with such pleasure. Perhaps she felt uncomfortable, Darcy reasoned. In the comfortable, shabby parlor, she looked even more overdressed in her bright yellow coat with beaded passementerie and a matching hat with stiff black feathers that seemed to lunge at the world aggressively.