Authors: Susannah Bamford
“You can speak of anything to me,” Columbine said. She put her hand on Darcy's arm. “I believe you know that, Mrs. Statton.”
Darcy met her gaze steadily. “I believe I do, Mrs. Nash.”
And then the door of the sitting room opened with a crash and banged against a small chair. Tavish Finn walked in with his hat in his hand and a scowl on his face.
“For God's sake, Columbine, where the devil is Bell? And what do you mean, you're not in?” Tavish's green galloping gaze swept the room impatiently and was reined in when it got to Darcy. He swallowed painfully. “Forgive me. I didn't realize you had company, Columbine.”
Columbine's voice was cool. “I suspected that from the manner of your entrance, Mr. Finn. Though why you feel you may enter my sitting room in such a fashion when I'm alone troubles me. May I present Mrs. Statton. Mr. Finn.”
“We've met,” Tavish said. He realized he was being brusque as soon as the words left his mouth, but he couldn't help it; he was too busy staring. Mrs. Claude Statton looked pale and unhappy and very damn beautiful. It made his head ache. What a bother that woman was. He'd almost forgotten her today.
Darcy rose. “I should be going. I've stayed much too long. Thank you for the tea, Mrs. Nash.”
Columbine looked from Darcy to Tavish and back again. “Nonsense, you can't go, Iâ”
Tavish broke in. “Mrs. Statton, please do not leave on my account.”
Darcy was already gathering her things distractedly. She had removed her hat without thinking; she never removed her hat for a morning call. She felt as though she was waking from a dream. The intimacy she was beginning to feel in Columbine's presence had vanished in an instant, and she desperately felt the need to leave. The very air was disturbed by Tavish Finn's masculinity. His eyes ticked over her. No gentleman looked at a lady in such fashion, Darcy told herself furiously. And why was he so casual with Columbine?
They are lovers
. Why else would he enter with such assurance, such informality? It was easy to see that the coolness with which Columbine had greeted him masked an irritation that was familiar and well-tried. They were lovers, of course, everyone knew that Columbine Nash took lovers.
“Mr. Finn, you said you were leaving?” Columbine asked meaningfully.
Darcy broke in. “No, I must insist,” she said smoothly. “I really must go.” At least he had interrupted just at the point where Darcy might have been indiscreet. How could she have dreamed a woman like Columbine Nash could keep a secret? Look what her favorite, Victoria Woodhull, had done to that distinguished Henry Beecher. Accused him of adultery in her weekly! Darcy shuddered, thinking of what Mrs. Nash could do with the infermation that Mrs. Claude Statton was forced to submit to her husband in ways she could not bear. “Good-bye. Good-bye, Mr. Finn.”
She hated him, with his assurance and his height and his scowl. She hated the way he bawled Columbine's name. She hated his clean-shaven upper lip, and she hated his hat. Not looking at him, Darcy extended her fingertips for an instant, no more, then fled from the room. In the hallway, there was no Bell or Mrs. Hudson to be found, but her coat was hanging on a hook. Darcy bundled herself into it even as she heard Columbine rising and heading across the sitting room with rapid steps.
Darcy fumbled with the door. It finally opened with a groan, and she tumbled through. Gulping down drafts of fresh air, she fled down disheveled Twenty-third Street, past the tiny, shabby homes and the strange people who turned to look at her furs and her clothes, heading for dear familiar Fifth.
“Tavish, really. I am very put out. Very put out indeed. If I leave a message that I'm not at home, then I'm
not at home.
If you could master the most elementary social rulesâ”
“I've mastered them, as you well know, dear Columbine. I just don't happen to like
Columbine stopped in the middle of her energetic pacing, her deep purple skirt whirling around her ankles. “You interrupted, Tavish, a most important visit. You frightened her away, poor soul, didn't you see that?”
Tavish dropped into an armchair. “I apologize. I
!” he repeated to Columbine's raised eyebrows. “I didn't see her at first when I arrived. And then I didn't get a chance to excuse myself and leave. I was about to. Honest. Whatever did you say to her to make her bolt like that, Columbine?”
With a sigh, Columbine sat down in the chair opposite him. “I don't think it was my talk, outrageous as it was. I was trying to put her at ease. You know I can't chatter about dresses and parties and the weather. Perhaps I went too far.”
“ âThe Sacred Cows of Sexual Freedom'?” Tavish asked, his eyes twinkling merrily. “âOur communities are hot little hells'!”
“That was Victoria Woodhull who said that, not me, darling,” Columbine said. She raised her arms above her head and stretched, yawning, then eyed him through the arch of her slender arms. “How you do condescend, Mr. Finn.”
“No, never. I only tease. You know I am proud of you. Why do you think she came?”
Columbine let her arms drop. She frowned. “She's in trouble, Tavish, that I know. Perhaps she came to me for some kind of help. That's why your interruption was so unfortunate.”
“Then I am truly sorry, Columbine. Though why such a woman as Mrs. Statton could need help, I can't imagine. She has everything she desires, doesn't she? That famous mausoleum she lives in, the Worth gownsâwhy, she most likely has consultations with Mr. Worth himself on her wardrobe!”
“It isn't like you to be unkind, Tavish. Women such as Mrs. Statton can have great sadness in their lives. As I well know,” she said quietly. “And you should not have forgotten.”
Tavish shifted uneasily. “I'm sorry, Columbine.”
“Good. Now why did you barge into my sitting room today? You knew if I'd left that message with Mrs. Hudson that I didn't want to be disturbed. And you were to come at five, if I remember correctly, and I always do.”
“I have a question for you and a favor to ask. Which would you like first?”
“The question, please. It sounds more harmless.”
“Do you know a Mrs. Usenko?”
She looked at him warily. “That is not a harmless question. Yes, I've heard of her, though I don't know her. Why do you ask?”
“I bribed Claude Statton's messenger boy this morning and had the privilege of reading his city correspondence. Not very enlightening, unfortunately. But there was a message from this lady having to do with some kind of payment.”
“Why Claude Statton? You suspect him as part of this group you're investigating?”
“Perhaps. Are you going to tell me about Mrs. Usenko?”
Columbine sat up straighter. “Mrs. Usenko is an abortionist. Like Madame Restell used to be, a high-priced abortionist with society folk among her clientele. She was an assistant to Madame Restell and took over after Madame cut her own throat. She has the accoutrementsâa mansion on Madison Avenue, a carriageâshe even has ermine-trimmed robes, like Madame Restell did. I hope she does not suffer the same fate. Anthony Comstock has thundered about her, too. Let's hope he doesn't drive her to suicide. Do you think Claude Statton used her for a mistress in distress?”
Tavish drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “It wasn't clear in the note. It just mentioned some figures. Odd â¦ Now for the favor. I want you to get me invited to the Van Cormandt house party at their place in the Hudson Valley.”
“Tavish! I can't do that.”
“Yes, you can. Ned Van Cormandt will do anything you want him to.”
“But I can't ask himâ”
“You can do it.”
“You are a pest, Tavish Finn, and I hate you. All right, I'll see what I can do. This wouldn't have anything to do with Mr. Statton would it?”
“Will he be there?”
Columbine nodded. “Along with his wife.”
Tavish stood up and began to move around restlessly. “I didn't realize that.” That was all he needed, the distraction of those frank, unsettling gray eyes. No lady would look at a gentleman in such a fashion.
But perhaps he could use her, after all. Perhaps Darcy Statton would talk in the peaceful setting of Greenbriars. If he could get her alone.
“I wish you'd tell me what you're doing, Tavish. You suddenly appear in my life again, and all you tell me is oblique and deliberately vague.” Columbine tugged on the tail of his coat as he walked by so that he would look at her. “I worry.”
“Columbine, I don't know what I'm looking for yet. And don't worry, I'm not in any danger, except for the danger of never receiving my tea in this establishment.”
Columbine rang for Bell. “I don't believe you.”
“You should. Now, tell me about Mrs. Statton,” he said, dropping negligently into a chair. “You said that when she married Claude, rumors were that the Snows were ruined. What happened?”
“I'm not sure. It was after that scandal about her mother.”
Tavish sat up. “Scandal?”
Columbine laughed. “I thought that might get your attention. Her mother ran away with James Fitzchurchâthe painter. Do you know him? He's quite good. It must have been more than ten years ago. He painted her portrait, and she ran away with him to Paris. They still live there, oh, in separate houses, but together. I hear they're still very happy, and they travel in that circle, you know, that overlooks the fact that she's not divorced. Amelia Grace Snow was a great beauty, the most famous beauty of her generation. Edward Snow never got over it, they say. Sad, really. So Darcy married money, and Claude Statton married a name. It goes on all the time, doesn't it?”
“Can't anyone get tea in this house of yours?” Tavish asked irritably.
Columbine rose majestically and rang again. “You are extremely disagreeable today, I must say. You can drink your tea, and then you must go. You barge in speaking of other women, begging favors I can't imagine how I'll grant, asking questions of a very dubious nature, and you don't even notice my new dress, which is quite pretty. You still won't tell me what you're involved in, and you worry me half to death. I have problems of my own, you know. My girls are doing worse than usualâthey are being charged more for board and linens, exorbitant rates. There are stories every day about girls getting sick or in trouble who are no longer helped. They are simply thrown out in the street and replaced. It's quite dreadful for them.”
“I presume you're speaking of your, uh, soiled doves.”
“Yes, of course,” Columbine said crossly. “Does that make them less worthy of the help of their sisters? And they aren't
, Tavish. How I do detest that patronizing tone of yours. I'll be well rid of you this week, if in fact I am able to prevail with Ned and get you invited, which I doubt. Now I won't talk to you anymore.”
Tavish grinned. He bent over her chair and kissed the top of her shining golden head. “It is for your amiable good nature that I love you so dearly, Columbine. And I appreciate the rebuke. You're right, and again, I'm sorry.”
“Oh, foot. Just be careful, will you? And don't get mixed up with that Mrs. Statton. I'm guessing she has enough problems without a mad Irishman on her trail. And her husband, I hear, is dangerous. It would be the worst kind of folly to tangle with either of them.”
“Mmmmm,” said Tavish. “But you forget that I'm half-Irish, dear Columbine, and folly has its own attractions. Now, where the devil is my tea?”
T WAS TO
be an active house party, Cora Van Cormandt had decreed, and she allowed no shirkers. There would be skating and walks and tobogganing and midnight sleigh rides. She would not except even Mr. Statton from the merriment, she had declared the day the Stattons had arrived. Yes, even Mr. Statton must strap skates on and take a turn around the lake.
Claude had bowed and said nothing. Of course he would not skate. He would remain closeted with one of the men and smoke cigars. Darcy would be safe for the duration of their stay, for Claude usually left her alone at house parties. The constant attention of a husband would be too marked in such an atmosphere. And Darcy had discovered that there were surprising opportunities for solitude at house parties, if they were large enough. One group always assumed she was with another.
But perhaps it would not be easy here. Cora Van Cormandt was an annoyingly imperious woman who laid down rules for fun for her guests and herded them like a martinet into whatever activities she'd planned. Guests attempted ruses, concocted excuses for one another to escape her, and laughed at her behind her back. But still, the food and wine were excellent, the guests always a mix of “those we know” with a dashing scintillating newcomer or two for spice. Cora had the reputation for being the most lavish hostess in New York, and her house parties were famous. Everyone wanted to be invited to Greenbriars, in any season, at any time.
Darcy had been dreading her visit, but she'd found, unexpectedly, that it was just what she needed. For two days now, fresh air and activity had exercised her body while her mind attempted to push out the thoughts that tormented her.
Over and over, she had examined Claude's odious accusations. She knew her father had not conducted an unnatural relationship with a French footman. That was absurd. Darcy pushed away the thoughts of her father's breakdown and what Claude had implied about its cause. She'd been there, she'd nursed him through it, and the reasons were plain. His whole world had been wrapped up in Amelia, and then when the depletion of his fortune had followed so swiftly on the heels of her departure, the combination had sent him spiraling down into a frightening depression. He'd barely left his room for months, months that Darcy labored to keep the household going and conceal Edward's true condition as much as possible from the New York bankers who could ruin them completely.