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BOOK: Corey McFadden
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Julian said nothing. What could he say? The very idea of spending long years of marital acrimony made him wish he hadn’t put all that coffee into his querulous stomach.

“I suggest you set about putting your house in order, Julian, for everyone’s sake,” she announced imperiously, standing and moving toward the door. “I believe I’ll pay a call on Bettina. An explanation is owed me from that quarter as well.”

As she reached for the door handle, it turned and the door swung open, nearly knocking her down.

“Oh, I do beg your par—good heavens! Lady Alderson! What in heaven’s name—?” Edgar Randall stammered to a close. His gaze took in Julian’s dishabille, then halted abruptly at the viscountess’s magnificently arched eyebrow. “I—that is to say, good morning, Lady Alderson. How lovely to see you looking so well this morning. We had such a splendid time at your ball last evening, I do declare it was the most—”

“Oh, do hold your tongue, Mr. Randall. I heard enough inanities last night to last me a lifetime. Julian, you should discharge that man of yours. Entirely too much unannounced traffic in your boudoir. I suppose you’re expecting the Prince of Wales himself at any moment.”

Julian fairly goggled at her, then reached for the coffeepot.

“I trust, Mr. Randall, you will be at some pains to help your friend sort out his difficulties?” she said.

“C—certainly, Lady Alderson. I live but to serve,” Edgar replied, although somewhat faintly.

“Then I bid a good day to you both,” she stated. “Don’t bother to ring; I’ll see myself out,” she announced, and took herself off with a stamp of her gold-tipped walking stick.

By tacit agreement Julian and Edgar held their peace as the rhythmic tapping of her cane and the sound of footsteps receded down the hall.

“Dare I ask...?” Edgar ventured when nothing more could be heard of the retreating Personage.

“No,” growled Julian.

“Ah, well then, I simply must assume that you’ve gone and compromised the Viscountess Alderson. Good heavens, man, the woman must be past seventy! I should think there’s many an ample kitchen maid who would cheerfully oblige. I shall, of course, have to spread this little tidbit all over Bath by evening. I cannot for the life of me, though, see how I am to make people believe it.”

“I must assume you’re joking, Edgar, I am not in the mood, to tell you the truth.”

“Headache?” Edgar asked, with a somewhat wicked grin.

“A slight one,” Julian acknowledged with a shrug.

“I should rather think, based on your conduct last night, that this headache is—how shall I put it—one of the great headaches of all time, a headache of Olympian proportions. Indeed,” Edgar trilled, “I rather expected you to be dead this morning.”

The door opened and Forbush entered with a large tray. Julian was gratified to see a substantial coffeepot on it, and two kitchen mugs. The man glanced around the room with some apprehension. “I did hear her ladyship leave, did I not?” he asked in a whisper. The cups rattled on the tray.

“You did,” Julian replied, inhaling the restoring scent of freshly brewed coffee.

They were silent while Forbush served them. Julian felt the weight of the large, hot china mug with great satisfaction.

“Edgar,” he began, as Forbush quit the room, “I hate to ask, but what, exactly, did I do last night? Must have been rather amazing to bring the Viscountess Alderson to the very foot of my bed. Like some goddess of vengeance out of myth, she was.”

“Well, I’d laugh about it, if it were funny, dear boy, but I fear it really is not.”

“I was afraid of that. Go ahead.”

Julian sipped his coffee in growing horror as the evening’s atrocities were laid out before him. As for offending Caroline, he cared not a whit. Making a drunken spectacle of himself in his club and at the viscountess’s ball, was merely an outrageous bit of folly they could all, he hoped, laugh about in years to come. Humiliating Elspeth, however, was unforgivable. Julian had dropped his head into his hands by the end of Edgar’s recital, the coffee worthless and forgotten.

They were silent for a moment. Edgar seemed edgy, perturbed, unlike his usual
bon vivant
self. “What shall I do?” Julian finally asked. He could see no solution to his dilemma, nothing but a lifetime of misery for them all. But he was damned if he could figure out how he had deserved this.

“Well, I suppose you owe Caroline and her awful mother an apology,” Edgar ventured.

“Caroline? What the deuce do I care what she or her mother, think about my conduct? It’s Elspeth I’m worried about. What has this done to Elspeth?” He slammed the mug down on the small table next to his chair. The table teetered precipitously.

“You do love her, don’t you?” Edgar asked quietly.

“More than my life,” Julian replied, dropping his face into his hands again. He rubbed at his temples, but the pain would not go away. He thought it had nothing to do with brandy. This was a pain he would feel for the rest of his life. The dull ache of a long and lonely defeat.

“You—you don’t much care for Caroline, I suppose?” came Edgar’s response.

“I loathe the woman. What she did to me—” he stopped and looked at Edgar sharply. “I suppose there’s no reason for you to believe me—no one else does—but I did not lay an improper hand on Caroline the other night in the maze. She had been roughed up before I got there—” he stopped, aware how lame an excuse that sounded.

“I have reason to believe you,” Edgar said, his voice almost a whisper. “Actually, I do believe you, Julian. I’ve known you for most of my life, and it would not be like you to despoil anyone, much less Caroline Quinn.”

“Would that Elspeth could believe in me as you do, Edgar,” Julian replied, his voice nearly breaking. “She’s the one who matters. She thinks I’m a rutting, faithless pig, and I cannot convince her of the truth. How can I? As she said, she saw with her own two eyes....” His voice broke.

“Well,” said Edgar. Then he stopped. Julian looked up at him. “It would seem you have been much abused, Julian. Elspeth, as well. You have been a good friend to me, all these years. A better friend to me than I have been to you, to my shame. I think we must devise some sort of plan to extricate you from this marriage trap.”

“But all will be for naught if Elspeth does not believe in me.”

“We shall have to work on that, as well. The first thing we must do is convince Bettina Quinn that it is not in Caroline’s best interests to announce this engagement so precipitously. Then, perhaps, we might approach Lady Haverford. She’s the one who matters most, after all. If she can be convinced all was not as it seemed in the labyrinth, you might stand a chance.”

“Lady Haverford is the biggest gossip in Bath, Edgar,” Julian said wearily. “I don’t think she cares as much for the truth as for the fun of the
on dit.”

“Indeed. But think
how much fun the truth might be.”

“What is the truth, Edgar? What could it be other than that Caroline set up that evil scenario to do exactly as she did—trap me into marriage? How do I go about convincing Lady Haverford of that without appearing to be precisely the sort of cad she thinks me already?”

“I shall make it my business to set this right, Julian. I owe you that and more,” said Edgar quietly.

“You owe me nothing, Edgar. Just your friendship.”

“I wish that were so, dear boy,” Edgar said. “More than ever, I wish that were so. Now, I have the glimmering of an idea.…”

* * * *

“Your ape leader sister made a fool of herself in front of all of Bath at the ball last night!” came Rodney’s singsong taunt. Harry swallowed hard, his barley soup sticking in his throat. Elspeth had begged him not to rise to Roderick’s jeering but it was a hard task she set him. “Caroline says everyone in Bath is laughing at Elspeth,” Rodney went on, his own soup forgotten in the joy of the moment. Harry continued manfully to spoon the stuff down, eyes on his bowl, face reddening. “You’re just a coward anyway, Harry. You don’t know how to fight like a man. Julian Thorpe says he’ll teach me how to fence, but you’re too stupid. He thinks you’re a fool just like your sister.”

That did it. Harry was out of his chair in a flash, and pulling Roderick out of his by his shirtfront. The stout cotton held up under the onslaught, but the buttons, unfortunately, did not, yielding with a great ripping sound. Roderick howled in outrage as his feet scrambled to find the floor. He drew back his fist and was about to land a good one, when Harry pinned his cousin’s arms back and fell against him, tumbling them both to the floor.

“Master Roderick! Master ’Arry! You will stop this at once!” came Bessie’s outraged tones. She bravely waded into the fray and fished them out by the collars, one in each hand.

“He attacked me for no reason at all!” wailed Roderick. “He tore all my buttons. I want him to have to sit like a girl and sew them back on!”

“He insulted my sister!” countered Harry, trying to take aim again, but thwarted by the distance at which Bessie held him apart from Roderick. He swung his foot but that missed, too.

“I’m going to march you up to your aunt this minute, young man,” said Bessie, giving Harry a shake and a dark look.

“She’ll make you sew my buttons back on!” Roderick screamed with glee. “You can just sit there all prim and proper in a mobcap and do our mending!”

With a great heave, Harry twisted himself loose and was out of the breakfast room like a shot. He needed to get himself good and lost, at least until Elspeth finally came out of her room and could stick up for him. He could hear Roderick whining loudly for Bessie to let him go, but there were no footsteps following behind him. Harry pounded loudly up the rear stairs, then tiptoed as lightly as he could down the main hallway. All of the bedroom doors were closed. He supposed the ladies were having a lie-in after the ball last night. He paused and still heard no sounds of pursuit. So far so good. He crept down the main staircase to the front hall, pausing on the last stair to listen. All was heavy afternoon silence. Either Roderick had left off with his wailing, or Bessie had pulled him into the kitchen to quiet him down.

Suddenly the doorbell pealed, startling Harry into an undignified jump. He heard a rear door open, and knew he had only seconds to vanish before the footman appeared to answer the bell. The door closest to him was the drawing room, alas, a room he cared little enough for, since every time he went near it, his aunt fussed about how likely he was to break something. He had only broken two things since he’d been here, both silly-looking little porcelain gewgaws that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. When he was the head of his own household, he would have a rule that there would be no silly little gewgaws lurking about, waiting for innocent people to bump into them so that they could break and cause uproar.

He slipped into the drawing room and silently shut the door behind him, hoping the footman had not noticed the movement. He stood with his ear pressed against the thick panel of the door, barely able to heat through it. He heard a mumble of what sounded like male voices. It had to be a toff, or somebody special. Tradesmen and servants were not allowed to use the front door, not ever. That left Harry with no choice but to hide himself with deliberate speed, since any guest would be ensconced in the drawing room to await the beastly presence of Harry’s cousin or aunt. Oh, why couldn’t he have ducked into the dining room instead? No one would be shown into there any time soon. Of course, it was well down the hall, away from the foot of the stairs, so he never could have gotten there in time. He looked carefully around the drawing room for a hiding place, well aware that there were no other doors leading out. Nothing but dreadful little fancy carved bits and pieces of furniture met his eye, all high-legged, curlicued, and insubstantial, not enough to hide a mouse, much less a half-grown miscreant. He bolted for the heavy brocaded curtains, mercifully pulled shut at this hour. Aunt Bettina did not wish to be accused by the landlord of allowing the furnishings to fade in the sun. He found the opening and stepped into the musty, dusty dark. He took a deep breath, determined to hold it as long as possible. If he sneezed, all was lost.

* * * *

Edgar felt his stomach dropping like a stone as he made his way behind the silent footman to Bettina Quinn’s drawing room. He felt almost as sick as Julian, although he hadn’t had so much as a drop to drink. Not yet, anyway. How, precisely, did he think to present this matter to Caroline?
Look here, old girl, I’ve had second thoughts. Let’s just forget all this marriage-to-Julian
business, shall we?
He rather thought she wouldn’t be having any of that. His alternative idea was downright terrifying, but it was the only one that stood a chance.

“If you’ll wait here, sir, I’ll see if Miss Quinn is receiving this morning. Would you care for some refreshment while you wait?” the footman asked with that distant hauteur common to the finer households. These folk could outdo royalty on the haughty scale.

Although rarely loath to grab a free bite wherever he could, Edgar was quite sure he could not, at this time, swallow a morsel. “Thank you, no,” he said, waving negligently, as if he hardly cared when he ate again. The footman nodded and withdrew, closing the door behind him. The note the man carried upstairs to Caroline was brief, but to the point.
Must see you immediately. Absolutely urgent
.
Come downstairs at once, please.
Edgar had added the “please” as an afterthought. No point in irritating the easily irritated Caroline any more than necessary. He cast an eye about the gloomy room. The late Lord Ewell had had a heavy, dark taste and the furnishings reflected it. He paced the room, noting out of habit, with a practiced eye, the value of this and that. He could feel the annoyance rising in him as it always did at the unfairness of it all. Why were some blessed with so much, while others made do with so little? Were it not for the negligent largesse of the finer households, which passed out refreshment without regard to cost, there would be days when Edgar simply did not eat at all, and not by choice. His propensity for visiting had more to do with a desire for basic sustenance rather than any real enjoyment of these rattlebrains. It did tend to make him a good gossip, however, a talent and perception he nurtured carefully, so as to keep up his entree.

BOOK: Corey McFadden
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