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BOOK: Corey McFadden
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With a sinking feeling he heard hurried footsteps and the turning of the door handle. Didn’t sound like the footman. Perhaps the note had been a little too alarming. Why couldn’t Caroline have been ‘not at home,’ as ladies often were when they just dratted well wanted some peace and quiet?

The great doors opened with a whoosh and slammed shut peremptorily. Must be the lovely Caroline. With an affected nonchalance, Edgar gave a flick to his lace cuff, then turned casually, as if he did not know she was there.

“Oh, there you are, my dear. Nice of you to be so prompt,” he said, with what he hoped was a chilly smile. The ice in his voice was the only thing not affected. He gave her a cool appraisal. If not a disheveled mess, Caroline was certainly not the exquisitely turned-out fashion plate he was used to seeing. She looked, if anything, a bit haggard; a bit—he dared think—older than she was used to appearing. There was a wariness about her, as if she did not know what to expect from him. He arched an eyebrow at her gown—a near cast-off, much mended and faded from its original royal blue, several Seasons gone, a gown she wouldn’t be caught in at a cock fight. Thus stood he, the coconspirator, in her estimation, eh? Not important enough to keep up appearances for.

“Whatever do you want, Edgar?” she spat out. “I’ve a great deal to do today and I’ve no time for your inanities.” She did not ask him to sit. He very nearly sat anyway, just to make a point, then thought better of putting himself in the position of having to look up at her. As it was, she had an inch or so on him. She and most everyone else in the world. Another point that rankled.

“I’ve been doing some difficult thinking, Caroline,” he began, in what he hoped was a reasonable tone. “I find myself highly dissatisfied with the result of our collaboration. When I embarked on this venture with you, I had no idea that my dear Julian was truly so in love with the little country cousin. I supposed he was just being kind in that direction.” He paused at the look of growing incredulity on Caroline’s face, but she did not speak. “As it turns out, the man is quite devastated. I’m sure it has not escaped your notice that he has no desire whatsoever to marry you?”

“I believe you’ve prattled nonsense at me long enough, Mr. Randall. Kindly remove yourself from the premises. Our further—association”—she let the word drip with contempt for their financial arrangements, as if paying him for nefarious services rendered was far beneath her dignity—“need only be conducted by post.”

“I must differ with you, Caroline. While I may be suffering from a woefully laggard attack of conscience, I do consider the matter most serious. I do not think it fair or wise for you to marry a man whose heart is entirely engaged elsewhere.”

“And you expect me to cry off, just like that?” she asked, as if he had suggested she sprout wings and fly. “Give up the match of the Season so that you can rest easy on your pillow?”

“Come now, Caroline,” he began, thinking to reason with her. “Surely you noted his behavior last night. The man is near dead of drink. And what of your cousin? Have you no feeling for her? You must know she loves him. Indeed, I feel rather strongly that they had an arrangement, if only informally and privately between them.”

“As if I could be brought to care a fig about that insipid fool!” Caroline nearly shrieked. “Not a penny to her name, and the only claim to family she has in this world comes from her thin association with me. Why, that little chit is lucky not to be a scullery maid. In fact,” Caroline stopped, a slow smile playing over her face, “I understand that if she doesn’t marry well— something most unlikely at this juncture—she may be reduced to just that.”

Edgar could think of no retort. It was dawning on him that this was a woman of no conscience whatsoever, a true
belle dame sans merci
. Might as well argue right and wrong with the Devil, himself. Very well, he had one more arrow in his quiver, although it frightened him down to his soul even to contemplate its launch.

“Caroline, regardless of whether or not you can be brought to see what’s right, I feel I cannot be a party to this vile plan any longer. You may consider our—ah—association at an end.” She raised her eyebrow at him, a cool smile playing across her face, as if this were just what she wanted to hear.

“Hear me out, Caroline,” he went on, determined to see it through, whatever the cost to himself. “I am prepared to denounce you, to expose that ugly little scene you played out in Sydney Gardens for the fraud that it was.” He stopped, waiting for his threat to sink in. He was disappointed. If anything, her smile grew broader.

“I see,” she said, her voice almost a purr. “And how would you disguise your part in our little scene?”

“Well, I—” he began. This was the weak point in his plan. Trust Caroline to focus right in on it. Nothing for it but to bluff it out. “I am prepared to confess all,” he stated baldly. He was not quite, actually. This was the part he hadn’t dared think all the way through to its logical conclusion, hoping against hope that Caroline would fold before he got so far. This was, of course, one of the chief reasons he did not play cards often at the clubs, and then only with good friends for low stakes. Couldn’t bluff worth a damn.

“Are you?” she purred. “Are you, indeed? You will, of course, be
persona non grata
in the better circles all over England. The continent, for that matter. Perhaps you might emigrate to our ungrateful former Colonies. I understand they have great fun there—shooting bears and hoeing crops. Perhaps you could find some out-of-the-way frontier spot where news of this little fiasco has not penetrated. Perhaps. But I doubt it.”

“Caroline, I am well aware of the social risks involved,” he said quickly, hoping to stem her words. She conjured up scenarios to make him shudder. “That should tell you how important I think this matter is. We simply cannot, either of us, allow this farce to go on. Surely you can see that.” He knew he was beginning to sound a bit desperate. Wasn’t sure he’d like a bear up close. “There are dozens of other men you can marry. What about poor Ledbetter? Word has it in the King’s Bath that he is prostrate at the news of your engagement.”

“Mr. Ledbetter is a fool. I could eat him for my breakfast. Besides, he isn’t nearly well enough set up. I intend to be a very expensive wife.” She was purring again. He was getting nowhere. Was he prepared to expose her—and himself—as the evildoers that they were? Never again to grace an elegant ball, a musicale? Unwelcome in every gentlemen’s club the length and breadth of England? Even the public rooms would be off limits for someone who could expect only the Cut Direct from every member of the
ton
.

“Nevertheless, Caroline, there are others. Why, whatever happened to Lord Rokeby? He was over the moon about you last Season.” It was an exaggeration, to be sure, but there had been something between them, or so the
on dit
had had it at the time.

“He seemed to find his cattle more interesting than I,” she answered, her voice sour. “In any event, Edgar, this conversation is at an end. The answer to your asinine question is a resounding ‘no.’ I am engaged to Julian Thorpe and I intend to marry him—the sooner the better, since there seem to be so many interested in the wedding not going forward. Everyone will live, I, best of all. Julian has plenty of scratch. He can afford me. I will set up in his London house and he can go to ground in the country. I don’t care whether I ever lay eyes on him after the wedding. Just so long as I have unlimited access to his prodigious accounts. I’d be mad to give all that up, just so you and your conscience can be on speaking terms. Since when have you a conscience anyway? I’ve heard you shred perfectly innocent young ladies with gossip even you knew to be preposterous.”

“And lived to regret it,” Edgar replied. He did, too, at this moment. All his malfeasance come back to haunt him now, on this one thing that mattered so much. “Caroline, I am begging you. Do not do this thing.”

“Show yourself out, Mr. Randall. I wouldn’t wish to trouble the footman. He has more important things to tend to. Like shining my brother’s boots.” Caroline swept out of the room without a backward glance.

Edgar sat down with a heavy thump on one of the few sturdy chairs in the room. It gave off a cloud of dust. What to do? He had shown his hand and it had not a winning card in it. Of course, he could do as he threatened—tell the world the truth. And be on the next boat to the new United States. In steerage with the pigs, swine with swine. Well, no point in staying here. At the very worst, Bettina Quinn would come sailing in and find some reason to flay the skin off him. The thought propelled him from the chair and through the door. There was no one in the hallway, mercifully, to witness his skulking, ignominious retreat. He paused at the door. He had no alternative plan. He’d been a sad excuse for a human being all his life, and today marked his nadir. At least things could not get any worse, he thought, as he reached for the front door handle and gave it a pull.

When he was wrong, he was very wrong indeed.

* * * *

The Viscountess Alderson was startled when the door flew open just as she had touched the large brass doorknocker. She did not like being startled. It put one at a visible disadvantage. She was, however, heartened to note that if she was startled, this-—what was his name?—oh, yes, Edgar Randall, of the Oxfordshire Randalls—mother, a lovely gel, father, an absolute wastrel—was shocked down to his slippers to find her standing in front of him, hand raised as if to strike.

“Oh…er…ah, I declare! If it isn’t Lady Alderson. Good day to you, again, ma’am. Won’t you come in?”

“Are you in Bettina Quinn’s employ as her footman these days, Mr. Randall?” she asked, stepping over the threshold as he scrambled back.

“Er…well, no, ma’am. I was just letting myself out,” he stammered.

“You do seem to be traveling in my circles today, Mr. Randall. Whom, may I ask, did you see here?” Having left him a bare hour ago at poor Julian’s, it was obvious he was here on the same mission as she herself. She proceeded to the late Lord Ewell’s dreadful drawing room, pausing before the great mahogany doors so that this puppy could open them for her.

“Oh, I thought to have a few words with Miss Quinn, ma’am, Caroline, that is.” Edgar stood goggling at her, obviously at a loss as to whether he should offer her a seat in someone else’s drawing room.

“Shall I take it that the chit has refused to call off this charade of an engagement?” the viscountess asked. Might do well to get to the facts before they alerted a servant to their presence and that idiot Bettina Quinn bore down on them. She seated herself on one of Ewell’s particularly uncomfortable little occasional chairs. She cared about comfort only in her own bed. All other positions were for show only.

“I’m afraid so, ma’am,” came his simple reply.

“Perhaps, now that we are alone, you would be so kind as to enlighten me. How does Julian find himself in this dreadful stew?”

Edgar fairly gaped at her. He opened his mouth, then closed it again several times, looking for all the world like a fish out of water. She arched an eyebrow at him, giving no quarter. If she were to involve herself in this fiasco—and she rarely bestirred herself for this sort of thing these days—she’d best have the truth of it. If Julian had compromised the girl, as gossip had it, then he would marry her, if the viscountess, herself, had to march him by the ear to the altar. After all, there were rules, and where a gentleman was fool enough to behave badly, he must pay for it. “I’m waiting, Edgar,” she finally said, when it appeared he had run out of air entirely. “Oh, do sit down, boy. You’re making me nervous,” she snapped.

Edgar sat on a little settee, upholstered in a dreadful brocade, its color and pattern out of style these past forty years and more. Old Ewell always was one to get his money’s worth. The boy looked, if anything, even more uncomfortable, pitched forward as if he were about to tumble over his feet. He stared earnestly at her, although he still seemed disinclined to speak.

“Out with it, boy. You’re in this little mess up to your neck—sticking it out too far, I’ll warrant. I’ve all the time in the world today, and if you cannot tell me alone, perhaps I should summon Bettina and have you tell us both.”

Edgar, who never had much color to him, now paled to the color of parchment. “Lady Alderson...” he began, and she had to lean forward to hear him. He could not go on.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, boy! Did Julian compromise Caroline Quinn or not? Surely you can answer a yes or no question.”

“Well, not exactly,” stammered Edgar.

“That’s nonsense! Either he did or he didn’t. There is no middle ground where these matters are concerned. Yes or no, Mr. Randall?”

“No,” he answered simply; then he sat back, and breathed a great breath, looking almost relieved. So, the boy had some hand in this, indeed. And something to get off his chest, as well.

“Then how does it happen that it is bruited all over Bath that the two of them were caught out in a dreadful indiscretion, and that they are therefore engaged?”

Edgar took a moment, drawing in another deep breath, but she waited him out. If this fish was gasping on her hook, he was hers, nonetheless, and would not free himself and swim off. “Well, there was a—a—contretemps in that regard, ma’am, but Julian was—was ...” Edgar trailed off, looking stricken.

“If, young man, you are about to tell me that Julian is innocent, you had better be able to prove it. It’s the oldest dodge in the book to compromise a young lady beyond all reparation, and then say things were not what they seemed. No one has ever believed that sort of thing.”

“But it’s true in this case!” Edgar burst out. “Julian knew nothing of it. Caroline set him up. He thought he was meeting Elspeth in the maze, but it was Caroline waiting for him there instead, all disheveled and crying. She’d made a muss of herself, you see. And when I came through a minute later with Lady Haverford—well, you can imagine what it looked like. I mean, Julian was comforting Caroline, after all. She told him she’d been attacked.”

Now it was the viscountess’s turn to sit back. The tale might even be true, at that. At least this scenario fit with what she knew of Julian’s character—and Caroline’s, “How did it happen that you and Lady Haverford, of all people, should wander into that particular part of the maze at that precise moment, Mr. Randall?”

BOOK: Corey McFadden
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