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BOOK: Corey McFadden
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Now the boy looked as though he might sick up all over Lord Ewell’s dark and gloomy carpet. There was something very wrong here. She stared, waiting for him to speak. At last he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I, myself, had a hand in this, my lady,” he said. He rose and began to pace. She did not order him to seat himself again. If what he said was true, things might not go well with him among the
ton
in the future. Again, she waited. Let him finish what he had begun.

“Caroline was hideously jealous of the success her country cousin seemed to be having with Julian. I think she rather viewed Julian as her conquest, since they had been an item a Season or two back. She seemed to feel the competition more keenly this year—I suppose several years of near-misses does take its toll on a demoiselle. In any event, she asked for help in landing him...” he broke off again, searching for words. “I thought it sounded like a lark, really. I guess, to be truthful, I didn’t think at all. I agreed to help her.” Now he hung his head and rubbed at his temples. She was afraid she heard something of a sob escape him. “You must believe me, your ladyship. I had no idea that Julian and Elspeth were so in love with each other. I thought it was a simple flirtation, the likes of which we see all year long among the
ton
. Nothing serious. Now I seem to have broken two hearts for....” He sat heavily on one of the chairs, dropping his head into his hands.

“What did you do it for, Edgar?” she asked simply.

“A bit of scratch,” he replied, not looking up. “I betrayed my best friend for money. Caroline and I came to a—a financial arrangement. You may as well know, ma’am…my father gambled away most of our assets. Mother and I lived like paupers until she died. I received the merest pittance as an inheritance from her, and was lucky she had managed to save that from his debtors. I’ve been on the edge of ruin ever since.” He said it simply, as if he were not telling a shameful family secret. She supposed the truth about his involvement in Caroline’s malevolent scheme was shame enough.

She had no doubt as to the truth of what he said. Were Julian of a different character, she could well believe he had put his best friend up to such an absurd tale to worm his way out of his fix. But Julian, bless his integrity, was Julian, raised by one of the most decent of women, and by a father of iron character. Besides, the situation didn’t make sense any other way. She had seen what passed between Julian and this Elspeth chit last night, and she had no doubt they were well and truly smitten with each other.

But how to fix this awful mess? And what to do about Edgar Randall? Expose him for the traitor that he was, or allow him a chance to mend the hearts that he had helped to break so badly?

She was saved from an immediate decision by a whirling blur that darted past her, and launched itself, full tilt, against the slightly built Edgar Randall, who landed on the awful carpet with a whoosh, a small flailing figure atop him, pummeling him and shouting.

“You’ve ruined my sister’s life, sir!” the blur shrieked. “I challenge you to a duel with pistols! No! Swords! You’ll fight me like a man, sir!”

For the first time in as many years as she could remember, the viscountess began to laugh. Not just a polite little chuckle, not a sardonic titter—but a real, from the belly, gasping laugh. She clutched her cane for dear life, afraid that if she let go, she would fall right over, still laughing, and not be able to get up. She wasn’t entirely sure what was so funny—the child was not the least bit amused, nor, indeed, was poor Mr. Randall, who waved his hands about trying to protect his face, which, unfortunately, had nevertheless taken something of a beating. There was blood already collecting at his nose and a small cut at the eye. Well, perhaps she had best do something. She took a deep breath and raised her cane.

“Unhand Mr. Randall at once, young man!” she announced, giving several sharp, carefully placed raps to what she hoped was the boy’s head. It took a moment, but finally the boy sat up, still straddling the hapless Mr. Randall. The boy rubbed at his scalp and glared balefully at his attacker. Mr. Randall just moaned.

“Stand up immediately, you young ruffian!” she said, giving her cane a sharp crack on the floor for emphasis. “You have committed so many social transgressions in my presence, I don’t know where to begin castigating you.” The boy got to his feet, still rubbing his head. Well, really, she had barely tapped him to get his attention. At least he had the grace to look sheepish. Edgar Randall, too, came to his feet, albeit far more slowly. He pulled out a linen square and mopped at his face. She was relieved to see very little actual damage—just the small cut that seemed to have already stopped bleeding. Fortunately she was not one of those women who went about shrieking and swooning at the least sign of blood. Dashed inconvenient that would be.

“Perhaps you might make the introductions, Mr. Randall,” she asked mildly. Best to maintain the veneer of civilized behavior, even if one did find oneself planted in the middle of an impromptu boxing match. Edgar opened his eyes, the one more slitted than the other, she noted.

“Lady Alderson, may I present to you Harry Quinn. He is Bettina Quinn’s nephew, and Miss Elspeth’s Quinn’s brother, late of Weston-under-Lizard, I believe. Mr. Quinn, you have the honor of addressing the Viscountess Alderson.” Edgar went through the introductions flawlessly, as if he were not standing there, sleeve torn and pressing a bloody handkerchief to his eye.

“How d’y’do, Mr. Quinn?” she asked

“Very well, Your—um—Viscountess-ship,” he stammered, sketching a boy’s clumsy bow. “And you, ma’am?” he went on.

Acceptable. Some stab at good manners even in the face of extraordinary circumstances, notwithstanding his perfectly dreadful address. ‘Your Viscountess-ship’, indeed.

“Well, I am somewhat distressed, sir, that you would treat a woman of my sensibilities to such a dreadful display.” She rather thought she heard a snort from Edgar, which she chose to ignore.

“But he—he’s hurt my sister!” the boy wailed, turning a malevolent glare on Edgar, and scrabbling rather angrily at his face as a lone tear coursed down his cheek.

“Gentlemen take their disputes outside, out of the presence of ladies, Mr. Quinn. No matter what the provocation.”

The boy opened his mouth, then shut it again, standing red-faced and glum. It was apparent he knew he was in the wrong, and to his credit dared offer no further argument to an obvious Personage.

“I believe we have some business to tend to, Mr. Randall,” she ventured. “Do you suppose you could tidy yourself enough to make a call with me? There’s a mirror over there, although I declare it’s old enough to be dark as pitch, and not much good to anyone.” Edgar moved haltingly over to the grim mirror, gold carved and rather overdone. Fortunately, he did not limp.

“Now, then, young Harry, is it?” She turned her gaze back to the other culprit in the room. “I appreciate your loyalty to your sister. That does you just enough credit to prevent me from treating you to the Cut Direct in society for the rest of whatever life is left to me. You would not enjoy that, I assure you,” she went on, when it appeared that the boy was not entirely sure what she meant. “Nevertheless, there are ways that a gentleman may go about setting right a great wrong—ways that do not involve fisticuffs or distasteful scenes in front of perfectly respectable strangers.”

The boy squirmed a bit, but stood his ground. His eyes shimmered with tears he obviously was holding back. He was red-faced and breathing hard, but he was listening. “Now, Mr. Randall and I are...” she broke off as the door fairly flew open.

“Master ’Arry, you’d better show yourself this instant! Your aunt is ...” a mob-capped kitchen girl stood quivering in the door, mouth stopped in mid-word, agape at the sight of unexpected Quality infesting the drawing room.

“Well, come in, gel, and fetch your miscreant,” the viscountess said, rising majestically on her gold-tipped walking stick.

“Yes, mum, excuse me, mum, I didn’t know you was ’ere, mum...” the girl babbled on, bobbing repeatedly, like a daisy buffeted in a breeze.

“Quite enough, gel,” her ladyship snapped. “We are just leaving, aren’t we, Mr. Randall?” She cast an eye in his direction and was relieved to see that although he was a bit the worse for wear, he would do for her purposes. She could take a stab at his neckcloth in her carriage, after all. She had, quite in private, enjoyed certain intimacies with her several husbands, and fiddling with neckcloths had been one of them.

“Young Harry, a word with you before we go,” she said, gesturing peremptorily with her cane for him to come close. He took a few tentative steps, eyeing the cane with some trepidation. She bent down and put her lips close to his ear. “In the first place, I am properly addressed as ‘madam,’ or ‘Lady Alderson,’ not ‘Your Viscountess-ship.’” She barely repressed a shudder. “Further, we are leaving now, Mr. Randall and I,” she said, her voice low enough so the servant, who still bobbed frantically in the doorway, could not overhear. “I—and he— will be making every effort to set this sorry mess with your sister to rights. In the meanwhile, I think you would be very wise to button that pouting little lip of yours. Say nothing of our visit, and nothing of what you have overheard. Do I make myself clear, young man?”

“Yes, Lady Alderson,” he whispered back. His eyes were still tearful, but there was a creeping hope, and a great deal of awe in them now, instead of sullen helplessness.

She rose and bestowed her gaze on the hapless kitchen maid. “And you, gel, stop your bobbing. I declare I shall have
mal de mer
just watching you.” The girl stopped in mid-bob, then straightened in obvious terror. “We were just taking our leave, gel. We’ve finished our business with this household. It is quite a private matter. You would do well to hold your tongue regarding my visit. I trust you need no further warning?”

“N—no, your ladyship, no indeed. I—I.…” She started bobbing again.

“Quite. Ready, Mr. Randall?” Not bothering to wait for his answer, she sailed past the goggling, bobbing kitchen girl, who would not hold her tongue in the kitchen, of course. It hardly mattered. She simply hoped Bettina and her viper of a daughter would not hear of her visit before she could start the wheels in motion. The gel at least had enough wits about her to come flying past and pull the front door open, bobbing and gasping out an apology about the footman being unavailable.

Now for the difficult part.…

 

Chapter Eleven

 

It wasn’t so much the headache. He’d earned it and he could live with it. Or die of it. One or the other, he deserved that much. It was that if he couldn’t convince Elspeth he was not a hopeless bounder, there was no point to going on at all. With or without the infernal headache.

A hot bath had worked wonders. By not so much as the flicker of a glance had Forbush,
domestique extraordinaire
that he was, indicated that he was near dying of curiosity as to the morning’s remarkable events. Or last evening’s, at that. Edgar had been most emphatic that Julian had appeared at the Viscountess Alderson’s ball—at THE ball of the Bath Season—in his afternoon attire, and much the worse for wear, indeed. Julian knew that this would cost Forbush some ribbing in the vast servant world, but he couldn’t bring himself to care particularly as he had lain back in the big hip bath and attempted, futilely, to soak away his pain.

She wouldn’t see him. Of that he was certain. Nor, indeed, did he wish to see Caroline or her mother. If he could get to Harry, now.... But, no, the boy was probably as angered and bewildered as his sister. His only hope lay in getting Elspeth alone, somewhere where she’d have to at least listen. His carriage swung ponderously, turning onto the street where the Quinns currently resided. It pulled past another carriage and Julian caught a glimpse of an ornate coat of arms on the door. A hurried look back confirmed the worst. The Viscountess Alderson was calling at the Quinns. The woman was making quite a nuisance of herself. One more dose of the viscountess today, not to mention Bettina Quinn, and this would be the second-worst day of his life.

Well, he hadn’t exactly planned on ringing the front doorbell anyway, so perhaps the viscountess’s formidable presence would be a blessing in disguise, focusing, as it would, the entire household’s attention on the Personage in the drawing room at the front of the house. His coachman had been instructed to drive by the house, then keep going till he rounded the next corner. The carriage made another turn, then slowed to a halt, around the corner from the Quinn house. Julian took a quick look from the window, then jumped out. As agreed, the carriage lumbered on. His man would wait, hours, if necessary, several blocks away. Quite casually, as if out for a leisurely stroll, Julian ambled down the side street. Some yards away he came upon the entryway to the mews serving the houses on the Quinn household’s block. With a quick look he stepped into the mews.

So far, so good. No one about. The afternoon was quiet. He heard a horse whinny, then another, but none of the shouting and harness clanking that preceded a carriage about to depart. The mews were clean and well kept, as he would expect in such a neighborhood. He’d been in some, in London, where it wasn’t worth one’s life to step through the muck and refuse. He glanced up at the back façades of the townhouses. Excellent. It was easy enough to see, by judging the windows and drainpipes, where one house left off and the next began. The Quinn house, he had taken pains to note, was the fourth house in from the side street. He stopped at the house next door, between its windows. All remained quiet. Which way did the Quinn kitchen or scullery look out? Into the mews, no doubt, but it was also likely, as he examined the stairs that led, at each house, down into a well area with a door, that the windows at this level were low enough that only his well-shod feet would be visible by servants. A gentleman of the Quality did not generally wander through mews, but it was not unknown. One did, after all, occasionally have to check on a horse, or some other problem arising with stable matters. Across the way, the stables stood silent, black carriages tucked away, awaiting the evening’s call to revelry.

BOOK: Corey McFadden
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