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Authors: Mary Burchell

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BOOK: For Ever and Ever
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If Mr. Pembridge had looked less forbidding, she might have clung to him. But, as it was, she just shut her eyes, clung to the side of the car, and hoped she would see her mother again one day, but rather doubted it.

After an astonishingly short but nightmare drive— completely in keeping with everything else which had happened during the last half-hour—they arrived at the ship. And, shepherded by a grim-looking Mr. Pembridge, she walked up the gangway, feeling very shaky at the knees, and trying not to mind that a good many of the passengers lining the ship’s rail laughed and cheered at the sight of her.

She endeavored to look as though she took it all as light-heartedly as they did, but she felt certain that the official view of her escapade was anything but one of amusement.

“Th-thank you for coming to fetch me.” She felt bound to express some sort of gratitude to Mr. Pembridge, as he prepared to leave her at the head of the main stairway. “It
really
wasn’t my fault—”

“It never is,” Mr. Pembridge told her drily. “But it’s damned inconvenient every time a thoughtless passenger puts us in that position. There very nearly wasn’t time to go and fetch you—and then what do you suppose would have happened?”

“I can’t imagine,” Leonie said, and she spoke almost as curtly as he did, because she was tired of being blamed for a harrowing misfortune. “All I know is that my companions went off without me—I’ve no idea why—and there simply was no car to get me to the boat.”

“Is that so?” Mr. Pembridge eyed her thoughtfully rather than sympathetically. And all at once she knew he was recalling the scene earlier in the day when she had forced herself on a reluctant Claire and Kingsley Stour.

Leonie flushed, though she tried very hard not to.

“Perhaps,” Mr. Pembridge said gravely, “it would be better another time to make sure that you choose companions who value your company too highly to make the mistake of not noticing when you are missing.” Then he went away and left her, with the air of a man who had important duties from which he had already been too long diverted by trifles.

Feeling very sore and angry, Leonie went to her cabin, and was only half mollified when an anxious and almost tearful Claire rushed to embrace her and cry, “Oh, Leonie, what happened? Where were you? I didn’t know what to do. I thought they would sail without you, only Mr. Pembridge made such a fuss and declared he would fetch you himself. And of course they couldn’t very well go without the Senior Surgeon.”

“He—did that?” Her anger with Mr. Pembridge abated a little. But only a little.

“Yes, indeed!” Claire had evidently been impressed by the scene. “He was quite quiet about it, but terrifically authoritative. Otherwise I don’t think anything could have been done Where were you, darling?”

“Where do you
think
I was?” demanded Leonie crossly, because her nerves were badly frayed by now. “At the hotel where you and that smooth-tongued Kingsley Stour left me flat, of course.”

“Oh, Leonie, we didn’t!” Claire’s cheeks went quite pale, and her eyes were big and dark with horror. “Dear, we thought you were in the car with the Manleys. Someone assured us you were, or of course we would never have gone.”

“Kingsley Stour knew I was on the roof,” Leonie insisted. “He had left me there when he went to get his camera.”

“But when he got downstairs everyone was saying it was time we left, and someone told him you had followed him down almost immediately—”

“Who told him?” Leonie asked stubbornly.

“I don’t know. But we—he was sure of it.”

Leonie looked straight at her pretty companion, and saw nothing but candor and concern in her face.

“All right,” she said more gently. “I’m perfectly sure you didn’t leave me on purpose. But
he
knew I was there all right, and I don’t believe any of his stories about being assured by someone unnamed that I had already gone in one of the other cars.”

“Oh, Leonie, you mustn’t think such things of Kingsley!”

“But I do,” Leonie replied quietly. “And the door at the bottom of the stairs leading from the roof had been bolted, too.”

“By whom?” Claire looked bewildered.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Leonie said grimly. Claire stared at her.

“You mean—you can’t mean that you think Kingsley did it! Deliberately. So that you should be left behind and miss the boat. Why should he, anyway?”

Leonie saw that she had over-reached herself, unless she meant to admit far more knowledge to Claire than would be wise.

“He doesn’t like me,” she said slowly. “He was perfectly mad at my coming ashore with you both—”

“But that was no more than passing annoyance,” Claire protested. “If you want to know, we rather liked the idea of going off on our own and, just for once, maybe we weren’t anxious to have even you with us. But there was no lasting resentment about that—”

“With him there was.”

“No, darling, you’re exaggerating,” Claire assured her. “You’re shaken and frightened by what happened, and I don’t wonder. I’d have been in a fearful panic in your place. But you can’t suppose that Kingsley—that
anyone
—would deliberately involve someone in such a ghastly predicament, just because of passing irritation. There would have to be a lot more than that to it.”

Leonie sat down and passed a still unsteady hand over her hair.

“All right,” she said; “there
is
more than that to it, of course.”

“Wh-what do you mean?” For a moment Claire’s eyes narrowed very slightly, as though she were suddenly wary—or, even, a little frightened.

“He knows instinctively that I neither like nor trust him,” Leonie said slowly. “And he is very anxious to ingratiate himself with you. It isn’t exactly my business whom you choose for your companions on this ship, Claire, and of course I’m not going to try to force any view of mine upon you. But, frankly, if you ever asked me for my opinion, I should advise you to have nothing much to do with him.”

“Leonie!” Claire looked angry, but she looked startled too.

“He knows that quite well,” Leonie added. “That’s why he would be very glad to have me off this ship.”

“You’re perfectly absurd,” Claire declared. “And how would he know all that, anyway?”

“You’d be surprised,” Leonie assured her drily, “how quick the Kingsley Stours of this world are in assessing who will advance and who will oppose their plans.”

“I never heard of such nonsense!” A sort of disturbed eagerness lent emphasis to that. “If you hadn’t been so badly shaken and frightened, it would be inexcusable to say and think such things of a very good friend of mine,” Claire declared.

“You mean,” Leonie said gently, “that you like and trust him yourself?”

“Absolutely!”

“On so very little acquaintance, Claire? We haven’t been at sea much above a week.”

“Well, I mean”—Claire caught herself up—”that I certainly haven’t had any reason
not
to like and trust him. And, until I do, I shall continue to be friendly with him.”

“Which you’re quite entitled to do,” said Leonie, with such a friendly smile that there was no likelihood of the other girl’s being alienated. “Only before we reach Sydney—who knows?—you may have reason to change your mind.”

“In that case,” declared Claire lightly, “I’ll admit my mistake—and your better powers of judgment.” And, smiling, she went off to her own cabin to change for dinner. Leonie would have given a good deal to know whether any doubt or misgiving about Kingsley Stour found place in Claire’s heart at that moment. Defend him she might—and had—with the greatest eagerness. But surely she could not think that the whole incident had been quite satisfactorily explained.

Later that evening Leonie saw Claire talking earnestly to the Assistant Surgeon. So earnestly that the conversation looked more like an argument than a casual chat. It was the first time she had seen her companion pay anything but devoted attention to whatever Kingsley Stour said, and she could not help wondering if she herself were the topic under discussion.

It was not, however, possible to see the conclusion of the argument without obviously watching. And, in addition, Nicholas Edmonds claimed her attention just then and asked her about her day’s adventure ashore.

No longer suffering from nervous fright and reaction, Leonie was able to give a perfectly objective account of the incident, without attaching, or even implying, blame to anyone, and she was interested to see how the facts would strike so keen an observer as Nicholas Edmonds.

He heard her out, and then simply said,

“Who told Stour that you had already gone on ahead in someone else’s car?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wouldn’t it be worth while finding out?”

“I don’t know,” said Leonie again, and looked straight at her companion.

“Hm-hm—I see. You don’t specially want to put it to the test and perhaps discover that Stour played you a dirty trick?”

“I think it might be wiser not to press the point.” “Because you like him?”

“Dear me, no,” said Leonie with fervor, as she recalled the misery he had caused her. “Because I think it might be better for him not to know that I see straight through him.”

Nicholas Edmonds’ sardonic face showed a flash of amusement and interest.

“That suggests quite a situation,” he observed thoughtfully. “Was that why you asked my opinion of him the other day?”

“I suppose it was. Anyway, you confirmed my own opinion.”

“That he has designs on your rich and pretty friend?”

Leonie bit her lip and wondered if she were being extremely indiscreet. But it was such a relief to share her doubts and anxieties with someone, particularly someone as knowledgeable, and yet as impersonal, as Nicholas Edmonds.

“I think so. And I can’t help being rather worried.”

“Perhaps,” her companion suggested consolingly, “she is able to look after herself. Those lovely, fragile-looking girls often are.”

But Leonie shook her head.

“She knew him before she came on board,” she explained a little breathlessly, because she felt guilty at the breach of confidence. “Her father was anxious about her, and sent her on this voyage with the idea of separating them. He—Kingsley Stour, I mean—got a job on the ship. And, instead of their being separated, here they are, in about as close proximity as they can be.”

“I see.” Her companion appeared to consider the situation with rather more than the academic interest he usually accorded other people’s affairs. “Does the father know?”

“Oh, no. Nor does Claire know that I’m aware of the real situation between her and Mr. Stour.”

“You didn’t see fit to inform the father of this awkward development?”

“No. At first it seemed it would be mean and interfering. And then I was told that Claire’s father had had a heart attack and was not to be worried with any disturbing news.”

“So that if anyone undertakes the task of protecting Miss Claire against her own folly,” he said reflectively, “it has to be you?”

“I suppose so,” Leonie agreed, not thinking it necessary to say that this was more or less the reason for her being on board at all.

“Does our attractive young surgeon know of your suspicions?” Nicholas Edmonds inquired.

“Not all of them. He realizes that I know the true position between him and Claire, and that I’m doubtful of his own motives.”

“How does he know that?”

“I—more or less told him.”

“Dear me, that was a mistake! You should think twice before putting your cards on the table when you’re playing poker.”

“I didn’t think of myself as playing poker,” Leonie said, disturbed and slightly nettled.

“Well, if you want to do anything about this at all, you’ll have to do a certain amount of bluffing, dear child.” Nicholas Edmonds looked at her with dry amusement. “At the moment everything is in his favor. He has the young lady’s affections and confidence, and he is available to plead his cause at any and every hour of the day.”

“He does have professional duties,” Leonie protested.

But her companion brushed that aside.

“He has more than enough free time to do whatever he wants.”

“If you put it like that, I don’t see that there is much hope in my trying anything,” she said in a dispirited tone.

“Do you
want
to do anything about it?”

“Of course. Only it’s so difficult to know—”

“Then you must divert the young man s attention, Nicholas Edmonds said impatiently. “You should have made a friend of him, not an enemy, to begin with—”

“I won’t
want
him for a friend.”

“That really is quite beside the point,” was the dry retort. “You should always take pains to be on good terms with your adversary, if your own weapons are blunt.”

Leonie looked respectfully at him.

“Do you really think so?”

“Of course.” Again he seemed quite impatient at her naivety. “It goes without saying.”

Leonie considered this.

“We were playing poker a minute ago, she remarked. “Now we’re sharpening our weapons. What do you suggest I do next?”

Nicholas Edmonds laughed a good deal at that, and for a moment his worn, disillusioned face looked almost handsome.

“It’s merely the same thing in different terms,” he assured her. “Why don’t you now go all out to attract the young man’s attention to yourself? Nothing will make your friend see him in an unfavorable light more quickly.”

“But he wouldn’t look at me! Not with Claire around,” declared Leonie with the utmost sincerity.

“Don’t be so sure. You are quite as attractive in your way as she is,” her companion told her judicially.

“But she’s very rich and—”

“Well, so are you, aren’t you?” was the blunt retort.

BOOK: For Ever and Ever
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