Now she felt the full weight of his smooth and plausible charm. Felt it, and dismissed it. Jane laid down her knife and fork and met his frank gaze with all the steel she could muster. “What do you want from me, Captain Conroy?”
“Lady Jane, from your tone it might be thought you suspect me of some intrigue! I want only to serve the duke to the best of my abilities. Now that he is married, this includes guarding and guiding his wife as best I may.” Conroy swirled his coffee, watching the currents his agitation created. “We both know how very treacherous the court may be.”
“A noble sentiment,” Jane replied flatly. “But it does not answer my question.”
“Very well.” Conroy set his cup down and pushed his chair back. He eyed the door again, but now all his semblance of coy intimacy had vanished. “What do I want? I want to cultivate your friendship, Lady Jane, as is proper for two people who serve in the same house. I want to talk with you about what you learned last night, and anything else you know that could affect the standing of the duke and duchess. Together, we can sort through what we know and decide how we may best serve.”
“We decide? Not they?”
“We,” he repeated firmly. “For in looking after the well-being of the duke and duchess, we see to our own, and that well-being may require more forethought than our patrons have been proven to possess.”
Jane could not tell which troubled her more: that Captain Conroy spoke so frankly, or that she knew how much truth lay in his words. The Duke of Kent was a match for any of his royal brothers when it came to drinking, gambling and wenching. His favorite mistress of the past decade now lived in Paris and drew a comfortable pension despite the fact that his creditors went begging. The duke had said publicly that the only reason he set her aside was for the chance to father the next heir to the throne. What he did not say was that fulfillment of this paternal ambition was sure to bring an increase in his income from parliament, but everyone knew it was in his mind.
Conroy was a man of intelligence, and ambition, but also a man dependent on his superior for his living. Jane could easily see how a man responsible for managing the duke’s affairs might come to see his duties extend to managing the duke himself. After all, what had she been doing these past weeks but fretting over the safety of her own income?
Conroy was waiting for her answer, and Jane still had no idea what answer to give. She saw the reasons for what he said, perhaps she even agreed with them in part, but she still did not like this man, especially now that she could see how triumph mixed with the expectation in his demeanor.
But the door opened and Tilly stepped into the room, saving Jane from having to make any answer.
“If you please, madame.” Tilly curtsied. “Her Grace is asking for you.”
“Thank you, Tilly.” Jane got to her feet. “You will excuse me, Captain Conroy?”
“Of course.” Conroy also stood. “We can resume this conversation at another time.”
And we will.
The words hung unsaid in the air. An unquiet sensation filled Jane’s mind, and she had to work not to scurry from the room.
he Duchess of Kent sat at the window in her heavily ruffled dressing gown, her dark hair piled under a neat white cap, a china cup and saucer in her hands. The smell of warm chocolate mingled with the scent of Frau Seibold’s strengthening tonics and medicinal salves.
“Ah, Lady Jane, good, good.” The duchess greeted Jane in her expansive German. “Please, you will sit?” She gestured Jane to an embroidered chair. “So, what you heard at the great party of Lady Darnley you will tell me. And, my Jane, you do not spare my feelings. I need to know how the great lords and ladies of England think of me.”
Captain Conroy’s words about the lack of practicality among their masters came forcefully back to Jane. But as she looked into the duchess’s dark eyes she had the distinct sensation of a sharp intelligence waiting beneath that pretty, mature, rounded face. It reminded her the Duchess of Kent was the sort of woman who was consistently underestimated.
Choosing her words carefully—for she was certainly about to reach the limits of her German fluency—Jane told the duchess about how all the royal dukes had now rushed into marriage. She detailed the rumor of a feud between the duke and the prince regent, as well as the lingering sorrow over the death of Princess Charlotte, and the simmering dislike among the people in general of the Prince of Wales.
The duchess listened without once interrupting. Although she sipped at her chocolate, her attention never wavered from Jane’s words. When at last Jane ran out of breath and observations, the duchess nodded once. Then her face broke out in a pleasant smile.
“Now, Lady Jane, I have for you today some work,” she said. “For I find I have no acceptable clothing. Yes, I am in my confinement, but there are still the levees of the queen, and the . . . the drawing rooms, yes? And of course, I must be at home to certain persons. I cannot make do with nothing in the English style to wear. It is bad enough that I trip so badly over the language, despite your most patient instruction. So you will go to the fashionable districts and you will inspect the dressmakers and modistes, yes? View their stock, and speak to the principals? Those you find most satisfactory, you will make appointments for them to come here.”
“You will make it known I will have a long list of requirements. A very, very long list.”
“Naturally, your highness.” Jane imagined the sober London merchants with their eyes aglow at the thought of outfitting the new Duchess of Kent. She also imagined how very ready they would be to extend her credit, notwithstanding the duke’s already spectacular debts. Patronage came in many forms, and rumors of an open purse could buy all kinds of favors, low and high. Looking at the duchess, Jane was quite certain she knew exactly what she was doing.
“And do take your time. Enjoy your return to your home. A call or two to a friend may prove pleasant and informative, yes?”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
So, there it was. If last night had not been proof enough, this sealed it. Jane’s place in her highness’s establishment was as newsmonger-in-chief. Well, it made sense. Born and raised in the petty courts of Germany, the duchess surely understood the importance of staying one step ahead of the gossips. While money might be the ultimate power, it was talk that shaped reputation and so much in the world of courts and the
rested on reputation.
A soft scratching sounded on the door. Frau Seibold opened it to admit Fraulein Lehzen, another of the ladies who had come with the party from Saxe-Coburg. She was as stiff and precisely turned out as a china figurine, but far less brittle. Jane always got the feeling Lehzen could come through a hurricane without a stitch or a hair out of place.
“Good morning, your grace.” Lehzen curtsied. “Princess Feodora asks if she may come into her mama now?” Princess Feodora, the duchess’s twelve-year-old daughter by her first husband, had come to England with her mother.
The duchess smiled fondly, showing the dimples in her cheeks and chin.
“You will go now, yes?” said the duchess to Jane. “I must dress, and then I have told my Feodora we will spend the morning together.” She patted her proudly curving stomach. “My good girl, she so looks forward to meeting the new little one.”
“Certainly, ma’am.” Jane made her curtsy. She nodded cordially to Fraulein Lehzen, but Jane did not miss the other woman’s sharp glance as she turned. It was a look meant to discern secrets, and reminded her uncomfortably of the looks John Conroy had treated her to from across the breakfast table.
You all wish to know what secrets I hold.
The vision of Sir Thomas’s face, his green eyes alight with desire, rose before her mind’s eye.
I must hope to Heaven you never find out.
illy, it turned out, had been correct. Despite the sun, the morning remained chill. Jane donned her stout shoes and best blue coat along with her rose bonnet and cream shawl. Thus armored against the weather, she climbed into the duchess’s carriage with Tilly, feeling well prepared to take the measure of the city’s dressmakers.
Leaving Kensington House for the crowded, workaday London streets was a relief to Jane. Her errand would also, blessedly, allow her time to gather her wits. So much had happened in the short space of time since Lady Darnley’s ball, Jane desperately needed a moment to take stock.
To this end, Jane stopped the carriage as they approached Oxford Street and announced her intention to walk. She did not miss the fact that her maid seemed less than enthusiastic about the prospect.
“It’s quite all right, Tilly.” Jane allowed the footman to help her out onto the cobbles. “You can follow with Jacob and the carriage.”
“Are you certain, madame?” Her desire for comfort and her sense of propriety clearly both plucked at Tilly’s elbows.
“I will be perfectly fine,” Jane surveyed the passing crowd, enjoying the sensation of being back on familiar ground. As charming as the people and environs of Saxe-Coburg had been, she’d been nothing but a servant and a stranger there. She was much accustomed to being alone, so she had faced her condition stoically. But to step into this bustling familiarity was like stepping into the sunshine. She might even see a friend.
And very soon, she did.
“Look, there is Mrs. Beauchamp,” Jane said to Tilly. “I haven’t seen her for an age.” Without waiting for Tilly’s response, Jane sailed into the crowd.
Mrs. Beauchamp was a diminutive lady, bent down both by age and old sorrows so that she had to lean heavily on her stick. She was not a close acquaintance, but she was of long standing, having been a friend of Jane’s mother well before Jane came to town. Georgie said Mrs. Beauchamp had been exiled from both court and her family over some past indiscretion, possibly even involving one of the royal dukes, who had in their youths all displayed a pronounced taste for mature women. That she had for a time sung on stage did not aid her reputation.
Despite such adventures, Mrs. Beauchamp remained alert and active. She quickly noted Jane’s approach, and gave her a nod and a bright smile of greeting.
“My dear Lady Jane! So good to see you again!” As she spoke, Mrs. Beauchamp touched the coat sleeve of the much younger man beside her. He turned, and Jane stopped dead in her tracks.
For the man in the perfectly ordinary blue coat and beaver hat standing in the perfectly ordinary street was Sir Thomas Lynne.
“I had heard you were back, of course, but I’m surprised to see you out so soon,” Mrs. Beauchamp gazed up at Jane. Time had dimmed those eyes, leaving them weak and watery. “You’re looking very well, child, very well. Now, Lady Jane DeWitte, you must allow me to present my godson, Sir Thomas Lynne.”
“Your godson?” repeated Jane stupidly. This was the second time he had come on her unawares, and the second time her mind was unable to accept his presence. Sir Thomas Lynne was a creature of candlelight, fantasy and secret desire. Such a wicked dream did not walk in daylight, let alone reveal himself to be the godson to an ancient, even partly respectable, dame.
“How very nice to see you again, Lady Jane.” Sir Thomas tipped his hat and bowed, all polite and correct, just as he had been at the ball the previous evening.
Mrs. Beauchamp squinted from one of them to the other. “Are you two acquainted?”
“Only slightly.” Jane could barely hear her own words over the pounding of her heart. Hopefully, Mrs. Beauchamp would take her high color as the natural result of a brisk walk. Sir Thomas, of course, appeared perfectly at ease. Except for his eyes. His eyes were alive with fire and secrets. Their secrets.
For a moment, Jane thought she might swoon right here in the public street.
“Oh yes, now I remember,” said Mrs. Beauchamp. “Thomas did say you’d met at Lady Darnley’s, and of course you both only just returned to London. Thomas is just back from the Jamaicas, as I’m sure he told you.”
“No. He did not mention it,” Jane murmured. When had there been time? They had been so much occupied otherwise. “How did you find the islands, Sir Thomas?”
“I’m afraid I did not much care for them. I was very glad to return to England.” Thomas’s smile softened, but she could tell he was thinking of their night, of how he commanded her and how she obeyed. Jane desperately wanted to glance at his trouser front, to see if he was hard from those thoughts. Of course she could do no such thing. Not here. Not now. But oh, how she wanted to.
“He’s staying with me while he’s in town,” began Mrs. Beauchamp chattily. Then, a thought seemed to strike her. “You must come for a visit, Jane, if Her Grace can spare you. I must hear all about your time in Saxe-Coburg. Have I your promise?”
Jane forced herself to turn to Mrs. Beauchamp. Another moment of Sir Thomas’s green eyes and she would be lost to all propriety. “Of course,” she said to the invitation. “If I can.”