Authors: Cynthia Wright
Nathan stared in consternation before giving way to more laughter. "I can't tell you how much my spirits have improved since meeting you, sir. I was out of sorts when I arrived tonight, thanks to a hot-tempered little hoyden in Oxford Street who nearly challenged me to a duel!"
"I needed a bit of cheering myself. London's not what it used to be, and I was feeling quite bored listening to the fops criticizing everyone. I'm relieved to know there are still other men like me at White's."
"Don't forget," Nathan cautioned, "I'm really American by birth, just like you, my friend!"
"London should be grateful to have us, then." Nicholai poured more champagne and sighed. "I suppose that my dark mood might actually stem from concern for my daughter. Your mention of a hoyden reminded me of my own irrepressible Adrienne. You see, she is the reason I am here from France—to try to persuade her to come home, where she would be safe and cared for. Instead, Adrienne prefers to seek
, like a common servant!"
"Is that so terrible?"
"Perhaps not, but she is headstrong, and I believe that she's in danger." He told the story of Walter Frakes-Hogg in a rush, his eyes turning stormy as he recounted the scoundrel's attempts to take advantage of Adrienne, and the threats he had made in recent weeks. Nicholai finished with today's episode of the unsigned note as the table was cleared and dessert appeared. "Why won't she listen to me and come back to France?"
"Hasn't she given you an explanation?"
"Well, yes, but I don't like it. Adrienne insists that she wants to support herself and to continue her education. She has always been incorrigible. A few years ago she ran away from school and fell in with a woman who was being paid by noblemen to find them young... ladybirds. Thank God she was rescued in time." He shook his head. "She's grown up since then, but she still fights convention, and she's not interested in marriage. I'm sleepless with worry."
"It must be difficult to stand back and trust her when you fear for her safety. I've had Walter Frakes-Hogg pointed out to me as a person to avoid, so I understand your concern."
"If only she'd listen to me!"
Nathan sought another topic. "My own parents have had their share of sleepless nights over me as well. I learned too well from my father and became a sea captain myself, and now I spend most of the year in Barbados."
"Barbados! Odd you should say that; the island is my favorite of all I've visited."
Pleased to have found a distraction, Nathan smiled and leaned forward. His dessert, a particularly heavy trifle, went unsampled. "I share your sentiments, sir. When I began sailing my own ships to the West Indies, I had no intention of lingering. I meant to load up sugar and rum and be on my way, but I found that Barbados worked on me in the subtlest ways—"
"Yes!" the older man exclaimed. "Everything seems exotic there, from the sun on one's back to the turquoise sea to the scent of the frangipani and the sight of the bearded fig trees—"
"And the food and drink!" Nathan broke in. "I could live forever on Bajan rum, papaya, flying fish, limes, pigeon peas and rice, breadfruit—"
"And yet one can still get a proper cup of tea, thanks to the British influence. I'm so fond of Barbados that I purchased fifty acres of land along the eastern coast and am loath to sell it... just in case Lisette agrees one day to leave France."
Nathan cocked an eyebrow. "The east coast, you say? It's certainly beautiful, but that side of Barbados is also be treacherous, and not only because it's battered by the wild Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps even more dangerous is a
who lives in the eastern parish of St. Philip."
"What person is that?"
He sipped his brandy and slowly explained, "Xavier Crowe is my nemesis. You see, I have my own home on a sugarcane plantation farther north, but Crowe is the sort of sea captain who gives the rest of us a bad name and does everything in his power to spoil the pleasure I take in living on Barbados."
Beauvisage's expression was concerned. "What can one man possibly be doing to cause you such aggravation?"
"Crowe is just twenty-five, but he's spoiled, dishonorable, crafty, and far too rich. His mansion, called Crowe's Nest, overlooks the ocean, and he has plenty of henchmen to carry out his plots. More than once, when a ship has drawn near in bad weather, Crowe's men have strung lanterns along the beach's palm trees. The incoming ships have been fooled into thinking that they've reached the safe haven of Bridgetown, and they sailed toward the lights."
"Let me guess," Nicholai interjected grimly. "The ships were dashed on the reef."
"Just so. And Crowe's men looted the wrecks before they sank. Since he was always careful to be conspicuously absent from Crowe's Nest during the actual crime, Xavier's never been caught. Most Barbadians are afraid of him and his power, while I simply despise the man—and the feeling is mutual." He paused to light a cheroot, using the interlude to calm his temper. "I'll admit, I've had personal conflicts with him that've deepened the bad feelings between us, but it is his character and his deeds that I detest most. You ought to think twice before becoming Crowe's neighbor."
Nicholai rubbed his jaw as he formulated a plan. "From your description of Crowe's Nest, it sounds as if our estates might adjoin." He watched the spark of interest kindle in Raveneau's eyes. "You'd love to get your hands on my fifty acres, wouldn't you?"
"To watch over Crowe—and likely catch him in his crimes—yes, I would. Intensely." A decanter of port, with two glasses, appeared, but Nathan didn't notice. His knuckles were white on the arms of the chair, and the sparks in his eyes had caught fire. "I wish that I could ask you to name your price for your land, but unfortunately my funds are nearly all tied up in the estate I've purchased in St. Andrew's Parish. The house and plantation buildings date back to 1660, and they've gotten rather shabby. When I bought that land on Barbados and began planning the restoration of my new estate, I thought that nothing could mar my happiness, but Crowe has managed to strike me on every front."
Nicholai Beauvisage met the younger man's eyes with a penetrating stare. "I perceive, my friend, that we may be able to assist one another. If you will come to my aid, I am prepared to
you the fifty acres you covet."
"You are young and full of fire." Nicholai chuckled. "Perhaps you should hear your side of the bargain before you agree."
Nathan was already imagining what would happen when the land adjoining Crowe's Nest belonged to him. What a fantastic stroke of luck it had been for him to meet Beauvisage here tonight! "Tell me then," he said. "I'll do anything."
"I want you to guard my daughter from danger until her twenty-first birthday, four months hence." He poured ruby-hued port into his own glass. "Adrienne has accepted a position as companion to Lady Thomasina Harms and shortly will travel with her ladyship to Harms Castle, there to pass the summer in musty boredom."
"Wouldn't you imagine that Harms Castle will be protection in itself?" Nathan suggested hopefully.
"Lady Harms has a randy son called Huntsford, and then there's Frakes-Hogg, who doubtless won't give up so easily. Perhaps I'm being a nervous father, but I will feel a good deal better about returning to France if I know that someone I trust is keeping an eye on Adrienne."
"Are you suggesting that I protect your daughter from danger and... romantic seduction?"
"Why not?" Nicholai shifted in his chair. "Is it asking too much that she remain pure until she is twenty-one years of age? Adrienne is certainly capable of managing her own life, but I cannot help worrying because she is hot-blooded and impetuous. If I am going to allow her to go off to a strange estate in Hampshire, can I not be assured, as her father, that some scoundrel won't be able to take advantage of her at a weak moment?"
"Well, then..." Nathan looked ahead to autumn, when he'd be back in Barbados, standing on his new fifty acres on the eastern coast. Xavier Crowe would be utterly crazed to find Nathan close enough to monitor the goings-on at Crowe's Nest! The thought made him grin suddenly. "I can stand anything for four months, even—" He caught himself. "Even being exiled to the wilds of Hampshire for the summer!" His laughter was edged with relief, for he'd very nearly slipped and made an insulting reference to Nicholai's bluestocking daughter. No doubt Nicholai was a doting father, but surely Adrienne would be married by now if she were as attractive as she'd been described.
It was an odd arrangement indeed, and it seemed to indicate that Beauvisage was an overprotective father, but who was Nathan to judge? The outcome for him would be fantastic. During his four-month exile in a drafty castle, he could read all the books he'd postponed, meanwhile keeping one eye on Adrienne Beauvisage, who was doubtless a temperamental spinster. Although it sounded dull, 'twould be a small enough price to pay for Beauvisage's strategically located land. Soon those acres would belong to Nathan, and he'd finally have means to thwart Xavier Crowe!
* * *
"You can perceive, my dear Miss Beau, that I have a method, can you not?" Lady Thomasina Harms waved Adrienne into her dressing room, which was arrayed with clothing and books being packed for the journey to Hampshire.
It was late, Adrienne was exhausted, and she had long ago given up saying her name properly for her new employer. Lady Thomasina had fixed upon "Miss Beau," and so it would be. It was the least of the old woman's eccentricities. From her lace turban and plump face, painted with too much crimson lip salve and rouge, to her pudgy
swathed in an elaborate embroidered gown and excessive jewelry, Lady Thomasina was a startling sight. Adrienne's interview had stretched into an endless supper, after which her employer had insisted on this visit to her dressing room.
"No doubt a bright girl like you can make sense of my method, hmm?"
Adrienne stared at the veritable stew of aging gowns, misshapen slippers, petticoats, chemises, bizarre hats and turbans, pieces of jewelry, fans, reticules, muffs, gloves, and more. She pursed her lips and made an attempt: "I do seem to notice a pattern of
"Bravo!" Lady Thomasina cheered, clapping her hands.
"You'll learn in no time. At all times, even in transit, my possessions are arranged according to color
size, and I am very sensitive to even one item out of place!" She brought her thickly powdered face close to Adrienne's. "I am relying on you, Miss Beau, to watch over my things with a vigilant eye."
It was quite late by the time Adrienne returned to her own furnished rooms, and she was too tired to do anything more than prepare for bed. Lady Thomasina had announced that they would depart morning after next, so Adrienne decided to spend the following day packing. She would be taking everything that wasn't in France, since her home would henceforth be with Lady Thomasina.
The prospect of rusticating with an eccentric old woman in the Hampshire hinterlands couldn't help but give Adrienne pause, but she lectured herself while snuggling into bed. "Don't be gooseish. It will be an adventure," she chided herself. "Much better than going home with Papa, where everything is familiar!"
The threatening note from Walter Frakes-Hogg leaped into her mind then, as she lay quietly in the dark. To keep her fears at bay, Adrienne conjured fanciful images of her future at Harms Castle, lingering on the prospect of visits from that legendary dandy, Huntsford Harms. At last, sleep carried her away...
In the morning, Adrienne sent word to her father that she would meet him at noon to make her farewells. She chose a pretty walking dress of lilac muslin, with satin ribbons that trailed down loose from the middle of her back, and concealed most of her curls under a jaunty tartarian turban with a lilac-striped band. Her scent, a light essence of lilac mixed for her in Paris, completed the effect.
Then, after organizing most of her possessions and luggage, Adrienne left the actual packing until after her appointment. In the doorway, she remembered her priceless new fan and took it with her. Her landlady was waiting downstairs in the vestibule, wearing a long face.
"How I shall miss you, dear Adrienne." Miss Hedgecoe was the aunt of Venetia Hedgecoe, a close friend from school and Adrienne's partner in numerous adventures. The elderly woman had welcomed her when she fled Walter Frakes-Hogg's house.
"And I you." Adrienne gave her a warm hug.
"Still, I don't want you to end up a lonely spinster like me. I'm glad you're venturing back out into the world." Miss Hedgecoe held out a letter. "This just arrived by messenger."
Adrienne paled at the sight of Walter's handwriting, but didn't want to worry her friend. "Thank you, dear. I must dash to meet Papa, so I'll read it on the way."
Once inside a hack, she gave the name of the hotel to the driver, then sat back, staring at the missive as if it were a poisonous snake. "I ought to simply tear the thing up and toss it away!" Adrienne thought. "That bully cannot hurt me!" But curiosity won out again. She broke the plain seal and read:
I will find you!
* * *
Nicholai had a light luncheon served in his private sitting room. Servants from the hotel's dining room had just finished laying out the dishes on a table set with fine white linen when Nathan Raveneau peeked out of his host's bedchamber.
"How long do you want me to hide in here?"
"You won't be
exactly," Nicholai amended. "Waiting is a better word. You're just waiting in here until I have Adrienne prepared for our plan."
"And then I should go out into the hotel corridor through this other door—" Nathan pointed to the narrow exit in the corner of the bedchamber. "—and knock, as if I'm just arriving?" He was looking amused yet dashing in his top boots, fawn breeches, and a blue coat he'd meant to throw away last year because of some frayed spots. It was a costume ordered by his new employer, to add to Nathan's new image of middle-class hired protector.