Masquerading the Marquess(12)

By: Anne Mallory




She was certain one of the benches was straight ahead, but her eyes hadn’t totally adjusted to the dark. She tentatively stuck out a foot and hit stone. Success.



She walked forward and hit an object with her right foot. She stumbled forward and her left foot tangled in the lowered hem of her dress. Damn roots. She hadn’t seen them this afternoon.



She was going down.



She threw her arms in front of her to break the fall, but something grabbed her across the chest. A warm arm. The action allowed her to regain her footing and stand upright. The arm released her slowly, sliding across her chest and leaving sharp tingles in its wake.



A long shadowy leg lifted, bent at the knee and rested on top of the bench. There was no other movement. The mysterious root had been a foot.



"I believe the other two benches are empty. "



It was Angelford, of course. No one else could possibly be a better witness to her embarrassment.



"What are you doing here?" The words were out before she thought better of speaking. She could picture his raised brow, but could barely discern his form stretched out on the stone.



"I will confess after you do."



"It is a good night for stargazing. What is your excuse?"



There was a marked hesitation. "That is mine as well."



She didn’t believe it for a second. Her eyes started to adjust. She located another bench and sat. "Marvellous. Which constellations have you spotted?"



"Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, Cancer, Leo . . ." He rattled off a dozen and she was glad the darkness hid her dropped jaw.



"I’m still trying to find Hydra. Can you help?" The voice dripped sarcasm.



"Very amusing."



Calliope gazed up into the night, and after a few minutes spotted the multi-headed serpent. "Well, Hercules, if you found Leo and Cancer, just look south. Perhaps you’d have more luck looking for Virgo. It’s in the same region." Give him something to think about.



"What game are you playing?"



"I have no idea." It was the truth.



"l give you fair warning. You won’t like it when I uncover your scheme. Hercules slew the Hydra."



Calliope drew herself up. Stargazing had lost its appeal. "Hercules also made sure two heads didn’t sprout from each one he cut off. Good night, my lord."



She walked through the hedges and back inside the inn. Nightmares of Hercules slaying the Hydra plagued her sleep.





Chapter 4





James tossed the paper to the floor the next evening. A second caricature, this one less flattering than the last.



"What’s wrong, James?"



Stella kneaded the muscles in his shoulders. The massage felt good, but he wanted to be tense. Too many things were upsetting him since their return from Newmarket.



"That damn Thomas Landes. I’m going to wring his neck."



Stella gracefully picked up the paper. "Not very fitting. Where does this man get his ideas?"



James threw up his hands. "I’ve no idea. I instructed Finn to look into the matter. I’ll know soon."



She tapped the paper thoughtfully. "Maybe you should look at the situations depicted. Where are the ideas spawned?"



James had already tried, but the pictures, though brilliantly rendered and emotional in nature, were vague. “Any number of people with an active imagination could have culled these. The drawings don’t give me any more clues to the artist’s identity. "



"You are awfully interested in this artist."



"I’ve never been under attack before."



Stella hesitated. "James, I know you didn’t come here to discuss these terrible drawings. Why don’t we finish the business and have an enjoyable dinner?"



She knew. "Stella, I-"



"I know, dear. I’ve seen the way you look at her.



And the way she tries to hide her interest. If she were free of Stephen I would give you my blessing, for I quite like the girl." Stella hesitated again. "I hope you don’t mind my bluntness, but something is wrong with the situation."



He waved her on, already in a mild sort of shock.



"She’s not . . . she’s not one of us. It’s not that she doesn’t behave like she is, but there’s an aura about her. Almost of innocence. I’ve been wondering if it’s an act, perfectly devious if it is—and guaranteed to bring her fortune and fame—but a part of me thinks her innocence is genuine."



James shook his head. "No, Stella, she has ulterior motives. I will discover them."



She smiled, almost sadly. "Yes, James, I know you will. Now let’s eat. Afterwards you can buy me the lovely sapphire necklace I’ve been admiring as a parting gift to soothe your conscience."





The festively decorated ballroom glowed in red and gold and smelled of lit cinnamon. The cheerful guests sauntered the length of the room, mingling and offering their various services. Buyers and sellers alike. It was a merry atmosphere and one was hard put not to smile at some of the antics.



Calliope did just that as she mentally calculated how much cleavage the flamboyant widow on the settee displayed. Could one measure décolletage in acres?



She added another caricature idea to the growing list in her head. Yes, she could do something with the widow’s ample bosom ....



She felt a strong presence at her side, indicating Stephen had finally returned.



"I’m glad you’re here. What term would you use for a harbor that is too tight for a ship to pass through?" she asked.



"Barred shipyard? Shaven haven? Short seaport? Wrestled vessel? Overwhelmed helm? Surpassed mast? Dismayed quay?"



The unexpected voice startled her and she looked up to see Angelford also contemplating the widow.



"You’re not Stephen."



He turned his attention to her, an amused expression on his face. "How astute you are this evening."



"I had some questions concerning sailing."



"I see." He lifted an eyebrow.



It was as if cobwebs instantly formed on her tongue and in her brain when he moved within a few steps of her. Calliope stared unseeing at the widow, trying to determine how to salvage the conversation. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to use the caricature idea after all. Stephen popped into view next to the barely clad woman.



"Stephen’s not the most ardent admirer, hmm?"



Angelford had been on active attack since Newmarket the previous week. Each night brought them face-to-face in a new battle.



The surprising moment’s kinship over the widow retreated, and Calliope easily fell into temper. She smiled sweetly. "He’s ardent when it counts, my lord."



A wisp of a smile flitted across his face. Or maybe she imagined it.



"Good to hear Stephen can hold up. Wouldn’t want his prowess to be questioned."



With superhuman effort, she restrained a blush. "Stephen’s prowess is not in doubt."



The corner of his mouth lifted. "I have a pleasant solution for eliminating doubt."



" Alcohol? "



"No, you strike me as the adventuresome type." At the last few gatherings he had hinted at her being worse than an adventuress. "The kind of lady who would like to try new things. Maybe play different roles?"



She gripped her dress. "Sounds interesting."



"You must find it so liberating, a woman in your position. Much easier for you to do as you please than, say, someone within the ton."



Calliope plucked a morsel from a passing waiter’s tray and took a bite. "Mmm, yes, you can’t do nearly as many delicious things."



"How is the devil’s cake?"



"Mouth-watering."



"It looks divine from here. Would you like another?"



She leaned into him and traced a finger down his cravat, her lids heavy and her lips slightly apart. "Desperately."



His warm hand secured hers. "Careful what you ask."



The look in his eyes told her to retreat. Retreat quickly. She smiled lazily and withdrew, trying not to give him the advantage. "I’ll keep that in mind, my lord."



He stared hard into her eyes and then turned and walked away. She watched him join a group. which included the new Cabinet minister, a rich merchant’s daughter and an actress. It was the beauty of these types of entertainments. They allowed class fusion.



She took a deep breath to slow her quickened heart. Angelford was much more dangerous when he played nice. And much more disconcerting.



A gentleman brushed her backside as he passed, an unquestionably intentional caress. Good Lord, if she received one more proposition she would scream. Indecent offers were all part of the act, but chats with Angelford always made her extra sensitive. She had to stop letting him unsettle her.



Stephen walked over. "How are you managing? "



He looked concerned. She must have let her emotions slip through.



"A bit out of patience with some people, but fine otherwise."



His eyes twinkled. "I missed a good fight? Damn, knew I should have rushed over here sooner."



Calliope gave him an exasperated look. "Right. And miss that lovely view above the widow’s dress? I doubt it."

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