Masquerading the Marquess(8)

By: Anne Mallory

James shrugged nonchalantly. "Just enjoying the evening at the opera. "

Stephen continued to stare at him. "Mmmm, yes, that would explain why I felt I was being warned off my own companion."

James kept his face unchanged, but he mentally chastised himself for the slip. Stephen was too observant.

"Don’t know what you mean."

Stephen’s eyes narrowed and James diverted the conversation. "Isn’t it too soon after your return from the continent to make such an acquisition? Are you sure she’s legitimate?"

Stephen’s face abruptly softened and his eyes twinkled. "Oh, I have nothing to fear from that quarter."

His expression disgruntled James and made him uncharacteristically press the subject.

"Something strange is going on. There is something odd about the situation and how you two met."

"This is a first." Stephen grinned. "The Marquess of Angelford, jealous."

James frowned. "I’m not jealous. I’m concerned about you."

"As you will."

James’s frown deepened and his voice rang with emphasis. "Believe me, women are not worth the trouble. Getting foolish over them makes a man weak."

Stephen continued to smile at James, but his voice was directed past him. "My dear, did you find anything interesting?"

James turned to the box entrance and saw the chestnut-haired beauty shooting daggers at him. He hadn’t heard her approach and wondered what the hell was wrong with him.

He was off his game.

She had obviously overheard his last remark, and he wondered why he felt a twinge of regret. He had meant every word. What was it about her that made his conscience rear its ugly head?

She turned to Stephen. "I had hoped we could leave. I’ve had enough of Rossini’s opera for the evening, and I think we can find better ways to occupy ourselves." She threw him a saucy look and moved her body invitingly.

James’s own body flared, as did his temper, but Stephen was staring at him so he schooled his face into lines of boredom.

Stephen was clearly enjoying James’s discomfort.

He rose and took her hand. "Yes, darling, a wonderful idea. Good night, James, and say farewell to Stella for us when she returns."

Stephen drawled the darling and each new syllable grated more than the last. They exited the box and left James inside, perturbed.

He willed his body back to normal. His reactions were always unpredictable around her. The only predictable aspect was there would be a reaction.

There was something strange about that girl. He had never been able to resist a puzzle, and he had never encountered one he couldn’t solve.

He would expose her secret.

Chapter 3

"I didn’t realize you and James were acquainted," Stephen said when they were safely ensconced in the carriage.

"We aren’t," Calliope responded. The words came out more tightly than she had planned.

He gave her an assessing look. "I thought our plan was to remain for the second act."

"After the exciting intermission I thought the second act might seem interminable. All of those ideas racing around in my head with no outlet."

Stephen leaned forward. "What are some of your ideas?"

Calliope launched into a description of the various sketches she had planned, successfully distracting his attention from the subject of Angelford. She still hadn’t figured out how she was going to tell Stephen that she had slaughtered his best friend in the papers.

Stephen laughed at her opera descriptions and offered suggestions of his own. They tried to one up the other’s ideas all the way back to the Adelphi Theatre.

The ride was merry until Stephen said, "Like you, James has a keen eye for observation. Someday I think I’d like to hear the two of you plotting sketches together."

A pounding noise caused the carriage to shudder as lightning split the sky. Calliope tried to laugh at Stephen’s comment, but failed. A nervous sound rolled from her throat. Luckily the carriage stopped and she was saved from the conversation.

Stephen threw an old greatcoat over her shoulders and hurried her to the theater’s back entrance just as the rain began. "I will come by tomorrow afternoon so we can plan our strategy. Good night, Calliope. It was quite an interesting evening."

She turned and placed her hand on his sleeve as she handed him the coat. "I’m sorry for any rudeness in our abrupt departure from the opera, Mr. Chalmers. Tonight was a bit overwhelming. I truly appreciate your part in this mad scheme. You must let me know when it becomes tiring for you."

Stephen smiled. "You needn’t concern yourself with me, Calliope. And please, call me Stephen."

She returned his smile. "Good night, then, Stephen."

He sketched a dashing bow and kissed her hand.

Calliope entered the theater and headed to the dressing room, unnoticed by the busy stagehands. Deirdre breezed into the room a second later. "I want to hear everything! Absolutely everything. How was it? Tell me about the people, your grand entrance, the performance .... "

Calliope collapsed into a chair. "I suppose it was a success."

Deirdre’s brows drew together in a frown. "Suppose?"

"I believe this new pursuit will serve extremely well if I can keep Stephen Chalmers on my side. Unfortunately, I will encounter many of the same arrogant people."

Deirdre’s eyes danced. "Might I remind you that you created the position for that very reason?"

Calliope shot her a dark look. "No, you may not."

She received a knowing glance from Deirdre. "You encountered your deliciously haughty lord, didn’t you?"

Calliope scowled. "He's not my lord."

Deirdre rubbed her hands together in glee. "I can’t wait to see your next drawing of Angelford. They are some of your best—I can practically taste your feelings."

Calliope stilled. "I will sketch no more of Angelford for a time. Robert warned me against doing so, and I find myself wanting to heed that particular piece of advice. Especially now that there is an added complication, which I’ll tell you about in a moment."

Calliope _rose and began removing her guise. "Besides, the first of The Travails trilogy should be published tomorrow. If Angelford deserves another comeuppance, I can think of the future ones with anticipation."

James glared at the paper.

"What has you so irritable?" Stephen said as he dropped into a wingback chair across from James at White’s, a snifter dangling in his hand as he surveyed the club.

James’s frown deepened as he glanced at Stephen, whose eyes were suspiciously cheerful. He thought about ignoring his friend, but instead pointed to the sketch and tossed him the paper.

Stephen sipped his brandy and picked up the paper. He scanned the illustration and started choking. The paper bunched in his hand.

James rose and pounded heavily on his back. Stephen gave him a devilish glare, putting James in somewhat better humor. Stephen’s color returned to normal and he opened the paper again. James looked over his shoulder at the caricature drawn of him, and then returned to his seat, signaling for another scotch. "It’s a ridiculous drawing. I’d like to wring that man’s neck."

Stephen continued to study the paper, saying nothing. When he finally looked up, he appeared to be laughing at some hidden joke.

"Stephen, you’re getting damn irritating."

Stephen chuckled, causing several heads to turn their way. "This is too good. This artist has been featuring you?"

James did not know what his friend found so amusing about the situation and gritted his teeth. "Yes."

Stephen glanced back at the drawing, and although he vainly tried to hide it, another smile crossed his face. "How do you define irony? This is certainly an interesting turn of events."

An attendant appeared. James grabbed his drink from the frightened man. "And how is that?"

"The artist who composed the drawing put a great deal of effort and feeling into it, don’t you agree?"

James shrugged. When the first illustration appeared, he had known the aspersions were personal. "I suppose."

"Personal grudge, I’d say. What did you do?" Stephen sent him a considering look and took a tentative sip of his brandy. Satisfied, he took a larger swallow.

"Absolutely nothing of which I’m aware. You know I play a discreet role. I’m the epitome of the boring nobleman. I suppose I may want to employ runners to investigate this fellow. He seems a bit too interested in my business and may pose a threat."

Stephen began choking again but recovered quickly and wheezed, "Do you really think that’s necessary? No harm has been done, no secrets uncovered."

James smirked. "Can’t hold down the drink, old boy? It reminds me of our days at Eton."

Stephen glowered and muttered an expletive.

James grinned, his mood lightening.

Stephen looked at him and sighed. "It appears the individual who created this cartoon sought retribution through the pen. Perhaps you inadvertently insulted the caricaturist. What’s his name? Thomas Landes? I doubt you’d find anything physically harmful from the man."

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