Pliny, Plutarch, Quintilian… She frowned. Where was Pope? He had been here just a moment ago; she would swear to it. She checked again. Pope had gone missing.
Her lower lip caught between her teeth, her brow furrowed with concentration, Kit Mallory stood atop the rickety stepladder, sorting through an awkward armful of leather-bound books, when she heard the library door creak open.
"Mrs. Mallory, I would speak with you!" exclaimed an imperious voice.
Oh, no. Not again.
Kit started, her grip loosened, and the books tumbled from her arms to land with several tumultuous thumps on the floor below. The ladder swayed, and she made a mad grab for the railings. She righted herself, then stood stock-still for several moments, her pulse pounding loudly in her ears, her eyes closed against a sudden wave of dizziness as the room, ladder and all, seemed to tilt beneath her.
Gooseflesh prickled over her skin as she realized just how close she'd come to falling. And with the realization came a rush of anger. She looked down at the books heaped at the base of the ladder and exhaled slowly; none of them appeared to be damaged. She twisted around to glare at the intruder. "I told you before, the answer is-oh!"
A familiar figure stood in the doorway, but not the one she was expecting. Tall and angular, in a round gown of vibrant purple silk trimmed with teal velvet ribbons, with dozens of strands of pearls looped around her long, wrinkled neck, the lady commanded one's immediate attention. Soft curls of gray hair protruded from beneath her turban, a creation of teal silk adorned with a diamond brooch and three immense plumes. Sharp black eyes and a rather prominent nose gave her a striking, but not unhandsome countenance.
"Your Grace!" Kit gasped, horrified by her rudeness. "Forgive me. I had no idea you were here."
"So I gathered," replied the Dowager Duchess of Wexcombe, unruffled. "The fault is mine, child, for startling you so. Now come down from there at once, before you do yourself an injury."
Kit descended the ladder with gingerly steps. "You might have given me a little warning, ma'am. These volumes are irreplaceable." She knelt to collect the fallen tomes, then started to pile them on a nearby chair.
"Stop fussing with those books, girl, and pay attention." The elderly woman raised her gold-rimmed lorgnette and eyed Kit up and down. "Goodness, what on earth have you been doing? You look like a sparrow that has been bathing in the dust all day."
Kit brushed her hands against her drab brown skirt and pushed a few stray locks of hair from her eyes. "Not quite all day, Your Grace."
"Hmph," sniffed the duchess, her lips compressed in a thin line as she turned her attention to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the room, then to the haphazard stacks that teetered atop almost every table and chair. She held out a lacy, embroidered kerchief. "There is a smudge on your nose."
Obediently, Kit took the cambric square and daubed at the offending mark.
"Really, Mrs. Mallory," Her Grace continued, "you cannot keep yourself locked up day after day with these moldy old books. 'Tis most unnatural."
"I do believe Your Grace has made your disapproval known on more than one occasion."
The older lady arched an eyebrow. "Are you being impertinent?"
Try as she might, Kit could not keep the corners of her mouth from twitching. "Oh, yes, ma'am. Every day, and as often as possible."
The duchess laughed and held out her gloved hands. "Saucebox. How glad I am to see you again. Do you never tire of this little game of mine?"
"Never." Kit took the lady's hands in her own and gave them a fond squeeze. "I was beginning to despair, thinking you were not coming. I trust you are well?"
"Well enough, considering my age and my temper."
Kit grinned. "And how was your trip from London?"
"Cold, wet, and thoroughly unpleasant," replied the duchess with asperity. "I vow it must have rained the entire time-mud up to one's ankles! But I did not come here to bore you with such stories; we have important matters to discuss. Will you invite me to take tea with you, or must I ring for the servants myself?"
"Best to let me do it; you will terrify them," Kit replied with a chuckle, then led her guest to the drawing room.
While Kit rang for tea, the dowager duchess seated herself on the lion-footed sofa by the hearth. The lady smoothed her skirts, then examined the room through her lorgnette. "You have made a few improvements to the place."
Kit lowered herself onto the rosewood chair opposite the duchess. "The house seemed so… so bare and colorless, and I couldn't stand it any longer. My late husband's solicitor thinks it barbaric-oh, he is too polite to say as much, but I can see it in the way his face puckers up like a prune whenever he steps through the front door. But I have never given a fig for the fickle dictates of fashion. This is my home, and I shall do as I please."
The duchess nodded, and the plumes on her turban nodded with her. "As it should be. You are no milk-and-water miss, and this house was in desperate need of some character."
Character? Kit allowed herself a small chuckle. Most gently reared ladies would gasp and turn pale-if not faint outright-at the pagan splendors of her drawing room, which included a carved sandalwood screen, a tiger-skin rug, and colorful Hindu masks on the walls. Sensuous stone goddesses graced the wall on either side of the hearth. Woven rugs in brilliant hues covered the floor. Fragrant wisps of flowery incense curled from a brass burner on the mantelpiece. The rest of the Georgian-style residence was decorated in much the same way, or it would be once she finished unpacking.
"If I could have, I would have brought along the whole of Calcutta," she replied. Her smile began to fade around the edges.
"Do you miss India very much?" Through the lorgnette, the duchess's eyes appeared unnaturally large.
"It was the only place I ever felt truly at home."
Those large eyes softened. "A pity your situation would not allow you to remain."
Kit laced her fingers in her lap to stop their nervous fidgets. Her Grace was coming painfully close to subjects she would rather not discuss. "Since I could not stay, I decided to bring with me what I could. Do you like it?"
"It suits you." The duchess gave her a long, measured look, then gestured to the tall, multiarmed bronze statue visible in the vestibule. "Tell me-who is that rather large fellow out in the hall?"
Kit relaxed her clenched hands. "Come now, Your Grace. Did you never visit any temples in India? That is Lord Siva, the god of destruction and new beginnings. He is the patron deity of those who have no place in society-outcasts, and the like. Given all that has transpired over the course of my life, I thought it appropriate to set him in a place of honor."
The dowager frowned and opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment Ramesh, the imposing Hindu butler, brought in a tea tray laden with a steaming pot and clinking china cups, accompanied by an assortment of sweets. The turbaned, mahogany-skinned servant set the tray on the low table between the two ladies, pressed his large palms together in a reverent salute, then departed, all in silence.
The duchess stared after him through her lorgnette. "Gracious… I had forgotten you brought your servants with you."
"There is only Ramesh and his wife Lakshmi," Kit replied. "They insisted on coming with me. Though, after the cold spring we had, I wonder if they have regretted that decision."
"Indeed?" murmured the duchess in a thoughtful tone, tapping the tip of one finger against her pointed chin. Then she shook herself and tucked her lorgnette into her oversize reticule. "And now we must get to the business at hand."
Kit's hand hesitated on the handle of the teapot. "What business would that be, Your Grace?"
"Why, your future, my dear."
"My future?" Kit echoed. Still somewhat shaky from the incident on the ladder, she managed to pour a cup of the fragrant tea without splashing any onto the saucer, then handed it to her guest.
The elderly woman heaved a sigh. "Yes, your future. I shall speak plainly, child, since I know no other way to go about it. You cannot continue to live like this."
The dowager paused to sip her tea. "Like… well, like a hermit."
"A hermit?" Kit's frown deepened. She was turning into a veritable parrot; one would think her incapable of uttering a single word of her own.
"A hermit," confirmed the duchess with a nod. "A recluse. Like those fellows you told me about on our voyage… the ones who wander off into the wilderness and deny themselves any form of pleasure at all. Oh, what do you call them-"
"Ascetics. And I am not one of them, I assure you."
"What would you call it, then?" demanded the older woman. "You have not gone out into society at all, not to the assemblies or the concerts, or even to take the waters at the Pump Room. You keep your nose so buried in those foreign texts of yours that it's a wonder you haven't wasted completely away."
Good heavens… How did the duchess know all of this? Kit looked askance at her guest. "If I did not know better, Your Grace," she said archly, "I'd swear you have been checking up on me."
"And what if I have? I am not naturally disposed to interfering in people's lives, my dear, but enough is enough. I will not let you waste any more of your youth shut up like a nun in a cloister."
Kit sat in stunned silence, her cup halfway to her slack mouth.
"When I first met you aboard the Daphne," Her Grace continued, "I thought you an impertinent hussy. But you were the only one who ventured to speak to me; the rest of that craven lot could not even conceive that an august personage such as myself might be lonely and desire some company. If not for you, my dear, I do not think I would have survived the voyage from Calcutta." Moisture gleamed at the corners of the dowager's dark eyes.
Kit shuddered at the thought of that horrific passage, of the storms that battered the Daphne as it passed through the Cape of Good Hope, of the dark, pitching sea, the howling wind, and the terrible creaking of the ship's timbers. She had nursed the elderly duchess through debilitating bouts of mal de mer when the lady's own servants had been too ill to tend her, and the ordeal had forged an enduring bond of friendship between them. As a result, Kit held the duchess as dear as her own grandmother, despite the lady's tendency to speak her mind and meddle in the affairs of others.
"You give me too much credit, Your Grace," she protested. "I did no less than anyone else would have done."
The dowager sat straight up and glared down her aquiline nose. "Nonsense. You are an exceptional creature, and I will not permit you to wither away into a disappointed old maid." Her lips twitched. "You cannot expect happiness to come to you; you must seize it."
When she was in this sort of mood, any attempt to resist the imperious old lady was like trying to row against the current. "What do you suggest?" Kit asked cautiously.
The older woman appeared to consider the question. "Well, first of all, we must have you fitted for a new wardrobe. You're a fetching thing, but your looks will be greatly improved once you cast off those dreary gowns you insist on wearing."
Kit fingered the dull brown material of her sleeve. "Given that I am still unpacking and cataloging the books I brought back with me, wearing paper-thin muslins and fashionable silks is not exactly practical. Besides, Your Grace, I would rather not spend my money on fancy dresses I will rarely wear."
"Balderdash." The duchess plucked a lemon tart from the tea tray, took a bite, and chewed with obvious relish. "It has been well over a year since your husband's death, and you look like you're still in mourning for him."
"But I am not," Kit protested. "These are practical gowns, and appropriate for my station. After those gaudy creations that George wanted me to wear, I am relieved to have something more somber."
"Somber? You're a widow, child-you're not dead. Goodness, what harm will a few new frocks do?"
"I do not wish to be seen as… well… fast," Kit insisted. "I will not make myself a target for any more impertinent remarks."
"Impertinent remarks?" repeated the duchess with a touch of outrage.
Kit opened her mouth, then closed it with a snap. She could not tell tales out of school, nor would she impugn the elderly woman's family as they had hers. The tips of her ears grew hot with the memory. "I do not wish to discuss it."
"Well, I am a widow, and no one questions my sense of propriety." The duchess cocked her head, her black eyes flashing, looking for all the world like an inquisitive bird. "I cannot believe you are so put off by wagging tongues. Gracious, I have never known you to be so missish!"
Heat bloomed in Kit's cheeks. She grimaced, then counted to five and took a deep breath. "I know you mean well, Your Grace," she stated at length, "but I will not allow you-or anyone else, for that matter-to push me at something I do not want."
The duchess's thin, lampblackened brows rose toward her hairline. "Well, perhaps not so missish, after all. Come now, child. You cannot expect me to believe that you actually enjoy racketing around this house by yourself, swathed in those shapeless sacks. If you were as desolated by that idiot's death as you would have me believe, you would have committed suttee like a poor Hindu widow."
The thought of throwing herself onto a blazing funeral pyre made Kit shudder. "Don't be ridiculous."
The duchess harrumphed. "Quite so. The time has come to form a strategy, my dear. Unless, of course, you intend to remain closed up in this house for the rest of your life."
"I have not given the matter much thought," Kit replied. Another knot of tension began at the back of her neck, but she resisted the urge to rub at it.
"Well, you should," prodded the duchess. Her severe expression eased. "George Mallory may have been an insufferable popinjay, but I can see that he left you well provided for."
Kit blinked. "Yes-well enough. With all due respect, Your Grace, that is none of your business."
The dowager dusted crumbs from her fingertips and reached for a slice of Dundee cake. "I am making it my business, child. Such is the privilege of age and rank, especially for nosy old tabbies like myself who have little else to occupy their time. So… you mean to rest on your laurels? Fustian. You're too young to live like an… oh, what is that word again… an ascetic."
"I am five-and-twenty, Your Grace, once widowed, and possessed of only modest appearance, connections, and fortune. What would you have me do?" Kit shrugged and sipped her tea.
"Perhaps you need to take a lover," quipped the duchess over the rim of her teacup.
The young woman's gasp of shock sent a flood of liquid down her windpipe, and she began to cough. "Really, ma'am!" she sputtered. Her face a furious scarlet, she set her cup down with a clatter and fumbled for the kerchief she had tucked in her cuff.
The duchess gazed mildly back at her. "And why not? You are strikingly beautiful, despite your protests to the contrary. With a few alterations to your attire and your hair, I wager that handsome bucks would flock to your side by the score."
Kit started to lift a hand toward her tight chignon, then stopped herself. "Out of the question. I will be no man's mistress."
Mischief twinkled in the duchess's eyes. "Are you sure about that? Eh, I thought not. To tell the truth, you might be more prudent to find a husband."
Kit did not answer right away. "I am not certain I wish to be a wife, either," she declared. "I have been married once, and I do not care to repeat the experience."
"Why not?" The dowager finished the last bite of her Dundee cake, then eyed the plate of marzipan. "You're a woman who has seen something of the world, not some featherheaded chit just out of the schoolroom. This time you will be able to choose a proper husband."
Kit wagged a finger at her. "No, Your Grace."
The duchess pulled back, clearly affronted. "What do you mean, 'no'?"
"While I appreciate your concern, I wish to live my life my way. What man would countenance his wife spending all her time translating Hindu literature? I assure you that I am quite content the way I am."
The duchess drummed her fingers on the arm of the sofa. "I vow you delight in disobliging me."
Kit's smile melded with the rim of her cup as she sipped her tea. Lukewarm. Ugh. She made a face and set aside the cup. "The moment I decide to issue forth into society, Your Grace, you shall be the first one to know."
"Insolent, headstrong girl," muttered the dowager. "Very well, then. I shall say no more on the matter."
"May I have your word on that, ma'am?"
The duchess skewered her with a penetrating glare; Kit gazed back, unperturbed. After a few moments, Her Grace looked away.
"I suppose I am being rather high-handed with you," the older woman huffed. "All right. You have my word. 'Pon rep, you are a stubborn creature."
"Thank you, Your Grace." With a slight smile, Kit proffered the plate of marzipan.
The duchess waved it away. "No, thank you. You have quite ruined my appetite."
While she sipped her tea, the dowager went on to regale Kit with the latest news and gossip from London; the duchess seemed to find great amusement in watching young chits and their mothers scramble hither and thither like hens in a barnyard as they made their all-important preparations for balls and parties.
"Unfortunately, we will have no further diversions of that sort until autumn." Then the duchess paused and set down her teacup. "And now I have a favor to ask you."
Kit braced herself. "And that is?…"
"The last week of this month I am due to visit my grandson at his country estate near Stow-on-the-Wold. I had hoped you would consent to accompany me."
"Accompany you?" Kit pulled a face; she was doing it again. Soon she would be nothing but a complete mimic.
Her Grace did not appear to notice. "You make it sound like such a remarkable request, child. Really, I know of no other person whose company I can tolerate so well as yours."
Kit swiveled around in her chair and poured His Grace a fresh cup of tea, her shoulders hunched so that the duchess could not see her scowl. "How long will you be staying, ma'am?" she asked, trying to keep her voice steady.
"Oh, a week, at most. I would consider it a great favor to me, Kit. My great-grandchildren are delightful, but I fear my grandson and his wife are as stiff rumped as they come. They are convinced that I have become completely addled in my old age and that it is high time I settle down in the dower house and stop making a fool of myself. Bah. Stop making a fool of myself, indeed! I shall need your assistance in reasoning with these young idiots."
Kit pursed her lips. "I think it very wrong of them to force you to do anything, Your Grace."
"Yes, but that will not prevent them from trying, I can promise you that. But do not worry, child-you will have no social obligations and no responsibilities save to keep me from pulling caps with my relations. You will be there as my very great friend. Surely you agree that a change of scenery will do you good. Come with me, Kit, do."
The young woman considered the remaining liquid in the bottom of her cup. Spend a week in the home of the man who had tried to bribe her into severing her friendship with the dowager? The small fortune he had offered would have rendered her a very wealthy woman, but she did not hold her friends so meanly as His Grace did his own relations. Her jaw tightened. She had just gained her own freedom; she could not bear to see the dowager lose hers.
She raised her head. "If you believe my presence will help, then yes, Your Grace, I will go with you."
The duchess beamed. "Capital, my dear. Capital! It will be a week you will not soon forget."
Kit smiled back. "Oh, I am certain of it."
Bored, bored, bored.
Nicholas Darcy, Marquess of Bainbridge, stifled a yawn with the back of one elegantly manicured hand. God's teeth, now that the Season was over, here he was, poised to cock up his toes from sheer ennui. Town was frightfully thin of company, and would be for the next two months. Nothing of note had been entered into the gaming book at White's, or any of the other gentlemen's clubs, for that matter. Recent bouts of inclement weather had kept him from his regular afternoon gallop. Even the lush blond charms of his mistress, the exquisite Angelique Auvray, were wearing thin; her fits of coquettish jealousy, which he had once found amusing, had become rather tedious of late. If he did not soon find something with which to divert himself, he would surely run mad.
At the moment, his only interesting prospect lay in a mysterious message from his cousin, the Duke of Wexcombe. The duke had written to him a few days ago, saying that he would be in London and needed to meet with the marquess on a most urgent matter. Bainbridge flicked a glance to the clock that ticked contentedly away on the marble mantelpiece. Nearly half past three. His cousin was due at any moment.
At precisely half past three, the marquess's lugubrious butler announced the arrival of His Grace, the Duke of Wexcombe. Lord Bainbridge climbed to his feet just as his cousin marched into the study.
"Good afternoon, Wexcombe," he drawled, making a slight bow. "I had never thought to see you in London after the close of the Season."
"I know," replied the duke, his face haggard. "But circumstances dictate otherwise."
Bainbridge looked hard at his relative, then arched a dark, quizzical brow. "Gadzooks, my dear fellow-something must be very wrong, indeed. You look as though you need a drink."
His Grace nodded and lowered himself into one of the two high backed plush chairs that flanked the hearth. "Yes, I believe I do. Brandy, if you please."
Well, well-this was a curious development; the stiff and proper Duke of Wexcombe rarely indulged in spirits, and never before dinner. But, ever the obliging host, Bainbridge crossed to the sideboard, uncorked the decanter, and poured two bumpers full of amber liquid. He handed one to his guest.
"I assume your rather unsmiling demeanor has something to do with your message," he prompted, settling himself into the chair opposite his guest.
The duke stared into the depths of his brandy, then regarded his cousin with somber gray eyes. "It involves my grandmother."
"Ah." Bainbridge settled back in his seat and savored a sip of his drink. "What is Great-Aunt Josephine up to now? Another adventure?"
His Grace made an impatient gesture. "She gets more difficult with every year," he grumbled. "At first I thought her odd starts were the result of boredom, but I vow she has become as eccentric as Lady Hester Stanhope herself. First her voyage to Greece, then to Turkey, then to India, of all places. And now…"
The marquess rubbed at his chin. Yes, his cousin could be a pompous ass. Yes, he was damnably high in the instep. But there could be no doubt that he loved his grandmother and cared for her welfare. Whatever had happened, it was something that did not bode well.
"And now?" he prompted.
The duke thrust a hand through his wheat-blond hair, undoing the careful Brutus style. "I feared this might happen. I shall be blunt, Bainbridge. Grandmama is no longer in complete possession of her faculties. Non compos mentis."
The marquess frowned. "How can that be? I saw her a year ago Christmastide and she appeared right as rain."
His Grace sipped his brandy. "I believe she is in good physical health," he admitted, "but her judgment is not as it should be. Look at the company she keeps these days… that scandalous fellow, the poet-what's his name… Shelley, and Lady Holland's Whiggish set. And then there was that balloon ascension, and now-"
"Just what are you saying, Wexcombe?" Bainbridge demanded. His cousin's words struck a chord of alarm.
The duke's mouth thinned. "A scurrilous personage has attached herself to Grandmama, no doubt with the hope of sponging off her, or even inheriting some of her fortune."
"A fortune hunter? Whatever gives you that idea?"
"When Grandmama returned from India, all she could talk about was a certain Mrs. Mallory, a widow she had met during the voyage. She spends more of her time with this woman than she does with her blood relations. I tell you, Bainbridge, it's not natural."
"A widow," the marquess mused. "Do you know anything about her? Perhaps she is just someone who befriended Aunt Josephine onboard ship. What exactly has you so concerned?"
His Grace took a long pull of brandy, then made a face. "I did some checking up on this woman, and you will like what I found even less than I did. She is the daughter of Baron Sudbrooke."
"My thoughts exactly. And it gets worse. Eight years ago she married a Cit by the name of George Mallory. A very wealthy Cit. Wealthy enough to pay off Sudbrooke's debts."
"His debts at the time, you mean," Bainbridge snorted. "Lud, the man's a sieve when it comes to money. Hasn't a feather to fly with."
"Didn't he flee the country last year?"
"Yes, and went to ground somewhere. His debts were excessive."
"So what are you worried about? If this Mrs. Mallory is a Cit's widow, she should have enough blunt of her own."
"On further investigation, I discovered that her jointure was relatively small." His lips twitched. "She has enough to live comfortably, but hardly in the manner to which I'm sure she has become accustomed. Like father, like daughter, I'll wager. Then just a few days ago I received a note from Grandmama, saying that she's bringing this woman with her to visit us in Gloucestershire."
Bainbridge considered this. "So you think this widow is planning to get her hands on Her Grace's money?"
"I do," replied the duke with a curt nod. "Grandmama will be seventy-four come Michaelmas. She is no longer as agile, physically or mentally, as she would like us to think, and therefore she is vulnerable. I think this Mrs. Mallory is egging her on, taking advantage of her lessened mental capacities."
A muscle flexed in the marquess's jaw. "Then we must look after her, Wexcombe."
"I am relieved to hear you say that, Cousin, because I came here to secure your help." His Grace leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees and an intent, angry light in his eyes.
"What would you like me to do?"
A slight flush colored the duke's pale cheeks. "I pray you do not take offense at this, Cousin, but I believe we have need of your particular… talents."
"Ah. Do I take you to mean that you want me to seduce this Mrs. Mallory?" Bainbridge grinned in spite of himself.
"Anything it takes," the duke declared. The pink in his face grew brighter. "I've already offered her ten thousand pounds to leave Grandmama alone, but the jade refused it. She's probably holding out for a greater offer. See what you can do; I will pay whatever it takes. Seduce her, then abandon her if you have to. Just enough to give my grandmother such a disgust of this woman that she'll never want any further contact with her."
"Hmm. Won't this widow be suspicious? After all, my reputation often precedes me."
Wexcombe swirled the brandy in his glass, then shrugged. "You are my cousin, and this is a family house party. What is there to suspect?"
"What about the duchess and the children? I'm not sure how much of this sordid affair we will be able to hide from them."
"Caroline is aware of the situation, as is her sister Elizabeth, and I will instruct the governess to keep Nathaniel and Emma in the nursery. This might be our only opportunity, Bainbridge. Once the ton returns to Town, who knows what Grandmama might try to do? Lord knows I don't want a scandal on my hands."
The marquess snorted. He knew better than to think his cousin was doing this purely for his grandmother's benefit. But the dowager's welfare was at stake, so he could hardly refuse. "When do you need me at Broadwell Manor, Cousin?"
His Grace set aside his glass. "Grandmama and her… friend… are due to arrive next Monday; I would like for you to be there when they do."
"Then I shall pack at once and travel to Gloucestershire directly," Bainbridge stated. He rose and offered his hand to the duke. "After next week you shall have nothing to worry about."
Wexcombe took his hand and shook it gratefully. "I am counting on it."
"Just be careful. Remember what happened the last time you tried to tell Great-Aunt Josephine what she should and should not do-she boarded the next ship for Calcutta."
The duke rolled his eyes. "You needn't remind me," he admonished, then took his leave.
Bainbridge stared after him. A slight smile crooked one corner of his mouth. How ironic. A few moments ago, he had wanted nothing more than something, anything to ease his crushing boredom.
He should really be more careful about what he wished for.