Authors: Jo Beverley
A Mummers’ Play
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
A MUMMERS’ PLAY
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
Signet mass-market edition / November 1995
InterMix eBook edition / December 2013
Copyright © 1995 by Jo Beverley Publications, Inc.
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A Mummers' Play
Special Excerpt from
The Dragon And The Princess
Special Excerpt from
The Raven And The Rose
Special Excerpt from
A Shocking Delight
About the Author
London, December 1814
“My dear girl, it’s far too dangerous.”
“Nonsense,” said Miss Justina Travers coolly. “And I do wish you’d stop referring to me as a girl, Charles. I’m twenty-three years old.”
Lord Ormsbury’s plain but honest face pinkened slightly. “That’s not a terribly advanced age and”—he cleared his throat—“I do think of you as dear.”
“How can you say that? You don’t pay me a penny.”
Though Justina spoke with carefully judged playfulness and softened the words with a smile, she wanted to scream.
Not Charles too.
She was so tired of besotted men. The fact that she still wore mourning three years after Simon’s death should be warning enough. Perhaps she should have paid more attention to her older sister. Marina had warned, rather enviously, that black suited healthy blonds all too well.
Perhaps she should finally move into half-mourning, for grays and mauves had never become her. But she knew all her anxious friends and family would see it as a sign that she was finally “getting over it.”
She would never “get over” Simon’s death, or not until those responsible were punished. Every last one.
Charles was studying her as if he would say more, but he took the hint and dropped the subject, moving away to busy himself with the wine tray.
Justina let out a breath of relief. She liked and respected her superior at the Home Department, and the amateur spy-catching work she did with him had become almost essential to her sanity, but if he embarrassed her with attentions she would have to cut the connection.
He came over to top up her wineglass, once more the efficient administrator. “You simply can’t go poking around in the affairs of the duke.”
“Even if he’s a traitor?” Justina demanded, sipping the wine to humor him, though she rarely drank alcohol.
Ormsbury sat on the satin striped sofa opposite her chair and crossed one leg over the other. “I haven’t failed to notice your obsession with this man, Justina. Thus far, it’s been of little significance, but now . . .”
“But now he’s a duke he’s untouchable? Charles, that is horribly wrong.”
“But realistic. What shred of evidence do you have?”
Justina looked down at the tawny wine made mysterious by crystal and firelight. “You know what I have.”
“The fact that Lucky Jack Beaufort was the only survivor of the ambush in which your betrothed died,” he said crisply. “I’ve humored you on that, but I’ve checked into the story and I assure you there’s nothing in it.” He leaned forward, and his tone gentled. “War isn’t logical, Justina, and it certainly isn’t fair. Some men are simply blessed by fate. Beaufort gained his nickname before that event.”
She looked him in the eye. “Perhaps because he was working for the French all along.”
“My dear girl . . . !” Then he caught himself. “Justina, you must see that this is an unbalanced obsession! There has
been the slightest evidence that Beaufort had irregular dealings. And you have looked, I know.”
She felt herself coloring like a guilty child. She hadn’t thought her actions so obvious. “I’ve never had the opportunity to search in a likely place. All you’ve ever let me do, Charles, is listen to gossip and search houses in which I was a guest. It would have been the sheerest luck to come across evidence in that way, but now—”
“But now he’s a duke, he’s even farther out of reach!” Then he flashed her a keen look. “Unless you’ve already wangled an invitation to Torlinghurst.”
Justina put down her scarce-touched glass and rose to pace the room. “I could, of course. . . .”
“Then why not? You’d be safe enough as a guest, and able to poke around a bit.”
She closed her eyes briefly. He was humoring her. She hated to be humored. “He’d recognize the name of Simon’s promised bride. They were quite close.”
“That would give you the greater entrée.”
“But he would be bound to talk of him. . . .” Justina thought she had said it without great feeling, but then realized her hand had risen to cover the miniature she wore pinned on her bodice. She didn’t need to open the locket to see the image. Blond hair, crooked smile, laughing eyes.
Her heart and soul.
Charles’s tone gentled as he said, “Justina, my dear, it’s been three years. Surely you can at least talk of it.”
! Not with the man who caused Simon’s death.”
She swung away to hide tears by staring at a lovely Raphael hanging on the wall, praying for the outward tranquility of that Madonna.
Revenge, they said, is a dish best eaten cold, and she had sheathed herself in ice in order to pursue her cause, not even permitting herself tears. Tears were weak, a sign of despair. She had chosen action instead, and resolved to destroy all those who had destroyed her hope of happiness.
Though her role had been minor, her work with Charles had helped bring down Napoleon, the man indirectly responsible for Simon’s death. The Corsican Monster was now defeated and languishing on Elba, and Justina gained some satisfaction from that.
But nothing she had done had touched Lucky Jack Beaufort. He’d even made colonel and been mentioned in dispatches before his cousin had unexpectedly died, making him Duke of Cranmoore. How could fate be so unfair as to clear the wretch’s way to such a title while Simon lay cold underground?
Or perhaps, she thought—and it almost seemed that the placid Madonna winked—fate had finally cleared the way to justice.
With a tingle in her head that almost made her dizzy, she felt that Simon was guiding her, guiding her to Torlinghurst, guiding her to the evidence that would avenge him at last.
With a steadying breath she assumed the Madonna’s tranquil smile and turned back to redirect the conversation. “As long as Beaufort stayed in the Peninsula he was out of my reach. If he’d returned as an ordinary man-about-town it would have been quite hard to search his possessions without being caught. But as the Duke of Cranmoore . . .”
“. . . he’s blasted untouchable!”
Justina’s smile became genuine and she returned to sit in her chair. “No, Charles, you don’t understand. As the duke, he’s part of a community. I’ve visited Torlinghurst. It’s a small town unto itself. Jack Beaufort’s only been there a month and can’t know everyone. With Christmas mere weeks away, the place will be filling with friends, relatives, and connections—all strangers to him. It’s
to slip into such a huge place than into a set of rooms on Clarges Street. No one will pay attention to one more person at Torlinghurst.”
At last Charles showed guarded interest.
She pressed her advantage. “This idea came to me when Maplethorpe was wondering whether to go there this year for Christmas. He’s a connection, but he doesn’t know the new duke. Apparently just about all branches of the Beaufort family tree feel entitled to spend Christmas there. They always have.”
Charles worried his lips with his thumbnail, which meant that at last he was seriously considering her plan. “But how will you get inside? You’re not even a twig on the family tree, and you apparently don’t want to go as Justina Travers. If you’re thinking of passing as a servant, forget the notion. You exude breeding from every pore, and you’re far too beautiful.”
She didn’t protest the assessment. Her fine-boned beauty brought her no joy these days so there was no vanity in acknowledging it. “There are pretty maids.”
“Not for long.”
“You cynic!” she said with a laugh, but then shrugged. “In fact, I have no intention of trying to pass as a servant. It would not suit at all. Most servants never even enter the family’s part of the house, and a lingering servant is always an object of suspicion. No, I intend to pass myself off as a well-born young lady of limited fortune, and thus ignorable by all. The servants will not question me, and the company will assume I’m one of them but beneath their notice. I will be able to search Torlinghurst at leisure.”
The nail rubbed again at his lips. “Looking for what? If there was anything, he’ll have destroyed it.”
“It was you who taught me that villains keep dangerous mementos, Charles, and anyway, I doubt he’s changed his spots. You know there are people conspiring to restore Napoleon. He’ll be working with them.”
Charles shook his head, but he did not argue that point. “I have one serious concern, Justina. In your previous exploits there has been virtually no risk. I’ve always seen to that.”
“And I wish you hadn’t!”
He ignored her protest. “Even if you’d been caught prying, your high birth would have made it a mere embarrassment. If anything worse had occurred, I would have admitted that you were working for the government. But in this case, it would be impossible. Impossible to admit that the government was investigating a
on no evidence at all.”
Justina reached to touch his hand. “Poor Charles. You’re looking so flustered. So you’re saying that if I do this, I do it alone?”
He covered her hand with his and squeezed. “I’ll help as best I can, you know that. But yes, in the end you will be on your own.”
It took only a moment to say, “So be it.”
“Oh, my dear . . .” His pleasant, intelligent, honest face was almost anguished. “If you do this and find nothing, will you put it all behind you?”
She wanted to drag her hand from his. She wanted to scream
! But in her heart Justina knew he was being reasonable. They were
being reasonable, all the family, all the friends, all the people who begged her to forget.
She met his anxious brown eyes and even squeezed his hand back a little. “If I have the opportunity to really search at Torlinghurst and find nothing, then yes, I will try to forget Jack Beaufort and move on with my life.”
He smiled as if she’d given him a precious gift. “Then I’ll help you all I can. What do you need?”
She gently freed her hand and rose, pulling on her black leather gloves. “Plans to Torlinghurst. It was built only fifty years ago. There must be architect’s plans somewhere. I need to know exactly where all the private rooms are, and the location of side passages and servants’ stairs.”
He assisted her into her sable-lined black pelerine. “That should be possible.”
She turned and bestowed her warmest smile on him. “Thank you, Charles.”
He laughed dryly. “Turning me up sweet? I know your tricks. The main reason I’m not objecting to this, Justina, is that you’d do it anyway. You’re too independent by far.”
“You can hardly expect me to admit to that.” She turned to the door and he opened it for her.
“There’s one thing you haven’t told me,” he said.
you intend to get into Torlinghurst?”
“Oh,” she said with a genuine, teasing smile, “I rather think I’ll sneak in as Delilah.”
Two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Justina quietly merged with the group of mummers on their way up the drive to Torlinghurst. She’d been shadowing the Great Borbury group for the past two hours as they worked their way from village to village, manor to manor, gaining drink, pies, and pennies at each. She’d been smugly pleased when her assumption proved correct and two other groups merged with hers, all converging on the biggest of the big houses, Torlinghurst.
In a mixed group, no one would notice a stranger.
Now, the forty or so costumed mummers tramped cheerfully up the long drive in the moonlight, singing songs fueled by cider and wassail bowls. Justina joined in, keeping her voice pitched low, for all the mummers—even those in long wigs and dresses—were male.
“Here We Come a Wassailing . . .” was followed by “Good Master and Mistress . . .” which became tangled with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen . . .” which then developed a few ribald verses that made her blush.
No one would notice her red face in the dark, but she made sure her coarse yarn wig hung forward.
Between the songs she listened to the chat, putting names to costumes. Lord Nelson and Lord Collingwood, both in knee breeches and braided jackets, were Giles and Jemmy. The serpent was Eli. The man in the horse’s head was Fred. St. George, in bits of metal that were supposed to be armor, was actually called George. His dragon was Dobby. The maiden sacrificed to the dragon was Bert, the French whore was Brock.
It amused her that the innocent maiden and the whore looked identical—both wore a coarse yellow wig, bright red lips, and a gaudy shiny gown with a cushion shoved into the bodice to make a bosom of truly amazing proportions. There were three other female characters—Good Queen Bess, Eve, and one she thought was supposed to be Lady Hamilton—all looking much the same.
Which is why Justina was dressed that way, too. She’d known how it would be, for these costumes were traditional, often passed down from generation to generation. Samson and Delilah were part of the cast inherited from medieval mystery plays. There was one Samson in the group. He was a huge man, probably a blacksmith.
Underneath her gaudy costume, however, Justina wore a different one, that of the poor dependent who would be invisible in the crowded ducal establishment.
Suddenly the group let out a drunken cheer, and Justina looked ahead to see Torlinghurst, glowing like a huge faceted diamond, pale stone glimmering in the moonlight and every window lit to celebrate Christmas Eve. In some windows, tiny figures could be seen.
Which one of those people was her target? Which one was Lucky Jack Beaufort, whose “luck” had finally brought him the grandest prize of all, the dukedom of Cranmoore?
Whose luck, she hoped, had finally run out.
Lucky Jack Beaufort was sitting in the grand salon of Torlinghurst, thinking that clearly his luck had finally run out. What the devil was he doing here listening to some distant family connection caterwaul a sentimental ballad while inadequately accompanied by another distant connection on the harp?
Of course, as a blessing, the entertainment had silenced his great-aunt Caroline. He’d never met the woman until today, but she’d been lecturing him all evening on the correct behavior required of the Duke of Cranmoore.
Resting his aching head on his hand, hoping the pose looked contemplative, Jack glanced around at the appalling collection of people who seemed to think they had a right to spend Christmas in his home.
Home! He almost laughed out loud. Whatever Torlinghurst might be, it was no person’s home. It was a damned institution.
When he’d arrived here six weeks ago, abruptly and shockingly master of this domain, he’d thought it a dismal mausoleum with too many servants for the sparse collection of distant dependents and hangers-on. They, at least, had pretty much left him alone.
Then his mother and sister had arrived, reminding him why he’d chosen a profession that kept him away from England most of the time. But still, in such an enormous place it had been possible to avoid them. The duke was wisely provided with a vast private suite of rooms.
But then the Christmas crowd had begun to trickle in.
After witnessing a family of ten spilling into the hall, he’d cornered Rossiter, the elderly secretary he seemed to have inherited along with everything else. “Who the devil invited all these people?”
“Invitations are not required, your grace,” said the thin, gray-haired man. “It is a tradition.”
Jack stared at him. “You mean they just turn up, year after year?”
“Yes, your grace.”
“They are all Beauforts, your grace, at least by connection.”
And so, day by day, Jack watched Torlinghurst fill with strangers until no peaceful corner remained except his private suite. He didn’t feel able to hide there all the time and didn’t even want to, for they were a ponderously decorated and gloomy set of rooms.
So, bowing to the inevitable, Jack moved among the crowds and made the acquaintance of his extended family, hoping against hope that some of them would prove entertaining. But the older people wanted to preach to him, and the young ones seemed insufferably callow. Those of the middle years talked of nothing but children, politics, and the price of corn.
He had survived, however, until tonight, when the whole lot of them decided they had been put on Earth to entertain one another. The past hours had been an endless amateur performance.
And worse was to come.
He’d just learned that some of his guests were rehearsing a play to be performed on Twelfth Night. He’d not even been aware that Torlinghurst had a theater. Now he knew it did, complete with proscenium arch, lighting, and seating for fifty.
Who in his right mind would construct such a torture chamber?
His damned cousin, that was who. The last duke had apparently so loved this Christmas gathering he’d developed it to this horrendous state.
Adora Beaufort-Chilworthy finished her screeching and simpering at him. He stirred himself to clap, being careful to show no particular enthusiasm.
It had quickly become obvious that all his more distantly related unmarried female guests knew exactly what they wanted for Christmas—him on his knees, offering hand and heart.
Or to be precise, his title and fortune. Any and all body parts were clearly irrelevant.
He’d become very adept at avoiding kissing boughs.
Now Priscilla Beaufort-Gore-Peebles rose with a superiority that reminded him forcibly of a camel, and progressed toward the pianoforte. . . .
But then, blessing of blessings, a raucous noise broke the genteel quiet. With any luck, Napoleon had escaped from Elba and invaded England!
“The mummers!” squealed one excitable girl and ran to a window. The younger members poured after, pushing and exclaiming.
Great-aunt Caroline sniffed. “Stone-drunk as usual.”
She stared at him. “If you think that noise sounds marvelous, no wonder you didn’t appreciate dear Adora’s performance.”
Jack didn’t explain his meaning. He had an excuse to escape and, like any experienced military man, took it. But at the door his way was blocked by his aweinspiring butler, Youngblood, bearing a bowl of coins in front of his stately paunch.
“We pass round a collection plate?” Jack asked. “Things are looking up!”
Youngblood’s full lips moved upward a fraction. “Your grace is pleased to joke. Ha. Ha. No, your grace, these are the sixpenny pieces for you to give to the mummers.”
“I toss them into the crowd?”
“Not at all, your grace. That would encourage unruly behavior. You give one to each person along with a comment upon their singing or their costume.”
On the floor below, the main doors opened and the rowdy singing abruptly grew in volume. “’Struth,” muttered Jack. “A favorable comment, I suppose.”
But suddenly fond memories assailed him, memories of his youthful days when the costumed mummers had been an exciting part of Christmas, especially if they acted out the story of George and the Dragon.
Since he clearly could not slip away, he threw off his bitter mood and grabbed the bowl. “Right. Everyone to the hall!” he declared in a voice that had carried over battlefields. “Let’s greet the mummers properly.”
He grinned at his scandalized great-aunt and his sour-faced mother, neither of whom wished to get close to the lower orders. “Come along,
That’s an order.”
He’d tamed unruly battalions in his day and the tone still worked, even from behind a smile. The glittering company rose and followed him down the stairs to cram into the spacious hall.
Some of the older people looked decidedly mutinous, but if he was the blasted duke, for once they could do as he said. No matter how bucolic, this entertainment couldn’t be worse than what he had endured thus far. The mummers—a motley crowd in ragbag costumes—stood ready to sing, though they looked startled at the crowd they’d drawn.
“Welcome!” Jack declared, acting to the full the part of the generous lord. “Let’s hear your songs, my good men, and see your play, and you’ll be well rewarded.”
The group cheered—though a couple, he noted, were so drunk they were propped up by their fellows—and started into the traditional begging song, “Come gentlemen at Christmastide, give cheer to all mankind. . . .”
They sang raggedly to begin with, but soon settled into it, even managing a bit of harmony. Jack led the applause.
The mummers seemed to think they were done, but as the largess didn’t begin, they looked at each other, murmured for a moment, and started the wassail song. When they got to the line about pennies in bowls, quite a few bowls appeared as a broad hint.
“Excellent, excellent!” called Jack, applauding again. “But now, my good fellows, have pity on a poor soldier who’s not spent a Christmas in England since he was a boy. Can you give me the play of George and the Dragon?”
The motley group shifted uneasily and he suspected that they were not actually in the habit of acting any kind of play. What had England come to? He was about to take pity on them and give their bounty anyway, when one George clanked forward. “By God, but I can play my part for a hero of the wars,” he declared. “Indeed I can! Is there no dragon here to help me?”
After a moment, a man in a dragon head and long green cloak shuffled forward. “All right, all right. But be careful with that blinking sword, Georgie.”
St. George waved the sword, which Jack noted did actually look real—no wonder the dragon was concerned—and declared, “I am George, great soldier of Rome and Christ.” His accent was solid Gloucestershire. “I ’ave come to rescue the fair maiden, Melicent. . . .”
At that, he looked back at the group and repeated, “
The fair maiden, Melicent . . .”
Yet more shuffling and murmuring, including a “He’s stone-drunk,” and “Not on your jolly life.” Then a creature in a bright pink dress with a wig of long yellow yarn was ejected from the group.
The fair maiden Melicent ran to huddle behind the dragon, more in the manner of one seeking protection than one waiting to be saved, but it sufficed. St. George took up his part.
“I come,” he yelled, so his voice bounced and echoed off marble pillars and gilded walls, “to rescue the fair maiden Melicent, cruelly given to the foul dragon to be its dinner.”
The dragon got into the spirit of things and growled. It sounded more like a complaint of acute indigestion, but the younger members of the house party decided to support him with cheers.
“Odds on the dragon!” shouted one young spark. After a moment Jack found a name for him. Stephen, Viscount Leyland. Perhaps there was more to the jessamy than he’d thought.
“St. George always wins,” the saint pointed out, somewhat aggrieved.
“My money’s still on the dragon,” replied Leyland. “I like the way he roars.”
The dragon stood taller and roared again.
Jack laughed for the first time since coming to Torlinghurst. “My money’s on St. George,” he declared. “He handles his sword like a true hero!”
St. George stood taller and swung his sword, narrowly missing a horse nearby.
“Watch it!” squawked the horse.
“Well, keep out of the way!”
“I’m trying to blinking help. St. George ’ad to ’ave a blinking horse, didn’t ’e?”
“Oh. All right then, Fred. But keep back.”
St. George adjusted his helm, which tended to slide over his eyes, and turned to face the dragon again. “Give up that fair maiden, foul dragon, or I will kill you.”
“Direct and to the point,” declared Jack. “Good man!”
“Come on, dragon,” called Leyland. “What say you to that?”
“I defy you!” declared the dragon. “This tasty wench is my dinner!” He hauled the maiden from behind him and pretended to eat her arm.
“Save me, oh sir knight!” the maiden screeched, clutching her wig.
“An excellent maiden!” called Jack. “A guinea for you, my friend, if your voice don’t break before the end.”
“Help, help!” screamed the maiden at an even higher pitch, clearly after the reward.
“Release her!” bellowed St. George.
“Not on your pipe and drums!” bellowed the dragon.
“Oh, my head,” groaned Jack’s mother from beside him.
Jack grinned. “Excellent speeches, my friends, but let’s have some action.”
Holding his helmet with one hand, St. George advanced, sword first. “Let her go.”
The dragon clutched the maiden tight. “Go blow yerself!”
Jack’s mother gasped.
St. George poked with the sword, but as the maiden now formed a shield, she shrieked, “Stop that!”
“Sorry, Melicent,” said St. George and tried a poke from the side and made contact.
“All right, all right!” cried the dragon, flinging the maiden at the saint. “You’re a blinking lunatic with that sword, Georgie!”
The maiden staggered, tripped on her long skirts, and fell at the saint’s feet. Grinning, St. George put his foot on her and took a victory stance, sword high. “Thus prevail all righteous Englishmen!”
“Bravo! Bravo!” shouted Jack, applauding. “Thus should every hero vanquish the women who seek to entangle him!”
As the hall rang with cheers and applause, the maiden pushed away the holy foot and scrambled up, adjusting her costume and flashing Jack a surprisingly angry look. He ignored it and gestured to the servants to come forward with the punch and pies, then went about putting silver sixpences into hands and bowls, always commenting on their excellent costumes and singing.
The spirit of Christmas did finally seem to be sparking in his soul.
When he looked for the maiden to give him the promised guinea, however, the man had disappeared. Clearly the poor fellow really had been embarrassed at playing such a part.
Sad to have bad feelings on Christmas Eve, but Jack held on to his lighter mood. Before the stultifying atmosphere could return, he gathered some of the younger people, including Leyland, and started a game of hide-and-seek. Not only was it wild fun—which had the added benefit of annoying Great-aunt Caroline and his mother—but it gave him a chance after a while to hide in a place where no one would dare to seek.
When he slipped into his private study, however, he found a strange woman pulling a book off his shelves.
Justina hadn’t expected to play such a prominent part in the mummers’ show, but it hadn’t interfered with her plan. She had still managed to slip away and discard her costume to reveal her other one—a gray round gown, some years out of date and faded, worn over a prim white chemisette and under a sagging brown knitted shawl.
Round wire-rimmed spectacles and a wilting cap completed the appearance of Miss Esme Richardson, genteel young lady of reduced circumstances.
As she stuffed her Delilah costume into a large Chinese vase, however, Justina seethed at Lucky Jack Beaufort. Not only was the man a heartless traitor and murderer of his companions-in-arms, he was a buffoon and a misogynist! She could still see the glint of his white teeth as he cheered on St. George in his conquest of women.
How wickedly unfair that he should survive the war to enjoy glory and riches while other better men perished.
Hurrying along corridors toward his private rooms, she added to his list of sins. No doubt he’d been exploiting his dark curls and sculpted features all his life to use women, to conquer their virtue with not a moment’s thought of the consequences. Doubtless abandoned Beaufort bastards littered Europe!
This fueled Justina’s already fiery resolve. She could imagine what havoc such a wretch could create as an English duke. He must be stopped.
Once in his private suite, she set about a search that would leave no secret unexposed.
An hour later she rubbed dusty hands on her drab skirt and admitted that she had found nothing.
The enormous ornate desk was as good as unused, with neat stacks of unmarked paper beside undisturbed rows of pencils and pens. No pencil had so much as been blunted by use.
“Bone idle as well,” she muttered.
But Justina wouldn’t be so easily thwarted. The very blandness of everything showed she had not found Lucky Jack’s real possessions. She’d set about a rigorous search for secret compartments, even crawling underneath the desk to tap for hollow spots.
Eventually, she emerged disheveled but no further forward.
Pushing her cap frill out of her eyes, she stared around the room. Where could the dratted man be hiding things?
Perhaps in his bedchamber? She opened an adjoining door to see a large tester bed with the handle of a warming pan poking out, and a nightshirt hanging on a rack close to the fire.
Two wardrobes and a set of dressing drawers offered many hiding places, but a bedchamber was open territory to servants, who had to clean all the corners and dig around in the drawers. He’d be a fool to hide his secrets there.
No, she thought, closing the door and turning back, it was much more likely that any incriminating material was hidden in the study where few would venture. In fact, it was probably hidden among the books.
She surveyed the tiers of shelves, almost overwhelmed by the task, but Charles had trained her well. Searches were not butterfly affairs—a peep here, a poke there. They were tedious and methodical. But in the end, painstaking precision brought results.
Making herself think of only one book at a time, Justina started at the glass-doored shelves to the right of the main door. She climbed the library steps, took down the first book on the top shelf, and riffled through the pages. Then she checked down the spine for inserts, and inspected the endpapers to see if they had been disturbed.
She replaced it and took the next.
She had worked her way down three shelves, remembering to check that the shelves themselves did not have false backs, and was standing on the carpet with a new book in her hand when Jack Beaufort walked into the room.
They stared at each other in shocked silence for a moment.
Then he snapped, “What the devil do you think you’re doing, ma’am?” Anger scorched through it, but leashed in a way that alarmed her more than open rage would have.
Justina pushed the glasses back up her nose and tried to calm her frantic heart. “Oh, sir! My lord . . . Your grace! What a fright you gave me.”
And that was the honest truth.
From a distance, his height had not been so apparent, or his broad shoulders and shrewd, steady eyes. She was suddenly reminded that Jack Beaufort had served as a colonel and been decorated for it.
He was undoubtedly a very dangerous man.
Stepping closer, he said, “I’m likely to give you a worse fright. What business have you in here?”
He was so close that Justina had to tilt her head back to face him. Anger was emanating from him like heat, parching her mouth, causing sweat to slick her palms. . . .
She managed not to back away, but she had to escape those furious dark eyes. To save a scrap of honor, she told herself she was looking at the book in her hand, seeking an explanation for her intrusion. To her relief, she found it was a gazetteer. There could conceivably be a reason for someone to want such a reference book late at night.
“I . . . I was looking for some geographical information, your grace. For her ladyship . . .”
“What ladyship?” he demanded.
After a quick review of his family tree, she picked a great-aunt of his who Maplethorpe said always attended this Christmas gathering. “Lady Dreckham.”
“Great-aunt Caroline?” Something in his tone let her risk a peep at him. She was right, his anger was fading. “Do you have the misfortune to be that woman’s companion?”
Justina looked down again, knowing how easily eyes revealed a lie. “Yes, your grace.”
“Poor you.” His tone was markedly more sympathetic. “She could have played the dragon’s part in the mummers’ play, couldn’t she? Well,” he added, with a startling touch to her bare hand,” ’tis the season for entertainments, it would seem. Let’s pretend we’re in a new play, one where a poor companion and a duke can meet as equals. Join me in some wine.”
Alerted by touch and tone, Justina looked up to find that he really was smiling at her. It was not the wild smile he’d worn while cheering on St. George, but a charming one with a certain wistfulness behind it.
Now she did step back, away from both touch and smile, clutching the book to her chest like a shield. “Oh, I couldn’t, your grace!”
“Scared?” He moved away, strolling lazily toward a tray holding decanters and glasses. “Yes, I’m a little drunk—I had to deaden my senses in some way—and I intend to become more so. But I’ve never been a bad drunk. I become a bit silly, and inclined to be indiscreet . . .” He stopped speaking to pour amber fluid into two glasses.
Justina, however, had the feeling that the action was the excuse for the pause rather than the reason for it. What in his words had so distracted him?
Her nerves were settling now he’d moved away, and so her wits were returning to their normal sharpness. He’d accepted her story. First skirmish to her. And drink made him indiscreet, did it?
If Lucky Jack Beaufort was about to be indiscreet, Justina Travers would be here to witness it!
He turned, glasses in hand, and if he had been disturbed in some way he’d overcome it. “Because of the indiscretion, I haven’t touched more than a sip of wine in three years. I’m making up for lost time. The freedom to get thoroughly foxed is the only advantage I’ve found in my change of circumstance.”
With another disturbingly charming smile, he offered one glass to her.
Justina took it with what she hoped was an appropriate simper. If her imaginary Esme Richardson had actually found herself sharing wine with a duke late at night in his private apartments, she would certainly simper.
Miss Esme would probably run screaming from the room, but that didn’t suit Justina’s plans at all.
She sipped the wine and let out a genuine gasp. “Oh, my! What is it?”
“Port.” That smile still lingered, muted in intensity but not in effect. “A new experience for you?”
“Yes, your grace.” It wasn’t a lie. “It tastes very strong.”
“I suppose it is, but I assure you, on my honor, that one glass will not turn you into a wanton woman. Won’t you be seated?”
A titter seemed to be in order, so Justina let one out as she perched on the edge of the seat of an uphol-stered chair by the fire.
He took the other chair with all the lazy elegance of a man in fine physical shape who was master of all around him.
Simon would be in equally fine shape but for him, Justina reminded herself. She needed to prick her mind back to its target, for her image of Lucky Jack Beaufort did not accord with this pensive, friendly Duke of Cranmoore.
Downing half his glass in one gulp, he studied her with those shrewd, experienced eyes. “Now, my companion-in-mischief, what is your name?”
“Miss Esme Richardson, your grace.”
“Esme.” Perhaps there was
a slight slur on it. The sooner he became indiscreetly drunk, the happier Justina would be. “A lovely name. You must have Scots blood.”
“My mother, your grace.” To be thorough, Justina had devised a complete life history for her character, but she hadn’t expected to have to produce it in a situation like this.
“And where were you born?”
“Rugby, your grace.”
He drained his glass. “Can I persuade you to not call me your grace?”
“What else am I to call you, your gr—”
Laughing at her slip, he said, “Cranmoore? No, too mannish, I see that.” He slid a little further down in his seat. She did hope he wouldn’t pass out without the indiscretion stage at all. “You could always call me Jack,” he said wistfully. “No one does these days.”
Simon had called him Jack in his letters. Jack was such fun. Jack was a knowing one. Jack was the best of all fellows.
“That would be most improper, your grace.” Why the devil couldn’t the man show his true stripes and be obnoxious? This bosky amiability made it hard to remember that he was her enemy.
“It’s improper to be here drinking with me,” he pointed out. “Consider it a wild adventure, my dearest Esme, and go the whole way. Call me Jack.”
Justina could find no way to refuse and stay, but it was only with great reluctance that she said, “Very well . . . Jack.”
He graced her with a devilish and even more dangerous smile, as if they were confidants engaged in mischief. “How very pleasant this is. Now, tell me what search for knowledge brought you here.”
Justina realized she still clutched the gazetteer in one hand. She placed it on a tambour table by her chair and took another tiny sip of wine, trying to think of a location that would require research. “Lady Dreckham wished to know where Senegal is, your . . . Jack.”
He blinked. “And where the devil is it?”
“On the coast of Africa.”
“Why would she want to know a thing like that?” With audible hope, he added, “She isn’t thinking of traveling, is she?”
Justina had to suppress a chuckle, which was alarming. Humor had no place here! “I don’t think so. I think it’s more a case of good works.”
“Poor bloody Africans. So, how long have you been her dogsbody?”
“An age. Is this your first visit to Torlinghurst?”
He grinned. “You can’t bear to call me Jack, can you? And since I won’t let you call me your grace, you end up not calling me anything. Poor Esme, imprisoned in conformity.”
Poor Justina was aware that if this man wasn’t who he was, she would be sliding under the influence of his lazy charm like ice under warm water, and like such ice, melting.
She couldn’t melt, though. If she thawed, then like a child’s snow statue, she’d cease to exist entirely.
“I could call you sir,” she said crisply.
“You’re not one of my subalterns.” Suddenly sober, he added, “But call me Colonel, if you want. I still probably respond to that in my sleep.”
“Why not?” His eyes turned steady. The effect of drink on him was alarmingly mistlike, and easily dispelled.
Taking a sip of wine as distraction, she muttered, “I don’t like to think of the war.”
This was dangerous ground, for if she said yes he’d want regiment and engagement. “No one in particular. It is just that so many promising lives were lost.”
“True enough. Far too many. Far, far too many . . .” He tried to drink from his glass but found it empty, so pushed out of his chair to return to the decanters. Justina suspected that he, too, was seeking distraction. From what?
This time he brought the wine back with him, offering her more.
“No, thank you.”
He sat, then filled his glass to the brim before placing the decanter by his elbow. After downing about half the wine, he said, “At least the slaughter’s over. Tell me about your family.”
So. He didn’t want to talk about the war. Not surprising, if he had any conscience at all. But a guilty conscience didn’t absolve him.
However, Justina obligingly related her fictitious story of a parson father with a large family, of her stint in a girls’ school, followed by this post as companion to Lady Dreckham.
“And will you stay?” he asked, refilling his glass yet again. How much did he need to drink to become indiscreet? And how much to escape into insensibility?
“I suppose I must,” she replied, assessing his state.
He looked back at her over the rim of his glass. “You don’t seem the type for servitude, you know. I detect an adventurer beneath the mousy disguise.”
For a moment she thought he’d caught her out, but then realized it was merely an honest observation. It showed again that alarming shrewdness, however. “I have little choice, your grace.”
“Ah ha! You slipped up. I think I’ll make you pay a forfeit for each ‘your grace.’” He dug in his pocket, pulled out a sixpence, and placed it carefully on the table. “I’ll mark each one with a coin.”
“Nonsense.” He was right. Drink turned him silly. It was time to pump him before he drained the decanter and fell asleep. “Now you should tell me about your family, Colonel.”
Yes, Colonel suited him. He still had the physical and mental effectiveness of a good officer, even dressed in the height of fashion and blurred by drink. She had the strange thought that he, too, was in disguise.
Of course he was. Beneath it all he was a foul traitor.
“My family,” he repeated. “As ordinary as yours, really. My father was the grandson of the third duke, so he had no title, but he married well. Which means, he married money. He kept busy and out of the house as a member of parliament, even a minister now and then. Not a bad fellow, but he died when I was twelve, which left me in the clutches of my mother.”
“She was cruel?”
He laughed dryly. “Not unless it’s cruel to bore someone to death. She’s an amazingly stupid woman who loves to talk but has nothing to say that isn’t petty or malicious. She could find a bad side to a haloed angel. Mostly I could avoid her, though, which is more than can be said for my poor sisters. No wonder they all married young. All except Mary, who’s a hopeless case.” He grimaced at her. “See what I mean about indiscretion? I’m sounding as malicious as she is, and boring you with personal matters, to boot.”
“I’m not bored, Colonel.” Justina wanted to keep him talking at all cost, but she wished he wouldn’t go on about his family. She didn’t want him to be a human being with feelings and flaws, parents and siblings. She needed to see him as a black-hearted monster cackling over his ill-gotten gains.
He toasted her. “How polite you are, Esme. Anyway,” he continued contemplatively, “my childhood was pretty good. My brother and I had great fun in the schoolroom and then at Westminster, after which I went into the army and he went into the navy.” He sipped from his glass. “He died without glory in a storm off Portsmouth four years ago.”
For simple words, they carried a weight of stark grief that caught her breath. For a moment she wondered if this was his reason for sin, an excuse of sort. But no. Nothing could excuse treasonous murder, and why would the death of his brother turn him
“I’m sorry,” was all she could say.
He shrugged. “That’s war for you. Just one damned death after another, and most of them without glory.” After draining his glass, he added, “
“That is clear.” Since his wits were clearly now all adrift, she pushed a little closer to matters that interested her. “You must have made good friends in the army.”
“The best. They died, too. . . .”