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'Enough!' Phillipa slapped her hand flat on the mahogany side table.
The last time she'd felt such strength of resolve had been that night five years ago when she fled Lady Devine's ball and removed herself out from the marriage mart for good.
To think she'd again wound up dancing with Xavier Campion just weeks ago at her mother's ball. He'd once again taken pity on her.
No doubt her mother arranged those two dances as well as the first. More reason to be furious with her.
But never mind that. The matter at hand was her mother's refusal to answer Phillipa's questions, flouncing out the drawing room in a huff instead.
Phillipa had demanded her mother tell her where her brothers and father had gone. The three of them had been away for a week now. Her mother had forbidden the servants to speak of it with her and refused to say anything of it herself.
Ned and Hugh had a rather loud quarrel with their father, Phillipa knew. It occurred late at night and had been loud enough to wake her.
'It is nothing for you to worry over,' her mother insisted. She said no more.
If it were indeed nothing to worry over, then why not simply tell her?
Granted, in the past several days Phillipa had been closeted with her pianoforte, consumed by her latest composition, a sonatina. Pouring her passions into music had been Phillipa's godsend. Music gave her a challenge. It gave her life meaning.
Like getting the phrasing exactly right in the sonatina. She'd been so preoccupied she'd not given her brothers or her father a thought. Sometimes she would work so diligently on her music that she would not see them for days at a time. It had finally become clear, though, that they were not at home. That in itself was not so unusual, but her mother's refusal to explain where they had gone was very odd. Where were they? Why had her father left London when Parliament was still in session? Why had her brothers gone with him?
Her mother would only say, 'They are away on business.'
Business, indeed. A strange business.
This whole Season had been strange. First her mother and brother Ned insisted she come to town when she'd much have preferred to remain in the country. Then the surprise of her mother's ball
And seeing Xavier again.
The purpose of that ball had been a further surprise. It was held for a person Phillipa had never known existed.
Perhaps that person would explain it all to her. His appearance, the ball, her brothers' and father's disappearanceall must be connected somehow.
She'd ask John Rhysdale.
No. She would demand Rhysdale tell her what was going on in her family and how heher half-brother, her father's illegitimate sonfit into it.
Rhysdale's relationship to her had also been kept secret from her. Her brothers had known of him, apparently, but no one told her about him or why her mother gave the ball for him or why her parents introduced him to society as her father's son.
A member of the Westleigh family.
Her mother had given her the task of writing the invitations to the ball, so she knew precisely where Rhysdale resided. Phillipa rushed out of the drawing room, collected her hat and gloves, and was out the door in seconds, walking with a determined step towards St James's Street.
She'd met Rhysdale the night of the ball. He was very near to Ned's age, she'd guess. In his thirties. He looked like her brothers, too, dark-haired and dark-eyed. Like her, as well, she supposed, minus the jagged scar on her face.
To Rhysdale's credit, he'd only given her scar a fleeting glance and afterward looked her in the eye. He'd been gentlemanly and kind. There had been nothing to object in him, except for the circumstances of his birth.
And his choice of friends.
Why did Xavier Campion have to be his friend? Xavier, the one man Phillipa wished to avoid above all others.
Phillipa forced thoughts of Xavier Campion out of her mind and concentrated on being angry at her mother instead. How dared her mother refuse to confide in her?
Phillipa had a surfeit of her mother's over-protection. She could endure a ball with no dance partners. She could handle whatever mysterious matters led to her family's aberrant behaviour. Just because an ugly scar marred her face did not mean she was a child.
She was not weak. She refused to be weak.
Phillipa took notice of passers-by staring at her and pulled down a piece of netting on her hat. Her mother insisted she tack netting on to all her hats so she could obscure half her face and not receive stares.
She turned off St James's Street on to the street where Rhysdale lived. When she found the house, she only hesitated a moment before sounding the knocker.
Several moments passed. She reached for the knocker again, but the door opened. A large man with expressionless eyes perused her quickly. His brows rose.
'Lady Phillipa to see Mr Rhysdale,' she said.
The man stepped aside and she entered the hall. He lifted a finger, which she took to mean she should wait, and he disappeared up the staircase.
The doors to rooms off the hall were closed, and the hall itself was so nearly devoid of all decoration that it appeared impersonal. Perhaps a single gentleman preferred no decoration. How would she know?
'Phillipa.' A man's voice came from the top of the stairs.
She looked up.
But it was not Rhysdale who descended the stairs.
It was Xavier.
He quickly approached her. 'What are you doing here, Phillipa? Is something amiss?'
She forced herself not to step back. 'II came to speak with Rhysdale.'
'He is not here.' He glanced around. 'You are alone?'
Of course she was alone. Who would accompany her? Not her mother. Certainly her mother would never make a social call to her husband's illegitimate son. 'I will wait for him, then. It is a matter of some importance.'
He gestured to the stairs. 'Come. Let us sit in the drawing room.'
They walked up one flight of stairs and Phillipa glanced into a room she presumed would be the drawing room. She glimpsed several tables and chairs. 'What is this?' she exclaimed.
Xavier looked dismayed. 'I will explain.' He gestured for her to continue up another flight of stairs.
He led her into a comfortably furnished parlour and extended his arm towards a sofa upholstered in deep-red fabric. 'Do be seated. I will arrange for tea.'
Before she could protest, he left the room again. Her heart beat at such rapid rate that her hands trembled as she pulled off her gloves.
This was ridiculous. She refused to be made uncomfortable by him. He meant nothing to her. He'd merely been a boy who'd once been her playmate. Defiantly she swept the netting over the brim of her hat. Let him see her face.
He stepped back in the room. 'We'll have tea in a moment.' Choosing a chair near her, he leaned close. 'I do not know whenor ifRhys will come back.'
'Do not tell me he has disappeared as well!' What was going on?
He touched her hand in a reassuring gesture. 'He has not disappeared. I assure you.'
She pulled her hand away. 'Where is he?' she demanded.
He leaned back. 'He spends most days with Lady Gale.'
'Lady Gale?' What did Lady Gale have to do with anything?
Lady Gale was the stepmother of Adele Gale, the silly young woman to whom her brother Ned was betrothed. Both Adele and Lady Gale had been guests at her mother's ball, so Rhysdale might have met them there, but was there more to that connection?
Xavier frowned. 'You do not know about Rhysdale and Lady Gale?'
Phillipa waved a frustrated hand. 'I do not know anything! That is why I am here. My brothers and my father have disappeared and my mother will not tell me where they have gone or why. I came to ask Rhysdale where they were, but it seems I've been excluded from even more family matters.'
There was a knock on the door and a manservant entered, carrying the tea tray. As he placed the tray on a side table, he gave Phillipa a curious look.
Because of her scar, no doubt.
Xavier nodded to him. 'Thank you, MacEvoy.'
The servant bowed and walked out, but not before tossing her another glance.
Xavier reached for the teapot. 'How do you take your tea, Phillipa? Still with lots of sugar?'
He remembered that? She'd had a sweet tooth as a little girl. That had been a long time ago, however.
She stood. 'I do not wish to drink tea. I came here for answers. I am quite overset, Xavier. I do not know why everything is kept secret from me. Do I look as if I cannot handle adversity?' She jabbed at her scar. 'I am well practised in adversity. My mothermy whole family, it seemsapparently thinks not.' She faced him. 'Something important has happened in my familysomething more than Rhysdale's appearanceand I am to be told nothing? I cannot bear it!' She pressed her hands against her temples for a moment, collecting herself. She pointed towards the door. 'What is this place, Xavier? Why does my half-brother have a room full of tables where the drawing room should be and a drawing room on a floor for bedchambers?'
Xavier stared back at Phillipa, considering how much to tell her.
He preferred this version of Phillipa to the one he'd so recently encountered at her mother's ball. That Phillipa barely looked at him, barely conversed with him, even though he'd danced twice with her. She'd acted as if he were a loathsome stranger.
Her present upset disturbed him, however. Ever since they'd been children, he'd hated seeing her distressed. It reminded him of that summer in Brighton when the pretty little girl woke from a fall to discover the long cut on her face.
He admired Phillipa for not covering her scar now, for showing no shame of it or how she appeared to others. Besides, her colour was high, appealingly so, and her agitation piqued his empathy. He understood her distress. He would greatly dislike being left out of family matters of such consequence.
But surely she'd been told of Rhys's arrangement with her brothers?
'Do you not know about this place?' He swept his arm the breadth of the room.
Her eyes flashed. 'Do you not comprehend? I know nothing.'
'This is a gambling establishment.' All of society knew of it. Why not Phillipa? 'Nominally it is a gambling club so as to adhere to legalities. Have you not heard of the Masquerade Club?'
'No.' Her voice still held outrage.
He explained. 'This is the Masquerade Club. Rhys is the proprietor. Patrons may attend in masks and thus conceal their identitiesas long as they pay their gambling debts, that is. If they need to write vowels, they must reveal themselves.' He made a dismissive gesture. 'In any event, it is meant to be a place where both gentlemen and ladies may enjoy cards or other games. Ladies' reputations are protected, you see.'
She looked around again, her expression incredulous. 'This is a gambling house?'
'Not this floor. These are Rhys's private rooms, but he is not here very often these days.'
She pressed fingers to her forehead. 'Because he is with Lady Gale.'
He nodded. Rhys's connection to Lady Gale ought to have been roundly discussed at the Westleigh residence.
He could tell her this much. 'Sit, Phillipa. Have some tea. I will explain.'
He reached for the teapot again but she stopped him with a light touch to his hand. 'I will pour.' She lifted a cup and raised her brows in question.
'A little milk. A little sugar,' he replied.
She fixed his cup and handed it to him. 'Explain, Xavier. Please.'
'About Lady Gale and Rhys,' he began. 'Earlier this Season Lady Gale came masked to the Masquerade Club.'
She lifted her cup. 'She is a gambler? I would not have guessed.'
He lifted a shoulder. 'Out of necessity. She needed money. She attended often enough for Rhys to become acquainted with her. In learning of her financial need, he began paying her to come gamble.'
'Paying her?' Her hand stopped before the teacup reached her lips.
He gave a half-smile. 'He fancied her. He did not know her name, though. Nor did she know his connection to your family.'
She looked at him expectantly. 'And?'
'They became lovers.' He took a breath. 'And she is with child. They are to be married as soon as the licence can be arranged.' He paused. 'And other matters settled.'
'Other matters.' Her brows knitted. 'Ned's courtship of Lady Gale's stepdaughter, do you mean?'
He nodded. 'And more.'
Rhys's gambling house and his affair with Lady Gale had hardly caused her a blink of the eye. Surely she was made of stern enough stuff to hear the whole of it.
She gave him a direct look. 'What more?'
'Do you know of Ned and Hugh's arrangement with Rhys?' he asked.
She shook her head. 'I am depending upon you to tell me all of it, Xavier. All of it.'
How could he resist her request?
Ever since her injury. What age had he been? Twelve? She'd been about seven and he'd never forgotten that summer.
How it pained him to see that little girl so wounded, so unhappy.
If only he could have prevented it.
He'd felt it his duty to cheer her up. He'd learned that summer that one should act, if one could. Not hold back.
So he'd made her his responsibility and worked to cheer her up.
It was not his place to tell her about her family's affairs, but
He set his jaw. 'This past April Ned and Hugh came to Rhys and asked him to open a gaming house. They had scraped together the funds for it, but they needed Rhys to run it.'
'They asked Rhysdale to run a gaming house for them?' She sounded incredulous.
He took a sip of tea. 'Out of desperation. Your family was in dire financial straits. Did you know of that?'
She shook her head.
He might as well tell her all. 'Your father's gambling and carousing brought your family to the brink of ruin. You, your mother, everyone who depended upon the Westleigh estates for their livelihood would have suffered terribly if nothing had been done.'
Her eyes widened. 'I had no idea.'
'So Ned and Hugh hit upon the idea of a gaming house. Rhys agreed to run it, although your father gave him no reason to feel any sense of loyalty to the family. Besides taking half the profits, though, Rhys asked that your father publicly acknowledge him as his natural son.'
'Hence my mother's ball.' She caught on quickly.
'Indeed.' The ball was part of Rhys's payment. 'The scheme worked perfectly. The element of masquerade has made this place successful beyond anyone's hopes. Your family is rescued.'
She looked askance. 'If all has gone so well, where are my father and brothers?'
'They went to the Continent. To Brussels.' Ought he tell her this part? He peered at her. 'Phillipa, are you close to your father?'
She laughed. 'I dare say not.' She glanced away, her face shadowed. 'Should he chance encounter me, he looks through me. Or away.'
His heart constricted.
'Your father made trouble for Rhys, I'm afraid. He detested Rhys being the family's salvation.' She did not need to know all the details. 'Suffice to say your father challenged Rhys to a duel'
'A duel!' She looked aghast.
'It did not take place,' he assured her. 'Your brothers stood by Rhys and together they forced your father to relinquish all control of the family's money and property to Ned.' Either that or publicly shame the man. 'They offered your father a generous allowance, but only if he moved to the Continent. Your brothers travelled with him to make certain he reaches his destination and keeps his word. He is to remain there. He will not come back.'
'He is gone?' She turned pale, making her red scar more vivid. 'I had no notion of any of this.'
He feared she would faint and he rose from his chair to sit beside her on the sofa, wrapping an arm around her. 'I know this is a shock.'