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The mid-April day was lovely. The English countryside basked under a warm sun. The hedgerows along the London road were all abloom, the meadows were waving with wild daffodils, and the smell of spring suffused the warm air. But the two occupants of the closed carriage had no eyes for the beauty around them. The younger, with blond hair wildly tossed in the current style a la Titus, a small pert face, and a stubborn jut to her strong chin, was crooning to a creature in her arms. At first glance it appeared to be a wizened little baby clad in a red suit, but closer inspection revealed that the baby was, in sober fact, a monkey.
"Now, Dillydums," crooned the girl, who was obviously his mistress, "you must not be afraid in London. It's a big, big city, as Papa used to say, but I'm sure we shall deal famously there. Shan't we, Aggie? Aggie!"
The sharpness of the second calling of her name caused the other woman to raise her head. There was nothing fashionable about her, but a discerning observer would have found the rich dark brown of her hair and the deep intense blue of her eyes quite a fascinating combination. "Yes, Cecilie, we shall manage," she said patiently, and then, seeing that her charge had returned her attention to the monkey, she resumed her own musing.
If Cecilie had been a more perceptive and less selfish young woman, she might have noted that her companion was not her usual calm and placid self. But young Cecilie had never given much consideration to others, intent as she was on satisfying her own whims. It was partly this circumstance that disturbed her companion. Cecilie's papa had always given in to her and the five years that Aggie had served as hercompanion had been uncomfortable ones.
Agatha Trimble turned to look out the window, but she saw nothing that passed before her eyes. She was remembering. Her own papa had died when she was just eighteen, the year after her coming out, and his death had exposed to the world what had previously been a well-kept secret: his substance was completely gone. There was no dowry for her, nor any money upon which she might subsist. She had counted herself fortunate to find the position with Lord Winthrop. Cecilie, though willful and selfish, was not really bad. With the right attitude and patience, one could usually bring her around. But now--Aggie suppressed a sigh. Cecilie's papa had died last fall and a new guardian had been appointed, the Earl of Denby. She did not recognize his name; she had not been to the city since her own coming out. At that time, too, many of the young men had been away, fighting Napoleon. Thankfully, that was now over. Had he survived? she wondered, and then scolded herself sharply. There was little point in thinking of the Viscount Acton or of the days when he had loved her.
She stifled another sigh and found that she was twisting her hands together in her lap. He had not really loved her. She knew that now. But it had seemed so then, in those golden days of youth and happiness. If she closed her eyes, she could see him still. Tall and dark, with a shock of unruly black hair, a high aristocratic nose, bushy black brows, and those smoky gray eyes that seemed to burn with hidden fires. She swallowed over the lump in her throat. She had been young and foolish, believing his whispered words of love, surrendering herself to kisses stolen in dark corners at balls, and waiting with longing for the day he would ask for her hand in marriage. But that day never came.
One night he was waltzing her around Almack's, every fiber of her being alive with his touch, and the next he had vanished, without so much as a word. It had taken her a week to realize that he was really gone; and even then she did not give up the hope that he would return with some explanation for his abrupt departure. She had refused the young men who had clustered around her, refused them all because her partiality for him had been so great. Now, of course, she knew that he had been amusing himself with a naive young girl. But then, then, she had thought the fire smoldering in those smoky gray eyes was love. She sighed. Such men knew nothing of love. They only took what they pleased and went their merry way.
Finally she had forced herself to realize her mistake in giving her heart to such a man, but by then it had been too late. The next year Papa had died and then no one had wanted her.
She pushed absently at a wisp of hair that had escaped its bonds. Probably all had worked out for the best. Had she married one of those other men with the image of Acton still in her heart, life would have been intolerable. Better to have no kisses than those of a man she could not love. Slowly her eyelids sank against her cheeks and in her memory she felt again the pressure of Acton's strong arms around her, the feel of his lips on hers. Her whole body had responded to his kisses, kisses that ran like liquid fire through her veins and dissolved her bones into so much melted butter.
The tears welled up behind Aggie's closed lids. She was three and twenty now and would never know a man's kisses again. But she had a secure position and, thanks to Lord Winthrop, once Cecilie was safely married, she was to have a small inheritance. Not enough to live royally, of course; but she thought she might open a small day school for young ladies. She had learned a lot about guiding recalcitrant misses in the last years and she could profit from it.
There was much to be done before she could even think of that. Cecilie must be outfitted for her coming out. The come out itself must be planned and given. A suitable husband must be settled upon, the marriage planned and held. Only then, with Cecilie safely taken care of, could she pursue her own plans. If Cecilie's papa were still alive, or if she had it to do on her own, Aggie was confident of the outcome. But there was this new guardian to be considered. She knew nothing of him except his name, the Earl of Denby. The solicitor had said no more and she had not thought it proper to ask questions. Certainly his first orders had been sensible enough: to stay in the country during the cold months while Cecilie finished her mourning and then he would advise them when to come to London.
And so he had, and here they were on their way. Aggie could only hope for a man with the sense to trust her judgment. However, as she well knew, many men thought they knew best. Indeed, it was only because Lord Winthrop had given up in despair that she had had such a free rein with Cecilie. But if this new guardian decided to interfere and began high-handedly ordering Cecilie around...
Aggie stifled another sigh and determined to concentrate on the scenery. It was quite foolish of her to be acting like this. It was pointless to borrow trouble, as Papa had always said--although his actions in those last years had sometimes been so strange as to cause her to wonder. And surely a little more forethought might have kept him from going so often to White's. But that, of course, was all water under the bridge. At least, Acton's desertion had not been based upon Papa's poor financial prospects. Unconsciously, she sighed again. Perhaps that would have been easier on her pride. At least she would have known his reason for leaving so abruptly. But she must put all that behind her. No doubt by now he had a wife and little ones. The thought was not a comforting one and Aggie blinked rapidly to stop the gathering tears. It was addlepated to weep over such a man. Far better to forget him and concentrate on her plans for Cecilie's future.
Dusk was falling when the carriage reached the city. Cecilie, who had been dozing, now sat erect, the monkey chattering excitedly on her shoulder, and looked around with great interest. She had never led a particularly sheltered existence, her papa being a man well-known to the ton and so accustomed to having houseguests, though always those near his own age; but he had never allowed her to come to the city. So now her eyes fairly sparkled, and the monkey, sensing her excitement, hopped about on her shoulder.
"Oh, Aggie, look! Isn't the city wonderful?"
Aggie nodded. "Yes, dear."
"Oh, look!" Cecilie leaned perilously out the small window. "They're lighting all kinds of lamps."
Aggie looked and smiled. "Those are the illuminations, Cecilie. To celebrate the peace."
"Look! That one says 'Thanks Be to God' in variegated colors."
"I see," answered Aggie. "We should indeed be grateful that Napoleon is no longer free. That monstrous man has been responsible for the deaths of many brave Englishmen." Pray God, not Acton, she added silently.
"Now all the young men will be coming back," said Cecilie happily. "And I shall have my pick of them."
To this Aggie raised a silent eyebrow. Cecilie was a bewitching creature, to be sure, with blond ringlets, hazel eyes, and a delicate feminine form. But that delicate form housed a will of iron and a temper known throughout the Dover countryside. It was Aggie's devout wish to keep that same temper from ruining Cecilie's matrimonial chances. And it was not going to be an easy task.
"Oh my! Just look at that! Hampton, stop the carriage. Oh do!"
The coachman, used to the young mistress's strange demands, pulled the horses to a halt and sighed deeply.
Cecilie grabbed at Aggie's arm. "Oh, Aggie, do look at that one!"
Aggie, leaning out the window, recognized Ackermann's in the Strand. She drew in her breath. It was not surprising that Cecilie should be amazed. This transparency was beyond doubt a work of great ingenuity. Bonaparte was represented as lying with the foot of grisly Death upon his breast. In one hand Death held an hourglass, its sand almost run out, and in the other a massive iron spear. Under and around the fallen tyrant could be seen the broken eagles and torn flags of his command, while in his hand he grasped the shattered and bloody remains of a sword. On the walls of Paris the allies of England--Russians, Prussians, Austrians, and others, were raising the Bourbon standard. The whole was surmounted by a brilliant circle of gaslights, showing the union of the world in this Holy Cause. Over this flew the fleur-de-lis in triumphant display above the tattered tricolor of the Revolution.
"Oh, Aggie," cried Cecilie. "Look at the smaller transparencies to the sides. See, there is the tyrant blowing bubbles which keep bursting, and there he is building houses of cards which keep tumbling down."
"Yes," said Aggie. "The whole is very well done. But we really should be getting on."
Cecilie nodded. "Yes, I know. Hampton, drive on." With a last look she pulled in her head and turned to her companion. "He was such a little man, that Napoleon. He didn't look at all like an emperor."
Aggie smiled, wondering what Cecilie would think when she saw the prince regent, whose corpulency had been the talk even during her own come out. "Don't trouble yourself over Bonaparte, dear. The world is safe from his depredations now."
Cecilie nodded. "Yes." She smiled in satisfaction. "I'm so glad it was all managed in such timely fashion. I shall never forget my first sight of the city, all lit up like this."
"I'm sure you shan't. But listen, my dear. We'll soon be approaching Grosvenor Square." She cast a look at the monkey, busily searching among the artificial flowers in Cecilie's bonnet. "And there are a few things we should talk about."
Cecilie turned quickly, dislodging the monkey, who came tumbling down into her lap and cast her an accusing look. "Really, Dillydums," she told him. "Don't be silly. I told you before that there's nothing to eat on my bonnet. But never mind." She pulled the monkey into her arms. "We'll be there soon and then you shan't have to be cooped up in the carriage. You'll have a nice large house."
Aggie sighed. "Please, Cecilie, the Earl is not likely to be overjoyed by the addition of a monkey to his establishment. If you want to keep him, the monkey must behave."
"Keep him!" cried Cecilie, clasping him to her violently. "Of course I shall keep him. The nasty old Earl wouldn't dare to order me about." Cecilie's pink lips formed a stubborn pout and she pulled herself dramatically erect.
"The Earl may not be old," said Aggie patiently. "And even if he is, it is unwise to form an opinion before you have met a person."
"If he can't appreciate Dillydums, he must be nasty," exclaimed Cecilie with the illogic of youth.
"Never mind," said Aggie. "Just quiet the monkey. We must go in."
The door was opened and the coachman appeared to help them descend. Cecilie was the first out and Aggie heard her exclamation of surprise. "My goodness! What a great tall house."
Aggie hurried to descend before her charge should say anything unfortunate, but Cecilie stood silent, lost in wonder.
Aggie herself bit back an exclamation of surprise. She had expected a fine house, but nothing quite this magnificent. The house seemed to take up the space of several normal houses and it rose at least four stories into the air.
"Well," said Cecilie, finding her tongue at last. "It appears that the Earl is well-larded. I shall have quite a royal come out."
"Cecilie!" Aggie could not help the annoyance that crept into her voice. If the Earl were to hear such candid remarks, he could hardly be expected to be impressed with them.
"Quiet now," warned Aggie, and together they went up the walk, leaving the coachman and grooms to follow with their bags and bundles.
The door opened as they approached it and they were greeted by a tall lean butler whose round face looked out of place on his thin angular body. "His lordship left orders to show you to your rooms. He had some business out and, not knowing the time of your arrival, thought it best to handle it now."
Aggie nodded and, gently pushing Cecilie before her, followed the butler up the great staircase.
"There'll be a maid along to help you unpack," said that worthy as he opened the door to a suite of rooms. "When his lordship returns, he'll be wanting to see you. Until then, perhaps you'd like to freshen up and rest a little."
Aggie nodded. "Thank you..."
"Bates," he said. Then he was gone.
Aggie gently closed the door and turned to her ward. It was as if the closing of the door had opened Cecilie's lips and a torrent of words came pouring out. "Oh, Aggie, this is capital, just capital! Look at this place! Why, the Earl must be rolling in the ready. I shall have dozens of new gowns, and slippers and gloves, and shawls and fans. Oh! I can hardly wait to get to Bond Street."
"Cecilie," Aggie reminded her charge. "Please, be sensible. The Earl's money is his own. What your papa left for your come out is quite sufficient, I am sure. You must not expect the Earl to spend his funds on you."
Cecilie gave a stubborn shake of her blond curls. "I don't know why not. Surely he can afford it."
"That is not the question," said Aggie patiently. "It was very kind of a man in his lordship's position to take on your guardianship. It is an imposition on his time."
Cecilie's face began to take on an aggrieved expression and Aggie knew she had said too much. "I'm not any trouble, Aggie. You know that!"
Aggie swallowed a sigh. "I did not mean that, my dear. I simply meant that the Earl must have other responsibilities and arranging a come out is time consuming."
Cecilie smiled. "He needn't even bother himself about it. You and I can handle it quite nicely."
Aggie managed to remain calm. "We know nothing at all about the Earl," she said patiently. "He may leave all to us or he may insist on running things himself."
Cecilie's small chin seemed to jut out even further. "Well," she said with a finality that ended the conversation, "if he tries to run my life, I shall certainly find him nasty."
It was over an hour later and their boxes and bundles had all been unpacked, when a tap on the door caused Aggie to call out, "Yes, what is it?"
The door opened to show Bates. "His lordship has returned and he wishes to see Miss Trimble in the library."
"Just me?" said Aggie.
Bates nodded. "Those were his lordship's orders. He said to tell you that he has some matters that must be discussed with you first. He will meet his ward later."
"Very well, Bates." A glance at Cecilie's face warned Aggie of a gathering storm and she hurried from the room before the girl's anger should become a full-fledged tantrum. Though she knew the day was inevitable when her charge's temper would become apparent to all, Aggie hoped to forestall it, for a little while at least.
She descended the front staircase as calmly as she could and, following Bates's gesture, made her way to the library. Outside the door she paused momentarily, hoping to steady the trembling of her knees. But they seemed determined to tremble despite all her efforts and, taking a deep breath, she stepped through the door.
Across the room stood a man, his back to her. He was tall and lean, with broad shoulders that strained the material of his coat of blue superfine. His dark hair curled down over his cravat and touched his coat collar.
"Milord?" she said softly, and then, because he had not heard her, she repeated a trifle louder. "Milord? You wish to speak to me?"
"Yes, Miss Trimble," the Earl said, his deep voice raising vibrations along her spine. Then he turned, and, staring into those smoky gray eyes, Aggie's mind told her what her body already knew. This was the man who had deceived and left her!
She reached out blindly for some support, but there was nothing close by and she felt herself slipping into unconsciousness.
"Aggie!" She thought she heard him cry her name, but by that time the comforting darkness had closed over her.
When she opened her eyes some moments later, she was lying on a divan and the Earl was looking down at her. She struggled immediately to rise. He had carried her there--the man whose protestations of affection she had once believed. Her only thought was to escape his presence and the scrutiny of those terrible gray eyes. She struggled to sit up, but he pushed her back with a strong hand. "Lie still, Miss Trimble. You've had a bad shock."
"You--" Aggie formed the word with stiff lips. "What are you doing here?"
"In good time," he said brusquely, drawing a chair closer. "Lie still and I will enlighten you."
Much as she wanted to run away from him, Aggie knew it was impossible. Her legs simply would not hold her.
After a quick glance at her, his lordship continued. "You came here expecting to see the Earl of Denby?"
He smiled dryly. "You see him before you."
"But then, then--"
"Then I was the Viscount Acton. I succeeded to my uncle's title, you see. And you have before you the Earl of Denby."
"Oh," said Aggie, her tone barely audible. A little of her strength was returning now. She swung her feet to the floor and sat up slowly. The Earl eyed her carefully, but he said nothing. "You knew--that I was Cecilie's companion," she said, forcing herself to meet his eyes.
"Yes," he agreed. "I knew."
"Why--why did you let me make this journey--knowing that I could not stay?"
His eyes grew darker and the line of his mouth hardened. "I did not know any such thing," he said gruffly. "As Cecilie's guardian I am conversant with the terms of her father's will." When she did not reply, he gave her a long searching look. "I know the terms," he repeated. "I know that if you leave her before she is safely married, you will lose what was left you. That is why I did not tell you before you arrived here." He rose suddenly and strode across the room.
"I--you must know that I cannot stay here." She stared at the hard muscles of his back, her heart pounding heavily in her throat.
He swung toward her then. "I know no such thing," he said curtly. He drew himself up to his fullest height and she felt herself seem to grow smaller. "You not only may stay here, you must. I will not be responsible for your losing your inheritance. Do you understand me?"
Aggie pushed hopelessly at her tumbled hair. "But--but--you must see. It's impossible. I cannot."
A strange look, almost of pain, crossed his handsome features, but before she could look closer, he turned his back again and resumed his pacing. "I am well aware of your antipathy toward me," he said sharply. "But in this case you must consider yourself. Also, you might give some thought to your charge. It would be rather hard on her, would it not, to lose her companion so soon after losing her father?"
Aggie found herself twisting her hands nervously and was glad that he had his back to her. He was right, of course, she could not very well desert Cecilie at this important time. But to stay here, in the same house with him -, how could she even go about finding a new position if she left this one so precipitously? She swallowed hastily. There really seemed nothing to do but stay, painful as that would be.
Almost as though he had divined her decision, he turned again. "You must be sensible, Agg--Miss Trimble."
Her heart skipped a beat and leaped high into her throat as he almost spoke her given name. In what tender tones he had once whispered it, tones of love. She felt the color flooding her cheeks at the thought.
The Earl continued to stare at her, his eyes clouded with some indefinable emotion. "Well, you will stay?"
His words echoed curtly in her ears. She forced herself to her feet. She wavered there unsteadily for a moment, his eyes heavy upon her. "I will stay, milord," she agreed. And then she drew herself proudly erect. "As you are well aware, I have no other recourse. If I had, matters would be quite different, I assure you."
Again that strange look crossed his face and his eyes raked her over. "Good. I suggest we forget our differences from the past and concentrate on getting our charge safely matched. Agreed?"
"Agreed," replied Aggie, forcing her voice into a steadiness she was far from feeling.
"Good. Since I have a dinner engagement, I shall leave you to your settling in. Tomorrow will be soon enough to discuss our plans." He bowed gracefully and, with another searching look at her, left the room.
Aggie stood trembling for several minutes before she sank back on the divan. She could not go upstairs in her present state of distress. Even Cecilie would notice this unsteadiness that had overtaken her. Oh, why had fate taken such a cruel turning--to force her back into contact with the man who had once broken her heart. Well, she would simply have to go on. She had conquered her partiality for him. It was only the shock of seeing him so unexpectedly that had undone her. They would let the past go and think only of the task of getting Cecilie settled. Dear God, she wished that to be done quickly. Then she would be free of him.