It was moving day for the members of the Ladies' Library in Soho Square. Their lease had run out, and one of their staunchest supporters, Lady Mary Gerrard, had offered her mansion in the Strand. The house was buzzing as an army of ladies and their helpers set to work to transform their new quarters, room by room, from a palatial residence to a library with lecture rooms, reading rooms, and a bright and airy tearoom.
Caspar Devere, Lord Castleton, better known to his friends as Case, stood just inside the marble entrance hall, taking it all in. He was a harshly handsome man, thirtyish, well above average height, with dark hair and gray, gray eyes that, for the moment, were distinctly amused.
He left his hat and gloves on a hall table and wandered into the main salon. Some of the men who were helping the ladies were known to him, and that made him smile. Not many gentlemen wanted it known that their wives or sisters were members here.
As the Viscount Latham passed close by carrying a chair, Case called out, "Freddie, where can I find Lady Octavia?"
On seeing the earl, Latham registered surprise, quickly followed by amusement. In a stage whisper, he replied, "I won't tell anyone I saw you here, Case, if you don't tell anyone about me." Then in a normal voice, "Try next door. That's where she has set up her headquarters."
Case wandered into another salon, and there she was, the library's founder and driving force, Lady Octavia Burrel. Dressed all in white in something that closely resembled a toga, with matching turban, she directed her small army as they came to her for their orders. Though there was much coming and going, there was very little confusion.
Case was not here to help but for information, and when the crush around Lady Octavia thinned, he quickly crossed to her. He was sure of his welcome because he'd known her for as long as he could remember. She and his great-aunt were close friends.
When she saw him, her chubby face lit up with pleasure. "Lord Castleton," she said. "This is a surprise! I had no idea you were interested in our cause."
As Case well knew, there was a lot more to the Ladies' Library than its innocent name implied. The cause to which Lady Octavia referred was to improve the lot of women by changing the antiquated marriage and property laws of England. It was also involved, so rumor went, in helping runaway wives evade their husbands. In some circles, Lady Octavia and her volunteers were seen as subversives. In the clubs he attended, they were frequently the butt of masculine laughter. But there were others who sup-ported the aims of Lady Octavia and her League of Ladies. His aunt was one of them. He had never given the matter much thought.
"I suppose," said Lady Octavia, "I have your aunt to thank for sending you to help us?"
He avoided a direct answer. "I left her in Soho Square, directing things there. I'm looking for Miss Mayberry. My aunt told me she might be here."
"She's in the pantry. Turn left and take the green baize door at the end of the hall."
As Case walked away, Lady Octavia's gaze trailed him. He was easy to look upon, she reflected, this young man who appeared to have everything. As heir to his father, the Duke of Romsey, wealth, privilege, and position were already his, and it showed, not in arrogance exactly, but in something close to it. But it wasn't unattractive, just the opposite, especially to women. And now that he'd turned thirty and had finally taken up the courtesy title of earl, as befitted a duke's heir, he was even more attractive to women.
There wasn't the woman born, his aunt had told her, who could resist Caspar, more's the pity. It would do him the world of good to taste rejection. Lady Octavia wondered how Lord Castleton had come to meet Jane Mayberry. Jane didn't go into society much. When she was in town, she went to lectures and concerts and the opera, especially the opera. Jane was very fond of music. Maybe that was where she had met the earl.
She frowned when another thought occurred to her. Lord Castleton and his volatile mistress, La Contessa, had recently parted company.
She dithered, debating with herself whether she should go after him, to chaperon Jane, when Mrs. Bradley came up and said that she was wanted in the old earl's library.
This request cleared Lady Octavia's brain. She was letting her imagination run away with her. The poor man was just trying to help.
He found her in the first room past the green baize door. She hadn't heard him enter, so he took a moment to study her. She was perched on a chair, on tiptoe, fiddling with crockery on the top shelf of a cupboard. The first thing he noticed were a pair of nicely turned ankles. Unfortunately, they were encased in blue woolen stockings. He should have guessed. He'd made a few inquiries about Jane Mayberry and had learned, among other things, that she was a very clever young woman. Clever women, Lady Octavia and his Aunt Sophy among them, wore blue stockings as a badge of honor, a kind of declaration that their minds were set on higher things. Bluestocking was a derogatory term that had been coined to describe such women, and they wore that like a badge of honor, too.
Her fine woolen gown was a muddy green, "olive" his mistress would have called it, but it was not a color he particularly liked. All the same, it suited the honey-gold hair streaked blond by the sun. The gown was well cut and revealed a slender waist and the long, graceful line of her spine.
He coughed to warn her of his presence, then shifted his gaze when a tawny, bristling mass rose from the floor and positioned itself in front of him with bared fangs.
As she turned from the cupboard, Case said softly, "Call off your dog or I shall be forced to shoot it."
"If you do," she said coolly, "it will be the last thing you do." Then to the dog, "Lance, down."
The dog, of indeterminate pedigree with perhaps a touch of wolf thrown in--and that didn't seem right to Case because there hadn't been wolves in England for three hundred years--sank to the floor and rested its jowls on its immense paws. Its gaze never wavered from Case.
"He doesn't like men," said Miss Mayberry, step-ping down from her chair. "Lady Octavia should have warned you. I'm Jane Mayberry, by the way."
It sounded as if Jane Mayberry didn't like men either--a pity, because he found her direct manner and unfaltering stare oddly appealing. She wasn't beautiful but she was anything but plain. She had a strong face, with straight dark brows and large, intelligent brown eyes.
"I'm Castleton," he said. He would have bowed, except that Miss Mayberry turned away without bothering to curtsy.
"Yes, I recognized you," she said. "You're tall, that's what matters. At least you won't have to teeter on the chair."
She had the kind of voice a man could listen to day in, day out, and long into the night. But he'd ruffled her feathers by threatening her dog. If he wanted information, he'd have to tread carefully now.
"You recognized me? Have we met?"
"No. But Viscount Latham almost introduced us once, at the opera. You were late for an appointment, and rushed away."
Another black mark against him, he supposed. He had no recollection of her at all, but then, he wouldn't if she was dressed as she was now. His taste ran to something more flamboyant.
He took the stack of plates she offered him and set them on the top shelf. When he turned back to her, she had another stack waiting for him. He gave her the smile that never failed to make a lady's heart beat just a little faster. He spoke to put her at her ease, but he was interested in how she would answer all the same.
"How did you come to be involved with Lady Octavia's library? I mean, you're not married. You can't have an interest in changing the marriage and property laws of England."
"Your aunt isn't married either," she said. "Why don't you ask her?"
"So you know my aunt?"
"Everyone at the library knows Lady Sophy. She's a dear. Would you mind?" She shoved the stack of plates into his arms. "You can talk and work at the same time."
Case took the plates and turned away to hide a smile. This was a new experience for him--being ordered about by a young, unmarried woman. Young women usually tried to flirt with him, or fawned over him. He could be charming, but he could be cruel when he wanted to be, as any overambitious young woman who had marriage on her mind could testify.
Obviously, this wasn't going to be a problem with Miss Mayberry.
He said, "Lady Octavia is my aunt's closest friend. That's how she became converted to the cause. And you?"
She could avoid questions as well as he. "Last stack," she said, "then we can start polishing the silver."
He was taken aback. "I can't believe the silver in Lady Mary's house is tarnished. She wouldn't allow it."
"Then it won't take us long, will it?"
When she opened a drawer and began to assemble her materials, he decided it was time to come to the point. "Miss Mayberry," he said, "I didn't come here to help you move into your new quarters. There's something I want to ask you."
The change in her was almost imperceptible. He might have dismissed it as a quirk of his imagination if her dog had not lifted its head and whined low in its throat, as though uneasy with some implied threat to its mistress.
She said, "Lady Octavia didn't send you to help me?"
He smiled. "That was a misunderstanding. I don't mind stacking dishes, but I'm hopeless with silver."
When the dog made a movement to rise, she pointed to the floor, and it sank back again. She's afraid, thought Caspar, amazed. What on earth have I said to frighten her? Not that he could tell by looking at her that anything was wrong. It was the dog that was on edge.
She pushed back a stray tendril of hair. "This is the wrong time to ask me questions, Lord Castleton. As you see, some of us are busy. Why don't you come back later? Thank you for stacking the dishes. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a silver paste to make."
He didn't know whether to be amused or annoyed. He wasn't in the habit of being dismissed like this. "One question, Miss Mayberry, then I'll leave you to your--ah--labors. Where can I find Letitia Gray?"
Her back was to him and he could see the tension across her shoulder blades gradually relax. "Letty?" she said, turning to face him. "You came here to ask me about Letty?"
He nodded. "I was told that you and she were friends."
"Who told you?"
"Does it matter? All I want from you is Mrs. Gray's direction."
She stared at him reflectively for a long interval. "What do you want with Mrs. Gray?" she asked finally.
"That's between Mrs. Gray and me."
He saw at once it was the wrong thing to say. Before he could soften his answer, she said, as abrupt as he, "I'm sorry I can't help you."
"You can't help me or you won't?"
"I won't help you."
Now his patience was wafer thin. "Do you mind telling me why?"
"Because it's against the library's rules. What I can do is ask Mrs. Gray if she wants to see you, or you can write a letter and I'll see that she gets it."
"That could take days! If it's character references you want, ask Lady Octavia or my aunt. They'll vouch for me."
"They'd give you the same answer as I. It's against the library's policy to tell strangers where members live."
"I'm not a stranger!"
"You are to my friend."
"How do you know?"
Her brows rose fractionally. "Because she would have told me, of course. Your name has been in all the newspapers. Your brother-in-law is Col. Richard Maitland, the head of Special Branch, isn't he? You and he brought a murderer to justice. The papers called you a hero."
"An exaggeration!" he declared.
Her lashes lowered, veiling her expression. "I don't doubt it, but I'm sure my friend would have told me if she'd met the hero of the Maitland affair."
He didn't know how to take her. Was she poking fun at him or was she serious? Both, he decided and grinned.
"You're right. I don't know Mrs. Gray, but I know her brother, Gideon Piers."
"You know him? That's odd. Gideon died in Spain a long time ago."
"I mean I knew him. We served together in Spain." He realized that his voice had developed an edge and he made a considerable effort to soften it. "This really is urgent, Miss Mayberry, or I wouldn't be badgering you like this."
She seemed to soften a little as well. At any rate, in spite of the rising temperature of their conversation, her dog seemed satisfied that nothing was wrong. Its head was resting on its paws again, and its alert eyes were shifting from Miss Mayberry to him, as if it were a spectator at some play in Drury Lane.
"And I don't mean to be difficult," she said. "I'll tell you what I will do, though. If you write a letter right now, I'll see that it's hand delivered, and that I have a reply, oh, shall we say by four o'clock? That's only a few hours away. Surely you can wait that long?"
Stubborn was too mild a word to describe Miss Jane Mayberry, but at least she was gracious with it. She'd learn soon enough that he could be just as stubborn.
"Thank you," he said. "I can't ask for more than that. Now, where can I find pen and paper?"
"Ask Lady Octavia. She knows where everything is." He was almost through the door when she stopped him by saying his name.
"You didn't answer my question," she said. "Who told you that I was Mrs. Gray's friend?"
"I remembered that Piers had a sister who was a teacher at St. Bede's Charity School. I went there yesterday and met the woman in charge." This was the shortened version of events and he saw no reason to enlarge on it. "Miss Hepburn--that was her name. She said that when Miss Piers married and moved away, that was the last they saw of her. But you continued to visit the school from time to time." He grinned. "I got the impression that you were the apple of Miss Hepburn's eye. She told me that any letter addressed to the Ladies' Library would reach you."
From the Paperback edition.