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Lady Lynne sat, sipping a cup of cocoa while nibbling a macaroon, and wondered why she was suddenly putting on a little weight. She was still a decade from that sad time of life when she would turn gray and quarrelsome--her brindled hair was not frosted with white at all. Since Sir John's death she had begun having her gowns constructed in Paris, and at the moment she was upholstered in an extremely fashionable yellow sateen that made her look like a rutabaga. She was well aware of this and resented it deeply.
But she was easily distracted from unpleasant thoughts, for she was basically an optimistic lady. What else could account for her volunteering every Season to find a parti for one or another of her country nieces? This year it was Lady Faith Mordain, her companion in cocoa and macaroons, who had been blasted off, or soon would be.
Only it was very odd that Lord Thomas Vane had not come to call this afternoon as he was supposed to do. She sometimes feared that sly Lord Thomas meant to slip the leash. He had been behaving oddly lately. Still, it would not do to put such an idea into Faith's head, so she said, "Get the Harbinger, will you, dear? I sent Basset for it, and just heard him come in."
Lady Faith lifted a well-shaped brow and stared at her aunt with a pair of intelligent gray eyes. "I don't know why you read that scurrilous rag," she said, but she rose and went into the hall. Faith was tall and slender, and carried herself nobly as befitted the daughter of an earl. Her short hair, black as jet, shone when she passed the window. Despite the small purse her father had sent to take care of wardrobe requirements, a decent toilette had been acquiredfor Faith. Fortunately, she looked best in rather plain gowns, which cost so much less to have made up than fancy ones. There was a serious air about the girl that made ribbons and furbelows ineligible.
Lady Lynne reached eagerly for the newspaper and explained to her niece, "I read it for Mam--selle Ondit's gossip column, my dear, like all the ladies. Mam--selle never misses a beat. Mind you, the Harbinger is finding its way into all the more enlightened homes. The gentlemen read it, too, for the hard political and money news. They do say Guy Delamar is becoming the conscience of England." She opened the paper at the gossip column and began to read avidly.
"Setting up in competition with William Cobbett," Faith replied, and resumed her seat.
Her eyes roamed the tables for something more informative than the Harbinger, but saw only La Belle Assemblée. She glanced at her aunt, drew a deep breath, and looked at the clock. Four-thirty. Thomas wouldn't be coming now. What could have happened to him? He had missed more than one appointment during the past week. It was his business venture with Mr. Elwood that accounted for it, no doubt. She had no adverse thoughts on this matter. If there was a flaw in her beloved Thomas, it was his lack of a fortune, but the investment company he had instituted would overcome that. It appeared to be succeeding even beyond Thomas's expectations. Hundreds of people wanted a share in it. Still, he might have let her know if he had a new investor to interview this afternoon.
But she could not be angry with him long. If it were not for Thomas, it would be back to the country for her, her one chance at winning a parti gone forever. Next year it would be Hope's turn. With four daughters to be disposed of, Lord Westmore allowed them only one chance each. The Mordain daughters were all named for virtues and were encouraged to pay special allegiance to their own particular one. She would have faith in Thomas, then.
Something had come up at the last minute. Tonight he would explain everything, when he walked through the door, wearing his reckless smile and looking so handsome her heart would do somersaults in her chest. How had she had the great fortune to catch the interest of the handsomest man in London? He might have had anyone, but he had chosen her, she who had no particular beauty and only a small fortune.
Everyone had thought he would marry some undistinguished commoner with a fat dowry to allow him the carefree, dashing sort of life he favored, but there was an unexpected strength of character in him. "I shall bestow my name where I have already bestowed my heart," he had said. And with luck in his business venture, he would bestow a fortune as well.
Her Aunt Lynne put down the paper and emitted a girlish giggle. "Listen to this, Faith. "The Honorable Margaret deVigne was lovely, as usual, in pink. No one likened her to a sow, which refutes the rumor that the English are uncharitable." Oh, my, what a vitriolic pen Mam--selle has."
"I wonder if she's really French," Faith remarked idly.
"French? My dear, it is no secret that Delamar writes the column himself. He is Mam--selle Ondit."
"How would a person like Delamar learn the on-dits of society?" she scoffed. "Why doesn't he pick on the peccadilloes of his own class?"
"Why, he is accepted in the best saloons nowadays, though I have not had the pleasure of his acquaintance myself. Who would be interested to read that John Farmer or Tom Merchant had run off with his neighbor's wife? That is not news, except to their few friends and neighbors, who probably cannot read in the first place. Mr. Delamar knows the value of his betters and writes of the aristocracy. They say he's made a tidy fortune with this paper. I know I would never miss an issue." Her eyes returned to the paper and soon a stifled shriek rose in her throat.
"What is it?"
"Listen to this, Faith. "Investors in the Anglo-Gold Investment Company are upset at the rumor that its founder, Lord Thomas Vane, is planning a protracted and highly secret visit abroad. This paper's investigation shows that the Anglo-Gold Investment Company has not been registered, nor have shares been issued. More to follow." I gave Thomas five thousand guineas to buy me shares! He means to take the money and run."
Faith looked at her aunt's face, which had turned snow white. In that white mask, her aunt's brown eyes flashed in horror, and she clutched the paper nervously in her fingers.
Faith also showed signs of severe agitation. Her eyebrows rose an eighth of an inch and she said firmly. "That's ridiculous! Thomas wouldn't do such a thing."
"He's been acting very havey-cavey ever since he took up with that Elwood fellow. Twice this week he missed an appointment. Before today, I mean."
"And both times he was busy with his investors," Faith reminded her.
"What shall I do? I'm sending Basset straight off with a note to Thomas."
In her distracted state, she went after the butler, then returned to pick up the paper and read the item again. "It's true, I know it's true. I feel it in my bones. I never did trust Thomas Vane above half. Five thousand pounds! I am ruined!" This was a gross exaggeration, but the loss of five thousand pounds would certainly require a few unpleasant stringencies in the comfortable Lynne household.
"Auntie, calm yourself. You can't take the word of that horrid old paper. Thomas would never do such a thing. It is a cur's trick to increase the paper's circulation. There is nothing Delamar wouldn't sink to."
"Delamar is always right, Faith," her aunt countered. "They call him the Bloodhound of Fleet Street. I'm going to see him. He wouldn't dare print an item like this without some proof."
"Wait till Basset returns. It is all a hum, you'll see."
"Get your bonnet and pelisse. I'm calling for the carriage, and when Basset returns, we shall go to the office of the Harbinger. I'll have my money back from Vane if I have to beat it out of him with my bare hands."
Faith didn't stir a finger. She sat calmly waiting for Basset's return while her aunt had their bonnets and pelisses brought down. At least she looked calm, though even a lady trained in the virtue of faith was prey to one little doubt. It was close to half an hour before Basset entered. He wore a long face and came in shaking his head.
"His lordship's flat is empty. I hammered at the door for five minutes and then asked around at other flats. Nobody's seen him since this morning. Lord Thomas left with a trunk."
"Impossible!" Faith said bravely, but her heart trembled within her. Had she lost Thomas, then? She had felt from the beginning that her luck was too good to be true--that Thomas was too good to be true, and much too good for her.
Lady Lynne gave her niece a hard, accusing glare, though it was she who had pushed this match forward. She set Faith's bonnet on her head and handed her her pelisse. "I told you so!" she said, and strode angrily out the door.
Neither lady spoke much as the carriage drove them to the Strand, eastward toward Fleet Street. Though Lady Faith found much to admire in Samuel Johnson, she could not agree with him that Fleet Street was the most cheerful scene in the world; it was only the noisiest and the busiest. It was the highway from Charing Cross to St. Paul's and was full of traffic, wagons and pedestrians as well as coaches. On the sidewalk, men streamed in and out of taverns and coffeehouses and browsed at bookstalls. Boys no older than eleven or twelve were in abundance, looking remarkably black of face and hands. The carriage slowed down at Printing House Square, a handsome building fronted with iron palings.
"Is it possible Mr. Delamar has amassed such a vast fortune from his rag that he works here?" Faith asked.
"Widgeon! That is where Mr. Walters puts out the Times," her aunt said.
Their driver only stopped to inquire for directions, then turned into a back alley where the buildings were much less grand. The Harbinger sign was blazoned in white on black paint across a row of low, wooden buildings. Lady Faith felt it was no place for ladies to venture, but her aunt was adamant.
They lifted up their skirts to avoid the dusty clutter of the road and went to the door. The first sight that greeted them inside was a sign proclaiming ADVERTISING OFFICE. The door was closed and no light shone within. The dim shadows suggested that the building was empty. One of those extremely dirty boys seen in the street came flying through the front door and gave them a saucy look.
"Who are you looking for, ladies?" he chirped.
"We would like a word with Mr. Delamar," Lady Lynne informed him. "Where is everyone? And why are you as black as the ace of spades, lad? Go and wash yourself."
"This paint don't come off. It's ink. I'm a printer's devil!" he said proudly. "The rag's put to bed. There won't be no one here till tomorrow morning. Just let me run up and see if Guy's still in his flat."
He ran off to the rear of the office, turned, and disappeared. They heard the echo of his little feet flying up the stairs. Soon he came back to invite them up to see Mr. Delamar. It was necessary to lift their skirts once more, for the narrow, wooden staircase wore no carpeting save dust.
"It's strange Mr. Delamar lives in a hovel when he has reputedly made his fortune," Faith mentioned.
Her aunt pulled in her lips and said, "I begin to wonder if the stories of his success haven't been exaggerated."
Mr. Delamar's living in such squalor gave both ladies the courage to take high ground with him. They tapped at a derelict wooden door, and another of those ebony boys admitted them. The chamber they entered was no better than the rest. A brown horsehair sofa was the main furnishing. The presence on it of a pillow and blankets indicated that it served as not only sofa but bed. An undistinguished desk littered with papers, a chair, and lamps completed the furnishings. The windows bore no draperies, only a coat of grime.
"Have a seat. Guy'll be out as soon as he's finished shaving," the boy said.
They looked at the sofa and elected to remain standing. From the rear of the flat, a sound of whistling carried easily to their ears. Soon the echo of a razor being stropped followed it, then water running and other indications that Mr. Delamar was making a leisurely toilette. Lady Lynne was not a patient woman, and when two minutes had passed, she walked to the near end of the corridor, raised her voice, and called imperiously, "We are waiting for you, Mr. Delamar."
"I'll be with you in a minute. Help yourself to a glass of wine," he called back in a deep, authoritative voice.
Lady Lynne ignored the offer but said sotto voce to her niece, "At least he sounds like a gentleman."
"A pity he doesn't act like one," Faith snipped.
Whatever his social status, Lady Lynne had to acknowledge that Mr. Delamar was certainly extremely striking when she first clamped a lustful eye on him. She was partial to handsome gentlemen of all ages, and the detail of Delamar's being at least a decade younger than her own forty years in no way invalidated him as a potential flirt. He had an air of diablerie that she soon interpreted as a preference for older ladies. She quickly assessed the elegant jacket that fit his body like paper on a wall, and while it was not the work of London's premier tailor, Weston, it was not from the hand of the outlandish Stutz either. Scott, she thought, was responsible for the jacket. But who or what was responsible for Mr. Delamar--that dashing, angry, savagely handsome man who stared down a generous nose at her from a pair of topaz tiger's eyes? He took a step forward, strengthening the first impression of a tiger.
There was something of the pounce of a jungle cat in his stride as he advanced, his hand extended. Lady Lynne felt her heart quicken when she put her hand in his and had it squeezed quite mercilessly. She examined a pair of prominent cheekbones that looked as bony as elbows. Across the top of the left one, a long, thin scar was fading from pink to white. It gave him a rakish, dangerous air that reinforced her excitement. To add to his savage looks, his skin was bronze. Was he part Indian? Delamar didn't sound like it, but that blue-black hair and bronze skin could not be English. England did not produce such wild fauna as this man.
Faith noticed that her aunt had turned mute and rushed in with their names. "This is my aunt, Lady Lynne, and I am Lady Faith Mordain," she said haughtily. She was subjected to another crushing grip, the fire from the topaz tiger's eyes, and to a smile that had been absent from his greeting to the older lady. It was not a sweet or gentle smile. It did nothing to mitigate the sensation of being in a small room with a savage. It merely made her fear that the savage might eat her. It was a strangely predatory smile.
"Mr. Delamar, at your service, ladies," he said, and waved a hand to the dusty horsehair sofa. Such was their state of distraction that they pushed the blankets and pillow aside and sat down. He pulled a chair up beside them, leaned forward, and said in a calm, businesslike way, "What can I do for you?"
When Lady Lynne found a voice, her niece observed that it was her low, crooning voice usually reserved for seduction. In a flash she foresaw that the interview would not go as planned, unless she made it go that way. "We've come about that naughty article in your paper, Mr. Delamar," Lady Lynne said, coquettishly waving a finger.
There was a bantering light in the tiger's eyes. "Which one, ma--am? If you are a regular reader, you must know they're all naughty."
"Oh, you are wicked! I read the Harbinger as regularly as my Bible."
"What, only once a year?" he replied, roasting her, and let his eyes rove to Faith, who glared.
"What a wicked man you are! But it is the article about Lord Thomas Vane I am referring to," her aunt continued.
"He gouged you, too, did he? I wish I could tell you it's untrue, but it appeared in the Harbinger, so we must take it for gospel. Do you have something to add to the story? I'm collecting the names of the victims for the next issue. You'll be in good company, Lady Lynne. How much did you lose?"
Before her aunt could reply, Lady Faith took her courage in hand and set the conversation on its proper course. "We aren't here to submit our names for publication in the Harbinger, Mr. Delamar. That catastrophe must be avoided by all means. We want to know where you heard this libelous rumor," she demanded.
He slowly turned his head to Faith and regarded her for a long moment. When he finally spoke, it was not to answer her question but to get a firmer grip on the identity of his callers. "Lady Faith Mordain--that rings a bell. Ah, now I see! Please allow, me to offer my condolences, ma--am. You are Lord Thomas's greatest victim. The others have lost only money. You have lost your ... heart?" His bright, inquisitive eyes seemed to be boring inside her head. "Have you, by any chance, lost money as well?"
"Certainly not! Lord Thomas has stolen nothing. I must insist on knowing the source of that rumor you published, sir."
"I make it a rule never to divulge my sources, ma am. That is an excellent way to dry up the spring. You may be assured the information is accurate. He's given you the bag, has he? Shabbed off, and the wedding only two weeks away."
"You must not print such a thing!" Lady Lynne exclaimed.
"I shan?t," he assured her, "till I learn from an unimpeachable source that it's true. Is it?"
"No, it is not," Lady Faith said firmly.
"Then you know where he is?" Delamar asked sharply. "If you know something that proves Lord Thomas innocent, it would be to his advantage--and your own--to arrange an interview between him and myself. I know he had a partner, a Mr. James Elwood. It's possible he's only Elwood's dupe," he said doubtfully.
"Lord Thomas is no one's dupe!" Faith objected.
Delamar regarded her thoughtfully. "He is either a dupe or a knave, madam. Take your pick. I should think you, of all people, would be grateful to me for discovering it before you make the mistake of marrying him."
"He is nothing of the sort! How dare you libel a gentleman's character! I insist you write a retraction at once."
Delamar listened, unmoved. "I accused him of nothing. Better reread my column; I only report the facts. It is a fact that Lord Thomas Vane and Mr. James Elwood have taken in over two hundred thousand pounds in subscriptions to the Anglo-Gold Investment Company. It is also fact that the company is not registered, and that Lord Thomas has left the city and Mr. Elwood has run to ground--hidden somewhere or other. I can tell you at what discreet, out-of-the-way travel agency Lord Thomas made his travel plans, if you don't know it already."
"Where is it?" Lady Lynne asked eagerly.
Delamar turned his attention to the older lady. His expression stiffened to uncompromising firmness. "There's no free ride, ladies. My business isn't giving information away?I sell or barter it. What can you tell me in exchange for my news?"
"We haven't an idea where he is," Lady Lynne admitted. "He didn't keep an appointment with Lady Faith this afternoon. He's missed a few of them lately. I sent my butler over to his flat and learned that he's flown the coop."
Lady Faith was stirred to defend her fiancé. "He's gone home to his father's estate. He wasn't feeling well," she invented.
"Can I quote you on that?" Delamar asked.
Lady Lynne shook her head. "It is all a hum, Mr. Delamar. She has no more idea where he is than you have. It's true, then; I've been swindled."
"How much did you subscribe?" Delamar asked.
"Don't tell him," Lady Faith warned her aunt. "He'll print it in that scurrilous paper! I thought we came here to object to the story." Looking at her aunt, she missed the sneer that alit on Delamar's face.
"Object?" Lady Lynne asked, astonished. "I came to find out if it was true. It obviously is, goose. We must break off the engagement at once."
"No!" Faith gasped. "No, it--it cannot be true. Mr. Delamar is mistaken. Mr. Delamar, I think you might, just this once, divulge your source. I am very closely involved in this affair."
"As I said, tit for tat. You give me an exclusive on Lord Thomas, the sort of intimate thing only a fiancé would know, and I'll tell you what I've discovered to date."
She stared at him as though he were a snake. "You actually expect me to divulge intimate secrets about Lord Thomas? You must be mad!?
"I'm not talking about how he makes love, though it would charm Mam--selle Ondit's readers. I only want to know if you have anything concrete to offer in his defense--or to substantiate his guilt," he added maliciously.
"He is not guilty!?
Delamar rose and began to pace the room. "Before you go naming a church after him, consider the evidence." As he walked, he ticked off points on his long, tanned fingers. "He did not register the Anglo-Gold Company, he took in over two hundred thousand pounds, he's tipped his investors the double, he's failed to show up for appointments with his fiancée, he's even gulled your aunt. If that does not at least raise a doubt, you are dangerously unsuspicious. I wonder if you will be as lenient when he doesn't show up at St. George's in Hanover Square for the wedding. "Lady Faith Jilted by Faithless Lover." That should make good reading."
"You wouldn't dare!" She gasped.
"I will! But only if it happens, of course. I print nothing but facts. And I've never printed a retraction in my life, so if that was your only business, ladies ... I am rather busy." He rose and looked impatiently at the door.
Lady Faith glared harder than before, then turned to her aunt. "Come along, Auntie. We're wasting our time. We will want to stop at our solicitor's office before going home."
A slow smile crept across Mr. Delamar's face, lifting his scar and crinkling the corners of his eyes. He came forward and offered Faith his hand to help her up from the sofa. She pointedly ignored it. "If that is meant to intimidate me, you're wasting your time. Save your blunt. You have no case. I suggest you follow your aunt's advice and write up a notice cancelling the engagement. Shall I do it for you?"
Faith pulled away. "If you print that lie, then I will sue, I promise you. I shall marry Lord Thomas Vane, and he is not a thief."
"I didn't say he was."
"You implied it! And you believe it."
"True, but then what do you care what I believe?"
"I don?t! Come along, Auntie. We cannot expect Mr. Delamar to understand that a gentleman does not steal." On this cutting phrase, she allowed her eyes to rove around his cramped and ugly saloon. They still wore an expression of deep disgust when she allowed them to flicker over Mr. Delamar. "Good day." She carefully lifted her skirts and stalked out.
It was extremely disobliging of her aunt not to follow her. She felt a perfect fool, waiting for her in the hall.
Before leaving, Lady Lynne gave Delamar her hand. "Please keep in touch if you learn anything further about Lord Thomas. About that exchange of information ... I am Lady Faith's chaperone. I know as much as she does. What is it you want to know?"
"Where he is."
"I can't help you there. He wouldn't dare to go home to his father and, of course, he was not feeling ill at all. Do you plan to go after him?"
"Of course, and Mr. Elwood, too. This is the juiciest story I've come across in an age. And it happens I have other business at--in the same direction."
"When will you leave?"
"The only reason I'm still here is that I've been scurrying around, trying to get a lead on Elwood. There are rumors he's still in town, though he's not at his flat. I want to find out if Lord Thomas ran off with the whole lot or split it with Elwood. I don't see why Elwood would be hiding if he were totally innocent, but still it's Lord Thomas who has flown, and flight is usually taken as prima facie evidence of guilt. I'll be leaving around nine. The girl must know something, don't you think? She could help us, if she would."
"She's as stubborn as a mule, but I'll try my hand at pumping her for news. Why don't you drop around my place before you leave London? I might have something for you by then. She might have an idea where we could find Elwood at least. He was out with her and Thomas a few times."
"I was wondering if she plans to give you the slip and follow her Thomas. It's possible, I suppose. Is it a love match?"
Lady Lynne drew a thoughtful breath and settled on uncompromising vagueness. "They're fond of each other. Love will grow in time."
"You must be alluding to the old cliché that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I shouldn't think a vacuum the likeliest ambience for the sprouting of love. But then he won't really leave a vacuum behind, will he? He'll leave a trail of pain and mortification."
"And empty bank balances!" Lady Lynne added tartly.
"There are several that will be emptier than yours, Lady Lynne, though to steal from a friend carries a special sort of odium even for a nobleman," he said with a bold sneer that sent shivers of delight up her spine. "I'll drop by Berkeley Square some time before nine."
"Oh, you know where I live." She smiled.
"Knowing things is my business. I never did find out why such a charming young lady as yourself hasn't remarried--yet. Two years since you were widowed. London bachelors are slow-tops."
"Oh, you really are wicked!" she crooned, and tapped his fingers playfully, then darted off to meet her niece.
Mr. Delamar strolled to the window to watch them enter their carriage. There was a glow in his topaz eyes, but it was not a glow of admiration for Lady Lynne, who felt she had engaged his interest. He thought her a fat, silly old fool who might easily be led into revealing anything she knew, only he feared she knew even less than himself.
It was a glow of suspicion directed at Lady Faith Mordain. Why was she so insistent that Lord Thomas was innocent? She didn't look like a fool. There was intelligence in those large gray eyes. Intelligence and anger and pride. The lady was stung at her public humiliation. A woman scorned might be led to help him, if he handled her properly. But he had always found the proud aristocracy difficult to handle. They stuck together like burrs, spreading their noble mantle over their own.
He'd probably never get to the bottom of this Lord Thomas affair, but he'd give it his best effort. It was a personal crusade, almost a vendetta, that he bring Lord Thomas to justice. Even if he hadn't been the proprietor and editor of the Harbinger, he would have hounded Lord Thomas to the grave. He was sorry Lady Faith must be spattered in the fray, it she were innocent, but it wouldn't deter him.
Lord Thomas had chosen some of his victims poorly. He wouldn't get away with the life savings of Buck and Eddie. The Lady Lynnes of the world were of less interest to him, though of course they enhanced the interest of the story. But that his own buddies, who had risked their lives for England, should be duped by a Lord Thomas was not to be borne.
He was interrupted by the appearance of a printer's devil behind him. "What's up then, Guy?" the fellow asked.
"My dander. Call for my rig, Joey. If anything important comes up, I'll be at my house before I leave town."
"The new place?"
"That's right, in Piccadilly."
"Setting up as a regular nabob, eh, Guy?"
"Why not? I'm as good as the rest of them."
"Toadeater." Guy laughed, and tossed him a golden boy.