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Marianna contemplated the choppy expanse of the North Sea as she slowly strolled along the damp, shell-crusted sand. The water off the Yorkshire coast looked cold, relentless, and unforgiving--and dead, as dead as she felt inside. She stopped at the far end of the beach where the pale sand turned to hard shale. She had been told the shore dropped off quite rapidly here. The waves rolled in to slap against the shifting sand, with foaming fingers beckoning, coaxing.
She sighed, angrily brushing a tear from her cheek that had the temerity to sneak from her eye. Glancing back, she could see the distant form of her maid, sitting huddled in a sheltered spot amid spiked clumps of green sedge. Daisy most likely thought her mistress had turned a bit daft after being sent home in disgrace.
Certainly it was enough to drive any woman to desperation. She returned her attention to the sea once again. She might slip and tumble from a rock into the icy water. If she did, it would be declared an accident, would it not? Although her mother said not a word and her father generously offered her a home, she knew her shame sat heavily on their shoulders. They were decent, respectable people. Her father was truly the knight and her mother always the gracious lady. Had times not turned against them, Marianna would have been the pampered daughter of the house. She'd have made her come-out in London just as they had planned since she was a young girl.
If only she had not gone to that miserable school. Miss Chudleigh's Academy for Young Ladies. That was where her troubles had started. That, and the depression in the price of wool, were behind her dilemma. Her dearest papa had invested unwisely,and that loss was due largely to the unforeseen changes because of that blasted war with the French. She kicked savagely at a piece of shale, succeeding only in hurting her toe.
"I'm innocent," she fiercely declared to the kittiwake that bobbed up and down on the waves. Clenching her hands into impotent fists, she glared at the bird. He neatly gathered a meal in his pale-yellow bill, then gracefully flew off, unconcerned with the angry young woman who stood on the shore.
A movement beneath the ebb and flow of the water off-shore caught her attention. There was something out there: large, silent, stealthy. Her troubles forgotten for the moment, she stared in horrified fascination as an enormous coppery creature with a hump in its back rose to the surface, then came toward her. It was impossible to run. Her feet clung to the damp shale as though glued.
The body was sleek, not scaly like the dragons in the fairytale books. It was a weird, frightening sight. Then she saw that what had seemed to be staring eyes at first glance were narrow windows of an odd sort. There was a peculiar little curved pipe that rotated about on the hump of the thing--or was it perhaps some manner of machine? Marianna watched, frozen, her heart thumping madly, as the strange-looking object seemed to direct the pipe end toward her. She stood her ground, the thought flashing through her mind that, were the thing to consume her, it would surely solve her family's latest trouble.
Then, with amazing rapidity, the object bobbed to the surface. Marianna observed bubbles foam up about what seemed to be a large copper-surfaced boat--a most peculiar boat, to be sure. The top of the hump flipped open and a man's head emerged.
Her gasp was unheard by the man who gazed across the water. He first stared at her, then searched the shore. When he disappeared from view, she wondered what would be next. After seeing this apparition rise from the sea, nothing would have surprised her at this point.
When Marianna found her feet could once again move, she began a slow, backward retreat. Fascination was all well and good, but hadn't she ought to alert someone to the presence of this vessel?
Before she could suit her actions to her thoughts, the man appeared once again and began to climb from the boat. Marianna paused to look again. There was a familiarity about that man. She watched as he plunged into the sea and swam ashore. He emerged from the surf, a primitive, compelling figure.
Water streamed from the tall, most masculine body clad in a now-transparent white shirt and indecently clinging nankeen breeches. She discreetly fastened her gaze upon his face. She knew that face! He winced as a piece of shale bit into the bottom of one bare foot. Wind ruffled his chestnut hair, drying it into a tangled mess.
"Hello, there," he called. "I wonder if you might be of help?" He strode cautiously across the shale until he faced her from a distance of a few feet. The breeze tore at his shirt, then plastered it more closely to his broad chest. Marianna found the sight of chestnut hair curling beneath the damp cambric more than a little intriguing.
His voice was as she remembered, deep and pleasant, with a hint of Yorkshire about it. He was more handsome, if such a thing were possible. Her eyes narrowed in amusement, her own troubles dismissed for the moment. He did not remember her in the least. Had she altered so much, then? She dipped a proper curtsy.
"I do not know what you wish, but perhaps we might be of assistance when I learn what you require. Lord Barringer,'' she said with just a little tartness creeping into her voice. She was aware that he had in the past a tendency to exert his excellent memory only for his scientific projects. However, it was humbling to know she had changed beyond all recognition to one who had known her so well.
He glanced about, obviously wondering who the other person might be. Seeming to catch sight of the maid, now hesitantly approaching, he nodded. "I need help in pulling my diving boat ashore. Would you be so kind to call some men?" He glanced down to his bare feet, hardly fitting for a trek over rough grasses and the rocky lane to the nearest village. He looked out to the vessel, where another man peered from me hump, then turned back to her, frowning. "Do I know you?"
Marianna almost laughed at his look of puzzlement. He hadn't changed in that respect, still wrapped up in his projects as his sister had written. That she knew he was titled had at last sunk into his brain. A stranger couldn't possibly tell that from his sodden attire.
"We have met in the past," she admitted. His sister had once complained to Marianna that her brother, George, was so single-minded, it was a wonder he remembered his own name, let alone the day, month, or year.
George Mayne, Viscount Barringer, surveyed the young woman before him with none of the haughtiness of a good many of his fellow peers. Truth be told, George hadn't bothered to use his title very much in the past, only when it got him something he dearly wanted. Pleasing his father about the dratted business of his title usage meant he now used it all of the time. Since his father indulged George's explorations into the realm of science, it was the least a good son could do for such a generous father.
He ran an impatient hand through his damp hair, wondering where he might have met the woman. He didn't go about much, too preoccupied with his current project, whatever it might be at the moment. Since his sister, Samantha, had married, it seemed he removed himself from company even more of the time.
Running a swift, analytical gaze over the woman, he could see she clearly was not a schoolroom miss. Her composure revealed that, if not her shapely form, so nicely revealed by the persistent wind. Focusing his full attention on her, he rapidly studied what he found. She possessed a tall, slender figure and a pair of very speaking sea-green eyes. The green sprigged thing she wore became her well. That fine-boned face, surrounded by a wealth of curling golden hair, did strike a familiar chord somewhere in his memory. Her speech declared her of the gentry, and he began to search his mind, mentally tabulating all the women he knew. There were not many to review in that list. He frowned, then his face cleared and he snapped his fingers.
"Wyndham. Sir John's daughter. Marianna." It was a statement from the man of science. He had sought a fact and found it. Never mind the "fact" was a lovely young woman who ought not be off by herself on this lonely beach so close to a dangerous tide. He ignored the wisp of a maid. She was too far off to be of any help. Why, he could scoop up the willowy Miss Wyndham and carry her off with him with no problem at all. Didn't she realize the perilous nature of her situation?
Then he recalled she'd been a friend of his madcap sister, Samantha. Not wild, though. As he recalled, when Miss Wyndham had been present, she'd been a calming influence. Why wasn't she married by now as Samantha had?
Hadn't his Aunt Lavinia said something about her coming back from a school? Some scandal, as he recalled more clearly. His eyes sought Miss Wyndham's in question. She certainly hadn't the look of an improper female about her. How could she be involved in anything like a scandal?
Drawing in an annoyed breath, Marianna nodded. His eyes revealed more than he suspected. He had remembered something about her, and she supposed it had to do with the crime of which she was accused. She turned away, resigned to the snub of a cut direct. Without looking back at him, she called over her shoulder, "I shall send someone directly when I reach the village, sir."
George raised his hand in futile appeal. She hadn't met his gaze. What had happened just now? One moment she had looked at him with an appealing glimmer of amusement in her lovely eyes; then, the next, she had turned, and now fled across the sands. He watched until she disappeared from view, then he plunged into the water and returned to his diving boat. He grasped the anchor rope that dangled from the bow and began to swim toward shore, trying to tow the boat.
"Save your strength, Barringer. No hope you'll make the beach. The odds are too great against you."
Treading the swells of the sea, George looked up at the conning tower where his best friend, Alex, peered at him from dry safety. "You could join me," he said, knowing full well how Alex disliked a cold swim. He agreed with his friend's assessment and motioned toward the anchor.
Alex dropped anchor, but George had doubts as to how well it would hold. He decided to return to the shore. Even he found the North Sea too cold after a bit. He stood on the sand, allowing the wind and sun to dry him off.
"Your young lady must have found help," Alex called out. He waved a hand toward the south.
George turned to discover several men trudging across the sands. They were sturdy, plainly dressed countrymen.
In no time at all the men had joined in beaching the fair-sized diving boat. It was a sturdy craft, well capable of holding six people below. While the others stood around examining it, George entered his boat. He shortly returned dressed in clean clothes and polished boots.
The lot of them retired to the Gull and Herring for a pint and to talk about the strange boat that had come to shore. George found himself and his crew of three the object of scrutiny and shrewd questioning. The locals knew his father and of himself by reputation, he supposed. It was some time before he could free his small group from the curious men in the congenial surroundings of the village inn.
The crew returned to the beach to check on the boat. One of the men, the lanky redheaded Tom Crowdon, offered to keep watch. George agreed, mentally noting to add to the man's pay. The other men. Bill and Joe, straggled back to find a room at the Gull and Herring for the night.
Barringer and Alex stood up on a grassy dune to survey the scene along the beach. The lowering sun cast shadows across the water, the subtle shadings lending a muted peace to the turbulent sea. The shorter of the two men spoke.
"Who was she, Barringer? The lovely lass who came to our rescue? Did she know you? She didn't fly away at the sight of you, at any rate." Sir Alexander Dent wondered if his friend had paid all that much attention to the lovely young woman who had stood on the beach. She had looked to be of the gentry. Such a lithesome, tantalizing girl so suitably covered in demure muslin. Those blond curls that the wind had tossed about her head had seemed to capture the sun, like a halo of shimmering light. Why hadn't she worn a bonnet, as most proper ladies might?
"Sir John's daughter." George muttered the words in an abstracted baritone.
"That really doesn't tell me a whole lot, old man,'' Alex said, ruefully acknowledging his friend had turned his mind to his project. When that happened, the rest of the world ceased to exist for him.
In that assessment, Alex, for once, was wrong. George was still thinking about the lovely Marianna Wyndham. What was it Aunt Lavinia had told him about the scandal? How could anyone like a daughter of the respectable Sir John be involved in such a thing? She looked so innocent, as fresh and pure as the first snowdrop of spring in that green sprigged gown she wore. His memories of their childhood play were fond, if vague. But she had been a good child, ever ready for a romp. He had liked her.
"I believe she's innocent, Alex." George stooped over to tug up a long stem of grass, which he proceeded to chew. He thoughtfully narrowed his eyes as he attacked the problem presented with a scientist's critical examination.
Intrigued by these odd words, Alex prompted, "Of what, old man?" There were a goodly number of ways those words might be taken, and knowing Barringer, it was best not to make any assumptions.
George motioned his friend to join him in a walk back to the village, where he fully intended to locate transport. His mind demanded immediate answers to the question of Miss Wyndham's strange behavior.
Alex was more than a bit curious. This was the first time in his knowledge that Barringer had looked twice at a young woman. Especially in that searching, studied manner that revealed a deep interest to those who knew him well.
There had been more than one woman who had been attracted to the sensual good looks of his friend. Tall, lean, yet broad of shoulder, with that distant aspect about him that appeared to challenge the belles, Barringer seemed unaware of his appeal. Alex doubted if he gave women much thought other than an occasional good-natured tumble of a country maid when the mood struck.
An obliging ostler at the Gull and Herring brought forth two horses of respectable pedigree for the gentlemen's ride. Alex followed Barringer's lead with a rising stirring of excitement. He had felt this sort of thing when the army had crossed the Bidossoa into France. Anticipation of something to come.
The ride to Mayne Court took but two hours via a twisting route Alex would have been hard-pressed to duplicate. It was unexceptional as to the view from the road. At one point George slowed his mount to survey a pleasant estate. The house was of neat brick with lovely gardens to one side. At a questioning look from Alex, Barringer simply said,' "The Wyndham place.'' He had spurred his horse and the two men had continued until Mayne Court appeared in view.
The house, built of small, finely pointed bricks, was a fine example of Baroque architecture. The bright-red contrasted beautifully with the weathered stone of the window frames and door surrounds. An elaborately scrolled pediment displaying carved stone horses decorated the entrance. Barringer ignored all this, jumping down, then tossing the reins of his mount to the groom who rushed toward them from the direction of the stables.
Alex dismounted, thoughtfully handing his reins over as well. Following Barringer up the broad steps and in the door, he found himself being greeted by Barringer's most curious-looking aunt. Alex had heard about her. He repressed a smile as he bowed formally over her hand. What an odd creature she was, to be sure. Wispy white hair escaped from a white lacy cap, while a white shawl was draped haphazardly over a jaconet gown, also of white. She looked like a very substantial ghost except for two patches of red on her cheeks.
"I knew you'd be coming back tonight. Saw it in my cup this morning." She caught sight of the puzzled expression of George's guest and explained, "I read the tea leaves, my dear boy. They are never wrong for me."
George tucked his aunt's hand close to him and ambled in the direction of the drawing room. This elegant ground-floor salon was where Aunt Lavinia held court from time to time. "What is on this evening's schedule?" he inquired with rare interest.
"I've invited the Wyndhams over for dinner and an evening visit. Since Marianna came home a few weeks ago, they have scarcely been out. I mean to see that stop. The chit is as innocent as a newborn babe. She would no more steal than I would," Aunt Lavinia declared with a righteous air.
George seated his aunt on her favorite chair near the window, then gave her a frowning look. That was not the best comparison she might have made, considering her penchant for adopting objects that did not belong to her while out and about. Although, he had to admit, since his sister married, Aunt had done nothing out of line--as far as he knew.
"I'm pleased to know your charity, Aunt. Miss Marianna ... you feel she will come?" His question was posed with studied casualness.
Only Sir Alex caught the naughty gleam in Aunt Lavinia's eyes before she dropped her gaze to the delicate white fan in her lap. "Of course. It is most important that the gel be received in the best of homes. How utterly preposterous that anyone accuse her of stealing jewelry. She is hardly the sort to covet jewels not her own. Sir John saw to it she owned a lovely string of pearls before the cutback in trade reduced his fortune." Aunt Lavinia sighed over the distress of her dear neighbors.
"I met her earlier today. I must confess she does not look the type to be filching jewelry. Where is this supposed to have happened?" George inquired with a continued casualness destroyed by his purposeful line of questions.
"Dear Marianna was reduced to the position of a junior teacher at the school she had attended for some years. Her father's reverses, don't you know." Aunt Lavinia shook her head in sad reflection. "The darling girl has been accused of stealing a sapphire necklace from one of the schoolgirls. Silly chit ought not have had such a valuable with her. They could never prove a thing, of course. The headmistress accepted the word of the stupid young miss and another teacher. Marianna was dismissed merely because of the shadow of disgrace."
"That is quite terrible," George said, thinking of the young woman he'd seen earlier. She had noticed something in his expression that revealed he knew other circumstances, he felt sure of that. She had turned away from him then. Had she expected to be snubbed? "What utter rubbish."
Turning to Alex after reaching a quick decision, George declared," I believe we must do something about this poor girl.''
"I say, old fellow, it's a smashing notion, but I do not see how it is to be accomplished. What could you possibly do?" Sir Alex was fascinated by the change in his friend. Barringer doing something about a young lady's distress? Charging to the rescue, so to speak? Alex's gaze slipped to Aunt Lavinia. Here he met the satisfied eyes of a genuine schemer. The old lady was up to something.
"When she arrives with her parents, I intend to discuss the problem with her," George declared, rubbing his hand over his chin in a reflective gesture. "I am certain that if we analyze this business, we can see a solution.'' He turned to see the butler standing just inside the door. "Peters, would you be so good as to order up a couple of baths for Sir Alex and me? That saltwater swim has left me feeling dashed crusty. We wish to be presentable when Aunt's guests arrive for dinner. I suppose we dine early, as usual?" Turning to his friend, he added, "Alex, you will have to tell your stomach to adjust to country hours."
"My stomach has never been overly fussy about the dinner hour. As long as I get fed." He grinned engagingly at his friend, then bowed over Aunt Lavinia's hand before departing the room with Barringer.
Peters paused before leaving to issue instructions regarding the baths.
"I believe I shall have tea," Lady Lavinia said, smiling with glee at the long-time retainer with the air of a fellow conspirator.
One of the footmen entered shortly with a silver tray holding the necessary components for Lady Lavinia's requested tea. She stirred the contents of the pot, faintly resembling a witch at her brew. She poured, drank hurriedly, then began her tea-leaf-reading ritual. Rotating the cup for the final twist, she turned it over to study the interior. Hmm. The shark told her that danger lurked close by, since the shape was close to the handle. A noise at the entrance forced her to set the cup aside. She rose reluctantly, hating to postpone the reading, yet she smiled with pleasure at the sight of her good friends.
"Irene, my dear, and Sir John. How good to see you. And Marianna. I am so glad you have come." She said nothing regarding the scandal. She had discussed it with Irene, Lady Wyndham, exhaustively. She had persuaded Irene that there must have been a conspiracy afoot, a solution her friend had been only too eager to accept.
Glancing at the cup on the table. Lady Wyndham said, "I fear we have disturbed your reading."
"Actually, it was for someone else. Or something else." Lavinia darted a hasty glance at Marianna before giving her friend a meaningful look. "Perhaps Marianna would give me the pleasure of reading her cup? There is ample tea."
"Oh, I do not know..." said the young woman with no little hesitation. She was not all that sure she wished to partake in what she considered a pagan rite, and she was not thirsty in the least. Yet Lady Lavinia was quite respectable, or near enough so.
Succumbing to her curiosity, Marianna joined Lady Lavinia in the sofa, then followed the careful instructions, sitting back to await the verdict.
"Oh, dear," Aunt Lavinia murmured.
"What is it?'' asked Marianna anxiously, leaning over to peer into the cup, quite forgetting she had been reluctant at first.
"The drops of tea remaining in the bottom of your cup show a sad situation indeed. Tears, you know." Lavinia then brightened, continuing, "But the shell close to the handle tells me that the injustice you fight against will soon have a good outcome. Good news, luck, and money are on the way. There is a boat as well. I believe you are to travel, my dear." She beamed a satisfied smile at the young woman.
There was a stir at the door. George, Lord Barringer, followed closely by Sir Alexander Dent, entered the drawing room. They bowed with perfect civility to Sir John and Lady Wyndham, then turned to Marianna.
"We meet again," George said. "I trust you met with no difficulty in your return to your home?" He stood before Marianna with a casual, unaffected grace, his usual pensive air dispelled.
She blushed slightly and shook her head. Finding the voice she thought she had lost, she replied in a soft tone, "None whatsoever, thank you, sir." Pleating the soft peach muslin gown she wore, she wondered why she should suddenly feel ill at ease with a family friend. The memory of that damp cambric shirt and water-plastered breeches that had clung so enticingly to his form rose in her mind, and she thought she knew why. Barringer had stirred unfamiliar feelings inside her. The sort that had made her heart beat fast, her mouth go dry, and an ache begin in her middle.
"I was discussing your situation with Aunt before you came." He ignored her look of distress. "I decided we must, as good neighbors, do something to help."
Sir John had overheard this remark, spoken so close to where he sat. "How do you propose to prove that she is innocent when they refuse to accept anything but the jewels? If she finds the sapphires, they will say she knew where they were all along. If she does not find them, she is still guilty in their eyes. My poor girl.'' He bestowed an anguished look on his only daughter. "I can think of nothing that we might do to help her."
Marianna felt angry and humiliated that she should be discussed in such a way, yet she sensed they meant well. A feeling of injustice burned within her.
"It is obvious," George declared with the air of one who has that rare ability to see to the heart of a matter. "Someone else must locate the sapphires for her." He glanced around the group to see if the others agreed with him.
"What a capital idea, George. But who can accomplish such a difficult task?" inquired his aunt with a sly little smile hidden behind her favorite white fan.
George glanced at his aunt, then at the lovely Marianna. "I shall. But I will need your help. Miss Wyndham."
"I believe that as our families are old friends and you have known her for donkey's years, you can dispense with the formalities, George. First names are such a nice way of conversing." Lavinia looked at her friend, Lady Wyndham, to see a mutual gleam surface momentarily. "What do you propose, George, dear?" Lavinia didn't believe in wasting precious moments.
"Time is of the essence. The sooner we tackle this nasty accusation, the better. We shall take my diving boat down the coast to wherever it can be closest to her old school." He looked to Marianna to supply the location.
"Miss Chudleigh chose to situate the school in Lowestoft. 'Tis a small town, but it has much traffic, and gentry send their children from quite a distance. I suspect one reason she selected Lowestoft is that costs are much cheaper there." There was a hint of bitterness about Marianna's mouth that soon faded as she looked about the circle of friends and parents. How comforting to think she had a champion, though he did not resemble her notion of Saint George in the least. There was nothing saintly about his appearance.
"Excellent from our point of view," George said, quite pleased his scheme would work.
"And is your diving boat called a dragon?" Marianna said, thinking that if he was to be her champion, his boat might as well have a companion name.
Sir Alex caught her meaning at once. "George and his dragon? Oh, I say, very good, Miss Wyndham. Very good." He grinned at her with great charm, a bit sorry she had eyes only for George. But then, he always felt more at ease with young women who didn't appear on the hunt for a husband.
"Call me Marianna, please. If you are to be a part of the rescue of my good name, we will become quite close, I expect. Although I am not certain about traveling on that boat." She looked to George for the answer to this query.
"Oh, it is fast and quite safe," Aunt Lavinia declared. "I believe I'd best go along, to provide a character witness, don't you think? And chaperone as well, of course. I shall be able to testify I have known Marianna since she was an infant, her family as well. I daresay that as the sister of the Earl of Cranswick, prominent personage in the government, my word shall not be ignored." She tilted up her nose in a haughty manner, then winked at Marianna.
That young woman gave a soft laugh. How glad she was that she hadn't slipped off a rock this morning. Of a sudden, the world had taken on a happier glow. Turning her eyes to the person who offered to solve her dilemma, she sighed. This scheme did not promise to be the easiest path. She could foresee a difficulty or two along the way, not the least of which was that she was attracted to George and he ... Well, George, Viscount Barringer, was a hopeless case.
Every woman in the area had long given up on him. Marianna would ignore him the best she could. The important thing was to recover those sapphires and prove her innocence. Until then, she was beyond the pale for anyone.