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'So, I'm to see the wee lass for myself at last, am I?' the Duke of Lauderdale asked his Duchess, supporting her as they took the first step down the grand staircase. Automatically, his Scottish parsimony showed as his heavy-lidded eyes caught the lavish gilding over the carved wooden panels. 'How much did you say this cost?'
'Gilding doesn't come cheap, my lord. Even as a girl, I longed for these shields and helmets and things to be painted. Plain wood can be so dull. As for Phoebe, you must not think I've been keeping her from meeting you, you know. No such thing. But if I told her you'd be here, she'd turn round and go straight back to Mortlake like a hare with a pack of hounds on its tail. Thing is, I think it's time something was done about it after three years.'
'About what? Leo? You matchmaking again, Duchess? If so, I think you might be wasting your time. They canna stand the sight of each other.'
'They're both still unmarried, John. That tells me something.'
They had reached an angle in the staircase just out of sight from above or below when John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, caught his wife round her stiffly boned waist, as she knew he would, and pulled her against him with all the vigour of a man thirty years younger. He was, in fact, fifty-nine years old. The Duchess was forty-nine, both of them more enamoured by their second spouses than ever they'd been by their first, despite the eleven pregnancies she'd endured as the wife of Sir Lionel Tollemache.
'Elizabeth,' he growled in the Scottish brogue that had steadfastly spurned the polish of the English court, 'gimme a kiss, woman, and stop yer scheming a while. Leo's never been short of women, you know that.'
'It's not your Leo I care about, my dear,' she tried to say before her reply was stopped by a smothering kiss that tasted of porridge, smoked bacon and everything break-fasty. She didn't mind the taste at all. In four years of marriage, it was John's enforced absences at court and in Scotland that she disliked most. As Secretary of State for Scotland, he was often obliged to be away for weeks, hence his need to make up for the time he'd lost out of her arms. Yes, she could tolerate his healthy appetites as well as he could tolerate hers, even her appetite for ostentation.
'Four years, and I'm still like a green lad with you, lass.'
Elizabeth smiled against his warm cheek. 'Oh, I wouldn't say that, my lord. There was nothing of the green lad about you last night, was there? Will you be around when Mistress Laker arrives?'
'Aye, if you wish it. Or shall we let Leo meet her alone?'
She held him away, carefully removing a pale red hair from his shoulder that obviously did not belong to his periwig. 'Don't be provoking, dreadful man. Of course we shall not. You and I will be there together, and Leo can appear later on. She knows he'll be here, if you are.'
Sir Leo Hawkynne, personal assistant and secretary to the Duke of Lauderdale, was as Scottish as his master although, being thirty years his junior, had become more flexible and receptive to all the courtesies that oiled diplomatic wheels and soothed sensitive egos. There had been times in the past, however, when his natural northern tendency for blunt speaking had earned him enemies, which concerned him more than the Duke's notorious tactlessness. One such occasion had been three years ago when a chance remark had tripped thoughtlessly off Leo's tongue in relation to Mistress Phoebe Laker which she, understandably, had taken exception to as soon as she'd heard it from green-eyed gossips. There had been little love lost between them even before this incident, and less so afterwards, but the repercussions had been tragic, to say the least, since when Phoebe had only visited Elizabeth at Ham House when she knew the Duke and his faithful secretary would not be in residence. To Phoebe's mind, Scotland was not too far away for them.
'As you wish. There's some paperwork for him to do in my library.' The Duke took her hand again, leading her down to the great hall where a large billiard table occupied the centre of the black-and-white marble floor. A fire burned in the iron fireplace on the largest wall, even though it was June, and on the mantelshelf stood two large plaster figures in Graeco-Roman helmets, their scanty drapes defying gravity. Mars and Minerva, Elizabeth had explained to her husband's initial and not altogether polite astonishment, based on her own mother and father, the first Earl and Countess of Dysart. As the eldest daughter, Elizabeth was now a Countess in her own right, since the Scottish title was allowed to pass into the female line, but the higher-ranking title of Duchess was the one by which she had been known these last four years.
'Good,' she said. 'Then keep him there till I give the word. Phoebe has not seen all the latest additions yet.'
'No more have I,' said the Duke. 'Whose idea was the billiard table?'
Elizabeth could see the expenses adding up inside his head, and was quick to forestall the inevitable questions. 'It was mine, John. It's for you. Oh, dear, you're not going to chide me for overspending, are you? It has to look right, dear, after all the rebuilding. It's no use hoping the royals will stay, is it, if we don't offer them the very best?'
'Och, lassie! I've never chided you on that, have I? The place badly needed more rooms and a wee lick o' paint, I know, and you had to replace the plate that was melted doon for the last King's war. Is that why you've invited your friends over, so they can take a peek at all your newest gee-gaws?'
Patting her bunched red-gold ringlets, Elizabeth frowned at a footman who appeared at the outer door. 'No, not entirely. I asked Phoebe again because her mama and I were good friends, and because I promised her I'd keep an eye on Phoebe if anything should happen. Well, it did, didn't it? So I've kept my promise. What is it, man?' she snapped at the hovering footman who had opened and closed the door several times while she was talking. 'You can see what? Oh, my lord!'
Through the wobbly green-glass squares of the hall windows, the dark shape of a coach and two horses had appeared as if from nowhere, though the drive leading from the road was clearly visible all the way down to the river. Guessing that his orders were about to change, the footman threw open the heavy doors just in time for her Grace's voluminous green-brocade skirts to squeeze through the gap and for her to sweep down the first shallow flight of steps before halting uncertainly.
Hesitation was not one of Elizabeth's besetting sins, yet the events she was sure she'd timed to perfection had not taken account of Mistress Laker's enthusiasm and now, instead of the two antogonists being kept apart until the precise moment their hostess decreed, they were there, facing each other like two cats in a stand-off, bristling with surprise.
Yet it was Elizabeth's appearance that redirected Mistress Laker's attention from the uncomfortable situation in which neither she nor Sir Leo had offered a single word of greeting. Having arrived on the scene too late to make himself useful, Sir Leo bowed as she emerged like a beautiful butterfly from the low-slung coach, the floating blue-and-silver tissue that trailed from one silk-clad shoulder adding to the illusion. Her neat ankles disappeared beneath the hem of the deep blue silk skirt, her feet encased in shoes of matching blue satin with silver buckles. Froths of white lace spilled out of her sleeves, and a sapphire winked from somewhere as it caught the sun. She was, he thought, even lovelier than he remembered her and probably even more prickly with three extra years of practice since they had last met. Fashions had evolved at the pace of King Charles II's mistresses, the latest one from France, and Mistress Phoebe Laker had kept up with them with very little effort. Her abundant black ringlets needed neither curl-papers nor extra hair to bulk them out, as others did. They bounced as she walked, framing the perfect oval of her face with coiled wisps like watch-springs, and the delicate arch of her eyebrows lifted a fraction as she ran towards her friend. There were twenty-six years between them, but they embraced like sisters.
'Dearest Phoebe. what a delight!'
'My dear lady, I know I'm early but I couldn't wait. I made Sam Coachman hurry the horses, poor things. Do forgive me.'
'Forgive you indeed! We're all on tenterhooks, my dear. Sir Leo could hardly wait for you to arrive.'
'Really? How sweet.' Phoebe laughed, glancing over one shoulder at the athletic figure sending the coachman and her lady's maid round to the side. 'But if I'd known he'd.'
'Yes, dear,' Elizabeth cut short the protest, 'but it's been four years since our wedding and you still have not met my Duke. See, here he is. Allow me to present you. My lord?' she said, beckoning to her husband who ambled down the steps. 'Mistress Phoebe Laker, my favourite neighbour.' The wedding had been a very private affair conducted only two months after the death of the first duchess. There had been talk, of course.
'Aboot time too, lass!' the Duke bellowed, bowing.
Phoebe's curtsy was appropriately low and graceful as she took stock of the great man who was a member of King Charles's inner circle of ministers, an active, scholarly and energetic man for all his size, typically hard-living, respected but not universally adored. His large loose features were crowded by a long mouse-brown periwig that flapped upon his shoulders as he came to stand erect. But there was nothing of the sloven about him: his Duchess had seen to that.
The hooded eyes took in everything about her at one glance, and Phoebe knew he would have been made aware of her antipathy towards his secretary for, as she came up from her curtsy, she saw that the two men's eyes had met over the top of her head. 'Your Grace,' she murmured, deciding against offering her cheek for him to kiss until she could be more sure of him.
The Duke was not one to mince his words. 'A fine bonny lass,' he said. 'I can see now why my Duchess has kept ye out of my sight for sae long. Welcome to Ham Hoose, Mistress Laker. Sir Leo, come ye here, man, and make your courtesies as if ye meant it.'
Smiling ruefully at the command, Sir Leo came forwards. 'Mistress Laker and I met some years ago, my lord. Your servant, ma'am.' Whether tinged with cynicism or not, none of them could tell, but his bow was lower than his master's and made with an extravagant sweep of his arm, with an ostrich-plumed hat to make it even more so. He rose only a second later than Phoebe from her shallow curtsy, his deep brown eyes holding hers, allowing them to reveal the clear memory of what had passed between them to cause her such appalling heartache. It had not been her doing but his, and clearly she had not forgiven him. Her cold eyes told him so, but she could not, as a guest, impose this upon her hosts.
Nevertheless, she could renew her own memory of his heart-stopping good looks in one dismissive glance. As usual, he scorned to wear a wig, his own dark glossy thatch being swept back from a high intelligent forehead in deep waves that overlapped the tops of his ears, gathered at the nape of his neck by a dark ribbon. Ribbon bunches fluttered from shoulders, neck and boots, red against the long charcoal-grey vest, coat and breeches with gold buttons by the yard on deep braided pockets, deep cuffs above the elbows, puffs of white linen shirt below, and a fall of fine lace over his knuckles, a leather sword-belt slung across his chest. Instead of plain hose and buckled shoes, he wore brown leather bucket-top boots with red heels, and Phoebe could just see the lace tops to his hose nestling inside them. His well-paid position permitted him to adopt the latest styles, but he was more than capable of setting his own for others to follow. The spurs on his boots suggested that he intended to ride.
'If you were about to ride out, Sir Leo, please don't let my arrival detain you,' Phoebe said, knowing that her tone was betraying her.
The Duke was soothing. 'Whisht, lass,' he said. 'Dinna send him off sae soon, not before he's'
'Yes, dear,' interrupted the Duchess, catching his drift, 'but first Mistress Laker will wish to take a little refreshment after her journey.' She took Phoebe by the hand. 'Come, my dear. Did you not bring Mrs Overshott with you this time? Or did she go round with your luggage?'
'No, my lady, a slight indisposition, that's all, so I told her I could manage well enough with you to chaperon me, this time. She sends her regards, and her apologies. She would like to have seen the newest alterations. You've had the gardens restyled too, have you not?' Her glance round from the top of the steps at the green lawns and flowerbeds happened to collide with Sir Leo's which, far from being subdued by her icy manner, was regarding her with a directness that made her blink and turn away in some confusion. You will not dismiss me as easily as that, it said. If you don't like my being here, you'll have to get used to it.
'Indeed I have,' said the Duchess, giving her skirts a shake. 'Even the Duke has not seen the latest changes. He and Sir Leo arrived only last night.'
'Oh, I see. Then ?'
Just behind her shoulder, Sir Leo gave a huff of laughter as he answered. 'No, mistress, we shall not be going anywhere. Not for a wee while. Did you hope we would?'
'Of course she didn't, Leo. Don't be so provoking. Now, which of you gallant gentlemen is going to open the door? What in heaven's name is the matter with the footmen today? Thank you.'
Sweeping through into the great hall, the sudden change of light sent a cold shiver down Phoebe's arms, and the event to which she had looked forward with such eagerness now took on all the aspects of a burden to which, yet again, she would have to bring all her reserves of light-hearted-ness in order to convince those around her that she was carefree.