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The steel of the younger man's foil made an arc against the padded waistcoat of his opponent and sprang back into shape, its point lowered to the ground. Laughing at his own failure, the Marquess of Sheen threw up an arm to acknowledge the scattered applause. "Well done, my boy," he called, passing his foil to the appreciative fencing master. "Am I ever going to beat you again, I wonder?"
"Not if I can help it, sir," said Lord Nicholas Elyot, removing his mask. "It's taken me long enough to get to this stage."He shook his father's offered hand, admiring the agility of the fifty-two-year-old body as well as the strength in his fingers, the keen brown eyes, the quick reflexes. As usual, he failed to perceive their similarities in the same way that others did, particularly Mr O'Shaunessy, the proprieter, who could see in Lord Elyot an exact replica of his father at the age of thirty, tall and broad-shouldered, slender-hipped and lithe, with legs like a Greek god. The dark, almost black hair that tousled thickly about the son's handsome face was, on the Marquess, as white as snow and still as dense, and the mouths that broke into sympathetic smiles would have stopped the heart and protests of any woman. As they often had; both of them.
They sat together to watch the next contestants, the Marquess leaning back against the wall, his son leaning forward with arms along thighs. "Not below par, are you, Father?" said Lord Elyot.
There was a huff of denial. "Nay, I could claim that as an excuse but it ain't so, m'boy. Never better. Top form. M'mind on too many things at once, I suppose."The Marquess glanced at his son's strong profile. "Well, I have to make up some reason, don't I?"
Lord Elyot leaned back. "Only this once, sir. Where's the problem, Richmond or London?"
"Richmond, Nick. You say you're going back tomorrow?" "Yes, a few loose ends to tie up here first, then I'll be off. It's been almost five weeks. Time I was attending to things."
"Petticoat problems, is it? You still seeing that Selina Whatsit?"
"Miss Selena Whatsit," said Nick, "departed my company weeks ago, Father. You're way out of date." He began to unbutton his shirt.
"By how many?" "Oh, I dunno. A few. Thing is, I think it's time our Seton was taken back home before he strays into dun territory. No, don't be alarmed, he ain't there yet, but he soon will be if he stays here in London much longer. There's plenty to keep him occupied in Richmond. He can do the rounds with me and the bailiff and the steward for a start, and get some good air into his lungs. I can find ways of keeping his hands out of his breeches pockets."
"You might want him to help you with a bit of investigating too, in that case. That may keep him busy."
"What's to do, sir? Poachers again?" "No, nothing so simple. Some complaints from the Vestry about interference in parish affairs."
"By whom?" "Ah, well, that's the problem, you see. They don't know. Let's go and get changed and I'll tell you about it."
As with other noblemen who took their role in society seriously, the Marquess of Sheen, whose ancestral home was at Richmond, in the county of Surrey, had several professional obligations, one of which was to King George III to whom he was Assistant Master of Horse, and another to the Bench where he sat as Justice of the Peace. The obligation to his estate at Richmond was administered in his absence by his eldest son, Lord Nicholas Elyot, who would have to perform those same duties sooner or later anyway, so had no objection to taking that particular burden off his father's shoulders. Only a two-hour drive away from London, on a good day, Richmond lay further up the River Thames, and its parish council, the Vestry, was made up of stalwart citizens of good standing, including the church minister, the local schoolmaster, landowners and the squire, who was the Marquess himself. The Vestry's purpose was to deal with matters like street-lighting and the maintenance of roads, fires, crime and poverty. Criminals, who were almost always poor also, were locked into the local pound until they could be sentenced, while other unfortunates were sent to the workhouse, which, although it provided shelter and food, usually did little else for their creature comforts. It was regarded as a last resort.
"Somebody," said the Marquess, "is playing a deep game, bribing the workhouse staff to release two young women in the family way who've only just been admitted."
"And the Vestry don't know who it is?"
"Nope. Mind you, they've been pocketing the blunt fast enough and not asking too many questions, but it's got to be stopped, Nick. Apart from that, one or two debtors and a child have been sneaked out of the pound at night, and nobody knows who's responsible. No law against paying a debtor's debts to get 'em released, as you know, but it has to be done through the proper channels, not by forcing the padlocks or slipping a fistful o'town bronze to the night doorman. It's got to stop,"he repeated.
"So you want me to find out who's behind it. Could it be a member of the Vestry, d'ye think? Someone with a grudge?"
"I doubt it. The Vestry have complained to me, so what I'm after is some juicy background information on whoever it is, enough toerpersuade them to go and do their good turns somewhere else. I don't want to raise the hue and cry about it, just a little discreet blackmail will do. A threat of prosecution, if you like. It is an offence, after all."
"Is it?" Nick smiled. "Oh, yes. Abduction," said the Marquess, airily. "And perverting the course of justice, too."
"Coming it a bit strong, Father?" "Weell, maybe. But I can't have the Vestry upset. They run the show while I'm here, you know. Special headquarters on Paradise Road. They like to be seen to be effective."
"Which I'm sure they are, sir. I'll look into it immediately. Shouldn't take long. I'll let you know."Nick shrugged his substantial shoulders into the immaculate dark grey morning coat and allowed the valet to adjust the lapels, the cuffs, the waistcoat and snowy neckcloth with fastidious care. Looking down at his glossy black Hessians, he indicated a speck of dust on one toe. The valet dropped to his knees to attend to it, then stood to hand Lord Elyot a beaver hat, a pair of soft kid gloves and a polished cane with a silver knob.
"Shall we see you at St James's Square for dinner?" said the Marquess.
"I'm not sure, sir. Shall I let you know later?" "Of course. And don't forget your sister's birthday this month."
"Heavens! Is it August already?" "No, m'boy, it's been September these last two days." "Really? How old is she?" "Lord, lad! How should I know?Ask your mother at dinner." They parted with a bow and a look that was not nearly as serious as their mutual ignorance of family birthdays would suggest.
Within the shining reflective precincts of Rundell, Bridge and Rundell on Ludgate Hill, the atmosphere was hushed, even churchlike, where white-aproned black-vested assistants spoke in reverential whispers, bowed, smiled and agreed with their well-heeled patrons who could afford not to notice the price of the wares. It would have been of little use to pass the doorman if money was a problem, for Rundell's was the most fashionable goldsmith in London where nothing came cheap and where, if it had, none of their customers would want to buy it.
That much Lady Amelie Chester had gathered from the pages of the Ladies' Magazine, and she had made a point of not returning from her first visit to the capital without seeing for herself what all the fuss was about. She had kept her barouche waiting for the best part of an hour while her coachman had driven the length of Ludgate and back several times so as not to keep the horses standing too long, and still there were choices to be made and the wink of a jewel to catch her eye. The ridiculously brief list she had brought had long since been discarded. She smiled at her two companions who
hovered nearby, clearly not as enamoured by the Aladdin's Cave as she was.
The plainly dressed one holding a Kashmir shawl over one arm smiled back. "Miss Chester is getting a bit fidgety, my lady," she whispered, glancing at the girlish frills and bows disappearing behind a glass cabinet.
Miss Caterina Chester, the bored seventeen-year-old niece of the avid purchaser, had at last seen something she liked, which could best be observed through a display of silver candlesticks and cruets. Two men had stepped into the shop to stand quietly talking long enough for her to see that they were related, that one was perhaps nearing thirty, the other his junior by a few years. Both, without question, were veritable blades of distinction, the best she had seen all day. And she had been looking, almost without let-up.
Her practised young eye knew exactly what to expect from a pink of the ton; nothing flamboyant, everything perfectly cut, clean, stylish and fitting like a second skin over muscled thighs and slim hips and, although there would be some gathering at the top of the sleeves, there must be no hint of padding or corseting. These two were true nonpareils.
They were a comely pair, too, she told herself, comparing them. The elder one with the more authoritative air would have been in the army, she guessed, while the other, like herself, would be thinking that he could find more interesting things to do than this. Of one fact she was sure, however: neither of them would be in Rundell, Bridge and Rundell's unless they had wealth.
It was inevitable, she knew, that their attention would veer like a weathervane towards her aunt, Lady Amelie Chester, who had turned so many heads that day it was a wonder they had stayed on shoulders. No matter where she went, or did, or didn't do, for that matter, men would stare, nudge and whistle rudely through their teeth at Aunt Amelie. Envious women looked for weaknesses in her appearance and gave up in disgust that the dice could be so heavily loaded in one person's favour.
Watching them carefully, Caterina saw the younger man's lips form a pucker, putting his hand to the quizzing-glass that hung upon his buff waistcoat and dropping it again at the three quiet words from his companion. Then, like cats stalking a kill, they moved nearer.
Lady Chester had come to a decision and, in a state of near euphoria, was oblivious to all else. Having recently rid herself of an old-fashioned teapoy on a leggy stand, she was delighted to have found a small silver caddy made by the Batemans, topped with an acorn finial and handled with ivory. Before the enraptured assistant had finished praising her choice, she spied a beehive-shaped gilt honey pot with a bee on top. Her gloved fingers caressed its ridges. "This," she said, "is perfect."
"Paul Storr, m'lady," the assistant smirked. "We hope to acquire more of his work in the future. It came in only yesterday."
"Then I'm sure it will be happy in Richmond," she said. "Add it to the others, if you please. I'll take it."
The elder of the two men moved forward. "Richmond?" he said. "I thought I knew everyone in Richmond. I beg your pardon, ma'am. We have not been introduced, but pray allow me to take the liberty of performing my own introduction, since there is no one else to do it for me. Nicholas Elyot at your service. And my brother, Seton Rayne."
The assistant intervened. "My lords," he said, bowing. "Amelie Chester."Amelie dipped a curtsy of just the correct depth while Caterina moved round the glass case to watch, fascinated and not too proud to learn a thing or two about howAunt Amelie caused men to vie for her attention. One day, she would do the same. Her aunt neither smiled nor simpered as so many women did to gain a man's interest, Caterina noticed, watching the graceful incline of her head. A soft-brimmed velvet hat covered the rich brown hair escaping in wayward spirals around her ears to accentuate the smooth peachy skin over high cheekbones. Her eyes were bewitchingly dark and almond-shaped, her brows fine and delicately arched, and there was no feature, thought Caterina, that needed the aid of cosmetics.
On the verge of leaving half-mourning behind her, Lady Chester's pelisse was of three-quarter-length pale violet velvet with a swansdown collar worn over a silver-grey silk day dress. The edges of the velvet sleeves were caught together at intervals with covered buttons, and a capacious reticule of matching beaded velvet hung from one arm. The only ornament on the rather masculine hat was a large silver buckle into which was tucked a piece of swansdown, and the effect of all this on the two men, Caterina thought, was as much a sight to behold as her aunt's classic elegance. Surreptitiously, she removed the fussy lace tippet from around her shoulders that she had insisted on wearing and passed it to Lise, her aunt's maid.
The brothers removed their tall hats and bowed in unison. "You are staying here in London, my lady?" said Lord Elyot.
His voice, she thought, was like dark brown chocolate. "No, my lord. Only to shop. We must leave soon, now the days are shortening," she said.
"Indeed. You'll need all the light we have left. Have you been long in Richmond? How could we have missed seeing you there?"
A smile lit up the almond eyes at last with the lift of her brow. "As to that, sir, anyone could miss us quite easily, even at church. My niece and I have seen little of society since we arrived. May I introduce her to you? Miss Caterina Chester."
At last, Caterina's moment had arrived. She stepped forward from her vantage point to make the prettiest bob she could devise while she had their entire attention and, though she ought to have kept her eyes demurely lowered, her natural urge to discover what effect she was having got the better of her.
"My lords," she whispered, allowing her bright goldenbrown eyes to reach the younger lord's attentive face for another glimpse of his crisp dark thatch before he replaced his hat. It seemed to fall quite naturally into the correct disorder but his eyes, she noticed, held only a neutral attempt at friendship before focussing once more upon her aunt. Inwardly, she sighed.
Lord Elyot, however, saw that one of his queries had been avoided. "Is your stay in Richmond permanent, Miss Chester?" he said.
"Oh, yes, my lord. We've been there only five weeks and two days and there's such a lot for us yet to see."And do, she thought. Again, her gaze turned hopefully in Lord Rayne's direction, but noticed only the quizzical nature of his examination of her over-frilled and beribboned day dress and braided spencer, her flower-bedecked bonnet and the lace gloves that she had believed were all the thing. Until now.