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"There," Sybilla said, leaning into the case of the highly polished mahogany pianoforte and pointing. "That hammer's got something stuck to it. Hold the lid with both hands now, Sydney, for if you drop it on me, I shall never forgive you."
The tall, slender, foppishly attired gentleman leaning over her sighed but obliged her by holding the lid up with both hands. "I shall no doubt break a fingernail or strain a muscle, Sybilla darling, but I shan't repine, I promise you, so long as no one else observes my exertions on your behalf. 'Twould destroy a reputation I have been at some pains to cultivate. Moreover, I should like to point out to you that if I do drop this lid, you won't be saying much of anything, since its weight would most likely render you unconscious. In any case, 'tis my belief that you would do better to repair your prop stick than to muck about with hammers and strings, and in a white muslin frock at that. What can you possibly know about the insides of a pianoforte?"
She straightened, pushing an errant strand of copper-colored hair out of her face with one hand and smiling at him with satisfaction as she held up a clump of collected dust in the other. "Only listen to the difference now, doubter." But as she turned toward the stool, movement in the open doorway caused her to glance that way.
Her husband stood upon the threshold.
"Ned!" Her hazel eyes lit briefly with pleasure, but the look was quickly replaced by wariness when she noted his angry expression. "What are you doing here?" she demanded, stepping instinctively in front of Sydney, who regarded Ramsbury over her shoulder with visibly dawning awareness of his identity.
Glaring at him, Ramsbury snapped, "Your porter told me I should surprise you if I came straight up, Sybilla, and I see he was in the right of it. What the devil is that painted puppy doing here alone with you?"
"Mr. Saint-Denis," she said calmly, "is not a painted puppy, and he was helping me fix the pianoforte. One of the keys was making a thumping noise instead of sounding its proper note."
"There are persons, I believe, who attend to that sort of thing for a living," Ramsbury pointed out. "This fribble can know nothing about it, in any case."
Sydney straightened to his full height, which was not much less than Ramsbury's six feet plus, and made a minute adjustment to his high, well-starched neckcloth with the tip of one slender finger. "I collect that you are Ramsbury, sir, and I daresay that my presence here does not look well to you, but I can assure you that I am neither fribble nor puppy, painted or otherwise. Nor, of course, can I claim to know a thing about repairing musical instruments, but as you see, my skill was needed for nothing more difficult than to prevent the lid from falling upon your ever-capable lady while she attended to the problem."
Then, although Ramsbury's lips tightened ominously, Mr. Saint-Denis stepped past Sybilla, extracting a metal-veneered snuffbox inlaid with gold from the pocket of his colorfully embroidered waistcoat. Holding the box out, he flicked the lid open with a neat, well-practiced gesture. "Two compartments, my lord, as you see, so that you may take your choice. Fine on the right and coarse on the left. The same mixture, of course, and—as I need hardly say—unscented."
With a sound like a snarl, Ramsbury took a step toward him, but again Sybilla slipped between them, lifting her chin to glare up at her husband, who was some six or seven inches taller than she.
While Ramsbury glowered back at her, Sydney said plaintively over her shoulder, "'Tis very good snuff—a little hobby of mine, you know. Learned all about it when I visited China two years ago. Fascinating business. I grate the Morocco myself, and I promise you, I take very good care of all my snuff. Never allow it to become dry or to get too close to another mixture that might taint the essence or ..." His voice trailed away to silence when the others paid him no heed.
Ramsbury, still glaring at Sybilla, appeared not to have heard him at all, but Sybilla turned and patted his shoulder. "Never mind, Sydney. Do not heed his bad manners or his temper, I beg you. Ramsbury only looks as though he eats people. He never really does so. He will be leaving soon, in any event, and then we may be comfortable again. And," she added, turning back to her husband, "there is no use looking at me as though you would like to strangle me, Ned, because that look has never impressed me as much as it seems to impress others. Indeed, it has always seemed a great pity to me that you lacked an older sister to smack you from time to time when you were young."
"I doubt that she would have been allowed to smack me," he said, rising to the bait as he always seemed to do with her.
"No, that is very true. You were always petted, were you not, just because you were the heir. Poor Charlie, though he occupies the same position in our family, was never allowed to think so highly of himself. What with Papa caring not a whit about such things and Mama spending most of her time in bed because of being with child again almost immediately afterward, Charlie was left to me and the nursemaids to raise."
"I doubt, even as meddlesome as you are, Syb, and as indispensable as you believe yourself to be to this household, that you had much to do with the raising of Charlie at that age or any other," Ramsbury said scornfully.
"You are perfectly right," she agreed again, "for of course I am only a year older than he is. And despite Mama's seeming always to be in the family way, you know, Mally did not come along until two years after Charlie. And dearest Brandon two years after that."
"Your family history must always be of considerable interest to others, my dear," he said softly, "but it is not necessary to repeat it to me. I know it only too well. Mr. Saint-Denis," he added, turning to that gentleman, "I am persuaded that you will forgive me if I request some moments of privacy with my wife."
"Certainly," Sydney said, snapping his snuffbox shut again and snatching up a curly-brimmed beaver and his gloves from a nearby chair. Then, nothing daunted, he turned to make a graceful leg, first to Sybilla and then to Ramsbury. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lord. We must take a hand of piquet together one evening."
Ramsbury's only response was a sardonic twist of his lips, but the moment Sydney had shut the door, he turned on Sybilla. "You've shot your bolt this time, my girl. That man's a certifiable lunatic."
"Don't be absurd, Ned. Sydney is one of my most faithful cicisbei, and I won't allow you to abuse him."
"I'll say what I please, Sybilla. Though you generally choose to ignore the fact, you are still my—" He broke off abruptly when the door opened again to admit a footman, whose alert expression promptly grew wooden when the earl's head whipped around. "What the devil do you want, Robert?"
Nothing daunted, the footman turned calmly to his mistress. "Would m'lady care to have refreshment served?"
Ramsbury snapped, "No, she would not."
"Yes, please," Sybilla said sweetly. "I believe that his lordship's temper would be the better for a composer. Do you bring him a glass of my father's best claret, if you please."
Ramsbury opened his mouth and shut it again, and when the footman had gone, Sybilla smiled and sat on the piano stool. "I thought you would not refuse a glass of Papa's claret, Ned." Without waiting for a reply, she placed her hands at the keyboard and played a few chords, filling the room with the rich full tones of the pianoforte and showing the considerable skill for which she was accustomed to be much praised.
Ramsbury moved past the curved front of the pianoforte to look out the window, making no attempt to interrupt the music, but Sybilla did not play for long. When she had heard enough to satisfy her that there was nothing further amiss with the instrument, she settled her hands in her lap, looked up at him, and said, "That is much better. It sounded dreadful before."
"No doubt." He returned her gaze then for a long moment, his expression unreadable, before he said abruptly, "Look here, Syb, I've got to talk to you. I've found out, you know, and it's no good. I can't allow you to—"
"Can't allow me, Ned?" Her firm chin lifted obstinately. "You have pretty well given up any right to allow or not allow, I should think. Not only did you behave badly before we decided we did not suit, but you have gone your own route since, doing as you please, caring for naught but your own pleasure and perhaps that of that harpy, Fanny Mandeville—"
"We will leave Lady Mandeville's name out of this discussion," he said harshly. "You were mistaken—"
"Mistaken?" Sybilla's arched brows rose in disbelief. "There was little room for error, if you will recall. You were quite alone with her when I walked into that room. Your arms were twined around her, and—"
"I have said we will not discuss her," he cut harshly. "I came here today to demand an—"
"Demand?" Sybilla shook her head. "I no longer recognize your right to make demands of me, Ned. You gave up that right when you left our home—"
"I did not leave by choice, for God's sa—"
"You left," she insisted, "and you have done nothing since then to demonstrate concern for my well-being or—"
"Leave it!" He took a menacing step toward her, but she did not flinch. Even when he clenched his fists, she did not react but only continued to gaze at him with an air of curious interest. "Damn it, Syb, that look alone is enough to drive a man to a frenzy. If I were a violent sort ..."
"You put your fist through our bedchamber door once, as I recall," she observed reminiscently.
He growled, but although the temptation to shake her showed clearly in his expression, he restrained himself, and when Robert entered again a few seconds later, accompanied by a maidservant carrying a tray, Ramsbury was able to turn back toward the window with as much dignity as if what they had been discussing had been of no particular moment.
Sybilla gestured toward the mahogany Pembroke table in front of the fireplace, and the footman directed the maidservant to set the tray upon it.
"Will that be all, m'lady?" he inquired.
"Yes, thank you." She watched Ramsbury, who had not moved from his place near the window until the servants had gone. Then, thinking she would do well to calm him a bit if she was ever going to find out what was wrong, she said quietly, "Perhaps you would like me to pour your wine for you."
"I'll do it," he said, rousing himself from his thoughtful pose and moving toward the table. "We have to talk, Syb."
"About what? You said you had found me out, but I don't know what you can—"
"Don't," he said, looking directly at her. He held the decanter in one hand and his glass in the other, but he paused now without pouring. "I know, I tell you, so it is of no use—"
"But there can be nothing to know. I've scarcely laid eyes upon you, after all, in a twelvemonth, and even when I was in London before Christmas—"
"The less said about that, the better," he muttered. "Your behavior then certainly left a great deal to be desired."
"Why, whatever can you mean?" she asked demurely, only to add immediately and on a gurgle of laughter, "No, no, do not look at me like that. I will agree that had we still been living together, my little flirtations—"
"Little?" But his expression relaxed, and he poured his wine at last, then gestured toward the tray. "Do you want a cup of this tea Robert brought you?"
"Yes, please." She got up and moved to sit in one of the pair of gilt-wood Hepplewhite chairs flanking the table. "Why is it that we can never talk together without quarreling, Ned, as we were used to do? Do you remember how it was when I was in London with Aunt Eliza before she died?"
"I remember." He set down the decanter and his glass and lifted the teapot. "That was before my father took a hand in things. You had more beauty and poise than all the others put together and more charm in one finger—"
"I was older than the others," she pointed out with a grimace, remembering the pangs of that first Season, when her aunt had insisted that she and her sister go to London at last and leave her father for two months with only the servants to look after him. "I was nearly twenty-two."
"The others were hags," he said. "I remember."
"But you wanted no part of me after your father decided that the wealthy Sir Mortimer Manningford's daughter would make you a good match, and I doubt you think about me much now, either, especially when you are with the Mandeville—"
"I said I don't wish to discuss her, but you are wr—"
"No, you never wish to discuss your peccadilloes, only mine," she snapped. "And I do not wish to discuss those, so we shall soon run out of conversation. Are you going to pour that tea for me or only hold the pot until it turns quite cold?"
With a sigh, he poured tea into a china cup and handed it to her. Then, moving away again, he said abruptly, "Whether you wish to discuss this matter or not, we must. And you would do well to remember that I am still your husband, Sybilla. Like it or not, that position gives me certain rights under the law that you will not wish me to exercise."
She stiffened. "Are you threatening to beat me, Ned? For if you are, I will remind you that you are not under your own roof but my father's, where you have but little authority."
He grimaced. "Despite extreme provocation on more than one occasion, I believe I have never yet beaten you."
"But you have wanted to." Her cup of tea forgotten, she glared at him, challenging him to deny it.
He didn't. "Dammit, Sybilla, you would try a saint. Even you must own that much."
"I own no such thing, and if you have come here only to insult me, you may take yourself off again!"
"You won't be rid of me so easily as that, I'm afraid. Did you think my mother would not tell me? She didn't want to, and had you remained in London as she expected she would perhaps have kept her secret longer, but you cannot wonder at it—"
"If you do not come to the point, I shall scream," Sybilla snapped with sharp exasperation. "What secret has your mother revealed? That I have not written her in a twelvemonth? That may be an exaggeration, of course, but she does exaggerate from time to time, and I should certainly not quibble over a m—"
"A twelvemonth?" With a derisive look, he moved toward her again. "You say you have not written her in all that time?"
The note of sarcasm in his voice stirred her temper even more, but she managed to control it, saying with forced calm, "Well, I did not say that precisely, of course, and the fact is that I cannot recall when I last wrote her, so I am in a poor position to debate the matter with you. I hope I did not write something to offend her, but if I did, it was unintentional and the fault of my idiotish pen. Everyone knows I hate writing letters. You certainly know."
"I do," he agreed, "but you seem to have brought yourself up to scratch a number of times these past months. Do you not realize that you have had nearly five hundred pounds from her?"
"Five hundred!" Her eyes widened as she shook her head in denial. "She cannot say she has sent me so much as that!"
The harshness in his countenance became more marked than ever, and he loomed over her menacingly. A lesser woman might have cowered in her chair. Sybilla did not, but she did regard him more warily. He had never raised a hand to her, though she knew well that she had often provoked him to a point where many another husband might have done so. And although Ramsbury had not, he had reacted angrily enough on more than one occasion to send icy prickles racing up her spine. Their bedchamber door was not the only inanimate object to have suffered from his temper, but she had never had any real cause to fear him.
He bent nearer. "So you lost count, did you?"
"I didn't! That is ... Ned, you cannot think—"
"Don't lie to me! I won't stand for it this time."
"Then you would call my mother a liar." His eyes narrowed to slits, and a small muscle jumped in his jaw.
Feeling fear of him for the first time, Sybilla shook her head harder, paling. "No, of course I would never do such a thing. All I can say is—"
"It would be better, I think, if you do not say anything more," he advised grimly, straightening again. "Above all, don't try that well-practiced innocent act with me or deny that you would lie through your teeth to protect yourself or one of your family—Brandon this time, I expect. You see," he added with a sardonic twist of his lips when she gasped, "I know you too well. You will not pretend you have never lied to me before now."
Excerpted from The Bath Trilogy by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1991 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 3, 2013