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"Explain to me again why you get to perch there chomping on an appleand I do mean chompingwhile I've been put to crawl around on my hands and knees, tapping at the woodwork while Tubby keeps insisting on licking my face. Not that I mind, do I, Tubby?" Valentine Redgrave put down the small hammer so he could tug on the spaniel's ears. "There's a good old dog. Fat, decrepit and with the fetid breath of a mongoose, but I love you, truly I do. You're a good old dog."
Lady Katherine Redgrave employed her tongue to push her most recent bite of apple against the inside of her cheek, looking much like a squirrel gathering up nuts for the winter. She was sitting on the back of one of the enormous leather couches in their brother Gideon's study at Redgrave Manor, her bare feet pressed onto the cool cushions, her long, lithe body still clad in her simple cotton night rail and dressing gown, although it had already gone noon.
"He knows when you're being facetious," Kate pointed out to the sibling closest to her in age of her three brothers, which had made him both the best friend and chief tormentor of their youth. "You could have said good dog, good dog all day last year, when you were so careless as to trip over dearest old Tubby and tumble down the stairs, taking Duke and Major along with you, poor animals. Tubby still knew you were angry. Everybody did. After all, you howled worse than the hounds."
Valentine sat back on his haunches, wiping at his damp face with his handkerchief as the spaniel watched, tail wagging in ecstasy and ready to launch himself, tongue first, at his master again. "I broke my damn leg and all three insanely concerned mutts kept leaping on it until you could pull them off, or has that part of the incident escaped your memory?" he grumbled, and then went back to crawling and tapping, tapping and crawling.
"It still aches, you know, when the weather's about to change, although I suppose you'd think that a good thing. So you can make sure you have your umbrella handy, except you like getting soaked to the skin, don't you? In any event, being a weather soothsayer was only amusing the first time I bet Jeremy it would rain by dusk before he figured it out, and then blabbed my secret to everyone. I still want to know who left the gate open at the bottom of the stairs so the dogs could get up them in the first place. Because I could swear I'd closed it."
Kate examined her half-eaten apple, as if looking for the next logical area to bite, which was safer than looking at Valentine, and much safer than having him look at her. "It's a petty man who holds a grudge. I'm certain the person is most exceedingly sorry."
"And you damn well should be, instead of talking me into crawling around Gideon's inner sanctum looking for secret passages."
Kate slid down the back of the couch, her night skirt billowing out around her as she plopped onto the cushions. "I never said it was me. I?" She waved the apple about in frustration. "I never could get the straight of that one, no matter how Miss Pettibone tried to drum it into my head. I knowI never said I forgot to latch the gate."
"You never said you didn't," Valentine responded reasonably. "You don't lie, Kate. You just don't tell the truth if you can find a way around it."
"Well, that's true enough. You've gone beyond the length of the couch now. You want me to help you push it back against the wall?"
"I told you nobody puts a secret passage behind a hulking great piece of furniture. Scrape marks would show on the floor every time it was moved, and be a dead giveaway. There's probably some sort of switch somewhere that operates a lever that opens some cleverly disguised door. Maybe hidden in all that carving around the fireplacenot that I'm saying there is a lever, or a door."
"No. I checked there. I checked all the obvious places before you arrived to bear me company. Now I'm working on the unobvious places, obviously. But if you're so certain I'm wrong, why did you volunteer to help me?"
"Again," Valentine corrected, unnecessarily dusting at his clean breeches, for Redgrave Manor was run by Dearborn, the butler, and Mrs. Justis, the housekeeper, who oversaw a multitude of well-trained servants. No bit of dust or dirt had dared to even think of being caught out lingering anywhere on the premises for at least thirty years, not even beneath the couches in the eighteenth Earl of Saltwood's study. "That's why I am helping you again, since you've been getting into scrapes all your life, left to your own devices. But the answer to that rephrased question is both obvious and simple. I'm not helping you. I'm keeping you out of trouble."
"How so? Why would I be getting into trouble? Gideon asked me to do this."
"Really? The way I was told the thing, our clever new sister-in-law asked you not to go hunting the journals, at the request of our big brother, which meant you immediately made plans to return here and do it. But that got you to leave London, which is what Gideon wanted Jessica to get you to do any way she could, since you were demanding to remain after the wedding and things could have turned dicey. It was only when he realized you might actually find something that big brother began to panic like an old woman."
Kate didn't know if she should be amused, surprised or angry. She quickly decided on amused, knowing Gideon's bride had truly tricked her. A person could admire that. "And that's why you're really here, instead of London? To make me stop?"
"Clearly not, or I wouldn't have spent these last miserable minutes crawling around on the floor. We're still to look, but you aren't going to be searching alone. Those were my marching orders from Gideondon't let that idiot girl out of your sight. My God, Kate, what would you do if you found those infernal journals our father and his cohorts kept?"
She moved her shoulders a time or two, trying to act nonchalant, as if she hadn't yet contemplated that possibility. "I don't know. Read them? Write to Gideon at Yearlings and announce I've found them?"
"Exactly. You'd do both, and in that order."
Kate grinned. She never could fool Valentine. "Are they really that naughty?"
"They don't describe the Society's lawn parties, I'll tell you that much. I've read the single one we found, and one was enough, more than enough, even for me. Now, let's get this couch back into place."
Sticking the apple between her fine white teeth once more, Kate pushed with all her might, helping to slide the couch against the wall. It wasn't easy to do, which was why she hadn't yet searched the area, and in the end, Valentine had to do the majority of the pushing. "You're right. Nobody would hide a door or secret panel behind that monstrosity. That really cuts down on my list of possible hidey-holes, doesn't it? And in a house with seventy rooms, I can't tell you how that cheers me. Where shall we search next?"
Valentine glanced at the mantel clock. "No more today, Kate. I've got a friend arriving from London in less than two hours."
"Please say it's not Jeremy. He keeps looking at me with his mouth hanging open. I can nearly see his tonsils."
Valentine chuckled as they left the study, arm in arm. "He can't help it. He's mad for you. Except when he's afraid of you, which is most of the time."
"That's ridiculous. Why would he be afraid of me?"
"I don't know. Probably because I said you'd eat him for lunch." Valentine grabbed Kate's elbow and turned her toward the large pier glass in the hallway. "Look at you."
"I don't have to look at meI know what I look like, Val, for pity's sake."
"Do you? Just because it amuses me, let me tell you what Jeremy sees. Jeremy, and any man with two eyes in his head and not dead below the waistand don't try to be coy and tell me you don't know what that means, because Trixie gave you the same talking-to she gave all of us, God help us."
Kate was checking out her reflection in the glass, pushing a lock of hair back behind her ear. "Oh? So she told you if a man misbehaves you're to kick him hard in the fork and then run away while he's on his knees, whimpering and calling for his mama?"
"My God. It's even worse than we'd imagined she say." Valentine rubbed at the slight twitch that had started up beneath his left eye. "Thank you for not doing that last year, at Almacks. Really, I mean that sincerely. Now, shall we continue?"
"I'm not continuing anything," Kate said, trying not to grin at her brother's embarrassment. "You started this, remember?"
"Yes, for my sins, I do."
"We make quite the handsome couple, don't we, Val? Same dark hair, same amber eyes. Why, your eyelashes are nearly as long as mine. Does that bother you?"
"Not as much as it does Max. Why else do you think he's grown that mustache? Now pay attention, Kate. First, your hair. Black as the ace of spades in most lights, golden-black in the sun. Hair like yours is rare as hen's teeth in London, land of the insipid blond, blue-eyed miss. Then there's the sheer amount of it. And the curls when you let it hang loose, which is most of the time, because you're a lazy sot. Females live to be told they're old enough to put up their hair, and you let yours hang. I'll bet Trixie told you to do that."
Kate played with one of the fat, soft curls that reached halfway to her elbows. "So Jeremy's shocked into imbecility by my hair? Which, yes, Trixie told me to continue wearing down because the only reason to put it up would be so men can do nothing but concentrate on finding a way to take out the pins. Why not give them what they want beforehand, because that way maybe they'll retain enough brains to actually attempt coherent conversation."
"That woman's a menace. And dead wrong in this case, or hoping to keep you looking younger so she doesn't feel older. In any event, you let them start thinking lascivious thoughts having already arrived at step two of their plan for youand with your help. Luckily for you, Jeremy hasn't the expertise to have ever gotten past step one to even begin thinking about step three. You confound him, poor fellow."
"Intriguing. What's your step three, Val?"
"None of your business, brat. All right, so much for the hair. We've discussed the eyes as to color. The problem with yours is, you don't lower them, not to anybody. You don't simper, you don't flirt, you don't flutter. You look at the world with beautiful eyes, granted, but beneath those lashes and those tip-tilted ends you've got going so nicely for you, you're a man, and they know it. You think like a man, you look boldly like a man, you appraise with your eyes. Also damnably unnerving."
Kate looked at herself looking at her eyes. "Good. I like that."
"Wonderful. I'm trying to explain something, and all I'm doing is handing you more ammunition to use against my own gender. Your mouth? That mouth is self-explanatory, and probably a sin to think about, not that your older, wiser brothers see it for more than it is, which is bold, and definitely opinionated. Leaving us with your body."
"We are not going to discuss my body." Kate tried to tug her arm free of her brother.
"No, no, let's finish this. First, it's noon, and you're not yet dressed for the day. Not because you're lazy. Lord knows half of London's debutantes are just now waking up to their morning chocolate. But they're hidden away in their chambers, not tramping about the house in their bare feet because of a sudden insuppressible desire to have me poking around behind a couch."
"I wanted to catch you before you went out riding, or something."
"We could argue that one point for hours, Kate, but we'll let it go with the easiest explanationyou want what you want when you want it. Just like Gideon."
"Thank you," Kate said cheekily, knowing she was making her brother crazy. "Now you're going to compare my body to Gideon's?"
"No, mostly I'd compare it to our mother's. I'd compare all of you, and most of the rest of us, to our mother. It's what you do with your body that is like Gideon, or Max, or me, or men everywhere, at least the ones who aren't wearing red-heeled shoes and mincing about like nincompoops."
"Speaking of nincompoops, do you know Adam sleeps until eleven, and then takes two full hours to bathe and dress, only to come out of his rooms looking the brainless fop, his scent arriving in any room a good ten seconds before he appears?"
"Jessica's brother is a good example of the men you don't resemble," Valentine said, grinning. "You haven't been tormenting him too much since you brought him back here from London, have you?"
"No," Kate said, peering at her reflection again, trying to understand what Val had meant about her body. She'd been tutored by Trixie, she was all of twenty years oldshe should know what he'd meant. "He can fairly well make a cake of himself all by himself. And does, frequently. A spider crawled up his silly pink clocked stockings out in the garden the other day. He screamed, worse than any female and ran in circles until I could catch him and flick the thing away. I like him, though. He's almost my same age, I think. We've agreed to cry friends, as long as we're banished here together to keep us out of the way."
"You two weren't banished here to keep Oh, all right. I'll grant you that one. On the other hand, you weren't Adam's age since you were five. That's still not what I'm trying to say, so if you'd please shut up I can be done with this. And not a moment too soon for my comfort." He looked toward the ceiling, as if hunting his next words, and then said carefully, "You didn't quite get the hang of London last year."
"Oh, nonsense. Don't tiptoe around the thing. I know exactly what London is. I just didn't like it."
"Yes, I've seen Lord Hilton's crooked nose. Actually, it helps one forgive his nonexistent chin. But what I'm saying is you have a woman's body, but you comport that body like a man. You slouch when you want to, you cross your legs at the knee, for God's sake. You walk with purpose, your strides too long to be dainty. You fold your arms across your chest when your hands should be neatly curled in your lap. You put your feet up on the table and let your ankles show. And look at you today. Traipsing about here in your nightclothes, as if you have no notion of what's proper. And when you finally get dressed, nine times out of ten it's in one of your riding habits and a pair of boots."
She truly didn't understand his concern. She was who she was, just as her brothers were who they were, and what was good for the goose should also be good for the gander. Who'd decided only men could be comfortable? Probably a man. "Oh, dear. Surely I should be locked up. Or is that shot?"