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By Patricia Gaffney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Patricia Gaffney
All rights reserved.
"Receive, almighty lord, thy unworthy son, Patrick Flynn Merlin, into Thy care. In Thy boundless mercy, forgive his most grievous sins and grant that he may reside with Thee in the kingdom of heaven forever. Amen."
The Reverend Juvenal Ormsby closed his prayerbook with a snap, uttered a few more pious generalities and sailed out of the churchyard, black robes billowing. Six hired pallbearers soon followed. The mourners who were left mumbled hasty, embarrassed respects and drifted away, leaving the family alone.
Misery settled a little more heavily on Cassandra Merlin's shoulders as she watched the last of them go. She pulled off the veil her aunt had made her wear over her heavy black hair and let the night breeze cool her face. She had no tears left, but there was a hollow core of loneliness inside her.
I should be grateful, she chided herself tiredly, lifting her gaze from the crude coffin to the clouds gliding across the moon. True, the funeral service had been conducted in scandalous haste, her father's so-called friends had absented themselves in droves, he was being buried on the north side of the church in unconsecrated ground—and yet, it was no more than she'd expected and more than she might have hoped. Felons, after all, weren't usually permitted to be buried in cemeteries at all; instead they were interred at crossroads or in plain open fields, without markers or crosses. Reverend Ormsby had granted to Patrick Merlin's earthly remains this narrow gash of Southwark clay, within sight of Blackfriars Bridge and the Thames sliding unctuously beneath it, for what amounted to a ten-pound bribe—money her aunt could ill afford now, and with which she'd parted with a pointed lack of grace.
"This damp air is unhealthy, Cassandra; Freddy and I are going to the carriage. Besides, he wants his snuff. Don't linger, will you? I've sent the torchbearers away—the moon is bright enough, and after nine o'clock it's another sixpence apiece."
"I thought it went as well as it could, everything considered. Thank God it's over! I wonder if I shall ever get the mud out of the hem of this gown? Now remember, Cass, we've only hired the carriage till ten, and after all there's nothing more to do here, is there?"
The Dowager Lady Sinclair slanted her eyes in the direction of the muddy hole at her feet and then looked quickly away, her mouth turning down in a little moue of displeasure. How careless, how tactless, it seemed to say, of her brother to allow things to come to such a pass. She put a manicured hand on her niece's elbow and gave it a sharp squeeze.
"As soon as we're home, Cassandra, we'll have that little talk." Lady Sinclair gathered up her skirts and rustled away.
"Is that she?" Philip Riordan murmured, peering through the peeling branches of a plane tree at the receding figure thirty yards away.
"No. That's the aunt."
Riordan brought his dark-blue gaze back to the woman beside the grave at the bottom of the bumpy, tombstone-dotted hill. All he could make out from this distance was that she was tall and slender, with glossy black hair tied in a heavy knot on top of her head. He brushed leaves from the flat peak of a nearby headstone and perched on it uncomfortably, long legs stretched out. "I don't like it, Oliver. She's even got his hair."
"What's that got to do with anything? She saw him once or twice a year at most; they were never close."
"I don't care. She was his daughter. She's not going to feel kindly disposed toward the men who helped hang him."
Oliver Quinn frowned down at his companion's dark, silver-streaked head. "You may be right, but there's no one else. We have no choice but to approach her."
"I don't like it," Riordan repeated.
"You haven't seen her. She's perfect. Attractive, alluring—exactly the kind of woman Wade pursues. And fortunately for us, she has no bothersome moral scruples to stand in the way of an intimate relationship with him."
Riordan smiled without humor. "I'm familiar with the type."
"I imagine you are," Quinn returned dryly.
"Damn it, Oliver, for all we know she could've been in on the plot with Merlin."
"Is it?" Riordan stared intently at the silent, utterly still figure in the distance. "We can't afford to take any chances." When he looked up, opal moonlight shone palely on the clean, patrician lines of his face. Suddenly he smiled. "I've got an idea."
Cassandra watched her aunt's retreating back, then closed her eyes briefly, anticipating their "little talk." She turned back to the unfilled grave and rested her chin on her folded hands, but it was impossible to pray. She found herself repeating the minister's platitudes because no words would come from her own heart. But what could she say that would help her father now? He'd died an atheist; the crime for which he'd hanged was heinous indeed. Was even God merciful enough to forgive him?
"Oh, Papa, how could you do it?" she burst out softly. "How could you betray your own country?" She felt swamped by a mixture of anger, shame, and grief. She pictured his flashing black eyes and coal-black hair, the reckless grin. It seemed impossible that he was dead, his restless, exuberant energy extinguished forever. What would make sense of her life now? What could she hope for?
Unbidden, an old memory surfaced. She was in boarding school in Paris, where her aunt lived, and where he'd sent her after her mother's death. He was coming to visit for the first time in more than a year. They were to spend the whole day together, and her eight-year-old heart was bursting with excitement. All morning she waited at the gate in front of the school, until at last Mademoiselle called her to dinner. She waited again all afternoon, jumping up to peer through the black iron bars at every passing horse or carriage. When it grew too dark to see, the headmistress came and took her inside. That night a messenger brought a china doll, with real hair and arms that moved. The scribbled note said that important business had forced him to leave for London a day early. He would see her on his next trip, which he was sure would be soon. He loved his princess very much and was counting on her to be a good little girl.
How much, she asked herself now, had she really changed since that day ten years ago? She'd long since stopped being a good little girl in order to make her father love her—lately, in fact, she'd tried hard to be exactly the opposite—but she'd never given up hope that someday he would love her. Now it was too late.
Her throat ached. "Goodbye, Papa. I love you! Please, God, please forgive him." She carried a sprig of rosemary, for remembrance. Before the tears could start again, she kissed it, threw it into the grave, and turned away.
The two men watched her go. One smiled in grim anticipation as she disappeared among the low-hanging boughs of a weeping willow.
Ely Place was in a section of Holborn that might with kindness be described as "shabby genteel," although one could be forgiven for not readily spotting much evidence of gentility in its sagging townhouses and weedy gardens. Number 47 was no better or worse than its neighbors. Inside, there was too much furniture and not enough heat, and the servants were surly. Lady Sinclair, a dowager baronetess used to a life of comparative opulence in Paris, found it all so appallingly squalid that for three weeks she had not even unpacked most of her trunks and persisted in referring to her new quarters as "temporary." How this could be, given the precise nature of their financial condition, her niece was at a loss to understand; but as was her habit, she did not challenge her aunt or encourage in her a more realistic view of things. It would not have done any good.
"Freddy, take your foot off the tea cart this instant. Look at the mud you've gotten on the wheel."
Sir Frederick Sinclair shifted his ponderous buttocks and crossed the offending boot over his knee. A smile of apology lumbered across his somewhat vacant face. His thinning, sandy hair was covered by a white periwig; torn between vanity and fashion, he worried constantly that wigs were going out of style and that the day was fast approaching when he would have to expose his balding head to the haut monde. He sneezed boisterously into his handkerchief, put his snuff box away, and brought out his pocket watch.
"Ten-fifteen," he announced genially. "What are you ladies doing tonight?" Cassandra, his cousin, looked at him wonderingly in the mirror above the fireplace mantel. "Eh?" he prodded. "Jack Wilmott wants me to meet him at his club at eleven; then we're going on to supper at Herrick's. I say, Cassie, tomorrow night there's a masked ball at Vauxhall. I was thinking, you know, that since we'd go incognito, you wouldn't have to wear mourning. No one would know it was you, d'y'see, so you could wear anything you liked. It's only nine shillings, Mother, so don't fly into a pucker." Freddy was picking up popular London slang at an admirable rate.
Cassandra turned around slowly. Her face momentarily reflected disbelief. She glanced at her aunt, who was imperturbably sipping a glass of ratafia. But Cass had long ago stopped seeking guidance, moral or otherwise, from that quarter, and was not really surprised now by the absence of censure.
"Freddy—" She stopped. She was too tired to explain why she wouldn't go with him to a masked ball at Vauxhall two nights after her father had been publicly hanged for treason. Not even incognito. "No, I don't think so," she told him quietly.
"Oh, Cassie, do go. Ellen Van Rijn is going, she's a smashing girl, and if you were there it would be so much easier—"
"Freddy, run along, will you?" Lady Sinclair interrupted peremptorily. "I want to speak to Cassandra alone."
"Eh? Oh, right-o." His muddy boot dropped with a thud to the floor and he surged to his feet. Tall, raw-boned, fleshy, he was the image of his father, the long-dead Sir Clarence. He'd spent almost the whole of his twenty-five years in Paris, yet he had a hearty, uncomplicated bluffness that stamped him surely and unmistakably an Englishman. "I'll go and have a smoke at Weston's, then, shall I?" He picked up his hat and cane and opened the drawing room door to go out. The maid, Clara, came through with a dish of cheese-cakes. Freddy took two without stopping. "Ta!" he called from the stairs, his mouth full.
"Will yer be wantin' anything else, merlady, afore I locks up ther larder?" queried the girl.
Lady Sinclair flinched visibly. "I think not."
"Right you are, merlady." Clara dropped a sort of curtsy and retired.
Cass smiled, catching her aunt's look. "It's only temporary," she said consolingly.
Lady Sinclair waved this away. "Come here, Cassandra; sit beside me. Heavens, you look thin in that dress. I won't be able to keep you in mourning for very long, child, but we'll speak of that later. At least you've stopped crying; Freddy and I were becoming concerned. You weren't looking at all well, you know, and at your time of life a girl needs her looks more than she ever will again. Which brings us to the point, doesn't it?" She smiled, but only with her lips. "Clara tells me you sent Edward Frane away this morning without seeing him."
Cassandra blinked. "Aunt Beth, today was—my father—"
"Yes, and I'm sure Mr. Frane quite understood. It's been a difficult time. It's over now, though, and we must begin to think about the future. I'm not a wealthy woman, as you know. My brother provided for you over the years as best he could—which isn't to say there weren't times when I had to supplement his support out of the very modest legacy Sir Clarence left me. Not that I begrudge one penny of it, Cassandra; you know me too well ever to think that, I hope. But now that his support is at an end, and the circumstances of his death have made an inheritance for you out of the question...."
"You mean his fortune's been confiscated by the Crown and you haven't enough money to keep me." She kept her voice light and suppressed the little jolt of anger that spurted through her.
Aunt Beth laughed her silvery laugh. "Ah, Cass. Always the little realist. But the truth is, Freddy's inheritance is not large, and it's imperative that he marry well. In order to do so, he must turn himself out as best he can and be seen in only the best places. That will be expensive." She laid a hand on Cass's arm; the younger woman was surprised, but not moved, by the uncharacteristic familiarity. "I, of course, want nothing for myself. The happiness of my children means everything to me, and I couldn't love you more if you were my own daughter."
Cass reflected that this was probably quite true, and that it didn't reflect well on her aunt's maternal instinct.
"Now," Lady Sinclair went on, "although Mr. Frane, I would venture to say, is not a handsome man—"
"Ha!" It came out without volition—her first genuine laugh in days.
Her aunt narrowed her eyes in irritation. "No, not a handsome man, perhaps, but a gentleman, and more to the point, a gentleman in possession of above three thousand pounds a year. I have this on excellent authority. You tell me you don't want to marry him; naturally I would never force you to do so. But let's look at the alternatives. If you're not to be a wife, Cass, then perhaps you could be ... oh, let me see ... a governess?" She arched her brow in a questioning glance. Cassandra stared back stonily. "Hmm? No? No, I didn't think so, either. You were a charming child, but not really what one would call bookish, alas."
Cass didn't return the falsely kind smile, but she was honest enough to admit the accuracy of the assessment. In truth, it was a wonder she could read and write, she thought moodily as she stared into the fireplace. Studying had always given her a headache. And with no one who cared enough to compel her to attend to her studies, it had been the easiest thing in the world to shirk them. Then too, the schools to which her aunt had sent her valued dancing and deportment far above mathematics or spelling or geography. Thus she knew nothing whatever about history or politics, but she could draw, paint, and sing, play the harpsichord and the guitar, sew and embroider, pour tea and move about a room like a duchess. And once her "formal" education had ceased, a new set of instructors had taught her how to flirt, that most useful of social skills, as well as to ride and fence, sing bawdy songs, and drink young men under the table. But about this aspect of her education, presumably, her aunt was ignorant.
She thought of her cousin's invitation tonight. It hurt to think that he or anyone else believed her flighty or callous or stupid enough to behave after her father's death with such insensitivity, and yet she couldn't really blame Freddy for doing so. For the last two or three years she'd immersed herself in a circle of acquaintance whose credo was that the purpose of life is to experience sensual pleasure; and although there were moments when her existence among them had seemed hollow, when the shallowness of their pastimes had made her want to scream with frustration, she'd never once tried to extricate herself. They were, after all, the only friends she had. And it had amused and secretly pleased her that among them she'd been considered almost a bluestocking.
She dragged her attention back to her aunt, who was explaining with brittle, insincere sympathy why it would be impossible for Cass to become a lady-in-waiting in a respectable household. "I'm afraid genteel people won't want to employ the daughter of a man who's just been executed for trying to assassinate the king. The scandal is too fresh now, at any rate; and for all we know, it may never wear off. Society is more rigid here than in Paris, Cassandra. And speaking of that, I was chatting last week with Mrs. Rutherford, whose mother-in-law is Lady Helen Spencer, and whose great-nephew by marriage is a viscount, and she mentioned to me—in confidence, and in a spirit of genuine caring, I assure you—that there were certain—rumors that seem to have followed you from Paris."
"Followed me?" Cass winced, hoping her aunt had missed the inference of her emphasis. Lady Sinclair's love affairs, which were numerous and always conducted with discretion, were not a subject that had ever been broached between them.
Excerpted from Fortune's Lady by Patricia Gaffney. Copyright © 1989 Patricia Gaffney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I found this a very entertaining story line. As in the usual romance story, the "guy" is very rich and the "girl" is a saucy virgin. I just finished reading a novel about Marie Antonette. Fortune's Lady was from the same time period and brought in some of the historical facts going on in France. All in all, well worth the read.