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Vergil's grudging appreciation of Jane Ormond's aria did not salve his anger one bit. He resented like hell that he couldn't have her thrown into Newgate Prison where she belonged.
She had costumed herself like a French queen from the previous century, but she appeared uncomfortable with the illusion. She held herself stiffly whenever she moved, as if she expected the high white wig to topple off or the padded, hooped gown to tip her over. The confidence of her voice contrasted with her physical awkwardness. Poses of professional self-possession contrasted with short strolls of vulnerability.
He was not fooled by her calculated charm. With her wide eyes and full lips and intimations of frailty, she affected the most dangerous type of innocence. It was the kind that prompted a man to want to lay down his life to protect it, but which provoked another, darker part to imagine stripping off her clothes and destroying it.
She moved in his direction, raising her head for the high notes of a vocal display. Her gaze met his. A flicker of curiosity passed, as if she perceived that he would not be here if duty did not demand it.
He knew that nothing in his appearance told her that. This gaming establishment had added staged shows to cater to men of his class. They took breaks from their gambling to eat in this salon and enjoy a concert of opera, or, later, entertainment of a much baser sort.
She looked longer than she ought, boldly meeting his inspection with one of her own. He suppressed the alarming combination of protective and erotic inclinations that those wide eyes summoned, by concentrating on all of the trouble that she had caused him the last two weeks.
Morton slid into the other chair at his table. Morton did look out of place with his bearish form and unfashionable beard.
"The girl is here," he said. "In a room in back. Miss Ormond brings her every night, to wait there while she sings. I spoke with the man at the door and he saw them come in together tonight."
Vergil rose. "Miss Ormond sings an art song after this aria. Let us do it now. We will have the girl out before she finishes." The unsuspecting Miss Ormond warbled on. "If she is smart, she will run for the coast when she learns her plans were foiled. As for the girl, we will bring her to the country to recover, and no one will be the wiser."
He was assuming, of course, that Miss Jane Ormond had not already sold the girl to the highest bidder. He narrowed his attention on the deceptively ingenuous face beneath the towering white wig. There was something intelligent in those eyes. No, she wouldn't have risked all of this for so small a prize as a virgin's price. Perhaps she had planned to ask for a ransom, but most likely her intentions were to sell the girl in marriage. Since she had served as the girl's maid and they had traveled from America together, she undoubtedly knew about the inheritance.
This all might have been avoided if Dante had been more alert. His own fault that, sending his brother to meet their ship, but whoever expected this chit of a maid to dare such a thing.
The seedy back corridor contrasted with the opulence of the dining salon. Morton gestured to a door tucked beneath a stairway. Vergil turned the handle.
He had visited singers' preparation rooms before and they were normally disasters of confusion. This tiny space had been carefully organized. A brace of candles sat on a small table that also held a mirror and containers of paint. Costumes and day clothes hung from a row of hooks on the wall. A chair crowded the shadows to the right of the table, and a young woman sat mending there with her needle and cloth held close to the flames.
"Miss Bianca Kenwood?"
She looked up in surprise and he immediately began calculating how much he would have to increase the bribe to Dante. She could well be a sweet girl, but Dante judged females by appearance, not character, and hers was not impressive. The brown wisps of hair escaping her cap looked more frizzy than curly. Her nose turned up at the end, which might have been charming if the nose had been less broad.
"Miss Kenwood, I am Laclere."
"This is Morton, my valet. I have a coach behind the building and we will take you there at once. Your ordeal is over, and I assure you that no one will ever know about this unfortunate interlude."
"Oh! Oh, my . . ."
"If you will come at once, please. I will deal with Miss Ormond later. Right now it is best if we remove you from here."
"Oh, I don't think . . . that is . . ." She cowered back, making gestures of resistance and confusion. He bent toward her and smiled reassuringly. He noticed that her gown was of the most common sort, a gray simple broadcloth. Evidently she had no sense for fashion, either.
"Come, my dear. It would be best if we left before"
"Who are you?" The voice asking the indignant question was feminine, melodious, and young.
Vergil pivoted to see Marie Antoinette standing in the doorway, hands akimbo on her little waist, the broad-hipped gown flaring out to span the threshold. "Well? Who are you, sir, and what are you doing here?"
Miss Kenwood leapt up and darted over to Miss Ormond, who embraced her protectively. So that was how it was. Of course she had befriended the girl. It wouldn't have worked otherwise.
"Your concert is finished?" he asked.
"The lieder are brief works. Now, if you would leave please. My sister and I"
"Miss Ormond, this young woman is not your sister. She is no relation to you whatsoever. You may have convinced her to come with you, but your behavior has been nothing less than abduction and will be seen as such by the Justice of the Peace."
Miss Ormond eased the girl away, then pressed her gown so that she could squish into the room. The breadth of the ridiculous skirt forced Morton against the wall.
She crossed her arms over her chest. The gesture brought Vergil's attention to the upper swells of firm breasts crushed under the top of her stiff bodice.
"Which one are you?"
"Vergilius Duclairc, the Viscount Laclere. Miss Kenwood is my ward, but then you know that."
Her gaze drifted down, then up. "I know nothing of the sort."
Her poise, despite being caught at this crime, annoyed him to no end. "Do not think to play a game of wits with me, young woman. Your betrayal of the trust that made you her companion on the crossing is abominable. The danger and potential scandal to which you have subjected her these last weeks is inexcusable. I will not stand for any interference now. If you act quickly, you can be on your way back to America before daybreak, but I only make this concession for Miss Kenwood's sake."
She didn't even blink. She stepped forward until her flounces brushed his leg, and looked up in a considering, curious way. "Ah. You are one of those."
He stared her down. If she were a man, a good thrashing would be in order.
She glanced at the distraught girl, cowering against the doorframe. "It appears that it is over, doesn't it? Too bad, I really thought that I might pull it off." She gestured, and Miss Kenwood joined her while she began removing the garments from their hooks and folding them.
He stepped between them, took a gown from his ward's hands, and cast it aside. "We will leave now. If Miss Kenwood has belongings here or at your lodgings, I will send for them."
Miss Ormond smiled in a damned insolent manner. "Oh, you are most definitely one of those. Very sure of yourself. A man who sets his course and always knows it is the right one. I was warned that this country has a lot of men like you, men who are positive that they never make mistakes."
He felt his face flush at this soiled dove's presumption. Enough. He took a gray broadcloth arm in his hand.
Miss Ormond shifted and blocked his retreat with the eternal span of her gown. Her warm, soft hand covered his and gently pried his fingers loose. The gray broadcloth slipped away.
Blue eyes looked up with mocking delight. "Well, this time you have made a mistake, Vergilius Duclairc, Viscount Laclere. In fact, you have got it all backward. She is not Bianca Kenwood. I am."
He had a moment of incomprehension before the meaning of her words struck. Intimations of trouble flurried through his mind, a light snow of foreboding that suggested fairly simple arrangements had just become dangerously complicated. He glanced to the timid gray wren kneading her hands together, and then at the self-confident, painted bird of paradise, and wondered how Dante would react to this shocking development.
Thwap. Thwap, thwap.
The riding whip slapped against the high boot of the Viscount Laclere while he paced in front of the fireplace.
Bianca embraced Jane on the chaise longue, patting her shoulder. Across the drawing room, the Countess of Glasbury, the viscount's sister, blinked with drowsy dismay in her Oriental-style green dressing gown.
Bianca thought it had been very rude of Vergil Duclairc to rouse the countess from her sleep when he dragged Jane and Bianca here to the countess's town home. If he would stop brooding and pacing she could clear this up in a snap and they could be gone.
"You don't plan to use that do you?" Bianca asked. Her voice cracked the tense silence that had ensued with the end of his explanation to the countess about where he had found his missing ward after two weeks of searching.
He pivoted in midpace and glared at her. He was a tall, lean, well-framed man in his middle twenties, with startling blue eyes and wavy dark hair dishevelled in the current fashion. Attractive, actually. Perhaps even handsome when he wasn't scowling, but then she wouldn't know.
"The whip," she said. "You don't plan to use it? I should tell you that I am twenty years old and Jane is twenty-two, which makes us far past the age for such things. Although my aunt has a maid who was courted by an Englishman who told her that there are quite a few men who whip grown women here in England, which I found very peculiar, and others, it turns out, who actually want women to whip them, which I don't think makes any sense at all."
The countess gasped. She appeared fully awake suddenly.
Vergil turned to his sister with strained forbearance. He threw out his arm toward the chaise longue in a gesture that said, "See?"
"Really, Miss Kenwood," the countess said with a wavering smile. "Of course my brother has no intention of . . . of . . ."
Vergil's lids lowered as if there were no "of course" to it. He clasped his hands behind his back and studied her severely. "My brother came to meet your ship in Liverpool. How did you miss him?"
Bianca considered whether to use the elaborate history of misadventures that she had concocted in the event things ever went this wrong. It suddenly struck her as very thin.
She examined the blue eyes piercing her. Aunt Edith had said that the English aristocrats were an overbred, indolent people, and a bit stupid, and Bianca had counted on that being accurate. Unfortunately, this one appeared the exception, at least with regards to the last descriptive. He didn't seem likely to be bought off with confused tales of hapless innocence.
"There was a sailor on board who helped us remove our trunks and find a hired coach before anyone came and called for us."
"You befriended a sailor?" The countess glanced askance at her brother, who briefly shut his eyes.
"Miss Kenwood, perhaps there has been a misunderstanding. Your grandfather's solicitor contacted a Baltimore attorney, a Mr. Williams, to handle this matter. He did come to speak with you, did he not? I was not misinformed, was I?"
"He most certainly came. He is a very nice man. In fact, he secured our passage on the ship."
"As he wrote to me that he would. Did he explain to you that a member of our family would meet you in Liverpool?"
"He explained it very clearly. My aunt would never have permitted me to come if she were not reassured that I would be met."
"So you admit that you disembarked on your own without waiting for an escort, that it was no accident that my brother missed you?"
"It was no accident. It was very deliberate."
For some reason her frankness left him speechless. He looked at her as if she were incomprehensible.
"I think it would be best if you sat, Vergil, so you do not fluster her by hovering like that," the countess said. "Then maybe we could discuss this calmly. I'm sure that Miss Kenwood has an explanation for everything."
Vergil sat on a small bench, but he still managed to hover in her direction all the same. "Do you have an explanation?"
"Of course." Jane had fallen asleep on her shoulder and the dead weight distracted her. Their embrace had unsettled the wig and she could feel it tilting askew. These old gowns were not designed for sitting, and the pads formed a platform all around her. The stays under her costume dug into her waist and side.
She felt a little ridiculous and very uncomfortable, and annoyed that this high-and-mighty viscount had not given her time to change or wash before hauling her into his coach.
"The explanation, Miss Kenwood. I should like to hear it."
"Actually, Mr. Duclairc, I really do not think that you would."
His eyes narrowed. "Let us try, anyway."
She tucked one leg up under her rump, to prop herself up more. The countess's lashes fluttered. The viscount cocked an eyebrow censoriously. Realizing that her dangling leg was uncovered to midcalf, Bianca smiled apologetically and pushed the skirt hem down.
"Mr. Duclairc, I was aware of the plans arranged for my visit here. I simply decided to make a few alterations. If Mr. Williams communicated with you about me, you may know that I lived with my great-aunt Edith more as her companion than her ward. I traveled extensively when my mother was alive, and learned to take care of myself. I am regarded as very mature for my years."
"He only wrote that your aunt is a bulwark of Baltimore society and that you are a well-bred young woman." His tone implied that Mr. Williams had some explaining to do.
"I know that my grandfather named you as my guardian in his will. It was a charming and quaint gesture. He probably wanted to cover the eventuality that I actually needed a guardian, which I obviously do not. Besides, I am American, so I do not see how an English will can establish that kind of authority over me."