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THE HOUSE PARTY
By JEANNE SAVERY
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Jeanne Savery Casstevens
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe door slammed shut and Diane Runyard crossed the room to her bed. Half laughing, half crying, she threw herself onto it and beat her fist into the coverlet. Its silky softness made that unsatisfactory, so she turned over and, reaching for the pillow, hugged it.
"'Twarn't no blidy ghost," she growled into the fat cushion.
She rolled over, curling around it, as still another emotion was added to the cauldron bubbling and boiling inside her. This new one was nothing more or less than the purest embarrassment. She'd learned to speak properly more than a decade earlier, and that she should revert to old ways, even in this situation, steadied her.
Incipient hysteria faded, and, sitting up, she clasped the pillow to her chest, resting her chin on the firm end. "I've been an actress for near to two decades," she muttered. "Surely I can understand how I feel."
She attempted to separate the wild sensations roused by the young man who had entered Lord Witherspoon's salon a handful of minutes earlier. His appearance shocked her, and she'd wanted nothing but to escape, needed to escape. Now, safe behind a closed door, chaotic thoughts faded into a vision that slid into her mind. The image of this young man was laid over that of a nearly identical man-a man perhaps half a dozen years older and dressed in a style twenty years out of date.
A man who held a small, very private piece of her heart, who always would ...
So many years since that original man looked across the green room of the theater in which she'd worked. Their eyes met, held, and, as if drawn by a string, they walked toward each other. What followed, their weeks and months together, was the most wonderful time of Diane Runyard's young life.
Steven Cartwright dined her. He wined her. And, soon, he rented rooms for the two of them....
Gently, his fingers pushed damp hair back from her temple, tucking the strand behind her ear. "I didn't believe it possible to love as I love you," murmured the blond god leaning over her in the bed they shared.
"I will love ye feriver," she responded fervently, running her hands up his back, loving the feel of warm, clean skin damp from their lovemaking.
The only cloud on the horizon of their young and heated love had been the disapproving physiognomy of Steven's toffee-nosed, monkey-faced valet. Diane lay back against another pillow and, ignoring the well-appointed room that only a few hours earlier had delighted her, sighed.
"What was that stiff-rumped, disapproving bastard's name?" she muttered.
All she could recall was the glint of satisfaction in the man's eyes when he informed her the flat's rent was paid until the end of the quarter. At that time she must have a new protector to support her-or she must depart....
"They have arranged a marriage for me, Di. What am I to do?"
Diane felt her heart breaking, but she dared not allow Stevie to see it. She had always known nothing could come of their love, had known it could not last ... but she'd hoped for more than eight months.
"What are ye to do?" she asked. "Why, 'tis simple, my love. Ye know 'tis. You've a duty, haven't you? To family. To your future." She could no longer control her features and ducked her head in under his neck, speaking into his shoulder. "We knew this was a dream, only a little bit of borrowed Heaven." She held him, keeping her face pressed to his shoulder so he could not see it. "Ye'll go home, Stevie. Ye'll meet your wife-to-be, and ye'll treat her with the respect she deserves."
She drew in a deep breath and finished, speaking more to herself than to him. "Of course ye must." Inside, where he could not see, she felt as if a part of her had died.
"You'll stay here," he murmured into her hair. "You'll be here whenever I can see you."
She shook her head against his shoulder. "Can't. Ye know we can't. 'Twouldn't be right. Ye know 'twouldn't."
He'd groaned, holding her so tightly he'd left bruises. "I cannot give you up."
Diane knew him. She knew his idealism, how honorable he was. He would endure the worst sort of guilt if he came to her while married to another. She called on every bit of training her theater-bred parents had given her and pushed away from him.
"'Twon't do, Stevie, lover. Ye know 'twon't. Ye wouldn't be you, Stevie, if ye thought it right, and I 'twouldn't love ye so much if ye were different." Distinctly, each word pushed from her mouth with an effort she hoped she'd never again need, she added, "You go on now." She'd forced herself to stand firm, straight backed. "You do what you have to do."
It was still harder to raise her chin, to smile, to add, "I'll be all right ... and so will you."
Diane hugged the bolster still harder at the memory of one final distressing scene. Some weeks later, an older gentleman came to the theater where she worked. He ordered the owner to send for her, that they were to be allowed to speak privately....
"Miss Runyard?" he had asked, his back stiff and his eyes cold-but touched by a hint of curiosity.
She ached at how much this man resembled her Stevie. An older, silver-haired Steven. And then fear filled her in a rush. Something had happened....
"Yes, m'lord?" she'd asked, her heart beating hard. "My Stevie ...?"
"My son is fine. Not happy, but behaving like the gentleman he is." He paused before adding, "The thing is-"
Was that embarrassment she read in his expression? Surely not.
"-I discovered he was not a gentleman when he gave you your conge." He handed her an envelope, which, without thinking, she took. "That should be sufficient."
Diane lay back, chuckling. Perhaps his lordship was embarrassed to admit his son had forgotten to, hmm, reimburse her for their fun and games. She was never certain about that, but she knew he was utterly betwattled when, realizing what he'd given her, she'd thrust the money back at him. What had she said to him? Softly, Diane quoted her much younger self: "Thank you, my lord, for the thought, but what your son and I shared is not something which can be bought and paid for. Good day."
Diane stared up at the ceiling with a smile on her lips. That boy downstairs in the Witherspoon salon ... Was that Stevie's son?
"'Course it is," she muttered with self-directed scorn. Looking the image of her Stevie and a much softer version of the tall, hard-eyed gentleman who had been his grandfather, this boy must be the current Cartwright heir. She remembered reading the announcement of his birth one year, six months, and nine days after she'd last seen her Stevie. She'd cried one last heartrending bout of tears ... and gone onstage an hour later to play her very first speaking part-a pert maid with laughing eyes that shone less from the merriment she was supposed to be projecting than from unshed tears.
A bone-deep sadness flitted in and through Diane. Very softly she mumbled into the pillow. "This youth might have been mine. Ours ..."
Diane wanted to cry. But there were no more tears. There would be none. Instead, she rose to her feet and went to the dainty little dressing table. She assured herself her face showed nothing of the emotions that raged within and then prepared to return downstairs, where she must play a harder role than ever-the part of a woman with a job of work to do while ignoring pain. Pain very nearly as sharp and more bitter than that she'd known two decades previously. Thanks to that boy who might have been her own, a lot more bitter.
But then another bitter memory overwhelmed her, and, her hand on the door, she discovered she wasn't ready to face anyone. Wasn't ready to join the others and pretend nothing had changed. Too many memories still swept through her troubled mind....
"For me? But where's it from? Who ... why ...?"
"You've no need to know any of that," said the stern-visaged clerk who brought her the first quarter's income. "You are not to know it."
Life had been hard just then. She'd been out of work, had sold very nearly everything she had to sell. Not the necklace with Stevie's portrait painted on it, which she would never sell, but everything else.
Worst of all, just the day before she had looked at Tower Bridge and-shame filled her-considered whether she'd the courage to end it all.
The income she received quarterly from that "unknown source," beginning a month or so after her Stevie became Baron Cartwright, had only added a shameful, acid-sharp bite to the feelings of loss that never quite left her. It stung her pride that she couldn't turn it down as she'd turned down the money Stevie's father had tried to give her. Times were hard. Although shamed by it, she'd not rejected her lost love's belated generosity....
Diane paced. It would, she thought, have been nice if he had come to me, explained why he would do such a thing a good eight years after our little interlude ended. She wondered if she'd been wrong about him-because the man she thought she'd known would have come to her, would have explained....
She pushed the thought away as she'd often done before and, for distraction, stared into the mirror. She noticed there were a few gray strands among the dark and made a note to apply more walnut stain the next time she washed it. She leaned nearer and touched the lines at her eyes, sighing.
There was no forgetting she had reached her thirty-seventh year, that she was well beyond her prime as an actress. Still, she had more than a bit of a reputation. Nothing like that of Sara Siddons or Dora Jordan, of course, but anyone who went regularly to a London theater knew her, liked her, and applauded her.
She pushed at the skin at her temples and glared. Perhaps it was time to give up her traditional roles, time to think of taking only secondary comic roles or-dared she? Might she try more serious dramatic roles? She'd never played a truly dramatic part....
Diane stared around the pleasant room, a room that would be hers for the weeks she'd stay at Lord Witherspoon's estate. Such a lovely room ... and there was no reason to spoil her pleasure in it by worrying about decisions about her future.
Right now this minute she must rejoin the guests. She had been hired to help Roger Brown direct the first amateur performances to be staged in Baron Witherspoon's brand-new private theater and perhaps to take a part in one or another play. She must remember how grateful she'd been for the opportunity to spend the summer months here at Lord Witherspoon's favorite estate, far from London's heat and summer stink. Not only was she out of London, but there was this wonderful room, a guest room and not, as she'd expected, a tiny space shared with one of the maids-or, if she'd been lucky, perhaps a slightly better room near where the upper servants slept.
"I am grateful," she said.
Diane nodded once, a sharp little nod of the head, took one long last deep breath and, again calling on ingrained stage presence, returned to the salon.
She would not look at that boy and think of her Stevie. She would not....
Chapter Two"What is the matter with you?" Roger Brown asked, leaning near Diane Runyard's ear so no one would hear his scolding tone.
It was after dinner, and the men had joined the women in the Witherspoon main salon. Roger brushed fingers through the silvery white hair sweeping back from his high brow, erasing a frown as his hand passed over his face.
"You are as tense as the string on a wound-up crossbow," he added chidingly when she didn't immediately respond.
"It shows?" she asked, turning a startled glance his way.
Roger shrugged. "I know you. I doubt anyone else has twigged to what is obvious to me. So?"
Diane sighed. She turned back to the window out which she'd been staring. "The boy. Young man, I suppose I should say...."
Roger glanced around. The only really young man among the guests was a slender blond youth, newly come among theater enthusiasts and, thanks to that interest, invited when Baron Witherspoon gathered friends and acquaintances for this house party.
"Steven Cartwright?" he asked. "A nice lad. A bit lost among the older gentlemen but well behaved and not pushy nor so impolite that he shows that other thing a boy on the verge of manhood always has."
There was humor in both his voice and the subtle expression. Diane flicked a look at him, one brow arched in query.
"That utter certainty indulged by young men," explained Roger, "that they are the very first ever to feel strange emotions and discover odd facts of life."
Diane smiled, restraining an unkind chuckle. Not that young Cartwright was so near he'd overhear them, but the boy had turned one or two speculative looks her way during dinner. And once the gentlemen joined the ladies, he'd stared continuously in the most heated of fashions. She suspected Roger was incorrect that Steven was blase toward his newly adult emotions-even if he hid those emotions reasonably well.
"Have you met everyone?" she asked, seeking distraction.
"Most of them. It is too bad we aren't putting on A Mid-summer Night's Dream. Sir Cyrall-" He directed her gaze toward a slender, rather foppish, man. "-has that elvish face and mischievous nature that makes a perfect Puck." He frowned. "Since we are not, I fear we will find him a bit of a troublemaker...." His voice trailed off for a thoughtful moment as he glanced around. "Then, over there-" Roger thrust his chin toward the fireplace, where a tall, saturnine gentleman stood, his arm laid along the mantel. "-you'll see that Lord Morningside has arrived." He grinned at her moue. "I think, my dear, you convinced him you are not interested. It is several years since he last pursued you."
"Who said I wasn't interested?" she retorted. "I have been interested in any number of men."
Roger's warm chuckle drew a number of eyes, but his manner toward Diane, one of friendly intimacy, turned them away. "Have you ever succumbed to one of your pursuers?" he asked softly.
"I have this odd belief," she evaded a direct answer, "that lovemaking requires that one be in love with the other-not merely in lust."
His heavy lids lowered and a faintly sardonic expression warned Diane that he was not satisfied-or perhaps it was merely that he thought her a fool for holding such a belief. Not wishing to discover which it was, she asked, "And that man beside Lord Morningside?"
Roger glanced back toward the fireplace. "Sir George Allingham. He stutters. Badly."
Diane's brows arched. "Yet he is here ...?" she asked.
Roger shrugged. "Perhaps he is merely a friend," he said.
Excerpted from THE HOUSE PARTY by JEANNE SAVERY Copyright © 2005 by Jeanne Savery Casstevens. Excerpted by permission.
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