Read Scandalous Online

Authors: Candace Camp

Scandalous (23 page)

BOOK: Scandalous
7.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Quite right,” the general agreed. “Not good strategy to let the whole world know what you are doing. But I do wish you had confided in me. We could have drawn up a plan of action.”

“I am sure we should have, but, you see, I didn't even know you when John first came here.”

“Why do you keep calling him John?” the constable blurted out impatiently. “I thought you didn't know who he was.”

“I don't. We have no idea what his real name is. But
we had to call him something. So we made up the name John Wolfe.”

“When were you attacked?” the constable asked, trying to bring the subject back to something he could deal with.

John described his coming to in the hut, and how long it had been since then, ending by saying, “But as I don't remember the attack, or anything before I woke up, I have no idea when it happened.”

The constable shook his head, looking grave. “Odd business, this, very odd.” He turned his gaze on Priscilla. “When did these men attack you, Miss Hamilton?”

“Late yesterday afternoon. I was walking home from visiting Lady Chalcomb, and they leaped on me. I struggled, but they threw this mantle over my head and lifted me, and I had a great deal of difficulty breathing. And after that I don't remember anything until I came to consciousness in the shed.”

“Those blackguards!” Alec burst out. “I'd like to get my hands on them!”

“The same shack that Mr.—that
he
was in?”

“Yes. I'm sure it was. It is this side of Lady's Woods, not far from a brook.”

“I know the place you're talking about!” Alec said, looking pleased. “Gid and I used to play there. But, I say, how did they keep you in there? The door had no latch.”

“It does now. And a rather heavy bar on the outside to keep it shut.”

The constable cleared his throat. “Why did they attack you?”

“They didn't hit me or hurt me, really. I think they wanted only to hold me there. I think they must have
wanted to use me in some way against Mr. Wolfe. I know I heard one of them say that this would bring him now. I assume they meant Mr. Wolfe.”

“Yes, the villain told me so himself,” John supplied. At the constable's surprised look, he went on, “I talked to him, you see. After I found him at the cabin and got Miss Hamilton out, I, um…had a discussion with Will before I locked him and Mapes up. I can take you to them.”

“You locked them in the shack?” the constable looked dumbfounded. “You overcame two of them and locked them up?”

“Well, it was one at a time,” John admitted modestly. “Shall I show you the way?”

“I can,” Alec said eagerly, coming forward.

“I am rather tired,” John agreed readily. “If you can find it, you are more than welcome to take the constable.”

Alec went off with the constable, looking thrilled to be a part of the adventure, and the others went inside to have a cup of tea and listen to Priscilla's story in detail. There was much oohing and ahing as Priscilla and John described what had happened. When they reached the end—the tale having been drastically expurgated—where Will confessed that he was working for Benjamin Oliver, the doctor brought his hand down on the table with a thump, nodding triumphantly.

“I always knew that fellow was a rascal,” he declared. “Jolly good, I say. Now maybe we shall be rid of him. That would certainly be a boon to Alec.”

The vicar nodded sagaciously. “Poor boy. He's had a great deal to bear this past year.”

“That may take care of
him,
but what about you?”
the general asked John. “You still don't know who you are.”

“That's right. I have to talk to Oliver. He is the only lead I have. If the constable locks Oliver up, I will never get to find out anything.”

“He will move slowly on it,” the general told him. “They always do when they suspect a gentleman, and since the scoundrel is a friend of the Duchess's…he'll want to make dead sure before he does anything. Look for substantiating evidence, that sort of thing. My guess is you will have several days before he arrests the man.”

“Then I would say we had best stick with the original plan,” Priscilla proposed. “Talk to Mr. Oliver at the party. It is only two days away, and it will be your best chance of getting close to him. I am sure he would refuse to see you if you tried to call on him at Ranleigh Court.”

“Excellent suggestion.” The general nodded his approval. “We are going to the party, also.” He turned and smiled at Miss Pennybaker. “Miss Pennybaker has done me the honor of accepting my escort to the event. You can come with us in my carriage.”

Priscilla's eyes widened a little at this news. She glanced at Miss Pennybaker, who was blushing and dimpling coyly, then over at her father, who wore a disgusted expression.

“Why, yes,” Priscilla agreed. “That sounds wonderful. But no doubt Papa will be coming, too. Is there room for all of us?”

“Yes, of course,” General Hazelton responded graciously, although his face grew a trifle stiffer. “If Mr. Hamilton is going. I was not aware that he was.”

Florian snorted. “I am sure there are many things of which you are not aware, General. Of course I am going.”

Priscilla struggled to hide her smile. “How nice. Thank you so much, General. Mr. Wolfe, is that agreeable to you?”

John nodded. “Yes. Fine.”

He looked at Priscilla. He had to know who he was before he could have anything with her. Friday could not come soon enough for him.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

“Q
UIT SQUIRMING
, M
ISS
P.,
or I will never get you finished in time.” Priscilla frowned at her former governess in the mirror.

Miss Pennybaker nodded, folding her hands and sitting very erect, like a child who had been scolded. “I will. I promise.”

Priscilla relented and gave her a smile. “You are going to look just beautiful when we get through.”

The older woman giggled excitedly. She had been on pins and needles the past few days, waiting for the Duchess's ball. Now that it was here, she literally could hardly sit still.

She did look much better, Priscilla thought. Her usually sallow cheeks were high with color, and she was wearing an attractive dress in a dusky rose hue. Priscilla had persuaded Miss Pennybaker to wear something more flattering than her usual browns and grays, though the woman had stubbornly insisted that all of Priscilla's clothes were much too young-looking for her. Finally Priscilla had remembered her mother's clothes, locked away in trunks in the attic, and they had found this muted rose gown in soft velvet. It had taken some tucking and hemming to fit Miss Pennybaker's thinner, smaller figure, as well as several stylistic changes to make it look less outdated. But the change it made
in Miss Pennybaker was well worth it. As a crowning touch, Priscilla had decided to arrange Miss Pennybaker's hair.

She rolled the last lock of hair around the hot curling iron and waited, counting under her breath. She pulled the iron away and carefully brushed the curl around her finger, letting it lie beside the others. As a last touch, she tied a small ribbon at the top of the curls and stepped back.

“All done.”

Miss Pennybaker stared at herself in the mirror. “Oh, my…”

Priscilla grinned. “You look perfect, Penny.”

“Oh, my,” the other woman said again, fascinated by her image in the mirror. The arrangement of curls and the short fringe of bangs that Priscilla had cut to soften her forehead enhanced her looks considerably, but it was the glow in her face that really worked the magic.

She stood up, smoothing down the skirt and turning this way and that to get a good look at herself in the mirror. “I have never worn anything so pretty.”

“The general will pop a button, he'll be so proud to escort you.”

Miss Pennybaker giggled. “Oh, Priscilla, you say the silliest things.”

“Tell me something, Penny. Do you like the general?”

“Oh, yes. He is an excellent man and most gallant. Of course, he is not the intellect that your father is. Few are. But he is very pleasant to be around.”

“He seems quite taken with you.”

Miss Pennybaker blushed and waved her hand in negation. “Nonsense; he is simply polite.”

“He doesn't have to be
that
polite. Why, even Papa has noticed.” Priscilla watched the other woman narrowly after she spoke.

“He has?” Miss Pennybaker's color rose even higher, and she turned to Priscilla with some excitement. “What did he say?”

“A few uncomplimentary things about the general. How bold he was, something like that. I think he was jealous.”

“Mr. Hamilton? Oh, no, I don't think so.”

“Maybe not. But you had better look out, or you will have those two fighting over you.”

“Priscilla!” Miss Pennybaker tittered. “You say the most outlandish things!” But there was a decided lilt to her walk as Miss Pennybaker left the room.

 

T
HEIR ENTRANCE DOWNSTAIRS
was all that Priscilla could have hoped for. Florian rose to his feet, staring openmouthed at Miss Pennybaker, and the general was long and effusive in his compliments. For her own part, it took only one look at John's face to see how Priscilla's outfit affected him. The heat from his eyes was almost tangible as his gaze swept down her body, taking in the full swell of her bosom above the neckline of her deep blue dress, and the narrowness of her waist.

Priscilla hoped that meant that tonight he would have trouble sleeping. She had been having enough trouble herself the past two nights.

She had lain, tossing and turning, waiting for him to come to her room. Hoping. But he had not visited her, and Priscilla was not bold enough to go to a man's room uninvited. She had told herself that he was not avoiding her, that he was simply wary of Miss Pennybaker, a
notoriously light sleeper—or that he respected her too much to put her in a compromising position in her own home. But she had had difficulty believing her words, given the stiff and remote way he acted toward her during the day. Their easy friendliness seemed to have vanished with the night they had spent in the forest. It seemed to Priscilla that John made every effort not to be alone with her, and when they did happen to be without companions, they sat in awkward silence and John soon made some excuse to leave the room. She was beginning to think that the vicar's wife had been right that time when she had told Priscilla that a man wanted only one thing from an unmarried woman, and that once he got it, he was no longer interested in her.

But the look that had flamed in John's eyes tonight was not that of a man who was no longer interested in a woman. It had been a hot, devouring gaze, as if he could barely keep from reaching out and taking her in his arms. Priscilla smiled in acknowledgment—a slow, sultry smile that was guaranteed not to reduce the heat in a man's blood the least bit.

“Ah, Miss Pennybaker!” the general said, moving forward to take that lady's hand and gallantly kiss it. “You are a vision. And Miss Hamilton. I can tell that the pupil took after the teacher.” He let out a short blast of laughter. “Ha-ha!”

Florian gave him a sour look. “Are we leaving, or are we going to stand here all day oozing compliments?”

The general cast him a quelling look and offered Miss Pennybaker his arm. They swept toward the front door, followed by a grumbling Florian.

“Priscilla…”

“Yes?” Priscilla turned and looked up at John, forcing herself to appear innocent and unconcerned.

“I… That is, you…”

“Yes?”

“Nothing.” He held his arm out stiffly, and Priscilla laid her hand on it. It gave her another little burst of satisfaction to feel that his arm trembled slightly beneath his coat.

She knew that she looked her best in this striking blue gown. The color and the shimmering satin did wonders for her skin and eyes, and the heart-shape neckline of the dress exposed the quivering tops of her breasts, pushed up by the stiff corset she wore beneath. Priscilla remembered how John had kissed those breasts, laving and caressing them until she was at a fever pitch of desire. The memory made heat flood her abdomen. She glanced over at John, wondering whether he remembered it, too. From the stiff way his jaw was set, she had a suspicion that he did.

All the way to the Court, John said almost nothing, although Priscilla caught him sneaking a look at her now and then. She pretended not to notice, and maintained what she hoped was an indifferent silence. Florian, scrunched in the corner of the seat across from the general and Miss Pennybaker, crossed his arms and glowered at them. That left Miss Pennybaker and her swain to carry the conversation, which they seemed to have no trouble doing. He complimented her, and she giggled; he whispered into her ear, and she waved her fan coquettishly; he made jokes, and she tittered, declaring him “too wicked for words.” Even Priscilla, pleased as she was for her friend, felt that she might be ill if she had to ride much longer with them.

Ranleigh Court was impressive. Built of massive gray stone in the shape of an E, a conceit popular in the Elizabethan times, it loomed at the end of a long drive. An Aylesworth of the eighteenth century had ordered all the trees along the drive cut down, so that nothing would obstruct one's view of the huge house as one approached it.

John, looking out of the carriage, let out a low whistle. “That's what Alec stands to inherit?”

Priscilla nodded. “Along with quite a bit of land.”

“Looks like a lot for that runaway heir to give up.”

“It
is
something to behold,” Priscilla admitted. “But Alec says it is a monstrosity to maintain.”

“I can imagine.”

They emerged from the carriage at the front door and walked in through the front doors, opened by a pair of footmen. The receiving line was at the head of a grand staircase, where the Duchess waited, Alec restless at her side. Alec greeted Priscilla joyously and John with some reserve, then passed them along to his mother.

The Duchess was an attractive woman still. She had married the old Duke when she was only seventeen, so that despite having a grown son, she was still a year or so away from forty. She had fought approaching age with such fury and dedication that she managed to look even younger than that. Her hair was blond and arranged in such a way that feathery curls framed her face, softening the rather sharp set of her features. Her eyes were a lovely blue, and she had darkened the pale lashes around them, so that this, her most attractive feature, dominated the remainder of her face. Her mouth, however, was small, and her nose sharp, and because she tried her best to keep her face free of lines by rarely smiling
or frowning, there was an unnatural stiffness to her expression.

She beamed at Priscilla as she greeted them, startling Priscilla, who had long felt that the Duchess disliked her. Then Priscilla realized that it was not she who was the object of the smile but rather John, standing just behind her. The Duchess ran her eyes over his tall form, a spark of appreciation in her eye, and said gaily, “Priscilla, how wonderful to see you. Pray, tell me, who is your friend?”

The look the Duchess gave John was almost blatantly leering. Priscilla suppressed a quiver of distaste and forced herself to smile, stepping aside so that John could move directly in front of the other woman.

“Your Grace, this is John Wolfe, who is visiting with us. Mr. Wolfe, allow me to introduce you to the Duchess of Ranleigh.”

“I hope you are having a pleasant visit,” the Duchess said, dimpling and looking up flirtatiously through her lashes at John.

“All the more pleasant, Your Grace,” John said with smile, “now that I have met you.”

Priscilla would have expected Bianca to preen at the obvious compliment, to giggle and bat her eyelashes. Instead, she looked startled. “I— Ah, you are an American?”

“Yes, I am. Pray do not hold that against me.”

“No. Of course not.” Bianca continued to stare at his face. “It is just, well…it surprised me. We are not used to such distant travelers here, are we, Miss Hamilton?”

“No. Not usually.” Seeing the Duchess's expression, Priscilla felt a sudden urge to see her reaction to John's story. “In fact, Mr. Wolfe would merely have passed
through here—if it had not been for what happened to him.”

“Happened to him?” The Duchess's voice rose almost to a squeak, and she glanced apprehensively at John.

“Yes,” Priscilla went on earnestly. “Mr. Wolfe was attacked by ruffians.”

“Attacked? Here?” Bianca's skin had taken on an unhealthy pallor, and Priscilla noticed that her hands were clenched tightly around her delicate ivory fan. “But how dreadful!”

“Yes, wasn't it?” Priscilla agreed. “It seems as if it is becoming positively unsafe to travel the roads anymore.”

“Yes.” Bianca looked distracted, and repeated in a faint voice, “How dreadful. What—what did they want?”

“My valuables, of course. They took my wallet, my pocket watch, all my cuff links,” John told her.

Priscilla saw the other woman's shoulders sag a little in seeming relief. “That was all they wanted? Your valuables?”

John raised his brows. “I presume so. What else could they have wanted? I don't know anyone here, so they could hardly have done it out of animosity toward me.”

Bianca smiled, and this time Priscilla was certain that it was relief she saw on the Duchess's face. “Of course. How silly of me. I am sure you are right. It was simply a random theft. It is so distressing how crime runs rampant these days.” She cast a quick glance around. “If you will excuse me, I must attend to my guests. It was ever so nice to meet you, Mr. Wolfe.”

She flashed a bright, meaningless smile at him and
Priscilla, then turned to the general and Miss Pennybaker, waiting behind them. “Ah, General, how wonderful to see you.”

Priscilla and John moved several steps away from the Duchess and stood watching her, pretending to be in idle conversation.

“Well, my presence certainly seemed to cause some distress to the Duchess,” John said dryly.

“Yes. I would say that Bianca was not entirely ignorant of Oliver's plan to kidnap you.”

“Do you suppose she merely knew of his plan, or that she, too, wanted to be rid of me?”

“I don't know. Did you notice that she did not recognize you by sight? It was not until she heard your voice that she began to act strangely. It seemed to be because you were an American.”

“I cannot imagine sheer xenophobia setting one to hire thugs to beat up all Americans.”

“No. I admit it seems unlikely. Let's see what she does.”

They moved over to the wall, casually hanging about behind a large potted palm and watching the receiving line through the palm fronds. As they watched, the Duchess gave a dismissive smile and nod to the general and Miss Pennybaker and turned away, looking all about the room. Finally she spotted what she was seeking, and headed in a determined manner across the room. Priscilla and John followed at a discreet distance. Finally she came to a stop beside Benjamin Oliver, who was in conversation with another woman. Bianca flashed a quick, dismissive smile at the woman and tugged urgently at his sleeve. He gave the woman an apologetic bow and went with Bianca.

The couple came straight toward Priscilla and John, who quickly turned and began to admire an alabaster statue a short distance from them.

BOOK: Scandalous
7.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Boy Next Door by Katy Baker
Dream Shard by Mary Wine
Longing's Levant by Charlotte Boyett-Compo
Crystal Fire by Kathleen Morgan
Spirits in the Wires by Charles de Lint
The Pregnant Bride by Catherine Spencer
The Fire Lord's Lover - 1 by Kathryne Kennedy