Authors: Candace Camp
“Yes, I'm fine, Miss Pennybaker,” Priscilla assured her, hurrying forward. “Do put down the flatiron. There's really no danger. JohnâMr. Wolfeâand I chased the intruders away.”
The older woman gasped and paled, swaying on her feet. “In-intruders? Then someone was here?”
“Yes.” Priscilla reached her and deftly took the flatiron from her with one hand while she grasped the woman's elbow with the other and held her steady. “But now they are gone. It is perfectly safe.”
“Oh, my.” Miss Pennybaker lifted her hand, now freed from the flatiron, to her forehead in a dramatic gesture. “I knew it! I heard all that noise, and I was certain that they had come back.”
“Yes, yes, but it's fine now,” Priscilla said soothingly, leading Miss Pennybaker to the nearest chair, into which she sank with a moan.
“I went to your room as soon as I heard, but you were gone! I didn't know what to think! I realized, of course, that something dreadful must have happened to you.”
“Of course,” John agreed dryly, and plopped down with a sigh into another chair.
Miss Pennybaker shot him a look of disdain. “I suspected that he must have come in and taken you away.”
“No. Now, Miss P., really, Mr. Wolfe would not harm me.”
“Why do you keep calling him that?” Miss Pennybaker asked, confused. “I thought he didn't have a name.”
“Well, he doesn't. At least, he cannot remember it.
But it is terribly awkward, don't you think, to be unable to call him anything? So I made up the name. I think it rather suits him, don't you?”
They both turned to look at him, and he grimaced.
“I suppose.” Miss Pennybaker did not look as if she liked having to admit anything about their visitor.
Priscilla suppressed a sigh. She was used to Miss Pennybaker's odd ways, but she could not understand why the woman was so set against their visitor. Normally she would have expected Miss Pennybaker to consider his stormy and mysterious entrance the most romantic of things. Her old governess compulsively read everything she could get her hands on, but her real favorites were the gothics that Priscilla herself loved. It was she who had first put
into Priscilla's hands, and there was nothing she loved like a dark and brooding hero.
Of course, Priscilla had to admit that their visitor was not really dark. Nor did he seem at all brooding, merely frustrated, but he was certainly mysterious and quite handsome. And nothing could have been more dramatic than the way he arrived, with two men chasing him and no knowledge of who he was. Why, Priscilla had been thinking ever since of exactly how to work the incident into one of her own books.
At that moment there was the sound of footsteps outside in the hall. They all swung around to face the door. Light bobbed in the hall, and a moment later Florian Hamilton stepped into the study. He, too, carried a candle and wore his dressing gown, as though he had been disturbed from his sleep, though his robe hung open, one side of the sash trailing along beside him on the floor. His hair stuck out wildly in spikes all over his
head, and it was easy to see why, for he was even now plunging his hand into it as he walked along, muttering to himself, frowning in concentration. He walked with his head down, and he did not even seem to notice the people occupying the room until his daughter spoke his name.
He jumped and looked up, his eyes widening at the sight of so many people in his study. “I say! Priscilla? Miss Pennybaker? And, uh, you.”
“Yes, precisely. I couldn't remember what we were calling you. I have enough trouble remembering real names, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Priscilla agreed.
Miss Pennybaker uttered a mortified groan, her face blushing furiously, and turned away from Mr. Hamilton, gathering the sides of her robe together, though little enough could be seen of her gown between them.
“Did the noise awaken you, Papa?” Priscilla asked.
“Noise? What noise? No. I just woke up. Had an idea, you see, an inspiration in my sleep. Happens sometimes, you know, and I was coming down to jot it all down before I forgot it. But why are all of you up? And why are you in my study?”
“Someone broke in, sir,” Wolfe began.
“Broke in? But why would anyoneâ? Lot of demmed strange things going on around here, if you ask me.”
“Yes, sir, there are. I can understand why you would be upset.”
“Upset? No, I'm not upset. It's rather interesting, actually. There must be some sort of reason, you see, a cosmic law that causes a cluster of such things to happen at much the same time. We've talked about it often, the
vicar and doctor and I, for you must admit that it seems to always happen that way. For instance, the way Mrs. Johnstone gets word that her brother has died, way out in the wilds of Australia, and not two days later, her niece's husband is hit by a runaway wagon. Coincidence, people say, but I'm not so sure. It could be the planets, I suppose, or maybe the moonâ¦.”
“I am afraid it was not coincidence this time, Mr. Hamilton.”
“What do you mean? Do you have a theory about it?”
“Yes. My theory is that the same two men who were holding me prisoner, the two who were looking for me the other night, broke in tonight to try to abduct me once more.”
“Ah, I see. Of course. That is entirely logical. No need to talk of coincidences, then, is there? Now, if you'll excuse me, I must write down my idea before bits of it begin to slip away.” He skirted the knot of people and sat down behind his desk.
John watched him, slack-jawed, as he pulled a pen from the drawer of his desk and began to search for a blank sheet of paper. “But, sirâ¦Mr. Hamiltonâ¦don't you want to know about the break-in? Are you not worried?”
“Worried?” Florian glanced up at him vaguely. “No. Should I be? Didn't you say you had taken care of it?”
John gaped at him. Behind John, Priscilla muffled a snort of laughter. Moving up beside him, she said, “Yes, Papa, that is exactly what we said. The men are gone now, and Mr. Wolfe will replace the windowpane they broke tomorrow. Everything is going along perfectly.”
“Splendid.” Florian said absently, his attention
already back on the sheet of paper. He began to write furiously.
Miss Pennybaker, assured that Mr. Hamilton's eyes were elsewhere other than on her berobed form, jumped to her feet and scurried out of the room. Priscilla took John's arm and steered him from the study after her, closing the door quietly.
Outside, in the hall, John stopped. “I don't understand. Why isn't he worried? Something might have happened to you. Could still happen to you, as a matter of fact.”
“It would hardly make the situation better to have him worrying, now would it? Papa is used to other people taking care of things. He has always been, well, a bit scholarly. If he were left to himself, he would not notice whether the roof leaked, unless it damaged his papers, or whether he had eaten that day, or if his sheets were clean. And he's right. It would be a waste of his mind to apply it to such trivialities. He's much more suited to solving the larger problems of the world.”
His mouth quirked up on one side. “Such as why terrible events happen to people in clusters?”
“Exactly. There are thousands of people who can solve the mundane things.”
“I see.” His bemused expression belied his words of understanding. “But doesn't that put rather a burden on everyone around him?”
“A burden? Oh, no. Everyone loves Papa. He's the kindest, sweetest man. There are some who find him a trifle odd, of course, but even they cannot dislike him. There is always someone there who will help him.”
“Primarily you, I imagine.”
“Me, and before me, my mother.”
“There are some women,” Wolfe pointed out as they started down the hall toward the stairs, “who would wish for more in life.”
“Indeed? I find it an honor to look after a genius. He is, you know. He corresponds with some of the most intelligent people in the world, and they all respect his opinion.”
“But what about a home of your own? A husband? Family?”
“Not all women are pining after a husband and family,” Priscilla replied tartly. “What is that, after all, except looking after other people? I am used to my father, and he to me, and he gives me much more respect and freedom than any husband would.”
They had reached the foot of the staircase, and they stopped. Priscilla faced him challengingly, her chin up. He looked down at her and smiled, his eyes smoky in the dim light.
“A husband has other things to offer,” he pointed out, in a silky tone that reminded Priscilla of the kisses and caresses they had exchanged in the study, before Miss Pennybaker interrupted them.
A flush started in her cheeks, but she said only, “Ah, but freedom is the most important thing that anyone can have. Without it, all else is meaningless.”
He frowned. “Even love?”
“Everything,” she said firmly. “A prison disguised with sweet words and loving kisses is still a prison. Would you have been content in your captivity if they had treated you kindly?”
“No, of course not, but that's not the point. Marriage is hardly a prison.”
“Not for a man, for he is free to do what he wishes. A woman is not.”
“You're a suffragette!” he exclaimed. “I might have known.”
“Yes, I should think you would have. It seems apparent that a woman such as I would believe in women's rights.”
“And do you march for the vote and all that?” he asked with apparent fascination, crossing his arms and leaning against the newel post.
“I have not had the occasion yet. But I am quite willing.”
“Provided your papa did not require looking after that day,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
Priscilla arched an eyebrow. “Are you implying that I give women's suffrage lip service only?”
He grinned. “Ah, there is one I would not touch for anything. No, my dear Miss Hamilton, I would not presume to imply that. I am too much in awe of your right hand. I've experienced enough of it tonight to last me for a good while. However, it seems odd to me that you profess to dislike men when you are so loving and considerate of your fatherâ¦and were so
back in the study.” He trailed a finger up her arm, his eyes glowing into hers. “When you were in my arms.”
“Oh!” Priscilla jerked away from him, stepping up on the first stair and planting her hands pugnaciously on her hips. “You dare to throw that up to me? When you had the audacity to make advances to me under my father's own roof? After we had given you shelter?”
“Yes,” he admitted, looking mock-repentant. “I was a cad, I admit. But I could not help myself. Your lips were too tempting.”
“Ha! That sounds just like a man, laying the blame on the woman! As if it had nothing to do with you! Well, let me set you straight. I did not tempt you into anything. You did it of your own free will, just as I did.”
He grinned. “You're right about that. And of my own free will, I would not mind doing it again.” He picked up one of her hands and laid a kiss on her balled fist.
She pulled her fist away, controlling a strong desire to hit him with it.
she went on, “just because a woman wants equality for all women, that does not make her a hater of men!”
“I am most happy to hear that,” he replied, his grin growing wider.
She narrowed her eyes. “Or, at least, not a hater of
He put a hand to his heart, as if wounded. “You have put me in my place.”
Priscilla grimaced. “Must you make a game of everything?”
“What would you have me do? Make it all a tragedy?”
Since she did not know what it was she wanted him to do, this query left her speechless. She turned and stamped off up the stairs. She refused to look back, but she suspected that John Wolfe was watching her go with a big grin on his face.
HE FOLLOWING MORNING
Lady Chalcomb sent over a trunk of her husband's clothes for Priscilla's “cousin” to wear. The late lord had not been as broad in the chest as their visitor, nor quite as muscular in the thighs, but at least the trousers did not end absurdly several inches above his ankles, and he was able to sit down without Priscilla expecting to hear a rip from the strained material. He was also able to button his shirt all the way up the front instead of leaving a large V of bronzed skin showing, and he was able to leave the sleeves rolled down to the wrist instead of baring his forearms. All in all, Priscilla thought, it was much better, although, as Miss Pennybaker pointed out, the tight fit of the shirt and pants was not entirely “decent.”
Priscilla spent most of the morning in her room, writing at her small secretary. She kept her door carefully locked, as she always did when writing, for while her father and Miss Pennybaker knew about her secret career, the rest of the village did not. She was not certain that Mrs. Smithson and her daughter would spread the news about, for they were not gossipy people. However, the temptation of something like Priscilla's writing novels of adventure and romance might be too great for them, and Priscilla was not willing to take the chance.
It was not for herself that she worriedâthough she
knew she would hate being the subject of gossipâbut for her family. Their branch of the Hamiltons had always been considered somewhat odd and intellectual, though still, of course, of good breeding. Her father's eccentricities were accepted, because everyone knew that geniuses were different from the usual run of people. However, a female writer was an entirely different thing. Certainly, there had been a few women who wroteâJane Austen, the BrontÃ« sisters, Mary Shelleyâbut they had lived in a looser, more permissive time, and none of them had been second cousins to a baron, either. It would be a scandal if it became known that Elliot Pruett was really Priscilla Hamilton, and, added to her father's oddities and the general reputation of their branch of the Hamiltons for peculiarity, it would simply be too much. Priscilla was sure that neither of her brothers would be able to marry as well as they should, or make sufficient progress in his chosen career, if there was such a blot on their family name.
It was not, she knew, the action of a believer in women's rights to conceal her career. But, as always, her family came first. Someday, perhaps, she would reveal it, once Gid and Philip were well established. But, for now, she continued to hide it as if her occupation were some dread disease.
When she came downstairs late that morning, she found John Wolfe in the sitting room, patiently helping Miss Pennybaker untangle the skeins of yarn in her knitting bag. Priscilla stopped and pressed her lips tightly together to suppress a smile at the sight of the large and well-built man sitting on the settee, a skein of yarn looped over both hands while Miss Pennybaker hovered over him like a large gray bird, trying to work through
the threads of a different color that were intertwined with it.
Wolfe looked up and saw her, and Priscilla would have sworn that a faint blush touched his tanned cheeks. When she saw that, she could hold back a chuckle no longer, and Wolfe scowled darkly at her.
Miss Pennybaker turned at the noise. “Ah, there you are, my dear. Did you finish copying your father's notes?”
Priscilla knew that her friend was signaling the lie she had told Mr. Wolfe to explain Priscilla's absence that morning, so she nodded. “Yes, I am through for the day.”
“Good. I was about to start knitting a blanket for Mrs. Banks's little one, but when I pulled out my basket, it was the most awful mess.” Her tone was as aggrieved as if her yarns were not in the same tangled mess every time she got out her basket. It never failed to amaze Priscilla that someone who could exercise such patience in figuring out her father's scribbled notes and recopying them could not have enough patience to roll her skeins of yarn into balls, instead of shoving them all together in the bag, loose.
“I see that Mr. Wolfe was kind enough to help you out,” Priscilla commented, her eyes twinkling as that gentleman's scowl grew even fiercer.
“Oh, yes,” Miss Pennybaker replied sunnily. “He has been so helpful. I was at a standstill when I looked in my bag and saw the yarn all tangled, but he came to my rescue. He picked the red out, right through all the others. You wouldn't think hands so big could be so precise and gentle, would you?”
Her remark reminded Priscilla of the way his hands
had felt on her body last night; they had been as gentle as she could imagine as they stroked over her hip and breast. It was her turn to blush now. She kept her gaze firmly turned away from John Wolfe, certain that the look on his face would be all too knowing.
“Well, it seems you have gained a friend, Mr. Wolfe,” Priscilla said lightly, moving away from them to sit down in her favorite chair. She tried to keep the sarcasm from her tone, but she knew that she was not entirely successful. Wasn't it only yesterday that Miss Pennybaker had been warning her away from this man? She wondered if John had set out to charm the governess, or if his charm was simply so engrained that he could not keep from doing it.
Miss Pennybaker had the grace to look a trifle abashed at Priscilla's words. John merely gazed at Priscilla blandly and said, “Some people are easier to make friends with than others.”
Priscilla wrinkled her nose but did not deign to honor his remark with a comment. Frankly, she could not think of one. Instead, she reached for her own sewing bag, tucked beneath the chair, and pulled out the small night-dress that she was embroidering for the same newly arrived baby.
She concentrated on the delicate needlework, resisting the temptation to glance over at John Wolfe. She had the definite feeling that he was watching her, but she was determined not to appear to have any interest in him. He was, in her opinion, altogether too sure of himself and of his obvious ability to charm women. No doubt, because of her behavior last night, he thought she would fall into his arms at the crooking of his finger, but he would find out that she was made of sterner stuff
than that. She had never before behaved the way she had behaved last night with him; she had never felt any of those wild emotions with any other man. But now that she knew how he could affect her, she would be on guard. She would be able to control herself.
A loud boom outside made her jump, and she stabbed herself in the thumb with her needle. “Ow!” she cried out crossly, and sucked at the injured thumb.
“What the devil was that?” Across the room, Wolfe jumped to his feet, dropping Miss Pennybaker's yarn, and started across the room toward the window. Miss Pennybaker, with a little shriek, dumped her end of the yarn and followed him, twisting her hands anxiously.
Priscilla sighed. “Only Papa, I imagine.” She stuck her needle into the dress and rose, joining them at the window.
They gazed across the backyard to the shed that was her father's workroom. A cloud of yellow smoke was billowing out of the open window, and a moment later the door flew open and her father emerged, more smoke gushing out after him.
Miss Pennybaker gave a loud sigh of relief, her hand going up to her heart. “Thank goodness he's alive.”
Priscilla flung open the window and leaned out. “Are you all right, Papa?”
Florian turned at the sound of her voice and smiled at her, waving a hand. His teeth shone white in his smoke-smudged face. His hair stuck out wildly, and the front of his white shirt was blotched with streaks of black and yellow.
“Perfectly fine, my dear!” Florian called back. “Splendid bang, wasn't it? No, that's all right, Mrs. Smithson.” He turned toward the cook, who had come
bustling out the back door with a bucket of water. “No fire this time.”
“Mmâ¦ Just splendid, Papa,” Priscilla responded dryly.
She turned to go back to her chair and caught sight of John's slack-jawed face. She had to giggle. “Don't worry, Mr. Wolfe. It is not an unusual occurrence. Papa often blows things up.”
His eyebrows vaulted upward. “Why?”
“Now that is a question that only he can answer. âAll in the name of science,' I believe he says. Personally, I think he likes to hear things go bang. My brothers often did when they were younger.”
“Priscilla!” Miss Pennybaker scolded, as if Priscilla were still her pupil. Bright spots of color stood out on her cheeks. “That's not fair. Your father is one of the greatest scientific minds of this, or any other, century.”
“I know, Penny, dear. But don't you find it rather awkward sometimes to live with a great scientific mind?”
“Oh, no, I consider it an honor!” Miss Pennybaker's eyes glowed with the zeal of a disciple. “To be able to witness the workings of such a mindâ¦”
Priscilla felt a tug of sympathy for the older woman. She had suspected for years now that her governess held a much stronger feeling for her father than mere friendship or the devotion of an employee. The sad thing was that Florian Hamilton was barely more aware of Miss Pennybaker than he was of a piece of furniture. His life was wrapped up in his studies and experiments, and it was only because Miss Pennybaker had started copying his notes and papers that he paid any attention to her at all. It was not that he was cold or insensitive to her feelings, Priscilla knew; it was simply that everything and
everyone else was mere background to his work. Even his children, despite his love for them, were perennially relegated to second place.
There were footsteps in the hall, and Florian soon appeared in the doorway of the sitting room. Up close, he was an even more appalling sight. Yellowish vapor drifted up from his clothing, and his face and hands were blotched. The unmistakable odor of rotten eggs emanated from him.
“Papa!” Priscilla protested, raising her hand to cover her nose.
John's nostrils flared, and he stared at Florian, seemingly stunned.
Florian smiled benignly at them all. “Pris, you should have been there. It was perfect.”
“I'm sure it was, Papa.” Priscilla could not help but smile at him. His innocent enthusiasm was infectious. Over the years, he had burned holes in the carpet, discolored the wall in his study and broken out the glass in several windows. That was why she had finally insisted that he conduct his experiments in the shed behind the house, paying for its conversion to a laboratory with part of her payment for her first book. But the glow of discovery that would light his face, the childlike curiosity and glee with which he approached life, the warm intelligence of his eyes, made it impossible to stay irritated with him.
“You've cut yourself!” Miss Pennybaker cried, going up to him with unaccustomed boldness and reaching out to dab her clean handkerchief upon a spot of red on Florian's cheek.
“What? Oh, yes, one of the beakers broke. But it was a minor setback. Nothing important.”
Miss Pennybaker clucked over him, wiping a clean spot on his smudged face. He paid little attention to her, saying, “A really important step, you know. I must write Rigby, in Boston, and tell him. Last letter I got from him, he told me I'd blow up my whole house if I tried that combination. Guess he was wrong, eh?” He chuckled with glee over his scientific victory.
John Wolfe's eyebrows shot up at that statement, but Priscilla merely smiled, long used to her father's way of thinking. “He certainly was,” she agreed, smiling. “But, Papa, you really should change clothes. You, ah, smell of sulfur.”
“'Course I do,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Been working with it. Anyway, I haven't the time to change now. I've got to get all this down on paper.”
“I'll write down your notes for you,” Miss Pennybaker volunteered.
“What?” Florian turned and looked at her, as if noticing her for the first time. “Yes, of course. That will be fine.”
“Thank you, Penny,” Priscilla said gratefully. In the past two years, since she had started writing, Miss Pennybaker had taken over more and more of the chores that Priscilla had done in the past for her father. Priscilla thought that she probably should not shove her burdens off onto Miss Pennybaker that way; if nothing else, being around Florian so much seemed to make Miss Pennybaker's adoration of him even worse. But, frankly, Priscilla often found her father's notes and letters rather boring, and she begrudged the time spent away from her writing. Miss Pennybaker's willingness to take over such chores seemed a heaven-sent opportunity.
Florian departed, still talking about his experiment,
and Miss Pennybaker trotted after him. Priscilla watched them go. It occurred to her that Miss Pennybaker's absence meant she was left alone with John Wolfe. She glanced over at him. He was watching her. She felt suddenly, terribly, ill at ease. She cleared her throat.
“Wellâ¦a bit of excitement.”
“Yes. No wonder you took a battered stranger turning up at your door in stride,” he told her. “You are obviously used to unusual events.”
“Not quite as unusual as that,” Priscilla assured him, a small grin curving her lips. “Your situation was unique.”
She walked back to her chair and sat down, picking up her embroidery and trying to concentrate on it. She could feel his eyes on her. She wondered what he was thinking, whether he was remembering the embrace they had shared the night before. It was something
had a great deal of difficulty getting out of her mind.
“I know I should apologize,” he said finally. Priscilla looked up at him, struggling to keep her face cool. “No doubt you think me a boor.”
Priscilla shrugged. “I don't know that it is particularly important what I think about you.”
“It is to me.”
She regarded him for another moment, then her gaze dropped. Her heart was hammering in her chest. She didn't know what to think or say. Why did he have this effect on her?