Excerpt from A Duke in Shining Armor
Early morning of 11 June 1833
The Duke of Ashmont was not a very good duke—rather an awful one, actually. And so nobody could be in the least surprised to see him, drunk as an emperor—that was to say, ten times as drunk as a lord—staggering down the steps of Crockford’s Club on the arm of one of his two best friends.
This one was Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley. Where Ashmont was fair-haired, blue-eyed, and angelic-looking, Ripley was dark. Unlike Ashmont, he did not appear to be spun of dreams and gossamer, and women did not follow his movements with the moonstruck expressions they accorded His Grace with the Angel Face.
On a good day, someone had said once, Ripley’s face resembled that of a wolf who’d been in too many fights.
Furthermore, though his slightly older title ranked him a notch or two higher in precedence than Ashmont, Ripley was merely as drunk as a lord. He could still distinguish up from down. When, therefore, His Grace of Ashmont showed an inclination to stumble in the downhill direction, toward St. James’s Palace, Ripley hauled him about.
“This way,” he said. “Hackney stand up ahead.”
“Right,” Ashmont said. “Can’t miss the wedding. Not this one. It’s me doing it. Me and Olympia. Have to be there. Promised.”
“You will be,” Ripley said as he led his friend across the street. The wedding had been news to him, the choice of bride a shock: Lady Olympia Hightower, of all women. She was the last girl on earth he’d thought would marry Ashmont—or any of them, for that matter.
Not that Ripley knew her very well. Or at all. They’d been introduced, yes, years ago. That was in the days when respectable persons still introduced Ripley and his two friends to innocent girls. But those were not the kinds of girls the ducal trio wanted. Gently bred maidens were for marrying, and marriage was supposed to be years away, sometime in the dim, distant future.
Apparently, the future had arrived while Ripley wasn’t looking.
First the Duke of Blackwood, the other of his two boon companions, had married Ripley’s sister over a year ago, a few days before Ripley left for the Continent. Now Ashmont was doing it. Ripley had heard the happy news mere hours after his return to London yesterday.
No, he’d returned the day before, because today was yesterday now. He’d come to Crockford’s because he wanted a decent meal, and Crockford’s Ude was the next best thing to Ripley’s own chef, Chardot, who’d come down with a foul cold sometime during the Channel crossing.
Chardot went with him everywhere because he was amply paid to do so, and Ripley liked his comfort. Having been forced, for no sane reason, to live like a pauper during his boyhood, he lived like a king now.
Ripley was debating with himself whether, on the whole, he’d better have stayed abroad, when four men spilled out of a narrow court, one crashing into Ashmont, with force enough to dislodge him from Ripley’s light grasp and push him into a shop front.
Ashmont bounced back with surprising energy. “You clumsy, bleeding, half-wit! I have to get married, you bloody arsehole!” At the same moment, he drove his fist at the fellow’s face.
One of the man’s friends tried to butt in. With a sigh, Ripley grabbed him by the back of the collar. The fellow swung at him, obliging Ripley to knock him into the gutter.
What happened after that was what often happened when Ashmont was about: a lot of filthy language and filthy fighting, and men rushing out of the clubs, shouting bets, and a female or two screaming somewhere.
Then it was over. Their foes lay strewn about the pavement. Ripley didn’t wait to count or identify them. He collected Ashmont from the railing he’d slumped against and trudged to the corner with him. He signaled, and the first in line of the hackneys plodded their way. He threw Ashmont into the decrepit coach and directed the driver to Ashmont House.
Servants waited up, as they were accustomed to do, for Ashmont. They bore him up the stairs to his bedroom and undressed and washed him without fuss. They were old hands at dealing with their master’s little foibles.
After he’d seen His Grace safely tucked into bed, Ripley left.
He needed a bath, a nap, and a change of clothes.
He had a wedding to attend in a few hours.
Newland House, Kensington
Late forenoon of 11 June 1833
If the bride was drunk—which she wasn’t—it was on account of celebrating.
In a very little while, Lady Olympia Hightower was going to make all of her family’s dreams come true. Hers, too, most of them.
She would become the Duchess of Ashmont.
Teetering on the brink of six and twenty, she ought to thank her lucky stars she’d won the heart . . . admiration . . . something . . .
. . . of one of England’s three most notorious libertines, a trio of dukes known as Their Dis-Graces.
She narrowed her eyes at the looking glass.
Behind gold-rimmed spectacles, eyes of a can’t-make-up-their-mind grey-blue-green took a moment to focus on the grandeur that was her. She. Whatever.
Elaborate side curls of a commonplace brown framed her heart-shaped face. An intricate arrangement of plaits, topped by a great blossom of pleated lace adorned with orange blossoms, crowned her head. A blond lace veil cascaded over her bare shoulders, down over the full, lace-covered sleeves and on past her waist.
She looked down at herself.
Four knots marched down to the V of the waistline. Below that swelled full skirts of brocaded silk.
A great waste of money, which would have been better spent on Eton for Clarence or a cornetcy for Andrew or something for one of the boys. Apart from his heir—Stephen, Lord Ludford—the Earl of Gonerby had five sons to support, a subject to which he’d given no thought whatsoever. His mind, unlike his daughter’s, was not practical.
Thus her present predicament. Which wasn’t a predicament at all. So everybody said. There was nothing predicamental about being a duchess.
In any event, practicality had nothing to do with this bridal extravaganza. The money must be thrown away on Olympia, on a single dress, because, according to Aunt Lavinia, it was an investment in the future.
A duchess-to-be couldn’t wear any old thing to her wedding. The bridal ensemble had to be expensive and fashionable, though not flamboyantly so, because a duchess-to-be ought to look expensively fashionable, though not flamboyantly so.
After the wedding was another matter entirely. A duchess could pour the entire contents of her jewel boxes over herself and never be overdressed.
With a few adjustments, a different arrangement on her head, and more diamonds or pearls or both, Olympia would wear the dress to the next Drawing Room, when her mother or perhaps Aunt Lavinia, the Marchioness of Newland, would present the new Duchess of Ashmont to the Queen.
That wasn’t all that would happen after the wedding.
There was the wedding night, which, according to Mama, would not be unpleasant, although she’d been rather vague regarding details. But after the wedding night came the marriage, years and years of it. To Ashmont.
The about-to-be Duchess of Ashmont picked up the cup of brandy-laced tea Lady Newland had brought to steady bridal nerves. The cup was empty.
“Do not even think of bolting,” her aunt had said when she delivered the doctored tea.
Certainly not. Too late for that, even if Olympia had been the sort of girl who backed down or ran away from anything, let alone the chance of a lifetime. She had six brothers. Being the second eldest child counted for nothing with boys. It was dominate or be dominated.
Some said she was rather too dominating, for a girl. But that wouldn’t matter when she became a duchess.
She bent and retrieved from under the dressing table the flask of brandy she’d stolen from Stephen. She unstopped it, brought it to her mouth, and tipped in what she gauged as a thimbleful. She stopped it again, set it on the dressing table, and told herself she was doing the right thing.
What was the alternative? Humiliate the bridegroom, who’d done nothing—to Olympia, in any event—to deserve it? Disgrace her family? Face permanent social ruin? And all on account of what? The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, which surely was nothing more than the usual wedding-day anxiety.
Only a lunatic would run away from becoming the bride of one of the kingdom’s handsomest, richest, most powerful men, she told herself. That was to say, Ashmont could be powerful, if he’d bother, but he . . .
She lost her train of thought because somebody tapped at the door.
“Please,” she said. “I’m praying.”
She’d insisted on time alone. She needed to collect herself and prepare for this immense change in her life, she’d told her mother and aunt. They’d looked at each other, then left. Soon thereafter, Aunt Lavinia had returned with the doctored tea.
“Ten minutes, dear,” came her mother’s voice from the corridor.
Ten minutes already?
Olympia unstopped the flask again and took another sip.
Nearly six and twenty, she reminded herself. She’d never get an offer like this one, ever again. It was a miracle she’d got this one. And she’d known what she was doing when she said yes.
True, Lucius Wilmot Beckingham, the sixth Duke of Ashmont, was a bit of an ass, and so immature he made nine-year-old Clarence look like King Solomon. And yes, it went without saying that His Grace would be unfaithful.
But Ashmont was handsome, and he could charm a girl witless when he set his mind to it, and he’d definitely set his mind to charming her. He seemed to like her. And it wasn’t as though any great shocks were in store for her. His character was well known to anybody who read the gossipy parts of the fashionable periodicals.
The important thing was, he’d asked. And she was desperate.
“A duchess,” she told the looking glass. “You can practically change the world, or at least part of it. It’s as close as a woman can come to being a man, unless she becomes the Queen—and no mere consort either, but Queen in her own right. Even then . . . Oh, never mind. It’s not going to happen to you, my girl.”
Somewhere in Olympia’s head or maybe her heart or her stomach, a snide little voice, exactly like her cousin Edwina’s, said, “The love of a lifetime is never going to happen to you, either. No Prince Charming on his white charger will come for you. Not even a passionate lord. Or a shop clerk, for that matter.”
She suffocated the voice, as she had wished, many times, to suffocate Cousin Edwina.
The Olympia who’d entertained fantasies of princes and passionate gentlemen had been a naive creature, head teeming with novel-fed romantic fantasies as she embarked on her first London Season.
For seven years, she’d been voted Most Boring Girl of the Season. In seven years, she’d received not a single offer. That was to say, she’d received no offer any young lady in her right mind, no matter how desperate, would accept or, as had happened in the case of an elderly suitor, would be allowed to accept.
And so, when Ashmont had asked, what could she say?
She could say no, and face a future as an elderly spinster dependent on brothers who could barely support themselves and their own families. Or she could say yes and solve a great many problems at once. It was as simple as that. No point in making it complicated.
She took another sip of brandy. And another.
There came louder and more impatient tapping at the door.
“It’s the right thing to do and I’m going to do it,” she whispered to her reflection, “because somebody has to.”
She took another swig.
“What the devil’s keeping her?” Ashmont said.
The guests whispered busily. At every sound from outside the drawing room, heads had turned to the door through which the bride was to come.
No bride had made her entrance. It must be half an hour past the appointed time.
Ripley had gone out to inquire of the bride’s mother whether Lady Olympia was ill. Lady Gonerby had looked bewildered and only shook her head. Her sister Lady Newland had explained.
“Something to do with the dress,” Ripley said. “The aunt’s gone up with a maid and a sewing case.”
“A sewing case!”
“Something’s come undone, I take it.”
“What the devil do I care?” said Ashmont. “I’m going to undo it later, in any event.”
“You know how women are,” Ripley said.
“It isn’t like Olympia to fuss over trifles.”
“A wedding dress is not a trifle,” Ripley said. “I ought to know. M’sister’s cost more than that filly I had of Pershore.”
His sister wasn’t here. According to Blackwood, Alice had gone to Camberley Place, one of Ripley’s properties, to look after their favorite aunt.
“This is boring,” Ashmont said. “I hate these bloody rituals.”
Lord Gonerby left the drawing room. He returned a moment later and said, jovially, “Apologies for the delay. Something to do with a troublesome hem or flounce or some such. I’ve sent for champagne. No sense in getting thirsty while the sewing needles are at work.”
A moment later the butler entered with a brace of footmen, all bearing trays of glasses.
Ashmont drank one, then another and another, in rapid succession.
Ripley drank, too, but not much. This was partly because he hadn’t yet recovered from last night’s activities. He must be getting old, because he could have used another hour or more of sleep, after the extended bout of gambling and drinking followed by a street brawl followed by the too-familiar labor of getting Ashmont out of a melee and home and to bed.
The other reason he abstained was the job he’d undertaken.
Last night, at Crockford’s, Ashmont had asked—or insisted, rather—that one of his two friends supervise today’s proceedings.
“One of you has to make sure I get there on time, with the ring,” he’d said. “And the license and such. Everybody thinks I’m going to bungle it. I won’t.”
“I’ve already done a wedding,” Blackwood had said. “My own. I should like, this time, to look on, irresponsibly.” Having shifted the job to Ripley, Blackwood had smiled and waved them on their way, suggesting they both go home and get some sleep.
If he knew more about Ashmont’s urgent wish to be shackled, Blackwood hadn’t said. Not that he’d had time to say much of anything. Last night, Ashmont had done all the talking, and his tale had knocked Ripley on his beam ends.
In the first place, Ashmont had acquired his betrothed fair and square, in the usual manner of wooing and asking. In other words, the bride wasn’t pregnant. Second, and equally amazing, Ashmont had persuaded an attractive, eligible, and sane girl to accept his suit. Ripley would have bet a large sum that there didn’t exist in all of England a gently bred maiden desperate enough to take on Ashmont—or whose family would let her, in the event his looks and charm got the better of her wits.
As he’d had boasted in his infrequent letters, Almack’s hostesses had barred him from their assemblies, the King had let His Grace know he wasn’t welcome at the Royal Levees, and the majority of hostesses in London had cut him from their invitation lists. For a good-looking, solvent duke, these sorts of accomplishments took some doing.
However, it seemed that Ashmont’s and Lady Olympia’s paths had crossed near the Clarendon Hotel some weeks ago. Somebody’s ill-tempered dog, taking instant dislike to His Grace, had tried to tear his boot off. Ashmont, being well to go, as usual, had tripped as he tried to shake off the dog, and nearly tumbled into the street—into the path of an oncoming hackney cabriolet going at top speed, as they usually did.
“But there was an umbrella handle,” he’d told Ripley. “It hooked about my arm, pulling me back. And in a moment I was stumbling back onto the pavement, trying to recover my balance. Meanwhile the dog was barking his head off. And she said, ‘Hssst,’ or something like that, and set the umbrella on the pavement, point down this time, with a sharp click. And do you know, the dog went quiet and skulked away!” Ashmont had laughed at the recollection. “And she said, ‘Are you all right, duke?’ And her maid was muttering something, trying to get her lady away from me, no doubt. I thought I was all right, but Olympia looked down and told me my boot was badly torn. I looked down. So it was. She said I couldn’t walk about London like that—heaven only knew what would get into the boot and onto my foot, she said. And then, of all things, she said, ‘My carriage will be here in a moment. We will take you home.’ Which she did, though her maid didn’t like it one bit. Neither did the coachman or footman but there was nothing they could do. Lady Olympia Hightower! Can you credit it? I couldn’t. How many times have we seen her at this do or that?”
Countless times, Ripley thought. A tallish girl, bespectacled, but not bad-looking. Good figure. No, make that very good. But she was a gently bred maiden, of very good family, and reputed to be bookish. She might as well have had the label Poison, with skull and crossbones, pasted over her fine bosom.
“She was kind,” Ashmont had said. “Not in a simpering, sentimental girl way at all, but very matter-of-fact and calm, rather like a fellow. And I must say, I was quite taken with her. And it was no use, when I mentioned her to Uncle Fred later, his telling me I wasn’t worthy of her or up to her brain level and other nay-sayings. ‘That’s up to her, isn’t it?’ I told him. Then I set about the wooing. It was uphill work, I tell you. But she said yes in the end, didn’t she? And wasn’t Lord Fred amazed when I told him. He even clapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘So you had it in you, after all.’”
Ashmont had been elated to get the better of his manipulative uncle for once. However, as Ripley saw it, Lord Frederick Beckingham had seen an opportunity and made the most of it. Telling Ashmont he couldn’t have or do something was a sure way to make him do it.
Not that it mattered, in the end, as long as Ashmont was pleased and the girl knew what she was getting into. Which she must do, if she was as intelligent as believed.
The problem was, the wedding didn’t seem to be proceeding as smoothly as it ought,Ashmont was bored with waiting, and a bored Ashmont was a dangerous article.
Ripley glanced at his brother-in-law. Blackwood—dark, like Ripley but sleeker and better-looking by far—raised one black eyebrow in inquiry. Ripley lifted his shoulders.
Blackwood made his unhurried way to them.
“Don’t see what the fuss is about a hem,” Ashmont said. “At the bottom, isn’t it? Well, then.”
“If she trips on it and falls on her face—”
“I’ll catch ’er,” Ashmont said.
Ripley looked at Blackwood.
They both looked at Ashmont. He was in his altitudes, beyond a doubt. He had all he could do to stand upright.
If the bride didn’t appear soon, one of two things would happen: At best, the bridegroom would sink into a stupor and subside ungracefully to the floor. At worst, he’d pick a fight with somebody.
“’Nuff o’ this,” Ashmont said. “I’m goin’ t’ get her.”
He started for the door, and stumbled. Blackwood caught him by the shoulder. “Good idea,” he said. “No point hanging about in here.”
He caught Ripley’s eye. Ripley took the other side, and they guided their friend out of the drawing room.
With the guests milling about the trays of champagne, they encountered only servants in the passage.
“Where?” Blackwood said.
“Downstairs,” Ripley said.
“Not down,” Ashmont said. “She’s up. There.” He pointed, his finger making unsteady curlicues in the air.
“Bad luck,” Ripley said. “Bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.”
“Was ’spectin’ to see her at the weddin’,” Ashmont said.
They led him toward the stairs, and then, not easily, down them.
“This way,” Ripley said.
Though he’d been in Newland House before, that was ages ago. He wasn’t sure of the ground floor layout. In an old house of this kind he’d expect a breakfast or dining room and, possibly, a library. Not that the type of room mattered.
They needed to get Ashmont away from drink as well as anybody he might decide to quarrel with, which was more or less everybody.
He and Blackwood guided their friend toward a door standing at a safe distance from the main staircase. Ripley opened the door.
The first thing he saw was white, miles of it, as though a cloud had slid into what he was distantly aware was a library. But clouds didn’t wear white satin slippers and clocked stockings, and did not stand upon a set of library steps.
“Oops,” Blackwood said.
“Dammit, Olympia,” Ashmont said. “What the devil are you about?” He tried to break away from his friends.
Ripley said, “Get him out of here.”
“No, you don’t, blast you,” Ashmont said. “Got to talk to her. Can’t botch this.”
In his present state, this was exactly what he’d do.
Ripley gave Blackwood their patented What Do We Do Now? look.
“Bad luck,” Blackwood told Ashmont. “Bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.”
As he hauled the protesting Ashmont back into the corridor, he said over his shoulder to Ripley, “He put you in charge of wedding details. Do something.”
“The ring,” Ripley said. “The license. Ready money where required. Not the bride.”
“Do something,” Blackwood said.
Once more Ripley opened the door.
The library steps nearby held nobody. A sound drew his gaze to the windows. He saw a flurry of white. Ashmont’s intended was struggling with the window latch.
Ripley crossed the room in a few easy strides.
“Funny thing,” he said. “Aren’t you supposed to be at a wedding?”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “You might give the blushing bride some help. The latch is stuck.”
He caught a whiff of brandy mingled with a flowery fragrance.
Though his brain wasn’t at its sharpest at the moment, he could sum up the situation easily enough: drunken bride at window with the aim of getting out.
There was a problem here.
“Why?” he said.
“How should I know why it’s stuck?” she said. “Do I look like a plumber to you? Or what-you-call-it. Glazier.” She nodded. “Window person.”
“Not being a window person, I may not be qualified to help with this sort of thing,” he said.
“Rise above yourself,” she said. “I’m the damsel in distress. And you—” She turned her head to look at him. She stared at the knot of his neckcloth, approximately at her eye level. Then her eyes narrowed and her gaze moved upward.
Behind the spectacles, her grey eyes were red-rimmed.
She’d been crying.
Obviously Ashmont had said or done something to upset her. Nothing new in that. His tongue often got well ahead of his brain. Not that any of them were gifted in the tact department.
“Plague take it,” she said. “You. You’re back.”
“Ah, you noticed.” He felt strangely pleased. But champagne usually had that effect, even in small doses.
“You’re over six feet tall,” she said, tipping her head back. “You’re standing right in front of me. I’m shortsighted, not blind. Even without my spectacles I could hardly fail to recognize you, even at a more distant . . . distance. Which I prefer you were. At.” She made a shooing motion. “Go away. I only want a breath of air. In . . . erm . . . Kensington Gardens.”
“In your wedding dress,” he said.
“I cannot take it off and put it back on again as though it were a cloak.” She spoke with the extreme patience more usually applied to infants of slow understanding. “It’s complicated.”
“It’s raining,” he said with matching patience.
She turned her head and peered at the window. Rain droplets made wriggly trails down the glass.
She gave him a grandiose wave of dismissal. “Never mind—if you’re going to fuss about every little thing.” She turned back to the latch and recommenced trying to strangle it. This time it surrendered.
She pushed open the window. “Adieu,” she said.
And climbed through, in a flutter of satin and lace.
Ripley stood for a moment, debating.
She wanted to go, and he deemed it unsporting to hold women against their will.
He could go back and tell Ashmont his bride was bolting.
He could go back and tell one of the men in her family.
She wasn’t Ripley’s problem.
She was Ashmont’s problem.
True, Ashmont had put Ripley in charge of the wedding. True, Ashmont had seemed unusually concerned about getting it right. And true, Ripley had promised to take care of things: hold on to the ring, supply coins as needed, make sure Ashmont did what he was supposed to do.
Retrieving the bride wasn’t in the agreement.
She oughtn’t to need retrieving.
Just because she’d been drunk and crying . . .
“Damn,” he said.
He climbed through the window.
Ripley spotted the cloud of white satin and lace an instant before she disappeared into a stand of tall shrubbery and trees.
He quickened his stride, glancing up at the house windows at the same time. No signs of anybody looking out. The wedding party had gathered on the other side of the house. That was all to the good. If he got her back speedily, they could patch up matters, and nobody the wiser.
A glance about him showed no sign of gardeners. The outdoor servants must be carousing with their fellows or taking shelter from the rain.
Ripley was aware of the rain, but it was no more than background. While conscious of its patter upon leaves and grass and footpaths, he concentrated on the bride, who moved at a smart pace, considering the miles of satin and lace and the ballooning sleeves and all the rest of it.
He didn’t shout, because she wasn’t running yet, at least not flat out, and he didn’t want to scare her into running, or startle her into doing something even more ridiculous, though at the moment he couldn’t guess what that could be.
She wasn’t dressed for athletic feats—not that women ever were—and the place was something of an obstacle course. Newland House’s gardens were thickly planted and mature. Some of the trees had waved their branches over Queen Anne. On slippery ground, wearing that rig, and more than a little inebriated, the bride was all too liable to get tangled in shrubbery or trip over her skirts or her own feet.
He was gaining steadily, in any event.
He was near enough to see her feet slide out from under her and her arms make windmills as she struggled for balance. He was a moment too late to catch her before she lost the battle and went down.
He grasped her under her arms and hauled her upright.
She twisted this way and that. Through several thousand layers of dress and undergarments, he felt her bottom make contact with his groin, which distracted him for a moment.
He was a man. Exceptional bottom, was his first thought.
Never mind, he told himself. Do the job and get her back.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “Did I make a mistake? Did you want me to leave you lying in the mud?”
“You’re spoiling my sleeves!”
The rain beat down on his head.
His hat was in the house. He felt naked without it. More naked than if he were in fact naked.
He felt wet, too.
He let her go. “You’ve already spoiled the dress,” he said. “Mud streaks and grass stains up the back. Looks as though you’ve been having a lovers’ romp in the shrubbery. Well, that will give everybody something to get excited about. It will certainly excite Ashmont. And since I’m the only male in your vicinity, I’m the one he’ll call out. Then I’ll get to tend his dueling wounds. Again.”
“Punch him in the face,” she said. “He’ll hit back. Then he can’t call you out, not being an injured party.”
The long veil clung wetly to her head and shoulders. Her side curls were coming uncurled, and the headdress listed to one side.
Her face spasmed, and he thought she was about to let loose the waterworks, but she stiffened her jaw and lifted it.
“You can go now,” she said. “I’m perfectly all right. I only want a moment to . . . erm . . . pray . . . on this . . . solemn occasion which will change my life forever and for the better. So . . . au revoir.”
He looked back toward the house.
What had Ashmont done? How bad or stupid was it? Was it better to let her go wherever she meant to go?
No, that wasn’t part of the agreement. It wasn’t Ripley’s job to think. His job was to make sure his friend’s wedding went off without a hitch. That meant retrieving the bride.
Ripley turned back to her, in time to see her sprint away, into a path among a thick planting of rhododendrons. In an instant, they’d hidden her from view, except for a dot of white here and there.
She’d waited until his back was turned—well, his head—and decamped.
That was . . . enterprising of her.
All the same, she couldn’t be let to go merrily on her way.
If she didn’t want Ashmont, she’d have to fight it out with him in person.
After they’d had time to sober up, that is.
Ripley went after her.
Though the wedding party and guests had congregated in the vicinity of the champagne, at the west front of the house, the bride’s eldest brother, Lord Ludford, was looking for his sister.
Newland House had been built in the early part of the seventeenth century and added to and updated since. The building, which sprawled over a large section of the land belonging to it, was a rabbit warren run amok. The families were close, their ladyships being sisters. Their numerous offspring had run tame in each other’s houses, and everybody was as at home here as at home. Since Ashmont was impatient to get married, and Gonerby House was in the midst of renovations, their ladyships had agreed to have the wedding here.
They were afraid, Ludford suspected, that if Ashmont waited too long, he’d change his mind. Personally, Ludford would have preferred that. He deemed Ashmont unworthy of Olympia. If she’d run away, Ludford didn’t blame her. On the contrary, that struck him as a wise decision. Also worrisome, however. Respectable girls like Olympia couldn’t go off on their own. Appalling things could happen to them.
He hoped, instead, that she was hiding in the house.
Olympia, who’d sometimes spent weeks at a time here with her girl cousins, had a number of secret places to which she’d retreat to study one ancient tome or another, or memorize book sale catalogs. He assumed she’d done that today, though he had no idea why.
Like his father, Ludford was not a complicated thinker. When he’d noticed his flask had gone missing, he instantly suspected his younger brothers.
A good shaking, until the teeth rattled, was often enough to extract a confession. But this time, they’d seemed truly mystified. Little Clarence had seemed to know or suspect something, but whatever it was, he wouldn’t say, and he was as stubborn as Olympia.
Ludford sought out Clarence now, in the nursery, to which he’d been banished after some games leading to broken champagne glasses. Andrew, his partner in crime, had been separated from him, to languish in the schoolroom.
Ludford flung open the nursery door. “You know something, brat,” he said. “And you’d better own up, or I’ll—”
He stopped, because Clarence turned away from the window he’d been looking out of, and his face was bright red.
Yes, he ought to be scared when Ludford burst in on him like that. That was the whole point. But Clarence jumped away from the window as though it had caught fire, and shouted, “No, I don’t! No, I don’t! And you can’t make me!”
Ludford stormed to the window in time to catch a glimpse of white in the shrubbery and the Duke of Ripley moving toward it, not running, exactly, but not at his usual lazy pace, either.
Ludford raced out of the nursery.
On a moonlit night, Ripley would have enjoyed pursuing a merry widow along the garden path’s twists and turns, with the tall shrubbery making the chase more challenging.
But this wasn’t a moonlit night, and Lady Olympia Hightower wasn’t a merry widow.
The flashes of white proceeded steadily and at surprising speed at a distance ahead of him.
As he plunged down yet another path, the white flares disappeared altogether. Then, through the pattering rain, he heard a faint clinking. He kept on, and the tangle of shrubbery gave way to a small clearing that led to an iron gate set in the tall wall.
A gate she was trying to wrestle open.
A few soggy strides brought him to her.
She paused in her labors and looked over her shoulder at him.
“Oh,” she said. “You.” She panted from her exertions, her bosom rising and falling. “The blasted thing’s locked.”
“Of course it’s locked,” he said. “Can’t have the hoi polloi tramping through the garden and poaching the rhododendrons.”
“Bother the rhododendrons! How is one to get out?”
“Perhaps one doesn’t?” he suggested.
She shook her head. “We must find another way out.”
“We?” he said. “No. You and I are not a we.”
She stiffened then, her eyes widening.
He heard it, too.
Voices, coming from what he guessed was the same route he’d traveled.
“Never mind,” she said. “Too late. You have to help me over the wall.”
“No,” he said. “Can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can,” she said. “Here you are, and what else do you have to do? Do be of use for once in your life and help me over the wall. And now would be a good time.” She stamped her foot. “Now!”
Bits of her coiffure had come undone, and tendrils of wet brown hair stuck to her face. The thing on top of her head was now more on the side of her head, and stray rhododendron leaves and dead blooms had become trapped among the apple blossoms. Her veil had snaked around her neck. A smudge of dirt adorned the tip of her narrow nose.
“Over the wall,” he said, playing for time.
“Yes, yes. I can’t climb the ivy properly in this dress—and certainly not in these shoes. Hurry! Can’t you hear them?”
He was trying to devise a delaying tactic, but his brain was slow to help. Then he heard a confusion of cries, and these called to mind baying hounds and angry mobs. At that moment, something in his mind shifted.
Since his Eton days, Ripley and his two partners in crime had been eluding the forces of authority, along with irate farmers, clergymen, tradesmen, and, generally, all species of respectable person, not to mention pimps, cutpurses, blacklegs, and others not so respectable.
“Hurry!” she said.
He laced his hands together and bent. She set one muddy, slippered foot on his hand, one dirty hand against the wall for balance, and boosted herself up. Then, with an ease that would have surprised him had he been capable of further surprise at this point, she climbed onto his shoulders and reached for the wall.
That, at least, was what he assumed she was doing.
The view he had—and a prime one it was, though brief—was of stockinged leg and garter. Then white satin and petticoats and the scent of a woman filled the world about his head. He barely retained the presence of mind to grasp her ankles to steady her.
“Up,” she said. “It’s still too high for me to get there. Up, up! Hurry!”
The voices neared.
Grasping her feet, he pushed her up, over his head. He felt her weight leave him as she found purchase at the top of the wall. He saw the backs of her legs as she scrambled onto the top of the wall and into a sitting position. An instant later, she dropped out of sight.
The voices were very near now.
He hadn’t stopped to think a moment ago and he didn’t think now. As she disappeared over the wall, he caught hold of a tangle of ivy and climbed up and over.
He looked right, then left.
The cloud of white satin and lace was moving swiftly down Horton Street.
He ran after her.