What a Lady Needs
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Valentine glanced at the mantel clock. “No more today, Kate. I’ve got a friend arriving from London in less than two hours.”
“Please say it’s not Jeremy. He keeps looking at me with his mouth hanging open. I can nearly see his tonsils.”
Valentine chuckled as they left the study, arm in arm. “He can’t help it. He’s mad for you. Except when he’s afraid of you, which is most of the time.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why would he be afraid of me?”
“I don’t know. Probably because I said you’d eat him for lunch.” Valentine grabbed Kate’s elbow and turned her toward the large pier glass in the hallway. “Look at you.”
“I don’t have to look at me—I know what I look like, Val, for pity’s sake.”
“Do you? Just because it amuses me, let me tell you what Jeremy sees. Jeremy, and any man with two eyes in his head and not dead below the waist—and don’t try to be coy and tell me you don’t know what that means, because Trixie gave you the same talking-to she gave all of us, God help us.”
Kate was checking out her reflection in the glass, pushing a lock of hair back behind her ear. “Oh? So she told you if a man misbehaves you’re to kick him hard in the fork and then run away while he’s on his knees, whimpering and calling for his mama?”
“My God. It’s even worse than we’d imagined she say.” Valentine rubbed at the slight twitch that had started up beneath his left eye. “Thank you for not doing that last year, at Almacks. Really, I mean that sincerely. Now, shall we continue?”
“I’m not continuing anything,” Kate said, trying not to grin at her brother’s embarrassment. “You started this, remember?”
“Yes, for my sins, I do.”
“We make quite the handsome couple, don’t we, Val? Same dark hair, same amber eyes. Why, your eyelashes are nearly as long as mine. Does that bother you?”
“Not as much as it does Max. Why else do you think he’s grown that mustache? Now pay attention, Kate. First, your hair. Black as the ace of spades in most lights, golden-black in the sun. Hair like yours is rare as hen’s teeth in London, land of the insipid blond, blue-eyed miss. Then there’s the sheer amount of it. And the curls when you let it hang loose, which is most of the time, because you’re a lazy sot. Females live to be told they’re old enough to put up their hair, and you let yours hang. I’ll bet Trixie told you to do that.”
Kate played with one of the fat, soft curls that reached halfway to her elbows. “So Jeremy’s shocked into imbecility by my hair? Which, yes, Trixie told me to continue wearing down because the only reason to put it up would be so men can do nothing but concentrate on finding a way to take out the pins. Why not give them what they want beforehand, because that way maybe they’ll retain enough brains to actually attempt coherent conversation.”
“That woman’s a menace. And dead wrong in this case, or hoping to keep you looking younger so she doesn’t feel older. In any event, you let them start thinking lascivious thoughts having already arrived at step two of their plan for you—and with your help.Luckily for you, Jeremy hasn’t the expertise to have ever gotten past step one to even begin thinking about step three. You confound him, poor fellow.”
“Intriguing. What’s your step three, Val?”
“None of your business, brat. All right, so much for the hair. We’ve discussed the eyes as to color. The problem with yours is, you don’t lower them, not to anybody. You don’t simper, you don’t flirt, you don’t flutter. You look at the world with beautiful eyes, granted, but beneath those lashes and those tip-tilted ends you’ve got going so nicely for you, you’re a man, and they know it. You think like a man, you look boldly like a man, you appraise with your eyes. Also damnably unnerving.”
Kate looked at herself looking at her eyes. “Good. I like that.”
“Wonderful. I’m trying to explain something, and all I’m doing is handing you more ammunition to use against my own gender. Your mouth? That mouth is self-explanatory, and probably a sin to think about, not that your older, wiser brothers see it for more than it is, which is bold, and definitely opinionated. Leaving us with your body.”
“We are not going to discuss my body.” Kate tried to tug her arm free of her brother.
“No, no, let’s finish this. First, it’s noon, and you’re not yet dressed for the day. Not because you’re lazy. Lord knows half of London’s debutantes are just now waking up to their morning chocolate. But they’re hidden away in their chambers, not tramping about the house in their bare feet because of a sudden insuppressible desire to have me poking around behind a couch.”
“I wanted to catch you before you went out riding, or something.”
“We could argue that one point for hours, Kate, but we’ll let it go with the easiest explanation—you want what you want when you want it. Just like Gideon.”
“Thank you,” Kate said cheekily, knowing she was making her brother crazy. “Now you’re going to compare my body to Gideon’s?”
“No, mostly I’d compare it to our mother’s. I’d compare all of you, and most of the rest of us, to our mother. It’s what you do with your body that is like Gideon, or Max, or me, or men everywhere, at least the ones who aren’t wearing red-heeled shoes and mincing about like nincompoops.”
“Speaking of nincompoops, do you know Adam sleeps until eleven, and then takes two full hours to bathe and dress, only to come out of his rooms looking the brainless fop, his scent arriving in any room a good ten seconds before he appears?”
“Jessica’s brother is a good example of the men you don’t resemble,” Valentine said, grinning. “You haven’t been tormenting him too much since you brought him back here from London, have you?”
“No,” Kate said, peering at her reflection again, trying to understand what Val had meant about her body. She’d been tutored by Trixie, she was all of twenty years old—she should know what he’d meant. “He can fairly well make a cake of himself all by himself. And does, frequently. A spider crawled up his silly pink clocked stockings out in the garden the other day. He screamed, worse than any female and ran in circles until I could catch him and flick the thing away. I like him, though. He’s almost my same age, I think. We’ve agreed to cry friends, as long as we’re banished here together to keep us out of the way.”
“You two weren’t banished here to keep– Oh, all right. I’ll grant you that one. On the other hand, you weren’t Adam’s age since you were five. That’s still not what I’m trying to say, so if you’d please shut up I can be done with this. And not a moment too soon for my comfort.” He looked toward the ceiling, as if hunting his next words, and then said carefully, “You didn’t quite get the hang of London last year.”
“Oh, nonsense. Don’t tiptoe around the thing. I know exactly what London is. I just didn’t like it.”
“Yes, I’ve seen Lord Hilton’s crooked nose. Actually, it helps one forgive his nonexistent chin. But what I’m saying is you have a woman’s body, but you comport that body like a man. You slouch when you want to, you cross your legs at the knee, for God’s sake. You walk with purpose, your strides too long to be dainty. You fold your arms across your chest when your hands should be neatly curled in your lap. You put your feet up on the table and let your ankles show. And look at you today. Traipsing about here in your nightclothes, as if you have no notion of what’s proper. And when you finally get dressed, nine times out of ten it’s in one of your riding habits and a pair of boots.”
She truly didn’t understand his concern. She was who she was, just as her brothers were who they were, and what was good for the goose should also be good for the gander. Who’d decided only men could be comfortable? Probably a man. “Oh, dear. Surely I should be locked up. Or is that shot?”
Valentine ran his hand through his own thick thatch of dark hair. “You’re a motherless child, raised by Trixie of all people, and in the company of three older brothers who probably set a bad example.”
“I’ll ignore that. But you aren’t a Redgrave brother, Kate, no matter how much you may have wanted to be. You’re a female, and these things matter. You were in London for less than a week when you went to Almacks and performed your little party trick. Now I’ve got a friend coming to stay with us for a few weeks. A sophisticated gentleman. A marquis.”
“Oh? And you’re ashamed of me, is that it? Wait—it’s worse than that, isn’t it? You’re matchmaking? I refused to go back to London for a second season, so you’re bringing London to me? With all that’s going on here, Val, with the search for the journals, the caves where the Society met? Have you entirely lost your senses?”
“As you just said, probably,” Val muttered, turning away from the glass, refusing to meet her gaze. “All I’m saying, Kate, is...well, it’s time to grow up, be a lady. You can do it, I know you can, Gideon made sure you had lessons. You need to do it.”
But he turned back at the sound of a short, hurriedly cut-off sob, and held out his arms to her. “Aw, Kate, I’m sorry. Come here.”
Kate walked into his arms, to lay her cheek against his chest. Her brothers were all such sweethearts, they really were. But even her love for Valentine wasn’t enough to contain her giggles for long, and he soon put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her away from him enough to see her grin.
“What’s wrong, Val? I just acted like a lady. You should be overjoyed I didn’t fall into a ladylike swoon. Oh, but if this marquis of yours begins courting me on orders from you—”
“Now wait a moment, Kate. It isn’t as if I deliberately invited the man for you to practice on. We were both bored hollow with the season, and Gideon had already asked me to come here to watch over you. I just opened my mouth and heard myself inviting Simon to join me,” Valentine corrected quickly. “The rest was an afterthought.”
“Well, that at least sounds like you. Always quick to lend assistance. And, as I always remind you, one day you’re going to drop yourself into trouble, being so helpful.”
“I just think it would be a good thing for you to get in a little...practice before you descend on London next spring. Because you are going back, Kate, and at twenty-one some will already say you’re getting a bit too long in the tooth for a debutante. Gideon’s already working on securing another voucher for Almacks, although I doubt even he can manage that miracle.”
“Right up there with the loaves and fishes, I gather? Bunch of high-in-the-instep matrons who think they’re more important than they are. But tough nuts to crack, hmm? Maybe Gideon ought to petition the heavens for help.”
Val pointed a finger at her. “See? That’s what you do. Young ladies don’t say things like that. What you need is practice, and me for a mentor, God help me, because I’m the only one available except for Trixie, and we can all see how that turned out the first time. So practice on the marquis while he’s here, and I’ll guide you.”
“That depends, Val. Can he join in our treasure hunt? We can call it that, at least. Gideon said there may also be a treasure of sorts in the cave when we find it, remember? A golden rose with a diamond in it as big as a pigeon’s egg, perhaps?”
Valentine’s eyes went wide. “Who in bloody blazes told you about the rose?”
Really, men were so simple. “Nobody. I just happened to hear something about it somehow. You’ve only just confirmed it for me, thank you. And gentlemen don’t say bloody in front of ladies, even sisters. I’m not the only one in need of a mentor, it seems.”
“Never mind that. Eavesdropping, were you?”
She jammed her fists onto her hips. “How else am I supposed to learn anything? Of course I eavesdrop. The members of the Society all wore a golden rose in their cravats, to show they’d brought a virgin into bloom, correct? And, somewhere on the estate, there’s possibly a very large golden rose, with a diamond in it as big as a pigeon’s egg. Maybe. Perhaps. Or at least Gideon was thinking that way early on, when he suspected someone was poking about the grounds last winter. You know, lights moving through the trees, that cave-in in one of the greenhouses that exposed some bit of collapsed cave or tunnel?”
“Do...do you have any idea what you’re saying? About the rose?”
Kate lowered her head, this time truly close to tears. “Yes, I think our father was an exceedingly bad man who did exceedingly bad things, much if not all of it done here, at Redgrave Manor. I can’t ask Trixie, because that might hurt her. That her son was evil. Our father was evil. I’ve stared and stared at his portrait in the long gallery since I returned from London. He was very handsome, like some sort of blond god. I don’t see evil, except perhaps in his eyes. They’re cold, aren’t they, and mocking. He’s got one of the golden roses stuck in his cravat. That couldn’t have made our mother happy, could it? No wonder she shot him.”
Valentine pinched at the bridge of his nose. “God, I’m done. I came here to protect you, and you already know more than you should.”
“I know you’re all after a murderer, who probably killed Jessica’s father and some of the other older members of the Society who possibly didn’t agree with the new leader. Trixie said that right in front of me in London. She was half in her cups, poor thing, but she couldn’t help it. After all, her lover had just—”
“I know what happened that night,” her brother said, looking pained.
“I’m sorry. I’m simply trying to help, that’s all. I should be allowed to help. Tell me about the murderer. Who all did he murder? What other bad things has the Society done?”
Valentine shook himself back to attention. “Now we’re more than done. You learned about the journals, and Gideon decided you could search for them, certain you wouldn’t find them, that Trixie had found them years ago and burned them all. And then he had second thoughts. Concentrate on the journals, Kate. Finding them would be an immense help.”
“So you won’t tell me about the murderer. Why? It’s all of a piece, isn’t it? The Society, the journals, the murderer?”
“We believe the murderer, as you call him, is the new leader of the Society. Murder is not their true purpose but only, as I said, a weeding out of the members from our father’s time who might not agree with what’s happening now. Tell you what, Kate. Find the journals, and I’ll tell you the rest. All you have to do is promise me you won’t open them, and that in the meantime you won’t badger me incessantly to know what nobody wants to tell you. That’s a fair bargain, isn’t it?”
“Is there a lot I don’t know?”
“God, I sincerely hope so.”
Kate considered this for a moment. Either way, she’d learn the whole of it, eventually. But if it made Valentine happy? “All right. We’ll shake on it.”
“We bloody well will not. Women don’t shake hands to seal a bargain. If they do anything, they offer their hand and allow us gentlemen to bow over it.”
“So stuffy, Val. All right, pretend I just did that, assuming you agree to the rest. We’ll let this marquis of yours join in the treasure hunt, unaware of what we’re really looking for. If we don’t, and you insist on being with me as I search in case I find something—which I’m determined to do—he’ll have nothing to do all the day long otherwise but twiddle his thumbs. That and have his ears banged on by Adam, which isn’t always as jolly as it sounds.”
“And,” Valentine said, apparently feeling he had the advantage now, “you’ll behave like a lady in the man’s presence. Seriously, Kate, much as we all adore you, you need the practice.”
She could give in, but never completely. It wasn’t in her nature. “I’ll try, that’s the best I can say. However, if he should be so impressed with my ladylike behavior that he attempts whatever step three is, be aware, Val, I’ll kick him hard in the fork. I really will, and then I’ll blame you.”
“I need a drink. Go get dressed.”
Kate held out one side of her dressing gown and sank into a deep curtsy. “La, sir, you’re so very masterful. I shall of course rush off now, begging your leave, to do your bidding.”
“Two. Make that two drinks...”
SIMON RAVENBILL, LATE of his majesty’s navy and now marquis of Singleton, both thanks to the unexpected death of his older brother the previous year, reined in his curricle at the crest of a hill overlooking Redgrave Manor.
This is where it all began, he thought, looking down at the enormous fieldstone country mansion that had probably stood there for well over a century, with each new earl adding his own touches by way of wings that seemed to jut out willy-nilly on three sides. Spread around the main grounds were at least a dozen more stone buildings of varying sizes, as if the main house had pupped and the hodgepodge of structures was the result of several strong litters.
There were sheep milling about, their purpose to keep the acres of grass neatly gnawed, but the animals were kept away from the buildings and gardens by means of a ha-ha, a gracefully meandering but rather formidable sunken fieldstone wall. Simon eyed the height of the wall from the distance, took in the several high stone pillars fitted with heavy iron gates that kept the ha-ha from completely circling the grounds. The road leading to the gates took the same deep dip and rise of the ha-ha trench, rather like a moat.
He decided sheep weren’t the only unwanted visitors that could be kept at arm’s length.
The ha-ha’s wide top was encrusted with bits of colorful broken glass and sat level with the scythed lawns nearest the buildings. The wall must be a dozen feet high, seemingly grown up out of the twenty-foot-wide ditch that then gently sloped back up to the level of the rest of the property. A sheep could amble in and out of the grassy ditch easily enough, but only on the same side on which it had entered. The same could be said for any man hoping for entry anyplace other than one of the gates, unless he brought his own ladder with him, and a stout pair of leather gloves.
Green grass, white sheep, the sunlight dancing on the broken glass and setting off small rainbows of color. Bucolic. Picturesque. Deceptively deadly.
All that was needed was a drawbridge. Then Simon remembered where he was: southern Kent, not more than a mile from Hythe and the Channel. Beautiful, but with a sometimes violent history. Smugglers had been active here for centuries, and probably would see the coast for what it was, a spot seemingly fashioned perfectly to ply their trade.
Invading armies saw it likewise, most recently Bonaparte himself. Although Simon agreed with the current theory that the new self-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon was now too busy annexing every country in Europe to attempt an assault of England by sea.
All the strong brick Martello watchtowers hastily constructed along the southern coast in earlier years of the new century were left now to inferior troops who spent their days napping and their nights in the local dockside pubs as guests of the friendly local smugglers.
Hopefully, nobody noticed the building of the towers, mostly abandoned a few years ago, was quietly taking place once more, with the goal of having more than one hundred of the things fully manned before they were done, their cannons all aimed out over the water.
It took an army to win a battle, but only a few determined men could completely alter the tide of a war. That those men could be English, and their goal the collapse of their own country was why Simon now found himself the guest of a man he’d met only the once, and a reluctant actor in a romantic farce dreamed up by Prime Minister Spencer Perceval himself in order to appease Gideon Redgrave and gain his cooperation.
Or as the earl had affably stated as he relaxed in Perceval’s office as if it were his own: “We Redgraves will see these traitors brought down, I assure you. However, if you wish for me to continue to share information, you’ll do things my way. I keep you apprised, you keep me apprised, and nothing appears so much as vaguely suspicious at Redgrave Manor.” He’d then stood up, shot his cuffs and smiled one of the most appealing yet threatening smiles Simon had ever seen. “We’re agreed? Otherwise, good day, gentlemen, and good luck.”
Only days earlier Simon had still thought Gideon Redgrave a possible traitor himself because of who he was, and suddenly his family was to be their savior. He didn’t like it. In fact, he was all for bringing in troops and ripping Redgrave Manor apart, and the devil with this tiptoeing about as if the man were in charge.
But as the prime minister had pointed out, Simon hadn’t made much progress on his own in the matter. With one of the two men he’d been investigating now dead, and the other claiming illness and retiring to his country estate, Simon had to agree. Now, thanks to the Redgraves, they had hopes of more information, and had already uncovered one nasty plot at the Ministry level to criminally divert the timely delivery of food and ammunition to their troops on the Peninsula.
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