Read Maggie MacKeever Online

Authors: Jessabelle

Maggie MacKeever (18 page)

“Moonshine!” Whatever Dolph’s defects of character and wit, he did not seek to shift the responsibility for his misdeeds. “It ain’t your fault I’m caught between Scylla and Charybdis. I know I said it was
,
because if you’d been more biddable you’d have suited Pennymount, but you can’t help
that!
I mean, you ain’t the biddable kind of female!”

Lady Camilla was, thought Jessabelle, gloomily. Lady Camilla would suit Pennymount very well. They would live happily ever after, as in a fairy tale.                                            

Briefly Jessabelle considered making her own contribution toward that happy
dénouement
by releasing the Honorable Adolphus from a betrothal that he had good reason to regret. Then she discovered she was not sufficiently selfless to carry through that act. Adolphus must remain betrothed to her a while longer yet.

Still, perhaps there was a way in which she might make partial amends. Jess looked across the room at Capitaine Chançard, engaged in patient conversation with the querulous officer of horse marines whose perpetual complaint was that the wine was corked. From Michon she glanced at her fiancé, who during their conversation had contrived to maneuver Jessabelle into a position between himself and the doorway, so that he was partially—if not very effectively—hidden by her skirts. At least she might insure that one of his countless creditors would not press him for prompt payment of his debts. “Shall I speak to Michon?” she offered.

“Speak to him? I don’t mind! Oh, you mean about my accounts. No need, m’dear, but I’m obliged to you for the thought!” Reminded of the one ray of sunshine in his otherwise gloomy universe, Dolph smiled. “Milly will fix everything up all right and right.”

Distracted by this mention of Lady Camilla, Jessabelle frowned. “You should not have given your sister my direction, Adolphus. For her to visit me is not at all the thing.”

“Hang it, I know that! Which is why I
didn’t
give it to her! But there’s no keeping pace with Milly.” Adolphus exhibited fraternal pride. “Dashed if the little minx ain’t up to all the rigs!”

Tardily she grasped the implications of Dolph’s remarks. He didn’t wish her to intercede in the matter of his gaming debts? Lady Camilla had received Jess’s direction from someone other than Adolphus? “You didn’t introduce your sister to Michon!” Jess gasped.

“I didn’t?” Dolph’s brow wrinkled as he struggled with thought. “You’re out there, m’dear, because I recall it perfectly. Came upon him by accident. By Jove, you mean I
shouldn’t
have! The deuce! I could hardly bid the fellow to go to the devil, could I?”

Appalled, Jessabelle gazed across the salon at her longtime friend. Capitaine Chançard would know exactly how to charm a wealthy and hen-witted young woman, and toward what end he did so was not difficult to guess.

Something must be done to thwart Michon, but what? Speculatively Jessabelle gazed upon her fiancé, resplendent in wasp-waisted yellow and green.

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

Lord Pennymount erred in assuming his prospective second countess was too unromantic to be intrigued by émigré operators of gaming-hells. In point of fact, Lord Pennymount labored under any number of misapprehensions concerning Lady Camilla. For example, he would have sworn on the family Bible that she was of too conventional and unadventurous a nature to be even briefly tempted by the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall.

Yet Lady Camilla
was
at Vauxhall, and enjoying her adventure very well. Without reservation she approved the wide lawns and lush foliage, minarets and columned walks, waterfalls and wooded valleys and dark ravines. Currently she was seated in a supper box beneath the colonnades of the Quadrangle.

As Lady Camilla gazed with interest at her surroundings, so was she also observed. “You are full of surprises,
chérie,”
murmured her escort.

“Lud!” Had not her lovely features been obscured by a loo mask, Milly would have looked arch. “Because I came to Vauxhall with you? I didn’t imagine I’d have another chance. If you didn’t truly
wish
to bring me, you shouldn’t have offered, you know!”

Deftly Michon piled on his companion’s plate miraculously thin-cut slices of ham. “Very true,” he agreed.

I did wish it, or I would not have offered. I am a very selfish man, Lady Camilla. I do as I please.”

Anyone so blessed by freedom from the restraints imposed by irascible sires and ill-tempered fiancés was due respect. Lady Camilla ceased to gaze upon the romantically painted walls and observed her companion instead. What she saw, she liked. Capitaine Chançard was older than Lord Pennymount, yet infinitely more attractive, she thought, noting the serene cast of his features, and the appealing manner in which his brown hair had begun to turn gray. “You stare,
petite,”
he murmured, presenting her with a glass of arrack punch. “May one be so forward as to inquire why?”

The deep swallow which Lady Camilla took was not her first sample of the heady arrack punch. “One may be as forward as one wishes, sir!” she said, and hiccoughed. “Providing one does not make sheep’s eyes at me, or empty the butter dish over my head.”

“My dear Lady Camilla.” There could be no doubt of the gentleman’s amusement. “I would not dream of such a thing.”

“I know.” Milly drained her glass, no small feat for a young lady encumbered by a loo mask. “Had I thought you would be thrown into transports, I would not have agreed to come here with you, because to be pestered with a gentleman’s wild and ungovernable passions fatigues me to death!” She paused, as if listening to the echo of her own words. Then she giggled. “Gracious! I sound like a pudding-head.”

“Ah, ça non!”
murmured Capitaine Chançard, as he assisted Lady Camilla to rise from her seat, an act accomplished not without difficulty, due to the young lady’s injudicious indulgence in the potent arrack punch. “Nothing of the sort.”

“I would not like you to think me conceited!” Milly explained to her companion, as he escorted her past the Rotunda. “But gentlemen have been dangling after me forever, and it has become far too great a bore! Then there is Pennymount. I was sure he would suit me to a pig’s whisker, and so he once did

but lately I have begun to wonder if I truly wish to marry someone who will be glowering at me every morning over the breakfast cups! Not that it would signify if I
didn’t,
because all the arrangements are made, and Papa would fly off the hooks were I to try and cry off—although I do not like to be toad-eaten, I do not like to be
scolded
either—but you will not wish to hear my woes!”

To this hopeful suggestion Capitaine Chançard offered no reassurances, but instead guided his somewhat tipsy companion among arches and pillars hung with colored lamps and illuminated garlands of flowers, past statues of individuals renowned in the arts. The walks were crowded with people of all ranks, raucous and rowdy, jostling one another, calling out cheerful insults and ribald advice. Lady Camilla pressed closer to her escort. Casually he placed one arm around her shoulder and drew her against his side.

While it was true that Lady Camilla had been showered with masculine admiration from her cradle onward, few of her admirers had made so bold as to sue for an embrace, and those few who had received cool rebuff. Lady Camilla had received her share of chaste salutes, of course; what accredited beauty had not? And she had received from her fiancé salutes that were considerably less cerebral. Nonetheless she had never been caught up so casually against a gentleman’s side. It was a novel sensation, and one she decided she liked very well.

Her enjoyment was not unrestricted, however, due to her recollection of her fiancé. Lady Camilla sighed.

That simple expression of dissatisfaction did not escape the notice of her escort.

You are distressed,
chérie?”

Impressed by his discernment, Milly snuggled closer yet. “It is just that everything has somehow gotten in a muddle and I don’t know
what
to think,” she confessed. “Dolph has betrothed himself to Mme. Joliffe and I am very much afraid he is doomed to disappointment—even though Jessabelle would probably make Adolphus a very good wife, she hasn’t a feather to fly with, and Papa is bound to cut them off without a farthing. He is prone to kick up a dust over trifles, I fear!”

Capitaine Chançard’s expression remained serene. “It is a good thing that your papa approves your betrothal to Pennymount, eh? ‘Twould be a very great pity if you were similarly bereft
.”

“Bereft?” Lady Camilla turned her head enchantingly sideways so that she might look up into his face. “Oh! You mean Papa might deal similarly with me. But he couldn’t even if he wished to! It’s all very complicated but I have my own money. And anyway Papa is quite in alt about me marrying a peer.”

As he contemplated this interesting piece of information, Michon led Lady Camilla down one of the dark and shady walks. “You do not sound similarly enthusiastic about this marriage,” he said.

Lady Camilla seated herself on a marble bench. Capitaine Chançard remained standing, several paces away. “No, but I do not expect
to be enthusiastic about marriage,” she explained. “Nor did I expect that Pennymount would be offering his first countess violence, or being
bit
by her, or meeting her in Berry Brothers and buying her tea! When I haven’t set eyes on him in days! I think it is not wonderful if I am feeling a trifle miffed. Even though I do not wish Pennymount to dangle at my slipper strings, I neither wish to be ignored.”

“You dislike to play second fiddle,
naturellement.”
Capitaine Chançard’s voice was kind.

Lady Camilla was further impressed by his easy understanding. “You must not think I regret my betrothal,” she hastened to explain, “even though I cannot help but remember that Pennymount is in the habit of laying violent hands on his first countess. I daresay she did not handle him properly. I shall do better, I vow!”

“I hope you may.” Now Capitaine Chançard’s voice expressed concern. “But I think I must warn you that an old dog does not quickly learn new tricks. Pennymount has the habit of being difficult. To break him of that habit will require drastic steps.”

“It will?” Keenly—and perversely, because Pennymount’s failure to throw the hatchet at her was why she’d accepted his offer in the first place—Lady Camilla felt herself trifled with.

“Assuredly, yes!” Capitaine Chançard was firm. “Start out as you mean to go on,
chérie.
At the first opportunity, take Pennymount to task. It will not be an easy undertaking; you will encounter setbacks. After the knot is tied he will try to revert to his old bad habits. That’s the way it is with these English. We Frenchmen are otherwise.”

By this intimation that she was likely to endure rare trimmings and turn-ups from the gentleman destined to share her breakfast cups, Lady Camilla’s apprehensions were not soothed. Indeed, thought of Lord Pennymount threatened to wholly spoil her outing, which had started off so delightfully. With the idea of rediscovering that lost delight, she eyed her escort, and suggested that he might like to join her on the marble bench.

“I should adore it,” responded Capitaine Chançard. “But you would
not
adore it if I made an exhibition of myself. So I must remain a little distance away from you.”

“An exhibition?” Lady Camilla repeated crossly. Talk of Pennymount had ruined her high spirits, and now Capitaine Chançard would not flirt with her, and furthermore she was growing very cold. Not even contemplation of her bride gifts—most recently acquired, a coffee urn in Pontypool jasper, decorated with a rustic landscape teeming with sheep—had power to reelevate her mood. “How is that, pray?”

Definitely the gentleman looked amused. “You have already told me you do not care for romantical effusions,
petite.”

With this ironic statement, Milly’s attention was caught. “Dash it!” she said. “I mean, such stuff is all very well in its
place—
and what better place is there for such stuff than Vauxhall?”

Still Capitaine Chançard stayed his distance. “I would not wish to appear to dote on you,” he stated. “Knowing how you would dislike it.”

Behind her obscuring loo mask, Milly’s eyes were opened wide. “I would?” she echoed doubtfully.

Her escort appeared to—and in fact did—exercise great self-restraint. “So you have said. It is precisely because Pennymount didn’t dote on you that you accepted his offer, if you will recall.”

Lady Camilla did
not
recall discussing with Capitaine Chançard her reasons for marrying Lord Pennymount, but the earl  was currently of no more significance to her than the distant orchestra. “You seem to know a great deal about me, sir!”

And so he should have, considering the massive efforts he had made toward that end. Michon walked toward her.

I have made it my business to know a great deal about you,
chérie.
And so I know I must not appear to admire you, lest you take me in disgust.”

Fascinated, Milly watched him approach, then held out her hand. Gallantly he bent over it. She took hold of his sleeve and tugged him down beside her on the marble bench. “I may have been mistaken in that!” she admitted.
“Do
you dote on me, sir?”


À
la folie!”
said Capitaine Chançard. “Do you think you could call me Michon?”

So very much in charity with her companion was Lady Camilla that she would have called him anything he liked, a circumstance for which—in her defense—her fiancé’s neglect was partially to blame. No accredited beauty, no matter what strictures she has issued upon the subject, cares to see her betrothal advance with no demonstration of affection. Soon, Milly realized, she would see her marriage similarly advance. She must make the best of this outing. Were Pennymount to learn of it, she would have no more. She shivered, recalling her fiancé’s harshly expressed desire to throttle his first countess. Pennymount was not likely to consider an assignation of less consequence than an elopement, she thought.

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