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Authors: Anita Mills

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Regency

Secret Night (5 page)

BOOK: Secret Night
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"But I am not a nob, am I? I don't have to pretend as though I know nothing of the world around me— and I don't have to waste my time doing nothing."

"With my money, Puss, I could have made you a latly. There was Sir Richard Hanford—or Darlington even."

"There was Ben."

"Aye, but—" He glimpsed the pain in her eyes and backed off. "The boy's dead, Ellie," he said gruffly. "Ain't anything as I can do about that." He touched his scratched jawline gingerly. "London streets ain't safe for anyone."

"And after what happened to Ben, I find it a wonder you venture out at night."

"Know where to go, that's all."

"And thrice you have been robbed this year."

"Aye." He shook his head as though to clear it, then remembered his original purpose. "I ain't speaking of the dead, Puss. I've been patient—gave you time to mourn the boy, didn't I?"

"I don't think I want to speak of this," she decided.

"Two years I've let you grieve yourself into a reforming Methodist, and I ain't said a word," he went on.

"You've said a great deal-—and I am not a Methodist," she retorted.

"Beginning to think like one-—always reading their trash, ain't you? First you was enamored of the demned Jews, and now 'tis the More woman, ain't it?"

They were back to Ben, and she knew it. "I could have wed him, Papa, but you wanted me to wait."

"The boy wasn't like us, Ellie."

"He was kind and caring—and he loved me."

"That's not what I meant, and well you know it. I meant they wasn't Christians."

"And we go to services so very often, don't we? 'Church is for matchin', hatchin', and dispatchin',' you were wont to say. If I was to become one of Hannah's converts, I doubt you would know of it, for you would never be there. But I have not, so you need not worry."

He was oversetting her now, and yet he could not stop. "I didn't say as you couldn't wed him, did I? I told him he could have you, as sorry as I was about it."

"What difference does it make now?" she wanted to cry. "You found something wrong with every wedding date until it was too late! You waited until Ben was dead before you even said one good thing about him!"

"The Roses wasn't happy about you, neither," he muttered. "Sam and I was agreed as you should wait." When she didn't argue, he went on, "And I've been sorry ever since the boy was killed. But what's done is done, ain't it? I ain't got no control over the thieves as prowls the streets, do I? Look—you are alive, Ellie. You got to forget—you got to." He looked away to avoid the reproach in her eyes. "Now I got this fellow as is coming over, and I'd like you to be nice to him. Oh, I ain't expecting as you'll throw your cap over the windmill for him, but—"

"There is not the least chance."

Moving behind her, he dropped an awkward hand to her hair. "You always was a beauty, Ellie—always. Even when you was a little chit, you was. There was people as would stop on the street to stare at you."

"As though I were an exhibit at the Tower."

He knew he'd alreatly bungled the matter badly, but once he'd opened his budget, he was willing to gamble a bit. "I've hopes you'll take a liking to this fellow," he said, his voice coaxing.

She stared at him, disbelieving her ears, then she shook her head. "Papa, I cannot."

"Aye, you can. Dash it, but he's good ton—moves
in the first circles, don't you know? Got enough money to keep you in first style, too."

"I am a Cit, and I am proud enough of it."

"Ellie—Ellie—" His own voice lowered, and his hand tightened on her shoulder. "You are my pride. My only issue, Ellie, but I ain't sorry for that. Oh, I wished you was a son when you was born, but once you began to grow, I quit repining, I swear it. And I ain't blamed your mama for it neither. I was always proud enough that she was born Quality, that I could say Bat Rand got himself a gentlewoman."

Releasing her, he went to the desk and drew out the bottle he kept there. Pulling the cork with his teeth, he opened it and unsteadily poured port into his glass. It overflowed, spilling, spreading a dark red stain on the carpet. He downed half a glass in one gulp, then refilled it. Turning back to her, he blinked as though to clear his mind.

"Now, where was we?"

"Mama was a gentlewoman." Even as she said it, she relented. For all that they'd never seen eye to eye on Ben, she still loved her oft irascible parent. She smiled and shook her head. "You are coming in the back door, aren't you? You want me to feel guilty enough to encourage this man, don't you?"

He appeared wounded for a moment, then he grinned. "Always was a downy one, wasn't you? If you
had
been a boy, we'd a ruled the biggest fortune as London has seen, wouldn't we?"

"But you are halfway there without me," she reminded him.

"All right—all right." He lifted his hand, then let it fall. "You caught me out." "It wasn't very difficult." "I need him, Puss." "Who?"

He tossed off the remainer of his port and turned to find his bottle again. His back to her, he mumbled something unintelligible.

"Papa, you are more than half-foxed."

He swung around at that, sloshing more wine onto the floor. "I want you to be nice to him, and that's all. You just got to do the pretty for 'im! You know— wear the fancy gown, put up your hair—and—" He groped for a word and did not find it. "Well, you are a female, ain't you? Play over the fan with 'im."

"Papa, I will not!"

"Hamilton—"

"The Scottish peer?" She choked. "He must be fifty—and he's a stranger to me!"

"Lud, no! Fellow you saw this morning." He blinked again, then turned his attention to his wine. As the port dribbled down his chin onto his waistcoat, he drank greedily, emptying the glass again. He sat it on the edge of a table, where it teetered, then fell onto the carpet. Wiping his chin with his coat sleeve, he ignored it. "I want him, Puss—man's the best demned barrister in London—best to be had anywheres."

"Oh—
Patrick Hamilton."
For a moment, she recalled the man who'd defended the awful Coates woman. "Papa—"

"The man's but nine and twenty—I made my inquiries—and he don't even have a lightskirt You ought to like that."

"Papa, I don't—"

"Told you—you just got to encourage him a bit, that's all," he mumbled evasively. "But I wouldn't take it amiss if you
was
to set your cap for him, Ellie—I don't deny it."

"You
are
foxed, Papa—utterly foxed," she decided, disgusted.

"Just a few glasses of wine, Puss—the nobs, they drink the clock around, you know."

"You are not a nob. And neither am I."

"Your mama—"

"Mama was a parson's daughter," she reminded him. "She never claimed—"

"She was gentle-born, and don't you ever forget it! Oh, the Binghams wasn't titled, but they was landed gentry," he maintained stubbornly.

"Grandpapa Bingham—"

"Was a younger son," he finished for her. "And poor as a mouse in his church, but that don't take anything from your mama, you hear me?" When she didn't answer, his anger faded, but the mulish set to his chin remained. "The old gent made me wait until I was fixed well enough to provide for her, too, I can tell you. Bartholomew Rand wasn't good enough for Miss Emmaline Bingham until he could settle five hundred pounds on her," he recalled. "As if the Reverend Bingham had so much as one fifth that in his living," he added resentfully.

"Whether she was Quality or not doesn't signify," Elise said finally. "All that matters is Mama has always been a latly, titled or not."

"Aye, but she was gentry," he insisted. "The old gent's papa had land in Hertfordshire and tenants as farmed it for him. What was wrong with the reverend was that he had the ill luck to be born down the line a bit, that's all."

She could only recall a couple of visits to her grandfather's rectory, so it scarce seemed worth discussing. Besides, she'd knew it never changed anything to argue with him when he was in his cups. "Mama was gentry," she murmured, acquiescing.

"Aye. Even if Old Bat here ain't what you'd want for a papa, you got good blood on one side."

"No, I have the best from both sides, Papa."

For a moment he eyed her suspiciously, then his face broke into a pleased smile. "You mean it, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Now, where was we?" he asked again. "Oh— Hamilton—I got him coming to look at you. You got a pretty face—beautiful even—I got hopes—" His brow furrowed as he tried to remember his purpose.

"If he is born to the gentry, I daresay he's not looking for a Cit's daughter, Papa. And I assure you I should not want him if he were."

"Handsome devil," he argued.

"Unprincipled," she shot back. "He defended Mrs. Coates, lest you forget it."

"Jury said she was innocent."

"Of murder only! What could you possibly want with Patrick Hamilton, Papa?"

But he wasn't listening to her. As though she'd not asked, he went on, "I got you—and I got more'n a hundred thousand quid to interest 'im. Why, there's royal dukes as would make bricks for that." He swept the room with bleary eyes before returning his attention to her. "There's high-born nobs as ain't got what I got. And I made it all by myself—I wasn't born to it." Once again, he laid his hand on her shoulder. "Got to impress Hamilton, that's all," he mumbled.

This time she reached to clasp his hand. "I know you wish the best for me, Papa," she said. "And I know you love me. But if you are in some sort of difficulty—"

"Aye, you love the old man, don't you?" he asked, his voice thickening. "Yes."

"You're m'blood, Ellie—you got me in you." His fingers tightened around hers, holding them, while his free hand stroked her hair. "Pretty little gel— pretty little gel," he crooned.

"But, Papa, about Mr. Hamilton—I don't see why you cannot merely engage him. I don't see why I—"

"Got m'heart set on him."

"But I don't want anyone but Ben," she told him desperately. "I don't want anyone."

"All you got to do is try, Puss—for your papa, you got to try."

"Papa,
are
you in some sort of trouble?" she asked directly.

"No—but that don't say I couldn't be."

"Enough to need a criminal lawyer?"

"Told you—a man never knows—well, sometime I might be."

"But not now?"

"I ain't saying."

"You know you are alreatly more than half-disguised, don't you?"

"No, I ain't—scarce got started—"

"You are—and if you'd have my opinion of it, you are better advised to send a note 'round, saying you are unwell. He won't think much of you if you have drunk yourself into a stupor, will he?"

"Just a little port, Ellie—just a little port. Good medicine, that's all." His hand caught her arm, pulling her against him. "Come on—give your papa a squeeze, eh?" She seemed to hesitate, then she laid her head against his chest and slid her arms to hold him. He smoothed her hair, then patted her arm. "My girl," he said softly. His other hand rested on her crown for a moment, then he let his arm fall to his side. "Might not always be here, you know."

She ducked away, then bent to pick up the paper that had slid off her lap. She sighed. "I have the distinct feeling I am being bamboozled."

"Course not." Pleased that he'd apparently won, he added, "You are a good gel, Puss. Aye, a good gel, but you got to get this reforming nonsense out of your head, that's all." Moving away again, he found his nearly empty bottle. "Not enough for a demned mouse," he mumbled more to himself than to her. With that, he walked unsteadily from the room.

She sat very still, wondering what had caused this latest queer start of his. For the past several months, no more than six at most, he'd begun drinking more, acting more unpredictably. Twice he'd had to be brought home by the watch, and once he'd managed to make it home unaided after being robbed and beaten. Still he would go out to crawl his pubs alone, insisting he could fend for himself, that he knew how to take care of himself. And it did no good to remind him that Ben's throat had been slit, for he'd had such contempt for kind, gentle Ben. He'd point to his own scars and scratches and say he'd at least fought to keep his purse.

No, she still could not think of Ben without wishing to cry. Determined not to give in to yet another bout of blue devils, she forced him from her mind, then rose and made her way upstairs.

Molly, her maid, awaited her. "Ye'd best hurry, miss— yer papa says ye're to be down to dine by half after seven," the girl chided her. "And how I am to do it, I'm sure I don't know," she added, shaking her head. " 'Heat the longs,' he says, 'and see as she wears her best' "

Rather than
throw herself at a man like Hamilton, Elise considered
begging off with a coward's headache, but she knew her father, no matter how drunk, would not stand for it. If he could yet stand unaided, he'd come up and get her. Whenever he got any maggot in his brain, he tended to become obsessed with it.

"Perhaps the peach muslin will do," she mused half to herself.

" 'Silk,' he told me, 'see as she wears silk,' " the maid insisted. "I thought p'rhaps yer blue one—the one as has the sars'net shawl over it, don't ye think?" But as she spoke, the girl eyed Elise speculatively. "Aye—ye got to show a bit of yer shoulders," she decided. "Ye got lovely shoulders." Moving past her mistress, she reached into the wardrobe, drew out the gown, and held it up. "Makes yer eyes as blue as the sky, don't it?"

Elise eyed the dress skeptically. "Molly, it is far too grand for dinner at home. It looks like something I should wear to the opera."

"The master said—"

"I know what he said, but—"

"Shows yer neck to advantage also," the girl declared. "With yer mama's sapphires—"

"I think it shows a great deal more than my neck— and if I wear anything with it, it will be my own pearls."

"Yer papa—"

"Molly, I have no wish to flaunt my person or papa's gold before a stranger in my own house."

"But it does become ye-—the gown, I mean," the maid reminded her. ' 'And we got to hurry, ye know. Like I said, the tongs is hot, and we ain't got time to tarry. Now, if you was to sit down, I can do yer hair right proper. But ye got to get out of that, so's we don't muss what we've done."

BOOK: Secret Night
4.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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