A Midnight Clear

A Midnight Clear

Lynn Kerstan

March 2013 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-215-6

Will the twelve days of Christmas bring them together or leave his family in ruin?

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Jane Ryder is innocent, plain, poor, and eager for adventure. After taking a job as a secretary with the notorious gossip, Lady Eudora "The Tongue” Swann, she is given the task of transcribing Lady Swann’s scandalous history of the aristocracy, featuring the many promiscuities of the Fallon Marquesses.

When the Fallon heir, Charles, returns from India with a self-made fortune, he dedicates himself to restoring the derelict manor house and the infamous family name. Face-to-face, he orders the crafty Lady Swann to leave his family out of the book.

Lady Swann offers a sly trade: If he agrees to confide intriguing tidbits of his family history (and of his own rise to fortune) to Miss Ryder, she will tone down his family’s sordid tales in Scandalbroth.

At Wolvercote, the centuries-old and long-abandoned seat of the Fallon family, a snowstorm strands Charles and Jane. They’re drawn together in mutual respect, humor, and as time passes, an attraction that cannot be denied, though her lowly station forbids it. When they discover an abandoned infant girl near the stable on Christmas Eve, caring for her together, the formal barricades between them seem to vanish.

Can a romance begun on a night of joy and miracles overcome the strict rules of London society? It may take a meddling old gossip named Lady Swann to persuade them that love is the best Christmas gift of all.

Lynn Kerstan, former college professor, folksinger, professional bridge player, and nun, is the author of sixteen romance novels and four novellas, all set in Regency England.

A RITA winner and five-time RITA Finalist, her books are regularly listed among the best in the Regency genre. The Golden Leopard and Heart of the Tiger were selected by Library Journal for its Best Books of the Year list (2002 and 2003), and Dangerous Passions was named by Booklist as one of the Top Ten Romances of 2005.


"Once again Bell Bridge has reissued an older romance that is a true treasure." -- Janice Rholetter, Just Janga



WHEN THE parlor door opened, seven pairs of eyes gazed curiously at the white-faced woman who emerged, pressing a handkerchief to her brow.

"Oh,” she mumbled. "Oh dear. Oh dear.” She staggered across the entrance hall and out the main door.

The elderly lady who had introduced herself as Felicia turned to the remaining applicants, ensconced on wooden benches set against the walls. "Which of you is next?”

A stiff-backed, reed-thin woman stalked to the parlor door. "Miss Blimpstone,” she announced imperiously.

Felicia scuttled ahead of her to make the introduction, and the door closed again.

My heavens, Jane Ryder thought, tugging her shabby portmanteau closer to her knees. Since her arrival, four other applicants had stumbled away in similar fashion. The mysterious employer must be a tyrant of the first order.

"What do you suppose is going on in there?” whispered the nervous young woman seated beside her. "I thought this was to be an interview for a secretarial position.”

"Of course it is,” Jane assured her. "Were you sent by the Farbes Agency, too?”

"I came from Simon and Sillaright. They have always placed me well before, but only in temporary positions. Not many employers will take on a female for more than a fortnight.”

Jane nodded. She had yet to find a position for even so brief a period and still owed Mrs. Tucker for a week’s lodging. The widow had turned her out that very morning in favor of a boarder with ready cash.

She glanced at the women sitting on the bench across from her. All were staring fretfully at the parlor door, as if expecting it to burst into flames.

Jane rather wished that it would. A bit of fire and brimstone would send the others scampering, leaving the field to her. She’d been the last to arrive, after lugging all her worldly possessions for three miles in a sleet storm, and feared that another candidate would secure the job before it was her turn to be interviewed.

At this point she didn’t care if it was Satan himself holding court inside that parlor. Better a warm night in hell than the one she faced on the icy streets.

She sat a little straighter on the hard bench, willing steel into her spine. Perhaps it had been a mistake coming to London, but there was no going back now. And surely she was overdue for a helping of good luck.

The Farbes Agency had not sent her out for a single interview since she registered with them a month ago. Nor did they have one for her today, until she bullied her way past the clerks and bearded Mr. Farbes in his office. A kindly, rather befuddled man, he apologized profusely for neglecting her.

"But, Miss Ryder, there are so few positions to be had in December,” he had said. "With the gentry gone to their country estates for the holidays it is quite impossible to turn up anything appropriate. Could you come back in a few weeks, when Parliament is seated?”

"No I could not,” she replied. And when she refused to be budged, demanding that he search his files for even the most inconsequential of openings, he reluctantly pulled a folder from his drawer and spread it open on the desk.

"In the normal course of things,” he said, "I’d not wish to be involved with this matter. You may be sure I have sent no one to apply for the position. Disreputable business!” Shuddering, he dipped his pen in the ink pot. "But if you insist, Miss Ryder, I shall give you the direction. For all I know, the position may have been filled long since, but this is all I have to offer at the moment.”

Now she was here, and the position had obviously not been filled. Whatever that position was. She had rushed off before thinking to ask for details. Impulsiveness has already got you in a great load of trouble, she scolded herself. One day it will be the death of you, my girl.

The parlor door opened with a groan of metal hinges, and Miss Blimpstone stomped out, her narrow cheeks clenching and unclenching as if she were sucking on a lemon. "Leave now if you know what’s good for you,” she advised contemptuously. "Spare yourselves the indignity I have just endured.”

Two applicants, including the girl who had spoken to Jane, leapt to their feet and followed Miss Blimpstone. Jane crossed her fingers for luck. Only three to go, and then she would have her chance.

In the next half hour, Felicia called them in one by one. All emerged whiter than paper or blushing furiously. They shook their heads at Jane as they walked past, a silent warning to escape while she could.

She straightened her skirts, waiting eagerly to be summoned. It’s only the two of us now, she told the mysterious figure behind the door. Whatever it requires, I must find a way to make you keep me.

Felicia beckoned then, inquired her name, and led her into a large, cluttered room lit only at the far end by two braces of candles and a flickering fire. Heavy tapestries lined the walls, and curtains of deep crimson velvet hung over the window. Jane wove among chairs, sofas, and claw-footed tables strewn with knickknacks, following Felicia on shaky legs.

Near the hearth was a small figure huddled in a Bath chair. Rather like a spider in its web, Jane thought, able to distinguish only a shape outlined by the flames behind it. A long-fingered hand with painted nails raised a lorgnette.

"Jane Ryder, is it?” The voice rang clear as a brass bell. "Not much of a name, Jane Ryder.”

"No, ma’am. Were it left to me, I’d have chosen better.”

She barked a laugh. "You’re the one who brought her luggage, Felicia tells me. Planning to stay?”

"Only if I meet with your approval, ma’am. I trust you to tell me how I may do so.”

"To begin with, do cease wringing your skirt. I ain’t going to bite you. And come closer, where I can have a good look at your face.”

Hands straight as sticks by her sides, Jane moved into the circle of light in front of the chair. The woman had arranged the candelabra so that she could see her victims while her own face remained in the shadows. Jane admired the tactic.

The woman peered through her lorgnette. "Ah. Plain as your name, I see. But just as well. I prefer to be the most beautiful woman in any room. Now tell me about yourself.”

Jane cleared her throat, wondering what it was this exceedingly odd woman wished to hear. Her work experience, she supposed, and an accounting of her skills. She had acquired a great many in her four-and-twenty years, but few were the sort to be relevant in this place.

"I read and write in Latin and Greek,” she began. "Also English, of course. I am used to taking dictation, have excellent penmanship, and my work habits are exemplary.”

"Oh, exemplary,are they?” The woman chuckled. "Hoity-toity.”

"I also possess an extensive vocabulary,” Jane acknowledged, wishing her knees would cease knocking together.

"Useful. I wonder if you are acquainted with the specific words you will require for this project. But never mind that. It appears you lack the ability to answer a simple question. The subject at hand is you, gel. Who are you, where do you come from, and how came you to land in my parlor?”

Oh, Lord. How can it matter, you atrocious old biddy? Jane mustered a polite smile. "My life story is a tedious one, ma’am. If you don’t mind, I prefer to keep it to myself.”

"Well, I domind,” the woman shot back. "How am I to know you are not a burglar? Or an ax murderer?”

"Were I any such thing, I would hardly say so,” Jane replied. "But if it reassures you, the constables are not on my trail, nor have they reason to be. I am simply a woman who must work to support herself, and I have come here in search of employment.”

"And wondering what you got yourself into, I daresay. Oh, very well, missie. Since you refuse to give over at the moment, I’ll answer a few of the questions you’ve been aching to ask me. Draw up a chair, Jane Ryder. Make yourself warm.”

Jane pushed a heavy Egyptian-style chair across the thick carpet, lifted her worn brown cloak, and perched on the edge of the padded seat. For the first time, she was able to clearly see the woman’s face.

Her skin was astonishingly white—coated with rice powder, Jane decided—and wrinkled like an elephant’s hide. Her cheeks were garishly rouged, as were her lips, and long ruby earrings dangled from her earlobes all the way to her narrow shoulders. A helmet of lacquered ebony hair sat atop her head, two red ostrich feathers planted directly in the center.

Jane might have dismissed her as a dotty old eccentric, if not for the canny blue eyes that pronged her like a butterfly staked out on a blotter. Wise eyes, she knew immediately. Whoever she was, this woman was not to be trifled with.

"My name is Lady Eudora Swann,” she said. "Ever heard of me?”

"I’m afraid not, ma’am. But I’ve only been in London a few months.” She couldn’t resist adding, "Are you a famous ax murderer?”

"Not yet, you impertinent chit. Don’t tempt me. Did the agency tell you nothing of me or this position?”

By now Jane was certain only that Lady Swann had no patience with milk-and-water misses. And a good thing, too, since Jane Ryder was nothing of the sort. If she got this job, please God, she would not have to pretend, as she often had, to be compliant and dim-witted. "Mr. Farbes said only two words to the point, ma’am. As I recall, they were disreputable business.”

"Didn’t keep you away, I see. But he was right. Or at the least, a great many people would agree with him. I care nothing for that. At five-and-eighty, I’ve long since learned to ignore the opinions of idiots and Methodists.” She tugged her lap robe around her bony knees. "It is my intention, Miss Ryder, to compile a history of the English aristocracy.”

"Good heavens! There are a great lot of aristocrats, ma’am.”

"And most are dull as dust balls. I’ll not waste a drop of ink on anyone it would bore me to talk about, so set your mind at ease. This will be a carefully selected history, from my own viewpoint, and I mean to concentrate on the scandals.” She pulled out a lacy handkerchief and began polishing the glass on her lorgnette. "It will also be uncensored.”

"Will someone publish this?” Jane asked. "Sell it in the bookshops?”

"Oh, indeed. But that is not the point. What I know—and I know a great deal—ought to be recorded. I expect to live another fifty years, but there will come a time when the stories I have to tell will die with me unless I write ’em down. And as I’m too lazy to do that, I want a secretary to listen to my tales and put them in order.” She smiled. "People come to me every day for information, you know. They call me The Tongue. Since Farmer George took the throne, I have been the source of the most accurate information to be had. I’ve a retentive memory and have known everyone of importance for seventy years. The information must not be lost.”

"Some information is better lost, ma’am. Most particularly the scandals.”

Lady Swann’s eyes narrowed. "If you believe that, young woman, this position will not suit you. Nor will you suit me.”

"If you please, I fail to see why. I am perfectly able to take dictation on any subject, and the content of your book is wholly yours to select.”

"I’ll tell you why, Miss Sobersides. The book will never be completed if I fail to enjoy myself, and the last thing I need is a censorious secretary huffing as she scribbles and making sour faces at me when she thinks I’m not looking. But I amalways looking. Nothing escapes me.”

Jane could readily believe it. "What you do need, I apprehend, is someone capable of doing all the unpleasant parts, like the writing and editing, while you simply tell your stories. You may be sure I shall keep my thoughts to myself, Lady Swann.”

"Which only means that I’ll be wondering all the while what it is you are thinking, wretched gel. But let us put you to the test, shall we? You’ll find writing materials on the secretaire. Seat yourself there and record every word I say.”

Jane noticed a trash basket beside the small desk, overflowing with crumpled sheets of paper. The remains of previous dictation, she thought as she removed her gloves. Then she quickly checked the pen for sharpness, dipped it in the inkwell, and nodded to Lady Swann.

For the next five minutes, she wrote as fast as she could, abbreviating words in her self-devised shorthand and paying no attention whatever to their meaning. Lady Swann spoke in a steady flow, likely repeating the same story she had told several times that afternoon.

"Do you not heed me?” Lady Swann asked sharply.

Jane glanced at the last words she had inscribed. That will do, Miss Ryder. "I beg your pardon, ma’am. I do not listen as I write, if you take my meaning.”

"Ah.” Lady Swann tapped her long fingernails on the arm of her chair. "That explains a great deal. Well, let’s see if you got it right. Read it back to me.”

Jane lifted the first sheet of paper closer to the light and began to recount the exploits of the sixth Marquess of Fallon. Lord Fallon had a great many exploits to recount.

About halfway through, she glanced up at Lady Swann, who was regarding her with a curious expression.

"What think you?” she demanded. "Are you not offended? Horrified? So aquiver that the stays on your corset are rattling?”

Above all things, Jane wanted to laugh. But she was not at all sure how Lady Swann would react to that. "Am I meant to be shocked?” she inquired mildly. "His lordship is a depraved sort of fellow and excessively vulgar, but thus far he has engaged in no activity more imaginative than what barnyard animals do as a matter of course.”

Lady Swann’s eyes crinkled with amusement. "Read on, m’dear.”

"It’s a-amazing,” Jane managed to say when she was finished. Her eyes were beginning to water. "Perfectly dreadful, of course.”

"But amusing?”

"Oh y-yes.” She burst into laughter. "I’m sorry, Lady Swann. You must know that I don’t understand the half of it. Nor can I begin to think why, let alone how,he did that business with the—but surely you are making this up?”

"Oh no. Believe me, even my imagination could not outpace what some people will come up with. That ’un’s been dead these fifty years, but his father was just as bad, and his son even worse. We’ll have an entire chapter for the Marquesses of Fallon. Perhaps two or three.”

We? Jane thought with a thrill of excitement. Did that mean—?

"You have the job,” Lady Swann told her. "Assuming you still want it. I’ll decide your salary later, when I determine what you are worth. You wish to move in immediately, I take it.”

Jane slipped by habit into the demeanor expected of a servant. "If you please, ma’am.”

"Very well. Felicia will show you to your room. We dine at eight o’clock, at which time you will begin to call me Eudora.” She raised her lorgnette. "And I shall begin to discover exactly who and what you are, Jane Ryder.”



Chapter 1

LADY EUDORA SWANN slouched in her Bath chair, chin buried in the folds of lace at her throat, her soft snore rumbling like the purr of a cat.

She slept more often during these long winter days, Jane had noticed. But here in this overheated parlor, its windows tightly sealed against the shrill December wind, her own eyes had a lamentable tendency to drift shut.

How easily a body got used to being warm and well fed. She had gained nearly two stone in the past year and had filled out enough above her waist to draw lingering glances from the gentlemen who came to call on Eudora.

But her time in this unique household would soon come to an end, she knew. Before the first spring crocus, Scandalbroth would be in the hands of the publisher, who fully expected the book to make him a wealthy man. Mr. Crumb paid frequent visits to check on its progress. Eudora’s less controversial project, The Swann History of Eighteenth-Century British Aristocracy,was to be locked in the Bank of England and opened at the turn of the next century.

Jane rarely allowed herself to contemplate her departure and had made no plans for the future. Eudora paid her extremely well, and with few personal expenses, she had invested nearly all her salary and generous bonuses on the ’Change. For the first time in her life, she could confront the next stage of it without worrying about money for at least a year, perhaps two if she was frugal.

Rubbing the back of her neck, she studied the papers spread over the enormous desk Eudora had purchased for her use. Because Eudora did not like being alone, Jane did most of her work in the makeshift office created for her by the largest window, where she could look out over Upper Brook Street.

A militant banging at the door shot Eudora awake with a start. Moments later Felicia tottered into the room, followed by a tall, imposing gentleman wearing a caped greatcoat and high beaver hat. His sharp gaze swept the parlor, passing over Jane as if she were a footstool, and came to rest on Eudora.

"Lady Swann, I presume.” He bowed curtly. "Pardon me for disregarding your”—he gestured in Felicia’s direction—"footwoman. She informed me that you are not receiving, but this is a matter of some urgency.”

Eudora waved a hand. "Company is always welcome, young man, so long as it minds its manners. Felicia, you may return to your nap.”

The man stripped off his gloves, slapping them impatiently in the palm of one hand while waiting for Felicia to make her ponderous way to the door.

Jane wondered if she ought to take her leave, too, but Eudora said nothing, and it soon became apparent the man was unaware of her presence. Like a raptor shadowing prey, his attention was directed entirely at the tiny woman in the Bath chair.

"I am Fallon,” he said. "Doubtless you have been expecting me.”

"So I have,” Eudora replied easily. "But you arrived in London all of nine weeks ago. What kept you?”

"None of your da—” He fisted his gloves in one hand. "I have been otherwise occupied, Lady Swann. It was only yesterday that I heard of your abominable book.”

"Everyone’s a critic,” Eudora said with a dramatic sigh. "And like all the others carping at me, you have yet to read a word of it.”

"I am here,” he told her stonily, "to make certain that no one ever reads it. At the least, I insist you delete any and all references to my family.”

"But I am writing an exposé of aristocratic scandals, sir. Should I excise the scurrilous doings of the Fallon clan from my book, only the merest pamphlet would remain.” She clicked her tongue. "Do remove your hat, boy. With it on, you take up far too much space in this room.”

So he did, Jane thought as Fallon tossed his curly-brimmed beaver onto a table. True, the wide greatcoat exaggerated the considerable width of his shoulders, but even stripped to the skin, this man would occupy more than his fair share of any room. It was less a matter of size than the assertive way he carried himself. He was in constant motion, claiming territory with his fingertips as they brushed along the back of a sofa or picked up a trinket and put it down again.

A restless man, she decided, and one who found it difficult to restrain his natural vitality. Now and again he paused, clearly willing his body into the pose of a disdainful aristocrat, but moments later he was on the prowl again.

Jane thought him fascinating. A man at war with himself, she suspected, watching as he forcibly stilled himself in front of Eudora’s chair.

"Let us come to the point,” he said irritably. "What will it cost me to buy the Fallons out of your book?”

"Buy?” Eudora snorted. "You imagine I am set on blackmail? Good Lord, I am six-and-eighty, young man. What’s more, I was heir to my late husbands’ fortunes—all six of ’em. What need have I for money?” She fluttered her kohl-blackened lashes. "On the other hand, you appear to be a remarkably healthy, energetic fellow, and well-looking in a rough-cut sort of way. Perhaps we can come to terms after all.” She winked in Jane’s direction. "What think you?”

He looked thoroughly bewildered.

"Well, you mull it over,” Eudora said kindly. "But if there are to be negotiations, they will be conducted in my boudoir.”

Jane pressed her hands over her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. The situation was all the more remarkable because Eudora’s offer was quite serious. For a tumble with this virile young aristocrat, she would cheerfully consign the Fallon chapters to the fire.

When he finally twigged her meaning, his lordship was not amused. Stalking forward, he loomed over Eudora with clear menace. "I am, to my knowledge, the sole remaining Fallon, and it is therefore my duty to carry on the name. Such as it is,” he added woodenly. "What my forebears have done should be permitted to rest in their graves with them, Lady Swann. Your book will make it impossible for me to restore the reputation they abandoned centuries ago.”

"I expect that would be impossible in any case,” Eudora advised him. "As it is, I reveal nothing in my book that is not generally known. Whatever the Fallon men did, they did openly. There was no scuttling about in dark corners, sinning in private and painting themselves virtuous in public. Well, I daresay they concealed a great many depravities, but nothing I have written about them has ever been a secret.”

"To you,perhaps, and a few equally ghoulish vultures who feed on other people’s lives. The scandals would be mostly forgot if you didn’t put them up for sale in every bookstall from here to the Orkneys.” His voice grew dangerously soft. "I had hoped you would be reasonable, Lady Swann. But if you persist with this reprehensible plan, I shall haul you into court on charges of slander and libel.”

"Excellent!” Eudora rubbed her hands together. "More publicity for Scandalbroth. But you will need to prove malice on my part, and that will not be possible. For more years than you have been alive, boy, I have disseminated gossip with an even hand. I can summon scores, even hundreds, of witnesses to testify on my behalf. I am, in fact, a legend, while you are merely a Fallon. But sue away if you must. Should I live long enough for the courts to work their way through all the briefs and come to trial, you will unquestionably lose.”

Jane knew instinctively that this man was unaccustomed to losing. She observed him closely, and when he raised his eyes to the window directly behind her, she was able to discern their uncommon color. Like clear dark amber, she thought, the irises rimmed with black. She saw, too, the anger that lit them from behind, as if a fire raged inside him.

"I see,” he said to Eudora. "With this book, you crown your pernicious career as a scandalmonger. You indulge yourself with one last triumph before sliding into the grave.”

"I might be offended,” Eudora said with amusement, "if I gave a straw for your opinion. But as I do not, you may take your leave now. Unless...”

"Unless what?”Fallon visibly dug in his heels. "And no more rubbish about negotiations in a bedchamber.”

"Do you know,” she replied thoughtfully, "a smart man would be flattering me about now. But then, you are a true-bred Fallon, and no Fallon ever used his wits to advantage.”

The marquess swept his hat from the table. "I am in residence at the Pulteney Hotel, Lady Swann. Contact me when you have a proposition of merit to offer. Otherwise, I’ll see you in court.”

From the door, obviously as an afterthought, he remembered to bow. Again Jane had the impression of a man resolved to do the proper thing, even when it went against his every inclination. And then he was gone in a sweep of greatcoat and a clatter of boot heels against marble tiles in the entrance hall.

"Well!” Eudora exclaimed, looking ominously self-satisfied. "Who would have thought the Fallons capable of breeding such a promising young buck? Proud to his toenails, the new marquess. And handsome, although I expect he’s been in more than one fight, what with that scar on his cheek and the off-kilter nose.”

Jane hadn’t noticed the scar or the broken nose, being more focused on a pair of oddly colored, beautiful eyes and his seething, barely contained energy. It had all but set the floorboards on fire. "Can he make trouble for you?” she asked.

"Oh, he can try. But I expect he’ll soon realize that publicity from a lawsuit is the very last thing he wants. What will he try next, I wonder? It’s certain he’ll not give up so easily.”

Jane began to sort the papers on her desk into piles. She had always thought publication of Scandalbroth a terrible idea, and sometimes felt that Eudora agreed. But enclosed in this house as she was, Eudora required excitement to keep her mind lively and her spirits high. While working on the book, she had revisited long-dead acquaintances and relived the pleasures of her youth.

All along, Jane had hoped she would settle for the achievement of writing the book and stop short of actually sending it to press. But she seemed determined to do so, if only because the scandal would draw more visitors to her door. Eudora thrived on company.

Jane suddenly remembered the hook Eudora had briefly dangled. "You never answered his lordship’s question,” she said. "Unless what?”

"Ah, yes.” Eudora’s eyes glittered. "Come sit here by me, my dear.”

Jane added another log to the fire and pulled up a chair. "You have a devious scheme in mind, Eudora. I can all but taste it.”

"We shall see. It’s true that I am of a mind to stir the pot, but it is far too soon for explanations. What is your opinion of the young gentleman, Jane? And pray, don’t be missish.”

He never noticed me, she thought immediately. He looked right past me, as if I were of no consequence whatever. That rankled more than she was willing to admit, even to Eudora. "His skin is very dark,” she said slowly. "I would guess he has spent the past few years under a hot sun. He is used to being active. A small room, like this one, makes him feel trapped.”

"Precisely. Go on, my dear.”

She closed her eyes, recapturing him in her mind. "He was angry with you, of course, but even angrier with himself for letting it show. He put me in mind of an actor badly miscast in a role but determined to play it out.”

"My impression exactly,” Eudora said with approval. "He is a Fallon to the core, knows it, and cannot brook the idea.”

"Do you mean licentious and corrupt, like his father?”

"No, indeed. But that incredible energy and impatience must be directed somewhere. His predecessor wore himself into the grave with gaming and whoring, and this one may well follow suit. But I suspect otherwise. It is my guess that he is resolved to become as virtuous as they were monstrous. A pity, that.”

"However so? You would have him follow in their footsteps only to provide a new round of Fallon scandals for you to write about?”

"No, no, my dear.” Eudora toyed with the fringe on her lap robe. "But nothing is more repellent than an aspiring saint who takes himself too seriously. A man requires a liberal seasoning of flaws, else he is like to grow critical and self-righteous. Besides, pattern cards make demmed poor company.”

Jane laughed. "Not everyone maintains your exceptionally low standards, Eudora. If the marquess is bent on sanctity, I expect nothing will stand between him and canonization.”

"He will not easily be deflected, that is certain.”

Jane regarded her with foreboding. Eudora had got that febrile look in her eyes, the one that signaled trouble ahead. "I believe,” she said carefully, "that his lordship is best left to make his way however he wishes. Will you consider removing the Fallons from your book?”

"Not at present. Should I yield to one such demand, I must, in all fairness, do the same for others who approach me with a similar request. Very soon, my dear, I’d be left with no book at all.”

And a good thing, too, Jane thought. The history would be of interest, and perhaps of genuine importance, a century from now. But Scandalbroth? She couldn’t fathom why Eudora had chosen to put the book in print. The notorious Lady Swann was already known to everyone of importance, and she cared nothing for public acclaim.

Nor, as she had told Fallon, was money a factor. She had more than she could spend if she lived another six-and-eighty years. Routinely she sent hefty donations to a score of charitable enterprises, and the enormous bequests in her will would endow more than one orphanage.

She had a good heart, Eudora, although she feigned otherwise. Jane had learned of her considerable generosity quite by accident and knew better than to speak of it. But why would a woman who helped so many people have set herself to injure so many others with her book?

Eudora had lusty appetites, a razor-edged tongue, and a shameless fondness for gossip, but an otherwise sterling character. Nobody is perfect, Jane reflected with a gulp. How well she knew!

She glanced up at Eudora, who seemed lost in her own thoughts—or, more likely, in some deplorable plot relating to the Marquess of Fallon. She often boasted that in all her years, after marrying and burying a half-dozen husbands, she had never met the man who could best her. Jane rather thought she’d not given up looking for one, if only for the excitement of vying with a will and intelligence that equalled hers.

Of course, since that was Jane’s own secret longing, she was probably reading too much into Eudora’s intentions.

"I mean to toy a bit with the toplofty Marquess of Fallon,” Eudora announced into the silence.

Oh dear.

"It will do him good,” she continued reflectively. "And since the book is all but completed, I am in need of diversion. Unfortunately, he is too much the fool to let me seduce him, although one night in my bed would be the making of the man.”

Jane chuckled under her breath. In early days she had assumed that Eudora was jesting about her lovers, until the night she cracked her door open and watched an eager-looking gentleman about fifty years of age creep down the passageway to Eudora’s bedchamber. Later a maidservant explained that the gentlemen were compelled to sneak in and out of the house to spare Felicia’s delicate sensibilities. The ancient, loyal companion would pack up and leave if she knew of such goings-on right under her virginal nose.

"But I need to think on this scheme awhile longer.” Eudora leaned forward in her chair to pat Jane’s arm. "It may well be my greatest triumph, if I can put all the ducks in order. By Twelfth Night, Fallon will be dancing to my tune. See if he isn’t!”

"Eudora, sometimes you positively terrify me.” Jane stood, bent over to kiss a papery cheek, and went back to her desk. "Whatever you are up to, please don’t tell me about it.”

"Of course I will not,” Eudora assured her. "That would spoil all the fun.”



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