Dunham 30: Chapter Thirty

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April 25, 1780
Mayfair, London

Celia stood at the edge of a sweltering ballroom in one of her hideous gowns, a fern her only companion and shield. Though her aunt was the very model of kindness to her simpleton niece, the rest of the haute ton was not so inclined.

“The marchioness is so kind to that girl,” whispered one woman who had not realized Celia was standing right behind her. Her tone was not complimentary.

“If ’twere me, she’d long been sent to a lunatic asylum. Why, my abigail told me the most frightful tale of the girl’s caterwauling if anyone so much as lays a finger on her belongings.”

This was true. Celia did not like her personal things to be touched anyroad, but here she was free to act the veriest of banshees if anyone but her mother or George did it.

Her brow wrinkled. Judas had touched her things. Often. Her only objection had been his commandeering of her side of the bed. Why hadn’t it bothered her?

He had thumbed through her ship’s logs whilst she watched, unaffected (though her journals were locked up tight in a sea chest awaiting her arrival in Rotterdam, where she kept the collection in a bank box). He had sifted through her liquor cabinet and taken what he wanted. She had allowed him to hold her K1. He had searched for and helped himself to her toy chest in order to mimic her perversion.

He had also put everything back in its proper place, the same way he had found it. Now that she thought on it, she realized he had carefully observed the object he wanted to examine before he picked it up. Never had she had to go behind him and put things in their proper places.

That was not something she could say about her mother or George or any other cabin boy she’d ever had, save Kit.

“Oh, look at the poor dear, waiting for her card to fill . . . ”

Celia looked down at her dance card, which was empty. She didn’t bother to hide her smile at it: Smiling at nothing supplied the gossips with conversation that did not involve clothing or eligible bachelors.

Though it was the most convincing—and useful—ruse Celia had ever concocted, its entertainment value could not be underestimated, either.

“My dear,” said her aunt breathlessly as she appeared at Celia’s elbow, “what a magnificent crush!”

A magnificent crush of handsome young wastrel nobles, for a certes.

“That luscious Spanish lord is here tonight,” she breathed. “Covarrubias.”

Celia was careful to keep her expression blank.

“He’s older than I care for, but—” Celia would kill her. “—I’ve seen how he looks at me.”

And then she would kill him. “I have a tendre for him, Aunt,” she said matter-of-factly and entirely without guile. The Simpleton would not know better than to admit such a thing, particularly regarding a man to whom she had not been introduced.

The marchioness blinked, shocked. “Oh? Oh, then! I’ll not be selfish about him, m’dear. Would you like me to introduce you?”

“Yes, Aunt, if you please.” It would only take one look for her to make Rafael understand he was not to fuck her aunt under any circumstances.

“Conde Covarrubias!” trilled Aunt Harriet when the tall, broad, blond man approached, as if compelled by Aunt’s wishes.

“My lady,” he said, as he took Aunt’s hand and bowed over it. “You look ravishing, as always, and finally I am seeing you from closer than a ballroom away.”

“You naughty man! ’Tis not I who have kept myself from you.”

Celia kept her expression as carefully dull as always.

“And who is this lovely young miss?” asked the Conde as he turned to Celia.

“This,” Aunt Harrie said lavishly, “is my niece, Miss Celia Bancroft, Lord Hylton’s daughter. Celia, this is Conde Rafael Covarrubias. Please give him a curtsey.” Celia dropped the most precise curtsey his station warranted. “Very good, love.” She leaned into Lord Covarrubias and said, “My niece, in case you hadn’t heard— She is . . . ah . . . special.”

Play along, Lord Covarrubias. We shall rendezvous later.

“Sí,” he purred as he picked up Celia’s hand for a kiss. From under her lashes, she studied his perfect face. The corner of his mouth twitched. “I know exactly how special she is.”

Aunt started, confused. He was not interested in her game. “Ah . . . ” Most likely she could not imagine the Conde’s words held anything more than overdone Spanish etiquette. She tittered. “Of course you do.”

The conde grasped Celia’s card and exclaimed, “My dear, certainly you have not saved all your places for me?” He scrawled his name at the next gavotte. “Surely a young lady as beautiful and well behaved as you should know how to dance?”

“Yes, my lord,” Celia whispered without looking at him.

“My lord,” the marchioness murmured. Celia almost laughed at her dismay. “Are you so captivated by Celia?”

No one was captivated by The Simpleton, so Aunt’s reaction was understandable.

“I am, I must admit.”

Harriet gathered herself to speak, but she seemed to be so befuddled by this turn of events, that she could only manage a noncommittal hum.

He turned to her. “I’ve spoken with her father just an hour past, my lady.”

Celia was too well trained to betray her shock, but Aunt Harriet had no reason to hide it. “What?” she whispered, laying her palm against her exposed bosom.

“For the usual reason,” he murmured, and moved in close. “Is it possible your solicitors have not been in touch with you the last day or so, Lady Rathbone?” Then he turned to Celia and offered his hand as the orchestra began a new tune.

She put her hand in it without a word and followed him to the dance floor.

They said nothing through the first turn. It was the second turn when Celia deemed it safe to speak, almost without moving her lips. “What is your game this time?”

He grinned.

At their third interlude, he whispered, “Surely you do not expect me to stand by and do nothing when your hand has been offered along with a tidy sum.”

Celia nearly stumbled, but was obliged to finish out the next set of steps before she could continue the conversation. “My hand?”

He cast her a startled glance. “You truly do not know?”

“What has Bancroft done?”

The dance was over, and he gallantly walked her back to the fern she had claimed, and bowed over her hand. “Until we meet again, my lovely. May I call upon you some time next week?”

“Yes, my lord,” she whispered, her face hot under the white lead powder.

•  •  •

George was waiting in the foyer of Rathbone House when the marchioness and The Simpleton arrived home.

WHERE IS THAT NO-GOOD SON OF MINE?!”

The deep bellow Celia knew all too well vibrated the very timbers of the townhouse. Almighty God! Her heart leapt into her throat and she barely caught her panicked squeak.

“Lord Rathbone is now in residence, my lady,” the butler intoned.

Only scant weeks ago Rathbone had been bobbing in the Chesapeake Bay. How had he attained London so quickly?

More to the point, why?!

“Yes, I can hear that,” Aunt growled. “Good night, Celia.”

And what was she to do now?!

“Good night, Aunt,” Celia said dully.

“I must tend to Rathbone, so go on now. I’m sure you’re exhausted. Birdie, make sure she has a sleeping draught.”

George dipped a curtsey. “Yes, m’lady.”

Celia plodded up to her room. George trailed behind her. Celia plodded across the threshold. George followed. Mary closed and locked the door behind the two of them.

Falling back to lean upon the door, Celia closed her eyes and gulped for air.

“The marquess is home,” Mary muttered tightly. “I suppose saying so is redundant.”

“Oh my good Lord,” Celia gasped. As an afterthought and for good measure, she crossed herself, then gestured to her mother to continue speaking whilst she brought both hands to her mouth to breathe into.

“He was cursing your name from the moment he entered the house, and he was cursing Maarten only slightly less than that. ’Twould seem his cousin was captaining one of the ships Maarten destroyed and was killed. If Lucien had perished—” She glared at Celia. “Did you know he was captaining that ship?”

Celia’s eyelids popped open and she dropped her hands. “Mother!” she hissed. “Do you think me so low as to knowingly fire on my brother?”

Mary relaxed a bit and muttered, “Well. I suppose not. You two adored each other before . . . ”

Get her out of my sight before I kill her!

Yes. Before.

“You are so suspicious of me,” Celia grumbled.

“You’re a pirate.”

George snickered.

“I go out tonight,” Celia muttered as she pushed herself away from the door, strode across the room, and ripped off her wig. “George, get me breeches. This gown isn’t fit to start a fire.” The girl ran to unpack one of Celia’s chests to the false bottom and retrieve her real clothing.

Mary started. “Out?” she hissed. “Tonight? With the marquess freshly home and in a lather—”

“’Twould seem to me his lather is more over Edward than Maarten or I.” Celia closed her eyes again to gather her thoughts and her breath whilst Mary unbuttoned, unhooked, and unlaced Celia from her gown. First Rafael and Bancroft, and now this.

The Nunnery?! GODDAMMIT!”

All three women looked warily at the door as if Rathbone’s rage at Celia’s cousin could seep through it and wrap her up in manacles.

“Why do you risk leaving the house tonight, of all nights?” Mary snarled.

“Rafael will be expecting me.”

Her hands stilled in the middle of unlacing the stays. “Rafael?! Celia, no!”

George chose that moment to thrust her regular clothing at her, which she exchanged for her more cumbersome female clothing.

“Aye, he is here and there is trouble afoot. It involves Bancroft and my hand, of all things, and he advised Aunt Harriet to contact her solicitors tomorrow. It appears I have somehow been put on the marriage block and knowing the state of Bancroft’s finances, I’m quite sure I’m a relatively attractive catch, imbecility notwithstanding. What I do not know is how or why.”

Mary dropped weakly into an overstuffed chair, her mouth open, her hands trembling. George immediately took up the task of relieving Celia of the remains of her clothing.

“Oh, good Lord,” she said weakly.

“Aye, ’tis what I thought, too,” Celia said grimly and stepped into her breeches.

“SOMEBODY GET MY COAT! If I have to drag that boy naked out of some strumpet’s bed by his ear, I will!

Celia cast her mother a benignly triumphant look.

“That changes nothing. Harrie cannot protect us from Nathan now if her solicitors have already lost and with the marquess in complete sympathy with him. Edward is a distraction.”

“A useful and timely one for the moment, but otherwise, aye, you are right.” Now that the initial shock had passed, Celia’s mind filled with points and counterpoints, advantages and disadvantages, positions and deceptions from which she could devise a plan or two. “We cannot simply leave,” she began. “No excuse would be believed and no word at all would be ill advised.”

“But Rafael?”

“Mother! Rafael is our ally. He has no more wish to wed me than I him. He has taken action to protect me from Bancroft and his lawyers by presenting himself as a candidate for my hand. Indeed, should Bancroft take the bait, Rafael can then extract us from this sudden chaos with all veracity. I am not above bearing his name fraudulently so that I can return to continue my task.”

Mary sniffed. “I concede the point. But he will expect a reward.”

“Reward?” Celia hooted. “He expects that every minute we are together.”

Her mother paused. “What about Judas?” she asked low.

Celia turned away and busied herself with putting something—anything—to rights. The pain in her chest was so deep she could barely stand it. But instead, she said calmly, “What about him?”

“You would . . . Tonight? With Rafael?”

Of course she would. She missed Judas so badly she would take anyone she could pretend was him. “I have never been able to resist him when he is bent on seduction.”

“’Twas not a month past that—”

“Mother! Judas cannot wed me!” The room was instantly still, both Mary and George gaping at her. “He is of a class that does not wed for love,” she muttered over her shoulder. “It is over. We have parted company and will never see each other again.”

Mary said nothing for a long moment while Celia dressed, then cleared her throat. “Have a care, my love. Rafael is an opportunist of the first water and may press the situation to his advantage.”

“To wed me, do you mean?”

At Mary’s nod, Celia snorted. “I assure you, Rafael has no inclination or motive to marry me.” And, as if she didn’t want to stab someone in the throat, she continued matter-of-factly, “Nor does Judas feel so strongly he will put aside his duty.”

“Celia—”

“George— Bloody hell! Birdie— Once I leave, make sure all my clothing is in order in case that overly curious maid returns. But for now, make sure my path out the servants’ entrance will be clear of anyone, particularly the marquess. I can’t imagine what he’d do to find Fury living under his roof, although I can hope he collapses from apoplectic fit before he has a chance to murder me. Make absolutely certain he has left the house. Then go to the pantry and prepare a bundle of something appetizing. I’m positively ravenous and cannot manage a jaunt across the alley without a bite, much less across town.”

“Yes, Miss.”

“Celia, please at least consider you may be walking into a trap.”

Celia plopped herself on the floor in front of her mother, between her knees. “Let us argue the point, then. There are worse fates than marrying a man one loves, even if one does wish to slit his throat from time to time.”

Love,” she scoffed. “You were very young. Georgina—”

“Birdie.”

“—please fetch me that brush. No, Celia, listen to me for a moment. Your love is that of a girl.”

“I am a woman who knows a thing or two of men and yet my love for him remains.”

“You have not spent enough time with him as a woman to love him thusly. Thank you, Birdie.”

“Oh, Mama,” she sighed. “You don’t understand. None of you do.”

“You may be surprised what I know and what I don’t,” she grumbled.

“Miss,” George interrupted softly. She was the only one of the three of them who’d managed to consistently remember the proper address. “I’ve put away your clothes, so I shall go now.”

“Aye. Be careful and do whatever you must. Remember, you will be tossed in the Tower along with me should I be found out.”

The girl gulped, but nodded. Mary waited to speak again until the door had snicked quietly shut and was locked behind her. “Who is none of us?”

“Papa. Smitty. Maarten. Solomon. And now Judas, too, but he has no right to an opinion.”

Mary grunted. “And what did your husband think?”

“Talaat was grateful to Rafael for giving me such a remarkable education.”

Mary clucked. “Well. But otherwise I am in good company. We cannot all be wrong, my love.”

Celia spoke through gritted teeth. “Mother, think of it— Bancroft had long since disavowed me. You were an ocean away and did not know where I was anyroad.” Mary jerked Celia’s hair at the reminder. “Papa had dropped me off in a strange country whose language I could barely understand, obliging me to leave the only home I had. He left me with more than enough coin and a letter of credit, but his only advice to me was to seek out a Dr. Covarrubias and mind I did not reveal myself to be female. But what was I to do with my monthlies? How was I to stay in a boarding house with nine boys or even take a piss undetected for five years?

Yes, Rafael took me to bed and spoiled me useless. But he wasn’t just my professor and my lover. He was my friend and my protector. Moreover, he was my only friend. He was patient and kind to a lost and lonely girl. Rafael saw I had a swift mind and it is because of his status I was suffered to be educated as well as any of the sons of nobility, and as a woman. He recognized my voice for what it was and made sure I was trained. He gave me over to women who could teach me how to dress and walk and talk as beautifully as any lady of the ton.

“Call me his creation if you must, and I will even admit that this is true. But I can think of far worse fates than having a brilliant and handsome and charming man take me as his mistress and mould me into what I am now.”

“But—”

Celia’s anger grew until she thought she might burst into flames. “Would any of you be happier if I were still a lowly crewman?” she hissed. “Or a scullery maid with four bastards to support? Or a whore not fit for even the most hellish of brothels? Because that is surely what would have happened to me once they had found me out and expelled me from university, with the Iron Maiden nowhere in sight until Christmas.

“There are many reasons why I—an educated, accomplished, utterly free woman—love a man like Rafael, why I continue my affair with him even when I want to shoot him in the head, even when I long for Judas so very badly, and I would that any one of you, just once, would stop to wonder why.”

Mary sniffled a bit, but said nothing more while she occupied herself with binding Celia’s breasts so that she could pass as a street lad. This was London, and not only did she not have the freedom here that she did aboard a ship, but she was dangerously close to the one man who could identify her as Fury were she not careful.

She despised masquerading as a male.

George returned just as Celia was kissing her mother goodbye.

“The upstairs and kitchen servants are abed, Miss. The rear-admiral’s gone, but he is expected to return within the quarter hour with the viscount. The butler and all the footmen are at the front of the house, awaiting their arrival. Her ladyship is pacing in his lordship’s library.”

Which was far away from the servants’ stairs.

“Excellent work, George,” Celia muttered. “You may be the most valuable thing I got from that bucket you were aboard, and I cannot think which of the two of us has gotten the better bargain.”

“Thank you, Miss,” she whispered, and Celia quelled a smile at the girl’s flaming cheeks.

Celia slipped out the door and down the hall, the servants’ stairs, and into the pantry. She found the rather large bundle George had prepared (Celia definitely had gotten the better of that bargain), then sneaked out of the house and down the street, stopping only to duck into a deep threshold to eat.

How she hated Aunt Harriet’s hospitality. Not that its quantity was lacking for anyone other than Celia (though the quality did not match that coming out of the Thunderstorm’s galley), but for her . . . Celia had already lost almost two stone, and had been obliged to make a return trip to the little modiste who’d used the fees Celia had paid her to move shop.

She had to admit that her aunt’s insistence on managing Celia’s weight did assist her in one respect: Her breasts were significantly smaller now than when Celia was well fed, and smaller breasts were easier to bind. Her face was also thinner, which would aid in her disguise against Rathbone.

Lord, what a predicament.

Half the first pork pie was down Celia’s throat when a lad who was, if possible, scruffier than she, appeared out of nowhere and snatched the rest of her food right out of her hands and took off into the night.

“Good God,” she muttered, watching the skinny little thing race away. “The universe conspires to keep my figure trim for me.”

Thus it was that Celia was triply, quadruply, irritated when she arrived at Rafael’s fashionable townhouse and was obliged to sneak in the servants’ entrance to make her way silently to his chambers three floors up.

He grasped her face between his palms as soon as she entered, and kissed her with the passion of a long-lost lover.

• • •
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