True heart, p.22

True Heart, page 22

 

True Heart
 


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  “Going in, miss?” said a liveried doorman, his gloved hand holding the door open.

  Shaking off the confusion, she went inside.

  No clerk manned the desk that stood just inside the door. Near the stairs, a group of women conversed quietly. Across the room, an elderly gentleman sat in a wing-back chair, a book in his lap. Servants came and went: maids hauling coal buckets; a bootboy carrying polished shoes to the guests.

  Unsure of herself, Virginia examined the paintings on the wall. Had she expected Redding to station himself in the receiving room? Yes, she admitted, because she hadn’t thought the matter through. She’d been befuddled by Cameron Cunningham and heartbroken. But never again.

  That decided, she moved freely through the room. A table containing reading materials caught her eye. Relief spread through her when she picked up a notice bearing Redding’s name, but no mention was made of Reason Enough, his essay on the American Revolution. Most exciting was an announcement at the bottom of the page, inviting the ladies and gentlemen of Glasgow to a reception in Redding’s honor on Friday evening at the cordiner’s hall.

  She’d have a new dress by then, a proper one. But she couldn’t go alone even though ladies were invited. Or could she? Asking any of her sisters to accompany her was not an option; Papa disapproved of Redding, and it would be unfair of Virginia to ask Agnes, Sarah, or Lottie to openly defy him. For her part, Virginia didn’t see it as defiance; Redding’s words had given her courage during the bleak years and had inspired her to think about the time when her indenture would end. In the simple act of thanking him, she would take another step toward putting the past behind her and begin a new life.

  Mission accomplished, Virginia tucked the paper into the purse her mother had given her and returned to the toy store. She had just paid the clerk and turned to leave when Cameron strolled in.

  Over a jaunty striped waistcoat, he wore a tailored jacket and knee breeches of dark brown velvet. Plain white hose accentuated his muscular legs, and a simply tied neckcloth enhanced his strong neck and handsome jaw.

  At the sight of him, the clerk, a fresh-faced girl of about Virginia’s age, tittered with excitement. On the third attempt, the girl managed to say, “Good day, Captain Cunningham.”

  “The same to you, Betsy.” He turned that winning smile on Virginia. “My lady.”

  Did he also have designs on the shop girl? Obviously a mistress and his betrothed weren’t enough women for him. Hating him, Virginia picked up the box of toys and headed for the door. “Fancy seeing you here.”

  He held out his hands. “Let me take that for you.”

  “Thank you, but Notch is waiting.”

  “No, he isn’t.”

  “What happened to him?”

  “I’ll take you home.” Softly, he added, “Unless you’d care to make a scene?”

  A scene. The novelty of it struck her as funny. She hadn’t heard that term or faced that dilemma in a very long time. She wasn’t quite sure she knew how to make a scene. Smart bond servants didn’t cause trouble. They toiled all day and prayed for good health.

  “The notion humors you? Odd, for I doubt it would be laughable to Betsy or to Lottie, should your sister get wind of it.”

  Virginia hadn’t thought about Lottie. She’d spent too many years looking out for herself and trying to forget her queenly sister; it was the only way she could survive, alone and an ocean away. Now she must remember and consider the effect of her actions on others. But she wouldn’t forgo paying her respects to Horace Redding; Papa would just have to live with that.

  “My coach is outside.”

  If Cameron had come in that fancy black carriage, she’d make him regret it. And probably create her first scene.

  Giving him the box, she left the shop. He followed, indicating a plain but elegant carriage. She breathed a sigh of relief and hated the weakness of it.

  The driver jumped down and helped her up. Cameron sat beside her.

  “Must you?” she challenged, eyeing his closeness.

  “Me? You took the wrong seat.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  He tapped the roof, and the carriage began to move. “Carriage etiquette.”

  “Don’t expect me to believe that nonsense.”

  His grin was indulgent and too cocky. “The gentleman always takes the backward-facing seat.”

  “Fine.” She moved to rise.

  He flattened his hand on her skirt, trapping her there. If she persisted, she’d tear her dress.

  She plopped down. “What do you want?”

  “Long life. A dozen sons.”

  She laughed at the absurdity and turned her attention to the traffic in the lane. Sailors, inland from the port, strolled the lane, tipping their hats to the ladies they passed. Nannies herded children along, and servants walked several paces behind their masters.

  “Perhaps you meant to ask what I want from you.”

  Thoughts of him and his mistress fouled her mood. “Perhaps I needn’t speak at all, since you know my mind so well.”

  “Not so well as I know your body, but there’s time aplenty, which also, I think, answers your original question.” His voice dropped. “I want you.”

  “How gallant that you have the time.”

  “What is that supposed to mean?”

  A whip cracked. The carriage slowed. A dray, loaded with barrels, rumbled across the road, the oxen bellowing loudly.

  When the noise abated, Virginia summoned courage. “Adrienne Cholmondeley.”

  Cameron winced and scratched his jaw.

  Virginia reveled in his discomfort. “Don’t bother insulting me by denying the affair. I saw the shrine to her in your cabin.”

  “My what?”

  She had him on the run. Bully for her. “In your cabin.”

  “You spied on me?”

  She wasn’t proud of the fact, but what was she supposed to do? Stand by and let him make a fool of her? “Do you deny that she’s your mistress?”

  “I hardly call one miniature and a few letters a shrine.”

  “I hardly trust your opinion.”

  He stared out the window, but he wasn’t looking at the rows of boardinghouses or the churches they passed. He focused inward but on what thoughts she could not imagine.

  Because he didn’t seem inclined to respond, she sought distraction in the scenery. As they left the city, the odors of rubbish and commerce faded. The subtle smell of his bathing soap teased her senses and reminded her of their private moments during the voyage.

  She’d lain with him. In his arms she’d voiced intimacies about their loving that seemed scandalous to her now. She’d loved him all of her life. Losing him once had scarred her deeply, but she’d been a child then, and fate had torn them apart. Losing him again to the woman who’d taken her place disappointed her to her soul. Cameron Cunningham was no knight in shining armor, but he had rescued her, and for that she’d always be grateful.

  At length, he said, “You’ve been gone a very long time, Virginia. A man has needs. You now know mine.”

  Did he expect her to fall into his arms? “You could have told me. I thought we were friends.”

  “There are things you could have told me.”

  He sounded cold and distant, and for a reason she could not name, she grew alarmed. “Such as?”

  “If I knew, I wouldn’t have to ask, now would I? But I don’t think you’ve been completely honest with me.”

  The carriage rounded a corner, jostling her against him. He steadied her, but his hand did not linger.

  Confused anew, she grew defensive. “Then we are well matched, for you wouldn’t know honesty if it crawled into your shoe.”

  He stretched out his legs and folded his arms over his chest. “Even as children, we never lied to each other.”

  How dare he bring that up? Because she’d led him to it. But no, she refused to take the blame for his indiscretion.

  She grasped what she hoped was a benig
n topic. “How did you find me?”

  “This time?”

  Fuming, she snapped, “Yes, and get off my skirt.”

  He raised up, a lifting of his hips that brought to mind carnal images of him naked, beneath her, urging her in lusty phrases to ride him to glory.

  Heat flamed her cheeks, but she couldn’t help torturing herself with thoughts of him giving his love to another woman. In a strange way, she felt a greater humiliation now than she ever had at Poplar Knoll. At least there, she’d come to know what to expect. Rules were put down, those who chose to break them paid the consequences. Slaves faced beatings. Bond servants saw their indentures lengthened.

  Needing something to do with her hands, she toyed with her purse, which had been caught between them.

  “I found you because Napier’s carriage is hard to miss.”

  A convenient answer, but he’d have to do better. “Lottie or Sarah could have taken it.”

  “Nay. Edward would have offered Lottie a conventional coach, and Sarah brought her own from Edinburgh.”

  “Why did you send Notch away?”

  Only his eyes moved as he looked at her. “You should have an escort.”

  She scoffed at that. “To visit a toy store?”

  “You might have had other errands.”

  Did he know about the Cariton Inn? So what, her pride said. For reasons he could never understand, for heartfelt gratitude and admiration, she must come face-to-face with Horace Redding. “I’m perfectly capable of managing a shopping excursion.”

  “Appearances are important. Your father is a duke. Your siblings are well respected.”

  “Which requires me to have a lying, deceitful womanizer carry my packages?”

  “No.” Putting his feet down, he turned slightly toward her. The calm in his voice belied the anger in his eyes. “Our betrothal gives me the right to escort you—among other privileges.”

  The gates of Napier House came into view. Boldness captured her. “Including the right to keep a mistress.”

  With the same hand that had caressed her in private places, he touched her purse. Paper rustled. “A letter to a beau?”

  She ignored him.

  “Confess to it, Virginia. You’re jealous.”

  Probably, but that didn’t excuse him for being a rogue. Aboard ship, the blighter had asked her to come home with him. All the while, he had a mistress waiting for him there. That deceit tasted bitter. “You could have told me. You should have told me.”

  “What purpose would it have served?”

  Without thinking, she blurted, “It would have kept me out of your bed.”

  The smile he gave her sent shivers down her spine. “Nothing could do that, and to be precise, ’twas your bed we first used.”

  She felt used. Used and cheated by the man who should have been her avenging knight, her life’s partner. Obviously he’d forgotten the promises he’d made years ago. “Oh, do shut up.”

  “So, we’re back to that.”

  Drat her prideful tongue.

  To her relief, the carriage stopped. “And we’re back home. Thank you for the ride.”

  He chuckled. “You may ride me again any time you like.”

  “Cam!”

  He shrugged, and his self-effacing grin reminded her of the boy she’d known. “At least you’ve stopped calling me Cameron.”

  “Rest assured, a dozen ways to address you come to mind, but Lottie’s rule number 9 prevents me from using them.”

  “Do you know rule number 7?”

  “No.”

  “A pity, for it certainly applies.”

  She wasn’t sure she wanted to know, but he’d probably think her a coward if she didn’t ask. “Tell me.

  “I’d rather show you.”

  In the circular drive at Napier House, where anyone within or without the house could see, he pressed her into the corner of the coach. The velvet cloth of his jacket felt baby soft against her skin. Staring at her mouth, he smiled and licked his lips.

  An absurd thought popped into her mind. Would he taste of someone else? The fighter in her—the child who’d tended her own blisters and sang herself to sleep—couldn’t abide his kissing another woman.

  When he touched his mouth to hers, she decided to give him something to remember. Finding pleasure in his embrace was easy. Convincing herself that this was the last intimacy she’d enjoy with him proved more difficult. But she could not, would not, share him. Let him have his English mistress. Let him remember Virginia MacKenzie and the passion and friendship they’d shared.

  Her plan worked, for when he drew back, his eyes gleamed with awareness and a familiar desire. “Behold rule number 7,” he said in a husky murmur. “Lovers always part with a kiss.”

  Disappointment plagued her. He wanted to master and keep his mistress too. The unfairness of it drained Virginia of strength, but she had her pride.

  Because she could think of nothing else, she said, “Are you going somewhere?”

  “Aye, to Edinburgh. I’ve business with Michael Elliot, and he misses Sarah. He’ll come back with me.”

  Was he taking his mistress along? Her frustration must have shown, for his smile turned crooked, endearing.

  “Stay out of trouble until I return.”

  Hating her own weakness and vowing to better conceal it in the future, she strove for lightness. “How can I get into trouble with Lottie running the household?”

  “Agnes will take care of that—after she’s taken care of Napier.”

  Virginia fought a blush and lost. “The things you say—they’re scandalous, and you do it to discomfit me.”

  “Oh, I’d like very much to discomfit you—for days and nights without end.”

  Uttered in a breathy whisper, the words and the seduction they bespoke robbed her of a witty reply.

  “Hold that thought. We’ll explore it when I return on Saturday.”

  She wouldn’t wish him a pleasant journey. But because he was leaving and because she knew firsthand how capricious fate could be, she spoke from the heart. “Be safe, Cam.”

  That night, as she drifted to sleep, her last conscious thought was of Cameron and Adrienne Cholmondeley. It was also the first topic of conversation at the breakfast table.

  * * *

  Lottie slapped the newspaper on the table. “There. Read it for yourself. Adrienne Cholmondeley has taken rooms at Cariton House. Cameron’s turned her out.”

  Her heart racing, Virginia wanted to snatch up the paper, devour every word, then wave it around the room. Instead, she feigned indifference and casually scanned the column.

  According to the Glasgow Courant, Miss Cholmondeley, the daughter of the distinguished minister of trade, had taken rooms befitting her station at Cariton House, the elegant quarters owned by the same family as the Cariton Inn.

  Curiosity, tempered by the security of family, made Virginia say, “Is she beautiful?”

  Lottie paused, a scone in one hand, a knife laden with butter in the other. “Not so pretty as to draw notice.”

  “Lottie?” Sarah chastened, a lift in her voice. “Virginia deserves the truth.”

  “You weren’t here to see Cameron dictating to me the style of dresses and the choice of fabrics Virginia should have. I tell you, Sister, the man is smitten.”

  “And I tell you, Sister, be honest with Virginia.”

  Lottie slathered butter on the scone, her mouth pursed in stubbornness. “The truth does not always serve.”

  “It does if you happened upon a good view of the drive yesterday afternoon and witnessed Virginia and Cameron and their adherence to rule number 7.”

  Lottie put down the knife. “You kissed Cameron good-bye in public?”

  Papa used to say that in good and faithful company, old habits returned. Virginia knew it was true. “He said he was going away. What if harm befell him?”

  Keen-eyed Lottie said, “No softer reason guides you?”

  Virginia had lied enough to these women who
loved her. “I thought he’d take her with him. I was frightfully jealous.”

  “With more than enough cause,” Lottie proclaimed as she nibbled on the scone. “I shudder to think what Agnes would have done in the circumstances.”

  “Forget Agnes.” Sarah put down her teacup. “That’s not like Cameron. With Virginia back, I knew he’d do the proper thing.”

  “That’s because you are naive.”

  Sliding Virginia a pained look, Sarah tisked and shook her head. “If I am naive, Lottie, you are obtuse.”

  “You’re just miffed because I got the best of you yesterday when I told the boys you’d buy them ponies.”

  “I take back obtuse,” Sarah said to Virginia. “Lottie is mean to the core.”

  With Adrienne Cholmondeley out of the way, Virginia relaxed and basked in her sisters’ battle of words.

  “I’m not mean, not truly. I’m just beset with bad humors.”

  Sarah howled with laughter. “You’re always beset with bad humors.”

  “Oh?” As if gearing up for another verbal assault, Lottie narrowed her eyes and took aim. “Look who’s talking.” She glanced at Virginia to enlist her support. “But then, Sarah’s chamber pot never stinks, does it?”

  Virginia choked on her tea.

  Sarah blushed carnation red and threw up her hands. “Once more, I am forced to yield to your vulgar tongue.”

  “You yield because you are outwitted.”

  “I withdraw temporarily because Virginia has forgotten the past, and I shudder to think of the impression she must have of us.”

  “We’re family. She loves us.”

  “In spite of the fact that our conversation has run to the selfish.”

  “Run? Run where?” Lottie stammered.

  “Since you are obviously outwitted, Lottie dear, I will remind you that we have done nothing but talk about ourselves.”

  “Nonsense. We discussed Cameron and his turning out of his mistress.”

  “A truly delightful topic on which to begin the day.”

  “ ’Tis true, I tell you,” Lottie insisted. “Just look at her and you’ll see.”

 
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