It was no use.
She couldn’t sleep in the middle of the day.
Gene Marshall moved from her chaise to a chair and back to the chaise.
She knew she needed to take a nap. Filming had begun at 5:30 this morning, and she had to be back on the set at 5:00 in the evening.
The Connecticut Yankee in her rebelled at the idea of lying around in a nightgown when it was broad daylight outside.
She poked at the pile of story treatments and scripts on her desk. The usual plots: twisted minds committing twisted murders with her as the next target for the twisting.
It was no wonder her mother was concerned about her reading material.
“Dear Katie,” her mother had written. “It’s not that we don’t appreciate all Mr. Von Sternberg has done for your career, but I don’t think his choice of literature is good for you as a person. I’m sending you a serial story I took out of magazines in your father’s office. Make sure you read it.”
A mother’s orders always came before a director’s.
Gene tucked her feet under her negligee. This was going to be a treat.
* * * * *Meg floated on her back and studied the leaf silhouettes above her. The secluded lake, where she could actually swim, was the only reason she’d leased this English estate.
Perhaps it wasn’t the only reason. She pitied the owner who’d been driven to financial ruin by the demands of Queen Victoria’s overgrown baby of an heir. Bertie, the whale-ish Prince of Wales, was frequently bored, and he expected his subjects to alleviate his boredom. On a grand scale.
Royalty! She’d be glad to go home to New York and Boston. Today would not be too soon, but she’d a promise to keep, and keep it she would.
“Oh, Da,” she whispered, “why did it have to be a promise?”
“That camisole is clinging too much to do its duty by you.”
Meg bolted upright and sank.
She came up through the water spluttering.
“Don’t disappear on my account, sweetheart. I’ve been savoring the view.”
Oh lord, that voice! It couldn’t be. Thousands of people had Bostonian accents; any number of them could have wandered on to the grounds.
It was just the accent.
Meg dove under the water to swim to the secluded bank where she’d left her picnic lunch. She surfaced behind some bushes whose branches spread over the water. She closed her eyes, said a quick prayer, and then glanced in the direction of the voice.
“Don’t be selfish, Meggie. I’ve waited since our wedding day to see this much.”
Blast! It was he. Peter McNamara, the devil’s own!
“Silent, my dear? It doesn’t matter. Sooner or later you’ll have to retrieve this.” He held up her bathing ensemble.
Why hadn’t she left her clothes with her food? She’d walked around the lake and simply dropped them by the deepest part. If only she hadn’t given in to the urge to dive.
“I don’t blame you for not wearing it. I suppose it’s meant for wading. That wouldn’t suit my Mary Margaret.”
It was all she could do not to spit a retort. His Mary Margaret when the oceans dried up!
What was she going to do? He’d probably sit there all night, and she was accursed before she’d let him see her in her underclothes.
“It’s getting chilly, Meg. Don’t you think you’d better come out of the water before you catch your death?”
Meg got out.
* * * * *“Meg, what on earth are you wearing?”
“Sh-h-h, Callie, remember, it’s ‘Maria’ with an ‘eye’ sound over here.”
Callie lowered her voice. “I’m sorry, I keep forgetting. But what is that thing?”
“A toga. Ancient Romans wore them.” Latin class had proved useful at last. “Come to my room, so I can get out of it.”
Once they were safely inside the master’s suite, Meg dashed into the dressing room. Her wet clothes made her shiver as though it were January.
She threw the toga at Callie’s feet.
“It’s a new tablecloth! Oh, Maria, Mrs. Thompson is going to be so upset.”
“She’d be more upset if it was one of her precious old ones. ‘Queen Anne spilled on this one. The Prince Regent passed out on that one.’” Meg mimicked the housekeeper’s contrived accent.
Callie giggled, then turned serious. “Let’s hope she doesn’t find out.”
“She will. Baxter will tell her. I passed him when I came in.” Meg came out in a robe, rubbing her hair with a towel.
“They’ll think we’re barbarians.”
“All Englishmen think we’re barbarians. Ask an English streetwalker, she’ll tell you we’re barbarians. We’re Americans.”
“Maria, I’m serious.”
Meg sat down on the bed beside Callie and took her hand. “Are you sure you want to go on with this? Do you really want to live in a country where everyone, high to low, looks down his nose at you?”
Tears welled up in Callie’s eyes. “You’re not taking me back to New York, are you?”
“You’d be better off if I did. I simply cannot understand why you have your heart set on marrying one of these anemic English lords.”
“I’ve no place in America, you know that. And I’m totally useless except for decorative purposes.”
“You promised your father you’d see me settled.”
“Yes, confound him, I did. But if he’d known what you had in mind, he wouldn’t have asked it of me.”
Callie pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbed at her cheeks. “Are you sure?”
Meg thought of her too-charming Irish father. “No, I’m not, even though he always said he didn’t want me following in his footsteps. Now look at me, managing a scheme to rival any of his.”
“I love you for it, Meg. I mean, ‘Maria.’ I know I’m not helpful, forgetting the details all the time.”
“Keep the names straight and follow my lead, that’s all I ask.”
Callie hugged her. “I feel so useless.”
Meg laughed. “No, you’re not. You help me mind my manners. You could do me a favor though.”
“Careful. You don’t know the favor.”
“I trust you.”
“Callie, Callie, for the love of God, don’t agree to anything without knowing the terms. It’s dangerous. Please scoot down to the lake and get my lunch from the usual spot. I couldn’t carry it and hold the toga together, too. And while you’re there, pick up my bathing costume, won’t you? It’s by the little gazebo.”
“I’m on my way.”
“If you see a man there, don’t speak to him or listen to anything he has to say.”
“Just don’t. You know I’ll find out if you do.”
Callie grinned. “I always give myself away, don’t I?”
“Yes, you do. And if you don’t ignore him completely, I swear to high heaven I’ll drag you back to New York on the first boat, even if it’s a tramp steamer.”
* * * * *She could feel her heart hammering her ribs and her blood surging through her veins. She’d never had a nightmare until she’d got caught up in this husband hunt.
Meg pulled the blankets up to her chin and tried to relax. What wouldn’t she give for a full night’s sleep?
It wasn’t going to be tonight. She was wide-awake and ready to fight.
Meg slipped out of bed. How her father had lived as long as he had was a mystery to her. Just one of these elaborate deceptions was going to be the death of her.
She poked viciously at the fire embers, then put another log on the grate. Yet another reason for the help to label her profligate.
Meg curled up on a chair on the hearth and stared at the fire. She wanted to go home. She was sick to death of English food, English accents, and English pretensions.
She was especially sick of English aristocrats.
She was sick with worry as well. Not a day went by that she didn’t expect to be caught.
Peter McNamara knew who she was. He was a threat. She could feel it down to her fingertips.
“Well, Da,” she said to the darkness, “what do you suggest?”
Terrance Kiernan had possessed a gift for this work. Art forger, stock manipulator, gambler extraordinaire, he’d always had a new way to part a rich man and his bank account.
It had been his calling. If the law couldn’t or wouldn’t punish some robber baron for his crimes, her father would. He cheerfully “redistributed the wealth,” and moved on to the next “persecutor of the masses.”
As a child she hadn’t understood a word of it until her mother told her the story of Robin Hood. Her father was the new Robin Hood, punishing evil men by taking what they loved most, their money.
“Are they all evil, Mama?” she’d asked.
“’The love of money is the root of all evil,’” her mother had replied. “The Bible tells us that.”
Terrance certainly hadn’t loved money. There was never a superfluous cent in their household. It didn’t matter. They were together, the three of them. .
Meg rubbed her eyes with her sleeve.
When she was eight, her mother had died. Within the month she was in Boston on her aunt’s doorstep.
On the journey east, her father had explained that her mother had been a Beckwith of Boston, a descendent of a Mayflower passenger, a starched-up lot even now.
“I’m sorry to be doing this to you, Meggie, lass, but I’m taking you to your Aunt Amelia.”
She’d thought it was for a visit until she’d joined her father at the door as he prepared to leave.
“I’ll be ready, too, Da, when you’ve tied my bonnet.”
“Meggie, you have to stay here with Aunt. I can’t take proper care of you without Mama.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“No, you can’t, and neither of us can protect you.”
“Someday you’ll understand. Don’t cry, my Meggie, I’ll be back to visit. Every Christmas, word of a Kiernan. Don’t cry, poor little Meggie, don’t cry.”
After he left she sobbed her heart out on the door.
For months she’d kept watch at the window overlooking Beacon Street. He’d be back; he wouldn’t leave her. He’d come and take her with him.
He didn’t come.
In her aunt’s household she became Maria Beckwith, a child who’d chosen to use her mother’s surname in deference to her distinguished ancestors. At least, that was the explanation her Aunt Amelia gave anyone who dared to question her.
As Aunt Amelia was nearly a force of nature, very few dared.
On Beacon Hill she learned to be a lady. She went to the best school. She played with the best girls. She poured tea for the best ladies. She sang and played for the best gentlemen.
She became a highly polished Boston Brahmin.
Dull enough to be dead.
She’d have dried up and blown away without her weekends with her Irish uncles. In their home and tavern, she was Mary Margaret Kiernan again.
Her father had insisted she go to South Boston on Friday evening and return to her aunt’s house on Sunday morning, but only after she’d been to Mass. Terrance might not go to church unless it was Christmas or Easter, but his daughter was to know her heritage and be brought up in the faith she’d been baptized in. Did his sister-in-law understand that?
Aunt Amelia hadn’t liked it, but she’d agreed. “I only hope my example will convince Maria to cut herself off from all things Irish.”
But deep in her heart, she was always Meggie.
She wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth. “Poor Meggie, poor little Meggie.”
* * * * * *“You sent for me, ma’am?”
Meg stood up behind the desk. “Yes, I did. Please come in.”
Both spoke in the low tones they automatically used when alone.
Her Uncle Aloysius sat done on the edge of one of the wing chairs opposite her. He was a large man, a bare-knuckle boxer. Family legend had it that he’d once thrashed John L. Sullivan.
“I should buy you some more comfortable furniture, Uncle.”
“Will you be giving yourself away then? You shouldn’t stand for me, worry about me, or call me anything but ‘Kiernan.’”
She sat down. “I know, I know. The habits of a lifetime are hard to put aside for only a few months.”
“It’s been more than a few months now. I’m hoping you’re set to tell me we’re going home. I’ve a business to run, if I still have a business. Doubtless the customers are stealing brother Michael deaf and dumb as well as blind.”
“I wish we were, but we can’t. Not yet.”
“God rest his soul, but damn Terrance for getting you involved in this. If he wanted to help the daughter of a dead friend, that was his business. He had no right to thrust it on you.”
“He was dying.”
“And what does that say to anything? A man’s promises aren’t visited upon his children.”
Meg moved to the other wing chair. “Just his sins.”
“’Sins’? Are you saying…”
“No, no, nothing like that. Callie is Bill Bates’ daughter, no question of it. Da felt responsible for what happened to him. When he robbed that bank, Bill was roaring drunk. Da had told him to do back to his room and put his head under a faucet. Instead he went straight to the First Homestead. Shot to death before he got out the door. Da felt it was his fault for not taking Bill to the hotel himself.”
They both knew the rest: Terrance Kiernan’s pledge to see Callie settled as she wished, Meg’s deathbed promise to finish the job.
“You’ll never carry this off. “ Aloysius broke the silence.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Girleen, little Callie may be as beautiful as a China doll, but she has less wits than one.”
“I’ve yet to meet a man who wanted a clever wife.”
“He may not want a clever one, but he certainly wants an interesting one. You’ve a humdrum child on your hands, Niece.”
It was true. “It’s very strange. Both her parents were extremely flamboyant.”
“These things tend to skip a generation.”
Meg laughed. “In horses, maybe.”
“And in people. Now could we get to what you wanted me for? As much as I’ve enjoyed the visit, if I don’t get out of this dollhouse chair soon, I never will.”
“Oh, your poor back! I’m sorry.”
Meg took a deep breath. “Peter McNamara is about.”
“Certainly a blackguard’s son.”
“In his own right. You were only sixteen when he ran off with you.”
“A month shy of seventeen.”
“Sixteen. A young sixteen.”
She rubbed the inside corner of her eyes. “It’s all as if it never happened. Unconsummated and annulled. Fortunately, he and Callie haven’t crossed paths. He knows too much. How are we going to manage him?”
Aloysius stood up and flexed his shoulders. “You leave McNamara to me.”
“No bloodshed, Uncle.”
“ Not at first.”
* * * * *“La Comtesse de Namours de la Bonfain.”
Meg winced. Why did a footman always do that next to her ear?
“Miss Calpurnia Bates.”
All this for a garden party. Whatever must a funeral be like?
They went to the bower to greet their hosts, the Duke and Duchess of Sonning. Callie made a graceful curtsey. Meg would not. As an American, it was her right. She didn’t so much as bow her head, which would have been proper.
The duchess rose to greet them. “Maria, my dear, eccentric as ever.”
“Not eccentric, ma’am. Simply aware of my duty as an American citizen.”
“You have no idea how eccentric that makes you.”
“Forfeited a presentation to the queen, what?” The duke punched her shoulder. “Good thing the better half here was willing to take Miss Callie under her wing.”
“I am eternally grateful to the duchess for her kindness in presenting my ward at court.” She was even more grateful she hadn’t been made to go herself. The Irish in her rebelled at the very thought of abasing herself before an English monarch.
The Sonnings had turned their attention to Callie. Both seemed genuinely fond of her. All Meg needed to do was maneuver their heir to his parents’ point of view.
“May I, my dear?”
Meg blinked. “I’m sorry, Duchess. I wasn’t attending.”
“May I introduce the gentleman behind you?”
“Of course.” Meg turned around and looked up, right into the face of Peter McNamara.
She’d never fainted in her life, and she certainly wasn’t going to start by falling at his feet.
“Comtesse de Namours de la Bonfain, may I present Mr. Peter Nelson of Boston, Massachusetts?”
Meg automatically put out her hand. “Mr. Nelson.”
He took it and bowed. “A great honor, ma’am.”
“And, of course, you know Harrington.”
“Indeed, I do, Duchess. Good afternoon, sir.”
“Jolly good of you to come, Comtesse. Great fun the comtesse, Nelson. Never dull when she’s about.”
“You flatter me. Mr. Nelson, may I…” She turned to bring Callie forward. “Where is she?”
“Miss Bates? Saw her with one of Wellesley’s girls. Going for punch, I expect.” Harrington’s cheerful disposition was the one point in his favor.
“Another time, then. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll join them.”
The duchess forestalled her. “Oh, but, Maria, my love, I quite promised Mr. Nelson you’d speak American with him.”
“Please, ma’am, take pity on a fellow countryman.” Peter had a smile that had once made her knees melt.
She shouldn’t have looked him in the face. “Very well, Mr. McNamara, I’ll even speak Bostonian with you.”
Peter placed her hand in the crook of his arm and turned her toward the river.
When they were beyond anyone’s notice, she tried to pull away. He pulled her closer to his side. “You may give me back my arm, Mr. Nelson.”
“Oh, but I daren’t, Madame Comtesse. I’m feeling rather faint and in need of support.”
Meg bit her lip to stop a smile. They had met because he’d made her laugh.
His grin told her he’d noticed. “How does one speak American?”
She refused to look at him. “I haven’t the foggiest notion.”
“Drop your ‘R’s where they’re needed, then put them where they’re not.”
Peter stopped dead and shouted with laughter.
“Stop it, you idiot.” She elbowed him in the side. “You’re making a spectacle of us.”
He choked. “As if you care.”
“I do care!” she hissed. “I have to care.”
“No, you don’t, or you’d do all the curtseying these people are so fond of.”
“A matter of principle. Besides, constantly bobbing up and down makes me seasick.”
That set him off again.
Meg stood still and waited for him to get himself under control.
“I knew I’d missed you.”
“Save your conjoling, Peter McNamara. I’m beyond it.”
“It’s ‘Nelson’.” Speaking of which, how did you acquire a French title?”
“By marriage, obviously; just over two years ago. The poor, dear Comte was quite ill at the ceremony. He died mere days later.”
“Convenient. Pardon me if I don’t believe a word of it.”
“I’ll be happy to show you my marriage lines, Mr.…Nelson.”
“Were they dry before you left New York?”
It was her turn to stop. “Exactly what are you getting at?”
“Just this. You’re no more the Comtesse de Namours de la Bonfain than I am Peter Nelson. This title you’re using has been extinct for over a century.”
“Not extinct. Merely in abeyance.”
“Furthermore, you’ve never been married to anyone but me.”
“Why of all the conceited…”
“You haven’t the look of a married woman.”
“I’m sure you’d know.” She pulled away, but he grabbed her elbow and pushed her to a bench in the shade.
“Shall we discuss this like civilized people, Meg?”
“There’s nothing to discuss. We both know the story.”
It had seemed like love, and they’d eloped.
Meg had insisted on returning home to tell Aunt Amelia. She really did love her and hadn’t wanted to hurt her.
Aunt ordered Peter from her house and locked Meg in her room.
Within the week Terrance Kiernan descended upon them, roaring his wrath that no daughter of his was marrying Seamus McNamara’s son.
As for Peter’s family, they wanted nothing to do with her when they discovered which Kiernan she belonged to.
Terrance was a charlatan.
Seamus was a bordello keeper.
McNamara would see to the annulment, and Kiernan would remove his girl from Boston.
Peter took her hand. “You do believe I knew nothing of that part of my father’s life, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry you had to learn of it. Does your mother know?”
“A natural gentleman, your father. He made sure she wasn’t about when he confronted Dad and me. How did he find out about us?”
“By wire. I had no idea he kept Aunt Amelia informed of his whereabouts. I couldn’t believe it when he came charging in to my room. I’m sure he didn’t hear a word I said.”
“Tell me, where did he take you away to, little Meggie?”
She could have wept. “Not with him, as I’d hoped. Only as far as Manhattanville. It’s on the Hudson.”
“I know the place.”
“Doubtless. He dropped me in the Academy of the Sacred Heart. I was there four years.”
“Forgetting me entirely.”
“Not right away. I cried for you the first year, missed you the second, and prayed for you the third.”
“And the fourth?”
“Ah, yes, the fourth. A new student came to Manhattanville. A lovely Irish girl from Boston. Kathleen McNamara. A lively lass, quite charming. Full of tales of her life at home. Parties, friends, relatives. She especially admired one of her cousins. Very tall, built like a football player, but with the soul of a poet. Ice blue eyes and hair so dark one wouldn’t know it was red unless she was in his arms.”
Peter put his head in his hands and groaned.
“Of course, all the girls wanted to know if this paragon was spoken for. ‘No,’ said Kathleen, ‘but he nearly was. There had been this girl, half Irish, half Boston blueblood. It was a shame she’d got away.’” Meg gritted her teeth. “’The perfect…brood…mare!’”
“I must make a note to strangle Kathleen when I get home.”
“Why? She did me a great favor. I came out of my doldrums in a second. I was free of your spell.”
“’Spell’? My love for you was a ‘spell’?”
Meg leapt to her feet. “Your ‘love for me.’ You’ve insulted me enough for a lifetime, don’t think you can make a fool of me as well.”
He pulled her deeper into the shade and pinned her shoulders to a tree. “Believe what you will, Meg or Maria or whatever you choose to call yourself. Fraud or no fraud, one thing you’re not is a Comtesse de Namours de la Bonfain. I hope for your sake this is just another Kiernan scheme. I’d hate to see you in prison.”
“I’ll see you there first.”
“I am not the bigamist here.”
Meg stopped struggling. “’Bigamist’?”
“That’s what they call a woman who goes through a marriage ceremony with one man while she’s still married to another.”
“What are you saying?”
“Our marriage was never annulled.”
* * * * *Meg raced up the stairs to her room and slammed the door behind her. She pulled the drawers from the dresser and dumped the contents on the bed. She ran to the dressing room and started flinging her gowns out the door.
“What in the name of hell’s delight are you about?”
Meg stopped in the midst of pitching her shoes. “Uncle Aloysius, how did you get in here?”
“Through the door. Evidently you didn’t hear me knock.”
She dropped to the floor. “I can barely hear you now for the blood drumming in my ears.”
Her uncle leaned against the wall. “Temper’s getting the best of you, is it?”
“Something like it. We’re going home. Right now. I won’t stay in this miserable country one minute longer than absolutely necessary.”
“Have you told Callie?”
“No, but I will when she comes in. I left her at the Sonnings. The duchess will chaperone her.”
“Why did you come back early?”
“I told them I had a headache.”
“The real reason being…”
Meg put her head between her knees. “I met Peter McNamara there.”
“Mary Margaret Kiernan, certainly you’re not about to run scared from one of that lot.”
“Uncle, he says our marriage was never annulled.”
“The devil you say.”
“The devil is in it for certain.”
“Up off the floor, girleen. Matters aren’t so desperate.”
Meg let him pull her to her feet. “What do you mean? How much more desperate can they be?”
“I’ve done that investigating you wanted.”
“I’d almost forgotten about that. Did you discover anything?”
“It seems our Peter is now the Marquess of Harrington’s best friend. Some hooligans in suits were duping his lordship, but a certain Boston Irishman rescued him from his stupidity. The man you married is more like your father than he knows.”
“Or would care to be. So he’s sailing under false colors, too. Why is he using an alias?”
“Quick thinking on his part, I expect. If he’d told the marquess his real name, he’d have ignored the warnings, all Irish being first cousins to baboons, as all the civilized world knows.”
“It was good of him to protect Harrington, God knows someone needs to, but what is he doing here now?”
“According to his man, who is more homesick for Irish whiskey than for Boston, Mr. McNamara has subscribed to the notion that if you save a man’s life, that life is in your keeping forever.”
Meg thrust a drawer back into the dresser. “That’s ridiculous. Besides, it wasn’t Harrington’s life he saved.”
“Then there’s the invitation from the duke. Pater and mater are concerned their little boy needs protection from all the husband-hunting Americans.”
“Confound it, why did those two have to meet? Harrington was my most promising quarry.”
“Tis fate, Niece.”
“To the devil with fate! It’s my wretched luck. This is going to be more difficult than I thought. How am I going to throw Callie in the marquess’ way and keep her away from Peter at the same time?”
Aloysius opened the door. “I’ll start by fetching her home. And while I’m at it, I’ll be sure little Mr. McNamara is aware of my presence.”
* * * * *Summer was not the Season for English society, but one wouldn’t have known it, thought Meg. Everyday at least one invitation was brought to her with due ceremony on a silver tray.
Callie was thrilled.
Meg was tired. She was tempted to tell Baxter to just shove the cards under the door in the hope they’d slip under the rug, unseen.
She was also fast losing her patience. Every time they went out she had to drill her ward on her identity, and every time was like the first.
“What is your full name?”
“California Gold Bates.”
“I’m sorry. Calpurnia Octavia Bates. Why did you choose such a horrid name for me, Maria?”
“Because it fits your background. Your father was…”
“My father was…. My father was…”
“A recluse devoted to ancient history.”
“That’s right, that’s right.”
“I know it. Do you?” Meg put her head in her hands.
“I know the rest, I really do. The Beckwiths and the Bates have been friends ever since their ancestors served together under General Washington.”
Progress, at last.
If only it lasted.
It was a wonder she hadn’t taken to the drink.
“I wonder if Lord Harrington will be here tonight,” Callie whispered as they entered the Wellesley music room. “It’s been ever so long since I’ve seen him.”
“He was at his parents’ garden party.”
“Was he? Uncle Aloysius took me home before I had a chance to talk to any gentlemen.”
“I believe he’s been hunting or fishing or chasing vermin, or whatever they do to amuse themselves over here.” She sincerely hoped his boon companion had been shot or drowned or trampled by a horse.
Only to the point of being forced to return to Boston, of course.
They said good evening to their hosts; then Callie went off with some young ladies. Meg watched her cross the room. Miss Bates was the most beautiful girl of the Season. Her admirers couldn’t decide if she was an angel or a fairy. One had remarked that she looked as if she were made of spun sugar with her silver blond hair and sapphire blue eyes.
Why should it matter who her father had been?
Meg spoke with a number of the other guests, and then took her seat in the last row. The program was all Bach, and Bach never failed to put her to sleep. She hoped no one would notice near this corner.
After only two pieces she was struggling to keep her eyes open. Concentrate, concentrate, she ordered herself.
“’I dream of Meggie with the brown-black hair…’”
Her eyes snapped open. She knew that baritone, its warm notes wafting across the top of her brow. She put her head back to shush him and found him bending over her, his lips close to hers.
“Act as if you’re about to faint, and I’ll get you out of here.”
“I don’t faint.”
“It’s all right,” she heard him tell a footman quietly. “The comtesse is feeling overcome by the heat. I’ll take her outside for some air.” He lifted her bodily from her chair and led her out.
No doubt it appeared gentle to onlookers. To Meg it felt like a forced march.
“What do you think you’re going?” She was severely tempted to punch his arrogant jaw.
“Merely saving you from a very boring evening. Do you remember the first time I did?”
Yes, oh yes, she did. He’d been seated behind her at a Bach evening at Uncle Oliver Beckwith’s. He’d sung silly songs in her ear until she’d finally been forced to excuse herself. “Hiccoughs,” she’d told her aunt when she knew she could no longer control her laughter.
“Of course, I do. How could I forget the start of my fall from grace?”
“Not quite the way I’d put it, ma’am, but we can discuss that later. Privately.”
“There’ll be no private moments between you and me, Mr. Nelson.” She bit on the name.
“We can discuss that privately, too. Yes, I know, I’m incorrigible, detestable, and contemptible. Now that we’re past the preliminaries, let’s take a walk. Did I mention I’m glad you’re posing as an eccentric widow? It makes things so much easier.”
Short of screaming, she didn’t see that she had any choice.
They strolled about the well-lit garden maze in silence. The longer they walked, the more tense she felt. She wished he’d come to the point.
“Your so-called ward is a beautiful girl, my dear.”
“She is my ward. Yes, she is beautiful. I am not your ‘dear.’”
“That’s my business. Harrington has told me all about her, her family, their friendship with your mother’s.”
“Very creative of you, Meg, but anyone can tell by looking at her that your Aunt Amelia wouldn’t have that girl in her house as anything but a parlor maid.”
“My, my, my, sir. When did you become an expert in reading faces? First mine, now Miss Bates’.”
“I could be wrong, “ he admitted. “Perhaps I should make Miss Bates acquaintance. Thoroughly.”
“Save your wiles. Nothing will turn Callie from her true north.”
“To marry an English lord,” Meg sighed.
“Any lord in particular?”
“Not that I’m aware of, but you obviously don’t qualify, so you needn’t waste your time trying to beguile her.”
“Yes, you. Who should know better than I?”
“No one since you, my darling.”
Meg dropped his arm. “Stop it right now, Peter. You can’t gull me! You know perfectly well you haven’t given me a serious thought since you walked out of my aunt’s house.”
“Didn’t I? Did it never occur to you, my love, that if Kathleen babbled about her family at school, she’d do the same about school with her family? I admit most of her chatter went past me as so much noise, until she mentioned a girl who looked Black Irish, but had a Yankee name. Kathleen admired her, stood in awe of her, if you will. She was burning up with curiosity, but hadn’t the courage to ask Miss Beckwith any questions.”
He had known where she was. “It’s not as if you used the information.”
“I suffered by it! I sat through the worst girls’ recital I ever want to endure, just to see if it was you. If it hadn’t been for your ravishing voice singing Schubert’s ‘Serenade,’ I’d have foresworn music forever.”
“You could have spoken to me.”
“With hordes of nuns about?”
He had a point.
“If your ‘Serenade’ was beautiful, your ‘Ave Maria’ was as close to heaven as I expect to get.” He was behind her, his hands warm on her shoulders.
“The only time I sang that was at graduation.”
“I know. I’d assumed the good sisters would lower their guard that day, and I was right. Then I saw your Aunt Amelia and Uncle Michael. I gathered my courage to face Miss Beckwith.”
“What stopped you?”
“The appearance of your Uncle Aloysius.”
“As any man in his right mind would be!”
He’d come to see her. He hadn’t forgotten her.
“He still scares me witless.”
Uncle Aloysius. What would he think of her like this, weak and pliable?
And pitifully gullible.
She turned. “Then I wouldn’t give him reason to kill you, Mr. Nelson.”
* * * * *Meg fingered the keys if the piano in the Mayfair townhouse she’d leased, singing softly to herself.
The only thing that came to her was “Liebestraum.”
There was a time she would have slammed the cover down and walked away with a “’Dream of Love’ be hanged.”
It had been a busy summer.
Peter had been busy trying to keep Callie away from Harrington
Meg had been busy trying to keep Peter away from Callie.
Their efforts had thrown them together.
As neither of their charges was capable of anything but the most mundane conversation, she found herself discussing everything from books to baseball to the state of the world with Peter.
“Mr. Nelson, you are just being contrary. I distinctly remember you saying that Charles Dickens was nothing but a trumped-up preacher, beating his readers over the head with his proclamations from a London Sinai.”
“Ma’am, when did I ever utter such blasphemy?”
He’d nearly caught her that time. It had been years before. “I don’t recall the specific moment, but you did say it.”
Peter proceeded to praise Dickens work by work, with her disputing him chapter by chapter.
It was like that every time they met.
It had been the most wonderful summer of her life.
Meg put her chin in her hand and sighed. It was lovely, receiving all the little attentions ladies took for granted. The opened door, the assistance into a carriage, the proffered arm when she came upon a tree root in a path.
She could take care of herself; heaven knew she’d had plenty of practice, but it was wonderful to have someone watching over her, even a little bit, for once in her life.
To be fair, in the end her father had taken care of her, in his own way.
After her graduation ceremony, Uncle Aloysius came to get her.
“And where’s Da?”
“I’m sorry, girleen.”
“It’s all right.” She’d taken off her gloves and twisted them between her hands. “Where is he this time? San Francisco?”
Her uncle looked as if he were about to cry. “No, Meggie. I’ve come to take you to him.”
When they arrived at that dingy little apartment in Brooklyn, the priest was just leaving. She had nearly fainted at the sight of Father Dullea, but she managed to thank him for coming.
“I’ve given him the sacraments, Miss Kiernan. All he wants now is you.”
She’d gone into his room and sat on the edge of the bed. She’d never sat with the dying. She couldn’t think what to do except take her father’s hand.
“Sh-h-h. Yes, Da, it’s Meggie. Just rest.”
“Anything, Da, anything.”
“Careful. You don’t know what I’m asking.”
“I don’t care. What do you want of me?”
“The lawyer has the information. Promise me you’ll see to it.”
“One thing more, Meggie.”
“A thousand things, Da.”
He smiled. “Just one. Pray for me, won’t you?”
Tears were rolling down her face “Every day.”
At that he relaxed. “Don’t cry, little Meggie, don’t cry.”
He was with her mother now.
Meg stood up from the piano, and searched in her pocket for her handkerchief.
She’d accompanied his body to Boston where he was buried from his own parish.
Back in New York, she’d met with Da’s lawyer, who’d droned on for over an hour. When he was done, she knew two things.
Mary Margaret Kiernan, also known as Maria Beckwith, was a very rich woman.
Terrance Kiernan had never taken advantage of an honest man, and he wouldn’t stand about when anyone else tried. He’d enlightened many a naïve young man over the years. One Mr. Langley had been so grateful that he’d insisted her father accept a half-interest in his mines.
On principle, Terrance wouldn’t take it, but he did agree that the shares be put in trust for his daughter.
Mr. Langley may not have been smart, but he was lucky.
With her inheritance, she’d bought a house in Washington Square, Aunt Amelia vouching for her. The area wasn’t as fashionable as it had once been, but old Knickerbocker society was as hidebound as ever.
She also knew that she had Callie Bates on her hands. The trip to Chicago to get her had been a trial, but not half so much as the year spent trying to reason with her. Why not a good solid American? An English lord had nothing to recommend him but his ancestors, and usually not even that.
Who’d have thought a girl who looked like she was made of air could be as stubborn as a rock?
After another nine months of plotting and scheming, and, worst of all, training Callie, they had set sail.
She’d seen to everything.
Meg returned to the piano. She certainly could take care of herself, but it was so nice of someone else to do it, even if it was for just a little while.
* * * * *
Ah, the joys of being a widow. Meg curled and uncurled her toes in her slippers as she watched the young and never married go through the patterns of the Grand March.
All the pretty little fillies on parade.
The Sonnings’ traditional Little Season ball was the event of the autumn. All English society hoped to be among the invited.
The duke and duchess had been very kind to her; she felt guilty tricking them. It was for their own good, though. Callie had everything they wanted in a daughter-in-law, if they’d just look past her parentage.
Pedigrees were for animals.
Every time they passed in a figure, Callie and Harrington fell out of step as they lingered for the briefest moment. Their backward glances could have lit half the streets in London.
Peter was the object of many a debutante’s smile. She knew of several who were besotted with him. No doubt he’d been his usual charming self to each young lady he’d met, just as he’d been with her.
She’d do well to remember it. He’d been an amusing companion for a summer; the role came naturally to him. There’s been nothing more to it than that.
Meg closed her eyes.
She had to stop herself. She couldn’t live through all that again.
“Maria, Maria, I’m engaged for every dance. Isn’t it wonderful?” Callie threw her arms around her.
“There’s nothing to wonder at. Remember, no more than two with any one partner. Even Harrington.”
Callie blushed. “Is it so plain?”
“Only to me.”
Officers, members of parliament, lords of an endless variety. Meg danced polkas and mazurkas with them all until she despaired of the soles of her slippers. She sat on a gilt chair and slipped out of them. She wasn’t precisely happy, but she was having fun.
“Ma’am, I believe this is our dance.” Peter was towering over her.
“I don’t think…”
“Excellent idea. Don’t.” He took her wrist and pulled her to her feet.
“Stop it, you idiot!” she hissed. “I don’t have my shoes on.”
He swung her into his arms. “Perfect. You are just as high as my heart.”
The orchestra struck up. “Liebestraum.”
“For us,” he sighed into her hair.
As they waltzed, Peter softly sang the words, his beautiful baritone, soft and warm as summer twilight, caressed her as surely as his hands had when she was seventeen.
She tried to translate the words, but found she couldn’t. She should pull back, but she couldn’t. She should remember how her heart had been broken.
She couldn’t think at all.
The orchestra dovetailed to the beginning, and they continued dancing, encased in a crystal bauble, lost in the warmth of the waltz.
When it ended, they simply stood there, looking into one another’s eyes. How could she have ever thought his cold?
“Curtsey, “ he whispered.
She did, as he bowed.
“Come along, ma’am. You look in need of refreshment.”
“You’re very kind, sir.”
“I’m very selfish. I want to sit and stare into your heavenly blue eyes.”
Meg was still too enchanted to reply.
He fetched her punch, then her shoes.
“You’re making a spectacle of us.” She tried to pull her foot away as he put her slippers on as if she were Cinderella.
“Simply trying, ma’am. Simply trying.” He rubbed her ankle. “Allow me to get you some more punch.”
“I had no idea I was so thirsty,” Meg said as she drank her third cup. “This is very good, not treacle like most fruit punch. That sharpness is different.”
Peter drained his cup.
They sat silently until Meg caught him studying her head. “What are you staring at, Mr. Nelson?”
“You, Comtesse. One of your curls is falling.” He took the pin from her hair, and, with particular care, gently settled the wayward strand in place.
“No, no,” she said quickly. “I think someone walked over my grave.”
“Or you’re overly tired. I’m taking you home.”
“I’ll see to Callie. For once in your life, don’t argue with me.”
She’d never felt less like arguing in her life.
“Shall we walk, my dear, and leave the carriage for Miss Bates?” Peter asked when they were outside. As her house was only a short way up Curzon Street, it seemed a reasonable solution.
Meg felt unsteady and swayed toward Peter. He pulled her closer and grinned.
He began to whistle.
It took a moment for her to catch the tune, but when she did, she halted. “Stop it, you fool! If they hear you, they’ll throw a net over you and exhibit you as a Wild Irishman.”
“Let’s sing it.”
“I dare you.”
“You…dare…me? No McNamara has ever gotten the better of a Kiernan.”
Meg took a deep breath. “’When boyhood’s fire was in my blood, I read of ancient freemen…’” Her soprano carried in the still night air.
He joined in when she came to the chorus, harmonizing. “’A nation once again, a nation once again, and Ireland, long a province be, A Nation Once Again.’”
They sang the entire song. Twice.
“That should leave them quaking.” Peter leaned against her front door.
“With locked doors and heads under the covers,” she agreed.
He took her hand and pulled her close to him, trapping her arm between them. He stared at her with an intensity from which she had to look away.
“Come home with me,” he said.
She couldn’t have heard him correctly.
She shook her head to clear it.
“How can I convince you that I don’t care if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or a garbage scow?” His lips moved softly down the side of her face to her throat. She felt his words as much as she heard them. “That it doesn’t matter to me if you never have children as long as you sleep in my arms every night of our lives?”
“Peter, I …”
He stopped her words with his mouth.
Her blood was effervescing in her veins.
“Our love…’tis God’s will, Meggie.”
He collapsed in her arms.
* * * * *Bright struck her eyelids. Meg pulled an edge of the coverlet over her and rolled herself up in it. “Have some mercy on the dead and dying, can’t you?”
“Wake up, Niece. I’ve just the thing for your woes.”
“Killarney Killer Cure.”
She uncovered one eye. “Sounds suspicious. What’s in it?”
He handed her a shot glass filled with a greenish potion. “Can’t tell. I’m thinking of patenting it. Knock it back, there’s a good lass.”
She did as she was told and went off in a coughing fit.
“Guaranteed to cure you or kill you.”
“Oh, my…that is the most wretched…I vote for the killing.”
“You’ll live. I’m proud of your, girleen. For someone who doesn’t touch liquor from one year to the next, you handled it well. You stayed on your feet longer than your boyo McNamara. You’ve the Kiernan head on you.”
“I wish it were some other Kiernan’s head. And I drank only punch.”
“Any unusual taste?”
“No, just a little sharp.”
Meg groaned and pulled the coverlet back over her head. “How did I get out of my gown?”
“I took it off, then loosened your corset and let you fall where you might.”
“That should keep every servant in the West End talking for a week.”
“I sent this lot to bed when I heard you coming.” He put the glass in his pocket.
“Every soul in Mayfair must have heard you. We’ll be lucky if they don’t arrest you for sedition.”
Meg sat up. “I hope they deport me.”
“You surprise me. You seem to have been enjoying yourself of late.”
She smiled, then winced. Even her cheeks hurt. “I’m tired of the pretense, Uncle Aloysius.”
“I’m relieved to hear it, Mary Margaret Kiernan. Your father led a precarious life; I’d hate to think you had a taste for it.”
“There’s no chance of that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll lie here and let the Killer Cure do its blessed worst.”
“No, you won’t. That marquess fellow’s here to see you.”
“Why would he be calling at this ungodly hour of the morning?”
“It’s two in the afternoon.”
“It can’t be, I just left…oh, dear Lord, I left Peter on the doorstep.”
“Don’t worry about him. His man and I got him back to his lodgings. He kept singing something in German, though I couldn’t be sure for the slurring.”
“Did he really?”
“Yes, he really did,” her uncle mimicked her, “but you’d best keep your mind on business and get to the library quick. That’s where I stashed him.”
“The marquess. I’ll send that girl to help you dress.”
* * * * *Meg walked into the library, doing her best to hold her head steady. The Cure was taking hold, but she was still wary of jostling anything.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. Good of you to receive me.” Harrington looked disgustingly cheerful and sober.
“Please be seated, Lord Harrington. You’re always welcome here. What did you wish to speak with me about?”
“You won’t mind if I get directly to the point, ma’am?”
“Certainly not. I wish you would.”
“You see, the Sonning title is very old, honorable, lots of good works.”
“I know that, sir.”
“Problem is, blood’s been getting rather thin, don’t you know? Look at me. Not exactly the type that built the Empire. No, no, don’t say it’s not true…”
She had no intention of saying any such thing.
“…got to face facts. But you, ma’am, you’ve got spirit. Like to get the bit between your teeth, never balk at a fence.”
“It’s too bad these things tend to skip a generation, but, buck up, we should see some pretty lively grandchildren.”
Oh, dear God, he was going to propose. “Lord Harrington, please stop. As flattered as I am…”
“I know ladies have to say that the first time…”
Meg jumped to her feet. Either the Cure had done its duty or her exasperation had cleared her head. “Harrington, stop it. You don’t want to marry me. I’d make you a very uncomfortable wife. Think! It’s not me you love.”
“Can’t be helped. Owe it to the bloodline.” The marquess made to go down on one knee.
“Harrington, if you kneel before me, I swear to God, I’ll knock you down. And don’t think I can’t do it.”
He straightened. “Does this mean…”
Meg dashed to the door. “Stay right there. If you leave, you’ll regret it.”
In the hall she nearly ran into the butler. “Hopkins, where is Miss Bates?”
“I believe the young lady is in the music room, ma’am. I beg your pardon, but this letter…”
“In a moment, Hopkins.” She brushed past him.
“Callie, come with me this instant.” Meg burst into the music room, snatched her ward by the wrist, and pulled her to the library door.
“Meg, Maria, what…”
“I want you to go in this room and tell Lord Harrington all about yourself. Your real self. Absolutely everything.”
“But he’ll hate me.”
“No, he will not. Trust me. Get in there and tell the truth.” She pushed Callie into the library and locked the door.
Now for a nap.
“Ma’am, your letter.” Hopkins was at her elbow.
“Yes, thank you.” She broke the seal and removed a card. Her head began to throb again as she read it.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything. Peter.”
“Hopkins, who left this?”
“Mr. Nelson, ma’am. When he came with Lord Harrington.”
Meg flew down the stairs, across the entry, and into the street. She looked in every direction, not sure of what she expected to see.
“Oh, you stupid, miserable, pig-headed Irishman!”
* * * * *Meg sat on a park bench and read her letters for the third time.
Uncle Aloysius wrote that, in spite of his brother’s best efforts, his business would survive. Uncle Michael was exiled to the basement to brew and bottle the Killarney Killer Cure, “soon available throughout New England.”
Callie was feeling much better now that the first few months were past. Harrington refused to discuss girls’ names as he insisted they were having a boy.
Meg hoped it was a hellion, whatever the sex.
Only for the sake of the bloodline, of course.
She folded the pages and put them in her pocket. That had been all the mail.
She didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved.
It had been months, but her annulment papers had yet to arrive.
God knew she didn’t want this annulment, but He also knew she was as tense as an over-wound tin toy.
If it was meant to be, she wished it would be over.
Meg felt a snuffling at her ankles. “Come out of there, Cameron.” She gave a little tug on the leash. “There aren’t any mice under my skirt.”
The snuffling continued.
She reached down and pulled out the rough-coated terrier puppy the duchess had given her “for company.”
“Silly doggy.” When she put him on her lap, he immediately turned around, put his paws on her shoulders, and kissed her. “You are so stubborn.”
“Does it come naturally, or did he learn it from you?”
Meg looked up into Peter McNamara’s face.
Cameron leapt into his arms.
She held out her arms to take him back. “Cam, don’t bother the gentleman.”
“He’s fine where he is.” Peter scratched the puppy’s ears. “I can use him as a character reference.”
When he sat down next to her, her dog crawled into her lap and curled up for a nap.
“Can’t say as I blame him,” said Peter as he began to unbutton her left glove.
“Hush. I’m concentrating.”
After he finished with the buttons, he removed the glove, rolling the edge up slowly and gently, easing each finger sheath off as if it might tear at the slightest tug.
Meg found she couldn’t have said a word to save her soul.
He examined her hand as thoroughly as a palm reader. Then he put his lips to her wedding ring.
“I should take it off now,” Meg sighed.
“You’ve come to tell me of our annulment, haven’t you?”
Peter was checking her pulse with his lips. “What annulment?”
Meg tried to gather her scattering wits. “The card you left, you said you’d ‘take care of everything.’ I assumed it was about annulling our marriage as you knew Harrington was about to propose to me.”
“He was? I’m glad I didn’t know. I’d have been forced to kill him, and I’ve no wish to end my days at the end of a rope. Particularly an English rope.”
“Then why are you here?”
He put his mouth to her palm. “I’ve come to invite you to a special occasion.”
“You could have mailed it.”
He put his arm around her. “I’m not particularly persuasive on paper.”
She’d be left without a sliver of pride if she didn’t put a stop to this. “Don’t overrate your skills in person.”
Peter pulled her ungloved hand inside his coat and put it over his heart. “Will you please join me in Boston three weeks from Saturday for the blessing of our marriage?”
“’Blessing’? ‘Our marriage’?”
“That’s what the card meant, my darling.”
Cameron stretched across their touching legs and settled down again.
“Your chaperon approves, as do your Aunt Amelia and your Uncle Aloysius.”
“Oh, poor Peter.”
“Will you come?”
“Mrs. McNamara is pleased to accept Mr. McNamara’s kind invitation.”
“Very properly said, my precious Meggie.”
“Credit Maria’s Yankee ancestors.”
He put his lips against hers. “Let’s see what the Irish ones can contribute, shall we?”
* * * * *Gene knocked and put her head inside the open door. “Georgia?”
“Girl Star, “ Georgia exclaimed. “Come on in. Make yourself at home. Ivy’s got the trash can, but there’s a corner of the desk available.”
Ivy Jordan grinned. “What you are doing here, anyway? I didn’t see your name on today’s schedule.”
“They’re doing location shots in the desert. They don’t need me to play my corpse. I thought this would be my one chance talk to you, Georgia, with Erik off the lot.”
Monolithic Pictures’ head writer leaned back in her chair and twirled her ever-present pencil. “Our Teutonic Svengali getting to you?”
“In a word, yes.”
Ivy laughed. “Good for you, Gene. It’s about time.”
“It seems so ungrateful.”
“Not a bit,” said Georgia. “He should be grateful to you. Many more pictures with Madra Lord, and he’d have been ready to switch to animation.”
Ivy held up her hand. “And don’t go making excuses for Madra, Gene. I haven’t eaten yet.”
“What can I do for you, Katie Gene?” Georgia asked.
“Well, maybe a lot, maybe nothing. You see, I read this serial story yesterday…”
“Is it good?”
“I liked it.”
“I think so, Georgia, but I don’t know much about…”
“You probably know more than most of the actors who come in here with stuff like ‘The Autobiography of a Civil War Cook’ and expect a story treatment the next day.”
Gene laughed. “It’s not as bad as that. My mother sent it to me. It’s a romance.”
Ivy looked over Georgia’s shoulder. “That’s wonderful. Too bad all the men around here think anyone can write one in a spare afternoon.”
“Shows what they know,” Georgia muttered as she skimmed the pages.
“They certainly don’t know what sells. Women love romantic stories, every other studio in town knows that.”
Gene’s shoulders sagged. “So even if it could be a movie, Mr. Lilienthal won’t make it?”
“Don’t give up before you’ve started.” Ivy nudged Georgia. “How does it look?”
“Promising, but it’ll be hard on the lead. She’s in every scene. I hear that nearly killed Vivien Leigh when she made ‘Gone With the Wind.’ Are you sure you want me to do this for you, Gene?”
“Oh, yes. I’d rather be dead on my feet than around any more dead bodies, even if they do go home for dinner.”
Ivy rubbed her hands together. “When the script is done, I’ll handle R.L.”
“You, handle Lilienthal? Since when?” Georgia made some notes in a margin.
“Since his mother started playing Mah-Jongg with my grandmother every Thursday. Mother Lilienthal knows best, or Sonny will be miserable.”
* * * * *“This is Cora Harper with ‘Non-Stop Hollywood’ at the premiere of Monolithic Pictures’ newest production, ‘Proper Bostonians.’ Gene Marshall, the star of the picture, has agreed to say a few words.
“Gene, a little green birdie told me that not only are you at the very center of this motion picture on the screen, but behind the scenes as well.”
“Cora, let‘s acknowledge the ladies who really made ‘Proper Bostonians’ possible. The best writer in Hollywood is Georgia James, and the most gifted new director is Ivy Jordan. This is their picture. This is their evening. I’m just here to see the movie like everyone else.”
“Miss Gene Marshall, ladies and gentlemen. A star in the finest sense of the word. Wishing you stardust for your dreams, this is Cora Harper for ‘Non-Stop Hollywood.’ Good night.”