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Three and a half years later . . .
Sir Colin Lambert had thought nanny duty would be so simple. After all, perfectly idiotic people raised children every day. Well, except that his own father had made rather a muck of it, and then had dumped him on the doorstep of his aunt, but Colin had come out all right, hadn't he?
So it couldn't be so very difficult, could it? He was an intelligent fellow, some might even say a brilliant scholar. He'd been knighted for his work, after all. Furthermore, one would think that having a platoon of younger cousins had granted him some experience with children.
So why couldn't he manage to keep an eye on one tiny little girl?
He'd had it easy before, he realized. When little Melody had been left on the doorstep of Brown's Club for Distinguished Gentlemen, he and Aidan de Quincy, Earl of Blankenship, decided to take care of her until their friend Jack returned. Since neither he nor Aidan wanted to believe that they were the father, Jack had made a convenient suspect. Then Aidan had brought in his former lover, Madeleine, and things had gone quite smoothly from there—if one didn't count the homicidal maniac kidnapper lurking in the attic. Which, to be entirely truthful, hadn't been Melody's fault. Not even a little bit.
This mess, however, was entirely of his own doing. When Aidan and Madeleine had left on their honeymoon, Colin had blithely decided to leave the safety of the club and all its convenient and tolerant staff behind and venture out into the world of fatherhood.
Where he now suffered on his own with dear little Baby Bedlam.
When he'd thought Aidan and Madeleine were going to take little Melody away with them, the pain had been unbearable. He'd been alone before, but it was worse now, with his father and his aunt gone, his cousins busy with their own broods, Aidan gone to Madeleine, and Jack . . . Jack so unreachable.
Colin had lost so much he could scarcely stand to lose Melody as well. It was more than fear of loneliness. He loved her like a father, not like an uncle.
She could be his. Her age was close enough to the timing of his affair with Chantal. Even the fact that Chantal had fostered her out with a nurse made sense. A well-known actress could hardly raise her bastard child in the spotlight of public scorn. Melody even somewhat resembled Chantal with her dark hair and blue eyes, although Chantal's features were more dramatic. Melody's obvious intelligence made it even more likely that she was his.
Naturally, he'd inquired at the theater in London where Chantal had performed four years ago. There he'd learned that not only had Chantal since left London for Brighton, but that only a few weeks after they'd parted ways, Chantal had taken several months away from the stage. "Rheumatic fever" he'd been told.
"Romantic fever" it was sometimes called, for such an excuse was often used when a girl of good family needed to be out of sight for, oh, say, nine months.
That had clinched it for Colin. Melody was clearly his.
Upon which followed the exhilarating possibility that Chantal might also soon be his!
It gave him such hope, picturing that new life—Melody was his, Chantal was his at last—seeing that future in his mind, the sort of life that Aidan and Madeleine could look forward to, with more children as well, a crowd of them, enough to fill the great empty house at Tamsinwood.
He could wake each day with Chantal beaming and happy. He could shower her with silk and lace now. He could drown her in jewels. He could sleep in her arms and wake with his face in her hair and her body aligned with his . . .
Being a man of logic and forethought—usually—he'd thrown caution to the wind and set out with a tiny child to Brighton in the hopes of finding the woman who might be Melody's long-lost mother.
First, however, he had to find Melody!
"Mellie! Mellie, I know you're hiding in there! Come out this instant!"
Of course she didn't come. Why should she? He was doing the same thing he'd thought so idiotic when he'd observed other adults dealing with children. Children weren't stupid. Calling them when one was angry was like a dog trying to coax a cat out of a tree.
Fine. Colin took a deep breath and sat down in the shade of the aforementioned tree. He listened for a moment and was rewarded by the slightest scuffling of little boots. Powdered bark sifted down through the moist spring air to ornament his dark green superfine surcoat. He brushed at it in resignation and then tilted his head back and closed his eyes against the leaf-dappled sunlight.
If one had to be stuck on the side of the road, unable to get one's possible offspring back into the vehicle after she'd been turned loose on yet another call of nature . . . well, this was most definitely the spot to do it. Even if a one-day journey had turned into two.
He opened his eyes to gaze fondly at his new two-wheeled Cabriolet parked on the roadside. It was the very latest model and marked the first time he'd indulged himself with his father's money, purchasing it for this journey. The gleaming, elegantly swept fantasy was the perfect vehicle for a very smart bloke-about-town. The modern lightweight frame of the one-horse chaise followed the sweet curve of a woman's body and the lacquered finish glowed red in the sunlight. The shine was echoed in his very fine gelding, Hector, whose excellent form and shimmering black coat set off the ebony trim and fine brass fittings to perfection.
It was a thing of beauty. Aidan would say it was hideously impractical.
Colin grinned at the thought. Aidan wasn't here.
Unfortunately, he and Melody were and they would remain here for the rest of the day if he couldn't coax her out of her tree.
"I was thinking about a bit of lunch, Mellie . . ." He let the sentence fade away unsaid. "Well, you probably don't want to hear about that." He picked at a bit of grass. "Or do you?"
Silence. She was undoubtedly hungry, but she was too stubborn to admit it.
You'll need better bait than that.
He nearly whimpered. Not again. He'd only been traveling with Melody for two days and already he'd told her more outlandish pirate tales than there had ever been outlandish pirates! If he had to review the gory details of keelhauling one more time he was definitely going to lose the last of his mind.
Ah, well. "You see . . . I was wondering what pirates had for lunch . . ."
Speaking of fish, his own little shiner had just taken the bait. He smiled. "Of course, how silly of me. I imagine they ate a great deal of fish." He hummed to himself for a moment. "What about breakfast? Too bad they didn't have any eggs."
He stifled a laugh. "Ah, yes. Why not?"
More bark fell onto his jacket. The scuffling of little boots was closer now. He was tempted to jump up and reach for her but he'd learned his lesson well over the last hour and a half. Melody might be scarcely three years old, but she showed an early aptitude for altitude.
So he gave in with a sigh and began the litany that he must have repeated forty times over the last days. "Once upon a time on the high seas"—damn the high seas!—"there sailed a mighty pirate ship. Upon the prow were letters etched in the blood of honest men and they read—" He waited.
"Dishonor's Plunder," Colin affirmed wearily. And the story was on. Blood ran, gore oozed, and a horridly high body count mounted. At least three keelhaulings later, he realized that Melody had climbed down from the tree and was seated tailor-fashion on the grass beside him.
In her lap was Gordy Ann, the smeary wad of knotted cravat that Melody called a doll. Gordy Ann gazed at Colin with floppy tilted head and blank inky eyes. She looked a bit suspicious, as if he weren't to be trusted.
"Hullo," he said carefully.
Melody blinked big blue baby eyes at him. Her dark curls were decorated with leaves and bits of bark. "I'm hungry."
"I'm not." He was, in fact, ever so slightly nauseated by his own imagination. If anyone in the Bathgate Society of Scholars were to hear the dreck he spouted sometimes . . .
Well, that would never happen.
He stood and brushed at his clothing. "Right, then. The city of Brighton is only a few more miles down the road. Up you go, Cap'n Mellie." With that, he tossed her giggling onto his shoulders and strode back to where the still-harnessed Hector was manfully striving to mow the entire roadside, despite the bit in his mouth. Colin put Melody into the chaise and vaulted up into the driver's seat.
Hector, always ready for action, pulled his head out of the weeds and began to trot.
So convenient, Colin thought, just the two of them making this journey together. No servants, no nattering companions. No one telling them when to start and when to stop—
"Uncle Coliiiin! I gotta go!"
Prudence Filby threw her sewing bag down onto the dressing room floor in frustration. Damn Chantal! She put her hands over her face, trying very hard to quell the panic icing her veins.
"She isn't coming back?" she asked the manager of the Brighton Theater even though she knew his answer. "Are you sure?"
The stout man behind her made a regretful noise. "She's gone. Took off with that dandy, sayin' she was in love. Wouldn't take her back if she did return. Chantal Marchant might be the most beau'iful actress in England but she's also a towering b—" He cleared his throat. "She's a right pain in the arse, she is! The last ten shows, she's only finished two! Keeps saying she's too weary, too bored, too good for such a horrid play."
It was an accurate depiction of Chantal, except he'd left out "spiteful." Pru raised her eyes to see the dressing room's true disarray. It looked as though a tornado equipped with vindictive scissors had torn through it. Everything was ruined.
Damn you, Chantal.
The small room had been Pru's home for two years, this and the costume sewing room. Dark, grim, and cramped, but home. Most people who came to the theater saw the grand stage, the crimson velvet curtains, the bright foot lamps lighting the current fantasy on stage. The real world of the theater was here, backstage, in the chilled fingers that could scarcely sew, in the long hours bending over complicated seams, in the endless demands of the spoiled star.
Pru had spent more time here, attending to the demanding Chantal, than she had in the tiny rented chamber she shared with her younger brother, Evan. The destruction of this dressing room was a direct stab at her, she knew.
She looked over her shoulder at the manager and tried to smile. The man had managed to perfectly capture Chantal's petulant tones. "You should go on the stage yourself, sir. You've a right knack for playin' a towering b—"
He smiled, but shook his head regretfully. "It'll do ye no good to flatter me, Pru. I can't get ye another job. Ye can't sew a lick and all the cast knows it. The only reason ye lasted so long was that ye were the only one who could put up with Chantal's tantrums."
Pru nodded in resignation. "Not your fault, sir. You've got the right of it." There was no point in denying it. Not that she was a patient person in reality. She'd simply realized that if she could keep her temper through Chantal's rages and abuses and bouts of throwing breakable objects, she'd be able to keep feeding herself and twelve-year-old Evan. The other seamstresses and dressers had helped her with the more difficult stitching, grateful that they weren't called upon to personally serve the she-devil.
Now it was over. Chantal had left without paying her for her last month's work and there was nothing left in her pockets but bits of snipped thread and extra buttons.
She couldn't even sell the costumes, for Chantal had shredded them in a last fit of malice.
The manager left her to contemplate her short and miserable future. This was the only job she'd ever managed to keep here in Brighton. No one wanted a girl without useful skills or socially acceptable references—no one but the factories.
Her chest felt heavy with the cold undeniable truth. She was going to have to go into the factories. She only hoped she would be one of the lucky few to someday come out.
All the dressers at the theater had horror stories to tell. Factory work was grueling and unhealthy. Girls froze at their machines in winter and fainted from the heat in summer. Cruel foremen made advances and refused to be refused. Machines lopped off fingers and slashed hands and there was no law that told the factory owners nay. Despite the grim conditions, as soon as one girl was abused past her ability to endure, another one would be begging for the work.
It was a last resort, but there were many who were forced to take it out of desperation.
Better she than Evan. The younger children in the factories scarcely ever saw their next birthday once they walked through those doors. She swallowed hard at the thought.
You could go back. At least that way Evan wouldn't starve.
No. She'd rather face the factories! She was stronger than her small frame and large eyes led people to believe. She was smart and careful. Besides, she told herself firmly, ignoring the cold ball of dread in her belly, if she could abide Chantal, she could tolerate anything!
Anything except going back.