Stormy Persuasion Page 38

Chapter Forty-Eight

Judith and Jack got to ride alone to the ball in one coach, their parents following in the other. Jack’s armed escort—all four of them—was with the girls, though, and had been with Jack ever since they’d returned to London. Although the men dressed in livery, they were too big and brawny to look like servants. James had insisted on the guards, and they were going to remain with his daughter indefinitely. Judith thought that could be why Jack’s moods were far from sterling. She wouldn’t like being hemmed in.

She glanced at Jack, who was staring out the window. They both sparkled tonight. Jack’s gown was dark pink silk, but a layer of white chiffon over it created an appropriate pastel color. Even her jewelry was pink, rose quartz mixed with diamonds.

Judith’s gown was new, ordered the day after they got home, even though she already had a half dozen others she hadn’t yet worn. But she didn’t object when shopping calmed her mother, and Roslynn had needed calming after learning what had happened. The new gown was Judith’s favorite color, pale blue. Half of her wardrobe was that color. But she’d boldly picked a much darker blue for the edges, a mere inch. Roslynn didn’t complain when she saw how the color matched Judith’s eyes. And of course Roslynn had seen to buying Judith more jewelry immediately, too. So her gown was complemented by sapphires tonight.

“You look magnificent tonight, Jack. I wish I could wear pink like you, but Mother thinks it makes me look wan—are you listening?”


Judith sighed. “I wish you’d tell me what’s wrong. You’re either distracted or snapping at me over something—more often snapping. If your eyes were red, too, I’d think you’re going through what I went through with Nathan. You aren’t, are you?”

Jack snorted. “Believe me, when I fall in love I’ll know it. And you’ll know it. Everyone will, because I’ll drag him straight to the altar, kicking and screaming if I have to—well, my father will see to that.”

Judith couldn’t help chuckling over the image that created. “Very well. I was just worried you might have gotten overly attached to Quintin.”

“I might have, if we’d had more time together, but no. Bastard cut that short.”

Jack was still calling her abductor by that name, and she usually got angry every time he was mentioned. Not just snappish, but really angry. But Jack’s tone had been even just then, so Judith wasn’t going to press it, when anger was the last thing Jack should be taking to a ball.

Instead Judith said, “And any of these new lords who’ve been courting you since we got back?”

“Not yet, but we’re in no hurry, remember?”

How could she forget that? They weren’t supposed to fall in love anytime soon, either, but so much for well-laid plans. So she took another guess, nodding toward the roof of the coach where the escort was riding. “You hate these precautions, don’t you?”

“My guards? No, actually, they’re nice enough chaps.”

Judith was running out of ideas, so she tried her mother’s tactic. “Jacqueline Malory, you’re going to tell me right now what’s been bothering you. I insist!”

Jack snorted again. Judith was encouraged. Jack’s snorting was normal. “I don’t like being so helpless, as I was during—it’s made me hate being a woman!”

Judith was taken aback. She would never have guessed that could be the problem, and yet she should have. Jack was always so in control, always in the lead, always sure of herself and her capabilities. To have lost that control, even for a little while, would have hit her hard.

But Judith replied pragmatically, “Nonsense. D’you think a man really would have fared better? A man would merely have been knocked out and dragged off, instead of being carried off. And he would have been bound before he woke. Truly, Jack, men can be rendered just as helpless in such a situation. But—is that really all that’s been bothering you?”

Jack wrung her hands in indecision, then admitted, “No.”

“Then what?”

“I didn’t tell my father everything.” When Judith’s eyes rounded, Jack added, “No, nothing like that. But there was another note, the original one penned by Bastard’s boss. When I found it, I accused Bastard of not leaving any note at all, so my father would have no idea what happened to me. I could have killed him that day. Actually, I tried to. But he assured me that Catherine had sent a more polite version of the original one.”

Eyes still round, Judith said, “A polite kidnapper? Are you serious?”

Jack actually grinned for a moment. “I had that exact thought at the time, you know.” But then she wrung her hands again. “I was afraid that if I told my father about it, it would stir an old memory for him, and he’d know exactly whose idea it was to abduct me and where to go to find him. The original note from Bastard’s boss implied he would. And I don’t want my father to go after him, at least not when they are expecting him to. I couldn’t bear it if my words led him into a trap.”

“Don’t you think you should let your father decide the matter?”

“I’ll tell him, after enough time has passed for his anger to wane a bit so that he doesn’t hie off and get himself killed.”

“But it’s been weeks since we got home.”

“I know, and maybe Bastard has warned his boss to change the location of his lair and this can all just be forgotten.”

“Is that who you’re trying to protect?” Judith asked carefully.

“Gads, no, he should be drawn and quartered!” Jack spat out.

Judith sighed. “It’s your choice, Jack. I just hope this decision doesn’t come back to haunt you someday.”

“You can’t imagine how much I’ve been agonizing over this. The indecision was making me furious with myself. But I’ve never been so afraid for my father before. They were going to control him through me! Kill him because of me! I am going to tell him, whether it helps or not, but after the Season is over. Besides, by then he’ll probably have more information. Uncle Clinton assured him that all the Skylark captains who pass down that way will keep an eye out for Catherine, Andrew, and Bastard. Something is sure to come of that.”

Judith didn’t usually disagree with Jack but she tsked now, “I hesitate to say it, but I think you should simply have more faith in your father. As long as he doesn’t have the rescue of loved ones to contend with, he won’t be restrained. And you know how that works out.”

Jack grinned, then laughed. “Yes, I know. I’m just making sure it does happen that way, by letting enough time pass so whoever did this won’t be expecting him. That’s all, Judy. I just want my father to have a better fighting chance. And I did consider how torn up he’d be if he missed my Season just to wrap this up.”

That was sound reasoning, so Judith said no more on the subject. And Jack obviously felt better for having made a clean breast of it. She was still smiling when they arrived at the ball.

Chapter Forty-Nine

Lady Spencer’s ball wasn’t the first of the Season. They’d missed that one due to their detour to the Caribbean, which had delayed their return to London by a week. It wasn’t the second ball, either, but at least they’d managed to attend that one, with a mere one day’s notice, which was why Judith had so many suitors already. But she’d hoped she might actually enjoy this third ball. Nasty thing, hope, when it didn’t stand a chance in hell . . .

Jack’s suitors converged on her immediately, but then Georgina had held James back when they arrived, so the young bucks hadn’t yet noticed that Jack’s father was in attendance. Georgina had insisted on taking this precaution. Because James was such a social recluse, rumors about him of the dastardly sort had always abounded and were still whispered to this day. He simply never gave the ton a chance to get to know him and never would. Georgina had had to hold him back at their first ball, too, so Jack would at least be able to meet a few young men before he was noticed. James was actually amused by his wife’s ploy.

Judith didn’t face the same challenge on entering the ballroom with her parents. The only rumors that had ever circulated about her father concerned his having been a notorious rake and having had his share of duels because of it, most of which were long forgotten. It was still well-known that he was a master in the ring, but what young buck didn’t know that when they had all at one time or another visited Knighton’s Hall to witness firsthand his renowned skill.

Judith knew it was simply her father’s demeanor that gave young men pause about approaching her—whenever Roslynn didn’t have her eye on him, urging him to smile or at least keep a neutral expression on his face. But at the first ball, Roslynn had managed quite well to keep Anthony from scaring away every man who approached Judith, and Roslynn had been overly nice to all of them as well, which was why Judith already had a handful of suitors. They came forward tonight, just more slowly since Anthony was still at her side.

But an elbow was discreetly jabbed in Anthony’s ribs as his wife whispered, “Behave. Be cordial. Be their bluidy best friend.”

“Now that’s going too far, sweetheart, ’deed it is,” Anthony complained. “But I’ll give the first option a try if you’ll stop frying me—and put your brogue away.”

The byplay was brief but long enough for Addison Tyler to whisk Judith onto the dance floor with a relieved laugh. “Gad, I thought she’d never distract him.”

With barely ten minutes passed since she’d entered the ballroom, she knew that was a gross exaggeration. But Addison was still smiling, so it was obviously intended to be. Firstborn of an earl, Addison would eventually inherit that title. With blond hair, dark gray eyes, and a handsome visage, he knew he was quite the catch this Season. The ladies did, too. Quite a few had set their caps for him before Jack and Judith had arrived home. Judith knew a good number of the debutantes, those who lived in London with whom she and Jack had socialized while growing up, and she’d been snubbed by a few of them as if she’d stolen Addison Tyler away from them.

“Does your father hate me for some reason?” Lord Tyler asked as he glided her smoothly in the current waltz.

“No, he hates you all equally.”

“So he’s that sort of father, eh? Can’t bear to let you go?”

“Something like that.”

Addison was one of the two young lords who had already decided that they wanted to marry her. Hadley Dunning was the other. They’d both called on her every day this week at the appropriate midmorning hour. They weren’t the only two who had done so. But Addison was behaving somewhat aggressively toward her other suitors, too, as if he’d staked his claim and they ought to know it and back off. Some harsh words had even passed between him and Lord Dunning at the recital yesterday. The hostess had expressed concern they were going to come to blows right there in her music room. Judith doubted that they would have done so because they knew each other well. But their hostess had still asked them to leave.

Addison hadn’t apologized for that yet, might not think he ought to. Roslynn had been amused that men were fighting over Judith already. Anthony didn’t know because he had taken his own aggression to the ring yesterday afternoon.

“But at least your mum is nice enough.”

Nice enough? What the deuce did he think, that it was him and her against her parents? But then she groaned to herself. She was looking for a reason not to like him, wasn’t she? Yet she’d favored him from the start, but only because he was the most handsome of the lot. Yet having gotten to know him better, she still found him acceptable. A little carefree, a little too bold, quite the flirt. But he hadn’t made her laugh, not once.

She actually liked Lord Dunning more. Hadley wasn’t quite as handsome as Addison, but he was definitely more amusing, and she needed some humor in her life right now. And he was much more friendly. He was actually trying to get to know her and wasn’t attempting to immediately sweep her off her feet as Addison was doing. But she wasn’t going to be rushed into a decision, and she was feeling rushed, by both of them. That had to stop. The Season had barely begun.

So she held her tongue, waited for the apology that didn’t come, and managed a smile when Addison escorted her back to her parents. But he blocked Hadley from getting close enough to her to ask for the next dance. Deliberately. There was even a slight shove.

Which prompted Anthony to say, “I’m good at cracking heads together. If I have to behave, you bloody well do, too.”

His saying that with a tight smile kept Roslynn’s hackles from rising. In fact, as soon as Hadley Dunning led Judith onto the floor, she whispered to her husband, “Lord Tyler’s jealousy might be amusing, but not if it gets out of hand.”

“Say no more, m’dear. I’ll—”

“Oh, no, you won’t.” Roslynn knew exactly what Anthony was itching to do. “If they want to fight over Judy, let them. We can only hope they will not do it at one of these large events—actually, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt for you to discreetly say a few words to him, just to help tone it down—if you can do that without laying a hand on him. If it scares him off, so be it. It’s not as if she favors him or anyone else here.”

“Music to my ears,” Anthony said with a very genuine smile.

They were still whispering, but only because two more of Judith’s beaux were lingering with them instead of moving off to find a partner for the current waltz. Inconvenient, but these young bucks had made their choice and didn’t want to miss catching Judith for the next dance.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

Prev Next