Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Davies.
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This is a short epilogue to Rebeccah and the Highwayman.
REBECCAH AND THE HIGHWAYMAN:
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A knock at her door made Rebeccah look up. "Come in."
It opened to reveal the servant she and Kate had hired two weeks ago and who was thankfully proving both efficient and reliable. From behind Walter's lanky frame came fierce shouts, effort-filled grunts, and the sound of blades clashing.
"I have brought the cards from the printer, Madam." A brown paper parcel, tied up with string, was tucked beneath the young man's arm.
"Thank you, Walter. Bring it here, will you?" She made room on her desk, moving to one side the scrap of paper with her calculations on it, the heavy accounts ledger, and the quill and inkwell. "Did you have any difficulty?"
He shook his head. "The price was as expected." He placed the parcel in front of her and pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his coat pocket. "Here is the bill of receipt."
She glanced at it and set it to one side for later. "Thank you, Walter. That will be all."
"Very good, Madam." He bowed and went out, closing the door behind him and muffling the sounds of combat once more.
She broke the seal and untied the knotted string. I hope they have made a good job of it. The brown paper rustled as, holding her breath, she peeled it back to reveal four neat stacks of trade cards. She picked one up and examined it, then gave a relieved sigh. No spelling mistake, thank heavens. And it looks quite handsome.
The card replicated the advertisement they had put in both the Gazette and the Daily Courant. Beneath a silhouette of two swordsmen in action, rapiers clashing, was printed:
DUTTON FENCING ACADEMY,
Soho Square, LONDON
No need for an arduous Journey to the Continent. Our salle d'armes provides expert fencing Tuition in the English and French Style.
Equitation Tuition also available on request at reasonable Rates. Please enquire.
NB Both Gentlemen and Ladies welcome.
She would have liked to add that one of the two fencing masters was the notorious former highwayman 'Blue-Eyed Nick' but had run out of space.
The idea for the cards, to be distributed first to London's many coffee-houses, had been Kate's, but the design was Rebeccah's. She hoped it was striking enough to catch the eye and bring in custom. Not that they were doing badly for such a recent enterprise. Already, five gentlemen had signed up for fencing tuition, one the firebrand son of the Earl of Carlisle, who lived in the mansion two doors down. And the exhibition bout Kate and Berrigan were staging in two weeks' time at the bear garden in Hockley-in-the-Hole — a wretched locality, but Kate assured her that, as long as they took care to avoid Mondays and Thursdays, when the bulls and bears were baited, it was the place to hold combats of this kind — would raise their profile even more.
No women as yet though. I will have to devise some more ... feminine means of bringing our establishment to their attention.
Setting that problem aside for later discussion with Kate, Rebeccah retrieved the scrap of paper and rechecked her estimates. It wasn't strictly Academy business, but it did have a bearing on her future. She totalled up the column of figures twice, and sat back.
Drumming her fingers on the table, she considered the matter of pride — her own and Kate's. Though the money Rebeccah's father had left her meant she could afford the lease of a small house, she suspected Kate would not countenance it. She would expect to assume the entire burden herself, even though she now earned far less than she had as a highwayman.
Fortunately, if Rebeccah's figures were accurate, the rent should be well within Kate's compass. Rebeccah smiled as a further thought occurred to her. Since Kate's wage from the fencing academy was coming from Dutton coffers anyway, they could both be said to be paying the rent. In which case, she could let Kate have her way with a clear conscience.
Someone rapped at the door. "Come in." She was expecting Walter again, or the mouselike little chambermaid, Judith, whose duty it was to keep the Academy's rooms clean and tidy, but the opening door revealed two visitors.
Rebeccah blinked at the imposing woman standing behind her mother then stood up with a loud scraping of chair legs. "Good morrow, Aunt. This is unexpected."
She frowned at her mother, who replied composedly, "Do not give me that look, Beccah. I could not warn you, as I did not myself know your Aunt Sarah would be in town."
"A pleasant surprise, I trust?" The Duchess of Marlborough didn't wait for an answer. With a swish of her fashionable skirts, she came more fully into the little counting house, making it feel even more cramped than usual.
"As your mother indicated, I am newly come up to town, but I got wind of your enterprise and must come at once to satisfy my curiosity." She studied Rebeccah. "You're looking well, my dear. I am glad to see more colour in your cheeks than last time we met."
Rebeccah blushed. "Thank you, Aunt. I am well indeed."
"And I understand your sister has recovered well from her ordeal too?"
"Indeed she has, thank heavens."
The Duchess's gaze took in the untidy desk and Rebeccah's ink-stained fingers. She touched a gloved forefinger to the ledger then examined her smudged fingertip. "If you don't mind my saying so, my dear, keeping accounts seems a strange occupation for a young woman of your breeding."
"I do more than mere clerking, Aunt," said Rebeccah, trying not to sound indignant. "To me falls the running of this establishment."
"Goodness!" Sarah frowned. "Could not you have hired someone? Your father's man of business. What was his name?" She glanced at Rebeccah's mother.
"Mr Edgeworth," supplied Mrs Dutton. "But he cannot possibly run the Academy in addition to our original business, Sarah. Since dear John passed away, Edgeworth has been fully occupied — for goods will not ship themselves from the Indies, you know."
Sarah arched an eyebrow at her cousin but said nothing.
"However Mr Edgeworth has been kind enough to give Rebeccah a few hours' tutoring," continued Rebeccah's mother. "And has opined she is an apt pupil." She gave Rebeccah an approving smile.
"I know my times table," agreed Rebeccah, "and keeping accounts is not such an arduous matter as some might think. Indeed, it is quite within my capabilities, and I thought it might be amusing, not to mention economical, to handle the academy's affairs myself. For I earn no wages and we would not be able to hire a reputable clerk on such terms." She smiled to show she was being humorous.
"I see." Sarah looked doubtful for a moment longer, then her face smoothed. "Well, if it affords you amusement, my dear, then of course, you must do as you see fit."
She turned and walked back towards the door. "From the sound of it, your salles d'armes is busy this morning."
She waited for Rebeccah and her mother to join her. "Will you introduce me to your fencing masters? For I understand one is the highwaywoman whose pardon you went to such extraordinary lengths to obtain." She threw Rebeccah a wry glance. "For I must confess, my dear, that the remarkable account you gave me at Windsor, concerning her endeavours on your family's behalf, lodged itself in my mind and I have been curious to meet her."
Rebeccah hoped she wasn't blushing. "With pleasure, Aunt." She glanced at the clock on her desk. "The current lesson should be drawing to a close. Follow me."
Outside the counting house, Rebeccah turned right and followed the sounds of clashing steel, thudding feet, and shouted instructions. She covered the few steps to the fencing salon quickly. Just inside its arched entrance, she paused and waited for her companions to join her.
"Impressive," murmured Sarah, her gaze lifting at once to the lofty ceiling with its huge chandeliers, before travelling down the tall windows, whose heavy curtains were drawn back to admit every scrap of weak October daylight.
The salon occupied almost the entire first floor of the building. That two classes could be taught in it simultaneously was one of the reasons they had rented it, the other the conveniently located stables in Hog Lane to the rear. At one end of it, soles scuffed and squeaked on the floorboards as Kate parried the swords of three men at once with insolent ease. At the other, a tall young man in a black cassock was correcting his two students' stances.
Kate's gaze flicked to new arrivals, and she shouted to her opponents to put up their swords before dropping her own point. She leaned her rapier against a chair, wiped her palms and face on a linen cloth, and strode towards Rebeccah. Berrigan also hurried to join them.
"My mother you already know." Rebeccah addressed both of them after they had halted. "But may I present Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough?" The eyes of the eavesdropping students widened at the name of Queen Anne's favourite and they murmured amongst themselves.
Rebeccah turned to the waiting Duchess. "Our two fencing masters: Mistress Catherine Milledge — formerly known as 'Blue-Eyed Nick' — and the Reverend Thomas Berrigan."
"Honoured to make your acquaintance, your ladyship," murmured Berrigan, bowing. Kate also sketched a bow.
But in her male attire a curtsey would have looked very odd, thought Rebeccah.
The Duchess's keen grey eyes raked Kate from head to foot. "So this is your notorious highwayman, niece." At that 'your' Rebeccah was sure her cheeks must have gone pink.
"These days I am but a respectable fencing master, your ladyship," said Kate smoothly, "fortunate to have been given a second chance by a family as well regarded as the Duttons." She smiled at Mrs Dutton then at Rebeccah before regarding the Duchess once more, her eyes seeming very blue in the Autumnal light. "I understand, your ladyship, that the fact I did not swing from Tyburn Tree is due to your good offices on my behalf." She bowed again, more deeply. "I am in your debt."
Was it her imagination, or was the Duchess blushing? Rebeccah hid a smile. A susceptibility to Kate's charms must run in the family.
"Well, well." Sarah gave a dismissive wave. "You may with ease redeem it, Madam, by ensuring that my niece's fencing academy is the best in London."
"I had already intended to make it so," murmured Kate.
"You are very tall for a woman," continued the Duchess. "And why are you still dressed like a man?"
To Rebeccah's relief, Kate was amused rather than offended. "I find skirts a hindrance when fencing, your ladyship."
At that, all eyes tracked to Berrigan's cassock. His lips twitched but he kept his countenance. "Indeed they can trip the unwary, your ladyship," he concurred. "For it was catching my heel in the hem that cost me a previous bout with Mistress Milledge ... not to mention twenty guineas."
Sarah arched an eyebrow at him. "But are you not a man of the cloth?"
He nodded. "Former chaplain to the Earl of Avebury."
An expression of distaste crossed her face. "That old roué," she murmured. "No wonder you sought a change in occupation."
"I am still chaplain, your ladyship, but to a local family. They require my presence in the afternoons solely, which leaves my mornings free to give instruction here."
"Some might find that arrangement strange, Sir."
"I find it... congenial." He cocked his head and smiled at her, as though inviting further comment.
Sarah gave him a thoughtful look then nodded approval. With a last assessing glance at Kate — a relieved Rebeccah sensed that Kate had passed muster — she turned her attention to the watching students. "But I see we have interrupted your lesson. Pray, do not stop on our account." Evidently Aunt Sarah desired to see some swordplay.
An idea struck Rebeccah. "Perhaps they could give us a preview of the exhibition they are planning to give a fortnight hence." She looked a query at Kate, who arched an eyebrow at Berrigan. He nodded.
"An exhibition of fencing?" The Duchess brightened. "Just the thing."
"Walter." Rebeccah beckoned to the servant who had been hovering nearby. "Fetch chairs for the Duchess and Mrs Dutton, please."
"At once, Madam." He hurried away.
Moments later, Sarah and Elizabeth were making themselves comfortable on high-backed cane chairs, and Kate and Berrigan had fetched their respective rapiers and were preparing to fight.
The bout was fast and furious, its participants' intent not to skewer their opponent but to display their skills to good effect. And skills they had aplenty, though very different. It was the first time Rebeccah had seen Kate fight the chaplain in earnest and she found it fascinating. Kate's style was more down to earth, even brutal at times, while Berrigan's was elegant and full of graceful flourishes. But then, the former highwaywoman had learned her swordplay at her brothers' hands, while Berrigan had received his training at the Académie d'Armes de Paris. Even so, the two were evenly matched and their styles complemented one another, and when after twenty minutes of intense fighting they came to a panting halt, the students were clapping and crying "Bravo!" and the Duchess's eyes were bright, her cheeks pink with excitement.
"They are considerable swordsmen," she told Rebeccah, who felt a warm glow on Kate's behalf.
"Thank you, Aunt."
"Now I must go, for I have stayed longer than I meant to." Sarah rose then glanced at Rebeccah's still seated mother. "Do you mean to stay longer, Elizabeth, or will you come with me?"
Mrs Dutton rose at once. "I will come, for I have much still to attend to concerning my oldest daughter's wedding."
The Duchess gave her a nod and turned back to Rebeccah. "Will you send a servant to fetch our chairmen, my dear?"
"At once, Aunt."
Kate was kneeling, making up the fire in her grate, when the door to her garret room creaked open and a fair head peeked round it.
"Mary told me you were back," said Rebeccah. "Mama and Anne think I am tired and have come to bed early."
Rebeccah's family could not fathom why she would want to spend her evenings with Kate when she had already spent all day in her company. And if they knew how things really stand between us, I would be shown the door.
"May I come in?" continued Rebeccah.
Kate rested the fire irons on the firedog and got to her feet, taking care to stand where the sloping ceiling would not dash out her brains. "You know very well that you may."
Rebeccah grinned, closed the door behind her, and flung herself at Kate, who wrapped her arms round her. They stood for a moment, holding one another, then Kate noticed the smudges beneath Rebeccah's eyes.
"Was your evening very tedious, my love?"
"Very." Rebeccah pressed her face into Kate's shoulder, muffling her voice. "I think you had a better time of it. Did you go riding as planned?"
Kate nodded. "Clover was fractious with me for neglecting her at first. Although your stable boy exercises her well, she still prefers my company." She pursed her lips. "I think she misses our midnight jaunts more than I do. But I took her out to Blackheath and gave her her head for an hour and all was soon forgiven."
"Horses are more forgiving than humans."
Kate laughed. "Not always. And then I went to visit my mother."
"How does she fare?" Rebeccah had met Kate's addled mother briefly and spoken kindly to her, and Martha, for her part, had seemed to like the young gentlewoman, much to Kate's relief.
"Well enough, thank you. She did not remember me as her daughter, of course, but we whiled away the hours pleasantly enough. We played shove-ha'penny at the Rose and Crown and dined on oyster pies."
"Your evening was indeed less tedious than mine." Rebeccah raised her head. "For we had the pleasure of the company of Mr Ingrum's parents. And a more grasping pair it would be hard to find. I thought their son was bad enough, but...." She rolled her eyes. "Poor Anne, to have such people for her In Laws!"
"But perhaps I am too harsh on Frederick." Rebeccah became thoughtful. "For unless I miss my guess, he is developing a real affection for my sister."
"That's a blessing," said Kate, surprised.
Rebeccah nodded. "Especially after that wretched business with Titus."
"Ay." Kate imagined how differently things might have turned out for Rebeccah's spoiled sister — though to be fair, Anne was far less obnoxious these days — had they not rescued her in time.
"As if that were not tedious enough," continued Rebeccah, "we discussed yet more arrangements for the wedding." She sighed. "Thank heavens there is but one week remaining, for I can bear no more discussions on the matter."
"If only your sister had settled for a Fleet wedding," said Kate, amused. "The happy couple would have been spliced in ten minutes flat, then drinks and bride cakes all round."
Rebeccah shuddered. "Do not remind me!" Then her mood lightened, and she threw Kate a playful look. "But our discussions were not only about the bride. ... The consensus is that you must wear women's attire."
"Me?" Kate's heart sank. "Who says I am going to your sister's wedding? The last time I attended church was at Newgate, and listening to my own funeral sermon quite put me off."
Rebeccah waved her objection aside. "In that case, a wedding is just the thing. You are to sit in the family pew next to me and Mama."
From the decidedness of her reply, Kate knew better than to argue. A funeral. A wedding. "What next?" she wondered aloud. "A baptism? Is Anne with child already? I did not think Ingrum had it in him. Or Anne in her, come to that."
"Kate!" Rebeccah let out a gurgle of laughter. "Do not be indelicate."
Kate gave the slender waist a squeeze. "Surely the question is whether your sister has been indelicate."
"To return to the subject of the wedding," said Rebeccah, ignoring her teasing. "Of course you are going. It is through Anne's good offices that we have the Academy. The least you can do is attend her nuptials and wish her joy."
Kate sighed. "Oh very well."
"As to your dress, its colour must not clash with the bride's. And Anne's gown is to be of blue silk, her garters blue and white."
"As if I care a farthing about your sister's garters," growled Kate. "A pox on all marriages!"
Rebeccah gave Kate a fond look. "You do not mean that."
"No. Why, only the other day you were wondering whether we should have a Fleet marriage. For you said it is not unheard of for a parson in one of those marriage houses to wed couples of the same gender, do you not remember?"
"Of course I do." Kate had not been in earnest, but now.... She studied Rebeccah's face. "If it would convince you of the seriousness of my intentions...."
Rebeccah's cheeks flushed prettily and she pressed a finger to Kate's lips. "Hush," she said. "I am already convinced."
"Are you?" Kate bit the finger gently, then kissed Rebeccah, receiving a flatteringly ardent response, which threatened to escalate into something more.
A pleasantly surprised Kate realised, rather groggily, that Rebeccah had forgotten her rule against taking their relationship to its natural conclusion while under her mother's roof. Kate was sorely tempted to take advantage of the lapse, for her bed was conveniently to hand, but after a moment, when matters could have gone either way, her conscience got the better of her and she broke off the kiss with a sigh.
Rebeccah's eyes were glazed, her colour heightened, and her breathing ragged. She blinked and came back to herself with a start, then licked her lips and said huskily, "Thank you for your restraint, Kate. For a moment, I forgot myself." She gave Kate's hand an apologetic squeeze. "When we have our own chamber, things will be different. I promise."
They had better. Kate returned the squeeze.
"On that subject," continued Rebeccah, smoothing her dress and putting a little distance between them, "I have been doing my sums, and you are correct. We should be able to afford the rent on a little house somewhere."
"Good." Kate put her hands safely behind her back — Rebeccah's curves were just too tempting.
Rebeccah glanced a query at her. "I take it you saw Jane Allen tonight, and that there is no news?"
"No. But she is continuing her vigil and will send word when she hears of a suitable tenancy." Rebeccah's disappointment was obvious. "I am confident that something will soon turn up," said Kate encouragingly. "For in Alice Cole's boarding house, tenants came and went with very great frequency."
As though pulled by an invisible magnet, the two had drawn closer to one another once more. Rebeccah hesitated then reached for Kate, and Kate resisted the lure for all of two seconds before enfolding her in her arms.
"Look at us," she murmured into a conveniently placed ear. "We can't keep our hands off each other."
For reply, Rebeccah simply hugged her tighter.
The coals in the grate were burning fiercely now, and the draughty garret had become quite snug. The bed beckoned. What Kate wouldn't give to wake up in it tomorrow morning with Rebeccah snuggled tightly against her. She opened her mouth to suggest Rebeccah stay the night, but Rebeccah beat her to it.
She brushed her fingers against Kate's cheek and said softly, "I should go."
Kate sighed, took the fingers and pressed them to her mouth. "As you wish, my dear." Reluctantly she released her.
At the door, Rebeccah paused and looked back. "When we have our own chamber," she repeated.
Kate nodded. "I'm counting on it."
"Where is your mother, Beccah?" Caroline Stanhope's voice was good humoured. "Surely she is not going to be late for her own daughter's wedding?"
Rebeccah twisted in her pew and saw that her best friend and her husband were sitting directly behind her. She returned their smiles. "She will be here presently, Caro. Anne needed Mama's assistance with something at the last minute and Kate went with her."
She gave a mental wince as Kate's name slipped out and in response Caroline leaned forward, her expression eager.
"Do you not find it uncomfortable, Beccah," asked her friend in a low voice, "to be so often thrown into Mistress Milledge's company, after the gross way she misled you? For I remember well the fond way you used to speak of Blue-Eyed Nick." She glanced at her husband. "Don't you, Thomas?"
He shot Rebeccah a look of apology. "This is neither the time nor the place to discuss your friend's confidences, my dear."
Her husband's reproof, though a mild one, surprised Caroline. She flushed and sat back, then proceeded to bite her lip and fiddle with her gloves. After a moment, Thomas reached over and took her hand between his, and gradually her high colour returned to normal.
Rebeccah made a note to have a heart to heart with Caro later. She would not confide that her feelings for the dashing highwayman, despite the revelation of his true sex, remained unchanged. For Caro fancied herself of a liberal persuasion, but Rebeccah knew she was easily scandalised. But she wished to retain her friendship, and was determined to reconcile Caro to the presence of Kate in her life, especially as they were to set up house together.
From the twinkle in Thomas's eyes, he had guessed how the land lay; yet his manner towards Rebeccah remained cordial and he had not forbidden her his wife's acquaintance. Fortunately, he was not the type to tittle-tattle. He would quietly drop the search he had undertaken to find Rebeccah a suitable husband, and that would be the end of it.
"Thank you," she mouthed. He smiled and nodded, and she turned to face the front once more.
Mrs Dutton appeared at the far end of the church, and close behind her came Kate in a blue gown that matched her eyes to perfection. The two hurried along the aisle towards Rebeccah's pew and with a rustling of skirts made themselves comfortable. No sooner had they done so than the bride entered on her uncle's arm, for Uncle Andrew had travelled up from Chatham with the purpose of giving his niece away. Then in came the clergyman, and the service got underway.
"I shall be glad when this day is over," Rebeccah confided to Kate. They had transferred to the Bond Street townhouse that would be Anne's future home, and very smart it was too, what Rebeccah had seen of it. "For I ate too much at the wedding feast and these new shoes have pinched me since I put them on."
"Not much longer," said Kate, whose height enabled her to see over the heads of the other women (the men were in another room with the groom). "Here is your sister."
A loud "Huzzah" went up and the crowd surged forward. Rebeccah caught a glimpse of Anne, hands raised in mock alarm but making no real attempt to resist those seeking to prepare her for her marriage bed. The gap closed again.
"Remove her clothes," instructed someone, "but leave the garters. Pull them lower, though, for the men will want to remove those themselves and pin them to their hats."
Willing hands sets to work and voices rang out at intervals giving advice, some useful.
"Do not keep any of the pins. For they bring bad luck." "We will need those stockings for the men to fling. Put them to one side." "Where is her nightgown? Bring the nightgown." "All must have favours. Share out her bride lace and knots."
Anne's gloves and scarves, ribbons and bows were handed from person to person. Kate frowned at the red bow that had appeared in her hand, gave it to Rebeccah, and stood on tiptoe once more.
"She is in her nightgown," Kate reported. "They are brushing her hair. She is smiling and looks quite gay."
Rebeccah pocketed the bow and nodded her thanks. Evidently Anne was revelling in being the centre of attention and looking forward to her first night with Ingrum, which was a relief. The sisters had not discussed to what extent Anne's drunken footman had forced his attentions on her, but it had clearly done her no lasting harm.
"Now comes the hard part," shouted her sister's childhood friend, Anne Lock. "One, two, three. Whoops!" She had evidently taken more wine than she was used to.
"I hope they don't drop her," murmured Rebeccah, as her sister was lifted so high even she could see her above the heads.
"That foot is loose — someone take hold. More support under her back, if you please. There. We have her safe. Huzzah!"
Slowly and slightly unsteadily, the procession began to move towards the open door.
"To the bridal chamber," yelled someone.
"Have you given her the book yet?" called out someone else. "For she will have need of it tonight."
"What book?" called out Rebeccah's sister.
"Why, Aristotle's Masterpiece of course," came the answer. "Every married woman's friend."
A roar of laughter went up, for everyone there had heard of the best selling sex manual. A blushing Rebeccah glanced at Kate, who grinned back, unperturbed.
In great high spirits, the bride's attendants moved out into the passage taking their precious burden with them. Kate and Rebeccah followed.
"Bless me, what a day!" said Rebeccah's mother, allowing the maid who had replaced Nancy — Anne had been allowed to take the skinny maid with her to her new abode — to relieve her of her wrap and gloves. "Will you take some brandy, Andrew?" Her brother-in-law, who was relinquishing his hat, smiled and nodded.
"George," she continued to the waiting butler. "We'll have brandy in the drawing room, if you please." She glanced to where Rebeccah and Kate were handing over their outer garments to Mary. "You too, my dears. For without your help I do not think I would have got through this day unscathed."
"With pleasure, Mama," called Rebeccah.
"I would prefer beer," murmured Kate.
"Then have some," said Rebeccah. "I intend to take sherry." She beckoned the butler over and said in a low voice, "George, will you bring me some sherry, and some strong beer for Mistress Milledge?"
He smiled. "Of course, Madam."
Kate nodded her thanks.
When the plump maid had bobbed a curtsey and hurried away with their outer garments, Rebeccah started up the stairs. Kate followed close behind her.
A fire was burning in the drawing room fireplace, and Rebeccah paused to warm her hands at it before crossing to an easy chair. It was a relief to sit comfortably at last, after the hard pews and carriage seats. She eased her feet out of her shoes and gave her toes a blissful wiggle — surreptitiously, she had thought, until she saw Kate's amused expression.
The drawing room door opened and George entered bearing a silver tray. He served the mistress of the house first, then moved on to Rebeccah's Uncle. Andrew Dutton had taken possession of Anne's chair by the fire, which had once been Papa's. Indeed he looked disconcertingly like his dead brother, though a good deal fatter.
"Sit down," Rebeccah whispered to Kate, who was still standing. Kate took the easy chair closest to hers and accepted her beer from the butler with a nod.
Uncle Andrew exchanged a glance with his sister-in-law, and stood up. "Are all glasses charged?"
"Then I propose a toast." He raised his glass. "To the bride and groom. May Fortune smile on them."
"And may they find great happiness," added Rebeccah.
"And to Mistress Dutton," he continued, glancing at Elizabeth, "for allowing me the great privilege of giving away my dear brother's daughter on such an auspicious and important day." At the mention of Rebeccah's much missed father a shadow fell over the room.
"First my husband, and now my eldest daughter," murmured Rebeccah's mother. Tiredness tended to bring out her maudlin side, and it had certainly been a long day. "I shall miss Anne."
"I am sure we shall see as much of her as we ever did, Mama," said Rebeccah briskly. "For Frederick has his own carriage, as he never stops telling us, and it is not far from here to Bond Street."
Mrs Dutton sighed. "Perhaps you are right." She forced a smile, which became genuine as her gaze rested on Rebeccah. "At least I still have you to keep me company, my dear. For I don't know what I should do if both my daughters were to desert me." She laughed and took another sip of her brandy.
Rebeccah couldn't help but throw a perturbed glance at Kate, who gave her an arched eyebrow in return.
It had rained during the morning and Hockley-in-the-Hole was living up to its name as Kate picked her way through the mud and puddles that covered the narrow, rutted street. The breeze was in the wrong direction, funnelling the stench from the nearby Fleet Ditch between the crumbling houses on either side towards her. She switched to breathing through her mouth.
Already spectators were gathering for the bull-baiting due to start in half an hour, and she used her elbows to make progress, stopping to hand out the cheaply printed bills she had tucked under her arm. Behind her, Walter was doing the same. And though many bills were instantly balled up and ground underfoot, a few went in pockets, which was all she could ask for.
The bill was identical to the advertisement she had placed in today's Postboy, though that was aimed at more respectable readers:
At the Bear Garden, Hockley-in-the-Hole, to begin at two o'clock precisely tomorrow, Tuesday, a Trial of Skill is to be performed, between two Profound Masters of the Noble Science of Self-defence, both currently in the Employ of the Dutton Fencing Academy.
I, Catherine Milledge, also once known as Blue-Eyed Nick, the highwaywoman lately pardoned by the Queen, do invite you, the Reverend Thomas Berrigan, to meet and exercise at the usual weapons.
I, Thomas Berrigan, once chaplain to the Earl of Avebury, will not fail to meet this brave and bold inviter at the time and place appointed, desiring sharp swords and, from her, no favour. No person to be upon the stage but the seconds.
'Profound masters' was laying it on a bit thick, but Kate had researched advertisements for similar combats and used the language expected.
She busied herself handing out more of the bills, not discriminating between high born or low, male or female, old or young, hale or crippled, gin hawkers or their inebriated customers, soldiers or their trulls, for whores were as likely to send clients the academy's way as anyone else. Breaking the fingers of any cutpurse foolish enough to target her came so automatically she was barely conscious of doing it. She was aware, however, of the sloshing sounds following in her wake, and the accompaniment of mutterings and curses.
She glanced back at the academy's servant and grinned. "Aren't you glad I asked you instead of Berrigan to assist me, Walter?" The chaplain had not been able to evade his religious duties this afternoon though he had begged off tomorrow for the exhibition.
Her question distracted the young man, and his foot squished down in a pile of horse droppings. He bit off a curse, and Kate let out a bark of laughter as, face the picture of disgust, he scraped his shoe clean.
"I am glad to be of service, Madam," he assured her, unconvincingly.
His reply made a one-legged, old soldier on crutches turn and scrutinise Kate more closely, raise his grizzled eyebrows, and curse in disbelief under his breath, for she was wearing male attire. It made things much simpler; a dress in this mire would have been a nightmare. She was glad that she had managed to convince Rebeccah not to come. The young gentlewoman had given in with ill grace, but even on a dry day Hockley-in-the-Hole was not the most salubrious of places.
The yelping and yapping of dogs had been getting louder and now the sound of the crowd changed. She turned and saw people further along the street parting to allow through the animals to be baited today.
First came a bull, its rolling eyes and reluctant gait revealing unease verging on panic; then came a young bear, confused and howling, led by a rope at a distance thought safe from those lashing, lethal claws. Finally came the dogs, at least thirty of them, some mastiffs, some of no particular breed, all yapping and slavering, lunging and straining at their leashes, with an evil gleam in their eyes.
Kate grimaced as the procession drew abreast of her, and stood back to allow it past. The animals were bound for the Bear Garden at the end of the street, which tomorrow would host her exhibition but today was to bear witness to more bloody sights.
It seems poor sport to tether a bull or a bear and set on it maddened dogs with jaws like vices.
She checked the number of bills remaining and found she had only two left. "Let us call it a day and go home, Walter." She turned to the servant and slapped him on the shoulder. "What say you?"
He gave her an enthusiastic nod.
The garret door creaked open and Rebeccah slipped through, giving a quick glance behind her before closing the door softly.
She hurried into Kate's embrace murmuring, "One of these days my mother will discover us."
Kate was guiltily aware that a part of her hoped it would be soon. At least it would force the issue to a conclusion. Being so close to Rebeccah all the time yet not being able to bed her was straining her self-control.
"How has she been today? Still melancholy about your sister?" Mrs Dutton had visited her daughter last week and returned concerned she was lonely.
"I fear so. She misses Anne's presence about the house, and so of course is convinced that Anne must miss us that much more." Rebeccah bit her lip and looked up. "I had not anticipated this, Kate. How can I possibly desert Mama at such a time? With both her daughters gone, she will be all alone."
Not quite, thought Kate, for there are still the servants. But prudence kept her from speaking that thought out loud. She said instead, "I see."
"Do you?" Rebeccah studied her then disentangled herself from Kate's arms. "You think I grow cool towards our plan to set up house together, but I assure you," she said, her tone growing heated, "it is very far from the case."
"Indeed I think nothing of the sort, Rebeccah," said Kate mildly. "You are a kind and considerate daughter, concerned for her widowed mother's welfare. Why should I think otherwise?" Kate had been in the same situation with her own mother, worse in fact, for her mother's wits had been addled. Then she had stumbled upon a treasure: Jane Allen.
"Forgive me." A chastened Rebeccah took her place in Kate's arms once more.
Thinking of Jane had given Kate an idea. "Would your mother countenance a companion?"
Rebeccah blinked at her and became thoughtful. "Like Jane Allen, you mean?"
"Not quite like Jane. For she is my mother's nursemaid as well as companion. Your mother would require far less attention."
Rebeccah smiled. "I do not think Mama would countenance a lurcher like Jane's."
"Beau is not to every one's taste," agreed Kate with a straight face.
Rebeccah sighed. "It is an excellent idea, Kate, but I am not very confident of its success. For Mama prefers her family about her. But there can be no harm in suggesting it, can there?"
"Make it seem like her own notion," advised Kate.
Rebeccah's eyebrows rose. "You are artful!"
Kate shrugged. "Is it artful to try every avenue in pursuit of something you desire?"
Rebeccah's manner became arch. "Do you desire something, Kate?"
Kate smiled and didn’t answer.
Rebeccah stood on tiptoe and wrapped her arms around Kate's neck. "This, perhaps?"
She kissed Kate thoroughly, igniting a fire in her guts, then broke it off — far too soon for Kate's liking. Kate took a calming breath and clamped down on her need to ravish the young woman there and then.
While Rebeccah pretended to explore Kate's garret — what little there was of it could be discovered in seconds — Kate flung herself down on the bed, laced her hands behind her head, and let her gaze dwell pleasantly on the curves filling out Rebeccah's dress.
"How did things go at Hockley today?"
She came back to her surroundings with a start and became aware that Rebeccah was looking at her. Blinking, she replayed the question. "Oh. The advertisement ran as expected." She picked up the copy of the Postboy from the stool beside the bed, opened it to the right page with a rustle, and pointed to the advertisement in question.
Rebeccah crossed over to her and peered down at it.
"And Walter and I succeeded in distributing all but a few of the bills," added Kate refolding the newspaper and throwing it carelessly aside.
"Splendid," said Rebeccah. "Do you think many will come?"
"I am hopeful. If nothing else, it has spread the Dutton Fencing Academy's name abroad."
Rebeccah nodded. "I meant to ask you. Who will be your seconds?"
"Walter, of course." Kate chuckled. "I think he will find the task much more to his taste than was today's. And your footman, Will. Your mother has agreed to lend him to me for a few hours."
"What do either of them know about swordsmanship?" asked Rebeccah, confused.
"This is not a hostile bout, love. They need only to know the sharp end of a sword from its hilt. They are there to hold our coats, mop our brows, bandage our cuts, keep the stage clear of anything that might impede us ... and of course gather up any coins thrown."
"Cuts!" Rebeccah's eyes widened in alarm. "You may tell Berrigan that if he harms you I shall never forgive him."
Kate grinned. "He already knows and is quaking in his boots."
"I'm in earnest, Kate."
She reached out and grasped Rebeccah's hand. "I know." She raised it to her lips. "But your concern, though it warms me, is misplaced. For any cuts we take will be slight at best as both Berrigan and I will be using the flats of our blades and pulling our strokes. It is only an exhibition of skill, after all."
"You are certain?"
"Trust me." Kate patted the mattress next to her and after a moment Rebeccah sat down.
"If you have lied I shall be furious," she warned.
"As is your right." Kate draped an arm around her. "And as is my right, if I am wounded, I shall require you to kiss it better."
"We shall have to keep our wits about us," said Kate, giving the platform a dubious glance. It was as high as her chin and had no railing.
"Ay," said Berrigan. "For if one of us were to slip and fall...."
"It would be an embarrassing, not to mention bruising, experience," completed Kate. "Unless a spectator were to break our fall, of course."
The chaplain grinned and indicated the noisy rabble in the front seats. "And they would break our heads for our impertinence. Either way, we'd end up sore."
Some spectators were clearly drunk, others belligerent. Some were squabbling and hitting each other, trying to place bets or get better seats. A few were trying to scale the scaffolding that supported the gallery, their efforts to climb into the more expensive seats met with catcalls and unsavoury missiles from the gallants ensconced there. Kate was relieved Rebeccah had not come to watch, though she had taken some convincing and given in with bad grace, saying rather sulkily that she would visit her sister instead.
"They will settle down when the bout starts," she said, more in hope than expectation. "Walter, what o'clock is it?"
The servant, who had been looking about him with a faintly horrified air, pulled out the pocket watch she had given him for safe keeping. "Five minutes to the hour, Madam."
She arched an eyebrow at Berrigan. "Shall we?"
She handed Walter her tricorne, and pulled her baldric over her head, so she could remove her coat. It was a cool day for only a shirt, breeches, and boots, but she would soon work up a sweat. Once the servant had relieved her of the coat, she unsheathed her rapier and handed him the baldric. "Thank you, Walter."
Berrigan, meanwhile, had handed their other second, Will the footman, his hat, and was reverently undoing the catches of the rectangular wooden case he had cradled protectively all the way from Soho Square. Cushioned inside it, in an elaborately tooled scabbard, was his swept-hilt rapier, made of the finest Toledo steel, and every time Kate saw the magnificent weapon she felt a pang of envy.
She sighed, raised her own more mundane rapier, and made a few practice passes with it, then threw it onto the platform and leaped up nimbly after it.
The crowd noticed her at once and catcalls and shouts greeted her. "That's Blue-Eyed Nick!" "Women with swords? What next? Bears in sedan chairs?"
Berrigan's cassock hampered him, and it was only with Walter and Will's help that he succeeded in clambering up onto the platform.
Amazed cries met his appearance. "A frigging priest?" "Why is he in skirts rather than her?" "Clergymen can't fight worth a damn! Give me my money back."
"Ignore them," said Kate.
"I have every intention of doing so," said Berrigan.
"What o'clock is it?" she called down.
"Two exactly," answered Walter.
She nodded her thanks and turned to face Berrigan. "Ready?"
Their expressions solemn, standing side by side, they bowed to each section of the crowd in turn, raising a hand in acknowledgment of the more polite and encouraging exhortations. When they had finished, Berrigan turned to face Kate, raised his rapier in a salute, and assumed the on guard position. She did the same.
As they held one another's gazes and began to circle, searching for an opening, the crowd noise faded to a less distracting level.
Kate's lips curled into a reflexive snarl. An answering and very unchristian gleam appeared in the chaplain's eye. Mentally she licked her lips at the prospect of a good scrap. She adjusted her stance until she was poised over the balls of her feet, and beckoned.
Come on, Berrigan. Let's put on a show.
As he lunged towards her, the crowd roared their approval...
An old woman in a sedan chair gave Kate a horrified glance as her bearers hurried past.
I must look a sight.
She dabbed her kerchief to her eyebrow and examined it. The bleeding had stopped, thank heavens. The cut looked far worse than it was or than her bloody shirt, visible beneath her open coat, would indicate. "Hang me!" she muttered. "When Rebeccah sees this she's going to draw and quarter me."
"As long as she doesn't draw and quarter me," said Berrigan, clutching his precious sword case more tightly.
He looked every bit as disreputable as she did. He had a pronounced limp, and his left eye had almost swollen shut. The hem of his cassock had come unstitched and threatened to trip him at every other step.
Kate grinned at him and shifted her baldric into a more comfortable position. "It was the edge of a flung coin that clipped me, not your blade."
"Make sure she knows that."
"Worry more about that God fearing family of yours. What they will think when their chaplain appears tomorrow in your condition?"
Berrigan's wince was expressive, and not solely due to his injuries.
"They'll think that I deliberately pitched you off the stage," she continued.
"In a way you did. For it was your blood I slipped in." His laughter was infectious and she joined in.
"We certainly made an impression," she said ruefully. "Whether it will result in more custom for the Academy...." She waved a hand, indicating doubt.
"At least we had displayed our skills for a good half hour." He rubbed his hip. A spectator had broken his fall, sparing him worse injury. Unfortunately, that selfsame spectator had taken exception to being used in such a fashion, hence Berrigan's black eye. "And if it is any consolation, the sparks in the upper gallery seemed to enjoy it. In fact it was their coin that brought our bout to its untimely close."
Kate produced the culprit from her coat pocket and flourished it. "A guinea too," she said. "No one can say they are cheapskates." She shoved it back in her pocket.
The turn off to Soho Square lay just up ahead. She slowed and glanced back to where Will and Walter were walking, heads together in animated conversation. They had become fast friends over the course of the afternoon.
No doubt exchanging juicy titbits about their respective employers.
She waited for them to catch up, then addressed the Dutton family's footman. "We are almost back to the Academy, Will. Thank you for your services this afternoon. You may return to St. James's Square with a clear conscience and my thanks."
He bowed, smiled a farewell at each of them, and hurried away.
The footman led Rebeccah upstairs, opened the door, bowed, and waited for her to enter. She went through into what was obviously the drawing room, and spied her sister sitting at the spinet by the window. Anne smiled and waved, and Rebeccah was about to return her greeting when something brown-and-white made a dash for her.
She flinched as the spaniel bitch, for such it was, seized her right shoe and began to worry it. Its low growl unnerved her until she saw the furiously wagging tail.
"Stop it, Queenie." Anne surged to her feet and hurried towards her. "Stop that, you silly dog." She reached for the spaniel's collar. "Leave my sister alone."
Faced with giving up its new chew toy or being throttled, the spaniel let go.
Anne gave it a little shake before releasing the collar. "Bad dog."
Queenie didn't look in the remotest bit chastened, and her tail wagged as she gazed up at her mistress. Anne sighed, rolled her eyes, and pointed to the basket that lay close to the hearth. Queenie hesitated, and Rebeccah braced herself for a resumption of the attack, but the spaniel trotted meekly back to her basket and resumed chewing what had once been one of Anne's slippers.
"My apologies, Beccah," said Anne, her cheeks an embarrassed pink. "We only got her last week and she is not yet fully trained. Has she done much damage?"
Rebeccah examined her shoe. "It is a little the worse for wear," she admitted.
"I will buy you a new pair."
"There is no nee—"
"I will not hear otherwise, Beccah."
Rebeccah blinked at her sister's fierce tone then acquiesced. "That is kind. Thank you."
"Think nothing of it. Queenie was Frederick's idea — company for me while he is away — so he cannot carp at any expenses caused by her transgressions."
Anne led Rebeccah to an easy chair in front of the fire then, as Rebeccah sat, rang for a servant. While her sister gave orders, Rebeccah glared at Queenie before turning her attention to her surroundings. Everything about Anne's Bond Street house was up-to-the-minute. There was even wallpaper rather than the wainscoting they had in St. James's Square.
The servant departed and Anne took another easy chair. "I have sent for tea," she said.
"Thank you. ... Your house is very grand, Anne."
"It is, isn't it?" Her sister's expression became complacent. "Frederick says that a new house must have the very latest in furniture and furnishings."
"Where is he?"
Disgruntlement replaced the complacency. "He is very little here at present. For Mr Edgeworth is teaching him the business of trading."
It was a moment before Rebeccah understood her reference. "He is to take an active part in Dutton's?"
"Yes." Anne grimaced and for a moment Rebeccah wondered if her sister was being disparaging of her husband's business acumen. But Anne continued, "Though it may soon be renamed Ingrum's if Mrs Ingrum has any say in the matter."
"But you are Mrs Ingrum," said Rebeccah, confused.
"I suppose I am." Anne laughed. "I must confess, though I have been practicing signing my married name, I am still unused to the sound of it. But in this case, Beccah, I was referring to Frederick's mother."
Rebeccah frowned. "But why would she risk losing the goodwill that has accrued to the Dutton name? It took Papa years to build his company's reputation and she would dispense with it at a stroke?"
"I do not suppose that has occurred to her," said Anne. "But do not worry. For Frederick is conscious of its value, and he will not change it." She pursed her lips. "At least on that matter he is willing to stand up to his mother."
Rebeccah was about to ask her what she meant by that when the door opened and a maid brought in their tea. Conversation became of a necessity inconsequential while the servant poured the tea into expensive china.
Anne's wistful demeanour as she enquired about the health of everyone at St. James's Square made Rebeccah wonder if her mother hadn't been right about her sister missing them. Which would be strange, for she and Anne were kin, true, but different temperaments and attitudes meant they had never really liked one another.
The maid curtseyed and departed.
Rebeccah sipped her tea and frowned at Queenie, who was lapping water from a dish. She couldn't help contrasting the spaniel unfavourably with Jane Allen's amiable lurcher. "What did you mean about Frederick not being able to stand up to his mother, Anne?" she asked.
"Is it not obvious? She has decided opinions. Even about things that should not concern her. And she is not backward in expressing them. She thinks, for example, that I should have children sooner rather than later, for I am not getting any younger. The impertinence! And that I should have two of each at least. I dread to think what state my figure will be in after that."
Rebeccah winced. "Does Frederick agree?"
Anne shook her head. "He was an only child and says it never did him any harm."
"But it is worse than that," continued Anne. "Mrs Ingrum was used to managing Frederick's household as well as her own and sees no reason why his marriage should change that." Spots of angry colour burned in both cheeks. "I am mistress of this house, Beccah, but when she is here, which she is most mornings, she thinks nothing of giving me unlooked for advice, or of countermanding my orders. It makes me look foolish in front of the servants. Undermines my authority."
"And Frederick does nothing to stop her?"
"No. Oh, in private, he agrees she is wrong to carry on this way. He says she means well, and after all, why should she not pass on her experience and advice if it will be of use? But...." Anne sighed and shook her head.
"What about Mr Ingrum?" asked Rebeccah. "Can he not see that his wife is exceeding her authority?"
Anne gave a hollow laugh. "Frederick's father is never home, Beccah. He spends his time in coffee-houses, and who can blame him when she is waiting there for him? Not that her meddling isn’t in part his fault. For if he kept her amused and content and occupied, she would not feel the need to meddle in my affairs." She sighed and said plaintively, "I already have one mother, Beccah. I do not feel the need of another."
"If Mama were to live with you, Frederick's mother would not dare to interfere," joked Rebeccah. "For the post of provider of maternal advice would be already filled."
Anne stared at her as though dumbstruck.
"I did not mean it seriously."
"I know you did not but...."
Rebeccah watched a range of emotions flash across her sister's expressive face.
"Even if Frederick would countenance such a proposition," said Anne at last, sounding disappointed, "I doubt if Mama would agree. For she has lived in St. James's Square since her marriage, and will surely be loath to leave it. Then there is your future to consider, Beccah."
Rebeccah heart raced and her mind whirled. Was this the chance she and Kate had been waiting for? "I do not think Mama would mind leaving that house as much as you think," she said slowly. "For you must have noticed that the memories of Papa it holds can make her very melancholy."
Anne nodded. "I have."
"And there is an argument to be made in favour of combining two households. For it would save expenditure, and surely neither Mama nor Frederick could find fault with that."
"But what about you, Beccah? If she were to let go the house in St. James's Square, where would you live?"
Rebeccah took a deep breath and let it out. "With Kate."
Anne's eyebrows shot up. "Kate?" She smiled as if Rebeccah had made a joke, then the smiled faded and she frowned. "You are in earnest?"
"I am," said Rebeccah composedly.
"But ... a former felon, Beccah!" At the sharpness of her tone, Queenie raised her head and whined.
"Queen Anne herself saw fit to pardon her," protested Rebeccah.
"I would trust Kate with my life. In fact she has already saved my life once, Anne. Not to mention our family's honour."
Anne flushed. "You are referring to my honour, I collect!"
Rebeccah let silence speak for her. Her hand shook as she raised her dish of tea to her lips, but gradually it steadied and her pulse slowed.
"Well, well," said Anne, after a long pause during which they both concentrated on their tea, "perhaps you are right. I spoke only out of concern for your welfare, Beccah. If I have offended you, forgive me."
Surprised and pleased, Rebeccah acknowledged her sister's capitulation with a smile and a slight inclination of the head.
At length Anne resumed, "But where would you live, Beccah? For Kate occupies one of our garrets, does she not?"
"Not there, of course." Rebeccah shrugged. "But the location is immaterial. We would rent somewhere suitable." She studied Anne. "It would be no hardship, I assure you. Kate and I are ... comfortable with one another."
"I had noticed," admitted Anne. "And, I confess, found it somewhat surprising, given the differences in your backgrounds and temperaments."
"Perhaps that is why."
Anne bit her lip. "But what of your plans for a husband, Beccah? For children?"
Rebeccah held her sister's gaze. "In truth it has been some years since I had such plans. I do not think I am the marrying kind."
Anne blinked at her.
"When Caroline Stanhope asked her husband to find me a suitable match from amongst his acquaintance," continued Rebeccah, choosing her words carefully, "it proved impossible. It was his considered opinion that no man can ever meet my expectations."
"But surely that is true of all women," objected Anne. "Yet in the end we settle for less." She gave Rebeccah a self-deprecating smile.
"Perhaps we do. But I for one am unwilling to do so," said Rebeccah. "But neither do I wish to be always under my mother's roof."
Anne studied her. "You are a strange creature, Beccah. I have never really understood you."
"No," agreed Rebeccah. She smiled. "But I believe Kate does."
"In any case," said Anne, putting down her empty tea dish, "it is early days, and this plan of ours may come to nothing."
"Indeed," said Rebeccah, but that 'ours' lifted her spirits.
"After all," continued Anne, "Mama may throw up her hands in horror at the very idea of coming to live with me and Frederick. And so may Frederick!" She smiled and sat back in her chair. "Speaking of Kate, where is she this afternoon? At the Academy?"
Rebeccah glanced at the clock. "She and Berrigan have been giving a fencing exhibition in Hockley-in-the-Hole. It should be concluded by now."
Anne's eyes widened. "Hockley-in-the Hole? Faith, Beccah! Is that not where they hold the bear baiting?"
"The very place."
Rebeccah paced as much as the garret would allow, glancing frequently towards the bed, where a seated Kate was letting Mary examine her eyebrow.
Kate didn’t seem concerned enough about what had happened for Rebeccah's liking. Indeed she seemed to find it amusing. Rebeccah resisted an unladylike urge to curse.
"The bleeding has stopped." The plump maid peered at Kate's brow. "If you had come to me sooner it might have been better, Madam. I have a salve for cuts such as this."
Kate expression became suitably penitent, but Rebeccah doubted she was sincere.
"As it is, it might leave a scar," continued Mary sternly. Then she relented. "But if so, it will only be a small one, barely noticeable."
"So I am to keep my good looks?" Kate grinned. "Thank you, Mary."
"Yes, thank you, Mary." Rebeccah stopped her pacing and fixed Kate with a frown. Kate's smiled vanished at once. "That will be all."
"Very good, Madam." Mary packed away her medical supplies, curtseyed, and departed.
"Do not be cross with me, Rebeccah," said Kate, the moment Mary had closed the door behind her.
Rebeccah put her hands on her hips. "It could have blinded you!"
Kate stood up and came over to her. "Do not dwell on what might have happened, my love." She pulled Rebeccah into her arms. Rebeccah put up only token resistance before acquiescing. "I am safe and here with you."
"It could have blinded you," repeated Rebeccah against her shoulder, but her heart wasn't in it.
"Save your sympathy for Berrigan. The fall shook him and for the next few days he will be limping like an old man."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"No, but this is." Fingers lifted Rebeccah's chin, then Kate kissed her.
As Kate's mouth explored hers, Rebeccah lost herself in the sensation, her body almost melting with delight. If kissing Kate is so pleasurable, how will it feel when we—?
Strong arms swept her up, and the world shifted and lurched, and when it had steadied again, Kate was sitting on her bed with Rebeccah cradled in her lap. Rebeccah moulded herself to Kate's body, and Kate's arms wrapped her in a tight embrace. She basked in the feeling of warmth and protection and realised that she did indeed feel much better.
"How did things go at your sister's this afternoon?" asked Kate, after a while.
A change of subject? Very well. "Well, thank you. Anne now has a companion: a spaniel."
"A spaniel." Kate's tone made it obvious she thought little of the breed.
"Named Queenie," added Rebeccah. "She tried to relieve me of my shoe."
Puzzled blue eyes regarded her. "Anne did?"
"No, Queenie. Frederick gave her the dog, to keep her from being lonely."
Kate snorted. "They are newly weds! He would have done better to stay with her himself."
"My thought exactly," said Rebeccah. "But he is intent on making his mark and at present is immersing himself in Papa's business. For on his marriage, Anne's property became his, you know."
"At least when I robbed coaches," murmured Kate, "the theft was above board." She studied Rebeccah. "So your sister is lonely as your mother suspected?"
A shiver of anticipation ran through Rebeccah as she considered how to broach her news. "And yet, not as lonely as she would wish, Kate. For Frederick's mother is to be found at Bond Street more often than Anne likes."
Kate scratched her nose. "With mothers-in-law, that is often how the land lies."
"Not for much longer, perhaps. For there may be a solution to Anne's loneliness that will prove satisfactory to both her and Mama ... and us. And in the process put Mrs Ingrum's nose out of joint." She let loose the smile she had been suppressing and opened her mouth to continue. Kate beat her to it.
"Your sister wants to combine her household with that of your mother?"
"Trust you to steal my thunder." Rebeccah pretended to pout.
"Forgive me." Kate's studied her, blue eyes suddenly intent. "But ... Am I correct?"
Rebeccah nodded and Kate began to smile.
"And you believe your mother will agree?"
"There is every chance."
Kate let out a shout of delight. "And if she does, you will be free to set up house with me."
Rebeccah laughed and rested a hand against Kate's belly. "Now, all we have to do is find a place!"
A knock at the door interrupted them. Rebeccah stood up, smoothed her skirts, and put a respectable distance between them.
"Enter," she called.
Mary's head appeared round the door, followed by the rest of her. She was clutching a letter. "I beg your pardon, Madam," she said, "but George has just told me a message came for Mistress Milledge while she was out. It has been sitting in the drawing room and no one thought to bring it up. I thought you would not wish to wait until tomorrow to have it."
Kate got up and stepped towards her, hand outstretched. "Thank you, Mary. You thought right."
Mary gave her the letter, curtseyed, and made herself scarce.
"Who is it from?" Rebeccah wandered over to join Kate, who was studying the handwriting with a frown.
"'Tis Jane Allen's hand."
Rebeccah's heart began to race. "Has something happened—"
Kate tore open the letter and read the contents swiftly. Her frown gave way to a pleased smile and she turned to Rebeccah, eyes dancing.
"Martha is well. This concerns the tenancy we asked Jane to keep her eyes open for."
Rebeccah's breath caught. "You mean...."
Kate nodded. "The lease has fallen vacant on a small house three doors down from hers. It has five chambers and a small patch of ground that might serve Mary for a herb garden."
"How many bedchambers?"
"Two large, one small."
Rebeccah let out a sigh of relief. Enough for us to keep up appearances. "And when may we view it?"
"We have an appointment for tomorrow morning."
Kate nodded and became thoughtful. "Mary must accompany us, of course. For if she is to be our maid, her opinion must be taken into account."
Rebeccah's heart was pounding with excitement. "Can this really be happening? It sounds too good to be true."
"It may be infested with rats," agreed Kate, but she was smiling, "and the roof may leak. But I doubt it. For Jane Allen is sensible. She will have inspected the place and decided it will suit." She arched an eyebrow. "The more pertinent question is, will it suit Mary?"
"It will if she knows what's good for her," muttered Rebeccah.
A rumble of cartwheels made Kate peer out the window. A horse-drawn cart piled high with tables and chairs, mirrors and bookcases, candlesticks, curtains, and who knew what else that Rebeccah had selected had pulled up in the street outside. Several of their new neighbours were standing in their doorways, gaping at it.
"Your furniture has arrived," she called, sucking a skinned knuckle. They had taken delivery of the beds earlier and she had only finished assembling them half an hour ago.
"Our furniture," came Rebeccah's voice from upstairs, where she was putting the finishing touches to the bed hangings. "Coming."
Mary appeared in the kitchen doorway. From the bunch of horsetail clutched in one hand, she had been polishing the pewter. "Do you need me, Madam?"
Kate considered. "You may assist Rebeccah in directing us."
The maid nodded, set aside the rushes, and wiped her hands on her apron.
Rebeccah appeared at the top of the stairs, beaming. "Isn't this exciting?" She lifted her skirts and started carefully down the steep steps.
"'Tis not as if the furniture is new," said Kate, but she was smiling.
It had been Mrs Dutton's idea to furnish their house, which they had leased unfurnished, with items from St. James's Square. For, as she said, she would have no need of them in Bond Street, where Anne had excitedly insisted on buying everything new for her mother's chamber.
Rebeccah could have had more of her family's belongings if she had wished, but they had not the room for it. So with Kate's help, she had settled on necessities and a few items of sentimental value, such as her father's favourite barometer and globe. Rebeccah had been quite happy about having to choose; Kate suspected her sister would not have been so sanguine.
"We are lucky the weather is fine." Rebeccah peered out the front door to where Will and Henry, Titus's replacement, had jumped down from the cart and started unloading.
"Can you remember where you want everything?" asked Kate.
Rebeccah looked at her in surprise. "Of course. For I made a note of it." She pulled from her pocket a diagram she had sketched. As Kate was rapidly learning, Rebeccah had a talent for organisation. "See." She handed the piece of paper to Mary, who squinted at it, frowned, then turned it the right way up.
Kate pressed Rebeccah's hand. "Then if you are ready for the fray, my dear, I will fire the starting pistol." She went outside to help the two servants.
The positioning of everything to Rebeccah and Mary's mutual satisfaction lasted a couple of hours and left Kate with a stubbed toe, a ripped pair of knee breeches, and an aching back. A bed for her and Rebeccah, a pot to piss in, and an easy chair strong enough to bear their combined weight, situated in front of a roaring fire, were all that Kate required, so she kept out of their sometimes heated discussions. But she had to admit, the results of their deliberations were worth it.
Her chamber now sported curtains, a clothes chest, a chair, a tripod-legged table on which sat a bowl and a very expensive bar of Castile soap, a mirror, and of course the bed, which was large enough for two.
For appearances' sake, the chest had only Kate's clothes in it, but Rebeccah was to share the room with her, as the dressing case with its set of ivory combs and brushes indicated. She felt a tingle of anticipation at the prospect of the coming night.
Sucking a stinging knuckle — a different knuckle from earlier; manoeuvring furniture up tight stairs was hard on the hands — she turned her attention to the street, where Will and Henry were driving away the empty cart at a much brisker pace than they had arrived. From downstairs came the sound of the kettle boiling. She would have welcomed something a little stronger but Rebeccah had asked Mary for tea. An urge to sing overtook her and she gave into it, though softly.
Movement from the corner of her eyes was followed by an arm slipping round her waist. "You have a wonderful voice, Kate," said Rebeccah. "What is that song?"
"'Tis called The Female Frollick." She draped her arm round Rebeccah's shoulders. "I have you to myself at last."
The younger woman leaned against her. "And I you."
"Now we may relax."
But even as she spoke, a coach and four was rumbling along the street towards them, and as it drew closer Kate realised she recognised both carriage and driver. She arched an eyebrow at Rebeccah. "Is that...?"
"Mama," finished Rebeccah with a sigh.
Robert reined his team to a halt, vaulted down, and opened the door for the carriage's elegantly dressed occupant. Seconds later came a rap at the front door, and they heard Mary going to answer it.
"We had better go down," said Kate reluctantly.
Mrs Dutton was standing in their parlour cum drawing room when Kate and Rebeccah arrived. Her smile encompassed both of them.
"I trust your move is proceeding well, my dears?" She finished handing her hat and gloves to Mary.
"Thankfully, yes, Mama." Rebeccah gave her mother a kiss on the cheek. "Though it was touch and go at times, for our stairs are narrower than those at St. James's Square. We were just about to take some tea." She glanced at the maid. "Mary? Would you?"
Mary curtseyed and disappeared into the adjoining kitchen. Kate took it upon herself to make up the fire with more coals from the scuttle. Rebeccah threw her a grateful look and turned back to her mother.
"Mama." She gestured to one of the armchairs. "Please, make yourself comfortable."
Mrs Dutton smiled and did so. "I won't stay long, Beccah. I just wanted to make sure things were proceeding as planned. For if they are not, you can always spend tonight at St. James's Square, for I am not due to vacate the house until Wednesday."
"Thank you, Mama, that was thoughtful. But indeed, we are already quite settled, as you can see."
Mrs Dutton's eyes scanned the little room assessingly, before continuing. "I am glad to hear it, Beccah. Though of course I shall miss your company." She sighed. "But change comes to all of us, and we must make the best of it, must we not?"
"Indeed," said Rebeccah. "Let us try to think of it as a new chapter."
Her mother smiled and nodded.
Mary returned bearing a tea tray. She placed it on the table, set out the crockery, and began to pour.
"And Mary." The maid looked up at her name. "Dear Mary," continued Mrs Dutton. "I shall miss you too, you know. For you have been with our family so long, I have come to think of you almost as a member of it."
Mary's expression was a blend of gratitude and disbelief, Kate saw with amusement. "Thank you, Madam. That's kind, I'm sure. I shall miss St. James's Square, but I am flattered Mistress Rebeccah wants me with her." She threw Rebeccah a fond glance. "For I have been with her since she was a babe. And besides," she added, scrupulously honest as always, "the duties promise to be more varied here."
"Indeed. On that subject," — Mrs Dutton sounded concerned — "Is Mary to do all the work, Beccah?"
"If you mean by that, is she to be our only servant, the answer is yes, Mama. But her duties will not be arduous. For the house comprises but five rooms, and Kate and I will be busy at the Academy during the week."
"As for our meals," added Kate helpfully, "there are taverns and cookshops aplenty, Mrs Dutton."
That made Rebeccah frown. "I hope you are not intending us to eat our dinner often in such places, Kate. For with Mary's help, I wish to put into practice my lessons from Mrs Priest's boarding school. After all, cooking can not be so difficult, can it?" She glanced at the maid.
"I'm sure I couldn't say, Madam," said Mary with commendable restraint.
"Oh Pish!" said Rebeccah, seeing her mother's astonishment and Kate's amusement. "Do not give me those looks." Her own lips curved into a reluctant grin. "I can attempt it at least, can I not?"
Kate laughed out loud and nodded.
Candles flickered in their holders, a fire crackled in the hearth, and on the little table next to Kate lay dirty supper plates and the clay pipe she had smoked earlier.
My own drawing room. My own fire. And my lover in my lap. What more could I ask for? She gave a contented sigh, stroked Rebeccah's hair, then let her hand drop and dangle by her side.
"I think I ate too much." Rebeccah shifted a little in her lap. "Am I too heavy for you?"
"You are as light as thistledown." A memory of the private condemned cell at Newgate, when in spite of a shackled Kate's less-than-fragrant odour, Rebeccah had also sat in her lap, surfaced, and she couldn't help but marvel at the remarkable change in her fortunes since that day.
"Hardly that," murmured Rebeccah with a smile. But she made no move to get up and take the other chair. "Do you think Mary is spending the evening with Robert?" They had given the maid the night off, for if Rebeccah required help undressing later, Kate would provide it.
Kate adjusted her arm around Rebeccah's waist and considered the gleam in Mary's eyes when she had hurried away. "Undoubtedly," she said. "Have you seen the way they look at one another?"
"How long has it been going on, do you think?"
Rebeccah twisted round to look at her. "If she wishes to bring him back to her chamber, should we allow it?"
Kate arched an eyebrow. "Would you deny them that?"
After a moment's thought, Rebeccah shook her head. "So long as it makes Mary happy and does not inconvenience us overmuch." She faced the fire once more. "I wonder if Mama is aware of their relationship."
"I doubt it. She is unaware of our feelings for one another."
"She knows we are friends," corrected Rebeccah.
"More than that, I hope," said Kate. Which reminded her....
"Though she has never said, I believe she thinks we are like the Queen and Aunt Sarah," added Rebeccah, then she let out an indignant squeak, for Kate had leaned sideways and was fishing in the pocket of her breeches. "What are you doing?"
"Aha!" Kate straightened up and Rebeccah resettled herself in her lap then blinked at the object Kate was now holding out to her between her finger and thumb.
It was a gold wedding band. Kate had taken the measurements from the garnet signet ring that Rebeccah always wore and that had once belonged to Rebeccah's father. The band had been expensive, but not as much as it might have been, for Kate still had useful contacts from her days as a highwayman.
"Is that...." asked Rebeccah faintly.
"It is." Kate reached for Rebeccah's hand and slid the ring onto her ring finger. To her relief, it fit perfectly. "For better or for worse," said Kate solemnly. "Until death do us part."
Words failed Rebeccah, and for a moment she could do little except gape alternately at the ring and its giver. Then she grabbed Kate's face between her hands and kissed her enthusiastically and, to Kate's gratification, expertly.
The candles had burned down a good inch and Rebeccah's clothes were rumpled and in disarray, though her stays had thwarted Kate's attempts to pay proper homage to her breasts, when Kate became aware of their surroundings once more. Her mouth was dry and she felt an urgent need to take Rebeccah to bed right now.
"Shall we go upstairs?" Her voice cracked.
"In a moment." Rebeccah's emotions were visible in her eyes. "Thank you for this, my love." Gold glinted in the firelight as she held out her hand the better to admire the ring. "With all my heart."
"It is but the outward sign of my feelings," said Kate, who would far rather demonstrate than talk about her emotions, but who also sensed that Rebeccah needed to hear this.
"It is beautiful." A thought struck Rebeccah and her face creased with distress. "But I shall be unable to wear it in company. For it is sure to elicit too many questions."
"Wear it when we are alone together." Kate eased Rebeccah off her lap and stood up.
Rebeccah searched her face. "That will content you?"
"It will," said Kate firmly.
Rebeccah's frown smoothed and she began to straighten her clothing. Kate wondered why she was bothering, for her intention was to strip Rebeccah of it in the next few minutes.
"Will you come to bed?" she asked again.
The roughness of her voice made Rebeccah look hard at her. Seeing Kate's outstretched hand and impatient expression, her lips curved into a knowing smile. "With pleasure."
The sound of church bells roused Kate from a dream in which she was riding across the heath, the wind in her hair, a song on her lips, and Rebeccah in the saddle behind her, arms clasped tight around Kate's belly. For a moment she wondered where she was, then the soft, even breathing and warm press of curves against her arm reminded her.
She turned to study her sleeping companion. Rebeccah's face was open and relaxed. Kate pinched herself to make sure she was awake and smiled. No fever dream, this!
For a while she simply gazed at Rebeccah, remembering last night's activities and the soft exclamations of surprised pleasure, and resisting, just barely, the urge to take Rebeccah in her arms again. Outside, the church bells continued to summon worshippers to prayer. Kate intended to worship at quite a different altar when her lover awoke.
The need to make water made itself felt. Careful not to disturb Rebeccah, Kate eased herself out of bed. The fire had almost gone out, and the bedchamber was chilly, so she used the chamber pot as quickly and as quietly as she could, then draped the cloth over it and shoved it back under the bed.
As she snuggled back under the warm bedclothes, Rebeccah's breathing caught and then resumed. Kate turned just in time to see awareness returning. The tip of a pink tongue emerged, licked dry, slightly bruised lips, and vanished whence it came. Pale eyelashes fluttered open and green eyes gazed rather blurrily at Kate then struggled to focus. She waited, slightly anxious, and was relieved when gladness filled Rebeccah's gaze.
"Good morrow, Kate." Rebeccah's voice was husky.
"Morrow, my love." Kate leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, then pulled back. "Are you well?" She brushed the soft cheek with her finger.
Rebeccah's gaze turned inwards. "I am a little ... tender ... up here," she indicated the breasts that had so enthralled Kate last night and were now hidden beneath her shift. "And, um, down there." She whispered the last two words, then blushed.
"To be expected," Kate reassured her. "It will ease."
Rebeccah regarded her from under lowered lashes. Then she rested a hand on her arm and murmured in her ear. "But I am not so sore that I would not welcome a repeat of ... you know." Her blush deepened. "Indeed, I would very much like you to.... That is, if you are willing."
Kate laughed and kissed her again, on the lips this time. "Of course," she murmured against Rebeccah's mouth. "For where you are concerned it is no hardship." And she set about proving it.
A knock at the door forced her to break off her attentions — fortunately they had not gone very far.
"Mary?" wondered Rebeccah a little breathlessly.
"Who else? Come in," called Kate.
Rebeccah let out a squeak of dismay, pulled down her shift, and tried to hide behind Kate as the door opened and the maid entered, carrying a ewer from which emerged wisps of steam. Mary's lips twitched when she saw the two women in bed together, but she said only, "Good morrow, Mistress Milledge, Mistress Dutton."
She placed the ewer beside the bowl on the tripod-legged table, and drew back the curtains. From the look of it, it was another fine day, though cold. She turned and, with a pained glance but without comment, began to retrieve items of Rebeccah's clothing from the floor.
"We were in a hurry," explained Kate, ignoring Rebeccah's intake of breath.
"Garments last longer if they are cared for," chided Mary, shaking out a stocking and draping it over her arm.
Kate donned a penitent expression. "I beg your pardon."
Mary nodded as if that ended the matter, and placed the clothes, now neatly folded, on the clothes chest. "Shall I make up the fire?"
"If you would be so kind." Kate was acutely aware that a redfaced Rebeccah was peeking over her shoulder.
Mary crossed at once to the grate, knelt, reached for the fire irons, and added more coals to the embers.
"Otherwise," continued Kate to Mary's back, "we shall not require your assistance until much later. For we can make shift to get our own breakfast, and Mistress Dutton will not be attending church."
"Kate!" exclaimed Rebeccah in her ear. "If I do not go, Mama will wonder where I am."
"Let her wonder."
"Hush," whispered Kate, reaching back, and giving Rebeccah's hand an encouraging squeeze. "Would you rather go to church or stay here in bed with me?"
Rebeccah opened her mouth then shut it again. Kate took her silence for assent,
"Very good, Madam," said Mary from the fireplace.
When the maid was satisfied with the fire's progress, she replaced the fire irons, got creakily to her feet, and turned and looked at the two of them. How Mary was keeping her countenance Kate couldn't imagine. Perhaps she was saving her reaction for later when she regaled Robert with tales of what she had seen and heard.
"May I say what a handsome wedding band that is, Mistress Dutton," said the maid.
The hand resting on Kate's shoulder whipped back out of sight then, a second later, gingerly returned.
"Thank you, Mary," said Rebeccah hoarsely.
Kate could contain her grin no longer. She winked, and the maid's eyes twinkled in response. "That will be all for now, thank you, Mary. Mistress Dutton will ring for you if she needs you."
Rebeccah cleared her throat. "Yes," she said awkwardly. "I will."
Mary curtseyed and made her way towards the door. It was only as it was closing behind her that Kate at last caught the sound of a low chuckle.
She twisted round to face Rebeccah, who was regarding her with an expression part exasperation, part mortification, and part affection.
"Does nothing embarrass you, Kate?"
"No," said Kate, smiling. "And soon you will be more easy about us too. Why, in time you may even be able to make water in front of me!"
Rebeccah blushed and demurred. Outside the church bells had stopped ringing and it was blissfully silent.
"In the meantime," said Kate, "Mary had made our chamber warm and tidy once more. And we have the morning to ourselves." She cocked her head. "Who would have thought that a random encounter on Shooter's Hill could lead to this?" She gestured at the bed and the two of them in it.
"Who indeed?" asked Rebeccah. Her gaze turned inwards. "You were very forward that day, Kate. You asked me to hand you my valuables. Starting with 'that pretty trinket around your even prettier neck'."
Kate tried to remember the details, but all that came to mind was a pair of fine green eyes regarding her and her cocked pistol with a mixture of shock, apprehension, and grudging fascination. "Did I?" she murmured.
"Indeed you did," said Rebeccah. "For that meeting is fixed in my memory and always will be."
Kate laughed then sobered as a revelation struck her. "And you have obliged me by giving me something far more precious."
Rebeccah's lips began to tremble, then tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Her chest began to heave. A perplexed Kate gathered the suddenly sobbing young woman into her arms.
"Hush, my love," she murmured. "Do not cry. There, there. 'Tis all right. Hush now."
But Rebeccah's sobs continued, and Kate contented herself with rocking her and stroking her hair. Time passed, and eventually, the only sounds in the bedchamber were the crackle of flames from the fireplace, and the occasional sniff, and, on one occasion, a hiccup, from Rebeccah.
"Did I say something to upset you?" asked Kate at last.
Rebeccah lifted her head. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her face blotchy, but to Kate's eyes she had never looked so lovely. "Upset me? Far from it." She gave Kate a rather sheepish smile. "Forgive me, Kate, for alarming you. In truth, I have never been so happy in all my life!"
"Oh." A relieved Kate chuckled. "In that case." Tenderly, she wiped the tearstains from Rebeccah's face with the sleeve of her shift. "I know something that will make you even happier." She gave Rebeccah her best seductive look. "I forget quite where we had got to when Mary interrupted us. Can you remember, my dear?" She arched a knowing eyebrow, smiled, and waited.
It took but a moment for Rebeccah to understand, then her eyes filled with desire and she licked her lips. "I remember very well," she said. Then, blushing shyly at her own daring, she whispered, "Shall I show you?"
"I insist on it," said Kate.