The Present Page 14

He almost laughed. They were obviously going to try any means to bring him out of the brooding he'd fallen into. Not that he believed in natural spring waters, but to humor his friends, who weren't being even the least bit subtle about it, he did drink a bottle, and pocketed a few more to take home with him.

Leaving the Pump Room, they ran into a group of acquaintances, five in number, who, unlike them, were actually there for the entertainment. And two of the young men were well-known jokesters, which was probably why David suggested they join the group, hoping they could get a smile out of Christopher, where he and Walter had failed.

He couldn't have known he'd be making matters worse, but that was exactly what happened. And all because one of the young men, Adam Sheffield by name, was in a bad mood himself, but unlike Christopher, he had no qualms about complaining quite loudly about it to his friends. The reason was almost immediately revealed.

"How'm I supposed to meet her if I can't get near her? That old bird is too particular by half, I tell you, in who she invites to her events."

"No need to narrow it down to just her parties, old boy. If you didn't know, she's particular about who she lets into her house at any time. Party or no party, you can't just call on Lady Siddons. You have to be an acquaintance, or be with an acquaintance."

"As if she ain't acquainted with just about everyone, old as she is."

"We should have just crashed that silly party," another of them said. "I hear it was in costume. Who would have known the difference, with a few more Pans and Cupids running about the place?"

"Think I didn't try?" Adam told his friend. "Why d'you think I was late joining you? But they were taking bloody head counts and names at the door."

"I heard her father was a famous matador," another of the group said now, which got the rest of them contributing to the discussion.

"A what?"

"You know, those Spaniards who actually—"

"Not even close," was said with a hearty laugh. "He's the king of Bulgaria."

"Never heard of it."

"As if that matters—"

"You're both wrong. He's not a king, but a prince, and one from some country where just about everyone's surname has an 'off in it. Means 'son of,' or daughter in the case of the Stephanoff chit."

"Doesn't matter who her father is," someone else pointed out. "Long as her mother's from good English stock, which I've heard on good authority she is, being that her mother was Sir William Thompson's sister."

"So the chit is Thompson's niece?"


"Well, then, that explains why Lady Siddons has taken his niece under her wing. Sir William has been a neighbor of hers for several centuries."

"They're not that old, you dolt. 'Sides, how would you know? You don't run in those circles."

"No, but m'mother certainly does. Who do you think told me that Anastasia Stephanoff was going to be the catch of the season? M'mother almost ordered me to put in my bid for the gel."

"When no one's even met her yet? And why is that? Why keep her under such tight wraps?"

"She might be a guest of Lady Siddons, but that doesn't mean she's been hidden away until her launch tonight. Just means we don't know anyone who has met her yet."

"Well, half the bloody ton's meeting her tonight," another complained. "Why d'you think Adam's so put out, since he didn't get invited."

"Hardly half the ton." This was said dryly, if a touch resentfully. "Pro'bly just those with deep pockets, which don't include us."

"Speak for yourself, old boy," the oldest in the group said smugly. "My pockets are deep enough to suit any would-be husband hunter, but I didn't get invited either. But I'll tell you, Adam, if she's as pretty as I've heard she is, I might just ask for her m'self. Been thinking it's about time to settle down. Actually, m'father's been doing that thinking for me, if you get my drift."

"How do you know she's pretty?"

"Would she be the topic on everyone's mind if she wasn't?" one of them chuckled.

"That hardly signifies. Doesn't take a beauty to become the topic."

"Actually, m'oldest sister heard it from Lady Jennings, who's a dear friend of Lady Siddons, that the Stephanoff chit is uniquely beautiful, sort of a cross between a Spanish Madonna and a wanton Gypsy. Just the thing to intrigue a man, if you ask me."

The conversation continued in the same vein as the young bloods approached the theater, but Christopher slowly came to a halt. It took David and Walter a few moments to realize they'd left him behind. Returning to him, it wasn't hard to see that joining that group hadn't been such a good idea after all. His expression bordered on the furious.

"It was that mention that the chit they were talking about looks like a Gypsy," David guessed with a grimace. "What rotten luck."

But Walter said in a reasonable tone, "You know, Kit, you've refused to talk to us about that Gypsy of yours, why she left you when you'd offered to keep her in fine style, why you've been so angry about it. What are friends for, if not to hash things out with?"

"I never even told you her full name, did I?" Christopher said.

David, coming up with pretty good guesses tonight, exclaimed, "Good God, you're not going to say her name's Anastasia Stephanoff, are you?"

"The same."

"But you can't think .'..?''

"Not bloody likely." Christopher snorted.

"Then don't let it bother you, Kit, if it's no more than a coincidence, that the two women share the same name," Walter suggested.

"A damned strange coincidence," Christopher replied, his original scowl a bit more pronounced. "Especially considering it's not a name that is even remotely common to England. Besides, I just don't like coincidences that happen to be that coincidental."

"Don't blame you a'tall. Definitely strange. But let's get back to your Anna," Walter tried again. "Why did she leave you?"

Walter was pushing it. If Christopher had wanted to discuss his Gypsy with them, he would have done so before now. Yet considering the flaming jealousy he'd just experienced, when he knew those young men weren't even talking about his Anna, well, he obviously did need to talk about it, if only to get his mind off of that other girl, who was running around with his Anna's name.

So he said curtly, "Because she objected to my thinking and saying she was my mistress."

"Thinking?" David latched on to that word. "I know you got quite foxed the day before. Did you forget to square away the formalities and ask her?"

"No, I did some asking, but apparently not what I'd intended to ask," Christopher mumbled. "Seems instead of making her my mistress, I made her my wife."

Their identical shocked expressions merely confirmed why he should have kept this to himself. A man in his position just didn't make such appalling blunders.

David was the first to recover from his surprise. But he didn't point out the obvious, which Christopher wouldn't have appreciated, having said it enough times himself. Everyone knew what he'd done just wasn't done.

And his tone was deliberately calm as he said, "Well, that proves Thompson's niece really isn't the same girl, just in case we were doubting it a'tall. Your wife wouldn't be launching herself in the tried-and-true husband-hunting fashion, now would she?"

Walter rolled his eyes at that reasoning, but what he wanted to know was, "How does one get so drunk that they don't recall getting married?"

"By drinking too much, obviously," Christopher replied in self-disgust.

"I suppose," Walter allowed. "But of course, you've rectified the situation?"

"Not yet," Christopher mumbled so softly, he barely heard himself.

Walter certainly missed it, and rather than take the hint that Christopher obviously didn't want to answer, he asked for clarification. "What was that?"

"I said not yet!"

The explosive answer still didn't stop his next question, "Whyever not?"

"Damned if I know." Christopher scowled.

David and Walter exchanged knowing looks at that point, but it was David who expressed their thoughts with, "Then perhaps we should hope that, for whatever strange reason she might have been in that Gypsy camp, your 'wife' and Sir William's niece are one and the same, after all. I'd make a call at the Siddons household tomorrow, indeed I would, were I you, Kit. Be nice if you were pleasantly surprised."

Would it? Christopher wasn't so sure, but he'd already decided to do just that.

Christopher wasn't expecting to be surprised as he was shown into Lady Siddons's parlor, where her "guest" was holding court. Sir William's niece could be a raving beauty as the rumors indicated, but she wouldn't be the Anastasia he was looking for.

After giving it some thought, though, he didn't think the identical names were so coincidental. That would be too far-fetched. It was much more likely that his Anastasia hadn't given him her true name, that she'd met William's niece at some time in the past, liked her name, and decided to take it for her own as well.

Yet he had to find out for sure, thus his early morning visit to old Lady Siddons's house. And not expecting to be surprised just made his surprise all the worse when he saw Anastasia.

She was standing in the center of seven slavering men, all vying for her attention, wearing a morning dress that would have done a queen proud, wide-skirted, tightly corseted, her wild hair caged in a fashionable manner, frilled and laced. Black lace and powder blue satin, making her cobalt blue eyes so incredibly vivid.

For the first startled moment, Christopher actually thought there was merely a resemblance between the two women, so much did she look like an English lady, rather than the Gypsy he had first met. But only for a moment . . .

Their eyes met across the room. She immediately went very still. Then she blushed and lowered her gaze, as if she had something to be guilty about. But then she did, didn't she? Masquerading as a lady. Presenting herself on the marriage mart, when she was already married.

He was letting his jealousy supersede his delight in finding her again. He realized it, and yet those nasty emotions were too powerful to easily ignore, and were coloring his every thought. Even Adam Sheffield was here, obviously having had no trouble getting past the front door this morning, and looking utterly bedazzled by Anastasia. His friend, too, the one who'd mentioned putting a bid in for her himself, was gazing at her worshipfully.

Christopher had the distinctly violent urge to walk over there and knock their heads together, the whole lot of them. How dare they fawn over his wife and entertain lurid thoughts about her? And he had no doubt whatsoever that their thoughts were lurid.

A cross between a Madonna and a wanton, as had been noted last night, was apt by far. Anastasia exuded sexual promise, and yet seemed untouchable, a combination ripe for stirring a man's desire, yet making him hesitant to proceed, thus leaving him wishful and fantasizing.

Those who were doing no more than fantasizing, he would merely hurt. The others, though, and he could see there were several others who were actually entertaining thoughts of a more permanent nature, unaware that the lady was unavailable for anything permanent, Christopher was going to slowly take apart piece by piece . . .

"I am surprised to see you here, Lord Malory," was said by his side.

He hadn't noticed the dowager countess approaching him. He knew her by sight but couldn't recall ever actually speaking to her before. She, apparently, knew him by sight as well, to know who he was.

As for her wondering at his presence, he replied skeptically, "I doubt that, Lady Siddons, considering who your houseguest is."

"No, truly," she insisted, though she said it with a smile that merely confirmed his impression. "After all, you were privileged enough to obtain the gem, yet foolishly tossed it away."

"I've tossed away nothing, madame," he said stiffly, well aware what she meant, and continuing in the same vein, "The gem is still legally mine."

Her brow shot up, indicating he might have actually surprised her this time, yet her tone was merely curious. "I find that passing strange, considering the connections available to a marquis that would expedite the disposal of matters of that nature. Perhaps you have merely been delayed in seeing it accomplished?"

"Perhaps I have no intention of doing anything of the sort," he shot back.

"Well now, that presents a dilemma. It might behoove you to make the gel aware of it, since she is quite under a different impression. Or do you think she's been launched just to gain your attention?"

"Actually, that she's been launched a'tall is beyond comprehension," he told her. "Or aren't you aware of who she really is?"

"Who she is? You mean aside from being your wife?" she rubbed it in, then, "I can't imagine what you're thinking. She's my dear friend's niece, of course. I don't believe you've made his acquaintance. Well, come along, my lord, and we shall rectify that."

She walked off, fully expecting him to follow her, He did, since he did in fact have a few pertinent questions to put to Sir William Thompson.

The old man was alone, standing sentinel next to a rather large fireplace, where he'd been keeping a "paternal" eye on his young "relative." Making quick work of the introductions, Lady Siddons left them alone there,

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