“Robert, I feared you might leave without saying goodbye.”
Both the Duke and Duchess of Greystone had paused eating their breakfast when they noticed Robert come into the room.
To keep his good friends from worrying, Robert took a deep breath and forced his usual jovial expression onto his face. “Mother’s letter said not to hurry—just to come.”
He went to the buffet, perusing the usual spread of breakfast fare. “William’s still packing, so while he’s finishing, I thought I could say my goodbyes whilst taking some nourishment.”
Jane told him, “I’ve given Cook instructions to pack you a few things, to keep you and William going until you find a decent inn.”
The dark-haired beauty exchanged a peculiar look with her husband before going on to say, “Please, send word back when you know your father’s condition. I’ll worry until I know for certain he’s on the road to recovery.”
She cleared her throat and again looked at Phillip, her expression this time hinting she’d more to say but was reluctant to do so.
The duke patted his wife’s hand before turning to Robert with a bemused smile.
Something was clearly not right. Robert had seen that look many a time when Phillip was about to persuade him to do something either distasteful or illegal.
When the duke and duchess exchanged another look, though, Robert feared it could very well be both.
Robert took a china plate and made a play of being undecided what of the food on offer to choose, to give his hosts time to work up their nerve. He could feel their eyes on the back of his neck all the while.
Soon enough, Jane cleared her throat. “Did the letter not say what was amiss with your father?”
Robert smiled at his still empty plate; so the little minx still wasn’t ready as yet to say what was really on her mind.
He lifted a coddled egg and tipped it from its small bowl onto his plate, then added a thick slice of ham before going over to sit next to Jane. “No. Mother only asked that I return home as soon as possible. I’m hoping it’s only my father’s gout flaring up again, not something more serious.”
He couldn’t remember his mother ever having sent for him before. Her letter hadn’t told him much if anything, other than that Robert was needed back in London. It had been the tone that had shaken him to the core. He’d wanted to saddle Knight immediately and ride off without either a change of clothes or his valet, but over the years his father had drilled it into him that someone of their standing didn’t go rushing around the countryside like some rustic madman.
Robert studied the food again before saying, “Although he did look under the weather when I was home a few months ago. I did wonder then if he was keeping something from me.”
He met Phillip’s eyes. “You know how Father is. He doesn’t take kindly to people fussing.”
Phillip laughed. “He does believe in carrying the stiff upper lip a trifle too far sometimes, but with a house full of women, well, I suspect he’s afraid to lower his guard for one minute or your rowdy sisters might run roughshod over him.”
Robert added his own laughter to his best friend’s own. “He is a little outnumbered, but don’t let him fool you. He loves every chaotic moment.”
Jane patted Robert’s arm. “I wish we could go with you.”
Cradling her delicate fingers in his hand, Robert reassured her, “You shouldn’t venture out too far in your condition. Rest assured, I’ll write as soon as I know how he is.”
She squeezed his fingers then made eye contact once again with her husband, both exchanging another unspoken communication before Phillip cleared his throat. “Jane has a favour to ask.”
The Duchess shot her husband a stern look before clearing her throat. “Indeed, we do both have a favour to ask.”
The young duke turned and grinned at his beloved duchess. “Of course, this would be once you’ve seen your father and know for certain he’s well. But as soon as you have the time, would you mind stopping by our townhouse? Mademoiselle Blancher is also leaving for London this morning. It seems we’ve agreed to let her stay at our townhouse until she’s solved some mysterious dilemma, about which Jane has yet to enlighten me.”
Phillip reached over and squeezed Jane’s fingers. “My dear wife refuses to divulge why she’s so concerned about her dressmaker’s welfare.”
Her face filled with colour. “Oh, Phillip, you know I would certainly tell you if I could, but I did give Mademoiselle Blancher my solemn oath I wouldn’t reveal her secret.” Jane slipped her hand from her husband’s and picked up her discarded fork, her face by now a lovely shade of pink.
So what was she devising? Robert wondered, intrigued but wise enough to hold his tongue. He hoped his dear friend would clear up the mystery before he set off for London, though. He hated the thought of having to suffer the long journey worrying what it could be that had Jane and her crazy seamstress so preoccupied.
The duke caught Robert’s eye and grinned. “I have no idea what I ever did to deserve such a kind-hearted wife,” Phillip kissed Jane’s fingers, “and would never dream of asking you to reveal your demented seamstress’s secret.”
He leaned toward his wife. “But I would hope you’d know full well that if you did I wouldn’t tell a soul. So, if you ever feel it’s too much of a burden to bear yourself, please do feel free to share it with me. The suspense truly is killing me.”
“Stop teasing. It’s a serious matter,” Jane admonished, then turned back to Robert. “So you see my quandary: I can’t divulge why Mademoiselle Blancher is returning to London, but I can assure you it’s nothing illegal or immoral. I only need you to make sure she’s safe. Ever since she explained her dire situation to me, I’ve been worried sick that something awful is going to happen to her.”
Jane placed a hand on her stomach. “I would insist on traveling back with her but the doctor tells me I shouldn’t risk it, not since…” She lowered her lashes and sighed. “Well, you know.”
Phillip took her hand again. “Wild horses couldn’t tear me from Jane’s side until after the baby is born and I know they are both in good health.” He met Robert’s eyes again. “So you see why we need your help. You’re the only one we can trust with such a delicate task.”
Robert was confused but nodded. “I take it your housekeeper in London is expecting her.”
Jane chewed at her bottom lip and shook her head. “No, but I’ve given Mademoiselle Blancher a letter to give to Misses Watkins, explaining that she’s my cousin and she’ll be staying at the townhouse indefinitely.”
Phillip laughed. “Your cousin? What are you getting us into?”
Jane straightened the napkin in her lap before answering. “It’s her tale to share, and as soon as Mademoiselle Blancher gives me permission, I will tell you all.”
She let out a long sigh. “I’m afraid you will just have to trust me until then.”
Jane placed her hand on Phillip’s arm. “Please say you will.”
Phillip’s sigh was even longer and more drawn out than his wife’s, but he finally grinned. “Of course I will. I just hope you aren’t drawing Robert into some distasteful affair.”
Robert pushed his now cold eggs into a tidy pile before sharing his thoughts. “I don’t mind helping, but I was wondering if it might be better for all involved in this mysterious subterfuge if Mademoiselle Blancher stayed at my parent’s townhouse, instead of your own.”
He lowered the fork to his plate, his appetite lost. The thought of having the dressmaker so close made his heart lurch. How many times over the past two years had he been tempted to break all protocol and ask her to stroll through the gardens with him? Of course, it had been completely out of the question, however much he’d wanted to spend even a few moments by her side, more than the mere glances they’d given each other in passing. A viscount couldn’t socialise with a seamstress, not unless he meant to take her as a mistress. This was not what he wanted from the lovely creature. But what did he want? He didn’t know, no more than being certain is was not a sordid affair.
Returning from his inner thoughts, he said, “I can lie just as easily as you about her being my cousin. My mother loves helping those in need of aid, and with four sisters still at home, what would be one more woman in the house? That way I can keep an eye on her and still be at my father’s side whilst he recovers from his illness. Besides, my sisters take after their mother and love championing a good cause. They’ll have Mademoiselle Blancher’s secret out of her before she gets her first bag unpacked.”
Jane again gave her husband a surreptitious look before finally nodding at Robert. “Do you really think your mother wouldn’t mind a complete stranger being foisted upon her? It really is a better plan, and you can rest assured that Mademoiselle Blancher is of good character.”
She stared at her plate for a moment before saying: “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you, but I don’t want you to think she’s not someone your sisters shouldn’t be associating with.”
Jane looked away for the barest moment, and Robert wondered what it was she wasn’t saying?
“There are those who have unjustly misjudged her,” she finally did say, “but then it is the same group of people who were so unkind to Phillip and myself when we were first married. So I would not accredit such lamentable elitists and chinwags with any sway over whom I would allow myself to associate. She’s a lady of high ranking, but I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you without giving away too much.”
Robert laughed. “Just as long as you are certain the woman’s not escaped from Bedlam, then I’ll be more than happy to help out any lady in distress. I do love a good mystery and Mother loves a grand adventure. It will also give my sisters something to keep them occupied. If I know them, they’ll be over the moon helping Mademoiselle Blancher out of her sticky pickle—whatever it may be.”
He sobered for a second before saying, “Although I do hope the mademoiselle isn’t planning on keeping up the charade of being a Frenchwoman. Mother will simply faint if your little seamstress insists on cursing in French every three words, and we both know her name isn’t really Mademoiselle Blancher, so what is it?”
How had the lovely creature got away with her charade for so long? Since it had been none of his business, he had stayed out of it and watched the show she put on with a great deal of amusement.
Jane blushed and dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “I suppose her Irish accent gave her away.”
“That is adorable, but not the salacious words it carries.” Robert met Phillip’s eyes and winked.
“I’ll make certain Grace understands that she needs to drop her charade. It must be wearing on her nerves, pretending all the time like that. She may be a sweet soul but she really is a horrible actress.”
Jane took Robert’s hand in hers. “Thank you for your assistance. Maybe Grace will take you into her confidence herself and tell you the whole wretched story. But in any case, please take good care of her for me.”
Robert squeezed his friend fingers. “My dear, for you I would do anything.”