Izzy could believe it. She'd seen the accounts.
"But at the age of thirty, he finally settled down to the principal obligation of his title. Which was, of course, to produce the next Duke of . . ."
"Mothfairy," she supplied.
"Yes." Duncan cleared his throat. "He singled out the most sought-after debutante of the London season and declared his intentions to court her. The two were engaged soon thereafter."
Izzy's jaw dropped. "Ransom was engaged?"
Now she understood why he'd panicked at her foolish utterance of the word "marriage" earlier.
"No." Duncan threw her a stern look. "Bransom was engaged. The Duke Who Doesn't Exist. He was engaged to a young lady by the name of Lady Emi-" A distressed look crossed his face. "Lady Shemily."
"Lady Shemily?" Izzy smiled to herself. He was getting into the spirit now.
"Yes. Lady Shemily Liverpail. Daughter of an earl." The valet returned to his work. He uncapped a small bottle of something that scented strongly of lemon. "When the engagement was announced, the duke's long-suffering servants were delighted. Some of the house staff had served the family for thirty years without a duchess. They were eager for a new lady of the house."
"Including his trusty and distinguished valet?" she guessed. "Who went by the name of . . . Dinkins?"
"Especially his trusty and distinguished valet. Dinkins was looking forward to removing fewer remnants of rouge from the duke's garments. Devilish tricky to remove, rouge."
"I can imagine." Izzy wondered what kind of woman could tempt the duke away from all that debauchery. "This Lady Shemily Liverpail . . . What was she like?"
"What you'd imagine a successful debutante to be. Beautiful, accomplished, well connected. And young. Just nineteen years old."
Izzy suppressed a plaintive sigh. Of course. Of course Lady Shemily would be all those things.
"What went wrong?" she asked.
"Fictionally. In this completely fabricated story that you're only concocting to amuse me because you know how I love a tale of star-crossed love."
"Everything was arranged," he said. "Wedding, honeymoon, a well-appointed suite for the new duchess. And then, less than a fortnight before the wedding date, the bride-to-be vanished."
"Yes. She disappeared from her bedchamber in the middle of the night."
Izzy leaned forward, propping her chin on her hand. This story was getting rather exciting. And it seemed Duncan was relishing the chance to tell it at last. Poor man, confined here for months with all this melodrama and no one to talk to. And very few stains.
"Lady Shemily," he said, his voice oozing dramatic tension, "had eloped."
"Eloped? But with whom?"
"A tenant farmer from the Liverpail country estate. Apparently the two had been concealing their affections for years."
"What a scandal. What did Ro-" She shook herself. "What did Mothfairy do?"
"Nothing prudent. He should have let the silly chit run off and ruin herself. Loudly disdain her upbringing to all who asked, joke cleverly about his close escape. And then next season, find a new bride. But his pride wouldn't allow it. He rode off in furious pursuit."
"Without his trusty and distinguished valet?"
He sighed testily. "Dinkins followed in the coach. And Dinkins fell, sadly, more than a day behind. Too late to stop the tragedy unfolding."
She bit her lip, already cringing. "Did the duke fall from his horse?"
"Oh, no. Some twenty miles south of the Scottish border, Mothfairy came upon his would-be bride and her lover in a coaching inn. A confrontation ensued, blades were drawn . . ."
She winced, as though she could feel the full length of Ransom's scar burning from her scalp to her cheekbone. "I think I can imagine the rest."
"You will have to imagine it. I can't tell you precisely what occurred. I wasn't there." Duncan dropped all pretense of storytelling. He braced his hands flat against the worktable. "When I found him, he'd spent two nights in a closet at that damned coaching inn. No surgeon had been called. The innkeeper was simply waiting for him to die. I had to stitch him myself."
"Unconscionable," Izzy said. "What about his intended bride?"
"Already gone. Little flibbertigibbet." He shook his head. "He wasn't well enough to risk traveling back to London, so I brought him here. It's been more than seven months. He refuses to leave. He refuses to even let me perform my duties as a valet. His appearance is an embarrassment."
Izzy hedged. "I don't know that I'd say that." She rather liked the duke's rugged, unkempt appearance. And a dozen sighing handmaidens couldn't be wrong.
"Half the time, he refuses to wear a cravat. It's shameful."
"Shameful indeed," she echoed. She could agree on that point. The duke's open collars gave her quite shameful thoughts.
Duncan set the iron aside and held up her pristine shawl for examination. "This little task has preserved my sanity for another day," he said. "Thank you. You can't know how unbearable it is to spend your life on one profession and then be forced to abandon it."
Izzy didn't reply. But she could understand that feeling better than he might think. When her father died, her work had died, too.
He folded the shawl and handed it to her. "I've been so out of sorts, it's driven me to . . ."
"I don't even know. That's the problem, Miss Goodnight. I've tried a half dozen different vices, and none of them satisfy. Cheroots are revolting. Snuff isn't much better. I can't abide the taste of strong spirits, and I don't like to drink alone. What's left? Gambling? With whom?"
She shrugged. "I suppose there's always women."
"Unoriginal," he declared
. "In this house, that particular vice is taken."
An idea came to her. She dug into her pockets and handed him a clutch of paper-wrapped sweets. "Here. Sweetmeats."
He looked at the sweets in her hand.
"Go on," she urged. "You'd be doing me a favor. People foist the things on me in handfuls. After my morning with the handmaidens, I have more than I could possibly want." She pointed to one. "I think this one's a honeyed apricot."
He took the sweet, unwrapped it, and popped it into his mouth. As he chewed, his shoulders relaxed.
"Better?" she asked.
"Better. Thank you, Miss Goodnight."
"It's the least I can do." She left the remaining sweetmeats on his worktable. "Thank you for rescuing my shawl and for telling me the truth. I mean, not the truth. A fascinating story."
Everything made more sense to her now. Naturally, a man who'd been jilted so callously and nearly died in the bargain would take a dim view of love and romance. But was his pride the true casualty, or had his heart been broken, too?
"Mm?" he murmured, unwrapping a second sweetmeat.
"Did . . . ?" She screwed up her courage and asked. "Did he love her?"
Oh, drat. That would teach her to ask a delicate question just as someone stuffed a sweetmeat in his mouth. Duncan made a wait-a-moment gesture, working his jaw. Meanwhile, Izzy's gut twisted itself into knots.
Worse, she had time to question herself.
Why did it even matter whether the duke had loved his intended or not? Why did she care so much? It wasn't as though he was ever going to marry her.
An eternity later, Duncan swallowed the morsel. But apparently she'd waited all that time for nothing.
He said simply, "I don't know."
Astonishing. In the morning, when she sat working at that table of correspondence, silhouetted by sunlight . . .
Her hair truly did look like an octopus.
It was the way she wore it, he thought. Or maybe the way it wore her. It all sat perched atop her head in that big, inky blob. And no matter how strenuously she pinned it, dark, heavy curls worked loose on all sides, like tentacles.
Of course, it was an entrancing, strangely erotic octopus. Ransom worried this might be how fetishes developed.
"You've been avoiding me, Goodnight."
Her dark head lifted from her work. "I have?"
"Yes. You have."
She paused. "Your Grace, my presence in this room right now-and this very conversation we're having-would seem to argue against it."
"I'm not saying I blame you." He reclined on the sofa and propped his laced hands behind his neck. "If it were in any way physically possible, I would avoid myself, too."
She picked up the next envelope and cleaved the seal with a savage slice of the letter opener. "I'm not avoiding you, Your Grace. I don't know what you mean."
Little liar. She knew very well what he meant.
Ever since the Invasion of the Idiots, and that sublime, stolen embrace in the folly, Ransom had noted a marked change in Izzy Goodnight's demeanor.
There hadn't been any more surprise visitors, and as many hours as Ransom walked the castle at night, he never bumped into her again. She was always waiting nearby when he awoke, but there were no more queer conversations on elephant-sized rats or rat-sized elephants.
And, queerly enough, Ransom found himself missing them.
Or perhaps just missing her.
"I have a question," he said, interrupting her reading of an assessment regarding some new finance scheme with steam engines. "Are there dragons in Merlinia?"
"If there are, why do you care?" she asked, sounding wary.
He shrugged. "Just wondering what further madness to expect, that's all. Whether I'll have a herd of unicorns visiting some morning, or discover trolls camping under my bridge."
"No. No, Your Grace. No dragons, unicorns, or trolls."
"Good," he said. She hadn't made it through another paragraph before he interrupted again. "What news do you have from Lord Bedridden?"
"Nothing that would interest you, I'm sure." The flat side of her fist met the tabletop. "Your Grace, you've hired me to read your correspondence. Not discuss my own."
He held up his hands in surrender. "Fine."
Ransom could see what was happening. She was putting distance between them. Which meant she was a sensible, clever woman. Which made her even more attractive. Damn it all.
"I don't mean to be churlish," she said. "It's just . . . I discuss my father's stories with everyone. And I don't mind it, but I rather look forward to speaking of something-anything-else when I'm with you. Even if it's the financial prospects in steam-powered farm machinery."
He supposed that made sense. He was beginning to understand how those ridiculous tales had made her a prisoner of others' expectations.
She would need to break free of that prison soon. Because they were halfway through the formidable heap of letters and packets, and Ransom was certain he knew what was happening.
Someone was stealing from him. And that someone had been getting bolder. The amounts of the discrepancies had been small at first, but they were growing into the tens and hundreds.
He had a theory developing. The culprit must be some clerk in his solicitors' offices, he surmised. Or even one of the solicitors. Whoever the thief was, he has a gaming habit-cards or horses, maybe. Perhaps an expensive mistress. Or maybe he'd decided he deserved better than whatever measly salary his employers paid. So he began by pilfering small amounts, where no one was likely to suspect it. When those went unnoticed, he progressed to larger sums.