New York, December 1871
Rosalind Schuyler limped off the dance floor on her fiancé’s arm with her flounce trailing after them, half-ripped from her Worth ball gown. Mercifully, David was somewhat more adept at carnal temptations than the Virginia Reel.
The conductor glanced at the hostess, then led the string orchestra into a slow waltz. Three dances after the midnight supper, most of the early departures had already occurred. Voices rumbled from the card rooms, while other guests levered themselves out of their seats to step onto the dance floor.
“My dear,” David purred into her ear, his dulcet tones well trained for his planned career as a politician and orator.
Rosalind came alert, wondering what he would do next. Try to seduce her? Heaven knows she enjoyed being cuddled and treated as a woman by someone taller than herself.
“I’m sorry, my dear, but I must take my leave now.”
Hazy visions of rapture in David’s arms vanished quickly.
“I’ve promised,” he continued, “to go riding with Nick Lennox before breakfast at the Pericles Club.”
“Really? Well, of course, you must be awake then, if you are to spend time with a banker,” she teased gently. Something about Nicholas Lennox always made her skin crawl, possibly his never-ending pursuit of the right friends.
“You may see him solely as that, because he’s a junior partner at your father’s bank, but I know him as a friend. Will you see me to the door? I’m sure your father will take you home after the last dance.”
David smiled down at her and gently tweaked one of her curls.
They strolled down the opulent brown and gold ballroom to bid farewell to their hosts, Juliet and Walter Townsend. Rosalind tried not to envy the society leader’s confidence in a very low-cut velvet gown, that exactly matched a magnificent sapphire necklace. She herself was more at ease in a frock coat and trousers than an expensive Worth ball gown.
Townsend nodded absently at Rosalind before turning to David and launching into speech.
“I understand you plan to run for the legislature next year. Will you take your wife with you to Albany or…”
Rosalind gritted her teeth but her polite smile never faltered. She was far too accustomed to being treated like a piece of wood, just because she was a woman, to openly show irritation. And the thought of a lifetime of similar slights, thanks to becoming a politician’s wife, was enough to make her skin crawl.
If David hadn’t been so very good with children and the only man in New York uninterested in her father’s money, she would have given him no more than the courtesy due to a wartime companion of her late brother. As it was, she sometimes had to remind herself that his advantages also included being polite and respectful to women in public, in order to stop herself from breaking their engagement.
After that irritation it was almost a relief to find the magnificent marble entrance hall on the ground floor almost deserted. Tapestries hung on every wall between the heavily carved doorways and under an equally ornate ceiling, all designed to emulate a Renaissance king?s chateau. Silver bowls and vases full of hothouse roses and matching candlesticks wreathed with evergreens adorned the tables scattered between uncomfortable sofas. Gas lighting hissed and glowed from an immense chandelier, turning the rich tones of the Brussels carpet into a shimmering ocean of color. Maroon-clad footmen stood by the front door and the cloakroom, ready to assist guests.
“My dear Portia, you must always remember what is expected of you as a lady and act accordingly.” Across the room, Desdemona Lindsay, diamonds in her graying hair and her curves set off by a very tight ice-blue gown, spoke earnestly to a ten-year old girl. The child must be Juliet Townsend’s eldest, given the strong similarities in coloring and cameo-pure features. “It is not seemly to leave the children’s wing and spy upon your mother’s ball.”
“Yes, Grandmother Lindsay,” Portia Townsend said politely, her eyes sliding towards the front door. She looked far more repentant, in her simple blue gown with her blond hair neatly braided into pigtails, than she sounded. Rosalind’s mouth quirked as she remembered all the times she too had crept down to watch one of her parents’ balls, while her mother was still alive.
Just then, a footman sprang forward and swung open the great door, admitting a new guest in a burst of cold air and swirling snow.
He seemed the embodiment of a barbarian leader, barely tolerating the trappings of civilization, as he entered the over-decorated room. His face had the hard-edged strength of a medieval sculpture, with those level dark blue eyes, slightly crooked nose, and narrow scar slicing his strong jaw. A naval commander’s magnificent, dark blue uniform, with gold buttons and braid and a gilded sword at his hip, showcased a body fit for one of Arthur’s knights. His golden hair and goatee glinted in the lamplight where he towered a head taller than either of Townsend’s handpicked footmen.
Rosalind bit back a groan of pure feminine appreciation.
Desdemona and Portia glanced up, Portia’s face blazing in undisguised hero worship. David stiffened to alertness beside Rosalind.
“Uncle Hal!” Portia exclaimed and raced across the room.
A smile broke across the big man’s countenance as he caught the child up in his arms. “Hello, princess! Did you wait up for me?”
“I promised I would, didn’t I?” Portia retorted and the big man laughed.
“Look, it’s Hal Lindsay,” David hissed. “He must have just come from Admiral Porter’s banquet at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.”
Rosalind nodded, unable to say a word. Of course, the stranger had to be one of the famous Lindsays. Golden in coloring and wealth, the men always made very successful careers in the Navy or business.
“Have you met him? He’s rarely in New York. Can you tolerate meeting another veteran?” David teased gently.
Rosalind chuckled at the familiar joke and shook her head. He patted her hand indulgently.
“Come along, I’ll introduce you.”
Lindsay’s hooded gaze swept over Rosalind then went to David, as they came up. He frowned slightly then his face cleared. “Rutherford?”
“Indeed. Good to see you again, Lindsay.” David pumped Lindsay’s hand enthusiastically.
Rosalind wished, a bit wistfully, that Lindsay had looked longer at her. Or perhaps not. She could feel her heart pounding like a trip hammer and strongly suspected her cheeks were flushed from excitement, a most unusual reaction to a man. She usually calculated every new acquaintance’s degree of interest in her father’s money, not contemplate a man’s physical desire for her.
What would she have done if he’d stared at her? Have a fainting spell? Impossible and yet…
“Rosalind, my dear, this is Commander Hal Lindsay, late of the Mississippi Squadron. Lindsay, my fiancée, Rosalind Schuyler.”
“Miss Schuyler.” His voice was a deep bass that could melt a woman’s bones. He bowed over her hand, his big, callused hand warm against her bare skin.
A most proper and precise movement, exactly what any other man of breeding would perform. Yet her throat tightened until she was barely able to murmur a polite response.
“He brought a gunboat to our relief at Shiloh,” David enthused. “And he was one of the brave captains who led the squadron past the great Confederate forts at Vicksburg.”
He gestured broadly, as if marking the size of those defeated forts, and smacked a tall, narrow Chinese vase. It tottered and started to fall. Lindsay took a step towards it but she grabbed it first, just as water splashed her dress.
David didn’t notice, of course, but simply carried onwith his oration. “Then Lindsay—”
The single word cut David off like a knife.
Rosalind spun around. Nicholas Lennox crossed the entrance hall towards them, wearing the black armband of full mourning and carrying an elegant swordstick. He stood a few inches taller than Rosalind’s unladylike height and was built along racehorse lines, with dark brown hair and luxuriant muttonchop whiskers. His dark brown eyes were as keen as those of a three-card monte player looking for a pigeon to pluck.
His family was old, if not a match for the Schuylers or Lindsays. They’d fallen on hard times in the last generation and Lennox’s older brother had died seeking his fortune out West.
But why would David obey Nicholas Lennox and fall silent?
Lindsay’s voice filled the brief silence. “Lennox. My condolences on your brother’s death.” He freed his hand from Portia and held it out.
Lennox sneered at Lindsay’s gesture. He clasped his hands behind his back and straightened to his full height. “My brother’s murder, you mean? After all, Lindsay, we have only your word and Donovan’s for how he died.”
Lindsay stiffened and the footmen froze. Rosalind choked. Lennox had just given Lindsay a mortal insult. Years ago, the next step would have been a duel and one man left lying in a grave.
“How dare you say that about my uncle?” Portia Townsend demanded.
Lindsay’s eyes narrowed. He set his niece down gently. “Portia, honey, go sit with your grandmother.”
Portia glared at Lennox before slowly, very slowly, walking away, all the while eyeing him like a mongoose facing a cobra.
Hal waited until the child reached safety before he spoke again, his voice coldly disciplined. “Your brother died in a flash flood. Or do you have some knowledge denied to those of us who were there?”
Lennox fairly vibrated with rage, surprising in a man famed for his polished manners.
Rosalind’s blood ran cold. She’d visited many gambling hells with her father and her brothers before their deaths. But she’d rarely seen an atmosphere so edged with violence.
“Perhaps we should speak of your sister, the slut, instead?” Lennox gibed.
“Oh, dear,” David muttered.
Lindsay?’s hand clenched on his sword hilt then released it slowly. “Excuse me?”
Lennox smiled, not kindly. Rosalind’s hand reached instinctively for her pocket Navy Colts before remembering she was wearing women’s clothing.
“Tell me,” Lennox went on, clearly enjoying the reaction he’d caused, “is she still sleeping with that grubby mick?”
Lindsay hit him with one massive fist. Lennox staggered but quickly freed the blade from his swordstick. Lindsay drew his sword and attacked. Their blades came together with a clear, bell-like ring — indicating very high-quality steel. Neither blade had the advantage, then, so the match would be decided by the swordsman’s skill.
The two men slashed and parried and stabbed at each other, ignoring Desdemona Lindsay’s impassioned pleas for them to stop. Lennox was much faster than Lindsay, an advantage limited by the other’s strength and cunning.
Suddenly Lennox thrust for Lindsay?s chest. Lindsay?s curved sword, probably a cavalry saber, barely managed to sweep up and block Lennox’s narrow blade only inches from him. Steel rang with the collision?s force.
Desdemona Lindsay shrieked.
“Remember our first fight?” Lennox hissed. “I notched your face and now I’ll notch your heart.”
Lindsay laughed. “If you can—after I’ve fed your lying tongue up your ass, along with your dick.” He disengaged with a strong twist.
Lennox flushed angrily and charged. Their blades flashed and sang with the speed of their thrusts. Lennox was faster—with a vicious skill that spoke volumes about the dishonorable hells he must have learned it in. Several times, his blade came within an inch of Lindsay. But Lindsay was stronger and cannier, his heavy blade somehow always matching Lennox’s thrusts.
“Now see here, men,” David began, then tripped over a carpet edge and fell flat on his face, landing mere inches from a heavy table.
Rosalind looked around for something, anything to stop the fight, before Lindsay was hurt. A flash of blue shot past her as Portia ran up the stairs towards the ballroom.
“Henry Andronicus Lindsay,” Desdemona cried out, “stop this nonsense at once!”
Both combatants ignored her. Blood dripped unheeded down Lindsay’s arm as he fought, although it would probably slow him later. Lennox pushed a very ugly marble bust of Washington into Lindsay’s path but the big naval officer leaped over it.
The footmen, who’d been staring at the two men as if watching a boxing match, finally moved…and edged towards the door to the servants’ quarters.
The struggle reached an even deadlier pitch. In a flurry of thrusts and parries, Lindsay’s saber sliced Lennox’s jaw barely an inch from his jugular. A very small hit, which could be easily hid by a fancy cravat.
“Nicky!” screamed Desdemona.
Nicky? But Rosalind had no time to wonder why Mrs. Richard Lindsay was calling another man by his nickname; she’d finally spotted something useful.
Rosalind snatched up a particularly large silver vase and waited. Her dirk would have been much more helpful. Honors were now even between the two men, with Lindsay’s wounded arm and Lennox’s cut face. She wouldn’t care to wager on who’d win the bout; Lindsay’s strength and Lennox’s speed made them an equal match.
“Damn you,” Lennox snarled, clapping his hand to his jaw. Blood trickled between his fingers.
“Next time, I’ll have your head, Lennox,” Lindsay warned. “You went too far when you attacked my sister.”
Lennox sprang at him, spouting curses. Lindsay brought his sword up.
“Gentlemen,” an older man’s voice boomed. Rosalind’s jaw dropped as Captain Richard Lindsay, the famous Civil War naval hero and owner of the great Cincinnati-Louisville Packet Line, came down the stairs. His three brothers followed him with their sons, in a solid phalanx of golden masculinity. Walter Townsend strode beside Captain Lindsay, his eyes blazing with fury at this affront to his house and his mouth firmly compressed under his abundant mustache. Portia Townsend peered from behind her father, while Rosalind’s father stood tall at Captain Lindsay’s left.
Hal Lindsay’s face hardened at the sight of his family. “Captain Lindsay.” He released his hold on Lennox, who quickly stepped out of reach and glared at the newcomers.
Captain Lindsay considered Lennox from the vantage point of greater age and experience, emphasized by his formal eveningwear. His clan filed into position behind him, every one looking more than capable of dismembering any mortal single-handed.
Lennox’s mouth tightened and his eyes blazed with frustration. Hal Lindsay also lowered his sword, his expression carefully blank.
Desdemona Lindsay looked down for a moment, visibly fighting to compose herself. When she looked up again, she wore the serene countenance of a successful hostess contemplating a roomful of guests.
Cornelius Schuyler, Rosalind’s father, quietly joined her, his gray eyes questioning. She smiled up at him reassuringly and carefully set the vase down on the nearest table, her hands only a little unsteady. David scrambled to his feet and began to brush marble chips from his coat. Juliet Townsend, flanked by other satin-bedecked ladies, appeared on the stairs to gawk at the scene.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Hal Lindsay said as he calmly cleaned his sword with his handkerchief. His eyes were carefully hooded but still held a murderous gleam.
Captain Lindsay spoke again, his voice rolling into the silence like a courthouse bell at a public execution.
“Mr. Lennox, would you explain why you drew steel in my daughter’s house upon my son?”
Lennox gritted his teeth. Rosalind shivered and her father patted her arm reassuringly.
“It was nothing of importance, sir,” Lennox said harshly, his eyes darting around to judge his words’ effect. “We were simply enjoying a moment’s exercise. Please forgive us, Townsend, for disturbing you.”
Captain Lindsay lifted his eyebrows at that bit of specious nonsense. “I believe you owe my son an apology,” he observed.
Lennox started to say something hasty but stopped abruptly when every Lindsay took a half-step forward, their hands clenching into fists. He bit his lip then managed to speak. “My apologies, Lindsay. I am deeply sorry if I caused any distress to you or your family’s honor. My words and behavior were unacceptable and disrespectful of the homage due to my host and hostess’s families.”
A very pretty speech indeed, one which made the ladies on the stairs relax. Rosalind, however, would have trusted a gambler with a mismatched deuce and trey farther than Lennox.
Hal Lindsay nodded, his eyes hooded as he watched Lennox. “Apology accepted. And my apologies, Juliet, if we distressed you.” He bowed to his sister, who clucked at him.
“You big oaf!” She ran down and examined his wounded arm. “I asked you to liven things up. But this is absurd!”
The other ladies chuckled at the face-saving excuse and the room’s tension visibly lightened.
It was hardly the time to demand an apology from Lennox for insulting Hal Lindsay’s younger sister. But Rosalind did wonder what would happen when Lindsay met him again.
A moment later, Lennox was gone after one last fulminating glare around the hall. Portia bore her protesting uncle off to put a poultice on his incipient shiner, while Captain Lindsay gallantly escorted his wife back to the ballroom.
Rosalind refused to watch Hal Lindsay disappear. He was far too magnificent for her peace of mind.
Excerpt from The River Devil by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2005 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved