“He only misses his supper,” a voice protested in reply. “And he knows, right enough, that’s he’s done wrong, sir. That he does. Just like any dog. Why, I hardly ever have to take a whip—”

“You whip this bear?” the marquess said, his voice rising to a roar.

People in line at the mermaid’s tent turned their heads, and a few others drifted closer. Roberta’s hand crept into Damon’s, but somehow her usual feelings of mortification and shame at the fact her father was about to make a spectacle weren’t creeping over her.

A second later, her father spilled out of the tent, followed by a lean, hungry-looking fellow, presumably Mr. Clay.

“I can’t bear the stench another moment,” her father said. “Not another moment. And just think what that poor bear makes of it, sir, since in the normal way of things he’d be living at the top of a tall tree, smelling nothing but the blue sky!”

They all reflexively looked up. “I does my best,” Mr. Clay bleated.

“Your best isn’t good enough!” the marquess said. “I’ll have that bear, or I’ll know the reason why.”

Cutting off Mr. Clay’s ineffectual bluster, the marquess produced a handful of guineas, and ownership of Harry Hunks passed hands.

“I’ll fetch him tomorrow,” the marquess said. “And you’d better be at your residence with the bear, Mr. Clay, or I shall have the High Constable on you!”

Mr. Clay was looking blissfully at the guineas in his hand. “I can go back home with these,” he said. “I’ll be there, your lordship, and so will Harry.”

“I’ll have more of those for you if you can find a cart to take Harry to my country house.”

Damon leaned over and said in Roberta’s ear, “How many bears do you have at home?”

“None,” she said.

“Oh.”

“But we do have a couple of deer that were supposed to be elk, but turned out to have horns glued on, a terrible weight for their poor heads, I assure you. And we have some Greenland ducks—”

“Greenland ducks?” Damon said with a crack of laughter.

“Hush! Papa will hear you. They are rather peculiar, and we think they’re a strain of exotic chicken because they can’t swim. At first papa dropped them into the lake and it was only very quick work on the part of a groom that saved their life.”

Meanwhile, they had made their way back to the mermaid’s boat. The marquess dropped a few coins into the guard’s hands.

“He’s a pirate!” Teddy said, awed.

Damon ducked his head as they went through the low door of the boat. Seated in the corner was a mermaid.

She was quite pretty, with long golden hair and a sweet face. She had a glossy green tail wrapped with a net and a few artistically placed shells. Unlike any picture he’d ever seen of a siren of the deep, she wore a starched white bodice that overlapped the beginning of her tail. In fact, she looked a bit like a vicar’s daughter. Except for the satin tail, of course.

Teddy marched up before her, and said, “May I ask you questions?”

The mermaid nodded at Teddy and smiled.

“I will answer whatever I can,

As a daughter of the sea to a child of man.”

The marquess started rocking back and forth on his heels, a sure sign of enjoyment.

“Are you friends with fish?” Teddy asked.

“Fish were my favorite boon companions,

My very best friend was a shark,

We would whip about and have great fun,

Until I was caught by His Majesty’s barque.”

“Sharks!” Teddy said, eyes round. “I thought they were the monsters of the deep, and ate everything in their path.”

“Have you met a shark, Oh child of the sands?

For ignorance is no excuse for those with hands.”

Teddy shook his head. “I’d love to meet a shark,” he said, coming closer.

“How long have you lived in this boat, oh daughter of the sea?” the marquess asked. He had his hands clasped behind his back and he was grinning like a fool.

“Your father seems to be taken by the mermaid’s versifying abilities,” Damon murmured to Roberta.

“Or something,” she said.

She’d seen that ecstatic look on his face before. Specifically, when Selina pranced out on the stage of her traveling troupe, and when they first saw Mrs. Grope stride onto the stage in Bath.

“The memory of my watery cave grows dim,” the mermaid was saying, “’Tis been twenty years ere I swam in the deep, Now I almost think I am growing a limb.”

“Nicely put,” Damon said.

The guard popped his head in and growled, “Time’s up. The mermaid has others waiting for her.”

The marquess turned to the mermaid.

“Could a gentleman’s family lure a mermaid to swim,

If we arranged it so she needn’t stir a fin,

Into the shallows of a tea garden for tea,

Upon the earnest request of—of me?”

“Tsk, Tsk,” Damon said. “That final rhyme left something to be desired, my lord.”

But the mermaid dimpled and looked as if she were blushing a little. But instead of answering, interestingly enough, she looked at Roberta. She nodded toward her tail, and then toward Teddy. After a second, Roberta realized that she was asking if Teddy would be upset to learn that the mermaid did indeed have limbs.

Roberta gave her a smile. “It’s so hot in here,” she said, turning to Damon. “I think I should like to go home. And Teddy, it’s time that we said goodbye to the lovely mermaid.”

Teddy bowed, very solemn. “It has been marvelous to meet you.”

“You remind me of a shark I once knew, called Perth,” she said, perfectly seriously. “He had lovely brown eyes like yours, Oh child of the earth.”

Teddy bowed again and took Roberta’s hand as they left through the rear. “I should like to be a shark,” he said, and he chattered so much on the way back to the carriage that he didn’t even notice that the marquess wasn’t with them until they got home.

Whereupon Roberta told him that her papa had gone to arrange for Harry Hunks to travel back home with him.

“I want to see Harry Hunks again,” Teddy said wistfully.

“You will,” Damon said, smiling at Roberta over his head. “You will.”

Chapter 34

April 19

Day eight of the Villiers/Beaumont chess matches

R oberta stretched, feeling a pleasurable ache in all parts of her body, and then settled down to think.

Obviously, she needed to think. She plumped up the pillows to remove the unmistakable evidence that there had been two heads sleeping in her bed and thought: the Duke of Villiers.

My fiancé.

It was rather disconcerting to realize how fickle she was.

Ellen bustled in and began darting around the room, trailing a stream of conversation.

“A picnic?” Roberta said, belatedly catching the word. “Who?”

It seemed that everyone was going on this picnic. “Not the master, of course,” Ellen said. “He’s gone to his offices long ago.”

Roberta thought about it. A picnic on the Fleet River sounded like a delicious way to avoid the thorny issue of her fiancé. “Marvelous,” she said, swinging her legs out of bed.

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