Grand Central Publishing
ISBN Print: 9781455586301
ISBN ebook: 9781455586318
A MAN CONDEMNED . . .
Falsely accused of murder and mute from a near-fatal beating, Apollo Greaves, Viscount Kilbourne has escaped from Bedlam. With the Crown’s soldiers at his heels, he finds refuge in the ruins of a pleasure garden, toiling as a simple gardener. But when a vivacious young woman moves in, he’s quickly driven to distraction . . .
A DESPERATE WOMAN . . .
London’s premier actress, Lily Stump, is down on her luck when she’s forced to move into a scorched theater with her maid and small son. But she and her tiny family aren’t the only inhabitants—a silent, hulking beast of a man also calls the charred ruins home. Yet when she catches him reading her plays, Lily realizes there’s more to this man than meets the eye.
OUT OF ASHES, DESIRE FLARES
Though a scorching passion draws them together, Apollo knows that Lily is keeping secrets. When his past catches up with him, he’s forced to make a choice: his love for Lily…or the explosive truth that will set him free.
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2015 RITA® Finalist!
Winner RT Book Reviews Historical K.I.S.S. hero of the year!
"Hoyt’s exquisitely nuanced characters, vividly detailed setting, and seemingly effortless and elegant writing provide the splendid material from which she fashions yet another ravishingly romantic love story.”
—John Charles, Booklist
"With her usual skill, Hoyt merges mystery, romance, redemption and humor into another unforgettable love story from Maiden Lane. Fans will relish Apollo’s tale, savor being reunited with favorite characters and cherish the wonderful new ones — especially Lily’s son. Darling Beast is wondrous, magical and joyous — a read to remember.”
—Kathe Robin, RT Book Reviews
5 out of 5 Teacups
"Nothing makes a better romance than two damaged individuals who heal each other.”
—Tessa’s Books and Tea Room
"This book has everything, mystery, suspense, humor, and an all encompassing romance.”
"Elegant, Refined, Passionate; this Beast is Sheer Beauty!”
"if you like your historical romances sizzling with a side of danger, snatch this one up!”
—Drea from Romance at Random
"Sweet, sexy, endearing and filled with old characters you love and new characters that you want to learn so much more about, Darling Beast is a wonderful addition to this impressive collection of stories in the Maiden Lane series.”
"If you like books with characters who are a cut above the ordinary, breathtaking romance, and page turning excitement, this beast may be just what you’re looking for.”
—Long and Short Reviews
"The “Maiden Lane” series by NEW YORK TIMES Bestselling author, Elizabeth Hoyt just keeps getting better and better!”
—Be My Bard Book Reviews
"Elizabeth Hoyt’s storytelling is utter magic.”
—Karen from Literati Literature Lovers
Excerpt from Darling Beast
As the mother of a seven-year-old boy, Lily Stump was used to odd topics of conversation. There was the debate on whether fish wore clothes. The deep and insightful discussion over where sugared plums came from and the subsequent lecture on why little boys were not allowed to break their fast with them every day. And, of course, the infamous controversy of Why Dogs Bark But Cats Do Not.
So truly it wasn’t Lily’s fault that she did not pay heed to her son’s announcement at luncheon that there was a monster in the garden.
“Indio,” Lily said with only a tiny bit of exasperation, “must you wipe your jammy fingers on Daffodil? I can’t think she likes it.”
Sadly, this was a blatant lie. Daffodil, a very young and very silly red Italian greyhound with a white blaze on her chest, was already happily twisting her slim body in a circle in order to lick the sticky patch on her back.
“Mama,” Indio said with great patience as he put down his bread and jam, “didn’t you hear me? There’s a monster in the garden.” He was kneeling on his chair and now he leaned forward over the table to emphasize his words, a lock of his dark curly hair falling into his right, blue, eye. Indio’s other eye was green, which some found disconcerting, although Lily had long ago grown used to the disparity.
“Did he have horns?” the third member of their little family asked very seriously.
“Maude!” Lily hissed.
Maude Ellis plonked a plate of cheese down on their only-slightly-singed table and set her hands on her skinny hips. Maude had seen five decades and despite her tiny stature—she only just came to Lily’s shoulder—she never shied away from speaking her mind. “Well, and mightn’t it be the Devil he saw?”
Lily narrowed her eyes in warning—Indio was prone to rather alarming nightmares and this conversation didn’t seem the best idea. “Indio did not see the Devil—or a monster, for that matter.”
“I did,” Indio said. “But he hasn’t horns. He has shoulders as big as this.” And he demonstrated by throwing his arms as far apart as he could, nearly knocking his bowl of carrot soup to the floor in the process.
Lily caught the bowl deftly—much to the disappointment of Daffodil. “Do eat your soup, please, Indio, before it ends on the floor.”
“’Tisn’t a dunnie, then,” Maude said decisively as she took her own chair. “Quite small they are, ’cepting when they turn to a horse. Did it turn to a horse, deary?”
“No, Maude.” Indio shoved a big spoonful of soup into his mouth and then regrettably continued talking. “He looks like a man, but bigger and scarier. His hands are as big as…as…” Indio’s little brows drew together as he tried to think of an appropriate simile.
“Your head,” Lily supplied helpfully. “A tricorn hat. A leg of lamb. Daffodil.”
Daffodil barked at her name and spun in a happy circle.
“Was he dripping wet or all over green?” Maude demanded.
Lily sighed and watched as Indio attempted to describe his monster and Maude attempted to identify it from her long list of fairies, hobgoblins, and imaginary beasts. Maude had grown up in the north of England and apparently spent her formative years memorizing the most ghastly folktales. Lily herself had heard these stories from Maude when she was young—resulting in quite a few torturous nights. She was endeavoring—mostly without success—to keep Maude from imparting the same stories to Indio.
Her gaze drifted around the rather decrepit room they’d moved into just yesterday afternoon. A small fireplace was on one charred wall. Maude’s bed and her chest were pushed against another. Their table and four chairs were in the middle of the room. A tiny writing table and a rickety dark-plum settee were near the hearth. To the side, a door led into a small room—a former dressing room—where Lily had her own bed and Indio his cot. These two rooms were all that remained of the backstage in what had once been a grand theater at Harte’s Folly. The theater—and indeed the entire pleasure garden—had burned down the autumn before. The stink of smoke still lingered about the place like a ghost, though the majority of the wreckage had been hauled away.
Lily shivered. Perhaps the gloominess of the place was making Indio imagine monsters.
Indio swallowed a big bite of his bread and jam. “He has shaggy hair and he lives in the garden. Daff’s seen him, too.”
Both Lily and Maude glanced at the little greyhound. Daffodil was sitting by Indio’s chair, chewing on a back paw. As they watched she overbalanced and rolled onto her back.
“Perhaps Daffodil ate something that disagreed with her tummy,” Lily said diplomatically, “and the tummy ache made her think she’d seen a monster. I haven’t seen a monster in the garden and neither has Maude.”
“Well, there were that wherryman with the big nose, hanging about the dock suspicious-like yesterday,” Maude muttered. Lily shot her a look and Maude hastily added, “Er, but no, never seen a real monster. Just wherrymen with big noses.”
Indio considered that bit of information. “My monster has a big nose.” His mismatched eyes widened as he looked up excitedly. “And a hook. Per’aps he cuts children into little bits with his hook and eats them!”
“Indio!” Lily exclaimed. “That’s quite enough.”
“No. Now why don’t we discuss fish clothing or…or how to teach Daffodil to sit up and beg?”
Indio sighed gustily. “Yes, Mama.” He slumped, the very picture of dejection, and Lily couldn’t help but think that he’d someday make a fine dramatic actor. She darted a pleading glance at Maude.
But Maude only shook her head and bent to her own soup.
Lily cleared her throat. “I’m sure Daffodil would benefit from training,” she said a little desperately.
“I suppose.” Indio swallowed the last spoonful of his soup and clutched his bread in his hand. He looked at Lily with big eyes. “May I leave the table, please, Mama?”
“Oh, very well.”
In a flurry he tumbled from his chair and ran toward the door. Daffodil scampered behind him, barking.
“Don’t go near the pond!” Lily called.
The door to the garden banged shut.
Lily winced and looked at the older woman. “That didn’t go well, did it?”
Maude shrugged. “Mayhap could’ve been better, but the lad is a sensitive one, he is. So were you at that age.”
Maude had been her nursemaid—and rather more, truth be told. She might be superstitious, but Lily trusted Maude implicitly when it came to the rearing of children. And a good thing, too, since she’d been left to raise Indio alone. “Should I go after him, do you think?”
“Aye, in a bit. No point now. Give him a fair while to calm himself.” Maude jerked her pointed chin at Lily’s bowl. “Best get that inside you, hinney.”
The corner of Lily’s mouth curled at the old endearment. “I wish I could’ve found us somewhere else to stay. Somewhere not so…” She hesitated, loath to give the ruined pleasure garden’s atmosphere a name.
“Uncanny,” Maude said promptly, having no such trouble herself. “All them burnt trees and falling-down buildings and not a soul about for miles in the nights. I place a wee bag of garlic and sage under my pillow every night, I do, and you ought as well.”
“Mmm,” Lily murmured noncommittally. She wasn’t sure she wanted to wake up to the reek of garlic and sage. “At least the workmen are about during the day.”
“And a right scruffy bunch, the lot of them,” Maude said stoutly. “Don’t know where Mr. Harte got these so-called gardeners, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he found them in the street. Or worse”—she leaned forward to whisper hoarsely—“got them off a ship from Ireland.”
“Oh, Maude,” Lily chided gently. “I don’t know why you have this dislike of the Irish—they’re just looking for work like anyone else.”
Maude snorted as she vigorously buttered a slice of bread.
“Besides,” Lily said hastily, “we’re only here until Mr. Harte produces a new play with a part for me.”
“And where would he be doing that?” Maude asked, glancing at the charred beams over their heads. “He’ll need a new theater first, and a garden to put it in afore that. It’ll be at least a year—more, most like.”
Lily winced and opened her mouth, but Maude had gotten the bit between her teeth. She shook her piece of bread at Lily, showering crumbs on the table. “Never trusted that man, not me. Too charming and chatty by half. Mr. Harte could sweet-talk a bird down from a tree, into the palm of his hand, and right into the oven, he could. Or”—she slapped a last daub of butter on the bread—“talk an actress with all of London at her feet to come play in his theater—and only his theater.”
“Well, to be fair, Mr. Harte wasn’t to know his pleasure garden and the theater would burn to the ground at the time.”
“Nay, but he did know it’d put Mr. Sherwood’s back up.” Maude bit into her bread for emphasis.
Lily wrinkled her nose at the memory. Mr. Sherwood, the proprietor of the King’s Theatre and her former employer, was a rather vindictive man. He’d promised Lily that he’d make sure she’d not find work anywhere else in London if she went with Mr. Harte and his offer of twice the salary Mr. Sherwood had been paying her.
That hadn’t been a problem until Harte’s Folly had burned, at which point Lily had found that Mr. Sherwood had made good on his promise: all the other theaters in London refused to let her play for them.
Now, after being out of work for over six months, she’d gone through what few savings she’d had, forcing her little family to vacate their stylish rented rooms.
“At least Mr. Harte let us stay here free of charge?” Lily offered rather feebly.
Fortunately, Maude’s reply was nonverbal since she’d just taken a bite of the soup.
“Yes, well, I really ought to go after Indio,” Lily said, rising.
“And what of your luncheon, then?” Maude demanded, nodding at Lily’s half-finished soup.
“I’ll have it later.” Lily bit her lip. “I hate it when he’s upset.”
“You coddle the boy,” Maude sniffed, but Lily noticed the older woman didn’t make any further protest.
Lily hid a smile. If anyone coddled Indio it was Maude herself. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Maude waved a hand as Lily turned to the door to the outside. The door screeched horribly as she pulled it open. One of the hinges was cracked from the heat of the fire and it hung askew. Outside, the day was overcast. Deep-gray clouds promised more rain and the wind whipped across the blackened ground. Lily shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She should’ve brought her shawl.
“Indio!” Her shout was thinned by the wind.
Helplessly she looked around. What had once been an elegant pleasure garden had been reduced to sooty mud by the fire and the spring rains. The hedges that had outlined graveled walks were burnt and mostly dead, meandering away into the distance. To the left were the remains of the stone courtyard and boxes where musicians had played for guests: a line of broken pillars, supporting nothing but sky. To the right a copse of straggling trees stood with a bit of mirrored water peeking out from behind—what was left of an ornamental pond, now clogged with silt. Here and there green poked out among the gray and black, but she had to admit that, especially on an overcast day like this one, with wisps of fog slinking along the ground, the garden was ominous and rather frightening.
Lily grimaced. She should’ve never let Indio out to play by himself, but it was hard to keep an active young boy inside. She started down one of the paths, slipping a bit in the mud, wishing she’d stopped to put on her pattens before coming outside. If she didn’t see her son soon, she’d ruin the frivolous embroidered slippers on her feet.
She rounded what once had been a small thicket of trimmed trees. Now the blackened branches rattled in the wind. “Indio!”
A grunt came from the thicket.
Lily stopped dead.
There it was again—almost an explosive snort. The noise was too loud, too deep for Indio. It almost sounded like…a big animal.
She glanced quickly around, but she was completely alone. Should she return to the ruined theater for Maude? But Indio was out here!
Another grunt, this one louder. A rustle.
Something was breathing heavily in the bushes.
Good Lord. Lily bunched her skirts in her fists in case she had to leg it, and crept forward.
A groan and a low, rumbling sound.
She gulped and peeked around a burned trunk.
At first what she saw looked like an enormous, moving, mud-covered mound, and then it straightened, revealing an endlessly broad back, huge shoulders, and a shaggy head.
Lily couldn’t help it. She made a noise that was perilously close to a squeak.
The thing whirled—much faster than anything that big had a right to move—and a horrible, soot-stained face glared at her, one paw raised as if to strike her.
In it was a wickedly sharp, hooked knife.
Lily gulped. If she lived through the day she was going to have to apologize to Indio.
For there was a monster in the garden.
The day hadn’t been going well to begin with, reflected Apollo Greaves, Viscount Kilbourne.
At a rough estimate, fully half the woody plantings in the pleasure garden were dead—and another quarter might as well be. The ornamental pond’s freshwater source had been blocked by the fire’s debris and now it sat stagnant. The gardeners Asa had hired for him were an unskilled lot. To top it off, the spring rains had turned what remained of Harte’s Folly into a muddy morass, making planting and earth moving impossible until the ground dried out.
And now there was a strange female in his garden.
Apollo stared into huge lichen-green eyes lined with lashes so dark and thick that they looked like smudged soot. The woman—girl? She wasn’t that tall, but a swift glance at her bodice assured him she was quite mature, thank you—was only a slim bit of a thing, dressed foolishly in a green velvet gown, richly over-embroidered in red and gold. She hadn’t even a bonnet on. Her dark hair slipped from a messy knot at the back of her neck, waving strands blowing against her pinkened cheeks. Actually, she was rather pretty in a gamine sort of way.
But that was beside the point.
Where in hell had she come from? As far as he knew, the only other people in the ruined pleasure garden were the brace of so-called gardeners presently working on the hedges behind the pond. He’d been taking out his frustration alone on the dead tree stump, trying to uproot the thing by hand since their only dray horse was at work with the other men, when he’d heard a feminine voice calling and she’d suddenly appeared.
The woman blinked and her gaze darted to his upraised arm.
Apollo’s own eyes followed and he winced. He’d instinctively raised his hand as he turned to her, and the pruning knife he held might be construed as threatening.
Hastily he lowered his arm. Which left him standing in his mud-stained shirt and waistcoat, sweaty and stinking, and feeling like a dumb ox next to her delicate femininity.
But apparently his action reassured her. She drew herself up—not that it made much difference to her height. “Who are you?”
Well, he’d like to ask the same of her but, alas, he really couldn’t, thanks to that last beating in Bedlam.
Belatedly he remembered that he was supposed to be a simple laborer. He tugged at a forelock and dropped his gaze—to elegantly embroidered slippers caked in mud.
Who was this woman?
“Tell me now,” she said rather imperiously, considering she was standing in three inches of mud. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
He glanced at her face—eyebrows arched, a plush rose lower lip caught between her teeth—and cast his eyes down again. He tapped his throat and shook his head. If she didn’t get that message she was a lot stupider than she looked.
“Oh,” he heard as he stared at her shoes. “Oh, I didn’t realize.” She had a husky voice, which gentled when he lowered his gaze. “Well, it doesn’t matter. You can’t stay here, you must understand.”
Unseen, he rolled his eyes. What was she on about? He worked in the garden—surely she could see that. Who was she to order him out?
“You.” She drew the word out, enunciating it clearly, as if she thought him hard of hearing. Some thought that since he couldn’t speak he couldn’t hear, either. He caught himself beginning to scowl and smoothed out his features. “Cannot. Stay. Here.” A pause, and then, muttered, “Oh, for goodness’ sakes. I can’t even tell if he understands. I cannot believe Mr. Harte allowed…”
And it dawned on Apollo with a feeling of amused horror that his frustrating day had descended into the frankly ludicrous. This ridiculously clad woman thought him a lackwit.
One embroidered toe tapped in the mud. “Look at me, please.”
He raised his gaze slowly, careful to keep his face blank.
Her brows had drawn together over those big eyes, in an expression that no doubt she thought stern, but that was, in reality, rather adorable. Like a small girl chiding a kitten. A streak of anger surged through him. She shouldn’t be out by herself in the ruined garden. If he’d been another type of man—a brutal man, like the ones who’d run Bedlam—her dignity, perhaps even her life, might’ve been in danger. Didn’t she have a husband, a brother, a father to keep her safe? Who was letting this slip of a woman wander into danger by herself?
He realized that her expression had gentled at his continued silence.
“You can’t tell me, can you?” she asked softly.
He’d met pity in others since the loss of his voice. Usually it made him burn hot with rage and a sort of terrible despair—after nine months he wasn’t sure he’d ever regain the use of his voice. But her inquiry didn’t provoke his usual anger. Maybe it was her feminine charm—it’d been a while since any woman besides his sister had attempted to talk to him—or maybe it was simply her. This woman spoke with compassion, not contempt, and that made all the difference.
He shook his head, watching her, keeping his face dull and unresponsive.
She sighed and hugged herself, looking around. “What am I to do?” she muttered. “I can’t leave Indio out here by himself.”
Apollo struggled not to let surprise show on his face. Who or what was Indio?
“Go!” she said forcefully, suddenly enough that he blinked. She pointed a commanding finger behind him.
Apollo fought back a grin. She wasn’t giving up, was she? He slowly turned, looking in the direction she indicated, and then swiveled back even more slowly, letting his mouth hang half open.
“Oh!” Her little hands balled into fists as she cast her eyes heavenward. “This is maddening.”
She took two swift steps forward and placed her palms against his chest, pushing.
He allowed himself to sway an inch backward with her thrust before righting himself. She stilled, staring up at him. The top of her head barely came to his mid-chest. He could feel the brush of her breath on his lips. The warmth of her hands seemed to burn through the rough fabric of his waistcoat. This close her green eyes were enormous, and he could see shards of gold surrounding her pupils.
Her lips parted and his gaze dropped to her mouth.
The hissed word made them both start.
Apollo swung around. A small boy was poised on the muddy path just outside the thicket. He had shoulder-length curly dark hair and wore a red coat and a fierce expression. Beside him was the silliest-looking dog Apollo had ever seen: a delicate little red greyhound, both ears flopped to the left, head erect on a narrow neck, pink tongue peeping from one side of its mouth. The dog’s entire demeanor could be labeled startled.
The dog froze at Apollo’s movement, then spun and raced off down the path.
The boy’s face crumpled at the desertion before he squared his little shoulders and glared at Apollo. “You get away from her!”
At last: her defender—although Apollo had been hoping for someone a bit more imposing.
“Indio.” The woman stepped away from Apollo hastily, brushing her skirts. “There you are. I’ve been calling for you.”
“I’m sorry, Mama.” Apollo noticed the child didn’t take his eyes from him—an attitude he approved of. “Daff an’ me were ’sploring.”
“Well, explore nearer the theater next time. I don’t want you meeting anyone who might be…” She trailed away, glancing nervously at Apollo. “Erm. Dangerous.”
Apollo widened his eyes, trying to look harmless—sadly, nearly impossible. He’d hit six feet at age fifteen and topped that by several inches in the fourteen years since. Add to that the width of his shoulders, his massive hands, and a face that his sister had once affectionately compared to a gargoyle’s, and trying to appear harmless became something of a lost cause.
His apprehension was borne out when the woman backed farther away from him and caught her young son’s hand. “Come. Let’s go find where Daffodil has run off to.”
“But Mama,” the boy whispered loudly. “What about the monster?”
It didn’t take a genius to understand that the child was referring to him. Apollo nearly sighed.
“Don’t you worry,” the woman said firmly. “I’m going to talk to Mr. Harte as soon as I can about your monster. He’ll be gone by tomorrow.”
With a last nervous glance at him, she turned and led the boy away.
Apollo narrowed his eyes on her retreating back, slim and confident. Green Eyes was going to be in for a shock when she found out which of the two of them was tossed from the garden.
For a man who owned a pleasure garden, Asa Makepeace certainly didn’t live in luxury—if anything, he sailed perilously close to squalor.
Apollo finished climbing the three flights of rickety stairs to Makepeace’s rented rooms the next morning. Makepeace lived in Southwark, which was on the south bank of the River Thames, not terribly far from Harte’s Folly itself. The landing held two doors, one to the right, one to the left.
Apollo pounded on the right-hand door, then paused and placed his ear to it. He heard a faint rustling and then a groan. He reared back and thumped the wood again.
“D’you mind?” The left door popped open to reveal a shriveled elderly man, a soft red velvet cap on his head. “Some like to sleep of a morning!”
Apollo turned his shoulder, shielding his face behind his broad-brimmed hat, and waved an apologetic hand at the man.
The old man slammed his door shut just as Makepeace opened his own.
“What?” Makepeace stood in his doorway, swaying slightly as if in a breeze. “What?” His tawny hair stood out all around his head like a lion’s mane—assuming the lion had been in a recent cyclone—and his shirt was unbuttoned, baring a heavily furred barrel chest.
At least he was wearing breeches.
Apollo pushed past his friend into the room—although not far. There simply wasn’t much space to move. The room was swarming, teeming, breeding with things: towers of stacked books stood on the floor, a table, and even the big four-poster bed in the corner, a life-size portrait of a bearded man leaned against one wall, next to a stuffed raven, which stood next to a teetering pile of chipped, dirty dishes, and next to that was a four-foot-tall model of a ship, rigging and all. Colorful costumes were piled haphazardly in one corner and papers were scattered messily on top of nearly everything.
Makepeace shut his door and a few sheets fluttered to the floor. “What time is it?”
Apollo pointed to a large pink china clock sitting on top of a stack of books on the table before looking closer and realizing the timepiece had stopped. Oh, for God’s sake. He chose a more direct way to show the time by dodging around the table, crossing to the only window, and yanking the heavy velvet curtains open.
A cloud of dust burst from the fabric, dancing prettily in the early morning sunlight streaming into the room.
“Ahhh!” Makepeace reacted as if skewered. He staggered and flung himself back on the bed. “Have you no mercy? It can’t be noon yet.”
Apollo sighed and crossed to his friend. He pushed one leg over ungently and perched on the side of the bed. Then he took out his ever-present notebook and a pencil stub.
He wrote, Who is the woman in the garden? and shoved the notebook in front of Makepeace’s eyes.
Makepeace went cross-eyed for a second before focusing on the writing. “What woman? You’re mad, man, there isn’t any woman in any garden unless you’re talking about Eve and that garden, which would make you Adam and that I’d pay to see, especially if you wore a girdle of oak leaves—”
During this ramble Apollo had taken back the notebook and written more. Now he showed it to the other man, cutting him off mid-rant: Green eyes, overdressed, pretty. Has a little boy named Indio.
“Oh, that woman,” Makepeace said without any show of embarrassment. “Lily Stump. Best comic actress in this generation—perhaps any generation, come to think of it. She’s impossibly good—it’s almost as if she casts a spell over the audience, well certainly the male members. Uses the name Robin Goodfellow on the stage. Wonderful thing, made-up names. Quite useful.”
Apollo gave him a jaundiced look at that. Asa Makepeace was more commonly known as Mr. Harte—though very few knew both of the man’s names. Makepeace had taken the false name when he’d first opened Harte’s Folly nearly ten years ago. Something to do with his family being a religious lot and disapproving of the stage and pleasure gardens in general. Makepeace had been vague about it the one time Apollo had quizzed him on the subject.
Apollo scribbled in the notebook again. Get her out of my garden.
Makepeace’s eyebrows shot up when he read the note. “You know, it’s actually my garden—”
Makepeace hastily held up his hands. “Although, of course, you have a significant investment in it.”
Apollo snorted at that. Damned right a significant investment—to wit: all the capital he’d been able to scrape together four and a half years ago. And since he’d spent most of the intervening time ensconced in Bedlam, he hadn’t been able to acquire any other capital or income. His investment in Harte’s Folly was it—his only nest egg and the reason he couldn’t simply flee London. Until Harte’s Folly was once again on its feet and earning, Apollo had no way of getting his money back.
Hence his decision to help by overseeing the landscaping of the ruined garden.
Makepeace let his hands drop and sighed. “But I can’t make Miss Stump leave the garden.”
Apollo didn’t bother writing this time. He just arched an incredulous eyebrow and cocked his head.
“She hasn’t anywhere else to stay.” Makepeace rolled off the bed, suddenly alert.
Apollo waited patiently. One good thing about being mute: silence had a tendency to make others talk.
Makepeace sniffed his underarm, grimaced, and then pulled off his shirt before he broke. “I might’ve stolen her away from Sherwood at the King’s Theatre, which for some reason Sherwood took personally, the ass. He’s made it impossible for her to get work anywhere in London. So when she came to me last week unable to pay the rent on her rooms…”
He shrugged and tossed the dirty shirt in a corner.
Apollo’s eyebrows snapped together and he wrote furiously. I can’t keep in hiding with strangers running about the garden.
Makepeace scoffed. “What about the gardeners we’ve hired? You haven’t made a fuss about them.”
Can’t help them—we need the gardeners. Besides. None of them are as intelligent as Mrs. Stump.
“Miss Stump—there’s no Mr. Stump, as far as I know.”
Apollo blinked, sidetracked, and cocked his head. The boy?
“Her son.” Makepeace reached for a miraculously full jug of water, which he poured into a chipped basin. “You know how theater folk are sometimes. Don’t be such a Puritan.”
So she wasn’t taken by another man. Not that it mattered—she thought him a literal idiot and he was in hiding from the King’s men after escaping Bedlam.
Apollo sighed and wrote, You need to find her other lodging.
Makepeace cocked his head to read the outthrust note, and dropped his mouth open like a gaffed carp. “Good God, what a wonderful idea, Kilbourne! I’ll just send her to my ancient family castle in Wales, shall I? It’s a bit run-down, but the seventy or so servants and acres and acres of land should more than make up for any inconvenience. Or maybe the château in the south of France would be more to her liking? I don’t know why I didn’t think of that myself, what with my many, many—”
Apollo cut short this diatribe by shoving his friend’s head in the basin of water.
Makepeace came up roaring, shaking his head so vigorously that Apollo might as well have taken the dip himself.
Both men whirled at the gentle cough.
The aristocrat who stood just inside the door to Makepeace’s rooms wasn’t particularly tall—Asa had several inches on him and Apollo topped him by more than a head. The man was posed, one hip cocked gracefully, his hand languidly holding a gold-and-ebony cane. He was attired in a pink suit lavishly embroidered in bright blues, greens, gold, and black. Instead of the common white wig, he wore his golden hair unpowdered—though curled and carefully tied back with a black bow. Apollo had mentally named Valentine Napier, 7th Duke of Montgomery a fop the first time he’d met him—the night Harte’s Folly had burned—and he’d had no cause to change that impression in the intervening months. He had, however, added an adjective: Montgomery was a dangerous fop.
“Gentlemen.” Montgomery’s upper lip twitched as if in amusement. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
He looked slyly between them, making Apollo stiffen.
“Only my morning toilet,” Makepeace said, ignoring the insinuation. He grabbed a cloth and vigoriously rubbed his hair. “Feel free to go away and come back at a more convenient time, Your Grace.”
“Oh, but you’re such a busy man,” Montgomery murmured, poking with his gold-topped cane at a stack of papers piled on a chair. The papers slid off, landing with a dusty crash on the floor. A tiny smile flickered across Montgomery’s face and Apollo was reminded of a gray cat his mother had once kept when he was a boy. The creature had loved to stroll along the mantelpiece in his mother’s sitting room, delicately batting the ornaments off the shelf. The cat had watched each ornament smash on the hearth with detached interest before moving on to the next.
“Do have a seat,” Makepeace drawled. He pulled open a drawer in a chest and took out a shirt.
“Thank you,” Montgomery replied without any sign of embarrassment. He sat, crossed his legs, and flicked a minuscule piece of lint off the silk of his breeches. “I’ve come to see about my investment.”
Apollo frowned. He’d been against taking money from Montgomery from the start, but Makepeace had somehow talked him into it with his usual glib tongue. Apollo couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d made a pact with the Devil. Montgomery had been abroad for over ten years before his abrupt return to London and society. No one seemed to know much about the man—or what he’d been doing for those ten years—even if his title and family name were well known.
Such mystery gave Apollo an itch between the shoulder blades.
“Good,” Makepeace said loudly. “Everything’s going just dandy. Smith here has the landscaping well in hand.”
“Sssm-i-th,” Montgomery drew out the ridiculous name Makepeace had given Apollo, making the sound into a sibilant hiss. He turned to Apollo and smiled quite sweetly. “And I believe that Mr. Makepeace said that your first name is Samuel, is it not?”
“He prefers Sam,” Makepeace growled, tacking on a hasty, “Your Grace.”
“Indeed.” Montgomery was still smiling, almost to himself. “Mr. Sam Smith. Any relation to the Horace Smiths of Oxfordshire?”
Apollo shook his head once.
“No? A pity. I have some interests there. But it is a very common name,” Montgomery murmured. “And what plans do you have for the garden, may I ask?”
Apollo flipped to the back of his notebook and showed it to the duke.
Montgomery leaned forward, examining with pursed lips the sketches Apollo had made.
“Very nice,” he said at last, and sat back. “I’ll drop by the garden later today to take a look, shall I?”
Apollo and Makepeace exchanged glances.
“No need for that, Your Grace,” Makepeace began for the both of them.
“I know there’s no need. Call it a whim. In any case, I shan’t be denied. Expect me, Mr. Smith.”
Apollo nodded grimly. He couldn’t put his finger on why it bothered him, but he didn’t like the idea of the duke sniffing about his garden.
Montgomery twirled his walking stick, watching the glint of light off the gold top. “I collect that we’ll soon be in need of an architect to design and rebuild the various buildings in the pleasure garden.”
“Sam’s just started work on the garden,” Makepeace said. “He’s got quite a lot to do—you’ve seen the state the place is in. There’s plenty of time to find an architect.”
“No,” Montgomery replied firmly, “there isn’t. Not if we’re to reopen the garden within the next year.”
“Within a year?” Makepeace squawked.
“Indeed.” Montgomery stood and ambled to the door. “Haven’t I told you? I’m afraid I’m quite an impatient man. If the garden isn’t ready for visitors—and the money they’ll spend—by April of next year, I’m afraid I shall need my capital repaid.” He pivoted at the door and shot them another of his cherubic smiles. “With interest.”
He closed the door gently behind him.
“Well, ballocks,” Makepeace said blankly.
Apollo couldn’t help but agree.
“Daff,” came a hiss from the bushes.
Apollo’s lips twitched. Indio hadn’t chosen a particularly adept spy-mate. The greyhound obviously didn’t understand his young master’s need for stealth. Even now she was wandering out of their hiding place, nose to the ground, more interested in some scent than Indio’s frantic call. “Daff. Daffodil.”
Apollo sighed. Was he really expected not to notice the dog? He was mute, not blind—or deaf.
Daffodil ambled right up to his feet. She’d apparently lost her fear of him in the last week of spying—or perhaps she was simply bored of sitting still. In any case she sniffed the tree stump and the adze, and then abruptly sat to scratch one ear vigorously.
Apollo extended a hand for the little dog to sniff, but the silly thing jumped back at his movement. She was quite near the pond bank and her sudden leap caused her back legs to slip in the mud. She tumbled down the bank and into the water, disappearing beneath the surface.
“Daff!” The boy ran from his hiding place, his eyes huge with fear.
Apollo put out his hand, blocking him.
The boy tried to dart around his outstretched arm. “She’ll drown!”
Apollo seized him and swung the boy off his feet and then set him down firmly, placing his hands on his shoulders and bending to stare into his eyes. He narrowed his eyes and growled, never so frustrated by his loss of speech as now. He couldn’t argue with the child—tell him what he meant to do and instruct him to obey, and thus he was reduced to animal grunting. Better the boy should fear him, though, than drown trying to rescue his pet.
Apollo stepped back, keeping his eye on the boy, and pulled off his shoes, waistcoat, and shirt. He hesitated a moment, staring suspiciously at the boy.
Indio nodded. “Yes. Please. Please, help her.”
Without waiting further, Apollo turned and waded swiftly into the water. The little dog had reemerged at the surface, but she was thrashing in panic instead of trying to swim.
Apollo grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and lifted her clear from the pond. She hung pathetically, water streaming from her rat-thin tail and drooping ears. He turned and waded back to the shore.
The boy hadn’t moved from where Apollo had stopped him. Indio watched him intently.
Apollo picked up his shirt and wrapped the shivering greyhound in it before handing the little dog to the boy.
Indio clutched her to his chest, his eyes swimming in tears as the dog whimpered and began to lick his chin. He looked from the pet in his arms up at Apollo. “Thank you.”
Daffodil coughed, choked, opened wide her narrow mouth, and vomited up a thin trail of pond water all over the shirt.
He turned and found the worn cloth bag he’d brought his lunch in. Fortunately, he’d placed his notebook in it earlier, so that at least wasn’t wet. Apollo repressed a shuddering shiver as he crouched and rummaged in the sack. Earlier he’d eaten his luncheon—a pork pie—and wrapped a leftover piece in a cloth. Apollo rose with the bundle and the little dog immediately leaned from her master’s arms, sniffing eagerly at the cloth. Apollo unwrapped the morsel and broke off a piece, holding it out. Daffodil snatched it from his fingers and gulped it down.
Apollo almost laughed.
“She likes piecrust,” the boy said shyly.
Apollo merely nodded and fed Daffodil another bit.
“’Course she likes bread and sausage and chicken and green beans and apples and cheese as well,” Indio continued. Not so shy after all, then. “I gived her a raisin once. She didn’t like that. Is that your dinner?”
Apollo didn’t answer, simply offering the last of the pie to Daffodil. She gobbled it and then began nosing his hand, looking for crumbs. She seemed to have forgotten her unexpected swim already.
“It’s kind of you to give it her,” Indio said, stroking Daffodil’s head. “D’you…do you like dogs?”
Apollo glanced at him. The boy was staring up at him hopefully and for the first time Apollo noticed that his eyes were of different colors: the right blue, the left green. He turned away to stuff the bit of cloth back into his bag.
“Uncle Edwin gived me Daffodil. He won her in a game of cards. Mama says a puppy is a silly thing to wager for. Daff’s an Italian greyhound, but she didn’t come from Italy. Mama says Italians like skinny little dogs. I named her Daffodil because that’s my favorite flower and the prettiest. She doesn’t know to mind,” Indio said sadly as Apollo rose.
Daffodil wriggled and the boy set her cautiously on the ground. The greyhound struggled from the folds of the shirt, shook herself, and then squatted, watering the ground—and a corner of the shirt.
Apollo sighed. He really was going to have to wash that shirt.
Indio sighed as well. “Mama says I ought to train her to sit and beg and most ’portantly come when we call her, but”—he took a deep breath—“I don’t know how to.”
Apollo bit his lip to keep down a smile. It was too bad that he’d already fed all the scraps to the dog. He glanced at the boy.
Indio was staring at him frankly. “My name’s Indio. I live in the old theater.” He pointed in the direction of the theater with a straight arm. “My mama lives there and Maude, too. She’s a famous actress, my mama, that is. Maude’s our maidservant.” He chewed on one lip. “Can you speak?”
Apollo shook his head slowly.
“I thought not.” Indio dug into the mud with the toe of one boot, frowning down. “What’s your name?”
Well, he couldn’t answer that, could he? Time he was back at work, anyway. Apollo reached for his adze, half expecting the boy to run away at his movement.
But Indio simply stepped back out of his way, watching with interest. Daffodil had wandered several feet away and was now digging energetically in the mud.
He was wet and chilled from the air, but work would soon fix that. Apollo took another swing at the tree stump, hitting it with a thwock!
“I’ll call you Caliban,” Indio said as Apollo lifted the adze again.
Apollo turned and stared.
Indio smiled tentatively. “It’s from a play. There’s a wizard who lives on a island and it’s all over wild. Caliban lives there, though he can speak. But he’s big like you, so I thought…Caliban.”
Apollo was still staring helplessly at the boy through this explanation. Daffodil had paused to sneeze and glance at them. Her nose was adorned with a clot of mud.
There were dozens of reasons to refuse the boy. Apollo was in hiding, a price on his head, wanted for the most awful of crimes. The boy’s mother had already made plain that she wanted him nowhere near her son. And what did he have to offer the boy after all, mute and overworked and on the run?
But Indio smiled up at him with mismatched eyes and cheeks made red from the wind, and an air of sweet hope that was simply impossible to refuse. Somehow, against his better judgment, Apollo found himself nodding.
Caliban. The illiterate knave from The Tempest. Well, he supposed he could’ve done worse.
Indio might’ve chosen A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and named him Bottom.
Lily paused and glanced around the blackened garden an hour later. She hated to keep Indio locked inside the old theater, but she was going to have to if he insisted on disappearing like this. The sun would soon be setting. The garden held all manner of dangers for a little boy—and that was without the interest the duke had shown her son yesterday afternoon. Lily hadn’t liked that comment Montgomery had made about Indio’s eyes.
Not at all.
A sense of urgency made her cup her hands around her mouth to shout again. “Indio!”
Oh, let Indio be safe. Let him return to her, happy and laughing and covered in mud.
Lily trudged onward toward the pond. Funny how she’d learned to pray again when she’d become a mother so suddenly. For years she’d never thought of Providence. And then she’d found herself whispering beneath her breath at different, frightening points in Indio’s short life:
Let the fever break.
Don’t let the fall be fatal.
Thank you, thank you, for making the horse swerve aside.
Not the pox. Anything but the pox.
Oh, dear God, don’t let him be lost.
Not lost. Not my brave little man. My Indio.
Lily’s steps quickened until she found herself almost running through the charred brambles, the clutching branches. She’d never let him out again when she found him. She’d fall to her knees and hug him when she found him. She’d spank him and send him to bed without his supper when she found him.
She was panting as the path widened and she came to the clearing by the pond. She opened her mouth to call yet again.
But she was struck dumb instead.
He was there—Indio’s monster. He was in the pond, his back to her.
And he was quite nude.
Lily blinked, frozen in place. The garden was all of a sudden eerily still as the day made its last farewell. His massive shoulders were bunched, his head lowered as if he saw something in the water. Perhaps he was struck by his own reflection. Did he know himself when he saw that man beneath the water—or was he frightened at the sight? She felt a flash of pity. He could not help his own huge size—or the deformity of his brain. She ought to speak, ought to make her presence known, ought to…
All thought left her head as the giant plunged beneath the water.
Lily’s mouth half opened.
The setting sun broke through the cloud cover and bathed the pond in golden light, reflecting off the ripples left by his movement. He burst from the water. He was facing her now. The muscles bunched on his arms as he slicked his wet, shoulder-length hair back from his face, and the mist swirled amber over the surface of the water, adorning his gleaming skin as if he were the tributary god of this ruined garden. Her pity evaporated, burned away by the sudden realization that she had it all wrong.
Good Lord. He was magnificent.
The water trickled down his chest, trailing through a diamond of wet, dark hair between his beaded nipples, down over a shallow, perfectly formed navel, and into a dark line of wet hair that disappeared—rather disappointingly—into the concealing misted water.
She blinked and glanced up—only to find that the giant, the beast, the monster was looking directly back at her.
She ought to be ashamed. He was a mental defective and she was ogling him as if he were able to reciprocate any feeling she might have…except his expression didn’t seem stupid now. He almost looked amused by her stare.
Not defective at all.
And an awful, terrible, mortifying thing happened: she felt herself grow wet.
Just yesterday she’d had tea with the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. The Duke of Montgomery had aristocratic cheekbones, sapphire-blue eyes, and shining, golden hair—and he’d moved her not at all.
Yet this…beast before her, this man with his wild muddy-brown hair, his animallike shoulders, his big, knobby nose, his wide, crooked mouth and heavy brow. Him she found attractive.
Obviously she needed to take a new lover—and soon.
He began wading to the shore, his leaden expression returned. Had she imagined the look of intelligence, supplying one where none existed?
Lily squeaked as he neared, but sadly, did not turn her back.
She had a moral defect—a despicable personal flaw—for she simply could not look away. Her eyes dropped to the wet black tangle between his legs as he strode toward her, the water swirling about his muscled thighs. There was a hint of the flesh below, crude and male and—
Lily jumped, whirling, her hand on her heart, which surely had stopped, poor, worn thing.
“Indio!” she gasped, rather breathlessly, for her wretched son had chosen this moment to emerge from the shrubbery. He was standing on the path she’d just come from, a leaf stuck in his curly black hair. Daffodil, looking even muddier than usual, capered up to her and planted filthy paws on her skirts.
“Mama, can Caliban come for supper?” Indio asked, his mismatched eyes wide and entirely too innocent.
“I…what?” Lily asked weakly.
“Caliban.” Indio gestured behind her.
She glanced over her shoulder to find—to her mingled relief and disappointment—that the man was slowly buttoning the falls of a ragged pair of breeches. The setting sun limned the wet slope of his shoulders, but his big fingers fumbled on the buttons. Whatever intelligence she’d imagined in his eyes was gone. But then it’d probably never been there in the first place.
She looked back at Indio, brow knitted. “Caliban? That’s Caliban?”
Her son nodded. “I named him just today.”
“You…” She shook her head. She’d found—shortly after Indio learned to talk—that letting him lead a discussion could result in a tangled web, incomprehensible to anyone over the age of seven. Sometimes one must simply cut through the tangle. “Indio, it’s suppertime and Maude is waiting for us. Let’s—”
“Please?” Indio came closer and took her hand, pulling her down to whisper in her ear, “He hasn’t anything to eat and he’s my friend.”
“I—” She looked helplessly back at Caliban.
He’d donned his shirt and was staring at her with his mouth half open. As she watched he scratched his…well, his male parts, quite obliviously, just as a half-wit might.
Her eyes narrowed. He’d not looked half-witted at all a minute ago. Perhaps she’d imagined it. Perhaps she’d wanted to condone her own baser impulses by giving the object of her thoughts reason that simply wasn’t there.
And perhaps she was dithering over the matter too much.
She glanced back at Indio’s pleading face and made her decision. She straightened and said loudly, “Of course, darling, let’s invite your friend to supper.”
A choking sound came from behind her, but when she turned, Caliban’s face was stupidly blank. He snorted, hawked, spat into the pond—ew!—and scrubbed his hand across his mouth.
She smiled widely. “Caliban? Would you like to eat? Eat?” She mimed lifting a spoon to her mouth and then chewing. “Eat. With. Us.” She pointed back along the path. “At the theater. We have good food!”
Her exaggerated miming was ridiculous—and if he wasn’t mentally defective, it was insulting. She watched him closely to see if he’d break—change expression, show in any way that he did harbor normal intelligence.
But he simply stared back blankly.
It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d misread a man. Sighing—and telling herself firmly that she most certainly wasn’t disappointed—Lily began to turn away.
Indio started forward and took the big man’s hand as naturally as he’d taken his mother’s. “Come on! Maude’s making roast chicken and there’ll be gravy and dumplings.”
Caliban looked at the boy and then her.
She raised an eyebrow. She’d already pled her piece—she wouldn’t do so again. Not for a lackwit.
Was there something behind the muddy-brown eyes? A glimmer, a glint of challenge? She couldn’t tell, and in any case she was no longer certain of her own perception.
But it didn’t matter. Caliban nodded slowly.
Lily turned and started back up the path, Daffodil scampering ahead. Her heart, that silly, mercurial thing, was beating in double time.
This was going to be interesting.
This was a very bad idea.
Apollo followed Lily Stump, watching her skirts sway from side to side as she walked. Her back was rigidly straight, but the nape of her neck was soft and unguarded, trails of dark hair curling down from the knot at the crown of her head. He had an animal urge to set his teeth against her nape, test the tender flesh, taste the salt on her skin.
He swallowed, glad the cool evening air kept him from embarrassment. There was no reason for him to have accepted her offer of supper. He had another cold pork pie safely stowed in the ruins of the musician’s gallery where he’d set up camp while he worked in the garden. He was tired and sore and still damp from washing off the sweat and mud of the day. His recently rinsed shirt clung, wet and uncomfortable, to his shoulders.
Everything—everything—he’d worked for would be forfeit if anyone discovered who he really was.
And yet he was holding the hand of a little boy and trailing the boy’s exasperating mother. Perhaps he was lonely. Or perhaps it was the look in her eyes when he’d emerged from the pond and found her watching him that urged his footsteps on. It had been a long time—a very, very long time—since a woman had last looked at him like that. As if she saw something she liked.
As if she might want more.
He’d spent four years in Bedlam, most of them chained in a stinking cell. He’d escaped last July, but in the months since, he’d been in hiding—not a situation conducive to finding a willing wench. And of course there’d been that last beating—the one that had stolen his voice. The prison guard had reached for his falls. Had—
But he wouldn’t think of that now.
Apollo inhaled, shoving aside a black mass of shame and anger.
Indio looked up at him. “Caliban?”
Apollo realized he’d squeezed the boy’s hand. Deliberately he made himself relax his hold and shook down his shoulders. Stupid for a man as big as he to feel such wretched fear. He was out of Bedlam. He’d made sure—damned sure—that guard was no longer a threat to anyone.
He was free.
He tilted back his head, watching the sun cast her flame-colored skirts upon the sky as she set over his ruined garden. Beyond the theater, between the tops of blackened and burnt trees, one could just make out a glitter that was the mighty Thames.
This had once been a lovely pleasure garden. When he was done with it, it would be a wondrous pleasure garden, even better than before.
But right now they were nearing the theater.
Apollo assumed the blank expression that he wore around the other gardeners—and only just in time. The door flew open and a tiny, gray-haired woman stood in the opening, arms set akimbo on hips.
“What,” she barked, “is that?”
“We have a guest for supper tonight,” Miss Stump replied, and as she glanced back at him he thought he saw a mischievous glint in her eye. “Indio’s monster, in fact—though Indio now calls him Caliban.”
“Caliban?” Maude narrowed her eyes, cocking her head as she examined him critically. “Aye, I can see that, but is he safe in the theater with us is what I’m wanting to know?”
Apollo felt a tug on his hand. He looked down at Indio, who whispered, “She’s nice. Truly.”
“Don’t fuss, Maude,” Miss Stump murmured.
“He’s my friend,” Indio explained earnestly. “And he fed Daff all his dinner.”
At the mention of her name, the little dog ran over and, growling in what she no doubt considered a ferocious manner, began to worry the ragged hem of Apollo’s breeches.
“Humph,” Maude said, her tone as dry as dust. “If that’s the case, better come inside, all of you.”
Indio bent and rescued Apollo’s breeches by picking up Daffodil, who immediately began bathing his face with her tongue. He laughed and trotted past Maude. His mother gave Apollo an indecipherable look and motioned him in ahead of her. Apollo ducked his head and entered the charred theater, trying to quell his unease. There was no reason to think she’d seen through his subterfuge.
The last time he’d been in the building was on the night the garden had burned. Asa Makepeace was an old friend and the only one Apollo had trusted to keep his whereabouts secret when he’d been rescued from Bedlam. He’d hidden in the garden for only a day before the place had burned down. Then the theater had been smoldering and had stank of smoke and devastation.
Now there was still the faint smell of charred wood, but there were other changes. Miss Stump had obviously attempted to make the place more comfortable—a table and chairs were in the center of the room, and a print of ladies in bright dresses hung on the wall. A fire crackled on the grate, and a rack had been erected nearby to dry clothes. Someone had been knitting, for two knitting needles and a half-finished sock were stuck in a ball of gray yarn on a stool near the hearth. A tiny side table held a messy sheaf of papers, a corked bottle of ink, and a chipped mug with several quills. On the mantel sat a single, rather ugly black-and-green enameled clock—working, unlike Makepeace’s. Before the fire was an incredibly plain purple settee, one corner propped up with several bricks.
It wasn’t much—certainly not as grand as some of the houses he’d once seen as a young buck new to town, before his fall from grace—but it was homey. And that was all that mattered.
“Well?” Maude demanded, pointing to one of the chairs at the table. “Have a seat, milord.”
For a terrible second Apollo couldn’t breathe. Then in the next moment he realized that the honorific had been meant sarcastically. He nodded, hoping his face hadn’t betrayed his surprise, and pulled out a chair to sit.
Maude was still scowling. “What’s wrong with him? Can’t he talk?”
“No, he can’t,” Indio said simply, saving Apollo from having to do his dumb show.
“Oh.” Maude blinked, obviously taken aback. “Has he had his tongue cut out?”
“Maude!” Miss Stump cried. “What a horrible thought. He has a tongue.” Her brows knit as if from sudden doubt and she peered worriedly at Apollo. “Don’t you?”
He didn’t even bother resisting the urge. He stuck out his tongue at her.
Indio laughed and Daffodil began barking again—obviously her first reaction to nearly everything.
Miss Stump stared at Apollo for a long second and he was aware that his body was heating. Carefully he withdrew his tongue and snapped his mouth shut, giving her his most uncomprehending face.
She humphed and abruptly took her seat.
“It’s a fair enough question, it is,” Maude defended herself. “Why can’t he talk, then, if’n his tongue works well enough, I’d like to know?”
“I don’t know why he can’t talk.” Indio took the chair next to Apollo. “But he saved Daff from drownding today.”
“What?” Miss Stump paused in the act of reaching for the plate of sliced chicken on the table. “You’re not to go near the pond, you know that, Indio.”
“I wasn’t near the pond,” Indio explained with a boy’s complicated logic. “Daff was. Caliban went in and took her out and wrapped her in his shirt. And then Daff spewed on his shirt.”
Both women swung their heads to eye his shirt askance.
Apollo repressed an urge to lift his arm and sniff to see if the shirt still stank of dog vomit.
Miss Stump blinked. “Spew isn’t a nice word, Indio, I’ve told you before.”
“Then what is?” Indio asked—rather reasonably, in Apollo’s opinion. “Can I have some of the chicken now?”
“Yes, of course.” Miss Stump began to serve the chicken, the skin crisp and brown, the meat tender and moist. “Actually, we don’t talk about such things at the dinner table.”
“Never?” Indio looked very puzzled.
“Never,” his parent said quite firmly.
“But if Daff eats an earthworm like she did last week, how—”
“So how did Caliban come to be nearby when Daffodil went into the pond?” Miss Stump asked loudly.
“He was chopping at a stump with a funny-looking ax,” Indio said, and Apollo wanted to tell him, adze, but instead he took a bite of the chicken. “And me an’ Daff were walking. But not,” he added, “to the pond. We was walking not near the pond.”
Apollo chanced a glance at the ladies and winced. Neither woman had swallowed that particular story.
“Then he’s a gardener.” Miss Stump picked up her wineglass and eyed him with far more interest than was safe.
“Not just any gardener,” Indio said. “He tells all the other gardeners what to do.”
At which point Apollo nearly swallowed his bite of chicken the wrong way. He choked and gasped and Miss Stump pounded him hard on his back.
“Does he indeed?” she asked, with a pointed look at him.
How the hell did the boy know that? Not even the other gardeners knew he’d designed the garden. He had a rather complicated method of leaving written instructions for the lead gardener—a slow but methodical man named Herring—so that none of them realized their employer was working right under their noses.
“Why do you think that?” Maude asked interestedly.
Apollo flicked his wrist and knocked his plate to the floor. It was a sad waste of good roast chicken, but not to be helped. The plate smashed on impact, shards skidding across the charred boards, gravy and meat oozing everywhere. Daffodil rushed over and began gobbling chicken as Indio and Maude tried keep her from inadvertently eating a piece of crockery.
In the melee Apollo looked over and met Miss Stump’s gaze. Her green eyes were narrowed speculatively on him and he felt a thrill shoot through him, low and visceral.
The feeling might’ve been simple fear, but on the whole he thought it was something far, far more dangerous.