He smiled, a little wryly. "You're a deceitful woman, Miss Ash. A true Machiavel."
Jane flushed. "If I believed my aunt's interests would be better served by staying here..."
"Don't," he said gently. "I shall do my possible with Lady Meriden. This afternoon?"
"Yes, and I warn you I'll be there, for I'd not miss the encounter for the world."
His eyes lit. "I always perform better for an audience. Shall you invite Miss Goodnight and Vincent as well?"
"No, I prefer closet drama," Jane said with dignity and poured two fresh cups of coffee.
Meriden did not play the heavy guardian. Jane thought he did not play at anything. Instead he attempted to make as reasonable a case against her ladyship's removal as could be made--a disinterested act that did not entirely surprize Jane. He pointed out to her aunt that he intended to supervise his brothers' education and therefore meant to keep Felix by him--and the twins in the school holidays.
Had Lady Meriden's professed need to have her children about her been as sincere as it was dramatic, she would then have abandoned her plan, but she had never intended to take the older boys with her. Little Thomas and his nurse must come--with flashing eyes she dared Meriden to deny her her baby--but she did not attempt any such lioness-like rescue of Felix and the twins. Beyond intimating that her stepson had alienated their affections from her, she seemed ready to Make the Sacrifice.
A few probing questions from Meriden about his sisters' future finally did the trick. Suddenly the move to Bath became a means of rescuing her daughters from his clutches. Jane saw her aunt's resolution harden, and gave a small sigh of relief. Lady Meriden would remove to Bath. She had at last found a gothick reason for doing so.
Afterwards, in the privacy of the library, Jane congratulated his lordship on his adroitness, but he did not seem disposed to be amused by the encounter with his stepmother.
"I'm sorry for Drusilla and Polly," he said bluntly. "They deserve better than to be turned into an invalid's handmaidens."
"Goody and I shall see that they get about and meet other young people."
"If I didn't think so, I'd kick up a dust. And then I daresay Lady Meriden would remove to the Antipodes to spite me."
"Surely not so far," Jane murmured, but he was frowning, abstracted, at his hands and did not seem to hear her.
After a moment he stood up and moved about the room restlessly, coming to a halt once more by his chair. "I ought to rejoice, but I wish I could deal with your aunt on a reasonable basis, Miss Ash."
Involuntarily Jane sighed.
"You don't think it's possible?" He began rubbing the ivory fabric of the chair with one brown hand.
Jane met his eyes. "It's possible to deal with my aunt, as you, sir, have shewn, but she seems to me fixed in unreason."
The lines about his mouth deepened.
"I wish it were not so," Jane said gently.
His hand clenched on the chair back, but he seemed to catch himself in the action and after a pause smiled at her. "Sackcloth and ashes. The truth is I shall miss female company. What a delightful prospect to be mewed up all summer with Felix and Vincent. I'll look forward to the twins' holidays as a composer."
Jane rose, smiling. "Then you must come often to Bath to catechise your sisters on their social accomplishments. A few days in my aunt's company and you'll soon be ready to resume the happy bachelor life."