Vespasia was momentarily discomfited. She did know far more of the present world and its political and personal secrets than she would tell anyone, even Thomas Pitt. How had Serafina seen through her so easily, and in a mere quarter of an hour?

The answer was simple: because at heart they were alike, believers who cared too much, women who used their courage and charm to influence men who held power and could change nations.

“A few,” Vespasia admitted. “But old ones, embarrassing possibly, but not dangerous.”

Serafina laughed. “Liar!” she said cheerfully. “If that were true there would be sadness in your voice, and there isn’t. I hear no regret.”

“I apologize,” Vespasia said sincerely. “I underestimated you, and that was rude of me.”

“I forgive you. I expected it. One has to lie to survive. My fear is that as I get worse, I shall lose the judgment, and possibly even the ability to lie anymore.”

Vespasia felt another, even more painful, wave of pity for her. Serafina had been magnificent, a tigress of a woman, and now she lay wounded and alone, afraid of shadows from the past.

“I shall speak to Miss Freemarsh,” she said firmly. “What about your Tucker? Is she still able to hold her authority with the other servants?”

“Oh, yes, God bless her. I wouldn’t have anyone else. But she is seventy if she is a day, and I cannot expect her to be here all the time. Sometimes I see how tired she is.” She stopped; no more explanation was necessary.

“Perhaps it would be possible to get you a nurse who would be by your side all the time, at least all day, when people might call,” Vespasia suggested. “Someone who understands sufficiently to interrupt any conversation that might veer toward the confidential.”

“Do such people exist?” Serafina asked dubiously.

“They must,” Vespasia said, although she had only just thought of it. “What happens to people who have been in high positions in the government or the diplomatic service, or even the judiciary, and know things that would be disastrous if spoken of to the wrong person? They too can become old and ill-or, for that matter, drink too much!”

Again Serafina laughed. It was a light, happy sound, an echo of who she used to be.

“You make me feel so much better,” she said sincerely. “I am growing old disgracefully, shabbily in a way, and becoming a liability to those I loved and who trusted me. But at least I am not alone. If you are not too busy doing great things, please come and see me again.”

“I shall come with pleasure,” Vespasia replied. “Even if I should be fortunate enough to have some great thing to do-which I doubt.” She rose to her feet. “Now I must see Miss Freemarsh, and Tucker, if I can. Then I will look for a nurse with intelligence and discretion.”

“Thank you,” Serafina replied, her voice for an instant husky with gratitude, and perhaps relief.

Vespasia left the room and went farther along the corridor, hoping to find Tucker. She could remember her as a young woman, just starting out in Serafina’s service when they were all in Italy, when Vespasia herself was not yet twenty. She had seen her again briefly, maybe a dozen times over the years, but would she recognize her now? She must be greatly changed.

There was a young laundry maid with a pile of freshly ironed sheets coming toward her.

“Excuse me, will you tell me where I might find Miss Tucker?” Vespasia asked.

The maid dropped a half-curtsy. “Yes, m’lady. She’ll be downstairs. Can I fetch ’er for yer?”

“Yes, please. Tell her that Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould would like to speak to her.”

Tucker appeared within a few moments, walking stiffly but with head held high along the passageway from some stairs at the farther end. Vespasia knew her without hesitation. Her face was wrinkled and pale, her hair quite white, but she still had the same high cheekbones, and wide blue eyes, which were a little hollow around the sockets.

“Good morning, Tucker,” Vespasia said quietly. “I am grateful that you came so quickly. How are you?”

“I am quite well, thank you, m’lady,” Tucker replied. It was the only answer she had ever given to such a question, even when she had been ill or injured. “I hope you are well yourself, ma’am?”

“Yes, thank you.”

The ritual civilities observed, Vespasia moved on to the subject that concerned them both. “I see that Mrs. Montserrat is not well, and am very anxious that she should not cause any ill feeling by her possible lapses of memory.” She saw instantly in Tucker’s face that she understood precisely what Vespasia meant. They were two old women, an earl’s daughter and a maid, standing in a silent corridor with more shared memories and common understanding than either of them had with most other people in the world. And yet it was unthinkable, especially to Tucker, that the convention of rank should ever be broken between them.

“It might be advisable if you were to remain in the room as often as you may, whether Mrs. Montserrat thinks to ask you or not. Even if you do no more than assure her that she said nothing indiscreet, it would comfort her a great deal.”

Tucker inclined her head very slightly. “Yes, m’lady. I’ll do my best. Miss Freemarsh …” She changed her mind and did not say whatever it was she had been about to.

“Thank you.” Vespasia knew she had no need to add more. “It is nice to see you again, Tucker. Good day.”

“Good day, m’lady.”

Vespasia turned and went to the main staircase.

“It was kind of you to call,” Nerissa said when she met Vespasia at the foot of the stairs by the lamp on the newel post.

“Nonsense,” Vespasia replied rather more briskly than she had intended to. The comfort of speaking to Tucker the moment before slipped away from her. She was deeply disturbed, and it had taken her by surprise. Physical decline she was prepared for-to a degree it was inevitable-but the slipping away of mental grasp, even of identity, she had not considered. Perhaps because she did not want to. Could she one day be as isolated and afraid as Serafina was, dependent on people of a generation who neither knew nor understood anything of who she was? People like this cool young woman who imagined that compassion was no more than a duty, an empty act performed for its own sake.

“I came because Serafina and I have been friends for more years than you are aware of,” Vespasia said, still tartly. “I am gravely remiss in not having come before. I should have taken the care to know how ill she is.”

“She is not in pain,” Nerissa said gently. Something in the patience of her tone irritated Vespasia almost unbearably. It was as if, in her perception, Vespasia was also unable to grasp reality.

Vespasia bit back her response with a considerable effort, because she needed this young woman’s cooperation. She could not afford to antagonize her.

“So she assured me,” she said. “However, she is in distress. Maybe she has not told you so, but she is convinced that in her memory lapses she may be indiscreet, and the thought of it troubles her profoundly.”

Nerissa smiled. “Oh, yes, I’m afraid she is not always quite sure where she is, or what year it is. She rambles quite a bit, but it is harmless, I assure you. She speaks of people she knew years ago as if they were still alive, and frankly I think she romanticizes the past rather a lot.” Her expression became even more patient. “But that is quite understandable. When the past is so much more exciting than the present, who would not want to dwell in it a little? And we all remember things with perhaps more light and color than they really possessed.”

Vespasia wanted to tell this young woman, with her indifferent face and healthy young body, that Serafina Montserrat had a past with more vivid color than any other woman Nerissa was likely to meet in her lifetime. But her purpose was to safeguard Serafina, to remove the fear, whether founded or not, rather than put Nerissa Freemarsh in her place.

“The reality doesn’t matter,” she said, ashamed of the evasion but knowing that it was necessary. She could not afford to tell Nerissa more than a suggestion of the truth, since the young woman clearly did not consider it important enough to guard with discretion.

“Serafina is anxious that she may unintentionally speak of someone else’s private affairs,” she continued. “Would it not be possible to see that her visitors are limited, and that someone is with her who would interrupt if she seems to be wandering in her mind? Such assurance might relieve her anxiety. Tucker is excellent, but she cannot be there all the time. I can look for someone suitable and suggest a few possible names.”

Nerissa smiled, her lips oddly tight. “You are very kind, but Aunt Serafina would dismiss such a person within

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