But he had been looking forward to getting to know Mildred better. No, he'd have a solitary dinner and then retire to his room- he lifted a hand to signal the waiter, only to lower it as Mildred appeared in the doorway. She spoke quietly to the maitre'd who then led her through the tables toward him.
Daniel rose and took her hand, bowing over it before removing her fur cape and handing it to the waiter. He held out a chair, then sat across from her. "I was beginning to think you weren't coming."
"I almost didn't," she confessed. "But I realized that I didn't feel like cooking dinner. I hope I'm dressed okay," she told him, looking around the room at the other diners.
Daniel smiled, examining the beaded white dress. "You're perfect. The gown is lovely."
"Oh, this old thing? It's been hanging in my closet for ages."
"Well, that's a pity. Because it suits you." The wine steward appeared, and Daniel ordered a bottle of their best French wine before smiling at Mildred's flushed cheeks. "I've embarrassed you. I'm sorry."
"No. It's just- I'm not sure how much of what you say to take seriously."
Daniel sighed. "I daresay Laura's been filling your head with a full litany of my shortcomings. Am I right?"
"Well- I suppose she's- MENTIONED you a few times. She's told me about the first time you and she met-and I was involved in that fiasco at the Duke's castle, remember?"
He smiled tightly as the steward returned with a bottle for his approval. He nodded, then waited for the man to pour a glass of the cabernet, and took a sip. "It will do," he announced, obviously impatient to regain a semblance of privacy. "I'm not the ogre she's painted me to be, Mildred."
"She's never used THAT word," Mildred said. "A few others, but never ogre."
"Why, Mildred, was that a smile I just saw," he teased gently, then lifted his glass. "What shall we drink to?"
"Miss Holt and Mr. Steele," Mildred suggested.
"Excellent idea," he agreed. "If it hadn't been for Harry meeting Laura, I would never have met you. To Laura- and Harry," he said.
Mildred touched her glass to his, echoing the toast, then took a sip. Her expression told him that she liked his choice of drink. "Why do you call him Harry?"
Daniel was ready for that question. He still hadn't decided how much to tell Mildred. But this was an easy one. "He reminds me of someone I once knew with that name. And I had to call him something other than 'Hey you', didn't I?" He smiled at the memory. "The lad had more names than days of the week. Mostly appropriated from the movies."
Mildred did smile then, and Daniel studied the way it changed her face. She seemed younger, less the hard businesswoman she showed to the world. "Mr. Steele certainly loves the movies," she agreed.
Daniel frowned again. "It was the only escape he had from the harsh reality that was his life in those days," Daniel pointed out.
"Miss Holt mentioned something about you having taken him in off the streets. Something about his having stolen your wallet?"
Daniel recalled that meeting with the scruffy, dirty little pickpocket. "He tried. He was good. Light touch, quick. His only mistake was in trying to pick the pocket of someone who knew the ropes."
The waiter came to take their dinner order, and Mildred silently gave her permission for Daniel to order for them both. He ordered something light and then refilled their glasses. "Why do you do what you do, Daniel?" she asked. "You're obviously intelligent, charming. You could probably have done anything you wanted to do. Why-"
"Why become a con man? A common pickpocket?" Daniel looked into his wine before answering. This one was tougher. "It was one of the few courses left open when I was disowned by my father."
"Unlike Harry, who has no idea WHO his father was, I knew all too well who mine was."
He could feel her curiosity across the small table. "My father married twice. The first time, as was usual for a man in his position, was out of duty. He had a son with that wife, and then she died a few years later- mourned only by her young son. A few more years passed, and he married again- this time for love. Her death upon the birth of their own son turned him into a bitter, angry man who had no desire to have anything whatsoever to do with the child he blamed for the death of the only woman he had ever loved." Daniel paused to take a sip of wine to wet his parched throat. It wasn't often he delved into this- preferred it to remain in the recesses of the past. But Mildred had asked him "Why?" and he knew that his stock answers wouldn't satisfy her. "The first six years of my life, I was cared for by stern, no nonsense nannies and various servants who felt sorry for me." He noted the pity on Mildred's face and shook his head. "I'm not telling you this to gain your pity or sympathy, my dear. I'm only trying to answer your question."
The waiter returned again with their food, and it was several minutes before Mildred asked, "What happened when you were six?"
"I was sent away to boarding school," he informed her in a matter of fact tone which held little self-pity.
"At six years old?" Mildred questioned, obviously shocked by this development. "What about your older brother?"
"Oh, he had a governess. Didn't start boarding school until he was twelve."
He could see what she thought about that arrangement as well as she concentrated on her food. "Did you enjoy school?"
"School? Not really. What I enjoyed, at least for the first few years, was being around other people, being able to be myself for a change. To pretend that I was like all of those other boys with loving, happy families. It worked- except for holidays. You have no idea how lonely an empty dormitory can be when you know everyone else is being welcomed at home with open arms- or even by devoted servants."
"It must have been- difficult," she said quietly.
"It was. But it made me stronger, I think. Able to fend for myself. As soon as I was old enough, I'd charm the staff into letting me leave the dorm during the holidays, explore the area around the school. By the time I got to Eton, I was quite adept at charming people to get what I wanted," he said with a smile.
"I bet you were," Mildred commented, returning that smile. Suddenly her eyes widened as she realized what he had said. "Eton? YOU attended Eton?"
"Ah, yes. My father might not have wanted anything to do with me, but he wasn't going to let anyone say that he hadn't provided for me. The best education money could buy- the finest tailors- everything to make me into the perfect gentleman. But Eton was a disaster for me. Oh, I could have passed the courses with my eyes closed. But my brother had finished Eton the year before I started there. They all expected me to be a carbon copy of him. Perfect, polite, a gentleman." He grinned. "I was on probation with the Headmaster before the end of my first year."
"Should I ask why?"
"Breaking curfew. I was constantly sneaking off into town," he explained. "By the end of the third year, I was expelled for having picked the lock on the Headmaster's office and stealing some tests to sell to my fellow students."
"Oh, my. I bet your father wasn't pleased at all."
Daniel found himself smiling at the memory of that last meeting. "He disowned and disinherited me. At sixteen, I was basically on my own, with no place to go, no way to make a living."
"What did you do?"
"What else could I do? I went to my friends in town. Most of them were already old hands at picking pockets and running cons. It was from them I'd learned to pick locks," he informed her with a wicked smile. "I found I had an innate talent for the work, and before long, I was buying my own suites from Saville Row and living almost as well as I had before."
"Did your father ever try to find you? To make amends?"
Daniel shook his head as he folded his napkin and pushed his empty plate away. "No. I didn't even know that he was dead until I read about it in the papers. There was, of course, no mention of a younger son. The entire estate, lands, monies, and the title, went to my brother."
He nodded. "Lord Marlowe. At one time, my father was sixteenth- or was it seventeenth? - in line to the throne of England." He could tell she wasn't sure whether to be impressed or not. Clearly, she wasn't ready to accept his story at face value. Good, he thought to himself. Not a woman to be taken in easily.
"What about your brother? Have you spoken to him?"
"He's dead," Daniel informed her. "The year before I met Harry, in fact. But I did spend a year on the family's estate after Father's death- at my brother's invitation. He seemed determined to make amends for our father's mistreatment. We became good friends- until- for various reasons, which I'd rather not go into at the moment- we had a falling out. I didn't see him again for almost twelve years. He contacted me- I'll never know how, sent an urgent message, begging me to come and see him. He was on his deathbed, a hollow, broken shell of a man, filled with regrets that were far too late for him to do anything about." Mildred's hand moved to cover his, only to fall away as the waiter came to clear the table and offer dessert. "Just coffee, please," Daniel told him, then he looked at Mildred. "Unless you want something?"
"No. Coffee's fine," she assured him, looking at him strangely. "What happened to the estate?"
"He left it in trust."
Daniel picked up his nearly empty glass. "He and his wife had no children. She died a few years before he did."
"No reason to be. It was, like our father's first marriage, an arranged one. No real feeling on either side- except, of course, for the fact that she was unable to have children." He reached out to touch her hand, seeing a fleeting shadow cross her face. "Forgive me, my dear. I didn't mean to bring up painful memories for you." He sighed as the waiter brought their coffee, and Mildred pulled her hand free.
She stirred her coffee once they were alone. "How did you know that I-"
"Harry didn't tell me," he said quietly. "I asked a few questions elsewhere- After all, anyone that Harry thinks so highly of bears closer investigation."
"And- what did you find out?" she asked cautiously.
"Oh, the usual things. You have two sisters, one older, with a single son. She lives in the Northwest. Your younger sister lives in Ohio, I believe. You were married for several years, divorced him and went to work for the Internal Revenue Service, as an investigator. A few years ago, you accepted a desk job as an auditor. Which brought you into Harry and Laura's lives. You live alone, enjoy bowling, are part of a team called, I believe, the 'Dragon Ladies', and you're trying to get your private investigator's license."
"You didn't find out all of that from a 'little' investigation," Mildred pointed out.
"No. But I'm very good at putting two and two together," he told her. "Did add correctly?"
"I guess so," she admitted.
He poured her another cup of coffee. "Have another. Don't want you trying to drive all the way home after drinking wine with dinner, do we?"
Mildred looked at him for a long moment. Uh-oh, she thought. Here it comes. He's going to try and convince me to just stay here, in his suite with him instead of making that long drive back home. "I'll be fine," she assured him.
He reached across to take her hand again, and was relieved when the waiter didn't turn up again. "All the same, I want you to call me as soon as you get home, so I'll know you made it safely."
"I- I will," Mildred said, feeling a little off balance. But then, she'd felt as if she were walking a tight rope all evening. First, she'd stayed outside the hotel for fifteen minutes, trying to decided whether or not to join him, and then during his story her feelings have wavered all over the spectrum. She finished the coffee, and picked up her purse. "I should be going. It's a long drive."
Daniel lifted a hand to summon the waiter. "Our check, please. And Miss Krebs' wrap."
"Right away, Mr. Chalmers." He was back a moment later, watching as Daniel signed the check. Mildred rose, allowing Daniel to slip her wrap around her shoulders. "Have a nice evening," the waiter said as they moved toward the entrance.
Daniel insisted on escorting her to the curb and waiting while the valet brought her car around. "Have dinner with me tomorrow night?"
"I have to meeting the Dragon Ladies tomorrow," Mildred told him. "Practice for a tournament this weekend."
"Would you mind if I-tagged along?" he asked.
Mildred felt her eyes widen at the reaction of her friends
to this man. And the thought of Daniel Chalmers in a bowling alley-
the man had probably never picked up a bowling ball in his entire
life. "You're sure? I wouldn't want you to be bored-"
"How I could possibly be bored with such charming company?" Daniel asked as the car stopped before them. She wasn't sure how long the young man had stood there, waiting for her to get in.
"You're still not sure if I've told you the truth this evening, are you? It's easily checked out, my dear. My father and brother are both listed in any book you wish to read about the peerage. Lord Marlowe. Feel free to investigate." He took her hand and brought it to his lips, then helped her into the car. "Don't forget to call when you get home. I shan't sleep until I know you've arrived safely."
Mildred nodded, and put the car into gear. She could see Daniel
standing on the curb until she turned the corner. First thing
tomorrow, she was going to do a check using her computer- find
out exactly how much of Daniel's story was true