A BRAMBRIDGE NOVEL
Pearl Darling is the author of The Brambridge Novels, a series of romantic suspense books that each feature a potent combination of passion and mystery set within the dazzling regency period.
Each of the titles can be read as a standalone, but for those that follow the entire series, each book will provide new information about the mysterious thread that ties the central figures of the Brambridge Novels together.
And which hero and heroine will be the last to fall to love’s seductive touch? Follow the series to its inevitable conclusion to find out.
Also by Pearl Darling
Published by Magnus & Melinno
ISBN: 978 1 911536 09 03
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 Pearl Darling
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Cover design by Kim Killion at The Killion Group Inc.[
Berale House, Brambridge, 1803
The stale air in the bedroom hung uncomfortably still, heavy drapes pulled lankly across the windows closing the large room from the weak spring sunshine. The occupant of the high four poster bed did not move, or stretch or speak, her bony hand lightly thrown across the covers, face turned away towards the curtained windows.
Henry nodded to the doctor who returned to the bedside. Closing the door softly behind him, he walked slowly across the patterned hall rug and jolted with heavy steps down the central stairs, trailing his hand on the warm wooden banister.
Half-way down, he stopped on a small landing and gazed at the wall where a small portrait hung lopsidedly in a simple dusty wooden frame. A hatless blonde haired man towered over his female companion whose sharp nose pointed knowingly out of the canvas. The man held the woman’s hand and gazed at her with an intensity that leapt out of the painting. With his other hand he grasped a gold pocket watch lightly by its chain.
“She’s gone, Father.” Henry reached out with a finger and tilted the painting to hang level. He avoided staring at the woman, the thin shade of which he had just left in the still room upstairs. “Mama should be with you now.”
He pulled his watch out of his pocket and flipped open the casement lid. One of the o’clock on Friday the 1st of April. He closed his hand over the fob watch and thrust it back into his waistcoat pocket, taking a sharp intake of breath as his knuckles grazed against the cold bands of metal the doctor had given him before he left the upstairs room.
“I still have the watch. And I remember what you said. I will look after her.” Hunching his shoulders, he started back down the stairs.
The door to the drawing room stood open, the air almost as close as it had been upstairs. His sister lay prone on the sofa, hands under her head, staring into the fire which overheated the already warm room.
“Victoria, you have to stop…” Henry took a deep breath. Now was not the time. Without bothering to flip out his tail coat, he sank onto the sofa next to her. “I am afraid it is bad news,” he said simply. “Mama is dead.”
Victoria turned her gaze to him, a gaze that stared right into his eyes, but somehow did not connect. “Mama is dead,” she repeated.
Henry nodded. “She slipped away peacefully not half an hour ago. The doctor said she went in her sleep.”
“Peacefully?” Victoria shifted a hand onto her side and turned back to staring into the fire.
“It is a good thing.” Henry rubbed tiredly at his eyes.
“A good thing to die of a broken heart?”
He stopped rubbing and ran a hand through his hair. “We should be thankful that they had very little time without each other.”
Victoria rubbed her nose slowly against the remaining hand beneath her head but still would not look at him. “He shouldn’t have died in the first place. Then this never would have happened.”
Henry picked up Victoria’s free hand and held it in his large palm. “I know.”
She pulled her hand away and pushed it roughly back underneath her head with the other. Drawing her knees up, almost to her elbows, she tightly closed her eyes. “Why on earth did it happen though? Why us?”
Henry shook his head and sighed. “I have absolutely no idea.”
1806 Hope Sands, Devon
The shovelful of dirt fell on the coffin with a thud. The vicar’s voice droned of pity and piety.
No one cried.
Miss Agatha Beauregard folded and refolded the obligatory handkerchief she held lightly in her hands and then dabbed at the edges of her dry eyes. She was the only mourner at the graveside; the household staff—what was left of them— were finding themselves other positions. They certainly didn’t care.
“Would you like to say a few words?”
With a start, Agatha realized that the vicar had paused and had asked her a direct question. She peered through her veil at the soil piled on her grandfather’s coffin.
Her gaze travelled to the headstone at the head of the plot. “In loving memory…” She snorted quietly. Grandfather had dictated the words himself before he died. It wasn’t something that she would have associated with the man who had shown neither she nor her brother affection.
Her abiding memory would be of her cold, long, thin room and the hours she had spent there in punishment.
“He was a God fearing man.” The vicar looked at Agatha earnestly.
Agatha blinked. That might have been the case when her grandmother had died, but that was years ago, before Agatha and Peter had arrived in Hope Sands, orphaned children of a mother who had died of typhus and a father who had been killed fighting for his country.
“I understand that the will has been read,” the vicar said delicately.
“The church roof is leaking, dangerously near to your family pew,” he continued hopefully.
“Gracious. What terrible news.” Agatha found it hard to restrain herself from saying more. The fact that her grandfather had had the headstone made and paid for before he died was indicative of the finances that had been described in his will.
There was no money. The house which she had thought was theirs was mortgaged to the hilt. Grandfather had spent everything there was, although it wasn’t clear as to where it had disappeared. However, each time Grandfather paid his monthly trip to Plymouth, the household carried tales of fancy women and drink. When the kitchen maid had left suddenly, the house was silent for days, broken only by the cook’s occasional dark mutterings of the master’s advances. Nothing changed for Agatha, except that now as part of her punishments she peeled endless potatoes and vegetables for the household table. Not to mention the dinner parties that her grandfather would hold for his ‘friends’.
Agatha shivered and dabbed the handkerchief to her face again as a cold wind ruffled through her skirts.
“Can I offer you some tea?” The vicar was trying his hardest to be civil. He evidently hadn’t given up on a donation to the church.
“No, thank you. I must get back to the house. There are many items to sort out.” There was also her very interesting latest experiment to attend to, the recreation of a clepsydra—an ancient Egyptian water clock. She’d set it up at the back of the house against the water butt where no one could see it. Agatha gulped back a small hysterical laugh. Grandfather’s death and funeral had been rather untimely.
“I understand. Very difficult when someone dies. Is your brother coming back to help you?”
Agatha nodded slightly. The gravediggers stopped shoveling wet soil onto the grave, and started throwing clods of turf on top of the mound.
Then it started to rain. Damn. That really would foul up her experiment.
The vicar shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, great droplets of rain slapping loudly against the hard cover of his heavy bible. Sedately Agatha gave him one last nod and, turning on her heel, walked slowly through the cemetery.
Her brother was most definitely not coming to help her. In fact, Peter’s letter on the subject had been strong to say the least. However, she wasn’t going to reveal that to the vicar. Peter, his wife and thirteen year old daughter were happy in a little place called Seaton near Ottery St Mary on the other side of Devon thank you very much. He was painting a number of canvases for an exhibition in London which was going to make their fortune. There was no invitation for her to join him.
Passing under the lych gate, Agatha paused, and waited for the rain to abate. Her bedraggled horse leaned against the flint churchyard wall, its back bowed from years of use. Agatha threw a final glance to the graveyard. The vicar had disappeared into the church. The gravediggers rested on their spades smoking dog-eared cigars.
Letting out a breath, she slumped, her shoulders falling onto the top of her corset that was laced so tightly that she was hardly able to breathe. It formed part of a black worsted dress had been her mother’s. She had found it two days before as they cleared the house in preparation for handing it to its new owner, neatly folded in a trunk in the attic. The trunk had her mother’s name stamped on it in large silver letters.
A small leather pouch of sovereigns had also been buried in between the sparkling clothes and elegant shoes.
Agatha did not want to think of the implications behind the trunk. She was just pleased that her mother had managed to escape. And now her mother’s trunk was going to help her do the same. Even if her brother didn’t want her, she was going to visit him, just for a short while. For after all, after him, she had nothing left.
Her horse mournfully raised its head as she approached, the slowing rain running down its mane and falling with small splashes to the ground. Hitching up her skirts, Agatha trudged across the muddy road, the pair of large, serviceable men’s boots tied daintily to her ankles sloshing heavily through the puddles. That was one thing her mother’s trunk hadn’t been able to provide. Shoes. Despite Agatha’s small stature, her feet were too big for the dainty slippers that had lain amongst her mother’s belongings.
The horse nickered as she reached him, shaking his bridle with a quick flick of his head and tossing the reins and saddle set for a woman to ride side-saddle to and fro. Agatha glanced back over the flint wall and unhooked the horse from the tethering post. The gravediggers had finished their cigars and now slouched away from her towards their shed in the corner of the cemetery.
Grabbing the pommel of the saddle, she vaulted upwards. With one fluid movement, she threw her legs astride of the horse’s back. Giving a quick nudge to its ribs, Agatha persuaded the surprised horse into a trot.
The day their grandfather destroyed all of Peter’s canvases he had called Peter a girl, shouting it at him as Peter packed his belongings and left the farmstead forever. He also said later as he unbuckled his belt that Agatha showed more manly tendencies than her brother.
As Agatha trotted along astride the decrepit horse she admitted to herself that it was true. She had never set out to be a hoyden, but it had just happened. All in the name of science of course. For example, she had to try riding a horse astride because mathematically it seemed like a much better point of balance than the silly legs on one side and lean to the right saddle that society forced women into. Then there was that interesting little book on mechanical principles she had found. It had passed many a dark day for her, holed up in her room with her brother’s pristine Greek primer in order to decipher all the symbols. It really had been rather revealing, and fortunately she had finished it before Grandfather had burned it. And beaten her again.
In actual fact, in Agatha’s opinion, men had little if any redeeming features. Having done an extensive study of the species, they all seemed rather too self-interested. Her brother had left her with their tyrant grandfather to pursue his painting, Grandfather was only interested in spending his money on ‘a good time’, and all the footmen stole from the household kitty. Goodness, even the vicar was out looking for money for the church. A raindrop slid down Agatha’s nose. And then there was her father, selfishly claimed by death.
The shower abated as Agatha arrived back at the house, a small farmstead on the edge of Hope Sands. Its dour windows looked down on her forbiddingly. She sighed heavily; it was not worth going round the back to see to the state of her water clock. Judging by the enormous puddles on the ground, the poor clepsydra would be measuring at least five hours more than it should have done.
Dismounting from the horse, she slowly sloshed up the muddy path to the front door which stood slightly ajar. No one welcomed her into the hall. Within, the doors to each bare room stood open and the fire in the kitchen had gone out. A note on the large oak table explained that the cook, the maid and the footman had found work at the nearby manor. They were terribly sorry, but they had taken the last of the food with them.
That wasn’t the only thing they had taken with them. Standing on the cold black and white tiles of the kitchen floor, it was evident that all the pots and pans were missing. The jars of preserves had also vanished. Even the blackberry jam pot at the back of the cupboard in which she had been measuring the mold growth had gone.
Slowly Agatha paced back through the cold, ground-floor rooms. The dresser stood bare of the usual blue and white plates, and a dark stain on the floor showed where an armchair had been taken. With a gasp, Agatha re-entered the hall and clattered quickly up the creaking stairs in her outsize boots, tripping on the top step.
Her lonely, familiar room loomed in front of her. The door which she had left closed that morning was open, propped in place by the broken, open remains of her mother’s trunk. Where before a mound of clothing had packed the sturdy box, now there was merely an empty space.
Two tears, the only ones she had shed that day, rolled smoothly down her nose. Crawling slowly to her knees, Agatha pushed the trunk into the room, the door banging shut behind her. Throat burning with silent sobs, she pulled herself into the lone chair by the trunk and stared sightlessly at the wall at the far end of the room. They were only dresses. At least she had her freedom at last.
Stoically, Agatha counted the pock marks in the plaster at the end of the room and waited for her tears to dry. The pock marks covered the entire wall. She rubbed at her eyes. This was an experiment she hadn’t yet got quite right.
As the last tear dried on her chin, a faint noise came through the door. Straightening in the chair, Agatha cocked her head, and gripped the arms of the chair. The sound was familiar to her, sat as she had been so many times near to the top of the stairs, waiting for someone, anyone to come up and let her out of her room.
She blinked and froze. The third step on the stairs creaked, and then the sixth. Who was it? The staff were gone, the will had already been read, so no more visitors were expected. The owner of the house wasn’t due to take up possession for another week. Having met him once, Agatha knew that he would have knocked before entering.
Frantically she glanced to the bedroom floor on her left. The staff had missed the habitual bowl and potato knife as they cleared the house of goods to sell. Bending sharply over the arm of the chair, she picked up the bowl, placed it in her lap and laid her right hand inside, lightly holding the bone handle of the knife.
No. She wasn’t ready for that yet. Standing quietly, she pushed the knife into her skirts and, gripping the solid bowl, shuffled to the door.
Her heart thumped loudly in her ears as she waited. The handle on the door twisted slightly and then stopped. Whoever it was, the person was well versed in subterfuge. Agatha hadn’t heard any more of the normally creaky stairs as they ascended. She held her breath. The handle stopped moving.
With a huff, she slumped, her shoulders aching with tension.
A glint of light on the door handle sparkled as it moved slowly around again. Agatha straightened and breathed in through her nose quietly. She shifted her grip slightly on the bowl and raised it above her head. [_Good god. _]Who was there?
The door opened inwardly on its hinges, propelled by a sharp push. But no one stepped through.
“I would not enter if I were you,” Agatha said, her throat tightening sharply. She coughed. “Go away and no harm will come to you.”
A low laugh resounded in the hallway. The intruder thrust a confident highly-polished booted foot through the doorway. He paid no attention to her threat. Agatha’s eyes travelled upward, taking in the pristine, white breeches encasing muscular thighs, and the expensive-looking tailored coat that hung on broad shoulders. Bright blond hair hung around a forbidding face dominated by a sharp nose.
“I said, don’t come any further. Turn round and go away!” Her voice began to squeak slightly but she could not take her eyes away from the man.
Blue eyes turned to observe her, pinning her to her frozen position. The man took another step in and slowly turned to face her. He smiled slightly. It did not reassure her.
“Please just go. I don’t want to do this!”
The man frowned and lifted a foot. In one deft movement Agatha pulled forward her arm, hidden behind the door, and slammed the bowl on the intruder’s head.
“Ow.” He put a hand to his head and tottered slightly. “What the…?”
Not hard enough. Agatha lifted the copper bowl again and, with two hands, whipped it down faster.
“Aagh. What are you doing?” The man sucked at his fingers and backed behind the door.
Damn, she had miscalculated. Really she should have waited for him to move his fingers away before hitting him.
For a few seconds there was silence. Agatha clutched the bowl to her skirts. The man lurched half-in and half-out of the doorway. Still sucking his fingers, he felt at his head with his free hand and then rubbed them against his coat. A red stain emerged stickily against his coat, rather as if he’d rubbed jam on the pristine wool.
“Goddamn it!” he cursed, taking his hand out of his mouth. “That was the first time I’ve worn this coat. Ames will be heartily displeased.” He paused and grimaced. “Actually I rather think he’ll laugh. Bloody hell, my head hurts.”
Agatha stared open-mouthed. “Wh… who are you?” she stammered. Scuttling backwards, she fell back into her chair. “What do you want?”
He looked up at her and bowed shallowly. “Lord Henry Anglethorpe at your service. Your brother sent me.” The blood on his head shone brightly against his long blond hair.
Agatha slumped in her seat, a rising heat burning at the tips of her ears.[_ Lord Henry Anglethorpe_]. Peter had written to her of a Henry he had become friends with at Oxford whom Peter had regarded as a genius and the brother he had never had. He was one of the only people who encouraged Peter in his art, and his earliest patron. He hadn’t mentioned that this Henry was a lord.
Curling her hand round the fallen potato knife, Agatha damned Peter in her mind. Just like a bloody man. Firstly he had left her in this farmstead with nowhere to go, and now it was his fault that she had nearly brained a lord. Oh dear. This was much worse than the discovery of one of her failed experiments.
Lord Henry Anglethorpe shook his head slowly from side to side. The room still rolled slightly as the pain from the wound on his head pulsed through his skull. Devil take it—how had she known he was there?
“Are you alright, my lord?” The voice was clear, precise and not at all remorseful.
Henry took in a quick breath and nodded, and then cursed. Holding his head stiffly, he turned to observe the small figure that sat immobile at the other end of the room, more than ten paces away. She hadn’t apologized, or greeted him. He blinked. Not many people managed to surprise him.
Without turning his back on her again, he examined the small bowl that lay on the floor. Potato peelings lay scattered at the base of the door. She’d hit him with a cooking pot?
He advanced a few paces towards her. “There’s no need to be afraid.”
Agatha stood up gracefully, revealing a small knife in her hand. Holding it outstretched, she motioned him back with a jerk of her head. Raising his eyebrows, he stepped lightly backwards once, and stopped. Interesting.
“I repeat,” she said briskly. “What do you want?”
Henry folded his arms. “Your brother asked me to give you a season. I was on my way back from business in Exeter and thought I would collect you myself.”
“Collect me?” The disbelief in her voice was palpable.
“Look out of the window.” The beginnings of impatience tugged at him. He needed to leave before darkness fell. It was a long way back to London and he had already delayed the journey longer than he had planned.
Agatha backed to the window and looked out. Henry had left his carriage outside the front gate. The tiger had been cleaning his nails with a knife when he had dismounted and the coachman had been examining the trigger mechanism on his blunderbuss. He hoped they had put them away.
“A season? But why? You do not know me!”
Henry sighed, his earlier amusement gone. They really did need to leave; although they had driven southwards post haste, his previous stop in Wales had taken longer than he had anticipated. There had been certain[_ issues_] that he had had to take care of personally.
“I promised your brother in exchange for some of his paintings.”
He waited as Agatha furrowed her brow and scratched her drawn white face with a free hand, her outdated worn black dress rustling as she moved.
Surely she knew that a season was more expensive than an unknown painter’s scribbles? He resisted the urge to draw his pocket watch out from underneath his waistcoat—he didn’t want to frighten Agatha. Given the past fifteen minutes, he wouldn’t put it past the little kitten to attempt to throw her vegetable peeler at him.
He wiggled a cramped toe inside one of his boots. “Besides, my sister makes her come out this season, and I think it would be better if she had someone to share it with. She tells me she is lonely.” He made no mention of his sister’s worrying melancholies.
“So will you come with me, or not?”
“I will think on it.”
For the life of him, Henry couldn’t understand what there was to think of. He’d seen the state of the house as he’d walked through it, the ransacked cupboards and the lack of servants.
Smoothing down his coat one last time, he folded his arms and waited. “I have brought you a maid. There is no need to be concerned in relation to propriety. You have ten minutes.” He paused, his eyes still on the knife. “And you can bring the carrot peeler with you.”
Agatha stared at him for a few seconds and then slowly pushed herself out of the chair. Without taking her eyes off him, she put out a foot that revealed the unmistakable round toes of a large boot that still carried a crust of mud around the rim.
Standing on one leg, she made a swinging motion and, grimacing, nearly toppled to the floor. Henry unfolded his arms. What on earth was she doing? He took a step forward but Agatha waved her knife at him. Again she put out a ginger foot, and after much see sawing back and forth, connected with the open trunk that lay at her feet. With the tip of her boot she pushed the trunk to one side, shuffled three paces and knelt on the floor.
At no point had she blinked or broken his gaze. Henry resumed jiggling his toe in his boot. Despite himself he was beginning to enjoy the situation.
Agatha slumped and blinked. “Oh bloody hell.” She rubbed at her eyes.
He frowned; he’d have to break her of that habit. Young ladies did not swear in polite company. Especially those ones associated with the Anglethorpes. And if he was to have any chance of getting a good match for Victoria he would need to prevent any hint of scandal attaching itself to their name. Perhaps she wasn’t a good idea as a companion after all.
His frown grew deeper as Agatha bent over the floor, the soft silk of her dress whispering over the boards.
The floorboards creaked as Agatha slid the blade of her potato knife into a crevice between the floorboards. Pushing down on the handle, she levered up a small length of the polished wood. She lifted it out and placed it to one side beside the knife. Looking back at Henry, she tensed and drew her knife closer.
Lying on the floor, she pushed her arm into the hole and groped in the small space. Henry looked at the ceiling. Dear Lord.
“I’m ready. What are you waiting for?”
Henry glanced from side to side. Where in the blazes had she and the knife gone?
“I thought you were in a hurry?” The clinking of metallic objects thumped in the hall.
Striding out through the door, he caught a glimpse of Agatha’s skirt as she clumped down the stairs. Her hand shoved something in her pocket, a large weighty something that chinked slightly as she stepped downwards.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he hurried after her. He couldn’t let her escape now. But she wasn’t trying to get away. She stood outside his coach waiting for him, an old cloak around her shoulders, back straight and an expectant air on her face. Despite her stillness, her nose twitched. Opening her mouth, Agatha inhaled, and coughed, spluttering and clutching at her cloak.
Henry stopped, his foot coming down hard in a muddy puddle. Despite the stains that covered her attire it was like a scene from the past, his mother laughing herself into a coughing fit by the coach, tapping her feet, whilst his father fiddled around in the hall.
He pulled at his cuffs. “Bags?” he said tersely.
Agatha clutched at her cloak and gasped before letting out a large huff. “The staff took everything. Including my clothes.”
Henry nodded to the tiger, who opened the door for her. The lithe man showed no emotion, although his eyes flicked between Agatha and Henry. Henry shook his head as the tiger jumped back onto the carriage, holding on to the wig that Henry had given him that morning. The waiting maid who had been sitting in the middle of the seat in the carriage shifted to the other side. Agatha seemed to hesitate for an instant, and then, putting a decisive hand out, gathered up her cape and climbed in.
Drawing in a breath, Henry pulled himself in after her and slammed the door shut. The horses leapt into motion even before the door was closed. He studied Agatha as they left her home. She stared resolutely forward at the velvet seats of the coach, neither watching the house through the window nor giving him a second glance.
Henry drew in a sharp breath. He hated Devon too.
Settling back into the corner, he rested his head against the cushioned side of the carriage and reviewed the scene from the cold bedroom in his mind’s eye. She had nearly killed him, the first person to come close in years. If the pot that she had thrust so forcefully down on his head had been made out of stone instead of soft copper she’d have broken his skull.
He rubbed at his nose. “How did you know I was there?”
Agatha stopped staring at the upholstery and met Henry’s gaze slowly. “I beg your pardon?”
“How did you know I was in the house?”
“The third step on the stairs squeaked and then the sixth step,” she said as she stared back at him. “Why didn’t you knock at the front door?”
Henry frowned. She was far too forward. Ton misses usually waited to be spoken to and certainly did not speak in such assertive tones.
“It was open,” he said shortly. “And it looked as if thieves had broken in. I did not want to disturb them.” Once again she had him on the back foot. “You knew which steps I was on?”
“Hmm yes. Quite an interesting principle really. Water absorbed into a piece of wood will cause it to expand in proportion to the amount poured on it. That will in turn affect how much it rubs against the joists.” Agatha made a tipping motion with her hands. Fumbling under her skirts, she withdrew a small notebook and the stub of a pencil.
Henry nodded. “And hence the different pitch of the wood. I assume you were the one to pour the water on the floorboards?” Good god.
“Exactly. Potato juice actually. Took a very long time.” Agatha frowned and opened the notebook, pencil poised in the air. “If you thought thieves had broken in, how did you know I was there?”
She was [_still _]asking questions. And what was she expecting to write in her book? An involuntary smile spread slowly across his face. “Oh I knew you were there. I always know where people are. You’ll find that out soon enough when we reach London.”
Agatha closed the notebook with a snap. “Bloody hell,” she said again.
Goodness. Agatha sighed and counted the hairs on the upholstery for the sixth time that day. It seemed she was never to be rid of overbearing males with high opinions of themselves.
“And one last thing, Miss Beauregard. I would ask you kindly not to use cant phrases in front of my sister. She is easily led and it will not do her any favors.” Henry took a bite of the apple that he held in a large hand and stared at her.
Hmm. Surely he should have said ‘one first thing.’ After all this was the first time she could remember Henry speaking to her directly in the last three days.
Agatha looked out of the window and sat a little straighter. Each night the coach had stopped at a different inn and they were shown to the grandest rooms. She had bounced, laughing, on the feather beds. It was obvious the maid had never seen such behavior before. It seemed she was lucky the maid hadn’t told tales to Horrible Henry.
She sniffed and covered her nose as the odor of rotting cabbages and smoke filled the carriage. London was very different to the bleak and salty Hope Sands. She had never seen so many people in one place. The smells even carried a different kind of pungent quality. The houses crowded around narrow streets that were thronged with people. Parks surrounded by iron railings sat cheek to cheek with enormous mansions. As they passed through one particularly green square, Agatha sat forward and gazed round-eyed at the sight of a gaily striped tent with jugglers outside. Hope Sands had certainly never been visited by anything so cheerful looking as that.
Henry coughed beside her. With a sigh, she sat back in her chair. Putting out a furtive hand, she felt at the solid mass of golden sovereigns trapped below her skirts. The servants might have taken everything, but they had missed the coins that she had hidden beneath the floorboards.
Agatha took a deep breath and rubbed at her eye. “Smokey isn’t it?”
Henry grunted but passed no comment. Clenching her hands in her lap, she counted the jolts of the carriage over the cobbles. If the average cobble was three inches wide and there were twenty jolts each second that meant that the coach was travelling at around hmmm, sixteen miles an hour, gosh, that really was fast—
The coach stopped throwing her forward. An enormous villa with stuccoed pillars and large steps up to the front door loomed outside, yet despite its height, the mansion was dwarfed by the leaves of an enormous hornbeam tree that shed its leaves across the roof.
“My house,” Henry said, leaning over and pushing open the coach door.
Agatha inhaled, staring upwards as the large black door to the house opened and an army of smartly dressed staff poured out. Henry drew back and gave her a level look; he smelled of soap and spicy smoke. As the intoxicating mix filtered through her senses, a small ball of tension lodged itself in her chest. She clenched her hands; self-interest, remember—she was here to be a companion to his sister. He was not looking after her. No one was. And that was the way she wanted it. No interference, no constrictions.
Pushing past her, Henry leapt out of the carriage and, without looking at her, held out a hand for her to hold. Agatha shivered and stayed where she was.
She watched as a smartly dressed man hurried down the steps and greeted Henry.
“Your letter arrived by mail coach, sir,” the butler said, taking up a prominent position on the pavement as the footmen bustled around him. He was a large paunchy man with a watchful face. “Everything has been made ready.” He looked pointedly at Henry’s hand. “Can we help you with anything else, my lord?”
Agatha sighed. It couldn’t be any worse than Hope Sands. Ignoring Henry’s hand, she stepped lightly to the pavement, intrigued. She lifted her chin as Henry made a growling noise in his throat beside her.
“Henry! Henry, you’re back.” A dainty young lady tripped lightly down the front steps and reached up to kiss Henry on the cheek. “Is this her?”
Agatha bristled slightly as she took in the peaches and cream complexion and blonde hair.
“I am she,” she said in a clipped manner.
The blonde angel laughed delightedly. “Henry, isn’t she wonderful?”
Henry nodded, dropping his hand to his side. Agatha raised her eyebrows.
“I’m Victoria, Henry’s sister. He has told you of me, hasn’t he?” Victoria looked worried. Agatha softened and nodded. She did not need to recount what Henry had said.
“Good! Madame Dupont comes tomorrow to measure us up, Monsieur Bertrand starts his first dance lesson the day after—”
“Stop prattling, Victoria, and take Miss Beauregard inside.” Henry signaled to one of the footmen to take the last case.
“Ooh yes, come and have tea and cake and we’ll get to know each other.” Victoria’s eyes travelled over Agatha’s black dress. “You might want to change first.”
Agatha gulped, her skin tingling where the garment touched her skin. She had tried hard to make the black dress last for the three days of the journey. Each night she had shut the maid out of the room as she had contorted herself to shed the tight garment. Having sponged herself down with cold water, she had slept in the bed naked so as to preserve the dress and her undergarments.
Unwillingly she threw a pleadingly look at Henry. His eyes narrowed as he glanced at her.
“Agatha was robbed before I could reach her. She has no clothes with her.”
Victoria gasped. “Henry! You didn’t make her wear the same clothes for the entire journey? Why didn’t you stop in Salisbury?”
For the first time in the four days that Agatha had known him, Henry had the grace to look embarrassed. With delight she watched as he turned away to stamp non-existent mud off his pristine boots. “Well, I…”
Victoria threw Agatha a determined look. “I have more than enough clothes. We will find some of mine for now until tomorrow when Madame Dupont comes.” She slid an arm through Agatha’s. “I like your boots,” she whispered, pulling Agatha up the steps and into the house. Looking down at her own dainty slippers, Victoria sighed. “These silly things never keep out the water. I always have wet feet.”
Agatha glanced down at her feet where the rough leather poked out from underneath her dress. Carefully, she examined Victoria’s face. There was no trace of sarcasm in the beautiful eyes that looked back at her, nor a twist of a sneer to her rosy lips. Unresisting, she allowed herself to be led into the hall. The ball of tension that had sat tightly bound by the corset in her rib cage unfurled a little with every step.
Henry stopped stamping behind them and pulled his coat around him. “I will see you later. I have a meeting at Hartley Place.”
Agatha waited as Victoria paused on the top step. “Government secrets,” she whispered softly in Agatha’s ears. Pulling back, she stared at Agatha. “What are you interested in?”
Agatha took a deep breath. “The natural world.” That could cover a multitude of things. She held in the air as Victoria frowned.
“Science? That is good news.” Victoria’s frown cleared. “Henry gave me a rather interesting new book for my birthday. I can’t make head or tail of it. You can help me.”
“But I didn’t say…”
“Oh… did you mean plants and flowers?” Victoria’s face fell. “I get rather too many of those to be enamored of them anymore. I suppose…”
Swallowing, Agatha laid her hand gently on Victoria’s arm. “No… it is science I’m interested in.” She paused. Nothing bad happened, no thunderbolt from the sky, or the chink of a belt buckle falling to the floor.
“Good.” Turning, Victoria waved to her brother, and then led Agatha further into the house.
Agatha couldn’t resist a last glance backwards. Henry stood staring after them, an enigmatic twist to his lips, the sunlight bouncing off his hair. Quickly she whipped her head back round and, with a half step, caught up with Victoria, pressing a hand to her chest. She had been wrong, the ball of tension that had dogged her hadn’t disappeared at all.
Henry watched as Victoria and Agatha disappeared. Already Victoria’s face had brightened, and they seemed to have found something that they liked in each other. He sighed. If only he had thought of a companion for his sister earlier. Although Agatha was very [_unlike _]her brother.
His thoughts flickered to his friend Peter Beauregard. They had been in the same buildings at Oxford. Something had drawn them together for that short time too. Perhaps it had been the shared lack of parental guidance. He had been almost jealous when Peter had met his wife Claire. Peter had been a terrible correspondent until he heard of his grandfather’s death and requested Henry rescue his Agatha. He’d assured Henry that she would be grateful. He mentioned nothing about her rather fiery nature and[_ novel_] tendencies. The stair boards… and the very strange contraption he’d found behind the Hope Sands farm house. Henry had recognized it at once as a rather clever water clock.
Running an impatient hand through his hair, he winced as it touched at the slowly healing wound underneath.
“Hartley Place,” he ordered through gritted teeth. As the coachman jerked on the waiting horses’ reins, he grasped the immaculately polished brass handles of his carriage and pulled himself back in with one lithe motion.
The horses had more than enough energy left in them to take him smoothly to Hartley Place. They were a prime piece of horseflesh he had bought from his customary dealer as well as his one and only race horse Darkangel. He didn’t really know that much about horses, but Darkangel seemed to be doing rather well at Newmarket. Lightly he leaned back against the carriage side and rubbed at his stained coat as the horses pulled them through the center of Mayfair, but the blood was well mixed with the soft material. Sighing, he looked out of the window at the familiar landmarks as they passed; he had travelled the same path many times since graduating from Oxford.
Lord Granwich waited for him in the library at Hartley Place. As Henry was shown in through the door, Granwich turned from examining the gilt-decorated bookcases that glinted back the flames of the roaring fire and gave Henry a long look.
“Drink, Henry?” Granwich moved to the sideboard and poured a glass of brandy, his hand hovering over a second glass.
“No, thank you.”
Granwich raised his eyebrows and slid the brandy decanter onto the sideboard. “Please sit down.” He picked up his full glass and lowered himself slowly into the chair next to the fire.
Henry chose one of the sofas opposite him, regretting the decision immediately. The seat of his breeches sank markedly into the soft cushions leaving his knees higher than his buttocks. Uncomfortably he fought the need to stand again.
Granwich regarded Henry owlishly over the top of his glass. Henry took in a breath and waited. He’d known the enigmatic lord since he had plucked Henry away from his history studies at Oxford and put him to work for the Crown.
Henry twisted slightly in the seat and stopped. He had already had many notable successes in foiling plots against the king, but now that the Napoleonic wars were in full swing, he was spending more time on preventing British secrets being passed to the French. Henry sighed and gave himself up to the sagging chair. He was quite sure that sinking ignominiously into pink sofas was, however, certainly not in a spymaster’s job description.
Thrusting his chin upwards, he watched as Granwich shuddered outwardly. Remaining calm and watchful, he flicked a small feather away from the fold of his breeches. Henry hadn’t been named the Hawk just for his patrician nose; indeed his valet Ames had laughed as he had recounted the rumors that it was because he located his prey, watched them, and then, some whispered, killed them with his bare hands. Henry smoothed at the soft material of his breeches and shrugged inwardly; they would say what they will. But that episode in Wales was a case in point. There [_were _]some things that just came with the job. He jiggled his knee with impatience.
Granwich took another sip of the brandy. “We feel that it would be a good idea if you,” he coughed, “if you took a wife.” Granwich knocked back the amber liquid and subsided back into his chair.
Henry gazed at the older man, the smoke from the fire tickling his eyes as he refused to blink. Heat coursed through his body, right down to his feet. He hoped desperately it was the effects of the fire and the enveloping warmth of the over cushioned sofa. Putting a foot slowly out, he stood and turned the chair to shield himself from the flames. Facing away from Granwich, he squared his shoulders and took a deep breath in, and out, blinking furiously. Twisting his lips upwards slightly, he turned round and sat down again, careful not to sink quite as far into the chair.
Granwich gazed into the bottom of his empty glass as if surprised to see it finished.
“Why?” Henry crossed his legs.
Granwich tipped the glass from side to side, the dregs of liquid rolling in its base. “You will be able to move about the ton more freely if you don’t have to avoid all the dowagers. I’ve heard that a new French spy is operating in London. I may need you to go after him.” He stopped tilting the glass and put it down on a low table that sat between them.
Henry folded his arms. It was true that he spent a reasonable amount of time in the card rooms. That was where all the good information was to be gathered. In general the dowagers had nothing interesting to impart. They started most conversations with ‘have you met my daughter?’ which he was most certainly not interested in. “Not good enough, Granwich.”
Granwich shifted uncomfortably, reached out for the glass and then, seeming to change his mind, withdrew his arm again. “To lay it on the line, Henry. You are not getting any younger. Many men your age are getting leg shackled now. If you stay single, people will begin to talk.”
Henry nodded slowly, his cravat pinching tightly against his chin. Dammit—he was only twenty eight, his best years were ahead of him. A woman would get in the way of his search. The wound on his head began to radiate pain down his skull again.
Granwich grimaced. “As unpalatable as it might by Henry, you can’t be a spy if scurrilous rumors surround your every move. You know about the art of subterfuge, especially given your family history.”
He continued to nod. He couldn’t stop himself as horror crept through his veins and seemed to take control of his head, pain radiating with every nod. Debutantes were silly. They were simpering misses whose veneer of sophistication covered either heads filled with sponge, or Machiavellian minds ready to entrap their next lord. They would have given any of the spies that he had caught a run for their money. Worst of all, they all ran the risk of getting rather a little too close to him. As he stopped nodding with a jerk, he put a hand to the back of his aching head. His mind slid dangerously towards the small figure in large boots who had nearly killed him. Her motives were refreshingly obvious. In fact she seemed to actively dislike him—so much the better.
“I will think on it,” he said.
Granwich sighed, obviously in relief, as a rap at the door sounded loudly over the hiss and spit of the fire. He drew a hand across his forehead. “Come in!”
A tall man with a hard look to his face pushed open the door, waving away the butler that danced behind him.
Granwich smiled. “Ah, Harding. Glad to see you. I think you have met Henry before.”
Henry nodded. The man, Earl Harding, jerked his head in response and stepped in, closing the door behind him.
“I’ve just informed Henry that I believe there to be a new French spy operating in London.” Granwich leaned forward.
Thank god he didn’t mention anything about encouraging Henry to get a wife.
The earl nodded and, walking over to an open bookcase, peered inside. “Let me know if I can help,” the earl said tersely. With deliberate movements, he selected a book and slipped it into his pocket. Glancing over his shoulder, he stopped and raised an eyebrow. “You may wish to contact Renard. He’s a turn coat and no one is actually sure who he works for. But if you trade with him, sometimes he will give you valuable information. He knows most of what there is to know about French movements into Britain. He trades out of Devon. William Standish is the man to contact with his whereabouts.”
As abruptly as he had entered, the earl gave a terse bow and withdrew.
Granwich scratched his head with a sigh. “Not sure what the matter is with that man. I’ve heard that it’s woman trouble. Hmm, Devon, that reminds me.” He paused and examined an elegant finger. “There’s one more thing. I’ve heard word of a boy down there. Lord Stanton’s son. Captains a smuggling boat out of Brambridge.” Granwich pinned Henry with a watery stare. “I’d like you to keep an eye on him. He might be useful in the future.”
Henry nodded. Brambridge. Oh gods. He’d hoped to never have to go there again.
The book was in pristine condition with barely a crease on its leather spine. Agatha ran her hand over the cover and then pulled it towards her.
“Henry thought it might distract me.” Victoria leaned forward and stared out of the French windows to the small back garden. “But no matter how I read it, I am always lost after the third sentence.”
Conversations on Science, Agatha read, by Jane Marcet, First edition 1806.
“I feel rather a fool; after all in the foreword it does say that this is an elementary textbook written especially with women in mind.” Victoria fell back in her chair with a huff. “But I can’t help focusing more on the relationship between the two girls, Caroline and Emily. And the way they speak to their teacher Mrs. B.! Gosh. Far from promoting knowledge, I want to know whether they actually liked each other. They certainly seem rather catty if you ask me.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m not interested in their observations on transpiration in boring plants. And what does the B in Mrs. B. stand for anyway?”
“I… I have no idea.” Sliding her finger down the center of the book, Agatha opened the bound pages at random. Gunpowder is a mixture of five parts nitre to one part sulphur and one of charcoal… the constituents of which when heated to a certain degree enter into a number of new combinations, and are instantaneously converted into a variety of gases, the sudden expansion of which gives rise to the detonation. With a sharp intake of breath, she closed the book and then opened it again at a different section, [_the white of an egg contains a little sulphur therefore… _]
“Of course I was terribly grateful to Henry, but—”
Agatha sat on the edge of her seat and, tucking the book under her arm, picked her teacup off the table. Without noticing the tea was cold, she finished the cup and poured herself another.
Gazing over the top of the teacup, she stared at Victoria. “I could lose myself in this book for hours.”
Victoria stopped rambling and stared at her. “I beg your pardon?”
“This,” Agatha tapped at the book, “is a doorway to untold hours of interesting activity.”
Victoria raised her eyebrows. “Are you quite sure you’ve recovered from our dancing lesson? I was certain Monsieur Bertrand was going to have a heart attack when you stood on his left foot.”
Agatha sighed. “Quite recovered, thank you. I can’t help the fact that I’m slightly clumsy.”
“Hmm, that would explain why Madame Dupont stuck quite so many pins in your side.”
“Oh no. She did that out of spite.”
“Why on earth did she do that?”
“I suggested that she needed her eye glass reground; after all, it didn’t throw a perfect circle of light on the ground. Unfortunately I omitted to mention my reasoning and told her just after she commented on my chest measurements.”
Agatha nodded. “I got the feeling she did not like making up dresses for companions.”
“You are not a companion.” Victoria stood and put her hands on her hips. “You’re my friend.”
A warm flush swept up Agatha’s neck. A friend. She took in Victoria’s dull gaze and thought about their morning of quiet sewing, during which Victoria’s mood had inexplicably deepened. Stroking the embossed cover of the book with a tentative finger, she sat up. “What you have here,” she said slowly, “is a gold mine.”
“Gosh.” Victoria pulled open a terrace door and stepped out onto the patio, breathing in the cold autumn air. She pulled her wrap around her slight form and looked back through the window. “How novel.”
Agatha stood and pulled Victoria back into the drawing room. “You’ll catch your death of cold if you stand out there like that in this weather.”
Victoria sank into her seat and stared at the floor.
Rising to stand in front of Victoria, Agatha tapped her foot on the thick pile carpet and put a hand to her chin. “We shall follow the same experiments that the girls and their teacher undertake.”
Victoria frowned and looked up sharply. “Tutelage by Mrs. B.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what we’ll call it.”
The corners of Victoria’s mouth twitched. “When do we start?
Agatha smiled. “Right away. I happened to alight upon a very interesting ‘conversation’ when I opened the book at random. Mrs. B. says it has some scintillating results.”
“Is that your enthusiasm for science talking or Mrs. B.?”
“Alright. Mrs. B. only says it’s interesting. But I still think it sounds worth pursuing. Oh come on, Victoria, don’t be a nervous goose.”
Victoria sighed. “What do we need?”
“I think we ought to be able to get everything from the kitchen.”
“I’m not sure they will be very happy about us going down there.”
Agatha folded her arms in front of her. “And whyever not?”
“Since… Mama died, my brother deals with them. I… I stay out of the house affairs.”
“Hmm. Well perhaps it is time to get back into them.”
“Agatha I can’t—what are you doing?”
Grabbing Victoria by the hand, Agatha towed her out of the room, into the hallway, and opened the door to below stairs. The sound of clattering pots and voices reached them from the kitchens below. Letting go of Victoria and tucking the Conversations on Science under her arm, Agatha clumped down the stairs.
In the lower kitchens, the head cook leant over the kitchen table, a pile of pork chops in a wrapping of brown paper open in front of her. Opposite her, a man in a straw boater and white coat dropped his knife to the table with a clatter.
“I ain’t coming back next week, Mrs. Noggin, I’ve got another job on.” The butcher scratched his head and picked up his knife again.
“Tis a pity, Albert, there ain’t anybody as good with a knife as you. Why those fillet steaks you gave us—”
“Ahem.” Agatha placed a hand over her mouth and coughed, but the cook kept on talking.
“—were right good ones. Mister Henry ate every last bit as normal, but I was so proud Miss Victoria had a little bit of it. She likes her jelly though. I worry for her, I do—”
Behind her, Victoria took in a large gulp of air. Agatha felt behind her and grasped at Victoria’s hand, squeezing it.
“Ahem,” Agatha tried again.
The cook turned her large form in surprise. “Miss Aggie—” She covered her mouth in evident distress—“Miss Victoria… I…”
“Err, I’ll be going.” The butcher bowed his head and quickly wrapped up the chops. He nodded his still bowed head and, turning quickly, left through the kitchen door.
Agatha swung in surprise. She hadn’t noticed another man in the room, and yet she was only just quick enough to see a small glimpse of the side of his face and then his back as he disappeared behind the butcher.
The cook opened and closed her mouth a few times before sinking into a low oak kitchen chair. “Miss Victoria,” she repeated.
Victoria nodded silently and felt for a chair at the kitchen table. Gathering her purple skirts to her, she pulled the chair out and sank into it. With a sigh, Agatha shook her head and, filling a copper kettle with water, placed it on the still warm stove.
Mrs. Noggin half rose. “Miss Aggie, let me—”
Agatha shook her head. “You rest. I believe Victoria would like to ask you some questions. Victoria?”
Victoria stared at the table. “I… err… Mrs. Noggin… that is to say…”
Quickly Agatha pulled the book out from under her arm and laid it on the table. Opening it with two hands, she smoothed her hand down the page and, pointing at the start of the chapter, slid the book under Victoria’s nose.
Victoria swallowed visibly. “Yes. Aha. Mrs. Noggin. It is good to see you after such a long time.”
“Oh yes my lady,” Mrs. Noggin sank back with visible relief into her chair. “The last time I saw you was when you had your coming out ball. Gosh what a sight you were.”
“That was three years ago.”
“Aye. A bonny fifteen year old you were. So lively. We all watched from below stairs as you walked out on your father’s arm.”
Agatha poured some hot water from the kettle into a cup and slid it across to Mrs. Noggin so that her arm obstructed her view. Looking back over her shoulder, she checked on Victoria. She sat as still as a statue, frozen to her chair.
“Mrs. Noggin. We were wondering if you might help us. Oh dear.” As Agatha pushed the cup, it tilted slightly on a dent in the table and splashed hot water across the wooden top. “I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Noggin.”
Victoria jumped out of her seat and hurried to a rail of cloths that hung by the sink. Pulling down a towel, she patted at the table. “Mrs. Noggin, we were wondering if you might provide us with some items.”
“Anything for you, Miss Victoria.” The sight of Victoria clearing up in front of the cook was obviously too much.
“We need. Ah,” Victoria fumbled with the book, “isinglass and wine.” She stared at Agatha.
Agatha licked her lips. “I’m going show you how my boots were made waterproof.”
Victoria sank back into her chair. “I think I need another cup of tea. How on earth is that relevant to wine and isin… isin.”
“Isinglass,” Mrs. Noggin said unexpectedly.
“I’m not sure what mixing glass with wine will do.” Victoria frowned.
The cook laughed. “It’s not glass. It’s dried cod. Swimbladder of cod that is. We use it to make that Solomon flummery jelly you like so much.” Pushing her chair back, Mrs. Noggin pulled a jar of irregularly shaped white leaves from the shelf and felt under the counter, pulling out a bottle of wine. “Here, Mister Henry didn’t finish this last night. I was going to throw it out.”
Victoria had turned a very pale pink. “There is fish in my favorite dessert?”
“It doesn’t taste of fish, does it?” Agatha ran her finger down the page of the book. “Aha.” Uncorking the bottle of wine, Agatha poured a large amount into a glass. “Please could you melt some of the isinglass for me, Mrs. Noggin?”
“Of course I can. I’m very interested to see what you are going to do next.”
“As am I,” Victoria murmured.
Taking the copper boiling pot of melted isinglass from Mrs. Noggin, Agatha poured the gelatinous material into the wine glass. Immediately a thick muddy precipitate fell to the bottom.
Victoria lowered her head level with the table and stared at the glass. “I thought you were going to do something spectacular.”
Agatha glanced at the precipitate and laughed. At last, an experiment that had turned out[_ right_]. “I did.”
Victoria thrust her elbows on the table. “I still don’t understand what this has to do with your boots.”
Agatha picked up the glass and held it to the light. “Most wines contain a substance called tannin.”
“Hmm. That’s what Henry says gives him the headache after he’s drunk the wine.” Victoria withdrew her elbows from the table. “Tannin, has this anything to do with tanning leather?”
Agatha smiled. “Exactly. In the book Mrs. B. says that Tannin is used in the making of leather. Animal hides are soaked in a solution of water and tannin made from bark. It turns them into a leather that provides a strong impermeability to water.”
“But why the isinglass?”
“The isinglass is acting like the animal skin. The isinglass has precipitated the tannin from the wine to form an insoluble compound… something that is impervious to water.”
Victoria frowned and poked at the glass. “I can’t wear that.”
“Animal skin contains a similar substance to the isinglass. It mixes with the tannin, turning the skin into leather which is waterproof.”
Mrs. Noggin sat back from the table. “Well I never. I’m not sure I understood half those words that you used. But I do wonder what Mister Henry’s stomach looks like after drinking all that red wine if that is the case.”
“Exactly what Caroline says in the book.” Agatha snapped the book closed and drew her chair away from the table.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that.” Victoria took the glass to the sink and poured the contents down the drain. “He only drinks when he’s upset. After he’s eaten of course.” Picking up the bottle of wine, she turned it round to see the label. [_Chateauneuf du Pape 1780. _]“Oh dear. We had better go and perform more experiments elsewhere.”
Agatha glanced at the bottle. “I thought Mrs. Noggin said he didn’t like it.”
Victoria pulled at her arm with tense fingers. “It’s not a case of not liking it,” she whispered, nodding a goodbye to the smiling Mrs. Noggin. “More, that one doesn’t drink Chateauneuf du Pape very often as it is so expensive. That bottle is from the last of the wine my father bought.”
Henry stared over the breakfast table at the unusual sight in front of him. It was not the fact kippers had been banished from the sideboard that bothered him, in fact he hadn’t eaten any fish for several weeks. Nor was it the excessive way in which salt from the salt cellar was disappearing unexpectedly.
It was the sight of Victoria laughing. Laughing without a care in the world to be precise. Slowly his eyes tracked across to Agatha, who leant on the table, examining her bacon and eggs with a magnifying glass.
“Just what—” Henry took a deep breath. “What are you looking at, Agatha?”
“She’s examining the bacon and eggs flummery that Mrs. Noggin sent up.” Victoria giggled. “Mrs. Noggin is protesting against my ban on fish products in our food. She’s sent up bacon and eggs for Agatha on a bed of spinach made of green jelly.”
“Good god. That doesn’t have fish in it.”
Victoria nodded earnestly. “Yes it does. The spinach jelly is made of isinglass, a fish’s swim bladder.”
“Oh.” Henry blinked. “I’m surprised at Mrs. Noggin. I had to reprimand her for spilling some of that wine that Papa brought back.”
“Ah, about that.” Victoria hung her head.
Henry wanted to take the words back. Immediately the smile had been wiped from her face, and the light in her eyes extinguished.
Agatha dropped her magnifying glass to the table with a clatter and laid a hand on her arm. “It’s not her fault.” She gazed at him and narrowed her eyes. “We were conducting an experiment.”
“An experiment?” Henry took in a breath. “You conducted an experiment with priceless wine?”
“We didn’t know it was priceless at the time.”
“Well you should have done.”
Victoria stood. “Henry, you are overreacting. Come, Agatha. Let us enjoy Mrs. B. elsewhere.”
Mrs. B.? Who the hell was Mrs. B.?
Marching with a straight back, Victoria pushed Agatha out of the room. Falling back on his chair, Henry winced. Years he’d worked at amusing Victoria, trying to draw her out of her black moods, and within just a couple of months Agatha had transformed her.
“Do you think Miss Aggie will be finishing her bacon and egg flummery, sir?”
Henry sat up with a start. “Oh dear. Ames.” He nodded at shadowy footman who held Agatha’s plate in his hand. “You had better be sure neither Victoria nor Agatha see you. Since Agatha’s turned up, both girls are too sharp for their own good.”
His valet nodded. “They nearly caught me in the kitchen, sir, talking to Mrs. Noggin. I waited outside and listened in to their conversation. They were conducting an experiment to demonstrate tanning leather. It was Mrs. Noggin that gave them the wine.”
So Agatha had protected both Victoria and Mrs. Noggin with her comments. But still… “Who is Mrs. B.?”
“As far as I understand sir, she’s the teacher in that book you gave Miss Victoria.”
Good grief, so this recent episode was his fault.
“Err, do you know what experiment they are going to try next?”
“No my lord. I believe they have already tried churning milk to make butter, or oxygenated oil as Miss Aggie called it. Very nice it was too, on a scone.”
Henry drew a tired hand across his forehead. “And?”
“Hmm. There have been quite a few interesting ones. Creating chalk from some lime water Mrs. Noggin found was one the household was quite interested in.”
So that was where his medicine for an upset stomach had gone.
“Drinking remarkable quantities of whey prepared with lemon juice and white wine to see which one created most perspiration…”
“Hell in a handbasket! You only take that if you have a cold.”
“The white wine whey worked better apparently, although both girls were quite ill afterwards.”
“Agatha told me she had the flu!”
Ames coughed and swung the plate of flummery to the door. “I had better take this downstairs, sir. Mrs. Noggin will be disappointed it hasn’t been eaten. She’s been ever so proud of Miss Victoria’s recovery in spirits.”
Henry gripped at his fork, pushing the metal prongs into the table cloth. “Will you be there at Lord Colthaven’s ball tonight, Ames?”
“Of course sir. One of the footmen said that Lord Colthaven has been interested in finding something recently but won’t name what it is.”
Henry looked up sharply. “Perhaps it is the same as what Father was looking for.”
Ames nodded and closed the door behind him.
Lord Colthaven’s ball was a medium sized affair. Neither Agatha nor Victoria would look at him as he handed them out of the carriage. Immediately Victoria was thronged with admirers. The cheerful change in her countenance combined with her beauty obviously held a dangerous allure for all the bucks of the ton. Henry shoved a hand inside his coat and grasped lightly at his watch. He’d already been approached by several men asking for her hand. The most insistent of which was Lord Colchester. He hadn’t told Victoria yet.
He straightened as he watched the crowd. Little by little Agatha had been buffeted to the edges. Despite the glint of the candles on the auburn tints in her hair, the peach dress that she wore would have looked better on Victoria; in the half-light it appeared brown and dull. He tensed as her shoulders slumped slightly, and she pulled her wrap more firmly around herself.
“Miss Beauregard,” he said quietly.
She turned, a small flush of pleasure ran through him as her direct gaze met his. But then she glanced behind him and a smile spread across her face. A sharp elbow pushed him out of the way.
“Oh terribly sorry, Anglethorpe. Didn’t see you there. Wanted to say hello to Miss Beauregard.” The owner of the sharp elbow clapped a hand on his shoulder and then turned away.
“Not to worry, Fashington.” Henry stared at the back of the man as he slid away to join Agatha. Charles Fashington was a regular at Hartley Place, in fact more than a regular; he was always in to see Lord Granwich, and yet Granwich hardly ever referred to him.
Henry frowned as the man produced a small oval item from his pocket and Agatha laughed. She pushed the object into her skirts and looked up at him with adoration. Clenching his fingers, Henry strode away. There was always something a little off about Charles.
He couldn’t settle at the card tables, nor pick up any of the information that was being told from one table to the next. He didn’t seem to be able to process it, Agatha’s heart shaped face staring out at him knowingly from each card in his hand.
A shadow fell across his hand and broke his concentration. “More champagne, sir?”
Henry dropped the cards on the canasta table. “Deal me out please.” Nodding at the other players, he stepped away from the table and took the champagne that the footman was offering.
“I can’t find my contact, sir. He seems to have disappeared.” Ames stared at him from below an artfully arranged wig, his salt and pepper hair now covered with deep mahogany strands.
Henry shook his head. “I didn’t have high hopes anyway.” He stared across the card tables back into the ballroom. The laughing couples danced around the floor without a care in the world. Victoria swept by in the arms of a young soldier. Lifting his chin, he couldn’t see Agatha in the dancing crowd.
“Where is Miss Beauregard?”
“I believe she is sitting at the edge of the ballroom, sir. She is demonstrating something to Mr. Fashington.”
“What the hell?”
“Oh yes. Miss Aggie has quite the scientific following, my lord.”
“The ton is divided into those that find her simple demonstrations amusing and those that deem them a little too outrageous.”
“Outrageous?” Henry drained his champagne glass and nodded at Ames as the bubbles irritated his throat. “We need to nip this in the bud before she, they become a laughing stock. Do you know what Fashington gave to Miss. Aggie earlier?”
“I’m sure I’ll find out.” Settling his glass back onto Ames’ tray, Henry skirted the edge of the card room, hesitating at the entrance to the ballroom. Over the tops of the dancers he could just see Agatha’s bent head, her finger jabbing in the air animatedly. He took a step forward.
“Lord Anglethorpe! How lovely to see you. Have you met my daughter…?”
“Angelina is most desirous to make your acquaintance your lordship, she has always…”
Shaking his head, Henry took another step forward and almost fell to the floor. The small foot of a matron withdrew itself neatly back under her skirts. “I beg your pardon, Lord Anglethorpe… have you met…?”
“No I haven’t,” he said curtly. “If you will excuse me, I have something to deal with.”
p. “Miss Beauregard you mean.” The matron glowered, patting her daughter’s hand. “My Angelina would never do…”
“Excuse me.” This was why he never entered a ballroom. That and the aching memories of his mother gliding through the throng, a happy smile on her face as she pulled his father out of the card rooms. [Dance with me, Henry _]she would say, _your father will be a while yet.
Henry strode quickly away from the knot of matrons, and, skirting the dance floor, pushed his way through a small crowd of gentlemen that sat gazing admiringly at Agatha, whose plumped out skirts gave her the look of a small button mushroom.
“Now then, if I just lay this spoon on the floor.” Agatha leant forward and placed a silver spoon on the ground.
“You should apply to the Royal Academy of Sciences,” a gentleman at the back of her court said.
“Do you really think I could?”
Henry coughed and bowed. “Miss Beauregard, I would be grateful if you would join me.”
Agatha turned and stared at him before saying something quietly to Charles on her left.
“Are you asking her to dance?” Charles frowned and put out a hand to help Agatha to stand.
Henry breathed deeply. “No.” There was no way he was going to ask anyone to dance. “I—I need to consult her on something in her capacity as my sister’s companion.”
Agatha’s small intake of breath was inaudible but visible in the way her chest hitched slightly. Henry stared away at the dancers. “Quickly please, Miss Beauregard.”
“Steady on, Anglethorpe, she was just about to show us something interesting with an egg…”
So that was what Charles had given her.
“She won’t be showing anybody anything tonight.” Henry took Agatha’s arm in his and led her away at a fast clip, Agatha trotting to keep up with him.
“Why did you need to be so rude? I was just about to show them how silver tarnishes in the presence of a little water and the albumen of an…”
“It does? How…?” Henry shook his head and sighed, drawing her into a small alcove. “Miss Beauregard. When I brought you to London to have a season, I did so as a favor to your brother. A favor which you are sorely testing.”
“I don’t understand.” Agatha withdrew her arm from his and smoothed her hands over the silk of her skirts. “They asked me to demonstrate it. We discussed it last week at Lady Braithwaite’s ball. They seemed interested.”
Henry closed his eyes. “They are interested. They are interested in you as an oddity, engaging in scandalous behavior under my very nose. Everyone knows the Anglethorpe name and what it stands for.”
“Scandalous? But I wasn’t being scandalous at all…”
“In the eyes of the ton, any behavior of a woman out of the norm is considered scandalous, bad ton. It blights the name of that person and of those associated with her.”
Agatha’s skirts rustled as she stared down at her lap. “I… I didn’t realize. Would it help if I became a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences?”
“It might… but…”
“I could approach them next week.” She looked up with wide eyes. “That’s what I’ll do. After all, after I demonstrated—”
“There will be no more demonstrations, Miss Beauregard. Kindly confine them to my house.”
Henry stood and gazed back across the crowds at Charles. “No more protestations.”
She wouldn’t look at him in the carriage on the way back to the house. Her mood extended to Victoria, who held her hand and gazed at Henry as if she wished he would disappear.
As the butler let them back into the house in Mount Street, a small leaf from the hornbeam tree whipped into his face. Pulling it away from him with a snort of disgust, he entered the hall and drew a tired hand across his face where the leaf had scratched at it. Dropping the leaf to the floor, he crushed it beneath his feet and kicked it out over the doorstep. Clenching his fingers to his side, he turned, only to catch the wide eyes of Smythe, his butler.
He straightened. “Goodnight.” Without waiting for a reply, he trod up the stairs evenly and walked straight to his room.
In his rooms, the footmen prepared a large tin bath and laid out a brush and some soap. The effect of the warm water was extremely calming, the tension of the ball leaching from his body. He would need to apologize to Agatha in the morning. By all accounts he had been extremely rude. And actually he was rather interested in what she had been planning to do with the spoon and the egg. Reaching out a long arm for the soap, he rubbed it along his chest, watching in satisfaction as a generous lather was generated.
Stopping, he sniffed and frowned as the faint aromas of pork filled the air. [_Who was cooking at this time of night? _]Rubbing his arm, he continued to clean himself.
The smell of pork became stronger.
“What in the hell?” Henry stared down at the bar of soap in his hand. Mixed in to its yellow texture were black flecks. Bringing the bar to his face, he sniffed and recoiled.
“I’ve found out what experiment Miss Beauregard intends to do next, sir.”
Henry dropped the soap in the bathwater with a splash. Ames quietly shut the bedroom door behind him. The smell of pork rose again through the air on the steam of the hot bath.
Ames sniffed. “They intend to make soap from homemade potash sir. Gods what is that smell?”
Henry slammed his hand down into the bath. “That smell, Ames, is me. I rather think you are a little late with your information. Agatha and Victoria appear to have made soap using pork dripping.” Grabbing a towel from a stand near the fire, he stood and furiously rubbed at his skin. “I need another bath.”
p. “You can’t, sir. You’ve used up all the hot water. It’ll be nearly an hour until you can have one.”
“Gods Ames, what have you been doing? You need to keep an eye on her.”
“Miss Aggie, you mean?”
“Yes… she’s a… she’s a liability… a…baggage of the highest order!”
Ames pulled another towel off the rack and handed it to Henry. “Would you like me to order another bath, sir?”
“Yes. Right away.”
It was five o clock in the morning before he slept, and then only fitfully at that. Eggs and spoons chased him around the grounds of a familiar large house where the sea air swirled in the trees. When he tried the front door to escape from them, it was opened unexpectedly by Agatha. I’m being chased, he’d said, mumbling in his dream. Agatha had not said a word, but raised her eyebrows in disbelief. A crash sounded behind him. Looking back, the egg and the spoon lay splattered against the steps.
It was then that he awoke, a ringing in his ears, the lingering image of Agatha in his mind. He’d been sure that she had made to open the door wider to the house, inviting him in. Inviting him into his own family home.
With a grunt, he pulled his pocket watch off the table. Nine o’ clock in the morning. Gods but his ears hurt; what had woken him so loudly? Pulling on his dressing gown, he blearily left his room and strode down the stairs.
“What’s going on?”
Nobody answered him; the usual footmen were absent from their post in the hall. Pulling his dressing gown tighter, he glanced quickly down the stairs. The door to the drawing room stood slightly ajar. Taking the stairs two at a time, he made straight for the door and strode inside.
Agatha lay sprawled on the floor by an upturned chair, the table in front of her a charred mess. With a curse, he ran to her side and knelt on the floor. He took her hand and leaned over her face. Agatha’s large eyes looked back at him, green and luminous. Slowly she blinked. With a sigh, Henry sank back on his heels and looked back around the room. A footman was busy sweeping up the ashes, whilst another held a bandage to Victoria’s eyebrow.
Agatha put her free hand to her head and hiccupped. “Mrs. B. did say that one shouldn’t open phosphorous to the air at home. Perhaps we should have listened to her.”
The footman next to Henry sniffed and looked up. “Lord Anglethorpe… err.”
Victoria gazed at him from one barely open eye. “Bloody hell,” she said limply.
Henry dropped Agatha’s hand, staring at her as she rubbed lightly at her face. Drawing in a deep breath, he got to his feet. For a few seconds he closed his eyes and just breathed. It was for their own good. Clenching his hands into fists, he caught Victoria’s gaze and held it, unable to look at the prone woman on the floor. “There will be no more experiments in my house, Agatha. Do you hear?”
Agatha moaned and sat up. “I agree the phosphorous was a bit of a mistake.”
“A mistake?” Henry roared. She had no idea. “The mistake was you coming to live with us.”
With a growl he strode to the door and ran up the stairs to his room. Dear God, why had she chosen to provoke him before he had even had time to have breakfast?
Agatha sighed and pressed herself against the wall of the hallway. If it hadn’t been for Victoria, Agatha would have gone back to Devon to find her brother, as a very last resort mind. It was his fault she was in London. He was the one that had sent Horrible Henry to harry her. If only Peter wasn’t so insufferable when he was painting—only his wife and his small daughter could stand him. Six months it had been now, and it seemed that she had just exchanged one set of stifling constrictions for another.
Agatha sidled further back behind one of the artistically-placed pot plants. The corridor at Hanover Square Rooms was draughty. Agatha shivered slightly. The plant poked her again on the shoulder, its razor sharp leaves leaving little dots on her arm. She imagined plucking one off and pushing it in the side of the next lady who compared her ordinariness to the beauty of Victoria.
She stilled her hands as they reached for the leaf. Ladies did not brandish knives. Henry had made that very clear. They also did not go for walks alone, ride horses astride or mix water with salt on the dining room table to discover how soluble it was despite Mrs. B.’s extensive coverage of the experiment. In fact mentioning Mrs. B. was now a very taboo subject in the house in Mount Street. Especially as it had taken several weeks for Victoria’s eyebrows to regrow.
She wrinkled her nose. It seemed that none of the things that she liked doing were compatible with living within sight of the beau monde. They were all considered[_ _]somewhat scandalous.
“Aggie, over here!” Victoria poked her head into the hall from the doorway to the large ballroom, the soft light accentuating her blonde hair and creamy skin. “Have you done it yet?”
Agatha shook her head and mouthed a no. She shooed Victoria away with her hands. Victoria left with a soft swish of her skirts and a giggle.
Pulling her wrap lightly round her, Agatha glanced up and down the empty hall, cursing the day that she had revealed more of the secrets of her childhood to Victoria in an effort to fill the boring hours that had been left behind after all their experimental activity had been curtailed. Perhaps she might _]have exaggerated some of them slightly. She had illicitly tasted whisky and, cigars, all in the name of science of course, and flirted with the footman because human biological interaction was science, [_wasn’t it?
And then she was beaten again and shut up in her room. But she hadn’t told Victoria that part.
Just as she hadn’t revealed everything. The fact that she could nearly hit a target with a throwing knife at ten paces. That she had practiced and practiced in secret because after the book on mechanical principles had been burned, she had been shut up in her room all day with nothing but a knife and potatoes to peel as an endless punishment. It had seemed a fitting way to put into practice something called centripetal force the book had mentioned. Agatha flexed her fingers again, gazing longingly at the sharp leaves. Hah. Lucky Henry didn’t know about that. [_You should have never come here, _]he’d said. Perhaps she shouldn’t, but then she’d had nowhere else to go.
Her body stilled as she saw the handsome man she was waiting for emerge from the door nearest the entrance hall. He straightened his cravat as he walked and pulled fastidiously at his breeches.
She wished she had left more time to visit the powder room. Agatha was pretty, she knew that, but she was not beautiful. Not a diamond of the first water. But Victoria was. They practiced dances together, endured dress fittings together, and when it came to the balls and musicales, conspiratorially sat together. The endless line of gentlemen who paid court to Victoria gallantly included Agatha in their attentions too. She had more dances that she would have done, but many less than Victoria achieved.
Mr. Charles Fashington had been one of Victoria’s court, although she did not accord him a dance very often. Two months into the season, he had deigned to ask Agatha to dance. Of course she had said yes with alacrity. One didn’t get the chance to dance often and there was no point in wasting the excellent Monsieur Bertrand’s tuition. Charles had also listened with a very interested ear to her discourse on science. Why he had even provided her with some of the material she had used to show the others some of the more interesting topics in Jane Marcet’s book. It was just too bad Henry had caught her. He never normally set foot in the ballroom.
Shrinking back into the cover of the leaves, she watched as Charles walked past. He was only a few years older than her and he danced beautifully. Whilst his lips turned down slightly at the edges, his face was handsome, with dashing hair and only slightly padded shoulders. Agatha knew that he was part of the same club as Henry, he had mentioned it himself.
Despite standing behind the pot plant in the cold hall, a warm flush travelled up her neck and reached Agatha’s ears. With a gasp, Agatha took off her wrap. Goodness, it really was rather warm. And she had had a rather brilliant idea.
Charles was going to help her fulfil Victoria’s request.
Victoria wanted to drink beautiful, bubbling champagne—not the watered down lemonade that she, Agatha and all the debutantes had to rely on. The current ball they were attending was being held in Hanover Square Rooms, a large recital hall in Mayfair. Hanover Square Rooms had only just been constructed and Lady Foxtone, the current hostess, was considered all the rage for having arranged her ball there. Her lemonade, however, was more watered down than most.
Agatha couldn’t refuse Victoria. Especially not after the stories that she had told to impress her. You are just her companion, her senses whispered to her. You don’t need to do this.
What would Henry think?
Agatha stepped out from the pot plant. She might be the lowly companion but Victoria didn’t treat her as such. She treated her as a friend, the first one Agatha had ever had, allowing her to prattle on about angles, diagrams, chemistry, and biology without once censuring her or cutting her off. Sometimes she might even make an insightful remark which could change Agatha’s thoughts. For that reason alone she would do anything for Victoria.
Sliding back into the ballroom, Agatha searched for Charles. He stood with his finely dressed friends against the outer edge of the ballroom, watching the whirling couples. Each of them sported waterfall designs to their cravats. He smiled as she approached, and, taking her hand, led her onto the dancefloor.
He really was rather perfect.
Feeling unusually light on her feet, Agatha floated around the ballroom in her dance slippers, her heavy boots a distant thought.
“You’ve been very quiet, Agatha,” Charles murmured as they whirled. “You haven’t answered me.”
“I asked if you would be going to the circus in Vauxhall Gardens in three nights’ time. We can watch the Grand Salvatore together.”
Interrupted in her plotting and the effort of counting dance steps, Agatha almost stumbled in surprise. She hadn’t been paying attention—Vauxhall Gardens—where the disreputable part of the ton caroused deep into the night? With Henry looking on, that wasn’t just somewhat scandalous. That was [_stupidly _]scandalous. As she frowned at him, he looked back down at her as they executed another quick step turn and laughed nervously.
“Just ribbing you my dear. After your joke about approaching the Royal Academy of Science last week I thought you might laugh. Everyone knows the Royal Academy doesn’t take women.”
[They didn’t? _]Agatha inhaled and went back to counting her steps. Henry had tried to warn her. _A novelty with scandalous ways. They’ll want to have fun with you.
Six… seven… as she reached the count of eight she stepped out of his arms, a step to the left, back into his arms and[_ twirl_].
Charles caught her neatly in his arms again. “I say. Couldn’t help admiring that marvelous new pair of greys Anglethorpe’s bought. Who did you say his dealer was?”
Aha. Appeal to his self-interest. Charles had asked several times about Darkangel, Henry’s race horse. Hmm. “I’m really not sure, but I could ask.” Smiling sweetly, she cocked her head on one side. “That is, if you would be so kind as to get me a lovely glass of champagne?” Pulling back, she executed, to her mind, the best quadrille she’d ever done.
Charles watched her with wide eyes, before taking her in his arms again. “Agatha m’dear,” he murmured. “No need for that. You should have just said. Go to the blue salon in fifteen minutes, the glass will be waiting for you there.”
As Agatha whirled to a stop, Charles bent over her gloved hand and kissed it as usual before giving her a long intent look, and striding purposefully towards the ballroom door. Agatha continued to hold her hand out, not sure what to do with it. The back of the glove was wet. Glancing up at the roof, she wondered disbelievingly if there was a leak. Perhaps the workmen hadn’t quite finished off the building yet. It was all rather new.
Grimacing, she bent and rubbed her hand along the part of her hem that skimmed the floor. Standing again, she gazed back through the crush and picked out Victoria’s long blond hair. Her friend started towards her with an uncustomary frown on her face. With a flick of her head, Agatha signaled to her to meet her by the curtained stage.
“Charles is going to get us a glass of champagne,” she said breathlessly as Victoria arrived. “Meet me in the blue salon in ten minutes.”
Victoria snapped open a fan and leaned forward, covering their faces. “Are you sure, Agatha? You don’t think Charles will tell anyone, do you?” Her frown deepened. “I’ve been hearing some things…”
“No, don’t worry at all,” Agatha broke in. “Charles acted like it was the most natural thing in the world. I know he won’t tell anyone either, I gave him quite an incentive.” Her scientific examination of male human nature had been extensive. After all, most of the household at Hope Sands had been male. “I must go. He told me to go to the blue salon five minutes ago.” Pushing back Victoria’s fan, Agatha edged towards the door. “Who are you dancing with next?”
“Lord Colchester.” Agatha winced. Lord Colchester was a man of advanced years whose only advantage was his immense wealth. Victoria tapped her fan on her skirts. “But what of…”
Victoria’s last words were lost in the crush as Agatha pushed through the door from the ballroom. Once outside, she stopped to look around. The hall was deserted yet again. Hurrying down the hallway, she didn’t even give her favorite pot plant a cursory glance. She did not want to be discovered—she only had a few moments to grab the glass of champagne and wait for Victoria.
The blue salon was located further down the long hall. In fact, it was further away than she had thought. She tried the doors to several rooms down the corridor but they were all locked and no lights shone beneath the doors. Each time she rattled the handles her heart thumped loudly in her ears.
The last door at the end of the hallway stood slightly ajar; the wallpaper that glinted through the crack was a deep azure blue. Gulping in relief, she peered through to see Charles standing by a deep window, a glass of champagne fizzing on a round table by the fire. Agatha drew back into the hall. What was he doing in there? He was meant to have left the champagne glass on the table, alone.
Henry walked through the dark streets to Granwich’s residence. The wind ruffled at his coat, and grabbed at his hat as he held it firmly on his head. If he hadn’t been intending to join Agatha and Victoria at Lady Foxtone’s ball later he wouldn’t have taken it with him.
Granwich lived in the unfashionable old town houses that surrounded Covent Garden, interspersed between tanners yards and factories. Paint flaked on the small nondescript door that gave onto a narrow hall. Henry was greeted by a dour butler who led him into an austere side room with bare walls and a desk behind which stood a comfortable chair. In front of the desk stood a three legged stool. Henry winced. He knew which one he would be sitting in.
“Sit down, Anglethorpe. Can I get you a drink?” Granwich moved to behind the desk and sank gracefully into the chair. His hand hovered over the decanter that sat beside him on the fireplace. The butler closed the door behind him with a discreet click.
“No, thank you.” Henry could feel his stomach rumbling. He had missed dinner. Cursing under his breath, he put a hand to his midriff. He did unreasonable things when he was hungry. Usually he carried a bag of nuts in his coat pocket, but Ames had taken away his normal attire to clean, having told him in no uncertain terms that a peer of the realm did not go about his business with a bloodied jacket for six months. No peer of the realm that had Ames as a valet anyway.
Henry looked at the stool’s sharp edges. “Do you mind if I stand?” It would keep his mind off his empty stomach. Hopefully.
Granwich fluttered his hands. “Of course not.” After pressing his hands together for a few moments he cleared his throat and shuffled some papers on the desk. “Three things, Anglethorpe. Firstly, how is your hunt for a bride coming along?”
Henry gazed levelly at Granwich. The lady he had intended for his bride had no idea that he was interested. In fact she seemed rather taken with someone else. “It’s coming along,” he said smoothly.
“Fine,” Granwich looked away to pour himself a glass from the decanter. “I am sure you have everything in hand. Secondly, have you found what your father was looking for?”
Henry drew in a quick breath. “No. What’s the third thing?”
Granwich coughed and glanced back at Henry. “Yes, thank you. We’ve heard some more mutters about someone or something called Monsieur Herr. Lovall’s had his ear to the ground at the docks. The taverns are full of it.”
“Monsieur Herr?” Henry leaned against the bare wall and crossed his legs comfortably. He could stand in that position for hours, when he wasn’t thinking about how hungry he was.
“Yes. We think that the Monsieur Herr is the French spy that I mentioned to you a while ago. Some of the chatter seems to indicate that the man is German, but young Lovall says that the balance of chatter says he’s probably French. Plus there’s been a spate of important British information falling into French hands in the last two months, most unfortunately.”
Henry straightened. Normally he managed to nip the spies in the bud before any information had been passed over. “Has Anthony got any more information?” Anthony Lovall was a master at discerning the fact from the fiction.
Granwich sighed. “No, unfortunately not.”
“I think I’ll take that drink.”
Granwich nodded and poured a small glass of brandy. The glass scraped on the rough wood of the desk as he pushed it towards Henry. Picking up the glass in one hand, Henry pushed the stool against the wall with his foot and sat, resting his back against the wall casement, rumpling his coat tails.
There were four aspects of espionage to his mind, targeting, collecting, analyzing and dissemination. Before he could start on the latter three, he needed to focus on the first—his target, their strengths, location, likely intentions and indeed, their capabilities.
“Hmm. What information has been passed?”
“That’s just it, it’s random; sometimes it’s little secrets, like the type of delicious cream bun they were serving in Hartley Place on a Tuesday,”
Henry raised his glass and studied the light as it curved through the brandy, his mouth watering as his stomach gurgled even louder than before. “Delicious cream bun?”
Granwich put out his hands and stretched. “Ahem. Yes. Belgian fancies apparently. A light cream center with jam on the top surrounding by a slightly salty dough…” He scratched at his head. “At least that is what I’m told.”
“And why is that dangerous?” Henry took a sip of the brandy. It did nothing to soothe his hunger.
“Blighter found the bakery that was supplying the war office and put a bottleful of laudanum in every cream bun they could find.”
“I didn’t hear of anyone being affected.”
“They weren’t. Somebody had requested that they served Danish pastries on that day instead.” Granwich coughed. “Can’t think who that person was. When we used to get the cakes from Lord Foxtone’s outfit we never had the same problems.” He studied his blank desk and rolled his shoulders. “The bakery was paid for the Belgian buns anyway so they gave them to the paupers in gin alley. Poor souls were out of their heads for days.”
“Good grief, if that had happened to the staff of the War Office—”
“—someone could have assassinated them, stolen the secrets, done something despicable right under our noses and no one would have been able to do anything about it.”
“What about the seemingly important pieces of information?”
“Fashington found a list of all the people that worked in the War Office. Yours, his, the new boy Lassiter, even my name was on it. It was a bloody list of targets. If they know who we are, they can get at us.”
Henry frowned. He’d prided himself on operating in the shadows. Outside of the war office no one knew that he worked for the crown. Whichever way he looked at it, the list of names and the Belgian buns, neither of the pieces of information tied together or gave him any more of a clue about the French spy.
He drained the glass of brandy and, leaning forward, pushed it back onto Granwich’s desk. “You called him Monsieur Herr. Mister in French, Mister in German. Why the double emphasis?”
“It was Earl Harding that chose it. Apparently it amused him. It was the last word at the end of the list that Charles gave us. Blue ink that had run slightly. But it very clearly said ‘ihn’ in German which means ‘him’ in English. We’ve no idea if it’s connected. But we went ahead and called the spy Mister Mister in German and French anyway, just to cover all bases.”
“That could be the spy’s mark.”
Granwich nodded. “Or it could be that it was the name of someone on the list that the spy was thinking about but he couldn’t remember his name. You know when you say oh him.” He drew in his chin. “I seem to be doing that a lot at the moment.”
“Where did Charles find the note?”
“Rather strangely, he said it was tucked into his clothes.” Granwich sniffed. “Bit of an unusual set up if you ask me, meticulously making a list of Crown people and then losing it in one of their pieces of clothing.”
“—no reason to doubt his loyalty. Strange cove but fairly cunning. Has found us some interesting stuff about the French until now. No whiff of scandal.”
Henry stood. The word scandal reminded him of the chaperoned Victoria and, more importantly, Agatha who, no matter what he said, always seemed to find some way to create an experiment that ended in a hoo haa. More fool him, he had let them loose for the first time since Lord Colthaven’s affair by themselves at Lady Foxtone’s ball with strict instructions to Agatha to not indulge in the scientific side of her nature.
“Be careful out there.” Granwich tapped on his desk. “I hear we are in for a storm tonight, with extremely high winds.”
Henry nodded. His stomach grumbled again. It was time to make sure that Victoria and Agatha were still in one piece, and more importantly, find some dinner.
Glancing up and down the deserted corridor, Agatha pushed open the door and crept in. Thank goodness Victoria was due any moment. If she and Charles were discovered together then her reputation would be ruined. For a brief second she gazed at the back of her hand and shook her head. She didn’t have much time.
“Charles,” she whispered. “You need to leave.”
Charles turned and looked Agatha up and down. His lips pouted, turning down at the edges, and his dark hair was swept back as though he had just been grooming himself in the mirror.
He took a step into the middle of the room. “I knew you were different, Agatha. I’ve just been waiting for you to acknowledge it.”
Agatha frowned and took a deep breath. The back of her hand itched. It was strange, the idea of Charles was actually rather better than the physical specimen. With quick steps she walked towards the rug in front of the fire and picked up the glass of champagne. Balancing the full flute in her hand, she turned slowly back towards the door to leave. Next to her, the fire blazed higher and higher, fueled by a packet of papers, their band of black ribbon falling out of the grate.
“Er, thank you, I think.” Agatha stepped carefully over the edge of the rug on the fire hearth. Goodness, to have come all this way and spilled a drop. She gasped as a hand closed tightly round her upper arm.
“I know that you don’t want a glass of champagne. I have seen the way you’ve looked at me, as if you want to devour me,” Charles whispered in her ear.
“Really?” Agatha tried to pull away, but she was locked immobile, her arm beginning to turn an alarming white. She really had miscalculated on this side of human nature. She’d never factored in looking at herself in any of her experiments.
Charles lowered his head and crushed his lips against Agatha’s. In shock she struggled, her arms flailing madly, the champagne she had so carefully carried flying across the room. With no warning, his right hand urgently ripped at her bodice, and, pulling away the ruffles, he grabbed at her chest, bruising her.
She could not scream, or turn her head, her lips suffocating under his marauding mouth. The champagne glass dropped from her numb fingers to the floor, the glass head breaking against the hearth with a tinkle. Wildly she tried to overbalance him, arching backwards. Seeing the broken champagne glass stem just behind her, she reached out with her free arm, and, grasping it, drew it back like a dagger.
But she didn’t have time to thrust it down. The door opened, the flames of the fire flaring higher as Henry strode into the room, pushing the low tables out of the way. Immediately Agatha fell limp in relief, the champagne stem falling to her side. She’d never call him Horrible Henry again, she’d find a far better name, Helpful Henry—no, that didn’t work, Hangelic Henry, good grief no…
She waited limply but Henry did not try to pull her out of Charles’ arms. He stopped, and folded his arms, a very strange twist to his lips. Agatha tried to pull herself back into an upright position but Charles held her in a vice-like grip.
She caught sight of herself in the oval mirror on the wall opposite and a cold shiver shot down her spine. Arched over backwards in a wanton position, her bodice was torn, and the curve of her breast welled up between the torn material. Her lips were puffy as if she had been thoroughly kissed, as if she had wanted to end up in this state. She shook her head rapidly from side to side.
“Lord Anglethorpe, I—”
Henry stared at her. “Stow it, Miss Beauregard. Everyone’s seen where this has been going.” He shook his head and, sighing, looked away into the fire. “Charles, I’ll expect you tomorrow morning to discuss settlements.”
“Now look here, old chap,” Charles stuttered, “I…” He stopped, taking in the formidable form of Henry. “You hussy,” he hissed at Agatha. “You’ve played me for a fool, but I’ll get you yet.”
What the goodness was he talking about? Charles’ hand that had gripped Agatha’s hand unclenched. She dropped to the floor, unsupported. Winded of breath, she clutched at her dress and gazed unseeingly into the grate. The packet of letters continued to blaze in the flames, quickly turning into ash, the last scrap of writing caught in the iron tongue of the grate. Agatha stared at the writing and winced.
“I don’t need jokes, I need help,” she muttered.
A gasp broke through her distress. Lady Foxtone, the hostess of the ball, leaned against the door entrance; her hand flapped wildly in front of her face.
Woken from her momentary stupor, Agatha clutched her bodice to her bare breast and tried to stand. Charles gave her a disgusted look and marched out of the salon.
Henry ran a hand through his hair. “Agatha, I…” He stopped and clenched his fists. “Enough,” he said quietly and followed Charles to the door.
Lady Foxtone stopped fanning her face abruptly and stalked towards her, her sumptuous dress whispering against the furniture.
“Leave here, you wanton harlot.” The woman glared at her with disdain as she breathed heavily through her nose. “This is my ball, my event, and you have just ruined it with your activities.” Her voice rose in a scream. “Get out, get out…”
Gathering her ripped dress to her body, Agatha stumbled to the hallway. Lady Foxtone’s screams had attracted the attention of some of the dancers, who stepped into the corridor in groups of two or three.
Charles put out a hand to Lady Foxtone, who pushed out of the room past Agatha. “I’m terribly sorry my lady.” She stared at him, her collarbone raised and stark against the whiteness of her chest. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Enough, Fashington.” Lady Foxtone breathed heavily and then relaxed, the cords of her neck disappearing. With a mercurial smile, she lifted her skirts slightly and swept down the corridor. “Nothing to see here,” she said evenly. “I thought I saw a mouse.” She laughed gaily and made a moue to the interested crowd, turning slowly to look at Agatha. “How silly of me to try and tell it to leave.” With one last glance backwards over Agatha’s shoulder and with a push of her hands, she urged the laughing ladies and gentlemen back into the ballroom.
“I’ll get your wrap.” Henry disappeared back into the blue room.
Agatha pulled at the silken material that had slipped to her waist. “But I…”
Henry reappeared within seconds. “I couldn’t find it.” He pulled his hand out of his coat, drawing out a pocket watch, studied it briefly and then shook his head. With a furious shrug of his shoulders, he removed his jacket and pushed the watch into his waistcoat. “Take my coat.” Henry pushed his crumpled coat tails around Agatha with rough fingers. “And get moving.”
On shaking legs, Agatha hurried down the corridor, tears clouding her eyes. Not even the familiar smell of soap and spicy smoke comforted her. If anything it made her feel even more alone.
Sitting silently in the rocking carriage that took her back to Mount Street, she clenched her hands. The wind buffeted the carriage, causing it to veer from side to side. It was too dark to see and count the velvet strands on the seat in front of her. Even if she could have seen them she knew that she would have been unable to concentrate, her desperation too far gone to have found the activity soothing. Henry had warned her her behavior would land her in hot water. What had she called it? Stupidly scandalous. Goodness she was a fool. Where had she gone so badly wrong?
Slumping, she shivered in the cool air that whistled through the carriage. She would agree with anyone that listened that she had been flattered by Charles’ attention. Her head had been turned slightly by the man, blown her off her scientific stride. She should have remembered her conclusions. The way in which he had taken advantage of her, the way in which he had forced her to kiss him, had shown him for the disgusting man he really was. It had dropped her estimation of him back neatly into the set of despicable male specimens she’d encountered over the years.
Shuddering with revulsion, Agatha shook her head. When it came to love and making love, she was still a novice. Any man who pushed her to the brink and took only what he wanted would not be the man for her.
Victoria chattered incessantly in the other corner of the carriage to cover up the silence, but Agatha didn’t care, shivers racking her body more and more frequently. Henry should have protected her, as both her brother’s friend, and as her friend’s brother. In fact he had thrown her to the wolves, hah. What else did she expect? Heartless Henry.
The house was ablaze was light as they drew up outside. Henry cursed audibly and stepped out of the carriage, and then stopped as his hat blew from his head. Bending sideways, he pointed upwards.
“It’s gone!” he shouted.
Agatha shook her head and descended from the carriage, catching onto it as the vehicle veered sideways in the high winds. Small branches hurtled past her, leaves sticking in her hair. She gasped as she forced her head upwards. The huge hornbeam in the back garden had fallen in the wind, crashing down against the roof, crushing the timbers.
“My house!” Henry pressed a hand hard to his forehead and ran a hand through his hair before noticing Agatha teetering at the edge of the carriage. With a curse, he caught at her waist and put a hand out for Victoria. “We are safer inside.”
The wind howled for many hours. After a sleepless night, Agatha watched from her window as Charles appeared the next morning at the house in Mount Street, his cravat askew, clearly wearing the clothes in which he had attended the ball. Even his walk was unsteady, his handsome face the color of paste. It was hard to remember what she had seen in him. She shrank back from the bedroom window as he wove his way up the smart steps to the stucco-fronted house. For a moment he stared upwards at the roof and grinned. As the door opened to let him inside, she turned and sat on her bed, her stomach churning.
Work on the roof had started early that morning. Men with huge saws had woken her with their shouts, treating the poor hornbeam in sections, pulling it away from the mansion and dropping it in the garden from where dray horses pulled the magnificent trunk through the stables and out onto the back street. Only the stump of the tree was left.
The conversation between Charles and Henry seemed to last forever. In fact she didn’t even see Charles. All she saw was a disheveled behind falling into a hack. She had been too preoccupied with the contents of her stomach and studying the incongruous rose buds that lined the edges of her empty, but ready, chamber pot. On another day she might have consulted Mrs. B. on how they put together the bright hues of the paint, or glazed the porcelain to a sheen, but today all she could do was hold her midriff and wait for the sickness in her stomach to subside. Besides, Conversations on Science had been relegated to Henry’s study. She’d seen its leather spine high up upon the book lined shelves of the dark room.
Luncheon was awful. Henry didn’t say a word about the meeting, and she still felt heartily sick. He sat at the end of the table like an idol in a dark forbidding tomb holding Agatha’s future in his hands. Numbly, she felt his gaze on her once or twice like lead.
Victoria prodded her with a spoon. “Charles does seem to be something high up in government, Aggie, and so I expect you’ll attend all sorts of really exciting foreign meetings and diplomat’s balls.” She took a sip of her soup. “I hear all of the prince and princesses attend them, even if they don’t come to the society ones.”
Agatha sighed. Victoria only knew that Aggie had been caught in a compromising position with Charles, not that the man had forced her. With no support from Henry, Agatha felt too ashamed to set her right.
“And of course he is the direct heir to the Fashington estate. I hear that the current Lord Fashington is childless and very rich. And he likes discussing science with you.”
“Enough, Victoria.” Henry put down his own spoon with a clatter. Victoria turned to face him, her mouth open in an o.
“I was just trying to make Aggie feel better. She doesn’t seem happy about what has happened.”
Aggie could have squeezed her friend then. But she couldn’t very well tell her that Charles had probably just humored her with the discussions of scientific principles in order to take advantage of her. He’d landed her as easily as a hungry flounder.
Henry’s forbidding countenance remained stony. “If you have finished, Victoria, please leave. I need to speak to Miss Beauregard alone.”
Victoria glanced quickly at her half full bowl of soup and stood up with a swoosh of her skirts, squeezing Agatha’s shoulder as she passed her chair. Agatha grasped her hand and wished that Victoria would take her with her.
Henry stood, putting his hands behind his back. He turned and studied a painting of two horses galloping that hung on the back wall of the dining room. All Agatha could see of him were two broad shoulders and the bright blond hair curling at the nape of his neck.
“As your guardian in your brother’s absence, I have accepted the offer from Charles Fashington on your behalf. You will be married next week in St Martin’s church in a small ceremony.”
He stopped. Agatha flattened her hands against the table, as she gasped for air.
“I have even, out of my own pocket, provided you with a dowry.”
A dowry. Agatha bowed her head, a great weight pressing against her chest. She was sure she detected a sneer in the voice that bounced off the back of the dining room wall towards her seat. He was paying Fashington to take her off his hands.
“Why do I have to marry him?” Agatha put a hand to her heart, unable to contain herself any longer. “He forced me, you saw that.”
Henry turned slowly on the heel of his boot and gazed back at her, his eyes on her hands. “I’m sorry, Agatha, but I saw no such thing.” He flicked his gaze up to her face. “What I have seen is a reckless individual who has been leading Fashington around by the nose for the last few balls. She has been caught in a compromising position with no thought for her place in society. I even told you before you left for the ball, no experiments.”
Agatha gripped at her bodice, her heart hammering against her chest. She couldn’t break his gaze. She hadn’t been experimenting, she’d made every effort not to; in fact she hadn’t breathed a word of physics, chemistry or biology all of that night, the effort almost killing her.
He raised an eyebrow at her continued silence and put his hands on the back of one of the dining chairs. “Moreover, until the wedding, you are forbidden to leave the house, or go to any more balls, and definitely no more science. Your reputation must remain unimpeachable until you are married.”
Letting go of her bodice, Agatha put her hands to her face. Heat poured through her cheeks.
“Did you hear me, Agatha?”
“Yes, Lord Anglethorpe.”
Lifting his white knuckles from the back of the dining chair, Henry strode from the dining room without a backward glance, banging the door as he left. The interview had taken ten minutes. To Agatha it seemed like a lifetime. Even the servants had sensed the atmosphere and had not come to clear away the lunch. She pressed her hands more fiercely against her cheeks and let out a sob. There had to be a way to escape this mess; she had endured much worse. Whatever it took, she would be free. She shivered again. Free to do what she wanted again, but still, it seemed, very much alone.
The Cheshire Cheese contained only a handful of drinkers, hardened individuals that huddled with their individual pints in the dark corners. Soon the lunch rush would descend on the long thin public house on the Strand, as the workers up and down the road sought out relief from their dark offices.
Henry took the tankard that Ames offered him and took a slow sip. It was just as potent as he remembered and smelled of fermented cabbages. Thank goodness he didn’t have to drink the disgusting brew—it was only there for show.
Ames took a large draught from his own drink and set it down on the table with a thump, wiping the foam from his mouth with the back of his stained sleeve.
“Ah, tis a proper ale the Cheesy Blackfoot and no mistake.”
“It’s a foul drink, Ames. I don’t know why you like it so much.”
Ames frowned and fiddled with the handle of his tankard. “Did you have breakfast, my lord?” he asked in a low voice. He looked round the pub as if afraid for its inhabitants.
Ames sighed in obvious relief. “It’s just that over the last few days you’ve been missing your meals and ahem, it has been rather noticeable.”
“She was compromised, Ames. She wanted it. I saw her with my own eyes.” How could he forget the prominent bruised rose bud of her lips, the glazed stare of her eyes as she hung wantonly in Charles’ arms? That was how she could have looked in [_his _]arms, not with that… individual.
“You could have done it differently. Poor girl has been moping about the house for days. She doesn’t want to be with Fashington.”
“Of course she does. I told Agatha in no uncertain terms not to bring my family into disrepute. She was running wild. Anyway, you can hardly call it a house at the moment. That bloody tree’s taken out half the roof.”
“Hmm. When does the stump come out?”
“Tomorrow. Jaquard the gardener is removing it.”
“Jaquard as in ‘organizer of fireworks at Green Park’ Jaquard?”
“That should be explosive.”
“Hmm.” Henry stared into his tankard. The foam had died away on top of the ale, leaving a greasy soupy mixture behind. Covering his shudder with a straightening of his shoulders, he brought the tankard to his lips and, rasping his tongue against the top of his dry mouth, forced his Adam’s apple to swallow without letting the liquid past his lips. The uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu descended on his shoulders.
He’d sat in the Cheshire Cheese with his father at the age of sixteen on one of their trips up from Devon, a pint of Cheesy Blackfoot in front of him.
“You will look after her, won’t you?” his father had said. “Victoria promises to be a beautiful young woman. She will make a fine match for a man one day.”
He’d nodded, barely paying attention, and gulped at his beer. After all, at that age, you expect your parents to live forever.
Only his hadn’t; his father was found in St Giles, his face barely recognizable, peppered with gunshot. His mother died a year later of a broken heart, and broken spirit.
It was whispered that one of his lovers had put the previous Lord Anglethorpe out of his misery. Henry and his mother had been given the cut direct.
Henry eyed his tankard and took a sip this time. It still tasted disgusting. In truth the real reason why he worked for Granwich wasn’t that he had a natural talent for spying. It was because of what Granwich had told him six years later. That his father had worked for the Crown and had been hunting a special object when he died. He hadn’t had a single mistress in the time that he had been married to his mother.
But still, he would not have Victoria’s name drawn through the mud because of Agatha. He’d protected Victoria from the furor before. And he would do it again. Perhaps it was good that Charles had compromised Agatha before he had had a chance to speak to her.
“I took that scrap of paper you gave me to a chap at the German embassy.”
“He agreed that it said ‘ihn’ in German.”
p. “We already knew that. Same as the others that Granwich has.”
“Yes, but he pointed out that it was strange that whilst both the ‘I’ and the ‘H’ were capitalized, the ‘n’ was in lower case. Germans may have a rather strange sentence structure compared to English, but they are very precise as a nationality. They certainly do not mix up capital and lower case letters.”
“Yes they do. They use capitals for all their nouns. Bloody strange.”
“Well he was most vehement that they don’t use two capitals in the middle of one word.”
Henry sighed. As with the information that Granwich had given him and that he had already gathered, none of it made sense.
“I’d like it back please.”
Ames reached into the pocket of his coat and slid his hand face down across the table. Curling his arm round his pint, Henry picked up the scrap of paper that Ames left behind his tankard. The edges of the paper had begun to flake where fire had charred at the edges, frustratingly small parts of words visible around the confusing signature.
I H Π
Carefully keeping it steady on the table, Henry flicked open his pocket watch and slid the paper in under the lid.
“I want you to keep an eye on her.”
Ames stopped drinking and put down his tankard. “I thought Monsieur Herr was a male spy, sir?”
Henry winced and tapped at his ear. “It’s Monsieur Herr, Ames, not Monsewer Hair.”
“Monser Here,” Ames obligingly repeated.
“As in, valet is not said valette, but rather valet.”
“Oh, I know all about [valeying, _]my lord[._]”
Henry sighed. Thank goodness Ames had never needed to disguise himself as a French man. He did rather well as a down at heel Londoner, a downtrodden valet. Hmm. He rubbed his chin. In fact Ames did rather well at anything with the word down in.
Ames gave him a grin and tipped his tankard back one last time.
“So you want me to look after Miss Aggie.”
“Not precisely look after Miss Beauregard, rather continue to watch her movements. She has a habit of doing somewhat unpredictable things.”
“Not unlike you,” Ames muttered. Henry pretended not to hear.
“She never does what she’s told…”
“And in fact she’s a bit of a baggage,” Ames broke in. “Yes, I know the refrain.”
“Ames, you are my valet.”
Ames tipped his head on one side. “Valet’s don’t drag hungry men out of hovels in Wales and then clean up the mess after them.”
“That man threatened to kill King George.”
“Hawk,” Ames sighed. “What you did to him was very different to the others. Normally we put them on the first boat for deportation.”
“He said he had killed my father too.”
Ames looked away at the bar whilst Henry stared down at his still full tankard of ale. “Did he tell you what your father was looking for?”
“No. He came at me before I could get an answer from him. My finger twitched on the pistol.” Henry could still smell the smoke, the flash in the pan as the small gun had fired. He scratched at his eyelid. “It was quite fitting, though. I got him in the head, just like my father.”
“Don’t I just know it. I spent ages cleaning up whilst you had yourself a three bird roast.”
It had been one of the most satisfying lunches Henry had ever had. In complete contrast to the one where he had told Agatha he had accepted Charles’ offer for her hand. He drew a hand tiredly across his face. He hadn’t been sleeping properly. He’d hoped that Agatha would be grateful that he had provided her with a dowry, that he’d secured the offer for her, as much as it had hurt him to do it.
He hadn’t been able to bear the sobs that followed his exit from the room.
There was no way out. Agatha took a sip of tea and dropped her head back against the smooth cotton of her chair. Three torturous days that Agatha couldn’t even remember spent roaming the house in Mount Street contributed nothing to getting her out of the fix that she was in. Every reason she thought of, every action she could implement, only led her further into trouble.
The only interesting thing to happen was the removal of the hornbeam tree stump. That had been most illuminating. Agatha had spent a good half an hour speaking to the gardener. He seemed most knowledgeable about the disinterment of the tree stump and other matters. She was indeed extremely impressed with the amount of gunpowder he had laid his hands on to remove the old wood.
It had made quite a bang.
But that was two days ago and nothing had happened since. Even the rich hues of the third best drawing room that she sat in couldn’t break her melancholy. The room was at the side of the house, masculinely decorated in greens and reds.
Wishing she had her boots on so that she could kick her chair round, Agatha crouched slightly and, with little shuffle steps, pushed the low chair round with her hips so that she could look out into the small garden outside the window. A patio led down to the garden wall beyond which a large crater marked the old site of the hornbeam. As it was still only March, only a carpet of snowdrops bloomed with a blaze of daffodils in the borders. The grass of the lawn lay flat and uneven, and the terracotta planters bristled with dry straw colored sticks.
Reaching into her skirts, Agatha drew out her notebook and a pencil, leaving her potato knife in her pocket. If she couldn’t do any experiments, then at least she could write about doing them. Hmm. Jaquard had said that bamboo was what the Chinese had first used to create fire sticks by filling them with gunpowder. And then some ingenious person had stuffed a rag down the bamboo, and turned the momentum and pressure into a rocket. Agatha scribbled at the pages. Of course it was the pressure that really caused the explosive nature of gunpowder, with a metal box one could create a bomb. Mrs. B. went into quite some detail about its percussive nature. Agatha shuddered. How very destructive. But as Jaquard had said, with different colored metals that burnt with the gunpowder one could create some very pretty fireworks.
Gosh, he had been so knowledgeable. What if one used paper instead of metal? Would that still create as much of a bang?
The new position of the chair threw more heat from the fire onto her body. As she warmed, Agatha fell unwillingly asleep, waking with a start to a light tapping on the glass. Her notebook and pencil fell to the ground with a whisper.
If only she had not woken up. Charles pressed against the corner of the window, a daffodil in one hand, urgently waving at her, pointing at the window handle. Gasping, Agatha stood abruptly and took a step away from the window. Charles shook his head and tapped vigorously on the window.
She needed to leave. Henry would disapprove of a clandestine meeting. God knows what he would do if he discovered her with Charles again. By Morgan’s marbles, even she didn’t want to meet with Charles again.
But he was the only angle of escape that she hadn’t considered in this terrible ordeal.
With shaking fingers she opened the terrace door and stepped out, shivering in the cooler air. A grey dampness hung heavy in the sky. Charles looked a little better than when she last saw him, but not much, given that she had only seen the crumpled stockings of his legs as he dived into the carriage in an effort to get away from Mount Street. He stared at her, eyes wide, flicking side to side, a pinched look to his cheeks.
“Now look here, Agatha,” he started, clutching the daffodil from hand to hand. “I wanted to speak to you.”
“I’m here.” She’d see what he had to say first.
“Yes, look. I can’t marry you.”
Agatha stepped back slightly halfway into the protection of the house. She hadn’t expected that. She breathed out lightly through her nose. Perhaps she was saved.
“I love somebody else. But I can’t be with her at the moment.”
There was someone else? Agatha consciously pushed her hands back down to her sides as they rose involuntarily. She wanted to throttle him. There was someone else and he had still got her into this mess?
The hunted look grew fiercer in Fashington’s eye. “So I thought, how about if you jilted me, and said it was because you found out something, for example, I had another woman, and then waited till next year to come back to society and…”
“I jilt you?” Agatha’s mouth dropped open. Hastily she shut it again. “But you are the one who put me in this position! If I jilt you then no one will ever want to marry me.” Actually, that sounded like a rather a nice idea. She opened her mouth and closed it again. No. There was no way Henry would allow her to do that anyway.
“Please Aggie? For me?” Charles raised thin lips into a smile that a crocodile would have been proud of. “My honor is everything. If I break off the engagement I will no longer be accepted in polite circles. It is vital to my work for my err… secret work.”
Why hadn’t she noticed how yellow his teeth were until now? Swallowing, she wrapped her arms around her body. “I… I’ll think on it.”
Charles reached out towards her. Horrified at what might happen next, Agatha stumbled back through the terrace door and shut it firmly. The white moon of his face turned menacingly towards her through an imperfection in the window glass. Indistinctly his lips moved. Agatha could not, did not want to hear what he was saying. She thrust her hand into her pocket below her day dress, grasping the potato knife. Immediately it gave her comfort. Speaking to Charles had achieved nothing, but she had to consider what he had said. There was no way she could marry him. Bloody hell, those yellow crocodile teeth, the octopus hands that had roamed everywhere over her body and that that sly smile… he terrified her.
Hurrying her steps, Agatha darted into the hall. She needed to leave the house before Charles was admitted at the front door to plead his case further. Whilst the day was grey, it was still warmish. If she asked for her coat from the butler then the family would be alerted to her leaving, which was against Henry’s orders. Or at the very least they would ask her to take a maid wherever she went, and then they would still know where she was.
Shrugging her shoulders further into her wrap, Agatha skirted the hall table and determinedly opened the large black front door. Charles still hadn’t made it to the front of the house. Pulling her pelisse out of the jumble of household belongings on the hall table, she grabbed it by its strings and in one motion was out onto the front doorstep. The road was quiet, the cobbles gleaming in the March wetness. Standing above the pavement, Agatha was able to see down the road; no Charles in sight.
“Hoi there! Miss Beauregard! I kept my bargain. Who is Anglethorpe’s horse dealer?” Charles appeared at the gap between the two villas, his clothing askew. He clutched at the solid railings that fenced off the back gardens and cursed.
Agatha froze. He still wanted to know despite everything? She lurched towards the steps.
“Where the hell?” Charles climbed over the railings to the next door house, his knees caked in mud. “Where do you think you are going?”
Agatha froze as Charles managed to negotiate the pointed spikes of the railings and dropped heavily to the pavement. The large black door clicked shut behind her. She was trapped; the only escape route was out onto the pavement and down onto the street. Perhaps she should wait for him. One last look at his form decided her, his jaw was set, and his arms drawn forward in lethal fists. This was the man that had forced her over his knee, a violent, uncontrollable man that she was to marry, a madman even, and one she had very much underestimated.
Tucking her pelisse under her arm, she scurried down the steps. Without looking at Charles again, she lengthened her stride and ran down the pavement.
Great thundering steps behind her pushed her to increase her pace. Her hair whipped in her face as she stumbled forward. The pounding grew closer; there was no way that she would be able to outrun the outraged man.
A cab for hire stopped next to her, the door opening to let out a well-dressed gentleman. As he discussed his fare with the cab driver, Agatha hitched up her skirts and pulled herself into the cab, kicking the door shut with her foot.
“Oh I say. Don’t you know this cab is already for hire?” A lady’s skirts rustled in the shadows, glimpses of sumptuous red catching the sunlight. The lady leaned forward to reveal a beautiful face. “You’re interrupting my business meeting.”
Business meeting? In a hansom cab? Agatha took in the décolletage of the lady. Ah. One of those business meetings. “I’m hiding from someone.”
“You should have said.” The woman sat back into the shadows.
Charles’ shouts at the hansom driver and his fare were as audible as if Agatha was stood outside. “Let me in, do you hear? That’s my fiancée. You are stopping me rescuing my intended wife.”
“Hmm. Intended wife?” The lady laughed softly, the sensual purring of her voice interlacing her mocking tones.
“Um.” Agatha stared at the other door to the carriage.
“He’ll be waiting for that.” Indeed the sound of Charles’ voice had petered away.
The woman laughed. “Janson will hold him off for a moment. Go through the floor.”
Agatha stared at the rough rug that covered the expanse between the seats. What was she talking about?
The lady sat forward again. “Far better to go down.” She pointed to the floor. Pushing at the small rug with her feet, she revealed the sharp relief outlines of a trapdoor. “That’s why I always do business in Finch’s cab. You never know quite who you might meet.”
“I’m not sure where to go next.”
The woman stared at her. “Don’t worry about next, worry about now.”
It was good advice. Dropping to her knees, Agatha tucked her pelisse under her arm and hauled at the carpet. As it came up smoothly, the red dressed lady took hold of its edges and tapped Agatha on the shoulder. She smiled sweetly.
“I do hope we meet again.”
Agatha took in a deep breath and shook her head. Pushing her skirts between her legs, she pulled back the trapdoor with her free hand and swung her legs over the hole. She had just let go with her fingers, as the trapdoor fell above her, trapping her between the wheels of the carriage.
“I know she’s in here.” Agatha froze as Charles’ voice emanated from inside the cab above her. “Where are you hiding her, Celine?”
“Oh. Hello, Charles. I didn’t realize you were outside. Fancy meeting you in circumstances such as this.”
“Goddamnit Celine, where is she?”
“I’ve no idea. There hasn’t been anyone in this carriage apart from me and my… passenger.”
“Client, you mean.”
“You could call him that.”
As Celine kept Charles busy, Agatha squeezed under the back of the cab. The horses of the carriage behind her reared as she appeared suddenly. Cursing, she started to run again.
The streets of Mayfair were similarly deserted to Mount Street; it had only been luck that Celine’s carriage had passed. It was an unfashionable hour to be up and out. Turning left and then right down narrow cobbled lanes, Agatha clutched at her pelisse and gasped at the air.
As the streets became more populated, she began to slow, drawing at the air with larger and larger gulps. She could not go back to the house, for Charles would be waiting for her to come back. And she could not approach Henry, for he would have no sympathy for her; the mere physical act of her being outside of the house without a maid would send him into a towering rage, never mind that Charles was chasing after her. He just didn’t seem to want to listen.
Agatha stopped and leant against a small iron bench. Had she run far enough? If she hadn’t, she still wouldn’t escape his clutches. Breathing heavily, she pushed away from the cold surface of the bench and began to walk.
After an hour Agatha was spent. All the emotion had drained from her in the physical exertion of just walking. She had negotiated the streets, without really being aware of where she was going. She recognized finally the tall clock tower of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament beyond.
She walked towards the large buildings, searching for a cab to take her back to Mayfair. She wished tiredly for her sturdy boots that could carry her all day without pinching compared to the small graceful half boots that Madame Dupont had given her.
A small crowd had gathered in Parliament Square surrounding a group of gaily decorated individuals. In front of a temporary band stand a large banner waved in the slight breeze emblazoned with the script, ‘Pablo Moreno’s Grand Travelling Museum—exhibitions nightly in Vauxhall Gardens!” As one of the men started to juggle, she remembered she had seen them before as she had travelled into London that first time with Henry. It felt like a lifetime ago. Vauxhall Gardens was only over the river from where she stood.
Suddenly Agatha felt a tug on her pelisse. She gasped as the familiar weight of it dropped away, leaving just a pair of silken strings in her hand. Agatha clutched forwards as a woman, scissors in hand, smiled at her and thrust her hands behind her back.
The thief was not quick enough to disguise the pelisse in her hands, the very distinctive, brocade pelisse belonging to Victoria, not to Agatha. In horror, Agatha tried to reach out and grasp at the woman again, her breath falling in short sharp pants. She must have pulled at the wrong silk loop on the hall table in Mount Street, and to make matters worse, Victoria’s pelisse was normally full of sovereigns.
She was too late; the woman ran away from her, a brightly colored scarf around her neck trailing in the wind as she scuttled between the railings.
Agatha was desperate. If she did not recover the pelisse, she would need to pay Victoria back the money. That would leave her with no money in the world, and the sure discovery by Henry that Agatha had left the house all by herself. She had no choice but to run after the woman. Pulling up her skirts, Agatha broke into a run, darting on and off the pavements as she followed the flying figure. Beneath her skirts, her notebook, knife, and stub of a pencil bounced repetitively against her thighs.
The woman ran back towards the center of Parliament Square, towards the crowds. People began to stare, but no one helped her. As soon as the woman reached the group of acrobats who stood near the bandstand, Agatha knew that she would lose her.
As the woman reached the edges of the acrobats, she began to slow. Ah. Then this was where she belonged. Darting to the right, Agatha ran up the short steps of the bandstand and stopped inside, holding her hand to her chest and straining for quiet breaths. Falling to her knees on the rough floorboards, she tucked her skirts underneath her, uncaring of the dirt, and crawled to the other side where ornate railings covered the side of the platform.
She was right. The woman stood, darting sharp looks over her shoulder as she loitered uncertainly. But despite being obviously comfortable in the setting, the acrobats did not welcome her into their circle, even forming a tighter ring as she approached. Backing away from the unfriendly circus act, the woman came nearer to the bandstand, her only way forward narrowing to the path past the bandstand stage.
Falling full length to the floor, Agatha pulled herself to the ornate railings. Thank god no one was interested in the bandstand with the performers outside. As the woman picked up speed, she narrowed her eyes and then, with one rapid movement, pushed her arm through a hole in the railing and winced as the momentum of the woman’s movement propelled her soft stomach straight into Agatha’s rigid arm. Doubling over, the woman didn’t scream, the full amount of air in her lungs knocked out of her. Good. Just as Agatha had surmised. Pulling her aching arm back through the ornate railings, Agatha scurried down the steps. She would really have to devote a bit more time later to the mechanics of blunt forces on the human body. She was building up a rather large collection of experience, what with hitting Henry on the head and now this woman…
The woman moaned, still doubled over, her clutching hands dropping the stolen pelisse to the floor. Collecting herself, Agatha pounced on the bag, swiping it from the ground.
But she was too late. As she reached to scoop up the pelisse, a large boot came down on her fingers and held them there on top of the heavy bag, the pressure insistent. Twisting against her trapped arm, she gasped at the air.
“What do we have here, then?” Agatha stopped flailing and trying to control her breathing, looked up from her prone position on the floor. A large bear of a man dressed in a red coat and outsize black top hat loomed above her, connected by a stout leg to the boot that pressed firmly into Agatha’s hand.
The doubled over woman stood slightly and pulled at her scarf, whining, “This woman was stealing from me, Pablo! She wanted me earnings.”
Pablo lifted his foot slightly, but before Agatha could lift the pelisse up, deft hands had swiped the bag away.
Pablo lifted his foot entirely. “I don’t believe you, Nathalia,” he said flatly, helping Agatha to her feet with a large hand.
“Here, Pa, there are twenty gold sovereigns in ’ere!” A grinning young man that Agatha had seen as part of the acrobats held up the pelisse.
Pablo sighed. “And I don’t believe that I have ever paid you twenty gold sovereigns, Nathalia.”
“But Pablo,” Nathalia whined, pulling at her scarf, “she punched me.”
“Through the bandstand?”
“I don’t know[_ how,_] she just did it!”
Pablo, Pablo Moreno, Agatha had surmised by now, grunted. “You lie, you steal and it interferes with my other activities. As if I don’t have enough problems at the moment with the circus itself without you stealing from the Quality.” He paused and stared at Agatha. “How did you stop her?”
Agatha bit her lip. [_Don’t ever speak about mathematical principles in polite company unless asked, _]Henry had said. Was Pablo polite company? Had he asked? “Err, I measured how fast err, Nathalia was walking by the amount of steps she took per second, calculated the impact of a rigid object on a semi tensile travelling figure and err. Stuck my fist out at the softest part of her body—” She ruffled in her pocket for her pencil. It was normally easier to demonstrate on paper.
Pablo’s mouth dropped open. “What did you say your name was again?” His hand edged forward with the pelisse.
Agatha withdrew her hand from her pocket and reached out. “I didn’t. I’m Miss Agatha Beauregard and I’m very grateful you are returning my property to—”
Pablo swung the bag away. “Agatha Beauregard?”
Agatha frowned. That’s what she had said.
A sinking feeling pulled down her shoulders as Pablo handed the bag to the young acrobat who looked remarkably like him. Pablo roared with laughter. “Manna from heaven,” he shouted. “I’m saved.”
Nathalia and Agatha stared at him.
With a choke, Pablo put a hand to his chest, stifling his roars. “Look at that tabard over there. Do you see what it says?”
‘Pablo Moreno’s Grand Travelling Museum’ was inscribed on the sign in small words, followed by ‘THE GRAND SALVATORE’. Agatha blinked.
“Read on,” said the big man impatiently. “I paid a lot for that sign.”
“Come and watch the greatest knife thrower of all time.” Agatha’s tongue rasped against her dry mouth as she spoke. “I don’t see what this has to do with me.”
Pablo nudged her. “There’s more.”
“Watch as the Grand Salvatore, dressed in gold, throws knives at his able assistant Nathalia.”
“That’s what you are going to do for me tonight if you want to get your pelisse back.”
“Oh no no no, Mr. Moreno. You can’t! She doesn’t even know how to throw knives.” Nathalia thrust her arms out at Pablo in a beseeching gesture.
“I most definitely can’t—”
“It doesn’t matter that you can’t throw them.”
Agatha frowned. That was not what she was going to say. She was going to mention that she had a prior engagement that night from which she would be missed. A musicale, in fact, that Victoria wanted her to go to.
“All will become apparent when you perform.” Pablo stared at her, a hard look in his eyes.
“Mister Moreno! This is my life you are endangering.” Nathalia’s pleading became a screech.
The large man paid no attention.
“Bertino will be fine, Mister Moreno, it’s just a cough that he has. He will be ready tonight.” Nathalia fell to her knees. Agatha nodded vigorously. She assumed Bertino was the knife thrower.
“Pa,” the young acrobat said urgently. “Fanny has sent for the doctor. She says that Bertino has thrown up, can’t stand up and can’t even see properly.”
With a groan, Nathalia fell to the ground in a faint.
Agatha stared down at the ground. With the knife thrower out of action there was no escape for her.
“Oh dear.” She gasped as darkness appeared at the edges of her vision.
“Nathalia, Pedro? Go away.”
Pedro nodded at Pablo and walked away slowly with unnaturally high steps. Nathalia stuttered. “I, err. Pablo please.”
“I don’t know why I don’t get rid of you,” Pablo muttered. “Go away, Nathalia.”
Agatha shivered. Pablo seemed to be the man to whom ‘get rid of’ had rather permanent connotations.
He turned to her and brought his face down close to hers. “You know, the main reason why so many of the ton were coming tonight and have bought advanced tickets is to see the Grand Salvatore.” His voice sank to a low and deadly whisper. “The grand gentlemen with their obsession for shooting and danger are agog to see the precision throwing of the knife grandmaster. That man is even now lying in his wagon putting me severely out of pocket. If I have to refund the tickets, I will have to disband the circus.”
He didn’t need to tell her his livelihood depended upon her. She was already terrified enough. “You’ll have to refund them anyway if I miss,” she quavered, but Pablo shook his head.
“But then I had a job to do this evening that was also going to get me a lot of money.” He stared at her, perspiration beading his brow. “Perhaps I can [_kill _]two birds with one stone.”
“What is it, Ames?” Henry stretched and put down his book on Umbria. His study filled with sunshine through the large sash window that stood slightly open. He longed to go out and enjoy the warmth.
“It’s the young lady, sir.”
“No, the other one. The one that you asked me to keep an eye on.”
Henry groaned. What had she done now? “Tell me.”
“After three days of shutting herself away, she finally left the house.”
“No one told me that she had left!”
“She left alone, sir.”
Henry took in a deep breath. “No maid? Please tell me she had a maid with her?”
“No. She even neglected to check on the little experiment she has running in the understairs cupboard, sir.”
“Good grief.” Henry flicked a glance to the book that he had confiscated. Agatha thought that no one knew about the jar of jam that she had secreted underneath the brushes and mops the maids had been using to clean the hall and which was now growing an interesting head of mold. Unfortunately she’d chosen the jar of jam that Henry ate with toast on special occasions when he was really upset. He’d been upset quite often since Agatha had come into his house.
Ames stood in the shadows, accustomed to his master’s silences. After a while Henry gave in.
“Where did she go?”
“Well, she ran, my lord. Jumped into a carriage and slithered out underneath.” Ames nodded approvingly. “But then she was robbed, and caught the thief by, err, I believe [_not _]punching her.” The whites of Ames’ eyes gleamed in the sunlight as he looked at Henry sideways.
“Good grief! Not punching her?”
“I’m not sure you can call it a punch if the person walks into the outstretched arm sir.”
“Good grief.” She really was rather unexpected. Gods, only at lunch the week before she’d been trying to explain to him the principles of momentum. When he had brought up again his ban on experiments she’d mentioned quite tartly that speaking about science was very different to enacting experimentiae principae.
So he’d banned speaking about it too.
“I assume that she is back now?”
“She is now…”
“But? Spit it out, Ames.”
“The owner of the circus—Pablo Moreno—caught her.”
“Good god, Pablo Moreno!”
“They had a rather serious conversation that I couldn’t hear.”
Henry grasped at his chair, tension filling his fingers. “You let her stay alone with that man?” Taking a deep breath, he lifted his hands and gestured impatiently. “Yes, yes, carry on.”
“She appeared again, and took a hansom cab back here.”
Henry sighed in relief and tapped heavily on his book. Agatha Beauregard was a handful. She didn’t know how lucky she was to have escaped Pablo Moreno. Bad luck and trouble followed the shadowy man everywhere.
Ames coughed. “I think, sir, that she is making preparations to go out.”
Henry raised his eyebrows.
“Without a maid again, my lord. I err…”
“I saw Pablo Moreno holding a pelisse. One that Miss Anglethorpe normally sports my lord. He didn’t give it back to her. He pointed instead to a large sign that said something about a Grand Salvatore, sir.”
Henry took a deep breath and looked out at the window and sunshine again. Victoria was very loyal to Agatha. And Agatha was very loyal to her. She would want to get back the bag at all costs. “Ames, rather unusually I require your assistance as a valet tonight.”
Snapping open his pocket watch, he studied the scrap of paper inside. If only he had never brought her to London. If only Peter was answering his letters. Henry needed to find out more about Agatha. He was drawn to her like a moth to a naked flame. Once she was out of Moreno’s hands and in Fashington’s clutches he would not be able to ever get so close to her again.
“Very good, sir.” Ames stepped blinking into the sunlight. “And where will you be going, sir?”
“Vauxhall Gardens? But what about Miss Aggie, sir?”
“I’m not going there for that kind of thing, Ames.”
“More’s the pity. You need a good woman, sir.”
He did. In fact he’d wanted one. But she was not so good at being good in the usual sense of the word. And it seemed to keep landing her in hot water. Blast. She was someone else’s problem now.
Henry sighed. “That might be difficult, Ames. No. Vauxhall Gardens is where Pablo Moreno is having his grand show tonight.”
“Yes. Apparently his main act, Bertino, otherwise known as Grand Salvatore the knife thrower, is sick and refusing to perform.”
Ames looked at him admiringly. “How do you know all of this, sir?”
Henry sighed. “Because Bertino, Ames, is our good old friend, Albert Smith.”
“Albert Smith, as in Albert Smith the butcher that delivered meat here? But I thought all he was good at was knife work. I remember cook being very disappointed when he left. He… oh.”
“Hmm. Yes. I put him in with Pablo Moreno to find out exactly what the strange man was up to. Unfortunately he has reported to me that he believes Pablo has nearly broken his cover. Albert is as we speak feigning the symptoms of a very infectious influenza in order to escape.”
“Lucky escape for him.”
“Yes, not so much for us.”
“I have a feeling that he wants to use Agatha in some way in a replacement performance.”
“Not Miss Aggie!”
Henry nodded. “I’m not sure how yet, but something will have piqued his interest.” He sighed and clenched his fingers. “God knows, she’s piqued mine.”
In the dark manicured hedges of Vauxhall gardens, Henry paced amongst the shadows. He could see Agatha from where he stood, her face stark white against the gathering dusk. Her face had a pinched look to it, although now and then her brow smoothed as she obviously worked to control her nerves.
Henry leant against the bough of a sturdy bush and folded his arms as his heart clenched. She still disliked him, he reminded himself, now more than ever. That had been a positive. He’d wanted a bride that didn’t like him. He couldn’t end up with a woman that would pine away like his mother if anything happened to him. Despite all the other things he had done, he could never have that on his conscience.
It didn’t matter now, Charles was going to marry her. She had got herself into this mess, and who knew what else she was capable of? Besides, if Henry revealed himself, his cover as a spymaster would be blown, and Albert might not escape.
Henry grunted. He needed to redeploy Albert somewhere. Somewhere where an Italianate looking butcher would be useful. Hmm. He needed someone to keep an eye on a mysterious Asian man that had appeared at Wapping docks. It would be a long waiting game. But Albert deserved a bit of respite. From the information Albert had given him, it seemed that Pablo and some of his employees had been engaging in slightly puzzling activity.
He straightened as a couple passed him, putting out an arm to fade into the shape of the tree. The couple stopped not five feet from him, unaware of his presence, too engaged in arguing.
“I saw it with my own eyes, Miles cheri. And just after we had been together too. How could you?”
“I was bored.”
“Bored? What haven’t I given you that you can get anywhere else?”
“She was easy pickings.”
“Easy pickings? Some slut of a girl that hung onto your every word? Bonne dieu Miles, she mouthed the words—”
“—to the dance steps? Enough with your petty jealousy. I’ve dealt with her. A contact of mine has promised to sort her out for me tonight. Perhaps perm—”
Henry couldn’t hold in his sneeze any longer. Pulling his hand from the branches, he covered his mouth, but still the small explosion caused the couple to stop speaking.
“We are not safe here.” The woman walked away from Henry with quick steps, whilst Miles hurried past the tree under which Henry sheltered, towards the colonnade below where Agatha stood.
Henry ducked out from under the full leaves of the bush. The woman had gone, the tall figure of the man rapidly disappearing too, too fast to be recognizable. What an odious pair, but not unusual in Vauxhall Gardens where the unsavory dregs mixed with the more louche members of society.
A cheer rang out; glancing up, Henry could no longer see the small figure of Agatha. With a curse he lengthened his stride and ran towards where large torches had been lit. He’d been stupid to let his attention be diverted. He was meant to be there for[_ her_].
The evening was mild, the March day had mellowed with some sunshine burning off the fog towards sunset. In a dark corner of Vauxhall Gardens, Agatha watched the acrobats finish their performance, her arms wrapped round her body against the sudden chill of dusk.
It had been easy to slip out of the house unseen once more. She had pleaded a headache when Victoria had knocked on her door for their evening’s musicale. And it seemed that as soon as Victoria left the house, the staff retreated downstairs for their own suppers. It was the work of a moment to unlatch the great door, scramble down the steps and fall straight into a passing hansom cab. She had paid him well to wait for her until the end of the night’s performance. It was obviously an arrangement he had had much familiarity with.
Agatha shivered as a small breeze ruffled the gold suit that Pablo had provided, along with a full glittering mask. Nathalia’s teeth chattered as she stood by her side, seemingly over her previous hysterics. Why on earth had Pablo made her dress as the Grand Salvatore if he thought that she couldn’t throw knives?
Straightening, Nathalia brightened. “Oooh, he’s a looker,” she said loudly, craning her neck as a gentleman strode by on one of the lower walks. Involuntarily Agatha turned—she couldn’t stop herself. Charles stared directly back at her from below.
“Fiddlesticks,” she exclaimed, clapping a hand to her mouth as she ducked down behind a marble pillar. This was just her luck. Hopefully from that distance and the unfamiliarity in the surroundings he wouldn’t have recognized her. Her eyes took in her resplendent clothes—especially not in the gold suit.
“I don’t know why you’re so worried.” Nathalia leaned over the balustrade. “He didn’t stop.”
Agatha had no answer for that. There was no way she was going to admit to Nathalia of all people, that the handsome man was actually a complete bounder and that she was going to be married to him under false pretenses in a few days’ time.
“Look, you aren’t going to start shaking, are you?” Nathalia said sharply, “I’m the one going to be standing next to a board having someone that can’t throw knives aiming at her. It’s going to be dark, and there are going to be lots of people.” She pouted and rubbed her arms. “Thankfully you probably won’t even manage to even reach the board and people will think it’s a bit of comedy.”
Agatha nodded. Nathalia was right. She had to deal with the more pressing problem of the pelisse, and focus on throwing the knives. Only then could she deal with Charles.
Gravel crunched heavily as Pablo appeared at her elbow, breathing hard from the acrobatic display. Agatha had heard the oohs and aahs of the crowds for the last hour. It had seemed to pass by in a blur. Large torches flared in the darkness amongst the crowds.
Silently he handed her the golden mask which she fitted across her face. She tied her hair back into a knot, imitating what she had been told was Bertino’s style. They assured her that in the dark no one would see that her brown hair wasn’t black.
“You look just like Bertino,” Pablo sighed. “I never said I kept all of my promises. Your fate is up to you now.” Roughly he pushed the pelisse of coins into the pocket of her outfit.
Promises? He’d kept his promise to her, although after this Agatha never wanted to meet him again. She shuddered as his breath blew across her ear.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured and pushed her out into the flickering light.
A hushed silence fell across the crowd as she walked across the dry ground towards the pathway where the brightly painted board had been affixed. What was Pablo sorry for? Nathalia smiled fixedly at the crowd at her side. She had taken off her coat to reveal a costume that did not leave much to the imagination.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice boomed from the crowd. “I give you the Grande Salvatore!”
The crowd turned to face Agatha. Nathalia stood expectantly by the board. She gestured to the board, smiled and gestured again. Frowning at Agatha, she repeated her routine.
A small drop of salty water ran down the inside of Agatha’s mask, heat rising from her neck. What was she to do? She couldn’t, shouldn’t speak, for she would be undone as the Grande Salvatore.
Shaking the droplet of water from her chin, she gazed at the gathering of well-dressed men who lounged against the hedges of Vauxhall Gardens. They were accompanied here and there by ladies dressed in gaudy clothes. Eyes glittered, riveted on the spectacle of the knife thrower and the girl.
She nodded at Nathalia and then looked out once more at the crowd.
One of the gaudily dressed ladies stepped back, revealing a familiar, tall, muscular figure. Agatha froze as Henry gazed back at her and frowned.
How did he know she was there? He couldn’t possibly. There had been no one in the hall when she had left the house.
“He does not know who I am,” Agatha said as if in a mantra under her breath. “He doesn’t know about the knives. I am the Grande Salvatore.”
Still, his eyes bored into hers as if he knew who she was. Oh god. Henry was there watching. He said he always knew where she was, and now she’d found out the hard way.
Licking a trembling finger, Agatha held her hand in the air. The wind was travelling from the east, across her line of aim. The torches flamed and gusted sideways. Hmm, about three miles an hour. She needed to throw fifteen yards, the knife she had been given was about forty grams heavier than her potato knife…oh god. Henry was watching.
If only she’d had a bit more time to perfect the mechanics. She had left Hope Sands at a very inopportune time, in fact she had calculated she was only one potato peeling session away from really getting the hang of letting her knife go at the right time and hitting her target on the wall at the end of her depressing room. Of course it had played havoc with the plaster, all the gashes had become quite noticeable.
Now then. Her hypothesis was that she needed to let the knife go when it was perpendicular in her hand to the ground. Hopefully it wouldn’t hit Henry. Agatha shook her head and resumed calculating. It would require five revolutions before it reached the board a foot to the right of Nathalia’s head. Hmm.
Nathalia opened her mouth as Agatha pulled her hand back. Narrowing her eyes, Agatha weighed the knife up and down in her hand. Could she do it? She had never yet[_ hit_] the target with her knife—a potato peeler at that.
Nathalia screamed, “You can’t be serious—”
Agatha drew back her arm and this time placed a little more pressure on her thumb.
“I’m telling you A…a…a…Salvatore,” Nathalia shouted.
With a flick of her arm, Agatha threw, the violent action causing her mask to slip before the knife had left her hand. Blindly she nodded, trying to dislodge the sticky mask, putting a hand to her face to push it back up, and froze. A large bang rang through her ears, and a blaze of pain ripped across her knuckles.
The crowd roared. As she pushed the mask back up onto her face with shaking fingers, she realized they were looking at Nathalia, who stared at the knife which had planted itself in the narrow space between her ankles.
Oh dear. There was no chance that Agatha could risk such a close shave again—it seemed she was not destined to find out how to throw knives. Shaking her head, Agatha looked for Henry. He was nowhere to be seen, the crowds of people turned away from her as they talked excitedly amongst themselves. She turned and ran towards the edge of the gardens, holding on to her slippery mask.
A hansom cab waited at the west entrance, the horses stamping their feet in the cold air.
“Quick, Toby, get going,” she yelled at the carriage driver she had hired. Scrabbling at the footplate, she fell exhausted into the carriage, collapsing against the seats.
The shadows opposite her deepened. Opening her mouth, Agatha screamed and clutched at the leather of her seat as a large, predatory form moved forward.
“Mr. Salvatore, I presume?” Henry reached a long arm from the dark of the carriage and plucked her mask from her face. For a while he stared at her. “Miss Beauregard. I might have known.” He stared at her again for a long moment and then opened one hand, in which a small bronze bullet nestled. “Is this another one of your experiments or does someone really want to kill you?”
Henry cursed as Agatha clutched her hands together and then drew them away with an audible gasp. Sticky bloody ran darkly through her hands from her knuckles.
He swung his body across the carriage and sat heavily into the seat next to her. Gathering her into his arms, he held her tightly as the tears began to roll down her face. Henry pressed his face into her hair—she smelt of soap and gunpowder. It was a strangely intoxicating mix. Drawing his body away, he leant back against the seat, releasing her.
“Bloody hell Agatha.”
Agatha sighed and felt at an object on the seat before handing it to him. “Victoria’s pelisse.”
He stared at it for a long second, and dropped it on the seat next to him. Taking a deep breath, he forced as much flatness into his voice as possible. “I need to know how you became mixed up with Pablo Moreno. He has a rather unsavory reputation.”
Agatha wrapped her arms around herself and leant forward. “One of his… associates stole my pelisse from me.”
“And he gave it back to you.” He paused, weighing his words. “But who would want you dead? What was different about today?”
She sat up straighter. Good, his words were having an effect.
“What was different about today?” Her voice rose an octave. “What was different about today, apart from Charles telling me to jilt him in your back garden, being pick pocketed, having my hands stood upon, being seen by Charles again wearing [this _]outfit back there—” Agatha jabbed a hand in the direction of the disappearing Vauxhall Gardens— “throwing knives at a semi-dressed girl on a board, and _then being shot at?”
Henry breathed out. “Charles asked you to jilt him in our garden and then recognized you in Vauxhall?
Agatha nodded and took a deep breath.
He frowned. “Something is off in this situation.”
“You were the one who wants me to marry him in the first place!”
Henry shivered as the accusation filled her voice. “I think I was wrong.”
“Of course you were bloody wrong!” Agatha rubbed at her face, her skin raw where she had worn the mask tightly. “He forced me and you wouldn’t listen.”
Henry stared at her. Her story had never changed, it wasn’t just for form’s sake. She really didn’t want to marry Charles, despite what Henry had thought. “I… I don’t want you to marry him.”
“Thank you, neither do I, but thanks to you I have to go through with it.”
Henry looked down at Agatha. “I’m a member of the same club. I know a few of Charles Fashington’s secrets. I’ll persuade him to drop the proposal. I promise, Agatha.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly. “I’ll set everything right.”
Right for him too. This was the opportunity that he needed. A wife, Granwich had said. After this affair she would hate him even more. He swallowed. So much the better.
Agatha gazed at Henry, her hazel eyes wide in the dark, the glint of tears shining on her cheek. With a muffled oath he pulled her towards him.
Dropping his head he brushed his lips along the tops of her cheeks where the tears gleamed.
She tipped her head towards him. With a groan he covered her mouth with his, caressing her tender lips. She gasped, the intake of air rushing against his tongue.
Henry pulled away as the carriage stopped; any longer and he wouldn’t have been able to help himself. Agatha stared at him, the gold suit rumpled against her soft skin. He shrugged off his coat and shook his head, pushing the warm cloth around her shoulders. As he smoothed the cloak over her frozen shoulder, she shivered visibly.
“The gold suit is quite noticeable.” He pulled the cloak closed over her lap. “A large amount of the ton were in Vauxhall Gardens tonight. You will be instantly recognizable if you reveal the color underneath.”
Agatha nodded once and turned her face away from him, tumbling from the carriage. He watched as her legs wobbled beneath her, hitting the hard slabs of the pavement. Stumbling, she clutched at the cloak and started up the steps to the house. Henry did not follow her. At the top she paused and turned.
“Aren’t you coming in?” Her voice tremored audibly on the last word.
“I have some matters I need to take care of,” he said shortly through the carriage door. “I’ll be back to talk further. Don’t do anything hasty.” Henry knocked his cane on the roof of the box and turned to face forward as the carriage rolled off into the gloom.
Henry sat back into the cushioned seat, well used to the cobbles of London and the rolling like nature of the carriage. He hitched his soft, merino undercoat closer to him, pulling out the cuffs to protect himself against the springtime cold.
He knew just where to find Charles Fashington. The government man may have been a member of the same club as Henry, but that is where the similarity in their tastes ended. Routine enquiries into the allegiance of all government members as part of Henry’s war work had noted Fashington’s predilection for a certain tavern in town where the ladies were of easy cheer and even easier virtue. But there had been nothing on any leaning towards the French, which made the list Charles had found in his clothes all the more strange.
The tavern, the Hare and Hounds, was situated just off Great Russell Street in the rookery of St Giles. As he walked through the door, a girl barely more than fifteen reached to take his coat, her hands tracing themselves over him.
“Can’t you see I’m not wearing a coat?” Catching her hands, he pulled her from him and, with a gentle push, turned her away.
The girl gaped at him and slapped her thigh with a gin sodden cackle. “Ere Betsy, this one was so eager to see you he took his coat off before he even reached the door!”
The tap room erupted with a raucous cheer. Henry ran a hand slowly through his hair. Agatha had rattled his customary calm. He would have normally entered the tavern unnoticed, but thanks to her he had now caused a scene. Deliberately flattening his shoulders and breathing deeply, he stared into the distance for a few seconds, and then flipped the girl a coin. With a sly grin, he acknowledged the cheers and sauntered into the throng, becoming one of the crowd. Making a beeline for the singled out Betsy, he encircled her waist with his arm and banged on the bar with the other.
“Landlord, a drink for the lady!”
“Coo guvnor, you really are keen aren’t you?” Betsy simpered at Henry, her ample breasts spilling out above her brightly colored, but soiled gown. Henry’s hand tightened around Betsy’s waist, squeezing hard. He crowded Betsy, turning her to face away from the other drinkers in the tavern. His other hand brought Betsy’s chin up to make her face look at him, seemingly charming, but in reality his fingers flexed into the flesh just below her jawline. As she winced in shocked pain, he lowered his voice.
“Where’s Charles Fashington?”
“Who?” Betsy gasped. Henry grimaced. He thought back to what Fashington had been wearing.
“Tall, black coat, black hair, likes the ladies. Permanently drunk.”
“You should have said, [_sir. _]He goes by the name Miles… Miles Trebin. We all call him Flash, cos he’s flash with his money. Different girl every night.”
“Where is he now?” Henry ground out, before Betsy could tell him more of ‘Flash’s’ interests.
“Upstairs with Millie, she’s his favorite… he has certain tastes…”
Henry dropped Betsy with disgust, his fingers clenching and unclenching. Betsy sank to the floor in shock. Single-minded, he took the stairs to the upper rooms two at a time. He cursed himself at the top of the steps; he hadn’t asked which room Miles was in. Shaking his head, he grasped the handle of the door opposite him, and pushed.
The first room was empty apart from a large canopied bed and a dressing table. Without bothering to close the door, Henry moved onto the next closed door. The second bedroom along the hall was occupied. The couple in there were too busy to notice the intrusion. The gentleman, though, was blond, not black-haired.
The third room yielded results. Charles lay on the bed in just his breeches. ‘Millie’, completely naked, stroked his body with a feather, and giggled. They both turned to stare at Henry with a look of drugged pleasure on their faces. Millie was the first to realize that she did not recognize the man at the door. Shrieking, she dropped the feather and reached for a camisole on the floor.
Henry kicked at the feather. “Get out.”
Millie whimpered and wrapped the camisole around herself.
“Now look here…” Charles sat up and frowned.
“Out.” Henry moved from the doorway as Millie shot past him. He pushed the door shut behind her with his foot. He did not have long before Betsy and Millie raised the alarm.
Charles’ face cleared. He stood from the bed and leaned nonchalantly against the bed post. “Anglethorpe. What do you want? I only entered your garden to speak to Agatha, not your sister.”
“My sister? You drew my sister into this too?” Henry couldn’t stop himself. Striding to the corner of the bed, he kicked Charles’ feet away from under him and as he fell, drew back his hand and punched across the falling man’s nose. His hand connected with a crunch across Charles’ prominent cheekbones. With a cry, Charles crashed to the floor, blood spattering across the valance of the bed.
“Break off your engagement with Miss Beauregard.” Henry looked at the ceiling and took a deep breath. “You should bear the brunt of the ton’s displeasure.”
“But you were the one who was forcing me to marry her!” Charles whined, getting to his knees, his bloody face in his hands.
“I was wrong. You are a despicable cur.”
As Charles shook his head, more drops of blood fell to the floor. “If I jilt the chit my honor is ruined. My position in the government will become untenable.”
“Granwich will find out anyway. Tomorrow you shall print an apology in the papers.” With a single right hook, Henry smashed Charles’ hand away from his face. Fashington howled in pain as the drips of blood turned into a torrent. Curling in a ball on the floor, he moaned.
“I can’t hear you!” Henry raised his booted foot.
“Alright,” Fashington groaned, feeling at his face. “I’ll do it, tomorrow… Just don’t tell anyone I was here, my… government position y’know.”
Henry knew. Little did Fashington know that certain key individuals already knew of Fashington’s likes and dislikes. They had been a little alarmed by his fast ascent from clerk to position of power in the strategic war against France. Henry could not believe that in a fit of pique he had nearly forced Agatha to marry this man.
Loud shouts echoed in the hallway. Quickly, Henry loped to the window, and flung the sash open. The window opened onto an alley that was dark and smelled faintly of rotting vegetables. The drop was only twelve feet, with guttering all the way down. He swung his leg over the sill, and then turned back to Fashington.
“Why did you shoot at her?” he asked quickly.
“Shoot?” stammered Fashington, pushing his kerchief to his nose, “oot oo?” he continued bewildered.
“Pablo Moreno’s circus, Vauxhall Gardens?” Henry prompted him.
Charles gasped. “I didn’t do anything. I only paid Pablo to embarrass Aga… Miss Beauregard. To make the engagement untenable… I…”
Henry grunted. The brute hadn’t done it. Whatever his plans had been, they hadn’t included murder. Nothing stood in Henry’s way of asking Agatha to marry him now. As the door burst open, he swung his left leg over the windowsill and dropped cat-like into the night.
Agatha stared at the door, nose to nose with the large lion that dominated the door knocker. Alone again. It seemed to be becoming a habit. But that was how she wanted it, wasn’t it? Her hands crept to her lips. They tingled where Henry had stroked at them with his strong lips. Never had she thought that he would be capable of such tenderness. No. It wasn’t tenderness. She was wrong. Charles had proved that. She couldn’t trust her conclusions anymore after that episode. But if it wasn’t tenderness then what was it?
With a silent apology to the lion, she lifted the knocker and let it go with a crash. Henry’s butler opened the door and looked at her enquiringly.
“Agatha, Agatha.” Behind Smythe, Victoria flew into the hall. “Where have you been? We’ve been going spare trying to find you. Stop blocking the door, Smythe. Why are you wearing Henry’s coat? Where’s Henry?”
Smythe stood back silently to let Agatha in. As she brushed past him, she caught one of the coat’s lapels on the table, revealing the golden suit beneath. The butler’s eyes rounded in interest. Victoria looked from Agatha’s suit to the butler, and back to Agatha’s slumped shoulders.
“Your bedroom, I think,” she said, pushing Agatha up the stairs. “Tell Mrs. Noggin some tea, Smythe, please in ten minutes, but no sooner.”
In Agatha’s bedroom, Victoria led her to the bed and pushed her to sit. She pulled the great coat off her and then untied Agatha’s hair.
“Lie down for a while. I think you’re in shock. You’re as white as snow and you haven’t said a word since you arrived home.”
“Tell me later.”
Shivering, Agatha lay on the bed and tucked herself in a ball, hands against her lips. Dark sleep captured her instantly.
She awoke an hour later, a coverlet loosely covering her. Sitting up and rubbing her eyes, she looked down at the gold suit. Victoria peered at her from the corner of the room where she sat reading, her pelisse with the cut strings beside her.
“You’re awake! I have a tray of food for you.” Victoria pointed at the table to her right, which was laden with plates. Agatha’s stomach rumbled. She had missed all meals since breakfast that morning when she had decided to step outside of the house’s doors.
Standing, she moved behind a folding screen that had been set up for her. She pulled off the gold suit as quickly as she was able to, and then hefted a nightgown over her head.
“So.” Victoria’s voice floated nonchalantly above the folding screen. “Henry’s not back yet and you are wearing a very gold suit which the servants say was last seen on the Grande Salvatore. I might say on the Grand Salvatore at Vauxhall Gardens before he made a grand exit. It was said to have been the best ever performance of knife throwing this century!”
Agatha stood on tip toes and peered over the top of the screen.
“Oh yes, some of the servants actually went to the show,” Victoria continued. “They say that the Grand Salvatore threw only one knife that landed in the most impossible of places and then did a wild dance.”
“It wasn’t a dance. The mask slipped,” Agatha mumbled, dropping back to her heels and tying the strings on her cap.
Victoria stood. “You mean it actually was you?”
“Yes,” Agatha said in a small voice, stepping out from behind the screen.
Victoria sat back in her chair again in amazement. “Don’t tell me. You were investigating the forces of gravity on a flying object?” She laughed. “Why do I always miss all the fun?”
“Someone shot at me,” Agatha said distinctly. “It wasn’t fun.”
Oh dear. Henry would kill her if he heard Victoria saying that again. “And your brother is going to break off the engagement with Charles.”
“Shot at? Charles? I should hope so. I thought he was a real prig for forcing you into that.”
“You were the one that said it would be nice to be Charles’ wife!”
“I’ve changed my mind. I had to boot him out of our garden this morning. He said that he offered to break off the engagement and that you refused.”
That odious octopus-armed low down sly crawling cockroach.
“Yes. I knew that wasn’t true as you had spent ages telling me how much you didn’t want to marry him.”
Agatha nodded in relief.
“Anyway, if anyone can get rid of Charles, Henry can. He can do anything.”
“Hmm.” Anything. She wouldn’t have believed it was possible, but certainly as he had kissed her Agatha had lost all sense of methodical proportion. The only word to describe it would have been transcendental. Agatha frowned and pushed her hands together as a shiver ran through her.
“So how did you end up as the Grande Salvatore? And don’t think I did not notice you saying that you were shot at. Are you sure?”
“I had to get away from Charles, and then I took your pelisse by mistake.” Agatha recounted the meeting with Pablo Moreno as Victoria’s eyes grew rounder.
“But that must mean that Henry thinks Charles shot at you because you wouldn’t break off the engagement!”
Agatha nodded in agreement. “Moreno did say he wanted to kill two birds with one stone.” She shivered. “But Charles wouldn’t have done it. It’s madness. There are easier ways of getting out of marriage than by shooting me. For goodness sake, he just needs to jilt me.”
“But you wouldn’t jilt him,” Victoria observed thoughtfully, gathering her pelisse to her and walking to the door.
Agatha drew back the coverlets on her bed and got in, sighing as the sheets enveloped her again. “I didn’t think I would be allowed.”
The next morning dawned bright, brighter than any of the other March mornings. As Agatha climbed out of bed, she felt lighter.
Heaviness dogged her steps as she descended the stairs, though. How was Henry going to get Charles to lift the engagement? And surely the shot hadn’t been meant for her. It was probably someone who had discharged their pistol by accident in a demonstration. There was no reason why anyone would want her dead. Two birds with one stone. That was just an expression that everyone used.
As Agatha settled at the breakfast table, a blue slip of paper fluttered from the sideboard to the floor.
“Where did this come from, Carruthers?”
The same footman that had tended so carefully to Victoria after the phosphorous incident, bent to pick it up and handed it to her. “I’m not sure, Miss Beauregard. The butler said it was slipped under the door sometime in the night.”
A chill of foreboding travelled up Agatha’s spine. “Is Lord Anglethorpe back yet?” she asked, absently taking the slip of paper in her fingers.
With hesitant hands, Agatha fumbled with the slip of paper.
‘Leave London, or you will die. If you do not leave, your family will die too. Especially if you tell anyone of this note.’
Agatha dropped the paper, watching with wide eyes at it tumbled to the floor. It was no use trying to reassure herself any longer. The bullet had been meant for her. And now they, whoever they were, were threatening her family.
Hesitantly she picked the paper up by the corner. She looked up to see if the footman had seen her actions, but he had been busy restocking the sideboard with food. Hearing a step outside the door, she took a deep breath and stuffed the paper into her bodice.
The threat bothered her all morning, the paper burning against her chest, a lump like ball of fear lodging itself irremovably in her throat. Listlessly, Agatha trailed the house. Twice she tried to find Victoria, but she had disappeared. What could she have said to her anyway? She retired to her bedroom and lay on her bed, waiting for the lunch gong, tossing this way and that, her eyes catching again and again on the slim blue paper she had tossed on her bedside table.
At twelve o’clock she swung her legs back off the bed. No one had called for her. She hadn’t even seen Henry at breakfast. Good grief, she hadn’t even thought about Charles once. Rubbing her face, she trod heavily down the grand stairs into the hall.
Lunch was just being laid as she entered the morning room, the grand sideboard groaning with silver platters. The footmen increased their activity, furtively glancing at Agatha with barely concealed smiles. It took the butler to shoo them away before Agatha could eat in peace.
The sun streamed into the morning room as she ate, slowly but solidly for ten minutes, forcing down the food. Pushing her plate to one side, she reached for the steaming coffee urn. Twisting the tap, she decanted a cupful.
As she warmed her hands on the cup, smelling the comforting smell of the bitter brew, the door banged open against the mahogany sideboard and the usually calm butler entered with a furrowed brow.
“Pardon me, Miss Beauregard, but there is a magistrate here to see you.”
“A magistrate?” Agatha dropped the cup to the table, coffee spilling against the pristine white linen. Was he there about the previous night?
“Yes, miss. Shall I show him in here?” Usually the butler showed all guests into the dainty drawing room. Her apprehension rose. Picking up the overflowing coffee cup, she took trembling sip of the coffee and straightened her back.
As the butler disappeared, Agatha clenched her hands around the hot cup. If he was there about the knife throwing then it was better that she pretend she had nothing to do with it.
The butler returned, holding the door open with barely concealed disgust. A middle-aged portly gentleman staggered through, covered in mud. With a huff, he collapsed in a chair as the strong smell of sweat filled the room.
Agatha put down her cup with dawning recognition. She had seen him once before long ago, but could not place him. It hadn’t been in London. Silently, she poured another cup of coffee and pushed it across the table. He grunted his thanks, and took a large gulp.
The man was not from London. Agatha frowned. He was from Devon, Ottery St Mary even, near where Peter, her brother was living.
She waited, but still he said nothing but stared into his coffee cup.
“Sir, are you alright?”
The man started and looked at her hard. Then his face softened. He pushed aside the coffee cup and turned to face her. “Miss Beauregard. I am sorry to come to you in this state. My name is Thomas Patrick.”
His name did not ring any bells in her memory.
“I have ridden day and night to get here, changing horses wherever I could. I’m afraid you must come with me.”
Agatha’s spine ran cold. “What’s happened?” she asked slowly.
“There’s been a dreadful accident. Your brother and his wife have been killed. Their daughter lives still but is in shock. When I left she had said nothing for eight hours. You are her only relative I know of.”
“Killed.” Agatha fell back in her chair. “I am her only relative,” she said in a small voice.
She could not quite take it in. Only two days ago she had been cursing her brother for leaving her in London. And now he was dead and his wife too. She put her hands flat on the table. “How—” She stopped and drew her hands into a fist. “How did it happen?”
“The carriage that they were in overturned. I’ve never seen it happen before myself. If I did not know any better I would have assumed foul play, but there wasn’t anything to suggest that was the case. Your brother had only moved to Ottery St Mary recently.”
Foul play? Blinking, Agatha pressed at her chest; she couldn’t breathe. Her brother was dead. Gone.
What if they hadn’t waited for her? What if they had gone ahead and harmed her family anyway? Suddenly Agatha’s heart beat faster and her chest felt tight. Her niece was by herself in the depths of Devon being looked after by somebody that she did not know. She was alone. Even more alone than Agatha had ever been.
Agatha took a deep breath and pushed back all thoughts of the fact that her brother was dead. That her sister-in-law was dead. That she no longer had any family apart from her niece.
“Where is she?” she asked in a dead voice.
“In the orphanage at Honiton.” The magistrate picked up the coffee cup and gulped at it again like a drowning man. “There was no one else to take her in. I would have done, but to have a young girl in your household… no one else would take her in…” he repeated.
Agatha clasped a hand to her face as her rib cage tightened. Her niece was stuck in an orphanage and someone had killed her brother and sister-in-law. It was all her fault. Leaning over the table, she bit back a sob and rang for the butler.
“What time does the post coach go to Honiton?” Her voice emerged from her throat shrill and shaking. She could not take Henry’s coach all that way. It would cost too much money to stay in the inns overnight and be too slow as she would need to change horses en route.
The butler shook his head. “I will have to check, m’lady…”
“Do it, Smythe.” Her voice was even louder this time.
Agatha grabbed the magistrate by the arm. Her hand came away covered in filth. She had been going to tell the man to come with her, but judging by the state he was in, it wouldn’t have been fair.
Smythe returned, gasping. “Post coach to Honiton leaves in fifty minutes, miss.”
It was much less time than she had thought. It would take her twenty minutes to get to where the coach left from, and then she would still need to buy a ticket.
She stood, and rubbed a hand across her face. “Smythe, get the coach ready to go to the Five Horse Inn for the post coach. I must leave for Devon, immediately.”
“What about your maid, miss?”
“I won’t need her where I’m going.”
“And… Lord Anglethorpe, Miss Aggie… What about him?” The fear in Smythe’s voice was palpable.
A cold shiver worked its way down Agatha’s spine. “I’m… not sure,” she said, uncertainly.
As she turned, the magistrate moved from his frozen position. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out a scrap of brightly covered fabric.
“Here, you need this,” he said softly.
Agatha gazed at it in incomprehension. What had that to do with Henry?
“If you are ever to reclaim a child from this orphanage, you need to have this scrap of cloth. It is a piece of her dress. The orphanage has kept the other part. I…” The man faltered. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to find you.”
Henry slept late and woke from a deep sleep. He had tossed and turned before he had fallen into a slumber. Something niggled at him, and he still didn’t know what it was. His valet entered the room silently with a steaming pitcher of water in one hand and a towel over the other. It was the snick of the door latch that had woken him.
After laying the towel on the washstand and placing the steaming jug carefully beside the large porcelain washbowl, Ames carefully opened the door to the hall, glanced left and right then stepped out quickly and re-entered bearing a tray of hot chocolate and pastries.
Henry plucked a pastry from the tray and took a bite, cream and sugar clouding the air. It was delicious. Before he knew it, he had finished the entire tray. With extra energy, he jumped lithely from the bed and washed quickly in the rapidly cooling water. He dressed himself quickly, ruefully patting his stomach where the extra pastries seemed to have made the already snug breeches an even tighter fit.
Looking in the full-length mirror, Henry examined himself. He hadn’t forgotten his resolution of the night before. He [_was _]going to ask Agatha to marry him.
Checking to make sure that his valet hadn’t reappeared silently as was his wont, he crossed to a portrait of a pack of hunting dogs that hung on the paneled wall to the side of his bed. With ease, he swung the heavy picture to the floor and slid back the panel that lay behind. Pulling back his cuffs, he reached in and drew out a dainty black jewelry box in chinoiserie style decorated with birds and lilies. It seemed as if a gust of perfume had flown with it as he took a deep breath and opened the box. Inside lay an assortment of his mother’s rings, family heirlooms and other fancies his father had bought her when they were both alive.
He paused before pulling out the delicate top layer of felt. At the bottom lay a heavy gold ring in which was set a large diamond, the Anglethorpe wedding ring. He considered it for a short while and then set it aside. Instead he selected the other ring that lay next to it, a rose gold delicate affair with three sapphire stones inlaid on its rim. He could not remember when it had come into his mother’s possession, but it was the only ring apart from the Anglethorpe wedding ring that the doctor had removed from his mother’s hand after she had died.
Slowly withdrawing the intricate ring, he closed and returned the box to the hidden panel. Straining with his arms, he heaved the painting back into position. After a cursory examination, he pushed the ring into the breast pocket of his undercoat and, leaving his bedroom behind, descended the stairs to the great hall. Even though he was resolute in what he was about to do, it still seemed as if the stairs descended miles and miles—
Halfway down the steps he paused. Miles Trebin. That’s what Betsy had called Charles Fashington the night before. And there had been a Miles in Vauxhall Gardens, discussing a young girl who counted her steps as she danced and how he was going to find someone to get rid of her permanently—
Hell, he had to find Agatha and quickly. What if he had been wrong about Charles? Taking the steps two at a time, he strode into the drawing room. Henry did not see the man properly until he was fully into the room, but the smell of dirt, horses and sweat was overpowering.
Smythe appeared behind him.
“Lord Anglethorpe, Sir. I… ahhh.”
Henry took out a handkerchief and pressed it to his nose. “Get on with it, Smythe.”
“Who the hell is he?”
“Magistrate, your lordship!” the butler gabbled. “He asked for Miss Beauregard. I don’t know what he said, but Miss Beauregard asked for the times of the next post coach to Honiton.”
“What?” Henry swung round to face the butler.
The butler quivered. “Yes, your lordship. She left two hours ago!”
Henry dropped his handkerchief to the floor. She’d done it again. His eyes turned towards to the magistrate, who was beginning to dribble on the tablecloth. Ignoring the smell, he strode into the room and shook the man by the shoulder.
“Wake up man!”
The man gargled in response and turned his face away.
“Get me some cold water, Smythe.”
“At once, sir!” The butler hurried from the room and returned shortly, staggering under a large jug of cold water.
Grabbing the sides of the jug with his hands, Henry tipped the contents over the magistrate’s head.
“Umphaagggh!” yelled the man as his shocked waking was interrupted by water pouring down his throat and down the back of his neck. He continued to yell further, as it ran down his back and into his breeches. Electrified, he jumped to his feet, hitting his stomach on the table, and subsided back onto his chair again. With a dazed look, he turned to the two men staring at him.
Henry dropped the tureen to the table with a clang. “State your business, sir, and tell me what you have done to my… my… Miss Beauregard!”
The man continued to gape like a stunned fish. Henry growled in dissatisfaction.
“Smythe, take him away. Get him washed up, give him food and new clothes then bring him back to me in my study in quarter of an hour.”
The butler led the rather broken man away. Henry marched to the hall and swept up his handkerchief. Should he go straight after Agatha? Or should he find out why she had left? Even if he went straight after her, he wouldn’t catch her, as the post coach had the fastest teams of horses and drove day and night. He could not be guaranteed that he could get fresh horses at every inn that he had to stop at. And she had a two hour head start on him.
He took in the morning room; at least she had had time for breakfast, but what was she going to do for money?
He pounded up the stairs and, without knocking, strode into his sister’s room. “Agatha has gone to Devon. Do you know why? Where would she get the money?”
Victoria arched an eyebrow at him. “Have you had breakfast?”
“Good god Victoria, answer the bloody question. Yes, of course I’ve had breakfast.”
“No. Agatha can’t be gone. She would have said goodbye if she had.”
“She bloody well has! Smythe waved her off two hours ago.”
Victoria frowned and stood. “I’m sure she must have a good reason for it,” she said slowly. “She has her own money. She said she kept it for emergencies, for if she ever needed to escape.”
“Yes, don’t repeat me, brother. Escape.”
“But she doesn’t need to escape!”
Victoria raised an eyebrow and coughed.
Henry slammed his hand against the door jamb. Had Agatha suspected that he wanted to ask her to marry him? Was she running away from it? Hell and damnation. The kiss… what had she thought of that? “I was going to make everything right.”
The whiteness of Victoria’s knuckles showed visibly as she grasped her pomade bottle. “Surely she left a note?”
“No, only an incomprehensible man who came up from Devon to see her.”
“Why aren’t you asking him, then? I’m sure that had something to do with it. Isn’t her brother in Devon?” Hands shaking, Victoria dabbed pomade at her face, spreading the white powder into her hair.
Henry hadn’t considered that last one. Peter was in Devon with his family. But why hadn’t he come up instead of the magistrate? Suddenly he felt a shiver of cold.
Shutting Victoria’s door with a bang, he retook the stairs to his study, immediately feeling more controlled in its calm confines. It was just how he liked it, dark green with a heavy wooden desk and book cases. Rattling the drawers to his desk, he found an old tin of fudge. Levering up the lid, he looked inside with disbelief. The tin was empty.
Smythe knocked and opened the door slowly. “The magistrate, sir, he says his name is Thomas Patrick.”
“Send him in.” Henry slammed the lid on the tin and threw it back in the desk drawer.
Patrick entered the room gingerly. The butler pushed him towards the chair that sat on the opposite side of the desk. Bowing his head, Smythe closed the door to the study.
Henry sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers. The magistrate leaned forward.
“Thank you for the clean towels and clothes m’ lord. I’m a magistrate, the name’s Thomas Patrick. I came with news for Miss Beauregard.”
Henry nodded. This much he knew already anyway.
“Not to put too fine a point on it… her brother and sister-in-law have been killed.”
His friend, Peter, dead? Hand shaking, he felt for the desk drawer again and looked inside. The empty tin of fudge rattled in the drawer as he slammed the drawer closed with lifeless fingers. Someone was lying. Things like that did not happen in Devon. He hadn’t seen Peter for a while, and he hadn’t been answering his letters about Agatha, but still… “How did it happen?”
“Carriage overturned, my lord. I suspect foul play but can’t be sure.”
Henry cleared his throat and stared at the empty top of his desk. No wonder why Agatha had gone in a hurry, but why go at all? Why not wait so that they could all travel down in comfort, and she could have their support?
Patrick spoke again. “There’s a daughter. She’s still alive, in an orphanage.”
Of course there was, she must have been all of twelve or thirteen years old. Peter’s infrequent letters were full of her doings. Agatha spoke of being an aunt occasionally, but he had paid no notice.
“Orphanage?” he roared.
Patrick cowered in his chair. “I thought it best… there was no one else, I mean no one else came forward to claim her or take her in.”
Henry stood and banged his desk. “Smythe! Smythe!” The butler stepped into the room immediately. “Take this man away and find out where Agatha’s niece is. Ready the coach and men. We leave for Devon immediately.”
“What about lunch, my lord?”
“Never mind lunch!”
Striding into the hall, Henry pulled open the under-stairs cupboard. On his hands and knees, he pulled up the mops and buckets and pails. But he couldn’t find it, no glass jar of moldy jam could be seen.
She really wasn’t coming back.
As Smythe hauled the unfortunate magistrate past the under-stairs cupboard, Henry bowed his head and patted the breast pocket of his coat. Slowly, he traced his finger around the delicate gold band. Leaving it in his pocket, he grabbed his coat from a waiting footman. Thank god he was already wearing breeches. The journey to Honiton was a long one.
The post coach was full of passengers. Being last to buy a ticket, Agatha found herself wedged into the corner of the coach. She sat next to a large woman who began to chatter the moment the horses moved.
Agatha did not feel like talking. She wanted to sob for her brother and his wife. Despite their differences, they had been family. She rebuffed the round lady’s advances and hung grimly onto the window as the coach rattled at high speed along the west road out of London. The lady sat back with a huff and spoke to the other passengers, who were more receptive. She spitefully dug her elbow into Agatha’s side, making the small space that she was wedged into even more crammed, but soon gave up in surprise as her elbow clashed against the jar of jam Agatha had pushed under her coat. Mrs. B. had not mentioned jam and mold in her conversations with Caroline and Emily in Conversations on Science. She had wanted to write to the author, Jane Marcet, to consider covering it in her next volume; after all, Mrs. B. was forever prattling about covering highly interesting topics in their next conversations, and yet those conversations did not materialize in the book.
Against all odds, Agatha fell asleep, cradling her last memories of the house in Mount Street to her. She awoke as they passed through Newbury. Night had drawn in, and the coach was halting at an inn for dinner.
“Ten minutes stop,” shouted the coach driver. “Anyone not back on the coach will be left behind.”
As Agatha fell from the coach, she looked immediately for the privies. An outhouse at the back of the inn provided some room and overflowing chamber pots. She sighed, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
As she returned to the coach, she became aware that she hadn’t thought to pack anything to eat. Young boys hawked trays of pies in the courtyard of the inn where the carriage stood. As her stomach rumbled, Agatha realized that she did not have any money readily available to buy one of the delicious smelling pies, as it was all tied up against her bodice. She dithered for a minute, wondering whether to go back to the privy and take out a coin. Her grief made her actions fuddled and slow.
“One minute warning!”
She scrambled back on the coach. She had been hungry before, and she had eaten a large breakfast. She would hold out till the next stop. She would.
It took a day and a half to reach Honiton. The large lady left early the next day. No one took her place. With relief, Agatha was able to stretch out. She managed to extract some money at the next stop the coach made. The boy selling food at this inn looked at her suspiciously as she handed over the golden coin. He did not ask too many questions. However, Agatha noticed that she did not get as much back in change as she should have done. As she fumbled with the coins, she nearly cried. She had so little and now she and her niece, oh god, her niece, had even less.
As the coach arrived in Honiton, Agatha looked out wearily at the picturesque little town. It was crowded with lace shops and overflowing with market day visitors from the surrounding villages. After leaving the coach and asking directions, she arrived stumbling at the orphanage on the edge of the town.
Apprehensively, Agatha looked for a bell to ring at the front door. Seeing none, she banged her fist against its peeling wooden panels. The door opened a crack; a large, broad figure stood immobile behind it. When the figure did not move, she pushed on the door herself, pressing it open with her bag.
Agatha fell into the dark hallway of the house. The large man who had opened the door continued to look at her silently.
“Where is the house owner?” Agatha asked.
The man shrugged, his gaze flicking up and down her stained dress. “In the back.”
“William! William! Where are you?” A rotund lady with a merry face bustled into the hallway, immediately filling it with warmth. “There you are!” she said. “It’s lovely of you to come back and visit.”
Agatha coughed to gain the woman’s attention. The lady stared at her with large eyes. Unsure what to say, Agatha withdrew the scrap of fabric the magistrate had given her and showed it to her.
“My name is Agatha Beauregard. Thomas Patrick gave me this scrap of material,” she said simply.
The woman’s face creased in a smile, “Thank the Lord, one of our orphans has family! We thought that you wouldn’t be found. Poor mite. Let me just fetch the record book to match the material.”
Agatha shifted from foot to foot. “I was in London. Patrick found me only two days ago. I came at once…”
“Such a tragedy.” The woman shook her head.
Agatha gulped. Tears threatened in her eyes. Realizing what she had said, the woman looked at Agatha directly.
“I’m so sorry, where is my head? That must have been your brother.” She paused and took a breath for a second. “Come through for some tea. William, get Mary would you love? And I will get the record book.”
Agatha opened her mouth. She was pronouncing her niece’s name wrongly. But the stout woman incongruously pushed the large man laughingly down the corridor and then opened a door on the left which led into a sunshine-filled room.
“I am Mrs. Cooper,” she said over her shoulder as she left a dazed Agatha in the room before bustling out. Whilst the room was lovely, it was noticeable that it needed attention. The furniture was threadbare. There was a large damp patch on the wall. Regret filled Agatha that her niece had been left here for ten days. She would have been there for longer if the magistrate hadn’t found her.
Mrs. Cooper returned with a large portfolio under arm and a tray which held an enormous pot and two cups. Setting down the portfolio, she poured a generous portion of water into each cup, the hot water running almost clear. Mrs. Cooper looked rueful as she saw Agatha watching the pot.
“We haven’t much money, least of all for tea. It’s a luxury. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
Agatha nodded vigorously. She did not want to appear rude. As Mrs. Cooper set the cups down on a low table, the door to the room creaked open again and a small figure crept in. Agatha said nothing, taking in the curly red mop of hair and sad, hazel eyes. Mrs. Cooper placed her finger to her lips and turned to Agatha.
“She’s afraid of strangers,” she whispered. “I’m not sure when you last saw her, better give her some space. She’s a very shy girl still.”
Agatha sat back and tried to concentrate on the cup of tea in her hand. All her senses cried out to enfold the girl in her arms. She was dressed in a pinafore dress, her hair scraped back, a bruise on her temple. She looked much younger than her thirteen years. As Mrs. Cooper started to talk loudly about the weather, her niece moved slowly closer, from chair to chair, evincing a great deal of interest in the floor.
Then it seemed as though she had made a decision. She crossed to where Agatha sat and hauled herself onto the low sofa. She placed one hand lightly on Agatha’s dress and with the other thrust her thumb into her mouth.
Mrs. Cooper and Agatha continued their desultory conversation. Mrs. Cooper took Agatha’s piece of material and matched it successfully with the other scrap that was held in the portfolio.
The small girl leaned in to Agatha and murmured softly, “Auntie.”
Agatha’s heart clenched. She gathered the girl to her and kissed her brow. She was only a few years younger than herself. Whatever happened from now on, her niece would always have her.
“Who is the man that greeted me at the door?” she said softly, changing the subject now that the small girl sat quietly beside her. Mrs. Cooper dropped her cheerfulness.
“William Standish? His mother was killed in a mill accident. Never knew who his father was. William’s was here for three years. Barely speaks. Probably because I do most of the talking for him. Somehow I seem to tell him everything. He’s back for a visit—he was apprenticed out to the blacksmith in Brambridge. Now he’s the master smith there.” She looked at her hands for a while. “Although I run this place, I see what it does to the children. I can’t give them love like a parent, and many come here with horrific stories, but I do what I can. Enough of that. Where are you going to go now?”
Agatha trusted Mrs. Cooper. She was kind, but if the people who had killed her brother and sister-in-law knew where she was, then life would become worse for Agatha and her niece.
“I’m not sure,” she said guardedly. “We need to find somewhere to live.”
“You had best pick up your brother’s belongings first, then. We have them all in the outhouse. Thomas Patrick told me that within two days of your brother’s death, the landlord that held Peter’s mortgage had packed up his belongings and set them on the roadside for people to take away. Thomas Patrick felt bad he hadn’t taken in Mary, see, so brought everything here. We haven’t touched anything.”
Agatha hadn’t thought of her brother’s belongings. She had assumed that the house would be available for them both to go to whilst they looked to move elsewhere. The callousness of the owner was cruel but not unusual.
“Thomas Patrick will sort you out. I’m sorry though, love, you can’t stay here. We have no money to feed you.”
“I don’t want any food, but please could I stay in the outhouse overnight? I need time to sort out accommodation. I will pay you…” Agatha looked hopefully at Mrs. Cooper. Although she had slept on the first leg of the journey in the coach, her muscles ached from being cramped all the time.
Seeing Mrs. Cooper’s doubtful face, she reached into her bodice and felt around. She extracted two gold coins and held them outstretched, nodding at her niece. “For Mary’s keep, and for a night in the outhouse.” Agatha knew that she had paid more that this was worth, but the sad condition of the orphanage and the kindness of Mrs. Cooper to her niece were obvious.
Mrs. Cooper was stunned. Grasping the gold coins, she danced around the room. “We can repair the roof with this, and fix the damp patch. Thank you, thank you!”
As Agatha lay down beneath the leaky thatch in the outhouse, she stared at the midnight blue sky. Even the stars had hidden themselves. For the first time the weight of responsibility clutched heavily at her chest. Responsibility for another person. Rolling over, she arranged the sacking she lay on more closely to her body. She’d only ever thought of herself, her freedom, her wishes. And yet the thought of another’s needs crushed all of her paltry wants. Was this how Henry felt, day in day out, as he had yet again told her how to behave, of her influence on Victoria?
Ma… no she would no longer call her niece that. She would change her name to Harriet. If someone was setting out to find them, then hopefully they would dismiss the small young family. And there would be no more of her scientific nonsense. She would do her best by Harriet.
He’d finally found her. Staring in through the window, Henry watched as Agatha moved the quill across the paper, balled it up and started again. The vicar in Honiton had recognized his description of a small woman towing a child and sent him in the direction of Brambridge, a small village not ten miles away by the sea. Henry pushed down a cough. Brambridge, a place he never thought he would come back to, never wanted to come back to even.
He’d spent the day watching Agatha’s movements as she cleaned the Brambridge Vicarage and heard the barbed comments about the parentage of Agatha’s niece dropped by Mrs. Madely the vicar’s wife. Holding his breath, he had waited as Agatha’s skin turned pale but she turned not a hair from the odious woman.
When had her spirit been broken? His heart had ached as he followed Agatha and her niece from the vicarage to a small damp cottage. It was obvious that Agatha had tried to make the musty place a home, hanging paintings on the wall, dishes over the sink and an ornate knife behind the door for unwanted intruders.
Agatha’s candle guttered as a particularly strong gust of wind banged the window casements and rustled the thatch. A large banging sound from the window above him erupted after the gust of wind. Cursing, Henry slid along the side of the cottage and knocked lightly at the front door.
She didn’t answer. Moving back to the window, he looked in. Agatha had disappeared. The hunting knife he had seen on the back of the door had also gone. Stifling a groan, he flattened himself against the wall and moved back to the front door. He knocked on it again.
Still no answer. A window banged at the back of the cottage. The rustle of the bushes was audible even above the sound of the howling wind. With a small laugh, Henry detached himself from the wall and sauntered back to his original hiding place.
His smile widened. Agatha bent away from him, the large hunting knife clutched in her hands, sawing away at the bushes beneath the window. Her skirts were caught in the prickly thorns.
She was so intent on what she was doing that she did not notice him until he was upon her.
“First rule of espionage, Agatha,” he growled in her ear, stealing his hands around her waist. “Don’t wear light-colored clothing on a moonlit night when spying on someone. You are so very easy to see.”
Agatha tensed. He could feel her heart beating through her chest, although her body seemed to sink into his strong hands.
“Henry… Lord Anglethorpe?” Her voice came out hoarse and breathy. She tried to turn. “I… I’m trapped.”
Slowly Henry let go of her waist, the heat from her body leaching quickly away from his hands. He knelt and deftly freed the skirt from the plant, plucking the torn cotton away from the thorns. As he stood again, his great coat fluttered in the wind. She stared at him, wide eyed.
He couldn’t stop himself. Bending his head towards her, he raised his hand to the delicate arch of her neck. Slowly he drew her towards him, tipping her head back into the moonlight, and dropping his chin down towards hers. Her mouth, seemingly of its own volition, parted.
Slowly he drew his fingers underneath her eyes.
“You look tired, Agatha.” He stepped away. Control, he needed control. “Let’s go inside. I want to know where you have been.”
Agatha stared at him and narrowed her eyes. He dropped his gaze and followed her as she silently led him inside. A candle still guttered in a small pewter dish, although it was getting low.
“Sit here,” she said as she pointed to the only chair. “I’ll get you some water.”
“Thank you.” Henry sighed as he slid into the old wing backed chair next to the banked fire. He had ridden all the way from London, barely stopping to find food. His thighs burnt from the constant thrust of the saddle and his back ached from the jolting gallop.
Agatha stepped into a small room beyond where he sat. Henry gazed upwards at the only ornament on the mantelpiece, Agatha’s experimental jar of jam, his jam. Standing, he put out a tentative hand and pulled the solid glass jar towards him. Weighing it in his hand, he resumed sitting, tapping at its lid as he waited.
Agatha reappeared and held out a glass of water. “I’m sorry.” She cleared her throat and tried again. “I’m sorry that I left so quickly. I hope Patrick told you what had happened… when I heard my niece was in an orphanage, I…”
“I would have done the same.” Henry turned his gaze to her. The glints of the flames lit her eyes. “Although I might have asked for some help before I left.”
Agatha handed him the water and folded her arms across her chest.
“Do you know how worried Victoria is for you?” Henry took the glass and put it on the floor.
“I did not mean to cause any problems, I just had to get here as quickly as I could.”
“Where is the child now?”
“Upstairs in the bedroom, she’s fine now. She was quiet when I first found her. But she has already made a friend, Lord Stanton’s son.” Agatha coughed. “He’s a little older than her, but you could say they share a taste for the dramatic.”
Henry raised his eyebrows. Stanton’s son. Granwich had mentioned him. “Why didn’t you come straight back to London?”
Agatha hung her head. “We have no money,” she mumbled. “With Peter’s death there is nothing left. I am as I was before, a penniless woman.”
“But if you are as you were before, I repeat, why did not you come back?”
Agatha stared at the floor. “Because with Peter’s death, my links to you and your sister fall only to my friendship with Victoria. I would be living in your house, and with the scandal that has befallen me with Fashington, no man will want to marry me. I would effectively be living on your coin.”
“That would not matter to m… us.”
“And if I came back to London with a small child, what would the ton think? No matter how much I denied it, and despite the ludicrous age difference they would believe that she was illegitimate. Peter never came to town. No one would support me.”
“I would,” Henry said quietly. “I would support you. Nobody would dare contradict me.”
Agatha clenched her fists. “It’s not the case that they wouldn’t contradict you. But they would still discuss us. And we would still be penniless, living at your largesse.”
“You could marry me.”
Agatha stared at him. “And for what reason would you do that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why would you want to marry me, Henry? You’ve never cared for me. Don’t do this, don’t do that. You couldn’t wait to marry me off to Fashington. What do you really want?”
The words stuck in his throat. He couldn’t tell her about his need to marry to disguise his activities. His need to marry someone that would never love him.
His desperate realization that perhaps he cared for her more than he cared for himself.
“It seems like a good idea.”
Taking the jar of jam gently from Henry’s hand, Agatha placed it back on the mantelpiece. She stared at it intently. He watched as her eyes flickered over its form.
“No,” she whispered. “Not anymore.”
5 years later, Brambridge 1813
Where was she? Agatha raced up the stairs to the small bedroom that Harriet slept in. The bed covers lay cleanly pulled over Harriet’s bed. They hadn’t been slept in at all. Oh dear god. What had she done now? Cramming a hand in her mouth, Agatha bit back a silent scream.
Outside, Isabelle, their decrepit pony, let out a large neigh. Agatha had left her tied to the cart, in her desperation to find out where Harriet had gone. She had driven the pony hard down the dusty tracks from Ottery St Mary, blearily swearing all the cant phrases she could remember. Harriet was meant to have been visiting Mrs. Denys.
Mrs. Denys hadn’t seen her for several months.
Clattering back down the stairs, Agatha glanced from side to side in the room. Her brother’s paintings hung around the walls, the hearth was dead. Her eyes came to rest on the jam jar on the mantel piece, its insides now completely white.
“I promised myself,” she whispered. Shouting, she swept the jar to the floor. “I’ve done everything properly.” The jar bounced on the hearth rug but did not shatter. Not even a shard broke from it. She fell to her knees and gathered up the cold glass. “I’ve still ruined everything.”
She knew where Harriet had gone. She was on that blasted smuggling boat the Rocket with him, the newly returned prodigal Lord Stanton. How many times had she told Harriet that he wasn’t going to come back? That the wanted man could not return whilst his father was alive?
Scrabbling at a box on the hearthside, she unearthed a piece of paper. They needed to leave Brambridge. Nothing good would come of Harriet’s experience.
Dipping her quill in a small well of ink, Agatha paused. Henry or Victoria? She shuddered. The last time she had seen Henry he had been standing outside the Prince of Wales Inn, smugly linked arm in arm with Celine, Celine the courtesan who had helped her escape from Charles Fashington.
Her heart still said Henry. Damn her heart.
Laying her quill on the table, Agatha rested her cheeks on her knuckles. Five years it had been. Five long years of looking after her niece. It had been hard. Hard not to try and clip Harriet’s wings, wanting to keep her safe, unnoticed, away from harm.
For the first year she had held her head high, completing whatever work the vicar’s wife set her, scraping together the money to educate Harriet, to keep the clothes on their backs. Each time that an object or thought reminded her of London she had pushed it back. She had made the right decision; there had been no more trouble. Life was quiet, she didn’t put a foot wrong.
Agatha closed her eyes and grimaced. But then she’d started to really listen to herself as she spoke to Harriet. It had been after James Stanton had dragged Harriet to the cottage and informed Agatha that she had been climbing the apple trees again. Heart in her mouth with fear, she hadn’t been able to contain herself. [No more of this theatre nonsense, _]she’d said, _confine it to our home. And then she’d stopped, a feeling of déjà vu sweeping over her.
She was telling her niece to stop doing everything she liked most in the world, because she feared for her safety. She cared for Harriet deeply.
Henry had said just the same thing. [_No more of these experiments, confine it to my home. _]She’d hated him for it. Made up names for him. Blamed him when her behavior had finally cost her her freedom, the very thing that she was trying to protect.
Hiccupping, Agatha picked up her quill and grimaced. Look at her now, confined to a dark hovel, her niece all but lost, wanting to run back to the only people that had ever cared for her. Yes. Henry had cared for her, looked out for her. Even made the ultimate offer of marriage to help her.[_ _]She hadn’t been as alone as she had thought.
No. She couldn’t go to him. The shame was still too great. She wouldn’t be able to strip the emotion from her words, the desperate need to wind time back. There had been too many times she had picked up the pen to write to Henry, to accept his offer to ask him to look after her, to take her away. Until it was too late, the succession of his mistresses a continued talking point in the village. It was just too late.
Gazing at the walls, Agatha inventoried their worldly possessions. Books, sewing basket and paintings. She had boxes for them all. The hunting knife would stay, it was not hers to take. It had been in the cottage when she had taken possession of it, pushed behind the grate in the hearth.
Shuffling her legs, her feet knocked against the jam jar which rolled away from her. Agatha stared at the floor where the cold glass rested on the stone flags. It had done its job admirably well, a stark symbol of everything she had lost through being headstrong. She had only needed to put her hand in her pocket for her small book each time a rainbow reflected through the glass, or steam condensed on a window, and in reflex her eyes would search out the jar on the mantelpiece. She would draw her hand out of her skirts again and turn to another mundane activity—washing the vicar’s smock perhaps, or darning his wife’s table cloths.
And yet still they had come undone. Where was Harriet? She should have come back by now. She’d heard them searching the beach, the shouts that no survivors had yet been found. It was so hard not being able to do anything.
Sniffing, Agatha looked down at the paper. The only thing she could do would be to prepare for the future should Harriet come back. Would Victoria want to see her? Her letters had always been so dark, the melancholy pouring through them in the firmly rounded handwriting. She’d tried so many times to write back, and yet every time she had failed there too. There was nothing that she could say that would make anything any better.
Agatha’s thumb tensed and the nib of the quill snapped. With a gasp of frustration, she stood and retrieved another.
Dear Victoria, she wrote. I am writing to you as my friend, my only friend…
The summer storm that had arisen suddenly calmed as quickly as it had arrived. Henry leaned against the veranda of Berale House and looked out towards the calm sea. If he looked back into the house he would lose all perspective, the ghosts of his mother and father would overwhelm him. Gods, why had Agatha had to choose Brambridge of all places to hide? He had been forced to reopen the family home. Staying anywhere else in Devon would have caused gossip. The villagers still talked of the six months his mother had spent alone in the house with no one to visit her. Henry clenched at the balustrade with tight knuckles. His mother had refused to see anyone before her death.
“Report, Ames,” he said dully.
“The last source I found said that Lord Foxtone might have known something, but he’s dead now.”
“What a waste of time.” Every avenue he explored lead to a dead end. He was never going to find out what his father had been looking for when he died. Seven years he had been searching now, and the nearest he had got was killing his father’s murderer. Closing his eyes, he inhaled slowly. “Any news on Mister Herr?”
Ames was silent for a few seconds. “I know you are not going to want to hear this, but all evidence of his activities died a few years ago.”
Pushing his hand into his coat, Henry gripped his pocket watch. “You don’t need to dance around the bush, Ames. At the time when Agatha left London, you mean.”
“Renard says that Stanton still hasn’t found out what is going on here.”
Blinking, Henry switched gears as Ames continued with his report. “Bloody hell. Brambridge is becoming untenable. If the most formidable scout in the British army can’t work out what the hell is going on, then I’m going to need to move ports.”
“You might need to do that more quickly, sir. The Rocket nearly foundered last night with its… ahem… cargo. Stanton was knocked overboard.”
“Bloody hell.” Henry wiped a tired hand across his face.
“Er, on that subject, sir…”
“Miss Aggie was seen visiting the post office this morning. She sent a letter to your sister.”
“Good god.[_ Finally_].”
Ames nodded. “There’s more. She’s packing, sir. All of those paintings you like are going into boxes.”
Ames kicked at a veranda post. “Missing.”
Henry stared at his valet. “Missing? Missing? Send Bill in. Now!”
Ames disappeared into the house. Henry stared down the pristine lawns to where the weathervane on his stables turned idly in the slight breeze.
Henry turned. “William Standish,” he said slowly. “Where in the hell is Harriet Beauregard?”
Bill leaned his large form against the veranda post that Ames had kicked so violently only moments before. “We’re searching the beach. Ned’s covering the cliffs. We’ve got to do it quiet like. Some people would like nothing more than to see James hang.”
Henry nodded. Didn’t he just know it.
“Of course first in line would be Miss Aggie.” Bill smirked and then smoothed the smile off is face as Henry glared at him. “She’s a very proper woman of course. Proper boring.”
“She didn’t used to be,” Henry muttered. He folded his arms. “Did you know she can throw knives?”
“Agatha Beauregard?” Bill frowned. “And I thought Harriet was the dramatic one.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“Sir!” Ames pushed his head through Henry’s study doors onto the veranda. “Jaquard says that Harriet has appeared at Miss Aggie’s. In his words, Jaquard said, ‘Miss Aggie looks fit to boil.’”
“What does that mean?” Bill stepped away from the veranda post.
“It means something extraordinary is about to happen.”
Ames popped his head back through the study doors. “The baggage has sent a note, Sir.”
Bill frowned. “Baggage?”
Henry sighed. “Ames’ code word for Miss Agatha. What does it say?”
“Er. Dear Lord Anglethorpe. You might wish to know that Lord Stanton is lying on the beach in a bad way. You may wish to tell your associates. Yours, Miss A. Beauregard.”
“Good God,” Bill breathed.
“It certainly is a relief he’s alive. Your head would have been on the block if he had died.” Henry jerked his head at Ames, who retired back inside.
“No, I didn’t mean that. The letter. It’s icy cold, emotionless. It’s almost as if she hates you.”
Leaning back over the railings and watching the intricately wrought weathervane on the stable block swing in the wind, Henry sighed. “Much more than that, Bill. She detests me.”
“So it was err, Harriet that made you come back?” Lady Victoria Colchester patted her hair. She perched primly on the corner of Agatha’s bed, gazing out of the window at the mansions that lined the opposite side of Upper Brook Street.
Agatha sat down at the small vanity table and pulled open one of the drawers. “I felt she could benefit from some ton company, and perhaps even a season.” Ha. And how was she going to pay for that?
“I am glad she did, otherwise I would never have managed to persuade you to stay here at Colchester Mansions with me.”
Agatha smiled. Harriet had unexpectedly caught the ton’s attention. Sponsored by Victoria, Harriet was already being invited to musicales and low key soirees. Chantelle, Victoria’s lady’s maid, had obligingly remade some of Victoria’s dresses for Harriet. Agatha was not sure what she was going to do if Harriet was invited to some of the more haut ton balls.
“No. You know that you will always have a place to stay with me, Aggie, don’t you?”
“You could have both come and stayed with me before, but unfortunately Lord Colchester was difficult.”
Victoria’s hands stopped patting her hair. She turned to face Agatha. “Pardon?”
“I read every one of your letters. I kept them all.” Agatha withdrew her hand from the desk drawer. The letters filled her palm, full of Victoria’s distinctive flowing hand writing.
Victoria clapped a hand to her mouth. “Why didn’t you write back?”
“I did, once. Just before we arrived in London here at Upper Brook Street. I was getting desperate. Harriet has grown up so fast… and then there was a man… I could see it all ending in disaster like it did for myself.”
“Why didn’t I receive the letter?”
Agatha hung her head. “Events overtook us. We left for London more quickly than I thought. The letter arrived splashed with mud on the third day after we arrived to stay with you. I saw Carruthers with it in the hall and took it from him. I didn’t want you to read the letter—it was so self-pitying.”
Victoria stood and grasped Agatha’s shoulder. She looked at the bundle of letters. “I wouldn’t have minded. Some of my letters are also full of self-pity,” she said quietly.
“Well now you are a widow, and you can do what you want.”
“Hmm, a merry widow. At least you are back being invited to balls.” Victoria gasped. “We had better go, otherwise we will be late to Lady Guthrie’s. It’s promised to be the ball of the season.”
“Is [_he _]coming with us?”
“Of course. Agatha, he’s my brother. He’s waiting in the carriage outside.”
Agatha drew in a breath. It was too soon, she wasn’t ready to see him. Pushing her chair back across the carpeted floor, she took a long last look in the small vanity mirror. What exactly wasn’t she ready for?
A light knock sounded on the door. The incomer didn’t wait for a come-in, pushing open the door with a crash.
“Aggie, Aunt Aggie, the coach has been waiting for thirty minutes and Carruthers says that Lord Anglethorpe is going to blow his lid if we don’t… oh. Hello, Lady Colchester.” The petite figure shook her bright red ringlets. “Um.”
Victoria laughed. “You know you should call me Victoria, Harriet.” She swept towards the door and laid a hand on Harriet’s arm. “Let’s wait in the hall whilst Agatha collects herself. And you can tell me about your latest theatre outing.”
Harriet nodded. “I was rather taken by the lead actor, he wasn’t Kean of course, although I haven’t seen Kean perform yet, however…”
Their voices faded away as the door shut behind them.
Agatha rubbed at her face, smoothing at the lines at the corner of her eyes as a dull weight settled in her stomach. Sun lines, worry lines, she had them both. Lifting her chin she nodded at her reflection in the mirror and inclined her head. “Pleased to see you,” she mouthed. Not good enough. Putting a hand against her bodice, she grimly pushed up the edges of her lips. “How delightful to renew our acquaintance.” Her reflection stared back at her, lines deep in its forehead as it frowned. Oh dear. Sweeping her brushes off the vanity table, Agatha pushed herself to her feet and pulled her pelisse from the back of the chair.
Victoria took her arm in the hall as Smythe opened the front door. Agatha gasped as Henry stepped back from the other side of the door, his hand on the knocker.
“I… I was coming to get you… all.” His hand fell back to his side.
Agatha straightened her mouth. “Pleased to delightful our acquaintance,” she said. She froze as Henry frowned at her.
Victoria jerked at her arm as Harriet smothered a giggle behind them.
Agatha took a deep breath. “Lord Anglethorpe, how delightful to see you again.” She tensed as Henry’s face cleared. She stared over his shoulder. “Lah, what a lovely carriage. Is it not time that we should go?” She could still hear Harriet’s skirts rustling behind her as she smothered silent laughter. “Harriet, shall we?”
“Err… yes.” Harriet’s curls bounced lightly on her shoulders as she hurried down the steps to the carriage, and waited for the footman to hand her in.
Agatha cocked her head on one side and pushed the smile she had practiced onto her face.
Henry bent forward. “Miss Beauregard. I must ask, are you quite alright?”
She dropped the smile. “Yes, perfectly, why?”
“You seem to be in some pain.”
Agatha tensed, clutching at Victoria’s arm. She should have asked Harriet for some acting lessons.
Victoria gave her a sideways look and then glanced back at Henry. “I think you will find, dear brother, that you are standing in our way.”
“Oh. Yes.” Henry drew back as Victoria towed Agatha down the steps and into the carriage.
Victoria was right about the crowd. A long line of carriages waited outside the door of the Mayfair mansion in Dering Street. Lady Guthrie, the host, would be pleased with her success. It took half an hour for their carriage to reach the front door of the large house. Agatha arranged her skirts firmly across her knees and looked away from the tempting pavement upon which it would only have taken five minutes to walk to the house.
Victoria rustled gently next to her as she leaned slightly against the side of the carriage. She had been lucky; Victoria had kept all of Agatha’s dresses from five years before. The years of hard work in Brambridge had kept Agatha’s figure the same, although she filled out the dresses more tightly in some places than others. She swallowed and flicked a quick glance at Henry, who sat motionless on the other side of the carriage. His blond hair was as bright as ever, but cut shorter, accenting his pointed patrician nose. He caught her gaze, his blue eyes deepened to a turquoise green. Agatha looked away.
As they drew up to the steps to the house, Henry got out first, his boots clattering against the fine steps of Victoria’s carriage. Silently he put out a hand. Agatha lifted her chin, déjà vu striking her. Grasping lightly at her skirts, she lifted them so that just the toes of her slippers were revealed, no more. Bending, she edged out of the carriage and, staring straight ahead, she grasped Henry’s hand.
“Thank you, kind sir,” she said in a medium pitched voice.
Henry whipped his head round and stared at her in obvious incredulity, his eyebrows fast disappearing into his hairline.
“What about me?” Victoria called as Henry let go of Agatha’s hand.
“Oh. Err. I…”
“I need some bloody help, Henry.”
Agatha blinked and, holding her breath, watched Henry out of the corner of her eye. Would he blame her for Victoria’s language?
“Oh pshaw. I can do what I want. No point in being a widow if you can’t.”
“I don’t care about that. I wanted to point out that not drawing attention to yourself normally allows you to do everything that you want and more.”
Agatha glanced fully at Henry in surprise and whipped her head away again. He was staring at her intently, a serious line to his brow, as if his words had been for her and her alone. Her face burned as he continued to stare at her before turning away back to the carriage.
“Hmm.” Victoria looked thoughtful as Henry handed her to the pavement and then Harriet.
“Ladies?” Henry held out his arms.
Victoria shook her head. “No, take Agatha. I think I’ll go ahead with Harriet. I can see some friends of mine already in the receiving line.”
Harriet looked back as Victoria drew her away and batted her eyelashes for an instant. Agatha glared at her and took Henry’s arm.
“What, no protest?”
“Pro—” Henry’s face tilted slightly away from her, a lock of blond hair falling over his eyes. She sighed. “There doesn’t seem to be any point.”
The candles set up the steps flared as a small breeze ruffled her flimsy wrap. A rainbow danced briefly across the steps as the light refracted through a window.
“I wonder how it does that.” Henry gazed at the dancing light.
The changing speed of light through a lens split the light into different wavelengths. Agatha shuffled her feet slightly. “Goodness, isn’t it beautiful. I’m sure a learned thinker could tell us.” Had she overdone the insipidity in her voice? Five years of trying and she still hadn’t mastered just the right tone.
Henry frowned. “Agatha.”
“Shall we join the queue?” Agatha stepped forward in the direction of the line of guests that snaked up the steps. Hesitantly, Henry followed as she pulled him gently by the sleeve.
“Miss Beauregard,” Henry tried again. “Do you not have anything to say?”
“On what, pray, Lord Anglethorpe?” Agatha took a few steps forward into the hall as the queue moved.
“The rainbow. I’m sure you know what causes it.”
“Oh goodness, no.”
Henry frowned. “I do want to know, Agatha.”
Agatha choked and glared at him. “Rainbows be damned, I wasn’t talking about that.”
“At last,” Henry muttered.
Agatha didn’t care. She could see who was doing the receiving at the entrance to the ballroom, a beautiful woman in a midnight blue dress. It was Lady Foxtone. Why was she there? She twisted round and hunted for escape through the crowds, but Henry gripped her arm tightly. The way behind them became blocked by newer ball goers.
“Lord Anglethorpe, please.”
He grinned at her. “Come on, Miss Beauregard, you won’t gain anything by dallying.”
“You don’t understand, she hates me!”
Henry turned to look at her, but it was too late. They were already up to the receiving party.
“Miss Beauregard,” Lady Foxtone murmured, straightening up. In a louder voice, she then said, “I thought I told you never to come to a gathering of mine ever again?”
The ballroom beyond fell silent, although a string quartet sawed valiantly on. Even the couples dancing faltered to a stop. Agatha took in a deep shuddering breath.
“Perhaps you thought that since Charles was back in town and he is now a lord you would try your luck again?”
The couples around them tittered.
“Your… your ball? But I received an invitation.” Agatha put a hand to her chest where a pain pulled at her rib cage.
“Did you not know? Oh, of course you did not, you were too busy in Devon.” Lady Foxtone sneered. “Lord Foxtone most unfortunately died just a short time after you left town, and I have recently married my darling Guthrie.”
Oh dear God. Lady Foxtone had become Lady Guthrie. Agatha shifted her eyes to the left, where an older, frailer gentleman stood silently by his wife. A young lady stood shyly behind him.
“Don’t you think you are being too hard on the gel, ‘Tisha? After all she does have an invitation.” Lord Guthrie’s voice was hoarse and sounded like he was at death’s door. Lady Guthrie’s face hardened.
“I’ll not have her ruining my ball again. Simms, Watkins, throw her out!”
Henry squared up to the advancing footmen. “Lay one hand on her and you will face the consequences,” he said, his tone hard. He turned to Lady Guthrie. “That was very badly done Lady Guthrie, very badly done.”
He nodded to Lord Guthrie, who looked aghast. Turning on his heel, Henry put a hand around Agatha’s waist and, pushing his way past interested party goers, thrust his way downstairs towards the outside, pulling her with him. At the entrance, he let go of Agatha and muttered swiftly with a slight man who had just entered, leaning against a walking stick as he jerkily moved forward. He nodded and made his way inside.
“Where’s Victoria?” Agatha pulled at her wrap, gasping at the air.
“I’ve just sent Freddie, Lord Lassiter, inside. He will get her out. I’m sure she will be quite pleased actually. She’s never liked Lady Guthrie.” Henry turned and put a hand on the small of Agatha’s back, the heat of his hand burned through the silk of her dress. “I work with Lord Guthrie. I’ll have a word with him.”
Agatha closed her eyes as the heat from Henry’s hand travelled through every part of her body. Was this what it felt like to be looked after, to knowingly be looked after? To not be alone? It was… glorious.
“What, no word of protest?”
She opened her eyes again slowly. Henry stared down at her and his eyes flicked to her mouth.
“I… I… no.”
The table in front of Henry rocked as Ames slapped down a large dish of pork stew.
“Porc et endives, my lord.” Ames turned and stamped to the side board. “Followed by riz a l’ancienne.”
Pork stew and old rice in other words. Goodness, Mrs. Noggin really was unhappy. Henry put out a hand to still the table as Ames let the bowl of rice fall hard against its wooden surface. Ames sniffed and wiped a towel across his hands.
“Will there be anything else, sir?”
Henry sighed. “Ames. What is wrong?”
“It’s Agatha, isn’t it?” Henry rubbed his face with his hand. Sitting in the carriage as they had left Lady Guthrie’s ball had been torture. Twice he’d tried to speak, but each time he had had not known what to say.
Ames drew out a chair and sat heavily on it. Henry watched, bemused, as Ames took his plate and fork and helped himself to the rice and stew.
“That’s my dinner.”
“I know. It’s just that every time you are angry, eating helps you. I thought I would try it myself.”
“I’m not normally angry, just mildly peeved.”
“Well, my lord, I am mildly peeved at the moment.”
Henry folded his arms. “What did you expect me to do?”
“You should have known that Lady Guthrie was Lady Foxtone! Good grief, Lady Guthrie is famous for her maliciousness. Her previous husband Lord Foxtone owned a large chain of confectionary shops. On the grand opening of the flagship shop in the Strand, he trod on her toe. In front of all the newspaper men that had been invited, she picked up one of their famous blackberry tarts, ate it in one mouthful, and said it was the worst that she had ever eaten!”
“A little over the top.”
p. “Hmm. Many thought that was out of character even for Lady Foxtone.”
Henry winced. He’d heard the story before himself. Lord Foxtone had been furious, but that hadn’t managed to arrest the wave of order cancellations that followed the newspaper publicity. The shops started to close within weeks. “I—”
“You move in those worlds, you know that once a hostess has barred a guest, they can’t enter the same ball again.” Ames speared a piece of pork with his fork.
“I didn’t know Lady Foxtone had become Lady Guthrie.”
Ames paused, his fork halfway to his mouth. “You didn’t know? The Hawk knows everything.”
“I haven’t been going to balls. I haven’t been interested.” Hadn’t been since Agatha had disappeared to Devon.
“Too busy chasing your mistresses, you mean.”
Henry shook his head. “Even that’s not what you think, Ames.”
“Why couldn’t you have just married her? It would have saved everything.”
“I wanted to.” Henry slapped a hand down on the table and stood, turning away to study his painting of the two horses. It was at this table that he had done what he had thought was best for her, forcing her into the engagement with Charles. If he hadn’t done that, then Agatha might not have run away.
Ames leaned back in his chair and pulled another fork and a bowl from the sideboard. He pushed it towards Henry. Pulling out his chair again, Henry sat and plunged the fork into the stew. He didn’t allow himself to speak until he had eaten several mouthfuls.
Ames spoke through the stew in his mouth. “I saw you both last night. She was like putty in your hands. You could have kissed her and hauled her away in your carriage and—”
Ames had been reading too many penny dreadfuls again. Henry tapped at the table. “She refused me. Marriage, I mean.”
Ames looked up in obvious astonishment. “You never said.”
Henry shrugged. “I didn’t want you to know. Gods, I didn’t want anyone to know. It hurt. More than I thought it would.”
“Berale House. That’s why you reopened it again.”
“Mmm. Yes. There didn’t seem to be any better solution. I needed it for business with Renard too.”
Ames pushed his bowl away. “What are you going to do now, then? The last time she was in London, you said she was no end of trouble.”
“She still is.”
Ames took a mouthful of stew.
Henry tapped his fork against his lips. “We’re going to do a Maximus.”
Ames spluttered, his half chewed spoonful of stew splattering to the plate. “Not the Maximus. Please, no.”
“Oh. I’m not going to do the Maximus. You are. Especially you are so keen on Miss Aggie.”
“Those bloody Etruscans again. It won’t turn into another Wales, will it?”
“You keep bringing up Wales. There was only one failing with the Welsh operation and that was because I didn’t quite fully master Welsh in time.”
“Two failings. It was a bloody disaster.”
“I defy anyone to ask where the privies are in Welsh whilst being extremely hungry and having to face up to the man that killed their father!”
“I don’t want to do the Maximus.”
The Maximus was what Ames had called it, a maneuver that a wily Roman had invited in the war with the Etruscans. In 300 BC Consul Quintus Fabius Maximus sent his own brother disguised as an Etruscan peasant into the Cimian Forest to win over the Umbrians to Rome. His brother was a master of disguises; fluent in the Etruscan language, he was successful in bring the Umbrians into the alliance with Rome. “All you will need to do is insert yourself as a footman into my sister’s household.”
Ames shook his head. “No learning any other languages?”
“Not even that. The worst that could happen would be that one of those odious little dogs my sister parades around will bite you on the ankles.”
“It doesn’t sound too bad.”
“I knew you would come round to my way of thinking.”
“What am I meant to be doing when I’m there?”
“Same thing as you did when she was last in London. Keep an eye on her.”
“And bring her into alliance with the Anglethorpe clan, sir?”
“Enough of your cheek, Ames. Let me work on that.” He’d wanted to kiss Agatha very much the night before. Too much. But he was conflicted. If she still detested him, she would never gladly receive his embraces. But the way she had looked at him… if she didn’t hate him, worse he dared to think, even harbored the smallest amount of feeling for him, then he wouldn’t—couldn’t marry her.
Ames sat back with a satisfied look on his face. “So what are you going to do about the rumors?”
Henry chewed at his bottom lip. That was one thing he couldn’t control. After Agatha had left, the on dits had raged about her disappearance and the break-up of the engagement between Charles and Agatha, yet little by little the worst had died down. With Agatha’s return, new rumors swirled, of the parentage of Harriet, Agatha’s ward, where she had been for the last few years. It was as Agatha had rightly predicted, many years before.
He sighed and pushed back from the table. “I will have to find Agatha and warn her. After last night she will be in no mood to talk. From the little I managed to get out of Carruthers, if I know anything about my sister, they’ll be sat in that back room at Colchester mansions, drinking whisky and smoking cigars.”
“You know,” Victoria said, inhaling perfumed smoke with a dreamy smile on her face, “it’s a good thing I own this house. I can do anything that I want and nobody cares. It was almost worth marrying that old stick Colchester.”
Agatha lay back in the winged chair that completed the book-lined room in which they sat. They were alone for the first time in a while; Harriet was attending a musicale, well chaperoned by one of Victoria’s acquaintances.
It had taken a while for Victoria to persuade Agatha into taking the cheroot. It lay still in her hand, unlit. She toyed with her knife, unwilling to cut the end off. Once she did, it was a slippery slope to her mind. Searching the room with her eyes, she could not see her jam jar. Damn, that normally deterred her from her worst excesses. But it was upstairs, hidden away in the cupboard.
“I’m not sure I would agree with that,” she murmured. “What about your brother?”
“Henry? Gracious, he’s too busy worrying about you again,” Victoria said. “Most deliciously, the things that you do far outweigh anything that I might have done. Five years rusticating in Devon, allowing your niece to dress as a man…”
A door slammed at the front of the house.
“Quickly!” Victoria cried. With quick jabs, she motioned to Agatha to put the cigar into the cleverly concealed ashtray that stood behind the wingback chairs. “I’ll distract him, you open the window and get out the incense. And do something with that knife!”
“It’ll be Henry. The blasted man always seems to know what I’m up to.”
“What were you saying about no one caring what you did?” Agatha shot back. She had to get rid of the cigar.
“It’s not what we are doing, it’s the fact that you are doing it with me. He will think you’ve gone back to your old ways.”
Oh dear. Stumbling across the room, Agatha fumbled with the catch on the window and slowly hauled open the sash. A plume of cold air sucked the perfumed smoke from the room, ruffling her wrap as it went. With care, she slid the knife onto the windowsill behind the curtain.
Henry slipped quietly through the door and sniffed the air. Agatha studied him anew from her semi-hidden state in the shadow of the curtains. He was still the catch of the season even though five years had rolled by and he still wasn’t married despite all the mistresses. Silver threads glinted in his blond hair, however he was still as muscular and lean as she remembered.
“I know you are in here, Miss Beauregard, and I know what you have been doing.”
Agatha sighed. Stepping out from the curtain, she dropped into a full curtsey and stayed in it, waiting.
“What the hell do you think you are doing, Agatha? Get up!”
She stared over his shoulder at the door. “I wasn’t hiding, my lord, nor was I concealing what I was doing.”
“I did not say you were concealing anything, I just said I knew what you had been doing.” Henry sauntered across the study to the desk, opened the top right-hand drawer and pulled a lever. He calmly selected himself a cheroot from the secret drawer that popped out.
“Now how did you know where they were kept, brother?” Victoria stood in the doorway, hands on her hips and a dangerous glint in her eye. Henry sat back in the desk chair with his eyes closed.
Agatha watched as tension coiled in her stomach. She had seen Henry behave this way before. His face was without expression and he made no mention of the smoke that still hung lightly in the room.
_Something was awfully wrong. Again. _
“I didn’t smoke the cigar,” she said hurriedly, standing upright. “I knew I shouldn’t do it.”
Henry frowned at her. “Victoria, go away.”
Victoria gaped and peered at her brother. Seeming to sense the same as Agatha, she turned on her heel and pulled the door to. The snick of the lock was the only sign of her anger.
Henry opened his eyes and selected another cheroot. Lighting it, he poured a glass of whisky from a decanter in the tantalus on the sideboard and held it out to her.
“Sit down, Agatha. And leave the knife there too, please.”
Frowning Agatha left the compromised safety of the curtain and, crossing the carpet, sat back in her customary chair, ignoring the glass of whiskey.
Really he was quite the conversationalist. Agatha picked at the braiding on the chair with her free hand. “No thank you.”
“Take a sip, Agatha.” Henry repeated. “You are going to need it.”
Hands trembling, Agatha stared at him as she took the glass from his large warm hands. For an instant as her hands clenched around his, she gasped. Snatching at the glass, she lifted it to her lips and knocked the contents back in one long swallow.
He steepled his fingers and placed his elbows on the desk. The sunlight on his face threw a bird-like shadow on the wall.
“It is as you feared, Agatha. Someone has remembered. I’m afraid that it is much worse this time.”
Agatha opened the door to Victoria’s room, her hands feeling for the knob automatically. With heavy steps, she trod across the carpet and stood, shoulders slumped in the half light.
Victoria turned from her vanity desk where she had been twirling her hair, her small dogs prancing around her ankles. “It will all be different this evening, Aggie. You’ll see,” she said softly.
Agatha fell back on the bed in Victoria’s room. “I can’t believe he knew where your cigars were.”
“He’s too bloody observant, is what he is,” Victoria muttered darkly. “He’s like a scientist, scrutinizing the minutiae of everything that you do.” She glanced up at Agatha. “I’m sorry, Aggie. I didn’t mean to mention—”
“No. It’s alright,” Agatha said slowly. Henry, a scientist. A person that fiddled and meddled and hypothesized and concluded.
[I’ve been analyzing the sources, but I cannot yet pinpoint the source _]he’d said, puffing at the cheroot, as Agatha had felt the fire of the whiskey burn in her stomach. _If I could just create a viable scenario into which this all fitted I could draw a suitable end to this debacle.
Bloody hell. Surely they were nothing alike? Agatha had given up on science anyway. Agatha groaned. The burn of the whisky in her stomach had been almost overwhelming, the taste of alcohol and herbs on her tongue beckoning her to investigate them.
“Get up, Aggie. I haven’t seen you with such little backbone for a while!” Victoria swung in her chair to watch her best friend. “You can’t give up now and go back to Devon. Think of all that you’ve come through. A few rumors never hurt anyone.”
“Try living in a small village.”
Victoria stared at her. “The ton is like a small village. But the people change and events move on. Up you get. We’ll be late.”
In the carriage, Victoria leaned over and pressed Agatha’s hand. “He’s not coming tonight, you know. He said he had to go off and deal with something.”
Agatha just knew Victoria was speaking of her brother. She took in a deep breath.
Victoria winked. “Better for us without him looking over our shoulders. We can have some real fun.”
Agatha nodded and took a deep breath as the carriage rocked to a halt in front of a large double fronted building. She sat straight as the footman stared in. A strange smile spread across his face as he held out a hand for her to exit the carriage. He was still holding her hand when Victoria stepped out. She stared at him in obvious incredulity and held out her hand.
“Don’t I know you?”
The footman dropped Agatha’s hand and hastily reached up for Victoria’s. “No, miss. Er, I’m new. John Smith at your service, miss.”
Agatha frowned. The man wasn’t going to last long if he didn’t realize that the correct form of address for Victoria was ‘my lady’. Quickly, she laid her hand on Victoria’s arm. “Come, Victoria, let’s go. I want to get this over with.”
The ball was smaller than Lady Guthrie’s despite the size of the mansion and was hosted by Lord Freddie Lassiter’s mother, Dowager Sutherland. They made it through the receiving line unscathed. At the top of the stairs, Freddie smiled and took Agatha’s gloved hand warmly. Dowager Sutherland was a different matter. Whilst they curtsied to each other, she looked down her nose at Agatha.
“Not sure what you’ve been doing, gel, but I don’t want any trouble at my ball.”
Freddie groaned. “Good grief, mother, we’ve spoken of this. They are just rumors, there is no substance to them. Agatha is Harriet’s aunt… you know.”
Dowager Sutherland’s face softened slightly although she sniffed again and looked suspiciously at Agatha.
Victoria reached a hand round Agatha’s elbow and gently tugged her towards the ballroom. “Let’s get a drink. I’m parched.”
At the champagne table Agatha picked a glass and cradled it in her hand. Gently she put it back on the table. It reminded her too much of Charles.
“There she is! They say that she threw over her fiancé because he wasn’t rich enough!”
Agatha gasped. Leaning on the white linen of the champagne table, she pushed herself up on tiptoes. The gossips were easy to see, seated in a small enclave, two matrons wearing garish turbans waiting for their daughters to come back from dancing.
“Never! I heard she had moved to the country and brought up a child which she said was her brother’s but who is well known to have been her own!” The matron’s purple turban bobbed up and down as she waved her finger in the ear.
Puce turban grimaced slightly. “I heard that she took many lovers amongst the smugglers on the coast. Just look at her relationship with that jumped up blacksmith.”
“Nooooo!” Purple turban seemed to groan in delight at the salacious details. “I must tell Mrs. Weatherby, she’d love to hear this. I see her now, Elissa! Oh Elissa!”
Agatha rocked back on her heels. It was as bad as Henry had said. But despite the rumors being insufferable, they did not break her bones, or bruise her body. Just her heart, and her reputation.
“Aunt! Aunt Agatha!”
Agatha shook her head, and smiled warmly. Harriet floated towards her, supported by Freddie, her small stature and head of bright red hair the perfect foil for Freddie’s harsh features.
“I thought I might see you here,” she said happily, grateful for the distraction.
“You look wonderful.” Harriet reached out a hand and stroked at the soft material of Agatha’s dress.
Agatha colored slightly. “Yes, it’s a great change from Devon.” She stared at Freddie, wondering at his easy smile. Did he not know of Harriet’s obsession?
“If you will excuse me, Miss Beauregard, I promised this Miss Beauregard a dance.” With a bow and a laughing goodbye, Freddie led Harriet off to the dance floor.
“I heard those awful women talking as I left.” Victoria grasped her by the elbow and pulled her away from the drinks table. “Don’t say another word. They are bird witted rattlepates. That Mrs. Weatherby is the worst.”
Agatha pulled distractedly at the neckline of her dress. “I’ve never felt so on show.” She sidled sideways towards the wall of the ballroom, dragging Victoria with her.
“Ah, Lady Colchester,” purred a voice. “Would you be so kind as to introduce me?”
Victoria gripped Agatha’s hand tightly. “Oh, err, why of course, ah, Mr. Daventry.” Victoria turned to Agatha, raising her eyebrows and wiggling her nose as she did so. “Mr. Daventry, my friend, Miss Beauregard.”
Mr. Daventry was of medium height, oiled back hair, a grease-stained coat and small potbelly. “Please grant me a dance, Miss Beauregard, I have so been looking forward to meeting you.”
Wordlessly, Agatha held out her dance card. Don’t make a scene. Follow what the ton dictates.
“I see you still have the waltz unspoken for, allow me.” Grabbing the dance card with his hand, Mr. Daventry scrawled his name next to the dance. “I so look forward to seeing you in a while, my dear.”
Agatha shuddered as he strutted away. But she had no time to contemplate him, as a veritable rush of gentlemen followed, from young blades of the ton to the lofty Earl Harding.
Victoria gazed at his name on Agatha’s dance card. She tapped at it and raised her chin, staring into the dancing crowd. “Be careful with him. Even though he is a friend of my brother’s, he is rumored to be quite a fast one, watch yourself.”
Agatha stared at her dance card. Every single dance had been signed for. And none of the names meant anything to her. Who was she really looking for on there? Henry? Mechanically she folded the dance card and thrust it into her skirts. She’d never seen him dance. In fact she rarely saw him among the debutantes and ball goers at all.
“I say, Miss Beauregard, I believe it is our dance.” Agatha looked up. A young man in military uniform bowed to her. She couldn’t remember his name.
“Is everything alright?” The man put out his hand.
Agatha took in a deep breath and shook her head. Taking his hand, she allowed herself to be led onto the dancefloor.
Unfortunately the time soon came around for the first waltz. As the violins started, Agatha heaved a sigh of relief, and sank into a chair by several large potted ferns. It seemed that she might escape the odious Mr. Daventry.
“Dear Miss Beauregard, I believe this is our dance!” Mr. Daventry stepped out in front of her. Taking her proffered hand for a longer than usual kiss, he led her to the dance floor.
Clutching her into his embrace, Mr. Daventry began to waltz jerkily around the floor. As his arms drew her in tighter and tighter, Agatha gasped and turned her face away from his ever approaching chin.
“That’s it, just like that.”
Agatha nearly missed a step as Mr. Daventry’s potbelly rubbed sinuously against her hip.
“You know, Miss Beauregard, we can get a whole lot closer chez moi.” A waft of garlic curled under Agatha’s top lip. “I’ve heard you are ever so experienced, and have no qualms in collecting a few more men for your delectation.”
She stumbled round a turn, shocked into silence. She should have stayed in Devon. Perhaps they could return there, it was a mistake to have come back. What was she thinking that the rumors couldn’t hurt her—?
“I can assure you,” the waft of fetid garlic continued, “that I may not have a blacksmith’s size, ahem, but that I can please you in many other ways.”
“I beg your pardon?”
In the corner of her eye, Agatha saw the string quartet move into view through the spinning couples. Mr. Daventry’s hand on her back inched lower towards her bottom. As they whirled past the ladies sitting at the edge of the hall, more than one matron followed their progress, mouths agape. A well of despair filled her; she hadn’t even done anything wrong and still she was causing a scene.
Agatha tried squirming but she was held rigid in Mr. Daventry’s odious embrace. The dance was nowhere near ending; they had only made one circle of the floor.
Agatha sighed. Thank god Henry wasn’t there. “I have no choice.”
“What’s that my lovely?” Mr. Daventry looked down at her, his face only inches from hers.
Rapidly calculating, Agatha jutted her hip out, stumbled slightly and swept her arms in a circle as if to continue the dance. Sometimes there were advantages to being a little clumsy.
Mr. Daventry flew into the musicians forming the string quartet, his too close potbelly pivoting on her hip as a fulcrum. His wandering hands hung outstretched in front of him as his bottom squeezed itself firmly into the space between the closely sat cellist and violinist.
“Ow! You bitch!” he cried as the angry cellist poked him with her bow. The violinist stood up in disgust, causing the hapless man to fall to the floor with his chin wedged behind the chair.
All dancing came to a stop.
“I’ll get you for that!” Mr. Daventry pushed at the chair that had wedged him in place.
Agatha was not sure if he was talking to her, or to the cellist who had moved her cello so that the spike upon which it normally rested now pinned Mr. Daventry and some of his leg to the floor.
Agatha glanced worriedly to her left and right. Oh dear. Why did scandal follow her everywhere?
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Daventry.” She wrung her hands, wishing to escape. “Can I help you get up?”
“Noo!” he howled as the cellist removed the spike, “Go back to Devon you, you, you…”
“My dear, would you care for a breath of cool air?” Earl Harding broke in. He strode towards her, motioning towards where Freddie leant against his cane in the crowd.
“That would be very nice, but…” Agatha looked round blindly for Harriet, Victoria, but neither were in sight as more couples whirled in the dance around them.
The earl placed a firm hand on her back and propelled her away. “Shut up, Daventry, you are making a scene. Freddie, help the man up, would you.”
Limping to the string quartet, Freddie lifted Daventry jerkily up by his collar and set him in the corner, still shouting.
Smoothly, the earl swept her towards the terrace doors. “Now then, my dear, I think a walk in the cool air would do you good.”
“No… I’m fine really—”
“Think nothing of it. I like rescuing damsels in distress, as well as such pretty ones as you.”
“Oh.” Agatha stared back at the terrace doors as they swung shut behind them.
“So tell me of yourself,” the earl said, leading her with an iron grip towards the balustrade, his hands tugging at her as she dragged her feet.
“I’m staying with Lady Colchester. Don’t you think we ought to—”
“I don’t want to hear of her,” the earl said a little roughly, pulling her more sharply. “More on you,” he continued smoothly as if the past comment hadn’t happened.
“I used to live in Devon. Really I do think that we should return to the…”
“Wonderful place, Devon, have you ever lived in France?” The earl’s left hand had, unnoticed to Agatha, started to stroke the upper parts of her shoulders.
“Earl Harding, it’s not true.”
“Mmm, what my dear?” The earl stared down at her.
“I’m not what you think!”
“No one’s what anyone else thinks, Madame. Least of all the naughtiest ones.”
Earl Harding was so much bigger and heavier than Mr. Daventry—the seductively stroking fingers covered a vice-like grip.
“But I’m not…”
“Ah, Harding. There you are. I was looking for Miss Beauregard and was told that you’d both headed out to the terrace.”
Agatha froze. Henry stood in the shadow of a large urn, his well-muscled shoulders nonchalantly leaning against the plinth. His dance trousers stretched across his lightly crossed legs. Not again.
“Anglethorpe,” the earl said shortly. He shifted his feet on the stone terrace, straightening to square up to Henry.
“I would like to talk to Miss Beauregard if you don’t mind, Harding.”
“I do mind, Anglethorpe, so buzz off, old man. I was just finding out a little more about the Mademoiselle.”
“I don’t think you quite understand, Harding.” Henry stepped out of the shadow of the urn. “She belongs to me.”
Agatha’s mouth dropped open. “Now look here…”
Neither of the men listened to her, both glaring at each other across the stone terrace.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Beauregard.” Agatha shivered as the earl stepped away from her. “A misunderstanding, please accept my apologies.”
He nodded at Henry. “Hawk,” he said abruptly. Turning on his heel the earl strode off down the terrace and into the garden, melting into the darkness.
Agatha wrapped her arms around herself. First the whisky and now[_ this_].
“Why can you not go one evening without getting yourself into trouble?” Henry caught hold of her hand. “Damn it, you are shivering, what did he do to you?”
“N… n… n… nothing,” Agatha stuttered. Unbuttoning his coat, Henry drew it round her exposed shoulders and pulled her into him. The smell of spice and cigar smoke swirled around her.
“Devil take it, Agatha,” he muttered into her hair. “You’ve made me do this.”
“I…” Agatha dropped her head back to look at him. “What…?”
With a groan, Henry dropped his face to hers and took her mouth in a searing kiss. Agatha sighed gently as his hand dropped to the small of her back and drew her gently against his hard body. Sweet heaven.
Henry sprawled in his favorite chair in the drawing room, draping his frame over the chair arms in an effort to find space. A fire roared in the drawing room grate, yet still he felt cold. The rest of the house in Mount Street was empty. More empty than he’d ever known it since his sister had married Lord Colchester and moved to his house in Brook Street.
He still felt cold, yet his lips burned.
“Where’s Stanton?” Granwich pushed at the papers in front of him.
“Not certain. Last I heard he was recovering.”
“I’ve been told reliably that he’s back.” Earl Harding sat down in the chair nearest the door. Five men sat around the large mahogany table that was positioned squarely in the middle of the wood paneled room. It covered nicely the large hole in the carpet that Henry had never bothered to repair since the phosphorous incident. Oh Agatha. After kissing her, he hadn’t been able to think straight. She’d stared at him as if he had dropped from the moon. He’d dragged her protesting to the Colchester carriage and sent her home for her own good. To protect herself from him.
“Who’s back?” Freddie yawned and tapped his cane against his chair.
“Monsieur Herr—Mister Mister.”
Freddie still looked nonplussed. “Didn’t know you had a stutter. Who’s he?”
“More like who’s Him. He’s a French spy. He caused untold damage five years ago by passing British military secrets to the French.” Earl Harding banged his hand on the desk. “We nearly lost thousands of men at Corunna because of him.”
“And Talavera,” Granwich interposed.
“And most importantly Burgos. We have no idea who he is. He must have access to military information, and the ability to easily pass them to the French.” Henry looked into the fire as he answered.
“Damnit. I was at Burgos.” Freddie picked at his trousers. “It was the first place my hair turned white.”
“Why wasn’t he caught before?” Anthony Lovall asked quietly.
“There has been no sign of him. I looked for him everywhere.” Henry dropped his leg to the floor and sat up. “That’s why I asked you all here today. You have all run missions for me. He must be stopped.”
Granwich nodded and spoke quietly. “If the Hawk has not been able to find him, then the man must have been as wily as a ghost.”
“Hmm, access to military information. And contact with the French. It can’t be any of us. Although it could be someone close to us, I suppose,” Freddie said thoughtfully.
The other men in the chairs sat silently for a few moments, contemplating the idea that their nearest friends and family might be passing secrets to the French. They hadn’t thought to look at themselves.
“Who’s new since five years ago?” Freddie sat forward and placed an elbow on the table.
“Lord Fashington’s back,” murmured Henry
“Hmmm. Government man, access to secrets alright.” Granwich cocked his head. “But always struck me as a bit of a bounder. I don’t think a spy would try to do that as a disguise. Attracts too much attention.”
The other gentlemen nodded their heads in agreement.
“Doesn’t he always have a problem with the ladies?” Freddie obviously did not realize he was sailing in dangerous waters. “In fact wasn’t there something between him and Miss Agatha Beauregard at… some… point?” His voice trailed off as Henry glared at him. But Freddie was tenacious and did not shut up that easily. “She was around five years ago as well, wasn’t she? And then she dropped off the scene, only recently to come back at the same time as Monsieur Herr? Bit of a coincidence…”
If looks could have killed, Freddie would have been a pile of smoldering ash in his seat.
“He’s right, you know.” Earl Harding stood slowly. “She’s been in Devon for the last five years and that area is notorious for its dealing with the French. It is strange that there are all those rumors of her activities down there. Plus the timing fits exactly.” He turned to face Henry. “What do you think, Anglethorpe, after all she is yours.”
“She is not a spy.” Henry sat rigidly in his chair, his relaxed muscles now tensely vibrating. “I know she is not a spy.”
“With all respect, dear boy, what makes you think that she isn’t?” Granwich bounced his cane idly on the floor between the fingers of his right hand.
No spy could kiss so innocently.
“She led you a merry dance when she first came to London.” Earl Harding said with a sideways glance. “Seemed quite happy to lead me on the other night, you know…”
Henry rose to his feet slowly and leaned across the table, his head pounding. “Because I have watched her all the time for that following five years that she was in Devon.” Knuckles taut, he grasped at the table before taking a deep breath. [_Happy to lead him on… Agatha didn’t do that kind of thing. _]Drawing back his arm, he thrust out his fist and connected roundly with Earl Harding’s cheekbone.
“That is for Agatha.” As the earl’s head swung back, Henry thrust out his fist solidly again. “And that… is for last night.”
“Steady on!” yelled Freddie, grappling with Henry’s arm. “He was only saying…”
“He knows exactly what he was saying.” Henry sat down as suddenly as he had stood. The earl sat still in the chair at the head of the table, his lip bleeding from where the first punch had split his skin.
Henry cradled his bruised hand. “I have spent five years watching her and wondering.” [_It had nearly killed him. _]“Ever since I saw those letters written in French burning in the grate of the room in which I caught her and Fashington. Ever since she took up with Fashington. Ever since she came under my roof and refused to abide by the rules of the ton.”
Henry bowed his head, pressing his hand against his waistcoat where his watch pushed against the small ring he carried with him everywhere. Agatha had all the qualities of a beautiful spy. She had heard him ascending the stairs in Hope Sands, she had nearly killed him with her potato bowl, and if Ames hadn’t been keeping an eye on her, he would never have known that she had successfully masqueraded as the Grand Salvatore.
Worst of all. She had made him fall in love with her. From the very beginning.
He was so bloody confusing.
One moment he acted as if he wanted Agatha to sink through the floor. The next he made her feel as if she was flying higher than a kite in the sky. She put a hand to her lips. Worst of all she had no idea why Henry had kissed her, again. And yet despite that, it had still sent warmth throughout her body, from her head to her toes, a tingling warmth that grew to ache.
Victoria fluttered from her desk to the small table in the morning room, her small dogs yapping at her heels as Agatha sat quietly drinking tea.
“I’m sorry about Mr. Daventry,” she said worriedly. “I couldn’t have guessed he would be so,” she made a moue with her mouth, “lecherous.”
Agatha gave a wobbly smile, glad that the topic of her brother hadn’t come up. “Don’t worry. We both know I couldn’t have avoided dancing with him.” She sighed. “I do wish trouble didn’t seem to follow me around so much.”
“At least it gave you the opportunity to throw someone into the string quartet!” Victoria collapsed into the day couch under the window. “You don’t know how often I have longed to do that at a ball. Either the quartet is awful, or the person you are dancing with has clumped on your toes so many times that you just want to get rid of him.”
“Hmm, yes.” Agatha took another sip of her rapidly cooling tea. “The look on his face as Freddie hauled him away was priceless.”
Victoria smiled suddenly. “I preferred the bit where he was skewered by the cellist. And you were rescued by Earl Harding. That must have been a relief.”
Agatha looked hard at Victoria’s face. Whilst she continued to smile, the warmth that had blazed there before had muted somewhat. “He was very kind.” Agatha bent to pet one of Victoria’s small spaniels that nosed at her feet.
“Yes, a bit like a knight in shining armor. Rather unusual for him.” Victoria continued, “So how come you were on the terrace for so long? I was a little surprised when you let the earl take you out there alone.”
“Ahem, Lady Colchester.” Carruthers, Victoria’s butler, stood ramrod straight in the doorway, a footman peering over his shoulder. “We have received a few…” The footman tapped the butler on the shoulder. “That is to say, a large number of bouquets for Miss Beauregard. We were wondering what we should do with them?”
Victoria leapt to her feet. “Agatha, you have indeed been a success, this is delightful!”
“Ahem.” The butler coughed into his sleeve again.
“Oh do stop saying, ‘ahem’, Carruthers,” Victoria said exasperatedly. “Whatever can be the matter?”
Carruthers, who had been Henry’s footman at the time when Agatha had run away, had obviously grown into his discreet role as Lady Colchester’s butler.
Agatha had a very good idea what the matter was.
“Mesdames may wish to examine the notes that come with the flowers before receiving them.” The butler looked rather worried.
The drawing room was filled with vases of flowers of every hue and texture. Light pink roses and spearmint, and of more concern, spider flowers and dill, amongst others, sparkled in the morning light.
Agatha knew only a little of floriography, of what the flowers meant, but it was very well known that dill had all the connotations of ‘no strings attached fun.’ Grimacing, she plucked at random one of the cards that had accompanied a bouquet.
‘To an experienced lady, can you teach an old dog some new tricks? Meet me tonight in Vauxhall Gardens, Lord Hennisome.’
Agatha swallowed and dropped the card back on the table. In mute horror she took another card from the pile.
‘You make me hot under the collar. I’m looking for a new mistress. Be mine. Mr. Cryne.’
“I’m ever so sorry, Agatha.”
Agatha looked up to see Victoria had several notes in her hand.
“It is just more of the same. I was so silly to think that it would all blow over if we ignored it. Carruthers, would you leave us for a moment please?” Victoria pushed the notes into a nearby vase.
Agatha waited as the butler and his footman exited through the door. The footman stared at the flowers perplexedly as if he had something he wanted to say, but Carruthers tapped him on the shoulder and led him away.
Through the open doorway, the great lion knocker resounded through the hall. Curious, Agatha stepped into the hall.
Henry stood at the open front door, speaking in urgent low tones to the footman, who gestured to the inside of the house with uncharacteristic animation. As Henry’s eyes met hers, he stopped speaking.
Agatha blinked as the footman put a hand in the small of Henry’s back and shoved him further into the house.
With a curse, Henry came to a stop. “I’ve…come to tell you what I want from you.” He stood up straight and stared down his nose at Agatha.
Agatha took a step back down the hall, her mouth falling open. [_What he wanted from her? _]She’d asked him that question five years ago.
“And take you for a… drive. Especially since the Eversleigh musicale has been cancelled.”
Snapping her mouth shut, she felt behind her for the stair bannister. She had been thinking frantically of ways to say that she was busy. But damn the man, he evidently knew her entire social schedule as well.
“Go away, big brother.” Victoria exited the drawing room behind Agatha. “You can’t come to my house and harass my guests. Get back in your coach. She will let you know in five minutes whether she is coming or not.”
Firmly, Victoria shut the door behind Henry as Agatha sat down on one of the shallow wooden steps of the stair. She had never seen Henry appear so hesitant.
Victoria grinned, and looked up at a large portrait that hung above the rococo hall. It was the only picture in the house of Lord Colchester and herself.
“By God, I’m going to make you dance, Henry,” she muttered, staring at the portrait.
“Henry doesn’t dance.” Agatha traced the knots in the wood of the stairs. [What I want. _]Goodness. What did she want? _To be held forever, to be looked after, to be freed.
Victoria laughed. “Of course not. He’s too afraid that a young debutante will come along and ensnare him into marriage. I’m sure he’s too worried that they’ll interfere with his activities for the War Office.”
He asked me to marry him long ago. Did that mean that he had thought that she was just another girl he could sweep into the corner so that he could continue with his secrets? Agatha dropped her head in her hands. Then why did he kiss her? To persuade her that she needed him more than he needed her?
“I’m not sure I want to go on a drive with your brother at the moment.”
“Why ever not?” Victoria pulled Agatha up by her elbow and marched her up the stairs. “The five minutes is so that you can change your dress, do your hair and make him wait.”
Agatha dragged her feet across the stair rods. “Have you seen the way he looks at me? It’s like he wants to dig a hole in the ground and tip me in.”
“Nonsense.” Victoria pushed her into her room. “The pale blue dress I think, with the lovely neckline.”
Agatha sputtered. “Lovely neckline? There is no neckline. There is practically nothing there on that dress.”
“There is a neckline. It is just enhanced for your shape.” Victoria pushed Agatha up the stairs and through the bedroom door as Chantelle, her lady’s maid bustled in.
“Oooh yes zees iz ze one,” Chantelle exclaimed. Deftly unpicking the buttons on the back of Agatha’s dress, she picked up the blue one and pulled it over Agatha’s head.
“Now the hair.” Victoria nodded at Chantelle.
Fingers weaving nimbly, Chantelle drew Agatha’s hair into a crown and folded it on top of her head, leaving a few ringlets curling down by the side of her face.
“Bah, alors miss, you do look younger.”
Agatha winced. She turned to look at herself in the mirror. The maid was right. The hairstyle pulling the hair back off the head smoothed out her skin, and faded the sun wrinkles from her time in Brambridge. The pale blue of the dress also showed against her pale skin like silk. But the neckline [_was _]too low.
“Stop looking at it!” Victoria stamped her foot on the ground. “It’s the fashion. No one is going to pay any attention to it. Everyone else goes around in the same sort of dresses. Get used to it.”
“But I still haven’t said if I want to go with your brother.”
“Of course you do. Don’t you want to find out what he has to say?”
“I… err…” Yes she did. Very much so.
“There you go then.”
In the hall Victoria handed Agatha a pair of gloves. She smiled, a little sadly it seemed, and pushed Agatha out of the front door.
Henry lounged in the driving seat of a tall curricle, the reins held firmly in one hand, his top hat tipped rakishly on his head. He turned to Agatha and grinned as he handed her into the carriage. As his gaze moved downwards, his smile slipped.
But then it turned a little more wolfish. Giving a loud crack to his whip, Henry pulled on the reins and started to whistle.
By Lucifer, she was still gorgeous. Henry straightened on the well-sprung carriage seat and hoped that Agatha couldn’t see how her décolletage had affected him. Desperate want and rage fought within him at the same time, blinding him to the roadside obstacles.
“Watch out, Henry!” Agatha shouted as a small boy darted in front of the precarious carriage. She grabbed him by the arm and shook it. “What’s the matter with you? Have you been drinking?”
Henry thought of the two whisky tumblers he had drained before he could get up the courage to ask her out on a drive. That and to stop himself turning round and going back to bed. The short answer to her question was yes. But in his defense, it had been accompanied by a rather large and satisfying sandwich.
Devil bedamned he wished that she had a large coat to wear or something that would hide her away. He had seen what the men were like in the park on a previous occasion. Whilst a lot of that was tied up with these terrible rumors, much of it was to do with the fact that Agatha had matured into a beautiful woman.
He twitched the reins a little, causing the horses to shake their heads in disagreement. He felt a sudden urge to break into song.
“You have been drinking,” she said suddenly. “I can smell it.” Agatha sat back on the seat leather and folded her arms, pushing her bosom up even further. Henry gulped.
“I merely had a sip of brandy,” he said, marveling at how cool and aloof his voice sounded whilst his body burned. “I was trying the new intake that the Berale House estate manager ordered. He asked me to give my approval to buy before the next shipment came in. Given the wars with France, it is difficult to get new brandy these days and there is a lot of competition for barrels…” His voice faded as he became aware that Agatha was gazing at him with an eyebrow raised.
She put a hand into her skirts.
Henry groaned. “Please don’t get out your notebook.”
If he had just stuck with telling her he was trying the new intake, as false as it was, it might have flown.
However, Agatha looked at him for a few seconds longer with her eyebrow raised and then turned to face the front again.
“What’s wrong with my notebook?”
Henry hunched his shoulders. “When you get out your notebook it means you are really analyzing everything being said in a very scientific manner.”
“Aren’t we meant to turn left here to go into the park?” Agatha withdrew her hand from her skirts, her face white.
Clenching his fists, Henry pulled hard on the reins. The horses jerked their heads but followed the curve through the railings into the park.
They had barely entered fifty paces when another carriage hailed theirs. Agatha groaned beside him. Henry stilled the carriage horses reluctantly, wondering if he could hide behind the thin whip he held in his hand.
“Hullo, old fellow,” the gentleman said in a jolly manner. “Haven’t seen you out much since… since well.”
“Yes, quite.” Henry tightened his grasp on the rein and glanced at Agatha with a worried frown.
“Since me,” the lady said with a pout, laying a gloved hand on the man’s arm. “Silly Edward. Everyone knows. And anyway I’m with you now, titbit.”
Agatha winced. Edward and Henry did the same.
“Look, old chap, hope you took no offence…” Edward continued. Henry smirked but he let Edward squirm a little longer. “It’s just that Celine is such a beautiful woman.”
The lady in question visibly preened and plucked at her daffodil yellow dress. Then she looked Agatha straight in the face.
“And your name is?”
“Agatha Beauregard,” she said shortly.
“Oh yes. We meet again,” Celine said softly.
Henry glanced sideways at Agatha; her face was white, and her fingers trembled on her pelisse. They’d met before. Oh good grief. How on earth was he going to win Agatha over if she’d already met his ex-mistress?
“Pleased to meet you,” Edward said politely.
“I’m not,” Celine cocked her head on one side. “Have you heard what they are saying? Illegitimate child, peasants in Devon, men all over the place and do you know what she did to Charles Fashington?”
Henry frowned, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. He squared his shoulders as Agatha’s slumped next to him. He ached to hold her in his arms.
“What did she do to Charles Fashington?” Henry leaned forward, his body angled away from Agatha, trying to block her from Celine’s sight.
Celine leaned forward to as if to import great meaning to what she was going to say. “Did you know that she put it around that Charles jilted her, and then when nobody believed it, she spread a rumor that he frequented brothels which had very particular reputations if you know what I mean.”
Henry sat back in his seat; he could not look at Agatha, he felt helpless, so helpless that if he looked at her, she would see it in his eyes.
“Hmm,” he said and then fell silent.
“Now look here!” Agatha exploded next to him. “I’m sat here right in front of you…”
Henry sighed and took Agatha’s hand in his. “I’m sorry but every word Celine said is true.”
Celine nodded and smiled happily.
“Every word of Charles Fashington frequenting a brothel of a particular reputation is true,” he continued.
Celine continued to smile. A look of horror crossed Edward’s face and he dived for the reins of the carriage as if to see if he could take Celine away as soon as possible.
“In fact, when I hunted Charles Fashington down on the night that Charles and Agatha broke off their engagement, he was engaged in just such an activity.”
Celine’s smile straightened. “He was?”
“Oh yes. And anyway, Celine, we must all start somewhere, mustn’t we?”
Celine blinked and straightened, the smile gone from her face.
“Celine, I think it is time we said our farewells.” Edward shook the reins that he now held in his hand, his fingers visibly trembling. “Do you think I might see you at the club soon, Henry?” he enquired tentatively.
Henry frowned. “Yes,” he said slowly, “And we’ll have a little chat regarding a certain someone.”
As the carriage wheeled away, Agatha drew a gloved hand across her brow and dabbed at the perspiration. “Do you think that we could just drive for a bit, Henry?”
Henry looked up sharply as Agatha used his first name for the first time in years, but Agatha faced away from him. “I think there is a rhododendron drive somewhere in here.”
Agatha tilted her head towards him, the movement only serving to emphasize the gentle crevice between her breasts. He licked his lips.
“Henry,” she said sharply. With a jerk on the reins, he set the horses off again at a smart pace into the park.
“I’m sorry that we met them,” he said softly. “Celine was never good at keeping secrets.” He stopped for a moment. “She used to know all the rumors and everything about anyone. It made her essential in some of the things that I did.”
“Where did you meet her?” Agatha asked. Henry frowned.
“She was the madam of a high class brothel,” he said shortly. He frowned as Agatha gave a small smile.
“Not unexpected,” she said softly. “You never wished to marry her.”
Henry brushed at a lock of hair that had fallen into his eyes. How did she know? She couldn’t have been watching his every move, could she? Was she really Monsieur Herr?
“But you still haven’t told me what you want from me.”
Henry gazed at her for a long second. “I want… no, I need. Oh devil take it, Agatha.”
Letting go of the reins, he pulled her roughly towards him, his large hands gathering her up at the small of her back. Her head tipped back and she stared at him with questions in her eyes. He drew in a breath as her rosy lips parted. Drawing a slow hand up the silk covering of her spine, he cupped her neck. Her mouth opened in protest. Tilting his head on one side, he looked at her, wonderingly, every muscle straining in his body. Not again. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t want to know how she felt about him. It was better this way, just being near her. It would have to do.
As he drew back, she closed her mouth with a snap. Turning to grab the reins once more, he shook his head, but stopped as Agatha laid a hand on his. The horses stamped their feet impatiently.
Agatha leaned into him. “I’ll show you scientific…” she murmured. Placing a small kiss on his cheek, she trailed a hand over his shoulder, and caressed under his jaw.
In shock, he turned his face so that it rested against hers, unable to stop himself. For an instant she let it rest, and then, tilting her head to the side slightly, she took his lips in hers and licked. Henry shivered to his boots as her catlike tongue ran smoothly across the tender inside of his mouth. Clenching at the reins, he closed his eyes. It was wonderful, no, terrible. She didn’t detest him in the least. But… oh gods. He couldn’t marry her now.
The crunching of a horse’s hooves resounded loudly in the still park.
“The slut and her paramour I see.”
“Good God.” Blinking, Agatha drew away from Henry, his frozen chin looming squarely above her. Why had she given in to the devilish voice that had pushed her into reaching up to him?
“Not God. That’s Lord Fashington now, thank you Miss Beauregard.”
Agatha stared blearily at the figure on his horse; no longer a charming dilettante, Charles Fashington was still a good looking man, but now his mouth seemed to pout in vanity rather than strength; his black hair slicked back revealing a strong widow’s peak.
“You wouldn’t have called off our engagement at the time had you known that I would be coming into my inheritance, would you?”
Henry lifted his large hand as if it burnt from where it fit snugly at her waist. “Go to blazes, Charles. You wanted out just as much as she did. You just weren’t man enough at first to break it off yourself.”
Charles jerked at his reins, causing his horse to sidle. “Shut up, Anglethorpe. I have as much influence as you have now. This is between her and me. I’ll talk to her as I wish.”
“So it[_ is_] you who is putting round all the rumors.” Agatha couldn’t stop herself. It must have been Charles. No one else held so much hatred for her. She drew a breath in and then stopped. Could he really have been the one who had tried to murder her?
Charles laughed, opening his mouth so wide that Agatha could see his teeth. “Rumors? You mean they aren’t true? I was told them by a close, yes very close friend.” Laying his whip across his lap, he caressed the rigid leather and shot Agatha black look through his eyelashes. “No, you silly fool. I didn’t start the rumors. They were already here. But don’t blame me if I don’t get any satisfaction from passing them on. After all, for three years nobody in government would talk to me unless they really had to.”
“I didn’t reveal any details of our encounter to anyone, Fashington.” Henry slapped his hand against the side of the curricle. “Just like I promised. But did you seriously expect me not to drop some other things I had found out about you into key ears that would listen?”
“Goddamn you Anglethorpe. That damaged my reputation and set my career back at least a decade. At least now that I am a lord, all of that is forgotten. Everyone wants to know the latest Lord Fashington. Funny thing, wealth—and power.” Charles turned back to Agatha. “Hah! I’m even engaged to Lord Guthrie’s daughter now.”
Lord Guthrie’s daughter? Agatha could only briefly remember a shy woman standing behind Lord Guthrie before Lady Guthrie had thrown her out of the ball. The daughter would be a great heiress; even though it was known that Lord Guthrie also worked for the government, he was a very rich man in his own right.
“Mmm. Miss Guthrie is so deliciously malleable. She will do anything I ask. You see, she thinks that I’m lovely and charming.” Charles sneered again, his mouth twisting. “I ask you, what man is charming?”
“Shut up, Fashington,” Henry said quietly. “Lord or not, there are still some things I can influence through what I know.”
Charles growled, yanking at the bit on the horses’ mouths to set them in motion. “Pardon me if I don’t invite you to the wedding,” he threw over his shoulder as the carriage sped away. “It might give you more time to find Monsieur Herr. That is if you haven’t already found them.”
Henry didn’t wait for Charles to disappear. Flicking the reins, he wheeled the curricle in a wide circle and set off back the way they had come.
Agatha clutched at the side of the curricle as it bounced across the cobbles. “Who is Monsieur Herr?”
“No one that you know.” Henry stared straight ahead. He would not meet her gaze.
“Oh. Something to do with your work?” The work that he wanted to keep from his bride, no doubt.
“You still haven’t told me what you want.”
“Just drop it, Agatha. Enough. Now is not the time.” Henry yanked on the reins as they arrived back at Colchester Mansions and refused to look at her.
She didn’t wait for him to hand her down. Flinging open the curricle door, she put her hand on the wooden floor and swung herself to the pavement. Without looking back, she fled up the steps to Colchester Mansions, and all the way up to her room.
She watched him leave covertly from the upstairs bedroom window. His back, so straight when they had been driving, slumped across the two seats. Agatha bit down on the back of her knuckle as he lay motionless, as if he were never moving again. And then with a thrust of his powerful forearm, he righted himself and set the horses off down the street.
“Have a nice time?”
Backing away from the window, Agatha drew her breath sharply. Victoria stood just inside the doorway, her face an unnatural shade of white.
“I, I’m not sure.” Agatha frowned. “Where’s Arturo?” Usually two dogs followed Victoria around the house, but now only one lay at her feet.
Victoria’s face flamed, chasing away the unnatural pallor. “Earl Harding has him.”
Agatha glanced out of the window again. The curricle had vanished. “How did he manage that?”
“He paid me a call.”
Agatha laid her bonnet on the bed. “What did the earl want?”
Victoria took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “What I am going to tell you should not be told to anyone else, or my brother.” Agatha nodded shortly in agreement. Victoria stepped into the bedroom and sank onto the bed beside her bonnet. “He came to tell me that there is a French spy operating now in London called Monsieur Herr.”
“But—” Victoria held her small hand up to silence Agatha.
“The spy was operating five years ago around the time when your affair with Fashington became known.”
“I would hardly call it an affair.”
Victoria took a deep breath. “The spy stopped operating when you left London. And has started again now that you are back.”
“He doesn’t think that I—”
“Yes he does. And what is more, he thinks that you are dragging my brother into it on purpose.”
“Oh come on, Aggie. You know that he’s a spymaster for the British, don’t you? Nobody that works for the war office is anyone but a spy!”
Agatha shivered, toying with the ties on her bonnet. [_How did you know I was there, _]he’d asked her, silently invading the house in Hope Sands with a catlike grace.
She gasped. He hadn’t told her what he wanted from her. It was all so blindingly obvious. “You don’t think that your brother thinks I’m the spy, do you?”
Victoria licked her lips and rubbed at her cheeks with both of her hands. “I’m not sure. He has never said anything to me.”
Agatha had been with Henry only an hour earlier. He’d made Celine, a courtesan, his mistress to further his ‘work’ at the war office. He had calmly told her so himself. Good grief, he always knew where she was. [_She’s mine, _]he’d roared at Earl Harding.
“When did he reopen the Berale estate, Victoria?” she said coldly, fear creeping into her heart. “The one near Brambridge?”
“Hmm, nigh on a month after you left. Around the same time he had a meeting with Earl Harding and what sounded to me like a Frenchman who said he had come up from Devon.” Victoria began to look troubled. “The next day he told me he thought it was time to air the old place out. It was quite strange and coincidental. After mama died there he said he would never set foot in the house again.”
Agatha felt an anguish grip her. “We saw Fashington in the park,” she said.
“Odious man. Did you know that he tried to get me to persuade you to break off the engagement yourself?”
“No. He told us in fact that he wasn’t the one passing the rumors around. I don’t know what he would gain by lying.”
Victoria stood slowly. “He wouldn’t gain anything by lying, Aggie.”
Agatha sniffed. With shaking fingers, she pushed her hand into her skirts and pulled out her notebook. “It’s not me, Victoria.” Opening a yellowed page, she gazed at the old notebook. Withdrawing the stub of her pencil slowly from the same pocket, she made a heading. ‘Monsieur Herr.’
“Of course.” Victoria stared at the notebook. “Someone is trying to frame you and distract my brother’s attention. Number one,” Victoria began. “You are not the spy.” She held up her hand as if to acknowledge what she said was obvious. “Number two, the activity of the spy coincides with your time in London, both times.”
“I’m sorry, but why would that mean someone was trying to frame me?” Agatha scribbled faster and faster in the notebook.
“Number three, someone is setting up all kinds of false rumors to discredit you, as if they want you to go away again.”
“I still don’t understand how this helps them by framing me.”
“Number four, you are linked romantically.” Victoria rubbed at her eyes. “Or otherwise with my brother Henry who to another spy would be known as a British War Office expert.”
“No. It still doesn’t add together.” Agatha stopped writing. “We’re missing a piece.” She gazed down at the pages; the points Victoria had made connected together, but none of them pointed back to a focal point. The pages blurred in front of her face.
He only wanted her because he thought she was a spy. No wonder he couldn’t tell her. No wonder he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her back. He must have had to talked himself into kissing her each time. [_You’ve made me do this. _]Oh hell. Agatha bit back a sob.
“Alright. We need to add in some conjecture.”
Agatha swallowed and coughed. “I prefer evidence.” She’d seen the evidence herself.
Victoria twitched an eyebrow and gazed at Agatha intently for a few seconds. “From what you told me a few years ago, all scientists create hypotheses before they undergo investigations. Surely they are nothing but conjecture.”
Agatha froze. Why did Victoria and Henry continue to needle her? Anyone would have thought that they were positively willing her to engage with the side of her nature she had buried so deep that often it reared its head before she had the ability to kick it back down again. Silently she nodded; she didn’t trust herself to speak, her hands trembling on her pencil as she held down the pages of the little book. That was how it started, with little things, like writing in the book again. If she wasn’t careful, the dam would burst.
Victoria scratched her head. “How about, my brother is a British spy… he comes too close to discovering who the Monsieur Herr is. He needs to be taken off the trail, so they target you. They make him think that you are the spy to lead him off their scent. And once they have him off the scent they’ll try and get rid of you so that he also goes away and they can continue their activities.”
Agatha stopped writing, frozen into place. “So you do think that he believes I am a spy.”
“Yes, no, ah.” Victoria stood and paced to the wardrobe.
“And until we find out who is framing me, the rumors are going to continue, your brother is going to still remain romantically interested in me because he thinks I’m a spy, and I’m going to get thrown out of most of the balls in London.”
“Err, correct. You mean I was right about the romantic interest?”
“If he thinks I’m a spy and he’s doing this just to get to me, then that’s not romantic, is it?”
Victoria rubbed her hand across her face. “Aggie… I’ve seen the way he is with you.”
Standing, Agatha picked up her bonnet. “We met Celine in the park.”
Victoria’s intake of breath was audible. She paused before taking a deep breath. “We need to plan a way out of this. For both of you.”
Agatha looked back down at her book and wiped at a small tear that had inexplicably formed in her right eye. “I suppose the first question to ask would be who could the spy be?”
Victoria shook her head. “I’ve no idea. But I think we might have a way of shaking them out of the trees.” She closed her eyes for a few seconds and bunched her hands visibly in her skirts. “I haven’t been to Berale House for seven years, but it is the ideal place for a house party to stir the waters, so to speak.” She opened her eyes and stared at Agatha. “And to chase away some old ghosts.”
Berale House, Brambridge
Henry tracked Agatha’s progress through the room with hawk like intensity. He hated house parties, particularly ones in houses where past memories were so palpable that one could all but reach out and touch them. But he would have traded anything just to be in the same room as Agatha.
He licked his lips as Agatha sat down and started to sip a cup of tea, her plump red lips tickling the edges of the teacup, her large eyes gazing out over the rim of the cup. She did not look his way, not once. There was no doubt, she had been avoiding him for the past few days.
Was she really innocent? Did he care anymore—after all, however he felt, he couldn’t marry her?
Or was it because he was still smarting over having guests in his parents’ house? Victoria had told him he’d turned the place into a mausoleum; that it was time to let the house earn its keep.
He closed his eyes as Agatha took another sip of tea. It was torture. Since that fateful kiss on the terrace at Dowager Lady Lassiter’s ball, it was as if all of his senses had been tuned in to her every move. He could almost feel the velvet tea running over his tongue, especially since he had experienced at first-hand how soft her tongue could be. Oh Aggie. Why did you do it?
“Are you alright, Anglethorpe?” Freddie sat back languidly, taking an amused bite out of a small scone that he had been eating. “See anything that you like?”
Henry took a deep breath and swallowed as Smythe waved a tray of miniature cakes under his nose with a terrified look on his face. He shot Freddie a disgusted look and met the amused gazes of both Freddie and Harry. It was obvious that his ardor was evident to all those who knew him well. He couldn’t understand why they were so amused, however, as they were the ones that had presented Agatha as the best candidate for being Monsieur Herr.
“Yes, haven’t seen you making such a cake of yourself over such a choice of crumpet in a long time.” Freddie smirked as Anthony bent over in silent laughter.
Henry shook his head at Smythe and waved him off with a shake of his hand. Smythe blinked and stood still for a second before walking slowly away.
“Will you two stop it?” Henry folded his arms. “I was just thinking about whether she is [_Monsieur Herr _]or not, and making sure I don’t take my eyes off her. I would present to you gentlemen, that your love lives are no better than mine either.”
Freddie’s smirk dropped abruptly from his face. He took a long sip of his tea and elbowed Anthony in the stomach.
Henry looked over at Agatha again. She was discussing something heatedly with his sister, who held one of her dogs tightly to her on her lap.
In frustration he gritted his teeth and searched the room for his butler. Why had he agreed to this awful gathering? Catching the eye of Smythe, who had been watching him from a corner by the door, Henry nodded.
The butler stepped staunchly further into the room. “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you would please follow me, luncheon is served.”
Smythe led them outside to the terrace where a large table had been set out in the sunshine. Pride of place had been given to his sister Victoria as the de facto host of the event. He’d left her to the seating plan. Then came Agatha, and he groaned, himself. It was if the gods had conspired against him.
Her silk dress rustled as she sat down next to him, accepting his hand to steady herself. She did not look him in the face. He bent his back to lower her in the chair and felt faintly bereft when she let go to fold her hands meekly in her lap. He laughed to himself. She was the least meek female that he knew, barring his sister.
“I heard what you said,” she interjected shortly but quietly.
“I am not Monsieur Herr,” Agatha continued quietly. “And neither am I a Celine.” Agatha refolded her hands in her lap, yet her back remained straight and her eyes were fixed on the salt cellars.
Henry hunched his shoulders inside his coat and sat quietly.
“So how’s Anglethorpe Towers?”
Henry shook his head and then glanced to his left. Lord James Stanton, the owner of the adjacent estate, Brambridge Manor, regarded him enquiringly, his head cocked on one side and an eyebrow raised quizzically.
“You with us, old chap?”
“Er, yes.” Henry turned to look back at Agatha, to apologize, to say anything. But her head was turned away, and she chatted quietly to Victoria on her other side.
“I’m sorry, I did not realize I was interrupting something.”
He sighed and turned back to Lord Stanton. “Don’t worry. I think she had said everything she wanted to say.”
Stanton gave a rueful grin. “Just like Harriet.” He stopped, the smile disappearing from his face as he glanced down the table to where Harriet sat. “You can take your frustration out in the cricket game after lunch. Perhaps it will give you the edge.”
Henry grunted and picked up his spoon.
Halfway through the soup course one of the footmen tapped him on the shoulder. “Message for you, my lord.”
The message had Renard’s unmistakable seal on it. He thrust it into his pocket. It was the worst time to receive a message, but looking up and down the table, it was noticeable that most guests were more interested in their soup than in his activities. Turning away from Agatha’s direction, he pocketed the scrap of paper. At the end of the meal he stood quickly, bowed and left the table.
The study was as he had left it the last time he had visited Brambridge; books lined the walls, and his father’s desk sat foursquare in the middle of the room. It was the only room he had changed in the house, it had once been a garden room, but as many of the other rooms also had lovely views of the estate, it had been little used.
Laying the note on the desk, Henry searched the bookshelves, hesitating as he passed over the yellowing copy of Conversations in Science that he had brought to Brambridge. With a grunt he moved three books further on and pulled out a thin pamphlet of Greek verse that had been translated into English. At the desk he unfolded the note, and, opening the pamphlet a third of the way through, began to decipher the encoded message with the cipher in the Greek poem on the page.
The message was clear. Henry needed to meet a boat from the[_ Rocket_] that night in Longman’s Cove. Renard was bringing someone in who might have information on the identity of Monsieur Herr. The person would be escorted from the ship at high speed, as he, Renard, couldn’t make land.
This wasn’t surprising; the number of Customs men in Brambridge had been increased since the spate of Riding Officer’s deaths in recent years. Whilst they nominally all worked for the crown, they took a dim view of smugglers and Renard was a prize of the first order, despite his allegiance as a spy. What would indeed be more surprising would be to catch a member of the ton wandering across the beach in the dead of night.
The cricket match wore many of the guests out, with all retiring early before the fires of the drawing room had gone out. Henry left all his finery behind him. Dressed in black and navy from head to toe with mud smeared across his face, he left Berale House by the door from his study to the garden, and hurried down the long lane that led down to the Brambridge shore. Several black openings in the hedge marked the drives up to small farms that held the fields that dotted the cliffs, in between the ‘plats’ that were small vegetable gardens for the villagers.
Moonlight shone brightly on the muddy tracks of the lane. Down at the bottom, by the sea, the road met the shingle and stopped abruptly, a dangerous place to linger. In the pale light, a dark shape moving across it was extremely visible from the customs lookouts that were dotted around the cliffs. Henry crept off the road into one of the dark farm openings and followed the other side of the hedge down towards the beach.
A small inlet let the brook that ran off the hillside meet with the sea. Cautiously he left the safety of the dark hedge and, scrambling down, followed the steep banks towards the beach.
On the beach he followed the water’s edge, the outline of his dark form merging with the water. A flash came from out at sea, a signal from Renard’s boat. Henry continued to walk cautiously down the beach, glancing to the left and right. The beach was entirely deserted, and even the seagulls had left it to the quiet crash of the surf.
Drawing a paper and a match out of his pocket, he lit the match and then, shielding it with the paper, covered it three times. Another single flash lit up the beach, briefly illuminating the boat.
It could take a strong man half an hour to row through the swells that covered the bay around Brambridge. He would then need to navigate the rolling breakers that crashed onto the sandy shore dotted with pebbles. Henry bent his back to present a lower profile, his hands in front of him ready for attack, glancing continuously up and down the beach for the customs men.
On his second patrol of the beach, his gaze caught and held where long grass moved at the edge of the inlet, and yet there was no breeze. Where the beach grew narrower, he crossed to the safety of the cliffs below Longman’s barrow. Moving silently to the back of the beach, he took his black cloak off, and swung it in front of him. Creeping around the field, he reached the point where the grass was now still. Standing slowly from his bent position, he watched as a sensibly booted foot withdrew further into the grass. Without stopping to think, he threw the cloak onto the rough area where the foot had disappeared and jumped on top of it.
Henry drew back slightly, hands holding down the cloak.
“Get off me, you oaf!”
The voice was higher pitched than he would have imagined for a man, and strangely familiar. Slender hands beat at the edges of the material as he lay across it astraddle.
“Be quiet!” he muttered. This was no customs man.
“If I’m any quieter I’ll disappear!” the voice retorted.
“Who are you? Are you following me?”
“Of course not. I don’t even know who you are! I was just lying here contemplating the stars and you turned up with your bloody great cloak which I am still under by the way, and[_ now I have a knife to your leg_].”
Not that knife again. Gingerly Henry rose to his feet and backed off to circle the figure which had started thrashing in the wet grass in an attempt to get loose from the fabric. With a lunge, he wrapped the loose folds of the cloak around the hand that he judged was holding the small knife. As he wound the cloak around the hand, an expanse of creamy white skin gleamed in the moonlight, and then the folds of a light pink dress. He groaned.
An outraged scream tore through the air. Quickly he flung the now bandaged arm back into the grass and pressed his hand to the small mouth that had been revealed.
“Look, I’ll get off you in a minute, but you have to stay quiet. I’m here for a reason and not for pleasure. And you can put away your bloody carrot peeler too.”
“Agatha! You’re a lady, what have I told you about using language like that! Ow!”
Shaking his bitten hand and smirking to himself, Henry backed away from the now still and disheveled woman. The moonlight shone on her mud stained pale pink dress. A hank of hair had escaped from what had been an immaculate chignon. The look was completed by a large pair of familiar sturdy lace-up boots which had been the first items he had tripped over in the grass.
She looked adorable. And furious.
“You deserved it!” she spat. “I did nothing to you!”
“You put a knife to my leg,” Henry said dryly.
“You threw a cloak over me and then sat on me!” she retorted. “I hadn’t even said a word.”
“Where is the knife?” Henry looked around curiously at the ground and in the cloak.
“I’m not telling. It’s one of my secrets.” Agatha pouted.
A smile twisted at the edges of Henry’s mouth.
“First rule of espionage, Henry, if you are wanting not to be seen, you should have brought a hat!” Agatha said sharply.
Henry frowned. Bloody hell, she remembered that night too. Quickly he dropped to the ground level with Agatha and began to reach into the grass. “I had a hat.”
Once he had finished searching in the grass, Henry moved to searching his cloak. Single-mindedly, he began to pluck at Agatha’s skirts. He turned on one side, his hand encountering a warm, stocking-clad leg. Unable to stop himself, he stroked the shapely calf down to the tightly laced boot. Agatha shivered.
“Nothing there,” he muttered hoarsely. As if of their own accord, his fingers moved to the other leg, probing upwards to the top of the stockings, stroking at the soft, warm skin on the inside of Agatha’s thighs.
He ignored his hat, which he knew to be near her shoulder. She made no move to hand it to him. Henry drew closer, blond hair falling over his eyes. He stroked the sides of her muddy dress, tracing the folds and creases across her belly.
With a sigh, Agatha rolled towards him. Abruptly he curved his hands under the thighs above her knee and pulled her leg across his, pulling her hips towards him. Her head turned to face nose to nose with him, as his hand caressed the soft silk covering her bottom. She licked her lips. But yet still he did not kiss her. Slowly he stroked his hand across the neckline of the low cut dress and gazed down at her.
She twitched her hips, straining towards him, but still he held her away from him. With a moan, Agatha brought her hands to his, as if willing him to caress her further.
“Agatha, you have to go.” Henry pushed her away from him gently. “Stay down in the grass as you leave.” Grabbing at his hat, he pulled it down viciously over his hair. It was not fair. He couldn’t continue to lead her on, no matter what his body told him he needed. “And when you get to Berale House, make sure my gardener Jaquard doesn’t catch you wrecking his hydrangeas.”
Agatha hurriedly pulled her dress upwards.
He shook his head and continued walking. After a few steps he risked a look back. Agatha had fallen to her hands and knees, scrambling through the long grass to the safety of the dark hedge. She cursed as she scraped her hands and knees on the flints. Hesitating, he took a step towards her, but already he could hear the scrape of the boat from the Rocket on the shingle. Turning on a heel, he crested the brow of the beach and ran down towards the water.
The clinker-built boat came to a gradual halt as the gently rolling surf pushed it further up the beach. A medium sized man in a heavy coat rolled over the side and dropped quietly into the water, holding the boat steady as Henry sloshed through the surf and clutched at its gently rocking sides.
The passenger sitting forward of the oars pushed back her hood and glanced over her shoulder at Henry, giving a saucy grin. Henry remained impassive although inwardly he was surprised. Releasing the prow of the boat, he trod softly to the other side and held out his hand. He was left dangling it in the air as the lady placed one hand on the side of the boat and jumped out in one bound to avoid the surf. As she hit the sand, she stumbled and came to rest with one hand on Henry’s chest. Her eyes flickered up towards his, widening slightly as she saw his gaze.
“Excuse me, Monsieur, the sea ride must have taken away my balance.”
“Not at all, Madame…?” Henry did not believe for one second that this lady had lost her balance. Her eyes, whilst large and lustrous, held calculating depths and a curious watchfulness pervaded her being.
“Just Monique, if you please.” Henry looked down at Monique’s hand that still rested on his chest. With a laugh she withdrew it slowly. “I did not expect to be met by such a handsome man.”
Henry let the silence following this remark stretch. Behind him, the sailor coughed. “Begging your pardon, sir, I better be off. Renard don’t like it when I’m late.”
“Thank you. I’ll help you off. Please stand further up the beach, Monique, otherwise you will get hit by the boat as it swings.”
Monique huffed and pulled her cloak around her against the sea air. She stood apparently undecided for a second and then stalked twenty paces up the sand. Swiftly moving around the other side of the boat, Henry put his shoulders into moving the heavy boat off the beach and back into the water. As the boat headed into the surf, the sailor jumped in and, with a strong pull of the oars, quickly cleared the white water and was back into the calmer blue depths.
Wading out of the water, Henry took off his shirt and wrung it dry. Pulling his shirt back, on he sighed. He had been doing this for five years and the routine never changed, yet this was the first time that a woman had been brought in. A woman who sat in the sand, calmly trailing her fingers through the tide-dampened beach.
“Get up,” he said brusquely. “We must get moving. We only have three days and then you are going back on the boat. I need you to tell me everything you know about Monsieur Herr.”
Henry emptied the water from his boots. “My dog whines better.”
Henry laughed. Not quite as calm as she looked, then.
“Espèce de scheize!”
This time his outstretched hand was taken firmly as he hauled Monique into an upright position. Yet again she held it for an overlong length of time. She batted her lashes at him. He grimaced. She was good, very good. But she still left him cold. Not like the woman he had left in the grass.
“Follow me and stay quiet. We are going to my estate.”
“Ooooh,” she said appreciatively, the whites of her eyes bright.
“Nothing so exciting.” Henry slapped at his thigh and took a deep breath. “I merely work there.” Monique made a moue with her mouth. It’s the truth, he wanted to say.
“What’s the plan?”
Henry set a steady pace up the beach towards the patch of grass where he had come upon Agatha. He prayed that she had done as he said and gone back to Berale House.
“You will stay in the stables. Tomorrow morning you will be questioned.”
“What if you don’t like what I say?” Monique stopped to hitch her cloak off the sand.
“You will continue to stay in the stables for the next night whilst we check your information. If it is the truth then we will return you to the boat with a bag of gold. If it isn’t we will hold you for longer.”
“Hmm, sounds good.”
Henry turned. As Monique had followed him fast across the beach, her cloak neck had slipped, revealing a creamy expanse of chest. He could see the deep V where her breasts were tied tightly into her bodice.
“You need to lace your cloak up. You might get cold.”
Pulling his hat down, he resumed the path and, leaving the beach, followed the hedge up the hill to where it joined the road, not bothering to look back to see if she was following him. She appeared at his side on the road just one pace behind him, barely out of breath, her cloak covering her again as if it had never come loose.
They completed the rest of the walk up the hill in silence. Once they reached the edge of his estate, he led her around the surrounding farmland until he reached the back of the stables that were set by the boundary hedge of the property. It was a fairly large complex of low-lying brick-built barns, set round a courtyard covered in cobbles. A small, clock tower adorned the center building. By the light of the moon he could see the hands pointed to two o’clock.
Henry entered the first door of the building that was ajar. An empty stable with clean straw, a pail of water and a tray of food lay ready and waiting. A blanket hung from the manger. The stable hands were familiar with people coming and going from the first stable and he paid them handsomely for their discretion. He did not know what his servants thought, but the first person that had said anything outside about Henry had been immediately turned off the estate.
“What does the monsieur think?” Henry gave a start and looked at Monique in misunderstanding.
“Your master? Does he know?”
“No,” he said in relief. “He is very lax, he never checks the stables. As long as his horse is ready for a ride once a week, he never comes here.”
Monique took off her cloak slowly, her eyes glinting in the darkness. She picked the blanket up off the manger and sank into the soft straw, her bodice gaping as she did so. “That being so, I am very tired. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to join me?” Monique wiggled her hips slightly and put an arm above her head, pushing her breasts out.
Henry ignored her provocation. “Get your sleep. Tomorrow at dawn some men will come and question you. You’ll need to be ready.”
Monique grimaced as if in frustration but then smiled again. “Until then, cheri,” she said softly, closing her eyes as she did so.
Agatha did not move far from the wet hedge she had dragged herself to. Although the grass had been dry where she had been lying, it seemed that some of the sheaves hadn’t dried in the previous day’s sun. Her low-profile scramble through the field had left her wet through. She shivered as another droplet of water dripped down her spine.
Despite ignoring Henry at lunch, she had watched his every powerful move in the reflection of the large soup tureen in front of her, unable to shake the thumping of her heart at his dangerous proximity. She had jumped as his elbow had nudged her slightly as he had turned to take something from the footman. Watching his shiny form, she had not failed to notice how his hands tensed as he had pushed it into his pocket, and his formidable brow had furrowed deeply.
Reaching behind her head, Agatha scraped at the drop of water on her neck with a finger and gasped, dropping to her knees. A boat had pulled up on the deserted beach; she could see the tall form of Henry moving forward to meet it. Raising herself to her haunches, she peered through the wet grass. A man jumped out from the surf and helped Henry drag the boat up the beach. Bloody hell, there was another passenger in the boat.
Agatha swore as her hair dropped across her face, pushing it off with a swipe of her hand. She had missed something about the passenger who was now making their way up the beach whilst the others put the boat in the water. Agatha stared at the figure as it walked towards her. Good grief, a woman! Suddenly the moonlight caught her full in the face. A beautiful woman. Agatha’s stomach clenched. She had followed him for this, thought to comfort him for this?
Perhaps this was the real reason why Henry hadn’t wanted her on the beach—because he was bringing in his French mistress. Agatha pressed a flat hand at her thighs where Henry’s touch had seared an imprint on her body. The bastard.
She had stayed quietly on in the drawing room with her thoughts long after Henry had disappeared in his study and the other guests had gone to bed. But her thoughts had not calmed her. Drawn by an invisible chain, she had knocked on the study door, wanting to confront him, but there was no answer. Without thinking, she had entered; the immediate smell of books, and Henry, comforting smoke and spice had washed over her, surrounding her, and yet he hadn’t been there. The door from the study to the garden stood slightly ajar, a small breeze ruffling the pages of the books on the desk.
On the beach, Henry hauled the woman to her feet, seemingly holding her hand more than was appropriate. What was she doing now? Agatha gasped. The woman had deftly unpinned her great cloak all the way to her waist as Henry turned away.
Agatha wrapped her arms around her body. They would pass right by her in the hedge if she did not move. She took one last look at the woman. Her profile cast a shadow in the moonlight and there was definitely something familiar about the nose. Taking a deep breath, Agatha reached out and, grasping some loose roots with her hands, pulled herself onto the road and staggered as far as she could before falling into a fast walk.
She’d only been in Henry’s study for a short time, but it had been enough to see the two books on the desk. A book of Greek verse and the scuffed and scarred remains of Conversations on Science that Agatha had last seen in Henry’s study in London.
Reaching the edge of the Anglethorpe Estate, Agatha rocked as she tripped over a large root with her boot. She smiled grimly. Jaquard would have that out in an instant if he knew about it. She stopped, her hands outstretched for balance, soil cascading down the root onto her boots as if released from a dam. Breathing heavily, she clutched at the upended root, as if it could tether her to the ground, to the carefully constructed shell she had veneered for herself. He’d brought his mistress to Brambridge. And yet he couldn’t tell her what he wanted with her. Couldn’t tell her because he didn’t want her, perhaps. Even his last words to her were not to wreck the hydrangeas because of Jaquard. Agatha shook her head. But still he’d caressed her in the field as if she were a part of him, causing her senses to burst as explosively as gunpowder. She gasped as the memories rolled over her. Five parts nitre and one part sulphur. Jaquard and his tree trunk in Mount Street. Someone wants to kill you. Jaquard and his hydrangeas at Berale House. Despite giving up, science scandal still follows me.
She rubbed her hands together. Why had she ever bothered?
Agatha’s journey back to Berale House passed uneventfully. After a small detour through the grounds, she made her way straight to the kitchen door. As lightly as was possible in her boots, Agatha mounted the steps and pushed at the door. She sighed with relief as it swung inwards silently. Stepping over the threshold, she turned to push the door closed behind her.
“Welcome back, Agatha.”
She screamed, clapping her hands over her mouth. A match illuminated the darkness, the light growing as a taper was lit, giving a low, yellow light to the kitchen. Freddie and Harriet sat at the kitchen table. Agatha drooped in relief.
“What are you doing here alone together?” The best form of defense was attack but then, as she thought about it, it really was quite concerning they were in the dark alone.
“Don’t change the subject, Miss Beauregard.” Freddie bit into a piece of burnt toast and waved a finger.
Agatha smoothed her wet skirts, hoping the bulky outline of the package beneath them wasn’t visible. “I wasn’t changing the subject, there wasn’t even a subject to change.”
“Where have you been?” Harriet frowned at her. “I saw you leave two hours ago and I’ve been waiting for you to come back ever since.”
“I errr, that is, I went for a walk and to look at the stars at the beach.”
“Oh.” Harriet sat back and nodded.
“What do you mean, ‘Oh,’ Harriet? She’s bloody well been gone for two hours!” Freddie took the toast out of his mouth and examined its black underside. Shaking it futilely at the floor, he resumed crunching on its crusty exterior.
Harriet tapped her fingers on the table. “We used to go and look at the stars together. Down at the beach in the soft grass where you could hear the sea lapping and the full sky—”
Mouth full, Freddie’s incredulity was still obvious. “Two hours of bloody stargazing!”
“I wish you would stop saying bloody, Lord Lassiter!” Harriet looked down her nose at him. “That is for Macbeth and Shakespeare, not for tired lords.”
Agatha bit down on her tongue and edged to the door. Harriet’s description of stargazing had been rather too evocative for something which she and Agatha had never done together. “Ahem, I had better go to bed, then.”
“Is this a midnight party?” Anthony appeared at the top of the stairs to the kitchen clad in a thick, dressing gown that was spread thinly across his lean frame. Smiling her most natural smile, Agatha edged back towards the banked fire. Water still fell from her clothes to the floor and she shivered as steam began to rise from her skirts. Standing there was not a good idea after her detour through Berale House grounds. She moved away from the fire again.
“Lovall, you bacon brain, you need a bigger dressing gown!” Freddie genteelly covered his eyes and gazed determinedly at the wall.
Agatha almost felt sorry for Anthony, but not quite. After all, he was part of Henry’s cronies that had accused her of being a notorious French spy.
Freddie peered through two of the fingers covering his eyes. “Agatha’s been out stargazing.”
“Really?” The disbelief in Anthony’s voice was apparent.
“Really.” Agatha decided she had had enough of the verbal sparring. “It has been a long day and I’m going to bed.” Picking up her still damp skirts, she brushed past Anthony and made her way into the hall.
Slumping against the wall, she pulled out the damp packet from her skirts. Thank god it was a little wet. Standing so close to the fire would have been dangerous. Especially as it smelt very strongly of horse manure. Jaquard was obviously a fan of homemade gunpowder. At least she[_ hoped_] it was only horse manure.
And she really shouldn’t have left her niece alone with those men, even if she did seem to have the upper hand. She stepped into the shadows, holding the bag lightly with one hand. The sounds carried from the kitchen rather audibly.
“Do you really think she was stargazing?” Freddie, it seemed, could not let the subject drop.
“Why would you think she was doing anything else?” Harriet demanded. Agatha cheered her niece silently.
“Well… um. It has been suggested that Miss Beauregard might be a spy.”
“Aunt Agatha a spy? When would she have had time to do that outside of looking after me, living in the sticks and trying to make a small living for us? The worst Aunt Aggie could do would be to bore you to death with the results of one her experiments she used to do.”
Agatha stared at the innocuous packet in her hand and humphed.
“I thought it was a joke when Freddie mentioned it.” The sound of Anthony’s footsteps grew nearer to where Agatha stood in the hall.
Harriet’s words stopped Agatha leaving. “Lord Lassiter, is this true? You cannot believe such a thing of her!”
“The coincidences are too great, Harriet.” Hmm. Freddie was not convinced then.
Anthony’s steps sounded again. “Strong enough for Harding to tell Miss Beauregard’s best friend.”
A chair crashed to the ground. “Lady Colchester knows?”
“We thought she should know, as her brother Anglethorpe was making a cake of himself over Agatha and everyone could see it. If she turns out to be Monsieur Herr, then the best spymaster that Britain has ever known will find himself in Newgate before long.”
“Lord Anglethorpe is pursuing Aunt Agatha? That is good news!”
“No it’s not!” Freddie’s normally jovial voice dropped low and hard. “This is not a comedy. Monsieur Herr is a real menace and must be eliminated as soon as possible.”
Berale House loomed dark as Henry let himself back into his study. The fire in the grate had died to a smoldering mound of white ash. Shivering, he prodded the meagre coal lumps with a poker, persuading them into a limp flame.
Putting a weary hand to his head, he pulled off his dark hat and knelt by the fire. His sodden trousers clung to his legs as he pushed them down from his waist.
“I see that you’ve had an interesting evening.”
Henry cursed as he fell on his bare legs in shock. He didn’t know whether or not to continue taking off his trousers or pull them back up.
“I would take them off. After all, I am your sister and I’ve seen it all before.” Victoria sat forward from her seat in Henry’s desk chair. He’d been so intent on getting warm, he’d missed her still form. That and his head was muddled by Agatha.
“Victoria? Bloody hell, what are you doing in my study?”
“I may still be your little sister, Henry dear, but I am no longer a young girl. What are you intentions towards Agatha?”
He couldn’t have this conversation with no breeches on. A small cupboard stood next to the fire. Out of it he pulled a pair of loose pair of fishermen trousers and a thick jersey. “If you don’t mind?”
Victoria turned her head discreetly away. Cursing as he fumbled with the ties at his waist, he adjusted the trousers and pulled the jersey over his head. The soft dry material gave instant warmth.
The smell of smoke filled the air; an orange dot of light glowed by his desk. “Cigar, Henry?”
Unbelievable. She’d found his secret box of cheroots.
Victoria laughed softly. “I am your sister, dear. The apple doesn’t always fall far from the tree, despite our different lives.”
Henry gripped at the soft material of the jersey, the knife thrust of her words palpable. All of the worrying he’d done over Victoria after his parents had died, all of the need to avoid rumor and scandal had collapsed when Agatha had left him, them. Drawing the jersey to his waist, he smoothed it down over his trousers. He’d taken no notice when Victoria had spent days in her room. She had ever been thus. Instead he’d sent for the best doctors that money could buy. That normally drew her out. Thoughts of Agatha had filled his head like a tidal wave; there wasn’t room for other worries.
But then Victoria had emerged after the tenth quack had been sent packing and announced that she’d accepted Lord Colchester’s offer of marriage. Old Lord Colchester who Agatha and Victoria had laughed about. Nothing he could do could persuade her otherwise.
In the time that he’d wanted to be married she had been married and widowed, and left a wealth ten times his own.
“I know that Papa was a spy too, Henry. Do you think that I didn’t inherit some of his characteristics as well?”
“I didn’t think.”
p. “No. Most men don’t. Did you deal with him?”
“Whoever killed Papa?”
“You weren’t meant to know that he was murdered.”
The orange tip of the cheroot glowed brighter and then vanished. It appeared again, the same dull orange as before.
“I’ve always known.”
“Yes, I got him.”
He could hear Victoria as she inhaled a deep breath. “Good.”
The clock above the fire place chimed twice.
“And do you have a plan to find Monsieur Herr?”
Good grief. He watched as the whites of Victoria’s teeth shone in the firelight. “I have something in hand.”
“It had better be good, Henry dear.” Victoria stood, holding the cheroot in her hand. She took a last puff and then ground the cigar against the polished wood of his desk.
“That’s my desk!”
“It was also Papa’s desk. That’s a reminder, Henry. Agatha is my friend. It has not been easy for her. And most of the problems have been caused by you and your pig headedness. If you don’t come up with a plan to sort out this mess, I will. Whatever your intentions.”
Dropping the stub of the cigar to the desk, Victoria swept unerringly to the door.
“That’s blackmail.” Henry knocked the cigar off the desk to the ground and rubbed at the damaged wood.
Victoria stopped at the door. “No, Henry dear, that’s common sense.” With a small wave, she left.
“Women!” Henry banged a hand on his desk and pulled it into his stomach as the underneath of his desk began to move.
“Quite right, sir. She’s a sharp biscuit is your sister and no mistake.”
“Ames? What the hell are you doing?”
“Currently, sir, I am trying to ease my cramp after hiding under the desk for two hours in an unusual knotted position.”
“Victoria was waiting for me for an hour and didn’t notice you?”
“No sir. She was too intent on drinking the Armagnac from your bottom drawer.”
“Not my Armagnac!” First the cheroots and now his drink.
“Hmm. And that lovely cake stuff you keep down there. Turron I think it was.”
“Er. Well yes, I got hungry whilst I was waiting too, and she did drop it on the floor when you walked in.”
“My[_ turron_].” It was his equivalent of an opium hit, a dose of laudanum. Better than the twist of nuts he kept stashed in his coat. “I feel a headache coming on.”
“There is some of that oatmeal stuff still in there. Ship’s biscuit I think you called it.”
“That is only for looking at in order to quell hunger, Ames, only for emergencies.”
“I rather think this might be an emergency, my lord.”
“Oh, do get out of the desk, Ames. I feel silly talking to a piece of wood.”
“Only if you promise not to hurt me.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I ate your turron, and err, I was meaning to tell you that your sister knows a lot more about what is going on than you think. But. Ahem. She got there first.”
“Hmm. You have been a lot less use than I thought you would be. Less Maximus and more Minimus.” Henry laughed ruefully.
Henry sighed. “Oh forget it, Ames. Just one thing, how does my sister know what’s going on?
Ames was silent for a few seconds. “Earl Harding told her, sir. Stole one of her dogs too when she set it on his ankles.”
“Good grief.” Henry rubbed at the burnt mark on his desk. “Go back to your post. Victoria and Agatha are likely to have a heart to heart tomorrow morning where Victoria will no doubt make a plan. We need to be ready for it.”
“How do you know?” Ames backed towards the door.
Henry stared at the book of Greek verse on the desk. Where the hell had [Conversations on Science _]gone? “Because, Ames, it is what[ I_] would do.”
“As a matter of fact, I do have a plan.” Lady Victoria Colchester put down her delicate teacup and observed Agatha with glassy eyes. Bright May sunshine shone through the tall, glass windows that surrounded the morning room on two sides.
Agatha blinked. Using the excuse of a ride to justify her early morning start, she had saddled one of the mares they had brought with them down from London. She had ridden the mare cursorily around the Berale House estate and then re-entered the house.
“These silly men have been running around putting two and two together and getting five. And someone obviously wants them to do that.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Firstly, you have to believe in your absolute innocence.” That seemed easy enough to Agatha. They had been through this before.
“And then in light of that you come across several questions.” Victoria stopped to take another sip of tea and bite of her toast. Nimbly she broke a piece off and threw it to her dog. Agatha waited as she cooed over the small animal and lifted it into her lap.
“What questions?” she asked impatiently.
“Firstly, why does everyone believe you are Monsieur Herr?”
“Hmm, I’d like to know that too.” Stretching her arms, Harriet stumbled into the morning room and peered blearily at the laden sideboard.
Agatha wrinkled her nose and raised her eyebrows.
“Too much stargazing, aunt?” Harriet yawned and covered her mouth. “Sorry.”
Agatha glared at her niece, a small flush rising slowly up her nape. She turned back to the table. “I believe I was just asking why everyone wants to believe that I’m a French spy…”
Victoria looked from Agatha to her niece. “Well, as we discussed before, it is not why everyone wants to believe you are a spy, it is why the spy wants everyone to believe you are the spy.”
Agatha closed her mouth with a snap.
Victoria looked at her small audience and smiled widely.
Agatha scratched her head. “I still can’t believe it. I don’t have anyone that wishes me ill.” She flapped her hands as Harriet’s mouth formed a round O. “None of those silly rumor mongers would think of such an elaborate ruse. I mean, doing this would bring down everyone I know…”
“Goodness.” Victoria appeared thoughtful. “That is another interesting point. Especially since you are involved with my brother, the British spymaster…”
“I am not involved with your brother!”
“Hmmm… stargazing?” Harriet said innocently.
“Nothing happened.” Agatha sat down with a plump. “At least nothing to discuss with you,” she amended quietly.
Victoria put her dog on the floor. “Someone must have a reason for choosing you for their ruse. We must go back to the beginning. What happened five years ago when it all began?”
Agatha pushed her thumb back with a finger. “I was engaged, jilted, shot at, Peter died, moved to Devon…” She ticked the points off on her hand.
Victoria wrapped her arms around her body. “Why did you leave without telling me? I could have helped.”
“I received a note threatening Peter’s life, the next I knew he was dead. I thought whoever had shot at me had killed them. The note said not to tell anyone. That’s why I came to live in Devon. I couldn’t see anyone from London. I was too afraid of who might be coming to get me.”
“But you haven’t heard of anything since…” Harriet flushed.
Agatha shook her head. “There have been no notes. No one has approached me, or even shot at me.”
Thoughtfully, Victoria stirred her tea. Taking a sip, she made a face and rang the servant’s bell. “More tea please,” she said to the footman who entered quickly. As he closed the door, she turned to Agatha.
“Setting the death of your brother aside, that’s when it started. But they did not want to frame you then. They wanted to kill you yourself. Their motives must have changed since then.”
“I still ask myself why anyone would have wanted to kill me.” Stumped, Agatha played with her fork.
“I don’t know either,” Victoria said perplexedly. “I don’t know why anyone would want to kill anyone else at all.”
The footman entered with the hot pot of boiling tea. After he had replenished the teapot, he hesitated at the door.
“Yes, what is it, John?” Victoria motioned at him to speak.
“Excusing me my Lady, but in the penny dreadfuls, murder is normally committed by a jealous lover.”
Agatha laughed as Victoria poured herself more tea. “Thank you, John, you have lightened the mood somewhat.”
The footman grimaced and closed the door softly behind him.
“Jealous lover!” Agatha snorted in a most unladylike fashion. “I’ve never had a lover.” Henry categorically did[_ not_] count. “And whilst Charles wasn’t keen on jilting me, I don’t think he would have resorted to killing me just for the sake of the engagement!”
“I hate to say this, but you are right, Aggie. You really did not have enough time with Charles in order for that to happen.” Victoria shifted on her seat. “But what of all the other motives?”
“Hmm, jealousy, intrigue, intimacy, war, interrupted theft, knowledge, power…” Victoria and Agatha looked at Harriet in amazement. “I read the penny dreadfuls too!” Harriet shrugged sheepishly.
“Alright. What about[_ intimacy_]?”
“What about it? I’ve already said I didn’t have any lovers!”
“Good point. Interrupted theft?”
“Quite often when a burglar is searching a house, and they are discovered, they kill the owner of the house in order that they don’t get caught.”
“Harriet, I have never caught a thief in the act in my life.”
“Next one, then, power.”
“I don’t really have the opportunity to give anyone power.” Agatha mused. “Killing me wouldn’t have given anyone power over me, or really power over anyone else.”
“This is futile.” Victoria stood. “Nothing seems to fit properly.”
“Sit down, Victoria. I think we are on the right track.” Agatha tapped her finger on the back of the tablecloth, tracing the lace patterns. “Harriet mentioned intrigue and war in some of her motivations. It seems an elaborate plan to pass me off as a French spy. What if I’m not really the target? I only assumed that I was being shot at, when in fact it was Henry that picked up the bullet. Even though making me Monsieur Herr could hang me, it seems that Henry has a huge amount to lose as well if he loses the support of his war colleagues by becoming involved with me.”
“It sounds plausible…” Victoria scratched her head delicately in doubt.
Harriet put her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hands. “So who is going after Lord Anglethorpe, then?”
“Why Monsieur Herr of course!” Agatha said. Harriet and Victoria’s mouths both dropped open.
“Of course,” Victoria said slowly. “Why not give your name to someone else whilst carrying on your activities?”
“There’s just one thing.” Agatha shook her head. “When I was on the beach last night, I saw Henry walking up the beach with a woman from one of Renard’s boats.”
Victoria frowned. “Renard?”
“He’s a smuggler,” Harriet said distinctly. “Everything he has is for sale. He’s well known in Brambridge.”
“Oh.” Victoria took a sip of her tea. “Did you see him there?”
Agatha shook her head. “No. I was under a hedge shivering at that point. Anyway, the point is, this woman looked awfully familiar, but I didn’t recognize her. And she also tried to seduce Henry in the fifteen minutes they were on the beach.”
Victoria choked, spraying water everywhere. “We must ah… tell him he’s in danger from Monsieur Herr.”
Agatha stared out of the window. “Unfortunately he went off for a morning ride at around five o’clock.” She hadn’t been able to sleep.
“You know, that is the same time as the Freddie and Mr. Lovall left too.” Harriet spoke pensively. “They thought they were being quiet, but the horses’ hooves clattered on the cobbles at the gate.”
Victoria dabbed at her skirts with a napkin. “This woman must know something. Why else are they all following her?”
“The stable was empty of all but a few horses when I took my horse out to ride.” Agatha closed her eyes slowly and opened them again. “But the first stable was locked closed.”
“They must have taken her to the stables.” Dropping the sodden napkin on a side table, Victoria rose gracefully to her feet and held out a hand to Agatha. “Quickly, we must find out what this woman knows!”
Jolting to her feet, Agatha let go of Victoria’s hand and stumbled into the hall. Pushing past a surprised Smythe, she unbolted the front door and ran down the drive, followed closely by Victoria and Harriet.
“Whose is that horse? Jaquard will be most upset.” Victoria gasped at the large grey cropping the hydrangeas in the middle of the ornamental lawn.
“Mine.” Agatha picked up her skirts breathlessly. “It was too far to walk from the stables to the house so I just let him go out here. I was in rather a hurry.” Darting onto the grass, she grabbed hold of the horse’s rein. “We’d better take him back to the stables.”
Henry stood in the deserted taproom of the Fountain Inn and put his head in his hands. His friends and colleagues were meant to be the finest spies and operatives that England had to offer. As he listened to the conversation in the private room, however, his belief was sorely tested.
“Come on, old chap, we must get going!” Anthony’s frustrated tones echoed loudly out into the tap room.
“But I’ve barely had any sleep!” Bill yawned audibly. “And I’ve just arrived.”
“Your beauty can wait, Bill, this woman apparently can’t. She’s going back on the next boat in.”
“But why do we have to do this so early?”
Freddie’s unmistakable laugh shook the window casements. “I can’t believe that for a man that is used to getting up at the crack of dawn to tend to his forge, you have the ability to complain so much about this.”
“I didn’t sleep well. It doesn’t help when bloody Agatha ‘twenty knives’ Beauregard is back in the village saying she has been stargazing from what you have said.”
Henry stiffened as he heard the mirth in Bill’s voice. He coughed loudly and rapped on the private room door. Without waiting for an answer, he pushed his head in and glared. “When you are finished, I’ll be waiting outside for you.” He withdrew without catching anyone in the eye. After a short silence, the scraping of chairs against stone filled the air. Anthony was the first to leave the inn. But the bickering still hadn’t stopped.
“Hmm, I can imagine that is a bit disconcerting. Hold on, old chap, I’ll give you a leg up. Amazed you could find a horse big enough to hold you.” Freddie laced his fingers together and held them at knee height, standing next to an enormous shire horse that nipped him on the shoulders.
“It’s all muscle,” Bill huffed.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t.”
“Look, you two. Shut up. Can we please go?”
Bill and Freddie looked at each other and stopped bickering instantly. Henry watched as Anthony wheeled his horse in a tight circle in the road. “You’re lucky Earl Harding isn’t here. With his notoriously bad temper he would have walloped both of you.”
“I think old Hawk Anglethorpe has caught a bit of that temper.”
“I am here you know,” Henry said quietly.
“We had better not be late, then. We only met at the Fountain to discuss strategy.”
“And for the breakfast of course.”
Henry groaned as Bill grinned.
The four men guided their horses out of the Inn’s stable yard and straight over the grassy verge into a fallow field that had not yet been readied for planting. The horses’ hooves made little sound on the soft ground.
They followed the field until they reached a small lane which led in one direction back down into Brambridge Village, and in the other towards Ottery St Mary. They turned towards Ottery St Mary first, before cutting across on a green track.
“I am a little lost,” said Anthony doubtfully as Henry led them from the front.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” Bill said as he urged his horse into a trot up the hill behind Henry. “This area is full of tracks. They are well used. This will take us back to Hawk’s house the back way.”
Freddie laughed and withdrew a hip flask from his pocket. After tipping some of it down his throat, he cheerfully offered it to the other men.
“I think it is a bit early for me.” Anthony raised his eyebrows and darted a quick look at Henry. “I’ll have a cup of tea later.”
Henry kicked his horse and took the lead again.
As they crested the top of the hill, Berale House stood in the distance. It glowed squarely golden in the early morning sunlight, taking on a pinkish hue. Large windows reflected the sky. The grounds were immaculately kept with symmetrical plant borders and a small fountain to the front of the house. Henry frowned. There was something different about the house. It felt more welcoming somehow than when he had first reopened it.
“He really does have a nice house, doesn’t he?” Henry heard Freddie say. “I wonder why he doesn’t have any peacocks or guinea fowl?”
“Probably because he is coming and going at all times of the day and night and peacocks are bloody noisy if you disturb them.” Bill pulled sharply at his great horse’s reins as it sidestepped. “Met a lady over Seaton way. She had a couple.”
Henry shook his head. “Ye gods.”
In an uncomfortable silence, the men reached the edge of the estate where the hedges thinned slightly as if disturbed by constant use. Henry left the men behind and dismounted from his horse.
“Where’s Anglethorpe gone?” Freddie swung his leg over and hopped off his horse.
“Typical. He was with us a moment ago.” Bill hung onto the back of the horse as he dropped heavily to the ground.
“If you were a bit quieter, you would have seen me.” Henry stepped out from a kink in the hedge. His steps were silent as he walked towards them in the long grass.
“So that is how he does it. Like a tiger stalking its prey,” Freddie muttered audibly. Anthony watched silently as Henry approached.
“We have a problem. I cannot go in with you.” Henry clenched his fingers in a fist. “The woman says she has information in reference to Monsieur Herr. I think she is telling the truth, but I also don’t trust her. I had to tell her I worked in the stables.”
“How will you hear what is going on?” Freddie waved his hip flask in Henry’s direction and took another swig.
“The stables have vents that carry sound from one to the other. I’ll stand in the next door stable and listen in to the conversation.”
The men nodded and, tying their horses loosely to the hedge, stalked round the path to the stables, Henry half a yard behind.
The woman was still asleep in the stable stall when the men entered, crashing the stable door against the wall. She must have awoken with a start because she let out a quick huff of air that even Henry could hear in the next door stall. It was clear that she was instantly focused, however, and not at all intimidated.
“Gentlemen, you seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
Quietly, Henry pulled a bucket towards the vent and stood on it, attempting to peer through the slats. It wasn’t enough just to hear what she was saying, he needed to see too. Sometimes the body language said everything that was being left out. By tilting his head slightly, he gained a good view of Monique. She pulled her cloak closer around her as the men took in her undressed sleeping state. The curls in her long hair cascaded over her shoulders in disarray, and here and a small piece of straw had lodged itself in her tresses.
“Tell us what you know of Monsieur Herr.” Bill squared his shoulders.
The woman tsked. “Not even a cup of tea or hot chocolate?”
“You are being paid for your information. There is no need for formalities.” Freddie leaned elegantly against the damp stable wall. “Answer the question.”
The woman removed a piece of straw from her hair, letting her cloak slide down her body and revealing an expanse of tightly-laced chest. “I know that she is a woman.”
Freddie looked at Anthony, who nodded. “She’s telling the truth.”
“Of course I am.” She looked downwards and closed her cloak around her. “She also knows Lord Anglethorpe very well.” She gazed at the three men and winked. “In fact, their relationship started around five years ago. Why do you think Anglethorpe reopened his family home in this godforsaken cove despite his mother dying here? He’s been sending messages up and down the coast on her behalf for years.”
Freddie stiffened. “What’s her name?”
“Agatha Beauregard, of course.” Monique stretched languidly, the tops of her breasts threatening to pop out of her corset. “Ask anybody around here and they will tell you that when she and her little girl first came to live here, the little girl would only speak in French. Agatha couldn’t get her to shut up.”
Henry wobbled slightly on his bucket. This woman was clever, so convincing, twisting the truth and adding in half lies to add credence to her tale. He wanted to stop her there and then but held back. Monique still hadn’t revealed anything that he didn’t know.
“How do you know it is her? Agatha, I mean,” Anthony demanded, his eyes flicking from Freddie to Monique.
“Bah. I will not reveal my sources. And that is all I am going to tell you. I have nothing more.”
“I’ll guard her,” Freddie said roughly. “Anthony, Bill, you two go and fetch the stable boy. He will take her down to the boat again when we are ready.”
“Just do it, Anthony.”
Bill left first. Anthony more cautiously left the stable block backwards, his eyes on Monique.
Stepping down from the bucket, Henry quickly left the adjacent stable and, rounding the building, turned left and loped around to the back of the block where he found Anthony. He beckoned quietly to him. Anthony nodded and followed Henry into the wooded boundary behind the stables.
Henry stopped in a small clearing where Bill already sat. “We couldn’t talk by the stable block. The sound goes both ways through the vents to the outside and to the adjacent stable. I heard everything. Believe me, Lovall, I have not been sending messages up and down for Monsieur Herr.” Henry sat suddenly on a tree stump and put his head in his hands. “God, what a mess.”
“Absolutely.” Anthony turned around and found himself a dry branch to perch against. “She wasn’t lying, however. Apart from the part about you sending messages. It was only at that point that she put her hand to her chin and wouldn’t meet our eyes.” He shook his head. “I just don’t understand how she could have said the other statements as the truth.”
Henry licked his lips; for so long he had defended Agatha in his mind against all the evidence and yet this woman’s words were so persuasive. He drew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped roughly at his mouth. “Perhaps each statement individually is the truth,” he said slowly, “but put together forms a lie.”
Bill shifted in his seat. “I’m not sure I understand, sir?”
“Take that comment about Harriet, Agatha’s niece. She spoke French because of her mother, not her aunt.”
“What about you opening up the estate?”
Henry shifted uncomfortably. “It’s true. I opened it because of Agatha. I… every year I came to make sure she was alright.” He stared at the path back to the stables. “We weren’t precise enough in our questioning. If you take out the blatant lie, the conversation went as follows, ‘Why do you think Anglethorpe reopened his family home in this god forsaken cove?’ Freddie asked ‘What is her name?’ and she answered ‘Agatha Beauregard, of course’.”
“So…” Anthony paused, “err… the only other things we can draw as true in the conversation are that Monsieur Herr is a woman, and that you met her five years ago.”
“Yes, I agree. Relationship could mean anything from acquaintance to friend to lover…”
“I’m going to need a list of all the women that you met five years ago, sir. And the status of your relationship with them. And we still can’t rule out Agatha at this time.”
Henry rubbed his shoulders tiredly. “I agree,” he said resignedly. “Go and get Freddie and I’ll take over the woman from here. Bill, you should go back to the forge.”
Bill stood from his precarious perch on the branch and nodded at Henry. He disappeared quietly through the trees. Anthony waited.
“I just don’t understand, sir.”
p. “What is it, Harry?”
“Mister Herr’s signature. If it is a woman, then why does she always sign herself ‘him’?
Henry shook his head. “We’ll find out more. Go and get Freddie.”
Nodding, Anthony left. Henry waited; minute after minute ticked by but Anthony did not reappear.
Henry pushed his way back through the trees and towards the corner of the building. As he turned, a swirl of grey moved quickly round the next corner in front of him. He strode faster, trying not to make a sound, but there was no one in the entrance to the stables. The only noise was of the few remaining horses gently thumping their stable doors and clopping their hooves on the cobbled floors.
The stable where Monique was being held was suspiciously quiet too; the stable door firmly closed. Carefully, Henry unbolted the door. Freddie lay sprawled on the floor, blood pooling in the straw next to him as Anthony held a gash on his head.
“Freddie!” Henry leant over his body, jerking as the sounds of screaming horses filled the air. “Good God, where’s Monique?”
Anthony shook his head. “She was already gone when I arrived.”
“Did you not hear her lock you in?”
“Freddie was moaning too loudly.”
Outside, a horse screamed, and then another, stricken cries renting the air. Springing to his feet, Henry strode into the yard. The previously stabled horses milled in the interior courtyard, nipping at each other, cantering and rearing.
Henry caught sight of the central horse; blood dripped from slashes scored along its coat. It was Anthony’s horse that had been tied to the hedge outside the estate. In horror he circled the screaming horses; each one had been maimed in the same way, all were unridable, but one was missing. With a curse, he stumbled out of the stable courtyard, swinging his head from right to left.
But Monique was nowhere to be seen and she’d taken Henry’s own horse with her.
Agatha watched open mouthed as the small form of a woman cantered straight out of the stables on Henry’s horse not three feet in front of her. It was the woman Henry had met from the previous night.
As she rounded the corner, Henry stumbled out of the stable yard and fell into a corner as the hooves of several flying horses narrowly missed him.
“Where did she go?” he gasped.
“Toward Ottery St Mary.” Agatha jerked at her horse’s bridle. “Take my horse.”
Henry stared at her before grabbing wildly at the horse, missing the first time. The second time he caught the horse quickly and vaulted into the saddle. He wheeled the horse in a circle.
“Look after Freddie and Lovall, first stable on the right.” He glared at Agatha. “And when I come back I want to know how you knew just the right time to turn up.” Curtly he whipped the horse, which responded by jumping forward into a canter out of the stable gates.
Quickly, Agatha motioned behind her. Harriet and Victoria stepped out from the shadowy alcove to the left of the stable entrance.
“Good thing we arrived when we did,” Harriet cried as they ran towards the first stable.
“I wish we had heard more.” Agatha muttered further curses under her breath.
She took a sharp intake of air as she saw Freddie. He lay on his back, his head to one side on a makeshift pillow of Harry’s coat, his eyes rolled back in his head.
Anthony glanced at them quickly. “I need bandages. Quickly, and clean water. Used to dress wounds like this on the Peninsular. We must stop the blood loss.”
“I’ll get the water.” Victoria rushed to the outside tap that supplied clean water from a nearby spring for the stables.
Harriet set about tearing the bottom of their petticoats off. At raised eyebrows from Lovall, she glared at him.
“Where do you think we are going to get bandages?” Harriet demanded.
Lovall grunted and turned back to loosening Freddie’s clothing. Agatha wrinkled her nose.
“Has he been drinking?”
“He seemed fine to me at the ball he hosted.” Agatha looked down at the bandages Harriet handed to her.
“Just don’t tell Anglethorpe.” Anthony resumed pulling at Freddie’s jacket. “Freddie won’t tell me what is wrong. Henry and Harding cannot find out otherwise they’ll think he’s cracked.”
“How on earth did Freddie manage to get bested by that woman?” Victoria huffed as she lugged a clean pail of water in from the yard. Setting it down with a clang, she wiped her fingers on her riding habit. “What else can we do, Mr. Lovall?”
“Nothing, my lady.” Anthony looked down at Freddie, who fidgeted at the bandages that covered his head, slowly returning to consciousness. “If you could send some men from the house with a stretcher we should take him back there, as your guests will start arriving soon.”
Victoria clapped a small hand to her mouth. “My guests!” Picking up her skirts, she hurried back out of the yard and up the path to the house.
Agatha took off her riding cloak and pushed it under Freddie’s head. “I couldn’t help think that I recognized that woman.”
“You only saw her for a few seconds.” Anthony folded up the unused bandages and handed them back to Agatha.
“I saw her last night. When Henry met her at the beach.”
Freddie’s hand shot out from his side and pulled at Harry’s elbow. “Don’t tell her anything!” he mumbled, dropping his arm, eyes staring from his head. “But dammit, if the gel ain’t right. I was thinking I’d seen her before recently but I kept getting distracted by her… charms.”
Anthony rolled his eyes. Agatha leaned closer to Freddie. “I am not Monsieur Herr!” she said plaintively.
“Don’t matter. You’re a woman. Shouldn’t have to deal with these things. God, my head hurts.” With that, Freddie lapsed back into unconsciousness.
Agatha sat back on her heels. “Well,” she muttered uncertainly. Freddie had seemed so gracious before. “I think that sums up the way you ‘gentlemen’ seem to have dealt with things.” She cast a long look at Anthony and, rising graciously to her feet, stomped out of the yard.
Smythe welcomed her back to the house. Placing a hand against the hall wall, Agatha tiredly unlaced her boots with sharp jagged movements and stepped out of them with a large step onto the carpet runner. The butler, Smythe, looked at her with raised eyebrows and then glanced back at where she had left her muddy boots in the middle of the doormat. With a bow, he turned and strode quickly towards and down through the servants’ stairs, but not in time enough to stop his loud roar of laughter from reaching her.
Padding into the drawing room, Agatha found Victoria sipping tea with slow movements. Falling into one of the tub chairs, Agatha wiggled her stockinged feet against the footrest. She sighed. It was just like old times, waiting for Henry to come back to see what he was going to say about Agatha’s latest escapade.
Taking a deep breath, she prodded the footrest with her toe. “So just how is this house party going to help us?”
Victoria took a sandwich from the cake stand and fed it piece by piece to Ponzi, her remaining dog. “We are going to fight rumors with rumors.”
Victoria looked up. “We can’t be sure if any of the guests we’ve invited are involved with Monsieur Herr. So we need the guests I’ve invited to take back stories to the ton. That will in turn flush out the spy and make her play into our hands, just as she has been making up stories about you to push her around.”
The sound of the front door opening stopped Agatha speaking. A crash and a loud growl of frustration echoed down the hallway.
“Agatha Beauregard, your boots are in the way…” the voice quietened. “Bloody eggs and spoons…” Henry appeared in the doorway; a smear of mud covered one eye, enhancing his forbidding presence. He stood and stared at Agatha, blinked and turned his gaze to Victoria. “And just who have you invited, Victoria? I thought this was a normal house party.”
Agatha blushed. She couldn’t help it. A tingling in her toes made her rub them harder against the footrest. What was it about this man? “You haven’t told him?”
“No. He wouldn’t have agreed,” Victoria said hurriedly. “Did you find her?”
Henry rubbed at the mud on his face. “She escaped. Her horse was one of my best. And she is resourceful.” He shook his head. “She had too much of a head start. If Agatha hadn’t been there with a horse, I wouldn’t have managed to get after her as fast as I did.”
Agatha sat up and coughed. “Victoria. You were telling us of the guests.” Henry narrowed his eyes at her.
“Ah yes, there’s Earl Harding…”
“A few of my friends, then Lord Fashington and Miss Guthrie and errr… Celine and Edward.” Victoria patted her dog absently.
Victoria gave a small smile. “Yes, Fashington seemed to be caught up in the middle of all of this. He does seem rather pleased about Agatha’s predicament.”
“What about Miss Guthrie?”
“I felt sorry for her. I think a few days alone with Fashington without her father and stepmother might open her eyes somewhat. I didn’t invite Lord and Lady Guthrie on purpose. Don’t want to see anyone making the same mistake that I made with my marriage.”
Into the small silence that followed, Agatha watched as Victoria took the opportunity to feed another sandwich to her dog, keeping her face lowered.
“And Celine and Edward?” Henry spoke more gently.
“Celine is one of the other people who seems to have a gripe with Agatha and yourself. I thought if we kept her at close quarters we might be able to see if she is part of the problem. And Edward is her latest paramour so I invited him too,” she added.
“How did you get them to agree to come?” When Agatha had met Celine and Edward, Edward had seemed to want to be anywhere but in Henry’s proximity.
Victoria laughed. “Everyone wants to see Lord Anglethorpe’s secret estate. His many mistresses have raved of the beauty of the place. They seemed to regard it as romantic, with its closed air and the fact that Henry has never invited anyone here. The fact that he has never had a house party here made the invitation even more delectable.”
Agatha watched Henry swallow visibly. “You said it was like a mausoleum.”
Victoria nodded. “It was.”
Agatha rubbed her hands together uncomfortably. “So just how are we going to flush out [_Monsieur Herr?” _]
Henry advanced into the room slowly and menacingly. “Flush out Monsieur Herr?” He stopped and turned to his sister. “You mean, Victoria, that you were actively searching for Monsieur Herr rather than trying to help me?”
“Yes, Henry.” Victoria took a sip of tea. “You gentlemen seem rather taken up with the idea that Agatha was Monsieur Herr.”
“Look, I have never for one second believed that…” Henry put out his hands imploringly.
“And given that Agatha is my best friend,” Victoria continued blithely, “I thought we would actually do something about finding the real spy instead of calling in some doxy from abroad to give us patently false information.”
“You heard,” Henry said flatly.
“We heard. How else do you think Agatha was standing there with a horse at the time when you needed one? Magic?” The sarcasm in Victoria’s voice was palpable.
“I think we ought to join forces, don’t you?” Anthony leaned wearily against the doorway, blood staining his normally pristine white shirt. Harriet nodded behind his shoulder, her arms full of bloodstained bandages.
Henry stood with a muffled oath. “How’s Freddie?”
“He will live. Although he needs bed rest for at least three weeks.” Anthony rested his head against the door frame. “I think that the facts imply that Agatha is not the spy.”
Victoria threw up her dainty hands. “Of course she’s not.”
“With respect my lady, you are her friend, one who she did not speak to for five years at that,” Anthony continued smoothly. “In private Anglethorpe has continuously maintained Miss Beauregard’s innocence.”
Agatha looked up in surprise. Henry would not meet her gaze.
Anthony brushed tiredly at the blood on his sleeve. “But I think the main point is that Monsieur Herr is sufficiently worried that she has brought someone over from France, to implicate Agatha and thus Henry further. Why would Agatha do something like that, surrounded as she is by everyone here?”
Agatha shook her head. “I’m sure I recognized something familiar about that woman, and Freddie did too.”
“What of your other plan?” Henry said abruptly.
“Other plan?” Victoria looked innocent.
“Yes, the reason you have invited everyone to the house party. Including an ex-paramour of mine.” Henry twisted his lips, “And that buffoon, Fashington.”
“As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted…” Victoria folded her hands primly in her lap. “We are going to fight with rumors.”
“Huh.” Henry blinked, his eyes riveted to the foot rest under Agatha’s legs.
Agatha pushed her stockinged feet to the floor underneath the stool. “What could we say that would make Monsieur Herr appear from the shadows?”
Victoria took a deep breath. “How about this first one? Lord Anglethorpe is going to offer for Agatha Beauregard’s hand.”
Agatha gaped as her feet suddenly felt icy cold. She gazed downwards at the carpeted floor. “I… I… How is that going to make Monsieur Herr appear?”
Anthony straightened and clicked his fingers. “If they think that government man Anglethorpe is marrying tainted lady, Agatha, even with the rumors, then they will understand that their rumors have not been successful.”
“And when they come up with their next attack we should be able to isolate where it is coming from.” Henry sat back slowly into his chair. “Possibly it might work.”
Agatha looked upwards, and met Henry’s gaze. Her toes curled into the carpet as he stared at her, unmoving.
Victoria coughed. “My next one is that we know who Monsieur Herr is and that Henry is close to catching them.”
Agatha frowned and broke away from Henry’s stare. “Why on earth would she take that bait?”
“Because she sent a person who, as you said, is close to her. So she might wonder what this person would have, could have revealed.”
Henry shook his head. “Enough. Don’t you realize that all of these plans mean that the threat against Agatha rises?”
Agatha took a deep breath. “What makes you think that?”
“No, no, no, he is right,” Victoria mused. “Monsieur Herr has been keen to target Agatha, or Henry from the start. She may take more full-on action if she feels that she is threatened directly.”
“Like shooting me, you mean?” Agatha grimaced. “She’s probably done that once before.”
“It might have been for me.” Henry stood. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you use Agatha in this way.”
Agatha stood, incensed. “What do you mean they can’t use me this way? I speak for myself!”
Henry’s eyebrows rose. “Agatha, my dear—”
“I am not your dear anything.” Agatha hesitated and lifted her head as a long forgotten ball of tension lodged itself high in her throat. “I will pretend to be your fiancé.” She paused and, with a black look, turned to face Victoria, “but only until this affair is over.” With as much élan as she could muster in her stockinged feet, she got to her feet and stomped across the carpet and into the hall. If only she hadn’t taken her boots off.
Victoria had outdone herself. Berale House sparkled.
Henry walked slowly down the central stairs, pulling at his cravat. His footsteps slowed as the stairs turned a corner, his gaze caught on the painting of his mother and father. The painting hung clean and level. Putting out a tentative finger, he traced the flat oils of the pocket watch in his father’s hand.
This idea of his sister’s was futile. How were they ever going to catch a spy with a few randomly selected guests?
The sound of a crash in the direction of the ballroom made him jump. With great steps, he descended the stairs and rushed towards the great room. The footmen stared at him from a stack of fallen chairs as he pushed the door open violently.
“Oh. I thought… never mind.”
He’d thought that perhaps Agatha had started experimenting again. For an instant the heady days of finding his house in uproar and the sparkle in Agatha’s eyes flooded back to him. He’d never been so distracted. He’d never been so focused.
With a sigh he trudged back to the front door to await the first guests for that night’s dinner. Dancing and music were to take place the following night. During the day there would be walks for the guests and entertainment in the form of croquet and painting.
For most of that afternoon he had stood on the front steps of Berale House greeting the guests as they had arrived on horseback or in sumptuous carriages. Many had stayed nearby in Honiton the previous night and were therefore full of cheer. Others who had come longer distances were jolted and worn.
Charles and Miss Guthrie had arrived separately as custom dictated. Charles had ignored Henry’s proffered hand, reluctant though it was, merely enquiring of the butler where his room was. He disappeared immediately. Miss Guthrie had meekly greeted him, her gaze sliding away as he welcomed her to his house.
Standing at the front door again below the central stairs, Henry wondered if Miss Guthrie could say boo to a goose. She had been accompanied by a severe lady companion in a large bonnet who seemed to do most of the talking.
Henry shuddered as he glanced up the stairs.
“Oh, Henry darling. Berale House is just as I remembered!” Celine looked down on him with a large smile, supported under a bare arm by Edward.
Victoria glided to a halt next to him. “Welcome to Berale House, Celine, Edward. We were so glad you could come.” Victoria elbowed Henry in the stomach.
“Oh hello, Lady Colchester. Didn’t see you there.” Celine appeared to trip on the bottom step, grabbing Edward by the arm. “Come on, Teddy, let’s go and get a drink.”
“Really, Henry. I don’t know what you saw in that woman.” Victoria tapped her feet as the couple walked away towards the drawing room.
“I do,” he answered wryly. “And anyway, you were the one that invited her.”
“Yes,” Victoria grumbled as she turned on a perfect heel to follow the guests down the hall.
Henry wondered how long he could keep up his normally inscrutable air as more guests turned up, chattering loudly at the spectacle of the lanterns on the lawn. Many were staying in Honiton or Ottery St Mary. Bill and Lord Stanton were the last to arrive. Good grief, he hadn’t realized that Victoria had invited the local smith as well, even if he was one of Henry’s key men. It would set the cat among the pigeons when the other guests realized who he was.
Henry shook his head. Normally Victoria was a stickler for propriety. The back of his neck prickled as the last step of the stair creaked lightly behind him, primed intermittently by Mrs. Noggin with five years’ worth of vegetable stock.
He caught his breath as a finely turned ankle appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
“Lord Anglethorpe.” Agatha regretted the insouciant kick out of her skirts as she took the last step on the stair. Whilst she had been trying to make a point, she had revealed too much ankle. In the dark hallway, her peach skirt gave the impression of being even more brown than it had done in the dingy bedroom.
Henry smiled. “How lovely to see you again, so soon.”
Agatha wondered if Henry was mocking her; his granite-like face was even more inscrutable than usual.
“I think most of our guests have arrived, so if you would like to follow me, we are serving champagne in the drawing room before supper.”
This time Agatha took the proffered arm, gritting her teeth. He hadn’t even complimented her on her dress, as custom dictated. Even though she had sneaking suspicion she looked like a mushroom. Glancing sideways, she caught Bill’s barely concealed grin. Lord Stanton stared at the ground, biting his lips.
Henry led them through the house as muffled sounds of merriment grew louder. Victoria slipped through the drawing room door, her cheeks pink at the edges.
“Really, Henry! I know I invited that woman but truly, I still don’t see what you saw in her!” Her voice trailed away as she stared at Agatha and smiled, her mouth not quite turning up at the edges. They all knew who Victoria was referring to. Indeed, part of the plan was to make her behavior worse.
“So. Does everyone know what they have to do?” The harried look on Victoria’s face faded away to be replaced with steely determination. “Agatha. A word.”
Agatha watched as Henry’s large form slipped through the door to the drawing room, where the noise dipped slightly and then continued again at normal volume.
Victoria patted her arm. “Agatha. Things are going to get bad before they get any better.”
“I know, Victoria. I know.”
“And I know that you have been through worse before.”
“In that case, remember to keep your chin high, and to act like you don’t care.”
Agatha pushed her chin up. Five years she had spent acting as if she didn’t care, didn’t care about herself, pretending to be someone else. It should have been ingrained in her by now. But recently she hadn’t been able to stop herself; little acts here and there that had broken free from her carefully constructed exterior.
Hands shaking, she pushed open the drawing room door. The drop in sound this time went on for much longer. But one voice continued to speak shrilly into the silence.
“And did you know, someone told me that she stood in for the Grande Salvatore and actually threw knives at a woman in Vauxhall Gardens! If that isn’t a measure of ill character, I…” The voice was as loud as a bell and clear into the hush.
It was not hard to see that it was Celine talking. Quickly, Agatha affected a hurt stance, opening her mouth and widening her eyes in shock. Although they had concocted a series of tales and rumors of which this was one, it was still hurtful to hear in the cold light of the evening. There was no point in being ashamed; most of this one was true. Even if it had only been one knife. Somewhat scandalous? That was it.
Henry, who had been lounging by the wood paneled door talking to Edward, straightened and strode to her side. He slid a hand around her waist and with the other, lightly caressed her cheek.
And then he kissed her in front of all the guests, his smooth lips moving firmly against hers, persuasive, questing… commanding.
Ah yes. Another part of the planned charade. It did not stop Agatha’s cheeks flaming. Henry looked down at her with an amused expression on his face. Agatha blinked and her breathing slowed as the amusement leached from his face and he lowered his head once more.
And then she remembered the guest that she had just heard speaking. He had feigned it for Celine. Why could he not feign it for her?
Lowering her eyes, she broke away from him, greeting guests that she knew, friends of Victoria’s. Chatter broke out again amongst the groups of guests arranged around the room, louder this time and more excitedly.
“So you’ve hooked yourself another gullible lord, have you, dear Aggie.” Charles Fashington stood slumped by the fireplace, alone. He swayed slightly, one hand steadying himself against the mantel. A fire roared in the grate but he seemed impervious to the heat.
Agatha tucked a rogue ringlet behind one ear. Taking a deep breath, she tipped her head to one side and smiled.
“Why yes, Charles! And did not you know, he works for the War Office just like you!”
“We aren’t meant to mention that,” Charles said shortly.
Aggie affected a giggle. “Why silly you. Of course you aren’t,” she continued in a whisper, “but everyone knows.” She giggled again. “Did you know he’s been looking for Monsieur Herr?”
“No.” Charles’ pallor whitened imperceptibly and his fingers clenched even tighter against the mantel.
“He thinks he’s found [_her. _]And she’s terribly high up in society, don’t you know.” Agatha was tempted to try another giggle. “I mean, just think, they thought it was me for a while.”
“They did? But they don’t anymore?” Charles’ voice was hoarse.
“Oh no. I mean. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Almost as ridiculous as me applying to the Royal Society of Sciences.”
“Err yes… of course.” Charles looked over her shoulder and sneered. “Anglethorpe would have supported you, though. He always did think you walked on water. You know what he said to me when he forced me into an engagement with you? You were too good for me and to never let you stop experimenting. Hah! If only it had been the type of experimenting I liked.” He swallowed. “Would you excuse me?” Charles pushed himself off the mantel and, brushing past Agatha, snagged a new glass of champagne from the waiting footman. Without pausing, he made straight for the drawing room door.
Agatha stared after him. Henry had said what?
“I’d say job well done,” Victoria whispered in her ear. “Oh dear.” Her gleeful demeanor dropped quickly. A new arrival stood at the door. Earl Harding filled the doorway. “Oh, that odious man. Why ever did I invite him?”
Agatha jumped. “You don’t have to continue calling me your darling, Lord Anglethorpe.” _Henry had said she was too good for Charles. _
“Oh, but I do. Come and meet a friend of mine. Celine.”
Ah, a dose of reality. Agatha batted away Henry’s hand and followed him as he sauntered over to where Celine stood, surrounded by women and some men who were hanging on to her every word.
“Lovers’ tiff already, Henry?” Celine drawled. Her dress left little to the imagination, dipping low at the front and hanging off her shoulders in the sultry imitation of a bath robe. “We never argued when we were together.” Celine gave Henry a coquettish look.
“You were too busy hanging out for diamonds and becoming the next Lady Anglethorpe, Celine. Whereas this,” Henry drew Agatha closer, “is true love.”
Agatha stifled a gasp. Henry was really pushing the boundaries of what they said they would do. They had had a two pronged approach. First through Charles—one of the spies’ notes had been lost in his clothing; he had to be connected somehow, and then through Celine. They had to pretend they were in love so that Celine, a notorious gossip, would spread the fact far and wide in the hope that would reach Monsieur Herr’s ears. And then hopefully, Monsieur Herr would worry that nobody believed that Agatha was [_Monsieur Herr. _]After all, why would Henry, the consummate spymaster, continue to pursue a relationship with the woman that he assumed to be the spy?
Agatha pasted a smile on her face and drew a deep breath. “Darling Henry has told me all about you.” Henry’s hand tightened sharply on her waist and Celine frowned. “Why, did not you used to live at a certain address in Piccadilly where…”
“Ah, Earl Harding has just caught my eye. We really must go. Ladies, gentlemen, Celine…” With a nod, Henry swung Agatha away from the crowd and pushed her in the direction of Earl Harding. “What did you think you were doing?” he murmured.
“What did you think you were doing? True love!”
“We had to convince her somehow. Your little display did nothing for our cause.”
“It wasn’t a little display.”
“Stop bickering, you two!” As Victoria spoke, Earl Harding regarded them with interest.
“You know, I really think…”
“Isn’t it a wonderful gathering?” Victoria broke into Earl Harding’s musing.
“This is not the time, Hades. Anyway. You were telling me what you had done with my dog, Arturo.”
Agatha’s mouth dropped open. Lord Harding’s name was Hades? God of the underworld? Hades Harding! The earl gave her a stony glare as Henry drew her away.
“What is it between those two?”
“I’ll tell you another time. Suffice it to say, they have a long history. And it has never ended well.”
Agatha shuddered. Was he still speaking about Victoria and Earl Harding or about themselves?
“I think we have done enough here. It is time to go through to supper.” Henry clapped his hands. The footmen opened the door to the drawing room. Delicious smells wafted through from the dining room directly opposite. “Harding, if you could escort my sister, please?”
Charles was already in the dining room, drinking steadily from a wine glass. He did not look up when the others entered. Each place was marked with a name. Agatha’s heart fell as she read the card. To her left was Earl Harding, to her right Henry, directly opposite Charles and either side of him Celine and Miss Guthrie.
Henry drew out her chair for her and she nodded as she sat. The smile he gave her was soft, but she ignored him. Gathering her full skirts in her hands, she gently seated herself in the chair.
Their section of the table was quiet to begin with, as they concentrated on the soup course that arrived immediately. No one made eye contact. Around them the other guests chatted excitedly. Victoria shot concerned looks down the length of the table and muttered urgently in Bill’s ear. Anthony sat on her other side, his usual cheerfulness gone, silently watching the table.
“So. Where’s Lord Lassiter?” Celine was the first to start the conversation.
“He fell from his horse,” Henry said shortly.
“He never falls from a horse,” Charles slurred. “He’s known as one of the best riders in the Army.”
In an effort to turn the conversation Agatha, concentrated on Miss Guthrie who had been the quietest. “So have you set a date, Miss Guthrie?”
“We haven’t,” Charles answered for her. “We are still discussing settlements.”
Celine snorted, crashing her soup plate from the table in her mirth. “Settlements? What settlements? The only settlement in your marriage is what you’ll be receiving from Guthrie.”
“Ssh, Celine.” Edward tried in vain to intercede from further down the table as more guests turned to watch.
“Yes, shut up Celine, you little trollop.” Charles raised his face from the soup, his cheeks a bright red. The dinner guests gasped.
“I would remind you, Fashington, that you are at my dinner table and if you cannot control yourself, then you should leave.” Victoria stood and rang the bell for the footman.
Charles threw his napkin on the table. “No need. Lady Colchester. Miss Guthrie.” He nodded his head and stalked out in a wobbly line. Those sat round the table breathed a sigh of relief.
“I say,” breathed Celine.
“Enough, Celine.” Henry took a spoonful of soup. “Let us discuss something else. I hear that Darkangel is running at Newmarket tomorrow. What does anyone think of its odds?”
Shoulders slumping in relief, Agatha picked up her own spoon as discussion of the riders and runners at the races swirled around her.
The next day dawned bright and clear. In the morning room, Agatha slowly finished her breakfast. She had spent the night tossing and turning. Henry’s declaration to Celine had rocked her, “This is true love,” echoing in her ears. What had really disturbed her was the sense of longing that she consumed her. With a jolt of chagrin, she wished that it were true. She wanted him to love her. She wanted it to be true love, the man that had declared her too good for Charles.
Clouds swept across the blue sky, the grass bending gently in the breeze outside the breakfast room windows. All the other current residents of Berale House had been delivered a breakfast tray to their rooms.
The stable boy saddled a horse for her, a fairly docile grey mare with a kind temperament. Agatha guided her down the drive and out onto the rolling hills above the coastline. They started out first on the hedge-enclosed tracks around the quarries which led out slowly onto the scrub land. From there it was an easy climb up the field behind, already planted with the summer’s crops.
She wasn’t alone when she reached the top of the hill.
Miss Guthrie looked down at her, seated on a magnificent stallion that excitedly twitched its tail at the sight of the mare.
“Good morning, Miss Guthrie.”
“Oh! Please call me Margaret. I do hate the formality of Miss Guthrie.” She wheeled the stallion in a circle as it snorted at the mare.
“Margaret, it is, then. I’m Agatha. What a fantastic horse.”
“Isn’t it just.” Miss Guthrie pulled the reins lightly. “My father gave him to me. He bought him at Tattersalls. Lady Guthrie was aghast at how much he spent.”
“Gosh! How do you control him?” The stallion snorted again.
“He’s actually quite even-tempered. He will quieten down in a minute.” As she spoke, the stallion stopped prancing and swishing his tail and arched a nose out towards the mare.
“Isn’t it a magnificent view from here?”
Agatha nodded. It was indeed. As they looked south towards the coast, the sun rose to the left of them, glinting off waves in the water.
“Would you like to join me?” Miss Guthrie asked shyly. “I would love some company.”
Agatha thought of the morning’s entertainments of painting and croquet and decided that some quiet company would probably be just what she needed. “Yes, I would love to.”
“I’ll come too.” Unnoticed whilst they had been considering the view, Celine had trotted up to them. She was dressed in a riding habit that accentuated her curves; a little hat sat cockaded on her head.
“I don’t think that—”
“It’s fine, Agatha. I want to hear more about what Celine has to say.”
“Oh, don’t be such a widgeon, Miss Beauregard. Buck up. You need to if you want to catch Lord Anglethorpe. I’ll meet you two at the bottom by the hollow.”
Agatha gritted her teeth as Celine cantered down the hill.
“She’s quite a character, isn’t she?” Miss Guthrie said innocently.
“Yes,” Agatha blurted out.
“I quite admire her actually. She has made the transition from a lady of the night to semi-respectable woman quite well.”
Agatha choked. Someone had definitely replaced Miss Guthrie in the night.
“My sources tell me that she is actually quite a clever woman. If only she was my stepmother instead of that odious woman.”
Agatha stared down the hill. Miss Guthrie did have a point. The first time Agatha met Celine, she had helped her escape Charles, putting her own self in danger. But ever since, every word she had uttered had contained rumors and hearsay. Agatha frowned, and yet none of it had been said in a spiteful voice. It was as if Celine was merely playing a role, going through the motions.
“I’m afraid I can’t hold him any longer. See you at the bottom.” Miss Guthrie kicked the stallion, which responded with a gigantic leap into an immediate canter. Agatha watched admiringly as she crouched low in the saddle, fitting her form to the horse. Giving a light tap to her own mare, she held tightly to the reins as the smaller horse picked its way slowly down the hill.
When she reached the hollow, both Celine and Miss Guthrie were laughing like old friends.
Miss Guthrie stopped suddenly, her hands twitching at the reins held lightly in her hand. “Celine, you said something last night at dinner about my marriage settlement.”
“Yes, I did.”
“I want to hear more.”
“I’m not sure I should—”
“It’s not your marriage and you are not the one who is being pushed into it!” Miss Guthrie shut her mouth like a trap and slumped.
Agatha cursed as her mare chose that instant to circle away. Pulling hard on the reins, she guided the horse back to the others.
“Interesting. Exactly who is pushing you?” Celine cocked her head on one side.
“My stepmother. Lady Guthrie.” Miss Guthrie spat out, stilling her twitching hands. “She has convinced my father that this is a worthy match.”
“You must have liked him at first,” Agatha ventured. After all, she had too.
“I did. Before he started drinking. He was charming.”
Agatha nodded. Yes. Charles had been a very charming man.
Miss Guthrie stroked the head of the stallion. “I was so pleased that I had found someone that I liked and whom both my father and stepmother welcomed.”
“Oh, I just bet Lady Guthrie welcomed him,” Celine said. “The affair between her and Fashington when old Foxtone was alive used to be the worst kept secret in the ton.”
“My fiancé had an affair with my stepmother whilst she was married to Lord Foxtone?” Miss Guthrie pulled on her horse’s reins as he sidestepped in disquiet.
“How… how do you know?” Agatha asked.
Celine stared at them. “A woman of my means,” she started delicately, “hears many things. Especially when she caters to those who have specific needs.”
Celine whacked her riding crop against her glove-clad fingers, causing them both to jump. “Let us just say, this crop doesn’t work only on horses.” She looked intently at Agatha. “I tried to tell you that time in the park.”
“Oh, particularly Charles. How else do you think I knew that he had no money left?”
“[_What?” _]Miss Guthrie gasped.
“Surely your father told you? Charles is penniless. He has spent all his money from the estates on gambling, women and wine. We found out when he couldn’t pay his bill.”
“All the girls were enormously disappointed. He was a bit of a favorite really. Very charming and chatty, even if we did have to enjoy the occasional horseplay.” Celine coughed into her hand. “I like you,” she said abruptly to Miss Guthrie. “I even think I like you, Miss Beauregard, despite your interest in Henry. But Miss Guthrie, I think you should know. I think your fiancé is still having an affair with your stepmother.”
In the silence that followed, the breeze grew stronger and the trees in the hollow swayed, creaking through their moss-covered trunks. A fox barked in the distance, and even the rabbits that had scattered at their approach stopped munching on the fertile grass.
“I think,” began Miss Guthrie, “I think, you can call me Margaret, Celine.”
Celine sat bolt upright on her horse and with a sigh, visibly lost the tension in her figure.
“To be honest, I am not that surprised. The relationship between my stepmother and Charles has constantly been too close for my liking. I was just so grateful that that, [_bitch _]had stopped mentioning marriage.” Miss Guthrie lightly tapped her horse setting him in motion. “I want to ride.”
She led the way through the hollow and out the other side to a path that bordered a small stream. Agatha pulled the small mare into a trot beside her.
“What are you going to do now?” Agatha asked lightly, jolting in the mare’s saddle. Celine’s revelations had put the whole Charles affair into context for her. If Lady Foxtone had been having an affair with Charles Fashington all those years ago, then no wonder she had been so irate when she had discovered Charles and Agatha in a compromising position.
Miss Guthrie bowed her head. “I’m not sure. Breaking off the marriage will look bad.”
“Yes, I know. I was engaged to him too.”
“Hmm, yes. I’ve only recently found that out. I wanted to ask you why you broke your engagement.”
“I never wanted to marry him. He tried to kiss me and we were caught in what looked a compromising position.”
Celine snorted behind them. “That sounds like the Charles of old.”
“It seems as if I can’t really stay engaged to him.” Miss Guthrie seemed as though a weight had fallen from her shoulders. “Now I just need to find a way to tell Father without the stepmother finding out. He tells her[_ everything_].”
Henry studied his reflection in the mirror. He did not like what he saw. Streaks of hair around his ears were turning grey, and his formerly unlined forehead was gathering creases. It was that damn woman who was doing this to him. He did not like not knowing where she was or what she was doing.
He had felt the laughing gaze of Lord Stanton on his back too many times the previous evening at dinner.
He shrugged on his frockcoat and deftly tied his cravat in a Windsor knot. He had no need of his valet, who was stood watchful in the corner of the room.
“Will I do?”
“She will like it, my lord.”
He sighed. Even his bloody valet was matchmaking. It seemed as if all his staff wanted desperately to believe in this charade. The valet remained silent, folding up the clothes that Henry had shed after taking a bath to clean himself from his ride.
“Out with it!”
“Janey told me that Miss Beauregard sleeps badly.”
“Her ladies maid, sir. From the village. Very nice she is too.”
“Just keep your eyes and ears open this evening, Ames. Last night we shook the trees and tonight we must see if anything falls out.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Henry stepped lightly down the stairs. The main staircase wound down to the black and white flagged hall that led from the front of the house to the back. As he descended the last flight, the loud clinking of salvers and glasses reached him from below stairs, as did the creak as guests walked backwards and forth above. He had an hour before the first guests arrived from both the house party and around the district.
In fact, what was he to do with himself in the intervening hour? The staff had everything organized. He was only needed to form a receiving line at the start of the evening, and from then on his sister had decreed that everything would work like clockwork. He retreated to his study.
The room was just the same as he had left it on the previous evening. He fell into the leather chair that sat on castors behind his desk. Idly he swung his legs to and fro. Then, with decision, he pulled out a drawer and lifted a small box onto the desk. The birds and lilies embroidered on the top seemed to move for an instant and then freeze again into their perpetual dance and song.
He opened the box and sat for a while, inhaling the faint perfume. Patting his breast pocket, he withdrew the dainty metal band and placed in into the small indentation next to the large gold ring. He closed the box with a snap and carefully placed it back in the desk drawer. Rising, he left the study to face the guests.
The reception line was interminably long. The noise in the ball room reached a crescendo as the number of people gathering increased. Guest upon guest sat in the chairs around the outside of the room, or stood chatting in small groups. They each held a glass of champagne in their hand, helping with the merriment and laughter.
He had already greeted Bill, Lord Stanton, Harry, and a fragile-looking Freddie who had shaken him rather gingerly by the hand, not quite regarding him in the eye.
Even Fashington looked less drunk this evening and more in control of himself, his face open and engaging.
Victoria turned from greeting the last guest and elbowed him in the ribs. “Look at her!”
Henry’s heart leapt, but fell like a stone. In the queue of people to enter the ballroom, Miss Guthrie stood tall, and graceful. Her dress was a stunning sky blue which shimmered as she walked. She held her head high, and laughed, as clear as a bell, as her companion made a remark.
Miss Guthrie did not look at Fashington once, even though he stood nearby trying to attract her attention.
“What’s going on this evening?” Victoria elbowed him in the side again. “First Miss Guthrie and now…”
Henry looked again to the front door and took a deep breath. It was like the first time he had seen the Grand Salvatore. Agatha stood on the top step, glinting and flaming as the candles cast their light on the gold of her dress. She was like the sun emerging from the night. As she entered through the front door, a broad smile crossed her face. The soft light of the hall caressed her creamy shoulders, and set off the red-gold tints in her hair.
“Close your mouth, Henry!” Victoria gave him one last dig in the ribs and then swept over to greet her friend.
He could not stop staring. This was not the same Agatha he knew, and he thought that he had met them all, the reckless scientist, the endearing academic, the infuriatingly loyal friend to his sister. This was a woman who was in touch with her sensuality, and knew how to use it. This was a woman that was going to have all the men at the dance lusting after her.
Before he knew what he was doing, he was moving forward and pulling Agatha straight back out of the door through which she had come.
He closed the front door in Victoria’s face.
He dropped his hands to his side and clenched them in to tight fists. “What are you wearing?”
“Don’t you like it?” Agatha shrugged her shoulders.
“Of course I like it. The problem is, so will everyone else too.”
“And why does that matter?”
“Because, because…” Henry stuttered. Agatha shot a disdainful look at him and pulled the door back open again to where Victoria still stood.
“What a delightful gathering, Victoria,” Agatha said cheerfully, sweeping in through the front door. She shut it quietly on him as he looked after her.
“I’d stick to her like glue, sir.”
Henry jumped and then shook himself. His valet lounged quietly in the shadows.
“What are you doing there? You are meant to be finding out what is going on in the ballroom.”
“Best place to hear the gossip, my lord. As the guests have been queuing they’ve been discussing all sorts of interesting things that they won’t talk of inside.”
Henry looked back at the door. “Go on.”
“Lots of guests from the local area are suspicious of you finally opening your house for a ball. You’ve owned it for more than five years, and never done something similar.”
“And they think that you are doing it because you are near to getting married. They are all craning their heads wondering who the lucky lady is.”
“Then there is the group of people who wonder what you actually do when you are down here, given that you don’t seem to go out very much.”
“And then the ladies are wondering if they are going to have a chance to entrap you.”
“Oh yes. Fairly unscrupulous bunch. Watch out for the gaggle of local ladies in awful dresses.”
Henry flicked a glare at his valet. “So in reality you haven’t found out much at all, have you?”
“I was going to come on to that. It wasn’t one of the guests going in, but one of the guests coming out that caught my attention. That gentleman, Lord Fashington, stood for a while on the top step smoking. I thought it was a pretty odd place to do it, given that he could have gone for a walk in the grounds. He dropped his cigar the moment after the last coach arrived and slipped inside.”
“Who was in the last coach?”
Ames frowned. “I don’t know him very well. Count Ondaren, I think he’s called. Pretty non-descript chap.”
“Did he speak to anyone else?”
“No one at all. Most of the crowd avoided him.”
Henry was puzzled. Most of the guests had been smoking on the terrace during the weekend as asked to by Victoria. Certainly when a rush of guests were arriving, the normal thing would not be trying to go out through the same door that people were coming in by.
“Are you sure he did not speak to anyone?”
Henry nodded. “Go round the back and enter through the terrace. See if there is anyone trying to get in that we have not invited.”
With a tip of his cap, Ames moved silently through the shadows and disappeared around the corner of the house.
The hall was empty when Henry re-entered the house. All the guests had now arrived, and Victoria was presiding over the affair in the ballroom.
Henry opened the ballroom door slightly and stepped in quietly. The dancing had already begun with locals and house party guests mingling good-naturedly. As soon as he had stepped in, his body sensed where Agatha was standing. She was surrounded by a sea of males who were listening attentively to her every word. Miss Guthrie too was also similarly accompanied. Fashington stood frustratedly at the edge of her circle, Miss Guthrie angled away from him as if on purpose.
As he strode towards Agatha, she glanced at him and then said something to the man next to her, Earl Harding. Henry gritted his teeth and strode forward more quickly. But he was too late. The earl was already leading Agatha out onto the dance floor. The earl met his eyes briefly and smiled wolfishly.
Henry clenched his hands by his side.
“I say Anglethorpe. Jolly good gathering.” Granwich tapped at his shoulder and handed him a glass of champagne. “Haven’t been to a ball with such interesting guests since your parents’ gatherings. Too bad your mother died of consumption. She was an excellent hostess here, even without your father.”
Henry gripped at the champagne glass tightly. “Consumption?” What in the hell?
Granwich stared at him. “Yes of course. She contracted it several months before your father died.”
“She did? I…”
“She never wanted to make a fuss, your mother. She was a very special lady. Always understood the pressure your father was under and the risks that he took.”
“She didn’t die of a broken heart?”
Granwich frowned at him. “Good god man, where did you get that idea? No, she and your father were very much in love, and of course Helen was grief stricken when she died, but she always said she was lucky to have had even the time that she had had with your father, and she wouldn’t have had it any other way. He knew she was going of course. It was the cough that gave it away.”
_His mother coughing with laughter outside the carriage. _
“Why didn’t she tell me… us?”
“I don’t think she wanted to burden you with it. Consumption is rumored to be highly infectious. Also plays havoc with the body… most patients end up looking like skeletons at the end.”
So that was why she refused had refused to see Victoria or Henry. Not because she was languishing with a broken heart.
Henry balled his hands into a fist. “If only Father hadn’t died… if I could just find what my father was looking[_ for_].”
Granwich stared at him. “That won’t bring her back.” He grasped Henry roughly by the shoulder. “Henry, you’ve been looking for seven years. Searching for something that you believe will bring back those halcyon days of your family. Your mother and father are dead and you can’t bring them back. You’ve been concentrating on the wrong thing—you should be creating your own family, your own happiness. Then in time, a strand of information will surface and you will be able to continue again looking for whatever it is.” Stepping away, Granwich picked up his cane and turned back. “Imagine dying without having ever loved or been loved?” he said in a low voice. “What use would all your searching have been then?”
Granwich strode away into the crowds, his hand white on his cane.
Henry gasped, a sharp pain seizing his shoulders. He should have known. His father had tried to tell him that day in the Cheshire Cheese. [_Look after her if I go. _]He’d known already that his mother was dying, that only his sister would be left to look after.
From the terrace, a roar rippled across the crowds. Henry started, running a hand through his hair.
“Why, you little bitch!” Charles pushed open the terraced door and staggered through it, pursued by the small dark form of a woman.
“And whilst we are here, Lord Charles Fashington, I never want to see you again in my life.” A disheveled Miss Guthrie appeared behind the lurching Charles. She lifted her reticule and thumped him on the head.
“No wonder no man wants you, you washed up prude.” Charles seemed unaware of his audience and appeared incandescent with rage. “You can’t break our marriage off. Your father won’t allow it. Especially when I tell him what you have been up to.”
Miss Guthrie drew herself to her full height. “What I have been up to!” She laughed hysterically. “I think that everyone—” She gestured to the shocked ballroom in front of them—“will be interested in the fact that you have spent your entire inheritance on courtesans, gambling and my stepmother!”
“Who told you that?” Charles straightened, his hands still covering the sensitive area between his legs. “It’s not true!” he cried wildly to the ballroom. “She’s a wild fantasist and a liar. She’s just jealous of Lady Guthrie.”
He looked around himself, eyes bulging as the guests turned their back on him. “What are you doing?” he burst out as voices here and there echoed ‘inheritance’, ‘gambling’, and even more worryingly, ‘depraved sexual tastes’. “What have you done?”
“I’m not sorry, Charles.” Miss Guthrie collapsed onto the supporting arm of Victoria. “I asked you out onto the terrace to break the news to you in person and discreetly.”
“Oh, come on. Everybody knows that if a lady asks you onto the terrace then she only wants one thing.”
“Really, Charles, I would have thought you had learnt your lesson on that front by now.” Striding across the ballroom, Henry bent to pick up a piece of paper that had fallen out of Miss Guthrie’s hand. “Hmm. I promise the bearer five thousand guineas.”
“I thought I could buy him off.” Miss Guthrie bit the words out. “He could give it to his lover, my stepmother.”
“I’ll still take it.” Charles looked hopeful. “Consider it a parting present.”
“I don’t think she needs to do anything like that, Charles.” Victoria ripped up the waiver. “In fact I think you can collect your things now and a coach will take you to the local inn, and then you can leave from there.” She signaled to two waiting footmen.
“Look, we don’t need to do anything hastily. Anglethorpe? Henry,” Charles pleaded. “Goddamnit, you can’t do this to me! I’m a peer of the realm and my work is important!”
Henry watched immovably as the footmen led a hunched and shaking Charles away. He looked at the guests who had gathered around, the initial excitement of the new gossip wearing off.
“I think, Victoria, that more dancing is needed.” He checked his pocket watch and stilled. “And this time we should play a waltz.” Henry walked over to the string quartet. After a murmured conversation, the players enthusiastically picked up their instruments and started a lively melody.
He clapped his hands together. “Ladies and gentlemen! Please find your partners for the first waltz of the evening!”
A shimmer of gold distracted him. Agatha slipped through the open terrace door that Charles had staggered through. He strode quickly after her, but on the dimly-lit patio, however, there was no sign of a golden siren. A few gentlemen stood smoking, discussing shooting and estates. He strode into the gardens beyond. The grass was long and wet underfoot and bent where footsteps had already crossed it.
He found her at last in the center of a dark, box hedge enclosure, seated on a semi-circular marble seat, the strains of quartet floating through the air. She gazed unblinking at a hollow sphere-shaped sundial.
With a slender finger she traced the edges of the marble seat. “Why didn’t I have the courage to deal with Charles Fashington in the same way?” she asked in a low voice.
“Because you were younger and because you had received those threats, Agatha.” He stood in front of her and stared down at the auburn highlights in her hair. “And you had no one to advise you as Miss Guthrie did.” Henry plucked at his cravat and unbuttoned his coat. Despite the cool air, he was rather hot. “And besides, I had forced you into it. I was meant to be your guardian. I was just…” Henry strove for control in his voice “…so angry at what you had done.”
“He wasn’t meant to be there. In that room, I mean.”
Henry sighed. “Charles is an opportunist. You were young and inexperienced, your head too full of ideals.”
p. Agatha looked up at him, and then away quickly, small strands of her hair falling delicately against her neck. “There you go again, telling me about who I am and what I should be. And yet you… you [_kiss _]me as if nothing else matters.”
Henry shook his head and pulled at his coat. “Agatha, will you, could you dance with me please?”
Agatha turned back to stare at him, the golden dress rustling as she moved. Slowly she put out her hand.
Despite everything she still liked him. With a gasp, Henry tentatively put out his own hand, knocking at the side of his coat. In horror, he watched as the pocket watch he had thrust in with little care earlier fell out and crashed to the hard floor with a dull thunk, the casement opening to lie flat on the stone.
Agatha stared open mouthed at the dented watch, her hand dropping back to her side. “Where did you get that?”
Henry stared at her disappearing hand. “It was my father’s.” He bent down and cradled the watch in his palm, the old metal warming in his hands.
“Not the watch, the paper with the Greek letters. I’ve seen it before.” She looked away. “It’s not very funny, is it?”
Without looking at him, Agatha pointed at the charred scrap of paper tucked into the lid of the watch casement.
“It says ‘ihn’,” Henry said dully. “It’s part of the Monsieur Herr affair. It means ‘him’ in German.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
p. “I beg to differ, Agatha.”
“It doesn’t say ‘him’.”
“You would argue with the German ambassador?”
“German’s do not capitalize within words. At least, none of the famous German scientists I know did. But they certainly knew the universal language of mathematics. Greek letters. Like the ones in that book of verse you have.”
“Greek letters?” So she had taken Conversations on Science with her. He couldn’t help the burst of hope that bloomed further in his chest. “My book of verse is in translation.”
“Oh. That would explain it. Yes. It says I H Π, Iota Eta Pi in Greek to be precise.”
“Iota Eta Pi.” Good god, so it did. “That’s not a joke, Agatha.” He held out his hand again.
Agatha stared at his hand, her arms straight by her side. “If you say it quickly, it sounds like I ought to eat a pie.”
“I ought to eat a pie. I ought to eat a pie.” Henry slammed his fist down on the bench. “It still makes no sense. We’re no further forward in finding this man.” He thrust his arm out again. “Come, dance with me.”
“It’s not a man—you’ve said that yourself.”
“Hell and damnation.” She was right. “We’ll dance in the ballroom, tell everyone…”
“No.” Agatha put out one hand and slid further away on the marble seat. She wrapped her arms around herself, clasping her dress to her. “I’ve remembered where I saw that paper before, in the grate at Lady Foxtone’s ball. Good god, you didn’t even ask me about it.” She paused, rubbing at the exposed underside of her arm. “That’s why they all thought I was the spy. Why didn’t you just ask me? My brother asked you to look after[_ me_].” She looked up at him, her eyes glassy, searching his. Slowly her features hardened. “It’s all just a game to you, isn’t it, Henry? The half truths, the unanswered questions. You don’t really care for anyone at all. It is all about you and your work.”
He couldn’t answer, could only stare at her, clenching his fists so tightly his nails dug into his hands. With just a few words she had revealed the real truth. How could he tell the woman he loved that while he had told himself he was protecting her, in truth it was because he had been protecting himself? He, the famed Hawk, was in reality a selfish, gutless chicken. And she, rightly, wanted nothing to do with him.
The string quartet playing in the large recital chamber in Hanover Square Rooms sawed their bows valiantly on across their instruments despite the chattering from the third row of seats.
“I heard that she actually kicked him there!”
“You mean as in…?”
“Yes, precisely! And then she told him that she never wanted to see him again.”
“I heard that he had been having an affair with her stepmother.”
“Lady Guthrie? How awful. I did wonder why she married that old man. Charles Fashington used to be rather dashing.”
“Yes, but the[_ stepmother._]”
“Do you think he meant to carry it on when they were married?”
Agatha turned away from listening. The gossip was vaguely sickening. And the turbans an even more putrid shade of violet than ever. On a positive note, at least the gossip wasn’t about her.
The two rather strident voices carried above the mediocre musical recital that she was attending that afternoon at Hanover Square Rooms. The last time she had been at here she had become engaged to Fashington herself. She shuddered.
The gossips sat fanning themselves with their programs as a young lady sang an operetta at the front. Despite the disapproving looks being levelled at the matrons, no one had yet dared a direct confrontation. Most of the audience were too interested in hearing what they were saying.
“I’m not sure. You know, I’ve also heard that he is penniless.”
“Hmmm. Not a bean to his name.”
“Bang go his chances of finding another lady to marry him. It would have been alright if not for the nasty public nature of the break-up.”
“And the stepmother.”
“Isn’t this his second broken engagement too?”
“I’ve heard that the woman who broke the first engagement is now engaged to Lord Anglethorpe.”
“What’s her name?”
“Agatha Beauregard, I believe. Practically an old maid now.”
Ha. They had that right. And an old maid she would remain. Agatha stood discreetly and, with a murmured apology to the gentleman sitting at the end of the row, edged past and out of the door. She collected Janey from the hall. Janey had made the transition to her ladies maid nicely, and seemed to be ecstatic to be out of Devon and in the smoky stacks of London.
As they left the Hanover Square Rooms, Agatha looked at the typical blue sky of summer above the narrow streets.
“It’s a nice day, Janey. I would like to take a walk.”
“Yes, miss. I’ll just tell the carriage to go back to Upper Brook Street.”
As she hurried to the waiting carriage, Janey exchanged a secret smile with the waiting footman. “Miss says that you should meet us back at Colchester Mansions, John. We are going to walk from here.”
Agatha watched, her heart clenching, as the coachman looked knowingly between the footman and Janey.
“I’m sure you two lovebirds can stand to be away from each other for a bit.” With a click of his tongue, he maneuvered the two horses into the road and set the coach off in the direction of the Upper Brook Street.
With one last longing glance at the footman, Janey walked jauntily back to the steps where Agatha stood.
“How long have you known John?” Agatha asked abruptly after a few moments silence.
“Oh, since Devon. He’s ever so nice. He says he only had eyes for me since he saw me.”
Agatha was troubled. There was something about the footman that seemed a little off. He was a bit older than some of the other fresh-faced footmen in Victoria’s household. And he had acted strangely once or twice around Henry, in London and Devon. She had assumed that John Smith had been attached to Berale House as extra staff were needed for the house party.
She walked a bit further down the road, Janey trailing half a step behind her. Soon they reached the main thoroughfare of Duke Street where shop wares spilled onto the pavement, greengrocers with fruits, hardware stores with numerous buckets. Enticing aromas crept through the door of the corner bakery where small pastries were laid out in the window[_. _]
Hunger gnawed at her belly. “Let’s go and buy some iced buns,” Agatha said on impulse. Janey brightened.
“Let me open the door for you, miss.”
“Thank you, Janey.”
Agatha stood back and waited as Janey pushed open the door and took a strong sniff of the melting smell of baked bread. Suddenly she felt a large object pushed into the small of her back.
“I have a pistol. Don’t turn around,” the voice whispered in a menacing tone. Agatha stiffened, her blood running cold. She looked desperately into the window of the bakery to see if she could see the reflection of who was behind her, but her view was obscured by a sign advertising Blackberry pies 2d.
“On the floor you will find a message. Pick it up now.”
Agatha took another desperate look in the window but the figure was obscured by a large hat and nondescript pantaloons. Another jab by the pistol in her back motivated her. She saw the paper by her foot and bent down to pick it up. She stood quickly, but the person was gone.
“Are you coming, miss?” Janey held the bakery door open and frowned.
“Did you see the man behind me, Janey?”
“No, Miss Beauregard. I was too busy examining the pastries. You’re very pale. Are you alright?”
Agatha glanced at the paper in her hand, then at Janey and around at the busy Duke Street. Whilst there were many people around, no one sported a large hat and pantaloons. It was as if the person with the pistol had vanished into thin air. She blinked hurriedly and tucked the paper into her reticule, her hands shaking.
“Oh, I’m fine. Shall we get those buns and go home?”
The walk back to Colchester Mansions seemed interminable. Janey chattered nervously, trying to fill the silence. Agatha found it hard to think of a response. The folded scrap of paper she had picked up from the floor seemed to make her bag as heavy as lead.
As soon as they were welcomed through the door, Agatha sent Janey to get some hot water. As she stood in the hall, momentarily alone, she withdrew the paper from her bag. Her fingers trembled as she unfolded the note.
She gasped when she saw the writing. Barely seeing what it said, she pushed it swiftly into a pocket in her skirts. Peering wildly around her, she rushed up the stairs to her room. In her chamber, she scrabbled at her jewelry box which stood on the top of a vanity table. Withdrawing a large locket with a picture of Harriet in it, she popped open the back. A blue slip yellowed at the edges fell out. Swiftly, she snatched it from the table. She moved to the window where there was more light.
‘Leave London, or you will die. If you do not leave, your family will die too. Especially if you tell anyone of this note.’
The words still made her shudder five years later. She thrust her hand into her pocket and withdrew the new note.
‘Be back at the Hanover Square Rooms at midnight. Come alone. Tell no one or else Lord Anglethorpe will be killed.’
The handwriting was the same, the loops on the letters as flamboyant as five years ago. Agatha gasped and collapsed into a bedroom chair. Once again a note was threatening her. And this time they had Henry, the only man she had ever cared for. The only man that she had thought might want her in return.
Gods, how her heart had leapt when he’d asked her to dance. He never dances, his sister had said, he’s too afraid that’ll a woman will ensnare him. And then she’d seen scrap of paper in his pocket watch, and the reality of the situation had come crashing back down on her.
Tears welled in her eyes. The last time the note in her locket had precipitated her rush to Devon and five years of living in anonymity. She glanced at the golden cover of the locket; the reverse side showed a miniature portrait of her brother and his bride. She had been too late to rescue her only family, that despite all appearances had cared enough for her to send Henry to her rescue. And now if she didn’t do something, anything, she would be too late to rescue the only man she had ever loved. Gods. Yes. She loved him. Agatha hung her head as her heart threatened to burst from her chest. He’d asked her to dance and she’d refused. She’d thrown spite and empty words at him from five years of hurt, and yet, she would have acted the same as him in the situation. Evidence. That’s what she’d said again and again.
Opening the drawer of the vanity table with leaden fingers, she withdrew a leaf of parchment and a quill. Pulling up a stool, she slowly started to write. A few short paragraphs later, she blotted the script carefully and folded up the blue note and new white slip into the parchment, sealing it all closed with wax. She rang her bell for Janey.
“Janey. I want you to get me ready.” Agatha started to fumble with her clothes. “I am going out for the evening.” She looked up and winked as hard as she could at Janey. “I have an assignation and I don’t want anyone going with me, if you know what I mean.”
Janey was ecstatic. “Ooh, miss! Is it with you know who?”
Agatha sighed inwardly. She hated playing on Janey’s romantic nature, and especially her own current circumstances. “Of course.”
“I knew he was a deep one. He’s a handsome man, that’s for sure. In Brambridge we used to see him with all these ladies…”
“Yes. I am pleased as well. Please can you help me get ready?”
“You need to wear that golden dress again. Last time you could barely scrape his tongue off the floor.”
“Who told you that?” Agatha said sharply.
“Oooh, John told me. He knows an awful lot about Lord Anglethorpe. He doesn’t tell me much but I can tell he admires him…”
“I will wear the peach dress.”
“The peach dress? It makes you look like a mushroom! You are meeting a man for a romantic assignation. You want to him to shake in his boots.” Janey stopped abruptly, red-faced. “Sorry, miss. It’s just that from what I’ve been told you two need more than momentum to get you together and I’m just so pleased to see you coming to your senses.”
Agatha shook her head. Drawing the folded up note from the vanity desk, she held it out. “Janey. Please could you see that this note is delivered to Lord Anglethorpe in the next hour? I will dress myself, thank you.”
Janey took the note slowly. “I don’t understand. I thought you were going to meet him this evening?”
“Of course.” Agatha smiled tightly. “But er, he left it to me to pick where we should meet.” She coughed. “He said it would be more exciting.”
Janey’s face cleared. “Oooh, you lucky lady.”
“Mmm yes. Of course.”
Janey held the note up to Agatha. “I’ll deliver it as soon as possible.”
Agatha sighed with relief. Hopefully Henry would get the note on time. “Now then. You will need to leave with me to make it look like we are going out for the evening together. Get your things, we need to leave in fifteen minutes.”
Janey squawked and left the room, banging the door. Agatha unhooked a large black cape from the cupboard. Despite the warmth of the day, the evening was cool.
Moving back to the cupboard, she shrugged on the peach dress and pulled out her boots that lay at the bottom of the cupboard behind a large box. After lacing up the boots, she took a deep breath and took the lid off the large box. With a shaking hand, she unpacked the tissue paper that formed the top layer. A crumpled bag lay beneath, the smell nearly gone, but still a faint pungent odor emanated from it as she moved it. Laying it on the dresser, she pulled out the lower cupboard doors and pushed a hand right to the back. Fingers trembling, she rolled out a small glass jam jar. The contents within were almost white, the paper label on the jar yellow with age.
Good god. No experiments. Not one since she had left for Brambridge five years before. But it was damn well time that she was going to put some of the ones she had written about in her book into action.
Pushing the bag into her skirts, as well as the jar, she felt along the dresser and, picking up her notebook and pencil, pushed them into the remaining space in her skirts, along with the potato knife and a box of safety matches. Agatha sat back into her chair, her dress creasing awkwardly. This evening would not be focused on ball gowns and ton censure. This was about finding out who had been responsible for five years of turmoil.
With a gasp, she jumped up and hurried down the stairs and into the back study. Pressing at the desk drawer, she pulled out one of Victoria’s secret cheroots and slipped it in with the rest of the items in her skirts.
Janey waited for her in the hall, garbed in a black cloak, sturdy boots peeking out of the bottom.
“Have you the letter?”
Wordlessly, Janey produced it from underneath her cloak. “I’ll deliver it as soon as I’ve left you. Where are you going to go?”
Agatha swallowed. “It’s a secret.” Pulling a long coat out of the understairs cupboard, she turned to the door. “Quickly, before Carruthers notices.”
Her throat dried as she unlatched the bolt on the door. Janey followed her silently onto the front step. Finger to her lips, Agatha beckoned to Janey and ran down the steps as lightly as possible. The weight of the items in Agatha’s pocket pounded against her leg. As they turned the corner, Agatha trailed her hands against the railings. This was it. She was nearly on her own.
“Janey, you know what you need to do. Take a hackney cab to Lord Anglethorpe’s. Do not deviate.”
Janey nodded. “I hope you have fun, miss.”
Agatha bit her lip. “I… yes. Of course, thank you, Janey.”
The darkness of dusk gathered in the morning room, creeping towards where Henry and Earl Harding sat sprawled in large wing backed chairs. Henry’s footmen closed the curtains to the night around them as Smythe served another brandy. Outside the carriages clattered up and down Mount Street with audible clacks of their wheels.
“How’s Albert getting on with that Asian man?” Earl Harding swung a long booted foot and kicked the underside of the stool in front of him.
“What? Oh. Haven’t heard from him in a while.” Henry heaved himself up from his own comfortable chair and, with heavy feet, crossed to the dresser. Flipping open a small green leather-bound book, he ran a finger down the page. “Stanton, Standish, Jaquard, Lassiter ah. Albert. Hmm. I believe he might not have been feigning some of his illness which got him out of the Moreno debacle. He occasionally sends me the odd note. Apparently the mysterious Asian man hasn’t done very much up until now.”
“What about Stanton? Have you spoken to him yet?”
“I did on the night of the house party in Brambridge. He was quite surprised.” Henry crossed back to the chair and, placing the book on the low table between them, sat back down with a thump.
“Is he any closer?”
Henry sighed deeply. So many questions. “Depends on what you are asking about. Closer to taking a bride? Hmm perhaps. Closer to finding out what’s going on in Brambridge? Definitely. He had better hurry up, though. Renard says he won’t put into port again until the situation with the custom’s officers is closed down.”
“I’m thinking about moving my operation to Dover.”
Henry gave a discreet hand signal to Smythe who stood ramrod straight at the back of the room. “I didn’t think you had an operation. I thought you were more in the line of strategy?”
Smythe moved forward with the coffee pot. “More coffee, Earl Harding?”
“Thank you Smythe. Jolly nice to be catered for. Everyone seems intent on serving alcohol these days.”
“Don’t mind if I do. All I seem to get at home is biscuits. Can’t think when I last had a decent meal.”
Henry shuddered. If he didn’t get a decent meal he knew he was liable to do things that he regretted. “Food is very important.”
Earl Harding took a sip from his cup. “I beg to differ,” he said with a smile on his face, “coffee is more important.”
“You can’t live on coffee alone.”
p. The earl seemed reflective. “Mmm, I seem to manage it.”
“Beg pardon sir, but a message has just come for you.”
Henry looked up, confused; he hadn’t noticed that Smythe had slipped out of the door and back in again. “Thank you, Smythe.”
The butler placed the message on a silver tray and left it on the sideboard.
“No. I’m still into strategy. Got a bit of time on my hands. Had the heave ho from the War Office. It seems that now stuff on the Peninsular is settling down, they don’t seem to have any need for someone of my skills.”
“Short sighted fools.”
“I thought that too. Aren’t you going to have a look at your message?”
Henry nodded. He had been getting quite comfortable in his fugue state. It wasn’t often that he had the opportunity to speak man to man to someone cut from the same cloth as himself. Even if he had planted that man a facer five years before, and even that had not deterred him from going after his property. Holding a hand in front of himself, he coughed. Earl Harding had good taste. That was all. Good taste in baggages.
Pulling himself out of the comfortable chair, he stretched his legs and strode to the sideboard. The parchment was folded in half in the middle of the silver salver. Licking a thumb, he picked up the note and pulled it open.
He stopped in shock, the words swimming in front of his eyes. Patting at his waistcoat with his free hand, he pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open.
“I say Henry, everything alright, old chap?” Pages rustled behind him.
Henry nodded slowly. Placing the note lightly back on the silver salver, he scrabbled at his pocket watch and drew out the scrap of paper that had lined it for five years. Carefully, he slipped it onto the plate next to the message.
The handwriting on the scraps of words around the signature ‘IHΠ’ were a match, right down to a small curl on the letter y.
“Here, this book is nothing but a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen!”
Henry couldn’t even muster up a smile. He’d wondered if the earl would fall for his trick. He’d thought he’d appreciate it.
“Very clever, Henry. You got me this time.”
Henry swallowed. Fingers shaking, he spread the new message out against the platter.
Come to Hanover Square Rooms now, unarmed, otherwise I will kill Agatha Beauregard at day break. Do not tell anyone, otherwise I will break all of her fingers before I kill her. I will enjoy doing so. The little slut.
He slammed his fist against the platter, the note burning against the fleshy underside of his hand. They were going to break her fingers. “Dear god. I think I’ve nearly found Monsieur Herr.”
Henry drew a hand across his forehead. [_Do not tell anyone… _]“Nothing. Err. Harding, you will have to excuse me. Something has come up.”
“Can I help?”
“No. I don’t think you can. But I will tell you this.” Henry turned and leant against the sideboard. “Agatha is definitely not Monsieur Herr.” He needed a few moments to plan, just a few moments please.
Earl Harding cocked his head on one side and stared at Henry. “You never thought she was, though.”
Henry shook his head. “I never thought she was, but it was a convenient enough reason I gave myself to not try harder to persuade her into marriage with myself five years ago.”
p. “And ever since.”
Henry nodded. “My mother and father had a loving marriage. Full of trust. But then my father left my mother by getting himself killed, and she died of a broken heart.” He shook his head. “I’ve just found out she actually died of consumption. Why am I telling you this?”
The earl stood up and gathered up his coat. “Because you need to. The time is right. As Confucius said, ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
Henry stared out of the window. “I didn’t want that to happen for Agatha and me. I don’t want her to worry about me, to die of a broken heart if something goes wrong. I trust Agatha, have always done so.” He was wasting time. Shaking his head, he turned to the door. “You need to leave. I have business I need to attend to.”
The earl nodded and followed him into the hall. “Of course.”
Without seeing Earl Harding out, Henry left the room, and took the stairs two at a time to his bedroom. He pulled off the bright floral cravat that he wore, the golden waistcoat, and light cream breeches. In their place he hitched up a pair of dark blue finely cut military breeches, a white shirt, which he covered with a dark red waistcoat, a deep green cravat and over the top, a loose tailcoat of dark blue superfine. His reflection in the mirror looked out at him with a stony look to its face.
Henry turned away from his dark reflection and pulled a small box from under his bed. He opened the box, his fingers shaking, and lightly stroked the pistol that lay within.
“I’m coming for you, Agatha.” He closed his eyes for an instant and pulled the pistol roughly out of the box. “And you too, Monsieur Herr, whoever you are. You had better be ready.”
Agatha waited till Janey was safely away in the cab. As it pulled away from the curb, she started to walk, following the garden walls and the forbidding doorways of large villas, away from the safety and watchful eyes of Colchester Mansion, before hailing a passing hackney cab.
The carriage driver pulled his horses to an abrupt halt and looked down at her from the top of the perch. He sneered and jerked at his reins. Agatha glanced downwards; the ties on her coat had come undone, revealing the pinky brown of her dress.
Clutching at her cloak, she pulled a couple of gold coins from its pocket and held them in the air. The sneer left the man’s face immediately as she had known it would.
“Take me to Hanover Square Rooms, please.”
The carriage driver smirked. “Hanover Square Rooms? Is there a recital on tonight?”
“Of a kind.” Agatha rubbed the coins together.
The smirk on his face grew bigger. Agatha refused to be discomforted. This wasn’t the worst she was going to have to endure by the end of the night. Lifting her chin high, she held out her hand. “Do you want the money or not?”
The man jumped down from his perch and opened the door. “Anything for a lady.”
Agatha glared at him. He offered no hand to help her from the low road into the tall cab. Grasping hold of the window on the cab door, she pulled herself inside, lurching sideways against the wooden seats as the driver climbed back on the coach, causing it to sway madly with his weight on the springs. Taking a deep breath, she took her seat on the wooden benches that lined the carriage and hung on to the window as the cab jolted into motion.
The coach journey took half an hour through the winding streets. Braced against the wall of the carriage, Agatha pulled her notebook out of her skirt, and began to methodically rip out its pages, littering them on the seat next to her. When just the cover was left, she plunged her hand back into her pocket and, with shaking fingers, pulled out the foul smelling paper packet. As the paper peeled away, a greasy black cake was revealed. Breaking a piece off, she picked up a mangled page from the seat next to her and wrapped it around and around the gunpowder. The parcel needed to be so large, with a twist of the paper at the end like so… Agatha added another page to the package. She needed to build up more pressure. Prodding at it with a thumb, she nodded, and made another.
Pushing the packets back into her skirt, she drew out the jam jar. Holding her breath, she opened the lid. A sweet pungent smell filled the carriage. Who ate fig jam anyway? Using one of the pages of the notepad, she scooped out the moldy growth of jam and tossed it out of the window of the carriage. Breaking off a larger piece of the black cake, she thrust it inside and bored a hole half an inch wide in the lid with her knife. Screwing the lid back on, she thrust the whole back into her skirts.
Agatha looked up through the glassless window as they turned into Bond Street. The hustle and bustle of the day had been replaced by the carousing of the night. Every five shops a tavern appeared, its patrons spilling onto the pavement and much merriment emanating from within. Agatha looked back longingly at the brightly-lit oil lamps as they passed into Tenterden Street and through Hanover Square. Soon darkness was complete as they turned into Mill Street. The carriage pulled to a stop opposite the looming Hanover Square Rooms. The road was the length of the recital hall, being only a small turning off the residential end of Hanover Square.
No light emanated from the windows of the Hanover Square Rooms. The road was utterly dark.
“Are you sure that you wish to stop here, miss?” the coach driver asked doubtfully, opening the cab door. “There ain’t no concert on ’ere tonight.” He sniffed. “’Ere, it smells rather funny in—”
“—Yes.” Agatha shook herself to try and dredge up a braveness that she did not feel. Stepping out of the carriage, she pushed the door closed and handed a gold coin to the man. “I’ll be fine.”
With more confidence than she felt, she walked to the main doors which she had left through earlier in the day. As she trudged up the steps, scuffing her feet against the rough stone, she felt the eyes of the coach driver on her back. At the top step, she hesitated, but then pushed out her hand for the large brass handle of the doors.
Even though it was a heavy oak door, it swung inward lightly as she pressed on it. It opened slowly then stopped, thudding gently on something soft. She slipped halfway through the door, stumbling as she tripped against an object on the floor.
Hanging on to the door handle, Agatha looked back desperately to see if the coach driver was there, but the dim light of the moon showed that he had already left. Abruptly letting go of the door, she fell over in a tangle of cloak and dress onto the polished walnut of the porchway. Gasping for breath, she pulled her fallen hood back away from her face and screamed. Scissoring her legs beneath her she slid across the polished floor, away from the entrance.
A man’s booted legs lay in front of her, sprawled against the open door. The legs gave way to a bloodied and coatless torso. The head was turned away. In the dim light, Agatha could not tell what color his hair was.
Agatha scrabbled back across the floor, sobbing as she slid across the wooden parquet. Surely there hadn’t been time for them to have killed him already?
“Oh no. Oh God no. Henry I need to tell you—” Agatha bit her words off. Her skin crawled at a soft movement in the corner of the hall. There was someone there watching her.
“I know you are there!” she yelled wildly. “What do you want with me?”
A soft laugh reached her as footsteps padded away. Quickly she grasped the head of the prone man by his hair and drew it to her. It turned with a dull thunk.
It was not Henry.
The once habitually sneering face was now peaceful in death. Charles’ handsome features shone with a deathly pallor in the moonlight.
Agatha’s mouth rounded in an O. God help her for the relief that trickled through her. She leaned over him and gingerly touched his face. His skin, whilst warm, was cooling rapidly on the wooden floor. Closing her eyes, she shuffled forward and kneeled above him, putting her ear to his face. No breath of air blew back her hair.
Scuttling sharply away from his body, her knees stuck to the polished floor. She stood slowly, gently feeling at her skin. Her fingers came away wet, the distinctive iron-like smell of blood filtering through the air. She glanced back at Charles, her eyes catching on the dark pool of shadow by his body, a black trail leading across the floor to where she stood. Forgive me, she thought, forgive me for feeling nothing but relief for your death.
A door shut ahead of her. She should have left as soon as she saw it was Charles on the floor. But now it was obvious that whoever was perpetrating the intrigue would not stop at just threatening notes; they had killed someone, why wouldn’t they hesitate at killing more?
Agatha rubbed at her arms and looked longingly back towards the large entrance doors. No. She was wasting time—they already had Henry. Oh dear god. Rising to her feet, she walked slowly across to the door at the end of the entrance vestibule and stepped into the familiar long dark carpeted hall, the doors on the left leading to the different recital rooms and the blue room at the end; the wall on the right lined with square panes of dark windows giving out onto a garden beyond.
Shuffling up to the wall on her left, she walked crab-like along it, hugging the wall, trying to keep to the deepest shadow. All the pot plants had been put away. Nothing moved in the corridor, her footsteps masked by the soft carpet.
Gingerly she pushed open the first door and slipped inside. It was unusually dark. Agatha had thought that all the recital rooms had windows that would let in at least a small amount of light. She put her hand out to the right of her and, trailing it against the wall, started forward. She could only go forward two steps before the wall stopped. In front of her, instead of a further wall, rows of shelves pressed against her body, right from the floor to above her head. Blindly, she felt along the shelves, fingers running across strange smooth cases that lay tightly packed across the wood, closed with metal clasps.
Agatha chose a case at random and flicked open two clasps. The lid lifted up easily. Biting her teeth against her lip, she reached in. Immediately her fingertips encountered a sharp edge and then a rising bridge. Her questing fingers brushed lightly to the side of the bridge, eliciting a thrum from the case.
With a gasp she jumped backwards, fingers pushed into her skirts. Shaking her head, she started forward again and laid her hand against the vibrating case until the sound ceased. The object in the case was an instrument, a violin or a viola. The thrum had started when her fingers had brushed against the strings of the instrument.
With increasing confidence, Agatha felt along the walls; she was in the music store cupboard of the recital rooms. The room was only a few paces wide and a couple of paces deep, with each wall lined with more instruments, even larger than the violin. Some, which must have been cellos, were even taller than her herself.
There was nobody else in there with her, of that she could be certain. But she couldn’t stay in there forever. Slowly padding along the wall, she found the door handle and pulled at it, wincing as the hinges squealed. But the corridor remained quiet. Slowly she stepped out and flattened herself back against the wall.
With one hand forward, she advanced towards the door that led to the recital room she had been in earlier that day. Faster and faster she walked until she fell with a shocked “oomph,” brought up short by a large cloaked solid form. Strong hands picked her up and yanked her up against the wall.
“I have a knife to your belly.” The voice was decidedly male, its tones causing warm shivers to caress her spine. “Who are you and why did you ask me to come here?”
Agatha gulped, working saliva into her throat. The tip of the knife gently pricked at her stomach and the man’s other hand stretched her chin upwards. She licked her lips. Henry could not have been the one to lure her here, could he? There was no way he could have arrived in such good time…
“You received my note?” she croaked.
“Agatha?” The voice then swore softly. “You mean they haven’t got you? Dammit to blazes woman, why aren’t you at home safe in bed?”
The firm male hand gently released her throat and the knife point disappeared. Agatha relaxed as relief filled her.
Agatha nodded silently and then realized that he couldn’t see her completely in the dark.
“I asked for your help, Henry.”
Henry stood poised for a moment and then dropped his hands to his side. “I received an unsigned paper telling me that if I did not come here they would kill Agatha Beauregard by daybreak.”
“Mine told me to come here, and if I told anyone they would kill you… I… I couldn’t let that happen.”
“You couldn’t?” Henry’s tones were gently probing.
“No, I…” She stopped and put a hand out. Unexpectedly it came to rest on his chest, in between the lapels of his coat. “I… oh dear. Did you tell anyone where you were going?”
Slowly his hand came up and rested lightly on her up thrust arm. With the nub of his thumb, he stroked the delicate underside of her wrist. “No. There wasn’t enough time. How about you?”
Agatha drew in a deep breath. In the darkness her heart slowed to the strokes of her arm. “I… gave Janey a note to give to… you. If she can’t find you, she might open it.”
“Or give it to my valet Ames.”
“Hmm, yes. One of my sister’s footmen.”
Agatha drew back. He held her for an instant and then let her go. “You had someone spying on me?” She shivered as cool air hit the warm underside of her wrist
Henry bent forward. “I had to make sure you were alright. It was the only way I could look after you.” He brought his head down to hers. “It was the only way you would let me be near you,” he whispered. With tantalizing slowness, his breath fluttered across her cheeks, and then his lips captured hers, stroking, demanding, comforting.
Agatha froze, the intimacy of the situation complete in the silent shadows of the hallway. She moaned, the shades of her fears expelling with every caress.
“I want you to stay here.” He ran his finger over her lips. “I want you to stay here and be safe Agatha. I care for you, very much. I need to tell you—”
“I… I can’t,” she stammered, her world reeling. “I have to find out who has been doing this to me.”
“Agatha.” Henry stopped abruptly, choking slightly. “You can’t stay. I can’t risk you dying before I… before…”
She drew in a sharp breath and broke away from him. “Did you find Charles?”
“Charles? What has he to do with all of this?”
“He’s dead. In the vestibule. Shot… You couldn’t have missed him if you came through the front door.”
Henry cursed. “I came through the garden into this hallway. I broke a window to get in.” Henry fumbled for Agatha’s hand. “You need to get away, go home and wait for me.”
“I can’t, Henry. They said that they would kill you. I have to find out who is here.”
“At least can’t you find somewhere to—”
“This is all very touching.”
Agatha froze. Henry’s hand tightened on hers. A dim light backlit a figure that stood in the open doorway to the large recital room.
“Please come in when you are ready.” The figure flitted away, leaving just the unobstructed light shining into the corridor.
“I’ll go first.” Agatha made to leave the shadows of the corridor.
“No, Agatha please…”
Pushing up on tip toes and clasping at Henry’s hand, Agatha drew a finger down his nose. “I know you will be there for me, Henry,” she said softly. “You always have been. In my heart I never doubted that.”
“No, Agatha please…” Henry gasped audibly as Agatha stepped out of his reach and walked resolutely into the recital room.
The dim light came from a small candle placed on the conductor’s stand. The recital room seemed cavernous as the candle’s light did not quite touch the edges of the room. A figure sat primly upright in the second row of seats.
Agatha walked alone up the central aisle of seats towards the rigid figure, darting furtive glances behind her as she did so. There was no sign of Henry. As she drew closer, the person turned round.
The well-dressed form of the woman was familiar, as was the sneer that stretched across her face.
The woman inclined her head and raised her eyebrows.
“It’s not a good idea to be here.” Agatha realized she was babbling, but couldn’t stop herself. “Someone has already killed Charles, and I don’t believe they are very nice…”
Lady Guthrie’s sneer became wolfish, and yet still she remained silent.
“That’s right. They aren’t very nice at all.” The contralto tones reached out from the corner of the room, deeper in the shadows. “But then, they grew up on the streets and had no other means of survival.”
Agatha drew back and scuttled down the third row of seats as the owner of the voice appeared by the conductor’s stand, fully illuminated by the light.
“Monique!” she gasped.
“Miss Beauregard.” Monique inclined her head towards Agatha. “I don’t believe we met down in Devon when your shambolic lover tried to fool me that he was just a stable boy.”
“He is not my lover!”
Both Monique and Lady Guthrie laughed harshly. Agatha darted an agonized glance at Lady Guthrie, searching for reassurance. But Lady Guthrie only continued to look at Monique.
Agatha reached the end of the third row. From where she stood, she swiftly looked up and down the edge of the room. There were no obstructions between herself and the side door which led out to another hallway.
“He is not my lover, but I… I love him,” she said quietly, edging towards the wall.
“N’y pense même pas, do not think about it, Miss Beauregard. It would be a bad idea.”
Without Agatha realizing, Monique had skirted the edge of the orchestral area and now stood less than ten feet away in the middle of the first row. To Agatha’s horror, she also held a pistol in her hand, a wide grin stretching across her face
“You… you killed Charles?” she asked querulously. Monique laughed.
“Oh no! He wasn’t mine to kill.”
“But are you not Monsieur Herr?” Agatha looked round at Lady Guthrie for support, but the woman looked away from her towards the stage, ignoring her darting glances.
The candle at the center of the room guttered slightly, dripping tallow wax down the stand. As the flame flared, it threw Lady Guthrie’s face into shadow against the wall. Agatha looked back at Monique. Her jaw dropped.
Monique cackled. “I see you are beginning to see, Miss Beauregard.”
“It must have been the nose, Monique.” Lady Guthrie stood and turned. She sighed. “It’s the nose each time.”
“I quite like our nose.” Monique’s pistol never wavered as she laughed.
“We’re cousins actually.” Lady Guthrie moved daintily down the second row of chairs. “I was the one who grew up on the streets of Paris, and Monique had the good life in Strasbourg.”
“You killed Charles,” Agatha said flatly. “You left him in the hall to die.”
“Oh yes. He was beginning to annoy me. He had run out of money and couldn’t even keep little Miss insipid Guthrie in check which was our route to a fortune.”
“You are the one that he said he loved five years ago,” Agatha whispered, a cold shiver grasping at her neck.
“Mmm. I catered to all of his needs, very nicely indeed.”
Celine had said the same. Agatha rubbed at the back of her neck and grimaced. She had to keep the conversation going, still having no idea why she was there. “Why didn’t you marry him when Lord Foxtone died?”
Lady Guthrie threw back her head and laughed. “Do you not get it, you fool? I’m surprised Anglethorpe fell in love with such a silly girl like you.”
“I don’t understand.” Agatha kept her eyes on Monique and the pistol.
“Charles was my primary source of information! His fall from grace after compromising you made him worse than useless. I had to find myself another government man. Unfortunately your lover turned me down. Lord Guthrie has done very nicely instead. He tells me everything.”
Unwilling, Agatha detached her gaze from Monique and the pistol and for the first time to faced Lady Guthrie directly.
“You are Monsieur Herr?”
“Of course I am! You really are silly, aren’t you? Monique laid it all out for your incompetent lover, and yet he still did not come any closer to revealing my identity.”
Monique nodded. “We were quite surprised when they came up with the rather apt name of [_Monsieur Herr, _]weren’t we, cousin?”
Lady Guthrie nodded. “Of course it should have been[_ Madame Frau ]of course. But no man would have thought of _that.”
Agatha was bewildered. “But why did you involve me in your plot? Why the notes, the threats?”
Lady Guthrie drew back. “You mean you haven’t worked it out yet? You must have realized when he showed you?” She paused and threw back her head and laughed again. “Oh, this is priceless. All these years I’ve been worrying and now I find out I never need have worried at all.”
Agatha glanced back at Monique. The pistol was still trained on her, Monique’s finger resting nonchalantly on the trigger. Agatha realized she was shaking. There was something unhinged about Lady Guthrie tonight. Before when she had seen her she had constantly been in a rage, but now she was deadly calm.
“Why the threats?” she repeated. “Why draw me into this?”
“It was stupid Charles’ fault. Even though we were having an affair he did like to dally with the ladies. I had just disposed of some letters my contact had given to me at the ball. As the host I did not have much time so left the fire burning in the grate. That stupid man took it into his head to meet a little strumpet at my ball in the room where I was burning secret letters.”
Agatha gasped and clutched at the chair in front of her. The letters that Henry had shown her, the ones that forced everybody into believing she was a spy.
“I can see you now realize what you had seen. And yes, the little trollop is yourself. Of course I had to get rid of you immediately unless you put two and two together. I had no idea how much you had seen of the letters. Unfortunately I did not bargain on the spymaster general also discovering you ‘in flagrante delicto’ as well and seeing the letters in the grate for himself.”
“You knew he’d seen the letters too?”
“Of course! Why, it was so easy to shift the blame onto yourself years later. Thank you for leaving London, by the way. You helped me escape discovery so easily. It was just luck your brother dying at the same time. Saved me from following through on my note.”
Behind the curtain on the stage, Henry’s stomach rumbled. Oh god, not now. Not now in one of the most important times of his life, when he finally had the chance to put the mistakes of the past right, to be with the woman he loved, and to whom all intents and purposes had just declared to Monsieur Herr that she loved him in return.
With the shaking tip of his pistol, he edged the curtain slightly to one side. Through the small break in the material he could see Agatha, frozen in the aisle of seating.
“But what about the gunshot?” she said, her face white. “Surely you meant to end me.”
Henry nodded approvingly. Good, let them talk, waste more breath and give him time to think of a plan.
“Oh! You mean in Vauxhall Gardens? When you were playing at being the Grande Salvatore? Charles took me to watch the knife throwing. He said that he’d asked an old friend of his to deal with you—Moreno. After the first knife throw, Moreno was meant to uncover you to the crowds to embarrass you and give Fashington a legitimate reason to jilt you. Turns out Moreno then wanted to blackmail Anglethorpe with the information. No—I was trying to shoot Anglethorpe! If you hadn’t started a bloody nodding fit with that stupid mask and put me off my aim, I would have got him. He was getting a little too close to finding out who I was. And he wasn’t useful. You were next, though.”
Henry gasped; his pistol shook slightly on the curtain. Agatha had never been the intended target at first. Although Lady Guthrie was ruthless, it seemed it would have only been a matter of time before she would have come after Agatha if she hadn’t disappeared herself. Of course Lady Guthrie had been aiming for him, how else had he been able to find the bullet so easily, not ten feet behind where he had stood?
Tightening his grip on the pistol, he shifted the curtain a little more; if he just took it half and inch he could nearly see the other two. Ah.
Lady Guthrie made a moue with her mouth and shifted in her seat. “I think, Monique, it is time to deal with our Miss Beauregard here.”
“What shall I do with her body, cousin?”
Surely the note had said daybreak? He didn’t have much time.
“I think we will leave her with Charles in the front hall.”
“Ooh, make it seem like a lover’s quarrel?”
“Yes, after all, despite my stepdaughter throwing him over, I think there is still enough coal I can stoke on the old rumor mill to persuade the ton that they were still seeing each other. Lady of easy virtue and all that.”
“What about Henry?”
With a curse, Henry drew back the pistol from the curtain and froze.
“Aah yes. Lord Anglethorpe, you can step out from the curtain now.”
His hand shook on the trigger of the pistol. Carefully he removed his forefinger and wrapped it around the hilt of the gun. He couldn’t risk a rerun of Wales, with Agatha in the room there was a risk that she would be shot too.
Pushing back the curtain with a free hand, Henry stepped through into the orchestral area and stopped.
Agatha gasped. “Henry!”
Lady Guthrie laughed. “I was counting on your love for Miss Beauregard to keep you here. I’ve been watching you standing behind the curtain for some time.”
Of course she’d known he was there. She’d remarked on the touching scene in the hall, they would have been waiting for him to appear.
“Do you know, Monique.” Lady Guthrie scratched her chin. “I think we can expand this scenario a little further. Anglethorpe discovers Charles and Agatha together, kills both and then kills himself. At the same time he realizes that his lover was Monsieur Herr working in concert with Charles Fashington all along.”
“That makes an extremely neat story, Lady Guthrie.” Henry stepped down from the stage, the glinting candlelight reflecting off his pistol. He hoped they wouldn’t see that he hadn’t got his finger on the trigger. “But I’m afraid that I really can’t let you kill Agatha.”
Lady Guthrie looked affronted. “And who is going to stop me?” She smiled soberly. “Come on, Monique. We won’t be able to carry their bodies to the entrance.”
“Why didn’t you kill us at Berale House? I saw the footsteps in the garden. You must have been there?” Henry stalled for time.
“Berale House?” Lady Guthrie looked blank. “Where is that? Brambridge? I’ve never been there. I didn’t want to get too close in case you discovered me.” She sniggered lightly. “It turns out you weren’t even close in suspecting me.”
“What about you, Monique? Perhaps you kept an eye on us?” Henry pushed his gun further forward in his hand.
“Pah. Why would I want to get caught a second time? The first I was only lucky because of that Lassiter man being drunk. I prefer being free, thank you very much.”
Lady Guthrie waved her hands impatiently. “I don’t have time for this. Move, Miss Beauregard. Now.”
Monique slid forward, the pistol ever outstretched in her arm. Agatha looked imploringly at him, but he shook his head. There was nothing he could do to help her whilst Monique still held her gun on her. Agatha stumbled forward, down the side aisle, keeping five paces away from Monique. She shivered visibly.
There was no chance to for Agatha to escape in the carpeted hall. Monique sped up in order to keep up with her, the pistol grazing her thigh as they left the recital room. Lady Guthrie had already gone ahead, evidently to stay out of the way of Henry’s gun.
Henry followed slowly, keeping his pistol on Monique. Why didn’t they just shoot Agatha now? Of course. They were using her as a chip to stop Henry shooting them. The sound of Agatha’s footsteps slowed as she crossed the carpet and into the vestibule.
The entrance hall was chilly; the residual heat of the day had left the building. Charles’ body still lay across the front doors as Agatha had described. Lady Guthrie merely gave it a dispassionate glance and grunted, pointing at Agatha.
“Get over there by Charles and kneel down. Monique, check that there is no one outside. Come in, Anglethorpe, and stand in the corner.”
Agatha crossed to where Charles lay and kneeled down beside him.
“Was Charles a spy too?” she asked quietly. Henry stopped as she spoke, but walked to the corner as Monique gave a jerk of her head.
Lady Guthrie pouted whilst keeping her eyes on Henry. “Of course not. He was just extremely indiscreet. He provided me with much information that I put to good use over the years. After I had satisfied him, he was always rather garrulous and hungry.”
Henry winced. “Bloody hell. The Belgian buns.”
“Of course. Such a silly bit of information. He thought he could make me laugh with a tit bit such as that without revealing what he was up to. The stupid man didn’t understand that all information is food for a spy. And it was so bloody pertinent.”
Agatha shook her head and looked up at Monique who was still checking the window. “Pertinent? Poor man.”
“Poor man? You try having an affair with a man with strange tastes for five years and still call him poor. He received everything he deserved.”
Henry looked at the still figure of Charles on the floor. He hadn’t been a traitor, just a man with exceptionally poor judgement.
“Why the Greek letters?” he said suddenly.
“I beg your pardon?” Lady Guthrie turned her head towards him.
“Why did you sign yourself with Greek letters, iota eta pi?”
“Can’t you guess, dear Henry? You mean your mathematical lover here didn’t explain it to you? I thought I was famous for it. That’s why it’s so bloody pertinent.”
Henry shook his head, tightening his hands on the hilt of the gun. He had to move his hand to the trigger. There was little time left.
It seemed trivial now, the confusing Greek letters, but he damn well had to carry on the charade a little while longer—his finger was rigid on the hilt, refusing to move. “I never thought you were Monsieur Herr, Agatha. From the moment you came into my life, I couldn’t stop watching you. I was aware of your presence every hour of the day. You didn’t have time to write those letters, you were too busy thinking up ways to be scandalous.”
Agatha gave a huff. “Only somewhat scandalous, Henry.”
“I used to call you Horrible Henry. Only to myself though.”
“Ha!” Henry couldn’t help the bark of laughter. It helped free the tension in his hand. With a slow movement, he laid his finger on the trigger.
“Enough with this stupid talk.” Lady Guthrie stamped her foot. “Don’t you want to know why I used those letters?”
“No not really. But I’m sure you are going to tell us.” Agatha straightened her fingers and flexed a single forefinger.
Good grief. A hand signal, similar to the ones he used with his men when he passed them in the street. Henry narrowed his eyes. Agatha flexed her forefinger again, as if pulling the trigger of the gun. Oh hell.
“I left Iota Eta Pi on everything I wrote. It became my signature.”
He couldn’t shoot now, both Lady Guthrie and Monique were equally dangerous. “I know that already. I want to know why you used that as your signature.”
“Ca suffit!” Lady Guthrie opened her eyes wide. “I have never been so angry since Lord Foxtone stamped on Monique’s foot at that putain de merde shop opening.”
Shop Opening. “Bloody hell Agatha, you were right.”
Agatha blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“It was a joke, but the joke was on me. Exactly as you said, the phrase was I ought to eat a pie.”
“Not as stupid as she looks then, your lover, Anglethorpe.” Lady Guthrie narrowed her eyes.
“When Lady Guthrie was married to Lord Foxtone, she caused the closure of one of his factories when she ate one of his blackberry pastries—”
“—pie actually. Foxtone was very precise I always had to call it a pie. Dieu I hated that man. And it was Monique’s foot.”
“Blackberry pies, then, and told the newspaper men that it was disgusting.” He glanced at Lady Guthrie. “Monique? I thought it was a strong reaction for being stamped on the foot.”
“I wanted money… to buy information. He wouldn’t give it to me. Tight fisted bȃtard. I had to report back to my… organisation in France so Monique covered for me with Lord Foxtone. Everyone said we could pass for twins and the old fool was short sighted anyway.”
“But the old goat demanded relations!” Monique pouted.
“It was the only thing she could think of to get him off her. But then the shops closed and there was no more money. The first people to cancel their order of cakes was the War Office. If only I’d managed to poison you all. In the end Lord Foxtone wasn’t even worth the effort it took to kill him.”
Agatha’s gasp was audible above Lady Guthrie’s angry breaths.
“You might think the joke was on you, Anglethorpe. But really the joke was on me. I believe you say in English… to eat humble pie. Well, I decided to remind ourselves of that episode every time I wrote to France to Monique, every time in my signature, I ought to eat a pie.”
Agatha couldn’t think of any more delaying tactics. It was going to be now or never. Whilst Lady Guthrie ranted, Agatha sat back on her heels as if waiting. She slid her hand into her skirts and withdrew the cheroot and the knife. Sliding a glance at Monique ahead of her, she quickly waved the cigar in the air.
“It is a shame that you are going to be caught.” Agatha shifted slightly to attract both Lady Guthrie and her cousin’s attention. “I alerted my maid and Henry’s valet to where I was going. Help will arrive shortly.” She cut the end of the cigar off with her knife.
“I don’t believe her.” Monique’s gun never wavered. “I’m getting bored, cousin. Let’s kill the cigar smoking goose now. The coast is clear. We don’t need either of them now. I’ve found out what we need to know. I sent a message back to France about Lord Anglethorpe.”
Agatha stilled; Monique had fallen for it. Pushing her hand into her pocket again, she flicked her eyes to Lady Guthrie. Four meters. Her hand closed around the matches and one of the twists of paper; she didn’t have time to work out which one would be most appropriate.
Lady Guthrie cocked her head on one side and smoothed down her skirts with her left hand.
Henry’s gun remained steady. “A message about me?”
Agatha glanced back at Monique; both of them had their eyes on her. Bringing the cigar and the twist of paper in the palm of her hand to her face, she struck a match and inhaled. “Now, Henry.”
Dropping the unlit cigar to the floor, she drew back her hand and threw the burning twist of paper at Lady Guthrie.
The paper tumbled through the air, an imperceptible flame licking at the paper. Lady Guthrie frowned and then gasped.
The paper exploded with a crackle and shower of fire. Holding her ears, Agatha fell to the floor as two more loud bangs followed, a burning sensation piercing her shoulder.
Monique screamed and slid down the door, a blooming flower of red staining her dress across the chest. Agatha looked back up at Lady Guthrie, expecting her to also be incapacitated. But it wasn’t the case—as Agatha watched, Lady Guthrie moaned, the left arm of her dress a charred mess where Agatha’s firecracker had lit her clothes. Leaning to the side, she brought up her right hand which had been hidden in her skirts. Damn. The problem had never been Agatha’s calculations, merely that she just couldn’t throw straight.
Agatha screamed as metal glinted in Lady Guthrie’s hand. “Henry, she has a gun!”
Henry stepped forward in a burst of sound.
She was too late. He fell crumpling to the floor, his cheek thudding violently against the wood.
Agatha took several gasping breaths, sucking at the air. She was an idiot; she should have remembered that Lady Guthrie had killed Charles. She had mistakenly thought that they had used Monique’s gun.
Lady Guthrie was already stiffly reloading the pistol, inhaling great moaning breaths. Agatha could see the scatter of the fire cracker paper at Lady Guthrie’s feet, her carefully drawn diagrams from her notebook charred and wasted. She spared a glance for Henry. His eyes were closed and his body did not move.
The sound of a bullet dropping to the floor woke Agatha from her stupor of shock. She fumbled in her skirts, but the bulky jam jar was sat on top of the other fire cracker. She could not get to it. Lady Guthrie was still fumbling to reload, cursing in pain as she chased the bullet across the floor. Agatha looked out of the front doors. There was no time to leave and get help. The area was deserted and by that time Lady Guthrie would have managed to fire the gun again. She briefly considered leaping onto Lady Guthrie, but realized that she was already closing the butt of the gun ready to fire again.
Agatha rose swiftly in one motion, swiping the unlit cigar from the floor. Leaping past Lady Guthrie, she ran back into the carpeted hall and thudded to a stop. There was no point in continuing to run. The hall only led to more recital rooms and high walled gardens, more spaces where the pistol would be dangerous to her. The sound of the hall door opening galvanized her to action.
Gasping, she fumbled at the matches, pushing the cigar into her mouth. Hands shaking, she lit the cheroot and puffed in and out.
She couldn’t hear Lady Guthrie.
With a shuddering breath, she pulled out the jam jar and inserted the cigar in the hole in the lid and stuffed some more pages of her notebook around the snug fit. Taking a deep breath, she rolled it down the corridor towards the blue room and ran—in the opposite direction.
There was only one room on the corridor left that she could go to. She slipped inside the instrument store room and quietly shut the door, holding her hands to her head.
The roar of the jam jar bomb shook the doors in their casements.
Holding her breath, Agatha listened to the slow tread of Lady Guthrie lurching down the corridor towards the recital rooms. In the complete darkness of the room, Agatha gritted her teeth and planned her escape.
All was quiet in the storeroom. The door opened slowly. A sliver of light fell through the door. Nothing else moved.
“I know you are in here, little Agatha.” Agatha held her breath as Lady Guthrie slowly stepped into the small space, her gun held out steady in front of her. She held a taper in her other hand, which she held up to the small oil lamp to the right of the door. A soft yellow glow filled the room. “That was a nice piece of misdirection, but you know your lover is dead. There is nothing else to live for.”
Lady Guthrie grinned suddenly and, with a sweep of the gun, pulled the middle tier of instruments from their shelves. All that showed was blank wall behind. Agatha tensed as, with a muted roar of rage, Lady Guthrie one handedly pulled more cases from the shelves, instruments thudding to the floor around her.
Soon there were no more instruments left. The shelves lay bare and empty, the walls scuffed and marked behind them. Lady Guthrie laughed, her eyes staring from her head.
“This must be fate. You and I in here. Do you know that Charles and I made love in this room just before Anglethorpe caught you with him?”
So that was what Charles had been doing, and why Lady Guthrie had been so upset. Agatha bit her lip until it bled. Nothing was going to induce her to move from where she was.
Lady Guthrie looked around herself wildly, the gun swinging from side to side as she did so. Only the cello cases remained in their original positions, standing as upright as shoulders. One case lay to on its side, its clasps undone.
In her dark cramped position, Agatha brought her hands up to her face and lit a match. Slowly holding out her hand, she lit the rolled sheet of music she had found inside the cello case.
Lady Guthrie started towards the case with a smile on her face. Agatha took a sharp intake of breath. The sheet had not yet burnt fully.
“You once called me a mouse, Lady Guthrie.” Her voice echoed around the uncarpeted room, causing the instruments to thrum in response.
Lady Guthrie swung her head from side to side and took another half step forward towards the case. “Of course I called you a mouse, little Aggie, with your pathetic experiments. A mouse that I crushed again and again with my actions for five years.” She laughed harshly. “And now I will silence you forever, just like Anglethorpe.”
Agatha shook her head as Lady Guthrie reached the cello case and switched her gun to her left hand… just five seconds more was what she needed. “I am a mouse no longer,” she whispered, her voice getting louder and louder. “Hear… me… roar!”
With a wave of sound, the cello case exploded as the makeshift taper ignited Agatha’s last firecracker at the bottom of the case. The case lid flew open, knocking the gun from Lady Guthrie’s hand. In an instant, the wire strings of the disintegrating cello inside whipped through the air and lacerated Lady Guthrie’s face, as a shard of wood harpooned her in the hip.
“Aiiiieee….” Lady Guthrie screamed. Agatha didn’t wait for a pause—she shot out her arm from behind the bottom pile of instrument cases where she lay and drove the cello spike she had taken from the case through Lady Guthrie’s foot into the ground. Lady Guthrie’s scream rose higher as with the flat of her hand, Agatha drove her arm into her stomach. And then she was silent.
Wiggling and twisting from behind the instrument cases at the very bottom of the shelves, Agatha stood with a wince. Lady Guthrie was pinned into place on the floor. She couldn’t fall backwards or forwards, her pistol lying useless, feet away on the floor. Gazing at Agatha, her mouth agape, she sighed and passed out doubled up against the shelves.
Agatha leaned back. She had been lucky. Lady Guthrie’s haste had led her to overlook the bottom shelves behind the cellos. The falling instruments from the upper shelves had piled up in front of where Agatha had hidden. She had only just been able to get her hand out in time, armed with the cello spike, thanking the memory of the fallen Mr. Daventry as she had driven it into Lady Guthrie’s fragile ball slippers.
Sobbing, Agatha pushed the remaining cello cases out of the way and swept the pistol from the floor. Without a second look behind her, she hobbled gasping into the vestibule.
As the sickness roiled in her stomach, she stood over Monique, the useless gun in her hand outstretched. But she needn’t have bothered. The woman’s eyes remained open and unseeing, quite dead.
With leaden steps she crossed to Henry. Kneeling beside him in a sense of déjà vu, she turned his head towards her.
His eyes were closed, but his face was still warm.
She sobbed gently. “Henry, I love you. Please be alive.”
Henry lay still on the floor. Frantically she shook him, cradling his head in her lap, tears running down her face.
“Father.” Henry’s lips moved imperceptibly as he breathed the soft word.
Agatha lifted her head. “No… Henry… don’t go.”
“Dying without being loved,” he breathed again, his eyelids flickering. He opened his eyes slowly and stared into hers, his hand fumbling at his chest. “Agatha, promise me…” With a grimace of pain, he fell back unconscious. She gripped his hand tightly.
“Promise you what?” she cried. “Henry?” But there was no reply.
This time there was no one to stop her running outside. But the previously quiet street was now a hive of activity. Three coaches with sweating horses rumbled to a stop outside. With loud shouts, men jumped down from the coaches and rushed up the steps.
“Put the gun down, miss. We have you surrounded.”
Agatha looked round in bewilderment.
“Drop the gun,” someone said slowly.
She looked up into the eyes of Earl Harding. “I don’t think I can.”
“Hades, do something for her!” Victoria stepped out from the earl’s shadow and, unpinning her cloak, threw it around Agatha’s shoulders. “It’s alright,” she murmured, rubbing at Agatha’s shuddering arms. “We are here now.” She jerked her head at Earl Harding. “Hades, if you please?”
The earl reached forward and gently removed the gun from her hand.
“Cooee lads. Did you ever think we’d catch Monsieur Herr in her nightwear?” one of the coachmen hollered to the crowd.
“I’m not Monsieur Herr,” she whispered to Victoria. “And it’s not alright.” Her voice hitched as a sob rose through her throat. “Henry needs help. Gun shot. In the hallway.”
Earl Harding stepped forward sharply. “Did you shoot him?” He paused, the barrel of the gun pointing towards her in his hand.
“Lady Guthrie did it.” Agatha shivered again and swayed. “She’s Monsieur Herr. She’s in the instrument room.”
Victoria gasped as with a soft sigh, Agatha crumpled into her arms.
Smoke and spice. That was all she could smell. She was surrounded by the comforting odor. Taking a deep breath, Agatha opened her eyes.
There was nothing but blue, everywhere she looked. Smoke and spice and blueness. She frowned; it didn’t make sense. Pulling at her arms, she winced as her shoulder strained. Strangely, her hands were clasped around a warm object. A breeze ruffled in her ear.
“Be still, baggage. I have you now.”
Agatha moaned as her body jolted. Around her waist, a hand tightened.
“Out of the way, Ames. I have her. You may always be late but this time you were better late than never.”
A soft fabric rubbed against her nose. Breathing in, Agatha inhaled the spice and smoke again. It was so familiar. With a hiccup, she pushed her face forward, into the softness. It could only be a dream. Henry was still laid out on the cold floor in Hanover Rooms shot by Lady Guthrie. He couldn’t have survived.
A warm hand stroked at her head and cradled her hair. “Shhh. I won’t let you go.”
Agatha sighed. It had to be a dream. No man had ever looked after her. Not since Henry had assured her he would deal with Charles. Not since he had come to rescue her.
“Look at me, Agatha.”
The voice was commanding.
“I don’t want to.” If she did, then the dream would break and she would still be outside Hanover State Rooms, shivering in the cold.
The low voice caressed at her senses. “If you don’t look at me, I can’t tell you what I want from you.”
Oh the devious man, cunning even in her dreams. “Tell me now,” she demanded into the soft fabric. “I can still hear.”
Strong hands stroked her on the nose, pulling her away from her nest.
“Look at me… dearheart… Agatha.”
Unwillingly Agatha looked upwards, into the deep blue eyes of the only man she had ever loved. “Henry,” she breathed. “Don’t… please don’t disappear.”
The rumble of his laugh pulsed through her. “I’m not the one that always disappears.”
“You’re not real. I saw Henry die with my own eyes…”
The deep blue of Henry’s eyes vanished as he blinked, then creased as he smiled. “Ever questioning, Agatha. That’s one of the reasons I want you… I love you. You and I, we are two of a kind, constantly searching for knowledge, truth.”
“You stopped me.”
Henry’s eyes disappeared as his chin pointed upwards. Agatha stared mesmerized at the strong jaw above her.
“I believed that it would make everyone happier,” he said quietly. “Avoid scandal. Only recently has it been pointed out to me that there are many ways to search for a type of truth. I thought I was searching for what my father was looking for when he died in order to give me answers about his death to put my sense of family back together again.” He looked down at her again. “But in reality I was looking in the wrong place.”
Agatha licked her lips, and, raising a finger on her hand where it lay wrapped around the back of Henry’s neck, stroked against his firm skin. Henry took in a deep breath and shuddered.
“What do I want from you, Agatha?” Henry lowered his head as his arms tightened around her. “I want you promise to love me, no matter what happens.”
“I… I can’t love a dead man.”
Henry stopped, his head only inches from hers. “I’m no dead man, Agatha. Does a dead man feel like this?” Slowly, tenderly, he captured her lips in his. Agatha moaned softly as his tongue flicked gently passed her parted lips and then withdrew.
“I saw her shoot you. I saw you fall.”
Henry’s laugh rumbled louder and louder. “I worried the effect my death might have upon any wife I took. Little did I realize that by finally allowing myself to pursue you would I prevent my own life from being taken.” Tightening his arm around her waist, he brought his hand up to her eye line. In his hand lay a large lump of metal, deformed and gleaming, yet still in the unmistakable shape of a ring. “The Anglethorpe wedding ring. I’ve had it in my pocket ever since the house party. Ever since I was pushed into realizing that life is nothing without you. It stopped the bullet.”
A door shut behind them as footsteps shuffled closer. “Ahem.”
Henry sighed. “What is it, Ames?”
Turning her head, Agatha stared into the clear gaze of John Smith.
“You…” She turned back to Henry. “Nothing without me?”
Ames shuffled his feet behind her. “Excusing me, your lordship. Mrs. Noggin and err Lady Colchester wish to know if you’ve asked her yet?”
Agatha looked upwards. “Asked me what, Henry?”
She felt his chest heave, as he clutched her tighter. Bending over, he whispered in her ear. “Will you marry me, my love?”
Stunned, Agatha let her hands fall away from his neck, but still she did not tumble from his arms, as his embrace held her protected and steady.
“Bloody hell. Yes. Of course.”
After all. It was the only logical conclusion.
Lord James Stanton lurked at the edge of the dance floor and watched as the wedding guests swirled, avoiding his thunderous stare and formidable form with scurried steps as they swung to his end of the room. He paid no attention to them, his eyes tracking one couple in the midst of them who danced unheedingly on with broad smiles on their faces.
Damn Freddie Lassiter. Once again he was partnered with the one woman that James wanted and now would never have. How he wished he could go back to Brambridge Manor and hide.
When he had arrived back in London, he had never thought the future could be more bleak than when he had left. Yet here he was, pushing on in his third decade of life, engaged to a beautiful woman, the owner of two magnificent estates. And he had never felt so depressed.
James tossed back the remainder of the champagne in his glass and took another from the waiting footman. As he glanced across the ballroom, his gaze caught on a man who smirked and raised his glass to him. James nodded and turned away. He took another sip of his champagne and continued observing the room.
The happy couple were nowhere in sight. This was their wedding after all. The highly anticipated Anglethorpe reception. After so much drama, one would have thought that they would at least put in an appearance. James snorted as the champagne bubbles filled his mouth. At least for one couple things had turned out alright. He shook his head. He couldn’t expect the same for himself. After all, trouble followed him everywhere, and had done so for as long as he could remember. No, he balled a fist and, turning, threw a look back across the ballroom. There had been a fairly carefree time when he was young, but there had always been his father and then… that last run on the [_Rocket. _]James shook his head and strode to the door. Placing his empty glass carefully on a waiting footman’s tray, he left the ballroom and slipped out into the night.
Upstairs in their Brambridge home the bride and groom danced slowly in the moonlight as the party continued. Berale House was lit and alive again for the first time since the fateful house party.
Cradling Agatha in his arms, Henry gently spun her round the room. “I didn’t think I could better the science laboratory my dear, but I have bought you an even more important present. An interest which I believe we’ll share.”
Agatha sighed in contentment “Oh Henry, you shouldn’t have… a jar of fig jam? Really—”
“I know how much it meant to you and it is my favorite preserve.”
“—you shouldn’t have.” She leant back against the strong arms that encircled her and smiled.
Henry looked down at her, his blue eyes deeper than the sea. “My father would have liked you. My mother too. I wish you could have met them.”
Slowly Agatha dropped her smile and traced a hand around Henry’s open collar. “I wish I could have too, Henry.” She picked at his shirt button. “I heard what Monique said about writing back to France about Lord Anglethorpe.”
Henry drew in a breath as her hand rested against his hot chest.
She looked up at him, concern brimming in her eyes. “It was about him, wasn’t it? Your father, what you have been looking for.”
Henry shook his head. “It might have been.” He looked her deep in the eyes. “Granwich told me in time a strand might surface.” Stilling her hand with his own, he pressed it against his heart. “But I don’t need him to tell me what is more important anymore, a ten year old mystery or [_my _]lady in the here and now.” He shivered as her free hand stroked the long blond hair at the nape of his neck. “There are others that can pursue it on… England’s… behalf—”
He groaned as with one last tantalizing stroke, the newlywed Agatha Anglethorpe reached up and pulled her handsome husband down into a deep kiss. His hands stole around her back and slowly unlaced her wedding dress.
As Agatha lay back on the bed, her new husband Lord Henry Anglethorpe stole kisses down her body. Goodness, if only she could work out how he—she gasped with desire and forgot her train of thought. Even though she had been the one to tame the enigmatic spymaster, he was the one able to pierce her heart with every move he made. She flew higher than the clouds and as a starburst of sensation fell he told her again how he felt.
“I love you, Agatha.”
Their tale is over, but for others, the story has only just begun…
Before turning the page to read the Prologue to Burning Bright the second book in the Brambridge Novels series:
Firstly thank you for reading Somewhat Scandalous. I hope you enjoyed it! Please do let me know what you thought by leaving a review.
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Somewhat Scandalous is the first book in the Brambridge Novels series. The other books currently available in the series are , Burning Bright, Dangerous Diana, Reckless Rules and Maddening Minx. Click on the titles to discover more about them, or visit www.pearldarling.com for my blog, books, and more.
Finally and most importantly, if you’d like to dive straight in to read the prologue of the next book in the series, Burning Bright, please turn the page now!
BOOK TWO OF THE BRAMBRIDGE NOVELS
A small cloud crossed the full moon that shed light on the sheltered beach. James stood from his crouched position in the sand and stretched his arms above his back. Gazing upwards, he searched the night sky for the Plough constellation. Quickly, he traced along its handle and found Polaris, the North Star, burning brighter than the other stars around it. He stared back down at the sand and quickly calculated in his head, just as he had done every week since he had gained his age of majority the year before.
When they had landed on the beach in Brambridge, the stars that made up the Plough had been in line with his shoulder, and now it was almost above his head. Forty minutes had passed and they still hadn’t moved the barrels up from the beach and into the stone mine.
Soft sand crunched behind him. James whirled and crouched, his knife out of its sheath and into his hand in a breath, a move he had practiced many times in secret. A massive figure emerged from the shadows of the beach, hands outstretched. James grinned and with relief, pushed his knife away as Bill Standish, village blacksmith and captain of the smuggling boat Rocket, grimaced in return and clouted his shoulder.
“I do wish you wouldn’t do that.” James rubbed at his arm.
“Grow some more muscle then, Jamie lad.”
“Mmmm. Not everyone can be as large as you.”
Bill stared at him. “When I was your age I was already apprenticed to the Brambridge forge. A year later when I was twenty I was the master smith. Of course you could become as strong as I.” Bill laughed and clouted James on the shoulder again. “Although now I’ll take you as you are.” He jerked his head towards the pile of contraband. “I’ve just been up on the cliff top. Tommy has the fire under control. As soon as we’ve moved the cargo he’ll douse the flames, and the Rocket will leave.”
“Good. Get the men to move the brandy barrels now. Make sure they fasten the straps tight. I’ll rub out the marks in the sand.”
Bill nodded and quickly gave the orders to the waiting men. James glanced upwards again. Another ten minutes gone. They would only have another ten before there was a greater risk of being caught. As the last man disappeared into the undergrowth at the bottom of the cliffs, James took off his coat and ran, dragging it across the sand where the barrels were stacked.
Taking a deep breath, he pressed his hands together and blew through them, making three low owl hoots. He waited, and sighed with relief as the call was answered by one low hoot from the headland. The Rocket was barely visible in Longman’s Cove, but a sharp-eyed observer might see the tall shape of her mast against the moon, or the occasional light as the crewmen moved across her decks. It was vital that she wasn’t discovered. The contraband that she brought in from France was the only thing keeping Brambridge village alive. James might have been young, but he[_ cared_].
He trod silently to where Bill and the men had disappeared with the barrels at the back of the beach. Parting the undergrowth, he stepped onto a cleverly concealed path. Glancing quickly about him, he stilled, the dark shadows deeper than they should have been. Before he could move, hands descended and covered his eyes with a firm pressure. In a flurry of movement, he whirled, forcing them from his face and pushed the attacker back into the bushes. The small figure giggled and tapped lightly on his chest. James let out a groan. Not her again.
“Harriet, this is not the time or the place.” He stood and hauled her to her feet. “We are not thirteen-years-old any more. This is dangerous.”
“I know, it’s terribly exciting. The moon is so large and the sea is getting up. It’s like a scene from Hamlet.” Harriet stared at him, wide eyed. She pushed her curly red hair away from her face and blinked. “I thought I might help,” she said in a low voice.
James sighed. “I’d rather you didn’t. You need to stay here or go home to the cottage to your aunt. Does Miss Aggie know you are here?
Harriet shook her head. “No, she’s alone at the cottage, I slipped out when she fell asleep over her correspondence.”
James clenched his fists. “Don’t follow me.” He turned away and stepped back onto the upwards path.
He cursed and turned back. Behind Harriet’s hunched shoulders the tide was beginning to turn, cutting off her route home. He touched her arm lightly.
“Look. I’ll come back for you, Harry. I always do, don’t I?” James took in a deep breath and rubbed at his eyes as Harriet’s shoulders slumped further. “I pulled you out of that pond when you were pretending to be a witch, I rescued you from the apple tree when you wondered what it was like to be a bird, and I rowed you back from the sandbank in the middle of the cove when you were calling to the gods of the sea. I[_ always ]come back for you[.”_]
He waited until she nodded slightly.
“Good.” He patted her hand lightly and turned resolutely away. Striding with hurried steps, he followed the concealed path up the steep cliff side and into a hidden archway partway up the limestone face. A narrow tunnel led upwards into the cliff, branching out at different points. Trailing his hand along the wall, he took first the left tunnel, a sharp right and then a succession of left forks.
All was quiet in the mine. With a slight shiver, James took a last right turn. He struck a match and then blew it out again as quickly as he had struck it. In the flash of light, he had seen the men lined up against the wall, each with a tot of brandy in their hand. The barrels were stowed into a stone alcove, and covered with a piece of white sailcloth that blended well with the white of the stone around it.
“Go home,” he whispered. “We’ll move the barrels tomorrow night. Wait for Bill’s instructions.” He did not see them nod but felt the brush of the men’s coats as they filed past him. The last man squeezed his shoulder strongly and a low laugh rumbled slightly as Bill left with the men.
James hurried in the opposite direction, out of the small chamber, into a larger one and then into another tunnel that moved upwards again. After fifty paces he came to an abrupt stop. He felt lightly at the wall to his right. Hooking his hands into the wall, he pulled out a small brass hook that was embedded in the stone. The hook moved seamlessly towards him, and a chink of light appeared through the wall.
He held his breath but there was no sound. The light remained low as he pushed the door open and slid his chest and then his legs through, quickly closing the door again behind him. The door blended into the oak casement that lined the room and was impossible to distinguish from the other panels around it.
A woman gazed out at him from a painting hung over the wooden panel, a half-smile on her lips, her hands still upraised pointing to five stars that encircled her head. She had greeted his coming and going for the last year in the same fashion, the only woman surrounded by sneering male family portraits.
Lowering his head, James moved quickly from the room, and turned a sharp right into the sumptuous hall. Unwillingly his eyes flickered to the door to his father’s study opposite the gallery. The door was slightly ajar but no glow lit the room. Hunching his shoulders, James ran lightly up the grand staircase and stepped into his bedroom.
[_Damn. _]He’d forgotten about Harriet.
He took a step back towards the door, but faltered when a loud crash reverberated through the house. Loud shouts came from the hallway. Running back to the bed, he jumped under the coverlet, and pulled a pillow over his head. He breathed quiet shallow breaths into the soft cotton covering his face.
The bedroom door opened in a burst of sound. Light footsteps pattered across the carpet and the pillow was ripped away from his hands.
His sister shook his shoulders violently, jerking his head from side to side. Opening his eyes, he focused blearily.
“James,” she cried. “Oh, you fool. Get up. They’re coming for you.”
“Lord Anglethorpe and Father.” Cecilia stopped shaking him and pushed her hands through the long mahogany waves of her hair. “It’s the new riding officer—Fairleigh, he’s been murdered.”
“I don’t understand, why are they coming for me?” James blinked. Bill had told him that Fairleigh was visiting his sweetheart in Ottery.
His sister’s face darkened as she gripped the bed linen. “You and that blasted Rocket,” she said tautly. “He was pushed off the top of Longman’s Point. They say his head hit the rocks at the bottom of the cliff.”
James took a sharp intake of breath as an ice like tentacle of fear encircled his throat. Shaking, he sat and lifted up the coverlet and swung his legs out of the bed.
“Stop where you are.”
He froze, one booted foot on the floor.
His father barreled through the bedroom doorway. “I told your mother that you were bad luck and look what you’ve done. Killed an innocent man. You can’t deny it.” He shook his head and fury filled his face. “That will teach her for letting you lead your own way and—”
“Enough, Lord Stanton!” A broad-shouldered gentleman appeared in the doorway. “Don’t be a fool. The lad looks quiet enough and we are not sure yet that he even did it.”
“Of course he did, Anglethorpe. You’ve only been in the district a year hiding yourself away in that house. You won’t know his reputation. Can’t you see the scratches on his hands and knees? Got them climbing to the top of the cliff to push Farleigh off, I’ll wager. He’s no son of mine.”
“But Father…” James tried to twitch the coverlet back into place. “I was in bed.”
“Nonsense, James. You were seen creeping down the hallway by Edgar here at two o’clock of the morning, fully clothed.”
James gulped and looked at his lone booted foot resting on the floor supporting his weight. Edgar. He might have guessed it was Edgar; he stood behind his father and Lord Anglethorpe, craning his head over their shoulders. Occasionally he would move, bobbing up and down, as if gleefully taking in the whole scene, committing it to memory.
“I was stargazing,” James said quietly. He pointed to the leather bound tube that lay on the table next to the bed. “I was told a comet might pass over tonight.”
Lord Stanton snorted. Even Lord Anglethorpe looked disconcerted.
“A likely tale. No son of mine stargazes. It’s something we tell the ladies to get them into bed.” Lord Stanton walked further into the room, stopping suddenly as Lord Anglethorpe clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“Alright, I’ll come with you quietly.” James swung his other foot from the bed. “I’m innocent though, I haven’t done anything wrong. I was stargazing. Just let me change my clothes. Please?” The last word stuck in his throat. To his father that word would have been better than a scream.
Lord Stanton opened his mouth to speak again but Lord Anglethorpe stopped him. “Enough, Stanton. It’s a bit of a walk to the lockup, and there is no way out of the room apart from the door and window.” He peered through the murky glass window and sighed. “It’s too high for him to escape by the window and I’ll put a guard on the door as well.”
Lord Stanton glared balefully at his son, as if wishing he could pick up James and carry him to the prison himself. James looked away from the hateful stare, so like those in the family pictures. He had not killed the riding officer, even though he had been there, in Longman’s Cove.
And yet if he had not, then who had?
Lord Anglethorpe shouldered Lord Stanton from the room. “Come on. The quicker we leave, the faster he’ll be ready. It’s not as if he’s going to escape to France.”
Lord Stanton pulled away and brushed at Lord Anglethorpe’s hand. He cast one last red-eyed glare at James and left, shoving a grinning Edgar out of the way. As Lord Anglethorpe pulled the door shut behind him, he stopped and stared at James. With a barely imperceptible flicker of his eyelid, he winked and closed the door with a click.
Sometimes hiding is the best way of being found… Miss Agatha Beauregard has a theory about men. In fact she has a theory about almost everything. Rescued from the dreary confines of Hope Sands by the powerful Lord Henry Anglethorpe, and launched onto the ton as his sister’s companion, Agatha is determined to make use of her new found freedom by letting loose her scientific tendencies. But Henry makes it clear he does not want the attention Agatha’s scandalous activities bring. As spymaster for the British government, he has been charged with tracking down the latest foreign agent to infiltrate London. However when the War Office also command him to take a bride, he finds he has only one lady in mind. As Agatha hides from the results that her latest experiments have brought, Henry pursues her from one scandalous event to another. But before he can pounce, it becomes explosively clear that his future bride’s affections are engaged elsewhere, and she may not be all she claimed to be…