twenty-three

Alex pushed open the door to Sewell hall and rushed inside, breathing heavily and wishing she hadn’t worn her corset stays quite so tight this morning.

“Vanity be damned,” she huffed to herself. “Loveliness will do me no good with Blackmoor if I drop dead from lack of air before he sees me.” She had been so eager to get to the hall, to find the book and Blackmoor, that she had run the entire way — something she hadn’t done since she had spent her childhood rushing about the heath, traipsing after the boys she so revered.

The hall was quiet and dark. Blackmoor had clearly not alerted his staff that he was coming this morning, so they were, nowhere to be seen. She preferred the house this way, for it would give her a chance to find the book and find him without having to explain her visit or to risk being caught by anyone.

She had thought to find Blackmoor immediately but altered her plan once she arrived at the house, heading instead for the library to find the book.

Somewhere in the dark recesses of her mind, she was reluctant to leave the volume unfound any longer than absolutely necessary. She paused just inside the front door, listening for any movement or conversation. Hearing nothing, she moved quietly across the central foyer of the hall, entered the library, and began her search.

The Sewell hall library was designed for readers. Warm and cozy despite its high ceilings, the bookshelves inside the enormous room were filled to the brim with enough leather-bound volumes to make the space feel intimate. For generations, the Earls of Blackmoor had prided themselves on their literary appreciation. Alex could vividly remember Gavin’s father holding her on his lap when she was knee-high and telling her tales from Shakespeare and Homer and Greek and Roman mythology.

Even now, years later, there were moments when she could hear the rich tenor of his voice alluding to Cupid and Psyche when she became too curious, or to Much Ado About Nothing’s  Beatrice when she was becoming obviously headstrong. She breathed deeply, the memories flooding her as she inhaled the scent of the well -loved and well -cared-for inhabitants of this room — the aroma of oiled and leather-bound books.

Ordinarily, she would have spent her first few minutes in the room wandering aimlessly through the maze of shelves, marveling at the way the high windows were constructed to let just enough sunlight in for dust to dance in the rays without the light harming the books. But today, she had no time to dally.

The earl had always been thoroughly organized in regard to his library — the books were sorted by genre, then by title.

All Alex had to do was find the collection of books on the county history and she would discover that for which she was searching. She began poring over the shelves, pausing only long enough to identify the topic covered by the collection of books she was looking at — science, medicine, poetry, the classics of Shakespeare and Chaucer — she found the history collection quickly, running her fingers over the spines of books on the Far East, the Americas, the European continent, and, finally, British history with a whole collection of titles on the various counties in Britain. She crouched down to see them all clearly — identifying several volumes on Essex, but not the one she was looking for. She was certain her theory was right and the earl had a second copy of the book. Blowing back a lock of hair from her face, she spoke aloud to the empty room, “Where is the blasted thing?”

Perhaps he’d hidden it? Or, worse, perhaps he hadn’t had the time to leave his final message. Perhaps he was killed before he could complete the task.

“No.” Alex shook her head in frustration and sat on the floor, pulling books off the shelf one by one, opening them and running her hands across the endpapers, checking to see if he’d left his next missive in a different title. The stack of books on the floor by her side grew as she searched through the collection. When she had emptied the shelf on Essex, she sighed down at the pile she had made, wondering where else she could search. She looked back at the shelf in disappointment and there, hidden behind the other books, was a small volume bound in rich green leather. She knew the title before she looked closely at the book… A History of Essex.

Her heart pounding, Alex opened the cover, knowing with absolute certainty that she was about to find what she had been looking for. Looking down at the volume, she gasped. The book had been hollowed out and a stack of papers were tucked inside. She pulled them from their hiding place and was about to read them, when she realized that they were not her secrets to uncover. They were secrets that belonged to the Sewell line — to the Earls of Blackmoor. She had to find Gavin.

She burst from the room at a dead run, crossing the wide hall way, so intent on her mission that she didn’t pause before throwing open the study door and rushing into the room. Gavin was sitting behind his desk, and she saw the surprise in his eyes at her entrance. She stopped just inside the door before exclaiming, “I found it! I found the information your father hid!”

It was only after she spoke the words that she noticed the harsh lines of his face, the clear tension in his mouth, and the anger in his eyes that had, for a fleeting moment, been replaced by shock at her presence. He was no longer looking at her. His gaze was fixed on a point behind her. She heard the door to the study close ominously and knew before looking that there was someone else in the room with them.

“Excelent, my dear girl. You are more intelligent than you appear, it seems.”

Alex spun around at the words, her spine straightening when she took in the entire scene. There, standing just to the side of the now closed door, was Lucian Sewell. He was holding a pistol. And it was pointed directly at her.

Reaching one hand out to her, he continued, “Why don’t you be a good girl and give the book to me, Alexandra? There’s no need to make this any more difficult than it needs to be.”

Alex looked back toward Blackmoor, but he did not take his eyes from his uncle, who spoke again, his tone vicious. “Don’t be a fool, Alexandra. The rules of this game are very simple. You give me the book or I kill you.”

This odious person had betrayed her country, murdered a man she adored, and was now threatening to kill her. She wasn’t going to do anything he asked of her. Not without a fight. She didn’t know where the defiance came from, but there it was, vivid and intense. “No.”

“Alex.” This time, it was Gavin who spoke. His tone brooked no discussion. “Give him the book.”

“No. I won’t.” She held the volume tighter to her chest, glancing back at Gavin, who still wasn’t looking at her. Turning back to Lucian, she met his eyes without fear. “You won’t kill me. You’d have my father and every man in the county looking to see you hanged.”

“You forget, child, that I am very good at making planned deaths appear accidental.” Sewell smiled, evil in his eyes. “How sad it would be if the two of you took yourselves off to the cliffs for a private moment only to tumble, tragically, into the sea.”

“I imagine you believe that if a plan worked once, it will work again?” Blackmoor asked.

Sewell’s smile turned into a vicious sneer as he replied, “It worked perfectly the first time; need I remind you that we wouldn’t be in this particular situation if you hadn’t been so reluctant to accept the circumstances of your father’s death.”

“So you admit it. You killed my father. Your own brother.”

“Those events were not in the original plan. Your father would still be here — very much alive — if he’d stayed out of my affairs. I never bothered him about the business of the estate… I fail to understand why he would think it acceptable to interfere in my life.”

“Perhaps because you were using his land to break the law?” Alex said smartly.

“Ah, so you have looked at the information my brother left in the book. Something will have to be done about that.”

“Actually, I haven’t read anything in the volume. It’s just a rather obvious scheme you’ve concocted. You can do what you want to me, but someone else will discover that you are selling secrets to the French. You cannot kill everyone.”

“Once I destroy that book, I will have no need of killing anyone else. And to be clear, I was selling information to the French. Now I’m selling it to anyone who wants to buy. With no money and no land on which to make money, I have little opportunity to be discerning.” He turned back to Alex and said, “Now give me the book, girl. I have no more patience for this conversation.”

“I will not.”

“And I will not ask again!” Lucian’s voice rose, filled with anger. Alex flinched in response as he lifted the pistol and began to pull the hammer back.

“No!” Gavin exclaimed, his voice heavy with emotion. “Give him the book, Alex. Please.”

At the sound of his voice, Alex turned back to him, witnessing the pain in his eyes for the first time. “Why, Gavin? This book holds all the information we need to link him to your father’s death. Why would I give it to him? Would you see him go free?”

He didn’t respond, but Lucian did, laughing darkly. “How very sweet. My dear,” he said, speaking to Alex, “I imagine he’s willing to give up the information because he fancies himself in love with you. Don’t you see? Your life simply isn’t worth the pleasure of avenging his father’s death. It’s touching, really.”

Alex looked back at Gavin, who was deliberately not meeting her gaze.

“Let’s see if the opposite is also true,” Lucian said, and before she knew it, he was pointing his pistol at Gavin and cocking the handle.

“No!” she cried, unable to stop herself from reaching out a protesting hand toward him.

“Ah, young love,” he said with disgust in his voice. “So very predictable.” He looked back to Alex. “I’m no longer playing games. Give me the book.”

Alex stepped forward, tentatively, the book in her hands. She held the book out to him and he reached for it.

“Alex! No!” She turned her head, seeing Gavin jump up from his desk just as Sewell reached past the book and, before she could do anything, took hold of her wrist in a viselike grip, pulling her to him.

“Let go of her.” The words came in a low growl from across the room just as she felt the cool iron barrel of the pistol press against the side of her neck.

Blackmoor moved toward them, stopping only when Sewell warned, “Don’t do anything you’ll regret, Nephew. You wouldn’t want me to do something rash.”

Gavin’s fury was clear. “I have given you the benefit of the doubt throughout this ordeal, Uncle. But allow me to make myself plain… if you harm her in any way, you will wish it were you who had tumbled into the sea the day you killed my father.”

“What big words for such a young pup,” Sewell said viciously, gripping Alex more firmly, causing her to wince and Gavin to tense visibly. “I think I shall enjoy abducting your little friend. It’s time an Earl of Blackmoor learns he cannot have everything he wants.”

“So that is why you killed my father? Jealousy?”

“Your father had everything!” The high pitch of Lucian’s voice sent a jolt through Alex, who paled at the sound and the lack of control it betrayed. “Money, land, title, the most beautiful woman in London. He was the perfect earl, and he couldn’t stand having such an imperfect brother. He constantly sought out my flaws. Right up until the day he died.” He pushed on, and Alex sensed that he was losing his temper. “For our entire lives, it was always Richard who was strongest, smartest, most revered, who was the heir to the great Blackmoor earldom.

“And now it’s you…” he said to Gavin, with venom. “You who inherited the estate, the title… everything! You,  the little brat who received all the love and acceptance that should have been mine!” Lucian’s voice was becoming more and more hysterical as he spoke, making Alex wince every time he hit a shrill pitch. “And what of me? Nothing! I was given no title, not even a minor one. I was bequeathed no lands. Instead, when I came of age, it was suggested I join the Navy and go to war to make my fortune. I have no family, except my fellow soldiers from the battlefield. We went to war, where we received no recognition and a pittance of a salary… and then I came home to discover that my brother had been working at the War Office and turning himself into a legend!”

Alex could feel him coming unhinged; she was keenly aware of his anger and frustration as he continued, “You’re no more than a child and now you are the earl? I fought for my country. Saved it! And I received nothing in return. So now I’m taking from you what you value most, because you deserve no more pleasure than your father did. I’m the one who deserves happiness. I’m the one who earned it.”

“Earned it?” Gavin asked incredulously, unwittingly pushing his uncle to the breaking point. “How, exactly, did you earn it? By killing your brother? Your flesh and blood?”

“You insolent pup. You don’t understand!” Alex felt him remove the pistol from her neck and saw him begin to point it at Gavin. In his anger, he had loosened his grip on her and she had enough space to move, but only to make a single attempt at saving them both.

Without pausing to consider the possibility of failure, Alex lifted her foot and slammed it down on her captor’s instep with every ounce of her strength, spinning away from him as he doubled over in pain. She heard the report of the pistol and time stopped as she looked to Gavin, who was rushing forward with a roar, his face the portrait of anger.

He tackled his already off-balance uncle, bringing him to the floor and sending the pistol spinning across the room before landing two quick blows to his face. Alex turned to find something heavy that she could use to subdue Sewell but was interrupted by the door bursting open as the Duke of Worthington and Will rushed in, the Baron Montgrave quick on their heels, holding a pistol.

Taking in the scene before them, Will and the duke rushed to pull Gavin off his uncle and to restrain the older man, who squealed in protest.

“Montgrave has a pistol!” Alex announced to the room at large, alarmed.

“And thank goodness he does. We might have needed it,” Gavin said as he approached her, concern in his eyes. “He’s on our side, Alex.” Taking her into his arms and running his hands over her extremities to find any wounds she might have incurred, he spoke softly to her, “Are you well? Did the bullet hit you? Did he hurt you?”

“I’m fine,” she said, pulling away from him, embarrassed that he would be touching her so intimately in front of the room full of men. “Our side? He is?”

“Yes, my lady,” the baron spoke up, from where he was tying Sewell’s wrists behind his back. “You see, I have been working with the War Office to root out a network of French spies operating out of Essex, which we came to believe was related to the earl’s death. I also knew Sewell from the war. Even then, he vilified his brother and talked of ruining the Blackmoor name. I never thought he would have the courage to do it, but when I heard from you that he was here, I had a feeling he was involved. Of course, I had no idea that the two situations were related until Lady Vivian told me everything this afternoon.”

“But Ella saw you in the gardens at the Salisbury ball! Discussing the robbery at Blackmoor House! Before it happened!”

“Did she? I am impressed, my lady. My informant and I had no knowledge of our being followed.”

“If there is one thing women excel at, Baron, it is eavesdropping. Would you care to explain how you were able to discuss the future?” She still didn’t trust this Frenchman.

“In fact, we were discussing the robbery as it was in progress,  Lady Alexandra. I left the ball immediately and headed straight for Blackmoor House. Of course, you and Lord Blackmoor were close behind me, so it was he who entered the house, ending Sewell ‘s search before I was able to do it myself.”

Alex turned to Gavin. “But you didn’t believe me when I told you about your uncle!”

“No, I didn’t.” Gavin appeared just as surprised as she was. “And I didn’t know any of this either. Although I’m rather unclear about why I wasn’t apprised of my uncle’s wrongdoings.”

“We didn’t want to upset you unnecessarily,” the duke interjected. “We didn’t have any proof of Sewell ‘s involvement in either of these crimes.”

“Until now,” Gavin said, retrieving his father’s book from where it lay at their feet. “Alex has uncovered everything,” he said with pride in his voice, handing the volume to the duke and congratulating Alex with, “Very well done, by the way.”

Alex ignored the flash of pleasure she felt at his praise, and turned her questions on the baron, “But I saw you skulking around Blackmoor House!”

“That I am able to answer. You were not supposed to see Montgrave,” Gavin interjected as the duke and the baron pulled Sewell to his feet. “You were not supposed to become involved at all. In fact, didn’t you promise me that you were going to stay as far away from Sewell hall as possible this weekend?”

She ignored his attempt to redirect her attention, instead exclaiming, “You knew!  You knew Montgrave wasn’t a threat and let me go on believing he was? You didn’t tell me? What else did you know? What else didn’t you share? Need I remind you that it was I who found your father’s messages, I who uncovered the connection between the espionage and the murder, I who discovered the book here, I who saved your life just moments ago? Where were Bow Street and the baron during all those times?”

“Alex, calm yourself. We decided it was best you not know.”

“Who decided?” Alex said shortly, her ire rising.

“Alexandra,” her father interrupted, “contrary to what you believe, there are some situations in which young women should not participate.”

“Like this one, for example,” Will added, attempting to be helpful. “Vivi and Ella put everything together as far as what was happening here, but we came to rescue you. They stayed at the manor.”

“I rescued us!” Alex protested, meeting Gavin’s gaze. “Tel them!”

“Indeed. She did. I have a feeling my uncle might well be nursing a broken foot,” he told the duke and baron, who seemed to have little concern for the pain their prisoner might be suffering.

“Truly? Well done, Alex,” Will said, surprised. “Well, in any event, there’s a reason we left Vivi and Ella behind.”

“We’re here!” Ella surprised everyone with her announcement from the doorway as the two entered, out of breath from their race across the heath.

“And we brought the constable!” This from Vivi, who was followed by the portly county constable, who had to pause to take great, heaving breaths and regain his composure before grabbing hold of Sewell and, with the help of the baron, removing him from the room.

Taking in the scene, Ella wrinkled her nose. “Drat. We missed the excitement!”

“It appears we did,” Vivi agreed, disappointment in her tone.

“Ah, well. Next time!” Ella brightened.

Alex smiled as the duke and Will began to scold her friends, causing Gavin to lean down and whisper in her ear, “I am happy to see you smiling again.”

She turned to him. “I remain vexed with you, my lord. I cannot believe you did not tell me about Montgrave!”

“Alex, I will not argue with you. You can be angry if you need to be, but I almost lost you today and there are other things I would prefer to do than spar.”

“For example?” Alex asked.

“For example.” He wrapped his arms around her again, and her heart began to pound as he continued, “I’d prefer to remind myself that you are safe. And that you are mine.”

She smiled up at him. “I am yours, my lord. As much as you are mine.”

He clasped her to him, holding her tightly until a throat cleared from across the room, and Alex and Gavin remembered that they had an audience.

“Blackmoor,” the duke said, his casual tone belying his intent gaze, “perhaps you would like to explain exactly why your arms are wrapped around my daughter?”

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