Chapter 33

REVEREND TYSEN SHERBROOKE, Baron Barthwaite of Kildrummy in Scotland, looked at Thomas’s mother, his head cocked ever so slightly, and said in his deep elegant voice, one brow arched, “I beg your pardon, ma’am, I am not exactly sure I heard what you said.”

“I said, my lord, that your daughter-well, perhaps it would be for the best if your darling daughter did go back to England with you, don’t you think? It simply isn’t safe for her to remain here, now is it? No, she’d be far better off away from Pendragon.”

Compared to what his mother had first said, this was a capitulation indeed, Thomas thought, turning an admiring eye to Meggie’s father. Just maybe her father could turn Madeleine into a diplomat. That thought would surely give him a headache.

“Evidently not,” Mary Rose said, ready to hit the old harridan in the nose even though Tysen had managed to get her to change her tune quickly enough. “However, I am very certain that you, ma’am, have made her welcome.”

“I would welcome her even more excessively if she would just get herself pregnant.”

“Quite a feat that would be,” Thomas said, rising. “Now, Mother, I don’t think you should embarrass Meggie’s father in exactly this way. You need to learn to pick your moments. Until that happens, why don’t you sip your tea until it is time for you to partner Mr. Jeremy Stanton-Greville in whist. I understand all three of our guests are superb players. You are always saying that you would like some competition. You have it. Sir,” he added to Tysen, “thank you for coming. Now, I will bid you all good night and see that Meggie is settled in.”

Thomas nodded to his three guests and took himself upstairs. He was whistling when he went into the White Room to see Meggie lying on her back, her hair spread on the pillow, lace and satin to her chin, her eyes closed.

He sat quietly in a chair beside her, crossed his legs, and thoughtfully began tapping his fingers as he looked at her face.

“Stop that.”

He’d thought she was asleep and jumped at the sound of her voice. “How do you know what I’m doing?” he asked.

“You’re watching me.”

“It gives me great pleasure to watch you, Meggie.” He paused a moment, continued to tap those long fingers of his together slowly, saying thoughtfully after a few moments, “When I arrived in Glenclose-on-Rowan to assume my father’s responsibilities, to fit myself into my new title, the last thing on my mind was taking a wife. However, it seems that when I saw you, everything just seemed to fall into place.”

Her heart was pounding, slow deep strokes. She didn’t say a word.

“The first time I saw you, you were peeling your little brother’s sticky fingers off your skirt. Evidently you would give him candy to keep him quiet during your father’s service.”

“I remember. It was a new gown. Poor Rory, he was so dismayed that he’d upset me. Oh goodness, then he tried to lick the sticky stuff off the skirt.”

“Yes, and you laughed and laughed, held him close, and the sun burst upon my head.”

Meggie’s heart felt suddenly so very full that she wanted to cry. She wanted to leap from the bed and tell him he was a wonderful man, that she would never leave him, that he was hers, forever. But that meant telling him straight in his beautiful dark eyes that she loved him. She wouldn’t lie, not about something so utterly important as that. But she knew she wanted him, wanted him to be happy, with her. She knew he was as fine a man as her father was, as her uncles were. He made her wild-no question about that. But the other-that heart-wrenching excitement when she saw Jeremy for that first time so very long ago in London, that soul-wrenching near-pain when he’d smiled at her-no, she’d never felt that with Thomas. She’d never felt it with anyone but Jeremy.

On the other hand, she hadn’t felt any of that heart-pounding, near-nausea, light-headed, utterly out-of-control excitement when Jeremy had walked into the drawing room this afternoon. Not a bit of it. Nothing at all. She said to her husband, “Thank you for making me remember that wonderful moment. I also thank you for writing to my father and for telling me that the sun burst upon your head.”

“You’re welcome on all three counts. I hate this, but I really do think you should return with them, Meggie. Actually, I’m here to talk you into it.”

“Very well, I’m not stupid. I don’t wish to be shot again; maybe the next time it would be just my luck to be low tide. I agree. I will do as everyone wishes.”

“I don’t believe you,” he said slowly, staring at her. “You would never agree to leave me.”

Meggie laughed. “It’s about time you believed that down to the soles of your big feet. You’re perfectly right. But don’t you see? It is very easy to agree. By the time I am well enough to travel, all this will be resolved.”

“That is another thing about you-you are an optimist beyond anything I have ever seen.”

“No, listen, Thomas. The person responsible for all this misery, he or she must be becoming quite frantic-nothing has worked. I’m alive and three more people are here to watch over me. I have this feeling that something is going to happen very soon simply because this person will burst if he doesn’t try to finish it. Now, come to bed, Thomas, if, that is, you can swear to me that there isn’t murder being committed in the drawing room.”

“Actually, there might be, depending on how competitive your father and mother are when playing whist.”

“Oh dear. Your mother is partnering Jeremy?”

“Yes.”

“They will win; my parents don’t stand a chance. You see, Papa and Mary Rose will keep laughing and comparing hands and gossiping about this and that. It drives serious players quite mad.”

“I don’t like the sound of that. My mother is very serious about her journals and about whist. What about Jeremy?”

“He’s a killer at whist. I do hope that Charlotte plays well.”

She sounded like Jeremy was nothing more than an acquaintance, perhaps a distant relation. It made him feel very good indeed. He said, his voice light, easy, “Isn’t it nice that we’re not involved in any of it?”

“Very nice.” She smiled at him.

Thomas eyed her one last time, rose and stripped off his clothes. When he was naked, he walked back toward the bed, in truth, thinking about where they would search tomorrow at dawn for Jenny MacGraff and also trying to come up with some way to draw out the killer and stop the madness.

“Oh my.”

Those two very short words brought him back immediately to the fact that he was standing naked and that his wife was staring at his groin. He looked down at himself. Predictably, he was hard as the peach pit he’d seen Barnacle throw across the entrance hall for Miss Crittenden to chase down this afternoon. A training technique her ladyship would surely approve, Barnacle had told him.

Thomas took a step back. He stayed hard, got even harder. He was very pleased that his wife admired his body. He was now so hard he hurt. He wanted to weep as he said, “You’re not well, Meggie. Forget all your lustful thoughts. To help you get a grip on your self, remember that your father, who just happens to be a vicar, is seated downstairs in our drawing room.”

She smiled at him, a smile he didn’t trust for a minute. Well, damnation, who cared?

She said, “You’re right. At least you will hold me, will you not?”

Oh yes, he would certainly hold her, dammit.

When she was settled against his side, her breath warm against his flesh, no, her breath was really quite hot now, he felt her hand glide down his belly.

Oh God. “Meggie, you really don’t want to do that.”

“Do be quiet, my lord,” she said, and he nearly wept again at the sound of those wonderful words of hers.

He had to be noble, he had to stop her. It nearly killed him, but he said, “But you’re still not well enough, you’re not-“

“It’s just my hand, Thomas. I won’t hurt myself.”

“All right.”

“I’ve been thinking quite a bit of taking advantage of you,” and she did.

Before he fell asleep, Thomas found himself thinking for the first time that his mother could be the one who wanted Meggie dead. She could be determined and vicious, he’d seen it too many times over the years. Her mind didn’t really work like other people’s did. She went to extremes, both in her speech and in her actions. But why would she hate Meggie enough to kill her? And if she did have a reason, why then, who would she have hired to shoot Meggie off the cliff?

No answer.

At the end of the next day there was still no sign of Jenny MacGraff. No one believed she had run away to Dublin. Everyone believed she was dead. Everyone believed that someone had killed her. It became clear that everyone believed it was William

Malcombe who had lured Jenny from the MacGraff cottage and killed her.

Since Meggie was still weak, Thomas carried her to the drawing room, where his mother served everyone afternoon tea.

It was a quiet group. Every few minutes Madeleine said, “I had rotten cards last night. You, Vicar, never should have won.”

“That is indeed true,” Tysen agreed pleasantly for the third time, giving his hostess his best social smile.

Mary Rose, her beautiful red hair corking out about her head, was pacing, something Thomas did with great regularity, more now since all the bad things had started happening. Every once in a while Mary Rose paused, looked at Meggie, who was, in truth, still on the pale side, still suffering some pain in her shoulder, and still refusing to take more laudanum. Mary Rose looked nearly desperate. Thomas knew the feeling well.

He also had finally come up with an idea.

Mary Rose turned toward Lord Kipper when he came into the drawing room. He said, standing on the threshold, “Barnacle seems to have taken a brief conge from his post at the front door, Thomas, so I allowed myself to come in.”

“Welcome, Niles,” Thomas said. “You are just in time for tea.”

Lord Kipper opened his mouth, doubtless to say something amusing, when he stopped cold. He stared at Mary Rose, who was standing with her back to the window. The afternoon sun was pouring in, making her hair look like fire.

“By God you are beautiful,” he said slowly, and strode toward her. “Who are you? Where have you been? I-“

Tysen rose and stepped in front of his wife. “Excuse me, sir, she is my wife. I am Lord Barthwaite, Meggie’s father.”

Lord Kipper came to a complete and very chagrinned halt in the middle of the drawing room.

“Ah, your wife. I see.”

Meggie, who had never before heard her father introduce himself by his Scottish title, gaped. Here was her father, facing down another man who very much wanted to poach on his preserves. Every bit of Sherbrooke arrogance sounded in his voice, every ounce of Sherbrooke blood in him was ready to boil. Her father, she realized, was ready to take Lord Kipper apart. It was an amazing thing.

Mary Rose suddenly leapt into action. She held out her hand. “I am Lady Barthwaite, sir. And you are?”

Thomas said, “This is Lord Kipper, everyone. Niles, you will doubtless meet Meggie’s almost cousin a bit later. He is right now at the stables, eyeing my stock.”

It was then that Lord Kipper noticed Libby was there, seated quietly some twelve feet away. She didn’t look at all happy with him. Actually she looked ready to shoot him. Lord Kipper was a man of great experience, a particularly fine thing when, upon rare occasion, he made a sterling gaff, such as now. He didn’t pause a moment, didn’t appear the least embarrassed. He swept down upon Libby, took her hand, caressed her fingers, lightly touched his fingertips to her lips.

“He is amazing,” Meggie said to the room at large.

“Of course,” Madeleine said. “What would you expect?”

When finally everyone was drinking their tea, Thomas cleared his throat and said, “Mother, why do you think someone wants Meggie dead?”

The sound of sudden silence was deafening. Everyone froze in place and stared blankly at Thomas.

Thomas didn’t look away from his mother. She slowly set her cup back onto its saucer. “I have thought about it,” she said at last, the look in her eyes very sharp, very cold, “as I’m sure everyone else has as well. I think it must be a man who followed her here from her home. He is jealous because she chose Thomas over him. It is this man who is now enraged because she won’t leave you, my son. He wants her dead. He is deranged. Ask her, my son, who this man is.”

Thomas said, “Meggie, who is this man?”

“I haven’t seen him, Thomas. If he had followed me, surely I would have seen him. Also, wouldn’t a stranger stick out like a Stonehenge boulder around here? No, it can’t be him.”

“She is mocking me, and I won’t have it.”

“Forgive me, ma’am,” Meggie said, “you’re right. That wasn’t well done of me. However, there is no man.”

“Humph. What about this Jeremy Stanton-Greville who plays whist very well but had rotten cards, just as I did last night?”

“No, ma’am. It isn’t Jeremy. He’s quite in love with his wife.”

Thomas felt positively mellow at that.

“Aunt Libby,” Thomas said, “why do you think someone is trying to kill Meggie?”

“Madeleine is the one,” Libby said with a voice filled with spite, “but she’s torn about it. She doesn’t want to be replaced, particularly by a little twit like Meggie, who’s always laughing, and is young and beautiful. However, she also wants you to have an heir. She is betwixt and between. Perhaps Meggie is still alive because Madeleine is uncertain about what she really wants.”

“You witch!” Madeleine yelled, leaping up from her chair. “You betraying cow! I want you to leave Pendragon this very instant, your murdering son with you! You called me a pernicious tart, and now this! Out, out, I say!”

“Actually,” Libby said, “I called you a pernicious old tart.”

“This,” Thomas said to his wife, an eyebrow elevated upward a good inch, “isn’t turning out to be quite what I expected.”

Tysen Sherbrooke held up a beautiful hand and said in his deep compelling vicar’s voice that brought immediate silence, all eyes now on him, “I think it could be very helpful, Thomas. I would like as well to hear what everyone has to say. Lord Kipper, why do you think someone is trying to kill my daughter?”

Lord Kipper walked to the fireplace, where he leaned his shoulders against the mantel. He looked immaculate in his riding clothes, those black riding boots of his so shiny he could see his face. He looked as calm as the sea at dawn, and utterly beautiful. He said, “I believe it to be someone who perhaps despises Thomas, someone who wishes him ill, someone who knows that if he kills Thomas, he will be discovered, thus he is trying to kill Thomas’s wife, in order to have Thomas blamed for it. That is the most likely. Perhaps it is revenge this man wants. Even though he is very young, Thomas has certainly made enemies, inevitable since he is ruthless and successful, particularly in his shipping endeavors.”

Tysen said, “Can you think of anyone in your business dealings who would wish you ill, Thomas? Who would hurt my daughter rather than you? As punishment or revenge?”

“No,” Thomas said.

Tysen turned to William, who was standing still as a stick of furniture against the far wall, obviously wanting to go unnoticed. He said, “What do you think, William?”

“I don’t know, sir. But I do believe that it must have something to do with Jenny’s disappearance. Don’t you think?”

“It seems likely,” Tysen said slowly, “since everything is happening at the same time.”

“Perhaps this someone,” William said, more forcefully now, the worry plain on his face, “didn’t want Thomas to marry, but since he did, now he’s trying to get rid of Meggie. In my case, he doesn’t want me to marry either, thus he’s taken Jenny away. But who would want both Thomas and me not to be married?”

“That,” Thomas, said, giving his half-brother a look of respect, “is a very good question.”

“I agree with William,” Meggie said, and that set both Madeleine and Libby off. “Someone wants two unmarried men in the house. But why?”

“Perhaps the two mothers,” William said, and took three more steps away from his own mother. Predictably, voices went up, tempers rose and tangled, a teacup smashed to the floor.

Once again Tysen said in a voice of honey and iron, “That is quite enough. Thomas has given us a lot to consider. I suggest we do just that.” He paused a moment, looked briefly at his son-in-law, and said, “One of the persons in this room is very deeply involved in this. I wonder which one of you it is.”

There were dark mutterings.

The party broke up quickly after that.

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