Chapter 24

Vane was waiting in the library when Honoria and Devil entered. He searched their faces, then relaxed.

“The end is nigh.” Devil handed Honoria to the chaise, then sat beside her.

Vane sat in an armchair. “What happened?”

Devil gave him a severely edited account, proffering only the note Honoria had received. “The one I got was in the same hand.” Vane studied the note, then frowned. Devil suggested: “Look at the writing itself, not the style.”

Vane’s face cleared. “The nib! He always uses those wide nibs so his writing looks heavier. We’ve got him!”

“Yes, and no. Everything we’ve discovered is circumstantial. Given what I’ve remembered today-“

And my news, which I’ve yet to tell you,” Vane cut in.

“Put it together,” Devil continued, “and the murderer’s identity’s obvious. Obvious, however, isn’t proof.”

Vane grimaced; Devil’s expression was bleak. Honoria glanced from one to the other. “But who is it?” When they looked at her blankly, she nearly ground her teeth. “You haven’t told me yet.”

Devil blinked. “But it was you who told me. You were the first to put it into words.”

“I thought it was Richard, remember? You both told me I was wrong.”

“Well, you were,” Vane said. “It isn’t Richard.”

“You suggested the murderer was my heir.” Devil waited until Honoria looked his way. “Effectively, he is.”

Honoria’s eyes flew wide. She glanced at Vane, then looked back at Devil. “But… You mean George…?”

“George?”

“Father?”

Devil and Vane stared at her. “Why George?” Devil asked. “He’s not my heir.”

“He’s not?” It was Honoria’s rum to stare. “But Horatia told me he’s a bare year younger than your father was.”

“He is,” Vane corroborated.

“Great heavens!” Honoria’s eyes couldn’t get any wider. “How many Cynster skeletons are there? Is George another Cynster like Richard?”

“You’ve missed a vital point-George and Arthur are twins.” Devil caught Honoria’s gaze. “Arthur’s the elder twin-and no, it’s not him either.”

Charles?” Honoria’s expression blanked, then hardened. “How…” For a full minute, words failed her, then her eyes flashed. “How cowardly.” She met Devil’s eyes. “He killed his younger brother.”

“Half brother,” Devil corrected. “As he used to be very quick to point out. He’s also now tried to kill me.”

“Several times,” Vane put in.

“He’s also tried to kill you.” Devil reached for Honoria’s hand.

“And it now looks like he’s killed his previous man, Holthorpe.”

Devil and Honoria looked at Vane. “What did you discover?” Devil asked.

“Circumstantial evidence still, but I’ve had all the shipping lists checked-no Holthorpe embarked for America, or anywhere else. Holthorpe never left England.”

Devil frowned. “Let’s start at the beginning. Tolly left Mount Street the evening before he died. As far as we can tell, he headed home on foot. His lodgings were in Wigmore Street, so he’d walk past here. According to Sligo, he called in and learned I’d gone up to the Place. He continued on in good spirits-“

“And stopped in to see Charles,” Vane said. “Around the corner in Duke Street.”

“Given Holthorpe’s disappearance, that seems a reasonable assumption.” Devil’s frown grew. “Presumably Tolly learned something, possibly overheard something-something that told him Charles was planning to kill me. Let’s take that as read-what would Tolly do?”

“Tax Charles with it,” Vane replied. “Tolly wouldn’t have paused to think of any danger-he was too open and honest and naive to imagine others might be less so.”

“We’ll presume Charles didn’t recant, so Tolly left.”

“Probably saying enough on his way out to seal Holthorpe’s fate.” Vane looked grim. “The next morning, as soon as he could, Tolly left for the Place.”

“But Charles took the faster route-we know he did. We didn’t find anyone who could place Charles near the lane when Tolly was shot, but we did exhaustively prove no one else was in the area. No other gentleman arrived from London that day.” Devil glanced at Vane.

“Right. So Charles shot Tolly-“

“That’s what I’d forgotten. The button on Tolly’s coat.”

Vane looked puzzled. “What about it?”

Devil sighed. “The shot that killed Tolly was nothing short of perfect-the only reason he didn’t die immediately with a hole through his heart was because one of his coat buttons”-Devil glanced down at the buttons on his coat-“like these, only larger, deflected the shot.” He met Vane’s eyes, then glanced at Honoria. “Charles’s one real talent is that he’s an exceptional marksman.”

“Particularly with a long-barreled pistol.” Vane nodded. “All right-so we have Tolly dead. Charles “arrives” at the Place then plays the grieving brother the next day.”

“Very convincingly.” Devil’s face hardened.

“He must have got one hell of a shock when he realized Tolly had lived long enough to talk to you.”

Devil nodded. “But he kept mum and saw it through, Tolly’s funeral and all.”

“But then came the biggest shock of all.” Vane looked from Devil to Honoria. “Charles learned you were going to marry Honoria.”

Honoria frowned. “Actually, no. Not then. I put him off.” When Devil looked his question, she grimaced. “He came to see me in the summerhouse after the wake. He offered to marry me in your stead, assuming I was concerned over protecting my name.”

“He what?” Devil stared at her.

Honoria shrugged. “I told him I’d no intention of marrying you or anyone.”

“He believed you,” Vane said. “He was taken aback later, at Mama’s ball, when Gabriel and I suggested you’d changed your mind.”

“Hardly surprising.” Devil glanced at Honoria. “He’d stopped us in the park not long before and you as good as assured him you were off to Africa in a few weeks.”

Honoria shrugged again.

“And that,” Vane said, “was when the attacks on you started.”

“Your phaeton accident.” Honoria paled.

Devil squeezed her hand. “An impulsive first attempt. I was very busy after that, then came our wedding.”

Honoria shivered. “I just remembered-Charles warned me on our wedding day that I shouldn’t have married you.”

Devil drew her against him. “While we remained at the Place, he didn’t attempt anything.”

“Too dangerous,” Vane said. “Too likely he’d be spotted there.”

“But as soon as we returned to town, he started plotting in earnest.” Devil looked at Honoria. “First, he tried to convince me to send you back to the Place.” His lips twisted. “I’m afraid I told him precisely where you stood in my affections. So, from then on, you, too, were in his sights-he wouldn’t risk a posthumous heir.”

Turning to Vane, Devil missed Honoria’s startled expression. “The episode with the brandy came next, then the three sailors with swords who knew my route home. Both attempts were well within Charles’s capabilities.”

Vane held Devil’s gaze. “That brandy should have done for you, you know.”

Feeling Honoria shiver, Devil shot him a warning glance. “But it didn’t, so he persevered. The sailors, I suspect, was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up-he’s walked home with me from White’s often enough.”

Vane frowned. “What about this business with the palaces? Where does that fit?”

Devil grimaced. “It might not-but I’ll wager it’ll turn out to be Charles. Whatever, I’ll find out tonight.”

“Tonight?” Vane blinked. “What with everything else, I’d forgotten. What’s our plan?”

Devil glanced at Honoria; absorbed with her own thoughts, she eventually felt his gaze. Looking up, she blushed. “I was just recalling,” she said, her eyes locking on Devil’s, “something Lady Herring mentioned.”

Devil’s expression blanked. “Lady Herring?”

Honoria nodded. “She said Charles approached her-something about replacing her last paramour. She refused him-from the sound of it, quite contemptuously.”

“Hmm.” Devil looked thoughtful.

“That wouldn’t have helped Charles at all.” Vane shook his head. “He always resented your successes-apparently on that level, too.”

The look Devil shot him was sharply reproving; Vane simply raised his brows. “It might explain why he started frequenting the palaces-the timing’s right. A Cynster couldn’t patronize such places for long without us hearing of it, and we heard of it soon after Tolly’s funeral.”

Devil nodded. “But I still want to know definitely.”

“When’s the meeting?”

“Midnight.”

Vane looked at the clock. “I’ll drive-Sligo can travel behind. Lucifer’ll keep watch from the street-Scandal’ll be at the corner.” Devil stared; Vane raised his brows. “You didn’t seriously imagine we’d let you waltz in there without pickets?”

Honoria kept her lips firmly shut on the response she knew Devil would not, in this instance, appreciate-“Thank God for the Bar Cynster” was not what he was thinking.

Devil scowled. “What else have you organized?”

“Nothing.” Vane’s expression was mild. “But there’s no earthly use imagining we’ll let Charles take another easy crack at you. If you die, he’ll be the head of the family-there’s not one of us can stomach the thought.”

Devil glanced at Honoria; when she said nothing, he looked back at Vane. “All right. But I don’t want the cavalry charging in before the bugle sounds-we need to let Charles run with his master plan and let him take enough rope to hang himself.”

“His master plan.” Vane glanced at the note in his lap. “Is that what this is?”

Devil nodded. “It fits. I’d worried that all the other attempts were too simple, too spontaneous-simply not like Charles. You know how he thinks. Any plan of his is convoluted and complicated. He’s also very conservative, socially rigid. This latest effort has his character stamped all over it. Involved, heavy with intrigue, and solidly based in society’s view of me, Honoria, and Chillingworth.”

“Chillingworth?” Vane frowned. “Why him?”

“Because he appears to be the perfect goad.”

“For what?”

Devil smiled-chillingly. “My temper.”

Vane blinked, remembering the note Devil had received, the note he hadn’t been allowed to see. His expression leached. “Oh.”

“Indeed. This time, Charles has outdone himself-it’s really a very good plan. It might have worked.” Devil glanced at Honoria. “If things had been otherwise.”

Studying his eyes, she raised a brow. “I’m not well acquainted with Charles’s mental processes-could you explain his master plan to me?”

Devil’s lips twisted; raising her hand, he brushed a kiss across her knuckles. “Charles needs to kill me-and now you as well-to take the title. He’s tried to avoid direct action; the phaeton, the brandy, the sailors-there’s no way of connecting them with him. But such chancy methods haven’t succeeded. So, consider-he needs both me and you dead with a reason. After Tolly’s death, accidental shooting of even one of us would cause a furore.”

“No one would swallow that twice,” Vane put in. “And he knows the rest of us wouldn’t let your death under suspicious circumstances rest.”

“Which is why he’s focused on the one type of death for both of us that society will swallow without a qualm, and, even more importantly, the family will not only accept, but work with him to hide.”

Vane’s jaw firmed. “I don’t like what I’m thinking, but if that’s how he’s set it up, he’s read us very well.”

Devil nodded. “He’s clever. Not wise, but clever.”

“I still don’t understand,” Honoria said. “What exactly is this death Charles has planned for us?”

Devil looked at her, his expression bleak. “Charles has known me all my life. He knows of my temper, of the scope of my rage; he has a reasonable idea of what might touch it off. With his three carefully structured notes, he arranged for me to find you coming out of Chilling worth’s house.”

“I’d worked that much out.”

“From there on, he’s relying on me-and my rage-to set the scene. He’s counting on me to enact the role of jealously furious husband to the hilt, so he can kill us both and blame it on my sufficiently well-known temper.”

Honoria held his gaze. “He’s going to make it appear that you killed me in a jealous rage, and then killed yourself?”

Devil nodded.

Honoria’s eyes narrowed, then flashed. Her chin firmed. “Charles,” she declared, “is clearly not a Cynster.” She looked at Devil. “How do we plan to catch him?”

“The only way we can-by letting him show his hand.”

“So what’s our next move?” Vane handed the note back to Devil.

“Our next move is to make our own plans, which must include all the right actions to make Charles believe his plan is succeeding. In any good play, the villain only reveals himself in the last scene; Charles won’t appear unless we, the intended victims, play out the earlier scenes correctly.” Devil glanced at Vane, leaning forward, intent, then looked at Honoria, calmly expectant by his side. He smiled, coldly. “We’ve already completed the opening scene in our melodrama. For the next…”

At six o’clock the next morning, wreathed in mist, two tall figures, pistol in hand, faced each other on Paddington Green. Their seconds stood aside; a scrap of white drifted down. Two shots rang out. One of the principals crumpled to the ground; the other, clothed in black, waited while the doctor swooped down on his patient, then handed his pistol to his second and stiffly turned away.

He and his second climbed into a black, unmarked carriage and departed the scene.

The third scene in the tragedy was played out later that morning.

Gentlefolk taking their morning stroll in Grosvenor Square-nurses and their charges, governesses and young misses, old and young alike-all witnessed the unexpected sight of the St. Ives traveling carriage rolling into the square. It drew up before St. Ives House; an army of footmen descended to strap on a mountain of luggage.

Diverted, many watched, wondering, then the door opened; His Grace of St. Ives, his face like stone, appeared, leading a heavily veiled woman. Given her height, there were few who did not recognize his duchess; her stiff manner and the way she held her head led most to speculate that there’d been some falling-out, some possibly scandalous rift in what had, until then, appeared a remarkably felicitous relationship.

Before a host of round eyes, the duke handed the duchess into the carriage and followed her in. A footman shut the door; the coachman whipped up his horses.

The word was winging, on whispers uttered with wide eyes, on hushed confidences traded behind elegantly gloved hands, long before the carriage had quit the fashionable precincts. The St. Iveses had left London unexpectedly, just before the beginning of the Season. What was the ton to think?

Predictably, the ton thought-and said-precisely what had been intended.

Four powerful blacks drew the St. Ives carriage rapidly into Cambridgeshire. Leaning against Devil’s shoulder, Honoria watched the countryside flash by. “I’ve been thinking.”

Devil opened his eyes only enough to look down at her. “Oh?”

“We’ll have to give a formal ball as soon as we return to town. To dispel the mistaken impression we’ve been at such pains to instill.”

Devil’s lips twitched. “You’ll have to invite Chillingworth, of course.”

Honoria flicked him a warning glance. “I suppose, that’s unavoidable.”

“Quite.” Devil studied the weak sunlight playing across her features. “Incidentally, I should warn you that, despite its being midnight, it’s possible someone might have seen me at the palace last night.” The unknown Cynster had proved to be Charles; the madam’s story had been utterly convincing.

Honoria lifted a haughty shoulder. “If any should think to mention your presence there to me, I can assure you they’ll meet with a very cool reception.”

Observing the imperious tilt of her chin, Devil decided it was unlikely even the most thick-skinned gabblemonger would dare-his wife was fast becoming as matriarchally intimidating as his mother.

“Do you think anyone was watching at Paddington Creep this morning?” Honoria asked.

“Gabriel spotted a fellow resembling Charles’s new man, Smiggs.”

“So we assume Charles knows you and Chillingworth met?”

“It’s a reasonable bet.” Devil settled her more comfortably against him. “Try to rest.” When she looked at him blankly, he added: “Tomorrow might be exhausting.”

Honoria frowned vaguely. “I’m not sleepy.” She looked away and so missed Devil’s exasperated grimace.

After a moment, he ventured: “I just thought-‘

“When do you think Charles’ll appear?”

Devil inwardly sighed. “Either tonight, in which case he’ll come up to the house and announce his presence, or sometime tomorrow, in which case he might not.” When was she going to tell him? “I’ll send a couple of grooms to Cambridge, to warn us the instant he arrives there.”

“You think he’ll use his usual route?”

“There’s no reason for him to do otherwise.” Studying her profile, noting her firm, not to say resolute, chin, Devil stated: “Incidentally, whatever transpires, you’ll need to keep one point uppermost in your mind.”

Tilting her head, Honoria blinked up at him. “What?”

“You’re to obey my orders without question. And if I’m not about, then I’ll have your promise that you’ll do what Vane tells you, without giving him a headache in the process.”

Honoria searched his eyes, then looked forward. “Very well. I’ll abide by your edicts. And Vane’s in your absence.”

Devil drew her back against him and touched his lips to her hair. “Thank you.” Beneath his confident facade, he was deeply uneasy. The need to allow Charles to act and thus incriminate himself, to have to follow his lead and so enter the fray with no plan at all, was risky enough; having Honoria involved made it a hundred times worse. Tightening his hold on her, he settled his cheek on her hair. “We’ll need to work together-rely on each other, and Vane-if we’re going to spike Charles’s guns.”

Clasping her hands over his at her waist, Honoria humphed. “Given guns are Charles’s favorite weapon, we may literally have to do so.”

Devil closed his eyes and prayed it wouldn’t come to that. To his relief, Honoria nodded off, lulled by the swaying of the carriage and the mild sunshine bathing the countryside. She woke as the carriage halted before the front steps of the Place.

Ho-hum.” Stifling a yawn, Honoria allowed Devil to lift her down.

Webster was there to greet them. “No trouble, Your Grace?”

“None.” Devil glanced around. “Where’s Vane?” Vane had left for Cambridgeshire the instant they’d quit Paddington Green; Webster and Mrs. Hull had left Grosvenor Square at first light.

“Trouble with the windmill at Trotter’s Field.” Webster directed the footmen to the luggage. “Master Vane was here when Kirby reported it-he went to take a look.”

Devil met Honoria’s eye. “I should go and check. It’s only a few fields away-I won’t be long.”

Honoria waved him away. “Go and shake the fidgets from that black demon of yours. He’s probably scented your return-he’ll be pawing up the pasture with impatience.”

Devil chuckled. Capturing her hand, he pressed a kiss to her wrist. “I’ll be back within the hour.”

Honoria watched him stride away, then, with a contented sigh, trod up the steps to her home. And it was home-she felt it immediately she entered. Throwing off her bonnet, she smiled at Mrs. Hull, passing with a bowl of open bulbs for the drawing room. Drawing a deep breath, she felt calm strength infuse her-the strength of generations of Cynster women.

She took tea in the back parlor, then, restless, wandered the downstairs rooms, reacquainting herself with the views. Returning to the hall, she paused. It was too early to change for dinner.

Two minutes later, she was climbing the summerhouse steps. Settling on the wickerwork settee, she studied the house, the imposing facade that had so impressed her at first sight. Recalling how Devil had hauled her along that day, she grinned. The thought of her husband increased her restlessness; he’d been gone for nearly an hour.

Rising, she left the summerhouse and headed for the stables. There was no one about when she entered the yard, but the stables were never unmanned. The stablelads would be out exercising her husband’s prize cattle; the older men were probably assisting with the broken mill. Melton, however, would be hiding somewhere; he would come if she called, but otherwise tended to remain out of sight.

Honoria entered the main stable block-neither Devil nor Sulieman was there. Unperturbed, she spent the next five minutes communing with her mare. Then she beard hoofbeats. Lifting her head, she listened-a horse clattered into the yard. Smiling, she fed the mare one last dried apple, then, dusting her hands on her skirts, walked quickly back down the stable and swung through the archway into the yard. And ran into a man.

She fell back, eyes widening, a shriek stuck in her throat. “Your pardon, my dear. I didn’t mean to startle you.” With a brief, self-deprecatory smile, Charles stepped back.

“Ah…” One hand pressed to her palpitating heart, Honoria couldn’t think what to say. Where was Devil? Or Vane? They who were supposed to tell her the plan? “I… er…” Charles frowned. “I’ve truly overset you. I apologize. But I fear I bring grave news.”

The blood drained from Honoria’s face. “What news?”

“I’m afraid…” Lips pinched, Charles’s gaze swept her face. “There’s been an accident,” he finally said. “Sylvester’s hurt-he’s asking for you.”

Eyes wide, Honoria searched his face. Was it true-or was this the first step in his final scene? If Devil was hurt, she didn’t care-she would go to him regardless. But was Charles lying? She steadied her breathing, and tried to rein in her racing heart. “Where? Where is he?”

“At the cottage in the wood.” She blinked. “The one where Tolly died?”

“Alas, yes.” Charles looked grave. “An unhappy place.” Indeed-but the broken windmill was in the opposite direction. “Oh dear.” Striving for blankness, Honoria wrung her hands, something she’d never done in her life. In Devil’s and Vane’s absence, she’d have to script the scene herself. Delaying tactics came first. “I feel quite faint.”

Charles frowned. “There’s no time for that.” When she tottered sideways and slumped against the stable wall, his frown deepened. “I wouldn’t have thought you the sort to have the vapors.”

Unfortunately, Honoria had no idea what succumbing to the vapors entailed. “What-what happened? To Devil?”

“He’s been shot.” Charles scowled with what was obviously supposed to be cousinly feeling. “Clearly some blackguard with a grudge against the family is using the wood as his cover.”

The blackguard was facing her; Honoria struggled to hide her reaction. “How badly is he hurt?”

“Severely.” Charles reached for her. “You must come quickly-God knows how long he’ll last.”

He grasped her elbow; Honoria fought the impulse to twist free. Then she felt the strength in his grip and was not sure she could. Half-lifting her, Charles propelled her into the stables. “We have to hurry. Which horse is yours?” Honoria shook her head. “I can’t ride.”

Charles glanced at her sharply. “What do you mean?” Pregnant women did not ride. Honoria blinked blankly. “I’m nervous of horses.” As far as she could recall, Charles had never seen her ride. “And Devil’s horses are impossible.” She managed to wriggle her elbow free. “We’ll have to take the gig.”

“Gig!” Charles’s scowl was quite real. “There’s no time for that!”

“But-but-then I won’t be able to go!” Honoria stood in middle of the stable and stared at him helplessly. Pathetically. Charles glared at her; she wrung her hands.

He ground his teeth. “Oh-very well!” He flung out of the stable and headed for the barn.

Honoria stopped in the yard. As soon as Charles disappeared into the barn, she searched, scanning the connecting yards, peering into the dimness of the opposite stable block. Where was Melton? Then she heard the rumble of wheels. “Damn!”

She scurried back across the yard. Her role was clear-she should go along with Charles’s plan and let him incriminate himself. Panic feathered her nerves and tickled her spine; mentally, she stiffened it. They had to catch Charles-he was like a sword hanging over their heads, Devil’s, hers, and the child she carried. But how would Devil rescue her if he didn’t know where she was? Weakly, she slumped against the stable wall.

And saw Melton in the shadows of the stable directly opposite.

Honoria swallowed a whoop of joy; she hurriedly blanked her features as Charles maneuvered a light gig from the barn.

He threw her a black scowl. “Come hold the shafts while I fetch a horse.”

Softening her chin, hiding any hint of resolution, Honoria limply complied. Charles entered the stable; Honoria glanced at the one opposite. Melton’s cap was just visible through the open stable door; he was hugging the shadows to one side of the entrance.

Then Charles was back, leading a strong grey. “Hold the shafts steady.”

Honoria dropped them once, then surreptitiously jostled the horse so he shouldered them loose again. Face set grimly, Charles worked frantically, buckling the harness, clearly conscious of time passing. Honoria fervently hoped she’d judged that commodity correctly, and that Devil would not decide to go for a longer ride.

Charles tugged on the final buckle, then stood back, scanning the rig. For one instant, his expression was unguarded-the smile that twisted his lips, oozing anticipation, Honoria could have done without. In that instant, she saw the killer behind the mask.

Melton might be old but his hearing was acute, which was how he so successfully avoided Devil. Honoria fixed Charles with her most helpless look. “Is Keenan with Devil?” She kept her expression vague, distracted. “You did say he’s at Keenan’s cottage, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but Keenan’s not there.” Charles sorted the reins. “You mean he’s alone?” Honoria let her eyes grow round. “Dying in Keenan’s cottage all alone?”

Yes!” Charles grabbed her arm and all but forced her into the gig. “He’s dying there while you’re having hysterics here.” He shoved the reins into her hands. “We have to hurry.”

Honoria waited until he was mounted on his chestnut, turning toward the stable entrance before asking: “Are you going to ride back direct?” Charles frowned back at her. “Direct?”

“Well…” She gestured weakly at the gig. “This can’t go through the arch in the wall-I’ll have to leave by the main gate and then find the bridle path back to the cottage.” Charles audibly ground his teeth. “I had better,” he said, enunciating slowly, “stay with you. Or else you might get lost.”

Dumbly, Honoria nodded. Meekly, she clicked the reins and set the gig rolling. She’d done all she could-delayed by all means she dared. The rest was up to Devil.

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