Chapter 21

After making arrangements to leave the next morning, they retired early to their beds. Arms crossed, coatless, cravatless, shoulder propped against the frame, Martin stood at the bay window of the earl of Dexter’s bedchamber and watched moonlight and shadows drift over the valley. Let the sight sink into him, along with an acceptance that the title, the room, the house, the fields he could see spread out before him, were now his.

His responsibility, his to care for.

Acceptance brought the first hint of peace-a peace he hadn’t believed would ever again be his, that hadn’t touched his soul for the past ten years.

It was within his grasp once more, all because he’d chased a golden-haired houri up the Great North Road. She’d been his beacon, the light that had drawn him first from the shadows, and now further, back into the life he’d been reared to consider his destiny.

Without her, he wouldn’t be here. She’d given his future back to him. Intended to be an integral part of it.

His lips quirked. He thought back over the past weeks, over the vacillations, the qualifications. None seemed important anymore; they both knew where they were headed.

Thinking of her had the inevitable effect, knowing he could go to her, now, tonight, and she would open her arms to him, welcome him…

But she hadn’t yet given him her answer. The fact she’d felt it necessary to put miles between them just to think clearly… he couldn’t, in all conscience-in all wisdom-act as if he took her decision for granted, even if he knew very well what it would be. Regardless of how hard she thought.

It wasn’t logic that bound them, and logic couldn’t tear them apart.

The latch clicked; he glanced back at the door, expecting Colly on some errand. Instead, his houri, dressed in a soft robe, slipped in. She looked around and saw him, closed the door, then headed toward him.

He turned, beyond surprise. He’d blown out the candles so he could see outside; the room was awash in moonbeams and shadows, elusive, mysterious, enticing.

She came to him with a soft smile on her lips, a gentle, questioning light in her eyes. She said nothing as she walked into his arms, reached up to lay a hand against his cheek. As she had so often before.

Their eyes met in the dimness-no demand, no command, nothing beyond the moment and them-the here and now of their reality.

She tilted her face, lifted her lips, drew his lips to hers. He bent his head-their lips melded, then, with the familiarity of practice, their mouths fused. Tongues tangled as the world fell away. Reality shrank-to this room, then further, until their senses knew no more than each other, nothing beyond the inch of air that caressed their heating skins.

Wrapped in the wonder she so effortlessly conjured, the promise of sensual delight, he sank his fingers into her curls, spread them wide-stood still as she unbuttoned his shirt, dragged it from his breeches, pushed it back over his shoulders. He shrugged, stripped the shirt off, flung it aside-reached for her. Captured her mouth again, drew her to him, molded her against him, then sent his hands skating, searching for the tie of her robe, easing the garment over her shoulders while she dealt with the buttons at his waist.

It was cool in the room but when they broke apart, she reached for the hem of her ivory nightgown, bunching the long skirt, then lifting it up, wriggling it over her head. He sat on the window seat, stripped off boots and stockings, watching her, then stood and dispensed with his breeches.

Naked, he reached for her as she emerged, tossing her curls free of the voluminous gown. She let it fall, drifting from her fingers to pool in the moonlight behind her as his hands closed about her waist and he drew her up on her toes against him. Skin to burning skin-need to aching need.

Amanda wound her arms about his neck and gave him her mouth, took his, urged him on. Tonight was theirs-whatever else happened, nothing could change this. Their oneness was absolute, unshakable-on that she harbored no doubts. Being in his arms, feeling the abrasion of raspy male hair against her sensitized skin, sensing the strength in the muscles that flexed and locked about her, most of all sensing the blessing of the place-of the room, of the house, the estate, the cliffs and the valley and the moon beyond his window-it all came together, coalesced and sent her heart soaring on a wave of emotion too deep, too powerful to be mere delight.

She was where she was meant to be-here, now, in his arms. She’d searched for so long to find her place-now she’d found it, found her future, found her life.

She was his-her decision was behind her, commitment was upon her. That was why she’d come to him tonight, to make it plain her acceptance was unconditional-no if, no but, no maybe.

He understood. She could feel it in the tide of possessiveness that rose through him and surrounded her. In the strength in his splayed hands as they held her to him, molded her provocatively to his aroused body-a promise, both of what he would give, and what he would take.

That was echoed in his kiss, bold and commanding, an intent so blatant, so primal, it made her knees weak.

Hands spread on his back, she clung, glorying in the powerful muscles flexing beneath her fingers, in the masculine power that, regardless of all appearances, existed, first and last, to please her. To take pleasure in her delight, to let her pleasure him in return.

She set her mind to that, eased back so she could run her hands over his bare chest. It had been too long since she’d had him like this, naked in her arms, hot skin beneath her palms. He let her have her way, slid his hands down to her bottom and cupped, kneaded, held her up, her hips against his thighs while his tongue and lips teased, tantalized, made all manner of explicit promises. She let her hands roam, filling her senses with the curves of muscle and bone, with the weight of him, with the heat, the solidity-with his maleness.

He let her explore as she would, let her reach down and close her hand about his erection, rigid and burning, pressed against her soft belly. As before, the contrast of steel encased in peach silk fascinated; she stroked, circled with her fingers, slid them down, marveling, then closed her hand again.

Kissed him more urgently-and was swept away by his reaction, by the surging, rolling tide of possessive need. It crashed over them, pushed aside all restraint, drove them before it.

Not, to her surprise, to the bed, but to the bay window.

He lifted her to the window seat. “Kneel facing the window.”

She did, recalling another time, another place, when she’d faced a window and he’d appeared behind her. He urged her feet and calves apart, then stepped between; his hands closed about her hips as she shifted her knees to accommodate him. Then he pressed close.

His hands rose, closed about her breasts, possessively kneading, then his fingers found her nipples, artfully teased, caressed… then delivered on the promise, fingers squeezing tight, tight-until she arched, her head falling back against his shoulder as she shifted restlessly before him.

At her back, he was hard, ready, an eloquent assurance of all that was to come, but he didn’t immediately join with her. Instead, his hands roved her body, flagrantly possessive, stamping his brand on every inch of her skin until she writhed, on fire, hips pressed against him as she rocked, evocatively pleading.

One hard hand splayed over her stomach, anchoring her as the other slid between her thighs. He stroked, caressed, opened her-exposed the entrance to her body-then probed. He filled her with his long fingers, worked them until she sobbed and sank her nails into his thighs.

He drew his hand from her. She lifted her head, gasped, struggled to fill her lungs. Stared, dazed, at the moonlit beauty beyond the window as she felt him slide slowly, possessively, into her body. Felt every inch as he filled her, let her lids fall, felt her body ease and joyously accept him.

And then he was there, sunk in her softness, his stomach flush against her bottom. She exhaled, one long sigh of contented expectation. His arms wrapped around her, one crossing her chest, hand closing about one swollen breast, fingers stroking the aching nipple; his other arm wrapped about her hips, hand splayed across her lower stomach. Holding her trapped, captive.

Then he flexed his spine and sent pure delight rolling through her. Withdrew and thrust again. Sent a slow, repetitive undulation of hot pleasure coursing under her skin, spreading to every corner of her being, focusing every last fragment of her awareness on him, on them, on their joining.

In the last lucid corner of his mind, Martin gave thanks to the carpenter who had created the window seat-it was at precisely the right height. So he could hold her like this, her bottom flush to his groin, only slightly bent forward, his chest to her silken back, his hands full of her bounty, and effortlessly love her.

Effortlessly take her, all of her, slide so deeply into her and possess her so thoroughly that there would never again be any sense of separateness. Her body, hot, wet, yielding, closed lovingly about him; she rode his thrusts, each deep penetration, welcoming him in, encouraging him to linger, reluctantly letting him go-so he could return again, press deeper still, make her breath seize. Fill her deeply, give himself to her and claim all she was, take and give again.

It was elementally primitive, joining naked and free in the night. Feeling the burning heat of their bodies contrast with the cool night air. Feeling the mystery of the night enclose them, the caress of the moonlight on their merging bodies a gentle benediction.

Feeling the hunger grow and swell and stretch, feeling it roar and race through their veins. Feeling desire explode and drive them, turning their bodies slick and hard and tight.

They were both gasping, valiantly clinging to the last shreds of sanity, wanting, desperately, to prolong the moment, so intense, so intimate, so compelling, when he lowered his head, ran his teeth along the taut curve of her neck, exposed as she arched her head back. And thrust deeper still.

“I’ll never let you go.” The words were gravelly and harsh. “You know that, don’t you?”

Her “Yes” was a whisper, a silver surrender wafting on the moonlight.

She lifted one hand from his thigh, reached up, back, touched his cheek. Lovingly traced as she had so often before, the simplest communion.

He turned his head, pressed his lips to her palm, then bent, pressed his lips to the base of her throat, tightened his hold on her.

Slipped the reins and let them free.

Let the power flow through him into her, felt it reflect back, thrust it back, felt the inexorable rise, the overwhelming rush, the irresistible escalation that caught them up, fused their souls, sent them soaring into bright ecstasy. Until they shattered.

The power gently ebbed, leaving them floating on a golden sea.

Martin woke before dawn as he had once before with Amanda’s soft weight snuggled against him. This time, he closed his eyes and let contentment wash over him.

After wallowing for some moments, he sighed, turned on his side, and ran his hands slowly down her body. She murmured sleepily, arched, turned to him and wound her arms about his neck. He kissed her lingeringly, then murmured, “We’ll have to separate when we get back to town.”

“Hmm… but not for long… and… not yet.” Eyes still closed, she drew him to her. He closed his arms about her, rolled her beneath him, and left tomorrow to take care of itself.

It took them most of the day to drive back to London. Onslow’s arm wasn’t healed sufficiently for him to drive; they left him recuperating under Allie’s eagle eye, and drove down in Martin’s curricle. Martin handled the reins with Amanda beside him; Reggie sat behind in the tiger’s seat.

As the curricle sped south, Martin and Amanda outlined all they’d learned, all they’d concluded-all they suspected. Reggie listened, then soberly said, “He won’t stop, y’know. If he was prepared to kill to see the matter left alone, when you appear again, he won’t just let be.”

Expression grim, Martin nodded. “The question now is, should we let him know who he shot-or should we let him worry about that, too?”

Reggie voted to increase the pressure. “In that case”-Martin flicked his whip and urged the horses on-“we’ll have to hide you.”

They accomplished that by taking a roundabout route once they reached London’s outskirts; they approached the fashionable district along the south side of the park as the last of the daylight faded, slipped into the drive of Fulbridge House, and quickly rattled around into the coach-yard behind it.

“No one saw us.” Amanda scrambled down.

“Not a soul who would recognize us, anyway.” Reggie climbed down from his perch more slowly.

Martin handed the reins to a groom, then turned to Reggie. “How’s your head?”

Straightening from stretching his back, Reggie thought, then replied, “Not as bad as it was-the fresh air seems to have helped.”

“Good. We’ll have Jules, my henchman, take a look at the wound. He has tried-and-true remedies for all injuries.”

Amanda slipped her arm supportively through Reggie’s and turned him to the house. “Presumably Jules knows how to make tea.”

Later, when Jules had redressed Reggie’s wound after announcing it was healing well, then supplied them with a sustaining if somewhat exotic dinner, they took refuge in the library and settled to plan.

On the drive down they’d agreed that the one other person they needed to involve was Luc Ashford. Martin wrote a note and sent it off to Ashford House, then they turned their minds to more immediate concerns.

“Reggie can stay here, which will keep him out of sight and also mean there’s always one of us here-at the center of operations, so to speak.”

Reggie had been wandering the room, looking at this and that; he considered, then nodded. “Everyone will know I left with Amanda.” He looked at her, curled up in one corner of the fantastically draped daybed. “If you say I went to visit friends in the north, no one will expect to see me.”

“Except your mother,” Amanda reminded him, “who won’t believe me. And I don’t think you’ll want me to tell her you’ve a hole in your head.”

Reggie blanched. “Good God, no! I’ll write a note. Tell her I’m going to see those friends. She’ll accept that.”

Martin looked at Amanda. “I’ll take you home later tonight. Will your father have returned from his trip?”

She counted, then nodded. “But why do you want him?”

“Because he needs to know the truth.” When she frowned, he raised his brows. “I’m going to marry you, and I haven’t even spoken to him yet.”

She knew better than to argue, but made a mental note to be present at any discussion between her sire-a Cynster born and bred-and her soon-to-be husband, another rigidly protective male. She had no wish to find herself somehow excluded from the pending excitement.

Martin made three copies of their list of suspects. He was blotting the last when the front doorbell pealed. Picking up the lists, he rose, crossed to the daybed and handed a copy to Amanda; Reggie came up and took another.

The door opened; Jules stepped in. “Viscount Calverton,” he intoned in his heavily accented English.

Luc walked in, his gaze swiftly roving the room before coming to rest on them, gathered before the hearth. Jules stepped back and quietly shut the door. Luc blinked, surprised to see Amanda and Reggie-even more surprised as he took in the bandage swathing Reggie’s head.

“Good God! What happened to you?”

Reggie frowned. “Some relative of yours shot me.”

“What?” Luc glanced at Martin; reserve infused his expression. “I received your… summons, Dexter.” He gestured. “So here I am.”

Martin grimaced, and waved him to the chaise. “My apologies for the phrasing-I needed you here.”

Luc’s brows rose. When Martin said no more, he came forward and sat, effortlessly graceful as ever, opposite Amanda. He shot her a hard, considering glance, then looked at Martin. “Why?”

Martin met his gaze. “I’ve just returned from Hathersage.”

Concisely, Martin related all they’d learned. Luc listened, his concentration absolute. He didn’t interrupt; Martin seemed to anticipate his questions, digressing here and there to fill in details. He ended his recitation at the point where he’d discovered his parents had realized the truth, and tried without success to find him. He concluded with his resolution to discover which of their joint relatives had committed the dastardly deed.

Martin fell silent, waited. Luc dragged in a huge breath. “My apologies. I should have known better, but… at the time, I honestly didn’t know what to think.”

Martin’s lips lifted wrily. “As it happens, I can say the same to you.”

Luc thought, then stared. “You thought / did it?”

“Well, I knew I hadn’t. And I didn’t know until yesterday that Sarah had been forced. If not me, then the most likely to have swept her off her feet was you.”

Luc pulled a face. “I thought of her as you did-like a younger sister. To do that… it would be like casting covetous eyes on Emily or Anne.” He shuddered.

“Quite.” Martin sat on the daybed, stretching one arm along its back so his fingertips touched Amanda’s frothing curls. He set the remaining two copies of their list on his knee, gestured to them. “We’ve made a start at defining the field-the murderer, presumably also Sarah’s defiler and Reggie’s attacker, must be one of these men.”

He explained about his father’s ledger; Luc remembered it. Taking one list, Luc scanned the names. “It can’t be Giles or Cameron.” He glanced at Martin. “I’d stopped at the Millikens’ near Derby, so I reached Hathersage mid-morning. I didn’t make it to the house. As I was crossing the yard, Giles and Cameron came out carting guns and a hamper; they challenged me to join them and I did. I was with them all day. We didn’t get back until dusk.” He grimaced. “When the commotion was over and the decisions made. We were told not to attempt to speak with you. They took you away an hour later.”

His face impassive, Martin nodded, and considered the list. “That leaves nine.”

Luc rescanned the list. “All were at the house when we got back that day.” He glanced at Martin. “It’s not going to be easy checking where people were, who remembers what, ten years after the fact.”

“True, but we have something more recent to check. Who was on the Great North Road three nights ago?”

Luc looked at Reggie, perched on an ottoman. “They actually shot you?”

Reggie looked at him. “Would you like to see the furrow in my skull?”

Luc winced. “I’ll take your word for it.” He looked at Martin. “But why?”

“My guess is that he assumed I would be the man in the coach. Amanda and I were back down the road, before the curve before the turn-off, discussing matters. Reggie took the coach around the bend, intending to halt and wait for us. When the coach slowed, the murderer no doubt assumed it was turning for Hathersage. You know the place-it’s an ideal ambush.”

Luc nodded. He looked down at the list.

Amanda steeled herself to insist that Edward’s name remain on the list, but instead of arguing that point, Luc nodded again. “Right. I can check these names more easily than you. I’ll have to ask Mama”-he held up his hand to stay their protests-“without telling her, to get the directions of Oliver and Bruce, who I haven’t seen in years. I should be able to run most of them to earth at their clubs.”

Martin nodded. “If we can place people at a ball or any public function three nights ago, we can cross them off the list.”

“You’re sure it’s the same man-the murderer and the man who shot Reggie?”

“For the sake of the family, I sincerely hope so.” When Luc looked his question, Martin explained, “We have witnesses who’ll swear they both ‘looked just like me.'”

Luc eyed Martin’s face, then grimaced. “I’ll start tonight.” He rose.

Martin rose, too. “Reggie’s staying here, out of sight. Whoever he is, if the murderer isn’t already wondering if it really was me he shot, he’ll certainly be wondering who he hit once I reappear.”

“And when will that be?” Luc asked.

“At the Duchess of St. Ives’ ball.” Amanda smiled as Martin turned to her. “Tomorrow night.”

“Well, my dear.” Her father shut the drawing room door having seen Martin out. “I thoroughly approve of your choice.”

He smiled as he crossed to stand before the fire, his eyes touching Louise’s as he passed her, reclining on the chaise a book forgotten on her lap.

“There is the scandal to be dealt with but, overall, my verdict concurs with Devil’s.” Taking up his stance, Arthur smiled fondly down at Amanda. “It’ll be an excellent match, and Dexter’s precisely the sort of gentleman we would have hoped to be welcoming into the family.”

Amanda exchanged a glance with her mother. Louise smiled, and rescued her book. “Amanda has suggested Honoria’s dinner and ball tomorrow night as the most suitable time to declare the family’s stance-by demonstration rather than proclamation, in the circumstances-and with that, I concur. And so will Honoria and Helena, I’m sure.”

“I feel confident I can leave Dexter’s social ressurrection safely in your delicate hands.” The twinkle in Arthur’s eye was for them both. He continued to hold Amanda’s gaze, his own rich with affection, but also, she realized, with shrewd assessment.

“I’m convinced, from all Devil and your cousins have reported, that the old scandal will prove to have been a dreadful mistake, and Dexter will emerge blameless. His character from the time he left England to the present… impossible to hide such a flaw for so long, especially under such challenging circumstances as those he has faced. From all you and he have now told me, it seems his plans to resolve the issue are well advanced.”

Arthur paused; she found herself trapped in his blue gaze. “Which brings us to the matter of the real culprit, who, judging by poor Reggie’s head, remains dangerous. While I have no qualms whatever for your safety while in Dexter’s company, you will please me, for the time you still remain in my charge, by taking all due care when you are not under his protection.”

There’d been a subtle change in her father’s tone; he rarely laid down the law, but when he did speak in such fashion, Amanda knew better than to argue. “I will-I promise.” She glanced at Louise, who, one brow arched, was looking at her spouse.

“Is there truly any danger?”

Arthur met her gaze. “Dexter believes the potential exists, and he isn’t the sort to jump at shadows.”

It was the perfect setting in which to effect a grand entrance-a grandiloquent gesture to capture the attention of the frenetic ton. The details were discussed and debated over the dinner that preceded Honoria’s ball; the support of the ton’s most influential hostesses-all of whom were present-was therefore engaged and assured from the start.

All agreed that Martin should make his bow with Amanda on his arm only once most of the ball guests had arrived.

When the moment came, Webster announced, first, Mr. Spencer Cynster and his wife Patience, escorting Lady Osbaldestone-who’d insisted on being part of the fun-and the Dowager Duchess of St. Ives.

That was enough to have people glancing toward the entrance, primed to hear the announcement of the next arrivals-Lord Martin Fulbridge, Earl of Dexter, accompanied by Miss Amanda Cynster.

Eyes widened, lips parted in momentary surprise, superseded by rabid speculation as the assembled host watched Martin, tall, starkly handsome, leonine mane winking golden in the chandeliers’ light, bow before Honoria, then shake hands with Devil, all with Amanda at his side. The whispers had started even before they’d turned, side by side, Amanda’s hand on Martin’s sleeve, to descend the stairs in the Dowager’s and Lady Osbaldestone’s wake.

The ton was wide awake to the implications; everyone watching read the message with ease. When the next guests announced proved to be Lord Arthur and Lady Louise Cynster, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that an alliance had been sealed between two major aristocratic houses, and a formal announcement would be made in due course.

Formal announcements were never so much fun as being privy to such news ahead of others.

“I should think”-Lady Osbaldestone directed an evil grin at Martin as he and Amanda joined them in the ballroom-“that your impending nuptials will be the principal item of interest at every gathering tomorrow.”

Martin raised a nonchalant brow.

“Tomorrow?” Arthur, with Louise, joined the group, his gaze raking the frantically chattering hordes. “I’ll wager the news will reach half the ton before they find their beds tonight.”

“No point wagering,” Vane replied. “You’ll never get anyone to take you on.”

The three men exchanged long-suffering glances; their ladies had already turned to greet others, all dying to learn details of this most intriguing affair.

Amanda chatted, smiled, played her role of serenely confident countess-to-be to the hilt, all the while guarding against those sly, probing questions that sought to define just where she and Martin had first met, just how she had come to know him, when he had proposed. With her mother on one side and her aunt Helena on the other, she encountered little difficulty maintaining the facade necessary to achieve tonnish acceptance.

Sharp-eyed matrons and shrewd observers departed, if not deceived, then satisfied that the proposed union was secure, stamped with the Cynsters’ and others’ unconditional approval, and all was as it should be.

A “suitable and felicitous match” was the ton’s overwhelming verdict.

As the notes of the first waltz floated over the crowd, Amanda turned. Surrounded by their ladies chatting animatedly, Martin, her father, Devil and Vane stood in a group, tall, broad shouldered, arrogantly handsome, exchanging cynical comments-and keeping watch. Devil’s gaze rested on Honoria; Vane’s gaze flicked again and again to Patience. In her father, it was the habit of a lifetime. As for Martin, he caught her gaze, then took the step that closed the distance between them.

He smiled charmingly at the ladies with whom she’d been chatting, then his gaze returned to her face, “My dance, I believe.”

“Indeed, my lord.”

He took her hand and led her to the dance floor; she went into his arms and he whirled her away. Into the dance. Into their future.

Others held back, watching, then Louise and Arthur joined them, then Devil and Honoria, and Vane and Patience, then other couples stepped in and swelled the ranks.

“So far, so good.” Martin looked down into her smiling face and felt equally smug. “I’d forgotten how such things were done.”

“We’re not finished yet-one appearance does not a solid facade create.”

His smugness faded. “You mean I have to attend more functions like this?”

Amanda’s dimple winked. “Perhaps not quite as intense as this. But you needn’t think you can slink back into that great house in Park Lane, deeming your duty done.”

He read the determination behind her smile. He glanced around, caught the odd disgruntled eye. “At least I no longer have to pretend to approve of those man-milliners you had in your train.”

“They weren’t man-milliners!”

They spent the rest of the dance in a bantering discussion of those gentleman who’d previously vied for her attention. When the music ended, they were besieged by those wanting to be able to claim acquaintance with the latest news. When the orchestra struck up again, numerous gentleman offered to partner Amanda; she smiled and declined, turned her smile on Martin and gave him her hand. “Perhaps we could stroll?”

With an easy nod, he excused them; covering her hand where it rested on his sleeve, he led her down the room.

They were stopped constantly; it was some time before Amanda could ask, “Have you heard from Luc?”

“He’s somewhere here.” Martin scanned the crowd. “He must have learned something… there he is.”

They changed tack and came up with Luc, standing a few feet from a group that included his sisters and Amelia, surrounded by a court of earnest young gentlemen and some less young, focused on Amelia.

Luc nodded. “I can eliminate some names…” The introduction to a cotillion rang out; his gaze returned to the group. His attention didn’t shift when his sisters accepted partners and headed for the floor; only when Amelia brightly gave her hand to Lord Polworth did Luc look back at them.

“Is there somewhere we can talk without being overheard?”

Martin nodded. “Devil said to use his study.” He glanced at Amanda.

“We can go out through the side door.”

She led them into the main house. The sounds of the ball faded. Reaching Devil’s study, they walked in. A desk lamp was alight, turned low. Amanda adjusted the wick. “What have you found?”

Luc searched, patting his pockets. “Damn! I’ve forgotten the list.”

He glanced at Martin, who went through the same pantomine with no better result.

Amanda sighed, lifted her reticule, opened it, hunted, and pulled out her copy of the list. Luc held out his hand; she pretended not to see. Spreading the sheet, she held it so the light fell on it. “Now-who have you checked?”

Luc walked to her side; Martin came up on the other.

They all studied the list.

“Moreton.” Luc tapped the list, glanced at Martin. “I was standing beside him when you made your entrance in there-he was genuinely delighted at the sight. He’s no more capable of dissembling now than he was ten years ago. If he was the murderer, he would have been reeling. Instead, he was thrilled.”

Martin nodded. “Cross off Moreton.”

“And George and Bruce and Melville, too. They haven’t set foot in London this Season, and from what you told me, the time between either of you deciding to go north and Reggie being shot leaves no leeway for anyone out of town to have been alerted in time to act.”

“That hadn’t occurred to me,” Martin murmured, “but you’re right. Not only did the murderer have to learn of my departure, there was only an hour in which he could have heard.”

“Actually”-Luc glanced at Amanda-“it probably wasn’t your departure he heard of, but Amanda’s.”

“Mine?”

“Your recent entrance notwithstanding, your relationship hasn’t been any sort of secret. If the murderer heard that you”-Luc nodded at Amanda-“were going to Scotland for a visit, he might well have assumed Martin would accompany you, and that you would stop at Hathersage.”

“That makes more sense. There was very little time between me deciding and leaving.” Martin looked at the list. “We have five names left.”

“And I doubt we’ll do better.” Luc leaned against the desk. “I’ve checked four of those five, and none of them can offer verifiable evidence of where they were five nights ago.”

Amanda blinked. “How can four gentlemen not be somewhere someone saw them?”

“Easily.” Luc glanced at Martin. “Radley’s the one I haven’t had a word with yet, but you can bet he’ll be the same as the others.”

Martin grimaced. “I see.”

“See what?” Amanda looked from one to the other.

Luc looked at Martin, then said, “Radley and the others are cousins, much the same age as us.”

When he said no more, Amanda stared at him, then looked at Martin. “You can’t mean…” She looked again at Luc. “All of them?”

He gave her a helpless “what-would-you” look.

“Humph!” She looked at the list. One name leaped out at her. “What about Edward? You’re not going to tell me he wasn’t doing his duty accompanying your sisters and mama to some ball.”

The cynical look Luc bent on her was answer enough. “According to Cottsloe, our butler, Edward came home early, told Cottsloe to tell Mama he was in bed with a migraine and didn’t wish to be disturbed, and left. He returned sometime during the night, but no one was awake to know when.”

Her racing thoughts must have shown in her face, for Luc added, “I wouldn’t read too much into the timing-he’s done much the same before. Unfortunately, the… establishment he favors is usually afloat on gin. I wouldn’t trust the word of anyone there. The same goes for the others-not the gin, but that they can’t produce a reliable witness, which means we can’t cross them off our list, but their movements don’t necessarily make them guilty.”

Amanda wrinkled her nose; she studied the list while Martin and Luc made arrangements to meet at Martin’s house the next day.

She stared at one name, continued to frown. She was acquainted with the five men still on the list, although other than Edward, she knew them only distantly. The other four were as Luc had said, very like him and Martin; she had no difficulty imagining that they might have been visiting some lady whose name they wouldn’t divulge. That was one thing, but to frequent an establishment that “floated on gin”?

She knew Luc too well to think he was exaggerating; if anything, he would have-and had-glossed over his brother’s less-admirable predilections.

Which left her feeling decidedly equivocal about Edward. What sort of man actively posed as a long-suffering, righteous puritan to society, but secretly visited dens of iniquity?

“Come on.” Martin took her elbow. “We’d better get back to the ballroom before imaginations become overheated.”

Amanda stuffed the list back into her reticule and let him lead her to the door.

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