Chapter 22

Under orders from his prospective bride and mother-in-law, Martin called in Upper Brook Street the next morning, took Amanda up beside him in his curricle, then drove across Park Lane and into the park.

Tooling down the Avenue, he glanced at Amanda, noted her bright eyes, sensed the sheer triumph that gripped her-decided it made the sacrifice worthwhile. She’d assured him he only had to do this once; he’d deduced it was some strange rite understood only by the female half of the ton.

That deduction gained credence as the matrons and senior hostesses, sitting regally in their carriages drawn up along the verge, perceptibly brightened at the sight of them, then smiled graciously and nodded; Amanda smiled radiantly and nodded back. Martin contented himself with the occasional impassive nod to the more influential ladies and those he recognized as his parents’ friends, and concentrated on guiding his high-bred bays through the obstacle course of the fashionable area.

They drew up to chat with the Dowager Duchess of St. Ives, and later exchanged pleasantries with Emily Cowper. Then they were through the gauntlet, past the last carriage; Martin let the bays trot. He was congratulating himself on having survived the ordeal, when Amanda tugged his sleeve and pointed to where carriages were queueing to turn.

“Now we go back again.”

He glanced at her-she wasn’t joking. He grumbled, but complied. He’d agreed to perform as requested until she and her female relatives-a pack of assertive and willful ladies-decreed his resurrection within the ton accomplished. Thereafter, he’d gathered, he could retire from the fray, returning for command performances, much as their husbands and sons.

He’d deemed it prudent not to mention he intended retiring for most of the year to Hathersage. As they drove once more between the lines of carriages, his home had never seemed more attractive.

They were back in the thick of things when Amanda grabbed his arm, squeezed so hard he felt her nails through his sleeve. “Look!” She pointed with her parasol.

He followed the line to two young ladies strolling in the sunshine, a gentleman following a few paces behind. “Edward, Emily and Anne.”

“It’s Edward.” Amanda’s tone was shocked. He glanced at her; the color had drained from her cheeks. She looked at him, eyes wide. “I never realized… at a distance, he looks just like you.”

Martin swallowed a dismissive snort. “Don’t get carried away-all five on our list look like me at a distance.” He glanced again at Edward, but the press of traffic forced him to drive on. “He doesn’t look that much like me.”

“I know-that’s my point. He’s shorter and slighter and his hair isn’t as bright. And his features aren’t as strong. I didn’t truly think he was that likely…” She swivelled to look back again. “But just now… it’s the distance. It reduces everything to just proportions.”

She faced forward again; a quick glance showed her face had taken on that stubborn cast he knew well. “If it is Edward-“

“Amanda-“

“No.” She held up her hand. “I’m not saying it’s proven, but just suppose it was him. How did he find out about us-you or me-going north…” Her voice trailed away; he glanced at her again. Her face had blanked, then she looked at him and excitement rushed in. “Amelia! We have to find her.”

She looked around, scanning the lawns. “I haven’t seen her… she wasn’t with Mama, which means she’s strolling, but she wasn’t with Emily and Anne, and Reggie isn’t about… there she is!” She grabbed his arm again. “Pull over. Quickly.”

He squeezed the curricle between an ancient landau occupied by a bedizened old harridan with a yapping pug and a cabriolet overflowing with giggling girls. Who took one look at him and giggled all the more.

Amanda was all but jigging in her seat. Amelia had seen her waving madly; escorted by Lord Canthorp, she came strolling up.

Amelia touched fingers with her sister, smiled at him, then introduced his lordship. While he and Canthorp exchanged a few drawling words, Amanda and Amelia exchanged meaningful glances.

As a result, Canthorp received a pretty dismissal and was sent on his way. As soon as he was out of earshot, Amelia looked at Amanda. “What?”

Amanda drew breath, opened her lips, paused, then carefully asked, “The day I left for Scotland, did you tell anyone where I’d gone?”

Cornflower blue eyes reflecting her curiosity, Amelia nodded. “At Lady Cardigan’s luncheon, Lady Bain and Mrs. Carr asked where you were.”

Amanda’s excitement faded. “No one else?”

“Well, no one else asked, but we stopped in the park on the way to the luncheon and met the Ashfords. It came out in conversation with them.”

“It did?” Amanda gripped Amelia’s hand. “Who was there-of the Ashfords, I mean?”

“The usual four-Emily, Anne, their mama and Edward.”

Martin closed his hand over Amanda’s, squeezing to silence her. “Amelia, think back. What exactly did you tell them?”

Amelia smiled. “That’s easy. Mama and I discussed what we should say before we left home. We decided we should be deliberately vague. We agreed to say Amanda had gone north for a few days, nothing more.”

They drove around the streets for an hour, debating the possibility that Edward-Edward!-was the villain they sought.

“You cannot-simply cannot-argue that it isn’t possible,” Amanda declared.

They’d parted from Amelia, both so subdued, so shocked, that Amelia had been openly concerned. Amanda had calmed her twin with a reassurance and a promise to tell all later, then they’d driven on, quickly leaving the noisy Avenue behind.

“I’ll allow that it’s possible.” The deadened tone of Martin’s voice told her he was, in truth, more convinced than that, but…

She glanced at him, at his stony expression. “If you’re thinking that exposing him will cause Luc, Lady Calverton and his sisters pain, don’t forget all the pain he’s already caused people no longer able to seek justice.”

The frowning glance he threw her told her she’d hit a nerve; she hurried on, “And we can’t forget that, if he thinks he’s got away with it, he might do something like it again. You cannot expect me to believe that half the men in your family frequent the stews. And, you see, Edward has built a reputation as steadfastly righteous, stuffy and pompous but always rigidly correct-you haven’t been here to see it, but he has. Melly and I always thought it was his way of puffing himself up, especially because, although he’s handsome enough, he could never hold a candle to Luc. Or you.”

Martin grimaced. After a moment, he said, “When we were younger, he was always in our shadow.”

Amanda kept silent; if she was struggling to reconcile the possibility, then how much harder would it be for him?

Two minutes later, she closed her hand over one of Martin’s, twined her fingers with his, felt him glance at her. “I just remembered something Lady Osbaldestone said. I’m not sure what she was alluding to, but it wasn’t just your situation. She said that in even the best of families, there’s often a bad apple in an otherwise sound crop. She said that in your case, no one believed you were a bad apple. She didn’t say it in so many words, but I gathered she considered it a family’s duty to weed out the bad apple.”

She met his gaze. “I was just thinking-wasn’t that what your father thought he was doing? What he felt, for the family’s sake, he had to do? Only he picked the wrong apple.”

He held her gaze for a moment, then his grew distant; he looked back at his horses. A minute passed, then he stirred, glanced around. “Luc will be God knows where at this hour.”

“But he’ll meet us at Fulbridge House at four.”

When Martin nodded, his expression grim, she quietly added, “And between then and now, we have Lady Hetherington’s alfresco luncheon and Lady Montague’s at-home.”

He looked at her, then swore.

They attended both events. Although Martin cloaked his impatience in effortless charm, his temper had never been so close to his surface; Amanda could feel it, a thrumming tension just beneath his skin. It grated on her nerves. When, ten minutes after they’d arrived at Lady Montague’s, Martin grumbled in her ear, “Can we go now?” she obligingly developed a headache, and excused them both.

Martin helped her into his curricle, then whipped up his horses for Park Lane.

“Edward?” Reggie stared. “The blackguard! Yes, I can just imagine it, the way he proses on and on-“

“Wait!” Martin cut him off.

Together with Reggie, Amanda looked at Martin, standing before the library windows, staring at the courtyard filled with greenery.

“We shouldn’t condemn him without proof. As yet, we have none.”

She conceded, “All we know is that it might be him.”

Martin sighed. “In all cases-Sarah, Buxton and Reggie-Edward had both knowledge and opportunity, something we’ve yet to establish for anyone else. However, until we have unequivocal proof, I suggest we temper our stand.”

From the chaise on which he was reclining, Reggie grimaced at Amanda, perched in her favorite spot on the daybed. She leaned forward and whispered, “Could it have been Edward you saw?”

“Yes, damn it!” Reggie whispered back. “I said it looked like Dexter because I’d just seen him, and it was him who was asking-I was facing him then and there. I know it wasn’t Luc because his hair is pitch in the night, but if Dexter hadn’t been there to compare with, I’d have said the blackguard looked just like Edward.” Reggie glanced at Martin’s back. “Not that that will wash as proof, unfortunately.”

Luc arrived as the clocks struck four. He took one look at Martin’s face, and asked, “What?”

Martin told him, repeating Amelia’s unprompted words.

When Martin fell silent, Amanda spoke, pointing out the discrepancy in Edward’s known behaviors. “The image he consistently paints of himself is a fabrication. He’s not a kind and caring brother, not truly, and he’s not an upstanding, righteously moral gentleman, either.”

Slumped in an armchair, Luc stared at her; his face was pale, but his expression wasn’t disbelieving. After a moment, he looked at Martin, then heaved a heavy sigh. “I still remember Sarah.” He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them and fixed his gaze on Martin’s face. “And yes, I can believe it of Edward.”

It was the last thing Martin had expected to hear-his shock, his quick frown said as much. “How…?” He came closer. “Are you sure?”

“Sure he did it? No. Sure he could have done it-yes.” Luc glanced at Amanda and Reggie, then looked at Martin again. “I know him-the real Edward-a lot better than any of you. What Amanda said is right-the image Edward projects to the ton is quite different to the man he really is. And no, it isn’t something that’s happened recently.”

Luc looked down, straightened his sleeve. “I used to wonder if it was just jealousy, a reaction to the fact that you and I were always… just more-better, stronger, whatever. Edward could never measure up, even if no one used that particular yardstick but him. But when he was seven, I caught him torturing the household cat. I rescued her, took her away-I didn’t tell Papa, but I tried to explain to Edward that what he’d done was wrong. He didn’t understand, not then, not later.”

He glanced at Martin. “You probably never heard, but Edward was frequently in trouble at school-for bullying. Since he came on the town, I’ve had little real contact with him; he knows I don’t approve, so takes care I don’t hear. Nevertheless, his attitude for years has been that we-the wealthy, the titled, the chosen few-matter, while all those of lesser degree are merely here for our convenience.” After a moment, he added, “The servants hate him. If it wasn’t for Mama and the girls, they wouldn’t bear with him.

“So could he have forced Sarah, killed Buxton, said nothing when you, who he always resented, were accused? Could he have shot Reggie thinking he was you? Yes.” Luc looked at Martin. “If he let you take the blame for him once, I doubt he’d hesitate to make that permanent.”

Martin held Luc’s gaze, then stepped around and dropped onto the daybed. He shook his head, and slumped back, staring at the ceiling. After a time, he glanced at Luc. “We still need evidence.”

“Short of wringing a confession from Edward-and you won’t-I can’t see where you’ll get it. He’s clever, calculating and there’s not an ounce of warmth to what runs in his veins. Appealing to his sense of honor would be a waste of time-he doesn’t recognize the concept.”

The bitterness behind Luc’s words, the set of his long lips, spoke eloquently of his feelings-he’d tried and knew he’d failed to reform his brother. Amanda watched him, wondering if he would accept the need to bring Edward to justice. His next words answered that.

Luc glanced at Martin, his dark blue gaze sharpening. “We need to think of this as a challenge, coz-we rarely failed, not when we put our minds to something.”

Martin looked at him, met his gaze, then his lips twisted wryly. “You’re right-a challenge, then: how to prove Edward’s guilt. There must be a way-there is a way. So what is it?” Luc looked at Reggie. “How did he get up north?”

“It sounds like he went via Nottingham.”

They tossed questions back and forth, defining how Edward must have acted, trying to see where evidence-something they could prove-might lie. Amanda and Reggie joined in; Jules brought in platters and decanters. They drank and ate, and racked their brains.

After an hour, Martin sat back. “This is getting us nowhere. Even if we prove he was up there, it’s another thing to prove he pulled the trigger. And even if we did, there’s nothing to connect that with Sarah and Buxton.”

Luc grimaced, but his eyes were hard. “It’s Sarah I’d like to see him pay for. That’s where it all started.” He sighed. “If only she’d said something-chattered to her nurse…?”

Martin shook his head. “Mrs. Crockett was adamant, and she wouldn’t have forgotten-“

“Wait!” Amanda grabbed Martin’s arm. “That’s it!”

“What? Sarah left no clue-“

“No. But only the four of us and Mrs. Crockett know that.”

Luc’s eyes narrowed. “We fabricate something-“

“Not exactly.” Amanda waved for silence. “Listen. This is what-as far as anyone beyond this room knows-is going on.” She drew breath, her mind whizzing from point to point as the details fell into place. “Martin has offered for my hand, and that means he has to resolve the old scandal. So for the first time, he’s revisited the scene and asked questions of the people involved. The murderer knows Martin’s been back home, so all that fits.

“One of the people he’d naturally have spoken with is Mrs. Crockett. While she didn’t know anything, after we’d left, she rummaged through the trunk where Sarah’s father had put Sarah’s belongings. She hadn’t previously looked because she’d assumed Martin was guilty.”

Amanda glanced at Martin. “I know that’s not the case, but it’s better for my story if she thought all these years it was you. That explains why she didn’t until now look in Sarah’s diary. You were hauled away, essentially convicted of the crime-no proof was needed years ago. Now… after we left, Mrs. Crockett remembered the diary, but wasn’t sure it still existed. But when she looked in the trunk, she found it, and in it, of course, Sarah doesn’t name but describes enough to identify the man who forced her, the one who’s babe she was carrying.”

She glanced at her audience. “All men think young girls write everything in their diaries, don’t they?”

Luc shrugged. “If one was dealing with innocents, it would be a concern.”

Amanda nodded. “Just so. Mrs. Crockett sent word to Martin, asking what you wanted her to do with the diary. You wrote back to send it to London.” She looked at Martin, Luc, Reggie. “The diary will be delivered here, on a certain day at a certain hour, because it’ll come down with the coach, so when it arrives will be fixed. And we’ll be here, waiting for it to be delivered, to open it and read what’s written there-“

“And Edward will move heaven and earth to stop that happening.” Luc sat forward, his expression intent. “It might work.”

“And,” Martin said, “the scheme will work even if it isn’t Edward.” When the other three looked at him, he went on, “Other than circumstantial evidence, we have no proof it is Edward. We’d be foolish to assume it’s definitely him.” He glanced at Amanda. “Which is why your plan is so sound-it’ll work no matter which of the five on our list is the one. Whoever he is, he’ll try to stop us reading the diary.”

“But we haven’t got a diary,” Reggie said.

“Any book will do.” Martin glanced at the shelves all around them.

“No, it won’t,” Amanda countered. “It should at least look the part. I’ve an old schoolroom diary with ribbons and roses on the front. It hasn’t got my name on the cover-I’ll write Sarah on it. That will look convincing.”

Luc frowned. “If it was me, I’d try to get the diary back from Mrs. Crockett. I’d turn up at her cottage and say Martin sent me to fetch it.”

“You won’t have time,” Martin told him. “We’re going to settle this quickly.” He glanced at them all. “The diary will arrive tomorrow evening-the coach from the north arrives at St. Pancras at five o’clock. To make it more realistic, and to make sure the diary arrives here and no attempt is made to waylay it en route, I’ll send Jules up north to fetch it. In reality, we’ll wrap the diary, give it to Jules, and one of my grooms will drive him to Barnet at dawn tomorrow. He’ll be there to catch the coach when it stops on its way south later in the day.”

“But what about Jules?” Amanda turned to Martin. “We know the murderer’s dangerous. We don’t want Jules harmed.”

“You needn’t worry about Jules-he can take care of himself.” When Amanda didn’t look convinced, Martin’s grin turned wry. “Jules is an ex-Corsican bandit, an assassin, among other things. He was once sent to kill me.”

Luc considered Martin. “He obviously wasn’t much good at his job.”

Martin raised his brows. “Actually, he was very good-I’m just better.”

The cousins exchanged cousinly glances, then turned back to the business at hand.

“However, just to make sure, and lend further verisimilitude to our tale, I’ll send two grooms to meet the coach at St. Pancras and escort Jules and the precious diary back here.”

Luc nodded. “Yes. That will do it. Setting guards about the diary is a masterstroke-you wouldn’t bother unless you were convinced the evidence it contains is crucial.”

“As it would be in more ways than one. It would prove I was falsely accused, clear me of the old scandal, restore my standing within the family, pave the way for me to marry Amanda-connecting me with the Cynsters-and ensure I’m the darling of the ton for the foreseeable future.” Martin glanced at Luc. “If it is Edward and he craves social standing and also resents me as you say, then the combination of all that good to come my way, all hinging on the information in the diary, will make it utterly impossible for him not to react.”

The next day dawned, and everything was in place. Amanda had unearthed her old diary, written “Sarah’s” on the cover; wrapped in brown paper, it was now in Jules’s possession. Together with one of Martin’s grooms, he’d left for Barnet at dawn.

All of them had their allotted tasks. Reggie remained at Fulbridge House in charge of the command post. The others reported to him throughout the day, confirming their tasks completed, checking that all was on track.

After intense discussion, they’d agreed on how to get their story to all five gentlemen still on their list. They needed to be sure that all five received the message-the warning of impending exposure-before five o’clock that afternoon. It took the combined arguments of Amanda, Luc and Reggie to convince Martin that it was impossible to keep the matter private.

“However,” Amanda had pointed out, “the best way to make sure the story is repeated enough to be believed, quickly, is to tell it to selected people ‘in confidence.'”

Luc had studied Martin’s stony countenance, then sighed. “You can’t have it both ways-it’s either going to be quick and public, or drawn out and potentially more dangerous if we try for secrecy.”

Martin had finally capitulated and they’d settled on their approach. Even though it had been by then very late, Luc had left to do the rounds of the clubs to seed the story into the right circles. After that, he would stop by the ball his mother, sisters and brother were attending, but let Edward sense no more than that there was something in the wind. Something to do with Martin.

This morning, Luc would visit Limmers; later, he’d swan through the clubs, idly coming upon the other four on their list, checking they’d heard without asking. They would assuredly ask him for the latest news, which, of course, he’d give.

As for Edward, they’d agreed he should hear the news from a source he’d never suspect-his sisters, Emily and Anne. Amanda was delegated to tell them the tale; with

Amelia beside her, primed to lend assistance, she set out with Louise in the carriage that morning for their usual drive in the park.

Meeting the Ashfords, deciding to join the girls strolling on the lawns, was normal practice. As usual, Edward remained close but did not walk with them. Amelia and Amanda artfully turned the conversation to Amanda’s upcoming wedding. Emily and Anne peppered her with questions, innocently enthusiastic about what would be their first haut ton wedding.

It was easy for Amanda to confide, breathless with relief, that the cloud over Martin’s name would soon be lifted. When the girls, who’d heard whispers of the old scandal, eagerly looked for an explanation, she divulged all they needed to know, skating over the details of the old crimes but ensuring they had a firm grasp of what was to occur later that afternoon and, even more importantly, the expected outcome and all that would ensue.

Delighted, Emily and Anne declared it seemed just like a fairy tale. Exchanging glances, Amanda and Amelia encouraged them further, confident that both girls would sit in their carriage and happily chatter to their mother all the way home, with Edward sitting by listening in.

There was no safe way to confirm that Edward had heard all the necessary details. Martin, on horseback, screened by low-hanging branches, watched the unfolding scene, watched Emily and Anne part from Amanda and Amelia and return to their mother’s open landau. Edward climbed in and sat beside his mother. The landau rumbled off along the Avenue.

It passed Martin, concealed beneath the tree; he heard Anne relate: “It-the diary-is to arrive at five today!” Shaking the reins, he ambled out, following the carriage, not close enough to be sighted amid the other traffic but close enough to keep the Ashfords in view.

The girls talked non-stop. His aunt smiled, nodded and questioned. Edward sat next to her, po-faced, utterly still. When the carriage reached Ashford House, Edward descended, handed his mother down, then his sisters. Lady Calverton swept up the steps; Emily followed. Anne stepped out in her sister’s wake-Edward stopped her.

From the corner of the street, Martin watched as Edward interrogated Anne. In sisterly fashion, Anne heaved a sigh and recited answers. Eventually satisfied, Edward let her go; she climbed the steps and went in. Edward remained on the pavement, his expression unreadable, then he whirled and strode quickly inside.

Martin watched him go, then returned to Park Lane to make his report.

After that… throughout the day, he and Amanda had to play the part of ecstatic lovers, projecting the image of a couple for whom the last hurdle to wedded bliss was teetering, about to fall. As indeed it was, but they were so keyed up, so focused on what would occur later, that billing and cooing was an unexpected strain. In large part, he left it up to her. Plastering a smile on his face, he aimed it at anyone who came up, stayed planted by her side, and thought of other things.

Until she jabbed him in the ribs. Turned a sweet smile on him. Her eyes sparked. “Your face keeps changing. It starts pleasantly besotted, then gradually gets harder until you look positively grim! Lady Moffat just asked if you’re feeling quite the thing.”

“Well…” He stopped himself from frowning at her. “I’m distracted.”

“So think of something else-distract yourself with something else. Something pleasant.”

There was only one thing he could think of that might work.

It did. The discovery that, despite all, she was still so deliciously flusterable, focused his predatory senses, and after that, an interlude in Lady Carlisle’s music room while all her ladyship’s other guests were indulging in post-prandial discourse on the lawns, seemed the perfect opportunity to distract them both.

Her shivering sigh as he slid into her was the sweetest music he had ever heard, her soft, smothered, keening cry as he drove her to ecstasy and she shattered in his arms the ultimate benediction.

When they drifted back to earth, finally caught their breath, she lifted her head, studied his eyes, then her lips, swollen from his kisses, curved in a smug smile. She scored her nails lightly up his nape, an evocative caress that made him shiver. She touched her lips to his. “You’re mine,” she whispered.

“Always.”

He kissed her back. Realized they were both still too tense, too wound tight with expectation. Realized her ladyship’s guests had much yet to discuss.

Decided to give them something more.

They gathered at five in Martin’s library. Reggie and Jules’s nephew, Joseph, currently acting in Jules’s stead, had rearranged the furniture, swapping the daybed with a chaise from further down the long room.

“It was too distracting,” Reggie declared when Amanda stood staring at the replacement chaise.

She had to admit that was true. Noting the daybed, still intact but at the other end of the room, she nodded. “It does make this area more formal.”

“Precisely.”

Luc joined them, nodding briskly. “The other four all know, but I saw no sign that any of them might interfere. Quite the opposite-they seemed delighted you were so close to clearing your name.”

Martin’s lips twisted. “Edward knows at least the vital details.”

Luc met his gaze. “So the trap is set.”

They settled to wait.

The library shared a wall with the front hall; when the front doorbell pealed, they all tensed. Listened to Joseph’s footsteps cross the hall. Listened as he spoke to the caller.

It quickly became apparent that whoever the caller was, it wasn’t anyone they’d expected; they listened as Joseph strove to get rid of the gentleman. But the voices behind the wall only rose higher; Amanda frowned. The tone seemed familiar…

Then she heard her name. Realized who it was.

“Good God!” Reggie glanced at her. “Isn’t that-“

She snapped her mouth shut, surged to her feet. “I’ll deal with this.”

By the time she reached the front hall, her temper was on a seriously strained leash. Joseph heard her coming, glanced around, then stepped back and left the field to her. Left her facing the gentleman who had forced his way into the front hall.

“Mr. Lytton-Smythe!” Eyes narrow, she drew herself up. “I believe you were asking for me?”

Any wise man hearing her tones would have turned tail and run. Percival tugged down his waistcoat and frowned at her. “Indeed.” He locked a hand about her wrist. “You will please me by leaving this house this instant!”

“What?” Amanda recoiled. Percival was gentleman enough not to drag on her arm, but neither did he release her; he stepped further into the hall as she stepped back.

Amanda halted and glared at him. “Mr. Lytton-Symthe, you appear to have taken leave of your senses! What has got into you?”

“Nothing at all-I have merely reached the limit of my patience. I have been-I am sure anyone would agree-extremely forbearing. I have watched you play games with others”-he wagged a finger at her-“and not sought to curtail such lighthearted pastimes. A last fling before taking on the sober mantle of marriage was reasonable enough, and while I can excuse your motives in assisting the rehabilitation of a relative of close friends, I of course did my duty to ensure that no interaction of a scandalous nature could ensue.”

Amanda had been following his diatribe, absolutely astounded, but she fastened on that confession like a terrier. “Are you saying that you were the one who sent those girls out to Lady Arbuthnot’s courtyard? And the other times-on the terrace at the Fortescues’, and the Hamiltons’ library? You thought to avoid scandal?”

Nose in the air, he nodded. She stared at him. “Why?”

“That ought to be obvious. I could not marry a lady whose reputation had been besmirched, however innocently. Now, given our agreement, I insist that you leave this house immediately. I’d heard you’d gone north, I assumed to visit relatives and so went to visit my aunt, only to learn on my return that you’ve been spending your time even more openly in Dexter’s pocket. I will not stand for it. Now-“

“To which agreement are you referring, sir?”

Her tone finally penetrated; Percival stiffened. “To your agreement to marry me, of course.”

“Mr. Lytton-Symthe, I can with a clear conscience swear that I have never, not ever, given you the slightest encouragement to believe I would welcome your suit.”

Percival frowned at her as if she were splitting hairs. “Well, of course you haven’t! Not the sort of thing a wellbred young lady would speak of-quite rightly, too. But I’ve made my position plain, and as there’s no impediment to our marriage, there’s no reason for you to say anything.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Oh, yes, there is. If I intend to marry a man, I will tell him-you may be absolutely sure of that. I will tell him out loud, in plain words and without the slightest blush! I will make up my own mind who I will marry, and I will definitely voice my decision. If you’d done me the courtesy of asking, I would have told you that in your case, my answer was and will always remain: No.”

Percival continued to frown. “No? What do you mean: No?”

Amanda drew a long-suffering breath. “No, I will not marry you. No, I will not leave this house with you. No, I have not been playing games. How many more nos would you like?”

Percival’s frown turned black. “You have had your head turned. Dexter is a regrettable influence. I insist you leave with me at once.”

“Aaaah!” Amanda muted her scream through her teeth.

“It is clearly my duty to save you from yourself.” Percival started to tow her to the door. Despite his soft head, he was stronger than she; she jerked back, looking for a weapon-her eye fell on a pewter jug standing on the table in the center of the hall.

With her free hand, she grabbed it, hefted it-realized it held liquid. Gave Percival, eyes fixed on the door, one last chance. “Let me go.”

“No.”

She flung the water at him-right at his head. It splashed, then cascaded down.

Percival stopped, shook his head, but his grip on her wrist only tightened. He turned to her.

She set her chin stubbornly. “Let me go.”

“No.”

Her temper erupted. She hit him on the side of the head with the jug-it gave a hugely satisfying clang. He staggered; his grip eased and she twisted her wrist free.

“You foolish woman! You have to come with me-” Percival lunged for her.

She hit him again. “No!” She waited until his eyes focused. “Get this through your thick skull: I do not want to marry you. I never did. I am not going to marry you. I’ve chosen a far better man. Now, go!” She pointed to the door.

He stepped toward her.

She clobbered him again. “Out!”

He reeled in that direction; she helped him along with a thud on his shoulder.

“Go away!” She kept swinging the jug and he was forced to retreat. Joseph, eyes shining with admiration, held the door wide. Percival tried to make a stand on the threshold. Amanda thumped him again, then shoved him out. He stumbled down the steps.

She stood in the doorway and glared. “I would never marry a dolt who even imagined I didn’t know my own mind!”

Slamming the door, she turned, nodded regally to Joseph and handed him the jug. “Mop up the water before someone slips.” She stalked toward the corridor to the library, and realized Martin had been standing in the shadows.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Why didn’t you help?”

He opened his eyes wide as he moved to let her pass. “I would have if you’d needed it, but you seemed to be managing perfectly well on your own.”

Inwardly astounded, she merely humphed and swept on. The man had actually learned that lesson? Gracious Heaven! Would wonders never cease.

She walked into the library to find Reggie and Luc doubled over with laughter. Her lips twitched, but she maintained her dignity.

Luc lifted his head and looked at her with more approval than he usually showed. “What the devil did you hit him with?”

“The jug on the hall table.”

That set them both off again. Resuming her position on the chaise, she glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes past the hour; the diary would have reached London and be on its way to them in Jules’ care.

Luc considered her, then asked Martin what had happened in Lady Arbuthnot’s courtyard. Martin suggested he mind his own business.

The diary would arrive before six. Sometime between then and now-

Voices reached them, muffled, but from inside the house. Mystified, they exchanged glances, then heard a barked order, and footsteps, bootsteps-more than one set-striding down the corridor-

Joseph was first through the door. “My lord-” He gestured helplessly and held open the door.

Martin and Luc were on their feet.

Lady Osbaldestone swept in.

“Aha!” Her black gaze swept them. “As I thought. Well enough, but you haven’t adequately covered your rear.”

Martin stared, then lifted his gaze to the two gentlemen who entered in her wake-Devil and Vane Cynster.

Devil nodded, his gaze also taking in those present. “Much as it pains me to concur, I believe her ladyship’s right.” He met Martin’s gaze. “You need disinterested witnesses unconnected with your family.”

“We have Reggie,” Amanda pointed out.

Devil glanced at Reggie. “Judging by that bandage about his head, he can hardly be disinterested in bringing the man who wounded him to justice.”

Martin dismissed Joseph, then turned to the others. “What do you have in mind?” He glanced at the clock. “We have very little time, and if the villain is who we believe, he’ll know this for a trap the instant he sets eyes on any of you.”

“Which is why we came via the back door.” Lady Osbaldestone had been examining the furnishings. “What a treasure trove you have here. However”-she looked down the room-“that is precisely what we need.”

With her cane, she pointed to a carved wooden screen of four hinged panels. Then she waved the cane at Devil and Vane, who promptly stepped back out of range. “You two-fetch it and set it just there.” The cane indicated a line angled away from the library windows. “The fool won’t be coming via the courtyard, so he won’t see us behind it. You may set that armchair behind the screen for me, and both of you may stand on either side.”

They all leapt to do her bidding-there was no time left to argue.

Luc set the chair in place, Martin helped her into it. Devil and Vane wrestled the heavy screen into place, then took up their positions behind it.

“Perfect!” Lady Osbaldestone’s disembodied voice rose from behind the screen. “We can see the whole area before the fireplace through these tiny holes. Wonderfully sensible, those oriental pashas.”

Turning away, Martin and Luc exchanged glances. They returned to their positions and sat.

The front door bell pealed again.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям