They gathered about the breakfast table late the next morning. Jacqueline had checked on Millicent; there’d been no change in her aunt’s condition. Millicent lay straight and still under the covers, her eyes closed, gently breathing, looking far more fragile than she normally did.
Gerrard squeezed Jacqueline’s hand when she slipped onto the chair beside him; she smiled weakly in return, then gave her attention to her father and the details of the ball.
Mitchel had breakfasted earlier and gone out about the estate, as he often did; breakfast was long finished, the trays cleared away, and they were discussing the best location for the portrait when he returned.
They all looked up when he strode in, alerted by the heavy deliberation in his stride.
Deathly pale, he halted at the end of the table. He looked at them all-Gerrard, Jacqueline and Barnaby-then his gaze settled on her father. “My lord, I have a confession to make.”
The comment started hares in all their minds-confused hares; none of them saw Mitchel as the murderer. They exchanged glances, wondering.
“Ah…” Her father waved to a chair. “Why don’t you sit down, my boy, and explain?”
Jaw set, Mitchel drew out a chair and dropped into it. Leaning on the table, he fixed her father with an unfaltering gaze. “I’ve betrayed you, and failed in my duty.”
What followed was not a confession to murder; it was a disturbing tale nonetheless.
“I believed”-Mitchel’s jaw clenched-“or rather was led to believe that my feelings for Eleanor Fritham were returned. More, I was encouraged by Jordan to think that I could win Eleanor’s hand-I see now that they were both deceiving me, leading me on.” Mitchel’s gaze darkened; he met her father’s eyes steadily. “They wanted information from me, and I gave it.”
From his tone, that appeared to be the extent of Mitchel’s crime.
“What information?” Gerrard asked.
“Details of Lord Tregonning’s estate and business dealings.” Mitchel spread his hands. “I didn’t see all that much harm in it at the time.” He glanced at Jacqueline. “I arrived here after your mother died. I believed everything Jordan told me about her death-that you were disturbed and needed to be kept at home, and that Jordan would eventually marry you and gain control of your fortune and Hellebore Hall-”
Mitchel frowned. “That’s what he
The doorbell pealed. Not once, but continuously.
Treadle hurried past the open parlor door on his way to the front hall. A second later, a cacophony of voices spilled into the hall, too many voices to distinguish. Gerrard and Barnaby pushed back their chairs. They stood; Mitchel rose, too. They all looked out to the corridor.
Abruptly, Treadle appeared in the doorway, looking harassed and rather desperate. “My lord, they won’t-”
He got no further; Mrs. Elcott thrust him aside and swept in. A veritable wave of neighbors poured after her, Lord and Lady Fritham, Matthew Brisenden, Lady Trewarren, Mrs. Myles, Mr. and Mrs. Hancock, and Sir Vincent Perry among them. Of the crowd, only Lady Tannahay and the Entwhistles, who looked frankly taken aback, had been invited.
Lady Trewarren headed for Lord Tregonning. “Marcus, we’ve just heard the sad, sad news! It’s thoroughly
Lord Tregonning had reached the end of his patience. “
Lady Trewarren halted; she blinked at him. “Why, the ordeal of Millicent’s death, of course. You can’t possibly
The chatter rose again, threatening to drown out all else.
Lord Tregonning’s roar led to immediate silence.
Gerrard seized the reins. “From whom did you hear that Millicent had died?”
Mrs. Elcott stared at him as if she wasn’t sure he was sane. “But she isn’t dead-or is she?”
Gerrard hung on to his temper. “No, she isn’t, but it’s important we learn who told you she was.”
Lady Trewarren exchanged a glance with Mrs. Elcott, then looked at Gerrard. “Why, I heard it from my staff, of course.”
“It’s all over St. Just,” Matthew volunteered. “My father had it from the innkeeper-Papa will be along shortly.”
Lord Tregonning looked at Lady Tannahay. “Had you heard anything?”
Mystified, Lady Tannahay shook her head. Beside her, the Entwhistles did, too.
“But we’re from further afield, Marcus,” Lady Entwhistle pointed out. “This sounds like a rumor that’s only just begun.”
Lord Tregonning looked at Treadle.
So did Gerrard. “Any chance any of the staff spoke to anyone-or more likely, that someone visited here, and got the wrong idea?”
“No, sir, m’lord.” Treadle drew himself up. “Mrs. Carpenter and I will take an oath on it-none of the staff have left the house nor talked to anyone at all, and no one has visited here. Not until”-with his head he indicated the crowd in the room-“just now.”
Gerrard looked at Mitchel.
Equally puzzled, Mitchel shook his head. “I haven’t spoken to anyone about Millicent.”
Gerrard turned to Lord Tregonning. “The only person who would have thought Millicent was dead…”
Lord Tregonning nodded. “Indeed.” He looked at the others. “We need to identify who started this rumor.”
Matthew had been following the exchanges closely. “On my way out, I spoke to our gardener. He heard of it last night in the tavern-he said the head gardener from Tresdale Manor told him.”
“My maid had it from her young man.” Lady Trewarren glanced at Lady Fritham. “He’s your junior stableman, Maria.”
Lady Fritham looked confused. “My maid told me, too-I gathered all the staff knew.”
All eyes swung back to Lady Fritham. She blinked, puzzled. “But Jordan didn’t say anything to me. Hector?” She looked at Lord Fritham; nonplussed, he shook his head. Confused, Lady Fritham turned to Lord Tregonning. “Well, I’m sure I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Damn!” Barnaby had stood quietly by, absorbing information; he suddenly leaned forward and spoke to Lord Tregonning. “My lord, I meant to ask earlier-has any man applied to you for Jacqueline’s hand?”
Lord Tregonning frowned, started to shake his head, then stopped. His expression blanked, then he shifted and glanced at Jacqueline. “I’m sorry, my dear-I suppose I should have mentioned it, but indeed, it was such a…well,
“When was this?” Barnaby asked.
“About five months ago.” Lord Tregonning’s lip curled. “Even though at that time I wasn’t sure…it was still a dashed stomach-curdling offer. I dismissed it, of course-told him I appreciated the thought, but it wouldn’t be honorable to accept such a sacrifice on his part.”
“He who?” Barnaby pressed.
Lord Tregonning blinked at him. “Why, Jordan, of course. Who else?”
“Who else, indeed,” Barnaby muttered. Aloud, he asked, “And no other man applied for Jacqueline’s hand?”
Lord Tregonning shook his head.
“Marcus?” Lady Trewarren had lifted her head; she was glancing up and around. “I hate to mention it, but I smell smoke.”
Others started sniffing, turning around.
Treadle, eyes widening, met Gerrard’s gaze, then stepped back and hurried out of the room.
“I’m really very sensitive when it comes to smoke,” Lady Trewarren went on, “and I do believe it’s getting stronger-”
It was a maid who screeched from somewhere upstairs.
The crowd in the parlor tumbled out into the hall. The smell was more distinct, but there was no other evidence of flames. Everyone stared up at the gallery; with a thunder of feet, a group of footmen raced across, heading into the south wing.
“All the ladies into the drawing room.” Barnaby started herding them in that direction. Some protested, wanting to see what was afire; Sir Vincent smothered an oath and went to help.
Treadle appeared at the head of the stairs. He came hurrying down. “It’s the old nursery, sir.” He glanced at Gerrard. “And your room, Mr. Debbington. The drapes have caught well and truly there. We’re ferrying pails up the service stairs, but we’ll need all hands possible.”
“I’ll help.” Matthew Brisenden started up the stairs. The other men exchanged glances, then swiftly followed.
Jacqueline hung back. As Barnaby and Sir Vincent hurried back from the drawing room, she put a hand on her father’s arm. “I’ll check with Mrs. Carpenter, then return to the drawing room and make sure the ladies remain safely there.”
Gerrard had dallied on the stairs to hear what she intended; he caught her eye, nodded, then turned and took the stairs three at a time.
Her father patted her hand. “Good girl. I’ll go and see what’s to do.”
She watched him start slowly up the stairs. Confident Treadle would keep him from any harm, she headed for the kitchens.
As she’d expected, pandemonium reigned. She helped Mrs. Carpenter calm the maids, and organize them to help the stablemen lug pails from the well to the bottom of the south wing stairs. A chain of grooms and footmen hurried the pails up, some to the first floor, others to the attics.
Mrs. Carpenter looked grim. Once the maids were occupied, she drew Jacqueline aside. “Maizie found the fire in Mr. Debbington’s room. She said it was arrows-arrows with flaming rags around them-that were tangled in the curtains. That’s how the fire started. She was babbling on about how we shouldn’t think it was coals dropping from the grate and her to blame-I told her no such thing, but thought you and his lordship should know.”
Jacqueline nodded. Arrows. An arrow had been shot at Gerrard, and now there were more arrows. She hadn’t heard the details of how Gerrard had been shot at, but the only way an arrow could have hit Gerrard’s curtains was if it had been fired from the gardens, and she knew the gardens well. Knew there was no close, clear line to Gerrard’s windows; the archer would have had to be a good way off, and skilled enough to allow for the cross breeze.
It was quiet living in the country; the local youth had plenty of time to perfect their archery skills, yet only a few were skilled enough to have made those shots, especially if, as seemed likely, they’d shot to the attics, as well. As she hurried back through the house, she considered the possible culprits.
Reaching the green baize door, she pushed through, into the back of the hall.
Eleanor, hair tumbling down, gown crumpled, frantically beckoned from the end of the north wing corridor. “Come quickly! There’s another fire broken out along here! They said to fetch you. We’re struggling-we need every hand.” She didn’t wait, but plunged back down the corridor.
Jacqueline’s heart stopped, then she picked up her skirts and raced after Eleanor.
Millicent’s room was in the north wing.
She swung into the corridor just in time to see Eleanor dash into a small parlor nearly at the end of the wing-below the room in which Millicent lay. Jacqueline ran faster. She would have to call some of the stablemen from the kitchens-she’d look first, then she’d know-
She rushed into the parlor.
No flames. No smoke. No footmen beating out a fire.
She skidded to a halt. Behind her, the door closed.
Jordan stood two paces away, watching her, his gaze cold, contemptuous-calculating.
She stared. Was it
Her heart thudded; her breath clogged her throat. Looking into Jordan’s eyes, she reminded herself that people who loved her were the ones at risk-
And her mother’s murderer, Millicent’s attacker, could be only one man-Eleanor’s lover.
Eleanor moved away from the door, drawing her attention.
Dragging in a breath, Jacqueline took a step back.
Eleanor came to stand by Jordan’s side, close, just behind his shoulder. Then she put a hand on his arm, sank closer still, and smiled-sweetly, yet patently-openly-insincerely.
The blood chilled in Jacqueline’s veins. The hair at her nape lifted.
She stared into Eleanor’s eyes; this was not the friend she’d known for years…She looked at Jordan. He appeared much as he always did, arrogant, superior, supercilious. Cold dread was creeping over her. Moistening her lips, she asked, “Where’s the fire?”
Jordan held her gaze, then evenly replied, “What fire?”
Then he smiled.
Eyes wide, Jacqueline
It came to her in a heartbeat.
She hauled in a breath and screamed.
With two footmen, Gerrard heaved the huge bundle of paint-spattered drop cloths out of the nursery window. They fell to the terrace below, out of reach of any embers.
Catching his breath, his back to the window, he paused, taking in the charred rafters and smoldering walls. They’d smothered the flames just in time, before they could take hold in the roof and spread.
A woman’s scream, faint but distinct, abruptly cut off, wafted past the window, carried on an updraft from far below. For one fleeting instant, it sliced through the stamping and thumping, the oaths, the noisy chaos as footmen and gardeners used sacking to beat out the last flames.
Gerrard’s senses pricked. He swung back to the window. He’d rushed to the attics, leaving Barnaby to see to his bedroom; he knew more about the dangers of paint-spattered wood and cloths, and the other deathtraps that lurked in artists’ studios.
Dense smoke billowed out of his bedroom below, but it was thinning; the crackle of flames had subsided.
They’d saved the house.
It must have been a maid who’d screamed, but why now? Why from outside?
The premonition of wrongness intensified. He hesitated, staring unseeing down at the gardens, then he swore. “Wilcox!”
The head gardener looked up from where he was beating out glowing embers. “Yes, sir?”
“Round up your men and get down to the terrace. Something’s happening down there.”
Leaving the footmen to finish damping down the attics, Gerrard flung through the door and pelted down the stairs.
Behind, he heard Wilcox rallying his men. “C’mon, you lot-downstairs. Look sharpish!”
Gerrard hit the corridor and ran. His chest felt tight-from smoke, and nascent fear. He raced to his room, barreled through the open door, spared barely a glance for the charred mess, not as bad as in the nursery. Leaping over debris, he saw Barnaby and pointed to the balcony. The telescope stood where he’d left it, safe and untouched on its tripod in the corner; he grabbed it, swung it up and pushed past the milling figures onto the balcony.
“What?” Barnaby asked, reaching his side.
“Some woman screamed-from the gardens, I think.” Working frantically, Gerrard set up the tripod, then readjusted the telescope and focused. “Send someone to check if Jacqueline’s in the drawing room.”
He felt Barnaby’s start, but his friend didn’t question him. A footman was dispatched, urgency stressed.
Gerrard swept the gardens. Even from this vantage point, not all the areas were visible; he scanned in arcs, hoping to pick up some movement-
“There!” He looked up, checked the direction, then looked through the telescope again. “There’s someone rushing through Poseidon, heading into Apollo. Three people…” He refocused. “Jordan, Eleanor-and
He tensed to straighten; Barnaby’s hand clapped down on his shoulder.
“No. Keep them in your sights-keep tracking them.”
He did. “They’re in Apollo now, hurrying further away. Where the devil are they taking her?”
Matthew Brisenden appeared beside him, gripping the rail, staring out.
Sir Vincent joined them. “Did I hear aright? The young Frithams are running off with Jacqueline?”
Gerrard nodded. “They’re headed down the gardens-God knows why.”
“They’re kidnapping her!” Gripping the railing, Matthew turned his way. “They have to get to the stone viewing platform before they can take the path up through Diana, over the ridge to the manor.”
Gerrard swore. “He’s right. That’s how they get back and forth without using the front door.”
“Not this time.” Barnaby leaned over the balustrade and called to Wilcox, now on the terrace with a bevy of gardeners. In a few short phrases, he explained; Wilcox and his men turned as one, and raced along the terrace, then poured down into the gardens, taking the most direct route through Athena into the garden of Diana to block the route to the manor.
“They’ll see,” Matthew said, “and go the other way. If they can reach the stables-”
“Or even the other cove,” Sir Vincent put in. “There’s a rowboat there.”
Matthew was already turning. “I saw Richards below. I’ll find him and get his men out on the paths along the northern ridge, so they won’t be able to go that way, either.”
“I’ll help.” Sir Vincent followed Matthew out.
Gerrard kept the telescope trained on the trio hurrying through the gardens. They were still in Apollo, crossing the bridge over the stream. Jacqueline was gagged; from the way Jordan and Eleanor were holding her between them, her hands were bound, too.
Behind him, he heard movement; Lord Fritham, Sir Harvey Entwhistle and Mr. Hancock appeared. They’d been assisting in putting out the flames. One glance at Lord Fritham’s stunned expression told Gerrard he’d heard the latest developments.
So had the others. “Come on, old chap.” Grim-faced, Sir Harvey dropped a hand on Lord Fritham’s shoulder. “We’d best get down there and find out what that whelp of yours thinks he’s about.”
Lord Fritham nodded; he looked numb. The three older men turned and went out.
Barnaby returned to Gerrard’s side. “Where are they now?”
“In Apollo, still some way from the second viewing stage.” He paused, then added, “Jacqueline keeps stumbling. She’s slowing them down.” His voice flattened, grew quieter. “Jordan just hit her.” A moment later, he went on, “That hasn’t helped-she’s slumped on the ground and refusing to get up.”
Barnaby gripped his shoulder harder. “Stay with it a bit longer. We need to see where they go once they reach the viewing platform.”
Gerrard slammed a door on his rising emotions, far beyond anger or simple protectiveness. Rage, fury, cold, deep and potent; Jacqueline was
The older gentlemen came out on the terrace. Lord Tregonning was with them. They called up to Barnaby for directions, then headed off as fast as they could into the gardens.
Wide, long, densely planted, the gardens weren’t designed for rushing through, for easy traversing. Quite the opposite. The action unfolded slowly; Gerrard took his eye briefly from Jacqueline to confirm that the gardeners had reached the higher reaches of the Garden of Diana-there’d be no escape for the Frithams that way. The stablemen, Matthew and Sir Vincent weren’t as far advanced on the northern ridge, but they’d be in place before the Frithams could divert in that direction.
He swung the telescope back to Jacqueline-and watched Jordan and Eleanor hustle her toward the stone viewing platform at the end of the Garden of Apollo.
Jacqueline all but sobbed with relief when Jordan reached up and yanked his kerchief from her mouth.
“There!” His eyes were flat, hard and cold. “We’re too far from the house. You can scream all you like-there’s no one to hear.” He glanced back at the house; a mocking smile curved his lips. “They’re all too busy putting out the flames, and no doubt bemoaning the loss of that bloody portrait.” His fingers tightened about her arm. “Now come on!”
He hauled her on. She dragged and stumbled as much as she dared, but she wouldn’t put it past Jordan to knock her unconscious and carry her-it would be faster; she didn’t want to provoke him to the point he realized that.
Eleanor, pale, tight-lipped, had hold of her other arm; she, too, pulled her on. They were both taller and stronger than she; together, they could almost lift her from her feet.
She knew the portrait was safe; it hadn’t been in either Gerrard’s room or the makeshift studio. Her father had taken possession; Compton and Treadle had carefully stowed the framed picture in her father’s study.
Now didn’t seem the time to mention that.
She’d almost managed to catch her breath, to shake off the effects of those terrible moments in the parlor, worse than any nightmare she’d ever dreamed. She’d never forget the sheer evil she’d sensed; the sun on her face assured her she was in the real world, yet…She dragged in a breath, fought to steady her voice. “Where are you taking me? What on earth do you hope to gain by this?”
“We’re abducting you,” Jordan coldly informed her. “Your sluttish behavior with that damned artist left us no choice.” His tone suggested it was entirely her fault. “They’re going to think we’re on our way to Gretna, but in reality, I’ve a nice little inn down the coast in mind.”
He glanced at her. “A few nights alone with me, and I’m sure your father will see the sense in agreeing to our betrothal.”
She was certain she knew the answer, but still asked, “Why do you want to marry me? You don’t even like me.”
“Of course not. Innocents have never attracted me.” He glanced at Eleanor, and smiled-a secret smile Jacqueline wished she hadn’t seen-then he looked ahead, after a moment continued, “No doubt your artist has taught you a thing or two-it’ll be interesting to find out how far he’s taken your education. However, beyond the necessity of bringing about our marriage-no, I have little personal interest in you. All I want is Hellebore Hall.”
He frowned, jaw tightening; he didn’t look at her. “Because it should be mine. I need it more than you.”
The stone viewing platform loomed before them; they forced her up the steps, Eleanor going ahead and tugging, Jordan pushing from behind. Once on the platform, they turned to the path leading to the Garden of Diana, their usual route between the Manor and the Hall.
Jordan thrust her before him; she stumbled into Eleanor and out onto the path. “We’ve horses saddled and waiting-we’ll be away before they realize-”
“Jordan.” Eleanor had halted. Staring up at the ridge, she pointed. “Look!”
Jacqueline lifted her head, and saw figures, still too far away to recognize but their number suggested they were gardeners or grooms, running along the higher paths out along the ridge. They were already pouring into the upper reaches of the Garden of Diana; there was no way Jordan and Eleanor, even alone and racing, could reach the path out.
Relief slid through her; she sagged, staggered back a few steps to lean against the side of the platform. “Untie me.” She held out her hands, bound with laces. “There’s no point going any further-you’ll have to go back and explain-”
With a snarl, Jordan turned on her. “
He hauled her back up the steps, then out onto the path leading up the garden to the wooden pergola from which paths led on to the northern ridge and the stables. “We’ll take horses from your stables.”
They’d gone twenty yards, out into the open, when Jordan abruptly halted. Head up, scanning ahead, he swore. “They’re up there, too.”
Jaw clenched, he towed her around and propelled her before him, shoving her back to the stone platform. Once under the wooden roof, he halted; still gripping her arm, eyes wide, a touch wild, he looked first one way, then the other.
Eleanor was looking, too. Even paler than before, breathing rapidly, she turned to Jordan. “What now? We can’t get out.” Her gaze shifted to Jacqueline. “She’s all we have to bargain with, but I haven’t a knife or anything to threaten her with-have you?”
Jordan patted his pockets, then pulled out a penknife. He flicked it open; the blade was less than two inches long.
“That’s no use!” Incipient hysteria rang in Eleanor’s voice.
Jordan was silent, staring down at the blade, then he drew in a huge breath, lifted his head and looked down the gardens.
Jacqueline had no idea what he saw, but calmness enveloped him.
The wild look in his eyes faded, and he smiled. Coldly. “It’ll do for what we need if combined with something else. Something more dramatic and final. And so very apt.”
He tightened his grip on Jacqueline’s arm, ruthlessly shook her. “Come on. I know just how to make your father and all the rest agree to everything I want.”
Going down the steps, he hauled her after him, then set out, striding rapidly along the path into the Garden of Mars, heading toward the cove.
Gerrard swore. Releasing the telescope, he swung around, ducked into the smoke-blackened room and headed for the door. “They’ve taken the path to the cove.”
“The cove?” Barnaby followed. “But there’s no escape that way.”
“No escape,” Gerrard ground out. “But something better. A gun to hold to our heads.”
“Gun?” Barnaby kept pace as Gerrard ran down the corridor, then went quickly down the stairs. “What gun?”
Gerrard strode onto the terrace. “It’s called Cyclops.”
By the time Jordan dragged her up the steps of the last viewing platform, Jacqueline had solved his cryptic utterance; she knew where he was going.
She’d slowed them as much as she’d dared; she had a stitch in her side, her breathing was quite genuinely labored, and her legs wobbled alarmingly. She wanted nothing more than to collapse on the seat and recover. Jordan, who walked the gardens so often, appeared unaffected by their race down the valley. Eleanor, however, was flagging badly, as exhausted as she.
Seizing the moment when Jordan paused to note how close their pursuers were, Jacqueline dragged air into her lungs, straightened her shoulders, tried to ease the ache in her bound arms.
Jordan tightened his painful grip on her arm. “Come on.” His tone was tight. “We’ve got to get there ahead of them.”
He thrust her down the steps, following closely, jerking her upright when her ankle threatened to give way. He snarled, “Don’t you
How had she ever imagined him a friend, even a superior, aloof one? She was nothing to him, just a means to an end. As for Eleanor…Jacqueline looked at the woman whose nails bit into her other arm as she ruthlessly tugged her on. She’d never truly seen her before, but the Eleanor who’d stood beside Jordan in the parlor had dropped all pretense and contemptuously flaunted the truth. Recalling the lascivious details Eleanor had delighted in telling her over the years about her activities with her lover turned Jacqueline’s stomach, but she now knew the truth.
She knew who Eleanor’s lover was.