As Gervase had expected, Christian was the first to answer his summons. Gasthorpe roused him at nine o’clock with the news that the marquess had arrived and was waiting for him at the breakfast table.
Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Gervase splashed water over his face, then swiftly shaved and dressed, giving thanks for the marvel that was Gasthorpe; aside from providing the razor, a newly purchased brush, cravat, and shirt, the majordomo had worked wonders with his travel-worn coat and breeches and his boots shone. At least he no longer looked like he’d just ridden in from the Russian Steppes.
Exiting his room, he paused, considering the door across the landing. Crossing silently to it, he opened it and looked in; Madeline was still sound asleep, the covers over her shoulder, her hair a red-gold mane spread across the pillow. Contradictory impulses clashed; one part of him wanted to leave her there, recuperating in peace, yet she would expect to be included in any councils concerning Ben’s fate, and had every right to be present.
Inwardly sighing, he crossed soft-footed to the bed. Brushing back her hair, he bent and placed a kiss on her cheek. As she roused, murmured, then turned to him, he trailed his lips across to meet hers. A gentle, undemanding kiss. Then he lifted his head, watched her blink awake.
She focused on him, then glanced around. “Oh.” Shuffling onto one elbow, she looked at the window. “What’s the time?”
“Nine o’clock. Christian Allardyce is downstairs at the breakfast table. Join us when you’re ready.”
“Yes, of course.” She started struggling up.
He turned to the door, and discovered a little maid hovering, hand raised, frozen; she’d been about to knock, then had seen him.
He smiled, nodded the maid in, saying to Madeline as he continued to the door, “Assistance has arrived. She’s even brought a fresh gown.”
Reaching the door, he glanced back to find Madeline staring in disbelief at the maid, who was carrying not only a gown but linen, brushes and pins.
Shutting her open mouth, Madeline looked at him as if for explanation.
“The wonders of Gasthorpe.” With a grin, he saluted her and left, closing the door.
He sobered as he went down the stairs.
Christian Allardyce, Marquess of Dearne, was sitting at one end of the breakfast table attending to a sizable serving of ham and eggs. He looked up as Gervase entered. “Excellent. I’m all agog. I was going to come up and demand instant explanations, but Gasthorpe warned me there was a lady on the premises.” Christian raised his brows. “So what’s afoot?”
The limpid innocence in Christian’s gray eyes did nothing to hide his avid curiosity, or his suspicions. Gervase held his gaze for an instant, then grimaced and headed for the sideboard. “I’m going to marry her, but for God’s sake don’t mention it. She hasn’t yet agreed.”
“Ah-you’re at that stage.” Returning his attention to his plate, Christian said, “So what’s brought you both here, in something of a lather, as I heard it-and what is it you want my assistance with?”
His plate piled high with ham, sausages and two eggs, Gervase sat in the chair next to Christian, and told him.
Simply, concisely, nothing of substance held back.
By the time he’d finished, Christian was frowning. Mopping up the last of his egg with a crust of toast, he popped it into his mouth, chewed; eyes narrowed, gaze distant, he said, “So you think this ploy-bringing the boy to London-is a ruse to get you both out of Cornwall?”
Gervase nodded. “Normally Madeline acts as her fifteen-year-old brother’s surrogate-she’s held the reins of the position for so long, and so well, she’s the de facto Gascoigne and everyone in the neighborhood looks to her for leadership, even more so given I haven’t been there.”
Christian’s brows rose. “She sounds like an unusual lady.”
“She’s a remarkable woman,” Gervase said, “which is why this villain wanted us both here in London. With both of us gone, there’s no one on the peninsula with the authority, the position or the experience to lead. There are only minor gentry on the peninsula itself, a few minor barons north of the estuary, but even if they were roused to action, by they time they came to investigate a stranger with a crowd of bully boys digging up a beach, it would all be over, the villain long gone.”
He paused, then grinned, not humorously. “Of course, our villain didn’t know Charles was lurking-I’ve left him and Penelope at the castle, keeping watch.”
“So when our villain arrives…” Christian pulled a face, the equivalent of male pouting. “I don’t know about you, but I have a deep-seated aversion to letting St. Austell have all the fun.”
“Indeed. Which is another excellent reason for finding Ben with all possible speed-not that we need another reason, but still-so we can race down to Cornwall and be in at the end ourselves.”
“Not another reason,” Christian said. “A carrot. Dealing with the villain will be our reward for finding Ben quickly.”
Senses pricking, Gervase looked up and saw Madeline framed in the doorway. He smiled and rose. “There you are-come and join us.”
“Thank you.” Madeline smiled warmly, her heart unexpectedly aglow. She’d come downstairs overwhelmed by concern and incipient panic, then she’d heard Gervase’s words, his description of her, his and his colleague’s clear confidence that they would find Ben and deal with the villain; she’d drawn breath, felt their implied assurance sink in, felt their confidence buoy and steady her. Walking into the room, she transferred her gaze to the other gentleman, who had smoothly risen to his feet.
“Dearne, Miss Gascoigne.” He bowed, then smiled engagingly. “But I hope you’ll call me Christian.”
There was something in his manner-a gentle air, an invitation to laugh at all and everything-that had her smiling easily in return. She inclined her head. “Madeline, please.” She sat in the chair Gervase held for her, glanced around to see him head for the sideboard-decided to let him feed her and turned her attention to his friend. “I understand you’re another member of this rather strange club.”
“Indeed. I won’t bore you with the details of its founding, but it has, I would say, served its purpose well.” He smiled at her in a way that made her wonder just what the true purpose of the club was.
Before she could think of how to ask, Gervase returned to the table. “I’ve rung for tea.” He set a plate piled with kedgeree, ham and a fat juicy kipper before her.
She looked at it, and wondered when she’d mentioned she loved nice kippers; she couldn’t recall ever doing so, so how had he guessed? Inwardly shrugging, she murmured her thanks, picked up her knife and fork, and sampled the kedgeree. It was delicious-and she realized she was starving.
Accustomed to the table habits of males, she barely noticed the silence that enveloped the table. Gervase was still absorbed with his sausages, while Christian sat back and sipped coffee with the air of a man satisfactorily replete.
From under her lashes, she studied him, curious to observe another of Gervase’s cronies. Like Gervase and Charles, Christian had much the same build; she recalled Gervase had originally been in the guards, and suspected the same held true of the others-they all had the classic guardsmen build, that of tall, broad-shouldered, saber-swinging horsemen.
As for the rest…gray eyes, a certain self-deprecating streak, as if he were cynically amused with himself, but underneath she could readily see the same reliably ruthless strength she’d come to value in Gervase, that unswerving commitment to defending and protecting, be it the weak, the helpless, their friends, their family or their country.
It was all the same to them; it was simply who they were.
And nothing would ever change them.
Nothing would ever soften them.
To her mind, that was as it should be; the thought was more comfort than threat.
She forked up the last tiny piece of kipper just as Gervase pushed away his plate. She looked up and smiled as Gasthorpe poured tea for her; she patted her lips with her napkin, picked up the delicate cup and sipped-and nearly closed her eyes and sighed.
She glanced around, but Gasthorpe had gone. She turned to Gervase and Christian. “I don’t know where you found him, but Gasthorpe is a treasure. I don’t know how he managed it, but he found this gown.” She broke off to explain to Christian that they’d set out on their pursuit without baggage. She glanced again at the gown. “He said it belonged to the lady who used to live next door-he borrowed a maid from there for me, and to adjust the size and let down the hem.”
“The lady would be Leonora,” Christian said. “Now Countess of Trentham.”
“Trentham.” Madeline looked at Gervase. “He’s another of your members, isn’t he? He married the lady next door?”
Finishing her tea, she set the cup down. She felt fully restored, ready to face the world and any villain in her quest to rescue Ben. She glanced at the men.
As usual Gervase, sipping his coffee, seemed to read her mind. “I’ve already told Christian the whole story.” At his words, somberness settled about them, upon them. “We need to decide how best to search for Ben. Christian agrees he’s unlikely to be released until the afternoon.”
Christian leaned forward, hands clasped on the table. He met Madeline’s gaze. “I’ve been thinking, evaluating the ways-the best ways-to locate Ben.” He glanced at Gervase, then looked again at Madeline and went on. “It’s likely that when they release Ben, they’ll set him free in a slum, in the stews. They won’t want him found too quickly-the villain wants you to stay in London for a few days at least. So we should assume that Ben will suddenly find himself alone on the street in a dangerous part of town.”
Again Christian paused, then said, “I have contacts, numerous acquaintances, in London’s underworld. What I propose is that I contact those who are essentially the overlords of each of the slums, and alert them to the situation-send them a description of Ben, and tell them we want him back unharmed. They’ll put the word out, and their people will all be on the lookout for Ben. The chances of them finding him quickly, and unharmed, are high.”
Madeline studied the gray eyes fixed unwaveringly on hers. “What’s the drawback? Obviously there is one.”
Christian’s lips quirked; he inclined his head. “Indeed. I won’t send out that message unless you approve. The drawback is that, to be rescued by the overlords of London’s underworld, Ben would, necessarily, come into contact with them and their minions-and I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t say that some of them are more than revolting enough to make any lady swoon.”
She studied him for a moment, then said, “A delicate lady, perhaps. Even me, perhaps. But what of an innocent but insatiably curious, country-bred ten-year-old boy?” When Christian raised his brows, surprised by her tack, she glanced at Gervase. “You know what you’re talking about, have experience of it-I don’t. But you should be able to remember being a ten-year-old-would you at ten have been shocked and horrified, or would you have thought it a grand lark to be consorting with villainous underworld figures?”
Gervase grimaced. He looked at Christian. “I don’t know about you, but it would have been a lark to me.”
Christian pulled a face. “Me, too.”
“And what’s the alternative?” Madeline asked. “Trust to chance that someone kind and honorable happens to find him first? I’ve never been in any slums or stews, but I don’t think I’d be happy taking that approach.” She pushed back from the table. “How do we go about sending these messages? Perhaps I can help write them?”
Christian glanced at Gervase. “So we do it?”
Rising, Gervase waved to the door. “So the lady decrees. Let’s adjourn to the library.”
They did. They spent some time drafting their message, then Christian and Madeline, seated on opposing sides of the desk, started copying it in neat, legible script.
Gervase paced and looked over their shoulders. There was no place for him to sit to help them, and his scrawl wasn’t all that neat.
“We’ve plenty of time,” Christian said without looking up. “Those areas don’t stir until noon-as long as we send out these notes by then, they’ll have plenty of time to spread the word before Ben is let loose in their domain.”
Gervase humphed and kept pacing. He and Christian had agreed that it would most likely be later in the afternoon rather than earlier that Ben would be released. Which meant there would be hours yet to wait…
The distant sound of the front door knocker had him turning expectantly to the door.
Christian glanced that way, too, then, as the sound of firm footsteps on the stairs reached them, he set down his pen.
Her concentration absolute, Madeline continued transcribing.
She heard the door open, heard Gasthorpe announce, “Mr. Dalziel, my lords.”
Blinking, she glanced up as a deep, dark voice drawled, “Dearne. Crowhurst. I understand there’s something you believe I should know about.”
Primitive precognition sent a frisson arcing through her. Madeline stared at the tall gentleman who strolled with unutterable grace into the room. He was outwardly similar to Gervase and Christian, tall, broad-shouldered, dark-haired, the long, austere planes of his face a testimony to his heritage. Yet beneath the urbane, sophisticated veneer, there was an element of something else-something harder, sharper, altogether more subconsciously alarming. She felt unexpectedly glad that Gervase stood, at least metaphorically, between her and his ex-commander.
There were dangerous men, and then there were the impossibly dangerous; Dalziel belonged in the latter category.
Whoever he was; she could now see the evidence on which Gervase and his colleagues based their belief that Dalziel was no mere mister.
Gervase moved forward to shake his hand. “Glad we caught you-I was afraid you might have left town.”
A faint smile flirted about Dalziel’s mobile lips. “Not quite yet.” He turned to shake hands with Christian, then glanced briefly at her before looking, inquiringly, at Gervase.
With a smile for her, Gervase turned to Dalziel. “Allow me to present the Honorable Miss Madeline Gascoigne.” To Madeline he added, “Dalziel, who you’ve heard me mention.”
Madeline remained seated; they were all towering over her but even if she stood they would still be taller, and there was a certain statement to be made by remaining where she was-queens remained seated-so she faced him, head high, smiled graciously and, consciously imperious, offered her hand. “Good day, sir.”
She caught another upward twitch of his lips as Dalziel took her fingers and very correctly bowed over them.
“An honor, Miss Gascoigne, although I believe it’s something less than pleasant that has brought you to town.”
“Indeed. Some blackguard has kidnapped my youngest brother.” Madeline looked at Gervase.
He waved Dalziel, whose gaze had grown sharper, to a chair. “Sit down and I’ll tell you the story.” He glanced at Madeline. “I’d better begin at the start.”
Sinking into a chair, elegantly crossing his long legs, Dalziel nodded. “You perceive me all ears.”
While Gervase related the tale of how her brothers had found the brooch, and subsequently where she’d worn it, the information he’d gathered on where it might have come from, then Ben’s disappearance and all they knew of that, Madeline turned back to the desk and continued penning Christian’s notes. Christian, too, continued, but from time to time he’d look up, frown-and the ink would dry on his nib as he became distracted with the story.
Madeline didn’t bother to recall him to his task; there were only a few more notes to write, and it was barely eleven o’clock. Christian had said it might be counterproductive to send the notes out before noon, and at least writing them gave her something to do to fill in the time, making her feel she was actively engaged in the task of rescuing Ben. Lips compressed, she wrote on, aware of Dalziel asking questions, of Gervase replying.
She could see, comprehend, that Dalziel could be intimidating, but he wasn’t a threat, and as long as he could and would help them rescue Ben, that was all she cared about.
“So this brooch might well be the key.” Dalziel frowned; Gervase had given him a brief description of the brooch. He grimaced. “I wish you’d brought it with you.”
Madeline lifted her head. “I did.” Reaching into the pocket of her borrowed gown, she drew out the heavy brooch; she’d taken it from her own gown, wanting to keep it with her. Setting down her pen, she swiveled from the desk and held out the brooch to Dalziel; when he took it, lifting it from her palm, she looked at Gervase. “I thought if by chance we meet this blackguard face-to-face, he might be willing to exchange Ben for it.”
Gervase met her eyes, but then glanced at Dalziel.
Madeline did, too, as did Christian.
Dalziel had made no sound, no movement to draw their attention; it was his stillness, the sheer focused intensity of it, that had seized their collective attention.
Cradling the brooch in his long fingers, he was staring at it as if it were the Holy Grail. “Good Lord,” he breathed.
When he lapsed back into awestruck silence, Christian hesitantly prompted, “What?”
Dalziel drew in a long breath, then leaned back in the chair. He laid the brooch on the arm, his fingers tracing the curves, the pearls. “Our paths, it seems, cross again.”
His tone was distant, detached. Madeline glanced at Gervase. He looked as puzzled as she.
His gaze on the brooch, Dalziel at last continued, “Let me tell you what’s been keeping me in London-one of the things, at any rate. As we-the members of this club and I-know, there’s some person, some Englishman, a member of the aristocracy, who was a French agent during the wars, but who escaped detection. He’s continued to elude me, and all others, but we know he exists, that he is a flesh-and-blood man.”
He paused, then looked up at Gervase, then Christian. “Flesh-and-blood men usually require payment for their services. We’ve had a net in place for years, identifying any payments that came via the usual channels of cash, drafts or any other of the customary monetary instruments. We’ve accounted for all such payments, leaving unresolved the question of how our elusive last traitor was paid.”
Long fingers lightly tapped the brooch. “After Waterloo-indeed, even before that-we’d started getting reports from the new French authorities. They were perfectly willing to work with us to trace any payments made by Napoleon’s spymasters. However, we still turned up nothing-nothing we hadn’t already found-until some enterprising French clerk started an inventory of the palaces, and the artworks and artifacts contained therein, the jewelry collections amassed by the various princely families of the ancient regimes. He started reporting pieces missing. Not wholesale ransacking but one piece missing here, one there. At first he assumed it was simply mislaid items, the natural outcome of the disruption of war, but as he discovered more such missing items, he began to sense a pattern. That’s when he approached his masters, and they sent his list to me.”
Dark eyes narrowing, Dalziel lifted the brooch, slowly turning it between his fingers. “Would it surprise you to learn that on that list is an oval cloak-brooch dating from the age of Charlemagne, Celtic goldwork with diamonds and pearls surrounding a large rectangular emerald?”
His voice faded into absolute silence.
Madeline broke it. “Are you saying that the man after the brooch, the one searching for a cargo the brooch formed part of-the man who has Ben-is this unidentified traitor?”
Dalziel’s eyes rose to meet hers. His jaw set. “I fear so.” He paused, then added, “As it happens, that increases the likelihood that your brother will be released unharmed once he’s identified the beach for our traitor. Our man is careful and clever-he’s only killed once that we know of, and then he was forced to it, when a henchman who knew his identity was cornered. Murder attracts too much attention-he’ll just want Ben to be lost for a while, more to keep you occupied than anything else. You’re right about that.” He looked down at the brooch. “Now we know it’s him, things make more sense.”
He stared at the brooch, then leaned forward and carefully handed it back to Madeline. “Regardless of what happens, please don’t offer to give it back. If he demands it and there’s no alternative…but don’t volunteer it.”
She considered the brooch, felt its weight in her palm. Understood why he’d given it back to her, into her keeping, appreciated his comprehension. She looked up and met his dark eyes. “Thank you. I won’t.”
He nodded, then looked at Gervase. “I think we can conclude that your blackguard is indeed our old foe, and he’s after that cargo. No surprise he was wise enough not to agree to be paid in French sous, and careful enough to wait until now to bring his ill-gotten gains into England, and used French smugglers to do it. Far safer to cache his thirty pieces of silver in France while Napoleon was in power, and bring it over now, long after the wars are over and, so he would reason, no one’s watching anymore.”
Gervase nodded, his gaze locked on the brooch. “It all makes a certain sense.”
“Indeed. We’ve already established what sort of man he is. He has no need of money, but items such as that”-Dalziel watched as Madeline slipped the brooch back into her pocket-“the treasures of kings and emperors, those would hold a real incentive for him-something only he was clever enough and powerful enough to gain, something no one else could ever have.”
Christian snorted. “Symbols of his greatness.”
Dalziel nodded, then came to his feet in a rush of nervy energy. “He’ll want that cargo. After all this time, all his planning, waiting for his moment of triumph-he’ll be fixated on regaining his treasure.” He smiled chillingly. “And fixated men make mistakes.”
He looked at Gervase. “Regardless of what happens here today, I’ll be on my way to Cornwall this afternoon.”
Gervase’s face hardened. “Madeline and I won’t leave here until we find Ben.”
Dalziel nodded. “I’ll help in whatever way I can, but this might be our last chance at catching this man and I can’t let it pass.”
“We’ll have to find Ben first,” Madeline said.
Dalziel nodded again, more curtly. “I’ll put all the forces I can muster at your disposal before I leave-”
“No, you don’t understand.” Her voice held a hint of suppressed humor, enough to make Dalziel frown at her.
“What don’t I understand?”
She knew she was supposed to be intimidated by that voice, by his chilly diction, but she now had his measure. She held his gaze calmly. “The Lizard Peninsula is large-you won’t be able to watch all the beaches, nor will you be able to monitor access to the peninsula itself-there are too many ways to reach it, including by sea. To catch your last traitor, you’ll need to know which beach he’ll be heading for. And until we find Ben, you won’t know that.”
Dalziel’s frown didn’t lift. “But we know which beach the brooch came from.”
She nodded. “Indeed. But as Edmond-another of my brothers-pointed out, it’s more than likely Ben will lie.”
The frown evaporated; frustration took its place. After a moment, Dalziel flung himself back into his chair. “Haven’t you taught him not to lie?”
She inwardly grinned at the disgruntled grumble. “I have, but the lessons don’t take well with Ben. Perhaps when he grows older. Regardless, at present, he lies quite beautifully-he’s so…”-she gestured-“fluent, even when I know he’s not telling the truth, he makes me think I might be wrong.”
Dalziel stared at the floor, then grimaced. “All right.” He lifted his head; his eyes pinned Christian, then moved to Gervase. “So how are we going to locate the whelp?”
Suppressing a smile, Madeline turned back to the desk. She completed the last of Christian’s notes while around her a wide-ranging discussion of how to scour London, especially the slums, raged.
Dalziel was making plans to contact various commanders in the Guards as she laid the last note on the pile. She glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes to twelve. She turned to Christian, intending to suggest he send for the footmen they’d told her Gasthorpe would provide, when the knocker on the front door was plied-not just once or twice but with persistent, repetitive force.
The three men broke off, turning to the door. It was shut, muting sounds from the front hall below, but the knocking had stopped.
Ears straining, Madeline listened…heard a light, piping voice politely ask…
She was out of her chair, past Dalziel and flinging open the library door before any of the men could blink. Sweeping to the stairs, her heart in her mouth, she paused on the landing, looking down into the hall, to the group before the front door. Then she grabbed up her skirts and rushed headlong down.
“Ben!” She couldn’t believe her eyes, but there he was; she saw the relief that washed over his face as he glanced up at her call, disbelieving her presence as much as she had his.
Reaching him, she swept him into her arms, hugging him wildly, only just remembering in time not to lift him from his feet, bending over him and clutching him to her instead, her hands patting over him.
“Are you all right?” His clothes were dusty and disarranged, rumpled and soiled, but not torn or filthy.
He nodded; he was clutching her quite as fiercely as she was clutching him. But then he pushed away; reluctantly she forced herself to ease her hold. He looked up into her face. “There was this man-”
He broke off as he noticed Gervase, who had come down the stairs, Dalziel and Christian at his back. Ben smiled, a trifle shy. He nodded to Gervase. “Hello, sir.” His gaze traveled on to rest on Dalziel, then Christian; his eyes widened, then he looked up as Gervase neared.
Smiling, Gervase laid a hand on Ben’s shoulder and lightly squeezed. “You’ve no idea how glad we are to see you. But how did you get free-and how did you know to come here?”
Ben looked into his face. “You told me, remember? When we were fishing, you told us about your club in London. You said it was in Montrose Place. When those horrid men pushed me out of the carriage in an awful street”-he glanced at Madeline-“it was smelly and dirty and the people looked mean, I found a hackney cab.”
Turning, he pointed to the heavyset, frieze-coated individual watching the proceedings through the open front door. “Jeb’s hackney. I told him I was a friend of yours-Lord Crowhurst of Crowhurst Castle-and if he brought me to your club in Montrose Place, then the people here would pay him twice his fee.”
Looking up at Gervase, Ben made his eyes huge. “You will pay Jeb double for bringing me here, won’t you?”
“Not double. Triple. With a tip.” Dalziel moved past Gervase to the door, fishing in his coat pocket. “Indeed, quadruple the fare is not too much in the circumstances.”
Jeb looked beyond awed. He took the coins Dalziel handed him, stared at them. “’Ere-this is way too much.”
“No,” Dalziel said. “Believe me, it’s not. If I had my way you’d get a medal.”
Jeb looked uncertain. “All I did was drive ’im here from Tothill. It ain’t even that far.”
“Nevertheless. You did your country a great service today. If I was you, I’d take the rest of the day off.”
“Aye.” Jeb shook his head, studying the largesse in his palm. “I might just do that.” He bobbed his head, started to turn away, then looked back, weaving to look past Dalziel and Gasthorpe at Ben. “Anytime you come back to the capital, nipper, you keep an eye out for Jeb.”
Ben beamed his huge, little-boy’s smile. “I will. Good-bye. And thank you!”
“Seems it’s me should be thanking you,” Jeb mumbled as he headed off down the path to the street where his mare stood patiently waiting.
Dalziel turned back to the group in the front hall.
Ben looked up at him, curious and intrigued. “I don’t know you.”
Dalziel smiled at Ben; Gervase blinked. It wasn’t the sort of smile he was accustomed to seeing on his ex-commander’s face. Boyishly charming wasn’t the half of it.
“You don’t know me yet, but you will.” His gaze on Ben’s face, Dalziel waved to the stairs. “Let’s go up to the library and you can tell us all-all the gory details of your kidnap, confinement and escape.” Effortlessly, with no more than a look, he drew Ben to him and turned with him to the stairs. “Have you breakfasted yet?”
“No.” The thought of food brought Ben up short; he started to turn to Madeline.
“No matter. Gasthorpe-you’ve met the redoubtable Gasthorpe, haven’t you?”
Ben shot a shy grin at Gasthorpe, who had shut the door and was now waiting by the side of the hall for his orders.
“Gasthorpe,” Dalziel continued, with just a touch on Ben’s shoulder steering him up the stairs, “will bring sustenance suitable for your years. You can eat while you set your sister’s mind at rest.”
Ben glanced back at Madeline, but seeing her following in his wake with Gervase beside her, meeting her encouraging if misty-eyed smile, he grinned, looked ahead, and happily trooped up the stairs.
When they were all in the library, comfortable in armchairs set about the hearth, while Ben wolfed down the cheese and ham sandwich Gasthorpe had provided, Gervase caught Christian’s eye and saw his own bemusement reflected there. It was patently clear who had elected himself Ben’s interrogator.
For one moment, Gervase wondered if he should resent Dalziel’s claim, but he wanted Ben to look upon him as an unthreatening, always trustworthy friend, and acting as an interrogator, even in relatively mild fashion, wasn’t a good way to nurture such a connection. So he sat back and watched, quietly fascinated, as his ex-commander displayed a side of himself none of his ex-operatives had imagined he possessed.
Sitting opposite Ben, who was ensconced in the chair between Madeline’s and Gervase’s, Dalziel exuded the sort of blatant confidence guaranteed to fix a boy’s attention; the command that confidence concealed was subtle, yet still there, giving his performance a near-irresistible edge.
He waited with feigned patience until Ben had finished the sandwich and drained his glass of milk before commencing, with an easy, encouraging smile. “Now-let’s start from when you were sitting on the bench outside the inn in Helston. The man who approached you-what did he say?”
Wriggling forward in the chair, Ben dutifully replied, “He asked how to get to the London road. He said he had to meet a man with a carriage there, and was lost, and time was running out. He offered me a shilling to show him the quickest way.”
Ben colored and shot a glance at Madeline. “I know I shouldn’t have taken the money, but it wasn’t far, and it was daylight and people were about.”
Madeline reached out and touched his hand.
“Indeed,” Dalziel said, his tone even. “So you’ll know not to do it next time. So you showed this man to the London road, then he picked you up and slung you in the carriage.”
Ben nodded. “It was a big black traveling carriage-it had four horses.”
“And they tied you up and gagged you and whisked you off to London.”
“Yes.” Ben paused, then volunteered, “But they didn’t hurt me or anything, not even when I kicked their shins.”
Dalziel nodded. “They were under orders to keep you hale and whole.” He paused, then went on, “So they brought you to London, to some place in the slums.”
“Was that the slums?” Ben glanced at Gervase, who nodded. “It was awfully dirty.”
“I expect it was,” Dalziel allowed. “You reached there early this morning, and they kept you there, but not for very long.”
“They’d told me in the carriage at the start that they were just fetching me for some gentleman who wanted to ask me something. I couldn’t understand why I had to go to London, but they said they didn’t know what he wanted to ask-they were just carrying out his orders and doing what he told them. They told me he wasn’t one for explanations.” Ben paused, then slid his hand across the chair’s arm to grasp Madeline’s. “They told me if I knew what was good for me I’d tell him what he wanted to know, and quickly.” He looked at Dalziel. “They weren’t joking-I think they were trying to warn me.”
Dalziel raised his brows. “Sometimes one finds honor among thieves. So…they took you to meet the man this morning.”
Ben nodded. “They stayed with me in a smelly room through the night, then after ten o’clock this morning-I could hear bells pealing the hours-they said it was time to go and meet him.”
“Where did they take you?” The tension in Dalziel’s voice was hard to detect, but there.
“It was only downstairs. To another room-I didn’t see it because they blindfolded me, but it seemed cleaner.”
Dalziel exchanged a quick glance with Gervase. It sounded like a brothel-a cleaner room downstairs for meeting “guests,” a room that would have been deserted in the morning. Dalziel looked at Ben, and repeated, Gervase suspected for Madeline’s benefit, “You were blindfolded, so you didn’t see the gentleman-the one who questioned you.”
Throughout, Dalziel asked few questions. He made statements, told Ben’s story, and left it to Ben to correct or expand.
Ben shook his head, brow furrowed as he recalled. “He was a gentleman-he spoke like us.” Head on one side, he looked at Dalziel. “He sounded a lot like you.”
Dalziel slowly nodded. “A gentleman of the ton, a member of the aristocracy-that’s who we think he is. As you say, one of us. So he spoke with you-what did he say?”
“He told me that if I answered his question, he would order the men to take me into the streets a little way away and let me go. That I would be free to return to Cornwall and my family, as long as I answered his one question-he warned me he’d know if I was lying.” Ben blushed.
Dalziel smiled. “So you answered his question, and told him that you and your brothers found the brooch you gave your sister for her birthday on…which beach?”
Ben frowned at him. “How did you know that was what he wanted to know?”
“Because he’s a traitor I’ve been chasing for some time. And your sister and Crowhurst here realized it was something to do with the brooch.” Dalziel paused as Ben mouthed an “Oh,” then prompted, “So…which beach did you send him to?”
Ben shifted, then looked at Madeline. “I did lie-I didn’t want him finding our treasure, if there’s more of it buried in the sand, and I didn’t think you’d mind if I lied to him.” His jaw firmed. “He was a bad man, stealing me away like that.”
Madeline smiled, and squeezed the hand she still held. “It was perfectly reasonable to lie to him.”
Reassured, Ben looked at Dalziel. “I told him we found the brooch in Kynance Cove.”
Gervase caught the look Dalziel sent him, the faint lift of one brow. “It’s on the other side of the peninsula from Lowland Point-the beach where they found the brooch and where Charles and Harry are keeping watch.”
“Will they notice if our quarry heads down to this other beach?” Dalziel shifted forward, preparing to rise.
Gervase shook his head, doing the same. “It’s nowhere near. Our man could take a small army down to Kynance Cove and only a few farmers-”
He broke off; glancing around, he saw Madeline waving them to silence.
Her gaze was fixed on her brother. “Ben-why Kynance?”
Ben squirmed, shot a glance at Dalziel-who reacted not at all-then glanced at Gervase, before looking back at Madeline. “Because it’s the cove the wreckers use. Not just to hide their stuff-there hasn’t been any this season-but their boats are in some of the caves, and they meet there, too.”
He drew in a breath, then looked at Dalziel. “I sent the man there because he was a bad man, and anyone with him will be bad, too, so if they’re going to stumble across any of our people, it ought to be the wreckers-they’re even worse.”
Dalziel was still for a moment, then he looked at Gervase. “You really have wreckers down there?”
Gervase felt his face grow blank as he envisioned what might occur. “Oh, yes.” He refocused on Dalziel. “It could be a bloodbath.”
Dalziel considered, then raised his brows. He looked at Ben; his lips curved. “A trifle bloodthirsty, perhaps, but overall that was very well done.”
Ben looked relieved; he turned to Madeline and grinned.
Dalziel rose, as did Gervase and Christian; he smiled genuinely, with the air of a wolf in fond expectation of his next meal. “So all that’s left is for us to fly down to Cornwall, and trap our fine traitor at Kynance Cove.”