March 15th, 1816
The Bastion Club, Montrose Place, London
"We've a month before the Season begins and already the harpies are hunting in packs." Charles St. Austell sank into one of the eight straight-backed chairs around the mahogany table in the Bastion Club's meeting room.
"As we predicted." Anthony Blake, sixth Viscount Torrington, took the chair opposite. "The action in the marriage mart seems close to frenetic."
"Have you seen much of it, then?" Deverell sat beside Charles. "I have to admit I'm biding my time, lying low until the Season begins."
Tony grimaced. "My mother might be resident in Devon, but she has a worthy lieutenant in my godmother, Lady Amery. If I don't appear at her entertainments at least, I can be assured of receiving a sharp note the next morning, inquiring why."
There were laughs - resigned, cynical and commiserating - from the others as they took their seats. Christian Allardyce, Gervase Tregarth and Jack Warnefleet all sat, then, in concert, all eyes went to the empty chair beside Charles.
"Trentham sends his regrets." At the head of the table, Christian didn't bother keeping a straight face. "He didn't sound all that sincere. He wrote that he had more pressing engagements, but wished us joy in our endeavors. He expects to be back in town in a week, however, and looks forward to supporting the six of us through our upcoming travails."
"Kind of him," Gervase quipped, but they were all grinning.
Trentham - Tristan Wemyss - had been the first of their number to successfully achieve his goal, the same goal they all were intent on attaining. They all needed to marry; that common aim had spawned this, their club, their last bastion against the matchmakers of the ton.
Of the six of them as yet unwed, gathered this evening to share the latest news, Tony felt sure he was the most desperate, although why he felt so restless, so frustrated, as if poised for action yet with no enemy in sight, he couldn't fathom. He hadn't felt so moody in years. Then again, he hadn't been a civilian, an ordinary gentleman, for years, either.
"I vote we meet every fortnight," Jack Warnefleet said. "We need to keep abreast of events, so to speak."
"I agree." Gervase nodded across the table. "And if any of us has anything urgent to report, we call a meeting as needed. Given the pace at which matters move in the ton, two weeks is the limit - by then, the ground has shifted."
"I've heard the patronesses of Almack's are thinking of opening their season early, such is the interest."
"Is it true one still has to wear knee-breeches?"
"On pain of being turned away." Christian raised his brows. "Although I've yet to ascertain just why that would be painful."
The others laughed. They continued trading information - on events, the latest fashions and tonnish distractions - eventually moving on to comment and caution on individual matrons, matchmaking mamas, dragons, gorgons and the like - all those who lay in wait for unsuspecting eligible gentlemen with a view to matrimonially ensnaring them.
"Lady Entwhistle's one to avoid - once she sinks her talons into you, it's the devil of a job to break free."
It was their way of coping with the challenge before them.
They'd all spent the last decade or more in the service of His Majesty's government as agents acting in an unofficial capacity scattered throughout France and neighboring states, collecting information on enemy troops, ships, provisions and strategies. They'd all reported to Dalziel, a spymaster who lurked, a spider in the center of his web, buried in the depths of Whitehall; he oversaw all English military agents on foreign soil.
They'd been exceedingly good at their jobs, witness the fact they were all still alive. But now the war was over and civilian life had caught up with them. Each had inherited wealth, title and properties; all were wellborn, yet their natural social circle, the haut ton - the gilded circle to which their births gave entrée and in which their titles, properties and the attendant responsibilities made participation obligatory - was an arena of operations largely unknown to them.
Yet in gathering information, evaluating it, exploiting it - in that they were experts, so they'd established the Bastion Club to facilitate mutual support for their individual campaigns. As Charles had described it with typical dramatic flair, the club was their secured base from which each would infiltrate the ton, identify the lady they wanted as their wife, and then storm the enemy's position and capture her.
Sipping his brandy, Tony recalled that he'd been first to point out the need for a safe refuge. With a French mother and French godmother intent on encouraging any and all comers to bat their lashes at him - both ladies were aware such a tactic was guaranteed to make him take the matter of finding a wife into his own hands without delay - it had been he who had sounded the warning. The ton was not safe for such as they.
Set on in the gentlemen's clubs, hounded by fond papas as well as gimlet-eyed matrons, all but buried beneath the avalanche of invitations that daily arrived at their doors, life in the ton as an unmarried, wealthy, titled, eminently eligible gentleman was these days fraught with danger.
Too many had fallen on the battlefields of the Peninsula, and more recently at Waterloo.
They, the survivors, were marked men.
They were outnumbered, but they'd be damned if they'd be outgunned.
They were experts in battle, in tactics and strategy; they weren't about to be taken. If they had any say in it, they would do the taking.
That was, at the heart of it, the raison d'être of the Bastion Club.
"Anything more?" Christian glanced around the table.
All shook their heads; they drained their glasses.
"I have to make an appearance at Lady Holland's soirée." Charles pulled a face. "I gather she feels she lent Trentham a helping hand, and now wants to try her luck with me."
Gervase raised his brows. "And you're giving her the chance?"
On his feet, Charles met his gaze. "My mother, sisters and sisters-in-law are in town."
"Oh, ho! I see. Thinking of taking up residence here for the nonce?"
"Not at present, but I won't deny the thought has crossed my mind."
"I'll come with you." Christian strolled around the table. "I want to have a word with Leigh Hunt about that book he's writing. He's sure to be at Holland House."
Christian glanced his way. "Are you still glorying in solitary state?"
"Yes, thank heaven-the mater's fixed in Devon." Tony resettled his coat with a graceful shrug. "I have, however, been summoned by my godmother to a soirée at Amery House. I'll have to put in an appearance." He looked around the table. "Anyone going that way?"
Gervase, Jack and Deverell shook their heads; they'd decided to retire to the club's library and spend the rest of the evening in companionable silence.
Tony bade them farewell; grinning, they wished him luck. Together with Christian and Charles, he went downstairs and into the street. They parted on the pavement; Christian and Charles made for Kensington and Holland House, while Tony headed for Mayfair
Reluctance dragged at him; he ignored it. Any experienced commander knew there were some forces it was wise never to waste energy opposing. Such as godmothers. French godmothers especially.
* * *
"Good evening, Mrs. Carrington. A pleasure to meet you again."
Alicia Carrington smiled easily and gave Lord Marshalsea her hand. "My lord. I daresay you recall my sister, Miss Pevensey?"
As his lordship's gaze was riveted on Adriana, standing a few steps away, Alicia's question was largely rhetorical. His lordship, however, had clearly decided that gaining Alicia's support was crucial to securing Adriana's hand; while acknowledging Adriana, he remained by Alicia's side and made conversation in a distant, distracted fashion.
That last, something Alicia viewed with amusement, was due to his lordship's absorption with Adriana, talking animatedly with a coterie of admirers all vying for her favor. Adriana was an English rose gowned in pink silk a shade darker than that generally worn by young ladies the better to exploit her luxuriant dark curls. Those sheened in the chandeliers' glow, creating the perfect frame for her bewitching features, her large brown eyes set under finely arched black brows, her peaches and cream complexion and lush, rosebud lips.
As for Adriana's figure, deliberately understated in the demure gown that hinted at rather than defined, it enticed. Even gowned in sackcloth, Alicia's sister was a package guaranteed to capture gentlemen's eyes, which was the reason they were here in London, in the very heart of the ton.
At least, Alicia was; Adriana was who she purported to be.
While making the appropriate responses to Lord Marshalsea, Alicia monitored all those who paid court to her younger sister. Everything to date had gone exactly as they, sitting in the tiny parlor of their small house in Little Compton, in rural Warwickshire, which along with the surrounding few acres were all they - she, Adriana, and their three brothers - jointly owned, had planned, yet not even in their admittedly unfettered imaginations had they envisioned that events, people, and opportunities would fall out so well.
Their plan, desperate and reckless though it was, might just succeed. Succeed in securing a future for their three brothers - David, Harry and Matthew - and for Adriana. For herself, Alicia hadn't thought that far; time enough to turn her mind to her own life once she'd seen her siblings safe.
Lord Marshalsea grew increasingly restless; taking pity on him, Alicia eased him into Adriana's circle, then stepped back, effacing herself as a good chaperone should. She eavesdropped, listening as Adriana handled the gentlemen surrounding her with her customary confidence. Although neither she nor Adriana had had any previous experience of the ton, of the ways of society's elite, since their appearance in town and their introduction to those exalted circles some weeks ago, they'd managed without the slightest hiccup.
Eighteen months of intensive research and their own sound commonsense had stood them in good stead. Having three much younger brothers who they'd largely reared had eradicated any tendency to panic; both jointly and individually, they'd risen to every challenge and triumphed.
Alicia was proud of them both, and increasingly hopeful of an excellent outcome to their scheme.
"Mrs. Carrington - your servant, ma'am."
The drawled words jolted her from the rosy future. Concealing her dismay, calmly turning, lips curving, she gave her hand to the gentleman bowing before her. "Mr. Ruskin. How pleasant to meet you here."
"The pleasure, I assure you dear lady, is all mine."
Straightening, Ruskin delivered the comment with an intent look and a smile that sent a warning slithering down her spine. He was a largish man, half a head taller than she and heavily built; he dressed well and had the manners of a gentleman, yet there was something about him that, even hampered by inexperience, she recognized as less than savoury.
For some ungodly reason, Ruskin had from their first meeting fixed his eye on her. If she could understand why, she'd do something to deflect it; her ever-fertile imagination painted him a snake, with her as his mesmerized prey. She'd pretended ignorance of the tenor of his attentions, had tried to be discouraging. When he'd shocked her by obliquely suggesting a carte blanche, she'd pretended not to understand; when he'd later alluded to marriage, she'd feigned deafness and spoken of something else. To no avail; he still sought her out, increasingly pointedly.
Thus far she'd avoided any declaration, thereby avoiding having outright to refuse it. Given her masquerade, she didn't want to risk an overt dismissal, didn't want to draw any attention her way; the most she dared do was behave coolly.
Ruskin's pale gaze had been traveling her face; it rose to trap hers. "If you would grant me the favor of a few minutes in private, my dear, I would be grateful."
He still held her fingers; keeping her expression noncommittal, she eased her hand free, and used it to gesture to Adriana. "I'm afraid, sir, that with my sister in my care, I really cannot-"
"Ah." Ruskin sent a glance Adriana's way, a comprehensive survey taking in the besotted lordlings and gentlemen gathered around her, and Miss Tiverton, who Adriana had taken under her wing thereby earning Lady Hertford's undying gratitude. "What I have to say will, I daresay, have some impact on your sister."
Looking back at Alicia, Ruskin met her eyes; his smile remained easy, a gentleman confident of his ground. "However, your concern is...understandable."
His gaze lifted; he scanned the room, filled with the fashionable. Lady Amery's soirée had attracted the cream of the ton; they were here in force, talking, exchanging the latest on-dits, exclaiming over the latest juicy scandal.
"Perhaps we could repair to the side of the room?" Ruskin brought his gaze back to her face. "With this noise, no one will hear us; we'll be able to talk, and you'll be able to keep your ravishingly lovely young sister safe...and in view."
Steel rang beneath his words; Alicia dismissed any thought of refusing him. Inclining her head, feigning serene indifference, she laid her fingers on his sleeve and allowed him to steer her through the crowd.
What unwelcome challenge was she about to face?
Behind her calm facade, her heart beat faster; her lungs felt tight. Had she imagined the threat in his tone?
An alcove behind a chaise filled with dowagers provided a small oasis of relative privacy. As Ruskin had said, she could still see Adriana and her court clearly. If they kept their voices low, not even the dowagers, heads close swapping scandal, would overhear.
Ruskin stood beside her, calmly looking out over the crowd. "I would suggest, my dear, that you hear me out - hear all I have to say - before making any reply."
She glanced briefly at him, then stiffly inclined her head. Lifting her fingers from his sleeve, she gripped her fan.
"I think..." Ruskin paused, then continued, "I should mention that my home lies not far from Bledington - ah, yes! I see you understand."
Alicia struggled to mask her shock. Bledington lay southwest of the market town of Chipping North; Little Compton, their village, lay to the northwest - as the crow flew there could be no more than eight miles between Little Compton and Bledington.
But Ruskin and she had never met in the country. Her family had lived a circumscribed existence, until recently never venturing beyond Chipping Norton. In embarking on her masquerade, she'd been certain no one in London would know her.
Ruskin guessed her thoughts. "We never met in the country, but I saw you and your sister when I was home last Christmas. The pair of you were crossing the market square."
She glanced up.
He caught her eye, and smiled wolfishly. "I determined, then, to have you."
Involuntarily, her eyes widened.
His smile turned selfdeprecatory. "Indeed - quite romantic." He looked back at the crowd. "I asked and was told your name - Miss Alicia Pevensey."
He paused, then shrugged. "If you hadn't appeared in London, no doubt nothing would have come of it. But you did appear, a few months later - as a widow of more than a year's standing. I wasn't fooled for a moment, but I comprehended your need of the ruse, and appreciated your courage in implementing it. It was a bold move, but one with every chance of success. I saw no reason to do other than wish you well. As my admiration for your astuteness grew, my interest in you on a personal level firmed.
"However" - his voice hardened - "when I offered you my protection, you refused. On reflection, I decided to do the honorable thing and offer for your hand. Again, however, you turned up your nose - quite why I have no notion. You seem uninterested in attaching a husband, solely concerned with watching over your sister as she makes her choice. Presumably, given you transparently have no need of funds, you've determined to make your own decision in your own time."
His gaze returned to her face. "I would suggest, my dear Mrs. Carrington, that your time has run out."
Alicia fought down the faintness, the giddiness that threatened; the room seemed to be whirling. She drew a slow breath, then asked, her tone commendably even, "What, precisely, do you mean?"
His expression remained intent. "I mean that your performance as a hoity widow in dismissing my suit was so convincing I checked my information. Today, I received a letter from old Doctor Lange. He assures me that the Pevensey sisters - both Pevensey sisters - remain unwed."
The room gyrated, heaved, then abruptly stopped.
Disaster stared her in the face.
"Indeed." Ruskin's predatory smile dawned, yet his selfdeprecation remained. "But fear not - having concluded that marrying you would be an excellent notion, nothing I've learned has changed my mind."
His gaze hardened. "So let us be clear, my dear. Mrs. Carrington cannot continue in the ton, but if you consent to become Mrs. William Ruskin, I see no reason the ton should ever learn that Mrs. Carrington did not exist. I'm renewing my offer for your hand. Should you accept, there's no reason your plan to establish the lovely Adriana will suffer so much as a hiccup." His smile faded; he held her gaze. "I trust I make myself plain?"
Triumph had turned to ashes; her mouth was dry. Moistening her lips, she fought to keep her tone even. "I believe I understand you perfectly, sir. However...I would ask for a little time to consider my reply."
His brows rose; his untrustworthy smile returned. "Of course. You may have twenty-four hours - there isn't much to consider, after all."
She sucked in a breath, frantically gathered her wits to protest.
His gaze, hard, trapped hers. "Tomorrow evening you can formally accept me - tomorrow night, I'll expect to share your bed."
Shock held her immobile, staring at his face; she searched his eyes but found no hint of any emotion worth appealing to.
When she made no reply, he bowed punctiliously. "I'll call on you tomorrow evening at nine."
Turning, he left her, strolling into the crowd.
Alicia stood frozen, her wits careening, her skin icy, her stomach hollow.
A burst of raucous laughter from the dowagers, ineffectually smothered, jerked her back to earth. She glanced across the room at Adriana. Her sister was holding her own, but had noticed her distraction; their gazes met, but when Adriana arched a brow, Alicia shook her head.
She had to regain control - of their plan, of her life. Marry Ruskin, or...she could barely take it in.
Faintness still gripped her; she felt hot one minute, cold the next. Seeing a footman passing, she requested a glass of water. He brought it promptly, eyeing her warily as if she might swoon; she forced a weak smile and thanked him.
A chair stood against the wall two yards away. She walked to it and sat, sipping her water. After a few minutes, she flicked open her fan and waved it before her face.
She had to think. Adriana was safe for the moment...
Blocking out all thought of the threat Ruskin had made, she focused on him, on what he'd said - on what he knew, and what he didn't. Why he was acting as he was, what insights that gave her, how she might press him to change his mind.
They - she, Adriana and the three boys - desperately needed Adriana to make a good match. Not with just any gentleman, but one with reasonable wealth and a sufficiently good heart not only to forgive them the deception they were practising but to provide for the boys' schooling.
They were as near to penniless as made no difference. They were well born, but had no close connections; there was just the five of them - or more correctly Alicia and Adriana to look after them all. David was only twelve years old, Harry ten and Matthew eight. Without an education, there would be no future for them.
Adriana had to be given the chance to make the match they felt certain she could. She was stunningly beautiful; the ton had already labelled her a "diamond of the first water" among other admiring epithets. She would be a hit, a wild success; once the Season proper commenced, she could take her pick from the wealthy eligibles, and she was wise enough, despite her years, to make the right choice, with Alicia's help.
One gentleman would be the right one for her, for them all, and then the family - Adriana and the three boys - would be safe.
Alicia had no other goal before her; she hadn't had for the past eighteen months, since their mother died. Their father had died years before, leaving the family with little money and few possessions.
They'd scrimped, saved and survived. And now they'd risked all on this one throw that fate, in creating Adriana's undoubted beauty, had given them. In order to do so, Alicia had behaved in ways she wouldn't otherwise countenance; she'd taken risks she never otherwise would have-and thus far won.
She'd become Mrs. Carrington, a wealthy and fashionable widow, the perfect chaperone to introduce Adriana to the ton. Hiring a professional chaperone had been out of the question - not only did they not have the funds, but to the ton, especially the upper echelons, a wealthy widow presenting her ravishing younger sister was a significantly different prospect to two provincial spinsters with a hired chaperone, one whose relative standing would have illuminated theirs.
With her masquerade in place, they'd cleared every hurdle and succeeded in insinuating themselves into the ton. The ultimate success now beckoned; all was going so well...
There had to be a way around Ruskin and his threat.
She could marry him, but the recoil the thought evoked made her cast that as a last resort; she'd return to it if and only if there was no other way.
One thing Ruskin had said clanged in her mind. He thought they had money. He'd discovered she'd never married, but he hadn't learned she was first cousin to a pauper.
What if she told him?
Would that make him turn aside from his plan, or simply place another weapon in his hands? If he learned she came with no money but only costs and responsibilities, would he decide not to marry her after all, but instead force her to become his mistress?
The thought made her nauseous. She gulped the last of her water, then rose to set the glass down on a nearby sideboard. The movement had her facing down the side of the room just as Ruskin stepped out through a pair of glass doors.
Moving into the crowd, she looked more closely. The doors, left ajar, led outside, presumably to a terrace.
The very fact she'd seen him go out into a place that would afford greater privacy hardened her resolve; she would go and speak with him. Despite what seemed an unhealthy wish to "have her", there might be some other reward he would accept in return for his silence.
It was worth a try. She did have acquaintances with money she could - or at least thought she might be able to - call on. At the very least, she might be able to talk him into giving her more time.
Tacking through the crowd, she came up beside Adriana.
With a smile at her cavaliers, her sister turned to her. "What's wrong?"
Alicia wondered again at her sister's facility for seeing straight through her. "Nothing I can't manage - I'll tell you about it later. I'm just going out onto the terrace to talk to Mr. Ruskin. I'll be back shortly.
The look in Adriana's eyes said she had many more questions but accepted she couldn't ask them now. "Alright, but be careful. He's a toad, if not worse."
"I say, Mrs. Carrington, will you and Miss Pevensey be attending the opening night at the Theatre Royal?"
Young Lord Middleton was as eager as a spaniel; Alicia returned a vague answer, exchanged a few more comments, then slid out of the group and headed for the glass doors.
As she'd surmised, they gave onto a terrace overlooking the gardens. The doors had been left ajar to let air into the crowded and overheated drawing room; slipping through, she drew them almost closed behind her, then shrugging her shawl over her shoulders, looked about.
It was mid-March and chilly; she was glad of the shawl. Not surprisingly, there were no others strolling in the still and frosty night. She glanced around, expecting to see Ruskin, perhaps indulging in a cigarillo, but the terrace, overhung with shadows, was empty. Walking to the balustrade, she surveyed the gardens. No Ruskin. Had he chosen to leave the soirée by this route?
She glanced down along the path which, from its direction, she assumed led to a gate giving onto the street.
A flash of movement caught her eye.
She peered, and glimpsed a man-sized shadow in the gloom beneath a huge tree beside the path. The tree was massive, the shadows beneath it dense, but she thought the man had just sat down. Perhaps there was a seat there and Ruskin had gone to sit and smoke, or to think.
Of tomorrow night.
The idea had her stiffening her spine. Pulling her shawl tight, she descended the steps and set off along the path.
* * *
With every step Tony took along Park Street, his resistance to attending his godmother's soirée and smiling and chatting and doing the pretty with a gaggle of young ladies with whom he had nothing in common - and who, if they knew the man he truly was, would probably faint - waxed stronger. Indeed, his reluctance over the whole damn business was veering toward the despondent.
Not by the wildest, most exaggerated flight of fancy could he imagine being married to any of the young beauties thus far paraded before him. They were...too young. Too innocent, too untouched by life. He felt no connection with them whatsoever.
The fact that they - each and every one - would happily accept his suit if he chose to favor them, and think themselves blessed, raised definite questions as to their intelligence. He was not, had never been, an easy man; one look should tell any sane woman that. He would not be an easy husband. The position of his wife was one that would demand a great deal of its holder, an aspect of which the sweet young things seemed to have no inkling.
Not so many years ago, the thought of searching for her would have had him laughing. He hadn't imagined finding a wife was something that would unduly exercise him - when he needed to marry, the right lady would be there, miraculously waiting.
He hadn't, then, appreciated just how important, how vital her role vis à vis himself would be.
Now he was faced with that anticipated need to marry - and an even greater need to find the right wife - but the right lady had thus far shown no inclination even to make an appearance. He had no idea what she might look like, or be like, what aspects of her character or personality would be the vital clue - the crucial elements in her that he needed.
He wanted a wife. The restlessness that seemed to enmesh his very soul left him in no doubt of that, but exactly what he wanted, let alone why... that was the point on which he'd run aground.
Identify the target. The first rule in planning any successful sortie.
Until he succeeded in satisfying that requirement, he couldn't even start his campaign; the frustration irked, fueling his habitual impatience. Hunting a wife was ten times worse that hunting spies had ever been.
His footsteps echoed. Another, distant footfall sounded; his agent's senses, still very much a part of him, flaring to full attention, he looked up.
Through the mist wreathing the street, he saw a man, well-muffled in coat and hat and carrying a cane, step away from the garden gate of...Amery House. The man was too far away to recognize, and walked quickly away in the opposite direction.
Tony's godmother's house stood at the corner of Park and Green Streets, facing Green Street. The garden gate opened to a path leading up to the drawing room terrace.
By now the soirée would be in full swing. The thought of the feminine chatter, the high-pitched laughter, the giggles, the measuring glances of the matrons, the calculation in so many eyes, welled and pressed down on him.
On his left, the garden gate drew nearer. The temptation to take that route, to slip inside without any announcement, to mingle and quickly look over the field, then perhaps to retreat before even his godmother knew he was there, surfaced...and grew.
Closing his hand on the wrought iron latch, he lifted it. The gate swung soundlessly open; passing through, he closed it quietly behind him. Through the silent garden, heavily shadowed by large and ancient trees, the sound of conversation and laughter drifted down to him.
Mentally girding his loins, he drew in a deep breath, then quickly climbed the steep flight of steps that led up to the level of the garden.
Through ingrained habit, he moved silently.
The woman crouching by the side of the man lying sprawled on his back, shoulders propped against the trunk of the largest tree in the garden, didn't hear him.
The tableau exploded into Tony's vision as he gained the top of the steps. Senses instantly alert, fully deployed, he paused.
Slim, svelte, gowned for the evening in silk, her dark hair piled high, with a silvery shawl wrapped about her shoulders and clutched tight with one hand, the lady slowly, very slowly, rose. In her other hand, she held a long, scalloped stilletto; streaks of blood beaded on the wicked blade.
She held the dagger by the hilt, loosely grasped between her fingers, pointing downward. She stared at the blade as if it were a snake.
A drop of dark liquid fell from the dagger's point.
The lady shuddered.
Tony stepped forward, driven by an urge to take her in his arms; catching himself, he halted. Sensing his presence, she looked up.
A delicate, heart-shaped face, complexion as pale as snow, dark eyes wide with shock, looked blankly at him.
Then, with a visible effort, she gathered herself. "I think he's dead."
Her tone was flat; her voice shook. She was battling hysterics; he was thankful she was winning.
Tamping down that impulsive urge to soothe her, shield her, a ridiculously primitive feeling but unexpectedly powerful, he walked closer. Forcing his gaze from her, he scanned the body, then reached for the dagger. She surrendered it with a shudder, not just of shock but of revulsion.
"Where was it?" He kept his tone impersonal, businesslike. He crouched down, waited.
After an instant, she responded, "In his left side. It had fallen almost out...I didn't realize..." Her voice started to rise, became thready and died.
Stay calm. He willed the order at her; a cursory examination confirmed she was right on both counts. The man was dead; he'd been knifed very neatly, a single deadly thrust between the ribs from the back. "Who is he - do you know?"
"A Mr. Ruskin - William Ruskin."
He glanced at her sharply. "You knew him."
He hadn't thought it possible, but her eyes widened even more. "No!"
Alicia caught her breath, closed her eyes, fought to summon her wits. "That is..." - she opened her eyes again - "only to speak to. Socially. At the soirée..."
Waving back at the house, she dragged in a breath and rushed on, "I came out for some air. A headache...there was no one out here. I thought to wander..." Her gaze slid to Ruskin's body. She gulped. "Then I found him."
Ruskin had threatened her, her plan, her family's future. He'd been blackmailing her-and now he was dead. His blood oozed in a black pool by his side, stained the dagger now in the stranger's hand. It was a struggle to take everything in, to know even what she felt, let alone how best to react.
The unknown gentleman rose. "Did you see anyone leaving?"
She stared at him. "No." She glanced around, suddenly aware of the deep silence of the gardens. Abruptly, she swung her gaze back to him.
Tony sensed her sudden thought, her rising panic. Was irritated by it. "No - I didn't kill him."
His tone reassured her; her sudden tenseness faded.
He glanced again at the corpse, then at her; he waved back up the path. "Come. We must go in and tell them."
She blinked, but didn't move.
He reached for her elbow. She permitted him to take it, let him turn her unresisting, and steer her back toward the terrace. She moved slowly, clearly still in shock. He glanced at her pale face, but the shadows revealed little. "Did Ruskin have a wife, do you know?"
She started; he felt the jerk through his hold on her arm. From beneath her lashes, she cast him a shocked glance. "No." Her voice was tight, strained; she looked ahead. "No wife."
If anything, she'd paled even more. He prayed she wouldn't swoon, at least not before he got her inside. Appearing at his godmother's soirée via the terrace doors with a lady senseless in his arms would create a stir even more intense than murder.
She started shaking as they went up the steps, but she clung to her composure with a grim determination he was experienced enough to admire.
The terrace doors were ajar; they walked into the drawing room without attracting any particular attention. Finally in good light, he looked down at her, studied her features, the straight, finely chiseled nose, lips a trifle too wide, yet full, lush and tempting. She was above average in height, her dark hair piled high in gleaming coils exposing the delicate curve of her nape and the fine bones of her shoulders.
Instinct quivered; deep within him, primitive emotion stirred. Sexual attraction was only part of it; again, the urge to draw her close, to keep her close, welled.
She looked up, met his gaze. Her eyes were more green than hazel, large and well-set under arched brows; they were presently wide, their expression dazed, almost haunted.
Fortunately, she seemed in no danger of succumbing to the vapors. Spying a chair along the wall, he guided her to it; she sank down with relief. "I must speak with Lady Amery's butler. If you'll remain here, I'll send a footman with a glass of water."
Alicia lifted her eyes to his face. To his velvet black eyes, to the concern and the focus she sensed behind his expression, behind the masklike, chiseled, haughtily angular planes. His was the most strikingly attractive masculine face she'd ever seen; he was the most startlingly attractive man she'd ever met, elegant, graceful, and strong. It was his strength she was most aware of; when he'd taken her arm and walked beside her, her senses had drunk it in.
Looking up at him, into his eyes, she drew on that strength again, and felt the horror they'd left outside recede even further. The reality around them came into sharper focus; a glass of water, a moment to compose herself, and she'd manage. "If you would...thank you."
That "thank you" was for far more than the glass of water.
He bowed, then turned and headed across the room.
Suppressing an inner wrench, not just reluctance but real resistance to leaving her, Tony found a footman and dispatched him to revive her, then, ignoring the many who tried to catch his eye, he found Clusters, the Amerys' butler, and pulled him into the library to explain the situation and give the necessary orders.
He'd been visiting Amery House since he'd been six months old; the staff knew him well. They acted on his orders, summoning his lordship from the cardroom and her ladyship from the drawing room, and sending a footman running for the Watch.
He wasn't entirely surprised by the ensuing circus; his godmother was French, after all, and in this instance she was ably supported by the Watch captain, a supercilious sort who saw difficulties where none existed. Having taken the man's measure with one glance, Tony omitted mentioning the lady's presence. There was, in his view, no reason to expose her to further and unnecessary trauma; given the dead man's size and the way she'd held the dagger, it was difficult if not impossible to convincingly cast her as the killer.
The man he'd seen leaving the grounds via the garden gate was much more likely to have done the deed.
Besides, he didn't know the lady's name.
That thought was uppermost in his mind when, finally free of the responsibility of finding a murdered man, he returned to the drawing room and discovered her gone. She wasn't where he'd left her; he scouted the rooms, but she was no longer among the guests.
The crowd had thinned appreciably. No doubt she'd been with others, perhaps a husband, and they'd had to leave....
The possibility put a rein on his thoughts, dampened his enthusiasm. Extricating himself from the coils of a particularly tenacious matron with two daughters to marry off, he stepped into the hall, and headed for the front door.
On the front steps, he paused, and drew in a deep breath. The night was crisp; a sharp frost hung in the air.
His mind remained full of the lady.
He was conscious of a certain disappointment. He hadn't expected her gratitude, yet he wouldn't have minded a chance to look into those wide green eyes again, to have them focus on him when they weren't glazed with shock.
To look deep and see if she, too, had felt that stirring, that quickening in the blood, the first flicker of heat.
In the distance a bell tolled the hour. Drawing in another breath, he went down the steps and headed home.
* * *
Home was a quiet, silent place, a huge old house with only him in it. Along with his staff, who were usually zealous in preserving him from all undue aggravation.
It was therefore a rude shock to be shaken awake by his father's valet, who he'd inherited along with the title, and informed that there was a gentleman downstairs wishful of speaking with him even though it was only nine o'clock.
When asked to state his business, the gentleman had replied that his name was Dalziel and their master would assuredly see him.
Accepting that no one in their right mind would claim to be Dalziel if they weren't, Tony grumbled mightily but consented to rise and get dressed.
Curiosity propelled him downstairs; in the past, he and his peers had always been summoned to wait on Dalziel in his office in Whitehall. Of course, he was no longer one of Dalziel's minions, yet he couldn't help feeling that alone would not account for Dalziel's courtesy in calling on him.
Even if it was just past nine o'clock.
Entering the library where Hungerford, his butler, had left Dalziel to kick his heels, the first thing he became aware of was the aroma of fresh coffee; Hungerford had served Dalziel a cup.
Nodding to Dalziel, elegantly disposed in an armchair, he went straight to the bellpull and tugged. Then he turned and, propping an arm along the mantelpiece, faced Dalziel, who had set down his cup and was waiting.
"I apologize for the early hour, but I understand from Whitley that you discovered a dead body last night."
Tony looked into Dalziel's dark brown eyes, half hidden by heavy lids, and wondered if such occurrences ever slipped past his attention. "I did. Pure chance. What's your - or Whitley's - interest?"
Lord Whitley was Dalziel's opposite number in the Home Office; Tony had been one, possibly the only, member of Dalziel's group ever to have liaised with agents run by Whitley. Their mutual targets had been the spy networks operating out of London, attempting to undermine Wellington's campaigns.
"The victim, William Ruskin, was a Senior Administrative Clerk in the Customs and Revenue Office." Dalziel's expression remained uninformative; his dark gaze never wavered. "I came to inquire whether there was any story I should know?"
A Senior Administrative Clerk in the Customs and Revenue Office; recalling the stiletto, an assassin's blade, Tony was no longer truly sure. He refocused on Dalziel's face. "I don't believe so."
He knew that Dalziel would have noted his hesitation; equally, he knew that his erstwhile commander would accept his assessment.
Dalziel did, with an inclination of his head. He rose. Met Tony's eyes. "If there's any change in the situation, do let me know."
With a polite nod, he headed for the door.
Tony saw him into the hall and handed him into the care of a footman; retreating to the library, he wondered, as he often had, just who Dalziel really was. Like recognized like; he was certainly of the aristocracy, with his finely hewn Norman features, pale skin and sable hair, yet Tony had checked enough to know Dalziel wasn't his last name. Dalziel was slightly shorter and leaner than the men he had commanded, all ex-guardsmen, yet he projected an aura of lethal purpose that, in a roomful of larger men, would instantly mark him as the most dangerous.
The one man a wise man would never take his eye from.
The door to the street shut; a second later, Hungerford appeared with a tray bearing a steaming cup of coffee. Tony took it with a grateful murmur; like all excellent butlers, Hungerford always seemed to know what he required without having to be told.
"Shall I ask Cook to send up your breakfast, my lord?"
He nodded. "Yes - I'll be going out shortly."
Hungerford asked no more, but silently left him.
Tony savored the coffee, along with the premonition Dalziel's appearance and his few words had sent tingling along his nerves.
He was too wise to ignore or dismiss the warning, yet, in this case, he wasn't personally involved.
But she might be.
Dalziel's query gave him the perfect excuse to learn more of her. Indeed, given Whitehall's interest, it seemed incumbent upon him to do so. To assure himself that there wasn't anything more nefarious than murder behind Ruskin's death.
He needed to find the lady. Cherchez la femme.