Twenty years ago
The little girl tiptoed past the door to her father’s study, listening to the familiar sound of raised voices. Her parents were always serene when she was around them. She’d always wondered at that—their ability to put on their smiles in public and take them off again just as quickly behind closed doors.
Usually she hurried past when she heard them yelling, but today curiosity overtook her fear and she paused, putting her little face against the keyhole and peering into the darkened room. It was hard to see much at first, and her eye kept jumping away from the keyhole, but at last she took hold of the handle and the doorframe to steady herself and watched the events unfolding inside.
Her mother was sitting in the center of the room, her legs crossed primly beneath silken skirts as usual. Her father was pacing in and out of the frame left by the keyhole, agitated. The little girl loved his kindness and gentle manner—how he would take her on his lap and comment on her dark curls and her plump cheeks; two traits that she had not inherited from her mother, who had always been a frail and light-haired woman. He didn’t look like that same kind man now. He marched stiffly, his hands moving in jerky motions as he talked.
“I won’t speak with you about this again.”
“She has to go.” The girl’s mother pursed her lips together. “That was our agreement.”
“Where will she go? It’s our job to offer her a place to work and live—we owe her that much.”
“No, you owe her that much. You’re the one that took advantage of her.”
“I didn’t take advantage.” The little girl’s father stopped suddenly in the room, full in the view of the keyhole. “Of this I assure you.”
“Well, she’s an insult to me now. She’s careless and insolent, and it’s not as though she gives two figs about her daughter. She only thinks if she stays long enough she can have you back again.” There was a little break in the girl’s mother’s voice. The little girl stood up a little further and pressed herself up on tip toes so she could peer at her mother’s face. It reminded her of one of her dolls—porcelain white—and she thought for a moment she could see tiny cracks shivering across the surface. Then everything hardened again. “I won’t stand for it any more. If you wish to avoid a scandal, you will send her away.”
“And what will she do then?”
“Give her a good reference and a generous amount of money. What else is to be done?”
The little girl tried to stand up further, but her little feet were aching with the effort. All in a moment they buckled beneath her and she fell, catching hold of the latch as she did so and spinning into the room. She heard her mother’s sharp intake of breath, and saw an exchanged look between her parents before her father’s arms were around her, scolding and helping her out into the hallway beyond.
“What were you thinking of? It isn’t good to listen at doors.”
The little girl looked at her father’s face in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Papa. I only heard shouting and wondered…”
“Everything’s quite alright, Margaret,” her mother’s voice came floating quietly from the room beyond. “Only a little disagreement. Hurry on up to bed and forget about it all—it’s nothing to worry your pretty little head.”
This is the problem with people always telling little girls to hurry away and mind their own business, Margaret thought bitterly, when it’s their turn to manage business, they’ve no idea what to do.
She was standing in front of the shepherd’s house on the corner of the property, shoulder to shoulder with the older gentleman in his tweed cap and trousers, surveying the livestock in front of her and trying her best to keep her mind on what the man was saying.
“As you can see our ram’s got good legs on him, and we’ve already had him checked for the disease. Breeding should be quite alright. We have the fiber ewes over yonder, and some mutton back behind the house. I’m sorry to say we had to break off a few sheep last week who had pale gums and bottlejaw.”
“Bottle jaw?” Margaret cleared her throat, trying desperately to keep up. Did “fiber ewe” mean something she should know?
“Right so, shows a parasite with lumps under the chin. We have to clear the field they were in and remove the bad sheep.”
“How much will it set us back?”
“No more than usual, miss, but I’ve not done a real culling yet.” He cleared his throat. “But you let the agent take some of my pastureland for new tenants, and I’m afraid I’ve not enough to support our usual flock.”
“We have grass everywhere.” Margaret looked around helplessly. “And I told the agent he couldn’t take on new tenants besides.”
The shepherd shrugged, chewing on a bit of grass. “We can’t use just anything for mutton of this grade. High quality pasture is needed, and a god pasture will carry five ewes and eight lambs per acre for the season. It’s got to have legume and grass mixtures.”
Margaret was reminded quite suddenly of her childhood, when she’d been sitting in front of a governess every day trying to decipher the woman’s French lessons.
Je n’aime pas étudier. She’d always thought it rude when her governess required her to repeat that phrase over and over when she was having difficulty, but it had been more or less true. She didn’t like to study, and her parents had never really enforced that she do the work. She often thought of herself as rather dense, but she couldn’t be sure of this since she’d never really applied herself. Now, facing the sole management of her father’s estate after his death, she thought for the first time that she actually wanted to learn—and she had absolutely no skills to do that.
“What do you think about the agent?” she asked the shepherd, turning to him with an open, hopeful expression. “I tried to be rid of him but it did no good. He seems not to listen to my leadership at all.”
Margaret didn’t know what she was expecting in response, but the shepherd’s blank, silent stare wasn’t it. She nodded and swallowed hard, realizing how truly alone she was.
“Never you mind. I don’t mean to put you in an uncomfortable situation. Please, tell me how things improve as we go along.”
She felt guilty walking away from the old man. Perhaps it would have been kinder to tell him the truth, that all these meeting and updates were more or less a charade—Margaret knew that soon the estate would have to go. She remembered the little card she’d received two nights before and the horrifying realization that she was still being blackmailed even after Jerome’s incarceration had crashed in on her like a wave. The sum of money the blackmailer was requiring was monstrous, and she could think of no way that she would be able to make it up except by finding a way to merge her estate with another’s.
“Marriage,” she said aloud to herself. “That’s what it’s called, Margaret—the merging of two estates. You have to find someone to marry.”
She’d seen this plenty of times before, women marrying wealthy men and immediately using their newfound position and money to purchase for themselves gowns and jewels for every occasion. This, Margaret could use. She could sell of whatever she bought and pay off the debt little by little. There was just that other clause in the blackmail that would prove a difficulty. That clause sent a shiver up her spine even when she thought about it.
She reached the house with a bit of mud from the shepherd’s fields on her skirts and shoes and a chill beginning to settle into her bones. The house looked enormous and empty. She’d let most of her servants go, keeping only her butler and her cook for the time being, and they’d closed off huge wings of the house to avoid having to clean the entire place. It was the wisest thing to do, Margaret knew, but she still couldn’t help feeling that her home had become a tomb. There was no longer the cheerful sound of maids moving from room to room as they went about their duties; the giggles of the livery boys playing games outside in the courtyard, or the sour commands of the housekeeper giving the footmen something more to do with their time.
At the top of the stairs, the butler met Margaret with a tight expression on his old face. “Miss Hayward, you received another letter in the mail.”
Margaret’s heart lurched at the words, but she tried to keep her face impassive. “Thank you. Please have it brought into the parlor. I’ll have my tea there as well.” She wondered how much longer she would be able to pay the old man’s salary, and, with that added stab of guilt, hurried away from him as she’d hurried away from the shepherd.
In the parlor, she was pulled up short by a glimpse of herself in the mirror overhanging the fireplace. She hardly recognized herself. The anxiety of Jerome Colbourne’s blackmail—which had involved a deception during which the villain had pretended to be her vicar, the revelation after many years that she was a bastard child, and the kidnapping of her good friend Lucille Barrington—had drained some of that childish expression from her face. She was a bit shorter and curvier than the two Lockridge twins had ever been, but she’d always had a bright-eyed appeal and was considered to be quite pretty in her circles. Looking at her face now, she saw her cheeks were a bit sunken and her eyes looked haunted.
“Because I am haunted,” she whispered to herself. “I’m haunted by a ghost I can’t escape, no matter how I try.”
Lucille and Sarah had done their best to help her escape Colbourne’s clutches, even putting the man in prison for his crimes, but only a few days ago Margaret had received a letter from some unknown accomplice of the villain who claimed to have the very same blackmail and furthered the demands for money…and the other thing. The thing she couldn’t imagine.
“Miss?” It was the butler, scurrying in with a tea tray and a little bow. Lucille felt badly that a man who had once run a great house, out of loyalty to her deceased father and departed mother, had stooped to the duties of a maid and footman rather than leave her to find lesser staff. “I brought your tea, and the letter is there as well.”
“Thank you. Please put it here on the desk.”
She sat down and poured herself a cup, but her hand froze on the handle of the pot when her eyes fell on the handwriting. She didn’t know to whom it belonged, but she had seen it before and knew at once what the letter’s contents would be.
“Please allow me some privacy,” she said, hoping her voice wasn’t shaking as much as she feared it was. “I will call you again when I’m quite finished here.”
When the door had shut firmly behind the older man, she set down the tea pot and pulled the letter from the tray with nervous fingers. Her throat felt dry and cold. She ripped open the letter and read quickly, forcing herself to focus on every word and not rush through important details out of fear.
I’m sorry to have taken a few days to write you again. I know your mind must be spinning with questions of who I am and how I know about your bastard heritage. Forgive the language; I assume in these letters, at least, we can attempt to be truthful about your true nature. It’s a pity your father couldn’t keep his hands off that farm girl—but all that is not my business.
My business is the sum I included and the time in which I expect it to be given to me. My terms haven’t changed. If you don’t pay up, I will be forced to reveal to everyone your true station. You will not be able to hold onto your father’s land or titles when it is determined that you are illegitimate, Miss Hayward. Do you know what happens to the spawn of mistresses when they are discovered? They’re left alone and destitute.
So you will present the money, and you will present it soon. And don’t forget the most important part of my request. You will find a way, Miss Hayward, to free Jerome Colbourne from his prison cell. Until you have done these two things, the blackmail will hang over you like a sword of Damocles.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
The letter was unsigned. Margaret set it down, the last few sentences still running through her mind. That was the worst of it, wasn’t it? Jerome Colbourne, the deceitful man who had kidnapped Lucille, threatened Margaret, and bore a significant grudge against Reginald Barrington, would have to be free and dangerous again before the whole issue of her name would be cleared of the blackmail leveled against her.
She put her head in her hands, and the tears began to come again. They had come and gone over the last few days, and she’d thought about reaching back out to Lucille and Sarah. Every time she did, however, she remembered how Lucille had looked when Jerome had brought her in for the ransom—pale, battered, and frightened. And then Reginald, shot through the leg trying to come to his wife’s aid. No, this was her own trouble, and just because the solution hadn’t been tidy the last time didn’t mean she could draw everyone else into her difficulty.
The safest thing to do was to marry, and marry soon. With a wealthy husband, she could hope to pay off the ransom, and she would have a bit of protection. How much protection—if word of her heritage were to get out—was yet to be seen. But at least she wouldn’t be alone.
She thought briefly of her cousin Rose, who had some interest in the Hayward name remaining pure, but then shook her head at once. When Rose’s brother Samuel had been brought in for murder and conspiracy to kill Edgar Lockridge, the ill-fated father of the Sarah and Lucille and Edmund, Rose had not quite recovered from it all. Though she hadn’t been involved in Edgar’s death, she was still angry that Samuel had been arrested at the behest of Margaret and her friends. She hadn’t spoken to Margaret since then, and wouldn’t likely be willing to offer any aid.
No. Marriage was the only option. Though Margaret continued to fool herself into thinking she had no one yet in mind, that wasn’t quite true. She did have someone. The London Season was about to begin, and it would be the best place to find a husband. At the center of all those sparkling ladies looking for a wealthy match would be Edmund Lockridge, the handsome, broad-shouldered son of Edgar. He’d managed to fall far from his father’s influence and was an honorable man, if not a bit quiet and sober. He was also reputed to be incredibly wealthy, something that Margaret had known after growing up alongside he and his sisters. The Lockridge name was synonymous with wealth and position. For a time, when Edgar had been alive, it had also been synonymous with deceit and fear-mongering, but all that was behind the children now.
Margaret laid aside the blackmail note and walked to the mirror, staring at her haggard expression in the mirror.
“It’s no use complaining any further, Maggie,” she said to herself. “You aren’t going to have anyone come rescue you this time. It’s your job to go out and find rescue for yourself.”
She reached up and unpinned her luxurious brown curls, letting her aching head rest from the weight of them piled up atop her head. She pinched her cheeks to add a bit of color.
“You have to go out there and win him,” she said. She didn’t specify “Edmund,” but his name was spinning in her consciousness nonetheless. She’d always fancied him, after all, and though she knew he’d never felt the same way about her, she couldn’t resist hoping that the façade of her family name and title and the familiarity of their friendship would be enough to win his approval for the match.
A small voice in the back of her head told her that if she were to simply walk up to Edmund ask him for help he would give her the money she needed. He was a kind man, after all, especially when he broke free from his father’s influence. The thought, however, arose in Margaret feelings of pride and she couldn’t bring herself to ask.
“You are not a beggar,” she said, remembering how foolish she’d felt talking with the agent the day before. “And you aren’t to be pushed around any longer. This is the simplest solution, and you’ll be kind to Edmund, after all.” She thought of his pale hair and bright green eyes; of the intensity in his gaze when he’d watched everything happening with Lucille’s kidnapping. She wondered if it was fair to add to the score of pain she’d brought against his family by trapping him into a marriage were he would be required to level his family’s fortune in her defense.
She felt that stab of guilt again, stronger this time, but she pushed it away. After all, she was becoming well-acquainted with guilt.
“Lord Crowan is here to see you, my lord.” The butler bowed low and moved aside to show Reginald Barrington standing in the doorway, his lean frame leaning against a cane. He’d used one before for style purposes, but ever since Jerome Colbourne’s crippling shot to his leg, he’d leaned against it for support.
Edmund stood from behind his desk, pushing the bank notes he’d been perusing quickly out of sight. He tried to keep a smile on his face, though frustration was beginning to emanate from him as it tended to do when he went over the books and tried to sort out his father’s indiscretions.
“What an unexpected surprise,” he said stiffly.
“Don’t look so happy to see me,” Reginald said with a sarcastic smile.
“I’m sorry,” Edmund ran his hand along his forehead and sighed. “I have some things on my mind.”
“You always seem to have things on your mind as of late. I heard what happened in the House of Lords yesterday.”
“Why weren’t you there?”
“Vacationing with your sister in the north. I only just returned.”
Edmund sat down again in frustration and Reginald followed suit, claiming the settee at the far end of the room and creaking into it with difficulty. Reginald let out a sigh and tilted his head back.
“Does your leg pain you much?” Edmund asked.
“There are some mornings where I really do wonder why hard liqueur isn’t acceptable earlier in the day.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Edmund run for the maid. “But I’m afraid all I can offer you at present is some strong tea.”
“Actually, do you have any of the coffee from the Americas?” Reginald asked, closing his eyes. “I’m starting to take to that black stuff, though it’s a bit hard on the outset.”
“Hard on the outset?” Edmund sniffed as the maid came into the room. “It’s dirt steeped in boiling water, nothing more. Annie, would you bring us a pot of good English tea?”
“Yes, my lord.”
She curtsied and was gone. Reginald smiled wryly. “Way to deny an injured man his one request.”
“Why do I have the feeling a bit of dirt drink isn’t you’re only request today?” Edmund swung around and pulled out his pen, dipping it in the ink and scribbling a few notes onto a piece of paper. “You look like a man on the mention, Lord Crowan.”
“I thought we were over all that ‘Lord Crowan’ nonsense,” Reginald said. He was attempting to look languid, but he’d taught Edmund that very trick when he was training him for the House of Lords. Edmund could see that he was anything but at ease. “Call me Reginald.”
“Tell me what you came to say.”
“Perhaps, but before you change the subject, I’d like to talk about what happened in the House of Lords yesterday.” Reginald winked and smiled wryly. “Did you think I’d forgotten, lad?”
Edmund pursed his lips together. He thought he had, in fact. He thought he’d thrown the man off the embarrassing topic, but apparently Reginald’s nose for wrongdoing hadn’t gone away when he’d ceded his role as the secret trader in the House of Lords. Lucille had insisted on it after Reginald was shot in the leg protecting her from Jerome Colbourne’s bullet, and, in truth, Edmund thought that Reginald was happy enough to set aside the role. He’d spent years buying and selling secrets, diffusing blackmail, and keeping his fingers in the lives of strangers. It was wearying work, and Edmund would know—Reginald had passed the torch to him.
“It’s your own fault,” he said, a little more sullen than he’d intended to be. “You told me that I needed to keep an eye on the right wing of the room; that they’d rise up against any bill that tried to elevate the lower classes, and I thought a preemptive strike was necessary.”
“A preemptive strike,” Reginald repeated slowly, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth; ill concealed. “And you thought that what you did was preemptive? It sounded to me more like a declaration of war.”
“He was speaking of the women of the night who patrol the lower streets of London as though they were scum; talking about how they should all be swept off and sent away to Australia, and I just couldn’t take it—not when I knew what I did about his own history with those women. Do you know he beat three of them within an inch of their life? None will ever go to the constabulary, but they’re people too who deserve representation.”
“So you chose to speak about this in front of the entire House of Lords.”
Edmund swallowed, his ire rising again at the memory. “You should have seen how self-satisfied Lord Melton was when he was talking about these women, as though he was so much above them. Well, he’s not.”
“No,” Reginald said slowly, “he’s below them. He’s the violent one, and the liar at that. I know what you mean, but a secret trader is a very different thing from a secret sharer. You should have been more careful and bided your time.”
Edmund felt a bitter taste rising in his mouth. He knew Reginald was a good man, but sometimes his justification for the secret underhanded dealings in Parliament sounded an awful like Edgar Lockridge’s excuses. “I don’t much like the lies and deceit,” he said quietly. “And I don’t wish to discuss this topic any further.”
Reginald nodded and fell silent for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was almost parental. “Edmund, lad, you’ve done well these past months, but remember that I’m here to help. So is Lord Whitehall. He plans to come by later this week and see you—perhaps we could help with the books? I see that you’re in need of help. I know you laid off some of your staff last week, and I also know that look of worry on your face.”
Edmund tightened his jaw. He was thankful for his two brother in laws and all the aid they had provided since the death of his father, but he was growing frustrated with how often they interjected themselves into his life, not because he didn’t need the help, but because he was afraid of what they would find.
The truth was written in the ledgers and bank notes that he so often hid from view when they arrived. The truth: that Edgar Lockridge, for all his insistence on the poor being self-sustainable and fending for themselves, was a massive hypocrite who had taken out loan after loan that he couldn’t repay and wagered against his means. The Lockridge estate, once so lucrative, was now a shell of its former glory. There were still enough staff to keep up pretenses, but Edmund had sold most of the expensive items he could find in the house and was now walking from room to room with only a few pieces of furniture and bare walls to keep him company. All the money that wasn’t spent to paying off the debts was spent to keep the few workers remaining afloat. Edmund had shown Reginald his initial problem, but now all Reginald and Lord Whitehall, Augustus Sutton, wanted to do was help him out of his predicament with their own substantial fortunes.
Edmund could not stand for this.
“I know you’re trying to help,” he said through clenched teeth, “but I cannot take charity.”
“Then don’t call it charity, my lad,” Reginald said kindly. “Call it a loan. You can pay me back when the estate is on its feet again.”
“I have enough to keep the estate running,” Edmund said. “And we will begin making our money back slowly, bit by bit. It will be slow going, but I am confident with good management that the Lockridge estate will not go under.” He sighed. “Loans are what got my father in this place in the first place. He didn’t want to do the hard work to pay for his gambling habits and speculation and so he just borrowed more and more. I can live with a simpler house and no hosted parties for a time.”
Reginald’s face was, as usual, difficult to read. Edmund couldn’t tell if that was a look of satisfaction or sadness in his brother in law’s eyes. At last, the man gave a stiff smile and rose, lifting himself up on the end of his cane.
“I respect what you’re doing, Edmund. I just don’t want you to forget that there’s no shame in asking for a little help from people that really care about you.”
Edmund nodded, his throat feeling full with his anxiety and emotion. He was thankful for Reginald’s aid—really he was. He knew that his sisters and their husbands only wanted to aid in any way they could. Still, he wanted to do this by himself.
Three nights later, the sun had just gone down over the horizon and plunged the Lockridge estate into a murky gloom when Edmund heard his butler hurrying away to answer the door again. He’d sent a message to Augustus Sutton asking that he do away with his intended visit—claiming to be a bit overwhelmed by tasks and unable to receive guests, and he was surprised that Augustus, who seemed so generally careful to follow people’s wishes, had gone against him almost at once.
When the butler entered, however, it was not Lord Whitehall of whom he spoke. It was the lady.
“Your sisters are here to see you, sir, Lady Whitehall and Lady Crowan.”
Edmund raised his eyebrows in confusion. It was far too late in the evening for a proper social call. He shrugged. “Send them in.”
“Of course we sent ourselves in,” Sarah said with a little laugh, bursting from behind the butler into the room with Lucille trailing behind. “This did used to be our house, after all. It’s not as though I’ve forgotten how to get to the parlor. Although, brother, I must say it’s beginning to look a little sparse in here. Did you do away with the grand gilt piece in the front hall?”
Edmund looked up at the picture of his two sisters framed in the doorway. Lucille and Sarah were identical twins, and most people had difficulty telling them apart even when they were standing side by side. After years as their little brother, though, he’d learned the tricks. They both had white-blond hair and large green eyes and were exactly the same height, but Sarah often had a light of mischief in her eyes—Sarah had the temper and work darker clothes and spoke when she should remain quiet. Sarah made things happen. Lucille used to be the shy, frightened sister, but since her marriage to Reginald she’d gained an austere confidence. There was wisdom and bravery in her demeanor now, and she seemed to always have some secret tucked up her sleeve. Today, her hair was also up, and she wore a pale white gown with long silk gloves over her arms.
“You two are dressed rather fine for a trip to see your brother,” Edmund said, standing and giving both girls his attention. He tried to keep his eyes on them, but even as he talked he felt them slipping back to the pile of papers and bookkeeping littering his desk.
Lucille, ever the quick study, cleared her throat. “I see you wish to return to your business. I know that things have been difficult lately, brother.”
Edmund felt a twinge of annoyance. “I suppose your husbands are as loose with their information as you are with your sympathies. They must have told you that I’m busy and that I’ve committed the cardinal sin of refusing their worthy assistance.” He turned back around, not even caring how rude it might seem to them. “Perhaps they are right. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not in the mood to be coddled at present.”
“Good.” He heard Sarah’s quick step accompanying her voice across the room, and in a moment she’d spun around into his line of vision, her slender arm perched on her hip. “Because we are not here to coddle you, brother. I’m afraid it wouldn’t do you any good, anyway, and we aren’t so dense as to think you would accept our assistance. No, we’re here because we arrived at the very door of Lady Winters’ ball this evening and heard that you’d already sent your regrets and informed her that you wouldn’t be in attendance.”
“I’m too busy tonight. I can’t be travelling across town to a ball.”
“Across town?” Lucille joined her sister with a little laugh. “The Winters estate is just around the corner. You’re neighbors, Edmund.”
“I don’t think that I’d be very good company. I’d bring the party down.”
“Perhaps, with that attitude. But if you were able to leave some of your financial woes behind for an evening, you might find your perspective broadening and softening a bit. As it is, you are wearied by your worries, and it is this very quality that compounds upon your social engagements.”
“Would you have me be like Father?” Edmund stood suddenly from his desk, almost too tired to be truly angry. “Would you have me prize the House of Lords and social functions and appearances so much that I filled my days with expensive avenues and then saddled my family with debt afterwards?”
Lucille came forward and laid a soothing hand on her brother’s arm. “Of course not.” She smiled tenderly. “But Edmund, you could never be like that. You are much more level headed and wise than our father ever was. You’re kind, and you’re thoughtful, and you’re not at all wasteful. I don’t think you’d ever touch speculation with a ten foot pole, and more than that, you have learned from his mistakes. I’m sorry you feel like you have to suffer that painful inheritance alone. We are your sisters—he was our Father too.”
“I can take care of this by myself.” Edmund paced to the fireplace and leaned his elbow against the mantle, his gaze drifting to the now-empty walls of the study. All the paintings had been sold. Many of the prized book collection were gone as well. “I didn’t want this,” he said at last, his voice soft.
“Of course you didn’t,” Sarah said encouragingly.
“No, that’s not what I meant.” Edmund bit his lip. “Do you remember that night that Captain Ellis came in from the town with his naval officers in tow? He sat at our table and talked at length about all his adventures. I was just a boy, and often hurried away from the table when the grown ups started bickering or boasting, but that night I couldn’t pull myself away. He seemed so much larger than life, and he was all the things that I could never be—brave and good and living a life full of adventure. I decided that night that I wanted to go into the navy when I came of age, but when I told Father that plan at the age of seventeen, he grew furious. You may well remember that night. He threw things and screamed. He said that he’d been grooming me to fill his shoes, and that if I wanted to throw all that away on a life that was miserable and dirty, then I had to find a different family. I almost did.” He bit his lip and turned to his sisters. “But then—“
“Then you would have left us behind.” Sarah said softly. She smiled sadly at him. “You’re a good brother, Edmund, but you bear more than your share of responsibility. You always have. I can’t go back in time and fix Father’s words and actions, but I can help you out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself tonight. Don’t let Edgar Lockridge—the hypocrite of a century—keep you from living a normal life even from the grave. Go upstairs. Put on a dancing coat and some fine shoes and fetch your tallest hat. We’re going to the Winters’ ball, and you’re coming with us. In the morning, you will thank me.”
Edmund relented at last, but as he turned to go, he asked, “this is only to rescue me from the books, isn’t it? You two don’t have one of your wild schemes in mind?” Once, when Edgar Lockridge had set Lucille up with Augustus, Sarah had taken her place for a good many months—using their shared resemblance—and eventually Sarah had fallen in love with the handsome Lord Whitehall herself.
“What kind of scheme could this possibly be?” Sarah asked, a little too innocently.
“We just think you should get out; meet people,” Lucille added, coming up a little short when Sarah sent her a sharp glance.
Edmund sighed to himself as he walked upstairs. He was well-acquainted with this particular game of his sisters’. They seemed to think that all his troubles would be solved if he could settle down in marital bliss with some happy lass. They had found their own happy endings in the arms of love, and considered that the next logical step for their brother. Perhaps then, Edmund thought a bit less charitably, they wouldn’t feel so much of a burden to show up at his home in the middle of the evening and drag him to surprise engagements he’d already refused the written invitations.
The thought brought a smile to his face, but as soon as it came it faded away. Edmund knew better, after all. He didn’t know what kind of woman of noble breeding, the kind of woman his sisters would approve of, would ever consent to being saddled with an empty title like his: a title that was impoverished; a name and nothing more.
“Lady Margaret! A pleasure to see you here this evening.” Lady Winters came sweeping up to Margaret in a cloud of dark satin, a feather bobbing atop her turban, her hands flying about in the air as though she could draw all the gossip to her with merely this motion. “I haven’t seen you in ages. Where have you been? What have you been up to? Don’t tell me the Lockridges have been keeping you away from good society.”
Margaret blinked, hardly knowing where to begin. Firstly, she was always in defense of the Lockridge name, which had been sullied some time back in a successful attempt to air a scandal that would bring Edgar Lockridge to the ground—an attempt levied by his own daughter, Sarah—but she couldn’t even open her mouth to get this even out before the woman’s first question about where she had been froze her in her tracks.
Oh, nowhere much, she imagined saying, only being blackmailed, trying to run my father’s estate, and seeing a man hold a knife to my best friend’s throat in my parlor a few weeks back. No, that would definitely not have been considered proper conversation material in Fordyce’s Sermons. She cleared her throat and mumbled the only thing she could think.
“I’ve been otherwise engaged, I’m afraid.”
“Engaged?” The older woman gasped and held a gloved hand to her throat. “Was that a double entendre, my dear?”
Margaret blushed fiercely, wishing herself anywhere but in this conversation with this woman. “No, of course not.”
“Does that mean you have no prospects whatsoever?”
“Not at all!” Margaret protested. “No prospects whatsoever” seemed a bit harsh. “I just mean that I am not engaged in the way that you were implying.”
“Is that to mean there is a young man you have indeed set your sights on, but he has yet to return your affections?”
Margaret couldn’t resist letting out a little sigh. It never ceased to amaze her that these women, who would have allowed the slightest word of their own scandals to breathe past their lips; who didn’t think it polite to ask twice for tea at a dinner party; who wouldn’t be seen walking through town without a chaperone, saw it as perfectly alright to hurl invasive questions about matrimony at younger girls.
“I think I’d rather not talk about this subject,” she said simply.
“You may be as coy as you like, but I know the blush of a girl in love,” Lady Winters said, winking largely.
Margaret very much wanted to tell the older woman that that was, in fact, the flushed face of a terrified woman trying to find a way out of an impossible situation, but she knew better than to trust such a person with honest pain and emotion. Honesty was, in this world, the most egregious scandal of all. Instead she did what she always did; what every young woman in this room was doing: she blushed coyly, pretending the other woman was right, and curtsied.
“I suppose I should leave before your insightful nature uncovers too much,” she said quickly. Then she walked away, trying not to think about the other woman’s self-satisfied expression. She tried to tell herself that it was no great matter; that she could just smile and get through the evening without making a fool out of herself, but she still felt very lonely as she perched upon a chair at the far end of the room with her glass half full of punch and her heart longing to be elsewhere.
It was here that she was sitting when Lord and Lady Whitehall, Lord and Lady Crowan, and the newest Lord Huxley—Edmund Lockridge—came into the ballroom in a whirl of fashion and skirts and intrigue. There were many secrets whispered behind doors about this great family, but they were evidence that while scandal can at times be distancing, if you ride it out long enough it can also add an air of mystery that is truly engaging to the public.
Some scandals, that is. Margaret seriously doubted that a bastard daughter disinherited from her father’s fortune would have any mysterious quality in a town like this. That kind of scandal just made people want to avoid you, so that your bad fortune didn’t accidentally rub off on them. As it was, the Lockridge siblings sailed across the room through a sea of whispers and no small amount of envy, making for Margaret’s little table. She stood at once, blushing a little with delight at being singled out by such a fashionable crew. She curtsied nervously. It was strange, meeting them here in the swirling grandeur of a ballroom. The last time they’d all been together was that fated day not long ago when Jerome Colbourne had been in her parlor; yet here they were dipping and curtsying as though no such thing had ever happened.
“I’m glad you came,” Margaret said to Sarah, who reached her first and clasped her hands. “I was beginning to feel a bit outside of all this.”
“You? Outside the social scene?” Lucille gave a light laugh and embraced her tenderly from the other side. “The Haywards always were well known for their parties, and you can’t deny it.”
Margaret swallowed hard, thinking of the blackmail note and the subsequent toll it was taking on her already depleted finances. It was most likely that the Hayward name—at least her father’s portion of that inheritance—would never host a wild party again.
“I’m just glad you’re here,” she finished a bit lamely.
At that moment, Lady Winters sailed up with another friend, a Mrs. Coxcomb who was visiting from overseas.
“Gentlemen!” She exclaimed, looping an arm through Augustus’ and one through Reginald’s, “Please tell me you’ll offer your services to Mrs. Coxcomb and I for the next dance. I’m supposed to lead it off, but I’m afraid Lord Winters has disappeared to his study with a few friends to talk business and I’ve no partner. Mrs. Coxcomb, too, is in need of a dashing fellow.” The two older women winked at each other.
Margaret saw Reginald hide a smile. He bowed deeply. “It would be my pleasure to escort such a respected lady to the floor,” he said in a deep voice.
“And mine,” Augustus said, following suit and casting a quick look at Sarah. “I’ll be back for you later, love.”
“I expect as much,” she said lightly.
When the two gentlemen had escorted their charges to the dance floor, Edmund turned with a weak smile to the ladies left behind. “They should return with their ears full of the latest gossips, and I will think them strong men indeed if they can fend off those ladies’ attempts to get new information out of them.”
“Oh, I think Reginald is well prepared to deal with such issues,” Lucille said archly, sinking into a chair and pulling Margaret down beside her. “He always was good at managing secrets.”
Margaret saw the slightest expression of annoyance cross Edmund’s face, but almost at once it was replaced with a look of quiet charm. He was indeed looking handsome this evening. She’d always fought a bit of a crush where the Lockridge boy was concerned, but tonight she felt her heart pick up a bit. He was dressed in well-fitting dark trousers and wore a striped, long-tailed coat over the top. His fair hair was well-hidden by a tall hat. His eyes, green like his sisters’, looked over Margaret without resting on her, as though his mind was elsewhere.
Margaret had sold many of her finest gowns to begin to pay off the enormous sum Colbourne’s accomplice provided, and now she felt a bit simple sitting before the grandeur of Lucille and Sarah and Edmund’s wealth in her plain blue silk with the white flowers embroidered across it. She remembered the days when she would have been one of the most elegant women in the ballroom, walking to and fro amongst the gathered crowds; sparkling in the confidence she had since lost. That was back when she’d thought she was at the center of the social scene—back before she knew that her father had found solace in a peasant woman’s arms and she was the illegitimate result. Often, she thought about that evening all those years ago when she’d overheard her father and mother arguing about sending her mother off away from the estate. Six-year-old Margaret had no idea at the time what that was about. She had no idea that the raised sound in their voices and the way they bit back at each other in fury was a harbinger of the way life was going to bite her in the future.
“Would you ladies like some punch?” Edmund asked his sisters. He peered at Margaret’s cup. “And a refill for you?”
“That would be simply divine.” Sarah waved her hand at her brother. “Who needs footmen when we have you, brother?”
Edmund strode away, and Margaret watched him go with a wistful stare. He was so full of life and interest; so bright at the beginning of his life, so different from the burnt out ends of her own inheritance and prospects.
“We barely convinced him to come this evening,” Lucille was saying when Margaret brought her mind back to the present. “And I’m glad you’re here, Margaret. Edmund always did seem more at ease in your presence, and I would so appreciate it if you would make him feel at home this evening. He has so much troubling him as of late and simply hasn’t been able to set the hardest things in his life behind him.”
“I get so angry at Father when I think about the legacy he left behind for his son,” Sarah said quickly. “Edmund shouldn’t have to pay for Father’s sins, and yet no matter how far he runs he’s still Edgar Lockridge’s son.”
“Did you know that thing about the navy?” Lucille asked.
“What thing about the navy?” Margaret asked, her interest peaked.
“I didn’t,” Sarah said. She forced a smile and put a hand gently on Margaret’s arm. “It’s nothing much, Margaret. Only that Edmund was sharing some of the dreams he used to have—dreams that my father effectively crushed when he heard about them, and then later after his death.”
“After he was murdered, you mean,” Lucille said quietly. “I know that we disagree with Father’s methods, but it still pains me that he left in such a violent way.”
Margaret swallowed hard, her face burning. It had been her cousin after all—a greedy Samuel Hayward desperate to further his own interests by removing Edgar Lockridge as an obstacle to his political genius—that had hired a man to throw Edgar Lockridge from his balcony to a messy death on the paving stones below. She felt so harmful to this dear family; though she knew she hadn’t had a hand in Lockridge’s demise, she still wondered what further harm the Haywards could do to the Lockridge’s.
“I’m so sorry,” she said softly.
Lucille, ever insightful, straightened a bit and smiled sweetly. “You have nothing to apologize for,” she said gently. “I can see the pain in your eyes, dear Margaret, and it in turn pains me that you feel the need to apologize at all for something that your cousin did. The fault in this situation lies with Samuel and Benjamin Moore, and even, in part, my father. Not with you.”
Margaret dashed the tears from her eyes as Edmund strode back across the room balancing four punch glasses in one hand. He doled them out to the ladies and then kept one for himself, leaning against the pillar and drinking it with that same languid charm he always seemed to bear.
“What were you ladies talking about?” he asked.
“Oh, you know,” Sarah said quickly with a laugh. “Women things. Lace and silk and our newest tailor. You really should try him, Margaret.”
“By which you mean,” Edmund said drily, “that you were talking about all the things that have befallen us in recent years, including my father’s death and the other grisly business attached to it.” He rolled his eyes. “You women were never so very good at small talk, and besides that I must say that Maggie’s eyes aren’t as good at lying as my sisters’.”
Maggie. She really did love it when he called her that. It reminded her of happier days, playing about in the beautiful gardens behind the Lockridge estate as children; learning French side by side together when the governesses allowed a bit of joint education; practicing their dance moves in the parlor. It held all the innocent, sweet things in one word, and it made Margaret miss those days.
“Maybe we were talking about it,” Sarah said with a toss of her pretty head. “Have you come to stop us?”
“I have.” Edmund took a deep drink of his punch. “And you two ought to know why. You brought me here tonight to help me get my mind off the more difficult thing that have happened as of late, and now the first thing I find myself faced with is more discussion about our past. No, I shall come up with topics of conversation worthy of a sparkling ballroom, and you three shall attend to my ever word as if you wished to hear nothing else.”
Margaret couldn’t help herself, and laughed. “Go on, then. Blow us away with your intellect.”
“Did you read the story in the Times yesterday?” he said, diving right in. “About the problem with the new bonnets from France?”
Sarah burst out laughing, putting a hand to her mouth to control her mirth. “I’m sorry, but it’s hard for me to believe that you read an article about new bonnets from France, brother.”
“Yes,” Lucille added quickly. “Especially considering how busy you have been with other matters.”
“You assume too much, ladies,” he said, pretending offense. He took a seat beside them, pulling the stool up a few inches as though about to share a deep and secret story with them. “I understand the importance of keeping up with things like this. Who knows when the French might overrun us and then the styles will be a necessary evil?”
“Go on then,” Margaret said quickly. “If you wish to convince us that you care about such things, you will have to do better than hedging around the edges of your story.”
Edmund raised his eyebrows in her direction, then turned his attention back to his sisters. “Why,” he said with a mock gasp, “I heard that the bonnets are going to be primarily fashioned out of straw and horse hair. Can you imagine that? The hair of an animal woven in so close to your own hallowed tresses? It’s enough to make a self-respecting gentleman furious with rage.”
Margaret laughed. “I hate to be the one to break this to you, Lord Huxley, but the good women of England have been submitting to straw and horsehair ever since it was proven that they function better in the summertime heat.”
Edmund pretended to gasp, and then when his sisters dissolved into giggles he laughed along with them.
“You are right, brother,” Lucille said with one last giggle. “That was sufficiently light conversation for us all. Now we can go on to discussing things like the latest carriage designs and what etiquette one ought to use in a museum.”
Margaret watched the banter continue between the siblings, and a little well of warmth opened up inside her heart. It was a beautiful thing to see a family that had been driven apart by a violent patriarch grown together into a kind and loving unit again. These three obviously loved each other. It blessed her to see how Edmund in particular reached out to take care of his sisters, to coax laughs out of them; to see to their welfare. She felt a longing for the same family and camaraderie. The only family member left to her was Rose Hayward, her cousin, who no longer would have anything to do with her after her role in putting away Samuel Hayward for murder. She never felt more alone.
Looking up at Edmund’s laughing face, Margaret thought of the decision she’d made to woo Edmund and uses his riches to fund her escape from Colbourne’s accomplice. Suddenly, she felt her throat closing in a wave of emotion. She was being cruel; she knew as much, and she thought how her demand for money and safety from Edmund would hurt more than just Edmund—it would hurt his family as well.
She stood suddenly, blushing furiously and hating that her body so often gave her away.
“I…I think I’m going to go socialize a bit yonder,” she said, knowing how lame her excuse sounded. “I’ll leave you all to your sibling time and return later.”
She had no intention of returning, and as she hurried away she felt sharp tears prick at her eyes. You’re being foolish, Margaret, she scolded herself, but no matter what she said she still knew the truth: that she couldn’t be near Edmund’s handsome charm much longer knowing what she’d planned for him.
She’d only made it partway across the room when she suddenly felt someone catch her hand. She spun around, and saw Edmund behind her, holding lightly to her fingers. He dropped them as soon as she turned, looking a bit sheepish, but kept a firm grasp on her gaze.
“You left so quickly,” he said gently. “I was hoping that I could steal you for a dance this evening.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said, stumbling over her words; torn between a desire to be close to Edmund and a fear of hurting him. “I’m sure your sisters, and the other young ladies in this ballroom, will keep you quite busy enough as it is.” She remembered a time a few months back when she’d been quite taken with Edmund and he’d spent the night dancing with her cousin Rose instead. “Please, don’t trouble yourself about me.”
“You’re no trouble, Maggie. Come, what harm can a dance cause? I’m sure your other suitors can wait a few rounds of the waltz.”
Margaret knew she should deny him, for his sake as well as hers. She felt like a lure, pulling him closer and closer even though she knew that in the end any firm attachment to her would hurt his prospects. Still, she couldn’t resist the urge to be close to him. She curtsied and bowed her head.
“It would be my pleasure to dance with you, Edmund.”
Margaret looked beautiful tonight. Edmund worried about her—there were faint circles under her eyes, and she looked a little paler than usual, as though something were still bothering her—but she’d always had that quiet grace that seemed to rise above difficulty, and as she stood before him at the start of the waltz he let his gaze rest briefly on her shapely arms, dark curls, and wide dark eyes. Only briefly, of course. He found it difficult to look directly at her and still hold on to the bulk of his wits.
When she’d stood up and hurried quickly away from the three siblings, he’d wondered if her perturbation was due to the conversation he’d had months ago when he’d worried about Lucille’s safety. He’d told her then not to involve his sister in a situation that endangered them, and he’d never talked to her since about the showdown with Jerome. Now, as the quiet strains of music began in the hall and they both stepped together into the familiar formation, he risked the question that was on his mind.
“What’s wrong, my lady? I can see that something is besetting you.” He swallowed hard. “I worry that it is something to do with me; with our last conversation, perhaps?”
She bit her lip and turned away as the dance required, only speaking again when she whirled back in his direction. “I’m sorry, but I can’t answer you as to what is plaguing my mind at present. But, Lord Huxley, please don’t worry yourself. There is nothing amiss that is your fault in the least.”
“Let us talk about something different. Please.”
He could see the pleading in her eyes, and so he let it go. He thought that if she’d asked anything of him at that precise moment, he would have been tempted to let her have her way. He shrugged, and changed the subject, wanting to bring a smile back onto that solemn face once again.
“If you desire a change of topic, perhaps we can go back to the bonnets.”
She shook her head in amusement. “No, I’m sure we can do better than that. How are you settling in at the House of Lords?”
He smiled wryly, reaching up to twirl her around in a circle before setting off in a promenade once more. “It has its good days and its bad days.”
“Now that simply will not do,” she retorted. “You’ve just come at this with a description that could apply to literally anything that besets a person. My head has good days and bad days. My garden has good days and bad days. No, you should be more specific.”
“You’ve gotten demanding as of late, Maggie,” he teased. He was exaggerating, of course. She’d always been like this—very similar to his sister Sarah in temperament—with a quick wit and a stinging tongue and strong opinions. The truth was that as of late she’d been the opposite of all those things: quiet and restrained and a little pained. “If you demand specifics, then I can rouse myself to deliver to you just that. I find the House of Lords to be a major adjustment. The people who used to consider my father an ally are now finding that I do not share the same values, and many of them grow angry. Those that see me as connected to Lord Crowan expect me to be able to keep up with his secret legacy, and I’m afraid that no matter how hard I try I am not one to be seen about town peddling secrets on the corner.”
“You are your own man,” Margaret said gently. “If you were able to step into the role of your father, or even of Reginald Barrington, I’d be concerned. You have something unique to bring to the House of Lords, and if you insist on hiding it under layers of those that came before, it would be incredibly disappointing.”
Edmund felt his heart warmed by this, for in truth he hated the position he’d taken on for Reginald in the parliament. He thought of his former dream of the navy in sharp contrast with his current life. The sea was wild and open and told you exactly what it needed from you, even if those things were hard and life-threatening. Dealing in secrets was the opposite: closed and tame, the sort of thing where you died from a stab in a back alley from a man you’d never met.
“Thank you for saying that,” he said simply, not knowing how to convey all this to the beautiful woman weaving in and out of the other dancers beside him.
“And how are you?” he asked, changing the subject. “I know you’ve had a lot of business to tend to as of late on your father’s property. What have you learned?”
Margaret winced. “I’ve learned that pale gums aren’t a good sign on a sheep.”
She said it so simply; so matter of factly, that it took Edmund off guard and he laughed. “I don’t know what I expected you to say,” he grinned, “but an anatomy of sheep diseases was not where I thought you’d start.”
“That’s the problem,” she went on with a twinkle in her eyes. “I really don’t know where to start. I know this won’t come as a surprise to you, but I think I was more or less spoiled as a little girl.”
“You?” he feigned astonishment, then winked.
She had just come in for another twirl, and glared at him as she made her way in and out of the formation. This only amused him more, and he could see a matching delight in her eyes.
“You needn’t seem so entitled about it,” she scolded. “You were spoiled yourself, Edmund, although not quite in the same way. I know your father was hard on you, and until recently you hardly even saw your mother. That’s not what I’m speaking of. I’m speaking of the piles of mud I’m tracking into the house now because I never knew what it was to get muddy beside a pasture; I’m talking about this awful land agent who won’t do a thing I say—“
“Let him go,” Edmund said pertly. “You are his boss, after all.”
“I’m not sure that I could,” she mused, turning under his arm and starting off in a promenade again. “He’s like a bad coin. I keep thinking I’ve set him aright and then he pops back up again where I least expect him, even worse than he was before.”
Edmund pulled her close for the dip and tug and, looking into her eyes, smiled gently. “If there’s anyone that can match a land agent’s temper, it’s you. Stand up for yourself, Maggie.”
Something secret passed in Margaret’s eyes. Reginald had taught Edmund to look for things like that: signs that people weren’t telling you everything you needed to know. Reginald said it was at moments like this that you ought to push further—it was a weak spot, and often people gave if you attacked them in their weak spot.
But he didn’t want to attack Margaret. He just wanted to know her better. He felt he’d grown up with her all his life and yet the woman sitting across from him now on the dance floor was in many ways a stranger to him.
“Do you remember when we were children,” he said abruptly as they moved apart again. “Do you remember the stone game by the river?”
“Yes. You tried to teach us to skip stones, but it never went quite according to plan.”
“That’s one way of saying it,” Edmund teased. “Another would be that you and Lucille and Sarah always got overeager and chose enormous stones and threw them into the water instead of letting them skip across the surface.”
“What of it? Did you ask me out onto the floor for a dance so you could critique my stone throwing form?” The secret was gone from her eyes, and there was light and dancing in them again.
“No, I just want to remind you that when you’d tossed in all your stones I always waded in and fetched them for you. Father told me that this was a horrible practice that would encourage you girls to be lazy and to misuse the gifts that were given you, but I never paid him any mind. I just went on wading in there and fetching the stones back.”
“You were rebellious.” Margaret shrugged.
“No, I was not quite as spoiled as you think.” He smiled at her. “That’s the point of my story.”
All of a sudden, the music drew to a close. Edmund was surprised, and a little saddened by this, but he bowed gently to Margaret and escorted her from the floor. At the edge of the room, another man approached the couple and offered to dance with Margaret. He was young and handsome, one of those stylish foppish types that so many of the young ladies went for these days. Edmund bowed.
“Thank you for the dance,” he said to Margaret.
As he turned to go, he thought he glimpsed a brief moment where the secret sadness came back into her eyes, but then she turned to her knew partner and a mask of casual enjoyment was back on her face again.
“Do you have a moment, Lucille?” he asked, returning to the group by the tables. Reginald was sitting beside her, but Sarah and Augustus had stood up as he approached to take the dance floor together.
Lucille smiled in his direction. “Of course, especially after you went after my friend so valiantly and refused to let her languish on the side of the room. You both dance very well together.”
“Thank you.” He took a seat, and was trying to think of a way to speak with his sister in private when quite suddenly Reginald, who always seemed adept at reading the room, made an excuse to leave and slipped off leaning on his cane into the swirling masses of people. Lucille turned to Edmund with an expectant look on his face.
“What is the matter, brother? Only a moment ago, on the dance floor, you seemed positively radiant. I thought for a moment—the briefest of moments—you might have forgotten your own troubles, but here you sit with all the trappings of worry about your features again.”
“For once, it is not for myself that I worry,” he said. “I sense that something is wrong with Margaret, and I can’t be certain what it is. Didn’t you notice her face when she hurried away from us some time ago—and also there was a moment on the dance floor. No, don’t look at me as though I am blowing this out of proportion. I know Maggie, and I know what I saw.”
“It’s sweet that you still call her Maggie,” Lucille said. She sat in silence for a moment, and then shrugged. “I don’t know that there is anything I can tell you. She hasn’t approached me for any help or with any story hinting that she’s in need at all. In fact, she’s seemed to be adapting as best she can to the inheritance and handling of her father’s estate. If something was wrong, don’t you think she’d tell me?”
That was just it. Edmund wasn’t sure Margaret would tell Lucille. He remembered with a pang of guilt how furious he’d been with Margaret when he’d thought she was endangering his sisters, and he could only imagine that, faced with a similar need in the future, she would avoid dragging the Lockridge girls into her situation at all costs.
“Lucille, I have a question for you, and it is of a most serious nature.”
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Lucille waved her hand around the room. “A public arena?”
“What is it that your husband always says, sister? People are never so blind as when they’re in a public place doing something they’ve done all their life. Yes, I think we’re safe to talk here. Just keep your voice low.”
“I know that Margaret was in trouble before because Jerome Colbourne held some sort of blackmail over her head. She told me and Sarah as much. I also know that she told you everything about the blackmail, and I am worried that perhaps the nature of the blackmail is what plagues her now. Perhaps she feels some sort of guilt?”
“That wouldn’t be quite right,” Lucille mused. “Although guilt is a funny thing. It doesn’t always require justification and logic to lodge its talons in a person.”
“Tell me what it was, Lucille,” Edmund said, a bit firmer this time. “I’m a good lad, you know as much, and I won’t expose her secret. I think I might be able to help.”
Lucille sighed, and her face grew a bit more drawn. She ran her small hands along the top of the table that separated them and then tapped twice. It was her tell—the thing Reginald had taught her to do to distract people when they were playing cards. At last, she looked up at him again.
“You’ve asked me this before, brother. More times than I can count. Really, if I thought it would do anyone any good, and if I hadn’t made a promise to Margaret to keep it to myself, I would tell you in an instant. I know that you would be discreet. But the truth is—it’s not really my story to tell. Margaret wouldn’t want you to know. Trust me, I’ve spoken with her on the subject, and it’s not your business. You should leave it alone and stop dragging yourself through the confusion of sorting out how to learn the truth.”
“That’s just it!” he exclaimed. “The truth. What harm could the truth do?”
“Much, if doled out at the wrong time.” She leveled a serious glance in his direction. He sighed.
“Reginald told you about what happened in the House of Lords.”
She raised her hands in mock surrender. “Don’t be angry with me. I’m not here to defend some pious nobleman who abuses women in the dark and then takes them down for the very same action in the light of day. I’m only saying that with a bit of measured maturity, you might handle the release of that information differently in the future.”
Edmund sighed and leaned back against the curved back of his chair. He could see that he would get no information on Margaret’s sadness from his sister at this time. He closed his eyes and let the music of the ball swirl around him for a moment, trying to think about what it might be that had so brought Margaret down from a place of joy.
It was almost as though the whole business with the blackmail and Jerome Colbourne was still plaguing her. She had the same lines of worry on her face, the same quiet reticence in the presence of people that before she would have been proud and entitled to walk beside.
“You don’t think,” he ventured quietly, “that she’s bothered by that blackmail you investigated?”
“That’s just another round a bout way to ask the same question,” Lucille scolded gently. “I’m not going to tell you anything about it, and, no, I don’t think it can have anything to do with that. We destroyed the copy of evidence Jerome had in his possession, and the man himself is locked up behind bars and facing the noose.”
Edmund nodded, letting his gaze stray to the dance floor again. Margaret was spinning around on the arm of the young man who’d asked for her hand, dipping and twirling through the familiar motions of a Scottish Reel. She was keeping up well, a smile plastered on her pretty face, her motions all that of a young lady having a fine time out for the night. It was only when she turned once in his direction, her eyes fixing ever so briefly on his, that he saw it was all a ruse after all. The fear was still there in her eyes, hidden beneath a surface of dancing and laughter.
“Your worry is not wrong,” Lucille was saying. Edmund realized he’d been so distracted that he’d lost some of what she’d said. “It’s probably just that Margaret was scarred by the trauma of having a villain and a kidnapping under her roof. But I’m sure she’ll heal with time and good, steady friendships. You’ve nothing more to feel responsible for. You have enough on your plate.”
Edmund nodded and looked out again at the dancing couples. He knew he had nothing to feel responsible for, but, as he looked at the slim figure swirling on the dance floor, he thought for the first time that it wasn’t a matter of having to do anything. He wanted to feel responsible for that little woman; and he vowed to get to the bottom of what bothered her.
“Freed by the love of an Earl” will be available on Amazon very soon…
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