Lyon nodded. He took her hand and started up the steps. "You really aren't frightened, are you, love?"
"A little," Christina whispered. "Richards has given me his assurance that justice in England is equal to that of the Dakotas. He'd better be right, Lyon, or we shall have to take matters into our own hands." Her voice had turned hard. "Strike the door, husband. Let's get this pretense of joyful reunion over and done with."
Richards was waiting for them in the foyer. Christina was surprised by his enthusiastic reception. Lyon had lost his grim expression, too. He acted as though he hadn't seen his friend in a long while, which was exactly what they wanted everyone to believe.
After greeting their host, a dour-faced man with a portly figure, Christina asked if Baron Stalinsky was in the receiving room.
"I can imagine how eager you must be to meet your father," Porter announced, his voice filled with excitement. "He's still upstairs, but he will certainly be joining us in a moment or two. I've kept the list of guests to a minimum, my dear, so that you may have time for a lengthy visit with your father. You must certainly have a book's worth of news to exchange."
Lyon removed Christina's wrap, handed it to the butler waiting beside them, then told Porter he'd take his wife into the drawing room to await the Baron.
Her hand was cold when he clasped it in his own. He could feel her trembling. The smile never left his face, but the urge to take Christina back home and return to face her father alone nearly overwhelmed him.
The Dakotas had the right idea, Lyon decided. According to Christina, verbal slander was all that was needed for an open challenge. What followed next was a battle to the death. Justice was swift. The system might have been a bit barbaric, yet Lyon liked its simplicity.
There were only eighteen guests in the drawing room. Lyon counted them while Christina had a long conversation with their hostess. Although his wife stood next to him, he paid little attention to what the two women were discussing. Richards had walked over to join him, and he was trying to listen to his friend advise him on the merits of the changing weather.
When their hostess left, Christina turned to Richards. "Are you aware that our host previously worked for your government in the same manner as you?"
She waited for him to say more, then let him see her displeasure when he failed to comment further. "Lyon, Mrs. Porter surely exaggerated her mate's position, but she did mention a fact I found most enlightening."
"What was that, love?" Lyon asked. He draped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer to him.
"She's a gossip," Christina began. "When she saw the way Richards greeted you, she boasted that her husband held the same favor when he was a younger man. I asked her why he'd retired, and she told me she didn't know all the facts but that his last assignment had soured him. It seemed he handled a project that caused a good friend of his some discomfort. Yes, she actually used that word. Discomfort."
"Discomfort? I don't understand. Do you, Richards?" Lyon asked.
Richards was staring at Christina. "You would do well to work for us, Christina. You have ferreted out what took me hours of research to ascertain."
"Lyon, can you guess the name of Porter's good friend?"
"Stalinsky," Lyon said in answer to Christina's question.
"Porter wasn't guilty of error, Christina. His only mistake was in befriending the Baron. He trusted him—still does, for that matter. The baron is a guest in his home, remember. God's truth, I think you'll understand what an easy man the Baron is to trust when you finally meet him."
"By England's standards, perhaps," Christian replied. "Not by mine. Appearances and manners often cloak a black soul. Are you still unconvinced that Lyon and I are right about the Baron, then?"
"I'm convinced. The court might not see it our way, however, and for that reason we're bypassing our own legal system. There are those who believe Jessica had lost her mind. The argument that your mother had imagined—"
"Did she imagine the mark she gave the baron in his right eye when he tried to kill her? Did she imagine that her friends' throats were slashed? Did she imagine she stole the jewels and hid them under the roses? You've seen the gems, Richards. Did you only imagine you saw them?"
Richards smiled at Christina. "You really should work for me," he said in answer to her challenges. "Now, to refute your arguments. One, the baron could have others testify for him, telling a different story of how he came by the scar. Two, Jessica was the only one who saw the baron kill the husband and wife on that wagon train. No one else saw anyone, according to the writing in her journal. It would be next to impossible to track any of those people down to determine how the couple was killed. We have only Jessica's diary to tell us what happened. In a court of law that wouldn't be enough. Three, there wouldn't be any argument about the jewels. But," he added in a whisper, "we have only Jessica's account to say that her husband had acquired the gems by foul means. He was a king, remember, and the jewels were but a part of his treasury. The fact that he was a ruthless dictator is the last of the rebuttals I will give you. If that is dragged out in court, it will mean little. The Baron would simply retaliate by bringing witness after witness who would testify to his kindness toward his subjects."
"He will admit his sins to me," Christina whispered.
"And your husband and I will gain justice for you with or without your father's admission."
"Christina, your father has just walked into the room." Lyon made the announcement with a wide smile, but his hold on his wife tightened.
The moment had arrived. With it came a fresh surge of anger. Christina forced a smile onto her face, turned from her husband, and began to walk toward the man waiting for her just inside the entrance.
She understood his physical appeal as soon as she looked at him. Baron Stalinsky was a man who commanded attention. He'd aged well. His hair wasn't white, but silver-tipped. The years hadn't made him stoop-shouldered or pot-bellied, either. No, he was still tall, lance-thin, regal in his bearing. It was the color of his eyes that attracted attention, though. They were a piercing blue. Christina was sorry they shared so many physical attributes.
The Baron was smiling at her. His eyes were filled with unshed tears, and surely everyone in the room could see the dimple in his left cheek.
Christina concentrated on the scar beneath his right eye.
She stopped when she was just a foot away, then made a formal curtsy. And all the while she prayed her voice wouldn't betray her.
She knew she'd have to let him embrace her. The thought made her skin crawl. All the guests in the room had focused their attention on this reunion. She never took her gaze off the jackal and was sickened by the fact that everyone was probably smiling over the sweetly emotional reunion.
It seemed to Christina that they stared at each other for a long while before either spoke a word. She could feel Lyon by her side, and when he suddenly took hold of her hand, she recovered her composure.
Lyon was trying to give her his strength, she thought. "Good evening, Father. It is a pleasure to meet you at last."
Baron Stalinsky seemed to come out of his stupor then. He reached out to clasp Christina's shoulders. "I'm overjoyed to meet you, Christina. I can barely think what to say to you. All these precious years wasted," he whispered. A tear escaped from his thick lashes. Christina pulled her hand away from Lyon's grasp and reached up to brush the tear from her father's cheek. The touch was witnessed by the guests, and Christina could hear their sighs of pleasure.
She let him embrace her. "I thought you were dead, daughter," he admitted. "Do you know how happy I am to have you back, child?"
Christina kept smiling. The effort made her stomach hurt. She slowly pulled away from her father and moved next to Lyon again. "I'm a married woman now, Father," she announced. She quickly introduced Lyon, then prayed he'd take up the conversation for a minute or two. She needed to catch her breath.
"You cannot imagine our surprise to learn you were still alive, Baron," Lyon interjected. His voice was as enthusiastic as a schoolboy's. He kept up the idle chatter until the other guests, led by the Porters, rushed over to express their congratulations.
Christina played the pretense well. She smiled and laughed whenever it was appropriate.
It was bearable only because Lyon stood by her side. An hour passed and then another before Christina and her husband were given a few moments' privacy with Stalinsky.
"Father, how did you come by that scar below your eye?" Christina asked, pretending only mild interest.
"A boyhood accident," the Baron replied, smiling. "I fell from my mount."
"You were lucky," Lyon interjected. "You could have lost your eye."
The baron nodded. "I was thinking quite the same thing about your scar, Lyon. How did that happen?"
"A fight in a tavern," Lyon said. "My first outing as a man," he added with a grin.
One lie for another, Christina thought.
Lyon gave Christina's shoulder a gentle squeeze. She recognized the signal. "Father, I have so many questions to ask you, and I'm certain you have as many to ask me. Does your schedule permit you to lunch with us tomorrow?"
"I would love to, daughter," the Baron replied. "Daughter! It's a joyful word to me now."
"Will you be staying in London long, Baron?" Lyon asked.
"I have no other plans," the Baron answered.
"I'm pleased to hear that," Christina interjected. She prayed her voice sounded enthusiastic. "I've already sent word to my stepfather. When he receives my message and returns from Scotland, you must sit down with him and put his fears to rest."
"Stepfather?" the Baron asked. "The Countess didn't mention a stepfather, Christina. She led me to believe…" The Baron cleared his throat before continuing. "It was a bizarre story, and one look at you would certainly make a mockery out of what she actually suggested… tell me about this stepfather. What fears does the man harbor, and why?"
"Father, first you must appease my curiosity," Christina said. There was laughter in her voice. "Whatever did the horrid old woman tell you?"
"Yes," the Baron sighed, "she is a horrid woman." He made the remark almost absentmindedly.
"Do I detect a blush?" Christina asked.
"I fear you do, daughter. You see, I have only just realized how gullible I was. Why, I did believe her story to be true."
"You've pricked my curiosity as well," Lyon said. "The Countess is very upset with Christina. She was against our marriage because of the matter of my wife's inheritance. The Countess seemed to think she'd control the money," Lyon explained. "Now tell us what fabrication she gave you."
"I've been played for a fool," the Baron returned, shaking his head. "She told me Christina was raised by savages."
"Savages?" Christina asked, trying to look perplexed.
"Indians of the Americas," the Baron qualified.
Christina and Lyon looked at each other. They turned in unison to stare at the Baron. Then they both burst into laughter.
The Baron joined in. "I really was naive to believe her fool's story," he said between chuckles. "But I had heard from the Countess—years ago, you understand—that Jessica had left with a newborn baby girl to join a wagon train headed through the wilderness."
"She did do that," Christina acknowledged. "And it was on the way that she met Terrance MacFinley. He became her protector. Terrance," she added with a soft smile, "didn't know my mother was still married. She told him you'd died. My mother's mind wasn't very… strong." Christina paused after making that comment, furious inside when the Baron nodded agreement. "Terrance was a good man. He told me about my mother."
"But what did you mean when you said I could put your stepfather's fears to rest?"
"Oh, it's a small matter," Christina stalled. "Jessica died when I was just a baby," she continued. "Terrance kept me with him. In one of my mother's sane moments, she made him promise to take care of me until I was old enough to be returned to England."
"How did she die?" the Baron asked. His voice was low and filled with emotion. Tears had gathered in his eyes again. "I loved your mother. I blame myself for her death. I should have recognized the signs of her condition."
"Signs?" Christina asked.
"Of her mind's deterioration," he explained. "She was frightened of everything. When she realized she was going to have a child, I think it was all that was needed to push her completely over the edge. She ran away from me."
"Did you go after her, Father?"
"Not right away," the Baron admitted. "There were business matters to attend to. I had a kingdom to run, you see. I abdicated three weeks later, then went back to England. I fully expected to find my wife with her father. Yet when I reached the Earl of Acton's home, I found out Jessica had fled again. She was headed for the colonies. I, of course, made the assumption she was going to her sister's home in Boston and posted passage on a ship to follow her."
"Mother died of the fever," Christina said.
"I hope she didn't have too much pain," the Baron commented.
"It must have been terrible for you, searching in vain for the woman you loved," Lyon stated.
"Yes, it was a bad time," the Baron acknowledged. "The past is behind us, Christina. I look forward to speaking to this Terrance. How long did he stay with your mother before she died?" he asked.
"I'm not certain of the exact length of time," Christina said. "One night, when the wagon train rested in the valley below the Black Hills, Jessica was awakened by a thief," Christina said. "The couple she was sharing her quarters with were both killed by the villain. Jessica got it into her head that it was you, Father, chasing after her."
Christina paused to shake her head. "She packed me up and ran into the hills. MacFinley saw her leave. He went after her, of course, for he loved her fiercely. I'll be completely honest with you, Father. I don't understand how Terrance could have loved my mother. From what he told me about her, I would think he should have pitied her."
"MacFinley sounds like an honorable man," the Baron said. "I'm eager to meet him to give him my thanks. At least he made Jessica's last hours more comfortable. He did, didn't he?"