It was a damp day. Chilly. I remember my hands grew numb from the cold at one point and I feared I would not be able to shoot the pistol. But then, finally, I saw them come around the bend on their horses. They were laughing at something and casting each other loving looks. I stepped from the trees, aimed for Mary's heart, and shot. She did not even cry out. She simply stiffened in her seat, then tumbled to the ground. Robert screamed her name and leapt to the ground to hurry to her side. He lifted her into his arms, rocking her and whispering her name over and over. He did not even look around to see me approach, not until I stood right beside him. Then he raised his head, stared at me blankly, and said in the most pitiful voice, 'George, Mary's been shot.' I said, 'Aye. I shot her.' Then as the realization dawned on his face, I raised the other gun, his other gun, and shot him, too."
He released a deep sigh of satisfaction. "It is a moment I have enjoyed remembering with great satisfaction for years Still, I do regret that I did not stick to the original plan. Once my temper had cooled, I realized that I could have followed the original plan to the letter, except that once I had married Mary, I would have had to instigate a fall from a horse or a tumble down the stairs to cause either a miscarriage of Robert's child or both their deaths.
Either eventuality would have solved the dilemma nicely, and I really could have used Radcliffe's fortune."
"One fortune was not enough?" she asked with disgust.
"As I said, London living is quite expensive. Besidesas you may have guessed, thanks to the incident with Robert's pistolI do like to gamble. When I win, I win big. But when I lose" He shrugged philosophically. "Money has gotten a bit tight. The creditors are becoming quite nasty with their threats. That was why I was so happy when I heard that Radcliffe had married you."
Charlie was having trouble following his reasoning. What did her marriage to Radcliffe have to do with his gambling? Unless "I realized then that God was giving me a second chance."
"God has nothing to do with this madness!" Charlie gasped.
He eyed her with a solemnity that seemed almost sane. "You are wrong, my dear.
The kings of England are direct descendants of Christ. His blood flows through our veins. God takes great interest in what I do. 'Dieu et mon droit"
If she had wondered about his sanity ere this, there was no longer a need to wonder. The man was mad. Still, she tried to reason with him. "Surely, Norwich, you do not believe that God wishes for you to blackmail us?"
"Blackmail?" He appeared surprised. "I do not intend to blackmail you anymore."
Now she was truly confused. "But the letter The demand that Radcliffe meet you here"
"Did I tell him to bring any jewels or coins?"
"Nay," she realized with a frown. "Then, what"
"I plan to kill him, of course." When she blanched at those easy words, he smiled. "You are married to Radcliffe. He has no other relatives. When he dies you will inherit all. Then I shall marry you and it will all be mine."
He was looking terribly pleased with himself, and much to Charlie's horror she could see that, had she not learned all she had today, and had Radcliffe been home, received the message, kept the meeting and been killed, she might very well, in time, have been charmed enough by the handsome, engaging man before her and have married himnever knowing he had killed her husband. But now she did know. "You do not honestly expect that if you do somehow manage to kill my husband, I will be willing to marry you?"
He scowled. "Unfortunately, that is the problem you have created by arriving here in his place today. You were never to know any of this. I fear you have rather messed up my plans. In some ways, it is almost a repeat of the day Mary and Robert died."
Charlie felt fear pierce her clear and sharp. Oddly enough, this was the first real fear she had felt since recognizing that Norwich was the man holding the pistol on her. Now, as she recalled his calm recitation of the way Mary had paid for messing up his plans, she very much feared for her life.
"My lord! Thank God you are home."
Radcliffe turned from closing the door to see Stokes hurrying toward him from the salon with Mrs Hartshair and Bessie hard on his heels. The expression on the usually placid man's face was enough to raise a responding anxiety in Radcliffe.
"What is it? Where is Charlie?"
"I that is I do not know," the servant admitted helplessly. "She went to fetch a book for BesLady Seguin, and she did not come back. When we checked the library it was empty. We searched the rest of the house but she is simply not here. I did not know what to do. I had no idea where you were so could not send word to you and" His voice trailed away unhappily.
Radcliffe stared at him blankly. "You mean she has just disappeared?"
When Stokes hesitated, seemingly at a loss, Radcliffe asked, "How long has she been gone?"
"Since before noon,"he admitted reluctantly. "I sent a message to Lady Elizabeth to ask if she had gone there, but have heard nothing back yet."
Radcliffe was absorbing all of this information when the door knocker sounded.
Turning, he pulled the door open, relief rushing through him briefly as he peered at the woman on the doorstep, until he realized that she was wearing a pastel gown. "Elizabeth?"
"Aye." Stepping quickly into the house when he moved aside, she took in the worried faces around her. "You have not found her yet, I take it?"
"Nay," Bessie answered, biting her lip unhappily.
"And you have no idea where she could have gone?" she asked, waiting as the people in the hall glanced at each other miserably. Sighing, Beth led the way into the salon. "Come. Let us sit down and try to reason this out. There must be some clue to tell us where she may have gone. Charlie does not run about willy-nilly. Something must have happened to make her leave. We simply have to look at this logically."
Charlie shoved at the window furiously. She had been trying to open it since Norwich had left to consider what he was to do next. She supposed that he was trying to determine a way to let her live and force her to marry him after Radcliffe had showed up and he had killed him. Charlie had not told him that Radcliffe was not likely to show up. She distinctly recalled throwing the message across the library in a crumpled ball. She had seen it roll under a chair in a corner as she had rushed out of the library. Radcliffe was not likely to find it.
Sighing, she gave up her frantic jerking of the window and examined it instead, cursing when she spied the nails that had been used to seal it shut. It seemed the proprietorswere taking no chances after Bessie's escape. Moving to the next window, she checked to find that it too was nailed shut, then walked to the bed and sat on the edge of it. She had to think of a plan to get herself out of there. She had to warn Jeremy.
"So." Beth peered down at the list she had made. "Charlie spent most of the morning in here. Then Bessie arrived, directly after which a boy came to the door with a message for Radcliffe and you took it into the library?" She glanced at Stokes to see the man nod solemnly before she continued, "She chatted in here briefly with Bessie, then went in search of a book in the library and never returned. But,Stokes, you thought you heard the door close shortly afterward?"
"Aye," he admitted unhappily.
"And a search of the house revealed that she was nowhere to be found, but that several books were on the desk, the gown she had been wearing was in a heap on her dressing room floor, no other dresses seem to be missing to have replaced it, and that the message was gone?"
When Stokes, Mrs. Hartshair, and Bessie all nodded in agreement that this was the basic situation as they knew it, she sighed "And you do not know who this message was from?"
Stokes shook his head. "As I said, a boy brought it." He hesitated, then added miserably, "It did not have any writing on the outside, it was just rolled up and tied with a ribbon."
Beth and Bessie both stiffened at that. "A ribbon?" they echoed in unison.
"What color was this ribbon?" Bessie asked anxiously.
"Red. Deep red, almost the color of blood."
"Damn." Beth sank back in her seat.
"What is it?" Radcliffe asked.
'That is the way the blackmailer's messages came," she told him grimly, then glanced at Stokes to ask, "You are sure that the message is not still here?"
"Well it was not on the desk," he murmured uncertainly.
Standing, Beth hurried out into the hall and on into the library. A glance at the desk proved Stokes right. The message was not there. She was gazing blankly around the room when a sudden uproar in the hallway drew her attention.
Moving to the door, she opened it to see that the puppies were loose and Mrs.
Hartshair and her children were attempting to round them up while the pups, thinking it all a grand game of chase, did their best to avoid capture.
"I opened the kitchen door to go check on the children, just as they came in the back door with the pups," the cook explained as she chased a pup past Beth. She cornered the creature at the end of the hall, but when she swooped down to gather it up, it scampered past her, scurrying into the library right past Beth.
"Really," Radcliffe said, "this is hardly the time for such antics."
Turning, Elizabeth hurried after the animal with Mrs. Hartshair on her heels.
The puppy led them a merry chase, dashing under the desk, then across the room and under a chair. Each of them taking a side, they blocked the animal in, then Mrs. Hartshair bent to fetch the pup out.
"What have you got there?" the woman muttered, tugging a small ball of paper from his mouth. "Honestly, you little beasties are forever into one thing or another," she chastised mildly.
"Let me see that," Beth said.
Eyebrows rising, the cook handed the paper over and watched curiously as Beth uncrumpled it. "It is not"
"It is!" Beth cried jubilantly, quickly reading the message. "Radcliffe!"
He appeared in the door as she reached it and she cried, "Mrs. Hartshair found it. It is from the blackmailer. He wanted you to meet him at Aggie's."
"And Charlie went in my place," he guessed, taking the note to read it.
"Oh, surely not," Mrs. Hartshair argued. "A decent woman wouldn't be seen at that place. She would not even be allowed in."
"Nay, but Charles would," Beth murmured, thinking of the crumpled gown on the floor in her dressing room and the fact that no other dresses had been missing.
"Damn!" Radcliffe breathed, whirling to hurry toward the door.
"Wait!" Beth cried, chasing after him to grab his arm and keep him from leaving.
"You cannot just show up there. It may be a trap."
"But Charlie is there."
"That is even more reason to go about this cautiously. You may get her killed if you storm in without a plan."
"It is early afternoon, Beth. No matter how I approach it, I will draw attention. All who will be there right now are women."
Her eyebrows rose, an idea taking shape on her face. "Aye. You are right.
You would be recognized as a man."
The click of the key in the lock warned her moments before the door opened.
Standing abruptly, Charlie put on a brave face as the door swung open, only to sag in relief as Aggie entered. Garbed in a gown of flaming orange that was just as tight, loud, and ugly as the red dress she had been wearing when last they met, the woman eyed Charlie with fascination for a moment, then glanced over her shoulder and gestured to an older woman in the hallway. The servant rushed into the room carrying a tray of food, set it down on the end of the bed beside Charlie, and hurried out.
Aggie pushed the door closed, then turned to examineCharlie once more, her gaze sliding slowly over every inch of her in the male garb. Then she shook her head.
"I don't know how you had me fooled me into thinking you a lad."
"People see what they want to see," Charlie murmured with an indifferent shrug as she looked over the tray she had been brought with feigned interest, hoping the woman would just hurry up and leave.
"Are you not curious to know what is happening?"
Charlie was silent for a moment, but she finally raised one eyebrow in silent query.
"Himself is writing a letter," the old prostitute announced grandly as if throwing crumbs to the starving masses. "It is for your husband. Lord Radcliffe.
He is telling him that we have you and that if he wishes to see you again, he is to come here, alone, unarmed, at midnight."
"And then what happens?" Charlie asked with a feigned calm that made the old whore arch an eyebrow.
"Why, then himself kills him and heads to Gretna Green to marry you."
Charlie gave a bark of laughter, shaking her head with an amusement that was only half-feigned. "Oh, that will work. I am sure no one will comment on that.
Radcliffe dead and me on my way to be remarried within moments? No one would suspect that myself or Norwich or both of us had done it. Good Lord, he is insane. Especially if he thinks I would marry the man who killed my husband."
"Oh, you will," Aggie assured her smugly. "You will if you do not wish him to kill your sister as well." When Charlie blanched at the threat, Aggie grinned nastily. "Well, finally some reaction. Is that not interesting, though? The idea of Radcliffe's death leaves you stone-faced, while the thought of your sister's deathworries you greatly. Does your husband realize that you care so little for him?" When Charlie did not respond, annoyance flickered over Aggie's face before she turned to the door. "Well, I must get back to work. I have a business to run, you know." Opening the door, she paused and glanced back to add, "You will enjoy marriage to Norwich. If Maisey is to be believed, he is an incredibly vigorous lover. A bit rough perhaps, but vigorous just the same."