"You weren't with me all night."
"A fair portion of it," she insisted.
"Not good enough. Besides, considering all the...mooncalfing I've been doing over you, they'd no doubt consider any alibi you provide to be a fabrication."
"Mooncalfing?" she repeated with a smile.
"Edmund's term, not mine," Gavin mumbled. "Lovesick swain" would've been his words, had he dared to say them. He hoped she couldn't read his true feelings in the lines of his face, in the pa.s.sion of his kisses, in the urgency of his love-making. Good-bye would be hard enough without adding something so complicated as love love to the mixture. to the mixture.
"I think I like being mooncalfed over," she said, her voice teasing.
"I'm sure." He planted a loud, smacking kiss on her forehead and tried to smile like an inveterate rake, not a man in love. He was pretty sure he failed.
She reached up to touch his face. He pressed his lips gently against her wrist, then tilted his cheek into the warmth of her palm. He would miss her for the rest of his life, however short that might be. He missed her already.
"It would be so much easier," she said, "if everyone stopped lying about their whereabouts. We might've determined the true villain already if the innocent parties would've just been honest."
"Are there any innocent parties here?" he asked wryly.
Her thumb rubbed his cheek. "Perhaps not. But why must they all cast blame on you? Like Mr. Teasdale, with his ridiculous stories about you fighting with Lord Hetherington in your office. I wouldn't be surprised to learn you argued with him, but it's not as if you throttled your brother-in-law."
Gavin hesitated. "Actually," he said, not wishing to lie to her but even more not wanting to admit the truth. "I did."
Her hand fell away. "You did what?"
"Throttled him, then threw him into a wall." He cleared his throat. "Those handprints around his neck were mine."
She scrambled out of his arms and into a sitting position. The expression on her face could only be described as horrified.
"b.l.o.o.d.y h.e.l.l," he muttered. "I should've lied."
She stared at him, unspeaking.
He opened his mouth to defend himself, to justify as well as he could the rage that overtook him at the thought of that sanctimonious p.r.i.c.k continuing to beat Rose-after all, much as he'd wanted to, he hadn't hadn't killed him-but at that moment, voices sounded from the corridor. killed him-but at that moment, voices sounded from the corridor.
Familiar voices. Female voices. His maid staff, come to open the curtains.
"d.a.m.n it." He rolled out of bed, shoved his legs into his breeches, gathered his boots and the rest of his clothes in his arms.
Evangeline watched him, silent.
"I'll be back," he promised, then shook his head when he realized he wouldn't. "Rather, we'll talk later this morning. I'll explain"-the voices grew louder outside her door-"I'll explain everything later. I should leave before a pa.s.sel of servants stumble upon us."
He pushed open the bookcase, strode inside the pa.s.sageway, glanced over his shoulder.
She sat there, pale, unmoving, her eyes filled with-disappointment?
The doork.n.o.b turned. He ached to go to her anyway, to lay his head on her chest, to beg forgiveness for letting his temper get the best of him yet again.
Instead, he left.
Evangeline almost didn't go to breakfast.
She could hardly remain abed all day, wishing Gavin hadn't told her about strangling Lord Hetherington, wishing Gavin hadn't hadn't attempted to strangle him, or at least wishing she'd reacted differently to the news. Said something. Anything. Like the fact that a rather large part of her had hoped he'd planted the smirking earl a facer. attempted to strangle him, or at least wishing she'd reacted differently to the news. Said something. Anything. Like the fact that a rather large part of her had hoped he'd planted the smirking earl a facer.
Where was the line between a fist to the face and fingers about a neck? Hadn't she told Susan that Gavin was only violent when fighting for those he loved? He'd only raised his voice against Lord Hetherington after the man struck Lady Hetherington. In fact, the only occasions she'd seen him resort to violence at all was when Gavin was protecting his sister...and herself.
Heaven help her.
He loved her. He loved loved her. Why else would he have told her the truth? And she'd thrown that love back in his face by being too high-minded to think clearly. What had Susan accused her of during the kite-flying? Ah, yes. Thinking she was better than everyone else, and always knew to do the right thing. She'd certainly done the wrong thing this morning. her. Why else would he have told her the truth? And she'd thrown that love back in his face by being too high-minded to think clearly. What had Susan accused her of during the kite-flying? Ah, yes. Thinking she was better than everyone else, and always knew to do the right thing. She'd certainly done the wrong thing this morning.
While her lady's maid dressed her, Evangeline made furious plans.
She'd have to apologize to Gavin, of course. Tell him she'd been surprised-obviously he'd shocked her, no denying that-but not angry. Tell him she understood his anger, that she'd been angry on Lady Hetherington's behalf, too. Tell him she knew, in her heart and in her soul, that he would never harm an innocent person. That That would be unequivocally dishonorable. That was left to the most evil of men, like Lord Hetherington, like her stepfather. would be unequivocally dishonorable. That was left to the most evil of men, like Lord Hetherington, like her stepfather.
Not Gavin. He was a good man. And she'd let him down.
She barely made it halfway to the dining room before being waylaid by her least favorite houseguest. How Edmund Rutherford could be drunk at eight o'clock in the morning was beyond her, unless he happened to still be awake from the night before.
He staggered over to her side. "You look ravishing today," he slurred. "What's different about you? Same hair...high color in your cheeks, though. Tup one of the footmen last night?"
Before she'd even made the conscious decision to do so, her palm connected with his cheek. Her ungloved palm. And she found herself once again spying on the activities in Lord Hetherington's bedchamber.
The earl is absent, but his cousin Edmund crawls across the floor next to the bed, one hand rifling under the mattress. Without locating whatever he's looking for, Edmund rises to his feet.He crosses the room and picks up a small traveling desk. Within seconds, he discovers a secret latch, opens a hidden drawer, and removes the contents. He shoves the papers into his pocket without reading their contents, and places the desk back on the table.Next, he heads to the dressing room. Edmund fishes through each drawer in turn. In one, he finds a change purse. In another, a snuffbox. Both disappear into his pockets.Two of Lord Hetherington's fashionable swordsticks lay propped against one wall. Edmund picks one up and hefts it in his hands, turning it over to scrutinize the craftsmanship. As if suddenly realizing it was far too big to fit in a pocket, he kneels to lean it back against the wall."You!" comes a sudden cry.In one startled movement, Edmund tightens his fingers around the swordstick and pivots, swinging upward at the intruder.Lord Hetherington crumples to the ground. A trickle of blood flows from his temple to the floor.The swordstick clatters to Edmund's feet.He stands stock-still for a moment, as if paralyzed. After a sudden, terrified glance toward the open chamber door, he drops to his knees and puts his ear against Lord Hetherington's mouth.Edmund searches his pockets with shaking fingers and pulls out a crumpled, white handkerchief. He wraps his makeshift bandage around Lord Hetherington's head and drags the limp body toward the bed.Lord Hetherington doesn't stir.
The sudden headache sliced through Evangeline's skull like thick shards of broken gla.s.s. She clapped her hands to her aching head, gritting her teeth against the familiar pain. It was worth any discomfort to have found the murderer at last. She ma.s.saged her temples until her brain once again could form coherent thoughts, then cracked her eyes open enough to squint at the man she'd just slapped.
He'd apparently already forgotten the act, for he was slumped against the wall drinking whatever he carried in his silver flask. When he turned to face her, a cruel sneer twisted his face.
"You may not have known this," he said as he pushed off from the wall, "but I like a woman with a little fire in her. I like her even better when I'm I'm in her, too." in her, too."
Evangeline backed against the other side of the hall. "Touch me and I'll scream."
"Like you scream when Lioncroft touches you?" he mocked. "I'd wager I can guess precisely how and when you scream for him. You can do as much for me."
"Touch her," came a low voice from behind them, "and I will kill you here and now."
"Lioncroft." Edmund stumbled backward a few steps. "Should've known you wouldn't be too far behind this one's skirts."
Gavin lunged for him and managed to blacken his eye before Evangeline could tug him away.
"Stop." She threw her arms around his waist, laid her cheek on his chest, hugged him tight. "He didn't touch me. I'm all right."
"b.i.t.c.h touched me, me," Edmund spat, eyes flashing.
"Say that word again and I'll-"
"No!" Evangeline tightened her hold around Gavin's torso. "I already slapped him."
He practically snarled. "Why did you have to?"
"That's not important right now. I need to tell you-"
Nancy and Lady Hetherington glided around the corner and stumbled to a stop.
Evangeline dropped her arms from around Gavin's waist. His hand found hers, squeezed, let go.
"What's going on?" Lady Hetherington asked, brows arched.
Edmund covered his rapidly bruising eye with one hand and glared at them with the other. "Besides the Pemberton chit clinging to Lioncroft, as usual? You can't trust him when she's around, and you can't trust her even when he's not. She's a menace."
"No more than you," Evangeline countered. "Considering you killed Lord Hetherington."
"Considering I what? what?"
All gazes swiveled toward Evangeline, who took a deep breath and prayed she was right. "You were, ah, seen seen that night. Sneaking into his bedchamber. Stealing papers, money, a snuffbox." that night. Sneaking into his bedchamber. Stealing papers, money, a snuffbox."
His hand fell from his eye. "I was seen? seen?"
Lady Hetherington swayed back against the wall, upsetting the balance of a framed landscape. "You killed my husband, and then stole from him?"
"Other way around," Evangeline put in once it was clear Edmund planned to continue glaring rather than defend himself. "He had just finished stuffing his pockets when your husband caught him unawares. He clubbed him with a swordstick."
"You can't prove it," Edmund muttered.
"Can't I? You a.s.sert that if we perform a search of your chamber, we won't find the papers, the change purse, and the snuffbox?"
"Proves nothing," Edmund insisted. "You might've planted those items in my room yourself."
Evangeline crossed her arms. "Did I plant the handkerchief tied around the wound to his head?"
He blanched. "Er..."
"If we look closer, we'll discover it embroidered with your initials, will we not?"
"All right. Fine. I hit him with a swordstick." His gaze flicked from person to person. "But I didn't kill him. He was still breathing when I left."
Gavin's muscles flexed. "Is there any reason we should believe you?"
A silence settled in the shadowed hall before Nancy Hetherington cleared her throat and whispered, "Actually...yes."
"Honey." Lady Hetherington reached for her daughter's hand. "No."
Nancy squared her shoulders. "I...I went to visit Papa long after the dancing stopped. He had the bandage about his head already, but I didn't even ask how he'd gotten injured. I was too angry. I told him I didn't want to get married to someone who was too old to dance, much less..." She colored, coughed, took a deep breath. "I know it's selfish and horrible but I couldn't make myself marry Mr. Teasdale. I'd run away before I let that happen."
"With Monsieur le professeur du Francais? Monsieur le professeur du Francais?" Edmund interjected with a sneer.
"Yes," Nancy responded hotly. "At least Pierre has a pulse. And he loves me. He told me so. But Papa said...Papa said I was young and foolish, and that I shouldn't put girlish dreams over his dictates as head of the family. That money matters more than love, and I'd been raised well enough to know my duty. And then he said...and then he said..." Nancy burst into wet, noisy sobs. "He said he'd not only sacked Pierre, he sent him hog-tied on a boat to India."
Shocked silence enveloped the dim corridor, until Edmund's wry voice broke the stillness.
"Well, sweetheart," he said with a relieved smirk. "Sounds like you had more of a motive to kill the selfish rotter than I did."
"My daughter would never kill her father. You're the selfish rotter, Edmund. Stealing from my husband? Leaving him to die?" She pounded her fists against his chest. "Get out. And never come back. You're no longer part of this family."
He lurched away from her. "You can't order me around. It's not your house."
"No," Gavin agreed. "It's mine. Do as my sister says. Return whatever you've purloined, and get out. I'll send some footmen along to make sure you do."
"I didn't kill Papa," Nancy choked out, sobbing into her mother's arms.
Gavin slanted a look at Evangeline. "She didn't do it," he murmured.
Evangeline sighed, unable to deny the truth. "I know."
Nancy and Lady Hetherington headed back toward their chambers. Half a dozen footmen followed Edmund to his room.
Evangeline turned to Gavin, held his face in her hands, kissed him. "I'm so sorry."
"For what?" His arms went around her waist and held her tight. "You caught a thief."
"But not a murderer." She gazed up at him. "And I'm sorry about this morning. I've always been quick to judge, and I know I shouldn't be. If anything, you've taught me to rely on my own intuition rather than the suspicions of others. And I know you. I know you would never harm an innocent person. Whatever you did to Lord Hetherington, he deserved."
An indefinable emotion flickered across Gavin's face. Unease rippled through Evangeline's stomach.
"About that," he began hesitantly, then paused as a new pair of female voices came from down a connecting corridor. When the voices turned out to belong to Susan and Lady Stanton, Gavin dropped his arms from Evangeline's waist and groaned. "Those b.l.o.o.d.y Stanton women," he growled sotto voce. "I'll kill them yet."
As Evangeline turned to greet Susan, she wondered what Gavin had been about to say...and whether she'd be better off not knowing.
Evangeline spent most of breakfast staring at Gavin beneath her lashes and wishing they could've spent more time together. Although he returned her gaze openly, his eyes were hooded, unreadable. When she stood to fetch another piece of toast, she wasn't surprised to find him joining her at the sideboard.
"I already requested a carriage be brought round for you," he murmured. "It will be by the front garden in less than an hour. But first...first...I can't let you leave without telling you..."
Toast in hand, she whipped around breathlessly to face him. "Yes?"
He swallowed convulsively, tensed his shoulders, turned away. He stared at the gleaming silver platters for a long moment before muttering, "I'll miss you."
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