Authors: Michelle Diener
Tags: #Regency, #Historical Romance, #Fiction
“Good afternoon, sir.” James stepped into the cell.
Bellingham rose from his chair, and gave a short bow. “Good afternoon.” He looked expectantly at James, waiting for an introduction, and then indicated the other chair beside the small writing desk.
James sat and observed Bellingham, choosing to say nothing about who he was. He knew his title cowed some, made sycophants of others. He wanted Bellingham to treat him like any of the officials who must surely have seen him since he killed Perceval.
Bellingham’s clothing was well-made, but ripped and torn in places, and James realized that he must be in the same clothes he’d worn when he shot Perceval yesterday afternoon. His handling on being taken into custody was obviously rough.
Bellingham looked down and ran a restless finger over some notepaper on the desk. He was dark-haired and had a long, thin face. “Do you have my papers, sir? Or can you get them? They were taken from me after… They were taken from me, and I need them back to argue my case.”
James frowned. “What papers are these, Mr. Bellingham?”
“My notes. My petitions. The evidence to prove that I followed every step correctly. It will show the court can do nothing but acquit me, sir. Because I fulfilled every requirement, left no stone unturned. When there was no other recourse, I had to take the regrettable step of killing the prime minister, but there was not malice on my part in the act. It was purely justice. I had to administer justice for myself, because the government would not do it for me.” He sounded so reasonable, the hair on James’s neck rose.
“How was killing Mr. Perceval administering justice, Mr. Bellingham?”
Bellingham shook his head as if there was a bee buzzing about his ears. “It is simple. They would not compensate me for the most terrible dereliction of their duties, sir. The most terrible…” His finger moved faster and faster over the desk. “I have a family, I have to support them, and how could I when my business was ruined, and the government to blame for that?”
“So you received no help when you made known your troubles?”
“No help from anyone who held authority! Some sympathetic ears from a few quarters these last few months, sir, but they could only give advice, no real help.”
James leaned back in the uncomfortable wooden chair. “Sympathetic ears?”
Bellingham looked up and held his gaze for the first time. James suppressed a shiver at the dead calm in his eyes. “Just so. Sympathetic ears. That’s all.”
It didn’t sound rehearsed, so much as learned.
Someone had repeated this to him, over and over again.
“Who did these sympathetic ears belong to?”
Bellingham slid his gaze away, and folded his hands over his stomach. “No one of import. Men in the coffee houses and taverns, is all. Men who know how hard it is for a man to make his way with the government against him.”
“Mr. Bellingham, I need to ask you directly. Did you receive any help in carrying out the murder of Mr. Perceval?”
Bellingham stood suddenly, shaking with emotion. “It was not murder, sir! It was justice. Justice with no malice aforethought.”
“My apologies, I misspoke.” James kept his voice even.
Bellingham looked across at him, and seemed to be convinced. He sat again, relaxing back against the chair.
“There was no one. I have pursued this since I returned from Russia, with no help, no help at all.”
There was no guile about him. Bellingham was telling the truth as he knew it.
James rose and gave a bow. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Bellingham. I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.”
It should have been a ridiculous thing to say, but Bellingham gave a genuine smile and bowed back. “I’m sure I will, sir. Thank you for your company.”
He was let out, and Newman led him through an office, his step light and cheerful, almost incongruous in the fetid, gloomy surroundings.
James fingered the guinea again. “Mr. Newman, what can you tell me about your prisoner?”
“Cool customer, Your Grace. Very cool. Calm as you please, he is, when you’d think he’d be pacing up and down and wringing his hands. But none of that.” He smoothed a hand over his almost bald head and then rubbed the back of his neck.
“Who’s been to see him?”
“Plenty, but only a few’ve been allowed in. Some what come had interesting tales to tell.”
“Chap round here today, name of Hokkirk, said Bellingham’s father was mad. Committed to St. Luke’s. For the barmy ones that go violent, St. Luke’s is. Said the son has taken after the father.” Newman leaned a little closer, and James caught the whiff of porter and beef stew on his breath. “That
journalist, Jerdan, he were right pleased to hear what the man had to say ’n all, seeing he believes the prisoner is mad as they come.” He rocked back on his heels and tugged the grey wool of his waistcoat over his pot belly. “Be in the paper tomorrow, no doubt.”
“No doubt.” James wondered what effect an article like that would have on the current mood of the country.
From the few minutes he’d spent in Bellingham’s company, he had the sense of someone desperately trying to control himself and his situation. He had felt no hint of violence, except that one moment when he’d spoken the word ‘murder’ and Bellingham had stood.
Then again, Bellingham had killed a man—the ultimate violence.
It could well be he had inherited his father’s madness.
“Do you agree with Jerdan, Mr. Newman?”
“Rubbish, is what I think. Never seen anyone so ordered and calm. He’s not mad.”
But mad didn’t mean frantic. There was a disturbing earnestness to Bellingham, an inflexibility under the good manners and the good clothes.
“Why does Jerdan believe him to be mad?” It was curious that Jerdan was so convinced of his insanity he was visibly pleased to find evidence of it, when everyone else seemed to be looking for reasons to pronounce Bellingham sane.
“Jerdan were there. When it happened. He were standing right behind the prime minister when he were shot.” Newman shrugged. “Suppose that affects the way he sees things.”
James gave a nod in agreement. “Anyone else come to see him?”
Newman shrugged again. “Plenty. The magistrates, the Treasury solicitor, journalists.” He smiled, a thin, wicked drawing up of his lips. “I only let the officials in, though.”
James pulled the guinea from his pocket and held it out to Newman, who took it in a smooth, practised move.
He gave another bow and James made his way to the entrance and stepped out, standing on the top step and looking out into the street.
Jerdan would be a good person to speak to next. Someone who’d witnessed what had happened.
He was trying to remember the address of the offices of the
when he caught a furtive movement from the corner of his eye.
He turned, and found himself staring, once more, into the dark blue eyes of Miss Hillier.
he hadn’t seen him go in.
Phoebe wondered if it had happened when the crowds had gotten a little rowdy, and she had turned her attention to them for a time, or if he’d been inside already when she arrived.
It didn’t matter.
He had seen her, and she knew that nothing but at least some of the truth would appease him now.
He strode toward her, his face stark and guarded, and she was surprised again to see none of the dissolution and decay she would have expected from someone with his reputation.
“Miss Hillier.” He stopped in front of her, and his brows rose in question.
“Your Grace.” She gave a flawless curtsy and as she rose again she caught his grimace as her actions attracted the attention of the crowds around them.
“This is a surprise. To see you here.” His voice was low, neutral, but his eyes were anything but.
“Likewise.” Phoebe matched his tone.
He stared at her, surprised, and then gave a short laugh. “
She couldn’t help the smile his sudden humour brought to her own lips. She schooled her face to blank neutrality again, but the damage had been done.
“We will talk.” It was not a request.
“Not here,” she said, lifting a hand as the wind tugged at the hood of her cloak, threatening exposure.
“No.” He looked around. “Where is your carriage?”
She pointed down the street and he offered his arm and walked her to it.
“You will go to the park, and I will meet you there.” He gave her a smile that had enough steel behind it to cover a barn door.
“And then?” Surely he didn’t mean to walk with her without a chaperone? Nothing would get the tongues of Mayfair wagging faster, cloak or no cloak.
“Then we’ll ride in my phaeton, and we will talk.”
“That will be a little unusual. As we are neither betrothed nor even acquaintances.”
“I consider you an acquaintance, Miss Hillier. If that makes you feel better.”
She gave a half-laugh. “When it is discovered that I am no longer betrothed to Sheldrake, and a few days later am out alone with the Duke of Wittaker, I can promise you, nothing will make me feel better. I will be ruined.”
It was true. Completely true. But a lie, as well.
She ached to break the rules, to heave off the yoke of polite manners that kept her small and cowed and unable to follow her inclinations. But the cruel joke was she did not want to be alone, either. Did not want to be a social pariah.
So a half-truth, perhaps.
He considered her words carefully, watching her with those sharp gray eyes. “Very well. I’ll meet you in your garden in ten minutes.” He helped her into her carriage, and paused before closing the door, and she saw, for the first time, the hard, cold heart of him. “Be there, Miss Hillier. No games.”
She opened her mouth to give him a hot retort, then thought better of it and gave a curt nod instead.
“Ten minutes,” he repeated as he closed the door.
Phoebe glared at him, and tapped the roof of the carriage. As they pulled into the traffic she looked back and found him watching her.
They stared at each other until her carriage turned the corner.
Neither looked away.
* * *
Damned if he wasn’t intrigued, when he should have been suspicious. Hot on the scent.
Or perhaps he was too hot on the scent, and it wasn’t for a potential assassin.
James stood in the lane behind Miss Hillier’s house, and tried the garden door.
He’d said no games, but to be honest, he hadn’t made it clear he would be coming in the back way, to completely shield her from any speculation.
With nothing for it, he made sure he was alone, and then pulled himself up the stone wall.
When he reached the top, he could see Miss Hillier standing with her back to him, talking to someone within the house, her full concentration on the conversation.
“I feel like sitting in the garden, that’s all. I was shopping and have a headache. I’ll come in for tea in a little while.”
He couldn’t hear the response, but it clearly frustrated her. She gave a sigh.
He dropped lightly into her lush, colorful garden.
She turned at that moment, and gave a small squeak of surprise to find him standing in a flower bed.
“I tried the door,” he said, brushing the dust of the wall off his knees. “It was locked.”
“I wondered if you’d come in the back. I’ve only just managed to get into the garden myself.” Her gaze moved beyond him to the wall. “That’s quite an impressive climb.”
She was stalling for time. Hoping the tea would come out, no doubt, and he would have to hide or go away.
He smiled as he tugged down his jacket sleeves. “What were you doing waiting outside Newgate Prison today?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry if this sounds ungracious, Your…Grace…but what were
He stepped out of the flowerbed, wiped his boots on the perfectly green, springy lawn. “Why are you so loathe to tell me?”
She took a step back from him, turned and walked away, toward a filigree arch sent in a yew hedge.
“Miss Hillier.” He could be harsh when he wanted to be. In fact, many people would swear that was his usual demeanor.
She didn’t turn, didn’t even acknowledge him. She stepped through the arch and disappeared from his sight.
She was forcing him to follow her. He didn’t know if it was a deliberate move in what was becoming a battle of wills, or her way of avoiding his questions.
He grit his teeth and took the same path she had, stepped through the arch and into a small herb garden, enclosed on all sides, either by the garden wall or the hedge.
She was standing just within, on the narrow paving that ran around the outside of the garden.
“If my aunt comes out with the tea, she’ll call me out to her, she won’t come in here, and you can stay hidden,” she said. She was looking at him without challenge, and he saw he’d misunderstood her. She’d only wanted them out of sight of the main house.