Authors: Michelle Diener
Tags: #Regency, #Historical Romance, #Fiction
There would be no delay in their meeting, if he had to storm the barriers and search every room in the house to find her.
She straightened her spine and pushed the doors out completely, taking the shallow stairs down into the deep, lush greenery that was her haven.
She saw him immediately.
He was standing beside the trellis arch to the herb garden, all in black.
The moon was almost full, and the light shone down on him and lit one side of his face and body.
He was looking at her, and she lowered her gaze as if to watch her step as she made her way cautiously across to him.
She was afraid to look in his eyes again.
“Thank you for being on time.” He kept his voice low, but that was still too loud for her.
She shook her head, lifting a finger to her lips, and walked past him into her little enclosed garden.
He followed her, his steps almost soundless.
When she stopped and turned, she found him closer than was comfortable. Was forced to look up at him.
“Might I remind you, you’re here to explain yourself to me, in the hope I will do the same.” Fear and dread gave her voice a sharper edge than usual. “Don’t loom over me and try to intimidate me, Your Grace. It won’t work.”
He lifted his brows. “I wasn’t aware I was intimidating you, Miss Hillier. My apologies.” He stepped back a little, but there was a gleam in his eyes, of challenge and determination, that made her heart sink.
She would not get out of this garden without parting with at least some of what she knew.
He stared at her for another long moment, and she understood that he was as unwilling to share his secrets with her as she was with him.
“It’s a fair trade, then,” she said, and he went still, and then gave a quick nod of his head.
That she hadn’t had to explain what she meant was as exciting as the fastest ride she’d had on horseback, and a feeling gripped her that was disturbingly like desire.
Not a physical desire, although he was well-built and handsome enough for her to notice him that way, but one to spend time in his company and not have to hold back or phrase what she said carefully.
The freedom of a companion like that was something she had long abandoned hope of experiencing.
She was forced to gulp in a breath of air.
“Can you tell me, before I lay my secrets at your feet, why it is you are unwilling to trust me with what you know?” His voice was slightly lower than it had been before, and she repressed a shiver.
“I know Sheldrake is mixed up in some bad business, and I’m afraid that you are one of the men he’s mixed up with.” She didn’t know why she decided on the truth, but it was liberating.
His lips twisted up in a wry smile. “And you think I might be one of his cronies because…?”
“Your reputation is that of a dissolute rake. You’re said to gamble and duel and spend your time in places of ill-repute. Sheldrake mentioned men would be looking for him, and not two days later, you arrive at my door doing just that.” She gave a shrug.
“What if I told you that my reputation was somewhat of a fiction?” His face was very serious now, his gaze focused on her as he spoke.
“Why do you do nothing to change it, then?”
“At one time, there was a need for some information about a certain group of young noblemen. Men around my own age. I was asked by my father, who was heavily involved in government, to mingle with them. Listen to what they said and report back anything of interest. After the…assignment was over, it was thought best to continue to use me in that capacity—my reputation having already been established as a gambling wastrel, so to speak.” He spoke lightly, but it was at odds with his face and his eyes.
“How long ago was that first assignment?” She wanted to reach out and touch his arm, but she gripped the skirts of her gown, instead.
“Too long ago.” He gave a wry smile. “So now you know the answer to a mystery the more conservative members of the ton have long exclaimed over, namely why my father, straight-laced and upstanding as he was, tolerated my outrageous behavior without cutting me off or disinheriting me. And that contrary to general wisdom, I didn’t send him to an early grave. My behavior was his idea, all along.”
“He shouldn’t have asked it of you. Not for so long.”
She spoke without thinking, and he jerked at her words, shrugged them off.
“I’d recently made the decision to follow my own inclinations more, but then yesterday, the prime minister was shot and I was asked to…re-acquaint myself with my usual haunts, see what I could find out.”
She closed her eyes. He wasn’t in league with Sheldrake, but against him. She batted away the last few spider-web strands that held her loyal to her former betrothed, and was free. “What led you so quickly to Sheldrake’s door?”
“That’s an interesting question.” He tipped his head to the side, as if to see her better in the moonlight. “More than one man gave me his name, but I don’t know if they genuinely thought he might be involved, if they were laying a false trail, or just repeating something they’d heard.”
She shook her head. “It isn’t a false trail, but Sheldrake can only be involved in the most minor way.”
“Why do you say that?”
She hunched her shoulders.
Months of forcing herself not to criticise Sheldrake was a hard habit to break, despite her new freedom. “Because he isn’t capable of planning something like this. He’d have gotten involved because it made him feel important, or because he believed he was doing the right thing, but he isn’t competent enough, or trustworthy enough, to be granted a major role.”
He considered that for a long time before he spoke again, and she tried to stop herself cringing inwardly as she wondered how disloyal he thought her. He had wanted the truth, and she was giving it to him.
“What exactly did Sheldrake tell you?”
“Nothing.” She realized she had spoken too loudly and lowered her voice. “He never mentioned the prime minister at all. He was giving his excuses for breaking our betrothal. All he told me was he’d gotten involved in something that was going wrong. That if they were discovered, they would get no help, that they would be left to face the consequences alone, and that he’d decided the only way to be safe was to leave the country.”
He moved closer, now, and really did loom over her. “How did you tie what he said to the death of the prime minister then? Surely not simply the timing?”
“The puppet.” She rubbed her arms and looked down at her feet.
“Puppet?” His hand came up, and he cupped the back of her head, tilting it so that her face was illuminated by the moonlight.
She stared at him, transfixed. Partly with shock at his boldness, but the feel of his hand and arm, the touch of skin on skin where his jacket sleeve rode up and his wrist and inner arm cradled her neck, made her heart beat faster than it had before.
She swallowed, and forced herself to take a step back. He released her reluctantly and with no apology.
“Sheldrake said…” She cleared her throat. “He said their puppet had lost his nerve, that it was going to the dogs.” She wouldn’t, couldn’t look at him now, but could not turn her back on him, either. She had the sense she had to know where he was at all times.
She shrugged. “The assassin was described to me as a puppet with his strings cut shortly after the prime minister was shot. It worried me.”
“But surely,” he tapped a long, blunt finger against his lips, “surely that wasn’t enough to have you waiting outside Newgate?”
She sighed. She hadn’t decided whether she would tell him about the petition for compensation Sheldrake had sent her or not. It was so tangible. A cord that bound Sheldrake to the assassin as tightly as if they had been seen together.
He waited for her to answer him, and in the long stretch of silence, they both heard the distinctive sound of someone climbing over the wall into the main part of the garden.
ames lifted a finger to his lips and saw Miss Hillier nod in understanding.
She had led them deeper into the garden than they had been this afternoon, and by the time he reached the trellis arch a man in dark clothes, similar to his own, was walking quietly across the garden toward the open doors of the library.
James could see the intruder’s surprise and indecision as he approached the house at seeing it so open.
A hand brushed his arm, and then Miss Hillier pressed herself against him, crowding next to him in the deep shadows, to see for herself what was happening.
The man slowed to a stop just beyond the pool of light spilling from the lamps in the room before him. It was quite clear the room was empty, but he only took one more step forward before he must have thought better of taking the chance of someone returning and discovering him.
He turned, sliding back into the shadows of the garden.
James watched the way he moved, sleek and competent. He did not head directly back to the wall, but seemed to be searching, perhaps for a hiding place.
James knew the moment the man spotted the trellis arch and swerved toward it.
James didn’t mind confronting an intruder, but the warm rub of Miss Hillier against his side was a stark reminder he was not alone.
Before the man got close enough to see into the shadows that concealed them, he stepped out, two long strides that put him squarely in the man’s path.
“Perhaps you would like to state your business?” James could see the man’s shock; his head jerked and he took a step back.
He didn’t answer, he turned and ran for the wall he’d come over.
James ran after him.
The man half-leapt up the wall, scrabbling for purchase, but slipped and fell and with a curse ran to the right along the back wall until he was up against the hedge that enclosed the herb garden.
With nowhere else to go, he ran down the length of it, and James was left too far away as the intruder made for the opening into the herb garden and dived through it.
Straight at Miss Hillier.
As he sprinted across the smooth, springy lawn, James heard a cry of astonishment, a thump of bodies and when he burst through the arch, he saw the intruder rolling to his feet, and Miss Hillier doing the same, hampered by the skirts of her gown.
“You.” The man hissed the word out, his eyes on Miss Hillier, and he lifted his arm.
For the first time, with the moon shining down on them, James saw he carried a small pistol in his hand.
He didn’t think, he moved, closing the distance between himself and Miss Hillier and scooping her up, swinging her around so that he stood between her and the gun. There was no other way to shield her. No other cover.
He turned and took up as much space as he could.
The gun wavered. The intruder stepped back, his eyes darting between them. He brought up his other hand to grip the pistol.
At that moment, Miss Hillier gave a shout. “Lewis! Lewis. In the garden.”
James started, and he saw their intruder did, too.
The man muttered a curse and turned, ran for the back wall and scrabbled his way up.
James started after him.
“Miss Hillier?” A call from the open doors of the library. “Miss Hillier? Are you there?”
James turned to her as he reached the wall.
She gave him a wide-eyed look. “What are you doing?” Her whisper was fierce.
“Going after him.” James could hear the man clambering down the other side of the wall and the sound spurred him up the rough grey stone.
“Are you mad? He has a gun.” Her whisper wasn’t very soft this time.
“Miss Hillier? Are you in the herb garden?” The butler’s footsteps came closer and James reached the top of the wall.
He looked back at her one last time, saw her gaze fixed on him. She made a gesture with her hands, throwing them up in exasperation and incomprehension.
“I’ll see you later.” He called it low enough that hopefully the butler didn’t hear.
As he dropped over the other side, he heard Miss Hillier call out. “I’m here, Lewis. I’m all right, but there was a man in the garden.”
ewis made a fuss, but she had accepted that would happen when she called out to him.
A little fussing was far preferable to seeing the Duke of Wittaker shot dead in front of her. She’d watched the intruder’s grip tighten on his pistol, and had seen no alternative.
A shiver racked her body, and she hunched her shoulders.
Lewis had insisted on steadying her with his arm as he walked her back to the house, and she found to her surprise that the thin, wiry strength of him was most welcome. More solid and comforting than she would have expected.
She could feel a tremble in her hands and gripped him a little tighter to make them stop.
His face was only slightly lined, but as they come within the glow of light spilling from the library, it creased in dismay. “Your dress. Did you fall?”