Authors: Susannah Bamford
She moved quickly. There wasn't time to change. Without hesitation, driven by fear now that Claude would retire earlier than his custom, she collected her outer garments, her stout walking boots. But she kept on her evening slippers. The soft kid whispered against the Persian carpet runner all the way down the fourteenth-century carved staircase Claude had stripped from a castle in Italy. She paused on the landing and listened. She could hear nothing, and there were no lights lit downstairs.
Darcy started down the last flight of stairs. She hit the bottom and stopped again, listening. Was that a noise coming from the south hall? Impossible. Nevertheless she moved quickly in the opposite direction down the hall, her footsteps barely making a noise on the cold marble floor. She passed the small, exquisite salon, her favorite room, and the room where Claude kept his precious medieval reliquaries, past the long reception hall with its ravishing Bouchers.
And then she heard it. Footsteps coming down the hall behind her. Rapid footsteps, anxious footsteps. Claude.
In a panic, Darcy opened the first door on her left. It was a sitting room with doors opening out to an interior courtyard, and they used it only in summer. Directly to the right of the door was a massive Riesener commode. She bundled up her cloak and boots and hurled them underneath it, then quietly shut the door. Her heart thundering, she darted back down the hall toward the salon.
A moment later, Claude materialized out of the shadows. “Darcy!” His voice was sharp. Then it recovered quickly, becoming the thick, honeyed croon that made her skin crawl. “What are you doing, dearest?”
“I thought I left my book in the salon,” she said. “I thought I'd read while I waited for you.”
“Why didn't you ask Solange to fetch it for you?”
“I sent her to bed. You know that,” Darcy said with downcast eyes. Let Claude think she was embarrassed at this allusion to what would happen later.
“It was lucky I was downstairs in the library, then.” His cold fingers skittered down her bare forearm and grabbed her wrist. “Come. I'll help you find it.”
“That's not necessary, Claude, Iâ”
“Come.” He almost dragged her into the salon. She heard the pop of the gas lighting. He turned it up high, too high. Harsh shadows loomed toward her. “We'll look together.”
She glanced around the room quickly. “I don't see it. Perhaps it's in my room, after all.”
“But how can you be sure?” Claude asked smoothly, insistently. “Let's look together, my dear.” He took her hand and squeezed her bones together. “I don't like your being up this late, alone. You know how I worry that you'll catch a chill. So if we look carefully and find it together, perhaps you'll learn your lesson, my dear. We'll start here, in the salon. But perhaps you left: it in the reception hall, or the library, or the drawing room, or even the conservatory.”
“I don't think soâ”
“But how can you be sure? We'll have to search carefully. Never fear, we'll find it before we go upstairs.”
He yanked her wrist again and brought her over to the sofa covered in Aubusson tapestry. “Not here. A pity.” He moved a pillow, then clucked his tongue and dragged her over to the writing table. “No, nor here, either,” he said musingly, already pulling her to the other corner of the room. He peeked behind the damask curtains. “Perhaps it slippedâno, not here.”
And so he went on. For the next hour, Darcy allowed herself to be pulled to each piece of furniture, each shadowy corner. She was soon cold, with her bare shoulders and thin-soled dancing slippers. But as they moved from room to room her only fear was that they would return to the summer sitting room and find her cloak. It would be just like Claude to bring her through every room downstairs and then end his search there. Her wrist burning while her flesh grew increasingly cold, she dumbly followed her husband down the long halls, from conservatory to library to gallery, as they searched for the book they both knew they would never find. And then at last, with her stumbling behind him, he led her to her bedroom and locked the door behind them.
San Francisco was the damned muddiest city he'd ever seen. Some of the streets he'd been on today had been knee-deep in the stuff, a mixture of dirt and manure and garbage and sweet Jesus only knew what else. It didn't help that it had rained steadily for a week. Tavish was not a fastidious man, but he was disgusted at the look and smell of his trousers.
He didn't think his looks would go over very well at the home of Artemis P. Hinkle. He'd have to look like a gentlemen if he wanted to get through the front door. Well, there was nothing for it but to tramp all the way back to his hotel and change. He'd get a ribbing from Jamie, but he was used to Jamie's ribbings. Even the trouble that brought them to San Francisco couldn't stop the twinkle from appearing in Jamie's eye now and then.
Tavish turned his steps toward his hotel, thinking contentedly of the whiskey he would have with Jamie while he changed his pants and they compared notes of their progress that day. He was bone-tired, and the lack of a decent meal in a week didn't help his disposition. Tonight they would have a good meal, an excellent meal, no matter what. The trouble with adventure, Tavish had often reflected, was that it so often involved bad food. He had given up his roaming life and had sunk gratefully into the simple pleasures of Solace, California, including the succulent meals at Grace Tooney's boarding house. The memory of her wild turkey could bring tears to his eyes. Only Jamie could have convinced him to leave the retiring life in Solace he loved and the pretty widow Tooney he had his eye on in order to ferret out a mystery. Tavish had sent up many a silent prayer that they would be back in Solace by next week.
Jamie would have returned by now from the meeting he'd been so mysterious about. Somebody who might have useful information, he'd said. Well, if it was like any of the other trails they'd followed, it would more likely be someone sniffing a reward for information who didn't have any to give. Jamie, amiable as always, would stand the bloke a drink and send him on his way. Actually, he'd spent most of his time in San Francisco in brothels, where he claimed most of the useful information was floating around in the sitting rooms while the men relaxed with their cigars and whiskeys. He was “following a scent,” Jamie said, though Tavish often wondered aloud just what that scent was and got a smirk for his answer.
Tavish was frowning as he went up the stairs of the small hotel on Pine Street. Jamie was enjoying this whole mess just a bit too much, he thought. All he wanted was to go home.
The lobby was deserted at this time of day, except for a well-dressed gentleman who was heading out the back door. The sight of an elegant back was unusual in this hotel, but Tavish was too disgruntled to give the man more than a glance. He got his key from the desk, made his usual futile request for messages, and started up the stairs to their room. He was already grinning as he put his key in the lock, expecting the jibe from Jamie as soon as he opened the door.
What he wasn't expecting were the feathers. Confused, he watched as the draft from the open door partnered them lightly across the floorboards in a delicate dance. He stared dumbly at them for a moment before he smelled it. Blood in his nostrils, and that other too-familiar smell of a recently discharged gun, the combination of smells he'd never wanted to experience again.
Tavish shut the door. His eyes followed the trail of feathers to a scorched pillow at the floor at the foot of the bed. A bullet fired through it would muffle the noise. On the other side, Jamie's stockinged feet protruded out into the room.
Tavish was moving before he could think, grabbing a towel from a chair as he crossed the room. When he rounded the bed, he saw Jamie's eyes flicker open, then close. He was alive, then. Thank Jesus.
With a quick, practiced eye, Tavish located Jamie's wound. There was a bullet in his chest, near the heart. Too near. Tavish pressed the towel to it. He was alternately praying and cursing under his breath when he noticed that he was kneeling in a pool of blood. But the blood wasn't coming from the chest wound.
Tavish looked down. Jamie had pulled the blanket halfway off the bed to cover himself, and it was lying across his lower body. Tavish pulled off the blanket and gagged. The gun had blown off Jamie's manhood. He knew with a certainty that made him sick that it had been the first wound. The warning. Bile rose again in his throat.
When his fingers felt for the fluttering pulse and he touched cold skin, Jamie opened his eyes. There was a film on his normally bright blue gaze. Tavish had seen enough men die to know that Jamie was moments away from it.
“It's not so bad,” Jamie said. “It's just that I'm so damn cold.”
Gently, Tavish pulled the blanket back over him. Jamie stared at him. Despite the stubble on his face, he looked very young. Incredibly, mischief flickered in his eyes. “Matter of fact, I froze my balls off,” he said.
The idiot. What a time to joke. “So that's what happened,” Tavish said, forcing a grin. “You're going to make it, boyo.”
“No, I'm not,” Jamie said. “You blathering Mick.”
Beneath his anguish, Tavish knew that rage was simmering. “Who?” he said.
“He thought I knew something,” Jamie said, his voice a whisper now. “Shot off my friend below there to find out what. At first I was thinking it was just a threat. But then I saw his eyes. I've seen warmer gazes on salmon I caught. I wish I knew what he thinks I know.”
“Who?” Tavish repeated. His voice was calm, as though they had a long afternoon to discuss the problem.
A ghost of a smile flitted across Jamie's boyish, stubbled face. “Damn me, if it wasn't our man. Not his agent, the man himself. Mr. Dargent. He's quite a toff. So slick I could have snowshoed down his ass.” He coughed, and blood sprayed onto Tavish's shirt. “I know you're going to hate hearing this,” he said, his voice a ghost-image of his usual bantering tone.
“You have to go to New York. That's where Hinkle is. He ran away from us.”
“You said he didn't know anything.”
“Then why did he run? The trail ends there.” Jamie's eyes closed, then opened again. “Watch your back, my friend,” he said. His eyes still open, they unfocused, and he died.
“Ah, Jamie,” Tavish said, his voice breaking. He reached over and gently closed the eyes of the only man he'd ever loved. He held him in his arms and rocked him, and his eyes watered, damn his half-Irish soul. How he had loved Jamie. But this was no time for weeping.
a timid man who was successful at camouflaging his weakness only when he felt himself perfectly dressed. When he had lost his wife, he had ordered new shirts. When he had lost his fortune, he had had no remedy available to him; even his tailor, usually so accommodating, had refused him more credit. So he had taken to his bed. Misfortune had never strengthened him; it was inexplicable to him how it could do so for others.
It had taken Darcy's marriage to Claude Statton and the reversal in Edward's own fortunes for him to regain his veneer of strength. But at the first sign of trouble, Edward remembered the quaking self that lay in ambush, how close he always was to losing his nerve.
Now his daughter had burst into his home in the middle of his dinner, on an inclement February night, with an icy rain beating against the windows. Her face was streaming rain and tears. And Claude was here, in his house! They were dining with a new business contact from California. They never told Darcy when they dined together, of course. Thank heaven Jorgan hadn't announced her name, just discreetly told Edward he had a guest in the upstairs library. Edward had arranged the dinner so carefully; if he flattered Claude by asking his opinion on this Mr. Finn, perhaps Edward would be able to take his money out of Claude's pool without repercussions. But it was a delicate thing, and if Claude knew Darcy was here in this state, everything could be ruined.
He looked at his daughter, damp and helpless in his armchair, and he almost hated her, for he hated the danger her presence put him in.
He didn't sit. He turned his face toward the fire. “This is very inconvenient, my dear,” he said, hoping to stall her. “I have guests for dinner.”
sorry, Father,” Darcy said. “Of course I should have arranged my marital crisis to suit your social schedule.”
“Darcy! Now calm yourself. Your nervesâ”
A strange look, electric and frightening, passed over her face. She looked almost savage, and very strong. “Please, whatever you do, don't say that again, Father.”
“All right. Drink your brandy.”
“It was very difficult for me to leave the house unseen. I've been waiting for three weeks for my chance,” Darcy continued in a rapid voice that broke and rushed forward tremulously. “Claude was dining out, and I had a tray in my room. I managed to slip out. I've left him. I've left him for good and I am not going back!”
This would not do, Edward thought restlessly. This would not do at all. He could imagine Claude below them, dyspeptically picking at his dinner, annoyed at Edward's absence, and planning ever more devilish schemes to make him regret his rudeness.
“I don't understand,” he said. “You are being hasty, I'm sure. A marriage is a long road, and of course there will be periods of trouble.”
Darcy looked down at her clasped hands. She had been brought close to the fire, a rug tucked around her legs, a small brandy placed in her shaking hands. But it was as though she were encased in ice too solid to thaw. Her blood had frozen at the instant she had been ushered into the study and seen the look in her father's faded blue eyes. She had already known, as he'd led her to the fire and chafed her hands, that she would find no refuge here.