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Authors: What A Woman Needs

Caroline Linden (6 page)

BOOK: Caroline Linden
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“But is anything missing?” Charlotte asked for the fifth time, standing in the middle of her destroyed music room. Dunstan, the butler, could do little but wring his hands and beg her pardon. Charlotte sighed as he began again, stammering through another apology. “Don’t worry, Dunstan. I don’t expect you to have stopped him. I just want to know what he took.”
The butler looked around unhappily. “I’ve no idea, madam.”
The two footmen came back then, finished searching the house. “There’s no one, ma’am. We checked all the rooms, all the cupboards, every hiding place.”
“Thank you.” She dismissed them all, and told Dunstan to have a glass of port. She went back down the hall to where Susan still huddled with Lucia and the maids. “The house is safe. Whoever was here has gone.”
“Oh, Aunt Charlotte,” Susan sobbed, running forward to fling her arms around Charlotte. “I never dreamed! In Kent, of all places! What if we had been home?”
“We weren’t, and that’s what’s important.” Charlotte sent a speaking quick glance over Susan’s head at Lucia, who was on at least her second cigarette. Charlotte didn’t have the heart to remind her not to smoke around Susan, since Lucia was dragging on it rather hard, as she always did when upset. “Go up to bed, dearest. I will take care of it.”
“But what if he comes back?” Susan wailed. “We’re not safe in our own beds!”
Charlotte tipped up her chin, her heart constricting at the sight of Susan’s red-rimmed, fearful eyes. “Don’t worry,” she said gently. “If Dunstan can scare him off, Tom and Henry should terrify him. They’ll both sleep here in the front hall tonight. We shall be quite safe.”
“All right.” Susan’s eyes filled with tears again. Charlotte hugged her, murmuring reassurances. She walked Susan to her room, where they both checked it thoroughly and made certain the window was locked. Charlotte sent a maid for a cup of warm milk, and tucked her niece into bed as if she were a child. All their differences were forgotten, and Susan even smiled at her as Charlotte bade her good night.
She went back downstairs to the music room, followed by Lucia, whose nerves seemed to have been steadied by the tobacco. The servants had been too frightened to sweep up, and Charlotte was content to let them do it in the morning. She wanted to examine the scene herself, on the slim chance the thief might have left a clue behind.
This was not the first time someone had broken in. At first she had thought it was just carelessness, things left where they shouldn’t be by servants unfamiliar with her household. But this was clearly not the negligence of servants. Several crates had been knocked over, two of them opened and rifled, and a small stub of a candle in a tin holder had been found in the debris. Someone had been here again, in her house, looking for something in particular, and since he hadn’t found it, Charlotte faced the frightening certainty he would be back.
“He is getting careless,” said Lucia, breaking the silence. “Have you no idea what he searches for?”
Charlotte sighed. “None. These crates were only just delivered last week. Sometimes I wonder if
he
knows what he’s looking for.”
Lucia nudged a vase, lying spilled from its crate, with her toe. It rolled over to expose the lightning bolt of a crack that split the side. “Perhaps it is good. Perhaps he grows impatient, and will make a mistake.”
“Perhaps he’ll grow impatient with sneaking in, and just burst in during luncheon and hold us hostage until he finds whatever it is he wants.” Charlotte picked up the vase, and paused, frowning at some dark spots on the carpet underneath. “Does this look like blood to you?”
Lucia leaned over with a rustle of silk. “Oh, do you think he hurt himself, and that is why he caused such a disturbance?”
Charlotte looked closer. It was possible. Out of hurt or frustration, the burglar might have gone a bit mad and started breaking things. But it had almost led to his capture; if the butler had been a quicker, younger man, she might be facing her tormentor right now. The thief had broken in several times, always very quietly, and left few traces of his presence. He could have been stealing her blind, for all the evidence he had left behind. These crates would most likely have sat untouched for weeks, just like all the others had, and he could have taken anything from them, leaving no one the wiser. Why would he endanger himself now?
She skirted the smashed crates, trying to view the scene dispassionately. She could tell which crates he had opened, since these were all newly delivered and no one else had disturbed them. Two had been opened and then closed, very carefully. One had been opened and partially closed, and another was left standing open. Why did he go on a rampage in the middle of his search?
Charlotte shook her head in despair. “Perhaps he thought his object would be in these last few crates. I’m not expecting any more, thank goodness; I haven’t the space for these.”
“Why do you not unpack them, then?” Lucia lifted a small statue from the open crate. “The house is so dull.”
“If I unpacked them, the house would look like a museum.”
It would look like Italy
, Charlotte silently corrected, and she was trying to leave Italy behind. The truth was, she didn’t want any of the things in those crates; she just hadn’t figured out what to do with them. She hadn’t expected Piero to leave them to her in the first place, but his will had contained a clause specifically directed at her, enjoining her to keep it all in remembrance of his affection for her. After that, she hadn’t been able to say no when the solicitor offered to ship everything to England for her. If Lucia hadn’t been with her, and the explanations difficult, Charlotte would have personally pushed every box overboard into the ocean on the voyage. Thieves were welcome to take any of it, but instead they simply broke in to make a mess, it appeared.
“Well, since there’s nothing to be done, I’m going to bed,” she said with a sigh. “I shall see you in the morning.”
“How you shall sleep, I cannot guess.” Lucia shuddered, hurrying out of the room behind her. Upstairs Charlotte stopped to checked on Susan, who was sleeping soundly but all curled into a ball, just as she had done as a small child. Charlotte’s heart felt heavy; she was trying so hard to be a proper guardian, and in less than a month she had allowed her niece to be taken in by a fortune hunter, and now to be terrorized by burglars in her own home. For the first time she considered braving London, for Susan’s sake. So far she had put it off, telling herself they would wait until Susan was old enough for a season, but perhaps she was wrong. She gently tucked the blanket around the sleeping girl, and retreated to her own room.
The fire had gone out, because the maids were too frightened to go about the house. Charlotte sighed, stirring the ashes with the poker and coaxing just enough heat to light the candle. She put it on the dressing table, and began removing her jewelry, pressing her fingers to the back of her neck where it ached. Then her eyes fell on her bed, and she froze in place.
Someone had been in her bed. The bedclothes were rumpled, and a depression was clearly visible in the duvet. The maid would never have left it that way. Charlotte’s skin crawled, and her breath came loud and harsh as she imagined a stranger in her bedroom, among her most personal possessions, in her
bed.
Shaking, she inched over to the bed and yanked back the covers by the corner, a scream poised in her throat. The duvet floated harmlessly to the carpet.
She jerked the pillows off, one by one. Nothing. She shook out the sheets and ran her hands under the mattress. Nothing.
Charlotte’s knees gave out and she collapsed into the pile of bedding. Relief and fear twisted in her belly. So far she had never seen any sign of the burglar upstairs, and the violation of her private haven was unexpected. She realized she had grown lax in her handling of the burglaries; since no one had been hurt and often there was little evidence of intrusion, she had almost come to accept them as harmless annoyances.
She got to her feet and began a systematic search of her room for anything at all out of the ordinary. At the end, she was sure the thief had gone through her clothing, although she couldn’t find anything missing. The maid hadn’t cleared away the laundry and mending before the uproar, and all her unmentionables were spread out atop the pile. Charlotte resolved to throw them all out first thing in the morning and buy new ones. She couldn’t bear to wear them after he had touched them.
The only thing missing, in fact, was the one thing that gave her hope. An emerald necklace was gone from her jewel case. Perhaps he was a petty thief after all, and had only gotten brave enough to come upstairs this time. Charlotte hoped this were the case, for she couldn’t stand the thought of an intruder roaming her house at his ease. Jewels he could have, for all she cared; they could be replaced, and if he had satisfied whatever urge drove him, perhaps this would be his last break-in.
She put her bed to rights, giving everything a tremendous shake as if to rid it of the intruder’s touch. It took her a long time to fall asleep, and when she did, it was to dream of the vengeance she would like to take on the man who had violated her privacy so vilely.
 
 
She hid her feelings from Susan the next morning. When her niece came down to breakfast, Charlotte smiled warmly, determined to go on as if there were no cause for concern. She would deal with the thief on her own. “Good morning, Susan.”
“Good morning, Aunt Charlotte.” Susan gave her an uncertain smile in reply. It was her first friendly greeting in days, and Charlotte felt a surge of delight. When she had gotten word of George’s death, along with the news that he had named her guardian of his only child, Charlotte had nursed a secret hope that Susan might come to be a dear friend, a mixture of the younger sister she’d always wanted and the daughter she’d never have. Susan had been only a child when Charlotte left England, but Charlotte had remembered her niece fondly in the years since.
“Shall we go shopping today? I have need of a few things.” Charlotte had ordered her maid to dispose of her undergarments that morning. She had only what she had worn the night before. “I’ve been thinking about the yellow muslin you liked,” she added, trying to build on the good feelings. “Perhaps we should look at it again.”
Susan looked up in surprise. “Really? You—you said it was too daring for a girl my age.”
“Well, I’m reconsidering. Shall we?” Susan nodded, her face brightening. Charlotte turned her attention to her breakfast with a lighter heart. Perhaps she had been too strict with Susan; the yellow dress was a little provincial for her taste, but Susan was old enough to begin choosing her own clothes and developing her own sense of style. The dress, and of course new shoes to go with it, possibly a new bonnet and some gloves ...
“Your pardon, madam.” The butler had come into the room. “Tom found this in the garden.” He held out a silver flask. Charlotte took it, her eyebrows rising in surprise. It was an expensive polished flask such as a gentleman would carry.
“Where, Dunstan?”
He cleared his throat softly. “In the honeysuckle, madam. Outside the music room.” Charlotte stared at it. It wasn’t hers, so it must belong to the burglar. The burglar, a gentleman?
There was a sharp clink of silver on china, and a gasp. Charlotte glanced up to see Susan, pale-faced and wide-eyed, staring at the flask in her hand. “Is that ... Is that where the intruder was?” she asked faintly.
Charlotte tucked the flask into her lap. “Don’t worry, dear. He shan’t be able to come back.” She nodded to the butler, and he bowed out of the room.
“Oh, no.” Her niece wet her lips. “May I see it?” Charlotte hesitated. “Please?” Susan looked quite distraught. Reluctantly, Charlotte handed her the flask. Susan snatched it from her hand, turning it over and letting out another strangled gasp. Then she wrapped her napkin around it and sprang to her feet. “May I be excused?” She edged toward the door.
Charlotte frowned. “I need the flask, Susan. I shall send around to the magistrate at once. He’ll want to see it and discover who owns it.”
“Oh, no!” Susan shook her head frantically, clutching the napkin-wrapped flask to her chest. “I’m sure it has nothing to do with the intruder. It couldn’t!”
“Susan,” said Charlotte slowly. “Give it to me.” She put out her hand. Susan backed up, her breath rapid and loud.
BOOK: Caroline Linden
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