“I’ll change into my habit—I won’t be long.”
“No rush. We can let Filchett and Mrs. Slattery feed us—there’s no reason we need return here until dinnertime.”
CONTRARY TO THEIR HOPES, THEY REACHED THE ABBEY TO find no communication from London awaiting them. Filchett and Mrs. Slattery were delighted to serve them luncheon. Cassius and Brutus were equally ecstatic to have Charles at home again, and even better, with company.
Lady Carmody had indeed called earlier and left an invitation to an afternoon tea party two days hence. Penny bullied Charles into accepting, pointing out that their five visitors could also be expected to attend; in this season with so many in town, those left were starved for entertainment.
In the early afternoon, they returned from walking along the ramparts with the dogs just as a rider clattered up to the front steps. A private courier, he brought the communiqué they’d been expecting. Charles took the packet, dismissed the man into Filchett’s care, and headed for his study. Penny followed; she leaned on the back of his chair and read the sheets over his shoulder.
He humphed, but let her. Unfortunately, Dalziel had little to report by way of hard facts. Like Charles, he saw Gimby’s death as confirming both the existence of some long-term treasonous conspiracy and its serious nature—people did not kill over a few vague descriptions of troops. The primary thrust of his letter, however, was to disabuse Charles of any notion that the traffic Gimby had facilitated had been incoming rather than outgoing. Dalziel had personally questioned his counterparts in every area; none knew of any source of French intelligence other than via the recognized routes under their purview.
A scribbled postscript acknowledged Charles’s subsequent report; Dalziel would see what he could turn up about the five visitors, but none rang any immediate bells.
Charles laid the sheets aside. Penny circled the desk and dropped into an armchair. They tossed comments back and forth, floated possibilities only to shoot them down. Their discussion waned into a companionable silence along with the afternoon. They had tea, then mounted and headed back to Wallingham.
Crossing the river at Lostwithiel, they glimpsed Fothergill striding away from the riverbank some way upstream. Charles held Domino back, studying Fothergill, then flicked his reins and caught up with Penny.
“Could it have been he, do you think?”
Charles shook his head. “I can’t say. That’s what I was thinking—I didn’t see enough to say anything at all.”
They returned to Wallingham to learn that nothing had occurred in their absence beyond Dennis Gibbs sending a message that he’d make sure not just the Gallants but their brethren along the coast were alerted. Gimby’s murder had clearly left the leader of the Gallants uneasy.
They dined with Nicholas. The knowledge that they were lovers clearly made him uneasy; he didn’t know how he should react to their relationship, but as they didn’t refer or allude to it in any way, he had no need to, and so the meal passed smoothly enough.
However, as the evening wore on and they sat in the drawing room and Penny exercised her fingers at the pianoforte, it became increasingly obvious that Nicholas’s attitude to Charles had undergone another transformation. She couldn’t fathom it; later, when Charles joined her in her bedchamber, she asked him what he thought.
He smiled cynically as he sat on the bed to pull off his boots. “Nicholas is not the murderer, ergo, it wasn’t he who came to your room. Both incidents have shaken him—he’s realized that he should be, and would be held to be, responsible for your safety.” The curve of Charles’s lips deepened. “Nicholas finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. He doesn’t like me, he doesn’t approve of my sharing your bed, but by heaven he’s thankful that by being here with you, I’ve taken one worry—one immediate and very real worry—from his plate.”
Lolling on the bed, idly unbuttoning the nightgown she’d recently buttoned up—Charles would have it off her in minutes anyway, a happening she wished to facilitate—she pondered Nicholas. “He is worried, isn’t he? I mean, it’s concern, anxiety, that type of feeling that’s driving him. You thought originally it was fear, but if he was afraid for himself, he’d run away, wouldn’t he? But he’s staying here, quite deliberately, because he’s extremely worried about something. But what?”
“I don’t know.” Tossing his breeches over her dressing stool, Charles crawled, naked, onto the bed. His gaze had locked on her; he smiled, and reached for her, lifting her to him as he knelt in the center of the bed. “I don’t understand Nicholas.” He bent his head, kissed her lightly, gently tugged at her lower lip. “But I do understand you.”
He settled her straddling his thighs, slid his hands under her gown, and slowly raised it.
What followed proved his point. It was all she’d hoped for, all she’d ever dreamed of, and more. He seemed to know just what she’d like, just what her senses and her prediliction for challenge craved; more, he seemed devoted not just to giving but lavishing such delights on her, until she reeled with giddy pleasure. Until he drew her to him and possessed her, until she gave herself to him and gloried in the giving.
Yet at the height of the giddy whirl there came a point when they stood at the eye of desire’s storm, when in that instant’s fraught hiatus their eyes met, and something else touched her. A oneness, a sense of communion, of a sharing that went so much deeper than the reality of their skins, their nerves, their bodies. That through that shared glance struck to her core, entwined, and sank deep.
It was a moment of power so great she couldn’t breathe; nor could he. Then his lids fell, and his lips found hers; she clung to the kiss, felt desire rise, and let it whirl her away.
She told herself it was just physical, just some linkage she hadn’t noticed before. She was indulging, just as he was; there was nothing more.
Yet she remained conscious of that power, aware that it didn’t leave them, but flowered, burgeoned; its roots ran deep. It remained with them, within them, yet in the light of day, while she could still detect its shadow, it seemed perfectly normal, as if it were something that had always been there and she’d simply failed to notice.
The following morning began as the one before, with Charles leaving her room as she rang for Ellie—as if he were her husband. She noted the fact, attributed it to his arrogance, his male confidence where she was concerned. She took longer than usual to dress for the morning, but then had to return and change into her riding habit as soon as she’d finished with Figgs. If the morning had been a repeat of the one before, the day looked set to follow suit.
So it proved. They rode to the Abbey and rec
eived another communication from Dalziel. In it he confirmed that Mr. Arthur Swaley was known to have considerable business interests in tin mines; rumor had it he was down that way looking to further said interests. Mr. Julian Fothergill was going to be difficult to check up on, there being dozens of branches in that family’s tree, but at first glance there was nothing to set him apart. More on him in due course. Carmichael, too, was not a straightforward case; there were hints of debts in the past, but they’d yet to find anyone who knew enough to tell them anything useful. They would pursue Carmichael further. Mr. Yarrow did indeed hail from Derbyshire; there was no one in town who knew much about him. Dalziel had sent a man north to learn more.
Which left Gerond, who, on the face of it, was their most likely suspect. He had military training and was known to be strongly patriotic, however, all links they’d thus far unearthed led to the royalist camp rather than the revolutionary council or any of those bodies that had succeeded it. More information would be forthcoming as and when it was received.
Charles studied the letter for some minutes before folding it and placing it in a drawer.
Penny had been watching him. “What is it?”