Eyes still closed, Nicholas nodded.
Charles studied him, then looked at Penny. Mouthed what he wanted her to say. She nodded and sat forward.
“Nicholas, we know of the pillboxes in the priest hole.”
His eyes jerked open; he stared at her. “You know…?”
He looked at Charles, who nodded.
“Not easy to explain, not at all.”
Nicholas sighed, and dropped his head back once more. He stared at the canopy over the bed.
“The thing I can’t fathom,” Charles went on, “is how the pillboxes fit with our theory of revenge. No one could have known…”
He paused. He’d been speaking his thoughts as they occurred, as he followed the train, yet hearing it aloud…suddenly he saw the light. “Not quite true, of course. The one group who most definitely would have known about the pillboxes is those who handed them over—the French.”
Fixing his gaze on Nicholas, he felt the jigsaw shift, saw the difficult pieces slide smoothly into place. But he was still missing one major piece.
Nicholas had a stubborn look on his face—one Charles actually recognized; it was very like Penny’s intransigent mask.
“Very well.” Settling back, he watched Nicholas. “This is what I know so far. Your father and Penny’s set up some scheme decades ago passing secrets to the French. The French paid in pillboxes. The secrets were delivered mostly verbally to a contact from a French lugger who met one of the Selbornes out in the Channel. The Smollets arranged the meetings using their yacht and the appropriate signal flags, then Penny’s father and later Granville would go out with one of the smuggling gangs, meet the French, effect the transfer, and come away with a pillbox.
“A very neat exchange for everyone concerned, except the soliders who died in the wars.” He was unable to keep the icy contempt from his voice.
Nicholas heard it; he paled, but otherwise didn’t react. He continued to stare at the canopy. But he was listening.
“Now, however,” Charles continued, reining in his feelings, “for some reason we have a French agent sent to recover some or all of the exchanged pillboxes, and”—watching Nicholas’s face he guessed—“to punish the Selbornes, indeed, to kill any of those involved, or even their relatives.”
Nicholas didn’t react. Charles’s blood ran cold as Nicholas’s lack of shock or surprise confirmed he’d guessed right. He glanced at Penny; the stunned look on her face as she stared at Nicholas showed she’d followed the exchange and read it as he had.
Drawing a deep breath, he looked again at Nicholas. “Nicholas, you have to tell me what you know. This man is a killer—he’ll continue until he succeeds in what he’s been sent here to do, or he’s stopped. He can be stopped.”
He paused, then added, “Regardless of the past, the current situation is that you have a French agent about who wants to kill you. That puts you and me on the same side.”
Nicholas’s lips curved fractionally. “An enemy of my enemy must be my friend?”
“War makes strange bedfellows all the time.” Charles waited, then quietly said, “You have to tell me. If you don’t, and he kills again, that death will be on your head.”
His final card, but he suspected, from all he’d seen of Nicholas, perhaps a telling one. He certainly hoped so.
“Nicholas.” Penny leaned forward and laid her hand on Nicholas’s. “Please, tell us what’s going on. I know the family’s reputation weighs with you.” Nicholas lifted his head enough to meet her eyes; she grimaced. “No matter how bad the past has been, the family might not have a future at all if you don’t speak now. You must see that.”
Nicholas held Penny’s gaze.
Charles held his breath.
A long moment passed, then Nicholas sighed and let his head fall back. He stared at the canopy unseeing. “I have to think.”
Charles fought to keep impatience from his voice. “This killer’s on the doorstep. We don’t have much time.”
Nicholas lifted his head and met his gaze squarely. “It’s not my story. I can’t just”—he gestured—“make you free of it. I have to think what I can reveal, should reveal, and what isn’t mine to tell at all.”
“You just have to tell me enough.”
Nicholas searched his eyes. “Twenty-four hours. You can give me until after dinner tomorrow”—he glanced at the clock—“no, that’s now today.” He drew in a shaky breath, and met Charles’s eyes. “Give me until then, and I promise I’ll tell you all I can.”