Valoree paused halfway up the walk to the house, her eyes growingwide asshe realized what she’d said. Those she loved? Those she loved? Sheloved him. She loved Daniel. Didn’t she? She had just thoughtthat. She had. Right? Wouldshe give her life for him? She’d rather not, but probably would. Could she see growing oldwith him. Happily? Oh, dear Lord, shecould! She couldsee herselftorturing and makinglove to him by turn until hewas arandy hundred-year-old with noteeth.She lovedDaniel.
The door tothe town house openedand Bawden, Thurborne’s butler, peered out, reminding herthatshe had stopped halfway to the house. Flashing a beaming smile at the older gentleman, Valoreerushed forward, nearlyflying intothehouse.
"Good afternoon, my lady. I trust youhad a good day? "
"Yes, thank you." Valoree laughed, tugging hergloves off. "Is my lord husband back from his club yet? "
"Aye, mylady, "the man said in hisdignifiedvoiceashe took her gloves. "He asked that I inform you thathehas goneabove stairs tochange; then he shalljoin youfor supper."
"He is already finished with his dress and is ready to join his beautiful wife at their supper, " Daniel corrected, coming down the stairs and smiling at Valoree."You maytellCook shecan start serving now, Bawden."
"Very good, mylord." The servant headed off in his dignified walk as Daniel stepped offthe last step. Valoree launched herself at him at once, throwing her arms around hisneckand kissing him passionately as heclosed hisarmsabouther.
"Mmmmm, " Danielmurmured, rocking her gently from side to side as the kiss ended. "I missedyou, too."
Valoree chuckled softly, thensobered. "I have something totell you."
"Oh? " He cockedan eyebrow withinterest. "Andwhat would that be? "
"I – "
The frontdooropened, interruptingher, and theybothturned tosee the footman come in carrying several packages. Daniel groaned at once.
Grinning, Valoree nodded, then took his hand and led him down the hall tothedining salon. Tugging him inside, she whirled to leanagainst hischest and reached up to caress his face softly.
"Now, as I was saying. I – "
Theyboth turned as the door tothe kitchen opened and Cook entered carrying a largeplatterbearing stuffed fish.
"Mmmmrn. That looks delicious, " Daniel flattered theflushed woman, whosmiledher pleasureat the compliment.His gaze slid back toValoree apologetically and he urgedher towardthe table, then held her chair out forher. "Sitdown, darling. We – "
"My lord? "
"Aye? " Daniel turned from pushing Valoree’schair infor her, lookingquestioningly at Bawden as the manhesitatedinthedoor.
"A gentleman to see you, my lord, " the man explained the intrusion. "I told himyou were at dinner, but he said it was important. Iput him inthe salon. Shall I tell him he will have to wait? "
"Nay.Ishallsee to it, Bawden."Daniel gave Valoree another apologeticsmile, then bent to press a kiss to her forehead. "I won’t be a moment, " heassured her, then slidfromtheroom.
The clank of the platter being setdown drew Valoree’s gaze backto thetable, andshefoundherself gazing down at awhole fish, stuffed. Eyes, scales, fins, everything had been left wholly intact. Valoree felther stomach roll in protest and abruptlystood.
"M’lord, I thought youshould know – "
Valoree stiffened as she recognized Henry’s voicebefore it was silenced. Frowning, she hurriedout intothe hall. Thesalon door was closed, muffling the conversation coming from inside.
Rushing toit, she reached for the doorknob, then hesitated, and pressed her ear to the door instead.
"What? How did it happen? " she heard Daniel ask in amazement.
"The fellow was hiding inValoree’s room, "Henry responded.
"Skully went in to collect the rest of Valoree’s things as ye ordered him to, and surprised the fellow."
"What fellow? " Valoreemutteredto herself.
"Is theresomethingI can get you, my lady? "
Straightening abruptly, Valoree turned wide-eyed to face Bawden. "Oh, I – "Thinkingof no excuse, she simply shook her head. "Nay, thank you."
Themanhesitated, thennodded and turnedonhis heel. As he tookhimselfoff, she turned back to the door to listen again.
"Is he all right? " Daniel was askingwithconcern.
"He broke an arm in the tumble down the stairs." Henry sounded upset.
"Great, "Valoreesighed."Another broken limb." London was turning out to befar moredangerous to her crew than theseas.
Shecould almostbelieve that they were cursed. Then she realized that Henry had asked to speak to Daniel, andshe frowned. He should have asked to speak to her. He hadn’t.He wasbringing the news to Daniel. And Daniel wasn’t calling her inon this. So much fortheman’snot taking over.
"And the other fellow? " Danielasked inside the salon.
"Dead. Broke his neck on the way down the stairs."
They went down the stairs together, Valoree guessed, frustrated that she hadto do anyguessing atall.Skully musthave surprisedhim, a struggle ensued, thefellow gotaway andmade a dash downthestairs, and Skully’d gone afterhim.
"Do you recognize him? "
"Nay, " Henry’s answer reached her through the door. "Never seen himbefore, thoughBull sayshe looks like the chap what was driving the carriage that crashed intoours."
Valoree cursed under herbreath at the same moment asDaniel.
"Thenthat wasnotan accident."Her husbandsighed almost tooquietlyfor her tohear.
"It wouldseem not."
"Thenthe fire probably was not either." Daniel cursed again.
There was amoment of silence; thenhe asked, "Is thereanyone in Londonwho mightbear a grudge against Valoree or amember of her family? "
Valoree rolled her eyes at that.Justlike aman. The fellow was in herroom, so he had to be after her. Hedidn’t even consider that unless he had beenin the house before, he wouldn’t know whose roomwas whose. That he would have to search around.
Or that maybe hehadn’tmeant to go into that room at all but had beenin the hall, andhad ducked into her oldroom to hide when Skully had comeup the stairs.
"Nay. She was just a child when sheleft England aboardthe Valor. This here husband-hunting trip was her first tripeven to London, "Henry said.
"The rumors said that the Spanish killedher brother."
"Aye. Some Spanish bastard did him in." Henry’s bitterness was clear.
"How? And why? "
"Didn’t shetellye? "
"She has not talked of itatall."
Silence, then: "It was after he went to meet with you forthe assessing. Heleft, heading back to collect us, but the Spanish had found out that Jeremy’d be meetin’ with ye. One ofour crew was feeding them information invarious ports, Ireckon.They layin wait, thinkinghe would leave you, collect therest of his treasure, then head back to join us. But he headed right back for us. He wanted allthemen present tocollect the treasure.
"The Spanish layinwait, then stopped and boarded them, none too pleased that the Valor had so little on her. The captain offered them all quick deaths if they gaveup the treasure. Jeremy saidno, but he changedhis mind once they startedto torturethe crew. He toldthem then, but the bastardwas enjoying himself.
He had funwiththemen, doinghorrible thingsto them."
Valoree shuddered where she stood, recalling the sight that had awaitedthem whentheyhad finallyfound thespot where Jeremy lay. She and the rest of the crew had collected all that they needed forthetrip back toEngland, then relaxedat a tavern, checking infrequentlydown at thedocks for theirship’s return.
They hadn’tat first worriedat how longit was taking. But when nightfellandValoree’s brotherstillhad not returned, they had begun tofret.
The next morning, whileit was still dark, they had hired a piragua and set out to look for the Valor andits crew. Andthey had foundthem in acove not unlikethe one whereValoree and Danielhad consummatedtheir marriage. They had spotted the mastfirst.The Spanish had sunk the Valor in thatharbor, but it was notdeep enough tocover the ship. The mainmasthad stood outof the water, its Jolly Roger waving sadly inthe breeze. They hadrowed the dugout canoe toshore, silent and grim as they had passed body after body floating through the water. Yes, the Spaniardhaddonehorrible thingsto those men. Not one body had been unmutilated. But none of the bodies they had passed hadbeenJeremy’s.
Valoree had leaped from the dugoutcanoeas soon as they had reached water shallowenoughinwhichto walk, nearlylosing her pants as they were dragged at by the waves. She had been wearing a set of Jeremy’s clothes, as she had just had another growthspurt and had outgrown all her own. HoldingJeremy’s breeches up impatiently, she had waded ashore and begun checking the bodies strewn about like so many dropped chess pieces. Checkingface after face ofmenshe had known and lived with for eight years, she haddesperatelysearched for her brother.
It had been a nightmare. She had been able to read, quite clearly, the horror ineach man’s glassy eyesand open mouth. A little piece of herheart had broken away withevery friend that she found. Andthenshe had come upon Jeremy.
Valoree had been amazed to find him still alive, and then horrifiedathis state. They had staked him out inthe sand, nak*d.
His body was cut from one end to the other, none of thewounds morethan an inch apart. Then theyhad poured honey over him andleft himfor the insects and animals. Sheguessed that the way they had decided to kill him wasthe reason he still lived when they arrived. Itmusthavetaken hours to cut him like that.
Shestill had nightmares where she held him in herarms. He gasped, "Spanish … bastard … Ohhhh." Sobbing, she hadclutched him close as he cried out, tellinghim to hush, torest, tosave his strength. But he had known he was dying. He’d gasped out, "Question-mark shaped scar… neck.Told themwhere treasure …
Lostall. So sorry. Val – "
"Then he pressedthefamily ring into Valoree’s hand and died, "
Henry’s sadwordsdrew herback to theconversation in theroom beyondthedoor, and Valoree closed her eyes, shuddering.
"My God, "Daniel’s horrified words reached her.
"Aye. She hasn’t beenthe same since. Closed herself up and didn’t care ’bout nobodyor nothing except finding and killingthe bastard who did that."
"She never found him? "
"Nay. We never did."
"How did youconvince her to give up the hunt? "Daniel asked.
Henry gave a drylaugh."Didn’t convince her. Voted onit." She heard hissighthroughthedoor."We had regained the money neededto set Ainsley to rights lastsummer. But she didn’t want tostop and we …" There wassilence, then:"But, finally we had a vote. Themenwere ready to retire. It seemed tousthatwe were just givingthe bastards more of our time.We were giving up a portion of our livesfor them.Still, the captainwas obsessed.We talkedaboutit, and the men – well, they still thought her amanat that time, aladreally – but theydecided itwas for the captain’s own good. So we voted, andoncewe voted, she had no choice."
"No choice, " she heardDanielmurmur. "You took the power awayfromher."
"Itwasfor her own good, " Henry insisted grimly. "She had no business being out at sea any longer. She was there out of necessity at first, andthat was one thing. Butintheend, it was no longer necessity."
Theywere bothsilent for a moment; thenDaniel said, "So you know ofno one who would wish her dead? "
"Nay. But the men are spooked, and Meg…Well, she was nigh on hysterical. Took one look at the dead fella and went right white. She’swantingto getout of here. Wants us to tell Valoree that she’swithchild, have herannounce it, claim Ainsley, and head there rightnow. Andthemen are right behindher."
Valoree gave a start. She hadn’t realized that anyone had guessed her secret, though she supposedsheshould have known that Henrywould figure it out. He hadalwayshelped her withthe fluxwhen it came onher:gettingrags for her touse, serving her hotrumto ease her cramps. Of course he would havenoticed she hadmissed the last two. Well, three now.
She had kept the secret to herself, though. She wasn’t even sure why, exceptthat she had wanted to wait first and besure she didn’t lose the child.
"I just can’t figure why anyone would wish to harm the captain, " Henry said. "Maybe Meg’s right and it doesn’t matter as long as we get her out of town. She’s taking thisreally hard. She was fussing overSkully something fierce."
There was silence for a minute; thenDaniel spoke, his voice drawing nearer the door. "Iwanttohave alookatthisfellow.
Maybe Iknowhim and – " His voice died ashe openedthe door tofind Valoree on the otherside. She had managedto straighten, butnot to move away before he opened the door.
"What – " hebegan, but Valoree interrupted him.
"Iwas just coming totellyou that your dinner is growing cold, "
she said quickly, then glanced past him, her eyes wideningin feigned surprise. "Henry! Is something thematter? Whatare you doing here? "
The two menglancedateach other; then her husband said, "He just camearound to let us knowthat they have settled in atthe town house."
"Oh? " she asked archly, her gaze fixedon theolder man. He squirmedunderherhard-eyed look, but remained silent.It was Danielwho spoke next.
"Aye. Valoree, I am afraid Ihave to go out. I will not begone long, but I wantto check on something, " heannounced, stepping outinto the halland forcing her backa step. Henry slid past, too, as soon as Daniel had cleared the doorway, sidling nervously toward the front door. Valoree frowned at him, then tried to speak, but Daniel continued right on as he shifted sideways and began to back towardthedoor as well. "Why do younot goback and finish your meal? Youneed to keep up your strength. I will explain everything later. Muchlater."
"But – " The door closed in herfaceand Valoree slammed her hand against it impatiently."Somuch for discussingthings and not taking over, " she said in a snarl, her mouth twisting with displeasure. She was damnedtired ofbeing led around by the nose.
Pulling the door open, she looked out in time to see the carriage pullaway. A suddenthroat clearing behind hermade her pauseand glance back at Daniel’s butler. "Aye? "