Bawden hesitated, then; "Is my lady goingsomewhere? "
He hesitated at the hard word, then, apparently deciding he would be inmore trouble from Daniel should he not ask, he straightened his shoulders. "Shall I ordera carriage? "
"I can walk. It is not far, " Valoree said dismissively. With that she walkedout, pulling the doorclosed behind her.
She washalfway up the walk tothe gate that fronted Daniel’s town house whensheheard thedooropen behindher. "But, my lady, where shall I tell my lord you have gone shouldhe return? "
"You will not have to tellhimanything, " Valoree tossedback grimly over her shoulder. "I am walking to my uncle’s town house, which iswhere he is."
"Oh." There was uncertainty in hisvoice; then she thought she heard him sigh unhappily asshe stepped through the gate and pulledit closed.
Valoree was so angry, shewasnearly halfway to theBeecham town housebefore shestartedto feel the early evening chill. The night wasdamp andfoggy. But then, from what she had seen since being in London, it usually was, she thought grimly.
Rubbingherarms, she berated herself for not thinking her plan through first andgrabbing a cloakof some sort. Ah, well, it wasn’t much ofa walk from one townhouse to the other. Two short blocks. Still, her gazeslid alertlyaroundthe shadowedstreet as she went, trying to pierce the drifting mist and watch out for possible problems. Luckily she didn’t see anything to be concerned about.
She was a mere two houses from her destination when something made her stop. Freezing, she saw a cloaked figure slide outthroughthefront door. Instinctively, Valoree moved closer to the stonefence beside her, trying to be less noticeable as she watchedthe figure scurry to the gate. She recognized Meg right away. Her size and the fact that a light-colored gown kept peeking out from under the cloak made her identity an easy guess. When the other woman reached the walkand turned away from Valoree to hurry up the street, sheimmediatelyfollowed, her thoughts churning. The woman was obviously up to something she shouldn’t.Butwhatshe was doingwas anyone’s guess.
Already chilled Valoree hoped as she setout after her that Meg wasn’t planning togo far.No such luck.The womanwalked for what seemed like forever, rushing downthis road, then hurrying up another. She shouldhavetaken the damn carriage, Valoree thought irritably.It wasn’t safe for awoman to bewanderingthe streetsalone. Well, a woman whocouldn’tprotectherself at any rate.Ofcourse, if Meg had taken the carriage, she wouldn’thave been sneaking – Skully wouldhave had to go withher, too.Also, Valoreeherself couldn’t have followed on foot.
It was a reliefwhen theolderwoman finally paused infront of atown house. She didn’t approach it at first; she simplystood out front, staringupat it, uncertainty inevery line of herbody. She even turned back the way she had come – toward Valoree, who had to quickly duck behind a tree to avoid beingspotted – but she took only two steps before pausing again. Doing so, she straightened resolutely, turned back, hesitated, then started up thewalk to thehouse. Valoree watched fromher position behind the tree as the other woman knocked. A moment later, light spilled outover Meg’scloaked figure as a servant opened the door. As he stepped asidefor her to enter and the door closed, the night wasleft dark andsilent once more.
Frowning, Valoreepeered up at the dwelling, wondering whose it was and what business Meg could possibly have there, then back the way they had come. It suddenly occurred toher that she probably couldn’t find herway back. She had been more focused onMegthan onthe route the woman had taken. Although she doubted even if she hadpaidattentionto the paththatshe would be able torecall it.The woman had taken moretwists and turns toget here than Valoreecould count on both hands.
Sighing, she turned backtothe house. She had abad feeling about allof this.The veryfact that Meg hadgoneaboutthisall so sneakily was enoughtomake Valoree edgy. First, afellow was caught in their house, wherehe broke his neck andSkully his arm ina tumbledown the stairs, then Megslippedout to come here.
Valoree seemed to recall Henry saying something about the woman being terribly agitated and wantingthem to leave London for the country. Of course, Daniel would not have agreed to that.
He wasstillwaitingfor his audience with the king.
Drumming her fingers against the tree she stood behind, Valoree considered thehouse. She could wait here for theother woman tocome out andfollow herback to Beecham’s rental, never being the wiseras to the reasonbehindthis journey, or she could justsneak up to thehouse and have a look inside. Perhaps she might even figure outwho Megwas meeting.
Actionwas more attractive toValoree than standing about, so she slid out from behind the tree and walked quickly to the townhouse gate. Slipping through it, she eased it closed, then made her wayup thepath, doing her best to stick to theshadows as she went.
She didn’tnotice the mantrailing her until it was too late.
"You want I should get ridof the body? " Bull asked, drawing Daniel’s gaze away from the face of the dead man with amazement.
"Get rid of it? No. We have tocall in the authorities." Seeing the uncertainty on the men’s faces, Daniel grimaced and straightened. "It was anaccident. Afall downthe stairs. No one isatfault here, and he was an intruder.But the authorities should benotified."He glanced around, his gaze landing on One-Eye.
"I’m onmyway, " the other man announced, then turned to open the door, onlyto pauseand glance back. "Which authority, exactly, would it be Iam going to fetch? "
Daniel glanced towardthe man, hismouth opening toanswer, then snappedit shut as hesaw John Beecham standing at the doorstep, gaping in at the body on the floor.
**** "Damn." Valoree reached up tomassage her achinghead. Itdid seem she hada tendency to wake upsore-headedlately. At least this time she had seen the man who hit her. She had heardthe snap ofafallen branch behindheras she approached the town house, turned, and caught aquick glimpse of his face beforethe handle of hisflintlock pistolhad struck her in the temple.
"You are awake."
Valoree glanced up with surprise at the woman who hurried to kneel at her side in the dim, dungeonlike room. "Meg."
"Aye." The other woman sighed, thenaskedat the sametime that Valoree did, "What are youdoing here? "
Valoree made aface. "I saw you sneak outof the town house and I followed to seewhere youweregoing. Someoneknocked meout as I wascreeping up to the window to peek inside, " she admitted, then arched an eyebrow. "And you? "
"I came to see my sister, " the woman admitted grimly.
Valoree’s eyebrows rose.
"Lady Beecham? "
"Aye. I was shown to the salon, went to peer out thewindow, and someone must have entered behind me. I was hit from behind, too."
"Hasthis something to dowiththeman who broke hisneck falling down thestairs? " At Valoree’s question, the olderwoman noddedsolemnly. "You recognized him? "
"He used towork for my father. I would imaginehe waswith my sister now."
"Sotheattacks …? "
"Were all aimed at me, I amafraid, " Meg admitted sadly.
"Hmmm." Valoree wassilentfor a moment, then beetled her brows. "Would you care to fillin thebits you left out when last we spoke about your past? "
Meg hesitated, then blurted, "Johnis my son."
"John? " Valoreefrowned atthe name andstarted toshake her head, then paused, her eyes widening. "John Beecham? Lord Beecham was the lover who got you with child, then did not believe it washis? " When she nodded, Valoree sighed wearily and shifted to get up off the cold, damp floor on which she had been sitting. Theywere in some sort of storage room.It felt like a wine cellar, but therewas no wine, just crates and boxes. A single candle was the only light. Kind of them to leave even that, Valoree supposed asshe eased ontoa nearby crate. Rubbingthe back of herneck inan effort torelieve someof her discomfort, she raisedher head to peer at Meg. "Go on."
Sighing, Meg settled herself on a crate near the door, tears beginning to shinein her eyes asshe staredunhappily downat her hands. "Meg isshort for Margaret. My full name is Margaret JeanKettleworth."
"Nice to meet you, Lady Kettleworth, " Valoree said dryly.
"But can weskip to the pertinent parts? I suspect we haven’t much time." WhenMeg nodded, butlookedat a loss as to where to start, Valoree prompted her. "How could you be John’s mother? Lady Beecham – "
"Stolehim, " Meg interrupted bitterly."She stole himand lied to me."Closingher eyes, shelowered herhead wearily. "AsI told you, I loved John’s father." A smile tilted her lips gently in reminiscence. "He wassuch a handsome man. Tall, debonair – "
"You had an affair." Valoree interrupted, speeding the story along.
"Aye." The wordwas asigh."His mother heldalargeroutat Beecham Castle before he was married. Lots of people were invited. It was a marvelous affair. Hunting during the days.
Dancing at night. Thelast night therewas amasked ball. I did not recognize him at first, but he did me.Hesaid it wasmy perfume that gave meaway." Her smile returned."Hesaid – "
"Meg, " Valoree interrupted impatiently. The other woman nodded.
"Aye, I am sorry. Toward midnight, we slipped out to the baileyfor somefresh air, butit was full of people, most of them quite drunk. One of thembumped into me and spilledsomething on my skirt. Itwasred wine, and mygownwas white.John was furious. Iwas afraid he would challengethehapless man to a duel, he was so angry. I dragged him away, pulling him intothe stable, begginghim to show me hishorse inthe hopesof calming him down."
"And you made love in the hay, " Valoree rushed the story along again. "Thenwhat happened? Did henot ask you to marry him? "
"Hedidnot get the chance, " Megsaid with asigh. "Afterward, heled me back to the manor, saying we had to gosee my parents, that there was somethinghewishedtoask them.Butmysister came across us as we entered. Aghastat the stainon mygown, she rushed me off to help me tend toit. It Was beyondrepair. I hadto change. I told Blanche what had happened, and that I thought the question he meant to ask was for my hand in marriage. Shetook my gown andsuggested she go tell him to come fetchme in twenty minutes, thenleftme tochange. I did, then fell asleep waiting.He never came." Her bewilderment as she said those last words wasobvious.
Valoree frowned slightly."What happenedthenextday? "
"Hegave me the cut direct, " she admitted. "I stayed awayfrom the balls andpartiesafter that.It hurt too much to seehim. But three months later, I realizedI was with child."
"Did you tell him? "
Sheshook her head. "I did not know what to do. I turned to Blanche" – she grimaced at the name – "but she was quite affronted.She said he would have totake responsibility. I resisted atfirst, but Blanche was brutal about the matter. I hadmademy bed, and now must face the consequences, she said. He was supposed to be at the Crichtons’ ball that night. Blanche determined to go and drop the information in his lap. It would be hisproblem afterthat, she claimed. Istayed home, too humiliated andafraid to go. When shereturned, it was totell me that he had laughedatmysituationand said it probably wasn’t even his. That if I had lifted my skirts for him so quickly and easily, how was he toknow I did not doit for others? It couldbe the stable lad’s child for all he knew."
"Men!" Valoree snapped in disgust, and Meg nodded unhappily.
"Ididnot knowwhat todo. IthinkI would have hurled myself out the window if my sister had not been there. Instead, she convinced me to go stay ina cottageonthe edge of Kettleworth land. Itook only mymaid andspent most of my time walkingin the woods. Three months before the child was born, Blanche arrived. Shekeptme company through the lastfew months."
"And your son John wasborn."
"Yes. Itwas a terrible ordeal, he was so large. But when I asked to see the child, she kept saying I should wait until after I hadrested. The next morning, she told metheyhad not wanted to tell me whileI was soweak, buthe had been borndead. Then she told me that rumors ofmy beingwith child had reached London, that myreputation was in ruins, and that John, the child’s father, hadmarried."
"Not mentioning, of course, that she was the one who had marriedhim, " Valoree added dryly. Meg nodded in misery. After amomentof silence, she continued.
"I did notcarewhat happened atthat point.Icould notreturn toLondon. John was lost to me forever, andour child was buried inan unmarked grave in the local church. Once again, I was readyto simplygive up on life. But Blanche convinced meto go totheislands, make afresh start.She bought metickets on a ship, packed me up, placed alarge sackof goldin myhands, and saw me off."
"Soyou went tolive on the islands, " Valoree prompted.
"Imet a man ontheship to Port Royale. His name was William Gilchrist.He looked very much like John and he was sweet to me.He fell in love with me. I did not love him back. Still, I allowed him to convinceme to marryhim. The captainmarried us onour last morning at sea."
"Did you find no happiness with him? "
"Of a sort, " she murmured. "We built a fineplantation during those first years of ourmarriage – growing sugarcane. We both worked hard and prospered. It was one of the wealthiest plantationsonPort Royale. But as years afteryear passedwith no children" – she shook her head – "he started to drink and let things slide.He began to refuse to allowmeto help out, or make decisions when hewas ‘indisposed.’I knew the plantation was failing, butit wasn’t untilhedied thatI found out just how bad things were. There was verylittle left that was not owed.Bythe time the creditors were paid off, there was enoughfor a ticket on aship homeand not much else. Idecided to return to my family.
"I met a young lady onthe ship, a fellow passenger who had not been away from England long, and shefilled me in onthe latest gossip and happenings. Sheknew quite a bit about this family and that. Without revealingmyself, I was able to learn of my parents’ deaths. She also said that she thought the older daughterhadmarried some lord fromthenorth. Sheclaimed it hadhappened four months aftertheyoungerhad run off with some stable lad.Quite a familyfor scandal, she had joked. The older one had barely escaped a scandal herself, rumor had it.