Right after the wedding, she had gone to live inthe country.
Eight months after that she returned with the heir. When I asked herwhat wasscandalous about that, shesaid the tonhad been all atwitter. Thechildwas muchtoolargetobeanewborn. It had looked at leastsix months old."
"And you realizedit was yourson, " Valoreemurmured quietly.
But Meg shook her head. "Nay. Not right away. Yousee, she was so sketchy ondetails. And she did not know the name of the lord. Besides, you must understand, all thoseyears, I had thought of Blancheas mysavior. I wouldnot have believed …not until I saw it for myself."
"Whichyou did? "
"Aye. AsI told youbefore, I hiredahack whenI arrivedin Londonto takeme toan inn. ButI didnot stop to lookin a shop.
We passed by John’s parents’ town house on the way. I was watching thehouse, of course, curious toknow if he lived there still, or if his parentsdid.Isaw my sister come outof the house andget into a carriage – "
"And then you realized!"
Meg smiled sadly, but shook her head. "Yougive me too much credit. Ithought she had been visiting, perhaps, or some such thing. I toldthedriverto follow the carriage. She stopped outside of a dressmaker’s.I asked thedriverto wait andgot out to follow her inside. As I entered, a shop girl rushed forward to greet Blanche, addressing her as Lady Beecham. That is when I realized. I simplystood there inshock; then theshop girlspotted me and started forward, asking if I wasall right. Blancheturned tolookatme. She started to look away again, then froze, her eyescomingbackto mewithequal shock. Then I turned and stumbledout of the store."
"But your carriagewas gone."
"Aye. SoI started to run. Ijustwantedto getaway."
"And you ended up by the docks, where Bull found you, "
Megnoddedwith a sigh."Aye, and his offer of awarm, dry bed with a sweet small cottagelater, where Icould pondermy memories ofJohn’sfather, seemed as gooda way to end my days as any."
Valoreegaped at her. "Ponder yourmemories? You still love him? "
"Aye. Foolish, perhaps, but I always felt there was some explanation for whathad happened, somethingIwas notseeing.
He hadcourtedme. We had been so happy together. I could not believe all of his feelings were feigned."
"They were not."
Both women glanced sharply toward the door at that announcement. It was open now, and Lady Beecham filledthe entrancewithher considerablebulk.
"He loved you terribly. Rightup until theverydayhe died, "
she said sadly. Then, "Meg, Ihave done youso manywrongs I cannoteven count them. And in the end I thinkI made myself more miserable than you.That night when you camein fromthe stables youwere all aglow. So gloriously happy. I wanted that for myself. AndI didn’t care how Igot it. Ididn’t even really plan what I did that night. It simply popped into my head, wholly conceived, as if the devil himself had whispered it to me. I stashedyour gowninmyroomand went to find John, but instead of telling himtocollect you from our room, Itold him to meet youin the stables. ThenI flewback to my room, changed into your costume andmask, and slid out of the house.
"I had been by the stables earlier thatnight to check onmy horse. When I was there, I had seen thatthe stablemaster was drunk tothe point ofnear oblivion.When Ireturned, he was not much better. When John arrived, it was to find a woman he thought was you in the stable master’sarms.
"I had thought that he would simplyturn and walk away. But he didn’t. Hepulledme away from the manand beganto beat him viciously. I wasterrified. I thought he would beat him to death. Iran back to the balland sent a couple of men out tothe stables to stophim, then hurried back to my room to change into my own clothes.
"I just stayed out of the way after that to see what would happen next. I was afraidyou would talk to him and my plot wouldunravel, but when he gave you the cut direct the next morning, youseemed togive up on him. I had beenfeelingguilty about my impulsive actions, but that convinced me that what I had done was right.I told myself that you did not deservehimif you were not willing to put up even a bit of afight forhim."
"How was I tofight? " Meg interrupted sharply atthe criticism.
"He wouldnot even look at me, letalone speak tome."
"How would you know? You never tried to talk to him!"
Blanche snapped back with resentment. "I would have cornered him, forced him to tell me why he was treating me so shabbily after ournight together."
Meg sank back ontoher crate looking uncertain as Blanche continued. "Instead, you avoided him – not goingto any of the same parties, leaving if he showed up at anyyou attended."
"It hurtto see him. Iwas so ashamed."
"Well, perhaps if you had used some courage instead of slinking awaylike a naughty puppy, thingswould have turned out differently. After the first couple of weeks, he stopped trying to avoid you. He was actually stalking you from ball to ball. I suspect he would have accepted any lieyou chose totellhim, simply to keep you near him; he loved youthat much. But you ran."
Meg bither lips, tears rushing from her eyesinrivulets.
"Then you realizedyou were with child. Iwas afraid you would goto him outof desperation and tell him. I knew he would marry youthen. Even if he believed the child was not his, he would have married you.So I said I would go tell him.ButI didn’t. I didn’t sayanything to him. Ireturned home that night, lied toyou, andconvinced you totake yourself off to thecountry to havethe child in seclusion. Once youwere gone, I told him and everyone else that you had runoff to elope with a stablelad. Andthey believed it. Then Iwaited for my opportunity. AsI had expected, hebegan todrinkheavily. Onenight he got quite drunkand I was there, insisting on seeing him home. Of course, once there, I wouldn’t leaveuntil I was surehe wasall right.
"Ihad thoughtthathe wouldturn tomefor comfort.He would make loveto me, and I would have him." She gave a harshlaugh.
"But Inearly had to rape him. It was nothingas you described. It was quick, rough, and sloppy, and he keptcalling your name. He passed out on top of me.Iwaitedtill near dawntobesure that his servantwouldseeme leave – inapanic, ofcourse – so that hecould report it to hismaster lest hewassodrunk he would not recall that he hadtakenmy innocence.ThenI waited.I expected him to dothechivalrous thing andpropose to me.Thenext time I saw him, however, he wasuncomfortable and as apologetic as could be, but he didnot propose. I was furious, butplayed sweet andwaited.
"I had hopedthat our onetime would get me with child, as it hadwithyou, but once again Iwas disappointed. So againI lied. I told him I was with child from our night. At last, he did the honorable thing. Wewere married a week later.On our wedding night, he walkedme tomy door, kissed mein a fatherlyfashion on the forehead, then walked off to his own room, not tobother me again. Foolishly, at the time I was relieved, for I hadbeen agonizing over how I would explain that my body had not changed.Thenext morning atbreakfastI began mygreat plan to fool the ton. I wouldremove myselfto the country duringthe remainder of my pregnancy, have thechild there, and notreturn for ninemonthsatleast so thatno one shouldsuspect thatwe had married dueto my pregnancy. He said that was fine, even saw me off. Then Icame to see you.
"He never asked me where I was going or how he could contactme, and I told myself that was grand, because then I would not needlie or fear his finding me withyou. I was a fool, deluding myself. The fact was, he didn’t care about anything anymore, really. Except making money for the futuregenerations of Beechams."
Sighing, LadyBeecham peered athersister. "Of course, you realizenow that your child did not die. I had him taken to a nearby inn with aservantuntil I could persuade youto leaveon a boat. I remained at the cottage until eight months had passed since my arrival; then returnedtriumphantly with your child. I was positive that presenting John with an heir would seal our relationship.That he would be gratefuland learn to care for me.
What Ihad not expected was his complete indifference.
"He barely evenlooked atthe baby, nor myself, really, when we returned. Hedidnot come tomybed again.Did not even speakto his own sonas he grew. And I realizedwhat a huge mistake I had made. My life with himwas as cold and barrenas a fallow field in winter."
Meg gave a start at Valoree’s words and glanced at her in surprise, asdidLadyBeecham. Valoree tookin their identical expressions withdisgust."Surely you are not falling for this sad tale and feeling sorry forher? "she saidin asnarl. "She ruined your life. Shestolethe man who loved you, youronly child, and your very life! You should have ended up here, happilymarried and raising a passel of Beechams.Instead you endedupmarried toa drunk in the islands.And it’s allher fault."
"Nay. It isnot." Meg said quietly.Valoree gaped at her. "She is right: I did not fightfor him, and I should have.InsteadI ran away like a coward. And it is not her faultI married Gilchrist.
Thatwas entirelymy own decision. I made my owndecisions, made a mess of my ownlife."
"But if she had not – "
"Yes, she lied.She toldseveral whopping lies. And I never took the time torectify or even check onthem.I letpride lead me, and fellhard."
"But – "
"Ishould have gone to John thatfirstday hecut me, demanded toknow whatthat was about.I might havebeen insulted, oreven hurt, but Iwas hurtalready, andat least things would thenhave beencleared up. ButI did nothave theconfidence inmyself, or him, todo it. And not having that confidence, I should never have made loveto him."
"Fine, " Valoree snapped impatiently. "You made your own decisions and are willing to forgive her for messing the relationship up between the twoof you.. But she’s beentrying to kill you since you came to London! Areyou goingto takethe blame for thatas well? "
"Ihavenot been trying tokillher."
BothMegand Valoree looked over doubtfully at that, but it was Valoree who spoke. "Let me guess.Youweren’t really trying to killher; you were simplybaiting traps. If shefellinto one of them, it was her own fault for not beingmore careful? "
A flicker of impatiencecrossed Blanche’s faceat that."Idid notbait traps, either.It wasJohn."
"John? " Meg gasped in dismay. "My own son wishes me dead? "
"Iam afraid so."
"Does he not realize that she is his mother? " Valoree demanded.
"Iexplained everything tohim the day I spotted you inthe dressmaker’s. I feared you would approach him and tell him anyway, so I did it first."
"Ifhe knows she ishis mother, whywould he want herdead? "
Blanche grimaced. "I fear it is precisely because she is his mother thathe wishes herdead."Whenboth of the women facing her merelystared ather blankly, Lady Beechamexplained, "He fearsthat if it comes out that he is not myson, butMeg’s, he will lose histitle andeverythingthat goeswithit."
"Becauseyou were marriedtoBeechamand his true mother was not? "
"Well, surelythat is not reallythat bigadeal? No matterthe mother, he isstill Beecham’s onlyson. Noone would contest his inheritance."
"Ifearhe is not willing to take the chance."
"I can see you did a fine job of raising him, " Valoree said sarcastically.
"It isdifficult to raise a child properly whenthe father makes it obviousthat hedoes not give a damn about either ofyou."
Valoree grimaced, seeing sometruth inher words, but changed the subject."So youintend to simply] stand by and let himkill us? "
"Nay, ofcourse not.I slippeddown here toset you free."
"What! Well, whythe devil didn’t ye say so? " Va-loree rolled her eyes. "Never mind, I don’t want to hear it. But Ishall give you atip, Lady Beecham." Shemoved quicklyto the door, Meg on her heels. "When in times ofperil, ’tis usually bestto leavethe explanations until all parties are safely away. Or at least to explain ontheway to safety. We couldhavebeenhalfway to Spain by – "She pausedabruptly as she reachedLady Beecham, her gaze narrowing on the manwho suddenly appeared behind her.
Catching her expression, Blanche Beecham glanced over her shoulder, hereyes wideningin alarm."John, " she said nervously.
"I thought youhad gone to yourclub."
"I stopped at the old town house on the way to ask Lady Ainsley’saunt and uncle how long they had determinedto stay. I had a prospective renter to take theirplace. I found Thurborne there, examining a man who had apparentlybroken his neck and died in a falldown the stairs. When I recognized him as that wastrel servant ofyours, Addams, I returned home."
"Oh." Her hand fluttereddowntoward herbag nervously, then suddenly dug inside and came out holding a pistol. "Get out of the way, John."
"Blanche? " Megsaiduncertainly."What? "
"Oh, do shutup, Margaret, " Blanche snappedimpatiently."I am sick unto death ofyour whiningand sniveling. Ifonlyyou had died in Port Royaleas I hadhoped andprayed all thistime, none of this would be happening."
Valoree threw her hands up in disgust. "Let me guess: everythingyou justsaid was a lie. You arethe one after all, and John is innocent."
"Not quite, " she said grimly. "I told the truth about what happened in the past."
"Well, bully foryou, " Valoree answered.
"How could you do thatto my father? "
"You shut up too, John. I hadher convinced that you were behind the attacksand that it was allher fault. Givena few more moments, Iwould have had them both convinced to keep quiet about it all andsimply to slink back to the islands."
"Ido notslink, "Valoree protested, and Lady Beechammade a face.
"Nay, but you would have keptyour mouth shut for Margaret’s sake."
Valoree shrugged, because sheprobablywould have. After all, it hardly benefited her to have Meg’s true identity exposed. There would be questions then about where She had been all her life andwithwhom.
Lady Beecham turned backtoJohn."Yousee? If youhadn’t interfered, this would all have gone well. Butnay. You had to interfere. Like mother, likeson, " she said with a sneer.