“It seems, Scamp,” Will said, “that you have everything to do with it, seeing as the three of you have secured the punishment in question for all of us with your behavior last night.”
“Thank you all for that,” Nick said. “I should tan your hide, Alex…and Freddie’s, too, for his part in it.” Looking at Ella and Vivi, he added, “You two are saved only because you are neither family nor male.”
The duchess spoke, her place at the foot of the table making the statement seem more of a decree. “I am through with the four of you being so cavalier about your prospects for marriage and a future. You will all attend the house party and, more so, you will all enjoy it.”
“You cannot force us to enjoy it, Mother,” Kit said with a smile.
“You forget that I’m a duchess, Christopher. I can do whatever I like.”
She flashed a bright smile as all four Stafford children groaned at her statement, a commonplace proclamation, sending Vivi and Ella into giggles.
“I still don’t understand why we have to be punished for Alex’s ills,” Will said.
Alex looked her eldest brother square in the eye, saying tartly, “I assure you it’s my punishment as well, Will. There is little I want to do less than be trapped in the country with you lot.”
“Exactly why I’m guessing Mother is forcing all of us to attend,” Nick pointed out. “Why not just suffer through the ball?”
Alex smiled sweetly. “Why, to make your collective lives more difficult, of course!” Three sets of male eyes narrowed as Ella went into a coughing fit and Vivi smiled into her teacup.
The sentence still hung in the air as the door to the room swung open, causing all heads to turn toward it. Alex’s stomach dropped and her appetite vanished as Blackmoor stepped into the room. He was clad in traveling clothes—a chestnut topcoat over a crisp white linen shirt and buckskin breeches, tightly fitted to his long legs in a way she couldn’t help but notice. The pants were tucked into tall leather riding boots that were freshly polished. He looked remarkably handsome, if slightly distracted, with his golden hair mussed and his eyes betraying his impatience. He was holding a riding crop and hat in one hand and a pair of lambskin gloves in the other.
Alex’s gaze flew to Vivi, who met her gaze firmly and nodded almost imperceptibly, as if to say, Be strong, and then to Ella, who was looking at Blackmoor with narrowed eyes, making her displeasure with him clear to anyone who was looking. Thankfully, no one was, and Vivi poked her before it became an issue.
“Gavin!” Her Grace said brightly, offering up her hand for Blackmoor to bow low over. “You are a welcome addition to this motley bunch. Perhaps you can bring some calm to our table? There is plenty of food; have you eaten?”
“A pleasure, as always, Your Grace.” Blackmoor’s rich tenor sent a shiver down Alex’s spine. “As much as I would like to stay, I’m afraid I have already eaten and am only here to take the male half of this gathering off your hands.” She noticed that, as he looked around the table, he deliberately avoided her gaze. “We are off to Essex.”
“Indeed.” Will stood up from the table.
“Essex? For what?” Ella asked sharply.
“For an adventure that doesn’t involve meddling females,” Kit joked, then cleared his throat when no one laughed. He stood, moving toward the hallway to call for their topcoats and hats.
Nick stood last. “We had already arranged to use the house for hunting this week. Mother’s party came as a surprise to all of us, but I suspect she chose to host one so quickly because she knew we would have no excuses to avoid it.”
“Indeed,” said the duchess. “Your mother possesses not only beauty, but intelligence as well. Lord Blackmoor, you will be joining us for the house party?” The words, while phrased as a question, were more a dictate.
An almost imperceptible color rose on Blackmoor’s cheeks, something that Alex noticed only because she was so focused on him, waiting for his answer. “I shall endeavor to be there, my lady.”
“Excellent,” said the duchess, moving to exit alongside the young men. “We shall make a room for you and hope for the best.”
The door closed behind the group, leaving the girls in the now quiet dining room. Alex let out a long breath—one she hadn’t known she was holding. Turning sad eyes to her friends, she said, “He didn’t look at me once. Did you notice?”
“I did,” Vivi said softly. “You cannot expect him to get beyond the events of last night so quickly, Alex. It was a great deal for one person to take in.”
“True,” said Ella. “Men are not nearly as evolved as women are, nor as intelligent, evidently.”
Alex offered a half smile but was lost in her disappointment. Vivi was right—she should have expected a cool response from Blackmoor, but his cut hurt just the same. While she understood how difficult this situation must be for him, it didn’t change the fact that she was tired of fighting with him, tired of always having to start over. She wished they could go back to the beginning and just be friends again. That would be enough. Almost.
She sighed and pushed back from the table. “I’m going to find my father. I need to speak with him about last night.”
Ella stopped her from getting up. “Wait. Now, I know that we said we were going to tell the duke everything, but I have an idea.”
“Ella…” Vivi’s tone was laced with warning.
“I know, I know. But this is thoroughly harmless!” Ella defended herself quickly.
“Somehow I doubt that,” Alex said, “but I shall endeavor to humor you.”
“Thank you. All right. Blackmoor is gone from the house today, correct?” Ella’s eyes were bright with excitement.
“So it seems.”
“And we have little to do.”
“No, Ella.” This from Vivi. “I see where this is going. And it’s a terrible idea.”
“Why?! Why can’t we just sneak next door, take a look around Blackmoor House, and sneak back? No one will ever know!”
Alex spoke quietly. “Ella, I know how much you want to be a part of this adventure. I do, too. But now we’re at a point where we have to involve someone who knows a bit more about these matters than we do. We’re not talking about the Dowager Duchess of Lockwood’s walking stick going missing. We’re discussing murder and treason. I’m sorry, Ella. I’ve got to tell my father.”
With that, Alex stood and went to the door, pulling it open and calling out to Harquist, “Is my father free to speak with me, Harquist?”
“No, my lady, I’m afraid His Grace left early this morning,” the butler said with a low bow. “He is at Parliament for the morning and will leave directly from there to join your brothers in Essex.”
Alex tempered her disappointment. “Thank you. I suppose I shall wait and speak with him there, then.”
She closed the door and turned back to her friends, who were watching her carefully, waiting for her next move—one they would support without question. She met Ella’s eye, noting her friend’s desperate attempt to hide the thoughts that were written, quite plainly, across her face.
“All right, Ella. You win. Blackmoor House it is.”
Sneaking across the gardens to Blackmoor House felt very different by the light of day from how it had been when Alex was skulking around in the darkness the night before. In fact, it rather felt more like an afternoon walk than a clandestine activity. This could have been attributed to the fact that there were gardeners hard at work mere feet away who took absolutely no interest in their activities, or it could have been the fact that she hadn’t just overheard a horrible conversation, but Alex had a suspicion that it was more Ella’s glee at their activities. And her inability to keep quiet about it.
“How do we get into Blackmoor’s study? Did you climb in?”
“No, he lifted me in.”
“Hmm. Right, then. Vivi will have to give us a boost up.”
“She will, will she?” from the booster in question.
“Well, how else do we sneak in?”
“I rather thought that we could knock on the front door and have Bingham let us in,” Alex said matter-of-factly, referencing Blackmoor’s ancient butler, as she led the trio around the corner of the house and toward the main entrance.
“What? We can’t do that!” Ella stopped, indignant.
“Whyever not?” Vivi asked, following Alex. “It seems a perfectly acceptable way to enter. In fact, I believe I’ve been entering houses that way for my entire life.”
Seeing that she had been outvoted, not to mention left behind, Ella scurried to catch up to the other two as they made their way to the door. “And what do you expect we’ll say to him that will end in his leaving us in the house without a chaperone?” she whispered rather indelicately as Alex knocked on the door and put a finger to her lips, calling for silence.
“I imagine I’ll think of something.” The door opened, and she turned a brilliant smile on the older gentleman behind it. “Bingham! Good day!” She pushed through, Vivi and Ella hot on her heels. Once inside the house, she untied her bonnet, not allowing for a response. “Blackmoor asked that we pop over here and pick up some books from the study that he meant to bring over for my father before he left to go hunting with my brothers,” she said quickly. “I find him to be very forgetful, don’t you?”
As the butler began to speak, Vivi jumped in, picking up on the game, “Oh, I do as well—why, the other night, he left his walking stick at the Worthington House dinner. Nick had to return it the next morning, remember?”
“Indeed. So silly.” She threw up her hands in a ridiculous gesture. “You don’t mind if we just pop in and pick them up, do you, Bingham?” Alex was already moving toward the study, leaving the poor old man looking rather dumbfounded. “There’s no need for you to wait for us. He gave us a rather long list. Didn’t he, Ella?”
Ella turned surprised eyes on her. “He did?”
Vivi sighed, feigning exasperation. “Ella, you’re almost as forgetful as Blackmoor. You put the list inside your journal, didn’t you?”
Alex turned wide eyes on her friend. “You did bring the list, didn’t you? Or do we have to go back?”
Ella caught on. Finally. “No. No! Of course not. I have it right here.” She went digging into her reticule and brought out the book, opening it quickly and tearing out a page. She waved it under the nose of the butler, who was looking from one girl to the next, as if watching a game of lawn tennis. Ella buried her nose in the “list,” saying, “Agrarian Trends in the Counties of Essex and Staffordshire, 1750–1790. Good Lord! Your poor father. Hopefully there’s a novel somewhere on this list.”
Vivi’s mouth twitched in a desperate attempt to hold back the smile threatening to break across her face. She affected a feminine whine and said, “Let’s go, Ella. The ribbon shop on Bond Street is receiving a new shipment of silks today. I shouldn’t like to spend all day with Blackmoor’s musty old books.” Turning a wide, brilliant smile on the butler, she said, “Which way, Bingham?”
The butler pointed mutely in the direction of the study, and the three girls were off and through the door before he could say a word. Once inside, Alex called out, loudly enough for him to hear from his spot, “It’s rather drafty in here. Ella, be a dear and close the door? I should hate to catch a chill.”
The door closed firmly, leaving the poor old man on the other side, staring speechlessly at it, wondering at the silliness of females and thanking his maker that his masters had never had daughters, before taking himself off to continue his afternoon duties.
“The poor creature never had a chance of survival,” Alex said, walking toward Blackmoor’s desk. “You were both excellent.”
“Although Ella almost ruined our chances,” Vivi pointed out with a smile.
“Indeed,” Alex agreed, “some investigator you make. You did rally, however. I confess I was quite impressed with Agrarian Trends. Nice touch.”
“Thank you. I thought so, myself.” Ella nodded in appreciation.
“We had better start finding a pile of books to carry out of here. We wouldn’t like Bingham to think we were being untruthful.” Vivi moved toward a bookshelf and started to do just that as Ella and Alex chuckled.
The girls tackled separate parts of the room working quickly but carefully, making sure to leave things exactly as they were found. Vivi checked the shelves as she searched for books that might seem relevant to the Duke of Worthington to anyone who cast a discerning eye, building a pile of them by the door that would topple if someone were to open it, to warn them that they were about to be discovered.
After several minutes of searching and turning up nothing, Alex sat in the earl’s chair, announcing, “Everything here has been looked at, picked over, and considered. If there were something to be found in this room, it would have been found.”
Ella blew a stray lock of hair from her face and closed a cabinet she had been searching through. “Agreed. But, then, where would it be?”
“I don’t know, but we’re not going to look for it now,” declared Alex. “I promised you access to Blackmoor’s study. Nothing else. We should go—as it is, when he discovers that we were here, we’re going to be in a mountain of trouble.”
“This is interesting,” Vivi said from across the room, where she was holding a leather-bound book in her hands. “Someone has peeled the endpaper from this volume.”