Ella asked, “Which volume is it?”
“A History of Essex. I selected it because I thought it would seem relevant to the nonexistent Agrarian Trends of Essex that we are expected to procure while here. But the binding is loose and—” Vivi broke off as the back page of the book peeled up off the leather cover. She gasped as a crisp, white square of paper popped out of the book. When they saw, Alex and Ella rushed from their positions across the room to join her.
“What is it?” Ella asked excitedly.
“Don’t get too excited, Ella,” Alex warned. “It’s probably nothing. Remember this room has already been combed for information.”
“Not this shelf,” Vivi disputed. “These books are all covered in at least six months of dust.” She carefully opened the paper as the other two girls leaned in to look at its contents. There, scribbled in a strong hand across the crisp parchment were the words they’d hoped—and feared—they would find.
27 December 1814
I suspect plans are being made for more war, and that there is an Englishman helping the plot. While I do not want to believe what I know to be true, I must act now, before others become aware of what I have discovered. If this letter is found and I have failed, use the book as your guide. Everything is at stake. Particularly the name. Keep it safe.
“My God.” Alex breathed. “It’s from the earl.”
“We—We don’t…we can’t know for sure,” Vivi said haltingly.
“We do know for sure, Vivi,” Alex replied. “Who else would it be from? My God. He found proof of treason and was killed for it.”
“‘Everything is at stake, particularly the name’? What name?” Ella asked aloud.
“The Blackmoor name,” Alex said quietly, almost to herself. She was recalling her conversation with Blackmoor from the previous night, one that took place in this very room. He had been concerned that her accusations about his uncle would risk the reputation of the Blackmoor name. Just as his father had been.
“My God, I was right,” Alex whispered. She looked up and spoke quickly, grabbing the paper from Vivi’s grasp and stuffing it back into the book, a feeling of dread coming over her. “We have to leave here. Immediately. I was right.”
The words were barely out of her mouth when the books placed by the door toppled. The girls all spun toward the door, hoping it would be Bingham who was interrupting their conversation, praying it wouldn’t be Lucian Sewell.
Their prayers went unanswered. There was a delicate straightening of all of their spines as he pushed his way into the room, looking distastefully first at the pile of books on the floor and then around the room until his gaze fell on the trio. Alex willed herself to smile and find a quick exit from this particular trap.
“My lord Sewell,” she said brightly, “you gave us a fright!”
Vivi found her voice next. “Quite!” She rushed forward to the books strewn across the carpet and crouched to gather them. “I’m such a ninny. This was not the spot for a pile of books! Why, anyone could have knocked them over!”
Lucian’s voice was slow and suspicious. “Indeed. An odd place for a pile of books. Odder even for a pile of books built by girls who are trespassing.”
“Trespassing!” Ella laughed a touch too loudly, moving forward, A History of Essex clutched in her hand. “My lord, you are quite amusing. I assure you we would much rather be shopping for ribbon than picking up a selection of books for Alex’s father that Blackmoor should have delivered himself. In fact, that is just where we are headed next.” She took a stack of the books from Vivi’s arms, adding hers to the pile before setting them on her hip. She turned back to Alex, saying, “I think that’s all of them, don’t you? Shall we have Bingham send a footman to help us?”
Alex moved toward them, keenly aware of Sewell’s discerning eye and desperately attempting to appear nonchalant, “No. No. I don’t think that’s necessary. It will just take more time. We’ll miss the best part of the day as it is.”
Vivi nodded her head. “Quite.” Turning on her heel, she offered a low curtsy and a warm smile to Sewell, saying, “My lord, again, apologies if we startled you.”
He lifted a corner of his mouth in a false smile of his own. “It takes more than a few girls to scare me, Lady Vivian, Lady Eleanor.”
He nodded to both girls as they left the room, and Alex felt a chill race down her spine. Was there a double meaning in his words? She took a deep breath and dropped into a curtsy identical to Vivi’s, willing herself to get out of the room without betraying all she knew. “My lord Sewell.”
“Lady Alexandra. May I have a word?”
No! Her mind screamed, but what was she to do? She had to appear nonchalant, and the only way to do that would be to humor the despicable man. Ella and Vivi were only feet away—how much harm could happen? “Of course,” she replied with a look she hoped appeared to be curiosity.
He lowered his voice and spoke succinctly. “You care very much for my nephew, do you not?”
She nodded carefully and he continued, “Excellent. As do I. You seem an intelligent girl. You would do best to stop skulking about where you do not belong. You wouldn’t want Blackmoor to get hurt because of you, would you? Or those lovely friends of yours who seem never to leave your side?”
“I—I don’t know what you mean,” Alex said, her voice wavering.
“Then this conversation was unnecessary,” he said with an empty smile. “All the better.” He moved past her, into the study, speaking as he went, “Have a lovely time on Bond Street.”
She was terrified and furious and frustrated all at once. Terrified that he would follow them and somehow hurt them, furious that he would think to threaten those she held most dear, and frustrated because she felt so helpless and unheard. She turned to leave the room, her breath coming fast and hard.
“Oh, and one more thing, my lady?”
“Yes, my lord?” She willed the tremor from her voice, turning back to find him thumbing through a stack of correspondence.
“I so enjoyed myself at your parents’ ball last evening. Do let them know, will you?”
“Indeed, my lord.”
“And be sure to tell them that I was particularly enamored of the orangery.”
Alex fled the room with a singular focus—to get Ella and Vivi as far from Lucian Sewell as possible. And quickly.
Alex awoke with a start as the carriage turned off the main thoroughfare and onto the mile-long drive that led up to Stafford Manor. Night had fallen and they had been driving for the entire day. They had left Worthington House at dawn and were arriving well after dark. For the first part of the trip, Ella and Vivi had kept her company, chattering about the odd things they witnessed on the long drive to the eastern edge of Britain. After the first break, when they had stopped for tea and a change of horses, the two had curled up on the seat across from Alex and the duchess and had fallen asleep, leaving Alex, unable to sleep herself, to talk quietly with her mother, who had been busy preparing activities for the house party that would begin late tomorrow with the arrival of the first wave of guests.
Within a few hours, even the duchess had succumbed to the lure of laziness that comes with long hours of travel in a warm, darkened coach, and Alex had found herself alone with her thoughts—thoughts that haunted her as she ran the events of the past two days over and over in her mind.
Of course, at the front of her mind was the confrontation she’d had the day before with Lucian Sewell; she could not pretend she was not thoroughly shaken by his words. He had all but admitted that he was not above hurting his nephew or anyone else who stood in his way—even Ella and Vivi. Alex had not missed his threats. He meant to hurt them if she told anyone her suspicions. She wrapped the travel blanket more tightly around herself to stave off the chill of the memory. Was it possible that Gavin had recounted their conversation and her eavesdropping? She couldn’t imagine his doing such a thing, but she had to consider it an option.
She had risked Ella and Vivi’s lives by bringing them to Blackmoor House. Before, Gavin’s uncle hadn’t given the three of them a second thought. Now, they were squarely in his sights. That was no one’s fault but her own. Alex knew that she had only one task—to ensure her friends’ safety without revealing to them any more of her suspicions, should there be any more. The less they knew of Lucian Sewell’s part in whatever terrifying play this was, the better for them.
Their second stop had interrupted her somber thoughts, and while the grooms and coachmen changed the team of horses again, the four women had a chance to eat a warm, filling dinner in preparation for the longest leg of the trip. The food, combined with the already long day, had put Alex right to sleep when she returned to the carriage and cuddled under the traveling blanket until these, the last few minutes of the journey.
Alex inhaled deeply, breathing in the crisp air. To think, just a day earlier she’d been begging her mother not to force her to travel to Essex. Now she couldn’t wait to be at the country house.
She would be lying to herself if she claimed that her eagerness to arrive was merely about protecting her friends. As she looked out the window into the blackness, she was keenly aware of the fact that she was staring blindly in the direction of Sewell Hall, the familial seat of the Blackmoor line. She knew that if Blackmoor wasn’t in the billiard room at Stafford Manor with her brothers, unaware of her approach, he was at the hall, just a quarter of a mile away.
As time had passed since their confrontation in his study, she had grown less and less angry with Blackmoor. Instead, she found herself filled with sorrow at what their relationship—always comfortable and friendly—had lost. There had been a time when their tempers would not have flared, when hurtful words would never have been spoken, when he wouldn’t have dreamed of asking her to leave his presence. That time had clearly passed, and she was devastated by that fact.
Perhaps Blackmoor had been right; perhaps the kiss had been a mistake. It had most assuredly made her life harder, because now she couldn’t imagine her world without him. He’d been her fourth brother from the start, but now he was a great deal more. Yes, he was a friend, but she couldn’t deny how thoroughly she was attracted to him—how much she ached for his approval, his affection, his love.
She started in the silence, surprised by the notion. It had always been such a laughable, ephemeral word—a concept she’d never understood and in which she’d never really been interested. It had been partner to The One…perhaps right for Vivi but never for Alex. But now, as she considered her feelings for Blackmoor—feelings that could only be defined as love—she could almost see herself embracing both of these notions.
There was only one thing to do. She had to find him, as soon as possible, and show him that everything they had, everything they’d said, was worth their taking the significant risks that faced them. She had to convince him that what she knew about his uncle and his father was true…that he was wrong not to believe her…that she would never hurt him without cause. She knew it was a risk, one that almost certainly would take her down a path that led to one of two things: either the happiness of sharing her life with the boy she was coming to realize she’d been destined for since the beginning; or the misery of living without him. It was a risk she had no choice but to take.
As she shored up her courage, telling herself she could manage this encounter and that she could overcome her disappointment if he were to dismiss her, the carriage entered the last, long curve on the manor drive. She could see the enormous stone house rising up in the darkness, and she was comforted by the fact that it had been the seat of the Stafford line for generations. If she were going to do such a nerve-wracking thing as confront the man she loved, there was no place in the world she’d rather do it than here.
She shook her mother awake, then reached across the seat and poked both Ella and Vivi, rousing them from their slumber. The three woke with the frustration of those who find sleep despite discomfort as she said, “We’re here!” with a cheerfulness she didn’t entirely feel.
The carriage rolled to a stop as Vivi yawned broadly and muttered, “Oh, excellent bed! How quickly can I find you?”
“I shall race you to it,” Ella grumbled, drawing a smile from the duchess.
The door to the carriage opened and Alex clambered down with the help of a footman. As Vivi and Ella piled out behind her, she looked up at the manor house, smiling to herself at the welcoming light that was flickering in the windows of the rooms that had been prepared for their arrival this evening. The yellow light spilled into the night in a way that she had loved since she was a child, filling the darkness that was so much a part of country evenings.
Alex took a deep breath, taking in the “crisp Stafford air”—as her father would call it—remembering her mother’s comment the day before. She did love the country. There was something about the way the stars shone ever so much more brightly here, about the way time slowed down, about the way it smelled on a cool May night. Everything seemed simpler here. Better.
The large oak door to the house opened, and Alex looked up to see her father, silhouetted by the bright lights of the entryway. He looked nothing like a duke—without an overcoat or a waistcoat, without a cravat. His shirt was tucked into his buckskin breeches, but his sleeves were rolled up on his bronzed arms, and Alex chuckled to think of what London’s aristocracy would think to see him, one of the most powerful men in England, wandering about dressed like a “savage.”