He didn’t respond, but Lucian did, laughing darkly. “How very sweet. My dear,” he said, speaking to Alex, “I imagine he’s willing to give up the information because he fancies himself in love with you. Don’t you see? Your life simply isn’t worth the pleasure of avenging his father’s death. It’s touching, really.”
Alex looked back at Gavin, who was deliberately not meeting her gaze.
“Let’s see if the opposite is also true,” Lucian said, and before she knew it, he was pointing his pistol at Gavin and cocking the handle.
“No!” she cried, unable to stop herself from reaching out a protesting hand toward him.
“Ah, young love,” he said with disgust in his voice. “So very predictable.” He looked back to Alex. “I’m no longer playing games. Give me the book.”
Alex stepped forward, tentatively, the book in her hands. She held the book out to him and he reached for it.
“Alex! No!” She turned her head, seeing Gavin jump up from his desk just as Sewell reached past the book and, before she could do anything, took hold of her wrist in a viselike grip, pulling her to him.
“Let go of her.” The words came in a low growl from across the room just as she felt the cool iron barrel of the pistol press against the side of her neck.
Blackmoor moved toward them, stopping only when Sewell warned, “Don’t do anything you’ll regret, Nephew. You wouldn’t want me to do something rash.”
Gavin’s fury was clear. “I have given you the benefit of the doubt throughout this ordeal, Uncle. But allow me to make myself plain…if you harm her in any way, you will wish it were you who had tumbled into the sea the day you killed my father.”
“What big words for such a young pup,” Sewell said viciously, gripping Alex more firmly, causing her to wince and Gavin to tense visibly. “I think I shall enjoy abducting your little friend. It’s time an Earl of Blackmoor learns he cannot have everything he wants.”
“So that is why you killed my father? Jealousy?”
“Your father had everything!” The high pitch of Lucian’s voice sent a jolt through Alex, who paled at the sound and the lack of control it betrayed. “Money, land, title, the most beautiful woman in London. He was the perfect earl, and he couldn’t stand having such an imperfect brother. He constantly sought out my flaws. Right up until the day he died.” He pushed on, and Alex sensed that he was losing his temper. “For our entire lives, it was always Richard who was strongest, smartest, most revered, who was the heir to the great Blackmoor earldom.
“And now it’s you…” he said to Gavin, with venom. “You who inherited the estate, the title…everything! You, the little brat who received all the love and acceptance that should have been mine!” Lucian’s voice was becoming more and more hysterical as he spoke, making Alex wince every time he hit a shrill pitch. “And what of me? Nothing! I was given no title, not even a minor one. I was bequeathed no lands. Instead, when I came of age, it was suggested I join the Navy and go to war to make my fortune. I have no family, except my fellow soldiers from the battlefield. We went to war, where we received no recognition and a pittance of a salary…and then I came home to discover that my brother had been working at the War Office and turning himself into a legend!”
Alex could feel him coming unhinged; she was keenly aware of his anger and frustration as he continued, “You’re no more than a child and now you are the earl? I fought for my country. Saved it! And I received nothing in return. So now I’m taking from you what you value most, because you deserve no more pleasure than your father did. I’m the one who deserves happiness. I’m the one who earned it.”
“Earned it?” Gavin asked incredulously, unwittingly pushing his uncle to the breaking point. “How, exactly, did you earn it? By killing your brother? Your flesh and blood?”
“You insolent pup. You don’t understand!” Alex felt him remove the pistol from her neck and saw him begin to point it at Gavin. In his anger, he had loosened his grip on her and she had enough space to move, but only to make a single attempt at saving them both.
Without pausing to consider the possibility of failure, Alex lifted her foot and slammed it down on her captor’s instep with every ounce of her strength, spinning away from him as he doubled over in pain. She heard the report of the pistol and time stopped as she looked to Gavin, who was rushing forward with a roar, his face the portrait of anger.
He tackled his already off-balance uncle, bringing him to the floor and sending the pistol spinning across the room before landing two quick blows to his face. Alex turned to find something heavy that she could use to subdue Sewell but was interrupted by the door bursting open as the Duke of Worthington and Will rushed in, the Baron Montgrave quick on their heels, holding a pistol.
Taking in the scene before them, Will and the duke rushed to pull Gavin off his uncle and to restrain the older man, who squealed in protest.
“Montgrave has a pistol!” Alex announced to the room at large, alarmed.
“And thank goodness he does. We might have needed it,” Gavin said as he approached her, concern in his eyes. “He’s on our side, Alex.” Taking her into his arms and running his hands over her extremities to find any wounds she might have incurred, he spoke softly to her, “Are you well? Did the bullet hit you? Did he hurt you?”
“I’m fine,” she said, pulling away from him, embarrassed that he would be touching her so intimately in front of the room full of men. “Our side? He is?”
“Yes, my lady,” the baron spoke up, from where he was tying Sewell’s wrists behind his back. “You see, I have been working with the War Office to root out a network of French spies operating out of Essex, which we came to believe was related to the earl’s death. I also knew Sewell from the war. Even then, he vilified his brother and talked of ruining the Blackmoor name. I never thought he would have the courage to do it, but when I heard from you that he was here, I had a feeling he was involved. Of course, I had no idea that the two situations were related until Lady Vivian told me everything this afternoon.”
“But Ella saw you in the gardens at the Salisbury Ball! Discussing the robbery at Blackmoor House! Before it happened!”
“Did she? I am impressed, my lady. My informant and I had no knowledge of our being followed.”
“If there is one thing women excel at, Baron, it is eavesdropping. Would you care to explain how you were able to discuss the future?” She still didn’t trust this Frenchman.
“In fact, we were discussing the robbery as it was in progress, Lady Alexandra. I left the ball immediately and headed straight for Blackmoor House. Of course, you and Lord Blackmoor were close behind me, so it was he who entered the house, ending Sewell’s search before I was able to do it myself.”
Alex turned to Gavin. “But you didn’t believe me when I told you about your uncle!”
“No, I didn’t.” Gavin appeared just as surprised as she was. “And I didn’t know any of this either. Although I’m rather unclear about why I wasn’t apprised of my uncle’s wrongdoings.”
“We didn’t want to upset you unnecessarily,” the duke interjected. “We didn’t have any proof of Sewell’s involvement in either of these crimes.”
“Until now,” Gavin said, retrieving his father’s book from where it lay at their feet. “Alex has uncovered everything,” he said with pride in his voice, handing the volume to the duke and congratulating Alex with, “Very well done, by the way.”
Alex ignored the flash of pleasure she felt at his praise, and turned her questions on the baron, “But I saw you skulking around Blackmoor House!”
“That I am able to answer. You were not supposed to see Montgrave,” Gavin interjected as the duke and the baron pulled Sewell to his feet. “You were not supposed to become involved at all. In fact, didn’t you promise me that you were going to stay as far away from Sewell Hall as possible this weekend?”
She ignored his attempt to redirect her attention, instead exclaiming, “You knew? You knew Montgrave wasn’t a threat and let me go on believing he was? You didn’t tell me? What else did you know? What else didn’t you share? Need I remind you that it was I who found your father’s messages, I who uncovered the connection between the espionage and the murder, I who discovered the book here, I who saved your life just moments ago? Where were Bow Street and the baron during all those times?”
“Alex, calm yourself. We decided it was best you not know.”
“Who decided?” Alex said shortly, her ire rising.
“Alexandra,” her father interrupted, “contrary to what you believe, there are some situations in which young women should not participate.”
“Like this one, for example,” Will added, attempting to be helpful. “Vivi and Ella put everything together as far as what was happening here, but we came to rescue you. They stayed at the manor.”
“I rescued us!” Alex protested, meeting Gavin’s gaze. “Tell them!”
“Indeed. She did. I have a feeling my uncle might well be nursing a broken foot,” he told the duke and baron, who seemed to have little concern for the pain their prisoner might be suffering.
“Truly? Well done, Alex,” Will said, surprised. “Well, in any event, there’s a reason we left Vivi and Ella behind.”
“We’re here!” Ella surprised everyone with her announcement from the doorway as the two entered, out of breath from their race across the heath.
“And we brought the constable!” This from Vivi, who was followed by the portly county constable, who had to pause to take great, heaving breaths and regain his composure before grabbing hold of Sewell and, with the help of the baron, removing him from the room.
Taking in the scene, Ella wrinkled her nose. “Drat. We missed the excitement!”
“It appears we did,” Vivi agreed, disappointment in her tone.
“Ah, well. Next time!” Ella brightened.
Alex smiled as the duke and Will began to scold her friends, causing Gavin to lean down and whisper in her ear, “I am happy to see you smiling again.”
She turned to him. “I remain vexed with you, my lord. I cannot believe you did not tell me about Montgrave!”
“Alex, I will not argue with you. You can be angry if you need to be, but I almost lost you today and there are other things I would prefer to do than spar.”
“For example?” Alex asked.
“For example.” He wrapped his arms around her again, and her heart began to pound as he continued, “I’d prefer to remind myself that you are safe. And that you are mine.”
She smiled up at him. “I am yours, my lord. As much as you are mine.”
He clasped her to him, holding her tightly until a throat cleared from across the room, and Alex and Gavin remembered that they had an audience.
“Blackmoor,” the duke said, his casual tone belying his intent gaze, “perhaps you would like to explain exactly why your arms are wrapped around my daughter?”
Later that evening, Stafford Manor quieted as the guests took to their beds, and Ella, Vivi, and Alex curled up together on a wide, cozy chaise in the manor library where, for the first time that day, they were able to discuss the events of the afternoon. They had returned to the house just in time to change and welcome the first unsuspecting guests to the party and had spent the rest of the day and evening entertaining and pretending not to wish they were somewhere else.
Somewhere else, in this case, was with the duke, Blackmoor, Will, and the Marquess of Langford, who had holed themselves up in the manor study for the rest of the afternoon and much of the evening, poring through the documents that the former earl had secreted away in A History of Essex. They were still there now, hours later and, as exhausted as she was, Alex refused to go to sleep without hearing their findings. Ella and Vivi, equally curious, had agreed to keep her company.
Alex yawned broadly, relaxing into the seat. “It’s hard to believe that everyone who arrived today was completely unaware of what had gone on all morning!”
Vivi stretched, then assumed a similar position on the couch, leaning her head against Alex’s shoulder. “It’s true. Your mother covered up the missing men extremely well. I just wish she could have covered up our sneaking in a nap. I thought I was going to fall asleep at the supper table this evening.”
Ella lay down, placing her head on Alex’s lap and saying, “A nap sounds wonderful! I think I’ll take one right now…wake me when there is news?”
Alex smiled wearily and placed one hand on Ella’s shoulder and the other on Vivi’s knee, saying, “If nothing else, today taught me that you are the most wonderful friends a girl could ask for. Thank you for ignoring my instructions not to tell my parents about my heading to the hall. I don’t know that we would have succeeded in capturing Gavin’s uncle without my father, the baron, and Will.”
At that moment, the door to the library opened and Will entered, looking surprised to find the trio. “I assumed you’d all be asleep!”
Alex straightened and said, “What happened? Are you through?”
“For the time being, yes,” he replied. “There’s much work to be done, but the earl left remarkably detailed logs of all the illegal activities taking place on Sewell land over the months leading up to his death—he thought someone was smuggling weapons to the French, then information as the war quieted. It appears that the earl had suspected the culprit was Lucian, but only very close to the date of his death.”