Jenny thought the investigation was at an impasse, although several other interesting things were happening around and about Kinghorn Castle.
For one, Marie, Lady Kinghorn's former ladies' maid, died, and Lord Kinghorn and his son, who was moving about more freely every day, attended the funeral. Afterwards, the entire estate was invited to the castle for tea and cake, and many a tenant or pensioned-off employee commiserated with Lady Kingorn over the loss of a beloved servant and friend. Muriel seemed more affected than usual, as well, and Eleanor explained that to Jenny later, after everyone had gone home.
"Muriel told me about visiting the maid before she died," her aunt said quietly as they sat in Eleanor's bedchamber. Jenny was stretched out on the counterpane, much as she did as a young lady, while she watched Eleanor and her maid look through gowns for dinner. "She literally saw everything Marie did as she relived the night Eva Kinghorn died, and not only that, but also a lot of details of that woman's life. She says it is like getting a fast history lesson, but with emotional details, as well."
"She must feel like an old friend has died, then," Jenny remarked.
"That is it in a nutshell. Can you imagine how she felt when Abernathy died? They had been very close."
"Poor Muriel!" She could not even imagine, really, even though she and her own late husband had been more intimate than most couples she knew.
Eleanor laughed. "Oh, I would not be too concerned about Muriel. She might seem beset with blue devils at the moment, but she is the sort who bounces back into life quite easily. Even when her husband died, she found a new lease on life when her nieces came to live with her. They have been very good for her, and so have you, my dear."
"Me? How so?"
"Your romance with Alan Kinghorn has kept her amused and bewildered, and, as with this murder, she loves a good puzzle."
Jenny blushed. "I am not having a romance with Alan Kinghorn! And while I can see why she would be amused, I do not understand why she should be bewildered!"
"Oh, dear, I should not have said anything, but you did seem close this afternoon after the funeral." Eleanor let her maid leave the room with the gown she was to press for dinner, and sat down next to Jenny on the bed. "Can you not guess why Muriel insisted so strongly that you come with us to Cornwall? She had received a letter that morning from Nera."
Jenny sat up and pressed her hands to her burning cheeks. "She had said that before, and I never connected Nera's precognitive abilities with me coming to the castle, but now that you mention it… Goodness gracious! No wonder she keeps urging me to have an affair with the man!"
It was Eleanor's turn to blush. "I would not go so far as that, but then, Muriel has always been the earthy one. Did she truly tell you to do that?" She giggled. "But why not? You are two consenting, widowed adults. Do you wish to hear what Nera wrote exactly?"
"No!" Jenny protested. "I do not want someone's premonition – even if Nera is a darling – clouding my relationship with Kinghorn."
"Oh, so now it is a relationship?" Eleanor teased.
Jenny paused, thought about that for a moment, and then giggled along with her aunt. "Yes, I suppose it is something. What, I know not. I doubt I shall get as far as Muriel wishes me to go, but he did kiss me," she finally admitted to someone.
"And?" Eleanor prompted.
"And it was not exactly tendered in a romantic setting, but…" But it had turned into a real kiss, and that was the important part.
"Does that matter?"
"Not in the slightest." Their smug smiles were identical, causing them to laugh all over again.
Jenny had another interesting conversation after the funeral, this one with Davy Teague. He had joined the throng at the castle, and by way of lots of eyebrow raising and cryptic gesturing, managed to get her to notice that he had news to impart. She moved over to his quiet corner, where he told her that the smugglers had been physically routed for the moment, but their goods were still stored in the castle's caves. "Most likely until the big delivery next week."
"How do you know all this?"
"I keep me eyes and ears open at the tavern, missus. His lordship pays me good for it, you know." He grinned, and she thought perhaps he enjoyed the intrigue as much as the money. "An' all the ale I can hold in a night, as well."
That made Jenny think that some of Kinghorn's visits to the tavern had not been to drink with the locals, but to rendezvous with Davy. After all, the locals seemed to steer clear of him unless they had to deal with him directly. Only his tenants appeared steadfastly loyal. Even now, he was speaking softly with a few of his own farmers, and everyone else had left a clearing around them, as if afraid to get to close.
She spent a few more minutes asking soft questions of Davy and then they were joined by Kinghorn. All eyes turned to them, then, and she and Alan made a big show of being rather enamored of each other. Davy beamed on them in a benevolent manner that would have made her shake with laughter, had she not a part to play. She wondered if some of this acting had to do with Meraud Worden, and allowing word to get back to that lady that she was not the only fish on Kinghorn's line. Or the other way around, as everyone seemed to consider Meraud to be the fisherman. Those in their vicinity seemed to strain to hear their conversation, but they kept it to a low murmur. Actually, they were discussing the best way for Jenny to cover for Kinghorn when he disappeared from the Worden ball the next week in order to allow the excise men access to the smugglers while they were in his caves.
"I could make a show of turning my ankle in the dance," Jenny suggested, "and then the Worden ladies will be required to assist me to the retiring room to take a look at it. In the meantime, you could slip out a side door."
Davy nodded. "I could have your lordship's horse waiting fer ya."
"That could work," Kinghorn mused, "if we can make certain the Wordens are both occupied."
"They will have no choice, if we dance right in front of them and it happens," Jenny pointed out. "Any good hostess would be required to tend to a guest in distress."
"You will remain at the Wordens, then, through all this?" Kinghorn asked.
Jenny felt a flood of warmth wash over her. She was independent, it was true, but it felt good when people were concerned for her welfare. It was not worth arguing over with him anyway, she decided, recalling the rat incident. "Yes, I will," she agreed.
Nothing more was said on the subjects of smugglers or the ball, and when Kinghorn was called off to greet a visitor, Jenny returned to where Eleanor and Muriel were entertaining Mr. Kinghorn.
Jenny would have said that dressing for the Worden ball was not anything to stress over, but evidently the other ladies in the castle felt differently. Even Winifred exclaimed in horror when Jenny admitted she was just going to throw on some old ball gown for the party.
"But you cannot!" she protested one afternoon as they sat in the solarium. Beside her, her husband chuckled.
"I would not have guessed Mrs. Wilkes to be so unconcerned about her clothes. Not when…"
"When what?" Jenny asked, even as everyone else gave her knowing looks. "Oh, no, no, no, I am not going to dress for anyone except myself!" she insisted.
Muriel shook her head. "I do not believe you have that luxury this time, Jenny dear."
"Someone needs to rout Meraud Worden," Mrs. Kinghorn said fiercely. "And all things considering…"
"What things?" Winifred was being unusually garrulous, and Jenny was not certain she liked it.
"Winifred is correct," Lady Kinghorn announced. "We need to see what is in your closet, Mrs. Wilkes – there is still time to alter or refurbish something."
"But…" But Jenny was outnumbered. Lady Kinghorn, her granddaughter-in-law, Eleanor and Muriel all got to their feet, excused themselves from Mr. Kinghorn and practically frog-marched Jenny up to her room.
"You must look the most ravishing of us all!" Mrs. Kinghorn said enthusiastically, diving into Jenny's closet and pulling out a pretty gown of old gold satin. "This might do…" She passed it off to Muriel, who held it up to Jenny and pursed her lips.
"Any idea what Miss Worden is wearing to her affair?" Eleanor enquired.
"Sapphire blue silk," Lady Kinghorn said. "Her mother told me in confidence." Her eyes twinkled merrily at the thought. "Not exactly what I would allow a daughter her age to wear, but then, I am not nearly as permissive as the Wordens."
"I am not in competition with Miss Worden," Jenny insisted, but her words fell on deaf ears.
"Oh!" Winifred exclaimed, pulling a burgundy velvet gown out of the wardrobe. "This is beautiful! Do you have a garnet set to wear with it?"
"No, but I do have diamonds."
"Even better! Garnets might be too much," Eleanor said. Jenny shot her a look of pure disgust for participating in this discussion, but her aunt smiled and joined Winifred in the cupboard. "She has always looked stunning in reds. Makes her look dignified."
"As befits a lady of my years," Jenny said. "And yet you insist on treating me like a green girl about to make her debut!"
Muriel, busy rifling the jewelry box sitting on the vanity, chuckled. "Oh, you will not look like a green girl when we get through with you. Sarah, be a dear and ring for Eleanor's maid. She has a way with hair…"
"Will no one listen to me?" Jenny insisted.
"No!" came a chorus of replies.
Jenny snorted, but was ignored, except for Lady Kinghorn pushing her down into a chair in front of the mirror.
"You do not realize how much Meraud deserves a setting down," she whispered in Jenny's ear. "So please indulge us for one night. Besides, I have not seen Winifred so animated in a good long while. You are doing her a world of good, Mrs. Wilkes." She put a friendly hand on Jenny's shoulder. "I hope she has another child, and it is a daughter. She would be very kind to a daughter."
Jenny softened. Had she not borne four boys in order to get a girl? For what purpose? To do this very thing, she realized. She and Tamara had both enjoyed girly moments together. Why should Mrs. Kinghorn be any different?
"Do you want to see me in the burgundy?" she asked, turning towards the two ladies in the wardrobe. Both came up smiling.
"Yes, please!" cried Mrs. Kinghorn. "With the diamonds, and your hair done!"
Jenny suppressed a sigh and rose from the table to change into the ballgown. Eleanor's maid entered the room, but Eleanor and Winifred both waved her away from helping Jenny change, and assisted her themselves. In a corner of the room, both Lady Kinghorn and Muriel gave her smiles of gratitude and encouragement.
The morning of the Worden ball, everyone was in a state of excitement. Everyone but Jenny, who knew a showdown of sorts was expected between herself and Miss Worden. She would not have chosen such a public venue, but it appeared she had no choice. She did not even have an advantage in that Miss Worden would be on her home turf. Jenny, however, had confidence, age and wisdom. She would allow Miss Worden to show herself first, and only then would she act.
She had finally admitted, at least, that she was Miss Worden's rival. But as much as she recognized that Meraud was nothing more than a silly young chit to Alan Kinghorn, Jenny also had no clue where she stood with the man. At the moment, it did not bother her much. The man still needed to clear his name, a name she realized had been tarnished against his will. He needed to regain the confidence of his friends and neighbors. He needed to come to terms with Eva's death before he could move forward. Jenny felt this was important to her as much as it should be to him.
She told herself, however, that he was worth the wait.
Jenny thought of all this while she ate breakfast, and after the meal, when she would take her morning walk, Kinghorn joined her.
"Where do you walk this morning, Mrs. Wilkes?" he asked, falling easily into step with her brisk gait.
"Along the cliff path. Sometimes I turn north and sometimes, such as today, I turn south."
"And stop in for a cup of tea with Maude." It was not a question.
"My lord knows my routine well. At first, it was to see how Marie did, but now it is to keep Maude from being so lonely."
"Should I pension off a few more people so Maude has something to do?" he joked.
"If you have someone in mind, Maude would welcome the company." Jenny was serious in reply, but she gave him a merry smile.
"I might just have one," he admitted. "I hope it meets with you approval."
"Mine? I have no say in whom you retire from serving you."
"In this particular case, you might. You see, the person is Nurse Manning."
"What?" Jenny stopped in her tracks. "Why?"
"She is an old woman. When I spoke to her recently, I learned that Lady Pennell promised to support her after this final job, and now she has reneged on all the terms of their contract."
"Oh, no!" Jenny had little sympathy for the nurse, and if truth be told, she would have liked to have seen Lady Pennell taken to court for a breach of contract. She was fairly sure, however, who would win. Something he said occurred to her. "Where is Nurse Manning that you recently spoke to her?"
"I have been putting her up in the village, where she has, believe it or not, been making friends."
"Well!" Jenny marveled. "I never would have guessed at such a thing ever happening!"
"That she has made friends, or that I have taken responsibility for her well being?"
"Oh, I am not surprised at your compassion." Jenny looked up at him and smiled. "Even when you are angry, you are thinking of others."
"I am no saint." He stared down at her.
"No, you are not."
"You do not seem to mind."
"I do not. I am rather used to being around men with a bit of temper."
"Jenny, I cannot say anything right now…"
She raised a finger and touched his lips. "I do not expect you to – you have some things to work out first."
He kissed the tip of her finger and returned her hand to her side. They continued their walk, speaking of anything and everything but themselves. It was only when they had circled around and approached the castle by way of the gardens that the conversation returned to them once more.
"I did not even ask for a dance this evening," Kinghorn noted. He broke an early spring flower off one of his mother's bushes and pressed it into her hand.
"No, you told me we are going to dance, so I might injure myself in front of the Wordens." She smiled to show she took no offense at such high-handedness.
"So I did, but I should not be so forward, even if you have already agreed. Mrs. Wilkes. Jenny. Will you do me the honor of dancing with me this evening?"
It would have been romantic, she thought, with the sun shining, birds circling in the sky and a small fishing boat on the horizon, but… a boat!
"Yes, yes, Alan, I will dance with you. Only look!" She did not point, only indicated her head slightly at the vessel bobbing on the clear blue sea.
"I am correct, then. They are going to use the caves tonight, knowing we will be away from the castle." He turned to her. "Would you please speak to Tilley about this?" he asked. "I will not involve my mother in this, and Tilley is smart enough to make certain there is only a strong skeleton staff in residence."
Jenny gave him a warm smile, this pronouncement reinforcing what she already knew about him – he was a good man. Without thinking, she threw her arms around his waist and gave him a hug. "You are a very good man. I will go in now and speak with Tilley. If he has time, he can make it seem mere coincidence that everyone has an evening free, and away from home." She released herself from his quick embrace and they smiled at each other. One of these days, she thought, they need not back off.
In the castle, they went their separate ways, Jenny to speak discreetly to the butler, who assured her he could be counted on fully to assist his lordship in a most confidential manner. Then she found the family, and Muriel and Eleanor, in the solarium. Mrs. Kinghorn was weeping over a note.
"Her mother wrote to say that if Winifred attends the ball tonight, she will be snubbed by the Pennells," Muriel said softly. She gave Jenny a wicked grin. "I trust your walk was a good one?"
"Very good," Jenny whispered in return. "What does Mrs. Kinghorn plan to do?"
"She plans to attend, actually. She is such a soft-hearted lady, though, and crying over the fact that she is going to cut her mother before Lady Pennell gets the chance to do so to her."
"Good for her! I suppose this means Mr. Kinghorn is going, as well?" Up until today, both Lady Kinghorn and his wife were both adamant that he remain home. This letter seemed to have swung that decision the other way, and Jenny was glad. Mrs. Kinghorn would need her husband by her side tonight, even if he did not dance. And that would ensure the entire family was out of the castle.
If Jenny was in any doubt about looking her best that evening, such a notion was quickly dispelled by one look from Lord Kinghorn. She was the last to come down to join the family in the main drawing room before leaving for the ball, and Alan came immediately to her side, taking her gloved hand and bringing it to his lips.
"You are even more beautiful tonight than usual," he said, and she had to blush, because their families were watching. Muriel was smirking.
"Thank you, my lord." She gave him a pert little curtsey. Even if he were just playing a part, she knew an honest compliment when she heard one.
Lady Kinghorn announced it was time to go, and they took two closed carriages the few miles' drive to the Worden house. Jenny was not surprised to find herself in one of the coaches with her host. She did notice there was a full moon, making it a perfect night for smuggling, but she was unable to comment, as both Eleanor and Muriel in the coach with them. One word of their plans would have both ladies immediately interested and wishing to become involved.
She was careful not to even think of their mission, lest Muriel catch a hint of anything. Instead, she visualized a clandestine meeting in the Worden garden. Muriel's continued smirk told her she was getting better at diverting that lady.
"What do you hear from Belgium?" Eleanor wondered, breaking the silence in the carriage.
"Very general comments about that war and society in the capital, which seems to be as busy as a London season, with all the parties and balls. Bianca says they are all quite gay, and keep busy while Rand and his regiment prepare for war. I do worry that they will be caught up in it all," she could not help but fret.
"Rand would never let any harm come to his ladies," Eleanor assured her.
"Nera insists Rand will be coming home alive, and she would have told us if anything untoward happens to either Bianca or Tamara," Muriel said.
"I know, but there are so many other things that could go wrong. Nera's visions are only as good as her interpretation," Jenny reminded her companions. She looked at Alan. "Nera can see the future, but it does not always turn out the way she thinks it will."
Eleanor chuckled. "She was convinced last year that her twin sister, Bianca, and my grandson, Drew, were destined for each other. What she had seen made her believe that, and yet it turned out so differently. Bianca and Rand fell in love at first sight and Nera was actually the one who married Drew."
"How did you know her vision was not correct?" Kinghorn wondered.
"Because they are all very happy, and very well suited for each other," Muriel said, her voice firm. She smiled at the baron, however, to show she was not completely offended by his attitude.
"Is there any news from Sandwell?" Jenny asked her aunt.
"Robert is doing well, and Charles and Prudence are expected home in several weeks' time. Muriel and I have not decided yet whether we return home from here, or will travel to her home. It is much more quiet there, and she has some correspondence that will require her attention."
"Before you two go off on another adventure?" Jenny asked.
Eleanor and Muriel looked at each other and laughed. "Yes, before we have another adventure!" Eleanor said with relish.
When they arrived at the Worden's home, all ablaze to welcome its guests, they had to wait to be helped down from the carriage. No doubt, Jenny thought drily, Miss Worden would be pleased with the crush of people. What Miss Worden was not pleased with, however, was Jenny's appearance. That young lady drew her lips into a straight line when the castle's occupants passed by her in the receiving line, and Jenny was sure she heard something about 'mutton dressed as lamb' from that lady's lips as they exchanged false pleasantries.
"Steady," Alan whispered in Jenny's ear, but truly, Jenny was not the least bit inclined to retaliate. She had a job that evening, and she was more concerned with its outcome, than any opinion Miss Meraud Worden had about her person.
Meraud answered by thrusting her dance card into Kinghorn's face, and he obliged her with the third set, which was neither the opening one, nor a waltz. She pouted, but he remained stoic, wished her a successful event and moved on.
"Was that wise?" Jenny asked after they had been greeted by Mrs. Worden and her husband, and entered the ballroom. "She will not take that lying down, I fear."
Alan shrugged. "I shall think on that and see if there is a way back into her good graces, at least for the evening. You will not worry about her?" he asked, concerned.
"No, I will not give her reaction another thought." For now.
Jenny did not have time to reflect on Meraud. Her mind was more on the role she still had to play. It would not do to antagonize her hostesses overly much, at any rate. She was going to need them later.
After dancing several sets with some of the Kinghorn neighbors, who were, as Muriel put it, 'falling all over themselves to secure a dance,' she was more than ready to place herself in Alan's arms. The dance he had written his name down for was a waltz.
"You may find your feet stepped on," he warned. "Not many here know this dance."
"Miss Worden, naturally, being one of them." To her surprise, their hostess was being partnered by Yustin Merrick. She looked at Alan in some confusion.
"I thought perhaps he would make an appearance. I doubt he will stay long. The moon is almost overhead now. I have everything in place," he added, "except myself."
"That is where I come in," she knew, looking up and smiling. Across the floor, Meraud was glaring at them. "I never said I was a nice person, Alan. I believe I am going to enjoy this next half hour."
He laughed, drawing even more attention to the two of them, and they circled the floor once more.
Afterwards, it was almost too easy to gain the notice of the Worden ladies, who were all consideration for her turned ankle. Perhaps it was the idea that Jenny would be out of commission the rest of the evening, giving no one a chance to dance with her. She was not surprised, either, when Mrs. Worden found a room for her to rest in that was far away from the party in progress.
What did alarm her was how the room was locked behind that lady when she left her guest alone to recover. Was she only going so far to keep Jenny from calling for Alan, or was it for a far more sinister reason?
Jenny remembered what Lady Kinghorn had said about Meraud. That she was a charming child. That her mother would do anything for her. That Mrs. Worden had sent Meraud to London right before Eva Kinghorn had died.
Jenny ran to the window, which overlooked the gardens at the other end of the house. There was Alan, slipping through a slit in the hedge and heading toward his home. And then, behind him, she saw a slight female figure, cloaked, a shiny dress such as one worn to the ball flashing occasionally underneath. Jenny saw the woman turn toward the rear windows and ducked out of sight, which did not allow her to see a face. When she dared look again, the lady was gone.
Jenny knew that could not be good. She was thankful her twisted ankle was not real, else she would not be able to…
She looked out the window once more, and to her surprise, there was yet another figure moving through the garden, this time with much purpose, and not even sticking to the shadows. Who could it be? Merrick? Mr. Kinghorn?
She only knew that she needed to warn Alan that someone was after him. Several of them, in fact. Not wasting any more time gazing out of windows, Jenny slid back into the slipper she had removed earlier, and went to the door. Oh, yes, it was locked. It was going to have to be the window, she realized, and threw up the sash, thankful these were not the mullioned little panes that could be found at the castle. She also thanked Providence she was on the ground floor, was happy she was rather slim, and climbed out the window.
She found herself behind the shrubbery that surrounded the house, and she stayed hidden until she reached the corner and then set out for the castle. It was a walk of several miles; she hoped she was not too late to give fair warning.
Half an hour later, Jenny was tired, sure she was nowhere near the castle, and had a pebble in her slipper that refused to dislodge itself even though she had stopped twice to dig it out. She had also halted several times to find a hiding place on the woods when horses and their riders had sped by. She wished she had known she would be walking the main road that night. She would have made sure to have provided transportation back to the castle. And brought a cloak or shawl. It was chilly, and her gown exposed her chest and arms.
A slower horse-drawn conveyance was heard just as Jenny stood cursing her shoe and it did not make matters better that she was forced to hobble back into the woods until it passed. To her relief, the driver was Davy Teague, and she was afraid she must have looked a fright as she emerged from the trees with a limp, her careful coiffure falling down around her ears, her fancy gown dusty and bedraggled.
"Missus Wilkes!" he exclaimed. "What-"
"No time for chatter, Davy!" she cried, hopping up into his cart and urging him to step up the pace. "Lord Kinghorn might be in danger! We have to tell him he is being followed!"
Jenny explained what she knew even as she grabbed the reins and slapped them on the horse's rear.
"Missus!" Davy exclaimed, but she was pleased to note he didn't wrestle the reins away from her.
When they neared the castle, she slowed the horse and asked Davy for the nearest entrance to the caves. He said there was a tunnel nearby and they left and cart and horse a safe distance away, and hidden, in case someone else thought to use the same route. It seemed little used, at least to Jenny's eyes as she picked her way carefully over fallen trestles and coughed quietly from the dust.
"Are you sure this is safe?" she wondered at one point.
Davy was using flint to start a fire in the first torch he found, and when he had a good blaze of light, he peered ahead with interest.
"If it's not, Missus, we're going to find a cave-in and a body ahead." He pointed to where a large pair of boot prints were clearly visible in the dust.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Jenny muttered. After a whispered consultation, they decided securing Lord Kinghorn's safety was more important than any feelings they might have.
As she suspected by the prints in the dust, it was Merrick ahead of them. They found him around a bend in the tunnel. He was waiting for them, and he had a pistol.
"My, my, if it isn't the fair Mrs. Wilkes. I have no idea what you are doing down here tonight, unless your lover du jour is the indispensible Teague?"
"Oh, yes," Jenny said, her eyes sparkling. "I bring all my conquests down here. Don't you?"
"Do you even realize I could shoot you for that remark?"
Jenny was well aware of the pistol, but she also knew Alan was ahead somewhere letting the excise men into the caves. If she could delay Merrick just a few more minutes, Alan would probably have the rest of the smugglers constrained. She hadn't counted on one thing, however. Mrs. Worden suddenly stepped out of the shadows behind Jenny and Davy and nodded to Merrick.
"You had better run along and try to save your haul, Mr. Merrick," she said. "My daughter will not marry a poor man." This was no shy, retiring female, but a confident one, and she, too, carried a pistol.
"Oh. I suppose you must have a hostage. Take Teague. I will deal with Mrs. Wilkes."
"Will be willing to do what you want when he sees you have Teague. He won't even know Mrs. Wilkes was a consideration."
"Do not make me put a bullet in your shoulder, Mr. Merrick. My Meraud does not like less than perfect men. I have plans for Mrs. Wilkes, so run along." She motioned the men off with her pistol, leaving them nothing to do but comply.
When they were all alone, Mrs. Worden turned to Jenny.
"My, but you have been naughty this evening. I believed the ankle, but I could not have you snooping about my house, so I locked you in. I did not realize until after you climbed out the window that perhaps your injury was a ruse. Especially when I doubled back around the house and found Kinghorn gone."
"That was you in the garden!" Jenny exclaimed.
"I had to make certain Mr. Merrick's load was protected. He is going to be rich enough after tonight to marry Meraud. We had counted on Kinghorn, up until recently, but you diverted him easily enough and I cannot let my darling marry a man as weak as he has been."
"Surely, if you and your daughter want to be in control, you would want a weak man to walk all over?"
"No!" Mrs. Worden fairly spat out the word. "My father was weak and gambled away everything my family owned. I had to marry a wealthy man to recoup our losses. I needed a strong man, but instead I got Worden, who is no stronger than my father was."
"You are in financial trouble?"
"No, I fear Worden's weaknesses are strong drink and women. But it does not matter! Merrick is strong, building up his finances by his own labors, and he and Meraud will be the leaders of society here and in London."
"What about the Kinghorns?"
"What about them? They had their chance. Damn that Eva Kinghorn! Married to one Kinghorn male and convincing the other not to marry Meraud – but I made her pay for her sins."
Jenny gasped. "You killed Lady Kinghorn?"
"Someone had to – Alan Kinghorn was Meraud's best chance for wealth and position, but he was married. Jory is next in line, but he had to fall for that ninnyhammer Winifred Pennell."
"So you had to do something," Jenny said, saddened that Eva Kinghorn had been forced to give up her life for the sake of an ambitious mother and daughter. "That is why you sent your daughter to London that weekend."
"I could not have Meraud's name attached to Eva's murder."
"Does she even realize that was a possibility?" All Jenny could think to do was stall this woman and hope someone came to her aid before she was shot.
"Definitely not! My daughter is going to be a great lady one day, and there must be no scandal attached to her name."
"Of course not. I suppose Merrick's haul tonight is a big one, then, for him to come in to so much money?"
"Not just smuggled goods," Mrs. Worden said with a knowing smile. "He is getting paid a fortune to get a French spy out of the country."
Jenny paled. Her son put his life on the line for these people and they were willing to sell out their country for money? If Mrs. Worden did not have a gun in her hand, Jenny would have slapped her. She still might, if she got the chance.
"How do you know all this?" she asked, still attempting to stall.
"I know a lot of things!" Mrs. Worden crowed. "It is one of the advantages of being meek and retiring. Everyone thinks I won't say boo to a goose, and they say many things in front of me, as if I did not exist."
"I cannot believe Merrick told you this himself."
Mrs. Worden made a rude sound in the back of her throat. "What man tells a woman anything? Did you not hear me? I listen, I eavesdrop and I was in the woods one day when I overheard Merrick and that wench from the tavern. Evidently their 'arrangement' included the passing of information. When he marries my Meraud, there will be no other arrangements," she muttered.
"In the woods? Who stole the Venetian glass bottles?" Jenny wondered. "You? Or her?"
"I did. Only my idiot daughter, in a jealous rage, refused to keep them in her dressing table drawer, and broke them into pieces."
"Why not just throw them away, then?"
"The maids would have talked."
"But why steal them in the first place?"
"Because I wanted my daughter to keep an eye on the prize – and what better way than to have something once owned by Lady Kinghorn? I also wished to see how far into the castle I could go without being seen. I would have done it again, if that Pennell bitch hadn't ruined it for me. But enough chit chat. I'm only telling you this because you are about to die."
"I don't think she is," Alan said calmly from the dark tunnel behind them. "Put down the pistol or I'll shoot. I'll say it was to protect Mrs. Wilkes, and to avenge my late wife's murder."
Mrs. Worden paled. "You heard?"
"Almost every word. Enough to incriminate you."
"Merrick?" Jenny asked.
"Caught just as he was marching Davy into the cave. Davy's fine and he's helping tie up the last of Merrick's men."
"No!" Mrs. Worden shrieked. She dropped her pistol and ran through the darkness towards the cave.
Jenny and Alan did not hesitate to follow, but they were no match for Mrs. Worden, who seemed to be familiar with the tunnel and its hidden dangers. Or perhaps she did not even notice that she was running blind.
When they reached the cavern, the excise men and Davy were still wearing stunned expressions.
"She ran out and took the cliff path," Davy reported only seconds before they all heard a high-pitched wail from above and saw a body fall to the stones near the cave mouth below.
Jenny could not stop from hiding her face in Alan's broad, comfortable chest. The sound of Mrs. Worden's body hitting the rocks outside the cave would be with her forever.
"She killed Eva for the sake of her daughter," she said in a sad voice. "I love my children, but I could never commit such a horrible act for any of their sakes." She looked up into Alan's blue eyes, made dark by anger and the dim lantern lights of the cave.
"She was deranged and we never knew."
"It sounds as if this all began when Jory chose Winifred over Meraud. It was as if she could not understand what the one young lady had that her daughter lacked to become Mrs. Kinghorn. Not that I would have disapproved of Winifred, mind – she is a perfect match for your son. But someone had to pay, it seems, for her daughter's inability to attain her heart's desire – the chance to be the top lady in the land. But no taint must be on her child, so after she determined that Lady Kinghorn must die, she contrived to send Meraud to London with Lady Pennell. No doubt she thought it humorous that Meraud should spend that time with a woman who would soon be her social inferior."
"We had no inkling," Merrick said, echoing Alan's words. Even he appeared pale and shaking, although she wondered how much of that was due to his future and how much related to Mrs. Worden's suicide.
She looked about and saw Davy nursing a bloody lip. No doubt he would tell her about it in length. Merrick and his men were tied up and under heavy guard, and a lone figure sat in the shadows, with four members of the militia standing watch. The French spy, she supposed.
"Mrs. Worden told me about the spy," she said to Alan. "Is he a Frenchman or an Englishman?"
Alan shook his head. "He is a she, a Cornishwoman, and even we did not realize she was leaving England, not arriving, as was supposed." He held up his lantern and she saw the single person under guard was the serving wench from the tavern. The girl tried to spit on him, but he was too far away.
"This is all your wife's fault!" she snarled. Alan turned his back on her, his expression pained. Jenny took his free hand and squeezed it.
"Are we needed here any more this evening?" she whispered.
He released her to speak softly with the excise men and then he indicated they could leave.
"They will want full statements from all of us later," he said as they took a different passage up into the castle."
"What will happen to them all now?" She thought she knew, but she wanted to hear it from Alan.
"Merrick and his playmate will be hanged for treason," was his tight reply. "Mrs. Worden decided her own fate, and I daresay the others will be transported."
"Poor Miss Worden." Now that Jenny knew what she did, she could have some sympathy for the heartless chit.
"I am certain Miss Worden will have no trouble getting back on her feet," Alan said, a wry tone in his voice.
"You believe that?"
"In another part of the country, perhaps, after a suitable period of mourning, but I have no doubt she will obtain her goals without her mother's assistance. Or in spite of it."
Jenny nodded, and when she felt Alan's arm around her waist as they moved through the passage, she smiled and let him keep it there. It was comforting.
Later, when the rest of the family returned home, they demanded to know what had happened.
"All we knew from Mrs. Worden was that you had injured your ankle, Jenny," Muriel said, "but it was hard to get anything else from her mind. It was a mess! She must be insane!"
Jenny let Muriel read her even as she spoke. "She was, and she is dead." There were gasps from everyone but Alan, and Muriel, who had already seen that. "She is the one who killed Lady Kinghorn last year," she sadly added, and shocked expressions remained on their faces.
"I never did hurt my ankle," she admitted. "It was a ruse to get Alan out of the house and back here to catch a band of smugglers."
"And did you succeed?" his mother demanded. "I do not approve of such a thing, as you well know," she said to Eleanor.
"Spies, as well," Jenny added. "Including a local one."
Alan explained that Merrick had been the leader, the tavern girl his accomplice and lover, and that Mrs. Worden had been assisting him without his knowledge so that he could afford to marry Meraud. "But rather than swing, she threw herself from the cliffs."
Muriel looked at Jenny. "She tried to kill you."
"She had a pistol and she was going to shoot me," Jenny agreed. The enormity of that statement suddenly became too much for her and she sat down on a sofa.
Alan poured her a glass of brandy and made her drink it all at once. She shivered as it burned its way down her throat.
"You poor dear!" Lady Kinghorn exclaimed.
"I think we could all do with some of that," Eleanor murmured and she and Mrs. Kinghorn made quick work of passing around strong spirits.
"I want you to go to bed now," Eleanor ordered her niece. "We will sort the rest of this out tomorrow."
"But how did you end up in the caves tonight?" Muriel wondered, ignoring her friend.
"I saw several others – I now know they were Mrs. Worden and Merrick – leave the party and I knew I had to warn Alan."
"You did well, brave girl." Muriel patted her hand and offered to escort her upstairs. Jenny could only allow herself to be led away as she wondered if her actions tonight were part of what Nera had seen. She was too tired to admit some of her bravado tonight had been foolishness, not courage at all.
The doctor was called in the next morning to check Jenny for shock, and she was pronounced fit enough, even though Lady Kinghorn still insisted she have her breakfast in bed. She complied with her hostess' wishes, but she was still downstairs and out in the garden for some fresh air by the early afternoon.
"Captain Thatcher will be calling later to speak to you about last night," Alan said softly after discovering her seated in a rose-covered bower.
Jenny nodded. "I am more than willing to help in any way."
"I have let it be known that the family is not at home for several weeks. We need some time for mourning."
"I would expect nothing less from such a close-knit family as yours. Eva was much loved. And now everyone knows you did not harm her." She was glad for that.
"The Wordens have gone, to the north, I think, leaving their staff to close up the house."
That was quick, Jenny thought, but she did not blame them. There would be scandal attached to their name around here for a long time. "What about Merrick's estate?"
"I daresay it shall go to a nephew of his, if the man can be located. Otherwise, it will probably revert to the crown."
"I am certain not all of your mourning will be for Eva." He had lost a friend last night. She patted the seat next to her, and when he sat, she put her arms around his waist.
Alan Kinghorn, lord of the manor and accused for so long, put his head on her shoulder and cried.
Jenny could not help but cry, too, and once their eyes were dry and their energy had been drained by their shared sorrow, they finally spoke of their shared regard.
"I think I liked you the moment I saw you," he said. "And if I did not want Meraud, I certainly did not want you, either."
Jenny nudged him with her shoulder. "That Kinghorn charm coming to the forefront."
"I suppose I gave you no reason to like me, on purpose, and yet you do."
"You love your grandson, you are kind to your people and you took pity on a middle-aged woman."
"When have I ever pitied you, and you are not middle-aged!"
"I am middle-aged, and so are you. I am speaking of the night Muriel teased me."
"I thought it was just a good way to spend time with you."
Jenny smiled. "Were you pleased with the outcome, then?"
"Very much so. We should play chess again sometime soon."
"Before I go?" There was no reason to stay. And so many reasons to leave.
"I wish you would stay."
Jenny turned and put a finger to his lips. "I do not think we should rush into that; I want you to have as much time as you need to come to terms with the past. Once you have returned to the present, we shall speak of the future. I promise I will not make it difficult for you to find me. A letter will suffice in bringing me back," she assured him.
"How did you get so wise?" he asked, nodding his agreement to her plan.
"Truly, I have no idea. I would much rather stay and never leave, but others might resent the intrusion." There was truth in her words, even though no one would be impolite as to say such a thing aloud.
"When I am settled once more, we will be together," he said.
"Yes, then we will be together." They kissed to seal the promise of what was yet to come.
No one but Alan and Jenny seemed to understand why she was leaving.
"My dear, you must stay!" the dowager Lady Kinghorn insisted. "You love Alan, I know you do! Muriel says it is so and she is never wrong. I know Alan loves you, as well!"
"I do love him, and he loves me." Jenny could not deny that, especially to his mother. "But he is not ready for me to come live here. I need to give him that time."
"Do not give up on us just yet, my lady," Jenny requested. "I think it will all work out in the end."
Everyone else took a moment over the next few days to entreat her to stay, and Jenny thought even little Tristan's hug before her departure was a touch tighter than usual. But she was determined to stick to her guns.
Yes, she told them all the morning of their leave, she would return, and they had to be satisfied with that. She and Alan had said adieu the evening before, over a private game of chess heated with some rivalry and not a few kisses, and she was not surprised to see he was not among the family members bidding them farewell. She was relieved – he was going to be the most difficult to leave behind and he was making it easier on both of them by not making an appearance.
"I do not understand," Muriel wailed, tears in her eyes as they headed home in their traveling coach and Kinghorn Castle disappeared from view. "How could you leave? Nera said…"
"What exactly did Nera see?" Jenny was curious now that she was on her way to London. The older ladies were going to Sandwell after they saw her safely to the family townhouse in the city.
"You and Kinghorn in a bower. Kissing."
Jenny laughed. "That was a couple of days ago!"
"Truly?" Muriel frowned. "I must have been napping."
"Perhaps," Eleanor said, and laughed. "And now you may tell Nera that her vision came true. Are you such a romantic, Muriel dear, that you thought Jenny would stay and live happily ever after?" She laughed once more and Jenny could see that her aunt was delighted to have routed her friend.
The journey to London was uneventful, and Jenny had been there for several weeks when she received two letters. One was from Brussels, and the other from Cornwall. She opened the one from her son first. Rand congratulated her on helping the older ladies solve a mystery and reinstate Lord Kinghorn in the eyes of his neighbors. He hoped Bianca and Tamara would see her ere long. Oh, and yes, she was going to be a grandmother and did that meet with her approval?
Jenny, who had been feeling low despite her resolve, let out a whoop of great joy.
"Harber!" she called to the butler. "See what sort of wine my eldest son keeps in the cellar – a toast is in order!"
She did not wait for the man to acknowledge her, but ripped open the seal on a missive from Lady Kinghorn while she waited.
Everything was fine at the castle, they all missed her, and would she please come for a visit soon? She smiled at the note even as Harber finally appeared in the drawing room door. He cleared his throat.
"Excuse me madam, but the gentleman delivering the letter said he would wait for a reply.
Gentleman… reply… Jenny let out another whoop and ran out into the hall and straight into Alan's waiting arms.
"Darling!" she cried, knowing she could use such an endearment now. He had come for her, she just knew it.
"Does this call for champagne, madam? Lord Kinghorn has brought a case with him."
"Smuggled, no doubt," she said, grinning before she pulled Alan down for a kiss.
The servants had all gathered, lured by the commotion, and Jenny's raised voice, and they all cheered.
"They are happy for you," Alan noted.
"I can make them even happier." She looked up at him. "Will you marry me?" They shared a smile.
"Autocratic lord. Does that mean yes?" Her tone was hopeful, but she was also confident in what he would reply.
"You know it does." It was his turn to kiss her, and he engulfed her in his arms. Once more, the ever-growing throng of servants cheered.
"I have more news," Jenny announced. "I have a letter from the colonel, in Brussels, and I am going to be a grandmother!"
There was more cheering, and the butler sent several footmen to the pantry for glassware.
The party moved from the hall to the drawing room and the champagne was brought in. Jenny waited until the sparkling wine was poured and the happy events toasted before she left her increasingly tipsy household and beckoned Alan out into the hall.
"I love you, Alan Kinghorn," she said, standing on her toes and wrapping her arms around his neck.
"I love you, too, Jenny Wilkes." Their kiss was long and slow as they savored the moment. It was an exploratory kiss at first, but ended on a questioning note.
Jenny glanced up and then back at Alan, her smile inviting him upstairs.
Without a word, he took her hand and they went up to her room. Sometimes, she mused as Alan kissed her once more, Muriel had a good idea.
© 2009, 2010 Copyright held by the author.