Beginning, Section II
Part Fifteen Posted on Sunday, 4 February 2001
"And so we're at a dead end," Agent Ryan O'Malley sighed, taking the cup and saucer Katya passed to him.
"No pun intended, of course," Lucas murmured.
Katya shot him a hard look. "That's gruesome, Lucas."
He shrugged and looked away.
Katya sighed. It was just his way of whistling in the dark, she supposed, to find twisted humor even in such a situation as this.
She looked down at the gently steaming teapot she held in one hand. It seemed she'd drunk oceans of the stuff in the past few days. There was something so comforting about tea, she thought. Something in the English psyche said that if you could just get the gleaming brown liquid within the proper inch of the top, and remember who liked how many lumps of sugar, and not to put lemon in with milk, for it would curdle most dreadfully . . . something said that if this was all perfect, then everything would be all right.
Tea wouldn't bring Tony deWinter back to life, though. Tea wouldn't unravel the tangle that his senseless death had left behind. Only human cleverness would--and Katya didn't have the faintest idea of where to start.
"I can't see what all the fuss is about," Richard said for the third time. "DeWinter was the one behind it all, and he's dead. The case is closed. The Prince is out of danger."
"The case is not closed," Katya insisted. "Tony deWinter was just a decoy."
"Come now, Kathleen. A decoy? I think not. All the signs point to him being the instigator of the plot."
"That's the problem, Richard. It's much too easy. Lucas--" She looked in his direction, pleading.
"Really, Harding, you don't agree with her?"
"Of course I do. It's ridiculously obvious that Tony deWinter was the original culprit, and I don't trust anything that's ridiculously obvious."
"My god, I can't believe this. You're making too much of this. I can't vouchsafe a reason for you, Harding, but it's obvious that you've been reading too many Gothic novels, Kathleen. Tony deWinter was a rabble-rousing traitor. Any man of sense can see that."
"I don't read Gothic novels," Katya said sharply. "Richard, it's not wise to assume anything."
"Exactly, so why are you assuming there's more?"
"We're not assuming, we're exploring the possibilities. And this is the most pressing one."
"Kathleen, this is madness! All you're doing is delaying our wedding."
"Your what?" Lucas fairly shouted.
Ryan turned wide eyes on her.
Katya wondered if it would do any good to beat her head against the nearest wall. "Richard, I am not engaged to you. I never was engaged to you. I never will be!"
"That's right," Lucas said. "Because she's marrying me."
"Of all the--"
"Did you honestly think--"
"--is going on? Are you engaged or not? I--"
"--that you were a match for--"
Red mist colored the edges of her vision as she rose to her feet and repeated at a healthy Irish roar, "That's IT!"
Three male faces gaped at her. She stabbed a finger at Lucas. "You. Out."
"I said out!"
Richard laughed. "That's what you get for your bloody audacity, Harding--"
The finger swung on him. "You too."
"Wha--But--this is my--"
The butler appeared as if by magic.
Katya said through her teeth, "Lord Harding and Richard were just leaving. Show them the way out." Her eyes narrowed. "Agent O'Malley as well."
"But--Kathleen! I didn't do anything! I don't even want to marry you!"
"I don't want to see anything in breeches right now."
Within moments, the three men had been bundled out onto the street, where they stood in dumbfounded confusion for several minutes. Eventually, muttering to himself about excitable females, Richard set off in the direction of White's. After a few more minutes, Ryan started towards Bow Street, shaking his head. Finally, only Lucas still stared at the house in front of him, trying to come to terms with the fact that he'd just made the worst miscalculation of his entire life.
Part Sixteen Posted on Saturday, 3 March 2001
The enormous bouquet of roses dominated the front foyer, a collage of blood-red petals and emerald green leaves. Delicate sprays of baby's breath added dots of white, with the whole artistically arranged in a Ming vase.
"My, how lovely," the housekeeper exclaimed.
"Ooooh, look how many there are," a tweeny gushed.
"Goodness, what a gesture," the butler added.
"Throw them out," Katya said flatly.
"I said throw them out. At once."
"But--milady--they're from the master--"
"Richard, King George, God himself, I don't care. Throw them out."
"But such loverly flowers . . ." the tweeny mourned.
"Take as many of them as you like, Millie. In fact, tell all the servants the same thing. But I don't want a single one of those flowers in my sight when I get back. And if any bouquets arrive from Lu--Lord Harding, they're to be given the same treatment. Is that clear?"
"Yes'm," was the murmur that followed her out the door.
The butler sighed gustily. "Well," he said, "m'lady is in a right taking."
"At the master?" the tweeny asked, eyes wide.
"At my Lord Harding, as well."
"Aye," the housekeeper sighed. "I'm thinkin' I'd better change me bet."
"I thought Andrews won the pool?"
"Oh, aye. 'Tis a new pool, this is. On how long 'twill take for my Lord Harding to talk her into saying 'yes'."
"Lady and the Misses deWinter are not at home," Katya was told at the little townhouse in Green Street.
"I must see them," she insisted, thrusting her foot in the door when the butler would have closed it. "Please, I must."
"Davis? Who is that?"
The butler half-turned at the voice from within. "A Lady Dominova, miss. I was about to send her away."
"Lady Katerina Dominova?"
"Yes," Katya called out. "May I come in, please? I must speak with you."
The owner of the voice came forward. "Lady Dominova," she said, "any other time, of course, your visit would be most welcome, but as you can see we are--a bit distracted."
It was Sophy.
Katya was shocked to the core. The laughing girl she had seen at the concert was gone--perhaps forever. In her place was a pale, drawn young woman, her color sapped more, Katya suspected, by shock and sorrow then by the unrelieved black she wore. Her eyes, so bright with merriment only a few nights before, were dull and circled by inky shadows.
"We go into the country in two days, Lady Dominova, and so you see we are quite busy."
"Yes, of course. But you see, I really must speak with you."
Sophy had already started to shake her head when Katya said, "It's about your brother."
The other young woman stiffened. "Lady Dominova," she said with her chin high, "if you have come to cast aspersions on my family--"
"I'm trying to prove his innocence."
Sophy went still, her eyes widening briefly and then narrowing. "Davis, let her in."
Davis stepped aside, allowing Katya in. His face was like stone as she passed.
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand, Lady Dominova," Sophy said. Her chin was still high and proud. "Half the ton saw my brother fire that pistol. His guilt is indisputable." For an instant, tears glittered in her eyes, and she swallowed hard. "How can you possibly prove his innocence?"
Katya decided to be utterly truthful. "He is guilty of firing the pistol, yes. But I don't believe it was entirely his own idea. Perhaps it wasn't his idea at all."
Sophia's chin began to wobble. "He couldn't have," she gulped. "He couldn't have. Tony wouldn't--wouldn't hurt a fly on his own."
"No," Katya said softly. "I believe that your brother was manipulated by his own idealism into being the sacrificial lamb, and I intend to find the ones who wielded the knife."
At that, Sophia burst into tears.
Part Seventeen Posted on Wednesday, 7 March 2001
The maid who answered Lucas' knock at the deWinters' door looked a little flustered. "The ladies are not--not answering--um--at home--"
"Please, allow me in." Behind her, Lucas could see servants rushing to and fro. Good Lord, what a commotion! "I must speak with Lady deWinter on a matter she will be most interested in."
The maid looked about her wildly. "Um--well--I--could ye wait here, my lord?" She bobbed a curtsey and scurried away, leaving the door wide open.
Since it was a breezy and chilly day, Lucas stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Underneath the servant's voices, he could distantly hear the sound of someone sobbing in one of the rooms.
Abruptly, one of the doors opened, and the woman who put her head out of it called, "No, no, never mind the smelling salts--she's not about to faint--just tea please--"
Her head snapped around, and the look of dismay she aimed in his direction made his heart sink. Oh, lord . . . he hadn't planned for this. He had meant to give her a little time to cool down and then make his move, but this was too soon, too unexpected, too dramatic--too everything.
"What are you doing here?" she said flatly.
He took off his hat. "I wished to speak to the deWinter ladies."
"I'll get all the information we need," she said. "You don't have to bother."
"It's not about that," he snapped back. "Who is in there?"
Katya came out of the room and closed the door behind them. For the moment, the servants had ceased their rushing and they were left alone. "Sophy, Emma, and their mother--oh, Lucas, they really are quite distraught. They don't need a man around. Please just leave."
Lucas held his ground. "They will want to hear what I have to say," he insisted.
"Couldn't it wait?"
Lucas thought of the judgment he had heard passed down just that morning. "No. It cannot."
She eyed him, then sighed and turned the knob. "Sophy? Emma? Lady deWinter? Do you feel up to another visitor?"
There was a questioning murmur from inside.
"Lord Harding. He is assisting me in this case--you can trust him. And he has something to say to you, which he claims is of great importance."
This time, the murmur was slow in coming, but it sounded assenting.
She shot him a look. "I hope you're not squeamish about weeping women, my lord," she said, and turned on her heel with a swish of skirts.
What happened to Lucas? he thought, but didn't voice it. His footing with Katya was shaky enough as it was.
The lady who rose at his entrance was a tiny, plump woman who looked as if she might be the cheerful sort, in circumstances other than these. "My lord," she murmured, dipping a curtsey at odds with her pale face and reddened eyes. "Girls--your curtseys--"
The operations were performed by Sophy and a girl of about twelve, both boasting the same tear-marked countenances as their mother.
"I am so sorry to intrude on you at this time," he said after his bow. "But in light of recent developments, I thought I should tell you I can offer a small cottage in Derbyshire. It's on one of my estates--and--it--" He stuttered to a halt. The women, including Katya, were all looking at him with deepest suspicion.
"My lord," Katya said, "what on earth are you doing? What should these ladies want with a cottage?"
He stared at her for a moment, and then looked around the rest of the semi-circle of streaked faces. "Do you mean--Good God." He took a deep breath. "It pains me more then you know to have to be the bearer of this news, ladies. But this morning, Parliament announced that in light of his--um--actions--before--"
"You mean, because he tried to shoot the prince," Emma piped up.
"Yes." Lucas took another deep breath, dreading their reception of his news. Gathering and ordering the words in his mind, he opened his mouth to let them pour out. "Parliament has announced that the title, as well as all entailed lands, monies, and estates which once belonged to the deWinter family will revert to the crown."
Lady deWinter stared at him for a long moment, then said faintly, "Oh," and sank down on the couch behind her.
"Mama?" Sophy exclaimed, leaping to her side. "Mama, are you all right?" Emma echoed her.
Katya said, "What--how?"
He took her arm and led her a short distance away from the family group. "It's the accepted mode of dealing with traitors, Katya," he said in a low voice. "I can't do anything about it."
"But--Lucas! They're not the traitors--they didn't do anything!"
"I know, but the Crown feels it must punish someone." Lucas spread his hands helplessly. "They're it."
Katya whispered a particularly pungent curse.
"I feel the same," he said grimly. "I don't know what other resources they have, but I can at least offer them a home. 'Cottage' is misleading--it is rather spacious, actually."
Her look was a little skeptical, as if he couldn't be expected to judge spaciousness correctly. "For three women?"
"Even for three women," he assured her. A quick check assured him that Lady deWinter was fully recovered--or as fully recovered as she could be from a blow of this sort. He was terribly glad she hadn't fainted.
Going over to kneel before her, he inquired in his gentlest voice, "My lady, do you have any relatives? Any at all?"
"N-no," Lady deWinter whispered, dabbing at her eyes.
"There's Cousin Henry, Mama," Emma said.
Sophy made a noise of derision. "He could have hardly been counted on to assist us if he had gotten the title. We cannot count on Cousin Henry."
"Uncle Samuel? On Mama's side?"
Lady deWinter rallied. "I hate to say it of my own brother, but he's forever outrunning the bailiffs. He has hardly enough money to keep his own family, much less ours. We are quite--without useful family, my lord."
"You spoke of a cottage," Sophy put in.
"In Derbyshire--yes," Lucas replied. "It's smaller then you're used to, I make no doubt, but I can offer it. Do you have any monies of your own? Any personal fortune that the Crown cannot take?"
"Some--but I should like to save it for--" Lady deWinter looked at her daughters. "For their dowries."
Lucas nodded, acknowledging the importance of this. "Does it make any interest?"
"Only about--two hundred pounds a year total."
"Do I have your permission to invest a little? I believe I can make it realize more." When the three women remained silent, exchanging glances, he said, "I know it is a great deal to ask."
To his surprise and gratification, Katya came forward to say, "I assure you, my lady, Lord Harding is well-known for his business acumen. His interest in a stock, no matter how unusual, is always well rewarded."
He turned to look up at her. How did she know that? But her face held no answers, as usual.
Lady deWinter suffered a sudden attack of propriety. "My lord," she said, "you are being too kind. We could not accept this--you are not a relative--"
"You have no family who will help you," Lucas said soothingly. "I would think less of myself if I did not offer my assistance. If it worries you, I can put it about that we are distant cousins of some kind." He smiled crookedly. "It might very well be true."
When the details of the ladies' leave-taking had been hashed out, it was time for the more painful portion of the visit. "My lady, has Tony's valet left yet?"
"No--he is still--packing up my--son's things--" Lady deWinter had to resort to the handkerchief again.
"Where can I find him? I need to ask him about Tony's habits--his haunts--"
Sophy looked up. "For the case?"
"Tony's rooms are--were--upstairs and to the left."
He rose. "Thank you."
As he left the room, he could hear Katya beginning to gently ask Lady deWinter about her son.
Lucas returned to the sitting room after about half an hour with a list of Tony's acquaintances, his regular haunts, and his habits. It didn't look promising, as most of them were the regular things that any twenty-year-old boy newly on the town did, but one had piqued his interest.
"The young master goes--went--out every Tuesday night. He calls--called it 'his moral obligation.' He was verra enthusiastic all the time for it. He was a good boy, m'lord--never scolded me or chastised me. Perhaps a little careless, but what boy isn't?"
"Do you know where he went?" Lucas asked gently. The old valet's fondness for his 'young master' was quite evident in the roughness of his voice as he spoke of him.
"No, my lord--he went on foot mostly. I think he might have called the carriage on two or three occasions, for bad nights."
The coachman had been able to give him the street and a description of the place he'd dropped the young master at on those two or three occasions. It sounded like the sort of coffeehouse that had twins littered about London. Lucas was hoping it was the meeting place for club Tony had invited him to, but he would need to speak to the proprietor.
Out on the sidewalk, he and Katya compared notes.
"This idealism was new, although Tony has ever had a soft heart," she reported. "Lady deWinter thought it would pass in time, and perhaps it would have." Her lips thinned. "He owned a pistol, but only used it for shooting at Manton's, as far as they know."
Lucas nodded. "The valet said the same. He also gave me a list of Tony's friends and preferred destinations."
Putting on her gloves, Katya glanced at it. "I know a few of these. I can ask if Richard knows any more." She gave him a quick curtsey "I will pass on what I know, my lord. Good day."
"Let me walk you home," he called out.
She turned in the sidewalk, the chilly breeze plucking at the edge of her cloak. A curl tugged free of her bonnet and fluttered before her face. "What for?"
"Let me at least explain."
She turned around again and started to walk. "You want to marry me, and I would rather not. It appears we are at a stalemate, but I see no reason for explanations."
Within a few strides, he was beside her again, and he caught at her arm, forcing her to stop. "Ten minutes, Katya," he said softly. "You are fair enough to allow me that."
She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and looked away. He waited a small eternity until she said with bad grace, "Ten minutes."