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31

Anthony emerged from his club shortly after midnight. He paused briefly to consider the wisdom of whistling for a cab and then abandoned the notion. The fog had slowed traffic to a snails pace. Even the usually quick, agile hansoms were forced to pick their way cautiously through the near-impenetrable mist. Walking would be faster. Besides, he did some of his best thinking while walking, and tonight he needed to think.

He turned up the collar of his overcoat and started down the steps. A hansom halted in the street directly in front of him. A familiar figure descended with unsteady movements. Julian Easton was drunk as usual. Unfortunate timing, Anthony thought. He should have left the club five minutes earlier.

Stalbridge. Julian gripped the iron railing on the steps to steady himself. Leaving so soon? Dont rush off on my account.

Im not.

Anthony started down the steps. Julian moved in front of him, blocking his way.

Off to visit the little widow in Arden Square? Julians face twisted in a sneer. Be sure to give her my regards.

Anthony stopped. Youre in my way, Easton. I would appreciate it if you would move.

In a hurry to get to her, I see. Julian swayed a little. I wonder how long it will take for her to comprehend that you are taking advantage of her na"ivet'e.

Why dont you go inside and have another bottle of claret?

Rather unfair of you to use her to cover up your affair with some other mans wife, dont you think?

What I think is that you had best keep your speculations to yourself, Anthony said quietly.

Now why would I do that when there are so many people eager to unravel the mystery? Julian looked shrewd. In fact, there are wagers going down in every club in St. James. Amazing how many gentlemen are curious to see which one of their wives youre fucking while you hide behind Mrs. Bryces very unfashionable skirts.

Get out of my way, Easton.

Eastons face screwed up into a mask of rage. Better not try to knock me down again, you bastard. Im carrying a revolver these days to protect myself from you.

Have a care. In your present condition youre likely to shoot yourself in the foot. Now I must insist that you get out of my way.

Damned if Ill move.

Anthony gripped Julians arm and shoved him to the side. Julian came up hard against the iron railing. He seized it frantically to keep himself from losing his footing. By the time he recovered his balance, Anthony was at the bottom of the steps.

Another carriage halted, disgorging three men in evening clothes. They took in the scene with expressions of amused curiosity.

Whose wife is she? Julian shouted, voice rising in fury. Which one of the gentlemen inside that club are you cuckolding, Stalbridge?

Anthony did not look back. He kept moving, walking into the fog.

Streetlamps were abundant in this part of town. The glary balls of light in front of each doorway were strung like so many strange, glowing gems in the darkness. But on foggy nights such as this the light did not penetrate far. In the street, private carriages and cabs appeared and disappeared. The slow clop-clop-clop of the horses hooves and the rattle of wheels had a muffled quality. It was as if the fog ate sound the way it did light.

He should warn Louisa about the wagers that were being placed in the club betting books, he thought. He paused at the corner, considering the time. She was very likely in bed, but surely she would want to be awakened with this latest information. She was always reminding him that they were partners, after all.

He thought about how she would look at this hour, garbed in a dressing gown and slippers, her hair tucked into a little white cap or perhaps down around her shoulders. Smiling, he turned the corner and walked toward Arden Square.

He was not certain when he became aware of the echo of footsteps behind him. There had been a number of other pedestrians on the street in the vicinity of the club. But as he moved into the quieter neighborhoods of town houses and squares there were far fewer people about.

It wasnt just the sound of the footsteps that bothered him; it was the pattern: Too similar to his own, he thought. Whoever was behind him was keeping a certain distance between them. He stopped, testing his theory. The footsteps continued for a few paces and then halted abruptly. He started walking again. The footsteps followed.

He turned another corner and walked into Arden Square. The weak glare of the streetlamps illuminated the doors of the town houses, but the little park in the center was only a dark, shapeless void.

He stopped. The person following him stopped, too. He crossed the street, heading toward the invisible park, the change of direction giving him an opportunity to glance casually to his right. A figure in an overcoat and top hat stood silhouetted on the pavement.

Anthony entered the small park, following the gravel path. There was just enough fog-reflected moonlight to reveal the dark outlines of nearby tree trunks and the massed shapes of bushes.

Hurried footsteps echoed. A moment later gravel crunched behind him.

He removed his coat and hat. When he reached the statue of the wood nymph in the center of the park he draped the coat around the stone shoulders. He balanced the hat on top of the nymphs head.

He moved across the grass into the shadows to examine his handiwork. By day no one would have been fooled, but here in the moonlight and fog the coat and hat bore a reasonable resemblance to a man who had paused to relieve himself.

He waited. The footsteps came more quickly now. There was a certain nervous quality about them, as though the pursuer feared he had lost his quarry.

A figure moved out of the deep shadow cast by a looming tree. The man stopped a few feet away from the draped statue. His arm came up, pointing.

Anthony barely had time to register the dark shape of a gun in the mans hand before he heard the unmistakable cocking of a revolver. A second later the weapon roared. Light sparked. There was a clang as the bullet struck stone. The attacker cocked the gun again and fired another shot. This time when the coat and hat did not fall to the ground, he seemed to lose his nerve. He whirled and fled back along the gravel path.

Anthony lunged out of the shadows. Hearing the pounding footsteps behind him, the man paused, swung around, cocked the gun and fired again, aiming blindly.

Not surprisingly, the shot thudded into a nearby tree trunk. Nevertheless, it occurred to Anthony that pursuit was probably not his most intelligent maneuver. He had his own revolver with him, but he was not prepared to start shooting people he could not identify. Reluctantly, he halted at the edge of the park, watching his quarry disappear into the night. Blood pounded in his veins.

Bloody hell.

The shots had not gone unnoticed. Shouts of alarm sounded from bedroom windows around the square.

He went back to the nymph to retrieve his hat and coat. Sticking to the shadows as much as possible to avoid notice by the people peering down from the windows, he made his way through the park and crossed the street.

He should not call on her now, he thought. Nevertheless, he found himself going up the steps of Number Twelve. She would want a report of events. She was a member of the press, after all. And he wanted to see her very badly.

He did not need to bang the knocker. The door was jerked open before he could lift a hand. Louisa stood in the opening, peering anxiously through her spectacles. Dear heaven, what happened? I heard the shots. I rushed downstairs and looked out the window and saw you coming across the street. Are you all right? What are you doing here? Were you attacked by a footpad?

The sight of her elevated his mood immediately. He had been right, he thought, oddly pleased. She did look delightfully inviting clad in a robe and slippers. The vital question of the evening was answered. She slept with her hair down.


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