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35

Louisa floated slowly upward out of the pleasant sea of contentment in which she had been drifting. She stirred, stretched out a hand, and fumbled around on the bedside table. Her fingers finally closed around her spectacles. She put them on and looked down over the side of the bed.

Her chemise lay in a frothy little heap on the carpet. She snatched it up and slipped it on over her head.

Feeling somewhat more modest, she sat up amid the bedclothes and studied Anthony. He was sprawled on his stomach, his head turned toward her on the pillow. His eyes were closed, his dark hair tousled. The contoured muscles of his back looked very sleek and sensual and excitingly powerful. She had loved the feel of his weight on her, crushing her into the bed.

She stretched out a hand and stroked his shoulder gently, not wanting to awaken him.

I must remember to bring some French letters next time, Anthony said into the pillow.

She jumped, jerking her hand back as though she had touched a hot stove.

I thought you were asleep, she said.

Almost. He did not open his eyes. You exhausted me.

What are French letters? she asked, very curious.

He opened his eyes and smiled his slow, inviting smile. Condoms.

She felt herself turn pink. I see.

The technique I have employed thus far is not entirely reliable.

Oh.

More heat rose in her cheeks. As a woman of the world who was now involved in an illicit affair, she would have to grow accustomed to the casual discussion of such intimate matters, she reminded herself.

Well? he asked, watching her intently.

She looked at him, baffled. Well, what?

He rolled onto his back and folded his arms behind his head. Was that a more satisfactory experience?

She was blushing so furiously now she was amazed she did not set fire to the sheets.

Indeed. She cleared her throat. I now comprehend why illicit affairs are so fashionable.

Huh.

He did not look nearly as pleased as he had a moment ago.

Anthony?

Yes?

There is something I have wanted to ask you. Something very personal. I will understand if you do not wish to answer my question.

He took one arm out from behind his head and used it to drag her down on top of him. What is it?

She folded her arms on his chest and rested her chin on her stacked hands. I have heard the rumors about what happened between you and your fianc'ee just before she died.

His mouth twisted in a humorless smile. Im not surprised. Between the sensation press, the penny dreadfuls, and the gossip in the Polite World, most of London was aware of the rumors.

Are any of them true? Were you planning to end your engagement to her because you found her in bed with another man?

He was silent for so long she thought he would not answer at all.

Yes, he said at last. I have never told anyone else that, however. Im not sure how the rumors got started. I can only assume that the man I found her with confided in someone who, in turn, started the gossip.

Illicit affairs are almost never entirely secret.

True.

You must have loved her very much.

He sat up abruptly, swung his legs over the side of the bed, and got to his feet. My love for Fiona died the day I found her with her lover.

She felt a sharp pang of sympathy. It must have been dreadful for you.

In hindsight, I think she intended for me to learn about the affair in that manner. He crossed the room and picked up his underclothes and trousers. She did not have the courage to tell me the truth straight out, but deep down I believe she wanted me to know that she loved another. In her own way, she was trying to be honest with me before the marriage.

I dont understand. If she loved someone else, why didnt she just tell you?

She couldnt bring herself to do that. He pulled on his trousers and fastened them. Her family would have been horrified. They were extraordinarily pleased with the marriage. So was mine, for that matter. It was the culmination of years of friendship between our parents.

In other words, Fiona was under a great deal of pressure to go through with the marriage.

It is a common enough story. He fastened his shirt with grimly efficient fingers. In spite of all those novels and plays that you find so inspiring, we both know that the vast majority of marriages are based on money, property, and family connections.

Yes. Wistful regret drifted through her. I suppose that is why novels and plays are so thrilling. The ideal of true love is very pleasant to contemplate.

I wouldnt know, he said coldly. I am not a great fan of that sort of entertainment.

She smiled and said nothing.

He paused in the act of dressing and gripped one of the bedposts. He looked down at her with a dangerous expression.

You find that amusing? he asked.

A little. She drew up her knees and wrapped her arms around them. Say what you like about novels and plays, the truth is you possess the romantic soul of a true hero.

He looked at her as though she had just announced that she could fly.

What the devil are you talking about? he asked very softly.

It is why you are so determined to find justice for Fiona, she explained. In spite of the fact that she fell in love with someone else, your love for her is steadfast.

He tightened his grip on the bedpost. His eyes narrowed. Let me make one thing very plain here, Louisa. I am not engaged in this venture because I am brokenhearted over the loss of Fiona.

That stopped her for a few seconds.

Youre not? she asked cautiously.

Make no mistake; I cared for her. I knew her since she was in the schoolroom. She was my friend as well as my fianc'ee. I most certainly feel a responsibility to find her killer, but it was not my undying love for her that launched me on this quest. Do not try to make me out a romantic hero.

She shook her head, utterly bewildered. Then why did you undertake an investigation into the circumstances of her death?

At the start of this business a little over a year ago, I had to find out if she truly did commit suicide because I was about to announce that our engagement was ended. The words sounded as though they had been ground between great stones. Now do you understand? I needed to know if I was, indeed, the cause of her death, if she really could not abide the humiliation of being jilted.

Anthony.

Im no hero, Louisa. Now that I know that she was, indeed, murdered, I have to find out if it was my fault that she was placed in harms way.

How could it possibly be your fault?

I dont know. Perhaps my intention to terminate our engagement led her to take some terrible risk that she would not otherwise have taken. She may have become desperate. All I know is that she was my friend and she had been my fianc'ee. I have to find out what happened that night.

Stop it. Stop it at once. Appalled, she uncurled from the bed and scrambled to her feet. She grabbed his arm, holding on to him as though he was about to be swept away by a deep current. Listen closely to me. It does seem quite likely that Fiona was, indeed, murdered, just as you suspect. But whether that proves to be the case or whether it transpires that she took her own life, you are not at fault.

You dont understand. She was so innocent. She had no experience of the world.

Innocent or not, if she threw herself into the river because she feared the humiliation of a broken engagement, it was her choice. If she somehow became embroiled in some dangerous affair, it was not through any fault of yours.

She was under a great deal of pressure, not only from her family and mine but from Society as well. He exhaled a weary sigh that sounded as though it had been dredged up from the depths of his soul. None of us knew that she was so unhappy. If she had just said something to me

It was her decision to take the risk of falling in love with another man. She paused as a thought struck her. Which brings up another point. If she was intimately involved with someone else, wouldnt she have planned to marry him after your engagement to her ended?

That is one of the things that made me doubt that she committed suicide, he admitted. All the evidence indicates that her lover did care for her. He was not married, so he would have been free to wed her.

What happened to him?

He blames me for her death and despises me to this day.

Julian Easton? she asked quietly.

Anthonys brows rose. How did you reason that out?

It was obvious that he carried some great grudge against you.

He has never dared to level any outright accusations because he has no proof. Also, I believe he is being cautious because he does not wish to implicate himself in the gossip. Fionas family would be furious if he besmirched her memory by letting it be known that hed had an affair with her before her wedding.

She tilted her head slightly, thinking. I hesitate to suggest this, but do you think that there is any chance that Easton harmed her?

No. He ran a hand through his hair. I looked into that possibility immediately. His whereabouts that night are well documented by several witnesses. He disappeared from the ballroom for a few minutes, but he returned almost immediately. He later left with friends and went straight to his club. He remained there, playing cards, until dawn. Fionas body was pulled out of the river at about that time. There simply wasnt time for him to murder her and dispose of the body.

But Easton is deliberately encouraging everyone to believe the worst of you.

He believes she did commit suicide, and he blames me for driving her to it. Keeping the gossip alive is his notion of vengeance.

She thought about the scene in the street in front of the Lorrington house. Actually, I think he may well blame himself.

Anthony frowned. What do you mean?

If he loved her, he may be trying to convince himself and everyone else that you are the culprit because he wants to avoid the guilt he is no doubt feeling for having failed to protect her.

Anthony shrugged and finished fastening his shirt. All I know is that he hates me.

He has no right to make you the scapegoat, she announced. It is not fair. What a tragic muddle it has all become.

His mouth curved derisively. Easton and Fiona obviously fell victim to the overwhelming power of an illicit love affair. According to you, there is no more thrilling adventure.

You mistake me, sir, she said sharply. Illicit passion is obviously a strong force, but we are all equipped with the strength to resist it if we choose to do so.

So it is a choice, now, is it? His brows lifted. Not an overwhelming force of nature?

Do not mock me. I am very serious about this.

Yes, I can see that.

It is one thing to find a person attractive. It is quite another to decide to act on that attraction and to willfully incur the hazards involved. That is the choice that Fiona made. You had nothing to do with that decision, either.

He looked at her with an odd expression, but she never learned what he intended to say because at that moment she heard the sound of a carriage in the street.

Dear heaven, what time is it? Panicked, she glanced at the clock. Five-thirty. Good grief, that will be Emma.

He raised a brow. Are you certain?

Yes. You must leave at once, sir. Emma must not find us together here when I am in this state of undress. Hurry.

He reached for his boots. You will note that this is one of the great drawbacks to an illicit affair. One must maintain constant vigilance.

She grabbed her robe off a hook. You cant go out the front door; she will see you. Youll have to use the back stairs and leave through the garden.

He picked up his coat. I hesitate to mention this, but my hat is still in the front hall.

Damnation, I forgot all about your hat. We must get it. She rushed toward the door.

He seemed amused by her rough language, but he followed obediently.

She hurried down the stairs, Anthony directly behind her. Out in the street the carriage had come to a halt.

She snatched Anthonys hat off the hall table and tossed it at him.

Go, she ordered softly.

He caught the hat easily in his left hand. One question before I leave, Louisa.

No questions. There is no time. She made desperate, shooing motions. You must hurry, sir. Emma will be at the door any second.

I really must have an answer, he warned, but he started down the hall toward the rear door carrying his hat and coat.

For heavens sake, keep your voice down, she said, trailing urgently after him.

Anthony opened the back door and halted on the threshold. He turned back.

My question is, did you experience anything approaching transcendence this afternoon? he said.

She was horrified by the delay. For pitys sake, sir, this is no time to talk about that sort of thing.

I am not leaving until I get an answer.

Yes, yes, it was all a marvelously transcendent experience. Just as the novelists describe it. Now, leave at once.

He smiled, kissed her once more, very quickly, very possessively on the mouth, and departed.

She thought she heard him whistling in the garden.

She closed the door as quietly as possible and dashed up the cramped rear stairs. Back in her bedroom, she shut the door, and set about straightening the bed.

She would tell Emma that she had taken a nap this afternoon, she decided. That would explain why the bed was rumpled and why she was in her robe.

She glanced in the mirror and was shocked to see how flushed and disheveled she appeared. There was no time to put up her hair.

The door opened downstairs. Louisa grabbed a white cap, plopped it down on her head, and shoved her hair up inside it. Then she threw herself onto the bed.

A short time later Emma came up the stairs and knocked softly on the door. Are you resting, dear?

Yes, Louisa said. The afternoon was quite exhausting. Ill tell you all about it when I come downstairs shortly.

I shall look forward to the details of your meeting with the Stalbridges. Take your time. I am going to change my gown. Emmas footsteps receded down the hall to her own room.

With a shudder of relief, Louisa sat up. She was still breathing much too quickly. That had been very close.

She got slowly to her feet and went toward the wardrobe. A strip of dark blue silk dangling over the back of a chair caught her eye: Anthonys tie. Jolted, she picked up the tie, coiled it very carefully, and hid it in a drawer.

Very close, indeed. Thank heavens Emma had not opened the door. Illicit liaisons were quite exciting, but they were proving to be hard on the nerves.

IT WAS THE FIRST TIME he had ever been obliged to sneak out through the back door, Anthony reflected, going up the steps of his town house. Life had certainly become more interesting since meeting Louisa Bryce.

The unusual mode of departure made for a challenging change of pace, but damned if he intended to go on skulking around alleys and gardens indefinitely. Nevertheless, the memory of Louisas breathless, shivery passion as she climaxed in his arms compensated for a great deal, including his undignified exit.

He was aware of feeling in remarkably good spirits, in spite of the lack of progress in the investigation. It was not only the heated lovemaking that had improved his mood, he thought. It was Louisas passionate insistence that, regardless of what had happened to Fiona, he was not to blame.

It was one thing to have his family assure him of that; they had always stood with him. Having Louisa defend him so passionately was something else entirely. For a while there in the sun-and-shadows of her bedroom, with the taste of her still on his tongue, he had even allowed himself to believe that she was right.

The door opened just as he reached for his key.

Welcome home, sir, the housekeeper said. A message arrived for you a few minutes ago.

Thank you, Mrs. Taylor. Anthony moved into the hall.

The note rested on a silver platter. Anthony picked it up and tore it open. Satisfaction flashed through him when he saw Miranda Fawcetts signature.

I invite you and Mrs. Bryce to meet my very good friend at ten oclock this evening.

Clement Corvus had taken the bait.


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