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38

To her amazement, Anthony did not dismiss the notion out of hand. Instead he regarded her, somberly intrigued.

What makes you think that Victoria Hastings might be involved in this affair? he asked neutrally.

I do not know it for certain, of course, Louisa said hastily. It is a vague hunch that has been gradually forming in my mind. I meant to tell you about it when we returned to Arden Square after tea with your family this afternoon, but we got distracted, if you will recall.

His smile was slow and wicked. Rest assured, Louisa, I recall every detail of that very delightful distraction.

She blushed and pressed on valiantly. I am wondering if perhaps we should investigate the possibility that Victoria Hastings is still alive.

Very well. Let us consider your theory. First, assuming that she is alive, why would she murder Grantley and Thurlow?

I do not know. Louisa spread her gloved hands. But you will admit that she is one of the few people who might have been aware that both men were important to Hastings.

Anthony was silent for a moment. Then he inclined his head. Go on. Im listening.

She reached into her muff and took out her small notebook. Opening it to the pages headed VH she ran through the few facts that she had jotted down.

The thing that caught my attention at the start of this affair was that Victorias body was never recovered.

That is sometimes the case with drownings.

Yes, I know, but you will admit that fact does leave open the possibility that she survived.

She would have to have been incredibly lucky, and she would have to have known how to swim. Women rarely learn that skill.

Louisa met his eyes. Victoria Hastings knew how to swim.

Anthony watched her with growing curiosity. How the devil did you discover that?

Emma told me. I had a long talk with her about Victoria. Emma knows how to swim, you see. She mentioned, in passing, that Victoria Hastings was the only other woman she had ever met in Society who also possessed the skill.

Interesting. Nevertheless, even if Victoria could swim, one would think that the weight of her gown and underclothes would have dragged her under.

You are assuming that Hastings threw her into the river, but what if she staged her own suicide?

That gave him pause. What put that notion into your head?

She had to be very cautious here. She could hardly tell him that she had come up with the possibility because she herself had faked her own death, and that her inspiration had come from the account of Victoria Hastingss suicide primarily because the body was never recovered.

She made what she hoped was a very casual gesture. Oh, I suppose it is all those novels and plays about missing wives and husbands who always show up at the end of the story claiming to have miraculously survived a watery grave or some other catastrophe.

Thereby ruining the possibility of a happy ending for the couple involved in the illicit tryst, Anthony observed.

She flushed and looked down at her notes. Yes, well, to continue, one of the people I interviewed before I joined forces with you was Victorias ladys maid. Elwin dismissed her after Victoria disappeared.

You tracked down the maid? Im impressed. That was very resourceful of you.

Thank you. She consulted her notes. I was only interested in information concerning Mr. Hastings at the time, of course, but I did jot down some of the things the maid said about her former mistress.

What did she tell you?

The maids name is Sally. After she lost her position in the Hastings mansion she was hired by Lady Mounthaven, who allowed me to speak with her. Sally told me that her last task before leaving Hastingss employ was to pack up Victorias clothes and possessions and send them to charity. She mentioned that the only thing missing from Victorias wardrobe was a nightgown.

That would seem to work against your theory that she staged her own death. Surely a woman intent on disappearing would be unlikely to go off into the night in only a nightgown.

But what if she had planned the so-called suicide well in advance? She would have had time to acquire a gown without her maids knowledge. She could have concealed it until she needed it. When she disappeared, leaving her entire wardrobe behind, her husband would be more likely to believe that she really had suffered a nervous breakdown, wandered down to the river, and jumped.

Youve given this a lot of thought, havent you?

She hesitated, once again selecting each word with great care. You and Emma both agreed that Victoria Hastings did not seem the type to commit suicide.

True.

Emma said that Victoria had always struck her as a very determined, very strong-willed woman. She was quite surprised to read in the press that Mrs. Hastings was prone to bouts of weak nerves and melancholia.

It was no doubt Elwin Hastings who put out that rumor, Anthony said. What else did the maid tell you?

The most interesting piece of information she offered was that Hastings and Victoria talked a great deal about financial matters. She said her former mistress was very clever when it came to that sort of thing and that Mr. Hastings always took her advice.

Anthony went quite still. Youre right. That is very curious. None of the rumors I picked up in the clubs suggested that she was intimately involved in arranging his investment consortiums.

Well, one would hardly expect the gentlemen of the Polite World to consider for even a moment that a lady might possess a talent for financial matters.

There is no need to remind me that a man can sometimes be quite oblivious to a ladys abilities. Anthony sank deeper into the corner of the seat, looking very thoughtful. At the time that Hastings and Victoria were married, Hastings was rumored to be facing financial ruin, but within months of the wedding, his finances appeared to have greatly improved. He began putting together his various extremely successful investment consortiums.

A thought struck Louisa. The blackmail schemes were instituted while Victoria was alive, also.

But if Victoria was the one who planned those clever financial maneuvers, Anthony said patiently, why would she disappear and leave everything, including her money, behind? I still say he killed her.

You may be right, Louisa admitted. But why would he murder her if she was the source of his new wealth?

Perhaps he convinced himself that he no longer needed her. Did you learn anything else from the maid?

She turned a page in the notebook and glanced at what she had written. She told me that she and the rest of the staff were given the evening off the night Mrs. Hastings disappeared.

That was certainly convenient for someone, Anthony said. Is that all?

Louisa cleared her throat. Well, there was one more thing.

What?

She took a deep breath and readied herself for the next revelation.

Sally indicated that Mr. and Mrs. Hastings had what she termed a most vigorous private life, she said, trying to sound businesslike and worldly.

Anthonys brows rose. Vigorous?

Louisa closed her notebook with a snap. It is difficult to conceive of this, but evidently a whip was involved.

I see. Anthonys tone was suspiciously even.

She looked up quickly and found him watching her with an amused expression. Heat rose in her cheeks. According to the information I received from Roberta Woods, Elwin Hastings has not lost his taste for the whip. Indeed, that is the service he requests on his weekly visits to Phoenix House.

I think, Anthony said, that we need more information on Phoenix House.

Yes.

Anthony fell silent again, watching her from the shadows.

What are you thinking? she asked after a moment.

He smiled slowly, eyes darkly brilliant. That you really are the most amazing woman.

Oh. She was not sure how to take that. Well, you are rather amazing, too, sir.

We make a good match, dont you think?

Her spirits rose. Our partnership is certainly working out quite well.

There was another silence. She peered at him uneasily.

What are you thinking now, sir? she asked when she could stand the suspense no longer.

I am thinking that I purchased some French letters on my way home from Arden Square this afternoon.

She blushed furiously. I see. Curiosity got the better of her. Uh, where does one buy that sort of thing?

The same place one buys books. His smile widened. In a shop.

I see. She frowned, amazed. There are actually shops that specialize in such items?

Yes. This particular shop advertised devices guaranteed to satisfy gentlemen of intrigue concerned with discretion.

How very interesting.

Im surprised that you are not jotting down that bit of information in your little notebook.

An excellent notion, sir. Thank you for reminding me. She started to reach into her muff.

He laughed softly, reached across the seat and pulled her onto his lap.

Before you do that, I suggest we try out one of my new purchases, he said against her mouth. Just to ensure that it works in a satisfactory manner, of course.

A rush of excitement swept through her. She touched the side of his face with one gloved hand.

In a carriage, sir? she whispered.

Why not? I have it on good authority that carriages are very popular with illicit lovers.

He pulled the blinds down across the windows. A warm, inviting darkness enveloped them. His mouth closed over hers, seductive, urgent, and demanding.

She stripped off her gloves and then she unfastened his shirt.

The French letters worked as advertised.

Only think of the time that will be saved laundering and ironing your handkerchiefs, Louisa said some time later.


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