“With certain differences,” Ashford amended. “I never endured the horrors of a workhouse, never stole to eat, never faced the world without a shred of love or security. You did.”
“True.” Pierce lowered himself to the settee, settling himself alongside his son. “You grew up with a foundation of love and security, and none of the bitterness that dominated my thinking. Which should, and would, make your decision that much easier to make. Except for one thing. As a result of everything I just described, you’re grappling with an emotion I never did. Personal guilt. Not just the conceptual kind I experienced when I made my choice, but a much more specific one, tied to a specific person: me. Well, it’s time to get rid of that guilt, Ashford. Because if you think this is the life I want for you, you’re a fool.”
Ashford whipped about, startled by the adamancy of his father’s tone.
“Surprised?” Pierce asked. “You shouldn’t be. As you said, I grew up penniless, homeless, and alone. And because of that, I swore to myself—on the day your mother told me she was carrying you, and during each pregnancy thereafter—that my children would never go without. Not without food. Not without shelter. But above all else, not without love. I was past thirty when I discovered how precious a gift love is, how necessary it is to survive. Like food, it nourishes. Like shelter, it protects. And like nothing else, it fulfills you, heart and soul. Both Juliet and Laurel have discovered that in their marriages, in their children. Why in God’s name would I want anything less for you and your brothers? Do you honestly believe I could withstand seeing any of you end up alone? That would nullify the entire basis for my choice—a choice I made the day I learned that your mother and I had created our first miracle together; two miracles, as it turned out. You and Juliet.”
Ashford’s throat worked convulsively. “I never viewed it that way before.”
“Well then, it’s time you did,” Pierce said quietly. “I need your happiness far more than I need your continuation of my quest. Besides,”—a faint smile played about his lips—“I would hardly describe myself as idle nor my cause as having been abandoned. In fact, retirement hasn’t slowed me down at all—with the exception of limiting myself, by and large, to legal means of expression. Nothing is stopping you from doing the same.”
“I realize that.”
“But there’s more to this conflict of yours than we’ve already discussed.” Having made that assessment, Pierce tossed off the contents of his snifter and set it oh the end table. “So let’s get to those other aspects, shall we?”
Leaning forward, Pierce met Ashford’s gaze head-on. “You’re a lot like me, son—sometimes more so than I wish. Aside from your loyalty to me and your commitment to righting the world’s wrongs, you get a surge of excitement from being at the heart of danger. That’s part of the reason why you’re reveling in this battle with Baricci—and why you’re so hell-bent on beating him at his own game. Oh, I know the man is a lowlife of the first order; a self-serving thief, a fraud, and now we suspect, a murderer. But he also has one hell of a success ratio. And that sends your juices flowing, issues an unwritten challenge you can’t resist. You’ve got to confront—and best—him. Before Baricci, there were others like him. And there will be more to follow. I know. I’ve been there.”
Pierce grasped Ashford’s shoulder, alerting him to the significance of his words. “But now you have more than your crusade to consider, even more than yourself. You have Noelle. As a result, you have a choice to make. Is the excitement you feel when you make off with those paintings worth the risk? Is it worth jeopardizing your life, your future? Is it worth endangering the woman you love, even indirectly, by taking part in something illegal? No one can answer those questions but you. Still, I’m willing to bet money on what your answer would be.”
A corner of Ashford’s mouth lifted. “And as the extraordinary gambler you are, you’d win.” He shot his father an admiring look, recognizing the truth to his claim. “How did you become so insightful?”
“From experience. As I said, you’re a lot like me. You thrive on challenge. And speaking of challenges—” Pierce chuckled, shaking his head as he recalled the night of the ball. “I don’t think you need to worry about becoming complacent. On the contrary, I suspect the new challenge you’re embarking upon will be more than enough to stir your blood. In fact, it’s quite possible it will turn out to be more exciting than outwitting your burglary victims. Trust me, son. I’ve met Noelle. You’ll never be bored.”
Visualizing the woman he loved, Ashford’s lips curved. “You’re right about that, as well.”
“So we understand each other?”
Relief surged through Ashford in great, wide streaks. He’d come to Markham seeking resolution. And thanks to his father, he’d found it.
“Completely,” he replied.
“Good.” Pierce stood, taking both snifters and refilling them. “Then it’s time to toast to the future.” He handed one glass back to Ashford, raising his own in tribute. “To you and Noelle Bromleigh—a beautiful, spirited young woman who, I suspect, will never have that coming-out her parents planned, nor embark upon her first London Season as an eligible debutante.”
“I’ll gladly drink to that.” Emphatically, Ashford raised his snifter, thinking that if he had his way, Noelle would walk straight from her Court presentation into his waiting arms. “She won’t regret missing her debut,” he murmured. “I intend to make very sure of that, offer her every excitement, every diversion, every shimmering pleasure imaginable.”
“And here I thought London Seasons were dull,” Pierce noted wryly. “Or isn’t that what we’re discussing?”
Ashford said nothing, merely sipped at his brandy, biting back a grin.
Laughter rumbled from Pierce’s chest. “You’re even worse off than I thought.”
“You have no idea.” Ashford’s grin broke free. “Then again, I guess you do.”
He felt suddenly lighter of heart than he had in weeks. “I’ve always admired and respected what you and Mother share, but it never occurred to me that I’d experience it myself one day. I suppose I never thought of myself as the type to fall head over heels in love, to behave like an impulsive schoolboy and an irrational fool all rolled into one. But I’ll be damned if that’s not exactly what’s happened to me.” He shook his head in amazement. “I love her so bloody much. …” Tenderness vanished, supplanted by a fierce, unrelenting protectiveness. “That’s why I’ve got to get Baricci. I’ll kill him if he makes one move that jeopardizes Noelle in any way. The same applies to Sardo.”
“I don’t blame you.” Pierce folded his arms across his chest. “On the subject of Baricci, why don’t you tell me what’s happened since you left Markham.”
Ashford polished off his brandy, then proceeded to explain his visits to the police and to Lord Mannering’s house, Noelle’s intentions to question Emily Mannering’s maid, and Sardo’s ever-intensifying amorous pursuit of Noelle.
“I want to put my fist through his face every time he touches her,” Ashford muttered. “Even when he looks at her—that lustful stare—I can feel my blood start to—” Hearing himself, seeing his father’s knowing expression, Ashford broke off, rolled his eyes. “See what I mean? I’ve lost all self-restraint, all objectivity. I’m a bloody raving lunatic.”
“An inescapable consequence of being in love,” Pierce consoled him. Frowning, he contemplated all Ashford had relayed. “You did say Eric Bromleigh went to London with Noelle?”
“The entire family went, including Noelle’s sentry of a lady’s maid. I never would have agreed to the idea otherwise.”
“Good. I know Baricci is usually subtle in his craft, but still, the notion of him being in such close proximity to Noelle—and with Sardo there, as well …” Pierce shook his head. “Let’s just say I’m glad Noelle’s father is there to keep an eye on her.”
“And I’ll be there tomorrow,” Ashford added. “I’ll spend the night here, have breakfast with you and Mother, then be on my way. Eric Bromleigh is a wonderful father, but I’d feel better if I were nearby. I suppose that sounds absurd, given that up until a month ago, I wasn’t even a part of Noelle’s life.”
“No, it sounds just as it should. You love her. You want to be the one to protect her. It’s as simple as that.”
A light rap on the door interrupted them.
“Yes?” Pierce called.
Daphne stepped into the room, carrying a dinner tray. “I decided to send Langley to bed and bring this to you myself.” She glanced from her husband to her son, the anticipatory glow on her face a clear indication that an ulterior motive had prompted her to personally deliver their food.
With a twinkle of amusement, Ashford watched her lower the tray to a table.
“You’ve resolved things,” she pronounced, a statement of fact, rather than a question.
Ashford’s brows arched in amusement. “Did you doubt it?”
“No.” Eyes sparkling, Daphne rose on tiptoe, kissed her son’s cheek. “I adore her, Ashford. So does Juliet.”
“Unfortunately, so do Blair and Sheridan,” Ashford grumbled.
“Fear not. They’re aware you’ve staked your claim.” Daphne paused, squeezing Ashford’s forearm before plucking a sealed envelope from her pocket. “Tell us the instant you have an announcement to make.”
A wink. “You’ll be the first to know.”
“What is it, Snow Flame?” Pierce was eyeing the envelope.
“Blackstreet was here,” she replied, offering it to her husband. “He wanted you to have this. He couldn’t stay, but he said to tell you it’s very important.”
“Really.” Pierce ripped open the envelope, extracting the brief page within. “Interesting. That magnificent Goya every art dealer in England wants to get his hands on has been sold. It’s being exported from Spain tomorrow.”
“Exported—to England?” Ashford studied his father intently. “Who won the bidding war?”
A snort of disgust. “That pompous ass Lord Vanley.”
“Vanley.” Ashford said the name with utter distaste. The elderly miser—whose roots dated back to Henry I and yet whose impeccable lineage did nothing to offset his unfeeling nature and incomparable arrogance—acted as though he were more a god than a nobleman. A greedy, cold, and garish god.
“We shouldn’t be surprised,” Pierce was saying. “Vanley talked about the Goya nonstop during our house party. For three days he did nothing but boast about how he’d be the one to eventually get his hands on that painting.”
“He’s been claiming that fact for months now, ever since the Goya was rumored to be up for sale.”
“Well, now he has it.” Pierce glanced up, catching Ashford’s eye. “Or rather, he’ll have it tomorrow night.”
Ashford’s gaze was steady. “Baricci will be itching to get his hands on that masterpiece.”
“I’m sure he will.
he finds out about the sale, much less that the painting is in England. Blackstreet says the whole transaction is being kept quite secretive, since Vanley is terrified of robbery. No one will learn of the purchase until the morning after the Goya is safely settled in Vanley’s Town house, in plain view for all to see.” A pause. “In the drawing room. On the mantel wall. Second door down to your right.” Pierce folded the note in two.
Ashford heard his father’s message loud and clear. “So Baricci won’t find out about the Goya’s arrival until the day after tomorrow,” he concluded, his adrenaline beginning to pump—despite the resolution he’d come to just moments ago about severing this portion of his life.
“Exactly.” Pierce’s expression remained nondescript. “By the way, did I mention to you that Vanley’s son is in England?”
A puzzled frown. “No, you didn’t. Nor do I care. I dislike Gerald Vanley even more than I do his father. He’s even more arrogant, if that’s possible, probably because his looks are far more appealing than his father’s. And he’s stupid, to boot. The only good thing about having him in Town is that he wagers huge sums at the whist table at White’s. He’s conceited enough to believe he’ll win, and stupid enough to continually lose. As a result, I divest him of all his funds and can pass those winnings along to you for your next tin cup.”
“Then the poor will soon flourish, because he arrived in London this week,” Pierce determined.
“Fine. Why are you telling me this? What has Gerald Vanley’s arrival got to do with the Goya?”
“Motivation.” Idly, Pierce slipped Blackstreet’s note back into its envelope. “Evidently, Gerald’s reasons for being in Town this Season involve more than just a desire to try his luck at the whist table. From what I understand, he heard that Lord Farrington is bringing out his breathtaking elder daughter this spring—a daughter Gerald met last summer in Brighton. And he’s determined to press his suit and win her affections.”
Ashford went rigid. “Over my dead body.”
“I rather thought you’d feel that way. Thus, the motivation I was referring to. Or rather, the final component of it.” Pierce counted off on his fingers. “Let’s see, we have an invaluable painting—one that Baricci will be frantic to steal, bought by a stingy cad whose worthless son has cast his eye on Noelle.” A pointed look. “Tempting, Ashe. Very tempting.”
With a muffled curse, Ashford massaged the back of his neck, his decision made long before his father finished enumerating the reasons why. “If I break in tomorrow night, before Vanley is expecting trouble and before the painting is being guarded …”
“Wait a minute.” It was Daphne who interrupted, her hands planted firmly on her hips. “I thought you said you resolved things.”
“Then why are you contemplating a robbery?” She inclined her head at Pierce. “And why are you provoking him?”
“Because Ashford needs to formally close this chapter of his life,” Pierce replied with the quiet certainty of one who’d experienced this transformation firsthand. “He needs to walk away without restlessness or regrets—and he can only do that after focusing all his efforts on one final, meaningful crime. I needed the same. Or have you forgotten?” A reminiscent smile. “You shouldn’t have. You were right there by my side when we pilfered Lord Weberling’s diamonds. Ashford and Juliet were six weeks old at the time.”
“I remember,” Daphne said softly. She looked back at her son, understanding grappling with worry. “Promise me you’ll be careful.”