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Authors: Mary Balogh

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

Slightly Wicked (21 page)

BOOK: Slightly Wicked
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Someone
has stolen Mother’s jewels,” Aunt Louisa told him. “They obviously did not disappear on their own.”

“But whoever would have had a motive?” her mother asked.

Branwell,
Judith thought and felt instantly ashamed. Bran would never steal. Would he? From his own grandmother? But would he for that very reason have justified his act as one of borrowing rather than stealing? Who else could have done it? Bran had been backed farther into a corner this evening. He had left Harewood in the middle of the ball, in the middle of the night. He had been very agitated. He had not wanted her to go upstairs with him or see him on his way. Branwell. It was Bran. And soon everyone else would realize it too. She felt dizzy and had to concentrate hard upon not fainting.

“Who is short of money?” Horace asked.

His words hung in the air rather like an obscenity. No one answered.

“And who had the opportunity?” he asked. “Who knew where Stepgrandmama keeps her jewels and would be bold enough to go into her room to get them?”

Branwell
. It seemed to Judith that the name fairly screamed itself into the silence.

“It could not have been an outsider,” Horace continued. “Not unless he was a very bold man indeed or had an accomplice in the house. How would anyone know the right room? How would he accomplish the task without being detected? Or missed from the ballroom?
Was
anyone missing from the ballroom for any length of time?”

Branwell.

Everyone seemed to speak at once after that. Everyone had an opinion, a suggestion, or a shocked comment on the theft. Judith bent her head to her grandmother’s.

“Will you sit down, Grandmama?” she asked. “You are trembling.”

They both sat, and Judith chafed the old lady’s hands.

“They will be found,” she said. “Don’t worry.”

But how far had Branwell ridden by now? And where was he going? What would he do with the jewels? Pawn them? Sell them? Surely he would not do that. Surely there were some remnants of honor left in his conscience. He must see that the jewels would have to be retrievable. But how would they ever be redeemed?

“It is not so much the value of the jewels,” her grandmother said, “as the fact that your grandpapa gave them to me. Who could hate me this much, Judith? There was a thief
in my own room
. How can I ever go into it again?”

Her voice was shaking and breathless. She sounded old and defeated.

Uncle George and Horace finally took charge again. They sent the butler to fetch all the servants so that all could be questioned. Judith wanted to take her grandmother upstairs, even if only to her own room, where she could be quiet and Tillie could perhaps bring her a cup of tea and her night things to change into. But her grandmother would not move.

It was a long, tedious process, which was clearly going to lead nowhere, Judith thought over the next half an hour. What amazed her more than anything else was that no one had missed Branwell yet. Uncle George asked if any servant had been upstairs to the bedchamber floor since the ball began. Three of them had, including the chambermaid Judith had bumped into on the way out of her room. All of them had had a good reason to be up there and all of them had worked at Harewood long enough to be judged trustworthy.

“And no one else went up there?” Uncle George added with a sigh.

“If you please, sir,” the maid said. “Miss Law did.”

All eyes turned Judith’s way, and she felt herself flushing.

“I went up to exchange Grandmama’s earrings,” she said. “The others were pinching her. But the jewel box was in its accustomed place at that time and all the jewelry was in it. I made the exchange and came back down. The theft must have happened since that time. It was . . . let me see. It was between the first and second sets.”

“But you was coming out of
your
room, miss,” the chambermaid said. “You was flying and we ran right into each other. Remember?”

“That is right,” Judith said. “The earrings Grandmama wanted were in my reticule, where they had been since the evening we were all at Grandmaison.”

“It must have been when you were returning to the ballroom that you almost ran into me, Cousin,” Horace said. “You were quite breathless. You looked to be almost in a panic. But yes, I can confirm that that was between the first and second sets.”

“Judith, my love.” Her grandmother was very close to tears. “I sent you up there and might have been sending you to your death. What if you had walked in on the thief? You might have been struck over the head.”

“It did not happen, Grandmama,” she said soothingly. She wished she
had
walked in on Bran. She could have prevented this whole nightmare.

“Well,” Horace said briskly, “we are going to have to start searching, that is all.”

“Distasteful,” Uncle George said. “We cannot search people’s rooms, and the thief would hardly have hidden the jewels in any of the public rooms.”

“Well, I for one do not object to having
my
room searched,” Horace said. “In fact, Father, I insist that it be the first to be searched.”

“If I may make so bold, Sir George,” the butler said, stepping forward, “I will volunteer my own room to be searched and those of the other servants too unless anyone has an objection. If anyone does, speak up now.”

The servants all held their peace. Which of them, after all, would voice an objection when doing so must throw instant suspicion on them?

Lord Braithwaite cleared his throat. “You may search my room too, sir,” he said.

There was a murmuring of assent from all the other guests, though Judith guessed it was grudging in many cases. It would feel like violation to have one’s room searched, to feel even if only for a few minutes that one was being suspected of theft. But she kept her mouth shut.

“Would you like to go to your room, Grandmama?” she asked again after Uncle George, Horace, the butler, and Tillie had left the ballroom. “Or to mine if you would prefer?”

“No.” Her grandmother was looking more dejected than Judith had ever seen her. “I will stay here. I hope they do
not
find the jewels. Is that not foolish? I would rather never see them again than know that someone in this house has stolen them. Why did whoever it is not
ask
me? I have plenty. I would give to any relative or friend or servant in need. But I suppose people are too proud to ask, are they not?”

Julianne was sobbing in her mother’s arms, and looking remarkably pretty in the process.

“This has turned out to be a perfectly
horrid
evening,” she wailed. “I have hated every moment of it, and I am sure everyone else will pronounce it a disaster and never accept another invitation from us all their lives.”

The servants stood in silence. The guests huddled in small, self-conscious groups, talking in lowered voices.

Another half hour passed before the search party returned, looking grave.

“This has been found,” Uncle George said into the hush that had fallen over the ballroom. “Tillie recognized it. It is from Mother-in-law’s jewelry box.” He held aloft the wine-colored velvet bag that usually contained her most valuable jewels. It was very obviously empty. “And this, also from the box.” He held up a single diamond earring between the thumb and forefinger of his other hand.

The small swell of sound instantly died away again.

“Does anyone wish to say anything about these items?” Uncle George asked. “They were found in the same room.”

Branwell’s
. Judith felt sick to her stomach.

No one wished to say anything, it seemed.

“Judith,” Uncle George said, his voice low and devoid of all expression, “the bag was at the bottom of one of your dressing table drawers. The earring was on the floor, almost out of sight behind the door.”

Judith suddenly felt as if she were looking at him down a long, dark tunnel. She felt as if her mind were still grappling to decode the sounds he had just spoken, to make sensible words out of them.

“Where have you hidden everything else, Judith?” he asked her, still in that flat voice. “It is not in your room.”

“What?” She was not sure any sound had come out of her mouth. She was not even sure her lips had formed the word.

“There is no point in even pretending that there must be some misunderstanding,” Uncle George said. “You have stolen costly jewels, Judith, from your own grandmother.”

“Oh, you ungrateful, wicked girl!” Aunt Effingham cried shrilly. “After all that I have done for you and your worthless family. You will be punished for this, believe me. Criminals hang for less.”

“We should send for the constable, Father,” Horace said. “I do apologize to everyone else that we must be seen airing our dirty family linen thus publicly. If only we had known it was Judith, we would have hushed all up and waited until everyone had gone to bed before investigating. But how were we to know?”

Judith was on her feet without any memory of having stood up.

“I have not taken anything,” she said.

“Of course you have not. Of course she has not,” her grandmother said, grabbing her hand again. “There is certainly some misunderstanding, George. Judith is the very last person who would steal from me.”

“And yet,” Julianne said scornfully, “she does not have a penny to her name, Grandmama. Do you, Judith?”

“And her brother is deep in debt,” Horace said. “I must confess that I suspected
him
when Tillie first came here with her discovery. Did anyone else notice that he disappeared in the middle of the ball? It was, I fear, because I reminded him of a trifling debt he owed me. I really thought he had done something foolish, though I hated to say it aloud. But it appears that it was Judith.”

“Or Judith in league with Branwell,” Aunt Effingham said. “That is it, is it, you evil girl? That is why the jewels are not in your room? Your brother has made off with them?”

“No, no, no!” Grandmama cried. “Judith has done nothing wrong. That bag . . . I-I gave it to Judith to keep some of her own things in. And that earring. Judith often takes them from me when they pinch my ears, just as she did these I am wearing now. She must have dropped one when she brought them back to me and we did not notice.”

“That is not even a very good try, Mother-in-law,” Uncle George said in the same flat voice. “I believe we should all go to bed now and try to sleep. Judith will be dealt with in the morning. No one will have to face the embarrassment of having to see her again. She will be sent home, I daresay, for her father to deal with. In the meanwhile we will have to have Branwell pursued.”

“Father,” Horace said, “I still believe a constable would—”

“We will not have Judith thrown into a cell and create a sordid sensation for the whole countryside to gossip over,” Uncle George said firmly.

Judith raised both hands to her mouth. This was all too horrifying even to be a nightmare from which she might hope to awake.

“I fervently hope my brother will take a whip to you, Judith,” Aunt Effingham said, “as he ought to have done years ago. I shall write making that very suggestion. And I hope you intend to lock her into her room tonight, Effingham, so that she cannot rob us all in our sleep.”

“We will not be melodramatic,” Uncle George said, “though this scene bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the worst of melodrama. Judith, go to your room now and remain there until you are fetched in the morning.”

“Grandmama.” Judith turned to her and stretched out both hands. But her grandmother had her own hands clasped tightly in her lap and did not look up.

“Branwell is in debt,” she said so quietly that no one but Judith could hear, “and you did not tell me. I would have
given
him some of my jewels if he had asked or if you had asked. Did you not know that?”

Grandmama believed it, then. She believed that Judith had conspired with Bran to rob her. It was the worst moment of all.

“I did not do it, Grandmama,” Judith whispered as she saw a tear plop onto the old lady’s hands.

She never afterward knew how she got herself out of the ballroom and up to her room. But she stood against the closed door after she arrived there for a long, long time, her hands with a death grip on the handle behind her back, as if the weight of her body was all that stood between herself and the universe crashing in on top of her.

CHAPTER XVIII

         I
t was really far too early in the day to be making a social call, Rannulf thought as he rode up the long driveway toward Harewood Grange, especially the morning after a ball. But he had paced his room rather like a bear in a cage from dawn onward and had not been able to settle to anything even after going downstairs, though there were letters to answer and another account ledger he needed to study.

And so he had come early in the hope of finding at least Sir George Effingham up and about and in the confident belief that Judith would not still be in her bed. Had she found sleep last night as difficult as he had? She surely could not have mistaken his meaning last evening. How did she feel about him? What answer did she plan to give him?

If it was no again, then he would have to accept it.

It was a gloomy thought, but he clung to the hope that he had not imagined that magnetic sort of pull between them last night. He
surely
could not have. But his heart pounded with unaccustomed anxiety as he rode into the stable yard, turned Bucephalus over to the care of a groom, and strode toward the house.

“Ask Sir George if I may have a private word with him,” he said to the servant who opened the door.

A minute later he was being ushered into the library, where he had very nearly met his doom last night. Sir George was seated at a large oak desk looking glum. But then he rarely looked any different, Rannulf reflected. He was the picture of a man discontented with his family circle yet not quite content with his own company either.

“Good morning, sir,” Rannulf said. “I trust everyone has slept well after last evening’s revelries?”

Sir George grunted. “You are out early, Bedwyn,” he said. “I am not sure Julianne or the others are up yet. But your business is with me, is it?”

“Only briefly, sir,” Rannulf said. “I would like your permission to have a private word with your niece.”

“With Judith?” Sir George frowned, and his hand reached for a quill pen and fidgeted with it.

“I thought I might take her walking outside,” Rannulf said. “With your permission, that is, and if she is willing.”

Sir George put the pen down. “You are too late,” he said. “She has gone.”

“Gone?”
He knew she was to be sent home, but so abruptly, so soon, the morning after a late ball? Because of the way she had thwarted her cousin’s marriage scheme, perhaps?

Sir George sighed deeply, sat back in his chair, and indicated that his guest should take the one across from him. “I suppose there will be no keeping it entirely from you or Lady Beamish,” he said, “though I was hoping and still hope to keep the sordid details from the rest of our neighbors. There was some unpleasantness here last night, Bedwyn. My mother-in-law’s jewels were stolen sometime in the course of the evening and a search turned up quite unmistakable and damning evidence in Judith’s room. She was also seen hurrying out of her room at a time during the ball when she had no clear reason for being there, and soon after that, Branwell Law disappeared. He left Harewood in the middle of the ball without a word to anyone.”

Rannulf sat very still.

“Judith was confined to her room overnight,” Sir George continued, “though I refused to have her either locked in or guarded. It seemed somehow demeaning to my whole family to treat her like a prisoner. My intention was to send her home under escort this morning in my own carriage with a letter to her father.
This
letter.” He tapped a folded, sealed paper on the desk. “But when I went up very early, with a maid, and knocked on her door, there was no answer. The room was empty. Most, if not all, of her belongings are still there, but she most certainly is not. She has flown.”

“You think she has gone home?” Rannulf asked, breaking a heavy silence.

“I doubt it,” Sir George said. “My brother-in-law is a stern man. He is not the sort to whom a woman in her predicament would run voluntarily. And her brother would certainly not go there, would he? I suppose they have a plan to meet somewhere and divide the spoils. Those jewels must be worth a very sizable fortune, yet my mother-in-law would never allow me to put the most valuable of them in a safe place.”

“What do you plan to do now?” Rannulf asked.

“I wish I could simply do nothing,” Sir George told him quite frankly. “They are Lady Effingham’s own niece and nephew and my mother-in-law’s grandchildren. But the jewels at least must be recovered. I suppose now they have fled and must be pursued it is too late to treat the matter with quiet discretion. I suppose they will have to be brought to justice and made to serve time in jail. It is not a pleasing prospect.”

“There will be pursuit, then?” Rannulf asked.

Sir George sighed again. “We will keep the matter quiet as long as we are able,” he said, “though with a houseful of servants and guests I daresay I might as easily attempt to muzzle the wind. My son will go after them tomorrow morning after seeing our houseguests on their way. He believes—and I must concur with him—that their only sensible destination is London since they carry jewels, not money, and jewels are not easily disposed of. He will pursue them there and apprehend them himself if he is fortunate—if we are
all
fortunate. It is more likely that he will be compelled to engage the services of the Bow Street Runners.”

They sat for a short while in silence and then Rannulf got abruptly to his feet.

“I will intrude upon you no longer, sir,” he said. “You may rest assured that no one else except my grandmother will hear anything of this through me.”

“That is decent of you.” Sir George too got to his feet. “It is a nasty business.”

Rannulf rode down the driveway somewhat faster than he had ridden up it just a short while earlier. He might have guessed that something like this would happen. He himself had come very close to being trapped into marrying Miss Effingham, yet he was probably not even the primary enemy as far as Horace Effingham was concerned. It was by Judith he would have felt most humiliated. She was the one he must be most intent upon punishing.

It was a nasty punishment he had chosen and was likely to get nastier.

His grandmother was in her private sitting room, writing a letter. She smiled at him and set her pen down when he answered her summons to enter.

“How delightful it is,” she said, “to see the sun shining again. It lifts one’s spirits, does it not?”

“Grandmama.” He strode across the room toward her and took one of her hands in his. “I must leave you for a few days. Perhaps even longer.”

“Ah.” She continued to smile, but something had turned flat behind her eyes. “Yes, of course, you have grown restless. I understand.”

He raised her hand to his lips.

“Someone stole Mrs. Law’s jewels last night during the ball,” he said, “and the blame fell squarely upon Judith Law. Evidence was found in her room.”

“Oh, no, Rannulf,” she said, “that cannot be.”

“She fled sometime during the night,” he said, “making herself, I suppose, look even more guilty.”

She stared at him. “I would never believe it of Miss Law,” she said. “But poor Gertrude. Those jewels have great sentimental value to her.”

“I do not believe it of Judith either,” he said. “I am going after her.”

“Judith,” she said. “She is Judith to you, then, Rannulf?”

“I rode over to Harewood this morning to propose marriage to her,” he said.

“Well.” The usual briskness was back in her voice. “You had better not delay any longer.”

Fifteen minutes later she stood out on the terrace, straight-backed and unsupported, to wave him on his way when he rode out of the stable yard.

         

J
udith would doubtless have been feeling very frightened indeed if she had allowed her mind to dwell upon the nature of her predicament. She was alone with only a small bag of essential possessions in her hand. She was on her way to London, which she might hope to reach after walking for a week or perhaps two. She really had no idea how long it would take. She had no money with which to buy a coach ticket or a night’s lodging or food. Even when—or if—she reached London, she did not know how she would find Branwell or whether it would be too late to recover the jewels and take them back to their grandmother.

Meanwhile there was bound to be pursuit. Uncle George or a constable or—worst of all—Horace might come galloping up behind her at any moment and drag her off to jail. Having escaped from Harewood, she would probably no longer be given the option of returning home. She was not sure that would not be worse than going to prison anyway. How would she face Papa when it was so impossible to prove her innocence and when no one could prove Branwell’s?

No, it was the very thought of facing the dreadful disgrace of going home and of seeing Bran crash down off the pedestal he had always occupied that had finally convinced her just before first light to flee alone and on foot while she still had the chance. She had been surprised at how easy it was. She had fully expected to find guards outside her door or at least in the hall below.

She refused to give in to fear now. What was the point, after all? She trudged along the road on an afternoon that was growing hotter by the minute, concentrating upon setting one foot in front of the other and living one moment at a time. It was more easily said than done, of course. She had had a ride for a mile or two early in the morning in a farmer’s cart, and he had been good enough to share a piece of his coarse, dry bread with her. Since then she had drunk water at a small stream. But even so her stomach was beginning to growl with emptiness, and she was feeling slightly light-headed. Her feet were sore and probably acquiring blisters. Her bag was feeling as if it weighed a ton.

It was difficult not to give in to self-pity at the very least. And ravening fear at the worst.

The fear crawled along her back at the sound of clopping hooves behind her. It was a single horse, she thought, not a carriage. It had happened a number of times during the day, but she had stopped ducking into the hedgerow to hide until the road was clear again. She waited for the relief of seeing a strange horse and a strange rider go past.

But this horse did not pass her. Its pace slowed as it came up to her—she prayed that she was imagining it—and it clopped along for a while just behind her right shoulder. She would not look, though she braced herself for she knew not what. A whip? Chains? A flying human body to knock her over and pin her to the ground? She could hear her heartbeat thudding in her ears.

“Is this an afternoon stroll?” a familiar voice asked. “Or a serious walk?”

She whirled around and gazed up at Lord Rannulf Bedwyn, huge and faintly menacing on horseback. He had stopped his horse and was looking gravely down at her despite the mockery of his words.

“It is no business of yours, Lord Rannulf,” she said. “You may ride on.” But where was he going? Home again?

“You failed to keep our appointment this morning,” he said, “and so I was forced to ride after you.”

Their appointment.
She had completely forgotten about it.

“Don’t tell me you forgot about it,” he said as if he had read her mind. “That would be very lowering, you know.”

“Perhaps they did not tell you—” she began.

“They did.”

“Well, then,” she said when it appeared that he would say no more, “you may ride on or ride back, Lord Rannulf, whichever you choose. You would not wish to associate with a thief.”

“Is that what you are?” he asked her.

It was incredibly painful to hear him ask the question.

“The evidence was overwhelming,” she told him.

“Yes, I know,” he said. “You are a particularly inept thief, though, Judith, to have left evidence lying about your room when you must have guessed that sooner or later it would be searched.”

She still could not understand why Bran had put the bag in her room. The earring she
could
understand. Panicky in his haste, he must have dropped it without even realizing it. The floor was carpeted. There would have been no loud clatter as it landed. But the bag . . . The only explanation she had been able to devise was that he had known he would be suspected from the first moment but had
not
expected that her room would be searched. He had hidden the bag in her drawer, she guessed, as a sort of private acknowledgment of his guilt to her and a pledge that he would return the contents as soon as he was able. It was not a very satisfactory explanation, but she could think of no other.

“I am not a thief,” she said. “I did not steal anything.”

“I know.”

Did
he? Did he trust her? No one else did or probably ever would.

“Where are you going?” he asked her.

She pressed her lips together and stared up at him.

“To London, I suppose,” he said. “It is a pleasant stroll, I believe.”

“It is not your business,” she said. “Go back to Grandmaison, Lord Rannulf.”

But he leaned down from the saddle and held out one hand to her. She was powerfully reminded of the last occasion on which this had happened and of her first impression of him then—broad, rugged, dark-complexioned, blue-eyed and big-nosed, his fair hair too long, not handsome but disturbingly attractive. Now he was simply Rannulf, and for the first time today she wanted to cry.

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