Authors: Maggie MacKeever
Tags: #Regency Romance
It was not until the wassailers came round with their songs and garlanded bowls that the occupants of the Hall recalled it was the eve of another year. Connor and Barbary broke off discussing their mutual future, a topic that caused Rosamond Fellowes to scowl and Mr. Crossthwaite to beam. Rosamond supposed, now that Connor was reinstated at the Hall, she would be turned out into the streets. Connor informed her, in the spirit of the season, that though he’d be damned if he’d share his household with her, he would provide her an allowance sufficient for her to reside elsewhere, so long as that elsewhere was far enough away that their paths would never cross. Rosamond pointed out that, with Janthina alive, Connor would lack sufficient funds to support himself, let alone anyone else. Connor retorted that he would be rid of Rosamond if it took his last cent. Barbary pledged her own substantial fortune, left her by her mother, to the cause. Here, Mr. Crossthwaite intervened. Of the Halliday fortune, the Hall and its vast environs, Janthina had made Connor a gift, with the intention of wiping clean old slates.
At the Castle, things were much more gay. Livvy and Dickon greeted the mummers, young men dressed in antic attire who marched from village to village and from house to house. Arms linked, Lord and Lady Dorset watched the sword dance, and tendered a generous gratuity, in thanks for which the mummers fired a gun. That gunshot greatly startled Lady Dorset’s maidservant, engaged in a flirtation with a handsome young footman; along with Lady Bligh’s abigail and butler, who had been congratulating each other on having survived another of their employer’s escapades. Ned, who might have expected to be more than startled, didn’t hear the shot. He was sleeping peacefully, having roused long enough to accept the accolades of his general, who had proved herself as shrewd a strategist as Wellington, in spite of her green hair. Equally deep in slumber, Casanova was curled up at his feet.
In the tinkers’ camp, festivities were also underway. Campfires burned bright on the riverbank, beneath the willow-trees, amid the brightly-painted caravans and ragged shabby tents. The air rang with traditional gypsy tunes —
Me Ham Matto, Tuli Tschai
— and the wild sweet wail of violins. Nut-brown dark-eyed children, artful as young foxes, stole curious glances at the
who’d gathered around Giuseppe’s caravan to dine on pheasants poached earlier that day and cooked by his woman over an open fire.
Most fascinating of all the
was Lady Bligh, perched on a fallen tree trunk. Occasionally a child stole closer to gape at her flounced, lace-edged cambric gown; her crimson velvet pelisse; the flower and ribbon-bedecked white satin bonnet from beneath which peeped festive green curls. Dulcie smiled at one child and winked at several others as she stripped off her gloves.
From where he sat on the steps of Giuseppe’s caravan, Sir John watched her bite into a slice of pheasant breast. He was in a mellow frame of mind, having been dosed not only with hot wine made from elderberries but also a concoction of honey, lemon juice, and rum. Dulcie had bundled him up against the weather, and for good measure wrapped her newly knitted scarlet muffler around his neck.
It smelled of her perfume. Sir John inhaled deeply, and sneezed. “Cade played at being his own ghost,” he said, after he had recovered. “It was Cade who moved that blasted trap. He trysted with his father’s wife in Lady Margaret’s Garden, while Connor set traps in an effort to prevent them meeting there. As for Lady Halliday, I still find it difficult to credit that silly widgeon with such a complicated scheme.”
“You mustn’t blame yourself, dear John.” Dulcie leaned forward to pat his knee. “Amanda was clever, and made good use of the materials at hand. When Sir Wesley had a heart attack shortly after their marriage, she nursed him back to health, thereby establishing her devotion so clearly that later, when she chose to rid herself of him, no suspicion fell on her. Ned’s chivalrous nature, she also attempted to put to good use. She deliberately roused Dickon’s suspicions, and so deftly that it occurred to no one that she, too, could not prove her whereabouts at the time of Connor’s death. I only wish that Ned had displayed a trifle less initiative.”
Sir John contemplated the greasy marks she’d left on his breeches. “ ‘Initiative’, indeed. Don’t you feel even a little bit ashamed of taking advantage of a man who is unwell?”
“I do not.” Dulcie raised her fingers to her mouth and cleaned them like a cat. “Ned was in need of diversion. I merely suggested that Amanda provided us with a perfect opportunity to reconnoiter the enemy camp. She really was quite diabolically cunning. Even Giuseppe didn’t realize how she had used him — and you may infer whatever you please from the word ‘use’ — until almost too late to save his own neck from the noose.”
With extreme displeasure, Sir John recalled the recent rowdy-do. Between Giuseppe’s revelations and Hubert’s dramatics, no little time passed before he realized, first, that Jael had disappeared, and secondly that Dulcie was also nowhere to be found. “That damned tinker has a great deal to answer for.”
Dulcie left off licking her fingers, to Sir John’s relief. “What additional points would you like clarified? Sir Wesley’s death brought Jael back to Greenwood. She is one to pay her debts, for good or ill. I found her in the temple because I suspected she had gone there in search of, as she thought, Cade. Connor, much as he disliked Amanda, found it difficult to believe his stepmother was clever enough to have engineered Sir Wesley’s death, so when he became aware of Janthina’s, or Jael’s, presence in Greenwood — Connor was keeping a close eye on Lady Margaret’s Garden; he saw Jael there with Giuseppe — she seemed a much more likely candidate. The rest you know.”
, he knew it. Sir John looked around for his Runner, spied him standing in a small group of spectators alongside Hubert and Austen. They were watching Jael dance. Her steps were intricate, her costume highly unsuited to the weather. Bluebeard, on Austen’s shoulder, was bobbing in time with the music of Giuseppe’s
It was little wonder that all efforts to track the missing Janthina had come to naught. No one would have thought to look for her in London’s rookeries.
Dulcie bestowed the remainder of her pheasant upon a shaggy mongrel. “I grew suspicious when I heard of Amanda’s claim that Connor had accosted her, for I doubted Connor would do such a thing. I also suspected, due to those tales of
droit de seigneur,
that Cade sometimes returned to the neighborhood. Sir Wesley doubtless reached that same conclusion; hence the mention of Cade in his will. Then there was Abel Bagshot’s strange behavior, and this talk of ghosts, and Barbary’s odd reaction to the reappearance of a husband she claimed to dislike, not to mention his astonishment at finding her at the Hall.
All was clear.”
Clear to Lady Bligh, perhaps; Sir John was unable to add two and two and reach the sum of ten. “Why didn’t Connor simply come forward and explain that the body had been erroneously identified?”
Dulcie pulled on her gloves. “Really, John. Consider Connor’s reputation, and his well-known sentiments regarding his brother. You would most likely have clapped
in gaol. Since Connor could hardly remain indefinitely in hiding, he reappeared as Cade, in hope of forcing the villain’s hand. He unintentionally aided Amanda no little bit with all the lies he told in an effort to divert your suspicions from Barbary and himself.”
Jael’s dance had wound up to a finale so shockingly explicit that Crump turned the fascinated Austen forcibly away. “Are you tying up loose ends?” he asked as they joined the group by the campfire. “There are a couple points I don’t understand. Those two horses, for one.”
“Oh, let me!” begged Austen. “The horse that threw a shoe belonged to Cade; the second, Lady Halliday rode from the Hall. It must have bolted when she shot Cade. She rode
horse back to Halliday land and then let it loose, and it went back to the inn because that’s where Cade always stabled it when he came to Greenwood.”
“Pestilent brat,” remarked Dulcie, fondly. “Before you puff yourself up further, remember that
considered Lady Halliday a cabbage-head.”
“What of it?” responded Austen, with unabated good humor. “I’m only nine years old.”
“Scallywag,” crooned Bluebeard, into his ear.
Crump could not so easily excuse his own confusion. “What about that Patent Warm-Air Stove?”
Gracefully, Dulcie rose from her log. “A bribe in truth, dear Crump. I didn’t want you or John to become aware that Cade — or, as we all believed, Connor — had scarred Jael’s face. Abel was one of the few people who knew that old tale. Once you realized Jael was the missing Janthina, your suspicions would have focused on her and the real murderer would likely have gone free.”
Hubert and Jael came up to the campfire, then, as Sir John also pushed himself erect. Hubert wore a heavy greatcoat. Jael had wrapped herself in a thick wool cloak. “Not Connor, but Cade; not Cade, but Connor,” she said huskily. “God’s bones, what a pair.”
With a pained expression, Hubert regarded the dismembered pheasant. “I believe Sir John would prefer that you be a trifle less cryptic, my precious. Surely in light of your, er, previous association, you should have known the difference between the twins.”
Jael dropped down on Dulcie’s abandoned tree trunk. “In the dark all cats are grey. Cade played Connor cleverly enough when he wished.”
Hubert quirked an inquiring brow in her direction. “You and Cade had found that tunnel; Connor didn’t know of it. Therefore when you mentioned the tunnel to the man you believed to be Cade, and he betrayed his ignorance, you realized you were talking to Connor. And when you spoke to him of his illegitimacy, and he was startled, you knew that all those years ago you had encountered Cade. What admirable logic! You render me speechless.”
Jael voiced a desire that someone might do so. “What’s meant for Giuseppe, Sir John? I suggest you leave him to me.”
“An excellent solution!” said Dulcie, as the Chief Magistrate struggled to rouse from the bemusement attendant upon the fact that she was leaning against his arm. “Giuseppe meant no real harm, not even when he sent Sir Wesley to Lady Margaret’s Garden. He disapproved of Jael’s relationship with Cade and expected that, if cast off by the Hallidays, she would turn to her other family. As for the twins’ parentage, Sir Wesley learned of it not long after Jael’s departure. Jenks told him — you will remember the Halliday butler, Jael. Jenks had overheard an enlightening conversation between Lady Margaret and Rosamond years before, but didn’t think it was his place to be bearing tales. However, he was fond of you and didn’t think it right Sir Wesley should be left to believe something that wasn’t true. As for how Sir Wesley knew you were alive and well, I told him so. That tidies it all up neatly, I think. And now—” The Baroness shepherded her little party away from the caravan to a spot where a young boy performed the
a dance similar to a Scottish reel.
Hubert did not follow, but stood looking down at Jael. “You are looking pensive, my treasure. I am feeling rather cross myself. All these years Dulcie has known exactly who you are.”
“I came to the tinkers’ camp often as a child; as did the Baroness, to have her fortune told.” Warily, Jael stood. “You must realize that involving you in all this would just have made things worse.”
“I realize that you don’t trust me. Consequently, I cannot help but wonder if you would care to end our relationship. I don’t much like the idea myself. But you must do as you think best.” When she didn’t answer, Hubert turned away.
Jael contemplated Hubert’s back, his slender and deceptively foppish figure. When she spoke at last, it was in a gruff little voice.
She had had much time to think while lying trussed up in the temple, waiting for a murderer, Jael explained. It had been a singularly unpleasant experience, and one that had led her to nourish doubts about the course upon which she had embarked. The idea of dying did not appeal to her. Even worse than the dread of being murdered was the fear that she might never see Hubert again.
“And,” said Jael, screwing up her formidable courage, “I realized that I’d never told you how I feel about you,
Hubert, too, had been granted considerable time for contemplation during this unquiet country holiday, and the conclusion he arrived at was that he would be miserable without his touchy, treacherous companion.
And I you,
he said. He reached out and drew her close. “And now, my love, are we done at last with the ghosts of Greenwood?”
“Please God.” Jael nudged him. “Look.”
Together they watched the horseman riding down the road toward them. “Enter Uncle Max,” said Hubert, “now that all unpleasantness has ended, perfectly on cue.”
The fifth Baron Bligh drew up his steed with a flourish. They made a splendid pair, the deep-chested black Arabian stallion, the tall man with a face that would have done Lucifer proud. His skin was bronzed from exposure to the sun, his hair raven-black and streaked with grey. He wore tight-fitted buckskin breeches and superlatively shined top boots; a sapphire blue coat, buff-colored waistcoat and frilled shirt; a deep stiff cravat tied in an intricate design. Flung around his broad shoulders was a cloak lined with silk serge and trimmed with Russian lambskin.
Over the camp fell a hush broken only by the soft notes of Giuseppe’s flute. All eyes were on the newcomer. All eyes, that was, except those of the woman on whom rested his own gaze.
At last, Dulcie raised her head. Casually, she strolled toward her spouse. He reached down a strong arm and swung her up onto his lap, touched his heel to his horse’s flank. With his wife across his saddlebow, the fifth Baron Bligh rode off into the night.
And so another adventure ended, thought Sir John, with mingled relief and regret. On the morn, he and Crump would depart for London. The Chief Magistrate pulled out his handkerchief and applied it briskly to his nose.