Authors: Madeline Hunter
Who was the same person. Trustee. Guardian. Everywhere she turned in this conversation she kept bumping into Vergil Duclairc.
“Mr. Peterson, I would like you present while I speak with Lord Laclere. The situation he has created is intolerable. I am being kept a prisoner here.”
She sent the butler to request Vergil's attendance. Mr. Peterson looked very discomforted at the notion of the upcoming interview. By the time Vergil came through the door, deference had replaced shrewdness in those gray eyes, and the balding pate showed tiny beads of sweat.
“Lord Laclere, this is Mr. Peterson. He is my solicitor.”
Vergil coolly examined the attorney with bored, aristocratic hauteur. Mr. Peterson dissolved into an obsequious fluster. Bianca fought the urge to scold him to be a man.
Vergil turned critical eyes on her. “I did not know that you had engaged a solicitor, Miss Kenwood.”
“It was one of the first things I attended to when I arrived in London.”
“Your grandfather's solicitor, or mine, or I myself, would have been happy to explain anything that you needed to know.”
“I thought it best to have my own representation and to decide for myself what I needed to know.”
“I trust that Mr. Peterson has satisfied your curiosity on all points.”
“Almost all. He has explained about the business partnerships that I have inherited, and suggested that you should have sold them out, for safety's sake.”
“I did not put it that way, my lord,” Mr. Peterson rushed to explain. “I only explained the law regarding a partner's financial responsibilities.”
“As you should for your client. I am obtaining information about the value of the partnerships. As trustee, it would be irresponsible for me to give them away. There have been several inquiries regarding purchase that I will pursue when I am in a better position to judge their fairness. These things take time, however. It is difficult to obtain honest information from the managers and other owners.”
“Excellent, my lord. Just the sort of careful oversight one would expect. I think it is obvious that all is in perfect order, Miss Kenwood, and that you are fortunate to have Lord Laclere taking careâ”
“When do the companies pay out the profits?” she asked.
Steely forbearance set Vergil's jaw and mouth. “If there are profits, the companies pay out once a year. It will be reinvested in government funds.”
“Have the funds themselves paid since my grandfather's death?”
“Has that income also been reinvested?”
“Most of it.”
Most, but not all. “Mr. Peterson, would you be so kind as to wait for me in the library?”
Mr. Peterson was delighted to do so. He almost stumbled in his hasty retreat.
Bianca took a chair facing Vergil. “I want you to arrange for the income to be at my disposal.”
“I have no intention of doing so.”
“Even if you were the most sensible of young women, I would fail in my duty if I handed it to you. As it is, you have expressed intentions that would make me a conspirator in your ruin. It is out of the question.”
“Mr. Peterson explained that a guardian is expected to be reasonable in releasing those funds.”
“A sum is available to meet your needs. Tradesmen need only send their bills to me. Modistes and others who cater to women are accustomed to that. Barring extravagant spending on your part, we need never speak of this again.”
“Since there are no modistes in this house, I am in no danger of being accused of extravagance.”
His expression cleared a little. “My apologies. Of course you would like to enjoy the fruits of your good fortune. I will arrange for Penelope to take you up to London in a few weeks.”
“Thank you. However, I would like some pin money now. I need to purchase a few items of a personal nature.”
As she expected, the word personal kept him from probing. He opened a drawer in his desk.
“I expect that twenty pounds should suffice,” she said.
“That is a lot of pins, Miss Kenwood.”
“I will use some of it to pay Mr. Peterson.”
“Mr. Peterson can send his bill to me.”
“I prefer he does not. I prefer that he remembers just who has engaged him. Nor do I think it right that I ask him to await my expectations.”
Vergil removed several notes from the drawer and placed them on top of the desk. He walked to her chair, no longer hiding his irritation. He towered above her and she barely managed not to cower.
“I am not accustomed to such blunt discussions of money, especially with women. Nor am I accustomed to questions that imply suspicion regarding my honesty and judgment in managing your estate, especially in front of a man with whom I have no acquaintance.”
He bent and grasped the arms of her chair. She shrank against its back, away from the sparks flashing in the eyes just inches from her face. “The fact is, Miss Kenwood, right now Uncle Vergil is thinking that his disrespectful ward could use a good spanking.”
Her mouth fell open in indignation. He whipped away and strode to the door.
As soon as he departed, she scooped up the notes and joined Mr. Peterson. She handed him ten pounds. “This is to pay you for your fee and expenses so far. I want you to take what is left and establish an account for me at a bank. Use your own name if necessary.”
“Surely Lord Laclere has an account on which drafts can be written.”
“I want my own, and I don't want him to know about it. Write to me with the information once it is done. I also want you to find out about these offers to purchase the business partnerships.”
“If you insist, I will see what I can learn. Should I write to you here?”
“Yes. I don't think the viscount intends to allow me to go anywhere for a very long while.” Probably not until she married or turned twenty-one.
She had no intention of doing the former, and refused to wait for the latter. If Mr. Peterson obtained the names of the parties interested in her partnerships, she might find a way to procure the funds necessary to go to Italy, despite the obstacle of Vergil Duclairc.
Vergil had barely cooled his temper after the surprise meeting with Mr. Peterson when another unexpected visitor arrived late that afternoon. Adrian Burchard, one of Vergil's friends, entered Vergil's study, mercifully distracting him from insistent, erotic images of taming Bianca Kenwood.
“It has been too long, Burchard,” Vergil said, welcoming him.
“If you spent more than a few days in London at a time, it would not have been so long. Where have you been keeping yourself?” Adrian's dark, foreign-looking eyes revealed no expectation of an interesting answer.
Nor did he get one. Vergil gestured to the desk. “The family's affairs occupy most of my time, I'm afraid.” The statement was true, but not the gesture and its implications. He spent no more time at Laclere Park than he did in London.
Of all his friends, Burchard was the most likely to become aware of the gaps. “I escape north frequently, to my own property there. I do not have to be a viscount then,” he added, to cover that eventuality. “It is good of you to ride down and save me from being one this afternoon.”
“I regret that this is not a social call. Let us walk outside, and I will explain.”
Curious, Vergil accompanied him out the drive. Adrian led him to the spot where another lane broke off to circle the property. There, in the shade of a tree, a carriage waited.
A graying man with a prominent hooked nose sat inside it.
Vergil pulled Adrian aside. “You could have warned me that you brought Wellington with you.”
The duke overheard. “I told him to bring you here without announcing my presence, and Burchard fulfills his missions to the letter,” he said as he climbed out of the carriage.
“Your Grace honors us with this visit.”
“This isn't a visit, which is why I had Burchard bring you to me here. It is no insult to your sister, Laclere. I merely don't have the time today for drawing room chats.” He gestured with his walking stick. “This appears a pleasant, shaded path. Let us take some exercise.”
Vergil fell into step, with Adrian alongside. Adrian had become a protÃ©gÃ© of Wellington's. The great man's patronage had secured a seat in the House of Commons for the Earl of Dincaster's third son.
The rhythmic fall of their boots beat out a few minutes of time. The duke did not even try to fill it with pleasantries.
“I have come to speak of a delicate matter,” he finally said. “There is no good way to broach it, so I will be blunt. I have come to ask you about your brother's death. I am always curious when men accidentally inflict mortal pistol wounds on themselves. I am in a position to know that it is not an easy thing to do. I want to know if, in your brother's case, it was not an accident, but suicide.”
Vergil gave Adrian a resentful look, only to have his friend subtly shake his head. The evidence that Adrian had not been disloyal or indiscreet checked the anger.
“Yes. Only the family and a few friends know.”
“I appreciate your confidence in my discretion as well, but receiving confirmation of my suspicions is hardly good news. Tell me, did you never think it odd that we had two prominent suicides in the same week? Your brother's and Castlereagh's.”
“My brother was prone to fits of deep melancholy. The Foreign Minister was deranged. It was a coincidence.”
“Laclere, I am not convinced it was a coincidence. Is there any chance that your brother was being blackmailed? Did you find any evidence of that? I ask because there is some indication that Castlereagh was.”
“I thought that suspicion had been laid to rest. By you.”
“Considering his position, I could hardly let it stand. The man was clearly delusional, so I gave it little credence. However, the last time I saw him he did say something to me about receiving a letter. He alluded to fears of exposure.”
Vergil suspected where this was going and he did not want to tread that path. “As you said, he was delusional.”
Wellington paced five steps before he spoke again. “The letter writer claimed to have proof of certain criminal activity.”
Vergil stopped, forcing Adrian and Wellington to as well. “And so, after months of mulling it over, that detail led you to see some connection to my brother?”
“Laclere, hear him out,” Adrian said.
“I'll be damned if I will.”
“I understand your anger, Laclere. I assure you that the only connection I saw was two suicides, one of which may have been the result of blackmail.” Wellington's voice got stern. “I ask you again, do you have reason to think that your brother was being blackmailed too? Lest you be tempted to lie to protect his name, let me say that I think that others are being victimized now, that Lord Fairhall's hunting accident in May was not what it seemed, and that we will see more ruin and death if we do not get to the bottom of this.”
The fury spun out of Vergil. It was not the Iron Duke's severe tone that caused that. He had been carrying this secret for almost a year, wondering if the pattern and connections that he suspected were his own delusions.
“Yes, I think that Milton was being blackmailed. I think that is why he killed himself.”
“He left a letter. I found it in his papers, where he knew I would look after I took up the reins of the estate. It alluded to a betrayal, whether his or another's, I do not know. Mostly it spoke of the family, and how it would be better if he left the stage before we were ruined. I wanted to believe he meant the finances, which were in dire condition by then. However, I have wondered if his hand was forced.”
They had sat down on a fallen tree while he told his story. Wellington drew pictures in the dirt with his walking stick as he listened.
“Let us assume that it was blackmail in both cases. Was the goal their deaths?” Adrian asked.
“That is the question, isn't it?” Wellington said.
“For my brother, it may have only been money. There would be no way for someone to know that he could not pay. Our financial condition was not obvious. He spent as if there were no problem.”
“Normally, one would assume that a blackmailer only wants to bleed his victim. However, the timingâwe have had evidence that there are radicals trying to assassinate members of the government and House of Lords. How much easier, and safer, to affect things this way.”
“My brother was not prominent in the government.”
“He had an interest in politics.”
“A theoretical interest.”
“A radical theoretical interest. It may have brought him into contact with men who espouse violence, and who would entangle him, and, through him, others,” Wellington said. “He may have innocently communicated or associated with such men, only to have them use the connection against him later.”
The comment hung in the air, begging a response. The duke had neatly articulated Vergil's own fears about the reasons for Milton's death.
“Did you find letters to indicate a friendship between your brother and the Foreign Minister?” Wellington asked.
“I did not look for any.” It was a lie. A damn lie. He would not allow supposition to become fact so easily, however.
“Perhaps you should.”
“I have been pursuing other directions. I do not think there is any direct connection between these deaths, except perhaps the same blackmailer. I am more interested in finding that man than in learning the sins he discovered.”
“So that is why you have not been in London much, nor here,” Adrian said. “Have you made any progress?”
“A little.” Damn little, considering how much of his time and his life he had invested in the search.
“There is nothing that I can do in this, except observe men's demeanors and wonder if they are worried,” Wellington said. “I have reason to think that several are. It is a diabolical notion, that someone is ferreting out secrets and using them to intimidate or extort your friends. Or worse, that men are being pressed so much that they take their own lives to escape.”