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Authors: Veronica Bennett

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BOOK: Vice and Virtue
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“If you will not return to the bedchamber, will you come into the dining room?” he asked, sitting down beside her on the stair. “The fire in there has not quite gone out.”

Aurora’s instinct was to refuse. But refusal would result, at best, in a lonely, freezing night followed tomorrow by a humiliating return to her mother’s house. How she had longed to get away from there! But now it was safety, not adventure, that she craved. She must not give in to instinct; she must use the intelligence her husband insisted she possessed, and consider the alternative.

She thought quickly. Perhaps Edward had a good reason for his elaborate deception. If he was indeed a villain, and had tricked her in order to ruin her, he would surely have saved the truth for tomorrow morning. But he had not taken advantage of her innocence. He had respected her virtue. In return, it may be wise to respect his request.

Tentatively, she spoke. “Do I have your word, sir, that you will not touch me?”

“You have my word, madam.”

“Then…” She could not stop trembling. She must get warm. “Then I will come with you, and hear you. But I make no promise beyond that.”

Her hair, hanging untidily over her face, made a screen through which she could see his expression, but he could not so clearly see hers. His evident relief struck her so hard that she studied his face for a few moments. Was it indeed true that beside her sat a decent man driven to trickery for reasons he was desperate to explain? Or was he a better actor than the men his friend had hired?

“Thank you,” he said simply. “Now, shall we sit by the fire?”

Having promised not to touch her, Edward did not offer Aurora his hand. She pushed herself up with the aid of the banister post and followed him through the open door of the dining room. Neither of them mentioned the wreckage of the banquet on the table. Aurora sat on the bench beside the fire, wrapping her feet in her cloak. She wondered if she had ever been so cold in April before.

“I am not an impostor, if that is what you dread,” said Edward, bending to stoke the near-dead fire. “My father, Mr Henry Francis, was an advisor to King William, and my mother, Elizabeth, one of Queen Mary’s favourite ladies-in-waiting. My mother died some years ago, but my father, as you know, is lately taken from me. He was well loved by His Majesty, and well rewarded. He left a large fortune, a London house and an estate in Lincolnshire. I am his only heir, but I am penniless.”

He straightened up and sighed. Not, Aurora thought, in self-pity. It was the sigh of a wounded, defeated man. She studied him from behind her veil of hair as he settled himself in a chair.

“I have not inherited anything,” he continued. “No fortune, no property. My father altered his will and bequeathed it all to a man who was once his good friend, but became his enemy. And the document seems perfectly genuine.” He leaned towards her, his fingers linked in an attitude of supplication. “But I am convinced my father’s sudden disinheritance of me is a vile falsehood contrived by criminal means.”

Aurora pushed back her hair. “Criminal?”

“In short, my father was murdered,” said Edward. His voice became animated. “The murderer forged his signature on the altered will.” His eyes, so impenetrably dark they reflected the struggling flames, searched her face. “I am determined to expose this crime, and avenge it in my father’s name.”

The distant call of an owl was the only sound. Fatigue rushed over Aurora. This had surely been the longest day of her life. She tensed her muscles, fearing that if she did not, sleep would overwhelm her. But Edward was still watching her, willing her to reply.

“I can scarce believe it,” she confessed.

His face took on an expression of sympathy. “You are bewildered, of course, and wearied by today’s events. I will be as brief as I can, but I must tell you the story.” He took his gaze from her face and concentrated it upon his clasped hands. “My father, myself and a party of friends celebrated his fifty-first birthday on the seventh of December last, at Marshcote, our country house. On the eleventh of December, he returned alone to London. On the twelfth, he was found dead by the housekeeper. I rushed to our house in Mayfair as soon as I heard. It was apparent that my father had been struck down by some sudden indisposition and had died where he stood. The physician declared him dead from a convulsion, or from eating something bad. And when the will was read, to everyone’s astonishment it was found that the beneficiary had been changed from myself to one Josiah Deede, a former close friend of my father’s.”

“But surely a will cannot be changed without a lawyer to witness it?” Aurora could not help asking, though her interruption would keep her longer from her bed.

“There
is
a lawyer’s signature upon it,” said Edward patiently. “That of my father’s attorney, Lord Snaresborough. The will is dated the fourteenth of June last year. Lord Snaresborough died in a riding accident on the twentieth of June, less than a week later. Why he should have committed his signature to my father’s extraordinary request remains a mystery. I have spoken to his widow and his associates, but none of them can throw any light on it. Needless to say, I contested the will.”

“And what happened?”

“I could not convince Sir John Wilkinson, who presided at the contesting, that mischief was afoot, and the will was allowed to stand.”

“Sir John Wilkinson?” Aurora was surprised. This judge was one of the few of the Catholic faith who had retained their positions in the Protestant court of King William. She could only conclude that his connections, his wealth and his will were stronger than those of his opponents.

“Josiah Deede also follows the Roman church,” explained Edward. “His conversion to it was at the root of my father’s estrangement from him. And he is himself an attorney, so who knows what corruption may have taken place? Lawyers, as anyone will tell you, are not always to be trusted.”

“True,” said Aurora ruefully. She had heard her father say the same thing. “But can you not confront this man? Surely, the fact that he worships at the same altar as Sir John Wilkinson cannot keep a murderer from the gallows?”

“It is useless to confront him!” retorted Edward. “He will deny all. My father’s signature is there on the will for all the world to see. I must find proof before I accuse him, or I will find
myself
on the wrong side of the law.”

Aurora had heard something in Edward’s voice that had not been there before. “You will not confront this man because you
fear
him,” she said. “Are you afraid that if he has murdered once, he will murder again?”

He tapped the arms of his chair, looking into the fire. Aurora saw his throat move as he swallowed repeatedly. “Yes, I fear him, and I have reason to.” His intense gaze fell once more upon Aurora, but she did not flinch. “How old were you in sixteen eighty-eight?” he asked. “I was thirteen. Do you remember the tumultuous events of that year? The ‘Glorious Revolution’, as some call it?”

Aurora considered. “I was no more than five years old. But a couple of years later, I remember playing a game with my sisters called ‘Sending the Old King Packing’. Poor Eleanora was the Old King, and we would shoo her from the room and slam the door after her. I was always the New Queen, dressed in an old petticoat of my mother’s. Flora would be the New King from Holland, with a paper crown and the worst Dutch accent in Christendom.”

“Thus are great events remembered in children’s rhymes and games,” said Edward grimly. He leaned forward and spoke with urgency. “That revolution, which sent King James into exile, may have been bloodless, Aurora, but his Catholic supporters favour another revolution, which we all fear will not be so bloodless. Josiah Deede supports King James’s claim to the throne and, like many converts, he is a religious zealot. He hates Protestants with extraordinary fervour.”

Aurora frowned. “Why did he convert, when those of the Catholic faith are so ill-favoured at court?”

“For the usual reason,” said Edward grimly. “Fortune. Shortly after my parents married, Deede too chose a wife, a Catholic woman who brought him great riches, amassed by her family from the slave trade. My father, though repelled by his friend’s conversion, was a tolerant man. He tried to continue in Deede’s society. But Mrs Deede would not allow it, and Josiah Deede became irrevocably estranged from my family.”

Despite Edward’s best efforts to coax the fire into life, it sent out little warmth. A bone-deep chill had descended upon the room, and upon Aurora. “Intolerance is the cause of many wars, my father used to say,” she observed bleakly.

Edward nodded. “That is true. But jealousy is the cause of many quarrels. You see, when our present king and queen ascended the throne, Josiah Deede was banished from court, while my father rose in King William’s favour. Deede began to put about untrue gossip, saying my father was a gambler who would soon be bankrupt, and that he neglected his family. My father tried to keep this from me, but of course as I grew up I could not help but hear it. Josiah Deede’s son, who frequents coffee houses, continues to spread vile rumours, about me as well as my late father. And of course, my father’s final act of disinheriting me merely adds fuel to the fire of such slander.”

Edward’s passionate telling of the story made such a cold-blooded plot seem more likely than Aurora ever would have imagined. Her heart trembled at the thought of the anguish the death of her mother in such circumstances would bring upon her and her sisters. “You are quite convinced of this, are you?” she asked.

“I am. And so is Richard, who has known my family for many years.”

Aurora pondered. “So what do you intend to do, to right this wrong?”

“This is where
you
enter the story.” Edward’s eyes were fixed upon her face. “My dear Aurora, Richard and I talked endlessly of that sweet moment of revenge, but until I saw you I could not think of a way to achieve it. What I told you of my futile search for a wife is perfectly true. You are the first woman I have ever looked upon who has stirred my heart. I confessed this to Richard, and we devised a plan.

“I would pretend I still had my riches, and try to persuade you into a clandestine marriage so that no one,
especially not my father’s enemies
, would know of your existence. Who better than a pretty stranger to uncover the truth by stealth?” Forgetting his promise to refrain from touching her, he gripped her hand tightly. “God will guide me in my quest to uncover this villainy. I beg you, if you will not act as my wife, will you act as my spy?”

Aurora stared at him. “Your
spy
, sir?”

“That was my word.”

Aurora’s knowledge of spies was meagre. She knew, of course, that the government employed men who secretly kept watch on people suspected of subversive activity. Since the spies, too, were necessarily engaged in subversive activity, she had always wondered whether spies actually spied on other spies, and no one knew exactly who anyone else was, or what they were doing. It sounded like an impossible task.

Edward’s expectant gaze was fixed on her. “Do you think you can do it?”

Aurora
did
think she could do it. She was suddenly possessed by a sense of recklessness, attracted by this opportunity to pursue freedom and adventure, with the added prospect of disguise, dissembling and deceit. But she was reluctant to betray her excitement to Edward. If he could confound her, she could confound him. She pulled her hand away. “Sir, I have little doubt that I
can
do it, but the question is whether I
will
.”

He looked at her warily. “
Will
you, then?”

“Perhaps. But I have a question. How do I know that what you are telling me now is true, since you have told me so many lies?”

“Richard will confirm it,” he said. Releasing her, he spread his hands as if this were too obvious to say.

“But Richard could be in league with you!”

“He
is
in league with me.” Anxiety was leaking away from Edward’s face. He was almost smiling. “He is my loyal supporter.”

“Do not twist my meaning,” Aurora told him tartly. “Richard himself could be the murderer! You and he could be engaged in an infamous plot to discredit your father’s former friend, get him hanged for a crime he did not commit and steal
his
fortune!”

Edward gave a brief laugh. “I suppose we could, my dear clever Mrs Francis. And if we were, I have no doubt you would find us out within five minutes.” He leaned back, contemplating her proudly. “It is clear you have the attributes required for a secret existence – suspiciousness, distrust, the desire to interrogate, the need for constant confirmation. And you have the wit to think your way out of any situation. You will make a most excellent spy, do you not agree?”

She did not laugh. “I agree to nothing, sir,” she said. “But if I did, what is the first thing you would have me do?”

“The first thing,” he said, with apology in his eyes, “is to dupe your mother and sisters. They must not know of your true whereabouts. They must think you live here, at Hartford House, which they believe to be
my
house. But they cannot come here, and you cannot visit them in Dacre Street until all is resolved. You must write them letters full of lies, I am afraid, about my increasingly bad health and your inability to leave the house or receive them. Richard will bring you the letters they write in reply.” He regarded her carefully. “Will you agree to this temporary severance from those you love?”

Aurora did not hesitate. “If I must,” she replied. “And what is the second thing?”

“To invade the Deedes’ privacy. Josiah Deede has a son and a daughter. My father said the son was a foppish bully, and the daughter, scarred by the smallpox, a recluse. I never saw any of the Deedes until the will-contesting, which was attended by Josiah and his son, who looked much as my father described.” His gaze flicked to Aurora’s face, then away again, as if embarrassed. “It is with this son, whose name is also Josiah, and his sister, whose name I do not know, that you must engineer a meeting. You are about the sister’s age. You must disguise your identity, enter the Deedes’ house, penetrate their daily lives, ingratiate yourself with them and search for evidence of their father’s guilt.”

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