The Edge of Desire

The Edge of Desire

The 7th Bastion Club Novel
First published 2008
Avon Books
ISBN 978-0-06-124636-4

They proved their bravery fighting for His Majesty's Secret Service and were rewarded with brides of great beauty and breeding. But one member of the Bastion Club has remained a bachelor...until now.

"Christian, I need your help. There is no one else I can turn to...L."

When Christian Allardyce, 6th Marquess of Dearne, reads those words, his world turns upside down. Lady Letitia Randall is a woman like no other, and the day he left her behind to fight for king and country was the most difficult of his life. He never forgot the feel of her lips against his, but never expected to see her again. Yet now she seeks his help, and Christian knows he will not resist her plea.

Letitia believes that Christian abandoned her when she needed him most, and she hates to call on his aid. But to clear her brother's name, she has sworn to use every weapon at her command, even if it means seducing her ex-lover. Yet all the while, Christian is waging a war of his own - a campaign of pure pleasure and sweet revenge that will take them both beyond the edge of desire.

Nominated for a prestigous RITA® AWARD for Best Regency Historical Romance from ROMANCE WRITERS OF AMERICA®.

A New York Times, USA-Today & Publishers Weekly Bestseller!

"TOP PICK!! The Bastion Club's latest installment features an ultra-passionate and honorable hero and a prideful heorine, along with a masterfully crafted murder mystery - loaded with red herrings - just what we expect from an author who knows the Regency's dark corners as well as the bright lights of a ballroom. Another not-to-be-missed, can't-put-it-down keeper." Romantic Times.

"One of the best Stephanie Laurens has written. It has all the critical elements to keep you turning the pages late into the night and two lead characters I fell in love with, agonized with, cheered for, and celebrated with tears of happiness." RomanceNovel.TV

"The Edge of Desire will keep readers on the edge of their seats, from the first page to the stunning revelation that will carry us into the last book. I can't wait!" A Romance Review

"Ms. Laurens delves into the social distinctions between classes in this wickedly captivating romance. Watching her portrayal of Letitia's famous temper as it bursts will have readers rolling in laughter." Fresh Fiction.

August, 1816

He should make her wait.

Thoughts and wild conjecture roiling in his head, Christian Michael Allardyce, 6th Marquess of Dearne, slowly descended the stairs of the Bastion Club. He'd been nursing a brandy and his despondency in the library, when Gasthorpe, the club's majordomo, had appeared with a note.

A note summoning him to face his past.

That past awaited him in the front parlor, the room he and the club's other six owners, all ex-members of one of the more secret and select arms of His Majesty's services who had established the club as their bolthole against the importuning ladies of the ton, had stipulated as the only room in which ladies were to be permitted. In the months since the club's opening, that rule had, incident by incident, fallen by the wayside, but Gasthorpe had rightly shown this particular lady into the formal front parlor.

He really should make her wait.

She'd said she would, twelve years ago, but then another had come along, and while he'd been buried deep in Napoleon's Europe, she'd lightly thrown aside her promise to him, and fallen in love with and married a Mr. George Randall.

She was now Lady Letitia Randall.

Instead of the Marchioness of Dearne.

Deep in his heart, where nothing and no one any longer touched, he still felt betrayed.

She'd been Lady Letitia Randall for eight years. Although he'd returned to England ten months ago, and he and she moved in the same, very small circle, they'd exchanged not one word. They hadn't even exchanged nods. Even that was too much to expect of him, given their past. She seemed to understand that; coolly detached, haughtily distant, as if he and she had never been close--never been lovers--she'd studiously kept her distance.

Until now.

Christian - I need your help. There's no one else I can turn to. L.

That was all the words her note had contained, yet between them those bare words spoke volumes.

His feet continued steadily down the treads. He should make her wait, yet he couldn't imagine what had brought her there. Nor could he imagine why his staff at Allardyce House in Grosvenor Square had divulged his whereabouts. His butler, Percival, was a paragon of his calling; nothing short of a force of nature would have induced him to disobey his master's express orders.

Then again, the lady presently occupying the front parlor had qualified as such from her earliest years.

Stepping off the last tread, he studied the parlor door. It was closed. He could turn around and retreat, and let her wait for at least ten minutes. Even fifteen. The desperation in her plea guaranteed she would wait. Not meekly--meek wasn't in her repertoire--but she would grit her teeth and remain until he deigned to see her.
Some part of him wanted to hurt her-as she'd hurt him, as he still hurt. Despite the years, the wound was raw; it still bled.

The faint elusive scent of jasmine drew him to the door.

It was curiosity, he told himself, that had him reaching for the handle. Not the incredible, irresistible attraction that had from the first drawn them together--that even after twelve years of neglect and eight years of disillusion, still arced across a crowded ballroom.

And made him ache.

Opening the door, steeling himself, he went in.

The first surprise was her weeds. He paused in the doorway, rapidly assessing.

Seated in one of the armchairs flanking the small hearth, the chair facing the door, she was clothed in unrelieved funereal black, dull and…on any other lady it would have looked somber. On her…even fully veiled as she was, the depressing hue did nothing to dim her vitality. It screamed in every line of her svelte form, a humming, thrumming energy, harnessed to some degree but forever in danger of escaping-exploding; she only had to move a gloved hand to instantly attract and fix any man's attention.

Certainly his.

She demonstrated; raising both hands, long slender palms and delicate fingers encased in fine black pigskin, she gripped the edge of the black veil and lifted it, setting it back over her piled hair.

So he could see her face.

Finely-drawn features, a pair of ruby lips sculpted by a master, the lower lush and full and tempting. Large, almond-shaped eyes, their color an infinitely changeable medley of greens and golds, set above high, chiselled cheekbones. Lush dark lashes, a straight, patrician nose, all set in a oval of perfect porcelain skin.

The catalog of her features didn't do her face justice; it was the epitome of feminine aristocratic beauty not solely because of its composition but also because of her animation. In repose her face was serenely beautiful; awake, her expressions were startlingly vivid.

That afternoon, however, her expression was…contained.

He frowned. Stepping into the room, he closed the door. "Your father?"

He'd assumed the full mourning signified that her father, the Earl of Nunchance, had passed on. But if the head of the house of Vaux had died the ton would have been abuzz with the news. Not only had he heard not a whisper, but Letitia's face, naturally pale, held no hint of sorrow; if anything, she seemed to be reining in her temper.

Not her father, then. Regardless of the familial disruptions that were commonplace among the Vaux, she was sincerely fond of her eccentric sire.

Her perfectly arched dark brows drew down, a slight frown that informed him he was being slow-witted.

"No. Not Papa."

The sound of her voice rocked him. He'd forgotten how long it had been since he'd heard it. Low-toned, with just the faintest natural rasp, it was a voice that evoked visions of sin.

Regardless, today those tones carried a certain tension. She drew in a tight breath, then bluntly stated, "Randall has been murdered."

As if saying the words had released her from some spell, she finally met his eyes. Hers sparked with undisguised temper. "Randall was beaten to death in his study last night. The servants found him this morning--and the idiot runners have fixed on Justin as the murderer."

He blinked. "I see." Moving into the room, slowly to give himself time to dissect her news, he sank into the armchair facing hers across the hearth. Lord Justin Vaux was her younger brother. She was presently twenty-eight, nearly twenty-nine, making Justin twenty-six. Brother and sister were close, always had been. "And what does Justin say?"

"That's just it-we can't find him to ask. But rather than do so, the authorities have fixed on him as the most convenient scapegoat. They are, no doubt, organizing a hue and cry as we speak." Letitia bit off the words, her tone acid. Now she'd got over the most difficult hurdle--getting Christian to speak with her--she felt able to concentrate on the matter at hand.

Which was definitely better than concentrating on him.

Watching him stroll, ineffably graceful, across the room toward her--allowing herself to--had been a mistake. All that harnessed power condensed into one male--a male no one with functioning eyes would rate as anything less than dangerous--was a phenomenon guaranteeed to distract any living, breathing woman. Her most of all. Yet today she needed to reach past the glamor and deal with the man.

His expression was rarely informative, so did little to soften the hard angles of his face, the edged cheekbones, the long planes of his cheeks, the austere set of his features-large gray eyes set under a broad brow, straight brown brows, surprisingly thick lashes, thin chiselled lips and the strong prow of his nose. His squared chin bore witness to the stubbornness he usually hid beneath a cloak of easy charm.

To him, charm and grace had always come easily, something she, being a Vaux and therefore attuned to all the nuances of appearance, had always appreciated.

Still did; if anything, the effect he had on her, on her senses, was more pronounced than she recalled. She knew very well just how deeply she still loved him, but she'd forgotten what it felt like, forgotten all the physical manifestations that came with that soul-deep connection.

She hadn't been this close to him for twelve long years. Her decision to keep her distance when he'd reappeared among the ton had clearly been wise; even with a good six feet separating them, she could feel her ribcage tightening, enough to affect her breathing.

Enough to make her feel just a touch giddy. To have her nerves stretching in telltale anticipation.

An anticipation that would never be fulfilled.

Not now.

Not after she'd married Randall.

His gray gaze had shifted from her; now it returned, focused and intent. "Why did the authorities fix on Justin? Was he there?"

Relief glimmered; that he was asking questions boded well. "Apparently he called on Randall last night. Randall's stupid butler, who thoroughly disapproves of all Vaux, Justin in particular, was only too happy to point his finger. But you know as well as I do that, all appearances to the contrary, Justin would never kill anyone."

Christian caught her eye, read therein both her temper and her worry. Her anxiety. "You don't believe he would. I might not believe he would. That doesn't mean he didn't."

Baiting a Vaux was a dangerous pastime, but this time she didn't bite back.

Which told him how deeply worried she was.

And despite the histrionics that were her Vaux heritage--the family weren't known as "the vile-tempered Vaux" without cause--she wasn't a female who worried unduly.

Which explained why she was there, appealing to him.

To the man she knew him to be.

One who had never been able to refuse her anything. Not even his heart.

She'd held his gaze steadily. Now she simply asked, in her low, raspy-seductive-voice, "Will you help?"

He looked into her eyes, and realized she didn't, in fact, know how he would answer. Didn't know how deeply in thrall to her he still was. Which meant….

He arched a brow. "How much is my help worth to you?"

She blinked, then searched his face, his eyes; hers narrowed. After a pregnant pause during which she assessed and considered his true meaning, she replied, "You know perfectly well I'll do anything--anything--to clear Justin's name."

Absolute decision, total commitment, rang in her tone.

He inclined his head. "Very well."

He heard himself urbanely agree; he hadn't known he would, certainly hadn't thought what he might ask of her in return. Wasn't even sure of his motives in pressing such a bargain on her, but anything gave him a wide field.

Revenge of a sort for all the years of hurt might yet be his.

At the thought, he stirred, whether in discomfort or anticipation not even he could say. "Tell me what happened-the sequence of events leading to Randall's death as you know it."

Letitia hesitated, then gathered the black reticule that had sat throughout in her lap. "Come to the house." Rising, she reached up and flipped down her veil. "It'll be easier to explain there."

* * *
She'd thought it would be easier--having places and things to point out to distract him--but having him by her side again kept her nerves in a state of perpetual reactiveness. Ready to respond to any touch, however slight, to luxuriate in the steady warmth that radiated from his large body, luring her closer.

Gritting mental teeth, she pointed to the spot on the study floor of the house in South Audley Street where she'd been informed her late husband had lain. "You can see the bloodstain."

The spot in question lay between the fireplace and the large desk.

She wasn't particularly squeamish, but the sight of the reddish-brown stain had her gorge rising. No matter what she'd felt for Randall, no man should die as he had, brutually bashed to death with the poker from his own fireplace.

Christian shifted closer, looking down at the stain. "Which way was he facing--toward the fire or the desk?"

He felt like a flame down one side of her body. She frowned. "I don't know. They didn't tell me. And they wouldn't let me in here to see--they said it was too…gory."

She raised her head, fought to concentrate on what they were discussing-struggled not to close her eyes and let her other senses stretch. She'd forgotten how tall he was, how large-forgotten he was one of the few men in the ton who towered over her, who could make her feel enclosed, shielded…protected. That wasn't why she'd turned to him, but at that moment she could not but be grateful for his size, his nearness, for the reminder of virile life in the presence of stark death.

"They've taken away the poker." Drawing in a tight breath, she turned and waved at the table by one of the armchairs flanking the hearth. "And they've cleared the table-there were two glasses on it, so I've been told. Brandy in both."

"Tell me what you know. When last did you see him?"

The question gave her something to focus on. "Last night. I went to dinner at the Martindales, then on to a soiree at Cumberland House. I returned rather late. Randall had stayed in-he sometimes did when he had business to attend to. He waylaid me in the hall and asked me in here. He wanted to discuss…" She paused, then continued, knowing her voice, hardening, would give away her temper, "A family matter."

She and Randall had been married for eight years, but there'd been no children. With any luck Christian would imagine that had been the subject of their discussion, the subject she'd so delicately refrained from mentioning.

His gaze on her face, Christian knew-just knew-that she was hoping to lead him up some garden path. Declining to follow, he made a mental note to return to the subject of her late night discussion with her husband at some later point. For now…"Discussion?" With a Vaux involved, "discussion" could encompass verbal warfare.

"We had a row." Face darkening, she continued, "I don't know how long it went for, but I eventually swept out"--a gesture indicated the force of her sweeping, something Christian could imagine with ease--"and left him here."

"So you argued. Loudly."

She nodded.

He let his gaze travel the room, then looked back at her. "No broken vases? Ornaments flung about?"

She folded her arms beneath her breasts, haughtily lifted her chin. "It wasn't that sort of argument."

A cold argument, then, one without heat or passion. For her, with her husband, that struck him as odd.

He looked away, again scanning the room. In reality looking away from her so he wouldn't focus on her breasts. Breasts he knew--or had, at one time, known well. Hauling his mind from salacious images from the past--all the more potent for being memory rather than imagination--took more effort than he cared to contemplate. He shifted. "So you left Randall here, hale and whole, and then what? What next did you know of this?"

"Nothing at all until my dresser came rushing in this morning to tell me about the body." She turned away from the bloodstain.

He moved with her, alongside her, as she glided to the window overlooking the street; she halted before it.

"By the time I dressed and got downstairs, the butler--he's an officious little scourge by the name of Mellon--had taken it upon himself to summon the authorities, who assigned an investigator from Bow Street--a weasely, narrow-minded man whose only concern is to close the case as soon as possible regardless of the truth."

She fell silent, but before he could frame his next question, she volunteered, "One other thing my dresser babbled--she was in a complete tizz--was that this morning the door to the study was locked, with the key on the floor some way inside. Mellon and the footmen tried to force the door, but couldn't." They both turned to consider the door, a heavy, inches-thick oak panel with a lock of similar ilk. "Luckily, someone in the household can pick locks. That was how they got in…and found him."

Quitting her side, he prowled toward the door; his senses remained distracted, but his intellect was engaged. "How far inside? Guess from what she babbled."

"A few yards, not more. That's what it sounded like."

He was standing staring at the floor, absorbing the implications of the key being in that spot, when a girl appeared in the doorway. Looking up, he met her eyes, then glanced up at her hair, and smiled. "Hermione."

"Lord Dearne." She bobbed a curtsy. "I didn't know if you would remember me."

He let his smile turn charming, as if he hadn't forgotten the scrap who'd been all of four when he'd last seen her. Luckily, her hair was a telling feature; in common with, as far as he'd ever heard, all those born to the house of Vaux, she possessed luxuriant dark locks that, despite their darkness, could never be described as anything other than red. With that combined with the evidence of her features, a softer, milder version of Letitia's, placing her hadn't been difficult.

Her attention shifting to her older sister, Hermione advanced into the room. Christian noted she didn't look at the bloodstain; her focus was Letitia.

He glanced at Letitia; she was looking down, mind elsewhere. She was patently undisturbed by Hermione joining them.

Glancing at him, Letitia continued, "That's really all I know of my own knowledge. What I gathered from the investigator-"

"No." He held up a staying hand. "Don't tell me. I want to hear it from him, direct."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Without my interpretations?"

He suppressed a grin. "Without your appellations."

She humphed, a sound Vaux females had down to an art, then looked at Hermione. "Are you all right?"

Hermione blinked. "Of course. I was wondering about you."

Letitia shrugged. "Once Justin turns up, and the fools who call themselves the authorities admit it wasn't him and start looking for the real murderer, I'll be fine."

Christian inwardly blinked. No sarcasm ran beneath her words--with a Vaux one never needed to guess--yet she'd just lost a husband of eight years in shocking circumstances….

He studied her; she was looking at Hermione, but there was nothing in either woman's attitude beyond sisterly comfort. While Hermione was presently a less intense version of Letitia, she'd no doubt grow into her dramatic powers in time. Both sisters seemed at ease with each other, the only real difference being in age, and the suggestion of care, of viewing Hermione as a person she needed to protect and watch over, that colored Letitia's eyes.

He recognized the emotion. Realized he knew it all too well. He stirred. "If you'll summon the butler--Mellon, was it?--I'd like to speak with him."

Interrogate him. He needed to focus on the matter at hand, rather than let his Jezebel play on his sympathies, however unconsciously.

Letitia crossed to the bellpull and tugged; the alacrity with which the summons was answered had her smiling cynically--and exchanging a look with Christian. Obviously Randall's staff found his presence noteworthy, enough to hover close.

Despite that, Mellon dutifully fixed his gaze on her, ignoring Christian. "You rang, ma'am?"

"Indeed, Mellon. Lord Dearne"--she waved at Christian--"has some questions he'd like to ask you. Please answer as best you can."

Mellon reluctantly turned to Christian, who smiled easily, charming as ever.

She could have warned him; Mellon turned rigidly frosty.

Christian saw, but chose to ignore the man's reaction. "You've been Mr. Randall's butler for…how long?"

"Twelve years, my lord."

Long before Letitia's marriage to Randall; Christian glanced at her, but all he could detect in her face, her stance, was a species of resigned indifference toward Mellon. She didn't like the man, but had let him remain as head of her household staff; he had to wonder why. He returned his gaze to the butler. "How did you get on with your late master?"

Mellon puffed out his chest. "It's a…" He broke off, blinked, then his chin firmed."It's been a pleasure working for Mr. Randall, my lord."

"And the rest of the staff?"

"Feel the same, my lord. None of the staff had any problems with the master." Mellon's eyes shifted toward Letitia, but stopped before he made contact.

The man's antagonism was obvious; Christian wondered at its cause. The Letitia he knew was invariably kind to the lower orders; the impulse was bred into her, all but instinctive, not something she could readily change. There had to be some other reason behind Mellon's patent dislike of her.

"Very well." He let his voice relax. "If you could tell me what, to your certain knowledge, drawing solely from your own observations, happened last night. Start from the point where Lady Randall returned home."

Mellon primmed his lips like an old woman, but was only too ready to oblige. "The mistress came in and the master asked to speak with her. Here, in the study. They closed the door so I don't know what was said, but there was a great to-do." His gaze flashed to Letitia, then returned to a point beyond Christian's right shoulder. "We could hear her ladyship ranting and raving, as she's wont to do."

Ah. There we have it. Devoted to his master, Mellon resented Letitia's treatment of Randall.

Christian paused to reassess; Randall was the gentleman Letitia had betrayed him for, yet all he'd seen thus far of her attitude to the man seemed totally inconsistent with the love-match their marriage was purported to have been. He made a mental note to learn more about Randall, especially about his and Letitia's marriage. But first…his apparently unquenchable protectiveness prodded him to ask, "Did anything occur during the time her ladyship and Mr. Randall were arguing in the study?"

"Indeed, sir, although not in the study." Mellon's eyes gleamed with vindictiveness. "Lord Justin Vaux, the mistress's brother, called to see the master. It was the master he wanted, not the mistress. He could hear the carry--on in the study, so he said he'd wait in the library. I led him there. He told me I didn't need to wait on him--it was latish by then. Said he'd show himself in once the mistress had left."

"So you retired?" His tone conveyed his surprise; Percival never retired while he was up and about unless he, himself, ordered him to.

Mellon looked stricken. "I wish I hadn't now, but his lordship's often here--makes himself at home, and the master had mentioned earlier that he was expecting him, so, well…it was clear he didn't want me about. So I went."

Even without glancing at Letitia, Christian had little doubt how to interpret Mellon's statement. Justin hadn't liked Randall, and had therefore called frequently, "making himself at home," supporting Letitia--very likely keeping an eye on her. That was revealing in itself. Although Justin and Letitia were close, they'd never lived in each other's pockets. And there was Hermione, too. Christian glanced at her, and wondered if Letitia's protective attitude had some specific cause beyond basic family instinct.
Clearly, Justin had made his dislike of Randall sufficiently obvious, hence Mellon's rabid dislike of him.

"So beyond that point you have no further knowledge of events." He caught Mellon's eye. "You can't say for certain that Lord Vaux left the library, went into the study and met with your master."

Mellon's lips pinched. "No, but I can say he didn't leave until more than an hour later. My room's above the front door, and I heard it open and shut. I got up and looked out--just to be sure--and saw Lord Vaux making his way down the steps and onto the pavement."

"Which way did he turn?"

"Left. Toward Piccadilly."

Christian cocked a brow at Letitia.

Arms again folded, she was glowering, quietly smoldering, but there was worry behind her eyes. When he waited, she reluctantly vouchsafed, "Justin's lodgings are in Jermyn Street."

Mellon had given the correct direction without hesitation; he most probably had seen Justin leave. Christian thought, then asked, "If anyone else had called on your master last night, after Lord Vaux left, or even before, would you have known?"

"Indeed, sir--my lord. If they'd rung the bell, I would have heard--it rings in my room as well as in the kitchen. Even if they'd knocked on the door, I couldn't help but hear, my room being where it is."

There seemed little point in suggesting he might have been deeply asleep. "Very well." Christian turned toward the bloodstain on the floor. "Let's move on to this morning. What happened once you came downstairs?"

"I was in my pantry seeing to the cutlery for the breakfast table, when Mrs. Crocket, the housekeeper, came to tell me that the tweeny who does the study of a morning couldn't open the door. I went straight away, thinking perhaps the master had gone to his study early. Sometimes he does lock the door. But when I knocked, there was no reply, not even when I called. Then one of the footmen looked through the keyhole-I was surprised he could as the key should have been in it. He turned green, and said the master was lying on the floor, and there was blood." Mellon paled.

"What happened then?"

"We tried to force the door, me and the two footmen, but it wouldn't budge. We were thinking of breaking a window and putting someone through when one of the maids told us the scullery boy could pick locks. We got him up here, and he managed to open the door. We rushed in…" Mellon's eyes were drawn to the bloodstained floor. "And we found the master there, dead. Quite dead."

His voice quavered on the last words. Christian gave him a moment to compose himself.

He glanced at Letitia; her face was chalk-white. "I realize this is distressing"--he addressed the comment more to her than Mellon, then returned his gaze to the butler--"but if you could describe how Randall was lying-on his back, or on his face?"

All color drained from Mellon's countenance. "On his back, my lord." His jaw worked. "There wasn't much of his face left to speak of."

Letitia made a small choked sound and turned away; hand at her throat, she stared out of the window. Hermione had paled, but was less distressed.

Tamping down a disconcertingly strong urge to suspend the interview to spare Letitia, who would certainly not thank him, Christian forged on. "So it would seem Randall was facing the fire, and his attacker. I understand there were two glasses of brandy on the side table--had they been drunk?"

Mellon rallied at the change of subject. "Both had been sipped, but neither drained."

"Where, exactly, was the key?"

Mellon looked toward the door, and pointed. "There--by that knot in the wood."

Hermione shifted. Christian glanced at her, and saw she was attending avidly. He glanced at Letitia; she was attending, too, but not with the same intensity. He looked again at Hermione. Her eyes were wide; she was definitely tense. Without looking at Mellon, he said, "Put your finger on the spot."

Mellon obeyed. "The best I can recall, it was here."

Hermione's eyes hadn't left Mellon, but as he straightened, she glanced at Christian expectantly.

Unsure what was going on, he looked at Mellon and asked the obvious question. "How do you imagine the key got there?"

"I can't rightly say, my lord."

"If you had to guess?"

"I think…that Lord Vaux locked the door behind him, then slipped the key back under the door."

Christian nodded. That seemed the most likely explanation, except… "Why would Lord Vaux do that? If he'd just murdered your master in gruesome fashion, why go to the bother of locking the door and slipping the key back inside?"

Mellon frowned, unable to answer.

"To give himself time to scarper."

The words drew all eyes to the door; they came from a whippet-thin individual who'd appeared in the hall. One glance at his ferrety features and Christian knew who he was.

Letitia had stiffened to a scarifying degree. In tones worthy of the haughtiest duchess, she said, "Dearne, permit me to introduce Mr. Barton. Of Bow Street."

She didn't need to say anything more; her tone effectively conveyed her contempt. Clearly Barton had already succeeded in thoroughly putting up her back.

Deliberately mild, Christian nodded to Barton. "Lady Randall has asked me to investigate the circumstances surrounding her husband's death. Might I ask why you imagine Lord Justin Vaux has, to use your phrase, scarpered?"

Barton wasn't at all sure how to act toward him; Christian left him to make up his own mind, which resulted in Barton opting for caution. He answered civilly. "In light of the circumstances, I've been around to his lordship's lodgings. I was given to understand that her ladyship here"--Barton glanced at Letitia--"sent a message requesting his presence earlier, but had received no reply. Not surprising, as his lordship has disappeared."

Letitia looked startled, and shocked. So did Hermione.

"Disappeared?" Letitia stared at Barton; Christian could all but see the wheels in her mind churning. Then she sniffed and looked away. "I daresay he's gone to the country to visit with friends. It is August, after all. I suspect, Mr. Barton, that your 'disappearance' is nothing more than that."

Barton looked pugnacious."Would you say his lordship normally leaves for country parties in a tearing rush late at night? With his man, who hadn't had any warning?" When Letitia said nothing, Barton went on, "Because that's what happened according to his landlord who lives downstairs."

After a moment, Barton glanced down, drawing all attention to what he carried in one hand; it appeared to be a cloth garment, folded many times. "And then there's this."

He shook out the garment, revealing it to be a gentleman's coat. "Would this be one of your brother's, your ladyship? Do you recognize it?"

Letitia frowned. She walked closer, considering the coat's cut. "It looks like one of Justin's." Halting before the coat Barton obligingly displayed at arms' length, she raised her brows. "Is it from Shultz?" She reached for the left lapel.

Barton whisked the coat away. "You might want to be careful about touching it, your ladyship. There's blood on it, see--most likely your husband's.

Every drop of blood drained from Letitia's face.

Christian was at her side instantly, before he'd even thought. "Barton." The single word resonated with menace, yet was nothing to what he felt. His hands had fisted; he battled an urge to strike the runner. His tongue itched to tear strips off the man, but…they needed to learn what he'd discovered. "Did the landlord have any idea where his lordship was headed?"

He'd barked out the question. Barton stiffened; he wanted to refuse to answer, but didn't dare. "No."

"Did he know how they left-in a hired carriage or did Lord Vaux drive his curricle?" He glanced at Letitia as he asked; lips tight, she nodded. Justin did indeed keep a curricle in town.

Barton had noticed the interplay. Eyes dark with suspicion, he nevertheless grudgingly conceded, "His lordship drove off in his curricle."

"Do you have any further light to shed on this matter? Any information at all?"

"No, my lord. The body's been taken to the police surgeon. When he's done with his examination, the corpse will be released to her ladyship for burial." Barton used the word "corpse" deliberately, his gaze sliding to Letitia.

Christian battled an almost overpowering urge to throttle the man. "Very good." His harsh tones had Barton looking his way again; he caught the man's eye. "When that time comes, you-personally-will inform Mellon, and he will convey the information to me. Her ladyship is not to be disturbed with this matter again. Any query you may have, you may make through me." He held Barton's gaze. "I trust I make myself plain?"

His last words came out in a menacing purr, much like a lion anticipating his next meal. Letitia heard, not just the words but every nuance they conveyed, and could have kissed him.

Unfortunately, she couldn't, not now, not ever again, but he clearly still cared, somewhere in his heart, for her. She'd spent all her life among men like him; she knew how to read their signs.

Under Christian's hard gaze, Barton nodded. "As you wish, my lord."

Christian inclined his head. "Good." He paused, then added, "Rest assured that any pertinent information we find that sheds light on Randall's murder will be conveyed to you at the earliest opportunity."

Letitia turned her head and stared at him. He was being conciliatory--to the enemy! That was an olive branch if she'd ever seen one. She was about to draw breath and unleash some of her suppressed feelings--on which of them, Christian or Barton, she hadn't made up her mind-when Christian caught her eye.

Just a look--one pointed, intent glance--and, inwardly grumbling, she grudgingly shut her lips.

Folding her arms again, she fixed Barton with a chilly-icily furious-look.

He glanced her way, then returned his gaze to Christian and nodded. "I'll be on my way, then." He bobbed a general bow, then turned and left.

At a nod from Christian, Mellon followed, closing the door--the inches-thick oak door--behind him.

The instant it shut, Letitia let her temper loose. "How dare he!" She drew a huge breath. And raved on.

Christian glanced at Hermione. Although she remained silent, she clearly egged her sister on, agreeing with every dramatically and forcefully elucidated sentiment. Her enthusiastic "hear, hear!" was clear in her eyes, in her whole being.

Resigned, he leaned back against the edge of the heavy desk and watched Letitia rant and pace, then rant some more. No one ranted like a Vaux-they had the activity down to a fine art. He was quietly amazed at how inventive she still was; colorful phrases and strikingly adverse comparisons--"addlepated, imbecilic moron with less wit than a dormouse"--tripped from her tongue with barely a pause for breath.

Better to let her get it out of her system. That was the Vaux's folly, their foible; all that natural energy had to be released.

Eventually finishing her dissection of Barton, his progenitors and potential offspring, she swung around.

And fixed him with a fiery glare. "And as for you--how could you? You slapped him down well enough to begin with--and I thank you for that--but after one agreement, one halfway reasonable comment, you patted him on the head and let him go! Worse--you all but promised to share whatever we find!" Halting a pace away, she glared into his eyes; with him propped against the desk, hers were level with his. "What the devil were you thinking?"

"That he might learn something we need to know." Christian kept his voice mild; it reflected how he felt. He smiled, as always amused; he'd never been affected by Vaux histrionics, which was one point that always fascinated the Vaux. Almost without exception, others got extremely nervous when they let their tempers loose; most tended to edge away, or escape if they could. Not him. He found their unbounded, unleashed energy refreshing. For all their apparent venom, they were never intentionally malicious; contrary to what many thought, they were neither dangerous nor insane.

Their temper tantrums were all fireworks; not in the least harmful if handled with care, and capable of being highly entertaining.

Especially as no Vaux had ever held his immunity against him. Certainly not Letitia.

His calm words had given her pause. She considered him through eyes in which the searing flame of her temper was slowly dying; he could almost feel the energy in the air around her fading.

"There's an old but wise saying," he offered. "'Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.'"

Something changed in her face; a coolness slid into her expression. "Well, as to that, you would surely know."

There was a quality in her tone he neither recognized nor could place. She held his gaze for an instant, then turned away. Her gaze passed over the bloodstain on the floor, then she started for the door. "If you've finished here?"

He straightened, glanced around. "Yes." He fell in in her wake, pausing to allow Hermione to proceed him through the doorway. "But I have more questions for you two."

Without comment Letitia led him across the front hall into the room diagonally opposite the study. She gestured as she swung to face him. "The front parlor. I tend to sit here more than in the drawing room."

To his left lay an archway leading deeper into the house; through it he saw ranks of bookshelves packed with books. He pointed. "The library?"

When she nodded, he headed that way. Letitia and Hermione followed.

The library was a good-sized room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves covering much of the walls; halting in the middle of the room, he surveyed the books filling them. "Randall?"

"Yes. Not that he ever read them."

He glanced at Letitia. "He bought them, but didn't read them?"

She shrugged. "He didn't read. He could read, of course, but he never read a book, not that I saw."

Christian glanced again at the shelves. Many of the Vaux were bibliophiles. Most read voraciously; even Letitia would occasionally be found with her nose in a book. The idea of a total non-reader marrying into the family seemed…odd. And while it wasn't unheard of for a gentleman to set up a library just for show, there were a lot of books in that room.

As if sensing his thoughts, Letitia said, "Perhaps he saw them as an investment."

Walking past him, she went to a wing chair by the fireplace. A book had been left open on the small table beside it. She picked it up, then softly snorted. "Justin. This is what he was doing while he waited for me to leave Randall."

He'd followed her and looked over her shoulder. "Seneca--Letters from a Stoic." His lips quirked. "Appropriate reading for a male Vaux."

She laid the book aside and turned to face him. "What else did you want to know?"

He gestured to the wing chair; she sank into it as he waved Hermione to its mate. Once they were both seated, he looked down at them. "If we want to shift suspicion from Justin, we need to reconstruct the crime and demonstrate that someone else had the opportunity to kill Randall."

Step by step, he took them over what they knew, from the time Letitia returned home through the chaos of the following morning. The exercise got them nowhere.

He grimaced. "Barton's right--the most obvious suspect is Justin."

"Perhaps," Letitia grimly conceded. "But he didn't do it."

"The key," Hermione said. "Don't forget that. You said it yourself." She fixed Christian with large eyes. "Why would Justin do such a thing? It makes no sense, not if he were the murderer. So he can't be the murderer."

Christian looked into her eyes, and wondered, not if but what she was hiding; that wasn't the first time she'd spoken in Justin's defence.

He glanced at Letitia; after spending a few hours in her and Hermione's company, he felt increasingly certain that the Vaux temperament was as he remembered it. They hadn't changed. Letitia's betrayal of him aside, loyalty, especially of the familial variety, was ingrained. Letitia had--he felt certain with no real thought for herself--walked across the gulf between them, braving whatever wrath he might seek to visit on her--whatever price he might ask--to gain his help in clearing Justin. Hermione demonstrably felt the same. The question in Christian's mind was whether she'd acted on that feeling, and if so, how.

He fixed her with a direct look. "Do you know anything more about what happened last night?"

She blinked, slowly, then shook her head. "No. Only what I told you."

He didn't believe her. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Letitia was also now regarding her sister with a slight frown. But she said nothing.

Both, he felt perfectly certain, would lie through their teeth if that's what was needed to protect Justin, even though the Vaux rarely lied…and family loyalty worked both ways.

It was very possible Justin was acting to protect….

He looked at Letitia, waited until she felt his gaze and raised her eyes to his. He studied those eyes, eyes he knew very well in all their green and gold splendor, eyes he'd in the past always been able to read. "Tell me you didn't kill Randall."

She blinked, but continued to return his steady regard. He saw her make the connection, her mind following the path his had trod. Her brows rose fractionally. "I didn't kill Randall." An instant passed, then she grimaced and added, "I often felt like killing him, but no, I didn't. I wouldn't. No more than Justin would."

And that, Christian reflected, was the right answer. In contrast to Hermione, he had no doubt whatever that Letitia was telling the truth.

He nodded. "Very well. That leaves us with one large and immediate question. Where is Justin?"

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