Table of Contents
“A doyen of humorous Regency-era romance writing.”
Raves for Barbara Metzger’s Romances
“Funny and touching—what a joy!” —Edith Layton
“Lively, funny, and true to the Regency period . . . a fresh twist on a classic plot.” —
“Absolutely outstanding . . . lots of action, drama, tension . . . simply fantastic!” —Huntress Book Reviews
“Metzger’s gift for re-creating the flavor and ambience of the period shines here, and the antics of her dirty-dish villains, near-villains, and starry-eyed lovers are certain to entertain.” —
“The complexities of both story and character contribute much to its richness. Like life, this book is much more exciting when the layers are peeled back and savored.”
Affaire de Coeur
“Remarkable . . . an original, laugh-out-loud, and charmingly romantic read.” —Historical Romance Writers
“A true tour de force . . . Only an author with Metzger’s deft skill could successfully mix a Regency tale of death, ruined reputations, and scandal with humor for a fine and ultimately satisfying broth. . . . A very satisfying read.”
—The Best Reviews
“[Metzger] brings the Regency era vividly to life with deft humor, sparkling dialogue, and witty descriptions.”
—Romance Reviews Today
“Metzger has penned another winning Regency tale. Filled with her hallmark humor, distinctive wit, and entertaining style, this is one romance that will not fail to enchant.” —
Also by Barbara Metzger
Queen of Diamonds
Jack of Clubs
Ace of Hearts
A Perfect Gentleman
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First published by Signet Eclipse, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, September 2007
Copyright © Barbara Metzger, 2007
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eISBN : 978-1-4406-2099-7
For Valentino, my new best friend
hy do people tell lies, Papa?”
Lord Royce wiped the blood from his little boy’s nose. “Because they can, son. Just because they can.”
“But you told me to tell the truth. Always.”
The earl sighed. “And I am certain most fathers tell their sons the same thing. But children do not always listen. Is that what the fight was about?”
The child nodded. “Timmy Burdock said it was Cousin Daniel’s dumb old idea to steal the apples from Widow Flood’s orchard. I called Timmy a liar and he hit me, so I hit him back.”
“Why didn’t Daniel hit him?”
“Because Daniel is so much bigger. That wouldn’t have been fair, would it?”
Lord Royce dipped his handkerchief in a basin of water his manservant brought, admiring the boys’ code of honor, but wishing his slightly built son would not feel duty bound to defend his bigger cousin. Seeing blood drip from his precious child’s nose tore at his heart, even if the cause was a boyish squabble. “So what happened then, and how did you get so wet?”
“Widow Flood threw a bucket of water on us. And she’s going to tell the vicar.” He shivered, but not with the chill of his damp clothes. “She says Vicar will cane all of us. Will he, Papa?” The six-year-old raised his blue eyes to the earl—the same black-rimmed, heavily lashed sapphire eyes all the Royce males possessed.
Lord Royce could not lie to the boy. He never had, and would not start now. “For lying and fighting, and for stealing the apples? He just might.”
“Daniel, too? It wasn’t his idea, and he didn’t hit anyone.”
If the notion to trespass on the crotchety old widow’s property was not Timmy Burdock’s, and not Daniel’s, the earl had a good idea whose idea it might have been. “Perhaps if you confess, and offer to help stack Mrs. Flood’s wood for her after lessons at the vicarage, then Daniel might get off with a scold, although he did eat some of the apples, I’d wager. No one should ever take anything from another—not his good name, not even a mere apple. Do you understand?”
Young Rex, as Jordan, Viscount Rexford, was called, hung his head. “Yes, Papa. But Timmy should not have lied, either.”
For a moment the earl was afraid— But no, of course Rex knew who had plotted the orchard theft, since Rex himself was the culprit. Then his boy said, “But how did Widow Flood not know Timmy was lying?”
The handkerchief fell to the floor at the earl’s side. “How should she know, son?” he asked, holding his breath for the answer he knew was coming, the one he’d been dreading for years, ever since the boy’s birth.
Rex’s dark brows knitted in confusion. “Can’t everyone tell the difference between a lie and the truth?”
“Can you, Rex?”
The boy smiled, showing a gap where a tooth was missing. “That’s silly. Of course I can.”
The earl knelt to his son’s level and stared into those eyes, so much like his own. “What if I said I bought you a real horse for your next birthday, not another pony?”
The child threw his arms around his father and kissed him noisily on the cheek. “Oh, Papa! That’s capital! That’s what Daniel says, you know.”
Lord Royce slipped out of his son’s enthusiastic embrace, sweet though it was, despite the dampness. He could feel beads of sweat breaking out on his own skin. “What if I said the mare’s name is Cowslip?”
“Why, that’s a clanker, Papa. What is her name?”
Rex shook his head no, now smiling at the game.
The earl studied the boy’s face for a sign that he was guessing. Rex looked as certain as if his father had said the sun would rise tomorrow. “Very well. Your new horse’s name is Angel.”
“No, it isn’t.”
Rex jumped up and down. “Oh, Papa, does that mean she is a black? That’s just what I wanted, you know.”
He knew. But how did Rex know that name was the correct one? The earl lifted his son to sit on his lap in the worn leather armchair, glad he could still cuddle with this boy he loved so much, and wanted so much to protect. His son would grow past kisses and confidences soon enough. Why, he was in long dresses just yesterday, it seemed. Now he wore short pants and skinned knees, bloodied noses instead of diapers. The earl sighed and said, “Tell me, Rex, can you always tell when someone is lying? Not just a guess, and not just when you know the truth?”
“Like when Cook says there are no more macaroons, because she is saving some for her own supper, or when Nanny says she is visiting her sister on her afternoons off?”
The earl vowed to find out exactly where the nursemaid was going on her free time, and why Cook would lie to the boy, but not now. “Like that. How do you know? How do you know I did not eat the rest of the macaroons, or that Nanny is not going where she says?”
Rex frowned and hunched his shoulders. “I just do. Don’t you know, Papa?”
Lord Royce brushed back his son’s dark curls and kissed his forehead. “Yes, I do. I was hoping you did not.”
“I don’t understand, Papa.”
“No, I do not suppose you do. I will do my best to explain, but I fear I cannot understand all of it myself.”
Rex nodded solemnly. “That’s true.”
“I always tell you the truth. Except when we are playing games, like before.” When the boy just stared up at him expectantly, the earl cleared his throat and went on: “Not everyone can tell a lie from the truth. Only a lucky few.”
“You mean I can tell Vicar that Timmy wanted to steal the apples, and Mr. Anselm will believe me?”
“No, that is not what I mean. Not at all. You must not lie, ever, not even if you will not be found out. You have a gift, and must treat it honorably.”
“Like my horse?”
“Yes. Just as you must care for the mare and never mistreat her, you must also show respect for this other gift.”
“I do not know if I want this one, Papa.”
“I am afraid you have no choice. Men in the Royce family have had the truth-seeing back through the ages. Now, it seems, you do, too.”
Rex considered that for a moment. “And no one else does?”
“No, and you must never tell anyone of this gift, for they will think you . . . odd.” Just how odd, the earl did not want to tell his son; how the talent for truth-seeing was frightening to some, horrifying to others—including Lord Royce’s own wife, Rex’s mother. But he had to make the boy understand. “One of our ancestors, Sir Royston, was hanged as a wizard.”
Rex’s dark blue eyes grew round as he thought of Merlin and magic and all the creatures in his fairy stories. “You mean I can change Timmy Burdock into a toad?”
“No. I mean Sir Royston’s ability to recognize the truth was so uncanny, so different from what other people knew, that they thought he was sent by the Devil. He was not, of course. Such a gift”—if a gift it was, and the earl was never sure—“could only come from heaven. His son, and all of the Royce sons who came after, were more careful. They became magistrates and ambassadors and advisors to the Crown, all positions where knowing the truth was valuable, but they never let on about the talent.” They’d become wealthy through knowledgeable investments, well titled for service to the country, and well respected for their sense of honor. “People admired them as wise men.”
“Like you, Papa. Daniel’s mother says you are the bestest, fairest judge in all of England.”
The earl laughed. “Daniel’s mother is my own sister. You must not put credit in her boasting.”
Rex shook his head. “No, it’s true. I can tell, remember.”
“And if I say you are the best son in the entire world, would you believe me?”
With a gap-toothed grin the boy replied, “Of course, it is true-blue,” which earned him another hug.
“Soon you must learn to be a bit more discriminating between truth-saying,” the earl said, “and when someone believes what they say; when it is true to them. Of course your aunt Cora believes I am wise beyond measure. That does not necessarily make it true.”
“It is true,” Rex insisted.
“Thank you, my lad. But other judges’ families must also consider their relative the wisest, just as every patriot believes his country the finest, and every believer feels his religion is the only path to heaven. The truth is not always black and white, you see.”
“Of course not. It is blue.”
“Pardon? The truth is blue?”
Now the boy looked uncertain. “That’s what I said. Don’t you know it, Papa? Can you not see it?”
“Do you mean the truth is . . . a color to you?”
“Of course. When someone lies, that’s red. When they
they are telling the truth, like you just said, then it’s yellow. Vicar Anselm talks yellow a lot. Except when he tells Mrs. Anselm’s mother she is welcome to come visit. That’s a big fat red lie. And sometimes people say things that are like rainbows, because they don’t know, but hope so, I guess. And sometimes their words are all mudcolored—whenthey are confused, I think. Don’t you see the colors when people talk?”
“No, I don’t. I hear the truth in their words, like the purest note. A lie jangles, like when the pianoforte is out of tune, or when a church bell is cracked. My father said he always got a headache when a lie was told, and his father could smell the truth. One of our ancestors grew hot or cold, and another felt a buzzing in his ear. You see, the gift appears to everyone differently. No Royce ever saw colors, not that I ever heard of, so your gift is special, lucky boy.”
The earl was not sure his son was so lucky after all, and now that he knew the boy could sense his uncertainty, he explained: “Sometimes even the most wonderful of gifts has disadvantages. What if Midnight bolts at thunderstorms or gnaws on the paddock gates? What if your old pony grows sad when you ride Midnight instead? Just so, knowing the truth is not always comfortable.”
“Like when I say I will punish you for stealing Widow Flood’s apples if Mr. Anselm does not. You know it is true, but you might wish it otherwise. Or when your friends tell fibs rather than hurt your feelings. White lies, they are called.”
“Like when Nanny says I look handsome, even with my tooth missing? I know she is telling a Banbury tale.”
“Or when we went into the village yesterday, and the apothecary told Mrs. Aldershot what a pretty baby she had, and told Lady Crowley her bonnet was charming. Such sour notes I heard! But just think if they knew he was lying. Their feelings would be hurt.”
Rex giggled. “Not as much as if he said the baby looked like a monkey and the hat looked like a coal scuttle.”
The earl ruffled his son’s curls. “Those are polite lies, and you will have to get used to them if you want to go out in the world.”
“Will I have to tell them?”
“Of course not. You can be polite without speaking a falsehood. You can tell Mrs. Aldershot how amazingly small her infant’s hands are, and tell Lady Crowley that her new hat suits her. Or you can say nothing at all. Just tip your hat and smile.”
“The way you did, Papa?”
“Precisely. But there is a worse disadvantage to our gift than knowing false compliments for Spanish coin. Sometimes people will fear you. They cannot understand how you know they lie, and so they are afraid you can read their thoughts. Then you lose their trust, or else they are wary of saying anything at all.”
“Is that what happened with Mama?”
“No, she—” He could not lie, not to his own son. “Yes. Partly. There were other reasons she left, reasons that had nothing to do with truth or lies.”
They were both silent, thinking of the countess so far away in London. They were both wondering what they could have done or said to change her mind and make her stay. They were both missing her. The earl was drinking to dull his pain; the boy was fighting to relieve his anger. They both had tears now in their similar, startling blue eyes.
After a bit, Rex used the bloodied handkerchief to blow his nose. “Do you think she is coming back?”
“What did she tell you?” Lord Royce asked, hope tiptoeing through his heart.
“She said she would.”
“And . . . ?”
The boy understood the unspoken question. “And it was all muddy.”
And that was why people lied.
wenty years later, Viscount Rexford was once more in his father’s library, once more wounded, confused, and in despair.
Lord Royce wished with all his heart that he could hold the boy, kiss away his hurt, make everything better with the promise of a new horse. But his little boy was a soldier, and war was not something a father could make disappear. Rex’s leg might heal, the scar on his cheek might fade, but those wounds to his soul, Lord Royce feared, were something Rex would carry for the rest of his life.
At least he had come home. Too many fathers’ sons had not. Timmy Burdock would not bedevil the neighborhood ever again, and Daniel, the earl’s nephew, was in London, by all reports drinking himself to death, trying to accomplish what the French had not. The three had joined up, for England and for the adventure, despite their families’ anguish. Timmy had gone as a common foot soldier, but the earl had bought colors for his son and nephew when he could not convince them to stay safely in England. For that matter, they had been getting into too much trouble in Town, Rex’s hidden talent causing whispers of cheating and bribery and unfair advantages. Where Rex went, Daniel had to follow, as usual.
No one was about to allow the only heir to an earldom to face the enemy, so Lord Royce used his remaining influence—and a shadowy connection at the War Office called the Aide—to have them assigned to a noncombat division. The Aide was one of a handful of people who knew about the family’s truth-seeing, and he saw a great need for Rex’s gift. With the viscount’s unique talent and his cousin Daniel’s intimidating size, the two had risen through the ranks, attached to the Intelligence Service. They had become known, and widely feared by both French and British troops, as the Inquisitors, Wellesley’s most valued team of interrogators. Their methods were kept blessedly hushed, but they seldom failed to provide necessary, infallibly accurate information from captured prisoners, enabling the generals to plan their strategies and protect their own forces. Lauded by the commanders, the cousins were distrusted by their fellow officers. Spies were already considered less than honorable, and whispers of torture or Dr. Mesmer’s new hypnotism or outright sorcery contributed to the stigma of the fact-gathering department. The Inquisitors never had to resort to barbarous tactics, of course, but the commanders found it expeditious to fan the rumors. The other young officers were glad to have the Inquisitors’ findings, but they steered clear of the cousins. Captain Lord Rexford’s piercing blue gaze saw into a man’s very soul, and Lieutenant Daniel Stamfield’s huge hands were always clenching, as if itching to choke the life out of his next unfortunate victim.
Then Daniel had to sell out when his father passed away. Rex was grievously wounded shortly afterward, perhaps because he did not have his stalwart companion defending his back. Daniel believed that, anyway, according to his mother, and was submerging his grief and guilt in a sea of Blue Ruin.
Now Rex was home, too, for what that was worth, and for all the earl saw of him. The young man had found his own way to cope with a crippled leg, an empty future, a world of nightmarish memories. Rex could not tramp across the countryside, but he could ride endlessly, and he could sail toward the horizon, not having to speak to anyone, not having to see their pity—or their fear. His only company was an enormous mongrel he’d rescued on his wanderings, an ungainly mastiff bitch who was utterly devoted to him. Rex named her Verity, because she alone among all females never lied to him. When he rode too far or too fast, Verity sprawled across the front door of Royce Hall, waiting. When he took his boat out on days fit for neither man nor beast, the big mastiff lay on the dock, waiting. She never ate while he was gone, never barked, and never let anyone touch her. Sometimes the earl would sit beside the dog, waiting too, worrying that he might still lose his only child—not to war, but to a reckless, nameless grief.
What could a father do? The earl pulled the blanket closer around his knees. He was not old, but he was not strong either, with a stubborn, debilitating cough that came every winter, and took longer to leave with each passing spring. More than that, he was a near recluse himself, seldom leaving the Hall, rarely entertaining company. He read his law books and occasionally contributed an article to a legal journal, but he was no longer one of the highest-ranking judges in the land, not since the scandal. Now Lord Royce was a rural justice of the peace, adjudicating disputes between his neighbors: straying cows, unpaid bills, verbal contracts gone awry. Rarely, when a prisoner of the assizes courts was desperate, Lord Royce might be called on to lend his legal expertise. Other times, if a case interested him, he might do some investigating on his own, when he had the energy to visit the prisons, to see for himself if the accused were truly guilty.
He had thought Rex would help him when the boy got home. Rescuing the innocent from a harsh justice system seemed a worthy crusade for a retired young warrior, especially one who could tell in an instant when the witnesses were lying, when the prosecutors were supplying false evidence. Rex had not been interested, preferring his bone-numbing, brooding excursions.
Such solitude was not good for the lad, Lord Royce knew. How could the earl not know, having spent almost half of his own life alone? Such loneliness sapped a man’s strength and sometimes even made him wish for an end to the aching sorrow. Lord Royce brushed a bit of traitorous dampness from his cheek as he remembered the empty space in his own life, the empty rooms attached to his where his countess should have slept. He quickly replaced those memories, as always, with the image of the beautiful little blue-eyed sprite who used to laugh and giggle and bounce on his lap. It was too late for him, but the earl could not let his heir, his beloved boy, dwindle into a broken, bitter old man like himself. No, he
not, not while he had breath in his body.
The earl reached for the letter on the table by his side and smoothed out the creases. Maybe this piece of paper held the answer.
This could not be happening to her.
How many hundreds of prisoners had cried out the same thing? Two or ten thousand, Amanda did not care. This simply could not be happening, not to her. God have mercy, for she had not done anything wrong!
Well, she had, if one could call stupidity a crime. And she had, indeed, argued with Sir Frederick Hawley. Of course she had; he was a bounder of the blackest sort. Amanda and her stepfather had argued frequently since her mother’s death five years ago. How else was Amanda to see that the servants were paid, that his own young son and daughter were properly cared for, that their house did not fall down around their ears? Sir Frederick was a miser, a mean, dirty-tempered, dirt-in-his-pores dastard. And he was dead.
He’d been all too alive that morning when they had fought over Amanda’s latest suitor. The heir to a barony was going to call to ask for her hand in marriage—and Sir Frederick said he was going to refuse, again. It was not that Amanda loved Mr. Charles Ashway, but he was a pleasant gentleman who would have made a decent husband, and a husband was her only chance of escaping Sir Frederick’s clutches. At twenty-two years of age, she had long since given up on girlish dreams of finding true love and was ready to settle on a kind, caring man. She respected and admired Mr. Ashway, who seemed to offer her respect and admiration in return, two things sadly lacking since Amanda’s mother had wed Sir Frederick ten years ago.
Her mother had been lonely, two years a widow. Amanda could well understand that. She could understand, too, how her mother could feel sorry for Sir Frederick’s motherless children, Edwin and Elaine. What she could not understand was how her mother could not see Sir Frederick for what he was.
Not three months after the wedding, he had dismissed Amanda’s beloved governess, claiming that since his spinster sister was well educated enough to teach his own children, she would be adequate for Amanda. Amanda’s nursemaid went next. She was too old, he claimed. And what need for Amanda’s pony, in the city?
Then, when Sir Frederick realized that instead of his being elevated to his wife’s social position, the former Lady Alissa Carville was demoted to the fringes of the polite world that he inhabited, she became nothing but a burden to him. Amanda’s mother was a frail burden, moreover, too sickly for his baser needs. Worse, her widow’s annuity ended at her marriage, and the bulk of her wealth was in trust for Amanda.
Sir Frederick should have looked a little harder before he leaped, too. It was a bad bargain all around, with Amanda the loser. She lost her mother to despair, having to watch her pretty parent fade into a fearful shadow that disappeared altogether after five years of drunken tirades and ungoverned rages.
Amanda vowed not to make the same mistakes, and vowed to escape Sir Frederick as soon as she was out of mourning and her stepsister was older. That was three years ago. Sir Frederick had other ideas. Having himself declared her guardian, her stepfather rejected any number of suitors, claiming they were fortune hunters or philanderers, when he actually had no intention of parting with her dowry, her trust fund, or the interest they brought.
No matter that Mr. Charles Ashway was above reproach. Sir Frederick was going to turn away his offer for Amanda’s hand. Further, the baronet had shouted that fateful morning, he intended to refuse any other suitors she managed to bring up to scratch. By the time she reached five-and-twenty, he swore, he intended to see her fortune dissipated to a pittance.
“Bad investments, don’t you know.”
She would be a penniless spinster with no hope for a home or a family of her own. The servants, no, the whole neighborhood, could hear her opinion of that. They all saw the red mark on her cheek from where Sir Frederick had struck her, threatening worse if she went to the solicitor or the bank.
She went to Almack’s that night anyway, certain to find Mr. Ashway there. Surely such a worthy gentleman as Mr. Ashway would understand Amanda’s plight, would be willing to wed her in Gretna if need be, then fight in the courts for her inheritance.
Mr. Ashway turned his back on her.
She boldly placed her gloved hand on his sleeve. “But sir, we were to have this first dance, recall? We spoke of it yesterday.”
Mr. Ashway looked down at her hand, then toward his mother and sisters, who sat on the sidelines of the assembly rooms. He adjusted his neckcloth, then led her toward the room set aside for refreshments.
“I take it you have spoken to my stepfather?”
Mr. Ashway swallowed his lemonade and made a grimace, whether for the insipid drink or the distasteful Sir Frederick, Amanda did not know. “You must not pay heed to whatever my stepfather said. We can circumvent his control; I know we can.”
“The same way you circumvented the rules of polite society? I think not. After all, I have my sisters’ reputation to consider, and my family name.”
Amanda was confused. “What do you mean? What could he have said?”
Her onetime suitor put his glass back on the table. “He said he could not let a fellow gentleman marry soiled goods. Need I be more specific, madam?” He turned without offering her escort back into the ballroom, where Amanda’s stepsister and Sir Frederick’s sister, their chaperone, waited.
Amanda did not seek them out. She called for her wrap and went home in a hackney, too furious to think clearly beyond telling the doorman that she was ill. She had to let herself into the house, since the servants were not expecting them back until much later. She was not sure what she could do, yet she could not simply do nothing. Her good name was being destroyed, her dowry being siphoned off to her stepfather’s account. Soon she would have nothing left, and less hope.
A light gleamed under Sir Frederick’s library door, and she was so angry she went in to confront the fiend with this latest crime. If nothing else, she would make him see how blackening her reputation would reflect poorly on his seventeen-year-old daughter, Elaine, whom he had hopes of marrying off to a wealthy peer.
He was not in the library. The fool had left an uncovered candle burning, though. Amanda went to extinguish it, but she tripped over something that should not have been lying on the Aubusson carpet.
A gun? Had Sir Frederick become so dangerous then, or so drunk, that he was threatening the servants with loaded pistols? Suddenly realizing her own vulnerability, Amanda was glad he was not home after all. She picked the pistol up carefully in case it was loaded, to put it back in the drawer.
She screamed. What else could she do, finding Sir Frederick there behind the desk, with blood and gore and one sightless eye staring up at her? She screamed and Sir Frederick’s butler came, buttoning his coat, his wig askew.
“The master always said you were no good.”
Then she put down the gun.
Too late. Oh, so much too late.
The servants were shouting or crying. The Watch pushed them all aside. Elaine and her aunt rushed in. Elaine fainted, but Miss Hermione Hawley started shrieking and kept at it until the physician came, and the sheriff’s men.
They dragged her off, Amanda Carville, granddaughter of an earl, hands bound, in a wagon, to a dark-paneled, crowded chamber. The room was filled with poorly dressed people and the stink of unwashed bodies. A rough-handed guard shoved her forward, her wrists still bound, to face a bewigged gentleman who never looked up from his papers. She could barely comprehend his words when he spoke to her captors, so numb was she, seeing nothing but her stepfather’s face—what there was of it. She never got a chance to speak before her guard led her away. She did hold onto enough of her wits to hand the guard her earbobs, in exchange for his promise to get one message to the family’s solicitor, another to an address in Grosvenor Square.
“There will be a better reward for you if you keep your word. My godmother is wealthy and generous. She will untangle this mess.”
Amanda had no idea if the guard delivered her messages or simply kept her earrings. He left her in a tiny room, a closet, perhaps, without a candle or a crust of bread. The next morning a different, larger guard, this one with missing teeth, pulled her out, back onto a wagon with other manacled prisoners, all crying and shouting their innocence. Amanda was shoved into a fenced yard with scores of ragged women, women she would have tossed a coin to if she saw them on the street. They grabbed for the cape she still had on, her gold ring, the lace off her gown, her gloves, even her silk stockings.
“No,” she screamed, “I did not do anything.”
They laughed at her.
“ ’At’s what we all say,” one old hag told her through broken, blackened teeth as she snatched at the hairpins holding Amanda’s blond hair in its fashionable topknot. “You won’t be needin’ these where you’re goin’.”
Someone tossed her a scrap of wool. The blanket was tattered, filthy, and likely infested with vermin, but Amanda huddled under it, away from the coughing, wheezing women who were fighting over her belongings or trading them to the guards for bottles of gin or chunks of cheese. She spent a night and another day there, with no food and no one to listen to her protests or pleas.
On the third day she was hauled up from her corner and taken to a hearing in front of a high bench. Someone must have received her messages, she thought thankfully, for a dignified barrister stood beside her in elegant black robes. At last someone would listen to her.
“Thank you,” she began, only to be glared at and told to be silent.
Her own defense walked away from her. A gavel pounded and she was dragged off again. This time she was cuffed on the ear for demanding to be heard.
Dizzy, she was taken back to the prison, but pushed into a different room, a windowless cell with nothing but a straw pallet on the ground and one thin blanket.
“No, you do not understand—”
The matron slapped her. “It’s you what don’t understand, me fine lady. Someone paid for private lodgings, but you’re agoin’ to be tried for murder and then hanged afore the month is over, and that’s the end of it.” She smacked Amanda again for good measure, before shoving her so hard that Amanda fell to the damp, cold stone floor.
Amanda had no money, no friends, no influential connections. Sir Frederick had seen to that with his boorish behavior. The only reason she and Elaine still had vouchers to the exclusive assembly rooms was through the kindness of Amanda’s titled godmother. The only reason Sir Frederick permitted them to attend was for Elaine’s sake, so she could make a profitable match. Young Elaine could not help Amanda now, and heaven knew where Sir Frederick’s son Edwin was, or if he considered her a murderess. Her mother’s people were all deceased and her father’s uncaring family lived in Yorkshire, days away from London. Too late, Amanda recalled that her godmother was in Bath taking the waters. Surely the countess’s servants would send for her. Surely . . .
No one came the next day, or the next. Amanda was alone. No one was coming, because no one believed her innocent. She stopped counting the days by the bowls of gruel pushed through the slot at the bottom of her door; she stopped shouting when she heard keys jangle in the corridor. She stopped hoping when the cough came, and the fevers and chills.
But no, this could not be happening to her. She would not let it. She would simply . . . not let it.
When she was a girl, Amanda had discovered that if she curled up very small and stayed still as a mouse, sometimes no one would notice her. That’s what she had done when her father lay dying after the carriage accident, when everyone was rushing about, crying. She had learned to stay in the shadows when her mother wed Sir Frederick, not letting herself hear her mother’s weeping afterward, when there was nothing she could do. She got better at retreating into her own world after Lady Alissa’s death, not listening to Elaine’s aunt Hermione carping at her to stop daydreaming.
She could go anywhere in her mind—to a place no one could find her, no one could hurt her. So Amanda curled up there on the prison floor and dreamed of blue skies and picnics with her parents—while she waited to die.
“Oh, no, you don’t. No one cheats Jack Ketch in my gaol.” The warden kicked at her, and then two other prisoners held her while they poured gruel down her throat. She brought it back up, and they slapped her and punched her some more, but she did not feel the blows, did not see the tormentors; not where she was.
“What, ya think playin’ the queer nabs will save you? You ain’t seen no Bedlam then, have you? You’d be beg-gin’ for the noose, you would.”
They left her alone, and she crawled deeper into her own self, as far from this living hell as she could go while still living.
She did not even hear or take notice when the guards bid on who would have her first, when the warden had his day off. She only heard her father calling her back from the lake edge. “Come to Papa, poppet. Come now.”
She was halfway there.
o,” Rex said. “I will not do it.” He had not bothered to sit down, showing his disdain for his father’s summons and his intention to be off as soon as the earl said his piece. Instead, he leaned against the mantel, taking the weight off his injured leg. His shirt was open at the collar, with no neckcloth. His breeches were ripped and stained, his too-long hair curling into his shadowed eyes. He needed a shave and he smelled worse than the dog at his feet.
Lord Royce wrinkled his nose, but did not criticize his son’s appearance. That Rex had appeared at all was boon enough. “Not even as a favor to a friend?”
Rex raised his glass of brandy. “It is your friend, your favor.”
“As a favor to me, then?”
“What, go to London where I am always half-blinded by the swirls of insincerity? Why, I doubt if there is one person in the entire city whose tongue isn’t warped with lying. If they are not dealing in falsehoods, they are spewing slander at each other.”
The earl could only nod. Being out in society made his own teeth ache with the cacophony of lies that constantly bombarded his senses.
“And now it will be worse,” Rex went on. “They will all offer regrets about my leg—when not one of the bastards means it. They’d rather I had not come home, a reminder that war is about gore and guts, not parade marches and pretty uniforms. Everyone will look at my imperfect face and pretend the scar is not there. And, recall, I was an embarrassment to the army, an unspoken blot on the corps. An officer who did not fight, a lord who did not act with honor. A spy. Do you think the whispers have not reached Town, that Daniel and I were monstrous savages, as far from gentlemen as one could fall?”
“You were wounded in the service of your country and commended any number of times. They will remember that!”
“They will remember that I tortured prisoners of war until they gave up their secrets, contrary to every code of decency. Or should I confess that I was merely listening for the truth?”
The earl sipped at his wine, looking away.
Rex lifted his own glass in a mock salute. “The way you did, Father?”
Lord Royce had not been able to defend himself against charges of corruption in the high court. What could he say? That he knew the prisoner in the dock was innocent—because the man had said so in the pure, chiming tones of truth? He’d be laughed off the bench. Instead he was accused of taking bribes. After all, what other reason could he have for freeing that poor thief instead of hanging him? All the evidence and witnesses pointed toward a guilty verdict, a successful prosecution by the Crown’s barrister, who happened to be an ambitious toad. Instead the felon had gone free—on a seeming whim. If Lord Royce were not accepting money, Sir Nigel had declared, then he was insane, irrational, unfit for the duties of the high court. Hearing the truth in a tone of voice? Humbug.