There was no help for it. So much, Grey thought grimly, for trying to spare the feelings of his female relations, both of whom were staring at him as though he was a raving lunatic.

The countess listened to his brief account—from which he carefully omitted Mrs. Tomlinson and his own visit to Newgate—then sank slowly into a chair, put her elbows on the table among the breakfast things, and sank her head into her hands.

“I do not believe this,” she said, her voice only slightly muffled. Her shoulders began to shake. Sir George exchanged appalled glances with Grey, then made a tentative move toward her, but stopped, clearly not sure whether any attempt at comfort might be well received. Olivia had no such compunctions.

“Aunt Bennie! Dearest, you mustn’t be upset; Johnny’s all right. Now, now…” Olivia hovered over the countess for a moment, patting her shoulder. Then she bent closer, and her look of tender anxiety vanished suddenly.

“Aunt Bennie!” she said reproachfully.

Benedicta, Dowager Countess of Melton, sat up, reached for a napkin, and mopped at what were clearly now revealed to be tears of laughter.

“John, you will be the death of me yet,” she said, sniffing and dabbing at her eyes. “What on earth were you doing at Tyburn?”

“I was passing by,” he said stiffly, “and stopped to see what was happening.”

She cast him a look of profound disbelief, but didn’t take issue with this remark. Instead, she turned to Sir George, who had not ceased to gaze at her since her appearance.

“I owe you an apology, Sir George,” she said. She took a deep breath. “And, I suppose, an explanation.”

“Oh, no, my dear,” the general said softly. “You owe me nothing. Not ever.” But his heart was in his eyes, and she rose and came to him swiftly, taking his hand.

“I am sorry,” she said, low-voiced but clear. “Do you still wish to marry me, George?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, and without taking his rapt gaze from her face, lifted her hand and kissed it.

“Well, I’m glad of that,” she said. “But I shan’t hold you to it, if you should change your mind as a result of what I tell you.”

“Benedicta, I would take you bankrupt, in your shift,” he said, smiling. His mother smiled back, and Grey cleared his throat.

“Tell us what, exactly?” he said.

“Don’t presume upon my good nature,” his mother said, turning and narrowing her eyes at him. “Part of this is your fault, telling feeble-minded lies about being run down by mail coaches. I thought you were trying to hide the fact that you had been attacked again. Without cause, I mean.”

“Indeed,” Grey said, provoked. “Being attacked by a murderous crowd is quite all right, while being attacked by a random footpad is not?”

“That depends upon whether the attack on you and Percival Wainwright was random,” the countess said. “Must we stand here in the midst of stale toast and kipper bones, or may we repair to a more civilized spot?”

Relocated to the drawing room and provided with coffee, the countess sat beside Sir George on the settee, her hand on his arm, and looked at Grey.

“After your father’s death,” she said, “I went to France for some time. Within a month of my return to England, I received three proposals of marriage. From three men whom I had reason to suspect of having been involved in the scandal that took your father’s life. I refused them all, of course.”

The general had stiffened at this, the happiness of his renewed engagement fading.

“From whom did you receive these proposals of marriage?” Grey asked, before the general could. His mother’s eye rested on him.

“I decline to tell you,” she said briefly.

“Do you decline to tell me, Benedicta?” The general’s tone was somewhere between outrage and pleading.

“Yes, I do,” the countess said crossly. “It is my private business, and I don’t want the two of you—or the three, I suppose, since one of you would certainly tell Melton and put the cat among the pigeons for good and all—to be poking into things that should be left alone. There may be nothing at all—I hope that is the case. If there should be any mischief afoot, though, I most assuredly don’t want it to be made worse.”

Sir George was disposed to argue, but Grey succeeded in catching his eye, whereupon he subsided, though with an expression indicating that his acquiescence was momentary.

“Did the journal pages have anything to do with these men?” Grey asked. “A page from my father’s journal was left in my brother’s office,” he explained to the general and Olivia. “And, I rather think, another was sent to you, Mother?”

“As you so cleverly deduced, yes,” his mother said, still cross. “Neither page referred to any of these three men, no. But your father did discuss things with me on occasion; I knew that he had suspicions regarding at least two of them. That being so, there was a possibility that he had written down his suspicions—perhaps with evidence confirming them—in his journal.”

“Because, of course, the journal disappeared after his death,” Grey said, nodding. “Do you know when it was taken?”

The countess shook her head. She wore a simple calico gown, but her hair had not yet been dressed for the day and was simply covered by a linen cap. Her color was high, and Grey thought it no wonder that the general was smitten; she was tired and strained, but undeniably was handsome for her age.

“I never thought to look. It was…some time before I felt able to read any of his—of Pardloe’s journals. Even then, I thought it likely that you or Melton had borrowed it. Who else would want it, after all?”

“A man who thought he might be mentioned in it, to his disadvantage,” Grey said. “Why the devil is he scattering pages of it round at this point?”

“To indicate that he has it,” his mother said promptly. “As for why…I assumed that it was the announcement of my marriage to Sir George that precipitated the action.”

Sir George jerked as though she had run a drawing pin into his leg.

“What?” he said incredulously. “Why?”

The countess’s fine-boned face showed the effects of what had likely been a sleepless night, but a glimmer of ironic humor showed in the curve of her mouth.

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There was no help for it. So much, Grey thought grimly, for trying to spare the feelings of his female relations, both of whom were staring at him as though he was a raving lunatic.

The countess listened to his brief account—from which he carefully omitted Mrs. Tomlinson and his own visit to Newgate—then sank slowly into a chair, put her elbows on the table among the breakfast things, and sank her head into her hands.

“I do not believe this,” she said, her voice only slightly muffled. Her shoulders began to shake. Sir George exchanged appalled glances with Grey, then made a tentative move toward her, but stopped, clearly not sure whether any attempt at comfort might be well received. Olivia had no such compunctions.

“Aunt Bennie! Dearest, you mustn’t be upset; Johnny’s all right. Now, now…” Olivia hovered over the countess for a moment, patting her shoulder. Then she bent closer, and her look of tender anxiety vanished suddenly.

“Aunt Bennie!” she said reproachfully.

Benedicta, Dowager Countess of Melton, sat up, reached for a napkin, and mopped at what were clearly now revealed to be tears of laughter.

“John, you will be the death of me yet,” she said, sniffing and dabbing at her eyes. “What on earth were you doing at Tyburn?”

“I was passing by,” he said stiffly, “and stopped to see what was happening.”

She cast him a look of profound disbelief, but didn’t take issue with this remark. Instead, she turned to Sir George, who had not ceased to gaze at her since her appearance.

“I owe you an apology, Sir George,” she said. She took a deep breath. “And, I suppose, an explanation.”

“Oh, no, my dear,” the general said softly. “You owe me nothing. Not ever.” But his heart was in his eyes, and she rose and came to him swiftly, taking his hand.

“I am sorry,” she said, low-voiced but clear. “Do you still wish to marry me, George?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, and without taking his rapt gaze from her face, lifted her hand and kissed it.

“Well, I’m glad of that,” she said. “But I shan’t hold you to it, if you should change your mind as a result of what I tell you.”

“Benedicta, I would take you bankrupt, in your shift,” he said, smiling. His mother smiled back, and Grey cleared his throat.

“Tell us what, exactly?” he said.

“Don’t presume upon my good nature,” his mother said, turning and narrowing her eyes at him. “Part of this is your fault, telling feeble-minded lies about being run down by mail coaches. I thought you were trying to hide the fact that you had been attacked again. Without cause, I mean.”

“Indeed,” Grey said, provoked. “Being attacked by a murderous crowd is quite all right, while being attacked by a random footpad is not?”

“That depends upon whether the attack on you and Percival Wainwright was random,” the countess said. “Must we stand here in the midst of stale toast and kipper bones, or may we repair to a more civilized spot?”

Relocated to the drawing room and provided with coffee, the countess sat beside Sir George on the settee, her hand on his arm, and looked at Grey.

“After your father’s death,” she said, “I went to France for some time. Within a month of my return to England, I received three proposals of marriage. From three men whom I had reason to suspect of having been involved in the scandal that took your father’s life. I refused them all, of course.”

The general had stiffened at this, the happiness of his renewed engagement fading.

“From whom did you receive these proposals of marriage?” Grey asked, before the general could. His mother’s eye rested on him.

“I decline to tell you,” she said briefly.

“Do you decline to tell me, Benedicta?” The general’s tone was somewhere between outrage and pleading.

“Yes, I do,” the countess said crossly. “It is my private business, and I don’t want the two of you—or the three, I suppose, since one of you would certainly tell Melton and put the cat among the pigeons for good and all—to be poking into things that should be left alone. There may be nothing at all—I hope that is the case. If there should be any mischief afoot, though, I most assuredly don’t want it to be made worse.”

Sir George was disposed to argue, but Grey succeeded in catching his eye, whereupon he subsided, though with an expression indicating that his acquiescence was momentary.

“Did the journal pages have anything to do with these men?” Grey asked. “A page from my father’s journal was left in my brother’s office,” he explained to the general and Olivia. “And, I rather think, another was sent to you, Mother?”

“As you so cleverly deduced, yes,” his mother said, still cross. “Neither page referred to any of these three men, no. But your father did discuss things with me on occasion; I knew that he had suspicions regarding at least two of them. That being so, there was a possibility that he had written down his suspicions—perhaps with evidence confirming them—in his journal.”

“Because, of course, the journal disappeared after his death,” Grey said, nodding. “Do you know when it was taken?”

The countess shook her head. She wore a simple calico gown, but her hair had not yet been dressed for the day and was simply covered by a linen cap. Her color was high, and Grey thought it no wonder that the general was smitten; she was tired and strained, but undeniably was handsome for her age.

“I never thought to look. It was…some time before I felt able to read any of his—of Pardloe’s journals. Even then, I thought it likely that you or Melton had borrowed it. Who else would want it, after all?”

“A man who thought he might be mentioned in it, to his disadvantage,” Grey said. “Why the devil is he scattering pages of it round at this point?”

“To indicate that he has it,” his mother said promptly. “As for why…I assumed that it was the announcement of my marriage to Sir George that precipitated the action.”

Sir George jerked as though she had run a drawing pin into his leg.

“What?” he said incredulously. “Why?”

The countess’s fine-boned face showed the effects of what had likely been a sleepless night, but a glimmer of ironic humor showed in the curve of her mouth.

“You may be willing to take me in my shift, my dear. I did not think that the proposals I had received were based upon simple desire of my person. That being so, they were based upon one of two things: my money and position—or the possibility that I posed a threat to the gentlemen in question, by virtue of what they supposed I might know.”

Grey rubbed his knuckles over the stubble on his chin. The countess’s money and position were considerable; her Scottish connexions were not so powerful as they had once been, in the wake of the South Sea scandal and the failed Risings, but the Armstrongs were still a force to be reckoned with.

“Were any of these gentlemen in a position to be tempted by your assets?” Grey asked.

“There are relatively few men who wouldn’t be,” Olivia put in, with surprising cynicism. “I have seldom met a man so rich that he didn’t think he needed more.”

Olivia was young, but not stupid, Grey reflected. And while she seemed not to have been damaged by her earlier engagement to a Cornish merchant prince named Trevelyan, the affair had evidently taught her a few things about the workings of the world.

Benedicta nodded approvingly at Olivia.

“Very true, my dear. But while one of the gentlemen in question could undeniably have used both money and influence, the other two were sufficiently endowed with worldly goods that they could certainly have done better for themselves than a widow past childbearing.”

“So you assumed that their motive was to discover whether you were indeed a threat to their safety—and if so, to prevent it,” Sir George said slowly.

The countess nodded, reached for her coffee, and, discovering it to be cold, put it back with wrinkled nose.

“I did. But I refused them, as I say, and continued to live quietly. One of them returned to press his suit, but eventually he gave up, as well.”

The countess had not, so far as Grey knew, ever even considered remarriage, until she met Sir George.

“I can see why the journal pages should be distressing to you, Aunt Bennie,” Olivia said, frowning. “But what purpose could they be intended to serve?”

Benedicta glanced at the general.

“At first, I wasn’t sure. But then John was attacked and beaten in the street, to no apparent purpose, which alarmed me very much.” His mother’s eye lingered on Grey’s face, troubled. “And when I thought it had happened again yesterday…I became sure that this was a warning, a threat to prevent my marriage.”

Grey was thunderstruck.

“What? You thought—”

“I did, no thanks to you.” His mother’s look of concern had altered to annoyance. “I didn’t want you killed next time, so I thought I would break the engagement and let it be publicly known. If there were no more such warnings, I would know that my deductions were correct, and I could proceed on that assumption.”

“Whereas if you broke your engagement and I was consequently murdered in the street, you could reform your hypothesis. Quite.” Heat rose in Grey’s face. “For God’s sake, Mother! When—if ever—did you propose to tell me any of this?”

“I am telling you,” his mother said, with exaggerated patience. “One such instance might well have been coincidence, and the risks of my telling you wouldn’t justify my doing so. Two is another matter.

“As for not telling you of my suspicions after the first incident…if there was in fact no threat, I didn’t want you or your brother going off and doing something foolish. I still don’t. If you were in danger, though, then of course I had to speak. But as the second attack was in fact brought about by your own actions, it has no connexion, and we are back with an assumption of coincidence.

“If I’d known about your adventure at Tyburn”—and here her eye rested on him with the deepest suspicion; she knew damned well he wasn’t telling her everything, no more than she was telling him everything—“I shouldn’t have felt obliged to break the engagement. You really ought to apologize to Sir George for the inconvenience to his feelings, John.”

The general had been increasingly restive through these explanations, and now burst forth.

“Benedicta! Should anyone—anyone!—be so rash as to offer violence to you or your sons, they will answer to me. Surely you know that!”

The countess regarded him with a sort of exasperated fondness.

“Well, that’s a very gallant speech, Sir George, but the point is that I would prefer my sons to remain alive rather than to be avenged—though I am sure you would make an excellent job of vengeance, should that be necessary,” she added, evidently intending this as a palliative.

Grey was growing increasingly annoyed with the tone of these speeches, and put a stop to them by setting down his own coffee cup with a clatter.

“Why should anyone wish to prevent your marriage?”

It was Sir George who answered that, without hesitation.

“I said I would protect your mother and all that belongs to her—and am capable of doing so, I assure you. If Benedicta did know anything that might threaten one of these men, she might denounce them openly, once married to me.”

Grey was more than affronted at the blatant assumption that he and Hal would be incapable of protecting the countess, but retained sufficient self-control as not to say so. He would admit that, viewed objectively, the general commanded more resources toward this end—and he might possibly be in a better position at least to exert some form of persuasion, if not actual control, upon the countess’s behavior, which he and Hal assuredly could not. The limits of the general’s own influence were just beginning to dawn on Sir George, he saw.

“I…assume that you do not in fact know anything that might be dangerous to one of these men?” the general asked the countess, hesitantly.

“If she does, she isn’t going to tell you,” Grey informed him, forestalling his mother’s answer. “One question, Mother, if you please. Is any one of the men in question a member of the regiment?”

She looked startled at the idea, and blurted, “God, no!” with such feeling as made it evident she spoke the truth.

“Well, then. As both Melton and myself will be embarking with the regiment in less than a month, I would suppose we can contrive to avoid being killed before that time, if in fact there is any threat. And once in Germany, we shall presumably be safe from attack.” He glanced at his cousin, who had been listening to all of this with her mouth half open, eyes moving back and forth between the speakers like the pendulum of a clock.

“Do you suppose that Olivia is under any threat?”

“I don’t think so,” his mother said slowly. “I doubt that any of them even know that she has come to reside here while Malcolm Stubbs is in America.”

“Then that leaves only your own safety to be secured,” Grey pointed out. “You are bound for the West Indies, are you not, Sir George? If my mother were to accompany you, I daresay that you might be able to protect her from any malicious attempts?”

A look of genial ferocity was spreading across Sir George’s face.

“I should like to see ’em try,” he said. He turned to the countess, his face flushed with animation. “Will you, Bennie? Will you come with me?”


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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