She Tempts the Duke(Lost Lords of Pembrook,Book 1)(33) by Lorraine Heath
She squelched her disappointment. Walking provided an ease in talking that riding didn’t, but it also would shelter her reputation. “Then ride we shall.”
She urged her horse forward. Rather than simply turn his about, he guided it around hers until the unmarred side of his face was again within her view. It irritated her that he would think her so shallow. “I’m not put off by your scars.”
“Still, no need to inflict them on you when there is an alternative.”
“You can be quite obstinate.”
“I learned it from you.”
Laughing, she peered over at him. “I do believe, Your Grace, that you taught me about obstinacy. I was quite biddable as a child.”
“Never. Not from the moment we crossed paths were you ever biddable.”
Even though the words indicated easy banter, his tone didn’t, as though he were forcing himself into a role that didn’t quite fit.
“You mustn’t let your discomfort during the parlor game keep you from attending other affairs,” she said quietly.
“It hasn’t. I’ve been quite busy putting matters to rights.”
“Such as?” she challenged.
She could see the determined set of his jaw. He didn’t want to explain his actions, but their long-ago friendship prevented him from telling her to mind her own business. He owed her, and while he might instruct everyone else to go to the devil he wouldn’t toss the order out to her.
“If you must know, my uncle was known to purchase items on credit,” he said succinctly.
“Most of the aristocracy does.” Her father paid his creditors once a year.
“Yes, well, I don’t hold with the practice. I’ve informed them that they’ll receive no further funds from the house of Keswick for anything he purchases.”
“Does he have his own means?”
“I think it unlikely. He presently resides in an area that is one step above squalor.” He glanced over at her. “I suppose you think me without mercy.”
“No, of course not. I think you have every right to be even more harsh where he’s concerned. But I have wondered . . .” She let her voice trail off. Bringing forth the words was not easy.
“What, Mary? What have you wondered?”
She forced herself to meet his gaze. “What if I misheard? What if he was talking of killing chickens for the following day’s dinner or . . . I don’t know. Why did he wait so long to make a claim for the title?”
“To avoid suspicion of foul play.” He studied her. “What exactly did you hear that night?”
It all seemed so distant. A foggy memory now, faded with time, and yet the words came to her as though she heard them only moments before.
“Someone said, ‘The lads, m’lord, now that they are in the tower . . . what would you have me do with them?’ And then I heard your uncle say, ‘Why, kill them, of course.’ He laughed then. Could he have been joking? My father does not believe he was serious. I could hardly countenance the words I heard. I do wish I knew to whom he spoke.”
“It sounds as though it was one of the men who escorted us to the tower. I’ve not seen any of them since our return. I should look at the record of servants hired and let go. See if I can determine what became of them.”
“How many were there?”
“Four. We went so docilely. I think we were still reeling from our father’s death. It was not until the door in the tower clanged closed and I heard the key grinding in the lock that I realized something was amiss. I’m not certain how I could have been so unaware.”
She looked out over the greenery of the park. So lush and peaceful. It was difficult to believe that such evil lurked in the world.
“Why would you suspect your uncle of wishing you harm?”
“I should have suspected. Not until we were in the tower did I even consider that he might have killed Father.”
She stared at him in open-mouthed amazement. “You don’t believe your father had a riding accident?”
He gave her a pointed look. “You bashed in the head of a guard and you were a mere slip of a girl.”
“He didn’t die. I snuck back to Pembrook the next day to make sure he was all right. I saw him walking about.”
Sebastian glared at her. “Do you know how reckless that was?”
“I had to learn the truth. I couldn’t live with myself if he’d died.”
“Unlike my uncle who seems to live with himself very well.”
“Have you proof he killed your father?”
“No, only suspicions.”
“You may never have proof, Sebastian.”
“I’m well aware of that, but I shall not rest until he is made to account for his actions.”
Mary realized she’d strayed from her purpose in having him meet her here. She could feel gazes coming to light on her, imagined that speculation was brewing. A time existed when she’d have not cared, but now her reputation extended to Fitzwilliam and she’d not have him regret asking for her hand in marriage. She would do nothing to bring him shame. Yet here she was, flirting at the edge of it. Word would no doubt reach him that she’d been spied in the park riding with Keswick. She’d tarried long enough.
“The Countess of Weatherly is hosting a ball this evening,” Mary told him. “I know you received an invitation.” Lady Hermione had decided to send a servant around with it, in spite of her mother’s objections. “It would behoove you and your brothers to make an appearance. Even if only for a short time.”
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