Book Five: Regency Flings
Sweethope Cottage, Cumbria
“My lady, do you need assistance?”
Christina Warner, Lady Fairhaven, heard the footman’s concerned voice calling to her from outside the closed door. Blast it all, she ought to have been more careful while moving the chair across the room to her late husband’s armoire. “No, Alfred, all is well,” she said, loud enough for the footman to hear.
“Or as well as it can be,” she grumbled, climbing onto the chair. “Considering…”
She lost her balance and started to tip.
Dash it, anyway! How did the man know? She grabbed the top of the armoire and hung on. “Naught to worry about, Alfred!”
She caught her breath and ran her hands across the top of the tall chest, finally encountering the key she sought.
She grabbed it and stepped down from the chair, wishing she didn’t have Alfred hovering just outside and wondering, no doubt, what she was up to in his former master’s bedchamber.
It was none of his concern.
With key in hand, Christina quickly went to the safe that her husband had hidden behind a cushioned panel in the window seat. She knelt before it and ran her hands around its edges. Her fingers caught on a latch and the panel popped open, exposing the safe. She stuck the key in the lock.
“Go downstairs, Alfred. It’s nearly time to leave.”
Only one more thing to do after she took the jewels from Edward’s safe, and then they needed to get back to Holywell House.
Christina had gotten over her elation at the news she’d received of her brother, especially since her entire family thought Lang was dead. But the manner in which she’d received the news had been less than stellar.
For the past three horrid months, her parents and brothers believed Lang had been killed in a dockside explosion sometime after his ship had put into port at Plymouth. It had been a few days after the fire that his body had been recovered, and his friend, Lieutenant Norris, had identified him.
But Norris had been wrong.
A few weeks ago, Christina received a blackmail note indicating that Lang was alive – and the blackmailer knew where he was and what he’d done. What he’d done!
She removed the box of jewels her late husband had stashed in the safe and dumped them into a small satchel. Then she opened the armoire.
Some of Edward’s clothes still hung there. In the ten months since his death, Christina knew she ought to have come back to the old hunting lodge, but she hadn’t wanted to leave London. Not when there was a fair chance of running into Edward’s mother, or his brother here in the north country.
She pulled open the drawers at the bottom of the armoire and found Edward’s pistol in the last one. She took it from the drawer, then brought it, with her satchel, downstairs.
“My lady,” Alfred gasped, gaping at the gun. “What are you doing with that?” He looked more than a little pale.
Just for once, Christina wished someone would take her seriously, and not assume she was a brainless chit. She clucked her tongue. “I promise not to shoot you, Alfred. Just show me how to load this thing.”
He shook his head. “It has been many a year since I—”
“Nonsense, Alfred. You used to come here with my husband’s hunting parties. I am reasonably certain you were required to load any number of guns for those men.”
Being a woman did not make her incompetent. Her father had coddled her all her life, and her husband had treated her as though she were a porcelain doll. It was incredibly tiresome.
Alfred swallowed audibly and took the pistol from her hand, then the ball and cloth. “Where’s the gunpowder?”
Gunpowder? Oh dear. She wondered if she could really load the deadly thing and shoot the blackmailer when he turned up for his blood money.
She hoped it would not come to that, but she wanted to give every impression of being earnest when she dealt with the scoundrel. Therefore, she needed to know how to use the gun.
She rallied her resolve. “It must be upstairs, I suppose. In the bottom drawer of the armoire in my husband’s bedchamber.” There had been other objects near the pistol, but she had not bothered to drag them all out, unaware anything else would be needed.
Shaking his head with dismay, Alfred returned up the stairs while Christina went outside and took the opportunity to set up a target about a hundred feet away. She balanced a large rock upon a low branch near the road, and returned to the drive in front of the cottage.
Christina was not going to go on being blackmailed indefinitely. She was done with being a vulnerable young thing without the confidence or authority to carry out her own wishes. She had grown up significantly since becoming a widow.
She raised the pistol and shut one eye as she aimed the weapon at the rock, deciding this wasn’t going to be so very difficult. At least, it wouldn’t be as difficult as being Edward’s wife.
Her husband had been a much older man who’d gone about his married life as though he were still a bachelor. He’d kept his mistress, gone to his clubs, caroused with his old friends, and she had been the one to adapt. In the ten months since Edward’s death, Christina had decided she preferred widowhood to being a wife. Her newfound independence suited her very well.
And now she was going to take that independence in hand and deal with the problem she faced. She was finished with being the one to adjust.
Wherever her brother Lang had got to, he was going to be in serious difficulty when she got her hands on him. How dare he disappear and leave his family to grieve so sorely?
She’d thought the first evil blackmail letter would be the end of it. I know what Lieutenant Jameson has done and where he is. The note had demanded that she bring one thousand pounds in official Bank of England notes – an astronomical sum – wrapped inside a secure package, and leave it in the reeds beside an isolated pond in Hyde Park. If she did not do so, there would be scandal, and perhaps even transportation.
Christina would not risk that. She had managed to do as instructed, thinking she’d been ever so clever in enclosing a note with the money, demanding that her blackmailer tell her where she could find her brother. She’d told him to leave her a securely-wrapped note in the same location, which she would find the following day.
But when she returned, the money was gone, and there was no note in its place. Apparently, there was no honor among thieves. It was a lesson hard-learned.
She’d received the second demand for money ten days later. This time, she was to take two thousand pounds – two thousand! – to the church next to the tower of London. She had barely two weeks to raise the money, hardly any time before her blackmailer exposed Lang’s offense – whatever it might be. And Christina knew from Lang’s past history that it might well be a serious one.
Lang had never been an easy child, and his adolescence had been even worse. If there was mischief to be made, he was always at the bottom of it. Their father, the earl of Sunderland, had given him no choice but to go into the navy, and he had not disgraced himself. At least, not until he’d gotten himself killed in a horrific explosion at his ship’s home port. Or had deserted the navy.
Christina did not know which was worse.
Alfred came out, carrying the firearm in one hand, and the other shooting accoutrements in the other. “My lady, this is all you’ll need, though I highly suggest you reconsider—”
“Yes, I understand your concerns, Alfred. I cannot tell you why I need this… Please do not ask.”
Visibly resigned, Alfred prepared the pistol to fire, showing her every step of the process. It was surprisingly complicated. She’d always thought—
Well, it did not matter what she’d thought. It was not going to be easy, but she could do it. She took the thing in hand and cocked it, and aimed toward the rock on the tree branch.
“Careful, my lady!”
She pulled the trigger and jumped at the loud noise it made.
The rock target did not move. Apparently, it was not as easy as it looked.
“We must try that again,” she said to Alfred when they’d both recovered. “I didn’t realize how the gun would lurch in my hand.”
Alfred gave a great, disapproving sigh, and started to take the pistol from Christina. But she held on to it, insisting that she be allowed to load it and make it ready to fire. After all, she would have to do this by herself when she encountered the blackmailer.
She managed it all without making too great a mess. When the pistol was ready once again, she raised it, cocked it, and aimed, but was startled by the sound of hooves on the road. She fired reflexively, just as a man rode into sight.
He gave out a shout and pulled up on his reins as he grabbed his arm. “What are you about, woman!” he demanded, his voice angry and rough.
While Christina stood paralyzed with the pistol at her side, Alfred hastened to the gate and on toward the stranger, as though he might be held responsible for shooting the man. But the rider did not stop.
Christina felt numb with shock. She dropped the gun, her mind in a daze. She did not know what to do as the man she’d shot rode directly toward her.
She held her ground as he came to a stop within a foot of her and jumped down from his horse.