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Authors: Michelle Diener

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #General

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BOOK: Banquet of Lies
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“If there is any trouble from Jones, you let me know immediately.”

“You sure this is all right, Cook?” Her voice was very small.

“I promise you, Mavis.” Gigi thought desperately for a way to keep Mavis from talking about her—even as Madame Levéel, the cook—to Mr. Jones. She didn’t know Jones, couldn’t trust him, and she knew the shadow man would be watching and listening. He wasn’t stupid, and he’d work out
her disguise quickly enough if he had reason to look in Madame Levéel’s direction.

Even if she told Lord Aldridge everything this evening, there was no sense in taking chances. “I’ve explained in the note that Miss Barrington, the owner of Goldfern, has hired you on my recommendation.”

That was a lie; she hadn’t explained anything of the sort. She’d addressed the note as herself, as Giselle Barrington, and could only hope Jones didn’t question Mavis too much about how his mistress had come to hire her.

She patted Mavis’s arm. “Miss Barrington will be returning home soon, and Mr. Jones will need more staff if the house is to be opened up again. It will be more than all right. And if Mr. Jones causes even the slightest problem, you come to me, you hear?” A fierce protectiveness swept over her at the sight of Mavis’s thin, pale neck, drooping as if her head was too heavy for her. “You come straight to me.”

“Yes, Cook.” Mavis hesitated. “But why would Miss Barrington take me on, on your recommendation?”

Gigi gave her a confident smile. “You’ll just have to trust me that it’s so, Mavis. I promise you it is.”

Mavis nodded and clutched her bag tighter.

There was a shuffle behind them. Iris stood in her coat, Mavis’s coat in her hand.

“Thank you for walking her there, Iris.” She held the note out to Mavis, who took it nervously.

“Right, then.” Iris drew in a shaky breath. “Let’s go.” While she waited for Mavis to join her at the top of the stairs,
she looked at Gigi and nodded. She opened the door, and Mavis followed her out without looking back. The door closed behind them with a bang.

“Where are they going?”

Gigi spun and saw Edgars standing at the kitchen table, with Rob and Harry just behind him bringing the empty dishes.

“Iris is taking Mavis to a new job.”

Edgars gripped the back of a chair. There was fury in his eyes and high color in his cheeks.

It struck her he might have been planning to hire Mavis back. He’d had time to calm down enough to see that Iris would never forgive him if he sent Mavis packing, and maybe he was here, right now, to show how magnanimous he could be.

She watched him carefully, more and more sure she was right.

And she’d ruined it for him, jumping in with a new job for Mavis straightaway.

Perhaps she should have anticipated he’d change his mind. But she couldn’t bear for Mavis to be on the street for even one second, thinking she had nowhere to go and no one to go to.

And if Edgars thought hiring her back after that scene in the kitchen would have wiped the slate clean, he was like the fairy-tale emperor with new clothes. Oblivious to reality.

Rob dropped a tray onto the table with a clatter. “What?”

She looked past Edgars to the two of them. “Mr. Edgars sacked Mavis earlier this evening, just before dinner started.”

Harry’s mouth fell open.

“I happened to know of someone looking for a maid immediately, so . . .” She shrugged. The less said, the better.

“Mavis?” Harry’s voice went low, almost guttural. “You threw Mavis out onto the street?” He looked at Edgars like he was something slippery and brown staining the cobbles.

“Where did you send her?” Rob watched her, sharp-eyed.

“Goldfern House. Just down the road. You can see her whenever you like.”

“They’ll treat her right?” Rob frowned. “That place is all but shut up.”

She gave a twist of her lips. “The owner is returning soon, and when she does, Mavis will definitely be well treated. Until then, I hope so.”

“If the owners are coming back, that explains why they need someone in a hurry.” Harry relaxed a little.

“But it doesn’t explain why she was fired in the first place.” Rob crossed his arms over his chest and stared at Edgars.

Edgars said nothing for a moment, watching them with eyes that glittered in the candlelight. He leaned toward Harry and Rob, shoulders hunched, finger jabbing. “I’ll remind you both you’re answerable to me, not the other way round. Iris has had a warning already. Any cheek, and you’re out, too.” He was breathing hard, like he’d run up the stairs to the top of the house.

He looked across at Gigi. “You may have weaseled your way in with your fancy references and your connections to
other jobs at the drop of a hat, but I’m on to you, madam. You’re up to something. I know it. And mark my words, when I find out what it is, not even those big doe eyes and fancy desserts will save you.”

Gigi’s laugh of disbelief was loud in the sudden silence of the room. “What do you mean by—”

“Save your outrage and your wiles for his lordship.” Edgars stalked to the coatrack and took down his coat, shrugging it on with barely restrained violence. “I’m going out.”

The door slammed hard behind him, and she slowly turned to face Rob and Harry.

They were staring at the door, not her, both with mouths hanging open.

“Does his lordship want me to go up and see him now?” Gigi asked, suddenly aware of the silence in the house.

Rob started. Then shook his head. “His lordship got an urgent message, had to go out. He asked Mr. Edgars to ask you if you wouldn’t mind waiting for him. He didn’t think he’d be long.”

“First time His Edginess hasn’t done what his lordship asked him, that I know of.” Harry shifted uncomfortably.

“First time His Edginess has ever had a real threat to the command of his little kingdom.” Rob kept his gaze on her, speculative and curious.

Gigi lifted her hands to massage her temples. “And isn’t it turning out well?”

L
ady Holliday, Durnham’s widowed sister, was sitting with Lady Durnham in the library when Jonathan was shown in. She looked so like Durnham—beautifully sculpted face with dark hair and hazel eyes—it was striking.

“Durnham will be here in a moment; he’s just talking to someone in his study.” Lady Durnham rose to greet him and drew him to the little grouping of chairs he’d sat in the day before.

They exchanged pleasantries for all of a minute before Lady Durnham lifted a hand. “I asked some people to watch Lord Dervish’s house today. Or rather, to watch anyone watching Lord Dervish’s house.”

Jonathan had expected this report to come from Durnham, not from his wife, but as it was her people doing the watching, he wasn’t sure now why he had. “Did they find anyone?”

“Oh, yes.” Lady Durnham gave a slow nod. “A real ramper. Name of Hal Boots.” She gave a tilt of her head. “Likes to put the boot in, does Hal. Earned his name honestly.”

“I do so love being around you, Charlotte. My vocabulary goes up several notches every time I am.”

Jonathan lifted his gaze to Lady Holliday, who was grinning at her sister-in-law with no glimmer of malice, holding a needle with embroidery thread in one hand and a linen handkerchief in the other.

Lady Durnham flicked her an annoyed glance. “As I was saying, Lord Aldridge, they caught wind of Hal Boots and watched him most of the morning. He got up the courage around midday to have a casual word with one of Dervish’s
staff when they were putting out some rubbish, and after that he went straight off to a building near Whitehall.”

“He found out Dervish wasn’t even in the country, let alone the house, that he’d been wasting his time for nearly two days, and went off to report and see what to do,” Jonathan said, and Lady Durnham gave a nod of agreement.

“My men lost him when he went into the building, so they waited for him to come out again. He was only about fifteen minutes, and he looked tense and his face was flushed when he stepped back onto the street. No doubt the person he went to see didn’t like him coming into his place of work to talk. He didn’t go back to Dervish’s, though. He started walking the streets around it and South Audley, going down the back alleys and then round onto the front streets, keeping a sharp watch out.”

“Not that sharp,” Jonathan said, “if he didn’t spot your men.”

Lady Durnham gave him a bright smile. “My men are extremely hard to spot.” She leaned back a little, and there was a glint in her eyes he suddenly found very dangerous. “After all, you didn’t spot them yourself, and they certainly saw you.”

“Saw me do what?” He thought back to the scene outside his kitchen door and waited with heavy dread for her to speak.

“You were looking for someone, and then you encountered one of your staff and carried some pots back for her.” She spoke without innuendo, and while he scrabbled to deal with the lack of condemnation he expected, and with his guilty conscience, he saw what she was trying to say.

“Your men know this because this Hal Boots character was in the alley with us?”

He hadn’t seen any of them.

He was losing his touch. He hadn’t even been out of the army for all that long. Becoming a lord had scrambled his brain.

Or maybe he could lay that charge at Madame Levéel’s feet.

“Hal Boots was on the other side of the rag-and-bone man’s cart. Hanging around near the back door to Goldfern House, pretending to clear the lane. He went past there at least three times as he walked the neighborhood.”

“Maybe he was the man who broke into Goldfern the other night?” Jonathan looked up at her, and she inclined her head, but the move was hesitant.

“Hal Boots may not be the brightest of lights, but he’s street savvy. Hanging around the scene of the crime afterward is not his style.”

“Unless he was under orders to keep an eye on the place.”

“Could be.” Lady Durnham watched him intently. “He was spooked when your cook and then you came along. He turned and walked away in the other direction, so you weren’t what he was after.”

Only, they were. Hal Boots had to be looking for the woman who’d delivered a note to Dervish the night before and then disappeared as if by magic in a back alley. And she’d been standing right in front of him.

A chill of fear brushed over him at the thought of what would have happened if she’d been in that alley this afternoon without Lady Durnham’s watchers, without him or the rag-and-bone
man. And if Hal Boots had managed to look past the cook’s apron and hat and really see her. Recognize her.

She could be someone caught up in Boots and his master’s affairs, or she could have been contacting Dervish for another reason altogether. He didn’t think Boots would be particularly gentle with her, either way.

He needed answers.

“You seem worried, Lord Aldridge.” Lady Holliday put down her embroidery.

Jonathan tried to tamp down the pent-up energy, the impatience to be off home that gripped him, but it was impossible. He stood. “I think I need to be going.”

He strained to hear any sign that Durnham was done with his visitor, and felt more than a spike of annoyance to be summoned so urgently and then made to wait. “If Lord Durnham would like, I can come around later when he’s finished his other business, or he can come to me.”

Lady Durnham watched him. He had the sense she knew he was keeping something back. “I’m sorry Durnham has kept you so, when it was he who sent round for you. All I can say is that shortly after he sent the note, his current visitor arrived, desperate for a word.”

Jonathan shrugged. “I understand. But I have pressing business elsewhere tonight myself—”

“Aldridge, I’m terribly sorry for the wait.” Durnham stepped into the room. His eyes moved from Jonathan to his wife. “You weren’t going, were you?”

“I was planning to come back again later.”

“I’m sorry for keeping you.” Durnham walked toward them, and Jonathan could see the worry in his eyes. “My message earlier was to let you know that Mr. Greenway, Barrington’s lawyer, is nowhere to be found.”

“What does that mean?” Jonathan frowned.

“It means he’s gone. His office is shut, and he isn’t at home. His servants couldn’t say where he was, because he didn’t tell them.” He stood behind his wife and let his hands drop down to rest on her shoulders. “One of the things the visitor who just left told me is the name and address of Greenway’s head clerk.”

“You’re sending your man round to speak to him?”

Durnham shook his head. “I need him somewhere else. Dervish has left me juggling far more balls than usual, but aside from that, this is part of the Barrington affair, and I don’t trust anyone enough. I hoped you would go.” As he spoke, a rattle sounded against the windows, and everyone turned in that direction.

“Is that. . . ?” Lady Holliday cocked her head to listen.

“Hail?” Jonathan asked her. “I do believe it is.”

25

T
he sudden click and ting of hail brought Gigi’s head up, and she looked at the high windows. She thought of Iris out in it and stood, wanting to do something other than sit and wait and worry.

As she took a step toward the coat rack the kitchen door opened, framing a bedraggled Iris, then slammed shut, loud and hard.

BOOK: Banquet of Lies
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