"Please, is there some way we can help you?"
She moistened her lips before managing to rasp, "He's married?"
"Yes." The lady smiled, glowing with internal satisfaction, tinged with something almost like surprise, as if she couldn't believe her good fortune.
Envy tugged within. Oh, how well Julia remembered those days. "We've been away," Lady Carmichael continued, "and only returned two days ago."
Julia nodded, surprise filling her as the viscountess drew closer and offered a hand, helping her to her feet. What an unusual bride Henry had chosen.
Conscious she was being watched carefully, she stuttered, "I-I s-saw the lights last night and knew someone must be in. Nobody is in Berkeley Square, or Portman. I don't know...Mama...Jon." Where were they? Mama almost never left town, and Jon's business interests made his staying in London something of a necessity. Surely he hadn't been serious about retiring to that dreary corner of Gloucestershire?
Her arm was gently clasped, and she was led back to Bevington House, away from the prying eyes of the street sweeper. Now she noticed her benefactress had bare feet, undressed hair. What an odd woman! Was she serious about being Henry's bride? Oh, if only she could remember—
"You left your basket—oh, it's empty."
Julia gasped. "No! Oh, no!" What could she do? She had failed! Who could have taken—? Guilt misted her senses, and she stepped back, desperately searching for the culprit. But she had passed no one! Oh, where could he be?
"There you are!"
She swiveled back to the now opened door, stifled another gasp. Lord Henry Carmichael, dressed in a quilted dressing gown, held a white bundle and a bemused expression. His white teeth flashed as he smiled at the lady dressed equally dishabille. "Serena, can you tell me why we have a baby on our front step?"
Serena? A memory flashed. A black-clad, cool-eyed schoolgirl. Henry—her Henry—had married her? The lady drew closer, her expression now even more alive with interest, alert with piercing intent.
She swallowed, heart thudding, as the viscountess's breath caught, her expression clearing into comprehension. "Julia?"
Major Thomas Hale shifted, the perpetual ache from the hatch of welts on his back easing a mite as the pressure released. He drew in a breath and opened his eyes. The nightmare remained.
A dark, dank cell with barred window. A sloshing sound. A screech of laughter. Babble in a foreign tongue. He glanced at the other occupants. Grimy and unkempt as he, no doubt wishing they had never agreed to be ensnared by fortune's fickle fancy, and thus be caught in this dire situation for—how many months now? He peered at the wall, counted the strokes denoting the days as if he didn't already know, as if—by some miracle—he might have miscalculated, and this episode not be near as severe as he knew it to be. Five months. Five months!
Pain rippled through his chest. He'd been absent for almost half a year. A mission that should have taken a quarter of that time had been thwarted by lies and loose lips. A rumble of indignation churned within. How could the Crown abandon them, leaving them to rot? He peered across at young Desmond, whose right foot held all the signs of gangrene, the black decay creeping a little farther each day up his leg. How much longer did the lad have? Weeks? Days?
A creeping sound, like the slither of rats, slid through the room. He swallowed the bile. Muttered a curse. Wished for a boot to throw at the perpetrator. Settled for a barked utterance, not dissimilar to that which he used to bark at men a lifetime ago when his majority meant something.
The creature scuttled away. The room lapsed into silence. Desmond's half-crazed moanings had ceased. Benson wouldn't speak. Smith and Harrow, the two men with whom he'd communicated the most, had retreated into despondency. Fairley had been taken away two days ago. Thomas shivered. He dared not think on his fate.