threw it at her. It hit her on the side of the head and she fell. I stood still for a moment, then I went over to her, but she didn’t move. I waited a moment and still she lay there. I felt for her pulse, listened for her breath-nothing! She was dead. Then I looked at her. . more closely.” Her face was ashen; Charlotte had never seen anyone look so exhausted. Her voice was so low it was barely audible. “I touched her hair-and it came away in my hand. It was a wig. It wasn’t till that moment that I realized who it was. It was Robert himself-dressed as a woman! Robert was Cerise!” She closed her eyes and pressed her hands to them. “That was why Loretta blackmailed Garrard. He was in love with Robert, and he knew all the time who he was. That’s why she protected me. She hated me for it, but she couldn’t bear to have the world know her beloved son was a transvestite.

“After I knew he was dead I went upstairs. I think I was too shocked then even to weep; that came later. I went to Loretta and told her, and she came down with me. I didn’t even think of lying then. We stood there in the study, she and I, and stared at Robert lying on the floor in that terrible dress, and the wig beside him. There was rouge on his face, and powder. He was beautiful, that was the most obscene thing about it!” Weeping overtook her, and without thinking this time Charlotte knelt beside her and put her arms round the thin, aching shoulders.

“And you and Loretta changed his clothes, dressed him in his own nightshirt and robe and destroyed the cerise dress and wig, and then broke the library window?” she concluded; she knew this was what must have taken place. “Where are the things that were supposed to be stolen?”

But Veronica was sobbing too deeply to tell her. Three years of fear and pain had broken at last, and she needed to weep till she had no strength left, no emotion.

Charlotte held her and waited. It hardly mattered where those few objects were. Probably in the attics. They had not been sold, that much Pitt had made sure of.

The rest of the house must be busy with private tragedies: Piers with Loretta and the police, poor man; whatever disillusion he had suffered in the years since the first bloom of his marriage, no loneliness of closed doors of the heart could have prepared him for this. Felix would be smarting from the newly opened wound of his love for Harriet. It was quite hopeless; divorce would ruin all of them and no happiness could lie that way; and now Sonia had been forced to see it, understand it, and know that others saw it also. She could no longer hide her pain behind pretended blindness. Or perhaps it had been real-maybe she had known nothing. And Aunt Adeline would grieve for them all.

Julian would be far too busy with his own family’s despair to disturb Charlotte and Veronica now. He would be only too grateful to leave ‘Miss Barnaby’ to comfort his fiancee in what he supposed was no more than shock.

Minutes went by, stretching in the silent room. Charlotte had no idea how long it was until Veronica finally exhausted herself and sat up, her face a travesty of its former loveliness.

Charlotte had only a meager handkerchief to offer.

“I suppose they will hang me,” Veronica said very quietly, her voice quite steady now. “I hope it is quick.”

To her amazement Charlotte answered immediately and without a quiver. “I don’t see why they should. I can’t think of any reason why they need to know about it. You only meant to hurt him; it was a hideous mischance that the blow hit his temple and killed him.”

Veronica stared. “Won’t you tell them?”

“No-no, I don’t think there’s any point. I used to think I was a very civilized person, but since Thomas has been in prison, and might have been hanged, I discover that I have a savagery in me that doesn’t think first when I must fight for those I love-love more than I can understand, or control. I don’t know if it’s right, but I think I know how you might have felt.”

“What about Julian? Won’t he-won’t he hate me anyway, because he thinks I’m Cerise, and that I drove Garrard to. .”

“Then tell him the truth.”

Veronica looked down. She was too exhausted to weep anymore. “He’ll leave me anyway. I killed Robert, and lied for three years to hide it. I didn’t know about Loretta and Garrard, but I don’t suppose he would believe all of that.”

Charlotte took her hands. “If he leaves you then he doesn’t love you as you want to be loved, and you must learn to live without him. Perhaps in time there will be someone else. Losing Robert was not any fault of yours. Nothing was lacking in your love; no woman could have held him. But Julian is different. If he really loves you, then he will still love you even when he knows. Believe me, we all have something to be forgiven. Love that expects perfection-no past with mistakes, pain, learning-is only hunger. No one grows to maturity without acts to be ashamed of; in accepting that, we love not only the strengths but also the weaknesses, and real bonds grow between us. Tell him. If he’s worth it, he’ll accept your past-if not immediately, then in a little while.”

For the first time Veronica lifted her chin. Her eyes widened, and there was a stillness in her; the violence inside calmed and her fear slipped away. “I will,” she said very softly. “I will tell him.”

There was a knock on the door-gentle, requesting permission.

Charlotte stood up and went to turn the key. “Come in.”

The door swung wide and Aunt Vespasia stood there with a tiny smile on her face. She stood aside. Behind her stood Emily, still in her maid’s dress but without the apron, and Jack with his arms round her. Beside them was Pitt, filthy, his face hollow, shadowed round the eyes and marked with bruises. But it was radiant with a smile of joy so intense he looked positively beautiful.

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