things of anyone.”

Suddenly Matthew smiled, a wide, generous smile that made him look years younger. “That’s the best thing I have heard anyone say in weeks. Dear God, I wish his friends could hear you. Everyone is so afraid to praise him, even to acknowledge his sanity, never mind that he might have been right.” There was sudden hurt in his voice. “Thomas, he was sane, wasn’t he? The sanest and most honorable and innately decent man ever to walk the land.”

“Yes he was,” Pitt agreed quietly and with total honesty. “But apart from that, it doesn’t rest on his sanity. I know the Inner Circle punishes those who betray it. I’ve seen it before. Sometimes it is social or financial ruin-not often death, but it is not unknown. If they couldn’t frighten him, and they obviously couldn’t, then there was nothing else for them to do. They couldn’t ruin him financially because he didn’t gamble or speculate. They couldn’t socially because he didn’t curry favor with anyone, or seek any office or alliances, and he couldn’t have cared less about being accepted at court, or in the social circles of London. Where he lived his standing was unassailable, even by the Inner Circle. So there was only death left to them, to silence him permanently.”

“And then to nullify all he said by dishonoring his memory.” Matthew’s voice was filled with anger, and pain flooded back into his face. “I can’t bear that, Thomas. I won’t!”

There was a knock on the parlor door. Pitt suddenly became aware again of where he was, and that it was nearly dark outside. He had not eaten, and Charlotte must be wondering who his visitor was and why he had gone into the parlor and closed the door without introducing her, or inviting the visitor to dine.

Matthew looked at him expectantly, and Pitt was surprised to see there was a flicker of nervousness across his face, as if he were uncertain how he should behave.

“Come in.” Pitt rose to his feet and reached to open the door. Charlotte was standing outside looking curious and a little anxious. She had finished reading to the children and from the faint flush in her cheeks and the stray hair poked into a misplaced pin, he knew she had been in the kitchen. He had even forgotten he was hungry. “Charlotte, this is Matthew Desmond.” It was ridiculous that they had never met before. Matthew had been closer to him than anyone else except his mother, at times closer than even she. And Charlotte was closer to him now than he had imagined anyone could be. And he had never taken her back to Brackley, never introduced her to his home, or to those who had been more than family to him before she was. His mother had died when he was eighteen, but that should not have cut the ties.

“How do you do, Mr. Desmond,” Charlotte said with a calm and confidence Pitt knew was the product of her birth, not of any inner emotion. He saw the uncertainty in her eyes and knew why she moved a step closer to him.

“How do you do, Mrs. Pitt,” Matthew replied, and his voice lifted very slightly with surprise because she answered his look squarely. In that brief second, with no more than a sentence and a meeting of glances, they had taken a certain measure of each other, understood the precise niche in society which they filled. “I am sorry to intrude, Mrs. Pitt,” Matthew went on. “I am afraid it was most selfish of me. I came to tell Thomas of my father’s death, and I regret that all consideration for anyone else went straight out of my head. I apologize.”

Charlotte looked across at Pitt this time, her face full of shock and sympathy, then back to Matthew. “I am sorry, Mr. Desmond. You must be feeling quite terrible. Is there anything we can do to be of practical assistance? Would you like Thomas to go back to Brackley with you?”

Matthew smiled. “Actually, Mrs. Pitt, I wanted Thomas to find out precisely what happened, and that he has already promised to do.”

Charlotte took breath to say something else, then realized perhaps it was inappropriate, and changed her mind.

“Would you like some supper, Mr. Desmond? I imagine you do not feel like eating, but you may feel worse if you leave it too long.”

“You are quite right,” he agreed. “On all counts.”

She looked at him closely, at the distress and the weariness in his face. She hesitated on the edge of decision for a moment, then made her judgment.

“Would you like to stay here overnight, Mr. Desmond? It will be no inconvenience whatever. In fact you would be our first guest since moving here, and we should like that very much. If there is anything you need, and have not with you, Thomas could lend it to you.”

He did not need to consider it. “Thank you,” he said immediately. “I would far rather that than return to my rooms.”

“Thomas will show you upstairs and have Gracie prepare the bedroom for you. Supper will be served in ten minutes.” And she turned, with only a glance at Pitt, and retreated towards the kitchen.

Matthew stood for a moment in the hallway looking at Pitt. All sorts of half thoughts were plain in his face: surprise, understanding, memories of the past, of long talks and even longer dreams when they were boys, and some of all the distance between then and now. No explanations were necessary.

Supper was a light meal anyway: cold roast chicken and vegetables, and a fruit sorbet afterwards. It was hardly a time when it mattered, but Pitt was glad Matthew had come after his promotion, and it had not been during the time when mutton stew and potatoes, or whiting and bread and butter, were all they could have offered.

They spoke little, and that merely of unemotional subjects such as plans for the garden, what they hoped to grow in the future, whether all the fruit trees were likely to bear, or how badly they were in need of pruning. It was only to fill the silence, not any attempt to pretend that all was well. Charlotte knew as well as Pitt that grief must be allowed its time. To prevent it by constant diversion only increased the pain, like a denial of the importance of the event, as if the loss did not matter.

Matthew retired early, leaving Charlotte in the green-and-white sitting room with Pitt. To have called it a withdrawing room would have been pretentious, but it had all the charm and cool ease that would serve such a purpose.

“What did he mean?” she asked as soon as Matthew had had time to be up the stairs beyond hearing. “What was wrong with Sir Arthur’s death?”

Slowly, finding words harder than he had expected to, he told her all that Matthew had said about Sir Arthur and the Inner Circle, the warnings he felt they had given him, and finally his death from laudanum at the Morton Club.

She listened without taking her eyes from his, and without interruption. He wondered if she could see in his face, as transparently as he felt them, both his grief and his sense of guilt. He was not even sure if he wanted her to know it. It was a bitterly lonely thing to hide, and yet he did not wish her to see him as the thoughtless man he felt, careless of so many years of past kindness that he had not been back, and now all he could do was repay a fraction of the debt by trying to redeem Sir Arthur’s name from a dishonor he knew it did not deserve.

If she perceived it in him, she did not say so. Charlotte could be the most wildly tactless of people at times. And yet when she loved someone, her commitment was such that she could keep any secret, and refrain from judgment in a way few people matched.

“He is the last man to have taken laudanum at all,” he said earnestly. “But even if he had, for some reason we know nothing of, I can’t let them say he was senile. It’s-it’s an indignity.”

“I know.” She reached out her hand and took his. “You don’t speak of him often, but I do know you feel very deeply for him. But regardless of that, it is an injustice one should not let by for anyone at all.” Her eyes were troubled and for the first time since he had begun, she was uncertain of his reaction. “But Thomas …”


“Don’t let emotion …” She chose the word carefully, leaving the implication of guilt unsaid, although he was certain she knew that was what he felt. “Don’t let emotion prompt you into rushing in without thought and preparation. They are not enemies you can afford to take lightly. They have no honor in the way they fight. They won’t give you a second chance because you are bereaved, or rash, or motivated by loyalty. Once they realize you mean to fight them, they will try to provoke you into those very mistakes. I know you will remember Sir Arthur’s death, and that will fire you to want to beat them: but also remember the way in which they killed him, how successful it was for their purposes, and how completely ruthless.”

She shivered and looked increasingly unhappy, as if her own words had frightened her. “If they will do that to one of their own, imagine what they will do to an enemy, like you.” She looked for a moment as if she were going to add something-perhaps a plea for him to think again, to weigh the chances of achieving anything-but she changed

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