Say You Love Me Page 24

And a half dozen more that were yet to be delivered, she could have added but didn't. She sighed. "Then I suppose it would be churlish of me not to thank you." "Yes, very churlish."

She grinned. "Thank you." "You are very, very welcome, m'dear." That had been their last stop. After that he took her home and stayed for dinner-and stayed the night, too,

He had not planned to do this. Whenever Jason was in town, and staying over, it was Derek's habit to at least join him at the town house for dinner. And he didn't know when Jason would be returning to Haverston, so he didn't know if he'd have the opportunity to catch him the next day.

But as much as he wanted to talk to his father about the divorce-and the woman he'd managed to keep a secret for so long-he wanted to stay near Kelsey much more.

She had been shaken by the encounter, he knew. But Derek was more concerned, worrying about her.

Unbelievably, Ashford had treated her as if she belonged to him and had just been temporarily stolen from him. His remarks had also indicated that he was going to make her pay for being stolen when he got her back, and he had also seemed confident that he would get her back. And who was to say what plans his crazy mind could conjure.

Derek couldn't be with her all the time. She did go out on her own, to the dressmaker for her fittings, shopping, and whatnot. Nor could he ask her not to, when his fears so far were based on simple threats.

He would pay his Uncle James a visit again the next day, to get his advice. He was likely worrying over nothing, but tonight he still wasn't letting Kelsey out of his sight.

DEREK DID INDEED VISIT HIS UNCLE JAMES THE NEXT morning, before he even returned home for a change of clothing. And after a short chat with James, he was much relieved. Kelsey could not be in any immediate danger, because his uncle had already set his two butlers to following Ashford.

Artie and Henry were in no way typical butlers, though, which was why Derek was so relieved. They had been members of James's pirate crew and had served under him for most of his ten years at sea.

They had both elected to stay with James after he sold the Maiden Anne, and they now shared the job of butlering at his London residence, a job they thoroughly enjoyed because they weren't what one might expect. And they got a hoot out of shocking visitors.

That they continually bruised a few feathers with their unorthodox ways didn't bother James in the least, and Aunt George had long before given up trying to teach them better manners. To knock on their door these days-if you weren't a relative-could get a barked "They ain't home!" and the door slammed in your face, or a "What in the bleedin' hell d'you want?" Unless it was a comely lady knocking, of course. Ladies invariably got dragged right in and the door shut behind them before they could get two words out.

But both ex-pirates were quite suitable for the job James had set them to. And so far, James informed Derek, they had followed Ashford to two separate residences, his main house in the city and one just outside the city that looked all but deserted, and where he didn't actually spend the night, just a few hours of an evening.

They had also followed him to a tavern in one of the poorer sections of town. Derek had stiffened, hearing that, until James related that Artie had caused such a commotion there, in the guise of being utterly foxed, and accosted Ashford in the process, that the man had quickly canceled whatever plans he'd had and left.

Derek had immediately sent off a note to Kelsey so she could stop worrying, if she still was, and could relax her guard somewhat. He'd then returned home and found his father still there. Whether he could consider that fortunate or not was in doubt, since Jason looked none too pleased as he called Derek into his study.

Derek immediately assumed that Frances had gotten in touch with Jason and had informed him about their little encounter the day before. Not so. Actually, Derek later wished that had been the case. "You actually bought a mistress in a public whorehouse in a room full of your peers?"

Derek practically fell into the chair he'd been about to sit in, feeling more than a little poleaxed. Any time his father stressed words, you knew he was just barely in control of his temper. "How did you hear of it?" "How did you think I wouldn't, when the thing was done so damned publicly?" Jason demanded.

Derek cringed inwardly. "It was to be hoped, considering the gentlemen there don't usually admit to being in such places."

Jason snorted. "As it happens, I stopped by my club last evening. A friend of mine was there who felt I should be apprised of it. He happened to have another friend, who was a friend of someone who was there that night. It's bloody well made the rounds of all the clubs already. And Lord knows how many wives it's been shared with by now, who are passing it around in their groups."

Derek was flushing furiously already, but in his defense, he said, "You know very well it isn't likely to be shared with any wives." "Beside the bloody point," Jason replied, his frown just as dark. "What the devil were you thinking, to participate in an

auction like that?" "I was thinking I would be saving that innocent young girl from-" "Innocent?" Jason cut in. "Who is she anyway?" "Kelsey Langton, and no, she's no one of importance, so you needn't worry about that. But as I was saying, I bid on her to keep her from being scarred for life." "I beg your pardon?"

Derek sighed. "Id had no intention of getting involved, Father. We'd only stopped by that place for a few hands of cards while Jeremy visited with one of his ladyloves who worked there. But then-" "You took Jeremy to such a place? He's only eighteen years old!"

"Jeremy has been going to such places probably longer than I have, or have you forgotten that he was raised in a tavern before Uncle James found him?"

To that Jason merely glowered, so Derek continued, "As I was saying, I'd had no intention of getting involved, but then I noticed who was bidding on the girl." "Who?" "He's a man I've run into before, a lord, and I've witnessed firsthand what he does to the prostitutes he uses. He whips them bloody, so severely that they are permanently disfigured. It's rumored it's the only way he can get any pleasure out of sex." "Disgusting." "I couldn't agree more. In fact, as a favor to me, Uncle James is looking into a means of putting a stop to the man's perverted practices." "James is? How?" "I-ah-didn't bother to ask."

Jason cleared his throat. "Quite right. Where that particular brother of mine is concerned, it's better not to know. But, Derek-" "Father it really couldn't have been helped," Derek cut in- "I couldn't think of any other way to keep the girl safe, except to buy her myself. And she did turn out to be an innocent, so I'm bloody well glad I kept her out of Ashford's 'hands." "David Ashford? Good God, I would have thought some woman would have gelded him years ago." "You knew about him?" "I'd heard rumors, back before he'd reached his majority, that he used to torture his female servants. Nothing that was ever proven, of course. Then there was another rumor that someone had brought him up on charges, but it never reached a trial, since the woman in question refused to bear witness against him. They say it cost him most of his family fortune to pay the woman off. As I recall, a cheer went up in my club the night we heard that. At least it was some punishment-if the rumors were true."

Derek nodded. "I imagine they were true, and he has progressed to worse tortures." "And there's nothing the courts can do without a victim to accuse him." Jason sighed. "Oh, he covers himself very well these days," Derek said. "I found one of his victims, the same one I had come upon him beating. I'd hoped she would help to bring him to trial. But he not only pays them handsomely, he warns them of what he means to do and gets their agreement first." "Smart as well as dreadfully demented. A dangerous combination, that. But you have involved James. Leave it to him. I can almost guarantee he will find a way to keep that man from hurting anyone else." "Which was my hope, especially since I just had yet another run-in with the fellow, and he indicated that he feels Kelsey was stolen from him when I outbid him and that he'll have her back eventually."

Jason raised a brow. "Are you saying you still have the girl?" "Well, she was sold as a mistress, and I did pay a great deal of money for her." "How much money?" "I'd rather not sa-" "How much?"

Derek hated that better-fess-up-or-else tone, he really did. "Twenty-five," he mumbled. "Twenty-five hundred!" Derek sank a bit lower in his chair before he admitted, "Thousand-pounds." Jason choked, sputtered, opened his mouth to say some- thing but snapped it closed again. He dropped into the chair behind his desk. He raked both hands through his golden inane. He finally sighed, then pinned Derek with one of his darkest frowns.

"I must not have heard you correctly. You didn't say you paid twenty-five thousand pounds for a mistress. No-" He held up a hand when Derek started to speak. "I don't want to hear it. Forget I asked." "Father, there was no other way to keep Ashford from buying the girl," Derek reminded him. "I can think of a half dozen at least, including simply taking her out of there. Who, after all, would have stopped you, when that auction was hardly legal?"

Derek smiled at what was a typical Malory response. "Well, the proprietor, Lonny, might have had a thing or two to say about that, considering the profit I would have been snatching out of his hand." "Lonny?" Jason frowned a moment, opened the London Times on his desk to the second page, and pointed. "That Lonny, by any chance?"

Derek leaned forward to briefly scan the article, but was so surprised that he went back to read it more thoroughly. It was a report on Lonny Kilpatrick, who had been murdered in a house of ill repute that he had run for a little more than a year and a half. The address was given, and the details of his death. He had apparently been stabbed in the chest re- peatedly. There was mention of a great deal of blood. And no clue as to his murderer. "I'll be damned," Derek said, leaning back. "I take it that's the same Lonny you dealt with?" Jason asked. "Indeed." "Interesting, though I doubt there is any connection between the murder and the auction. All that blood on the body, all around it, does, however, remind me of what you said about Ashford and his predilection for blood." "He's a sniveling coward," Derek scoffed. "He wouldn't have the guts to kill a man."

Jason shrugged. "From what you've said about him, and from the previous rumors I'd heard myself, that man is deficient up here." And he pointed at his head. "There is no telling what someone like that is capable of. But I tend to agree. He does sound like a coward who prefers to torment the weak. Besides, for what reason would he kill this Lonny person, when it's apparently only women he enjoys hurting. it's likely no more than a coincidence."

Derek would have agreed, wanted to agree, but blister it, that small bit of doubt had been raised. He was back to worrying again. And he went straight back to James's house as soon as he left his father, to apprise his uncle of this newest development.

Unfortunately, he forgot all about wanting to ask his father about the mistress he had been keeping all these years. And by the time he returned home again, it was to find a note from Jason reminding him that he was expected at Haverston for the Christmas holidays. His father was already on his way back there himself.

DESPITE DEREK'S ASSURANCES THAT SHE HAD LITTLE TO fear from Lord Ashford now that he was being watched, Kelsey still wouldn't leave the town house for nearly a week. She sent her footman around to the dressmaker to cancel two fittings-she had fortunately just hired a footman, as well as the rest of the servants she needed, that week.

She also held off returning to that nice little yardage shop that she'd found, where she had purchased the material to sew Derek a few things for Christmas. A monogrammed cravat and handkerchiefs, some silk shirts, several of which she had already finished.

Ironically, she hadn't been quite as fearful the day they encountered Lord Ashford as she was the next day, after spending the evening with Derek. She had sensed his fear, though he hadn't said anything more after his warning-

Staying holed up in the house did have its advantages. After three days of agonizing over it, she was able to finally get off a letter to her Aunt Elizabeth. In it she had explained that her friend had had a new medical opinion that actually offered some hope, and that they had moved to London to be close to the new doctor.

Continuing the lie to her aunt was what was so difficult, that and supplying a return address, which Elizabeth would naturally expect. In the end, Kelsey used her own, since she knew of no others aside from Derek's, and using his was out of the question.

She had also included a letter to her sister filled with gossip about their hometown, all of it fabrications, of course.

Both letters, once finished, made her feel so despicable that she certainly hadn't been very good company for Derek. He'd noticed, and remarked on it, but she'd put him off with more lies about feeling under the weather and such-and got lots of flowers the next day that made her want to cry.

She finally convinced herself that she was being silly, hiding indoors. The fact that it was a lovely winter day when she did might have helped. At any rate, she took herself straight to the dressmaker for those final fittings, and those were seen to in quick order. And she was only a little bit hesitant in leaving the back of the shop, worrying that she might run into Lady Eden again on the way out.

But the showroom was quite empty that early in the morning, most of the ladies of the ton being late risers due to latenight entertainments. There was one exception, however.

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