A later scene in SKYLARK

Wherein our heroine seeks the letter that might threaten her son's life.

(In the midst of other troubles, Sir Stephen Ball has arrived at Caldfort House to discuss politics with Laura's father-in-law, Lord Caldfort. Once they had been close friends. Once he had proposed te her. Then he had christened her Lady Skylark, which she hated. She wanted no more of his interference.)

    Laura opened her door and -- praise be -- heard Jack call his goodnights. A little later, footsteps came up the stairs. She closed her door and listened as someone, surely Stephen, passed and another door closed down the corridor.
    At last.
    Lord Caldfort would be settling for the night in his bedchamber. The servants would be clearing the dining room, then washing the last dishes before taking to their beds. Lady Caldfort had been in her rooms for hours. Laura didn't know when her mother-in-law went to bed or went to sleep, but she'd never been known to emerge after dinner.
    As the house settled into silence she itched to set off, but she had the whole night. Though she fidgeted and paced, Laura waited until the clock showed eleven-thirty before she would let herself leave her room. Then, senses screwed for any sign of life, she carried her candle downstairs and across the hall to her father-in-law's study.
    She had a story prepared, though it didn't stop her heart from pounding. Lord Caldfort kept road guides in his study. Her excuse would be that she wished to study tomorrow's route. It was flimsy because she knew the way well, but it would do.
    She was, after all, an idiot woman.
    When she arrived at the door, Laura paused once more, ears pricked for any sound, but then she entered the room without further hesitation. If someone was watching, she must not look furtive, even if she felt it. She couldn't believe that she was intruding into someone's study intent upon reading their private correspondence.
    She crept to the desk, put her candlestick down there, and surveyed the surface again. Nothing had changed since before dinner except that now she could open the two small containers on top of the desk. The box held small coins, the bowl was empty.
    She hadn't expected it to be so easy, but it would have been a pleasant surprise.
    Aware that she was passing from excusable to inexcusable, she went around and sat in her father-in-law's chair. If anyone came in here now, she was sunk.
    She tugged on the handle of the central drawer -- and it slid out. She almost laughed with surprise. It didn't hold letters, however, but only the necessities for writing them. There were sheets of paper, pens, and some open boxes holding sticks of sealing wax, sand, a penknife and such.
    She closed that and tried the top one on the left.
    That was to be expected, but the center one had given her hope. She quickly tried all the others, but all were locked. She muttered the sort of word that ladies were not supposed to know and considered again whether it would be possible to force the drawers open. The locks did not look sturdy, but she couldn't see how to do it without leaving marks.
    She glared at the desk. Expecting difficulties didn't make them any the less disappointing, but she regrouped and put her mind to work. If the key was here, where would it be?
    She lifted and examined every object on the top of the desk, even peering into the inkwell. At that insanity, she reminded herself that the key wasn't hidden in that sense. Lord Caldfort presumably used it every day. He wouldn't fish it out of ink.
    She felt under the kneehole and down the inner sides. She was about to crawl under when she realized that her father-in-law was incapable of that.
    So where?
    She looked around the room at a daunting array of bookshelves and objets-d'arts. The key could be anywhere, but the more she thought about it the more sure she was that Lord Caldfort would not want to be heaving himself up out of his chair to get the key or to hide it.
    So where?
    It seemed too careless a place, but she opened the center drawer again, and explored it all the way to the back. Nothing but dust. She poked through the box of sand -- nothing -- then tipped out the box of sealing wax into her lap.
    A small, ornate key glinted in the light of her candle.
    Hardly able to believe it, she tried the key in the lock of the top drawer on the left. It clicked sweetly. Could she take this as divine approval? No. This intrusion was wicked, but she had to do it. She put back the sealing wax and closed the center drawer, then settled to her search.
    The top left drawer contained ledgers and estate portfolios. No letters. She closed that drawer and locked it, then opened the next one down. A few more ledgers. The bottom one was empty. Of course, bending so low would be difficult.
    She opened the top one on the right.
    They were all folded, but the seals she could see were broken. Ones received, not ones waiting to be sent. This was what she was looking for.
    There was more than a day's worth, however. Laura tried to remember how many had been on the desk this morning when Lord Caldfort had given her the letter from Juliet. Perhaps six? She counted quickly. Eleven.
    Did he keep the letters in order of arrival? She wanted to intrude as little as possible in this search, but she might have to at least glance at them all.
    She picked up the top one and unfolded it, the rustle of paper sounding loud in the quiet house. A quick glance showed it was about a purchase of a bull. She couldn't see how that could be a cause for alarm.
    The next was about a case before the courts in London, but nothing dangerous or controversial. Then a letter from France from an old friend. She read it all the way through, but saw nothing strange.
    She continued opening and glancing at letters, trying not to read any more than she had to. Then she picked up one that was clearly on cheaper paper -- thinner and less white. She tensed with excitement. Unlike the others, it had been sealed with a wafer rather than with sealing wax. It was addressed to Lord Caldfort and the only indication of sender was the place of origin.
    Draycombe in Dorset.
    That startled. She came from Dorset. Draycombe was on the coast near the western edge of the county and she'd never been there, but could this alarm have something to do with her?
Chapter 10
    She unfolded the paper with unsteady hands, terrified of tearing it or doing anything else to show that it had been disturbed. She expected uneducated writing to match the paper, but the contents were neatly written, though there was something a little strange about the handwriting. An angularity, perhaps. A weight in the use of the pen.
    She looked first to the bottom, seeking the sender's name.
    Azir Al Farouk.
    What sort of name was that?

Great Lord,
    I have information of interest to you about a certain HG, connected to Mary Woodside. Having been for some years a guest of Oscar Ris, HG has now changed course and might trouble you. You will find enclosed an item of relevance.
    I would be happy to assist you in the avoidance of this trouble for payment of ten thousand guineas.
    I can be reached through Captain Egan Dyer, care of the Compass Inn, Draycombe, Dorset. I am in hopes of being your most humble servant, great lord,
    Azir Al Farouk

    Ten thousand guineas! That was certainly enough to give Lord Caldfort a nasty shock, but apart from the figure, the letter mystified her. This had to be the letter she was looking for, however.
    HG. Henry Gardeyne?
    Her Harry? Surely not. He'd not been anywhere for "some years" and certainly not with Oscar Ris, whoever that might be. The Gardeyne family tree was full of Henrys, however, in one form of the name or another.
    She started to run through the recent ones in her mind, but stopped herself. She could think in a safer place. Fearing that she would forget some detail she took out a sheet of paper, dipped the pen, and made a precise copy. When she was sure it was exact, she refolded and replaced the original.
    She looked around the desk for the item of relevance. There was nothing there except letters, and she was sure there was nothing unusual in the central drawer.
    She couldn't search further now. She had no idea what she might be looking for. A scrap of fabric, a button, a lock of hair, a picture. She might not know it even if she saw it. She was sure she'd found the troubling letter, but she glanced at the remaining three, just in case. They were all ordinary correspondence.
    After checking that the pile of letters looked as it had before, she locked the drawer and replaced the key. Once she was sure that the center drawer was in order, she closed it with sweating hands, picked up her candle -- and froze.
    Was that a sound?
    She stopped breathing to listen, but the house seemed dead around her. She was tempted to race up to the safety of her room, but she must appear innocent to the end.
    She went to the shelf of road guides, found the one that included the road to Merrymead, and slipped her copy of the letter inside it. With her excuse in hand, she left the room feeling as if guilt were stamped on her forehead.
    If it was, there was no one to see it. The house slept except for the ticking of clocks. Even her slippered footsteps sounded loud.
    She went up to the nursery again, compelled to check that Harry was still safe. He was sound asleep, but she realized that her arrival here had not woken Nan.
    Just as easily, Jack could have returned to the house, come quietly upstairs, and smothered Harry with a pillow. Or thrown him out of the window with the explanation of sleepwalking. There were so many ways to kill a child without it clearly being murder.
    She hated to leave, but she must. She would be thought unbalanced if she slept up here, and she needed to study the letter. She couldn't stop thinking that there was a connection between it and Lord Caldfort's insistence that she take Harry away for a month, and thus a connection to Harry’s safety.
    She slipped downstairs and was at the door to her room when a soft voice said, "Is something amiss?"
    She turned, heart jolting. Stephen stood outside his room, dressed for the night in a blue banyan over his nightshirt. He looked fully alert, however, not roused from sleep. Laura felt as if he could see into the book she was clutching and identify the letter....

To read more, look for SKYLARK, appearing on shelves any day now.
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