"Melissa," Agatha whispered. "But she doesn't know."
James closed his eyes and let out a long exhale. He knew what was coming next and decided to save his aunt the embarrassment of having to say it herself. "She's illegitimate, isn't she?"
Agatha nodded. "I had an affair. It lasted only a month. Oh, I was so young and so silly then."
James fought to keep his shock off of his face. His aunt had always been such a stickler for propriety; it was inconceivable that she could have dallied ouside of marriage. But, as she said, she'd been young and perhaps a little foolish, and after all she'd done for him in his life, he didn't feel he had the right to judge her. Agatha had been his savior, and if the need arose, he would lay down his life for her without a second's hesitation.
Agatha smiled sadly. "I didn't know what I was doing."
James weighed his words carefully before asking, “Your fear, then, is that your blackmailer will reveal this to society and shame Melissa?''
"I don't give a fig about society," Agatha said with a huff. “Half the lot of them are bastards themselves. Probably two-thirds of those not firstborn. It's Melissa I fear for. She's safely married to an earl, so the scandal won't touch her, but she was so close to Lord Danbury. He always said she was his special favorite. It would break her heart if she were to learn that he was not her true father."
James didn't remember Lord Danbury being much closer to Melissa than he was to any of his other children. In fact, he didn't recall Lord Danbury being close to his children, period. He had been a genial man, but distant. Definitely of the "children belong in the nursery and should be brought down for viewing no more than once a day" variety. Still, if Agatha felt that Melissa had been Lord Danbury's special favorite, who was he to argue?
"What are we going to do, James?" Agatha asked. "You are the only person I trust to help me through this unpleasantness. And with your background—''
"Have you received any more notes?" James interrupted. His aunt knew that he had once worked for the War Office. There was no harm in that, as he was no longer an active operative, but Agatha was ever curious, and always asking him about his exploits. And there were some things one just didn't want to discuss with one's aunt. Not to mention the fact that James could get himself hanged for divulging some of the information he'd learned over the years.
Agatha shook her head. "No. No notes."
“I’ll do a bit of preliminary investigating, but I suspect we won't learn anything until you receive another letter."
"You think there will be another one?"
James nodded grimly. "Blackmailers don't know how to quit while ahead. It's their fatal flaw. In the meantime, I shall play at being your new estate manager. But I do wonder how you expect me to do this without being recognized."
"I thought not being recognized was your particular forte."
"It is," he replied easily, "but unlike France, Spain, and even the south coast, I grew up here. Or at least I almost did."
Agatha's eyes suddenly lost their focus. James knew that she was thinking of his childhood, of all the times she'd faced his father in silent, angry showdowns, insisting that James was better off with the Danburys. "No one will recognize you," she finally assured him.
"He passed on last year."
"Oh. I'm sorry." He'd always liked the old butler.
"The new one is adequate, I suppose, although he had the effrontery the other day to ask me to call him Wilson."
James didn't know why he bothered, but he asked, "That wouldn't be his name, would it?"
"I suppose," she said with a little huff. "But how am I to remember that?''
"You just did."
She scowled at him. "If he's my butler, I'm calling him Cribbins. At my age it's dangerous to make any big changes."
"Agatha," James said, with far more patience than he felt, "may we return to the matter at hand?"
"About your being recognized."
"Everyone's gone. You haven't visited me for nearly ten years."
James ignored her accusing tone. "I see you all the time in London and you know it."
"It doesn't count."
He refused to ask why. He knew she was dying to give him a reason. "Is there anything in particular I need to know before assuming my role as estate manager?" he asked.
She shook her head. “What would you need to know?
I raised you properly. You should know everything there is to know about land management."
That much was true, although James had preferred to let managers watch over his estates since he'd assumed the title. It was easier, since he didn't particularly enjoy spending time at RiverdaleCastle. "Very well, then," he said, standing up. "As long as Cribbins the First is no longer with us—God rest his eternally patient soul—''
"What is that supposed to mean?"
His head fell slightly forward and to the side in an extremely sarcastic fashion. "Anyone who butlered for you for forty years deserves to be canonized."
"Impertinent bugger," she muttered.
"What's the use of holding my tongue at my age?"
He shook his head. "As I was trying to say earlier, as long as Cribbins is gone, being your estate manager is as good a disguise as any. Besides, I rather fancy spending some time out-of-doors while the weather is fine.''
"London was stifling?"
"The air or the people?"
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