“Which I worked hard to acquire, by God.” West went to lounge in a chair by the hearth. “In fact, I insist on a chaperone: I can’t have my bad name tarnished by the suggestion that I could be trusted around three innocent girls.”

“Lady Berwick will be a good influence on the twins,” Kathleen said. “She taught me and her two daughters, Dolly and Bettina, how to conduct ourselves in society, and that was no easy task.”

“We’ll depart for Ireland the day after tomorrow,” Devon said with a slight frown. “God willing, we’ll return soon.”

West stretched his legs before the fire and laced his fingers across his midriff. “I suppose I’ll have to postpone Tom Severin’s visit. I invited him to come to Hampshire in two days’ time, to view the progress on the groundwork for the quarry and railway tracks.”

Rhys spoke in a flat tone that chilled Helen’s nerves. “It would be best to keep Severin far away from me.”

They all looked at him alertly. Rhys stood at the sideboard, his long-fingered hand cupped around the bowl of the cognac glass to warm the amber liquid. Swirling the cognac gently, he stared into its depths with eyes that had turned colder than Helen had ever seen them.

Devon was the first to speak. “What has Severin done now?”

“He’s been trying to convince me to buy a block of property near King’s Cross. But the owner’s name wasn’t listed on any of the documents. Not even the mortgages.”

“How is that possible?” Devon asked.

“A private investment company holds it all in trust. I hired an investigator to find out what’s behind all the elaborate legal papering. He uncovered a transfer agreement, already signed and notarized, that will take effect upon completion of the purchase. The entire price of the property will go to the last man on earth I would ever willingly do business with. And Severin knows it.”

Devon withdrew his arm from around Kathleen and leaned forward, his gaze lit with interest. “Mr. Vance?” he guessed.

Rhys responded with a single nod.

“Damn,” Devon said quietly.

Perplexed, Helen looked from one man to the other.

“You know how Severin is,” West said in the tense silence. “There’s no malice in him. He probably decided that if you found out about it later, it would be water under the bridge.”

Rhys’s eyes flashed dangerously. “If the deal had gone through before I found out that the money would go to Vance, I’d have made certain that Severin’s lifeless body was under the bridge. The friendship is over for good.”

“Who is Mr. Vance?” Helen asked.

No one replied.

Warily Kathleen broke the silence. “He’s Lord Berwick’s nephew, actually. Since the Berwicks never had a son, Mr. Vance is the heir presumptive to the estate. When Lord Berwick passes away, everything will go to Mr. Vance, and Lady Berwick and her daughters will be dependent on his goodwill. So, they’ve always tried to be hospitable to him. I’ve met Mr. Vance on a few occasions.”

“What is your opinion of him?” Devon asked.

Kathleen made a face. “A loathsome man. Petty, cruel, and self-important. Always in debt, but he believes himself to be a financial wizard of the age. In the past he tried more than once to borrow against his future inheritance. Lord Berwick was livid.”

Helen glanced at Rhys, troubled by the bleakness of his expression. His friend’s actions seemed to have cut deeply. “Are you certain,” she asked hesitantly, “that Mr. Severin understood the extent of your dislike for Mr. Vance?”

“He understood,” Rhys said shortly, and took a swallow of cognac.

“Then why did he do it?”

Rhys shook his head, remaining silent.

In a moment, Devon answered pensively. “Severin can be callous in pursuit of a goal. He has an extraordinary mind, it’s no exaggeration to call him a genius. However, such ability often comes at the expense of—” He hesitated, searching for the right word.

“Decency?” West suggested dryly.

Looking rueful, Devon nodded. “When dealing with Severin, one must never forget that above all, he’s an opportunist. His brain is so busy trying to engineer a certain outcome that he doesn’t bother to consider anyone’s feelings, including his own. That being said, there have been times when I’ve seen Severin go to great lengths to help other people. He’s not all bad.” He shrugged. “It seems a pity to give up the friendship entirely.”

“I’d give up anyone or anything,” Rhys retorted, “to make certain I never have any connection to Albion Vance.”

Chapter 16

HELEN LOWERED HER HEAD as if to concentrate on the mending in her lap. A sickening, strange, stomach-dropping feeling came over her. Somehow her hands continued the familiar task of sewing, jerkily stabbing the needle through the torn seam of a shirt. Panicked thoughts became ensnarled in her head, and she worked to pull them apart and make sense of them.

Albion was an uncommon name, but not entirely out of the ordinary. It could be a coincidence.

Please, God, please let it be a coincidence.

Oh that look on Rhys’s face. The kind of hatred a man would take to his grave.

Anxiety seethed inside her, making it the effort to remain outwardly calm excruciating. She had to leave the room. She had to go somewhere private, and take a few deep breaths . . . and she had to find Quincy.

He had come to the estate with Rhys. Quincy knew more of her family’s secrets than anyone. She would insist that he tell her the truth.

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