Barnabas stepped onto the path once they had gone, considering all that he had heard. For a moment, he had been concerned that Angelique might do something to the Countess, but now, he knew that she would keep her word and refrain from using the powers at her command. He waited, watching as the two women approached the house, then moved nearer. He wanted to be there in case he was needed.
The front door was unlocked, and as she opened it, the Countess glanced back to see Angelique still standing at the bottom of the steps. "I thought you wanted to come with me, Angelique," she taunted. "Or are you too afraid to enter this house?"
Angelique's chin lifted. The woman really is insufferable, she thought, climbing the steps and entered the house behind the Countess. There was no reason to be afraid, she reasoned. She had sensed no malice in the vision of Josette that she had seen a year ago. And she had done nothing wrong, really. Her only crime had been to love Barnabas.
Through the doors into the parlour, Angelique could see the shapes of furniture, shrouded in dustcovers. The Countess entered the room, her eyes lifted to the portrait over the fireplace mantel. "Where is the portrait of Josette?" she asked. "I remember it being here when Josette married Barnabas."
"Barnabas moved it upstairs to her bedroom after her death," Angelique told her.
"At your request, no doubt," the woman said, a sneer on her face.
"Not at all," Angelique informed her. "It made no difference to me. I was willing to leave it where it was out of respect for Bramwell's mother."
"You dare speak to me of your respect for a woman whose husband you stole?"
"I stole nothing," Angelique insisted. Her fingers clenched again. "Why did you want to come here, Countess? There is nothing of interest in this house now."
"There was enough to bring my nephew here in the middle of the night," she pointed out. "Yes, I heard him telling you where he had gone. So he feels safe here. Why? Why does he feel more secure here than in the house with his father and you?"
"Bramwell-Bramwell is a very sensitive child, Countess," Angelique explained. "His earliest memories are of this house, of his mother. Bramwell was happy here. Her death affected him more deeply than any of us realized. He has a very-vivid imagination. Collinwood is so much larger than this house. It frightens him. But he is a still a child, and that will change."
"Do not be so certain of that," the Countess said, turning toward the stairs.
Angelique followed slowly, trying to sense the presence of Josette's spirit. There was something hovering just outside her consciousness, certainly. But she couldn't be sure it was Josette and not simply her own fear that the Countess would discover the truth of her niece's death. She found the door to Josette's room open and paused there, watching as the Countess stood looking up at the portrait.
"She was so lovely. Such a pity-"
"Josette would not have wanted your pity, Countess," Angelique told her. "She never wanted anyone's pity."
"She should never have come to Collinwood. I knew that as soon as we arrived. Such a difference from the place she was born and raised. No colour - so few flowers - Josette was used to being surrounded by flowers, by colour."
"As though she were a hot house flower herself," Angelique agreed. "Never meant to survive away from that rarefied atmosphere." She froze as the air changed, hoping that the Countess would not notice.
But she did. As she drew a breath, the Countess' eyes widened. "That scent. It is hers. Jasmine."
"It was her room, after all, Countess," Angelique reminded her. "No doubt the scent has been here all this time, we simply didn't notice it."
"No, no, she is here," the Countess insisted, moving around the room. "My Josette is here, trying to tell me something." She looked up at the portrait again. "I am here, chéri, waiting. Tell me what you wish me to know."
"Countess-" Angelique began, but that lady put out a hand.
"Silence! I will listen to what my niece has to tell me."
"No, Aunt Natalie," a voice said, a soft voice, filled with sadness-and knowledge. "It is you who must tell Angelique the truth."
Angelique and the Countess both gasped as they saw the spectre of Josette-as lovely as ever, standing beneath the portrait. "Josette!" Natalie breathed. "Oh, my darling child-"
Josette shook her head slowly. "Not your child, Aunt Natalie. But I took her place, did I not? You could never acknowledge your own daughter-"
Natalie shook her own head in denial still, as Angelique frowned in confusion. "You had a daughter, Countess?"
"Tell her, Aunt. It is past time for the telling."
"No. I wish to talk to you. To find out what happened. Why you never told me how unhappy you were, how badly mistreated-"
"I was not unhappy, Aunt," Josette told her, the sad smile back on her face. "And I never had reason to complain about my treatment. Angelique served me well. It was not her fault that she and I chose to love the same man. Tell her, Aunt. Tell her why you were forced to treat her as you always have. Why it was necessary to protect her."
Angelique began to back away, toward the door, only to find someone at her back. Glancing over her shoulder, she found Barnabas there, blocking her escape, his eyes fixed on the vision standing across the room. "Josette."
She smiled at him, and then spoke once more. "Tell her, Aunt." Then she was gone, leaving the room filled with the scent of jasmine, and three confused, suddenly silent people. "What did she mean, Countess?" Barnabas asked, finding his voice first, his hands on Angelique's shoulders for support. "What does Josette want you tell Angelique?"
Natalie du Pres sank onto a chair. "Something I swore never to tell another living soul. I supposed I would never have to reveal it." She looked up at Angelique. "Do you recall Josette asking me if I had ever been in love?"
Angelique nodded, a jerky, nervous movement of her head. "It was just after she met Barnabas."
"Yes. I told her that I had almost married once, but told her nothing more. I couldn't. The memories were too-painful. Even for me. I know that you and she often considered me to be harsh, a little unfeeling at times. Especially towards you."
"You don't have to go on, Countess," Angelique suggested, suddenly afraid to hear what she was going to say, as if it might change too many things in her life.
Natalie waved away her words. "No. Josette-Josette was right. As always. It is time. There is no one left now to keep the truth hidden from. I am the last one who knows." Her eyes took on a faraway look as she began to recall things. "It happened when I was young-a year before Josette was born-in fact, Andre and Marie had just left for Paris after their wedding. I was alone, and very much in love with the owner of a neighboring estate. He was some years older than I, but handsome, oh, so handsome. He was seeing to Andre's estate during my brother's absence, and so we were thrown together often. I knew he was married, of course. That his wife was in France, quite ill, by all accounts, and was not expected to live more than a year or so. Charles-that was his name-Charles never promised me anything-but I was certain that once he was free, that he would ask me to become his wife, and I held nothing back from him." She smiled at the shocked surprise on the faces of Barnabas and Angelique. "I was young," reminded them. "And I believed myself to be in love-and loved."
"What happened?" Barnabas wanted to know, feeling
the tension increasing within
Angelique's body as he remained behind her.
"As most often happens in such situations-I found myself with child. Charles-I thought he would be happy for us. But he became furious, reminded me that he was a married man. I explained to him the things I believed, and that is when he informed me that his wife was not ill. That she simply hated the island, and he had told that story to keep everyone from believing him a cuckolded husband."
"He had no intention of ending his marriage, then?"
"He was devout Catholic," Natalie replied to Barnabas' question. "The marriage had been blessed by a priest. There was no question of divorce. I considered leaving the island myself, but I had no where to go. So I decided to remain, to raise the child even knowing that it would have no real future, since its parents would never be able to marry. The local mid-wife -Belle-" she looked at Angelique.
"My mother," Angelique explained to Barnabas.
"Belle was also expecting a child, and she was alone as well. Her husband had been a seaman, killed in a storm at sea. So I invited her to stay with me while Andre and Marie were away. We became friends, she taught me a little about her cures," she smiled at the memories. "The locals were shocked by my acceptance of Belle. There were some in the area who thought that the child she carried was the child of Satan himself. But Belle was a kind, gentle creature. She tended me when my time came. I had a very difficult delivery. It was almost a full day before my daughter was born. She was such a beautiful child, as fair as her father. Delivering my child robbed Belle of her own strength, and her child did not survive," Natalie said quietly, her eyes now on Angelique. "She insisted that she was not troubled, but I watched her with my child, saw how gentle she was with her, how much she had wanted a child of her own, since she had no one else in the world. I realized that if I kept my daughter with me, I would have been forced to tell Andre what had happened, and he might have confronted Charles, and Charles, being a crack shot, would have perhaps killed Andre. At least, with Belle, my child would have a future of sorts, since Belle had been married. So I convinced Belle to take my daughter, to raise her as her own."
"And you would never be able to claim her without admitting all of this to your brother," Barnabas realized. "So when Belle died, you brought the child into your house-as Josette's maid?" He quickly took Angelique's tightly clenched hand in his, rubbing it lightly. "You treated her as if she were no more than a servant-"
"I had no choice," Natalie insisted, her gaze moving back to Angelique. "Charles died two years ago, and I nearly told Andre the truth, nearly came to Collinwood to see you, tell you as well. But then the letter arrived about Josette's death, and I was as devastated as Andre. You are correct, Barnabas. I could not show my love to my own daughter for fear of someone discovering the truth, so I transferred that love to Josette, allowing her to take the place of my child. But deep within my heart, my love for the child I bore has always been there-Angelique-"
Angelique's face was a strange mixture of shock, confusion, and rage. She shook her head. "No. You can't come to me after all these years-No, Countess." Her breath was coming in short, sharp gasps, and she turned, pushing Barnabas out of her way to run from the room and the house.
"Angelique!" he called, and then turned back to where the Countess still sat.
"Go after her, Barnabas. I will find my way back to Collinwood."
"Are you certain?" he asked, uncertain, torn between duty to remain with her and make sure she was well, and duty to find his wife and comfort her.
"She is your wife, and she needs you." Once he was gone, the Countess looked up at the portrait again. "I hope you knew what you were doing, chéri, because now, there is no one left to champion your cause." The scent of jasmine was strong once again, and Natalie gasped as the spirit reappeared before her.
"My only cause, Aunt Natalie, is the safety of my son, and everyone who carried the Collins name. Go now. Go and try to regain the trust of your own child. Do not condemn her for actions which you didn't have the courage to do yourself."
Angelique leaned against a tree to catch her breath and to try to regain her equilibrium. The Countess Natalie du Pres was her mother! It seemed impossible. There had never been any sign, any hint that such a relationship existed. To Angelique, the only person that Natalie du Pres seemed to truly care about had been Josette. Josette. Always Josette. So besides having taken those first years with Barnabas, Josette had also taken her mother from her. She shook her head. No, that wasn't right. Natalie had made decision before Josette had been born. She had given Angelique up to another woman. A movement behind her caused Angelique to turn, and then to relax upon seeing her husband. With a sob, she went into his arms, burying her face against his vest. "Oh, Barnabas. All of these years I've lived with a lie-"
"Her reason was understandable. You made the same decision when you gave Lucas to Josette, remember."
She lifted her head. "You're right. But I would never have treated him as she did me. Do you know that I can't recall her ever giving me one word of encouragement or affection in all the years I've known her? And now I must accept her as my mother?"
"No. You don't have to do anything that you don't want to do, Angelique. The woman you knew as your mother did a wonderful job raising you. And perhaps Natalie was wrong to have done what she did, but did she really have any more choice than you did? No husband, no one to turn to. She could have told the truth, but she would have lost her brother, or the man she loved, and what kind of life would you have had? No father-"
"I didn't have a father anyway," she reminded him. "He died before I was born. At least, Belle's husband died before her child was born."
"But at least she had been married." He rubbed his hand across her back. "You need time to think about what you've learned. Why don't we go back to the house-?"
"Yes. I left Rebecca with Sarah. Sarah's probably wondering why I've been so long. I had intended to convince- the Countess to return to Collinwood and be right back." She looked up at him again. "How did you know where we were?"
"I finished the work that forced me to go into the office," he told her, "and came back. I saw you leaving the house as I rode up and decided to follow you. I was concerned about your being out so soon after Rebecca's birth."
Her smile became softer at his concern. "I feel quite recovered. Well, almost, at any rate. What should I do, Barnabas?"
"Would you like me to ask her to leave Collinwood? To send her back to Martinique?"
"That wouldn't be fair to Bramwell. She is his great aunt, after all, and he should get to know her."
"She is also Lucas and Rebecca's grandmother," Barnabas pointed out. "The only one she has. Shall we go?"
Deborah looked up from her work as the Countess entered the room. There was something different about her, the maid thought. She seemed older, almost frail. "Are you well, Countess?"
"I am not certain, Deborah." She placed a hand in the pocket of her gown and withdrew it, placing the envelope on the table. "I am not certain of anything any longer. We may be leaving Collinwood, Deborah."
"Leaving?" Deborah repeated, hoping her disappointment didn't show. "Then, you've convinced Mr. Collins to let you take young Master Bramwell back with you?"
"No. No, and I do not think I shall ever convince him now." She turned back toward the door.
Deborah noticed the letter that remained on the dressing table. "Countess-"
She didn't seem to realize that the one item she had never been without since arriving at Collinwood was no longer on her person. "Nothing. Shall I start packing your cases?"
"Not yet. I must speak to-Mrs. Collins before any decision can be made."
She had returned to the house via a second route to avoid Barnabas and Angelique, and now Natalie was regretting that decision. She wanted this settled. If she was to be banished from her daughter's sight, then she wanted to know. Uncertainty was something with which she had become quite unfamiliar. As Natalie came down the stairs, she heard young voices in the drawing room, mingling with the tones of Mrs. Burns. She stood there, trying to decide whether to join the woman and her charges, when young Lucas came barreling out of the room toward the front doors-and straight into Natalie.
Mrs. Burns and Bramwell saw the scene and everyone seemed part of a tableau, frozen in place, as Natalie du Pres took a long look at the little boy who she could now consciously acknowledge as her grandson. At first glance, she had only seen the strong resemblance to his father. But now, upon closer inspection, she could see the boy's mother in him. His hair was a shade lighter than his father's and his eyes were closer to blue than to hazel. "We are going outside to play for a little while," he informed her.
Bramwell came forward. "Let's go, Lucas," he said, taking his brother's hand. "Aunt." He tilted his head slightly as he observed her. "You look pale. Are you well?"
"I am not certain," she told him. "You and Lucas go and enjoy yourselves."
There was something different about the woman, Bramwell realized. She didn't seem nearly as fearsome as she had the evening before. "We could stay in and sit with you, if you would prefer," he told her.
She smiled at him. "No. You go."
Mrs. Burns stood watching the woman, sensing something very different as well. That self assuredness that had made her nearly impossible to be around was missing. "Countess-"
"Where is the infant? Rebecca?" Natalie asked.
"She is upstairs with Miss Sarah, I believe," the nurse said.
"Thank you." Natalie turned back toward the stairs and had just climbed them and crossed the landing when the front door opened.
Mrs. Burns watched as her employer removed his wife's cape and his own cloak. Mrs. Collins appeared upset about something, and the nurse began to wring her hands. "Mrs. Burns," Barnabas said. "Where are Bramwell and Lucas?"
"They just went outside for a few minutes," she told him. "Master Bramwell has to return to his lessons this afternoon, so I thought some fresh air wouldn't come amiss."
He turned to Angelique. "You go up to let Sarah know we're back. I'll try to find Natalie."
"She's upstairs, Mr. Collins," Mrs. Burns said quickly. When he frowned, she finished, "She was asking about Rebecca."
Angelique lifted wide blue eyes to her husband before they both turned toward the stairs.
"Isn't she beautiful?" Sarah was asking as Natalie du Pres reached out a hand to touch the infant's cheek. "I think she's going to look just like Angelique."
"Yes," Natalie agreed. "May I-hold her for a moment?" Seeing Sarah's frown, Natalie smiled. "I give you my word that I wish her no harm."
Sarah reasoned that she wouldn't be able to hurt the baby with her there, so she carefully handed the child over to the Countess, then watched as the older woman cradled Rebecca and began talking softly to her. Sarah couldn't hear the actual words, but she knew that something had happened. The Countess was so very different than she had been earlier. "Did you see Angelique while you were out?" she asked.
"Oh, yes. We had a-talk at the Old House," the Countess informed her, then returned to her soft cooing at the child in her arms.
The door of the room opened without warning, and Natalie rose from the chair in which she had been sitting to face the anger in her daughter's face. But it was Sarah who spoke first. "Barnabas. Angelique. The Countess came to visit Rebecca. Isn't that wonderful?"
"Sarah, would you mind leaving us alone for a few minutes?"
After glancing at the others, Sarah managed a smile. "Of course not. I have to finish a letter to Giles at any rate."
Angelique spoke as she reached the door. "Thank you for watching Rebecca for me, Sarah."
"It was my pleasure." She closed the door and frowned. What on earth had happened at the Old House that would have caused such a change in the Countess-and in Angelique?
Once alone, Natalie placed Rebecca safely within her cradle and gently tucked the coverlet over her. "You were not much older than she when I made my decision," she remembered. "And you were just as beautiful. Giving you up, letting Belle Bouchet take you out of that house, out of my arms, was the most difficult thing I ever did. But I truly believed that it was the best thing for everyone concerned at the time. It was almost a year before I saw you again-when Josette was born, Belle brought her daughter with her. I found myself holding you, watching you for her-until Josette was born. Marie-Marie was much like Josette. She was so fragile, so frail. Giving birth was such a trial for her. Belle came to me, and asked for the return of her child. She then suggested that I turn my attentions to my niece, since Marie would be in her bed for several days." Natalie knew that Angelique probably didn't want to hear these things, but it was as if a door had been opened and everything that she had kept so well hidden all these years was fighting to gain the freedom she had denied it. "So I turned my affection from the daughter I was not to see again for five years back toward my niece. Belle had been correct: Marie never fully recovered from Josette's birth. And like you, Barnabas, my brother sought solace in the arms of other women. But he never brought them into his house, never considered doing that to Marie. He was devoted to her-and she to him. Her death almost crushed him. For many years, I found myself being both mother and father to Josette. She became the most important thing in my life-and I was determined to take care of her, to make certain that no one harmed her or caused her any sorrow. When Belle sent for me before her death, do you know what she asked me?"
"Of course I know," Angelique answered. "She wanted you to take care of me."
"She thought I could tell you the truth. Tell you who you really were. But I couldn't. I had grown so used to thinking of Josette as my daughter, that the idea of replacing her-even with my *real* daughter-was unthinkable. So the best I could do was to bring you into the house as a-companion for Josette, allow you to take lessons with her, to gain some polish, some measure of sophistication."
"So that I might become a proper ladies' maid," Angelique commented, pain evident in her voice.
"Not at first. My original intent was to find a husband for you. But when the young men who came to the plantation looked first at you instead of Josette, thinking you were perhaps a poor relation, I felt it was time to remind them that you were merely a servant in the house. It was wrong, I admit it, but at the time, I still considered that Josette was more my child than you were. I had raised her, taken care of her from her crib. While you had been with Belle Bouchet, learning who knew what kind of things from her."
Angelique's eyes narrowed. "She taught me what I needed to know," she told Natalie. "At least she cared. After her death, I felt that there was no one who cared about me-until Barnabas arrived."
"I will not ask you to forgive me, Angelique," Natalie said at last. "But I do ask that you at least try to understand. I will be leaving Collinwood tomorrow morning."
"That is your decision, Countess," Angelique said, moving to her daughter's side. "But before you go, you might tell us why you really came to Collinwood."
Natalie looked from Angelique to Barnabas. "I told you the reason. Bramwell-"
"What about the letter, Natalie?" Barnabas asked quietly. "The letter you received from France the same day you made the decision to come to Collinwood."
Natalie shook her head. "Deborah was never very good at keeping secrets," she mused. "Yes, I received a letter. It simply informed me that you had remarried within six months of Josette's death, and that you had married Angelique. There was also an implication that Bramwell might be in danger if he were to remain at Collinwood. I felt I had no choice but to come and make that determination for myself."
"Who sent the letter, Countess?" Angelique asked.
The woman lifted her shoulders. "I have no idea. The letter was unsigned. There was simply an address where I was to send any correspondence regarding what I might find here upon my arrival. A villa outside of Paris."
Barnabas looked at his wife. "Who would have sent such a letter?" he mused.
"Perhaps we might recognize the handwriting if we were to see it," Angelique suggested.
Natalie nodded as they both looked in her direction. She placed a hand in her pocket, and then frowned. "I usually keep it here," she told them. Memory returned, and she frowned. "I left it in my room. I was distracted earlier. I will go and get it." She left the room, and Barnabas moved to place his hand on Angelique's as it lay on the edge of the cradle.
"How are you?"
"Confused," she admitted. "I don't want to simply forgive what she's done, Barnabas, but-"
"I can ask her to stay for a few more days," he suggested. "If it wouldn't bother you to have her here while you make up your mind."
"That might be a good idea," she said. Natalie returned moments later, obviously flustered. "What's wrong, Countess?"
"It's-gone," she told them.
"Gone?" Barnabas repeated.
"It was on the dressing table. I remember that distinctly. Perhaps Deborah put it somewhere for safekeeping. I will ask her."
In Lucy's room behind the stairs, Deborah handed her friend the letter. "I don't know what I'm going to do when the Countess discovers this is gone."
Lucy's eyes glowed with excitement. "By the time she does, it won't matter. Thank you, Deborah. You'll never know how helpful you've been."
"When will you show it to Angelique?"
"When the time is right," Lucy told the girl. "You'd better get back to your room now. If the Countess is looking for this, then she'll be looking for you. And if both of you are missing-"
"But what should I tell her if she asks about it?" Deborah asked, clearly frightened.
"Tell her you never saw it on the dressing table or anywhere else. That as far you are concerned, she always kept it with her. It isn't your fault if she misplaced it and someone just happened to find it."
Deborah still looked uncertain. "I'll try." She closed the door behind her, leaving Lucy to run her finger along the edge of the envelope.
"You do that, Deborah. Too bad that they'll never find the letter. Just one more mystery here at Collinwood," she muttered, placing the envelope into the fire.
Deborah entered the Countess du Pres' room to find her mistress apparently searching for something. "Have you misplaced something, Countess?" she asked nervously.
The Countess continued searching through the vanity drawer as she spoke. "Have you seen the letter I received from France, Deborah?"
"The-letter, madame? I-I-" she swallowed heavily. "No. No, I haven't seen it. I thought you had it. You always carry it on your person."
The Countess turned at last to look at her maid, eyes narrowed. The young woman was even more nervous than she usually was. "Normally, yes. But I was-distracted this morning by-personal matters, and placed it here," she said, pointing to the exact spot on the dressing table where she had laid the letter. "I recall distinctly laying it there, yet when I came to get it a few minutes ago, it was gone. You don't remember seeing it there? Perhaps you put it somewhere for safekeeping?" she suggested.
Deborah shook her head. "No, Countess. I never saw it. I-left the room only minutes after you - and this is the first time I've been back since."
"Where were you for such a long time?" she asked.
"I-had to catch Mrs. Collins' maid, Lucy," Deborah explained. "She was going into the village to see her mother, and I wanted her to take the letter you wrote last evening to the mail coach for me." Natalie had forgotten about that letter. She sat down, closing her eyes. "Are you unwell, madame?"
"I have done some very foolish things, Deborah," Natalie admitted. "But it does not concern you. I suppose I shall simply have to inform Angelique and Barnabas that the letter has vanished into thin air."
Deborah frowned. "Inform-? But-you told them about the letter?"
"Yes. And I was hoping that one of them might recognize the handwriting."
"But, I thought you didn't want them to find out why you came to Collinwood," Deborah responded, clearly confused by her mistress' change of mind.
"One of those mistakes I mentioned," Natalie said, rising to her feet. "I shall go and tell them about this latest turn of events. Perhaps they can ask some of their servants whether or not they saw someone entering this room."
"Are we staying at Collinwood then, Countess?" Deborah asked.
"For the time being, yes."
"Are you certain that your maid doesn't have the letter, Natalie?" Barnabas asked. "She might have intended to show it Angelique, since they knew one another in Martinique."
"Deborah is too frightened of my anger to have contemplated such a thing, Barnabas," Natalie assured him. "But she was quite nervous. I believe she may know more than she has told me."
"Perhaps she might tell me what is going on," Angelique suggested. "If you wouldn't mind my speaking to her about the matter?"
Natalie waved her hand in the air. "Not at all. Or you might suggest that your maid, Lucy talk to her. It would appear that they have become fast friends since our arrival. Your Lucy is all she can talk about."
"Lucy seems fond of her as well. I think I'll speak to her first, however. Since Lucy is in Collinsport with her mother for the afternoon."
"Is her mother very ill?" Natalie asked.
"Apparently so. I asked Lucy to bring her to Collinwood and we would gladly find her a room, but Lucy insists that her mother wouldn't be comfortable in such a large house."
"Do you know the girl's family, Barnabas?"
"She and her mother moved to Collinsport just after my father's death," he explained. "And she came to work here soon after that."
"Strange that she would bring her ailing mother to such a desolate, damp place," Natalie mused. "Forgive me. I tend to see drama where there is usually none. Shall I send Deborah down to you?"
"It might be better if I arrange to meet her," Angelique suggested.
Deborah knocked nervously on the door of the master bedroom. She had been terrified when the housekeeper had informed her that Mrs. Collins wanted to see her immediately. Had she somehow discovered what Deborah had done? Surely she hadn't, Deborah tried to reason. If she had, then the Countess would have been summoning her. Not Angelique. The mistress of Collinwood was sitting on the settee before the fire, one hand on the cradle before her. "Mrs. Collins," Deborah said, curtseying. "Mrs. Hester said you wish to see me?"
"Come in, Deborah," Angelique invited. "I thought it was time we had our talk. It's been such a long time since we've seen each other."
Deborah nodded. "And you're a grand lady now," she reminded her old friend.
"Not so much of a lady that I can forget that you were one of the only people that I considered my friend in the du Pres household. Most of the servants distrusted me because of my background. But you never spoke of it."
Deborah shrugged. "I never knew Mme. Bouchet," she said. "I came to the island after her-death, and only knew you."
Angelique patted the cushion beside her. "Sit down, Deborah."
Rebecca stirred, and Angelique attended to her daughter for a moment. "She's a lovely child," Deborah sighed. "I don't suppose I will ever know what it's like to be a mother."
"You're young yet. You'll find someone-"
"Not if I remain with the Countess," Deborah said. "She keeps me too busy to find anyone-and even if I did, I'm such a plain little mouse that no one looks at me twice."
"Nonsense. Your face has a lot of character in it. And in the long run, Deborah there are far more important things than beauty. Beauty fades with time. But a loving, caring heart is constant."
Deborah smiled. "Thank you, Angelique-." She sucked in her lower lip. "Excuse me. I mean Mrs. Collins."
"Angelique will do when it is only you and I, Deborah. After all, we went through many things together in the du Pres household, didn't we? You even knew how I felt about Barnabas."
"And I never said a word to anyone about it," Deborah said. "Not even when the Count and Countess received word of Josette's death and that you were remaining here to take care of her son. I think I knew then that you would eventually marry Mr. Collins."
"Deborah, I appreciate that you told me about the letter that brought the Countess to Collinwood, you know that don't you?"
"I just couldn't stand by and do nothing while she-Has something happened, Angelique?"
"What do you mean?"
"She's different. The Countess, I mean. This morning, her every thought seemed to be how she could hurt you or Mr. Collins and get Master Bramwell back to Martinique. Now-she told me that she wanted to show you that letter herself."
"That is true. The Countess has confessed something to Barnabas and me that has-changed matters somewhat."
"I see. And you can't tell me what it is."
"I don't think she would mind. But until I find out for certain, it might be best if you don't repeat anything I'm going to tell you."
"Have I ever told anyone your secrets, Angelique? I never told a soul about how you slipped out of the house those nights that Mr. Barnabas was on the island-before and after Josette returned from France."
Angelique looked down at the sleeping infant, thoughtful, before turning her gaze to her old friend. "The Countess is my mother, Deborah," she said.
"She's really a du Pres?" Sarah said, after listening to her brother's narrative. "All these years she believed she was simply a servant in that house when she was actually one of the family with as many rights as Josette?"
"Not really, Sarah," Barnabas reminded her. "As the Countess' illegitimate daughter, she would have had very few rights. And even she realizes now that perhaps what happened was for the best. She and the Countess have made their peace."
"I'm not certain that I could forgive her as easily," Sarah commented. "The way she's treated Angelique just since she arrived is bad enough, but I remember the way she was before the wedding. It was as though Angelique had no feelings most of the time."
"Sarah, I'm going to trust you not to say anything to the Countess about this until she brings it up-and then not to cause any trouble."
"Big brother, have I ever caused trouble? You know that I've always left that to the Countess du Pres of the world. Now, how are we going to find that letter?"
"Do you have any suggestions?"
"You could question all of the servants-" she suggested.
"And have them think I believe them capable of theft?" Barnabas questioned.
"No, I suppose that wouldn't do, would it?" She sighed. "I'll think of something."
Deborah's eyes were as wide as they could be after hearing Angelique's news. "I'm not certain that I could forgive her as easily as you can, Angelique. I was there, remember? I saw the way she treated you most of the time."
"She had her reasons," Angelique told the girl. "But perhaps now you understand her change of heart regarding that letter, and why it is so important that we find it. Whoever sent it to the Countess intended to cause trouble for Barnabas or me-and one of us might recognize the handwriting of the person who sent it to her."
Deborah rose from her seat to walk over to the window. "I took it," she admitted at last. "But only because I didn't want the Countess to cause any more trouble."
"Where is it now?" Angelique asked, touched by the girl's loyalty to her, even in the face of the Countess' wrath.
"I gave to-someone. It was her idea for me to take it, really. She said she was going to show it to you and Mr. Collins, then return it to me."
"You gave it to Lucy?"
"I know it was wrong of me, Angelique, to betray the Countess, but I couldn't let her-"
"When did you give the letter to Lucy, Deborah?"
"Just before she left for the village, I suppose," Deborah explained. "I left her in her room with it and went back to mine to wait until the Countess sent for me to ask about the letter."
Angelique frowned. Lucy had come to her room to make certain that there was nothing she needed to do before going into the village, yet she had never mentioned the letter being in her possession. "You're certain of this, Deborah?" she asked.
"Very certain. She said she was going to show it to you when the time was right. Perhaps she decided that she didn't have time before going to see her mother."
"Perhaps. Deborah, would you stay here and keep an eye on Rebecca for me?"
"I know very little about babies, Angelique-"
"She should sleep for some time. And I'll send Mrs. Burns in as soon as I can."
Mrs. Hester was picking up the empty sterling tea service when she realized that she wasn't alone in the drawing room. The Countess du Pres was standing at the window, looking out over the shadowed lawns. "Oh, Countess. Can I get you anything?"
"No, but you could answer a few questions, if you wouldn't mind."
The housekeeper looked uncertain. "I don't know, Countess. Mr. and Mrs. Collins have been very good to me. I wouldn't feel right-talking behind their backs."
"I don't intend to ask you any questions about Mr. or Mrs. Collins," Natalie assured the housekeeper. "I simply have some questions about one of the maids-Lucy. Have you known her for a very long time?"
Mrs. Hester frowned, uncertain again before seeming to make a decision. "I never laid eyes on the girl until she arrived here one afternoon a week after Mr. Joshua Collins' death," she was saying as Angelique entered the room, unseen by Mrs. Hester. She paused to listen as the housekeeper said, "She asked to see Mr. Jeremiah, and when they came out of the study, he suggested to Mrs. Collins-Mr. Barnabas' mother-that she should hire Lucy as an upstairs maid."
"And had Mrs. Collins been looking to hire a new maid?"
"No. We didn't really need the one we had," Mrs. Hester informed her with a haughty sniff. "Not that Lucy did much work. Spent most of her time with Mr. Jeremiah and Mr. Daniel," she confided.
Natalie caught Angelique's eye, saw the surprise in them at that revelation. "So Lucy was a friend of Barnabas' uncle?"
"I've no knowledge of what took place when the three of them were together. But it wasn't anything good, I'm certain."
"Why didn't you tell me this when we moved in, Mrs. Hester?" Angelique asked, breaking her silence at last.
The housekeeper jumped, startled. "Oh. Mrs. Collins. I-"
Angelique lifted her hand to silence the woman. "I asked a question. Why didn't you tell me any of this when I decided to raise Lucy's status?"
"Because-I promised her I wouldn't. You know what she is like, Mrs. Collins. She can talk the birds from the trees when she's got a mind to. The evening that Mr. Jeremiah left, he spoke privately to Lucy. I knew she was upset and wanted to go with him and Mr. Daniel, but when he left, she was still here. She came to me just before you and Mr. Barnabas arrived, begging me not to tell either of you how foolish she'd been about Mr. Jeremiah. She said she had believed he cared about her, and then left her behind without a second glance. That she wanted to start over, to try and prove how good she could be at her duties. And she was. She was like a different girl. Never a complaint about the work I asked her to do, always cheerful, friendly to a fault. I've had no reason to complain about her since you and Mr. Barnabas moved in."
"And why are you telling me about this now? Has something changed?"
Mrs. Hester looked away for a moment. "Mr. Hester saw her in the village the other evening-when she was supposed to be with her mother."
"Perhaps she went to the apothecary to get some medicine," Natalie suggested.
"Not unless the apothecary has removed his shop to the Eagle Tavern," Mrs. Hester said with another sniff. "Mr. Hester said that she was going into a back room with a gentleman when he entered."
"Was he certain it was Lucy?" Angelique questioned. "It might have been someone else-"
"Not with that flaming red hair," Mrs. Hester said. "Mr. Hester told me he would know it anywhere. There's no one else in the village with hair that red."
"Thank you, Mrs. Hester. That will be all."
The housekeeper picked up the tea tray, then hesitated. "You're not angry that I didn't tell you about this, I hope."
"No. I can understand your reasons, Mrs. Hester. But in the future-"
"And Mrs. Hester-it might be best if you didn't mention this conversation to Lucy."
"As you wish, Mrs. Collins." She had only just left the room when the front doors opened to admit Barnabas and Sarah.
Barnabas noticed the look on his wife's face and frowned. "Is something wrong?"
"Deborah told me that she gave the letter to Lucy, after Lucy promised to give it to me to read."
"When was this?" he asked.
"Evidently just before Lucy went into the village to visit her mother," Angelique told him. "Lucy spoke to me for several minutes before she left," she was saying as there was a knock on the door.
"I'll get it," Sarah offered, moving across the foyer. Upon seeing who was there, her face lit with delight. "Giles!" She threw her arms around her husband's neck. "What are you doing here? I thought you told me that you couldn't possibly get away-"
"That was before I made a discovery that I thought your brother might like to know about," he told her, giving her an indulgent kiss on the lips before glancing up to find Barnabas standing close by. Clearing his throat in embarrassment, he held out his hand. "Sir."
"Giles. You spoke of information-?"
Giles nodded, keeping his arm around Sarah. "Only an hour after Sarah departed to come to Collinwood, she had a visitor."
"Who was it, young man?" Natalie asked, impatient to hear the news.
Seeing Giles' glance at Natalie, Barnabas quickly introduced them. "Giles, this is the Countess Natalie du Pres, of Martinique. Countess, Giles Redmond, my sister's husband."
"Countess." He gave Angelique a concerned look, recalling Sarah's description of the Countess. "How are you, Angelique?"
"Quite well, Giles, thank you. Your news?"
"Oh. Yes. The visitor was your cousin, Daniel Collins."
"Daniel?" Sarah repeated. "Why on earth would he have come to see me?"
"He had heard that you were planning a visit to Collinwood, and hoped that you could convey his news to Barnabas. As well as ask him for a favor."
"What news?" Angelique asked gently, seeing that Natalie's patience was being tested once again.
"Daniel has taken himself a wife," Giles announced.
"Daniel is married?" Angelique said.
"Daniel?" was Sarah's question. "When did this happen?"
"Apparently on board ship from London to New York a month ago. You know his wife. She was raised in Collinsport until her father died and her mother moved to the city to be with her family. Harriet-Beecham?"
"Harriet? Daniel married Harriet Beecham?" Sarah asked, shaking her head. At Barnabas' questioning glance, she said, "Her father was the chandler in the village. He died of a fever several years ago. Harriet is-well, she's a bit on the bossy side. Likes to have things her own way or not at all."
"He's totally besotted with her," Giles told them. "Dancing a fine little jig at her every whim."
"Did Daniel mention anything about-Jeremiah?" Barnabas asked.
Giles' pale blue eyes moved away from those of his brother in law. "Only that he and your uncle parted ways in London when Jeremiah took up with some people that Daniel didn't think very much of. They were headed for France, the last time Daniel heard anything."
"France." Natalie mused, her gaze moving to Angelique and then to Barnabas.
"You mentioned a request that Daniel wanted you to make of me," Barnabas said.
"Oh. Yes. He would like to have your permission
to bring Harriet here for a while.
Apparently she and his sister don't get on at all well, and he was hoping that by the time Millicent and her husband return from England in a month, he and Harriet could be here at Collinwood."
"I'll consider it," Barnabas told him. He still doubted Daniel's reason for marrying at all, after their conversation on the evening of his and Jeremiah's departure.
"Sarah, why don't you take Giles up to your rooms," Angelique suggested. "We can talk more later."
"That's a wonderful idea. How long can you stay?" Sarah asked her husband.
"For a week, at least."
"Wonderful! And while we're upstairs, I'll introduce you to my new niece."
Giles suddenly realized what was different about Angelique as he allowed Sarah to pull him toward the stairs.
"Talk about being besotted," Natalie commented.
"They've only been married six months," Angelique reminded her. She looked at Barnabas, who had gone to the fireplace. "Do you think the person who sent Natalie that letter could have been Jeremiah?" she asked.
"I don't like to believe that Jeremiah could be capable of such duplicity. And what would he have to gain? He gave up his right to Collinwood when he left. I still have the papers he signed in the study."
"It might explain why your little maid has decided to betray your trust," Natalie suggested.
"We don't know for certain that she has," Angelique reminded her. "All we know is that Deborah gave Lucy the letter before Lucy left for the village. She could very well show it to me upon her return to Collinwood."
Natalie looked as if she had her doubts regarding that event taking place. "Are you going to allow your cousin and his new wife to visit Collinwood?"
Barnabas looked across to where Angelique sat. "It might be one way for us to discover whether or not Jeremiah was indeed planning anything of this nature," Barnabas suggested.
"He is married now," Angelique reminded him. She wasn't certain how much she could say in front of Natalie about Jeremiah and Daniel's relationship. "Perhaps he has truly changed."
"Jeremiah thought he had done, too," Barnabas said. "When he married Laura. I will allow them to come to Collinwood," he decided. "But unless Daniel can give me the assurances I need, they will not be here very long."
Deborah knocked on the door of Lucy's room, and then entered when there was no response. Lucy was apparently still in the village with her mother, and Deborah hoped she stayed gone for a little longer. Long enough for her to find the letter and give it to Angelique. Or the Countess, rather. She would give it to the Countess and then let her give it to Angelique. Not that it matter now, of course. But Deborah's conscience was beginning to prick from her betrayal of her mistress. She stood in the center of Lucy's room and looked around, trying to decide where Lucy might have put the letter for safekeeping. It was nowhere to be seen on the dressing table, nor on the desk.
Chewing on her lip, Deborah slowly opened the top dresser drawer and felt her eyes widen as she saw the clothing within. There was no letter, at least none seen, only underclothes of the finest silks, stockings more suited to a fine lady than to a lady's maid. Deborah touched one of the camisoles, wondering where Lucy had come upon such fine things. Closing the drawer, she turned to the armoire and opened the door. An audible gasp escaped Deborah's suddenly dry lips. Silks gowns, a velvet cloak lined with fur-Deborah shook her head. Something was terribly wrong. There was a box in the bottom of the armoire, and thinking that the letter might be there, Deborah lifted the carved wooden lid to reveal several jeweled necklaces and rings. Had Lucy been stealing these things? Deborah wondered. She certainly didn't seem the type who would do such a thing. She had only been kind and friendly to Deborah since their meeting.
Perhaps too kind and friendly? Deborah considered now. Her cheeks grew warm as she recalled the dream she recalled from her first night at Collinwood. Lucy had been very friendly in the dream. So much so that Deborah had been unable to face her new friend the next morning, for fear that Lucy would know that she had been thinking such horrible thoughts. Not that she had ever entertained such thoughts about anyone else, Deborah reminded herself. Certainly, even as deep as her friendship was with Angelique, she had never had such dreams about the beautiful blonde. But Lucy had somehow been quite different.
Shaking her head to clear her memories of that shameful episode, Deborah closed the armoire and went to the hearth. Sinking onto the stones, she decided to wait for Lucy and ask her to take the letter immediately to Angelique. There was a slight chill in the room, and she picked up a small log to rekindle the fire when she noticed the remnant of a sheet of paper. Taking it gingerly between thumb and finger, Deborah lifted it out. It was all that remained of the envelope and letter that she had given into Lucy's keeping. Lucy had burned the letter!