Jennings tapped diffidently on the library door. “Major, Lady Ballingford regrets she is unable to receive you.”
“Lady Ballingford regretted she was unable to receive me yesterday, Jennings,” Julian said curtly. “Please inform her ladyship that if she is unable to grant me a few minutes of her time, I will have no option but to demand Mr. Ashford accompany me while we discuss a certain important matter.”
Jennings’ face tightened. “I shall convey your message, sir.”
Julian returned to the armchair. Since yesterday his emotions had gone from gut wrenching shock to disbelief to uncertainty. It wasn’t possible, it just wasn’t bloody possible, and he’d laid awake last night knowing it was very possible. Jesus, if she refused to see him again he’d kick the door to the south wing off its hinges. Standing up, he walked over to the door as Jennings opened it.
“Lady Ballingford has agreed to receive you for ten minutes. She lunches with her children at one pm each day.”
Julian followed the butler through the passageway leading to the separate wing built by his extravagant grandfather and waited while Jennings tapped on the drawing room door. “Major Ashford, my lady.”
Julian barely noticed the modest room or the faded furnishings dating back to his grandfather’s day. He was looking at the woman he’d loved and hated for ten years sitting stiffly on her chair.
He waited until Jennings closed the door behind him. “Why did you refuse to speak to me?”
Red angry spots flared on her cheeks. “Who do you think you are, making threats to force your way in here?”
“I know who I am, you know why I am here and the fact the threat got me in here speaks volumes,” he shot back at her.
Katherine looked away. “Just because we were acquainted years ago….”
“Acquainted? What the hell are you trying to say? We spent a week together while Charles was in France. You and I,”
Katherine cut him off. “That was ten years ago, we were young and foolish.”
“You were twenty-four and I was twenty five. Old enough to know what we were doing.”
“We went our separate ways and there is no reason now for you to push your way in here. Furthermore, I don’t want you associating with my children. Your reputation would not be a good influence on them.”
Her words sliced through him like a knife. “There is a damned good reason why I pushed my way in here and I will not leave this room until you tell me what I want to know.”
When she didn’t speak, the anger boiled inside him. “How hard is it to say yes or no? Is your daughter mine or Ballingford’s? Don’t insult me with lies.”
Her blue eyes flared at him. “Insult you? You have the gall to walk into my drawing room to throw insults like that at me? Do you question every woman of your acquaintance in such a disgusting manner?”
Julian’s eyes did not waver from hers. “No, and believe me, I would much prefer to be somewhere else than standing here asking that question.”
“I will not leave until you answer my question.”
Her voice was scathing, “You of all people think you have the right…”
“Me of all people? I can count on my fingers damn it! Tell me, how old is she? Nine? Am I close?”
She glared at him and remained silent.
“I wasn’t good enough for you then and I’m not good enough now for the truth,” Julian snarled at her. “I’m not leaving until you answer me. May I sit down?”
Julian sat down opposite her. Her oval face, large blue eyes and thick waving auburn hair were just as he remembered, and he could now see tiny lines around her eyes. He wondered what she thought of the road map of lines on his face. He wanted to put out his hand to her but knew it would be slapped away.
“For God’s sake, she’s the image of my sister,” he said desperately. “And the likeness to my mother is remarkable.”
Katherine’s eyes widened. “Your sister?”
“She died before her twelfth birthday,” he leaned forward. “Surely I am entitled to the truth!”
“You are not entitled to anything. My daughter was baptized Sophie Katherine Ashford, her parents are Charles Edward Ashford and Katherine Mary Ashford,” her eyes did not waver from the wall behind him. “I agreed to receive you today to acknowledge your relationship to Charles and Martin. The fact you owe a fortune in unpaid debts, you have no conscience and you’ve narrowly avoided prison relieves me of any further obligation to be civil.”
The silence between them was unbearable. “Marriage with Charles has certainly left its mark,” he said harshly. “You are as cold and condescending as he was, probably worse. He was a callous bastard, but he never lied over the bloody obvious.”
Her face flushed. “Your language is outrageous. It is time for you to leave.”
“You agreed to see me today because you didn’t want me pointing out the obvious to Martin.” Julian forced himself to calm down. “It’s also obvious Martin made sure my reputation preceded me.” He looked directly into her icy blue eyes. “Why didn’t you let me know, why didn’t you write to me?”
Katherine’s eyes flared angrily. “Let you know? Write to you? Where were you two months after..,” Her face blanched and time stood still.
The blood pounded in Julian’s veins. “So, she is mine. I left England because you told me I wasn’t good enough for you.”
Katherine stood up and walked away from him. “Do not interfere or distress my daughter in any way. You have no proof and you have no rights. There is nothing more to discuss and I’d like you to leave.”
“No proof? I have a small portrait of my mother when she was about eighteen. I could arrange to have it transported here.”
The door opened. “Mama?” Stephen looked from his mother to Julian and blinked nervously.
Julian stood up. “Good afternoon Lord Ballingford. It has been many years since I have visited Halton Hall. I wanted to convey my condolences in person to your mother.”
Stephen opened his mouth, bit his lip, and drew a deep breath. “P,please d,do n,,not address me as L,lord Ballingford again. I am Stephen.” He breathed deeply again and continued. “I have s,seen you r,riding in the, the, p,park.”
Julian felt deep compassion for the thin, nervous boy. “Yes, I have been riding in the park. Would you care to.?”
Katherine’s brittle voice cut him off. “No, he would not.”
Julian’s jaw clenched. “If you will excuse me, I’ll take my leave.”
He walked out of the drawing room and felt a sliver of shock when he opened the door to his bedchamber. He couldn’t remember how he got here. Swearing softly, he walked to the window overlooking the front courtyard and rested his head against the glass. He’d fathered a child, a daughter. For nine years, his daughter had lived in this house as Charles’s daughter. His vision blurred. Ten years of hard living had buried those deep painful scars and all it took was one look at Katherine and that small girl’s face to peel it all away. Like peeling an onion, his eyes were stinging like hell.
He remembered the night he met Katherine as if it were yesterday. Charles was in France and he was in London attending a debutante’s ball. Bored out of his head with the simpering young females and strutting males he was looking for an excuse to depart when his cousin’s tall, elegant wife, Katherine was introduced to him. The orchestra began playing and he asked her to join him on the floor. It was a waltz; he took her in his arms, her eyes met his and he knew he’d met the only woman he’d ever love. They’d set off murmurs behind fans for dancing twice and they didn’t leave each other for a week. They’d made intense, passionate, love, they’d laid in each other’s arms and talked for hours, they were as one. She’d confided Charles was a hard, brutish man but she would not leave him because she’d lose all rights to her four years old son. He’d begged her, made promises he knew he couldn’t keep. She’d shaken her head in despair. As soon as Charles returned to London they would go home to Halton Hall.
He’d prayed Charles’s ship would sink to the bottom of the Channel. She’d cried in his arms; he’d cried in her arms. The day before Charles was due to arrive in London they became tense with each other and finally, distraught, he’d accused her of selling herself for the title and privilege. She’d thrown a heavy teapot at his head. When it struck, he’d seen stars for several seconds before shouting more insults. She’d furiously told him he couldn’t afford to keep her on his army pay. He’d walked out.
Julian barely remembered the following months of heavy drinking and angry self-pity until the army knocked his arrogance and selfishness out of him and saved his sanity. He knew damn well his army pay wouldn’t have kept her and he knew damn well she’d have lost all rights to her son. Knowing Charles, he would have demanded she be brought back to him and the law and the church would have supported him. Her life would have been worse than hell. Now this, Christ, never in a million years did he expect this. He wanted to walk away but he couldn’t because the whole damn top secret investigation would crumble or blow up in his face.
He sat down by the fire and put his head in his hands. He didn’t know it then, but that night fourteen months ago, changed his life. Benjamin Bloomfield, aide de camp to His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, had ordered Brigadier Sir Ian MacDonald, Sir Henry Whitton and himself to meet at a nondescript location on the outskirts of London. On their arrival, they’d been momentarily lost for words to find a sober and serious Prince Regent waiting for them. Senior government officials had drawn the Regent’s attention to the alarming amounts of gold leaving England. Well-placed sources in France had reported English gold was being smuggled across the Channel to help finance Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. Intensive investigations along the east coast had failed to find any solid evidence but the Regent was not satisfied. He and Bloomfield were convinced someone in the upper echelons of power and influence was behind it or protecting the smugglers. That night the five men present decided that from now on the Prince Regent would shrug it off as rumors and lose interest.
That night MacDonald, Whitton and Julian agreed to begin their search for the source. The Prince Regent named the secret investigation Spider’s Web. The three men thought the name childish but they dutifully indulged His Royal Highness. Not one word of the meeting was recorded and at the conclusion the Prince Regent instructed the three men to meet on the first day of each month and report their progress to Bloomfield the day after. Their investigations were secret and painstaking and gradually they began to close in on this part of the coast. They had observed from a distance, they had moved a little closer and then, as with every other investigation, the scent disappeared. However, they were convinced and MacDonald decreed Julian was the only suitable person to come and go around the Ballingford estates and the coast without raising suspicions.
Julian stretched his feet towards the fire, remembering his furious refusal to return to this place he despised intensely and how he nearly resigned his commission when summoned to a private audience with the Prince Regent. High Treason was involved and as an officer of the Crown he was expected to do his duty. He’d reluctantly bowed to HRH’s orders and it was agreed that to be convincing he’d have to be in dire straits to return. His debts, scandals and fistfights were carefully and authentically orchestrated culminating in him being bawled out by Ian MacDonald who’d conveniently forgotten the raw young corporal and scandal loving clerk in his office. Then their one reliable informer, who’d only agreed to meet him under strict conditions of anonymity, was found with his throat cut. He and Baker had arrived at Halton Hall with no idea of where to start or where to look for the needle in the haystack of boats and fishermen and identify whoever was behind this well organized group of traitors. When he did find evidence, his orders were to send a coded message to MacDonald and Whitton and the net would close in.
No matter what was thrown at him now, he could not walk away. They were so close and if the web was broken it could not be repaired. Nor could he let down Ian MacDonald, his uncle and mentor, to whom he owed so much.