The Caroline

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You cheated?

She smiled at that peculiar admission and seeing the almost sheepish look on his face, realized that it must be true. No man would easily admit to cheating if he had not done so, and her brother would not have wagered so rashly if he thought he might not win by whatever devious means he might employ. That admission puzzled her, but she did not dwell upon it. A man could be one way with a woman and present a different face to the men he came across, especially to a weaselof a man like her brother. She sat and considered what he had said. It would not change her plans, though she really did not have any. Now, she really would have to go up to her grandmother.

Their dinner was brought to the table and served to them. The knowledge that her brother had lost all his inheritance did not seem to have affected her appetite for the chicken. He watched her finish her wine. She was in a strange mood, almost one of controlled anger against either him or her brother, though she managed to smile at him from time to time and spoke civilly to him. He did not refill her glass with wine but poured her a glass of lemonade instead, only to see that she ignored it, having seen what he had done, and in her rebellious perversity began to drink his wine instead.

“And where is he now? My brother.” She answered her own question. “Probably in a drunken stupor somewhere. I suppose I can say nothing. I had no expectations there, but if you do not mind, there are still some personal possessions that I will need to recover from my home—if he has not sold them off before now or thrown them out—and you will need to get to know the people who work the estate, or they might work against you at first, and I would not like to see it go downhill any further. They would be the losers. So if you like, I shall introduce you to them.”

“Thank you, but I had hoped that none of that would be necessary. I had hoped that you would learn none of this. You do not seem to be too upset over it, but I suspect that you might be.” He did not know the half of it. “I would be. You always were good at hiding your real feelings.” She looked sharply at him. How could he possibly know that about her?

He caught that look and tried to recover. “I heard your brother say something like that to you when he first came aboard.” Had he? She could not remember much other than it had been a tense exchange. “This is not going the way I had planned or hoped.” She did not follow him.

“What did you hope? That it could be hidden? I was bound to find out eventually.”

“Of course you would find out. I had hoped that no one, especially not you, would find out so quickly nor about that game last night and would not quiz me about it. Who told you?”

“That is not important. How could I not learn about it? My brother would have had to tell me something about why he no longer owned it or lived there. I doubt he will wish to admit it to me when or if he cares to show his face. You would also have had to claim your winnings. I would have heard eventually sooner rather than later.”

“I would not have claimed them!” She was not sure she could believe what he said. “And your brother would have said nothing to you about it.”

“What do you mean? You cannot hide something like that. Of course I would have found out.”

“Not this way. You would not have found out if things had gone as I had intended.” She waited for him to explain. “A man should not win by cheating as I did, no matter how necessary it was. I had a deeper purpose. I gave all that he won, back to those who lost it at the table, and even more than that to repay them. I would have done the same on your behalf too, but without telling you, except you have now made that a little difficult to do. You would have learned nothing about that wager from me or anyone else, and then, when you discovered that your brother had not returned home with you and was not about to appear, it would have dawned on you that something may have happened to him and that you would then be the owner of the estate and . . . .” He left the rest unsaid, but he had said enough to puzzle her. She was confused and had not heard or understood all that he had said.

“Why would you wish to give it back to my brother after he tried to cheat you?”

“I was not going to give it back to your brother but to you!” She had missed something in what he had said and was saying.

“He will not stand idly by and let you do that even if I were to accept it. He is more likely to think to shoot you in the back to recover what you won from him, just as he thought to kill me that night. In truth, he would have even more reason to think to kill me if you were to do that.” Wyatt was smiling at her. She realized that he must already know that. She drank more of his wine and did not notice him pour some of the lemonade into it once she put it down again. Her mind was far away as she stewed upon what had happened. “Did he try to recover those things from you?”

“He hoped to. He intended to. He tried. We both know what your brother was capable of.” A suspicion crossed her mind.

“Where is he now? I cannot imagine he took losing anything easily, and yet you are still here.”

“He didn’t take it easily. As you surmised, he wanted me dead for admitting to cheating him out of everything.”

“You told him that you cheated?” She could not believe he might be so foolish as to do that.

“Yes. I told him. I intended that he would know that.” She obviously thought him to have lost his reason to admit that to her brother.

“I don’t understand.” Another thought caught her. “You said when he did not arrive home, and something else along the same vein. Is he . . . is he alive?”

“Some questions are best not asked, even though you would eventually find out. However, you did ask, and you deserve a direct response to that too. No Miss Henstridge, he is not alive. A most unfortunate accident.” He qualified what he said. “Almost an accident.”

“I am not sure that I can believe you.”

“About the accident or about him not being alive? Why not? I have never directly lied to you.”

“Never directly lied to me.” She looked at him and saw that he was still smiling kindly upon her. “Gambling, notgambling. The partial truth that is a lie, the lie that is made to seem to be true. You would have had no reason to lie to me or mislead me until now.”

“Not even now. Why would I lie now?” She did not fully understand.

“You are suddenly being devious, Mr. Wyatt. You are a stickler for the truth even when it hurts. I have discovered that, but now . . . now, you would mislead me if you could do so, indirectly, yes, with the excuse that it would be for my own good just as you tried to deny all knowledge of that game last night when I first asked you.”

“I am not proud of that, the cheating, or of hoping to mislead you a little, but it needed to be done. Your brother went for a swim late last night.” She chuckled unbelievingly at his outrageous statement and drank some of the diluted wine.

“He cannot swim! He would never willingly go for a swim.” She was puzzled. “Was he alive when he went for his swim?”

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