A Daring Liaison(2)

Wycliffe sat back in his chair and tapped the table with one finger, a jaded expression on his face. “The truth is that you need to kill Gibbons before he kills you, eh? I’ve seen all kinds, Hunter, but the Gibbons clan is beyond my comprehension. I cannot think what could account for their felonious nature.”

“It’s in their blood,” Charles murmured. “It’s who they are and what they were born to be.”

“I’ve known good men with no better beginnings. You do not really believe in ‘bad blood,’ do you?”

“Aye, I do. And I believe if it’s birthed a Gibbons, you’d do the world a favor to exterminate it before it can spread.”

Wycliffe gave a short laugh. “And nature and upbringing have no bearing? Are inconsequential?”

Charles shrugged. “I’d say they count for very little.”

An arched eyebrow was Wycliffe’s reaction. “I can see this is not the night for a philosophical discussion.”

It certainly wasn’t. Charles brought the conversation back to the point. “So if you think the Huffington woman is guilty of something, put someone else on her trail.”

“That’s precisely why I need your help. It isn’t official, you see. Not yet. It is...delicate, and requires someone who is socially adept, accepted at all levels of society and who has a light touch.”

“If it is not official, why are we poking our noses in what doesn’t concern us?”

“Requests from some rather prominent people. Her former husbands’ families are suspicious of the nature of the deaths. Too coincidental, they say. Too convenient. For her.

“She has profited nicely from both deaths. And her last husband, Gower Huffington, was quite wealthy. No immediate family, but he has a distant nephew who was expecting to inherit. He thinks Mrs. Huffington cozened his uncle into changing his will and thus cheated him of his due.”

Disgruntled relatives looking for an inheritance were not reason enough to drag his attention from Dick Gibbons. He shook his head again. “Not interested.”

“You haven’t heard the rest.” Wycliffe finished his ale and pushed his chair back. “About her and Adam Booth.”

A cold feeling settled in the pit of Charles’s stomach at the mention of his friend. “What about Booth?” Adam had taken a bullet that had been meant for Charles, and Charles had been carried away with a bullet in his left shoulder. Dick Gibbons had been gunning for Charles, not Adam. His friend had just gotten in the way. And what did any of that have to do with Mrs. Huffington?

“He’d been courting Mrs. Huffington. ’Tis rumored they’d signed marriage contracts the day he was killed.”

Charles remembered Booth’s interest in the widow, but he hadn’t realized how serious it was or he’d have warned his friend against her. He took a long, slow drink, digesting this information.

Wycliffe pressed his advantage. “Furthermore, Mrs. Huffington’s former guardian, Lady Caroline Betman, died rather suddenly. Her death is being seen as yet another convenience for Mrs. Huffington. Each death was ruled accidental, save Lady Caroline’s, which was thought to be natural. That is why the investigation must be kept unofficial. There is no new information that would warrant reopening the inquiries. Gathering that information would be your task.”

Charles was forced to admit that Mrs. Huffington looked guilty of something. And he’d known unlikelier killers. “I only knew her briefly seven years ago, and have no way of knowing what she may or may not be inclined to do. In fact, I can think of no reason to take this assignment. I need to find Gibbons before he finds me.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Maybe it isn’t Gibbons you are looking for.”

For a moment—just a moment—Charles thought Wycliffe was suggesting... “Mrs. Huffington?”

Wycliffe spread his arms wide. “Why not? If she is guilty of killing her husbands, then why not Adam Booth? Even his father has paid a visit to the secretary. You always said it was not like Gibbons to miss, nor was a pistol his first choice of weapons. What if it wasn’t Gibbons holding the gun that night after all?”

That supposition gave Charles a moment’s pause until logic took over. “What could her motive be? She wasn’t married to Booth, so she did not stand to inherit. Would she not have waited until the nuptials?”

“Lady Caroline had negotiated a nominal settlement should Booth not wed her, no matter the reason. Afraid he’d back out, no doubt.”

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