"What? You cannot mean…"
"Do it!" He raised his gun and aimed it at John's forehead. "I can't very well tie him up and keep my aim at the same time."
"Oh, John," Belle whimpered.
"Do as he says," John said. Behind him he could feel Alex and Dunford tensing their muscles, getting ready to spring into action.
"I can't." Tears stung at her eyes. "I just can't."
"Tie his hands," Spencer warned, "or by God I'll shoot him on the count of three."
"Can I tie them in front? It seems so barbaric-"
"For God's sake, tie them any way you please. Just do it tight and be done with it."
With shaking hands, Belle wrapped the necktie around John's wrists, trying to tie it as loosely as possible without raising Spencer's suspicions.
"Step back," he ordered.
Belle took a baby step away from John.
"What are you going to do to him?" she demanded.
"You haven't figured that out yet?"
"Mr. Spencer, I'm begging you."
He ignored her. "Turn around, Blackwood. We're going to do it through the back of your skull."
Belle's legs grew weak, and she would have fallen to the ground if she hadn't crashed into an end table. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Dunford slowly inching forward, but she had little hope he'd be able to save him. Spencer could see his every move, and there would be no way to surprise him. By the time Dunford could wrestle him to the ground, the fatal shot would already have been fired. Besides, the room was densely furnished; it looked as if the Tumbleys had shoved every stray settee, sofa, and table into it. Dunford would have to jump over two chairs and an end table if he wanted to take a direct route.
"You!" Spencer barked, jerking his head at Belle without really looking at her. "Get back even farther. I'm sure you have a yen to play the heroine, but I will not have the blood of a lady on my conscience."
Belle moved sideways, as the end table was blocking her path. She sniffed. She smelled violets. How odd.
Belle took another step back and thumped up against something solid. Something solid and… definitely human. She looked across the room. Alex, Dunford, Emma, and her mother were all in plain sight.
"Take this!" came a whisper.
Good God, it was Persephone! And she was pressing a pistol into Belle's palm.
Spencer raised his arm and aimed.
Belle felt herself dying. She'd have to shoot Spencer and pray that her aim was true. There was no way she'd be able to get the gun to John. Damn, why hadn't she let Emma teach her how to shoot properly?
John twisted his head around as far as he was able. "If I could have just one last wish?"
"I'd like to kiss my wife goodbye. With your permission of course."
Spencer nodded curtly, and Belle hurriedly moved forward, concealing the gun in the folds of her skirt. With her free hand she reached up and touched John's face, making sure that Spencer could see her movement. John glanced down at his wrists, and Belle saw that he had worked his hands free of the loosely tied cravat.
"Oh, John," she whispered loudly, "I love you. You know that, don't you?"
He nodded. Give me the gun,he mouthed.
"Oh, John!" she wailed, figuring that the better show she put on, the more time they would have to plot. She moved her free hand to the back of his head and pulled him to her in a scorching kiss. She pressed herself as close as she could to John, praying that Spencer wouldn't be able to see what was going on in the narrow space between their bodies. She placed the gun in John's hands, quickly pulling the loosened cravat off his wrists as she did so.
"Keep kissing me," he whispered. She could feel his hand settling into the contours of the gun. Her tongue flicked out, tracing the outline of his mouth, savoring the slightly salty taste of him.
"Open your mouth, love," he said softly.
She did, and his tongue swooped in to deepen the kiss. Belle returned his passion with equal fire, all the while keeping one eye open and trained on Spencer, who was watching them with a fascinated expression. His arm had lowered slightly, and Belle knew that their kiss had pulled some of his attention away from his obsession to kill John. She resolved to distract him completely and moaned loudly with pleasure.
John began to trail small kisses along her jawbone, and Belle arched her neck to give him greater access. But she could feel that his attention was focused elsewhere. She felt him nod, and then from the shadows came a hideous, barely human shriek. The sound was terrifying. Belle felt sick to her stomach just listening to it.
"What the hell?" Spencer was jolted from his voyeuristic reverie, and he couldn't stop his head from turning toward the awful sound.
John abruptly let go of Belle, and before she realized what was happening, she pitched forward and tumbled onto the ground. John spun around, whipping the gun out and shooting Spencer's pistol cleanly from his hand. Alex and Dunford immediately rushed forward, tackling the stunned man to the ground.
Persephone stepped forward and folded her arms, a satisfied smile on her face. "Sometimes a little age and wisdom is a very good thing."
"Persephone, what are you doing here?" Alex demanded as he yanked Spencer's wrists behind his back.
"That's a fine way to greet me after I've gone and saved the day."
"Oh, Persephone," Belle said with great feeling. "Thank you!" She clambered to her feet and flung her arms around the older woman. "But what was that awful sound?"
"Me." Persephone grinned broadly.
Caroline raised her brows incredulously. "Surely that wasn't human."
"Oh, but it was!"
"It certainly did the trick," John said, joining the women after making sure that Spencer was tied up properly. "Although I must admit, I never dreamed you'd emit such a sound after I signalled to you to make a commotion."
"You knew she was here?" Belle asked.
"Only after I saw her hand you the gun. Well done, Persephone." John pushed his hair back and noticed that his hand was shaking. It would be a long time before the image of Spencer holding Belle hostage would fade from his mind.
"How on earth did you get in here?" Belle asked.
"I knew something sinister was going on. No one saw fit to confide in me." Persephone sniffed in disdain. "But I figured it out. I also eavesdropped a lot. And then I realized-"
"Excuse me!" Dunford called out.
Six heads swiveled in his direction.
"We might want to notify the authorities about him." He motioned down to Spencer, who was lying on the floor, bound and gagged.
Belle waved him off, too interested in Persephone's story. "He's not going anywhere like that."
Dunford raised his brows at her nonchalance but nonetheless planted his booted foot in the middle of Spencer's back, mostly just for the fun of it.
"If I might continue," Persephone intoned, thoroughly enjoying her role as heroine for the day.
"By all means," Belle replied.
"As I was saying, I overheard Alex and Emma discussing the ball tonight and realized that John and Belle might be in danger. That is why I insisted they take me along." She turned to Belle. "Now, I realize that I wasn't the strictest of chaperones, but I did take my position seriously, and I felt that I would be remiss in my duties if I did not come to your aid."
"For which I am extremely grateful," Belle felt compelled to interject.
Persephone smiled benignly. "I realized that you might need a secret weapon tonight. Secret even from yourselves. You were all so busy with your schemes you didn't notice that I disappeared the moment I arrived at the party. I went up into the balcony which overlooks the ballroom and watched. I saw this man accost you, Belle, and then force your mother out of the room."
"But how did you get in here?" Belle asked.
Persephone smiled craftily. "You lot left the door open. I just crawled in. No one noticed me. And the room is rather generously furnished. I simply darted between chairs and settees."
"I can't believe we didn't see you," John muttered. "My instincts must be off."
"It is dark in here," Persephone replied, trying to reassure him. "And your attention was engaged at the time. I wouldn't worry about it, my lord. Besides, you were the first to notice me. After Belle, of course."
John shook his head in admiration. "You're a wonder, Persephone. A true wonder. I can't thank you enough."
"Your firstborn girl, perhaps," Dunford suggested impishly. "Persephone is a fine name."
Belle scowled at him. A fine name perhaps, but not for any child of hers. But then again-Belle's eyes lit up as an idea unfolded in her mind. An idea so perfect, so timely- "I must offer you my gratitude, too," she said, linking arms with the older woman. "But I'm not sure my first daughter is the right way to thank you."
"Whyever not?" Dunford's mischievous grin spread from ear to ear.
Belle smiled archly and kissed her former chaperone on the cheek. "Ah, Persephone, I have grander plans for you."
A few weeks later John and Belle were curled up in bed at Persephone Park, enjoying their relative peace and quiet immensely. Belle was thumbing through a book, as was her habit before going to sleep, and John was sorting through a stack of business papers.
"You look very fine in your new spectacles," he said with a smile.
"Do you think so? I think they make me look smart."
"You are smart."
"Yes, but these give me a more serious air, don't you think?"
"Perhaps." John put his papers on a nightstand, then leaned over and dropped a wet kiss on one of her lenses.
"Jo-ohn!" She pulled the spectacles off and began to clean them against the quilt.
He plucked them from her hand. "Leave them off."
"But I can't see the book without-"
He took the book from her hands. "You won't need this either." The book slid to the ground, and John covered her body warmly with his. "It's time for bed, don't you think?"
"Only maybe?" He nipped at her nose.
"I've been thinking."
"I certainly hope so."
"Stop your teasing." She tickled him in the ribs. "I'm serious."
He looked at her lips, thinking he'd like to nip at them, too. "What is on your mind, darling?"
"I still want a poem."
"A love poem, from you to me."
John signed. "I gave you the most romantic proposal a woman has ever had. I climbed a tree for you. I got down on one knee. What do you need a poem for?"
"Something that I can hold on to. Something that our great-grandchildren will find long after we're dead, and they'll say, 'Great-grandfather certainly loved great-grandmother.' It's not so silly, I think."
"Will you write me a poem?"
Belle thought about that for a moment. "I'll try, but I'm not as poetic as you are."
"Now, how do you know that? I assure you that my poetry is appalling."
"I never liked poetry before I met you. You have always loved it. I can only deduce that you have a more poetic mind than I do."
John looked down at her. Her face shone with love and devotion in the candlelight, and he knew he could deny her nothing. "If I promise to write you a poem, will you promise to let me kiss you senseless whenever I wish?"
Belle giggled. "You already get to do that."
"But in every room? Can I do it in my study and your sitting room and the green salon and the blue salon and the-"
"Stop! Stop! I implore you," she laughed. "Which room is the green salon?"
"The one with all the blue furniture."
"Then which one is the blue salon?"
John's face fell. "I don't know."
Belle bit back a smile.
"But can I kiss you in it?"
"I suppose, but only if you kiss me now."
John growled with pleasure. "At your service, my lady."
A few days later Belle was spending the afternoon in her sitting room, reading and writing letters. She and John had hoped to ride over to Westonbirt to visit Alex and Emma, but inclement weather had put an end to their plans. Belle was sitting at her desk watching the rain beat down against the window when John walked in, his hands shoved boyishly in his pockets.
"This is a welcome surprise," she said. "I thought you were reading over those investments Alex sent over."
"I missed you."
Belle smiled. "You can bring the papers up and read them here. I promise I won't distract you."
He dropped a kiss on the back of her hand. "Your mere presence distracts me, love. I wouldn't read a word. You promised I could kiss you in every room in the house, remember?"
"Speaking of which, weren't you going to write me a love poem in return?"
John shook his head innocently. "I don't think so."
"I distinctly remember the part about the poem. I may have to limit your kisses to the upstairs rooms."
"You fight dirty, Belle," he accused. "These things take time. Do you think Wordsworth just whipped out poems on demand? I think not. Poets labor over each word. They-"
"Have you written one?"
"Well, I started one, but-"
"Oh, please, please let me hear it!" Belle's eyes lit up in anticipation, and John thought she looked rather like a five-year-old who had just been told she might have an extra piece of candy.
"All right." He sighed.
Belle narrowed her eyes. "If I'm not mistaken, someone wrote that a few centuries before you did. Spenser, I think." With a smile she lifted the book she had been reading. The Collected Poems of Edmund Spenser. "You would have gotten away with it an hour earlier."
John scowled. "I would have written it if he hadn't thought of it first."
Belle waited patiently.
"Oh, have it your way. I'll read you mine. Ahem. She walks in beauty-"
"For goodness' sake, John, you tried that one already!"
"Did I?" he muttered. "I did, didn't I?"
He took a deep breath. "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree-"
"You're getting desperate, John."
"Oh, for the love of God, Belle, I'll read you mine. But I'm warning you now, it's, well, it's- Oh, you'll see for yourself." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a much-folded piece of paper. From where she was sitting, Belle could see that the paper was liberally streaked with cross-outs and heavy editing. John cleared his throat. He looked up at her.
Belle smiled in anticipation and encouragement.
He cleared his throat again.
He looked up at her, his eyes hesitant. "It needs a bit more work, but I think I got most of the rhymes right."
Belle looked up at him, her lower lip trembling with emotion. What his poem lacked in grace, it more than made up for in heart and meaning. That he had labored so long on a task for which he obviously had no aptitude, and just because she'd asked him to-she couldn't help it, she started to sniffle, and fat tears rolled down her cheeks. "Oh, John. You must really, really love me."
John walked to her and nudged her into a standing position before gathering her into his arms. "I do, my love. Believe me, I really, really do."