Episode nine: Nine Ladies Dancing.
Charlotte stared up at the Panther, a feeling of humiliation mixed with anger sweeping through her. As he stood over her, offering his hand to help her rise, she pushed it away, struggling to her feet.
'I prefer to help myself,' she said, mustering what dignity she could as she turned away.
'What is wrong with you?' Lord Waverley took hold of her arm, forcing her to look at him. 'Why were you in such a panic?'
'Do you think I would tell you?' she replied coldly. 'I was looking for Lord Winchester. I can trust him!'
The Panther watched as she walked off her back straight and her head high. His eyes narrowed in suspicion as he wondered what had made her change towards him so suddenly. She had seemed to like him, but now it was clear that she could not even bear him to touch her! Some inner instinct told him that it could not be only that he had been dallying with the milkmaid. His keen mind worked quickly – Had that damned brother of hers managed to contact her?
It was his hope that Jack Kingston would be fool enough to come here that had made the Panther accept the invitation to what was by his standards a deadly dull affair. He was a man who lived on the edge of danger, his nefarious affairs ranging from smuggling to spying and…murder. He had thought that his efforts to inform on Jack as the leader of the smuggling gang, which he actually ran himself would get the fool off his back, but now it seemed that Jack had escaped the Revenue men and come here for help.
He felt a surge of anger that his plans had gone awry. He had long been working for the French government as a spy, paid in the French gold that helped to fund his lavish lifestyle. When he'd discovered that Jack was close to discovering his secrets, he had betrayed the men he had used as cover for his smuggling activities. Twenty men were now languishing in prison, and most of them would hang for the crimes he had committed…for he was their leader. They were but simple men of Devon, who had been swayed by his persuasive tongue into taking up the smuggling as a cover for the French agents that came and went. Without him they were lost, but not one of them knew his real name. Only one man knew that – Jack Kingston.
He must find some way to destroy the man. If Jack could somehow prove that he was not the leader of the smugglers it would be disastrous, for Kingston must realise who had set the Revenue men on him. The Panther knew that he must follow Miss Kingston, for she would lead him to his quarry, and then he would decide what to do for the best…he would not be safe until that fool Kingston was dead.
He began to follow after Charlotte as she walked swiftly away from him, stepping behind a tree as he saw that she had met with Lord Winchester. From the look on their faces, it was obvious that Winchester was horrified and had agreed to help her. Waverley stood for a moment in contemplation.
Winchester's involvement changed things. If he were seen his chance to murder Jack would be gone, and he would be unmasked as the rogue he was. His gaze flicked towards the house for a moment. The ladies seemed to be practising for the ball that night and through the long windows he could see several of them dancing. With one part of his mind, he noted that there were nine of them twirling and laughing, and the normality of it was in stark contrast to what was happening here. The Panther knew that his whole future lay in the balance, for Winchester was a magistrate and close to the Regent. If he believed Jack's tale, he would lose no time in setting the Runners on him! And he knew that he would hang as a spy and a murderer.
He must decide what to do quickly. He could cut and run now, take the first ship he could find to France or…
Unaware of the thoughts going through the Panther's mind, Ryder stared at Charlotte in concern as she spilled out her tale.
'If Jack fell into that icy water he could catch his death of cold,' he said. 'You must go up to the house, Charlotte. Rouse all the gentlemen you can find without upsetting the ladies and bring them to the boathouse.'
Charlotte sped off at once to do his bidding, and Ryder hurried down to the boathouse. He did not want anything to happen to Charlotte's brother, because he had every intention of asking her to be his wife. This was his chance to prove to her that he was a man of influence. As a magistrate, and well connected in royal circles, he would leave no stone unturned in the fight to save Jack's reputation and his life!
As he approached the boathouse, he saw Jack coming out of it, Hester supporting him as he swayed unsteadily. He went up to them, with a cry of relief.
'Charlotte feared you were badly hurt, Jack,' he said. 'Come, my dear fellow, take my coat. We must get you home in the warm.'
Ryder took off his coat, putting it around the other man's shoulders. As he did so he heard an ominous click behind him and whirled round, staring in disbelief as he saw that the Panther stood there, a pistol in his hand – and that pistol was pointing straight at Jack's heart.
'What do you think you are doing, Waverley?' he demanded. 'Put that stupid thing down and get out of the way.'
'I am arresting Jack Kingston for spying, smuggling and murder,' the Panther said. 'If he tries to escape I shall shoot…'
'Over my dead body,' Ryder retorted, standing in front of Jack. 'You may kill me before you take him!'
'And me,' Hester cried, surprising them all.
Just then they heard a rifle shot, and turning their heads as one they saw a group of militia at the far side of the lake. Before anyone could think what was happening, a shrill cry was heard and there, running through the fast melting snow was Charlotte. Behind her came….