Risking the Detective – Ellie St. Clair

Take a seat, Miss Castleton.” Madeline straightened her spine to sit as tall as she could. She would not be cowed. Not today. Not anymore. She summoned all of her strength and courage. “As this is my office, Mr. Drake, I would invite you to sit.” He raised his eyebrows, and she got the impression that he was passing some judgment upon her, although he didn’t say anything that would belie what was lurking beyond those dark, expressionless eyes. The silent battle of wills did not last long, for it seemed Mr. Drake soon realized he would gain nothing from it. It was a new state of affairs for Madeline. A small step, but one that was immeasurably important. He sat. As did she, across from him, behind the desk that formed a barrier between them, one that she currently appreciated more than she wanted to admit.

“Now, then,” he said, folding his hands in his lap over the notebook that sat upon those impossibly hard, rigid thighs she was doing her very best to ignore, “tell me, where were you last night between two o’clock and five o’clock in the morning?” Madeline’s chin shot up at the question. “Pardon me?” He didn’t react — no sigh, no deep breath, no sign of annoyance whatsoever. He simply repeated himself. Madeline narrowed her eyes, refusing to answer his question until she understood why he was asking it. “Mr. Drake, why are you here?” “To investigate the vandalism that occurred in your factory, Miss Castleton. That was why you requested my presence.” He might not have shown any emotion, but Madeline couldn’t help her irritation at his explanation, as though she was not intelligent enough to understand the situation. “Clearly,” she said dryly. “However, I ask, Mr.

Drake—” “Drake. Just Drake.” “Drake, then. I ask, because I am unsure as to why my whereabouts would be important.” “The whereabouts of everyone involved in this case are important.” “Mr. Dra— that is, Drake, I am the vic—” No. She would never again use that word to describe herself. “I asked you here.” “There have been many times that we detectives have been summoned by the very person who perpetrated the crime.

” Madeline rubbed the crease between her eyes, unable to keep her expression as void as that of the detective in front of her. “Alice said you could help,” she tried again. “I can.” “Then why—” “Miss Castleton,” he said, leaning forward, his dark eyes probing into her. “It is my turn to ask you — what do you want from me here?” “To determine who is trying to destroy my business, quite obviously.” “Your father’s business.” She sighed quietly, not wanting him to detect her impatience. “It is my father’s business, yes, but he has entrusted it to me while he is away at Bath.” “With the mother of your friend, the very Mrs. Luxington with whom both are acquainted.

” She shot him a look as a streak of surprise sliced through her. “Do you know everything?” “I try to make it my business to,” he replied, the slightest hint of smugness tightening his lips. It was the first bit of emotion she had seen from him throughout this encounter. “Well. No matter who he is with,” she said, drawing herself up and forcing what she hoped was some confidence to her face, “he always intended that I take over the business, anyway. This seemed to be a good time for a trial.” “Ah,” he said, a dawning raining over his features, which were far too dark and mysterious for his own good, “that is why this is of such great importance to you. Because it could cause your father to lose confidence in your ability to look after Castleton Stone.” “Mr. Drake,” she began, taking a breath.

If she was going to be the head of this business, she must begin acting like she was. “Drake.” “Drake,” she repeated, her frustration now clear. Why did he have to be so contrary? “Why I called you here does not matter. What matters is that I did call you here, and that it is your job to determine what has occurred. I can assure you that there is no reason whatsoever for me to have played any part in this. So, could we please move on to finding the true culprit?” “That is all well and good, Miss Castleton, but in order for me to solve this crime, I must be able to determine whether anything of importance occurred at the time of the issue. Now, would you like me to do my job, as you say?” “Of course,” she said quietly, bowing her head, feeling foolish that she had challenged him so. He sat back in his chair and tilted his head to the side, leaning his temple upon his index finger as he studied her. “You did not ask me here to pity you, did you?” “Pity me?” she said, her exclamation harsher than she had intended.

She didn’t have to ask just why he would pity her. She already knew. He knew. Everyone knew. “Yes. The rest of London does, do they not?” She dipped her head. Her stupidity, her naivety would follow her around for the rest of her life. This detective’s opinion shouldn’t matter, and yet she couldn’t help the shame that washed over her at the awareness of what he likely thought of her. He was intelligent enough to solve crimes that perplexed most, while she hadn’t even been able to figure out that the man who had claimed to be Lord Donning had actually swindled her into marriage only to steal her dowry, before attempting to fatally poison her in order to inherit all of her wealth. “It was not your fault, Miss Castleton,” Drake said now, his voice surprisingly gentle, causing her to snap her head back up to look at him.

“You were not the first woman to be deceived by Kurt Maxfeld — known to you as Lord Stephen Donning — but, fortunately, you will be the last.” “Thanks to Alice and her husband,” Madeline murmured, before conceding, “and you.” “You showed great bravery as well,” Drake said, but Madeline couldn’t meet his gaze. She knew he was just doing his job, playing the sympathetic detective. She had done nothing that denoted any bravery whatsoever. She had fled. She had hidden. Meanwhile, her friend had caught the man who had ruined Madeline’s life. “We are not here to discuss Lord Donning — or Kurt Maxfeld or whatever his name is,” Madeline said, not able to bear the topic any longer. “We are here to discuss my business.

” “Your father’s business,” he corrected her once more, and Madeline had to take a deep breath to keep herself from telling him exactly what she thought of his barbed comments. “Very well, Miss Castleton,” he said, his knee bouncing ever so slightly as he crossed an ankle over the other one, “will you tell me, then, where you were last night between two and five in the morning?” She closed her eyes for but a moment to regain her focus. “I was at home,” she said, providing the truth. “Reading.” Finally, it seemed that she had captured his attention. “Reading, you say? You were not sleeping?” “I was not,” she said, shaking her head. “I find it difficult to sleep after… last year.” “When you were nearly poisoned to death,” he said, not seeming to understand the implication that she would prefer not to speak of it. “I suppose that would cause someone to be afraid to go to sleep.” “I am not afraid,” she said softly.

“I just… I dream when I sleep. Nightmares, I suppose you can say. It is much easier to stay awake.” “If only it were possible to live without sleep,” he said, and she couldn’t tell whether or not he was making fun of her. “Was anyone in the house with you?” “I have an aunt who lives with us,” she explained. “My father’s older sister. She never married and came to us when my mother passed. She was home but was in bed by nine o’clock. I did not see her nor speak to her until morning. We also have a live-in maid who…” her cheeks warmed slightly as she was about to say that the maid helped her undress, “who helped me prepare for the night to come before she retired herself.

” “I see,” he murmured, his eyebrows rising ever so slightly at the discussion of her nightly activities. “Very good, then. You were nowhere near Castleton Stone?” “Not after five o’clock in the evening. Why are you continuing to question me about this?” she couldn’t help but ask. “We’ve discussed this. That is my job.” “I am not a suspect, Mr. Drake. This is my business.” “I never said you were a suspect.

” “Then why are you treating me as one?” He leaned forward in the chair, and she wished that he didn’t unnerve her. He was taller than she, his shoulders broad, but he was not an overly large man. There was just something about him… something that she couldn’t quite describe but that was so mysterious, so intimidating, that it took everything within her to keep from shrinking back away from him and his dark, piercing stare that seemed to only ask questions without providing any answers in return. “I just find it interesting, Miss Castleton, that the moment you take more control of this business, it is put into jeopardy.” She dropped her gaze. “I would assume that my father’s rivals are taking advantage of his absence.” “And the fact that he left a woman in charge.” Madeline eyed him again. “Are you condemning him for doing so?” He sat back again, assessing her as though her response held much interest for him. “It is not for me to judge, Miss Castleton.

Simply observe. And my observations tell me that most men would see a woman at the helm of a business to have weakened it.” Madeline nodded. “I am aware of the fact.” Drake opened his mouth, likely about to ask Madeline another question about motive this time perhaps, but was prevented from continuing by a new presence. “I say, that is quite enough.” They both turned in unison to find her cousin standing at the doorway. His familiar presence sent a wave of relief washing over her. She had hoped he would be here for this particular interview. He was nothing but loyal.

“And you are…” Drake was clearly not impressed, perhaps because he could no longer continue his bullying with another man, part of her family, in the room. “Bennett Castleton,” he said, his disdain for Drake apparent as his pinched nose somehow elongated as he stared down at the detective. “Miss Castleton’s cousin. It appears, sir, that you have upset her and I would ask you to leave.” Sensing the tension that immediately filled the air of the office, Madeline stood and crossed over to her cousin, placing a hand on his arm. “It’s all right, Bennett,” she said quietly. “I called him here.” “You did?” he said, his voice registering shock as he stared at her, mouth agape. “But why?” “Because half of the product within our factory was vandalized,” she said, wishing they were not having this argument, as slight as it was, in front of Drake. “We need to determine who did it and why, so that we can regain control of the business.

” “And you think he can help us?” Bennett asked, tilting his head over toward Drake. Madeline took a breath, suddenly wondering if Bennett’s presence was helpful after all. “I hope he can. He is a Bow Street constable.” “A runner?” Bennett questioned in surprise. “We are not fond of the term,” Drake responded from where he still sat, no hint of malice in his voice. “Very well, then,” Bennett said with a deep breath. “Find out who did this to our stone. But please do not cause my cousin to feel any further guilt for what happened. She has been working tirelessly since my Uncle Ezra left for Bath.

” “Why would she feel guilt, Mr. Castleton?” Drake asked, and Madeline had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes. “I shall be fine, Bennett,” she said softly. “We do not have much more to speak about.” She looked over at Drake, who was watching her in turn. “At least not today.” Bennett looked back and forth between the two of them until finally, apparently satisfied, he pulled up a chair from the wooden table and sat down upon it next to the wall. Drake eyed him until Bennett held up a hand. “I shall say nothing. I am here to observe, and to offer my support when necessary.

” “What type of support might you require, Miss Castleton?” “I—” Madeline was about to respond that she didn’t actually need any, but Bennett interrupted once more. “Well, now, Drake, you are aware of all that happened to Madeline earlier this year, are you not?” Madeline could only hope that her look toward him conveyed her wish that he not speak of it any longer. She and Drake had only just gotten past the topic of conversation. Now Drake turned and stared at Madeline instead. “Do you require assistance in regard to the actions of Maxfeld?” “No,” she said, unable to help the rush of gratitude at being addressed directly. “I shall be fine.” “Now, Madeline,” Bennett began, but Drake quickly moved on, ignoring her cousin. “Miss Castleton, if you are so convinced that Castleton Stone’s rivals are at fault, why do you not tell me of them?” he asked, and Madeline sighed, relieved at the turn of the conversation to something that was not only focused on her, but could actually lead to a determination of the culprit. “There is another stone company that has been a rival to ours for a number of years — Treacle Stone,” she explained. “At the helm is a man named Jeremiah Treacle.

He has recently inherited the business from his father. While Mr. Treacle, the elder, and my father have always had a great deal of respect for one another, Mr. Jeremiah Treacle does not seem to have any qualms in putting the success of his business over any relationship. I would suggest starting there.” “Absolutely,” Bennett said, nodding his head in the corner. “Treacle. It has to be. Why, I would—” “Thank you, Miss Castleton, Mr. Castleton,” Drake said, straightening his serviceable black coat as he rose.

Madeline’s fingers strangely itched to reach out and feel the gold buttons to see if they were as smooth as they looked to be from where she sat. As Drake stepped away from the chair, a finger of sunlight bounced in through the window and glanced off them, causing her to squint. “When will you go?” she asked, straightening her dress as she stood. “When I am able to,” he said cryptically, and she had the feeling that he was dismissing her. “Good day, Miss Castleton.” She knew, then, that this act of vandalism in her factory meant nothing to him, and that if he did follow up, it would not be with any true level of importance. “May I accompany you when you do?” she forced herself to call after him, and he stopped, turned around, and shook his head with a benevolent smile. “I will come, as well!” Bennett added, holding a finger in the air. “I am the detective here, Miss Castleton,” Drake said, turning around and looking at her from over his shoulder. “You are a stone manufacturer.

I will focus on my job. You should focus on yours.” And with that dismissal, he was out the door, leaving her with her fists at her side, her lips tight together, and shame in her heart.

.

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