Jayne's words didn’t seem to sink in as Robert continued to read, his face growing paler by the minute. By the time he had finished comparing the two photos, he looked decidedly sick himself.
For what felt like an eternity, they stared at each blankly, shock written all over their faces.
A deep frown marred Robert’s features until finally he blinked slowly a few times, as if coming out of a trance. “No…no…it’s impossible. Eleanor could never have survived the fall. I mean…you were there, Jayne, you saw her plunge thousands of feet into a snow-filled ravine…”
She was shaking her head and nodding alternately, her thoughts still a crazed and panicked jumble. “Yes, but… Who else could it be? It has to be her. Nobody else knows!”
Rob looked at the walls, the floor, and the ceiling as if the truth could be grasped out of thin air. “I… I don’t know, but… I mean, if Eleanor were alive, she would just try to kill us again, not blackmail us.”
Jayne shook her head, the bitter taste of bile in her throat. “You don’t know her like I do, Rob. She doesn’t think and act like a normal human. She’s, she’s… oh god.” Her breath wheezed and rattled in her chest—she was on the verge of having an asthma attack. It made her feel a thousand times worse because she had Eleanor to thank for that, too. And then she realized she hadn’t experienced a single asthma attack since the fateful day that Eleanor had tried to kill them.
Now it seemed the horrible wretch had risen from the grave!
As if Robert knew she would soon reach snapping point, he pulled himself together. He squatted next to her, running his hands soothingly over her head and trembling shoulders, and over her arms until he gripped her hands tightly.
“Jayne. Calm down. Look at me, darling. Calm. Down. Now.”
She focused on his face, his eyes, the reassuring pressure of his fingers on hers.
“Nothing has happened yet. It’s just a letter. Please try to think rationally, darling.”
Once she was breathing a little easier, he gently pulled her up, and they half-fell onto the couch. Robert set the envelope and letter carefully down on the coffee table. His hands were steady now, but the tension in his body was palpable.
“Better not touch the paper again,” he said quietly, his tone now more serious than panicked. “There could be fingerprints or some other kind of evidence on it, maybe the envelope, too.” He took a deep breath. “Let’s think logically. Who sent this letter? And why now?”
Jayne swallowed heavily, the bitter taste still in her mouth. “I’m sure it’s Eleanor, as crazy as that sounds. It’s got to be her. But how the hell did she find us?”
“What makes you so sure it’s her?”
“Everything. It’s so…so her. The tone, the language. And especially the hatred between the lines.”
When she shivered, Rob put his arm around her.
“Jayne…” A conflicted expression crossed his face, and he spoke the next words with a gentle precision, like someone trying to reason with a recalcitrant child. “I know Eleanor ruined your life, or rather, she tried to. And believe me, I understand your panic. But please look at this more rationally. Nobody could have survived that fall. It’s just not realistic.”
With a sigh, she fought for more control, but couldn’t quite find it. “They never found her body,” Jayne muttered, gnawing on her bottom lip. She so wanted to believe he was right, but her gut feeling told her otherwise. “What if she was seriously injured but was somehow saved by sheer luck? Maybe that’s why the letter arrived now—she couldn’t do anything until she recovered.”
Robert frowned, opened his mouth and closed it again. After a moment, he scrubbed a hand over his face. “I don’t think this discussion is leading us anywhere.” His tone was weary. “We have to consider all options. There’s got to be a logical explanation behind this. Everything in life has a logical explanation, dammit.”
Jayne hardly ever heard Rob curse, and it revealed how worked up he was despite his superficial calm. She didn’t know what to say, what to think, to do.
After a moment, he added slowly, “What if it was written this way exactly because someone wants us to think it’s Eleanor? Or us to think it’s someone else, for that matter?”
The thought gave Jayne pause. “But who would go to all this trouble? Who would know all these details about us?”
Their gazes met, and the next moment, they both blurted the answer out at the same time.
Of course. Why hadn’t they thought of her immediately? Who else but her own twin sister, Celeste Sotheby, would hate Jayne so much and would blackmail her for revenge?
Now that she considered this, it made perfect sense.
“I’m sure it’s her,” Jayne said. Now she felt less frightened because no matter how nasty the threat sounded, Celeste was not a monster like their biological mother. “I mean, everything points in her direction. She vanished. Nobody knows anything about her and the child that may or may not even be alive.” Jayne shuddered. “You have to admit, whoever wrote this letter knows both our families intimately.”
Robert looked more thoughtful than ever now, his jaw set and his expression grim. “It does make sense…” He turned towards her and took her hand, squeezing it. “But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t want to jump to conclusions.”
* * *
For the next half hour, they racked their brains to remember everyone who had been around the summer villa in Nice and the mansion in Paris. Could anybody have gotten wind of their scheme?
“Did anyone see you and Celeste together?” Robert asked. “Actually see you side by side?”
“Are you absolutely sure?”
“The only time Celeste and I were physically at the same location was at the Nice villa, and we had no staff there.”
“Not a soul. You remember, Rob, Eleanor didn’t even have a gardener there. She kept the pool up herself, and I did all the cooking and cleaning. We had no private chauffeur either. As far as I can remember, nobody set foot in that house the entire summer except for Eleanor, Celeste, and me. And you, that one time you visited.”
“Yes, I remember, the yard was completely overgrown. But are you absolutely sure that you and Celeste were never out anywhere together?”
“Yes. Well, no...there was that night at the guest house, but just for a few minutes...”
“What guest house?” Rob sat up straighter, raising his eyebrows raised in alarm.
“A bed and breakfast near Nice. When you showed up unexpectedly that day, Eleanor took Celeste there.”
For a moment, Jayne allowed the memories to resurface; their frantic struggle to remove every single trace of Celeste’s presence and pregnancy, then her few hours of stolen bliss with Rob that led her to make a final decision.
She went on, “Right after you left, I took a taxi over and told them I wasn’t going through with their plan. But it was two o’clock in the morning then, and I don’t think anyone at the B&B was even awake. We were only there for a few minutes, and then we went back to the villa in a different taxi.”
Robert sighed, leaning forward and reading the letter again without touching the paper.
“What about the chauffeur who drove us around Paris?” Jayne asked.
“Philippe?” Robert shook his head. “That man has worked for my family for twenty years, a close mate of my father’s, as trustworthy as they come. He wouldn’t even dare to snoop around a little, let alone do something as brazen as this.”
Robert pursed his lips, thinking. “What about the staff at Les Fleurs? You stayed there during my visit and afterwards. What if you were overheard? Could any of the servants have figured out what was going on?” Before Jayne could answer, Rob added, “What about that red-headed butler who worked there—what was his name?”
“Yes, Giles. I remember having an odd feeling about that bloke when I came to meet you there the first time. I thought he was a bit sketchy.”
“Hmm...” Jayne paused, traveling back in time in her mind. “Now that you mention it...I did have the feeling he was hovering around Celeste’s bedroom just before you arrived, while I was getting dressed.”
Rob jotted something down in his notebook. “Was there any other staff at the mansion who might have figured out what was going on? Someone close to Giles, maybe?”
Jayne thought it over. “Well, there was Margaret, the cook. She seemed to be tight with Giles and well aware of most of what went on under that roof.” Jayne looked back at the shocking blackmail letter, her hands twitching as if she wanted nothing more than to rip it into shreds and forget all about it. She frowned. “But I can’t imagine her writing anything like this.”
“The place has been sold by now, I’m sure—do you know if any of the staff are still working there?”
“I have no idea,” Jayne said. The grand mansion was supposed to be auctioned off by the bank when Eleanor died, to pay off her massive debts. By that time, most of the domestic staff had long been fired, and some valuable items had secretly been sold off to provide quick cash to her desperate mother. Jayne did not know who had bought the property or who might live there now.
They both sat there for a long moment, and she noticed that Rob looked sick again, although he gave her hand another reassuring squeeze.
Glancing at the blackmail letter, Jayne wondered, “I don’t see why this person went to so much trouble, gluing all those cut-out letters all over the page. Isn’t that kind of old school? Why not send an anonymous email?”
“Good point,” Rob said, thinking. “I’m guessing it was done for theatrical effect, to show us that they know where we live.” Rob hesitated, glancing at her. “To scare us.”
Jayne grimaced. “Rob, if Eleanor is dead—and I have to agree with you now, she must be—this threat must have been sent by Celeste. When you consider everything here, she’s the most likely suspect. There’s no need to look any further.”
“I know,” Rob muttered with a pained expression. “I guess I just don’t want to believe that she would do such a thing. It’s so unlike her...”
He grew distant and a little wistful, and though Jayne hated to admit it, this made her feel an unpleasant jab of jealously. She hoped fervently that Rob didn’t still have feelings for his childhood sweetheart. Then again, this was her own sister they were talking about, and it did feel awful to think such traitorous thoughts.
Rubbing her temples, she tried to get a grip on herself. She’d dealt with so much already and come out on top. She could and would handle this too. And this time, she wasn’t alone.
Jayne leaned against Robert, and he put his arm around her. He simply held her for a few minutes. She listened to his steady heartbeat, snuggling deeper into his embrace.
“What are we going to do?” she mumbled into his body. Her words come out muffled and much quieter than a minute ago.
His chest rose and fell, the soft, flawlessly woven fabric of his suit brushing against her face. “You know, I wish we could just ignore this, but something tells me it won’t go away. The best option we have would be to get some professional assistance.”
Jayne flinched. “You mean the police?”
“No, no, they can’t be trusted to keep secrets, and if this gets out, the whole thing will blow up in our faces.” She felt him shake his head. “No, we can’t go to the police. I think hiring a top-notch private investigator is the prudent thing to do. If a good detective can move fast enough without arousing any suspicion, he might be able to track down Celeste…or whoever is behind all this…before the message with the payment instructions arrives.”
* * *
A moment later, Rob went upstairs, rummaged around in some boxes in the closet, and brought a black ink pad back down. This was so they could take a set of their fingerprints for the private detective to use for elimination, since both of them had already touched the letter and envelope.
She stared at him as he carefully rolled each of her fingertips across the pad and then pressed them against a blank piece of paper. “You seem to know a lot about this.”
“Not really. My dad’s office was robbed a couple of times, that’s all.”
He folded the blackmail letter up and slid it back into the envelope, touching only a tiny corner of both.
“Are you sure you feel safe staying here alone?”
“Oh, I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
He nodded, already seeming far away. That awful letter had distracted him to the point where he seemed almost cold towards her, though she knew it was just the shock.
As he picked up his bags and moved towards the door, he unconsciously smoothed the wrinkles in his suit and finger-combed his brown hair.
“We’ll get this solved, don’t worry,” he said, and they kissed each other goodbye.
Read Part 4 here
Don't want to wait? Pre-order the book now (release date is June 30th)!