A chill of dread stirred the hair on the back of Leo's arms. Control yourself, man. You study legends, you do not believe in them.
"Mrs. Poole, if, for the sake of argument, you were to find the Rings, what would you do with them?"
"Sell them, of course." She sounded surprised by the question. "It is the only way we can hope to recover at least some of my uncle's money."
She turned away from the window. "My lord, is there anything else you can tell me about this matter?"
He hesitated. "Only that it can be dangerous to get involved in an affair that lures treasure hunters. They are not a stable lot. The prospect of discovering a great treasure, especially an ancient, legendary one, has unpredictable effects on some people."
"Yes, yes, I can well understand that." She brushed his warning aside with a graceful flick of her wrist. "But can you tell me anything more about the Rings?"
"I heard an unsubstantiated rumor that a while back they turned up in a rather poor antiquities shop operated by a man named Ashwater," he said slowly.
"Forgive me, my lord, but I already know that much about the business. I went to see Mr. Ashwater. His establishment is closed. His neighbors informed me that he had left on an extended tour of Italy."
It occurred to him that she was losing her patience. He did not know whether to be annoyed or amused. She was the uninvited guest here. This was his house. She was the one who had descended on him without a by-your-leave and demanded answers to questions.
"You have already begun to make inquiries?" he asked.
"Of course. How do you think I came to learn of your expertise in legendary antiquities, my lord? Your articles, after all, are published in somewhat obscure journals. I had never even heard your name before I began my investigations."
He wondered if he should be insulted. "It's quite true that I am not an author of popular novels such as Mrs. York."
She gave him a smile that bordered on the condescending. "Do not feel too bad about it. We cannot all write for a living, sir."
"I write," he said through his teeth, "for a different audience than does Mrs. York."
"Fortunately, in your case, there is no need to convince people to actually purchase your work, is there? The Monkcrest fortune is the stuff of legend, according to my aunt. You can afford to write for journals that do not pay for your articles."
"We seem to be straying from the subject, Mrs. Poole."
"Indeed, we do." Her smile was very cool. There were dangerous sparks in her eyes. "My lord, I am extremely grateful for the information, limited as it is, that you have given me. I shall not impose on your hospitality any longer than necessary. My maid and I will leave first thing in the morning."
Leo ignored that. "Hold one moment here, Mrs. Poole. Precisely how do you intend to pursue your inquiries into the matter of the Rings?"
"My next step will be to interview the person who was with my uncle when he died."
"Who is that?"
"A woman who calls herself Madame Virtue."
Shock held him transfixed for the space of several heartbeats. When the paralysis finally wore off, Leo sucked in a deep breath. "You intend to speak to the proprietress of the House of the Rod? Impossible. Absolutely impossible."
Beatrice tipped her head slightly to the side, frowning. "Why on earth do you say that, my lord?"
"For God's sake, she is a brothel keeper. You would be ruined if it got out that you had associated with her."
Amusement lit Beatrice's eyes. "One of the advantages of being a widow of a certain age, as I'm sure you're aware, my lord, is that I have a great deal more freedom than I did as a younger woman."
"No respectable lady possesses the degree of freedom required to consort with brothel keepers."
"I shall exercise discretion," she said with an aplomb that was no doubt meant to reassure him. "Good night, my lord."
"Damnation, Mrs. Poole."
She was already at the door. "You have been somewhat helpful. Thank you for your hospitality."
"And they call me mad," Leo whispered.