This was my original ending. Leah, my editor, asked me to change it because it wasn’t fair that the poachers had to leave their homes. She was right, of course, and I think the new ending is much better. But pranks are always fun. (In this version, Amy did convince Edward that Penelope was in danger, so he witnessed the scene where Nev offers to free the prisoners if the poachers will help him save Penelope from Sir Jasper.)
The brilliant thing about the prank was that it was actually only a two-man prank, although it seemed like you would need three. But Nev brought both Thirkell and Percy into it just to be safe, and because running a prank like this without either of them would have been unthinkable. And then Percy pointed out that they really needed Louisa to be the second man, and Nev realized that Penelope’s inability to lie was key.
Of course, that meant they could all five of them be ruined if this didn’t come off just perfectly. He had thought about not doing it; about telling them all, I’m sorry, I’ve thought it over, it’s madness. But he had only thought that for a few seconds, and not seriously; Nev knew now that you could be reckless or you could be circumspect or anything in between, so long as you kept your promises and protected the people who belonged to you, whether they were your laborers or your wife. And that, he would do.
There was a part of him, too, that was looking forward to this.
He left Thirkell and Percy waiting some distance away, and walked with Louisa into the Greygloss gaol.
“Hello, Dawkins,” he said cheerily to the gaoler, pulling a bottle out of the basket on his arm and waving it at him. “Miss Ambrey wanted to speak to Josie. We’ve freshly bottled last winter’s apple brandy, and I thought you might like a taste!”
“That’s very kind of you, my lord,” Dawkins said, and opened to door to the cells for Louisa before settling down with Nev for some cider. Nev’s mind was only half on the excellent cider and his conversation with Dawkins, but fortunately Louisa didn’t make him wait long. Her scream was positively bloodcurdling.
Nev sprang to his feet and raced to the cells, Dawkins close behind him. When they got there, they found Louisa backed into the corner, shaken and staring at the window. Nev relaxed. “You look all right, Louisa,” he said. “Was it a spider?”
“No!” she insisted. “I saw someone at the window, I swear I did!”
Of course, Dawkins’s inspection of the outside of the gaol showed no signs of life. “I know all our nerves are on edge,” he told a chastened Louisa, “but you ought to be more careful before making wild claims like that.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Louisa said meekly. “It won’t happen again.”
Nev and Dawkins returned to their bottle. This was the tricky part. Nev waited until their glasses were nearly empty, and there was only enough cider in the bottle for one more glass each. Then he picked up the bottle to pour the last of it, but instead set it down by his chair, pretending to get distracted by the bawdy anecdote he was telling. When Caleb had taught him and Percy sleight of hand, the gypsy had emphasized that technical skill was only part; misdirection was everything.
Nev leaned forward and gestured extravagantly with his right hand as he got to the punchline, and when Dawkins was roaring with laughter he tipped the laudanum into the bottle with his left. Then he poured out the drugged cider into his and Dawkins’ glasses. “To Mrs. Dawkins,” he said, and raised his glass. Dawkins toasted, and they both downed their drinks.
“Did that taste odd to you?” Dawkins asked.
“Did it?” Nev asked, pretending to inspect his glass. “Perhaps there is something wrong with the vintage. That would be a shame, indeed.”
That was the last thing he remembered before being shaken awake by Penelope. “Nev!” she was saying urgently, over and over. Macaulay was standing next to her.
Nev smiled up at her. “Love you.”
“I love you too, Nev,” she said. Macaulay’s face twisted. “Wake up!”
He was not really awake, he knew that. It would take the laudanum a while to work out of his system. He glanced around for the empty vial and saw to his relief that it had been removed. “Wha’s happening?” he slurred.
“Louisa said you and Constable Dawkins had passed out from drink,” Penelope said, “but I did not believe that for a moment. I am afraid you have been drugged; the prisoners are gone.”
She nodded, sinking to the floor beside his chair. “But I don’t care for that; I’m only glad they didn’t poison you.”
She looked so distraught that Nev was not sure how he could keep up the pretense.
Evidently Louisa noticed his hesitation, because she burst out, “This is all my fault! If I hadn’t screamed and taken you from the table, they would never have been able to drug your drinks! Oh, Nev, I’m so sorry!”
“It’s not your fault,” Dawkins said, rubbing his head. “I should have looked more carefully. It would seem you were right about folks lurking about. What time is it?”
Penelope told them. It was two hours at least since they had fallen asleep; surely Percy and Thirkell would have the freed men and their families out of town by now.
“I’m sorry,” Louisa said again. “I met Mr. Garrett on the way home and stopped to speak with him.” Nev swore she blushed.
Dawkins looked equal parts knowing and furious. “I’ll try to round up some men and search for them, but unless they’ve simply gone home we’re unlikely to find them.” He stood up, blinking his eyes.
“You can’t,” Macaulay said. “You’ve been dosed with laudanum. You’ll do no one any good if you take a fall from your horse. We’ll send out men from the Grange.”
In the carriage, Macaulay burst out, “You reckless fool! Do you realize the risk you took? What if he had realized?”
“What on earth are you going on about?” Louisa began gamely, but it was too late. Penelope had tumbled to it.
“Oh, Nev, you didn’t!” she said. “You frightened me half to death! And what if—”
“Of course he did,” Macaulay snapped. “He promised them he would free those men, if they went into the forest with him. But I never dreamed he meant anything like this!”
“Oh, Nev, you didn’t.” But she said it softly and her eyes were bright.
“Of course I did.”
“You reckless fool,” she said, and kissed him right there in front of everyone.