Chapter Thirteen: The Empty Chair

She was good. Mark Ryder had to admit Louise was good. The rugged American agent's harsh features showed an almost cynical amusement as the dark, exotic beauty with the knockout figure seated herself in the witness chair.

"Yes, milord, my name is Louise Marchese. I am a French citizen, age twenty-one. My occupation? I am a prostitute."

That was the way to play it, Mark thought. Honest and simple and direct. Tell the truth, but don't turn on the tears.

Smart girl.

"Sir Gerald Pettibone? Yes, milord. I slept with Sir Gerald in Paris. No, milord. I did not sleep with him on the night I killed him."

Louise wasn't pretending to be an innocent victim in all this. Mark admired that, too. Her best bet was to admit that she had a sleazy past, and try to show she had turned over a new leaf since coming to the UK. She certainly looked as though she had. In that black Chanel suit with gold buttons, you would have thought she was a lawyer or a professor.

Mark knew she was still just an expensive Paris prostitute, of course. He kept telling himself that as she gave her testimony to the wigged and robed English justice. But as the morning dragged on he gazed at her heart-stopping face. Drank in the sound of her husky voice. And he remembered how she had cried in his arms the night before. Needing him.

"No, milord. I did not wish to kill him. I am sorry, yes. I am desolee. But it cannot be undone. I am guilty of this crime."

Louise showed sorrow, but still there were no tears. So strong! But Mark kept thinking of the night before. She had really come apart in the shower. Sobbing in his arms. Begging him to hold her. Acting like she needed him. And no matter how much he hated to admit it, Mark had fallen for her act. But it was more than that. He had fallen for her.

"Yes, milord. The pistol was given to me by Miss Cadbury. No, I was not told to kill Sir Gerald. Only to give him the documents. But then he came at me . . ."

Sitting in the witness chair, Louise was trying very hard not to break down. She must not remember Sir Gerald! The look on his face. The noise of the pistol. All that blood. But the only way to shut out the memories was to think of Mark. So she kept her eyes on the stern old justice behind the bench. But she pictured Mark. Mark buying her fresh flowers in Paris. Mark teaching her to defend herself on a deserted beach. Mark holding her in his arms under the shower . . .

"She really is splendid, isn't she?"

Startled, Mark glanced at his partner, Emma Cadbury. He couldn't help wondering if she suspected him of going soft.

"Mark, something has come up," Emma whispered, keeping her voice low as the French girl was still giving testimony. "We've got a lead on the Seven Stars. We're almost certain now that they are the terrorist group that tried to murder you and Louise in Paris. We need you on a plane in one hour."

"I'm on it." Mark shrugged his broad shoulders. The cool, crisp Englishwoman was not out of line. This was business. Still he wondered. Did Emma know how far he had gone with Louise the night before?

"Mademoiselle Marchese," said the Lord Chief Justice, his pompous voice seeming to echo throughout the courtroom. "There can never be any excuse for the taking of a human life. Due to the sensitive nature of your crime, however, and your status as a French citizen, Her Majesty's Court does not choose to pursue a criminal case against you at this time. Nevertheless we consider you to be a security risk and a person of interest in an ongoing intelligence operation. We therefore remand you to the custody and protection of Sir Holland Dozier-Holland, and place you under house arrest at his country manor for an indefinite period of time. This court is now adjourned. God save the Queen!"

"House arrest? What does that mean?" Louise rose to her feet with everyone else, confused and bewildered by the joyous excitement of the spectators in the courtroom.

"Dear girl, we've done it!" Old Sir Holland hugged her tightly, his red face wet with tears. "It's all right, Louise, it's all right! You're not going to jail! You'll be staying with me until we find those foreign buggers who want to kill you. You're safe!"

"Ah! Merci, Dozy-dear." Louise hugged the rich older man, choking up with tears for the first time since she took the witness chair. She didn't quite understand what the English court had decided, but she knew she was very lucky. And she knew Sir Dozy was a friend to cherish.

"Well, this calls for a celebration, doesn't it?" Emma Cadbury broke up the embarrassing scene with her usual cool efficiency. "Sir Holland, it's long past noon, and I'm sure Louise must be starving. Shall we book a table at Simpson's In the Strand? Something to eat, and a bottle of their very best champagne. A proper celebration just for the three of us."

"The three of us?" In her dazed state Louise had not noticed that Mark was missing. She turned around, but all she saw was the empty chair.