Copyright © 1997 Patricia Rice
In the weak light of the carriage lanterns, Gavin Lawrence, Marquess of Effingham, pulled the hood of his billowing cloak more securely around his face and climbed from the aged vehicle into the pouring rain.
Michael, the driver, leapt from his unprotected seat, following his passenger toward the lighted inn. “You could have taken the public coach,” he pointed out, arguing as no real servant would have done.
“I could have flown in on vampire wings,” the marquess growled irascibly, with a distinctly foreign accent.
Hugging his jug and lingering beneath the roof overhang, Tipplin’ Tom blanched. The nobility hadn’t risked their lives and their vehicles on the rutted path to this humble village in decades. The menacing black barouche and those terrifying words seemed portentous. Gulping, Tom scurried back to warn the tavern’s inhabitants.
Unaware of their audience, Michael continued arguing vehemently. “This has gone far enough, Gavin! You’ve hid at sea these last years, nearly killing yourself to earn our passage. Now’s the time to assert yourself. You’re a highfalutin marquess over here! Just glare at the villagers and toss a few coins. They’ll bow at your feet.”
“I don’t want anyone bowing at my feet. I don’t want the damned title. I want a roof over our heads and a chance to earn something besides wormy biscuits. What I do with myself the rest of the damned time is no one’s business but my own.”
With the hood pulled low to disguise his features, the new marquess entered the dimly lit, low ceilinged tavern.
As he stomped through the doorway, the inhabitants cowered in far corners. None came forward to greet them or offer ale.
Scowling, Gavin glared at this reaction to his presence. They didn’t even know him, and already they acted as if he had three heads instead of just one slightly damaged one.
He’d grown used to averted gazes in the dismal seaside taverns he’d frequented these last years. He’d learned to walk alone. He didn’t need these puling, ignorant villagers. He just needed directions.
“And you wanted me to act the noble aristocrat?” he whispered to Michael, turning around to stalk back out.
“Coward,” his driver returned disrespectfully. But he strode into the tavern to ask directions while Gavin retreated to the waiting carriage as had been his preference from the first.
A little later, with a local driver perched upon the outside seat, the barouche returned to the road—just as the clouds opened and rain fell in torrents.
Inside, Michael shook out his soaked hat. No one had bothered relighting the carriage lamps, and only their dark silhouettes were visible in the gloom.
“You’ll need servants,” the slighter man answered Gavin’s silent protest about the new driver. “He’s a half-wit, but he knows how to find the manor.”
Gavin made a choking noise that might almost be a rusty laugh. “An auspicious beginning: a half-wit for manservant. I like your thinking.”
“If you mean to bury yourself out here in the middle of nowhere, I won’t be buried with you.”
Gavin threw off his hood and nodded understandingly. “You’ll do as you wish, as always. When have I ever interfered?”
Both of them could write volumes into the silence that followed, but they knew the words by heart and had no need of repeating them aloud or recording them for posterity. As the rain pounded and the carriage lurched and righted itself, they watched for the first sight of their new home.
Soaked and overgrown evergreens brushed the carriage doors. The right forward wheel hit a deep hole, then propelled itself out by the sheer force of the blow. Gavin clung to his walking stick and winced. He suffered a suspicion that they traversed the drive to his inheritance.
They rounded a curve and not even Michael’s vivid imagination could have conjured up the monstrosity looming before them. Silhouetted against the horizon, gabled roofs soared with medieval turrets, mixing with Roman arches atop a structure that sprawled across the hillside. Unused to English architecture, both men stared at the storybook fantasy as the carriage lurched to a halt.
Concurring with Gavin’s unspoken thought, Michael whispered, “Do you think we’ll find a sleeping beauty inside?”
Dropping his gaze from the outrageous roofline to the more mundane elements of land and foundation, Gavin shook his head. “If we do, she’s covered in thorns, and I’m too damned tired to hack my way through.” With a sigh, he kicked open the coach door, ignoring the etiquette of allowing his newly hired servant to unlatch it for him.
Instead of hitting a paved drive, his boot sank in foot-deep mud.
Torn from a long-rotted trellis, a rose cane swung out and snatched his hood.
In all that vast monstrous exterior, not a single light flickered to welcome them home.
* * * *
Later, staring into a fire created from a particularly odious bric-a-brac shelf and a kitchen stool, Gavin morosely contemplated the inheritance for which he’d spent these last years earning passage to England in a style that wouldn’t shame his unknown family.
The estate solicitors had informed him that he possessed female cousins of some sort. He’d notified the solicitors of the date of his arrival so he did not arrive unannounced. Not only had his unknown and unacknowledged family departed the estate before he arrived, they’d taken with them every servant and every sign of life. What remained was a deteriorating shell of a house requiring more wealth than he possessed.
Kicking at an elegantly carved and extremely filthy wing chair beside the fireplace, Gavin wondered how long the place had lain empty. Michael’s comment about finding a sleeping beauty didn’t seem far off the mark.
Filth coated every surface. Vines had crept in through windows. So far, he’d not discovered any evidence of leaking roofs or cracked walls, but the night was young and the rooms were dark. No doubt mice scuttled about in the walls and wind blew down chimneys. For this he’d bought a new suit of clothes and a carriage. He’d have better invested his limited resources in return passage.
On the far side of the room, with firelight gleaming off his auburn hair, Michael wandered the towering library, staring at the elaborately carved moldings layered in cobwebs and the dusty thick oak paneling of the walls. Books filled the shelves, and by the light of a candle, he pulled them off randomly, dusting them off and examining their contents.
Gavin could tell from his soft exclamations that he thought the place a treasure trove, but Michael had never been the practical type. One couldn’t eat books.
“In the morning, we’ll survey the lands,” Gavin said aloud, although he might as well talk to himself. Michael had no interest in land. “It’s early enough in the year to put in a crop. The solicitor’s letter said the main estate had no mortgage.”
“The solicitor’s letter said the estate had no funds,” Michael reminded him vaguely, lost in a tome of ancient origin.
The solicitor’s letter had left Gavin more than underwhelmed. Merely noting the firm had spent some years locating the closest heir to the title, it announced Gavin Lawrence as the eighth Marquess of Effingham and the heir to Arinmede Manor, as the prior marquess left only a female descendant. The letter invited him to visit at his convenience.
Gavin had known then that he couldn’t expect much. He had only to look to his father and grandfather to know the Lawrences of Arinmede and Effingham had little going for them beyond charm and good looks. But through the years of war, in the aftermath of disaster, Gavin had clung to that foolish letter. He had a family in England, a titled family and a home.
Until the letter’s arrival, he’d thought his father a liar. He knew his father to be a liar. But apparently he hadn’t lied about his origins. The solicitor’s letter proved that much.
The solicitor’s letter hadn’t lied any more than his father about the family inheritance. It had just left out a few pertinent facts.
He had spent these last years captaining ships and trading in foreign ports so he could earn enough money to put him right back where he was before, bankrupt and without family, except now he was faced with a foreign country and strangers with odd habits who knew nothing of him. He would have been farther ahead if he’d stayed in the States.
Glancing up at the coat of arms engraved in the wood above the fireplace, Gavin lifted his glass in salute to his long line of ancestors. At least this time, they’d left him a roof over his head.
Flames shot through the lower windows and licked at the eaves of the sprawling ducal mansion. Smoke billowed in thick black clouds blending with the night sky. Women garbed only in cotton nightclothes hugged each other in horror and screamed hysterically from the lawn as a beam crashed in the interior.
All eyes turned with despair and helplessness to the slender female materializing in an upper-story window. Fire ate at the old wood just below her. Smoke nearly concealed her as she lowered another bundle of valued possessions to the ground.
“The woman’s mad as a hatter,” an auburn-haired footman exclaimed in disbelief as the servants dived to sort through the rescued valuables.
Dillian ignored the new servant’s comment as the falling blanket gave her an idea. Even as someone handed her the rescued bag of coins representing all her worldly goods—outside her father’s useless papers—her mind returned to the blanket.
Blanche played the role of martyred heroine well, but Dillian had no intention of allowing her best friend, cousin, and employer to die a heroine’s death. She had no intention of allowing her to die at all.
“Grab a corner of that blanket!” she yelled to the footman and the burly butler. “Hold it out flat so Lady Blanche can jump!”
A wail of joy replaced cries of distress as people grasped Dillian’s idea. When the lady next appeared in the upper-story window, they had the sturdy blanket spread between the fingers of a dozen servants yelling, “Jump!”
Dillian’s stomach knotted in fear as Lady Blanche hesitated. Fire had already destroyed the old wooden stairs, trapping Blanche in the upper stories. Flames had charred all the downstairs windows and worked its way through the centuries-old floorboards.
Only Blanche’s quickness had seen the household roused and sent to safety, but she hadn’t been quick enough to save herself. Blanche had always been too good for this world, seeing to others before she saw to herself. Selfishness was not a concept Blanche understood. Sometimes, it made Dillian want to scream. Right now she could scale that wall and wring her cousin’s neck.
“Jump, Blanche! Now!” she shouted over the roar of fire and hysteria.
For a brief instant through the swirl of smoke, Dillian saw Blanche turn despairing eyes in her direction. Then the wind caught the flame and sent it flying upward.
Screams pierced the night air as the figure in long blond tresses disappeared behind the inferno.
The blazing figure leaping from the upper window was barely recognizable when it finally soared in the direction of the blanket. Shaking hands lowered the net to the ground.
Tears rolled down the cheeks of the liveried footman as he smothered flaming night-clothes with the blanket. Auburn hair gleaming like the fire behind him, he lifted Blanche gently, and a path opened through the crowd.
Hysterical shrieks died to quiet sobs.
Refusing to resign herself to the inevitable, Dillian fought her way through the crowd to follow him.
Blanche couldn’t die. She would slit her own throat and stake herself in a lion’s den before she would let Blanche die.
And if Dillian discovered Neville responsible for that fire, she would throw the grand and glorious young duke into the lion’s mouth ahead of her.
* * * *
Clinging to the rear postilion of the black barouche where she hid in darkness, Dillian shivered in equal parts fear and cold. After more than an hour on the road, the vehicle had turned down a rutted, overgrown drive.
Why had the footman stolen Blanche from the physician’s care? Was the footman in the duke’s employ? Where was he taking her? Dillian had hoped to a better physician, but that dream had crashed with their race into the empty countryside.
Taking a curve at a reckless rate, the carriage tilted, and she grasped the rail in white-knuckled terror, not seeing the edifice looming ahead until the vehicle rumbled straight for it.
She widened her eyes in disbelief at the gothic monstrosity silhouetted against the starlit sky, like some fable from a storybook. Nothing else was visible. Not a single light glowed in the whole of that black sprawling monolith. Where in the devil was the madman taking them?
Already so terrified she could scarcely unbend her fingers from the rail, Dillian felt the carriage roll to a stop at this unwelcoming edifice. As the driver leapt down and pounded on a massive oak door, she glanced around for a hiding place.
She found no lack of concealment in the rambling thorns and untrimmed shrubbery at the base of the mansion. She had only to concern herself with keeping her gown from being torn from her back.
The gown was the least of her worries as she pried her fingers free and darted into the bushes. The worst of her fear centered on the helpless occupant of the carriage. She need only focus on Blanche and all else seemed trivial.
The insistent shouts and knocks of the carriage driver on the massive doors of the manor brought a creaking groan of aging wood. Beyond terror now, Dillian watched in astonishment as a tall lean figure materialized in the opening, the folds of his cloak flapping in the cold spring wind as he listened to the driver’s hushed arguments. Not until this grim specter loped down the stone stairs to remove Blanche from the carriage did Dillian realize her peril.
As the black creature carried Blanche through the gaping maw of the gothic cavern, Dillian realized she would have to enter after him.
* * * *
The eighth Marquess of Effingham didn’t notice the slight shadow slipping in the open door behind him as he carried his sleeping burden into the manor. He’d lived with shadows long enough to welcome their privacy.
He cursed under his breath as the doddering clock on the landing struck eleven chimes and one expiring whistle. He cursed the clock, cursed the purloined coach, cursed its driver who now raced up the dust-coated stairway ahead of him. He cursed the stairs as he climbed them carrying the helpless bundle in his arms. He cursed the generations of Effinghams who had sunk all their spare capital into expanding this hideous architecture into a gothic village one needed a horse and carriage to traverse.
He hadn’t begun to exhaust his extensive repertoire of curses when he saw Michael disappear down the entire length of the hallway and enter the farthest room. At times like these he suspected Michael of seeking subtle revenge for the differences in their heritages, but he knew Michael too well to believe that for long. His appearance here now with this unconscious woman meant he’d embarked on another of his harebrained adventures.
Were it not for the fact that his brother had a heart wider than his chest, the marquess would have turned around and gone back to the carriage. He and Michael had been through too much together, however, for Gavin to disregard his brother’s summons.
Besides, Michael acted as Gavin’s eyes and ears to the outside world, so the marquess indulged his idiosyncrasies. The old war wound in his side ached as he carried his light burden to the end of the hall. The woman wore a voluminous nightshift that trailed on the floor and a nightcap that left her long blond hair falling over his arm. In this unlit hallway, Gavin couldn’t see more than that.
She stirred as he reached the room where Michael already knelt at the fireplace. Laying her down on one of the few whole mattresses left in the house, the marquess relinquished his burden and strode toward the window to pull back the draperies.
“Don’t!” Michael warned, turning from his task. “Light might endanger her eyes. It’s freezing in here. Where’s the coal?”
Gavin swung around to confront his adopted brother. Dragged from his slumbers by Michael’s knocks, he wore only the breeches and stockings he’d fallen asleep in. The cloak and hood he had pulled around him before answering the door served both as blanket for warmth and protection from prying eyes. His voice was cold when he spoke.
“It’s May. I haven’t bought coal. I wasn’t expecting guests.”
“You have one now. I’ll find some firewood.”
Cloaked, Gavin remained in the shadows as Michael departed, watching as the woman on the bed stirred. She would no doubt waken soon. He’d known Michael to go for firewood and disappear for weeks. The marquess wondered if it cost anything to commit a relative to Bedlam.
The soft moans from the bed tore at what remained of his softer insides, but he could do nothing. He didn’t dare light a candle or lamp—even should he have one—to examine the extent of her injuries.
Gavin sighed with relief when he heard Michael’s footsteps pounding down the hall. His bloody aristocratic stockinged toes had practically frozen to the floor while waiting. Gavin had half a mind to slip out through the secret passage and leave Michael to his patient, but then he might never get his questions answered.
Michael carried a candle and a coal scuttle filled with wood chips and kindling when he returned. Holding the candlestick high, he searched the darkened corners until he found his brother’s frozen shadow. “Damn you, Gavin, she’s waking. Help me make her comfortable.”
“You think she might be comfortable clinging to the ceiling and screaming?” Gavin asked dryly, not moving from the shadows as Michael arranged his fuel in the fireplace.
Michael threw Gavin a glare and uttered a few pithy phrases of his own. “Her eyes are bandaged. She can’t see a thing. She may never see anything again. You’ll just be a voice and hands to her. You needn’t worry about your pretty phiz.”
Perhaps one-tenth of Michael’s tales contained some portion of truth. This particular tale had the sound of tawdry drama. Still, the fact remained that a real woman lay in that bed, moaning in pain. Reluctantly, Gavin stepped forward to see to her comfort.
“Who in hell is she?” he muttered as Michael struggled with the fire. “And why the devil did you bring her here?”
The figure on the bed suddenly lay still. Gavin suspected she could hear him, and he cursed his uncouth tongue. He had lived too long from civilization.
“Her name’s Blanche Perceval. She’s an heiress. Someone set her house on fire. She made sure all the servants escaped, then found herself trapped. So she rescued her companion’s life savings and flung the purse out the window for lack of anything better to do.” Michael’s tone didn’t hold the same sarcasm as his words.
“By the time the servants found a blanket for her to jump into…” He shrugged and turned away from the fireplace to watch the woman on the bed. “The surgeon says she’s lucky to be alive. She’s a heroine. I thought you’d appreciate the irony.”
With small flames finally burning in the grate, Michael carried the candle to the bed. Its flickering light gleamed across the figure on the sheets. For the first time, Gavin realized she wore bandages and not a nightcap. The linen covered her eyes, but not the raw bums on her cheeks. His fingers involuntarily traced the scars on his own jaw.
“She belongs in a hospital,” Gavin said curtly, turning away, leaving Michael to adjust the pillow beneath her singed hair and draw the sheets over her.
“I told you. Someone set her house on fire. I couldn’t take any chances.”
Gavin knew he didn’t want to hear more. If it weren’t for Michael, he’d lead a relatively peaceful existence in this decrepit hermitage he’d burrowed into. Michael, however, had never been one for staying quietly at home. Michael had always kept Gavin on a permanent carriage ride to hell with a lunatic for driver. Not for the first time, the marquess considered exiling his younger brother to one of their distant American relatives.
Not that any of those stuffy Puritans would take a man of twenty-six years who routinely masqueraded as anything from a gentleman’s gentleman to a street magician. This time, he’d apparently taken on the role of footman, judging by the sooty livery.
Gavin never knew what caused Michael to behave as he did. He just knew his brother operated under his own peculiar sense of morality, which had nothing to do with society’s. Their relatives had disowned him at an early age, which had only reinforced Michael’s tendencies to behave as if spawned by the devil.
But Gavin knew the man behind the deceptive facade. For that reason, he didn’t throw his brother out. Gavin had sheltered untold legions of Michael’s homeless, maimed, and starving creatures before, but this was the first time in recent memory he had hauled home a grown female.
Gavin had a niggling remembrance of a grimy waif brought home in the middle of a blizzard once. Unfortunately, Michael’s propensity for rescuing the needy didn’t differentiate between the honest and the villainous. Once the snow cleared, that same waif had disappeared with the last coins for their food. Gavin clung to his wariness now.
Suspecting the invalid feigned sleep, the marquess gave a jerk of his head and indicated the hallway. Michael obediently followed him out of the room.
“Are you telling me you brought her here to protect her from arsonists?” Gavin demanded, not concealing his incredulity.
“You’d rather I leave her to be murdered in her bed?”
“I’d rather you find somewhere else to take her! Bloody damn hell, Michael! What am I supposed to do with her? The servants think the place haunted as it is. That silly chit of a maid would take off screaming the first time the wind blew around the corner if I asked her to come up here.”
“We can’t tell the servants she’s here. They’ll spread it all over town, and the wrong person might hear it. You’ll have to do it yourself, old chap. I have to get that carriage to Dover or somewhere and lead any pursuit off the track.”
Gavin swung around and paced the hall, cloak flying as he flung his arms wide to emphasize his words. “You’re a bloody lunatic, that’s what you are! What in hell am I supposed to do with her? Send her shrieking into the night the moment she catches sight of me?”
Ignoring the Lawrence penchant for dramatics, Michael tilted his head to listen for any sounds from his patient. “You don’t listen well, my noble lord,” he answered dryly, once satisfied the woman in the other room still slept. “She’s an heiress. She’s most likely blind and probably more scarred than you. She’s in desperate need of protection. What more can you ask? Protect her. Woo her. Earn her undying affection. Marry her, and save her and yourself. I expect you to speak politely to me for all the rest of our lives in return.”
Michael’s audacity shouldn’t surprise him anymore, but Gavin still found himself caught off guard by his stupendous gall. His brother was quite capable of entering a hospital and kidnapping the poor woman in the mistaken assumption that what he wanted was right and therefore the rest of the world could go to hell.
“I suppose I can expect a Bow Street Runner and the militia on my doorstep by morning,” Gavin replied gloomily, imagining the invasion of his privacy to come.
“Nary a bit.” Michael produced a bottle of laudanum from his pocket and handed it over. “I took her out of the physician’s house in his own carriage while the physician slept. No one had any reason to follow. He makes late house calls all the time. I just need to remove the carriage before anyone sees it. All you need do is hold down the fort a day or two while I’m gone.”
The woman in the other room moaned softly. Michael instantly slipped from Gavin’s grasp, disappearing into the bedchamber to look after his patient—or victim, whichever the case might be. Still fighting his temper, Gavin slammed his fist into the wall, then in a swirl of his long cloak, stalked after his brother.
The bedchamber was empty of all but the restless invalid in white. Michael had disappeared.
* * * *
Dillian cringed and clung to the wall at the muffled roar of rage from the room where the cloaked monster had taken Blanche. A draft blew around her feet, and the old walls surrounding her creaked and groaned in the stillness. The rage in the next room, however, didn’t frighten her so much as their circumstances.
She heard the sound of pounding feet outside her doorway. Stockinged feet, she’d noticed earlier. What manner of man or beast traversed these drafty halls in stockings? Or hooded cloaks, for all that mattered. Whoever had abducted Blanche had brought her to a lunatic asylum.
But the conversation she had overheard relieved some of her fears. She had feared one of Neville’s men lay behind this abduction. Now all she need fear was a simpleton who thought a woman as wealthy as Blanche should feel grateful for the protection of a moldering ruin.
She suspected that this Michael had been one of Blanche’s myriad footmen, but she hadn’t seen him in a good light. She’d heard the cloaked one leave, but she hadn’t heard Michael depart. From the roar of rage, she suspected Michael had slipped out before the other finished ripping up at him.
She hesitated. She needed to see Blanche. But she didn’t want the men knowing of her presence. If they were Neville’s accomplices, Blanche could be in worse danger than before.
Brushing disheveled curls from her face, Dillian rubbed her hands together for warmth. She wished she could just walk into Blanche’s chamber and warm herself at the fire, but she’d learned patience and a cynical suspicion over these past few years. She had learned she had no physical strength or power with which to fight men. She had no wealth or fame. She had only her wits, and her wits told her the element of surprise was her best weapon.
Listening carefully, she could hear no more sounds from the other room. She must take the chance. Blanche would be frightened. They needed to talk.
Cautiously, Dillian clung to the shadows as she slipped down the corridor from one room to the next. The fire cast a flickering light over the bare floors and wall. No shadow passed before it. No sound emanated from the chamber. Taking a deep breath, she entered.
Blanche was prying at the bandage over her eyes.
“Stop that!” Dillian hissed. “Do you want to ruin your eyes for certain?”
The figure in the bed turned quickly toward the sound of her voice. “Dillian! Thank heavens. Where am I?”
That was an excellent question, but Dillian couldn’t answer it. In the dark, all country roads looked alike to her, and she couldn’t read the signs while clinging in terror to the back of a carriage. She just knew it had taken over an hour at hair-raising speeds to get here. She didn’t tell Blanche that.
“We’ll figure that out later. I only have a few minutes before one of them returns. I just wanted you to know I’m here. Make them go away, and then we can talk.”
Even as she said it, they could hear the floor creak beneath approaching footsteps. The monster still hadn’t donned his shoes.
“I’ll be in the wardrobe,” Dillian whispered. Without hesitation, she slid into the narrow musty darkness of old clothes. She left the door open just enough to hear.
“Stop that!” a male voice roared from the other side of the door.
Dillian stifled a grin. Blanche must have been fiddling with the bandages again.
“I brought you some water.”
He didn’t sound like a monster, more like an irritated male. She suspected men didn’t much like being woken in the middle of the night to nurse invalids they didn’t know. But this man lived in a moldering Gothic ruin and dressed like a madman. She wanted to know his story. Her imagination had taken flight when Blanche’s weak voice prosaically asked the questions dancing through Dillian’s mind.
“Could you tell me who you are and where I am?” Blanche always spoke politely, even when frightened out of her wits. Dillian held her breath as her cousin continued, “Your accent is odd. Are you Canadian?”
The man didn’t answer immediately. Dillian considered his hesitation suspicious. His reply didn’t entirely relieve her.
“Close enough,” he answered the last question first. “I’m Gavin Lawrence. The house’s official name is Arinmede Manor. I’m more inclined to call it Arinmede Ruins.”
The man’s wry tone indicated a sense of humor, but Dillian wasn’t in the mood for laughing. The description seemed apt enough from what little she had seen of the place. She wondered where the servants were. Surely, he didn’t live alone in this sprawling monstrosity. He had mentioned a maid.
She listened to the battle of wills taking place in the room beyond her hiding place. Blanche used her best little-girl voice trying to send her host away. Neville always fell for that childish tone of voice, until recently anyway.
This man didn’t seem impressed. Dillian gritted her teeth as he insisted on sleeping in the next chamber in the event that his guest needed him.
“Oh, no, sir! Not on my account, please,” Blanche responded sweetly. “It would be highly improper, in any event. If you have a bell, I can just summon a maid if I need someone.”
Blanche’s innocent posturing had fooled many a male before, but Dillian didn’t think it would work on a man bent on seducing an heiress. Of course, a man trying to do what was proper would be caught in another sort of bind. Blanche could not attend herself. Just as obviously, she could not have a man as attendant. Dillian found herself listening with interest to how the monster would resolve that problem.
The growling answer emanating from beyond the door indicated he didn’t resolve it willingly. “The bell pull rotted long ago. Just fling the water glass when you need someone. It’s bound to hit something loud enough for me to hear. The maid is too far away, and Michael indicated some need for secrecy, so it seems you’re stuck with me.”
Dillian bit back a giggle at this highly original system of summoning help. She could imagine Mr. Gavin Lawrence wanting to strangle this man Michael right about now. She almost felt sorry for the poor misanthropic chap. Almost. The fact that Mr. Lawrence needed a wealthy wife and couldn’t obtain one through normal means squelched any real sympathy.
“Will you send for my companion in the morning?” Blanche inquired hopefully. Dillian waited for the reply with interest.
Again, their host hesitated before replying. She didn’t like it when he did that.
“I’ll look into it,” he answered slowly, “but if there’s some danger, it might not be the wisest course.”
“Dillian wouldn’t hurt me!” Blanche replied indignantly.
“Someone could follow her,” he pointed out.
Even Blanche couldn’t come up with a suitable reply to that. How did one say, “Open the wardrobe, and she’ll appear” without causing no end of complications? They would come up with a better solution later. Right now Dillian wanted to find out more about the Lawrences of Arinmede Ruin.
Blanche and her host apparently reached some understanding with little more discussion. Dillian listened with relief as the man’s footsteps disappeared from the room. She wished she’d dared peek at the monster, but the darkness was too complete.
She leaned against the back of the wardrobe to untangle herself from a moth-eaten shawl and a ball gown with a train apparently designed to be carried by a dozen pages. She couldn’t believe women had trapped themselves in all that frippery in her mother’s time.
Impatiently, she brushed it aside, but before she could reach for the wardrobe door, the panel behind her lurched, and she nearly fell backward into a gaping black hole.
Stifling a gasp, she steadied herself by grabbing the ball gown, then gazed in amazement at the opening where the back of the wardrobe should have been. A strong draft already wrapped around her ankles. So that’s where the mysterious Michael had disappeared.
“Dillian, are you in there?” Blanche called from the bed.
Unable to see anything but blackness, Dillian opened the wardrobe door. “I’m here. I think I just found a secret passage. I don’t suppose he left a candle?”
“How should I know?” Blanche’s irritated reply warned that pain had worn her patience thin. Dillian hopped down from the wardrobe and hurried to test her cousin’s brow for fever.
“You’re a little warm. Drink some more water, then I think you’d best take more laudanum. There is no sense in suffering more than you must.” She spoke gently, wishing she could take away the pain. A lot of people owed this slip of a girl their lives, but Blanche would never acknowledge it. So Dillian said her thanks without words.
“I suppose that means you’ll have all the fun exploring secret passages and this rambling ruin while I lie here like an old grandmother,” Blanche fretted. “Well, you had best locate a chamber pot or something before you go. Or take off this ridiculous bandage so I can look for myself.”
Dillian caught her cousin’s damaged hands before she could pry at the bandages again. “I think our host has some aversion to anyone seeing him. That bandage makes him feel safe with you. Leave it on for now, until I can scout things out a little more. Let me look for the chamber pot.”
She couldn’t find one in the washstand or under the bed. Cautiously, she checked the door in the west wall.
“Like in the Beauty and the Beast story?” Blanche asked with interest. “Perhaps he’s a prince in disguise?”
“More likely a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Dillian muttered, discovering a nearly bare sitting room behind the door. The owner certainly had spared the expense when he decorated this place.
“Do you have any idea where we are?” Blanche asked as Dillian opened another door.
“Wherever it is, it’s a few hours from home. They have a water closet!” she announced with delight. “The place may be a ruin, but it’s a modern one.”
“He called it a manor, but it feels more like a castle. Castles have garderobes. Is there a moat?”
Dillian grimaced as she helped her cousin from the bed. “This is neither a fairy tale nor Sir Walter’s medieval fantasies. It’s a great sprawling lump of bad architecture and outlandish expense. I suspect this wing is relatively modern. I just can’t figure out why a modern structure would have something so medieval as a secret passage.”
Blanche apparently had time to think about it while she was in the water closet. When she came out, she announced with satisfaction, “So the lord of the manor could visit his mistress in secret. I read that in a Minerva novel once.”
That sounded highly unlikely to Dillian, but she didn’t argue. Despite her normal good nature and enormous energy, Blanche was tiring rapidly. Dillian helped her cousin back to bed and tucked her in before pouring her more laudanum.
“I’ll be right here while you go to sleep,” she murmured as Blanche obediently drank the sleeping draft.
And right after Blanche went to sleep, Dillian amended silently, she fully intended to explore this odd household. First, she would find the monster’s lair so she could avoid it in the future.
Then she would look for a weapon with which to protect Blanche. No matter how confident their thoughtful kidnapper sounded, Neville would find them within days.
She had every intention of being prepared for her cousin’s would-be murderer this time.