Authors: C. J. Archer
Copyright 2015 C.J. Archer
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incoln Fitzroy was an excellent kisser
. Not that I had experience kissing anyone else, but considering I was re-living it in my head three days later, it went a long way to proving his prowess. When I closed my eyes, I could still feel his warm lips on mine, the press of his hand at my lower back, the tingles rushing down my spine. I'd always thought kisses would be messy affairs, but now I knew the appeal and why first kisses usually led to seconds…and more.
Unfortunately, I was yet to experience a second. All I had was the memory of our first. Lincoln had avoided me for three days. After a full minute of enjoying one another's company in his rooms, we'd sprung apart upon hearing footsteps approaching. It was only Gus, sent by Cook to ask when Lincoln wanted dinner to be served, but it had ended the most thrilling moment of my life to that point. Lincoln had picked up my crutches from the floor, where I'd discarded them, and handed them to me. He then turned his back and strode to his desk. His brisk order of, "Serve my dinner in here, alone," seemed to be for my benefit as much as Gus's. It was a signal that our kiss was over and that there would be no more.
I'd hobbled out of his private sitting room on my crutches and shut myself in my bedroom. It turned out to be one tumultuous evening, as I seesawed between triumph at having cracked Lincoln's hard shell of a façade, girlish silliness over my first kiss, and self-pity at his rejection. It didn't help that my sleep was troubled by nightmares. As proud as I was of myself for escaping from Captain Jasper, the kidnapping had left its mark.
During the days, however, the autumn sunshine managed to banish the nightmares and doubts, but not all of my self-pity or the triumph. The kiss still occupied my thoughts while I completed mending tasks in the library, my sore foot propped up on a footstool.
"Charlie. Charlie, wake up." The clap of hands beside my ear had me jumping out of my skin.
"Bloody hell, Seth, what was that for?" I gathered up the shirt that had slipped off my lap and checked the needle was still stuck in it.
Seth grinned, giving me the full effect of his dimples. It was impossible to stay mad at him when he smiled like that, and I suspected he knew it. It was no wonder he got away with so much mischief, particularly with ladies. "You were asleep."
"I was not. And if I were, was there any need to wake me so rudely?"
"You have to vacate the library. It's time." He nodded at the clock on the mantel.
"Not asleep, eh? Time must fly when one's alone in the library, sewing." He picked up the shirt I'd been mending. It was his, as it happened. A thorn had rent a small hole in the sleeve the night before. Apparently his latest paramour kept rose bushes beneath her window. I'd heard from Gus that Seth had acquired the hole after leaving in a hurry when the husband returned home early from his club. "Oh, look, you've done all of seven stitches."
I snatched the shirt off him and stuffed it into my sewing basket. "Did Fitzroy send you in here to torment me?"
"No." He passed me the crutches and, with a hand on my elbow, helped me to stand.
"Has he returned from wherever he went this morning?"
My heart skipped a merry tune whenever I knew Lincoln was in the house. Being under the same roof meant we might bump into one another. Unfortunately, he'd managed to avoid me so completely these last three days that the only time I'd seen him, we'd been in the company of Cook, Gus and Seth. There'd been no opportunity for private discussion. I could have sought him out, but in truth, I wasn't sure what to say. It seemed somewhat childish and pathetic to bluntly ask him why he'd been avoiding me.
"I suppose he returned for the meeting." I glanced at the clock again. The committee members would be arriving soon.
Seth picked up my sewing basket. "I'm sure."
"Do you know where he went?"
"You're full of witty conversation this afternoon," I said as I hobbled out of the library.
"Forgive me, Charlie." His serious turn had me eyeing him sideways. He gave me a flat-lipped smile that was much too pitying for my liking.
"Stop feeling sorry for me," I snapped, trying my best to streak ahead. "There's no need. I'm perfectly fine."
He caught up to me. That was the problem with crutches and only having one good foot. Storming off became much less effective. "If you'll permit me to say, you don't seem fine."
"I'm just frustrated with the slow pace of my recovery. The doctor said I should stay off my foot for another week. A week! He ought to spend a week using these contraptions and see if he likes the way it rubs the skin under his arms raw. Not to mention how dull it is to do nothing but sew all day. While it's nice to be able to read without guilt, I do miss my work, not to mention my training." I sighed. I definitely missed my regular afternoon combat training sessions with Lincoln. Even though he shut down his emotions for the duration, I at least got to touch him.
"He's a turd," Seth said as he entered the kitchen behind me.
Gus looked up from the central table where he was arranging cups and saucers on a tray. "He ain't so bad, for a medical man. Bit unfair to call him names just because other doctors have been causing problems lately."
"I wasn't referring to Dr. MacDonnell," Seth muttered.
"Then who be a turd?" Cook's face was blotchy and his bald head shiny from the heat given off by the range. His bandaged hand held a spoon near his nose. A thick dollop of creamy liquid slipped off and plopped back into the pot on the stove top.
"Fitzroy," Seth said.
Three sets of sympathetic eyes turned my way. I pretended not to notice as I directed Seth to deposit my sewing basket beside the chair in the corner, but my face flamed nevertheless. So much for discretion. I'd tried to keep my feelings for Lincoln a secret from them, but clearly I'd failed. I suspected they even knew about the kiss.
I half expected Lincoln to walk into the kitchen at that moment. His ability to know when people were talking about him was more than uncanny, it was a supernatural talent, most likely inherited from his mother. But he did not come. Not this time. I was being thoroughly and unequivocally avoided.
"Can I do something?" I asked, surveying the arrangement of cups, saucers and small plates and cake forks. "Pass me that other tray."
Gus refused. "Go sit down, Charlie. We don't need help."
"An extra pair of hands can't hurt." I leaned the crutches against the table and reached for the tray only to snatch my hand back when Gus slapped it.
Before I could voice my indignation, Seth scooped me up and flung me over his shoulder. "Seth!" I cried. "Put me down! I am not a sack of pumpkins."
"Oi! Put her down! She ain't one o' your hussies." Gus sounded quite horrified, bless him.
Seth merely chuckled. "If she behaves like an obstinate woman, she gets treated like one."
"It's no wonder you're unmarried with that caveman attitude," I said, wriggling to make it difficult for him to hold me.
But he was much too strong for my pathetic attempts and didn't even grunt when I kicked him. "That, dear Charlie, is not why I'm unmarried."
"Don't be so sure." I thumped him in the back where I hoped his kidneys were.
He arched his back and swore loudly. "That bloody hurt!"
"Put her down." Lincoln! I couldn't see him from my position facing Seth's lower back, but his sharp order sliced through me nevertheless. I could feel Seth's shoulder tense too as he swung round to the door, almost knocking my head against the sideboard.
"Sir! I was just, er, assisting Charlie to a seat." He deposited me on the chair and sidled sheepishly back to the table, avoiding Lincoln's glare.
A glare that he turned on me. It was the first time he'd looked at me directly since the kiss, and there was nothing in his eyes that I'd hoped to see there. No joy or humor, no longing or desire. Just a blackness so dark that it swallowed all the light.
"It was a little bit of harmless fun," I said.
Poor Seth's gulp was audible from where I sat. He shook his head slightly, warning me not to stoke Lincoln's temper.
"Have fun on your days off." He thrust his chin toward my foot. "I came to see how you were."
I was about to give him the standard polite answer when I decided to tell the truth. "Miserable. Thank you for asking."
My honesty seemed to confound him. The silence felt as if it stretched forever before he tucked his hands behind his back. Then he simply gave a nod and turned away. "Seth, the door. They're here."
With a sigh, I picked up my sewing. Seth filed past Lincoln just as the front door knocker announced the first visitor. Lincoln cast me a brief, indecipherable look before he followed.
I spent the next hour watching Seth and Gus come and go to serve our master and his guests. Mostly Gus, as Seth remained in the library for much of the meeting's duration. Unlike Gus, Seth was considered a gentleman, albeit one whose circumstances had been considerably reduced. His presence among the esteemed members of the Ministry of Curiosities committee was tolerated. Gus's was not. Nor mine, for that matter. Not only was I a gutter snipe turned housemaid, I was also a necromancer. The latter meant I couldn't be trusted with their secrets. Little did they know that Seth would tell me everything anyway. Once, I'd thought Lincoln would keep me informed, but I was no longer certain of that.
"Well?" I asked Gus upon his return with the empty tray. "What are they saying?"
"Nothin' in partic'lar. Lady H is tellin' 'em how Buchanan can barely wipe his own arse, let alone take care of himself if he got mixed up in somethin' supernatural."
Cook snorted a laugh. "I'd like to hear her say 'arse.'"
"Perhaps, if you ask nicely, she'll use her sultry voice." My teasing sent Cook into a fit of chuckles that shook his belly. "And?" I prompted Gus.
"And that's all I heard." He shrugged and lowered himself onto a chair with a groan. I felt sorry for him. He and Seth had been working extra hard ever since I'd incurred my injury. Although they'd done all the housework before my arrival at Lichfield Towers, my standards were higher than Lincoln's, and they'd tried to maintain them.
The meeting had been called by Lady Harcourt when her stepson, Andrew Buchanan, disappeared. While it wasn't unusual for the dissolute rake to spend all night gambling and doing whatever it was dissolute rakes did, it wasn't normal for him not to return for three days
have books on the occult in his rooms. The rest of the committee had finally agreed to look into it after Lady Harcourt's constant petitioning had worn them down. To be fair, she did seem quite upset by his disappearance, which surprised me. Their relationship had appeared to be a rocky one, on the brief occasion I'd seen them together, and I thought she'd be glad to be rid of him.
Then again, he was family, and if he was as good at getting himself into trouble as she suggested, and as hopeless at getting himself out of it, then perhaps he was in real danger.
Thirty minutes later, Gus disappeared again when the bell for the library tinkled. I could just make out sounds of the guests leaving. It wasn't until Seth and Gus came in to fetch trays and announced that all visitors had gone that I finally relaxed. I hadn't realized how anxious I'd been about seeing them again, particularly Lord Gillingham and Lady Harcourt. Gillingham because he was a toad with a mean streak, and Lady H because the last time I'd met with her she'd blackmailed me into raising the spirit of Lincoln's tutor, Mr. Gurry, to ferret out Lincoln's secrets. He'd walked in on the event and Lady Harcourt had blamed me for the entire thing. She didn't yet know that Lincoln was aware she'd put me up to it.
"Is Fitzroy still about?" I asked them as they returned once again carrying the trays laden with dirty dishes.
"He left with Lady Harcourt," Seth said.
"Oh." I pulled hard on the thread, breaking it. "Damn."
"Only to investigate Buchanan's rooms for himself. She assured him she hasn't touched a thing."
The journey in a closed carriage back to her Mayfair house gave her an opportunity to speak ill of me to Lincoln and to use her feminine charms on him. It was one distinct advantage she had over me. My charms were insignificant compared to her curvaceous ones. She might even close the curtains and use the gentle rocking of the cabin as an excuse to rub those ample charms all over him.
I dumped the sewing in the basket and hauled myself to my feet. Being inert for so long allowed my imagination to run rampant. I grabbed my crutches and followed them into the adjoining scullery. "Does she have any clue as to what Buchanan might be up to or where he has gone?"
"None," Seth said. "Charlie, should you—"
"Yes," I snapped. "I'm going mad with boredom in that corner, with nothing to do but sew. If I don't do something else, I'll make everyone miserable. Gus, fetch me some water."
He hurried out of the scullery, and I apologized as soon as he returned with a pail full of warm water. "Just ignore me when I turn into a curmudgeon. I'm feeling somewhat frustrated at the moment."
"The sooner you're healed, the better for us all." He poured the water into the washing tub and set the pail down. "If it is your injury that's makin' you frustrated."
Seth cleared his throat pointedly as he piled up the dirty cups beside me. I rolled my eyes. As if I hadn't detected the innuendo in Gus's tone.
"Lady H wanted to speak with you, but Fitzroy said you were still recovering from your injuries and weren't up to it," Seth said.
"He did?" It seemed he'd read my mind on the matter of avoiding her. I wondered if that was simply because he'd come to know me well enough to know my thoughts, or if he'd used his nominal seer's instincts.
Lincoln was gone for the rest of the day and into the evening. He sent word back that he would be dining out after it had already grown dark.
"But he isn't wearing his dinner suit," I protested upon reading the missive delivered by one of Harcourt's footmen.