Authors: Donna Lea Simpson
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Cozy, #Historical, #Supernatural, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery, #Romantic Suspense, #werewolf, #paranormal romance, #cozy series, #Lady Anne, #Britain, #gothic romance
“Madam, what is amiss?” he asked briskly, pushing his shirttail into his riding breeches. Something dire must have occurred, he thought, watching her trying to catch her breath. Nothing short of Lydia having a miscarriage or John being mortally wounded would bring her alone to the castle, which she despised.
Her face was red, though she wore no rouge, her elaborately coiffed hair askew, but anger, not sadness or fear, seemed her emotion of the moment. “Explain this!” she said, shaking a paper in his face. “Explain it!”
“Since I have no idea what it is, I can hardly explain it,” he said, his tone cool.
Osei charged into the room after her, pulled up abruptly and bowed, murmuring his apologies. “Very sorry to disturb you, my lord. May I speak with you?”
Darkefell gazed at him. The fellow was still filthy from the stable yard. Osei was fastidious, and to appear before the dowager marchioness in such disarray must mean something was terribly amiss. The seriousness of the calamity was accentuated by the speaking look in Osei’s dark brown eyes behind the glinting lenses of his spectacles. He was agitated, a rare state for one so composed. The marquess then glanced back at his mother. Osei had a couple of letters in his hand, ones similar to the one his mother clutched, linen paper with a blue wax seal. “Certainly I’ll speak with you, Osei,” Darkefell said, motioning out toward the hallway.
“Oh, no, you’ll speak with me first,” Lady Darkefell said, grabbing his sleeve, the silver threads among her dark tresses glinting in the sunlight that beamed through the large open window. She took one more long breath, mastering her emotion, her ruddiness abating. She shook her hair back, released his sleeve, stiffened her back and stared at him. “You will answer me first before your fellow can warn you to make up more lies,” she said, her voice trembling with feeling.
Wary now, Darkefell caught Osei’s eye. They had kept many things from his mother of late; about which was she angry? He couldn’t imagine. But Osei shrugged hopelessly, clearly unable to explain in front of the marchioness. “Please, Mother,” Darkefell said, “surely whatever it is can wait until I am decently dressed. Will you take your ease in the library, and I will attend you there?”
“And allow you time to concoct some new lie? No. I want an answer. I
an answer. Now. This letter,” she said, shaking the paper and pacing toward him, “tells me you were seen one week ago in Kent, and yet I know that to be impossible. For all I dislike about Lady Anne Addison, the woman is dreadfully honest. If you were seen there it means only one thing.” Her expression twisted in torment. “Is Julius alive?” she cried, grasping his sleeve again. It tore with an awful rending sound. “Is your twin brother really alive, and have you all tortured me purposely with false tales of his death in Upper Canada?”
Then the blood rushed from her face, she swayed, and collapsed on the floor in a heap.
Darkefell stooped by his mother and gazed up at Osei, who still held the letters in his hand. “Let me guess,” he said, meeting his secretary’s worried gaze. “She said I was seen in Kent and mentioned Lady Anne, from whom I must assume these letters have come. Does this explain where the devil Julius disappeared to after that last night here, when Hiram Grover apparently did
die? Is Julius in Kent?”
“I swear, milady, if that boy of mine has come here alone again, after I told him no,” Mary MacDougall said to her employer, as they walked together down the path along the arboretum woods, “I’ll make him wish he were anywhere but!”
Anne chuckled, feeling more lighthearted than she had for days. Perhaps taking action had that effect. After seeing a mysterious man in her woods—one who looked remarkably like Lord Darkefell—she had sent off letters to everyone at Darkefell Castle and Ivy Lodge asking what was going on, and she should be receiving answers back very soon, maybe as early as the next day.
“Mary, he’s a little boy. The gypsy camp fascinates him, as it would any child his age. Jamey and I,” she said, referring to her older brother, “spent a fair share of our time in summer skulking about watching the gypsy children, longing to join in their games.”
“Aye, but you were not supposed to be doing your assigned tasks, milady!” Mary said.
Her son, Wee Robbie, was nominally Anne’s “tiger,” his duties those of a page, or errand boy, light enough for a nine-year-old of slight frame. “Don’t you worry about that,” Anne said, picking up her skirts and stepping over a log in the path; she took note of it, thinking she’d have to get the groundskeeper to check the other paths for fallen branches. “You just make sure Robbie does his sums, reads and studies. He’ll be ready for a proper school before you know it.” She had promised Mary that Robbie would attend school and be set on the path to a career when he was old enough, depending upon his application and inclination. The law, medicine, politics … with a sponsor like the earl, Anne’s father, the boy could go far, though only if he worked hard.
Mary was silent and both women hastened their pace. After two months of traveling first north to Yorkshire, to solve the ridiculous sighting of a werewolf, and a stay in Cornwall, where Anne had exposed a ghost as nothing more than trickery, smoke and fireworks, she had thought home would be a calm and restful place in which to consider the Marquess of Darkefell’s second proposal. The man did have a unique way of proposing, for this last one had ended in him taking affront at her failing to offer a swift and grateful acquiescence, and he had stomped off. She had not seen him again, and had no idea if she was still supposed to be considering his proposal.
And then she had seen him in her woods, near the gypsy camp, a shadowy figure slipping away after speaking to one of the gypsy women. What was she to think? Her heart pounded more quickly every time she thought of him, so close, and yet slipping away like a thief in the night.
If she had not had so many problems to handle at Harecross Hall, she would likely have brooded on the subject of the moody marquess’s intrusion on her family estate, but as it was, she had no time to brood. Quite a few problems had presented themselves as soon as she got home to Harecross Hall from Cornwall two weeks before, and there were still things she needed to handle.
However, she was sorting it out … the Noonan boys, cousins currently residing with them until their new home could be refitted for their use, had done nothing disastrous for almost twenty-four hours. That was a record of abstemiousness that she would be sure to commend their mother, Mrs. Noonan, on when she saw her. And if Anne could manage it, she would have the gypsy problem solved shortly. Thus her accompanying Mary to the gypsy camp was explained; she had her own purpose. She was going to invite the gypsy mother, Madam Kizzy, up to Harecross Hall for a meeting with her father on what to do about some problems they had been having with the villagers. Just that morning there had been an awful confrontation, and Kizzy had, in front of Anne and the Reverend Wadley, threatened everyone who had harassed her and her people with the “gypsy curse,” some nonsense designed to strike fear in the heart of the superstitious.
“Don’t be too hard on Robbie when you find him,” Anne said. She had a soft spot for the boy. “He’s just a lad.”
“Aye, just a lad who will suffer a red bottom if he doesn’t mind me better.”
The gypsy camp seemed a harmless enough diversion to Anne, for only very young children were left at camp while their fathers worked. Robbie, at the wise old age of nine, led them in innocent games. But she knew Mary was wary of her son’s increasing wildness. The gypsy lifestyle was such that a young boy could easily be seduced away from the rigors of book learning and all the other serious tasks at which Mary kept him. She had ambition for her son. Though as a Catholic lad it would be difficult, Mary had hope that the Catholic Relief Act, which had freed her people from many restraints, would allow him to advance in society.
The encampment was just ahead, beyond the fringe of wood. A large open plot had been claimed by the gypsies once the ritual of asking permission from the earl had been performed in April. Now, after a couple of months, the grass was beaten into the earth, a fire pit was well established at the center of the community, and lines of colorful clothes dried in the late afternoon sun. The camp would be almost deserted until sundown, when the gypsy men, older children, and many of the women came back from the fields to share an evening meal.
Anne waved to one young gypsy woman she had been trying to befriend, a young wife who was heavily pregnant and had another baby that she either carried about or let rest in a basket nearby. It was she whom Anne had seen talking to the shadowy figure she still thought must be the marquess, but the woman had been wary and became silent whenever Anne tried to find out what the man had wanted.
“You look around for Robbie,” Anne said, “and I’ll speak to Madam Kizzy.” First, though, Anne went to the young woman. “Florrie, how are you today?”
“I am well, madam.” She continued stirring a large cauldron over the thin flame in the fire pit.
“Is that stew?” Anne asked, peering into the pot.
Anne tried to speak more, but the girl was closemouthed, as usual. Perhaps Anne would leave the gypsies alone on the topic of the man she had seen in their camp until she got an answer from Yorkshire. She smiled and said, “Good day to you, Florrie.” But as she turned to head to the gypsy woman’s cart, she heard a piercing scream. “Mary!” she cried, for she knew the sound of her maid’s voice instantly. She dashed toward the old woman’s cart and around the side, where she heard a scuffle.
Mary had hold of Robbie, who looked terrified and yet defiant, while Madam Kizzy, the old gypsy woman, shouted a string of garbled words in her own language at Mary. “What is this?” Anne shouted over the babble. “What’s going on?”
“She was saying some gypsy chant over my boy,” Mary said, her arms wound around Robbie’s thin shoulders. “Cursin’ his soul she was, and I’ll no’ have it!”
“She wasn’t cursing my soul, Mama,” Robbie said, wriggling in his mother’s grip. His shirt was wet and stained, some liquid dribbled down it. “She was just telling me my fortune!”
“I’ll no’ have you doing any o’ that heathen nonsense.”
“Mary, calm down,” Anne said, and turned to the gypsy woman, whose dark eyes were unreadable. She was sitting before a table set with cards, but the order had been scrambled. A small leather cup was overturned, dark brown fluid still dripping off the table. “What were you doing, Madam Kizzy?”
“Like the boy said, I tell his fortune. He come here often, and keep the little ones entertained. So I tell his fortune for nothing.”
“She said I would go to sea, Mama!” Robbie said, turning his face up to see his mother’s, even while he still tried to free himself from her hold. His expression was lit with enthusiasm.
“You’ll not go to sea, y’hear me?” she said, turning him, crouching in front of him and shaking him by the shoulders. “You’ll lairn your letters, go to school, and take a career at law. Or you’ll be a clerk, or a secretary like Mr. Boatin.”
Robbie had been wildly impressed by Osei Boatin, the marquess’s African secretary, and Mary had hoped that would translate to an ambition to learn and even become a scholar, as Mr. Boatin was. But Robbie was a boy, and action spoke more loudly to him. Going to sea must seem a glorious career for a child who didn’t know the dangers and hardships.
“Mary, calm yourself,” Anne said, holding up one hand. “Madam,” she said, turning back to the gypsy, “is that all you were doing, telling his fortune?”
The woman shrugged, and Mary shrieked, a wail of mourning. “She’s trying to turn him, milady, can you no’ see that? She’s trying to make him into a gypsy, like those lads,” she said, pointing at two dirty boys, their clothes stained and their faces dark with grime. “God will punish you for this! Our Lord will rain down fire and brimstone upon you!” she cried, shaking her finger at the old woman.
“Mary, stop!” Anne said, appalled at her maid’s out-of-character behavior.
But Madam Kizzy, her expression full of fury, rose with difficulty and shrieked, “Curse you, woman. Curse you and all gajos, for you speak filth of us!”
“Both of you, stop it now!” Anne cried, both hands up and palm-out, toward the women. “Mary, start back to Harecross Hall. I’ll follow in one minute.”
“But, milady, I’ll no’ leave ya here alone,” she said, pushing Robbie away from the gypsy cart.
“Go now!” Anne looked into her pale eyes, the terror still there. “Go,” she said, more gently. “I will be just one minute, I promise.” The maid scurried away, dragging Robbie by one hand.
Anne turned to the gypsy woman and knelt, righting the cup and swiping away the liquid, an odd-smelling broth of some sort. “Madam, you must stop this ‘cursing’ nonsense if you expect to get along with others.”
“That woman,” Madam Kizzy muttered. “She has the voice like a screech owl at night.”
“Her son is precious to her, as your children are to you,” Anne said, sharply. “She’s very religious and doesn’t want her boy exposed to practices contrary to her church.”
“You … go now, too,” the old woman said, sinking down on her stool.
“I came all the way here to ask you to come to Harecross Hall to meet with my father. We must solve the troubles between your people and the villagers!”
“No, you go!” the woman said, looking tired.
Anne shook her head in exasperation. In all her years she could never figure out why the gypsy people seemed intent on making themselves disliked. The men worked hard and kept to themselves, the woman were intelligent and often beautiful, the children precocious and full of laughter and song, but … and this was the rub … they kept separate, and though the folk she knew in Hareham seemed to want it that way, still, it made the gypsies an object of suspicion. She turned to leave, but then turned back, examining the old woman, who sat hunched over her cards. “Madam, are you all right? Shall I call someone?”
Anne headed away from the old gypsy woman, intent on speaking to Florrie again, but as she moved back toward the shaded center of the encampment, a loud crack shattered the peace of the day and Anne simultaneously heard a whizzing noise and felt a blow to her shoulder. She glanced down and saw a ribbon of red soaking the torn shoulder of her gown.