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
“Good man, Sanderson,” Darkefell said, the anger ebbing away from his handsome face. “And Bo, good job. My lady Anne, may I introduce to you my brother, Lord Julius Bestwick?”
“Good day, my lord,” Anne said, nodding at him. “I believe I owe you thanks for saving me from Hiram Grover on the top of the Staungill Force some months past? We surmise that you followed him that night, as he escaped death in the fall and rambled away. Where is your dog, by the way?” A sudden growling and hissing outside led Anne to whirl and rush out the door. “Aha, I no sooner speak … stop!” she cried, when she saw Irusan crouched in the shrubs, his fur entangled, facing a large, shaggy, snarling doglike creature of surpassing ferocity.
Lord Julius bolted out the door behind her, having foisted his prisoner off on Darkefell, no doubt. “Atim! My boy!” he shouted. The animal yelped and raced to him, leaping on him and sending him crashing to the ground. “I wondered what happened to him after I was taken prisoner,” he shouted, rolling about in the greenery and laughing as the wolf dog danced, yelped, and licked his face, then raced around in mad circles. Julius shouted in laughter.
Irusan watched the folly, hissing and arching, his fur standing on end and his tail four times its normal size. He slithered out of the brush and crouched beside Anne, his tail lashing back and forth. “Never mind, Irusan,” Anne said, watching the scene. “Dogs and boys will ever be companions, for dogs, as you see, are lacking in subtlety. It takes the feminine mind to fully appreciate feline intelligence and delicacy.” Irusan calmed at her even tone, and rubbed against her leg with a murmur of agreement.
Hiram Grover, who had been guarded by one of the Harecross Hall grooms, was silent as Sanderson and Darkefell hustled their prisoners out of the brush and toward the cart. But the moment they were thrown in the back with him, he began to berate them with a string of angry words, condemning their stupidity and questioning their mother’s morality. But beaten down finally by his ordeal and pale with exhaustion, he fell silent, closing his eyes, curling into a ball away from everyone else.
The cart was ideal for conveying the restrained prisoners to the magistrate for his deliberation; Billie and Bertie were both local fellows, Sanderson said, and their swagger was gone; both appeared utterly broken by their experience, judging from the shame on their faces and their weepy demeanor. Bo, having made up for his part in Grover’s plot, melted into the woods to return to the gypsy encampment to see his newborn baby, no doubt, Anne informed Darkefell. Sanderson agreed to drop Grover off at his shed jail cell, then take the two local miscreants on to the magistrate for confinement. Anne, Darkefell, Julius, and Osei, whom Irusan claimed as his conveyance for the distance, set out toward Harecross Hall, Anne and Julius on horseback and the others walking.
Once they arrived Anne immediately ordered a room for Lord Julius Bestwick and baths for them all, though Darkefell first visited Hiram Grover to tell him they would be going north to Yorkshire immediately so he would finally face the magistrate and be judged for his crimes. It was still not clear to anyone what he had intended to obtain by kidnapping Jamey and holding Julius hostage, but all admitted it was an impressive feat for a madman. They would take no chances with him.
Julius and Darkefell intended to visit Hawk Park the next morning to see if Lady Sophie had yet arrived, then travel north with Grover. Anne, soaking in her copper hip bath, wondered, should she go north with them? Mary entered her bedchamber with another ewer of hot water, dumped it into the tub and handed Anne a cloth.
“I’m more confused than ever, Mary,” Anne said, soaping her cloth with a fragrant bar of Castile soap and rubbing the grit from her neck and ears. The water was hot and lavender scented, utterly decadent in its perfumed steaminess. She lay back in the water and soaped her underarms.
“Confused? About marriage and his lordship?”
“Mmm,” Anne said, lathering her long legs. “He’s perfect.”
“Oh, I wouldna say that, milady.”
“No? What possible imperfections have I missed?”
“His temper is not perfect,” Mary said, picking up items of discarded clothing and folding them carefully.
“But I can handle that. He’ll never bully me. I do believe I’ve noticed an improvement just since we’ve been acquainted.”
“Oh?” Mary said, pausing in her tidying with an arch expression. “Have you, now?”
“Yes, and don’t look at me that way,” Anne said crossly, splashing some water her way.
“And it isn’t just his temper, milady,” Mary said, kneeling at the side of the tub to wash Anne’s back. “He’s been known to shut himself away from society for months at a time, so I’ve heard. Sanderson lairned all of that from the young fellows in the castle stable when he stayed there. His lordship would go out riding for hours, then eat a solitary dinner and repair to his study, never to go to his bed at all.”
Anne’s heart pinched. Poor Tony. He had had much to try him in the months she had known him, for the responsibility of his entire family rested on his shoulders and he took his duties seriously. It seemed to her that his entire family competed for who could try his patience and goodness the most. Or was that just her love for the man talking? Was she so besotted that she was beginning to see him as some kind of paragon? “I see what you’re doing, Mary,” she said. As Mary finished her task Anne reached back over her shoulder and squeezed the cloth, relishing the hot water coursing down her back. “You are emphasizing his faults so I’ll disagree with you.”
Mary stood, drying her hands on a towel, and had the grace to look shame-faced. “Aye, p’raps I am. He’s a good man, milady, and I’ve never seen anyone so suited to you, if I may say the truth and shame the devil. You’d run any other man over wi’ your managing ways, but he’ll not allow it.”
“He says the same about me, that he would run any other woman over, but I counter him, strength for strength. So would our marriage be a power struggle our whole lives? It sounds exhausting. And is that all we would have, some kind of marital stalemate?”
“I think you already know you have more than that.”
“I know, but …” Anne shook her head, still confused.
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“We do have to talk, but I don’t know when we’ll get the chance,” Anne said. She glanced over at Mary. “Unless I go north with them. He has a lot to take care of right now, with Hiram Grover, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, force him into that kind of a discussion here. But if I went north to Yorkshire with him and stayed at Ivy Lodge again, we would have the opportunity.”
Mary sat on the dressing table chair and Irusan leaped to her lap for his own primping. She brushed his silky fur out, pulling burs and making noises in her teeth at his mangled mane. “You would be able to talk, p’raps, if you didn’t fall into other activities,” she said primly.
“I can take care of myself, Mary,” she said sharply, but there was a bit of a gnawing worry in the pit of her stomach. She knew Mary was referring to her passionate night with the marquess. Her monthly menses was due soon and she hoped it would start. She didn’t want to be with child. She sighed and shook her head, shrugging it off. It was out of her control. “But dare I leave father here alone with Mrs. Noonan? The foolish woman almost killed us all with her mushroom catsup! And the gypsies … I believe the problem between them and the townsfolk is solved, but I don’t know for sure.”
“That’s up to you, milady.”
A possible solution occurred to Anne. She rose and dried off, and began to dress for dinner, studiously keeping her mind away from the thought of Darkefell in his bath, those magnificent, muscular legs stretched out, his delectable bottom in the copper bath, his … well, his other indescribably, deliciously
parts. She felt flames lick her body up and down, and Mary kept throwing her glances.
“Are you well, milady?” she finally asked. “You’re a mite feverish.”
“I am quite well, Mary, just a little tired,” she said, regarding herself in the mirror. Irusan wound around her legs and admired their combined reflection, for Mary had made him a bow of moiré silk, which he wore with distinction. Mary had made her look almost beautiful, dressing her in a soft rose brocade robe a l’Anglaise, with trim of the most exquisite Belgian lace ruffled around the low décolletage. Anne sat at the dressing table and Mary dressed her hair, fastening it with a set of tortoiseshell and garnet combs.
Anne was almost dizzy with anticipation; Darkefell would throw heated looks her way across the dinner table and she would feel him again within her, even as they sat apart. She turned her mind away from such inappropriate and wholly enticing thoughts. “Would … would you see if Mr. Boatin is available for a talk?”
“Aye, milady,” Mary said gently. “Shall I go now?”
“Yes. Ask Mr. Boatin to meet me in the library before dinner. I wish to have a chat with him alone.”
A half hour later she sat with her father by his desk in the library playing with the earl’s seal, a heavy gold stamp ornamented with silk ribbon. Irusan sat atop the desk on a stack of books like an elegant statue, immobile, watching her with his eyes half closed. The chair by the desk had been hers for as long as she could remember, for she had learned many of her lessons in just this spot. “Mrs. Noonan seems content now that her boys are being taught by Vicar Wadley,” she said. “I can’t imagine what caused this sea change in her attitude unless it is the vicar’s excellent care of those imps, but I must say, her boys have improved considerably, too. I hardly know they are here, which before would have been a sign something was about to blow up or a maid was going to be injured or Irusan was going to have to swipe one of them with his claws.”
“Mmm,” the earl said.
“Papa, I think we should, as a kind of goodwill gesture, pay for some of the damage people in Hareham have suffered from the Noonan boys and Hiram Grover’s thefts. We could compile a list of complaints and take care of them.”
“Mhmm. Whatever you like, my dear.”
Osei tapped on the door and entered.
“Ah, Mr. Boatin!” the earl said, looking up from his work. “I am overjoyed to see you. I have just been checking a reference on some of the questions you asked about the Mandarin dialect and—”
“Papa,” Anne said, rising. “I asked Mr. Boatin to meet me here because I wish to talk to him. We are going to sit over by the fire and chat.”
“Oh.” He looked crestfallen. “Well, perhaps when you’re finished I can have him back?”
“Dinner will be served shortly, and I will not have you two shut up here and poring over some musty old book. You are
to join the rest of us. Don’t you wish to meet the marquess’s brother, Lord Julius, Papa?”
“Oh, yes, of course! I had quite forgotten. Forgive me. Go, talk!”
She and Osei retired to chairs by the empty hearth. Anne gestured to him to sit, and he did, his neat lean frame folding into the chair. He crossed one leg over the other and clasped his hands on his lap. She wasn’t sure how to start.
“Of what did you wish to speak, my lady?” Osei finally asked, his eyes concealed by the candlelight glinting in his spectacles.
She watched him for a moment, wondering if he preferred to have his eyes hidden from view, for he always seemed to angle his face just so, just tilted to catch the candlelight in his glasses. She glanced back at her father, his balding head gleaming in the lamplight—he had tossed his wig aside again—as he bent over his task of deciphering a Mandarin script. “My father and you have much in common.”
Irusan leaped down from the desk and trotted over to where they sat, leaping up to Osei’s lap in one smooth jump. “I am learning much from him, my lady, and I do not speak solely of languages. Your father is …” He paused, then said, flattening his lap for the big cat, who made two complete turns and laid down, “If you will beg my pardon at the comparison, he reminds me of my grandfather.”
“Really?” Anne said, distracted by Osei’s evaluation.
“Yes, my mother’s father was the oldest man in our family, and within him resided all the tales that had been collected over the years, all of the knowledge.” He paused, and sadness pinched his mouth and dulled his dark eyes. He ruffled Irusan’s mane. “I don’t know if he is still alive. I doubt that he survived the warfare. I know that my mother and father did not.”
His open manner was rare, for he was usually so reticent, and Anne asked, “Would you go back, if you could, to Africa?”
He frowned and shook his head. “I don’t know, my lady. I wish I knew where my sister is. I have written to those in power, in London, but no one will answer.”
“Why don’t you enlist Tony to help?”
His chin went up. “His lordship saved my life. Am I to ask him to do more, when he gave me all that I have, made me all that I am? Impossible.”
“You proud idiot,” Anne said with a half smile. “First, he did not make you all you are; he gave you some tools and you did the rest. But he would be happy to help and you should know that. I will never understand men.” Anne decided to speak to Tony about it the moment they had time together, which brought her back to her question. “I am not afraid to ask for favors,” she said, “and that is why I’ve asked you here.”
“A favor of me? I would do anything for you, my lady,” he said, his manners courtly, his chivalry innate.
Anne ordered her thoughts. “My father, as you well know, is a good man, but running this estate has never been his dream. He does the best he can, but to properly look after things, he needs competent help. I’m trying to find him a new secretary. He requires someone who would help organize him, so his study and research is not so scattered, but it has to be someone special: intelligent, unobtrusive, with a delicate touch. We are, at the same time, hiring an assistant for Mr. Destry. He is old and ill and should not be working, but Papa will not pension him while he is the sole support of his family. I’ve spoken with Papa, and he has agreed to my ideal solution; Mr. Destry’s son, who I know is competent, is currently employed, but I have heard he’s not happy in his position. I hope to hire him as Mr. Destry’s assistant; he eventually may take over the job of estate steward. I’ve sent him a note, with Papa’s consent and approval, of course.”