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
He was at his desk, of course, bent over some old book, magnifying lens in hand, poring over the faded print. Irusan, her gigantic fluffy tabby, sat atop a large pile of books on the edge of the desk like a statue, unblinking, eyeing the earl from above.
“Papa,” she repeated. Irusan slowly turned his gaze to her.
Her father looked up, too. “Annie! Come join me. I’ve made the most fascinating discovery. The Earl of Harecross—your great-great-grandfather, you know, my dear, not I—was invited to accompany an expedition to Cathay—China, as we now call it—and declined, stating—”
“Papa, I do hate to interrupt,” she said, crossing swiftly and silently to her father’s desk and perching on the chair beside it, “but there is a problem on the estate that requires our attention immediately.” Her shoulder throbbed, but Mary’s nursing would no doubt help it heal quickly.
Irusan jumped down from the pile of books and crossed in front of the earl, stepping delicately over the manuscript and whipping his tail in the earl’s face. Anne’s father brushed the fluffy tail away good-naturedly and blinked. The huge cat approached Anne, greeted her with a friendly head butt, then sniffed her neck, moving down to her injured shoulder. He settled on his haunches, sniffing intently, nose wrinkling.
“What did you say?” the earl asked. “A problem?”
“Yes, a problem, Papa,” she repeated.
Voices Anne had detected in the corridor got louder, as the querulous Mr. Destry was guided to the library by Epping. Mr. Destry was several years older than Anne’s father, and ill. His skin was sallow, his heartbeat irregular, and it took him far too long to do anything. But the earl would not hear of him being retired and his income being reduced to a pension, not while he had a ninety-year-old mother and children from three marriages. His offspring ranged in age from forty down to four.
“I don’t understand, man, what did you say?” a low tone interjected, Epping’s reply, then, “Beg pardon? I can’t hear you, my good man.”
Anne sighed and shooed Irusan away. The cat leaped down with an injured expression and scuttled off to the grate, where he sat on the hearth and cleaned his paws. She crossed the room, opened the door and helped guide Mr. Destry over to the chair she had just vacated.
“Mr. Destry, Papa, please listen to me,” she said, with no further shilly-shallying. “This is important. I was down at the gypsy camp a short time ago and I heard, in the woods nearby, two shots fired.” She kept her injury out of it.
“Shots?” Mr. Destry said.
She had their attention and explained—somewhat—what had occurred. As she expected, the tale definitely caught their attention and she finally got what she needed.
“Have Sanderson round up some of the men from the stable and comb the woods. If we have a poacher so reckless as to shoot wildly, we must find him,” the earl said, his expression grave. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, my dear.”
Anne sighed in relief. “I will have Sanderson do as you ask, Papa,” she said, heading to the door and summoning Irusan to join her. “It is unthinkable that someone is so reckless.”
It was late, past midnight. Anne, dressed in a robe, paced the floor in a small tidy room in the servants’ quarters on the third floor of Harecross Hall, the earldom’s family seat. The room was shared by Anne’s abigail, Mary, and that woman’s son, Wee Robbie. As clean as it appeared there was still the smell of vomit lingering in the air, along with the harsh scent of the vinegar and lye soap used to try to clean the floor where the boy had become ill.
Anne paused in her worried agitation and gazed at the candlelit tableau: Mary was perched on the end of her son’s cot, Irusan was curled up next to the boy’s thin form, and Dr. Davies sat on the edge examining Robbie with a worried frown.
“He’s not going to die, is he?” Mary cried. The boy lay, pallid and unmoving, on his cot, after having vomited the entire contents of his stomach over the course of the evening.
“No, of course not. At least … I don’t know,” the elderly doctor said, with a worried frown on his creased, narrow face. “I just don’t know what’s wrong with him. He doesn’t seem to have gotten worse in the last hour, but he’s no better, either.”
“But what does that mean, Dr. Davies?” Anne asked, gazing down at them.
The doctor took off his spectacles, polishing them with a cloth from his jacket pocket. “It simply means I don’t know, my lady. It is early yet. He could be fine tomorrow.”
“But what if he isn’t, sir?” Mary cried.
“Mrs. MacDougall, if it lasts, if it is a wasting illness or some kind of poison he has consumed, I know not what to tell you. However, I have seen cases where such a healthy boy has a bout of severe illness, but defeats whatever ails him and regains strength, recovering completely.”
“He eats anything, everything, and he is
ill,” Mary said. She obsessively smoothed the covers over her boy.
“There is a sickness going around, one that strikes people unaware,” the doctor said. “He could have that, or he could just have eaten something that is not agreeing with him. I do not know what to tell you, Mrs. MacDougall. He is very ill, certainly.”
Poor Wee Robbie, his frail body lying so still! Anne stared at him, a sick worry gnawing at her stomach. Could he have lost weight in just hours? Mary seemed to sag and diminish before Anne’s eyes as she took in the doctor’s words.
The doctor was still regarding Robbie, his gaze thoughtful. “Has he been anywhere he ought not to have been lately? Eaten or drunk anything unusual?”
Mary looked up, a frightened expression pinching her plain face. “Aye, the gypsy camp! He’s bin playin’ with the lads there lately. I dinna encourage it, but it seemed harmless enough, compared to the antics o’ those wicked Noonan boys,” she said. “But then airlier today I had that disagreement with the old gypsy woman.”
“You can’t think that has anything to do with his illness?” Anne asked.
Mary pursed her lips and shook her head. “I dinna know what to think. You saw, milady. He had been drinking something there, something that old witch gave him.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“It was spilt all doon his shirtfront!” As always, when she was upset, Mary’s Scots accent thickened like porridge.
“I haven’t heard of any of the gypsies being ill, but then, I perhaps wouldn’t. They’re an insular lot,” the doctor mused. “It may be worth checking.” He gave the still boy’s hand a last pat and stood. “The gypsies don’t trust me, my lady, nor any physician,” he said, turning to Anne, “but someone from Harecross Hall may be able to speak with them. Have them surveyed tomorrow morning concerning any illnesses similar to Robbie’s, past or present.”
“I’ll go myself,” Anne said.
“Oh, no!” Dr. Davies exclaimed, horrified. “Don’t go yourself, send a groom or stableman. It’s not safe for a lady.”
Anne kept her silence. She let the doctor think her convinced, but she would follow her own counsel, as she most often did. When he left, and the two women had made sure Robbie was sleeping peacefully, Mary followed Anne downstairs, wringing her hands. “It was that gypsy woman I crossed,” Mary said, weeping, sitting down at Anne’s dressing table. The tears ran down her narrow pale face as she pressed her clasped hands between her knees, bunching the fabric of her plain gray dress. “That Madam Kizzy. She cursed me, by cursing poor Robbie with this wasting sickness.”
“Nonsense!” Anne said, handing the maid a handkerchief. “Dry your tears; it will all be well. Robbie’s a strong little boy. You surely don’t believe in gypsy curses, do you?”
“You saw her, milady! You haird her!” Mary’s pale, red-rimmed eyes widened. She blotted her tears. “Och, she had a terrible anger, and all because I told her not to teach my lad the gypsy ways.”
“Well, you did also invoke God’s fury upon her.”
“I’d not have my boy’s head filled with nonsensical paganish notions,” the maid exclaimed, rising.
“Pagan notions like gypsy curses?” Anne said, keeping her voice gentle. “Go look after your boy, Mary,” she continued, pushing her abigail toward the door. “And try to get some sleep. At first light tomorrow morning I’m going down to the gypsy camp to see if anyone else is ill.”
“Aye, milady,” Mary said, her voice clogged with tears. “I willna sleep, but I can pray.”
“Robbie will recover, Mary, I promise.”
“Listen to me, Anne,” Darkefell said, gripping Lady Anne’s shoulders and staring down into her eyes. “Enough of this nonsense. You’ll marry me even if I have to carry you off to Gretna in a sack.” Darkefell stared at her; she was more beautiful than he remembered, her gray eyes misty and her full lips inviting his kiss.
“Tony, don’t be cruel,” she said on a sigh. “Kiss me!” She closed her lovely eyes.
He bent his head and touched her lips with his, feeling the soft welcoming fullness, her voluptuous body melding with his. She was gowned in some soft simple morning gown, so when he moved down to kiss her throat, he undid the tie and found she wore nothing underneath. He pressed himself to her, pushing the robe off her shoulders to expose her nakedness.
“Marry me,” he muttered against her throat. “Marry me immediately and come back to Yorkshire, where you belong!” He pushed her down on a soft bed of silky grass by a stream, the golden sun above them beating down and warming their bodies, his naked, too.
“Yes,” she whispered, the light breeze carrying her soft word to the sky. “Yes, Tony, I’ll marry you. Make love to me!”
It was all the encouragement and permission he needed. Her naked body, so sinuous and soft, the flesh like the best Kashmir fabric beneath his hands, writhed with passionate abandonment as he ran his fingers over her narrow waist and up to her bountiful bosom. Finally, the fulfillment of a hundred dreams, the answer he had been waiting for; she would be his.
Then he heard, from a distance, someone calling him.
He ignored the voice. This was not the time for interruptions, not when he was poised to take possession of his Anne’s body. After they had made love he would find a vicar and marry her, then carry her off to Yorkshire. “Milord,” a voice said.
A blaze of light shattered his peace and Darkefell opened his eyes to find Harwood standing over him, the curtains open on a brilliant Yorkshire morning.
“Milord,” his valet said. “You wished to arise early this morning, as you and Mr. Boatin are heading south.”
With a groan, Darkefell turned over and buried his face in the blankets bunched up beneath him. He gritted his teeth and hammered the pillow. Damn and damn again.
Anne for her intransigency. Before another day went by, after he did what he had to do, she would answer to him. He was still so goddamned angry! She’d toyed with his heart long enough. He would marry her or tell her to go to hell; he wasn’t sure which urge would rise to the fore when he saw her next.
Robbie was still very ill the next morning when Anne checked on him, pale and motionless beneath the covers. Mary looked up from the chair she had clearly spent all night in, and it tore at Anne’s heart to see her pain. The woman was only in her late thirties, but she looked old and wan, dark circles under her eyes.
Anne motioned to her, and Mary returned to Anne’s bedchamber with her, redressed the gunshot wound and helped her get dressed for the day. The maid was silent and frightened, tears standing in her eyes most of the time.
“Help me with my hat,” Anne said, glancing at herself in the mirror. “I’m not wasting another moment. I’m going to the gypsy camp this morning. I promise you, we’ll figure out what is wrong with Robbie, and it won’t be any gypsy curse.”
“You canna go to the gypsy camp, milady!” Mary exclaimed. “What about the lunatic with the gun?”
“Let me worry about that. You worry about getting your little boy well.”
Mary, the tears now streaming down her cheeks, set to work properly dressing Anne’s hair and topping it with an appropriate bonnet. Finally Anne stood and turned to her, putting both hands on her maid’s shoulders. “We’ll figure this out, I promise. He’s a healthy boy and will recover. Have faith.”
“I’m going to the chapel, milady,” she said with a curtsey. “Then back up to Robbie, to see if I can get him to take some broth.” She turned and trotted from the room.
Anne swept down the stairs to the great hall, summoned Epping, the butler, and asked that Sanderson, her own driver, meet her outside to accompany her to the gypsy camp. She was no fool; if some idiot with a gun was out there, she would have her burly driver with her, even though it seemed unlikely the shooting would be repeated.
She ordered that Mrs. Aylesworth, the housekeeper, send broth up for Robbie, but also breakfast for Mary. She and her surly silent driver set out walking, the fellow’s least favorite mode of moving. But it made no sense to take a carriage or even pony cart when walking through the woods and across fields and valleys was by far more direct than the circuitous route by road or cart trail.
She talked, telling Sanderson everything about Robbie’s illness and Mary’s concerns. As she assumed, that made him more than willing to help. She had long suspected that Sanderson was more than halfway in love with Mrs. Mary MacDougall, though only Mary appeared to be unaware of his feelings. He had no hope of return, Anne was sadly certain, for Mary was devoted to her son and her faith. Robbie respected Sanderson, following him like a puppy ofttimes, so that would have proved no problem, but Sanderson was a committed Methodist, abhorring Catholic ceremony, and even Church of England rite and ritual. They would never make a match of it, too far apart were they on seminal issues.
But Sanderson was struck dumb with concern over Robbie. The wordless driver being struck dumb was difficult to tell from his habitual silence, only detectable by Anne, who knew him well. His walking pace hastened.
They strode back through Harecross Hall’s vast orchard, the blossoms gone and the fruit just beginning to show, peaches, pears and apples. Past the large vegetable garden, they continued, and then along the path through the hops fields. The leggy plants were supported on tall poles grouped together like fifteen-foot tripod giants with spindly legs. Everyone in Kent who could, grew hops. As a necessary ingredient in the brewing of beer, and with Kent’s climate and soil perfect for the plant, it was financially rewarding, if challenging.