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
“Thank you, Cousin Anne,” Mrs. Noonan said, rather stiffly.
Anne turned away, intent on not softening her words into nothingness, a female failing she had fallen prey to many times. An hour later, after writing the requisite letter to Mrs. Noonan’s brother and speaking with Epping about what was to be done with the Noonan children in the meantime—unfortunately they had no dungeon nor murder hole, as at Darkefell Castle—Anne joined her father in the library.
He was lost in work, as always, and toiled diligently on his key to the Romany language, while she perused every book she could find on known plant toxins. She was frantic to find out what was wrong with Robbie, Mrs. Jackson, and the gypsy woman. There was not even any point of contact common among them. The Jacksons kept to themselves and certainly didn’t go near the gypsies, though they did accept many foodstuffs from Harecross Hall. Robbie did play with the gypsy children, but he never went near Farfield Farm. Anne just couldn’t imagine their illness to be the result of contagion. If it were, surely more people would be ill.
No, there had to be something in common. Something they had picked wild and eaten, or something in the water. The mushroom catsup had given her an idea. She searched for poisonous fungi to which the three might have had access. There were several possibilities, according to the botany books in her father’s library, but it was too much of a coincidence that all three would pick and consume the same poisonous mushrooms at the same time. If Mrs. Jackson had picked and eaten them, then Jamey and Mr. Jackson would be ill, too. Or if the gypsy mother had done so, then others of her tribe would be ill.
No, that could not be the answer.
After an hour, she still had not found anything else that accounted for the symptoms they all suffered, the vomiting, the diarrhea, the sleep that bordered on unconsciousness. Her father was worried, too, but she had not overemphasized the problem for fear that it would make him ill. Trouble had done such a thing in the past. When her mother had announced two years before that she would be taking up residence in Bath, he had suffered what the doctor termed a kind of attack that, if repeated, could leave him paralyzed.
No, she’d handle this alone.
But there were things she could still speak to him about, and Darkefell was one of them. When she first came home she had told her father about all her adventures in Yorkshire and Cornwall, and he had enjoyed them thoroughly. He was, perhaps, the only person in the world who did not think she ever outreached her skills in anything she attempted. He seemed to view her as a kind of omnipotent figure of colossal ability, intelligence, and physical strength.
As uncomfortable as such awe as he held her in could become, he tempered it with a deep affection that warmed her to the soul. She loved her father, trusted him, and relied on him as the source of her strength. She needed to speak with someone about her uncertainty over the marquess or she would burst.
“Papa,” she said, staring at the bookcase in front of her as she slid a slim volume of Latin flower names back into its place. “Lord Darkefell has told me he loves me and I think I am in love with him.” She turned to gaze at her father. He was bent over a book, trying to see the print with his poor eyesight. “Papa, did you hear what I just said?”
“What? I beg your pardon, Anne, I was not attending,” Lord Harecross said. “What did you say?”
“Never mind,” she said, unwilling—or afraid—to repeat herself. It was an intensely private thing, this growing love, and though she had shared her feelings for the marquess with two other people—her friend Pamela St. James in Cornwall and of course Mary—it suddenly seemed precipitous to share that part of her life with her father. He would be full of questions about this man whom he had not yet met. The moment and the urge passed, and she hugged her secret love to her breast again. She still had time to think about it and decide what to do.
The problem of the illness reasserted itself as of paramount importance. “Papa, you had the old gypsy mother here more than once, talking to her, constructing your lexicon of the Romany language.”
“Yes, yes, indeed.”
“Did you give her food while she was here? And when was the last time?”
“Well, of course I gave her food, my dear.” He furrowed his brow and stared at the book he was perusing. “Cream cakes. She was fond of cream cakes and strawberries. She was very particular about what she ate, for gypsy cooking habits stress cleanliness. That is how I first learned their word ‘
,’ meaning, as best as I can tell, dirty, or rather, unclean. Many things are considered
, including a woman’s menstrual cycle, and indeed her whole lower body.”
Anne was not shocked by his frank speech. She had learned from her father that to be ashamed of bodily functions was to be ashamed of being human. To be ashamed of being human was to be ashamed of a creation of the Lord, and that was blasphemy. Perhaps she did not quite look at it as he did, but she believed much of what he believed. “That actually answers one of my questions. Papa, I am trying to connect the gypsy mother’s illness with that of Wee Robbie and Mrs. Jackson, and I am coming up blank. Can you think of any connection? Upon thought, I have ruled out water from the same source, for I believe the gypsies use the stream, while Farfield Farm has its own well. Robbie may have drunk from the stream, but he has not been to Farfield Farm.”
“I will set my mind to thinking of it, my dear. But the gypsy mother has not been here for over a week and there were many days between the visit and the illness.” He frowned. “It is worth considering what they ate that could have been the same, but I do not know what that could be. The gypsy mother, whose name, to a
like myself, is Kizzy, began to open her heart a little to me, Anne.” He looked up at his daughter, frowning over his spectacles. “I cannot help but wonder why she is said to have been cursing people lately. Ever since the trouble began, she has not been back to this house. What has occurred that she is said to have cursed poor little Robbie?”
Anne told him her own experiences at the gypsy encampment, including the trouble among Madam Kizzy and Robbie and Mary. “I just don’t know what to think, but it is beginning to affect how the villagers are viewing Harecross Hall, and that, of course, is a concern.”
“But others have spoken of this gypsy curse, is that not true, my dear?”
“There has been trouble locally, Papa, and the gypsies blamed, you know that. The town gentlemen asked you to evict them for a reason, after all. In fact, I came upon one such encounter a few days ago in Hareham, before all this illness broke out. Some townsfolk were tormenting the old gypsy woman. I put a stop to it, of course. We have dealt with them for a century, our family, and never had trouble like this. No one is so adept at the harvest as a gypsy, and no one is so willing to move on once the work is over. Even the villagers know we rely on the gypsies at harvest.”
He nodded, a frown on his pouched face. He scratched his forehead, sending his wig askew. “That is why I cannot understand what has gone wrong with the folks of Hareham. The only thing different this year is my own interest in the gypsy culture. I do miss Kizzy’s visits. Fascinating woman. Claims to be European royalty, you know, though she cannot say of what country or what family!” He chuckled.
Anne leaned over and settled his wig on his head properly. “If she has not been here in over a week, then her illness cannot derive from here, or nothing that Robbie could have eaten, too. But he did play with the gypsy boys, even before that scene between Madam Kizzy and Mary.” She shook her head and muttered, “Better the gypsy children than those awful Noonan boys.”
“Awful?” her father said. “What is wrong with Mrs. Noonan’s boys? Has something happened?”
Anne sighed, wishing she had kept her mouth shut. She was
going to tell her father that the Noonan demons almost killed her with their mischief, though she still intended to have it out with them. “It’s nothing, Papa. Don’t fret about it.” She rose, crossed to him and kissed his forehead. “I have things to do now, so I’ll let you get on with your work. If you think of anything that could have made them all ill, please let me know.”
“I will indeed, my dearest daughter,” he said, patting her hand on his shoulder.
It was afternoon when Darkefell and Osei, traveling by Royal Mail coach in plain dress to avoid notice, were set down in Canterbury. Not an hour later, the two men were riding out through St. George Gate on hired mounts, heading for the Darkefell hunting lodge known as Hawk Park since his family had acquired it many years before.
“How close is Harecross Hall to Hawk Park, Osei?” Darkefell asked.
“It is some distance, my lord. A good half day’s ride, anyway.”
The day around them was brilliant and warm, the breeze just brisk enough to be pleasant while riding swiftly, even on a hired mount that could not compare to his own favorite steed, Sunny. Now that they were out of Canterbury town the only unpleasant scent on the air was from the gibbet they passed, and the stinking corpses of three men, hanged after the last assize court. Once past them both the view and the smell improved. They traversed long rolling hills over dry hard-packed roads.
Darkefell considered his plan of action as they rode east away from Canterbury. “We’ll head directly toward Harecross Hall, Osei, instead of going to Hawk Park first. I will not risk Anne’s life with any delay, for if Hiram Grover is in Kent, it can only have one meaning. He intends to see her dead.”
“Why would he do such a thing, sir? Perhaps he was in Kent preparatory to making his escape to the Continent. Is that not a more reasonable surmise?”
Darkefell thought about it. He had taken Hiram’s sending of the family ring to Theo as the last gesture of a man who thought he would end up dead, but could it be as Osei proposed, his last deed before leaving England forever? The man had traveled widely as a wine merchant before settling in Yorkshire after his inheritance. He knew Italian, and could no doubt find a home and employment in Italy among the many English expatriates who had escaped crime or bankruptcy there.
But still … “No, I really don’t think he has any intention of leaving England. And in any case, I will not risk Anne’s safety, not for anything.”
Osei didn’t reply. They cantered along the road, the rhythmic sound of the hooves blending with birdsong from the hedgerow to create a country melody. It was odd to speak of such dark things as murder and madness on a lovely spring day in the English countryside, but Darkefell went on to explain his reasoning.
“I know Hiram Grover, and you should, too, Osei. Has he once looked at you with anything but loathing? He should have begged your forgiveness for the way his hired sailors treated you and the others, but he blamed you and me for his downfall instead of taking the responsibility upon his own shoulders.”
“That does appear to be his character, my lord.”
“And now we know more about his finances, that he has no money remaining from his fortune that is not owed to someone. He blames me more than you, and I fear he knows how much Anne means to me.” Anger boiled up in his gut. “He is not man enough to face me, but we already know he is willing to kill an innocent woman to make his point.”
“You still think Lord Julius followed Mr. Grover to Kent?”
“Why else would he be so close to Harecross Hall? Grover is after Anne and Julius is after Grover. It explains why my brother left without a word to me; he had no time. I’ll stop Hiram Grover and deliver him back to justice, or kill him myself in the attempt. We must get there quickly!” He spurred his horse to a gallop.
Anne, anxious and unable to settle to anything but the problem at hand, returned to the gypsy camp to check on the condition of Madam Kizzy and try to trace the origin of the illness that had stricken her, Robbie, and Mrs. Jackson. She was alone except for Irusan’s accompaniment, but took a slightly different route and kept her eyes open for someone with a gun. She was convinced, though, that the gunshot was a poacher who would be long gone, but that didn’t stop her from walking more quickly than usual and arriving out of breath.
Irusan disappeared before she entered the camp, but she had no worry, for he would find her at some point. Anne glanced around the encampment, but most of the gypsy women either would not meet her eye or actively avoided her, hustling their children away at the sight of her strolling through the circle of tents and carts. Anne sought out the young woman who was her best source of information, Florrie, taking dry laundry down from a line near the gypsy mother’s cart. They spoke for a moment, but she seemed abstracted.
Anne became weary of hedging and decided to be blunt. “Florrie, if you and the others care about Madam Kizzy’s illness, you
tell me about your diet. I only wish to discover what the source of the illness is, not to trap or trick you. Please believe me. What has the mother been eating that the rest of you have not?” Anne said, doing her best to be patient. “I wish to help you!”
“You say you are trying to help?” the young woman finally burst out, hugging a man’s shirt to her swollen belly. “Then tell your people, those in the village, to stop spitting at our people. They are bothering us again, even when we go with money to their shops to purchase things we need. They tell us to get out, for they will not serve us. And they say to our men, ‘Go, we will not hire you. We would rather the crops rot in the fields than be tended by the likes of you!’ We are accustomed to scorn, yes, from your kind, but always we have worked. They must listen to you, lady. Tell them to stop treating us like dirt!”
trying to help. This must be handled with diplomacy, for both sides. But while I find a solution for the problems with the villagers, I am looking for the source of Madam Kizzy’s illness. We don’t have time to become distracted. Her illness could be serious and I want to help.”