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
The young woman appeared taken aback, as if she did not expect a sympathetic ear from Anne. “Yes, I understand and will help. I, too, am worried about our mother.”
So Anne helped her take the laundry down, ineptly folding while Florrie refolded the items of clothing, colorful scarves and skirts, men’s dark vests and shirts, and children’s gowns. Then they strolled through the camp as the young woman told Anne everything they had eaten. Vegetables, mostly, and, Florrie admitted, fish caught in the stream. Rabbits. Small birds snared in the wild. A stew or ragout made from all those ingredients.
It seemed there was nothing in particular that they could have eaten in common with Mrs. Jackson at Farfield Farm, especially, for the two sets of people had no contact at all. No gypsy picked mushrooms, though they did use wild herbs. Florrie confirmed that drinking water was taken from the stream.
“All right,” Anne finally said, putting one hand on the young woman’s shoulder. “I will have to look elsewhere for what is making them all ill.”
“And you will tell people it is not a gypsy curse?” Florrie said anxiously, her dark eyes full of worry. “I do not like people to think we are so bad.”
Anne nodded. “Florrie, I will do my best, but Madam Kizzy certainly made an impression, with her ‘curse.’ Many villagers saw and heard her a few days ago, when she had that trouble in the village, and the ones that didn’t have heard the story, embellished, no doubt, by the more imaginative. This illness of Robbie and Mrs. Jackson is simply aggravating the trouble.”
“I trust you, lady,” Florrie said, her hand on Anne’s arm. “You will help us.”
“I promise you, I am working on a solution to the trouble with the villagers,” Anne assured. She had spoken to Mr. Destry, the Harecross Hall estate manager, but he was slow to offer advice even at his best, and ultimately her impatience meant she would work on a solution herself. “It would help if you could tell me more about how the trouble started.”
With tears in her eyes, the young woman complied. “They say we set fires, that we steal things and torment the cattle. Break windows. But it is not true. Why would we do such things?” Tears ran down her dusky cheeks, soaking into the dark downy hairs that clothed her jawline up to her scarf-covered hair. She rubbed her swollen belly. “They tell our men we must leave or we will be driven from here. My husband, he was beaten once. The mother became angry and shouted a curse, yes, but she is sick now, too.”
“No one has gotten sick in the village that I know of. Other than your gypsy mother, it is just Mrs. Jackson, from Farfield Farm, and my maidservant’s little boy, Robbie MacDougall.” It was worse than Anne had imagined, though, originally. How could she have missed the unrest, which she had written off as a series of pranks or some unrelated mischief? Incidents always happened, but it seemed that there was an unfortunate cluster lately. The villagers demand to evict the gypsies made sense now, in light of what she had just learned. Both sides would need to calm themselves. Anne glanced around her and saw the distrustful gazes of the other women turned to her, as they tended the fire, scrubbed pots, and went about other chores.
“We do not dare leave this place,” Florrie said, her voice thick with unshed tears. “For what if the source of the mother’s illness is not found? Or what if it is here that she must recover, here where she fell ill?”
Anne took the other woman’s hands in her own and squeezed them, saying, “Please, let me see Madam Kizzy. Has she regained consciousness?” She saw the blank look on the gypsy girl’s face, and interpreted, “That is, has she awakened at all? The boy who is ill has moments of wakefulness.”
The other woman’s puzzled expression cleared. “She awoke this morning for a while, and was able to take some broth. We hope she is getting better.”
But she wasn’t, Anne found when she went to visit the woman. The poor soul had been sick again, vomiting, and had fallen back into unconsciousness. A beautiful young girl, only about thirteen, was sitting with her, but the child appeared afraid, tears standing in her dark eyes.
Anne crouched down beside Madam Kizzy’s pallet, trying not to breathe too deeply in the fetid air of the woman’s “home.” She looked wretched, her normally ruddy complexion sallow and wrinkles rucked into furrows. Anne experienced the cold grip of terror in the pit of her stomach. A relapse. She had thought signs of getting better meant a recovery, but this woman had fallen ill again, so even if Robbie began to recover, they would need to be vigilant. What was making them ill? If not some common food, then what?
And what if all three should die?
“So you say she only took broth before becoming ill again?” she asked the girl who was caring for her.
The young girl nodded. “Only broth, madam.”
“But no one else is ill?”
“Did anyone eat the broth?”
She nodded. “We used it for the stew, madam.”
“Try giving her just water or tea the next time she awakens,” Anne advised the girl tending the gypsy. “But make sure it is water that has been boiled for some time. I have heard that removes some harmful things, if the water is tainted.”
Anne climbed back down from the cart. She felt quite ill, and for a moment imagined what would happen if she got sick, too. What if the illness galloped through the community? Marsh fever and ague had taken many in waves of illness, and the outbreaks had led to panic, accusations of witchcraft, fear, and a distressing rise in superstition. What if this was some new illness not yet identified? She put her hand flat against her stomach.
Florrie approached her. “Are you not well?” she asked.
“It’s nothing,” Anne assured her. “Just an upset stomach. I don’t think I’ve eaten today.”
“Do you have a baby, madam?” she asked anxiously, her hand over her own swollen belly.
Anne’s breath caught. “No! No,” she said. “I’m unmarried and not, er, with child.”
“Oh. I am sorry for saying …” The woman blushed, shook her head, but then rushed back into speech. “I believe you try to help us, madam, and so I will help you. You asked about a man a few days ago.”
Darkefell! “Yes, I saw you speaking with a man, a gajo,” Anne said, remembering her father’s word for a man who was not a gypsy. She clutched the young woman’s arm. “He was dark-haired, taller than you,” she said, putting her other hand about a foot higher than the other woman’s head. “And when I saw him and called out his name, Tony, he ran away. Why did he run? Concerning what did he speak to you?”
“Well, he lived in the woods a few days, near us, and he ask
questions of us.”
“Questions?” Anne asked, puzzled. “About me?”
“No, madam, about a man. He asked about a man the mother has seen, a man who was dangerous, he said.”
A man who was dangerous. It made no sense at all. Why would Darkefell be haunting her land, asking about a dangerous man?
“The mother told him who she saw.”
“And who was that?”
Florrie grabbed Anne’s arm and pulled her away a little from the other women, who watched with suspicion in their dark eyes. “There was a man, he was big, fat, as you say it. But not right, you know, not right at all. The mother called him a man who was dead, but not dead.”
“Like … like a ghost?” Anne asked, confused.
The girl shrugged. “I don’t know. All she said was ‘dead, but not dead.’ He told her a story about a girl who died, and how it wasn’t his fault, and then he said it was really a … a spinner’s fault.”
“A spinner? Like a weaver?”
The girl shrugged again. “The mother did not understand much of what he said. He was ill, she said, wild in the head.”
Mad? “And you told this to the man I’m asking about?”
The young woman nodded. “He was here two, three times, but we did not see him again after you called after him. But I had already told him that the mother had not seen the ‘dead, not dead’ man again, not for many days.”
Anne thanked her and began the walk home, calling out to Irusan as she went. He was probably hunting mice and voles, his favorite occupation.
Wanting to stay out in the open and thus avoid any possibility that a poacher would shoot at her, mistaking her for prey, she took the long way home, past Wroth Farm, up to the headland, dotted with wildflowers, yellow vetch and purple bugle. The channel was glittering and peaceful in the late afternoon sun, but Anne couldn’t enjoy the beauty of the chalk cliff, the sight of a sparrowhawk wheeling overhead, hunting for food, likely, for her new brood of chicks. Anne turned inland and began back to Harecross Hall.
What was going on? It was all as confusing as before, or, truthfully,
confusing. The illness had returned to the old gypsy woman when she had seemed to be getting better. Anne told them to get rid of the broth she had drunk, but how could it be the cause when Robbie likely hadn’t eaten anything like broth? He was a boy, not an old lady, and boys, in her experience, did not crave broth. Unless, she thought suddenly, that was the liquid spilled over him as Madam Kizzy told him his fortune. But that would not explain Mrs. Jackson’s identical illness.
Even the answer to the mystery of what Darkefell was doing in her woods was not satisfactory; Tony had evidently not been asking about her, but about some mysterious man the gypsies had seen. It made no sense, not one little bit. And on top of everything else, the “gypsy curse” was making the villagers nasty toward the gypsies; violence could break out between the gypsy men and the men of Hareham if the conflict wasn’t nipped in the bud.
And it was up to her to figure it all out. She missed Tony. Right that moment, she thought she would welcome him with open arms, for solving things with him was far more interesting and invigorating than working on her own, without a soul to speak with about it. He offered a counterpoint, a completely different way of looking at a problem. She sighed. She missed him.
Bringing his hired mount to a stop beside Osei, Darkefell gazed up the long green rise in the dying afternoon sunlight and stared at Harecross Hall, a four-story manse atop a hill. He hadn’t been to Kent in a couple of years. He went north to Scotland when he wanted to hunt, and Hawk Park, his hunting lodge near Canterbury, was not so tempting a destination that he went out of his way to stay there.
But this place … Harecross Hall was stately, graceful and mannered. It was quiet, with just a lark’s song on the air and the soft whisper of a breeze, protected as it was from the channel’s brisker winds by a wide swath of forest and a half mile or so of pasture. Sunshine lit the face, turning the red brick to warm pink and glittering in the scores of windows. To the right of the house was a large formal garden, with statuary just visible from a distance. To the left was a stew pond bordered on the far side by a dock where a punt drifted, tied to a mooring; marsh grass grew unchecked and danced in the breeze. There was a lovely glade of slim alders and birches beyond the stew pond, a tempting place to walk with someone, to talk perhaps, in privacy. Considering what a lovely home she had, it amazed Darkefell that Anne had been so taken with his own gloomy, forbidding castle.
They were worlds apart, this peaceful haven and his own Gothic pile.
But the calm beauty was marred by an unholy shrieking in the glade nearby. “What the devil?” he cried, twisting in his saddle, one gloved hand on the horse’s rump.
Osei said, “Look, my lord! There!”
They both saw a gray streak flying across the green sward, followed closely by two small boys.
“Good God, is that Anne’s cat?” Darkefell cried.
“It is Sir Irusan,” Osei said, calling the cat by his joking title for him, “and he is being chased by some young devils.”
It was Osei who set his horse in motion first, but Darkefell urged his sluggish gelding to a trot, then to a canter, then all out to a gallop and passed his secretary. The boys, two towheaded imps, stopped when they heard the thundering hooves, and there was delight on their narrow faces as Osei and Darkefell sailed over a low hedge toward them. The gaiety died when they caught sight of Osei, tall and dark, as he halted his beast and threw himself from the saddle, alongside the marquess.
Irusan, an enormous tabby of shaggy fur and huge paws, had an amazed expression on his broad face, and the recognition in his eyes was comically human in its intensity. He bolted to Osei, who held out his arms, and the cat sailed directly into them. Darkefell was aghast to see a branch tied to Irusan’s tail with a length of wire.
Without hesitation, he grasped the two boys by their jacket necks and hauled them toward Osei. “Did you do that to this poor creature? Did you tie that branch to his tail?”
They were both shaking, and gaped, speechless, at Osei, who had crouched in the long grass at the edge of the glade with Irusan cradled on his lap, patiently untying the wire from the cat’s tail. When he was done, he gently set the cat down, stood, and threw the branch toward the woods, shaking the wire in the boys’ faces. Irusan raced off toward the woods.
“This you will not do again, or it may happen that you will find yourself constrained by such a device,” he said, his tone stern. “Do you understand?”
Darkefell had never seen his secretary so angry, his neck and cheeks stained a dark crimson with fury. The boys nodded as well as they could considering they were still in Darkefell’s firm grasp. “Well, what do you think we should do with them, Mr. Boatin?” Darkefell asked with an evil chuckle.
“We could send them to my homeland on the continent of Africa, where young boys are taught to reverence life in every form.”
“No, no!” the boys screeched together, squirming.
“What are you doing to those boys?” a voice asked.
Darkefell whirled to find Anne approaching, while Irusan wove around her, chattering frantically, speaking, though no one could understand him. She didn’t look angry, she looked amused and curious. He was speechless though, watching her fluid grace as she approached. From the first moment he had seen her, the elegance of her movement had attracted him.
“Cousin Anne,” the boys shouted, twisting in his grasp. “These men are being mean to us, they’re—”