Authors: Caroline Linden
Tags: #Regency, #Historical Romance, #Fiction
For Lyssa Keusch, editor nonpareil
About the Author
By Caroline Linden
About the Publisher
e came awake with a start, heart racing. The French were upon him—the
leaping over the barricades, their long muskets gleaming in the hazy light as they tried to sweep his brigade from their position. His ears rang, deafened by the first shot that had shattered his knee. For a moment he struggled to breathe, waiting for the second shot that would end it all.
The deafness persisted; no second shot came. Belatedly he realized there had been no first shot—not tonight. He was not on the battlefield in Belgium, trying desperately to beat back the Emperor’s troops from a sunken lane. He was home in England, sleeping in a chair by the dying fire with his ruined leg splinted in front of him.
Sebastian Vane slumped back into the worn leather, exhausted, as his heart still beat a frantic tattoo against his breastbone. With a trembling hand he wiped the cold sweat from his face. There were no French here, only laudanum nightmares of them.
A soft bang made him start again. He looked toward the door, but it was closed. Another door had slammed, downstairs from the sound of it.
The housekeeper must be up and about. Mrs. Jones was running herself ragged nursing her husband, who’d been sick in bed for the last week, as well as caring for a madman and a cripple. The poor woman. Sebastian groped for his watch; it was late, after midnight. He’d been asleep for two hours, and now felt as though he wouldn’t sleep again tonight, which was a shame.
It had been a relatively good night thus far. His father’s madness seemed to have receded a bit, leaving him more like the parent Sebastian remembered and less like the deranged lunatic he’d found on his return from the war. Michael Vane had eaten a few bites of his dinner tonight before hurling the platter aside and muttering about poison. When Sebastian helped him out of his clothes, he hadn’t kicked, only cursed. And when Sebastian put him to bed, his father had gone as docilely as a child, wrapping his hand around the ragged strip of fabric that had once been Sebastian’s mother’s nightgown. That nightgown had been a godsend; with it in his grasp, Michael grew calmer and more manageable.
Well. That wasn’t really the father Sebastian remembered—calm and docile, soothed by a worn-out nightgown—but it was a far sight better than the screaming madman he often was. Sebastian shifted his weight, trying to stretch his leg without reopening the wound. His father had kicked him the previous day, splitting open the scar over his knee and leaving him so faint with pain, Mrs. Jones had run for the laudanum. Nasty stuff, laudanum. He’d almost weaned himself off it, before the kick, and hated that he had to take it again.
The wind howled past the windows, rattling the panes of glass, and the door below banged again, harder. He raised his head and frowned. That sounded like the heavy front door. “Mrs. Jones,” he called. Perhaps she’d had to step out and failed to latch it on her return to the house. There was no reply from below, only a slightly softer thud from the door. Mrs. Jones must have gone to bed, and she wouldn’t be able to hear it from her rooms behind the kitchen.
He sighed. He could ring the bell and wake her, but he wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon. Didn’t he want to be independent again? Gingerly he eased himself forward in the chair, setting his left foot on the floor. With a hard shove he was on his feet, unsteady until he got his crutch set.
The corridor was dark, only a faint light bleeding up the stairs. As he reached the head of the stairs, there was another great thump from below, with a gust of cold air. Alternating between cursing and holding his breath, he hobbled down the stairs to see the front door, unbarred and unlatched, swing slowly open as the wind caught it.
Puzzled, Sebastian propped his shoulder against the door frame and caught the door as it blew toward him again. The heavy bar that should have held it closed lay across the threshold, preventing the door from slamming closed. Normally it fit across the jambs, to prevent the door being opened from the outside. It was as if someone had removed the bar and simply dropped it.
The back of his neck prickled. Only one person in the house would do that . . . but Michael Vane was securely locked in his room upstairs. Sebastian did it himself, every night, for his father’s own good.
Still, he pushed the door open and peered out. The moon was a thin crescent, and the cold wind whipped the shrubbery and trees into frenzied waving. But the sky was clear of clouds, and there was enough light to see that the grounds were deserted. He shook his head; it must have been the housekeeper, who was no doubt exhausted to the point of delirium. He closed the door and dropped the bar into place before limping up the stairs to his room again.
He had barely settled into his chair, though, when there was another thumping from below. This time it wasn’t the door itself, but someone pounding on the door. “Vane!” cried a familiar voice over the moaning wind. “Damn you, Vane, wake up!”
The pounding continued as Sebastian made his way back down the stairs, cursing all the while this time as his knee burned. He wrestled the bar up and away, whereupon the visitor threw open the door and surged over the threshold.
“Where is she?” demanded Benedict Lennox. “So help me, Vane, if you’ve touched her—”
“Samantha,” spat Benedict.
Sebastian’s eyebrows shot up. “Why would your sister be here, at this time of night? She’s only sixteen—”
“Which is probably why she’s gone and done such an idiotic thing!” Benedict lowered his voice. “If you just produce her now, I’ll take her home with no questions or arguments. No one else knows she’s missing yet—”
Sebastian’s mouth thinned. “She’s not here.”
Benedict glared at him. “No? She told me she’s in love with you, and has been for years.”
“Schoolgirl infatuation,” Sebastian said in a low voice.
“But a headstrong, impulsive schoolgirl could easily be persuaded to throw her lot in with a—”
He stopped abruptly, but Sebastian could fill in the rest:
a madman’s son, crippled and destitute
. “How flattering,” he said evenly. “I never guessed my personal charms would be strong enough to persuade an earl’s daughter to throw herself away on me, bankrupt and lame though I am.”
Benedict’s eyes flashed with fury. “You know she would elope with you if you asked,” he snarled.
“But I didn’t,” Sebastian pointed out. It made no difference. Benedict had already headed down the corridor, opening each door he passed. Sebastian stood listening to the search in impotent humiliation. He knew Samantha had once fancied herself in love with him, but it was calf love. Even if it wasn’t, she had to know that her father, the Earl of Stratford, would never allow her to marry the son of Mad Michael Vane. Everyone knew it. And it had made Samantha’s infatuation, once something amusing and flattering, into yet another source of mortification as her family made certain everyone knew such a match was utterly unthinkable.
And now Samantha’s brother, who had once been his dearest friend in all the world, thought he’d schemed to elope with her. Sebastian limped to the bottom of the stairs and rested against the newel post. Benedict was making a very thorough effort; he knew the house well. He’d practically lived here as a boy, fleeing the strict air at Stratford Court for the woods and hills of Montrose Hill. One upon a time, Benedict’s arrival in the middle of the night would have filled Sebastian with elation and excitement, and the two of them would have stolen off into the woods for a night of illicit adventure.
But that had been a very long time ago.
Benedict came back to the hall, his expression grimmer than ever. “I’m going upstairs.”
“I can hardly stop you,” Sebastian said under his breath. Benedict was already headed up the stairs, and this time he followed.
As expected, Benedict took more care up here. He opened the door at the top of the stairs, pausing when he saw the bottle of laudanum on the mantel. He gave Sebastian a wary glance, seeming for the first time to take in his splinted leg, his crutch, the dressing gown he wore. “You could help me look,” he said in a somewhat calmer tone.
“She’s not here.” Sebastian leaned on his crutch, still winded from going up and down the stairs so many times. “Whether I look or not, you won’t find her.”
Benedict set his jaw, and continued to the next door. He made his way quickly down the corridor; all those rooms were empty, even the linen cupboard. Everything in them had been sold. Only at the far end of the corridor did Sebastian stop him.
“That’s my father’s room,” he said as Benedict reached for the knob. “It’s locked.”
But it wasn’t. The door opened an inch under Benedict’s hand.
His former friend looked at him. Sebastian stared at the door in shock. He’d disabled the lock on the inside of the door himself. He stumped closer, clumsy in his haste, and reached up. The key hung in its usual spot on the wall, next to the door in case of fire. He was sure—
—he’d locked it just a few hours ago. And yet the door opened, creaking softly as Benedict pushed it open.
It was as dark as pitch in the room. No fire or lamp of any kind was allowed, not since Michael Vane had tried to set himself ablaze. Sebastian hobbled to the window and threw open one of the shutters. Benedict made a noise of quiet shock at the sight of the bars crossing the windows, too closely to allow even a hand through them, but Sebastian was staring at the bed.
The empty bed.
He grabbed Benedict’s coat. “Why are you here?”
“To—to find my sister.” Benedict seemed rattled as well.
“Why the devil did you think she was here?” he demanded.
Benedict stared at him. “Because she said nothing would stop her from marrying you.”
Sebastian cursed again. “If her father wouldn’t—and I strongly assume he would—
would.” He thumped his crutch in illustration. “But why did you think she was
“I— She went missing,” said Benedict, finally appearing to grasp how thin his logic had been. “I couldn’t find her . . .”
“She’s not here—she never has been.” Sebastian limped from the room, the crutch digging into his arm. “And now, neither is my father.” His brain still felt a bit fuzzy from the laudanum; damn it, he must have forgotten to lock the door. How long had it been since Michael escaped? Between the cold and the darkness, time was of the essence in finding him.
He turned back toward the stairs. Behind him he could hear Benedict opening the last few doors, all of which led into rooms that were completely empty. Benedict caught up to him in the hall below, as Sebastian was putting on his hat and coat. “Where else could she be?” he asked, only slightly subdued.
“I’ve no idea. She’s your sister.” Sebastian pulled open the front door and gestured. “Go home, Ben. She probably went to the library for a book, or to the kitchen for some warm milk.”
Benedict scowled, although with real worry this time. “I looked there. I looked everywhere. She was gone, I tell you. And you—and she—”
Sebastian shrugged. He was fond of Samantha . . . as a brother or a cousin might be. With her promise of beauty and her father’s position and wealth, she would marry much better than he, a crippled soldier whose father had laid waste to his estate because he thought the devil was after him. Sebastian himself had told Samantha that he wouldn’t be a good husband; he’d only meant to let her know, gently, that her affection for him was misplaced. He was needed at home to care for his father, and now he’d been proven negligent even at that.