North Wales, September 1819
The Duke of Rhuddlan’s hand flew to the back of his head as he pitched forward over the neck of his horse. Stars exploded before his eyes and pain spread through his skull, while sticky warmth began to ooze through his fingers. He managed to sling an arm around the horse’s neck to keep himself from falling off, but only just. The sudden clinch made the poor beast panic and it started thrashing about, determined to dislodge Rhuddlan. The tighter he held on, the harder the horse bucked, until it succeeded in dumping its ducal rider onto the muddy road.
Rhuddlan landed on his side, his head bouncing mercifully off his arm—flung up at the last moment to shield his face from the impact—rather than the ground. He lay there for a moment or two with his eyes closed, trying to clear his mind and take stock of his body.
But when he opened his eyes, he saw only darkness.
He held a hand up to his face, close enough for him to smell the damp earth on his fingers, but his eyes registered nothing. Rolling onto his back, he spread his arms out wide and shut his eyes again, hoping that the next time he opened them his vision would be restored.
“Your Grace!” a voice called from somewhere far away. “Your Grace, are you hurt?”
He struggled to sit up, loath to appear weak before a stranger. But a great wave of dizziness washed over him and knocked him back to the ground.
Fabric swished in his ear as if someone in a gown or long robe had knelt down beside him. A cool, calloused hand smoothed his brow, stroked his cheek. The blackness began to fade when he opened his eyes once more, but it was replaced by a world twirling like a demented ballerina and he shut them tight again.
“Your Grace, don’t move for a moment. You’ve had a nasty fall.”
The voice was feminine, English, and he heard its owner suck in a breath when her fingers met the blood oozing from his wound.
“I assure you, madam, that I—”
“I beg your pardon, Your Grace,” the voice interrupted, “but if you’re about to tell me you’re perfectly well, then you can save your breath. I can see very well what kind of state you’re in.”
Her tone was brusque but polite and Rhuddlan’s world was still spinning, so he held his piece. He was clearly in need of assistance, and if this girl had plans to finish him off she’d have done so by now.
“Very well,” he murmured, heartened that his words were properly enunciated, not slurred and sloppy like his thoughts. “What do you suggest?”
He heard a second figure join the first, kneeling on the road beside him. “First, we stop the bleeding, Your Grace. Can you sit up if we help you?”
Another woman, older by the sound of her voice and Welsh. Rhuddlan started to nod, then thought better of it. “I believe so.”
Two arms slid across his back and slowly levered him into a sitting position, holding him there as someone pressed a cloth to the base of his skull.
“How bad is it?” he asked, hoping the women didn’t hear the apprehension in his voice.
They were both silent for a long moment before the younger one spoke. “It’s messy.”
“Head wounds do tend to bleed a lot,” he returned slowly. He’d certainly seen enough of them on the battle field to know.
“Do you know what happened, Your Grace?”
He pressed his lips together. It could have been a random attack. God knew Rhuddlan tried to take care of the people who depended on him, but not everyone appreciated his methods. Yet he was nearly certain his brother Nick was behind this, quite possibly the Duke of Cumberland, too. The pair of them had been thick as thieves for the past three years, united in a single purpose: to remove Rhuddlan from power and gain control of the dukedom’s finances.
But Rhuddlan said none of that aloud. “I didn’t see who it was,” he answered instead, which was true enough. “I didn’t even see what was thrown.”
“We should get you out of the road, Your Grace,” the older woman said. “Do you think you can walk?”
He opened his eyes, keeping them cast downward toward the dirt. The road was still spinning, but not as fast as it had been. He cautiously lifted his lids and tried to focus on the women assisting him, but the effort—and the glaring sun—only nauseated him. “Slowly, perhaps.”
They got him to his feet and helped him shuffle from the road to a nearby cottage, while a black blur that might have been a dog led the way. The distance must only have been a dozen yards or so but they seemed to take hours to cover it, and Rhuddlan was exhausted when at last they set him in a hard wooden chair. The older woman disappeared with a glance at her associate that he couldn’t quite make out.
“Mrs. Davies will fetch a physician, Your Grace, and see to your horse.”
Rhuddlan twisted around trying to look at the younger woman as she stood behind him, but she turned his head back and bent it slightly forward.
“You must be the healer, then,” he said.
He felt a cloth once again pressed against his wound and suppressed a grunt of pain. “I assume that’s why you stayed with me while…”
“Mrs. Davies,” she supplied.
“…while Mrs. Davies finds my physician and horse.”
“Mrs. Davies is better with horses than I am. It takes no great skill to hold a cloth to a wound.”
He’d been left in the care of a girl devoid of competence? He propped his elbows on his thighs and dropped his face into his hands. “Who are you, then, if not a healer?”
“Miss Stone, Your Grace. I mostly make my living with a needle and thread.”
At least he’d have someone to sew up his scalp if the physician failed to appear. “You live here with Mrs. Davies?”
“I live here. She lives next door.”
This stretch of land was part of the Rhuddlan estate—small farms and cottages with kitchen gardens leased to families that couldn’t afford to purchase property of their own. “My tenants, then.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Have you ever met my brother?”
Rhuddlan pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. His elder brother—the one who should have inherited the dukedom—had been killed fighting at the Battle of New Orleans four years ago. Rhuddlan didn’t think of him as often as he used to, but the memories still hurt when they surfaced.
“Lord Nicholas,” he answered tightly. Thoughts of his younger brother were painful, too.
“I haven’t had the pleasure.”
She said it with no great enthusiasm in her voice, yet no hostility either. He supposed she could have been lying, but came back to the realization that if she’d wanted him dead or incapacitated she could easily have seen to it by now.
“Perhaps you should lie down, Your Grace. My bed is just through that door—”
He wanted to protest, but between the dizziness and pain he couldn’t bring himself to react with anything except relief. “Yes, thank you.”
She took one of his hands and clamped it to the back of his head, holding the cloth in place, then slipped one arm around his waist and hoisted him to his feet. She was several inches shorter than he and Rhuddlan wasn’t sure how she managed to keep him from crashing to the floor, but he was delivered safely to a narrow bed and sank down onto it, taking extra care to lie on his side.
The next hour was a blur of misery. His wound eventually ceased bleeding, and the cottage finally stopped spinning long enough for Rhuddlan to take in his surroundings. But the nausea refused to retreat, nor could the physician seem to banish the feeling when he arrived. The man set his case on what looked to be a crude dressing table, pushing a plain wooden hairbrush and some faded ribbons aside to make room for his phials, but the concoction he mixed up was as foul tasting as it was useless.
Rhuddlan dismissed the man, and carefully laid back down on the surprisingly soft sheets until Miss Stone roused him an indeterminate time later. By then the scent of his own blood had overpowered the smell of mint that seemed to be infused into the sheets, and he was ready to return to his own home.
“Your carriage is here, Your Grace,” she said softly, laying a hand on his shoulder. “The coachman has brought a stable lad with him to see to your horse, as well.”
“Good. Thank you.” He allowed her to help him sit up, then to stand. “I will not forget the kindness you’ve shown to me today.”
Her gaze drifted to the floor. “I only did what any decent person would do.”
“Nevertheless,” he replied, watching a few loose strands of blonde hair slide across her cheek. For a brief moment, he wondered if her hair was as soft as it looked or if his vision was still distorted. “I will remember it.”
The coachman came in at that moment, and took over the support of Rhuddlan from Miss Stone, loading him into the carriage for the short drive back to Rhuddlan Hall. His head had cleared a little more by the time he arrived at the front door, and his principal secretary, Ian Vaughn, who appeared moments after the footman shut the big front door behind his master, was barely spinning at all.
“Your Grace.” Vaughn dipped his head in a short bow. “Would you allow me to assist you—”
“I can walk on my own,” Rhuddlan replied. His voice sounded gruff, but after nearly ten years in service to Rhuddlan, Vaughn was no doubt used to his employer’s moods. “Come along, we have much to discuss.”
Once the door of the study was closed, Rhuddlan made for the green velvet sofa and lowered himself upon it, motioning to Vaughn to close the heavy curtains that framed each window. He wasn’t about to lie down in the presence of another person, particularly a subordinate, but the soft cushions would be more comfortable for his aching body than the stiff oak chair at his desk, and the darkness helped relieve the discomfort of the harsh sunlight.
“Where would you like to start, Your Grace?” Vaughn asked, settling himself at his own, smaller desk covered in stacks of books and papers. “With the incident this afternoon?”
“What do you know about it?”
Vaughn cleared his throat. “I spoke to Mrs. Davies when she came here. She told me that you’d been injured, but didn’t know the particulars.”
“A blow to the back of the head,” Rhuddlan clarified.
“You think it was Lord Nicholas?”
Rhuddlan closed his eyes briefly, fighting a wave of nausea when he opened them again. “It could have been random.”
Vaughn frowned, glancing at his shoes before meeting his employer’s eyes again. “It could have been anyone, Your Grace. But given your brother’s hostility toward you, and the encouragement he receives from the Duke of Cumberland…”
Rhuddlan sighed, more heavily than he’d intended. Nick was nearly nine years younger than he was, and had been his constant companion when they were boys despite the difference in their ages. They’d drifted apart a bit as they grew older, further still when Rhuddlan and their oldest brother purchased commissions in the Royal Army and marched away to fight in Britain’s wars. When their father died and Rhuddlan inherited the dukedom, Nick had turned to Prince Ernest Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland and the King’s fifth son, to fill the void.
“Cumberland, yes.” The complete opposite of Rhuddlan, who no doubt promised Nick power and wealth that his own brother wouldn’t give him. “Any sightings of him?”
“No, Your Grace. As far as anyone knows, he’s still in Hanover.”
“That’s good, at least.” Not that a little thing like distance would stop him—or Nick, for that matter—but it was something. “Have there been other incidents today?”
Vaughn shook his head. “Nothing since the mill fire.”
Rhuddlan turned slightly sideways and rested his temple against the back of the sofa, inhaling the scent of the leather-bound books on the shelves behind him. A fire had been deliberately set three days ago in a grain mill on another part of the estate. It had happened in the middle of the night and no one had been hurt, but every person employed there was now looking for a new way to provide for their families.
“And no proof who set the fire?” He knew very well there wasn’t, but he couldn’t help asking.
“No, Your Grace,” Vaughn repeated. “Though the food baskets were delivered today. The next set will be delivered a week hence.”
That made Rhuddlan’s mind a little more easy. At least his people would eat. “Good. I have another task to add to your list—find out everything you can about a woman named Stone who lives in one of the thatched cottages near the road to the village. And discover what you can about Mrs. Davies, as well. She is Miss Stone’s next door neighbor.”
Vaughn scribbled across a piece of paper on his desk. “Do you think they had anything to do with your attack?”
Did he? Rhuddlan shook his head, then winced as the pain overtook him. “No,” he answered, closing his eyes tightly. “I doubt they would have helped me if they were the ones who caused me harm in the first place.” It was more likely that at least one of them would come begging a favor of him, and he wanted to be prepared. “But I need to be sure.”
“I will see to it, Your Grace.”
“Good.” Another weight lifted, at least for the time being. “What else have I missed today?”
“What a mess he made of your sheets,” Mrs. Davies lamented, running a hand over a section of embroidery that hadn’t been bloodied.
Olivia Stone suppressed a sigh. She’d worked for weeks on the pillowcases alone, pillowcases that were now covered in patchy stains from the Duke of Rhuddlan’s head wound. “They may yet come clean,” she replied, though even she could hear the lack of conviction in her voice.
“Certainly, and I may yet become a duchess,” Mrs. Davies said with a wink. Then she sobered, asking quietly, “Do you have another set, my dear?”
Olivia pictured the soft linen she’d purchased last week, already sewn into sheets and decorated with carefully stitched honeysuckle vining along some of the edges. She’d saved for months to buy that material, planning to make the sheets a Christmas gift for neighbors.
And they were the only other sheets she possessed.
But Olivia didn’t want Mrs. D. to worry—she did enough of that on Olivia’s behalf as it was. “I do, yes.”
“Good. You’ll be over for supper tonight, won’t you?”
Another reason for the Christmas gift: if not for Mrs. D. issuing her almost nightly invitation to dine with her and her live-in companion, Miss Hatch, Olivia would likely go to bed hungry more often than not. She earned money each month taking in sewing to provide for herself and her big black dog—curled up contentedly by the front door—but too many of her customers had begun patronizing the new dressmaker’s shop in the village, and her income had steadily been declining. The generosity of her neighbors lessened the strain on her tight budget, and giving them good quality linen with Olivia’s own embroidery was a way of saying thank you.
“I will, just as soon as I get these stains soaking in some cold water.”
She bid Mrs. D. farewell and grabbed two buckets, heading toward the small stream that flowed a quarter mile behind her cottage. The water in it was always cold as melted snow, and it might be enough to get the blood out of her sheets.
Olivia was halfway home again with her buckets filled nearly to the brim when a shadow fell across her path. She sucked in a breath and held it, recognizing the smell of his expensive cologne before her eyes reached his face.
Sir George Grayson. He claimed to have been courting her for the past several months, except his addresses were anything but courtly…and even less welcome. He treated her more like prey than a potential wife, despite his professed love for her. Olivia knew it was her connections he loved, though, not her. If not for her relation to Viscount Teverton—never mind how distant it was—Sir George wouldn’t have given her a second thought.
Too bad he also knew her real identity, and wasn’t above blackmailing her with it.
“Aren’t you going to greet me?” He came to a halt directly in front of her, a box held in one hand while the other reached for her.
She set down one of the heavy buckets and offered him her hand, trying, as usual, to disguise her reluctance. If he detected anything but willing obedience in her voice or manner, there was no telling what he’d do. “Good afternoon, Sir George.”
He took her hand, giving it a hard squeeze. “Good afternoon to you, Olivia. What’s the water for?”
She couldn’t let him know that there had been another man in her home, but if he caught her lying to him… She shuddered internally and pushed the thought away. “Some of my linens were stained, and I need to soak them before the stain sets.”
He yanked her closer to him, sloshing water onto her shoes from the bucket she still held. “Linen? As in bed sheets?”
She swallowed hard and dropped her gaze, her whole body tensing. “Yes. But it’s not what you think.”
“It’s not what I think? What do you know about what I think?”
It was a trick question, of course. It always was. “I didn’t mean to presume, Sir George.”
His grip on her hand relaxed a little. He liked her best when he thought she was meek and biddable. “I’m sure you didn’t. Tell me, then—what happened to your sheets?”
Olivia slid her hand gently from his, slowly setting down the other bucket of water in case she needed to run. He’d never seriously harmed her—he seemed to enjoy her fear more than her pain—but he’d threatened to do so more times than she cared to recall.
“Th-there’s blood on them,” she replied quietly, clasping her hands together at her waist. Perhaps this time she could quell the shaking before he noticed it.
“Blood on your sheets?” His tone was even, almost conversational. But his eyes had narrowed and his cheeks had flushed. “Who were you tupping, you little whore?”
“No, Sir George, that isn’t what ha—”
“And now you lie to me about it?” He took a step closer to her, grabbing the neckline of her dress in one big fist. “What have I told you about lying to me?”
Olivia fought to control her breathing. The more panic she displayed, the longer he would torture her. “That there would be consequences,” she said as steadily as she could. Part of her badly wanted to explain the situation, to exonerate herself of the wrongdoing he was imagining. But she knew that would only anger him more, so she clamped her mouth shut.
“That’s right. Would you like to tell me the truth now, or do you want to find out what those consequences are?”
His words were harsh, almost a whisper, but they frightened her more than if he’d been shouting. “I am telling you the truth,” she managed, fighting tears. She’d only cried in front of him once and he’d stomped away in disgust, but she couldn’t be sure he’d react that way a second time. What if her tears enraged him even more?
“Perhaps I should burn down your little house, hm? With no place to live, you’d have to marry me…or freeze to death this winter.” She clenched her teeth together hard to keep from responding, but he smiled. “While I’m at it, I’ll put your neighbors’ hovel to the torch, too. That would teach you not to lie to me, wouldn’t it?”
Faint but persistent barking filtered through the air, simultaneously filling her with hope and dread, her heart racing as the sound grew louder. What would George do to the animal who came upon them? To a person accompanying the animal?
His eyes stayed focused on hers for a moment that felt like years. Then he slowly released her gown and opened the box he’d been carrying. Her eyes widened as he drew out an ivory-handled pistol and touched the tip of the barrel to her chest.
“Don’t make a sound.”
She nodded slowly, barely breathing as he turned and fired in the direction of the barking. Peering around his shoulder, Olivia could see her dog, Artie, loping down the hill toward them. He started when the gun fired and she pressed her hands to her mouth to stifle the scream that tore from her throat.
Artie laid his ears back and snarled, racing toward Sir George and the sound of the shot. Sir George pulled a second pistol from the box and took aim, sending the tears pouring down Olivia’s face.
She gathered every ounce of courage she had and shouted, “Loup! Arrête-toi!” He didn’t always listen when he thought she was in danger, but he’d been a herding dog before the late Mr. Davies had brought him home from Waterloo and still reflexively responded to commands given in French. Thankfully, he stopped in his tracks and dropped into a low crouch. Mrs. Davies’ form crested the hill a second later and Sir George lowered his weapon, concealing it behind his back, as the smell of gunpowder hung thick in the air.
“Olivia? Are you down there?” Mrs. D. called. “I forgot to ask you—”
“I’ll be right there,” she called in a shaky voice, defying Sir George’s order for silence once again, hoping he’d leave Mrs. D. alone if she stayed far enough away. To him, she murmured, “If I don’t go up there, she’ll come down here.”
Sir George gave her one final glare, then jerked his chin in Mrs. D.’s direction. Olivia lifted her buckets of water and tried to walk normally, whistling to Artie to follow her up the hill. Mrs. D. held out an arm and Olivia passed her one of the buckets, threading her free arm through Mrs. D.’s, hoping to draw strength from the older woman.
“Just a few more minutes and you’ll be safe,” Mrs. D. whispered.
Olivia spent her remaining energy maintaining a calm countenance and a regular stride all the way back to Mrs. D.’s cottage. Once she rounded the corner into the little kitchen garden, she let go. Dropping her bucket and leaning against the stone wall of the house, Olivia covered her face and cried out her terror, her anger, her relief that no one had been hurt today. Mrs. D. hugged her, let Olivia cry on her shoulder as Artie leaned against her legs.
“How bad was it this time?” Mrs. D. asked when Olivia had cried herself out.
“You heard the shot?” It was all Olivia could bring herself to say, but it was enough to convey the danger they’d been in. Sir George had described his pistols in detail over the last few weeks, including the animals he’d killed with them.
Mrs. D. hugged Olivia to her again. “You poor girl.”
“I can’t live like this anymore,” Olivia choked out. “What am I going to do?”
Mrs. D. rubbed Olivia’s back in slow circles, and Olivia let the motion and the gentle breeze calm her, let them carry away thoughts of what could have happened at the base of the hill. When she’d cried her last, she lifted her face and wiped her eyes, bending down to give Artie his own hug and kiss. “You’re a good boy, Loup Garou.”
“You do have one option.”
Olivia straightened, keeping one hand on Artie’s furry head as she faced Mrs. D. “Teverton?”
Mrs. D. didn’t react to the name, but she didn’t have to. It was a discussion they’d had before. Lord Teverton was Olivia’s closest living relative and head of her family, but the only thing she knew about him was that he owned an estate near Liverpool.
“What if he turns me away?”
No one could legally force Olivia to marry Sir George, but if she went to Teverton for help and he refused, her only choice would be between Sir George and slow starvation as the demand for her work continued to decline and her past slowly caught up with her.
“But what if he doesn’t?”
Olivia pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. What if Teverton was an honorable man who promised to protect her? Did she even have paper to write him a letter and ask?
“What about His Grace?” she said suddenly, dropping her hands to her sides. The breeze picked up, carrying with it the scent of the mint growing a few feet away.
Mrs. D. took a step back. “What about him?”
“Well…he’s here. Teverton is all the way in Liverpool. Or at a different estate completely. And the duke ought to be amenable to my situation—if I am hale and hearty, I can continue paying my rent every quarter.”
Mrs. D. shook her head faintly. “You can’t mean to ask him for help.”
“At least I’ve made his acquaintance,” Olivia replied slowly. “Better the devil you know.”
“Devil is right,” Mrs. D. said, her mouth pulling into a pucker as if she’d eaten something sour. “I know we helped him this afternoon, but that was basic decency. You know what they say about the man.”
Olivia did know. She’d borrowed a battered copy of a story called The Vampyre from a friend in the village the previous week, and had read it aloud to Mrs. D. and Miss H. after dinner one evening. The two older ladies had exchanged a knowing look, and it had taken some doing to get Miss Hatch to elaborate.
“The Duke of Rhuddlan,” she’d said with a shudder. “Some think he’s like that. A vampire.”
She’d refused to speak of it further, and Olivia had let it drop. But she’d made an inquiry or two when she returned the book a few days later, and Miss Hatch wasn’t the only person who thought there was something unholy about His Grace.
Olivia frowned at Mrs. D., recalling the fraught conversation they’d had about Olivia’s past when Sir George had first come calling. “Does that mean you believe the rumors about me?”
Her neighbor made a little gasping noise. “Of course not! I would never—”
“Then perhaps the rumors about him are equally as malicious.”
Mrs. D. stood staring for several moments, but eventually nodded. “Perhaps.”
Olivia felt Artie’s fur slide through her fingers as he bolted away after a rabbit. “Then I’ll make an appointment to see His Grace.”
She felt calm for the first time in months, despite Mrs. D.’s disapproval. Nothing in her life had immediately changed, but at least she had a feasible plan. If the Duke of Rhuddlan tossed her out on her ear she’d be right back where she started, but she tamped that fear down. One thing at a time. And now she had something she could do.
Copyright © 2018 by Cora Lee
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