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Lynnette Overton was a pink of Society. It had been remarked among those who knew her that she was as merry as a cricket, and more than one gentleman of her acquaintance thought her quite taking in her own, straightforward fashion. No one had ever accused her of being a cabbagehead. Nor had it ever been said that she was so timid as to not say boo to a goose.
Yet even she was not one to take foolish chances.
Before she climbed into bed that night with a cup of chocolate and a copy of Mrs. Mordefi's newest sensational gothic novel, Lynnette locked her door. She was too taken by the glittering light of a full moon to pull her draperies shut but even she was not so blinded by the sparkle as to let it beguile her. So she also made sure that the French windows that looked onto a wide veranda, and from there over the gardens, were fastened tight.
It was a good thing she did, she told herself, settling down with her book. The happenings at Greystone Castle were enough to curl her liver.
The noise came from outside my window, a low, inhuman moan that seemed at one moment to come from the wind and the next to shiver in the air all around the ancient castle walls. My heart beat like a marching army, the sound so loud in my ears I wondered that my father, or my dear governess, Madame Bretaigne, or any of our servants who were asleep in their own chambers, did not hear the uproar and come to my aid.
Except for my own rough breathing and the sound outside that seemed nothing less than the exhalation of hell, Greystone Castle was quiet, its inhabitants blessedly and soundly asleep at this late hour, insensible to the terror that coursed through the air like the reverberation of thunder.
A frisson like icy fingers touched Lynnette's shoulders and she burrowed farther under her blankets. She fluffed her pillow and tilted the book to make the most of the single candle that burned beside her bed. Her heart pounded, nearly as unmercifully as that of poor Clarice, the besieged heroine in this, the latest tome from the wildly popular Mrs. Mordefi.
Pounding heart and icy shivers aside, Lynnette could no more have stopped reading than she could keep herself from taking another breath. Mrs. Mordefi had long been her favorite author and Greystone Castle was all that Lynnette had hoped for. And more.
I do not remember pushing back the blankets under which I was huddled, weak and shivering with fright. I do not remember my bare feet touching the icy flagstone floor. I cannot recall, though I have tried mightily in the long years since that most haunting of nights, when I took into my hands the candle that was lit beside my bed. I know only that I carried it with me, its light around me like a nimbus in the black void. The flame did not shiver; my hands did not tremble. Nor did my feet falter. They carried me relentlessly nearer and nearer, step by inexorable step, to the window and to the horrific sound that shuddered in the air just outside.
A small scraping sound interrupted Lynnette's reading and she gasped and sat up, automatically looking around her bedchamber.
"Looby!" She scolded herself instantly for being so suggestible as to let Clarice's plight affect her own pleasurable pastime. Yet it was not so easy to convince herself that what she'd heard wasn't the sound of her doorknob turning.
Though she knew full well that her housekeeper had been abed for hours and was not inclined to move about the house at night, Lynnette called to her in any case. "Mrs. Wilcox?"
There was no answer.
"Of course." She clicked her tongue, a reminder not to be so fanciful. Ready to settle down again, she positioned the pillow behind her in a more comfortable fashion. When she did, her hand brushed against the paper that was tucked beneath it. Just as it was tucked there every night.
Suddenly, in spite of the reasoning that told her otherwise, the sound she'd heard outside her door did not seem so unlikely.
Lynnette swallowed the dry-as-sand taste that filled her mouth. She did not need to remind herself that while she was visiting Brighton recently and out to tea with friends, someone had slipped into her lodgings. When she'd returned, she found chaos. Her bedchamber had been turned upside down. Her desk had been emptied. Even her wardrobe had been thoroughly searched.
She knew this single sheet of paper was exactly what the intruder had been looking for.
"No use kicking up a dust," she reminded herself. "You're home now at Plumley Terrace and no one can get to it here." It was good advice, but it did not keep her from propping herself on one elbow to look across her well-appointed room and toward the doorway again.
"No one. Nothing." She let the words escape on the end of a sigh and forced the tension out of her shoulders. It was not as easy to untwist the knot in her stomach so she reached for her cup of chocolate and sipped. She closed her eyes, savoring the taste and the heat that poured through her and eased her jangled nerves.
Soothed, she went back to her reading.
I remember nothing at all until the moment I found myself at the window. I could see little beyond my own reflection, my pupils wide and dark, my hair loose around my shoulders like an ebon shawl. I knew that beyond the glass was naught but the vista of lonely countryside that extended for miles around our home. There was no balcony outside my chamber. No foothold of any kind at all in the sheer rocky face of Greystone Castle. Far below, glistening in the moonlight, was the moat that ringed our walls, and below and to my right, the medieval drawbridge that was never raised because Father believed it to be only for ceremonial purposes, those occasions when someone of importance came to call. In our isolation, we did not often have visitors.
For one heartbeat, then two, nothing happened and I realized that the sound that had disturbed my sleep and brought me from my bed had stopped. The quiet pressed against me, as real as the darkness that surrounded me. I shook my head, certain that the noise and the shudder of fear that rode on the air with it had been nothing more than a dream, that I had imagined both the sound and the chill that crawled along my skin like the frosty fingers of death.
"Sleepwalking." My own whispered word echoed back at me from the stillness like a prayer.
I was sleepwalking. Certainly that was what was happening. Thus, all was explained. The sound was not real. It was nothing but a figment of my too fanciful imagination.
If I dreamed the sound then perhaps I was asleep still. I must certainly be. For as I stood there, endeavoring to see beyond the blackness that wrapped our castle like a shroud, a face appeared outside my window. A pale face, with eyes as yellow as a rodent's, and as hot as flame.
Lynnette bolted upright, as startled by the appearance of the face at the window of Greystone Castle as was poor Clarice. It was a few moments before her pounding heart finally slowed and the blood did not rush so fast in her ears, and it wasn't until then that she heard a faint sound on the other side of her room. Like Clarice, she was not prone to fits of imagination. Like Clarice, she did not need to be. The sound was real enough.
"Mrs. Wilcox?" Lynnette's voice was small in her ears. It echoed back at her in the dark. "Mrs. Wilcox?" she called again, yet even as she did, she knew the noise she heard could not have been made by her housekeeper. Mrs. Wilcox was elderly and as plump as a Christmas goose. She was not adventuresome, nor was she the type who would risk a walk in the moonlight, fearing as much a case of the vapors as she did an encounter with ruffians.
It certainly meant Mrs. Wilcox was not on the broad veranda outside Lynnette's window.
And that is surely where the sound originated.
Lynnette hesitated. But only for a moment. She had yet to find a mystery that did not leave her so curious that she simply had to investigate and she had never been one to back down from a challenge. Taking her candle into one hand, she padded across the room to the French doors.
Her head still filled with the fabulous pictures Mrs. Mordefi painted with her words, it took a minute for Lynnette to realize that because of the candle, she could see little beyond her own reflection staring back at her from the glass. Her eyes were wide, and because they were a shade of gray she had always thought unremarkable, they looked to be no more than a reflection of the moonlight. Her hair, streaked with mahogany in good light, was inky in the darkness. Anna, her maid, had carefully brushed it before Lynnette climbed into bed, and it was loose around her shoulders. Rather than look at herself -- and think of Clarice -- she blew out the flame.
Outside, moonlight tipped the garden with silver and threw the magnificent grounds of Plumley Terrace into a jumble of light and shadow. It was a soft early spring night with little breeze and there were no trees growing near Lynnette's spacious second-floor room.
"And nothing to account for the noise," she told herself, and just to prove it, she bent at the waist and tilted her head first one way and then the other to see as far to either side of the veranda as she could.
No sign of what might have caused the noise. No sign of movement. No sign of anything at all but --
Out of nowhere, a man appeared on the other side of the glass, just inches from Lynnette. Her heart stopped. Her breath caught. Frozen by surprise, she could do nothing more than stare.
He was tall and broad, swathed in dark clothing from head to toe. Against the black cloth, his face was as pale as fish scales.
The moment of paralysis evaporated in a rush of fear. She cried out just as the intruder jiggled the knob on the door. Finding it locked, his eyes narrowed and he shot her a look of such venom that she stepped back. Her feet tangled and her nightdress twisted around her knees. Panic closed around her and before she could brace herself, Lynnette hit the floor. By the time she pushed the hair out of her eyes and regained her senses -- as well as her breath -- the man was gone.
She stared through the blackness toward the window, expecting to see the shadowy form again, and when she did not -- for one minute, then two, then longer -- she pulled herself to her feet and scurried back to her bed. She had no intention of closing her eyes, but she tunneled beneath the blankets and pulled them up to her chin, taking comfort in the familiar, lavender smell and the feel of the finely woven linen against her skin.
It wasn't until then that her hand brushed the leather cover of Greystone Castle. Lynnette pulled the book out from under the blankets. She removed the paper from beneath her pillow and tucked it into the pages of the book. She shook, not from fright so much as from relief. If it wasn't for Mrs. Mordefi and the tremors of fear the woman's books shot through her, Lynnette would not have locked her door or her window before she went to bed.
That meant that Mrs. Mordefi -- bless her! -- was responsible for saving the single, precious piece of paper that had once belonged to Lynnette's mother.
And possibly Lynnette's life, as well.
"So then Varclay, he says..." Across the dining-room table from Lynnette, Arthur Hexam was laughing so heartily, he nearly choked on the biscuit he was eating. He took a sip of claret and pounded his chest.
Never one to be outdone, Roger Palliston, who was sitting to Lynnette's left, saw his opportunity. He took over the telling of the story. "Varclay says, and in that high-pitched voice of his that always sounds as if he's talking through his nose, he says -- "
"What do you mean, no wager?" Deware Clifton, the young Duke of Latimer, was a far better actor than anyone might have expected. He popped out of his chair and, as if by magic, the expression on his face changed, as did his demeanor and his voice. Polished one second, he was nervous and twitchy the next. Just as James Varclay had been nervous and twitchy the last time Lynnette happened across him. The imitation was so perfect, everyone gathered around the dining room table of Somerton House laughed and applauded.
Fearing she would betray herself if she did anything else, Lynnette applauded, too.
No one there could have guessed how little she felt like joining in the merriment.
In spite of the candles that flickered all around, the delicious food, and the very good company, a shiver skittered over her shoulders. Ever since the night before when the man appeared outside her window, every noise made Lynnette start, every movement just out of the line of her vision brought her spinning around.
Just to be sure she was safe.
She was safe here.
Reminding herself of the fact, Lynnette pushed down her terror. She looked around the table at the people who were so dear to her and some of the tension that had her insides tied into knots eased. Across the table, her cousin Nick, the Viscount Somerton, was sitting side by side with his darling wife, Willie. Just a few weeks earlier, they had announced that before the turn of the year, the viscount would have an heir. Now, husband and wife looked lovingly into each other's eyes, their hands entwined, their laughter mingled as easily as their smiles.
It was a good thing Nick was so preoccupied. He had always had an unsettling way of reading Lynnette's moods and that would not do. At least not yet. Before Willie settled him with her great good sense and in a love match the likes of which the ton had not seen in ages, Nick was known to be overzealous. For now, the news of the intruder and of the sheet of paper Lynnette had taken the precaution to sew into the hem of her dress for safekeeping was best kept secret. Lest Nick should do something rash before Lynnette had time to work through the puzzle for herself.
rAnother burst of laughter from the people around the table brought Lynnette out of her brown study. She was just in time to see Latimer slip easily into playing Varclay again. His nose in the air, his voice as high as the ceiling, he looked around at the small assemblage. "There must be a wager! The Blades and the Dashers have been wagering since damned Hector was a brassy pup!"
"I own, it is most exactly what Varclay said," Hexam added, his pudgy face split with a smile.
"Exactly!" Palliston concurred. "And then Willie -- "
"Then Willie did what any sensible woman would do." They had stepped onto what was clearly his domain, and Nick took over the telling of the tale. "She reminded Varclay that my wagering days are over. The poor man hardly knew what to say."
So that she might look to be as fully engrossed in the narration as they were, it seemed the right time for Lynnette to say something. "Are the Blades so desperate for amusement that they have to come to the Dashers to find it? What sort of wager did they have in mind?"
"That is the true wonder of the thing," Nick said, his blue eyes twinkling in the candlelight. A platter of the biscuits Willie called kaju badam -- she'd learned the recipe during her early years in India with her missionary family -- went round the table and Lynnette helped herself to one. She had eaten little since the night before but she knew that if she picked at this as she had at most of tonight's dinner, Nick and Willie would surely take note. She nibbled the biscuit.
"If you can believe it," Nick said, "they want us -- the Dashers -- "
"To help them -- the Blades -- " Latimer added.
"To discover a secret," Hexam put forward.
"A secret..." Palliston was as much of an actor as Latimer. He let the drama build before he leaned closer to Lynnette, his florid complexion redder than ever thanks to the candlelight and an evening awash in claret. "A secret about the Duke of Ravensfield!"
If Lynnette needed something to distract her, they could not have found a better subject than Thomas Flander.
She swallowed hard and took a moment to school the sudden flare of emotion that threatened to betray her interest. "I cannot imagine there is any man in London who has fewer secrets than Ravensfield," she said. "He is quite the blood and always a subject for the gossips. The ton talks incessantly about his sense of style and how much of a go-as-you-please he is to always dress in black, day or night. They speak of his carriages and how much they cost. They talk about his many homes."
"Adzooks! She's as right as rain about that." Hexam rolled his eyes. "Even if he should try not to hear it or pretend not to care, a man cannot but go to a ball or a garden party and not hear who the Duke of Ravensfield is currently bedding."
The very thought was enough to make heat flood into Lynnette's cheeks. She took a sip of wine.
"Be that as it may," Nick said, getting up to refill her glass when he saw that it was empty, "the Blades are convinced that Ravensfield is keeping something from them. It's pure fustian, of course. The Season has yet to start in earnest and the Blades are blue-deviled. They need something to spark their spirits and so they've concocted this story and the wager to go along with it. The man's gone to the country. It's as simple as that."
"Except that he hasn't been seen for two whole months." Willie's expression was as mild as the spring night but her eyes glittered with mischief when she looked at her husband. "The Blades have gone to call on Ravensfield," she said, telling this part of the story to Lynnette. "And he has turned them away at the door."
"They've written to him," Latimer added, "and their letters have been returned."
"They even went so far as to send a special emissary to Broadworth Hall, that new country home Ravensfield built in Berkshire. His favorite ladybird." Palliston winked. "Word has it she returned to town in a fit of the dismals. Seems his grace took one look at her, turned her right around, and sent her back to London. Never once let her through the front door of Broadworth!"
"That is remarkable." Lynnette tipped her head, considering. "And why did the Blades think the Dashers might know something about all this? What did they want you to do?"
"What they wanted us to do is to find out what the man is up to," Nick explained. "You know, spy on him, learn what secret it is that keeps him rusticated. They said if we could discover the duke's secret before any of them did, they would pay us an amount of one thousand pounds."
When Willie pushed back from the table, Lynnette did, too. Seeing that the ladies were going to stand, the men rose to their feet. Lynnette accepted Palliston's arm when he offered it.
"The Blades must indeed be moped," Lynnette commented. "I can't see why they care so much. They should leave the man in peace."
"But the Season is starting." Hexam scurried ahead and opened the door into the salon where the men would spend the rest of the evening playing whist while Lynnette and Willie put their heads together for a long chat. "The Blades say that things are deadly dull here in London without Ravensfield."
"What they mean..." Nick led Willie into the room and, with a kiss on her cheek, deposited her on the sofa near the fire that sparkled in the grate. "Ravensfield has the deepest pockets. Without him in town, the Blades aren't nearly as free in their spending."
"Or as likely to attract the handsomest women!" Latimer laughed. "He brings them in like honey draws flies."
"Like a magnet pulls metal," Palliston put in.
"Like -- " Realizing the plate of kaju badam had been left on the table, Hexam hurried back for it. "Like Willie's biscuits attract me!" he said, returning just as quickly as he left. They all laughed.
Except for Lynnette. She was too busy thinking. She smoothed a hand over the skirt of her silvery sarcenet dress. "I have been considering a trip to the country," she said, and when the others of their company looked at her in wonder, she added, "Mr. Hexam is right, the Season has not started in earnest and things here in town are dreadfully dull. A trip to the country might be just the thing."
Nick's gaze was a bit too probing. "If it's a trip to the country you're looking for, you no doubt will be heading for Oxfordshire. You have a home there, after all."
"Indeed." Lynnette smiled smoothly. She had a home there, right enough, and she loved Watersmill Manor as much as she loved anything. Still, if she left town and headed there, the man who had followed her to Brighton and had been so bold as to appear at the door of her bedchamber was sure to catch wind of it.
Yet if she traveled somewhere a bit more unexpected...Somewhere where she might have a chance to collect her thoughts and decide what her next move should be in regard to the message her mother had written so long ago...
If she went, perhaps, to Berkshire...
She broached the idea carefully so as not to arouse suspicion. "Watersmill will be no more exciting than London is this time of year. I was thinking of something with a bit more spirit. If the Dashers are looking for someone to play the spy with Ravensfield -- "
Nick put an end to the fancy with one stern look. "Absolutely not! I have already delivered our answer to the Blades. We will not participate in this or any other wager. I neither know nor care what Ravensfield is doing in the country." He plunked down in a chair at the card table. "The man is insufferable."
"And very handsome!" Willie's voice sparkled with good humor. "If you gentlemen are not interested in Ravensfield's doings, you must at least admit that the women of the ton are eager to find out what's going on."
"That's right." Lynnette offered Willie a smile in thanks for bolstering her argument. "Ravensfield may have turned away his friends but, surely, if a woman arrived on his doorstep -- "
"You heard what Palliston said," Nick reminded her. "A woman has already arrived on his doorstep."
Lynnette tisk-tisked away the very idea. "Not that kind of woman. I mean a gentlewoman. If she arrived unexpectedly. Perhaps seeking help. If she was in some sort of distress. With a broken carriage wheel, let's say, or -- "
"Bah!" Nick had only just picked up the deck of cards. He slapped it on the table. "Surely, Lynnette, you have better things to do than go chasing after a scoundrel like Ravensfield."
Lynnette refused to be put off. "Oh, pooh! The duke cannot be so much of a rogue as is rumored. He knows you, Nick. He knows our family. If I happened to arrive in the neighborhood, if I happened to be in need of assistance, if I happened to appear at his door, he would have no choice but to welcome me into his home. And while I'm there -- "
"What might happen while you're there is exactly what worries me." Apparently deciding the conversation was over, Nick picked up the cards and shuffled.
He forgot that stubbornness was a family trait.
"Well, I wouldn't go alone." The very idea was caper-witted and Lynnette dismissed it with a shake of her head. "So you see, you needn't worry about my virtue. I would have my maid with me, of course, and my coachman and -- "
"Are you so in need of money, then, that you would take the Blades' one thousand?" Nick asked her.
It was on the tip of Lynnette's tongue to tell them all. If she explained -- about the coded entry in her mother, Madelaine's, missing diary, about the paper she carried with her now that interpreted the code and, perhaps, identified the person who was responsible for her mother's banishment from Society -- she knew they would understand.
Then again, she remembered that nine years earlier, Madelaine had thought her own friends would understand her plight, too. When they did not, when all except a few loyal souls turned away from her after she was accused of an infamous jewel theft, Lynnette remembered how her mother's reputation was left in ruins, and how Madelaine had died, her spirit -- and her heart -- broken.
Before Lynnette was willing to open her mother's life to new scrutiny, she needed answers. She would never find them if the thief who must surely have Madelaine's diary succeeded in recovering the key to the code, as well.
"It is not the Blades' money I am after," she said. "It's a bit of excitement. If I arrive at the duke's home looking like a paragon -- "
"You could not look otherwise, Miss Lynnette," Hexam told her, snatching her hand and bowing over it.
She thanked him with a quick smile. "If I wear my new Hungarian wrap, the one that is lined with pink silk -- "
"Pink silk would surely bring out the pretty color in your cheeks," Latimer said, sending her a smile along with a wink that told her that while he was sincere, he did not mean the comment to be overly personal.
She smiled at him, too, and got back to the matter at hand. "If I wear my Caledonian cap, the one with the black feathers that I have been told looks all the kick..." She stopped and gave Palliston his chance to break in, and when he only grinned in agreement, she breezed on. "Even a man such as the duke could not turn away so respectable a woman."
"Especially one who would, no doubt, look so very delicious." Nick's comment was as airy as the way he dealt the cards out on the table. The way he dealt the cards out on the table told her that the subject was closed.
She gave up without a fight.
Or so it seemed.
For even as Lynnette joined Willie on the sofa and fell into deep conversation with her, even as they chatted about baby names and the latest gossip, Lynnette's mind was already on the road to Berkshire.
It was the most logical plan, she reminded herself, for it would keep her person -- and the paper that had been written by her mother -- safe.
What she did not admit -- even to herself -- was that there was another motive behind her scheme.
For though she had met him only once and he had -- no doubt -- promptly forgotten her, it was a fact that she had been, ever since the day she first clapped eyes on him over the rim of a glass of ratafia, head over heels in love with the Duke of Ravensfield.
Copyright © 2004 by Connie Laux