It didnt even sound comfortable.
Alasdair Reginald Cynster, widely known, with good reason, as Lucifer,
pushed the word from his mind with a disgusted snort and concentrated
on turning his pair of high-bred blacks down a narrow lane. The lane lead
south, toward the coast; Colyton, his destination, lay along it. About
him, early summer clasped the countryside in a benevolent embrace. Breezes
rippled the corn; swallows rode the currents high above, black darts against
the blue sky. Thick hedges bordered the lane; from the box seat of his
curricle, Lucifer could only just see over them. Not that there was anything
to see in this quiet rural backwater.
That left him with his thoughts. Holding the blacks to a slow but steady
pace along the winding lane, he considered the unwelcome proposition of
having to survive without the type of feminine company to which he was
accustomed. It wasnt a pleasant prospect, but hed rather suffer
that torture than risk succumbing to the Cynster curse.
It wasnt a curse to be trifled withit had already claimed
five of his nearest male relatives, all the other members of the notorious
group that had, for so many years, lorded it over the ton. The Bar Cynster
had cut swaths through the ranks of Londons ladies, leaving them
languishing, exhausted in their wake. Theyd been daring, devilish,
invincibleuntil, one by one, the curse had caught them. Now he was
the last one freeunshackled, unwed and unrepentant. He had nothing
against marriage per se, but the unfortunate factthe crux of the
cursewas that Cynsters did not simply marry. They married ladies
The very concept made him shudder. Its implied vulnerability was something
he would never willingly accept.
Yesterday, his brother, Gabriel, had done just that.
And that was one of the two principal reasons he was here, going to ground
in deepest Devon.
He and Gabriel had been close all their lives; only eleven months separated
them. Other than Gabriel, the one person he knew better than anyone in
the world was their childhood playmate, Alathea Morwellan. Now Alathea
Cynster. Gabriel had married her yesterday, and in so doing had opened
his eyes to how potent the curse was, how irresistible it could be. Love
had bloomed in the most unlikely ground. The curse had struck boldly,
ruthlessly, powerfully, and had conquered against all odds.
He sincerely wished Gabriel and Alathea joy, but he had no intention of
following their lead.
Not now. Very possibly not ever.
What need had he of marriage? What would he gain that he didnt already
have? Womenladieswere all very well; he enjoyed dallying with
them, enjoyed the subtleties of conquering the more resistant, encouraging
them into his bed. He enjoyed teaching them all he knew of shared pleasure.
That, however, was the extent of his interest. He was involved in other
spheres, and he liked his freedom, liked being answerable to no one. He
preferred his life as it was and had no wish to change it.
He was determined to avoid the cursehe could manage very well without
So hed slipped away from Gabriels and Alatheas wedding
breakfast and left London. With Gabriel married, hed succeeded to
the title of principal matrimonial target for the ladies of the ton; consequently,
hed dismissed all invitations to the summers country house
parties. Hed driven to Quiverstone Manor, his parents estate
in Somerset. Leaving his groom, Dodswell, a local, there to visit with
his sister, hed left Quiverstone early this morning and headed south
through the countryside.
On his left, three cottages came into view, huddled about a junction with
an even narrower lane that ambled down beside a ridge. Slowing, he passed
the cottages and rounded the ridgethe village of Colyton opened
out before him. Reining in, he looked about.
And inwardly grimaced. Hed been right. From the looks of Colyton,
his chances of finding any local lady with whom to dallya married
one who met his exacting standards and with whom he could ease the persistent
itch all Cynsters were prey towere nil.
Abstinence it would be.
The village, neat and tidy in the bright sunshine, looked like an artists
vision of the rustic ideal, steeped in peace and harmony. Ahead to the
right, the common sloped upward; a church stood on the crest, a solid
Norman structure flanked by a well-tended graveyard. Beyond the graveyard,
another lane ran down, presumably joining the main lane further on. The
main lane itself curved to the left, bordered by a line of cottages facing
the common; the sign of an inn jutted over the lane just before it swung
out of sight. Nearer to hand was a duckpond on the common; the blacks
stamped and shook their heads at the quacking.
Quietening them, Lucifer looked to the left, to the first house of the
village standing back in its gardens. A name was carved on the portico.
He squinted. Colyton Manor. His destination.
The Manor was a handsome house of pale sandstone, two storeys and attics
in the Georgian style with rows of long pedimented windows flanking the
portico and front door. The house faced the lane, set back behind a waist-high
stone wall and a large garden filled with flowering plants and roses.
A circular fountain stood at the gardens center, interrupting the
path joining the front door and a gate to the lane. Beyond the garden,
a stand of trees screened the Manor from the village beyond.
A gravel drive skirted the nearer side of the house, eventually leading
to a stable set back against more trees. The drive was separated from
a shrubbery by an expanse of lawn punctuated here and there by ancient
shade trees. Somewhat overgrown, the shrubbery extended almost to where
the curricle stood; a glimpse of water beyond suggested an ornamental
Colyton Manor looked what it was, a prosperous gentlemans residence.
It was the home of Horatio Welhamthe principal reason Lucifer had
chosen Colyton as his temporary bolt-hole.
Horatios letter had reached him three days ago. An old friend and
his mentor in all matters pertaining to collecting, Horatio had invited
him to visit at Colyton at his earliest convenience. With the grande dames
turning their sights on him, convenient had been immediatelyhed
grasped the excuse to disappear from the social whirl. At one time he
had haunted Horatios house in the Lake District, but although he
and Horatio had remained as close as ever, over the three years since
Horatio had moved to Devon, theyd met only at collectors gatherings
about the country and in London; this was his first visit to Colyton.
The blacks shook their heads; their harness clinked. Straightening, gathering
the reins, Lucifer was conscious of a welling impatienceto see Horatio
again, to clasp his hand, to spend time in his erudite company. Coloring
that anticipation was Horatios reason for asking him to visita
request for his opinion on an item that, in Horatios words, might
tempt even him to extend his collection beyond his preferred categories
of silver and jewelry. Hed spent the drive from Somerset speculating
on what the item was, but had reached no conclusion.
Hed learn soon enough. Clicking the reins, he set the blacks in
motion. Turning smartly in between the tall gateposts, he drew the curricle
up by the side of the house with the usual crunching and stamping of hooves.
No one came running.
He listenedand heard nothing but the sounds of birds and insects.
Then he remembered it was Sunday; Horatio and all his household would
be at church. Glancing up the common, he verified that the church door
stood ajar. He looked at the Manors front doorit, too, stood
partially open. Someone, it appeared, was home.
Tying off the reins, he jumped down and strode along the gravel path to
the portico. Ablaze with summer blooms, the garden caught and held his
gaze. The sight teased some long-buried memory. Pausing before the portico,
he struggled to pin it down.
This was Marthas garden.
Martha was Horatios late wife; shed been the anchor around
which the Lake District household had revolved. Martha had loved gardening,
striving through all weathers to create glorious displaysjust like
this. Lucifer studied the plantings. The layout was similar to the garden
in the Lake District. But Martha had been dead for three years.
Outside of his mother and aunts, Lucifer had felt closer to Martha than
any other older womanshed occupied a special place in his
life. Hed often listened to her lectures where to his mother hed
been deaf; Martha had not been relatedit had always been easier
to hear the truth from her lips. It was Marthas death that had lessened
his enthusiasm for visiting Horatio at home. Too many memories; too acute
a sense of shared loss.
Seeing Marthas garden here felt odd, like a hand on his sleeve when
there was no one there. He frownedhe could almost hear Martha whispering
in her soft, gentle voice.
Abruptly turning, he entered the portico. The front door was half open;
he pushed it wide. The hall was empty.
"Hello! Is anyone about?"
No response. All he could hear was the summer buzz outside. He stepped
over the threshold and paused. The house was cool, quietstillwaiting...frowning
more definitely, he strode forward, boot heels clacking on black and white
tiles. He headed for the first door on the right. It stood open, pushed
He smelled blood before he reached the door. After Waterloo, it was one
scent hed never mistake. The hair at his nape lifted; he slowed.
At his back, the sun glowed bright and warmthe cold quiet of the
house intensified. It drew him on.
He halted in the doorway, his gaze drawn down to the body sprawled a few
feet inside the room.
His skin turned cold. After an instants hiatus, he forced his gaze
to travel the old, lined face, the straggly white hair covered by a tasselled
cap. In a long white nightshirt with a knitted shawl wound around heavy
shoulders, twisted onto his back with one arm outflung, bare feet poking
out toward the door, the dead man looked as if he might be asleep, here
in the library surrounded by his antique tomes.
But he wasnt asleephe hadnt even collapsed. Blood still
seeped from a small cut on his left side, directly beneath his heart.
Lucifer dragged in a breath. "Horatio!"
On his knees, he searched for a pulse at wrist and throat, and found none.
Hand on Horatios chest, he felt a lingering warmth; slight color
still graced the old mans cheeks. Mind reeling, Lucifer sat back
on his heels.
Horatio had been murderedminutes ago.
He felt numb, detached; some part of his brain continued cataloguing facts,
like the experienced cavalry officer hed once been.
The single killing stroke had been an upward thrust into the heartlike
a bayonet wound. Not much blood, just a little...oddly little. Frowning,
he checked. There was more blood beneath the body. Horatio had been turned
onto his back lateroriginally hed fallen face down. Catching
a glimpse of gilt under the shawl, Lucifer searched with fingers that
shookand drew out a long, thin letter knife.
His fingers curled about the ornate hilt. He scanned the immediate area
but could see no sign of any struggle. The rug wasnt rumpled; the
table between the body and the rug appeared correctly aligned in its normal
The numbness was wearing off. Emotions welled; Lucifers senses flickered,
then flared to life.
He was cursing beneath his breath; he felt like hed been kicked
in the gut. After the serenity outside, finding Horatio like this seemed
obscenea nightmare he knew thered be no waking from. Deadening
loss engulfed him; his earlier anticipation lay like bitter ashes on his
tongue. Pressing his lips tight, he drew in a deep breath
He wasnt alone.
In the instant he sensed it, he heard a sound. Then came a clunk and a
scuffle behind him.
He sprang to his feet, gripping the letter knife
A heavy weight crashed down on his skull.
It hurt like hell.
He lay slumped on the floor. He must have gone down like a sack of bricks,
but he couldnt remember the impact. He had no idea whether hed
lost consciousness and only just regained it, or whether hed only
just reached the floor. Exerting every last ounce of his will, he cracked
open his lids. Horatios face swam intoand out offocus.
Closing his eyes, he bit back a groan. With luck, the murderer would think
he was insensate. He almost was. The black tide of unconsciousness surged
and dragged, trying to suck him undergrimly, he resisted its pull.
The letter knife was still in his fist, but his right arm was trapped
beneath his body. He couldnt move. His body felt like a lead weight
he was trapped within; he couldnt defend himself. He should have
checked the room first, but the sight of Horatio, lying there still bleeding...damn!
He waited, oddly detached, wondering if the murderer would stop to finish
him off or just flee. He hadnt heard anyone leaving, but he wasnt
sure he could hear at all.
How long had he been lying there?
From behind the door, Phyllida Tallent stared wide-eyed at the gentleman
now stretched lifeless beside Horatio Welhams body. A squeak of
dismay escaped herthe ridiculous sound prodded her into action.
Dragging in a breath, she stepped forward, bent and wrapped both hands
about the pole of the halberk now lying across the fallen man. Felled
man. Hed definitely been felled.
Bracing, she counted to three, then hauledthe heavy head of the
halberk rose. She staggered, boots shuffling as she fought to swing the
unwieldy weapon aside.
She hadnt meant it to fall.
Having only just walked in and discovered Horatios body, she hadnt
been thinking at all clearly when the strangers footsteps had sounded
on the gravel outside. Shed panicked, thinking him the murderer
returning to remove the body. With all the village in church, she couldnt
imagine who else it could have been.
Hed called a "Hello," but so might a murderer checking
to see if anyone else had come upon the scene. Shed frantically
searched for a hiding place, but the long drawing room was lined with
bookcasesthe only gap that would have hidden her from the door had
been too far away for her to reach in time. Desperate, shed secreted
herself in the only available spotin the shadows behind the open
door, between the frame and the last bookshelf, squeezing in alongside
The hiding place had served, but once shed realized from his actions
and his muttered expletives that this man was no murderer, and after shed
debated the wisdom of showing herselfthe daughter of the local magistrate
and quite old enough to know better than to slip into other peoples
houses dressed in breeches to search for still other peoples misplaced
personal belongingsonce shed got past all that and realized
that this was murder and shed gone to step forward to make herself
known, her shoulder had nudged the halberk.
Its descent had been inexorable.
Shed grabbed it and fought vainly to halt it or deflect itin
the end, all shed been able to do was twist it enough so that the
heavy blade had not struck the mans head. If it had, hed have
died. As it was, the hemisphere at the side of the iron axe-head had connected
with a sickening thud.
With the halberk finally angled to the side, she lowered it to the floor.
Only then did she realize shed been repeating a breathless litany:
Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!
Wiping her palms on her breeches, sick to her stomach, she looked at her
innocent victim. The sound of the halberk connecting with his skull echoed
in her ears. It hadnt helped that hed chosen that precise
moment to leap to his feet. Hed come up propelled like a spring,
only to meet the halberk going down.
Hed hit the floor with a sickening thud, too. He hadnt moved
Steeling herself, she stepped over the pole. "Oh, Godplease
dont let me have killed him!" Horatio had been murdererd, and
now shed murdered a stranger. What was her world coming to?
Panic gnawing at her nerves, she sank to her knees; the gentleman lay
slumped forward, facing Horatio.
Lucifer sensed a presence approaching. He couldnt hear, he couldnt
see, but he knew when they knelt at his back. The murderer. He had to
assume that. If only he could gather enough strength, even to lift his
lids...he tried but nothing happened. Unconsciousness welled, lapping
about himhe refused to let go and sink under. There was a roaring
in his head. Even through it, he knew when the murderer reached out. The
roaring in his head escalated
Fingerssmall fingerstouched his cheek gently, hesitantly.
The touch blazed across his brain.
Not the murderer. Relief swept through him, and relentlessly carried
him into the black.
Phyllida traced the fallen mans cheek, mesmerized by the stark beauty
of his face. He looked like a fallen angelsuch classically pure
lines could not possibly be found on mortal men. His brow was wide, his
nose patrician, his thick hair very dark, sable-black. His eyes were large
under arched black brows. His lids didnt flicker; her stomach clenched
tight. Then she saw his lips, lean and mobile, ease, softening as if hed
"Please, please, dont die!"
Frantically, she searched for a pulse at his throat, ruining his cravat
in the process. She nearly fainted with relief when she found the throbbing
beat, steady and strong. "Thank God!" She sagged. Without
thinking, she carefully rearranged his cravat, smoothing the foldshe
was so beautiful and she hadnt killed him.
Wheels crunched heavily on the gravel drive.
Phyllida jerked upright. Her eyes flew wide. The murderer?
Her panicky wits calmed enough for her to distinguish voices as the conveyance
rolled on around the house. Not the murdererthe Manor staff. She
looked at the unconscious stranger.
For the first time in her life, she found it difficult to think. Her heart
was still racing; she felt lightheaded. Dragging in a breath, she fought
to concentrate. Horatio was dead; she couldnt change that. Indeed,
she knew nothing of any relevance. His friend was unconscious and would
remain so for some timeshe should make sure he was well-tended.
That was the least she should do.
But here she was in Horatios drawing room, in breeches, instead
of being laid down on her bed at the Grange with a sick headache. And
she couldnt explain why, not without revealing her reason for being
herethose misplaced personal belongings. Worse, they werent
hersshe didnt actually know why they were so important, why
their revelation was to be avoided at all costs, which made it all the
more incumbent on her not to reveal their existence. Aside from anything
else, shed been sworn to secrecy.
Damn! She was going to be discovered any minute. Mrs. Hemmings,
the manor housekeeper, would even now be entering the kitchen.
What if, instead of waiting here and landing herself in a morass of impossible
explanations, she left, cut home through the wood, changed and returned?
She could easily think of an errand. She could be back in ten minutes.
Then she could make sure Horatios body had been discovered, and
oversee the tending of the stranger.
That was a sensible plan.
Phyllida clambered to her feet. Her legs wobbled; she still felt woozy.
She was about to turn away when the hat on the table beyond Horatios
body caught her eye.
Had the stranger carried a hat when hed entered? She hadnt
noticed it, but he was so large, he could have reached forward and put
it on the table without her seeing.
Gentlemens hats often had their name embroidered on the inside band.
Stepping around Horatios body, Phyllida reached for the brown hat
"Ill just go up and check on the master. Keep an eye on that
pot, will you?"
Phyllida forgot about the hat. She shot through the hall, out of the front
door, then raced across the side lawn and dived into the shrubbery.
* * *
"Juggs, open this door."
The words, uttered in a tone Lucifer instantly associated with his mother,
jerked him back to consciousness.
"Nahcant do that," a heavy male voice answered.
"Mightnt be wise."
"Wise?" The womans tone had risen. After a pause during
which Lucifer could almost hear her rein in her temper, she asked, "Has
he regained consciousness at all since you picked him up from the Manor?"
So he was no longer at the Manor. Where the hell was he?
"Nah! Out like a light, he is."
He wasnt, but he might as well have been. Beyond hearing, his senses
werent functioning wellhe couldnt feel much beyond the
massive ache in his head. He was lying on his side on some very hard surface.
The air was cool and held a hint of musty dust. He couldnt lift
his lidseven that much movement was still beyond him.
He was helpless.
"How do you know hes still alive?" The womans imperious
tone left little doubt she was a lady.
"Alive? Course hes alivewhy wouldnt he be?
Just swooned, thats all."
"Swooned? Juggs, youre an innkeeper. For how long do
swooned men stay swooned, especially if theyre jolted about in a
cart in the fresh air?"
Juggs snorted. "Hes a swellwho knows how long they stay
swooned for? Right liverish lot, they are."
"They found him slumped by Mr. Welhams bodywhat if he
hasnt swooned but sustained some injury?"
"How could he have sus...got any injury?"
"Maybe he fought with the murderer, trying to save Mr. Welham."
"Nah! That way, wed have his nibs here, and someone else the
murdererthatd make two people coming in separate from outside
in one day with no one seeing either of em, and that just plain
The lady lost all patience. "Juggsopen this door! What
if the gentleman dies, all because you decided hed swooned when
that wasnt so at all? We have to check."
"Hes swooned, I tell younot a mark on him that
Thompson or I could see."
Lucifer gathered every last shred of his strength. If he wanted help,
he was going to have to assist the ladyhe didnt want her going
away defeated, leaving him with the uncaring innkeeper. He lifted one
handhis arm shook...he forced the hand to his head. He heard a groan,
then realized it was his.
"There! See?" The lady sounded triumphant. "Its
his head that hurtsthe back of his head. Why, if hed
simply swooned? Quickly, Juggsopen the door! Theres something
very wrong here."
Lucifer let his hand fall. If he could have, he would have roared at Juggs
to open the damned door. Of course there was something wrongthe
murderer had coshed him. What on earth did they think had happened?
"Maybe he hit his head when he fell," Juggs grumbled.
Why the hell did they imagine hed fallen? But the jingle of keys
pushed the thought from Lucifers mindthe lady had won; she
was coming to his aid. A lock clanked, then a heavy door scraped. Quick
footsteps briskly crossed stone, heading his way.
A small hand touched his shoulder. A warm, feminine-soft presence leaned
"Everything will be all right in a moment." Her tone was low
and soothing. "Just let me check your head."
She was hovering over him; his senses had returned enough to tell him
she wasnt as old as hed thought. The realization gave him
the strength to lift his lids, albeit only a fraction.
She saw and smiled encouragingly, brushing back the lock of hair that
had fallen across his brow.
The pain in his head evaporated. Opening his eyes further, Lucifer drank
in the details of her face. She was not a girl, but she would still qualify
as a young lady. Somewhere in her early twenties, but her face held more
character, more strength and blatant determination than was common for
her years. He noted it, but it was not that that held him, that captured
his awareness to the exclusion of the debilitating pain in his head.
Her brown eyes were large, wide and filled with concernwith an open
empathy that reached past his cynical shields and touched him. Those lovely
eyes were framed by a wide forehead and delicately arched brows, by dark
hair, almost as dark as his, cut short to curve about her head like a
sleek helmet. Her nose was straight, her chin tapered, her lips...
The sudden surge of sensual thoughts and impulses for once didnt
sit wellHoratio was dead. He let his lids fall.
"Youll feel much better directly," she promised, "once
we move you to a more comfortable bed."
Behind her, Juggs snorted. "Ayehes that sort of gentleman,
Id wager. A murderer and the other, too."
Lucifer ignored Juggs. The lady knew he was no murderer, and she now had
the upper hand. Her fingers slid through his hair, carefully feeling about
his wound. He tensed, then bit back a groan when she gingerly probed.
"See?" She pressed aside his hair so the air touched his wound.
"Hes been hit on the back of the head with somethingsome
Juggs hurrumped. "Prhaps he hit his head on that table in the
Manor drawing room when he swooned."
"Juggs! You know as well as I do this wound is too severe for that."
Eyes closed, Lucifer breathed shallowly. Pain was rolling over him in
sickening waves. In desperation, he conjured the image of the ladys
face, struggled to concentrate on that and hold the pain at bay. Her throat
had been slender, graceful. That augered well for the rest of her. Shed
mentioned a bed...he broke off that train of thought, once again disconcerted
by its direction.
"Erelet me see," Juggs grudgingly said.
A heavy hand touched Lucifers skullhis head exploded with
* * *
"Papa, this man is seriously injured."
His guardian angels voice drew Lucifer back to the living. He had
no idea how much time had elapsed since last hed been with them.
"Hes been hit very violently on the back of the headJuggs
has seen the wound, too."
"Hmm." Heavier footsteps approached. "That right, Juggs?"
A new voice, deep, cultured but tinged with the local county accentLucifer
wondered just who "Papa" was.
"Ayelooks like hes been coshed good and proper."
Juggsthe clodwas still with them.
"The wounds on the back of his skull, you say?"
"Yeshere." Lucifer felt the ladys fingers part his
hair. "But dont touch." "Papa" thankfully didnt.
"It seems very sensitivehe regained consciousness for a moment,
but fainted when Juggs touched his head."
"Hardly surprising. Thats quite a blow hes taken. Administered
with that old halberk of Horatios by the look of it. Hemmings said
he found it beside this gentleman. Given the things weight, its
a wonder he isnt dead."
Letting his hair fall, the lady stated, "So its obvious hes
not the murderer."
"Not with that wound and the halberk lying beside him. Looks like
the murderer hid behind the door and coshed him when he discovered the
body. Mrs. Hemmings swears the thing couldnt have fallen on its
own. Seems clear enough. So, well just have to wait and see what
this gentleman can tell us once he regains his senses."
Precious little, Lucifer mentally answered.
"Well, hes not going to get better lying in this cell."
The ladys voice had developed a decisive note.
"Indeed not. Cant understand what Bristleford was about, thinking
this fellow was the murderer whod swooned at the sight of blood."
Swooned at the sight of blood? If hed been able, Lucifer
would have snorted derisively, but he still couldnt speak or move.
The pain in his head was just waiting for a chance to bludgeon him into
unconsciousness. The most he could do was lie still and listen, and learn
all he could. While the lady held sway, he was safeshe seemed to
have taken his best interests to heart.
"I thought Bristleford said he had the knife in is fist."
That came from Juggs, of course.
"Papa" snorted. "Self-defence. Had a moments warning
the murderer was behind him and grabbed the only weapon to hand. Not much
use against a halberk, unfortunately. Noit was obvious someone had
found the body and turned it. Cant see the murderer botheringit
wasnt as if Horatio would have been carrying any valuables in his
"So this man is innocent," the lady reiterated. "We really
should move him to the Grange."
"Ill ride back and send the carriage," "Papa"
"Ill wait here. Tell Gladys to pile as many cushions and pillows
as she can into the carriage, and..."
The ladys words faded as she moved away; Lucifer stopped trying
to listen. Shed said shed stay by him. It sounded like the
Grange was "Papas" residence, so presumably she lived
there, too. He hoped she did. He wanted to see more of her once the pain
had gone. The pain in his head, and the pain around his heart.
Horatio had been a very dear friendhow dear he hadnt realized
until now, now that he was gone. He touched on his grief, but was too
weak to deal with it. Shifting his mind away, he tried to find some way
past the pain but it seemed to feed on the effort.
So he simply lay there and waited.
He heard the lady return; others were with her. What followed wasnt
pleasant. Luckily, he wasnt far removed from unconsciousness; he
was only dimly aware of being lifted. He expected to feel the jolting
of a carriage; if he did, the sensation didnt make it past the pain.
Then he was on a bed, being undressed. His senses flickered weakly, registering
that there were two women present; from their hands and voices, they were
both older than his guardian angel. He would have helped them if he could,
but even that was beyond him. They fussed and insisted on pulling a nightshirt
over his head, being inordinately careful of his injured skull.
They made him comfortable in soft pillows and sweet-smelling sheets, then
they left him in blessed peace.
* * *
Phyllida looked in on her patient as soon as Gladys, their housekeeper,
reported that he was settled.
Miss Sweet, her old governess, sat tatting in a chair by the window. "Hes
resting quietly," Sweetie mouthed.
Phyllida nodded and went to the bed. Theyd left him sprawled on
his stomach to spare his sore head. He was much larger than shed
realizedthe broad expanse of his shoulders and chest, the long lines
of his back, the even longer length of his legshis body dominated
the bed. He wasnt, perhaps, the largest man shed seen, but
she suspected he should have been the most vital. Instead, a sullen heaviness
invested his limbs, a weighted tension quite unlike relaxation. She peered
at his face; the section she could see was pale, still starkly handsome
but stony, lacking all sense of life. The lips that should have held the
hint of a wicked smile were compressed to a thin line.
Sweetie was wronghe was unconscious, not truly resting at all.
Phyllida straightened. Guilt swept her. It had been her fault hed
been hit. She glided back to Sweetie. "Im going to the ManorIll
be back in an hour."
Sweetie smiled and nodded. With one last glance at the bed, Phyllida left
* * *
"I really couldnt say, sir."
Phyllida entered the Manors front hall to find Bristleford, Horatios
butler, being interrogated by Mr. Lucius Appleby directly before the closed
drawing room door. They both turned. Appleby bowed. "Miss Tallent."
Phyllida returned his nod. "Good afternoon, sir." Many local
ladies considered Applebys fair good looks attractive, but she found
him too cold for her taste.
"Sir Cedric asked me to inquire as to the details of Mr. Welhams
death," Appleby explained, clearly conscious of the need to excuse
his intrusion. He was secretary to Sir Cedric Fortemain, a local landowner;
no one would be surprised at Sir Cedrics interest. "Bristleford
was just telling me that Sir Jasper has declared himself satisfied that
the gentleman discovered by the body is not the murderer."
"Thats correct. The murderer is as yet unknown." Unwilling
to encourage further discussion, Phyllida turned to Bristleford. "Ive
asked John Ostler to tend the gentlemans horses." His magnificent
horseseven to her untutored eye, the pair were expensive beauties.
Her twin brother, Jonas, would be over to see them just as soon as he
learned of their existence. "Well put them in the stables herethe
stables at the Grange are full now my aunt Huddlesford and my cousins
Theyd arrived that afternoon, just as shed been rushing off
to rescue the unknown gentlemen; because of her useless cousins, shed
been too late to save him from Juggss clutches.
Bristleford frowned. "If you think thats best..."
"I do. It seems obvious the gentleman was coming here to visitpresumably
he was a friend of Mr. Welhams."
"I dont know, miss. The Hemmings and I havent been with
the master long enough to know all his friends."
"Quite. No doubt Covey will know." Covey was Horatios
valet and had been with him for many years. "I take it hes
not back yet?"
"No, miss. Hell be devastated."
Phyllida nodded. "I just looked in to pick up the gentlemans
"Hat?" Bristleford stared. "There was no hat, miss."
Phyllida blinked. "Are you sure?"
"Nothing in the drawing room or out here." Bristleford looked
around. "Perhaps in his carriage?"
Phyllida fabricated a smile. "No, noI just assumed he must
have had a hat. No cane either?"
Bristleford shook his head.
"Well, then, Ill be off." With a nod for Appleby, who
returned it politely, Phyllida walked out of the house.
She paused beneath the portico, looking out over Horatios gorgeous
garden. A chill washed down her spine.
There had been a hata brown one. If it didnt belong to the
gentleman and hadnt been there when the Hemmings and Bristleford
discovered the body...
The chill intensified. Lifting her head, Phyllida glanced about, then
walked quickly to the gate and hurried home.
* * *
The pain in his head grew worse.
Lucifer tossed and turned, struggling to escape the needles driving into
his brain. Hands tried to restrain him; gentle voices tried to soothe
him. He realized they wanted him to lie stillhe tried, but the pain
wouldnt let him.
Then his guardian angel returned. He heard her voice at the edge of his
awareness; for her, he found strength and lay still. She bathed his face,
neck and the backs of his shoulders with lavender water, then placed cool
cloths over his wound. The pain ebbed, and he sighed.
She left, and he grew restless again. But before the pain could peak,
she returned and changed the cloths, then sat beside the bed, one cool
hand on the back of his wrist.
He relaxed. Eventually, he slept.
* * *
When he awoke, she was gone.
It was dark; the house was quiet, slumbering. Lucifer lifted his headthe
pain stopped him. Gritting his teeth, he shifted onto his side; raising
his head just a fraction, he looked around. An older woman in a mob cap
sat slumped in an armchair by the window. Focusing his hearing, he could
detect gentle snores.
The fact that he could reassured him. Setting his temple back down on
the pillow, he took stock. While still painful when he moved, his head
was otherwise much better. He could think without agony. He stretched,
flexing his limbs, careful not to shift his head. Relaxing again, he did
the same with his senses; all seemed in working order. He might not yet
be hale, but he was whole.
That established, he reconnoitered his surroundings. Bit by bit, the immediate
past cleared and his memories fell into coherent order. He was in a chamber
comfortably furnished in a manner befitting a gentlemans residence.
Recollecting that "Papa" had been called upon to pass judgement
over his involvement in Horatios death, "Papa" might well
be the local magistrate. If so, hed made contact with the one gentleman
above all others he needed to know. As soon as he was well enough to lift
his head, he intended finding Horatios killer.
His thoughts paused...he pushed them in a different direction. His guardian
angel wasnt heredoubtless, she was asleep in her bed...
Not that direction.
Inwardly, he sighed. Then, closing his eyes, sinking into the bed, he
opened his mind and let his grief take him.
Let sorrow for the good times he would not now share with Horatio rise
and spill overlet grief for the passing of one who had, in one way,
been a kind of father, well and pour through him. No more the joy of shared
discoveries, the eager quest for information, the shared hunt to pin down
some elusive provenance.
The memories lived, but Horatio was gone. A formative chapter in his life
had ended. It was difficult to accept that hed reached the last
page and now had to close the book.
Grief ebbed and left him empty. Hed seen death too many times for
the shock to hold him for long. He came from a warrior caste; unjust death
was the trigger for one of his most primal responses. Revengenot
for personal satisfaction but in the name of justice.
Horatios death would not go unavenged.
He lay in the soft sheets while grief transmuted to anger, eventually
coalescing into icy resolution. His emotions hardened, he mentally returned
to the scene, replaying every step, every recollection, until he came
to the touch...
Fingers that small belonged to a child or a woman. Given the fascination
behind the touchone he recognized instinctivelyhe would wager
his entire collection that a woman had been there. A woman who was not
the murderer. Horatio may have been old but he hadnt been so infirm
that a woman could have stabbed him so neatly. Few women would have the
strength, or the knowledge.
SoHoratio had been murdered. Then he had entered and the
murderer had coshed him with the halberk. Then the woman had entered and
Nothat couldnt be right. Horatios body had been turned
before he had arrived; he agreed with "Papa"it
hadnt been the murderer whod done that. The woman must have,
then shed hidden when he appeared.
She must have seen the murderer strike him, then leave. Why hadnt
she raised the alarm? Some man called Hemmings had done that.
Something more than the obvious was afoot. He revisited the facts, but
couldnt shake that conclusion.
A board in the hallway creaked. Lucifer listened. A minute later, the
door to his room opened.
He remained relaxed on his side, lids lowered so he appeared asleep but
he could see through his lashes. He heard a soft click as the door shut,
then footsteps padded across the floorboards; a pool of candlelight approached.
His guardian angel came into view. She was in her nightgown.
She halted six feet away, studying his face. One hand held the candlestick;
the other rested between her breasts, anchoring her shawl. It was the
first time hed seen all of her; he didnt try to stop himself
looking, noting, assessing. Her face was as he recalled, wide eyes, tapered
chin and sleek dark hair giving an impression of intelligence and feminine
resolve. She was of average height, slender but not thin. Her breasts
were full and high, nipples just discernible beneath the shawls
fringe. He couldnt judge her waist under the nightgown, but her
hips were neatly rounded, her thighs sleek.
Her feet were bare. His gaze locked on them, tantalizingly revealed then
concealed beneath her nightgown. Small, naked, intensely feminine feet.
Slowly, he dragged his gaze back up to her face.
While hed studied her, shed been studying him; her dark eyes
roamed his face, taking in, it seemed, every line. Then she turned away.
Lucifer bit back an urge to call to her. He wanted to thank hershed
been a madonna of kindness and caringbut if he made a sound hed
scare her out of her wits. He watched her stop by the sleeping woman;
setting her candlestick down, she lifted a blanket, shook it out, then
tucked it about the other woman. As she turned away, candle once more
in hand, the soft light lit her smile.
She started for the door but, as if shed heard his silent plea,
she halted before she passed the bed. She looked his way, then, hesitantly,
she drew nearer. And nearer.
Holding the candle aside so his face was screened by her body, she rested
against the bed a foot away and studied his face anew. He fought to keep
his lids steady; he could only just see her face. Her eyes were fathomless,
her expression unreadable.
Then she released her grip on her shawl. Slowly, she reached out. With
her fingertips, she lightly traced his cheek.
Lucifer felt like hed been brandedand he recognized the brand.
He surged up on one elbow, seizing her wrist, transfixing her with a glare.
She gasped; the sound echoed through the room. The candlelight wavered
wildly, then steadied. Eyes dilated, she stared at him.
He tightened his grip and held her gaze. "It was you."
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