It didn’t 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 wasn’t a pleasant prospect, but he’d rather suffer that torture than risk succumbing to the Cynster curse.
It wasn’t a curse to be trifled with—it 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 London’s ladies, leaving them languishing, exhausted in their wake. They’d been daring, devilish, invincible—until, one by one, the curse had caught them. Now he was the last one free—unshackled, unwed and unrepentant. He had nothing against marriage per se, but the unfortunate fact—the crux of the curse—was that Cynsters did not simply marry. They married ladies they loved.
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 didn’t already have? Women—ladies—were 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 curse—he could manage very well without love.
So he’d slipped away from Gabriel’s and Alathea’s wedding breakfast and left London. With Gabriel married, he’d succeeded to the title of principal matrimonial target for the ladies of the ton; consequently, he’d dismissed all invitations to the summer’s country house parties. He’d driven to Quiverstone Manor, his parents’ estate in Somerset. Leaving his groom, Dodswell, a local, there to visit with his sister, he’d 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 ridge—the village of Colyton opened out before him. Reining in, he looked about.
And inwardly grimaced. He’d been right. From the looks of Colyton, his chances of finding any local lady with whom to dally—a married one who met his exacting standards and with whom he could ease the persistent itch all Cynsters were prey to—were nil.
Abstinence it would be.
The village, neat and tidy in the bright sunshine, looked like an artist’s 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 garden’s 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 lake.
Colyton Manor looked what it was, a prosperous gentleman’s residence. It was the home of Horatio Welham—the principal reason Lucifer had chosen Colyton as his temporary bolt-hole.
Horatio’s 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 immediately—he’d grasped the excuse to disappear from the social whirl. At one time he had haunted Horatio’s 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, they’d 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 impatience—to see Horatio again, to clasp his hand, to spend time in his erudite company. Coloring that anticipation was Horatio’s reason for asking him to visit—a request for his opinion on an item that, in Horatio’s words, might tempt even him to extend his collection beyond his preferred categories of silver and jewelry. He’d spent the drive from Somerset speculating on what the item was, but had reached no conclusion.
He’d 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 listened—and 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 Manor’s front door—it, 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 Martha’s garden.
Martha was Horatio’s late wife; she’d been the anchor around which the Lake District household had revolved. Martha had loved gardening, striving through all weathers to create glorious displays—just 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 woman—she’d occupied a special place in his life. He’d often listened to her lectures where to his mother he’d been deaf; Martha had not been related—it had always been easier to hear the truth from her lips. It was Martha’s death that had lessened his enthusiasm for visiting Horatio at home. Too many memories; too acute a sense of shared loss.
Seeing Martha’s garden here felt odd, like a hand on his sleeve when there was no one there. He frowned—he 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, quiet—still—waiting...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 wide.
He smelled blood before he reached the door. After Waterloo, it was one scent he’d never mistake. The hair at his nape lifted; he slowed.
At his back, the sun glowed bright and warm—the 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 instant’s 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 wasn’t asleep—he hadn’t 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 Horatio’s chest, he felt a lingering warmth; slight color still graced the old man’s cheeks. Mind reeling, Lucifer sat back on his heels.
Horatio had been murdered—minutes ago.
He felt numb, detached; some part of his brain continued cataloguing facts, like the experienced cavalry officer he’d once been.
The single killing stroke had been an upward thrust into the heart—like 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 later—originally he’d fallen face down. Catching a glimpse of gilt under the shawl, Lucifer searched with fingers that shook—and 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 wasn’t rumpled; the table between the body and the rug appeared correctly aligned in its normal place.
The numbness was wearing off. Emotions welled; Lucifer’s senses flickered, then flared to life.
He was cursing beneath his breath; he felt like he’d been kicked in the gut. After the serenity outside, finding Horatio like this seemed obscene—a nightmare he knew there’d 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t remember the impact. He had no idea whether he’d lost consciousness and only just regained it, or whether he’d only just reached the floor. Exerting every last ounce of his will, he cracked open his lids. Horatio’s face swam into—and out of—focus. 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 under—grimly, he resisted its pull.
The letter knife was still in his fist, but his right arm was trapped beneath his body. He couldn’t move. His body felt like a lead weight he was trapped within; he couldn’t 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 hadn’t heard anyone leaving, but he wasn’t 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 Welham’s body. A squeak of dismay escaped her—the 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. He’d definitely been felled.
Bracing, she counted to three, then hauled—the heavy head of the halberk rose. She staggered, boots shuffling as she fought to swing the unwieldy weapon aside.
She hadn’t meant it to fall.
Having only just walked in and discovered Horatio’s body, she hadn’t been thinking at all clearly when the stranger’s footsteps had sounded on the gravel outside. She’d panicked, thinking him the murderer returning to remove the body. With all the village in church, she couldn’t imagine who else it could have been.
He’d called a "Hello," but so might a murderer checking to see if anyone else had come upon the scene. She’d frantically searched for a hiding place, but the long drawing room was lined with bookcases—the only gap that would have hidden her from the door had been too far away for her to reach in time. Desperate, she’d secreted herself in the only available spot—in the shadows behind the open door, between the frame and the last bookshelf, squeezing in alongside the halberk.
The hiding place had served, but once she’d realized from his actions and his muttered expletives that this man was no murderer, and after she’d debated the wisdom of showing herself—the 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 belongings—once she’d got past all that and realized that this was murder and she’d gone to step forward to make herself known, her shoulder had nudged the halberk.
Its descent had been inexorable.
She’d grabbed it and fought vainly to halt it or deflect it—in the end, all she’d been able to do was twist it enough so that the heavy blade had not struck the man’s head. If it had, he’d 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 she’d 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 hadn’t helped that he’d chosen that precise moment to leap to his feet. He’d come up propelled like a spring, only to meet the halberk going down.
He’d hit the floor with a sickening thud, too. He hadn’t moved since.
Steeling herself, she stepped over the pole. "Oh, God—please don’t let me have killed him!" Horatio had been murdererd, and now she’d 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 couldn’t hear, he couldn’t 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 him—he 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—
Fingers—small fingers—touched 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 man’s cheek, mesmerized by the stark beauty of his face. He looked like a fallen angel—such 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 didn’t flicker; her stomach clenched tight. Then she saw his lips, lean and mobile, ease, softening as if he’d exhaled.
"Please, please, don’t 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 folds—he was so beautiful and she hadn’t 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 murderer—the 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 couldn’t change that. Indeed, she knew nothing of any relevance. His friend was unconscious and would remain so for some time—she should make sure he was well-tended. That was the least she should do.
But here she was in Horatio’s drawing room, in breeches, instead of being laid down on her bed at the Grange with a sick headache. And she couldn’t explain why, not without revealing her reason for being here—those misplaced personal belongings. Worse, they weren’t hers—she didn’t 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, she’d 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 Horatio’s 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 Horatio’s body caught her eye.
Had the stranger carried a hat when he’d entered? She hadn’t noticed it, but he was so large, he could have reached forward and put it on the table without her seeing.
Gentlemen’s hats often had their name embroidered on the inside band. Stepping around Horatio’s body, Phyllida reached for the brown hat—
"I’ll 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.
"Nah—can’t do that," a heavy male voice answered. "Mightn’t be wise."
"Wise?" The woman’s 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 wasn’t, but he might as well have been. Beyond hearing, his senses weren’t functioning well—he couldn’t 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 couldn’t lift his lids—even that much movement was still beyond him.
He was helpless.
"How do you know he’s still alive?" The woman’s imperious tone left little doubt she was a lady.
"Alive? ‘Course he’s alive—why wouldn’t he be? Just swooned, that’s all."
"Swooned? Juggs, you’re an innkeeper. For how long do swooned men stay swooned, especially if they’re jolted about in a cart in the fresh air?"
Juggs snorted. "He’s a swell—who knows how long they stay swooned for? Right liverish lot, they are."
"They found him slumped by Mr. Welham’s body—what if he hasn’t 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, we’d have his nibs here, and someone else the murderer—that’d make two people coming in separate from outside in one day with no one seeing either of ‘em, and that just plain doesn’t happen."
The lady lost all patience. "Juggs—open this door! What if the gentleman dies, all because you decided he’d swooned when that wasn’t so at all? We have to check."
"He’s swooned, I tell you—not 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 lady—he didn’t want her going away defeated, leaving him with the uncaring innkeeper. He lifted one hand—his arm shook...he forced the hand to his head. He heard a groan, then realized it was his.
"There! See?" The lady sounded triumphant. "It’s his head that hurts—the back of his head. Why, if he’d simply swooned? Quickly, Juggs—open the door! There’s 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 wrong—the 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 he’d fallen? But the jingle of keys pushed the thought from Lucifer’s mind—the 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 near.
"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 wasn’t as old as he’d 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 concern—with 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 didn’t sit well—Horatio was dead. He let his lids fall.
"You’ll feel much better directly," she promised, "once we move you to a more comfortable bed."
Behind her, Juggs snorted. "Aye—he’s that sort of gentleman, I’d 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. "He’s been hit on the back of the head with something—some weapon."
Juggs hurrumped. "P’rhaps 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 lady’s 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. She’d mentioned a bed...he broke off that train of thought, once again disconcerted by its direction.
"‘Ere—let me see," Juggs grudgingly said.
A heavy hand touched Lucifer’s skull—his head exploded with pain.
* * *
"Papa, this man is seriously injured."
His guardian angel’s voice drew Lucifer back to the living. He had no idea how much time had elapsed since last he’d been with them.
"He’s been hit very violently on the back of the head—Juggs has seen the wound, too."
"Hmm." Heavier footsteps approached. "That right, Juggs?"
A new voice, deep, cultured but tinged with the local county accent—Lucifer wondered just who "Papa" was.
"Aye—looks like he’s been coshed good and proper." Juggs—the clod—was still with them.
"The wound’s on the back of his skull, you say?"
"Yes—here." Lucifer felt the lady’s fingers part his hair. "But don’t touch." "Papa" thankfully didn’t. "It seems very sensitive—he regained consciousness for a moment, but fainted when Juggs touched his head."
"Hardly surprising. That’s quite a blow he’s taken. Administered with that old halberk of Horatio’s by the look of it. Hemmings said he found it beside this gentleman. Given the thing’s weight, it’s a wonder he isn’t dead."
Letting his hair fall, the lady stated, "So it’s obvious he’s 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 couldn’t have fallen on its own. Seems clear enough. So, we’ll just have to wait and see what this gentleman can tell us once he regains his senses."
Precious little, Lucifer mentally answered.
"Well, he’s not going to get better lying in this cell." The lady’s voice had developed a decisive note.
"Indeed not. Can’t understand what Bristleford was about, thinking this fellow was the murderer who’d swooned at the sight of blood."
Swooned at the sight of blood? If he’d been able, Lucifer would have snorted derisively, but he still couldn’t 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 safe—she 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 moment’s warning the murderer was behind him and grabbed the only weapon to hand. Not much use against a halberk, unfortunately. No—it was obvious someone had found the body and turned it. Can’t see the murderer bothering—it wasn’t as if Horatio would have been carrying any valuables in his nightshirt."
"So this man is innocent," the lady reiterated. "We really should move him to the Grange."
"I’ll ride back and send the carriage," "Papa" replied.
"I’ll wait here. Tell Gladys to pile as many cushions and pillows as she can into the carriage, and..."
The lady’s words faded as she moved away; Lucifer stopped trying to listen. She’d said she’d stay by him. It sounded like the Grange was "Papa’s" 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 friend—how dear he hadn’t 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 wasn’t pleasant. Luckily, he wasn’t 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 didn’t 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. "He’s resting quietly," Sweetie mouthed.
Phyllida nodded and went to the bed. They’d left him sprawled on his stomach to spare his sore head. He was much larger than she’d realized—the broad expanse of his shoulders and chest, the long lines of his back, the even longer length of his legs—his body dominated the bed. He wasn’t, perhaps, the largest man she’d 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 wrong—he was unconscious, not truly resting at all.
Phyllida straightened. Guilt swept her. It had been her fault he’d been hit. She glided back to Sweetie. "I’m going to the Manor—I’ll be back in an hour."
Sweetie smiled and nodded. With one last glance at the bed, Phyllida left the room.
* * *
"I really couldn’t say, sir."
Phyllida entered the Manor’s front hall to find Bristleford, Horatio’s 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 Appleby’s 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. Welham’s 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 Cedric’s interest. "Bristleford was just telling me that Sir Jasper has declared himself satisfied that the gentleman discovered by the body is not the murderer."
"That’s correct. The murderer is as yet unknown." Unwilling to encourage further discussion, Phyllida turned to Bristleford. "I’ve asked John Ostler to tend the gentleman’s horses." His magnificent horses—even 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. "We’ll put them in the stables here—the stables at the Grange are full now my aunt Huddlesford and my cousins have arrived."
They’d arrived that afternoon, just as she’d been rushing off to rescue the unknown gentlemen; because of her useless cousins, she’d been too late to save him from Juggs’s clutches.
Bristleford frowned. "If you think that’s best..."
"I do. It seems obvious the gentleman was coming here to visit—presumably he was a friend of Mr. Welham’s."
"I don’t know, miss. The Hemmings and I haven’t been with the master long enough to know all his friends."
"Quite. No doubt Covey will know." Covey was Horatio’s valet and had been with him for many years. "I take it he’s not back yet?"
"No, miss. He’ll be devastated."
Phyllida nodded. "I just looked in to pick up the gentleman’s hat."
"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, no—I just assumed he must have had a hat. No cane either?"
Bristleford shook his head.
"Well, then, I’ll 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 Horatio’s gorgeous garden. A chill washed down her spine.
There had been a hat—a brown one. If it didn’t belong to the gentleman and hadn’t 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 still—he tried, but the pain wouldn’t 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 head—the 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 gentleman’s residence. Recollecting that "Papa" had been called upon to pass judgement over his involvement in Horatio’s death, "Papa" might well be the local magistrate. If so, he’d 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 Horatio’s killer.
His thoughts paused...he pushed them in a different direction. His guardian angel wasn’t here—doubtless, 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 over—let 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 he’d reached the last page and now had to close the book.
Grief ebbed and left him empty. He’d 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. Revenge—not for personal satisfaction but in the name of justice.
Horatio’s 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 touch—one he recognized instinctively—he 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 hadn’t been so infirm that a woman could have stabbed him so neatly. Few women would have the strength, or the knowledge.
So—Horatio had been murdered. Then he had entered and the murderer had coshed him with the halberk. Then the woman had entered and found him.
No—that couldn’t be right. Horatio’s body had been turned before he had arrived; he agreed with "Papa"—it hadn’t been the murderer who’d done that. The woman must have, then she’d hidden when he appeared.
She must have seen the murderer strike him, then leave. Why hadn’t she raised the alarm? Some man called Hemmings had done that.
Something more than the obvious was afoot. He revisited the facts, but couldn’t 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 he’d seen all of her; he didn’t 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 shawl’s fringe. He couldn’t 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 he’d studied her, she’d 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 her—she’d been a madonna of kindness and caring—but if he made a sound he’d 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 she’d 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 he’d been branded—and 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."