Authors: Sara Bennett
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction
ichard felt as if his head might come right off, but he couldn’t give in to the pain, he simply refused. Tina was out there somewhere in the hands of a killer, and he had to find her. He couldn’t face another loss like Anthony, and this time he wouldn’t get over it. He already understood that Tina’s death would be his destruction.
“How did he get inside?” he muttered, pushing away Evelyn’s hands as she tried to minister to him with warm water and bandages. “Why didn’t anyone see him?”
“You sent the outriders away,” she reminded him maliciously.
“But I set watches!” he shouted, and then groaned and wished he hadn’t.
“Richard!” Will, who’d already been outside searching, came pounding into the room. “Pardon, Mrs. Eversham,” he said to Evelyn. She gave him a little smile, and Richard saw she found his infatuation amusing and wanted to shout again.
“Get on with it, man.”
“One of the men on watch took a knock, too, but his head can’t be as hard as yours. He’s unconscious, and I’ve sent for the doctor.”
“Good.” So that was how he got in. He’d believed the men were up to the task, but clearly Sutton was too cunning for them. Richard wanted to rant and rave and blame himself for being distracted, but there was no point in that. He had work to do, and he must remain calm and in control.
“There’s more,” Will added with a triumphant grin. “A fellow from the nearby town saw Sutton go by—I didn’t ask him what he was doing out so late at night on your estate, but I suspect he’s been poaching. Anyway he must be a brave fellow because he didn’t pretend to be blind deaf and dumb, as they usually do when they’re caught. He said he recognized the wagon. It belongs to the timber merchant in the town, and he knows where the merchant lives. He’s waiting outside to take us there now.”
“Well done, Will.” Despite Evelyn’s tearful protests, Richard staggered to his feet and headed for the door.
“What about me?” she cried. “What if that man comes back, and I’m here all alone?”
“You’re not alone,” he retorted. “You have the entire household on guard.”
“Richard, please don’t leave me . . .”
“I don’t have time for your nonsense now, Evelyn,” he said, white-faced, swaying slightly from his head wound. “Tina is in grave danger, and I have to find her.”
And then he was gone.
’m going with Mr. Eversham,” Archie explained, glancing up at Maria as he quickly saddled his horse. All around them the grooms and stable boys were hurrying to help, eager to do anything they could for their master. Mr. Eversham, he had discovered since he arrived, was well loved. It was the hope of the staff of the manor that the universally loathed Evelyn would leave and Mr. Richard would marry and live here in her stead.
Maria had wrapped a thick woolen shawl about her nightdress, but her dark hair was loose about her shoulders, shining with blue lights in the gloomy stable, and her eyes were big with worry.
“You must find Miss Tina,” she said. “If she were to be . . . I could not live a happy life without knowing she was safe, Archie.”
Archie nodded gravely. “I will do my best, Maria.”
Maria reached out and clasped his arm, leaning close so that her hair made a screen between them and the other men. “You do not understand,” she whispered. “My happiness—”
He almost shrugged her off. Suddenly he felt empty. He knew it was selfish, with Miss Tina missing and Mr. Eversham hurt and in despair, but Archie was in despair, too. He wanted this woman, he wanted to spend his life with her just as much as Mr. Eversham wanted to marry Tina.
“I know you are going home to Spain,” he began.
Maria cut him short. “No, that is not what I am doing, Archie. I have dreamed of home for so long that it no longer seems quite real. A child’s dream because I was a child when I left. I have made my choice. I want you, Archie. I want to stay here in England and marry you. That is what I want.”
He looked astonished at his good fortune, causing her to give a muffled laugh and reach to stroke his cheek.
“But our happiness could not be complete, if Miss Tina . . .” she said, her eyes delving into his.
He nodded and turning his face kissed her hand. “I will bring her back, Maria.”
Maria sighed and stepped away, but she was smiling.
And so was Archie.
hey took horses, Richard and Will and Archie, with the poacher—a lad rather than a man—riding behind the latter. Soon they’d reached the small town some miles beyond the Eversham estate and found themselves riding through darkened streets, with not even a lamp to show them the way. Everyone was in bed, or so it seemed.
When they reached the timber merchant’s establishment they found it was closed, but his wagon was standing outside a cottage on the opposite side of the road, the horse still in harness and cropping grass. After knocking on the door of the cottage and receiving no answer, Richard tried not to lose hope.
He wouldn’t give up on her. He refused to give up on her.
“Look!” Archie pointed to the dwelling next door. It was a derelict building that barely appeared capable of sheltering anyone, but there was a flicker of candlelight in the thinly covered window.
An old crone answered their pounding on her door. She was wrapped in a patched shawl with rags tied about her feet instead of shoes, and behind her the room told a story of poverty.
“Aye, gents?” she said, her mouth full of blackened teeth. “I was ’aving a little rest but always available to gents like you.” The smile left her face, and she peered at Richard. “I know you. Squire Eversham isn’t it? I knew you from when you were a babby. Your mother, she was a wonderful woman, sir.” She peered at him again. “You haven’t come about the workhouse? I don’t need the workhouse, I can support meself.”
Richard tried not to show his impatience. “Ma’am, I have nothing to do with the workhouse. We’re looking for some men who were in the cottage next to yours and left this wagon here. Did you see them?”
“I know when to close my curtains, squire,” she said, tapping her nose in the sign for minding her own business. She wrapped her scrap of a shawl tightly around her scrawny body and made to shut the door, but Archie already had his foot planted firmly in the way.
Richard dug some coins from his pocket and held them out. “Please, ma’am—it’s very important—you could be saving the life of a beautiful young lady.”
“Oh, aye,” she said without any particular interest.
“My betrothed,” Richard added desperately. “The soon to be Mrs. Eversham. You are certainly invited to the wedding.”
“Steady on, old chap,” muttered Will.
But the old woman’s eyes brightened although whether because of the wedding invitation or the coins in his palm, he wasn’t certain. “Aye, well, if that’s the case that’s different. I seen those men, one of them was dressed like a gent, the other was a real ruffian—funny he looked like someone I used to know, that one. And then there was a third one, with som’it over the head, like a prisoner goin’ to the gallows. That couldn’t ’ave been no beautiful lady, could it, squire?”
“When did they leave? Where did they go? Speak up, woman!” Will had lost his patience.
The crone put a hand to her head. “Don’t shout at me. Now I need to sit down and rest a bit. I don’t get enough to eat, see. Perhaps a few more pieces o’ silver, sir?” She gave Richard a plaintive look.
Richard held out another handful of coins, accompanied by Will’s humph of disgust. “She’s just going to spend it on gin, Richard.”
“I don’t give a damn,” Richard retorted through gritted teeth. “I want Tina back.”
The crone smiled her horrible black smile. “They woke me up an hour ago, they was headin’ off in a real hurry in a big black coach, they was, with four horses. I think they was black, too. Gave me a fright, I can tell you, rushin’ down the street in the dead of night. I was afeared the grim reaper was comin’ for me. It’s a wonder I didn’t die of fright.”
“You recognized them as the same men who’d been in the cottage?”
“Aye. I recognized one of them. He looked up at me window, and he had the coldest eyes I’ve ever seen.” She shivered. “Dead man eyes.”
“Where were they going?”
“Ain’t a mind reader! But they was goin’ that way along ’ere, that’s all I can say.” She indicated the direction with a long, gnarled finger.
“They’re going toward the coast,” said Will, as they walked away. “They might have a boat. We should get after them straightaway. Richard?”
Richard had swayed and for a moment seemed about to collapse, but he held himself up with a hand on his horse’s saddle. “Yes, there’s no time to lose,” he agreed.
“Hey, you there! Squire Eversham!” It was the old woman again; she’d followed them out. “I remembered som’it. The one with the cold eyes. I do know him. His name is Ben Sutton, and he has a sister, in Faversham, on the coast. I remember the two of ’em as kiddies, they lived right here in that cottage—their mother wasn’t much use, and they was always in trouble. Your father, the old squire, had Ben up before the magistrate a few times for stealin’. Still, he must ’ave done well for hisself, because he bought that cottage for his mother to spend her last years in. He’s been home last few months, since his mother died, but I thought the cottage had been sold. He musta hung on to it.”
Richard tipped all that remained of his coins into her hand.
“Do you know the sister’s name?” Will said, with a frown of disapproval at Richard.
“Peggy, sir, Peggy Sutton.”
Richard heard her answer, but he was already preparing to mount his horse although he needed Archie’s help to steady him. “We’ll catch them, sir,” he murmured reassuringly, “never you worry. We have to. Maria will turn me into a Spanish omelet if I don’t get her mistress back to her.”
Richard managed a grunt of laughter. He knew he was looking as if he were at death’s door, his face chalk white, while he could feel a trickle of blood running down the back of his neck. But he couldn’t play the invalid, and nor would he. He’d been in plenty of scrapes before, and he’d not let them stop him, and this was far more important than any mission he’d ever worked on for the Guardians.
“We can take the main road,” Will was saying, when the poacher lad spoke over him, “No, sir, there’s a quicker way. I know it. I can show you.”
Richard nodded, making his head pound, and then they were off along the road, their horses’ hooves pounding, the stars showing them the way.
He tried to concentrate on staying on the horse and not think of Tina in the hands of his enemies and the evil things they might do to her. They would kill her eventually, he knew that, because to keep her alive when she could identify them and send them to the gallows was sheer foolhardiness. But it was the things they would do before they killed her that caused the terrible pain in his chest.
He must save Tina, he must bring her home. He’d been a fool to let her go once, and now he swore he’d never do so again. He’d not had a family since Anthony died, he’d been alone, and he knew what it was to be alone. Tina had changed that, she’d shown him how good life could be.
Richard knew he couldn’t go back.
ina had wrenched at her bounds and struggled to free herself, but they were tied too tightly to budge, and now her wrists were raw and bleeding although the pain had faded to numbness. Her whole body felt numb. Perhaps, she told herself, that was a good thing. If she was numb, then she wouldn’t feel the final death blow.
A tear trickled down her cheek and tasted salty on her lips, but there was only one. She had no more tears to cry. Richard was far away now, probably too injured to follow. She could still remember the sickening crack of Sutton’s blackjack on his head. By the time he was able to pursue her captors, she would be long gone . . . or dead.
It was so unfair that just as she had finally discovered exactly what she wanted, that she had finally found true happiness, it was to be taken from her. No more holding Richard in her arms, no chance of a happy ending. And what of her parents, and Charles? Their lives would change and move on, but she wouldn’t be there to see it.
There was a shout.
Alert now, her misery forgotten, she listened intently. She felt the coach begin to rumble to a halt. Once it stopped she could hear voices. The old leather seating smelled beneath her head, but she ignored that, straining to catch what the voices were saying, wondering if she might be able to escape before they opened the door and dragged her out.
“Ah, Peggy, don’t be like that,” Sutton whined.
“What do you mean you want to stay here?” It was a woman’s voice, sharp and querulous. “What are you up to now, Ben? I don’t want this gentleman getting you into any trouble. You know I don’t like trouble. You could be a good man if only others would let you be.”
“He’s not getting me into no trouble,” Sutton replied. “This is just a favor. Just for tonight. We’ll be off again in the morning.”
“I’ll pay you well,” John Little’s voice came in, and his words seemed to do the trick. Peggy, whoever she was, still complained, but it was more for show.
“I’ll have to sort out the kiddies,” she said. “I don’t want ’em to see. Leave her out here until I sort the kiddies, and then you can put her in the cellar. But you’re to be gone in the morning, mind.”
“I told you, Peggy, we have a boat.”
“Is Miss Smythe well secured?” Little asked, and he sounded anxious, as if he wasn’t at all sure this was a good idea.
“Tied up good and proper,” Sutton replied. “She’s not going anywhere, Captain.”
Their footsteps faded away, and then there was silence. Tina was just working up her courage to try to open the coach door, bound and blinded as she was, when it was jerked open and the coach dipped as someone heavy stepped inside.
Oddly, she could smell the sea, just a faint tang of salty air. And then she could smell tobacco smoke. Instantly she thought of John Little, and that it must be him returned. A heavy hand pressed down on her shoulder, making her cry out with despair.
“Be quiet,” came an urgent whisper in a voice that was definitely not Little’s. “Get her out, over into those bushes. Quickly and quietly.”