Page 47

Author: Anne Stuart

But Lucien sat at his dining room table, drinking coffee and looking perturbed, and Miranda paced the floor. Her face, when she saw him, was far from reassuring, but at least there was news.

“They’ve found him!” she cried. “In some wretched hovel, and if it hadn’t been for Lucien’s connections, he probably wouldn’t have been found until the middle of next week. If he’d even been found alive.”

Benedick felt his heart sink. “Where is he now?”

“They’re bringing him,” Lucien said, sounding equally grave. “He’s not in the best of shape, and my men have orders to be discreet, so it’s taking a bit of time…”

“Not in the best of shape?” his wife interrupted him. “He was in an opium den, Lucien! Unconscious, and no one could rouse him. Wearing a monk’s robe and covered in blood.” She started pacing again.

Not good, Benedick thought, but he gave Miranda a reassuring nod. “At least he’s found. That’s the first step. As for the blood, granted, that’s not a good sign. But the actual ritual is set for tonight, so at least we know he’s not going to be any part of that particular foulness. We may need to call a doctor to attend him…”

“I’ve already sent word,” the Scorpion interrupted, looking grim. “If my information is reliable, and I have no doubt that it is, he’s in very bad shape, indeed. With luck the doctor will be here before Brandon arrives home.”

“Dr. Tunbridge seldom comes out that promptly…”

“I summoned my doctor, not yours, Rohan,” the Scorpion said coolly. “He’s more capable of dealing with this kind of situation. I doubt old Tunbridge has ever seen a case of opium poisoning.”

It would have made things so much better if he could have simply slammed his fist into Lucien de Malheur’s face, Benedick thought fondly, keeping his hands clenched at his sides. Except for what it would do to Miranda, who was already looking far more distressed than a woman in her condition ought to.

She must have picked up on his hostility, for she shot him a quelling glance. “Don’t you dare.”

He opened his fists and held them up in a sign of surrender. “I’ll behave. Things are bad enough already.”

It seemed to take forever. The Scorpion was right, the doctor did arrive before Brandon, but at least he didn’t look like the shady quack Benedick was anticipating. Miranda kept herself busy by ordering the preparation of a sick room, sending servants running up and down the stairs, while Benedick took a chair as far away as he could from his brother-in-law, drumming his fingers silently and waiting.

He lifted his head when he heard Miranda come back into the room with tears streaming down her face, and his panic erupted. “What’s happened? Have you heard something?”

His wretched brother-in-law stood at the same time. “Is he back, my love?”

She nodded. “The doctor is examining him right now. But it’s bad, Lucien. Very, very bad. He’s covered with blood, and he was found with a bloody knife, and he won’t wake up.”

“I didn’t even hear them bring him in!” Benedick protested, irrationally furious.

“Because they brought him in the back way,” Lucien said in the tones reserved for an idiot. “If he’s involved in murder we’re going to have to be very discreet. Unless you prefer to have your brother hauled off to jail?”

Benedick didn’t dignify that with an answer. “When this is over, you bastard, you and I are going to have a serious reckoning.”

Lucien’s scarred face curved in a malicious grin. “I’ll be looking forward to it. But in the meantime do you suppose we might pay attention to what’s important?”

Miranda hadn’t exaggerated. Brandon lay on the narrow bed, his color dead white. The doctor had already removed the stained clothes, and Brandon’s thin, scarred chest rose up and down, imperceptibly. His skinny, clawlike hands were stained with blood, though Miranda was busy washing them clean.

“You shouldn’t be doing that!” Benedick said abruptly. “We should call a servant or something…”

“No!” Miranda snapped. “The fewer people who know about this the better. Besides, I need to be able to do something.” She reached out and brushed a shock of his dark hair away from his face. “Poor little baby brother,” she whispered, tears in her eyes.

“He’s in rough shape, but he should make it,” the doctor, a thin man with sad eyes far older than his years, murmured. “The amount of opium he ingested has a depressive effect on the heart, slowing it down, and I feared it might stop beating completely, but it’s already coming back, and his breathing is better. Even his color is improving.”

Benedick looked at the sickly yellow and white of Brandon’s skin. “His color is improving?” he said doubtfully.

“You should have seen him when he first arrived,” Miranda said. She glanced up at the doctor. “What can we do?”

“Watch him. As long as he cannot add more opium or anything similar, such as laudanum syrup, then he should continue to come back. Keep any sort of spirits away from him, as well. Tie him to the bed if you must, but don’t let him ingest anything more for at least two days. If you can, a full week would be better.”

“Two days?” Miranda echoed, incensed. “He’s never going to touch that filthy stuff again.”

The doctor looked at her sadly. “In my experience, my lady, that’s seldom the case. He’s a habitual user, and while I imagine he started as a response to the pain of his injuries, he now uses it to shut out the world, and it’s hard to bring someone back from that. Apart from his addiction, he’s in one piece. No injuries, broken bones or the like.”

“And the blood?” Lucien spoke then, and the man lifted his head.

“I saw no blood, my lord,” he said calmly.

Lucien nodded. “You’ll be taken care of as per usual.”

Benedick’s annoyance grew. “He’s my brother. I’ll take care of any remuneration. If you’ll tell me where to have it sent, Doctor…?” He waited for the man to supply his name, but the doctor looked from the Scorpion back to him, and shrugged.

“We’re better off without names,” he said gently. “And the Scorpion knows how to get in touch with me. I leave it to you two gentlemen to sort out who pays.” There was a cynical twist to his mouth, before he turned to Miranda and put a gentle hand on her head as she sat beside Brandon, clutching his thin hand in hers. “Don’t worry, dear lady. He’ll be better soon. And then you may begin the hard work of convincing him to stay away from the opium. I wish you luck.”

She smiled up at him, but the man had already vanished, like the ghost he was.

At that point Brandon’s eyes fluttered open, just for a moment, and then closed again. Not before Benedick saw the expression of clear panic in his bloodshot eyes.

“He’s waking up!” Miranda said, her voice brimming with excitement.

Benedick had to wonder if his brother-in-law had seen that same look of horrified pleading. “You need to come downstairs with me, my love, and have something to eat. You’ve been pacing and hovering for too long.”

“But Brandon needs me!” she cried, mutinous.

“Brandon has Benedick, who is more than capable of providing nursing duties, and most likely better at holding a chamber pot. And you, my dear, need to consider the baby, and eat properly.”

“You’re not fighting fairly,” she shot back.

“Of course not, my love.” He held out his arm, and after a moment she rose and took it.

“But I’m coming right back. Do you understand?” she said stubbornly.

“You could do with a short nap. Then you may come back, and by then your baby brother will probably feel better able to withstand so much family and your dauntless enthusiasm.” He put his hand over hers, leading her away. “Leave this to Neddie.”

Benedick waited until they were out of earshot, stifling his irritation at the Scorpion’s mocking use of the pet name only his siblings were allowed to utter. When he turned back, Brandon’s eyes were open and full of blinding despair.

“I killed her, Neddie,” he whispered, his voice a painful rasp. “I told him I wouldn’t. I told him there wasn’t anything that would make me do it, but I killed her anyway.”

“Hush, now,” Benedick said, taking the seat beside him and holding the hand Miranda had abandoned. There was still blood beneath the fingernails, and he hoped Brandon couldn’t see it. “Who told you to kill her? And who is she?”

“The Grand Master,” he choked out. “No one knows who he is, but we’re all sworn to obey. But I told him I couldn’t. Not ever. But I must have. There was blood all over me, blood on my hands, the knife…”

“But you don’t remember actually killing anyone?” It was faint hope, but worth nurturing. For both their sakes.

There was an almost imperceptible shake from Brandon’s head. “Not for sure. But I remember seeing her. Some poor serving girl, barely more than a child. And the things he ordered me to do to her. I couldn’t, Neddie. But I must have.”

“You were right the first time,” he said soothingly. “You couldn’t. You don’t have it in you. You’re not a killer. You don’t abuse women.”

His laugh had a ghostly quality. “There’s where you’re wrong, Neddie. You have no idea the things I’ve done, the horrors I’ve seen. I lost count of how many men I’ve killed. As for women…you don’t want to know. It’s been…I can’t live with it. Even the opium won’t drive the memory away, not completely. You don’t need the memory as your burden, too. I’m a monster, and my face only shows what I really am.”

Benedick kept his expression blank. Brandon was right; he didn’t want to know, but if his brother needed to confess then he’d hear him. He reached out and smoothed the hair away from Brandon’s pale, sweating face, much as Miranda had done. “It’ll be all right, old man,” he said gently. “Things are never as dark as they seem.”


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