Emma Cadbury looked like a cornered doe. “I shouldn’t even be here… Really, I must go. They’ll be worried…”
“You can send word home. And really, don’t you think Lady Carstairs will want to see you first thing when Benedick brings her safely home? And he will. Won’t you, Neddie?”
He had no choice. “Yes, please stay, Mrs. Cadbury. It would be a kindness.”
She nodded, giving in.
“What are you waiting for?” Miranda demanded, in full warrior mode. “We’ll be there before midnight. How will we find you?”
There was no way to stop her, any more than he could stop the incoming tide. “Make a commotion. Some kind of distraction that will draw the attention away from whatever this so-called master has planned. I suppose your sources didn’t figure out yet who’s running the Heavenly Host?” he asked his brother-in-law.
The Scorpion shook his head. “I’ll keep my wife safe. Mrs. Cadbury will look after Brandon. The rest is up to you.”
“God help us,” Benedick muttered.
The house was silent. Emma Cadbury sat alone in the Viscount’s library, a tea tray by her side. She’d managed to drink a cup, but the sight of the tea cakes, so beloved by Melisande, had her on the verge of weeping with fear, and she had never been a woman to give in to tears. She’d simply covered the plate with a serviette.
He was above stairs, sleeping. Lady Rochdale had assured her that he would be fine—a servant would fetch her if he awoke, but that was very unlikely. She had the direction of a doctor, if he should suddenly get worse, but in truth, all she had to do was wait.
As if things weren’t bad enough, she thought, trying for a wry smile and failing. On top of everything else temptation was thrown in her face. She’d wanted to see him so many times in the past few months, ever since they’d whisked him away from the hospital, but there’d been no chance. She’d told herself it was for the best. And now here he was, sick, wretched. Unconscious.
He wouldn’t know that she’d looked in on him. He was a boy, despite all the horrors he’d been through, despite the determination with which he was trying to destroy himself. She could pray over him, but she never prayed anymore. She was frightened, more frightened than she’d been since the night she’d run away, terrified that Melisande would have finally walked into a danger she couldn’t escape, terrified that poor little Betsey would be slaughtered.
Surely she deserved the one sweet respite of a look at Brandon Rohan’s sleeping face? Just to reassure herself.
She moved quietly up the stairs. It was growing dark outside, the late-spring evening coming on quickly. The servants were out of sight, as good servants were supposed to be, even the kindly old man who’d brought her the tea had told her he was going down for his own supper but all she had to do was pull the bell if she needed assistance.
It was as good a time as any.
She moved up the stairs quite slowly, half hoping she’d think better of it, but the closer she came the more she knew she couldn’t turn back. His room was at the end of the hallway, and while the door to the hallway was closed, she could see dim light coming from under the door. Lady Rochdale had told her a maid would be stationed outside, but the chair was empty.
She moved up and pressed her ear against the door, only to hear absolute silence. And then a hideous thump.
She slammed the door open in time to see Brandon Rohan hanging from his neck in the center of the room, the chair he’d been standing on kicked over.
She rushed to him, holding him up so the strain on his neck was eased. “You stupid, stupid fool!” she cried. “Damn you to hell! Stop this immediately.”
He’d fought her for a moment, kicking at her imprisoning arms, and then he stopped moving, and she had the horrifying thought that his neck had already been broken. She looked up, tears streaming down her face, to find he was looking down at her, his dark eyes puzzled, the noose loose around his neck.
She reached out with her foot, blindly, catching the edge of the chair and pulling it over. It took her three tries to get it upright, and she set his feet on it, relinquishing her hold as she pulled out the knife she always carried with her. She climbed onto the chair with him, reaching high over his head to cut the rope, and suddenly realized his arms had come around her, and he was looking at her as if he’d seen a ghost. “My harpy,” he whispered.
And then he collapsed.
If he rode any other horse but Bucephalus, he would not have made it. He went hell-bent, through uneven roads in the murky darkness, and he cursed the rising of the moon, knowing it only brought disaster closer. But Bucephalus was as sure-footed as ever, with nary a misstep as he raced through the night, so fast that the spring dew had no time to settle on his shoulders.
He pulled up short at the copse where he and Melisande had left the horses the other day, ignoring the stab of fear. It was a good thing his sister and her husband were following, though he could still wish Miranda had stayed at home. He could hardly carry Melisande home on his horse again, much as he’d like to, and there was the young girl, as well. Besides, Miranda could be very comforting to those she wasn’t related to, and annoyed with, and there was a good chance Melisande or the girl would need a woman’s care. But God, he hoped not.
Brandon’s robe fit him well enough. They were of a height, though Benedick was broader in the shoulder, and he considered limping, pretending to be Brandon if anyone should spot him. Ah, but whoever had set his brother up would know perfectly well he wasn’t, and that was the main person he had to beware of. He contented himself with hunching slightly, to disguise his height, and moved through the night like a ghost.
There were perhaps a dozen robed figures wandering the empty paths of Kersley Hall, but to his surprise they weren’t heading toward the entrance in the old dairy. The building was pitch-dark, the doors shut and barred. Instead they were heading toward the stable, in the midst of muffled laughter and drunken conversation pitched too low for him to hear. He had no choice but to follow them, back into the deserted stable where a man held a lantern aloft. Each acolyte who passed him and disappeared into the stall had to suffer torchlight on his face, and Benedick drew back, ducking into one of the darkened stalls. He could hardly expect to gain admittance if he had to show his face. He had no history with this new, more secretive version of the Heavenly Host, and given Brandon’s recent involvement he’d definitely be persona non grata. There were too many people around to stop him if he tried to force his way. At least he could be relatively sure that nothing had happened yet. Whoever the mysterious master was, he would wait for a full audience.
He couldn’t imagine how people could stand by while a child was slaughtered. He recognized Elsmere’s drunken laugh, and his lady-wife’s admonition. They were hardly people he cared to spend time with in the normal run of things, but he couldn’t believe they would be a party to something so hideous. He’d believe everyone was mistaken, but he’d seen the blood on Brandon’s hands, the torn cassock on the floor with its ominous dark stains. No, this was very real.
It seemed as if he waited forever, but in fact it was probably less than ten minutes. The slow stream of robed attendants came to a halt, and when he lifted his head there were no lights coming from outside. Only the guard at the distant stall remained.
He moved back out of the stall, into the night air, and circled around, satisfying his suspicion that the last of the Heavenly Host had arrived. There was a door at the opposite end of the stable, near the guard, leading out toward the overgrown woods. They thought no one would approach from that side. They relied on their distance from the city for protection. They were wrong.
He would have liked nothing more than to beat the guardian monk to a pulp, but he couldn’t afford the time. He made do with a manure shovel, smashing it over his head so the man went down in a sprawl of limbs. He recognized the face—some pimply-faced young squire up from the country, no doubt looking to join the ton. He took the robe belt off him, noticing in disgust that he was naked underneath. It only made sense—he was expecting an orgy. Benedick tied the boy’s arms behind his back, looped the rope around his ankles and left him trussed like a chicken. For good measure he took his handkerchief from his pocket and shoved it in his mouth to keep him quiet before depositing him in one of the other stalls. And then, picking the lantern up in a calm hand, he started down the steps into the tunnels.
He held the lantern aloft, looking around him. This entrance was past the one they had used a few days ago, and he assumed they would be gathering in the large central room. He peered into the dark behind him, but there was no trace of light, and he moved forward, as quietly as he could, in case there were any latecomers.
The tunnel opened out into a room, one they hadn’t seen before. It was lit by a few smoking torches, the shadows adding to the ominous feel of the place. The room was smaller than the gathering hall, with lower ceilings and numerous alcoves arranged for licentious purposes. Long, low tables were set out, laid with cold meats and breads, wines and ale, and another with a bizarre arrangement of fruit and vegetables as a centerpiece, consisting mainly of grapes and something pale. And then he caught his breath.
The centerpiece festooned with grapes was indeed something pale. It was the completely nude body of a woman, a familiar, gorgeous body.
He leaped for the table, half-afraid he’d find…
But she was alive. Breathing. In one piece. Her arms and legs were bound, tied to the table, and they’d put her on a huge platter with bits of greenery around her, and dark purple grapes placed at strategic places on her. Her eyes were open and she was staring up at him in mingled fury and entreaty, and he realized they’d gagged her.
Never a bad thing, he thought, half-giddy with relief as he began unfastening the restraints. Melisande had struggled so hard the knots were impossible to undo, so he simply took his knife and cut through, hoping he wouldn’t slice her as he did so. The moment her arms were free she sat up, pulling the gag from her mouth and throwing it, while he cut through the leg shackles. And then she launched herself at him, ignoring the knife he still held in his hand, almost knocking him down.
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