At what hour did Lady Challis have her maids polishing?
He turned the knob very slowly, vigilant for squeaks. Like everything else in the house, it worked perfectly, moving clockwise without a sound. He pushed the door open, preparing to slip in through the barest of cracks and then nudge it closed behind him.
But when he stepped inside, it took less than a second to know that something was not right. The breathing was not that of gentle sleep. It was harsh, and labored, and—
He pushed the door open wider to let more light in.
She was standing not far from the fireplace, a poker raised clutched in her hands. On the floor was Lord Newbury, utterly still.
―Annabel?" he said again. She looked to be in shock. She did not turn to him, did not acknowledge his arrival in any way.
He rushed to her side, carefully taking the poker from her fingers.
―I didn‘t hit him," she said, never once taking her eyes from the body from the floor. ―I didn‘t even hit him."
―What happened?" He looked at the poker despite her statements. There was no blood on it, nothing to indicate a blow.
―I think he‘s dead," she said, still in that strange monotone whisper. ―He was holding my ankle.
I was going to hit him if he didn‘t let go, but then he let go, and—"
―His heart," Sebastian said, cutting her off so she did not have to say more. ―It was probably his heart." He set the poker down, carefully placing it in its spot in the tool stand. The metal clinked together, but the sound was muted, and he did not think it would attract attention.
Moving back to Annabel, he took her hand, then touched her face. ―Are you all right?" he asked carefully. ―Did he hurt you?" He was terrified for the answer, but he had to ask. He had to know what had happened if he was going to help her.
―He was—he came in and—" But she could barely choke out the words, and when he wrapped his arms around her, she collapsed instantly, all the strength pouring from her before he could blink.
―Shh…" he crooned, cradling her lovingly. ―It‘s all right. I‘m here. I‘m here now."
She nodded against his chest, but she didn‘t cry. She trembled, and she gasped for air, but she didn‘t cry. ―He didn‘t—he didn‘t get to—I got away before—"
Thank God, Sebastian silently prayed. If his uncle had raped her…by God he would have brought him back from the dead just so that he could kill him again. Sebastian had seen rape in the war, not directly, but he‘d seen the eyes of the women who had been brutalized. They had looked dead inside, and Sebastian had realized that in a way, they, too, had been killed, just like the men who‘d gone off to battle. It was worse for the women. Their bodies lived on, with dead souls inside.
―What are we going to do?" she asked.
―I don‘t know," he admitted. ―I‘ll think of something." But what? He knew how to handle himself in almost any situation, but this…the dead body of his uncle in the room of his fiancée…
Good God. This was beyond even him.
Think. He had to think. If he were writing this…
―First we shut the door," he said firmly, trying to sound as if he knew what he was doing. He gently removed his arms from around Annabel, making sure that she could stand on her own, and then moved swiftly to the door. He closed it firmly, then strode across the room to light a candle.
Annabel was standing where he‘d left her, hugging her arms to her body. She looked freezing.
―Do you need a blanket?" he asked, and it seemed the most ludicrous question, under the circumstances. But she was cold, and he was a gentleman, and some things were just too deeply ingrained to be ignored.
She shook her head.
Seb planted his hands on his hips and stared down at his uncle, lying motionless, facedown on the carpet. He wasn‘t sure how he‘d thought it would end between the two of them, but definitely not likethis . Damn. What was he supposed to do now? ―If I were writing this…" he muttered, trying to summon whatever creative corner of his imagination he usually reserved for his characters. ―If I were writing this…"
―What did you say?"
He turned back to Annabel. He‘d been so lost in his own thoughts he‘d almost forgot she was there. ―Nothing," he said, giving his head a shake. She probably thought he was babbling utter nonsense.
―I‘m better now," she announced.
She made a motion with her hand, a little bit of a twist, a little bit of a wave. ―I have my head.
Whatever we need to do, I can do it."
He blinked, surprised by her quick recovery. ―Are you certain? I can—"
―I‘ll cry when we‘re done," she said sharply.
―I love you," he said, thinking this had to be the least appropriate time imaginable to tell her.
But there was something about her standing there in her plain cotton nightgown, matter-of-fact and capable as a goddess. How could he not love her?
―Have I told you that?" he added.
She shook her head, her lips trembling into a smile. ―I love you, too."
―Good," he said simply, because this wasn‘t the time for hearts and flowers. But he could not resist adding, ―It would be bloody inconvenient for me if you didn‘t."
―I think we need to get him back to his own room," she said, looking down at Newbury with a queasy expression.
Sebastian nodded, grimly estimating his uncle‘s weight. It would not be easy, even with both of them. ―Do you know where his room is?" he asked.