Here it is, Chapter Three part II for your reading pleasure:
Copyright Lily Silver, 2013
“Worry, worry, worry. Wind’s pickin’ up,” the breathless voice chanted, as if repeating a worn out song. “Winter storm a comin’, ain’t no one in his right mind going to be outdoors today pokin’ about the master’s house. I told her. But Annie, she does more than her share o’ worryin’. Worry, worry, worry, and when it’s done and everything’s all right, don’t she go out and find more to worry over! Wears a fella out, she does. Worry, worry, worry . . .”
“Ah, what’s this?” The man entered the room. “Open door, but nothing disturbed.” He chatted to himself. “No squirrels, here Annie, my love. They don’t open doors, now, do they? But they do leave a fearful mess behind.”
Zara held her breath, and tried, unsuccessfully, to still her thundering heart. She feared he might be able to hear the loud clattering beneath her ribs, and discover her hiding place.
“Aye. But a ghost will open a door now and then, won’t it?” The gruff voice continued. “Mayhap her ladyship’s been visiting the old place, looking for her lord. He’s not here, milady.” The voice shouted, as if trying to tell a very deaf spirit her quest was a useless one. “He’s in Lunn’un. Hasn’t seen fit to visit the home place since ye left us so sudden. Can’t bear the memories, I wager.”
“Jasper!” A woman’s voice called from somewhere below. “Where are you?”
“Demm it, woman. Give a man a chance, would ye?” The man called out, exasperated with the woman who had dragged him from his warm lodgings in the early morning hours to inspect the manor for would be four legged trespassers. He muttered to himself a little more as he shuffled about the room. She heard him pause at the window and rattle the latch.
Please don't open the cabinet, she prayed. Even pressed tight into the back of it, behind the shirts and jackets she would be noticeable. The cabinet wasn’t that deep, after all.
The uneven gait moved toward the door. After a moment, it closed with a defining thud.
He was gone from the room at least. It would be a while yet before he and his wife left the manor house if they were checking it, room by room, to make certain it was secure against the woodland creatures seeking shelter for the winter. She?d just have to be quiet until they left and try not to suffocate amidst the masculine clothing in the tight, coffin-like space.
* * *
Huntley was shocked when he informed the butler of his decision to spend the winter at the abbey. The old man gazed at him as if he had taken leave of his senses. Huntley didn’t say it aloud, but the question was in his eyes. Why, they asked with an impertinence made possible only from decades of service to the same family, would you wish to return to the place where your wife was murdered?
Snapping his morning newspaper open, Stephan didn’t bother to answer the burning question in the old butler’s rheumy eyes. He simply began reading the news, and waited for the man to exit the room and carry out his wishes for the packing to commence. He’d have to send word to Maria in Derbyshire that he would not be attending the Christmas festivities at her husband’s estate this year after all.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to his sister, as he hadn’t attended them last year, either. He’d been in mourning. Maria coaxed him to commit himself to attending the annual Christmas house party this coming year when he’d spent a month brooding under her roof over the summer. Maria, his baby sister was not one to tiptoe around a problem. She prided herself on being able to confront it head on. And thus, she’d confronted Stephan about his retreat from polite society. The chit had rung the duns over his head until he promised to attend her gala event this year. The holiday party was always a huge success and Maria had become famous for her ability to keep Christmas in a grand style since she became a Duchess.
Well, she’d get over her disappointment, wouldn’t she? With over fifty house guests to attend to, she could hardly claim to miss him. And a quiet, uneventful Christmas spent at Huntingdon Abbey would be preferable to one spent here in London. He made that mistake last year, believing his presence in London would be overlooked as he was still in mourning. It had been just over a year, and he dared to hope the holidays would not find him. Thanks to friends like Hadley, Christmas had been forced upon him because he had the audacity to be residing in town during the holiday.
Stephan took a sip of his lukewarm tea and ignored the eggs and rashers on the plate before him. He didn’t have an appetite for them this morning. Nothing cook made would tempt him. His life had been reduced to nightmares when asleep and wandering the streets of London during the night to avoid the demons clawing at his soul. Sometimes, he didn’t recall how it was he’d returned home. He blacked out. If he were given to strong drink, he’d blame the spirits for blocking his memory of the previous night’s events.
It was a different spirit than mere alcohol that dogged his steps.
Madness? It was a possibility or merely an excuse.
He scanned the headlines. The bold black print letters assaulted him.
Heinous Murder in THE SLUM DISTRICT OF LONDON.
The word murder jumped out at him, accusing, like the fingers of a preacher pointing directly from the pulpit. He read on, his hands rattling the thin paper as he did so. A couple had been brutally murdered last night while enjoying a tryst in a secluded grove at Covenant Gardens. The man’s neck had been twisted and broken according to the constable, while the woman’s throat had been slashed.
The woman’s torso appeared to have been torn open by wild dogs before the couple were found early this morning by an attendant of the gardens. This was the third such murder in town in the last month, authorities said.
Stephan uttered a curse under his breath, and set the paper on the table. His mind wandered back to last night. James Hadley had accompanied him to Whites. They sat before a fire, drinking and talking, or rather, James did most of the former while he did most of the latter. He didn’t remember leaving Whites, nor did he recall James taking leave of him there. What he did have was a strong impression of wandering through the streets last night, dangerously close to the gardens where the murder took place. It wasn’t a clear memory, but rather a fractured jumble of images that seemed more dream than reality.
He brushed the curl from his damp brow, and concentrated on finding that shred of reality. There were sounds of a couple laughing, and the strong scent of sex. How he knew that, he couldn’t fathom. There was the bittersweet taste of copper on his lips. The cool, night air had embraced him. The heavy fog lent a welcome shroud to his silent passage as he meandered through the hedges.
Stephan took a sip of the now cold tea, his mind frozen by the numb reality that he might have been in that district last night. Had he gone to the Gardens after leaving the club? If so, had James been with him? Could James exonerate him of any wrongdoing?
Did he need to be exonerated?
He released his breath, disturbed by the working of his own mind. He was being unreasonable. An old family curse had nothing to do with his current melancholy, or his detached thoughts. It was boredom, he told himself, taking up the paper again to peruse the financial page. A faint knocking sound at the front door gave him a start. He slapped himself mentally for his nervousness. He had no reason to be on edge.
The butler entered the dining room. “You have a caller, my lord. A young--er-- woman.” The old man corrected. “She claims you instructed her to come here last night. She gave me your card, sir, said you promised to reimburse her for her services to you last night.” The butler held up his calling card. “Do you wish to see her, sir?”
Copyright Lily Silver 2013