Beguiled, p.25

Beguiled, page 25

 

Beguiled
 


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  “Machine and its plans.”

  “Both are lost to you, as is your life.”

  He beseeched her with his eyes. “Please.”

  “Why did you slaughter doves and leave them at Napier House?”

  “To frighten you.”

  The birds had not been chosen for any particular reason, except that they were convenient. “Should you move more than an eyelash, I’ll put this knife through your jugular.”

  His fearful expression eased. “If you do, I will put mine through your belly.”

  She glanced down and her breath caught. He held a knife to her abdomen. The blade pierced her vest.

  Damn! When had he pulled that blade and from where?

  Keeping her knife taut to his neck, Agnes stepped an arm’s length back. In a blur of movement he pushed her out of the way and dashed for the window. Before she could cock her arm, he disappeared through the opening.

  Shaken, she wilted on the bed. Trimble had warned her of the Rook’s skill with knives. He’d had three—two on the table and one on his person. With an unsteady hand, she touched the puncture in her leather vest. A vision of the blade, jagged teeth on one edge, sent tremors of fear through her.

  She took the remaining quarrel and went to Trimble’s office to await the return of the thief sent to Throckmorton’s rooms.

  “I trust the Rook won’t trouble us again,” Trimble said.

  Agnes told him what had occurred at the Drygate Inn.

  “Didn’t I say that he was skilled with a knife?”

  “Aye, you did, but I forgot.”

  “How could you overlook that?” he demanded, his tone angry with concern, his face flushed with anger. “Have you lost your wits?”

  In some respects she had. “I suffered a moment’s preoccupation.”

  An hour later Trimble’s man delivered a sheaf of papers. Among them were letters from Mrs. Borrowfield to Throckmorton, confirming the plot against Edward. In the hands of the magistrate, the writings were the proof needed to bring Throckmorton to justice.

  “ ’Tis almost done,” Trimble said. “Where will you go when it’s over? What will you do?”

  Agnes didn’t know. She felt empty inside at the thought of leaving Napier House. “I’m not sure, but I’ll let you know.”

  “Why not come with me to Maryland? Several families who lost sons in the Colonial wars have engaged me to search for their young men.”

  Unwilling to share her true feelings, she shrugged. “A long ocean voyage holds no interest to me, Trimble. But I thank you.”

  “Then at least stay in Glasgow for a bit. That viscount has roses yet to pluck for you.”

  His attempt at humor warmed her a little. “Mary’s here, and she needs me. I’m not sure where we’ll go.”

  Trimble’s kind features grew strained, and he touched her arm. “If I can help . . .”

  Agnes put on a smile that she did not feel. “You can help. Find Virginia.”

  He smiled too. “We will. She cannot have vanished off the face of the earth.”

  Agnes knew it was true. Virginia was too bright, too plucky, even as a child. Agnes had been her mentor; she’d know if Virginia were dead. From a sailmaker Agnes had learned that a girl matching Virginia’s description, albeit wearing boy’s clothing, had boarded a ship that day. But Virginia had been wearing a new dress. When they’d found no trace of her a week later, Agnes had returned to the docks. Through the harbormaster she gleaned the names of every vessel that had been in port that day and their destinations. But crews and captains changed, and not all were honest in their manifests.

  Finding Trimble had given Agnes new hope.

  “Someone has knowledge of her,” Trimble said. “We’ll find the lass.”

  Agnes rose. “I’m certain of it.”

  Trimble walked her to the door. “Do not let down your guard again, Golden One.”

  “I will not. You can be sure of that.”

  “Promise me you’ll tell Napier that the bowman remains on the loose.”

  With three knives, she reminded herself. “I’ll consider it.”

  * * *

  Agnes returned to Napier House. Boswell greeted her, saying that Auntie Loo was in the music room with the children and had asked for Agnes.

  Hannah played on the floor with her new blocks. Christopher made war with his soldiers.

  Taking Auntie Loo aside, Agnes told her what had transpired.

  “Death’s door is still closed to you.”

  But Agnes had peeked inside the room of death, and she remembered vividly the sight of that knife pressed against her. “If it’s all the same to God, I’d rather not chance it again.”

  “I pray you do not, Agnes.”

  “I have the proof. Edward can take it to Constable Sir Jenkins.”

  “Lot of good that one’s been.”

  “Let’s hope he’s better at bringing criminals to justice than he is at finding them.”

  * * *

  Agnes found Edward and Mary in the Elizabethan room. Cameron had returned to his ship but was expected to join them for the evening meal.

  A refreshed Mary was admiring the illuminated manuscripts.

  “Will you excuse us?” Agnes said to her sister.

  “Nay, Lady Mary,” said Edward. “Stay. Your sister does her best work with an audience.”

  Mary glanced sharply at Edward. Picking up the ancient book, she approached him. “I may not have Agnes’s skill with weapons, my lord, but I will defend her with my life, so have a care with what you say.”

  He looked from Mary to Agnes. “MacKenzie loyalty, I presume?”

  “You are bright,” Mary said much too cheerfully.

  When they were alone, Agnes handed him the last of the five quarrels and the documents. “The constable can make good use of these.”

  He scanned the papers. “It was Throckmorton.”

  “Aye, he wanted to prevent you from perfecting your machine.”

  “But it doesn’t work.”

  “He knows it will.”

  Putting the papers into his desk, he moved absently about the room. “You found the Rook?”

  He needn’t know that she’d held a knife to the man’s throat or that her own life had been threatened. “Trimble found him and the letters.”

  “Good. I feared that you would go after him yourself.”

  He could have been discussing yesterday’s rain, so detached did he seem. A part of Agnes wanted their former closeness, but with that intimacy came commitment, and she had already pledged her life elsewhere. The memory of their intimacy wouldn’t leave her alone. If she looked at his hands, she recalled the tenderness of his touch. A glimpse of his mouth reminded her of the feel of his lips on hers. A stolen glance at his loins brought to mind his complete possession and the oneness they’d shared.

  Regret thickened her throat. “I’m sorry about what happened between us last night.”

  He busied himself moving the standing mirror from the hearth to a spot by the door that led into the tower. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you that a lady never apologizes for being attracted to a man?”

  She’d said similar words to him after that first kiss in Whitburn. She wanted to say that she was more than attracted to him. Instead, she said, “Aye, but my mother never met a man like you.”

  Much too casually he said, “I suppose she didn’t; her lovers were dukes.”

  He was speaking of her mother’s affair with Lachlan MacKenzie and her later marriage to the duke of Enderley. No reply came to mind.

  Edward adjusted the mirror. Their eyes met in the glass. “I am but an earl.”

  She could see his heartache, and heaven help her, she wanted to ease it, but she could not. “I was not referring to your position in nobility, and I am not my mother.”

  “No.” He turned the mirror. “You’re very much like your father. Even Lady Mary says so.”

  Reflected in the glass was the door leading to the new wing. “What is t
hat supposed to mean?”

  “That you do not take romantic entanglements seriously. With that in mind, I wonder if I imagined your maidenhead.”

  She deserved his anger. She had to bite her lip to keep from confessing her love. “I told you at the start that I would not—”

  “Fall in love with me?” he challenged. “Oh, do not think I harbor any hope of you loving me.”

  “Even if I did—”

  “Do you?” His voice cracked like a whip.

  She winced. “Aye, but I cannot forsake Virginia.”

  Softly, he said, “Have I asked that of you?”

  “Nay, but word will come, I know it in my soul, and when that moment arrives, I must be free to go after her.” Choking back tears, she turned to face him. “But my loyalty will not end when she is returned. What if she has suffered during the separation? There could be adjustments, reunions. ’Tis a part of God’s purpose for me.”

  Nodding, he strolled toward her. “I will not argue that.”

  She’d ended romantic entanglements before without remorse, but her heart had not been engaged. Her convictions were strong, but for the first time, she felt torn. She loved Edward Napier, and there was nothing to be done about it. Family came first. “Then, you understand?”

  He cradled her face in his hands and lifted her chin. When their eyes met, he said, “I understand. But please consider this. God has given you a worthy cause, but not at the expense of your own happiness.” Never before had anyone delved so deeply into the events that ruled her life. Never before had the touch of a hand moved her to tears. “Finding Virginia is my happiness.”

  His smile was sad, bittersweet, and with his thumbs, he dashed her tears. “God is not as selfish as that. I believe that he has given you to me, for I cannot imagine another sunrise without you beside me.”

  Pain squeezed her heart and forced her to beg. “Please let me go.”

  “And lose what we feel for each other? Oh, nay. Let me help you find Virginia.”

  She searched his face, looked deeply into his eyes for any sign of artifice. The kindness and sincerity she discovered brought lightness to her soul. “Do you believe she is alive?”

  “I believe what you believe, my love.” He hugged her fiercely. “If you say you think Virginia is in Edinburgh, I shall beat a path to the stables and ready the carriage myself.”

  “You would do that?”

  “I would do that and more. Should you suspect that your sister is in New Holland, I shall book our passage to Botany Bay tomorrow.”

  Our passage. Others had supported Agnes’s cause, but none, save Cameron, had truly shared in the search or experienced the cruelty of the disappointments. A new kind of hope blossomed inside her. “But what about Christopher and Hannah? You cannot abandon them.”

  “Nor will we,” he insisted. “We shall take them along or leave them in the care of your kinswomen.”

  Hope sprang to life within her. “Not Juliet, lest my father spoil them.”

  He must have sensed her surrender, for he slid his hands to her arms and tightened his grip. “Then one of your sisters.”

  Years of disappointments nicked her confidence. “I am unprepared to make such a decision.”

  “Hear me well, Golden One. You are not alone anymore, and nothing will change what I feel for you or what you feel for me. My children will be safe with the countess of Tain.”

  “Aye, Lottie’s the best of all of us at mothering.”

  “That I will argue, for I think you will be a wonderful mother, and when we find Virginia, perhaps we will have children of our own to present her.”

  The old guilt returned. “She will think I have blithely gone about my life without a care for her.”

  “Ha! Only a fool could think that, and I have yet to meet a foolish MacKenzie. Marry me, Agnes.”

  The words held both a promise and a solution. “I will when the Rook is dead.”

  * * *

  After a meal that became a celebration, Agnes and Edward said good night to their guests and walked with Auntie Loo and the children to the old wing. After tucking the children in and telling them a story, Edward and Agnes found Auntie Loo in the common room. As she bid them good night, Auntie Loo gave Agnes a pointed look that said, “I’ll keep watch.” Agnes hugged her friend and whispered, “Leave the door unbolted. I’ll be back to spell you at two o’clock.”

  At her friend’s agreement, Agnes preceded Edward out the squat door. The mirror beside it reflected the door to the new wing.

  Edward pulled her into his arms. “You’re mine.”

  Into his mouth she breathed the word “Aye.”

  The kiss was long and tender, and as passion stirred to life, Agnes felt a sense of belonging. Napier House would become her home. She’d conceive and give birth to her children here. She’d grow old with Edward Napier.

  “Much more of that,” Edward said, “and I’ll whisk you behind that tapestry and show you a very inventive way to make love.”

  “It must be inventive, if you thought of it.”

  He gave her a quick smack of a kiss and drew the tapestry aside. “Downstairs with you, my lovely.”

  The lantern still sat in the niche and cast good light Mrs. Johnson must have told one of the maids from the orphanage to fill the lantern. Later Agnes intended to hire several of the girls on a permanent basis.

  As she preceded Edward down the steps to the laboratory, Agnes felt a sense of unease. She stopped at the landing. Behind her she heard him bolt the door.

  “Let’s not go down there,” she said. “Let’s stay in the new wing tonight.”

  “No.” He nudged her until she started walking again. “I intend to make love to you until you are too exhausted to move.” His grin turned to a leer. “Then I’ll watch you and think about my engine. You inspire me.”

  She wagged her finger at him. “I give you fair warning. I’ll not fall for any of that ‘your leg is like an angle iron’ nonsense a second time.”

  “I’ll be much more creative, I promise.”

  They entered the dungeon, which was dimly lit. Edward said, “That’s odd. I left the lanterns burning.”

  The Rook stepped into a pool of lamplight. “There is enough light.”

  “Get down,” Agnes shouted, even as she pushed Edward.

  He hit the floor beside her. She pointed to the workbench, silently urging him to crawl beneath it. With her other hand, she fished under her petticoats for her stiletto. Finding it, she cut away her skirt. She must be free to move without impediment.

  Crouched on the floor, she could see the Rook’s legs as he walked around the table. He made not a sound. Three, four more steps and he would have them in view. Sighting the lamp, Agnes threw the small scabbard. It shattered the glass, and the flame dimmed, but did not go out.

  Edward pointed to himself and indicated that he would circle around and come upon the assassin from behind. She nodded, and the instant he moved, a knife whistled through air. Her heart stopped. The blade hit a spot on the table no more than an inch above Edward’s head. When the knife clattered to the floor, Edward picked it up.

  “Poisoned,” she hissed, and edged closer to him.

  Anger blazed in his eyes. Another blade sailed through the air. Agnes ducked. The knife landed in the folds of her discarded skirt.

  How many weapons did the Rook have? Scooting sideways, she nudged Edward farther beneath the shelter of the table.

  The clock ticked harmlessly. The Rook stopped. If he knelt down, he would have them in plain view. Agnes stole a glance at her skirts and the hilt of the second knife. Catching the fabric, she pulled slowly.

  Whoosh. Ping. Another knife thudded into the skirt. She snatched the blade. The tip was blunted. Nudging Edward again, she showed him what she intended to do.

  He mouthed the words, “I love you.”

  Grasping the assassin’s blade, she tested it for balance. It was heavier than her stiletto, but the haft fit her hand, and from this d
istance she knew her aim would be true.

  With a flick of her wrist, she let the knife fly. “Have a taste of your own poison,” she yelled.

  It found a home in the Rook’s calf. He made a soft grunt and pulled the blade free. Blood seeped through the leg of his breeches.

  Edward started to stand. “No.” She dragged him down.

  The assassin dropped the knife and ran for the steps. Agnes rose to give chase, but Edward held her. “Let him go, love.”

  She moved close to him. “Listen to me. He will not stop until you are dead, and he will not kill me.”

  “How do you know that?”

  Time was wasting. “I simply know it. Stay here.”

  “No. I’ll go.”

  Knowing he would, she doubled her fist and socked him in the jaw. His eyes widened with shock, and he teetered. Seizing the moment, she ignored her aching knuckles and scurried from beneath the table. The hinges on the door squealed as the assassin ran for freedom.

  The trail of his blood showed her the way. At the landing she paused, but only for a heartbeat. She pulled open the door. The tapestry fluttered into place.

  She extinguished the lantern, then stepped into the old wing. The door to the tower opened. Thinking it was Auntie Loo, Agnes almost shouted a warning. Then a shape moved into the portal. It was the Rook. He ran into the tower. A moment later Agnes heard the eerie sound of the deadly backsword renting the air.

  Edward rushed up behind her. “What happened?”

  “He’s dead. ’Twas the mirror you moved that confused him.”

  The cheval mirror reflected the entrance to the new wing. In his haste to flee, the Rook had gone the wrong way and met his death.

  Flint struck steel in the common room, and light illuminated a grisly scene. Blood pooled in the rug beside the body of the Rook; His head had rolled to the foot of the stairs.

  As calm as ever, Auntie Loo stepped into the doorway, the white copper sword dripping blood.

  Edward hugged Agnes close, and in the pale light she could see tears twinkling in his eyes. “I thought we were dead.”

  Auntie Loo said, “Death’s door is closed to the Golden One and to those who believe in her.”

  Held securely in Edward’s arms, Agnes said, “And the door to home has opened for you, Auntie Loo. Your debt to me is paid.”

 
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