Immortal Warriors 02 - Secrets of the Highwayman, page 1
SECRETS OF THE
For my husband,
who makes everything possible.
The Sorceress made her way through the stone halls of the great cathedral. The shadows were cool and deep, and the air held a tantalizing memory of flowers and incense. There was no sound but the swish of her cloak—deep red and bright as the flame of her hair—and the soft breathing of the warriors who rested here.
Each awaiting his turn.
With a smile of anticipation, the Sorceress turned through an archway decorated with twining stone vines and carvings of odd little creatures. This was just one of many chapels, each one occupied by a warrior. A beam of sunlight shone through the tiny round window high above, illuminating the face of the sleeping man who lay like an effigy on top of his own tomb.
For a moment the Sorceress studied him.
Brown hair with a touch of gold, long and falling untidily across his forehead. A strong masculine face with the mouth now relaxed rather than curved in its usual cynical curl. Hazel eyes hidden beneath closed eyelids and almost feminine lashes. Handsome, yes. In his day the Raven was renowned for capturing the hearts of the women who crossed his path.
The Sorceress recalled the words spoken of him by his friends: dashing and reckless, brave and true. They were words any man would be proud to own. And yet on his headstone were a very different set of words:
HERE LIES THE INFAMOUS RAVEN
WHO PUT FEAR INTO THE HEARTS
OF ALL WHO TRAVELED
THE HIGHWAYS OF CORNWALL,
AND WHO WAS SHOT DEAD,
IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1814
So what had gone wrong?
How had Nathaniel Raven, gentleman, ended so ignominiously, shot down in the act of highway robbery, dying on a lonely stretch of road in Cornwall without anyone to mourn his passing?
Briefly, she touched his cheek, her fingers light, but even that soft touch made him stir. As if he felt the power in her fingers, as if he knew his time had come. He would need help, but the Sorceress had found a suitable mortal. It might be tricky, and they all might fail, but that was not up to her.
“It is time, sweet Raven,” the Sorceress whispered.
She lifted her arms and began to chant the ancient incantation of waking, her words growing and growing, until the sound of her voice echoed like thunder in the silence of the chapel, and the very air crackled and sparked.
The Raven opened his eyes.
Melanie slowed the Aston Martin, creeping along the narrow lane. The vehicle almost brushed the hedges growing on either side, reducing her vision to the depth of the headlights forward or the taillights backward. She felt like she was in a tunnel, with only a strip of dark, star-strewn sky above. Was she even going the right way? The last sign was miles back.
She had never felt so completely alone.
Maybe she should turn back. There’d been a pub at the crossroads, and the thought had crossed her mind to stop and stay there for the night, but then she’d decided it would be best to just get to her destination. She could wake up tomorrow morning at Ravenswood, ready to begin work.
Now she regretted that she had been so dedicated.
She longed for her neat, familiar office with an actual physical ache. Melanie Jones, twenty-nine, solicitor with the firm of Foyle, Haddock and Williams, had a reputation for getting things done in an orderly fashion. Everything in its place, no surprises, everything…comfortable.
People said that about her. You knew where you were with Melanie Jones. Others, less kind, called her a control freak. Melanie preferred to think that she lived her life just as she wanted it, the rough edges smoothed off, every possible deviation noted and sidelined. Her childhood had been a nightmare of doubts and uncertainties and, when she left home, she had promised herself she would never have to worry about the inconsistencies of life again.
And now here she was, deep in Cornwall, driving a car she loathed because her Ford Escort was being repaired and her boss had insisted she take his car, an Aston Martin. Sensible Melanie, driving a car made famous by James Bond, into the dark depths of Cornwall.
The car crept forward and abruptly the hedges gave way to a grey stone wall on one side and a dense wood on the other. She hit a pothole, and as her headlights tilted, there was a brief view over the wall and across a field, and then the road widened a little, enough to make her feel less claustrophobic.
Maybe it would be all right after all. She’d keep going until she found a signpost, then she’d decide whether to continue or turn back to the pub. Maybe there’d be another pub close by. With luck, the worst was behind her, and Ravenswood was just around the next bend.
Melanie sped up a little in anticipation, just as something big and black ran out in front of her car.
She slammed on the brakes and was jolted violently forward, bruising herself against the seat belt. The car engine stalled and for a moment Melanie sat, stunned, wondering what had run out in front of her and whether she had hit it. She blinked to clear her vision, and peered through the windscreen.
A dog. A hound. Bigger by far than a Great Dane, and coal black. It sat on its haunches in the middle of the lane, facing the car, ears pricked, perfectly still. It was looking right back at her, the gleam of the headlights reflecting in its oily dark eyes.
Melanie couldn’t move.
There was something strange about the hound, something frightening. Its size was intimidating, but there was a stillness to it. And the way it stared straight back into her eyes, as if it was aware of her as a person. Melanie became conscious of the utter silence all around them.
Maybe I’m imagining it.
She blinked again, but the hound was still there.
The thought popped into her head. It did look as if it was waiting for something. She cast a nervous glance sideways at the woods. The trees were close together, twisted, bending, like old widows gossiping, they formed a wall of blackness. Anything could be in there, watching her, preparing to pounce.
One thing was for certain—she needed to get out of here.
Melanie gave the car horn a long blast. In the eerie silence the sound was very loud, but the black hound didn’t even flinch. Her heart thumping, her hands shaking, she sounded it again. Still the thing wouldn’t move.
“All right then, if that’s the way you want it.” She fumbled with the ignition key. The powerful motor started. The black hound didn’t take its eyes off her as she began to inch forward toward it. The car moved closer, and the animal still didn’t move. The big black head was higher than the hood of the car, high enough that the gleaming eyes were on the same level as her own.
This was worse than before, when at least there had been some distance between her and the hound. Now it loomed over her.
“Good God, what now?”
The car bumper must be almost knocking against the animal’s body. She braked with a gasp.
“Will you please go away!”
A whistle came from the woods.
The black hound’s head snapped around, and then it was on its feet. With one gigantic leap, it cleared the lane and vanished into the thick wall of trees. And just like that it was gone.
Melanie ran a shaking hand through her short blond hair.
So it must have been a real dog, she told herself with relief. Only a real dog responds to a whistle…doesn’t it? For a moment there she had been wondering if the hound was something else. Something like Conan Doyle’s creation. Hadn’t she read some
“Seeking what?” Melanie muttered. “London solicitors traveling in Aston Martins on business to out-of-the-way places? It’s probably someone’s pet.”
With her hands still shaking, she drove forward again, this time picking up speed. There was a sense of relief when the woods tapered off. Less atmospheric wilderness was just fine with her. Soon she was in open meadows, with only a stone wall continuing to keep her company on one side of the lane.
No houses, no lights. And no road signs. She’d have to turn back after all, Melanie told herself. The idea wasn’t a comfortable one; it would mean returning to the spot she had just left. Even the thought of a good night’s sleep and proper directions wasn’t enough to raise any enthusiasm for that.
“Then I’ll keep going, there must be something up ahead.”
Clearly the caretaker at Ravenswood hadn’t been up to the task of giving sound directions. Eddie, was that his name? He’d sounded about a hundred years old on the crackly phone line, as old as Miss Pengorren when she died in the London nursing home and left her personal affairs in the hands of Foyle, Haddock and Williams. Melanie, as their junior representative, was here to unravel those affairs.
Anyone else would have jumped at the chance for a week in Cornwall, but Melanie wasn’t looking forward to it at all. Her life was just as she wanted it, and now she was being sent into unknown territory where anything might happen. How could she maintain her timetable? Well, she’d just have to try. And it was a brilliant opportunity to impress. From the day Melanie joined the firm of Foyle, Haddock and Williams, she had planned to make her future there. The traditional, slightly old-fashioned firm and unexciting clientele suited her perfectly. Nothing much happened, each day was similar to the next, no surprises—
A flicker of movement at the edge of her vision jolted her from her reverie. She turned to look, the horrible thought flashing through her mind that it was the black hound.
But no. It was a man. A man riding a horse beside her car. He was on the other side of the stone wall, in the field, and all the color had been leached out of him. As if he were drenched in moonlight. Except there was no moon; the night was particularly dark.
Shock made her cold as her eyes took in the details while her brain floundered to make sense of them. The rider was bent low over his horse’s neck, and he wore a cloak that flew out behind him like wings, a tricorn hat, and a mask covering half his face. As Melanie stared, he gave her a quick sideways glance and kicked his heels into his horse’s sides. It was almost as if he were enjoying himself. As if they were having a race.
The car shuddered, and Melanie swiveled, fixing her eyes unblinkingly on the road ahead. This couldn’t be happening. First the black hound like something from a horror movie, and now this.
She glanced sideways at the man, hoping he was gone, and instead found he was almost up level with her car. Something else caught her attention, and she realized it was the black hound. It was loping along behind the man and horse.
The whistle from the woods. It must have been…this was its master…they were connected, the two of them.
Melanie moaned and did the only thing she could. She put her foot down hard on the accelerator. The motor roared, and she shot forward. Now she couldn’t hear anything but the sound of the car, but she had a shaky feeling that there wasn’t anything else to hear. No hooves striking the ground, no snap and flap of the rider’s cloak, no breathing of man and beast. Nothing. Her companions were completely silent, as if they didn’t really exist.
Incredibly, he was edging in front of her.
Panicking, she glanced at him again and realized he was looking right back at her. His eyes through the slits in the mask were brilliant, warm, dangerous, and he grinned as if he were enjoying himself. Melanie found that her own heart was racing, but whether from sheer terror or a strange and unfamiliar excitement she didn’t know. Whatever it was, she felt incredibly alive.
The road was far too narrow and the surface too rough for her to be driving this fast, but, recklessly, Melanie accelerated again, speeding forward, trying to stay ahead of him.
The rider spurred his horse and, stooping even lower over its neck, prepared to give chase. A few strides, and he was level with her again, and then he was in front. She could see the back of his head beneath the tricorn hat, as well as the ponytail he’d made of his dark hair. Beneath the cloak he was wearing an old-fashioned jacket and breeches. And then, with a final burst of strength and power, he outpaced her. He made it look breathtakingly easy instead of completely impossible.
She thought he’d ride off then, leave her behind. Instead she watched in horrified fascination as he eased up on the reins until he was level with her again. He looked at her, directly into her eyes, and that’s when he did it. Winked.
His teeth flashed white. He lifted one gloved hand and blew her an extravagant kiss.
Melanie slammed on the brakes but even as her instincts reacted her brain was telling her they were already gone. The road was empty.
For the second time tonight she sat in silence, heart pounding, hands clenched on the wheel. She tried to see where he had disappeared to, peering into the darkness, but there was nothing. All about her was absolutely nothing.
He must have ridden across the field on the other side, she thought desperately. He must have escaped that way. But she knew he hadn’t. One moment he’d been here, beside her, grinning into her eyes like a madman, and the next…he’d gone.
Melanie started the car again, and as she did so she saw there was a signpost almost level with the bumper. The paint was fresh and new and easy to read, and it was pointing ahead.
RAVENSWOOD 2 MILES
There was no light. Ravenswood was completely dark and, seemingly, completely empty. The relief Melanie felt on finally reaching her destination turned to anxiety when she realized there was no one to greet her or help her get inside. She fumbled with the heavy keys she’d brought with her from London, wishing she’d also brought a flashlight. The door clicked at last, and she pushed it open in relief, half-surprised it didn’t creak in the time-honored manner.
Nothing would have surprised her after all that had happened to her so far.
Everything was still and quiet, and there was a musty smell. Melanie felt along the wall and found a light switch and flipped it. A feeble bulb high above blinked on. She sighed and looked about her. A wide area immediately inside the door gave way to a grand staircase rising to a gallery on the upper floor and beside it a narrow corridor heading into shadows at the back of the house. Doorways were mostly closed, the rooms within secretive and silent. Although Melanie knew Ravenswood hadn’t been used in a while—since Miss Pengorren went to the nursing home in London—the furnishings were still in place as was all the bric-a-brac that makes a home. As if the owner had simply stepped out for a moment.
The impression was misleading. Miss Pengorren would never return, and she’d been the last of her family. In her will she’d instructed Mr. Foyle that her house was to be sold, along with the furniture, and the money to go to charity. Everything, her personal items included, would have to be cataloged beforehand.
Organization. That was Melanie’s job, and she had been sent by the firm because she was so good at creating order out of chaos. Not the sale itself, that would be handled by one of the partners, but the so-called boring stuff was all Melanie’s.
“It will probably take you all week, but you can go back down there after that, if necessary,” Mr. Foyle had informed her. “Just call if you have any difficulties. We’re relying on you, Melanie.”
He’d made it sound as if it was a test, and if she passed it, she would win a prize. A partnership in the firm? Mr. Williams had retired six months ago, and his name was yet to be removed from the letterheads and hi
Foyle, Haddock and Jones.
With a smile she set her cases down on the marble floor.
She’d ring Mr. Foyle tomorrow and tell him she was here.
There was a sound. It took her a moment to realize it was the sea. She hadn’t known Ravenswood was so close to the coast, although Cornwall was a narrow peninsula, making the sea only a few hours’ drive from even the most isolated village. She hadn’t been to the beach in years. Before she knew it, her mind had drifted back to childhood.
The warmth of the sand between her toes and her pleasure in building a sand castle, complete with turrets and a drawbridge. She’d worked hard for hours on that castle, carrying water, patting the sand into shape, carving the windows and doorways and heraldic crests with the sharp edge of her little spade.
Solemn, her blond hair tugged back into a neat ponytail, her skinny legs covered with goose bumps from the chill wind, Melanie was already on the path to being the determined overachiever she turned out to be. Suzie, her elder and only sister, was utterly different. Suzie had been there at the beach with her latest boyfriend, and they’d been wrestling and giggling in the way young lovers do. Then, for some reason, Suzie’s boyfriend had jumped up, maybe Suzie was teasing him, and backed away from her, not looking where he was going. He stepped right in the middle of Melanie’s castle.
Melanie still remembered the anguish, and the fury. “You’ve ruined it!” she’d cried, hot tears spilling down her cheeks.
Suzie had made sounds of sympathy, but her eyes had been laughing. She didn’t care. No one cared. Melanie’s life was in the power of people who simply didn’t care. Well, things were different now. Melanie was strong and tough and in complete control of her own destiny, and she meant it to stay that way. This job was important to her, and there was no one to mess it up as Suzie’s boyfriend had messed up her sand castle. She would succeed; failure was not an option.