Her Ladyship's Curse
It would have been criminal to send it back to the kitchen untouched, I told myself as I began eating it. The first taste almost brought a moan from my throat, and sent tears to sting my eyes. I rested my hands against the table, mainly to keep from shoving the tartlet by the handfuls into my mouth.
Dredmore’s fingers brushed over mine, sending a jolt of pleasure up my arm and into my chest. As he reached for his goblet, he murmured, “Don’t weep.”
“Drop dead,” I whispered back, furious with him and myself for lowering my guard.
The final, cold courses were frozen puree of cress and maple-almond iced cream, both of which I ate in hopes of cooling off. Like the other ladies I abstained from drinking the coffee offered at the end of the meal and commented as favorably as I could on the cook’s menu.
Nolan didn’t excuse himself or Dredmore to his study for the gentlemen’s after-dinner ritual of bourbon and cigars but stood and spoke to his remaining child. “You must be very tired, my dear.”
“I’m fine, Father.” Laurana gave him and Diana a sharp look. “However, I do have some letters to write. Miss Kittredge, I hope someday to bump shoulders with you at the fruit market. Dredmore, Stepmama.” She nodded to the others before departing.
“We’ll go to my study now,” Nolan said, taking his wife’s arm in a decidedly unaffectionate grip.
Dredmore had a hand on me before I could dodge him, and he used it to guide me out of the hall behind the Walshes. “You should have left when you could, Charmian. This will not be pleasant.”
“I knew that the moment I saw you by the fire.” I drew my arm from his, but he only put his hand at the small of my back. “Stop touching me.”
“No.” When I would have walked ahead, he hooked his fingers in my waister and tugged me back beside him. “Listen to me, you stubborn wench. Whatever accusations Walsh makes, say nothing. I will do the talking.”
“The day I need you to speak for me,” I said, “I’ll cut out your tongue.”
As soon as we were gathered in the study, Nolan closed the doors and went to stand with his back to the painting of an Elizabethan Walsh whose weak chin had been disguised by his black goatee and wide white ruff. Both Lord Walshes regarded me with expressions of haughty disgust, but the one who was still breathing had a decidedly ugly gleam in his eyes.
“Miss Kittredge, while I’m sure your behavior goes unnoticed among the commoners, I find your involvement in our private family matters entirely intolerable,” Nolan announced. “Whatever promises of remuneration my wife has given you, I will not abide your interference for another moment.”
My lack of breeding had nothing on his rudeness. “I came to speak on your lady wife’s behalf, milord,” I said stiffly. “That is the only reason I came.”
“I have no interest in anything you might say to me,” Nolan snapped before he regarded Dredmore. “Lucien, I will have the truth of the matter. Tonight.”
Before my nemesis could employ his trickery to make matters worse, I said, “You will hear what I have to say, Lord Walsh. Your wife hired me to dispel a curse she believed had been put on her. I am the one who first discovered the panel under her bed, along with evidence that someone in this household has been assaulting her person. It is possible that both of you are being drugged each night as well.”
Nolan whirled on his wife. “How much did you pay her to lie for you this time? Fifty pounds? A hundred?”
“I have been paid nothing,” I told his back. “Your wife is the victim here, sir, not the transgressor.”
“The victim.” He strode over to me. “My wife is nothing but a lying, cheating whore who smuggles her lover into the house under my very nose.”
“Why would she bring this imaginary lover to the house, when it would be far more prudent to meet him in town on one of her shopping excursions?” I pointed out. “She could have a dozen lovers in town, and you’d never know it.”
Diana uttered a distressed sound.
“Wherever she conducts her affairs, my wife hasn’t the wits to conceal them,” Nolan assured me.
“I have seen the evidence with my own eyes, milord, and it is inarguable. Your wife is being tormented.” I went to Diana and put my arm around her. “Someone in this house has been stealing into her bedchamber, painting terrible words on her body, and then removing them a day later. When she came to me, she truly believed the words were being cut into her skin.”
Dredmore stepped between us. “That is enough, Charmian.”
“Who in this household would do such nonsense?” Walsh bellowed over Dredmore’s shoulder, his face mottling dark red. “No one, I say. No one but this whore, my wife.”
“It will be someone who has theatrical or military experience,” I said tightly. “Probably military, as it’s a soldier’s trick. The assailant wishes you to believe that your wife is greedy and promiscuous. Someone who wants to drive her out of her wits with terror and give you just cause to divorce her.” As Diana sagged with my words, I led her over to an armchair. “I’d say it’s working, wouldn’t you?”
Dredmore stared at me. “What do you mean, soldier’s trick?”
“They’ve been using wound paste on her,” I told him. “When it dries it looks like the real thing, and if you try to remove it, it tears the skin, like a fresh scab.”
“I’ll not listen to another moment of this!” Nolan said, sweeping his arm toward the mage. “Do your work now, Dredmore.”
“I can do nothing with Miss Kittredge present,” Dredmore replied. “She must be removed from the house.”
Diana suddenly revived and latched on to my arm. “You can’t leave, Kit. Not before you make him understand what’s been done to me. Please, I beg you.”
“We’ve arrived at a stalemate, milords,” I told the men. I pried Diana’s fingers away and went to Lord Walsh. “Dredmore will not perform for you in front of me because he knows I will expose him for the fraud he is. Your lady wife desires me to stay and prove her innocence.”
The red patches on Lord Walsh’s face turned purple. “You dare challenge my authority, in my own house?”
“My only wish is to investigate the matter further, milord,” I pushed on. “Allow me to speak with your servants; one of them has surely witnessed something to lead us to the—”
I didn’t expect him to backhand me, but once I was on the floor, my face throbbing, I saw Walsh draw back his boot and suddenly understood Diana’s bruises and why Dredmore had wanted me to go. I brought up my arms to protect my face and waited for the next blow, which never came.
“Allow me, my lord.”
The kick never landed; instead two strong arms snatched me from the floor and carried me away. By the time I dropped my hands from my face, Dredmore had me through the front entry and halfway to his coach.
“No.” I twisted and nearly freed myself before he shifted me up and over his shoulder. “I can’t leave her like this. He’ll kill her.” I pounded my fists against his back. “Put me down.”
“He won’t risk beating her now, not when she can use her injuries against him in court. You, however, will not get off so lightly.” Dredmore tossed me in the coach and slammed the door, securing it from the outside. When I tried to dart out the other door, I found it locked. The windows were too small for me to crawl through, so I sat and watched as Dredmore walked back to speak with Nolan Walsh, who had come out of the house after us.
Walsh blustered while Dredmore soothed, and while I couldn’t hear what they said, it was obvious it was about me. Then Walsh did a curious thing; he gestured for the butler, who handed Dredmore a large satchel. Dredmore nodded before he returned to the coach and handed off the satchel to his driver before climbing in with me.
“My turn, is it?” I lunged at him only to be pinned against his body. I maneuvered my arms between us and pushed at his chest. “I can still scream.”
“I can still have you gagged.” He ducked my fist and jerked me closer to pin my arms between us. “And bound, if you like.”
Being an inch from his face brought on all sorts of ugly feelings and ideas, but he grabbed my hair and held me in place.
“If you wish to bite me, Charmian,” he said softly, “there are far better spots than my face.”
“So you like it rough.” I changed tactics and moved a breath closer. “How will it be, Lucien? You tied naked between the posts, me in leathers, snapping a little whip? Is that what it takes to brick your chimney?”
Instead of being offended, the cold bastard smiled at me. “You’ve been spending too much time among strumpets, my sweet.” He wrenched me around so that my back was pressed to his front. “Sit still, or I will show you exactly what I like.”
I sat still. Not because he ordered me to, but to give myself time to think. From what I saw through the coach window, it was obvious that he was taking me out of the city. We left behind the dark streets and alleyways, rode through the pasturelands, and started up the cliff roads. Since Dredmore owned most of the coastal property beyond Rumsen, that meant our destination was his lair.
Castle Travallian, or so it had been before Dredmore had been disowned.
I’d seen it once when I’d gone atop one of the taller buildings downtown and looked over toward the sea. From there the manor had looked like little more than a pile of rubble. It came into view as the coach left the road and started up a long, winding path between two rows of black iron gaslamp poles. The cessation of jolting made me look down at the smooth pavers of obsidian rock, cut and fitted together so perfectly, I barely made out the seams.
“I had the stone shipped in from the islands,” he said. “The masons called it the road to hell.”
Was it to be mine? “I suppose Torian granite wasn’t dark or dramatic enough for you.”