Her Ladyship's Curse
That proved a bit too much, even for the old man, who snapped, “That will suffice, Montrose.”
“It’s all right, milord.” I smiled at his jackass of a son. “My mother’s people were Welshires and Norders. Working class, I believe.”
As I expected, admitting that one-half of my family had been common laborers explained my coloring, invalidated any suspicion that I might be trying to better my situation, and satisfied Montrose’s desire to take me down to the bottom peg.
I needed to get away from these people before I decked someone. “My father always regretted the rift his marriage caused between him and the family. He had no portraits of them, but he often told me how much I reminded him of his mother.” I sighed. “I only wish I could have made her acquaintance before she passed away.”
“In my rooms I have a portint of Great-aunt Hortense when she was about your age,” Diana said, rising from the settee. “Would you care to see it, Kit?”
I managed a surprised smile. “Why, yes, I would very much, thank you, cousin.”
Diana glanced at her stepson before addressing her husband. “If you will excuse us, my dear.”
He nodded, clearly relieved. He must have assumed Diana was taking me off to give him the time and privacy to lecture his son over his wayward lip. I could just imagine how Father Walsh would scold: Gentlemen do not speak of such scum in polite company, my lad.
As soon as we were out of earshot, the lady touched my arm. “I’m so sorry, Kit. Monty usually doesn’t drink so much before dinner. Now, shall we—”
“Think nothing of it, cousin.” Aware that there were still servants around who could overhear us, I touched a finger to my lips to silence her, and then said clearly, “I am so anxious to see the portint of your great-aunt, my grandmother. Do you really believe I bear a resemblance to her?”
As Diana assured me at length of how much I did, she led me upstairs and through a maze of halls to her personal chambers, which included two sitting rooms, a dressing room, a bath, and an enormous bedchamber. A young, plump female sat working carefully to mend the torn hem of a gown hanging from a dress form. As soon as she saw us, she darted her needle and stood.
“Milady.” A well-trained lass, the chambermaid didn’t spare me a single glance. “Do you need something?”
“No, Betsy. This is my cousin, Miss Kittredge.” She waited until the maid dropped a curtsey my way before she added, “Actually, you know, there is something I want. Would you please run down to the apothecary and fetch me a pain powder?”
“At once, milady.” The maid departed.
“I never have the headache, except now and then in the morning,” Diana confided as she led me into her bedchamber. “But it’s the only task I could think of that will take her some time to accomplish.”
“That will help.” I closed the doors before I opened my satchel and took out the echo. “Do you know how long Montrose was away on his tour after school?”
Her brows arched. “I think Nolan told me once that he spent three years traveling. Why?”
“Just curious.” I went to the wall nearest her bed.
Diana went to the window to look down at the city. “My stepdaughters are both kind in their own fashion, but Montrose . . .” She shook her head. “I don’t understand what compels him to be so provocative. Or vulgar.”
I did, and after a moment of silent debate decided to tell her. “Montrose never made a tour, milady. He likely spent those three years in hospital, taking the cure.”
“The cure?” She turned to me. “Whatever for?”
She swayed and then abruptly sat down on her bed. “I didn’t know Montrose was already married, so I thought my father meant to offer me to him. I was so astonished when Nolan admitted his regard for me.” Her hand touched her ashen cheek. “My God.” She gazed up. “Montrose’s wife—he must have given it to her.”
“Doubtful, milady. After the first year the rot moves into the brain, where it harms no one but the unfortunate one infected.” I popped the cap on the echo and checked the lens. “It is likely the reason behind these attacks. Young Walsh can never inherit, of course.”
“Now I understand why Nolan is always so attentive to . . . his husbandly duties.” A giggle escaped her. “I’m to provide him with a new heir.”
“I’m so sorry.” And I was.
She blotted her eyes with a lace handkerchief. “How could you know this? Have you been one of Montrose’s . . . particular companions?”
“I have friends in the city who acquire such information. One of them shared it with me.” I went around the bed and began working on the next wall.
She ran her hand over the embroidered coverlet beneath her. “He’ll keep coming to me every night, won’t he? Until I increase.”
“There is another way,” I told her. “Take a younger lover. One who has the same coloring as Lord Walsh. Someone you can trust to keep his mouth shut.”
“I could never betray Nolan.” But after that instant of shock, she grew silent and thoughtful.
While Lady Walsh sorted through her mental list of suitable, fertile young lovers, I finished my sweep of the room. The only recesses in the walls were spaces between the support posts, too narrow to serve as hidey-holes. I checked the two windows, the locks on which had not been tampered with, and then the door bolts, which were likewise secure. Whoever was coming into the lady’s room at night was not using a hidey-hole or a secret passage. There wasn’t even enough room in her armoire for someone to hide behind the gowns.
Solving poor Liv’s problem had been a great deal easier, I thought, and then whirled around to look at the lady’s bed. It was made of old, carefully tended terebinth, posted and canopied, and so massive it probably would have required a small army to shift it.
The frame of it sat some two and a half feet off the floor.
I knelt down and bent over sideways to look under the frame. The hardwood floor beneath it was lightly covered in dust, except for a long, wide rectangle in the center. I crawled under, stopping short of the rectangle, and extended the echo over it. I had to crane my head a bit to see into the lens, but it showed a two-by-three-foot section under the floor that was completely black.
Plenty of room for someone with a knife to hide and wait.
I couldn’t bring a candle under the bed without setting fire to the mattress, so I was obliged to blindly feel for the seams. Something thin and rough brushed my fingertips, and I grasped a bit of cord. When I tugged it, a section of the floor slats lifted up.
Inside the hidey-hole was a short ladder that led down into the darkness. On the top rung lay something folded and white. I reached for it, removed the handkerchief, and brought it to my face, turning away quickly as soon as I identified the scent.
It still smelled of the ether it had been soaked with.
I never have the headache, except now and then in the morning.
I replaced the handkerchief, scooted back, lowered the panel back into place, and inched back out from under the bed.
“Heavens, Kit.” Diana helped me to my feet and brushed her hands over my sleeves. “You’re covered with dust.”
“Aye.” I helped her. “There’s a passageway in the floor concealed beneath your bed. Someone’s been coming through it, and they’ve been using ether to keep you asleep while they cut you.”
“I don’t believe it.”
I gestured toward the edge of the frame. “See for yourself. Be careful when you tug on the cord; don’t snap it.”
Diana crawled under the bed, gave a muffled cry, and pushed herself back out. “We have to call the police,” she said as she stumbled to her feet. “At once.”
“If Montrose is responsible for this, that would be very unwise.” I put a restraining hand on her shoulder. “Lord Walsh has to discover what is being done to you. When you come to bed tonight, first go under there and dislodge the panel, just enough for it to be easily noticed. As soon as your husband comes to you, drop your wedding ring and kick it under the bed. Then ask him to retrieve it.”
“What?” She gave me a wild look. “Why would I arrange such a farce? Someone is trying to kill me.”
“Someone is trying to badly frighten you.” When she began to protest, I cut her off with, “If they wanted you dead, milady, they’d have slit your throat the first night.”
Her face a mask of alabaster now, she pressed a hand to her neck. “Why would they do this? What purpose would it serve?”
“I can’t say, milady. But once your husband discovers the passage under your bed, I expect he’ll get to the bottom of it.” That might not be the result, however, and I couldn’t abandon her to a husband who might be part of this scheme. “If Lord Walsh retrieves the ring and says nothing about the panel, then he is the one responsible. I can help you get away from him.” When Diana gave me a surprised look, I explained, “We’ll make him believe you’ve left to visit your family.” I heard one of the outer doors opening and quickly stowed the echo before brushing the last of the dust from Lady Walsh’s gown. “You must act as if nothing has happened, or the game will be over.”
“Is that what this is to you? A game?” Before I could answer, she drew herself up and composed her expression. “Forgive me, Miss Kittredge. You have been most helpful, but your services are no longer required.”
Which was the lady’s way of telling me to piss off. “Think nothing of it, Lady Diana.”
She retrieved a small silk purse from her bedside table and dropped it in my hands. “Your continued discretion is also appreciated.”
From the weight I knew I was being paid three times the agreed-on fee. “I’ll keep my mouth shut, milady. You needn’t worry.”
She assumed with perfection the exquisitely bored look of a tonner. “Why ever would I do that?”