The Duchess and the Dragon (5 page)

BOOK: The Duchess and the Dragon
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No one he knew could possibly recognize him. He scarcely recognized himself.
His mind fixated on the murder—those few moments replaying in his head with razor-sharp clarity. Sixteen long days since an interrupted breakfast and a poor man’s death. Days filled with watching and waiting, but Drake knew not what he was waiting for. Sixteen days of anxiety gnawing at him till he’d lost so much weight that his clothes hung from his frame in heavy folds. Sixteen nights of fitful sleep for fear the nightmares would come. Nightmares that strove to ensnare him and pull him down into madness where murderers belonged. Truth be told, he had little need for a disguise; his mask of wretchedness was only too real.
They drew closer to the gangplank—a wet, narrow board slippery from muddy feet. The dank, fishy smell common to the Thames assaulted his nostrils; the screech of seagulls above their heads grated in his ears. A mother and two small children set foot upon the gangplank, and Drake found himself holding his breath. The youngest child, a little girl, began to cry and wouldn’t move; the boy clung to his mother’s skirts threatening to topple them all.
“Get a move on!” A shrill voice from behind yelled.
The woman took another step, but the younger of her children swayed. All eyes in line watched as the mother screamed and grasped a fistful of the girl’s shirt. There was a collective sigh of relief as they righted themselves.
Before Drake could think better of it, he stepped out of line and was walking to the front.
“’Ey! What’s to do, ’ere?”
“You cain’t step ahead in line!”
Drake stilled the complainers with a look, the mantle of authority still draping him.
One woman nudged the man beside her. “Who’s he think he is, eh?”
Drake leapt onto the gangplank, swinging the tiny girl into the crook of one arm. The lad looked up at him with big, round eyes as Drake grasped his hand. “Step lively now, my boy. You can do it.”
The child nodded, chubby cheeks rounding in a smile. When they reached the other side, Drake jumped down onto the deck of the ship. The girl in his arm hadn’t moved during the crossing, but now cried out for her mother. Drake turned to the woman and helped guide her down to the deck. He then deposited the toddler into her arms. “Your children, madam.”
The woman stood, mouth open for a moment, and then blushed. “Oh thank ye, kind sir. I was so afeared they’d be drowned afore we ever begun.”
Drake inclined his head, then turned from her—and stilled. Countless numbers of eyes were upon him.
Fool! How could you have forgotten? Can you not for a moment remember who you are now, what you are supposed to be?
This was going to be impossible! He gritted his teeth and turned away, following the others down into the hold to claim a bunk.
A rickety ladder, a creaking, swaying floor, a dark hold, a place where the air didn’t move. This would be his new home.
It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust. He stared, heart sinking, at row upon row of double or triple-tiered bunks. Alnwick Castle, its grandeur, its imperial force against nature and man, rose up to taunt him. Against all will, a sob grew in his throat . . . followed immediately by shame. Making a quick judgment, Drake staked his claim on an outside row with easy access to the ladder leading up on deck. Some of the others claimed a bed and then returned to the deck for a last look at England before sailing. Drake thought better of leaving his belongings unattended, so he sat on the bed and waited. It wouldn’t do to court more trouble by standing up on deck for all to see him—a fugitive, a dependent on the winds of fate, a poor wretch leaving his homeland.
His new home amounted to about six feet long and two feet wide, his bed a thin straw-filled pallet on a rickety looking frame. Underneath the frame was the only space to store his belongings and the meager supplies he had purchased for the journey that would take about fourteen weeks. They were packed in here like slaves, except slaves were shackled. Drake’s appreciation for freedom suddenly made itself known, startling him.
Embarrassment stole up his neck as he realized that he wanted to collapse—to lie on this shoddy iron bed and wallow in self-pity like he hadn’t since he wore gowns. Instead, he took a shaky breath and steeled himself. He would make it to America, get out of this ridiculous indentured servant business altogether, and begin a new life. What he would do to support himself once the meager funds in his trunk ran out he didn’t know. Still . . . news traveled slowly. Perhaps he could join the other impoverished nobility on the new continent.
He wrapped the thin blanket about him, lay back, and closed his eyes, hoping sleep—and the nightmares—wouldn’t come just yet.
Chapter Four
Serena stared out her bedroom window, taking in the late fall scene of her yard and street. The leaves were mostly fallen now, lying in brown, tumbled heaps, blown about by the breeze. An old, gnarled tree filled the north corner of the yard, where a wooden swing twirled, the wind its only occupant. She had swung on that swing countless times, reaching her toes up toward the sky. A sky that today was the pale blue-gray of weather coming.
She smiled as inspiration filled her. Closing her eyes, she let the colors swirl behind the darkness of her lids. The rope of the swing turned from weathered tan to a shocking yellow. The seat of the swing became golden brown. It rose in her mind’s eye, tossed by the wind into an azure sky.
Then she shifted her focus to the trees—their trunks slick and shiny with her black paint, bubbles of deep green like little mossy outcroppings popping up and down their mighty lengths. The leaves were in juxtaposition—the ones still attached to their branches, the stubborn ones, growing old and brown while the dead ones on the lawn became bright, alive again in golden yellows, fiery orange, and violet reds. Their veins pulsed with
a blue-green blood. The grass brightened to a yellow-green, swaying in the breeze, then she deepened the color in her mind, adding a hint of blue. Her breath caught as the world outside her window became a fairy place where princesses and dragons roamed, a place not seen on this earth.
“Yes, the light is soft but bright.” She breathed the thought aloud, imagining the slant of the sunlight and all the shadowy places. Her eyes shot open, her hand pressed flat against her beating heart. Where were her paints? She
to get this image onto canvas before it blew away on an earthly breeze. She knew nothing this astonishing would last long in her imagination. A part of her feared it—this knowing of what she wanted and then the battle to get it down. It was always like this—elusive and frantic. But she had to try.
“Now where are my paints?” She was forever leaving things scattered about.
She turned, facing the bedroom she shared with her sister, a furrow between her brows. Mary Ann’s side of the room was, of course, as neat as a pin. Hers? She grimaced. She just couldn’t seem to put things back in their proper place, nor even imagine what that place might be.
She crouched down, flipped the quilt up onto the bed, and peered underneath. Ah! There was her pile of rolled-up canvas. Now,
were those paints? She hoped she hadn’t left them somewhere, some new spot she’d found in her roamings where she had painted last. Her mother would not be pleased to find her begging for more paint.
The door banged open. Mary Ann stood at the threshold, a little breathless. “Serena, come quick! Another ship has arrived.”
It took Serena a moment to comprehend that the time to paint was lost. She groaned, knowing she might not ever capture that colorful land in her imagination. A profound sense of loss touched her as she stared at the rolled-up canvas, aching for the feel of stretching it over a wood frame. But another part of her, one equally strong, wanted to help.
Serena stood, gave the canvas one last stare, and then turned to get her bonnet. “I am coming.”
It was time to go. Time to leave dreams and imaginings, and do what she could to help the indentured who traveled to America on a hope and a dream.
IT WAS EVENING. The gentle rocking in the hold mocked Drake’s inner turmoil. He lay curled on his side, squeezed onto the narrow confines of the cot where he spent much of his time. His arms were raised, wrapping around his head, covering his ears. His eyes were closed to the misery around him. The first few weeks of the journey proved just how stark reality had become. Seasickness was rampant. Vomit made a miserable mess of the hold, and the stench of it clung to the air, making it impossible to breathe deep. The fresh air of top deck was a distant, haunting memory. Once onto open sea, Drake had been shocked to realize that they were considered more cargo than passenger, rather like cattle than human. Basic needs and rights were now in the hands of a captain whose eyes glowed with fanatical greed. Drake knew the type—and knew the future would not be pretty for the lot of them.
Many of his fellow passengers were ill before leaving London. This combined with foul food and toilet habits added to their misery, leaving countless numbers unable to leave their cots.
Then, one by one, the dying had begun. Soon, the news came that twenty-seven people had perished. What had seemed a stunning death toll at first was now just another event in a wretchedness that left the living numb. Bodies were thrown overboard with little ceremony—those left alive hadn’t the strength or spirit for formalities. The worst had been a pregnant woman unable to deliver her baby. After she and the child died, the crew didn’t even bother carrying the heavy body to the deck. Instead, she was pushed through a porthole to her watery grave.
Drake curled inside himself, shunning the others in their close quarters. His fellow shipmates soon learned not to bother him unless they wanted a snarling return. He had honed the skill of verbal cuts and scornful glares long before, now it was as natural as his scowl. And as necessary.
He couldn’t let them see his fear.
Each evening, as dusk approached, Drake gritted his teeth and resisted the panic. The deep of night, the pitch black, when the creaking of the old ship ruled them—that was the worst. He was afraid to sleep; for when he lost the fight, the nightmares came. It wasn’t as if he’d never had a nightmare. As a boy he’d suffered them often, waking, sweat soaked, from skeletons of dead animals or fiery-eyed demons haunting him. Such nights he’d rear up, panting among his pile of blankets.
But those nightmares were nothing compared to what haunted his nights in this place.
The same and yet varied enough to never lose their terror’s strength, they had the ability to wake him and leave him lying like a corpse, stilled with fear. His father, fiendishly laughed at him from the grave. Or worse, the man he’d let fall haunted him, crying from a bloody pool on the stone terrace below. Once, it was his father killing him, and another time it was his father who had pushed the man over the railing. Always the images were ghastly and Drake felt, little by little, his sanity slip away with each one.
Sleep became a dreaded thing, darkness his enemy.
When awake, Drake’s mind traveled its own paths, paths his battered will could no longer resist. His memory revisited encounters he’d had with the man he’d always believed was his father. Now he doubted everything. The gossip about his mother haunted him. What he knew for certain was the hateful stares of Ivor, the contempt he’d never understood, the impotent rage underlying his actions, so incomprehensible to Drake. The questions still lingered, rearing heads that chipped away a little more and then more at Drake’s identity.
Had it been Ivor’s plan all along to dangle a true son’s inheritance and then rip it away when the truth of Drake’s lineage was revealed?
Weak, his father called him. Any show of emotion ridiculed. Any fear belittled. It hadn’t taken Drake long to learn the value of becoming a shadow in any setting, as still and quiet as a piece of furniture in the castle, a ghostly form during a hunt where he secretly abhorred the killing. A silent presence at an auction of horseflesh or valuable artifacts. He was expected to watch and soak in the play of power. And he had learned his lessons well.
Then, at twelve years of age, something changed. His father began grooming him as heir. It was right and expected and everyone around them breathed a sigh of relief. Life finally took on
a comforting though severe routine.
Looking back, Drake now wondered . . . Was it then that his father turned bitterness into revenge? It seemed obvious, looking back. Ivor had set upon his master plan—treat Drake as the son he’d always longed to be, waiting for the day, when he would snatch it all away.
BOOK: The Duchess and the Dragon
9.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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