Authors: Andrea Kane
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #General
To each of us who has ever felt like a misfit—find your heart and you’ll find your home.
IOLENT COUGHING TORE AT
her lungs, jarred her awake.
She sat up, rubbing her fist across her face as she tried to clear the cobwebs from her head, the burning mist from her eyes.
Where was she?
Not in her room. Not safe. Not tucked in her bed as she’d been when she last recalled.
The robins. The nest.
She remembered now.
A bright glow slashed the room, along with a fierce surge of heat. She scrambled to her knees, her pupils wide, dilating with bewilderment.
Sunlight? It couldn’t be. ʼTwas night. An unusually cold night. That was why she’d sought shelter. She’d been shivering when she slipped into the shed and snuggled into the pile of old blankets. Yet now she was unbearably hot, her hair plastered to the nape of her neck, her nightgown clinging to her skin like a soggy piece of candy. Why?
The glow intensified, a wall of flames leaping at her like a predatory tiger.
The shed was on fire.
Whimpering with fear, she cowered in the corner, pressing a blanket to her cheek for comfort. Her harsh rasps mingled with the flames’ ominous crackling, the sound a terrifying contrast to the lilting melody that had lulled her to sleep.
The music box.
Her stomach tightened with dread.
Where’s the music box?
Frantically she groped on the floor. There, she thought, snatching it up with trembling fingers. Just as she’d left it, only silent now, having performed its customary miracle earlier that night. The silvery tones had danced through the treetops, soothing the newborn robins, then accompanying her into the shed, nestling beside her, and serenading her to sleep.
Only to awaken to a nightmare.
As she stared across the flame-lit room, the full horror of the situation struck home. Even her music box could not protect her from this. If she stayed here, she’d die.
She didn’t want to die.
“Mama,” she whispered instinctively, only to realize how foolish she was being. How could she pray for her mama to save her when neither of her parents had any idea where she was?
No, ʼtwas up to her to save herself.
Small chin set, she struggled to her feet, clutching the music box and casting the blanket to the floor. Her eyes stung with tears, but she dashed them away, knowing she had but a brief time before the fire took over, robbing her of any chance for escape. She had to act now.
She made her way across the shed, bumping into one storage crate after another, wincing at the resulting pain but refusing to allow herself to cry out. To do that would mean to stop holding her breath. And that would mean inhaling the smoke that clamored at her nose and lungs.
Stubbornly she kept her lips pressed tightly together, biting back the silent sobs that shook her.
After ten steps that felt more like a hundred, she reached the door.
The handle was scalding hot, burning her fingers so badly she yanked them away. She tried again, but it was no use. She couldn’t withstand the pain long enough to open the door.
Her lungs were bursting. She had to get out.
Her gaze fell on the sleeve of her nightgown, and an image sprang to mind of her mama using kitchen cloths as aids to remove hot pie pans from the oven. Perhaps her nightgown could serve that same purpose.
Determinedly she yanked down her nightgown sleeve until it covered her entire hand. That done, she grasped the door handle, feeling the heat radiate through the fine linen as she gave the handle a frantic twist. At the same time she flung her slight frame against the wooden door with every ounce of strength she possessed.
The door swung open, releasing her from her fiery prison.
Cold night air slapped her face, laced with the scent of musk and burning timber, and she stumbled outside, gasping in one grateful breath after another. Unsteadily she made her way across the grass, one slippered foot at a time, until her strength gave out, her knees tumbling her to the ground—and to safety.
Still clutching the music box, she managed to turn her head, shaking her wild tangle of hair from her face so she could see the full impact of the blaze from which she’d just escaped.
Flames were everywhere. They seemed to gobble up the entire row of structures that led from the shed to the outdoor staff’s servants’ quarters.
The servants’ quarters
“Mama!” White fear descended like a monstrous dragon from a fairy tale. She battled her way to her feet, tripping over the hem of her nightgown and falling to the ground. Shoving herself upright, she abandoned the music box, cupping her hands to her mouth and calling, “Papa!” Dizziness swam through her head, but she ignored it, taking three tentative steps toward the wall of smoke and flame.
She never reached it.
“Mama …” She began to weave, her movements dragging strangely, everything unraveling in a series of slow, eerie motions. Abruptly her legs refused to obey the commands of her smoke-veiled mind, and then the grass was rushing up toward her at an alarming rate. She called for her parents again, but her voice sounded funny, and it seemed to come from somewhere far away. “Mama … Papa …” This time what emerged was a croak.
Her eyes slid shut, unconsciousness stifling her pleas and her resistance, wild flames completing their deadly mission as she slumped just beyond their portals.
One by one the buildings were swallowed up by the raging inferno.
Spared from its hideous destruction, she lay insensate, the music box resting in the grass behind her.
Secure and unscathed it lay, its mother-of-pearl uncharred, its gilt trim untainted.
Its melody utterly silent.
HY IN GOD’S NAME
had she requested this meeting?
For the hundredth time, Bryce Lyndley asked himself that question, pondering the motive behind what was about to occur even as he steered his phaeton through the iron gates of Lady Nevon’s elegant country estate. Tension knotted inside him, having escalated with each passing segment of his twenty-five-mile journey from London to Hertford.
He had yet to find an answer that suited him.
Damn. This chapter of his life had been closed decades ago, and he had no intention of allowing it to be reopened—especially not by the death of the very scoundrel who’d authored its pages.
Lady Nevon who’d sent for him, Bryce reminded himself. And, even though his sole contact with her all these years had been through letters, the idea of refusing her fervent summons was unthinkable. He owed her a huge debt of gratitude—one that no number of visits could repay.
No number of visits? he thought wryly. In truth, this was the first time she’d ever requested his presence at her home. Until now she hadn’t dared see him, much less invite him to Nevon Manor.
Oh, he knew precisely why. He knew, he understood, and he accepted.
He was also aware that, as of a week ago, the reason prompting her restraint was gone, having died along with the man who’d created it—the very man who’d been the insurmountable obstacle thwarting Lady Nevon’s wishes, barring Bryce from his past.
Fine. So now Lady Nevon could send for him.
The question remained: why would she want to?
She, better than anyone, knew the past could not be undone. Like the cruelty and lies that defined it, the past and all its ills had long since been cast in stone. An eternity had elapsed, lives had been formed, and nothing and no one could alter those hard realities.
So what had prompted her to request this meeting? And why had her tone sounded so urgent?
“My brother is dead,” her note had read. “Come to Nevon Manor at once. I’ve asked nothing of you in the past. Please don’t refuse me now.”
Bryce’s jaw worked as he contemplated the information conveyed by her words. The fact that the Duke of Whitshire was dead meant as little to him as the blood they’d shared. The latter was no more than a cruel accident of fate, the former the inevitable culmination of life. After all, every man, saint and sinner alike, had to die. Even a soul as black as Whitshire’s would therefore be reclaimed—doubtless to be sent straight to hell.
Abruptly Bryce’s legal mind inserted itself, posing a new possibility. Death necessitated the disbursement of an estate, an intricate procedure, given the late duke’s renowned wealth and assets. And while Whitshire had doubtless bequeathed his title and estate to his heir apparent—in this case, his legitimate son, Thane—that said nothing of any further provisos his will might have contained. Had that son of a bitch specified something to adversely affect Lady Nevon? Was that the reason behind her unexpected summons? Did she require Bryce’s help?
Doubtful. From all reports, Hermione Nevon’s relationship with her brother had been a smooth one … so long as she complied with his wishes. Which, presumably, she did—with the exception of one pivotal undiscovered deception. Further, if there was anything amiss in Whitshire’s will, Bryce would be the last person Lady Nevon would contact to dispute it, given his lack of objectivity.
Unless it was Bryce she meant to protect.
That prospect struck like a blow. Was it possible that, through his death, the duke had found a way to inflict some new plague on Bryce’s life, one Lady Nevon intended to warn him of?
Impossible. Whitshire had believed Bryce dead. Lady Nevon herself had seen to that more than thirty years ago, convincing her brother that the bane of his existence had been cast into the streets, where he’d starved and perished.
Which eliminated Whitshire’s will as a possible cause for today’s summons.
Leaving the same nagging questions in its wake.
Easing his horses round the drive, Bryce abandoned his speculations. The manor loomed just ahead. Whatever Lady Nevon wanted, he’d learn about it soon enough. And whatever her request was, he’d find a way to oblige her—without dredging up the ugliness of the past.
He’d hardly made his decision when a small white streak shot across the drive, directly into the path of Bryce’s oncoming phaeton. The streak—which revealed itself to be a swift but thoroughly terrified rabbit—froze for a moment, staring fearfully about before completing its mad dash to the opposite side of the drive, where it disappeared into the woods.
Bryce’s horses went wild.
Whinnying their distress, they came to a screeching halt, rearing up and tossing their heads in protest.
“Easy!” Bryce commanded, tightening his grip on the reins and fighting to bring the horses under control as the carriage pulled precariously to the left.
After a brief struggle, the skittish mounts complied, and the carriage eased to a stop, teetering at the very edge of the drive. “Damn,” Bryce muttered. Peering to his right, he scanned the woods, the fluttering leaves on the trees the only sign that they’d been recently disturbed.
“Sir! Pardon me—sir!”
Bryce’s head snapped about at the approaching sound of the feminine voice breathlessly accosting him from the same direction as had the white streak. “Yes?” He blinked as a delicate young woman sprinted toward the carriage, a cascade of chestnut hair billowing out around her smudged, fine-boned face, her eyes—a brilliant cornflower blue—filled with worry.
“Did you see a white rabbit go by?” she panted, looking furtively about.
Despite the lingering effects of the past moments’ tension, Bryce felt his lips twitch.
“Pardon me,” the girl repeated, gazing at Bryce as if trying to assess his ability to hear. “Did you see a white rabbit go by? I spied him heading in this direction. I only pray your vehicle didn’t strike him.” With that, she forced herself to peer into the drive, her shoulders sagging with relief when she saw it was devoid of an injured animal. “Thank goodness. Still, I’m sure the commotion startled him. Lord knows where he went. I must find him before he gets hurt. He’s too inquisitive for his own good. Oh, why did I doze off? I know Crumpet delights in racing off the first chance he gets. Are you sure you didn’t see him—a rather bewildered-looking white rabbit who rushes about as if he’s in a frightful hurry?”
That did it.
Bryce’s shoulders began shaking with laughter. “I’m not certain,” he managed. “Was this rabbit wearing a waistcoat? Contemplating a pocket watch, perhaps?”