The murals were surprisingly well executed. Whoever commissioned them certainly had eclectic taste, for Dionysius practiced his arts on one wall, with Sappho adjacent, and a selection of rather graphic – and, in his lordship’s opinion, physically impossible – combinations of male and female were portrayed opposite. Upon the fourth wall was painted a rather interesting triumvirate which Charles Mumford, the Third Marquis of Rosevale would have liked to explore further. His current position, however, made this rather difficult.
“For pity’s sake Bella have mercy, I beg of you.” The marquis was a man most unused to pleading. In the normal run of things it was his expectation, indeed he believed it was his inalienable right, to have his every instruction obeyed instantly. But the situation in which he currently found himself could, by no stretch of the imagination, be described as normal.
For a start, he was trussed like a chicken, bound hand and foot to the ornate canopied bed in the centre of the room. His shirt having been ripped open and his breeches roughly pulled down, he was also shockingly exposed, excitingly vulnerable, from his neck to his knees.
Then there was the fact that he was being coolly appraised by quite the most exotic and alluring creature he had ever clapped eyes upon. Clad in a black velvet robe with a décolleté so daring it seemed to be held in place only by the sheer power of her considerable will, she was the stuff of every red-blooded man’s fantasy. Dark silken tresses tumbled down her back. Her skin was the colour of whipped cream. Her lips were full, painted harlot red. Her countenance sultry. The black stock of the cat-o-nine-tails she stroked was thick and weighty. She was, overall, a perfect combination of the voluptuous and the vicious which sent the blood surging to the marquis’s most prized piece of anatomy. Charles Mumford groaned. Whether in trepidation or anticipation only he could truly know.
Bella Donna allowed her eyes to wander languidly over the body of her captive. Despite the undoubted fact that he was an insufferable prig, more than deserving of whatever punishment she decided to mete out to him, the marquis was a prime physical specimen, his lightly muscled body testament to his fondness for the noble art and fencing. A sheen of sweat glistened on his torso as he fought to free himself from his constraints. The muscles in his arms bulged like cords as they strained against the knots she had so expertly tied. A spattering of dark hair arrowed down from his chest, over the flat plane of his taut belly, and down. Bella’s eyes widened as she followed its trail. His reputation was indeed well deserved. She flicked her tongue slowly over her rouged lips. Dispensing punishment did not preclude an element of pleasure. Especially hers.
Bella drew the whip slowly down the marquis’s body, watching his skin quiver as the leather thongs slid over him, giving his twitching member an expert and playful little tug.
His lordship groaned. “Devil take you, lease me.”
Bella laughed. “In your world your word may be law, but you are in my world now, the dark and erotic world of the night where I am queen and you are my subject. I will release you when I have done with you and not before.”
“Curse you Bella! Deadly Nightshade! You are well named. What have I done to deserve this?”
“You are a man, that is crime enough,” Bella hissed, noting with satisfaction that despite his pleas, the marquis’s tumescence was burgeoning. She plied her whip once more, a little more decisively this time. A hiss as the leather thongs made contact, raising soft welts on the flesh, made her victim wince, made his jutting shaft stand up proudly. She shuddered with anticipation. They were ready. All three of them.
“Enough talk,” she said, as she hitched up her skirts and prepared to mount him, “I have a notion for a midnight ride, and I see a stallion champing at the bit. Though I warn you,” she whispered into his ear, as she began to sheathe the thick pole of his rampant manhood, “I will not hesitate to use the whip if you cannot maintain the gallop.”
The author put down her pen with a trembling hand. It was, she thought, quite the best and most outrageous scene she had written thus far. “Goodnight Bella,” she said as she slipped the sheaf of parchment into her desk and turned the key in the lock, “I look forward to renewing our acquaintance tomorrow.”
Smiling with a satisfaction quite different but no less deep than Bella’s, she snuffed out the candle and retired to her own rather more spartan bedchamber.
Sussex, February 1817
The mechanism which controlled the huge mantel clock jolted into action, the harsh grating sound shattering the blanket of silence, startling him into dropping his wrench. Elliot Marchmont melted back into the shadows of the elegant drawing room, taking refuge behind the thick damask window hangings. They were dusty. His nose itched, he had to quickly stifle a sneeze. Lady Kinsail, it seemed, was not an overly fastidious housekeeper.
The clock began to chime the hour. One. Two. Three. It was an old piece, Louis Quatorze by the looks of it, with an intricate face showing the phases of the moon as well as the time. Gold in the casing. Diamonds on the display. Valuable. There had been a similar one in a grand house he’d visited while in Lisbon. Elliot’s lip curled. He doubted it was still there.
The chimes faded into the night and silence again reigned. Elliot waited. One minute. Two. Only after five had elapsed did he dare move, for experience had taught him to be cautious while there was still a chance that someone in the household, disturbed by the sound, had awoken. But all was well, the coast was clear.
Outside, the sky was beginning to clear. Thin ribbons of grey cloud scudded over the luminous half moon like wisps of smoke. Silent and stealthy as a cat, shading the light from his lantern with his kerchief, Elliot made his way over to the wall at the far end of the room on which the portrait was hung. The current Lord Kinsail glowered down at him in the dim light, a jowly man with hooded eyes and a thin mouth. “Grave-robbing weasel,” Elliot hissed viciously. “Callous, unfeeling prig.”
The likeness of the government minister who had been, some years previously, responsible for supplying the British army during the Peninsular War – or not supplying them, if you asked the man now gazing disdainfully up at him – remained unmoved. Perched precariously on a flimsy-looking gilded chair, Elliot felt his way carefully round the picture, uttering a small grunt of satisfaction as the mechanism opened with a tiny click. The heavy portrait swung silently back on its hinges. He ducked, only just avoiding being clipped on the jaw by the ormolu corner of the frame.
Getting efficiently down to business, Elliot extracted his selection of pickes from the capacious pocket of his greatcoat and carefully placed the wrench he used for leverage. Although the safe was old, the earl had replaced the original warded lock with a more modern arrangement. Faced with four, rather than the standard two separate lever tumblers to manipulate, it took him almost twenty minutes to complete the delicate task. As the last tumbler lifted and the bolt finally slid back, he eased open the safe door, breathing a sigh of relief.
Papers tied with ribbon and marked with the earl’s seal were crammed into the small space. Underneath them were a number of leather boxes which Elliot wasted no time in opening, rifling through the contents. The Kinsail jewels were, he noted, of excellent quality, if of surprisingly meagre quantity. The family coffers had obviously been seriously depleted at some point in the past. He shrugged. What these people did with their own property was none of his concern.
The item he was looking for was not in any of the boxes. He paused for a moment, one hand stroking his jaw line, the rasp of his stubble audible in the deathly silence. Working his fingers quickly across the back wall of the safe he found a loose panel which concealed a small recess in which sat a velvet pouch. Elliot’s triumphant smile glinted in the moonlight as he unwrapped the prize he sought. The large blue diamond was strangely faceted and rectangular in shape. One hundred carats at least, he guessed, about half the size of the original from which it had been cut.
Slipping it into his pocket along with his picks, Elliot extracted his calling card and placed it carefully in the safe. A creak in the corridor outside made him pause in the act of opening the drawing room door to make good his escape. It could simply be the sound of the timbers of the old house settling, but he decided not to risk exiting Kinsail Manor the way he had entered, through the basement, since this would require him to traverse the entire house. Making hastily for the window he pulled back the leaded glass and, with an agility which would have impressed but not surprised the men who served under him, former Major Elliot Marchmont leapt onto the sill, grabbed the leaded drain which ran down the side of the building, said a silent prayer to whatever gods protected housebreakers that the pipe would support his muscular frame, and began the treacherous descent.
The stable clock chimed the half hour as Lady Deborah Napier, Dowager Countess of Kinsail passed through the side gate leading from the park into the formal gardens. In the time it had taken her to make her usual nightly circuit around the grounds of the Manor, the skies had cleared. Shivering, she pulled her mantle around her. Made of turkey-red wool with a short cape in the style of a man’s greatcoat, it served the dual purpose of keeping her warm and disguising the fact that underneath she wore only her nightshift. An incongruous picture she must make, with her hair in its curl papers and her feet clad in hand-knitted stockings and sturdy boots – the staid Jacob, Lord Kinsail would be appalled to discover that his late cousin’s widow was accustomed to roam the grounds in such attire on almost every one of the long, sleepless nights of the annual visit which duty demanded of her.
As she passed through the stable yard, making her way across the grass in order to avoid her boots crunching on the gravel, Deborah smiled to herself. It was a small enough act of subversion when all was said and done, but it amused her nonetheless. Lord knows, there was no love lost between herself and the earl, who blamed her for everything from her husband’s premature death, the debts he left behind, the shameful state of his lands and her own woeful failure to provide Jeremy with a son to take them on. Most especially, Jacob blamed her for this last fact.
“I suppose I should be grateful that he continues to acknowledge me,” she mused, “for after all, an heiress whose coffers and womb have both proven ultimately barren is rather a pathetic creature, even if my empty nursery conferred upon Jacob a title he had no right to expect. But alack, I cannot find it in me to be grateful for being invited to this house. I am, upon each visit, astonished anew that the damned man can think he is conferring a favour by inviting me to spend two tortuous weeks in the very place where I spent seven tortuous years.” She paused to gaze up at the moon. “Is it any wonder,” she demanded of it, “that I cannot find tranquil repose?”
The moon declined to answer, and Deborah realised that she’d once again been talking to herself. It was an old habit, cultivated originally in the lonely years she’d spent after Mama and Papa died, when she had been left largely to her own devices in her aged uncle’s house. She had invented a whole schoolroom full of imaginary friends, and filled page after page of the notebooks which should have contained her arithmetic with stories to tell them. Deborah had no idea how long her elderly governess had been watching her from the doorway of the schoolroom that day, as she read aloud one of those tales of derring-do, stopping every now and then to consult her invisible companions on a point of plot, but it was enough for that august lady to declare herself unable to cope with such a precocious child. To Deborah’s delight, her governess left, and her uncle decide to send her off to school.
“Little did she know,” Deborah muttered to herself, “that she was conferring upon me the happiest five years of my life in all my eight-and-twenty.”
At Miss Kilpatrick’s Seminary for Young Ladies, Deborah’s stories made her popular, helping her to overcome her initial shyness and make real friends. As she grew from adolescence to young-womanhood, her plots progressed from pirates and plunder through ghosts and hauntings to tales of handsome knights fearlessly and boldly pursuing beautiful ladies. Love had ever been a theme – even in Deborah’s most childish scribblings, she found new families for orphaned babes, reunited long-lost brothers with their loyal sister on a regular basis. But it was romantic love which dominated her stories those last two years at the seminary, the kind which required her heroes to set out on wildly dangerous journeys and carry out impossible tasks, the kind which had her heroines defy their cruel guardians, risking life and limb and reputation to be with the man of their dreams.
Huddled around the meagre fire in the ladies’ sitting room, Deborah wove her plots, embellishing and embroidering as she narrated to her spellbound audience, so caught up in the worlds and characters she created, that it was always a jolt when Miss Kilpatrick rapped on the door and told them all it was time for bed.
“Some day soon,” she remembered telling her best friend Beatrice, “that will be us. When we leave here…”
But Bea, pretty, practical, a year older and a decade wiser, the eldest daughter of an extremely wealthy Lancashire mill owner, had laughed. “Honestly Deb, it’s about time you realised those romances of yours are just make-believe. People don’t fall in love with one look, and even if they did, you can be sure that they’d likely fall out of love again just as fast. I don’t want my husband kiss the hem of my skirt or clutch at his heart every time I walk into a room. I want to know that I he’ll be there when I need him, that he won’t fritter my money away on lost causes, and he won’t go off to fight dragons when we’ve got guests to dinner.”
Bea had married the eldest son of a fellow mill owner less than a year later, whom she’d declared, in one of her frank letters to Deborah, at that time once again incarcerated in her guardian’s house, would do very well. Deborah’s correspondence with her friend – with all of her friends – had been one of the many things Jeremy had taken from her. It was not that he had forbidden her to write, but that she could no longer bear to paint a bright gloss on the dreadful reality of her own marriage. And now, though Jeremy had been dead two years, it was too late.
The melancholy which had been haunting her these last months, and which had intensified, as ever, during her annual visit to Kinsail Manor, settled upon Deborah like a black cloud. Jeremy’s death had been far from the blessed release she had anticipated. Of late, she had come to feel as if she had simply swapped one prison for another. Loneliness yawned like a chasm, but she was afraid to breach it for she could not bear anyone to know the truth, even though that meant eventually the chasm would swallow her up. She was not happy, but she had no idea what to do to alter that state, or even, indeed, if she was now capable of being anything else. Isolated as she was, at least when she was alone she was safe, which was some consolation. No-one could harm her. She would not let anyone harm her ever again.
A breeze caught at her mantle, whipping it open. Goosebumps rose on her flesh as the cool night air met her exposed skin. She had been lost in the past for far too long. She would not sleep, of that she was certain, but if she did not get back into the house she would likely catch a cold and that would of a surety not do, for it would give Lady Margaret, the earl’s downtrodden wife whose desperation made her seek any sort of ally, an excuse to beg Deborah to prolong her stay.
Head down, struggling to hold her cloak around her, Deborah made haste towards the side door to the east wing, and was directly under the long drawing room when a scuffling noise gave her pause. She had no sooner looked up, caught sight of a dark, menacing figure seemingly clinging to the sheer wall of the Manor, when it fell backwards towards her.