He felt the duke’s stare on him the minute he walked into the room.
Adam Drummond closed the double doors behind him quietly so as not to alert the men at the front door. Tonight Thomas was training one of the young lads new to the house. If they were alerted to his presence in the library they would investigate.
He had a story prepared for that eventuality. He couldn’t sleep, which wasn’t far from the truth. Nightmares often kept him from resting more than a few hours at a time. A good thing he had years of practice getting by with little sleep.
He’d left his suite attired only in a collarless white shirt and black trousers. Another fact for which he’d have to find an explanation. As the majordomo of Marsley House he was expected to wear the full uniform of his position at all times, even in the middle of the night. Perhaps not donning the white waistcoat, cravat, and coat was an act of rebellion.
Strange, since he’d never been a rebel before. It was this place, this house, this assignment that was affecting him.
For the first time he hadn’t borrowed a name or a history carefully concocted by the War Office. He’d taken the position as himself, Adam Drummond, Scot and former soldier with Her Majesty’s army. The staff knew his real name. Some even knew parts of his history. The housekeeper called him Adam, knew he was a widower, was even aware of his birthdate.
He felt exposed, an uncomfortable position for a man who’d worked in the shadows for years.
He lit one of the lamps hanging from a chain fixed to the ceiling. The oil was perfumed, the scent reminiscent of jasmine. The world of the Whitcombs was unique, separated from the proletariat by two things: the peerage and wealth.
The pale yellow light only lit the area near the desk. The rest of the huge room was in shadow. The library was ostentatious, a word he’d heard one of the maids try to pronounce.
“And what does it mean, I’m asking you?” She’d been talking to one of the cook’s helpers, but he’d interjected.
“It means fancy.”
She’d made a face before saying, “Well, why couldn’t they just say fancy, then?”
Because everything about Marsley House was ostentatious.
This library certainly qualified. The room had three floors connected by a circular black iron staircase. The third floor was slightly larger than the second, making it possible for a dozen lamps to hang from chains affixed to each level at different heights. If he’d lit them all it would have been bright as day in here, illuminating the sight of thousands of books.
He didn’t think the Whitcomb family had read every one of the volumes. Some of them looked as if they were new, the dark green leather and gold spines no doubt as shiny as when they’d arrived from the booksellers. Others were so well worn that he couldn’t tell what the title was until he pulled it from the shelf and opened it. There were great many books on military history and he suspected that was the duke’s doing.
He turned to look at the portrait over the mantel. George Whitcomb, 10th Duke of Marsley, was wearing his full military uniform, the scarlet jacket so bright a shade that Adam’s eyes almost watered. The duke’s medals gleamed as if the sun had come out from behind the artist’s window to shine directly on such an exalted personage. He wore a sword tied at his waist and his head was turned slightly to the right, his gaze one that Adam remembered. Contempt shown in his eyes, as if everything the duke witnessed was beneath him, be it people, circumstances, or the scenery of India.
Adam was surprised that the man had allowed himself to be painted with graying hair. Even his mutton chop whiskers were gray and brown. In India, Whitcomb had three native servants whose sole duties were to ensure the duke’s sartorial perfection at all times. He was clipped and coiffed and brushed and shined so that he could parade before his men as the ultimate authority of British might.
His eyes burned out from the portrait, so darkly brown that they appeared almost black, narrowed and penetrating.
“Damn fine soldiers, every single one of them. All mongrels, of course, but fighting men.”
At least the voice — surprisingly higher in pitch than Adam had expected — was silent now. He didn’t have to hear himself being called a mongrel again. Whitcomb had been talking about the British regiments assigned to guard the East India Company settlements. He could well imagine the man’s comments about native soldiers.
What a damned shame Whitcomb had been killed in a carriage accident. He deserved a firing squad at the very least. He wished the duke to Hell as he had ever since learning of the man’s death. The approaching storm with its growling thunder seemed to approve of the sentiment.
As if to further remind him of India, his shoulder began to throb. Every time it rained the scar announced its presence, the bullet wound just one more memory to be expunged. It was this house. It brought to mind everything he’d tried to forget for years.
Adam turned away from the portrait, his attention on the massive, heavily tooled mahogany desk. This, too, was larger than it needed to be, raised on a dais, more a throne than a place a man might work. A perfect reflection of the Duke of Marsley’s arrogance.
The maids assigned this room had left the curtains opened. If he had been a proper majordomo he would no doubt chastise them for their oversight. But because he’d been a leader of men, not of maids, he decided not to mention it.
Lightning flashed nearby, the strike followed by another shot of thunder. The glass shivered in the mullioned panes.
Maybe the duke’s ghost was annoyed that he was here in the library again.
The careening of the wind around this portion of Marsley House sounded almost like a warning. Adam disregarded it as he glanced up to the third floor. He would have to be looking for a journal. That was tantamount to searching for a piece of coal in a mine or a grain of sand on the beach.
This assignment had been difficult from the beginning.
One of the double doors opened, startling him.
Daniel, the newest footman, stood there. The lad was tall, as were all of the young men hired at Marsley House. His shock of red hair was accompanied by a splattering of freckles across his face, almost as if God had wielded a can of paint and tripped when approaching Daniel. His eyes were a clear blue and direct as only the innocent could look.
He always felt old and damaged in Daniel’s presence.
“Is there anything I can do for you, sir?” the young footman asked.
“I’ve come to find something to read.” There, as an excuse it should bear scrutiny. He could always claim that he was about to examine the Marsley House ledgers, even though he normally performed that task in his own suite.
“I think we had a prowler the other night,” Adam said, improvising. “One of the maids mentioned her concern.”
Daniel was a good lad, the kind who wouldn’t question a direct order.
“I’d like you to watch the outer door to the Tudor garden.”
“Yes, sir,” Daniel said, nodding.
“Tell Thomas that I need you there.”
“Yes, sir,” the young man said again, still nodding.
Once he, too, had been new to a position. In his case, Her Majesty’s army. Yet he’d never been as innocent as Daniel. Still, he remembered feeling uncertain and worried in those first few months, concerned that he wasn’t as competent at his tasks as he should be. For that reason he stopped the young man before he left the library.
“I’ve heard good reports about you, Daniel.”
The young man’s face reddened. “Thank you, sir.”
“I think you’ll fit in well at Marsley House.”
“Thank you, Mr. Drummond.”
A moment later Daniel was gone, the door closed once again. Adam watched for a minute before turning and staring up at the third floor.
The assignment he’d been given was to find one particular journal. Unfortunately, that was proving to be more difficult than originally thought. The Duke of Marsley had believed his every hour was worth memorializing and had written in a journal since he was a boy. The result was that there were hundreds of books Adam needed to read.
After climbing the circular stairs he grabbed the next two journals to be examined and brought them back to the first floor. He doubted if the duke would approve of him sitting at his desk which is why Adam did so, opening the cover of one of the journals and forcing himself to concentrate on the duke’s overly ornate handwriting.
He didn’t look over at the portrait again, but it still seemed as if the duke watched as he read.
At first Adam thought it was the sound of the storm before realizing that thunder didn’t speak in a female voice. He stood and extinguished the lamp, but the darkness wasn’t absolute. The lightning sent bright flashes of light into the library.
Moving to the doors, he opened one of them slightly, expecting to find a maid standing there or perhaps a footman with his lover. He knew about three dalliances taking place among the staff, but he wasn’t going to reprimand any of them. As long as they did their jobs — which meant that he didn’t garner any attention for the way he did his — he wasn’t concerned about their behavior in their off hours.
It wasn’t a footman or a maid engaged in a forbidden embrace. Instead, it was Marble Marsley, the widowed duchess. She’d recently returned from her house in the country, and he’d expected to be summoned to her presence as the newest servant on the staff and one of the most important. She’d hadn’t sent for him. She hadn’t addressed him.
He had to hand it to the duke; he’d chosen his duchess well. Suzanna Whitcomb, Duchess of Marsley, was at least thirty years younger than the duke and a beautiful woman. Tonight her dark brown hair was arranged in a swept up style, revealing jet black earrings adorned with diamonds. Her face was perfect, from the shape to the arrangement of her features. Her mouth was generous, her blue/gray eyes the color of a Scottish winter sky. Her high cheekbones suited her aristocratic manner and her perfect form was evident even in the many tiered black cape the footman was removing.
Did she mourn the bastard? Is that why she’d remained in her country home for the past several months?
From his vantage point behind the door he watched as she removed her gloves and handed them to the footman, shook the skirts of her black silk gown, and walked toward him with an almost ethereal grace.
He stared at her, startled. The duchess was crying. Perfect tears fell down her face as silently as if she were a statue. He waited until she passed, heading for the staircase that swooped like a swallow’s wing through the center of Marsley House before opening the door a little more.
Glancing toward the vestibule, he was satisfied that Thomas stationed at the front door couldn’t see him. He took a few steps toward the staircase, watching.
The duchess placed her hand on the banister and, looking upward, ascended the first flight of steps.
He had a well developed sense of danger. It had saved his life in India more than once. But he wasn’t at war now. There weren’t bullets flying and, although the thunder might sound like cannon, the only ones were probably at the Tower of London or perhaps Buckingham Palace.
Then why was he getting a prickly feeling on the back of his neck? Why did he suddenly think that the duchess was up to something? She didn’t stop at the second floor landing or walk down the corridor to her suite of rooms. Instead, she took one step after another in a measured way, still looking upward as if she were listening to the summons of an angel.
He glanced over at the doorway, but the footman wasn’t looking in his direction. When he glanced back at the staircase Adam was momentarily confused when he couldn’t see her. At the top of the staircase, the structure twisted onto itself and then disappeared into the shadows. There were only two places she could have gone: to the attic, a storage area that encompassed this entire wing of Marsley House. Or to the roof.
He no longer cared if Thomas saw him or not. Adam began to run.
Where the hell was the daft woman?
Adam raced up the first flight of stairs, then the second, wondering if he was wrong about Marble Marsley. He’d overheard members of the staff calling her that and had assumed she’d gotten the label because she was cold and pitiless. A woman who never said a kind word to anyone. Someone who didn’t care about another human being.
In that, she was a perfect pair to her late husband.
But marble didn’t weep.
He followed the scent of her perfume, a flowery, spicy scent reminding him of India. At the top of the staircase, he turned to the left, heading for an inconspicuous door, one normally kept closed. It was open now, the wind blowing the rain down the ten steps to lash him in the face.
He’d been here only once, on a tour he’d done to familiarize himself with the place. Marsley House was a sprawling estate on the edge of London, the largest house in the area and one famous enough to get its share of carriages driving by filled with gawping Londoners out for a jaunt among their betters.
Not that the Marsley family was better than anyone else, no matter what they thought. They had their secrets and their sins, just like any other family.
He kept the door to the roof open behind him, grateful for the lightning illuminating his way. If only the rain would stop, but it was too late to wish for that. He was already drenched.
In a bit of whimsy, the builder of Marsley House had created a small balcony between two sharply pitched gables. Chairs had been placed there, no doubt for watching the sunset over the roofs of London.
No one in their right mind would be there in the middle of a storm. As if agreeing with him, thunder roared above them.
The duchess was gripping the balcony railing with both hands as she raised one leg, balancing herself like a graceful bird about to swoop down from the top of a tree.
People didn’t swoop. They fell.
What the hell?
He began to run, catching himself when he would have fallen on the slippery roof.
“You daft woman,” he shouted as he reached her.
She turned her face to him, her features limned by lightning.
He didn’t see what he saw. At least that’s what he told himself. No one could look at the Duchess of Marsley and not be witness to her agony.
He grabbed one of her arms, pulling her to him and nearly toppling in the process. For a moment he thought her rain soaked dress was heavy enough to take them both over the railing.
Then the daft duchess began to hit him.
He let fly a few oaths in Gaelic while trying to defend himself from the duchess’s nails as she went for his eyes. Her mouth was open and for a curious moment, it almost looked like she was a goddess of the storm, speaking in thunder
He stumbled backward, pulling her on top of him when she would have wrenched free. He had both hands on each of her arms now, holding her.
She was screaming at him, but he couldn’t tell what she was saying. He thought she was still crying, but it might be the rain.
He pushed away from the railing with both feet. He’d feel a damn sight better if they were farther away from the edge. As determined as she was, he didn’t doubt that she would take a running leap the minute she got free.
The storm was directly overhead now, as if God himself dwelt in the clouds and was refereeing this fight to the death. Not his, but hers.
He was a few feet away from the railing now, still being pummeled by the rain. Twice she got a hand free and struck him. Once, he thought she was going to make it to her feet. He grabbed the sodden bodice of her dress and jerked her back down. She could die on another night, but he was damned if he was going to let her do it now.
He made it to his knees and she tried, once more, to pull away. She got one arm free and then the second. Just like he imagined, she made for the railing again. He grabbed her skirt as he stood. When she turned and went for his eyes again, he jerked the fabric with both hands, desperate to get her away from the edge.
The duchess stumbled and dropped like a rock.
He stood there being pelted by rain that felt like miniature pebbles, but the duchess didn’t move. Her cheek lay against the roof; her eyes were closed, and rain washed her face clean of tears.
He bent and scooped her up into his arms and headed for the door, wondering how in hell he was going to explain that he’d felled the Duchess of Marsley.
Copyright © 2018 Karen Ranney
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