Vixen v 2, p.1

Vixen v-2, страница 1

 часть  #2 серии  V

 

Vixen v-2
 


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Vixen v-2


  Vixen

  ( V - 2 )

  Jane Feather

  Chloe wasn't expecting a warm welcome, after all, her new guardian was a total stranger. But when Sir Hugo strode into Denholm Manor after a night of carousing and discovered he'd been saddled with a ward, he soon made it clear he wanted nothing to do with her. She, however, had other ideas.

  Jane Feather

  Vixen

  Prologue

  January 1805

  The shadows of the two duelists, thrown by the massive altar candles, danced long and eerie on the stone walls of the crypt. The only sounds were the soft padding of their stocking feet on the granite tombstone slabs, the singing of steel on steel, and their swift yet measured breathing.

  Ten men and one woman watched the deadly ballet. They stood motionless around the walls, barely breathing, only their eyes moving as they followed the dance. The woman's hands were clenched so tightly against her skirt that her fingers were bloodless. Her waxen pallor had a greenish tinge to it, and her eyes, usually the vivid blue of a field of cornflowers, were so pale as to be almost opaque-as pale as her lips.

  The duelists were both tall, powerful men, evenly matched except in age. One of them seemed barely more than a stripling, the other a man in midlife, with graying hair and a solid, muscled body that moved with a surprising speed and lightness to combat the youthful athleticism of his opponent. There was a moment when the older man's foot slipped in a trail of blood that dripped from a cut in his opponent's arm. There was an almost imperceptible stirring of the air around the watchers, but he recovered smoothly and only he knew that his adversary had drawn back for the split second necessary for him to regain balance and pace.

  The knowledge of this courtesy gave Stephen Gresham no pleasure. He neither wanted nor expected such favors in a combat that could have only one end. He pressed the attack with a new ferocity, employing the skills learned and practiced over thirty years, relying on the relative inexperience of his opponent to offer him an opening. But Hugo Lattimer's guard never dropped. He seemed content to let Stephen make the running, parrying with deft economy, turning aside the opposing blade at every thrust.

  Stephen could feel that he was tiring and he knew that if greater experience couldn't prevail, then youth would. Hugo was still breathing easily, although sweat gathered on his forehead despite the damp chill of the crypt. Stephen's heart raced and his sword arm was a bodily extension of pure pain. The light flickered in front of his eyes and he blinked to clear his vision. Hugo danced and whirled in front of him, and now it seemed that he had lost the momentum, that control had passed to the younger man. He was being beaten back to the wall. It may have been a trick of the light and his own fatigue, but Hugo seemed to come closer until his vivid green eyes, filled with loathing and deadly purpose, pierced Stephen's body as surely as his sword soon would.

  And then it came. A lunge in high carte. He couldn't summon the strength to bring his sword up in order to deflect it and he felt the smooth steel enter his body.

  Hugo Lattimer withdrew his blade from the crumpled body of Stephen Gresham. Blood dripped to the floor. He stared, dazed and unseeing, at the faces around the wall. Elizabeth swayed in front of him. He wanted to go to her, to support her, but he couldn't. It was not his right. He had just killed her husband. He watched, helpless, as she slipped unconscious to the floor. And the men who half an hour before would have drunkenly participated in her dishonor averted suddenly sober eyes from the still figure.

  Jasper Gresham moved suddenly, a vicious oath on his lips. He knelt beside his father's body, ripping the shirt away from his chest, where the blood pumped forth. It had been a neat thrust to the heart. Stephen would have died instantly. For a second, Jasper's finger traced the strange design pricked into his father's skin above the heart-a tiny coiled serpent. He looked up at Hugo and their eyes locked. It was a silent message, but nonetheless lucid. Somehow, somewhere, Jasper Gresham would be revenged for his father's death.

  It didn't matter that it had been a clean death in a duel fought according to the rites and ceremonies of the practice. It didn't matter that in his fifty-two years, Stephen Gresham had fought ten such battles-all to the death. All that mattered to Jasper Gresham was that twenty-year-old Hugo Lattimer had defeated his father and he would avenge that humiliation.

  Hugo turned aside. Elizabeth stirred and moaned. No longer able to stand back, he bent to lift her and she shrank from him, putting out an arm to hold him away. Her cheek still bore the shadowy bruise of her husband's hand. Her eyes were blank, and it seemed to Hugo as if the frail body had lost some essential core. She had always been fragile, an ethereal creature of the air and the water. Now, at twenty-two, she seemed to have lost all substance. Whatever will she had once possessed to withstand the blows her destiny had dealt her had abandoned her. She was boneless, weightless, as he gently raised her, despite her rejection. His fingertips lightly brushed her eyelids in farewell. Unless she summoned him, he would never see her again.

  He left the dank crypt with its stench of corruption and blood and death, climbing the steps into the frozen winter air of the bleak Lancashire moorland. The stark ruins of Shipton Abbey stood out against a January sky as sharp and dear as glass. The air bit deep into his lungs, but he took it in in great gasps. For two years he had played in that dark and vicious world below. He carried its mark-the mark of Eden-on his skin and its curse in his soul.

  Chapter 1

  August 1819

  It was mid-morning when the weary horse finally scented home and turned through the crumbling stone gates into the rutted driveway leading to Den-holm Manor. He blew through his nostrils and raised his drooping head, breaking into a trot as the black and white half-timbered house came into view. The hot sun caught the latticed windows and set the red tiles of the pitched roof aglow. The house had an air of neglect, exemplified in the mud-ridged, weed-choked driveway, the tangled bushes, the straggly remnants of what had once been neat, sculptured box hedges.

  Hugo Lattimer sat his horse and noticed none of this. He was aware only of his throbbing head, parched mouth, and frying eyeballs. He couldn't remember how he'd passed the hours since he'd left his home the evening before-in some alehouse in the Manchester stews, probably, drinking gut-rot brandy and dallying with whores until he passed out. It was his usual method of getting through the night hours.

  The horse, without instruction, trotted through the arched gateway at the side of the house and into the cobbled courtyard. Here it became apparent to Hugo that something out of the ordinary had occurred in his absence.

  He blinked and shook his head, staring bemusedly at the post-chaise standing at the foot of the steps leading up to the house. Visitors… he never had visitors. The side door stood open, again most unusual. What the hell was Samuel thinking of?

  He opened his mouth to bellow for Samuel, when a huge brindled mongrel bounded out of the doorway, barking its head off, and hurtled down the steps, teem bared, hackles up, and yet, most incongruously, its long feathery tail wagging in fervent welcome.

  Hie horse whinnied in alarm and skittered on the cobbles. Hugo swore and reined him in. The unknown dog pranced, barking and wagging, around the horse and rider as if welcoming long-lost friends.

  "Samuel/" Hugo yelled, flinging himself from his mount, wincing as the violent movement sent exquisite pain shooting through his head. Bending low, he brought his head close to the raucous dog and snapped "Quiet1" with a low ferocity that sent the animal backward, his tail now wagging uncertainly, a long, dripping tongue lolling out of his mouth.

  Samuel failed to appear, and with a muttered curse Hugo knotted the reins, slapped the horse on the rump, sending him stableward, and took the steps to the side door two at a time, the mongrel on his heels fo
r the moment mercifully silent. In the great hall he stopped, having the eerie sensation of entering a house that was not his own.

  A road of sunlight ran from the open door across the muddied stone flags; dust motes danced in the rays from the latticed windows; the dust lay thick on the oak settle against the wall and the massive Tudor oak table. All this was as it always was. But the center of the space was filled with trunks, bandboxes, and assorted items that Hugo at first couldn't identify. Under his incredulous stare, one of these items revealed itself to be a parrot in a large cage. Closer inspection indicated that the bird had only one leg. It cocked its head and offered one of the fouler oaths Hugo had learned during ten years service in His Majesty's Navy.

  Bemused, he turned slowly. The dog yipped as he accidentally trod on its tail, now spread out in a feathery fan on the flagstones behind it. "Out!" he demanded without too much hope of being obeyed. The dog grinned, panting hopefully, and stayed where it was.

  Hugo's eye next fell on a hat box, or, rather, the bottom half of a hat box. Its lid lay rolled to one side. There were no hats in the box. Instead, he was staring in disbelief at a tortoiseshell cat, her distended sides rhythmically heaving and contracting. As he watched, she delivered a tiny, shiny parcel that she immediately attended to with practiced efficiency. The kitten blindly sought and found its mother's belly and the swollen teat, and the tortoiseshell returned to the business of delivery.

  "Ah, you're back, Sir 'Ugo. An' right glad I am to see you. Such goin's-on, as I've never seen." A stout, grizzled man in leather britches, boots, and waistcoat, sporting two large gold earrings, broke into Hugo's fascinated observation of the laboring cat.

  "What the hell is going on, Samuel?" he demanded. "What is this?" He jabbed a finger at the hat box.

  "Looks like she's started," Samuel observed somewhat redundantly, peering at the contents of the hat box. "She picked the 'at box and since it was so close to 'er time, like, Miss said as 'ow we'd best leave 'er to it."

  "I appear to be losing my mind," Hugo declared in a tone of mild interest. "Either that, or I'm still in a drunken stupor in a whorehouse and this is some hideous nightmare. What the hell are you talking about, Samuel. What 'miss?"

  "Oh, you're back, I'm so glad. Miss Anstey can go on her way now."

  The voice was low and musical, with a most appealing catch in it. Slowly, Hugo raised his head and looked across the chaos in the hall toward the refectory door. The apparent owner of the attractive voice stood smiling with an air of total unconcern.

  The years fell away and the room seemed to spin. It was Elizabeth, as she had been sixteen years before, on the day he'd first laid eyes on her. It was Elizabeth… and yet it wasn't. He closed his eyes, massaged his temples, then opened them again. The vision was still standing in the doorway, still trustfully smiling.

  "And just who are you?" he demanded, his voice sounding rough and cracked.

  "Chloe." The information was imparted as if it were self-evident.

  Hugo shook his head in total confusion. "Forgive me, but I remain unenlightened."

  A frown crossed the girl's eyes and tiny lines appeared on her brow. "Chloe Gresham," she said, tilting her head to one side as if better to judge his reaction to this further information.

  "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Hugo whispered. She must be Elizabeth's daughter. He didn't know whether he'd ever known her name. She had been three years old on the night of the duel.

  "They sent you a letter to expect me," she said, a hint of uncertainty now in her voice. "You did get it?"

  "Who's they?" He cleared his throat, struggling to marshal his scattered thoughts.

  "Oh, the Misses Trent, Sir Hugo," a second voice chimed in, and he saw that another figure stood just behind the vision that was and was not Elizabeth. A little lady timidly stepped forward. "From the Trent Seminary for Young Ladies, Sir Hugo, in Bolton. They wrote last month to tell you to expect Chloe."

  Her head was nodding almost convulsively, her mittened hands twisting, and despite his bemusement and splitting head, Hugo tried to bridle his growing irascibility. "You have the advantage of me, ma'am. We appear not to have been introduced."

  "This is Miss Anstey," Chloe put in. "She's going to a situation in London and the Misses Trent thought she should accompany me here on her way. And now that she's seen you and knows that you're not a figment-"

  "A what?"

  "A figment of the imagination," she said cheerfully. "We were afraid when we arrived and there was no one here that perhaps you were. But since you're not, Miss Anstey can continue her journey, which I know she's anxious to do since she's expected to take up her duties in a week and it's a very long way from Manchester to London."

  Hugo listened to this rushed yet somehow lucid speech, wondering rather desperately if the girl always talked so much and so fast, even though he thought he could listen to that delightful voice indefinitely.

  "Now, Chloe, you know I can't leave until I know everything is all right with Sir Hugo," Miss Anstey ventured, her head nodding even more violently. "Oh, dear me, no. The Misses Trent would never forgive me."

  "Oh, stuff," declared the confident Miss Gresham. "You can see he's here, in the flesh, so you can leave with a good conscience."

  Hugo had the feeling that in a minute she would put those small hands on the governess's shoulders and propel her out to the post-chaise. It was certainly clear who was in charge in this twosome.

  "Might I ask why you are to be left?" he inquired. "An honor, I'm sure, but rather puzzling nevertheless."

  "You're funning," Chloe said, but the uncertainty was back in her voice. "You're my guardian and the Misses Trent sent me to you when they decided I-" She paused, nibbling her bottom lip. "Well, I don't know what they told you in the letter, but I'm sure it was a tissue of lies."

  "Oh, Chloe dear, you really mustn't," fluttered Miss Anstey. "So impolite, child."

  Hugo ran his hands through his hair; the sense of inhabiting some anarchic dream intensified. "I don't know what the devil you're talking about," he said finally. "The last time I knew anything about you, you were three years old."

  "But the lawyers must have told you about Mama's will-that she made you my guardian-"

  "Elizabeth is dead?" he interrupted sharply. His heart jolted.

  The girl nodded. "Three months ago. I only saw her once or twice a year, so it's hard to miss her as I should."

  Hugo turned away, the wrenching sadness filling him. He realized now that he'd always carried a tiny flame of hope that she would let him back into her life.

  He walked to the front door, staring through unfocused eyes at the brightness of the morning, trying to organize his thoughts. Was this extraordinary visitation the explanation for that strange note he'd received last year? Hand-delivered from the dower house at Shipton, across the valley, where Elizabeth had lived since her husband's death. The barely legible scrawl had said only that she knew he would honor his long-ago promise to be of service to her however and whenever and wherever she should need it. There was no explanation, no words of friendship, no sense that this was the opening he'd been waiting for all these years. He'd had the impression that even the faint signature had been an lifter-thought, disappearing off the edge of the page.

  The note had filled him with such a resurgence of rage and longing that he'd torn it up and tried to put it out of his mind. Since the war had ended and he'd left the navy, they'd lived seven miles from each other. She had made no attempt to contact him and he'd been honor bound to respect her wishes, even after all this time. And then just a scrawled note… a demand. And now this.

  He turned back to the hall. The dog had gone to Chloe and sat at her feet, gazing up at her adoringly.

  "Letters'll be in the library, I shouldn't wonder," Samuel observed, examining his fingernails. "Wi' t'others yeVe not opened. I always said one day there'd be sum-mat important in there."

  Hugo glared at the man who'd been his companion and servant since he'd first g
one to sea as a lad of twenty. As usual, Samuel was right. The pounding in his head became fierce, and he knew he couldn't deal with this another minute. "Get that dog out of the house," he commanded, striding to the staircase. "And put that damn cat and her litter in the stables, where they belong… and put a cover on that parrot," he added savagely as the bird tossed out another example of its dubious vocabulary.

  "Oh, no!" Chloe exclaimed. "Dante lives inside-"

  Hugo swung his head carefully in her direction. "Dante?" he demanded incredulously. "That dog is called Dante?"

  "Yes, because he came out of an inferno," she informed him. "I rescued him from a bonfire when he was just a puppy. Some louts had tied him up and were setting a fire around him. I did think of calling him Joan of Arc," she added reflectively, "until I realized he was the wrong sex."

  "I don't think I want to hear any more," Hugo said. "In fact, I know I don't want to hear any more." He enunciated his words with great care. "I have not yet been to bed, so I am going upstairs, where I shall probably say my prayers for the first time since I left the nursery. And when I wake up, I devoutly trust that my prayers will have been answered, and I shall find that this…"He waved his hand in an expansive movement across the scene in the great hall. "That all this will prove to have been no more than the hideous figments of a disordered imagination."

  The parrot cackled in an uncanny imitation of a hysterical drunk. "Get this menagerie out of here!" On which hopefully decisive note Sir Hugo Lattimer took himself to the sanity of his own bedchamber, hearing the fluttering whimpers of Miss Anstey behind him.

  He was a chronic insomniac but proficient at catnaps. Ten years of night watches at sea had turned a tendency into immutable habit, one he welcomed since the nightmares haunted his night sleep but visited less often in the short bouts of daytime unconsciousness.

 
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