Authors: Donna Lea Simpson
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Cozy, #Historical, #Supernatural, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery, #Romantic Suspense, #werewolf, #paranormal romance, #cozy series, #Lady Anne, #Britain, #gothic romance
“You know, if Hiram is in Kent, Anne is in danger,” he said as they rode into Ecclesfield.
Osei answered, “I had thought that same thought, my lord.”
“Then let us get to Kent as quickly as possible.”
“Does that mean …?”
“Yes,” Darkefell said, in tones of dread. “That means going by Royal Mail coach.”
When Darkefell and Osei got to a nearby inn, the marquess wrote a few hurried letters while his secretary settled their account and arranged to leave their horses there in Ecclesfield to be collected by his groom at Darkefell Castle. Then he and Osei set out on the Royal Mail, that bone-jarring, wearying, but swift mode of transport, one he had never taken but had heard excoriated in the press.
Dr. Davies had not been available the day before, so it was Wednesday morning when Anne rode over to Farfield Farm with him in his pony trap. Poor Mrs. Jackson was still unconscious. She had not vomited any more, but showed no sign of improvement, nor had Robbie, back at Harecross Hall. The doctor examined Mrs. Jackson and concurred with Anne’s diagnosis: the woman had the same compliant as Robbie, and likely the same as the gypsy mother. He looked up from the elderly woman’s still form in the candlelit gloom. It was only he and Anne in her room, for Mr. Jackson was helping Dorcas with the washing up, and Jamey was busy with his lens and some current study he was performing.
“We must find out the commonality,” he fretted. “If I had something to study, some notion of what they had all eaten, or with whom they had contact …” He trailed off, shaking his head.
Anne mused, “I can’t think what it would be, for three more disparate people there could not be. The women are both elderly but Robbie, why he’s a healthy young boy. Otherwise I would be thinking the gypsy and Mrs. Jackson’s ailment pure coincidence.”
“Mrs. MacDougall swears it is a gypsy curse.”
Anne snorted in derision. “Nonsense.”
“Nonetheless,” the physician said with a stern look, “word has somehow gotten around in the village. They are connecting this malady with Harecross Hall. Some are saying the gypsies have cursed the harvest and that your hops will be poisonous.”
Anne was a countrywoman and no fool. If opinion hardened in such a vein there would be no selling the hops, not for any price. Superstition it might be, but no one liked taking chances. Better safe than sorry was a timeworn aphorism.
“They will get better,” she answered as she rose to leave with the doctor. “They
to get better!” Though lives were more important than selling the hops harvest, if they saved the first, then they likely saved the second. Something
be done, and quickly. As much as she was worried about Mrs. Jackson, it was poor little Robbie, with his whole life ahead of him, that concerned her most, and he was no better this morning than he was the night before. No worse, but no better.
Dorcas had taken charge at Farfield Farm; the woman was a strong influence and could handle even Jamey’s occasional outbursts, with Mr. Jackson’s familiar presence. They had broth and aspic to feed Mrs. Jackson if she awoke, and Anne decided she would send more help for the constant laundry that needed to be done and other heavy tasks.
Back at Harecross Hall, the doctor said good-bye and sent his respects to the earl, and Anne went inside.
“Milady,” Epping, the butler, said, his eyes wide, “I dislike disturbing you, but Mrs. Aylesworth is upset. Those boys … they’ve been in her room and grubbing through her … her private things.”
Anne felt the slow burn of anger. “Those boys” were Mrs. Noonan’s ill-mannered brood.
“And Mrs. Macey,” he said, naming the cook, his calm voice echoing in the wood-paneled expanse of the great hall, “is in an uproar as well. It seems there have been thefts from the buttery, and—”
Childish laughter floated down to them and Anne’s temper burned white hot. Those boys! This campaign of terror explained their quietude of the last forty-eight hours; they were busily planning new outrages. They should be held in chains in the dungeon, if Harecross Hall only had a dungeon. “I will speak with Mrs. Noonan,” she replied to Epping. “Tell Mrs. Aylesworth I will replace anything that has been damaged and have the locksmith from Hareham here to fit new locks to her door, the buttery, the servants’ quarters and anything else you think needs to be locked against the little fiends. I will speak with Mrs. Noonan about this outrage, I promise you.”
Anne sailed upstairs to check again on Robbie. Mary sat by her son’s bed, sewing a torn hem on one of Anne’s workaday gowns. There was no change, she said, though Robbie had awakened long enough to take a few spoonfuls of broth. He looked thinner to Anne, but his awakening was a good sign and Mary hoped he was on the mend. It was startling how quickly such tiny signs of health became important; every sigh, every smile, every waking moment was counted, and toted up against the vomiting or moments of hallucination.
Weary from anxiety, Anne climbed back down from the servants’ wing, then crossed the landing to head toward her father’s library, intent on examining some of the books concerning hops growing and agriculture in general. She hoped to find something, anything, that would point to a solution. She was just near the gallery overlooking the main hall when she heard a wail of dismay, and wild laughter.
Rage built against the incursion of the Noonan brood and the distraction of such annoyance at a time when she had other more important things on her mind. Her campaign to “hint” the family away had so far failed. Until now she had resisted giving absolute orders to the Noonans to leave Harecross Hall, for she had a dread of making her father a laughingstock in the eyes of their relations and the servants by usurping his role as lord and master, but something
She charged toward the stairs, but just as she was about to step down she was caught off balance by something snagging her ankle and she began to tumble, catching the railing and keeping herself from falling just in time.
“Milady!” Epping cried as he raced up the stairs and grasped her free arm.
“Where is Mrs. Noonan,” Anne cried, pain shooting through her shoulder as she heard that damnable laughter float to her down the stairs. “Where is she?”
“In the kitchen, milady, consulting with the cook.”
“Consulting with …” Anne, astonished at the woman’s effrontery, knelt on the step and unwrapped from the baluster a thin wire noose that almost sent her crashing down the stairs. She would see the Noonans gone or go to Bedlam. It was perhaps not a long journey at that moment, for madness was the first step.
Anne charged down to the cellar and into the kitchen of Harecross Hall. The potboy scurried out of sight and a scullery maid flattened herself against the stone wall as her mistress strode by. The large kitchen was steamy and fragrant from pots boiling and a joint roasting over the fire. By the small hob grate set to the side of the roasting pit was Anne’s distant cousin, Mrs. Noonan, a blowsy, untidy woman by nature, though with a faded prettiness still in her thirty-seventh year. Her light brown flyaway hair poorly restrained by a lace cap, her bodice stained with innumerable colors, she tended a pot hung over the fire, her round cheeks red from the heat.
“Mrs. Noonan,” Anne said, her voice loud and echoing in the cavernous kitchen. Various scullery maids scattered at the sound of the mistress’s voice, so the only other soul left was the cook, Mrs. Macey, and she had a look of bilious fury on her normally placid many-chinned face. She tended a boiling pot nearby and shot an unpleasant look at Mrs. Noonan. She only dared such a look at a family member because of her own secure place in the household and the common knowledge that the woman and her brood of ill-mannered boys were a sore trial to Lady Anne.
Mrs. Noonan turned. “Anne, my dearest, try this!” She lifted a wooden spoon from the pot and shoved it in Anne’s face.
Anne was forced to take a mouthful of scalding contents, or it would have cascaded down her stomacher. “Ow-woo!” she shrieked, jumping about, her eyes watering from the scalding food in her mouth. Her tongue had been seared and she could taste nothing but pain.
Mrs. Macey swiftly fetched a dipper of cool water and offered it to Anne, who took a long draught, feeling the hot contents slipping down her throat. “Good God, Mrs. Noonan, what are you trying to do, scorch the whole of my mouth?” Her words came out in a mumble, for her tongue was numb from the scalding.
“I’m sorry! Oh, my dearest cousin, I’m so sorry!” she said, clasping her hands to her bosom and flinging the spoon’s contents around. “But I
how you love mushroom catsup, and so I thought I would try a new receipt for it. I have been trying and trying, but none of the batches have turned out quite right until this; this is the best so far. After four batches. One was dreadful, the other two were not bad, but this is quite tasty.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Anne said, her tone cold. “I will likely not taste anything for a fortnight, with a scalded tongue.” She calmed herself, taking in deep breaths. She must remember that she had come to the kitchen with a purpose. “Mrs. Noonan, your time would be much better spent in one of two occupations.”
“Yes, dearest cousin?” the lady said, her blue eyes lighting with a zeal to please. “You know I would do anything to make you happy, you and your dear father, for without you, me and my poor dear fatherless boys would have no roof over our heads until the renovations are finished on the cottage my dearest brother is repairing for us.”
There it was again, the implication of a future reprieve. But how
in the future? “You have been here for, how long? Almost two months? And I have it on reliable authority that you have as yet received not a
missive from your brother.”
Mrs. Macey, tending her ragout nearby, snorted. She waddled away to the other end of the kitchen and began banging copper pots around with unconscionable noise.
“Well, no, of course not, dearest,” Mrs. Noonan said, setting the wooden spoon back in the pot and wiping her hands on a cloth. “He told me he would write when the work is done, so if he has not written, then it clearly is not done.” It was said with an air of sweet reason.
Still holding her temper, though with increasing difficulty, Anne said, “How long? How long should the repairs take?”
“Well, how am I to know that?”
Mrs. Macey snorted again and bashed some pots together, tossing them into the deep soaking sink.
“Mrs. M., could you perform your work more quietly, please!” Anne cried over the din. There was immediate silence, and Anne took a deep breath, counting to ten. She released it. She had been distracted from her original purpose in descending to the kitchen. Gritting her teeth, Anne said, “Mrs. Noonan—”
“Why do you never call me by my given name, dearest Anne?”
“Mrs. Noonan,” Anne said, more loudly. “I have been almost killed by those …” She was oh, so sorely tempted to call Mrs. Noonan’s children imp helpers of Satan, but it would not aid her objective to insult the woman. “Your children,” she began over again, “have been making an enormous nuisance of themselves. They have insulted the staff and upset Mrs. Macey. They have damaged our property on numerous occasions, and this time have gone too far. They could have killed me.”
So far, she had managed to contain her temper. “This,” she continued, shaking the noose wire in front of her cousin, “was laid on the stairs, and it tripped me. I would have fallen to my death if it were not for my own grasping of the handrail.”
“You saw my little angels do this?” the woman said, her red cheeks burning scarlet and her eyes wide with shock.
“Well, no, I did not see them,” Anne replied, irritated. “But I heard their laughter—”
“They’re such high-spirited children, aren’t they?” she said, a fatuous smile adorning her round face. “Always laughing, despite losing their dear father so tragically. But their laughter, it is the sound of angels’ bells, don’t you think?”
Fury rose up in her like a tide. “No, it is more the sound of the souls trapped in the Outer Ring of the Seventh Circle!” she exclaimed.
Mrs. Noonan stared blankly back at her.
Of course the woman would not know that those were souls cast into hell for their violence against persons and property. Sighing and sending up a prayer for patience, Anne said, “Mrs. Noonan, your children must be taken in hand. Why are you wasting your time in the kitchen, when you should be minding your sons?”
Tears started in the woman’s pale blue eyes. She clasped her hands in front of her in a gesture of supplication. “I only wanted to thank you and your father for your generosity. I know how much you like mushroom catsup, and Mrs. Macey doesn’t have time for such things, nor really, though I say it as I shouldn’t,” she said, leaning forward and dropping her voice to a whisper, “the skill, for without a proper chef, you know …” She shook her head, and paused, looking around. “Which really, my dear,” she continued, her tears drying quickly, “as an earl, your father should employ a proper French chef for his own consequence. Everyone in the village wonders why he doesn’t.”
“Mrs. Noonan,” Anne said, loudly, feeling the beginnings of a headache. “Please do not discuss this household in any way with the villagers. Think of it as a favor to me,” she said, softening her command when she caught a glimpse of the older woman’s work-worn hands, which reminded her that Mrs. Noonan’s life had not been easy. It behooved Anne to be charitable to her, even as her father was.
And yet, Anne would not have the Noonan brood accidentally murder someone. Like herself. Charity must be tempered with a stern hand, something at which her father was not accomplished. “Whether you know it or not, madam,” she continued, injecting an earnest yet gentle tone to her words, “your children have been wreaking havoc in this house and among the staff. They have tormented the maids and disturbed the gardeners’ work. You
mind your children or I will have no other choice but to find you other lodgings until your home is refurbished. Give me your brother’s address. I will write him myself to see how things are coming along and when you can expect to move into your new home. I’m sure you would prefer to be in your own home.”