About the book
It’s dangerous, it’s terrifying, it could all fall apart. But what if it all falls together?
With their young lady’s impending nuptials approaching fast, the atmosphere at Canterley Manor couldn’t be more festive. Then one day, their happiness turns to ashes in their mouths...
When her sister Grace inexplicably disappears, Lady Amelia Dowding will do anything to find her. Determined to honor her promise to her late mother, she takes matters into her hands.
For Tristan Knight, Earl of Aylesbury, loving Amelia unrequitedly comes as natural as breathing. When it becomes apparent that she is in grave danger, he will stop at nothing to ensure her safety. Even if it means his own heartbreak.
When their trail leads them to the wilderness of Scotland, an unexpected ally points them in the right direction: the key to Grace's abduction hides in the vaults of Canterley Manor.
Rattling breaths filled the bedchamber as eight-year-old Amelia Dowding stood over the fading form of her mother, Victoria, the Viscountess of Canterley. “You cannot die,” she sobbed clinging to her mother’s hand. “You cannot!”
“I fear I must, my darling, and there is nothing to be done about it,” Victoria answered caressing her daughter’s cheek. The newborn babe lying in the crook of her arm cried out in protest at the movement. Her mother’s green eyes shined like emeralds with her tears, slipping down her cheeks to disappear into the halo of dark curls encircling her pale face.
“I hate her for taking you from us!” Amelia lashed out, unable to contain all of the emotions she was feeling.
“No, my darling, you must not hate your sister, for when I am gone, I will be depending upon you to care for her and see that she grows to be as fair and lovely of character as you are.” Her mother smiled gently patting the bed beside her for Amelia to lie down. Amelia scrambled up next to her mother and buried her face in Victoria’s shoulder.
“I will never love her,” Amelia protested shaking her head.
“Yes, you will. When I am gone your brother and sister will be all that you have. You will be all that each other has in this world.”
“And Father,” Amelia added sniffling.
“Yes, and your father,” her mother added with a weak smile, then wilted into a series of coughs that wracked her frame mercilessly. Her mother’s body spasmed in pain contorting her face into a grimace. “Promise me that you will take care of your sister,” she gasped, grasping Amelia’s hand harder. “Promise me.”
“I promise,” Amelia sobbed, unable to refuse her mother’s last dying wish.
“You will love her, my darling, just as I love you.”
“I love you, Mother. Please do not leave us. I promise I will do as you say.”
“Tell your brother what I have said.”
“He will be here any moment with Father. They are coming, Mother. Please just hold on for a little while longer.”
“The time has come, my darling. I have nothing left to give. You will be well in time, my love. By the grace of God, you will all be well.” Another spasm of pain ripped through her body.
“No, Mother! I will not let you go.” Amelia flung herself across her mother’s body. Victoria held her for a moment then eased her eldest daughter back up to a sitting position.
Her mother picked up the baby with shaking hands and placed it into Amelia’s arms. “She is yours and you are hers,” she whispered. “Say it.”
“No,” Amelia shook her head in protest as if her mere refusal would stop the tides of time.
“Say it. Please, Amelia, say it for me.”
Amelia took a quivering breath to steady herself. Closing her dark brown eyes, she could barely manage a whisper, her grief was so intense. “She is mine and I am hers,” she repeated through her tears.
“Thank you,” her mother caressed each of her daughter’s heads in turn, running her fingers through their dark curls so like her own. “I love you, my darlings,” she whispered, and then with one last shuddering breath was gone.
“Mother!” Amelia sobbed. “Please, Mother!” She pleaded for her mother to return to her, but it was to no avail. She was gone. The midwife stepped forward and covered the Viscountess’ beautiful lifeless face with a white linen sheet.
“Say goodbye to your mother, dear,” the midwife instructed as she left the room.
Amelia stared after the woman as if she had lost her mind. The baby squealed in her arms and she looked down at the little girl who was now her responsibility. How am I supposed to say goodbye? She asked her sister silently. How are we supposed to say goodbye? Taking a deep breath, she turned her gaze back to the still form before them.
‘Simply say it,’ her mother’s voice whispered through her mind and Amelia knew that she was right. Her mother had always been one for getting through unpleasantries by sheer force of will with a straightforward approach. If a thing was to be done, it was best to simply do it with as little fanfare and strife as possible. She had always believed that life was difficult enough without adding more to it by one’s attitude. Amelia knew that this was not the same thing at all, but she decided that she would try anyway.
“Goodbye, Mother,” Amelia whispered fighting the urge to rip the sheet from her mother’s face. She tightly squeezed her eyes shut with the pain of the moment. Goodbye… The baby squealed again, and she opened her eyes. She bent down and kissed the little pink face of her sister. “Shhh… We will find a way,” she soothed herself as much as the infant. “You are mine and I am yours,” she promised. “Always.”
Amelia’s father and brother barged through the doors. Her brother stopped in his tracks and stared at the scene before him in disbelief. His dark brown eyes wide in agonized shock. Their father, William, Viscount of Canterley, stepped forward and lifted the sheet, looked down at his wife, replaced the sheet, then turned on his heels and without a second glance at his children left the room. Not a flicker of emotion passed across his features, his dark eyes dry. One would never have known that he loved her.
The baby squealed in displeasure as the door slammed shut behind him. Amelia attempted to soothe her by rocking her back and forth. The sound of the baby’s distress broke through her brother, Jonathan’s, haze of pain and urged him forward. Coming to sit next to Amelia on the bed, he wrapped his arms around both of his sisters. “Mother says that we are to look after the baby,” Amelia informed him as she had promised to do.
“Yes,” Jonathan nodded his head in determination. “We shall.” He squeezed both of them tighter and they sat huddled together for a long time until the midwife returned with a wet-nurse to feed the baby.
The wet-nurse came and took the baby from Amelia’s arms, and cooed over the adorable bundle. “What is her name?” she asked kindly of the two children before her.
“Grace,” Amelia announced without bothering to get her father’s permission to name the infant. Her mother had said that by the grace of God they would all be well and so they would in time as long as they had each other. “The baby’s name is Grace.”
Nineteen Years Later
Amelia stood behind her sister, brushing Grace’s hair. “Can you imagine it, Amelia? Soon I will be the Duchess of Slantonshire! Me, a Duchess!” Her smile beamed so brightly it was stunning to behold. Grace looked so much like their mother that it hurt.
“Yes, I can believe it,” Amelia answered with a sad smile. She bent down and kissed the top of her sister’s head to hide her true feelings. A tear slipped down her cheek and she turned away under the guise of grabbing another handful of hairpins. By the time she turned back around she had gotten her emotions under control. “You will make a lovely bride.”
“Let us hope that Henry thinks so as well,” Grace replied, studying her reflection in the mirror critically. “Are you certain that this hairstyle is the height of fashion in London this season? I do not wish to be seen as nothing but a country lady from the English marches of the Welsh border.”
“And how is that any different than being seen as a Duchess from the English marches of the Scottish border?” She was amused at her sister’s odd sense of vanity.
“The difference is that I will be a Duchess,” Grace stated matter of factly as if it made all the difference in the world. Perhaps it did. Grace’s fiancé was Henry Booth, Duke of Slantonshire, who owned a rather large estate along the Anglo-Scottish border.
“Being the daughter of the Viscount of Canterley is nothing to be dismissive about,” Amelia reminded her.
“As is evidenced by the flock of ladies after our own dear sweet brother’s affections.” Grace laughed lightly, a musical sound made of little more than lilting air.
“Yes.” Amelia smiled affectionately thinking of her brother’s way with the ladies of the ton.
They were both terribly fond of their brother Jonathan, and he was as equally fond of them. From the moment that their mother had died they had been all that each other had. Their father had been physically present, but emotionally distant their entire lives. They had gone through a series of governesses, but none had stayed for any length of time long enough to establish a loving connection. Their father had always blamed it on Amelia’s rebellious nature, but she did not believe it to be the only reason.
Amelia finished dressing Grace’s hair and stepped back to admire her work. They had servants to do such work for them, but their mother, Victoria, had always done Amelia’s hair before she had died and so Amelia had carried over the tradition with Grace. “Lovely,” she proclaimed, pleased.
“Do you really think so?” Grace asked turning her head to gaze at her reflection from every angle. Her emerald-green eyes sparkled with excitement.
“Yes, I do. The Duke is sure to fall in love with you all over again.”
Grace beamed with happiness. “Am I not the most fortunate lady in all of England?”
“I am certain that there are many who think so.”
“Oh, Amelia,” Grace shook her head in exasperation. “You need to find a nobleman of your own. If you were married and settled, it would go a long way to mending the rift between you and Father. He only wants what is best for you.”
“And who better than I to know what that might be?” Amelia did not wish to get into the same old argument about her lack of marriage candidates. She had had plenty of offers for her hand over the years but had refused each and every one. She could not countenance binding herself to a man that she did not love simply because it was socially advantageous to do so. Her many refusals had angered her father immensely.
“Some would say Father knows better.” Grace stood and turned to face Amelia.
“Yes, and they would be wrong.” Amelia walked over to the bed and lifted her sister’s dress from atop the covers. She carried it to Grace and placed it over her head. The lilac material floated down around Grace settling over her feminine form in flowing lines. She next placed a light bonnet with lilac flowers and ribbons upon Grace’s head completing the ensemble. “You are ready,” she announced stepping back so that her sister might admire her reflection.
“It is a long journey to Slantonshire. Let us hope that I look as lovely upon my arrival as I do upon my departure. The roads can be so unforgiving.”
“I am certain that the Duke will think so. He is quite enamored with you.”
“As his future bride, I should hope so.” Grace primped in the mirror for a moment adjusting a ribbon here, a curl there.
“You are fortunate to have found love and father’s approval in the Duke.”
“Yes, I am. How blessed am I that Father introduced us,” Grace beamed with pleasure. She lifted her gloves and reticule from the dressing table and slid them on.
Grace was everything that their father expected in a lady of breeding. In his eyes she was the perfect daughter, and Jonathan was the perfect son. Amelia was the only one that had been found lacking among the three, in spite of her dedicating her entire existence to the care and raising of her little sister. Their father had been a strict disciplinarian who had given his children very little say in their own lives. Amelia’s resistance to this had alienated her from him long before their mother’s death.
“I will follow in a few days’ time once your wedding dress has been completed. Tristan promised he would deliver it from London when he comes to see Jonathan,” Amelia promised.
“I wish you were coming with me, but the Dowager Duchess wishes me to arrive early to put the finishing touches on the wedding plans and I most certainly cannot leave something so important as my wedding dress to Jonathan. Though I must admit that it is most kind of Tristan to bring it with him from London.”
“I am certain that nothing ill will befall it in Tristan’s care, but you are right not to trust something so delicate to our brother’s deliverance.” Amelia smiled in amusement at her sister’s fretting. “I do not mind remaining behind in order to see that it reaches you unscathed.”
Tristan Knight, the Earl of Ayle, and their brother Jonathan had been close friends from the time that they were quite young. Though the Earl’s seat lay not far from London, his family had owned a country manor house near the Canterley Estate for many years. Having grown up with six older sisters, Tristan had an understanding of such things as the importance of a lady’s wedding dress. Jonathan, on the other hand, did not view such things with the same understanding, hence Grace’s request of Amelia.
“Thank you.” Grace smiled her gratitude, then the two sisters walked down to the waiting carriage. “As soon as my dress arrives, you follow me as quickly as you can. I can hardly wait to show you everything!”
Grace’s exuberance was charmingly contagious. “I shall,” Amelia promised, kissing her sister’s cheek. Grace climbed aboard the carriage and was then away. Amelia smiled, waving her off and turned back toward the house. There was much to do before they would all travel north for the wedding.
Grace bumped along in the carriage, her heart racing with excitement. She could hardly believe her good fortune. Her marriage to Henry was the culmination of all of her hopes and dreams. An image of his tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed form flashed through her mind and she felt a tingle of pleasure travel along her spine. She watched the landscape float by outside of the carriage window in silence.
The Duchess of Slantonshire… The responsibility of what she was about to do suddenly dawned on her and for the briefest of moments her nerves overtook her excitement.
Normally a lady of her station would have traveled with a female companion, but she had not taken the time to arrange such a thing once she had received the Dowager Duchess’ summons. She had been entirely too excited to waste a moment and had simply ordered one of her father’s house maids to accompany her, who now sat next to the driver atop the carriage.
Perhaps I should have waited for Amelia. She is the most responsible one of us all. What if I make a misstep and embarrass myself? Or worse, what if I embarrass Henry? Grace stirred nervously in her seat. It would be the first time that she had ever visited Slantonshire on her own without her family. Soon it will be my home and I must get used to being there without my sister.
Grace squared her shoulders in an attempt to dampen her nervousness and regain her former excitement. She smoothed her face back into a pleasant expression. It would not do to become wizened before my time. She had become quite the expert over the years in masking her true emotions.
Amelia’s face, on the other hand, showed every thought and emotion she had ever had. It had caused a great deal of strife between Amelia and their father, for every time that she had disagreed with his wishes her face had made it clear for all to see. It had also meant that Amelia was the most honest of them all. Watching the discord between Amelia and their father had taught Grace to hide her true feelings in all things at all times. All things, with the exception of how she felt for Henry. In that she had been completely honest.
As the carriage bumped along, she grew tired and began to doze in and out of slumber. She was not certain how long she had slept when the carriage came to a sudden halt. Her body was flung to the floor of the carriage by the sudden change in speed. Before she could lift herself back up onto the seat, rough hands dragged her from the carriage. She looked up at the man who was pulling at her but could not make out anything distinctive through the fabric that covered his face.
Dark beady eyes glared down at her from behind slits in the fabric. “Who are you?” she demanded to know. The man did not answer. “Who are you?” she shouted. “What do you want with me?” Still no answer. As he pulled her free of the carriage, she plunged to the ground screaming at the top of her lungs for him to release her. “Unhand me this instant!” Instead of obeying her orders, the man picked her up off of the ground and slung her over his shoulder carrying her to his waiting horse.
The man flung her over the saddle and mounted behind her. Grace kicked and screamed, pounding at him with her fists. “Be still,” he growled, jabbing her in the ribs with the barrel of his pistol. Grace stilled, frightened. She looked back behind them to find her driver and maid lying on the ground being held at gunpoint.
“Do not move,” the man holding the gun to their heads barked out. “If you move before nightfall we will know, and we will kill the girl. Deliver this to the girl’s family.” The man threw down a sheet of paper with writing on it. Neither the maid nor the driver moved to pick it up. Her maid trembled and sobbed in fear so violently that she lost control of her waters leaving a damp circle beneath her body in the dust of the road.
Grace’s heart went out to the young girl, as she herself knew a similar fear in her breast. Her heart raced frantically as her mind scrambled for any notion of what she could do to escape. She prayed that the piece of paper the man had instructed to be sent to her family was a ransom note so that she might soon be freed unharmed. If they are to hold me for ransom then they would be foolish to harm me in any way, she attempted to soothe herself with the thought, but it provided her little comfort.
The man spurred his horse forward galloping away from the carriage as fast as he was able. Grace felt as if she were being tossed about like a sack of grain. Her head bobbed up and down against the horse’s shoulder as the saddle pounded against her stomach. She felt as if she were being beaten inside and out. She fought against it by holding her body rigid but that only made the pain of it worse. Unable to bear it a moment longer she fainted from the pain.
When she awakened, she had no way of knowing how far they had traveled, but it was dark by the time that they stopped. Grace was taken down from the back of the horse and carried into the dilapidated ruins of an old croft. “Please,” she begged. “Please let me go.”
The man continued to ignore her and deposited her roughly onto the dirt floor. He walked back outside leaving her alone in the darkness. Grace stood on wobbly feet and made her way around the room feeling about her for anything that she could use as a weapon or means of escape. She came away with nothing. The croft had been stripped bare leaving nothing but the walls. When she reached the door and opened it, she was met with resistance by the man who had put her there.
“Get back,” he commanded and shut the door in her face.
Exhausted, dizzy, and frightened beyond measure, Grace curled up into a ball in the corner and cried herself to sleep.
“Grace has been taken!” Jonathan burst into Amelia’s bedchamber startling her from slumber. In his hand he clutched a wrinkled piece of paper which he proceeded to shove under her nose. Amelia sat up and took the paper from his hand. She wiped the sleep from her eyes.
“What do you mean that she has been taken?” she asked confused. She looked down at the words in front of her and her world turned upside down. The letter demanded that the family was to pay a ransom or Grace would be killed. A future letter was to indicate when and where the exchange was to take place once the funds had been gathered. She did not recognize the handwriting, but it appeared to be of a masculine scrawl. “What are we to do?” she asked in horror.
“The only thing we can do,” he answered raking his hand through his hair in distress, “pay the ransom.”
“How did you get the letter?” Amelia hoped that the letter’s delivery would shed some light on who might have taken Grace.
“The maid and the driver returned with it this morning.”
“Do they have any idea who might have taken her? Did they see the kidnapper’s faces?”
“No, I am afraid not,” Jonathan answered. He was beside himself with worry.
“Has Father sent anyone out to the place where she was taken?”
“He and I are about to go there now.”
“I will go with you.”
“Father has commanded that you are to remain here on the chance that she manages to escape and returns home.”
Amelia nodded. “I will do as he says and wait here. Promise me that you will do all in your power to see that she will be returned home to us safely.”
“I swear it.” Jonathan kissed her forehead then left the bedchamber, a fiery light of determination in his eyes. Amelia knew that he would do his utmost to find out what had happened to their sister, and if possible, to bring her home.
Jonathan mounted his horse and nodded to his father that he was ready to depart. The pair of them took off down the drive following the carriage driver to where Grace had last been seen. They rode through the day stopping only long enough to water the horses before continuing on. When they arrived at the place where she had been abducted, Jonathan and the Viscount dismounted searching the ground for any sign as to where she might have been taken.
“The men that took her rode off in that direction,” the driver gestured toward the north.
Jonathan moved to examine the ground to the north, but there were so many hoofprints and wheel tracks that he could not distinguish between those that had taken Grace and all of the other traffic that had frequented the road before or since. Such skills as tracking were well beyond his knowledge.
I wish Tristan were here. His youth spent traipsing about the forest hunting to escape a house full of older sisters would be most useful at this moment in time. Tristan may have been born from the noblest of bloodlines, but he had the tracking skills of a seasoned gillie. He would be arriving in just a few days’ time, but by then it would be too late and all signs that might have been useful in ascertaining Grace’s whereabouts would be trodden under or washed away.
Under normal circumstances the family would have sent for a professional to deal with such matters, but the ransom note had been quite clear on that point. They were to tell no one of what had transpired, or Grace would die. Jonathan paced the ground feeling more worthless than he had ever felt in his entire life. His sister’s life hung in the balance and all that he could do was wait.
“Lead us in the direction that the kidnappers took,” the Viscount ordered the carriage driver. The driver nodded and they all mounted their horses once again to follow him. The driver led them to the point where the kidnappers had disappeared from view, but they found nothing of note to separate it from any other path.
“There is nothing to be found here, Father,” Jonathan informed the Viscount in frustration. “Should we continue on or turn back to see if further word has been left at Canterley?”
“No, to continue on is pointless,” the Viscount bit out angrily, slapping his thigh with his gloves. Jonathan could tell that his father was barely hanging on to his self-control. Beneath the calm exterior of a well-bred nobleman lay a great temper. He had kept it in tight rein all of his life, but his worry for his daughter was threatening to unleash it. “Neither of us are experienced in any useful way to be chasing after criminals that we cannot see. We need a constable.”
“I agree, Father, but the letter was quite clear on that point,” Jonathan reminded him but was interrupted by a downward slash of his father’s hand through the air signaling silence. Ignoring it, Jonathan stepped forward stopping just shy of laying a hand on his father’s arm. “We have no choice but to pay the ransom and pray to God that they hold true with their word, returning Grace to us unharmed.”
“I am aware,” the Viscount ground out, “but ransom or no, I will see these men hanging at the end of a rope before I am done.”
Jonathan nodded his head in agreement. “And I will gladly help you to do so but let us first see that Grace is safely returned home before we seek vengeance.”
Jonathan had grown used to being the voice of reason within their household between the Viscount and Amelia, but this was different. He had never seen his father so angry or worried before, and he was not entirely certain that he would be able to rein him in. Jonathan himself felt quite the same as his father on the matter, the only difference being that he could see clearly through the anger enough to know what would keep Grace safe and what would not.
The Viscount nodded with one sharp jerk of the head then turned his horse around and headed back toward the main road leaving Jonathan and the carriage driver to follow. “Is there anything else that you can remember about the men, Jones?” Jonathan asked the driver. They had asked him for every detail that he could think of when he had brought the message, but Jonathan hoped that by returning to the place of abduction, Jones’ memory would have been stirred.
“Nay, I do not remember anything more than what I have already said, My Lord. I wish that I did for the sake of Lady Grace.”
“As do I, Jones. As do I.”
Once they regained the main road, they turned their horses toward Canterley. The sound of pounding hooves behind them caused them to move to the side allowing whomever it was to pass. Jonathan looked back over his shoulder and was surprised to see Henry Booth, Duke of Slantonshire, bearing down upon them. “Henry!” he called out stopping his horse.
“Jonathan! Have you had any word?” Henry called out as he brought his horse in line with theirs. His blue eyes were red rimmed and full of worry.
“Nay, how did you know?” Jonathan asked confused. There was no possible way that the messenger from Canterley had had time to make it to Slantonshire.
“I received this letter yesterday evening and rode straight through the night to get to Canterley.” Henry thrust an exact copy of the ransom letter into Jonathan’s hands. “Where is Grace? Where have they taken her?”
“We do not know. We came here in hopes of finding some clue as to the answer but have found nothing.”
The Viscount nodded his head in greeting to his future son-in-law. “Henry.”
“William.” They had long since dispensed with the formalities of each other’s titles given that they were to be family.
Jonathan handed the letter to his father. The Viscount read it then passed it back to Henry. “It appears that whomever is responsible is aware of the coming nuptials and is demanding a ransom from us both.”
“It would appear so. Not surprising as the wedding is public knowledge. I assume that the rather weighty sum is due to Grace’s future standing as the Duchess of Slantonshire. I will, of course, do anything that is required to get her back.”
“Then we are agreed to pay the ransom.”
“Yes, I see no other way for it.”
“No, there does not appear to be for the moment, but I fully intend to discover the culprits responsible.” The Viscount’s rage was barely concealed beneath a thin veil of control. “No one threatens my family and goes unpunished. No one.” The muscles in the side of the Viscount’s jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth.
“Upon that I believe we can all agree.”
The men set out together for Canterley at as fast a clip as their tired horses would allow. Come nightfall, they stopped at an inn, then set out once more upon the morn. As they rode, Jonathan’s thoughts never left his sister. Hold on, Grace, we will find a way to get you home no matter what we must do. Please, hold on.
Grace lay terrified and shivering upon the hardpacked dirt floor of the dilapidated croft. She had only been able to sleep sporadically through the night and when she did sleep it was filled with terrible dreams. Most of the night had been spent in tears. When the men came to pull her from the croft it was still dark outside. They once again tossed her over the back of a horse, and she cried out in pain.
“Please allow me to sit up in the saddle. I cannot take another moment of this pain. If I am not allowed to sit erect, I shall surely perish along the journey.”
The man grunted in acknowledgement of her words, jerked her upright in the saddle, then climbed up behind her, his arms going around her to grasp the horse’s reins. Grace contemplated slamming her head into the man’s face but knew that it would do her little good as the other men crowded around them too tightly for her to attempt a successful escape. She prayed once again that her father would do whatever they asked so that she might be returned home again safely.
“Sit still,” the man behind her growled.
Grace froze. She had not realized how much she had been shaking. She clenched her teeth in an attempt to keep from saying something that would get her into more trouble than she was already in. She attempted to hold herself apart from the man behind her, but as the hours passed, she became too exhausted to keep their bodies completely separate. Being forced to lean back against the man who had abducted her caused Grace’s skin to crawl with fear and disgust.
I miss Amelia and Jonathan. I miss Henry. I just want to go home. Her mind cried out with all of her fears and longings in a cascade of overwhelming uncontrollable emotion. Tears streamed down her cheeks, quickly whisked away by the wind.
They rode for days, only stopping long enough to rest, then riding some more. Grace began to lose all hope that anyone would ever find her. Most nights they would house her in an old abandoned croft or castle ruin. The farther they traveled the more it became clear that they were no longer in England. “Why have you brought me to Scotland?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“Remain silent,” the man ordered menacingly from behind her.
Grace immediately obeyed for fear of what he might do if she did not. As they climbed farther into the Scottish Highlands all hope left her spirit. Father will never find me here.
Amelia heard her father and brother returning before she actually saw them. Sending up a prayer that they had managed to find Grace, she ran down the stairs and out of the front door. “Did you find her?” she cried out running down the drive in a most unladylike fashion. Her father was sure to chastise her for it, but she did not care. “Did you find Grace?”
“No, we did not,” Jonathan answered stopping to speak with her while their father rode on to the house. “We also inquired at the inn nearby, but no one had seen anything.”
“Your Grace,” Amelia curtsied as she saw her sister’s betrothed ride into view.
“Please, Amelia, I insist that you call me Henry. You are to be my sister after all.”
Amelia nodded her assent. “Did you find anything at all?”
“No. We found nothing,” Jonathan answered shaking his head, equal parts sorrow and anger marring his brow.
“They left no trace at all?”
“I am not a soldier or a gillie, Amelia. I do not have the skills required for such a task as tracking man or beast, nor does Father or Henry. We are not men of the sort needed for this task, but I know of someone who is and have sent him a letter to that effect. As soon as he arrives, we will go back to the place where she was taken. We will find Grace, Amelia. I swear it. Has there been any further word from the kidnappers in our absence?”
“Nay, nothing.” Amelia shook her head in frustration. “If Mother were still with us, she would die all over again from the fright. I promised her that I would look after Grace, that I would not let any harm befall her. I have broken my promise.” Tears threatened to choke the air from her throat. “I should have gone with her.”
“You had no way of knowing what would happen, Amelia. You are not to blame in any way for this misfortune. If you had gone with her, then you would both have been taken against your will. How would that have helped anyone?”
“At least then she would not have been alone.”
“There is no point in giving way to such thoughts. It is what it is, Amelia. No more, no less. There is nothing that can be done about it but to pay the ransom when the next letter comes detailing where and when. However, the kidnappers have asked for quite a fortune. It will take time for both men to free up enough funds to pay such a price. The wording of the letter tells me that the kidnappers knew this already. In fact, so many things point to this not being a random criminal act, but a planned one.”
“The kidnappers appear to be aware of each nobleman’s available funds to know that they would require a significant amount of time to gather the entire amount. They knew to send a letter to Henry as Grace’s fiancé and are charging more than even a Duchess is worth to get her back which tells me they knew of both family’s deep love for her. They knew we would be willing to do anything to get her back even if it meant selling everything we own. They knew her route and the day she was going to visit Slantonshire.”
“Suggesting that there is a spy among us either here at Canterley or at Slantonshire.”
“Exactly, an unwitting one being used by outside forces perhaps, but a spy nevertheless.”
“You should have been a Bow Street Runner, Jonathan, instead of the heir to Canterley,” Amelia marveled at her brother’s deductive reasoning.
“Perhaps then I would have better tracking skills.” Jonathan’s shoulders sagged in bitter regret for the lack.
“You did the best you could, Jonathan. That is all anyone can ask for. As you have said, we will get her back. In the meantime, you have given us both a great deal to think about and discover. If there is indeed a spy among our ranks, then we must flush them out. Perhaps they will know where our Grace has been taken. It is time, my dear brother, that you put those superlative deductive skills to use.”
“You are absolutely correct.” Jonathan’s face took on an even more determined light, fueled by just the slightest glimmer of hope. Amelia was glad to have given him purpose, something to pour his fear and heartbreak into. “First, we shall question the household staff as they are the people who would hold the most intimate details about our lives. Then we will move on to our tenants and outside staff.” Jonathan straightened his travel worn state and headed straight for the kitchens. “Come, Amelia. There is much to do.”
Amelia followed. The breeze whipped past him making Amelia well aware for his need of a bath after riding for so many hours, but she loved him all the more for his unwillingness to put anything else before their sister. Cook is in for a bit of a surprise. Had her heart not been so broken over Grace’s disappearance, Amelia would have smiled with amusement over her brother’s state.
As they entered the kitchens, all activity ceased upon seeing them. The Viscount had strictly prohibited his children from becoming over friendly with the staff and had set rules against descending below stairs. Jonathan had obeyed these rules over the years to the letter. Amelia had not and had snuck down to the kitchens many times as a child for a sweet treat.
“My Lord. My Lady.” The cook curtsied in respect, her Irish accent lending the most beautiful lilt to her words. The rest of the servants followed suit.
“There is no time for that now, my dear Mrs. O’ Boyle.” Amelia rushed forward and grasped the old cook’s hands. “There is much we must discuss.” The cook nodded slowly and gestured for them to follow her into the privacy of the pantry.
Amelia had loved the pantry as a child, its shelves stocked with every treat imaginable. Cook had spoiled her as if she had been her own dear granddaughter. She had told Amelia fantastic stories of her childhood in Donegal, and of how her family was descended from the great Irish kings of old. Amelia had been spellbound by tales of banshees, haunted castles, and the little people. What I would not give for a pot of gold now to save Grace with.
“’Tis about our own darlin’ girl, is it now?” the cook asked, referring to Grace.
“Yes, Mrs. O’ Boyle. I am afraid it is.” Jonathan gestured for the cook to take a seat at the small table in the middle of the room.
“How can I be o’ aid?” the cook asked taking a seat.
Amelia and Jonathan joined her at the table. Jonathan opened his mouth to speak, a determined accusatory look on his face. Amelia laid her hand atop of his in a signal to proceed with caution. Mrs. O’ Boyle was a good woman and Amelia did not want her any more upset than she already was. It was clear that she had been crying by her red-rimmed eyes. Half of the staff had not stopped weeping since Grace’s disappearance.
Squeezing her hand in acknowledgement, Jonathan softened his expression and took a gentler approach than he had initially intended. “Mrs. O’Boyle, do you remember anything suspicious happening here recently, perhaps a stranger asking questions about the family, or one of the household staff disappearing for long periods of time?”
The cook frowned in thought. “The usual tradesmen and the like, but nothin’ that would raise suspicion. Do ye believe anyone here capable o’ takin’ our darlin’ girl?” The cook’s distress at such an idea was plain to see.
“We do not know, Mrs. O’Boyle, but the kidnappers knew things that would have taken some planning to know. I am sorry to disturb the sanctity of your kitchen, but we will need to speak with the entirety of the household staff.” Jonathan had been watching the cook’s expressions carefully during the entire exchange in order to gauge the truthfulness of her words. He must have been satisfied that she was telling the truth because his face softened, and he relaxed a bit into his chair.
“Ye may use the pantry if ye wish. ‘Twould offer ye a private place for yer questions.”
“Thank you, Mrs. O’ Boyle, for your assistance. Please do let us know if you remember anything at all out of the ordinary.”
“O’ course, My Lord.”
“Until we have had a chance to speak with all of the staff, I must ask that you keep this conversation among the three of us.”
“I will,” she promised. The cook arose and returned to the kitchen wringing her hands in worry. “I will send in the head housekeeper, Mrs. Crabtree, and the butler, Mr. Applegate. They will both wish to be made abreast of the situation.”
“Poor Mrs. O’ Boyle. She has always believed the best in people. It will be very difficult for her to carry on if our family was betrayed by one of our own servants. She will blame herself for not seeing it sooner.”
“As will we all,” Jonathan murmured.
“We had no way of knowing, Jonathan. Just as you do not wish for me to blame myself for not accompanying her sooner, you should not blame yourself for not noticing that something was perhaps amiss within our own household. I do not believe that any of us could have known, or even imagined such a thing happening.” Amelia attempted to soothe her brother, but she felt just as much guilt as he did about it all.
Mrs. Crabtree entered the pantry, then Mr. Applegate. They asked them the same questions they had asked the cook, but neither of them had noticed anything out of the ordinary either. They went through the list of maids and footmen, before they went out to the stables and spoke with the groomsmen. Still, no one knew of anything. “I will ride out to the tenants and see if any of them know anything,” Jonathan informed her. “It would be best if you went back to the house to see to Father and Henry.”
Amelia considered arguing with him, but decided against causing him any more distress than he was already in. Jonathan remounted his horse and headed out onto the estate grounds. Amelia stood watching him go. She had never felt more helpless in all of her life as she had since Grace had been taken. She felt as if she could scream from the fear and anger. All of the possible things that could happen to Grace flew through her mind sucking the air from her lungs. She bent over in pain sinking to the ground.
She rocked back and forth sobbing. It was as if everything had hit her all at once. She had been walking around in a state of shock, holding on to the hope that Jonathan would have found Grace and brought her home. It had been a foolish hope, but it had been that thread of hope that had been holding her together. Now, without it she fell apart, unable to bear the possibility of her sister’s death. She sobbed so hard that she vomited in the grass, unable to catch her breath.
When she had wept all that she could weep, she stood, walked over to the water pump, and cleaned herself up. She leaned back against the side of the pumphouse wall and breathed in deeply attempting to settle her nerves. She looked around her and was glad that no one had seen her outburst. Her father would have been most disagreeable in his chastisement of her behavior had he witnessed it. Taking another deep breath, she steadied herself to reenter the house.
She found her father and the Duke in the library. “Amelia,” Henry came forward and escorted her to a chair. “We were just discussing how we might gather the ransom. An unpleasant topic of discussion I know, but necessary.” Amelia could tell that Henry was barely holding himself together. The muscles in his jaw were taut, his neck strained. He blinked a bit more than was usual, in an effort to hold back the tears.
He loves her so very much. Amelia sat down in the chair that Henry had vacated and studied her father’s face for a moment. He did not look up from his papers to acknowledge his daughter’s presence. Amelia turned back toward Henry. “Will you both be able to gather the funds in time?”
“We will find a way. I have never heard of such a high ransom for a woman who was not of the highest royal blood. Whomever has done this would have to know our combined worth to rest in any surety that they would be paid such a sum.”
“That is our observation as well. We have begun questioning the staff and tenants for any sign of unusual behavior by anyone. It is clear that someone has divulged information pertaining to Grace’s visit to Slantonshire and we wish to know who.”
“It is not your place to get involved, Amelia,” her father chastised. “You are nothing, but a weak female given to whims of rebellious behavior. Leave matters of import and intellect such as this to the men.”
Amelia bit down hard to keep from saying how she felt about his assessment of the female sex. Henry came over to stand beside her. “I will have similar inquires performed at Slantonshire immediately upon my return. As much as I wish to remain here with my beloved Grace’s family, I am better served gathering the funds for her ransom. I will, however, return as soon as I am able.”
Amelia stood. “I will see you to the door.”
Henry nodded. “William,” he bid the Viscount farewell, then left the library. “I am sorry for what your father said. I do not share his views. I am most grateful to you for all you have done to care for Grace. She would not be the glorious creature that she is without your influence. I can only pray that she will be returned to us safely.” The Duke’s eyes filled with tears as he clenched his jaw. Amelia had never seen him so upset, and rightly so. The woman he loved was in the hands of ruthless brigands.
“I thank you for your kindness, Henry. I look forward to the day that you become my brother.”
“As do I.”
Amelia watched Henry ride away, then reentered the house. She climbed the stairs to her bedchamber and stood staring out of the window. She was not certain how long she had stood there, but by the time that she had finally stirred she had come up with a plan.
She slipped into Jonathan’s room and rummaged through his wardrobe. She selected the smallest clothing she could find and carried them back to her room. She disrobed and put on her brother’s clothing. Every piece of clothing hung from her body, engulfing her small form. She took a sash from one of her dresses and tied it around her middle to hold the clothing together. Jonathan was a tall, broad-shouldered man. When compared to Amelia’s feminine frame, he was a giant.
She moved as quietly as she could through the house and out of the back door. How she managed to leave the house without being spotted she had no idea, but she was greatly relieved. Sneaking into the stables, she saddled a horse and led it quietly out of the back. “And where are ye off tae, lass?” the stablemaster’s voice stopped her in her tracks.
“Fergus,” she turned around and faced him. “Please do not stop me.”
“I would nae dream o’ it, lass, but I dinnae believe it tae be safe for ye tae go a lookin’ for Lady Grace on yer own.”
“Father would not allow me to go with or without a companion. Nor would Jonathan for that matter. I must go and look for her. I cannot simply stand around waiting in the hopes that Father and the Duke will be able to come up with the money in time. If it is at all possible to find her before then we must do all within our power to make it so.”
“Aye, that we must,” the stablemaster nodded in agreement. “But I cannae allow ye tae go alone, unarmed.”
“Fergus…” she began but was interrupted by a raising of his hand.
“There will be nae more talk about it. I will be goin’ with ye and that is that.”
“But what if Father needs you and you are not here? He will let you go from his service.”
“Och, there will be other jobs, lass, but there is only one Lady Amelia and Lady Grace.”
Amelia smiled. “You are a good man, Fergus.”
“Och, away with ye,” he smiled and moved to saddle his own horse. Fergus got the directions to the place where Grace had been taken from the carriage driver and they set out together. “Ye ken that it will be most unlikely for ye tae find anythin’ that yer faither and brother could nae?”
“Yes, I am well aware, but my father and brother returned home without inquiring at all of the neighboring estates and crofts.”
“Do ye ken how long such a task will take, lass? Yer faither would ne’er allow ye tae be gone for so long.”
“I have left a letter stating that I decided to accompany the Duke back to Slantonshire to assist in his inquiries. As I have every intention of doing so, it is not a lie. It will simply take me longer than is customary to arrive.”
“And wearin’ yer brother’s clothes?”
“I had not planned on being accompanied by anyone who could report my activities back to my father. If he believes me to have left with the Duke, as my future brother, I would have been sufficiently looked after with no need for concern on Father’s part. Jonathan’s clothing would have allowed me to roam about the countryside unmolested, leaving my reputation intact.”
“I did nae believe ye tae be a lad, lass. What makes ye think that ye could have made anyone else believe it?”
“You have known me since birth, others have not.” Amelia lowered her voice in order to mimic the deeper tones of a man.
Fergus chuckled. “Aye, ‘tis true at that. Ye have always been me favorite. We Scots like our lassies tae have spirit. Ye, lass, have plenty o’ that.”
Amelia smiled fondly at the stablemaster. His graying hair shined in the sunlight like a silver beacon. The wrinkles and scars upon his face telling tales of times past. Fergus had been more of a loving father to her than the Viscount ever had. Amelia was certain that her father loved her, as all parents did, but she had only ever known his disapproval for her independent spirit. It was that same spirit that her mother had adored, and that had created within Fergus MacDonald a lasting friend.
“I am grateful to you, Fergus, for coming with me. It will certainly make the journey easier. I realize that our quest holds very little chance of success, but if we can discover even the smallest detail more about Grace’s captors then it will be worth it.”
“Aye, lass.” Fergus nodded. “That it would.”
They rode through the remainder of the day, then stopped at the same inn Jonathan and the Viscount had stayed in. Fergus slept in the stable with the horses and asked among the workers if any of them had seen anything unusual in the days leading up to Grace’s kidnapping. Amelia did the same inside of the inn, doing her best to hide her true identity. Fergus had helped her to appear more boyish by adding padding in the right places and a bit of coal dust along the jaw and lip line.
Amelia had brought one of her sketches of Grace and showed it cautiously about being sure not to mention their family’s name. She knew it was taking a great risk, but she felt that she had no other choice. There was no guarantee that even if her father and the Duke were able to produce the ransom that the brigands would return Grace alive and unharmed. They had demanded that no form of law enforcement could be notified, but they had neglected to say anything about the family seeking them out on their own.
A technicality I know, but it is a risk I am willing to take.
Amelia moved through the tables man to man, silently begging each one to know something, anything that would help her to find her sister. Not a one of them knew anything, or if they did, they were not telling her. Frustrated, she retired to her room and attempted to sleep. They had another day’s ride ahead of them and she did not wish to be delayed by a lack of sufficient rest. She found that the closer that they grew to where Grace was taken, the more certain she became of her quest.
When morning dawned, Amelia and Fergus set off once more. They stopped at various estates along the way, where Fergus would speak with the stablemen and Amelia would converse with the crofters along the roadway. At each house she prayed for answers, and at each house she was denied. It was slow moving and by the time that they reached the place where Grace had been taken, night had fallen. The night was moonless, and all was pitch black darkness. Fergus’ horse began to limp, and he was forced to stop.
“The place is just ahead, lass, but it is tae dark tae see anythin’ now. We must make camp and wait until the morn.”
“As you wish,” Amelia agreed. She knew that he was right, but she chafed at the delay.
They set up camp together doing the best that they could without the light of a fire. “I apologize for the lack o’ accommodation, lass, but ‘tis the best that can be done under the circumstances.”
“Do not fret on my account, Fergus. I came prepared for just such an eventuality.”
Fergus took the saddles from both horses and laid them on the ground at the edge of a wooded area not far from the road. “As long as we are nae set upon by highwaymen, we will be fine, but if we are…” he patted the pistol in his belt.
Amelia smiled. She could barely make out the motion in the darkness but the sound of his hand slapping wood and metal made it clear. “Surely an entire band of highwaymen are no match for you, dear Fergus.”
Fergus chuckled. “Aye.”
They lay down and in very little time Fergus was snoring. He snored so loudly that there was no way for Amelia to sleep. Rising, she decided to go for a walk. She knew it was unwise to do so unarmed so made sure to carry the pistol she had brought with her in her hand, ready for use. She walked toward the place where Grace had been taken. With every step it became harder to breath, her chest tightening with the pain of such a loss.
I pray to God that you are safe and unharmed.
Sinking to her knees, she gasped for breath. The pain in her chest was searing in its intensity. The sound of a cocking pistol to the back of her head caused her to cease from breathing entirely. A deep masculine voice growled from behind her. “Do not move.”
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