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The Deadliest Sin
By Caroline Richards
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Caroline Richards
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Oh, do come with me, Julia. Those dusty tomes can wait-it's glorious outside!" Rowena's voice was clear and true as the first birdsong of spring.
Dear God, her sister.
Julia Woolcott's eyes flew open, widening in the darkness. She blinked. How long had she been asleep, outside the reach of her senses? The darkness was total and she wondered if her eyes were really open. Perhaps she was blind. The blackness was as final as a closed coffin lid.
Thoughts were slow in coming. Counting her breaths, she ignored the burning sensation in her lower limbs. Panic closed her throat, but she knew screaming would do little good. No one would hear. She swallowed back the terror that was more powerful than the scalding pain enveloping her right leg.
More than anything, she needed to know her sister and Meredith were safe, far away at Montfort in the Cheviot Hills. The high stone wall and thick hedges surrounding the sixteenth-century estate would protect them. Let them be safe, she prayed beneath her breath.
The shores of madness had never seemed closer. But as always, the wall of silence appeared when she needed it most, shutting out the world, keeping her safe.
She would not think of that. She would think of Rowena wrinkling her nose at the smells emanating from her older sister's warren of rooms above the stables at Montfort. It was where Julia played with light and dark, with her daguerreotypes, capturing images with her camera obscura and then fixing them to copper plates with iodine.
"They're gorgeous, Jules, simply magic!" Julia heard Rowena's unabashed enthusiasm and imagined her pulling at Julia's elbow, tapping a riding crop impatiently on the edge of the scarred table where the exposed copper plates lay. Her younger sister could never be kept indoors; it would be as cruel as pinning a butterfly to a board. Closing her eyes in the darkness, Julia imagined the spirit of Rowena captured on one of the copper plates, hair flying in the wind, riding at reckless speed toward Montfort's endless horizons, and drifted off in slumber.
Awakening again she experienced another sinking recognition that she was no longer asleep but locked away in a layer of shadows, gradations of thick, muffling darkness. Julia attempted to shift her weight from beneath a leaden heaviness but nothing moved save the stiffness of crinolines and whalebone. Heading off panic, she sifted through the images colliding in her mind's eye. The footman and the knife. The tall man, his face in the shadows, the one who had shut her in that suffocating place.
Then she was calm. Her aunt's still-beautiful countenance shimmering before her, a picture she had captured many times with her camera, that newfound miracle. Unlike her sister Rowena, brazen and bold, Aunt Meredith would always turn her pure profile away from the camera lens, as though its penetrating gaze would rob her of her secrets. And Meredith had so many secrets.
The air was like a heavy linen sheet pressed against Julia's face, yet a cold sweat plastered her chemise and dress to her body. It was peculiar, the ability to retreat into herself, away from the pain numbing her leg and away from the threat that lay outside that suffocating room.
A few moments, an hour, or a day passed. She found herself seated, her limbs trembling from the effort. Guilt choked her, a tide of nausea threatening to sweep away the tattered edges of her self-regard. Why had she ignored Meredith's warnings and accepted Wadsworth's invitation to photograph his country estate? Flexing her stiff fingers, Julia felt for the ground beneath her. A film of dust gathered under her nails. If she could push herself higher, lean against a wall, allow the blood to flow ...
The pain in her leg was a strange solace, as were thoughts of Montfort-her refuge and the splendid seclusion where her life with her sister and her aunt had begun. She could remember nothing else, her early childhood was an empty canvas, bleached of memories. Lady Meredith Woolcott had offered a universe unto itself. Protected, guarded, secure-for a reason.
Julia's mouth was dry. She longed for water to wash away her remorse. New images crowded her thoughts, taking over the darkness in bright bursts of recognition. Meredith and Rowena waving to her from the green expanse of lawn at Montfort. The sun dancing on the tranquil pond in the east gardens. Meredith's eyes, clouded with worry, that last afternoon in the library. Warnings that were meant to be heeded. Secrets that were meant to be kept. Wise counsel from her aunt that Julia had chosen, in her defiance, to ignore.
She ran a shaking hand through the shambles of her hair, her bonnet long discarded somewhere in the dark. She pieced together her shattered thoughts. When had she arrived? Last evening or days ago? A picture began to form. Her carriage had clattered up to a house with a daunting silhouette, all crenellations and peaks. Chandeliers glittered coldly into the gathering dusk. The entryway had been brightly lit, the air infused with the perfume of decadence, sultry and heavy. That much she could remember before her mind clamped shut.
The world tilted and she ground her nails into the stone beneath her palms for balance. She should be sobbing but her eyes were sandpaper dry. Voices echoed in the dark, or were they footsteps? She strained her ears and craned her neck, peering into the thick darkness. She sensed vibrations more than sounds. Footsteps, actual or imagined, would do her no good.
She felt the floor around her, imagining rotted wood and broken stone. Logic told her there had to be an entranceway. Taking a deep breath, she twisted onto her left hip, arms flailing to find purchase to heave herself into a standing position. Not for the first time in her life, she cursed her heavy skirts, entangling her legs. If she could at least stand ... She pushed herself up on her right elbow, wrestling aside her skirts with an impatient hand. The fabric tore, the sound muffled in the darkness. The white-hot pain no longer mattered, nor did the bile flooding her throat. Gathering her legs beneath her, she pushed herself up, swaying like a mad marionette without the security of strings.
She held her breath. The silence was complete. Arms outstretched, her hands clutched at air. No wall. Nothing to lean on. Just one small step, one after the other, and she would encounter a wall, a door, something. She bit back a silent plea. Hadn't Meredith taught them long ago about the uselessness of prayer?
Suddenly, her palms were halted by the sensation of solid muscle. Instinctively, she stopped, convinced that she was losing her mind. She felt the barely perceptible rise and fall of a chest beneath her opened palms.
Where there had been only black, there was a shower of stars in front of her eyes and a humming in her head. She saw him, without the benefit of light or the quick trace of her fingers, behind her unseeing eyes.
She took a step back in the darkness away from the man who wanted her dead.
Chapter Two"Who are you?" Julia asked.
He went by many names in many languages, one more profane than the next, and every last one deserved. He listened to her staccato breaths, and breathed in the faint scent of her perspiration and floral toilet water mingling with her panic. The darkness suited him perfectly. He found daylight generally unhelpful in such endeavors.
He didn't answer her question. "Unfortunate, your outburst last evening. There was little choice but to place you here, where you wouldn't attract undue attention." The outrageousness of his statement rang in the enclosed space. He knew the power of fear, that great equalizer. He couldn't see her, but imagined her expression of anger and dread. His ears picked up a hesitation as though she was trying to find words that wouldn't come.
"What did you expect? For me to simply acquiesce, follow you blindly into that den of iniquity? How long have you been in this room, alongside me?" Her voice was halting, with a slight hoarseness to it, as though weakened from disuse.
His ear, trained to exotic languages, detected the faint tremor. He remembered her eyes from the night before, wide and shadowed under the brim of a spectacularly ugly bonnet. "It's of no importance," he said finally, feeling her balled fists leave his chest.
He shrugged his shoulders, well aware that she couldn't see but surprised by the spirit of her rejoinder. She was disoriented, a good thing. He knew the feeling, having once spent three days in complete darkness in the caves of Pashtun after running afoul of a caravan and a sheik who had misinterpreted his interest in the sheik's cargo. Miss Woolcott, he'd wager, was not seasoned in quite the same way, despite her momentary bravado.
He had been expecting a spinster, redolent of moth balls and camphor oil, a type with which, despite his travels, he'd had mercifully scant experience. "I believe we're well beyond niceties such as formal introductions," he said. He'd always felt a certain tedium when it came to women of his own class, who, for the most part, believed the world extended no further than the Thames. But then again, he should probably be grateful. Thus far Miss Woolcott had substituted a surprising penchant for violence for the more predictable histrionics. The footman had not emerged unscathed in their scuffle.
"You are entirely too cavalier," she said, sharply. Her voice was uncommonly low with none of the breathlessness so common to young women. "You will have to forgive my earlier behavior," she continued, and he wondered briefly how she was going to explain her surprising attack on the footman. In his experience, Englishwomen dealt with the unwelcome by reaching for the smelling salts rather than the pointed end of a letter opener. "I'd been led to believe that I was to meet with Sir Simon Wadsworth, to take photographs of his estate, his gardens. Instead, I find myself here." As far as she was concerned, she might have found herself in the steppes of Russia instead of a windowless, cork-lined room in the English countryside.
He took a step toward her, knowing the impact enforced proximity carried. He didn't have to touch her, not yet, at least.
She did not back away. Bolder than she had any right to be, she continued undaunted. "There was obviously some mistake." She was dissembling but it was of little import in the grander scheme of things. "I wish you to clarify this situation or at the very least offer an apology. A case of mistaken identity, perhaps?"
His silence was worse than any answer.
It must cause her some pain, he acknowledged impartially, the gash in her leg. Unfortunate, that injury, but she had struggled more than anyone had anticipated, regrettably attracting the attention of the overzealous footman. He couldn't really fault the man when she'd seized the letter opener in a pitiable attempt at self-defense. Entirely unexpected.
Her voice shook. "You're clearly unwilling to provide me with answers."
He smiled in the dark.
Her skirts rustled, as though she was drawing herself up straight. The small movement made her wince. "I've spent the last I don't know how many hours in this suffocating room. All I can recollect is receiving Sir Wadsworth's commission, making arrangements to travel to his country estate, arriving and then-" She broke off mid-sentence.
She let out a hiss of breath. "I refuse to put into words what I saw."
"So you do remember. Fortunately, I can put it into words, if you feel it beneath you."
More silence, although her breathing had accelerated.
"I take it you're appalled, Miss Woolcott." He could just picture the thinning of her lips, the tensing of her shoulders. In general, Englishwomen were willfully ignorant of nature and its carnal imperatives. He, however, was not discomfited in the least, with the tenor of that discussion.
"I should like to leave this place."
"I'm certain you would. And to have your injury seen to."
No tears. No importuning. Interesting. Miss Woolcott appeared to have been hiding a spine under all the hectares of gray wool, not to mention some spirit under that singularly heavy bonnet that had shielded her face from his eyes. For some reason, he remembered the feel of her thin shoulders, like bird bones, beneath his hands.
"Where is my photographic apparatus? It is of great value to me." Her tone had taken on the impatience of a stern governess.
He'd rather face a stampede of wildebeests. And had, as a matter of fact, not so long ago on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
The heap of chests, bandboxes, and her camera, like a giant spider on three legs, had been swept from the main hall, along with its owner. "It is secure." Although you are not. Far from it, he wanted to add.
"As though I should believe you." She paused in the darkness. "If you refuse to give me answers, I should like to leave now," she repeated, as though to a child reluctant to give up his toy. Her low voice vibrated with suppressed fear.
"My apologies." He didn't attempt to keep the sarcasm from his voice, nor his desire to shock. It had been some time since he'd had direct contact with the rarified, hot-house type of well-bred Englishwoman. If he listened carefully, he could hear the pulse of narrow-mindedness throbbing. "I am clearly remiss in my duties. Therefore, you may like to know this room where you have spent the last five hours was constructed by the great grandfather of our present host, Sir Wadsworth, who, when not disporting himself at debauched masked balls over which he presided with salacious enthusiasm, spent time here. History tells us the illustrious Lord Edgar Wadsworth provided the most exacting specifications for this project. He preferred to partake of his pleasures in sound-proofed surroundings. One can only speculate as to why."
Her breathing stilled. He wondered whether she was a virgin. It would make things somewhat more difficult.
She digested his statements before adding a challenge of her own. "Before setting out on my journey, I made some of my own inquiries, learning of the estate's history. I did not believe the present Sir Wadsworth shares in his ancestor's unfortunate proclivities. Clearly, I was mistaken," she said tightly, reluctant to refer more specifically to what she had seen the previous evening. "As a result, I should still like to leave. Now," she repeated.
He crossed his arms over his chest. "If we leave, you will go quietly? The injury you sustained could have been far worse."
"As though that would have mattered."
"Actually, it does matter. I'm to keep you in good health, for the next day or so."
She approached him in the darkness. It took courage, he conceded. Her soft breath fanned his throat where the top two fastenings of his shirt lay open. He was surprised to find his body tightening in response to the scent of lavender floral water.
"And what comes afterwards?" There was pain in her voice, a strangled quality that spoke not just of her injury and incarceration but of something else.
"Why make the situation more difficult for yourself, Miss Woolcott? Oftentimes, knowledge can be distressing." What a liar he was-knowledge was everything. Knowledge was power.
He sensed a renewed tension in the confining space as Miss Woolcott began facing the implications of what she'd seen upon her arrival at Wadsworth's estate. As far as he was concerned, not much had changed since he'd left England five years earlier. The lives of the aristocracy were still devoted to, in no particular order, hunting, whoring, and billiards. From his vantage point, the middle-aged rutting-a confirmed group sport among the male upper classes-was as ingrained as cannibalism in pigmy tribes or riding to hounds among the gentry.
The best he could hope for, when the Wadsworth debauchery concluded, was not to be forever haunted by the specter of sagging jowls, swollen paunches, and worse, bent over their pleasurable labors. He surmised that the female guests were harvested from the countryside surrounding Wadsworth's Eccles House or let from the demi-mondaine or the theater.
Miss Woolcott had yet to back away from him. "I am assuming," she said, "or rather hoping, that this was all a misunderstanding. That Sir Wadsworth had no intention of inviting me to his"-she paused-"soiree and that, in my confusion and shock, I panicked and, as it turns out, unreasonably struck out at a footman before I could think ... before I knew...." She trailed off, unable to convince herself to continue.
Excerpted from The Deadliest Sin by Caroline Richards Copyright © 2010 by Caroline Richards. Excerpted by permission.
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