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"Bronwyn, someone's going to see us."
"Just keep watch." Bronwyn Edana worked frantically at the keyhole. "I've almost got it."
Olivia wiped tears of fright from her cheeks and peered down the darkened hall of the Brimming Cup Inn. "We shouldn't be doing this. If the landlord should find us here—"
"Listen to that moaning." Through the locked door there came the sound of whimpering. Bronwyn whispered, "That person in there is sick or hurt somehow. Do you want to abandon a fellow human being in agony?"
"No. . . ." Olivia didn't sound too sure.
"Of course not."
"But Maman and Da placed us in the care of the landlord while they went into London, and the landlord said—"
Bronwyn wiggled the heavy iron nail in the hole and caught the locking device inside. "I've got it!" she crowed, then groaned when the nail slipped off. Sinking back on her heels, she answered her sister. "The landlord ignored this lady's cries for help. He said the gentleman who rented the room was respectable and paid a great price. He only cares about the money, and about making sure that we stay in our rooms like proper young ladies."
"What if Maman and Da discover what we've been doing?"
"They would say we're doing the right thing."
Olivia stared at her impetuous sister.
"All right. They'd say to ignore it." Wiping her sweaty palm on the skirt of her riding costume, she tried to still the tremble in her fingers. "We wouldn't be at this nasty little inn if Maman and Da hadn't wanted to visit the moneylender.Once they receive my dowry from Lord Rawson, they'll be flush with coin once more, and we won't have to stay in these terrible places."
"Oh, Bronwyn." Olivia sighed. "Once they receive your dowry, you'll be wed and you'll not be with us in these terrible places."
A mutinous defiance steadied Bronwyn's hand. "So Maman and Da will live with the consequences of our adventure—if they find out."
"But I'm frightened," Olivia admitted.
The love Bronwyn felt for her eighteen-year-old sister tempered her aggravation. She'd always taken care of Olivia, from the day her parents first presented her four-year-old self with the pretty baby. Still, Olivia was the epitome of conformity.
Right now Bronwyn didn't have time for conformity.
"You can go back to our room if you wish. I'll handle this without your help," Bronwyn said in a hurt tone.
"No!" Olivia took a frantic breath. "No, I wouldn't leave you, you know that. But—"
Rallying with telltale swiftness, Bronwyn said, "Good. I'll need you if this is as bad as it sounds." Leaning her weight against the metal clamp, she heard the click as the bolt shot back. "I've got it!"
Her hand on the doorknob, she prepared to enter the room.
"I'll guard the door," Olivia whispered.
Bronwyn paused and smiled at her affectionately. "I know you will. I trust you." She slipped inside the room and moved to the bed. A soft weeping led her, but nothing prepared her for the young, badly battered woman tangled in the sheets. Bronwyn's resolution faltered a moment, and she fought the faintness threatening to undermine her. She leaned close to the woman's face. "Let me help you."
One eye struggled to open and focus; the other was swollen shut. The bruised mouth worked, and at last the woman said, "D'eau."
Bronwyn stared. "What?"
"D'eau," she whispered again.
The woman spoke French. Searching her meager knowledge of the language, Bronwyn translated, "Water." On the stand she found a pitcher, cup, and basin. She called Olivia as she filled the cup, and reluctantly her sister stepped in. "You'll have to give her the water as I hold her up," Bronwyn instructed.
"Oh, Bronwyn, I wish we'd driven right through to Lord Rawson's. I'm so scared." Olivia almost sobbed in her distress, and Bronwyn struck her lightly on the shoulder.
"Brace up." She handed her the cup. "I need you."
At the bed, Bronwyn lowered herself onto the mattress. As she slid a hand behind the woman's head, the invalid groaned pitifully, as if every movement, every breath, hurt. Bronwyn's eyes filled with tears, but when she looked up, Olivia had done as instructed. She'd put the cup to the woman's mouth.
The woman drank greedily between gasps until at last she stopped. "Merci," she said, gazing at Olivia. "An angel."
"So she is," Bronwyn agreed, relaxing. French might be this woman's native tongue, but she spoke English well. "She's an angel come to rescue you. She'll go and find a doctor to help you now."
"Non!" A frail hand clawed at Bronwyn's arm, then fell away. "Tell no one. He will kill me . . . if you do."
Bronwyn glanced back, expecting to see a menacing figure. "Your husband?"
"Non! I am not so foolish." Her vehement denial seemed to sap her strength.
As Bronwyn had known it would, her sister's natural nursing skill took over. Olivia wet a towel and smoothed the hair back from the invalid's forehead. "What's your name?"
"I am Henriette." Her eyes opened, closed. "Does he have you, too?"
"No, no one has me."
"Bon. So beautiful a woman . . . should not be in brutal hands." She twisted as a spasm tore through her. "Run away. Do not let him get you."
"I won't let anyone get her." Bronwyn picked up one fragile hand as it lay on the covers. "She's my sister."
"Sister?" Henriette gazed at them. "Nothing alike."
"We're alike in our spirit," Bronwyn insisted. "We'll help you escape."
"Too late. Light candles . . . for my soul, I beg."
"Of course," Olivia agreed.
"The wicked man murdered me. Promise me you will light"—Henriette caught her breath against the pain—"light candles to guide me." Her hand plucked uselessly at the air. "Promise."
Olivia smiled, as sweet as the angel Henriette called her. "I promise."
Satisfied, Henriette closed her eyes. "Allez. Go. He is coming back."Priceless. Copyright © by Christina Dodd. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.