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Scandal Becomes Her
By SHIRLEE BUSBEE
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Shirlee Busbee
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe nightmare came shrieking out of the depths of dreamless sleep. One second Nell was lost in quiet slumber, the next the nightmare had her in its taloned grip. Thrashing amongst the covers of the bed, she fought to escape the ugly images that were flashing through her brain, but it was useless-as she knew from other terrible nights.
As had happened before, she was a helpless spectator to the vicious acts that followed. The setting was the same: a dark place that must have been in some half-forgotten dungeon hidden away under the foundations of an ancient ancestral home. The walls and floor were of massive, hand-hewn, smoke-stained gray stones ... the wavering light from the candles revealing instruments of torture from an earlier, more savage age in England-instruments that he used when the mood suited him.
The victim tonight, as in other times, was a woman, young and comely and fearful. Her blue eyes were huge and full of stark terror, terror that seemed to please her tormentor. The candlelight always fell upon the faces of the women, the man remaining in the shadows, his face and form never fully revealed, yet every act he perpetuated on the young woman's shrinking flesh was horribly clear to Nell. And in the end, after he had done his worst and taken the corpse and carelessly tossed it down the old sluice hole in the dungeon, the light wouldfade and Nell would finally manage to claw her way up out of the realms of the nightmare.
Tonight was no different. Released from the appalling images, a scream rising in her throat, Nell jerked upright, her sea green eyes bright with unshed tears and remembered horror. Throttling back the scream she glanced around, relief pouring through her as she realized that it had, indeed, been only a nightmare. That she was safely in her father's London townhouse, the faint shapes of the furniture of her bedroom taking shape from the glow of the waning fire on the hearth and the soft dawn light that slipped into the room from behind the heavy velvet drapes. From outside her windows came the familiar London clatter, the sounds of horses' hooves on the cobbled streets and the clang of the wheels of the carts, wagons and carriages that the animals pulled. In the distance she could hear the cries of the street vendors already hawking their various wares-brooms, milk, vegetables and flowers.
A shudder went through her. Ah, God, she thought, burying her face in her trembling hands, will the nightmares never stop? The infrequency of them was the only thing that kept her from going mad-no one, she was convinced, could remain sane if compelled to view such violence night after night.
She took a deep breath and pushed back a strand of heavy tawny hair that had fallen onto her breast. Leaning over, she groped for the pitcher of water her maid had set on the rose marble table near her bed. Her fingers found it and the small glass next to it, and pouring herself a drink, she gulped it greedily.
Feeling better, she sat on the side of her bed and stared into the gloom that greeted her, trying to get her thoughts in order, trying to take comfort from the knowledge that she was safe ... unlike the poor creature in her nightmare. With an effort she wrenched her thoughts away from that track. After all, she reminded herself, it had only been a nightmare. A horrible one, but not real.
Eleanor "Nell" Anslowe had never been troubled with nightmares in her childhood. No bad dreams had ever disturbed her sleep until after the tragic accident that had nearly killed her when she was nineteen.
It was odd, she mused, how wonderful her life had been before the tragedy and how very much it had changed in the months that had followed her brush with death. The spring of that awful year had seen her triumphant London Season and her engagement to the heir of a dukedom.
Nell's lips twisted. Having just celebrated her twenty-ninth birthday in September, as she looked back at that time a decade ago, it seemed incredible that she had ever been the carefree, confident girl who had become engaged to the catch of the Season, the eldest son of the Duke of Bethune. When Aubrey Fowlkes, Marquise Giffard, the heir to his father's dukedom, had declared that he intended to marry the daughter of a mere baronet, albeit a very wealthy one, there had been much gossip about the match in that spring of 1794. And there had been even more, Nell thought with a snort, when the engagement had ended, that same year. The same year that she had suffered the horrific fall from her horse that had brought her near death and had left her with a leg that had never healed properly-to this day, she still walked with a limp, mostly when she was tired.
Getting up from the bed, Nell walked over to one of the tall windows that overlooked the garden at the side of the house. Pulling aside the rose-hued drapery, she pushed open the tall double doors that led to a small balcony. Stepping out onto it, she glanced down at the stone terrace below and the sculpted beds and shrubs that surrounded it, the mauve light of dawn fading, and the pink and gold flush of the sun beginning to touch the tallest rosebushes. It was going to be a lovely October day-the same sort of crisp, sunny October day on which she had taken that fateful ride that had changed her life forever.
She had arisen early that morning ten years ago at Meadowlea, the family estate near the Dorset coast, and had hurried to the stables. Heedless of her exasperated father's admonishments not to ride alone along the cliffs, she had brushed aside the services of the groom, and once her favorite mount, Firefly-a sassy little chestnut mare-had been saddled, she had galloped away from the house and manicured grounds. Both she and the mare had been eager to be out in the brilliant sunshine and as they raced on their way, the cool morning air had whipped roses into Nell's cheeks and made her eyes gleam with pleasure.
It was never clear what had caused the accident and Nell, once she regained her senses, never remembered. Apparently her horse had stumbled or reared and they had both plunged over the ragged edge of a cliff. The only thing that had kept Nell from death that day was a small ledge where she had landed, some thirty feet down the otherwise sheer face of the cliffs. Firefly had died on the sea-swept rocks far below.
Nell had not been missed for hours and by the time she was found, dusk had begun to fall. In the flickering light of a lantern, one of the searcher's keen eyes had noticed the torn-up ground near the edge of the cliff and had thought to glance over the side. His shout had brought the others. It had taken hours to bring her up from her slim perch above the sea and, blessedly, she had remained unconscious. Not even when she was finally brought home and the physician had attended to her, setting the broken bones in her leg and arm, did she stir. It was feared in those first days, as she lay like one dead, that she would never recover.
Of course, Lord Giffard was notified immediately. And, she thought sourly, to give him credit, he had come immediately and remained at Meadowlea for the long fortnight afterward while they all waited for her to wake, wondering if she ever would.
For several days after she became aware of her surroundings, she was confused and there was talk that the fall had left her addled. With such a bleak outlook, no one was very surprised when her father, Sir Edward, informed Giffard and the duke that he would understand if they wanted the engagement to end. Giffard had leaped at the chance-after all, his wife would one day be a duchess and the maimed, mumbling creature who lay in bed upstairs at Meadowlea was not the wife he'd had in mind when he had proposed. That November, the engagement was discreetly ended, just five short months after it had been announced.
Nell's recovery had been slow but by the following spring her confusion had vanished, her arm had healed without incident and she was able to limp about the grounds of Meadowlea with the aid of an ivory-knobbed cane. In time the only effects of the near-fatal brush with death that remained were her limp and the nightmares.
Much of what had occurred during her recovery she did not remember. All that was clear in her mind from that time was the nightmare that had haunted her senseless state. The first one that drifted repeatedly through her brain had been different from the ones that wrecked her sleep these days. The victim had been a man, a gentleman, she thought, and the setting had been in a wooded copse. But the ending had been the same: ugly death at the hands of a shadowy figure. Only in later nightmares had women become the prey and the dungeon the favored site for brutality and murder.
As her recovery progressed, Nell had hoped that the nightmare would fade, that it was just some odd remnant connected with her fall. She had been elated that first summer when the nightmare finally stopped. Into autumn and winter she enjoyed month after month of deep, undisturbed sleep. Certain that she had finally put the tragedy and its aftermath behind her, she had been thrilled. Until the nightmare, in its present form, had come storming back to haunt her nights.
Sighing, she turned away from the view of the garden and walked over to poke at the faint embers on the hearth. Like her intermittent limp, the nightmares seemed to have become a permanent part of her. Not, she thought gratefully, that they afflicted her as frequently as her limp. Sometimes an entire year would pass before she was visited with the nightmare, and after each one she would pray that it would be the last. But, of course, it never was. It always came back, with the only changes over time the faces of the women and the degree of savagery. Tonight, she realized with a chill, was the third time this year that she had suffered through the awful thing.
The third time this year. Her breath caught. The knowledge she had been avoiding since she had awakened slammed into her: the nightmares were increasing, the faces of the women changing with horrifying regularity. Worse, in tonight's nightmare, she had the feeling that she had seen the young woman before, that she knew her.
Leaving the fire, Nell picked up her robe from a nearby chair and shrugged into it. She really was going mad, she decided, if she thought that she had recognized tonight's victim. It was pure nonsense. Ugly and appalling to be sure, but it was not real. And if she was foolish enough to think she recognized the woman, well, that was merely a coincidence. It had been, she told herself fiercely, only a bloody nightmare!
Marching into her dressing room that adjoined the bedroom, she poured water from a violet-patterned china urn into its matching bowl. Scrubbing her face and washing her teeth, she forced her mind away from those troubling thoughts. Today was going to be busy; the household was returning to Meadowlea for the winter within the week and there was much to be done.
When Nell reached the morning room she wasn't surprised, despite the early hour, to find her father there ahead of her.
Dropping a kiss onto his balding pate as she passed where he was sitting at the table, she wandered over to the mahogany sideboard positioned against one wall. Selecting a piece of toast and some kippers from the various food displayed there, after pouring herself a cup of coffee, she joined her father at the table.
At nine and sixty, except for his baldhead, Sir Edward was still a handsome man. His daughter had inherited his eyes and his tall, slim build, but her tawny hair and fairy features had come from her mother, Anne-along with the teasing laughter that often lurked in those gold-lashed sea green eyes.
There was no laughter in those eyes this morning and noting the purple shadows under them, Sir Edward stared at her keenly and asked, "Another nightmare, my dear?"
Nell made a face and nodded. "But nothing for you to worry about. I managed to sleep most of the night before it occurred."
Sir Edward frowned. "Shall I send a note around for the physician to call?"
"Absolutely not! He will dose me with some vile concoction, look wise and then charge you an exorbitant fee." She grinned at him. "I merely had a nightmare, Papa, nothing for you to worry over."
Having from time to time in the past been awakened by her screams when the nightmares had been unbearable, Sir Edward had his doubts, but he did not press the issue. Nell could be stubborn. He smiled. A trait she had also inherited from her mother.
For a moment, his expression was sad. His wife had died fourteen years ago, and while he had learned to live without her gentle presence, there were times that he still missed her like the very devil-especially when he was worried about Nell. Anne would have known what to do. A girl needed her mother's guidance.
The opening of the door to the room broke into his thoughts. Catching sight of his son, he smiled and said, "You are up early, my boy. Something important on your agenda today?"
Robert grimaced and, helping himself to a thick slice of ham and some coddled eggs from the sideboard, he said over his shoulder, "I promised Andrew that I would go with him today to look at some bloody horse he is certain will beat Lord Epson's gray. The animal is somewhere in the country and nothing would do but that I agree that we leave London no later than eight o'clock this morning. I must have been mad."
At two and thirty, Robert was the heir and the eldest of Sir Edward's three sons. He resembled his father to a fair degree-tall and rangy, the same color eyes and the same stubborn chin and hard-edged jaw. His tawny hair, Robert thanked providence frequently, he had inherited from his mother, grateful that it was still thick and there.
Normally, Robert would not have been staying at the family townhouse. His own rooms were on Jermyn Street but, having closed up the place when he had left for Meadowlea in July, only the necessity of driving home the new high-perch phaeton he had ordered from the London carriage builder had brought him back to town. His brother Andrew had offered to drive the new vehicle home for him, but Robert would have none of it. As he had told his father when he had arrived on Thursday, "I appreciated his offer, don't think I didn't, but I'd as lief let a blind man drive it home as that jingled-brained brother of mine. Drew would be ditched before he had driven ten miles." Sir Edward privately agreed. Drew was known to be reckless.
Casting a glance at his sister as he tackled his breakfast, Robert asked, "Did he tell you about this horse he is so set on buying?"
Nell nodded as she took a sip of her coffee. "Indeed he did. I have been having its praises sung in my ear this past fortnight."
"Do you think there is any chance the animal has even half the potential that Drew claims?"
She shook her head, a twinkle leaping to her eyes. "I saw the creature the first day the owner brought him to town. The stallion is a lovely bay and beautiful to look at, but has no substance or stamina-the usual pretty face that always takes Drew's eye."
Robert groaned. "Oh, lud, I knew it would be the case. I'd hoped that he had learned his lesson from that last bonesetter he bought."
"Give the boy credit," Sir Edward muttered. "He can't help it if he doesn't have the eye for horses that you and Nell have."
"Boy?" Nell burst out laughing. "Papa, have you forgotten that both Andrew and Henry are thirty years old? Neither one of them is a 'boy' any longer."
The subjects of the conversation entered the room just then and it was obvious at a glance that they were twins; Andrew a mere half inch taller and ten minutes older than his brother, Henry. Few people, except those who knew them well, could tell them apart, both having the same aquiline nose and firm jaw and their mother's golden-brown eyes and tawny hair. Shorter than Robert, they stood just over six feet, but had the same slim build as the rest of the family.
Andrew, a major in the cavalry, was serving with Colonel Arthur Wellesley in India. Having been severely wounded during the last days of the war against the Mahrattas, he had been in England for several months recovering. He was due to rejoin Wellesley just after the first of the year. Henry, too was a major, but being less dashing than his twin had elected to serve in an infantry regiment. He had seen his share of battle in Europe, but to his chagrin, he was presently assigned to the Horse Guards in London. Only the resumption of the war with Napoleon the previous year gave him hope that he would soon leave his desk duties behind and once again be in the thick of things on the continent.
Excerpted from Scandal Becomes Her by SHIRLEE BUSBEE Copyright © 2007 by Shirlee Busbee. Excerpted by permission.
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