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Sleepless at Midnight
By Jacquie D'Alessandro
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Jacquie D'Alessandro
All right reserved.
A chill of unease snaked down Matthew Devenport's spine and he stilled his shovel to scan the darkened cemetery. All his senses on alert, he strained his ears yet only heard the chirping of crickets and the rustling of leaves from the unseasonably cool breeze heavily scented with the threat of rain.
Clouds obscured the moon, enveloping him in shadows, which served his purpose well, but also made it impossible to discern if someone lurked nearby—a realization that did nothing to stop the unsettling quickening of his heartbeat.
He glanced around again, then forced himself to relax. Bloody hell, why this sudden attack of nerves? Nothing appeared amiss. Yet he couldn't shake the eerie sensation that had plagued him since leaving the house at midnight—that someone was following him. Watching him.
An owl hooted, and his pulse jumped, and he pressed his lips together in annoyance at allowing the atmosphere to spook him. He'd made these secret sojourns for months and was well accustomed to the eerie sounds that rose from the darkened forest. Still, he reached down and closed his fingers over the cool metal hilt of the knife tucked in his boot. He didn't relish the thought of using the weapon, but he would if he had to. He hadn't come this far, persevered this long, to have anyone threaten his search.
Search? The word mocked him, and he swallowed the bitter sound that rose in his throat as he jabbed his shovel into the hard ground. This was more than a search. Over the course of the past year, these damned ventures into the night had become more of a quest. An obsession that robbed him of not only sleep, but of his peace of mind. Soon . . . it will all be over soon.
One way or another.
Lifting a heavy shovelful of dirt, he tossed it aside, his tired muscles straining with effort. How many more holes could he dig? How many more sleepless nights could he endure? Even during the day, when he didn't search for fear of being discovered, his task haunted him. For he now had less than a month left to keep his pledge. And honor, his integrity, demanded that he do so. He'd once compromised both, and as he was still paying the consequences for that folly, he refused to make that same mistake again.
Yes, so much better to make other mistakes, his inner voice sneered.
Such as these nightly journeys into the dark.
But now, after trying for so long yet failing, there was no denying his greatest enemy.
His time was almost up.
He flung several more shovelfuls of dirt, then paused to swipe his sweaty brow with the back of his hand. Perspiration trickled down his aching back, and he blew out a disgusted breath, frustrated by the fact that as much as he hated this endless searching, he ironically hated even more the fact that his house was now filled with guests, thus allowing him less time to continue the search. They'd arrived en masse earlier this evening and he'd forced himself to endure their company over dinner, an interminable meal he'd thought would never end.
Damn it, he didn't want guests. Didn't want people invading his home. His privacy. Yet what choice did he have? He needed a bride and needed one quick. And by God, he'd do whatever he had to in order to get one. He paused, his gaze lingering on the hole he'd just dug, and his fingers tightened on the rough wooden handle of the shovel. Yes, he'd do whatever he had to.
As was necessary with so many other facets of his life, he shoved aside his own desires and focused on what needed to be done. There were choices to be made, life-altering choices, and as much as he didn't wish to make them, he could delay no longer. And as much as he didn't relish the interruption of playing host, if he'd left the estate and traveled to London instead of inviting guests here to Kent, he'd have lost even more time.
A flash of lightning followed by an ominous growl of thunder interrupted his dark thoughts. Several raindrops splashed against the back of his neck. Seconds later it seemed as if the heavens were ripped asunder. A deluge of water spewed from the sky, stabbing his skin like chilled needles. He was sorely tempted to head back to the house, to abandon his task, but instead he lifted his face and closed his eyes, basking in the sting of the cold spray that made him feel, if only for a few moments, as if he were cleansed of the onerous chore that possessed him.
Lightning flashed again, streaking across the darkened sky, and he opened his eyes. For several seconds the Devenport family tombstones dating back centuries were illuminated in sharp, rain-soaked relief. Matthew blinked against the sudden brightness, then froze as his gaze riveted on a man. A man making his way in an unmistakably furtive manner across the back boundary of the cemetery. A man he instantly recognized.
Bloody hell, what was Tom Willstone doing skulking about on private property in the middle of the night? Had the village blacksmith seen him? Had it been Tom's prying eyes he'd felt boring into him? Not that he wasn't perfectly within his rights to dig holes on his own estate, but given the nature of his task, Matthew had no desire to be observed. Observation would only lead to speculation, and speculation to endless questions—none of which he would, or could, answer.
Another bolt of lightning flashed and he saw Tom disappear among the soaring elms and shrubbery that marked the property line separating Langston Manor and the path leading to the village of Upper Fladersham. He didn't know what Tom was doing or what he might have seen, but he needed to find out. Which would require a trip to the village.
Excerpted from Sleepless at Midnight by Jacquie D'Alessandro Copyright © 2007 by Jacquie D'Alessandro. Excerpted by permission.
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