Authors: Kathryn Smith
ou talked Papa into buying a parcel of land because you believe the Holy Grail is hidden there?”
Prudence Ryland knew her sister would not understand. “Yes.”
Caroline’s pretty face was marred with concern beneath the brim of her riding hat. “Darling, isn’t this clutching at straws?”
Perhaps Caroline understood better than Pru had first thought.
Squinting against the sun—her foolish little cap did nothing to shield her eyes—Pru set her jaw. “Perhaps.”
They were riding back from the village, Caroline on a gray mare, Pru on a chestnut gelding. With the men out hunting and their sisters busy at needlework, Caroline and Pru had desperately needed something to pass the day—something that required air and exercise. Anything else would have left Pru alone in her head—something she tried to avoid these days.
The afternoon was warm—too warm for a velvet riding habit, as pretty as her dark green one was. But Caro had wanted one last ride before her pregnancy denied her the exercise. Sweat trickled beneath the boning of Pru’s corset, making her itch. She would try to scratch if she thought it would do any good. Instead, she clenched her jaw and urged her mount into a trot.
Her sister remained silent, blast her. Caroline knew she couldn’t stand awkward pauses. She always had to fill them. “Will it not be worthwhile if the Grail is there?” Pru didn’t mean just for her own benefit either, but for the benefit of the entire world.
“Only if it does what the legend claims.” Caroline shook her head, the sun catching fire in the copper of her hair. “Really, Pru. The Grail is as elusive as Noah’s ark! Don’t you think that if it really existed, someone would have found it by now?”
“Perhaps no one has thought to look in the right spot.” Perhaps she truly was grasping at straws, but what else could she do?
Caroline’s green eyes were bright with worry. “I am worried about you.”
She wasn’t referring just to this hunt for the Grail. Pru glanced away. Of course her sister worried. Everyone in her family worried. They would continue to worry until…until she wasn’t there to worry them any longer.
She turned a bright smile on her sister. “I am fine, Caro.”
Her sister recoiled as if spat on. “You are not fine! You are—” She stopped, choking on her words. Oh, no, she wasn’t going to cry, was she? Poor Caroline, she was the most emotional of all of them—the one with the kindest countenance and sweetest temper. Her hair and eyes were as bright as her spirit, while Pru’s own auburn and hazel pairing was darker, more shadowed. Caro cried at the drop of a hat, and it broke Pru’s heart every blasted time.
Smile gone, Pru leaned over—at the risk of toppling herself to the ground between the two horses—and touched her sister’s arm. “I
fine, Caro. No matter what happens, I will be fine.” She honestly believed that, but it didn’t make the truth any easier to accept.
Caroline nodded, sniffing back her tears. Prudence righted herself as they turned down the lane to their father’s estate. She and Caroline talked of trifling things for the rest of the ride—mostly books they had both read and the new typewriting machine that Caroline’s husband Walter had brought her. Their earlier conversation hung over them, however.
A small group of gentlemen were gathered in the horseshoe-shaped drive. It wasn’t an entirely
surprising scene. Thomas Ryland was a very sociable man and was often off visiting friends, or being visited; and with his family in residence for a month’s visit or longer, other gentlemen from the area often joined the various outings. It was obvious, from the size of the group—and the object they were clustered around—that this was more than mere sociability.
Their father was about to go touring in his automobile—a “racing car” manufactured by the Daimler Company. Obviously the other gentlemen were there for a demonstration of the motorized carriage’s capabilities. Even Prudence was aware that Daimler’s racing car was capable of reaching speeds in the vicinity of fifty miles per hour. She knew because her father had told her, not because she had experienced such exhilaration firsthand. He never drove that fast with her in the vehicle.
Ever since attending the automobile show in Richmond earlier that summer, Thomas Ryland had become obsessed with the new mode of transport and was one of the few people in the area to own such a contraption. Pru’s sister Georgia thought it dangerous, and that a man their father’s age shouldn’t indulge in such a pastime, but Pru loved the snappy little conveyance, with its red exterior and black leather seat. Her father refused to allow her to drive it—claiming that he feared for her safety.
She saw how her father careened about like a madman. She could not be any worse at it than he. It was something she would have to discuss with him, because she didn’t want to waste
the remainder of her life being treated as though she were made of glass.
There was a time when he would have indulged his youngest daughter’s desire to take the Daimler for a jaunt. A time when his biggest worry would have been for the car, not for Prudence.
The grooms had seen them approaching the house and were there waiting for them. Pru and Caroline dismounted and greeted their father and his guests. Their father shot Pru a look that covered her from head to toe, lingering on her face as though searching for some sign of fatigue or pain. Dear Papa, he was so very protective. She smiled at him, and bade he and his companions a good day.
Pru stripped off her gloves as they entered the cool interior of the house. She loved this house. It was bright, but not overly so, and at night was filled with the most intriguing shadows. As a child she had loved the dark nooks and crannies that her sisters avoided. It drove her mother to distraction looking for her. No one ever seemed to understand that she didn’t want to be found.
Odd, then, that she should be so afraid of going into the dark now, when she had so loved it as a child. Perhaps that was because a child never worried that the darkness would be everlasting.
Pulling on the pin, she removed the little boat-shaped hat from her head, glad to have it gone. “Tea, Caro?”
Her sister made a soft snorting sound that never failed to bring a smile to Pru’s lips. “Of course. Why do you always ask me that foolish question?”
Pru grinned as they crossed the Italian marble floor, the heels of their boots clicking smartly on the polished peach and cream tiles. “Because someday you may say no.”
“To tea? Never.”
As they walked, Pru breathed the scents of Rosecourt deep into her lungs. Fresh flowers, beeswax, lemon and cloves. These were the smells that had surrounded her all her life, the smells that comforted her when all else failed.
As a member of one of England’s wealthiest families, Pru’s father had been guaranteed a fortune, but Rosecourt Manor had come into their family via a friend of Thomas’s grandfather. Apparently the late Earl of Carnover had a soft spot for the youngest of Devlin Ryland’s grandsons and gave him the estate as a marriage present. As Pru’s parents had produced four girls, the house would eventually go to the eldest son of one of those daughters. It was not a legacy Pru had to worry about.
She and Caroline entered the parlor together. The heavy rose-colored drapes were pulled back to reveal creamy sheers that allowed the full light of day into the room but saved the furniture from the sun’s fading rays. The walls and carpet were matching cream, a soft contrast to the Lodden print on the chairs and sofas. William Morris’s delicate print lent bold color to the room with its swirls of of blue, gold, red, green and rose.
“What about that Grey fellow?” Caroline asked as she perched daintily on one of the chairs.
“Marcus?” Pru frowned as she pulled the bell
for tea. Had she missed part of the conversation? “What of him?”
Caroline shrugged her narrow shoulders as she removed her kid gloves and toyed with the empty fingers. “He seems a nice enough gentleman.”
“He is.” She had met him at a lecture he’d given in London one evening about a year ago when, tired of parties and craving something familiar to distract her, she had stumbled upon a leaflet advertising Marcus’s talk on Grail lore. Having grown up in the legendary birthplace of King Arthur, Pru considered herself well acquainted with Grail legend. At one time she had entertained the notion of becoming something of a historian, or perhaps an archaeologist, but those dreams had fallen by the wayside with so many others.
Marcus brought back the excitement she always felt when the Grail was involved. He offered facts and documented cases, not just ideas and theories. He gave everyone in the lecture hall reason to believe the Grail truly existed, and he gave Pru something even more. He gave her hope. It was then that what had once been a historic fascination became a personal obsession.
Prudence approached him after the lecture. They talked about Arthur, the Grail and Tintagel, and when Pru mentioned the ruins not far from her father’s estate where she and her sisters had played as children Marcus Grey became very interested, especially when she told him that before an underground passage collapsed, she had found what appeared to be artifacts from centuries before. Over the course of the next few days, when
Pru wasn’t in the company of the esteemed gentlemen hired by her father, she spent her time with Marcus, and by the end of the week, both of them were convinced that the ruins might be worth investigating further.
So, like everything she did, Pru threw herself into the project with all the determination and strength she could muster. Her father bought the land without much pleading. He always indulged her and perhaps some part of him shared her enthusiasm.
She had also thrown herself at Marcus, mistaking their friendship for something more. He had been too much of a gentleman to take advantage of her after a passionate kiss. For a long time Pru wondered if her “condition” was to blame for his refusal, but now she saw what he had seen. They were incredibly well suited as friends, but not as lovers. Marcus was like the brother she’d never had. Thank God he had known how to behave better than she.
Marcus also handled the “Catholic situation” better than Pru would have. Marcus didn’t want strangers poking around their project any more than Pru did, but he thought it better to cooperate and be charitable. All the church wanted—
—was access to whatever they found in the ruins, and of course something as important and powerful as the Holy Grail was better in the hands of people who would respect and protect it.
They were welcome to the Grail once Pru had a chance to use it. One sip, that was all she asked, then they could take it and lock it away.
However, she was curious about how the Vatican had found out about her little project. It wasn’t as though she’d advertised the fact that she was on a hunt to find a cup that could cure the ill and grant eternal life.
Pru’s gaze jerked back to her sister. “What?”
Caroline rotated her wrist, making a wheel-like motion with her hand. “Do you like him or not?” She let Pru fill in the rest for herself.
Holding up her hands, Pru seated herself on the sofa. “Not in the way you mean, no.” She could claim it without guilt, as it was completely true.
Caroline opened her mouth to continue, but was prevented from saying any more by a knock on the door. It was a maid with their tea, and hot on her heels was the man himself, Marcus Grey.
At twenty-eight Marcus was a charming mixture of poet, scholar and adventurer. He was tall and trim, his shoulders broad, his hips narrow and his legs long. His thick dark hair was usually wind-blown, his cheeks rosy from spending much of his time outside. Despite all its efforts to age him, the sun had succeeded in nothing more than giving his complexion a healthy glow. His wide gem-blue gaze was bright as it settled on Pru. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
“Of course not,” Caroline replied with a charming smile. “Sit, Mr. Grey. Join us for tea.”
Needing no further invitation, Marcus sat on the other end of the sofa from Pru and angled himself toward her with all the comfort of a man not the least bit interested in her as a woman. Her
vanity could take offense at the slight, but why bother?
“What have you been into today, Marcus?” Pru asked as she poured him a cup of tea. He liked it with very little cream and several lumps of sugar.
“Your father showed me the ruins of the tiny chapel that used to exist on the estate. He told me to explore and dig to my heart’s content.” A wide grin brightened his face. “So I did.”
Pru returned his smile. It was very difficult not to be happy when Marcus was. Caroline looked positively enraptured. “I thought we agreed you would not go digging without me.” Her chastising tone was weak at best. “Did you find anything?”
He shrugged. “An old pair of spectacles and a boot, but that isn’t why I came looking for you.”
“Has something happened?” Anticipation fluttered in her stomach. “Something to do with the Grail?”
He held up an opened letter. “I have heard from our friend in France again.”
Friend? Was that how he viewed LaFavre, the arrogant little priest who had first contacted them? Pru set her spoon on her saucer as the turmoil inside her quieted. “What does he want this time?”
Marcus took a swallow of tea. “He wrote to tell us that two representatives of his church should be here within the next two or three days.”
“So soon?” Now, this was interesting. “The church must be very anxious to see what we uncover.” She kept her tone light, but that anxious feeling surfaced once more. If the Catholics were
this interested in her little expedition, then they must have reason to believe she was actually on to something! As concerned as she was about the church’s involvement, she couldn’t help but view their interest as a good sign.
Clearing her throat, Pru forced her expression into one of polite restraint. “Who are they sending?”
Setting down his now empty cup, Marcus opened the letter. His gaze moved over the paper until it found the information he sought. “A Father Francis Molyneux and a man named Mr. Chapel.”