Authors: Jennifer McNare
The harsh words sent a shiver of fear racing down her spine.
He held her gaze with a long, penetrating stare, his eyes cold and pitiless.
She believed him.
Oh dear lord
, she could not refuse him, and of course he knew it. She felt sick.
He must have seen the hopelessness and resignation in her expression, for a look of satisfaction briefly crossed his features before finally he turned away, looking back out the front window. “You are looking rather pale my dear. Perhaps you should retire to your room to rest,” he said over his shoulder, dismissing her with cool impassivity.
Rising from her chair on legs that felt like jelly, Melody pressed her lips tightly together to keep them from trembling. She hesitated for a moment, silently willing Charles to turn around, to tell her that he wasn’t serious, but he remained silent and unmoving. Swallowing the bile that rose bitterly in her throat, she turned and walked slowly toward the door.
When Melody reached the privacy of her room she immediately shut and locked the door and then flung herself onto the large four-poster bed, finally allowing the tears she’d fought so hard to control to spill forth, her thoughts spinning in turmoil. She finally understood why Charles Cavendish had wanted to marry her, the mere daughter of an impoverished country baron. It all made sense now. Despite his advanced age, Charles could have had his pick of young women from well-to-do aristocratic families,
families with much loftier titles, families eager to make a match with the wealthy and titled Earl of Edgington, widowed for just over a year. But no, he’d needed someone like her, someone he could coerce into complying with his demented scheme.
She turned onto her side, her arms folded tightly across her midsection as she thought back on his proposal and the first days of their marriage. The proposal had come as a complete shock to both her and her parents, as they’d had only brief, passing encounters with the earl, mostly during his occasional visits to the village church for Sunday services. At the time, they had assumed that he’d been smitten by her beauty, for what else did she have to offer that would have appealed to a man as wealthy and privileged as Charles Cavendish? She hadn’t wanted to marry him of course, a man old enough to be her grandfather, but after a great deal of soul-searching she had ultimately voiced no objection to the match. Her family was the most important thing in the world to her, and though her parents rarely spoke of such matters in front of her or her brother, she had been very much aware of their dire financial situation for quite some time. And unfortunately, marriage to one of the few eligible young men that resided in the nearby area, many of whom were not much better off monetarily than her father, would have done little to help with her family’s bleak state of affairs.
When the earl had offered for her, vowing to settle all of the outstanding debts her father had accrued, in large part due to her brother’s exorbitant, lifelong medical expenses, it had been the salvation her family had so desperately needed. Charles Cavendish had been charming and solicitous in his request, promising her parents that as the Countess of Edgington, Melody would want for nothing. Despite their qualms, they had looked past the earl’s advanced age and had offered their consent, assured that their beloved daughter’s future would be secure. For Melody, her own future hadn’t concerned her nearly as much as that of her family’s. For them, to ease the burden of the people she loved more than anything in the world, she had done her best to disguise her aversion to the match and had accepted the earl’s proposal with gratitude, and albeit somewhat
Now however, knowing the true reason he’d wanted to marry her, she felt only horror. Charles was impotent, and because of that her future now seemed little better than a nightmare. He had explained the situation to her just minutes earlier in a brief matter of fact manner. Shortly after his marriage to his first wife, he had contracted a life-threatening illness while on a trip to Southeast Asia. Though he had survived, the disease had taken a drastic toll on his body, causing permanent damage to certain parts of his nervous systems. It was the reason he walked with a cane and why he had difficulty using his left arm. In addition, it had left him unable to father children or to perform in the marriage bed. It was the reason he had come to her bed on their wedding night and every night since, and said flatly, “Go to sleep Madam. I do not have need of you this evening,” only to then lie down beside her to sleep, returning to his own room at daybreak.
Apparently no one, other than his first wife and the handful of physicians with whom he had sought treatment from abroad, had been aware of that part of his condition, and it was the cause of the elaborate ruse he had concocted. He wanted an heir; a child that everyone would believe
had fathered. She couldn’t help but wonder if
, rather than his dislike of his nephew, was Charles’ true motivation. Was
his overblown pride, his damnable self-centered arrogance and conceit, the real reason he was willing to do the unthinkable, and the reason he had needed to marry someone like her, someone he could coerce into doing his bidding? It was a stomach-turning notion.
Though her tumultuous thoughts continued to swirl, the crying eventually stopped. Rising from the bed, its burgundy-colored coverlet now sprinkled with dozens of tiny dark splotches, the evidence of her tears, she walked to the window overlooking the rear garden. Pushing aside the heavy velvet drapes, she pressed her forehead against the cool glass. She felt so frightened, so alone. She longed for her mother’s wisdom, her soothing embrace, but of course that was impossible. She could not confide in her mother. She could tell no one of her husband’s heinous plot, including her own family. If anyone found out about his elaborate deception, the consequences would be severe. Charles had made that all too clear.
Gavin awoke to the feel of a pillow beneath his cheek. He lay still for a moment, his thoughts a muddled haze as awareness slowly dawned. Strange images flashed through his mind; the walking path, two ominous looking men with hidden features, his sister gripping his arm in fear. He struggled to remember, to break free of the clinging fog. He recalled the chilling sound of his sister’s scream and the intense explosion of pain.
What the hell?
Had it all been a dream, or rather, a nightmare? He rolled onto his back, his eyes flying open as a needle-sharp stab of pain shot through the back of his skull. An unfamiliar wood-beamed ceiling met his gaze and he groaned aloud. No, it hadn’t been a dream.
“So yer finally awake,” said a deep, masculine voice. “I was startin’ t’worry.”
Gavin turned his head and saw a large bear of a man sitting upon a wooden four-legged chair a few feet away. He blinked, trying to focus. He didn’t recognize him. He sat up quickly, regretting it at once as a wave of nausea hit him like a punch to the gut.
“Take it easy,” the man said calmly. “Ye got a hell of a lump on the back a yer noggin.”
“Where am I?” Gavin asked. His voice was hoarse. He closed his eyes for a moment, fighting to control his rolling stomach. “Where is my sister?”
“Fraid I can’t tell ye where ye are,” he replied, his voice flat. He stood then, the chair legs groaning and then scraping against the wooden floor as he rose from his seat. “Can’t tell ye bout yer sister neither, even if I did know, which I don’t.”
Gavin forced his eyes open, watching warily as the man rose to his full height.
Damn he was big!
He took a few steps forward, holding an envelope in his right hand.
“Reckin this here’ll tell ye what ye need t’know,” he said, dropping the envelope onto the bed beside Gavin. “I’ll go and fix us some coffee while yer readin.” He turned and walked to the door, and then stopped at the threshold, looking back over his shoulder. “I’d read it afore ye try anythin’ stupid.” He left then, leaving the door standing open behind him.
Gavin stared curiously at the open door for a moment, and then looked down at the sealed envelope. His thoughts spun rapidly, despite the lingering fog in his brain. Had he and his sister been kidnapped for ransom? Considering their family’s immense wealth, it seemed the most likely scenario. Hurriedly he tore open the wax seal and pulled out the single sheet of paper, scanning the words which were written in a surprisingly elegant hand.
When he finished reading, the paper fell lightly from his fingers and settled onto his lap. He sat immobile for several long minutes, his mind reeling in complete and absolute shock.
When he could think clearly once again, he reluctantly acknowledged that he had been abducted by a madman; and worse yet, if he didn’t comply with each and every demented instruction, his sister, wherever she was, would pay the price with her life. His eyes moved to the door, understanding now why it had been left open. Escape was not an option. Whoever the madman was, and he hadn’t the slightest idea, he clearly wasn’t stupid.
He studied his surroundings then, scanning the room with a discerning gaze. It wasn’t a large room, holding only the bed, a round wooden table that held a tall stack of books, two four-legged wooden chairs, and set against one wall, a small rectangular side table that held a small pile of clothing, a white washbowl with a blue rim, and a matching white porcelain pitcher. There was a narrow, smoke-stained fireplace built of smooth, rounded river rock set into the opposite corner of the room and one solitary window across from the bed. He couldn’t see out however, as the glass panes were covered from the outside and appeared to have been darkened with black paint. There were no lamps or candles, the open door allowing the only source of light into the dark, shadowy room.
He understood why, for the letter had been very clear. The woman’s identity was to remain a secret, as was his own. The situation was so absurd, so completely outrageous that if he didn’t know better, he might have thought it all a prank, an outrageous hoax perpetrated by one or more of his friends. He ran with a wild, fun-loving crowd of gents who were well known to pull the occasional practical joke upon one another, but this was clearly no prank. This was insanity. He picked up the discarded letter and read it once again, shaking his head in outrage and disbelief. He had been abducted to impregnate a woman. That was it. No reason why, and no explanation as to why
in particular had been chosen, was given. If he failed to cooperate, made any attempt to escape or tried to discover the identity of his captor or the woman, his sister, currently held at an undisclosed location would be killed.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered under his breath. Poor Nattie, she must be terrified, not to mention what the rest of their family must be going through. Although the letter assured him that if he complied with his abductor’s demands, both he and his sister would be released unharmed, he felt an overwhelming sense of fear nonetheless. If anything happened to Natalie he would find and kill the sick bastard who’d taken her, taken them both, if it was the last thing he ever did.
Tossing the letter aside, Gavin rose from his seated position on the bed and then walked slowly toward the open door. He took several deep steadying breaths, trying to keep his inner rage in check as he exited the room and entered an unlit, narrow hallway. Turning to the left, he moved forward, toward another door that had been left open and what he assumed was the main part of the house. A second later he stood at the threshold of a large open room, its walls comprised of oversized wooden timbers, the floor constructed of wide, well-worn wooden planks. With a sweeping glance, he took in the sparse furnishings, a small sofa and two cushioned high-backed chairs set before a rustic stone fireplace, slightly larger than the one in the bedchamber.
Gavin turned his head in the direction of the deep voice and saw a small kitchen set just off the main room. His
sat at a square wooden table, holding a cream-colored ceramic mug in one hand. With his free hand, he motioned toward a second mug sitting on the opposite side of the table, steam rising from the contents within.
Gavin walked to the table, eyeing the mug warily as he pulled out a chair.
“Don’t need to worry, ain’t nothin’ in it but coffee,” the man said matter of factly.
Gavin sat down and reached for the mug. The coffee smelled good. He took a sip. It tasted good too. Setting the cup back onto the table he met the bearded man’s steady gaze. “Are you the one who hit me?” he asked, referring to his aching head.
“Nope, had no part in that business; wasn’t even there,” he said.
That was probably a good thing. He was determined to get his hands on the son of a bitch who’d hit him when this was all over and return the favor tenfold, but he wasn’t exactly eager to take on a man the size of a small mountain. He nodded, believing him. They stared at each other in silence for a long minute before he spoke. “You know why I’m here.” It was more a statement than a question.
“Only know as much as I need to,” he said. “I was hired to do a job and that’s what I’m doin’.” His tone was calm and humorless. “Don’t recken I can tell ye anythin’ you’d be wantin’ to know, even if I knew it, so ye needn’t bother askin.”