Authors: Isabel Cooper
Tags: #Highland Warriors, #Highlanders, #Historical Romance, #Paranormal Romance, #Romance, #Scotland, #Scotland Highland, #Scottish Highland, #Warrior, #Shifters, #Dragon Shifter, #Magic
Alice shook her head. “No. Well, maybe. He
already hired maids, though, and”—a significant pause—“Mrs. Hennings, the cook, she says he gives all of them
Few Drury Lane actresses could have given a statement more dramatic flair than Alice did with her announcement, and the Seymours, at least, were an appreciative audience. Even Bert, who knew little of domestic service but had heard stories from his sister, whistled—and got a glare from his mother for it.
“Any two hours?” Mrs. Seymour asked, her son’s table manners safely corrected.
“No, just at dusk.” Alice lowered her voice again. “He doesn’t want any of them in the house then. Only he lets Mrs. Hennings stay in the kitchen, as she’s got rheumatism, and any who want can stay there with her. But they’re not to go into the house proper.”
“I bet he’s got a mad wife,” said Florrie, who had been spending her pocket money on penny dreadfuls lately. “And he has to take her out sometimes to…to feed her, I guess, or let her walk around the place, and he can’t let anyone else be around or she’ll tear them to shreds.”
“That’s silly,” said Bert. “Why wouldn’t he just keep her in the attic? Or tie her up?”
“Because…” Florrie hesitated, buttered a roll, and then saw a way out of the problem. “Because he’s still passionately in love with her. Even though she’s mad. And he wants to be kind to her.”
“He didn’t seem the sort to be madly in love with anybody,” said Mina, remembering being called
and MacAlasdair’s demand that she stop being ridiculous. “And he certainly didn’t seem very kind.”
“His maids probably don’t agree with you there, my girl,” said Mr. Seymour, chuckling. “Still, he sounds like a strange sort.”
“That’s for certain,” Mina said. “Alice, could you talk to Ethel for me? I think I’d like to have a cup of tea with Mrs. Hennings when she has a moment.”
Contrary to all general wisdom about cooks, Mrs. Hennings was neither short nor stout nor elderly, but rather a tall woman of handsome middle age, with the sort of black eyes that novels inevitably called “flashing” and glossy black hair that made Mina touch her own brown curls with envy. Her own figure was undoubtedly voluptuous, but that was as close as she came to the stereotype.
The kitchen of MacAlasdair’s house was far more conventional than the cook. It included a black stove like a mountain of ironwork, shelves of stoppered jars, racks of pots and pans, and smoke-stained walls ascending toward rafters that Mina could barely see. Even though it was only dusk, the stars not yet out, the shadows were deep in the corners of the room. Sitting at the long oak table in the center of the room, she felt dwarfed and mouse-like.
Tea helped. She added three lumps of sugar to her cup, stirred, and sipped.
“You haven’t been here long, Alice says,” she began.
“Well, not here,” said Mrs. Hennings, gesturing around the room. The light caught a gold ring on her hand.
was more than a courtesy title, then, at least for her. “I’ve been in London for some years now. Worked at Bailey’s before his lordship hired me.”
“The hotel?” Mina grinned. “When I was small, we used to watch the people going in, some nights. My brother and sister and I. Saw all kinds of lords and ladies. George used to swear he spotted a sultan or a rajah or the like once, but Alice and I never credited it.”
Mrs. Hennings joined Mina in laughing. The atmosphere in the room lightened a little, although when Mina glanced toward the corner of the room, the shadows seemed even deeper.
Well, it was getting on toward night.
“He might have been telling the truth, at that,” said Mrs. Hennings. “We had a few.” She set down her teacup. “But that isn’t why you wanted to talk to me.”
“No,” Mina said. “Actually, I was hoping you could tell me something about his lordship. What kind of a man he is.”
Mrs. Hennings’s eyebrows lifted. “I see,” she said. “Made you an offer, has he?”
“Lord, no!” Mina’s face burned. The topic was embarrassing enough, but a sudden, treacherous memory of MacAlasdair’s powerful body leaning over her desk suggested that such an offer might have its attractions.
She couldn’t meet Mrs. Hennings’s eyes for a moment. She looked off into the corner again, and this time she thought she saw something move.
Well, rats showed up in the best-kept kitchens, Mina had heard. She didn’t want to call anything of the kind to the cook’s attention, though.
“He’s…he came to visit my employer the other day,” she said, “and he seemed cross. I was hoping to find out—”
She hesitated, caught between several choices of phrase. “Whether he’s actually a murderer” was almost certainly too blunt. “What exactly is wrong with the man” probably was too. And she didn’t want to bring Moore into it unless she had to.
More movement caught her eye. That was a
rat, if it actually was a rat. A cat, maybe? If so, Mina was surprised it wasn’t under the table begging. In her experience of cats, their reaction to food was almost universal.
“Hoping to find out if there’s anything I can do to help things go more smoothly,” she finished belatedly.
“That would depend on what ‘things’ are, wouldn’t it?”
“I wish I knew,” said Mina.
Mrs. Hennings smiled quickly, which might have been either sympathy or a rebuff. “His lordship’s a private creature, I fear. Certainly doesn’t confide in me, at least not about anything other than a fondness for lemon tart.”
“But he’s a pleasant enough man, generally? Not angry or demanding?”
“Pleasant enough from what I’ve seen. If he does cut up rough with anyone, it’s not been me, nor any of the maids. I’d have known, believe me.” Mrs. Hennings rolled her eyes.
Mina smiled, remembering some of Alice’s stories of hysterics in the scullery. “Speaking of maids,” she said, “I suppose they’re all out at the moment? I’ve heard his lordship’s generous that way.”
“The night’s too pretty to be inside, if you’ve a choice in the matter.” Mrs. Hennings made a wry face and patted her left knee. “I broke this as a girl, and it’s never been quite right since, so I’m as happy to sit down at the end of the evening. As long as—what the bleeding
Her gaze had suddenly focused on something over Mina’s shoulder, something that had drained the blood from her face. Mina whipped her head around to look.
There was a man stepping out of the shadows.
No, not a man.
It was nothing but shadow and silhouette, something that didn’t quite look human. It stepped unerringly toward them, moving with a slowness that was more frightening than speed.
It had no need to hurry.
She should scream, Mina thought. Maybe it would bring help, though she couldn’t imagine what sort of help would be effective against a…ghost? Spirit? It didn’t look solid. Still, she should scream and run. But her throat was locked tight, her legs numb.
This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening.
Movement, at the corner of her vision.
Mina turned her head, so slowly she thought she could feel each muscle working individually. There was another one of the shadows, stepping toward her from the other corner of the room.
Pain shot through Mina’s arm, not intense but sudden and sharp enough to break through her paralysis. She looked down for a second and saw Mrs. Hennings’s hand just above her elbow, the other woman’s nails digging in through layers of cloth.
Then they were both on their feet, Mina’s chair clattering to the ground behind her. She grabbed the half-full teapot and hurled it at the closer of the two shadow-men. She was beyond surprise or dismay when she saw it go through the shadow and smash against the floor. Tea spread out, a dark pool against the polished stone.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” Mrs. Hennings recited too high and too fast as both women backed away from the figures approaching them. “I shall not want. He—”
Unimpressed, a shadow flicked one whip-arm out toward her. She shrieked as it curled around her knee, or maybe Mina shrieked, or perhaps they both did. Mina lunged toward the cook, grabbing for one of her arms, even as the shadow-man tugged forward. Mrs. Hennings fell hard. Her head made a noise like a cracking egg when it hit the stone floor, and she stopped struggling.
The shadow-man paused for a second. Its head turned toward the cook’s still form. Then it seemed to shrug, and the tentacle withdrew. As if Mrs. Hennings had never been there, the figure and its companion continued their advance—this time toward Mina alone.
The shadows were between her and the door to the outside. The windows were too small and too high to crawl through. Mina fumbled behind her, found the doorknob, and yanked open the door that led to the rest of MacAlasdair’s house.
She ran, darting around tables and through doors and not really knowing where she was headed, holding on to enough self-possession not to flee upstairs but to try and find a way out of the house, hoping that the spirits wouldn’t follow her even then.
This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening.
One of the shadows had gotten close enough, a room or twelve back, that the tip of its “arm” had brushed Mina’s ankle as she fled. Pain and numbness had run up from the spot almost instantly, as if she’d fallen hard on the leg. She tried to ignore it now.
She wondered if Mrs. Hennings was dead. If so, she suspected it was a better fate than Mina would have. Whatever the shadows intended, a broken skull would probably be kind in comparison. Moore had been beaten, the papers had said, with a large object. Maybe the shadows didn’t need an object; maybe they just needed to touch a human body for long enough.
She had no strength left for either panic or sorrow at that thought. It just was, like one more table to veer around.
Another room. This one had light coming from under the door. Not normal light: a strange, wavering reddish glow, as if someone inside was messing about with Chinese lanterns. Was there someone inside?
She sprinted for the door anyhow. Maybe anything that strange would be able to take care of the shadows chasing her. If not, it was still a door, and it was still ahead of her. She reached out and grabbed the doorknob.
It didn’t turn. Mina twisted frantically at it, with one hand and then two, and nothing happened.
And there was nowhere else to go, no side passage to flee down, and the dark shapes were coming onward.
!” she screamed at them, knowing it wouldn’t work, still not wanting to die doing nothing. “Begone! A—avaunt! In the name of God!”
No wavering. No change. Only oncoming, expressionless shadow.
A roar came from the room behind her.
It was a bit leonine; it was a bit like a train whistle; and it was loud enough to make Mina’s ears ring. Hearing it, the shadows froze. If they’d had eyes, Mina thought they would have been looking at each other. She sensed some sort of uncertain communication between them anyhow.
Then a claw half the size of her body smashed through the door behind her, carving through the wood as if it were wet paper. Mina ducked away, flattening herself against the wall, just in time to see an immense dark shape charge out and into the first of the shadows.
A shrill scream went up from the monster. Mina thought that it was likely a dying wail—she hoped so, with a hot vengeance born of fright—but she couldn’t see the shadows clearly any longer.
She could see their attacker.
She saw a scaled body as tall as the hallway ceiling and almost as wide as the hall itself. She saw great leathery wings folded against the beast’s sides. She saw a long snaky neck that ended in a great wedge of a head, the same deep red as the rest of the creature. It had blazing gold eyes, that head, and a mouthful of teeth like railroad spikes.
Even her mind, which felt like so much jelly by that point, could grasp the meaning of those attributes.
The shadow lashed out at it with its arms. There was a hissing noise as it struck the dragon’s flesh, but Mina didn’t stay to see the rest of the battle. The shadow was distracted. The dragon was distracted. She took a deep breath and bolted forward, away from the locked door.
As she’d hoped she would, she passed under the dragon’s neck as it flinched backward from the shadow. The beast snarled, terrifyingly close to Mina’s ears. The sound gave new energy to her exhausted frame, and she scrambled onward past the folded wings and the scaled bulk of the dragon’s body, past the lashing tail, and into the empty hallway beyond.
She didn’t have time for relief. She ran again. Behind her, she heard movement, then footsteps, if something so loud could be called that.
Another door lay ahead. This one was unlocked. Mina felt the dragon’s presence behind her as she ran through. Did they breathe fire? She was dead if they did—unless this one simply didn’t want to burn the house down.
Why would it care?
Why would a dragon be in a house at all?
She wanted to wake up. She wanted to slap whoever was responsible for this final insult. Her week hadn’t been enough. Running from shadow monsters and being pinned against a room with—something unnatural—in it hadn’t been enough. No, there had to be dragons, too. If guardian angels existed, hers was due a kick in the shins.
The next door opened easily enough, at least, and deposited her in what must have been a drawing room. The curtains were mostly closed, but Mina could see a little bit of night sky through them. The stars would be out any moment. So would she, in all likelihood.
But there were windows and the street and—yes—a poker by the fireplace. She grabbed it just as the dragon burst through the door.
It shouldn’t have fit through the door at all. Not the beast she’d seen at first.
It was smaller now.
There was a
about it too. Mina couldn’t make out its features, or even its form, particularly well. Terror might do that, but she’d been terrified before, and the dragon had seemed vivid enough then.
It didn’t matter. She lunged for the window. The poker smashed through a pane of glass.
Then the dragon was in front of her, between her and her escape route. Mina shrieked again, this time in frustration as much as fear. It had to be
She couldn’t even look at it properly. It kept twisting, or being twisted. She could tell that it was rearing up now on two legs, which there shouldn’t have been enough space to do. Otherwise it was as if she couldn’t focus her eyes, or as if some prism hung between her and the dragon, splintering its image into many angles.
. She’d at least make it have a bad night.
Mina drew her arm back, tightened her grip on the poker—
A hand grasped her arm. A human hand, by the feel of it, since her bones were in one piece and there were no claws piercing her skin. But when Mina looked down, the skin on the hand was deep red and scaly.
That shape lasted for a moment, long enough to burn itself into Mina’s mind. Then the scales vanished, the skin turned pale again, and she was looking at a hand that might have belonged to any gentleman.
Her own hand dropped to her side, the poker in her grasp suddenly very heavy. Mina looked up at golden-brown eyes, deep red-black hair, a square chin, and a thin mouth.
“Cerberus,” said a familiar deep voice, heavy with irony and resignation. “Might I ask what you’re doing in my house?”