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Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

Mariel

BOOK: Mariel
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Mariel

The Foxbridge Legacy, Book Three

Jo Ann Ferguson

For Dad and Mom

Who taught me to nurture my dreams,

and gave me the impetus to find them,

and who, from my earliest memories,

were an example of true and lasting love.

With thanks and love, this book is especially for you.

Prologue

Screams ruptured the night. A child's screams, exquisitely poignant in their helpless desperation. Even the everpresent pulse of the waves on the beach beyond the house was obliterated by the sound.

Footsteps. Running feet and the impact of a fist on a thick oak door.

“Georgie! Georgie, open the door!”

No response but an escalation of the terror in the child's voice. The man in the corridor ignored the sobbing of the child's nurse and the curses of two huge attendants holding massive cudgels. He pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his silk nightrobe. Flinging it in the weeping woman's direction, he made one final attempt at reason.

“Georgie! Open the—” The innocent child's shriek of agony halted him.

He could not afford to delay. Sorrowfully, he turned to the burly men and nodded. As they raised the clubs, the dark-haired man turned his head to see the nurse wiping her eyes and wringing the handkerchief into shreds. His lean face remained shadowed in the uneven candlelight.

Each crash against the door brought more screams from within. The dark-haired man breathed a fervent prayer that they could save one. It was too late for the other.

Exultant shouts from the attendants announced the forced opening of the door. They swarmed into the storage room on the top floor of the house.

As the two strong men wrestled a raving man from his terrified victim, the dark-haired man watched silently. His flesh and blood, the child conceived of his loins. He shivered as the demented face turned toward him.

“How could you do this to them?” he demanded uselessly. He knew there would be no answer.

The madman's mouth, slack with insanity and soaked with spittle, moved, but no coherent words came from it. His glazed eyes followed the passage of his freed captive as she was assisted across the room by the hysterical nurse. With a growl, he broke free of his guards. His sudden surge of strength caught them by surprise.

In the doorway, the child heard the warning shouts. She turned to see the horror advancing on her. The child's blue eyes widened in unutterable fear. As the madman reached for her, she vindictively cried out a childish rhyme.

“Georgie Porgie, Pudding and Pie,

Kissed the girls and made them cry.

When the boys came out to play,

Georgie Porgie ran away.”

The deranged man stopped and gazed at her with his own terror. He dropped to his knees. Covering his tear-streaked face with slender bone-ridged hands, he wept in infantile abandon.

Everyone in the room froze. The little girl wiped the blood from her face onto her nightgown sleeve. Regarding the sobbing man with unadulterated contempt too mature for her young features, she was pulled from the room by her nurse.

“No!” she cried. “Don't let them hurt Georgie.” The nurse halted before she added to the child's injuries by dragging the youngster down the third-floor staircase. With the tattered handkerchief, she wiped the stream of blood along the child's pale face.

“He hurt you. He—he—” The nurse could not continue through her sobs.

Patting her nurse on the shoulder, the child murmured compassionate words she meant with all her heart.

“That could be me. His madness could be mine.”

The woman moaned and embraced her. The youngster pretended to be comforted while she listened to what was taking place in the attic room.

The silence broke when finally the man in the silk nightrobe ordered in a tired voice, “Take him to his room. Make sure he doesn't escape again. I will have the parson brought.”

“And the sheriff?” She recognized the voice of the larger attendant.

“Yes, I will send for the constable as well. He must be satisfied with his own investigation.” His voice strengthened as he stated, “When he arrives, tell him he cannot speak to the child. She is too upset by what she has seen.”

“She must answer his questions.”

“No!” he shouted with uncharacteristic rage. “What she has seen tonight could make her as insane as that fool. I will not allow that to happen. She is the only one left. She must be protected from the curse inflicting that one.”

He could not bring himself to call Georgie by his given name. After tonight, the child wondered if he would want to think of her cousin Georgie as his son again.

The child watched as her uncle sent the gathering of curious servants scurrying away. His shoulders sagged in defeat as he descended the narrow stairs. The little girl followed, her nurse in tow. Bent by her own burden of the truth, she knew a death at the huge house would not be unexpected. Too much had happened here to have such a heinous crime be any cause of wonder.

Chapter One

“Lady Mariel! Lady Mariel! The reverend is here to see you.”

Sparks of blue fury snapped in her narrowed eyes as the woman turned to see the maid coming toward her. She stood and clapped her ash-coated hands together. A sooty cloud rose to dim the raven lights of her hair. She tugged irritably at the fashionable silk gown now marred by fingerprints and a rip on the left side of the pink skirt.

“The reverend? Why in the blazes would I want to talk to Reverend Tanner now?” She glanced around in disbelief. A fire-weakened beam creaked ominously overhead, and she stepped quickly out of what once had been the cell of a fourteenth-century monk. “Tell him I'm too busy investigating the extent of the damage to the Cloister.”

“But, Lady Mariel—”

“For God's sake, Grace, just tell Reverend Tanner I'm too busy today. I'll see him next Tuesday about the society fundraiser.”

“But, Lady Mariel—” She paused when she saw that Lady Mariel Wythe had turned back to her grim task. Grace shivered as she glanced at the destruction around her. The once-magnificent original section of Foxbridge Cloister had been reduced to smoking ruins. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. The place stank of damp, scorched wood. Even the strong breezes from the sea could not cleanse it.

She wondered why Lady Mariel had come out here. Lord Foxbridge would not be pleased to learn his niece had done something so dangerous. He would not want her poking about among the shattered glass and unstable stone walls. Even though he delighted in queer explorations, he wanted Lady Mariel to have, as he said so often, “a normal life.”

Knowing it would be futile to argue with the chatelaine of the Cloister, she picked her way back to the “new” section. Built in the sixteenth century, it postdated the original monastery by nearly four hundred years. Fortunately, it had suffered little damage in the fire.

Mariel swore under her breath as she tripped on a fallen timber and scraped her shin on a stone bench in the center of the narrow hallway. Why the wide seat had been moved to obstruct the corridor, she could not guess.

With a sigh, she sat on it and gazed sadly around her. Sorrow pulsed stronger than anger within her. She had been born at the Cloister twenty-six years before. Memories of her childhood brought to mind scenes of playing games in these passageways and attending special family services in the now-decimated chapel at the end farthest from the “new” Cloister.

The fire had been an accident. How and where it had started, no one knew. Nothing could change it. Still, she longed to steal the gentle images from her heart and make them reality. No other children would play among the empty cells and dare the ancient spirits to awaken. All they would see was the empty-eyed stare of the glassless windows in the sections of wall still standing.

Tears burned her eyes as she gazed at the sky. The lead roof, which had survived King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the religious rage of the Civil War, and the Restoration, lay melted in great, cannon-ball-sized blobs on the stone floor. Her right forefinger still smarted from foolishly touching one of the hot masses.

A crunch made her whirl on the bench. Silk protested with a sharp rip, but she ignored it. If Phipps had not made her so furious, she would have changed before coming here. She had liked this tea gown. Now it probably was ruined beyond repair.

Her suddenly clear eyes met those of a stranger. She noted with minimal interest his sea-green eyes and dark hair. As he stepped closer, a flash of auburn blared as the sun struck his hair. His perfectly tailored morning suit was littered with ash.

“Lady Mariel?” His voice resonated richly through the remains of the long corridor. As he moved toward her, she saw he depended on a cane to walk.

Irritation overcame her instinctively courteous reaction. She had not slept since the fire started two nights ago. Fatigue lowered her barriers to release her true feelings.

“Who are you?” she demanded sharply. “What are you doing tramping through here? You could get hurt.”

His professionally serene smile dimmed as he kept himself from retorting as curtly. He viewed her tattered gown and the streaks of dirt crisscrossing her face in the dried paths of tears. Her defensive stance reminded him of a medieval lady standing in the ashes of her ancestral home. It urged him to speak gently.

“My lady, I am Ian Beckwith-Carter, the new pastor at the church in Foxbridge.”

“New pastor?” She scowled as she sought in her mind for an elusive memory. A cold smile settled on her lips. “Oh, yes, I remember hearing Reverend Tanner was retiring.”

“Remember hearing? I assume you are not a regular churchgoer, Lady Mariel?”

Her hands settled on the bench as she struggled to remain calm. She grimaced as the coarse soot ingrained in her palms cut into her skin. Ignoring the aggravating pain, she stood.

“Reverend, if you have come to Foxbridge Cloister to lecture me on my laxness in attending church, you chose the wrong day. You are new here. When you've been in Foxbridge a while, you'll learn, as everyone else has, that it is too late to save the souls of those crazy Wythes.” She brushed off her hand and extended it to him. “Good day, Reverend.”

He refused to accept her dismissal. “My lady, I make it a practice to call on all my parishioners, and—”

“Consider that obligation fulfilled.” She turned to walk away. When he called after her, she paused. With a sigh worthy of a martyr, she said, “Very well, Reverend. I see you are less easy to dispense with than that old fool Tanner. I will meet you in fifteen minutes in the front parlor. We shall chat as you wish.” Her eyes swept the littered hallway. “There's nothing more I can do here now.”

He watched as the fierce martinet transformed into a pretty woman whose heart was shattered by the destruction of her home. That image lasted only a second before her stern expression reasserted itself. He stepped back hastily as she brushed past him to return to the undamaged section of the Cloister.

“Fifteen minutes,” she called over her shoulder.

With a smile, he wondered if that was also the amount of time she would grant him for this reluctant interview. He did not move until she was out of sight amid the rubble. His eyes twinkled as he imagined the confrontation to come. He had been warned, but that made him only more anxious to meet the fiery, opinionated Lady Mariel Wythe.

Picking his way back the way he had come to find her, Reverend Beckwith-Carter anticipated their meeting in the fabulous house. From his small home in the village, he had seen Foxbridge Cloister perched majestically near the sea cliffs. It overlooked the land it once had controlled. Although most of the land was owned by the families of the onetime tenant farmers, he guessed the Wythes had lost none of their imperious attitude. He suspected he would be sure of that when this meeting was completed.

By the time Mariel reached her rooms on the second floor of the Cloister, she was livid. Reverend Tanner had been bad enough, with his bigoted ideas of where women fit into the scheme of the world. His continual, far from subtle hints that she should find a husband and raise a brood of children to repopulate the Cloister irritated her. She was sure he wanted only to stop her interference in village affairs. More than once he had denounced from the pulpit the law that allowed women to vote in local elections.

BOOK: Mariel
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