Authors: Juliet Moore
Tags: #FICTION / Romance / Historical
Isabel Darton touched her forehead and smoothed back wisps of rebellious hair. It had been a long and tiring day. She'd just lost her estate manager and things couldn't be worse with the tenants. Silas Hudson needed the thatch in his roof repaired, and there was a serious flood at the Morton farm. Her cousin Robert was supposed to arrive that morning to help, but at dusk, he had yet to appear.
What else could possibly go wrong?
Her horse whinnied and reared, nearly dislodging her from the saddle. Before Isabel could calm her spooked horse, a shot whizzed past her arm and exploded into a tree trunk. Her arm burned with sharp pain. Her whip came down on the mare's flank, and the animal spurred itself into a gallop.
Isabel panted and fell toward her horse's neck. A low hanging branch stung her when it snapped against her arm. With palpable fear, Isabel gripped the mare's mane along with the saddle horn, not trusting her precarious sidesaddle at such a high speed.
Finally, the manor was in sight. The horse sped into the stables, nearly knocking over the groom who'd come to assist. Isabel stared down at her hands, taut and white-knuckled. Even though her arm ached from the pressure, she didn't let go until the groom was at her side. She tumbled off the horse's back and into Jack's arms.
"Are you ill, Madam?"
With difficulty, Isabel managed to speak, "Someone just shot at me."
"Are you hurt?"
"No," she replied. She ran toward the house, her numb arm hanging at her side.
Isabel hurried through the courtyard, up the front steps and pulled open the heavy doors.
"Get my cousins," she told the downstairs maid. "Send them to the drawing room."
Isabel stumbled into the drawing room and collapsed onto the horsehair sofa, clutching her arm and leaning her head against the antimacassars.
Why would someone try to kill her?
Her cousin appeared faster than she'd expected. "What has happened?" Magda asked.
Isabel took a deep breath and hoped Magda's trademark lack of sympathy wouldn't show itself. "Where's Cyril?"
"He isn't here."
Isabel greeted the maid bringing the tea with a weak smile then turned to look at her cousin. "Someone tried to kill me in the forest just now."
Magda's eyes widened. "Shoot you? Why would anyone do such a thing?"
"I don't know!"
Her cousin sat down and poured the tea. "Tell me exactly what happened, cousin."
Isabel held her arms tight and leaned back into the couch cushions. "I was riding through the woods after visiting with the tenants and a bullet flew right past my head."
"Do you think it could have been an accident, perhaps a poacher?"
"I don't know. I didn't stick around to find out." Isabel gazed at the tea, still clutching her arm against her chest.
Magda sighed. "It makes the most sense. Just a plain old poacher, going about his business, trying to shoot his dinner, but missing and hitting the tasty heiress instead."
"Oh, right. You don't seem very alarmed." She trembled and wished she'd made more of an effort to befriend Magda in the past. If only Cyril was home or, for that matter, dear Robert.
"I'm sure there's nothing to be alarmed about." Magda looked toward Isabel's untouched tea. "But I do think you should enforce the laws against poaching. Something like this could easily happen again."
"I don't think it's right to prevent a poor man from doing something about his impoverished circumstances. If that is the only way he can win meat for his family, I shall let him have it."
"How noble of you."
The drawing room door flew open It still rocked in its hinges when Jack ran inside, his dirty boots trailing mud across the rug and a grooming brush clutched tightly in his hand. "Madam, there's been an awful accident!"
Magda stood up. "What kind of accident?"
Short of breath, the groom huffed, "Master Robert has been killed!"
Isabel didn't move from her seat. Shock rooted from her body into the soft cushions of the sofa.
The groom looked toward the window. "The horse dragged him home. It looks like he's been shot."
"Are you sure he's dead?" Magda demanded.
"I need to see him--" Isabel started. The chill of icy fingers ran down her back.
"No, Isabel, you don't. Stay right where you are." Magda turned to the nervous groom. "Fetch a surgeon."
"I've already sent for Mr. Lincoln," he replied.
"Then go wait for him and let us know when he gets here," she cursed. "Can't you see what you're doing to the rug?"
Jack growled to himself and hurried out of the drawing room.
Her cousin stared after him with unmitigated anger, shaking her head with wonder.
Isabel glared at Magda. "Have you no compassion?"
"No, I didn't inherit it. I wasn't in the line of descent."
Isabel clenched her teeth. She refused to let Magda's pettiness distract her. "Robert can't be dead. He just can't."
"Well, it seems he is."
"That means it wasn't a poacher." Isabel closed her eyes for a moment. The room had begun to spin. "Two cousins, both shot in the woods. That's no coincidence."
Magda paced in front of the couch. "Revenge? Have you recently upset anyone? Kicked someone out of a cottage?"
"No. Nothing like that."
Magda laughed. "Perhaps Robert got another one of the tenant's daughters pregnant. He never minded performing his masterly duties. When they shot at you, it might have been a mistake."
Isabel shook her head. "That's unlikely. He weighs five stones more and doesn't happen to wear dresses or ride sidesaddle. I believe we present vastly different profiles."
Magda reached down for her cup of tea. "I suppose."
"Magda!" Isabel clutched her stomach with one hand, her breakfast rising into her throat. "Have you heard from Cyril? What if he's been attacked as well?"
The teacup her cousin held rattled in her hands. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions."
"I can't help it." Isabel took some tea. She figured its warmth would sooth her icy hands. She looked at the large fireplace and wished it was lit.
Magda stooped forward. "Isabel, don't you know how to hold a teacup without trembling?"
"Well, my arm . . ." She stood up when she saw a shadow fall across the rug. She ran across the room. "Cyril!"
Cyril bounded into the drawing room, foppishly dressed in a top hat and the shiniest Hessians she'd ever seen. Cyril walked past Magda without saying a word. "Isabel, what has happened to Robert?"
"He's been shot," she replied, her voice shook with each word of the simple explanation.
"But how? And by whom?"
"Someone obviously wanted him dead." Isabel trembled; the rush of air cooled her wet cheeks. "Oh, Cyril, I'm so glad you're all right."
Cyril frowned, his expression curious. "What about you, Isabel?"
She swayed, and the entire room became foggy and distant. "I just feel numb . . ."
Her words deteriorated into sobs as her cousin took her into his arms.
Cyril patted her gently on the back. "Don't worry, cousin, Mr. Lincoln will be here soon enough. He'll take care of you and tomorrow, it will be easier to bear."
Isabel just cried. She wondered if she'd ever feel safe again. "I can't believe Robert is dead, Cyril. Why?"
"I don't know. It's--" Cyril fell silent, touching her where it hurt the most. "Isabel, you're bleeding!"
"I think a branch whipped my arm in the woods."
"It's more than that!" he said.
Isabel forced her eyes down to her shoulder. A thin gash dripped scarlet dow the sleeve of her riding habit.
"You're lucky the bullet only grazed your arm," Mr. Lincoln told her again, shaking his head with wonder. "It looks like you've managed to avoid infection."
A bandage was secured and Isabel reached for her black crepe jacket and eased into it, still feeling pain when she stretched her arm into the sleeve. "How long will it be sore?"
Mr. Lincoln closed the large, black bag. "It's only been three days since the injury, Miss Darton. You can expect to feel pain for some time. Perhaps weeks."
Isabel finished buttoning her jacket. She smoothed down the crinkled surface before turning back to the surgeon. "I'd better join the others."
He nodded. "I'll be back by the end of the week."
Isabel slipped two guineas wrapped in paper onto the table next to Mr. Lincoln's bag and slipped out of the sitting room.
With the mirror in the hall covered, she was unable to check her appearance one last time before going downstairs. Regardless, she knew what the glass would show: a pale face, tinged with green, and thick, black hair that had, in the last few days, lost most of its luster.
Isabel descended the stairs just as Cyril entered from the outside, having just returned from Robert's funeral.
"I still can't believe he's gone," she said.
He hung his head down, the streams of fabric tied to his hat trailed down his back. "Neither can I."
Isabel hooked her good arm through his. "The solicitor is waiting in the library with the others."
They walked in silence. Cyril seemed deep in thought, and no one could respect his need to contemplate more than she. Lately, Isabel couldn't speak for thinking. Her life had just blown up in her face.
The inquest into Robert's murder had turned up nothing.
Cyril had proved he'd been at Cuckold Pub and Magda hadn't left the house. The family had never truly been suspected anyway. As for strangers, no one had come forward to state they'd seen anyone unusual in the woods on that day. Even Robert's angry tenants, many of whom had despoiled daughters because of him, lived miles away on Robert's smaller estate. So the matter had been forgotten.
Unfortunately for Isabel, the memory of a bullet whizzing past her head was unforgettable.
The solicitor was already seated when they entered the library, as was everyone else. It was just Magda, two elderly aunts, and a couple of distant uncles.
That was it. The entire bulk of her illustrious family.
"Is everyone here?" the solicitor asked.
After replying in the affirmative, Isabel let her mind wander once again. She wasn't particularly interested in how Robert had decided to distribute his worldly assets. She just wished he wasn't in the position to do so. And it was too late to change that.
Isabel looked at the other occupants in the room and wondered how they could go about their business like nothing had happened. She was terrified. Every time she thought of the day Robert had been killed, she wanted to hide beneath her bed.
Isabel shivered which drew Cyril's attention. She couldn't meet his friendly gaze. If someone was trying to destroy her family, would Cyril be next?
As the will was read, Isabel struggled over what she could do to protect herself. Though she didn't know how her two cousins intended to protect themselves, Isabel knew she couldn't stay at Darton Manor. She had to pull her thoughts together . . . try to make sense of it all.
It would be simple for her to go to the townhouse in London. If she only spoke to Cyril about it, she would feel secure in her safety. Cyril could tell anyone who asked that she'd gone somewhere else entirely.
Out of the corner of her eye, Isabel saw the solicitor pack up his papers and rise from the desk. The rest of the company chatted amicably as he walked out.
Magda came to Isabel's side. "No one gained from Robert's death. Maybe this was all just a huge accident. se of mistaken identity."
Mrs. Slocum cackled gleefully at her side. "Perhaps Robert was just in the way of Lady Darton. Since inheriting the Darton fortune from your mother, that will would be the one to hear!"
Isabel glared at her. "Please don't anticipate it too eagerly."
The odious woman laughed.
Isabel looked at the door to the hallway. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to find Cyril behind her.
"I saw you shivering during the reading," he said. "Are you feeling well?"
"I can't say that I am." She pulled him away from the group and lowered her voice. "I want to leave Darton Manor, Cyril. I no longer feel safe here."
"I know you're distraught, but this is still probably the safest place for you to be."
"It isn't. Someone tried to kill me. What if they return to correct their mistake?"
He shook his head, disapproval colored his expression. "Where will you go?"
Isabel watched her relatives discuss their newly acquired bounty. Nauseated, she replied, "To the London townhouse, but you mustn't tell anyone where I have gone."
"Of course not." He glanced toward the door, then ushered her away from the corner where they'd been whispering.
At a volume loud enough for others to hear, Isabel asked, "Would you mind hosting the rest of the afternoon, cousin?"
"Not at all, my dear. May I ask why?"
Isabel touched her arm gingerly. "I feel quite ill."
"Not only regrettable," he replied, "but also understandable." He lowered his voice and added, "Why don't you slip out now? No one will even notice."