Sleepless in Scotland
Book 3 of the Pennington Family Series
Chapter 1 & Chapter 2
Edinburgh, June 1818
As two figures hurried past the dark, dripping walls of St. Giles, the bells in the tower tolled eleven. They were late.
High Street, which formed the spine of Edinburgh’s Old Town and ran from Castle Hill down to the palace, still pulsed with life in spite of the foul weather and the hour. A handful of revelers spilled out of a tavern door across the cobbled street, led by a pair shouting at one another and ready to brawl. Beneath the flickering oil lamps, others gathered to witness the imminent battle. And under the meager cover provided by overhangs and shop doorways, homeless people huddled together against the damp and turned frightened eyes on the impending violence.
Phoebe Pennington glanced up at the crown steeple of the cathedral, lost in the darkness and mist. Pulling up the collar of her coat against the persistent drizzle, she tried to match the strides of Duncan Turner, the surly Highlander she employed for nights like this. Dressed in men’s clothing as she was tonight, she expected no one to give them a second glance, but she was no fool. Occasionally, the places she needed to go required a strong arm, quick reflexes, and a thorough knowledge of the streets. As a former Edinburgh constable, dismissed after being injured on duty, Duncan possessed all of that.
This was one of those occasions.
Phoebe had never before been to the Vaults beneath South Bridge. Originally designed to form the arched supports for the bridge that spanned the urban valley known since the Dark Ages as Cowgate, the Vaults were now infamous as the seediest portion of the cellars, tunnels, and caverns that formed Edinburgh’s underground city.
Not fifty paces on, Phoebe found the dark wynd she’d been directed to take and looked at Duncan. He nodded wordlessly. As they turned into the alleyway, a meek voice called out from a murky niche.
“Spare a ha’penny, sir?”
A small, ragged girl appeared, keeping her distance from them. Phoebe stopped. In the darkness behind her, a bundle of rags stirred and the sound of a woman’s wheezing cough reached Phoebe’s ears.
“What are you doing here so late?”
Weariness clouded the girl’s eyes. “Me mum’s sick.”
Phoebe didn’t have to ask. This had to be another case of the sick being put out of a poorhouse.
Looking at this ragged figure before her, Phoebe felt a flush of anger wash through her. With a commission due to arrive from London to inspect the poorhouses, administrators all over the city had been covertly emptying their facilities for the past month of the sick and of those too old to work. The streets of Edinburgh, from the Grassmarket to Leith, were now crawling with women and children like these two.
And this was precisely the reason why she was meeting her informant tonight.
Secretly writing for the Edinburgh Review and using an assumed name to hide her identity even from the editors, Phoebe had been producing articles about corruption and providing a voice for those who could not make themselves heard.
What was happening now to the city’s poor was a disgrace, and she intended to expose it. The man she was meeting tonight had records of the evictions and minutes of meetings. Proof she could use in her articles.
She felt Duncan’s impatient presence behind her.
“Can your mother walk?” she asked. Getting a nod from the girl, she continued. “Rouse her and go down High Street to the close just past the Bull’s Head Tavern. It’s not far. At the end of the close, you’ll find a house with a green lantern in the window. They’ll take you in. Understand me?”
“Aye. Thank ye, sir.”
The government was failing these two, but shelters like the ones her sister Jo funded were scattered across the city.
“Good girl.” Phoebe put a coin into her hand and watched her retreat into the darkness.
Starting down the twisting wynd, she could feel the man at her shoulder biting his tongue as they walked.
“Say what you have to say, Duncan,” she ordered in low voice.
“You can’t save them all, m’lady,” he growled, his Highland burr echoing down the wet alleyway.
“I know that, but I can help the ones I find,” she replied in a whisper. “And don’t call me ‘m’lady.’”
“Aye, but that lassie could’ve been a badger worker for some thug lying in wait for us.”
“That’s why I have you,” she replied.
Duncan huffed and gestured down the passageway. “Why the Vaults?”
“I didn’t choose the place. He did. He wouldn’t meet me anywhere but there. Show a wee bit of that Highland courage I keep hearing about.” Phoebe slipped on the wet cobbles but caught herself. Twisting down the hill between crumbling stone tenements looming four or five stories above them, the wynd was treacherously slick.
“Courage? You know me. Everyone in Edinburgh knows me. I’m the man what took a bullet from Mad Jack Knox and still dragged him in,” Duncan said, bristling. “I know the ways of these back alleys better than any man in Auld Reekie, and I’m telling you, it ain’t a good thing, you going down there. And when my wife finds out I agreed to come down here with you, she’ll nail my hide to the door of St. Giles back there.”
Phoebe smiled in the dark, thinking it was a good thing there was someone Duncan was afraid of. After she heard the former constable had lost his job, she’d helped him set himself up as a mercantile agent. He was now serving as a supplier in the city’s efforts to begin installing gas lights on the streets.
As they continued on, she eyed the deep shadows of doorways and stone steps leading to the basements. It was a dark and treacherous maze, but they had to be close.
A moment later, Duncan put his shoulder to a low door in a wall, and Phoebe heard the scrape of a heavy rock moving back across the floor. He went in first, then turned and waved her in.
The dim light from the alleyway did little to illuminate the cellar, and the musty, tomblike smell of damp earth and vermin immediately assaulted her senses. On one wall, a stone stairway led to an upper floor, but he gestured past it.
“We’ll follow this through to the Vaults,” he said in a low voice. “Stay behind me and look sharp for thugs and other scoundrels. Many a robber has been known to hide out in rooms like these.”
She nodded and followed him through the darkness into another chamber, marveling at his ability to pick his way along in the nearly pitch blackness. Passing through another door, Phoebe saw they’d reached the Vaults.
Like dungeons she’d seen in old Norman keeps in the south of England, arched passageways led off into the darkness. Far off sounds of men’s voices and the shrill laugh of a woman echoed along the stone walls.
In the distance a lamp flickered outside a larger archway with a dingy, red cloth hanging across the opening for a door.
“So where’s your man?” the Highlander growled.
“He said he’d meet us there,” she told him, leading him toward the makeshift red door. “I’m paying too much for him to leave us in the cold.”
At the doorway, she paused. A smoky, sickly sweet odor hung in the air. Phoebe’s correspondence with the clerk asked her to be here. He’d be waiting, and there’d be a quick exchange. For a dozen heartbeats, her feet remained rooted in place. She listened to the sounds from inside and breathed in the distinctive smell.
“This is a drug den.” Duncan scowled. “The man’s an opium-eater?”
“So it seems.” She pulled open the curtain.
The barrel-vaulted chamber beyond was wide and deep, lit by candles perched in arched, catacomb-like shelves along the outside walls. Through the low-hanging smoke, Phoebe could see straw pallets, occupied by both men and women, lining the floor. Jacketless attendants scurried about, carrying trays with pipes and hot coals.
She peered in, but Duncan grabbed her elbow. “You can’t go in there. They’ll sort you for a blueblood in a wink. And if you’re a toff who’s not indulging, then you’re a mark for every thug in Old Town.”
Phoebe was no fool. She knew she couldn’t go in. “If he is in there, I want to see him.”
“You wait here and don’t move.” Duncan stepped past her.
As her bodyguard stalked between the rows of pallets, an attendant met him and, after a brief exchange, led the Highlander deeper into the vault. He already knew the clerk’s name and a brief description. She hoped that was enough.
Phoebe thought of the kind of people who visited a den like this. The confidence she had about her source and the credibility of the documents he was willing to produce were quickly losing ground. Though published under a false name, her articles were respected as honest commentary on the politics of the city. She was not about to have her reputation destroyed by inaccuracies or lies.
Without warning, a body that seemed to be no more than skin and bones barreled into her at a high speed, jarring her and knocking the curtain from her hand. She reached out to steady the falling creature. A young lad, almost a man in height, looked frantically over her shoulder.
The boy twisted free of her grasp and lurched off, stumbling and banging into a stone wall as he ran.
As she watched his retreating back in astonishment, Phoebe moved away from the door and directly into the path of a man, dressed in black, who nearly upended her as he rushed past.
She barely caught a glimpse of him as she tried to regain her balance. But the chill she felt was unmistakable. He was the dark movement one sees at the edge of the woods. The wind that howls and scratches at the windows on a winter night. He was the shadow of evil. The image of Death—with hooded robe and scythe—flashed before her eyes. He was Satan here to collect a soul.
A cry came back down the passageway.
“Let me live!” the voice echoed. “Don’t!”
The lad hadn’t escaped. The sounds of a scuffle reached her. Phoebe’s heart drummed in fear, and her stomach rose into her throat. Murder.
“Duncan,” she called. The red curtain lay thick and heavy across the door.
She couldn’t wait for him. Phoebe didn’t know how she gathered the courage to take a step, then two. But she was going after them.
Holding her walking stick like a club, she took off down the passageway. Not forty paces along, she came upon the two, struggling in an archway where a stout door stood ajar.
The attacker, cloaked all in black, was flesh and blood. He was half pushing, half dragging the boy, who was fighting as if he knew his life depended on it.
Phoebe didn’t hesitate but attacked, swinging her cane as she rushed at them. The first blow struck the man’s back, drawing a bark of pain. Swinging the stick again, she landed one on his shoulder, but the assailant latched onto it, yanked it from her grip, and sent it clattering against a wall.
The boy, freed, scuttled past her and was gone.
Unarmed, facing a monster she wasn’t strong enough to fight or fast enough to run away from, she backed away, looking for a route to escape. The assailant came at her, and she kicked at him, landing a booted foot hard in his crotch.
He was staggered for an instant, but she only managed to move two steps away when he came at her like an enraged bull. Phoebe saw, almost too late, the blade gleam in his hand as he slashed at her face. She ducked back and felt the point of the knife slice her throat above her coat collar.
He came at her again, and she kicked at his hand. The knife flew from his grip.
She turned to run and saw stone steps leading downward. Escape. But as she reached the top step, he caught hold of her ulster, jerking her backward as his fist caught her below the eye.
The sharp blow numbed her face, and Phoebe felt her knees give as she tipped backward into the shadowy void.
Ian Kerr Bell ducked his head beneath the top of an archway and tried to ignore the nauseating odor of decay and death that permeated the air and the very stones down here.
The Vaults. Level after level of vile, stinking corruption. A rat’s nest of depravity and crime.
Here, beneath the bustling shops and taverns of South Bridge, this catacomb of rooms and passageways, originally used as storage space and workshops for the businesses above, had long ago been left to decay, closed off by the crumbling walls of tenement buildings crowding up against them.
Ian knew that when the businesses above sealed off access to the lower levels, new occupants found their way in. The hellish labyrinth of cramped, dark chambers soon housed the poorest of the city’s poor. Illegal pubs found a place to operate. Gambling hells. Brothels. And worse.
No sunlight, no fresh air, no clean water. No law either, other than the law of the streets. Robbery and murder were an everyday event in the Vaults.
But with every problem—even murder, he thought grimly—intrepid entrepreneurs saw opportunity. The dead had value. A market for cadavers had sprung up in Edinburgh. Bodies were in demand with anatomists. The city’s medical schools bought every corpse they could get their hands on.
Corpses like those of his sister.
Three years. Three years since Sarah had gone missing. The last time anyone saw her alive, she’d been browsing in a dress shop on South Bridge with a friend. And then she was gone. Vanished into thin air amidst crowds of people who frequented the busy stretch of markets every day.
As Deputy Lieutenant of Fife and a justice of the peace, Ian was a man of consequence. He had power and connections. But with all of this influence, it had still taken him months to solve the riddle of his sister’s disappearance.
She’d been murdered and left in the Vaults. Her precious body had been stripped of all finery, and her corpse sold to the surgeons at the university. It was only by gaining access to the meticulous records kept by clerks and anatomy students that Ian had been able to identify his sister. Four broken bones that Sarah had suffered in her right arm falling from a horse at the age of eleven had matched the injuries described in detail during the dissection of “unknown female subject.”
Struggling to breathe in spite of the familiar knot in his throat, Ian ducked through another archway. Even after learning what had become of his sister, he continued to come down here. He had to.
Finding her remains and moving them to the church crypt at Bellhorne did little to ease the pain. Her murderer had never been discovered. The mystery of how she’d become separated from her friend and found her way down here continued to plague him. Although Sarah was only twenty at the time, Ian knew she was smart and alert and wise beyond her years. She wasn’t reckless. She wouldn’t put herself in danger. There was no possibility of her coming down here willingly. Three years ago, the place was no less infamous for the dangers lurking here. The reputation of the Vaults was enough to keep any rational person away.
As he moved along the passageway, an echo of a scuffle and a soft cry drew Ian’s attention to the darkness at the top of a flight of stairs ahead of him. He’d often used his stout walking stick as a weapon down here, and he prepared to use it again.
Many times over the past three years he’d come upon some poor soul being attacked. More times than he could remember he’d intervened and managed to save a life, even if it were only for that night. And there were many times when he’d come upon victims left to die. Some had been beaten or stabbed. Many were drunk to the point of oblivion. Some were burning with fever.
As he reached the stairwell, a body came tumbling from the top, landing in a heap at his feet.
Peering up the stairs, he saw no one in the darkness of the upper level but heard the faint echoes of distant voices. Whoever this fellow had been fighting, the opponent didn’t want to pursue the encounter.
Ian crouched beside the body. The man was facedown, his legs akimbo on the lower steps and his ulster thrown up over his head. His hat lay nearby.
“Hard fall,” he commented.
No response. As Ian pushed the coat down to turn him over, he was stunned when his fingers brushed against soft hair braided and pinned in a coil.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered. “You’re a woman.”
He gently rolled her. The passageway was too dark for him to make out her features. She was unconscious, but she was breathing. He guessed she must have struck her head at least once as she fell.
“I don’t know what reckless game you were playing in coming down here, but I won’t leave you to it.”
Juggling the walking stick, Ian picked her up and started back in the direction he’d come. Tall for a woman but light enough to be carried easily, she lay completely limp in his arms.
Random possibilities of who she was and what she was doing down here ran through his mind. The men’s clothing piqued his curiosity. And the quality of the wool greatcoat told him she wasn’t one of the legions of poor who took shelter down here. Of course, she could easily have stolen the clothes.
Retracing his steps, he made his way up several flights of stairs and eventually emerged in an alley that led to the street level of the bridge.
His valet, Lucas Crawford, was waiting by the carriage, and Ian saw him exchange a look with the driver. Neither were surprised at the sight of their master surfacing from the Vaults with a body. The driver opened the door as Lucas approached to help.
“Netted yourself a trout tonight, Captain?”
Ian shook his head. “No net required. This one dropped in my lap.”
“Och, it’s a woman!” Lucas exclaimed, peering at her face as Ian carried her past a streetlamp. She stirred and moaned, but then was silent again.
“Well, she’s alive, at least,” the valet said, sounding relieved.
Reaching the carriage, Ian deposited her on a seat and inspected her for bleeding. She had a small lump on her head and a welt forming just below her eye, but he saw no stab wounds.
Lucas looked over his shoulder. “And she’s a bonnie lass as well.”
Ian glanced into her face. He sat back suddenly. He knew her.
Ian’s brain threatened to explode. It was almost too much to fathom. Alone. In men’s clothes. In the middle of the night. In the most dangerous place in Scotland.
And he knew the vile corruption that lay at the top of those steps where he found her. The wretchedness that consumed the Vaults.
Of all the places for a young woman to be traipsing through, why the devil was she in there?
Dressed like a man. Fighting . . . fighting! And with God-knows-who. Running for her life, from the looks of it.
He’d like to think she was a fool, but he knew she wasn’t. He’d known her for years. His temper grew even hotter at the thought that this woman at one time had a connection with his sister. Sarah had socialized with the family, considered her a friend, looked up to her with respect. She’d often visited their home at Baronsford when they were in residence. And invited her to come and stay with them at Bellhorne.
Why such foolhardy behavior? He seethed. He couldn’t get past that question. She could have died down there tonight, murdered just as his sister had been.
“Do you know her, Captain?” his valet asked.
“Blast me,” he cursed, staring. “She’s Lady Phoebe Pennington, the Lord Justice’s younger sister.”
A vague sense of awareness returned.
The boy. He got away. She saw him run. One thing to be thankful for.
The thought gave her mind some relief, but it did little to soothe her body’s aches. Phoebe felt like a cleaver had split her skull in two, and where she’d been punched, her face was throbbing dreadfully. She didn’t know how long she’d lain unconscious in the Vaults, but the pain beneath her eye told her she was alive, at least. Her limbs seemed to be intact, and she was still wearing the men’s clothing she’d donned before setting out with Duncan tonight.
Duncan. He’d be beside himself when he came out and found her missing.
The pounding in her head wouldn’t let up, but she forced herself to focus past the pain and pay attention to her surroundings. She was propped up in the angle of a bench seat, her head lying against a cushioned side wall. From the smell of leather and the whinny of an impatient horse outside, she knew she was in a carriage, and it wasn’t moving.
Phoebe opened her eyes a slit and peeked through her lashes, but quickly shut them tight. Two others occupied the carriage with her, and one of them was hovering over her, too close for comfort. Still, she sensed no threat.
She let her head roll slightly, and the cravat she’d worn rubbed against her throat. Stinging pain brought back her memory of what happened in the Vaults. Hearing the lad’s cry, she had to go after him. Never in her life had Phoebe been in a situation where murder was being committed. She couldn’t stand by and let it happen.
Cold sweat spread across her brow even now at the recollection of the knife in the man’s hand. He’d intended to kill. To kill. And once she’d interfered, his fury turned to her.
Her throat. She was cut. But it had to be only a scratch, for she’d survived. Every muscle in her body tensed as she relived the fight in her mind. Hitting him with the cane wasn’t enough. She’d kicked him. Her arms weren’t long enough nor strong enough to keep him away. She’d kicked him again. Finally Phoebe had found some use for her long legs. She wanted to laugh, but she couldn’t. Everything in her mind was a jumble. One moment she was chasing after an evil spirit, the next her boots were connecting with a man’s flesh. And now she was here.
The pain in her skull was not helping her reassert order to her thoughts.
Her hat was missing. Her rescuers must already know she was a woman. She tried to build the courage to open her eyes again.
“Do you know her, Captain?”
Captain. Phoebe forced herself to focus. She was rescued by a captain. The memories of the fight tried to claw to the front, but she pushed them back. Captain.
Since the war with the French, many men still used their rank. The names and faces and voices of her brothers’ friends came to mind. She avoided most social events, but twice a year Baronsford put on the most eagerly attended balls in Scotland, and her parents made it mandatory for her to attend.
She wished he would say more. Perhaps she knew him. But she didn’t want to know him. Tonight, coming here to the Vaults . . . she cringed at the thought of how horribly her family would react to find where she’d been.
“Blast me.” The voice was deep and angry. “She’s Lady Phoebe Pennington, the Lord Justice’s younger sister.”
The tone of each syllable emphasized the displeasure of the speaker.
She knew the voice. Her curiosity bested her, and she opened her eyes to be sure.
Damnation. Captain Ian Bell of Bellhorne, Fife.
Her throat tightened. Sarah. Her dear friend. The memory of her fight in the Vaults disappeared. The headache was forgotten. Her thoughts shifted and focused on an innocent life lost.
Sarah’s shocking disappearance and the news that came much later of the recovery of her remains had been horrifying. She was her friend. Aside from her sister Millie, her closest friend. To this day, Phoebe had nightmares about the shocking business. Sarah’s young life had been lost, her body defiled in a public dissection, and her family cast into a permanent state of tumult. Mrs. Bell, shut away in the family’s estate in Fife, had become estranged from society. She accepted no invitations, saw no guests. And Phoebe had heard that Sarah’s brother, Ian, scoured Edinburgh’s underworld at night, continually searching for the person or people responsible for his sister’s death.
“Captain Bell,” she managed to croak.
The devil as well should take her. Why did she have to be rescued by him? The one man who had every reason to escort her this very moment to her family’s home and demand an audience with her father or either of her brothers. She had no doubt he’d happily watch as they skinned her alive.
“Out, Lucas. Leave us.”
The sharpness of the order was expected.
The valet climbed out and shut the door of the carriage as Phoebe willed her foot to stop tapping nervously. Even in the dim light, she felt the weight of the man’s glare.
Lectures. Threats. She expected it. But silence hung as ominously as a noose between them. One fist perched solidly on a muscular thigh. Her gaze moved upward over the broad chest to his stern face. He remained perfectly still, except for the sinews in his jaw that clenched and unclenched repeatedly. Much of his face lay in shadow, but she had no trouble seeing that his eyes were watching her with the intensity of a great cat studying his prey.
At a much younger age, long before tragedy struck the Bell family, Phoebe had entertained many fanciful dreams about Captain Bell. But she was six years younger than the war hero, and he was only gradually recovering from recent battle wounds. He barely acknowledged her existence, ignored her subtle overtures. He never knew of her hidden affection.
“Now,” he snapped. “Explain yourself.”
No formality at all in his manner of address. His tone was sharp and barely civil. Phoebe felt herself squirm slightly, but she fought the urge to look away.
No one. No one but Millie and Duncan knew of the career she’d already established herself in as a journalist. Women—particularly woman of her class—simply did not pursue such indecently “public” endeavors. An earl’s daughter, Phoebe had been born to wealth and privilege. Philanthropy was allowed, a passionate hobby might be acceptable. But a career—particularly one that occasionally endangered her life—was entirely beyond the pale.
Nevertheless, Phoebe was doing it, and she was good at what she did. Her writing, albeit published anonymously, continued to strike at the heart of corruption and injustice, and she already felt a sense of pride in her efforts. Still, she couldn’t explain any of that to this man. Not now, to be sure. How could she? She’d never yet felt she could tell her own family.
Phoebe loved her family too much. Knowing what she was doing would simply distress them unnecessarily.
“I wasn’t down in the Vaults alone,” she began, trying to play down the danger she’d faced. “I had a bodyguard with me, and the man was perfectly capable of protecting me. But we were separated for a moment and—”
“Clearly you were not protected,” he cut in even more sharply. “The truth now. Why were you down there?”
He wanted details that she wasn’t about to reveal. She considered sharing what she’d witnessed about the lad and the man chasing after him. But although she’d justified it to herself, her actions would be construed as foolish. She could have been murdered. And that still didn’t explain why she’d gone there in the first place.
“Charity work. I was down there looking for poor families that have been driven out of the poorhouses in recent weeks. The old and infirm. Any who are unable to work. Women and children have been inundating my sister Jo’s charity houses, but many more don’t know there are such options. I went into the Vaults to help direct—”
“I’m quite certain Lady Josephine,” he snapped, interrupting again, “only a fortnight before her wedding, knows nothing of your reckless behavior. And I would be willing to wager neither does your father. Nor your brothers. They’re all at Baronsford, are they not?”
Phoebe struggled not to match the edge in his tone. She was speaking the truth . . . in part. Edinburgh’s dispossessed were the cause for her being here. Her article could expose the political maneuvering and benefit those poor souls put out on the streets.
He wasn’t waiting for her to respond. “Take us to Baronsford,” he ordered, directing his man standing outside to ride with the driver.
“No!” she cried out. “You can take me to my family’s town house on Heriot Row. My sister Millie is in town. She’s expecting me back tonight, and she’ll be beside herself with worry if I don’t return. Please. She and I are to travel to the Borders together.”
The carriage began to move along the stone pavement. No orders were issued to alter the route.
“Does your sister know about this?” He gestured to her attire.
“Of course not,” she lied. Actually, Millie had helped her dress in men’s clothing before she left the house. “No one in my family knows.”
A dark brow arched, and he continued to stare at her. “A moment ago you said Lady Josephine—”
“I never said Jo knew anything about where I was going tonight.” She threw up her hands in frustration. “Can you please stop the carriage and allow me to explain properly?”
Her words seemed to fall on deaf ears. The brooding Scot made no move to halt the carriage.
The thought of arriving at Baronsford just after dawn with Captain Bell, only to have him rouse the earl to report where he found his daughter was unthinkable. But there was no escaping him. She had to convince him, but the stubbornness in his look was daunting.
“I’ll tell you everything. The truth, as damning as it is.” Her fingers clutched the edge of the leather seats. “Captain, you know me. I was a friend to your sister. Many times, I was a guest at Bellhorne. Please give me a chance.”
The carriage wheels hit a rut, jerking the passengers, and Phoebe put a hand to her throbbing head.
“Very well.” He called to the driver to stop. “Out with it.”
Damnation. She let out a frustrated breath. Sarah’s tragedy had hardened this man to any honest plea she might make. And he was not one to be reasoned with. She needed a believable fabrication that would satisfy his curiosity.
A report of her whereabouts—and the situation in which he found her—couldn’t reach her family. At least not until she’d had a chance to explain to them the entire situation. Including her writing.
Hopefully, that would be never.
Her brothers went to war and pursued creditable careers afterward. Jo was an angel of mercy, touching the lives of so many. Millie was already the family peacemaker, and her heart of gold defined the meaning of understanding and encouragement and selflessness. Phoebe was the only black sheep. Already well on her way to spinsterhood, she lived with her head in the clouds and her pen to paper, off in some dreamland. At least, that’s how her family saw her.
It had taken her many years to realize who she was, what she could do, and how to go about doing it. She’d been blessed with a gift, and she’d be damned if she wouldn’t use it for the good of others. She wasn’t willing to give that up.
The captain stirred impatiently. “I see that we stopped prematurely.”
“A man,” she said as he started to call out to the driver.
Ian Bell’s gaze snapped back to her face. He was large and imposing, but Phoebe had spent her whole life dealing with her father and brothers.
“I went there in search of a certain man of my acquaintance.”
Well, that was true, she thought.
“A beau . . . of sorts. A young man my family knows nothing about, and I’m certain they would disapprove of him if they learned of our liaison. Up until an hour ago, I imagined I was in love with him. After what I witnessed in those Vaults, however, that is no longer the case.”
With this single lie, Phoebe knew she was ruining any positive impression he might have had. With just a few words, her character—in his eyes—was damaged, if not destroyed. But what did she care, if she could avoid exposing her true calling to the world and her family? She was twenty-seven years old, and she had no interest in matrimony. And she very much doubted Captain Bell was a gossip.
She could only hope he would see her as unworthy of his time and effort in exposing her.
He leaned back in his seat, much of his face disappearing in the shadows, but the grim line on his lips clearly demonstrated his disapproval.
“As bad as this all seems,” she continued, gesturing toward her attire and feeling encouraged. “Tonight was a blessing. Tonight I woke up. I now know what a vile scoundrel he is. And I shall never see him again. I can promise you I shall not waste even one moment regretting the loss of our relationship.”
“What is the name of this man you were meeting?”
“We weren’t meeting. I was looking for him. But his name is of no consequence. He and I are done. Finished,” she said in the most somber tone she could muster. “I pray you won’t ask another word about him. That foolish chapter in my life is over.”
His scowl became almost fierce. “Were you fighting with him at the top of the stairs?”
The lad’s frightened face as he stared over her shoulder came back to her. His cry for help. Phoebe shivered and resettled herself in the seat. She hoped he had a shelter far from the dangers of the Vaults.
“Were you fighting with your lover?”
The sound of the word “lover” made it more damning, for Ian Bell was the only man she’d ever dreamed of in such terms.
“No. I found him in . . . in an opium den not far from there.” She shook her head. “There, now do you understand why I’m finished with him?”
“You, Lady Phoebe Pennington, went into a drug den?”
“No. Of course not.”
“You said he was in the opium den.”
“But I didn’t go in. My bodyguard went in. That’s how we were separated.”
“Then who knocked you down the steps?”
“I don’t know! I didn’t see his face.”
She wanted to tell him about the black-garbed man, but right now whatever she said only led to another question. He was trying to break down her story. He gave her no time to think. And the irritating pain in her skull was no help. She needed time to sort through the fact and the fiction she was weaving.
Phoebe recalled Sarah’s complaints about the brother. Even as a young man, he’d been extremely protective of his sister and his mother. And he was by nature impatient and always too quick to issue a verdict.
“Please allow me to explain, Captain, from the beginning.”
His gaze was direct and piercing. Phoebe took a deep breath. She needed to end this inquisition, and that would never happen while the carriage was pointed toward Baronsford.
“While I explain everything that happened tonight, could we at least head to my family’s town house? I’ve said before that my sister Millie must be sick with worry. I was expected back long before now.” She gave him the exact address in the New Town section of Edinburgh.
Every request had to be analyzed and stewed over before he responded. As she waited, she tried to fight down the anger beginning to burn within her. She also began to wonder how she could ever have been foolish enough to be attracted to him in her youth. Obviously, she knew nothing of his muleheadedness in those innocent, untroubled times. From his dubious expression, she sensed that the phrase “give her an inch and she’ll take an ell” might be passing through his thick head right now. She had to do something.
“Duncan Turner, the former Edinburgh constable, was my escort when I went down into the Vaults,” she offered. “Perhaps you know him. The man is tall, strong, and knowledgeable. He and his wife are both acquaintances of mine.”
Phoebe thought the mention of her bodyguard’s name might put Captain Bell’s mind at ease, and she was certain that Duncan would not reveal her secret if her inquisitor decided to track him down.
The captain gave no indication of either knowing or not knowing the man, but he called up to the driver and gave him the address.
Phoebe waited until the carriage rolled down the street again.
“I went to the Vaults tonight because I’d heard rumors about the gentleman that I was seeing.”
“So he’s a gentleman?”
“Not in my eyes. Not after tonight,” she said, continuing to speak quickly to take away his chance of asking questions. She knew it was easy to be caught in your own web of lies once you began spinning it.
“The worm is an opium addict. He intended to use me and my fortune. I heard some rumors, and I came tonight with Duncan to confirm them. And it’s the truth. I saw him in that horrid place. Not that I walked in there myself, but I saw him from the curtained entrance. Then I sent Duncan in to inform him that any correspondence between us was finished. I wanted him to know that I’ll not be receiving him in the future. I shall not be accepting any letters from him, and I’m not interested in any excuses or tales of woe. There will be no communication of any sort. Done. Finished. And I’m relieved. So relieved.”
She brought a fist to her lips, pretending to calm her unsteady breath. Phoebe wished she were a better actress. Still, perhaps he’d be empathetic enough to allow her some grace by changing the subject.
“What happened on top of the stairs?” he demanded in the same hard tone. The man was positively a Torquemada.
At least now she could tell the truth, and Phoebe was thankful for that.
“I was waiting in the passageway for Duncan to come out of that place and escort me back to where I belong. Suddenly . . .” Phoebe paused, realizing the consequences of speaking the truth. A woman chasing after an assailant, armed only with a walking stick.
He would think her imprudent, at the very least, and possibly insane. And Phoebe would have to agree with him. Also, she had no doubt he’d insist on taking her back to Baronsford this moment. And again, she wouldn’t blame him. What she’d done was foolhardy. But she had no regrets. She would do it again.
“Suddenly?” he asked. “If your purpose is to keep me in suspense, it’s working.”
Phoebe sat up and straightened her coat, deciding what she could say. “Suddenly a man grabbed me from behind and dragged me like a sheep into the shadows. He held a knife to my throat.”
She touched her neck where the knife wound still stung. She held her fingers to the light coming through the window and stared at the smear of blood.
“The deuce! The blackguard cut you.” His hand closed around her wrist as he moved directly across from her. “Let me see.”
He didn’t give her a chance to object but lifted her chin and quickly untied the cravat.
Amusing. Awkward. Mildly embarrassing. She couldn’t summon quite the right words to clarify the feeling rushing through her at the sensation of her legs tucked between his, her head tipped back while Captain Ian Bell leaned close, inspecting and touching the sensitive skin of her throat.
“I’m fine. I believe he only nicked me,” she managed to say, fighting a delicious shiver as his thumb brushed one last path down to the top of her collarbone.
“Who was he? The man who grabbed you?”
Her skin felt cold when he released her and sat back. He remained seated across from her.
“I never had a good look into his face.” She’d fought him with all her strength, but there was nothing about him that she could describe, except his evil spirit. “It was dark, and the attack happened so quickly. But he was about my height. Perhaps a bit taller. He was quite strong.”
She frowned as the confrontation played out again in her mind. He was dragging the lad somewhere when she’d reached them.
“I think he had a destination in mind. Someplace nearby. And the way he wielded the knife, I can’t help but think he’s used it before.”
His stony gaze turned to the window and the dark houses they were passing, and Phoebe scolded herself for saying too much. She had without doubt reminded him of his sister’s murder. The muscles along his jawbone twitched.
From the moment she’d opened her eyes and recognized him, she’d been trying to make up stories that would satisfy his questions and curiosity. Now, with Captain Bell’s attention directed somewhere else, she studied him.
The touch of grey in his sideburns showed how much he’d aged since the last time she’d seen him. It was the day of Sarah’s funeral. His mother had been absent. He’d looked as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and she’d wanted to reach out to him. There was so much she’d wanted to say about Sarah, about the lost friend who’d been like a sister to her. But she couldn’t. Phoebe had realized whatever words she said, they would be about her own loss. And though her emotions were raw, she couldn’t allow herself to fall apart while he was nobly struggling to retain his own composure.
On that miserable winter day, while the skies shed tears of grief over the young woman’s life, Captain Bell barely acknowledged the scores of people attending. He was distant, unapproachable. He was very much the same now.
Phoebe recognized Heriot Row as the carriage rounded a corner. They were only a block away from the town house.
She reached out and touched his hand, drawing his attention back to her.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “Thank you for saving my life.”
The carriage rolled to a stop in front of the residence.
“Please believe that I learned a lesson tonight. And I will never, ever do such a foolish thing again.” She had no desire to return to the Vaults. That was the truth. But as far as going after an assailant in a similar situation, Phoebe had little control over what she would do.
A footman emerged from the house and ran down the steps to the carriage. Phoebe sent her rescuer one last look. “I don’t know when we shall see each other again. But please know that I am forever indebted to you.”
As the footman opened the door, Ian climbed out and offered her his hand.
“I shall see you in less than a fortnight, Lady Phoebe,” he told her. “At Baronsford.”
Her foot slipped on the step, and she would have gone down on her face if Ian hadn’t held her up.
“A fortnight?” she asked, realizing she sounded like a fool.
“At the ball your family hosts,” he said gravely. “I’m suddenly inclined to accept their gracious invitation. I believe that will provide the perfect opportunity to pay my respects and speak with your family.”
The impenetrable mist, suspended like a wet shroud, pressed into the doorways and sills of grey stone buildings, barely visible along the wide street. For any soul unfortunate enough to be abroad on a night like this, there was no escaping the wet, oppressive chill. It settled thick and damp on the skin, leaving its bitter scent of primeval ash and decay. It soaked through clothing, seeped into flesh, settled into bone, a cold reminder of the dark and endless fate that claims all.
In the light of day, one might think that moments like this gave birth to tales of Grendel and his kind, of monsters that rose out of swamps and lakes and oceans to destroy and to devour. The stuff of poets and false heroes, safe beneath a shining sun.
But tonight, no sun shone to chase away fears. No moon hung in the sky. No stars dotted the firmament. Tonight, death was more than a story, more than a dispirited feeling, more than a cold, unsettled sensation. Tonight, in the shadows of South Bridge in the city of Edinburgh, death was a living presence, a cold and heartless predator. A serpent, coiled and motionless. Watching. Waiting.
He stared from the darkness as the captain carried his prize to the carriage. The interloper who’d muddled the purity of his kill. Lucas Crawford, standing outside the carriage, looked in his direction. He melted farther into the shadow. He’d had the boy in his grasp. Another lamb to slaughter. He felt his knife ready to enter the flesh. But the boy escaped. Because of him.
Him? Not him. Her.
A surprise, for a moment. But the clothing was only a disguise. He saw her face.
Cold rage coursed through him. Like a she-devil, the woman fought him, attacked him, forcing him to release his kill.
The boy ran, as if he could escape him. No one escaped him. He had a destiny that he must fulfill. All those lost souls called to him. Vengeance, they cried. Kill.
His gaze focused on the carriage. The street, so empty and silent. They were not moving. Perhaps she broke her neck falling down those steps. It was dark, but he saw her face. Did she see his?
He held up the knife, the blood still on his blade. The smell of it filled his lungs. A few more steps and it would have been over. He could have killed them both.
Meddler. Anger pulsed through him.
“And you, Captain Bell. Hunting in the shadows for some faceless creature. What do you imagine I am? What do you envision when you dream of these Vaults? You don’t even know how close you’ve been. How close. Turn her out. Leave her in the street.”
Today was the day. He needed to kill and he would. For all of them.
The captain spoke to his valet, who relayed the command as he climbed up top. What was the word he said?
The driver called to his team to walk on, and the carriage began to move south along the bridge.
“You’ve slipped from my reach. From my blade of destiny. From immortality. For now.” The mist swirled and the carriage disappeared. “Baronsford. Very well. I’ll find out who you are. I’ll find you, meddler.”
In the distance a mad hound barked at the night and then grew silent. The Vaults behind him beckoned.
Another lamb awaited.