Tuesday, September 10, 2013


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Chapter Twenty-One (Part One)

The gentlemen helped Lavinia and me out of the carriage, and we stepped down onto soft green moss. From what I could see by the lit lanterns hung on each corner of the fine carriage, we were surrounded by trees, the team of horses having stopped in a little clearing. A bright moon hung high in the sky.

The horses were steaming with their exertion, seeming very glad to be nibbling at grass once Nathaniel removed their bits and patted their sweaty hides. He spoke to the two horses with such fondness, calling them by name, so I now knew this was his carriage, his team. Veil had done well for himself, it would seem, for those were just as fine a set of horses as the carriage itself was of the highest caliber. Perhaps he had a few wealthy patrons. I knew nothing of his lineage, but this wasn't the time to ask, as a peculiar arrangement lay before us.

A few paces ahead of us sat a circular, dark brick wall draped in climbing ivy that just surpassed Jonathon's tall height.

He took two of the lanterns from the carriage's four exterior hooks, then handed one to Nathaniel and then strode forward, the beams of light bouncing and illuminating only lush greenery around us. The rest beyond was thorough darkness. Jonathon fished in his pocket before procuring a large iron key that he inserted into just as large of a lock. The solid metal gate opened with a rusty groan, and Jonathon gestured all of us forward.
He led us within the curved wall. Inside were the long-lost remnants of an untended garden that may once have been exquisite. Up the path sat a small, single-story cottage of dark brick that was nearly entirely overgrown with ivy and climbing roses. The roses, either white or pale pink, I couldn't quite tell in the light, were the only things looking thoroughly healthy in the area, their tumbling glory utterly unheeding the dilapidation of the building they climbed upon.

We walked carefully up an overgrown flagstone path. Weeds and briars slapped and snagged at my skirts. Jonathon led us up to a splintering wooden door. This reminded me of a fairy tale. We had somehow crossed into an enchanted forest, and in this hut we would encounter either profit, an oracle, a witch, or some other Grimm doom. Though I had to admit, the scenery had more romance than magic or dread to it, wistfully abandoned.

I wasn't sure what this place was or once had been, let alone how we could attempt surveillance from so remote a location. Though I had no direct experience with English lords, I'd seen enough of the wealthy to know what an estate was and was not. This was not an estate. But it was curious indeed.

The same large iron key opened the door, paneled in shaded glass as if wanting to keep something within obscured. If there were windows, I couldn't see them in the darkness for the coverings of ivy and rose briars.

"Where are we?" I asked, looking around at the interior of the small, dusty cottage.

Jonathon took a thin taper sitting on the plate of a sconce by the door and began lighting the candles and lanterns within the place, and pool by pool of light revealed an intriguing space.

While petite, it was lavishly appointed, having obviously kept someone in great state. But considering the forest and wall around it, someone kept hidden.

"It's a bit of family history," Jonathon replied with an odd discomfort. "We're here on Denbury property, but property only known to a few, and accessed by none. I was grateful the carriage path was still somewhat navigable when I first retread it the other day, though I had to take a scythe to it to truly open it back up again. All of this dates back to my great-grandfather's time..."

"A lady was kept here," Lavinia stated, picking up dusty, fine lace doilies and distinctly ladies' accessories: a stray glove, a fan set onto the mantle of a marble fireplace, a vanity placed rather prominently in a room that wasn't a bedroom, but... "It all looks like one large ladies' boudoir," she added.

Nathaniel strode over to a set of lush, thick red velvet curtains and swept one back, revealing an enormous four-poster bed that was nestled into an alcove crowned by an elaborate trim. Or, it would seem it was a bedroom after all.

Jonathon cleared his throat. "Yes. Supposedly, my great-grandfather had quite a precious secret that he wanted to keep quite hidden indeed."

"On his own property?" Nathaniel said, seeming a bit more impressed than he should have been. If this was going where I thought it was, this was not something a gentleman should aspire to. "I suppose the secrets kept close to home are the most titillating..." he added, tossing a burning glance at Lavinia, who held his gaze and returned it.

I refrained from folding my arms and looking at Jonathon pointedly, though I truly wanted to make him squirm a bit. The sight of the bed had me blushing again, and I cursed my revelatory cheeks. Thankfully, there were other mysteries of the place to catch attention.

Turning away, I gestured to an immense, intriguing door, a massive wrought iron contraption beautifully decorated with floral and ivy patterns, and then gestured back to the smaller door we'd come in through, the one that led out to the little walled garden one might expect of an average cottage. "If that is the front door," I began, then gestured back to the ornate metal garden, "then where does this lead?"

Jonathon swung the door wide. A big black chasm was revealed, with stairs leading down into a dark corridor. The first few steps were white marble. Everything else was entirely in shadow.

"To the estate," Jonathon replied. He couldn't hold my gaze as I blinked at him.

"So what you're saying is that…" I said slowly, "you've brought us to the secret mistress cottage that is connected to your estate?" Now I felt justified in folding my arms and glowering. "That's…that's what's going on here?"

"Great-Grandfather's cottage, this wasn't like some family tradition," he clarified, clearly trying to justify this whole presentation as an extreme outlier. "He was an infamous rake, excessive, mad to the point of abject hedonism. My family has worked very hard to restore the Denbury reputation."

"But still, kidnapping and then bringing the lady you're courting to the mistress's cottage?" I countered. Again, I looked over to Lavinia for support in my indignation. I don't know why I bothered. She was staring rapturously at Nathaniel. I folded my arms, turning back to Jonathon. "Well, it doesn't strike the best tone."

"I realize that, but none of this is about you, Natalie," Jonathon said, bracing me as if that might be a shocking revelation. I scowled. He continued. "And none of this should be seen in the eyes of courtship but of necessity. Everything I have done is about getting into my estate, unseen, still keeping up the guise until I am absolutely certain I could have no possible trail on us in order to safely survey the situation. This is the perfect vantage point, to enter from a secret passage. There will be ways to spy and listen in without ever being seen. In addition, no one in the house—" His face flashed with fury. "None of those fools who don't belong there as it is not their house could know about any of this, not the passages, anything." He gestured around him to this unusual setting. "This was a very well-kept secret only between my mother, father, and me. We told none of our staff. The knowledge was bequeathed to my father when his father passed. Since this was a good escape route or hiding place in any emergency, we felt there was no sense sealing it off."

A fleeting glimmer of sorrow passed over his beautiful face. I assumed thinking of his late parents caused a pang, and I wondered at his strength of confronting all this; a house and family were taken from him, and here he was poised to survey it as if it wasn't even his anymore. Well, it wasn't; it had been stolen. But justice would be done. In the end. It had to be. But there were no certainties for us. His resilience in the face of it all was truly astonishing.

Jonathon continued further. "You and Lavinia will be safe here while Nathaniel and I see if the house is occupied or indeed as abandoned as Brinkman indicated it might be from recent exterior surveillance."

"You mean to leave us here?" I clarified quietly.

"It would be for the best," Nathaniel stated.

"No, I am coming with you," I declared.

Jonathon shook his head. "I knew you'd say that, but, Natalie, my dear—"

"If we are about to be bait, as it were, I'd like to know what may be in store. I want to know where and what I might be—perhaps literally—dragged into. As you say, I don't need to be visible, but waiting here will be maddening—"

"Well, then, if you're so insistent about it, Miss Stewart," Nathaniel interrupted crisply, "then we should take every precaution. If we are discovered during this surveillance excursion, we'll need to play our parts." He reached into the pockets of his long black frock coat and plucked out the bindings he'd taken off Lavinia, unfurling them through his long fingers once more. He turned to Lavinia with smoldering attention.

Nathaniel grasped Lavinia's hand and brought it to his lips. "My lady. Would you permit me this little ruse once more? It's just a game," he purred.

Lavinia bit her lip, nodded, and if I wasn't mistaken, she swayed a bit as if her knees were suddenly weak.

I balled my fists, and that blushing flare of fury lit up over my body once more. "It is not a game, Mister Veil. It never has been. Perhaps this all seems like a grand act to you, but please remember people have died in this game. Your dear friend and myself, included. Not to mention your Association, too, if they're not careful."

The imperious actor turned a sober look to me. "If we don't make it a game, Miss Stewart, pretend we're not frightened, how in God's name will we have the courage to do what must be done?" he countered earnestly. "I stared into the eyes of that so-called "Master" of it all, and the soullessness I saw there, the pit left behind once all humanity has been removed..." He shuddered. "It defies description. And I'm very good with words. Perhaps you think me just an arrogant, carefree player after all. But I thought I glimpsed understanding when we met. I thought you saw, as Jonathon has always seen, that I take the terror I choose to counter with levity deathly seriously."

I nodded, looking away, contrite. He took a step closer to me, waiting to meet my eyes again. When we did, he added, "But you're not wrong to make sure of it."

"Thank you," I murmured.

I felt the pressure of Jonathon's hand in mine. I smiled up at him weakly. "Lead on then, Lord Denbury," I said, holding out my hands for him to make me out to be the captive again.

He smiled at me gently and was just as gentle as he took the fabric from his breast pocket and wrapped up my wrists, making it look like an intense bind, but it did not chafe in the least. "Thank you for placing your trust in me, Natalie. I do not take it for granted."

"That makes two of us," Nathaniel said to Lavinia, running a finger down her blushing cheek.

"How can the devils beat such a blessed team?" I asked, returning his smile.

Oh, but how I knew they'd try.

(End of Chapter 21.1 - Copyright 2013 Leanna Renee Hieber, The Magic Most Foul saga - If you like what you see, please share this link with friends! Tweet it, FB, + it! The Magic Most Foul team really hopes the audience will continue to grow and it can only do so with YOUR help! If you haven't already, do pick up a copy of Magic Most Foul books 1 and 2: Darker Still and the sequel: The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart and/or donate to the cause! Donations directly support the editorial staff.

Cheers! Happy haunting! See you next Tuesday!)

1 comment:

houndstooth said...

I have a bad feeling about what's coming....