|The Banshee's Wail by Nene Adams
©1998 - All rights reserved
This on-line novel contains graphic violence, adult situations and language, and the depiction of a romantic relationship between two mature, adult women. Reader discretion is advised. No unauthorized copying or duplication or publishing in any format, electronic or otherwise, will be permitted without the express, written consent of the author.
I see black dragons mount the sky,
Rhiannon relaxed in hot bathwater, the sweet scent of lilies wafting up with the steam. Her long, red-gold hair floated around her shoulders and she was immersed in bubbles to her chin. Ah, she thought, this is the life...
The pretty woman's turquoise blue eyes were closed as she listened to her lover, Lady Evangeline St. Claire, read the Agony Column notices of the London Times aloud; it had grown to be their Sunday morning ritual.
Rhiannon would bathe (requiring a great deal of help with such important matters as back scrubbing), and then she would relax a little while, letting hot water and the sound of Lina's cultured voice soothe away her cares.
Rhiannon had come to enjoy it immensely; so, to judge from her enthusiastic reaction, had Lina.
"...if the maid of Sir Timothy Carstairs will communicate with her former London address, she will receive a reward of five pounds for goods and services rendered and returned... Bah!" The peer's beautiful face bore a look of sheer disgust. "No doubt the wayward maid has absconded with the family silver or some such! When will those thick-headed members of the House of Lords learn - if you pay a servant starvation wages, do not be surprised if he steals you blind!"
Rhiannon murmured, "Muzzle not the ox that treadeth out the corn."
"Precisely, my dear. You have put it succinctly; I should expect no less from a tutor's daughter."
The strawberry blonde woman sank a little deeper into the tub as the rustling of pages filled the room. When Lina became agitated, the newspaper often suffered as a result.
Lady Evangeline peeked from behind the unfolded sheet of newsprint and let her emerald green eyes rest on Rhiannon's face. Seen through a gauzy veil of steam, the other woman's features seemed to possess a slightly unreal beauty. Like one of Raphael's more wicked angels, she thought.
Lina smiled as she contemplated what else the morning would bring. First, helping dry Rhiannon off with fluffy towels, then rubbing her with scented oil... then... Lina swallowed, tore her eyes from the tempting scene and cleared her throat loudly, rattling the paper.
Rhiannon's lips stretched into a tiny smile of her own; despite closed eyes, she hadn't missed a thing.
"Ahem!" Lina continued, wiping the back of one hand surreptitiously across her brow. "If the daughter of Henry...," she began, voice trailing off as she continued to read in silence.
A tiny frown crinkled the strawberry blonde's brows. What is she up to? Rhiannon wondered. If she doesn't get on with it, I'm going to look like a dried plum by the time I get out.
Behind the paper, Lina's eyes were wide. "My dear," she said, voice high with excitement, "Listen to this! 'If the daughter of Henry Moore and Mary Moore nee Stewart will contact the office of Jeremy Grimes, solicitor, she will learn something to her advantage.' By God, sweetheart! I believe this refers to you!"
Rhiannon sat up with a splash. "W-w-what?" she stammered. "But I don't know any, er... what did you say the name was?"
"Grimes. Jeremy Grimes. I do not believe I have heard of him either, but then, London is crowded with all manner of solicitors and barristers. His offices are in the Temple; he must be respectable at least."
Rhiannon stood up, clutching a bath sponge in one hand. "Lina! I've never heard of this man in my life! And what does he mean, 'something to my advantage?" Water cascaded off her body, leaving behind an errant trail of soap bubbles; wet hair clung to her skin like strands of copper wire.
Lina carefully folded the paper and laid it on the floor beside her chair. This morning, she was dressed in a man's shirt of Egyptian cotton, sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and nothing else; her raven-dark hair swirled to her hips, limp with steam.
Long alabaster legs, crossed at the ankles, stretched out in front of her. Her skin gleamed and the seat of the chair already bore a sweaty imprint of her bare bottom - which happened every Sunday; Rhiannon had half-threatened to hire a photographer to make a daguerreotype of the phenomenon as a memento.
"Well, my dear," the peer said, "that is the usual lawyerly talk which can be interpreted to mean that you are a beneficiary of someone's will. Or something along those general lines." Her tone, while mild, was deceptive; the peer's green eyes were locked on Rhiannon's bubble-strewn body. Tiny beads of moisture pearled on her upper lip and she licked them away, not moving her eyes an inch from the entrancing sight.
"But Lina, I don't have any relatives. At least, none that I know of. Why would someone leave me anything in a will? Could it be a trick of some kind?" Rhiannon was beginning to get a little upset; her former profession as a prostitute had left her with a paranoid fear of public scrutiny.
The pretty secretary cringed, thinking wildly, Could one of my old customers be trying to blackmail Lina? We often go to the theater, to dinner, we could have been seen together.
In her agitation, Rhiannon's small hands squeezed the sponge, sending a sheet of soapy water trickling over her belly; she did not notice Lina's reaction to this involuntary gesture.
Lina's hands fumbled with the shirt buttons; her breath quickened as the wooden seat beneath her became slicker. She swallowed heavily and said, in as normal a tone as she could muster, "I could not say, Rhiannon. But if you wish, I will accompany you to this solicitor's office. You need not be apprehensive, my dear." A muffled curse followed this assertion as one button proved frustratingly stubborn.
The strawberry blonde woman was lost in thought, oblivious to what her companion was doing. What if someone saw us, someone who knew me when I was Sugarbaby? What if someone is trying to hurt Lina? She shifted a little, making her full breasts jiggle and causing an avalanche of bubbles from one rose pink nipple.
Lina's eyes widened further still and her struggles with the recalcitrant shirt more frantic.
Rhiannon snapped out of her self-induced trance when she heard Lina rasp hoarsely, "Aphrodite... rising from the foam..."
Startled, Rhiannon glanced down at herself and laughed a little self-consciously. "Oh, really, Lina! You're being ridic.." Her voice broke off as the dark-haired woman, finally losing patience and on the verge of losing sanity, gripped her shirt in both strong hands and ripped it open; Rhiannon was forced to duck as buttons flew around the tiled room like bullets.
"But Lina," Rhiannon protested, "I haven't... you didn't... no, wait! At least let me...," she began as the other woman shrugged the remnants of her shirt to the floor and stalked across the room. "Oh, come now, Lina! It's not as if we didn't..."
Her mouth closed as she realized for the first time that her lover was completely, magnificently nude. Lina's firm breasts swayed slightly with every graceful movement, dark nipples painfully erect.
Oh, my, Rhiannon thought, mesmerized by the shifting of hard muscles beneath the peer's skin. Her knees nearly buckled and she squeezed the sponge again unconsciously.
Lina stopped and looked down at Rhiannon; standing up in the clawfooted tub, her lover's sky-blue eyes were at the level of the taller woman's chin, instead of flush with her breasts as usual.
Rhiannon's skin was creamy pink from the steaming bathwater; a frothing foam of soap bubbles glistened on every voluptuous curve. Even the fiery thatch at the juncture of Rhiannon's smooth thighs dripped with tiny bubbles; Lina took a deep breath and let it out slowly, emerald eyes glowing with desire.
Reaching out, the peer took the sponge from Rhiannon's hands and threw it over her broad shoulder, where it landed with a soggy squelch on the floor. "But my dear," Lina purred, "that was last night. An entire eight hours ago. And I did miss my breakfast, you know."
Rhiannon giggled a little but her eyes remained locked on the ebony curls between Lina's thighs; she knew the glistening moisture that saturated every strand had nothing to do with sweat or steam. "You know good and well that Cook doesn't serve breakfast on Sundays until ten o'clock," she answered absently, running her tongue over her lips.
Lina raised a dark brow. "It is not food I am hungry for, dearheart." She moved closer to the edge of the tub until she could feel Rhiannon's full breasts slide against her own; placing both arms around the other woman's waist, Lina ran her hands over the slippery wet skin of her lover's buttocks and squeezed gently.
Rhiannon giggled again as Lina's lips captured her own in a hungry kiss... then she inhaled sharply as the other woman's tongue glided over hers, delving deeply, ravishing her with savage purpose. Rhiannon tore her mouth away with a gasp and took Lina's lower lip between her teeth, tugging and sucking gently.
Rhiannon curled her hands over Lina's shoulders and felt the vibrations of the other woman's deep moan all the way down to her toes as she firmly pressed one thigh against the peer's sopping curls. Lina spread her legs further apart and began rocking against the offered flesh, cursing in frustration when the side of the ceramic tub interfered.
Rhiannon bent her knee and thrust her leg between Lina's thighs, allowing the peer to slide herself along its length, their breasts jostling together, the strawberry-blonde woman's toes braced against the curled edge of the tub. Rhiannon gripped Lina's shoulders to maintain balance and struggled to keep her leg raised as her lover's movements became increasingly urgent.
Lina bit the side of Rhiannon's neck, knowing this would drive the other woman wild; for her own part, Lina could feel electric sensations thrumming through her body, as if she had been lashed by lightning, deep waves of ecstasy cresting higher and higher. She slid herself along Rhiannon's thigh, pressing harder, and reached down blindly with one hand...
Rhiannon whimpered softly and her eyes closed as she felt the peer's strong fingers part her folds and rub the slick flesh gently, thumb teasing her nub; only her white-knuckled grip on Lina's shoulders and her lover's other arm around her waist kept her from falling over. She pressed herself against the offered palm but waited...
Lina grunted with effort, her eyes closed tightly as lightning lashed again and sparks whirled from the aching place between her thighs.
In a few moments, Lina's hand withdrew; her own need had become too great to be denied. She rode Rhiannon's thigh more frantically, almost sobbing, firm belly smacking into the other woman's, hands clenching the rounded cheeks of Rhiannon's bottom hard enough to leave bruises, nearly desperate with desire. Lina's eyes squeezed tighter as the sweet sensations of pleasure reached a near painful level.
Rhiannon released one hand from Lina's shoulder and gripped the back of her neck, drawing her lover's face down for a kiss. Her tongue danced and fluttered with Lina's in a sensuous duel; both women's bodies were covered in a fine sheen of sweat.
Lina moaned into Rhiannon's mouth and her hips bucked wildly; she felt the timeless moment that comes just before the pinnacle. Lina tore her mouth away from Rhiannon's and buried her teeth mindlessly in her lover's shoulder as she felt herself pushed over the edge and release came.
Lina convulsed and she crushed her body against Rhiannon's, muffling her cries against her lover's neck.
Rhiannon wrapped her arms around Lina's waist and slid her hands gently over the other woman's back. As the tremors that racked Lina's body subsided, Rhiannon lowered her leg, wincing a little as her thigh muscle protested. The bathwater was still fairly warm, and the pretty woman thought absently that her one foot must be nearly as wrinkled as a hundred-year-old woman's from prolonged submersion.
Lina's hands relaxed; she raised her flushed face and looked into her lover's pale blue eyes, a small, satiated smile on her lips.
Rhiannon grinned back. "Feeling a bit less peckish, I hope?," she asked, smoothing a strand of inky hair from Lina's forehead. Rhiannon tried to keep her tone as normal as possible, but her legs trembled a little. She knew all the moisture that slicked her thigh was not Lina's alone.
Lina's eyes glowed and she raised her brows, giving her lover a look of pure wickedness. "On the contrary, my dear," she replied huskily, "My appetite is as keen as ever."
Oh dear, Rhiannon thought, and gasped when she felt the powerful muscles in Lina's arms and back shift...
Her wail of protest was clearly heard by the servants downstairs: "No, Lina! W-a-a-a-ait!!"
There was a mighty splash and a small
wave of soapy water gurgled from beneath the closed bathroom door.
Lina sat and combed Rhiannon's still wet hair carefully as the pretty secretary enthusiastically consumed a somewhat delayed breakfast. She might be small in stature, the peer thought, but my sweetheart certainly makes up for it in appetite!
"Mmph. Lina," Rhiannon asked, swallowing a bite of toast hastily, "when do you want to go to Mr. Grimes office?"
"Oh, I suppose we can go this afternoon, if you wish. I certainly have no other plans." Lina continued to comb Rhiannon's hair, marveling at the silken texture and the color. Like a sheet of flame, she thought bemused.
"Is there any correspondence to attend to?"
"Not of any pressing importance, my dear."
Rhiannon finally stopped eating and turned around to face Lina. "Is something wrong? You've been so... quiet lately," she said, eyes narrowed with concern.
The dark haired woman sighed. "Nothing at all, my dear. And that is the trouble."
"Oh...," Rhiannon breathed, comprehension dawning on her sweet heart-shaped face. Lady Evangeline, besides her role as the most important person in the secretary's life, also pursued inquiries - mostly criminal - in the manner of her friend and mentor, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Lina laid the silver comb on the dressing table. "I am afraid that the investigative season has been quite dull of late. After retrieving the Madman's Tarot last Christmas, there has been a dearth of clients requiring my services."
"What about Holmes? Surely he's found something to do by now."
The peer sighed again. Responding to Rhiannon's insistent touch on her shoulders, Lina turned around to allow the other woman to comb out her long raven-black locks. "Poor Holmes. Since Watson's marriage in May, he has not done a thing save sit and sulk in Baker Street, befouling the atmosphere with his pipe, shooting holes in the walls and sawing away on that violin of his till all hours."
Rhiannon stifled a chuckle. Really, she thought, Holmes and Lina are so much alike! When Lina gets all broody, she squats in the study like a monument to Patience, smoking those little brown cigarettes and swilling brandy like a Port Sayiid sailor!
Lina continued, "Well, I can only hope to find some morsel of comfort in the mystery which presented itself this morning. I refer, of course, to the notice in the Agony Columns."
"Of course." Rhiannon did not trust herself to speak further; tears gathered at the corners of her eyes as she caught her lip between her teeth, trying not to laugh out loud at Lina's sulky tone.
The peer frowned slightly; she could sense something happening behind her, but soon, the rhythmic stroking of the comb through her hair had its usual soothing effect. Closing her eyes, Lina forced the tense muscles in her neck to relax.
Both women wore dressing gowns; on Sunday mornings, they enjoyed breakfast in the privacy of their rooms, much to the amusement of the servants - who had more than an inkling as to what the two women enjoyed, besides eggs and bacon.
Rhiannon's gown was particularly becoming; of robin's egg blue silk trimmed with ruffles and ribbons, the material was light and thin - perfect for the June heat.
Lina opened her eyes and looked down at her left hand. The ring she wore, a simple band of gold set with an emerald flanked by pale blue topaz, had belonged to Rhiannon's great-grandmother. The other woman had given it to her as a pledge of their love several months ago and Lina had not taken it off since. I have not yet given my poor sweetheart my own pledge, Lina thought, but that will soon be remedied.
Turning around (and ignoring a small twinge of pain as the comb inadvertently tore through a tangle), Lina grasped one of Rhiannon's fine boned hands in her own and said, "If I asked you to accompany me today on an unknown journey for an unknown purpose, and refused to answer any questions regarding that subject, would you be terribly offended? "
Rhiannon looked at her in astonishment. "I... I suppose not. No, I wouldn't be offended. Just... well, curious." And a little apprehensive, she continued silently, but I wouldn't for all the world hurt Lina's feelings.
Lina smiled and Rhiannon's heart pounded a little faster. "Excellent! Then immediately following our trip to Mr. Grimes' office, my dear, we shall have an adventure!"
Rhiannon returned her lover's smile,
but inwardly, she wondered, What on earth is she up to now?
The solicitor's office within the Temple, that mighty edifice to British justice, was small and cramped, piled with documents, books and files. Jeremy Grimes, Esq., turned out to be a needle-thin, mincing individual whose mouse-brown hair had receded drastically, leaving him with a band of thinning locks that curled around his ears, revealing a shining bald dome that reflected the room's gaslight like a mirror.
Rhiannon shifted in her seat and glanced at Lina. At her insistence, the peer had forgone her originally intended costume of a man's suit and had instead donned a prettily appropriate visiting gown of pale spring green, the be-ribboned skirts covered with tiny embroidered daisies. A straw hat was tilted becomingly over one emerald-green eye; when Lina noticed Rhiannon's stare, she winked surreptitiously, startling a giggle from the strawberry-blonde.
Grimes shot them both a glance from his chocolate brown eyes and cleared his throat. "Thank you for coming, ladies," he said. "Now, to begin our business, let me first state that I am completely satisfied as to your identity, Miss... er, Moore. Lady St. Claire is a well known and highly regarded member of the peerage; her word alone is sufficient." His manner was fawning in the extreme; it was painfully obvious the solicitor considered Lady Evangeline the more important of his two visitors.
Lina said, "Thank you, Mr. Grimes. When Miss Moore informed me of your notice in the Times, I at once saw the problematic issue of proper identification and insisted on accompanying her here. I knew there would be no difficulty then." She did not notice Grimes' manner; the peer was too caught up in excitement, eagerly anticipating what she confidently expected would be good news for her wife and lover.
Rhiannon muffled a snort. Lina is no better regarded among her peers than a leper, she thought. That social snob means he was overwhelmed by Lina's charm and aristocratic manner - not to mention her title and wealth.
Grimes shuffled some of the papers on his desk. "Now then, allow me to explain why I inserted a notice into the Times."
"Yes, please!" Rhiannon said. "I'm simply dying to know what's going on!"
"To be sure," Grimes answered dryly, barely looking at the strawberry blonde. "I was contacted several weeks ago by a solicitor in Scotland, Sir Gregory MacLellan of Montrose Abbey. He requested my assistance in locating you, miss. It seems as though your Great-Aunt, Margaret Gloriana Kincaid, has recently passed away, and you are named as one of the beneficiaries in her will."
"You see, my dear," Lina said, "I told you! My word, this is exciting!" She grabbed Rhiannon's hand and squeezed.
Rhiannon smiled slightly but her brows drew together in puzzlement. "I don't remember any Great-Aunts, Margaret or otherwise," she said. "Do you have any further details, Mr. Grimes?"
Grimes was silent; Rhiannon slowly flushed when she realized that the solicitor was ignoring her query, clearly waiting for Lina to say something. Rhiannon jerked her hand away from her lover's and folded gloved fingers together in her lap, hurt but unwilling to break down in front of the supercilious little man.
Lady Evangeline's emerald green eyes moved from Rhiannon's face to Grimes'; the deadly look she gave the solicitor made him gulp nervously. Grimes realized he had made a serious error in believing the secretary to be unimportant; lowering his eyes to the papers clutched in his hands, he stared at them as if he hoped they would provide some means of escape.
Grimes' voice shook a little as he replied, "I fear I have no real details to give you, Miss Moore." His tone was very, very polite; the peer's eyes were boring a scorching hole in the top of his head and he resisted the impulse to pull out a handkerchief and wipe his suddenly sweaty dome.
He continued, "Sir Gregory forwarded to me the names of your father and mother, as well as his request. I was able to trace your movements up until a few years ago, following your father's death. At that point, my only recourse was the Times notice, which I hoped would bring some result. Regarding the disposal of your Great-Aunt's will, the only other information I can give you is that Sir Gregory has stated that you must travel to his estate in Scotland for the reading; failure to follow this stricture will result in the forfeiture of any benefits."
Lady Evangeline cleared her throat. "I see," she said, her tone icily polite. "And where might we find this Sir Gregory MacLellan?"
Grimes shuffled more papers frantically; at this point, he would have cheerfully sold his soul to the Devil in order to make those dagger-like green eyes stop staring at him. "Er... ah, here it is!," he answered with relief. "Montrose Abbey is Sir Gregory's recent estate; it is located approximately fifty miles northeast of Dundee, near Kinnaird Castle and his father's own estate, Templemoor."
"I see," Lina said again. She picked up her reticule and stood, arranging her skirts with one hand. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Grimes. Good afternoon."
Rhiannon rose as well; her heart-shaped face still flushed but not from hurt feelings anymore - she was struggling to keep from laughing at the frightened look on the solicitor's face. The man's clearly terrified of Lina, she thought. Why, he looks like a calf who's just found out what gelding means!
The strawberry-blonde woman, trying to maintain her composure, took some little time to adjust the skirts of her own costume - a "surprise" dress of gunmetal-gray whose sides had been folded back to expose the colorfully embroidered rose-red reveres.
As she bit her lower lip, Rhiannon heard Lina say, "And one other thing, Mr. Grimes? I trust that you will be so kind as to have a copy of all the paperwork regarding this matter forwarded to my address in Grosvenor Square." Her tone made it clear that this was not a request, but a demand, and her eyes flashed dangerously.
Grimes ran one finger around the collar of his shirt; it was suddenly far too tight. "Why, yes, of course milady," he replied nervously, "I shall see to it at once. Immediately!" His entire face gleamed with sweat and the dull black suit he wore was soaked in circles of perspiration underneath the arms. Lady Evangeline's eyes flamed with the pride of centuries of aristocracy - a glare from her is rather like being bludgeoned with Dubrett's Peerage, Grimes thought wildly.
"Thank you. Come along, Rhiannon," the peer said as her sensitive ears registered the strangled guffaw that escaped her lover's lips when Grimes closed his eyes and sighed in relief at this announcement. "We have further business this afternoon."
Threading her arm through Rhiannon's, Lady Evangeline guided her companion swiftly through the winding labyrinth of hallways and offices that made up the Temple and managed to get her into the carriage before Rhiannon's control broke and she collapsed into Lina's arms, hooting madly.
"D-d-did you see the l-l-look on his face?," Rhiannon stuttered through her giggles, "H-h-e looked like a p-p-poleaxed cow!"
Lina sniggered. "That pompous ass," she said smugly, "I would rather have punched him in the nose, my dear, but felt him unworthy of the effort. Still, I think I managed to discompose him somewhat. I have been told that my stare should be registered with Scotland Yard as a deadly weapon."
She reached up one gloved hand to bounce the curls that framed her beautiful face in a theatrical gesture of feminine triumph as Rhiannon guffawed.
"How'd you l-l-learn to do that?" Rhiannon wheezed, one arm wrapped around her own stomach.
The peer smiled, green eyes twinkling with mischief. "Heredity, my dear. My family line has always had many skills."
The strawberry-blonde woman collapsed again.
Lady Evangeline rapped on the roof of the carriage with one fist and said loudly, "Henry? Drive on, man. You know our destination!"
The carriage lurched down the cobblestoned
streets and pedestrians were treated to the strains of wild laughter pealing
from the open windows.
The two women alighted from the carriage and Rhiannon clapped her hands together in surprise. "Oh, Lina!" she exclaimed, "Paddington Station! Are we going somewhere?"
The taller woman smiled. "Remember, my dear, I did warn you - I shall answer no questions. You will have to wait and see."
Rhiannon's eyes ran over the magnificent facade of the railway station. Paddington had opened in 1851, deliberately coinciding with the Universal Exhibition on view at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. The heroic lines of the building were the creation of two engineering geniuses, I.K. Brunel and Matthew Wyatt; while the two men collaborated on the even more elaborate St. Pancras station twenty years later - to Rhiannon, Paddington was one of the wonders of the modern world.
Father sometimes brought me here as a special treat when I a child, she thought, eyes wide with wonder as Lina guided her into the building. He'd take me inside where all the people bustled across the marble floor, and I'd listen and imagine adventures in far away lands.
Lady Evangeline looked down at her partner's dreamy face and chuckled, adroitly avoiding being jostled by the crowds that flowed through the busy terminal. Wait until she notices where we are going, the peer thought. Then we shall see if she wakes a little.
Rhiannon protested as Lina led her out of the building and into the rail yard, "But..."
The peer stopped and put one finger on the other woman's lips. "No questions, dearheart. We shall arrive at our destination shortly."
They walked along for ten minutes , Rhiannon gazing at the magnificent steam trains that huffed their way in and out of the station or merely sat idle on a siding, waiting their turn to devour the miles of steel tracks that snaked like arteries throughout Great Britain and beyond.
A long, private car sat on a section of the track; as they drew closer, Rhiannon's eyes widened in astonishment while Lina chuckled.
Enameled in royal blue, the car bore a name etched in gilt along its side. Lina stopped opposite the magnificent car and read proudly, "The Princess Bride. She is yours, my dear."
Rhiannon could not believe her eyes... or her ears. She clutched Lina's arm and stammered, "B-b-but... Lina, what is this?"
"Since you have indicated a desire to travel, sweetheart, I thought a private train car might facilitate matters considerably. Come inside, Rhiannon. Take possession of your new kingdom."
Lina withdrew a key from her reticule and opened the door, ushering her wife inside. The interior of the car was a study in opulence. Rhiannon's wide gaze traveled over the inlaid mahogany and tulipwood panels that covered the walls, painted with graceful images from Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'
There's Oberon, she thought, staring entranced at a gloriously vivid pagan figure crowned with mistletoe, and Titania with poppies wound through her hair.
Plush blue carpeting covered the floor; gaslight sconces had been wrought into fanciful trees where enameled birds perched and stretched their tiny wings, beaks open in imaginary song.
Rhiannon stepped further inside, Lina directly behind her. The arched ceiling was painted with morning glory vines, and the blue velvet curtains that hung over every window were looped back with tasseled gold ropes.
The first part of the car was meant to be a sitting room, she realized numbly. Louis XVI chairs, a divan, and a fringed settee and ottoman, along with gilded console tables and a small cellarette or liquor cabinet against one wall made that function obvious.
"Now see here, my dear, how clever this all is," Lina said, drawing the dumbstruck secretary into another room. This was a lavatory, complete with claw-footed tub, porcelain sink painted with even more morning glories, mirrors and a toilet hidden discreetly behind a cunning screen of pierced bamboo. The floor was tiled in a mosaic pattern, an underwater scene of brightly colored fishes and corals.
"Yes, my dear," Lina nattered away, "Running water, as well. I understand it is stored in that small tank on top of the car and heated by the action of the sun. Quite clever, these modern engineers. Nearly all the comforts of home, I must say, even if that tub is a little small for two."
Rhiannon listened to her lover's chatter but was too overcome by emotion to respond. She could only nod as Lina drew her back through the sitting room and into another compartment. This one was a bedroom - but what a bedroom! The ceiling, painted dark blue, was set with shimmering paste diamonds; when the gaslight was lowered, they would sparkle like the stars in the night sky.
The strawberry-blonde gasped. The bed itself was a fairy-tale confection of pale blue linens and lace; the posters had been fashioned into miniature trees, every detail cunningly manufactured down to the silk leaves that rustled gently.
The carpet underfoot was dark green, and the walls had been painted with a mural of a forest scene, complete with a knight on horseback, his wimpled lady behind him, trotting down a country lane to the castle whose bright pennants fluttered against a gloriously blue sky. Rhiannon noticed her cheeks were wet and realized she was crying.
"Oh, my dear!" Lina said anxiously, daubing at her wife's face with a handkerchief, "Do please tell me that you like it."
Rhiannon raised eyes that shimmered with tears and nearly giggled at the anxious expression on Lina's face. She threw her arms around the peer's neck and hugged her fiercely. "Oh, I love it! I love it, Lina! I do!"
Reassured, Lina hugged the other woman back, planting a kiss on the top of Rhiannon's head. "It was my pleasure, my dear. And I meant what I said about the Princess being yours. The certificates of ownership are in your name."
Rhiannon looked up into Lina's dark emerald eyes. "Mine? You're giving her to me?"
"Of course, my dear. Consider it a wedding present from one devoted wife to another."
The strawberry blonde woman was too astonished to say anything. Rhiannon gaped as Lina loosened her grip and sank to one knee, pale green skirts billowing around her.
Reaching into one pocket of her dress, Lina withdrew a small Limoges box shaped like a baroque wedding cake. Opening it, she held it up so Rhiannon could see the object that sparkled within.
The heavy gold ring had been shaped into a phoenix, the bird's wings curving around to form the band. Its eyes were rose-cut sapphires and it held a magnificent pearl in its beak.
Lina took the ring from the box with fingers that trembled slightly. She caught Rhiannon's left hand and slid the ring onto the third finger, remarking in a shaking voice, "The phoenix is one of my family crests, my dear. Charles Tiffany oversaw the design himself."
Taking a deep breath, Lina continued, "Rhiannon...," and stopped when her lover's eyes locked onto her own. Gulping, she squeaked, "Will you have me, my dear?"
Rhiannon looked down at her hand; the phoenix band was thick enough that the pearl rested against her knuckle. Then she looked at Lina's own left hand, where her great-grandmother's ring shimmered.
"Of course I'll have you, you great booby," Rhiannon said with a laugh, although tears coursed over her cheeks. "Now get up here and kiss me before I die!"
Lina flowed up from the carpet and her lips covered Rhiannon's own in a soft kiss that deepened until both women were breathless.
"Oh, my," Rhiannon half-whispered after the kiss ended, "Much more of that and we'll have no choice but to test out the new bed."
The peer grinned, an ebony brow raised nearly to her hairline. "As to that...," she began, but Rhiannon pulled away, shaking one finger.
"Not now!" the strawberry blonde chided, "First, you have to give me the Cook's tour of the rest of this car. And then... we'll see!," she concluded, laughing at Lina's crestfallen expression.
Lina squared her broad shoulders with a sigh. "Whatever you wish, my dear," she said. "I will have you know that I shall greatly enjoy my new role as a henpecked wife."
"Henpecked?" Rhiannon retorted with mock outrage. "I'll have you know, Lady St. Claire, that I've never pecked a hen in my life!"
Lina chuckled. "Come along then, my beauty. I shall regale you with the wonders of your new possession until you grow weary and then," she continued with a leer, "I will tuck you into bed and sing you a lullaby."
Rhiannon's lips drew up into a smile. "And does this lullaby you have in mind contain the words, 'Dear Sweet Jesus' and 'Right there, sweetheart?'" she teased.
Lina swallowed a laugh. "It may, my dear. It may." She sobered, and continued, "Rhiannon, I love you. Everything I am, everything I have is yours. Although our wedlock may not be recognized by the Church of England, nevertheless... I want you to know that I take the vows I have given you quite seriously. As long as I live, you will be the bride of my heart."
Rhiannon wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I love you, Evangeline. You're my world and I can't imagine living without you. If God condemns me for loving you, I'll gladly turn my back on Heaven to lie on your breast in Hell. You've given me so much... and... oh, Lina! I love you!," she finished with a sob.
Lina gathered her wife into her arms and kissed away the tears that rolled from beneath her closed eyelids...
Eventually, the bed was pronounced more than adequate for their needs.
Later that evening, back at Grosvenor Square in time for dinner meal, Lina remarked, "Shall we take the Princess to Scotland, do you think?"
Rhiannon put down the roll she had been buttering. "Whatever you wish, love."
The peer's dark brows raised. "Love?" she asked. "My dear, I believe that is the first time you have used something other than my name to call me by."
Rhiannon blushed. "Do you mind?" she asked.
"Not at all. In fact, you have my utmost approval. You may call me anything you like, dearheart." Lina's eyes sparkled with affection. She took another sip of wine and asked, "When would you like to leave for Scotland? I shall need a little time to make the necessary arrangements."
"You know, Lina, I still have no idea who this woman is, or rather, was. I vaguely remember that Mother used to get letters from Scotland but she never told me who they were from. After...," she stopped to gulp down the sudden lump in her throat before continuing, "after she died, father never mentioned them." Or her for that matter, she concluded silently, remembering how her father had withered away after his beloved wife's death, eventually taking his own life in despair.
Lina frowned. "I suppose we shall be required to journey to Scotland to find the answer to this little mystery. Oh, well. I do not mind at all, my dear. A holiday is just the thing I need. Perhaps," she said with a twinkle, "we could consider it a honeymoon."
"Perhaps," Rhiannon replied with an answering smile, but inwardly mused, I still have no idea who Great-Aunt Margaret was... and I hope Sir Gregory has the answers.
Five days later, Rhiannon lay stretched on the plush divan in their private railcar as it speeded through the countryside; the 'Princess Bride' was coupled to The Flying Scotsman steam train bound for Edinburgh. She was deeply engrossed in a shilling-shocker, The Castle of Otrano; the Gothic novel, brimming with supernatural suspense, kept her spellbound.
Lina stifled a chuckle at Rhiannon's choice of literature. Give my dear some blood-and-thunder novel filled with vengeful spirits, haunted castles and assorted creatures of the night, she thought, and she is lost to the world.
The dark-haired woman turned back to her own book, a first edition of John Donne's poetry that Rhiannon had given her for Christmas. She murmured a couplet from his letter to the Countess of Salisbury in 1614, "Fair, great and good since seeing you we see; what Heaven can do and what any Earth can be." Lina sighed and closed the book, keeping her place marked with one finger.
Rhiannon glanced up from her novel; the sound of the other woman's soft voice had distracted her from a particularly thrilling passage. "Lina? Is something the matter?"
"Oh, no, sweetheart, nothing at all. I simply adore Donne's poetry."
Rhiannon sat up, her entranced mood broken; the castle and its supernatural inhabitants receded into the distance. Perhaps Lina is bored, she thought. I shall have to think of a way to entertain her.
Although they were in a private car, Rhiannon was fully dressed, since the conductor of the train had the right to enter at any time he chose, although passengers from the public cars could not. The conductor usually exercised this privilege upon arriving or leaving stations.
The secretary had chosen one of her loose Liberty gowns of palest ivory; the unstructured dress, worn with a minimum of underthings (in fact, Rhiannon wore nothing under it at all except a pair of white stockings) had a collar and cuffs of contrasting harvest gold, full skirts decorated with a swirl of dark gold ribbon.
Her strawberry-blonde hair was down and fell down her back in loose waves, held away from her heart-shaped face by a pair of tortoiseshell combs. "Why don't you read me some poetry, Lina?," she asked, tossing her book aside. "I adore the sound of your voice."
Lina smiled. "Thank you, my dear. If you wish." She quickly scanned the volume seeking something suitable. Lina wore a loose dressing gown of fir green silk, so carelessly tied that the alabaster globes of her breasts could be clearly seen. She sprawled on the settee, heedless of the way her undignified position exposed her own lack of undergarments.
While Lady Evangeline flipped through the pages of her book, Rhiannon's eyes suddenly locked on the tiny tuft of ebony hair that peeped from between the peer's exposed thighs.
Unconsciously licking her lips, Rhiannon narrowed her gaze, trying to see more - but the folds of the robe were in the way. Still, somehow, she found that minimal sight more stimulating than Lina's nakedness.
Rhiannon leaned forward a little, clasping her hands loosely in front of her. "Um, Lina?," she asked, "When is the next stop?"
Lina replied in an abstract way, "In about an hour and a quarter, dearheart." The peer's emerald eyes lit on a particularly moving passage and she thought, Ah! This might be suitable.
She shifted her legs a little and one edge of her robe fell away, exposing even more of her dark thatch and pale, firm belly. Rhiannon's mouth began to water..
"Since now your beauty shines," Lina read, "now when the Sun, grown stale, is to so low a value run; that his disheveled beams and scattered fires serve but for ladies periwigs and tyres in lover's sonnets; you come to repair God's book of creatures, teaching what is fair..."
Rhiannon interrupted. "Stay there, love. I'll be right back," she said, leaping up from the divan and hurrying out of the sitting room.
Lady Evangeline frowned a little, wondering what the other woman might be up to, then shrugged and continued scanning the passage.
When Rhiannon returned a quarter-hour later, Lina looked up and gasped in surprise and appreciation, dropping the book of poetry unnoticed to the floor.
Her lover was naked except for a pair of white stockings held up by frilly garters and the long, red-gold hair that sheathed her body like a fascinating shawl, allowing bits of white flesh to peek through as she swayed through the room. Her phoenix wedding ring flashed in the sunlight.
In her hands, Rhiannon held a silver salver piled with cold roast pheasant, Stilton cheese, grapes, strawberries, bread and honey; also, a chilled bottle of Madeira - a sweet white wine - and two cut-glass goblets.
She smiled at the gaping Lina and said, "I thought a picnic lunch might be nice." The railcar had a tiny kitchen in the back; Cook had stocked it before they left with foodstuffs that could be eaten cold.
Lina sat up, running her hands through her hair. "Of course, my dear," she said, sliding down from the settee to sit cross-legged on the floor, "Whatever you wish."
Rhiannon gracefully sank down to the floor, sitting in the more ladylike "side-saddle" position, her legs together and to one side, weight balanced on one hip. She placed the platter between them and poured the wine, feeling a tiny jolt of electricity flare when, handing the glass to her lover, Lina's hand brushed hers.
Lina cocked her head to one side speculatively. Hmmm, she thought, when my beloved's eyes have that gleam, I know she is up to something exciting.
The dark-haired woman decided to play along, knowing that Rhiannon could be quite creative when she was in the mood.
Rhiannon could not tear her eyes away from the view; in Lina's current unladylike position - the edges of her robe flared on either side of her bare legs - the crisp, ebony triangle between her muscular thighs was fully visible. Rhiannon took a gulp of wine, barely tasting it.
Lina sipped her own wine and waited, eyes dark with desire. She schooled herself to patience, determined to play out her lover's game until the end.
Rhiannon picked up a strawberry and brought it to her mouth, running the succulent berry around her lips before biting into it, pink juices flowing down her chin. Wiping her chin with her hand, she pushed her fingers into her mouth and sucked them, eyes alert for her lover's reaction.
Lina's lips quirked into a half-smile. Ah, she thought, now I know the game!
Lina leaned forward, knowing full well this action would expose her breasts, and picked up a thin slice of pheasant breast. Folding the meat into a thin roll, she nibbled it lovingly, using her teeth and tongue, while Rhiannon watched, heart pounding.
When Lina finished, Rhiannon took a grape between her lips and leaned forward herself, offering the tempting bit of fruit; a thrill flashed all the way to her core as she felt the other woman's lips on her own, Lina's tongue scooping up the grape and then exploring, plunging deeply into her mouth. Rhiannon whimpered a little when her lover withdrew.
The dark-haired woman sat back, chewing; her beautiful face bore a smile but her dark rose nipples were strained erect and a tell-tale glistening on her inner thighs spoke eloquently of her own desire.
Lina selected a small roll and tore a bit off with her fingers. Dipping the crust into the honey, she brought it to Rhiannon's lips, heedless of the way the amber liquid drizzled on the other woman's chin.
Rhiannon took it in her mouth, eyes closing when Lina sensuously licked the honey from her face, each delicate sweep of her lover's tongue sending thrills down every nerve in her body.
When Lina finished, Rhiannon took a small piece of crumbly cheese and smeared it along the upper slope of one breast, pale eyes glowing like jewels. Lina's mouth descended hungrily, her lips blazing a trail of fire on Rhiannon's body.
The strawberry-blonde gripped her lover's upper arms tightly but quickly let go when Lina almost fell over into the tray in her quest to lick every morsel of Stilton from her wife's body.
After pushing the tray aside impatiently, Lina dabbled her fingers in the jar of honey. The dark-haired woman smeared the sticky sweet liquid on her own nipple, looking at Rhiannon with a raised brow. Rhiannon could smell Lina's excitement; the musky-sweet scent of her lover sent a cascade of liquid heat flowing from the strawberry-blonde.
With a small growl, Rhiannon sat up on her knees and locked her lips around the peer's turgid nipple, licking the honey smeared nub and lashing it with her tongue, then gripping it between her teeth and tugging gently but firmly, knowing Lina enjoyed such quasi-rough play.
Lina closed her eyes and moaned as the other woman suckled fiercely; a wave of near unbearable pleasure lanced through her, and she felt hot moisture dampen her ebon curls. She put both hands on the back of Rhiannon's head and arched her back, wishing she'd thought to put honey on the other nipple as well.
Rhiannon released Lina's breast and whispered huskily, "I think we should finish with dessert, don't you?" She scooped up two fingerfuls of honey and smiled seductively.
Lina sat up and snatched a handful of strawberries. "Ladies first," she purred.
It was indeed fortunate that the
conductor did not disturb the two women's afternoon.
When they arrived at Edinburgh, the two women had their baggage transferred to a local train; the Princess Bride would remain in the Edinburgh rail yard until they left Scotland. The local train, despite making numerous stops, eventually let them off at Dundee in the early afternoon; hot, tired and slightly nauseous from the smell of sheep being carried in the stockcar directly behind their compartment.
At the Dundee station, Lady Evangeline and Rhiannon found Sir Gregory's carriage, a battered four-wheel brougham, waiting for them, manned by a somewhat surly individual who introduced himself as Jamie McPherson, the "laird's mun."
All of Rhiannon's attempts at polite conversation failed; McPherson was a stolid, taciturn man with a cast in one eye that gave the impression of untrustworthiness. His sandy-brown hair was touched by silver, face weather-beaten and seamed with decades spent laboring in open fields under the sun.
McPherson answered all questions with a monosyllable: "Yer," meaning Yes, and "Nur," meaning No. Beyond that, his conversational skills were completely lacking. After making several attempts, Rhiannon finally desisted, settling herself back onto the carriage seat with a bump.
Scowling, Rhiannon muttered, "Unfriendly sod, isn't he?"
Lady Evangeline laughed. "My dear," she replied, "did your mother never tell you not to make such faces, lest they freeze that way?"
In answer, Rhiannon crossed both eyes and stuck out her tongue.
Lina reached out and grabbed the errant tongue between two fingers. "Now, now," she chided mildly, "you know better than to tempt me in public, sweetheart. What if I am unable to contain my lustful passions? We might shock the life out of poor McPherson - not to mention frightening the horses."
Rhiannon giggled and pulled her tongue from the other woman's grasp. "We could always ask him to pull the carriage off the road for a while," she said, pale blue eyes alight with glee, "I'm sure he'd enjoy the opportunity to commune with nature while we... hmm... examine the native flora?"
Lina pulled Rhiannon into a close embrace, settling the other woman's head on her broad shoulder. "My dearest sweetheart," she replied, kissing her lover's forehead softly, "I promise that we shall make love beneath the stars; only, not right at this moment. I fear I am still striving to recover from our 'picnic lunch."'
With a small, triumphant smile, Rhiannon snuggled her face into Lina's neck, inhaling her distinctive rose-lilac perfume. "I'm glad you enjoyed it," she said with a snicker, "I know I certainly did."
Lady Evangeline snorted. "Yes, and I am quite certain most of the passengers on The Flying Scotsman know it as well, my dear."
Rhiannon squeezed her lover tightly. "I'm not the only loud one in the family, love."
The peer said thoughtfully, "True." She knew her own body still bore a few bruises from their exciting lunch escapade. And not a few of those marks I caused myself, she mused, remembering with a slight blush how uninhibited she became when she felt her wife's body sliding against her own.
"My dear," Lina murmured, "If I ever become too old or too indifferent to be excited by your numerous charms, do please send for the undertaker's men and hold a quiet funeral."
Rhiannon kissed the dark-haired woman's neck. "I will not. I'll just go out and find someone younger and much less wrinkled for you to play with, because I'll be old and decrepit, too."
The two women kissed, cuddled, and held one another throughout the journey to their ultimate destination - the mysterious Montrose Abbey.
Sir Gregory MacLellan was a stout, florid faced man in his late forties; a bristling walrus-like mustache hung from his upper lip, joined by heavy, old-fashioned muttonchop sideburns.
"Ladies!," he cried expansively when the carriage rolled to a stop in front of the impressive manor house, "Welcome to Montrose Abbey!"
Lady Evangeline helped her lover out of the carriage, smiling at Rhiannon's gasp of appreciation when her sky-blue eyes lit on the magnificent stone edifice of the Abbey.
It was an upright structure, consisting of a central keep flanked by round towers of pale gray stone. Montrose Abbey had been built on a wide spit of land that thrust into the waters of Scurdie Ness; the lake shimmered in the late afternoon sun like a silver coin.
In the front of the manor, rhododendron bushes provided splashes of bright pink, red and white; a small marble fountain, graced by a bronze statue of Diana the Huntress, shot a sparkling stream of water into the air.
Sir Gregory advanced, one hand outthrust. "My dear Miss Moore," he said, dark blue eyes twinkling, "I am most heartily glad to make your acquaintance." Eyeing the dark-haired woman who stood to one side, he asked, "And who is your lovely companion?"
Rhiannon took the laird's hand and smiled. "Sir Gregory, this is Lady Evangeline St. Claire, my... employer," she finished, flashing her amused lover a warning look.
Lady Evangeline quirked her lips but said nothing more than, "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Sir Gregory. Miss Moore is my secretary, and as I am not familiar with this part of Scotland, I prevailed upon her to allow me to accompany her to this beautiful place."
Sir Gregory laughed. "Yes," he said, "the land hereabouts is quite beautiful, but I'd advise you not to wander too far into the wood, Lady Evangeline. It's quite easy to get lost; at least once a year we are required to form a search party for some wandering crofter's child. Now, come in, come in! I'm sure you're both exhausted from your journey."
They followed him into the house. Montrose Abbey had been built on an expansive scale; the heavy beams that criss-crossed the ceiling of the front room were nearly thirty feet above Rhiannon's head. All the furnishings were massive and dark; stone walls were paneled in mahogany and teak, covered with framed landscapes and hunting scenes. Antique weapons from many countries and nations glittered with other trophies of bloodthirsty sport. An obsidian knife in particular caught Rhiannon's eye; the black glass blade sported cruel jags and serrations; she shivered, knowing instinctively that the weapon had never been intended for use on animals.
Antlered deer heads with glassy eyes stared down at them, along with tusked boars, moose and an enormous stuffed bear that reared ferociously in one corner of the massive room. The rough rock fireplace was big enough, Rhiannon thought with astonishment, to roast a brace of oxen, much less a single cow. Despite the summer heat, a fire cracked on the iron grate.
At the foot of the gracefully winding staircase, Sir Gregory halted. "I will have my housekeeper, Mrs. Dalyrymple, show you to your quarters. I hope you do not mind, but I chose chambers for the two of you that are inter-connected. I felt it would be more convenient."
Lina and Rhiannon exchanged a glance. "Not at all," the peer said, "We appreciate your thoughtfulness."
"I shall see you at the evening meal," Sir Gregory concluded as the housekeeper shuffled into view. "after which there will be the reading of the will. Until then, ladies, please be my guests. If you require anything, you have only to ring." He waddled away, hands interlaced over his prominent belly, toying with his pocketwatch chain.
Mrs. Dalyrymple was a small, bent woman; her silver hair was wrapped in a chokingly tight chignon at the back of her neck. She wore a black, high-collar dress and a white apron; other than the enormous mourning ring on her left hand, the housekeeper had no other adornment.
She led the way slowly up the staircase, remarking on the second floor landing, "Yon's ta armor o' Lord Geoffrey Kirk, Earl o' Montrose, him what built ta Abbey."
Rhiannon looked dutifully at the massive suit of armor that held a tall, double-headed axe in one gauntlet. "He must have been an enormous man," she said. A crimson plume shivered on the pointed helm, touched by some unknown breeze.
"Aye," Mrs. Dalyrymple replied, laboring up another flight of stairs, "Fer that he was called ta Giant o' Montrose; near seven feet tall he was, an' his lady wife nobbut a wee slip of a lass."
"Really," Lina murmured. "A giant, eh?" She waggled her brows at Rhiannon behind the housekeeper's back and the strawberry-blonde stifled a giggle.
They passed up another flight of stairs then down a long hallway lined with doors; tapestries and banners featuring ancient heraldic devices hung on the walls. Sconces were set at eye level and filled the gloomy hall with softly hissing gaslight. Finally, Mrs. Dalyrymple drew up to one door and fumbled in the pocket of her dress, withdrawing a tarnished key.
"These be yer rooms, ladies," she said, unlocking the door and throwing it open.
Rhiannon exclaimed in delight. The room was large and high-ceilinged, the bed a massive four-poster that was so high, a set of small wooden steps had been provided to allow passage up and down from the heaped feather mattresses. The walls were papered a cheerful pink, all the furniture upholstered in bright chintz. Underfoot, a delicate Aubusson rug in pale pastels; a large double window, tiny diamonds of bubbled glass set within a framework of lead, afforded an excellent view of the lake.
Crossing the room, Mrs. Dalyrymple opened another door and gestured. "An' here be yer own room, lass," she said to Rhiannon.
The bed in Rhiannon's room was not nearly high as Lina's, nor was it furnished as nicely, but that didn't faze her. Rhiannon knew that she'd end up in Lady Evangeline's bed anyway, as soon as the lights were out and servants had stopped scurrying. So she merely mouthed politely that the room was "just fine."
Mrs. Dalyrymple said, "Ta bathing chamber's down ta hall, an' tea's served in ta mornings at eight o'clock sharp. Breakfast's at half-past eight down in ta dinin' hall. We'll be havin' dinner at nine this evenin'; Sir Gregory always dresses. An' if you ladies need ennythin', just ring." She nodded at the brocaded bellcord that hung against one wall.
"Thank you, Mrs. Dalyrymple. You have been of enormous help," Lina said with a charming smile, removing her hat. "I think I will take a nap before dinner, but perhaps you will be kind enough to have a light snack of some kind sent up? It has been a long time since breakfast."
The housekeeper turned to go. "Aye," she said over her shoulder, "I'll have Molly bring ye up a tray."
As soon as the door closed, Lady Evangeline began pacing the room, pulling pins from her hair as she walked. "You know, my dear, I am almost positive this house is haunted."
"Haunted?" Rhiannon's sky-blue eyes went wide. "I thought you said you didn't know anything about Montrose Abbey?"
Having scattered hairpins carelessly on the heavy mahogany bureau, Lina pulled her hands through her raven-dark hair and breathed a sigh of relief. "I do not," she replied. "But every home that can trace its ancestry back a hundred years or better has some ghost or another flitting about and frightening the servants into fits."
The peer continued, amusement glittering in her eyes, "I wonder what it will be? A headless knight? A Lady in Green? Some fierce creature risen from the depths of the lake?"
Rhiannon shivered. As much as she enjoyed reading about ghosts - I think if I ever saw a real one, Lina would have to pry me from the ceiling, she thought. Gooseflesh immediately pebbled her arms and she rubbed them briskly.
Lady Evangeline stalked towards her partner with a wide smile. "A weeping woman? A little lost child who cries for his mother in the night? Perhaps some awful spirit, seeking revenge from beyond the grave?" She crooked her fingers into claws and advanced on Rhiannon, who gave a little shriek of mock fright and scurried away.
Before the peer could go any further, however, they were interrupted by a strange voice from the open doorway of Rhiannon's bedchamber.
"This house is haunted," it
said flatly. "And someone will die this very night."
Both women turned around to see a teenage girl standing at the inner doorway, smiling sadly.
She was pale - skin like ice, hair like flax - even her eyes were a pallid, washed-out blue that seemed almost crystalline. The newcomer was dressed in unrelieved white from head to toe and appeared almost like a specter herself.
"Who...?" Rhiannon began, but was interrupted by their visitor.
"I'm Violet MacLellan, Sir Gregory's daughter," she said through colorless lips. "You must be Miss Kincaid's great-niece."
Rhiannon nodded. "Yes. I've come for the reading of the will."
Violet sighed and came further into the room, drooping down into a chair like a gracefully languid lily. "Yes," she said, "Poor Miss Kincaid. She was ill for such a long time." The girl sighed again and Lady Evangeline cleared her throat.
"Tell me, Miss MacLellan," she said, sitting down close to the pale girl on a nearby chesterfield, "Why do you say someone is going to die?"
Violet rolled her colorless eyes towards the peer. "I heard the banshee last night. That means someone in the house will die."
Rhiannon sat down next to Lina; she did not want to start any rumors, so she refrained from putting her arm around her lover. "What's a banshee?" she asked.
The girl sat up a bit and clasped her long-fingered hands in her lap. "A banshee," she explained, "is a spirit that wails outside the castle walls to foretell a death."
"And you have heard this banshee creature yourself?" Lina asked. She pulled out her jade and platinum cigarette case and went through the ritual of lighting one of her favorite Egyptian cigarettes while Violet answered.
"Yes. I heard it last night. It was terrible!" the girl avowed with a shudder. "The Montrose Banshee is always an omen of death and doom."
"Where did this banshee come from?" Rhiannon sat back, content to allow her shoulder to press against Lina's while Violet told her story; the teenager's face was animated with a kind of malicious glee, as if she eagerly anticipated a reaction of horror from her listeners.
"This place was built by Geoffrey, Earl of Montrose," Violet said, "as a wedding gift for his wife, the Lady Eleanor. Lord Geoffrey was a vile man who enjoyed only two things - drink and the hunt - and he frequently indulged in both.
"One night, when there was a terrible storm, Lady Eleanor berated him for his drunkenness on the second floor landing of the stairs. She was heavy with child, and feared he would break his neck riding across the moors, coming home from ale-crawling with his cronies, leaving her a widow. Despite his cruelty, she loved him, you see.
"The Earl was enraged. He struck her, and she fell down the stairs, killing both herself and the unborn babe. Lord Geoffrey staggered back up to his bedchamber, caring nothing for his wife but craving another flask of strong drink before retiring. Lady Eleanor lay there at the foot of the stairs, all broken and bleeding, until morning.
"When the lady's body was discovered, it was judged that she had fallen accidentally. The Earl said nothing to the contrary, and to all appearances, showed true grief at her burial - and ensured her funeral was the finest the county had ever seen, the better to silence wagging tongues. But he felt no remorse, save only that he must marry again to beget an heir.
"The story does not end there." Violet leaned forward, eyes burning with eagerness and dread. "The night of the next full moon, the Earl was wakened from his slumber by a voice calling his name. Opening his eyes, he beheld his dead wife, and an awful vision she was, all covered with her own blood, chestnut hair whipped as if by a foul wind from Hell.
"She told him that every night, she would come at the midnight's stroke - every night until the day of his death. She mocked him, and the sound of her wild laughter in his ears nearly drove him mad.
"Night after night, the Earl was forced to endure his ghostly wife's laughter. He locked himself up in the Tower Room, piling crucifixes, Scriptures and holy relics around him, but to no avail. Lady Eleanor continued to haunt him, and Lord Geoffrey grew to fear the night as other men fear death.
"This unholy visitation lasted but a month more, for on the morning of the day of the next full moon, the Earl's manservant went up to the Tower Room to fetch his lord's breakfast. And what do you think he saw?"
Rhiannon, eyes wide, shook her head. In her agitation, she gripped Lina's arm fiercely. "What?" she asked.
Violet leaned back, a self-satisfied smile on her pallid face. "Why, he saw the Earl himself, hanging from a rafter beam, his blackened face so terrible that the priest who was called to shrive him was compelled to perform an exorcism as well, believing that such a look of terror could only be caused by demons straight from Hell."
Rhiannon shivered and clutched Lina more tightly, nails digging sharply. With a wince, the peer put her own hand on top of Rhiannon's and pried the rigid fingers loose, murmuring, "Be calm, my dear. I shall require the use of that arm if a banshee comes calling."
Rhiannon gave her lover a sheepish grin and Violet continued, "Well, that night, all within the Abbey were wakened by a terrible wailing howl. It was Lady Eleanor, who had become the banshee, mourning the Earl's escape from her revenge and venting her fury on the sleeping folk. And so,' she concluded, "from that time on, every time someone hears the Montrose Banshee's wail, it means that a person of the household is sure to die."
"A fascinating story, Miss MacLellan," Lady Evangeline said. She puffed on her cigarette and tapped the ash into a crystal dish. "And you heard this banshee last night?"
Violet nodded. "Yes," she said, "last night. I heard it outside my window, clear as day, howling fit to drown out the storm."
Rhiannon shivered again. "Oh, my! If that had happened to me, I'd be terribly afraid!"
"You give yourself too little credit, my dear," the dark-haired peer said soothingly, patting her hand. "You can be most brave if you put your mind to it. Remember the Hellfire Club?"
"The what?" Violet exclaimed, leaning forward. A small spot of febrile color burned on each pale cheek. "That sounds exciting! Do tell me all about it, please!"
Lina opened her mouth to answer and promptly closed it again when Rhiannon's small but sharp elbow poked her in the ribs. "Ah, no, Miss MacLellan," she said, "quite dull, actually." She yawned ostentatiously and the girl took the hint.
"Well," Violet said reluctantly, "I'd better go now before Father wonders where I am. It was a pleasure meeting the two of you," she continued as she left, shutting the door behind her.
Rhiannon turned to Lina. "If you'd told her the story, love, she'd have fallen to the floor, foaming at the mouth. Did you see the look on her face? She's one of those girls who positively relish being scared out of their wits."
Lina widened her emerald eyes. "Indeed? If I recall, my dear, you were the one who nearly punctured my arm in your distress over Miss Violet's fantastic little tale."
Rhiannon blushed. "I did not," she denied, "I was just... well, all right," she admitted with a slight smile, "I was excited, too. I do so love a good ghost story, especially one with tragedy and blood and revenge."
Lady Evangeline put one strong arm around her wife's small shoulders and kissed her on the lips. "Never mind, my dear," she said, "I love you despite your little ways."
Rhiannon returned the kiss with passion. "I love you, too."
Pale blue eyes stared into emerald green... until that blissful moment was interrupted by the kitchen maid, Molly, coming to their room with a tray.
That evening, dinner was served in the vast dining hall. The gleaming oak table could have served forty; Sir Gregory, his daughter and their two guests were clustered together at one end.
Taking her seat, Lady Evangeline remarked, "An extra place? For the Earl's ghost, Sir Gregory? Or for his wife, perhaps?"
Sir Gregory laughed. "I see my daughter's been telling tales again. No, milady, that is for Mrs. Babcock, who will hopefully be joining us this evening. Mrs. Babcock was Miss Kincaid's nurse and is also a beneficiary in the will."
"Ah." Lady Evangeline turned her attention to the soup, while Sir Gregory focused his charm on Rhiannon. His eyes roamed greedily, pink fleshy lips glistening with moisture.
"You look exquisite, Miss Moore," he said, walrus mustache fluttering. "That frock certainly becomes you."
Rhiannon dimpled. She wore an off-the-shoulder evening gown of ice blue, glittering with strands of crystal; the huge, puffed net sleeves were scattered with fiery opal chips. The sapphire and diamond bracelet that had been Lina's gift encircled one slender wrist; sapphire and opal earrings swung from her dainty ears. The phoenix wedding ring adorned her finger; Rhiannon would never have considered removing it.
"Thank you, Sir Gregory," she said. "I have always been particularly fond of blue."
"It becomes you, Miss Moore. Like green does for your lovely employer." The laird's eyes swiveled to the dark-haired woman seated to his right.
Lady Evangeline sat up straighter. Her own gown was teal satin, so heavily encrusted with gleaming beads in every shade of viridian that when she breathed, light shimmered and reflected in the crystals, making it seem as if she were clothed in the sea itself. The decolletage was intimidatingly low; nestled in the valley of her breasts was a square-cut emerald in a framework of gold, held up by a strand of beryl moonstones. Like Rhiannon, she wore her own wedding ring of emerald and topaz proudly.
"Well, it is a shame that men's evening dress is so modest, Sir Gregory," Lina remarked, "Otherwise, I would add my compliments to your own."
The laird laughed again. His dinner clothes were expensively cut but simple; a black coat, trousers, and blindingly white shirt and tie. On the pinkie finger of his left hand, he wore a large seal ring of onyx, the black stone carved into a snarling wolf's head. He noticed Rhiannon studying it and said, "The emblem of my house, Miss Moore. My father is Lord Thomas, Duke of Templemoor."
"Where's Templemoor?" Rhiannon asked.
"About ten miles from here. In truth, the Abbey is not my home. Miss Kincaid became a great friend of my father's, and myself, after purchasing the Abbey five years ago. When she became too ill to manage the estate herself, she asked for my assistance, which I was, of course, only to happy to provide. I keep Violet here as well; my father is not a well man and I fear the child is far to delicate for the sickroom atmosphere that prevails at Templemoor."
As the footmen cleared away the soup dishes, Violet piped up, "Oh, father! That isn't true! Grandfather Thomas is in excellent health; you said just the other day that you were afraid the old man would outlive you."
Rhiannon and Lina stifled their snorts in hastily snatched napkins, while the laird's florid face grew even brighter. "Violet," he said angrily, "Children should be seen and not heard! Now, go to your room."
"But father...," Violet whined, but was interrupted by her father's thick finger thrust in her direction. "I said go!," he thundered.
Pouting, Violet flounced from the room, ruffled pink skirts fluttering wildly.
Sir Gregory took a deep breath; impassive footmen served thick filets of turbot in a saffron laced sauce. "I apologize, ladies," he said when he had calmed. "My daughter is as headstrong as an unbroken colt. I blame myself; after her mother's death, I indulged the girl shamefully."
He picked up a fork and applied himself stoically to the fish, while Rhiannon asked, "How ill is His Grace?"
Sir Gregory put down his fork with a sigh. "My father's illness is not strictly physical, but mental as well. Although he is only sixty-three, nevertheless, his mind has begun to wander. At times, I quite fear for his safety."
"What can you tell us of Miss Kincaid?" Lina asked, changing the subject after glancing at Rhiannon - who glowed with anticipation.
The laird replied, "As I said, Miss Kincaid purchased Montrose Abbey nearly five years ago. I grew to know something of her history since my family were constant visitors. She apparently lived abroad for some years, both on the Continent and in America, returning to England only a few months before her retirement to Scotland. She was a successful romantic novelist - in fact, all of her books are in the library - and while not wealthy, was quite comfortable financially."
Rhiannon wished she had not left her notebook and automatic pencil upstairs, but upon reflection, realized it would be bad manners in the extreme to scribble notes at the dinner table. "Did she ever tell you why she left her family?" she asked.
"No. And I felt it impolite to inquire." Sir Gregory's voice held a note of mild reproof. "Apparently, and I surmise this only because of a few statements she made in my presence, there was some sort of rift between herself and the rest of her family. Beyond that, I know nothing."
Throughout the salad course, the entree of wild venison, and a delicious chocolate souffle, the conversation centered on hunting - fox and otherwise, politics, and taxes. After a finishing course of fruit and cheeses (which left Rhiannon nearly scarlet, remembering her seduction of Lina with same in the railcar), they retired to the laird's study for the reading of the will.
Mrs. Babcock was waiting in the book-lined office. "I didn't wish to disturb you, milord. So I waited here."
"Fine, Mrs. Babcock," Sir Gregory waved a dismissive hand. "As soon as one other interested party arrives, I will read Miss Kincaid's will." He settled himself behind his desk and busied himself arranging papers. "Please be seated," he added almost as an afterthought.
Mrs. Babcock was a tall, strong-looking woman with a stern face and protruding, muddy green eyes. Her hair was hidden beneath a lacy mobcap of old fashioned design, and her severely styled dress was of serviceable black bombazine. "I was old Miss Kincaid's nurse," she said proudly, "Me and Dr. Clarke looked after her in her last days."
"How d'ye do?" Rhiannon murmured politely, while Lady Evangeline made some innocuous remark.
They all sat down in leather covered chairs facing the laird. In a few minutes, Mrs. Babcock said, "Yes, and you should have seen Sir Gregory with the poor old thing. Why, he was nearly as attentive as a son, always at her side, day in and day out."
Sir Gregory kept his eyes on the documents in his hand but Lina noticed that he stiffened a little.
Mrs. Babcock gave the two women a malicious smile. "Miss Kincaid was terribly ailing, you know. The pain was dreadful, and her attacks became worse as time wore on; poor. Dr. Clarke said it was gastric fever, and he dosed her proper, but she never recovered."
The nurse gave Sir Gregory a sharp look but he did not raise his eyes from his papers. She continued, "Sir Gregory tried to be a comfort, poor lamb, but he could only stay a little while before she'd have another attack and then he'd have to leave. Men never do have any stomach for illness, in my opinion. Every time one of her attacks would pass, Miss Kincaid would be too weak to do anything but lay there, petting her precious doggie."
Rhiannon asked, "A dog? Where's it now?"
Sir Gregory replied gruffly, "It died, Miss Moore. It was a surly beast, given to fits of temperament; only Miss Kincaid could control the creature. Shortly after her funeral, it disappeared. None of my neighbors has reported seeing it; the bitch probably starved out in the woods."
A tentative tap came from the door, and Mrs. Dalyrymple entered. "Jack Darling is here, m'laird," she said diffidently, standing aside to admit the fourth and final party to Sir Gregory's study.
Jack Darling was old and as gnarled as a wind-blasted pine; his brown eyes shone sadly, giving him the look of a lachrymose bloodhound. "I've come, milord," he said, touching his cap with one finger, "Sorry ta have kept ye."
"Quite all right, Darling. Now that you're here, man, take a seat." Sir Gregory waited until the man had settled himself, then addressed Rhiannon, "Jack Darling was Miss Kincaid's gardener."
"Aye, an' ta lady did all right fer me whilst she were livin', so I s'pect she'll do ta same now that she's dead, God rest her soul," Darling said piously.
Sir Gregory harrumphed. "Now then. All of the parties in this room have an interest of one kind of another in Miss Kincaid's will. I shall now read the particulars..."
To the gardener, Miss Kincaid had left the astonishing sum of one thousand pounds; the old man wept, pulling out a polka-dotted handkerchief to cover his face, muttering, "Aye! A grand lady, that."
Mrs. Babcock, much to her evident satisfaction, was left an equally round sum of fifteen hundred pounds. It was clear that she considered such largesse as her due.
Rhiannon waited her turn breathlessly. What could her Great-Aunt have left her?
"...and to my great-niece, Rhiannon Moore, I leave the contents of my strongbox, presently in the keeping of His Grace, Lord Thomas, Duke of Templemoor, with my blessings; and also the sum of five hundred pounds." Sir Gregory cleared his throat. "And to Sir Gregory MacLellan, my excellent friend, I leave my estate of Montrose Abbey, with all the goods and chattels currently contained therein, and all my remaining monies, stocks, etc., in the total of twenty thousand pounds."
He looked up, blue eyes soft with grief. "I, of course, knew of this particular provision in Miss Kincaid's will. As the only practicing solicitor outside of Dundee, it was Miss Kincaid's particular wish that I draw up the document and oversee its deputation. I protested, not wishing to be accused of partiality or irregularity, and at my own insistence, the signing of the will was witnessed by Mrs. Babcock."
Lina nodded. "Of course, Sir Gregory. No one here has accused you of anything. In fact, I applaud your circumspection."
Rhiannon was nearly in tears. "Poor Great-Aunt Margaret!" she exclaimed, and Jack Darling patted her back.
"There, there, lass," he said, "Dinna grieve. Surely ta lady's in a far finer place fer now. She suffered terribly at ta end, an' I know fer myself that she was glad ta be goin' at last."
Rhiannon wiped her eyes on the small square of cambric handed to her by Lady Evangeline. "Thank you, Mr. Darling."
The gardener smiled sadly and rose. "Thank ye fer yer hospitality, Sir Gregory," he said, touching his cap again. "I'll be leavin' now fer ta raise a glass or two in Miss Kincaid's memory."
Darling left and Sir Gregory glanced at the mantle clock. "Since it is nearly eleven o'clock, I think it best that we all retire. In the morning, if you wish, I will have bank drafts drawn up from Miss Kincaid's account for the sums she has left you. As for the strongbox, Miss Moore, I shall have one of the servants fetch it for you tomorrow."
Lina rose, hiding a yawn behind a raised hand. "Thank you for the kind offer, Sir Gregory, but I believe it best that Rhiannon and I go to Templemoor in person to collect this legacy. If you have no objection, that is."
The peer's sideways glance was sharp, but the laird replied mildly, "As you wish. My carriage is at your disposal at any time."
Lina and Rhiannon made their goodnights and trooped back up the stairs to their bedchamber. The strawberry-blonde woman was filled with curiosity.
"What do you suppose is in the box?" she asked, helping her lover unfasten the dozens of tiny buttons that marched down the back of her dress.
"I have no idea, my dear. I only hope it is something good, for your sake."
Abruptly, Rhiannon threw her arms around Lina and squeezed, resting her face against the other woman's back. "You're the best thing in my life, love," she said, "but why did you insist on going personally to Templemoor? Surely you're not interested in a dotty old Duke."
Lina's emerald eyes gazed into the distance. "Oh," she replied a trifle absently, "I have my reasons, my dear. I have my reasons."
Although Rhiannon tried with all
the persuasion at her command that night, she was unable to wrest any
further admissions from her closed-mouthed partner.
On the heavily carved and inlaid table beside the bed, a small clock chimed once, and Rhiannon was wakened by the sound of a desperate howl outside the bedchamber window.
She sat bolt upright, clutching the sheets to her breast. "What is that?" she exclaimed in the darkness; beside her, Lina murmured, "Stay here," and climbed out of the tall bed.
Lina only wore a man's nightshirt of thin combed cotton as a concession to modesty. She stalked to the open window and peered out, her aristocratic face washed in milky moonlight to a landscape of planes and angles.
Again, the unearthly wail shattered the night. Rhiannon flinched, throwing back the bedclothes to join her lover at the window, a lacy peignoir flung over her shoulders.
Beneath them, the waters of Scurdie Ness glimmered with faint points of diamond light; the heavy wood beyond was dark and still. Moonlight had turned the lawn and landscape of the Abbey into a dark fairy's delight, full of fascinating shadows and sinister rustling breezes.
When the wail came yet a third time, Rhiannon put her arm around Lina's waist and leaned into the taller woman, seeking comfort. "What can it be?" she asked. "It sounds like something mourning."
"There is grief there, my dear. But listen; do you hear anything else?"
Once again, the howl of misery and despair echoed through the castle and Rhiannon thought she detected a note of rage as well. She shuddered. "How awful! It sounds like an animal in pain, but..."
"But it sounds uncannily intelligent, as well," Lina finished. Her eyes seemed almost black in the uncertain light. "The sound appears to be coming from across the lake. Listen..."
Although both women stood at the
window for a long time thereafter, the unearthly howl was not heard again
The next morning at breakfast, Lady Evangeline glanced at a sullen Violet across the table. "I trust you had a pleasant evening, Miss Violet?" she inquired politely.
Violet looked at her with haggard eyes. The girl was even more pallid than usual. "No, I did not, milady. I heard the banshee again last night."
Lina chewed thoughtfully on a bit of grilled kidney before answering, "Oh, is that what it was? I thought it was a hound or perhaps a wolf."
Sir Gregory joined them, plunking his filled plate on the table a little forcefully. "There are no more wolves in Scotland, Lady Evangeline. They were exterminated long ago." He shot his sulky daughter a warning glare before seating himself.
Violet spoke up defiantly, "I know what I heard! It was the banshee!"
Sir Gregory opened his mouth to scold his daughter but was interrupted by Lady Evangeline. "Well, since none of us was found weltering in our gore - or at least, none that I know of - perhaps your earlier banshee's warning was a touch hasty."
Violet flushed; such a flood of color in her pallid face gave her the resemblance of a well-fed vampire. "It was the banshee," she mumbled, pushing her eggs around the plate with her fork. "I know it!" With that, she stood and walked away, flaxen hair twisted into a single braid that bounced against her reed-slim waist with every step.
Rhiannon smiled. "Sir Gregory," she said, "What on earth was that terrible howling last night?"
The laird shrugged. "Some hound, most likely. Many of the lairds hereabouts enjoy fox hunting and keep a pack or two of hounds. In fact, I'm fond of it myself. We host an annual hunt ball at Templemoor in November at the beginning of the season."
Lina nodded and said slyly, "Mr. Oscar Wilde has said that fox hunting is 'the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable.' I take it the local folk do not share his view?"
Sir Gregory put down his fork angrily. "Balderdash! That fainting lily Wilde's mouth will be the death of him yet. I was very nearly required to whip him from the bounds of the Anglo-Safari Club, once. He and that detestable sodomite of his." He blew out his breath, mustache fluttering, ruddy face an even brighter scarlet.
There was silence for a long moment as the two women ate their breakfast and Sir Gregory regained his composure. "I beg your pardon," he said finally with exquisite politeness, "My mother, Lady Carolyn, God rest her soul, always declared I had the worst temper in Scotland."
"That is quite all right, Sir Gregory," Lina said. She was dressed in a lovely summer visiting gown of ivory sprinkled with tiny silk rosebuds. In the coils of her ebony hair, a bouquet of silk roses had been thrust behind one ear. "I did hope you could indulge Miss Rhiannon this morning in a particular wish of hers."
While Rhiannon stared at her lover, she felt a slight blow against her shin and Lina's emerald eyes flashed warningly. Blinking rapidly, she said, "Oh, yes, Sir Gregory! Please. I so hope you'll agree. It means the world to me." Whatever it is...
The laird leaned back and laced his fingers across his ample stomach. "Whatever your desire is, miss, rest assured I shall do my utmost to requite it." His good humor had obviously been restored by the dark-haired woman's courtesy.
As Rhiannon gaped, wondering what to say next, Lina smoothly took up the thread of the conversation. "As you know, Miss Rhiannon does not know very much about her Great-Aunt. She was hoping you would allow her to see the room where Miss Kincaid died. I assure you it is not a morbid request; my secretary hopes to gain some... well, some flavor of the woman, you understand."
Sir Gregory chuckled. "Of course, I quite understand. Mrs. Dalyrymple will conduct you to Miss Kincaid's chambers at any time you wish."
After breakfast, when the laird had excused himself, pleading unavoidable business, Lina drew Rhiannon aside. "My dear, I want you to go to the library and find Miss Kincaid's books. Sir Gregory said last night there are copies available."
"But why?" Rhiannon was puzzled.
"I wish to read them, my dear. And you may wish to as well. It is said that the best authors write from their own experiences; perhaps in doing so, you can begin to understand your Great-Aunt Margaret a little better."
Rhiannon went to the library, still wondering a little over Lina's sudden interest in romantic literature. Fortunately, the library proved to be as fascinating as the rest of the house. Done in the Gothic style, all dark carved woods and musty velvet curtains, every wall was sheathed in shelves and every shelf bulged with books. It didn't take the strawberry-blonde woman long to find her Great-Aunt's books - twelve in all.
The first was a thick volume, bound in green-blue buckram, and it was entitled, 'The Woman Scorned.'
Rhiannon settled herself down on
a settee and was soon completely engrossed.
Meanwhile, Lady Evangeline had, by exercising formidable charm and aristocratic self-assurance, persuaded the housekeeper, Mrs. Dalyrymple, to surrender her master key, which fitted every lock in the house.
Going back upstairs, the peer opened every door in the long, third floor corridor until she came upon a large bedchamber decorated in an unmistakably masculine style. The furnishings were so new they still gleamed with beeswax and lemon oil; zebra skins, lion heads and antelope horns were scattered throughout.
This must be Sir Gregory's chamber, Lina thought, scanning the surroundings with an eagle's eye. It was abnormally neat, in her opinion; but the fireplace grate had not yet been cleared of the previous evening's ashes, therefore the maid-of-all-work must not have been around to tidy up. Yet silver brushes were lined up with military precision on the bureau and the bed had been made with exactitude.
Lady Evangeline examined the sheets and snorted. Military corners, as well, she thought. Sir Gregory has either been in her Majesty's service before or his father was a retired officer.
Something glittered in the corner of her eye; turning around, she spied a gleam amidst the ashes in the iron grate. Kneeling, she carefully but swiftly pushed aside the cold, gray ash to expose... a silver sleeve-stud - tarnished with exposure to the flames, but intact. Lina recognized it as one she had seen Sir Gregory wear in his cuff last night. The smoky cairngorm that had centered the piece was cracked with heat.
A frown came across Lady Evangeline's face. Poking through the ashes yielded no further clue... Although, she thought, from the amount of residue, Sir Gregory must have had quite a high fire burning for a summer's night.
Lina pocketed the stud and climbed
to her feet, hurrying out of the room, carefully closing and locking the
door behind her.
Rhiannon was completely immersed in the romantic tale written by Margaret Kincaid. The Woman Scorned was a weepy romantic tale of forbidden romance, an unfortunate mistake, and tragic consequences. Before she'd finished three chapters, Rhiannon was deeply touched by the emotional strength of the prose.
When Lina entered the library looking for her, Rhiannon glanced up at her lover, tears trickling down her cheeks. "Oh, Lina!" she exclaimed, "you must read this! It's so terribly sad."
The peer perched on the edge of the settee and patted Rhiannon's hand. "Perhaps later, my dear. If I can tear you away from your fascinating reading, we should go examine your Great-Aunt's sickroom before Mrs. Dalyrymple requires her key."
Immediately, Rhiannon swung her legs off the settee and stood, arranging her skirts. "Of course. If you'll help me with these," she said, indicating the stack of books piled on one table, "I'll leave them in our bedchamber."
Together, they hauled the volumes upstairs, Lina walking behind Rhiannon on the staircase, the better to admire the way the other woman's hips swung back and forth as she walked. I must admit, Lina thought, Rhiannon is devastatingly attractive - and I thank God every night that she is mine.
Rhiannon wore her own summer dress of lavender linen, embroidered with flirtatious fans in dark purple and teal. The small puffed sleeves and bodice were edged in eyelet lace; indigo ribbons were threaded through her red-gold hair. "Lina," she asked as they continued down the hallway, "where were you while I was in the library?"
The peer stopped for a moment, considering. At last, she said slowly, "I shall have to tell you later, my dear. But I promise that I will, directly after we examine the sickroom."
Rhiannon shrugged good-naturedly. Ever since an earlier confrontation with her lover over Lina's tendency to coddle her unmercifully, the other woman had been fairly careful to include Rhiannon in as many decisions as possible. If she says she will, then she will. I'll just have to wait a bit.
The two women went to the sickroom, Margaret Kincaid's former bedchamber. The room was dominated by a large, iron-framed bed, and the enormous table that sat beside it was still covered in bottles, jars, phials and other medical paraphernalia. A wicker basket of oranges and apples rotted in one corner of the table, a silver fruit knife beside it.
Lina prowled around the table, examining labels and poking through the assorted medicines, at one point picking up the knife and frowning, while Rhiannon casually looked at this and that. The strawberry-blonde wasn't sure what Lina was looking for, but she was confident she would soon find out.
"Oh!" exclaimed Rhiannon, spying a silver-framed mezzo-tint in a prominent place on the vanity. "It's my mother!"
Lina walked over and put her arms around the smaller woman's waist, leaning her chin on the top of Rhiannon's head. The tint had been hand colored in the pastels of an earlier age, and depicted a lovely young woman with dark blue eyes and flaming auburn hair. "Your mother was quite beautiful, my dear," the peer said softly.
Rhiannon sniffed, wiping a tear from her face with the back of a hand. "She died when I was eleven, trying to give birth to my baby brother. He died, too. The doctor couldn't do anything to save them."
Lady Evangeline squeezed her wife gently. "I'm truly sorry, Rhiannon. Perhaps, if we inquire, Sir Gregory will allow you to keep your mother's print."
Rhiannon held the frame against her bosom tightly. "I hope so. I have nothing else to remember her by, except my memories."
Lina's gentle hands turned the smaller woman around until the sky-blue eyes she loved could look directly into her own. "My poor darling," she said softly, "if Sir Gregory refuses, we shall take it anyway. It will not the first time I have crept away into the night bearing stolen goods."
Rhiannon gave her a sad little smile. "True. Too bad Jackson isn't here; we may need his formidable burglar's skills."
"Quite so. Well, come away, my dear. I have seen all I wish to in this place. Unless, of course, you want to stay."
"No. There's nothing left of Great-Aunt Margaret here. Maybe that strongbox will give me some answers."
Lina leaned down and kissed Rhiannon gently. "For your sake, my dear... I hope so as well."
Both women entertained thoughts of returning to Lina's bedchamber for a while... until they were interrupted by a frightful scream from belowstairs.
Exchanging a glance, they ran out
of the room.
On the ground floor, they found the housekeeper crumpled in a heap on a davenport near the fireplace, apron covering her face. Wails and sobs shook the fragile linen.
"Mrs. Dalyrymple!" Lina barked, "What the Devil is the matter?"
The aged housekeeper did not answer until Lina repeated her inquiry impatiently. Then, she said in a quavering voice muffled by folds of cloth, "It's her... ta nurse, Mrs. Babcock. Her was killed last night! Oh, horrible, horrible t'was. Och, ta puir lady..." She began to sob again as Lady Evangeline raced out of the house, Rhiannon at her heels.
Once outside, the peer skidded to a stop so abruptly that Rhiannon nearly bumped into her. The strawberry-blonde peered around her taller companion and caught her breath.
Two strangers, men dressed in rough work clothes, stood next to Sir Gregory, who was gazing stone-faced down at the body of Mrs. Babcock. The nurse's muddy green eyes protruded even farther in death; her throat bore a ragged, raw-edged wound, as if some animal had attacked her.
Sir Gregory noticed the two women and strode over to them. "I beg your pardon, ladies, but perhaps you were prefer to repair to the house. The sight," he continued after glancing at Rhiannon's whey-colored face, "is quite gruesome and unfit for well-bred women."
Lina drew herself up. "On the contrary, Sir Gregory," she announced, "I have, in my time, observed an autopsy or two. Surely the sight of a corpse, no matter how disfigured, will not discompose me."
The laird grimaced, gesturing grudging acceptance. "Very well, then. Have it your own way. But I warn you - I don't have time for fainting flowers at the moment."
Lina gave him a sharp look from dark emerald eyes but said nothing else. She marched over to the corpse and squatted down next to it, examining the wound professionally while Sir Gregory watched in disgust.
"Is your employer always so morbid?" he asked acerbically.
Her eyes locked on her lover's actions, Rhiannon replied, "Yes, I'm afraid so, Sir Gregory. There's no stopping her once her mind's made up."
The laird muttered, "Headstrong females!" under his breath, but forebear from further comment.
Lady Evangeline stood up, wiping her slightly gory fingers on a handkerchief. She walked back over to Sir Gregory, balling the cambric square up and thrusting it into one pocket, asking, "How could Mrs. Babcock have been killed in such a fashion?"
He snorted, walrus mustache fluttering. "No doubt the silly woman got some romantic notion or another about a moonlight stroll last night. These men found her near the remains of an old church, a few miles from the Abbey on the other side of the Ness. There are a few wild dogs in the vicinity; no doubt she was attacked by one of them."
Lina's lips thinned but she said nothing more other than, "Thank you for allowing my examination, Sir Gregory. Now, since I am sure you need to alert the local constabulary, perhaps Rhiannon and myself should take the opportunity to avail ourselves of your kind offer last evening."
The laird's eyes were sharp. "Which offer would that be, milady?" he asked cautiously.
"Why, to borrow your excellent carriage and go to Templemoor, of course! And I hope you do not mind, but knowing it is unlikely that the police will allow Rhiannon and myself to leave until they complete their investigation, I shall also want to stop in the village. There are some, ah, necessities I neglected to bring with me, not having anticipated an extended stay."
Sir Gregory's face turned brighter. "Of course," he said, and Rhiannon wondered what he was thinking. "You will be my guests until this dreadful business is settled. By all means, go to the village, go to Templemoor and please, ladies, do endeavor not to allow this unfortunate tragedy to blight your afternoon."
Lady Evangeline nodded her thanks
and led Rhiannon away.
Templemoor was an ancient stone castle that had clearly been added to over the years; Georgian style mixed freely with Greek revival, Gothic and Tudor, so that the whole massive edifice gave the impression of a child's puzzle put together haphazardly. But colorful pennants waved from the turrets, a flag with the snarling wolf's head design of the MacLellan family prominent among them.
As they rolled up the graveled drive, Lina said, "My dear, I am inordinately proud of you. You did not even turn green at the sight of Mrs. Babcock and I know it must have horrified you to the core."
"You mean, you're glad I didn't faint?" Rhiannon replied ironically, a red-gold brow raised. "I didn't want to embarrass you in front of Sir Gregory, so I told myself to be strong. After all, I faced the head of the Hellfire Club and lived to tell the tale; what's one corpse compared to that?" Her heart-shaped face was bleak as she recalled the dreadful danger her beloved had been in on that terrible night, only six months ago.
Lina took Rhiannon's small hand in her own and raised it to her lips. "I shall never forget that act of bravery, my dear. Holmes told me all about it, you know. He was fit to burst with pride."
"Really? I thought him likely to strangle me instead."
Lady Evangeline laughed. "Yes, he was a little put out that you attacked several dozen men single-handedly, but you did save my life in the end, my fierce warrior queen. I only wish I had been awake to see it."
Rhiannon blushed. "I did tell you all about it after you recovered from being poisoned."
"Yes, you did. But hearing is not quite the same experience as seeing, my dear. Perhaps I should place my life in jeopardy again, just to be a witness to your extraordinary bravery."
Rhiannon punched Lina in the arm. "Don't you dare!" she said hotly as the carriage rolled to a stop in front of the castle. "Anyway, you watch me practice fighting all the time."
Rhiannon practiced daily with a length of seasoned ebony crafted for her by an Oriental gentleman of Lina's acquaintance. The quarterstaff was an antique weapon that quite suited the smaller woman, allowing her a length of reach that would be inobtainable with anything else. Her staff, nearly as tall as she was, doubled as a fashionable cane; she carried it with her, usually wrapped in gay ribbons, whenever she and her lover went out for the evening.
Thus far, she had refused Lina's offers to have her tutored in the skills of unarmed combat called baritsu, a martial art at which both she and Holmes were masters. Having left her staff behind at their home in Grosvenor Square, Rhiannon was now having second thoughts.
After all, she considered, baritsu skills cannot be taken away, lost, or left behind. I'll always have a weapon. And she determined to begin lessons as soon as they returned to England.
The two women were admitted to Templemoor by a Roman-nosed butler of stoic mien. His thinning black hair, glistening with macassar oil, had been carefully combed over in an attempt to conceal his balding head. He received Lady Evangeline's calling card on a silver salver and showed them into a drawing room.
"H'if you will wait here, moddom," the butler said in round tones with freezing dignity, "h'I will inform His Grace of your h'arrival."
Lina stripped off her gloves and plopped down on a camelback sofa, spreading her ruffled skirts to keep them from being wrinkled. "Sit down, my dear," she said to Rhiannon. "No doubt his son has already informed the Duke of our errand; we have only to collect your prize, make some polite conversation, and then we will be on our way."
A deep voice from the doorway startled both women. "Fer shame! I'd hoped ta have ta company o' two such charmin' ladies fer an hour or two at least."
Turning around, Rhiannon beheld an old man being wheeled into the room in a wicker chair. He smiled at them both. "Laird Thomas," he said, rheumy blue eyes twinkling. "An' you must be ta wee Rhiannon my friend Margaret told me aboot - only nae so wee ennymore, I see."
Rhiannon blushed. "I beg your pardon, Your Grace," she said, and Lina seconded the sentiment, her own face pink with embarrassment.
The old man waved a gnarled hand; the arthritic fingers were twisted and bent. "Nae matter, lassies. 'Tis all right; I'm not so easily offended as I was in my younger days."
Lord Thomas craned his head back to speak to the young manservant who had pushed his chair. "G'wan, now, Billy, there's a good lad. An' on yer way, bespeak Mrs. Thrimble fer some tea."
Rhiannon sank down on the sofa next to Lady Evangeline, her red-gold brows drawn together in a frown. From what Sir Gregory had told her, she had expected a somewhat wandering, vague old man; instead, Lord Thomas seemed as vigorous mentally as he was crippled physically.
The Duke rolled his chair opposite the two women, waving off their offers of assistance. "Comes ta day when I canno' push myself 'crost a wee room, lassies, t'will be ta day when I turns my face to ta wall an' breathes my last."
Having gotten himself comfortably situated, Lord Thomas beamed at his visitors. His lap and withered legs were covered by a knitted afghan in the MacLellan tartan colors of red, green and black. "I s'pect ye've come fer this, Miss Rhiannon," he said, reaching beneath the afghan and pulling out an old iron box.
Rhiannon hastily lifted the box from his trembling hands before he could drop it. "Thank you, Your Grace," she said. She ran her hands reverently over the lid. "Do you have any idea what's inside?"
"Aye," Lord Thomas replied. "Margaret charged me ta tell ye that ta contents of yon box is ta sum o' her life; her journals, letters, everythin'. An' asked me ta tell ye particular ta look after her wee Fyvie."
"Fyvie?" Rhiannon said, imitating his pronunciation 'FIE-vee.' "Who's that?"
"Why, 'tis her wee doggie what gi' her such comfort in those last few days. Have ye no seen her?" The Duke seemed taken aback.
Lina and Rhiannon exchanged a glance. They both wondered if this could be a symptom of the mental deterioration Sir Gregory had spoken of. "Um, Your Grace," Lina said gently, "your son told us that Miss Kincaid's dog had died."
"Died?" The old man seemed incredulous. "What d'ye mean by that? Bonnie Fyvie? Nay, it canno' be! Why, I brought Maggy ta pup wit' my own two hands, I did, not less than four years ago. An' I know wee Fyvie stayed wit' Margaret 'til ta end."
"Nevertheless, Your Grace," Lina replied in that same gentle tone, "Sir Gregory was there at the Abbey; he told us Fyvie had run away the day of Margaret's funeral, and has not been seen since."
"Och, well, dead an' not seen are two different things. I've an idea or two myself as to the wee Fyvie." He laid one gnarled finger against his nose and gave the startled peer a wink. "Maybe now ye've come, Miss Rhiannon, wee Fyvie'll come back home."
Rhiannon nodded absently and examined the box more closely. The hasp and lock of the lid were fashioned into twisting serpents of brass and were considerably newer than the box itself.
When she asked about it, Lord Thomas replied, "T'was my own idea, lass. I had ta lock changed when Margaret passed away, ta keep them what has no business in ta matter from snoopin'."
He reached into one pocket and withdrew a key. Handing it to Rhiannon, he said, "An' when can we expect you ta become our new neighbor, lass?"
Rhiannon gulped. "I'm only visiting the Abbey, Your Grace." She was beginning to think Sir Gregory had been correct; his father's mind was no longer as keen as it once must have been.
"Oh ho! Well, then, I'm hopin' ta see ye again sometime, when ye've sorted out all yer business."
Lady Evangeline took the opportunity to ask, "Did you know Mrs. Babcock well, Your Grace? Margaret's nurse?"
"Nay, no much. That bloody Sassenach wit' all her airs an' little ways. Reminded me o' my wife Lady Carolyn, God rest her soul. T'was my boy Gregory what had ta hirin' o' her; her an' all that crew over to ta Abbey. When Margaret was ailin', Gregory went over ta take care o' her, seein' as how I'm nae more capable o' such tasks. Near first thing ta boy did was give all ta servants notice, save only fer ta gardener."
"I wonder why he did such a thing?" Lina mused out loud.
"I've no idea, never asked ta boy. Say, what are ye going ta do wit' all yer money, lass?"
Again, Rhiannon was slightly startled. "Well, I haven't really considered it yet, but I'm sure my employer has a few ideas." She wondered why Lina had not told the old man about Mrs. Babcock's death, but on further reflection realized it must have been out of concern for the Duke's fragile health. He certainly looks as if a sudden shock might do him in, she thought.
Abruptly, the Duke's smile faltered. He slumped down in his chair, arms dangling over the sides, clearly unconscious. Lina was instantly on her feet, one hand pressed to the side of the old man's throat. The look of intense concern on her face was quickly replaced by amusement.
"It is all right, my dear," she said, "he has only fallen asleep. The elderly do that sometimes. I think we should go now."
Rhiannon's heartbeat returned to normal. She'd thought the Duke had died right before her eyes. As the two women left, Rhiannon leaned over and adjusted the afghan over the old man's knees.
Having informed the stoic Billy about the Duke's condition, they climbed into Sir Gregory's carriage for the journey back. Rhiannon kept the box in her lap, the precious key clutched in her fist.
"Lina," she asked, "why did you want to know why Sir Gregory gave the servants notice?"
Lina's emerald eyes darkened. "Because, my dear," she said, "it told me much about his character."
Rhiannon mused on that cryptic statement as the carriage rolled down into the village of Templemoor Heath.