About the book
Because wherever your heart is, that is where you'll find your treasure...
Lillian Newman, wife of the Earl of Clottrahorn, is facing disaster.
When her husband falls victim to poison right in front of her eyes, she becomes not only a widow, but also the prime suspect. Desperate to escape prosecution for a crime she never committed, she is left with no other choice: she flees.
Sebastian Hughes, Duke of Parkforton, is on the hunt for a governess for his two unruly brothers. He never expected to find one in a horse shed behind his manor. Especially not one as beautiful and well-mannered as Lillian.
Constables start knocking on the door, looking for a lady, whose description strangely resembles Sebastian's newly-hired governess.
When Lillian falls gravely ill with symptoms suspiciously similar to her husband's right before his death, it becomes apparent that not even a Duke's estate is safe from an enemy that comes from the inside. To unravel Ariadne's Thread, deep they must go, into the wine cellars where the sun doesn't glow...
Lillian Newman carefully fastened the diamond drop to her earlobe, then stood back to admire the effect. The earrings were tiny, just an infinitesimal twinkle dangling below the cluster of light brown curls over each ear. Lillian’s maid carefully fastened the fine silver chain that held the matching diamond pendant so that it lay in the hollow of her throat.
Lillian’s slender neck rose gracefully from her white shoulders, which were framed by a soft bit of tulle, just above her modest bosom. The dress was made of delicate, pale peach colored silk that shimmered beneath white silk gauze, daintily embroidered with white blossoms. Her long, white gloves came up over her elbows, and she had an ostrich-plume fan and white silk reticule to go with the ensemble.
It was just the sort of presentation that her husband Charles, Earl of Clottrahorn, liked to see her in. She found it more than a little over-done, but he asked little of her beyond that she preside over his household and give to him the managing of her dowry. He seemed to have little desire for an heir, and seemed content that she act as a decorative ornament when occasion called for him to have a lady present.
“Oh, très élégante! Charmante!” exclaimed her maid, carefully draping a curl from her top-knot over one shoulder. “You shall be the envy of everyone at the opera.”
“Thank you, Heloise. You have once more turned the ugly duckling into a swan.”
“Oh, nevair that, Lady Lillian. I haf only gilded the lily a trifle. You are mair beautiful than you know. But you must make haste. The big clock in the hall will be striking soon.”
“And Charles hates to be fashionably late. I know. He must see the curtain go up or he does not feel that he has gotten his full money’s worth out of the evening.”
The maid, Heloise, swept a charming curtsey, saying nothing at all. Lillian suspected that the woman put her sense of humor away with her street clothes. Still, she was quite right that the hour was becoming advanced, and Charles would be pacing the floor in the drawing room.
Lillian rose, careful not to disarrange Heloise’s handywork, and made her way down the stairs.
“Ah, there you are,” Charles said. “I was beginning to wonder if you had forgotten. But I can see that the incomparable Heloise has once again worked her magic, turning you into something ethereal. I scarcely dare give you my hand to escort you.”
Lillian bowed her head in graceful acknowledgement of the compliment. “And you are turned out perfectly as well, Charles. Are we ready for departure?”
“Just one small thing. I have here a bottle of wine the butler found in the cellar. I’d like to get your opinion of it before we go.”
Inwardly, Lillian sighed. The last thing she wanted before treading the mazes of social nicety at the opera was a taste of wine. Perhaps she could somehow dispose of the stuff without drinking it. She accepted the glass, and swirled the amber liquid in it, debating whether to take a sip or to plead an upset stomach. The wine was a most unusual color, not quite red nor yet white.
Charles raised his glass to his lips, sipped appreciatively. Then set it aside. “It is quite time, my dear. Shall we go?”
“Of course, I am quite looking forward . . .”
“One moment,” Charles said, turning away from her, as if to set his glass on the sideboard. “One moment,” he said again, clutching at his stomach. “I. . . .” Then he fell, convulsing.
Lillian screamed, dropping her glass. It shattered, the wine spreading like amber blood. She dropped to her knees, heedless of the shards of glass and the spilled liquid that now stained her dress.
Foam spilled from her husband’s mouth. “Help me! Someone, help!” Lillian cried out. She tried to turn Charles on his side, or to at least turn his head so that he didn’t drown in the liquid that came spewing from his mouth. But he convulsed again, his body curling into a knot. He made horrible noises.
“Lillian?” A woman’s voice called from behind her.
“My God!” a man swore.
Her sister in-law and her husband. She had forgotten that they were to go with them to the opera. She was vaguely aware of them on the edge of her vision.
Another voice cut in. “Lilly? What has happened! Are you all right?” It was Tabitha, her sister, who was also to attend the opera with them.
The family were quickly followed by the butler, a pair of footmen, and a gaggle of maids. The butler took in the situation at a glance. “M’lord, ladies, come away to the little sitting room. I’ll send for the constable at once.”
Edward, the Baron of Hornsedge, the neighboring estate, put an arm around his wife, Elizabeth. “Come, my dear,” he said.
“But, Charles . . . Please, help my brother.”
The Baron had been on a battlefield or two. He cast a practiced eye over the body that was still twitching slightly. “I’m sorry, Eliza. There is nothing to be done.”
At this, Lady Elizabeth began weeping hysterically before slumping in her husband’s arms. The two footmen brought a bench from the hall and helped the Baron carry her prostrate form away from the scene. The butler hastened after them, calling out instructions to the servants. The maids scattered like a flock of doves before a horse and carriage.
This left Lillian and Tabitha alone for the moment. Lillian was still trying to assist her husband. Her breath came in short keening gasps. It was not that she loved Charles or that she was even greatly fond of him. No, it was more the sudden shock of it all. One moment he was there, slim and elegant, ready to escort her for an evening’s entertainment and the next . . . Oh, God, the next! Oh, Charles! How could this have happened?
Tabitha reached down and pulled Lillian away from Charles. “Lilly, come away. There is nothing you can do. The butler has sent for the constable. He will be here any minute. Go get cleaned up. We’ll come about somehow.”
“I can’t . . . he . . . I’m a mess!” Lillian held her hands wide so as not to touch her dress. “He picked out this dress special for this evening,” she said inanely. “Now it is ruined.”
“Go clean up, you ninnyhammer,” Tabitha said with some asperity. “The dress is the least of your worries. Go get out of those wet rags before you catch your death. The constable will be here soon.”
“Catch my death . . .” Lillian began to laugh hysterically. “Catch my . . .”
Tabitha caught her elbow, and hustled Lillian out of the room and up the stairs to her chambers. “Heloise!” Tabitha called. “Come take care of your mistress. She has had a bad shock.”
The maid came running. “What ees wrong? Oh, no! Zee beautiful gown, poor dear! We must get you changed at once!”
“I must go back,” Tabitha said. “Someone sensible has to meet the constable.” So saying, she withdrew, leaving Lillian alone with Heloise.
Lillian slumped on the stool in front of her dressing table. “Heloise, something dreadful has happened. Charles is dead. I can’t . . . I don’t know.”
“Dead? But how can this be? I just spoke with his valet, and he said the earl looked very fine this evening.”
“He does…did. Oh, dear.” Lillian accepted the handkerchief Heloise offered to her. “He drank some wine and we were about to go, and then he fell down in a fit and started foaming at the mouth.”
Heloise’s eyes grew big and round. “Oh, this is bad. This is ver’ ver’ bad. Lady Lillian, the gendarmes will come and take you away. You will be sent to the guillotine.”
“Hanged. In England, murderers are hanged. Everyone will think that I did it. But I didn’t. I swear I did not!”
“You must flee!” the maid said decisively. “I will give you one of my dresses. Take the meanest, ugliest horse in the stable, and run away. We must be quick!”
Lillian and her maid were nearly of a size. It took only a little pinning up to make one of Heloise’s uniforms fit. Heloise insisted upon adding a pair of Lillian’s own pantalettes to the costume, however. “It will be cold,” Heloise said. “I have nevair seen such cold as is in this country. And here is a cloak from the poor box. How fortunate that it is not yet Boxing Day. Ah, your earrings. You must not wear them, or your wedding band. They would give all away.”
Divested of her jewelry, huddled in the shrouding cloak, Lillian fled down the servants’ stair, out into the courtyard and into the stable. She knew just the horse she wanted. Old Hector was an ugly brute of a gelding, but he was trained to hunt. The old fellow was steady in the wind and could take a gate as if he grew wings and flew over. He had a long walking stride, and would go at a ground eating pace that he could hold for hours.
Grateful that her late mother had insisted that both she and Tabitha learn how to saddle and bridle their own horses, Lillian soon had the oldest, shabbiest tack in the stable settled on Hector. Fleetingly, she felt gratitude toward Heloise for insisting on the pantalettes, because hers was the only sidesaddle. Can’t take that. Can’t take anything that was mine, that could give me away.
Lillian mounted the tall horse with practiced ease, and guided him out onto the street. At the first intersection, she turned off the main road, then continued to zig-zag through the streets towards the Thames. There were bonfires tonight. Revelers would be out ice skating. She could easily lose herself and the ugly gelding in the crowds. Dressed as she was, she could be on an errand or simply taking a little illicit time off to meet a lover.
Odd how these thoughts run through my head. I feel as if I were apart from myself.
Although the hour was late, there were a variety of revelers gathered around the huge bonfires on both sides of the river. Venders hawked their wares almost as loudly as if it were daylight. Some were selling gingerbread, some mulled wine or cider. There was a steady stream of carriages, horses, and people on foot going back and forth across the bridge.
Lillian was well beyond the last bonfire on the far side of the bridge and headed out toward the countryside when far behind her she began to hear the whistles of the watch. She turned off the main road onto a bridle path where she and Charles . . . Oh, Charles! You weren’t the love I had hoped for, but no one deserves to die like that! . . . had often ridden on summer afternoons. She pulled the horse into the shadow of some cypress trees and listened. No pursuit.
She turned away, and let the horse take her down the track that was familiar to them both. With her head bowed, and the cloak drawn around her, Lillian rode away from all that she had known into the unknowable.
Sebastian Hughes, Duke of Parkforton, set his teacup down with a click as what sounded like a riot arose full force in the front foyer. Putting aside his newspaper, he left the small drawing room where he liked to take his morning tea before going over accounts, and went to see what was causing the clatter.
“Nick! Luke! What are you doing?” Sebastian strode to the head of the stairs.
Identical, angelic faces topped with fashionably cropped dark hair that flopped in an uncannily similar fashion into innocent blue eyes were turned up toward him.
“It’s Seb!” That would be Nick, always announcing what everyone else already knew.”
“I know that, you gudgeon,” Luke retorted scornfully. “Who else would it be?”
“More importantly,” Sebastian said, descending the stair with an outward show of calm, “What is this unseemly racket? Did I not tell you that you were not to play in the foyer?”
“But Seb,” Nick protested, “It’s the perfect place to play storming the castle. I’m the knight of Parkforton, and Luke is the blank shield who is trying to take it from me.”
“I see. Where is your tutor?”
The boys looked at each other. “Um….” they said in unison, then turned identical gazes of extreme innocence and virtue upon their older brother.
“We think he left,” Luke explained. “Anyway, he wasn’t at breakfast or mid-morning tea.”
“We didn’t like him, anyway,” Nick added. “He’s a prosy old bore. And he told Luke that he had blotted his copybook when he put the live mouse in the big desk drawer.”
“My copybook does not have any blots,” Luke took up the narrative. “It is perfect. I will be glad to show you.” Virtue and innocence simply poured off him.
“Where did you leave him?” Sebastian asked tiredly.
“In the garderobe. He’s having just the tiniest bit of trouble with his tummy.” Now Nick looked worried.
“We didn’t do anything to him, honest!” Luke put in.
Sebastian sighed. “Go sit in the upper hall where Evans can keep an eye on you. Do not give him any trouble. His sciatica is acting up today, and you will not . . .do you hear me? . . . will NOT make him chase you.”
Two lower lips thrust out, and twin mulish expressions looked up at him. “I mean it, boys. Do not make me have to send for John Stableman and Tom Gardener to stand guard over you.”
“You don’t have to send for the footmen,” Nick said resentfully. “We’re going.”
“Yes, we are going.” Luke added.
Evans, the aging butler had come to the top of the stairs. “Master Nick, Master Luke, I have gingerbread and tea in the butlery. If you would be so kind as to come with me?”
The boys bounced off with the old gentleman, chattering happily, as if nothing at all had happened. Probably should have forbidden the gingerbread, but that would just make it hard on Evans.
Sebastian headed up the stairs to the ancient garderobe on the battlements. Who knew how the boys had managed to coax the poor fellow into relieving his indigestion there. It was certain that his room was equipped with a perfectly serviceable chamber pot.
No doubt when the tutor was released, he would be one more in a long line of unsuccessful gentlemen who had attempted to instruct his two irrepressible brothers.
The tutor was indeed ready to leave as soon as the wedge shoved under the garderobe door was removed. As Sebastian opened his mouth to speak, the fellow held up his hand, palm out.
“No, no, Your Grace. I appreciate the honor you have done me in offering me this position. But I cannot in good conscience continue. The boys hate me so much that they left a viper in my commode this morning and I was forced to avail myself of this necessary. I have received an invitation from the proprietress of a prominent school for young ladies. I truly believe, begging your pardon, that I should avail myself of it.”
“Very well,” Sebastian said. “If you will go down to the exchequer’s office, he will give you your pay for the time you have been with us. I hope your new position works out well for you. Do you need a carriage?”
“Only to the village, Your Grace. I have booked passage on the mail coach that comes through tomorrow.”
Ah. So he had already been planning to leave. Well enough. But if he thinks that teaching girls will be easier than managing my boys, he should have a conversation with Mistress Melody, the spinster who teaches Dame School in the village. Aloud Sebastian said, “I will send word to the stable to have it sent around.”
“Thank you, Your Grace. It has been a most enlightening experience.”
“You are . . . welcome. However, just one word. Perhaps you are aware that eight-year-olds take things literally and are not up on verbal nuance? Luke took your comment that he had blotted his copybook as a literal event. Since he is quite proud of his penmanship, he took offense.”
“He thought I meant his actual copybook? Oh, dear. I am sorry to have given the wrong impression.”
“Perhaps that is a lesson you should take with you, my good school master.”
With that, Sebastian turned the fellow over to one of the footmen. It might have been Gardener, or was it Stableman? The two were nearly inseparable, and he was forever getting them mixed up. Both were village lads that Evans had trained up. Whichever it was, he gravely accompanied the tutor, courteously assisting the inept fellow forever from their lives.
Sebastian frowned at the tutor’s departing back. The big question now was what to do with his brothers? The twins were sure to get into mischief if they were allowed to roam free on their own recognizance. And there was the matter of the snake in the commode. Finding it would frighten the maids.
It was scarcely fair to the footmen to expect them to be in charge of the lively miscreants. If he posted up to London to put an ad in the papers, that would give the boys four days to terrorize the estate. Calling in Nurse Augusta, their elderly nannie, would do no good. She indulged their every whim, and was often found napping when she should have been keeping an eye on them.
“Boys will be boys,” she would comment. “They are a lively pair. They quite wear me out. But they are good lads.”
The devil of it was they were good lads, and Sebastian would very much like for them to remain good lads. He suspected that they would not if they were allowed to run wild on the estate, doing as they pleased. There was nothing for it. He would have to take them in hand himself until another tutor could be found. He would send his secretary to place the ads.
Sighing, he went to collect the lively pair from Evans. The aging butler would look put upon, since looking after young boys was not part of his regular job. Sebastian knew that the old fellow secretly doted upon the twins and would cheerfully indulge them in gingerbread and crumpets without end.
Sebastian smiled to himself. He remembered a few gingerbread and crumpet feasts of his own. Evans would have made an excellent grandfather.
Putting on the sternest face he could muster, he knocked at the door of the butlery. Not even he dared disturb the sanctity of Evans’s domain.
“Come in, Your Grace. The boys were just telling me how they made this marvel. It seems that John Stableman’s grandfather taught them the way of it.” A cunningly articulated wooden snake dangled from one finger. “Martha Louisa found it, and cleansed it before bringing it to me.”
Evans looked suitably grave, but a slight crinkling at the corners of his eyes gave him away. Sebastian looked at it, blinked, tried to keep his stern expression, then burst out laughing. “This was the vicious viper?”
Both boys nodded solemnly.
“And what upset his tummy?”
The boys looked at each other. “Well, he might have had thirds of Mrs. Buskins prune frumenty.”
“And how did he get three helpings?”
The boys looked at each other. “We gave him ours,” Nick said virtuously.
Sebastian looked at Evans, and Evans looked at Sebastian. “I have got to find a responsible tutor,” Sebastian said. “One who understands boys, but will not allow my brothers to run rough-shod over him.”
“Quite so, Your Grace,” Evans said solemnly.
Lillian rode steadily through the night, pausing only to rest her horse. Hector valiantly walked, his long strides carrying them out of the forest and into open fields. Having no map, and no particular destination in mind, she urged him northward using the North Star as her guide.
When the sun came up, she had no clear idea of where she might be or how far she had traveled. The field she was approaching looked as if it might be a village of small huts, but as she drew closer, Lillian realized that the field was dotted with haystacks. Their tops were well rounded, indicating that the person who had built them knew how to layer the grasses to keep out the winter rain and snow.
There were no animal droppings in the field. The last tracks beside the gate were old. Too weary to think about masking her own footprints and those of her horse, Lillian opened the gate, then closed it behind her. One edge of the field butted up against a stand of fir trees. Their dark branches blocked some of the wind. It was just good luck that one of the haystacks was near the edge of the wood.
Lillian dismounted between a haystack and one great tree. She slipped off Hector’s bit and tethered him so he could graze. The grasses were slick with frost. She hoped that would provide him with enough moisture until she could find someplace for him to drink.
Ignoring her own hunger and thirst, she dug out a small burrow in the side of the stack, giving the hay to Hector. She then wrapped herself in her cloak, and curled up in the cavity to sleep.
She awoke at dusk, hungry and miserably thirsty. She slipped Hector’s bit back into his mouth and clambered into the saddle. She then gave the horse his head, hoping that he would be able to find water. The gelding shuffled into the wood, seeming almost as stiff and weary as Lillian herself. But with that marvelous equine wisdom so common to horses, he brought them unerringly to a small, spring-fed stream.
Lillian dismounted, looping Hector’s reins over one arm, and approached the spring. It clearly had been in use for many years. Little steps were carved into the rock, leading up to a small basin where the water first flowed from the stones. It then trickled on down into a larger basin, then a small pond. Lillian used her hand to scoop the cold liquid into her mouth. Surprisingly, it was warmer than the air around her.
Having only her hand to scoop up the water, she was forced to drink slowly. Vaguely remembering that warm horses should not drink too much cold water all at once, she pulled Hector away from the stream and walked him up and down before allowing him to drink his fill. The big fellow blew steam from his nose in a gusty snort, then nuzzled Lillian affectionately.
“Cut it out, you big clown,” she said, rescuing her hair from his attention.
Somewhat refreshed, Lillian used the edge of the steps as a mounting block. She had long ago learned how to mount a tall horse in the field, but the stones did make it easier.
Once more, she set her course toward the North Star. Since she had no place to go except “away,” it seemed as good a direction as any. The air was bitterly chill, and almost seemed to burn her nose and throat. But the thought of being accused of murder, thrown in goal, and then hanged drove her onward.
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