The skies were pitch black, though the clock revealed barely past noon. The thunder rumbled through the deserted lands. Streaks of blue ripped the afternoon skies; lighting up the dense darkness and bringing with it a rain promising to ease a heart’s pain and quench the soul’s despair.
Kristen looked out the large side window of the speeding train, watching the drops of moisture fall against the pane. One by one, slowly at first, then faster with the wind and anger of the storm; the drops splattered across the glass. One droplet caught her attention, holding her violet eyes prisoner as it streamed down the smooth surface. She smiled, watching it inch toward the edge of the frame. That little drop of water represented the past seven years of her life. Just like that drop, she slid through each day with a dread so heavy it nearly claimed her very life; only to make her escape to the far reaches of this new world.
As the little raindrop met the edge of the window, she felt a heavy weight lift from her heart, finding fatigue and exhaustion quickly overpowering her. With barely more than four hours sleep a night since leaving Ireland two months ago, she would finally be able to rest. Sleep would seem so different now. No longer fearing for her safety, she would be able to rest the sleep of a thousand nights.
This new strange land would prove to be her haven, the beginning of a new life for herself and her little brother. One where they could start over, and perhaps, create an existence even Sean would learn to enjoy. Kristen looked at the young boy curled in the seat next to her, his golden hair longer than it should have been, his deep violet eyes closed in slumber. Sean was smaller than most children his age, considering he just passed his ninth birthday. Underweight and timid as a church mouse, her little brother was prone to shy away from everyone except her. Only his love of horses outshined the timid fear that bore in his soul. She brushed a stray hair from his pale face, sighing deeply.
Kristen didn’t know how they were going to survive, or by what means they would live; yet given the past seven years, they had no choice but to try. She knew things would be difficult for them at first, perhaps for quite a while. They had less than two hundred dollars left of what she had been able to bring along with them, and that was diminishing quickly. At least they were away from the Baron, and the fear of being caught. She was certain there would be no way of finding them here, America was, after all, a very large country and she had been able to leave trails heading in nearly every direction of the world. If he did come looking for them, she doubted he would find them; at least not for several years. By then Sean would be of age and able to claim his inheritance, and with luck, order Baron Andrews incarcerated. That was, of course, if she was able to overcome her brother’s aversion to people and reverse the horrible damage done to him.
She sighed again, feeling the contentment of having succeeded in their escape. Nothing could harm them now; not so far from home in the middle of a country very few would think of looking. All her life she’d heard servants, and visitors of her mother and uncle, speak of this place. The wild animals and Indians who scalped the settlers, stealing the women and forcing them into slavery, made the blood run cold through Kristen’s veins. Still, all of that compared with the horror she had lived with all these long frightening years, wasn’t enough to make her want to stay.
Kristen found herself looking forward to meeting the wilds of this new country. She only hoped they would welcome her as no one ever had. Perhaps here she would find happiness and solitude, perhaps even a love of her own. Someone she could care for and adore, as her mother had her father. If there was a love like that in this world, she was eager to find it; but her first concern was Sean. She would have to find a place so remote, they could live out the next nine or ten years in solitude; until he was of age to regain what was unjustly stolen from him.
It was up to her now; their future, their survival, it all lay on her tiny shoulders. She had to do whatever it took to protect them both. This thought wasn’t exactly reassuring though. She barely knew how to ward off the Baron, so how could she fight the ravages of this new land? Was it possible for her to see past today and gaze into the heart of tomorrow? Was she strong enough to do all of this and more if necessary?
Too many questions shouted in her mind, forcing her to stare out the side window again, watching the pouring rain continue to beat against the solid pane of glass. She needed answers and she needed help, but there was no one here she could rely on. Her only hope was with her uncle, thousands of miles away with an ocean dividing them. Even if she could get word to him, there was no way of knowing it would reach him before being intercepted by the Baron, or one of his many loyal spies. If Baron Andrews was to find out where they were, he would surely come after them and take them back to the horror and fear they had just escaped. No, she couldn’t take the risk of letting her uncle know where she was. She would have to do this on her own; there was no other choice. She would do it, even if it meant her own survival would be the sacrificial lamb, she would willingly offer it for her brother’s sake.
Kristen gazed at the small patch of blue sky and bright sunlight trying to break through the bleakness of the storm. This was not the time to think of what might happen, or what would be sacrificed. She had her entire future to concentrate on; the events life would throw her way. She would take it one day at a time, just as she had back home. She would think about tomorrow when tomorrow arrived. As for today it was raining and dark, and just like that small shimmer of blue sky peeking through the dense storm, she too would break through the clouds of despair. She had hope for both herself and Sean, hope only a new beginning offered, hope she prayed would never desert her.
Heavy set and weak with raging anger, Baron Andrews paced the lush surroundings of the large old library. Weeks had passed and still, there was no news of his step-children’s whereabouts. He growled his discontent. He knew Kristen was behind this, the little bitch. Just like her mother, he snarled through the silence of the room. If she thought she could escape him so easily, she had another thought coming. Even if it did appear hopeless at present, he would find her and drag her back here by her pretty blonde hair. She would know exactly what defying the great Baron Daniel Andrews would feel like!
The thought of how he would make her pay and in what degrees brought a surge of sadistic excitement to his overly neglected libido. He knew the reason behind her running away. One little mistake on his part; he was too eager to wait for her to come of age to make her his mistress had resulted in keeping her prisoner in her own home. He cursed himself openly. He shouldn’t have tried to push her so soon after her mother’s death but finding the then sixteen-year-old so well developed and ripe for plucking from the tree of purity, had caused his state of intoxication. He tried too hard to get her into his bed. He should have taken time to woo her, given her meaningless trinkets and bobbles, whispered ridiculous promises to her that would guarantee her surrender, but he hadn’t and now he was paying the price for his impatience.
Four years had passed and every night he had been refused entrance into her private chambers, even when he offered her tokens for the virginity she kept hidden. Even that wimp Sean had protected her from his affections, standing in his way until beaten nearly unconscious; but no more! Once the little tramp was returned to him, he would take her to his bed chambers and lock her in, making certain she never left his lusty sight again, and for her own sake, she’d better still be a virgin when he found her. He’d waited too bloody long to relieve her of her highly valued virtue, to have some stable boy in the back skirts of some English village take care of it for him. That was his prize to claim and relish.
Just as he was about to scream with pent-up irritation, the door opened and the elderly, overly dramatic butler, stepped into the room. His heavy wool jacket hung on his frail shoulders, hunching him forward into an ungodly position. His gray hair fell in stray pieces across his narrow forehead, and the smell of liniment quickly filled the room.
“’Is Grace, de Duke ’av Cheshire,” the old man announced, his heavy Irish accent etched each word to reveal his heritage.
Bleedin’ ’ell, the Baron cursed in silence. What does dat langer want nigh?
He straightened his coat and ran a quick hand through his wavy red hair moments before his visitor was allowed entrance.
The Duke was a large man, six feet three and broad shoulders, solid as a mountain and more handsome than three ordinary men put together. He prided himself on his strength and power that he used against the men while wooing the women into swooning; yet his true passion was for the English hunts. The only other thing he found worthy of his time, beyond his normal demands, was his sister’s two children, now orphaned and missing in a world neither could possibly understand.
“Yer Grace,” the Baron began, his chubby hand reaching out to shake his brother-in-law’s. “T’ wat do we owe da pleasure ’av yer visit?”
“Cut out the amenities,” the Duke said, tossing his overcoat to the back of a large velvet chair, ignoring the fat little fingers awaiting his grip. “Have you any news on Kristen or Sean?”
“Oi assure yer, me lord, they ‘ill be foun’ shortly. Oi ‘av al’ ‘av Oirland lookin’ for dem, an’ ’alf ‘av Englan’. Oi’m sure it won’t be long before they’re safely ’um.”
“They’d better be Andrews, for your sake. If anything has happened to my niece and nephew, I promise I’ll stretch your fat neck myself.”
“Please Yer Grace, thar’s naw nade for threats. Oi’m jist as concerned aboyt de wee babes as yer’ are.”
“I’d like to know, old man,” the Duke began, unconvinced of the man’s overrated assurances, “what did you do that forced them to leave?”
“Who can tell wat the mind ’av de young are tinkin, but ter come into me own ‘um an’ accuse me unjustly, well oi don’t nu if oi loike dat.”
“I don’t give a bloody damn in hell what you like, old man, and just for the record, this was my sister’s home and it will be Sean’s when he’s of age. So, count your blessing while you still can.”
The Duke was suspicious and untrusting when it came to Baron Andrews. Unlike the Duke, the Baron’s title was merely courtesy since his marriage to Lilith. It was her money and her title that had lured this wretched creature to her.
Recently widowed, Lilith felt her two small children needed a father, someone to care for them and protect them. Little did she know, until it was too late, the man she had thought was an upstanding gentleman from Scottish nobility was nothing more than a fortune hunter, widowed four times.
Charles Nathaniel Williams the Third, Duke of Cheshire and Staffordshire, had idolized his sister and cherished the ground she walked upon. After her death seven years ago, he learned of his sister’s knowledge concerning her husband of four months. He could never prove the accusations though, but he was determined to continue searching for evidence that would send this man straight to hell. He even suspected, at one time, of the Baron killing his beloved Lilith. If he could prove that, there wouldn’t be a court in all of Europe who could prevent him from strangling the air out of the fat little man.
Shortly after his sister’s death, Charles had feared for Kristen and Sean’s safety and had thought of taking them with him back to England, but reluctantly agreed with Andrews that they should stay where they were known. It was a hard decision to agree to, yet under the circumstances, the Duke felt it was in the children’s best interest to remain in their homeland.
He visited Ireland as often as possible, staying at his sister’s castle nearly every year, but it wasn’t until the last couple of visits Charles had noticed a change in the children. Sean was sickly and timid, frightened of his very shadow. Not exactly what he expected from the son of a very vivacious, outspoken woman.
Even Kristen appeared different. She was quieter, more reclusive than normal and overly protective of her little brother. Charles had passed it off as being the emotions of a growing young girl, but thinking on it now, he was certain there had been problems occurring that neither of the children would confide in him with. Problems, he was sure had driven them from their own home in the dead of night.
“Yer ’av me ward on it, Yer Grace,” the Baron continued, his chubby hands sweating profusely. “De babes ‘ill be foun’ an’ returned unharmed.”
“They’d better be, for your sake, and just so you know, once they are home safely I’ll be moving them to England with me where I can make certain they are cared for properly.”
“Ye tryin’ ter say y’ tryin’ ter say, Oi don’t care for dem?” the Baron asked, the air of concern and insult.
“You care for them, old man, so long as it keeps your monthly allotment flowing, but once the children are returned, I plan on having an audit of your books. If there’s so much as one shilling unaccounted for, I’ll escort you personally to the nearest gallows.”
The Duke turned retrieving his overcoat, leaving the room and Baron Andrews alone in a state of panic. It was bad enough he would have to worry Kristen and Sean would tell their uncle of his actions, but now the Baron had to try and rectify his gracious spending habits.
Andrews began wringing his hands. He thought perhaps he should group his resources and escape while the getting was good, leaving the search for the children to their uncle; but his own lust of money was too great to allow him to quit just yet.
The only way for him to keep all of what he had stolen over the years, as well as take that which belonged to Kristen and Sean, was to find them first. He couldn’t bring them back, he knew that now. If they returned to Ireland, the Duke would get his hands on them and all would be exposed; his spending, his attempts on Kristen, even the beatings he felt that sniveling little Sean deserved. No, what he had to do was make certain they were never found.
Even as he reached for the string to summon the butler, the Baron’s lusty greed was developing a plan. He would have to make certain they never returned. The irony of it all burned with rage inside the old man. He thought of how long he had been patient with his beautiful step-daughter, never being able to touch the lush ripeness of her young developing body. If only there were some way to have it all. If only he could gain control of the money and have Kristen.
The door to the library opened and the elderly servant stepped in. The Baron turned his back toward him, ordering him to send for McFerrin. Robby McFerrin, the most scandalous, most expensive bounty hunter in all of Scotland. He would no doubt bring back the reclusive Kristen O’Malley; for the right amount, but the boy presented another problem. If he returned, in a very short number of years he would be old enough to claim his inheritance, which meant Andrews would be booted out and sent packing elsewhere. He was too old to try and charm another widow out of her inheritance. He had to dispose of Sean and make certain it appeared to be an accident.
The old man chuckled wickedly. He would have it all, eventually. He would keep the title, the money, and the girl and he would be rid of a whimpering, whining brat in the process. It was all too good to be true. He may even contact the handsome Duke of Cheshire and ask for financial assistance to aid in finding the little runaways. That would prove to be the icing on the cake, as it were. He would have all that was Lilith’s and have the famed Duke pay for the disappearance of his own nephew. How ironic and stimulating the thought was.
A wicked smile curved the lusty old man’s lips as he poured himself a glass of bourbon. He hadn’t married five wealthy widows and conveniently disposed of each one, only to be stopped by a sniveling boy and his sister. He knew McFerrin would find them and bring them back...or at least his future mistress.
Meanwhile, he would be free to alter a few numbers in his accounts, proving to his brother-in-law that he had been trustworthy and upstanding in caring for the children. The irony of it was too overpowering to control causing Baron Andrews to laugh aloud. He would have it all; every shilling and a very enjoyable time making the reluctant Kristen pay for his inconvenience.
Charles pulled his carriage to a halt at the front gate surrounding the massive mansion where he had been staying the past two months, since Kristen and Sean disappeared. His aunt would no doubt be awake and waiting for news of the children, but business came first. He went straight to the kitchen to hunt out the little maid he had spent his evenings with these last few weeks. He pulled her aside and gave his orders, then hurried to her room to help her pack.
With the aid of Michelle, Charles would find out what was happening at his sister’s castle. He could explain her simply with a note, her body and special talents would make certain Andrews never questioned anything beyond her word. He ushered her to the back door, told his groomsman what to do, then went into the drawing room where his aging aunt had been anxiously awaiting his arrival. Telling her again there was no news of the children weren’t going to be easy, but at least he had an ace in the hole he could use if need be.
As for now, he’d bide his time and keep an eye on the Baron. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the weasel slipped up, and when he did, Charles would be there for him to answer to. If only he knew where Kristen and Sean were and was certain they were safe. He knew whatever had happened, it was bad enough to prevent them from contacting him in England, or even their aunt just miles away from their own home. The idea of their being lost, or perhaps in trouble, had haunted Charles since he’d heard of their disappearance in late February.
It was as though they had vanished off the face of the earth. He had thought twice that he found them, only to have his leads turn up dead ends. He had personally followed their trail to Russia, to learn it was no better than the trail he had sent his man, Edward, to Africa on. Whatever it was causing Kristen to run, Charles knew she had planned it well. It would take months, perhaps years to sort through the incoming information, and even then, he wasn’t certain which leads to follow up on and which to ignore as another misdirected path. Once he did find them though, he would bring them back, learn of their secrets and ban the Baron from Europe forever.