The day was beautiful, warm and breezy. Perfect for an early afternoon stroll. Natalya Huntington sat at her parents graves arranging the flowers she brought for them. Two headstones read; Herald Nathaniel Huntington and Mariska Anastasia Huntington. It had been eight years since they were murdered. Eight years since her aunt Estelle and Uncle Peter took over her upbringing. Eight years since the joy had left her heart. Her parents’ murderer was never caught and part of her was still broken. She gently touched the headstones, sighing, but not crying. She hadn’t cried yet and wondered what was wrong with her that she couldn’t.
“I miss you,” Natalya whispered. There wasn’t anyone around to hear her, but she did it anyway. “I wish you were here.”
She still remembered that night as if it just happened. She had gone to bed early because of a dinner they were having in honor of a visiting Lord. She had become ill with fever and vomiting. For days she was incoherent and delusional, claiming that devils were trying to kill her. When she finally came through her aunt Estelle had told her that her parents had died.
A breeze lifted her hair from her shoulders. It was coal black, not a popular color with most, and bone straight. Estelle often compared her to her mother. Saying she had Herald’s hair, but the rest was all Mariska. From her grayish blue eyes, slender nose and pink lips to her ivory skin and full figure. She spoke with a blended Russian and British accent. Though she could carry herself with the grace Mariska had, her temper was quick just like Herald’s.
A part of her told her to be grateful that she didn’t die that night, but, she felt extremely guilty because of it. What made her special?
She closed her eyes and prayed that her parents had found peace. That they hadn’t been her biggest fear. They had died violently. How could anyone’s soul find peace after that?
Her eyes snapped open and she turned to look behind her. From across the yard she could see Linda, her chaperone, walking in her direction. The woman looked agitated as she moved briskly, holding her skirts up so she wouldn’t trip over them. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a tight bun, her countenance very serious. Sighing, Natalya wondered what she had done now. It seemed that the older she became the more trouble she found herself in. Her temper and mouth had gotten her many slaps from her aunt in the last two years.
Slowly she rose to her feet, just as Linda was reaching her. “What is it Linda?” She asked. She didn’t want to be bothered today.
Flushed, Linda stopped a few feet short of the younger woman. “Did you forget Robert Thurman was calling on you today?”
“Today? I told Aunt Estelle that I wanted to be left alone today!” Natalya said angrily. Her aunt seemed to be in a rush to marry her off and she wasn’t thrilled about it.
Linda looked at her sternly. Then realized they were at the graves of Natalya’s parents. “I know today is hard for you, but you have a responsibility to this family. Your father would want you to walk in society with all the girls your age.”
Natalya took a deep breath. What Linda said was likely to be true. She was at a very important age now. She couldn’t keep hiding behind the death of her parents. “Give me a moment.”
Turning, Natalya looked down at the graves. “I love you both so much. I only want to make to make you proud of me. I’ll do my best to do just that.” With that said she followed Linda back to the house and to her room.
Linda dressed her in a soft blue gown that almost matched her eyes perfectly. She brushed Natalya’s hair until it shined and then styled it modestly. She then draped precious pearls from her ears and around her neck.
Natalya looked at her chaperone. The older woman smiled at her. “You’re a very beautiful girl. Any man you choose will be lucky.”
“Aunt Estelle will be happily making that choice for me very soon. She wants me gone quickly.”
“You shouldn’t say such things. Your aunt loves you and cares a great deal for you.”
Blowing softly, Natalya rose from her seat. “Is Robert here already?”
“Yes and please call him Mr. Thurman. Your uncle is keeping him company at the moment.”
They made their way through the halls. Natalya looked at the paintings as she passed by them. Many were of Estelle and Uncle Peter, but there was one of her parents she liked very much. It was painted while they were still in Russia. They had only been in London a little over a year before they died.
When they reached the sitting room her uncle was indeed sharing a drink with Robert. Both men rose as she entered. She smiled politely. Robert was a handsome man and he was kind every time he came to visit. He’d even escorted her to a few balls and was well behaved. She looked him over, admiring his light brown eyes and golden blonde hair. He had a perfectly straight nose, thin lips and a cleft in his chin. She did like him. He wasn’t as uptight as the other gentlemen callers. Robert actually spent more time talking to her than he did her uncle. Maybe Estelle would give him permission to marry her.
“You look beautiful as always,” Robert complimented.
“Thank you,” Natalya smiled. She looked at her uncle and caught the peculiar grin he gave her. She shivered despite how warm it was. Lately he had been giving her many strange looks she didn’t understand. But then, he’d also been drinking more too. Perhaps there was a problem between him and Estelle.
“I’ll excuse myself now,” Peter said, giving her one last look before he left.
Natalya took a seat beside Robert. Linda took a seat across the room and began reading a book that was on the table.
“Sorry it took me so long. I was visiting my parents.” Natalya placed her hands in her lap.
“I hadn’t realized what day it was. How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been able to express it.” Natalya looked at him. “Let’s not talk about that. What’s going on in England?”
“Business is well. What more can one asks for?”
“I don’t know. A big party in honor of oneself?” Natalya smiled. “That sounds like fun.”
“Is that what you want? A big party?”
“Yes. Will you be there? Standing in line for a dance?”
“Of course. I want to be the one that steals your heart.” He stared at her warmly. If Linda wasn’t there he’d try to sneak a kiss.
“Oh Robert, I don’t think you have much to worry about when it comes to my heart.” She was flirting shamelessly and she knew that she shouldn’t, but it was harmless and fun.
“Do you really mean that Natalya?” he asked seriously.
She paused for a moment, glancing at Linda who appeared to be reading. “I am fond of you Robert. Make no mistake about that.” The use of their first names was very personal and she wondered if they were moving too fast. “But I am a lady and I am being courted by other suitors. I must look at all my options.”
Nodding, Robert took a sip from his glass. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”
Their banter stayed light and pleasant for the rest of the visit. He vowed to beat the competition for her heart and she promised to pick him above all the rest. She liked the attention she was getting from him. When he left she remained in the sitting room with Linda, replaying their conversation over and over.
“Linda, what do you think of Robert?”
For the first time since she sat down, Linda looked away from her book “You would be wise to entertain him more often. He’s smitten with you. And love matches are very rare.”
Natalya grinned. “I think I really like him.”
“I know you do, but you mustn’t be so brazen with him. You did well. You were yourself, which oddly enough he likes, but you must hold back that flirtatious tongue of yours.”
“What is this about a flirtatious tongue?” Estelle stood in the door way.
Natalya looked at her aunt. Estelle was very attractive. Shimmering green eyes, auburn hair. Uncle Peter was lucky to have found her. “Linda says I was too brazen with Mr. Thurman.”
“Really? Was Mr. Thurman displeased?”
“No. I think he likes me.”
Estelle nodded. “Obviously you need a little more coaching. Linda I’ll leave that job to you.”
Watching Estelle go, Natalya wondered what was going on with her aunt. If anything she thought Estelle would be pleased. It appeared to be just the opposite however. How long would her aunt be mad at her this time, she thought. She went to her room to lie down before dinner. On her way there she had to pass her aunt and uncle’s bedroom. They were speaking loudly. The closer she got to the door the more she heard. She stopped short of the door to eavesdrop. It wasn’t the first time she’s done it. Most of the time she heard boring business conversations or intimate talk between them. She didn’t understand their relationship. They weren’t warm like her parents had been. They were very calculated with one another.
“Your drinking is getting out of hand,” Estelle told him. “It’s still early in the day and you’re already drunk.”
“Don’t nag me. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine. You’re pathetic!”
Natalya heard a slap and her aunt cry out. Then she heard another slap. “Hey! Don’t hit me!” Peter yelled.
“Then don’t hit me!” Estelle yelled back. “Just remember it’s because of me that you’re somebody now. It was my name and my money that gave you class.”
“I think I helped make you too. Or are you forgetting what we did?”
There was a brief silence.
“Just control your drinking,” Estelle said in a quieter voice.
Natalya hurried back down the hall. Then made her way back up humming loud enough to be heard. Before she reached their door Peter stepped out in the hallway in front of her. His eyes looked her up and down, settling on her breast. She stared at him, uncertain of what she should do next.
Grinning, Peter caressed her face. “You look ravishing.” He leaned forward and placed a lingering kiss on her cheek.
It was painfully clear her uncle was attracted to her. Once he stepped back into his room, she hurried to her own and closed the door. Her hands went to her cheek and wiped where he touched and kissed her. She felt uneasy. This was the first time she’d felt uncomfortable with her uncle. It was like the ceiling was beginning to fall and there was nowhere to run!
A horrible sense of dread filled her. She knew something bad would happen.
The days following her uncle’s kiss were normal for Natalya. She did her studies, entertained suitors and rode her horses. Just as she always had. Robert came to visit and the two would take walks along the property.
Linda didn’t care much for the walks they took, but as her chaperone she had to accompany them. Sometimes they would hasten their steps to put distance between them. That way she couldn’t hear their conversations. It was on one of these occasions that Natalya confessed to the things Peter had done. Robert was angry and concerned. He didn’t want anything ill to happen to her.
“I should take you away from this place,” he told her.
“I wish you could. He hasn’t touched me since, but the way he looks at me he looks at me is alarming.”
“Don’t worry Natalya. I’ll get you out of here as soon as I can.”
Natalya was grateful for him. He was so easy to talk to and genuinely her friend. She was certain that they would be allowed to marry. Estelle was pleased to see them spending so much time together. It wasn’t long before Robert formally asked for Natalya’s hand in marriage. Estelle was more than eager to grant him permission. Natalya had never seen her aunt so happy. You’d think she was the one getting married! Things were working out perfectly. Soon she would be out of Peter’s reach and safe with Robert.
The engagement was held at Robert’s home and all of London’s finest was there to celebrate with them. This was the first time Natalya had been to Robert’s home and she was amazed by how beautiful it was! He inherited the family’s artillery company after his father died three years ago. The family business stretched back seven generations and they had clients throughout Europe. The Thurman family was very wealthy. And his home was a reflection of the wealth and style Robert possessed.
Their engagement party was exciting and everything Natalya dreamed it would be. The music was lively, played by London’s finest musicians. People were dancing and drinking, enjoying all the pleasantries to be had. Dukes, earls, duchesses and lords all flocked to congratulate them as they made their way around the room and on to the dance floor. People went out of their way to tell her how beautiful she was and she felt like a princess. She danced with her fiancé, smiling and laughing, without a care in the world!
The festivities were to last the entire week. There was to be the opening engagement ball. Then the next day there would be equestrian events. Then as archery contest, another ball and finally on the fifth day would be the wedding. There was so many activities going on in between the main events that the Thurman home was filled with guest. And the presents the guest brought with them were extravagant! Everything from diamonds to horses was given to them! What they were expecting in return, he would take care of. That sounded reasonable to her so she didn’t worry about it.
Estelle and Peter played the proud aunt and uncle to the hilt. Estelle was praised for raising such a well mannered woman considering the circumstances she was given. People still talked about the Huntington murders in sad, hushed tones. Estelle, unbeknown to Natalya, kept the story of the murders fresh in people’s minds. She wanted people to sympathize with the loss and pain she went through when her brother died.
And it worked. It kept her in many circles she otherwise wouldn’t have been in. After all, Estelle was nobody special in the community. And since she was blackmailed into marrying Peter, she never had the opportunity to marry someone prominent. She thought he would ask for money, that she could have easily given him, but in his mind money and power came with the Huntington name.
She regretted the marriage daily. Peter had no skills, other than murder. No talent and no friends. The men he associated with were questionable and didn’t fit in the circles she wanted to walk in. And now he was a drunk. It was a nuisance watching him as if he were a child. Especially at such an important event. Natalya being married to a Thurman was bound to benefit them all. Estelle couldn’t risk Peter messing that up.
Smiling, she asked him, “Are you okay?”
Peter looked at his wife, annoyed by her tone. “I’m not drunk yet, but I’m working on it.”
“Please behave this week. Make respectable friends that will benefit you in the future.”
“Whatever you say my love,” Peter said, staring at Natalya while she danced with her fiancé. The thoughts he was having towards her were far from endearing. She was just as beautiful as her mother had been. Full of spirit! Robert Thurman didn’t deserve to have the first taste of that flower.
“Thank you Peter,” Estelle said, trying to keep him calm and reasonable. “Everything will work out perfectly for us once again.”
On the dance floor Natalya and Robert only saw each other and the future they were going to have. She smiled at him, still in disbelief about her good fortune.
“I can’t believe we’re getting married,” she said happily.
“Are you having regrets?” Robert asked.
“Not a single one,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t wait to be your wife.”
“Enjoy your week my dear. Soon you’ll be my wife and nothing will ever change that.”
They continued to dance and smile at each other. Clueless that across the room, Lord Gabriel Devall watched her every move. It had been eight years since he laid eyes on Natalya Huntington. She was just a child then, fighting for her life after her parents were murdered. He was just eighteen, a young knight representing the Devall family at the Huntington’s event back then. That night everyone in the house had been drugged and when he awoke Herald had had his throat slit. Mariska, his wife, had been raped and murdered as well. In Gabriel’s opinion the constable didn’t do enough to find the killer. In his opinion it was an inside job and only Estelle benefitted from the couples death. Natalya had been ill for a week before she came through. Only then did he leave.
And now he was watching that same child dance with her fiancé.
“Some party, isn’t it?” James Woodrow was second in command of Gabriel’s army. He had accompanied Gabriel along with a handful of other soldiers.
Gabriel stood with his arms crossed. “Yes. I can’t wait for it to be over. How many more days of this do we have to endure?”
“Only four,” James answered.
“Don’t tell me you’re not enjoying this. It isn’t often we get to attend parties like these.”
Gabriel glared at him. “I just want this to be over so we can go back to Winchester.”
“Try to enjoy yourself Gabriel.”
As the night progressed, people began to retire to their rooms. Or simply just disappeared to inconspicuous places. They were filled with food and drink and playfully sinful in their moods. Most of the guest were married couples anyway. If they wanted to experiment with another couple it was their business. Natalya and Robert danced until her feet ached and she had to sit down anyway. They could care less what their guest were sneaking off to do. They found themselves in a circle of Robert’s friends drinking and telling stories.
Natalya had never indulged so much in wine before. She was finding it hard to keep up with what was being said. Apparently the others were just as much into their cups too. Their speech was slurred and reactions very slow.
“I need air,” Natalya said rising to her feet.
No one thought to stop her or accompany her. She stumbled away through the doors and down the hall to the back of the house where she could get some fresh air. She opened the door that led to the warm night. It was beautiful out there! The stars were out just for her! She closed the door behind her and walked out on the grass. Yes, this was exactly what she needed. The house was smoky and hot. This was refreshing.
“Are you okay?”
Natalya turned to see the most handsome man standing behind her! His hair was as black as the midnight sky, pulled back in a ponytail at the nape. Rich green eyes sat above a masculine nose and sensuous mouth. She shouldn’t look at him in such a pleasing way, but it was hard not to! He had to be at least six feet tall and she could tell his body was sculpted beneath his clothing. He was built stronger than Robert was. Why he looked as if he could break Robert!
“Yes. I-I’m fine.” Her speech was slurred and she knew if she could hear it so could he.
“Fine? You don’t appear to be fine.”
“Well, I am.” She stumbled sideways and he caught her by the waist before she fell. Suddenly she felt warm all over. “Thank you,” she said softly. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t get your name.”
“Have we met before?” She asked. He looked familiar.
“You mean before tonight?”
Natalya giggled. “Of course. I must have met you tonight.”
“Perhaps I should find your fiancé,” he suggested.
“No,” Natalya said quickly. She didn’t want Robert to think she couldn’t handle her wine.
Staring at him, Natalya felt drawn to him. At ease and nervous at the same time. Her gaze fell to his lips. She wanted to kiss him! Timidly she raised her hand to caress his face. He inhaled sharply.
“Milady,” he said in a soft whisper.
“I’m sorry!” Natalya said horrified. “I-I need to lie down. Can you help me to my room?”
They walked slowly through the quieting halls and up the stairs towards Natalya’s room. She was practically carried by Lord Devall! Eventually they made it to her room.
Natalya closed her eyes. This gown was beautiful, but difficult to get out of. “Lord Devall?”
“I can’t get out of my gown. Can - Can you help me?”
He quickly undid her laces and helped her out of the dress.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “I can breathe now.”
“You’re welcome.” He helped her into bed and tucked her in. Then he left the room quickly and quietly.
As Gabriel made his way down the stairs, he thought about how shapely her body was beneath that dress. Robert was a lucky to have her. He stopped at the foot of the staircase, turned and looked back in the direction in which he came. Maybe he should go back up to her room and stand guard. He felt uncomfortable leaving her drunk and passed out alone.
She’s in her fiancé’s home, he told himself. Nothing bad will happen to her.
It was dark, but Peter could still see Natalya’s sleeping from in her bed. She had thrown off her covers in her sleep and was wearing her chemise and nothing else. Smiling, his eyes moved up the length of her shapely legs to her waist. He moved to the side of the bed and gently sat on the edge. She didn’t even stir. He watched her breast rise and fall and felt himself grow hard.
He wanted her. Just like he wanted her mother before he killed her. He couldn’t resist the urge to touch her. It was a bold move, but he placed a hand on her thigh and slid it upward beneath the garment. She began to stir, but he didn’t stop. He was drunk and lustful. The object of his desire was in reach! He let his fingers play the curls between her thighs.
She moaned. “Lord Devall.” Then she opened her eyes and she looked at him with surprise.
Peter chuckled. “Lord Devall?”
“What are you doing?” Natalya asked, panicked.
“I see you’re awake now. I advise you not to scream. I don’t want to, but I’ll hurt you.”
Natalya frowned angrily.
“I know you like this,” Peter went on. With his free hand he undid his pants and climbed fully on the bed. “Don’t worry. I’ll teach you some things you can take to your wedding bed.”
“Don’t,” Natalya warned. She tried to push him away.
Peter laughed, putting his full weight on her to stifle her efforts. Then he grabbed both wrist with one hand and held them down above her head. “I like it when you fight. Your mother fought too. When I took her.”
Enraged, Natalya head butted him, bloodying his nose. He drew back and grabbed his nose. Then he slapped her twice. She continued to fight. “Stop it Natalya!”
She struggled beneath him. “Murderer!” she yelled angrily.
Quickly he brought a hand down over her mouth. “Shut-up!”
She screamed loudly against his hand. He stared at her with drunk, lustful eyes. She pounded her fist against his face.
Fearing that someone would here her muffled cries, he punched her in the face hard enough to knock her semi-unconscious. Once her struggles ceased, he kissed her lips lightly. “I told you I would hurt you,” he whispered. Then he spread her legs at the knees.
Gabriel was awakened roughly by James in the middle of the knight. He wasn’t sleeping comfortably anyway, but at least he was sleep. Something had to be wrong for James to wake him in this manner. He rose from his bed, reaching for his pants on the chair.
“What happened?” Gabriel asked curtly.
“I think you need to come see this yourself.”
Gabriel looked at his friend. “Is it that bad?”
James nodded. “I think it might be worse.”
Gabriel dressed quickly, dreading what he was about to find. The house was still. Everyone was either sleep or passed out. It was reminiscent of the Huntington household eight years earlier. A knot began to form in his gut as he followed James through the house. They exited through the back door. The same door he brought Natalya in.
Once outside, they walked across the land, far from the house near the edge of the woods. A few of his soldiers were there, some standing, some kneeling, around a small figure covered with a cape.
The knot tighten the closer they got to the men. As soon as the men saw him they began to back up. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“They found her like this,” James explained. “Cole came to find me and I came to find you.”
The only thing he could see was her face. It was bruised and bloody. “Natalya,” Gabriel said softly. He knelt down beside her. “What happened?” he snapped.
“I was out walking, patrolling and I found her this way,” Cole said. He was kneeling also. “She was barely clothed and barely conscious, but she kept whispering your name. Like she was calling you for help.”
Gabriel shook his head slowly. You were calling for me? He thought frowning. I’ll take care of you.
“There’s a lot of blood on her. And bruises on her thighs,” Cole continued. Then he added slowly, “I think she may have been raped.”
Gabriel was livid! Mariska looked the same way except for the slit throat. Guilt hit him so hard he almost recoiled physically. He should have guarded the door. His gut told him to and he should have listened. He saw how badly off she was! He should have stayed to watch over her! Looking over her, unconscious and bruised, he took a deep breath. He failed her. This shouldn’t have happened.
She should be excited about her pending wedding. Now she would be surrounded by scandal once again. And worse, her attacker might try again.
Gabriel couldn’t let that happen. He could protect her from meeting her parents’ fate. He just had to get her out of London and back to Winchester where he had eyes and ears throughout the land.
“Cole, I want you to take her back Winchester. We’ll regroup there after the chaos here dies down. Go tonight. Don’t stop until you get there. And Cole, be careful with her.”
Cole didn’t hesitate. He lifted Natalya into his arms and carried her to his nearby horse. She was petite, very light. It wouldn’t be a problem making the trip home with her in his arms. He felt bad for the girl. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.
Gabriel watched them disappear into the night, wondering what the repercussions for this would be. Eventually it would have to come out that he was the one that snuck her away. Robert Thurman might not like that very much and he did supply him with the finest weapons. Still, Gabriel knew he was doing the right thing. She called for him, not her fiancé, when she was hurt.
“What do we do now?” James asked.
“We return to our rooms and wait.”
The next morning was chaotic. One of the maids went to Natalya’s room to wake her for the early breakfast. Neither Natalya nor her chaperone had made it to the table for breakfast and Robert was concerned. They had been very intoxicated last night and she simply disappeared. At the time he didn’t think much of it. Thought she got sick and went to bed. He had passed out on the floor! But this was unlike her. Despite what was going on with her uncle, she had been excited about their wedding and the week of events that they had planned. She was actually enjoying life!
So when she didn’t show up for breakfast he guessed she was still passed out from all the drinking they did. He didn’t expect to hear that scream. It was nerve shattering, echoing throughout the house and settling on the ears of everyone that sat at the table. They froze momentarily, exchanging nervous glances at one another. Then as quickly as they froze that began to react.
Robert’s first thought was that Peter had done something to her. That he had finally gotten what he wanted from her; Natalya in his bed, willing or not. When Peter came down to breakfast, Robert noticed the older man’s slightly swollen nose. How did he get it was the question. At that moment Robert wanted to jump across the table and choke the life out of him. Instead he jumped out of his seat and ran to Natalya’s room. Fearing the worst. After all the planning they did to get her out of harm’s way, for it to blow up in their faces would be awful!
Last night they had been enjoying themselves into the endless hours of the night and he had grown careless. Thinking that she would be safe in his home, he let his guard down. Got too into his cups and didn’t keep his eye on her. He didn’t even remember her leaving his side! What a fool he had been! And he knew it this morning when he woke up on the floor alone.
He sent his servant Helen to go check on her, just to make sure she wasn’t badly ill. And hearing the woman’s screams now could only mean she wasn’t okay.
When he reached the room, Helen was standing outside the door screaming. He ran passed her into the room. He stopped short of the body lying at the foot of the bed. Relief and horror took hold of him. Mixing together until his chest was heavy with guilt.
It wasn’t Natalya, but her chaperone Linda.
Viscount Byron, from Gloucester, entered the room behind him. It was obvious the woman was dead, her eyes were in a death stare and her neck was twisted at an odd angle. He went to her, kneeling beside her while Robert searched the room for Natalya. “Did you find her?”
“There’s no sign of her,” Robert answered.
Outside of the room a small group was gathering, curious as to what was going on.
“Don’t let anyone in here,” Robert said, exiting the room. He didn’t bother to address the people or answer their questions. Natalya wasn’t in her room which meant she could be anywhere in the house or on the grounds. There were a handful of people there that he trusted, Viscount Byron being one of them, and the other being Evan Winthrop of London. Both had deep pockets and even deeper resources. They would be discreet with their findings.
Evan met him coming out the door. His short brown hair was disheveled and his eyes blood shot. He’d been drinking with them last night. “What happened?”
“Natalya’s missing and her chaperone has been murdered.” Robert couldn’t help but glance at Peter who had his arm protectively around Estelle. The woman genuinely looked concerned, but not her husband. He looked guilty as sin.
Evan followed his friend’s gaze. Then looked back to Robert, pulling him away from the crowd and down the staircase. “Do you think he’s involved?”
Robert nodded. “Yes.”
“How do you know?”
“Because he is the reason we were rushing to be married!”
“Calm down,” Evan said looking around; making sure no one was listening to them. “What are you talking about? And lower your voice.”
Robert took a deep breath. “You know I love her.”
“Yes, of course.”
“I wanted to protect her. She confided in me that her uncle was behaving inappropriately towards her. So we decided to marry in a hurry. I thought she’d be safe here!”
“Shhhh!” Evan led him into an empty room. “We need to find her first. Don’t worry we will. Then we’ll make the dear uncle pay.”
They searched the house. Quite a few a times and found no sign of Natalya. The local constable was sent for. When he arrived he questioned the entire guest, but he didn’t come up with any leads as to where Natalya could be. A search of the grounds to be sure she wasn’t lying about somewhere. Much to Robert’s relief they didn’t find her corpse.
One of the watchmen pulled Robert to the side. He was older. His brown hair was sprinkled with gray lines. The scar extending from the corner of his mouth back to his right ear made his stern expression elongated and even more unfriendly. “You do realize this is the second time your fiancé’s life has been in danger?”
“I’m well aware of her past.” Robert told him.
“Then you should be thinking what I’m thinking. That someone has attempted to finish what they started.”
“It has crossed my mind. Do you have any ideas who did this the first time?”The watchman sighed. “I wasn’t in charge of that case, but I did work on it. Everyone there had been drugged. Which was obvious. Natalya was violently ill and the parents were murdered.”
“I know all of this. I’ve heard the story from Natalya.” Robert didn’t need a repeat history lesson.
“There was no motive for the killings. Nothing was stolen. Everyone that was there was bewildered as to what had happened and why.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
The watchman thought about it. “Maybe there will be a ransom demand. Or maybe she simply ran away.”
“She wouldn’t have run away! She wanted to marry me!” Robert was upset that he would even insinuate it.
“If she didn’t leave of her own free will, then I’d hate to think what became of her. We’ll continue to look for her, but I don’t have much hope of finding her.”
The watchman left Robert standing there feeling helpless. It was clear that the man thought she had vanished without a chance of being found. Even if they were willing to give up on her, he wasn’t. She trusted him to protect her. How could he let something like this happen? If any harm had fallen upon her because of his carelessness, he would never be able to forgive himself. And yet, the thought of her running away was just as painful. He really did love her. Even if she didn’t love him yet, which he suspected she didn’t, he could live with that just as long as she was happy.
Within the next hour Linda’s body was taken away. The poor woman died such a violent death. She didn’t deserve it. She had never harmed any one.
Guest began to leave. Robert took a mental note of who they were. He would be calling on them in a few days to see if anyone remembered anything that would help him locate Natalya. No matter what, he wouldn’t give up on her. She was alive. She had to be! He refused to believe anything else!
He was sitting in the foyer, watching people come and go when he found himself lost in his own thoughts. He didn’t even hear Estelle. “I was just thinking about things.”
Estelle nodded. “Do you think she’s still alive?” Her eyes pleaded with him to say yes, to give her some hope!
“I refuse to believe anything else.” She gave him a weak smile. “I haven’t given up and neither should you.”
“Thank you Robert. I feel like history is repeating itself. I can’t let her end up like my brother.”
Robert rose to his feet and embraced her. She began to sob in his arms. He wondered how she could have fallen for a man like Peter. Wondered how she could let herself be used by him. Then decided it wasn’t her fault. Her tears were genuine. She would have protected Natalya if she knew what was going on.
Estelle pulled away from him, wiping her face. “Peter’s waiting for me in the carriage. I have to go.”
“You don’t want to stay just in case she comes back?” Robert asked.
“Peter thinks we should go home and wait for a ransom. I’ll pay it, no matter what the cost is!”
The coward is sneaking off, Robert thought angrily. “Let me know if you hear something before I do.”
“I will,” Estelle promised and the tears began to swell in her eyes again. She walked passed him through the front doors.
Robert watched her go before taking his seat again.
“What did you do?” Estelle asked her husband angrily.
The entire ride home he had been quiet. He said he’d tell her what happened when they were home, away from anyone who could over hear their conversation. It was bad. She knew it was bad. The night Natalya disappeared he was disgustingly drunk. Whining over how unfair it was that Robert got to bed Natalya first. Estelle was so angry with him that she kicked him out of the bed. The next morning he had a swollen nose and Natalya was gone.
Peter closed their bedroom door. Then looked at his wife. “I think I killed Linda.”
“You did what?” Estelle yelled. She could strangle him! “Why did you do that?”
Peter looked away, deciding on how to explain the situation.
“Answer me Peter! Why did you do that?”
Nervously, he walked across the room to the bed and sat down. Everything had gotten out of hand so quickly. He didn’t mean to kill Linda, but she started screaming and he had to stop her. “It was an accident. She walked in on Natalya and me and started screaming.”
Estelle narrowed her eyes. She walked over to Peter and stood directly in front of him. They didn’t have a loving marriage, and she knew he had had affairs. But to be unfaithful with Natalya was unacceptable! They had killed to get control of her brother’s money, did whatever it took to achieve respect and power. And it worked because they had a mutual understanding; to respect one another. Not love or be faithful, but to respect. Bedding her niece was blatant disrespect.
“What were you and Natalya doing?” Estelle asked through clenched teeth.
Peter couldn’t meet her stare. “I thought I could bed her before the wedding.”
A wave of disgust washed over Estelle and she felt physically sick. Her hand flew to her mouth and she shook her head. He raped Natalya and Linda walked in on it!
She knew he was capable of anything, but she was repulsed. Repulsed that he would choose her niece over her! That half breed Russian brat was the object of his desire and it enraged her!
“Estelle, I’m sorry. I promise to do better with my drinking,” Peter swore.
After a moment Estelle got herself together. He was a lout but he was her lout and she wouldn’t let anything destroy what they had. “We have to make sure this never gets out. When you drink you’re unpredictable. So never drink heavily again.”
Peter looked at her. He rose from the bed and hugged her. “I’ll be a better husband to you. I swear it!”
Estelle closed her eyes. For both of their sakes she hoped he could be.