Say You Love Me Page 28

He shrugged again. "Scars tend to inhibit bleeding." He said that so dispassionately, yet he was the one who caused the scars. It really didn't bother him, what he did here. He felt no guilt whatsoever. What she had heard only confirmed what she had already guessed.

He stuck the knife he still held under her skirt then and drew it toward him, opening the material. She gasped. He smiled. "Don't worry, my pretty. You won't need these clothes anymore," he said, and ripped the rest of the skirt up to her waist, then moved up beside the bed again to examine the sleeve of her spencer. "You whores are always taking them off, countless times a day, so down here, we are kind enough to save you the trouble."

He laughed at that, finding it quite amusing. "I'm not a whore."

"Of course you are, just like she was."

There was that mention of another woman again, in a tone that implied that particular woman was the worst sinner in the world. "Who is she?"

A cold flame leapt into his eyes just before he slapped her. “Don't ever mention her."

Her face had been turned away from him with that slap. The knife slipped under her sleeve and began cutting before she turned back to glare at him. "Or what? You'll beat me? Isn't that what you already intend to do?" "You think there aren't ways to make you suffer even more, just like she did? I assure you, only these other whores down here will hear your screams."

God, they each could hear the other's pain. But she knew that, had already heard the sounds of their suffering. Only now they would hear hers, too.

Was that intentional, one more thing to add to the terror of every woman who was brought down there? He did seem to do things intentionally, as if he had played the same scene on this stage many times before. There was only one servant on the premises-and he was wholly devoted to Ashford. There was no one, nor ever would be anyone, to carry tales Of the atrocities that went on there.

How many years had Ashford gotten away with this? How long had some of these women been down there already? He whipped tavern women so badly that they were scarred for life. That was what Derek had witnessed. But those women still had their freedom after he was done with them. What about the women in the cellar, though, who were never let go to be able to tell? Were even worse things done to them?

She had to keep him talking. He stopped cutting on her clothes each time he said something. But she hesitated to mention "her" again. "You have stolen me from Lord Malory. You think he won't know that and come after you?"

He paused. just a trace of worry entered his expression, but he quickly shrugged it off. "Don't be absurd," he admonished. "Whores run off all the time." "Not when they don't want to, and he knows I wouldn't. And he's not stupid. He'll know exactly where to look for me. Your only hope is to let me go." "If he comes, I will kill him." "When he comes, he will kill you," she stressed. "But you already know that, Lord Ashford. It's quite brave of you to court death like that."

He paled, but not nearly enough. "He won't do anything without proof. And he'll never find you here. No one knows of this place, no one ever will."

He had answers for everything. Mentioning Derek wasn't working. He feared him, yes, but he considered himself safe from Derek's retribution.

He moved to her other sleeve and began cutting it up to her shoulder. She was fast running out of time. She had to risk mentioning that other woman again. It was the only thing that really disturbed him. "Did you bring her here?" "Shut up."

She had jarred him, enough that the knife slipped, cutting her arm. She flinched, but she couldn't let that deter her. At least he hadn't slapped her again. "Why do you hate her so?" "Shut up! I don't hate you. I never hated you. But you shouldn't have run off with your lover when Father found out you were a whore. He beat me instead, because you, weren't there. You should have just let him kill you as he wanted to. You deserved it. I didn't want to do it for him when I found you, but what choice did I have? You had to be punished. You still have to be."

Oh, God, he thought she was that other woman now-his rnother. He'd killed her, and he was going to kill her again when he was done "punishing" her for her sins, just as he had been punished for her sins. She had just condemned herself to much more pain than she would have been given if she hadn't pushed him to the other side of his insanity.

THE RENTED HACK HAD STOPPED IN FRONT OF THEM. DErek's carriage drew alongside it. "What have we stopped for?" James called out.

After a moment, Artie came to the carriage window to speak with them. "That's the 'ouse up yonder, Cap'n, the one I told ye about, that Ashford visited a couple times. This is the only other place I know of that 'e might've come to with the girl, but I guess not." "Why not?" "'Cause there ain't no sign of 'Enry 'ere. 'Enry would be 'ere if this is where Ashford brung the girl. Besides, that place looks as deserted as ever. I'd say there ain't no one around here for miles."

James stepped outside to view the house and grounds. Derek and Anthony followed him. "Bloody place looks haunted," Anthony said. "Someone actually lives here?"

Artie shrugged. "We never saw no one when we was 'ere before." "We still have to search the house," Derek said. "If this is our last hope, I'm not leaving until every corner has been turned." "Agreed," James replied, and began giving orders. "Artie, cover the grounds and stable if there is one. Tony, to save t1ine, try to find a back entrance that's open, or open one if it's not. Derek and I will take the normal approach and try the front door." "Why do you get normal, while I get sneaky?" Anthony wanted to know. "Put a lid on it, dear boy," James said. "No time for arguing just now."'

Anthony took one look at Derek and coughed, saying, "Quite right." "And let's be very quick about this," James added. "It's doubtful the bastard is here, since Henry's not. But this isn't our last hope. Henry will send word eventually where he's gone, just as soon as he can manage it. We will want to be there when he does."

He had said the last for Derek's benefit, but it didn't help. "Eventually," they all knew, would be too late where the girl was concerned. "Well, looks like someone is here" Anthony said, staring at the house. "Or am I mistaken in seeing a light flickering in the attic?"

Indeed. It was very vague, barely noticeable, but there was a light up there. And that assured them that the place wasn't completely deserted.

They split up to approach the house separately. Derek sent his driver straight to the front door and bounded out of the carriage to try it. Finding it locked, he had to resort to pounding on it.

James followed a bit more slowly. He was worried about his nephew. He'd never quite seen him so bristling with fury Ind restless energy. Derek couldn't stand still. He rocked on his heels. He raked his hands through his hair. He pounded on the door again. "Henry is a good man, Derek," James offered as they waited for the door to open-or not. "If he can safely get Kelsey away from Ashford, he will. He may already have her, for all we know." "Do you really think so?"

The hope that came into Derek's eyes was difficult to look at. Bloody hell. A man did not invest that much emotion in his mistress. That James had planned to make his wife, Georgina, his mistress was a moot point. He hadn't, he'd married her instead. But this Langton girl wasn't the marrying sort. Not that it made any difference to James. It didn't. He'd always done what he bloody well pleased and always would. But the future heir of the Marquis of Haverston didn't have that luxury.

He was going to have to have a serious talk with the lad when this was over. Or better yet, with Derek's father. Yes, let Jason do his duty and pound the unpleasant facts into his son.

James wasn't given a chance to answer. The door opened and they were confronted with a very irate-what?

James had seen a lot of things in his well-traveled life, but even he was taken aback at the deformities on the creature standing in the doorway. But it did speak. It was a man, rather than a freak of nature. "What's all the racket for, eh? You ain't got no business here-" "I beg to differ," James interrupted. "So be a good chap and step aside. We need to speak with Lord David Ashford-immediately."

The name elicited some surprise in the fellow. "He ain't here" was all he said. "I happen to know otherwise," James replied, a bluff to be sure, but useful under the circumstances. "So take us to him or we will be forced to find him ourselves." "Now, I can't let you do that, gents. I gots orders that no one comes in here-ever." “You will have to make an exception-" "I don't think so," the man said confidently, and the hand that he'd held behind him came around to show that it gripped a pistol.

He had come to the door prepared to back up his "no admittance" orders. And at such close range, they were indeed at a standoff-at least until James could reach inside his coat for the pistol he'd brought along. But he hesitated to attempt that with Derek there and the man's weapon wavering between them. He took risks with his own life, but not with the lives of other members of his family. "There was no call for weapons," James pointed out reasonably. "Wasn't there?" The man smirked and then threw James's words back at him. "I begs to differ. And since ya ignored all them signs posted at the front drive to the property, that clearly warned ya to keep out, maybe I oughts to shoot ya both for trespassing."

But Anthony's voice suddenly came from behind the man at the door in a deadly calm tone. "This chap isn't actually threatening to shoot you, old boy, is he?" Anthony said.

The man turned, of course, to face the new threat at his back. Anthony had found another way into the house and had snuck up behind him down the hall. "Excellent timing, old chap," James said as he knocked the Pistol out of the man's hand and grabbed a fistful of his shirt to keep him there. "You can thank me later," Anthony replied, grinning now that the fellow had been disarmed. "Must IT' James shot back. But then, glancing at the fellow he held, and just before he landed his meaty fist in the center of the man's face, he added, "Bloody hell, how d'you break a man's nose when he ain't got one?"

James let the fellow go then. He was quite unconscious, slumped into a pile on the floor. "Was that necessary?" Anthony asked, coming forward. "He could have told us where Ashford is." "He wouldn't have," James replied. "At least, not unless we beat it out of him, and we've no time for such pleasantries. Derek, you search this floor. I'll take upstairs. Tony, find out if there's a cellar."

Anthony knew as well as James that Ashford wasn't likely to be on the main floor of the house that he'd assigned Derek to search. He'd either be in an upstairs bedroom, which was the most logical place for his purpose, or tucked into a room down in the cellar, where screams wouldn't carry very far. Obviously, James didn't want Derek finding him or the girl first if they were there. "I get the dirty job again?" he grumbled as he turned back the way he'd come, but called over his shoulder, "Just make sure you save a piece of him for me, brother."

James was already halfway up the stairs, so he didn't bother to answer. And since most of the rooms were empty, it didn't take long at all to search the entire house. James arrived back downstairs just as Anthony came down the hall again. "Anything?" James asked. "There's a long cellar beneath us, but nothing but empty shelves and crates in it, and a few kegs of ale. What about you?" "The attic was completely empty, just a lamp set on the floor up there, which don't make too much sense." "Nothing else?" Derek asked as he came down the hall to join them.

"There was one locked door up there. Bloody hell, really thought I had him when I found it."”you managed to get in?" Anthony asked. "Certainly." James snorted. "No one was there, though. It was fully furnished, unlike the others, but doesn't look like ,illyone's lived in that room for years, more'n ten or twenty years by the look of the old-fashioned dresses in the wardrobe. The walls were covered with portraits of the same woman, some with her and a child. Looks like a bloody shrine, if you ask me." "Told you this place was haunted," Anthony said. "Well, it ain't haunted by Ashford. Not even another servant-"

James was cut off as the front door flew open and Artie rushed in. "I found 'Enry! 'E was tied up in the stable, 'im and another bloke, and they been 'urt bad. Someone nigh bashed their 'eads in." "But they're alive?" "Aye, 'Enry come around a bit, said some pig attacked em. The other man don't look too good, might not make it. They both need a doctor real quick." "Take them back to town, Artie, and fetch a doctor," James ordered. "We will follow shortly." "Thought he looked a bit like a pig myself," Anthony remarked as Artie left. He was looking down at the unconscious man, still sprawled on the floor. "Whatever he is, it looks like he's in the bloody habit of killing anyone who wanders onto the property," James said in disgust. "I've a feeling that's what he had in mind for me and Derek as well." "Ah, but at whose orders?" "Ashford was here, damnit, or Henry wouldn't be," Derek Put in.

"Yes, but he ain't here now. He must have taken the girl somewhere else after Henry showed up."

Anthony nudged the caretaker with his boot. "I'd wager he knows where." "I'm inclined to agree," James said. "If any of Ashford's servants would be in his confidence, itd be this one. Shall we wake him?" "I'll fetch some water," Anthony replied, and took off down the hall again.

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