Daring in a blue dress, p.21
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       Daring In a Blue Dress, p.21

           Katie MacAlister
 
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  “Cut the floor, you mean? I don’t think so. Look at the wood underneath the top layer. That stuff is old, really old, and it doesn’t show signs of any fresh cuts. I think what you have here is basically a trapdoor that led down to the little passageway.”

  “Hmm.” He examined it more closely, carefully testing the floor before he put his full weight onto it. “I believe you’re right. There are no signs that the wood was sawn. That simply means that it gave way, and is, as I said, dangerous.”

  “I don’t think it did it on its own,” Mercy said slowly, sitting with her back to the wall. “If you look at the edge nearest me, you’ll see some scratches. They do look fresh, although someone has tried to cover them up with a wood crayon. What I think happened is that someone found out about the trapdoor, took a look at it, peeked into the passage, saw a lot of wood and stone debris in there, and decided it would make a grand booby trap. They just kind of helped it along by loosening the trapdoor so that it wasn’t resting on the supports the way it was supposed to—and voilà. The second you stepped on it, down you went.”

  “You think this is deliberate?” he asked, appalled at the thought that someone would dislike him so much as to want to seriously harm him.

  “I do.” She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. “And I know how they did it, too. The only person other than me who has access to papers about the house.”

  “Lisa?” He shook his head. “I can’t believe that she’d want to hurt me. And if she did—why? What purpose does that serve?”

  “I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell going to find out.” She patted his knee when he sat next to her. “Look, I know it’s hard to try to process the fact that someone wants you out of the way, but when you go through the evidence like I’ve been doing while I patched you up, you’ll see that it’s clear that the culprit is Lisa.”

  “For some unknown reason,” he said skeptically.

  “Yeah, well, I’m still working on that,” she admitted. “But think about it, Alden—ever since she got here, you’ve had more and more accidents.”

  “That’s the house falling apart around me.”

  “A couple of the accidents can be accounted for as just an old house, but not all of them.”

  “Don’t you think it’s a bit melodramatic to credit simple accidents to a murderous plot?”

  “Not really, no. Especially if you think about the so-called accidents that happened during the last week. Every single one of those could have been engineered to happen to you.”

  He pursed his lips. “The shooting incident.”

  “Exactly. Because as I’ve said numerous times, I did not shoot you.”

  He took note of her narrowed eyes, and decided to move on. “I know you don’t like Lisa, but I believe that’s taking animosity a bit too far.” He wondered how he could appease Mercy, and yet dissuade her from this line of thinking. He might not be overly fond of Lisa, but that didn’t mean he was going to accuse her of trying to do him in.

  “How do you explain this, then?” she asked, waving at the floor.

  He thought for a few minutes. “Coincidence.”

  “Nuh-uh.”

  “It’s an old house. Things shift in it.”

  “Not trapdoors from their bases. No more than lights in hidden passageways.”

  “Are you implying that Lisa is the one who has been going through the passages?”

  She shrugged. “Possibly. Probably. But I’m not sure about that. I mean, it makes sense if she’s looking for something.”

  “For what?”

  She bit her lip again, distracting Alden from the seriousness of their conversation. He wanted her in bed, his bed, all warm and pliant, and offering up her lips for him to nibble on. “That’s a good question. I’m willing to bet you that she found something in the house papers that says there’s something in the passages. Or in the smugglers’ tunnel. Maybe an old treasure, or an old master painting, or an important historical document worth a fortune, or . . . oh, I don’t know. Something worth a ton of money.”

  “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s very likely. According to the documents given to me at the sale, the Baskerville family fortune has declined since the day the house was first built. If later generations knew there was something valuable hidden by earlier ancestors, they surely would have found it and used it to fund the estate.”

  “Well, it has to be something,” Mercy insisted, waving her hand toward the hole. “Why else would Lisa be doing this?”

  “We don’t know it’s Lisa.”

  “Fine, whoever is doing it.” She took a deep breath, which again distracted him. He did so enjoy watching her breasts. And touching them. And tasting them. “All of this leads to the fact that I don’t think the house is as dangerous as you say it is. Although I think it’s a good idea to get Lisa out of here, since that’ll limit her reasons for being in the house.”

  He stretched out on his belly, and told Mercy to get back. “Just in case more of the floor goes,” he said, slowly inching his way forward toward the gaping hole. It took him almost forty minutes, but by the time he’d completed first one circuit of the damage on his belly, then another on his feet jumping up and down to test the floor, he had to admit that Mercy’s idea about a trapdoor had merit. “Although who would place a trapdoor right in the middle of the gallery is beyond me.”

  “Dunno, but I bet there’s something about it in Lady Sybilla’s papers. Dammit, why did Lisa have to show up and take that job away from me?”

  Alden said nothing other than telling Mercy he’d put a temporary patch over the floor. She helped him haul some two-by-four boards he’d remembered seeing tucked away in one of the basements, and with a few nails, he made the hole safe from anyone else stepping through it.

  By the time they returned to his room, he was tired, sore, covered in dirt, dust, and cobwebs from the basement, and very much desirous of giving Mercy the attention she so obviously deserved. But first, the last comment she’d made about Lisa reminded him that he’d been keeping a secret from her, one that he was no longer comfortable hiding.

  “So . . . about Lisa,” he said, opening the door to his bedroom, and gesturing her in.

  “Yes? What about her?”

  “There’s something I haven’t been forthright about. That is to say, I did tell you about it, but I didn’t go into detail.” He coughed, suddenly self-conscious, a fact that made him swear to himself. He’d been getting better the last few days, so much better.

  “Oh?” Mercy crossed her arms over her chest, her body language unmistakable. “And just what is this deep, dark secret concerning Lisa that you’ve held from me, the woman with whom you like to play Nancy Drew Visiting Ned in a Sleazy Motel?”

  Alden would have laughed except he was now a bit concerned about the ire visible in Mercy’s eyes. “Lisa coming here wasn’t happenstance.”

  “I gathered not. You said she was a blind date.”

  “Yes, well . . .” He cleared his throat and wished desperately he could dash to the shower, where he’d have privacy to hide. “It’s kind of like that. You see, I have a sister-in-law.”

  “So?”

  She wasn’t making it any easier. For some reason, that fact eased some of his strain. It was because she loved him that she was so irate over the subject of Lisa. “She fancies herself a matchmaker. She’s not that I know of, but that’s what she believes, and my brother humors her because she’s pregnant. A few weeks ago, she promised she had the perfect woman for me, and would send her down to help at Bestwood.”

  Mercy didn’t say anything. Her expression hadn’t budged, either.

  “And that’s who Lisa is,” he finished lamely. “She’s the woman my sister-in-law thought would be perfect for me. That is why Lisa has been so . . . aggressive . . . in her attentions toward me. She assumed from what Alice—my sist
er-in-law—told her that I’d be just as interested in her. But I’m not.”

  Mercy shifted her weight, her eyes losing some of their sparkly ire, turning more watchful than angry. “And that is because . . . ?”

  “Because you love me,” he said matter-of-factly. He felt that the sooner Mercy faced up to that, the sooner they’d be in bed doing all those wonderful things to please each other. “Well, that’s part of it. There’s also the fact that you are enticing, and intriguing, and sexy as hell, and I can’t think straight when I’m around you. So why don’t you get into bed, and after I have a quick shower to wash off the worst of the dirt and dust, I’ll join you and we can let Nancy have her way with Ned.”

  She pursed her lips, thought for a moment or two, and then said brusquely, “I think I’ll pass on that offer. Nancy isn’t so desperate for Ned’s attentions that she has to put up with him being an asshat.”

  Alden gawked at her. “But—”

  “No thanks, Alden. Seriously, if I wasn’t pissed enough about that whole shooting thing and the fact that you think I’m lying about it—no, don’t say you’re not, because you keep bringing it up—then I’d be more than a little miffed that you’d jump into bed with me when you thought your potential match was on her way here. Yeah, yeah, I know when we first met, you had said that there was a blind date coming out, but you acted like you didn’t want to see her. At least you did until Lisa got here, and now you’re all shades of defensive about her.”

  “Are you . . . jealous?” Alden couldn’t think of any other reason Mercy was acting so unreasonably.

  “No, of course not! Maybe. Just a little, but that’s certainly understandable, given the situation. I mean, what were you going to do if it turned out you liked Lisa better than me? Just dump me? Tell me I was a warm-up for the main action? Send me back to my mousey room without so much as a backward look?”

  “Your room, and indeed this entire floor, have been demoused—”

  “Faugh!” Mercy said, evidently having read one too many historical novels in her day, and marched out of his room, making sure to slam the door behind her.

  “She loves me,” he told the still-vibrating door. “She’s jealous, and angry because deep down she knows it’s her love for me making her that. She’s just a little resistant to that fact. But she’ll figure it out in the end.” He strode to the bathroom, purpose filling him with every step. “And if she doesn’t, I’ll make sure she gets the help she needs to realize just how much she wants me. And needs me. And can’t live without me.”

  Pot, kettle, black, a distant part of his mind said softly.

  He ignored it. He had more important things to do than sit around and be introspective.

  Chapter 15

  I was of half a mind to go to the gatekeeper’s lodge with the others, but decided after helping them haul all of Lady Sybilla’s belongings to her new quarters that close confines with Lady S. and the others was the last thing I needed. It took Fenice, Lisa, Vandal, Alden, and me combined a total of three hours to get all of Lady Sybilla’s things moved.

  “Tell me again why she’s not just taking an overnight bag like the rest of us,” Fenice groaned when we lifted an upholstered recliner onto Vandal’s truck.

  “Alden said she wouldn’t leave without everything. Thank god Adams got the loose stuff into boxes.”

  “I can think of about a million other things I’d rather do tonight,” Vandal said, passing with two cardboard boxes, which he loaded beside the chair.

  “I think that goes for all of us.” I stretched and thought about telling Lady Sybilla just how unreasonable she was being, but decided it wasn’t worth it.

  We struggled on. The others took their things (which were easily packed) as well, but they didn’t need help with that.

  “You’re sure you and lover boy don’t want to stay with us?” Fenice asked, having picked one of the bedrooms at the lodge for her own. “If the house isn’t safe—”

  “It’s safe enough,” I snapped, instantly feeling bad because it wasn’t Fenice’s fault I was such an idiot. “Sorry, I’m just cranky tonight. I think the house is perfectly safe, but thanks for thinking of me. Us. Oh, hell, just ignore me, I’m being an idiot.” I left with a quick wave.

  “The whole issue with Alden aside,” I said to myself as I marched up the drive to the house, a flashlight picking out the potholes along the way, “if I had to be that close to Lisa, I’d be sure to punch her somewhere impolite. The murderous she-devil. Hussy she-devil. Murderous, hussified, obnoxious she-devil.”

  I passed Alden, hauling a flat-screen TV on a dolly, as I entered the house, but said nothing. He had a confused air about him, as if he couldn’t understand why I was upset. I paused at the door to the house, half wanting to run back after him and explain my feelings, but since I didn’t even understand them, I figured it was better if I just kept to myself. “Especially if he thinks I’m crazy in love with him. Ha. I scoff.”

  I held on to that and assorted other dismal thoughts while I undressed, and got into the bed in my room, now thankfully sans rodents of any sort.

  “Boy, it’s lonely in here,” I said aloud a half hour later. I’d been lying in the dark, staring up at the ceiling, dimly aware of noises coming from Alden’s room next door, half hoping to hear the silent swoosh of a letter being pushed under my door, but nothing appeared. Not even Alden at my door begging me to come to bed with him. “Lonely and quiet. So quiet I can hear house noises. Like that. That sounded like a footstep in the hall, but I know everyone but Alden and me are gone, and he’s sure to have locked up.”

  Although there were the secret tunnels. I sat up in bed at that thought, straining to listen, but the noise wasn’t repeated. Surely if it was footsteps, I’d hear more. After ten more minutes of intense listening, I lay back and stared up at the ceiling again. “Lonely, lonely lonely. And it’s all Alden’s fault.”

  I thought about how at fault he was, and decided to write him a note to let him know just what it was I found so objectionable about his actions. I pulled out a sheet of his notepaper that I’d filched and, with a book underneath it, sat on the edge of my bed and wrote.

  Dear Alden,

  You are probably feeling pretty sorry for yourself right now, telling yourself that you’ve done nothing wrong, and that I’m overreacting. So I thought, in the interest of Anglo-Canadian-American relations, to detail your wrongdoings.

  “Yes,” I said, looking with approval at the letter. “It’s a good start. My English Comp professor would be pleased.”

  You insist that I shot you when I’ve told you repeatedly that I didn’t.

  You . . .

  I stopped, frowning at the first item. Come to think of it, Alden hadn’t recently accused me of shooting him. He’d agreed that I hadn’t, and wondered who could have, since it hadn’t been me and most likely wasn’t Barry, unless the latter had smuggled a differently colored arrow upon his person. I struck out the first item, and restarted the list.

  You didn’t tell me that your potential girlfriend was coming to visit.

  Dammit. That wasn’t true, either. He had told me that a woman was coming to stay with him, although I had gotten the idea that it was a blind date, an unwanted one at that. But never had he actually said that. I bit my lip and, after a soft oath to myself, struck out the item and started again.

  You allow Lisa to fawn all over you when you and I have a thing. OK, I know I said that we don’t have a thing, but . . .

  “Well, that’s just balls, too,” I snapped, scratching out that item with unnecessary force.

  You told me that I loved you. Ha! Double ha with bells on it! For one thing, you don’t know my feelings, and for another thing, I don’t in any way, shape, or form love . . .

  I said an extremely rude word, and sat staring at the paper. The word love seemed to grow and throb, like an engor
ged penis, dancing around the page trying to attract my attention.

  “Love,” I scoffed. “Just who does Alden think he is that he can tell me what I feel? Pfft. He wishes it was love.”

  I kept on that vein for another two minutes, then eventually worked enough scoffing out of my system that I could face facts.

  What I felt for Alden was more than just a casual hookup. Was it love? It certainly wasn’t the crushes I’d had in college when I was a young thing. No, the emotions that Alden generated in me were more . . . deep. Profound. Unshakable. Oh, sure, I’d been angry with him earlier, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t at that exact moment want to be with him, touching him, kissing him, talking to him. I just wanted to be with him, to be a part of his life, to know I mattered to him.

  “Well, hell, I am in love with the great big toad,” I said, somewhat at a loss. “When did that happen? When I saw him swinging the sword the first time? When he sent me that first note? When I thought he’d fallen into a hole and killed himself? And why the hell am I sitting here asking silly questions and describing why I’m angry with him over things that have no merit or basis in fact? Get up and go molest that man, Mercy! Seduce him like he’s never been seduced before!”

  I suited action to word, throwing away my note and donning my sexy nightie, figuring that if I had to make an apology for my behavior—and I definitely needed to do that—then I was going to do it in a garment that would give me the best chance of distracting him once the apologizing was over. I grabbed a shawl I’d bought when I was in Scotland, and padded my way barefoot to Alden’s door. I tried to open it, intending on slipping in to surprise him, but the door was locked.

  “Crap. He must be pissed at me because I was so bitchy earlier. Guess he’s really going to earn this apology.” I tapped on the door, and waited, mentally practicing my explanation of why I was there, and all the ways I’d been wrong in accusing him of bad behavior.

 
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