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A Cold Legacy (The Madman's Daughter #3)(15)
Author: Megan Shepherd

“My God, Elizabeth, I nearly drowned. . . .”

A shot rang out, and I jerked up with a cry.

The smell of burnt gunpowder hung in the air. She’d shot the sheep to put it out of its misery. The poor animal sank into the bog, a part of the moors now.

She wiped the muck from my face. “Why are you out here alone?”

“I went to Quick for a wedding dress. God, it seems so stupid now. I heard the sheep—”

“Oh, you foolish girl. My carriage is waiting back at the road. Thank goodness I was held up in Liverpool or I’d have missed you completely. Let’s get you home before you freeze to death. Valentina knows which herbs to use in a bath to restore circulation.” She wrapped an arm around my shoulder and led me through the winding bog paths. It was dark now, clouds hiding the moon, steam rising from the horse’s nostrils. She helped me into the carriage.

I sank into the soft seats. “I’d have died if you hadn’t come just now.”

She leaned forward and rubbed my knee. “We von Steins pride ourselves on good timing.”

“Did you discover what the police know? Are they still after us? I read an article that John Radcliffe wrote about the massacre, and it made no mention of us.”

She rubbed my freezing hands in hers. “Right now you need to worry about getting warm, not the police. They won’t be storming the house tonight, I can promise that.” There was a troubled look on her face, though, and she pressed a hand against her coat, re-tucking a folded piece of paper that had nearly slipped out of her pocket.

We heard Lucy’s and Montgomery’s voices calling to us a quarter-mile away, but it was Balthazar who reached us first. He flung open the carriage door and wrapped his arms around me. Montgomery raced up just behind him.

“Juliet, what happened?”

I couldn’t answer. I was shivering too hard.

Montgomery touched my hair, my face, my hands, as though reassuring himself I was intact. There might have been tension between us, but he still loved me.

“Balthazar, my friend,” he said, “carry her back to the manor, quick as you can.”

I hadn’t the strength to object when Balthazar scooped me up, carrying me toward the shining lights. Once inside the house, Mrs. McKenna fawned over me, wrapping me in a blanket and rambling about getting some tea and scones in my stomach. She led me upstairs, where Valentina already had an herbal bath going. Mrs. McKenna helped me strip off my ruined undergarments and ease into the hot water.

“Mrs. McKenna, I can’t thank you enough.”

“Enough of those formalities, little mouse. You nearly died tonight. Call me McKenna like everyone else does.”

The water quickly browned, but I didn’t care. I held my breath and slipped under, letting the water work its way through my hair, daring to imagine if it was bog-water instead of a rose-scented bath. What if I had died, tonight? It was Edward we were all so worried about, but the truth was, the world wasn’t a safe place. Any one of us could vanish from it at any moment.

I jerked upright, coughing out water. Once my head had cleared, I saw that McKenna had left. Elizabeth was in her place on the side of the tub, still in her stained traveling dress, while Valentina packed away the herbs she had brought for my bath.

Elizabeth reached out to pet my head.

“Silly girl. You must take better care of yourself. People will be relying on your judgment. You can’t take foolish risks like that if you’re to run this place one day.”

I twisted to look at her in surprise. Valentina, crouched down to pick up some of her fallen herbs, had paused as well. “What do you mean, run this place?” I asked.

Elizabeth glanced at Valentina hesitantly. There was regret on her face, as though she wished she could take back what she’d said. “Valentina, could you leave us a moment? Afterward, let’s talk, you and I.”

Valentina stared at Elizabeth, some silent exchange happening between them that I knew nothing about, and gathered the rest of the herbs and hurried from the room.

Once we were alone, Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Juliet, the professor and I intended to make you our heir.”

My hands nearly slipped on the wet side of the tub. “A ward, yes. But heir?”

“Yes. Heir to all of it. The manor. The grounds. Everything we have.”

A tin of herbs clattered to the floor outside the bathroom, followed by the sound of footsteps running away. Valentina had been listening in the hallway. I started to call after her but Elizabeth shook her head. “Don’t. I expect she’ll be quite upset. I shouldn’t have told you in front of her—I wasn’t thinking, and it was cruel of me. Before I left for London, Valentina and I had begun to discuss her taking over one day, if I didn’t find a suitable heir in the next few years. But then I discovered the professor had taken you in, and that we’re even distantly related.” She gave me a kind smile. “Valentina always knew there was a possibility of long-lost family showing up. She’ll be disappointed, but there will always be a place for her here, don’t fear.”

Valentina was the least of my worries. Heir to Ballentyne? It was enough to make my head spin. “But what about Hensley? He’s your own son; surely he should inherit it.”

A strange look crossed her face. “Hensley—yes. I should have realized you’d meet him. Unfortunately Hensley will never be suited to manage an estate of this size. He has a defect of the brain.”

“Oh, how awful. Is that why you didn’t tell us about him? Who . . .” I paused. “Who is the father?” It was hardly a polite question, but women like Elizabeth and me had never danced around propriety.

“An American novelist. I went overseas to visit family in eighty-nine and met him. The father doesn’t know, which is just as well.” She let out a sigh, running her fingers along the towel. “He wasn’t a very good novelist.”

It felt good to smile, after everything that had happened.

“Well,” she said. “It’s not every day one narrowly escapes death. Dry off, and give me a moment to speak with Valentina. Then we shall have a proper talk.”

WHEN I’D FINALLY SCRUBBED every inch of the bog from under my fingernails and between my toes, I found Elizabeth, Montgomery, and Lucy in the second floor library, seated around the fireplace, chatting in low voices. There was no sign of Valentina—I imagined she was in her room, trying to get over the sting of losing the inheritance. Hensley sat by Elizabeth’s feet. I was surprised he was still awake since it had to be past midnight, but he hadn’t seen his mother in months and must miss her terribly. It made me even more curious about his brain defect, and if it had to do with his miscolored eyes. Elizabeth stroked his hair absently. In turn, he stroked the fur of his pet rat.

 

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