"Why, might I ask, am I sitting dripping wet in this cavern you call a library, when I should be back in London, rewriting my speech to Parliament about the tax on wheat?" Devon looked, he was sure, as bedraggled as he felt. He did not care to be in Scotland any time during the year, but when Parliament was in session was an especially poor time.
Glaring at his long-time friend, he waited for an answer. "Well?" he demanded. The note Devon, Lord Renwick, received, was cryptic at best, and he had expected to find his oldest friend on his deathbed.
"I was asking myself the same thing," quipped Lord Breakerton. "I should think a proper guest would retire and make themselves more presentable before being availed to their host." God, he's enjoying this, thought Renwick. "As for being here instead of London, I sent you a note." His friend waved a hand toward the desk in a haphazard manner.
"A proper guest would no doubt be pleased about being here all together, so let us just assume I am not a proper guest," Renwick bit out, dripping from the drenching rain of the Scottish night. Devon hated Scotland and all it took from him on a good day, not to mention the memories his trek into the hills conjured. Memories he thought buried. The fire burned, illuminating the hearth. Even in the warmer months, a Scottish castle was cold and drafty. Still in his greatcoat, he turned to warm his thighs and legs, which were as wet as everything else on his person. "Why am I here, and do not refer to the cryptic mess you called a note? It did nothing, but cause me to fear for your sanity."
Clive smiled. The library, if one could call it that, looked at one time to be the great hall. It now stood with shelves from floor to ceiling. Not all the shelves were full, giving it the feel of a work in progress. Overall, the atmosphere was comfortable which strangely enough, fit his libertine, rakehell friend. "Why don't you take those wet things off? We need to talk."
Devon did as he was bid. All the while, a knot began to tie itself in his stomach. Clive, though perfectly able to have serious discord, avoided it whenever possible. Devon's mind raced, listing all that could be wrong. First in his mind was illness, second, money. The latter was discarded immediately. Clive might play the ne'er-do-well, but Devon knew the head for business this man had, not to mention his feelings of responsibility. No, it must be illness.
Devon sat again, but this time in the opposite chair facing Clive. His friend looked grim as he made his way with a brandy for Devon. This was all Devon had left. This one man. Once he was gone, Devon would truly be alone. The only other one, Flick, he could not claim in society's circles.
"What do you know of your wife's death?" The question, abrupt as cannon fire, took Devon by surprise. A long, dormant pain tightened his chest. Damn, he hated Scotland.
"She died. What more do I need to know?" Devon's answer was clipped and bitter.
"How?" Clive pierced Devon with determined eyes.
"Highwaymen. Why are we having this discussion? You know I prefer--"
"Did you see her body?"
"No!" Devon spat out with disgust "I saw her father's body. Again, tell me why, before I leave the way I came." Devon's voice had risen by degrees to match his anger. Swallowing what was left of his brandy, Devon stalked to the mantel. This fortnight had already been hell and he had no care to continue the descent. He didn't think of Ella at all, because if he did, it would remind him of how close he had come to falling into a trap from which his father never was freed. Devon also didn't care to relive the pain of knowing her light would never shine on the world. When she left, Devon had been furious, but just knowing she was still alive would have been a comfort. Finding out she was dead and there was no going back, well that was almost too much for him to bear at the time.
With a calm that grated on Devon's nerves, Clive went on, breaking the silence. "I was out of town when you finally got married, if you will. I never knew any of the particulars of the agreement the two of you struck, save for your first meeting. I was not even present at the ceremony, though I heard it was an elegant affair."
"Yes, it was," Devon agreed, but grudgingly. He tried every day not to think about the one lapse in his otherwise impeccable judgment. One slip and where did it get a man? One would think one would be allotted one mistake in a lifetime. "It was elegant and refined, just as the Ton expected. It looked like a love match." Devon's voice came out as hollow and emotionless. He spoke as though it were the most recent balloon ascension in the park. As if, he was speaking of leaving his mistress. A business deal done, finished. After all, that was what it was. "The agreement was as you knew. We would marry. I would take from her dowry, what her father owed me. Then after a determined amount of time, she would go to Scotland to visit relatives, and once there, she would send word of her death and be out of my life forever." Now, four years later, the deal seemed very foolish. Fleetingly, Devon wondered if they might have made a go of it had she not left unexpectedly before their agreed upon date.
"How did the two of you get on? Were you amicable?"
"Clive, you are my most trusted friend. Do you not think if I were want of discussing this with someone, I would have come to you before now? You were there from the inception. You know well that it was a business agreement. Her idea. I wanted no wife. It was foisted upon us both. Because of her, I was able to fulfill the strictures of my father's will, marry before I was five and twenty and gain his personal fortune. She was able to get out from under the tyranny of her father and all his gambling debts, not to mention, no longer live under the fear of being thrown into debtor's prison with him, her only guardian." It was true that he had not wanted a wife, not even considering his father's will. That is where his good sense failed him. He, now a widower, was left to deal with the memory of a woman he never wanted to know. He couldn't help but think how his own adult life seemed to be mirroring his father's.
"Well, what I am really asking is-- well, did you actually consummate?" Stunned silence met this question. The two men stared off. Devon refused to give away any sign of the emotion boiling over within him, but at the same time, he let his friend know he had crossed the line.
Devon looked into his empty snifter. "You know, I came all this way because I feared you had taken ill. I never suspected dementia was the illness."
Either Clive did not hear, or he did not care to jump at the barb. Instead, he pressed on mercilessly. "I will take that as a yes. Did you talk about children?"
Devon must have looked befuddled, because his interrogator rephrased the question. As if, it was not bad enough the first time. "Did you and Ella discuss what would happen if she became with child, Devon?"
"I will be in my room. Please have your servants rouse me at first light. I would like to gather my staff at the inn we were forced to take shelter in and have them back on the road to England by noon." He turned, heading for the door. The huge empty room closed in around him. His inner being screamed for fresh air. Colors blurred the light, which seemed to temporarily dim. The door was his beacon. In the din, Devon thought he could hear Clive calling him back. The door was more important. Just as his hand grabbed for the knob, his hearing came rushing back in a relentless roar.
"Your wife is alive and I believe you are a father. Did you hear me, Devon? Your wife is alive. You are a father, old man. I swear it."
For a stunned moment, Devon's feet froze, unable to move. His breath came in grunt-like gasps. Amazed he could find his voice, he muttered, "That's impossible." Then he left.
Once in his room, Devon tugged off the wet clothes and hung them by the fire. On the bed was a robe laid out, waiting, and on the table by the fire was a large decanter of brandy with one glass. Clive must have thought it a kindness. Devon didn't particularly care for his friend's good hospitality at present, but he wasn't about to let the brandy go to waste. Slumping in the chair naked, forgoing the robe for the time being, he grabbed the decanter and poured a generous amount into the glass.
How long he watched the flames dance in the hearth, he wasn't sure, but the candles had burned down quite a bit. Of all the reasons for being called, his wife being alive and he being a father, were not on his list. Looking at the brandy still sitting patiently in the glass, he took a long drink. Was it possible? Could she be alive? His whole body seemed to cry out at the thought. He thought back to the day he got the news of her death.
Upon her departure, Devon had taken to sulking, which was not like him, but he had also decided their arrangement was working out better than he expected and he had been toying with the idea of suggesting that she stay. Unfortunately, she left before he could discuss it with her. Needless to say, his temper was in rare form and well fed by his stewing. When the messenger was announced, he received him, along with a letter from the local magistrate expressing his condolences for the loss of his beloved wife. Devon's temper was pricked even more, knowing that she did follow through with their agreement and obviously had no emotions engaged during their short arrangement. It wasn't, however, enough to prepare him for the courier's next statement.
Looking deeply into the fire, the scene replayed within the dancing flames:
"Thank you, sir. I appreciate your speed in getting word to me. Please, go to the kitchen and they will see that you are fed well and given at least one meal for your travel back." Setting the letter aside, Devon bent to the correspondence he dearly needed to attend to, but knew it was a useless employment. How was she able to leave without having any feelings for him? The courier's voice gave him a start, being that he had been dismissed.
"Pardon, My Lord, but..."
"What man? Spit it out." Devon was in no mood to deal with drivel.
"Well, My Lord, where you be wantin' me to leave the bodies?"
Cold dread seeped into his bones, replacing the petty hurt he had been nursing.
A coal snapped, drawing Devon back to his nearly dark room. He rubbed a hand over his face to dry his cheeks from the emotion of it. Dead, she was actually dead. He remembered that the next several hours went by in a numbness he had never experienced before. That is, until tonight. How could finding out that someone was dead, and then finding out he or she was alive cause a person to feel the same all-consuming numbness? It felt as if he were falling. His head swam with sensations more than memories, each one causing a roaring in his ears. Taking another drink, sniffing the strong crisp aroma of the now warmed brandy made him realize he was not dreaming.
Shivering, Devon remembered he never donned the robe left for him. He rose, adding a few sticks of wood to the now low burning fire and padded to the bed. He knew there was not much darkness left to him, but exhaustion and emotion pulled at his conscious self. Dropping into the huge bed and pulling the covers over his head, he hoped to let oblivion take him. Clive, no doubt, expected him to react badly, so he was not worried about his friend's wounded pride, but the question swirling around his very soul was. If his wife was alive, did she want to be found, and even more importantly, did he want to find her? He let sleep take him, but he knew it would not be restorative, not this night.
Devon woke with a start, drenched in sweat and tangled in a knot of sheet and blanket. Where was he? It took him a long moment before he was able to order his thoughts enough to remember last night. Falling back onto the pillows that had not been thrown on the floor from his thrashing, he let out a frustrated sigh. He was in Scotland. The memory of his conversation with Clive rushed back. What was he to do? Nothing had come to him before he fell asleep early this morning, and unfortunately, he still had no ideas.
One thing he was certain of was the dream that had just awakened him. The same dream had haunted him for the past three years. Ella came to him, as she had that one night. She made love to his body, but the moment he tried to reach out to her, she was gone in a swirl of mist. It was a dream, which always left him aching, painful with physical need for her and another pain he didn't care to put a name to. The dream had been gone for some time. Devon assumed the absence of it proved he was well healed. "Now what, you fool?" he snapped. "Do you grab onto a far-fetched tale from a well-meaning friend and grasp the chance she might be alive? It is more likely Clive has finally fallen to the dregs of his wild life and begun seeing visions." Talking to himself was not proving productive, so Devon untangled the sheets from his long legs and swung them to the floor.
His plan would be simple. He would spend a few days with Clive and play out this fantasy of his. When Ella was nowhere to be found, then he would leave and head back to London. Clive's sister, Margaret, would need to be made aware of her brother's delusions, however. He would make a detour before London and stop at the country home. Margaret and her husband were currently in the country enjoying their newest child, or so the social pages said.
Devon padded across the room, donning the dressing robe left for him last night and pulled the bell. He would have a bath before he met Clive for breakfast, as the road dust from his journey was still evident, but the sooner he got this over with, the better.
The morning rose bright with no signs of rain. Once bathed and dressed, Devon made his way along the winding hallways and narrow staircase typical of ancient castles. Even with his questions about Clive's propensity for drama, he still found the idea of his longtime cohort thriving in such a setting hard to accept. Yet, last evening, Clive looked more content than he had for many years. Devon made his way past the great doors leading into the library and wended his way toward the sound of voices.
Once Devon emerged from the maze of stone, he found himself standing on a long stone terrace. Squinting from the glare of morning sun, Devon was able to see an outstanding garden, where even in spring the riot of color was awe-inspiring. A noise to his left drew his attention. Sitting at a small, but well-set table was Clive.
"Good morning, old chap. I was hoping you would sleep in a trifle more, but Charles informed me that he gave you assistance." Clive attempted to sound genial, but Devon noted the cautious tone in his voice.
"Yes, I hope you don't mind." Devon took the only other place set at the table and allowed a footman to fill his cup. "Since my valet is still holed up at the Inn, I was in need of his services."
"I have taken the liberty of sending a message to the Inn. I am sure the roads will be passable by later today, if the sun shines as bright for the rest of the day." Clive put down his newssheet and sat back watching Devon with concern clear for him to see. "I do want to apologize for last night. I had hoped to break the news in a better manner, but then, well, at any rate, I apologize."
"For getting your servants or for apologizing?"
"Both, I suppose."
"You still don't believe me." Not a question, Clive sat looking at Devon with a strange mix of humor and sadness.
Just then, two footmen emerged with large trays laden with an assortment of breakfast meats, breads, cheese and fruit. The two men sat in silence drinking their coffee and enjoying the splendor of the gardens. Once the footmen filled both plates, leaving the remainder of the food on a nearby table, they left, and Clive continued.
"Do you think me cruel enough to toy with your obvious pain, or are you erring on the side of madness?"
Devon couldn't help but smile at his friend's close estimation of his thoughts. It spoke volumes about their closeness for so long.
"I had chosen madness. I've never known you to be cruel."
"Ah," Clive smiled and chuckled over his cup, "I can assure you my family has a history of many sins, but madness isn't one of them. With such a sad tendency to having female children, one would assume otherwise, I know," he joked, kidding about his over-abundance of sisters and female relatives. One trait Devon found intriguing since female relations were non-existent in his family.
"Well, you do realize the talk of late, with you fleeing to this barbaric wilderness and all. I have even heard your dear mama mention the term 'mental ailment' more than once when discussing your current state," Devon quipped while partaking in a well-stuffed piece of sausage. One thing was sure, he wouldn't starve while visiting.
"Yes, well any lack of wit can certainly be traced back to my dear mother, but--" Clive's expression turned solemn. "I know what I saw, man. Who could mistake Ella?"
Devon placed his fork on his plate and sat back. Emotions raw and exposed churned. Placing his elbows on the arms of the chair, he steepled his fingers in front of him. Ella, he had not used her name for four years. What he wanted to do was beat his friend bloody for bringing feelings he had well and buried back to the surface. Instead, he searched his friend's face, for what, he wasn't sure. After several tense moments of silence, Devon's heavy sigh broke through.
"Are you that certain? You did not spend so much time in London that year. The two of you met but a handful of times. Her beauty was evident, but no more so than any other English beauty. I am sure there are many women in Scotland who could rival her."
Clive sat with a calm expression on his face, too calm for Devon's liking, and listened to his friend dispute the possibility. "You said yourself you didn't look at her body. Isn't it possible it wasn't her? Mayhap, they took on a passenger, or even a passerby who witnessed the shooting."
Raking a hand through his hair, Devon fought an uncontrollable urge to flee. Every muscle in his body was prone to take flight. Why was he having to relive this again? Why couldn't he be left alone? Through gritted teeth, Devon measured his words with care. This was his friend after all, and he didn't want to say or do something he would regret later.
"How might, I ask, would Ella have been spared?" He had thought of these things in the early days after the tragedy. The answer to this question was by far the most agonizing of all the possibilities he pondered. "There is only one reason a highwayman would choose not to kill a female hostage, if they have already disposed of all the others. I personally do not care to think on those possibilities."
Clive winced at Devon's implication, but remained still and smug. "I am fairly certain she was not kept as a concubine if that is what you are suggesting. I think the better possibility is that she was away from the carriage when it was taken upon. Is that not a possibility?"
Devon had to admit that scenario was one he preferred to consider during his darker days. He would sit in his warm, almost comforting study, thanks to Ella, drinking large quantities of brandy while thinking of ways she might still be alive. She never felt dead to him. When his father died, he felt a finality, but with Ella, it never came. He suspected it was because their agreement had left many loose ends.
"Fine, let's imagine for the moment that she was in the bushes at the time. How would she have ended up here? Isn't that a bit too much of a coincidence?" Devon surely didn't believe in fate.
"Actually, it is entirely possible. You see, Ella's father and I are connected through the Scottish line. I never mentioned it because it is such a weak connection it hardly garnishes merit, but it does exist. Ella, no doubt, was planning on reuniting with some of our poorer connections here in Scotland."
Devon sat in utter silence. It was true. If one wanted to look back far enough, most English families had familial ties and Devon could well understand why Clive would keep such a connection quiet, considering the Baronet's tendencies to gambling. If word were to have gotten into the rumor mill, Clive would have had every man and moneylender in greater London banging down his doors.
"Why not tell me?"
"I don't know. It never seemed like it needed to be mentioned. I also knew the reason for the marriage and didn't feel you would want the waters muddied with any extraneous information. You two had made it cut and dried." Clive relaxed back into his seat. Taking his cup, he motioned for the footman to refresh it.
"You're serious, aren't you? You truly think she is alive." Devon heard the astonishment in his own voice. Could he believe? Should he believe? Moreover, if it was true, where did that leave him? There was still the agreement. He would be breaking it by seeking her out. The bigger question was whether he wanted to see her again.