Excerpt from The Marquess

 
May 1817
     Clinging to the rear postilion of the black barouche where she hid in darkness, Dillian shivered in equal parts fear and cold. After more than an hour on the road, the vehicle had turned down a rutted, overgrown drive.
     Why had the footman stolen Blanche from the physician's care? Was the footman in the duke's employ? Where was he taking her? Dillian had hoped to find a better physician, but that dream had crashed with their race into the empty countryside.
     Taking a curve at a reckless rate, the carriage tilted, and she grasped the rail in white-knuckled terror, not seeing the edifice looming ahead until the vehicle rumbled straight for it.
     She widened her eyes in disbelief at the gothic monstrosity silhouetted against the starlit sky, like some fable from a storybook. Nothing else was visible. Not a single light glowed in the whole of that black sprawling monolith. Where in the devil was the madman taking them?
     Already so terrified she could scarcely unbend her fingers from the rail, Dillian felt the carriage roll to a stop at this unwelcoming edifice. As the driver leapt down and pounded on a massive oak door, she glanced around for a hiding place.
     She found no lack of concealment in the rambling thorns and untrimmed shrubbery at the base of the mansion. She had only to concern herself with keeping her gown from being torn from her back.
     The gown was the least of her worries as she pried her fingers free and darted into the bushes. The worst of her fear centered on the helpless occupant of the carriage. She need only focus on Blanche and all else seemed trivial.
     The insistent shouts and knocks of the carriage driver on the massive doors of the manor brought a creaking groan of aging wood. Beyond terror now, Dillian watched in astonishment as a tall lean figure materialized in the opening, the folds of his cloak flapping in the cold spring wind as he listened to the driver's hushed arguments. Not until this grim specter loped down the stone stairs to remove Blanche from the carriage did Dillian realize her peril.
     As the black creature carried Blanche through the gaping maw of the gothic cavern, Dillian realized she would have to enter after him.
     * * *
     The eighth Marquess of Effingham didn't notice the slight shadow slipping in the open door behind him as he carried his sleeping burden into the manor. He'd lived with shadows long enough to welcome their privacy.
     He cursed under his breath as the doddering clock on the landing struck eleven chimes and one expiring whistle. He cursed the clock, cursed the purloined coach, cursed its driver who now raced up the dust-coated stairway ahead of him. He cursed the stairs as he climbed them carrying the helpless bundle in his arms. He cursed the generations of Effinghams who had sunk all their spare capital into expanding this hideous architecture into a gothic village one needed a horse and carriage to traverse.
     He hadn't begun to exhaust his extensive repertoire of curses when he finally realized he wasn't alone with his burden.
 
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