I would like to murder you with a rusty axe.
Yes, thank you. The same to you.
‘So you came.’
Silence colder than ice.
Silence colder than the primordial cold before fire was invented.
‘Well?’ The two voices were alike, but never in a million years would I mistake Mr Ambrose for his father. His father’s voice was cold and ruthless in a way that made me want to scrub myself. Mr Ambrose’s voice was cold and ruthless in a way that made butterflies dance in my stomach. ‘I am waiting, Father.’
‘Waiting for what?’
A noise as if from a shifting glacier came from inside. I thought for a moment Mr Ambrose had truly turned into an iceberg - but then I realised that he was just cracking his knuckles. ‘A ‘thank you’ would not be a bad idea, to start with.’
‘Me? Thank you? You, who have dragged our family name into the mud?’
‘I dragged you out of the mud, father! Out of debt, and despicable poverty! You and the rest of our family! Do you remember where I found you? Do you? You should be thanking me on bended knee!’
‘Insolent boy! You will show me the respect due to your-’
The winter wind howled, cutting off whatever Mr Ambrose was supposed to show respect to. It didn’t matter. I could have told the Marquess he wouldn’t do it. The only things Mr Rikkard Ambrose showed respect to were ones with the £-symbol on them.
Except maybe me.
‘Dammit!’ Adaira whispered, glaring at the air, as if she could chase away the wind like that. ‘Quiet down, will you?’
Amazingly, it did. The howl subsided into a whistle, and then vanished altogether.
‘-going off to the colonies! Do you have any ideas of the stories that I heard about you? Wallowing in filth like a commoner, working for money with your bare hands-!’
‘You should try it sometime. It might do you a world of good.’
‘You will speak when you are spoken to, boy! I will not be lectured on life by an insolent lout whose breeding is no better than a primitive’s! You will keep your mouth shut and-’
Suddenly, Ambrose senior was silenced. And this time, it wasn’t the wind who was responsible. There was a thud, and a choking noise. Adaira gave me a wide-eyed, panicked look, which I’m sure I returned to her in equal measure.
‘No.’ Mr Ambrose’s voice was as cold and as deadly as an adder’s hiss. ‘You keep your mouth shut and listen, Father. If not for my work and my money made by my filthy hands, your precious family, your life in this pretentious palace would be nothing. Gone. Vanished in an instant. You had better keep a civil tongue in your head next time we meet because if you do not, I will consider all debts between us paid, and you will be finished!’
There was a pause.
‘You are an Ambrose!’ ground out the old man. ‘A man of noble blood! The son of a Marquess!’
‘Believe me, I know. I have only been trying to forget for the last ten years!’
‘Do you have no respect for what that means? What honour and duty rests upon your shoulders? You’ve soiled your family honour! Some of the things they say about you…the things you did out in the wilds…’
‘What did they say, Father? What did the great Marquess Ambrose have to hear about his Prodigal Son?’
‘Things too vile to repeat! I spoke to a man who saw you then. Saw what you were like. What you did…’
‘There, there, now, Father.’ Mr Ambrose said, deceptively soft. ‘It wasn’t as bad as people make it sound.’
‘No.’ His voice abruptly hardened into granite. ‘It was worse. It was a hundred times worse, thanks to you and Mother! It was blood and guts and bone-breaking work - most often literally. I have a scar across one finger, where a man broke it because I could not pay my debts. I have a burn on my head from a black powder explosion that nearly ripped my skull apart! And yet I’m still here, and my debtors and enemies are gone. You don’t want to be one of them. I have seen a lot of things, and done a lot of things. Remember that next time you try to play the parent.’
The next thing we heard was the sound of a door slamming so hard the doorframe cracked.
I waited a moment, till a second door closed, then turned to Adaira with a tremulous smile.
‘Well, that went well, didn’t it?’
The Most Honourable The Marquess Ambrose did not come out of the house to see his son off. But that was all right. It was cold enough outside anyway.
Lady Samantha, wrapped in a thick fur coat that was almost larger than she was, stood at the bottom of the front stairs, Adaira beside her and the staff arrayed in two lines right and left. Tears were sparkling in the old lady’s eyes, and errant snowflakes in Adaira’s. I knew that the latter were melting snowflakes and definitely not tears, because she had assured me and her brother of that fact three times already.
‘Don’t you dare think I’ll miss you,’ she told him, lifting her chin to meet his eyes. ‘You are rude and dictatorial and the worst big brother on this earth, and if you come back in a hundred years it’ll be too soon!’
Mr Ambrose inclined his head about half an inch. ‘My feelings exactly.’
‘Good bye, Lilly!’ Turning to me, Adaira threw her arms around my neck and hugged me hard enough to squeeze the breath out of my lungs. ‘Come back soon, will you? I miss you already! You’ll always be welcome at Battlewood.’
‘Yes, Miss Linton.’ Smiling shyly, Lady Samantha stepped forward and squeezed my hand. ‘You’re welcome here any time. Especially if your stay here….’ Her gaze flitted to Mr Ambrose. ‘Especially if your stay would be a longer one.’
Mr Ambrose made a noise in the back of his throat. ‘If you are all quite finished fawning over my secretary’s little sister, we have to be going.’
‘That goes for you, too.’ Undaunted by his frosty demeanour, Lady Samantha took his her son’s hand. ‘You’re welcome here any time.’
‘As long as you bring Miss Linton with you,’ Adaira added, which earned her a stern glance from her mother and a grin from me.
‘I shall endeavour to have her never leave my side,’ Mr Ambrose shot back at his little sister. Only I noticed that when those words left his mouth, his eyes flicked over to me, and there was hunger in them. I had a feeling he wasn’t just making a retort.
For the first time, I wondered what he had planned for me when we had returned to London. The thought alone sent a delicious shiver down my back. Yet, back in London there didn’t just await endless possibilities - there also awaited infinite dangers. First and foremost among them my aunt and uncle. It had begun to dawn on me that my refusal of his marriage proposal might not seem as insurmountable an obstacle to Mr Ambrose as it appeared to me. After all, was it usually the girl who decided her future husband? No. It was her parents or her guardians. And if Mr Rikkard Ambrose, or better yet, Lord Rikkard Ambrose, son and heir of The Most Honourable The Marquess Ambrose, approached my dear aunt and uncle, asking for my hand…
Aunt Brank would probably be ready to chop it off with a meat cleaver and hand it over to him wrapped in fancy paper. And Uncle Bufford…
Our conversation would most likely go something like this:
Uncle Bufford: Do you like him?
Me: Yes, but-
Uncle Bufford: Is he rich?
Me: Yes, but-
Uncle Bufford: Good. Marry him. And make sure he pays for the wedding.
Uncle Bufford: Out, girl! I’ve got important business to attend to. I have lots of money to count.
Yes, that would be a very productive talk.
A familiar cool voice tore me from my thoughts, and I looked up into the dark, sea-coloured eyes of Mr Rikkard Ambrose. They were deep as the ocean, and just as alluring. I couldn’t help but get lost in their depths.
Would he go to my aunt and uncle? Could he? Could he ever do something like that to me?
I remembered his confession, wrestled from his heart with brute force: I might be slightly irrationally infatuated with you. I may even have certain impulses towards you that border on caring about you.
Could a man who delivered such a passionate declaration of love just go behind my back?
Yes, he could, blast him!
But maybe, just maybe he wouldn’t. And if he betrayed me, if he ignored my feelings and tried to entrap me against my will, I’d cut off his bollocks and dye his precious tailcoat orange!
‘Shall we go?’ Mr Ambrose extended his arm to me, and I took it like a perfect lady.
‘Yes, we shall.’
Accompanied by sobbing (from Lady Samantha) mad waving (from Adaira) and lots of bows and curtsies (from the servants), we climbed into our coach. I immediately stuck my head out of the window and started waving, and when Mr Ambrose just sat stiffly in his seat, I grabbed his hand, stuck it out of the window and waved it for him.
‘Oh, don’t be a stick-in-the-mud! Wave goodbye to your sister and mother!’
‘They are perfectly well aware that we are leaving. We do not need to indicate the matter via hand signals.’
‘Yes, Miss Linton?’
‘Shut up and wave.’
Up on the box, Karim cracked his whip, and the carriage took off, rolling down the driveway. As soon as we reached the road, Karim gave Mr Ambrose’s mean old coach horses free rein, and we raced along the highway, slush and dirt spraying up around us.
As we travelled south, the weather became warmer and the remnants of snow began to disappear. The warmer climate, however, did not appear to have an impact on Mr Rikkard Ambrose. He sat in a corner, brooding silently over some papers from his briefcase. Not that this was unusual behaviour for him, but still…it felt different. He didn’t order me around, or utter threats against the Royal tax collectors, or any of the other things he normally did. I got a feeling that he was waiting for something.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
‘Why are we slowing down?’
I had been gazing out of the window at the passing trees - when, suddenly, they ceased to pass. The coach rolled to a halt and an earth-shattering thud came from outside, the kind of noise only caused by a mountain collapsing, or by Karim jumping off the box.
‘Karim?’ Mr Ambrose demanded, putting his papers aside. ‘What is the matter? Why have we stopped?’
‘There’s a rider approaching, Sahib. He’s hailing us.’
Mr Ambrose’s hand slipped into his tailcoat, to the bulge I very much suspected was his revolver. ‘Does he look hostile?’
‘No, Sahib, I don’t think so. He…he seems familiar. I’m not sure, but-’
‘It’s Kenward, Sahib! It’s Kenward!’
‘Who is Kenward?’ Leaning forward, I tried to peek out of the window, but to judge by the approaching hoof beats, I was on the wrong side of the coach.
‘One of my agents, Miss Linton. I usually send him to businesses who have not been performing as they should. He’s a quick rider. If he’s here…’
Not bothering to finish the ominous sentence, Mr Ambrose pushed open the door and jumped out of the carriage. Quickly, I gathered up my skirts and, cursing the fact that I wasn’t wearing trousers, I followed him outside, where I took up a position beside him. Standing straight, my hand close to my gun, just in case, I fixed my eyes on the rapidly approaching rider.
The man reined in his mount a few yards away and leapt down. His face was drawn as if he hadn’t slept for days, and his knees were shaking from exhaustion. The horse didn’t seem to be in much better shape.
‘Thank God I spotted your coach, Sir,’ the man panted. ‘I thought you were still at Battlewood! I would have ridden straight there if-’
‘Yes, yes, enough of that.’ Impatiently Mr Ambrose waved his hand. ‘Why are you here? What has happened?’
Those words were enough to make an icy tingle of fear shoot down my spine and make my fists clench, instinctively preparing for a punch. I had known this would be coming. Dalgliesh himself had warned us before leaving: I will have to return to London, to develop a new strategy.
I just hadn’t thought that developing a new strategy would happen so fast.
‘What is it?’ Mr Ambrose demanded. ‘What has he done?’
Kenward, as his name apparently was, looked uncomfortable. He cleared his throat, then glanced at me.
‘What?’ I demanded. ‘Do you need some cough syrup?’
‘I believe, he is indicating that this is a sensitive business matter that we require privacy, Miss Linton.’
I looked around. ‘But we’re in the middle of an empty road. How much more private can you get?’
Leaning over, Mr Ambrose hissed: ‘You are not currently dressed appropriately for the post of secretary, Miss Linton.’
Apparently not in the mood to explain the intricacies of crossdressing feminists to Mr Kenward, Mr Ambrose stepped over to the man and leaned down so Kenward could whisper in his ear. The more he listened, the colder Mr Ambrose’s face became. His left little finger started twitching in prestissimo. Then he suddenly straightened, teeth clenched tight.
‘You’re not serious!’
‘I swear to you, Sir, it’s true!’
‘But there, of all places…How did Dalgliesh even know it?’
‘I have no idea, Sir. But he obviously does. And he wants it.’
‘Over his dead body!’
‘But Sir, you’ll hardly be able to get there in time, let alone-’
‘Let that be my concern!’ Mr Ambrose cut him off. ‘You get back to London and make sure things run smoothly. I shall expect everything to be as if I’d run things myself on my return, understand?’
Kenward paled, but nodded. ‘Yes, Sir! I understand, Sir!’
Without another word, Mr Ambrose whirled and marched back to the coach. I followed silently, burning to know what was going on, but instinctively knowing that now was not a moment for wasting time with questions.
‘Karim!’ Mr Ambrose slammed the knob of his cane against the roof of the coach. ‘About-turn! Take us to Newcastle!’
My eyes went wide.
‘Yes, Miss Linton?’
‘Newcastle as in “we were nearly roasted and stoned there”-Newcastle?’
‘Yes, Miss Linton. And?’
‘Nothing. Just curious.’
The drive wasn’t long and, luckily, our reception to the city of Newcastle was distinctly cooler and less geological than last time. We drove straight through the city towards the waterfront, but only when the masts and sails of anchoring ships came into view did I understand what was about to happen.
‘Oh dear. This will be difficult to explain to my friends and my little sister.’
‘Disappearing on another mysterious journey. I wrote to them, telling them I’d be coming back. I thought we were returning to London, you know.’
‘I am? But-’ And then it hit me. I began to understand what he really intended to do. What he had been intending to do ever since he met that messenger on the road. Wherever he was going, Dalgliesh would be there, too. It would be dangerous. And no matter how ruthless or cold-hearted Mr Rikkard Ambrose might be, he would never put someone he loved into danger.
‘No!’ I almost jumped out of my seat. ‘No, you can’t be serious!’
He cocked his head. ‘There you go again, assuming I am capable of levity. How long will it take to cure you of this curious misconception?’
‘You’re not leaving me behind!’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘You are a bastard son of a bachelor!’
‘Yes, I am. Albeit in the metaphorical sense only.’
‘I love you!’
‘That was meant to convince you that you can’t leave me behind!’
‘Oh. Well, in that case, it did not work.’
Reaching out, I grabbed his arm and held on so tight it must have hurt - but he didn’t complain. He didn’t even try to pull away. Our eyes met. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Mr Ambrose, where are you going?’
Loosening my grip, I slid my hand down his arm until my fingers gently brushed against his.
He glanced down at our joined fingers - then looked up to meet my gaze again.
‘It’s better if you don’t know, Miss Linton.’
‘No it isn’t!’
‘Will you ever stop arguing with me?’
My fingers tightened around his. ‘Never.’
Funny. Why did that sounded like more than a promise to me? Almost like a…vow.
The coach rolled to a halt. Taking a deep breath, Mr Ambrose rose to his feet. ‘Well, the continuation of our argument will have to wait.’ And, slipping out of my grasp, he stepped out of the coach. I jumped after him, parasol ready to strike. I would force him to listen! I would beat it into his thick head that he couldn’t just leave me behind like some dainty porcelain doll!
Karim awaited us outside, face even more wooden than usual, arms crossed in front of his massive chest. The moment he saw me, his posture tensed, and I could have sworn his beard stood on end with trepidation.
‘Oh no.’ Raising one hand, I waved a warning finger at Karim. ‘Don’t you dare! Don’t you-’
‘Karim,’ Mr Ambrose interrupted me ruthlessly, ‘Miss Linton is being stubborn.’
‘What a shockingly astounding development, Sahib.’
‘Indeed. It will be your duty to return her safely to London-’
‘Hey! I’m not a package you can just return to sender!’
‘-and watch over her while I am away.’
The Mohammedan’s face betrayed only the barest hint of soul-deep suffering. ‘Must I really, Sahib?’
‘Very well, Sahib. I hear and obey. For you, I would brave the fiery pits of hell.’
‘Hey!’ Threateningly, I raised my parasol. ‘Watch what you’re saying!’
Mr Ambrose and Karim ignored me completely, holding each other’s gaze and nodding, in some strange male ritual of understanding.
‘She shall be safe with me, Sahib.’
‘Adequate. Then it is time.’
This was all going too fast. Far too fast. He couldn’t go now! Not now that he and I…not now that we had just… He couldn’t! And he definitely couldn’t send me back with just Karim for company!
‘Please don’t do this!’ I couldn’t ever remember begging Mr Rikkard Ambrose for anything. I was far better at demanding. But I would beg now. I would beg to come with him, to be by his side and have his back! If I didn’t, no one else would. ‘Please!’ Pushing aside a startled Karim, I grabbed Mr Ambrose and pulled him close. ‘Please don’t go without me. I can’t let you…just please.’
In moments like these, I really hated and envied the ability of Mr Rikkard Ambrose to keep his face stone-hard and free of emotion.
‘I can’t. Dalgliesh will be waiting for just such a chance. Where I’ll be going…He’ll be lying in ambush.’
My grip tightened. ‘And you think that argument will convince me to let you go?’
‘No. It’ll tell you why I cannot take you with me.’
My fingers were now wrapped so tightly around his arm they would probably leave permanent creases in his ten-year-old mint-condition suit. Strangely, he didn’t seem to care. His eyes, deep, dark and bottomless as the ocean, didn’t move from mine for a second.
I swallowed hard. ‘Yes, Sir?’ The well-rehearsed reply slipped over my tongue without my even noticing.
Reaching up, he cupped my face with his free hand. Not fair!
‘Let go of me, Mister Linton. That is an order!’
It was like a stab to my heart. He truly didn’t want me to come. Did that mean…did that mean he didn’t want me anymore? At all?
I had rejected him, after all. Was it now time for him to return the favour?
Behind him, the shadowy form of a massive dark ship approached, sails flapping in the wind. Of course. Of course he would have a ship ready in any port of England, ready and waiting to do his bidding. Curse the man and his power and perfection!
‘Karim?’ Taking his gaze from me, Mr Ambrose locked eyes with his bodyguard behind me. ‘Take care of her.’
With a thud, the gangplank of the ship slammed onto the pier. A crew member appeared at the railing, signalling Mr Ambrose. Without another word, he turned and strode off towards the ship. But then, just as he reached the bottom of the gangplank, he stopped and half-turned to look back at me, pinning me to the spot with his arctic gaze.
‘Oh, and Miss Linton?’
‘If by any chance you think my leaving will alter your fate in the slightest - think again!’ His dark, unfathomable eyes flashed. ‘I’m going to return. And when I do, I will come for you. I am not someone who takes no for an answer. You, Miss Lillian Linton, will be mine. Fully and completely.’
And with that, he whirled, gathering his black coat around him, and marched onto the ship waiting to take him across the sea.