The Cotswolds, England
Heart hammering, Miss Elsie Allenby went motionless in the straw rocker in which she’d been moments away from dozing off.
It was the knock.
With careful, measured movements, she set the book on her lap on the side table.
There hadn’t been a late-night caller in five years. Four years and two hundred and sixty-six days, if one wished to be truly precise. There hadn’t been a reason for it. Elsie’s father, the only reason for a caller, had been gone that many years, and with his death had also come an absence of those visitors.
As such, that staccato, timed knock, signaling their presence, held her frozen at the hearth.
Then it went silent, ushering in a familiar, safer quiet. The crack and hiss of the hearth, the only sound, amplified in its eeriness, was lent an even more sinister aura by the shadows that flickered and danced on the cracked plaster walls.
Mayhap she’d merely imagined it. Mayhap being shut away from the world, on the edge of civilization, one eventually lost one’s sanity and dissolved into a place of past histories and old memories.
Bear, the enormous slumbering dog at her side, pushed to his feet, his nails scraping the floor deafeningly loud in the otherwise still of the rooms.
Her gaze trained on that scarred wood panel built and hung by her late father’s hands. Yes, mayhap she’d merely imagined it. A dearth of human contact and the late-night quiet invariably played tricks upon the mind.
Her gaze flickered to the loyal dog, crouched in a battle-ready position.
Nay, there could be no other accounting for the aging dog’s response.
Bracing her palms on the arm of her chair, she slowly pushed herself to her feet.
The straw reeds creaked in damning proof of her presence, and Elsie forced herself upright, hurriedly completing the movement, until she stood.
Bear angled his enormous head up.
She ruffled the coarse fur between his ears, until his eyes grew heavy once more, and he sank back down onto the floor. Collecting her wrapper from the back of her chair, she shrugged into the fraying garment, belting it at the waist.
All the while, she kept her gaze trained on the front door.
Mindful of the loose plank boards, Elsie picked her way across the room, skirting furniture until she reached the shelving built into the wall. She briefly removed her attention from the door and, stretching up on her tiptoes, fished around the top shelf.
Her fingers collided with cold metal, and she drew the weapon from its place, finding some assurance with the weight of the pistol in her grip.
And a memory trickled in.
“I am not going to shoot someone, Papa.”
“But you may need to, poppet. If it is your life or theirs, I will always choose your life. And I expect the same of you.”
The scissoring of pain ripped her back from the oldest of memories, and she forcibly thrust those distracting thoughts of her father—and the time before—into the furthest chambers of her mind.
“Focus,” she mouthed, winding a careful path to the door. Pressing herself tight against the wall, she held her gun aloft in one hand and with the other grasped the rusty handle.
One, two, three…
Elsie pushed the door open a crack, slipped outside and… stopped.
A grayish wryneck paused in midpeck of the chipped wooden window frame. The creature angled its head back and forth, contemplating her with its small, unblinking black eyes.
Some of the tension left her, escaping her lips on a soft, breathless laugh that stirred a faint puff of white in the cool spring night. “You’re a peculiar fellow, aren’t you?” she murmured, her voice echoing quietly around the gardened landscape. The tall hedges and bushes and sea of flowers long-ago planted allowed the modest ivy-covered cottage to blend in with the Bladon landscape as easily as any shrub or bright splash of greenery. “What are you doing at this hour?” Elsie lowered her arm back to her side, glancing down at Bear, who’d joined her on the slate steps. “We do have a visitor,” she explained, motioning to the wryneck. “He is too proud to join the other wrynecks on the ground. Not that there is anything wrong with being different,” she rushed to assure the motionless bird.
Different was a state she could well identify with. Both the solitary state and the oddness that set one apart. Kept away from the whole of the world, rarely leaving their small patch of land, she and her father had only ever been met with curious stares and suspicious looks when they were required to go into the village. Feeling a kindred connection to that painfully still bird, she took a step closer.
Bear growled and crouched in a fighting stance once more.
The wryneck took flight, raining down feathers in its haste to flee.
“You scared him,” she chided, snapping her fingers once.
Bear whined, nudging his head against her skirts, but then ultimately followed her command. He sank to his haunches, staring up at her with enormous, sad brown eyes.
“It is fine,” she pardoned, giving his head another affectionate pat. “You are a loyal pup.”
More than ten years old, the creature had been beaten and branded on his belly by bullying village boys before he was rescued by Elsie’s father. Eventually, the scarred and scared pup who’d hissed and snapped at everyone had become an affectionate, loving member of the small Allenby family. He’d also been the only company she’d known these nearly five years.
Midnight quiet reigned once more, punctured only by the occasional chitter of a cricket or the sporadic song of the frogs. Elsie did a sweep of the grounds. The full moon’s glow bathed the earth in a soft light, illuminating the gardens.
Reflexively, she drew her pistol close, and the gooseflesh rose on her arms. Do not be silly. Papa hadn’t raised her to cower at shadows. And she’d been alone long enough that the nighttime shouldn’t scare her.
But everything dark comes at night… death and dying and—
“Come,” she urged, snapping twice, and Bear popped up. “Such loyalty certainly deserves a treat,” she murmured, needing to hear her voice in the quiet.
With Bear trotting at her heels, Elsie reentered the cottage. She closed the door and, this time, put the clever locks built along the whole front panel by her late father into their proper places.
No good could come from being careless. No good ever had come from it.
She stumbled over her task and squeezed her eyes briefly closed.
Except, the door to the past had been opened by the faint raps, and when those darkest moments slipped in, they would remain…
“I’ll return, Elsie. These men require my help.”
The muscles of her throat constricted, and she struggled to swallow past the lump. That long-ago lesson had proved the peril in… helping. It had been an inherent part of who her father was and who he’d always been. And that inherent goodness had seen him dead.
Elsie opened her eyes. “Hush,” she chided gently, struggling with the last, rusted lock. It fell into place with a satisfying click. She turned and made to return to her chair, abandoning all hope of rest this night. “There is nothing to be…” Her words trailed off.
A scream climbed up her throat as a wave of fear surged through her.
Turning back, she lunged for the door. Panic exploded in her chest as she scrabbled with the clever chains.
Trapped. Locked in by her own hand.
“Tell your dog to stand down, Miss Allenby.”
Spoken not in the country tones of the village people, but the cultured ones belonging to men of rank and privilege. Men of rank and privilege never had a need for her. They once had a use for her father, but they’d done just that—used him and then abandoned him. And despite his many sacrifices, he’d paid with his life, left defenseless by noble gentlemen.
A sob tore from her as she wrenched at the handle.
Terror buzzed loudly in her ears, squeezing out logical thought, and tunneling the voices of those strangers and Bear’s barking.
“I said, tell your dog to stand down.” The quiet command cut across the din in Elsie’s ears.
They destroyed your father. Do not cower before them. That reminder of the wrongs done by these men and her hatred for them and all they represented replaced the fear, and she fed the anger. Found courage in it.
She whipped around and alternated the barrel of her pistol on first one of the darkly clad strangers and then the other. “Or what?” she rasped, hating the faintly breathy quality of those two words. “You’ll kill me?” She directed that at the taller of the gentlemen. “My dog?” Elsie tossed at the other. She’d expect anything from these ruthless sorts. They were capable of anything.
The two men exchanged looks. One was tall and dark, the other several inches shorter and fair-haired. They might as well have been Lucifer and the Lord himself teamed up to wreak havoc on her already uncertain existence.
And despite her earlier resolve, dread scraped along her spine and made a mockery of her attempts at bravery. Her gun shook in her hands, and she steadied her hold on it.
Crouched low, all the hair on his back standing upright, Bear barked all the harder. The remarkably stoic composure of the men who’d invaded her household revealed not even a crack at the vicious fangs bared on them. Neither brandished weapons.
She swallowed hard. The men were in possession of two very different frames—one stocky, the other taller. Both, however, were muscularly defined and exuded strength. They could end her, or Bear, with a skill that wouldn’t leave a mark and would see them both forgotten, until Mrs. Dalright brought Elsie’s next delivery of wildflowers.
Elsie snapped her fingers twice, and Bear instantly sat beside her.
He continued growling. The menacing rumble left both gentlemen unfazed.
“What do you want?” she asked quietly, keeping her pistol trained between the men, where she could easily get a shot off at the first who made a rush for her.
“If you would?” the taller stranger drawled, waving a lazy hand at her weapon. “I hardly find that the best way to begin a discussion is at gunpoint.”
“And I hardly consider one’s home being invaded in the dead of night conducive either. Therefore, I should say we are even on that score,” she snapped.
Did she imagine the ghost of a smile that hovered on the other gentleman’s lips? Elsie fixed her gun at the center of his chest. “Do you find this amusing?”
“On the contrary.”
He shot a hand out, relieving her of her pistol before she could even draw breath into her lungs. So quick, so silent. The usually alert Bear registered nothing but the faint whoosh of air.
“There,” he said crisply. “Now, why don’t we sit?”
She’d be a fool to believe his was anything but a command, a directive issued in her own household by men who’d slipped inside and laid claim to this entire midnight exchange.
She jutted her chin up. “If you feel so inclined, then you may sit, but I am—”
Creeeeak. The stocky stranger dragged a chair over and thrust it at her. “Sit.” His flinty-eyed stare bore through her, hard, unforgiving… and impatient.
Bear picked his head up.
Over the years, Elsie had overseen the care of animals brought to her by her father or local villagers for healing. Usually injured by snares, or abandoned by negligent providers, those creatures had all found a place in the Allenby household. Betrayal and suffering had forever scarred the souls of those animals, wounds that went far deeper than the physical ones she’d tended. Those who were impatient around them, made quick steps, or let fear drive them, invariably found themselves bitten or backed into a corner by the wounded creature.
Elsie hesitated, staking some claim of control of the situation, and then she sat.
With matched movements better suited to men in the King’s army, they collected the matching sack-back Windsor chairs from the hearth and set them close on either side of her.
Palms dampening, Elsie gripped the arms of her chair.
“Do not,” the scarred gentleman warned as she made to stand.
“I’d be a fool to believe you don’t intend to prevent me from moving,” she spat. The unpredicted element of this meeting erased a necessary element of fear.
“We’ve no intention of harming you,” the dark gentleman said in cool tones that conveyed a pragmatism and no attempt at easing her anxiety. “Dismiss your dog.”
“If you don’t intend to harm me, then it should hardly matter whether or not he sits and takes part in our discussion.”
The gentleman sat back and contemplated her.
As the moments ticked by on the mantel clock, she struggled to remain absolutely still, to not be the next to speak or capitulate any more than she already had.
The members of the Home Office who’d visited this cottage sensed weakness and used it to their advantage. As long as one served them, no questions asked, they were content to leave one be.
Her heart twisted. Or that had been the case. That was what she’d believed, until they’d repaid her father’s efforts on their behalf, with… nothing.
“My name is Lord Edward Helling. This”—he gestured to the gentleman at his side—“is Mr. Cedric Bennett.”
“What do you want?” she snapped, hatred making her voice emerge sharper. Their names mattered naught.
“You know who we are, then,” the dark-haired gentleman remarked, curiosity layered into that statement.
“I do.” Her gaze went to the gold signet upon the angry-eyed gentleman’s littlest finger. As soon as the admission left her mouth, she silently cursed that impulsivity. She darted her stare about, seeking escape. For one did not reveal one knew… anything about the organization these two strangers belonged to. It was a secret to all, and those who discovered, or revealed anything about it, invariably found themselves felled for their carelessness.
The stocky stranger spoke. “Your father spoke of us, then?” Did she imagine the faint disdain attached to that word?
“The Brethren?” Her taunting rebuttal sucked the energy out of the all-purpose room. It sent tension whipping through the pair who had her effectively cornered. “The ancient group of distinguished gentlemen who serve the king, preserving Crown and country? I’m well aware of who you are.” She peered down the length of her nose. “Of what you are,” she corrected. Bitterness soured her tongue. Yes, the members of the Brethren were emotionally deadened men who’d step over the dead body of anyone who’d faithfully served their ranks, without a glance back for the services once given.
An answering silence met her brave—nay, foolish—retort. And both gentlemen watched her with equally dark, piercing gazes.
Her stomach muscles clenched, squeezing at her insides, like the adder she’d once stumbled upon with a mole caught in its twisted grip. And yet, when one no longer had anything to lose, one was fearless… or careless. Or mayhap both.
“If they come, poppet? Leave. Do not trust them. Do not do their bidding. Slip out the back, hide, and, when they are at last gone, run.”
That desperate advice, the last words given by her father before he’d perished, whispered forward—too late.
Too late. She was always too late.
A log shifted in the hearth, and Elsie jumped, and the fear pounding away at her breast made a mockery of her earlier bravado.
In the end, it was the bulkier of the two gentlemen who spoke again. “That is disappointing,” he murmured, and she’d be a fool to believe those casual tones were anything conversational in nature. He peeled off his gloves, revealing the matching signet on his finger. “Though unsurprising, I might add, that your father should reveal privileged information.”
She glowered. “What did you expect?” Fear of her fate forgotten, she’d be damned ten times to Sunday before she allowed this man to mock her late father. “I lived in the same household when your”—she curled her lip in a derisive sneer—“honorable members came here to have their wounds tended, cared for by my father. Did you think I should not have learned who you men are?”
Mr. Bennett flashed a cold smile, a go-to-hell expression that said he didn’t care if she were the daughter of His Lord and Savior himself, that he’d sized up the man who’d given her life and reared her alone… and found him wanting. And nothing she said would ever alter his opinion. “You know a good deal less than you think, Miss Allenby. For our numbers are not exclusively comprised of gentlemen. We’ve been known to enlist the services of… worthy females.”
Something in that word indicated he’d assessed her worth by her name alone… and found her wanting. Elsie crushed the fabric of her skirts in her hands, hating that this man’s opinion of her and her family should matter.
“Enough,” Lord Edward warned, casting a long look at his truculent partner.
Mr. Bennett set his thin lips into a hard line, but instead of attempting to further bait Elsie, he smoothed his features into an unreadable mask.
The other gentleman turned back, refocusing his attentions on Elsie. “Now, Miss Allenby,” he began, “I’ll not waste any more of our time.”
Oh, God. That serpent of dread slithered around inside, spreading its venom.
Elsie jumped up.
Except, she stood entangled by the deliberately arranged circle of chairs, with Bear on the outside.
The younger of the gentleman reached inside his jacket, and Elsie closed her eyes, hunched her shoulders. Would it be a knife to the throat like…
Her breath rasped loudly. And then…
A crunching sound.
Befuddled by the absence of a blade or bullet to her flesh, Elsie opened her eyes and settled on—
Bear munched contentedly on a bone balanced between his paws.
As soon as the word slipped in, she winced. “What do you want?” she repeated for a third time.
“We’ve come to enlist your services.”
She cocked her head. “What?” Surely she’d misheard him. Or perhaps all these years spent alone with only her nightmares for company had left her mad.
“Will you please sit?” Lord Edward murmured.
This time, it was not fear but surprise that compelled her to retake her seat.
“We have an assignment suited for one with your talents.”
Her talents. “I care for animals,” she said flatly. “Unless you have a horse or some other beloved pet who’s been injured, you’ve wasted your time. For there is no help I’d give you”—Elsie glanced over at his partner—“or any of your kind.”
“It is a member of the Brethren,” Lord Edward went on, as though she hadn’t spoken.
“And you’d enlist my services?” Everything about their presence here—the request, the exchange itself—smelled of a snare. “You must be mad.”
The gentleman’s jaw flexed. “You’ve not even heard the assignment.”
“I don’t need to,” Elsie said automatically.
“Not even to restore the honor of your family?” Cedric Bennett whispered.
Her family’s honor. Nay, her father’s honor. Elsie didn’t give a jot what the world said of her. But her father… She wavered for the fraction of a heartbeat.
You are the one who is mad. That you’d consider offering them… anything? After what they did. “Get out,” she said.
Lord Edward snapped his gloves together and made a show of stuffing them in his front jacket pocket. Making himself comfortable. Settling in for a debate. Making her aware that he had no intention of letting her end their meeting. “I’d not be here… unless I had no other choice.”
“We always have a choice,” she tossed back, the same fateful statement delivered to her father by some unknown member of the Brethren when danger had been closing in and Elsie and her father had been just a breath away from destruction.
“You worked extensively with your father,” he continued, not missing a beat.
Warning bells went off. They’d only ever had one use for the late Francis Allenby—heal their badly wounded, scarred members and send them back to Polite Society, living and intact.
“I work with animals,” she said carefully.
“But then, isn’t that what we all are?” Mr. Bennett put forward in a steely whisper. “Animals?”
She pushed back her chair and slipped from their circle. “I’ve come to appreciate that the four-legged sorts are estimably more loyal, capable, and honorable than the two-legged sorts. Now, if you will.”
“It is vital to the organization that we secure your help,” Lord Edward called over, briefly staying her.
“Vital to the organization,” she repeated. For two such distinguished operatives to come, they did so not for one of a like rank, but rather… “He must be someone important,” she speculated.
They met her statement with stony silence.
And then it dawned on Elsie. Shock pulled at her. “It is one of your leaders.” The mysterious figures had never been referenced by name among the men who’d been cared for at these very lodgings, but they’d been spoken of in shadowed and veiled terms. “It is the Sovereign?” she whispered.
Mr. Bennett exploded forward, and she gasped, stumbling away, but he was faster. He caught her hard about the shoulders and propelled her back. Elsie stiffened, braced for the strike—that did not come. For the unrelenting grip he had upon her, there was a restraint to Mr. Bennett’s hold, and the evidence of that brought her eyes open. “What do you know of the Sovereign?” he asked.
Bear growled, abandoning the bone with which they’d bribed him.
“Have your dog stand down,” he whispered. Or…
It was a challenge she’d not make. Not when doing so put the beloved dog at any risk.
Her heart pounding, Elsie snapped her fingers twice.
The dog sank back onto the floor, retraining his energies on his bone.
“Release her,” Lord Edward ordered from over the gentleman’s shoulder.
Mr. Bennett hesitated and then set her free.
Elsie hurried to put space between them, sidestepping his burly figure, until she had her back to a seemingly safer Lord Edward.
“He is my brother,” Lord Edward said quietly.
His brother. That was why this member of the Brethren had come.
Elsie stared vacantly at the nicks upon the door, marked with her father’s whittling knife to signify the inches she’d attained through girlhood.
It did not matter. None of these single-minded men or their fates or futures were a concern to her. Not after their betrayal. Not after how they’d used and then failed her father.
An image flashed forward in her mind, vibrant and stunning for the realness of it.
“It is what we do, poppet. We help,” Papa murmured, accepting a wet cloth from Elsie’s fingers.
“Only the good ones,” she supplanted.
Her father paused in his task, glancing over. “We all have traces of good within us. Some just lose their way. To not care for them would make us worse.”
Her throat worked as the memory dissolved.
With his magnanimity, her father, however, had always been better than she… in soul, spirit, and heart. In every way.
“Your brother isn’t my business,” she said in deadened tones.
“Oh, but we are making him… your business,” Mr. Bennett warned.
She stiffened, and her nape prickled as she braced for them to finish her for what she knew and what she refused to do for them.
A barely audible murmur passed from Lord Edward to the other gentleman.
“I do not believe you feel that way,” Lord Edward directed at Elsie. “I believe you’re very much your father’s daughter.” He paused. “In every way.”
“You are wrong,” she said automatically. Elsie faced the pair. “Neither of you know anything about me.” Nothing outside her connection to one of the greatest healers in England. Nay, one of the greatest former healers. “And you knew even less about my father.”
“Ah, but that is where you are wrong.” Mr. Bennett sat back in his chair. “On both scores. Your father? We’ve already established he was a traitor to the Crown.” All her muscles went taut. “Shall we focus on what we know about you?” He didn’t await an answer. “A thirty-year old spinster, you’ve never wed. You’ve lived on the outskirts of the Cotswolds with your only visitor an old village woman who sells you herbs. Herbs which you already grow, which leads one to believe yours is merely a gesture of charity.”
Her cheeks fired hot. These men saw everything. And with his every word, Elsie was reminded of the folly in having any dealings with them.
“Shall I continue?” Mr. Bennett asked. “You once visited the village weekly, every Saturday, with your”—he glanced down at Bear—“dog in tow. Neither of you were greeted with kindness.”
Nay, she’d been shunned as a girl who spoke to birds and animals and would have likely been burned a witch in another unfortunate time. Elsie clenched and unclenched her fists.
“And you worked alongside your father, treating the thirty-five patients carried into this household.”
A chill went through her, and she involuntarily wrapped her arms about her middle. “Who are you?” she whispered.
He flashed another hard smile. “Who I am is irrelevant. Who you are? Now, that matters.”
“My brother suffered an injury,” Lord Edward said quietly. “Nearly a year ago.”
Despite the urge to send him to the devil, to tell him she didn’t care, she felt the part of her that was very much her father’s daughter awaken at that revelation. “What happened to him?”
“It does not matter. He is a changed man. What matters is that you help restore him to his former state.”
“It very much matters.” Elsie’s feet moved of their own volition, carrying her back to her chair. Standing behind that seat, she kept it as a barrier between them. “The person who will help… heal him”—a person who would not be her—“will not be able to divorce his past from what brought him to his present.”
“They’ll have to,” Mr. Bennett said at her side. “His past belongs to no one.”
She frowned, ignoring the presumptuous gentleman. Everyone thought they knew what another person needed. If they did, however, they’d not be here, even now.
“His injuries… are they physical or emotional in nature?”
Lord Edward’s face spasmed, a crack that displayed him as… human. “They are both. He was injured in a carriage accident and suffered a head wound that saw him unconscious for nearly two months.”
“He speaks to few and no longer accepts polite company.”
By the pain reflected in Lord Edward’s gaze, that extended to the gentleman’s family.
“Can you help?” Mr. Bennett asked impatiently. “If you can…” he dangled, “it would be an opportunity for you to restore honor to your family’s name.”
Rage simmered in her breast, and she ignored the insult he’d offered her. When she trusted herself to not hurl invectives at him, she forced herself to look at Mr. Bennett. His impatience was stamped on his features. “There’s no need for restoration. I know precisely the manner of man my father was.” With his love and need to help all, Francis Allenby had proven greater than the two who now sat before her. “He was one who cared about people.”
Mr. Bennett flicked an imagined speck from his sleeve. “Enough that he betrayed the Crown.”
She recoiled. “Get—”
“Please,” Lord Edward said quietly, his faint entreaty slashing across the immediate urge to throw both men out of her modest cottage. “My brother… his name is William. William Helling, the Duke of Aubrey.”
She sat back. “A duke,” she repeated dumbly. They wished her, an oddity without her father’s skill who lived on the fringe of the world, to care for a duke? “You believe me a traitor,” she offered Mr. Bennett before looking back to the taller, darker gentleman. “You must be desperate to come to me.”
Lord Edward glanced at his partner. The gentleman lifted his head slightly and, without a word, took his leave.
“We require someone unconventional,” Lord Edward said as soon as the door had closed behind Mr. Bennett. “Someone versed in healing like your father… and you are rumored to be capable of both.”
She shook her head. “Let me say this aloud to see if I understand. You men, who abandoned my father”—and in that, Elsie herself—“after all the work he provided for you and your organization”—her fingers curled into tight fists—“nay, not organization. Men.” She enunciated that single syllable. “My father cared for gentlemen connected to your organization. Now, all these years later, after everything you did to my father, you would come here and ask me to help one of your family members?”
“Yes,” he said simply.
Elsie wrapped her fingers around the top of her chair, digging half-moons into the soft wood with her jagged fingernails. “Then you are mad. Even if I had my father’ skill and willingness to help you people, I would not do it.” She stalked to the door. “Now, if you would? Get out.”
He stood, but otherwise made no move to heed her orders. “My brother is broken,” he said, and the haunting quality of the admission sent the gooseflesh climbing up her arms. “You’ve tended animals whose spirits and minds have been affected. My brother…” He stretched a hand out in entreaty, the gesture leaving her wholly unmoved.
It was his words.
And damn you for being so weak.
“He is not right, in any way,” Lord Edward went on. “He’s suffered greatly, and I know you know something of suffering.”
She knew too much of it. That kind of horror and heartbreak robbed a person of sleep and then riddled one’s life with haunting remembrances of times past.
The gentleman drifted over, so that only a pace separated them. He cast a glance beyond her shoulder to the doorway, and she followed his stare. When he returned his focus to Elsie, his meaning was clear: Mr. Bennett listened in.
“I will speak candidly,” he said in hushed tones. “There are those… outside of my family, whose only concern is who my brother is and his role.” Within the Brethren.
“And what is his ‘role’ exactly?”
He shook his head once. “That is irrelevant. What matters is William. William needs saving.” He drew in a slow breath. “My brother will ultimately die.” Something there said that the duke’s wounds moved beyond the physical sort, the kind that ran far deeper and ultimately felled a person.
Elsie took several steps around him, needing space, needing to think. Battling with herself.
Was this simply another test? To determine, as Mr. Bennett had suggested, the level of her loyalty? And if she did not do their bidding…? She shivered. Her fingers curled with the memory of when blood had stained her palms, crimson, sticky, and hot. Elsie focused again on breathing to keep from dissolving into the jumbled mess she’d been those years ago. Focused instead on what Lord Edward asked of her. For the Allenbys ultimately always failed where the Brethren were concerned.
“I do not have experience working with human patients.”
“By your own admission, you worked alongside your father,” he returned, without inflection.
“But never alone, and that was five years ago.” She searched his face for some indication of deserved guilt for the role he and his fellow members of the Brethren had played. And found none. “I cannot do this. I wish your brother all the best with his recovery, but I cannot be the one to help him.”
“I see.” Lord Edward removed his gloves from his pocket and pulled them on with precise movements, until that hated signet disappeared inside the brown leather article. “I will leave you to your important work.” He took a step to go and then stopped alongside Bear.
Elsie stiffened, but the gentleman merely sank to a knee.
He tugged off one glove and held out his palm, the hand without the signet upon it. An unspoken signal.
He came to her not as a member of the Brethren, but as a brother, as a man whose family was more important to him, and that bond was one, God help her, she could understand.
As if the universe sensed her weakening and sought to break her down even more, Bear flipped onto his back and presented his belly for the stranger.
The show of supplication from a dog who trusted… none spoke more than any of the cherished medical journals that filled her father’s long-quiet office.
Lord Edward stood. “I bid you good night, Miss Allenby.”
Elsie squeezed her eyes shut once more. “Lord Edward? I will meet him.” Hope flared in his eyes. “But I cannot promise I can save him.” The one person whose life had mattered more than any others, she’d ultimately been unable to heal or help.
Lord Edward held her gaze. “That is all I ask.” He bowed his head in silent thanks. “You will be richly compensated—”
“I’m not doing this for money,” she cut him off.
“Of course.” He hastily pulled on his other glove. “I will allow you some time to gather your things.” He turned to go.
Elsie’s mind raced.
She took a hurried step after him. “Where are we going?”
He paused, glancing back. “Why, to London, of course.”
To London. “I don’t leave Bladon.” She’d gone but once. Long ago, with her father. Pain assaulted her senses.
Lord Edward gave her a knowing look full of pity. “No, I know that. But this time… you have no choice.”
And with that, he left.