Excerpt: Rory, The Sleeper

Excerpt: Rory, The Sleeper

Book 4: Serenity House

Ella

Bath night

I had so much to do. We defeated Elizabeth, but the Grim War still raged and a larger enemy loomed. How had the name of Millicent deMage whispered down through the centuries to reach Elizabeth’s ears? Was there a link between the pandemic and the work of Aleister Crowley, as some newspaper articles speculated? I needed to identify those struck in the original pandemic who survived. A potential clue to defeating the vermin may linger in their recovery. I had to talk to the Commodore in Dorset to find any consistency in how hives behaved. I—

Seth’s lips brushed over the top of my ear and stalled my frantic thought processes. “Stop worrying for a few hours. Have a bath and get some sleep. We can tackle the mountain of work tomorrow.”

His quiet words were a pinprick to a balloon. In an instant the turmoil blew away. I slumped against him in the dark, with my arms wrapped around his waist and my head against his chest. With my eyes closed, I concentrated on the beat of his heart to lull my mind to silence.

I blocked out the noise and kerfuffle behind me as Alice was greeted and pulled into the house. My friend was safe and would be well tended. Personally I needed a few more minutes of quiet time with Seth. He stroked my hair, reminding me I never stood alone.

“I’m heading to London tonight. I want to personally deliver Louise to the War Office. Can’t have her escaping along the way and rallying enemy troops,” he said.

“I need to visit Charlotte tomorrow and tell her what I’ve done.” I loathed Elizabeth, but she was still Charlotte’s mother. Delivering the news myself was the right thing to do, but I didn’t expect my step-sister to be grateful after the way we parted company. Would she find comfort in knowing Louise still lived?

“Tomorrow, Ella. You have done quite enough for tonight.” Seth lifted my face and kissed me gently. “I’ll come find you when I’m back from London.”

“I love you,” I whispered, testing the words. Just saying them made a blush creep up my skin. Those three little words were so powerful.

“I love you.” Another soft kiss and he was gone, back in the motorcar with Frank.

I stood in the courtyard until the glow of the motorcar’s taillights winked out in the enveloping night. Then I braced myself for chaos and stepped through the kitchen door.

Heat, noise, and light swamped me, and for a moment I nearly turned tail and ran back to the quiet dark. But I held my place and shut the door behind me. Alice and Magda talked over each other at an increasing volume. Magda threw questions and Alice told the tale of her captivity and escape, complete with waving mallet and dramatic re-enactments. She seemed to have bounced back from her long days of captivity and isolation and relished being the centre of attention.

The kettle whistled on the range, and pots steamed and bubbled as Magda boiled water to fill the bath. All the lights seem to blaze. I didn’t remember even the sun being so harsh, or perhaps my eyes had grown accustomed to the blue, glow worm luminescence of the catacombs. My soul ached for peace and quiet. What I would give to sleep in Seth’s arms.

Or not sleep.

There was something else to add to my to-do list. I didn’t want to waste a moment with Seth; you never knew when an undead monster would arise and stomp on you. Should one broach that intimate subject with her fellow, or did she let events spiral to their eventual conclusion? There must be a way to nudge things along. Perhaps I could have Warrens deliver an invitation on a silver platter.

Stewart brought me back to present events when he shoved a mug of tea in my hands on his way outside with an empty pot to fetch more water. Henry sat at the table in his bubble of silence, sketching as Alice spoke. With a few sweeping pencil strokes, Henry called forth the vermin jabberwocky and captured its hideousness on paper. I marvelled at how he extracted the details he needed from Alice’s narrative to give events life.

I sipped the hot tea as I peered over his shoulder. When I swallowed the drink, a kick of brandy burned down my throat and settled in my stomach. Drinking Stewart’s special tea was like having a coal ember sitting in your gut. It warmed you from the inside out.

I tapped a monstrous limb that didn’t quite look right. “Bodies bent in half made the fingers, and their hands were its nails. And there were ten rolled in a ball making its head.”

Henry picked up the eraser, wiped away a few lines, and started again.

Alice embellished the story outrageously, making Elizabeth’s underground world sound fantastical. I’m surprised she didn’t add cavorting fairies and a unicorn to aid in her escape. I smiled into my tea, letting her tell the tale her way. There was no point arguing, and she deserved her moment to shine after languishing in the dark for days.

Soon the bath was full and Magda shooed the men from the room. “I’m relieved to have both you girls home safe and sound. Now, if you two are all right on your own, I’m off to bed. It’s far too late for my old bones.”

“We’ll be fine, and thank you Magda.” I kissed her cheek and with a wave, she left for the cottage she shared with Stewart.

“You can have first bath,” Alice said. “At least I changed into dry clothes. You’re still damp and starting to smell.”

I didn’t argue. It was a relief to peel off the damp clothes and toss them in a pile by the door. They would probably need burning after being soaked in cave water, vermin splatter, and the horrid smoke. I stepped into the tin tub and a sigh breezed over my lips as I sank into the hot water. While I had stopped shaking some time ago, I hadn’t realised how chilled my flesh was until the heat began to seep through to my weary bones.

Alice picked up a pitcher and poured water over my head. “Let’s get you clean.”

“We need to plumb the upstairs bath.” I gestured to the ceiling above as Alice lathered my hair with soap. “Imagine turning a tap and hot water running out.”

It was another job to add to my never ending list. I had plans for not only plumbing, but electric lights in every room and an indoor toilet. It was time the old farmhouse embraced the twentieth century. We might have struck a major blow against the vermin, but no one wanted to be sitting on the privy in the middle of the night when one of the undead flung open the door.

“What will happen to Louise?” Alice asked as her fingers worked soap into my hair and scalp.

“Seth is taking her to London tonight. He wants to make sure she is safely delivered.” What would become of her? She would have to be imprisoned, but I doubted they could throw her in any normal jail. The War Office must have secret bunkers deep underground to house their vermin residents, since we all heard tales of how they experimented on those they captured. My mind conjured a vermin hotel, where Louise would demand their best suite, room service, and complain about the quality of the housekeeping.

“The duke is good for you, Ella. He has the control to rein in your wild ideas but at the same time, he sets you free. I can’t believe he let you confront Elizabeth on your own. Frank would have sat on me to keep me out of the way. As it was, I had to threaten him with the mallet to go back in there after you.” Her voice held a wistful tone at the mention of Frank’s name.

Funny how at first I thought Alice and Frank were the perfect couple and that Seth and I were doomed. As weeks turned into months, Seth and I grew to understand each other, while factures appeared in my friend’s relationship. Those fractures ruptured and split the two apart. My heart ached for her pain to ease.

“Let’s not forget who conked Louise over the head with a croquet mallet. I rather think Frank saw a new side to you tonight.” If Frank still had any sway over Alice, she would have been bundled up in the back of a truck safely out of harm’s way. Instead she broke free of his grip, changed into a soldier’s uniform, and marched back to the catacombs.

A snigger came from behind me as I stepped from the bath, steam curling from my bare skin.

“I did rather enjoy smacking the horrid cow in the head. But if Frank wants to win me back, he needs to change his attitude. Starting with appreciating that I’m my own woman.” She held out the towel to me and then shed her uniform to replace me in the bath.

I cast a quick glance over her skin as she sank into the water. I couldn’t help it; I had to know she came through her internment unmarked. It only took the tiniest scratch or bite to infect a healthy person’s blood. I didn’t realise I was holding my breath until I finished my inspection and relief blew through me. I shrugged on my nightgown and a robe. Now I could tackle her hair. The tangled mess desperately needed washing.

“Do you think there is any hope for him?” I wet her hair and poured shampoo into my hands.

She heaved a big sigh. “I still love him, Ella, but I never want to be hurt like that again. Does that make me daft?”

“No. It makes you sensible.” Her hair was so filthy it resisted any attempts at lather. I rinsed it off and started again. I was glad I had the first bath; the water would be brown by the time we had Alice clean.

“He needs to earn your trust and prove he is worthy of you.” Lucky for me, I learned from Frank’s unfortunate mistake and didn’t entirely replicate it. It also helped Seth didn’t storm off with a broken heart when I didn’t immediately repeat those three little words to him.

“I don’t know how to deal with him. Even after what he did, my stomach still flip flops whenever he is around.” She leaned back so I could rinse her hair again. This time it looked like it would come clean.

“You go about your life, and don’t mind him at all. Make plans, do what you want to do and you let him see as much, or as little, of you as you feel up to.” The water looked like weak tea. We’d empty it in the morning when it was cold. The plants would appreciate dirt in it. Or they might grow into the twisted and deformed vegetation that survived in the catacombs. Better toss it on the trees farthest away from the house, just to be safe.

“When did you become so wise about men?” Alice smiled as she towelled her body dry and then dropped a clean nightgown over her head.

“I can learn.” Oh, there was so much I would learn.

“Let me guess, the duke is a patient teacher?” Alice waggled her eyebrows at me.

I linked my arm through hers. “Come on, there are things we must talk about that need to be whispered under the eaves and not spoken aloud in the kitchen. And I absolutely refuse to go to my room alone tonight.”

A brief frown dropped over my friend’s face. “Can we take a lantern? I don’t want to be in the dark again.”

In that brief moment my heart broke anew for Alice. She seemed to have sailed through Elizabeth’s torture unscathed until I mentioned the dark little attic. I hugged her close.

“Of course.” I slid my finger through the hook of a lantern. If Frank didn’t repair the damage he caused Alice, then I would find her a far better chap. One who would give her room to flourish and become whoever she was meant to be. My friend would get a happily ever after, no matter what I had to do to achieve it.