Excerpt: Alice, The Player

Excerpt: Alice, The Player

Book 3: Serenity House

Ella. In turmoil.

Seth deMage, the Duke of Leithfield, is a dreamy kisser. You don’t have to take my word for it; an article in the newspaper rated the top kissers in England. Seth was ranked number three. The Prince of Wales cheated him out of the top spot, and really, I think the fact Edward is the future king coloured the woman’s impression. Number two on the list was Rudolph Valentino, who shouldn’t count since he is American.

While I adored being in the arms of the third-best kisser in England, my mind wandered—through no fault of Seth’s, lest anyone think his lips failed to hold my attention. No, the fault was entirely mine. I had a rather pressing problem on my mind. A bigger problem than his marriage proposal of a few minutes before.

Worry nagged at me and flowed through my limbs, fighting against the desire building with his kiss. The two emotions fought a dirty battle in my mind and pulled me even further from where my heart wanted to be, with Seth. I had to blurt out my confession or I would explode.

I pushed Seth away and the words tumbled free. “I infected Elizabeth with the queen’s blood and then let her walk away.”

Because of me, a new vermin queen roamed loose in Somerset, and she would want to re-establish the destroyed hive. I expected horror or revulsion from him at my thoughtless actions. Instead, he just stood there and stared at me. Admittedly I did throw quite the grenade in his direction, but I thought he would toss it right back.

I chewed my lip, which still tasted of him, and clasped my hands together.

Seth’s arms dropped from around me. Then he let out a sigh and ran one hand through his short hair. “Oh, Ella.”

We needed to move past muttering my name to potential solutions. I created one hell of a problem and I needed Seth’s help to fix it.

He took my hand and walked me to the edge of the glade, where the oaks grew in a loose circle. He pulled me down to the grass, and we leaned against the trunk of an ancient sentinel. With one arm around my shoulders, he drew me near until I nestled against him.

“Let’s start at the beginning. Are you sure she is infected?” he asked.

“Yes. She had a cut on her arm, and I wrapped it with the handkerchief I wore last night when we cleaned out the hive. It had Mrs Linton’s blood on it. I saw Elizabeth’s veins turn black as it raced up her arm and then—” Dear God, that horrible moment as it bled into her eyes, turning her gaze completely black before she blinked it away. What had she become?

“Then?” His voice was quiet but steady, like a priest. The single word a prompt for me to continue my confession, to unburden my sins, and in return he would ease my load.

Except I didn’t want to remember. I didn’t want to relive the mistake I made. Is this what Henry feels? I wondered. Trapped in an endless cycle of remembering the most horrid moments of the war and wishing to reach back in time to change events?

“It filled her eyes, and then she blinked and it drained back into her body,” I whispered.

Seth made a noise in his throat that could have been surprise or disgust. “Are you sure it wasn’t a trick of the light?”

If only it had been. “I’m sure. And there was something in the way she reacted; she shook as it flowed through her body and then sighed.” As though Elizabeth had experienced something pleasurable. The way she had parted her lips as the vermin blood coursed through her reminded me of the way Seth made my toes curl when he kissed me.

Seth let out a whistle. “And so a new queen arises. If the Turned follow the pattern of bees, they will be drawn to her, seek her out, and she will create a new hive.”

I stared at my beaded shoes and the waterfall dress. They lay like a shiny pool in the middle of the glade. Blue and silver hues shimmered on the ground and reflected the movement of the leaves above. Had I really worn those just the previous night? So much had happened and so many things had changed that it seemed a lifetime ago. A sparrow flew down and stepped on the fabric. Its head cocked to one side and it chirped. Poor fellow probably thought it could have a bath only to find a dry mirage.

“Elizabeth also bit Louise.” Surely no one could blame me for that? Louise’s fate was in her mother’s hands. I doubted that Louise was infected since her mother hadn’t yet turned. I couldn’t believe she’d laughed at my offer of protection and chosen to walk into the unknown horrors of the vermin’s world.

This time, Seth let out a low sigh. We sat in silence for several minutes while he absorbed my artillery shells. The foliage overhead rustled, and birds flitted from branch to branch. The tall trees guarded us from the world while we sorted through events. I hoped Seth had a possible solution.

He picked up my hand and idly stroked my knuckles. “Maybe I should court Louise. Now that her mother will become the vermin queen, does that make her a princess? I quite fancy being a prince.”

“That is not funny.” I punched him in the arm. Although if he were royalty, that might improve his placing in the next kissing survey and knock Prince Edward down to the number two spot.

He squeezed me in a brief hug. “You can’t change what happened, Ella, but you need to find a way forward.”

How many people had I put in danger by letting Elizabeth walk free? One careless action would have repercussions for the entire county. “I couldn’t slay her. She hadn’t turned.”

The embrace turned into something gentler, but he still held me close. “Despite the role thrust upon you, you’re no murderer. It could take at least a week for her to turn.”

I closed my eyes and let out a deep breath. He understood, but how would others view my actions? I was no murderer, but Elizabeth was. She had knelt over father as she pressed the pillow to his face, determined to end his life. Who would have been next? Me, most likely, and then there would have been no impediment to her claiming the farm and then Seth.

“Let me tell you something of my experience of war.” He continued the slow circles on my hand, the steady motion soothing the turbulent thoughts bouncing around in my head. “At the front, information about the enemy was crucial. We were desperate to know their plans and their movements.”

I looked up at his serious gaze. “We are in the same situation with the Turned. Why do they need more? It seems war is the same no matter who your enemy or where it is fought.”

He nodded. “In the Great War, if we captured an enemy soldier alive, we often tried to extract information from him, but it was a slow process, and often those of lowly ranks never knew their leaders’ plans anyway. At other times, if we suspected someone of being a traitor, do you know what we did?”

“No, what?” I wondered how his talk of traitors would ease my conscience about my monumental slip of letting Elizabeth walk free, or how it might guide us toward a solution.

“We let them go,” he said.

I snorted. That seemed ridiculous, to let a known enemy agent wander off. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would you let a traitor go?”

The circles stopped on my skin and he met my gaze. “Because we learned far more by watching where they went, what they did, and who they talked to. Consider the possible courses of action you had open to you. What would we have learned about the vermin if you had detained Elizabeth and handed her over to the War Office?”

I shrugged; I couldn’t imagine Elizabeth getting chatty from an army prison. She might issue outrageous demands about how she wanted her cell decorated, but I doubt she would have unburdened the future plans of verminkind. “Possibly very little. At some point she would turn, and I assume they would deal with her? I don’t know how the queen and hive communication works. Perhaps if Elizabeth was incarcerated she would never have been able to contact them.”

Seth tapped an exclamation point on my hand. “Exactly. A free Elizabeth will re-establish a hive. Mrs Linton said they needed more, and what better way to learn their ultimate purpose than from your step-mother? You have created a traitor. She will betray her future people—she just doesn’t know it yet.”

Events made sense when they came from Captain deMage. I thought I had made a monumental blunder, but in the greater context of the war we fought, it seemed right.

“I wonder where she will go?” Likely not far. If I knew anything about Elizabeth, she would seek revenge upon me. She couldn’t do that if she left Somerset. “Once Henry dropped off Charlotte at the manse, he was going to double back and watch Elizabeth and Louise.”

Seth nodded next to me. “Good idea. Henry knows the countryside and can follow without being seen. It would be useful if we knew where Lady Jeffrey might settle to wait out the change. We need to give her time to turn and connect with the hive. Only then can we gather the intelligence we need to defeat them once and for all.”

I quite liked having an army officer as my beau; he put things in terms that placated my anxiety. He also made the actions of my overtired brain seem like a deliberate plan, and the pressure inside me eased a fraction. Capital stuff, Ella—bravo for making Elizabeth the means of the vermin downfall. Then a tiny voice at the back of my mind whispered my darkest confession: she deserved such a fate.

Having begun my confession to Seth, I figured I may as well tell the whole horrid thing. “She tried to kill father. That was how her arm came to be cut.”

“Surely you jest?” Seth’s eyes widened as I finished my horror story.

“I returned home early this morning to find her kneeling over father as she held a pillow to his face. His hand grabbed the fruit knife by the bed and he slashed her arm.” My tone was monotonous and my mind numb. There came a point where one subjects oneself to so much misery and horror, it is unbearable. I understood how Henry had fallen mute; it was his brain’s way of protecting him. Like drawing a curtain on an unpleasant scene out the window and shutting it from view.

“The colonel cut her?” Seth placed a finger under my chin to make me meet his gaze, pulling me from where I hid in my thoughts.

Another sigh heaved from my chest. “The one miracle in all of this. Elizabeth’s actions seem to have jolted father’s system and he has returned to us.”

“You have had quite an eventful evening. You must be exhausted. “The finger under my chin slid around my face until he rested his hand on my nape. Then he drew me closer for a gentle kiss. “It is fantastic news that the colonel has roused. You needed a light in the darkness of the last few hours.”

While the last few hours had been tumultuous, they did provide a few bright points. Dancing to hot music with Seth. Breaking Louise’s nose. Blowing up a vermin hive. All good moments amongst the bone shocking horror.

Seth rose and pulled me to my feet. “You must be exhausted—why don’t you go home and put your feet up for a while?”

Spoken like a man with staff to run his estate. So many chores waited at home, it would be evening before I could curl up on the sofa with a book and a cup of tea.

Instead of chastising him, I smiled. “I will admit I would love a bath.”

He arched an eyebrow and something flared behind his eyes. Probably shouldn’t have given him the image of me naked, wet, and soapy. He leaned close and his words warmed my cheek as he spoke, “One day, I would like to assist with that activity.”

A warm bath now seemed like a foolish idea. I needed to jump in the cool water of the river and take the sting out of my thoughts. If Alice’s relationship with Frank was anything like this, I wondered how she survived without combusting.

Seth rode back to the farm with me. I halted my mare before the barn, but Seth leaned over and took my hand before I could dismount. “Will you have dinner with me? Since you have declined my marriage proposal, I intend to court you until you cannot imagine your future without me.”

A courtship seemed so old fashioned and out of place when we were embroiled in a war against an undead enemy. I couldn’t imagine a future without him, but I needed time.

He stroked my knuckles, a small gesture that sent large ripples through my body. “How about a quiet evening, just the two of us, with no slaying or explosions?”

I was exhausted, but I mustered enough energy to tease him. I frowned. “No explosions? Sounds terribly boring. Couldn’t there be just a tiny bit of carnage and mayhem?”

He scratched his chin, his gaze cast upwards as he considered my request. “I could employ a clumsy footman—then he might drop the soup ladle. I do believe that qualifies as carnage and mayhem for the polite set.”

I laughed. My mind couldn’t comprehend how a relationship would work between us, but one had to try if one ever wanted to find out. “Well, promise me I can set fire to something, and I would love to have dinner with you. But not tonight—I need time to regroup before another foray into adventure.”

“Friday, then. That gives you three nights to fully recover from our last evening together.” He kissed my palm before releasing my hand.

Three nights. With my luck, Elizabeth would turn fast, stake a claim on Somerset, and completely ruin another evening with his lordship.