The Husband Hunt
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A great loud snoring woke Lisa from sleep. Scowling at the annoying sound, she turned over in bed and then scowled again as she bumped into something hard. Bet's elbow she saw, opening her eyes. What the devil was Bet doing in her bed? She had her own room in the servant's quarters. She -
Stiffening as memory flooded back, Lisa sat up abruptly and peered around the room. It was small and mean looking with little more than the bed in it and four bare walls. One wall held a window covered with dark drapes and one had a large, solid door.
Sucking in a breath, Lisa slipped her feet to the floor and stood up, alarmed to find the room doing a slow spin around her. When it stopped, she let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, and moved slowly around the bed toward the door.
Reaching it, she grasped the handle and twisted it, disappointed, but not terribly surprised when it turned but the door didn't open. They were locked in.
Swinging back to the room, she crossed to the window and dragged the heavy drapes aside. Sunlight poured in through the opening, splashing the room with stark light and bringing an end to Bet's loud snoring. There was the rustle of material and a muttering from the bed, but Lisa ignored it for now and considered the view out the window. They were on the second floor, overlooking the alley along the back of Mrs. Morgan's terraced house. Reaching out, she pushed upward on the window, relieved when it slid up with just a whisper of sound.
So, the window wasn't bolted shut or anything. That was good, Lisa thought as she eased it closed again. Probably because they were on the second floor. Climbing out and getting down to the ground wouldn't be easy if it was even possible. One or both of them could fall and be badly hurt. But they could hardly stay here and just await whatever fate Mrs. Morgan had in store for them either.
Lisa sighed unhappily. She'd thought Mrs. Morgan was her friend, had liked the woman a great deal. Had being the key word. At that moment, she thought she could snatch the woman bald. How dare the old cow drug the tea and lock them in this room for . . . well, whatever it was she had planned. Lisa had some vague recollection of the mention of a suitor. And a doctor to examine Bet before she was sold. But it was all rather fuzzy and hard to recall exactly what had been said.
"What the bloody hell?"
Lisa turned back to the room to see Bet sitting up on the bed and gaping around with confusion. That confusion was quickly replaced with a scowl that she turned on Lisa.
"I told you the old bitch wasn't a proper lady. What have ye got us into here?"
Lisa ignored the maid's cuss. Bet never cussed, and she supposed her doing so now was a result of the dire situation they found themselves in, so she merely said, "Come. You may berate me later if you wish, but right now we have to get out of here."
Bet scowled, but climbed off the bed and flounced toward her, muttering, "Well, ye'd do better to try the door then. We aren't climbing out no window."
"The door is locked," Lisa said quietly.
"Brilliant," Bet proclaimed and paused beside her to peer out the window. Her scowl immediately turned to dismay as she took in their situation. "We can't go out this way. There's naught to hold onto but brick and nothing to break our fall."
Lisa frowned. Bet had just verbalized her own worries, but after a moment, she turned to survey the room. "We shall have to make a rope."
"With what exactly?" Bet asked dryly.
She hesitated, but then brightened and said, "Do you remember that story I read to you about the dastardly Lord Haroway who kidnapped Lady Laticia to have his wicked way with her?"
"Oh, aye, that was a good one," Bet said with a small smile. "He done some wicked things to her, all right. Ravished her good and proper."
"Yes, but then she escaped out the window using a rope she made from - "
"Bedsheets," Bet interrupted with a grin and turned to hurry to the bed. By the time Lisa caught up to her, the maid had pulled away the heavy comforter and begun dragging off the linens. "Dear Lord, these are filthy."
"Yes, well, perhaps the filth will make them stronger," Lisa said with a grimace, bending to help her.
"Gor! We were actually laying on these," Bet said with dismay. "We'll be crawling with fleas now . . . or worse."
"Yes," Lisa said with a sigh and took the top sheet to begin rending it into strips.
"Gad . . . the trouble you get me into with your shenanigans," the maid muttered, rending the bottom sheet.
"Don't blame me for this," Lisa protested at once. "You were the one who blackmailed me into bringing you along. If not for that, you'd be safely at home now."
"And where would ye be if I hadn't?" Bet asked sharply, continuing her work. "Kidnapped and forced into prostitution."
"Well, I still am. It's just now we're both - prostitution?" she squawked as the word sank in.
"Well, what did you think she meant about suitors and a doctor examining us?" Bet asked dryly. "It's like that other book ye read to me. The one with the youngest daughter of that Baron who was kidnapped by a madam and forced to . . ." She paused, her eyes wide. "Dear God! We're living that book right now, we are.
Kidnapped and locked in a room, awaiting a man's pleasure to come ravish us. Oh, Lord save us," she breathed. "It's like she read the book too."
"She probably did. She is the one who gave it to me," Lisa said unhappily, her mind on the ravishing part. A suitor to ravish her . . . and she was the youngest daughter of a Baron. Dear Lord, it was like the writer was writing about her before it had happened. Seeing the alarm on Bet's face, she forced her own disturbing thoughts away and straightened her shoulders. "We will escape."
"Aye," Bet muttered and both of them began to work more quickly. Within moments they'd finished tearing their respective sheets into strips and started weaving and knotting the strips together to make one long slightly knobby makeshift rope.
"The window," Lisa said as soon as they tied on the last strip. She started to lead the way holding half the rope while Bet carried the other, but nearly fell flat on her face on the first step. Muttering under her breath, she shifted her part of the rope to one hand and bent to scoop up the heavy comforter with the other and toss it back onto the bed. Straightening, she then hurried to the window. Bet trailed her with the rest of the rope.
"What'll we tie it to?" Bet asked with concern.
Lisa hesitated, but then glanced around the room. The only thing available was the bed. Mouth tightening, she hurried back to it, grateful it was close as she quickly knelt to tie one end around one foot of the bed.
"Will it hold?" Bet asked uncertainly.
"It shall have to." Lisa straightened grimly and slowly unfurled the rope as she moved back to the window. Once there, she handed off the remainder of the rope to Bet. "Right, tie the end around your waist."
She waited just long enough to see Bet nod and begin to do as she'd ordered, and then turned to quickly open the window. Much to her relief, it slid silently up and stayed in place. By the time she turned back, Bet had finished tying the rope around herself. Lisa smiled encouragingly. "Now, sit on the ledge and swing your feet out, and then use the rope to lower yourself out the window. When you reach the ground, untie yourself and I shall pull the rope up to use myself."
Nodding, Bet settled on the ledge, but then frowned and said, "Maybe you should go first. Yer - "
"You wouldn't be here if not for me, Bet. Now just go.
Quickly," Lisa insisted, pushing on her arm gently.
Bet didn't look happy, but did shift her legs out the window and then ease herself out to hang from the ledge. Pausing there, she glanced to the ground below and muttered, "I hope there is enough rope."
So do I, Lisa thought, but didn't say as much as she quickly threw the rest of the rope out the window. She then smiled encouragingly and waved at the maid to lower herself.
Sighing, Bet removed one hand from the ledge to grasp the rope and then did the same with the other. There was immediately a loud scraping sounded behind Lisa as the bed began to slide across the floor under the sudden weight. She instinctively grabbed at the rope to keep the bed from moving further, then gasped, "Go, quickly." "But what about you? How will you - "
"I shall have to wait here while you fetch help," Lisa interrupted, in a panic to get the girl going. If anyone had heard the shifting bed and came to investigate . . . "Just hurry, Bet."
"But who do I fetch?" Bet asked, eyes wide with horror. "Lady Christiana and Lady Suzette are out to tea, and - "
"Go to Lord Langley's. Bring him, just be quick," she hissed, and groaned as her arms began to strain. "Please, go, Bet. I cannot hold this much longer."
The maid looked like she wanted to argue, but nodded grimly and began to lower herself out of sight. Lisa immediately closed her eyes and tried to ignore the ache beginning in her arms as she waited. It seemed to take forever before the weight she was holding suddenly eased. Lisa had begun to lean back, using her weight to help her hold on, and nearly fell back when the rope suddenly went slack. However, she managed to keep her feet.
Dropping the makeshift rope with relief, she moved to the window to lean out and watch silently as Bet hurried away up the alley. She then quickly dragged the rope back into the room and closed the window.
Lisa gathered up the rope as she moved back across the room. She untied it from the foot of the bed and then glanced around uncertainly before just stuffing it under the comforter. She started to straighten, but then had a thought and quickly bent to spread the thick, knobby rope about, fluffing the comforter around it as she did. Once satisfied with her effort to make it look like Bet was still asleep in the bed, she then began to pace, counting off in her head how far along Bet might be in her efforts to get to the Langley townhouse and Robert.
The problem was she didn't know how long it would take. She hadn't even thought to look around for her reticule to give Bet money to hire a hack, but didn't see it now anyway. The girl would be on foot. Would she have the sense to hire a hack with the promise of payment on arrival at Robert's? Or would she try to get there on foot? Dear God, if the girl didn't hire a hack . . . well, Robert might not get here in time, Lisa realized with dismay and turned to move back to the window, debating the merits of tying the rope to the bed again and climbing out herself.
Perhaps if she moved the bed up against the window . . . But that might make a lot of racket and bring people to investigate. She could always just tie the rope around her waist, hold on near the top and slide out the window. That way if the bed scraped across the floor it would only lower her halfway down the wall and then she could climb down the rest of the way. Surely she'd be on the ground and free before anyone was drawn by the racket the moving bed would make? She -
Lisa paused, her gaze shooting to the door as she heard approaching footsteps. For one moment, she froze, but when she heard a key rattle in the lock, she moved toward the door, hoping to block the view of the bed with her own body. Lisa had nearly reached the door when it opened, but paused a few steps away when Mrs. Morgan appeared in the opening.
"Oh, good, you're awake. It's time."
Alarm clutched Lisa at that greeting, and her mouth was dry as she squeaked, "Time for what?"
Mrs. Morgan merely tilted her head to glance around her toward the bed. "Bet's still sleeping I see."
"Aye," Lisa murmured, struggling not to move to the side to block her view.
Mrs. Morgan shrugged. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. She drank that tea rather greedily. Ah well, the doctor isn't here to examine her yet anyway. Now, come along. We have to get you ready."
"Ready for what?" Lisa immediately asked as Mrs. Morgan caught her arm and urged her to the door.
"For your suitor." Mrs. Morgan smiled and for the first time Lisa noticed that it was rather toothy, almost wolfish.
"I don't wish to . . ." Lisa's voice faded to silence, her eyes going wide as she was pushed out into the hall. She found herself facing a rather tall, huge bald man with quite the most unpleasant face she'd ever seen.
"This is Gilly," Mrs. Morgan announced cheerfully as she pulled the bedroom door closed behind them and locked it once again. "If you give us trouble, he will have to help bathe and dress you."
"Oh," Lisa breathed, wide-eyed, and then swallowed any further protest and allowed herself to be led up the hall, very aware that Gilly was directly on their heels.
Robert lifted his head off the back of the chair and opened his eyes to peer at the man addressing him from the door of his office. Mosby, his butler. Raising one eyebrow in enquiry, he asked, "Yes?"
"There is a . . . lady, and a gentleman enquiring to see you," the man said with an air of doubt that suggested perhaps the lady wasn't a lady at all, the gentleman not a gentleman, and Robert wouldn't wish to see either of them. "They are still on the front step if you'd care to look out and decide if you wish to be 'in' or not."
Robert allowed his second eyebrow to rise at the suggestion, but then stood and moved to the window to peer curiously outside. His office was at the front of the house with a bay window that looked out onto the street. He peered through the gauzy curtain at the figures on the step and frowned. Robert hadn't a clue who the great, round fellow was on his front step, but the female looked vaguely familiar. It looked like Lisa Madison's maid, Bet, he thought, and then tugged the curtain aside to get a better look at the woman.
The much clearer view simply made his frown deepen. The young woman was so pale her freckles stood out in relief. She was also wringing her hands almost desperately, and shifting nervously from foot to foot despite the obviously tight hold the man had on her arm. "Show them in," Robert said letting the curtain drop back into place.
"As you wish," Mosby said calmly, though there was an undertone that suggested he thought this a very bad idea indeed. But then he often disapproved of the things Robert did since he'd moved to town. He suspected the butler felt he should be finding a wife and producing an heir to continue the Langley line. It's what everyone seemed to think he should do. But Robert just had no intention of doing that, so they could all just continue to disapprove all they liked.
Sighing, he moved to his desk and settled in the chair to await the arrival of his guests, his mind puzzling over what Lisa Madison's maid could be doing there. He supposed she had some message from Lisa and Christiana, though the presence of the man holding her so tightly was rather puzzling.
"Oh, my lord!"
Robert glanced up in time to see Bet try to rush across the room, only to be drawn up short and dragged back to the side of the man holding her arm. The wince that immediately covered her face told him that the fellow's grip was as clawlike as it looked. Scowling at the rough treatment, Robert stood up. "Unhand her."
"Just as soon as I get the money I was promised," the man growled, though he did appear to ease his hold somewhat.
"Money?" Robert frowned and then peered to Bet in enquiry. "I'm sorry, my lord," Bet babbled in a rush. "My lady sent me to fetch you to save her, but I had no idea where I was and no money for a hack. I promised him you would pay when we reached here."
"Your lady sent you to fetch me to save her?" Robert echoed with amazement.
"Aye, she - we - " Bet paused, eyes sliding worriedly to the man holding her and then back to him unhappily.
Realizing she didn't wish to speak in front of what was obviously a hack driver, Robert glanced to his butler. "See the man paid and show him out."
"Aye, my lord," Mosby said calmly and then arched an eyebrow in the driver's direction. After the briefest hesitation, the man released his hold on Bet, nodded at Robert, and then turned to allow the butler to lead him from the room.
Noting that the butler had left the door open, no doubt so he could hear what would follow, Robert moved around his desk and quickly crossed the room to close the door.
Turning back then, he peered at Bet. "Now, why did your lady send you to me?"
"I told you. To save her. We must hurry, my lord. She's in dire straits," Bet said anxiously.
Robert frowned. "To save her from what, exactly, Bet?"
"Oh," she moaned with something like despair. "It's awful, my lord. The tea was drugged and we was locked up and I escaped out the window, but Miss Lisa had to remain behind because the bed wasn't heavy enough and we must get to her and get her out of there!" Bet cried.
Robert blinked at the rush of words, not really understanding. Lisa had had to remain behind because the bed wasn't heavy enough? Heavy enough for what? It didn't make any sense, but was sounding a good deal like one of those melodramas Lisa so enjoyed reading, and he was beginning to suspect that's all it was. It seemed Lisa hadn't completely given up on him after all, but in some last ditch effort to gain his attention, had come up with this wild tale to -
"Please!" Bet moaned, rushing forward to clutch at his arm and urge him toward the door. "I'll never forgive meself if Miss Lisa is ravished and ruined because I went out the window first. I should have made her go first. I should have - "
"Ravished and ruined?" Robert interrupted with amusement. Good Lord, she'd gone all out this time. Lisa was usually the sweetest, most biddable of females, dreamy eyed and seeming only to half live in the real world while the other half of her mind was stuck off in the wild machinations of the latest story she was reading. But every once in a while she got swept up in her stories and -
"Why are you smiling?" Bet asked with horror. "This is not amusing, my lord. She will be ruined if that suitor fellow has his way with her. She - "
"Suitor fellow?" Robert asked with interest.
"That's what Mrs. Morgan called him. Her suitor," Bet explained unhappily. "She - "
"Mrs. Morgan?" Robert barked, his amusement dying abruptly and concern beginning to take its place. "What the devil has Mrs. Morgan to do with this?"
"We was there for tea, and - "
"At Mrs. Morgan's!" he bellowed and Bet flinched as if he'd struck her. She also looked suddenly terrified. Forcing himself to calm down, Robert asked more gently, "What on earth would make Lisa go to tea at Mrs. Morgan's? How does she even know a woman like that?"
"Mrs. Morgan's carriage broke down just outside Madison more than two years ago and Lord Madison invited Mrs. Morgan in to tea while the stable master took a look to see if a new wheel could be put on or the undercarriage was damaged. Miss Lisa and Suzette kept her company while she waited. It turned out there was much to repair and Mrs. Morgan took a room at the inn while waiting for it to be ready for the road again. She was in the village for near a week and Miss Lisa visited her nearly every day. They became friends and Mrs. Morgan gave her a couple of books and they've been writing ever since."
"Dear God," Robert breathed with dismay. "Doesn't she know what kind of woman - " Pausing, he shook his head. Of course she didn't know. How could she? Lisa spent very little time in the city. The girl was as naive as a babe. "Does Richard know Lisa planned to tea with Mrs. Morgan?"
"Nay," she said on a sigh. " 'Twas a secret. In fact, even I wasn't to know. Miss Lisa tried to sneak out on her own, but I knew she was up to something and caught her and so she let me come with her, but the carriage dropped us at the back of the house. The kitchens, if you can imagine," she added with outrage. "I knew that wasn't right, but Miss Lisa insisted on going in for tea and we did, but the tea was drugged and Mrs. Morgan was asking the oddest questions. Was I a virgin, and - " She paused, her face now flushing so that the freckles were nearly invisible as she whispered, "And that the doctor would examine me to see."
She shuddered at the thought, but continued, "The last thing I remember before the drugged tea overtook me is her saying as how we would be taken to a room to rest until the doctor and Miss Lisa's suitor came." Her mouth firmed. "And sure enough, we woke up locked in this room on the second floor. But we made a rope from the bed linens like in that book about that Lord Haroway what ravished Lady Laticia, and Miss Lisa said as I should go first, so I climbed out the window, but the bed couldn't take the weight and started to move and Miss Lisa had to help hold the rope which she couldn't do for herself and she said I should come find you to go get her."
Robert stared blankly as her long, rushed explanation soaked through his mind and then he gave his head a shake, and stepped around her to head for the door. "Wait here. I shall fetch her back."
"Oh but - "
"Wait here," he repeated firmly.
"But ye don't know which window to go to," she protested in a wail. Robert paused, a frown curving his lips as he turned back.
"I should come with ye. I - "
"You're not coming with me, Bet. I've enough to worry about without worrying over you. Now which window?"
"There," Mrs. Morgan said and took a step back to look her over with satisfaction.
Nodding, she pronounced, "You look perfect. He should be very pleased."
"Who?" Lisa asked and frowned at the garbled sound to the word. Mrs. Morgan had been pushing some sort of beverage on her the entire time while seeing her bathed, powdered and dressed in . . . well, what was really the most comfortable gown. It felt feather light and airy, allowing the smallest draft to make its way through and caress her skin. It was as close to wearing nothing at all as she'd ever experienced and left her feeling rather . . . well . . . odd, really.
"You'll see soon enough," Mrs. Morgan said with a laugh and led her to the bed. "I'm surprised he feels he needs this to get your attention. Most girls would throw themselves at him. Although, my girls say he can be a bit rough, but you may come to enjoy it. A little rough can sometimes be a pleasure."
Lisa grunted for answer. She wasn't really sure what the woman was talking about. Attractive sounded nice to her fuzzy mind, but the being a bit rough part . . . well, she suspected she should be a bit alarmed, but her mind didn't appear capable of it at the moment. Instead, she was struggling with a rather odd desire to giggle.
What the devil had been in those drinks they'd been pushing on her?
"Now you sit here. He should be here soon to see you and then your new life will start."
"Why are you doing this? I thought you were my friend," Lisa said plaintively, or hoped she did. It didn't sound quite right coming out of her mouth. It felt like she was talking around a mouthful of marbles. But Mrs. Morgan seemed to understand her words.
"Now, now," the woman said on a little sigh and patted her hand as she settled on the bed beside her. "I know it may seem awful of me to hand you over to him like this. But he plans to marry you, my dear. So no harm done. And he's paying me a very large sum of money to help him woo you like this." She paused and then grimaced and added, "Of course, Bet is something else. But really, do you think she wants to be a lady's maid the rest of her life? She's a beautiful girl despite those unfortunate freckles of hers. She'll wear the finest silks and drink the finest wine and enjoy many fine men rather than putting up with the callous rutting of stable boys and the like. Really, I'm doing you both a good turn here today . . . and making a great deal of money as well. If the girl's a virgin, I'll get top dollar for her." She stood and moved toward the door, adding, "I really must send word to find out what's holding up the doctor. I've already sent out a notice to every possibly interested party that a fresh girl is to be auctioned off tonight. I need his certification that Bet's pure before then."
Lisa watched her go, and remained where she was as Cook and the big man named Gilly carried the tub out, then waited for the door to close before standing up. She was a little alarmed when the room spun wildly around her and for a moment she had to brace herself with a hand on the bed and take deep breaths to keep her stomach from rebelling as she waited for the spinning to stop. When it finally did, Lisa straightened more cautiously and peered dully around.
Her mind was screaming at her to do something. The problem was that the message was as garbled in her head as her words had been when she'd spoken and Lisa couldn't figure out what exactly it was her mind was trying to tell her she should be doing. She suspected it was important though.