He was tall and square-shouldered, but from here I could discern no features. It was more the way he hurried, then looked back out at the garden before he slipped inside that unsettled me. Maybe he was afraid the dogs would be loosed soon. Or maybe he was afraid of something else.
“What is it?” Wren asked, my slight movement catching her attention.
“Someone just went into Darkcottage,” I answered.
“Maybe. But he was tall and square-shouldered.” Those had been the queen’s exact words to describe the captain.
Synové jumped up from her chair and peeked out the window. “What color was his hair?”
“White, I think, but it was hard to tell. Everything is cast with an orange light.”
“The captain’s hair is black,” she said.
Wren joined us at the window, surveying the grounds with her sharp eye. “It’s been six years. Hair can change.”
* * *
It felt like a trapped bird banged around in my chest as I hurried up the steps of Darkcottage. The clouds above had grown thicker and more threatening. I didn’t have much time before night fell and the dogs were loosed. I listened at the door before I eased it open a crack. I was met with silence, but as I stepped inside, I smelled something. A scent.
The whiff of wine? Sweat? Maybe with the house closed up, it was just stale air.
But it was something I hadn’t smelled the last time I was here.
A thin beam of light peeped through a draped window. It was all I had to navigate through near darkness. I stayed to the edges of the wooden floor to avoid creaks that might reveal my presence. I crept, room by room, through the kitchen, the drawing room, the pantry, the cellar, and the many chambers on the upper floors that I had searched the last time I was here. Again, they were empty, unchanged. I found no one.
I checked the door at the back side of the house. When I opened it, the grounds were empty, still as only twilight is. Through hedges and trees, I saw a glimpse of the stables. Had he been on his way there? But why go through Darkcottage? There were more direct paths. I closed the door. It was getting late. I needed to get back.
But when I turned a chill caressed me—Go—a voice crawled up my spine—Leave—a finger turned my jaw—Hurry—and then there was a rushed blur of voices, hands, faces, running through the hall—Shhh, this way, run, don’t say a word. Death strode among them, glanced at me, but this time he didn’t smile. He wept. His arms were full and he could carry no more.
* * *
My chamber door was ajar when I returned to the main house. I cautiously opened it to find Jase looking in my wardrobe, pulling open drawers and ruffling through them. He wore only trousers—no shirt, no shoes, his hair still wet—as if he’d rushed in to search for something.
I shut the door firmly behind me.
He turned, startled. “Sorry, I knocked but you didn’t answer. I was getting ready for dinner and I realized I was out of shirts. And socks. I only had a few in the guest room and those are dirty in my saddlebag now.”
My shoulders relaxed. It was his wardrobe he was searching. Not mine.
I had almost forgotten I had commandeered his room.
“I moved your things to the bottom drawers,” I said. “Take your time. I’m enjoying the view.” And I was. He held up his hand. His fingers were bandaged. A grin lit his face. “I’m injured. Maybe you can help me?”
I rolled my eyes. “Poor baby. As injured as a spider spinning a web, and you’re luring me into yours.”
“But it’s a very nice web?”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
I strolled over and he drew me into his arms, his kiss a bare whisper against my lips as though he feared he might hurt me. “My neck is fine,” I said. “Only bruised—no lasting damage. But your knuckles—” I pulled away and lifted his hand, examining his two bandaged fingers. “Your mother was right? Broken?”
He shrugged sheepishly as if reluctant to admit it. “Maybe a little cracked. At least according to the healer.”
“You should always listen to your mother.”
“So she tells me.”