The Virgin Who Vindicated Lord Darlington – Anna Bradley

Cecilia Gilchrist was the second. Lady Amanda Clifford could no longer recall what had brought her to the docks that day. It was, she would later reflect, one of those peculiar cases where fate, generally content to let one stumble blindly along, had deigned, for good or for ill, to put her directly in the way of her destiny. Face to face, as it were. At the time, she’d been of the mind fate had done Cecilia Gilchrist a good turn, throwing the child into Lady Amanda’s path as she’d done. It wasn’t until later she came to understand it had been quite the other way around. Cecilia Gilchrist, who’d been mudlarking in the Thames that day, had had the great good luck to find a guinea buried in the filth. For a grimy little waif like Cecilia Gilchrist it was a fortune, the gold coin clutched in her fist the difference between starvation and salvation. But fortunes were as fickle a business as fate, both being apt to turn catastrophic in the blink of an eye, or the flip of a golden guinea. Thus it was with Cecilia Gilchrist. No sooner had she wrapped her thin fingers around her salvation than her luck turned. When Lady Amanda came upon the child, she’d been set upon by a horde of rioting street urchins, a veritable mob of diminutive rabble-rousers, all of them pleased to pummel her into a bloody pulp in order to snatch the guinea from her fist. Lady Clifford’s servant, Daniel Brixton, a man indifferent to fate and fortune alike, made quick work of deciding both. He tossed aside a half-dozen of the miniature ruffians, seized the scrawny, mud-streaked waif at the center of the melee, and deposited her on the gray velvet seat of Lady Amanda’s carriage. Lady Amanda could no more recall what she’d said to the child that day than she could recall what errand had taken her to the docks—likely something about the tediousness of the masses, the capriciousness of fate, or the wickedness of children—but she recalled with perfect clarity Cecilia Gilchrist’s response.

She said, “They’re hungry.” Not a trace of resentment in that childish voice. No bitterness. No judgment. They’re hungry. That was all. Lady Amanda Clifford would still hear the echo of that sweet voice decades later, a reminder of how easy it was—how unforgivably, criminally easy—to overlook a precious flicker of gold hidden in an ocean of mud. Chapter One Edenbridge, Kent February, 1795 If the day had been a less pleasant one, or the Marquess of Darlington a less striking gentleman, Cecilia Gilchrist might have concluded at once that he was a murderer. As it happened, the first time she laid eyes on Lord Darlington was one of those mild, sunny days, so rare in February, and his lordship showed to great advantage in his smart blue coat and flawlessly polished Hessians. To be fair, he’d been quite a distance away from her that day, and she’d been safely concealed behind one of Hyde Park’s more extravagant shrubs at the time.

But proximity to a man suspected of murdering his wife being, alas, what it was, Cecilia came to quite a different conclusion upon her second meeting with Lord Darlington. That day began auspiciously enough. The stagecoach made good time from London, and Edenbridge, home to Darlington Castle, seemed the last place a villain might be tempted to commit a murder. It was as lovely a little village as Kent could boast, with its row of squat timber-framed buildings with cheerful flower boxes in every window. The boxes were empty now, it being wintertime, but the prospect of cheerful flowers was enough to reassure Cecilia. Surely there could be no question of a marquess committing a heinous crime like murder in a village with such an abundance of flower boxes? A pretty country hamlet, then, with its own sweet little river to the southeast, nestled in its own sweet little valley, and boasting a rather distinguished-looking church with its own stained-glass window. Cecilia’s companion on the stagecoach, a young lady named Molly who was about her age and who’d grown up in Edenbridge, told her the church was called St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s. Two saints.

Surely there could be no question of a marquess committing a heinous crime like murder in a village with two saints? Edenbridge was a mere twenty-five miles from London, too, a half-day’s journey from Cecilia’s home at the Clifford School, and thus within easy reach of Daniel Brixton, Lady Clifford’s most trusted servant, and the biggest man Cecilia had ever seen. Should anything go wrong, Daniel could be at her side in a matter of hours. Nothing would go wrong, of course, yet it comforted her nonetheless he should be so near, and so reassuringly large. Why, half a day was nothing, a pittance, an instant, a snap of the fingers— “Beg pardon, Cecilia. Did ye say something?” Cecilia turned to find her new acquaintance regarding her with a puzzled look. Molly was her one and only friend in Edenbridge, and it wouldn’t do to frighten her away by muttering to herself like a Bedlamite. “No, I…I was just saying it’s taking ages for our driver to hand down our baggage.” Molly’s broad face split into a grin. “Anxious to get on, are ye? Ye never did say what brings ye to Kent. Do ye have a sweetheart here?” Cecilia smothered a snort.

The closest she’d ever come to having a sweetheart was an infatuation with Valancourt, the hero of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. “No, no, nothing like that. I’ve come to take up a post as a housemaid.” Housemaid, investigator, spy—weren’t they all just varying degrees of the same thing? Molly gave Cecilia a doubtful look. “Ye look a bit dainty to be a housemaid, but no matter.” She nodded at their stagecoach driver, who’d climbed onto the roof and was handing the baggage down. They hurried to retrieve their things, then stepped aside as the other passengers pressed forward. “My father’s coming here to fetch me. Mayhap he can take ye where yer going, to save ye the walk.

” “Oh, that’s kind of you. I’m going to Darlington Castle.” A gasp arose from the small knot of travelers nearby. The coachman froze, a trunk tumbling from his hands and landing with a thump in the frozen dirt below. Cecilia glanced behind her at the scuffle of shuffling feet, and found her fellow travelers had backed away from her, as if she were tainted. Molly stared at her, aghast. “Darlington Castle? Ye mean ye’re going to serve as housemaid for Lord Darlington?” Cecilia gulped as her gaze shifted from one horrified face to the next. “Er, yes. I—” “But he’s a murderer!” Molly patted her chest, as if the very mention of Lord Darlington was giving her palpitations. “Did away with his wife, didn’t he?” “There’s no proof he—” The lady beside her silenced her with a hiss.

“Don’t be daft, girl. Everyone in England knows he did away with his wife.” A murmur of assent rose from the crowd, and a craggy-faced man stepped forward and shook his finger in Cecilia’s face. “Sent her off to an early grave. Make no mistake about it, miss. He’s the Murderous Marquess, sure as I’m standing here.” Cecilia pressed her lips together. They called him the Murderous Marquess here in Edenbridge, as well? She’d thought the nickname an invention of the ton, but it seemed folks here were quite as capable of being horrible as those in London were. Perhaps Lord Darlington was a murderer, and perhaps he wasn’t. Lady Clifford had tasked Cecilia with unraveling that particular mystery while his lordship was in London with his betrothed, Miss Fanny Honeywell.

Cecilia had seen him there herself just yesterday, walking in Hyde Park with Miss Honeywell on his arm. For her part, Cecilia didn’t think he looked much like a murderer. Given the gossip about him, she’d been expecting a sinister, monster of a man, but if Lord Darlington had committed the wicked deeds he was rumored to have done, his sins didn’t show on his face. Even her friend Georgiana, who knew a great deal more about sins and murder than Cecilia did, had admitted that if Lord Darlington was a murderer, he was an exceedingly elegant one. Of course, Georgiana had also pointed out a handsome gentleman in a fine silk waistcoat was as likely to murder his wife as any other. More so, really, as people were quicker to condemn a plain face than a pretty one. But it wasn’t his handsome face that inclined Cecilia in his favor. No, it was the protectiveness with which he held Miss Honeywell’s arm, his head bent graciously toward hers as he guided her over the uneven pathway. He was a large man, far larger than Fanny Honeywell, who was a petite, fair-haired creature, and he handled her with great care, as if she were a delicate china figurine on the verge of shattering. Try as she might, Cecilia couldn’t imagine so civilized a gentleman would murder his wife, not even when Georgiana reminded her the notorious highwayman John Rann was thought to be quite charming and elegant, and his neck had still been fitted for a noose.

Cecilia hadn’t argued the point with Georgiana. She knew herself to be too soft-hearted by half, and too apt to think the best of everyone, including the murderous—that is, including Lord Darlington —But there was no proof he was a murderer. Just ugly gossip, never in short supply in London. Lady Clifford might have been content enough to leave him alone to molder away in his castle if his betrothed, Miss Honeywell, hadn’t been niece to Mrs. Abernathy, and Mrs. Abernathy a generous benefactor of the Clifford School. But poor Mrs. Abernathy had fallen into a hysterical fit when the betrothal was announced, and Lady Clifford had been obliged to promise she wouldn’t allow Miss Honeywell to toddle off to her doom without lifting a finger on her behalf. “Some say as he smothered her with a pillow.” Molly drew closer to Cecilia and lowered her voice to a horrified whisper.

“Others say he poisoned her and hid her poor murdered bones in the castle walls, but I think he drowned her in his moat.” Cecilia shuddered. “Heavens, how vile!” “I don’t know for sure he done that, mind, but he’s done something with her, and I don’t see why he’d bother digging about the castle walls when he has a moat. I can’t speak to that for sure, but I can tell ye this much—there’s not a soul in Edenbridge who saw the poor lady put proper-like into her grave.” “Aye, he’s a murderer, all right,” said the man with the waggling finger. “But the good Lord sees our sins, and Darlington won’t get away with his wicked deeds. The marchioness is back again, come to take her revenge.” “Back?” How could the Marchioness of Darlington be back? There were plenty of rumors about Lady Darlington’s death flying about, but no one seemed to doubt she was, in fact, dead. So, how could she come back to take her revenge? Unless… A chill rushed over Cecilia’s skin. “You can’t mean—” “That the poor marchioness as was is now a lonely, wandering spirit? Aye, miss.

That’s what I mean. Half a dozen people in the village have seen her ghost drifting through the woods behind Darlington Castle. They call her the White Lady, on account of her white gown and hair, and a face paler than death itself.” Cecilia’s mouth dropped open. No wife wished to be consigned to the murky depths of her husband’s moat, but at least then she could rest peacefully. It struck Cecilia as dreadfully unfair a murdered wife should be put to the trouble of haunting the husband who’d murdered her. “A ghastly sight she is, floating in the air, with only the toes of her white slippers dragging over the ground. Old Mrs. Crocker saw her t’other night, and she’s been in a hysterical fit ever since.” “A hysterical fit?” “I’ve never known Mrs.

Crocker to be silent a day in her life, but not a word has crossed her lips since she saw that ghost. She sits and stares, her mouth frozen open in horror.” “Ye don’t have to go there, Miss Cecilia.” Molly clutched at Cecilia’s arm. “Ye can go back to London right now, and never spare Darlington Castle another glance.” Cecilia cast a longing look at the stagecoach driver. She could be back in London in a matter of hours, back at the Clifford School where her friends would welcome her with smothering kisses and squeals of delight, and she’d be petted and soothed until she forgot the cowardice that made her break her word to Lady Clifford. She might have done it—she might have let her misgivings get the better of her, despite her best efforts. Indeed, she’d actually taken a step toward the stagecoach when it occurred to her that nothing material had changed since she’d boarded the stagecoach in London. Moats, and skeletons hidden in the castle walls, ghosts and hauntings—it was just more gossip, much the same as the gossip she’d heard in London.

More lurid, yes, but still gossip, nonetheless. Ghostly rumors or not, her task was to discover the truth about the marchioness’s death, and Lady Darlington was, alas, as dead as she’d ever been. Or undead, if the villagers had the right of it, but Darlington Castle might be stuffed to the rafters with frightening ghouls, and Lord Darlington the fiend all of England supposed him to be, but she would keep her promise, even if it meant she ended her days floating face-down in the Murderous Marquess’s moat. “No, that won’t do, Molly.” Cecilia bent to grasp the handle of her case, then straightened and met Molly’s eyes. “I’ve already accepted the post. Mrs. Briggs, Lord Darlington’s housekeeper, is expecting me.” It was too late to turn back now. Lady Clifford had gone to a good deal of trouble to see this thing arranged, and in any case, Cecilia’s business was with Lord Darlington’s servants.

If his lordship had any secrets to hide, his servants would know them. Her task was to shake those secrets loose, then return to London without ever crossing paths with Lord Darlington at all. Molly didn’t look convinced, but she didn’t argue. “All right, then. My father won’t set foot on Darlington Castle’s grounds, but we’ll take ye as far as we can in the wagon.” “Thank you.” Cecilia reached for Molly’s hand and gave it a grateful squeeze. Molly shook her head. “I hope ye don’t live to regret it, Miss Cecilia.” What an unfortunate choice of words.

Cecilia hoped she did live to regret it, but she didn’t give voice to the insidious whisper inside her head. Instead she followed Molly across the street toward the knot of wagons and carts, dragging her case along behind her. * * * * Dusk came upon them quickly, as it tended to do during wintertime in England, but there was enough light for Cecilia to make out Darlington Castle in all its distressing, blood-curdling glory. God in Heaven. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but if any stray phantoms or wraiths did happen to be floating about in the February mists, this was the castle they’d choose to haunt. “Grim old pile, innit it?” Molly, who was seated on the far side of the wagon, leaned across Cecilia to get a better look. “Grim enough. The portcullis looks as if it might eat one alive.” Cecilia gaped at the monstrosity sprawled out before her, and a shiver darted down her spine. She wished with all her heart she was exaggerating, but that portcullis looked like nothing so much as a set of gaping jaws, the pointed iron teeth lined up in a row across the bottom of the latticed grill.

If looked as if it were just waiting to snap closed on anyone foolish enough to venture beneath it. If the first portcullis didn’t sever limb from body, the second one surely would, because if the blackened stone and shadowy courtyard beyond that gaping maw weren’t sinister enough, Darlington Castle had a double portcullis. A double moat, as well. The Marquess of Darlington was not, it seemed, the trusting sort, but then if the rumors about him were true, he had a great deal to hide. “How deep is the moat, do you suppose?” Cecilia fought to suppress another shudder as her gaze fell on the dark, sluggish water under the drawbridge. God only knew what nightmares were lurking in those dreary depths. Deep enough to hide a body? The Marchioness of Darlington’s body, for instance? “Not more than a fathom,” said Mr. Hinshaw, Molly’s father. Only a fathom? That wasn’t so very deep. Certainly not deep enough to hide a— “Darlington Lake is said to be much deeper,” he added, before Cecilia had a chance to breathe a sigh of relief.

“But I couldn’t tell ye how deep.” There was a lake, as well? How many bodies of water did one marquess need? One for every wife he murders. Cecilia swallowed, cursing her penchant for gothic horror novels, which had been all very well until she’d stumbled into one. Molly covered Cecilia’s hand with hers. “It’s not too late to change yer mind.” Cecilia cast one last fearful look at the wide, yawning jaws guarding the cavernous courtyard beyond, straightened her shoulders, and, with a bravado she was far from feeling, stuck her chin in the air. “No, no. I’ve given my word, and I won’t turn coward now.” Mr. Hinshaw and Molly glanced at each other, but Mr.

Hinshaw came down from his seat, retrieved Cecilia’s case from the back of the wagon, and reached up to help her down. “We’ll wait until you’re inside. If ye do change your mind beforehand—” “That’s kind of you, Mr. Hinshaw, but please don’t wait on my account.” Cecilia could see the man wished himself and his daughter far away from here, and in any case, she might lose her nerve and flee Darlington Castle if she knew she had such a ready escape. She took the hand Mr. Hinshaw offered before she could change her mind, leaving the safety of the wagon behind, and paused at the long stone bridge leading onto Lord Darlington’s property. Mr. Hinshaw handed over her case. “We won’t go until you’re past the portcullis, leastways.

” “To make certain it doesn’t devour me?” Cecilia attempted a smile as her nerveless fingers wrapped around the handle of her case. “Well, then I’d best get on with it, hadn’t I?” She waved to Molly and Mr. Hinshaw, then stepped forward. The heel of her boot struck the wooden boards of the bridge with a hollow thump. It didn’t feel like a single step so much as a leap into the unknown, but Cecilia continued to put one foot in front of the other until she was standing at the edge of a second bridge—this one the narrow footbridge that led to the portcullis. She allowed herself one glance over her shoulder, but the wagon was hidden behind the tall, thick hedge that surrounded the castle grounds. After a single wary glance at the iron teeth above, Cecilia stepped onto the drawbridge. She took one step, another, looking neither to the right or left, her gaze focused on the tips of her boots. Don’t look at the moat. Another step, another, until she passed through the darkened courtyard and into another world.

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