Christopher Jennings sat back in the carriage. “I say, Rem,” he began, his voice sounding a bit weary. “Are you planning on touring London all night?”
“I am, my boy!” Lord Remington said jovially, clapping his friend on the shoulder. “I have much to celebrate, after all!” He had earlier that day become engaged to the honourable Miss Letitia Godwin, who had accepted his proposal not half an hour after he had won a significant bet on a horse race. “Three thousand, by gad!” he chortled, taking a drink from his flask before tucking it away in his pocket. “And the prettiest girl in London, to boot!” He paused, and snickered, and clapped Jennings on the shoulder again. “Except I think you might disagree!” he said, grinning.
Jennings lifted one eyebrow. “Why ever would I suggest your fair bride-to-be was anything but the loveliest creature on earth?” he said somewhat defensively. “In fact,” he added, his eyes twinkling. “I could not at first understand why such a pretty girl would become so attached to you.”
“Oh, I see how it is!” Remington laughed. He leaned forward and said confidentially, “I wondered that myself, at first, you know. But there she is, smiling at me exactly as though I’ve won her heart.” He shook his head in apparent disbelief. “I’m a lucky chap, ain’t I, Jennings?”
“You are,” Jennings agreed. “But she is lucky too, Rem … assuming you live through the night. I don’t know how you keep on like this, going from one place to the next so far into the wee hours. I’m so knackered I can hardly stand!”
Remington expressed some disappointment. “Never say you’re giving up, Jennings! We’ve still got hours to spend at Timothy’s!”
“Timothy’s!” Jennings exclaimed. “I thought we were going to Sir Montague’s card-party!”
“We are!” Remington said. “But after that it’s on to Timothy’s!”
“Oh, no no no!” Jennings said, waving his hands to fend off any argument on the matter. “I will go with you to Montague’s, but then you must take me home.” He laughed. “I do not know what is in your flask,” he added. “But it gives you far more energy than I can summon!”
“Hollands,” Remington said, patting the pocket where he had slipped his flask. He surveyed his friend through narrowed eyelids. “You are looking a bit worn, my boy,” he allowed. He grinned then, and his eyes held a knowing gleam. “You wasted your energies at Lady Morton’s,” he said. “Dancing with that girl.”
Jennings looked slightly embarrassed. “So that’s why you thought I would disagree,” he said. “About Letitia.”
“Indeed!” Remington agreed. “For your eyes are all on – what was her name? – Miss Carlisle, and I think not even the delightfully perfect Letitia will compare for you now.” He smiled. “But that’s all right for me, I suppose, isn’t it? I’ll have my Letitia, and you will have Miss Carlisle.”
“Have Miss Carlisle?” Jennings said. “We have barely been introduced! I only danced one dance with her!”
“If we had not been already promised to Lady Halworth’s supper, you would be dancing with her still!” Remington said, adding with a touch of sentimentality, “But I could not bear the thought of celebrating my engagement without my closest friend!”
Jennings smiled. “And I would not be anywhere else,” he assured him. “Except my bed,” he added regretfully. “I will be no use to you at all in an hour. I will go with you to Montague’s party, and then – I am terribly afraid – I will be obliged to bid you good night.”
“Very well,” Remington relented, hanging his head like a lectured schoolboy. Suddenly he looked up again, beaming with renewed excitement. “But you will join us tomorrow for lunch?” he asked. “Letitia and me? I’m to call on her at one o’clock.”
“I promise I’ll be there,” Jennings said, chuckling. “Shall I meet you at your house, or shall you come to fetch me?”
“I will come to fetch you, I think,” Remington said after a moment’s consideration. “Since I do not entirely know where I might end up!” He laughed. “Who knows what might happen after Timothy’s?”
Jennings shook his head. “You are insane, my boy!” he said, grinning. “I hope the fair Letitia knows what she is getting herself into!”
“Oh,” Remington breathed in mock seriousness. “I certainly hope she does not! Or she will bolt, I am sure of it!” He laughed again, and then gestured out the window of the carriage. “It’s Montague’s,” he said. “Say,” he added with a sly wink. “Perhaps Miss Carlisle’s father will be here – I believe he is the very-gruff-and-grouchy Sir James Carlisle – and you might ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage.”
“Of course,” Jennings responded drily, rolling his eyes. “It could not possibly be too soon for such a course of action on my part, simply because Miss Carlisle – I am quite convinced – does not remember my name.”
Lady Morton’s house was still ablaze with light as her guests continued to drink and to dance far into the wee hours of the morning. The doors to both the upper balcony and the garden were propped open, allowing lively music to pour out into the warm night air, and groups of guests milled in and out of these doors, gathering on the balcony to look out over the neighbouring park or strolling in twos and threes among the carefully tended shrubbery of the garden. Some couples, as the night wore on, moved to the very back of the garden, taking advantage of the ample vegetation to conceal them from public view, but for the most part the guests remained close to the house, refilling their wine glasses at every opportunity and engaging one another in increasingly boisterous conversation.
Miss Elizabeth Carlisle stood at the edge of the balcony, leaning against the stone parapet and gazing out over the park. How strange it looked at night, she mused, with the moonlight glinting off benches and statues and casting stark shadows among the trees. Even at nearly one in the morning, she could see people moving in the park.
She had only come to the party to humour her stepmother, the exquisite Mrs. Charlotte Carlisle, who had told her some days ago, with a tone of some irritation, that a young lady must not sequester herself into an unnecessary spinsterhood. Elizabeth had tried to protest, but Mrs. Carlisle would hear no refusals, and all but forced Elizabeth to accompany her to Lady Morton’s party.
“It’s no good being shy, my dear,” she counseled her stepdaughter. If Elizabeth felt it ironic to have the world explained to her by a woman barely ten years her elder, she did not reveal it, nor did she bother to point out that it was not shyness that prompted her to stay home but rather a deep dislike for insipid conversation and frippery people. She had rather docilely followed Mrs. Carlisle, and had been fortunate enough to find a few of her friends with whom to pass the time, but the gentlemen seemed disinclined to converse with her or to ask her to dance. I suppose, she thought, that I am already a spinster, and not any sort of beauty compared to these more glamorous ladies in their elaborate gowns. It did not occur to her that her appearance was in fact very appealing, and her manner quite pleasing, but the rather dark specter of her father – even though he was absent from this particular gathering – stood always beside her, frightening away prospective suitors with his cold rudeness and domineering nature. Who would want such a man for a father-in-law? And so more than one gentleman looked at Elizabeth out of the corner of his eye, admiring her beauty and her ever-present smile, only to shrug his shoulders in resignation and move on to someone whose father was more amenable.
But late in the evening, she encountered a less skittish gentleman. He had spent some time in a cluster of young men, one of whom had apparently become recently engaged, and while he did not appear to be drinking as determinedly as his friends, he certainly seemed to be ensconced in their conversation. He spared no attention for the party going on around him, even as more than one lady sneaked glances at this handsome, affable man and wished that he would ask her to dance. But when Elizabeth moved to the balcony door in search of fresh air, he turned from his cronies and opened the door for her as though he had been awaiting her for some time.
“Thank you, sir,” she said warmly, and went out onto the balcony.
He did not follow her outside, but when she returned several minutes later, he came over to her and made a small bow. “Forgive my intrusion, miss,” he began solicitously. “I hope you will not find me too forward, but I was wondering if you would care to dance?”
Elizabeth’s cheeks coloured slightly, and she gave a smile rather more self-conscious than usual. “I – I would be delighted, sir,” she said, accepting his proffered arm and going with him onto the dance floor.
“Please allow me,” he said as they joined the other dancers. “To introduce myself: I am Christopher Jennings. My friend there – ” He nodded his head toward the group of gentlemen with whom he had been spending the evening. “Is a great friend of Lady Morton’s.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir,” Elizabeth said, relaxing more into her normal self in the face of Mr. Jennings’ broad genial smile and easy-going manner. “I am Elizabeth Carlisle.”
They chatted easily about innocuous things during the dance, and afterward, he gallantly escorted her off the dance floor, where her stepmother was waiting for her with a delighted grin spread almost indecorously across her face.
“I certainly hope I might see you again, Miss Carlisle,” Mr. Jennings said, bowing again. He turned and bowed also to Mrs. Carlisle, and turned then to rejoin his party.
“My dear, how wonderful!” Mrs. Carlisle said when he had gone. “He is quite the thing! Why, half the ladies in the room have been casting eyes at him! – and he gives them not a glance, but you he asks to dance!” She clapped her hands together in glee and gave a tinkling little laugh. “Perhaps there is hope for you yet, my dear!”
Elizabeth tried to ignore her embarrassment at her stepmother’s well-meant but rather indelicate behaviour. “We only had one dance,” she said gently. “I doubt he even remembers my name.”
It was not much later that Mr. Jennings and his friends left Lady Morton’s, and Elizabeth wandered through the party, speaking occasionally to this friend or that, completely unaware that Mr. Jennings had any regard for her whatsoever. It seemed unlikely, after all, given that he was one of perhaps seven gentlemen in the last two years who had bothered to dance with her or even to acknowledge her existence. Being a practical person, however, Elizabeth was quite contented to have enjoyed her dance with Mr. Jennings, and if she felt any futility in wishing to see him again, she did not let it dampen her spirits. In fact, she seemed to be much more cheerful now than when she had come to Lady Morton’s some hours ago.
She stood for some time on the balcony, her attention seemingly on the park below but her mind quite somewhere else. Eventually she realized that she was now alone, that all of the other party-goers had either gone down into the garden or back to the dancing. It had become chilly too, and Elizabeth decided to seek out her stepmother and ask to go home; she could stare out a window just as easily from the comfort and warmth of her own bedchamber.
Pushing away from the parapet, she walked across the wide balcony toward the doors that opened onto the ballroom.
Suddenly a powerful hand grabbed her from behind, wrapping strong fingers around her throat before she could cry out. With a swiftness that did not seem possible, Elizabeth was pulled off her feet and into the air, flying over the stone railing and into the darkness as her arms and legs flailed helplessly against her abductor.
Christopher Jennings climbed wearily up the stairs to his front door. He had instructed the servants not to wait up for him, and so the entry hall was quite dark; rubbing his bleary eyes in hopes of navigating the darkness more easily, he made his slow way up the stairs toward his room.
As he neared the door to his bedchamber, he was assailed by an all-too-familiar feeling. Chills ran up his spine and down his arms, and a heavy foreboding settled over his heart – the slate had something to say to him, and it was likely not good.
Finding a sudden burst of energy, he bounded up the last few stairs and down the narrow hall to his room. The door had been left open, and he saw that his housekeeper had stoked up a fire for him that still smoldered, giving off a flickering red light that showed him the way to his writing desk. There, in the large center drawer, was a square wooden box, its lid adorned with elegant carvings depicting a cheerful garden scene. It was a very old box, its edges smoothed down by years of handling, and Jennings’ hand reached out for it with a reverence that contrasted sharply with his apparent urgency.
He carefully opened the lid, revealing an irregularly shaped piece of slate. As he gazed upon it, a picture formed unbidden in his mind of Miss Carlisle and of the park that bordered Lady Morton’s house, yet the only words written upon the slate were: “Save her.”
“Good God,” he murmured, and, turning abruptly on his heel, he raced headlong back down the stairs and out into the cold night.
The claws that carried her, flailing, off of the balcony now wrapped around her waist as she was dragged down onto the grassy ground of the park. She was pulled violently through bushes that tore at her skin and her clothing, and, although her hands scraped at the dirt and clutched at clumps of grass, she was powerless against her attacker’s incredible strength. She tried to scream, but one giant claw, still curled around her throat, now squeezed until her vision turned black and she feared she would lose consciousness.
A second massive claw ripped down her shoulder and back, tearing the fabric of her gown as though it were paper and cutting a trench into her side. The movement caused the other claw to loosen its hold on her throat, and she gasped a desperate breath in and tried again to scream. The claw clamped down, digging into the flesh of her neck, and shoved her face into the dirt. Her gown was completely torn from her as the second claw raked down her legs, and, as she struggled to breathe through the grass and soil clogging her nose and mouth, she felt the agonizing stab of her attacker sinking large fangs into her hip. Blood spurted from her, and this, coupled with the lack of air, made her lightheaded and weak; she found that her arms and legs were increasingly heavy, and that she could barely move any part of her.
Abruptly the claws released her, and air rushed into her grateful lungs. Before she could react to this unexpected reprieve, her attacker dealt her a stunning blow to the stomach, sending her tumbling under a bush. The pain was overwhelming, but what mattered to her more was that her breath was entirely forced from her. She curled up, her arms around her stomach, but this afforded her no protection as the blows came again – one after the other, in her stomach, her face, her legs, her back. She still lay under the bush, its sharp branches stabbing into her while unrelenting claws scratched and punched her. Her blood poured out of her, and then finally all consciousness, and she lay pale and still.
The claw reached out once more, slowly, and delicately scooped up the chain that Elizabeth wore around her neck. With a sudden yank, the claw tore through the chain, taking it – and the ring suspended from it – off into the night.
Jennings hurried as quickly as decorum allowed, back to Lady Morton’s and into the ballroom still lively with dancing. His sharp eyes, no longer befuddled by the weariness that had assailed him half an hour ago, easily found Lady Morton, standing beside Mrs. Carlisle and speaking quietly about something that made both women laugh.
“Lady Morton,” he announced himself, coming to stand before her. He could hardly explain to them that an antique slate had given him special knowledge of events, but he had prepared a plausible excuse for seeking out Miss Carlisle; he hoped that Mrs. Carlisle would help rather than hinder his efforts. “I realized when I arrived home that a piece of jewelry had snagged on my cuff and I had inadvertently stolen it from the lady with whom I was dancing.” He looked at Mrs. Carlisle and made a slight bow. “I believe it is Miss Carlisle’s, ma’am, if you might help me find her so that I can return her property to her.”
Mrs. Carlisle’s eyes darted briefly toward the balcony door. She smiled warmly – perhaps too warmly – and extended her hand. “I am most happy to deliver it, sir.”
Mr. Jennings looked down for a moment and then back at Mrs. Carlisle, smiling a bit self-consciously as he explained, “I was hoping – forgive me, ma’am – I was hoping to be able to deliver it to her myself.” Please allow this, he thought with well-concealed apprehension – he had no actual jewelry to show.
Now both women smiled broadly at him. “How kind of you!” Lady Morton said, her eyes lighting up with the thought of a budding romance between this very personable man and one of her favourite friends, sprouting up here at her own party. Mrs. Carlisle placed her outstretched hand on Mr. Jennings’ arm and said, “I quite understand, sir! I am sure Elizabeth will be very gratified … to have her jewelry back!” She lifted an eyebrow knowingly and angled her head once more toward the balcony door. “She is on the balcony, I believe, sir, enjoying the night air.”
Jennings nodded gratefully and made quick bows to the women. Acutely aware of their scrutiny, he hoped his expression remained one of self-conscious embarrassment rather than of the dread that was swiftly overtaking his heart. Once on the balcony, he saw that only two people were there – a man in deep blue standing very close to a blonde woman in a green gown – neither of whom looked as though they were aware of much outside of their conversation.
“Where could she be?” he mused under his breath. He glanced over the parapet into the garden, where many couples and groups of friends milled about; none of them was the lovely girl with whom he had danced some hours before. He could hardly start bellowing her name out, but he felt a growing sense of urgency, as though seconds rather than minutes would make the difference in Miss Carlisle’s fate. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and silently asked the now-distant slate where he should look.
In his mind’s eye he saw again the image of the park, with all of its trees and shadows – and now a darker shadow beneath it, broken and unmoving, and what looked to be a pool of blood.
His eyes flew open, and, wasting no time, he dashed down the staircase that led from the balcony to the gardens, moving past party-goers who were largely far too engrossed in their conversations – or too inebriated – to take notice of him at all. He pushed his way through Lady Morton’s carefully shaped shrubs to the low stone wall that bordered her grounds, and debated whether he should call out. Perhaps not, he decided; if Miss Carlisle was not there, he would only create a scene, which would do neither of them any good.
He looked over his shoulder – no one was watching that he could determine – and hoisted himself over the wall. Landing with a soft thump on the park lawn, he tried to see through the foliage with only the light from Lady Morton’s house and a faint moon to help him.
“Wherever have they gone off to?” he heard Lady Morton’s voice, coming down from the balcony.
“It’s not like Lizzie to wander off,” Mrs. Carlisle answered.
Jennings looked for a second in their direction, but then returned his attention to the dark ground, stepping carefully through the twisting branches and moving them aside with tentative hands. “Miss Carlisle,” he whispered. “Are you here?”
“They must be in the garden somewhere,” he heard Lady Morton saying, even as his foot came in contact with something that was neither ground nor branch.
Looking down, he saw with alarm a slender, bloodstained wrist. “Oh, God!” he cried out, pulling his foot back and immediately crouching down. There beside him, almost hidden beneath a bush, was the body of a woman, her clothes torn nearly off of her, and every inch of her covered with dirt and blood. Her skin, where he could see it, was as pale as death, and her eyes, half-closed, were glazed and sightless. She did not appear to be breathing.
“Lady Morton!” he shouted. “Lady Morton!” He put his head on Miss Carlisle’s chest; she was in fact not breathing, but, although her skin was ice cold to his touch, he thought he could detect the smallest tremor, the tiniest beating of her heart.
Lady Morton and Mrs. Carlisle had already descended to the gardens; at Mr. Jennings’ cries, Lady Morton bounded in a most unladylike manner to the wall, over which she could see Mr. Jennings kneeling beside a still and crumpled form. Next to her, Mrs. Carlisle – and another guest, Mrs. Driscoll, who had come to the wall to see what was happening – gave shrieks of dismay, and Mrs. Driscoll fainted, landing in her husband’s arms even as he himself blanched upon seeing Miss Carlisle’s body.
“Temple!” Lady Morton yelled over her shoulder to her butler. “Temple, help!”
Jennings ignored all this noise, instead focusing on the woman who lay apparently dead before him. Not knowing what else to do, he chafed her arms and the sides of her face. “Miss Carlisle,” he called to her, his voice barely above a cracked whisper. “Elizabeth.” He leaned over her, his silent prayers filling the space between them almost as physical objects. “Elizabeth.”
Overshadowed by the hushed murmurs of concerned partygoers and Mrs. Carlisle’s despairing sobs, into the stillness that now sat heavy over the gloomy park, came a breath – a stifled, gasping breath. And then another, and another. Elizabeth’s hand twitched, and then her bruised and battered body shuddered.
Her eyes opened, just for an instant, and she saw Jennings’ kind face staring down at her. “Help me!” she choked out with the last of her strength, and then she fell into unconsciousness.