Captive at Cragdale Hall by The Unlaced Book Club. Part Three.


Will Emma and Hugh escape? Why have they been lured to Cragdale Hall? And, most importantly, are they ever going to kiss? Will Unlaced authors Jenni Fletcher, Janice Preston and Harper St George lead our intrepid hero and heroine to their happily ever after?


Captive at Cragdale Hall

PART THREE

A jolt of fear brought her back to her senses. Almost. She tried to focus on the door, but Hugh’s head was still bent close to hers, so close that she could feel the warm caress of his breath on her cheek. Her skin was still flushed and her nerve endings still tingling from the intensity of the look they’d just shared. For a breathless moment, she’d had the impression he’d been about to kiss her, but then perhaps she’d imagined it…
Of course she’d imagined it, she admonished herself. She was an impoverished and homeless governess while he was a Viscount! The social gulf between them was as wide as the moors themselves. Not that she cared about such things - nor was she entirely without connections either. Her father had been the second cousin, twice removed, of a minor earl, although his attempts to improve the family fortunes through speculation had led to disaster. He’d spent the last five years of his life in debtor’s prison, leaving her mother to raise her alone. She’d moved them into smaller lodgings and kept food on the table, not to mention her chin up in defiance of all the petty gossip and spiteful looks of their neighbours. But her mother had abandoned all respect for rank and authority the day that her husband’s ‘respectable’ family had abandoned them.
What would her mother have advised her to do now, Emma wondered? Her father, always a stickler for formality, would doubtless have told her to curtsey first and then defer instantly to Hugh. Her mother would probably have told her to kiss him! Not that her mother could tell her anything. She’d died of consumption four years before, followed soon after by her father. She was alone in the world, a fact that - her heart seemed to stop at the memory - she now recalled mentioning in her letter to Miss Delford.
She bit her lip to stop herself from groaning aloud. Her letter had been posted here, to Cragdale Hall. And Arthur must have read it. She hadn’t just been impulsive. She’d been downright foolish, giving Arthur - if that was his real name - all the information he’d needed to entrap her.
And yet, crazily enough, now that she was here, she couldn’t repress a thrill of excitement. Excitement? She must have lost her mind along with her freedom. Surely only madness could explain how she could feel so afraid and yet exhilarated at the same time. She’d never experienced such a heady sensation before. Now, insane as it sounded, she was actually glad to be here, alone in a strange corridor with a strange man, about to confront another stranger who’d just taken them prisoner.
This was definitely one of those stories…
‘Go!’ Hugh’s voice, a fierce whisper, interrupted her thoughts. ‘You escape whilst I confront him.’
Emma blinked a few times as he passed her a candle, wondering whether he was actually the one who’d lost his senses. How could he possibly confront their captor alone?
‘We’re high up on the moors in the snow.’ She stared at him incredulously. ‘Where would I escape to?’ Not to mention the fact that he was injured and she had no intention of leaving him at their captor’s mercy… ‘No, we’ll find out the truth together.’
He opened his mouth as if to object and then closed it again, smiling sheepishly. ‘You may be right. In that case…’ He leaned forward again, blowing out the candle in her hand before gesturing at the candelabra itself. ‘That ought to make quite an effective weapon. Ready?’

Emma nodded, her heart hammering as she wondered who was inside the room. Was it Arthur? She peered back over her shoulder. Where was that footman? Were there others here?
Hugh touched one cool finger to her lips—triggering an absurd urge to taste him—and mouthed Ssssh. He eased forward and with great care he inched the door wider, revealing more of the room beyond. Boxes, like those in the attic, lay scattered across the floor. The centre of the room was dominated by the most enormous dining table Emma had ever seen, its entire surface strewn with scrolls and sheets of paper. Arthur, muttering, held a candle aloft as he pored over them. He barely seemed to read each paper before thrusting it aside with a curse and grabbing the next.
Hugh beckoned to Emma and then edged into the room, his arm outstretched as though to prevent her from dashing past him to confront the increasingly maniacal-looking Arthur. As if she would! She had more sense than that. She could see Arthur more clearly now. Sweat on his high, pale brow glistened in the light cast by the candle flame, the hand clutching the candlestick visibly trembled, and his lips constantly moved, as though in prayer.
Now fully inside the room, Emma became aware of a low humming sound, as though of bees swarming. It seemed to vibrate right through her. She felt her brows draw together and a glance at Hugh revealed a similar puzzled expression. She scanned the room. In the furthest corner, beyond the table, she caught the slightest shimmer of movement. She’d never seen the like—the nearest she could describe it was like the play of moonlight upon water.
But this was vertical.
‘God dammit!’
Emma started, clutching involuntarily at Hugh’s arm, his solid, muscular strength reassuring beneath her fingertips. He squeezed her hand as Arthur straightened, skimming a sheet of paper across the surface of the table with a flick of his wrist. He was so focused he had still failed to notice their presence.
‘They must be here.’ He stormed the length of the table and snatched up a scroll of parchment at random. He untied the cord that bound it, casting it aside before unrolling the document, smoothing it flat and bending to peruse it. ‘I know they are here.’
Hugh still had hold of Emma’s hand and he squeezed again, but this time with more urgency. She looked, and their gazes met. He was readying himself to attack Arthur. Fear balled in her stomach and she realised with a jolt that she cared as much about what happened to him as about what might happen to her. She felt safe with him. And she could not bear that he might be hurt again.
She tried to reassure herself. He seemed very capable. And strong. But… what if this was one of those stories? One that did not have a happy ending? That earlier thrill of excitement was all very well, but this was now horribly real. What if Hugh could not overpower Arthur? And where was that footman? She tightened her grip on the candelabra and forced a smile for Hugh. She was ready. She would back him up whatever it took.
Moving swiftly and silently, Hugh crossed the expanse of floor that separated him from Arthur. As he reached him, he let out a roar and, seizing Arthur by the shoulder, he jerked him round, drew back his right arm and let fly, landing his fist squarely on Arthur’s nose. Arthur spun round with the force of the blow and landed on his knees, both hands clutched to his face. Blood dripped between his fingers but Hugh gave him no time to recover. He grabbed Arthur by his lapels and hauled him to his feet, thrusting his face close to the other man’s.
‘What’s your game?’ he snarled.
The thud of boots in the corridor outside sent Emma’s pulse racing, and she moved quickly to hide behind the door, raising the candelabra as high as she could, holding it in both hands. The footman burst through the door and she leapt forward, swinging the candelabra at his head. His shoulders hunched as the blow landed and he lurched around to face her. She snatched up her skirts and kicked high, as hard as she could—a ploy taught to her by her father. Her boot-clad foot landed with satisfying accuracy, sinking into the servant’s groin, and he doubled up as a high-pitched wheeze escaped his lips.
‘Take that,’ she yelled, her blood pumping.
Hugh dragged Arthur over to the writhing servant and threw him down to join him on the floor.
‘It is time for answers, gentlemen,’ he said grimly as he stood over them. ‘Why are we…’ he indicated Emma and then himself ‘…here?’
The only answer was moans, and Hugh paced the floor as he waited for a reply. Meanwhile Emma, unable to contain her curiosity, rounded the table to investigate that infuriating humming. It seemed to reach inside her and make all her insides shake and quiver, making her feel nauseous. It emanated from the same strange piece of furniture she had noticed in the portrait and, as she neared it, she saw that the emerald ring had been inserted into a groove in the top of the contraption. The ring appeared to be the source of that weird optical phenomenon.
‘No!’ The sheer panic in that one word brought her up short. She turned to face the three men. ‘Whatever you do don’t touch that.

She was shocked to see that Hugh had been the one to issue the warning. His green eyes were wide in alarm as he stared at the humming contraption.
“What is it?” she asked.
His mouth formed a grim line as he met her gaze. She saw within his eyes a certain wariness that hadn’t been present until then. A suspicion perhaps. He knew more than he was letting on. His brow furrowed as he held out his hand to her. She took it, a tiny thrill running through her fingertips as he closed his fingers around hers. “I’m uncertain,” he admitted, pulling her close to him. “But I think our new friend here can explain it to us.”
“Friend?” Arthur grinned, his teeth stained red with the blood from his nose. To her horror, Emma saw a gun in his hand and she cursed herself for having distracted Hugh. “Surely we are more than that. Don’t you recognize your own kin?”
Emma’s mouth dropped open, her gaze going from one to the other but unable to find a resemblance. Where Arthur was pale and thin, Hugh had vivid coloring and was solid muscle.
“I’ve never met you before in my life,” Hugh said.
Arthur nodded. “You’re right. We’ve never met before, but I’m disappointed you don’t see some resemblance.”
Hugh tightened his grip on her, pulling her closer and making her feel just that much safer from his proximity. “What game are you playing?” he asked.
“It’s no game. As we speak, your mother is having papers drawn up to seal your betrothal to Henrietta Wexley.” Arthur’s smile resembled that of a cat who’d just snacked on a particularly annoying canary. “Isn’t that true?”
Emma gasped. While it was true she had no claim to Hugh and even less reason to think the spark between them might progress to something more, she was disappointed nonetheless. These past hours with him had meant something to her and she’d thought he’d felt the same. Hadn’t he almost kissed her?
“That’s not true,” Hugh said. Then in a softer voice meant for her ears alone, he repeated, “It’s not true, Emma.” His eyes were earnest as he gazed down at her and gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
Emma had heard of Henrietta Wexley. Her name came up quite often in the society pages. She was the current toast of London with her lovely blonde hair and pale blue eyes. The opposite of Emma’s own darker looks.
“It is true!” Arthur’s voice interrupted her musing, but then he laughed and she wondered if he was mad.
“What is he saying, Hugh?” She didn’t know who to believe or what any of that had to do with that contraption in the corner.
Hugh shook his head. “He’s right in that my mother has been pestering me to offer for the Wexley girl, but I’ve refused.” His expression was solemn when he stared down at her. “She’s not who I want.” His gaze touched her mouth before he tore it away to look at Arthur. “There’s no way you could know that unless you’ve planted a spy in my household.”
“There’s no spy,” said Arthur. “I know it the same way that I know your betrothal to Henrietta will be announced and you’ll be wed end of summer. I know it the same way I know you’ll employ Emma Rehnquist to be your assistant in October. I know it the same way I know the date of your death.”
“You’re mad,” Hugh said.
“I’m Arthur Delford, your great grandson. Though, seeing you now, I think I favor great grandmother Henrietta more.”
Emma tightened her grip on Hugh’s hand. He was the only solid, sure thing in this whole mess. “That can’t be.”
“I assure you that it is, miss.” Arthur grinned. “Warner and I,” he indicated the footman, now on his feet and at Arthur’s side, “found Hugh’s plans for the time apparatus in the family attic. Imagine my surprise when I figured out what it was for. In the future, your name will be lauded as a famed astronomer, a success that started with your discovery of Delford’s Comet. Family legend also has you as something of an amateur inventor but I never knew you tinkered with time travel as well.”
Hugh looked as if he’d just been bowled over. His face had paled. “It can’t be,” he muttered. “It can’t have worked.” He stared at the humming thing in the corner.
“But it did. Warner and I arrived months ago, but the blasted thing broke. It’s taken me all this time to get it this far. We needed the ring to power it up but it’s still not quite right. You have the missing key in your papers…somewhere.” He nodded to the array of papers spread across the table. “Fix it and we’ll let you both go. If you refuse, well then, dear Emma won’t get out of here alive.”
To Emma’s surprise, Hugh smiled at that, leaving her to wonder if he’d gone mad as well.
“Don’t worry,” he said to her. “If what young Arthur says is true, I’ll have us to safety in but a moment.” Then he maneuvered them away from Arthur, Warner, and the strange contraption, putting her behind his shoulder. “It sickens me to think that my lineage could have produced a parasite such as yourself, but what you’ve said about the time apparatus is true. I created a design and it worked somewhat, enough that I realized that I needed to leave it be. It was never meant to be rediscovered.”
“How fortunate I found it.” Arthur smiled.
Hugh grinned. “A mistake that can be remedied.”
“How?” Emma asked, tightening her hold on Hugh’s arm.
He smiled down at her and gripped her hand, bringing it to his chest to rest over his pounding heart. “Easy. I vow in this moment to never marry Henrietta Wexley and hence, Arthur Delford will never be born.”
It seemed too easy to be true, but Arthur’s face crumpled as if he’d never anticipated this turn of events. The contraption hummed, getting louder, and then the light went out and it disappeared completely into thin air. Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but whatever he said was taken away as a wind moved around them, ruffling the papers on the table, and then he and his friend disappeared.
Emma and Hugh stared at the empty space left behind, afraid that to move would somehow bring them back. Finally she let out the breath she’d been holding. “Well…that was…unexpected.”
Hugh let out a mirthless laugh. “It was. I admit to a fear of having children if that’s what I’m capable of producing.”
She laughed at his jest, but Henrietta Wexley came to mind. “Is it true that you were to wed her?”
He shook his head and turned to face her fully, taking both of her hands in his. “It was discussed, but I refused. Perhaps for some reason, I relented before, but not now. As I said, she’s not who I want.” His gaze dipped down to her lips and she felt them tingle in anticipation.
She dropped her gaze to his chest. “I still can’t figure out how I fit into all this. Why would he lure me out here?”
Hugh shook his head. “I’m not sure how you fit into his plan, but I know how you fit into mine, now Arthur has brought you into my life before we were ever destined to meet. Will you allow me to kiss you, Emma?”
Her lips parted in a silent gasp as her gaze darted back up to his, but he was looking at her mouth. She felt her cheeks warm as she smiled. “I would like that very much.”
He smiled and dipped his head, covering her mouth with his. His lips were soft and warm, and heat shimmered down her spine to coil deep in her belly. When he pulled back, he smiled at her and she knew that something wonderful was about to happen.
This wasn’t one of those stories after all. It was her story, and it was better than she’d ever imagined it could be.

The End
Captive at Cragdale Hall was written by Lara Temple, Laurie Benson, Nicole Locke, Elisabeth Hobbes, Virginia Heath, Catherine Tinley, Jenni Fletcher, Janice Preston and Harper St George. Together they host The Unlaced Book Club.

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