The Gilded Web

Alexandra Purnell has been kidnapped and taken to the Earl of Amberley's home in London. The earl, quite unaware of what has happened, returns home early in the morning after spending the night with his mistress.

Lord Amberley let himself into his town house with his own key. He always insisted that his staff go to bed at midnight whether he and Dominic were at home or not. Why keep a poor footman standing around asleep on his feet for most of the night merely because his master was too busy bedding his mistress to come home at a decent hour?

He climbed the stairs and walked the length of the upper corridor to his bedchamber. He yawned. Perhaps if the birds did not strike up too enthusiastic a dawn chorus outside his window, he would be able to snatch another few hours of sleep before beginning his day.

He stopped and listened. Was Madeline home? She did not come very often, as he had bought his mother her own town house four years before, having decided that she would be happier in her own establishment while in London, and naturally enough, her daughter had gone to live with her. But Madeline did come home on occasion, notably when Mama was otherwise engaged. His sister had been at the Easton ball last night, he believed. Dominic had been going to put in an appearance there too. Madeline must have returned with him.

She must be still awake. She certainly was tossing and turning in her room. He could hear her from where he was. Had something happened to upset her? It seemed unlikely. Madeline had a sunny nature and was not easily upset. Lord Amberley shrugged his shoulders and proceeded on his way.

And yet, standing fifteen minutes later in his dressing gown at the window of his bedchamber, looking out onto a street that was brightening into a new day, he sipped from a glass of water and wondered about his younger sister. What was she doing at home? Mama had not said anything about going away. They had not quarreled, had they? He frowned and looked toward the door of his room. Should he go and see if she really was still awake? Would she thank him for disturbing her even if she were?

He would do it anyway, he decided. He did not like to think of Madeline unhappy. Or perhaps ill. He must see if there was something he could do to help. He opened his door and walked back down the corridor. He stopped outside the door to his sister's room and listened. She was definitely still awake and apparently moaning and loudly fidgeting. Or was she indeed asleep and having nightmares? He tapped quietly on the door.

For a moment all fell silent within, and then the scuffling sounds increased in volume. Lord Amberley turned the handle of the door, found it unlocked, and opened it.

The curtains were not drawn either at the long windows or around the bed. He stared motionless for a moment at the figure on the bed, or rather twisted around and half off the bed. Madeline?

Her arms were above her head, apparently grasping the bedpost. Her head was completely swaddled in dark cloth. She was wearing a flimsy blue dress, but it was twisted awkwardly around her body and was pulled up so that her long slim legs were almost completely exposed.

"What on earth?" he said, striding toward her and putting his glass of water down on the side table so that he could help her. And she certainly needed help. Her wrists were bound to the bedpost, he saw with some horror. And it was a cloak that had wrapped itself completely around her shoulders and head.

She was a prisoner. Those mad twins! Would they never grow up? Lord Amberley felt a surge of anger.

"Hold still," he said firmly. "I shall have you free in a moment."

She lay still then, though it took him more than a few minutes to loosen her bonds, which her struggles had doubtless tightened considerably.

"There," he said, expecting her at any moment to burst into an indignant tirade against Dominic. He reached down and tried to lower the skirt of her gown, but it was so tightly twisted beneath her that the task was impossible. He reached up to untangle her from the twisted cloak. Her hands were on his, plucking at them, but they were cold and nerveless. He pushed them away.

When he had pulled away the folds of the cloak, she was still not free. Her head and face were almost entirely covered by the hood, which was held very firmly in place by the green gag she wore. He pushed back the hood, feeling even greater fury. She looked up at him with wide and wary eyes.

Dark eyes.

Oh, God!

"Turn your head," he said tonelessly. "I will free you from that gag."

His fingers fumbled with the knot and finally loosened it. He slid one hand beneath her head and lifted it so that he could both remove the scarf and put back her hood. A cascade of thick dark hair fell over his arm with the hood and waved over her shoulders. He did not think to remove his arm for a moment.

She lay still, her head resting against his arm, staring up at him warily. Perhaps she did not realize that her legs were exposed to the thighs.

"Who are you?" he asked foolishly, and he slid his arm from beneath her head and stood up.

She opened her mouth as if to speak, and tried to lick parched lips with an equally dry tongue. She made an inarticulate sound.

"Here," he said, picking up the glass of water, "you must drink this. No, don't shrink from me. I will do you no harm."

He put one arm beneath her shoulders again and lifted her to a sitting position. He held the glass while she drank. Her hands, he could see, were temporarily paralyzed.

She turned her head away after she had taken a few sips, and her long disheveled hair hid her face from his view. "You are Eden?" she asked, and coughed. "What do you want with me? I will not be intimidated. You may kill me if you wish, but I will not plead with my father to pay you a ransom. And I will not submit without a struggle to being ravished."

"Eden?" he said, straightening up and standing beside the bed. "My brother has brought you here?"

Her pale handsome face suddenly flushed quite painfully, and she pulled at the skirt of her gown. She had to lift her hips in order to loosen it. He kept his eyes on her face while she did so. She sat up abruptly on the side of the bed, and one hand collapsed clumsily beneath her as she used it to push herself upright.

"This is an outrage," she said, her voice shaking very slightly. "I demand to be released."

"I agree with you entirely, ma'am," he said quietly, and reached out to tug on the silk-tasseled bell-pull beside the bed. "May I know who you are so that I might communicate with your family? They must be frantic with worry."

"My father is Lord Beckworth," she said. "We live on Curzon Street."

"I know him," Lord Amberley said with a frown. "May I ask how you got here, Miss...?"

"I was abducted," she said, "by two men. I was at Lady Easton's ball. They said that Eden would be here soon. But that must have been many hours ago."

"Lord Eden is my younger brother," he said. "Ah! Do come in, Mrs. Haviland. This lady has come to be here by some misadventure involving Lord Eden. Will you stay with her here, please, and see that she is made comfortable and has some refreshments while I send for her father? She has been tied up and gagged for several hours. I believe she would appreciate having someone massage her hands."

"Oh, please," the dark-haired handsome girl cried as he turned to leave her in some privacy, "not my father. Please, will you send for my brother instead? James Purnell. He will come."

Lord Amberley nodded and bowed to her, as the housekeeper, clucking her tongue, crossed to the bed and picked up one of the girl's hands. He left the room and closed the door quietly behind him. It was perhaps as well that the very first thing he must do was compose a swift note to the girl's brother. Perhaps by the time he had done so his present white fury would have cooled down just sufficiently that he would not quite throttle his brother when he went to his room to confront him.

Perhaps. Though he doubted it. The twins had always had a gift for getting into the most unbelievable scrapes. But this was not a scrape. Not by any means. A young girl had just been abused and terrified probably beyond his power to imagine, and her character and reputation destroyed, possibly beyond repair.

Oh, no, this was no scrape. Heads would surely roll over this.

© Mary Balogh