Read A Lady in Hiding Online

Authors: Amy Corwin

A Lady in Hiding (9 page)

Chapter Seven

Her head was surely going to explode. Sarah glanced at Mr. Trenchard, her eyes watering with pain. She felt confused and couldn’t seem to think properly. Her belly twisted hollowly. A throbbing headache pounded with each heart beat until she wished her heart would simply stop.

And yet, despite her physical discomfort, all she could think about was the rent she owed Mrs. Pochard. And finishing that garden wall.

The thought of bending down to pick up a brick made her swallow convulsively.

Nonsense
. She wasn’t a baby any more. She had to do it. The headache would fade as the day progressed.

Opening one eye, she realized Mr. Trenchard had closed the drapes, leaving the room in blessed darkness. The sight of the rising sun’s sparkling light made her want to toss up what little remained in her stomach.

“You haven’t taken any food, or drink, since yesterday,” Mr. Trenchard said.

His voice slammed painfully against her ears, even though she could tell he was trying to speak softly. Before she replied, his butler wandered into the room, along with the maid. The two carried trays and made an appalling symphony of clattering and clashing crockery as they unloaded it. She held her head briefly, cradled in her cool hands, before she heard them leave.

When it was quiet again, she opened her eyes. Mr. Trenchard was pouring steaming coffee into a cup, to which he added liberal amounts of cream and sugar. He pushed the cup toward the edge of the desk closest to her before he started scooping spoonfuls of fluffy yellow eggs onto a plate.

Her stomach rolled over as the slightly sulfurous scent of scrambled eggs wafted past her nose.

“Drink something,” he said. “Do you think you can eat? Eggs? Or would you prefer some broth?”

With a very controlled, very smooth motion, she lifted the coffee cup to her mouth and let the hot liquid brush her lips. Her stomach grumbled and clenched. She took a deep breath and let the merest teaspoonful enter her mouth. The sweet liquid trickled down her throat, and she swallowed, holding her breath. It continued to spiral downwards inside her, leaving a faint warmth behind.

When her body accepted that small taste with no ill effects, she took a larger swallow, again patiently waiting for it to seep into the empty reaches of her belly. After the second drink, her stomach rumbled loudly. She glanced at Mr. Trenchard in horror, but he was calmly slathering a thick piece of toast with orange marmalade.

Her eyes fastened on that piece of toast. With a mighty gurgle, her stomach vibrated while she tried to quiet it with another sip of coffee and a hand on her belly.

Mr. Trenchard caught her gaze and smiled. “Would you prefer a piece of toast? Dry or buttered?”

She couldn’t help staring at the piece in his hand, held mere inches from his lips. Thick, sweet peels of orange zest curled over the top, glazed with sugary jelly. The tangy citrus scent filled her mouth with desire. She licked her lips.

He chuckled.

She wrenched her gaze from the toast to find his blue eyes twinkling merrily at her, despite the tired lines and shadows of his face. They were so deep, so blue, like the vast sky after the rain—brilliant and mesmerizing.

“Do you want
this
piece?” He held it out toward her.

“No, sir,” she said, trying not to drool. “I’ll get another.”

Still grinning, he thrust the toast into her hand before he picked up another from the plate at his elbow. She took a bite, closing her eyes as the bright, sweet taste filled her mouth. Even her stomach quieted, waiting in hushed awe for the first taste. Sweet, tart, and the slightest bitterness of orange peel. Evoking lost memories of her life before...

In four bites, it was gone.

She licked her fingers, suddenly finding the scent of eggs appealing, after all. She pulled the plate of eggs closer. When she picked up her fork, she was surprised to find Mr. Trenchard making a production of applying orange marmalade to pieces of toast that he carefully stacked on a small plate next to her coffee cup.

“I’m relieved you haven’t lost your appetite after all,” he remarked before finally preparing a slice for himself. “I was so impressed by it the other night.”

Mouth full, she smiled with tight lips and saluted him with her coffee cup. He took the opportunity thus presented to refill her cup, topping it off with a liberal dollop of cream and another spoonful of sugar. Minding her almost-forgotten manners, she carefully used the serving fork to spear a lovely piece of ham and add it to her plate.

Her head pounded whenever she moved. She wasn’t sure she would be able to keep all her food down once she stood up, but it was a lovely meal just the same. Every few minutes, her body quivered as she thought about Mrs. Pochard and Mr. Hawkins, both waiting for her. However for now, she had the sweet taste of oranges in her mouth and a large slice of salty ham to address.

And sky-blue eyes watching her with a warmth she had done nothing to deserve.

Mr. Trenchard finished long before she did, although she always thought she was a swift eater. When she finally placed her fork carefully on the edge of her plate, she glanced at him to find him staring at her over the rim of his cup.

“Miss Sanderson,” he began before she cut him off.

“Mr. Sanderson, if you please.”

“Sarah,” he replied.

“Never
her
.”

He paused. His finely shaped brows rose until they almost touched the wavy lock of golden hair falling over his forehead. In silence, he refilled his cup and then held the pot out to her.

“No, thank you.” She sat back in her chair with her half-filled cup cradled between her hands. She had almost forgotten the smooth, fragile feel of real china.

“Shall we begin again, Sarah?”

“No. I’m Samuel Sanderson, now. Sarah’s long dead. Forgotten.”

“I think not. Although, if we don’t take certain measures, she may well be. I visited several newspapers yesterday—”

Sarah snorted inelegantly and drank the rest of her coffee.

Eyeing her with a mild, amused expression on his face, she noticed Mr. Trenchard’s half-smile didn’t quite reach his blue eyes. “If you’ll allow me to finish?”

She shrugged and got up to pour herself a few more drops of coffee. The food in her belly had dulled the knife’s edge of her headache. She was starting to feel restless.

Time to go to work
.

A crack of light glowed through a gap in the curtains as the sun advanced over the horizon.

The rest of the food stayed down so well, she took a rasher of bacon and another spoonful of the light, fluffy eggs that seemed to take no room at all in her stomach. Her gaze lingered for a moment on the last dollop of orange marmalade.

With an impatient sigh, Mr. Trenchard grabbed the remaining slice of toast, spread the marmalade on it, and thrust it into her unresisting hand.

She smiled at him and ate a quarter of the toast in one large bite.

“Now,” he said, pushing the dishes to side and folding his hands once more on top of the desk. “I visited the newspaper office on Strand yesterday. Several articles reported that the Longmoor fire may have been deliberately set—”

Before she could stop herself, she snorted. It took her a minute to finish chewing and swallowing the remains of the toast. “I already knew that. It was in all the papers after the fire. Major Pickering would hardly be trying to tell me something printed in all the broadsheets. Common knowledge.”

His blue eyes were much harder and colder when he continued. “And a few accounts indicated that the doors may have been wedged shut with wooden shims.”

Sarah shifted and lightly pressed her hand against the bandage covering her head. The headache stabbed behind her right eye. Her shoulders tightened as they did whenever she thought about that night.

“Where did you read about shims?” she asked, feeling truculent and not wanting to believe him.

She’d gotten out, hadn’t she? She couldn’t have done that if the doors and windows had been wedged shut.

“Why don’t you tell me what you remember?” He sat back in his chair, looking carelessly elegant with no neckcloth and his shirt open at the neck. There was something deceptive about him, something that hinted at strength and resolution that made her pulse rattle unsteadily. He reminded her of a large, sleepy-eyed tomcat, smiling and purring in the sun.

But then, she reminded herself, she’d never been overly fond of cats.

“I told you everything the other night.” She started to rise. “I’ve got to work. If you want to be paid.”

He ran a hand over the stubble on his chin. “You can go
after
you tell me what you remember. All of it, this time.”

When she didn’t sit down, he braced his hands on the edge of the desk and stood. He walked over to the double doors, shut them, turned a brass key and placed it in his pocket.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

The food in her stomach shifted and gurgled. She stared thoughtfully at the edge of the desk, wondering if standing was such a brilliant idea after all.

“Sit down. You’re not going anywhere until I’m satisfied that you've given me all the information you know.” He strode back to his chair and sat down. “Sit!”

Fingers resting gently on the bandage encircling her forehead, she sat, compressing her mouth into a mulish line.

“Now, begin again. What do you remember?”

“I don’t remember much. It was thirteen years ago.”

“It was your birthday.” He leaned forward with his elbows on the desk and his hands steepled in front of his mouth. “You must remember that.”

She really didn’t. Bits and pieces. Vague faces.

Feeling happy and secure. A new nightgown received that day and the locket engraved with her name that she wore around her neck until she cut her hair. “I— I honestly don’t remember much. Not of that night. Not of the days before, either.” She closed her eyes. How could she tell him what she didn’t know herself?

“Then tell me what you do know. However little. It may help. Someone tried to kill you yesterday. If you wish to live, you have to tell me whatever information you remember.”

“Can I have some more coffee?”

He filled her cup, topping it with cream and a spoonful of sugar. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, Sarah.”

“I’m not afraid. I can’t remember. There’s a difference,” she said, her chin rising. “I remember it was late, after midnight, and my cousin was hungry. She complained all evening that she’d been so excited she hadn’t eaten much all day. Anyway, she was afraid of the dark, so I told her I would go to the kitchen to get a jug of milk and the rest of the cake we had had that afternoon.”

“Your cousin, Mary Archer?”

She hesitated. That name always bothered her though she didn’t understand why.

“Yes,” she said at last. Her hand went to her neck even though she no longer wore the locket with her name etched inside. “We had rooms up on the third floor. I used the servants’ stair. I didn’t know where the grownups were, and I didn’t want to get caught out of bed.

“So, I went to the kitchen and cut us a few slices of cake and wrapped it up in Cook’s linen towel. I was pouring the milk when I smelled the smoke.” She stopped for a moment, her fingers prying at the linen bandage wrapped around her head. There was a shooting pain over her eye. She wanted to rub it away, but the fabric was in the way. She struggled to control a rising sense of panic. “I thought it was just a chimney smoking somewhere, so I started to go back upstairs. Two flights up, the smoke began pouring down on me. I—I didn’t know what to do. I opened the door to the second floor hallway.

“There was this whoosh—or explosion—I don’t know what happened….” She paused, unable to explain something she couldn’t even understand herself.

How did one describe the confusion, a nightmare of smoke and fire?

“Is that when you got the scar?”

“My first scar?” She grinned, trying to make a jest to cover her confusion. Again, her hand touched the bare hollow of her neck. The locket alone told her who she was. After the terror of that night and the burning chunk of wood that had branded her forehead, she was not even certain of her name. “I suppose I’ll have another scar, now.”

“What happened after the explosion, Sarah,” he prompted.

“I, well, I suppose I woke up on the stairs. It couldn’t have been much later. Pieces of burnt wood were all over—smoke was pouring into the stairs, blowing upwards toward the upper floors like a storm.”

The hot air had scorched her face, swirling up the stairs. Her eyes and skin had been sticky and burning, and it had been so hard to breathe. Even now, she could feel the pain in her chest and the acrid taste of ash in the back of her throat.

“I could feel the heat of the fire—it seemed to be everywhere. There was screaming—and noise everywhere. Crashing and—oh, I just—I can’t describe it. I tried to get to the third floor where the others were, but there was too much smoke and heat. I—I just couldn’t. I tried, but I couldn’t.”

“So you went where? Downstairs?”

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