Color of Danger
The Sullyard Series
When Patience Sullyard finds a mysterious note tied to a pigeon’s leg, her commissioned panorama at a falconry flies the coop. Instead of painting in hues of brown and beige, her focus shifts to saving a troubled stranger. Walter Bexley craves adventure from his boring life. Insinuating himself into Patience’s problem by accompanying her to the falconry might be just the answer. Will the risk they take be worth the exhilaration, or will Patience and Walter discover the threat is too dangerous?
1819 — Lambeth, England
PATIENCE CROUCHED DOWN inside the dusty armoire. Where had he gone? Would he find her? Do her harm? She wiped perspiration from her brow, though the dark night was cool. Her leg muscles quivered as she tried not to move from her hiding spot. He’d find her soon. Had to. It was his house after all. Surely he knew all its secrets and places where someone might hide.
She tried her best to stay quiet, keep her breathing light and even. But the way her heart smacked against her ribs seemed loud enough that even he might hear it.
Please let him not find me.
Walter should have been here by now. Should have rescued her, gotten her to safety. Was he hurt very badly? Maybe she should go see.
Fear coiled around her chest. If she left her safe haven, the man would find her. If she didn’t, would he harm Walter instead? She needed to make sure Walter wasn’t terribly injured.
A noise — footsteps? — came from her left. A pale beam of light reached across the floor, its yellow fingers nearly touching the edge of her skirt near the opening of the armoire door. Her breath caught, quick and loud. Too loud. He’d find her now. Had he already seen her?
Not wanting to but unable to stop, Patience stared, watching the beam of light to its source. Black boots stood in the ring of yellow on the floor. Maybe it was Walter. Had Walter worn his black boots tonight? Why couldn’t she remember?
Trepidation nearly closed her throat completely, as she forced herself to look up. Up. Up. Until she saw something clutched in his hand.
Two weeks earlier
THE URGE TO stomp her foot nearly overtook Patience Sullyard. But she didn’t give in. It would be unbecoming. Cause a stir. And since she’d always been the good, quiet sister, the one who didn’t complain, the peacemaker, Kitty and Lydia would raise their eyebrows if Patience did anything out of character.
However, now seventeen, Patience was tired of doing her sisters’ bidding, weary of biting her tongue when she longed to speak her mind. Gone were the days of wanting to follow Kitty and Lydia wherever they went, wishing to do what they were doing. When she’d been very little, Patience had even begged to sleep in one of their beds each night. Not any more. Now she wanted time to herself and to have the freedom to make her own decisions. She dreamed of doing something outrageous. Daring. Dangerous.
When had she changed? Even as recently as a few months ago, she would have cringed at the thought of stepping out of line, doing something, anything that might bring embarrassment to her family. But for some reason, lately, she didn’t care. It was as if some strange beast had taken over her mind, her body, telling her she needed to change, to grow, become someone new.
Did everyone feel the same at some point in their lives? Want to behave differently than their usual character? Perhaps she was going mad, like Lydia had been accused of the year before. Lydia had been falsely incarcerated, but was there really something amiss with Patience’s mind? Her character?
Kitty shifted her small son, Andrew, to her other hip and narrowed her eyes at Patience. “I’m not sure why you think the rules have changed, but they haven’t. When you start your commission tomorrow, you will be accompanied by Walter. There will be no discussion. He’s going and that’s that.”
Patience longed to roll her eyes. Would it be so terrible, so scandalous for her to ride alone to her commission? It would be frowned upon in polite society, but it wasn’t as if they lived in the midst of the London elite. The distance to the falconry wasn’t far. Of course, she knew she needed a chaperone. But no one would even see her out riding by herself.
She couldn’t tell her sister the real reason she wanted to go alone. Kitty would laugh at her, saying she was just a silly girl. The memory of that day a few weeks ago crept back in, and with it, the same excitement that Patience had experienced when she’d overheard some servants talking. About an old house at the falconry. That it might be haunted by a former resident from one hundred years past. Someone had once heard a voice from the old house and spread the word among other servants about the ghost.
When Patience had found out that she was to go to that very estate for a commission, she’d been elated. However, in order to see the house for herself, she’d need to be there alone. Otherwise, whoever was with her would either tease her about her whimsy or try to stop her.
Patience clutched her hands together in front of her waist. “I’m not a child any longer. Can’t you see that? Look at me, truly look and you will see.”
“Of course I see that.” Kitty chucked Patience beneath the chin with her fingers, just like she had when they’d been younger.
I hate that. She longed to smack away Kitty’s hand but wouldn’t go that far in her rebellion. “It doesn’t seem as though you do. I’m seventeen, for heaven’s sake. Not a child. Able to make decisions for myself. Sometimes you treat me as if I’m still the little girl in braids. Do you know that some of my friends are already wed? Have babes on the way?”
Kitty shook her head. “You aren’t like them.”
Patience bristled, irritation skipping up her back. “What does that mean?”
With a shrug, Kitty focused on her son, bouncing him a little against her hip. “It means, you’re sweet, innocent. You—”
“What if I’m not?”
Kitty whipped her head around, her eyes wide. “Not what? Innocent? What do you mean by that? Something you’d like to confess?”
Patience held up her hands palms out, trying to ward off her sister’s ire. “O-of course not. It’s only…”
Kitty sighed and patted the baby’s chubby back. “My darling little sister, you know Lydia and I have to make sure nothing bad befalls you. It’s our task. And we’ve not taken the responsibility lightly.”
Patience shook her head. “It really isn’t. Not anymore.”
“I’m not sure why you’d say that. It’s always been that way. For years now.”
“Things have changed. I have changed.” She fisted her hands as her sides, the frustration nearly becoming her undoing. If she didn’t convince them to go alone so she could visit the old building, she might explode from unquenched curiosity. She liked Walter, but couldn’t imagine telling him about her quest. He’d recently come back from school with a head full of worldly knowledge. If she were to share her secret, he might give her the same incredulous look Kitty was giving her now.
Kitty laughed. Laughed!
Fury and embarrassment built in Patience until she thought she might combust. How dare she? What Patience felt right then wasn’t amusing in any way. The feelings and emotions rushing through her threatened to overtake her mind, her heart. It was as if a new thing, a new being, was stirring within her. Way down deep. She could neither control it nor change its course.
And she didn’t want to.
Because that uncomfortable stirring also made Patience feel more alive than she ever had. Full of energy. Wanting to escape. Some days it was all she could do not to race for the door, fling it open, and run.
Her heart longed for adventure. And every day the longing for something exciting to happen grew stronger.
Kitty narrowed her eyes and studied Patience, “Perhaps we should give you more responsibility. Maybe that would help us see how you’re maturing.”
Hope trickled a tiny path in her heart. “Yes? Such as what?”
“You could help take care of Andrew. I know he has us and his nurse, but I’m sure we could allow you to help too.”
Deflated, Patience’s shoulders sagged. That wasn’t at all what she had in mind. All she knew was, something needed to change. Soon. And whatever it was that would free her wasn’t something she could find within the walls of this house. Or, as much as she loved them, within her family. “You know how much I love Andrew, and I adore spending time with him, but…”
Kitty lowered her eyebrows. “I’m trying to grasp what it is you want. But you must understand, there are certain things I cannot allow with someone of your age and inexperience.”
How was Patience to gain any experience in life if she was kept enclosed like some bird in a tiny cage? Like some small rodent trapped in a corner, squeaking in protest but getting nowhere?
Slow, plodding footsteps sounded in the hall. Lydia, large with her first child, lumbered in, panting. A sheen of perspiration glistened on her forehead and red cheeks. “What’s going on? Why is everyone shouting?”
Patience sighed. “No one is shouting.” Her sister could make a catastrophe out of a picnic.
She pointed to the open doorway. “I could hear you from halfway up the steps, which by the way seem longer and steeper than they did yesterday.” Lydia appeared ready to collapse.
Kitty shook her head. “Lydia, you need to be resting, not traipsing all over creation.”
“Coming upstairs is hardly traipsing. I just can’t believe how exhausted everything makes me these days. I used to practically skip up those same steps.”
With a sigh, Patience took Lydia’s arm and helped her to the nearest chair, making sure she wouldn’t teeter over and collapse. Even with her newfound desire to run off and do something daring, something out of character, Patience seemed to revert back to her old self quickly enough, always wanting to help, to make everyone else happy and content. Not that she wanted to change that part of her personality completely, but maybe push it down a little, let some other characteristics rise to the surface. Become the new creature her heart yearned to be. Would that be so awful?
Her sister sat down hard, air whooshing from her lips. Lydia couldn’t be far from delivering her baby. She was enormous. Not that Patience would ever say that to her face. No, that would be as smart as a butterfly edging low enough in front of a cat for it to swipe at it with its paw.
Kitty lifted her son to her shoulder after he began to cry. She bounced him up and down gently. He finally calmed, his whimpers now occasional gurgles. “Lydia, Patience is balking at taking Walter with her to her commission at the falconry.”
Lydia fanned her face with her hand. “Not this tired old argument again.”
Patience clenched her teeth together, grabbed a fan from a side table, and gave it to Lydia.
The argument wasn’t tired to Patience. Not at all. She thought about the changes coming over her every moment. It wasn’t something that was going to go away any time soon — that she could be sure of. She’d not give up her quest to have some independence. Going back to the meek, sensible girl she’d been was out of the question. No, she was changing, had no desire to remain the same.
Patience wanted to escape. Flee the large house they all shared. Do something spontaneous and wild. Surely Lydia of all people would understand that, having spent time in Bedlam just last year. The poor thing had been imprisoned, chained to the floor, tortured, and nearly killed. Shouldn’t she see the importance of someone wanting her freedom?
Patience eyed her overly plump sister, slumping against the back of the chair. Lydia used to be bossy, demanding. Then she was wrongly committed to Bedlam, nearly dying while trapped there. After that, she’d softened around the edges. Wasn’t as particular about things that didn’t matter. Didn’t always say what was on her mind at any given moment as she used to when scolding Patience and Kitty for every infraction of the rules. Her pregnancy, however, seemed to have brought some of that prickliness back to the surface in the last few months. Perhaps once she’d given birth, she’d calm down once more, motherhood bringing out a softer side.
I can hope.
Yet again, noise came from the hall. Someone else climbed the steps. Patience stared at the open doorway. Who would it be this time? Stratford? Or Kitty’s husband, Nathaniel? Lydia’s in-laws?
It was Walter.
He strutted into the room, chest out, grinning smugly just the way Stratford used to when he’d been trying to impress Kitty. But that was before Kitty had fallen in love with Nathaniel and Stratford with Lydia.
Walter stopped and gave Patience a wink. “I hear it’s you and me tomorrow for your commission. What a fortunate girl you are.”
Kitty and Lydia laughed, but it was all Patience could do not to throw something at him. Fortunate girl, indeed. “I’ll have you know that I’d much rather go alone.”
Walter had the gall to laugh. “Is that so? Somehow—” He angled a glance toward Kitty and Lydia, who now occupied matching chairs by the fireplace. “—I don’t think your wish will come true. Although…” He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I’m more than enough to make all your dreams come true.”
“Oh.” She dropped her mouth open. Couldn’t help it. What a scoundrel. “Why you’re just—”
“Patience.” Lydia’s scowl would frighten a full grown mule into submission. “Whatever you were about to say, I wouldn’t if I were you.”
Why am I surrounded by family members at every turn? Is there no privacy to be had? Have I no say in my own life?
No, probably not. With a sigh, she went to a nearby settee and sat, her back anything but straight, folds of her dress anything but smooth. Who cared about her appearance? Or if she sat like a proper lady should, or if she said only the right words? Her family would never see her as anything than the baby sister.
When she was younger, she’d enjoyed the attention from her older siblings. Not anymore. Now their glib remarks and teasing only irritated her.
She sighed when Walter crossed the room and sat down next to her. Quite close. “Kindly move over.”
He frowned, looking around the area of their legs. “Why would I do that?”
“Because.” She dared a look at her sisters. Thankfully, they had their heads bent toward each other, whispering. Normally that would have annoyed Patience, because more often than not, her sisters kept things from her. This time, though, she was relieved. With her voice lowered, she said, “You’re sitting entirely too near. It’s improper.”
His grin was slow, like he knew something wicked he was dying to share with her. “My dear girl, are we not family of a sort? Can I not sit next to you without fear of reprimand?”
“We are only family because your brother married my sister. Otherwise we would be strangers.”
He held up his finger. “Ah, but that’s the difference. Because we are connected by family members, certain things are acceptable.”
“I think not.”
“You’d better get used to being with me, as I’ll accompany you beginning tomorrow.” His chuckle sounded almost evil, like he’d derive much glee from torturing her with his presence.
Patience sighed and turned her attention toward her sisters. Why couldn’t they have left the matter alone and let her go on her own? Just this once? Now her chances of seeing the haunted house were very unlikely.