The Husband Hunt Chapter Seventeen

Lisa shifted uncomfortably on the small cot with the lumpy mattress. Lumpy because she'd removed some of the straw and done a hurried and ineffective job of redistributing what remained in the filthy skin. She had no intention of taking the time to better fix it, but it was damned uncomfortable, she acknowledged and shifted onto her side facing the wall. Her hand tightened on the bed leg she held, and she moved it close to her body. She'd tucked it under her skirts by her leg while on her back. It was just as well hidden now, she hoped.

With nothing else to do, Lisa had decided she should try to rest and relax a bit to garner some energy for when Findlay returned. She would need all her strength and energy then, but not for what Findlay intended. Lisa wanted to be strong and ready to bash him viciously about the head with her weapon. He thought himself so clever. She would wipe that smug smirk off his face.

The sound of a door clicking shut reached her ears, faint and far away by her guess. It might even be upstairs. She had already noted that something about the stone walls and open area seemed to distort sound somewhat. A couple of times, she'd thought someone was moving around in the open area, only to find it empty and realize that the footsteps or movement must have been upstairs, echoing down to her somehow.

When no sound followed the soft click, Lisa forced herself to relax. He was not back yet.

A moment later a sudden high trilling laugh drifted to her through the bars. Lisa stilled in the bed again, her ears straining. It had sounded like a woman, and now she could hear footsteps, several sets of feet tapping down the wooden stairs in the open area, she guessed. Another peal of laughter and the murmur of voices, both men's and women's sounded, verifying that, and Lisa gripped her bed leg nervously, not sure what was happening.

Had Findlay returned, bringing more victims? She bit her lip and listened, frowning at the sudden violent sounds that erupted. Thuds, flesh hitting flesh and then gasps and a stifled female squeal of alarm and then a hushed silence.

Lisa was listening so hard for further sounds from the other room to try to sort out what was happening that she almost missed the quiet sounds at her cell door. She had just become conscious of them when the door opened with a faint squeal of rusty metal.

Lisa's heart immediately leapt into her throat. Charles Findlay was back and coming for her. Her hand tightened on her bed leg, nails digging into the wood, but she waited, listening tensely to the soft sound of footsteps moving toward the bed. Lisa didn't move until she felt a hand on her shoulder. Whirling then, she swung her weapon with all her might for where she expected Findlay's head to be.

The bed leg with its nasty nails was already swinging up when she recognized Robert. Crying out with alarm she tried to stop her blow, but the best she could do was change the angle enough that she didn't plant the leg with its nails in his eye as she'd intended. Instead it glanced off the side of his head, making him leap back with a pained shout.

"Robert," she gasped, dropping the makeshift weapon and leaping off the bed to hurry to him as he dropped to his knees. "Oh God, I'm sorry! I thought you were Findlay. Are you all right?"

The answer was a groan, and Lisa frowned as she knelt beside him and tried to get a look at his head. However, his hand was covering the wound, and while she wanted to know how badly she'd injured him, she could only think that her not being able to see it was a good thing. While she was worried about the damage she'd done, she did have a tendency to go faint when presented with blood. It was probably better she didn't actually see the wound until they were safely away.

"What happened?"

Lisa glanced up from Robert to see Daniel standing in the open cell door, a frown on his face as he took in the situation. Apparently Robert hadn't come alone to rescue her, she realized. Although she hadn't a clue how they'd even known where to look for her. Putting that aside for now, she said unhappily, "I thought he was Findlay and hit him with the bed leg."

"The bed leg?" Daniel asked, his eyes sliding to the bed against the wall.

"I stuffed my petticoats with straw from the mattress and jammed it under the bed to take the place of the leg I removed," she explained wearily.

"Clever," Daniel commented, glancing over his shoulder to the room behind him and then back. "Can you walk, Robert? We should get out of here. There is a house full of servants upstairs. If one of them comes down for any reason, they could bring all of them down on us."

Robert grunted and struggled to get up. Lisa immediately moved to help, dragging his arm across her shoulders to help support his weight. When they staggered to the door, Daniel backed out to allow them to pass. His gaze dropped over her as he did and he asked quietly, "Are you all right, Lisa? Findlay didn't . . ."

"I'm fine," she assured him when he hesitated. "Findlay intended to start his fun after the ball tonight. The plan was for him to attend the ball, act the distraught fiance, and then return to make me distraught," she said dryly.

Daniel's mouth tightened at the words and then he smiled crookedly. "Well, from the looks of it, he would have had a surprise waiting. It's almost a shame we weren't late enough for you to have koshed him a time or two first."

"While I would be delighted to kosh him a time or two. I am grateful to be getting out of here," Lisa assured him as she helped Robert across the open area. Her gaze slid around the room as she went, noting Richard and two light skirts standing by the stairs, watching over the unconscious bodies of a couple of Findlay's men. "Lisa!" the dark-haired one cried in a loud whisper.

Lisa came to a halt, forcing Robert to one as well and watched wide-eyed as the dark-haired light skirt spotted her and rushed toward them. Her eyes widened incredulously when the woman hugged her, nearly knocking Robert to the ground in her eagerness. Lisa glanced to Daniel with bewilderment, silently asking who the hell the woman was.

"Suzette looks magnificent, doesn't she?" Daniel asked with a grin and she turned her gaze sharply to the woman, but all she could see was the side of her head from her embrace. And then her gaze slid to the blonde approaching at a more dignified walk with Richard following, trying to drape his jacket over her, and Lisa's eyes nearly fell out of her head as she recognized Christiana.

"Dear God," she muttered, amazed at just how well her sisters could pass for prostitutes. Good Lord, it was rather shocking really. It made her think that if they took a light skirt off the street and dressed her proper, she could pass for a lady. The concept was one she had never contemplated. Lisa had always thought there was something different about such women, that they would be recognized for what they were no matter their dress or surroundings. But if Suzette and Christiana could pass for light skirts so easily . . . well, perhaps there wasn't really that much difference between ladies and light skirts except for circumstance.

"Thank God you are all right," Christiana murmured, hugging both her and Suzette at once.

"Why are you dressed like this?" Lisa asked uncertainly, and then paused to glance worriedly at Robert as he groaned and leaned more heavily against her.

"What the devil is taking you people so long?" a deep voice hissed.

Lisa glanced toward the top of the stairs to see a tall fellow with salt-and-pepper hair glaring down at them from the open door. He looked vaguely familiar, but it took her a moment to recognize him as the man Robert had met with several days ago.

"We are coming now, Mr. Smithe," Richard assured him quietly and then caught Christiana and Suzette's arms and urged them toward the stairs, before turning to Lisa. "Why do you not let Daniel and I help Robert up the stairs? It will go faster."

She hesitated, but then gave up her position under Robert's arm and stepped away to allow the two men to take up position on either side of the injured man. Once assured they had him, she turned to follow Christiana and Suzette past the unconscious men on the floor. Lisa managed to keep walking and refrain from stopping to kick the big beefy one she recognized as the fellow who had dragged her out of the carriage and nearly smothered her to death before dumping her in the cell. If looks could kill, however, she doubted he'd be waking up from his enforced sleep.

Lisa hurried quickly and quietly up the stairs behind her sisters, with the men bringing up the rear. At the top, they stepped into the kitchens she'd been dragged through on arriving.

An aproned woman sat at the table, apparently asleep. Or perhaps unconscious. The tall thin man who had urged them to hurry was there as well, and stood by a door leading to the rest of the house. He glanced around at their arrival and waved them on toward the outer door, then continued his vigil in presumably watching for approaching servants. Now that they were off the narrow stairs, Christiana and Suzette each grabbed one of Lisa's arms and scampered out of the house, pulling her with them as if afraid she might dally.

Not bloody likely, Lisa thought grimly. She couldn't get out of there quickly enough for her liking.

A hired hack sat waiting in the courtyard behind the house when they hurried outside and her sisters led her to it, urging her in first before following. Lisa settled on one of the narrow benches, but sat forward anxiously to watch for Robert as her sisters climbed in.

Suzette and Christiana both claimed the opposite bench seat, leaving just enough room beside Lisa for Robert to be set beside her once the men reached it.

"What about you men?" Lisa heard Christiana ask with concern as she leaned forward to peer into Robert's dazed face.

Apparently, she had really nailed him with the bed leg. It was a darned good thing that she'd recognized him and offset her blow or he might be dead. A shame it hadn't been Findlay though, she thought, as Richard assured her sister that they would follow in the Radnor carriage.

He then slammed the carriage door. Both Suzette and Christiana peered anxiously out the window at their husbands as the vehicle began to move. A moment later, Suzette sagged back against the squabs with a sigh and announced, "They got to the carriage without anyone stopping them. So did Mr. Smithe."

"Good," Lisa murmured, assuming Mr. Smithe was the tall man with salt-and-pepper hair. She glanced to Christiana as her older sister relaxed as well, and managed a smile for the two women before glancing to Robert again.

His eyes were closed. He appeared asleep and his hand was no longer covering his head, but fortunately, his head was pressed against her shoulder, hiding the wound and the blood that was no doubt there. Letting out her breath, she glanced back to her sisters and took in their outfits. "Why are you dressed like that?"

"We had to distract Findlay's servants so the men could slip into the house," Suzette said with a grin.

"Distract them? Really?" Lisa asked with amazement, wondering what that had consisted of. Although she supposed so much cleavage on display would have been distracting on its own with most men.

"Yes, and gad, it was fun," Suzette said on a laugh, and then wrinkled her nose. "Well, mostly it was. Wasn't too keen when the one fellow pinched me as we were heading down the stairs."

"Daniel didn't appreciate it much either," Christiana said dryly. "I swear he put a little more vigor into knocking out the fellow than was strictly necessary once we got downstairs where he and Richard were waiting."

Suzette grinned again. "And he kicked him something fierce between the legs as he went down too," she said on a laugh. Christiana shook her head and glanced to Lisa. "She always was the more violent-natured of the three of us."

Lisa smiled faintly, but then said, "Thank you . . . for helping save me."

Christiana got all misty-eyed at once and leaned forward to squeeze her hand. "We could do nothing else. And you would have done the same for us."

"Aye," she said simply and turned her hand over to squeeze her back. "How did you sort out where I was?"

Christiana quickly explained the events that had led to her rescue. Lisa listened silently, and when she finished, asked, "What will they do about Findlay?"

Suzette and Christiana exchanged a glance. It was Suzette who sighed and said, "I am not sure they can do anything, Lisa. At least not without dragging you into scandal."

"So he just gets away with everything?" she asked with a scowl. "I don't know," Christiana said unhappily. "I hope not, but we shall have to wait and see what the men come up with to handle him. I doubt they will just let him get away with it unless absolutely necessary. They have to think of you too, Lisa."

She grimaced with displeasure at this, but then the carriage slowed and stopped and she glanced out the window to see they were home. Lisa was just wondering how they were to get the unconscious Robert inside, when the carriage door opened and Richard peered in. The Radnor carriage had obviously followed very closely, or had overtaken them at some point and arrived first for him to be there that quickly.

Lisa and her sisters got out and waited at the side of the carriage while Daniel got in to hand Robert down to Richard. The women then followed as the men carried him into the house. They took him straight to his room upstairs, but when Lisa started to move to the bed once he was laid out on it, Suzette caught her arm and urged her away.

"Blood," she said simply for explanation when Lisa frowned at her.

Lisa shoulders immediately drooped with defeat and she allowed herself to be urged to the window of Robert's room while Christiana tended to him. She stared silently out the window as she waited for him to be cleaned up enough that she could see him without fainting.

She and Suzette were silent as they waited, each of them casting the occasional glance toward the trio crowded around Robert's bed as Christiana cleaned the wound and did whatever else needed doing. It seemed to take a long time, but Lisa suspected that was because she was waiting, and then Christiana straightened and said something to the men before moving to join them by the window. "How is he?" Lisa asked with concern.

"He's got a cut and a bit of a knot on the side of his head, but I think he'll be all right," Christiana said quietly.

Lisa stared at her silently, recognizing the worry in her eyes.

"He's unconscious."

"Yes," she said with a sigh. "And that's worrisome. But I really do think he'll be okay, Lisa. I doubt he has eaten anything all day, and he was under a great deal of stress fretting over you. That may have just exacerbated the situation and weakened him. I'm sure he'll wake up soon." Christiana hesitated and then said, "Why do you not go lie down for a bit? You had a long rough day as well. I will come get you when he regains consciousness."

Lisa hesitated, but then nodded and turned to head for the door. It had been a long day. Very stressful, really. First the hack driver had abandoned her to the mercies of the men on the street, and then Findlay had shown his true colors and taken delight in scaring her silly about his plans for her. She was very tired, Lisa acknowledged to herself as she slipped from Robert's room and crossed the hall to her own.

It was only as she reached for the door to her room that Lisa wondered where Bet was. According to her sisters it was the maid who had revealed what the men were keeping from them, that Findlay had paid the hack driver to abandon her and the men suspected it had been so that he could take her away. She would have expected the maid to be waiting anxiously to see if Lisa was rescued. However, there had been no sign of the girl since their return.

Releasing the doorknob, Lisa turned and headed up the hall instead of entering her room. She then hurried lightly down to the ground floor and moved quickly up the hall to the door to the kitchen. She found Cook and a couple of other servants seated at a table there, chattering quietly. They all paused and glanced her way as she opened the door, and each offered a relieved smile and a comment regarding being glad to see her there healthy and well.

Lisa wasn't surprised. She had no doubt they knew what had happened, or at least a good portion of it. It was simply impossible to keep secrets from servants.

She murmured a quiet thank-you and then asked after Bet, only to be told she'd gone up to Lisa's room to await her return. If she hadn't made an appearance yet, she'd probably fallen asleep waiting, was the overriding belief. Smiling, Lisa nodded and thanked them, then left them to their relaxation. She entered her room a couple moments later and glanced around as she closed the door behind her, expecting to find Bet nodding off in a chair there . . . and she did find Bet in a chair. She wasn't asleep, however. She was wide awake, wide-eyed, and bound and gagged in the chair she sat in.

Lisa stilled at once, and then following the direction of her maid's glance, whirled instinctively back to the door. Findlay stood, leaning against the wall beside the door, arms and ankles crossed in a relaxed pose and smiling widely.

"You are lucky I am a patient man, Lisa, else I would surely punish you for making me wait so long for your return," he commented with a smile. Then he straightened and moved toward her, saying, "Of course, I suppose I can hardly blame you. The men appear to have taken their time in bringing you back. Dare I hope they ran into trouble with my men? I did notice that Langley had to be carried in."

Lisa opened her mouth to scream for help, but Findlay was fast.

Before a sound could slip from her lips, he was on her, covering her mouth with one hand, and pulling her tight up against his chest with the other at the back of her neck. Lisa grabbed at his arms to keep her balance in the awkward position and had to hold on to stay on her feet.

"I spotted the Radnor carriage sitting on my street as I headed out for the ball. It seemed obvious to me that I hadn't been as clever as I'd thought and help was on the way," he whispered, urging her backward. "I debated what to do. Return to the house and warn the servants to prepare for all-out battle? Or flee for the Continent?"

"However, then it occurred to me that there was no real need to flee for the Continent. They weren't likely to call in the authorities. After all, that would damage your reputation. It made me realize I had another option. I could come here. They would rescue you, bring you back here and relax a bit thinking you were safe in the bosom of your family, and then I could take you away right from under their noses. It would mean at least one whole night's head start to drag you to Gretna Green and force you into marriage before they even knew you were missing."

Lisa glared at him over the hand he had over her mouth.

"I know, I know," he said with a shake of the head. "It means having to bypass all those lovely little pleasures I'd thought we might enjoy tonight. But we can still enjoy them after the wedding."

Lisa felt the window ledge press against the backs of her legs and tried to glance around, but he was holding her head still with the hand over her mouth. Pinning her against the window ledge with his hips, he removed the arm from around her and dragged something out of his pocket. In the next moment he'd shoved a balled-up cloth of some sort into her mouth. Lisa instinctively lifted her hands to remove it, but found her wrists immediately clasped in his hands and dragged behind her back. Holding them there with one hand, he then retrieved another strip of cloth from his pocket and quickly bound her wrists.

While he was distracted with tying her hands, Lisa tried to work the gag out of her mouth. All it would take was one good shout and help would be there in an instant. She almost managed it, but just as Lisa was about to spit the last of it out and give that shout, Charles finished with her hands and returned his attention to her gag, pushing it back into her mouth to the point where she thought she might choke on it. He then produced another strip of cloth and placed it over her mouth, forcing it between her lips and then tying it around behind her head.

"Now," he said pleasantly once he'd finished. "This is going to be tricky, but we are going out the window and down the tree. You, of course, don't have your hands to help you so will have to depend on me to keep you from falling. I will keep you safe . . . unless you try to escape. If you try to escape, I will let you fall. Do we understand each other?"

When Lisa hesitated, he squeezed her bound wrists together painfully. "Do we understand each other?"

She nodded abruptly.

"Good." Charles smiled.

Lisa eyed him warily, and then gasped into her gag when he suddenly turned her to face the window.

"Here we go," he murmured by her ear.

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