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Heart in Hiding (The Six Pearls of Baron Ridlington Book 6) by Sahara Kelly (1)

Prologue

March 1816, the Devon coastline

“I don’t know, Hecate, it looks a bit neglected,” said Mrs. Cressida Ridlington, as she followed her sister-in-law into the building.

“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?” grinned Hecate Ridlington. “Think of all the wonderful things I can do to it.”

Cressida exchanged a look with her husband, Richard.

Who shrugged. “She’s not been through any kind of repair experiences,” he said. “Give her a month or two of hammering and sawing, and she’ll understand your concerns.”

Hecate smiled, walking from room to room. “You must admit that for a small country house it is remarkably well set up. Plenty of bedrooms upstairs and a large attic chamber. The quarters for the servants are in excellent condition. And not only is there a very fair sized hall, but a dining room that could probably seat at least a dozen at a pinch, a large parlour, a small parlour and a room that might have been a study.” She led them into the latter. “There are even books left.

Cressida wrinkled her nose. “Oh, that smell is so familiar.”

“Mice?” Richard quirked an eyebrow. “We had plenty of those.”

Mrreeeooow.” An indignant sound arose from the ink black creature who had followed them into the room.

Hecate nodded. “I agree, Bub darling. No mouse would dare to show his whiskers in your residence.” She leaned over and petted the large head. The cat gave her a contented murmur, as if to acknowledge her comment.

“You’re determined, then?” Richard gazed at his sister with affection. “I know, of old, that once you set your mind to something…there’s little use arguing.”

“Dear brother,” she grinned back. “Yes, you know me well. There is something about this house, some attraction I feel inside. It’s as if it awaited my arrival to come back to life. As soon as I saw it, I felt…well, I should say it felt like home.”

Cressida gave her an impulsive hug. “Then we are with you, my dear sister. If there’s anything we can do to help, you need only send a message.”

“And wait for a day or so, I should think,” added Richard with his newfound practicality. “The roads between here and Branscombe Magna are rough, to say the least. And these incessant rains and bad weather aren’t helping matters.”

Hecate nodded. “I do understand that. Neither of us will be able to walk over to the other’s house for tea. And although that sounds lovely, I know we all value our privacy. I’m near enough to be able to reach you somehow if there is trouble, Richard.”

“Yes, but will you?” He regarded her soberly. “Promise me, Hecate. If you run into anything of a dangerous or risky nature…you will ask for help? Just because you’ve attained your majority, doesn’t make you an instant expert in all things.”

“I shall make sure she remembers your words, Mr. Richard.”

A deep voice sounded behind them and they turned to see Dal, Hecate’s friend, companion and guardian standing by the door. He wore a dark robe, and the turban twined around his head was fastened with a simple amber pin. His features were carved planes in the amber hues of his face, and he’d been at Hecate’s side since her accident over a year ago.

Richard nodded. “Very good. If Dal says it will be so, I am content.”

Hecate rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Richard. What on earth can happen out here in this lovely quiet spot? I’m barely a mile from Little Beechwood, so I will be able to buy supplies and receive messages there. The Bell Inn is on the Royal Mail route, so I might even get the London papers, if I wish.”

“Er…probably a couple of weeks late,” offered Cressida.

Hecate turned her unusual teal blue gaze toward the other woman. “Does it really matter?”

“No, I suppose not,” sighed Cressida. “I have never been an ardent follower of London news, but it seems as if we’re disconnected to the important things if we don’t read about what’s happening now and again.”

“Don’t worry,” soothed Hecate, walking to the grubby window of the soon-to-be-her-study. “I’m sure village gossip will supply more than enough news for my tender ears.”

Richard joined her. “This is an amazing view, love,” he said, hugging her. “Edmund would wholeheartedly approve.”

Knowing her eldest brother’s affinity for the ocean, she nodded, and they both watched the stately passage of a large three-masted schooner as she scudded over the distant waves, sails billowing and wake gleaming white against the grey waves.

Then Richard shivered. “God, it’s cold. Not just here, but everywhere. The rain never lets up more than an hour or two. I hope spring is better, because I don’t envy you trying to organize any outside repairs in this weather.”

“I’m not worried, because I know I’ll be happy here,” said Hecate, her voice level. “I realise it will not all be smooth sailing. There will be challenges. Changes. I will have to adapt and adjust. But I will be happy, when all is said and done. This much I do know.”

Richard and Cressida glanced at each other. They recognised that tone of voice—it was the one they heard when Hecate was speaking of things that had yet to pass. She had gifts, some might say talents, which included seeing through the veils of time and stealing glimpses of the future.

A hundred years ago she might have been accused of witchcraft. Others had, with much less cause. But in Hecate’s case, the charges would have deserved merit. She was indeed possessed of skills and abilities that marked her as unique.

Fortunately, her family accepted these talents, listened to her, and regarded her as theirs. She was a Ridlington, and thus a member of the family, to be loved and cherished. Woe betide those who wished her harm.

She had proved herself invaluable more than a few times, and only last year had persuaded Edmund to make some risky investments. It had been a month or so before the battle at Waterloo, and he’d looked at her, somewhat nervously, before nodding. She had added some of her own savings as well.

The gamble had paid off handsomely. Edmund now had a substantial fund to use for the upkeep of Ridlington Chase, and Hecate had an account of her own that provided a comfortable income. Some would go toward fixing up the house, but in the main, she was now a woman of independent means.

Even that knowledge couldn’t stop Richard from worrying. But he restrained himself to a sigh. “We must be on our way, Hecate. I’d like to get back to Branscombe as early as we can, without risking the horses, and it’ll be getting cold once the sun disappears.”

“Of course,” she smiled. “Thank you, my dears. I am so happy this place found me while you were here.”

Cressida took a minute to work out that complex statement and then decided to keep things simple. “Us too.” She absently placed her hand against her body where a tiny flutter had made itself known.

“They’re fine,” said Hecate, walking over to give her sister-in-law a hug.

“Why you keep saying they, I’m not sure,” frowned Richard, a worried look on his face. “One baby, Hecate. One at a time.”

“Yes, Richard. Of course, Richard.” She laughed. “Cressy will know soon enough.”

The party separated with expressions of affection; the Ridlingtons rejoining the carriage and heading home toward Branscombe Magna.

Dal and Hecate remained in the doorway, watching the vehicle roll away. “So this is where we shall now reside then, Miss Hecate?” Dal looked around.

“Yes, Dal. Yes, this will be home for us.”

“It’s not as well appointed as the cottage outside Chillendale.” He sounded cautious.

“No, it isn’t. But that was a special moment. And you remember how much work it took to sustain the image of a lady’s residence.”

He nodded. “I understand. Although I shall miss it. Of all the locations in which we have stayed, that one was the nicest, I believe.”

“Then we shall use that as our model for this one. But now it will be real.”

They exchanged glances, and Dal nodded.  He understood what she meant, for he had seen the full range of her abilities.

Hecate could twist reality into a different shape and style although it took an enormous amount of her energy.

He silently offered a prayer of thanks that she wouldn’t have to be doing that anymore.

She turned into the house. “We need a name, Dal. A name for our new home.”

He blinked. “Um…Why?”

She smiled. “It’s expected of a lady to have a name for her estate, no matter how tiny. What about…” She put her finger to her chin and thought, her eyes roaming around the dark and musty interior. “Doireann Vale?”

“A strange word. Doran…” he commented, trying to get his tongue around it and pronounce it correctly. “’Tis not English?”

“It’s from a book I read once,” replied Hecate. “All about fairies and their legends. Doireann was the daughter of an Irish fairy King. I used to pretend that I was her, and that he’d given me to the Ridlingtons to keep me safe from his enemies.” She shrugged. “The innocence of childhood, Dal. Nothing more. And Vale for the position we hold, tucked between two hills, overlooking the coastline.”

Dal took a deep breath as a sudden strong gust blew around them, the salty tang of the sea snapping against their skin. “I believe the gods have listened, Miss Hecate. They have sent their approval on the wind.” He looked down at her. “Doireann Vale it is.”

He went inside, but she remained on the doorstep, looking out over the distant headlands to the sea. The waves showed white today, a mark of the turbulence disturbing the waters. As she watched, her vision blurred a little and she saw ships, several ships, making for land.

It wasn’t here, not this coastline, but another; green hills showing through drifts of fog, and spray from the crashing waves.

She heard voices, men’s voices, sailors calling to each other as they clambered up slender ropes to adjust the sails.

Somewhere, on one of these ships, was someone important.

The knowledge seeped into her bones, settling there, letting her know that he would find her, or she would find him, when the time was right.

She tried to go deeper into her vision, but it changed suddenly to one of tragedy, of pain. There were cries and wails of agony as the green fields turned brown, the earth to hard cold stone, and the people lay down on that stone—and died.

What was she seeing? She didn’t know, but ignorance didn’t stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks as she watched the devastation. She felt herself retreating, withdrawing, and yet as she did so, the image expanded to reveal a countryside that had frozen, bodies scattered like leaves in November, covered with a dusting of snow. It was unreal, horrifying and it caught Hecate by the throat.

She cried out, grasping the door jamb for support as the vision faded.

“Miss Hecate…” Dal was there in an instant.

“Oh God.” She sagged as Dal caught her, picked her up and took her inside to one of the few chairs.

“Sit. I will fetch tea.”

She nodded, fighting to get her breath back, and to banish the worst of the images still searing her mind. Her eyes closed as she fought to push away the scenes, the horror of her visions.

“You saw, didn’t you?” Dal knelt next to her, a steaming cup in his hand. “Here, drink this. You know it helps.”

She took the cup gratefully and sipped the hot, strong brew. Her scattered thoughts reassembled themselves.

“Yes, I saw,” she whispered, after another sip. “I saw so many things. Ships, sailors, storms at sea…then…”

“Then what, Miss Hecate?” Dal touched her arm gently. “Tell me.”

Her hand shook a little, but she drank more tea, knowing the warmth helped. “I saw devastation, Dal. Terrible devastation. Disease, a land turned barren, starvation…” She took a sobbing breath. “This year will be a bad one.”

“What can we do?” Dal’s voice was soft, comforting.

“Prepare. We must prepare. We have to make this house safe, strong and warm. We need to lay in as much in the way of foodstuffs as we can, and see to storing more.” She shivered. “We have to be ready, Dal. And we must be ready for him when he comes.”

“Who is coming, Miss Hecate?”

“The man who will change my life. Forever.”