Over-sexed slag? Pamela Gibbon was forty-three. She was a fit, attractive, sexual woman, and she enjoyed the company of men – one at a time – a few years younger. They enjoyed her, too – a lot. But she had overheard the snide, disgusting comments in Folly-on-Weir’s village pub and if they were slamming her there, it wouldn’t be the only place.
She had stood in the entrance to the public bar at the Black Dog just long enough to take in the sneering chuckles among a group of men and women she had considered, if not friends, at least friendly acquaintances. Being approachable shouldn’t make her the butt of jokes.
For ten years she had lived among these people. She and her now dead husband bought their home, Cedric Chase, and lived there together until Charles died. Pamela had never thought of leaving. She loved the village and although she wasn’t particularly gregarious, she was on nodding and smiling terms with most locals.
A flush washed her neck. She wouldn’t have been at the pub tonight if she hadn’t wanted an opportunity for another look at Hugh Rhys. Hugh, the new manager who the owner, Alex Duggins, had hired to fill a vacancy, had a raw vitality about him and Pamela enjoyed getting sucked into the circle of intelligent conversation he attracted. He also attracted Pamela in other ways, although she was more than well satisfied with Harry Stroud and expected to remain so, especially now. She enjoyed Harry, a lot, and had half-hoped she would find him at the Black Dog . . .
Damn them all. She’d do what she bloody well pleased, including meeting Harry Stroud in a broken tower at a ruined manor house, in the middle of the night, to do whatever made them laugh, and sweat, and shout out their pleasure. At least what was left of old Ebring Manor, the ragged stone outline of the fourteenth-century house, a badly damaged drum tower, part of a fortifying wall along the River Windrush, the shells of several cavernous rooms and an incongruous fireplace or two – at least it was too far out to draw local kids and too decimated to interest even intrepid tourists. And Ebring wasn’t famous for anything in particular.
Within a couple of hours of turning away from the Black Dog, she had left home on the outskirts of Folly-on-Weir just before eleven and struck out through the back lanes leading to the neighboring village of Underhill. Silvering from a three-quarter moon was all she needed to find her way, but she did recoil from the sounds of birds flying up from hedgerows and animals slinking about their nightly business.
Perhaps she hadn’t really intended to meet Harry tonight, not before she heard the jeers. Occasionally she liked to leave him waiting, make up an excuse when next she saw him, just to keep his interest bubbling. Not that she needed to, it just made her feel more desirable – and inventive – and it made Harry more ardent. But no, that wasn’t what she had intended for this evening. It was time for them to have a more serious chat. Past time. Tonight she half-ran uphill to meet him. When she felt as she did now, it took too long to get there.
Initially she’d been annoyed that it was impossible to meet at his place. She lived alone but since it was important to Harry, the last thing she wanted was her housekeeper prying and spreading rumors – as if she hadn’t heard proof that it was already happening.
There was always the danger that one of them would be seen – not in the ruins, but leaving the village on foot at all hours. But danger had come to heighten the excitement. But she didn’t think that would matter for long.
She smiled in the chilled darkness, breathed in the scent of approaching spring, of earth still hard and cool, though she had seen the tips of the first daffodils trying to push bright green shoots into the light. The blooms would be delayed and small this year.
Even dampened by the late hour, the subtle fragrance of bluebells turned the night soft and sleepy. True spring would be very late.
The sky resembled a great, black velvet bowl swirled with specks of shattered crystal. It was a marvelous, mysterious night.
Crossing the road that ran toward Underhill, then into the hills above Folly-on-Weir took a little time. A driver who picked her up in the headlights might stop to see if she was OK. Awkward wouldn’t cover that event. And she knew Harry didn’t want his father, the major, to hear gossip about his love life. Major Stroud still expected his son to marry a ‘suitable young gel.’ Harry lived in his parents’ house, the largest, most imposing one in the village.
Inheritance was a large issue in Harry’s life, poor dear. Not that it had to be. She intended to help take the power out of Major and Mrs Stroud’s hands.
A single vehicle came from the right and she leaped back into the cover of brush, and ducked down. If the driver of the car noticed her, he or she didn’t believe their eyes and carried on – after a few seconds, or perhaps she only imagined the hesitation.
Her hours in the saddle kept her conditioned. Grateful for her strong rider’s legs, she struck out at a jog. In the large flask she wore across her body under a tweed jacket, a good part of a bottle of Clos des Saveurs ’76 Bas Armagnac bounced solidly against her. Harry had a weakness for fine cognac, one Pamela shared. And he knew his stuff. This would make him happy. She also carried a heavy green canvas bag, with the binoculars she wanted to return to Harry inside, and a box of the La Florentine Marrons Glace Harry loved, especially when they lay together after sex. The little candied chestnuts from Italy were only one of the many delicacies he had a taste for.
Thick trees lined the rim of the hill in the direction she had to go. She quickened her pace. Harry’s phone message had come in on her answer machine while she was on her way to the Black Dog. Thank God she hadn’t missed it when she went home in a funk.
Once in the trees, she used her small flashlight and followed a familiar, if faint, track they had made for themselves with regular visits. A few more minutes and she broke into the clearing where what remained of Ebring Manor reflected the moonlight.
She switched off her torch and carried on. Every step of the way was familiar.
At the base of the tower she stopped, disappointed. Usually Harry greeted her there, but not tonight. Her heart speeded up. She hadn’t got back to him, not that she always did. But he’d sounded as if he expected her. If he thought she wasn’t coming he wouldn’t be here either. Her breath shortened and tears of frustration prickled in her eyes. ‘Harry?’ she whispered up the spiral stone stairs.
The short tower acted like an echo chamber. Even a whisper slithered eerily upward.
Climbing carefully over broken stones and partially missing steps, she reached the top but didn’t find him. It was the perfect night. They wouldn’t need to huddle beneath a tarp to keep dry, although huddling with Harry was no hardship. Most of the roof had fallen away up here but they stored their supplies under what cover was left and rationalized that if it was ever found and taken, they would simply replace it. Pamela put down the bag with the heavy binoculars inside and waited, peering into the darkness from the broken walls of the tower.
She would soon get cold staying up here alone. This time she would have to be the one to wait at the foot of the stairs, looking for her lover. The tower trapped faint moonglow inside and darkness gathered beyond the open doorway. Outside, she leaned against the rough wall and filled her lungs with air that felt still.
A faint light came on – from the ground some twenty-five or so feet to her right. The light was a thin beam. There, then almost gone. There again, then all but gone again. Then it stayed on, shining upward through the circular grating that covered an ancient well. So many times she’d tried to persuade Harry to help her shift the heavy grill and climb down the rungs she could see driven into the wall inside. ‘Those rungs have to lead to something,’ she’d rationalized. He would never do it. She squeezed her eyes shut and heard how he insisted he couldn’t risk her hurting herself. It was too dangerous.
Once again she looked. The feeble light was steady. She went closer – and choked back a scream. She slapped a hand over her mouth. The well was open. Another few steps and she could have fallen into the hole.
Someone had lifted the grill enough to swing it aside and let it rest mostly on the grass.
The light from below fizzled out.
Dropping to her knees, she crawled to the edge on all fours and trained her small torch downward, picking out the first few rusted metal rungs sunk into the stone sides of the well.
Harry! She grinned. He must have thought he could greet her with proof that her little obsession led nowhere interesting. He probably planned to leap out and shock her.
Tucking her torch away and leaving the bag behind, she swung a leg over the hole and felt around until she got it firmly on a metal bar. Quickly, keeping a firm hold on the rim where the grating usually rested, she concentrated on starting a stealthy descent. If he didn’t realize she was coming down, when she got close he’d find out who was in for a shock!
The torch could only be used for brief periods since she needed both hands, but she shone it cautiously at her feet and saw how the rungs stretched into the blackness.
Harry must have seen her light by now. This wasn’t feeling such a lark anymore.
Her skin turned damp and she felt sick, but she wasn’t going back. One of the things Harry liked about her was her gutsy, if quiet, personality.
A couple more steps and she had to start hanging onto the rungs with her fingers, too. She stuffed the torch into a pocket and left it there.
Glass broke. It had to be glass although the sound was faint and brief.
A ping came. A pause, and another ping.
Something solid hit her right shoulder. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she cried out, flapping at her arm. Rapidly a cold object met the side of her face, slithered through her hair against her scalp and was gone. Flapping a hand at her head, she leaned against the wall. She turned on her light again, swung it upward, but saw only the opening above and a fuzzy halo blending into deep gloom.
Her muscles jerked and she shook, clutched the rungs, fighting for her breath. This was madness. She was getting out of here.
Her heart gradually stopped its painful beating in her throat and she put the torch away again – struck out, hand over hand, until her fingertips slid over the cold metal rim again and into dirt and gravel.
Pamela felt tears wet on her cheeks. She coughed and released one hand to wipe at her eyes before grabbing hold again.
A clang, like a rusty bell, rang out above her.
With her mouth open to drag at what oxygen her short breaths could catch, she made to haul herself out.
Pain came without warning, seared her fingers, her hands, her arms. Her garbled, ‘He-lp,’ scarcely sounded around the vomit she couldn’t control. The grate had dropped back in place, crushing her fingers beneath its horrendous weight.
For moments – she didn’t know how long – her legs swung free. She couldn’t think for the burning, mind-freezing pain. Drops hit her face and she tasted blood. Her own blood from her own hands.
‘I’m down here.’ It came as a gagging whisper and she concentrated every scrap of strength on raising her voice. ‘Help me. I-I’m shut in the well.’
She heard the grill scrape, peered up through stinging eyes to see it moving aside again. A tiny slit appeared while someone, who grunted loudly, strained and lifted.
Her vision distorted – the edges of her consciousness blurred. Were her feet on the rungs again? Choking, she tried to move her crushed hands but there was no feeling.
‘I can’t hold on,’ she screamed, feeling herself slide backward. ‘Grab my wrists.’ She screamed again.
Two strong, smooth hands pulled her bursting fingers free.
Rubber gloves, she thought, like a doctor.
He didn’t have to push her, simply let go.
Pamela’s head slammed into the stone walls as she fell.
With a mighty ringing, the grill smashed back into place, reverberated in waves all the way to her utter silence.
Second in the traditional British mystery series featuring rural inn owner and amateur sleuth Alex Duggins: an intriguing departure for bestselling romantic suspense author Stella Cameron.
Once again Alex Duggins and her veterinarian friend Tony Harrison are thrown into a major murder investigation. An almost fresh body is discovered in a disused well among the ruins of a 14th-century manor house … the motive for the killing a baffling mystery. The victim was a widow who had lived quietly in the picturesque Cotswolds village of Folly-on-Weir for the past ten years. Who on earth could want her dead, and by such brutal means?
As rumour and speculation engulf the town, another woman is attacked – and Alex discovers that behind a tranquil face lurks a cunning and vengeful mind. Despite warnings from the police to stop interfering, she finds herself in the sights of a ruthless killer who has decided she knows too much …