Twenty-two years ago, Mary Winchester — the beloved Wife of John Winchester and adored Mother of Samuel and Deane Winchester — was cruelly lost within a fire that claimed the Winchester family's home. Since that day, a bereaved John Winchester has traveled throughout Europe, tracking the foul creature that perpetrated such a cruel trick upon his family; raising his sons to follow in his footsteps.
Armed with Samuel's inventions and Deane's uncanny ability to bring down any prey, the brothers Winchester travel through Great Britain and Europe, following clues they receive in the form of mysterious letters — and Samuel's disturbing visions.
Disclaimer: The Winchester boys, even within this incarnation, are regrettably not my creation. Likewise, the idea of the weapons they use owes more to Jules Verne than to my own devising. And while Mr. Winchester's peculiar mode of transport has not yet made an appearance, its particular execution also does not belong to me. However, I will take full and knowledgeable blame for impinging upon your senses with this entirely silly romp through a very different Victorian England.
Characters: Samuel Winchester, Vertiline Lucas, Deane Winchester, Penelope Harcourt, Winston Hillsworth, Almira Jennings, and a cast of minor characters too numerous to recall.
Pairings (Overall): Deane/OFCs, Samuel/OFC
Rating (Overall): M
Rating: M (Naughty Victorian escapades and not inconsequential angst.)
Summary: Samuel determines that the situation in Westshire is much graver than even he anticipated, while Vertiline makes a shocking discovery of her own at Highchurch Manor.
Feedback: I would consider you most kind if you would do so.
Miscellaneous: This lovely little homage to Romance and Adventure owes its sparkle to the ever-radiant wenchpixie. This chapter is dedicated to Rozzy07, who finally has gotten her wish regarding a certain Winchester's dashing appearance.
Chapter Six: Wherein the Signs of a Conspiracy are Observed and a Grave Wound is Examined
The rain began falling minutes after they left the grounds, nothing more forceful than a peaceful mist sparkling through the trees. When she was a child, Vertiline adored mornings such as this; she and Penelope would tramp through the countryside, firm in the knowledge that there was Magic and Mystery in the world; knowing that every tree had its spirit, and every flower its purpose. Their very steps guided by no little Luck.
Vertiline Lucas had always been blessed in that regard, for all that Fate itself enjoyed marking her life with hardship. She could think of no other explanation regarding her survival when she was but six months old, and traveling to Highchurch with her parents. Aunt Cecily would never say what they found at the accident site – simply that Vertiline had been discovered underneath a small canopy of flowers, unharmed and not far from the wreckage; the sole survivor of the incident.
Aunt Cecily was the greatest blessing of all, truth be told. Vertiline loved Uncle Winston – there were few better men within the whole of England – but she missed her Aunt fiercely. While she was growing up, her aunt would tell her stories about her parents so that Vertiline would never forget them – so that they would be a reality to their daughter, something more tangible than a portrait in the Main Hall. It was their own small ritual, the secret that they shared every day without fail.
Not even Penelope knew about those stories.
As soon as she learned her letters, Vertiline had begun collecting her aunt's stories into journals – Grand Tales of Adventure featuring two young girls named Rosalind and Cecily. Whenever she felt particularly lonely, Verd would review her oldest writing, fingers touching her childish scribbles; she was always struck by how similar her childhood was to her mother's – for Penelope was, despite their relation, more sister than cousin.
A crack of thunder broke into Vertiline's thoughts, and she realized that the rain was beating into the ground – heavy drops hanging off plants and trees as they passed. She glanced at Samuel Winchester, walking steadily beside her. The rain was sheeting off whatever pomade he used when dressing his hair, dripping onto his shoulders. He appeared utterly miserable.
"We can share my umbrella, Mr. Samuel," she said.
"That would be unseemly, Miss Lucas," her companion replied, but there was a small smile upon his face. "I would not want it said that a Winchester needed to rely upon a woman to keep him safe from the rain."
Vertiline laughed. "I do not think it would be unseemly, sir, if you were to hold the parasol while we walked. A passerby might conclude that you are simply being a gentleman, and assisting the lady in question." She leaned towards him conspiratorially. "I could even hold my skirts above the ground to engender the proper effect."
"Your concern regarding my reputation is duly noted," Samuel Winchester remarked, gracing her with a smile that revealed both of his dimples. He moved underneath the umbrella and grasped its handle.
"If I were truly concerned for your reputation, there is something else entirely that I would rectify," she answered. He looked at her quizzically, while Vertiline slowed her pace and pulled off her right glove. She looked around them for sign of another's approach and then reached up to muss his hair – fortunately, the rain had loosened the pomade's hold, and she was able to fluff the hair to show his natural part. "There," she added, cocking her head as she looked upon Samuel Winchester critically. "Now your reputation is saved."
"Truly?" Samuel Winchester's dimples were showing once more.
Vertiline found herself blushing. I have not acted like this since I was twelve! "Truly. Only boys and supercilious men wear their hair in such a fashion," she answered, once she regained her voice. Her companion's blue-green eyes were a distraction Vertiline could ill afford under such circumstances. They had a murder to investigate.
She began walking once more, slipping her glove back into her hand. "Your Mr. Templeton wears his hair in such a fashion," he said, a dark tone underlying the observation.
"All the more reason that you should not," Vertiline replied, an urgency in her voice that she could not mask, "As you are neither a boy nor a supercilious man." But a part of her was angered at the presumption – Samuel Winchester was once nothing more than a name in a story that Uncle Winston would tell about their closest neighbors, and yet the man somehow felt the right to criticize her for a choice she had made without knowledge of him.
"I…" Mr. Samuel's voice trailed off, and he looked starkly ahead of himself as he spoke. "I wish I had met you earlier, Miss Lucas. Before your engagement was formalized."
"Engagement?" Vertiline started in spite of herself. She had always intended on marrying Francis Templeton – no other serious prospect had come forward, despite her reputed beauty. There were those who felt that the poor cousin would stray; when they learned that Vertiline valued her reputation far more highly than they did, such men moved on to more fertile pastures. Uncle Winston and Penelope had never viewed her as their Fanny Price, but they were not – as Vertiline was to learn through sore experience – the whole of Society.
"Are you not engaged?"
Vertiline shook her head. "No, we are not. He has permission to court me, sir." She touched his arm. "If he had spoken with my uncle regarding a more formal arrangement, I would surely know." Someone must have told him a lie, and Vertiline possessed several suspicions. "Who informed you otherwise, Mr. Samuel?" She frowned. "Was it that bla – " Vertiline coughed. "Was it Mrs. Jennings?" she added more decorously.
"No one divulged such information to me," he admitted. "I was merely attempting to determine whether or not my hypothesis was correct," Samuel Winchester added, and there was a raise to his eyebrows that left no doubt regarding his kinship to that scoundrel of an older brother. "I felt that by presenting its opposite, I would produce the desired response," he added.
"I should be most put out with you, sir," she replied lightly. It was an explanation worthy of her cousin. "The outcome of our acquaintance relies upon your answer to a very simple question."
Samuel Winchester's lips were close to her ear, and his voice was low in his throat. "The answer to your question, Miss Lucas, is that I will be speaking with your uncle at the earliest available opportunity."
Vertiline felt the sting of the cool breeze against her warm cheeks, but her voice was just as low in her throat when she replied, "I will hold you to that, Mr. Samuel."
They walked down the road in silence after that, although Samuel Winchester stood as closely to her as propriety would allow; often shifting to shield her from the wind or holding the umbrella so that she was safeguarded from the brunt of the rain – even when that meant he would be likewise accosted by the weather. When she dared to look upon him, Samuel Winchester's cheeks were almost as red as her own and he appeared mildly stunned.
Why have you not yet kissed me, Samuel Winchester?
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Samuel Winchester could have been walking amidst a hurricane, and he would not have noticed. His clever ploy to determine the status of Vertiline Lucas' relationship with the loathsome Francis Templeton resulted in a highly satisfactory outcome – so satisfactory that her response required all of his self-control to maintain his demeanor and refrain from dragging her into the woods to fulfill scenarios that rivaled any of which his brother could dream.
Left to his usual circumstances, Samuel would have spent weeks – perhaps even months – stumbling towards an acquaintance with the young woman. Vertiline Lucas, however, reminded him of Jessica Moore; not in looks or personality, but rather in the way both were able to entrance him simply by a tilt of the head or a smile when no one else was looking in their direction. Samuel Winchester had waited months – wasting them fruitlessly – before speaking to Jessica of his intentions; he did not think she would wish him to do so with Vertiline Lucas.
Samuel screwed his courage to the sticking place with a plan worthy of Deane.
He was a Winchester, after all. A demon hunter who faced monsters the way most men faced deer on their estates. What was a conversation with one young woman – even one as intelligent as she was beautiful – compared to that eventuality? Deane would surely be amused by his younger brother's predicament, if somewhat bemused by Samuel's choice. His older brother had a preternatural charm which afforded him no such embarrassment when speaking to a member of the gentler sex – no matter the game he was currently playing with their host's daughter.
Samuel frowned, and then felt his cheeks flush as Vertiline Lucas glanced once more in his direction. He was acting like a schoolboy, instead of focusing upon the mystery within Westshire. Father would surely be put out with both of his sons; even Deane, who lived for the thrill of the hunt, was most likely cavorting with Penelope Harcourt under the guise of research. Did he not push her backwards into the desk mere seconds after we took our leave?
He took little solace in the fact that speaking with Mr. Norman was a valid step in their continued investigation – Samuel's mind informed him that he should have little guilt in visiting the mortician in Vertiline Lucas' company, but logic was often overruled by the memory of John Winchester's disappointed stare.
Samuel had disappointed his Father often enough while growing up. He sighed – his foot brushing against a rock as Samuel realized that he had forgotten to remind Deane to research the symbol on that poor boy's chest. It looked hauntingly familiar the more he had studied it, marking the edges of his consciousness with a memory he should have been able to recall. And I should not have forgotten that reminder, despite Vertiline Lucas' blue eyes.
Frustration met him at every turn as they continued to walk down the road, the buildings of Westshire looming before them. Even in the rain, the town seemed inviting and Samuel could not forget the feeling that this should have been their home – not the back of carriages or sleeper cars. Deane never understood his desire for a normal life, the need for family and an existence marked by a child's laughter – not the screams of innocents as they ran from monsters.
"Should we visit the Constable first," Vertiline Lucas asked quietly once they reached the outskirts of Westshire, "Or would you prefer to meet with Mr. Norman?" She smiled brightly at one of the passersby, a young man who nodded once in her direction.
"Which office is closer?" Samuel asked.
"The Constable's office is off the main square," she said. "Mr. Norman's is closer." Vertiline swallowed, and when she glanced upon him, Samuel noted that her face had gone pale. "But I am worried about that visit, Mr. Samuel. I…" Her voice trailed off. "I am not my cousin, sir. I do not have the stomach for that type of investigation."
"We will inquire as to when the body shall arrive. I would not ask you to engage in any activity to which you are unaccustomed, Miss Lucas."
"I am no helpmeet in this endeavor, sad to say. I cannot even look upon a dead bird without emotion. How can I help you should other things come to pass?" She looked earnest.
Samuel's throat swelled. He wished to tell her so many things, but all he could remember was her comportment from the night before. "You are already braver than Francis Templeton," he said.
Vertiline Lucas snorted. "A mouse is braver than Templeton!" Her brilliant smile rewarded his effort, and she added, "Perhaps Penelope is correct. She often lectures me about such things." Her voice took on her cousin's tartness. "There is no reason to argue for your limitations, Vertiline. When you give such limitations voice, you give them power over you."
"Deane is forever providing his opinions regarding my behavior."
"You should be thankful that he is not widowed," Vertiline observed. "I love Penelope dearly, but some days she acts as though the grace of once being married automatically makes her a font of wisdom."
"In my brother's case, his wisdom derives from being the first-born." Samuel made his voice muted, like Deane's when they were hunting. "Are you questioning me, little brother? Do you not realize that I am the oldest, which means that my conclusions are always the correct ones?"
"And yet they are the ones staring at each other when they believe no one is watching – as though they possessed not one ounce of common sense between them." She frowned, pausing in her steps, and Samuel found that they were standing in front of the mortician's office. Vertiline looked as though she intended to say more on the subject, but then she swallowed. "Here we are, sir."
Samuel closed her umbrella as soon as she stood safely underneath the eave. The smells from the establishment were, if possible, stronger than they had been during their previous visit and his companion looked moderately ill. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and handed it gently to Vertiline. "Perhaps if you covered your mouth and nose, the stench would not be so overwhelming?"
The young woman said nothing, staring down at the embroidered initial upon the piece of cloth, and then placed the handkerchief within her reticule. "I shall persevere, Mr. Samuel." Vertiline pushed open the door and walked briskly inside, her face going pale as the stench merely intensified.
Samuel followed, closing the door behind them. There was a rustle of noise in the backroom, and Mr. Norman suddenly appeared in the foyer – white apron covered in fresh bloodstains. Vertiline made a strangled noise in the back of her throat, but managed to steady herself upon her umbrella. The mortician's face beamed with his smile, and he absentmindedly wiped his apron with his hands. "Miss Vertiline! I was unaware that you had arrived home."
"I arrived yesterday morning, sir," she said softly. Vertiline swallowed, blue eyes focusing on Samuel standing beside her, and she gestured towards him with her glove-covered hand. "May I have the pleasure of introducing Mr. Samuel Winchester?"
"We have already met," the mortician replied. He extended a hand enthusiastically in Samuel's direction, and then realized it was covered in another man's blood. Mr. Norman sighed, his eyes suddenly as beady as the pulp villain he appeared to be as the mortician brought his hand back to his side. "Are you here about the others, sir?"
"Others?" Samuel's voice was sharp within his own ears.
"Three murders last night," Mr. Norman replied. "Constable Brothers has the bodies, Mr. Winchester. He said he would be bringing them tomorrow morning. Apparently, he wishes to investigate them in more detail." He leaned forward, eyes gleaming above his sickly smile. "Imagines himself Sherlock Holmes, truth be told."
"I confess myself the victim of no small surprise," Samuel returned. He frowned. The Constable's desire to investigate the murders himself – while understandable and within the scope of a Constable's province – certainly impinged upon the Winchester's examination. "Lord Hillsworth had only been informed of the one death," he added.
"That would be old Pucky, sir. He was the one they found before breakfast, but only because his son witnessed the sad incident." Mr. Norman shook his head. "Not even noon and Weston says that Dan's already engaging in activities at the tavern." He raised his eyebrows, glancing in Vertiline's direction.
"The tavern is off the main square," Vertiline Lucas said. "We could surely see Constable Brothers on the way…" Her voice trailed off, and blue eyes flickered at the mortician – she realized that she had said too much in front of Mr. Norman.
The mortician snorted. "The Constable has closed his office. Only those with official business are being allowed into the establishment due to the 'state of the bodies.' Even I have not been allowed to see them." Mr. Norman shook his head. "But perhaps he would allow someone in Lord Hillsworth's employ to assist him?" Vertiline shot Samuel a startled look at the statement, and he surmised that Penelope Harcourt had not been forthcoming in her role in that charade. She quickly recovered herself – acting as though something outside the window had captured her attention.
"Perhaps," Samuel replied. "Would you consider it untoward for my brother and I to visit in the morning?"
"Not at all." Mr. Norman smiled. "Be certain to bring Miss Penelope. My son will be home in the morning, and he has not seen her in years."
Vertiline's mouth twitched behind the fan that was suddenly in her hand. "I will be certain to let my cousin know that Alexander will be in Westshire," she added with a graceful nod of her blonde curls. "If you will excuse us, Mr. Norman. It was a pleasure visiting with you, as always." Her smile was brilliant as Samuel opened the door.
"Thank you for your time, sir," Samuel added as Vertiline walked once more outside, her umbrella opening before she walked into the street. The mortician nodded, brushing his hands on his apron, and left the foyer before the door had closed behind them. For no reason he could determine, Samuel felt a rustle within his stomach – and Vertiline's jaw was clenched as he joined her underneath the umbrella.
If he has no bodies to examine, why is there fresh blood on his hands?
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The rain was falling so tempestuously, Vertiline could scarcely see in front of her through the deluge. Under normal circumstances, she would have waited underneath the eave of Mr. Norman's establishment for the storm to lessen. However, she had a purpose; if she could assist the Winchesters in their task, perhaps she could be equally successful in protecting her cousin. And in proving to Samuel Winchester that I am more than just a pretty girl who should be at tea party.
"Shall we attempt the Constable's office, Samuel?" She asked the question briskly. Perhaps he would overlook the familiar use of his name? "Or should we go directly to the tavern?" Vertiline added, daring to glance in his direction.
"It would be more thorough to endeavor to speak with the Constable," Samuel Winchester replied. "I would not wish Deane to assume that we were shirking our duties. Rest assured that he will ask after that avenue of the investigation." He smiled at her, his hand grasping the handle of her umbrella once more. "After we speak with this Mr. Daniel, perhaps you would join me for lunch." His dimples were clearly evident as he caught her eyes with his own. "Vertiline," he added.
"It would be my pleasure to accompany you, sir," Vertiline replied lightly. It suddenly did not matter that the rain had most likely ruined her newest pair of boots, not that the storm had muddied the hem of her favorite dress. Samuel Winchester wished to dine with her. And he used my given name.
Their short walk to the Constable's office led them past the outdoor verandah where she had taken tea with Mrs. Jennings while Templeton had arranged for transport to Highchurch. Two magical days had brought the hope of not marrying Francis Templeton – of no longer having to convince herself that he was an excellent match simply because she could control his reactions so easily – and that was almost as heady as the dream that Samuel Winchester would consider Vertiline Lucas his equal.
No man in her experience had ever done so – even Uncle Winston preferred the direct intellect of his daughter versus the imagination of his niece. He would have married her off years ago, like he had done Penelope, if her cousin hadn't requested Vertiline as a companion after Peter Harcourt's death. Uncle Winston had called it a selfish wish, but Vertiline understood her cousin's true intentions – but one could only live upon the succor of family for so long, before one had to derive an alternative.
Vertiline made her choice at the earliest opportunity, and she had believed it was as much for her cousin's sake as it was her own, but now Vertiline Lucas had another choice to make in regards to Francis Templeton. He would need to be informed of the change in circumstance with all due haste.
The mere thought of her former suitor's reaction to the news that she would sever their connection brought with it a scowl, creasing Vertiline's brow just as the weasel-like face of Melvin Nestor came into view. The Constable's assistant looked miserable, standing in front of the Constable's office door with his arms folded across his chest with rain pouring down his overcoat. By the time his watery eyes fixed upon Vertiline's face, she was smiling graciously.
"Miss Vertiline!" Melvin Nestor proclaimed, a gap-toothed grin greeting her. "Pleasure to see you as always."
"And you as well, Mr. Nestor," Vertiline replied smoothly, inclining her head. "May I present Mr. Samuel Winchester?"
"Winchester?" Melvin's eyes narrowed – and, for a split second, his face darkened. Vertiline suspected that the look was fixed solely within her imagination, for he looked nothing more than a despondent man standing in the rain the moment she blinked. "I had heard a rumour that Sir John's sons had come home," the Constable's assistant added, extending his hand towards the man at her side.
"I am attending Lord Hillsworth's conference, sir," Samuel said, shaking the man's hand firmly. "And we are conferring with him regarding these peculiar disturbances plaguing Westhire."
"I see." There was no mistaking the antagonistic glare Melvin Nestor shot at Samuel Winchester; Vertiline was positive that had she not been in their presence, Melvin Nestor might have readily engaged in physical violence – so reddened the man's face had become. "That is not his Lordship's concern, Mr. Winchester."
"But it is my father's province," Samuel replied, his voice steely.
"You will find, sir, that your father is not thought of so kindly by everyone in Westshire," Melvin retorted. "He abandoned us!"
Samuel Winchester looked as though he wished nothing more than for a lightning bolt to flash down from the sky and eradicate Melvin Nestor – soggy overcoat and all. While the man's demeanor had certainly earned him such a fate, Mr. Nestor's annihilation served no immediate purpose and, in truth, would surely complicate their cause.
Vertiline coughed gently into a gloved hand. "Surely you must agree, Mr. Nestor, that the loss of one's beloved wife does afford Sir John some measure of grief," she said, her voice gentle. "I would not wish to stay within Highchurch should such a tragedy befall it."
"There is that," the Constable's assistant returned gruffly. "So have you come here on official business, Mr. Winchester?"
Samuel's nostrils flared, but his demeanor was otherwise calm. "We would like to meet with Constable Brothers."
"He is not here," Melvin said.
"When will he return?" Samuel asked.
Melvin Nestor's eyes were cold. "When he returns."
"Would it be possible to leave a message for the Constable, asking to contact my brother and I at Highchurch Manor?" Samuel's free hand clenched into a fist at his side, and Vertiline could feel the heat flushing off his face as anger once more consumed him. "It is important, Mr. Nestor."
"I will let the Constable know that you asked after him," Mr. Nestor conceded. "When he returns."
"Thank you, sir," Samuel said shortly, with a brisk nod, before he turned abruptly and began walking away. The look Samuel Winchester flashed her once they were out of earshot was sheepish, and there was an apology dancing in his eyes. "You kept us from coming to blows, Vertiline. I am sorry to place you in such an insupportable position."
"If we are to become more readily acquainted, Samuel, it stands to reason that we will both see sides of the other that may not add to a favorable assessment of our character." Vertiline leaned her head as close to him as she could without calling attention to herself. "I am quite notorious for dressing up like a boy in my youth and stealing pies. Penelope was a bad influence."
He chuckled at that, and then looked down at his shoes. "There is something very peculiar occurring within Westshire." Samuel's eyes darkened. "That vile man was definitely obscuring something more than simply the Constable's whereabouts."
"I confess I sensed nothing beyond his anger," Vertiline replied.
"The Constable was within his office, Vertiline."
"Are you quite certain?" she asked.
Samuel nodded. "I saw the curtain shift within the window, just enough to ascertain the hand which pulled it back to look outside." He caught her shocked glance with one of his own, and then his eyes softened. "No matter. We have established that no assistance shall be available from the Constable's quarter. Deane and I have often worked outside of legal boundaries." He sighed. "We are used to hunting alone."
"I cannot hunt, Samuel Winchester, and my cousin would undoubtedly make the same assertion," Vertiline declared hotly, "But neither of you are alone."
The smile he returned was inspiration for a dozen sonnets.
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I cannot hunt, Samuel Winchester, and my cousin would undoubtedly make the same assertion, but neither of you are alone.
It was an answer Samuel did not expect, and the flash in her eyes led him to believe that Vertiline Lucas was completely serious. He smiled suddenly, hoping to mask his consternation – the curse of the Winchesters did not allow for allies, save for those whose own quests were borne by need. Father believed that only those touched by the Supernatural understood the risks associated in fighting it.
"That large grey structure is the tavern," Vertiline said softly, returning his smile. The storm itself seemed to shirk from the brightness in her eyes, and Samuel was positive it would cease entirely when faced with such dazzlement the moment she stepped out from underneath the umbrella.
"It is a shame we are not in London," Samuel observed, holding the front door open and waiting for her to step inside. He watched her shake out her umbrella on the walk before entering the building. "There are several establishments to which I would take you."
"You may take me anywhere you wish, Mr. Winchester." Vertiline Lucas's golden curls glowed within the tavern's gaslight, her head down turned as she stepped past him into the common room.
If I do not immediately speak to her Uncle upon our return to the Manor, I am an idiot.
A young man, perhaps a few years older than Deane, was sitting on a stool near the bar itself; several empty pint glasses were scattered before him, along with an array of on-lookers. Several of them were pushing small tumblers filled with variously coloured liquids towards the man – including the unmistakable glow of absinthe. Samuel surmised that the poor drunken man was the object of their visit.
Vertiline sat down at the table nearest to the young man, concern clearly marking her features. She balanced her umbrella against the back of her chair, and waited silently for the proprietor to amble towards their table. He was an older gentleman dressed in well-kept clothing, a fringe of white hair about his head and sparkling green eyes that almost rivaled Vertiline's in sympathy.
"Miss Lucas," he said smoothly.
"Mr. Foxworth," Vertiline replied. She took his extended hand gently. "It has been entirely too long, sir."
"A little bird informed me that both you and your cousin had returned home," the tavern keeper responded.
"Mary is not a little bird!" Golden curls tumbled in the light as Vertiline laughed. She gestured towards Samuel with her free hand. "May I have the pleasure of introducing Samuel Winchester?"
"John Winchester's boy?" Mr. Foxworth patted him on the shoulder when Vertiline nodded. "I had never thought we would see the day when the Winchesters returned to Westshire." The tavern keeper shook his head. "Your mother was a wonderful woman, Mr. Winchester. A beautiful light was lost that terrible evening."
Samuel's throat was suddenly on fire, and he lowered his eyes. How many people carry memories of a mother I have never known? If he closed his eyes, Samuel knew he would hear Deane's childish voice telling stories about Christmas and carols and walks in meadows during the summertime. "I thank you for your sympathy, sir."
"It is freely given. Winchesters are a part of Westshire. You cannot have the one without the other." The old man was patting his shoulder once more, beaming upon both of them. "May I offer mulled cider to ward you both from the chill?"
"That would be lovely." Vertiline smiled, but her sparkling blue eyes were subdued when she looked upon Samuel's face. She moved her hand as closely to his as she dared. "I do not suppose that you have yet perfected your beef and barley stew recipe, Mr. Foxworth?"
"I have been working all month on a new recipe," the man replied. "I could be persuaded to provide you both with samples for lunch."
"Mr. Foxworth's stews are legendary," Vertiline explained. "Although Mary is adamant that he has stolen every recipe she owns." She laughed softly into her hand, and then her expression changed – grave and serious. "I do not suppose that poor Mr. Daniel has eaten anything since arriving here?"
Mr. Foxworth shook his head. "Sadly, the only meal he has purchased was a pint of stout." He frowned. "All else have been gifts, thrust upon the poor boy by well-meaning friends."
"He will be joining us, then." The tone in Vertiline's voice brooked no argument. She is bloody amazing. She raised her voice. "Mr. Childers!" The young man's eyes focused on her, bleary and puffed from tears. "May we have the honor of your companionship during lunch?"
"Ver – " Daniel Childers shook his head. "I am no fit company for you, Miss. Miss Lucas."
"Do not make me relay the time my cousin and I – "
Daniel Childers rose abruptly to his feet. "No! Please." Despite his obvious grief, there was something of a smile flickering across his face. He shuffled towards their table, the stench of whisky reaching their nostrils well before he settled into his chair. His eyes focused on Samuel's face. "You that Templeton we hear is going to marry our Vertiline Lucas, then?"
Samuel steeled his features – Vertiline Lucas in shock was a wholly adorable creature – and merely replied, "No, sir. I am Samuel Winchester."
"Name sounds familiar." Mr. Childers scratched his neck absent-mindedly, raising his voice. "Oy! Westy! Ever heard of a Winchester?"
"Big house that burned down," one of the men at the bar returned.
"Oh." Daniel Childers blinked. This is going to be a wonderfully informative meeting. "You know the people who live in that big house?"
"Mr. Childers, he is Sir John's youngest son." Vertiline's voice was soft, and she looked more uncomfortable than she yet had since Samuel had met her. The grieving man looked as though he were thinking of something else to ask, and Vertiline pushed bravely forwards. "Mr. Winchester is attending my uncle's conference, but has been kind enough to offer his services regarding…" Her voice trailed off.
"Only way to be of service is to kill that damn thing," the man muttered. Mr. Foxworth arrived with three glasses of cider, and he placed them on the table while Daniel Childers continued. "It was unnatural, I tell you." He lowered his head, muttering into his chest. "No one bloody believes me." He raised his glass of cider, wincing as the hot liquid spilled onto his hand. "It was a monster, Miss Lucas!"
"A wolf killed his father right in front of him," Mr. Foxworth amended. "Poor boy couldn't get there in time to save him."
"Have you ever seen a wolf as big as a horse?" Daniel Childers demanded to the laughter that suddenly filled the common room, calls of 'More whisky!' getting louder as Mr. Childer's frowned. "It had a roar that could turn a man's blood, and the grass burned underneath its feet." He leaned forward to grab Samuel on the arm. "Burned!"
It was the same creature – of that, Samuel Winchester was positive. Vertiline's face had gone white with the memory and what he assumed was no little guilt; they had chased off the creature, only to have it harm another that evening. He frowned. "Where did you see this creature?" Samuel asked.
"You do not believe I am touched, sir?" The grieving man's reddened eyes widened, and he suddenly began shaking Samuel's hand vigorously when Samuel shook his head. "My thanks, Mr. Winchester." Daniel Childers coughed, eyes narrowing as he focused upon the question. "We were in the back fields, near the Manor."
"Back fields?" Vertiline asked.
Mr. Childers nodded. "Da moved his cows to the back fields to rotate some of the grass. We heard the roar and went out running. Da's cows – " The man's voice broke.
"I know this is difficult for you, sir." Vertiline's voice was soft, and no one in the room would think her improper for placing one gloved hand on the man's forearm – so obvious was the sorrow in her eyes as she spoke. "My family is sorrier than you know, but I promise you this – Mr. Winchester and his elder brother will right as much of this wrong as they can."
Samuel caught his breath; no woman had shown such faith in him before – not even Jessica, who considered him an amiable Oxford student – although he would have preferred a less public display of such admiration. The damage, however, had already been made, and Samuel added, "We came to Westshire with no other view than to assist Lord Hillsworth in his attempts to rectify this issue."
Gasps echoed throughout the bar, and a toast was made in Winston Hillsworth's name, mostly in hushed tones from those men who had gathered around their table while Daniel Childers relayed the sad tale of his father's death. A curtain rustled in one of the private booths along the back wall, and Samuel spied a ringed hand as someone peered through before the curtain closed completely.
The ring was identical to the one he saw on the hand in the Constable's office.
What the devil is going on in this place?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Samuel Winchester was decidedly distracted on their return to Highchurch Manor, although Vertiline could not discern the cause of his consternation beyond the details presented by the bereft Daniel Childers during the remainder of their lunch – stories of his father, pulled from memory. She felt an unquestionable sorrow for the man, remembering how proud the elder Childers was of his prize-winning cows.
Perhaps I have done something wrong?
She coughed. The rain had lessened, only a slight shower now that afternoon luncheon had passed. Samuel's eyes focused upon her face, and he smiled wanly. "I have not been a dutiful traveling companion, Vertiline."
"On the contrary," she returned lightly, "You have answered every question I broached on the return home."
"With a one-word answer." Samuel's dimples were suddenly showing, and he shook his head. "You have my sincere apologies. It is just that…" His face seemed to pale, and he slowed his steps. "What do you know of the history of this place?"
"History would be my cousin's province," Vertiline said. "She has read most books in the library, save for those she deemed too fanciful for her notice." She returned Samuel's smile. "In fact, I suspect this morning marks the first time she even looked beyond the spine of the mythology books in the library." A thought occurred. "Although I suspect a continued union with your brother will ensure a not unforeseen association with such books in the future."
Samuel snorted as the gates to Highchurch's grounds came into view. "Mrs. Harcourt may be waiting a long time for union with my brother."
"Will he hurt her?" The question dropped from her lips, cold as ice, and the look she gave Samuel Winchester caused him to blanch before her.
"Not intentionally," her companion stammered. "It is simply Deane's way to…leave."
"That will not do." Vertiline pronounced as the sun burst forth from the clouds and the air was silent. It was no longer raining. She picked up her skirts and started to march briskly towards the gates.
"Vertiline!" Samuel called, quickening his pace to match hers. She glanced over her shoulder and he was closing the umbrella. "For that it is worth," he added softly, "I have never seen him look at a woman they way he watched your cousin this morning. Perhaps their relationship is none of our business?"
"Perhaps," she replied hotly, cheeks flushed. Vertiline laughed suddenly – Samuel Winchester made the same type of excuses regarding his elder brother's lecherousness that Vertiline often made regarding her cousin's ill temper, an explanation as to why the behavior was uncommon. While her anger towards the elder Winchester was no less diminished, she would not force such an unruly portion of her disposition upon the messenger of such tidings. "We are very protective of our family, are we not?" Vertiline added.
"Given our family, some may consider that a flaw." Samuel chuckled, a low laugh within his throat. "We shall have many evenings full of commiseration, I suspect."
"Consolation often breeds gentle affection." Vertiline smiled at him once more. "Do you not think so?" They passed through the gates, keeping a respectable distance between them as they came into view of the house.
"I will speak with your uncle presently," Samuel Winchester said as he opened the door, "And then I will find my brother. The four of us have many things to – "
Whatever knowledge Samuel Winchester was about to impart upon her, it was silenced – hopefully not forever – by the high-pitched exclamation of Mrs. Almira Jennings. Staccato footsteps echoed towards them down the hall, as the points of the widow's boots clicked against the marble floor. "Miss Lucas!" she cried again, grabbing Samuel's arm to slow herself. "I bring grave news of your cousin."
Mrs. Jennings nodded. "Penelope collapsed before lunch. Mr. Winchester accompanied her to her suite." Samuel snorted, and the widow looked at him with a challenge in her eyes. "Even he is more of a gentleman than you are, Mr. Samuel. Laughing at a widow's distress. Your brother, at the least, took pity upon her."
"I was not amused by Mrs. Harcourt's distress," Samuel returned, a smile that Vertiline hoped no one else could recognize flickering in his eyes. "I was simply marking my astonishment at Deane performing any type of genteel service."
"Given his comportment with the maids, I confess to some surprise," the widow said calmly, her eyes gazing at Samuel thoughtfully, "Although he did join us for lunch immediately afterwards."
"Perhaps he has turned over a new leaf," Samuel said quietly, a strange expression crossing his features.
Vertiline shook her head. Her cousin was ill, and she was in the midst of a conversation regarding Deane Winchester in the foyer. What possible ill will did Fate accord the Hillsworth women? Was not Penelope's condition the more important concern? Vertiline cared not whether Deane Winchester was acting like a gentleman; every scoundrel worth his salt could act the gentleman. "Mr. Samuel. Mrs. Jennings!" They both looked in her direction. "If you will excuse me?" Mrs. Jennings nodded.
"Of course, Miss Lucas," Samuel stammered suddenly.
Propriety be damned!
Vertiline picked up her skirts once more, and went dashing down the hallway towards the direction of the old wing. It did not occur to her to ask Amelia, who was cleaning the small cabinet off the entrance to the wing, what had actually occurred. Mrs. Jennings had been so fretful, Vertiline was convinced there was something seriously amiss.
What if her collapse is prelude to the sad events of my vision?
That thought along renewed her speed and within moments she was standing before Penelope's suite. The door was locked – firmly so, without the usual trick of hitching the latch. Vertiline fumbled within her reticule for the key, and flung the door open. "Penelope!" she called, rushing towards the closed door of her cousin's bedroom. There was a muffled gasp and a thump, as though something large had fallen to the floor.
The bedroom door was likewise locked, and Vertiline was forced to again use her key. Penelope was still in the process of pulling the bedclothes to her chin as Vertiline flung open the door – and her blue eyes widened when she realized that Penelope was unclothed. The obvious conclusion – that Penelope was suffering from a sore fever and had taken drastic means with which to rectify the situation – distinctly altered when Vertiline spied a set of clothes neatly folded upon a chair, complete with a pair of incriminating boots.
She strode quickly across the room, closing the door behind her as she did so. Vertiline bent over, picking up the nearest boot and holding it out in front of her. "I do not suppose the owner of this boot belongs to the foot that is poking out from underneath your bed, Penelope?"
"Bugger!" Deane Winchester's muffled voice proclaimed from underneath the bed. Penelope lowered her head and said nothing as Vertiline let the boot drop to the floor, its sharp echo resounding through the room.
"Deane Winchester?" Vertiline demanded. It was a sincere question coupled with a plea for understanding. "It was unfortunate enough that you allowed him to kiss you!" Penelope's green eyes flashed, and suddenly her cousin was staring at her with an expression like a thundercloud; an expression in full defense of the man Penelope had scorned scarcely a full twenty-four hours prior to being caught in bed with the bounder.
Have you gone well and truly mad, Penelope?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I am an idiot. Why did I not go with her?
Samuel shook his head, realizing belatedly that Mrs. Jennings was still holding onto his arm – unsteady upon her boots as they both watched Vertiline Lucas' back retreating before them. The pressure of Mrs. Jennings' hand increased, and Samuel's mouth dropped. The woman was actually measuring the muscle of his upper arm, a predatory gleam clearly marked underneath the brim of her ridiculously feathered hat.
"You are stronger than you seem, Mr. Samuel, underneath your aesthete clothing." The widow's eyes narrowed. "And you have done something different to your hair, have you not? The style becomes you." He could not mask his shock, for the widow suddenly laughed – sounding as old as she appeared – and added, "You cannot blame one such as I for looking, sir." Thankfully, Mrs. Jennings removed her hand from his arm. The widow smirked at him. "Although your brother's muscles are a trifle more developed than yours," she added.
"A boon to know," he said with an embarrassed cough. I have just been violated by a widow! "You have my thanks, Mrs. Jennings." Samuel shook his head sharply. "I do not suppose you know where I may find His Lordship?"
"Winston?" The widow's voice increased by nearly an octave. "He is presently in his library, bemoaning what he believes to be a scratch on his desk – and, if memory serves, the fact that it is now rickety." Mrs. Jennings pursed her lips. "What could shake the foundations of a desk so large?"
Samuel knew the answer – Deane Winchester – but said nothing; he merely nodded his leave towards the older woman's hat and turned his steps towards the library, retracing the route he and Vertiline had taken earlier that day. It was horrific enough that Deane was giving Penelope Harcourt the spurs, but now his older brother had damaged their host's furniture while doing so. Samuel shook his head, and a glimpse of Vertiline Lucas underneath him – spread upon that blasted desk – shook him to the very core.
Deane has corrupted me.
There was a rustle of paperwork muffled by the large library door, followed almost immediately by a sharp cough and the sound of a liquid being poured into a glass. Winston Hillsworth was notorious for his love of whisky, and Samuel hoped such a drink would put him in a better mood – given the state in which his brother had left their host's prized possession.
He knocked briskly. "Come in!" Lord Hillsworth said. "The door is open."
"Have you time for a discussion, sir?" Samuel asked, peering into the room from behind the door. He had no desire to further exacerbate the man's state before broaching the subject of his ward. The Practitioner had placed both hands upon the desk edge nearest to his chair and was pressing down upon it vigorously, grunting as the whisky in his glass splattered from the movement.
Winston Hillsworth scowled. "Come into the room, Samuel. A man of your intellect should not barricade himself behind a door." The Practitioner gestured to the chair placed across from his at the desk. As Samuel sat down, Lord Hillsworth's eyes suddenly became curious. "What do you wish to discuss, my boy?" He did not wait for Samuel's answer. "Do you like whisky?" Winston Hillsworth was already pouring more whisky into an unused glass.
"Thank you." Samuel sipped once, and then set the tumbler onto the desk.
"You are not here to discuss the conference." Winston Hillsworth stated it baldly.
Samuel shook his head. "I am not, sir. There is a question of a rather serious and delicate nature that I wish to relay."
"The answer is no, Samuel." The Practitioner sighed loudly, and there was a compassionate lilt to his shoulders. "It is not that I would not wish a Practitioner within the family, my boy. In fact, I have longed for one – and a man of your gifts would be a welcome addition to my line…" The old man looked as though he regretted what he was yet to say. "I will be blunt, my boy. Your sensitive nature would rail against my daughter's temper. Penelope requires a strong hand."
"Mrs. Harcourt?" Samuel's eyes widened. And Penelope Harcourt simply requires a man appreciates the fact that she does not require a strong hand. "I am not here to speak with you about your daughter, sir. I am here about…" His voice trailed off, and suddenly he was blushing. Vertiline Lucas could reduce him to a twelve-year-old boy even when she was no longer in the room with him. "Your ward," Samuel added.
"Oh." Winston Hillsworth straightened his back within his chair. "I had thought after yesterday morning's outburst that you had fallen prey to her intellect…" It was the Practitioner's turn to shake his head, a rueful smile on his face. "But I see that is not the case." He leaned forward. "You have chosen the more even-tempered of the two, my boy." His smile turned into a grin, as though there was more Winston Hillsworth could say. "Besides, with you courting my niece, I can then importune your assistance in procuring the one suitor perverse enough to withstand the trials of my tempestuous daughter's nature."
Samuel did not hear anything beyond 'courting my niece' and he found himself blinking furiously. "Then I have your permission, sir?"
Winston Hillsworth's laugh suddenly boomed throughout the library. "My boy, you have more than my permission. You have my blessing." The Practitioner swallowed his entire tumbler of whisky. "Francis Templeton is a prat. I have no idea what Vertiline was thinking by agreeing to the courtship."
Samuel said nothing, but he raised his own tumbler to Winston Hillsworth before draining the glass. He laughed along with the Practitioner when the man added, "I would love to be a fly upon the wall when you convey to Mr. Templeton that your hat is also being thrown into the ring." Samuel found himself returning the older man's grin, wishing his father would look upon him so once before John Winchester expired.
Damn and blast! How am I going to explain this to Deane?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"What are you doing?" It was the only question that Vertiline could muster when facing her cousin's angry eyes. "What if I were Mrs. Jennings? What possible excuse could you relay? What of your reputation?" It was an old tactic, referring to Penelope's sense of duty. Her cousin had long maintained that their reputations were their prized possessions when it came to familial duty. Perhaps it will shock some sense into her head.
"I would tell her the same thing I would tell you, cousin." Penelope's voice sounded more assured than Vertiline would have expected, and there was a shuffle underneath the bed as Deane Winchester's foot disappeared.
"Which is?" It was a demand. Vertiline shook her head sadly.
"That it is none of your business whom I choose," her cousin said, and there was a spark in Penelope's eyes that Vertiline had never seen before. Penelope's eyes narrowed sharply, and suddenly her voice became dangerously muted. "And did you not tell me that I should live, Vertiline Lucas?"
"I do not recall that my advice included finding the nearest rake with whom to spark!" She shook her head once more. "Deane Winchester? Of all the men attending your father's conference, he is the one upon whom you set your sights?"
"It was long overdue." Penelope's sharp laugh pricked within Vertiline's chest, and she remembered seeing that look upon her cousin's face once before – long ago on a Christmas day. "You know why I married Peter Harcourt, and you know what it cost me." Her cousin's face crumpled. "You and Mary are the only ones who know I would have made a different choice, were it mine to make."
"He is the boy you knew a long time ago?" Vertiline's voice was louder than she intended. She gestured as best she could towards the skirt of the bedding.
"There is no man more selfless in this world," Penelope retorted. Vertiline could not stop herself from snorting. Her cousin was clearly besotted, caught within the spell of Deane Winchester's preternatural charms.
I cannot listen to any more of this!
"I'll grant that he is handsome, cousin, but you cannot allow that to colour your judgment."
"Ah, yes. Deane is so handsome that I have suddenly been struck dumb. If you could please be so kind as to wipe the drool from my chin, I will offer happy thanks."
There was a muffled sound underneath the bed that sounded suspiciously like a laugh and Deane Winchester's rumpled head appeared suddenly at her feet. The shock of his face materializing near her boot cut off Vertiline's reply. "Have a care, Miss Lucas. I am still in the room," the damnable man said with a cocky grin.
"You are lucky, sir, that I am well-mannered. At this moment, there is nothing I wish to accomplish more dearly than to kick your fiendish head with the toe of my boot," Vertiline snapped. "And doubly so that I am not relaying this discovery to my uncle, for surely he would have you forcibly removed from the estate." Her head snapped sharply on her neck. "This conversation is not over, cousin."
"It is," Penelope replied simply.
"It is not, but I must now take my leave."
Penelope turned her face away, which enraged Vertiline all the more. She is dismissing me. Me! Vertiline said not a word in reply, but turned upon her heel and stormed from Penelope's bedroom – slamming the door forcefully behind her.
That horrible man! Has he cast some spell on her?
The decision was made before she let go of the bedroom door's handle. If Deane Winchester was unduly influencing her cousin's good sense, someone needed to take matters into her capable hands and retrieve a semblance of normalcy from the situation. Vertiline stormed across the outer room of Penelope's suite as loudly as she could, and shut the door powerfully while remaining inside the suite. She waited for a moment; when she heard their voices, she tiptoed back towards the door as quietly as possible.
"…what's best for me."
Vertiline carefully leaned her ear against the door.
"You argue as though you were Winchesters." There was a shifting of bedclothes, and the sounds of springs giving. "Although neither of you resorted to threats of fisticuffs."
"We fight like Hillsworths, Deane. All bluster and words – but we will be on the mend by bedtime." Penelope sighed. "My cousin was concerned. There is no fault in that."
"Perhaps you do not think so, but I certainly did not fare well as a result of your fair cousin's visit." Deane Winchester snorted. "Look at him, Penelope. I am gravely wounded! He is listing to the right."
"It must have been the shock of connecting so quickly with the floor." There was a droll tone in her cousin's voice. "You could have it examined. I might even be persuaded to do so, given the proper incentive." Vertiline's jaw dropped.
"If you were willing to – " The man made a gasping sound, deep within his throat, as a soft wet noise reached Vertiline's ear past the muffled door. She did not even wish to know what was occurring amidst the walls of her cousin's bedroom, especially when wordless mewls erupted from the man – as though Deane Winchester's very sanity was becoming unstrung. "Penny," he said weakly when he found his voice. "Please."
Her cousin laughed. "I believe it is safe to recommend that despite your grave wound, he appears recovered."
"I am relieved beyond all measure."
"But I must perform one final test. It is the only way to be certain, Deane." Vertiline's cheeks flushed for what seemed like the hundredth time that day as the springs within the mattress took up a regular tempo. She had been well informed as to the mechanics of a woman's duty, but she did not expect Penelope's sighs of pleasure. The temptation to look through the keyhole was almost too great for Vertiline to bear, and she swallowed – steeling her courage so that she could depart as quietly as possible.
Penelope's voice broke into her thoughts. "Please do not leave me again," her cousin said softly. Vertiline could not leave herself upon hearing those words; curiosity – her damnable flaw – kept her rooted to the spot.
"Penelope." Deane Winchester took a deep breath, audible beyond the wooden door. "Do not…" Vertiline heard a quiet sniffle. "You know what will happen. The crea – "
"I know only one thing." Her cousin interrupted fiercely.
"And that is?"
"I am yours, Deane Winchester." There was a hitch to Penelope's breath. "So I give you fair warning – I will chase you to the ends of the Earth itself on my stunted legs."
Deane Winchester's laugh devolved into a gasp. "And I do not doubt that you would catch me, Penelope Harcourt." Her cousin was moaning, and their breath quickened. Vertiline felt a cold pain within the midst of her stomach – she had sorely misjudged them both. For all that his brother thought otherwise, Deane was not misleading her cousin. My instincts have never been so off course as they are today. Her cousin gave a small cry, and a mighty growl burst forth from Deane Winchester – a sound that was wrenched from deep within him, an inevitable prelude to the silence that followed the outburst.
"But neither will I give you cause to do so," he added softly, breaking the silence. He was still catching his breath.
"Truly?" Penelope sounded as young as the girl who had not yet met Peter Harcourt. Oh, Penny…
"Truly. Your stunted legs are mine." He chuckled. "And I would not wish you to strain them, for they are rather fetching. I have other plans for them." Deane Winchester's voice suddenly sank to a whisper, and Vertiline could not make out his next words – only that Penelope gave a contented laugh as she murmured her answer.
Yet Vertiline was gifted with one realization as she listened to the undertone of their voices – joyful in spite of the horrors happening around them. Peter never spoke to her thus. The elder Winchester, rogue that he was, had just pledged something to her cousin. Vertiline knew not what, but it was enough to make her flee shamefully from the room – heedless of whether they heard her, only knowing that she had made a vital misstep.
I owe him an apology.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Samuel's brow furrowed as he stumbled towards the room he was sharing with his older brother. It occurred to him, after three tumblers of whisky, that he should have paced himself despite the cause for celebration. Winston Hillsworth approved of his plans for courting Vertiline Lucas, the blonde-haired goddess who shared his visions and would – Fate willing – share his life. What were thoughts of moderation compared to the burn of the alcohol in his stomach, or the burst of laughter from his mentor's belly as Lord Hillsworth offered a multitude of congratulations?
Perhaps he should have divulged the secrets of the Winchester family. Samuel conceded that it was not entirely fair to refrain from the disclosure of so dangerous a mystery – but he had no intentions of Vertiline falling prey to the Creature. Too many had already died at the hands of the foul beast, and Samuel would not allow Vertiline to do so. If Deane's theories were correct, his feelings for Vertiline assuredly marked her as a target.
His shoulder brushed a wall, and Samuel paused to catch his bearings. The rings once more flashed before his eyes, a curious symbol upon both that seemed damnably familiar. It was at times such as this that Deane and Samuel would pool their resources and confer between themselves to determine a theory or a solution to their problem – but that was damned difficult to accomplish when one's older brother had gone missing.
Samuel had even located the servant's quarters.
He turned a corner, hearing heavy breathing behind him – directly before the rush of a waistcoat alerted Samuel to the impending attack. The instinct of the chase superseded his intoxicated state, and Samuel whirled – pressing his hand against his attacker's neck as Samuel threw him into the wall. Green-blue eyes narrowed. "Mr. Templeton?"
Francis Templeton's handsome features were distorted into a monster's visage. "Mr. Winchester," the man answered, voice full of contempt and loathing – somewhat choked but angry all the same.
"Why are you following me?" Samuel demanded. He lessened the pressure of his hand, but did not allow Francis Templeton measure in which to pursue another attack.
"You are a devil in disguise, Samuel Winchester. Do not think I am unaware of your trip to Westshire with my intended." Templeton scowled. "It is no matter. I would not have married her once I had her, but I had high hopes of being her first." His eyes twinkled suddenly. "Do you know that her knees are said to be locked? I do not believe that you will be any more successful in stealing Vertiline Lucas' key than the rest of us. Make no mistake, Mr. Winchester. She can work a man into a frenzy. I pined away for months before realizing she would not bend."
"I do not wish to steal her key," Samuel replied. This man is a toad. "And you are not fit to speak her name."
"Are you threatening me, you aesthete intellectual?"
"I do not need to threaten you, Francis Templeton," Samuel returned with a sneer. "A threat implies a position of inequality. I know that in all manner of fisticuffs, pistols and swords that I can thrash you to within an inch of your life." His tone was soft, but full of the urgency any Winchester male could engender when something precious was threatened.
"Are you interested in settling purchase with those words?" Francis Templeton was clearly unimpressed with Samuel's reply. "Are you willing to reconcile your naïve concerns regarding Vertiline Lucas' constant cock-teasing with a duel?"
"No," Samuel returned. "I am simply interested in the surcease of your useless prattle!" He grabbed Templeton by the waistcoat, twisting him away from the wall, and connected his free hand soundly to the odious man's chin. Templeton went sprawling to the floor, landing with sickening thud upon the marble underneath Samuel's feet. "And I warned you, Templeton. You are not fit to speak her name."
"You bast – " Francis Templeton's eyes appeared glazed, and he moaned – half-rising to his feet before falling back to the ground.
Samuel knelt beside him. "The next time I hear you relay such a misguided representation regarding so gentle a lady, I will ensure that you never speak again." There was no arguing with his cold tone, a Winchester's wrath against those who would harm the innocent. The man did not need to know that Samuel would not act upon the words; it was enough to merely convince Francis Templeton that he would. "Do you understand, Templeton?"
The man nodded.
Samuel smiled. "Then we are done." There was the shuffle of footsteps behind him, but he was too angry to care about a witness. "As soon as you are capable, you will go to Winston Hillsworth and remove your suit upon his ward. I will not ask you to leave in shame, Francis Templeton, but you will accede all manner of politeness towards those who fall under my protection. Vertiline Lucas is no longer your concern."
Francis Templeton said nothing to his speech, though his glassy eyes watered and his nostrils flared. There came a sigh from behind them, and Samuel recognized Wharrow. The head butler stepped from the shadows, placing an arm underneath Templeton's and helping the man stagger to his feet. The butler glanced at Samuel with a small smile. "Nicely done, sir. I have been wishing to take that exact measure for some time now." The butler's eyes widened, but he said nothing else – turning to walk Templeton down the hall.
Samuel felt a hand slip into his own, and he turned to face Vertiline Lucas. Her blue eyes were wide, and she looked so unsettled that he placed both hands upon her arms to steady her. "Samuel Winchester?" she said softly.
"Why are you not kissing me?"
"I have no idea," Samuel returned, bringing his mouth down upon hers soundly, pressing her backwards against the wall. Vertiline Lucas gave a small sigh as she opened her mouth to his, and she tasted as sweet as the rain swept air on a summer's day.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I should know better than to ask the obvious question regarding what action could surpass a previous surprise, but I asked it this morning all the same as Samuel Winchester and I walked towards Westshire in the midst of a rainstorm.
The more appropriate question, I would surmise, is when the life of Vertiline Lucas grew to include answers for questions I had not yet conceived – when the impossible became true.
I wonder if my cousin is asking herself the same questions.
Aunt Cecily would understand this need. She was raised to see the signs around us, symbols and messages hidden within the wind or the songs of birds. She would say that truth is written in the earth itself, and that one can find any answer if one is diligent in the search. She believed in the impossible.
Just like the Winchesters.
They are a topic upon which I could expound for hours, Dear One, and still not provide a proper understanding regarding the conundrum they represent to our life at Highchurch. How did they know that such an occurrence would pass? Samuel has said he did not have a vision that led him here, yet they are here all the same. And he is worried about what we discovered in town – signs, he said, of something much larger than even he had anticipated, with clues that he had not yet uncovered.
That should be the important task, helping them solve this mystery, and yet my mind cannot still the memory of his lips upon mine – or how I wished he had pursued something less chaste than simply a kiss.
To be honest, Dear One, it was more than a kiss. Several of them in point of fact, each more frenzied than the last until we were forced to accede that we were in danger of someone spying upon us. I am afraid I was terribly improper. There is certainly something to be said for living in the moment despite the fear that seems to choke us when we stop to remember the creature that is rampaging through the countryside – harming innocent people like Pucky Childers.
I do not expect the next several days will be easy ones, nor yet the days that come afterwards – when their mission will take them somewhere else upon the Continent. Every hunt could be their last. And that? That is something that I do not wish to contemplate, even though I know that I must.
Yet I cannot quite encompass the fact that Samuel Winchester wishes to say something more serious to me – something which he has not yet relayed. There is nothing he could say that will change my decision, of course. But it seems to frighten him all the same. I wonder if it is somehow related to his visions?
There is still so much more that I should relay, but the evening meal will be soon upon us – and I promised Samuel that we would confer with Penelope and his older brother upon its conclusion. I suspect that this evening will end with another night of tramping across the countryside, trying to stop the Creature before it attacks someone else.
Now if only I can convince Samuel to allow me to use one of his guns…
Samuel and Vertiline skirted the very edges of propriety in this chapter by traveling to Westshire unattended, given their age and position. Even though Vertiline is being courted by another man, they should not have been traveling without a chaperone. (And it does amuse me that Penelope, as a widow, would have been an appropriate choice despite her behavior…) Given that they are presently in the country, they might have had more leeway – Vertiline's reputation would not have been diminished as much as it might have been in more urbane landscape.
I suspect my feminist tendencies have come into play as a result of both female main characters. Both Penelope and Vertiline are victims of their circumstances, but I hope that I am giving them the power to move beyond those boundaries. Something which would not have been possible with more "typical" gentlemen than the Winchesters.
I was originally going to have Samuel accept Templeton's duel, but decided otherwise. It was more satisfying to have him thrash Templeton instead.
Next chapter marks the debut of x-ray lenses for the night goggles. Happy belated birthday, quellefromage!
As always, criticism is welcome and comments makes me dizzy. (Well, dizzier. I am, by nature, a very dizzy fangirl.)