The Secrets Of The Sixth Night (The Northumberland Nine Series Book 6)
The Secrets Of The Sixth Night (The Northumberland Nine Series Book 6)
Lunette Marsden is a gifted healer but falling for a spy could leave her with a broken heart.
The Earl of Densmore and his younger brother, Mr. Denham, are guests of Selbourne Castle for a house party honoring Luna and her sisters. But the brothers are up to something mysterious. When Luna discovers the earl is injured, she insists on treating his wound. She secretly tends to him in his room masking her attraction to him as best as she can. But the more she comes to know him, the more her scientific mind gives way to the desires of her heart.
All his life Callen has tried to do the right thing. Usually because his brother was always doing the wrong thing. As the future Earl of Densmore, his parents relied on him to be the leader, the good influence, which put him at odds with his brother and caused no shortage of animosity between them. But now Callen is preparing to make the biggest sacrifice of all by leaving his home, his country, and his one chance at love to save Theo from the hangman.
Luna Marsden not only healed the bullet wound in his side with her tender mercy, she awoke something in him that made leaving her, and the growing desire between them, impossible. Choosing between his damned brother and Luna should be easy, but he'd spent his life protecting his brother and turning his back now meant Theo's death.
Luna doesn't want to stand between two brothers who need each other more than they realize. But Mr. Denham threatens everything she holds dear. She must find a way to save a man who doesn't want to be saved or lose the love of her life.
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Luna slipped out of the kitchen door of the castle and into the small kitchen garden, clutching a basket tightly in her ungloved hand.
The only witness to her little excursion was one of the cats tasked with keeping vermin from infiltrating the kitchen. In the shifting moonlight, the little black cat’s eyes glowed in the silvery blue as it watched her. She paused outside the door, closing it quietly, making sure the latch hooked but did not lock so she could return. She adjusted her cloak around her neck, the tie digging into her skin, and then she moved on, through the garden and out through a waist-high picket gate to the path beyond.
She wasn't trying to be sneaky, though she'd rather not explain what she was doing out here in the dead of night, well after the guests of the house party, in which she was an honorary guest, had gone to bed.
In her other hand, she clutched a little sketch of the herb she needed to find. Really, it was a weed. In the light of day, it was virtually indistinguishable amongst its native brethren plants. But at night, she'd read, the little leaves of Star herb, as it was called, glimmered with a blue iridescent shine that set it apart from others. And according to the text, it could only be found near coastal rocks at low tide.
So here she was, traipsing across the castle grounds and toward the bluffs that led to the beach, and hopefully if luck favored her, she could find this little plant and add to the assortment of herbs and remedies in her collection. Luna's boots made a slick, swishing sound as she hurried across the lawn. There had been a short squall earlier in the evening, and the grass was quite damp, moisture wicking through her worn boots and seeping into her stockings. She hurried, hoping she would find her little plants and return to the comfort of her room. The warm fire in the grate could dry her stockings sufficiently to be worn again tomorrow.
She hated the feel of damp stockings. They were her only pair. Sometimes, in order to preserve their lifespan, she didn't wear stockings at all, but that was a scandalous secret she kept to herself.
During a house party with nine eligible wealthy gentlemen in attendance, she couldn't risk such a thing. Lord only knew what they would think of her if they saw her now. What if they caught her stockingless? She could picture it now, coming down the stairs on her way to breakfast, tripping and falling, and flashing her bare legs to her knees—if not higher.
She and her sisters were all under an immense amount of pressure as guests of this house party to make a match with one of the gentlemen present. It was the best opportunity they had in order to prevent a future that not only would be unpleasant but horrific.
And they weren't even certain what the future could be, but it loomed on the horizon.
A shadow, a bank of dark clouds.
Their father had spent years away, searching for husbands for the nine of them, but always returned empty-handed. She and her sisters had become somewhat of a local legend.
Nine impoverished daughters, all needing husbands, but not just any man would do.
Luna could love a butcher as easily as she could love a handsome lord, but a local butcher could not support her and her family. Though her father was fit and healthy right now, he had no male to inherit the Marsden home and lands. Cousin Irving would inherit upon their father's death.
Cousin Irving was a terrible specimen of a man—already married, which was a small blessing, sparing her and her sisters from that fate. He'd made it clear on each of his yearly visits since his marriage that he would not let them stay in their home when their father died. They would be pushed out, and all they could do for themselves was find husbands before that time came.
Luna knew she shouldn't feel as though an axe hung above her head. Her father was in the peak of health, better than most men his age, since there was no money for vices like cigars and alcohol in the Marsden budget. There was always more work to do than hours in the day, which kept him somewhat fit. But still, the more Luna learned about medicine and read about different diseases and illnesses, the more her worry grew. A person could be fine one day and gone the next. That was without accidental happenings like being thrown from a horse, falling down the stairs, or being gored by an angry bull.
Death spared no man.
So with every passing day that Luna and her sisters grew older, reaching spinsterhood without the protection of a husband, the noose around their necks grew a bit tighter.
Their neighbor, the Duke of Selbourne, and his new wife Violet had taken it upon themselves—quite generously—to host them and nine eligible gentlemen with the hopes that a match would be made.
Rescuing the Marsden daughters from their uncertain fate.
Luna looked up into the big round moon as it broke through a curtain of clouds. “Please,” she prayed, “let just one of these men fall madly in love with a Marsden.”
She resumed her trek down the bluffs, not wanting to light the little stub of a candle she brought until she reached her location. Here at the top of the bluff, the wind was too strong to light it, but down below between the large boulders that lined the little cove, she could light her candle and hopefully find the Star herb quickly.
A thick, misty bank of clouds had rolled over the water and sat like a fluffy blanket. But higher in the sky, scattered clouds floated passively across the moon. Luckily, she had enough light to see by as she picked her way down the path to the beach, careful to not slip on any loose rocks or sand.
According to the medical text she'd read, Star herb liked the briny moist air near the water. It did not like to be submerged but preferred the dark damp crevices between the rocks, much like little crabs.
Luna shivered. She hoped she wouldn't come away from this little quest with a pinched finger. She veered off the path about halfway down, sliding between two large boulders and squatting to light her candle.
From the pocket of her brown wool cloak, she drew out a little box of matches and her candle. She set her candle on the ground and opened the little box. The rattle of the wooden matches was almost indecipherable against the quiet roar of the waves crashing on the beach. The wind picked up its speed, whistling through the rocks, and with it, she heard an eerie sound.
“Night of the new moon.”
She sucked in a breath and held it, her hand holding the match, poised to strike it.
That had been a man's voice…
Was there someone on the beach? Who else would be out there at this time of night?
A chill slipped down her spine.
But… she didn't think there was a need for smuggling anymore. Luna didn’t know much about smuggling or whether it still existed after the war. She didn't read the papers as much as her sisters did, and there wasn't much news that reached all the way up to their little piece of Northumberland, anyhow not to her ears, certainly.
She tucked the matches back in her cloak pocket, the gentle rattle now alarmingly loud. She picked up the candle in her fist. Not that she could do much with it except throw it at someone and even then, she wasn't confident in her aim. But she felt better just having something heavy to hold on to. She moved farther between the rocks, out of sight of anyone using the path up to the bluff.
They were still on Selbourne land and granted, everyone used this path. Local fishermen, people from the village. It was a common enough place for those who lived around here, and Luna had known most of them her entire life. The butcher, the baker, the blacksmith, Father Daniels.
But that voice, she'd never heard that voice before.
The wind had carried it to her from somewhere on the beach. She maneuvered in between the rocks as silently as she could and found one just low enough that she could peek over and see all the way down to the sand. She held her cloak hood tightly around her face, so it wouldn't blow off, and peered over the rock out to the water. A ship sat, rocking with the swells of the ocean. Her heart pounded. Was it a smuggling ship? She saw ships out in the ocean all the time, but the sight of this one turned her blood cold, and yet she had no reason to be afraid of that ship.
It was just a ship. It was not too close or too far out. It was precisely where a ship would anchor itself for the night as ships are wont to do.
At least she hoped.
She didn't know any more about ships than she did about smuggling. Perhaps this was all evidence of a smuggling operation, right here below Selbourne Castle without the duke's knowledge.
Luna gasped—or perhaps with the duke’s knowledge. She'd known Weirick, the Duke of Selbourne, all her life. He and his brother, Roderick, weren’t above a bit of mischief now and then.
But smuggling wasn't mischief. It was against the law.
People were hung for smuggling, even though many had done it during the war to keep their families fed. The duke and his brother were under no pressure to do such a thing.
She hunched down, chewing her nail while she thought about what to do. Could she make it to the path without being seen? She had to know where they were first. Could it be Roderick or Weirick on the beach? Even if they were running some illegal smuggling operation, they would never hurt her. They might be rakes, womanizers, and potentially illegal smugglers, but they’ve done more for her family than she could ever repay.
And they were good men, at heart. Weirick had traveled around the world as a prizefighter during his estrangement from his father, but he was no murderer.
Luna took a deep breath to calm her nerves, leaning back against the cool stone. Once her heart rate had slowed to a reasonable but still anxious pace, she turned, sliding her hands against the cold, rough rock and peeking over the top, inching up a bit farther than before, so she could see down to the beach.
Three men stood cloaked, no more than dark shadows standing on the pale white sand. Her hands grew clammy as she watched them. The wind had died down. None of their words were carried to her ears. Her breaths shortened as fear squeezed her lungs. She had to breathe through her mouth, tasting the salty air on her tongue. She still clutched her candle in one hand, but it no longer gave her comfort. She was powerless against such menacing figures.
They're just men, she reminded herself. They might be Weirick and Roderick. The third, well, she didn't know, but she wasn't going to stick around and find out.
She dropped her candle back into her cloak pocket and inched back to the path leading up the bluff.
From their vantage point, they would not see her except when she reached the very top, but they could not know who she was. If she ran fast enough, she'd make it back to the castle, and they would not be able to catch her.
Her head grew light as she thought about all the possibilities of being seen, slipping on the path, possibly falling right into their hands, but she couldn't just sit and wait to be discovered. Or if she stayed right where she was, maybe she wouldn't be seen at all, and they would leave first.
Luna hugged her knees to her chest. She quite liked that idea. It involved no running. But it also assumed they wouldn't come up this way. She peeked at the path again. Would they see her if they came up the path? Luna had no choice but to leave her little shelter and move farther in between the rocks to where she couldn't be seen from the beach, the path, or the bluff.
She crawled on her hands and knees between two rocks, reaching a dank little cave that was mostly covered with flat stones the size of her palm. A beam of moonlight shined down on her from between the two large boulders that nearly kissed above her. She had one little window that faced the water, but she could not see the beach. Would she be able to spy on them and know when they left? She scooted forward on her knees, placing her hands on the little rock ledge and peeked out. Below her right knee, the rocks shifted, and one rolled out, the clatter deafening inside her little cave.
Her heart stopped as the rock knocked more in a little cascade, an avalanche to her ears, flowing down to the beach. She bit her knuckle to keep from screaming. She couldn't hear anything beyond the frantic drumming of her heart.
She couldn't stay here.
Trapped in this little cave.
She had to get back to the castle. She didn't know where they were or if they'd seen her or if they were even still there to hear the ruckus those rocks had caused. Perhaps they'd only assumed it was the natural shifting of the boulders. Whatever the case may be, she couldn't stay where she was. She edged out of the little cavity, returning to her initial spot. From her vantage point, the path up to the bluff appeared clear.
Were they still on the beach? Luna had to know, she couldn't risk climbing back up the bluff if they were still there. She clutched the hood of her cloak to her chin and peeked up over the rock, but the beach was empty. She sighed with relief. In the distance on the water, a black sliver—a rowboat—was maneuvered by a lone man toward the ship that waited farther out. She inched a little higher, scanning the breadth of the beach, but she saw no one. She ducked down behind the rock again.
She might have to wait here till dawn.
“Blast it,” she cursed in a whisper. She didn't want to do that. She wasn't wearing nearly enough clothing to keep warm. Her feet were cold and wet and once the adrenaline waned, she would be left shivering.
Luna decided right then she had to get back to the castle. She was going to make it up that bluff. Once she reached the top, she would run as fast as she could. She wasn't the most athletic of her sisters—Georgie held that title—but if she was running for her life, it would surely be the fastest she'd ever run. She would be safe once she reached the kitchen garden.
Luna inched toward the path, scanning both directions. Upward was clear but she couldn't see all the way down. She took deep slow breaths, fighting against the tightness and terror that had clamped around her lungs like a vice. She had to stay calm. She needed all her faculties to get back to the castle. There would be plenty of time to be hysterical once she reached the safety of her room.
Luna crept closer to the path, losing sight of the top now, but she could see more of the bottom, all the way to the sandy beach, and there was no one there. Whoever the two men were, they hadn't come this way. Perhaps they'd gone down to the other end of the beach?
She hugged herself; it didn't matter. They weren't here on this path.
The clouds shifted above her, covering the moon and everything went darker. Not pitch black, but the world was suddenly very blue, shades of sapphire and deep purple. This was her chance. Under the cover of the darkness, she would make her escape.
Luna stepped out from her little crevice, her lungs sawing as she tried to run up the path, the heels of her boots digging into the sandy gravel and sliding. She'd almost reached the top when an arm shot out and grabbed her, spinning her and pressing her back against a boulder. A hand clamped over her mouth, but she couldn't scream anyhow, not when her heart had jumped into her throat. A cloaked man stared back at her with a familiar face, but not familiar enough to calm her fears.
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