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The Witch Hunter ... fifth & final excerpt

Hypatia hurried up the stairs in the Bothwell townhouse before anyone knew of her return.  She had barely twenty minutes to get ready for a dinner party at the Fiddletons.  She was growing tired of the never-ending string of dinner parties and soirees.  She would much prefer a solitary evening of reading or recording in her daily journal, while enjoying a soothing cup of chamomile tea.

This evening however had her rushing to ready herself, for she and Simon Quigley, Lord Peregrim would be attending the same dinner party. Though, they had just parted after having searched the many pubs, Simon having forbidden her to enter any of them, for Tuddles with no luck.  She was eager to see the handsome Lord Peregrim again.

Hypatia had not been blind to the way women coveted Simon. Few if any could take their eyes off him, not that she blamed them. He was by far the handsomest man she had ever met; dark hair that faintly brushed his collar and dark, intriguing eyes with a narrow nose and strong chin and cheekbones that defined his striking features. And he was not of an arrogant manner but intelligent and firm in his opinions.  He was tall and slim though not of slight proportion, his well-tailored clothes fitting his defined muscled structure perfectly.

He was not afraid to speak his mind or defend his opinion and he was ever so patient with her endless chatter, and of course, his interests matched hers.

Her uncle Theodore insisted she consider marriage, she felt herself in no hurry, though at twenty-three most of her friends had several children already. She was not thinking of children, she was thinking of adventure. Children were for the future, at present she wished to explore and Simon could offer her a wealth of adventure.

She hurried out of her clothes and was slipping into a beautiful silk lavender dinner dress that hugged her curvaceous waist nicely when the servant girl Layla who had attended her since her arrival, entered after knocking. Within no time Layla had Hypatia ready for the evening, having fashioned her hair into a high pile of curls on her head with not a stray strand touching her face. It was a dramatic style that highlighted her lovely features.

Hypatia let her know how pleased she was with the results. “You make me beautiful, Layla.”

Layla bobbed her head and smiled as she fastened a stunning amethyst necklace around her neck. “You need no help with beauty, m’lady.”

Hypatia added matching earrings while Layla took a deep purple, velvet cloak from the wardrobe and matching gloves from a traveling chest then left the room.

Hypatia took one last, approving glance in the full-length mirror in the corner of the room and smiled at herself. “Sometimes using your womanly wiles can prove beneficial.”

~~~

Most dinner parties were pretentious affairs Hypatia had little patience with and at the moment her patience was rapidly waning. Simon had yet to arrive and they were soon to be seated.  Not one among the twelve invited guests sparked her interest as Simon had and she shuddered at the idea that she would be stuck sitting next to a boring earl who was more concerned with her wealth than with her.

She politely extracted herself from a conversation between Janett Fiddleton, Rowena Horsley and Allaster MaCarly, the young Earl of Kincorth whose intentions he made known was to find a wife and return home to raise a family and tend his land. He was a large man with a practical heart and he was having difficulty finding a woman who would contend with his pragmatic nature and with being removed from the bustle of Edinburgh to the wilds of the Highlands.

Hypatia found her uncle Theodore speaking with Elizabeth Logan, the Earl of Bothwell’s mother and for a moment she considered turning in the opposite direction. However, the pleading look on her uncle’s face forced her to go to his rescue.

Looking at Theodore Thornberry, no one would think the man would ever need rescuing. He was tall with a broad chest, a firm stomach and legs the size of thick tree trunks. Along with turning fifty just a few months ago, his brown hair had sprouted a few gray strands, but his full, round face showed not a sign of a wrinkle. He was aggressive in his business dealings but pleasant in his social manners and completely inept when it came to women, especially Elizabeth Logan.  She was short, barely five feet, but she was a woman who placed importance on social status and appearance and she was always meticulous in dress and manner.

“It is such a shame about Margaret Dirrington’s accident. She was so looking forward to this evening’s dinner party. She and my daughter Emma had been talking about it for weeks now.”

Hypatia stepped forward to save her uncle. “I was sorry to hear about Margaret, Lady Bothwell. I never met her but Emma spoke fondly of her.  It is such a shame.”

“Yes, a terrible shame. She was a beautiful young lady with the potential of finding herself a good solid match.”

Marriage was what all the young women Hypatia had met spoke about, but then it was no different in America. It seemed it was the goal of women everywhere to find husbands of substance.  Not so Hypatia… she had other plans.

“Margaret never should have gone riding alone.” Lady Bothwell sounded as if she scolded the dead woman.

“It was a riding accident?” Theodore asked.

“Sadly to say, yes,” Lady Bothwell said.

Theodore rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “That’s odd. I met Margaret briefly when she stopped by your manor house one day. I heard her mention how she feared riding and would not ride unless absolutely necessary.”

A flurry of giggles and raised voices drew their attention.

“Lord Peregrim is here,” Lady Bothwell said with excitement. “Please excuse me.” She hurried off to grab hold of her daughter Emma and rush her toward the earl who already was surrounded by four young women.

“She fancies the earl as a husband for Emma,” Theodore said quietly.

“It appears that many women fancy him for a husband.”

“He is a handsome fellow and wealthy, a good prospect for a husband.”

Hypatia smiled at her grinning uncle. “And what of the Earl of Bothwell?”

“You don’t seem interested in the man and I’ll not have you marrying for the sake of being married. I want to see you happy, and your eyes sparkled when you caught sight of Lord Peregrim.”

“They most certainly did not,” Hypatia said indignantly and turned her back on the gaggle of women making fools of themselves over an eligible man, to face her uncle.

Her uncle laughed. “They were shining like two huge sapphires and now there’s a faint blush to your cheeks. Hallelujah, finally a man who sparks your interests.” Her uncle rubbed his hands together. “This trip may prove successful after all.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” she warned. “I’m not ready for marriage just yet.”

“Really? Why is that, Hypatia?”

Hypatia sent her uncle a scathing look for not making her aware that Simon approached them and tempered her annoyance at her uncle’s grin over Simon referring to her by her given name. She turned around however and greeted Simon with a pleasant smile.

“Good evening, Simon.” Her irritation faded quickly when she caught his reaction to her appearance. She actually thought that he caught his breath for a second and that filled her with delight. If he fancied her it would make it easier for her to get him to agree to teach her about the witch hunting business.

“Good evening,” he said with a slight bow.

Hypatia stepped to her uncle’s side to introduce him. “My uncle Theodore Thornberry. Uncle Theodore, Simon Quigley, Earl of Peregrim.”

Her uncle and Simon simultaneously extended their hands.

“Pleased to meet you,” her uncle said with a strong handshake.

Simon matched his strength. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. Your niece is an intriguing woman.”

“First time I’ve ever heard her called intriguing, mostly she’s referred to as stubborn, bullheaded, impetuous and—”

Hypatia poked him in the ribs with her elbow.

He coughed. “Charming.  I was going to say charming.”

Simon grinned and returned to his question. “Now why is it that you are not ready for marriage?”

“I’m independent and intend to remain so.” Her smile was adamant.

“Then you would need a man capable of dealing with your strong nature.”

“No, I would need a man who would accept me for who I am and not attempt to change me to fit his needs,” she said, retaining her pleasant smile. “Do you know of any such man?  I personally think such a man a rare breed and not at all easy to find.”

He leaned nearer to her. “Rare, yes, but sometimes the very thing we search for is right under our noses.”

Her uncle hid his laughter beneath a cough and Hypatia knew he was amused by their exchange and already thinking of Simon as a possible candidate for a husband for her.

Dinner was announced and Simon offered her his arm. “May I?”

Hypatia accepted, relieved he had offered to escort her. She had feared being stuck with any one of the boring and wife-hunting gentleman present this evening. At least conversation would not be dull with Simon and they could continue to spar over their conflicting opinions.

Hypatia watched as the men and women paired off, some with smiles others obviously not pleased with their partner. Robert Logan escorted Agnes McDonald into the dining room and Agnes gently shoved Rowena Horsley aside so that she could sit next to Simon who stood beside his chair after sitting Hypatia. Allaster who had escorted Emma made a point of claiming the chair next to Hypatia and so it went with everyone vying for a good spot at the long table set with the finest linens, China, and silverware.

Hypatia looked to see her uncle near the end of the table sandwiched between Elizabeth Logan and Mildred Fiddleton. He didn’t look at all happy and she felt sorry for him. He attended every event with her, without complaint. He truly was a dear man who loved her as much as his brother, her father, had.

Course after succulent course was served to chatting dinner guests.  Hypatia didn’t understand how so much food could be consumed at one meal, but everyone else seemed not to have a problem and ate with gusto.

Crystal glasses were continuously refilled with wine and by the third course of sliced beef with thick carrots in heavy gravy Hypatia had had enough and rested her fork on her plate.

“Hypatia, how was your visit to Madam Rajavek?” Agnes asked sweetly.

“Interesting,” Hypatia answered, amid the snickers. She was aware that many people thought mediums nothing but charlatans and those who went to them fools, but then she never followed common opinion.

“Did she manifest a spirit for you?” Allaster asked on a laugh.

“Ectoplasm, isn’t that how the spirits manifest through a medium?” Emma queried enthusiastically.

“Really, Emma,” her brother Robert said annoyed. “That is all nonsense. There is not a shred of proof that spirits or ghosts exist. Right, Simon?”

“I have found no such evidence to substantiate their existence,” Simon confirmed.

“Witches, Simon, what of witches?” Agnes bubbled with curiosity. “I have heard witches can conjure the devil.”

“Is that possible? Can the devil be conjured by witches?” Emma asked nervously.

“Nonsense, pure nonsense,” Robert said. “Do not worry about it, Emma.”

“Where I live in Glennore stories of witches abound,” Allaster said.  “And to deny their existence is to bring their wrath.”

A sharp crack of thunder suddenly rattled the windows and caused several of the women to jump and a few to screech in alarm.

The gentlemen soothed their upset and it was Robert Logan who insisted that witches and ghosts were not appropriate dinner conversation.

Conversation slowed as the next course of roasted lamb and potatoes was served and Hypatia sat staring at her plate.

“Lost your appetite?” Simon asked.

“With the soup,” she whispered.

“Not the conversation?”

“Not at all. I enjoy the challenge of a good debate especially when it concerns the arcane.”

“You never answered the question posed to you about the medium.”

“No I didn’t,” she said.

Simon nodded. “Perhaps one day you will share your experience with me.”

“Perhaps, but at the moment,” she lowered her voice. “If I feign the need for fresh air will you come to my rescue?”

“I would rescue you from the devil himself, Hypatia.”

His response startled her silent.  She could see from the gleam in his dark eyes that he was serious.  He would be adamant in his defense of her.  The thought sent a thrill rushing over her and she placed a hand to the center of her chest where a strange stirring caused her a brief alarm and she sighed heavily.

“Are you all right, Hypatia?” Simon asked, drawing everyone’s attention.

Hypatia at first appeared befuddled then clearing her head she played her part well. “I need a bit of fresh air.”

Her uncle got to his feet in a flash.

“Allow me, Mr. Thornberry,” Simon said, placing his white linen napkin on the table before assisting Hypatia to stand.

Her uncle took one look at his niece and understood, “Thank you, Lord Peregrim. I’m sure Hypatia is in good hands.”

“The conservatory, down the hall and to the right,” Mildred Fiddleton offered with concern.

Simon nodded and slipped his arm around Hypatia’s slim waist and led her from the room with envious female eyes watching their every step.

They entered a glass-enclosed room overwhelmed with plants and white wicker furniture.  Several candles gave the room its subdued glow though no more were needed. The magnificent view of the night sky caught the attention and made one stare in awe.

Clouds hurried across the dark sky blotting out stars and the partial moon and lightning pierced the darkness not once but twice while the trees with their fresh new spring growth shivered.

“Nature is stunning,” Hypatia said and realized that Simon’s arm remained around her waist.

“Yes, she truly is.”

He stared at her when he spoke and Hypatia saw the heat of passion flare in his eyes.  His arm slipped more snugly around her, his breath sweet with wine whispered across her cheek. And her heart beat with excited anticipation. He was going to kiss her and though it was by no means proper that he do so, she welcomed it.

“Water!”

The sharp voice forced them apart and Agnes McDonald hurried to Hypatia’s side.

“I thought you could use a drink of water,” Agnes said and practically shoved the glass into Hypatia’s hand. “Perhaps you should leave early so you will be well for the group’s morning ride tomorrow. After all you want to be alert and prepared. God forbid you should suffer dear Margaret’s poor fate. The carriage and your uncle await.”

Simon followed Hypatia and Agnes out of the room and to the front door where her uncle waited along with Janett Fiddleton.

Simon took Hypatia’s purple cloak from the servant and draped it over her shoulders as he addressed her uncle. “I would be pleased to see Hypatia home so that you may enjoy the remainder of the evening.”

Janet looked crushed and Agnes annoyed that Lord Peregrim would take his leave early.

Hypatia wished time alone with Simon to discuss their joint venture, but she was also aware that her uncle did not favor the stuffy dinner parties and would be only too relieved to leave early, and so she was surprised at his response.

“Thank you again, Lord Peregrim—”

“Simon, please.”

“My friends call me Theo and I’m glad for the assistance, especially since I hear the desserts this evening are outstanding.”

“Enjoy, Theo,” Simon said. “I will see that Hypatia is well settled at home.”

Simon rushed Hypatia out the door before any more protests could be made and assisted Hypatia into the coach.

Hypatia wasted not a moment. “We now have time to discuss how to proceed with our investigation.”

“First there is something you must know and I must have your solemn oath you will tell no one.”

“You have my word,” she said, leaning closer to him, ready to hear and keep his secret.

“Margaret Dirrington did not die from a riding accident. She was found stabbed to death on a stone altar on her father’s property, which is adjacent to Bothwell land.”

The color drained from Hypatia’s face. “I stumbled upon the murder scene.”

“And there is a good chance the murderer will strike again and I do not intend for you to be his next victim.”

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