The gardener had some very interesting information. It appeared that he had found horse manure underneath a tree at the edge of the manor grounds.
“Oi doan’t knoa whoi thair wud be horse manure thair, moi lord,” he told Richard. “All dee horses are locked up in their stables each night. Rodney ain’t usually the unreloiable type.” Rodney was the stable lad and Richard had to admit that he agreed. The only ever times Rodney had slipped up he had been very apologetic indeed and he had never committed the same error again.
“Do you think she might have been kidnapped then?” Richard asked, his worry deepening.
“’Tis hoighly probable, moi lord. There was definitely a man who doesn’t live here around last noight, and since you’ve reported no robbery, he was probably the one who stole young miss Corinne.” In an unexpected burst of emotion, the gardener blurted out, “I do hope she’s all roight, moi lord. She was always pleasant when she saw me in the grounds. Oi doan’t knoa who could live with such a thing as harming her, moi lord. It’d kill me.”
Richard nodded in agreement, a look of determination on his face and he held the man’s shoulder firmly.
“We’ll find her,” he promised.
The man looked reassured. There wasn’t anything much more solid than the word of a lord. And Richard guessed that the fact the staff knew he loved Corinne helped his case. He couldn’t help but wonder what they would think if they knew of the argument that had passed between him and Corinne the previous day. Would they all turn against him? Richard tensed involuntarily.
He remembered who was sitting near him and shook off his fears of being attacked by his household. He turned to regard Keris Kingfisher who was taking the situation extraordinarily well. She returned his gaze with dry eyes and un-flushed cheeks.
“You’ll find my daughter,” she stated simply, and Richard didn’t know whether he was being threatened or whether Keris was conveying conviction.
He bowed his head.
“Yes, Mrs Kingfisher,” he replied.
She rose to her feet, the strength of her character which her movements reflected reminding him painfully of Corinne’s.
“Your daughter is very brave,” Richard added. “That, coupled with her intelligence, should make her a difficult hostage for any man.”
Keris shrugged at the compliment to her daughter. She was about to leave when Samantha entered. The maid’s face was pale. It almost looked carved out of snow.
“My lord,” she whispered, sounding as if she were quite unable to raise her voice above this level. “The guards mysteriously fell asleep last night. They awoke quite warm - there has been no change in the weather. They suspect ....” She gulped, looking frightened. “Magic.”
“So they would not have seen her leave,” Richard whispered, dismayed by the fact.
“I think it is safe to say she was kidnapped by a warlock,” Keris said, her voice startling the lord.
Despite the slow chill creeping over his insides, he nodded quickly; he knew that if at any one second he did not look to be paying attention, he could be suspected of having some part in the crime.
“I will search every inch of the region,” Richard assured her.
He turned to the shivering Samantha. She was shivering from cold - she can’t have had a chance to don a cloak between telling him Corinne had disappeared and finding the guards.
“Tell Florence to send the guards here,” Richard told her. “Then you need to stay at the hearthside.”
Samantha nodded numbly. She was also caught up in her emotions, Richard realised. What an effect Corinne had on these people. Had he really been blind to it all? Until today he had thought that no one could love Corinne as much as he did. While he still believed this, he no longer believed that he was the only person who loved her apart from her mother. It made the way he’d hurt her and the matter of her having been kidnapped even worse.
Keris and Samantha both left the room. Richard was left alone, alone with the continual sinking sensation in the pit of his gut and the icy tendrils of apprehension wrapping around his body.
‘Oh, my sweet Corinne...’