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Lancashire England – March, 1819
No one said anything about snakes.
Dylan Crosby had agreed to this misbegotten rescue mission less than a week ago. He’d traveled in a cramped carriage in the company of his doltish friends for most of the week in question. Yet neither of them thought to mention the prodigious thick snake stretched across the pink marble floor at the entrance to the conservatory of Wicken End.
“I say, lads, look at this snakeskin. What a beauty.” Hightower squatted down and reached out to touch it. “Odd sort of place to display the thing, Tildenbury.”
“It isn’t a snakeskin if the snake is still in it, Hightower,” Dylan drawled. He took a leisurely step back toward the doors just beyond the giant banana tree. “Especially if it’s still moving.”
With a squawk of fright, Hightower fell on his arse and scuttled backwards like a misshapen crab. Once he got to his feet, he shoved Dylan aside and rushed toward the expansive French windows that led, one hoped, into the main house. Tildenbury, their erstwhile host, did what he always did in a complete shambles of a situation. He looked at Dylan, blinked a few times, and laughed. In mere moments, they stood alone, save for the snake, while Hightower, no doubt, ransacked the nearest drawing room for something to calm nerves he later would profess not to suffer.
“Tildenbury, remind me again why we didn’t enter the house through the front doors.” To his credit the cold sweat Dylan had broken into didn’t show in his voice. He’d outgrown his childhood aversion to snakes. Then again, perhaps not.
“Can’t take you chaps in the front door at this time of day. Last time we did some poor fellow nearly had his arm bitten off.” The man had a way of uttering the most ridiculous things and making them sound almost rational. Almost.
Dylan waited a moment for the logical explanation he knew would never come. Devil take it. He had to ask. “There are snakes at every door?”
“Your butler bites?”
Tildenbury blinked at him again, confused. He wasn’t the only one. “Don’t be ridiculous. Can’t have a servant who bites. Especially a butler, beneath his dignity and all that. Bit of an old stick, our butler. I’m not even sure he has teeth. Never seen them that I remember.”
A sharp pain pulsed behind Dylan’s left eye. “Then who bit the man’s arm off?”
“Didn’t bite it off. Nearly did.”
“What dog?” His head was about to explode. At least he hoped it was. Death was far less painful than getting a sensible answer from Tildenbury.
“What? Oh! My cousin’s mastiff, of course. Big ugly brute’s always at the door between four and five of an evening, waiting for him to come home.”
“Your cousin the earl?”
“Indeed. Master of the house and all that.”
“What does the dog do when the earl does come home?” Dylan couldn’t stop himself. The conversation had become a runaway horse bolting into a burning barn.
Tildenbury blinked furiously, a sure sign he was deep in thought or something very like it. “No idea. Dog’s been waiting for him to come home for ten years.” He looked down. “Oh dear.” His face burned bright red, a startling contrast to the bottle-green hue of his jacket.
His lips twitched into a weak smile. “I’m afraid the snake has you a bit tangled, old man.”
“The snake?” As casually as he could manage, Dylan glanced at the spot he’d last seen the reptile in question. It was still there. And across the floor. And coiled around his—
“Not to worry, Crosby. It’s not poisonous, you know.” Tildenbury flashed his most beatific grin. “It just squeezes things to death.”