Masterson Manor, Present day
"Hey! These marks look like they were made by handcuffs," Brian said.
The comment brought an immediate halt to all other conversations. Everyone in the room, including Max, turned their attention to the teenage boy. Including his mother, Mrs. Plante.
Max Ashton edged closer to the bed, inspecting the marks Brian pointed to. A series of ring-like gouges scored the surface of the post on the left side of the headboard. The marks were deeper along the inner face of the post than they were on the outer, as if someone had tried to drag the thing with a chain.
"Probably how they moved the beastie," Max offered.
Mrs. Stradling gave him a fond, if oddly pitying, smile. "I doubt it. It wouldn't make any sense to try and drag something this size from one corner," she said. "There are no corresponding marks on the posts at the foot."
"Someone was chained to the bed." With the astute vulgarity of the very young, Brian immediately tumbled to the crudest interpretation.
Mrs. Plante smiled proudly at her offspring while the other two Americans, Miss Ferguson and Mrs. Stradling, nodded. Laurel, in no hurry to have the day end, sat down on the edge of the bed and let them speculate.
"Sounds a little far-fetched, if you ask me. Like something from one of those old pirate movies," the young groom John said. "Things like that don't happen in real life."
"Oh, I don't know," Mrs. Stradling popped the Ray-Bans off from the top of her head and began polishing them on the hem of her shirt. "I mean, a bed this size would be perfect for keeping someone in his or her place."
"That's true," said Max Ashton. Apparently at some point he erroneously believed that he had been asked to join the group. "Are there marks on the post on the other side of the headboard?"
Brian, finally having found something in the manor that interested him, scooted around to the other side. He peered closely at the post before returning with a disappointed, "Nope. No marks here. Blast."
Max smiled indulgently at the boy. He had, Laurel conceded, a very nice smile. "Don't look so glum, mate. Maybe the owner of the bed tried to spare it by cushioning the chains and the ones on this side slipped out."
"Do you think?"
"Doubtful. I imagine it would be most uncomfortable being handcuffed between two posts," Mrs. Plante, the most earnest of the lot, said in a troubled voice. "But from the position of the marks on this post I'd say it's doable."
"Impossible," Laurel disagreed. "Not with the marks being where they are."
"And why's that?" Max asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
How had Max Ashton suddenly gained such prominence in this little group? Laurel wondered. Perhaps it was time she regained control—
"Tell you what, Miss Whitney," Max Ashton said. Her head shot up and she found herself looking into a pair of devilishly dancing eyes. "Be a sport and scoot to the middle of the bed. The folks here would like a demo."
He was mocking her. Daring her. She almost told him just where he could take his suggestion but then realized that her group—her last tour group—was watching her with innocent certainty that she'd be game and play along.
Oh, she'd play, all right.
"Of course, I would comply, Mr. Ashton, but don't you think it a little, well, unkind to any surviving Masterson males, wherever they might be, to suggest that a lady was chained here? Look around." She waved her hand at the portraits lining the wall. Although they were dimmed by hearth smoke and time and in need of cleaning, anyone could tell that the male faces looking down at them were from a handsome and well-made line. "Do you think a Masterson would need to chain a lady here?" She met Max's eyes with a challenging lift of her brow.
"Nuh-uh. No-way, no-how." Mrs. Stradling's sudden appreciative comment broke the tension.
"Exactly," Laurel said. "For the purposes of verisimilitude, I suggest we use a male volunteer. How 'bout you, Mr. Ashton? You look like someone who might have been chained up at some point in time."
"Only by error," he said.
"Whose? Your accusers' for getting the wrong man or yours for not slipping away quickly enough?"
"I'm not the sort that slips away. Not in this life or any other," Max said with a touch of tenseness. Then, abruptly, he shook off his darkening mood and moved on all fours to the center of the bed where he turned around, sat down against the piles of pillows, and threw open his long, muscular arms.
"At your service," he said, his eyes glittering.
"Right." She hadn't really thought he'd do it and now the tour group was waiting expectantly. Well, she'd prove she was just as sporting as him.
Resolutely, she got on her hands and knees and moved the short distance to where he waited. Once there, she looked around, spied the satin bed pull, and with a flick of her wrist dislodged it from the hook that joined it to an interior system of cables leading to the servants' hall. "Thank you for being such a trooper, Mr. Ashton."
She deftly secured the satin cord around the post and then looped it around his wrist. The action necessitated that she move closer to him. She half-expected him to ... do something. She wasn't sure what, but her muscles tensed as if she stood in imminent danger as she secured his wrist.
In contrast, Max looked utterly relaxed. He caught her eye and smiled lazily. This hadn't worked out as she'd expected. She was the one who felt nervy and embarrassed while Max Ashton looked like being tied to a bed was nothing new for him.
Maybe it wasn't.
After she secured his other wrist to the unmarked post she scooted away from him. "Well, there, now you can see why the prisoner wasn't chained like Mr. Ashton," she mumbled. "If they had been, the gouges would be quite a bit lower on the post, unless the prisoner was actually standing on the pillows."
"Thank you. That makes it all very clear, indeed," Mrs. Plante said, looking decidedly amused.
"You know," said Miss Ferguson, her nose inches away from the bedpost as she studied the wood, "there actually do seem to be two sets of marks on this post. The deep ones higher up and another set, faint but there, low. Whatever do you suppose that means?"
Max pulled off his satin bonds and rolled to his feet. "More than one prisoner?"
"A series of prisoners," Brian breathed. Laurel could almost see the idea forming in his fertile, teenage boy imagination. "Maybe some bugger of a Masterson kept the local hotties chained up here as his sex slaves?"
Bugger of a Masterson?
"I doubt it." Laurel regarded the young man with something less than warmth.
"Why?" Brian demanded, unwilling to let go of his fantasy.
"Trecombe is a very small, very tightly knit community. There are families here that trace their ancestry back to the Domesday Book. If some mad Masterson—and I am by no means disallowing the possibility of a dissolute, odious Masterson—stole a local girl, don't you think there would have been some legend attached to the event?"
Brian looked sullen. The American ladies looked deflated. Only Meghan, the new bride, perked up. "Not if she found she fancied being a sex slave. Could be the affair turned into a love match and ended in a nice chapel wedding. And you know what locals are in that case: All's well that end's well."
The Americans laughed. Meghan turned to Laurel for support. "It could happen, couldn't it?"
Laurel smiled. "I hate to pop anyone's bubble, but actually we have an explanation for those marks, how they were made, and by whom and, again sorry to disappoint, but there was no love slavery involved."
"Come now, Brian," she cajoled the crestfallen boy, "don't look so woebegone. The real story is very dramatic, too. You see, as I mentioned earlier, the coast 'round here was once a prime spot for smugglers to put in with their contraband. Lots of caves and inlets.
"Those marks were made by Ned Masterson, the captain in charge of cleaning up the town, so to speak. Legend has it that he chained the leader of the smugglers here, as the bed was the heaviest thing in the house, while he rode off and routed the rest of the band."
"You're sure?" Brian obviously preferred the love-slave notion.
"Fairly sure. It's a local story but they most often have their basis in fact."
"Wasn't a female smuggler by any chance?"
"Not unless she was strong as an ox," Max Ashton said.
"Well, kid," Max said with a kindliness Laurel wouldn't have suspected him capable of, "look at how deep the gouges are. Whoever had flung himself against the chain was either very strong or very, very angry and while I've met my share of irate women"—he ignored Laurel's sotto voce "I bet"—"I've never met one that strong."
"You know what I'd like to know?" Mrs. Stradling suddenly asked. "I'd love to know what this Ned Masterson was like. I mean think of what he must have been like if he could overcome a man strong enough to move this bed...
Masterson Manor, 1815
Stopping to gloat proved Philippa Jones's undoing.
If she had simply manacled Ned Masterson— Captain Ned Masterson—to his infamous bed and left, all would have gone according to plan. But no, Philippa Jones who, as everyone in Trecombe could attest, was as incapable of hiding her feelings as a rabid dog is incapable of snarling, would never pass up the opportunity to enjoy the downfall of her enemy and her onetime lover, the despicable, deceitful, and treacherously attractive Captain Ned Masterson.