If Nicholas wasn’t using the room, then why had he come there?
Charles grabbed Penny’s arm and drew her to the small door. Grasping the key, he turned it, trying to be careful, but eventually had to force it; the lock hadn’t been used in years. It grated, then the bolt clunked over.
Just as the faint whirring of the panel’s mechanism reached them.
The panel popped open. The catch to release it was concealed in the ornate mantelpiece surrounding the fireplace farther down the bedchamber.
Charles wrenched the narrow door open, unceremoniously thrust Penny through, and followed on her heels. He pulled the door shut, fast and silent, rammed the key into the keyhole, turned, and heard the lock fall home.
Just as the panel hinges squeaked.
They held their breaths. Nicholas took a few steps into the priest hole, then stopped.
Penny closed her eyes, then opened them. There was no real difference in what she could see. Blackness.
The…corridor?—wherever they were was narrow, musty, and dusty; the wall against which Charles had crammed her was cold, hard stone. The space hadn’t been designed for two people; they were jammed together, his shoulder wedged against hers, her back to the wall opposite the wooden door.
She could hear her own breathing, shallow and rapid. Her senses were in knots, reacting to the black prison on the one hand, Charles’s nearness on the other. Her skin started to chill, then flushed, prickled.
Through the darkness, Charles found her hand and gripped reassuringly. She gulped and fought down a mortifying urge to grab him, to cling and burrow against his solid warmth.
He shifted; releasing her hand with a gentle pat, he slowly crouched, his shoulder and back sliding down her.
Her legs weakened; mentally cursing, she stiffened them.
A pinprick of light glowed faintly. She blinked, blinked again, realized Charles had extracted the key from the keyhole.
He moved. The light vanished; absolute darkness once again reigned. He was peeking through the keyhole.
She bit her lip, trying not to form any mental image of their surroundings. Cobwebs, bits of stone, lots of dust, insects, and small creatures…not helpful.
Charles moved, then smoothly, carefully rose. His hand found hers, squeezed, then followed her arm up to grip her shoulder. He leaned nearer. She felt his breath brush her ear, felt the reactive shiver to her marrow.
“He didn’t see us. He’s studying the boxes. Doesn’t look like he’ll leave soon.”
He paused, then added, his voice the faintest thread of sound, “Let’s see where this goes.” He stepped away.
She clutched at him, caught the back of his hacking jacket.
Halting, he reached around and caught her hand. He pried it free, but didn’t release it; he drew her arm around him, then flattened her hand on his chest, over his ribs. He reached back and caught her other hand, and did the same, bringing her close—very close—behind him.
Leaning his head back and to the side, he breathed, “We’re going to move very slowly. Hold on to me—I think there are stairs a little farther along.”
How could he tell? Could he actually see anything? To her it was as dark as a sepulchre.
Regardless of the abrading of her senses, she wasn’t about to let him go.
He was right about the stairs. They’d only shuffled a few feet when she felt him step down. He stepped down again, then waited. Feeling with her toes, she found the edge and stepped down behind him.
In tandem, one step from him, one from her, they slowly descended. With every step, the hard strength of his back shifting before her, the steely muscles of his chest flexing beneath her palms, blatantly impinged on her senses. Although the air was growing cooler, she felt increasingly warm.
It was a long, steep, straight but narrow stairway; rough stone walls caught at her arms, her skirts. Charles reached up, moved his arms. An instant later, ghostly fingers trailed caressingly over her cheeks.
She jumped, valiantly swallowed a shriek.
“Just cobwebs,” he whispered.
Just cobwebs? “If there are cobwebs, there must be spiders.”