XIII. A Test

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Three years ago...

Alex did not realize that she had been rendered immobile and that she was staring wide-eyed at Ralph Everard himself.

They were quite alone in the corner of the ballroom. The dance was still happening and so were the chatters around them. But all seemed to have been subdued as Alex got lost in the emerald depths of this particular Everard.

She was not quite certain how her brain managed to decipher his question for she was sure she did not hear a word when he asked, "Hello, may I have the next dance?" But her brain did hear the words, her eyes read them as they escaped his lips.

Did Ralph Everard just ask her for a dance?

Alex blinked, stunned.

He was still there. She was not dreaming.

He was certainly standing before her and he was asking her for a dance!

*****

Ralph tried his best not to panic or burst into flames with the fury building inside him as Alex's cousins wrapped a rope around him. By now, he learned that they were called Ned and Barto, but he was still uncertain as to his fate despite Alex's reassurance that he shall be free once they reached Meriwether.

"The other's been through this as well, guv, don't ye fret."

But Ralph could hardly believe it. Who would tie their guests!

Ned and Barto were utterly angry, their anger mostly directed at their cousin.

"Ye ken how worried we were?" Ned cried out as he pushed Ralph down the dark path, past numerous tree rocks. "Yer 'Pa will kill ye this time, cousin, I tell ye! Ye said te be gone fer a while! A while!"

Ralph looked up and caught a glimpse of faint light coming from the top of some of the tree rocks. He gulped, quite certain that there were men up there watching them, guarding the entrance into Meriwether.

The rumors were starting to turn out right, he thought. Meriwether was proving to be precisely impenetrable.

"And ye brought this man 'ir!" the shorter of the two men, the one called Barto, said. "He's a bleedin' Gu—"

"Shh!" Alex hissed at her cousins. "He's not 'ir te harm us, see? He's 'ir 'coz I got me self in trouble."

Ralph skidded to a stop when Ned deliberately pulled at the end of the rope tied around him. Like a horse, he waited in spot while Ned whirled on his heels to glare at Alex. "I told ye that woman's trouble, cousin!"

"She was in trouble," Alex corrected, her voice slightly shaking.

"And ye got yerself in trouble in return te helpin' a dead woman!" Barto added.

"Ack!" Alex exclaimed, pushing Barto away and walking over to Ned. She snatched the end of the rope from Ned and Ralph almost sighed in relief, thinking she would free him.

But she did not. Instead she continued to walk, pulling him behind her.

"Ye dinna have te know, cousins and 'tis better that way," she addressed the two furious men striding along with them. "I'll kill ye if ye tell 'Pa 'bout this Everard's profession, ye hear me? Ye keep yer bleedin' mouths shut and lemme get this over with on me own."

"Nae, ye have gone too far—"

Alex stopped and Ralph collided against her back. She turned to Ned, her eyes narrowed. "I'll tell Marla 'bout Shirley."

Ned's eyes widened in horror. "Ye would dare not!"

"Aye, I will if ye tell me 'Pa 'bout him," she said, motioning her head at Ralph. She then turned to Barto. "And I'll tell yer 'Ma 'bout where ye truly went when ye came home smellin' filthy two months 'go."

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