Diamonds in the Rough - By Portia Da Costa

1

A Flash of Black

Rayworth Court,

Summer 1891

Wilson Ruffington was bored, bored, bored.

I shouldn’t have come here. I knew it would be tedious. These affairs always are.

He looked this way and that, up and down the landing. Rayworth Court was an ugly rambling pile, badly designed in the first place and made worse by haphazard additions. Even he was having trouble finding his way around, when usually he could create a floor plan of any building in his mind, hypothesizing from only a limited amount of data.

Frowning at a particularly hideous ancestral portrait, Wilson sighed. He’d come to this country house party for a change of scene, to shake off his ennui, but it wasn’t working. He’d never been a great one for the social scene at the best of times, but in the past two months or so, since the split from Coraline, he’d barely even left his house at all. With his mistress gone, what was the point? Work, study, writing, building things and tinkering with things, devising more things to build and tinker with, all this had occupied him. Technical commissions and consultations and his intense intellectual schedule had neatly allowed him to avoid the fact that the first woman in seven years that he’d actually considered proposing to had deserted him. Jiggered off with barely a “by your leave” in order to marry a seventy-five-year-old Italian duke.

“Bitch!”

He spat out the word, but without any real fire. Did he even care anymore? It was only his trivial male ego that was affected by her departure. The greater part of him, the compartment of Wilson Ruffington that contained his intellect, simply trundled on as normal. His sexual appetite was a bit put out by her absence, and he certainly missed a regular diet of plentiful, vigorous and inventive fucking and other carnal activities. That lack, and his wounded pride, were the only things really getting his spirits down.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. To feel insulted and frustrated, and let it bother him.

I’ll go home, back to my workroom and my workshop. The people here don’t interest me at all, and the women are ninnies.

Feeling more cheerful already, Wilson whipped his notebook out of the pocket of his dressing gown and scribbled down a quick list of readily available chemicals and other ingredients. During a brief foray into the kitchen gardens at the back of the house he’d noted an interesting form of blight on some of the vegetable varieties. If he gave this formulation to the earl’s head gardener, instructing the man to apply it as a soil dressing, it would at least go some way toward recompensing Lord Rayworth for his being such an abysmal guest.

Wilson closed his eyes and called up his imaginary floor plan, which worked this time. Left it was, then left again, and he’d find himself at the main staircase. Then up one floor and to his left again, and finally, the blessed sanctuary of his room. Perhaps he’d order up some tea, and some of that delicious plum cake he’d purloined from the kitchen when he’d passed through on his way in from the garden. He would instruct his man Teale to make arrangements for his departure, and while he waited, he’d lie in bed and think about a thorny problem with the submarine plans that was taxing him. The project was a government secret, so he’d brought no papers along, but he could do the calculations in his head. There had to be a way to make those damned flanges marry up correctly in such a confined space.

And if the submarine wouldn’t behave, he might toss himself off instead, as a diversion.

Smiling, he opened his eyes again and turned to the left.

Only to swivel back instantly to his right.

What was that? A flash of black, barely glimpsed in the periphery of his vision, then gone again. He’d got the impression of a woman. A female in an inky-black gown, dashing purposefully along the landing at right angles to where he was standing. It’d been only a split second, but there was something...something familiar, and it grabbed at him. A fleeting recollection so astonishing that it made his heart leap.

No, surely not? Not her...

In stealth, he padded forward, sweeping back the panels of his open dressing gown, lest he create a flash of blue silk paisley that would attract her attention.

But if it wasn’t who he imagined it might be, who was she, this swift and graceful figure, this dark, beguiling wraith, moving at speed? He’d seen