Dark Rider

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Text of Dark Rider

Signet, Penguin Group Copyright 1992

The Dark Rider From Full-Moon Magic Anthology By Mary BaloghDinah Ridding had her first sight of Malvern by pressing one cheek against the carriage windowshe was not wearing her bonnetand closing the eye that could see only the interior of the conveyance while peering straight ahead with the other. The house was coming into sight around a bend of the tret- shaded driveway. She realized that she was seeing n when it could not possibly be at its best, it being late afternoon with heavy leaden skies bringing on an early dusk. Nevertheless, she felt

no doubt at all that it really was a haunted house, as Mama had said it was. It had the look of a haunted house. "No, not there, dearest," Mama had said to Sir Anthony Wilkes, Dinah's stepfather. "We must find Dinah somewhere else more pleasant to go." Clinton, the youngest of the three children of Mama's second marriage, had been laid low by the measles, a disease that Dinah had never had, and their nurse was quite convinced that the other two would inevitably contract it too. Mama and Sir Anthony were anxious to return to the country to be near them, though they had been planning to spend a whole month in town. But where was Dinah to go? London was rather sparsely populated in the middle of October. Her Aunt Beatrice was in Bath and Sir Anthony's brother and his wife had gone to Italy for the winter months. One did not like to impose upon mere friends, though doubtless there were several who would have considered Dinah's presence among them no imposition at all. "She can go to Malvern," Sir Anthony had said. "There will be no problem at all. Gloria will be delighted to have her." Gloria Neville, Lady Asquith, was Sir Anthony's sister. That was when Mama had said, "No, not there, dearest." And when pressed by Sir Anthony, she had flushed and looked uneasily at Dinah, who was also waiting for her answer, and said evasively. "Oh, well, it is large and cold and rather cheerless and . . . " She had looked appealingly at her husband. "And haunted," he had said, grinning at her. "You believed all those stories, did you not, my love? Mrs. Knole should have been an actress instead of a housekeeper. She would have been a sensation on the stage. You believed everything she told you. But tell me did you ever actually encounter a ghost or anything resembling a ghost during the two weeks we spent at Malvern? Any wisp of white disappearing around a dark corner? Anything that went bump in the night?'' "It pleases you to make fun of me," Mama had said, on her dignity.

"I felt it, Anthony." He had grinned again, set an arm about her shoulders, and hugged her to him. Mama, quiet, delicate, dreamy, had always insisted that some people were more sensitive to the spirit world than others and that she was one of those people. Dinah was another. People identify their world through the five senses, she had always maintained. But what if there were a sixth sense or a seventh or eighth that it had pleased a Supreme Being not to gift us with? How could we know for sure that there was not a great deal more to be experienced if only we had the sensual equipment? Perhaps the spirit world was only a touch awayexcept that touch was the wrong word to use because it was one of the five senses that could not locate the world beyond. Dinah had often sensed her father's nearness long after his death when she was eight. And her grandmother's. "Dinah," Sir Anthony had asked, his arm still about Mama's shoulders, the grin still on his face, "would it frighten you to go to Malvern until the children are spot-free and roaring with health again? Would you be afraid of being gobbled up by ghosts?'' "No," Dinah had said. And she had spoken the truth. She accepted the existence of a world beyond this natural one. She was not afraid of it as her mother was. And so as the carriage completed its turn about the bend in the driveway and Malvern came into full view, she gazed at the house with curiosity and some excitement, but with no dread at all. It was an old house, built in the fifteenth century close to the coast in Hampshire, though several owners since then had made changes or additions in the styles then current. So there was an arched gateway set in a square tower, clearly leading through to a courtyard. And there were numerous other towers and battlements and shaped gables and pinnacles. Certainly the house did not present a neat or classical facade or skyline. But it was fascinating.

"It looks a right gloomy place to me, mum," Dinah's maid, Judy, said, peering out of the window with a frown. "It looks wonderful," Dinah said. And she looked forward to meeting Lady Asquith, whom she had met and liked on a couple of occasions. Lord Asquith had died a few years before. Dinah had never met the new baron, Lady Asquith's son. She did not know if he was in residence or not. ************************************ Edgar Neville, Lord Asquith, was taking tea with his mother. But he had finished both eating and drinking and was standing at one of the long mullioned windows of the drawing room, staring out onto a gray and gloomy late afternoon. "If Uncle Anthony had to send the child here," he said, "I do think he should have been more definite about the day. If I just knew for sure when to expect her, I could send some good stout men to accompany her the last ten miles or so. I could even go myself. But it would have been far better if you had just made some excuse, Mama." "Impossible," Lady Asquith said. "Anthony's request was most urgent. Besides, I will enjoy the female company. I am quite sure your worries must be groundless, Edgar. Surely there is no real danger to an ordinary traveler.'' Her cup clinked against the saucer as she set it down. "And I am equally sure she will be mortally offended if you refer to her as a child, Edgar. Girls of her age are usually sensitive about such matters." He turned to look at her in the late afternoon gloom. The lamps and candles had not yet been lit. "For goodness sake, Mama," he said, "how old can she be? Seven? Eight?" like eighteen or nineteen,'' his mother said with a laugh. "You were not really listening when I read Anthony's letter to you, were you, Edgar? Did you imagine that it was Angela who was coming? But she is in quarantine with John while poor Clinton is all over spots."More

"He said the eldest daughter," Lord Asquith said, looking at her blankly. "The eldest daughter is Dinah," his mother said. "Dinah Ridding. His stepdaughter, dear. He always speaks of her as if she were his real daughter. He and Winifred are absurdly fond of each other, you will recall. Dinah must be nineteen. She made her come-out not this past spring but last year. It is a young lady we are expecting, Edgar, not a child." "Damnation!" he said. "Pardon me. Mama. I pictured a child who would be spending her days in the nursery and the schoolroom. This changes everything." He frowned. "I will take her under my wing," his mother assured him. "You need not concern yourself about her, Edgar. Though," she added with a sigh, "it is high time you concerned yourself with some young lady, dear. I am beginning to feel a hankering for some grandchildren of my own. And you will be thirty before we know it." Lord Asquith frowned again. "In two and a half years' time," he said. But he was saved from having to comment on the rest of what his mother had said. Sounds from outside caused him to turn sharply back to the window. "This must be her," he said, watching a strange carriage being drawn into the courtyard by four horses. "And none too soon. It will be dark within the hour. We had better not say anything to her, Mama. Though she must be discouraged from going about alone. Damn, but I wish she were the child I was expecting." Lady Asquith got to her feet and left the room in order to greet her visitor in the great hall. Her son stayed in the drawing room, hoping that his uncle's stepdaughter would not turn out to be a bouncing and inquisitive young lady. He was reassured immediately when she came into the room with his mother a few minutes later. She was slightly below medium height and slender. At first glance she looked little more than the child he had been expecting, but she possessed appealing feminine curves he saw

when his eyes moved over her. Her face, framed by wispy light brown curls beneath her bonnet, was rather too thin for classical beauty, but it was saved from plainness, saved even from ordinary prettiness, by large, dreamy, long-lashed eyes, which appeared in the half-light to be a smoky gray. And she had a sweet rosebud of a mouth. A very kissable mouth. She was not his first cousin, he thought suddenly. She was no blood relation at all. And she was just the sort of female who normally appealed to him. And just the sort he had been hoping fervently for the past ten minutes that she would be. She looked sweet and shy and timid. The sort who would cling to his mother and would always be where one expected her to be. The sort he would not have to worry about. He breathed a sigh of relief. "Edgar," his mother said, "this is Dinah Ridding. My son Edgar, dear. You have not met before, even though my brother has been married to your mother for almost nine years." The girl looked at him and smiled a little hesitantly, very sweetly. "Mama always avoids coming to Malvern," she said, "though perhaps I should not say so, should I? She is afraid of the ghosts." Ah, yes, the ghosts, Lord Asquith thought, making the girl a bow. The ghosts and a timid little wide-eyed slip of a thing. They might make a handy combination during the next few days. Though it would be a shame to frighten such a sweet little innocent. Her mouth looked ten times more kissable when it smiled. "We have quite a variety of them, Miss Ridding," he said. "But they will not bother anyone who knows what places to avoid and what noises to ignore." H