Laura heard a cry, soft and muffled. "Oh, God, I can hear her. Where could she be?"
Richard pulled on a T-shirt. "I'll find her."
"How the hell can you find her locked in there? Dammit, Richard, come out! I need help!"
Richard went to the door. "Calm down, darlin'. I'll find her."
His tone soothed and a wave of relief swept her. He would find her. But she couldn't sit still and do nothing. She went to look some more.
* * *
Grabbing a flashlight, Richard slipped into the servants' staircase hidden within the walls and walked down one level, then up the opposite staircase on the other side of the house.
"Stay where you are, princess, I'm coming."
"I'm scared." Her kitten meowed.
"I know, precious. Keep talking to me." Richard mounted the narrow stairs. "Can you see the flashlight?"
"No." Panic colored her tone, drawing the one word out.
"It's okay baby, Daddy's here. Nothing is going to hurt you."
Richard smiled to himself. She tried to sound so brave.
He took the next curve, and wished there were lights in the passageways. Half the servants' stairs went to straight walkways, and although he knew the maze in the dark, he realized Kelly could have been trapped in here for days, looking for a way out.
"How did you find the stairs in the walls?"
"Serabi crawled into the corner in my room, then went under the wall."
He must have left it open after one of his late-night visits to her room. Dammit. This was his fault.
"I see the light, Daddy!"
Relief punctured her frail voice, and he heard scuffing. He shined the light down on her, then instantly scooped her in his arms, hugging her tightly. If anything had happened to her… She wrapped her arms around his neck, and he kissed her cheek, rubbing her back. She was trembling and crying her heart out.
"It's okay, baby. Daddy has you now."
"I was so scared," she sobbed.
"I know, baby, I know." He hushed her, soothed her as he carried her back toward the exit. Pressing the wall, the door swung open. He set her down and she rushed out into the upstairs hall.
"Oh, Kelly," she cried, and ran down the corridor, sweeping her up into her arms. Laura hugged her and rained kisses over her face. Kelly giggled. Richard stood in the doorway, the light low as he watched Laura with his daughter. Love for Kelly shone in her eyes, glittering in a sheen of tears.
"Oh, precious, I was so worried. Where did you go?"
This was it, Richard thought.
"I was in the walls."
"What do you mean?"
"There is a servants' staircase and passageways leading from this portion, to the west wing," Richard said. "They run all through the house."
Laura twisted, looking in his direction. He filled the doorway, and with what she could see of him, he was wearing shorts and a black T-shirt instead of his austere crisp white shirt and slacks. Light shone against the twisted muscle of his left thigh and images of last night catapulted to the surface. Her anger slapped them down.
"Passageways?" she said. "And you knew about them?"
"And you didn't think to tell me? My God, Richard, she could have fallen! We—I would never have found her. It was selfish and dangerous not to tell me about them!"
"I'm sorry, Miss Laura," Kelly said.
Laura immediately soothed her. "It's not your fault, precious."
"That's how you come to my room, isn't it, Daddy?" Kelly looked between the two, worry in her eyes.
"Yes, princess, it is."
No wonder he could move through the house without detection. Laura let the child down and folded her arms over her middle. "Oh, really."
"Just her room," he clarified, knowing what she was thinking.
She scoffed. "I didn't think you'd come to mine," she muttered. "It has lights in it."
"Daddy reads to me. Every night."
Laura looked down at Kelly. "Wh—what?" She straightened, her arms falling to her sides as she looked at Richard. "You read to her? You come to her room every night through those passageways?"
She marched right up to him and poked a finger in his chest. "That's—that's…" She sighed, losing her steam and laying her hand to the center of his chest. "That's truly wonderful, Richard. I'm happy for you both."
"It changes little."
"It makes me see that you can manage on your own if I'm gone." He leaned down, and she caught the scent of spice and sweat and man, her senses jolting to life and dancing for him.