Short sex stories
- Treason Ch. 11-13
Treason Ch. 11-13
Although she'd been made to work long days and hard hours for her keep Mrs. Ingleman, the innkeeper's wife treated her kindly. Her bed was soft and she received more than enough food to eat. Mrs. Ingleman also donated some of her old clothes from which Celeste had been able to adapt new ones since Maggie had seen fit to deprive her of her coffer as well.
Celeste looked down from an upstairs window onto the roof of the snow-covered coach entering the courtyard. She awaited the familiar greeting from the innkeeper as he rushed to meet the passengers. Some stayed a night and others for two. And there were those who were only in need of light refreshment before they continued their journey. But this morning there was a distinct lack of voices. There were no passengers today. This was the first empty coach in a month. Her heart lifted and she practically ran from the room to her own small chamber. She pulled out the tin box she kept hidden beneath her bed.
She'd earned tuppence a day for four weeks and with the odd gratuity from guests she had near enough to pay her fare to Claerdal. Celeste picked up her skirts and hauled from her room and made far too much noise on the wooden stairs as she hurriedly descended them. With her money clutched in her hand she approached the coach driver sitting at one of the wooden tables in the dining room. He didn't look up from the bowl of ox cheek soup in front of him as she neared.
"Sir," Celeste said.
The gruff, guttural response neither acknowledged nor dismissed her so she continued further. She placed the money on the table before him.
"Five shillings, thruppence," she said.
His eyes flicked over the amount.
"How far can you take me?"
The coach driver stopped eating and finally lifted his eyes to hers. "An' where would'ya wanna be going, lass, on a cold mornin' as this?"
He shook his head. "Cornwall," he said. "And not a mile further. Ya can walk the rest if you've a mind to. I'll be leaving as soon as I'm done here, but I'll not be waitin' for ya."
He turned his attention back to his soup and beer, taking large mouthfuls of each.
Celeste spun on her heels and darted to the kitchen. She found Mrs. Ingleman baking bread and Alice, a young servant girl, making a fruit compote.
"The coachman will take me as far as Cornwall, Mrs. Ingleman," she blurted. "Tomorrow I'll be in Claerdal."
She smiled. "Thank you, Mrs. Ingleman. Thank you for all you've done for me but I cannot delay or he'll leave me."
The innkeeper's wife hurriedly wiped her hands on her apron. "Ah, lass. Are you sure, it's a good thing you're doing? Why don't you return home, lass? It's clear your mistress wants nothing to do with you."
"I can't go back home, Mrs. Ingleman."
"Why not for heaven's sake? There's nothin' for you in Claerdal, don't you see? Not with your mistress treating you as she does."
"There's nothing for me in Chichester, Mrs. Ingleman. I must go to Claerdal."
"Stay here, lass. It's not much but you're welcome to stay."
In less than five months she was going to bear a child. She needed to go to Claerdal and convince Lord Rutherford their one act of consummation had left her with child. His child. It wasn't the truth but it was necessary for her child's survival. Celeste flung her arms about the older woman's neck.
"I wish I could stay. I shan't forget your kindness, Mrs. Ingleman."
Celeste scrambled the final distance to the top of the jagged tor and gazed about her at the vast empty beauty that greeted her eyes. The bleak landscape stretched before her under a bright bitterly cold sky, beyond which lay the sea.
"Twenty miles," the coach driver had said. "Twenty miles to the coastline. Follow it for five miles. It'll take ya to Claerdal Manor."
She glanced at the black coach trundling off into the distance and raised an arm in surprise at the coachman's waving arm. Then she pulled her cloak tighter and cast herself with determined steps into the unknown.
She trudged across the moor her spirit sinking with each heavy step. She wore boots and two pairs of gloves but her hands and feet were numb by the time she spied the magnificent three-floored Tudor mansion resplendent in the dying rays of winter sunlight.
Indescribable warmth filled her as she took in the wonderful sight that was her father's home. She couldn't remember having seen so many mullion windows in one place. Niches and sculptures and elaborate carved interlaced detail contrasted with dramatic effect against the weather-beaten, honey-colored facade. Curved gables and slender columned chimneys decked the roof. An intricately wrought iron gate opened onto a long avenue lined by towering, winter-contoured trees. The wind blew colder and nipped at her skin. Its sound whispered in her ears and coaxed her forward toward the main entrance.
She pulled on the bell and within moments later the imposing oak door creaked open. Celeste could scarce make out the face of the woman standing there but enough light refracted from the piercing, unwavering eyes staring at her to make her aware she was under scrutiny and not at all favorably.
"We have no alms here," the woman snapped. "Be off with you before I set the dogs on you."
"I don't seek alms," Celeste replied.
The woman moved from within the shadows and stepped into the remnants of light. She was dressed in a black dress and her gray hair had been pulled in a severe knot under her coif. Celeste resisted the urge to take a startled step backward. Eyes, the color of the same dusky sky, narrowed and studied her from top to toe.
"Then, what is it that you do want?" the woman demanded.
"I wish to speak to Lord Rutherford."
"That's quite out of the question. Look at you. You're filthy. Lord Rutherford has no time for waifs and strays, besides he's not at home. He is away on the King's business."
Without warning the woman darted backward disappearing into the shadows and pushing the door closed.
"Wait. Please," Celeste called. "I'm expected. Lord Rutherford expects me as does Miss Margaret Marsden."
"You mean the mistress of the house?" The woman released a breath and studied Celeste once more. "I can do no more than ask Lady Rutherford if she's free to speak with you," she ceded at length. "You
may wait in the kitchen."
Celeste's eyes rounded and her breath caught in her throat. Maggie?
Mistress of the house?
"Lady Rutherford?" she queried. "Maggie Marsden is the mistress of Claerdal?"
"Aye," the woman replied. "A new master and a new mistress and all within weeks of the old master's death."
The woman, who'd seemingly briefly forgotten Celeste's presence abruptly remembered and clamped her lips shut.
"Did you know the old master?" Celeste ventured. "Lord Tredawn?"
"Aye, I did. I've been his housekeeper for twelve years. He was a good man."
The woman looked wistful, although the emotion was brief. She quickly withdrew and disappeared behind the swift closing door.
Celeste followed the housekeeper's impatient gesture and walked toward the east wing. There, she found the kitchens and a friendlier face greeted her.
The cook made a fuss of her ushering her to the table in front of the fire and setting a bowl of hot soup and a plate of fresh bread before her nose.
Celeste wanted to denounce Maggie as a fraud and claim her rightful place. Instead she stared at her rough, red hands and politely inquired about the manor's new mistress.
She'd scarce supped of the delicious soup before the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end heralding the approach of slow, measured footsteps across the stone slabs behind her. She turned in her seat, and raised her eyes to focus on Maggie's impassive gaze.
Maggie dismissed the cook and the two scullery maids from the kitchen.
"So, you chose to still come," Maggie said. "You'll find a great deal has changed these four weeks."
Celeste rose to her feet. "I'm told you're now mistress of this house."
"It was a mistake the servants made upon my arrival and one Lord Rutherford didn't seem fit to correct."
"You've taken Lord Rutherford to your bed, I see."
Maggie smiled. She drew closer trailing her fingers lightly over the wooden table. "Didn't I say you could give me all I want?"
"And is this what you wanted? To take my place in my husband's bed."
Maggie snorted. "Husband? Come now, don't pretend grievance when there is none. Lord Rutherford has told me of your wedding night. You despised his touch and reviled his kisses."
Maggie swept a disparaging gaze down Celeste's body. "Still no man good enough for you, Celeste?" she taunted.
Celeste lowered her gaze. The consummation of her marriage had, indeed, proven awkward and quite repulsive to her not merely because of Lord Rutherford's somewhat drunken state but much more his rather lewd and lustful intent. His touch did nothing to assuage the memory of Scully's possession of her. On the contrary, it seemed only to strengthen Scully's shadowy presence.
"I owe Lord Rutherford my life," she ceded. "I would do my duty by him."
"Lord Rutherford no longer wants you
. Did you truly believe he wanted you?" Maggie retorted in surprise. "He married you out of a sense of duty to your father, to appease his conscience and save your life," she charged. "Lord Rutherford is a virile man. He requires a wife capable of pleasing him in bed and whom he can introduce without fear of her being discovered as murderess or traitor's daughter."
"Then pray tell me, what is to become of me? Will my lord Rutherford seek an annulment?"
"That would invoke too much attention—and attention is something we neither of us want, now do we?"
Maggie swept a disparaging gaze over Celeste once more. "You may remain here in your father's home on two conditions. One, you acknowledge me as mistress of this house and in all that I do and, two, when the child is born you give him to me."
Celeste gasped. She took a step backward, placing a protective hand against her stomach. "No."
Maggie ignored Celeste's refusal. "After a suitable period, shall we say another month, I will approach Lord Rutherford with news of your condition. He's a man gullible and arrogant enough to believe it took but one visit to your bed to bless you with child. You'll be five months gone but I doubt when the child comes he'll be any wiser. I'll convince him that it would be in the best interest of all concerned that I raise the child as my own. Our union will be seen by all to have been blessed with child and he will have his heir. You may blend into the background.
Celeste gasped again. "I said, no."
Maggie inched forward and placed a hand against Celeste's stomach. "You know," she purred, "a motherless child will be doomed to a lifetime of prejudice and humiliation. Is that what you wish for yours? No one will acknowledge you as Lady Rutherford for it is my face to which Lord Rutherford's friends have grown accustomed. To whom can you confide the truth without risking death as a consequence? Give the child to me," Maggie said. "I can protect him and disguise the manner of his birth. I assure you the alternative can be quite unpleasant."
"No one will believe the child yours."
"You are clever with needle and thread, Celeste," Maggie dismissed. "I daresay it would not be so difficult for you to alter our gowns to hide your condition and exaggerate mine. Neither the servants nor Lord Rutherford frequent the north tower so your quarters will be there. He has no wish to see you. Do you understand?"
Maggie smirked and turned on her heel. "Yes, what?"
Two Years Later
Celeste sat under the sprawling limbs of the old beech tree dominating the vast landscaped garden at Claerdal Manor. Shaded, thus, from the heat of the midsummer sun she watched as Lord Rutherford played with their son.
She could do nothing but accept the fact Maggie had taken over every aspect of her life at Claerdal Manor and there was no one to blame, save herself. If she had accepted Lord Rutherford's hand in marriage from the outset there would've been no Joseph Heslopp or Maggie Marsden to speak of. She candidly eyed the man who was her husband in name only. Perhaps, she could've learned to love him too. Celeste shifted uneasily. It didn't sit well with her that she needed to lie but it was in her son's interest that she continued to do so.
Lord Rutherford met her gaze. He'd perched Jamie high upon his shoulders and the little boy was holding on for dear life. Both faces beamed down at her and she returned their smile. Could her feelings have changed? Could his?
Maggie had turned him against her, filling his mind with falsehoods but in the last year Lord Rutherford had seemed to seek her company with far more regularity than Celeste suspected Maggie liked. But she'd never once taken Lord Rutherford to her bed and he'd never once tried to exact it.
None save Maggie and the midwife had witnessed Jamie's birth. But it soon became apparent Maggie proved unable to handle the demands of a constantly crying child and didn't spend as much time with Jamie as Lord Rutherford would have desired of a mother. The idea of hiring a wet nurse to address the issue wasn't deemed prudent since one small slip of the tongue could ruin what had become an ideal situation. So it'd been left to Celeste to care for her own child. And now Lord Rutherford insisted she become Jamie's governess.
"Madam," Lord Rutherford said. "You have given me a fine boy. Would you do me the honor—?"
He stepped toward her and then stopped. His eyes lifted and stared beyond her into the distance. "By the gods," he exclaimed. "What is she doing here?"
Celeste turned to follow his gaze and sprang to her feet. Lady Bowes was coming toward them across the Cedar Lawn. She grew dizzy. What she had thought to conceal from Lord Rutherford, she felt, would soon be made known. Her heart almost stopped in her fear. She locked her knees to prevent her from sinking to the ground and held her breath.
Lady Bowes drew closer a small smile curving her lips. "Married life agrees with you, Lady Rutherford," she announced. "How enchanting you look."
"My lady, you are mistaken in my position," Celeste murmured. "I am but a governess to Lord Rutherford's son."
"Am I mistaken, my lord?" Lady Bowes cried in feigned surprise. "I think not."
She stepped closer and placed a finger beneath Celeste's chin compelling Celeste's gaze to hers. Lady Bowes leaned forward and brought her lips to Celeste's ear.
"Imagine my surprise to learn you escaped the gallows."
"Madam!" Lord Rutherford interjected. "I play with my son. If it's your intention to cause me sorrow this day I fear nothing you can do, or say, will sour my mood."
He lowered Jamie to the ground and planted his feet firmly apart.
"My lord," Lady Bowes returned, her eyes wide and beguiling, "you do me a grave injustice. It is not I who will be the cause of your change in humor."
Lord Rutherford clasped his hands behind his back and eyed Lady Bowes with overt suspicion. "What do you want?"
"I have news, which I believe to be of great interest to you, my lord Rutherford," Lady Bowes purred.
"I cannot imagine news of such interest of which I know nothing. Do I not have eyes and ears in every corner of England?"
"That may be so, my lord," Lady Bowes countered, "but perhaps your eyes and ears should give attention to what is closer at hand."
Celeste lifted widened eyes to Lady Bowes' merciless ones. She opened her mouth to speak, to beg Lady Bowes not do what was now apparent to all. Lord Rutherford's gaze was upon her.
"Perhaps you ought return to the house, Elina," he directed. "I daresay what Lady Bowes wishes to divulge can be of no consequence to you."
"Oh, but I disagree," Lady Bowes parried. "What I impart concerns Lady Rutherford a great deal more than you, my lord."
Lord Rutherford smirked. "Lady Rutherford, you say? Then, I will send for my wife at once."
"You can ill afford such flippancy, my lord," Lady Bowes retorted. "Besides, I'm quite aware it's Lord Tredawn's daughter whom you've made your wife. I congratulate your lordship's cunning in saving her from the gallows but you have merely succeeded in postponing the inevitable."
"For you such a secret was not to be kept, I suppose" Lord Rutherford sneered. "I'm surprised, however, at the length of your patience. It has taken you over two years."
"In this instance, my lord, time has proven a most suitable ally."
"Are you sure? Do you think the King would listen to you now? Time
has proven me loyal, Lady Bowes, and despite Elina's connection her knowledge of Tredawn is far less than my own."
"Then, why have you not paraded her at court, my lord? Why does she not take her rightful place at your side and as mistress of this house? It is because two years after the powder treason the King remains unforgiving."
"You cannot prove anything of what you say, my lady, therefore say what you will and leave us to our pleasure."
Lady Bowes' gaze swooped toward the little boy standing at Lord Rutherford's side, his small arms wrapped about Lord Rutherford's leg. Celeste felt the blood drain from her face. Her legs trembled and she feared she would faint.
"Let me take Jamie inside." She could barely draw breath from the ache in her heart.
"A handsome boy," Lady Bowes said. "His features favor you, Lady Rutherford. Of Lord Rutherford there is nothing of note at all. Do you not agree, Lady Rutherford?"
Stop calling me that.
Celeste stared at Lady Bowes her eyes wide in her fear.
Lady Bowes pressed her advantage. "Will you tell me I am mistaken, Lady Rutherford?"
Celeste looked from Lady Bowes' amused countenance to Lord Rutherford's angry one. His brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed.
"What the devil does she insinuate?"
"Well, Lady Rutherford, will you tell your husband the truth or shall I?"
There was nothing she could do to prevent the past from destroying her and her son. Celeste closed her eyes hoping upon hope the bond forged between her son and Lord Rutherford and the tentative companionship they'd forged in the last year would be stronger than the truth.
"My lord—" She opened her eyes into Lord Rutherford's steady gaze. "Have compassion for my son," she whispered. "I beg you do not harm him. He may not be of your blood but he knows and adores you as no other—"
It took but a second for her words to register in Lord Rutherford's brain and she read the murderous glint sparking the depth of his eyes. She took a step backward.
"The boy...the boy is not of my blood."
"Please...my lord. I can explain."
Too late, she saw him close the gap between them and his hand arch above her before swooping down with brutal force against her cheek.
Pain, anger and contempt pitched his voice into a tight scream. "Harlot! My touch did disgust you, yet all the while you played the whore for any other man who wished it. My lord
." He mocked her, drawing closer. "I have good news. Our union has been blessed. I am with child
. Are these not your devious words to me?"
Celeste trembled in fearful silence her despair, her disbelief spilling down her face in two rivulets of tears.
"It is not as you think, Walter," she wept. "Please let me explain."
"Do not address me so familiarly," Lord Rutherford sneered. "Who is he? I will have a name," he said "I will know the father of this child."
Lady Bowes' breath escaped loudly in smug satisfaction.
Lord Rutherford cast her a scathing look. "You have achieved your purpose, Lady Bowes," he ground out. "What further occurs between us is of no concern of yours."
Lady Bowes smiled. "Are you
quite sure about that?" she rejoined. "All London assumes Maggie Marsden to be your wife and that the child is hers. But we know better, do we not? Your marriage to Lord Tredawn's daughter, however discreet, was most unwise. Secrets, my lord," Lady Bowes taunted. "Be careful with whom you share them."
Lord Rutherford peered closer at Lady Bowes. "Who is he? Who is this man who knew my wife before me and left her with child?"
"Your wife?" Lady Bowes mocked. "How interesting that you should address her so, now." She directed her gaze at Celeste who involuntary shrunk away.
"My lord," Celeste implored, "I beg you not to harm Jamie. Do with me what you will but spare the child. Please, my lord."
"You are in no position to ask favors of me," Lord Rutherford snapped.
His eyes bored deep into hers. "I will have his name!"
"Scully Stevens," Lady Bowes said.
Lord Rutherford rounded on Lady Bowes but addressed Celeste.
"Leave us!" he commanded.
His gaze fluttered down to where Jamie stood staring up at him, his eyes wide and full of tears. "And take my...take the boy with you."
"My lord—" Celeste tried again but Lord Rutherford remained unbending.
"Get out of my sight!"
Celeste ran to where Jamie stood and scooped him into her arms. She ran toward the house, her tears streaming down her face. Her idyllic summer afternoon had turned into a nightmare.
Loud, raucous voices spilled from the dark, shuttered tavern onto the wharf. Here, a man's business was his own and lest anyone should forget a knife between the ribs would be a stark reminder to others.
Lord Rutherford's angry appearance in the public room was met with dead silence. He glanced at the frowns and narrowed eyes. Suspicion hung thick like the tobacco smoke darkening the low ceiling. He shook the cloak from his shoulders and ignoring the stares moved toward a corner table. The room visibly relaxed swallowing him up in the ensuing din. Maids again called orders, glasses clinked and cutlery clattered against worn wooden tables.
A tavern wench approached his table. "Pay 'em no mind, sir."
"It is of no consequence. I do not come to enjoy the camaraderie by the pub fire."
"What will you have then, sir?"
There was nothing more to be done at this hour than to rinse away his sorrow and drown his regret.
"A tankard of your finest ale. And be quick about it."
"Right you are, sir."
He cast his mind back to the afternoon's events. It hadn't occurred to him Elina—his Elina—could be capable of such deception. A chit of a girl to whom he'd also masked his true intentions had bested him at his own game. His smile was almost complimentary.
The wench returned and placed the tankard of ale before him and in a voice tinged with regret he loudly toasted Elina's nerve and her triumph. Lord Rutherford looked about him at the curious faces whose tongues had stilled at the sudden outburst. The ensuing low murmur rolled into a deep rumble before erupting again into raised voices telling tall stories, exaggerating conquests and defending half-truths. He shrugged. They didn't know the pain in his heart.
Time slipped by on a drunken stupor.
He was a fool. He'd wanted it all and in these last weeks, he'd had it all—A son, and a wife who no longer gazed upon him with abhorrence. Elina's feelings had started to change toward him. He'd felt it, yet all the time she'd been laughing at him at his gullibility. Jamie had been born earlier than expected but he hadn't cared. He'd barely questioned it. He'd been happy to have a son. He scanned the turned backs, cold shoulders and distrusting faces and gave a burst of laughter its tone harsh and bitter in his ears.
He ignored the tear escaping down his face and drained the remnants of his tankard. He rose to his feet, tossing a few coins on the table, and staggered heavily from the inn.
Lord Rutherford rode his horse through the woods not caring where he went. The leaves stung at his face and branches barred his way. The undergrowth constantly threatened to pull horse and rider to the ground but still Lord Rutherford urged the horse faster. Maggie's words taunted his mind:
"It's apparent, my lord, you married a liar and a harlot," she'd said. "How many men has she known, and yet refused you? If you are to retain your honor and your reputation in the eyes of your peers you must
rid yourself of her. Should Lady Bowes make it known your governess is in truth your wife and Lord Tredawn's daughter and your son is in fact not your own you will no longer have any honor or reputation to speak of."
Maggie spoke true regardless of the fact it was to rescue her own position. Hearsay and rumor were the downfall of every man. He dug his heels angrily into his horse's hide and sped through the night. All was lost.
The horse saw the fallen oak too late but still attempted to jump the barrier. It straggled awkwardly catching its hind legs before falling heavily to the ground throwing its rider. The horse scurried to his feet with a disgruntled snort and shook its mane before cantering off into the darkness.
Lord Rutherford lay motionless steeling himself against the painful onslaught. A sense of foreboding filled him as he realized he would not survive this night.
"Elina," he whispered.
Her marriage to Lord Rutherford had never meant to be that of a warm and loving nature. How could it be? Had Joseph Heslopp not died by her hand and had she not felt obliged to wed Lord Rutherford after he had, for a second time, come to her aid and offered her his name and his protection. She would not have consigned herself so quickly to such a man as he. He was a gambler and an opportunist with friends loyal to him as long as he had the King's ear and wielded power at court.
His proposal hadn't been tendered through love for her, although he'd never divulged his reason. But Lord Rutherford had never been unkind to her or her son. She'd longed to tell him the truth but as time elapsed and the bond between Walter and Jamie grew she hadn't the heart to destroy it. She just wished he hadn't died with the knowledge that Jamie was not his.
His death too had left her vulnerable to Maggie's rule and if Celeste had been in any doubt who was now mistress of Claerdal Manor Maggie made sure she was reminded of it day after day.
"You sent for me, my...lady."
Maggie smiled and then drew deeply. She'd been a fool to think that the mere assumption of being considered Lord Rutherford's wife would be enough to make her a lady. No amount of wealth or compelled respectability could rid her of her sordid past and the moment she laid eyes on Celeste she was forced to face this fact, this truth.
Celeste was still beautiful, refined and unspoiled and should she contend it, it wouldn't be difficult for anyone to imagine her as true mistress of Claerdal Manor. But Maggie knew she could never let that happen, and she wouldn't.
"There's nothing more for you here. Walter is dead and Jamie is no longer your concern."
"You have no right to keep me from my son."
"I have every right. I'm his mother."
"He's not your son, Maggie. He's mine."
"Well, he'll never know that."
"What do you mean?"
Maggie eyed Celeste, carefully weighing her words. "Are you prepared to risk his expectations? Would you be willing to tell him the truth? Jamie is the Earl of Claerdal. What would become of him if it were made known his mother, Lady Tredawn
," she said, "is none other than Celeste Darwent, murderess, and his father the most dishonorable and wicked of Englishmen, Scully Stevens."
"You were Walter's wife in name only and that afforded you some protection," Maggie continued slowly, "but Walter has been dead these three months and there is no one here who will protect you. London loves gossip and scandal and I assure you I can ensure both."
She took Celeste by the hand and pulled her in front of the tall mirror hanging before them.
"Look at us," Maggie instructed. "I'm a lady with wealth, power and a son. You
... are a gypsy whose traitorous father planned to assassinate the King. Tell me who is most likely to be believed, you or me. What is done is done and can't be undone by you certainly since I hold all the cards.
When Walter's horse returned without him I went in search of him and found his lifeless body first. He kept a pouch tied about his waist containing letters and documents regarding ownership of Claerdal Manor. Now, I have it."
Celeste closed her eyes hiding her tears. Maggie's voice hissed strongly once more in her ear. "If you truly love your son you will let him go or do you choose to bring disgrace upon his innocent head?"
"Where will I go?"
"I'm not totally insensitive to your plight, Celeste. Besides, without you I wouldn't be mistress of all this. I've arranged safe passage for you aboard the Black Moth
to the Americas. You can build a new life without fear of an executioner's rope."
"I want to say goodbye to my son."
"No, I cannot allow that."
"Is there somethin' cap'n?"
Scully Stevens glanced at the old man standing next to him portside and shook his head. He returned his gaze to the horizon smelling the tang of a storm on the wind. Once the cargo was delivered they would have to set sail without delay.
The repercussions of a Catholic conspiracy to blow up parliament had swelled inexplicably to include his capture. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found beneath Westminster Hall and his name had been mentioned in its discovery. The government had a monopoly on gunpowder, so it stood to reason the conspirators bought the gunpowder on the black market. It could've been smuggled from France but not by him. The south coast of England was riddled with smugglers havens, yet he'd been implicated in this treachery by name, although he knew not by whom.
France no longer proved to be a safe haven for his ship, the Black Moth,
and English ships determined to catch him had forced him to flee to Port Royal. For almost two years he and his men had remained in hiding enjoying the flavor of the local wines and the delights of the local wenches. He'd lived for the day when he and the Black Moth
could return to England but with every pirate ship that arrived at Port Royal the message they brought had always been the same. English ships continued to patrol the open seas in search of the Black Moth
and its captain. No matter how dangerous a threat English waters posed for many a buccaneer it was doubly so for Captain Stevens.
Scully re-read the letter in his hand delivered by a pirate captain who'd anchored in Port Royal for supplies. Few people knew of his whereabouts so it had surprised Scully to learn the letter came from Maggie Marsden. It'd been dated almost a year earlier and offered him custody of a woman he'd long thought dead.
They neared the beach in the dead of night. Maggie lifted the lantern she carried high into the air and waved it three times. A moment later she received an answering signal.
"Come," she said.
Celeste pulled her cloak tighter against the cold, sea wind and trudged behind Maggie. They followed the light guiding their steps toward the water and the sloop bobbing upon the waves. No words were exchanged with the two men who assisted them into the small boat. The men pushed the vessel out to sea and jumped in.
A huge wave swelled up and over the sloop tossing it like a piece of driftwood upon the rough sea. The sailors rowed hard and fought to keep the vessel upright under the barrage of waves. The boat rounded the peninsula. Celeste had kept her head bowed gripping the sides of the sloop until her knuckles turned white. One of the sailors shouted above the wind.
"Ahoy! Ahoy up there!"
Celeste looked up her eyes widening as she took in the large black ship creaking and listing from side to side.
The sloop drifted portside and within moments a rope ladder unfolded down the side of the ship. Maggie pulled Celeste to her feet and pushed her toward the ropes.
"Climb," she ordered.
Celeste gazed above. Lightening opened the sky illuminating the bow of the ship and silhouetting the leathery features on the faraway faces staring down at her from above. Arms dangled over the side of the ship ready to hoist her aboard. She climbed, thunder following close on her heels.
On the deck of the ship the sailors pressed about her. They devoured her with greedy eyes, although they seemed loathed to touch. But they all breathed her in, gazing at her in some kind of wonder as if she was a sea-goddess that had risen from the sea. The men abruptly fell back and Celeste lifted her eyes following their gaze to find the man whose mere presence seemed enough to command them. She could only hope their captain was a kinder man, one who would take pity on her and grant her request to be freed in the nearest port.
Celeste met his gray gaze inert in the silver flash splitting the sky and her gasp caught in her throat.
She shrank back and couldn't contain the rush of tears spilling down her face. She shook her head. "No," she whispered.
Celeste heard Maggie's laughter behind her. "She's yours to do as you please. And so is this."
Scully held her gaze. "I require no payment for her."
"Then my work here is done. I'll leave you both to get re-acquainted."
The palm of a hand slammed into Celeste's back propelling her forward with such force that she landed on the cold, wet deck at Scully's feet. She remained still, too frightened to move aware of everything and aware of nothing and at the mercy of a man who'd deflowered her. A man whose son she'd borne.
Scully's voice was low, for her ears alone, yet she couldn't obey. "My men grow restless."
She raised her head and looked into his eyes. "I won't be your whore," she said.
Scully stooped low so that his eyes were level on hers. "I remember once asking for your hand in marriage."
"It amounts to the same thing."
He clenched his jaw and breathed in deeply. "Go below!"
Celeste dropped her gaze to the rapier strapped to his side. If she obeyed she'd be lost forever. She couldn't. She darted forth and reached for the sword wrenching it free of its sheath. She pushed herself to her feet amid the deep murmur of surprise and astonishment ringing out about her. The cool, gray slits appraising her were seemingly less impressed.
His eyes roved the length and breadth of her body making her more than conscious of the fitted dress she wore. She took an involuntary step backward and thrust the dagger warningly in front of her.
"I want to get off this ship."
The sound of coarse laughter rippled about her. Scully ignored her demand.
"I'll give you one chance to return my blade," he cautioned. "If you don't then I must assume you intend on using it but I warn you aim well. Never has a man drawn a blade on me and lived."
"I would, indeed, prefer death than to ever have you touch me again." Her hair flayed between them.
"Death?" Scully snorted. "Be sure I'll not afford you such an easy escape."
Celeste kept her eyes on his and prepared for the move that would come. Joseph Heslopp had been portly and easily sidestepped but Scully's swiftness caught her off guard. She raised the rapier thrusting it at his chest. It missed its mark cutting deep into Scully's thigh. She'd drawn blood and a strong oath from him. He raised a hand striking her hard against her cheek and knocking her back to the ground. She struck the deck with a jarring thump. The sword fell from her fingers clattering, teetering and sliding beyond her reach.
She scrambled after it but Scully jumped her crashing against her and wrestling her to the deck. He landed on top of her and pinned her arms above her head, his weight forcing the air from her lungs in a painful surge.
Her shift bunched high above her thighs exposing her to the brazen stares of those standing around them watching and savoring every moment. Her heart echoed the thunder resonating across the sky.
She moved, flaying in his grasp. His knee burrowed between her thighs stilling her movements as his hips ground against hers. He reached a hand to loosen his breeches.
"No," she whispered. "Please. Not here. Not like this. Please, Scully."
He stiffened at the use of his name. It seemed to penetrate the very core of his conscience. Lightening shimmered across his face revealing a spark of recognition in the depths of his eyes. He registered her beneath him absorbing her face and her fear. His features softened and her heart swelled with relief. But the moment was short-lived carried away on another rolling wave of thunder as Scully pushed himself to his feet and pulled her swiftly to hers.
"You have much to learn, my lady," he ground out. "Aboard my
His eyes fixed on her widened gaze and his grip tightened about her wrist. "Mr. Bean!" Scully bellowed.
The crew fell back allowing a sturdy looking man to step forward. In his hand he carried the cat-o' nine tails. Celeste gasped in her horror and tried to escape Scully's firm grip but his hand was like iron. His face remained impassive.
"And aboard my ship you will learn to obey me," he said.
Celeste roused from the sweet bliss of unconsciousness and opened her eyes into the candle flame flickering on the table beside her. She lay on her stomach on a narrow bed in a small cabin. She didn't die. She'd prayed to God with every stroke of Mr. Bean's cat-o' nine to let her die.
She wanted to cry but the tears wouldn't come. She tried to move but a kind, silencing voice bade her be still. She wasn't alone.
"You've got yourself at least two week's grace, my lady."
She stared into the pair of old eyes gazing down at her.
"I'm Amos Tilly," the old man said. "The captain said to bring you to his cabin. You'll heal just fine, not like some of the poor sods on this ship. Lucky for you Mr. Bean knows what he's doing. "This—" He moved his fingers across her naked back—"This'll help. A little ointment I managed to get my hands on."
Celeste closed her eyes and bit down on her balled fist.
"You vexed the captain somethin' terrible," Amos said. "I mean attacking him like that. What were you thinking, lass? Don't get me wrong, he shouldn't have done what he did to a fine lady like yourself but you must understand he can't have his men think him weak now. Obedience demands discipline without question on a ship like this. Punishment for one is punishment for all but, ya know, I don't think I've ever heard the captain speak of any woman like he has of you these last two years. It's like you're a fever in his blood. There," he concluded, "that ought ease the pain for a while. Now, what about some food? Are you hungry?"
Celeste shook her head. Amos fumbled in the folds of his shabby tunic and produced a small, gold locket from somewhere within.
"This fell to the deck when—" He faltered. "Well, I thought it might be of some comfort to you, lass." He opened the locket, bringing it close so Celeste could gaze onto the face painted within. "Your son's a fine-looking boy."
"My son?" The words tumbled with unfamiliar meaning from her lips.
"He looks like you."
"Then I'm married?" Her puzzled gaze traveled to the ring finger of her left hand. It was bare. She frowned at the ring sitting on her middle finger for that was not a wedding band. "And what of my husband?" she asked, her voice wistful. "Did your captain kill him?"
Amos' taut, weathered face sagged in surprise and his mouth went into a gape. "Don't you know what has happened, lass?"
"All I know is I'm afraid...afraid of the man called Scully and what he will do to me."
"And afore that?"
She wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. "I don't know. Please help me. I have to get off this ship. I don't belong here, not with him. I can't belong here."
Amos looked at her for the longest time. "Nay, lass. I suppose you don't. We set sail for Africa on the next tide. If you want to escape this ship, you'll have to go now. Can you stand?"
Celeste nodded. She would at least try. She placed her weight on her arms. The ointment had taken some of the sting from her wounds.
"We're only a mile from the coast," Amos said.
She struggled to her elbows. Amos placed a cape about her shoulders wrapping it about her torn dress.
"Here, put this on," he instructed. "The captain's clothes are too heavy. Come, give me that ring," he instructed.
Celeste stared in bewilderment at him.
"We must be quick, lass," he pressed. "There's little time to lose. We must hide your possessions if you don't wish to be robbed of them."
Amos helped her sit upright and she swung her legs from the bed. She gave Amos the ring from her middle finger.
"May I wear the locket?" she asked.
Amos raised his old eyes in understanding. "Aye, lass. Come, we must hurry."
He placed the ring into a small pouch he'd found among Scully's belongings and then proceeded to sew a small pocket at the hem of her dress. His hands stilled and he looked at her with a sly grin.
"You deserve some compensation for what the captain did."
He rummaged through Scully's belongings and returned with a large white, tear-shaped sapphire in his hand.
"This belongs to Scully," Amos said. "Spend it wisely."
Before Celeste could utter any objection, Amos had placed the exquisite piece of jewelry in the pocket at the hem of her dress and sewed it closed. She watched him with sadness in her heart as he completed his work.
"What will Scully do when I'm discovered gone?" she asked.
Amos shrugged his shoulder. "Don't worry about me, lass," he answered. "I can look after myself."
"I'll not forget you, Amos, or the kindness you've shown me."
"And I won't forget you, lass. Come," he said.
Celeste trailed behind him to the cabin door, her heart in her mouth. He led her to the steps leading to the upper deck. Each step caused her pain, yet she stubbornly clenched her teeth spurred on by the thought of her freedom. Amos signaled her to stop, mouthing for her to wait.
He climbed the wooden steps to the upper deck. Celeste climbed too staying out of sight and watching Amos for any sign he might give, ready to act. The old man hastened portside, his body fighting to remain upright against the constant rolling of the ship.
The deck was a hive of activity. All hands busied themselves in preparation for the next tide. Sailors darned and hoisted sails ripped in the stormy winds while others patched leaks both large and small. Scully stood at the helm barking orders at his first mate, Mr. Bean, who then barked the same orders to a subordinate who, using more than necessary force, ensured the orders were carried out without the merest of hesitation.
Amos slipped in the shadows, portside, and loosened the ropes holding barrels of fresh water and food in their place. At that moment the ship listed far to one side toppling the huge drums. Mr. Bean's voice boomed above the wind directing his men to the left side of the ship to secure the barrels once more.
Amos beckoned Celeste behind him. "Jump!"
Celeste hesitated, her fear rising in her heart. "Will you not take me?"
"I daren't row you ashore, lass. Our absence would be quickly discovered. If I stay here, the captain won't suspect you're not. It should give you a couple of days to get far enough from here once you reach the shore."
"How do I get to shore?"
"You must swim, lass," Amos answered.
He quickly scooped her in his arms and threw her into the arms of fate.
Celeste plummeted through the air, her stomach rising through her body, her scream swallowed up by the roaring sound of the wind. Powerful waves crashed over her sending her hurtling against the side of the ship. She gritted her teeth against the cold and swam, finding strength when she thought she had none. Another wave crashed above her head, forcing her under. She surfaced once more, fighting the turbulent tides overwhelming her and gulping the precious air.
Celeste trudged across the wide and desolate moor, her desperate sobs heard by none. Her body was numb and exhausted and her limbs felt heavy but she willed her feet forward step by agonizing step. She could neither turn back nor remain victim to the windswept wilds.
She drew the wet cloak tighter about her shoulders. It offered no more protection from the fierce winds than the sodden dress clinging to her shattered body. She'd escaped Scully's ship
and survived the icy sea but what would become of her now? She caught her ankle against the jagged edge of a rock and stumbled helplessly to the ground, her painful cry lost within the tumultuous surroundings. Her body shivered but she'd long since given up fighting off the cold. She longed for sleep.
Get up, Elina!
Locked away in the recesses of her mind were the precious memories of a little boy that she would never know again. Her trembling fingers sought and found the small locket about her neck. She clasped it tightly to her breast and lay down on the frozen ground. She closed her eyes.
Get up, Elina!
A loud rumble traversed the ground its sound resonating deep in her bones.
An intense flash of white light exploded behind her closed eyelids compelling her eyes open. The faint echo of a voice shattered the night air.
"Go on, Mistral! Gee up!"
She heard horses or was her mind playing tricks giving her hope when there was none?
She struggled upright and caught sight of the shimmering white orb in the distance. It moved wildly through the darkness disappearing and reappearing as it loomed closer and dispersed the shadows around it.
For a fleeting moment joy swelled her heart before doubt bade caution. What if she was already discovered gone? Scully wouldn't easily forgive Amos his treachery as he wouldn't forgive her, her escape. Panic propelled her painfully to her feet and she clambered backward into the shadows. Her heart throbbed ferociously against her ribs. She would rather die than go back to him.
The brightness drew nearer devouring the darkness before it in fantastic tempo. Its brilliance flashed across her face briefly blinding her and the ground trembled in warning. Her eyes widened with dawning realization and she stumbled backward in her haste to escape the galloping horses coming over the rise. Too late, she scrambled to her feet.
The horses stuttered to an abrupt halt and pawed the air in their alarm. A powerful hoof came down hard on her shoulder knocking her back to the ground. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came. Startled hooves first raised in apprehension now trampled the ground about her in nervous excitement.
The driver's voice boomed through the darkness. "Whoa, Mistral! Whoa, whoa, lad!"
He jumped from the coach and rushed to the lead horse. "Easy boy! Easy now, lad!"
The horse briefly struggled against the familiar handling and soothing tone. It snorted defiantly but soon calmed, his compliance quickly mirrored by the others.
The coach door swung open and its passenger alighted braving the biting cold and lashing rain. He called above the storm.
"Davy, are you all right? What happened?"
"I'm fine, my lord. Something spooked the horses."
"What is it?"
"Some dead animal or other I think. It's still there in the middle of the carriageway, my lord."
The Earl of Hawkridge reached for the lantern swinging on the front of the carriage and edged toward the sprawled, black mass.
"Be careful, my lord!"
The light scattered the darkness revealing the still figure of a woman lying on the narrow path. Lord Hawkridge swore and oath and dashed forward. He dropped to his knees and felt for signs of life. A low moan escaped the woman's lips. She was barely alive.
He quickly removed his cloak and draped it over her. She moaned again as he scooped her into his arms and brushed past his coachman's stunned countenance.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Davy exclaimed. "It's a woman."
He hastened after Lord Hawkridge who put the woman into the warmth of his carriage. "What's she doing out here in the middle of nowhere and at this ungodly hour?"
Lord Hawkridge stared down at the bruised face partially covered by dark tendrils of her hair. She was so slight he marveled how she'd managed to survive the bitter weather.
"I don't know, Davy," he said.
His hand instinctively recoiled from the woman's hair as she groaned again and turned her amber colored gaze unexpectedly onto his. He pulled back further, puzzled by the depth of fear and hostility in her eyes as recognition dawned in their depths. She couldn't possibly know him. There were none in his acquaintance with a complexion quite as bronzed as hers. And yet something stirred deep within him. For the first time in three years he felt the powerful surge of his heartbeat and it unnerved him.
The woman screamed. "No!"
She clawed at his face, her nails leaving their mark. She lunged past him to the coach door eliciting an oath in his surprise.
He pulled her back to him. "You little fool," he ground out. "Are you trying to kill yourself?"
She struggled feverishly in his arms. "Let me go," she cried.
His terse command achieved the desired result shocking her into silence. She sank wearily against his chest the tiniest of pleas rising in her throat.
"Let me be. Please... let me be."
The housekeeper was the first to hear the return of the horses as they passed through the lower gates at Teigne Hall. Lord Hawkridge had already alighted from the coach holding a bundle in his arms when she appeared in sleeping attire followed by Maud, the servant girl, carrying a lighted candle.
She pulled her shawl tighter about her shoulders. "My lord," she began in her surprise. "We were not expecting you until tomorrow—"
Her eyes widened at the still form in his arms. "Heaven have mercy," she exclaimed. "What happened?"
Lord Hawkridge was uncharitable in his reply. "The little fool was almost trampled to death. If Davy hadn't reacted quickly she would be dead now. God knows what she was doing on the moor at this hour."
The woman moved restlessly against him unaware of his words, in search of his strength and his warmth. His arms tightened instinctively about her making a mockery of his anger. Lord Hawkridge strode toward the doors leading up to the west wing.
"I'll put her in the Green Room," he called over his shoulders.
Mrs. Burton raised her eyebrows sharply. At Lord Hawkridge's insistence, the rooms in the west wing hadn't been used since his fiancée's death. She rounded on the chambermaid at her side.
"Boil some water, collect clean towels, linen and a fresh nightgown and bring them to the west wing. Quickly lass," she instructed. "And fetch the liniment from the coach-house."
The girl hurried away repeating the list as she went.
Mrs. Burton turned on her heel and entered the west wing but was stopped in her tracks by Lady Hawkridge's soft tone.
"Hattie, what's going on?"
Mrs. Burton looked up. Lady Hawkridge stood at the top of the elegantly carved stairs that led to the north side of the house gazing down onto the large rectangular entrance hall.
"I heard a disturbance," she said.
"'Tis his lordship, my lady."
Lady Hawkridge paled. She steadied herself against the rosewood banister. "Darby? Is he... all right?"
Mrs. Burton took a calming breath. "My lord is fine but he has returned with a lass, my lady," she explained.
At the slight arching of her mistress' brow Mrs. Burton hurried on. "She is injured."
"Who is she? Do we know her family?"
"No, my lady. I believe she's a poor, unfortunate beggar."
Lady Hawkridge frowned. "A beggar? Where is she?"
"In the Green Room, my lady."
"I see. Will you tell Darby I would like to speak with him?"
"Yes, my lady."
The Green Room had been kept clean and aired, even the fire had been kept burning at all times as if in expectation of Anne-Marie Lucas' return. Of course that was never meant to be. Lord Hawkridge was perfectly aware he would never see her again. He just needed to accept it.
Mrs. Burton glanced at the stern countenance staring into the fire. She moved toward the bed gaining her master's attention. Her brow wrinkled at the sight of the scratch marks on his face that in the glow of the fire's light were clearly visible. He was yet to be bested by the best of men, yet a woman of no apparent significance had managed to draw his blood. There was a certain irony in that fact. She smiled inwardly. That his pride should recover from such a blow remained to be seen.
"Beggin' your pardon, my lord, Lady Hawkridge was awaken by your unexpected return," she said. "She asks that you join her as soon as possible."
Lord Hawkridge tilted his head in acknowledgement.
A shuddering breath rose from the bed and Mrs. Burton turned her attention to the restless face. She laid a gentle hand on the woman's damp brow.
"She must have been wandering the moors for quite sometime. It's all right, lass," she said. "She has a fever. I'll have to get her out of these wet clothes."
She glanced impatiently at the door. "Perhaps, my lord, you could send Davy to fetch Dr. Yates."
"I'll go myself," Lord Hawkridge said.
Mrs. Burton raised an inquisitive brow at Lord Hawkridge's evident relief at having been set a task but the restless cry rising from the bed gave her no further time to dwell on a possible meaning. She deftly unbuttoned the shabby dress to the waist and slipped it from the woman's slim shoulders. A light tap at the door distracted her busy hands.
Maud entered carrying a large bowl of water between her hands. Towels, linen, nightgown and liniment from the coach-house were divided under both her arms.
Mrs. Burton indicated the small table at the foot of the bed. "Set the bowl there."
The young servant walked as carefully as she could to the center of the room without spilling a drop of water. Her eyes rested on the slight figure on the bed. Her hands shook as she placed the bowl on the table.
"Help me get her undressed. We need to get her warm and dry before she catches her death," Mrs. Burton instructed further.
Maud moved to the opposite side of the bed and helped to turn the woman first carefully onto one side and then the other.
"She's lucky the master found her when he did. The moors can be a harsh place in winter."
A loud cry escaped the woman's lips as they continued to remove her dress peeling it lower to reveal a tortured and battered body. Maud stared in stunned silence at Mrs. Burton's horror-struck countenance.
"She can't be much older than me," she whispered. "Who could have done such a thing?"
"I don't know, lass," Mrs. Burton answered quietly. "No more questions now. Let's get her seen to."
In silence they bathed their charge, cleansed and bound the open wounds and dressed her in a simple white nightgown that swallowed the slender form within its spacious folds. Maud brushed through the tangled mass of dark hair.
"She looks a little better," she said. "She will be all right, won't she, Mrs. Burton?"
"If she survives until morning, then I believe there's hope. Come child, you get off to bed. I'll watch over her tonight."
With a final glance toward the bed Maud closed the door silently behind her.
Mrs. Burton frowned down upon the troubled face that even in sleep could find no rest. She placed a soothing hand upon the fevered brow. "Still now. You're safe here."
Murmuring voices penetrated the thick fog numbing her brain. Why couldn't they leave her alone and give her peace? Let her drown in the overwhelming darkness surrounding her.
"She's badly scarred, my lord."
She relaxed into the comforting sound of the familiar caressing her subconscious. A kindly voice. A woman's voice. Always there. Warm and soothing amid the harsh murmurs and chilling screams.
She panicked. Scarred? Who's scarred? Was she scarred? She searched her unconscious mind for answers and found none.
Where am I? Somebody help me!
The whispering stopped and he came again, his voice louder than the rest exploding through the windmills of her mind condemning and taunting and punishing.
I have defied a French King to be with you tonight. Get below! My men grow restless. Mr. Bean!
She stiffened as the whip cracked through the air and screamed as it was laid across her back. She fought to escape the weight holding her down, clawing at her unseen assailant. Her breath constricted in her throat and yet she was still screaming. She struck out at her tormentor relishing the contact of her hands against solid flesh. Strong hands grabbed her wrists imprisoning them in a vice of iron. Her own scream pierced her ears.
The burning liquid slid down her throat dulling her senses and silencing the whispers as it had done before. Her eyes opened into darker ones challenging her own. She wanted to hurt him as much as he'd hurt her and wipe the smug grin off his face.
"I hate you," she said. "I'll never belong to you. Not like this! Never like this!"
Her eyes fluttered closed and she tumbled into the arms of sleep
Mrs. Burton laid a consoling hand on Lord Hawkridge's arm and returned the bottle of laudanum to the table.
"Thank you, my lord, for your help. It's the fever. She regularly confuses her dreams with reality but she'll sleep again now."
Lord Hawkridge turned away as Mrs. Burton started to re-dress the woman's bleeding wounds. He pressed his fingers to his eyes. What had possessed him to bring her here in the first place? In the space of a few short hours she'd already challenged his devotion to his beloved's memory and forced him to examine too much. He didn't want to remember. He didn't want to think. And most of all, he didn't want to feel.
He reached into his jerkin and pulled out the small gold pendant the woman had held clasped to her breast. He turned the delicate object over in his hand and pulled open the minute clasp. Inside was a portrait of a little boy.
Despite himself, Lord Hawkridge smiled down at the upturned face whose golden brown eyes peeked mischievously through an untamed mass of dark curls. The resemblance to the woman was unmistakable. This had to be Jamie. She'd cried out his name far too often for it to be insignificant. A frown creased his brow as he turned and gazed down upon her face. Women of her ilk were usually branded whores or thieves, yet Mrs. Burton assured him there was no such brand upon her skin. But someone had taken a whip to her.
Her hands were soft but not unaccustomed to hard work and her skin, aglow in the firelight, had been quite bronzed by the sun. An imperfection no lady, English or otherwise, would have allowed herself. Her appearance and clothes had been that of a beggar, yet the little boy was dressed with a sumptuous richness afforded only the nobility. He certainly wasn't the son of a pauper. And she? Was she then some nobleman's mistress? He shrugged. The countryside was littered with the bastard children of many a noble lord who didn't give a damn about their offspring, so why should she and the boy intrigue him as they did?
Lord Hawkridge lifted his gaze to Mrs. Burton's face and then dropped it to the small black pouch she held out to him.
"This was found sewn to the hem of her dress," she said.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Mother. I know the hour is late."
Lady Hawkridge rose from her seat near the window and greeted her son. "How is she?"
"Sleeping. At least for now."
She watched the tension creep into her son's face, his questioning gaze holding her bewildered one. She longed to go to him and cup his face, to see the man he once was before Anne-Marie's fatal accident.
"What is it, Darby?"
He breathed deeply and exhaled slowly. "I shouldn't have brought her here."
"She was hurt. What would've been the alternative? To leave her to die?"
Lady Hawkridge stepped forward, her gown rustling against the wooden floor. She placed a hand on her son's arm.
"Your heart has hardened since Anne-Marie's death but not even you believed that poor girl deserved to die on the moor. You did the right thing by bringing her here."
Darby glanced at the hand on his arm and then at his mother's face. "Did I, Mother? You may not think so after this."
He opened his fingers and revealed a white sapphire fashioned in the form of a teardrop in his hand. "This was found in a pouch sewn to the hem of her dress."
Lady Hawkridge's eyes followed her son's gaze to the portrait painted more than thirty years earlier, and which now hung proud and regal above them. Adorning the woman's throat was the same necklace that Darby held in his hands. She remembered the hurt and anger in her husband's eyes when he'd discovered she'd betrayed him with another man. Tonight, she risked seeing the same look in her son's eyes and losing that which was most precious to her—His trust and his love. She returned to her seat by the window and closed her eyes against the pain of a past that had come back to haunt her.
"I doubt you'll be forgiven your silence," Hugh had said. "Whatever else may have taken place this night one thing is certain. You have a great deal more to lose than I. Your reputation and your precious son."
Lady Hawkridge opened her eyes. Hugh was right but she wouldn't, she couldn't lie. Whatever the outcome Darby was entitled to know the truth. Her mouth quivered slightly. She studied the white jewel lying neatly in the palm of her hand. It could only mean one thing. Hugh was near. She lifted her gaze to her son's face. Darby needed to know about his half-brother.
"Whoever that young woman is," she said. "She's innocent of any crime against you or I."
"How can you say that?" Darby demanded. "She's obviously a common thief. A gypsy. And more likely than not sold her body to whomever paid the handsomest price. My only desire is to know how your necklace came to be in her possession—"
"Is it fair to judge her so harshly when she cannot defend herself?"
"The facts speak for themselves, Mother. She was but fifteen miles from Teigne Hall. The concealed treasures within her garments."
"Perhaps she wished to return the jewel."
"I doubt the munificence of the gypsies. When she has recovered she will answer to a magistrate."
Lady Hawkridge sprung to her feet, her eyes wide. "Darby, you can't. The jewel has been returned and Mrs. Burton tells me the girl has suffered a great deal. Surely, that must be enough."
"And yet questions remain. I want answers, Mother."
"You need look no further than this room for your answers, Darby. The betrayal is mine and mine alone. Leave the girl be."
Darby turned the full intensity of his obsidian gaze onto his mother. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying the Jeweled Tear wasn't stolen."
"I don't understand. Did you sell it? Did you give it away?" Uncertainty hardened his words. "To whom? And why? Why didn't you tell me this?"
Lady Hawkridge shifted uneasily at her son's demanding tone. She breathed deeply in and searched for the words to confess her guilt.
"What are you not telling me?"
"I put the Jeweled Tear about the neck of a baby thirty years ago. The man he has become is Hugh Forbesham and—" Her voice faltered and she lifted a tearful gaze to Darby's face. "He's my son."
Shock and disbelief, resentment and pain flitted across Darby's face, yet he didn't speak. He spun away and stalked across the room plowing his fingers through his hair before bringing a fist down hard against the wall. Lady Hawkridge visibly jumped at this unaccustomed, physical display of her son's anger. But just as she, he remembered the fateful night three years ago when Hugh Forbesham entered his life and shattered it.
Despite the five years age difference, their likeness to each other had been remarkable. Darby had attributed it to nothing more than a quirk of nature but she had known the truth. Darby's voice was strained when he spoke again.
"I had suspected as much when I first saw him but I didn't want to believe it. I couldn't bear to think ill of you."
He turned to face her. "How is this possible?"
"I was young and naive," Lady Hawkridge quietly said, "and convinced the man I loved, loved me. That is until I discovered I was with child. My lover refused to acknowledge the child as his and abandoned me to my fate. I was already betrothed to your father. The union had been agreed since our births. At the time it seemed the obvious solution."
"Did my father know?"
Lady Hawkridge stared a moment at the angry face glowering at her. "No," she answered. "Not at first." Her heart ached. "Within a month of our marriage your father received a letter in which was written every detail of my... affair. It threatened to publicly make known my past indiscretion unless he agreed to send a great deal of money."
She paused briefly.
"Your father couldn't afford not to, the scandal would've ruined him both financially and socially."
She wrung her hands. "I should have told you," she admitted softly, "but I thought it best you should never know."
Darby's eyes accused. "How considerate of you, Mother. Did you also believe it to be in the best interest of my father not to tell him you were carrying another man's child?"
Lady Hawkridge gave an unconscious shake of her head. "I tried desperately—"
"What happened to him?"
She clasped her hands tightly against her stomacher and crossed the room to the open hearth. Her son was as his father. She could never expect Darby's sympathy or understanding but she hoped with time he would be able to forgive her. The one thing his father could never do despite the years she'd spent trying to convince him of her loyalty and love. But Marcus had gone to his grave despising her and scornful of her declarations.
"Your father was furious as he'd every right to be. But instead of punishing me he turned his anger onto Hugh." Her eyes pricked with fresh tears. "No one was to ever know I'd been with child. So, I was allocated these rooms."
She looked about the elegant chamber.
"Being on the north side of the house I was assured privacy and isolation and for the remainder of my confinement I was forced to stay here. Only Hattie ever came to see me. When Hugh was born six months later a woman came to take him away. I was never to know her name or what was to become of my child. All I could do was give her this necklace and ask her to take good care of him. My son was blameless. It should've been me," she whispered. "My punishment was to never know his fate."
She lifted her gaze to Darby's impassive face. "My only duty thereafter was to provide an heir for Teigne Hall. You. My only regret is that you were not conceived out of love but out of resentment and anger."
"You've never once neglected me, Mother, and for that I'm grateful but all this time you've secretly grieved for a child you would never see again. You've never been completely mine."
Lady Hawkridge placed a hesitant step forward. "Darby—"
"Hugh's father. Who is he?"
"It all happened a long time ago, Darby," Lady Hawkridge parried. "The name as the man is no longer important to me."
"You would keep his name from me?"
"Yes. Your father was adamant no scandal would ever taint your name. I wouldn't wish you to rake over the past and destroy all he has done to protect you."
Darby held her tearful gaze for the longest time. "But was it not Hugh Forbesham who returned with the past and destroyed my life?" he answered bitterly. "Perhaps if you'd seen fit to divulge the truth, Mother, Anne-Marie would still be alive."
He turned on his heels and stormed from the room slamming the door closed behind him.
Lady Hawkridge anxiously awaited her son's return. Hours had gone by and still he'd not returned. The fire had already dwindled in the grate and it had become considerably colder. Still, she sat waiting, hoping against all odds for a chance to speak again with her son. All she could do was explain her actions and ask his forgiveness. And pray she'd not lost him because of some inexplicable coincidence.
For thirty years she'd kept silent and now her world was collapsing around her. Yet she couldn't, in all honesty, blame the young woman asleep in the west wing. All blame must be hers and hers alone.
Mrs. Burton poked her head tentatively around the parlor door. "My lady," she gasped. "Are you all right? I was fetching fresh linens and I saw your light."
The housekeeper briskly rubbed her arms and hastened toward the open hearth. "'Tis cold in here. You could catch your death."
Lady Hawkridge's voice echoed soft and distant. "I've lost him, Hattie," she said.
Mrs. Burton busied herself with the embers. "Who, my lady?"
"I've lost him," Lady Hawkridge repeated. "He hates me."
Mrs. Burton stopped stoking the fire and glanced up at her mistress. "Those who know you, my lady, can never hate you," she said benignly.
"Yet, my son hates me, Hattie."
Mrs. Burton removed the mug of beer from her mistress' cold fingers. "Come let me help you to bed. It has been a long day. Everything will look better in the morning. I promise."
"Why did she have to come here? He hates me. He wants me gone, Hattie."
"No, my lady. Not his lordship. Lord Hawkridge loves you, he would never—"
"He knows everything," Lady Hawkridge murmured. "I told him everything, Hattie. My affair with Andrew and—" She began to cry softly. "The baby. I killed Anne-Marie. It's my fault, Hattie. I could've prevented it. I should have told Darby about Hugh."
Mrs. Burton folded her mistress in her arms and held her tightly. "These things have a way of coming right, my lady," she said. "Miss Lucas' death wasn't your fault, my lady. It was a terrible and tragic accident."
Apr 15, 2018