Kidnapped to Freedom – the birth of hope

The conclusion to the short story I wrote as a made-to-order…

You can read part 1 here.

You can read part 2 here.

You can read part 3 here.

88676-display_image-1_copyOver the next few days, Phoebe found herself telling the captain a little about her life. He sought her out when she was on deck, insisted on her and the older children taking their meal with him and his officers, invited her to walk with him in the evening.

At her request, he called her Mrs Morien, and assured her that her brother and sister would be waiting to welcome her home. Beneda—she called herself Benita now—was a widow with a child, “though not likely to remain single for long, Joseph says. A number of men have expressed an interest.”

Joseph was enjoying the life of a highly eligible bachelor too much to settle down, much to the despair of the local ladies and the exasperation of his sister.

To Phoebe, the stories seemed like the ones Mist’ Finn had told her long ago—she couldn’t comprehend the life her sister and brother led. Cautiously at first, and then greedily when he laughed and complied, she asked for more and more details, more and more tales about this strange new life that Captain Val was taking her to.

Venus and Jake were soon over their illness. Phoebe had little to do apart from keeping the younger three entertained and out from under the feet of the crew, helped by the two older children. The trip was a holiday such as they had never known. All but the youngest were used to working until they dropped. For an overseer, Paddy O’Keefe had been indulgent to the children of his reluctant mistress, even giving his daughter his name. But they had to work as hard as any of the others, and he would not have lifted a finger to save even his own get from the traders.

Not like Finn. Finn had taken a beating for her, and had then stolen her brother and sister away to save them when Ol’ Massa Blake had decided to sell them. Joe was the young master’s get, and Patsy and Baby were O’Keefe’s. Jake and his sister, dear lost Mina, were bred on her by another slave at Ol’ Massa Blake’s command. Quaco, or Jacob as the white owners called him, had been a kind and gentle man, and she’d been fond of him. But Finn was the one she dreamt of; the one she thought of when she woke in the night.

She hoped that Venus was Finn’s daughter, made in that one week they had before Chan found them together. She’d taken a beating for that, and so had Finn. But Chan couldn’t take the memories from her.

Finn, his head full of knights and chivalry, hadn’t wanted to bed her. But Chan had already announced his intention to have her when he got back from a trip to Charleston, and she wanted her first time to be with someone who would be kind. That’s what she’d told him; someone who would be kind. She didn’t tell him that she loved him. She knew better than that.

And he was kind, too, though the first time had been awkward and clumsy. Two virgins together, they had to work out how things fitted. She’d giggled, she remembered, and he laughed too, but the laughter froze on his face as he entered her and the discomfort he caused was nothing compared to the dawning wonder on his face.

She was thinking about Finn one evening about a week out into their journey, taking out her memories one by one to examine them and gloat over them and tuck them safely away again. The older children had wandered off to the kitchen where the cook always welcomed them, avowing his intention of fattening them up before the ship arrived in Halifax. The little children were settled in the cabin—the captain’s cabin, she realised now. Captain Val was sharing with the first mate, a man of colour he called Perry and treated as an equal and a friend.

She was thinking of Finn, not the captain: not of how he helped her up a ladder earlier in the day and his hand had lingered for a moment on her hip; not of the way his eyes followed her whenever she was on deck. If she was going to be honest with herself, she knew he watched her because her eyes sought his every time she came on deck. Why did the memories of Finn’s boyish face smiling at her turn unaccountably into Captain Val’s masked face, with the firm square angles of his cheek and chin and the amused quirk that seemed to always linger in one corner of his mouth?

The first mate’s roar startled her, and she whipped around, cringing and protecting her head with her arm. But his anger was for a sailor who had abandoned a rope without properly coiling it, and he passed Phoebe without a glance to explain to the sailor, in precise incisive terms, what could happen if the rope tangled when it was needed, and how long the sailor would spend mending sails in penance, so he would never forget again.

Phoebe, who had expected a careless blow if not an outright beating, felt something uncurl inside her, a soft tentative tendril of… what? Hope? Comfort? A sense of safety?

Too early for the last; the captain had warned her that American privateers or the American navy might stop the ship at any time until they made port in Canada. But here, yes, here on this ship she felt safe.

The sailor was making excuses and apologies as he recoiled the rope correctly.

“I was that tired, Mister Peregrine, and it were near the end of my deck time, and then Mickey saw fins off the bow and I went to see. I meant to come back, Mister Peregrine, honest. It won’t happen again, sir, that it won’t.”

Peregrine? That was the name of one of the black knights in Finn’s Arthurian Tales—Sir Morien, Sir Peregrine. Others, too. What a fitting name for a man of colour.

She said that to the mate he passed on the way back to his watching post.

“Peregrine was the name of one of the knights from Africa in the stories of King Arthur.”

“Yes,” the mate replied, “that’s what Val said when he gave it me. He fair loves those stories, Mrs Morien.”

A polite nod was the only response she could manage. Her mind was racing. Val. Short for Percival? Percival was the perfect knight, the Parfait Knight of the tales, the role that Finn had sought with all the poetry in his soul.

As she crossed back to the rail, adding up all the little clues she’d noticed this past week without being aware of them, he came up from below and made a straight line for her.

“Good evening, Mrs Morien.” The slight husk in his voice had been turning her knees to water all week. Quickly, before her fears choked the words in her throat, she said, “Finn, when are you going to take off the mask?”

The captain went completely still. Then, slowly, he raised his hands to the back of his head, fumbled with the strings of the mask, and let it fall into one hand.

A man changes a great deal between 17 and 29. She knew him though. She should have known him a week ago, by his eyes alone. She clamped firmly down on the hurt that he’d felt the need to hide from her. He owed her nothing. She owed him everything. He had saved her brother and sister. He was in the process of saving her and her children. He clearly wanted not to acknowledge her, and he had every right.

“You do not need to wear the mask,” she told him. “I understand. I have no claim on you and I will not be a nuisance.” She made to pass him, but he put out a hand to stop her.

“No, Mrs Moriel… Phoebe. No, that isn’t it at all. I was… The Blakes have done so much wrong to you, to your family. You must hate us all, especially me. I don’t blame you. I left you in that place. I knew what Chan was like, and I walked away. I wore the mask to make you more comfortable. No. That isn’t true. I just didn’t want to see your eyes when you rejected me. You stay here. Enjoy the fine evening for a while longer. I’ll go.”

She was so stunned that he was halfway to the hatch before she found her voice. “I don’t hate you, Finn. I don’t blame you.”

“I blame myself.”

“For what? For trying to protect me and being half killed for it? For saving my brother and my sister no matter the risk to your own escape? For coming back for me?”

“I came before. The first time, I couldn’t get onto the plantation. They had men out with dogs. The second time, we sent you a message, and I waited on the beach, but you didn’t come.”

“I had the message.”

“You couldn’t get away, I imagine.”

Phoebe shook her head.  That was the week Mrs Blake had miscarried a child, and had, in her anger, had her husband’s mistress beaten so badly that Phoebe had lost the baby she was carrying. It was after that Phoebe had been sent to Quaco.

Finn—no, Val—Val saw the shadows in her eyes. “It is over now. You are a free woman and a wealthy one. You never again need to do what you do not wish.” He turned to lean on the rail, looking down at the water that folded back from the racing hull.

Phoebe leaned beside him, content to be silent.

After a while, Val spoke. “Phoebe, I know it’s too soon. I don’t want to press you. I won’t press you; you need time to get your family settled, to learn what it is to be free, and respected, and loved. I want to give you that time. But may I write to you? May I visit from time to time?”

Was he asking what she thought he was asking?

“Yes,” she answered briefly, and he turned to her with a smile that lit his whole face.

“I have never forgotten you, Phoebe.”

She smiled back, ready to tell him that she had never forgotten him, but Mr Perry called him to come and see something on the horizon, outlined by the setting sun, and he left her standing at the rail, watching the water.

Val was right. It was too soon. She needed to get to know her brother and sister again. She needed to get her children started in this life as free people.

But in her heart, the tendril of hope threw off a couple of leaves, and set down a strong root into her memories of the boy who had once been her champion.

Not quite the end, but as far as the short story takes us.

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Kidnapped to Freedom – dinner with the captain

Here’s part 3 of my made-to-order story, Kidnapped to Freedom.

You can read part 1 here.

You can read part 2 here.

captainstableThis was not how Val had imagined their reunion; him with a bucket under the chin of one of the children Phoebe had borne his brother, while she tended to another child who, by the look of him, had a different father. He shuddered to think what her life had been like.

If he’d stayed, could he have protected her? He had asked himself the question many times. At 17, he’d been half inclined to blame Phoebe for being selected by his brother. His jealousy had made it easier for him to agree to run with the others after Chan caught them together, and then taken Phoebe and refused to let her out of his sight.

The more Val mixed with the free men of colour in the Maritime States, the more he realised how arrogant and stupid he had been. And after he’d rescued Perry from some privateers and heard of Perry’s anguish at some of the things his sister had been through, he’d felt even worse. He and Perry made a raid on the Georgia plantation that held Perry’s sister and won her free, and Val had been planning to do the same for Phoebe ever since.

Phoebe had never encouraged Chan. And he’d known that then.

Reassured that seasickness was natural, and the children weren’t dying, Phoebe was saying something: apologising for her children being sick, promising to clean up after them, trying to take the jug so she could tend to both children at once. Did she think he would beat her because the ship’s lurching disturbed their stomachs? Yes, in her experience, that was probably normal behaviour for a white man.

“No need to apologise, ma’am,” he said, as gently as he could. “It takes most people a while to catch their sea legs. Some experienced sailors are sick for the first days of every trip.”

Jenkins brought more water, and more buckets. “They’ll be better on deck, cap’n,” he suggested. “I could set a hammock for ‘em, out o’ the way, like?”

Val had hoped to keep Phoebe from the crew’s sight. She was lovely, and they were men. But, he reminded himself, they were men he trusted, for the most part.

“See it done, Jenkins. Ma’am, once the children are settled, you and I need to have a talk.”

The oldest boy, the smaller girl, and the baby joined them for breakfast, while Jenkins sat with the middle boy and the older girl. Both the afflicted looked better for being out in the fresh air, though it was too early to challenge their stomachs with food.

Phoebe looked uncertainly at the table.

“Serve the children,” Val suggested, then you and I will serve ourselves. Shall we try them on porridge? It is a bit like grits, but made from oats.”

The children found porridge very much to their liking, the oldest boy, who Phoebe called Joe, feeding the baby, and the littlest girl feeding herself.

Val filled a plate for Phoebe, who looked surprised when he gave it to her.

“Where I come from, gentlemen serve ladies,” he told her.

“I ain’t… I’m not a lady. I’m just a seamstress. A slave and a seamstress.”

“Not a slave now. Not anymore,” Val said. “And not just a seamstress either. You are the older sister of Joseph and Benita Copeland, proprietors of one of the finest hotels in St John’s, Toronto, a free woman, and a lady of considerable wealth in your own right, Miss Blake.”

Phoebe shook her head, a sharp negation. “Not ‘Blake’.” She clapped her hand over her mouth as if to catch the words, then dropped it again, and straightened her back. “You say I am free, and wealthy. Then I will not bear that man’s name. Let his widow keep it.”

Val was admiring her clear diction—she had always had a facility with languages and could speak English as good as his, but he was fascinated by how quickly she dropped the slave patois. It took a few moments for him to process what she’d actually said. “Widow? Chauncey Blake is dead?”

“Yes. You knew him?”

She was quick. Now Val should tell her who he was. But the same impulse that led him to retain the mask ruled him still. “I did,” he said, “to my sorrow.”

Had their father not intervened, Chan would probably have killed Val twelve years ago. 24 years to 17 is not a fair match. Val’s last memory of his brother was of his face twisted in anger and hatred as he struggled against the restraining arms of the overseers to come back and beat Val some more.

There had been no word of Chan’s death from Val’s friends in Charleston. Mind you, since they found themselves on opposite sides in this war, the correspondence had been sporadic, at best. “When did he die?”

“Three weeks ago. He was thrown by his horse, and broke his neck.”

“There’ll not be many who will grieve, I imagine,” Val said. “His wife; his father. Maybe some of his friends.”

“Miz Blake, she be happy to be a widow, I think, except Ol’ Massa Blake lived just a week longer than his son, so she loses everything but her widow’s portion. She’s mad enough to spit. She’ll be still madder when she finds us gone. She thought to get a good price for us from the traders.”

It was a lot to take in. His brother dead. His father dead. His sister-in-law disinherited, and planning to sell Phoebe—and who else?

“Who inherits?” Val asked. Chan and Nettie had no children, he knew, but his father had a low opinion of most of the Blake cousins.

“Phineas Blake,” Phoebe said. “Mist’ Chan’s younger brother. He’s been gone a long time, but Ol’ Massa Blake, he never changed his will.”

Concluded in Part 4

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Kidnapped to Freedom – children throw our hero’s plans into turmoil

Here’s part 2 of my made-to-order story, Kidnapped to Freedom.

You can read part 1 here.

captains cabinVal waited in the shadow of the trees. It must be at least 30 minutes past moon rise. She wasn’t coming. Again. Five years ago, he had waited the whole night, and come back again the next. This time, if he couldn’t carry Phoebe off tonight, he’d have to give up. It had taken him all his powers of persuasion to convince his crew to make one try. They weren’t privateers. The letters of marque that let them take an American ship while the United States and England were at war wouldn’t cover a land raid on a plantation. If she didn’t come, the men wouldn’t agree to a second attempt.

There! Someone was coming. He straightened in anticipation. Yes, it was her—12 years older and a mature women rather than the girl he remember, but even in the moonlight he couldn’t mistake her.

She wasn’t alone. He couldn’t take a herd of children with him! What was she thinking?

He stepped out from the sheltering trees. The mask would hide his face, and his voice had never been the same since Chan tried to strangle him the last time he saw Phoebe close enough to talk to.

“Are you Phoebe?” He was 12 years older too, and a man changed more from 17 to 29 than a woman did, but he couldn’t risk being seen and recognised by anyone on the plantation.

She nodded. He noted that she gathered the children protectively behind her, but the older boy, his face grimly intent, evaded the sweep of her arm and stepped in front. Brave little bantam rooster.

“I was commissioned to take one woman to her brother in Canada, not a parcel of brats,” he said.

“Can’t leave without ma babies, Sir.” Her voice was barely a whisper, but determined.

Her children? All of them? His brother’s children, then, possibly. He surveyed them quickly. Yes the little bantam had the Blake look, and the girl rocking the baby could be a darker version of the childhood portrait of his mother that hung in the parlour.

The men wouldn’t like it, but he was taking them all and be damned.

He met the eyes of each in turn as he said, “You must be quiet. Not a sound. Do everything I say, and I will take you to your uncle in Canada.”

“Perry, give the signal.” He gave the command over his shoulder, not waiting to see if it was obeyed. Perry could be trusted to carry out the raid with maximum noise and minimum damage. He didn’t want anyone actually killed, but he did hope that many slaves would take the chance to escape in the confusion, masking the disappearance of one maid and her children.

He led the way down to the creek, where Jimson stood ready to row them back out to the coast and the waiting ship.

ship

Phoebe startled awake at the knock on the door. Three of the children still slept on the bed in the small but luxurious room. No. It was what Mist’ Finn called a cabin. Venus and Jake were awake, but unmoving in the tangle of little bodies, watching her with anxious eyes. She smiled to reassure them and wished she had someone to reassure her.

Another knock.

When she opened, the little man who had shown them to this cabin nodded at her. “The cap’n wants to see ye, ma’am.”

He’d called her ‘ma’am’ last night, too. Unaccountably, being addressed so courteously made her even more nervous, as if an overseer hid just out of sight waiting to punish her for aping a lady.

“Do I come with you?” she asked.

“He’ll come to ye, Ma’am. In a few minutes, like. To have breakfast with ye and the nippers. He thought ye might want to have a wash first.” The man handed her the jug he was holding, filled with steaming hot water, and crossed the cabin to put the towels off his arm onto the back of a chair.

He turned in time to save the jug as the ship lurched and she lost her balance.

“Ye’ll get yer sea legs soon, ma’am,” he said, not unkindly, and put the jug into a hole that was obviously made for it, next to a basin in a hole of its own.

She had the children and herself washed and tidied before another knock heralded the man from last night. He was still masked, his eyes glittering at her, and his chin and mouth showing, but the rest of his face covered in black cloth.

The little man scurried in behind him, carrying a laden tray that smelled of bacon and fresh-baked bread.

Venus, who had already been looking a little ill, gave a piteous moan. Before Phoebe could react, the masked man, moving with blinding speed, had grabbed the jug that had held their wash water and placed it under Venus’ chin. He was just in time, and Jake was the next to say, “Phoebe, I don’t feel too good.”

Phoebe hurried to feel his forehead. What could be wrong with them? They were never sick!

Some of her fear must have conveyed itself to the masked man, because he said, calmly, “Seasickness, Miss Blake. They will recover once they are used to the motion of the boat.

“Jenkins, remove the bacon, will you? Miss Blake and I will have breakfast in the wardroom with whichever of the children is well enough to join us.”

He was holding the jug with one hand, and calmly supporting the vomiting girl with the other. “Oh, and Jenkins, bring some buckets, please? I rather think this young lady may have imitators.”

You can read part 3 here.

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Anne Stenhouse and Daisy’s Dilemma

Jude, I’m delighted to be visiting your blog so far away in geographic terms and here in electronic ones, on publication day. If any of your readers wish to leave a comment saying why they’d like a copy of Daisy’s Dilemma, then I’ll select a lucky winner from their number at the end of today’s launch celebrations. Daisy’s Dilemma is e-reader only, but most formats are available.

Anne Stenhouse writes dialogue rich historical romance with humour and a touch of thematic mystery from her Edinburgh home which she shares with her dancing partner husband.

Daisy’s Dilemma – released today, 16 June

There’s an excerpt below in the questions, here’s the blurb:

Daisys Dilemmal 300dpiLady Daisy Mellon should be ecstatic when her brother, the earl, allows Mr. John Brent to propose. She’s been plotting their marriage for two years. However, she is surprised to find herself underwhelmed and blames their distant cousin, Reuben, for unsettling her.

In the turmoil caused by the earl’s impending wedding, it becomes obvious that there is a hidden enemy within the family. Tensions rise as the great house in London’s Grosvenor Square fills with relatives.

Reuben Longreach wonders whether the earl understands the first thing about Daisy’s nature and her need for a life with more drama than the Season allows. It’s abundantly clear to him that Daisy and John are not suited, but the minx accepts his proposal nonetheless.

Meanwhile Daisy hatches a plan to attach Reuben to her beautiful, beleaguered Scots cousin, Elspeth. Little does she know that Elspeth is the focus of a more sinister plot that threatens Daisy too.

Will Reuben be able to thwart the forces surrounding Daisy before she is irretrievably tied to John? Will Daisy find the maturity to recognise her dilemma may be of her own making before it’s too late?

 

Buy links

Daisy’s Dilemma from Amazon UK  * Kobo  * Amazon ca *  Amazon au * Amazon US * Amazon NZ

Social media links

Novels Now blog

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An interview with Anne Stenhouse

  1. When did you begin to write, and why?

100_4686Most writers will say they’ve always written or at the very least they’ve always been story tellers. I think that’s true of me. I remember having a lovely time at a school camp holding the entire dormitory in my fictional hands as I spun an oral tale about something or other. Can’t remember at this distance in time what it was. I do remember the power and pleasure of the silences and the sudden bursts of laughter or deep collective sighs. I’ve always enjoyed crafting the written word for speech and I suppose that’s why I enjoyed writing plays. I could say I think in conversations as I replay the day’s encounters and change them over and over. And now – novels like Daisy’s Dilemma in which I let rip with the dialogue.

I do think speech and the things we do while speaking create wonderfully dramatic scenes and I hope there are a few in all my books that take readers back whenever they see one of the titles come up. Of course it’s impossible to really know how they spoke in the early nineteenth century, but it’s good fun using appropriate vocabulary words and adding lots of ‘ma’ams’ and ‘your lordships’. I’m also not averse to a bit of inversion – of speech and grammatical patterns.

  1. Why do you write in your chosen genre or genres?

I write ROMANCE because that’s the intense one-to-one relationship I’m most interested in. I may read detective fiction, but I don’t enjoy thrillers where the central relationship, hunter and hunted, is of necessity warped. This is not to say I don’t craft villains whose interest in either the Hero or Heroine might be unhealthy. I do and my villain, Sir Lucas Wellwood, in Mariah’s Marriage, remains one of my favourite created characters. Mariah’s Marriage was my debut novel and Lady Daisy of Daisy’s Dilemma, began life there.

So that might explain romance, why historical? Like many girls, I spent my teenage years reading copiously. In my case, I devoured Jean Plaidy, although today I can’t stand Tudor history and apart from the wonderful Bess of Hardwick, give them all a wide berth. Then came Jane. Austen, of course. Her work is penned at that moment when English became the modern language I recognise. The world she knew was changing so much and so fast. Women were poised to begin the fight for recognition as people, not adjuncts.

Georgette Heyer was next and I have a hardback collection. So, once you run out of the favourites – you need to roll up the sleeves and create your own.

  1. Do you base any of your characters on real people?

Not consciously, no. However, I was approached by the clever fundraisers of St John’s Church in Edinburgh to donate the chance to be a named character in my next book. I agreed and two chances were put forward. So, look out for the Edinburgh neighbour and the Edinburgh family’s coachman in Daisy’s Dilemma.

Basing characters on real people who are alive is a no-no these days. I think in times past writers had a lot of fun, mostly harmless, picking up foibles and simply changing a letter or two in either the first or second name. I’m sure some of them also settled a few scores. Personally, I need to craft. I may recognise a person whose life really needs artistic recognition, but they won’t be interesting enough if you simple put their character traits down on paper. You need to dig a little, embroider a little (for farce, a lot) and make them not just interesting oddities, but compellingly interesting oddities.

  1. What’s your favourite scene and why?

My favourite scene in Daisy’s Dilemma comes near the beginning of the novel and shortly after those Edinburgh relatives mentioned above arrive in the great London townhouse of Daisy’s brother, the Earl of Mellon. Daisy’s older cousin, Elspeth Howie arrives and her appearance, in dowdy tweed and acres of shawls, appals Daisy. But, she is bred to be a hostess and a hostess never makes her guest feel out of place or uncomfortable. Here’s a wee taster:

Daisy’s dilemma, Anne Stenhouse, editor Judy Roth

“Stephens, can someone assist Miss Howie.”

“Don’t worry about me, Lady Daisy,” the girl said, but relinquished a leather grip, two books, a stone hot water pig and a paper wrapper that looked to hold the remains of some bread, when the butler came closer. Daisy watched in fascinated horror while Stephens transferred the haul to a footman. She heard a step coming smartly along the garden passage behind her, Reuben, and saw the smile light Elspeth’s violet eyes when she recognised him.

“Why, it’s cousin Reuben.” Elspeth unwound a shawl from her shoulders and another from around her waist. She allowed a maid to catch them as they slid floor-wards. “I didn’t know you were staying, too.”

Reuben surged forward and enveloped Elspeth. Daisy, surprised by this show of intimacy, stepped aside. When had they met, she wondered. How had they come to know each other so well that a polite bow and curtsey was by-passed in favour of this warmth?

****

We’ll leave them there for the moment.

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The Raven’s Lady – the villains foiled, our hero rewarded

Part 4 of The Raven’s Lady, the short story I wrote as a prize for Crystal Cox.

You can read part 1 here.

You can read part 2 here.

You can read part 3 here.

Frederick_Morgan_-_Off_for_the_HoneymoonThe planning session devolved into an argument over a different topic; first Felix against Joselyn, and then—when Joselyn convinced the others of the sense of what she said—Felix against the officers and part-time smugglers alike.

Felix did not want Joselyn taking her usual place down on the beach at the head of her women. Indeed, if Felix had his way, all of the women would be replaced with his trained soldiers.

Joselyn and her helpers agreed that the soldiers would form the main part of the workforce on the beach, disguised in skirts and with concealing shawls to keep their masculine features from giving away the ambush. But, Joselyn insisted, she needed to be there, head uncovered and face seen, so that the villains would believe they had her trapped. And her supporters insisted on joining her.

She was right. Felix knew she was right. He hated placing her in danger, but she was essential to the success of the plan.

Reluctantly, he had to agree.

By the time Cyril returned from his errand, all was prepared. Tonight, they would trap the Black Fox.

raven

Cyril clearly expected an outcome much more to his liking. He could hardly contain his glee when both Joselyn and Felix claimed tiredness early in the evening and retired to bed. And they had to hastily conceal themselves behind trees when he came crashing noisily down the path towards the clifftops, muttering to himself about tonight being the last night.

Reaching the clifftops themselves, they watched him hurry away down the path towards the village.

“I don’t want you going down there, Josalyn,” Felix told her. He wasn’t going to stop her. She had as much at stake as he—more, given her love for these people. But he wanted her to know he was reluctant.

Had she been this frightened for him, knowing he had gone to war? If so, he’d have to spend the next fifty years making up for his unthinking cruelty in staying away so long. He smiled at the thought of that, and she smiled back.

“I will be careful. And if the smugglers come this way, you will be in more danger than I.”

In the event, the Black Fox split his forces, and attacked from the sea as well as the cliff top. For a few minutes, Felix was too busy to worry about Joselyn, but once the thugs on the cliff top were subdued, Cyril among them, he hurried down the path to the beach, where clumps of people wrestled in the moonlight.

As he reached the sand, a sudden loud shout stopped him in his tracks. “I have the woman, and I’ll kill her if you try to stop me.”

It was the Black Fox, his arm around Joselyn’s neck, brandishing a pistol in his other hand. He was backing towards the rowboat he had arrived in, two of his henchmen flanking him on either side.

“Not another step!” the Fox shrieked at the soldiers following him. The rest of his crew were gone, subdued by the soldiers or Joselyn’s women. But no one dared approach these three!

Felix’s heart was in his throat, blocking his breath and pounding like the French cannon at Waterloo. He couldn’t attack without risking Joselyn, but if he didn’t attack, they’d take her with them to who knew what horrid fate.

At that moment, there was a loud caw. Immediately, and so fast that Felix couldn’t afterward untangle the order, a large black feathery missile hurled itself into the Black Fox’s face, Joselyn gave a twist and vicious upward punch into a portion of the Fox’s anatomy that made Felix wince, two shots rang out, and the two henchmen fell.

Within moments, it was all over, the smugglers captured and the raven marching up and down the beach cackling his satisfaction at his timely intervention.

Felix, with difficulty. restrained himself from wrapping Joselyn in his arms in front of half his tenants and all his soldiers. He’d never been so frightened in all his life. Thank God she was safe!

The Black Fox was hauled off in custody, along with his surviving men and Cyril, his co-conspirator.  They would face the magistrate on the morrow.

Joselyn and Felix walked home together through the dawn. The raven had flown off about his own affairs, and the housekeeper had gone on ahead, arm in arm with the farmer’s wife.

“Joselyn,” Felix said, “I have explanations to make, and excuses. I let everyone think I was dead because that was the best way I could serve in the war against Napoleon, but I didn’t think about how it would affect you. Dare I hope that you will forgive me? I will spend a lifetime making amends if you will permit.”

Joselyn was silent for a long time. He was wrong then. He had hoped she was beginning to like the adult him, at least a little. Eventually, she spoke.

“You seem very certain that we would suit,” she stated.

“I know we would suit,” he said. “Certainly you suit me. I did not think there was a woman in the world who so combined courage, intelligence and spirit with beauty and kindness. I wish for a chance to convince you I can make you happy. May I court you, Joselyn?”

She was silent again, but a quality in the silence gave him hope, and he waited patiently.

“I did not know there was a man in the world who valued spirit and intelligence in a woman. Certainly I have not before met a man who would allow me to lead my troops into battle, even though he wished to protect me.”

“I didn’t want you to go,” Felix admitted.

“But you respected me enough to agree,” she said.

She was silent again.

“I daresay, now that my last surviving relative is dead, my trustees will find me somewhere else to live,” she said after a while. “I cannot, of course, stay here as a unmarried woman in the house of a bachelor.”

That was true, Felix supposed, his heart sinking. He hadn’t thought of that. Would she leave him, then?

“I never knew… Felix, you really do want me, don’t you? Not just my money?”

“Joselyn, I’ve not taken my officer’s pay in eight years, and it has all been soundly invested along with my prizes. Believe me, you are the treasure I want, not your money.” He moved to take her back into his arms, but Joselyn stopped him with her hand.

“Then I wonder,” she looked down shyly, “if you would consider marrying me first, Felix, and courting me after?”

raven

So it was that Joselyn Bellingham and Felix Maddox were wed as soon as the bans could be called. And if there were some who questioned the sudden change in Viscounts, and wondered at the reappearance of one who had been thought dead these six years the older servants and villagers soon put them right. And if some said the bride should not have lived in the groom’s house that last fortnight, Viscountess Maddox’s supporters told them to hush their mouths. And if some raised their eyebrows when the bride was escorted down the aisle by a large raven, Viscount Maddox didn’t care a jot. After all, he said, the raven had found him his bride and saved him his bride, and that was all there was to that.

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The Raven’s Lady – Felix declares himself

Part 3 of The Raven’s Lady, the short story I wrote as a prize for Crystal Cox.

You can read part 1 here.

You can read part 2 here.

proposal

When Felix got back to the house, he could not find Miss Bellingham. However, he found the servant, Betsy.

“Tell Miss Bellingham, please, that I heard her cousin Cyril and the Black Fox plotting against her, and I need to see her now. I’ll wait in the library.”

After a shocked moment, Betsy hurried upstairs, and a few minutes later, Miss Bellingham entered the room.

She’d clearly been interrupted before she could complete her change. She’d put on a dress, but her hair was caught back in a long plait that brushed her rump as she walked. Betsy came in at her shoulder, and their glares were identical.

“Mr Matthews? What’s this about my cousin?”

“Not Matthews,” Felix told her. “My name isn’t Matthews. I was sent here to investigate the Black Fox for the Crown. I followed you last night, and I saw you bringing in your cargo.”

Now the women had identical looks of alarm.

“It is not what you think,” Miss Bellingham said. “I am not the Black Fox. And the women; they were just following my orders. I am the leader. Arrest me. Let them go.”

“No, Miss,” Betsy objected. “We all agreed. We’re all in this.”

“None of you are in this,” Felix said. “I’m not after you. I want the Black Fox. In any case, Miss Bellingham, I don’t wish to arrest an old friend, and I certainly don’t intend to arrest the wives and daughters of my tenants.”

Betsy was bewildered, but Miss Bellingham was examining him with narrowed eyes. “You are dead,” she told him.

“No,” he said.

She was shaking her head. “We were told you were dead.”

Joselyn still got a white pinched look around her lips when she was angry, Felix noted, and two bright spots of colour on her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” he said, not sure what he was apologising for.

“You should be. I cried. I wore black for a year. Why are you not dead, Felix?” And then she was in his arms, punching his shoulder and fighting back tears. “I am so glad you are not dead.”

He tightened his arms around her, but Betsy cleared her throat, and Miss Bellingham pushed away.

“You be Viscount Maddox, seemingly?” Betsy asked. “Come to take yer own, is it?”

“After we catch the Black Fox and Cousin Cyril, yes,” Felix said. He was finding it hard to focus on the job ahead of them, given how wonderfully Miss Bellingham filled his arms and how empty they felt without her. The idea of redeeming his boyhood promise was growing more and more appealing.

“Where have you been? Why have you waited so long to come home?” That was his Jocelyn; pestering him with questions.

“I will answer every question you have,” he told her. “But we don’t have time today. Today, we have to decide what to do with your enemies.”

Quickly, he told the two women what he’d overheard. Then he had to repeat it for most of the rest of the household. Not the valet or the butler who, Joselyn said, were from London, and Cyril’s men through and through. The local people, she said, could be trusted.

When Felix had finished his story, the servants were of a single mind.

“You can’t go, then, Miss,” said Betsy. “We’ll have to let the Black Fox have the cargo.”

“We can’t risk you, Miss,” one of the other servants said, and the others murmured their approval.

Joselyn turned to Felix. “I suppose they are right. But I hate letting Cyril and the Black Fox win.”

“I might be able to help there,” Felix said. “What if we went ahead with the move, as planned, but set an ambush for the Black Fox and our delightful cousin?”

They couldn’t settle their plans immediately. Joselyn would need to bring in the farmer’s wives who, with Betsy the housekeeper, were her chief lieutenants. And Felix needed the officers of the troops who awaited his orders in the nearby town.

“I’ll send messengers,” Jocelyn said.

“We can’t risk Cyril finding out,” Felix warned. “Is there somewhere else we can meet?”

Joselyn and her supporters fixed him with identical looks of exasperation. “We have a place,” Joselyn said patiently. “I’ll give your officers the direction.”

The servants went to carry out Joselyn’s orders, but Felix lingered, and so did Joselyn. Betsy, the last to leave, looked at her mistress uncertainly.

“Go, Betsy,” Joselyn told her. “I’ll just have a word with Lord Maddox and be along shortly.”

But when they were alone, she was silent. Was she shy, all of a sudden, his brave Joselyn?

On the cliff-top, she had referred to the last time they’d seen one another; that long-ago morning when his mother had carried him off to the other end of England. Should he start there?

“Joselyn,” he said. “I came back to redeem my promise.”

Joselyn laughed, her mouth turned up in a smile, but something unreadable in her eyes. “No, you did not, Felix. You came back to catch the Black Fox.” And then, suddenly sober, “After eight years of silence, Felix. Eight years!”

All his excellent reasons for staying away turned to dust in his mind in face of the angry tears pouring down her cheeks. In a moment, he had her in his arms, and was kissing the tears away, murmuring apologies and endearments.

Finally, they drew a little apart. “I have made your shoulder damp,” Joselyn said, brushing at it ineffectually.

“We had better join the others, my love,” Felix said. “We have a busy day ahead of us.”

“Your love, Felix? You hardly know me. And I am still angry with you,” she continued sternly. “Do not think to butter me up with a few kisses.”

“After the ambush, I will tell you my whole story, and make whatever penance you assign. But, yes, you are my love. Now and forever, Joselyn. Show me the way to this meeting place. We can argue later.”

Continued (and concluded) in Part 4

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The Raven’s Lady – a series of surprising disclosures

Part 2 of The Raven’s Lady, the short story I wrote as a prize for Crystal Cox. You can read part 1 here.

George Morland, Smugglers Isle of WightBut when Felix got to the room assigned to him—one of the guest rooms on the west frontage of the house—he couldn’t sleep. Perhaps a stroll in the woods: scene of many a childhood game when he and his widowed mother lived here with his grandfather. And a slightly older Felix often stole out on a night such as this, when the moon was nearly full, to trap game in the woods, or just to watch animals living their secret lives while the world slept.

No sooner thought than done; he let himself down from the window and was soon slipping into the shadows under the trees. As he had so many times before, he chose a trunk to lean against, stilled his movements, and slowed his breathing to wait for what the night had to show him.

There was a fox, trotting purposefully along the path. An owl swept by on silent wings. Two deer stepped daintily out of the undergrowth, then startled as they caught the fox scent and leapt backward again, crashing away into the deeper shadows.

No. Not the fox. Someone was coming from the house. Without moving a muscle, he prepared for action. A figure. But not large enough to be Cyril. The hope that he could clear this whole matter up this first night died, but his curiosity remained. Where was the lad going? For the person hurrying along the path was no more than a boy, surely; short and slender, with a youthful gait.

On an impulse, Felix followed, using all his woodcraft to stay silent and undetected, but still keep within sight of the boy.

They took the fork leading down to the cliffs. Below on the beach, clear in the moonlight, people milled around several rowboats in the surf. He’d found the smugglers after all! No legitimate cargo would be unloaded on a remote beach in the middle of the night.

The boy took the path down the cliff face, but Felix would be seen if he followed. He concealed himself in a rocky outcrop, where he could watch both the beach and the path from the village. If the smugglers planned to take the cargo inland tonight, that was the most likely direction for whatever transport they had arranged.

As time wore on, however, it became clear that the cargo was being stored in the old cave complex Felix used to explore as a child, before his mother married again and took him away. Good. He could bring a troop to watch until the smugglers came to retrieve the goods, and catch them all.

Oddly, the boy Felix had followed seemed to be directing the whole enterprise, people appeared to be coming to him for orders, and several times Felix saw him run into the surf to catch someone by the arm and redirect them.

The rowing boats went back for another load, and the night was beginning to lighten in the east before the last of them had its cargo removed and put back out into the waves.

Below, the smugglers began to slip away singly and in small groups.

Something odd struck Felix about the faces that looked up at the cliff before beginning to climb the path. No beards or mustaches. Not even the shadows one would expect on at least some of them after a day’s growth. His mind took a while to interpret what his eyes were telling him. Women. Every smuggler he could see was a woman.

He looked again at the boy, shaking his head to dislodge the wild thought. No. Not Miss Bellingham. That milk-and-water miss could not possibly be a smuggler. The boy—or the woman, in fact—could be anyone in the house, or could easily have come from one of the farms beyond the house. But he was definitely a she. As the light strengthened, the way she moved, and the curves inside the breeches she wore, became more and more obvious.

Then the raven swooped down to land on the beach beside her, and removed all doubt. Miss Bellingham’s pet cawed at her, a loud raven alarm call, and she looked anxiously up at the cliff. A few quick orders to the remaining women on the beach, and they all scattered, some heading for the path and some for the narrow way around the cliffs that had been uncovered as the tide fell.

Now what did he do? He stiffened his shoulders. Woman she may be, but smuggler she certainly was. He would do his duty, of course. Even though once, long ago, she had been Joselyn, the girl child who dogged his footsteps and whom he would have died to protect.

Miss Bellingham led a few other women up the cliff face, and stopped to speak with them a few paces from where Felix hid. The raven swooped in to join them.

“It will be enough, Matilda,” she was saying. “The money we raise will pay your rental and that of the other tenants and keep cousin Cyril from casting you out.”

“For another quarter, miss,” the woman addressed as Matilda said dolefully. “We canna keep doing this here smuggling though. If’n the Black Fox catches us, or the excise, we’ll all hang.”

Miss Bellingham nodded, her brows drawn anxiously together. “By next quarter, perhaps I will have thought of something else.”

“Master Felix had no business dying in foreign parts,” Matilda declared.

“I do not suppose he did it on purpose,” Miss Bellingham said. Was it just his imagination, or did her tone sound wistful?

“If’n he’d lived, tha’ could have wed him,” another woman suggested. Felix recognised her; she was a servant at the grange. “Tha’ always said he promised to come back and wed thee.”

“He was 14, Betsy. Even if he was alive, he would have long forgotten a few words said in haste when his mother took him away.”

“Mayhap you should marry that man your cousin brought home,” Betsy said.

Miss Bellingham gave an inelegant snort. “If I were inclined to marry, and I am not, I would certainly not marry anyone who was friends with cousin Cyril.”

“He’s a well-enough looking young man,” Betsy insisted, “and polite, too.”

“He is prepared to pay my cousin in order to get his hands on my trust fund. In any case, I do not think he wishes to marry me any more.”

“Only for that you’ve gone out of your way to discourage him,” Betsy said.

Miss Bellingham giggled. “I just listened to everything Cyril said he liked, and did the opposite.”

Why, the little minx. Certainly, Miss Milk-and-Water was unrecognisable in the laughing maiden he could see before him. He had told Cyril he preferred women with opinions, who could think for themselves and hold an intelligent conversation. He might have added that he wanted to wed a lady who put the welfare of his tenants ahead of her own, as this delightfully grownup Joselyn clearly did.

The women were splitting up, Miss Bellingham and Betsy taking the wood path, followed by the raven, and the other women heading along the clifftop to the village. He watched them out of sight, but stayed where he was. He had a lot to think about. Miss Bellingham was clearly not the Black Fox, even if she was a smuggler. And she was far more the Joselyn of his memories than he had believed.

The sound of shifting rocks attracted his attention.

Two men emerged from another rocky outcrop some distance down the cliff, and walked up to the junction of the two paths, talking as they came. One was cousin Cyril, the other a dark burly man who walked with the distinctive roll of a sailor.

“It’s my cousin, I tell you,” Cyril insisted.  “That damnable bird follows her everywhere.”

“I don’t care who it is,” said his companion. “She’s on my patch, and I’ll have her cargo and I’ll kill anyone who gets in my way, and so I will.”

“Look here, Fox!” Cyril was clearly alarmed. “You can’t kill my cousin. I’ve got a man up at the house who’s willing to pay good money to marry her.”

The Black Fox, for it must be he, looked interested. “How much is the wench worth?”

“2000 pound. And this Matthews is willing to stump up 500 to have the rest free and clear.”

“2000, eh? That’d go a long way to sweetening your exile!” The Fox laughed. “Worth more dead than alive, I’d say.”

Cyril shook his head. “She’s made a will leaving the lot to her sister’s children. Not that the brats need it. They’re wealthy orphans; inherited a packet when their parents died. I need her alive, I tell you.”

“You could marry her yourself.”

Cyril shook his head. “I tried that. She won’t have a bar of it. And I’ve no wish for a wife anyway.”

“Drug her, marry her, and then kill her before you run,” the Fox advised.

For a moment, Cyril looked interested, but then he shook his head. “Too complicated. I couldn’t have the bans called. Even if I could wait—and the real Viscount Maddox could turn up at any time—no-one here would believe she was willing. I’m just lucky that I heard two men discussing his unexpected survival, and his petition to the courts to be recognised as viscount. It has given me a little warning to sell off everything I can lay my hands on. Once the courts notify me, I’ll not be able to touch a penny.”

“A special licence?”

“Expensive. And chancy—she could still refuse me at the church. No; getting this Matthews to court her is the best plan.”

“Or…” The Fox fell silent, clearly thinking deeply.

“Or?” Cyril prompted.

“I could buy her off you. I’ll pay 400 pound, mind, and not a penny more! But I’ll be able to sell her to the Barbary pirates, a fair-haired virgin like that. She is a virgin, I suppose?”

Cyril nodded, eagerly.

“Yes,” the Fox continued. “It’s only fair, the trouble she’s caused me, taking cargoes on my patch. Yes, and I’ll take my pick of the other women she had with her.” He grinned, an evil leer that made Felix shiver. “Some to sell, and some to use on the way.”

“450,” Cyril said, “and you have a bargain. What’s the plan, then?”

The two men moved out of earshot, still talking. Felix hurried after them as soon as they’d cleared the open ground and gone into the trees, but they had horses tied in a small clearing, and he caught up only to see them ride away.

Time to return to the house, then, Felix thought. And past time for a little conversation with the lady smuggler.

Part 3 is here.

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The Raven’s Lady – the traveller returns

In April, I sent Crystal Cox her made-to-order story, The Raven’s Lady. I promised her sole use of it for the month of May. Today, in New Zealand, it’s 1 June, and over the next month or so, I’m going to post this story, and Tiffany Reid’s Kidnapped to Freedom.  I’m also planning to make them into ebooks for my newsletter subscribers (if you’re a subscriber, expect to get a link within a week). And sooner or later, I’ll give away enough made-to-order story prizes to have a collection. (The next one is at my friend Mari Christie’s party on 10 June. She’s launching La Déesse Noire, written under her pen name, Mariana Gabrielle.) So that’s the plan. Now, without further ado, The Raven’s Lady.

TRL cover

In the past eight years, Felix Maddox had spent more hours staking out suspects than he ever wished to remember. He couldn’t count the number of nights he’d spent awake, knowing he’d go into battle the next morning. He had even been imprisoned for six months.

This evening as a guest in what should be his own home was probably not the most interminable he had ever suffered through. At this moment, though, it certainly felt like it.

The lady he was supposedly here to consider as a wife was pretty enough, he supposed, if one liked milk-and-water misses who never looked up from their plates, and who answered every conversational sally with a monosyllable or a giggle.

She had sadly changed from the lively child he remembered. But that was long ago, almost another life. She was nine, and he was fourteen, the last time they parted.

The only interesting thing about her now, as far as he could see, was the raven she kept as a pet. He remembered the raven, too. He’d been the one to rescue the half-fledged bird from a cat, but Joselyn Bellingham was the one who tended it, fed it, and captured its affection.

He’d been startled when the raven flew in the library window that afternoon, fixed him with a knowing eye, then marched out the door and along the hall, to tap at the door of Miss Bellingham’s sitting room until she opened and let it in.

Now, though, at dinner, any sign of originality was absent. And as for his cousin, the fat oaf who had inherited the viscountcy when Felix was reported dead, the man’s conversation was all on-dits about people Felix didn’t know and off-colour jokes that were inappropriate in front of a lady, and not even funny.

Miss Bellingham rose to leave the gentlemen to their port, and Felix forced his face into a pleasant smile as he prepared to get fat Cyril even drunker and pump him for any knowledge he had of the Black Fox, the smuggler Felix had been sent to investigate.

A waste of time, in his opinion. Cyril couldn’t organise a bunfight in a baker’s shop. The condition of the lands and buildings on the estates of Maddox Grange showed the man was a total incompetent.

Felix couldn’t blame Cyril for thinking he was the viscount. Felix had decided to stay dead to more easily find the traitors who had given him up to the French. The released prisoner, Frederick Matthews, was no threat to them until all of a sudden they were behind bars. Then Colonel Webster, one of Castlereagh’s men, had approached him and said the identity he had painstakingly created could be used to help England win the war.

He’d stayed in that identity even after Napoleon was exiled to Elba, sure the emperor would not accept his defeat.  The right decision, as it turned out—but Waterloo had finished Napoleon’s ambitions forever, and he was now home to claim his own; just this one last job for Webster to complete.

Felix had nothing against smugglers who simply sought to make a living, but he hated with a passion the type Webster was after; those who had smuggled French spies onto English soil. And the Black Fox—the smuggler leader on the patch of coast that belonged to Maddox Grange—was, by all accounts, the worst of the worst.

“So what did you think of her? Nice tits, eh?” Cyril made cupping movements under his own not inconsiderable dugs.

Felix resisted the urge to punch the fool. “She’s very quiet,” he said.

“Yes, that’s an advantage, don’t you think,” Cyril agreed. “Who wants a chattering woman? And she’s a good housekeeper, don’t you know? And used to living in the country, so you could just leave her at your estate—you did say you had an estate, Matthews?”

“Yes, I have an estate.” After the meeting with Webster, he’d been sitting at his club considering his options when Cyril Maddox came in with a group of cronies. That wasn’t so surprising. The Maddoxes had been members of Brookes since it opened. He hadn’t recognised Cyril; he hadn’t seen him since they were boys. But the group sat right behind him, and he’d soon realised that the supposed viscount was talking about raising money by selling Felix’s childhood friend.

“Does Miss Bellingham have a fortune, Maddox?” one of the others asked. “I’m not interested in a chit without a fortune.”

“A competence, rather. In trust till she turns 25 or marries,” Cyril said. “If she had a fortune, Peckridge, I’d be marrying her myself! But 2,000 pounds, gents! That’s worth an investment of 500, surely? And she’ll have control of it herself in less than three years. A sin against nature, that is.”

“22? That’s pretty old! What’s wrong with her? Secondhand, is she?” The others all sniggered.

Cyril was indignant, more on behalf of his sale than in defence of Miss Bellingham. Felix was indignant enough on that cause for both of them. He remembered Jocelyn Bellingham; remembered her well. She was Cyril’s cousin, not his; the daughter of Cyril’s mother’s sister, left to her aunt’s care after the death of her parents, “and as shy and modest a lady as you could wish to find,” Cyril proclaimed.

Even if he hadn’t had his mission, Felix might have spoken up at that point, for the sake of the child he remembered. As it was, he introduced himself (as Frederick Matthews), apologised for overhearing, and announced that he was interested in 2000 pounds and would be willing to consider taking a wife. It worked, and here he was, drinking his own port, in his own house, and listening to cousin Cyril describing a lady in terms that made him see red.

Suddenly, he could stand it no longer. His investigation into the Black Fox would have to wait for tomorrow. “I’m tired, Maddox,” he said. “I think I’ll turn in.”

Part 2: a series of surprising disclosures

 

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THE END

I’ve finished A Baron for Becky and done the first edit. It’s 46,800 words, and what I thought was going to be an epilogue turned into two more chapters, but it’s done. Once I’ve transferred my hard copy markups to the electronic copy and created book files, it’ll be off to the beta readers.

To celebrate, here’s another excerpt. Becky is reading a letter from the Duchess of Haverford.

Ah. Here is what she was looking for. She read quickly, her smile broadening. But this was perfect! Hugh would be so pleased, and so would the girls. And Miss Wilson the governess, who had come as a favour to Becky and Aldridge but was anxious to begin her promised retirement before the first snow.

She began a reply; she wouldn’t be able to send it until she had spoken to Hugh, but she wanted to waste no time.

A footfall behind her warned her an instant before her husband’s hand came over her shoulder and snatched up the letter.

“Hugh!” she turned awkwardly in the chair, and looked up into her husband’s stormy face. “Hugh? Is something wrong?”

His angry expression was fading to embarrassment as he read the first page of the letter, then turned to the signature. “The Duchess of Haverford?”

“Yes,” Becky asked. “Who did you think it was from?” She knew perfectly well what he thought. How could he?  She had given him no reason to doubt her!

“I… uh…” Embarrassment was now uppermost. He covered it by glaring at her. “Why is the Duchess writing to you? Does she mention Aldridge?”

It hadn’t occurred to Becky until this moment that they never talked about Aldridge. Never. He was supposed to be Hugh’s best friend, and had, in his own way, been a good friend to her, but in this house he had ceased to exist.

“She says he is still wearing a black-armband and3dc6b2efdd327ed0c495004f157561ae is enjoying the sympathy it wins him,” she told Hugh.

“That sounds like Aldridge.” He almost smiled, but then frowned again, looking down at the letter he still held.

Becky took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Calm. Stay calm. “I wrote to the duchess to ask her if she would find us a governess, Hugh. Miss Wilson only came for a short time, and it has already been three months.”

“Oh.” Embarrassment was winning. Good. He should be embarrassed to think so ill of her. “I… can we start over, Becky? Can I go out and come in again and just pretend this never happened?”

They should talk about it. She shouldn’t let him just brush it away. But she could never stay cross when he was smiling at her, begging her with his eyes. She smiled back and nodded, and he tiptoed to the door with ostentatiously large steps, trying to make her chuckle. Which she did, just to please him.

Moments later, he poked his head around the door again. “Becky, my love, I’m home.”

“Hugh, how lovely. You’re early.”

“I finished early, and could not wait to see my lovely wife.”

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Double standards, much? An excerpt from A Baron for Becky

EARLY-412-Group-aAldridge, impatient now that they were back at the little girl’s house, hurried her into the parlour where he’d left the twin dolls and presented them to her. She, beautifully mannered as she had been all evening, curtseyed her appreciation, then hugged him and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Uncle Aldridge. They’re so beautiful. Look, Mama. Look how beautiful they are.”

Hugh looked. The mother, bending over her daughter who was excitedly showing the dolls’ wardrobe and their articulated arms and legs. And the child, her mother in miniature. Identical heart shaped faces; identical dark hair tied back but with tiny curls around their forehead, identical porcelain skin and cornflour blue eyes fringed with dark lashes.

So beautiful.

So intent, like the statues of the madonna he had seen in Catholic Portugal before he sold out, her eyes full of love for her daughter.

God, he needed a drink.

“Aldridge?” Aldridge was smiling fondly as he watched his mistress and her child. “Aldridge, is there any brandy in the house?”

“Not here, Overton.” Aldridge was impatient. “Just wait a bit, can’t you?”

Of course he could. It didn’t worry him at all to see this kept woman, this harlot, bent lovingly over her daughter; standing up to him—a head taller, a man, and an aristocrat—to protect her daughter. When his wife, damn her, had ignored her daughters; had regarded them as disposable pawns in her campaign to be the mother of a peer. It didn’t worry him. It didn’t.

“I’ll walk,” he said. “Miss Winstanley, my felicitations on your birth anniversary. Mrs Winstanley, my thanks for a pleasant evening. Aldridge.”

Hadn’t they passed a tavern two streets back? Surely they had.

Whatever they sold, he was drinking it.

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