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 had been nine, and he 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 had tended it, fed it, and captured its affection.
He’d been startled earlier in the day when the raven flew in the library window, 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, to say nothing of not being funny.
Miss Bellingham rose to leave the gentlemen to their port, and Felix forced his face into a pleasant smile, preparing 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 could not 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 remain 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 the 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 Felix was now home to reclaim his own. Just this one last job before he retired from the shadowy world he had inhabited with Webster and his ilk.
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 is 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 Brooks’s 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 twenty-five or marries,” Cyril said. “If she had a fortune, Peckridge, I’d be marrying her myself! But two thousand pounds, gents! That’s worth an investment of five hundred, surely? And she’ll have control of it herself in less than three years. A sin against nature, that is.”
“Twenty-two? That’s pretty old! What’s wrong with her? Second-hand, 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 Joselyn 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 two thousand 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.”
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 had 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’s 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 had 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 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, easily visible 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 turned onto the path down the cliff face, but Felix would be seen if he tagged along. 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 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 came to him, as if for orders, and several times, Felix saw him run into the surf to catch and redirect someone.
The rowing boats went back for another load, and another. The night was beginning to lighten in the east before the last of them had its cargo removed, and disappeared back 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 moustaches. Not even the shadows one might expect 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.
His eyes on the boy, he shook 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. 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 also a smuggler. 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 rent, and the other tenants’, and keep Cousin Cyril from casting you out.”
“For another quarter, miss,” the woman called 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 fourteen, Betsy. Even if he had lived, 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 any friend of Cousin Cyril.”
“He’s a well-enough-looking young man,” Betsy insisted, “and polite, too.”
“He is prepared to pay my cousin to get his hands on my trust fund. In any case, I do not think he still wishes to marry me.”
“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 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 grown-up Joselyn clearly did.
Rose was late. She’d been shocked, when she emerged from the Athenaeum, at how dark the sky was—her aunt would soon be looking for her to serve dinner. Rose had set a pot roast of beef on the back of the stove this morning, with the vegetables tucked around the meat, and she’d shelled the peas, too, before running Aunt Agnes’ messages and stealing a little time for herself.
The Athenaeum was paradise. A subscription library and reading room at the Mechanics Institute, it provided warmth, books, and a peaceful place to read as much as she liked. And even books to take home, if she kept them hidden.
Scraping together the subscription to the Athenaeum each quarter meant sitting late over the sewing with which she earned a few extra shillings, most of which Aunt Agnes took ‘to help pay for your keep, child’. As if her constant work, saving them the cost of at least one servant, were not sufficient to earn her food and a roof over her head.
She skirted around the Octagon, where the would-be millionaires flooding into the New Zealand gold fields had set up a squatters’ camp with the blessing of the Dunedin Town Board. Down George Street next, thinking of her aunt, struggling to control her unchristian resentment, ignoring the drizzle and the sharp wind that wrapped her long cloak around her legs and billowed her petticoats out in front of her. As she turned the corner into Frederick St., a particularly sharp gust skittered a broken branch across her path, tangling it into her skirts.
She stumbled and would have landed in the mud, if firm hands had not suddenly caught her. As it was, in putting her hands out to break the expected fall, she had dropped her burdens. The shopping basket fell sideways, tumbling fruit, vegetables, and the wrapped parcel of meat into a waiting puddle. The bundle from the haberdashers that she carried on her other arm, thankfully, stayed intact and landed on a relatively dry spot.
She took all this in at a glance, most of her attention on her rescuer. A craggy face bronzed by the sun, amused brown eyes under thick, level brows, a mouth that looked made for laughter. He was bundled against the cold wind in a greatcoat, muffler, and cloth cap.
“Are you all right, Miss?” the man asked, as he set her back on her feet.
My. He was strong.
“Thank you. The branch… Oh, dear, my parcels!” He crouched with her to rescue tomorrow’s roast, now peeping through tears in the soggy brown paper. He looked doubtfully at a particularly dirty carrot and wiped it off on a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket.
“Oh, no,” Rose said, as he started to put her damp groceries back in the basket. She retrieved the book she had hidden there, tucking it inside her coat so it would stay dry. Her rescuer made no comment, just continued helping her fill the basket.
“That seems to be the lot,” he said, bringing back an apple that had rolled a good distance along the path, and picking up the basket. “Which way now?”
Rose ignored the proffered elbow. “I can manage, thank you, Sir. If you would just give me my basket…”
He grinned, showing white, even teeth. “I must insist. Damsels in distress do not land in a knight errant’s hands every day, you know. I shall, at least, escort you safely to your front door, fair maiden.”
“You may not, Sir.” He really couldn’t. If a man escorted her to the front door, or even to her uncle’s front gate, it would be fasting and prayer for her, and perhaps even the switch. She set her mouth firmly to stop it from trembling, but he must have sensed her alarm, because he handed over the basket without further argument.
“There, now. No need to be concerned. I mean no harm, Miss.”
She was blushing again; she could feel the heat. The kindness in his eyes was as appealing as his strength and his cheeky smile.
“I cannot,” she found herself explaining. “My uncle… he would be angry…”
He nodded as if he understood. “I will bid you good evening then, Miss. But before I go, can you help a poor, lost traveller and point me in the direction of Knox Lane?”
“Knox Lane?” she repeated, stupidly.
“Yes. Do you know it?”
“I live there,” Rose said. It was a short cul-de-sac, with only three houses besides her uncle’s. She looked at the man more closely, wondering which of her neighbours he intended to visit.
“Then, Miss, will you not reconsider your decision and allow me to escort you? I can leave you at the corner of this elusive lane, so you need have no fear, and it would be a charitable act to a poor traveller.” He made a woebegone face, turning the corners of his mouth down with his lips poked out, wrinkling his brow, so his brows sank at the side and rose in the centre.
Rose smiled despite herself, and surrendered the basket to his waiting hand. “Just to the corner then, Sir.”
“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said, as they turned the next corner and walked briskly along Great King Street, pushed by the wind. “I am Thomas O’Bryan, from America.”
Ah. She had been wondering about his accent. Beyond a doubt, he was another of the great army of men passing through Dunedin on their way to the gold fields at Tuapeka or Dunstan. Fools. Yes, a few of them would find a rich deposit, but most would abandon their families and their responsibilities and return, if return they ever did, with nothing. Rose knew only too well what became of those left behind.
“Rose Campbell.” Her thoughts tinged her voice with ice, and he raised one of those mobile brows. “Campbell?” he repeated. “Do not be telling me, of all the women in New Zealand, I’ve collided with Agnes Campbell’s daughter.”
“Her niece,” Rose corrected. “You know my aunt?”
O’Bryan grinned, a joyous beam that invited her to find life as delightful as he clearly did. “Not to say know, but isn’t she my own mother’s sister?” He bowed, an extravagant flourish. “How do you do, Cousin Rose.”
“Not exactly a cousin, Mr O’Bryan,” Rose demurred. “Your aunt is married to my uncle.”
“Thomas, surely? For cousins so closely related by marriage?”
“Laura!” Rose could not help the guilty flinch at the accusing roar from her uncle. Thomas stepped in front of her, and held out his hand with another of his broad grins. “Do I have the honour of addressing my Uncle Campbell?” he asked.
The sour, old man ignored Thomas’ hand, but turned his glower away from the cowering girl, which Thomas counted as a win. “Who are you, and what are you doing with my niece?”
“Thomas O’Bryan, sir, and I believe I am your nephew-by-marriage. I was asking the young lady for directions.”
“Agnes’ nephew.” The thought clearly did not find favour. “I suppose you’re here after the gold, like all those other godless sinners. Well, you had better come in.” The old coot turned to lead the way down the street, saying over his shoulder, “Laura, I’ll speak with you later, girl.”
Thomas gave his new cousin a reassuring wink, but she dipped her head and hurried after the domestic tyrant.
Thomas’ aunt proved to be cut from the same cloth as her husband, and as far from Thomas’ cheerful mother as could be imagined. She reluctantly allowed that Thomas could stay to dinner, and swept off towards the back of the house, chivvying the niece ahead of her.
“No time to waste mooning in your room, Laura. We’ll need to put on more potatoes to stretch the stew. Put those bundles away…” A closing door shut off the detail of Aunt Agnes’ tirade, but not the sound of her scold, pitched at a droning whine that set Thomas’ teeth on edge.
“Where do you stay this night?” the old man demanded.
Thomas had assumed he would be resisting an invitation to stay here. In Canada, where he was raised, his parents found room for any traveller, let alone a hitherto unknown nephew. In San Francisco, where his business partner lived, the same habits prevailed. Thomas had already taken rooms at the Empire Hotel, but he was surprised not to be offered a bed here.
Campbell made the wrong assumption from his silence. “There’s a camp. In the middle of town. Those heading for the gold fields can find tent space.”
So he’d be given dinner then turned out into the night. And leave without any regrets, except that he’d like to know a little more about his cousin-by-marriage.
“So they told me when I arrived, Sir,” he said, perversely not wishing to let this poor excuse for an uncle know he had already arranged his own accommodation
He continued to make attempts at conversation, each one squashed by Campbell, until they were called to dinner. The table, in the second front room, sharing space with a pair of fireside chairs, a large roll-top desk, and a treadle sewing machine, had been moved far enough from the wall to allow the use of four of the six wooden chairs. Aunt Agnes brought a platter of fresh sliced bread, while Miss Campbell carried in a large pot and returned for another.
After a long prayer of thanksgiving that sounded more like a diatribe against persons unnamed, Campbell gestured them to sit. So began one of the most uncomfortable meals of Thomas’ life.
The stew was delicious, if somewhat sparse. Thomas dug into the bread with enthusiasm to fill the gaps.
“My mother sends her love,” Thomas said, a little mendaciously. Mama had actually told him, I suppose you had better visit Agnes, though I don’t suppose you’ll be welcomed.
This conversational opener fetched a contemptuous harrumph from Campbell, and a nod of acknowledgement from Aunt Agnes.
Thomas tried again. “The stew is delicious. My compliments.” He nodded to his aunt, but it was Miss Campbell who murmured thanks, sliding frightened eyes sideways to her uncle.
What now? The weather? Ladies’ fashions? Greek history? Stargazing or birdwatching? Did nobody at this benighted table talk over dinner?
Before he could make a comment on the beauty of the long Otago Harbour inlet, Aunt Agnes surprised him by asking, “How is my sister?”
“Well, Ma’am, she was well when I left San Francisco. She is staying with my sister, Catherine, to help with the older children, while my sister is lying in with the new baby.”
“Three children is it, now?” Aunt Agnes asked, her tone softening, and something like longing in her eyes.
“Yes. Two boys, and now a little girl. Cath and Patrick are delighted.”
“More half-breed, Papist idolaters bound for Hell,” Mr Campbell grumbled, seemingly to his plate. Thomas controlled the urge to retaliate in kind. Campbell had clearly not softened since the days when his mother and her sister, two good, Presbyterian girls in Edinburgh, were being courted. Both married and emigrated. Mother had gone with her merry husband to Canada, where she was welcomed by his Irish father and his mother’s large Métis clan, descendants of a French trapper and his Cree wife. Aunt Agnes and her dour non-conformist chose to move far from all they knew to New Zealand, where they moved from one congregation to another until he invented one strict enough for his tastes.
Aunt Agnes, who had been about to say something more, subsided. Another conversational sally cut off at the pass.
“I thought your harbour very beautiful,” Thomas offered. “The hills either side… it is very like parts of the west coast of Canada, where I grew up.”
Miss Campbell looked as if she might reply, but clearly thought better of it, and neither of the others said a word.
In the end, Thomas gave up and simply ate his meal. Another interminable Grace in place of dessert was clearly a signal that dinner was over, and Aunt Agnes and Miss Campbell began to clear.
Thomas stood when they rose. “May I pay my guest gift by helping with the dishes?” he asked.
Campbell answered for the women. “The girls will do it. My niece and the maid. Women’s work.”
Thomas, who had fended for himself in a long succession of miner’s towns, where women were few and far between, once again swallowed his opinion. The evening would soon be over, and he could escape.
Sooner than he thought, it appeared. “Agnes, fetch the boy’s coat,” the old man commanded, and Aunt Agnes scurried to obey.
“Thank you for dinner, Ma’am,” Thomas said. “Mama will be pleased to know I found you well.”
Aunt Agnes handed him his coat with one hand, and waved Miss Campbell’s book with the other. “Look what I found under the coats, Mr Campbell. That girl has been reading again!”
Miss Campbell had returned to the room to finish clearing the table, and stood behind her uncle, transfixed, her face white.
“My book!” Thomas exclaimed. “It must have fallen out of my pocket.”
Aunt Agnes looked at him, doubtfully, but handed him the book, and Campbell shut the mouth that had been open to roar. “And what is that you’re reading?” he grumbled, frowning.
Thomas, who had no idea of the answer, held the book up so Campbell could see the embossed title for himself.
“Dombey and Son. That Charles Dickens fellow. Rubbish.”
Thomas tucked the book into his pocket, shook Campbell’s hand, thanked him for his hospitality (may his lips not shrivel—two lies in as many minutes!), and gave his aunt a dutiful salute on a cold, papery cheek.
Miss Campbell had faded from the room again, silent as a ghost. No matter. As the front door closed behind him, Thomas ducked along in front of the parlour window and down the narrow path at the side of the house to the lean-to scullery at the rear.
Miss Campbell was bent over the sink, while another girl dried each dish as it was handed to her. He waited, watching through the window, as they completed the dishes, and then continued to wait some more.
He doubted that Campbell, the nasty old miser, let them burn candles sitting up late. Before long, each of them would make the journey down the path to the outhouse at the foot of the garden. With luck, he could return Miss Campbell her book with no one else the wiser.
Within half an hour, his expectation was fulfilled, as first the maid, then Campbell himself, then Aunt Agnes made the trip. When it was Miss Campbell’s turn with the lantern, he waited until she returned and spoke from the shadows, keeping his voice soft, so as not to alarm her.
“Miss Campbell, I waited to return your book.”
Clever girl. She kept her eyes on the back door, but slowed her steps, saying quietly, “Aunt Agnes is watching. I will be back shortly to collect wood. The wood pile is beyond that shed.” She indicated with her head, still not looking at him.
“I will be there,” Thomas told her. He kept to the shadows, but was in place to meet her when she carried out a basket to fill with wood for the morning fire.
“Maisie will be here in a moment, Mr O’Bryan, to help me carry the basket back inside. Thank you for telling Uncle Campbell it was your book.”
“Here you are, Miss Campbell.” He handed her the book, and she slipped it inside the waistband of her skirt, loosening, then retying, the shawl that insulated her against the chill night air.
A clatter of wooden pattens heralded the arrival of the maid, and Thomas faded into the darkness, leaving the two of them to their task.
He sauntered back along George Street to his hotel. He could write to his Mama and let her know her sister was well. He had done his duty and need not visit again. But he would not at all mind seeing Miss Campbell once more.
Phoebe hurried from shadow to shadow behind the row of cabins. The full moon had risen. She was late. Why did Massa Paddy have to send for her tonight, of all nights! He was drunk, which was no surprise, for he’d been drunk since the Master died. The drink, though, had left him limp, for which he blamed her, until the punishment he administered excited him enough to finish.
Then he’d collapsed on top of her, and it had taken time to edge out from beneath his weight.
Beneath the constant susurration of the cicadas, she could hear murmurs of conversation inside the cabins. He wouldn’t look for her when he woke; he would assume she’d gone back to the cabin she shared with the children.
Had he made her miss her chance? Their chance—for she wouldn’t go without the children.
Phoebe felt some of the tension leave her when she saw them waiting for her behind their cabin. Venus balanced little Patricia on her hip, and Joe cradled Baby. Jake ran to meet her, taking her hand for the few steps back to her family.
Now, if only whoever it was had waited. If only it were true and not a trap. Phoebe hoisted one of the bundles she and Venus had hidden here earlier this morning, before the day’s exertions had begun.
“Jake, take this bundle, and Venus, give me Pat-a-cake, and take the rest of our things.” The three-year-old didn’t stir during the transfer, just settled her head into the curve of Phoebe’s neck. She slept like a rock, that girl, just like Massa Paddy, who’d sired her.
She led her little flock down the path into the woods. She was putting a lot of trust in the letter the peddler had slipped to her three weeks ago. But what choice did she have? Miz Nettie was going to sell them to the slave trader—Phoebe and all the five children left to her.
When she’d first made the threat, Phoebe had hoped it was just the sorrow speaking. Miz Nettie had been wild with grief since her husband, Mist’ Chan, fell from his horse and died, followed in short order by Ol’ Massa Blake, his father, who took apoplexy when her husband turned up dead.
At least, Miz Nettie had been wild since the will was read.
But she meant her threat. Massa Paddy said the trader was coming this way next week. He was sorry, he said, because he was fond of Phoebe, but her sewing skills meant she would fetch a high price and find a good place, so she wasn’t to worry.
Not to worry? Not to worry about her children being taken from her and sold away, probably down the river? Venus, at nearly twelve, was old enough and pretty enough to catch a master’s eye, and Joe already did a man’s job in the fields, but at least here, Massa Paddy had a reason to treat him fair, as long as she accommodated his needs.
Please, God, let the letter be true, please, God. It had been her constant prayer these last weeks. Please, God, it was from her brother, as it seemed to be. It would read like nonsense to anyone else opening it, but she knew.
“To the gentle Lady of the Lake. Sir Morien bids you, on the night of the first full moon after the natal day of the loathsome Sir Kay, to go to the place where the Parfait Knight shared his tales of chivalry, and from thence, to seek the Holy Grail.”
She read, but not well. She couldn’t ask for help, but she managed to puzzle most of it out. The names she’d seen before, long ago when she learned to read. What was ‘natal day’? She fretted over that one for a week, until she overheard a visiting preacher comment how sad it was that the Master had died on his natal day.
Sir Morien—the name Mist’ Phineas had given her brother, Cudjo, in the long sagas they had played out at his direction in these very woods. Mist’ Finn was the Parfait Knight, of course, and they readily agreed to refer to his older brother, Mist’ Chauncey, as Sir Kay. The Holy Grail, to them all, was freedom.
This was her third note in the twelve years since Mist’ Finn had run away, taking her younger sister and brother with him. The first, some eighteen months after they had left, was just five words. ‘We found Avalon. All safe.’ The second, five years ago, had offered escape ‘at the abode of the Lady of the Lake.’ The little harbour where Mist’ Finn had kept his sailboat might as well have been on the moon, for all the chance she had of reaching it that particular week.
But this time, the meeting point was right here on the plantation.
They were heading for the Woods House, behind which, in stolen moments, Mist’ Finn had taught the three of them to read, using the books about the Arthurian legends he so loved.
Please, God, she was not too late. Please, God, it was not a trap.
Val waited in the shadow of the trees. It must be at least thirty minutes past moonrise. 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 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 now, the men wouldn’t agree to a second attempt.
There! Someone was coming. He straightened in anticipation. Yes, it was her—twelve years older and a mature women, rather than the girl he remembered, 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 the last time he had been close enough to Phoebe to speak, when Chan tried to strangle him for the presumption.
“Are you Phoebe?” He was twelve years older, too, and a man changed more from seventeen to twenty-nine 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 passel 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. Probably. 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 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.
First movement: Allegro furioso
The man to whom Madeline had just been joined ignored the outstretched hands and whirled around to advance on Lady Wyvern, who stood as he approached.
“Very well. I have done what you demanded. Where is she?”
“Penworth, your manners,” Lady Wyvern scolded, but the Earl of Penworth ignored her tone and spoke over the rest of her complaint.
“You promised to return her if I married Graviton’s sister. We are wed. I want her back, Lady Wyvern, and I want her now.”
Madeline was trying to make sense of it all. The earl had been forced to this marriage as well? By a threat? But to whom? Surely not… not his mistress?
She stole a look at her half-brother, Sir James Graviton, who was openly amused. “Send the boy back to his rooms, Louisa, and my sister with him. His treasure is there, is it not? Oh, do not fret, vicar. You will get your fee and your portion of the wedding breakfast.”
The earl fastened on the bit of news about his treasure. “My lady is in the tower?” He headed for the door, but walked straight into the chair in which Lady Wyvern had been sitting, sending it careening across the stone floor, and himself stumbling, arms outstretched to catch himself, until he tripped over another chair and fell heavily.
“Wait until someone can lead you, fool,” Lady Wyvern said, impatiently.
Graviton laughed out loud. “Mad, see to your husband,” he advised. Madeline ignored the hated nickname, but obeyed the command, kneeling beside the young man stretched out on the floor.
“Are you hurt, my lord?”
“Winded, a little.” The earl frowned, a drawing together of heavy brows over his clear, pale eyes. The frown didn’t detract from the youthfulness of his face. She was no judge, but she thought him her own age, perhaps younger. She stood and offered her hand to help him rise, but he looked straight past her, as if she were not there.
Graviton was chortling again. “You did not tell her, did you?” Lady Wyvern asked.
“And spoil the joke?” Graviton replied.
Madeline ignored them. “Can I help you up, my lord?”
The earl held out his hand, and Madeline reached for it. Even through her gloves and his, she could feel the strength in his hand, and he made no allowance for the difference in their sizes, so she had to lean back against the weight of him as he pulled himself up. He was tall, this new husband of hers, who couldn’t wait to abandon her at the altar. Tall, lean, and handsome. But very young.
“Thank you, Miss, ah, Countess. What is your name again? I am sorry. I was not listening.”
Madeline had been listening. He was Rupert Frederick George Arthur John Fleming, 7th Earl of Penworth and Viscount Clearwater.
“Madeline,” said Graviton, helpfully. “The family calls her Mad.”
Graviton called her Mad. Papa had called her Linnie, and she had been Miss Graviton to the rest of the world. No more. Mother was dead and Miss Graviton was gone, too, wiped out by a few words and her signature on the marriage register.
“Madeline,” the earl said, and smiled. It was a kind smile, but still he did not look at her.
“Enough entertainment.” Lady Wyvern strode to the door and opened it. “See them to the tower,” she commanded the waiting servants. “Penworth, you will find your ‘lady’ unharmed. But you will do your duty or suffer the consequences.”
She swept from the room, the priest on her heels and a grinning Graviton sauntering behind.
The servant who came into the room took the earl by the arm. “This way, my lord.” He began to lead the young nobleman towards the door, saying over his shoulder to Madeline, “If you will just follow, my lady, I will show you the way.”
Two footmen fell in behind as the servant escorted the earl along the hall. “We’re coming to the first corner, my lord,” he said, and then, “and in a few steps we’ll be on that little flight of stairs.”
At the steps, the earl felt ahead with his foot, then mounted the stairs confidently as the footman counted, “one and two and three and four. And now, a straight walk to the next turn, my lord.”
All of a sudden, Madeline realised why the earl had not looked at her. Curse Graviton. How was it funny not to tell her the man to whom she had been wed was blind?
The woman he had married—-Madeline—-had a gentle voice and soft hands. He could tell that much. And she was frightened of her brother, his hated sister’s hated lover. That was in her favour, though, of course, it did not mean she could be trusted. She might fear Graviton and still serve him and Lady Wyvern.
Well, it was done now. If she were a snake, he was taking her to his bosom. To his bed, anyway. Lady Wyvern had made it clear that his lady would be chopped into kindling if he didn’t attempt to get his new wife with child. Rupert briefly wondered what pressure had been brought to bear on Madeline. He could ask her. Perhaps she would tell the truth. Would he know if she didn’t? Rupert shrugged. It did not matter. All that mattered was his lady.
They were climbing the stairs into the tower now. Twenty steps on each flight, two flights to the locked door that gave onto the suite he’d been locked in since he and his sister had first arrived at Wyvern Castle, her island home.
“Do you know where they left her?” he asked his escort.
Morris was a Wyvern servant, assigned with the room. Rupert’s own servants had been left at Clearwater Court, and those here were Lady Wyvern’s creatures, to a man and a maid. Morris was at least respectful and not unkind.
Ahead of them, someone unlocked the door. He heard the clunk as they locked it behind, once they were within. Most of the escort stayed below, but Rupert could hear the soft footfalls of his new wife on the stone steps, smell the fragrance that clung to her. It was the first thing he’d noticed when they met in the church—the smell of a summer garden after rain, a blend of light, floral perfumes that made him wistful for the freedoms of his boyhood.
“Where is she?” he prompted Morris.
“I don’t see her here, my lord. Shall I check upstairs for you?”
He could not wait to hold her in his arms, to check that she had not been damaged. Besides, none but he should touch her. “Take me,” Rupert commanded.
His tower prison had three levels: the sitting room where they entered, locked off from below and—if his ears did not betray him—well guarded at all times; the bedchamber they were now passing, Madeline still following behind; and the room at the very top—perhaps once another bedchamber or a study or a workroom.
“She is here, Sir,” Morris said.
Now, so close to his life’s one comfort, he could hear the blood pounding in his ears, his heartbeat thumping, his breath running short, as if the stairs they climbed had been ten times as high. His head knew his sister would not have hurt his treasure, if only because of the hold it gave her, but his heart would not rest easy till he felt for himself she was whole and unharmed.
Morris led him to a table in the corner, away from the place she usually sat. Too close to the fire! His hands shook, making it hard to open the latches on her case.
From far away, he heard Madeline ask Morris a question and Morris answer. He had no attention to spare them as he lifted his lady, ran his hands over her curves and up her long neck, tentatively tested her strings. She was unharmed. Out of tune, but not damaged.
Swiftly, his fingers sure now, he tightened and rosined the bow string and tuned his violin until she sang to him in her clear pure voice, and he could tuck her under his chin and let the music that had been welled up inside him this last lonely week flow out into the everlasting darkness that surrounded him.
A violin. The earl had been forced to marry her to save his violin. Madeline could not make sense of it; he was a man, and more to the point, an earl. Who could make him act against his will? But Madeline remembered his sister’s cold eyes and shuddered. If anyone could, it would be Lady Wyvern. Why, just the fact they were here, in Wyvern Castle, the family seat of the Earls of Wyvern, showed the lengths to which the woman would go. What did Lord Wyvern think of his lady entertaining her lover under this roof?
There was a supper in the sitting room downstairs, Morris said, and Morris’s own niece waiting to attend the countess in her bedchamber.
“I will wait a while with the earl,” Madeline told him, and the man bowed his way from the room.
The earl was talented. Living retired at Graviton Manor, Madeline had not been to the concerts or musicales or other ton events she read about in La Belle Assemblée, but she had heard enough travelling musicians to know a masterly hand when she heard it.
His long, supple fingers on the bow, on the strings, coaxed forth a torrent of sound that filled the room; at first a sobbing lament, a paean of loss and pain, slowly transforming into dawning delight, and then wild joy, that set her foot tapping with the urge to dance.
She had no idea how long she sat there, lost in the music. When Morris returned to light the candles and lamps, she was surprised to realise the whole afternoon had passed, and the only light in the room came from the last rays of the sun lingering on the stones of the western windows.
His task finished, Morris started to speak, but Madeline waved him off, unwilling to break the spell, so he left the room again.
Something, though, must have disturbed the earl, for he let his hands fall with a deep, satisfied sigh. “She is well,” he announced. He crossed the room with firm, certain steps, then stood for a moment before an empty table, the violin in one hand, bow in the other.
“Her case?” he demanded. Madeline hurried to bring it to him, laying it open on the table.
He tenderly placed the violin into the waiting velvet-lined recess shaped to fit, and Madeline held the lid for him while he fitted the bow into its place.
“You are welcome,” Madeline responded.
He flashed a quick grin in her general direction, which made him look even younger. “You have been sitting here the whole time, have you not? You must be famished. I am famished. Shall we go and find supper?”
She took the hand he offered and followed his lead to the door, tugging slightly when he veered too close to the frame. He responded with another of those quick grins and let her guide him safely onto the stairs where he skimmed his free hand down the wall until they reached the sitting-room level.
Morris waited for them with a young woman he introduced as his niece, Polly Morris. She was short and wiry like her uncle, but not uncomely, her sturdy gingham gown covered by a white apron, a few strands of dark hair escaping from her neat, white cap to curl around the thin face.
She bobbed a curtsey, colouring a little when she murmured “Miss” in greeting, then corrected it to “my lady.”
“She’s a good girl, my lady,” Morris assured Madeline.
“I am sure she is,” Madeline agreed, thinking the woman no longer a girl. Polly was at least Madeline’s age of twenty-two. Most of her mind was on her new husband, the earl, who had dropped her hand and was feeling his way forward to the table where supper was laid.
“My wife and I will serve ourselves,” he announced, his hands skimming across the table and stopping to explore when they encountered a plate or a bowl. “Morris, you and the maid can wait up in the bedchamber or outside the rooms, as you wish.” He took a seat at one of the two chairs pulled up to the table, licking a finger that had explored a bowl of cream, then stood again, abashed. “I beg your pardon, Madeline. I should have waited until you were seated. Please…” He waved, and Madeline sat in the chair Morris held for her.
The earl had his head turned, clearly listening, and when Morris and Polly disappeared around the corner of the steps leading to the bedchamber, he smiled at Madeline again.
“You do not mind, I hope? I thought we should talk without my sister’s spies lurking.” He shrugged, an oddly elegant movement. “You could be one, of course. Are you? And would you mind preparing something for me to eat while you answer that? Some meat on a slice of bread would be easy. Something I can hold in my hands without giving you an utter disgust of me. I am not tidy with a knife and fork.”
The earl’s preference had been considered, with slices of bread and meat available.
“I do not mind,” Madeline said, and busied her hands while she thought about how to answer the earl’s question. Bluntly was best. “I am not your sister’s spy or my brother’s. But I imagine that is what a spy would say. Here, my lord. Lamb between two slices of bread, and I have spread a preserve on the bread.”
“Thank you. You can call me Rupert if you like. I do not think you are a spy. I do not think the Ice Dragon—my sister, I mean—cares that much what I do, as long as I do not try to escape or to kill myself. And the servants can prevent that. But why would you marry me if you are not her creature? Can you tell me that?”
“The world has no shortage of women who want to marry an earl,” Madeline retorted. She was not one of them, though. She could imagine nothing worse than living the kind of life that countesses followed, as far as she could tell from the pages of Ackermann’s Repository and The London Gazette. The London she yearned for—museums, libraries, and bookstores—was a far cry from the London such exalted ladies inhabited.
And yet, here she was.
Rupert laughed, a short, unamused bark. “A blind boy earl imprisoned by his sister and her lover? Hardly. If you sought social success, Madam Countess, you face disappointment.”
“I sought to stay at home with my books and my work in the parish,” Madeline retorted. And if she had occasionally daydreamed about marriage, it was of marriage at her own level in society, after a respectable courtship.
Her new husband echoed her thoughts. “Yet, here you are.” He took another bite of his bread, and chewed meditatively.
Madeline busied herself with her own meal: a serving of pie and some sort of ragout. She could understand Rupert’s need to know her motives, but she cringed at the thought of explaining exactly what her brother used to compel her. Perhaps it would be enough just to hint. “Graviton threatened me.”
“He threatened me, too. He and the Ice Dragon said they would chop my lady into pieces—my violin, that I inherited from my mother—if I made a fuss or refused to say the vows. What have they taken off you? I will ask for it back. They usually let me have what I ask for. As I said. She just does not much care.”
Madeline blushed. “I have it yet. But Graviton said it would be taken from me by force if I did not marry….”
Rupert frowned. “What is it? Do you have it with you? Shall we hide it to keep it safe?”
Madeline could feel the blush spreading all over her body. “I… that is, it is not that kind of a…”
Rupert looked bewildered, and well he might. She was going to have to tell him. “Graviton said he would give me to his friends to… well, to use. Without benefit of clergy. He said I would fetch a tidy sum because…” her voice trailed off.
Rupert took another mouthful of his bread and meat to hide his confusion.
To use how? For what? Whatever Graviton had in mind, it clearly upset Madeline a great deal to speak of it.
“You play very well.” His new wife was changing the subject. “I do not think I have ever met a gentleman who played the violin.”
“My mother taught me,” Rupert said. “She did not think it an unsuitable hobby for an earl.” Lady Wyvern disagreed with her stepmother on that point, and had not hesitated to make her opinion heard, but her lord overruled her. Lord Wyvern had said, “Let the boy have his fiddle. God knows, his blindness will bar him from most respectable pursuits.”
Lord Wyvern. Where was he, and what role had he played in this marriage his wife had brokered?
Madeline snorted. “Surely an earl may have any hobby he wishes?”
“Yes, so Lord Wyvern says. Madeline, was Lord Wyvern… have you seen Lord Wyvern? At our wedding or at any time since you came to the castle?”
“No, indeed, and I wondered at it! Does he not care what she does? Your sister is Graviton’s…” Madeline’s voice trailed off.
“She is your brother’s lover. They hid it in front of Lord Wyvern, but they have been lovers this last three years.” Rupert frowned. “Lord Wyvern is my guardian until I reach my majority next year. I am worried about him, Madeline. Last time I saw him, he said he would return in a sennight, and that was six months past.”
“Have you asked the servants? They usually know everything.”
“Not at Clearwater. No one there knew of anything untoward. The steward said Lord Wyvern wrote of a delay in London, but that was months ago. He has never gone even a month without visiting me, Madeline, and he always writes when he is away. I asked and asked, but they told me no letters have arrived.”
It was an odd break in an established habit, and Madeline sounded as puzzled as Rupert when she asked. “Clearwater is one of Lord Wyvern’s estates?”
“One of mine. Ours now, I suppose. The earldom’s. My sister and Graviton came to fetch me there a month ago and brought me here. I should have refused to leave Clearwater. My own servants would have protected me, I expect. But they said Lord Wyvern had sent for me, and so I came. And here, the servants obey Louisa, not me.”
“And not Lord Wyvern,” Madeline stated, rather than asked.
“They will not speak of Lord Wyvern.”
There was a second stack of bread and meat on his plate, waiting for his questing hand. Rupert murmured his thanks and took a hearty bite. “Are you eating, Madeline?” He could not hear her moving.
“I… I am not hungry, my… Rupert. Do you know what they want of us?”
“They want me to get you with child,” Rupert’s mind had been worrying at the conundrum. “I cannot puzzle out how that will be to their advantage.”
He would have explored the topic some more, but Morris and Polly re-entered the room and began clearing the remnants of the meal.
“It is getting late, my lord,” Morris said, “Soon be time for bed.”
After helping him to strip and wash, Morris put a new shirt over Rupert’s head and helped him into a banyan.
“You’ll be wanting a shave, my lord,” he said. A shave? Rupert had been shaved that morning before his wedding. But before he could open his mouth to contradict the servant, Morris went on, “You’ll not want bristles when you kiss your lady, begging your pardon, my lord.”
No. If Madeline’s lips were as soft as her hands, bristles might scrape her skin. Whatever her role in the plot against him, and whatever that plot might be, Rupert did not want to hurt her. Rupert waved his permission, and spent the next few minutes, while Morris shaved him, considering what it might be like to kiss, to touch, the woman whose life was now joined to his. Since his mother died, he had only ever been touched by the impersonal hands of a servant.
What was about to happen would not be impersonal. He was going to… he thought of several vulgar words learnt from stable hands. The Old English Black horses bred at the Clearwater stud were the finest draught horses in the south of England, and Wyvern had insisted Rupert’s infirmity did not prevent him from personally supervising the main activity of the enterprise.
Finished, Morris conducted him to the door between the dressing room and the bedchamber, where he could hear the maid bustling around. His wife must be here, too. Ah. Yes. He could smell her fragrance; hear her catch her breath at his entrance.
“Leave us,” Rupert commanded, and waited, leaning against the doorframe, his head cocked to one side as he listened to the two servants retreating down the stairs. When he heard the heavy door between their prison and the rest of the castle shut and the external bolts being slid across, he broke the silence. “Are you nervous? I am nervous. I have never done this before.”
“Nor have I,” his wife ventured. She sounded uncertain.
“We do not have to, if you would rather not.” It was the gentlemanly offer., however much he longed to explore the mysteries he had been denied by the strict care his guardian had seen fit to place around him.
She did not answer straight away, considering the suggestion. “We could pretend, I suppose. Do you think they will know if we do not…? Only Graviton said…” Her voice dropped so that even his keen ears strained to hear her. “Graviton said if you did not put a child in my belly, he would arrange for others to do so.”
No one else would touch his countess. He would kill anyone who tried. Rupert made two attempts to speak before he could choke down his anger enough to speak calmly.
“We can wait, however, if you wish. Surely they will not know?”
“We cannot take that chance.” Madeline was clearly more frightened of her brother than of their marriage night. In truth, whatever was good for the Ice Dragon and Graviton was probably very bad for the Earl and Countess of Penworth. But what choice did they have? His decision was plain sense, and nothing to do with the stirrings in his body.
He heard her cross to the bed and climb up into it, and after a moment, Rupert straightened and came too, shrugging off his banyan.
He slid under the covers and rolled to his side facing her, reaching out both hands. She met them with her own.
“Do you know what happens between a man and a woman, Madeline?” Rupert asked.
“Not exactly.” Madeline sounded as if she were forcing herself to remain calm. “I breed dogs, but I do not suppose it is the same.”
“No, not exactly the same.” Rupert had been searching his memories of the pictures he’d found in the Clearwater library one long ago summer. He’d been thirteen at the time, and would have denied an interest, but studied them carefully and revisited them several times in the next weeks.
The man and woman faced one another in most of them, though other details of position changed. “Men and women mate with their fronts together,” he told Madeline, doing his best to sound confident. “But I imagine much else is similar.” He thought about the necessary steps when putting a stallion to a mare. “I should check first to see if you are receptive.”
Her hands stiffened in his. Her voice shook slightly, and even in the silence of the room, he had to strain to hear it. “I … women don’t come into heat. Do they?”
He was not certain, but listening to the banter of the grooms and footmen, he’d gained the impression some women were in heat all the time and others never. He hoped Madeline was not in the second category. Her tension was not a good sign. Perhaps he could soothe her, as he might a fractious mare.
“We don’t have to do anything you don’t like,” he offered, and felt her hands ease slightly. “Madeline, may I ‘see’ you?”
“I do not understand.”
“With my hands. May I touch you, so I can learn what you look like?”
These three short stories and a novella make up Hand-Turned Tales, free at most eretailers. See links on my book page.
They’ve also been published as separate stories in print (available through Amazon) and I’ve posted them on Wattpad.