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 – 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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