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Once upon a ...
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Once upon a passion
Raphael Montagu, eight Duke of Southwell, searches futility for the mysterious Irish beauty he'd loved at first sight, certain that only she can heal his wounded heart. But when fate finally returns her to him at a London ball, she denies ever having seen him before. And when he claims her with a kiss and a vow of eternal love, she vanishes once again, leaving him with no clue as to her identity. His only hope is to travel back to Ireland to uncover the mystery that drove her from his side-- and finally claim her for his own. . .
When he inherits Kincaid Hall, Raphael Manderville learns that the estate was swindled away from its rightful owners, the Somervilles. Eager to make reparations, Raphael invites Lady Somerville and her daughters to a London season. At the ball, he is captivated by a mysterious beauty, only to learn that she is Lady Somerville's stepdaughter. Ads in Romantic Times. Original. (Fiction--Romance)
Lady Kincaid slammed the cover back on the pot of stew Lucy had just hung over the kitchen fire and shoved her bony hands onto her bony hips with a grimace of disgust. "Can't you for once be a little more original, Lucy? This is the third time this week you've cooked that slop."
Lucy turned from the tub of washing in the sink, wringing out one of her stepsister's nightdresses. "I'm sorry, Aunt Eunice," she said, pushing a damp lock of hair off her forehead with one tired wrist. "A haunch of mutton was all I could find at the market this week that was affordable. There's not enough money left in this month's budget for anything else."
"And whose fault is that, I wonder? Certainly not mine. Certainly not Fiona's or Amaryllis's--my poor daughters have suffered aplenty because of you. You can lay the blame for our troubles at your own door, Miss Lucy Kincaid, and don't you forget it the next time you think to complain."
"Yes, Aunt Eunice," Lucy said wearily. There was nothing else to say, and in any case, she'd heard it all a hundred times before.
Her fault. Her fault that they lived in a ramshackle house on a windswept cliff, her fault that there was hardly enough money to support the four of them, her fault that Amaryllis and Fiona had to make do with last year's dresses and she had to make do with dresses she'd outgrown three years ago. Her fault, her fault, her fault. It was a never-ending litany of blame, heaped on her from morning until night. She bowed her head, wishing she was anywhere else than in this dark, dank kitchen, listening to her stepmother's shrill voice. But that was nothing new either.
"The girls and I are going into Ballina to pay calls," her stepmother said, pulling on her gloves. "We'll be back by six, and I expect the washing and ironing to be done and the house to be spotless. Oh, and Lucy, there's a basket of mending in my bedroom. Be sure you have it completed before we return."
"And my bed linen needs changing, Lucy," Fiona said, prancing into the kitchen. "I spilled my morning cocoa on it." Her long pointed nose went up in the air like a badger's, sniffing, then wrinkling in distaste. "Not mutton and cabbage again! Oh, Mama, I think I'm going to be sick. Can't you do something with the girl?"
"Poor darling, I know what a trial she is to you, but I'm afraid that, as usual, Lucy squandered our monthly allowance."
"Typical," Fiona said, plumping up the carrot-red hair that Lucy had painstakingly arranged for her. "She can't do anything right." She put her bonnet on top of the pile and marched over to Lucy. "Tie the bow, and for goodness sake, dry your hands first," she commanded, leaning forward and sticking her pointy chin within an inch of Lucy's face.
Lucy obliged, silently longing to pull the bonnet right down over Fiona's ears. "There," she said, turning back to the washing, wishing they would go and leave her in peace. Peace. That was a joke. She hadn't had a moment's peace since the day eight years before when her stepmother had arrived on her father's arm and turned her life into a living hell. It had only gone downhill from there.
"Mama! Mama, Fiona's stolen my petticoat, the one with the lace trimming," Amaryllis cried, barreling into the kitchen, her round, pimply face mottled red with rage.
"I did not," Fiona said, turning on her sister. "It's mine, mine I say! You tore yours last week, remember, and you sneaked it into my drawer after Lucy mended it, thinking I wouldn't notice that you exchanged them."
"Liar! I did not. It was you who tore your petticoat last week. Isn't that right, Lucy?"
"I wouldn't know," Lucy said, disgusted with both of them. Would they never stop squabbling? "They both look the same to me, and what difference does it really make? The tear is virtually invisible now."
"You may think so, but I know it's there," Amaryllis said sulkily.
"Look." She hoisted her skirt, showing one plump calf, and stretched out a length of white material. "There's the rip, right there, as plain as day."
Lucy peered at the tiny stitches that bound the flounce to the linen. She could barely see them herself, and she knew exactly where they were, for it had taken her over an hour to painstakingly execute them. Amaryllis had never offered a word of thanks, but then if she had, Lucy would have fallen on her backside in shock. "I'm sorry the stitching is not to your satisfaction," she said curtly. "I'd offer you my own petticoat, but I don't think you'd care for the coarse cotton."
Eunice ignored her, waving her hand at her daughters. "Come along, girls. Time is wasting. Let us leave Lucy to her cleaning or she'll never have it done by the time we return."
She swept out of the kitchen, Fiona and Amaryllis in tow, the sounds of squabbling fading as the front door slammed.
They were gone. "Thank the Good Lord for small mercies," Lucy whispered, glancing up at the clock, already bone weary. Eleven o'clock, and she had at least two days' work to fit into seven hours. But if she was quick and thorough, she'd be able to escape for a walk before they returned. Her stolen time outside, drinking in fresh air and walking over the land she loved, was the only thing that renewed her, that kept her sane.
Oh, for the old days at Kincaid . . .
Once life had been so grand, so glorious, when Kincaid and its people had prospered under her father's tender care. And then it had all fallen apart.
Kincaid. Lucy covered her eyes with her hand, willing away the image of lush trees and rolling green fields cut through by the sparkling blue of the River Moy, willing away the memory of the great stone house where sunshine blazed at the windows in summer and winters were warmed by roaring fires in the grates.
Kincaid, where she had spent her childhood with a mother and father who loved her and gave her a life as free as a bird in the sky. Gone, all gone now, both her parents dead and the house fallen into neglect, the man who had stolen the estate from her father not even caring enough to look after it. Thomas Montagu had been nothing more than a boozing absentee squireen who had allowed his land agent to evict more innocent tenants than she could count and who had brought the very land to ruin from sheer negligence, interested only in enriching himself at the expense of the poor.
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, willing away the tears that threatened. She would not cry. She'd given up crying six years ago, on the day she'd buried her father, the day that her stepmother of only twenty months had boxed her ears and told that she wouldn't stand for tears, that their impoverished situation was all Lucy's fault and she'd spend the rest of her life paying for it. So far she had, and there was no end in sight.
Nothing was ever good enough for Eunice, not that there was money to manage anything else, thanks to the dishonorable Mr. Montagu. But a fat lot of good it did to blame him now, with him six feet under and no way to put the situation back the way it had been.
Oh, she had rejoiced indeed when news had come the year before that Thomas Montagu had broken his filthy English neck on the hunt field. She hoped with everything in her that his black soul would burn in hell for all eternity for what he'd done to her father, although the question now was what further calamity was going to befall Kincaid, now that Thomas Montagu's cousin was the new owner.
Not a word had been heard from him since his cousin had died. What did Kincaid matter to him? What did he care about the suffering of the evicted tenants, whose bellies ached with hunger and whose children had little chance of surviving rampant disease even if they didn't die of starvation?
Lucy glanced out the window of their bleak house on the edge of the peat bog and gazed longingly toward the cliffs of Downpatrick Head where terns and seagulls wheeled freely and unfettered in the overcast sky, beckoning to her.
Hurry, hurry, she told herself. If you're fast enough, you'll have a good half hour of freedom. A half hour to forget your misery and exhaustion, to forget this prison, a half hour to let your soul fly free, a half hour to dream . . .
She turned back to the sink and began scrubbing in earnest.
* * *
"It's a damned good thing you broke your neck, Thomas Montagu, or I would have broken it for you."
Raphael Montagu, eighth Duke of Southwell, hissed the words out from between his teeth as he stood on a bluff looking down over the sorry sight of Kincaid Court, the property he'd become responsible for on the day his cousin had died. Rafe hadn't received the news for a full six months, the solicitor's letter informing him of Thomas's death following him around the Mediterranean until it finally reached him in Nice just as he was about to embark for England after a year's absence.
Fortunately, his various competent stewards and solicitors had looked after his assorted properties with solid heads while he'd been away. Nothing untoward had greeted him on his arrival. Nothing, at least, until this moment.
Rafe shaded his eyes and cast his gaze over the house, standing simple and proud in its emerald-green valley, the mottled gray stone reflecting the hazy light as if it had been built for that purpose alone.
Its basic structure was clean, but the dilapidation that had fallen on what once must have been magnificence was in evidence everywhere. Windows were broken, the roof dripped with damp, and grass had grown up in a wild tangle outside what had once obviously been a well-kept courtyard. Now sheep and horses grazed there with abandon.
He'd had a sinking feeling as he rode down the long carriageway that something was badly amiss, for the fields lay fallow and cottages stood empty, shutters and doors hanging loose on hinges. He knew poverty ran rife in Ireland, but he hadn't expected to find such a miserable state of affairs at the great house, not after he'd seen the papers that had documented the condition the estate was in when Thomas had taken it over some six years before.
He turned to the land agent who silently stood ten paces behind him, his cap pulled low over his brow and his arms folded across his chest. "How long has this been going on?" Rafe demanded in icy tones.
"How long has what been going on, your grace?" Paddy Delany replied, shifting his weight onto his other foot.
"This--this travesty," Rafe said. "This complete lack of attention to the estate? I find it hard to believe that in the one year since my cousin's death the property has fallen into such a deplorable condition."
"There was no money, your grace," Paddy said, tugging at the brim of his cap. "No money at all, not to run things the way they should have been," he added.
"No money? It was my understanding that my cousin had income aplenty from this estate, more than enough to keep it going."
"Had, your grace, that being the point, you see. I'm not wanting to speak ill of the dead, but your cousin was fond of his excesses, if you catch my meaning . . ." He shrugged and smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes.
Rafe didn't like the look of antagonism that lay behind them in the least. Paddy Delany might behave as if he were a beleaguered land agent, but Rafe strongly suspected that the story went far deeper. "I see," he said evenly. "And yet it was my understanding that you have been responsible for the running of Kincaid Hall for these past six years. As I said, before that time the estate returned a handsome profit. Where, may I ask, has that profit been invested since?"
Paddy Delany crossed his arms, meeting Rafe's unwavering stare as if he were Rafe's equal, if not his better, an attitude that Rafe was not accustomed to and not appreciative of. "I wouldn't know, your grace," he said, his tone barely concealing sarcasm. "As I said, your cousin had his ways, and he wasn't likely to put back profits into the land that he might otherwise put in his pockets."
"What, exactly, are you implying?" Rafe asked, his tone stony.
"Why, nothing at all, your grace. What I'm telling you is that your cousin wasn't here all that much, preferring his own country to ours. I had to make do with what I had. And then when he died and there was no money at all . . ." Paddy Delany shoved his hands into his pockets and sighed heavily. "We all suffered, your grace. It's a blessing you showed up when you did, sure it is, or who knows what might have happened? My sainted mother was on her knees in thankful prayer when she heard you were coming, she that close to her deathbed with the cold and barely any peat left for the fire."
"I'm not interested in your sainted mother, Delany, or her supposed proximity to her deathbed," Rafe said impatiently, thoroughly tired of being treated like an imbecile. "I am only interested in what has happened here, and why."
"Well, then, and aren't you just like the rest of your grand countrymen, caring nothing for the plight of the Irish you've robbed and swindled?" Delany said, his tone now cocky. "You show up here asking all sorts of questions, but since you don't seem inclined to hear the truth of the matter, you'll get no more answers from me."
"As far as I'm aware, I haven't robbed or swindled a soul in my life," Rafe said dryly. "And to be perfectly blunt, I find your insinuation insulting."
"And to be perfectly blunt, I find your questions insulting, your grace. If you don't trust what I have to tell you when you have no other word to go on, then you're a fool. What do you know of our lives, our miserable conditions, when you yourself have admitted you've never before stepped foot in our country? What do you know of poverty, of hunger?"
He kicked at a clod of grass, sending a shower of earth into the air. "Do you see this? This is good soil that could have fed--and once did feed--at least a hundred people until your cousin demanded it be turned into hunting ground for himself and his friends, and they rarely showed up to use it even for that. And you all but accuse me of being responsible for the state of things here?"
Rafe ran his gaze over the land agent's tattered cloth coat, the worn leather of his boots. He nodded, making a silent decision to keep the man on despite his attitude. Paddy Delany might be an insolent devil, but he had a point--Rafe had no one else to rely on.
"You had better show me the most recent books, Mr. Delany. We need to formulate some sort of workable plan. Clearly the estate cannot be allowed to deteriorate further or it will lose what little value it has left."
"Right you are, your grace," Paddy said with a brisk nod of his head, as if to say that he was pleased that his new employer had finally seen reason. "Let's have at it then, although you won't find much there. It was a fight keeping a single penny out of Mr. Montagu's hands, but you'll see that for yourself by the time you're finished."
Rafe unfortunately believed that--he'd known his cousin a little too well and had never had a moment's liking for the man, an undisc
Posted November 20, 2013
Posted December 16, 2009
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