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The Spinster's Secret
By Emily Larkin, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Emily Larkin
All rights reserved.
His lordship swiftly divested me of my gown, placing hot kisses on the skin he bared.
"You are a goddess," he breathed, as he untrussed my bosom ...
Matilda Chapple glanced at the window. Outside, the grey overcast sky was darkening toward dusk. If she hurried, she could mail this installment of Chérie's confessions before night fell.
Seizing me in his arms, he carried me to the bed, she wrote hastily. He pushed aside the froth of my petticoats with impatience. In less than a minute he had made his entrance and slaked his lust upon my ...
Mattie halted, the quill held above the page, and squinted at her draft. What was that word? Feverish? Fevered? Fervent?
... upon my fevered body.
Mattie continued swiftly copying. Finally, she finished: We lay sated in the sunlight. For my part, I was as pleased by his lordship's manly vigor as he was so evidently pleased by my feminine charms. I foresaw many pleasant months ahead as his mistress.
And on that note, dear readers, I shall end this latest confession from my pen.
Mattie laid down the quill. She glanced at the window again, hastily blotted the pages, and folded them. She sealed the confession with a wafer and wrote the address of her publisher clearly. Then she folded a letter around it and sealed that too, writing the address of her friend Anne on it, Mrs. Thos. Brocklesby, Lombard Street, London.
Mattie bundled up the draft and hid it with the others in the concealed cupboard in the wainscoting. She crammed a bonnet on her head, threw a thick shawl around her shoulders, and grabbed the letter.
There was still an hour of daylight left, but deep shadows gathered in the corridors of Creed Hall. The stairs creaked as she hurried down them. The entrance hall was cave-like, dark and chilly and musty.
Mattie swung around, clutching the letter to her breast.
Her uncle stood in the doorway to his study, leaning heavily on a cane. "Where are you going?"
Mattie raised the letter, showing it to him. "A letter to a friend, Uncle Arthur. I'm taking it down to the village."
Her uncle frowned, his face pleating into sour, disapproving folds. "I sent Durce with the mail an hour ago."
"Yes, uncle. I hadn't quite finished ..."
"Durce can take it tomorrow."
"I should like to send it today, uncle. If I may."
Uncle Arthur's eyebrows pinched together in a scowl. The wispy feathers of white hair ringing his domed skull, the beak-like nose, made him look like a gaunt, bad-tempered bird of prey.
"Mr. Kane will be arriving soon."
"I'll only be twenty minutes. I promise." Mattie bowed her head and held her breath. Please, please, please ...
Her uncle sniffed. "Very well. But don't be late for our guest. We owe him every courtesy."
"No, uncle." Mattie dipped him a curtsey. "Thank you."
Outside, the sky was heavy with rain clouds. The air was dank and bracingly cold, scented with the smell of slowly decaying vegetation. Mattie took a deep breath, filling her lungs, feeling her spirits lift, conscious of a delicious sense of freedom. She walked briskly down the long drive, skirting puddles and mud. On either side, trees stretched leafless branches toward the sky. Once she was out of sight of the Hall's windows, Mattie lengthened her stride into a run. She spread her arms wide, catching the wintry breeze with her shawl. It felt as if she was galloping, as if she was flying, as if she was free.
At the lane, she slowed to a walk and turned right. The village of Soddy Morton was visible in the hollow a mile away.
Mattie crossed the crumbling stone bridge. The brook rushed and churned below, brown and swollen, its banks cloaked in winter-dead weeds. She blew out a breath. It hung fog-like in front of her. Icy mud splashed her half-boots and the hem of her gown, but a feeling of joy warmed her. She didn't see the bleak landscape, the bare fields, the bare trees, the heavy, grey sky. She saw instead a cheerful boarding house with a cozy kitchen and a view of the sea through the windows.
Mattie inhaled deeply, almost smelling the tang of the ocean, almost tasting sea salt on her tongue.
Her grip tightened on the letter. Soon she would be free of Uncle Arthur, free of Creed Hall, free of Soddy Morton and Northamptonshire. Every word that she wrote and every confession she mailed to London brought the dream of owning a boarding house closer.
Soon it wouldn't be a dream, it would be reality.
* * *
Edward Kane, lately of the Royal Horse Guards, tooled his curricle over the low bridge to the clatter of iron-shod hooves on stone and stopped at his first glimpse of Creed Hall. It crouched to his left at the crest of the hill, built of stone so dark that it almost looked black, crowded by leafless trees. He grimaced. What had Toby called it? The dungeon.
"Ugly," his bâtman, Tigh, commented from his seat alongside Edward.
Edward agreed. A gust of wind whistled across the bare fields, and with it, the first icy drops of rain. He shivered and urged the horses up the driveway. Guilt, a familiar companion since Waterloo, seemed to wrap more closely around him with each step the weary horses took. The Hall disappeared, then came into sight again, looking even more grim and inhospitable. He drew the curricle to a stop in front of the frowning, iron-studded door, handed the reins to Tigh, and clambered down.
"Take it round to the stables."
The rain came down steadily as the curricle moved off. Edward rubbed his aching thigh. Guilt settled more heavily on him as he limped up the steps. Creed Hall loomed above him. It was ugly, but even so, it was Toby's home. It should be him here, not me.
The door opened on grating hinges before he reached it. "Mr. Kane."
Edward stepped inside, shivering. He handed his hat to the elderly butler, shrugged out of his fur-lined driving coat, and peeled off his gloves. Oil paintings hung on the dark paneled walls, barely discernible in the gloom.
"Sir Arthur is in the library, sir," the butler said, receiving the gloves and managing not to stare at Edward's butchered hands. Or perhaps he didn't notice the lack of fingers in the dimness.
"If you would follow me, sir?"
The library was almost as dark as the entrance hall. The curtains were drawn against the dusk, but a lone candle burned on a side table and a meager fire smoked in the grate. A figure sat in a winged leather armchair beside the fireplace, shrouded in shadow.
"Mr. Kane, sir," the butler said, and departed.
Edward bowed toward the armchair. "Sir Arthur?"
As Sir Arthur levered himself from the armchair, Edward tried to find some points of similarity between his host and Toby. Height, leanness, a long face, but there it stopped. Arthur Strickland was thin to the point of emaciation, his high, domed skull bare except for a few wisps of white hair, his skin withered into pale, desiccated folds. Where Toby had liked to laugh, it appeared that Arthur Strickland preferred to frown. Lines of disapproval were engraved on his face, pinching between the feathery eyebrows and deeply bracketing his mouth.
Sir Arthur held out his hand, leaning heavily on his ebony cane, noticed the three fingers missing from Edward's right hand, and hesitated.
"It doesn't hurt, sir," Edward said. Not much.
Strickland shook hands with him, a dry, limp clasp.
Interest sharpened in the old man's eyes.
Edward braced himself for the inevitable questions, but instead Sir Arthur said, "Sherry?"
Strickland rang for a servant. Edward sat silently while the butler bustled into the library, poured two small glasses of sherry, and left. Sir Arthur's gaze was on his face. Edward watched the old man trace the scars, seeing him note the missing ear. Finally the perusal ended.
"Waterloo as well?"
Edward nodded. He sipped his sherry. It was mouth-puckeringly dry.
Strickland sighed. He leaned back in his armchair. "My son ... you were with him when he died?"
Sir Arthur glanced at the fire, blinked several times, swallowed, and brought his gaze back to Edward.
"Would you mind ... telling me?"
A rush of memory ambushed Edward. For a brief moment he was back at Waterloo. The smells of blood and cordite filled his nose. Toby's shout rang in his ears. Get up, Ned! was as vivid, as clear, as if the battle had been yesterday, not five months ago.
Muscles clenched in Edward's stomach. He gulped a fortifying mouthful of sherry.
"Not at all." He looked away from the old man's face and began his tale.
* * *
There was silence for a long time after Edward had finished, then Arthur Strickland cleared his throat. "Thank you."
The old man stood slowly. "We dine at six."
Edward glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Half past five.
"My sister's nurse-companion dines with us. I hope you don't mind?"
"Not at all."
He gave Strickland a few minutes to make his way slowly from the library, leaning on his cane, then summoned the butler and followed the man up creaking stairs and along dark, chilly corridors to his bedchamber.
The fire in his room was as meager as the one in the library. The four-posted bed loomed like a crepe-shrouded mausoleum, hung with green velvet. His valise had been unpacked and his few clothes neatly put away. The package of Toby's effects lay on the dresser. Edward turned away from it. He'd deal with that later. He'd had all the memories he could cope with for the moment.
Tigh bustled in, stocky and middle-aged, his face weather-beaten beneath bristling eyebrows. He carried a jug of steaming water.
"It's colder than a nun's monosyllable in 'ere, sir."
Edward grunted agreement. He stripped out of his travelling clothes and dressed quickly in pantaloons and a fresh shirt. He washed his face and ran a comb through his hair. He didn't bother looking in the mirror. No trick of styling his hair would hide the jagged remnants of his right ear or mask the scars that disfigured his cheeks and brow. The neckcloth took several minutes of concentration. The lack of fingers on his right hand made it hard to form the exact creases. Almost, he gave up and let Tigh do it, but it was an independence that he'd fought hard to regain — tying his own neckcloth — and he gritted his teeth and persevered, while outside the rain drummed heavily down.
A glance at his pocket watch showed that it wanted five minutes to the hour. Edward donned his white waistcoat, shrugged into the black long-tailed coat that Tigh held out, nodded his thanks to the bâtman, and retraced his steps to the ground floor. The corridors were dark, feebly lit with the barest number of candles.
At the foot of the stairs he paused and looked around. A door stood ajar opposite the library. Faint light and the sound of women's voices came from within.
Edward walked over and touched the door with his fingertips. It swung open. The conversation inside went silent.
"Er ... good evening," he said, as the room's two occupants stared at him.
Their reaction was one that he still hadn't become accustomed to. Both ladies were well bred enough not to recoil, but he saw the startled widening of their eyes, the stiffening of their faces as they took in his appearance.
There was a moment of silence while they examined each other. His brain mentally catalogued them, one pretty and petite, one tall and plain. He knew what they saw. A hulking brute of a man with a scarred face.
Both ladies were dressed in the grey of half-mourning. The plain one was brown-haired and built on robust lines, with a deep bosom and wide hips. The pretty one looked as if she'd stepped out of a poem, except that her golden hair, blue eyes, and milk-white complexion were entirely real. A line flicked through Edward's mind. Her tresses gold, her eyes like glassy streams, her teeth are pearl, the breasts are ivory.
His gaze swung between the two ladies. The larger one had to be the nurse-companion, sturdily competent, which meant that the ethereal little blonde was Toby's cousin, Matilda Chapple.
He focused his attention on her and bowed. "Miss Chapple?"
"I am Miss Chapple."
Edward's gaze jerked back to the brunette.
"You must be Mr. Kane." Her voice was a low contralto.
"Yes, ma'am." Edward bowed again.
Miss Chapple smiled warmly.
"Welcome to Creed Hall." She advanced across the room toward him, holding out her hand, a friendly gesture. She was even taller than he'd thought, all of six foot.
Edward held out his own hand. Miss Chapple saw the missing fingers, hesitated for a brief fraction of a second, and then clasped it.
Her handshake was as warm and welcoming as her smile. "Toby spoke often of you."
"And he spoke often of you."
"He did?" He saw something in Miss Chapple's eyes — a flicker of grief — before she released his hand.
"He was the best of cousins." She turned toward the pretty blonde. "May I present Mrs. Dunn? She is my aunt's nurse-companion."
He was shaking hands with Mrs. Dunn when the thump thump of a cane heralded Arthur Strickland's arrival. Strickland entered the parlor leaning on the ebony cane, an elderly woman on his arm.
"My sister," he said, "Lady Marchbank."
Lady Marchbank was as cadaver-like as her brother. She was dressed entirely in black, from her black lace cap to the black hem of her gown. A female grim reaper. Edward squashed the thought hastily and bowed. The resemblance between brother and sister was strong: the tall, stooped postures; the long, bony faces; the wrinkles folded into deep, disapproving lines.
A clock struck six somewhere in the house, a ponderous sound.
"I should inform you, Mr. Kane, that we dine plainly at Creed Hall," Strickland announced as the last echo died away. "And for the sake of our digestion, we preserve the strictest silence."
* * *
Mattie studied Mr. Kane surreptitiously as she ate. Goliath, Toby had called him, and she understood how he'd come by that name. He was an uncommonly large gentleman, taller than she by a good half foot, and solidly built. He looked like he could carry the weight of a coach-and-four on those broad shoulders.
Mr. Kane had dark hair and a tanned face crossed with pink scars. She knew his age to be thirty. The same age Toby would be if he were alive.
Mattie's eyes traced the scars scoring across his brow, bisecting an eyebrow, curving down his cheek, and she stopped at his right ear. Most of it was missing. Her gaze dropped to his hands. They bore scars similar to those on his face. Three fingers were missing on his right hand and one on his left.
Had his sword been cut from his hand? Did that account for the missing fingers?
She imagined him weaponless, trying to ward off an attack ...
Her ribcage tightened. Mattie looked away from Mr. Kane's battered hands and forced herself to think of something else. Outside, rain drummed down. A cold wind leaked through the cracks in the window casement. The clink of cutlery was loud in the silence, the scrape of a knife across a plate, the tiny clatter of fork tines as her uncle speared a piece of boiled mutton.
What did Mr. Kane think of so silent a meal? Perhaps he was grateful. He didn't look like a man skilled at small-talk, a man who could turn a pretty phrase as easily as he could tie his own shoelaces. He looked like a fighter.
A fighter who'd lost a battle and had almost died.
Her gaze crept back to him. Mr. Kane seemed undismayed by the food. I'll have no sauces in my house, her uncle was fond of announcing. No spices. Food boiled in plain water is all that one requires.
Pigswill, Toby had called it the last time he'd been home, and he'd gone down to the village inn to eat his dinner. And he had smuggled back a roasted chicken and a plum pie for her afterwards.
Grief tightened Mattie's throat. She looked down at her plate and blinked back tears. I miss you, Toby.
* * *
After dinner, the ladies retired to the drawing room. Arthur Strickland poured two small measures of port. Edward sat back and braced himself for more questions about Waterloo.
"When did you return to England?" Strickland asked, sipping his port.
Strickland glanced at Edward's ear, his hands. "I hadn't realized that you were so seriously injured."
"I wasn't," Edward said, not mentioning the broken leg that had kept him immobilized for months. "A friend of mine lost an arm. He contracted fever and almost died. I stayed with him until he was well enough to travel."
"Gareth Locke," Strickland said.
Edward nodded and tasted the port. Too sweet.
Excerpted from The Spinster's Secret by Emily Larkin, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Emily Larkin. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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