Read an Excerpt
Mairwen. Dear sweet Mairwen, asking for her. I'm sorry, little one. I tried, please believe me. You think I have abandoned you, but I have not.
Water on her face shocked her enough to gasp. It filled her mouth, clogged her nose. She gasped for air, some relief, some hope.
Ava's eyes flew open, arms whipped in the air. But there was no water, only air so golden it had to be the sunrise.
She stiffened, and quickly closed her eyes again, the dream skittering away as she struggled to assess her surroundings. The smell struck her first. The clothing she'd paddled around the Thames in seemed heavier than before. The tall, angry man, whose home she'd been dragged to, had sent her to the authorities. Yes. Of course. I am in prison.
Ava pulled in a resigned breath. I will endure it. I will get out, I have done so before, I will...
Another scent reached her. Firewood. And the crackling? She'd never been in jail before, but doubted prisoners had the luxury of fireplaces. But the sound...
"You are awake, then."
The guard. He'd come for her. She sat on a hard chair, the heaviness laying on her was a wrap. Wool. Warm. She recalled when she'd thrashed awake her arms were bare. Dear heavens. She'd been stripped naked in prison. She wanted to ask about her situation, but the pain in her throat stopped her. With shaky fingertips she touched her neck.
"I would appreciate an explanation for your behavior and the accusations made against you."
Ava turned toward the voice. The man who'd come crashing down the stairs. He filled the expanse of a wide chair, flickers of light splashing across one sideof his face. Dark hair, dark eyes? Impossible to tell in the obscured light. But the unfavorable expression on his brow wasn't difficult to see or judge.
She wasn't in prison, but with the man who would put her there.
Unable to determine what clothing she was or wasn't wearing, she carefully kept the wrap close to her body. She sat up slowly. Her head whirled, stomach lurched. If she could only be rid of this atrocious smell.
The man didn't move. He might have been a statue lounging in the chair, one leg hung over the other, near enough to show a glint of firelight on polished boots. He wore light colored breeches and a white shirt buttoned to the throat.
Despite the casualness of his dress he looked commanding. Ava swallowed carefully and opened her mouth to speak, but couldn't utter a word. Her mouth snapped shut, she pointed to her throat and shook her head.
"What? You cannot speak? Or will not?"
She frowned, made a slashing gesture with one hand.
"A temporary condition. From the..." He stopped, looked into the fire. Ava saw a pulse at his jawbone. He was angry with her.
Ie--yes-- she could hear the slam of the prison door.
He spoke to the flames. "Mrs. Larue, my housekeeper, removed your garments. A bath is being prepared in the kitchen. This would have been done sooner had you been conscious. Nearly drowning once today was enough. Only Mrs. Larue will attend you as the hour is late and my staff have been inconvenienced enough. After your bath you will be brought back here to answer my questions. Is that understood?"
Shocked by a man, a perfect stranger, speaking to her about her attire and bathing, she was fairly certain it was bad-mannered. But, under the circumstances...
Ava nodded, but he hadn't been looking in her direction. He did so now.
"I asked if my directives were understood?"
She nodded hesitantly.
He regarded her with neither anger nor interest.
"What is your name? Or is that not something you can voice either?"
She shook her head quickly, raised both hands and with an index finger, drew the letters of her name across the palm of the other hand.
The thin, older man who'd opened the door strode several feet ahead of her. Ava hurried after him, tripping over the heavy blanket. She had no time to take in her surroundings and was glaringly aware of her immodest state amidst the sedate fineness of this household. The room she'd been in was larger than any she'd ever seen, with abundant bookcases and dark, imposing furnishings. Her bare feet sunk into soft carpet and cool, polished woods, not the rough planking she was accustomed.
In the kitchen she was delivered to a pointed faced woman with graying hair. She stood alongside a tub in front of a broad stove, a cloth draped over an arm, a bar of soap in one large hand.
The woman's mouth curled in derision, cold blue eyes hardened with annoyance.
"Don't just stand there, missy." Her voice was as pointed as the rest of her. "The master says you're to have a good scrubbing while he decides what to do with you." She signaled to the blanket. "Get to it. I've other duties to tend to besides you."
Despite her vulnerable position, Ava felt a rush of anger. She'd survived enough hate in the past month to last three lifetimes. It hadn't been her choice to be brought here, wherever here was. She'd done nothing to warrant this woman's disdain.
Ava hiked her chin and released the warm wrap. The housekeeper gave her another disapproving look and ordered her to take off the chemise. Ava expected her to turn, but she didn't.
"You do it, or I do," the woman said impatiently. "Makes no never mind to me. Don't think I won't tear it off your hide myself, and lord help you if I do. If there's anyone who needs a good thrashing, it would be you, girlie."
How dare you talk to me like that! Ava's eyes broadcast as she ripped the soiled chemise over her head. Determined to conceal her embarrassment from standing naked before another woman, she stalked to the tub, stepped in and gasped.
"Sit. The scalding'll do you good."
Ava lowered cautiously, the heat prickling her skin. But the pleasure of the warmth nearly melted her. Hot water. Hot, clean water. She longed to soak up the luxury, let the comforting heat seep into her bones and drench her muscles. But Mrs. Larue had other ideas.
"Close your mouth, missy." A bucketful of tepid water streamed over her head. She sputtered in shock. Her hair was tugged aside and the brush set to her back. Ava gripped the edge of the tub, readying herself for the pain to follow. She heard the woman suck in a sharp breath. Ava waited for questions, but none came. Grateful, she shut her eyes and mind to the inevitable pain of the brush's harshness and Mrs. Larue's certain admonishments, but neither came. The brush clattered to the floor and a soft cloth replaced it. Ava succumbed to the rough washing. When her back, shoulders and arms had been scrubbed, Mrs. Larue shoved the soap in Ava's hands.
"On your feet. I've not washed a woman's privates and not intending to start now."
The humiliation Ava first felt returned. Keeping her back to the housekeeper, she washed quickly, wishing the soap had a scent to it. But clean was clean, unlike the water she stood in which was the color of strong tea and stank of the river.
A towel was thrust at her.
"Out. There's the hair to do yet."
Ava wondered if the woman was always this shrewish. She obeyed the order to kneel at the tub. Head bowed, another bucket of water was poured.
Mrs. Larue tsked and mumbled under her breath as she grated the soap through the thick strands of hair.
"Won't be clean enough with it dipping in the bath water. Ought to take scissors to it."
Ava jerked her head up, eyes wild. She shook her head violently, sending a shower of water across the room.
"Have a care, girlie. 'T'aint me who needs the bath." She shoved Ava's head back down. "No one here will harm you."
When finished, Ava was given a dressing gown. A much taller woman obviously wore this. A Mrs." Mistress? Mrs. Larue informed her there was no comb or brush about.
Strict instructions to sit and not leave the kitchen were given as Mrs. Larue tidied the room.
"Bickford will take you to his lordship." She departed.
Ava sat on the stool, shivering. The dressing gown was comfortable, but offered no warmth. Mrs. Larue had taken the blanket. Probably to be burned. The heat from the stove was nice.
The anxiety the bath had eased was short lived when recalling Mrs. Larue's last words. His lordship? God help me, I am in the wrong with a man of the Aristocracy. Had the men who brought her here used a title when they spoke to him? Ie, they had. The pounding in her skull grew again. He believed her a thief and would insist she hang for a crime she didn't commit and couldn't disprove.
This was the most dire circumstance to date. Would all she'd been through for her family end here? By her death over a false charge? It could not!
Ava leapt up, her mind grasping at any proposal for escape. But how far could she get? No clothes, no money, no means of travel. Where would she go?
She paced, devising another plan. She'd return to where her search started, but keep better watch this time. Clothes could be found, money earned, travel paid for. Determination would be her constant companion.
Another door was at the farthest wall. Did it lead outside? She sped across the room, stopped and listened for sounds. Nothing. Holding her breath, she turned the knob and nearly screamed when it creaked. With her heart pulsing in her ears, she turned the knob again. It didn't move. Locked! A strangled cry bubbled out. She looked around frantically.
There must be a key nearby, where...
A cough froze her in place. "This way, miss."
She spun to face the houseman, butler, whatever he was called. His face remained as expressionless and inviting as a wall of briars.
The straight-back chair was gone. She didn't dare sit on the settee or formal chairs. Everything about the room intimidated her. Even the stone fireplace, but its warmth beckoned her. She knelt in front of it, pushed the sleeves of the dressing gown up and raised her palms to the low flames. The heat was sedative, breathing through her fingers, caressing her face, kissing her shoulders and neck, stroking her hair. She closed her eyes and smiled for the first time in a long while. Welcoming the comfort, she leaned against the chair facing the hearth, and laid her cheek on the padded seat. Delicious heat. She'd been cold for so long.
Deran closed the door forcefully to gain her attention, and crossed to the chair opposite the one she propped against. He sat, prepared to begin his questioning, but one look at her stopped and firmly rooted him. Damp coils of matted hair draped down her back. Some strands had dried, their dark golds enhanced by the firelight. Her eyes were closed, mouth slightly open. Her profile was delicate, but even in repose the jaw reflected a strong will. She appeared no more than sixteen or seventeen, and seemed comfortable curled up asleep on the floor like a contented kitten.
Deran didn't want her to intrigue him, didn't want the entanglements of a mysterious thief, or stowaway, whatever the case. Yet despite his efforts, curiosity and concern crept in. Who was looking for her? The answer to that behind this mystery. Mrs. Larue informed him, in her typical censorious manner, she'd discovered markings on the girl's back and intimated at others lower on her body. If the girl had been abused at the hands of her employer, that could explain her reason for fleeing. Whom she'd flown from was what concerned Deran.
Discreet inquiries could be made. Among the ton, rumors flourished as unhealthily as plagues. Deran had no use for rumors or those who propagated them, but their information could occasionally be useful. Already he'd set plans in motion.
If she were employed by a peer, she'd likely not be welcomed back. If taken back, mistreatment would continue, if not worsen. Deran knew some of his peers had a vile bent toward manipulative submission. Young, female servants were often targets.
If this were the case with his little thief, then returning her to her employer would be an unpleasant task. If mistreatment was at the hands of a member of her family, the matter was entirely out of his hands.
Deran studied the sleeping form. A difficult consequence for her to face, but not one he could alter. Until he had more information to make a just decision, he had to decide what to do with her. She couldn't stay here. What the world said about his personal improprieties mattered little, but he couldn't sully his family's reputation.
She shivered in her sleep and an arm jolted forward causing the robe to slide off the shoulder furthest from him. Deran stared at the strip of creamy skin. The slight fullness of one breast was dangerously and captivatingly exposed.
And unsuitable for him to gape at like an untried schoolboy. Deran adjusted his position, suddenly aware of an unforgivable tautness in his lower body. A revolting reaction to have toward a child. He wasn't a man of advanced years--hell, he was but thirty-three, far from his prime, but even so.
He had to wake her and begin the process of determining her future.
Deran touched her shoulder. So small. Rage jolted him at the thought of her at the mercy of cruelty. A minute alone with whoever had harmed her would be very satisfying. He lightly squeezed her shoulder when she didn't respond to his touch.
Ava jerked awake and faced the man who would send her to prison. He sat opposite her, bent forward with forearms resting on large thighs, broad hands clasped between his knees, looking stern. Dread burrowed into her stomach.
Determined not to cower, but act as dignified as possible, she brushed a strip of hair from her face. She winced when she scraped a large knot on her temple made more sore from the vigorous hair washing. She then noticed the robe was doing a poor job of covering her. She quickly snatched it back onto her shoulder, and wrapped her arms tightly in front of her.
"Perhaps the chair would be more useful if you sat in it. Then I wouldn't have to look down at you and appear as menacing as you are making me out to be."
Ava started to open her mouth to dispute her opinion of him. He did appear menacing, but she couldn't say anything if she wanted to.
She moved onto the chair, self-conscious in his presence in a dressing gown, albeit cleaner than before. Not clean enough for someone so above her and so...
Ava blinked rapidly. She saw him clearly now and what she saw made her stomach flip. He was handsome. No, magnificent. Deep brown eyes, long, dark brown waves of hair casually framing a strong face, and lips, pretty ones for a man, pressed together tighter than a disapproving priest. He'd be even more handsome if he'd stop scowling.
"Tomorrow my sister will bring you clothes. I do not have anything suitable for you and obviously you've had to relinquish what little you had." A movement Ava supposed was a smile lifted his mouth. "Which brings me to the subject of how you arrived at my doorstep." He sat back, once again the casual observer, crossing a long leg over the other, hands resting at his waist. He tipped his head expectantly.
Where to start? How much dare she tell him?
She asked a question not even she could hear. He leaned closer.
She repeated it, the effort like needles in her throat. His face tightened in impatience.
"We cannot converse this way. Is there not--"
Ava waved her hands and drew on her palm.
"Who am I?"
She nodded rapidly.
"I am Lord Atherton."
Eyebrows arched up. "Lord?" she mouthed. He nodded. She drew her name on her palm, and then pointed to him.
"Ava. Yes, I know."
She shook her head, clearly frustrated. She drew her name again, slower this time, pointed to herself, then leaned forward and poked him in the chest.
"Deran. Deran Morissey, Earl of Atherton. But you must address me as Lord Atherton. Or Sir. Never by my given name. While we're on the subject of names, what is your surname?" She frowned and shook her head in confusion. "Family name? What is your father's name?"
The animation drained from her face. Her eyes searched his. How much could he discover if she told him? Was he asking out of politeness or because he'd use the knowledge against her? Perhaps he played a role in all she'd endured. It had been his ship, after all. He may have been the one who'd sent them after her.
This was foreign to Deran, this extended period of quiet from a female. He had much experience with female companionship, and knew none who could be so motionless and hold their tongues still as long as this one could. And none would dare refuse to answer his questions. He felt both admiration and annoyance. Annoyance won out.
"Your full name. If you please, miss," he added heatedly.
Color returned to her cheeks and her green eyes blazed. She leapt from the chair. Assuming she intended to bolt, Deran reached for her as she swung by. She glared at him, pointed at the desk behind him and pantomimed writing.
Deran looked over his shoulder and saw she pointed to paper and a quill pen.
He turned back, surprised.
"You can write?"
She thrust a hand on one hip and actually rolled her eyes to let him know he'd insulted her.
"My humble apologies, Miss Ava. By all means." He turned his chair so she could sit at the desk. "Please sit. Communication by written word would be far less painful."
Ava patted her neck and tapped a foot impatiently. Deran had to smile. Despite her muteness, she effectively expressed annoyance and he had no difficulty interpreting it. "Yes, especially for you."
She scribbled furiously. He sat across from her and observed. Concentration lined her smooth face, a hand swatted back hair that kept slipping forward, the rate of the pen changed with quick nods and headshakes. At one point she looked up, her eyes like arrow points. He felt hate pour out of her, felt it scorch his face, as though accusing him of something. He nearly ripped the pages she'd filled in his impatience for answers.
Some thought brought tears to those beguiling green eyes. Deran moved to offer his handkerchief, but her hand dropped and the pen rolled away. She shoved the papers at him and stood.
"We are far from done."
She ignored him and made her way to the drinks table across the room. She plucked up a glass and turned back to Deran with a bottle in hand, her face questioning.
"Are you asking my permission to pour yourself a drink?"
"You may not." Deran was at her side removing the bottle before she poured anyway.
She tugged at his sleeve and whispered, "Please. I am thirsty."
Deran looked down at the hand crushing his shirt. "This is not water. Tea or lemonade is all you will be allowed at this hour. Or ever, while you are in my home. You are not old enough for anything else."
She stomped a foot and flashed her fingers.
He looked at the angry hands.
"I am to believe you are twenty-three years of age? You are not. Even if you were, you will not have anything but what I have said. Since I sent the rest of the household to bed, we must get your precious drink."
He was graced with another roll of the eyes. Twenty-three indeed.
He retrieved her writings and held the door open. "Shall we?"
The dressing gown swirled wide around bare legs, which Deran pretended not to notice, as she spun past him into the hall. Not knowing where to go from there, she waited for him as patiently as a mare with an ill-fitting bit in her mouth.
Following, she was again aware of the elegance of his home. No, it's Lord this, Lord that, my lord and sir. Her mother had insisted she learn the proper way to address nobility and royalty, even though she'd never use what she learned.
She also knew lordly people did not retrieve water for themselves or houseguests, especially ones they intended to send to the clink.
He poured two glasses of lemonade and surprised her when he set them on the long wooden table in the center of the kitchen and pulled a chair out for her. Turning up the flame of the oil lamp, he waited for her to sit before claiming his own chair.
It occurred to him he hadn't been in the kitchen for a long while, years, in fact. All his meals were served to him. Deran took in the clean counters and stove, the numerous cast-iron pots and kettles hanging from large hooks and baskets filled with potatoes and onions. Shadowy light drifted over glass-paned cupboards. Even in the darkness it was a warm, inviting room.
Ava took a long, slow swallow keeping her eyes on him before setting it down. She pressed both hands to her heart and dipped her head slightly.
"You are welcome. Much better for you than the other."
She grinned, creating a tiny indentation at the lower edge of one cheek.
Nineteen if a day, Deran mused.
He began reading what she'd written. Ava toyed with her drink. When he was finished he'd make plans to have her carted away. She'd not revealed everything. That would be far too risky, but she'd written enough for him to think badly of her. She'd be as deceitful as necessary to gain her freedom. Her family was dependent on her and she was no good to them here. Or in jail.
His face revealed nothing as he read. It was difficult to watch him read about her misfortunes, her stupid mistakes, how she'd trusted and been proved a fool. That last she hadn't written, but he would surmise.
A copper bowl filled with apples sat at the end of the table. Ava wanted to ask for one, but his lordship was still reading.
Her eyes darted to the bowl, her stomach speaking loudly at the sight of the fruit. She couldn't remember when she'd last eaten. Not today and not yesterday, that much she knew. Her stomach thundered again.
Deran had met all levels of humanity since assuming his father's shipping business six years ago. Honest traders, treacherous ones, the avaricious, ignorant and the gullible. And there had been stowaways. But none with the story this one spun, one too preposterous to believe.
Deran set the papers down and slid the bowl of apples between them.
"Take one. I can hear your hunger from here."
Ava blushed and chose the shiniest green one on top. She bit in, the crunch shattering the silence. Deran sat back, pulled a page from the pile.
"Let us begin, Miss Ava Fychon."