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'I would sooner'
'Sooner what?' Her uncle regarded Clemence with contempt. 'You would sooner die?'
'Sooner marry the first man I met outside the gates than that.' She jerked her head towards her cousin, sprawled in the window seat, his attention on the female servants in the torch-lit courtyard below.
'But you do not have any choice,' Joshua Naismith said, in the same implacably patient tone he had used to her in the six months since her father's death. 'You are my ward, you will do as I tell you.'
'My father never intended me to marry Lewis,' Clemence protested. She had been protesting with a rising sense of desperation ever since she had recovered sufficiently from her daze of mourning to comprehend that her late mother's half-brother was not the protector that her father had expected him to be when he made his will. Her respectable, conservative, rather dull Uncle Joshua was a predator, his claws reaching for her fortune.
'The intentions of the late lamented Lord Clement Raven-hurst,' Mr Naismith said, 'are of no interest to me whatsoever. The effect of his will is to place you under my control, a fitting recompense for years of listening to his idiotic political opinions and his absurd social theories.'
'My father did not believe in the institution of slavery,' Clemence retorted, angered despite her own apprehension. 'Most enlightened people feel the same. You did not have to listen to what you do not believe inyou could have attempted to counter his arguments. But then you have neither the intellectual capacity, nor the moral integrity to do so, have you, Uncle?'
'Insolent little bitch.' Lewis uncoiled himself from the seat and walked to his father's side. He frowned at her, an expression she had caught him practising in front of the mirror, no doubt in an attempt to transform his rather ordinary features into an ideal of well-bred authority. 'A pity you were not a boyhe raised you like one, he let you run wild like one and now, look at youyou might as well be one.'
Clemence hated the flush she could feel on her cheekbones, hated the fact that his words stung. It was shallow to wish she had a petite, curvaceous figure. A few months ago she had at least possessed a small bosom and the gentle swell of feminine hips, now, with the appetite of a mouse, she had lost so much weight that she might as well have been twelve again. Combined with the rangy height she had inherited from her father, Clemence was all too aware that she looked like a schoolboy dressed up to play a female role in a Shakespeare play.
Defensively her hand went to the weight of her hair, coiled and dressed simply in the heat. Its silky touch reminded her of her femininity, her one true beauty, all the colours of wheat and toffee and gilt, mixed and mingling.
'If I had been a boy, I wouldn't have to listen to your disgusting marriage plans,' she retorted. 'But you'd still be stealing my inheritance, whatever my sex, I have no doubt of that. Is money the only thing that is important to you?'
'We are merchants.' Uncle Joshua's high colour wattled his smooth jowls. 'We make money, we do not have it drop into our laps like your aristocratic relatives.'
'Papa was the youngest son, he worked for his fortune'
'The youngest son of the Duke of Allington. Oh dear, what poverty, how he must have struggled.'
That was the one card she had not played in the weeks as hints had become suggestions and the suggestions, orders. 'You know my English relatives are powerful,' Clemence said. 'Do you wish to antagonise them?'
'They are a very long way away and hold no sway here in the West Indies.' Joshua's expression was smug. 'Here the ear of the Governor and one's credit with the bankers are all that matter. In time, when Lewis decides to go back to England, his marriage to you may well be of social advantage, that is true.'
'As I have no intention of marrying my cousin, he will have no advantage from me.'
'You will marry me.' Lewis took a long stride, seized her wrist and yanked her, off-balance, to face him. She was tall enough to stare into his eyes, refusing to flinch even as his fingers dug into the narrow bones of her wrist, although her heart seemed to bang against her ribs. 'The banns will be read for the first time next Sunday.'
'I will never consent and you cannot force me kicking and screaming to the altarnot and maintain your precious respectability.' Somehow she kept her voice steady. It was hard after nineteen years of being loved and indulged to find the strength to fight betrayal and greed, but some unexpected reserve of pride and desperation was keeping her defiant.
'True.' Her head snapped round at the smugness in her uncle's voice. Joshua smiled, confident. The chilly certainty crept over her that he had thought long and hard about this and the thought of her refusal on the altar steps did not worry him in the slightest. 'You have two choices, my dear niece. You can behave in a dutiful manner and marry Lewis when the banns have been called or he will come to your room every night until he has you with child and then, I think, you will agree.'
'And if I do not, even then?' Fainting, Clemence told herself fiercely, would not help in the slightest, even though the room swam and the temptation to just let go and slip out of this nightmare was almost overwhelming.
'There is always a market for healthy children on the islands,' Lewis said, hitching one buttock on the table edge and smiling at her. 'We will just keep going until you come to your senses.'
'You' Clemence swallowed and tried again. 'You would sell your own child into slavery?'
Lewis shrugged. 'What use is an illegitimate brat? Marry me and your children will want for nothing. Refuse and what happens to them will be entirely your doing.'
'They will want for nothing save a decent father,' she snapped back, praying that her churning stomach would not betray her. 'You are a rapist, an embezzler and a blackmailer and you' she turned furiously on her uncle'are as bad. I cannot believe your lackwit son thought of this scheme all by himself.'
Joshua had never hit her before, no one had. Clemence did not believe the threat in her uncle's raised hand, did not flinch away until the blow caught her on the cheekbone under her right eye, spinning her off her feet to crash against the table and fall to the floor.
Somehow she managed to push herself up, then stumble to her feet, her head spinning. Joshua Naismith's voice came from a long way away, his image so shrunk he seemed to be at the wrong end of a telescope. His voice buzzed in her ears. 'Will you consent to the banns being read and agree to marry Lewis?'
'Then you will go to your room and stay there. Your meals will be brought to you and you will eat; your scrawny figure offends me. Lewis will visit you tomorrow. I think you are in no fit state to pay him proper heed tonight.'
Proper heed? If her cousin came within range of her and any kind of sharp weapon he would never be able to father a child again. 'Ring for Eliza,' Clemence said, lifting her hand to her throbbing face. 'I need her assistance.'
'You have a new abigail.' Joshua reached out and tugged the bell. 'That insolent girl of yours has been dismissed. Freed slaves indeed!' The woman who entered was buxom, her skin the colour of smooth coffee, her hair braided intricately. The look she shot Clemence held contempt and dislike.
'Your mistress?' She stared at Lewis. No wonder Marie Luce was looking like that: she must know the men's intentions and know that Clemence would be taking Lewis's attention away from her.
'She does as she is told,' Lewis said smoothly. 'And will be rewarded for it. Take her to her chamber, make sure she eats,' he added to the other woman. 'Lock the door and then come to my room.'
Clemence let herself be led out of the door. Here, in the long passage with its louvred windows open at each end to encourage a draught, the sound of the sea on the beach far below was a living presence. Her feet stumbled on the familiar smooth stone flags. From the white walls the darkened portraits of generations of ancestors stared blankly down, impotent to help her.
'Where is Eliza?' Thank goodness her maid was a freed woman with her own papers, not subject to the whim of the Naismiths.
Marie Luce shrugged, her dark eyes hostile as she gripped Clemence's arm, half-supporting, half-imprisoning her. 'I do not know. I do not care.' Her lilting accent made poetry out of the acid words. 'Why do you make Master Lewis angry? Marry him, then he will get you with child and forget about you.'
'I do not want him, you are welcome to him,' Clemence retorted as they reached the door of her room. 'Please fetch me some warm water to bathe my face.' The door clicked shut behind the maid and the key turned. Through the slats she could hear her heelless shoes clicking as she made her way to the back door and the kitchen wing.
Clemence sank down on the dressing-table stool, her fingers tight on the edge for support. The image that stared back at her from the mirror was not reassuring. Her right cheek was already swelling, the skin red and darkening, her eye beginning to close. It would be black tomorrow, she realised. Her left eye, wide, looked more startlingly green in contrast and her hair had slipped from its pins and lay in a heavy braid on her shoulder.
Gingerly, Clemence straightened her back, wincing at the bruises from the impact with the table. There was no padding on her bones to cushion any falls, she realised; it was mere luck she had not broken ribs. She must eat. Starving herself into a decline would not help matters, although what would?
The door opened to admit Marie Luce with one of the footmen carrying a supper tray. The man, one of the house staff she had known all her life, took a startled look at her face and then stared straight ahead, expressionless. 'Master Lewis says you are to eat,' the other woman said, putting down the water ewer she held. 'I stay until you do.'
Clemence dipped a cloth in the water and held it to her face. It stung and throbbed: she supposed she should be grateful Uncle Joshua had used his ringless right hand and the blow had not broken the skin. 'Very well.' Chicken and rice, stuffed pimentos, corn fritters, cake with syrup, milk. Her stomach roiled, but instinct told Clemence to eat, however little appetite she had and however painful it was to chew.
She knew the worst now: it was time to fight, although how, locked in her room, she had no idea. The plates scraped clean and the milk drunk, Marie Luce cleared the table and let herself out. Clemence strained to hearthe key grated in the lock. It was too much to hope that the woman would be careless about that.
She felt steadier for the food. It seemed weeks since she had eaten properly, grief turning to uneasiness, then apprehension, then fear as her uncle's domination over the household and estate and her life had tightened into a stranglehold.
It was pointless to expect help from outside; their friends and acquaintances had been told she was ill with grief, unbalanced, and the doctor had ordered complete seclusion and rest. Even her close friends Catherine Page and Laura Steeples had believed her uncle's lies and obediently kept away. She had seen their letters to him, full of shocked sympathy that she was in such a decline.
And who could she trust, in any case? She had trusted Joshua, and how wrong she had been about him!
Clemence stood and went to the full-length window, its casement open on to the fragrant heat of the night. Her father had insisted that Raven's Hold was built right on the edge of the cliff, just as the family castle in Northumberland was, and the balcony of her room jutted out into space above the sea.
When she was a child, after her mother's death, she had run wild with the sons of the local planters, borrowing their clothes, scrambling through the cane fields, hiding in the plantation buildings. Scandalised local matrons had finally persuaded her father that she should become a conformable young lady once her fourteenth birthday was past and so her days of climbing out of the window at night and up the trellis to freedom and adventures were long past.
She leaned on the balcony and smiled, her expression turning into a grimace as the bruises made themselves felt. If only it were so easy to climb away now!
But why not? Clemence straightened, tinglingly alert. If she could get out of the house, down to the harbour, then the Raven Princess would be there, due to sail for England with the morning light. It was the largest of her father's shipsher shipsnow that pirates had captured Raven Duchess, the action that had precipitated her father's heart stroke and death.
But if she just ran away they would hunt her down like a fugitive slave
Clemence paced into the room, thinking furiously. Her uncle's sneer came back to her. You would sooner die? Let him think that, then. Somewhere, surely, were the boy's clothes she had once worn. She pulled open presses, flung up the lids of the trunks, releasing wafts of sandalwood from their interiors. Yes, here at the bottom of one full of rarely used blankets were the loose canvas breeches, the shirt and waistcoat.
She pulled off her gown and tried them on. The bottom of the trousers flapped above her ankle bones now, but the shirt and waistcoat had always been on the large side. After some thought she tore linen strips and bound her chest tightly; her bosom was unimpressive, but even so, it was better to take no chances. Clemence dug out the buckled shoes, tried them on her bare feet, then looked in the mirror. The image of a gangly youth stared back, oddly adorned by the thick braid of hair.
That was going to have to go, there was no room for regret. Clemence found the scissors, gritted her teeth and hacked. The hair went into a cloth, knotted tightly, then wrapped up into a bundle with everything she had been wearing that evening. A thought struck her and she took out the gown again to tear a thin, ragged strip from the hem. Her slippers she flung out of the window and the modest pearls and earrings she buried under the jewellery in her trinket box.