Sample Chapter: Three
Halting on the castle’s stone staircase the next morning, Fiona gritted her teeth and studied her nemesis.
The duke loomed in her path, blocking her way to the medieval front doors. Tinted light from the recently restored leaded glass windows splintered his arrogant features into shards of color and shadow. Dukes didn’t even look like normal people, she mused. His hair wasn’t brown, but golden brown; his eyes not gray, but silver. Even his odious quizzing glass glittered like a large diamond. Compared to the men she knew in their bulky woolens, hands callused with hard work, the duke appeared a polished gemstone, all sparkle and fire. She had never quite thought of the studious duke as a man of physical power, but he mirrored the morning light like a knight in sturdy armor.
Fiona feared he would not take opposition lightly.
“You cannot leave here looking like that,” were the first words out of his mouth.
“If I left looking like anything else, people would not recognize me,” she replied, testing the duke’s measure. She wished she’d never come across him last night. Perhaps he’d still be wandering the dirt roads or found his way back to Dublin.
She stepped deeper into the shadows of the massive stairway. Like many of her forebears, she knew how to get around insurmountable objects.
“We leave on the morrow. Shouldn’t you be packing your trunks?” Neville advanced across the foyer, his gaze never once leaving the place where she stood.
Fiona had never recognized authority and didn’t accept it now. With a look of disdain, she observed his polished boots and blindingly white linen. “You may have use of all the trunks you need. I’m not one for wearing frills and furbelows.”
“Fiona!” her uncle bellowed from above. “Is that you I hear? Mary’s after scouring the halls for you. Get yourself back here now!”
The fiendish smile on the duke’s angular face did little toward appeasing her temper. “Coming, Uncle,” she called sweetly. With a swirl of her long braid, Fiona turned and dashed back up the stairs.
Her Uncle William seldom left the library long enough to actually track her down, giving her years of experience at avoiding his careless supervision. Slipping through the shadows of the formal dining hall, Fiona ran out the servants’ door in the rear. Practically skipping with pleasure at deceiving those who would deny her her freedom, she dashed down the narrow back stairs.
She had things of importance to do this day. She didn’t need the interference of her well-meaning family. The earl and his wife had her best interests at heart, she knew, but sending the haughty duke after her was a fatal mistake. She wouldn’t travel one footstep in his company.
It had been two years since she’d seen the duke, but the memory of their one personal encounter still burned through her in every shade of embarrassment known to mankind. She remembered his furious disapproval, his scorn, his harsh words as if they had happened just yesterday. And she remembered how his arms had caught and trapped her and held her so close she couldn’t have escaped had she tried.
She skidded to a halt in the mud as the early morning mist parted, revealing the object of her disdain standing, arms crossed, in front of the stable doors. There was something decidedly wicked about him as he lifted those expressive eyebrows and rested the broad shoulders of his tailored coat against her only means of escape.
“Going somewhere?” the duke asked pleasantly.
“I have errands, your bloody awful lordship,” she spat out. “I have work to do, something I’m sure you’re not familiar with.”
Neville felt the return of his headache as he regarded the recalcitrant female in breeches. He couldn’t think of one good reason why his cousin insisted on inflicting this Irish banshee on London society, except that Blanche had always possessed a fiendish sense of humor.
Unfortunately, he’d been condemned for having no humor at all, and he certainly saw none in his current situation. “What could be of more importance to a female than packing her fancies for a trip to London?” Neville asked with as much pleasantness as he could muster.
“How about a house full of orphans, a starving village, and the opportunity for providing a way out of poverty?” She tossed her long braid over her shoulder.
Neville stared at the tendrils of auburn escaping about her face. Everything about the brat screamed rebellion. She represented everything Irish he’d ever despised: disrespect for authority, hot tempered passion, illogical behavior, and a careless disregard for everything civilized. They still worshipped statues, for pity’s sake.
“You’re going to do all that in one morning?” Neville inquired. “Perhaps you’ll rearrange the moon and the stars this evening for our entertainment?”
“Devil take you! Get out of my way, your royal arse. I have people waiting for me.”
Her creative variations on his title amused rather than irritated him, though Neville had no intention of letting her know that. He’d acquired years of experience since the dukedom had so unexpectedly descended on his shoulders. They had taught him that dour authority worked far better than kindness. He didn’t have the time for mincing words and twisting arms, and with his upbringing, charm had never been his strong point.
“Fine, then I’ll accompany you. I’m certain Blanche meant to clothe you in something a trifle more respectable in London, anyway. It’s a fine morning for a ride, don’t you think?” Neville swung open the stable door and with a mocking bow, gestured for her to enter first.
He briefly considered closing the door after her and throwing the bolt, but then he really would have to consider tying her up and carrying her in a sack to the ship on the morrow. He would try more civilized methods first.
She gave him a glare intended to reduce him to sawdust. With a face and figure like that, she’d probably reduced most of the men around here to blithering idiots. But surrounded by the fawning attentions of every beautiful woman in all of England since he’d come into his title, Neville let the glare bounce right off him. Women had one purpose only, and this female scarcely registered in that category.
His duchess could be ugly as sin for all he cared, but she would have manners and deportment and more money than Croesus. Anyone lacking those commodities couldn’t hold his interest.
Well, he’d take that back, Neville amended a moment later as Fiona threw a bridle on her horse, stepped on the mounting block, and leaped on the animal’s back with the lithe grace of a cat. He couldn’t help noticing the sway of her hips or the bounce of her breasts. The little she-devil wore no undergarments.
Swearing at the surge of unfamiliar lust resulting from that discovery, Neville decided she’d hold his interest as a mistress—if not for her unfortunate kinship to the earl.
Hastily mounting his own unsaddled horse, he followed her across an open meadow still glistening with dew. The sun hadn’t broken through the mist, and dampness clung with diamond brilliance to Fiona’s hair. In linen shirtsleeves, she spurred her mount into a gallop.
Suddenly enjoying the exhilaration of the morning and the straining horse beneath him, Neville gave his gelding its head. In his student days, he’d enjoyed the pleasures of a morning ride. He’d missed the wind whipping through his hair and the invigorating rush of his blood as his horse cleared a fence. His larger mount could easily out-stride Fiona’s, but he kept the horse reined in to stay abreast of her. She laughed as she glanced in his direction.
His pulse raced faster, but Neville didn’t allow himself the luxury of believing he’d earned her respect or obedience. Like any heathen, she was simply enjoying the moment. He grinned back, and pointed to a stream ahead. Understanding, she spurred her mare to greater speed.
They sailed over the trickling water, landing side by side on the boggy soil of the other side. Fiona’s laughter rang through the crystalline air as Neville’s gelding disapproved of the oozing mud and reared, but she paced her mount to his as they slowed the gait of their horses to cool them off.
“That’s a fine animal you have there, your noble lordship,” she said without her usual mockery. “I wish Michael would bring in more of the same. Aberdare used to be known for its fine horseflesh.”
“You don’t have to use my title, or your warped version of it,” he answered without insult. “I’m family of sorts, and you call Michael by his given name.”
She shrugged and didn’t deign to look at him. “Michael is my cousin and Irish to the bone. You’re none such.”
The coldness descended between them again. Fiona was out of bounds for the thoughts he was having anyway.
“Ireland and England are one country now,” he reminded her. “We have the same government and have had for twenty-two years. Why do you continue fighting a war that’s long over?”
“One country, is it now?” she asked with scorn. “And who’s to represent me and mine in your precious government? And don’t say Seamus,” she warned. “He’s a bloody turncoat. He gave up the religion of his mother to call himself Protestant so he might attend Oxford. I’ll have naught to do with his notions. Ninety percent of this country is Catholic and cannot hold office. I’ll show you what your wretched representation does for us.”
She dug in her heels and sent her mount flying down the road.
Cursing at ever presenting such a topic of conversation to the hothead, Neville raced his horse after her.
They arrived in a lane of suspiciously new stone cottages. Neville resented every penny Michael spent, money that should have gone to Anglesey had Blanche married Neville as she was supposed to have done. But watching these women in their woolen shawls and unfashionable skirts hauling their pitiful belongings down the dirt lane in wagons and carts to the new cottages, Neville reluctantly admitted had he been in the earl’s shoes, he would have done the same. The care of an estate’s tenants came first.
Fiona had a greeting for everyone, although she neglected to introduce him, Neville noted with amusement. Perhaps she believed he would disappear if she pretended he didn’t exist. He watched as she lifted a heavy parcel from an elderly woman who apparently had no cart. He didn’t understand the exchange of Irish that followed, but the old woman gave him a nearly toothless grin.
His cousin Blanche had grown up on the estate and had always attended the tenants of Anglesey. Neville had come into Anglesey only when his uncles and father had died, and his grandfather grudgingly accepted that his despised grandson remained the lone heir. Neville had barely been twenty. Inundated with responsibilities he hadn’t been trained to undertake, he’d gladly left the welfare of the tenants to Blanche.
Only Blanche didn’t live at Anglesey anymore. Now the burden of tenants and land and duty all fell to him. Without the wealth to hire enough help, he neglected more than he should.
Reaching for the parcels carried by a young mother with two children clinging to her skirts, Neville contemplated whether Lady Gwyneth would take over the duties Blanche had abandoned with her marriage. He had difficulty imagining the shy woman as Lady Bountiful. She would learn, he decided optimistically.
Ahead of him, Fiona deposited her burden at a cottage where she conversed in Irish with the women gathering around her. They accepted her completely as one of them, not as any Lady Bountiful.
Neville frowned. Fiona was the granddaughter of an earl. She must learn her proper station if she took her place in London with Blanche.
Yet somehow, despite the breeches and shirt and disheveled braid, Fiona had the look of a lady about her. Perhaps because of the way she rode her horse, or the delicacy of her build. She would do, once Blanche cleaned her up and put her in decent clothes. She’d do, Neville amended, until she opened her mouth.
Neville followed Fiona as she progressed through the wretched village, blessedly holding her tongue and pretending he didn’t exist. The place was little better than a pig sty, a far cry from the neat lanes and cozy cottages of Anglesey. The poverty was appalling. Didn’t any of these people work?
He recognized a tavern and several shops before Fiona turned off the road for a back lane where the horses waded through filth. Neville decided they’d gone quite far enough. He wouldn’t have Fiona carrying the diseases of these hovels back to Blanche and her children.
“I can see why you smelled like a sty yesterday,” he said acidly as he rode up beside Fiona, and caught her reins. “I think you’ve wallowed in the mud long enough. You’ve proved your point. Now let us depart before you pick up some unspeakable disease.”
“Oh, I forgot,” she simpered, batting her unnaturally long lashes. “Dukes shouldn’t expose themselves to the peasants. Whatever was I thinking? Do go on, your noble lordship. I perfectly understand.”
She slid off her horse. In seconds, she was surrounded by a swarm of ragged urchins, all chattering in their heathen language. She hugged the tallest, tousling his dark curls as she listened intently to his urgent speech. “In English, Sean. Show the gentleman your learning.”
The boy sent Neville a decidedly defiant glance but proceeded in fluent, if heavily accented English. “I shall work for the earl, Miss Fiona. I run fast as the wind. I can fetch and carry, groom the horses. I can earn enough, I know. Don’t let them take the babes away.”
For a moment, Neville thought he saw tears glittering in Fiona’s eyes, but then she tossed her head, and the illusion dissipated. “It’s a child you should be, Sean, not a man who must support such a family. It’s schooling you need. The priests will see that you get it.”
“But they’ll take us all away!” the boy wailed. “I’ll see naught of any of them again! Don’t let them, Miss Fiona! I’ll do my book learning in the evenings. I can do it, I know I can.”
Briskly, she walked toward the cottage. “I’m after looking to it, lad. Give me peace till then.”
Knowing better than to let the little witch out of his sight, Neville swung down from his horse and followed her. The two urchins who had been peacefully building castles of stones in the dirt yard suddenly took a turn toward warfare and used their building blocks as missiles, pelting each other and any target in their path. Before Neville could run their gauntlet, he had to collar them both and empty their hands of stones.
Dragging the unrepentant little brats with him, he entered the cottage.
Fiona had vanished. A brisk breeze blowing through an open window in the rear wall showed her means of escape.
“Burke! Burke, where are ye, man?” Fiona called as she approached the farmhouse. She was late. She’d expected Burke to be on his horse, impatiently waiting for her. She regretted leaving her own mount behind as she climbed the stile and crossed the rocky field on foot.
She didn’t like the silence emanating from the farmhouse. Burke’s wife had died years back. His children had grown and moved to the city, leaving him alone. He wouldn’t have gone wandering when he knew their task this day. Fiona shivered as a crow cawed overhead. She wasn’t superstitious, but she didn’t need bad omens on an important day like this.
A cool wind traversed the barren hill, prompting another shiver. Just the cold, she told herself as she reached the gravel path to the house. She should have worn something warmer.
The old leather and lathe door creaked in the wind. Burke must be out and about if he’d left the door unlatched. He should have heard her by now. Fiona lifted her hands to her mouth and shouted again. “Burke! Where are ye?”
Cursing when she received no reply, she shoved open the door, hoping for a fire in the hearth. She would fix some tea before they set out and look for an old coat she might wear. They had a long journey ahead.
She wondered where he’d hidden the money the villagers had made last week in the autumn festival. All things considered, she thought they’d been quite successful, yet even so, she feared it wouldn’t be enough for the looms. Perhaps they could buy a used one. Some of the men were talented with their hands. They might copy it and make it new.
Thinking wishfully of the steam looms Michael had described in the manufactories Blanche owned, Fiona traversed the empty front room for the kitchen. A steam loom would be splendid. They could turn out linen faster than they could grow the flax, and the women could sew it into fine garments. They’d be as rich as the merchants in Belfast soon enough. But that day was a long time coming.
The dog’s whimpers should have warned her, but her thoughts had traveled too far to react in a timely fashion.
She walked into the kitchen and almost stumbled over Burke’s body. Fiona didn’t scream until her gaze encountered the bloody knife in his back.
What happens next?