Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (3 page)

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t took a week before Florrie burst in upon their lives again, a week during which Rose paced the bedroom like a caged lion, raking the air with fingers stretched out like claws. She had flown at Charles with nails ready to scratch at his skin, but his superior strength was always too much for her and once he had gone, she dissolved in tears until she could weep no more. At every minute, her brain was filled with Seth and how he must be suffering. Was he any better? For all she knew, he could be dead. She hoped desperately that he was in the prison hospital with good Dr Power taking care of him. And if he improved, what then? The punishment cell where, she believed, he would have to sit on what was a section of tree trunk cemented into the floor, ankles in fixed leg-irons – although that wouldn't be possible with the plaster cast – and put to some gruelling task such as oakum picking all day long. Tough enough for a totally fit prisoner, but for Seth . . . And then he would be taken off for however many lashes the Commissioners decided was appropriate. The thought of it speared somewhere around her heart.

She couldn't eat. Although she felt hungry, the sight of food nauseated her. She could tell that Cook was sending her up the lightest, most tasty dishes, trying to tempt her appetite, but the tray was always returned virtually untouched. Besides, Rose reasoned maliciously, if Charles began to worry about the baby, the precious son he craved, he might reconsider.

Slowly, her reeling, mutinous senses started to settle and give way to rational, scheming plans. Rebellion was achieving nothing. She must attain her freedom in order to be able to do anything at all for Seth, and if the only way to do so was through submission, then so be it, though her spirit reared away from it. She didn't know if Patsy had posted the letter to Florrie, or even if the poor girl realized that Rose wanted her to, so in the meantime, she must work in other ways.

When Dr Seaton came to check on her, Charles had left the room unlocked, promising to sell Fencott Place and take her to live in his London home if she told the doctor what was going on, or even reveal to the authorities the elderly fellow's part in the felon's concealment as he still didn't believe Rose's story.

‘I'm sorry your convict was recaptured,' Dr Seaton said, his voice low, as he put away his stethoscope. ‘He seemed a good sort.'

Rose's throat closed. ‘Yes,' she croaked. ‘And I believe him. Has anyone been to see you, about the plaster, I mean? I'm still denying you had anything to do with it.'

‘No.' A strange, shuttered look came over his face. ‘I understand your husband had a long interview with the governor and cleared everything up. I should think Mr Chadwick could be very persuasive when he has a mind to.'

His voice had taken on a questioning tone, as if he had sensed the tension in the household, and Rose felt herself flush. Had he guessed something was wrong? He knew, after all, that Rose had kept Seth's presence secret from her husband. She trusted Dr Seaton and was tempted to blurt everything out to him. He wasn't the sort to be cowed by the authorities when it came to injustice, but the dear man had done enough and she didn't want him to be further involved.

‘Yes, he can be,' she answered, forcing a smile to her lips. ‘So I'm very lucky.'

Dr Seaton raised an enigmatic eyebrow. ‘Well, you seem well enough, although you do look a little pale. Make sure you eat well, and I'll see you in another two weeks unless you have any problems.'

‘Yes. Thank you, Doctor. And thank you for everything.'

‘Hmm,' he grunted, nodding his head, not convinced, Rose suspected, as he shut the door behind him.

Rose sighed. She didn't like towing the line, but if it was the only way . . . And before the physician had turned his pony and trap out of the gates, Charles had crept upstairs and silently turned the key once more and Rose's mouth corkscrewed into a vitriolic knot.

It was the following day that Rose heard a commotion coming from the stable yard. She had opened the window to let in the fresh May sunshine when angry shouts and Gospel's bellicose neighing reached her ears. She couldn't see into the yard, as it was at the opposite end of the house through a high wall, but she would recognize Gospel's outraged protests anywhere, and it brought a satisfied smirk to her face. Good old Gospel. She hoped he was giving Ned hell!

She had known Ned Cornish for years. Ignorant and uncouth, he had been the stable boy at the Albert Inn in Princetown. Before Molly had married Joe and gone to live at the powder mills, Rose had always given Ned sixpence to look after Gospel whenever she went to visit her friend at her parents' home in the prison barracks and then later in the warders' new accommodation block. Ned and Gospel had never mixed, the animal's teeth often finding a good grip on Ned's flesh, but Ned had always put up with it in the hope that he would be rewarded with more than a sixpenny piece.

He never was, for Rose was always one step ahead of him, until Charles had employed him to take care of their own horses – Gospel, Charles's liver chestnut, Tansy, and Merlin, the roan who went in harness. Ned had bided his time, waiting for the opportunity to waylay Rose in one of the stables. He hadn't got very far. At the time, Rose had been irritated rather than cross, seeing Ned as no more than a nuisance, but he was shrewder than he looked. She had threatened to tell Charles, but he had observed Charles's jealous attitude and had pointed out that she might come off worse! Ever since, the rancour had simmered in Ned's evil little mind, until he had found a way to get back at her refusal to grant him what he had sought for so long. He it was who had discovered the whereabouts of the escaped convict, and had surreptitiously gone off to the prison to claim his five pounds reward. Now Rose hated him, and if Gospel was kicking and biting him, well, nothing could please her more.

A smile found its way to her lips, and she sat on the edge of the bed, stroking her swollen stomach. The moment of contentment made her consider her unborn child for the first time since Seth's recapture. Would the poor thing come into a happy home? Hardly. And she wasn't sure herself that she really wanted it. Someone else's child, yes, someone she loved. But not Charles. Someone . . . May the dear Lord forgive her, but someone more like Seth Warrington.

Once again, the anguish crippled her. Though it tore at her spirit, she would be good. Do whatever Charles wished until he released her from the room. And
she would see what was to be done.

Florrie arrived in Princetown on the carrier's cart and then had to allow her thick, arthritic legs to bring her all the way to the back door of Fencott Place. She was like an unstoppable whirlwind, marching through into the hallway and demanding to speak to the master. From upstairs, Rose had heard her familiar voice raised in unprecedented anger, and her heart had soared. Florrie was back!

Had Rose seen Charles's face, she would have broken into a bitter, sardonic laugh. He was so astonished both at Florrie's unexpected reappearance and at her belligerent attitude, when she had always shown him such cool deference before, that he stepped out of his study with his jaw dangling open quite stupidly. It had never crossed his mind that she looked upon Rose as her daughter, and that if the situation demanded it – which it evidently did just now – she would be willing to fight tooth and nail for her.

‘They've just teld me in the kitchen that you'm keeping my Rose locked up in her room!' she exploded, remembering the exact words Rose had instructed her to say, since Charles must not know of the letter and how little Patsy had secretly posted it for her. ‘I comes back here to help her prepare for the babby, and find you'm treating her like a criminal! You should be ashamed o' yoursel'!'

She stood, hands on hips and glowering at Charles from her ruddy face while Charles took the opportunity to regain his composure. ‘May I remind you, Mrs Bennett,' he said coldly, ‘that you are no longer a servant in this household, and that you are only here under my sufferance.'

‘Don't you play Mr High and Mighty with me, young man! Your wife had already engaged me as nanny to her child, as I were to her virtually all her life!'

‘And you can just as easily be dismissed by me.'

‘And I could easily reveal to Mr Frean what a despicable monster you are! 'Twouldn't do your precious reputation much good, would it, especially with Mr Frean being of such influence hereabouts,' she gloated triumphantly, crossing her arms firmly over her ample bosom. ‘Now I'm going up to my Rose, and from now on, that door is to remain unlocked or I shall want to know the reason why! With the way you've been treating her, and her in the last stage of her pregnancy . . . Good God, have you no soul, man? She probably don't want to go no further anyways. But she's to have the run of the house and the garden whenever she wants. Now give me the key, or I swears that by tonight the whole of Devonshire will know what sort of man you really are!'

She uncrossed her arms and thrust out her stubby palm with such force that it just missed Charles's nose. He was so dumbfounded beneath her withering stare that he reached into his pocket and carelessly dropped the key into her hand, although not without a derisive sneer.

‘I was about to release her anyway as she seems to have come to her senses at last,' he drawled, ‘so don't think it's anything to do with you, Mrs Bennett.'

‘And I'm the Queen's hand maiden,' Florrie scoffed as she flounced past him and up the stairs.

‘And do convey to my wife that if she shows the slightest sign of misbehaving, she'll be back in that room at once!' Charles called out to her back.

In the bedroom, Rose was dancing on the spot as she listened to the rumpus downstairs. Her heart was drumming hard as she heard Florrie's heavy footfall stomping across the landing, and then she stood back as the key was turned in the lock and the door opened. There was Florrie, short and plump, her face more lined than Rose remembered, warm, comforting, secure. Rose melted into her fat arms, almost knocking off her black hat. All the strain and horror of the last weeks erupted in a torrent, and she allowed it to flow over Florrie, who she knew would be an island of strength.

‘Oh, my girl, my lovely girl, what have you been up to?' Florrie cried, drawing away and looking up into Rose's face, her pink cheeks wobbling. ‘And look at you! Round as a ball! Whoever would have thought it!'

Rose stood back, sniffing and drawing her sleeve across her nose just like a child. Florrie was back, and even if she wouldn't approve of what Rose might be up to, she would support her in every way. Six months it was since Henry had passed on, six months of grief, but now the pair of them were back together, and Florrie would allow nothing to come between them ever again.

‘Now this key stays with me,' she announced determinedly, dropping it down inside her bodice. ‘And just see if his lordship tries to get it from there!'

‘Oh, Florrie!' Rose had to laugh through her drying tears. ‘Oh, everything will be all right now you're back, I know it will!'

‘Hmm, well, we'll have to see about that! I never did want you to marry that man. He were never right for you. But I wants to know all 'bout what you've been up to before I makes any judgements one way or the other. I knows what a headstrong young maid you can be! Now I'm going to fetch some tea from the kitchen, and then you'm going to tell me all 'bout this convict fellow.'

Alone for a few minutes, the door wide open, Rose felt hopeful for the first time in a week, and when Florrie bustled back in carrying a tea tray, Rose found herself suddenly ravenous and tucked into Cook's home-made biscuits with gusto.

‘Now then, cheel.' Florrie frowned and got up to close the door. ‘Tell it to me from the beginning.'

Rose took a deep breath and placed her cup and saucer back on the tray. She spoke slowly, her voice quiet and subdued, as she related every detail to Florrie, of how she had found the escapee injured and hiding in the stable. Of how there was something about him that had instantly won her trust, although she was cautious at first. She explained, as Seth had to her, how he had gone to the assistance of a stranger who had been stabbed in the street, but his actions had been misinterpreted and other circumstantial evidence had led to his being wrongly convicted and sentenced to twelve years' imprisonment. The victim was a drunk who had held a grudge against Seth from an incident in an inn a little while earlier, and had sworn that Seth had attacked him so that he could keep the money involved. There had been witnesses to the truth, but as a stranger in Tavistock, Seth had no one to trace them for him and, with his money confiscated as evidence, he couldn't employ a lawyer. And so he had ended up serving his nine months' solitary in Millwall and then had been sent to Dartmoor to serve his twelve years in the country's prison for the worst criminals in the land.

‘And you believed all this?' Florrie's mouth was pursed with scepticism.

Rose looked her straight in the eyes. ‘Yes,' she answered firmly. ‘And not just because he acted like a gentleman throughout and he were so kind and thoughtful.'

‘A gentleman, eh?'

‘Oh, yes, quite definitely. Of a like class to Charles, I'd say. He came from a well-to-do family in Surrey, but he were bundled off into the army at eighteen because he wanted to marry a girl who they considered far beneath them. They were out to elevate their social standing even further, and weren't going to have their younger son ruin everything for them!' Rose paused, lowering her eyes. ‘A bit like me and Charles, really, though Charles has only got himself to answer to. You know, Florrie, he were absolutely furious when I went to Molly and Joe's wedding, and he does everything he can to stop me seeing all my old friends.'

‘Do he, by heck?' Florrie lifted her double chin with insulted affront. ‘But you was telling me 'bout this – what did you say his name were – Seth?'

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