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Authors: Cheryl Holt

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BOOK: Dreams of Desire
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“Lily . . .” he said, seizing the chance to speak her name.
“Go away,” she hissed from down the hall. “Go away and leave me be.”
A cabin door opened and closed as she went back into Violet’s sickroom.
At recalling Violet, he shook his head, astonished by his shamelessness. His fiancée—the one he’d waited years to pick, the one he’d selected with the concerted strategy of a war general—was lying in her bunk, twenty feet away, while he was dawdling outside and kissing her companion.
It was a hideous betrayal, yet he didn’t feel an ounce of remorse! What was happening to him?
He whipped away and clambered up to the deck, before Miss Lambert returned and he made an even bigger fool of himself.
 
LILY climbed the ladder and peeked out the hatch. Moonlight rained down, so objects were clearly visible. It was very late, very peaceful, and though she knew there were always sailors on duty, she didn’t see any of them. Nor did she see Penworth. Enough time had passed that he had to have gone back to bed.
She crept onto the deck and sneaked her way past ropes and boxes, lifeboats and masts, until she was by the raised section at the rear where the helm was located, where Captain Bramwell and his officers steered the ship.
As she’d hoped, Bramwell was there. He was gazing out at the stars, lost in contemplation, so he didn’t notice her lurking in the shadows directly below him.
He was very handsome, very proper in his dress and demeanor. He exuded confidence and courtesy, and she thought he might be an excellent husband.
The Spinster’s Cure potion, given to her by Mr. Dubois, was clutched in her hand. He’d instructed her to drink it while staring at the man she wished to wed and that was precisely what she intended to do.
She pulled the cork from the vial and lifted it to her lips. Poised like a statue, she whispered a prayer—that Dubois’s claims be true, that Bramwell be smitten by Cupid’s arrow. She gaped at him till the entire area surrounding him faded away, and he was a single, solitary soul in the center of her universe.
Her eyes never leaving him, she poured the elixir into her mouth and swallowed. The liquid had just started its path to her belly, when suddenly, she was seized by the arm and yanked around.
She came face-to-face with Penworth.
“What are you doing out here, you little minx?” he asked.
“Ah!” she shrieked.
She fought to jerk away, to wrench her focus to Bramwell where it belonged, but she couldn’t.
A magnet might have been holding her in place, because she could only look at Penworth. It was the strangest thing, but there was an odd, audible
click
, as if her destiny had been realigned.
The sensation was eerie and profound in a fashion that scared her to death. Time slowed. The world ceased its spinning while the new configuration took shape, then gradually, the interval waned. The perception of unreality dwindled until it might never have occurred.
Their connection was severed; his hand dropped, and she stumbled away.
“Are you mad?” she fumed.
“Me? You’re the one standing in the dark, with your hair down and your shoes off.”
Coughing and sputtering, she pounded on her stomach in an attempt to reverse the ghastly error, but it was impossible to
un
swallow the elixir.
She tried valiantly anyway, sticking two fingers down her throat, desperate to make herself wretch, but it was no use. The blasted brew had journeyed down, and she couldn’t convince it to travel the other way.
Penworth watched it all, gawking at her machinations as if she was a lunatic escaped from an asylum.
“Miss Lambert,” he finally inquired, “what on earth is wrong with you?”
“Nothing.”
“What were you drinking?”
“I told you: a medicine given to me by a peddler. For seasickness.”
“So you were trying to vomit it up? Isn’t the whole point to keep it down?”
“Oh, do be silent!”
To her horror, she was unaccountably distraught. She’d imbued Dubois’s potion with a significance all out of proportion to what she could have achieved with it. Her dreams had been dashed, and she was heartbroken.
Bramwell had been someone she could actually have married, someone closer to her own ancestry and status, yet she’d imbibed the liquid while staring at Penworth. His situation was so far removed from hers that she might have been trying to reach out and touch an angel in Heaven.
If Dubois’s potion had had any magical effect, it would never be in an amount sufficient to overcome the gulf separating her from Penworth. The effort had been completely wasted. She felt as if her future was overly bleak, and there was no reason to hope or pine. The empty decades stretched before her.
Captain Bramwell had heard her commotion, and he came over to the railing and frowned down at them.
“Is there a problem, Penworth?” he asked.
“It’s just Miss Lambert, strolling the deck in her nightclothes.”
“I’m
not
in my nightclothes,” she protested, but the two men ignored her.
“What brought this on?” Bramwell queried. “Is she intoxicated?”
“Not that I can tell.”
“Why is she ambling about?”
“I haven’t a clue.”
“Miss Lambert,” Bramwell scolded, “it’s not a good idea to flaunt yourself. My crew is generally well-behaved, but they are men. I’d hate to have you precipitate an incident where one of them would have to be punished.”
“Yes, Miss Lambert,” Penworth agreed, a wicked gleam in his eye, “you shouldn’t be
flaunting
yourself. You never know who might see you.”
Lily glanced from Bramwell to Penworth. She was angry and forlorn and so weary of her life that her teeth ached with it.
“You ruined everything!” she hurled at Penworth.
At her vehement accusation, he scowled. “What did I do?”
On the verge of tears, she pushed by him and hurried to her cabin, where Violet Howard proceeded to void her stomach till dawn.
Chapter 6
“COME in, come in. I thought you’d never arrive.”
His heart pounding, John gaped in confusion at the voluptuous, striking woman who was welcoming him inside. She was in her late forties, though her glorious brunette hair gave no indication of her age. Not a single strand of gray showed through.
Her green eyes were merry, her cheeks flushed, and she was dressed in a fashionable red gown that was cut too low in the front. She appeared lively and vibrant and happy, a brightly plumed exotic bird in a room of dull sparrows.
He blinked and blinked, wondering if, after the draining journey from England, he wasn’t hallucinating.
They were in the entryway of his Scottish hunting lodge, which was a misnomer. It was literally a castle from the days of knights and jousts and damsels in distress. Though it had been remodeled with modern conveniences, it was chock-full of secret passageways and ancient dungeons. Ghostly apparitions abounded, and it was John’s favorite spot in the whole world.
What was
she
doing in it?
“Mother?” he wheezed.
“Yes, darling, it’s me.”
“Mother!” he gasped again, truly feeling that he might faint.
She’d been gone for twenty-eight years, since the evening she’d tucked him in bed, read him a story, then walked out and never returned.
How was it that he still remembered that smile? That face? That sultry voice?
“Look at you!” She hurried forward and took his hands. “You can barely stand. You must be exhausted.”
“I’m fine.” He eased away.
“There’s a toasty fire burning in the parlor, and Angus”—the butler—“is waiting to pour you a whiskey.”
“I hate whiskey.”
“You do not,” she said as if she’d spent the past three decades with him and knew his likes and dislikes. “I had your best keg hauled up from the cellar.”
“You’ve certainly made yourself at home.”
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, too.”
She was trying to guide him toward the parlor and the fire and the whiskey. He pulled away, like an uncooperative horse refusing to be led.
“Mother ...” He stopped. The affectionate term seemed wrong.
“Barbara,” he started again, “why are you here?”
She grinned, a dimple creasing her cheek, but before she could speak, Edward traipsed in.
“Really, John, the servants in this place are . . .” He saw Barbara and trailed off. “Hello there, lovely lady. Please tell me that I may introduce myself.”
“No, you may not,” John replied for her.
Edward was overtly shocked by John’s rudeness. “Why?”
“She’s no one important—and she was just leaving.” John glowered at her, but it had no effect.
“Honestly, John,” she scolded, “when you talk like that, you sound as tedious as your father used to be.” She sashayed over to Edward. “I am Barbara Middleton.”
As she casually mentioned Charles, John’s father, John was so angry that he yearned to shake her till her teeth rattled.
“Her surname is
not
Middleton,” he insisted to Edward.
“It is, too,” she blithely retorted. “Charles may have divorced me, but I never gave up the name. I went through plenty to get it, and I wasn’t about to relinquish it simply because he was an ass.”
Edward was staring from John to Barbara to John again.
“Are you . . . are you ...” Edward couldn’t finish his question. There was no polite way to ask it.
“Yes, I’m John’s mother. You must be Edward. You look just like Charles. Much more than John ever did.” She leaned in and whispered, but loudly, “Charles spread rumors that John wasn’t his. Can you imagine a father saying such a hideous thing about his wife or his child? It boggles the mind.”
“Barbara!” John snapped. “Be silent.”
“It’s old news,” she breezily claimed, “so don’t have an apoplexy. There’s no reason to pretend he didn’t say it, and I’m sure Edward has heard it all before.”
For once, Edward was too stunned to remark. Others entered behind Edward, and he flashed a visual warning, but John was so flustered that he couldn’t decipher it.
The twins came in, then several servants with armloads of luggage. Esther followed them, and Edward’s message was clearly received.
John’s mother was the disgraced, disreputable doxy who’d previously been Countess of Penworth. But the current Dowager Countess, Esther Middleton, had just arrived. All of John’s plans for a serene, relaxing autumn holiday flew out the window.
Esther scowled at Barbara, and as recognition dawned, she gasped.
“You! What are
you
doing here?”
“Oh, my Lord,” Barbara complained to John. “Don’t tell me you brought
her
along. How could you?”
“Get out of my house!” Esther demanded.
“Your house!” Barbara scoffed. “Don’t make me laugh, you pathetic interloper. This property belongs to John. Not you.”
Esther stormed over to Barbara, and John would have liked to say that they stood toe-to-toe, but Barbara towered over Esther, and the differences between them were extremely stark.
Barbara was buxom and statuesque, with a perfect face, lush hair, and a vivacious personality that filled the room to overflowing. Esther was short and frumpy, a grayhaired, dour mouse who was prone to whining and grim bouts of melancholy.
“You never had the sense God gave a gnat,” Esther sneered at Barbara.
“I was always smarter than you,” Barbara taunted. “That was enough for me.”
“You harlot! How dare you show up among decent people.”
“Decent!” Barbara fired back. “Who would these paragons be? Your son, Edward, with his gambling and womanizing and—”
Esther whipped around to John. “Get her out of here! Get her out! Get her out!”
“You were always such a jealous little shrew.” Barbara smirked. “Edward, your mother chased after Charles her entire life. She grew up thinking he would marry her, but he met me and the rest—as they say—is history.”
“Liar!” Esther shrieked.
“Charles fell in love with me instantly,” Barbara continued, “and he proposed a week later. I’m afraid it left her . . . bitter.”
“Shut up!” Esther bleated.
“After I fled, she was like a vulture, ready to swoop in and take my place. How did she do in my absence, John? Has she earned any medals for mothering?”
Esther was about to attack. The twins were agog. Edward was aghast. Violet was horrified. The servants were hiding grins. Only Miss Lambert was unaffected. She watched dispassionately, as if viewing a melodrama on the stage. John envied her detachment.
As for himself, he was reeling with emotion. His head was spinning, his ears ringing, and his heart ached, as if he’d been punched in the chest.
What was he to do? He had to seize control before his mother and stepmother were brawling on the floor.
BOOK: Dreams of Desire
6.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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