Authors: Katherine Kingsley
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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Copyright © 1992 by Julia Jay Kendall
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition October 2013
To my goddaughter, Georgia Jay, whose magic inspired this book. And to all the men in my life who nurtured me, humored me, and endlessly listened during its writing.
Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.
March 26, 1819
“Nicholas! Nicholas, where are you? Nicholas! Answer me!”
His mother’s voice, raised in panic, just reached him over the pounding of the waves, the terrible sound of splintering wood, the cry of men’s voices, the high wailing of the wind.
He tried to call out to her, but his words were cut off by a blast of salt water. His arms clung desperately to the rope webbing as another wave came roaring over him. But this time the wave was stronger than his ten-year-old arms, and it ripped him from the railing, violently throwing him through the air. Something sharp met with his thigh and he felt a hot stab of pain, and then suddenly the cold water of the pitching sea. It came up into his nostrils, his mouth, his eyes, threw him about like just one more piece of flotsam wrenched from the sinking ship.
“Mama! Papa!” he gasped, frantically trying to keep his head above water, to breathe in precious air, to look around him for something, anything to grab onto. But there was nothing save for the huge waves, the distant rocks, and the sight of the ship tipping crazily at an angle and slowly disappearing beneath the water.
There was nothing after that but the endless struggle to stay afloat, his limbs impossibly heavy, his lungs burning. And there was the fear. God, there was the fear. He was so frightened that he wanted to give up right there and then and let the water take him, just to extinguish the fear. But something kept him going. Some stupid wish to live, to see his mother and father again, maybe even his dog, if he ever made it home.
And then something caught at his legs and wrapped around them, pulling him down … down, until the water covered his head with blackness and choked him.
“No! No! Oh, God, please, no!”
Nicholas shot up in bed, his body covered with cold sweat despite the heat of the night. He was shaking from head to foot, his heart pounding like an entire timpani section. The young girl in the bed beside him was watching him with enormous black eyes, looking as frightened as he was feeling.
“Damn,” Nicholas muttered. He never let them stay the night, just in case this very thing happened. He must have fallen asleep after their last very heated exchange.
“Go,” he said in Hindi. “Leave me. Go now. My man will pay you.”
She pulled on her wrapper and scurried away without protest, and Nicholas took a deep shaky breath, then threw aside the thin linen sheet and went over to the window, leaning his head out. There wasn’t much chance of finding a breeze, but after the dream he always had an irrational desire to fill his lungs with air.
Twenty-nine years old, and he was still having nightmares. He’d hoped he’d outgrow them, but they continued to come like clockwork. He had learned early on to avoid sleep as much as possible. As a child he’d sneaked out of the house and walked or ridden for hours on end. He still did. Now he had sex to distract him, and there was always work, which often kept him busy till the early hours, but he couldn’t avoid sleep entirely, and in the end the dream would come. Not every night, sometimes not even every week, but eventually it came, and he drowned all over again, as if once hadn’t been enough.
It was typical of his life that what had drowned him had in the end saved him, for the fishermen had pulled him out of the water, probably to save the nets, and saving his life only as an afterthought. He discovered later that in the hours he’d been in the water, he’d been swept around the coast, far away from the site of the shipwreck. He’d also discovered later that he’d been the only survivor. When he was judged fit, after nearly dying again, this time from blood poisoning after the gash in his leg had turned septic, he’d been sent home to England.
Nicholas sighed heavily. Well, it hadn’t exactly been home, although Ravenswalk was as near to his beloved house as one could get. Nothing could quite compare to Raven’s Close, despite the grandeur of Ravenswalk itself. Nothing could really touch the beauty of the gardens his mother had created, nor equal the quiet loveliness of the house. A house that should have been filled with laughter and happiness, with a family that belonged to it, instead had stood empty for almost twenty years. For the ten years after the shipwreck, he had waited impatiently for the day that he could finally claim the Close as his own. Now, thanks to Jacqueline and her foul lies, he didn’t even have that hope anymore. Or maybe he did. Maybe he did.
His eyes flickered over to his desk, where his uncle’s crumpled letter gleamed in the candlelight, the first communication of any kind in nearly ten years. He walked over to the desk and unpicked the ball, his eyes scanning the brief contents again.
Come home, Nicholas. Things are wrong and must be put right. Please, Nicholas, come home.
The handwriting was spidery and shaky, very unlike the usually precise earl. His uncle didn’t elaborate, either, also unlike him. Just: come home.
Nicholas rubbed his eyes. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Was it a royal command, and if so, why? Was his uncle asking for forgiveness? Had he suddenly decided after all this time that Nicholas was innocent? Or maybe he was unwell and didn’t want to die without doing the forgiving himself. After all, Nicholas was his brother’s only child, and his uncle was a big believer in family obligation.
“Damnation!” Nicholas said with annoyance. “Why should I go home to accept forgiveness for something I didn’t do?”
But the fact of the matter was that he did want forgiveness, very much. It had been hell living without any family at all, not out of choice, but because he’d been cast out. He’d missed seeing young Cyril go through his childhood; he had, in fact, missed his crusty old uncle, damn him anyway. The only thing the man was really guilty of was poor judgment—that and not trusting Nicholas’ word. Was he really going to hold that against him?
Nicholas scowled and threw the letter back down on the writing table. Going home would be very nice, if he had some kind of assurance that Jacqueline had been tossed out on her ear or had died of the pox. No—better yet—if he knew that she had been horribly disfigured by the pox. Oh, yes. That would indeed be justice.
He grinned, thinking of a badly scarred Jacqueline, condemned to wearing a veil for the rest of her life, knowing no man would want to look upon her or touch her ever again. But sadly, the latest word as of last December had it that she was as alive and lovely as ever and up to her old tricks. His grin faded as a rush of anger took the place of amusement.
He’d be damned if he let Jacqueline keep him from Raven’s Close any longer. She’d had too many things her own way. And maybe he could find a way to make her life as miserable as she’d made his.
Yes, going home might be very nice indeed. It would take some time to get there, as travel by land from India was nearly impossible, but that couldn’t be helped. Oh, what the hell. He might have to cross a few bodies of water, but it would be worth it in the end.
Raven’s Close. His heart lightened at the very thought. Nicholas sat down at his desk and began looking through his papers, beginning the task of sorting out his affairs.
Georgia clutched her reticule in her lap, watching in a daze as the scenery passed by. She felt as if she’d just been traded at Tattersall’s like so much horseflesh, without so much as a by-your-leave. She was scarcely in a position to argue, and she supposed she should be delighted to be taken into the employ of Lady Raven, whose reputation hailed her as a lady of the highest fashion. But Lady Raven also had a reputation of being difficult and demanding, at least within the trade. Georgia had heard harassed milliners and fellow modistes complaining bitterly about her temper, her stinginess, and her impossible demands. That was more than enough to give Georgia pause.
She didn’t mind upheaval; she’d seen enough of that in her twenty-two years. But she did wish that she knew what had caused Lady Herton to suddenly let her go. She’d thought they’d gotten along quite well. Georgia frowned, catching her lip between her teeth. It would be terrible if Lady Herton had discovered her husband’s late-night forays, which might explain why she’d made the extraordinary statement she had. “Pretty dresses do not mean as much to me, Mrs. Wells, as high moral standards.” On the other hand, Lady Herton was a bit of a loose screw, and could just as easily have meant that her dress allowance would be better spent on the church.
Georgia sighed bitterly. If only people would consult her before they started playing the Almighty. She had never once been given the opportunity to make a decision about her life, as if she had no stake in it at all. She couldn’t fault her father for dying: he could hardly have helped that. And she supposed it had been the logical thing to send her to the vicar and his wife when it had been her mother’s turn to die. But to marry her to Baggie without consulting her on the matter was a bit much. And Baggie might have at least consulted her before he drove the farm into debt with his foolish schemes. He certainly might have consulted her before he decided to fall asleep on the highway in perfect position to be run over by the mail coach, leaving her with nothing but the clothes on her back.
The carriage made a wide turn through a pair of imposing stone gates and carried on down a long driveway. Georgia’s heart turned over with nervous anticipation, but she reminded herself that her
had taught her to make the best of a bad situation and to count one’s blessings whenever possible. If she could find any blessing in this situation, she supposed it was that she was out of the city, which had half-suffocated her. She also no longer had to tolerate old Lord Herton tottering up to the attic in his cups, looking for a bit of comfort, as he’d put it. It wasn’t easy having to push an old drunken gentleman with rheumatism half-down the stairs every Saturday night, but what was she to do, when he’d had the key to her door?
Her eyes widened as Ravenswalk came into sight. It was magnificent—no, it was spectacular. It was certainly quite the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Georgia’s heart had never quickened at the sight of a pile of stone before, but it quickened now. Oh, she had liked Baggie’s farm and had enjoyed having a house of her own, but this was entirely different. This house was enormous, baroque in style, faintly reminiscent of the pictures she’d seen of Versailles. The stone glowed like the sunshine itself, the lawns and gardens encircling it like the setting of a fine jewel.
She swallowed hard. Her mother had described houses like these in her wonderful stories about lords and ladies, and Georgia had thought those houses had come alive in her mind, but compared to the reality of Ravenswalk itself, her imaginings had been lifeless. Ravenswalk was a beautiful piece of art.
She thought she might be very happy here, after all, just to live surrounded by such beauty.
Three days later she changed her mind.
“So,” Lady Raven said, looking Georgia up and down as if she were holding an audience with a scullery maid, “you are Mrs. Wells.” She threw her gloves down on a table and walked around Georgia in a slow circle. “You made the dress you are wearing now?”
“Yes, my lady,” Georgia said, thinking that this had to be one of the coldest faces she’d ever seen. Lady Raven was almost beautiful, but something in her face just missed. The structure of her bones was sound, the cheeks high, the nose thin and a trifle too long. She was younger than Georgia had anticipated, not more than thirty-two or three at most. Her hair was a light brown, her eyes slightly darker and set deeply in her head, but not unattractively so. She looked vaguely familiar, but Georgia couldn’t think where she might have seen her. Perhaps it had been at Madame LaSalle’s. They had been correct, the modistes. Lady Raven’s figure was superb. She was tall and slender, her carriage regal, her neck long, her breasts well-proportioned to her height. Everything about her was correct. One sensed power about her, and confidence in that power. But Georgia couldn’t help but feel as if she were looking into a mask. There was no real warmth on her face, but worse, her eyes were hard and calculating.
“It is inappropriate attire for your position. I have seen your work, Mrs. Wells. It will have to be better—much better—if you are to please me. I have only taken you on as a favor to Lady Herton.”
“I shall try, my lady.”
“Very well. You are very young. I had expected an older woman. You cannot be more than twenty. Where did you learn your skills?”
“I learned most of what I know from my mother before she died, my lady. I also spent a year in London working with Madame LaSalle before I began with Lady Herton. I am actually twenty-two, and so I have had time to gain experience at my craft…” She stopped because Lady Raven seemed slightly distracted. “Is there anything else, my lady?”
“Yes. I expect you to keep to yourself. There will be no fraternizing with the staff, nor with the guests. You understand your position?”
“Yes, my lady,” Georgia replied, thinking that it sounded as if she were about to be confined to a dungeon.
“You may use the grounds when there are not guests in attendance, and when you have finished work. Exercise is important for the health. I will not tolerate any trespassing into the main areas of the house unless you are summoned to my quarters. You may take your meals in your own quarters. The house steward will issue your orders to you, which you are to follow to the letter. I am sure we will march along famously if you heed these simple rules.”
“Yes, my lady.” Georgia’s heart dropped further with each pronouncement, with each second that went by in Lady Raven’s company.
“You will do something about your hair. I cannot tolerate unruly curls, and you must look respectable. A cap would be appropriate, and I would have you dress in black or gray. I do not require a uniform. How long have you been widowed?”
“Two years, my lady.”
“Very good. You surely must have appropriate clothes from your mourning. They will be suitable and will spare the expense. I would like to see you every morning at eleven, unless I order otherwise. I entertain frequently and so my wardrobe needs constant review and repair. We shall soon become accustomed to each other, I am sure. Thank you, Mrs. Wells. That will be all until tomorrow morning. I am sure you will soon settle into Ravenswalk.”
She gave Georgia a chilly smile and swept off, her back ramrod straight, her carriage impeccably graceful.
Georgia found her own spine stiffening. She swallowed hard against the lump that had formed in her throat. Gone was the magic that Ravenswalk had inspired in her, gone was the mist of fantasy she’d wrapped herself in for the last few days, fantasy she was so very good at producing. Gone was everything but the harsh realization that she was possibly in the most difficult situation she’d found herself in yet.
Lady Raven swept from her bedroom into her dressing room. She had a habit of sweeping, Georgia thought, her eyes burning from the long night of work. The daylight made her eyes water, but she did her best not to squint.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wells. I trust you have completed my evening dress?”
“Yes, my lady. Would you care to put it on so that I might make any appropriate alterations? It is hanging on the hook behind the screen.” She was in a foul mood, Georgia thought with dismay. She could tell just by looking at her, for she had learned the signs long ago. In truth, she had been in a foul mood for a good week now, no doubt the result of her last amorous interlude not going her way. Georgia really didn’t feel like suffering the consequences, but suffer them she would, no doubt.
Lady Raven vanished behind the screen, and just as quickly reappeared. “What is the meaning of this?” she demanded, the dress dangling from her outstretched hand, the delicate material crushed between her fingers. “This is not what I requested, Mrs. Wells. I told you in the most precise terms yesterday morning that I wished for
did I not?”
“Yes, my lady, but there was not enough material available at such short notice. I thought the fullness of the skirt behind would please you, and the satin trimming—”
“Do not make excuses to me, my girl! I will not stand for it. The dress is unacceptable. You will take this absurdity back to your room, and you will make it right by six this evening.”
“But, Lady Raven—”
“I will not hear another word. If you would like to be shown the door, then I am sure it is no problem of mine, although I caution you that I will give you no reference. Slovenly work is not tolerated amongst my acquaintances, Mrs. Wells, nor is impertinence. It is most certainly not tolerated here.” She carelessly tossed the dress onto the back of a chair. “Bella? Bella, where are you?” she called, dismissing Georgia with an imperious wave of her hand. “Bella, why is my bath not ready?”
Bella, Lady Raven’s personal maid, for whom Georgia felt exceedingly sorry, came rushing through the door. “I’m so sorry, my lady. The water is still heating. There has been some upset downstairs, given that Lily’s mother died last night, and she is late returning.”
“Dismiss her,” said Lady Raven. “I will not permit such laxness.”
Bella’s mouth opened and then shut. She knew better than to argue and lose her own job. They all did, Georgia thought, her fingers itching to slap Lady Raven’s cold, self-absorbed face. They were all to pay because Lord Periweld hadn’t succumbed to her ladyship’s dubious charms and warmed her bed? Poor Lily. Her family depended on her wages since her father had been taken by the pox.
“What are you still doing here, Mrs. Wells?” Lady Raven turned the full force of her gaze on Georgia. “Have you not work to do?”
“Yes, my lady” Georgia stood very straight, trying very hard not to let her anger come through in any way. “I needed to know your preference, my lady. As I have no more white satin, my lady, and it is impossible to acquire any more before this evening, I thought you might consider a double row of silk flowers on the hem. I am sure if I begin now, that I can have the dress completed by six this evening.”
Lady Raven considered. “Oh, very well, then. Leave me. What are you waiting for? Leave me now, I said! Bella, if my bathwater is not here within five minutes, you shall be gone from Ravenswalk as well. I suggest you do something about the situation.”
Georgia collected the crumpled dress and quietly left, thinking that if she’d ever had murder in her heart, she had it now.
She wanted to cry when, ten minutes later, she saw poor Lily leaving, a small bundle of her possessions clasped to her chest, her head bowed, but her shoulders shaking with what must have been weeping. Georgia shook her head, feeling that Lady Raven surely had to be one of the most cruel, most dreadful women ever to have been put on the face of the earth. She inspired no loyalty from her staff, only fear and loathing. One could be summarily dismissed for nothing more than to be found holding friendly conversation with another member of the staff.
Georgia determined to send a portion of her wages that month to Lily. She rubbed her eyes, not because they held tears—she was far beyond that—but because she could hardly see straight after nearly two days without sleep. There were times that she thought Lady Raven spent most of her waking hours deliberately finding ways to torment the people who worked for her. Life at Ravenswalk almost made life with Baggie Wells seem like an idyllic dream.
The days went on. And on and on and on in one long, unceasing progression, with no hope for an end. If Georgia could have manufactured her own version of hell, this would be it. Every wicked soul would be sent directly to Ravenswalk to live under Lady Raven’s charge for all eternity. There would be no hope for a reprieve, no forgiveness, just an unending procession of days and nights punctuated by Lady Raven’s demands. Sleep? Who knew what sleep was? Food? Only when there was time. But fresh air was something she refused to give up. She made time for that, no matter what. And even that did not afford her privacy, for Cyril always seemed to be about, one way or another. He didn’t converse much, nor wish to, but he was there. She tried to feel sorry for him, for in his own way he suffered almost as much under Lady Raven as the rest of them, even if he was Lord Raven’s son and heir.
The first time she’d come across him he’d been sitting cross-legged in the forest, his eyes trained on the ground, his hands busily shredding what appeared to be a bloodied piece of cloth of some kind.
“Hello,” she’d said, and he’d almost jumped out of his skin.
He shoved the cloth into his pocket. “Who … who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Georgia Wells, Lady Raven’s new seamstress. Who are you?”
“Viscount B-Brabourne, Lady R-Raven’s stepson.” His eyes held a flicker of irony.
“Oh! I’m sorry—I hadn’t realized. No one told me—that is, I hadn’t realized you were from the house.”
“Never mind. I suppose I should l-leave anyway.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” she said. “It’s I who interrupted you.”
He colored and looked down at the ground. “When d-did you arrive?”
“A week ago. Your stepmother had me sent down from London.”
“Oh. She didn’t s-say anything to me, but then I s-suppose she didn’t c-consider it important.”
Georgia’s heart instantly went out to him. To have such a stutter at his age must be humiliating. She put him at about fifteen or so. He was taller than she, she imagined, but he hadn’t yet filled out to the breadth of manhood. He was a handsome boy, with hair that was so dark as to be almost black, his arched eyebrows equally dark, and his eyes were a light gray, a striking contrast to his dark coloring. But there was something in his eyes as he watched her that was timid and skittish, like a frightened animal.