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Authors: Miriam Minger

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Regency, #General, #Historical Fiction, #Romance, #Historical Romance

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BOOK: Secrets of Midnight
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"And if she doesn't, then it will be because she's
found something that makes her very, very happy. I can't believe that wouldn't
please you, Linette—and you know what else I think would please you?"

Linette shook her
head,
her
gloomy countenance clearly saying that she doubted anything would make her feel
better.

"We'll read her letters together, you and I—"

"And me!" chirped Estelle.

"Yes, and Marguerite, too, if she wants to join us.
Lindsay said she'd write as often as she could—so it will be almost like she's
here with us, don't you think?"

Linette's nod was slow in coming, a grudging smile even
slower, but Corisande could tell when she gave her a hug that Linette was
somewhat mollified. Yet Linette's face broke into a full-fledged grin when
Marguerite suddenly swept down the stairs, only to stop dead in her tracks
beside the kitchen table when she realized everyone was staring at her.

"What are you looking at, Linette Easton?"
she demanded of the sister with whom she'd once spent so much time and who now
seemed more a pest than anything else since Marguerite had turned the ripe old
age of fifteen. Linette merely began to giggle, pointing at Marguerite's head.

"I said what—"

" 'Tes
your hair, girl,"
Frances interrupted, looking quite pleased with herself as if to say "I
told you so." "You've brushed it so much that it's standen on end an'
flying round your head! Any more an' I swear you'd have found yourself gone
bald altogether!"

Her pretty face reddening at the laughter bursting
around her, Marguerite's hands flew to her hair as she sought to smooth it
down.

"Ais, there 'ee
go,
now
take a seat with your sisters an' be quick! You've only got a few moments to
eat before you're due at the church school."

Marguerite did as she was told, but not before yanking
upon Linette's braid as she passed her sister's chair and deliberately stepping
on Luther's bony tail, which set the little dog to yelping and Estelle
scrambling so fast to comfort him that she knocked her plate to the floor with
a crash. As the kitchen erupted in squabbling and confusion, Frances's voice
rising once more above the unholy din, Corisande took a last bite of toast,
downed half a cup of weak tepid tea, and fled down the hall.

Not surprisingly, the door to her father's study
remained
closed,
Joseph Easton so far removed from the
daily workings of his daughters' lives that such commotion rarely made him stir
from his reading and sermon preparation. Corisande rapped on the door as she
always did each morning, and had done since her mother died.

As always, there was no welcoming call for her to
enter, which hurt, even if she should have long ago gotten used to her father's
unintentional neglect.

Everything had changed during those wretched few days
eight years ago when the fever had struck the vicarage like a heavy gale,
Corisande suddenly thrust by necessity into the role of virtual head of the
household at the tender age of eleven which had given her cares and
responsibilities far beyond her years. Thank God Frances Hodge, a widow who'd
lost her husband to a mine accident many years before, had agreed to come and
help, working as their housekeeper more out of the goodness of her heart than
for the paltry sum Corisande could afford to pay her.

And she'd stayed, bless her, Corisande thought as she
opened the study door, Frances's stern command for Marguerite and Linette to
cease their quarreling rivaling any general's as it carried down the hall. But
the debacle in the kitchen was forgotten as Corisande's attention once more
flew to the sole occupant of the small shuttered room, her father seated at his
desk with head bent and a book spread out before him, the flickering light of a
candle falling like gilt mist upon his silvery hair.

Joseph Easton's hair had turned white as Christmas snow
shortly after his beloved wife's death, his once broad shoulders long since
sagging under an invisible burden, and his step the slow, uncertain shuffle of
a man twice his age of forty-two. But his mind had remained unclouded, at least
in matters of books and the Bible, and the pulpit still rang on Sundays with
the power of the Word.

If not for that, he would surely have lost his parish,
for along with his white hair had come an eccentric streak that had emptied the
pews as if the devil himself stood grinning at the altar with his tail
twitching and fork in hand—at least until the superstitious parishioners grew
accustomed to their parson's unintelligible mutterings, moonlit stints at
gardening, and late-night visits to the graveyard, and other quirks of
character.

Another was that Joseph Easton preferred his study to
remain shuttered like a cave, Corisande forever longing to throw open the
windows to fresh air and sunlight. But she never did, respecting the strange,
remote existence that her father's life had become.

"Papa?"

He started, as always, her soft query jarring him out
of his private world as surely as if she had shouted. For a moment, he seemed
bewildered,
then
a fond smile came over his still
handsome face.

"Ah, Corisande. Are you on your way?"

The same question, repeated too many times to remember,
but even so the words warmed her heart. He uttered them so full of trust, for
even in his unfortunate state did he know that Corisande had done everything
she could to save his parish for him and keep a roof over their heads—paying
visits to his flock as her mother had once done so selflessly, seeing that the
church school and the parish poorhouse ran smoothly, attending to details of
christenings, burials, and weddings and ensuring that the church register and
parish accounts were properly kept.

Only within the last three years had Corisande begun to
do more, involving herself in the dangerous smuggling of contraband goods for
the benefit of the entire parish, and if her father had guessed her
involvement, he'd given it no voice. But whenever there was boiled beef on the
table, or fragrant quality tea in the pot, or a bit of brandy for him to enjoy
by the fire, he'd look at her with silent knowing in his eyes and a hint of
concern mixed with pride. It was all she needed to keep her going, more
resolute than ever to continue doing what she believed was right.

"Yes, Papa, I'm leaving now. I've much to do
today."

"Godspeed, then."

Two familiar
words,
and he
turned away, absorbed once more in his book before Corisande had closed the
door. But she, too, was already preoccupied with her own affairs, her step
determined as she grabbed her cloak and left the house, Luther's high-pitched
yapping
and her sisters' hilarious giggling following her
outside into a glorious sunlit morning.

At least they were in a better mood, she was glad to
hear, wondering what silly antic Estelle had performed to make Linette and
Marguerite cease their incessant
warring—
maybe balancing
a spoon on Luther's nose or some mischievous prank concocted to torment
Frances. The latest had been a big hairy brown spider in the mixing bowl,
plopped right on top of a yeasty-smelling mound of rising dough. How Frances
had screamed . . .

"Just as I'll be screaming if I can't find that
scoundrel Jack Pascoe," Corisande muttered, walking into the small stable
that flanked the Easton parsonage. A loud nickering greeted her; Biscuit, their
hardy piebald pony, bobbed his head eagerly as if he knew he was soon to be
forging across the heath to Arundale's Kitchen.

And why shouldn't he think they were heading to the
mine? Corisande thought irritably, hoisting the worn leather saddle onto the
pony's swayed back. She'd only gone there three mornings in a row, looking for
that damned mine captain so she could give him a fair-sized piece of her mind.
But each time he'd been nowhere to be found, probably gone down one of the
shafts to purposely avoid her, the despicable bastard, and no doubt smug as a
snake at his cleverness.

Nor had she been able to find the Arundale family's
agent, Henry Gilbert, when she'd gone to that Tudor monstrosity of a house
where he resided. The sullen housemaid who answered the door had said only that
Gilbert wasn't there—hiding from her, Corisande was certain, the ferret-faced
agent as spineless as Jack Pascoe was cunning. Henry Gilbert was the one, after
all, who'd given Pascoe free rein to run the mine as he saw fit, and his
orders, being the family agent, no doubt had come straight from the Duke of
Arundale.

"Yes, Biscuit, maybe we're wasting our time going
to the mine after Pascoe," Corisande contemplated aloud as she scratched
the pony's whiskered chin, his breath blowing warm on her hand. "Maybe we
should find Henry Gilbert—before he gets a chance to hide in a wardrobe or
under the bed, and brighten his day with a show of Cornish temper. It may not
help matters much, but at least I won't feel as if I'm going to explode. What
do you say?"

Biscuit's obliging snort made her smile, but it faded
as she mounted and kicked the animal into a trot, the pony's bumpy
gait—ensuring a jarring ride at best—only adding fuel to the fire.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

"Is there anything else you'd like to see this
morning, my lord? The rest of the grounds, perhaps? The village of Porch—"

"That bloody mine wasn't enough entertainment for
one day?" Scowling, Donovan dismounted from his steel-gray stallion while
Henry Gilbert slid from his sweaty mount, the rail-thin Arundale family agent
nervously shifting his feet, looking as if he wanted to flee the stable at
first opportunity.

And right now Donovan wholeheartedly wanted the
loathsome fellow out of his sight. Ignoring Gilbert for the moment, he led the
snorting animals into their stalls, the cavernous stable empty but for these
two horses and a big ill-kempt gelding whose dull brown coat looked sorely in
need of a good grooming. But that would have to wait as Donovan eyed again the
anemic, long-nosed scarecrow who'd been attending to his family's business
affairs in Cornwall.

In truth, he couldn't fully blame Gilbert for what
smacked of his late father's doing; the man had been paid to follow orders
after all. But for the agent to have granted such power to a mean-spirited
tyrant of a mine captain because he was too lazy to attend to the day-to-day
workings of the mine himself—good God, it sickened him!

"Get yourself something to eat at the house and
then ride back and see to it that a new mine captain is hired by noon," Donovan
grated, Henry Gilbert bobbing his head in acquiescence. "I'm giving you a
chance to set things right, Gilbert, or believe me, you'll be close behind Jack
Pascoe in finding yourself without a job."

"I understand, my lord. Implicitly."

"Good. Choose a man from among the miners, someone
they respect. Be sure I don't see Pascoe on Arundale property again."

"Yes, yes, of course, my lord."

"And restore the miners' pay to its previous level
until I've a chance to go over the books thoroughly—then we'll talk about
raising it further."

"But—but, Lord Donovan, shouldn't His Grace be
consulted—"

"If this damned mine is half as rich as my brother
said it was, Gilbert, surely there's enough coin to properly pay the men whose
blood and sweat have made it so profitable, is there not?"

This time the cowed agent bobbed his head in time with
his prominent Adam's apple. "Anything else, my lord?"

"Yes. Is there grain to be found in this parish?"

"Only at famine prices—but of course there's flour
aplenty at the house if that concerns you—"

"Not for me, man! The miners can't work if they
have no bread, and from the looks of some of them, I'd swear they haven't eaten
a sound meal in days." Donovan's hard gaze bored into the agent. "No
thanks to the pittance they've been paid of late."

"And which will be righted at once, my lord, just
as you've ordered!" Henry Gilbert began walking backward to the entrance
of the stable, giving no heed to the steaming piles of horse dung squishing
under his feet. "You wish the miners to have grain, then?"

"Buy enough bushels so that every man has a decent
share to take home to his family."

"It will cost, my lord—"

Gilbert didn't finish, his eyes growing round as
serving platters as Donovan tugged off his coat and threw it over a post, then
grabbed a shovel from against the
wall
and advanced
toward him. With a sharp intake of breath, the man turned on his spindly legs
and fled while Donovan sank the shovel into a pile of dung and musty straw,
muttering under his breath, "Blasted fool."

It appeared that the stable was as much in need of
attention as everything else around this dismal place, he thought mutinously,
heaving his ripe-smelling burden into an empty stall.

It might have been dusk last night when he'd arrived at
his Cornwall estate, but there had still been enough light for him to see that
the huge house his father had bequeathed to him was in a sorry state of
disrepair. Crumbling chimneys, cracked windows, a vast overgrown lawn—and
inside, enough dust to choke a man, faded furnishings fit for no more than
firewood, and two slovenly housemaids who had been hired in Weymouth by Henry
Gilbert before he'd taken up his employment in Cornwall. One woman was as plump
as a sausage and the other was passing pretty but had a hard, calculating look
and reeked of cheap cologne.

It had been disheartening and maddening, especially
since Donovan had seen his welcome as a smug otherworldly message from his
father—marry fast, and the quicker he'd have the funds to improve his miserable
surroundings. But he didn't give a damn about the house or the surrounding
estate, and he thought he'd feel the same about Arundale's Kitchen, too, as he'd
been told the place was called, until he'd ridden out there with Gilbert just
after sunrise, wanting to see the rest of the trap that his father had
contrived for him.

BOOK: Secrets of Midnight
4.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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