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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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Until he'd seen the careworn, expressionless faces of
the tin miners as they hiked to work, some from as far as six or seven miles
away, and more than he cared to remember with pallid cheeks gone hollow from
sparsity of food.

When he had questioned some of the men, he'd been met
with stoic tight-lipped silence, until at last a brave few came forth with the
wretched truth about their mine cap'en, as they called Jack Pascoe, a
pock-faced, red-haired fellow as wiry as a bantam rooster who'd cut their wages
by half—only the latest of his transgressions, apparently—and who cared nothing
about the wives and children starving at home. Equal parts ambitious and cruel,
Pascoe had long ruled his domain by threatening life and livelihood, the miners
with no choice but to shoulder their lot or face utter destitution.

So Donovan had quietly taken the bastard aside and told
him to be off the property by noon, promising a full month's wage if he left
the mine without saying a word. Jack Pascoe's watery blue eyes had filled with
rage, but he'd nodded and stalked back into the countinghouse.

Watching him, Donovan had taken perverse pleasure in
undoing a part of what his father had done; yet he knew as he sank the shovel
under another pile of manure that he'd just as
much been
affected by the miners' misery . . .

"But don't get yourself too affected,"
Donovan muttered to himself, straightening just as Henry Gilbert suddenly
reappeared at the entrance to the stable. Breathing hard, the agent gaped at
him, then over his shoulder, and, clearly making up his mind, almost barreled
straight into Donovan in his haste to reach the nearest stall—the same one
where Donovan had just dumped a full shovelful of manure. "What the—?"

"She's coming right for the stable, my lord! Oh,
cover me up, I'm begging you! She's seen me and she's got that look on her
face—fit to kill, God help me!"

"Who's fit to kill?" Donovan demanded, but he
got no answer as Gilbert burrowed like a frightened mole into the filthy straw
and horse dung.

Cursing, Donovan dropped the shovel and went to the
stable doors just in time to see the most curious sight—an auburn-haired wench
riding recklessly toward the entrance atop a black and white pony with the
rolling gait of a foundering ship, her plain brown cloak flying like a sail
behind her, her legs so long and the stout little pony so squat that the
stirrups were bouncing uselessly, the irate rider's feet skimming the ground.

For Donovan could see that the young woman was furious.
As if he weren't standing there, she dismounted at a run and swept past him
into the stable, dark eyes ablaze, her face flushed pink with indignation.

"Where are you, Henry Gilbert? I saw you run in
here, you sniveling rat! You'll not hide from me again!"

Donovan watched in bemused silence as she crisscrossed
from stall to stall, kicking at the straw. A jilted mistress? Some local chit
found herself in the family way and left to fend for herself? If so, Gilbert
had clearly scorned the wrong woman. As she reached the last of the stalls, not
having found her quarry, she lunged for a pitchfork resting in a corner.

"Come out now and face me like a man, you worm! If
you can have a hand in taking the food from a babe's mouth, then you can answer
for it too!" With that, she jabbed at the straw in the closest stall, then
the next, drawing nearer and nearer to where poor Gilbert lay huddled.

"I'd suggest you show yourself, Gilbert,"
Donovan advised dryly, thinking that whatever the man had done to inspire such
wrath, he probably deserved it. "She's got a pitchfork—"

"Yes, I do, and I certainly don't need your help,
thank you very much!" Corisande said in exasperation, whirling upon the
resonant male voice that had sounded behind her. She could see a tall strapping
shape in the shadows, but the morning sunlight was so bright coming in from the
stable doors that she couldn't make out the man's face. "Just go about
your work, whoever you are, and I'll tend to my own business!"

She did, too, turning back to the stalls with a
vengeance and stabbing the pitchfork into another heaping pile of straw as the
horses added their nervous whinnying to the fray. But just as she came to the
last partition, the pitchfork poised above a suspicious-looking lump that bore
the rounded leather point of a man's boot at one end, Corisande's weapon was
wrested from her so suddenly that she fell backward, crying out as a steely
masculine arm clamped around her waist.

"I think that's enough, Miss—"

"Easton. Corisande Easton!"
came
Gilbert's muffled voice. "The parson's
daughter, God help
us!"

"And God help
you
if you don't release me!" Corisande shouted at her assailant, wriggling
and flailing her arms. But she shrieked full voice when she was swept off her
feet into the air, her captor carrying her with long strides outside into the
sunshine. Only then did she get a good look at his face, and his expression
silenced her, the stranger scowling so deeply that she wondered with a rush of
apprehension what he intended to do with her.

She'd never seen him before, of that she was certain.
The man was as swarthy and dark as a Gypsy, his wildly unkempt hair long at the
neck and jet-black against the white of his shirt. So was the thick springy
hair beneath her splayed fingers, the man's massive chest as hard as stone and
damp with sweat . . .

"Oh . . . oh, my!" In horror, Corisande
snatched away her hand, her widened gaze jumping from her captor's half
unbuttoned shirt to eyes even darker than her own, so dark, in fact, that they
appeared almost pitch-black.

And they were trained full upon her, his quizzical
scrutiny making her squirm, his scowl now but half as deep. With a near
physical jolt, she realized how incredibly handsome he was, his stunning,
lean-cut features the stuff of women's dreams. She began to wriggle in earnest,
feeling more uncomfortable and strange and altogether unsettled than she could
recall in her life. Even her skin felt odd, her cheeks blistering hot, and here
it was a cool spring day!

"Please . . . let me down," she croaked,
becoming even more discomfited that her voice—her voice, for heaven's sake!—had
failed her.

To her utter relief, her captor obliged, and the feel
of solid ground helped to calm her racing heart. At least until she realized
his hands still encircled her waist, strong hands, too, and massive like the
rest of the man.

She was considered tall by most standards—at five feet
and nine she had Lindsay beat by three inches—and almost embarrassingly
long-limbed, but now she was experiencing the rare sensation of looking up at a
man instead of almost eye to eye. He was still staring at her, too, his hands a
disconcerting heaviness at her waist, and . . .
and, why the devil was he still holding on to her?

"If you don't mind, sir," she began stiffly,
grateful that her normal speaking voice had returned as well as a healthy dose
of indignation. "Kindly release me this very instant. I've no idea what
you're thinking, but—"

"I was thinking that it's unlikely you're Gilbert's
mistress as I first imagined, though if so, it wouldn't be the first time a
parson's daughter has gone awry."

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Donovan wasn't surprised at the reaction his blunt
comment received, the young woman's mouth falling open in shock.

A very nice mouth, too, her lips generous and full, and
probably never been kissed, considering how her cheeks had flamed bright red
when she realized her hand rested upon his bared chest. Probably never been
this close to a man, either, which confirmed his instinct that the chit was a
raw innocent. He wondered at the semicircular scar on her right cheek, though,
marring what otherwise was quite a pretty face and yet which made her features
oddly more interesting.

He felt an interesting womanly figure beneath his
hands, too, though he'd never have guessed her waist could be so slim beneath
her dowdy pea-green dress. And with her hair falling from its lopsided bun, she
looked a perfect
ragamuffin,
this woman whom he could
feel was tensing like a coiled spring.

"Henry Gilbert's mistress?" came her
incredulous hiss, her lovely brown eyes—shot through with glints of bottle-green,
he suddenly noticed—narrowing at him ominously. "You thought that . . .
that spineless, gutless, callous-hearted, miserable—"

"Gilbert has his faults, I admit," Donovan
cut in, noting as well that his infuriated captive's hands had balled into tight
fists. "But that doesn't mean I want to see him pierced full of holes by
some wild-tempered parson's daughter waving a pitchfork. If you've a complaint,
Miss . . ."

"Easton! Didn't you hear the man? Corisande
Easton!"

Donovan winced, his ears ringing at her shouting. "Very
well,
Miss Easton
. As I was saying,
if you've a complaint—and I've no doubt that you do—we'll settle it now and be
done with the matter. That is, of course, if you promise to leave my agent in
peace. He's probably suffocating under all that hay, but I don't intend to
release you until I've your word—Miss Easton, did you hear me?"

Oh, yes, Corisande had heard him, but she could only
stare at him in mute disbelief.

His
agent? He
had said that, hadn't he? Her eyes swept over him, from the fine white lawn of
his shirt and the snug fit of his buckskin breeches to his dusty black riding
boots. No telling white neckcloth, but a gentleman's dress all the same. And
his expression reflecting pure arrogance, his overbearing tone, clearly that of
a man accustomed to giving orders and having them instantly obeyed. Good God,
why hadn't she noticed?

"Miss Easton." His big hands moved from her
waist to her shoulders, and he gave her
a firm shake
as if she were a drooling idiot. "Are you listening to me, young
wo
—"

"You're the bloody Duke of Arundale, aren't you?"
Knocking away his hands, Corisande couldn't help herself as three long years of
frustration and anger burst inside her. She began to shriek like a fishwife. "You've
finally come to see your precious mine, have you? To count your precious money
while
the poor tinners and their families are half starving
around you! Well, I hope your greedy father rots in hell for all he's done, and
the same goes for you and your rat of an agent!"

"Miss Easton, I'm not—"

"You're a blight on humanity, is what you are,
Your Grace." Corisande cut him off, so furious now that she shoved him
with the flat of her hands, to no effect. The big lout was as solid and
immovable as a boulder and scowling again, too, but by God, she would have her
say!

"I suppose you're planning to give that bastard
Jack Pascoe an extra month's wage for saving you so much money over the years,
aren't you?" she accused, glaring at him.

"Actually—"

"Did it ever occur to you to consider the
suffering that man has caused since Gilbert hired him to manage your mine? The
crushed hopes? The tears? He's cut wages, a bit here and a bit there—
with
your father's blessing and now
yours, no doubt—so many times that I've lost count! And the men's pay was never
enough to afford them more than a dirt floor hut at the start! Now you've cut
the wages so low that there's scarcely coin to keep the thatch roofs over their
heads, let alone broth on the table—"

"Dammit, woman, if you don't cease your shouting,
I'll soon be deaf—"

"Deaf and lucky, too, if you manage to squeak by
the gates of heaven with all the terrible sins on your head! But you've a
chance to make things right, if you've got a shred of decency at all, starting
with dismissing Jack Pascoe this very
day
and raising
the men's wages. I can't believe a man would want to journey through life known
as a cruel, tightfisted tyrant when instead he could earn himself some respect—"

"For the last time, Miss Easton," Donovan
interrupted, having to half shout himself to be heard over her harangue, "I'm
trying to tell you that I'm not the bloody Duke of Arundale, as you so
delicately put it—surely language one doesn't often hear from a vicar's
daughter." He gave a dry snort. "But then, I've never seen any vicar's
daughter like you."

To his surprise, she had no reply to that sarcastic
remark, instead blinking at him as if he'd just knocked the wind right out of
her sails.

"You—you're not the duke?"

"No. My brother, Nigel, wears the title, and he
can damned well have it. I only wish he'd been here to enjoy your tirade rather
than me."

She immediately bristled, and Donovan braced for the
worst. "Oh, so you think I'm just airing my lungs, do you, Lord . . . ?"

"Donovan Trent."

"Well, then, Lord Donovan, everything I've said
applies to you as much as your titled brother! You're all one and the same as
far as I'm concerned. Blackguards, scoundrels, villains of the worst degree to
deny food to hungry children and pregnant women! Despoilers, base criminals . .
."

While her vehement list grew longer, Donovan felt his
own temper boiling because she'd
lumped
him together
with his late father and Nigel. Hell and damnation, he'd been at war in Spain
these past years, with no knowledge of his family's actions!

What was worse, the chit had tried, judged, and
executed him before he'd been able to get in a single good word for himself.
Wouldn't her face flare red if she knew he'd already called for the changes she
demanded, though he'd be damned if he was going to explain himself to her now,
the untidy baggage.

It was obvious she cared passionately for her cause to
berate him up and down like a veritable harpy, but let her find out for herself
that the Trents of Dorset weren't all cut from the same wretched cloth—yet,
hell, she'd probably still distrust his motives anyway, given who he was. But
what in blazes did he care what Miss Corisande Easton thought of him? As soon
as he found a way out of his current predicament, he'd be gone from Cornwall so
fast that . . .

BOOK: Secrets of Midnight
2.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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