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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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"Why, y-yes, sir, it is, indeed, an' so nice of
you to say so. Th-
that
I'm looking well, I mean. Oh,
yes, kind of you to say, uh . . ."

"Lord Donovan Trent."

"Oh, my, Lord Donovan. Of the Arundale family?"

"The same, but I regret to say, Mrs.
Polkinghorne, that
my bride-to-be and I have little time
right now to chat. Isn't that so, my darling?"

Stunned that such a nosy busybody as Rose Polkinghorne
could be blushing as ridiculously as a green girl, Corisande wasn't aware that
Donovan had addressed her until he squeezed her round the middle.

"I said, isn't that right, darling?"

"Oh, yes, of course . . . my love." Nearly
choking on the words, Corisande was thankfully saved from saying anything more
when Donovan continued courteously.

"My bride-to-be will be calling on you this very
afternoon, Mrs. Polkinghorne. I'd like Corisande to have the finest wedding
gown you can make, and as quickly as you can manage it. Ah, and she'll need
some new gowns, too, the latest fashions, if you please. Send the bills to my
agent, Henry Gilbert, and he'll see that they're promptly paid."

Corisande heard a strange sucking sound but no response
from Rose Polkinghorne, as if the woman couldn't quite gather enough air to
fill her lungs. But Donovan didn't seem to need a reply as he kicked Samson
into a trot and rode on, leaving the poor seamstress to stare after them, her
fleshy pink cheeks ablaze while neighbors came running from all directions to
cluster around her.

"You enjoyed that, didn't you?" Corisande
accused under her breath, grateful that Donovan had eased his viselike hold
upon her if only a little. "The whole village will be buzzing like
bumblebees in June within the hour—"

"Probably less, from the looks of it, but at least
the news is out in the open."

And too bad that the wind couldn't carry the wonderful
tale straight to Arundale Hall, Donovan thought surlily, wondering how Nigel
would react—probably with unbridled relief—once he knew that Donovan had found
a willing bride virtually overnight. Well, not exactly willing, but a bride
nonetheless.

A bride with fine soft hair that smelled of fresh air
and lemons, Donovan found
himself
musing, which made
him frown. So, too, did the fact that he found Miss Corisande Easton fit quite
nicely in his arms, her shape lithe and slender, the feel of her firm rounded
bottom bouncing against him having jarred his senses more than a time or two
during their ride to Porthleven. He'd felt her high, pert breasts, too,
swelling against his arms whenever he'd shifted the reins . . .

"Which house is yours?" he barked irritably,
thinking now that he should have let Corisande ride her spotted pony.

"The parsonage, of course, near the church and
adjoining school," came her stiff reply. She pointed to the plain brick
spire rising above the scattered rooftops that sloped all the way down to the
harbor. "At the edge of the heath on the other side of the village. And if
you want us to appear the happy couple, you'd best use a lighter tone. When the
wind isn't blowing from the sea, every sound carries—"

"I stand corrected."

Apparently even that statement did not please her for
she bristled in his arms, her spine as straight as a flagpole.

"See here, I don't like this arrangement any more
than you do. But it was your brilliant idea, after all, so at the very least
you could speak to me civilly, as I'm
trying
to do to you."

Donovan didn't reply, wondering if she planned as well
to keep her outrageous temper in check. Given what he'd seen of her earlier, he
doubted it, but he had no time to dwell on the unpleasant matter further as
they approached the parsonage. An attractive two-story stone house with bright
blue shutters and creeping geranium vines already halfway up the walls, the
place had a warm friendly look to it that helped to ease his mood somewhat.

"Didn't you say something about having sisters?"

"I've three, all younger than I." Corisande
hoped, too, that they were still hard at their studies in the more modest stone
building on the other side of the church. The last thing she wanted right now
was to be besieged by their wide-eyed stares and questions. Her father was
foremost on her mind as Donovan drew their mount to a halt while Biscuit
trotted obligingly into the tiny stable and the comforts of his stall.

What would her father say?
she
wondered. Might he protest the marriage? She would be twenty this September,
yet still a year shy of being able to marry without his consent. Of course, she
had always done exactly as she wished . . .

"By the way, you never told me how old you are."

She met Donovan's eyes, so lost in thought that she
hadn't realized he had dismounted. As he reached up to help her down, his hands
easily encircling her waist, she said breezily, "Twenty-one."

She held her breath as he lifted her to the ground, as
much disconcerted by the strength of the man—she wasn't the daintiest of
females, after all, but he handled her as if she were light as air—as the way
he was studying her face. But if he thought she had just lied, he said nothing,
as if mulling her response, until, an interminable moment
later,
he released her with a shrug.

"Then I won't bother asking your father for your
hand."

She wanted to exhale with relief, nervous elation
sweeping her. She really knew little about the intricacies of annulments,
except that they were sometimes difficult to obtain, at least for common folk.
And though she supposed enough coin could buy a man like Donovan Trent anything
he desired, including an annulment, she didn't want to take any chances.

If he somehow planned to trick her, then she had
already won the upper hand. She did know that marriages could be annulled if
one of the parties was underage and consent wasn't obtained from the parents.
Just this last winter a young heiress from Penzance had been returned to her
family for that very reason, and the wily fortune hunter who'd enticed her to
run away with him had fled to the Continent. Now Corisande had her own way out
of their agreement if she needed one, and, no matter if her father performed
the marriage, she could always plead his state of confusion . . .

"I still intend to meet the good reverend, though.
Are we going to stand here staring at each other or get on with—"

"For someone who supposedly swept me off my feet,
you're an abhorrent tyrant." So said, she brushed past him, but he caught
her cloak and yanked her back, pulling her into his arms.

"You're
right,
I'm not playing
my part very well, am I?" His tone was low and mocking, but there was
nothing contrived about his embrace when he drew her closer, his fingers
brushing loose strands of hair from her face.

Staring up at him, Corisande gulped, his lips so close
to hers that she could do nothing but focus upon them, his mouth hard-looking
and yet quite appealing, and slightly opened as if he were about to speak. But
he didn't speak, instead lowering his head while Corisande's heart began to
beat like a snare drum, lowering, lowering, until his dark stubbled cheek was
flush against hers, his day's growth of beard chafing her while his warm breath
tickled her ear, a most disconcerting combination.

"There, isn't this better?"

His taunting whisper made her tense, but she gasped
when she felt his lips lightly graze the sensitive spot just behind her ear,
sparking delicious tremors all the way to her toes. Without thinking, she
arched her neck, his lips touching her there, too, but still so lightly that
his breath felt heavier than his kiss, and so hot, like nothing she had ever . .
.

"You're playing your part very well, Miss Easton.
So well I'd almost think you might be enjoying yourself, but of course, that
can't be true. I commend you, nonethe—"

"Cad!" Mortified, her face burning, Corisande
tried to push away from him, her fists balling at his chest. But he held her
fast, and so tightly that she could barely move
,
his
voice filled with caution.

"I wouldn't struggle if I were you. It will only
confuse our young audience."

"Audience?" Corisande froze, craning her neck
to see beyond him. To her horror, a small cluster of children were peeping
curiously from around the corner of the church, a few of the older ones
giggling and shoving each other. But when they realized that she had seen them,
they turned and fled, squealing, in the direction of the school, while
Corisande groaned.

"Must be luncheon time, since they're not at their
books."

"Yes, and if my sisters hear—" Corisande didn't
finish. Donovan's hold upon her loosened enough that she managed to twist free.
But as she hurried toward the house, she knew he was right behind her—the man
surprisingly quick and agile given his size—and he caught up with her at the
front door.

"Allow me."

She merely glared as he opened the door, hating his
false gallantry, hating him even more, and swept inside without a second look.
But again he was close behind her, through the narrow front passage and into
the formal parlor with its corner cupboard that held her mother's carefully
dusted best china and glass and treasured collection of china cows, birds, and
cats.

"Don't stomp so or you'll break something,"
Corisande warned, even though Donovan wasn't walking that heavily. But he
certainly dwarfed the small room, his dark head nearly touching the ceiling,
which made her think how out of place he looked in such modest surroundings.

That only made her angrier, for the tinners with their
miserable one-room huts would consider the Easton parsonage a grand place,
Donovan's country house a veritable palace despite its unkempt condition. She
could just imagine the grandeur of his brother the duke's home, the magnificent
house and gardens kept up with profits gained by shortchanging the tinners.
Fuming about the injustice of it all, she headed down the hall leading to her
father's study. To her surprise, the door was ajar, which was odd considering
her father rarely emerged on Saturdays until his sermon was written, usually
well after supper.

"I . . . I thought
he'd be here," she said more to herself than Donovan as she walked into
the room. It was then she noticed the candle guttering on the desk, not so odd
a thing of itself, but in her father's study, a sight unseen in many years.

One of the small windows
was opened slightly, a thin shaft of sunlight falling upon her father's spread
papers, the blue shutter outside ajar as well. A shutter that had remained
locked since her mother's death, as if her father, by keeping his study closed
up, could somehow share with his wife the darkness of the tomb.

"Might your father
be at the church?"

She started, whirling,
having practically forgotten about Donovan. He dwarfed this room, too, standing
so tall and broad-shouldered, his shadow gigantic upon the wall.

"Maybe . . . I don't
know."

"Well, I hear
someone humming in the kitchen. Your mother?"

His question, although
innocent, made her stiffen. "My mother died eight years ago."

"I'm sorry. I
suppose I should have guessed since you never mentioned her—"

"That's Frances
humming, our housekeeper." Unsettled by the husky sincerity in his voice,
Corisande knew she'd cut him off rudely, but she didn't want to discuss such
private matters with this man. And she'd already told him so, too!

Instead, she turned back to the window, meaning to shut
it against the breeze to keep candle wax from spattering the desk. But a
movement outside caught her eye, her father suddenly appearing at the edge of
the garden that bordered the heath. He looked strangely distressed, pressing
his hand to his chest as he leaned upon a budding apple tree.

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

"Papa? Papa, are you all right?"

Her heart thundering, Corisande didn't wait for an
answer but fled past Donovan and down the hall into the kitchen.

"Corie? Oh, my, 'ee startled me!" Frances
precariously juggled a plate of freshly baked leek tarts in one hand and a
pitcher of goat's milk in the other as Corisande swept past her and lunged for
the back door. "What is it? A fire?"

"It's Papa, Frances! I think something's wrong."

Corisande heard a crash of crockery, but she didn't
turn around even when Frances wailed, "Lord help us, not the good passon!
An' dark strangers in the house, too! Who are 'ee to be followers after Corie,
eh? Eh?"

Corisande didn't have to hear Frances's indignant
shouts to know that Donovan was not far behind her. She could sense him hard on
her heels, which struck her as odd. What did he care for Joseph Easton's
welfare? But her thoughts jumped to the crisis at hand as she raced through the
garden, only to discover her father wasn't standing where she'd last seen him.
Instead, he was pruning a hedge of purple veronica, already in full flower,
nearer to the house. Pruning!

"Papa, didn't you hear me calling? Are you all
right?"

He looked up, his hair brilliant white in the sunlight,
his hazel eyes confused. "What? You were calling me?"

"Of course I was, Papa! From the window in your
study. It was open, the shutter too."

He made no response, as if he hadn't heard her, taking
another swipe at the rich green foliage with the pruning shears. Yet Corisande
could plainly see that his face was flushed and sweaty, as if he'd recently
exerted himself. She shaded her eyes and looked out over the vast heath
scattered with gnarled trees bent and twisted from the wind, wondering if he
might have simply gone walking and perhaps taken himself too far. He seemed all
right now, though more distracted than usual . . .

BOOK: Secrets of Midnight
10.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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