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Authors: My Cousin Jeremy

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Susan Speers

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There’s madness in the Marchmont family, cousins cannot marry. Clarissa’s father kept this secret and broke her young heart. Her mother’s secret changes everything, but is it too late?

 

Clarissa and Jeremy grew up on the grand estate of Hethering, and their love claims its legacy. Torn apart by tainted blood, their passion endures across continents and ill-made marriages. Can the Great War’s fire forge the courage they need to defy society and find their way home?

 
 

Copyright © 2011 by Susan Speers
Cover Design by Susan Speers

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

MY COUSIN JEREMY
 
Susan Speers
 
Chapter One
 

My cousin Jeremy was born four years before I entered this world. He was an only child as I would be, and from the moment I smiled up from my cradle, he claimed me as his own.

“Baby,” he said, his brown fingers closing over my little hand. “Mine.”

My nurse told me he visited every day, waggling my toys to make me laugh. He held my arms as I took my first steps and taught me my letters when I could barely lisp my name. He shared his love of the plants and flowers and woods of our estates, walking me from garden to glade with Nurse close behind.

When I was five and he was nine, we took a daily turn in a hedge bound garden, while Nurse sat on a nearby bench, her knitting in her lap. Jeremy’s interests, no, his obsessions, soon became mine.

“This is a Chinese rose, Clarissa”, he told me one morning, pulling down the branch of an abundant, flowering shrub. “A
banksiae lutea,
” he pronounced with care.

“It’s yellow,” I said. “I like yellow.” Jeremy, who I first called ‘Jemmy’ and later ‘Jem’, taught me my colors, too.

“Right you are, Clarry,” he used my baby name to encourage me, “but what’s its fragrance?”

I buried my nose in the soft petals. I thought of the little dish of lemon slices on our tea table, though I still preferred milk.

“Like a lemon,” I declared. “It’s yellow and it smells of lemon.”

“Just so.” His delight transformed his narrow face. He darted a glance at the under gardener’s back, and cut a blossom for me, stripping the leaves, and tucking it in my hair. “This
lutea
has no thorns. It’s sweet like you.”

‘Exuberant, but easily controlled’, I read later, when Jeremy went away to school and I was left behind. Did he think that of me? He would find he was mistaken, I vowed.

When we were children, he was everything to me: cousin, brother, teacher, friend. Our mothers were dead, and our fathers were distant. Our world was ruled by my nurse, Henley, and our governess, Miss Prinn. I lived on the grand estate of Hethering, Jeremy in the manor house of Leighton, a family property whose border marched with ours. Our fathers were brothers, mine was the elder.

*****

 

Jeremy’s mother died in childbirth, my mother from a virulent strain of tuberculosis, scarce diagnosed before she was dead. I was only three when I lost her, and from then on, my nurse tormented me with fresh fruits and vegetables from our forcing houses. She feared I’d inherited my mother’s delicate health, but I almost never caught cold or fever despite daily tramps and soakings following Jeremy about the grounds.

I remember my mother as a gentle, dreamlike presence who held my hand, sang to me, read me stories. Jeremy had no such memories and he hated hearing mine. He was jealous of my love for others and told me to forget the women who left us. I kept my remembrances to myself, hoarding them for the brief moments after Nurse put out my light, before I fell asleep.

One morning I entered our schoolroom to find Jemmy gone. Miss Prinn looked up and smiled at my anxious face.

“Jeremy has a tutor now, young Mr. Pickety, the curate.” she said. “He’ll learn Latin and Greek and Algebra in the mornings and join us in the afternoon for drawing and music.”

I blinked back my tears, and took my seat at our round study table. It was a long, lonely day, made bearable only when Jem arrived after luncheon. One look at his dark face and I knew he’d suffered too. We’d never before been separated.

“I have a plan,” he told me as we walked the neat brick paths of the fruit orchard. “You’re a bright one Clarry, and biddable, too.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but he went on. “During our walks I will teach you Latin and Greek and as much Algebra as you can manage. We’ll be together again soon, with Mr. Pickety in the morning and Miss Prinn, as always, in the afternoon.”

I was a natural mimic and so eager to please, I learned a respectable amount of classical language, although higher mathematics remained a mystery. Finally, Jeremy wrote out secret pages of equations for me to learn by heart and spout.

Mr. Pickety was astonished by my recitations, but Miss Prinn had a better understanding of what was afoot. Still, when her gentle reservations met with floods of my tears and Jeremy turned his intellect to the wall and refused to learn, she and the beleaguered tutor made a compromise.

We shared a classroom once again, with an anteroom for private instruction. I was included in sessions of Latin and Greek vocabulary, but returned to my primer for a grounding in arithmetic.

We learned more than academic lessons that year. Miss Prinn and Mr. Pickety grew better acquainted with their mulish charges, while Jeremy and I found our wills combined made a formidable force.

*****

 

The next secret I shared with Jeremy was a discovery made on his tenth birthday. Nurse let us walk out alone if we promised not to venture further than the Marchgate Wood. She’d always kept a watchful eye on our progress, but now we could stray from the path as often as we liked.

We went astray with delight and a keen sense of adventure. From then on, every important event in our lives began when our feet left the accepted path.

That day we darted and scuffed our way through fallen leaves and pine needles, chasing chipmunks and watching grouse take flight. Jeremy stopped me to thrill at the sight of a fox at the edge of a sun bleached clearing not twenty yards away.

I giggled and the animal disappeared into the opposite glade.

“Come on,” Jeremy called me to follow after the fox, though I suspected we’d left our promised boundary behind.

We paused at the edge of a larger clearing, a great grassy hill leading down to a pond. There was no sign of the fox, but there was something else. There was a lady.

At first I thought she was not a lady, but a great grown girl, because she wore a pinafore like mine and her hair was twisted in a thick fishtail braid down her back.

“Hello,” she said in a clear sweet voice. “This is my forest. Who are you?”

“I’m — I’m Clarry,” I said, because Jeremy was silent. He was moody, not shy. He didn’t like his special day spoilt with unwelcome company, but I was anxious to make a new friend. “Are you the fox?”

It wasn’t as silly a question as it sounded, though Jemmy made a face. The lady’s eyes were green and tilted, her narrow nose bore a sprinkling of reddish brown freckles and tawny curls escaped from her braid to frame her face. Her watchful stance made it entirely possible that she’d changed from animal to human — just like a creature in one of my fairy stories.

“No, silly,” a smile lit her face with mischief, “I’m a girl, just like you. Shall we be friends?”

“Yes, please,” I said.

I looked up and Jeremy scowled. He turned away to stare at a cottage we could see in the bend at the bottom of the clearing.

“This is my cousin Jeremy,” I said boldly. “Today is his birthday.”

“Then come to tea,” Willow said. “We have pink frosted cakes.”

“Come on.” This time I made Jeremy follow me.

“She’s not a girl,” he whispered. “She’s very old.”

“I am a girl,” Willow had heard his protest. “I’m just rather tall.”

She had lines in the corners of her eyes and parentheses by her mouth. There were silver threads in her curls, but in her heart she was a girl and I believed her.

Willow’s cottage was as quaint and unique as she. There was an oval table set for tea. A lady in a severe black dress with an embroidered apron introduced herself as Miss Juniot, but Willow called her “Leeza”.

“These are my new friends,” Willow told her companion. “They are here for tea.”

We shared a happy meal. Even Jeremy unbent enough to describe the fox, and we all laughed that I thought it a changeling.

“Fairy stories aren’t true,” Jeremy said to me.

“Oh, but they are,” Willow insisted. “You must believe or the fairies will leave us.”

She made us promise to visit again and soon. We were late for Jeremy’s birthday tea. After feasting at Willow’s table, I could eat so little that Nurse feared I was sickening, but Jeremy ate enough for the two of us. The next day, he was sick in bed from gluttony.

I wondered if that’s why he didn’t take to Willow as I did. He was kind but a little impatient whenever I teased him to bring me to her cottage. We knew better than to than to tell Nurse about our visits. If she thought our affection for the Marchgate Wood had grown apace, she never said.

*

 

Two months after Jeremy’s birthday, we were called into my father’s study, the pair of us.

I sat on a straight backed chair whose blood red stripes had a gold thread gleaming dull in the slice of light between heavy velvet draperies. My feet swung free of the floor.

Jeremy stood by the window, peering out at the west wing’s formal gardens.

“Sit down, sir,” my father said as he entered the room. Jeremy took the chair next to mine.

“You’ve disobeyed Clarissa’s nurse for two months now,” Father spoke without preamble. He was a distant, gruff man with little patience for children, much less a young daughter. I so feared disappointing him that a tide of hot tears threatened to flood my anxious face.

“Handkerchief, Clarissa, and do not sniffle.” My father hated any display of emotion.

“It was my fault, Uncle,” Jeremy’s brown eyes fixed on Father’s face. “I bade her follow me. She has little understanding of boundaries.”

I opened my mouth to protest. I wasn’t stupid, and it was I who begged Jeremy to ignore Nurse’s edict. Jeremy’s speaking look silenced me, but even together we were no match for Father.

“I’ve spoken with Miss Juniot,” Father said. His eyes glared hot, but his voice was cold.

“You’re acquainted with Miss Juniot, sir?” Jeremy was brave to question Father. I’d not yet gathered enough courage to speak.

“Miss Juniot and my cousin, Wilhelmina, have shared a cottage on Hethering land since well before your birth.”

Wilhelmina? Did he mean my fanciful friend Willow?

“Wilhelmina is not well. She requires constant attention.”

I was too young to understand the difference between ‘care’ and ‘attention’, but Jeremy was wise beyond his years.

“You don’t wish us to visit her?” I could tell by the relief in Jeremy’s voice that he would be happy to comply.

“On the contrary, she asks for the pair of you every day. A weekly visit, perhaps two, is in order.”

Jeremy’s protest died on his lips and Father nodded. “You will please me by accompanying Clarissa. In another year you will be at school and she can find her own way.”

In my moment of triumph I was cut down. I always thought Mr. Pickety would educate Jeremy here at Hethering.

I stared at Jeremy. His lips met in a thin white line, but he nodded once. That was all.

“You will leave Hethering?” I demanded. You will leave me? was what I meant.

“There will be holidays,” he hissed in a hard whisper.

“Sir,” he said to my father. “Uncle Richard?”

“Yes.” My father’s attention was already gone from us.

“This is my last year to learn about Hethering’s holdings. I wonder, that is, Mr. Pickety wonders if we might have permission to study the documents in the library.”

Father narrowed his eyes and fixed them on Jeremy who did not flinch. “You may,” he said with cold brevity. “Hethering will be yours one day. Curiosity is appropriate.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“It’s your due.” Father rose and left the room as if he could no longer bear our company.

“You will go to school?”

“Don’t wail, Clarry! I will learn how to improve Hethering. We’ll have the holidays together, and when I am grown I’ll have Hethering.”

“But, what shall I have?” I dismissed Leighton House’s boring brick walls, and yearned instead for Willow’s gingerbread cottage. I will live with Willow, I vowed. We will have cakes at tea and embroider. Willow embroidered fantastical flowers and birds on every possible surface, and had begun to teach me her craft.

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