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Authors: Eloisa James

Tags: #Historical

A Kiss at Midnight

A Kiss at Midnight

Eloisa James

Dedication

This book is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Carol Bly. She didn’t care too much for the genre of romance—or so she said. But she read my sister and me fairy tales over and over, enchanting us with princes who swept in on white chargers and princesses whose golden hair doubled as ladders. She gave me my first copies of
Anne of Green Gables
,
Little Women
, and
Pride and Prejudice
. In short, Mom, it’s all your fault!

Prologue

Once upon a time, not so very long ago . . .

T
his story begins with a carriage that was never a pumpkin, though it fled at midnight; a godmother who lost track of her charge, though she had no magic wand; and several so-called rats who secretly would have enjoyed wearing livery.

And, of course, there’s a girl too, though she didn’t know how to dance, nor did she want to marry a prince.

But it really begins with the rats.

They were out of control; everybody said so. Mrs. Swallow, the housekeeper, fretted about it regularly. “I can’t abide the way those little varmints chew up a pair of shoes when a body’s not looking,” she told the butler, a comfortable soul by the name of Mr. Cherryderry.

“I know just what you’re saying,” he told her with an edge in his voice that she didn’t hear often. “I can’t abide them. Those sharp noses, and the yapping at night, and—”

“The way they eat!” Mrs. Swallow broke in. “From the table, from the very plates!”

“It
is
from the plates,” Cherryderry told her. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes, Mrs. Swallow, that I have! By the hand of Mrs. Daltry herself!”

Mrs. Swallow’s little shriek might have been heard all the way in the drawing room . . . except the rats were making such a racket that no one in that chamber could hear anything.

One

Yarrow House

The residence of Mrs. Mariana Daltry; her daughter, Victoria; and Miss Katherine Daltry

M
iss Katherine Daltry, known to almost all as Kate, got down from her horse seething with rage.

It should be said that the condition wasn’t unfamiliar to her. Before her father died seven years earlier, she found herself sometimes irritated with her new stepmother. But it wasn’t until he was gone, and the new Mrs. Daltry—who had held that title for a matter of mere months—started ruling the roost, that Kate really learned the meaning of anger.

Anger was watching tenants on the estate be forced to pay double the rent or leave cottages where they’d lived their whole lives. Anger was watching the crops wilt and the hedges overgrow because her stepmother begrudged the money needed to maintain the estate. Anger was watching her father’s money be poured into new gowns and bonnets and frilly things . . . so numerous that her stepmother and stepsister couldn’t find days enough in the year to wear them all.

It was the pitying glances she had from acquaintances who never met her at dinner anymore. It was being relegated to a chamber in the attic, with faded furnishings that advertised her relative worth in the household. It was the self-loathing of someone who can’t quite bring herself to leave home and have done with it. It was fueled by humiliation, and despair, and the absolute certainty that her father must be turning in his grave.

She stomped up the front steps girding her loins for battle, as her father himself would have said. “Hello, Cherryderry,” she said, as their dear old butler opened the door. “Are you playing footman now?”

“Herself sent the footmen off to London to fetch a doctor,” Cherryderry said. “To be exact, two doctors.”

“Having a spell, is she?” Kate pulled her gloves off carefully, since the leather was separating from its lining around the wrist. Time was when she might have actually wondered if her stepmother (known to the household as Herself) was malingering, but no longer. Not after years of false alarms and voices screaming in the middle of the night about attacks . . . which generally turned out to be indigestion.

Though as Cherryderry had once commented, one can only hope.

“Not Herself, this time. It’s Miss Victoria’s face, I gather.”

“The bite?”

He nodded. “Dragging the lip down, so her maid told us this morning. There’s a swelling there as well.”

Sour as she felt, Kate felt a pulse of sympathy. Poor Victoria didn’t have much going for her outside of her pretty face and prettier frocks; it would break her stepsister’s heart if she were permanently disfigured.

“I have to talk to Herself about the vicar’s wife,” she said, handing her pelisse to Cherryderry. “Or rather, the former vicar’s wife. After his death, I moved the family to the far cottage.”

“Bad business,” the butler said. “Especially in a vicar. Seems that a vicar shouldn’t take his own life.”

“He left her with four children,” Kate said.

“Mind you, it’s not easy for a man to get over the loss of a limb.”

“Well, now his children have to get over the loss of him,” she said unsympathetically. “Not to mention that my stepmother sent an eviction notice to his widow yesterday.”

Cherryderry frowned. “Herself says you’re to dine with them tonight.”

Kate stopped on her way up the stairs. “She said what?”

“You’re to dine with them tonight. And Lord Dimsdale is coming.”

“You must be joking.”

But the butler was shaking his head. “She said that. What’s more, she’s decided that Miss Victoria’s rats have to go, but for some reason she banished them to your chamber.”

Kate closed her eyes for a moment. A day that had started out badly was only getting worse. She disliked her stepsister’s pack of little dogs, affectionately, or not so affectionately, known to all as the rats. She also disliked Algernon Bennett, Lord Dimsdale, her stepsister’s betrothed. He smiled too easily. And she loathed even more the idea of sitting down to dinner
en famille
.

She generally managed to forget that she had once been mistress of the household. After all, her mother had been bedridden for years before she died, and sickly most of Kate’s life. Kate had grown up sitting opposite her father at the dining room table, going over the menus with Mrs. Swallow, the housekeeper . . . She had expected to debut, and marry, and raise children of her own in this very house.

But that was before her father died, and she turned into a maid-of-all-work, living in the garret.

And now she was to come to dinner, in a gown that was out-of-date, and endure the smirking pleasantries of Lord Dimsdale? Why?

She ran up the stairs with a sickening foreboding in her stomach. Kate’s stepmother was seated at her dressing table, examining her complexion. The afternoon light fell over her shoulder, lighting her hair. It had a glare to it, that hair, a fierce yellow tint as if the strands were made of minerals. She was wearing a morning dress with a pleated bodice of lilac net, caught under the breasts with a trailing ribbon. It was lovely . . . for a debutante.

But Mariana could not abide the fact that she was no longer in her thirties. In fact, she had never really accepted the loss of her twenties. And so she dressed herself to create an approximation of Mariana-at-Twenty. One thing you had to say for Kate’s stepmother: She had a reckless bravery, a kind of fierce disregard for the conventions governing women’s aging.

But of course if Mariana’s costumes were the outward expression of her ambition, they were also the refuge of the failed. For no woman yet has appeared twenty in her forties, and a deliciously sensual gown cannot restore youth.

“I gather you finished your peregrinations amongst your friends and bothered to come home,” Mariana said acidly.

Kate took one look around her stepmother’s boudoir and decided to remove a heap of clothes from what she was almost certain was a stool. The room was mounded with piles of light cottons and spangled silks; they were thrown in heaps over the chairs. Or at least where one presumed chairs to be. The room resembled a pastel snowscape, with soft mountains of fabric here and there.

“What are you doing?” her stepmother demanded as Kate hoisted the gowns in her arms.

“Sitting down,” Kate said, dropping the clothing on the floor.

Her stepmother bounded up with a screech. “Don’t treat my gowns like that, you stupid girl! The top few were delivered only a day or two ago, and they’re magnificent. I’ll have you ironing them all night if there’s the least wrinkle, even the least.”

“I don’t iron,” Kate said flatly. “Remember? I put a scorch mark on a white gown three years ago.”

“Ah, the Persian belladine!” her stepmother cried, clasping her hands together like a girlish Lady Macbeth. “I keep it . . . there.” She pointed a long finger to a corner where a towering mound of cloth went halfway to the ceiling. “I shall have it altered one of these days.” She sat back down.

Kate carefully pushed the stack of gowns a little farther away from her foot. “I must speak to you about the Crabtrees.”

“God, I hope you managed to shovel the woman out the door,” Mariana said, lighting a cigarillo. “You know the bloody solicitor is coming next week to assess my management of the estate. If he sees that scrap heap of a cottage, he’ll make no end of fuss. Last quarter he prosed on and on till I thought I’d die of boredom.”

“It’s your responsibility to keep the cottages in good repair,” Kate said, getting up to open a window.

Mariana waved her cigarillo disdainfully. “Nonsense. Those people live on my land for practically nothing. The least they can do is keep their own houses in good nick. That Crabtree woman is living in a pigsty. I happened by the other day and I was positively horrified.”

Kate sat back down and let her eyes wander around the room. The
pigsty
of a room. But after a moment she realized that Mariana hadn’t noticed her silent insult, since she had opened a little jar and was painting her lips a dark shade of copper.

“Since her husband died,” Kate said, “Mrs. Crabtree is both exhausted and afraid. The house is not a pigsty; it is simply disorganized. You can’t evict her. She has nowhere to go.”

“Nonsense,” Mariana said, leaning closer to the glass to examine her lips. “I’m sure she has a bolt-hole all planned. Another man, most like. It’s been over a year since Crabtree topped himself; she’ll have a new one lined up by now. You’ll see.”

Talking to her stepmother, to Kate’s mind, was like peeing in a coal-black outhouse. You had no idea what might come up, but you knew you wouldn’t like it.

“That is cruel,” she said, trying to pitch her words so that she sounded like the voice of authority.

“They have to go,” Mariana stated. “I can’t abide sluggards. I made a special trip over to the vicarage, you know, the morning after her husband jumped from the bridge. Bringing my condolences.”

Mariana preferred to avoid all the people working on the estate or in the village, except on the rare occasions when she developed a sudden taste for playing the lady of the manor. Then she would put on an ensemble extravagantly calculated to offend country folk, descend from her carriage, and decipher in her tenants’ startled expressions their shiftless and foolish natures. Finally she would instruct Kate to jettison them from their homes.

Luckily she generally forgot about the demand after a week or so.

“That woman, Crabtree, was lying on the settee crying. Children all over the room, a disgusting number of children, and there she was, shoulders shaking like a bad actress. Crying. Maybe she should join a traveling theater,” Mariana said. “She’s not unattractive.”

“She—”

Mariana interrupted. “I can’t abide idlers. Do you think I lay about and wept after my first husband, the colonel, died? Did you see me shed a tear when your father died, though we had enjoyed but a few months of matrimonial bliss?”

Kate had seen no tears, but Mariana needed no confirmation from her. “Although Mrs. Crabtree may not have your fortitude, she has four small children and we have some responsibility to them—”

“I’m bored with the subject and besides, I need to speak to you about something important. Tonight Lord Dimsdale is coming to dinner and you shall join us.” Mariana blew out a puff of smoke. It looked like fog escaping from a small copper pipe.

“So Cherryderry said. Why?” She and her stepmother had long ago dispensed with pleasantries. They loathed each other, and Kate couldn’t imagine why her presence was required at the table.

“You’re going to be meeting Dimsdale’s relatives in a few days.” Mariana took another pull on her cigarillo. “Thank God, you’re slimmer than Victoria. We can have her gowns taken in quite easily. It would be harder to go the other way.”

“What are you talking about? I can’t imagine that Lord Dimsdale has the faintest interest in eating a meal with me, nor in introducing me to his relatives, and the feeling is mutual.”

Before Mariana could clarify her demand, the door was flung open. “The cream isn’t working,” Victoria wailed, hurtling toward her mother. She didn’t even see Kate, just fell to her knees and buried her face in her mother’s lap.

Instantly Mariana put down her cigarillo and wrapped her arms around her daughter’s shoulders. “Hush, babykins,” she crooned. “Of course the cream will work. We just need to give it a little time. I promise you, Mother promises you, that it will work. Your face will be as beautiful as ever. And just in case, I sent off to London for two of the very best doctors.”

Kate was beginning to feel a faint interest in the matter. “What kind of cream are you using?”

Mariana threw her an unfriendly glance. “Nothing you would have heard of. It’s made from crushed pearls, among other things. It works like a charm on all sorts of facial imperfections. I use it myself, daily.”

“Just look at my lip, Kate!” Victoria said, popping her head back up. “I’m ruined for life.” Her eyes glistened with tears.

Her lower lip did look rather alarming. There was an odd violet-colored puffiness around the site that suggested infection, and her mouth had a slight, but distinct, list to the side.

Kate got to her feet and came over for a closer look. “Has Dr. Busby seen it yet?”

“He came yesterday, but he’s an old fool,” Mariana said. “He couldn’t be expected to understand how important this is. He hadn’t a single helpful potion or cream to offer. Nothing!”

Kate turned Victoria’s head to the side so that the light fell on it. “I think the bite is infected,” she said. “Are you sure this cream is hygienic?”

“Are you questioning my judgment?” Mariana shouted, standing up.

“Absolutely,” Kate retorted. “If Victoria ends up with a deformed mouth because you sloshed on some quack remedy you were swindled into buying in London, I want it clear that it’s your fault.”

“You insolent toad!” Mariana said, stepping forward.

But Victoria put out an arm. “Mother, stop. Kate, do you really think there’s something wrong with the cream? My lip throbs terribly.” Victoria was a tremendously pretty girl, with a beautiful complexion and wide, tender eyes that always looked a bit dewy, as if she had just shed a sentimental tear, or was just about to. Since she shed tears, sentimental and otherwise, throughout the day, this made sense. Now two tears rolled down her face.

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