Authors: Katy Madison
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction
hat’s where Mr. Pendar threw his wife off the cliff,” the housemaid pointed out to her traveling companion in the mail coach. “See, there’s his house.”
Threw his wife off a cliff?
Shock jolted through Velvet Campbell.
Her fellow occupants crowded against Velvet to see the jutting spike of land. An imposing square-built hall of dark gray stone perched on the outcropping like a demonic gryphon. Below the sinister house, a rocky cliff dropped down and down to jagged teethlike boulders. Waves gnawed hungrily against the rocks waiting for any scraps the gryphon might drop—or to devour the beast itself, should he fall.
That house contained her new living quarters. Mr. Pendar had employed her. What kind of man threw his wife over a cliff? A wave of dizziness assaulted Velvet.
“They found her broken, bloody body on those rocks,” added the maid. “Not three years gone.”
Velvet’s stomach roiled. She wished she could plug her ears or cover the mouth of the young woman spewing the local lore. He’d written that his wife had passed, but hadn’t spoken of the violence of her death.
Velvet shook her head. Gossip was often exaggerated, or just plain wrong, but a shiver slithered down her spine and moisture beaded her upper lip.
“That must be a hundred-foot drop,” murmured a rotund cleric. “May God have mercy.”
The idea of falling so revolted her, she retched. She swallowed repeatedly, fighting against the bile rising in her throat. She fumbled in her reticule for her handkerchief. Her fingers brushed the letter from her employer, and her heart thumped erratically. With the limp lawn, she dabbed at the perspiration and wished for an end to this journey.
Velvet wanted to look away, but the sight of her future home mesmerized her, though the darkness of it repelled her. It was as if the house had been built to defy God and nature.
The thin young man who had tried for the last twenty miles to engage Velvet in conversation pressed closer. “Beautiful view, is it not?”
Beautiful was not the word she would have chosen. Daunting. Menacing. Those were the words that jumped to mind. “Quite,” she answered dryly.
“Can’t say I like that house there disrupting the vista.” He pushed his thigh against hers. She turned away, lest her refusal to look out the window give him encouragement.
Velvet forced her gaze beyond the crashing waves pummeling the jagged rocks. Under the threatening skies, the ocean eased into whitecapped swells that did not look as hungry, but dark and murky and every bit as dangerous. But if she had her druthers, death by drowning was a thousand times more preferable than death by falling.
She leaned back in her seat wishing she could think of anything other than the plummet and Mrs. Pendar’s violent death. She closed her eyes reminiscing about the easy green roll of the hills and dales of Dorset where she’d grown up. But instead her mind’s eye recalled the last sight she’d had of her brother: his face twisted in terror. Her eyes jerked open.
“ ’Tis said her ghost wanders the cliffs at night,” whispered the girl. Not that a whisper was effective in the cramped coach.
“What happened to
” asked the friend.
“Nothing?” repeated the girl with the appropriate amount of horror and fascination.
The girls’ conversation interested Velvet more than she wanted to let on. He wasn’t in prison. Surely that meant he hadn’t murdered his wife.
“He had scratches on his face, but
said she fell.”
“And they believed him?”
“No one saw him do it.” The storyteller shrugged, her expression smug. “At the inquest his servants gave testimony that he hadn’t left the house.”
“Then he couldn’t have done it.”
The former housemaid gave her companion a look that suggested the girl was far too naive. “A lot of them heard her screaming at him. I was to start work there a fortnight later, but no decent woman will work for him now.”
“Oh my,” said the country girl.
Velvet pressed her lips together. She had been called much worse than “less than decent.”
“Fitting house for Lucifer.”
The name Lucian formed on Velvet’s lips. His name was
Pendar, not Lucifer, but she resisted the urge to blurt it out. The young man pressed his leg harder against hers.
She rearranged her skirts, piling as much of the excess material between the encroaching young man and her limbs as she could.
The road finally began to curl away from the cliffs, moving farther inland. Velvet unclenched her fist.
“His fortune comes from smuggling, you know,” said the informed maid. “My grandda told me the Pendars smuggled French brandy when good Englishmen were dying fighting the French.”
Another quarter hour of swaying and mumbled conversation about brutal deaths and how there were those who misused their authority dragged by. Velvet resisted the urge to voice her opinion. In her experience, men in power could get away with anything—or at least they believed they could. But as her father had always said, God would be the final judge.
The coach drew to a halt. Velvet clutched her reticule to her bosom and made her way to the door.
The storyteller stared. Her smugness was gone. “You aren’t getting out here.”
“Yes, I believe this is my stop.” Velvet lifted her chin.
An hour away from the inn where they stopped for lunch, the coachman had said. She no longer had her father’s watch to check the time, but it felt like a year since she’d paced the yard while the others ate.
You’ll see the house afore we reach it
, the coachman had told her. Then he’d given her a look.
Iffen you’d don’t want let out there, it’ll be the inn at Lands End.
Of course, I shall get out there
, she’d answered. She had no choice. She was expected, and her new employer had paid her fare. If she didn’t arrive, she could add theft to the accusations leveled against her.
The coachman opened the door. “Here you go, miss.”
Relieved to be free of the close confines and the five other passengers, Velvet descended the stairs. “It was good to meet you,” she said generally. Even better to take her leave of them and the gossip making her dread her new position.
The young housemaid paled. She reached her hand out as if to call Velvet back. The coachman shut the door. Velvet turned toward the house.
Two wheel tracks broke the thin and scrubby grass, but no transportation met her. The glowering house waited at the top of the headland.
The coachman folded up the step. “Just a few minutes walk up the lane, miss.”
“Thank you,” Velvet answered.
The coachman climbed back on his box and stared straight ahead. “The mail runs every Tuesday. Shilling sixpence will get you to Plymouth.”
The wind whipped up from the shoreline and threatened to shred the remaining tatters of the ribbons holding her hat. Her thin relief at being out of the coach blew away. Velvet clamped a hand down on her head as she stared up at the man. Did he expect her to stay to be so short? She wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon—she couldn’t. Without two pennies to rub together let alone shilling sixpence, her destiny lay here.
Her legs shook, and she told herself firmly it was the lack of food, the hours of motion in the cramped coach, the layers of clothing she wore, not the proximity to a hundred-foot plunge to the sea. It wasn’t as if the ocean would reach up and snatch her down into the murky waters. Nor would she be frolicking on the edge of the cliff anytime soon.
There was no need to be frightened of the whims of nature when there were humans about.
Her portmanteau thudded on the ground and the coach rumbled off. Apparently a governess did not rate a ride up the lengthy drive. It was good to know one’s place, and it always went better for her when she wasn’t given much thought. With any luck, she might not see her employer for weeks on end.
She picked up her portmanteau, filled with the last of her father’s books wrapped in petticoats and a spare dress. The two-stone weight of the bag, the maximum allowed for an inside passenger, tore at her shoulder. The extra clothing she wore tangled around her legs as she stumbled in the rut that with its twin marked the way. She felt as if she was traveling to the end of the earth. No, just the end of England. They’d warned her Cornwall was different.
She promised herself ten steps and she could rest. Of course, she didn’t rest. The steel skies and the ripping wind threatened rain. The dark house in the distance might look forbidding, but inside was shelter and food. Perhaps the maddening tilt of the world would right itself if she ate.
She struggled up the long track, the wind thrusting her skirts between her legs and clawing through the layers of clothing. She walked for what seemed like forever. Her heart thumped erratically and sweat built beneath her arms, yet she shivered. She hoped she would not soak through the three layers of shifts, two dresses, and extra petticoats she wore.
The skies broke and icy rain poured down on Velvet. She squelched toward the distant house. The more she walked, the farther away it seemed. What she thought was a short squat house loomed large, with four stories and pointed arched windows with obsidian panes. In spite of the wide stone staircase, the house was the most unwelcoming she’d ever seen.
Water seeped through the cracks in her half boots, while her fingers and toes ached with cold.
She slid and dropped to a knee. Struggling to her feet, she attempted to brush the mud from her dark skirt, but only succeeded in muddying her glove. Water dripped from the straw brim of her hat. She trudged on, determined to conquer this last leg of her journey. There was nowhere to go but forward. Her life in London had degraded to the place where she’d nearly become what they said she was. And then she finally had been offered this position.
She’d always understood she deserved punishment, but did God intend to strand her in this wild place so far from any home she’d ever known?
Finally she reached the massive house and the wide stone staircase leading up to the first floor. The steps rose above her like an Egyptian pyramid she needed to scale. Her legs felt like wooden stumps and her fingers refused to curl around the balustrade. Above her, water spouted out of gargoyles’ mouths. One broken creature missing half his face allowed a stream of water to spill over the stairs. The water cascaded over her toes as she tried to gather the strength to climb. She lifted a foot to the first stair.
Velvet’s legs shook and she couldn’t even say if it was the cold, fear, or that she hadn’t had a decent meal in months. Black dots danced in front of her eyes. She had to pause and heave in deep breaths, although they didn’t clear the blackness closing in from the sides. She was so close, yet the massive doors seemed so far away. Her bag thudded down and she didn’t remember releasing it. Then there was nothing.
She’d died, she was sure of it. Velvet rested on a cloud. The weight of a dry coverlet kept her from floating away. A nearby fire snapped and crackled with newly added firewood, warming her face. An angel leaned over her. A very male angel with a strong jaw and deep-set black eyes evenly spaced on either side of a classical nose. A dark lock slipped over his forehead. Thickly lashed eyes searched her face. Only an angel could have such beautiful lashes softening the masculine angles of his face.
“Have Mrs. Bigsby bring tea.” He rubbed Velvet’s bare hand between his.
Heaven. Hot tea would be heaven. She hadn’t been sure she would rate entrance through the pearly gates. But the cups of hot water she’d drunk in the last few months were nothing compared to a real cup of tea.
The angel turned to look over his shoulder to the man he’d addressed, and revealed three shiny pink scars trailing down his left cheek. Velvet reached out and touched the defects in this perfect creature’s face.
He jerked back, his chin rising high enough that she could see a tiny slice of whiskers missed by a razor’s blade under his chin. He dropped her hand and stood. “Miss Campbell, I presume.”
The edge to his voice jarred her. This wasn’t heaven at all. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Her hands began to sting and she realized she was reclining on a red and gold chaise longue shoved near a massive fireplace in a formal drawing room. Her cloak lay heaped in a pile on the floor, but her muddy boots encasing her wooden toes must be making horrid stains. She struggled to sit and realized her dresses had been unfastened and her stays loosened.
After dropping a load of firewood by the fire, an older man brushed off his gnarled hands and cast her a disparaging look.
The dark-eyed man pushed her shoulders back and held her pinned. “Be still. You fainted.”
His words didn’t reassure her. Panic clawed at her throat, as she didn’t see a female present. Only this man who had the face of a fallen angel and hands that had turned brutal as he pressed her back into the plush upholstery.
Who had unfastened her dress and loosened her corset? Had he? A flush rolled through her.
“My stays weren’t too tight,” she said.
She had no need to lace her corset tight. Actually, she’d lost so much weight she might need to have it refitted. But her protest was too late and only served to call attention to her loosened garments.
“Then you are ill, Miss Campbell,” said the man who must be her employer.
“I’m not ill,” she protested. She’d just been too long without eating. She’d been light-headed and weak from the days of travel and lack of nourishment.
“Don’t need no illness in the house,” said the servant shuffling toward the door.
“That’s enough, Bigsby.” Mr. Pendar straightened and turned so he was once again in profile, the firelight illuminating the unmarred side of his face.
Velvet felt powerless lying on the chaise, her dress unfastened. She drew the coverlet up around her shoulders. But she just couldn’t feel comfortable reclining in this man’s presence. He was just too male and her reputation too tattered.