“Oy, missy . . . ”
Horace’s harsh voice came from behind her, raising the hair on the back of her neck. Eliza had made it to the top of the stairs leading to the back door, but there was no way she would make it out now.
“Don’t ya run from me. I told ya t’ go pack yar crap. Wilkins will be ’ere in an hour.”
With Horace breathing down her neck, there was nothing to be gained by running. Eliza swung around to face him and did her best to stand her ground. “I told him no, and I’m telling you again: I’m not going with him!”
She braced for the backhand she knew would follow. Sure enough, pain exploded down the right side of her face, and she flew against the wall three steps behind her. God, how had her mother put up with this for six years?
Horace was of medium build, thickly muscled and broad-shouldered. If one didn’t know what a brute he was, one might even think him handsome. But all Eliza could see was his lust for violence. She tried to straighten, but he pushed her back against the wall and ground his groin into her belly. He smelled of stale ale and sweat, and she could feel his manhood swelling as he rubbed against her.
“Wilkins paid me twenty quid for yar li’l virginal cunt, so ’e owns ya now.”
Outrage overrode pain and disgust, and she pushed at him hard enough to force him back a step. “You sold me to Pig Face? You truly are despicable!”
His face twisted with hate and his open hand connected painfully with the other side of her face. Wilkins and Horace were birds of a feather, best mates so to speak, and calling Wilkins “Pig Face” was sure to get his goat—she should have thought of that.
“Always with the big bloody words. Ya’re nothing but a tavern wench, but ya won’t go with the customers and ya won’t let me between them lily-white thighs. What the fuck did ya ’spect me ta do with ya?”
He was screaming at her at the top of his voice now. Through the haze of pain, Eliza heard Lynn chime in from the bottom of the stairs.
“Just lock ’er in the cellar, love. Let Wilkins deal with ’er when ’e gets ’ere.”
Eliza ignored her. In for a penny, in for a pound. She might as well get him good and mad now—maybe Wilkins wouldn’t want her if she was all bruised up. Correcting his pronunciation, she countered, “I expected you to ignore me, but even that was obviously hoping for too much.”
Grabbing her by the hair, he dragged her down the stairs and along the corridor towards the store cellar door. “Ignore a bit of all right like you? Not bloody likely. But I ’ad enough of ya stalking about the place like ya bloody own it and looking down yar nose at me.”
The cellar door loomed before her. Eliza tried with one hand to yank her hair out of Horace’s grip and braced herself with the other against the door frame. She could not let him lock her up down there.
She knew why he was so keen to get rid of her—she was the only obstacle to his full ownership of the inn. Her father had left the inn to Eliza and her mother in his will. That meant, now her mother was gone, it should be hers. But if it bought her freedom from Wilkins, she would give up all claim to it. “You can have the inn. Just don’t make me go with Pig Face.”
Eliza couldn’t quite keep the desperation out of her voice, and the way he chuckled in her ear confirmed how much he liked hearing it. “Too late, Liza, he paid me coin for ya.”
Lynn cackled behind her. “He owns a mill and ’e’s willin’ ta marry ya. What the fuck’s yar problem?”
With that she kicked Eliza hard in the small of her back, sending her flying down the short flight of stairs into the cellar, where she landed on a heap of coal. She heard something crack inside her, then a strange kind of prickly sound accompanied the darkness trying to claim her before she was pulled back by Lynn’s shrill laughter. “Prince Charmin’s all out of glass slippers, ya stupid cunt.”
Eliza got up, white-hot rage giving her the courage to taunt them into killing her right then. A quick death would be better than having to endure Wilkins and dying at his filthy hands. “I’m gonna make you pay for this and everything you ever did to my mum, you greedy, wife-murdering clods.”
Something solid slammed into her arm with such force it lifted her off her feet. She heard another crack and pain exploded all through her. This time she didn’t think she would be able to get up again. She lay limp, waiting for Horace to deal her the deathblow. But it didn’t come.
Instead she felt Horace’s fetid breath fan over the side of her face as he whispered in her ear. “I wanna fuck ya and kick the living shit out of ya all at the same time, but Wilkins paid to be the first in yar snatch and ’e wants ya still breathin’, so I’ll leave ya to contemplate yar future . . . see, I know some big words too.”
She heard him climb the stairs, slam the door, and throw the bolt. And then, when she was sure she was alone, she gave herself up to despair. Hot tears streaked down her aching face as she let herself rest against the mountain of coal at her back. Something warm and sticky seeped into her collar, and she wondered if the cut was big enough for her to bleed out.
“I’m sorry, Mum. I tried.”
She lifted her eyes to the ceiling, wishing she wasn’t so completely alone in the world. “But how do you expect me . . . ” She frowned at the usually pitch-dark upper left corner of the room and caught her breath. The coal chute had been left open and the mountain of coal reached almost to the top. Horace couldn’t have known. They certainly hadn’t noticed it before. It was growing dark out, and the opening did not add much light. Could she get up? Did she dare to hope she could make it out of the cellar, away from the inn and the fate Horace had arranged for her?
She might as well try. She had nothing more to lose.
Just north of Hampstead, November 1819
The last pale light of the day filtered through the bare trees onto the road and the two men traveling it in an elegant open sports carriage. The jingle of the harness preceded their passage, the sound of the horses’ hooves muted by the leaves blanketing the road. One man did his best to nap on the high seat, but the vehicle’s driver seemed to thoroughly enjoy his occupation and the way the gathering darkness drained the color from the forest around them. A light rain had fallen earlier, and the damp soil smelled rich and fertile. It was a perfect evening to drive the last remaining miles to London.
The driver was Sir Henry March, knighted for his services to the crown during the campaign against the Corsican megalomaniac—although nobody cared to speculate on what exactly he had done to warrant that knighthood.
Beyond being a knight of the realm, Henry was a classical scholar, a notorious libertine, and the responsible owner of four estates, who could trace his lineage to William the Conqueror.
He was a handsome man. His nose was straight, his sandy hair was cut short and reached down into short-cropped sideburns, and his lips were neither too thick nor too thin. However, his jaw had a determined set to it, and even when he was otherwise relaxed, his blue eyes were intense.
His person was presently obscured by a calf-length, multi-caped greatcoat and a carriage blanket thrown over his knees against the November chill. But it was generally agreed that he cut an impressive figure, even if his clothes tended to be comfortable rather than fashionable.
They had just left the lights of a small roadside inn behind them and were turning up the hill towards Hampstead Village when Henry became aware of a shadowy figure scurrying along the road in front of them.
At the sound of the horses, the woman visibly startled, then ran as if the hounds of hell were nipping at her heels. She was bent forward as if aged, and her gait was unsteady. But the face that turned over her shoulder to see who followed her was young and utterly terrified. In her haste to get away from whomever she was trying to outrun, she stumbled over the hem of her soiled and tattered skirts and yelped in pain when her knee hit the gravel on the road.
Henry found it impossible to ignore the woman’s obvious distress. He stopped just ahead of her, handed the ribbons to his groom, and jumped down to see what he could do for her.
Even once he was standing next to her and she could see him clearly, she continued to look behind her as she tried to get back on her feet, as if unafraid of Henry but terrified at what could still be behind. Henry put a hand under her arm to help her up, but she winced and drew in a sharp breath. He tried gently placing his arm around her waist to steady her, eliciting another pained noise as she sagged against him.
She was small and light, and a sense of unease crept over him as he examined her more closely. Her waist was trim under his hand, and luscious dark curls framed her face—a face that showed unmistakable signs of a beating. Her lip was split and her jaw had begun to discolor. There was a welt on her forehead and her left eye was almost swollen shut. Her hands and clothes were blackened with what appeared to be coal dust, and she was clad in only a simple peasant skirt and blouse, while her shoes were missing altogether.
“Good God,” Henry breathed. He quickly decided, whatever her story was, he could not turn his back on her. “You’re injured; can I take you somewhere? To someone who will help you?”
She shook her head, which obviously hurt, and squeezed out between clenched teeth, “I just need to get away.”
The girl obviously wasn’t thinking clearly, so Henry probed for more information. “From whom or where?”
She was barely holding herself upright now, but her voice was full of contempt. “My stepfather at the inn.” She indicated behind her and sagged farther against him as she lost her footing again. Henry could feel as well as see her injuries were serious.
“Did he do this to you?”
She almost spat out her next words. “Him and his new missus. But I’ll not marry that bastard Wilkins. I’ll die first.”
She then truly spat on the ground for emphasis, her eyes blazing with a need to defy her fate that struck a chord with Henry.
He answered her with a calm he did not feel. “Well, if you stay out here alone and in this state for much longer, you probably will.” He smiled down at her, hoping to reassure her. “You had better come with me so my housekeeper can have a look at you.”
She twisted to look at him for a moment as if to assess whether she would get herself into even worse trouble by going with him, then shrugged. “I think I’d rather the devil I don’t know.”
Henry couldn’t suppress a wry grin. ”That’s the spirit.”
He led her to the curricle without further delay, and when her knees buckled, he simply lifted her into his arms and boosted her up to Roberts on the seat. She was too light for her frame, and he wondered what other methods her stepfather had employed to bend her to his will.
Pulling himself up onto the driver’s seat next to her, he realized he had neglected to introduce himself.
“I’m Henry March, by the way. Can you tell me your name?”
“Eliza.” Her voice was weak now, the fight having gone completely out of her.
Henry wrapped the carriage blanket around her before he took the ribbons from his groom, Roberts, who then swung himself around onto the box seat behind. Henry urged the team into a trot, despite the gathering darkness and the girl’s unsteady hold on consciousness. He tucked her uninjured arm through his and urged her to lean on him as he drove them towards London and his Mayfair home.
1760, somewhere in Essex, England
The setting sun painted the facade of the lovely Palladian mansion pink, but the overgrown boxwood hedges and the weeds on the lawn pointed to a general neglect of the estate. It was an odd contrast to the owner’s ostentatious London wardrobe and flashy horse flesh. Marcus Landover supposed it was to be expected of a young man less than a year in possession of his fortune. He had it on good authority the fool had already blown through his cash reserves and had to retreat to his estate to escape his creditors. That begged the question why Marcus had let himself be goaded into accepting an invitation to the Baron Tillister’s card party. Especially since he knew the man intended for him to part with a good portion of his money.
Marcus, at nine and twenty, was almost a decade older than the young baron’s crowd and had little interest in their excesses but he was fond of his great-aunt, Millicent, and Aunt Milly worried about Baron Tillister’s stepsister. The girl, a Miss Sophia Chelmsford, had not been heard of since her mother’s funeral seven months prior. Although her mother had been estranged from the family, she had been a Landover by birth and Aunt Milly wanted Miss Chelmsford to know she was not alone in the world. The two letters she had written had gone unanswered, and it concerned the old lady.
Of course Marcus had no expectation of meeting the girl at a high stakes card party, but he could persuade one of the servants to take a note to her. Sophia was eighteen and had not yet been formally introduced to society. Her stepbrother was her legal guardian, so a message was the best he could do for now. Well, that and losing a little money to the youngsters to ease Aunt Milly’s mind.
There were three coaches ahead of him in the driveway so it was safe to assume Tillister had invited all of his cronies and planned to make an occasion of it. Marcus felt almost sorry no one had deemed it necessary to warn the young Baron that Marcus’s fortune had been won at the card table. He was far from the easy mark the young man assumed. But Tillister’s friends either didn’t know or didn’t tell him.
The coach stopped outside the brightly lit front portal and Marcus allowed his man, Richard, to help him down, maintaining the illusion that he was incapable of doing anything for himself. “Get everyone put up and rest, but keep everything ready. I plan to depart around three in the morning.”
The trusted retainer bowed low and murmured so only Marcus could hear. “I figured. Them youngsters don’t look like they could keep up.”
Marcus smiled. “Quite. We will be traveling to the Marchioness from here.”
Richard bowed again and Marcus ascended the shallow steps to leave his hat and cape with the aging butler. The man handed both to a footman and then led Marcus past an elegantly curved staircase and into a beautifully proportioned drawing room. The house was rather lovely despite the shabby exterior and there was plenty of fashionable furniture, but the fabrics were beginning to fade.
“You are not staying the night, Sir?” the aging butler inquired as he held the door for Marcus.
“Not if I can help it.” Marcus sighed.
The old retainer just nodded. He obviously was used to young men spending the night. He turned to the young baron holding court by the fireplace and announced the new arrival. “His Lordship, Marcus Landover, My Lord.”
Marcus stepped forward to greet his host whilst the butler bowed himself out of the room. Baron Frederick Tillister beamed with all the enthusiasm of a man whose grandest scheme had just fallen into place and rushed towards him.
“Landover, come in! I hope your journey was not too arduous.” He shook Marcus’s hand vigorously and led him to the group of young men by the fire. “You know Welsh, Adrian, Micklesby and Bingly from town of course. The brooding chap over there is my neighbor, Len Wilder, and the three over here who can’t stop arguing about horses are the brothers Fairly.”
Marcus nodded to all the gentlemen he was acquainted with and turned back to Tillister whose grin was full of pride and expectation.
“Let me pour you a drink. I picked up a rather decent brandy at Berry’s last week.”
Marcus was intimately familiar with the establishment on St. James's street. Any wine from there came with a hefty price tag. The baron was apparently going all out to impress him. “By all means, Tillister. Just the thing to wash the dust of the road from my throat.” He took the snifter Tillister handed him and noted how quickly the young man consumed his drink. At this rate he would be impaired by the time dinner was served. He either drank because he was nervous or because he was overconfident. Marcus was undecided as to which one was the cause. “You must be expecting more guests, we are uneven numbers for whist right now.”
“We will be thirty for dinner, and my sister will join us shortly. She is my hostess tonight.”
Marcus tried to hide his surprise, but his brow must have shot up in question.
“My stepsister.” The baron clarified. “My stepmother’s daughter, Miss Sophia Chelmsford. My friends generally like seeing her preside over the dinner table.”
Marcus was taken aback for a moment. A young married woman appearing as hostess for a dinner mostly attended by men was rare enough; a young miss not out in society would ruin her chances for a decent marriage. Surely Tillister wouldn’t allow that.
“Ah, I do seem to remember the late baroness had a daughter.” Out of the corner of his eye, Marcus noted the brooding young man start for Tillister with a murderous look on his face, but two of the horse-mad brothers held him back. Something involving Miss Chelmsford was going on and Marcus promised himself to get to the bottom of it. Aunt Milly may be right to worry about the girl.
Excerpt from Déjà You
A well-appointed country estate, England 1790
Lord Dillings had her cornered. She should have known what he intended, should never have responded to his call, and she most definitely should not have stopped to talk to him. But she was a maid; she had to be nice to the guests, no matter how depraved she knew them to be.
His eyes were lust-filled and determined. “Come on, Marianne, I have seen the way you catch your breath when you watch the others at their games. You want it, I know you do.”
Marianne tried one last time to reason with him. “Sir, I’m married! That fact hasn’t change since yesterday.”
Lord Dillings only grinned at her. Christ, his hands were everywhere, his brandy-laden breath hot on her neck and his mouth about to descend on hers. There really was only one thing for it. She raised her knee and stomped her heel on his foot as hard as she could.
“Damnation!” He hissed in pain and stepped back in shock, giving her enough room to slip past him, hike up her skirts, and flee towards the back stairs as fast as her legs would take her. She could hear him behind her, trying to catch up.
Part of her enjoyed the chase, but she did not want him. She had no interest in any of the guests in this house. They may have been fine lords who knew all about pleasure, but they lacked her Joe’s broad shoulders and his kind heart.
“Little wildcat! I’ll have you in front of the whole company for that.” Dillings wheezed.
Not if she could help it. There was only one man, other than her husband, she would ever contemplate even fantasizing about, and that was Lord Linford. Marianne redoubled her efforts, ran down the stairs and lost him in the maze of servants’ corridors. When she was sure he no longer followed, she made her way to the library where she had scoped out a hiding place previously.
Last night I said goodbye,
In the nicest possible way,
To a man I never really met,
But love so anyway.
I knew our love was a mirage,
But now that he told me at long last,
That an old love is becoming new again fast,
I feel lost at sea,
Adrift in the ocean that lays between him and me.
There seems to be water everywhere,
It hangs heavy in the air,
pools in my eyes,
Makes my shoes hard to wear.
My moorings have again slipped away,
No harbor for me,
No sheltering bay.
Again I’m blindly searching for driftwood to keep me afloat
In this vast expanse of loneliness.
Where is my lifeboat?
And all the while I’m happy to know
you found your moorings, your sheltering bay.
Yet, if my dreams don’t lead into your imaginary arms,
Our tenuous link severed,
your love no longer keeping me from harm,
There is no point in dreaming.