Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Serial: Lord Merville's Whore


I did say earlier in the year that I might spring an older project out of the closet to serialize. I've loved this novel each time I've worked on it, but somehow it always gets pushed aside in favour of something with an imminent deadline. Maybe posting it here will inspire me to pick up the reins again. Anyway, it's a highwayman story set in the early 1700's with a fair bit of erotic mixed in, though I'd hesitate to call it a romance. It's more romantic elements. The location is Durham in the North-east of England.

Lord Merville's Whore: Chapter One
Madelynne Ellis
All Rights Reserved.



Monday 18th March 1715, Frosterley Hall, County Palatine of Durham

“No! Put it back.”

Her shriek echoed down the grand staircase instantly silencing the mob below and stilled the theft of the furnishings. Heart pounding, Thea Roche leaned over the balcony to peer at the sea of unfamiliar faces: an audience of men in rough clothing and dirty boots. Who were they? What were they doing here? And in God’s name, where were the servants?

Cold from more than just the chill in the air, she stood before the gathering of men in her shift and un-tightened stays, with her hair loose about her shoulders, missing all the usual finery that she might at least have hidden behind. The sense of exposure compounded the morning chill with a succession of nervous shivers. Yet, outside the sun was high risen. Its golden rays flooded through the colored glass in the window above the colossal entryway, splashing the assembled group with both gold and bloody streaks.

Had the talk of rebellion metamorphosed into action over night, so that if she stepped outside she’d find the fields littered with corpses?

Phillip, her husband, had not a political bone in his body. Only a fool would mistake them as Jacobins or Catholics.

Her gaze raced over the crowd. No, these were not men-at-arms. Nor were they a shifty rabble of thieves. They were too orderly for that.

The dull scrape of boots to her left sounded too close. Heart pounding, she turned, and discovered a pair of the ruffians had sneaked up the grand stairs to the first landing, and were now manipulating her cumbersome wedding portrait from its anchorage.

“Leave it!” She scooped up a candelabrum, and rushed at the pair, instinct leading where experience failed her. The candelabrum sailed free of her palm, and though it fell woefully short of its mark, it still achieved its goal. The two men gawped at her, and in their surprise dropped the huge portrait, which toppled forwards and slid down the stairs like an enormous golden pie-tin, causing a hurried retreat of those men encroaching upon the bottom steps. The painting hit the marble tiles with the percussive crash of a military band, and separated the canvas from its frame.

In the stillness that followed, her voice rang out, thin and reedy over the crowd. “Leave here. Get out, and no action will be taken against you.” Unsurprisingly, her feeble threat met with laughter, jovial croaks that soon transformed into jeers and coarse proposals.

“We’ll leave when we’ve taken what we’ve come for.” A single clear voice rose above the other murmurings, and instantly quelled the catcalls. Her pulse further quickened. Who had such power? She scried the room for their leader, but failed to pick him out.

She wasn’t up to this task.

Although quietened, the men still sneered up at her. There were too many to fight alone. Phillip would have to be roused to deal with them.

Hugging herself, she hurried across the landing to her husband’s chamber. The door stood ajar. Still, the heavy oak creaked as she inched her way inside. Not even a mob counteracted eighteen months of hard earned experience. Phillip never rose before two in the afternoon due to a perpetual morning malaise of migraines that also rendered him as fearsome as wild boar. The bruise from the first time she’d roused him may have long since faded through brown and yellow, but the memory of it remained as sharp as the pain of the impact that had caused it.

He’d understand the current threat, though, surely.

When no snuff box sailed towards her, her breath released as a hiss. Phillip’s bed lay empty. Where in heavens was he?

A shuffling sound to the right seemed to provide the answer.

“Phillip?” She turned towards the noise only for it to cease. The hairs on the back of her neck rose. Were the men all over the house already? Had they dragged Phillip from his bed?

A burst panic threatened her rigid composure. She bit it back and rubbed furiously at her bare arms. She needed to find a shawl.

The shuffling began again. “Who is it? Who is there?”

The catch of the walnut bureau released with a pop, and swung open to reveal the dainty form of their between-maid squashed in beside a pile of pillowslips.

“Lucy, come out of there at once.”

The girl gave a frightened squeak, then lurched out of her hiding place and dropped into a hasty curtsy. There wasn’t time to question her presence in the room, though Thea filed away the potential misdemeanor to address with the housekeeper later. Regardless of what was going on, they couldn’t have the maids running amok in the master’s suite.

“Where is Mr. Roche?”

Two timid blue eyes widened with alarm. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but he’s gone. The bailiffs took him about a half-hour ago.”

“He’s been arrested?”

“’Twas said he owed folks here about too much money.”

“Ridiculous.” She snapped her fingers in the poor girl’s face, and yet even as she said it, doubts were already seeping in. The estate was flourishing. They’d had plenty of lambs that spring, but there was no avoiding the fact that Phillip was a born gambler. So, he’d given her a set of emeralds on Thursday, they’d no doubt been spoils from a night at the tables, but fortunes could change at the turn of a card. How much had he lost, that the bailiffs—for that’s surely who they were—were required to seize him from his bed and strip the house of its furnishings? “Where have they taken him?” She sounded composed, but her limbs were quivering.

“The gaol house, ma’am. It’s where they hold them what can’t pay. The true felons they send up to Durham.”

Then they were likely only just arrived at the jail. She’d go after them.

“Why wasn’t I woken?” The question met with a swift shake of the head. “Never mind. Help me dress and go and see that Noakes has a horse saddled. I’ll have to ride into town and see to the master’s release.”

Evidently perplexed by the task, the maid shifted from one foot to the other.

“I’ll dress first,” Thea elaborated. “Then you may go and deliver my instruction to Noakes.”

“He ain’t here, ma’am. He left with the other servants when Stark and his men turned up. There didn’t seem much point in staying if there weren’t going to be anything left. We will get our wages, won’t we, ma’am?”

Wages?

Left!

The servants had deserted, and bailiffs were stripping her house. Another thought struck her. “The others left, but you stayed.” She pinned the girl with her gaze. “Why?”

Lucy squinted up at her. “Didn’t have nowhere else to go, ma’am, and I overheard some of the men saying that the owner is on his way here, so I thought I’d stay and see if he needed me.”

Thea’s hands felt as slick as if she’d salved them with soap. She grabbed the girl, her fingers digging into the coarse fabric of her sleeve. She wanted to ask—to somehow make sense of what was going on, but to do so would topple any status still remaining her. The Roche’s had owned Frosterley for centuries, the property having passed to Phillip upon his father’s death. She’d always assumed it entailed. Dear God, if it wasn’t… Tears stung her eyes. She released the maid and turned away to hide the burst of emotion, determined to maintain her dignity. She’d hold her head high, no matter what.

What have you done to us, Phillip?

She had to seek out his friends, and appeal to them for aid. Charlie Pounder would know what to do. The notary had known Phillip since boyhood, he’d see to the release and set things right again. Likely he had already caught wind of events and was acting.

Knuckles pressed to her lips, she wandered back onto the landing, the little between-maid following at her heels like a devoted lapdog. Now stripped of many of its tapestries and paintings, the hall seemed over large and echoic. The jocular voices of the men rose and fell in grating harmony as they dragged the furnishings onto lawn. She didn’t want to leave Frosterley in their possession, but she had to reach Phillip.

“Begging your pardon, ma’am.” Lucy danced around her to tug at her sleeve. “But there’s a man coming.”

A man…

Thea lifted her teary gaze from the sea of worker ants in the hall, to the crest of the stairs. The man stood in the shadow of the chandelier, rendering his features indistinct, though his blond ringlets gleamed as they caught the light reflected off the chandelier crystals. He took a pace towards them, revealing a slender figure dressed in an outfit of tailored figured-silk. A full-skirted coat and a waistcoat of damask butterflies lay over knee breeches, which he wore tucked into his white stockings.
With an alarmed squeak, the maid took off along the corridor. Thea watched her flight with an irritated sigh. Presumably, this was the authority that had been sent with the order of Phillip’s arrest. Though in truth, this strutting cockerel seemed a little weak to be charged with such a task.

He stopped before her, and bowed courteously over his beribboned cane. “Mrs. Roche, I presume. Allow me to present myself. I am Edmund Stark, Thieftaker General for Durham, appointed by the Lord Bishop himself to scourge this principality of felons. Your servant.”

“And what business does the Bishop’s Scourge have in my home?”

Stark lifted his head.

Thea gasped. A cockerel, he was, a fighting cock. He smiled and the expression tugged new creases into the web of red and silver scars that crossed his left eye and pinched the tip of his cheek. The iris itself was milky. Yet at the same time, he was breathtakingly lovely. Once, Mr. Stark’s beauty would have been celebrated and immortalized. She could see artists queuing to paint the perfect ridge of his nose and the sweep of his delicately colored cheek. He’d make a perfect Archangel, lit by a halo of fire, and yet he stood before her, utterly ruined.

Hand clasped fast to her lips, she stared at him, unable to look away as he turned his head, showing her first his flawless profile and then his ruined one. The widest of his scars was the same breadth as her finger, a ruddy brown streak that pinched the ridge of his cheekbone.

“What happened?”

“At eight o’clock this morning, my men took your husband, Mr. Phillip Roche of Frosterley Hall into custody. He is to be held at the Lord Bishop’s mercy until funds are made available to settle with his creditors, or his trial is brought before the court.”

He knew that was not what she had meant. Knew it and hated her for her sympathy. She could see it in his eyes; hear it in the rasp of his voice.

“I must also inform you that you are to leave Frosterley Hall immediately. Shelter can be provided at the gaol house with your husband, assuming no other provisions are available to yourself.”

Then it was true that Phillip had lost everything, that they were reduced to living with society’s excrement. She couldn’t go to the gaol house. She couldn’t live among the stink and the vermin. Cold sweat ran down her back. “No.” She grasped Stark’s lace-enshrouded hand, only to feel him recoil. “This estate has belonged to the Roche’s for centuries. How much does he owe that the sum cannot be met by the sale of assets?” Surely, they’d have something left for a cottage, enough, at least, to live in impoverished gentility in one of the larger estate cottages, the main house closed until their fortunes turned.

“Frosterley is now the property of the Earl of Elsdon.”

“Elsdon!” Shock prevented further questions. If that were true, then Phillip’s arrest wasn’t the only concern. She had to leave here immediately. “I need to collect my things.”

As they’d spoken the mob had encroached upon the landing like a rising squall, and now flowed around them as if she and Mr. Stark were two insignificant boulders in a stream. As she watched, several paintings were passed from man to man down the stairs to languish in piles with their other seized possessions.

Stark’s laugh was mirthless and cruel. “A lady’s assets belong to her husband. Make sure that which you collect does indeed belong to you in the eyes of the law.”

“I mean only to collect my clothes.”

“And your jewels? I think perhaps we ought to aid you pack.” A further smile creased his face. “Grint.” He snapped his fingers, summoning a robust thug to his side. “Mrs. Roche requires some assistance.”

The trickle of sweat now plastered her chemise to her flesh. Thea back stepped only of find herself encircled by a human fence. The mob had stilled, and now surrounded her and Stark. “Don’t touch me.”

“Nobody is going to touch you.”

“Then let me pass.”

With the subtlest of nods, Stark parted the crowd, so that a channel opened in their midst just wide enough for her to pass through to her chamber.

Thea tentatively put one foot before the other. There was mischief to this. She should have made more effort to keep the maid at her side. Whatever plans Stark and Grint had, she didn’t imagine he’d simply allow her to pack her belongings and walk out.

“Nice piece of mutton for a lady,” she overhead someone in the line mutter.

Grint, who followed two steps behind her, responded with a throaty chuckle. “Aye, I fancy a squeeze of those titties meself.”

Thea paused, still several yards from her bedchamber door. “I need a maid. Someone else to be present. I’m a lady. It’s not done to be alone with a man.”

“You ain’t going to be alone.” The thump of Grint’s meaty fist upon her back sent her tottering forward. “Mr. Stark and I are going to be with you.”

Thea caught herself against the wainscoting. “No.” Did the pie-faced fool genuinely think she was going to allow him to rape her? “There needs to be a woman present.” She turned slowly, and beseeched Stark with her gaze.

His lips drew into a tight sneer. “We don’t have time to fetch one.” The skirt of Stark’s coat brushed her side. Thea further squashed herself to the wainscoting. “I’ll fight.”

“Best you take her at her word, Mr. Stark. Mrs. Roche does like to make difficulties.”

She leapt as if scalded at the new voice. Back pressed tight to the wall, her hands splayed out to the sides, Thea searched the crowd over Stark’s shoulder. So he’d come. Come to claim his property before she’d had a chance to flee. Acid rose, scoring lines of fire inside her throat as Richard, Lord Merville, stepped into the channel of men. Thick ebony locks fell in a tumbling cascade over his broad shoulders. He wore deep red. He’d always looked best in red. The velvet embroidered with black frogging and glass beads. Her gaze strayed lower, taking him in from tip to toe. The same familiar red lined boots graced his feet, still polished to resemble the glassy surface of a lake at midnight. His coat fastened at his narrow waist with a single button, although the garment sported upward of thirty. She dared not look higher and meet his eyes for fear of her reaction. Seeing him always made her heart turn over, once with love, now with a combination of hatred and regret.

Ever since they’d mentioned Elsdon, she’d known it wouldn’t be the Earl who made an appearance, but his eldest son. By all accounts, Elsdon himself was troubled with gout that kept him confined to a chaise he inhabited day and night.

Teeth gritted, she risked one brief glimpse at Richard, who in return gave her a teasingly sardonic grin.

“It’s good to see you again, Thea.” He pried her fingers away from the wood and raised them to his lips. A moist kiss brushed the skin at the base of her thumb, while his amber-colored eyes focused fully upon her face. She couldn’t honestly say the pleasure was mutual. Oh, there’d been times when she’d genuinely longed to see him, she’d cried herself to sleep wishing that all that had passed over the last troubled years had been a mistake and that she was still the besotted carefree girl of two winters ago.

He’d killed that. He’d destroyed everything precious between them.

Traitor.

“Good morning, Lord Merville.” Mr. Stark extended his hand between them.

“Edmund.” Richard barely inclined his head. Instead, his gaze remained fastened upon her, while his tongue slowly traced the ridges of his teeth. “You may leave.” He shooed Stark and the rest of the audience away. “Shall we?” he asked her, and with a lift of his chin indicated her chamber door. “Surely, you’ll not object to the aid of an old friend.”

Objections—oh, there were plenty of them, not that there was any purpose in putting them into words. When had he ever paid more than a cursory regard to her feelings? Not when he’d deserted her. Not when he’d gleefully married his bride. And yet, she walked in ahead of him.

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