The Duchess and The Highwayman
A Victorian Romantic Suspense due for release 13 June, 2017.
It was an evening like any other: dull with a hint of menace and tension so thick Phoebe imagined slicing a neat hole in it and disappearing magically into a new life.
Any would do.
The company had retired to the dim, close drawing room, gentlemen included, following a gluttonous dinner. By the fireplace, Phoebe worked at her embroidery, glad to be ignored though she knew that wouldn’t last for long.
The reprieve was even briefer than she’d anticipated. Brutus exhaled on a shuddering snore truncated by a yelp as he chased rabbits in his dreams; this caused James the footman, who was stooping over Ulrick in the act of offering his master a drink, to jump in fright and deposit a snifter of brandy upon her husband’s waistcoat. Not that it would concern Ulrick who was snoring more loudly than Brutus and whose waistcoat was already stained with drool.
The footman cast the mistress a sideways glance as he unwound his lordship’s stock and dabbed at the sticky mess but Phoebe held her tongue and made do with a dispassionate look. She’d never liked James. She was certain he’d conspired with Ulrick on more than a few occasions to put her on the back foot and to tarnish her name below stairs. Despite her obvious disdain, she was afraid of the power he wielded.
“That will be all, James.” She rose with a dismissive wave and the rustle of silken skirts. “I’ll attend to my husband. Please see Mr Barnaby and Sir Roderick out.”
Sir Roderick, that most unwelcome of neighbours, appeared before her, bony and wraithlike, malevolent as ever. “I believe your dog that needs more attention than Lord Cavanaugh.” His thin mouth turned up in a parody of amusement as he waved a fastidious in front of his nose, indicating Brutus’s greater guilt than his master’s snoring.
Phoebe offered Sir Roderick a cold smile. On the other side of the room, Ulrick’s two other guests conversed in low voices by the window.
She inclined her head as she ignored his attempt at levity. “Good night, Sir Roderick.”
Nor did she turn away from his challenging gaze as he straightened his spare, weedy frame, which she saw trembled with supressed outrage at being so summarily dismissed by the lady of the house.
Sir Roderick, she knew, was another who couldn’t wait until the doors of Blinley Manor were closed against her the moment Ulrick breathed his last. She’d offended his honour, no doubt, having bitten his lip and kneed him in the groin six months before when he’d accosted her in a dimly lit corridor and suggested in lewd terms how he might assist in the creation of an heir for the already ailing Ulrick. An heir that would ensure Phoebe kept a roof over her head.
Ulrick stirred to wakefulness with a grunt but Phoebe ignored him.
“My husband is attempting, with the limited faculties yet available to him, to wave you farewell, Sir Roderick.” She struggled to keep the acid from her tone. Sir Roderick was a powerful neighbour. He was also the local magistrate and self-proclaimed arbiter on acceptable behaviour; not a man she’d have chosen to cross had she been given an alternative. She bowed her head. “His strength is exhausted and I need to see him to bed.”
Sir Roderick flicked a glance towards Wentworth and Mr Barnaby then pushed his skull-like head, which reminded Phoebe of an oddly shaped mushroom sprouting some form of fungus, into her face.
“You’ll be sorry—after your husband is gone—if you don’t take advantage of the kindness I’m still prepared to offer you, Lady Cavanaugh.” His thin fingers dug into her wrist as he all but dribbled down her cleavage and Phoebe, icily composed until now, whipped her head round in sudden panic and met the amusement in her husband’s dull, onyx eyes as he regarded the scene.
She breathed in despair and exhaled on resignation. Although Ulrick could barely communicate these days, he was still more cognisant of what was going on around him than most people believed. But he would never champion her. He never had and he’d not start now.
Phoebe hoped he didn’t hear the fear in her whisper. “I would rather copulate with an adder, Sir Roderick.” It was an unwise response though being blunt had to be better than a ladylike dismissal which might lead him to try a repeat of his predatory behaviour.
Sir Roderick glanced over her shoulder as if to ensure they remained out of earshot of the remaining two guests still conversing by the window. “You may discover, some day, Lady Cavanaugh, that my bite is far more dangerous.” His nostrils flared as he pinched her hand before releasing it. “Indeed, I’ll ensure you rue the day you threw my kindness back in my face.”
Kindness? “Good night, gentlemen.” With a rustle of her skirts that hinted at the outrage more eloquently than Phoebe could put into words, she turned her back on the company and swept over to Ulrick’s side. Her heart beat painfully as she rearranged his pillows, and the closing of the door on the last of their neighbours to leave offered only a small measure of relief. There was still Wentworth to deal with.