The Duchess and The Highwayman
A Regency-set 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 wafted a fastidious hand about 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.”
Sir Roderick straightened his spare, weedy frame, which she saw trembled with supressed outrage at being so summarily dismissed by the lady of the house.
Phoebe refused to turn away from his challenging gaze. Sir Roderick 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, 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.
“The doctor doubts Ulrick will make Michelmas.” The lazy drawl of her husband’s cousin punctuated the silence as Phoebe resumed her position in an armchair by the fire.
Wentworth raised his cut glass tumbler to the light as he sighed in appreciation of Ulrick’s best brandy. He took a sip and smacked his lips, meeting Phoebe’s eye across her sleeping husband whom she’d made more comfortable in his large leather armchair with the tasselled cushion Phoebe had embroidered to support his neck.
The odious creature could not help but interpret Phoebe’s critical expression correctly, but there was no defensiveness in his tone as he chuckled. “The old bastard can’t enjoy his riches when he’s gone.” His teeth were white; sharp and wolfish beneath his black moustache and Phoebe looked away, pretending concentration on her handiwork while her stomach clenched with revulsion and fear. She would not dignify Wentworth’s grasping remarks with a response.
For a few minutes Ulrick’s wheezing, rattling cough and the hiss of the fire broke the silence. The harsh caw of a raven in the darkness made Phoebe jump but she kept her fingers busy with her embroidery and her head averted from Wentworth’s hard stare.
Tonight? Would Wentworth insist on claiming her tonight, with Ulrick so very ill and likely to need her?
Wentworth drained his glass, placing the empty vessel clumsily upon the low table beside him. Empty vessel. It’s what she’d always been made to feel as Ulrick’s wife. “Ulrick was always mean with his liquor. A good supply for his heir, then, eh, Phoebe?” Ulrick’s Heir. Wentworth imbued the word with the disgust he’d always felt for the fact that Wentworth was not Ulrick’s heir. It was hardly better than the reproach that had always hardened Ulrick’s tone in the days he could speak and implied that Phoebe had failed in providing him with a son to continue the family line.
Phoebe glanced up and saw Wentworth’s thin lips were pursed, observing fleetingly that he looked like a malevolent raven, his dark eyes glittering in the face she’d once thought so handsome. She tried not to show her fear.
“How long do you suppose it’ll take my brother to drink the lot once he inherits?” There it was. The bitterness he didn’t bother to hide.
“Hush, Wentworth. You’ll wake Ulrick.” Phoebe cast the sleeping invalid a nervous look.
“The doctor opines that our poorly Lord Cavanaugh will not last three months.” Wentworth didn’t trouble to lower his voice. “My guess is he’ll be gone long before Michealmas.”
Phoebe could bear it no longer. She dropped her handiwork into her lap and sent her husband’s regular and increasingly unwelcome guest an imploring look. “Please, Wentworth. He’s not dead yet. Have the good grace to keep such thoughts to yourself. What if he hears you?”
Wentworth gave a short laugh. “What do I have to lose by my graveyard talk? It’s not as if Ulrick’s in any position to deny me what my imbecile brothers already have simply by virtue of them being alive.”
How many times had she heard the same complaints? Phoebe forced aside her weary frustration and rose. “I’m going to bed.”