The Duchess and The Highwayman
A Victorian Romantic Suspense due for release late in 2016.
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 glutinous 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 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.”
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.
“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.”
Instantly Wentworth was behind her, his breath hot on the back of her neck as he gripped her hand.
“I thought you’d never say it, my sweet.” He sucked gently at the hollow at the nape of her neck, twisting a tendril of her hair around his forefinger while Phoebe’s insides clenched with revulsion. Once, though, Wentworth had thrilled her with his charm. She, who’d not known what it was to be wooed, had fallen for the oldest trick in the book.
“But Ulrick will need—”
“Ulrick looks comfortable to me.” Wentworth moved her in front of him and tipped her chin to look into her eyes, his voice as thick as treacle. “Come, my sweeting. Let us do Ulrick’s bidding.”
Another rattling cough from the armchair was cut short by her husband’s rasping, feeble voice. “Phoebe?”
Phoebe was for once glad of the chance to go to him. “Not tonight, Wentworth,” she whispered over her shoulder, kneeling at his lordship’s knee and arranging her shawl about him. “Ulrick needs me.”
“Ulrick ne’er needed oo.”
Phoebe’s stricken look was met by Wentworth’s satisfied grin. “Ulrick never needed you,” he interpreted. “That is, he only needed you to provide him with an heir that wasn’t an imbecile, which you failed to do.” He bent at the waist and put his mouth to his cousin’s ear. “My dear Ulrick, I was about to take your wife to bed however she appears to think you’d prefer her tonight.”
“Never wanted her. Go!” The old man flicked a trembling hand in the direction of the door and with a chuckle Wentworth gave Phoebe a push as she straightened. She stumbled a few steps, regaining her balance only because Wentworth swung her round to face him, one hand gripping the back of her neck, the other her chin. Over his shoulder she could see Ulrick snoring again, his head at an odd angle upon the cushion; dribbling his bile upon the handiwork which was all she’d ever been good for.