A Sneak Peek at Seduction In Silk
(This decades old curse has haunted Perriam Manor, and now it seems it will fall on the new owner, Peregrine Perriam, if he cannot persuade a clergyman’s daughter to marry him. Though inconvenient, that shouldn’t be a challenge. Perry is known for his charms, and Claris Mallow is reduced to living in a ramshackle cottage. Little does he know!)
Perry approached a terrace of four small cottages, skeptical that one housed Miss Claris Mallow, daughter of the Reverend Henry Mallow, once friend of Giles Perriam. On arrival in Old Barford, he’d left his horse at the inn and gone to the rectory, which was a handsome house that couldn’t be more than forty years old. There he’d learned that Mallow was a year dead and that his family was living at Lavender Cottage.
Sometimes “cottage” was applied to a small house of some style and dignity, and that’s what he’d expected. This row lacked both, but the end one on the left was fronted by lavender plants, so that must be his destination. The modern rectory lay only a hundred yards away as the crow flies, but it was a hundred miles away in all other respects. Henry Mallow hadn’t provided well for his family, but that could be to his own advantage.
If the family was impoverished, Miss Mallow would be eager to wed. In fact, he’d be an angel to rival Gabriel at the Annunciation. Amused by that image, he walked up to the warped door and rapped on it with the head of his riding crop. He’d soon be back in Town.
In the week since Giles’s death, he’d received two reproaches about tasks abandoned when he’d obeyed Cousin Giles’s summons. One was indirectly from the king. There’d also been a fuming letter from his father. As usual, his father fumed to no purpose, for there was nothing to be done about Perriam Manor other than this.
He was about to knock again when the door was opened by a maidservant so short he thought her a child until he saw the wrinkled face. Sixty if she was a day, though when she smiled her teeth all seemed sound.
“Good afternoon, sir. Can I help you?”
“Is Miss Mallow at home?”
“Miss Mallow, is it?” the maid asked, seeming surprised.
“Yes.” Was she married after all? No, for then she’d not be a Mallow.
“She’s in the garden, sir. Would you mind going round, for I’m swabbing the floor.”
He could see the truth of that behind her. The door opened into a front room with an uneven flagstone floor, which was awash with water. A mop was propped against the wall. Oddly, the room contained a large table and shelves of jars and bottles.
The curse returned unsettlingly to mind.
Clarrie had laid a curse on Giles, and her sister, Nora, had claimed to know how to raise it. Nora was Claris Mallow’s mother.
Would he be marrying into a family of witches? Witches who knew how to cast curses?
Even so, it must be done.
“A shame to bring Miss Mallow indoors on such a lovely day,” Perry agreed. “The path to my left?”
“That’s right, sir. She’ll likely be down the end.”
Whatever that meant. Perry headed for the path.
The cottage was in a poor state, but it had some rural charms. The path was bordered on the right by a bed bursting with colorful flowers, worked over by bees on this sunny afternoon. To his left lay a hedge, twitteringly full of birds.
When he came to the end of the path, he found a contrast. Far less color here, because the garden was devoted to herbs. He had little interest in horticulture, but he was sure everything here had its purpose for cooking or healing, even the brash marigolds crowding along some edges.
Cooking, healing—and magic?
He looked around for other evidence of witchcraft but found none.
A bench sat in one corner with a wooden table in front of it in a position that would catch the afternoon sun. Behind it, a line strung from house to tree carried a full load of white laundry, stirring in the breeze. His life rarely involved lines of laundry, and there was a simple beauty in the movement.
Then he noted the simplicity of the undergarments and that some were patched or darned.
So where was his bride?
Down the end.
He circled the herb garden and realized that a trellis covered by climbing flowers wasn’t the end of the garden but a partition. He went behind to find a gated fence, and beyond that a vegetable garden being pecked over by hens.
Still no sign of Miss Mallow.
Then a movement drew his eye behind a tall frame covered by scarlet-flowered vines. He went through the gate and walked down a side path.
A sturdy woman was hoeing between rows of cabbages as if weeds were imps from hell. She wore a wide hat from which straw escaped around the edge and from which dark hanks of hair escaped down her back. Her shabby black gown was kirtled up to show battered leather shoes and six inches of dirt-splashed, white-stockings.
Another servant, so Claris Mallow couldn’t be in truly dire straits, alas.
Where was she?
As he approached the woman to ask, she straightened. Some hair must have fallen on her face, for she brushed it away, taking a moment’s rest and turning to look around. At the sight of him, she stared, and something about her manner alerted him to the astonishing truth.
He bowed. “Good day to you, ma’am. Do I address Miss Mallow?”
He still expected denial, probably a laughing denial in a broad country accent, but she said, “Who are you?” in a well-bred voice.
“Your pardon, ma’am. Your servant advised me to come back here. She’s washing the floors.
She laughed then, pushing back her hair again, leaving a dirty streak on her round cheek, and not the first one. She was a mess, but her speech was that of a lady. He’d never imagined his bride with a country burr, but given her appearance it could have been so. He counted his blessings.
“Ellie would do that. I beg your pardon, sir. How may I help you?”
Miss Mallow in the flesh.
How very ordinary she was.
A strange word to come to mind, but appropriate.
She was of average height for a woman, and average build. Her general appearance was below average, but that was because of the dirt, the hat, the extremely unflattering black gown, and the grubby apron. Her face held all the normal features, decently arranged, but her complexion showed that she didn’t wear her battered hat often enough. He reminded himself that her physical attributes made no difference. He must marry her.
“My name is Perriam, Miss Mallow, and I believe your father was once acquainted with a relative of mine, Giles Perriam, of Perriam Manor, Berkshire.”
The details had merely been intended to ease into his subject, so he was surprised to see her eyes widen, perhaps with fear. She did have quite fine eyes—clear and perhaps hazel.
Had she been in her mother’s confidence?
Did she know all about the curse?
She recovered, but her eyes slid from his. “Perriam? Perhaps I do vaguely remember. However, my father is dead.”
“I am aware of that, Miss Mallow. It is with you I wish to speak.”
She focused on him. “Me? About what?”
“It is both complex and delicate. Perhaps we could speak in the house?”
“Not if Ellie’s doing the floors.” He thought she might refuse, but then she shrugged. “We can sit outside.”
She propped her hoe against the frame and led the way back through the gate. Her straight back was tense, but she moved lightly and her shortened skirts swayed with the movement of her hips in a rather attractive way.
She seemed to be a practical, no-nonsense sort of woman, so this should go well.
She led the way into the herb garden and indicated the bench. “Please be seated, Mr. Perriam. I’ll wash my hands and return. Would you like something to drink? We have small beer and cider.”
“Cider, if you please.”
It was a drink he rarely tasted, but it seemed suited to the setting and might make her more at ease. He sat on the bench and reviewed the situation.
Well-spoken, well mannered, and not given to drama. All to the good.
Direct and perhaps brave, which could be challenging in an opponent, but a virtue in a wife.
She wasn’t a beauty, but he’d have no cause to be ashamed of her once she was decently dressed. There were creams and lotions to soften and lighten a lady’s complexion. Given the herbs and the stillroom, it was odd she didn’t employ them already.
A brush on his thigh startled him. A sleek black cat had leapt onto the bench and was staring at him with amber eyes, as if seeking the secrets of his soul. The cat licked his fingers, the tongue abrasive; then, as if it had learned something, it butted his hand. Perry took the hint and stroked it. It purred, and he chuckled.
“Do people always do as you command?”
He continued to stroke, for he liked cats. They were elegant and self-sufficient. They didn’t fawn or learn demeaning tricks, and they would correct sharply if displeased.
Would the cat’s owner have similar qualities?
If so, the marriage might even prove amusing.
Claris hurried into the kitchen, where she poured water into a bowl and washed her hands. She welcomed the blended herbs that made the smell of Athena’s soap so soothing.
“Trouble, is he?” Ellie asked, coming into the kitchen with her mop and bucket.
“He’s a Perriam.”
Ellie had never lived at the rectory, but she’d heard of Reverend Mallow’s ravening guilt over some long-ago sin, a sin connected to a Perriam.
“I’ve offered him cider.”
“Right, then.” Ellie went into the larder to bring out the big earthenware jug.
Claris reached down two glasses from a shelf. They rarely used glasses, but she didn’t feel able to serve that man in a pottery mug. She couldn’t find words to express how he alarmed her.
“His dress is simple—leather breeches, brown jacket—but . . .”
“London made and costly.” Comments like that always pointed to Ellie being more than she seemed. “Don’t you go fussing, dearie. There’s nothing he can do to you, be he ever so grand.”
Claris wished she could feel sure of that.
“It’s not just his clothing. He’s . . . he’s like a butterfly.”
“A butterfly?” Ellie asked, staring.
“Oh, I don’t know. But he moves, he speaks, he gestures . . . nothing like any man around here.”
“London ways, is all. Likely a court gallant.”
“But what’s a court gallant doing here? And what does he want with me?”
“Best take him his cider and find out.”
Claris poured cider into the glasses. “I wish Athena were here.”
“You can deal with him. Whatever brings him, it’s nothing to do with you.”
“I wish I could be sure.”
She’d never told Athena or Ellie about her mother’s obsession with avenging her sister’s death. They knew Claris was named after her dead aunt, Clarrie Dunsworth, but not the rest. It was too demented to be spoken of. Oh, dear heavens, was this man here about her mother’s attempts at blackmail? Mother had been dead for eleven years!
Ellie was frowning at her. “Are you truly frightened, dearie?”
Claris found a smile. “No, and you’re right. Whatever crushed my father with guilt happened long ago and he did his best to suffer for it on earth.”
She hadn’t told Athena or Ellie all about his suffering, either.
She picked up the cider and walked toward the door but paused to steal another look through the half-open window. He was sitting on the bench stroking Yatta. Sitting shouldn’t be remarkable, but she was taken aback by how elegantly he’d disposed himself, probably without thought.
A court gallant.
A court gallant could mean power.
Even the nobility.
Claris had little to do with the local gentry, never mind the nobility, but she’d seen the Marquess and Marchioness of Ashart now and then. They were the local grandees, and their great house, Cheynings, lay not far away, so they sometimes passed by.
Claris realized that was what she’d recognized. This Perriam was from the same mold.
Yatta fancied himself a guard cat, so his verdict was made—Perriam was safe.
Claris feared that this time, the cat was wrong.
His hair should reassure her, for it wasn’t darkly dramatic like the marquess’s. It was brown, wavy, and simply tied back with a black ribbon, but the sun caught copper and gold, making it seem more alive than was natural, and even fiery. . . .
A hank of hair tumbled over her eye, alerting her to what a mess she must be.
She put down the cider, whipped off her hat, then ran to the tiny mirror to pin up her hair, which always stayed stubbornly brown in even the brightest sun.
“If you’re fussing,” Ellie said, “your apron’s grubby.”
Claris whipped it off, but what difference did it make? She was in one of the old mourning gowns she wore for work. She must still look a draggle-tail.
“Oh, don’t be foolish,” she muttered. Her elegant visitor had no more interest in her appearance than he had in the garden gate.
She hurried toward the cider.
“Your skirt, dearie. You’re showing your ankles.”
“He’s already seen them,” Claris retorted, but she unpinned her skirt so it fell to a decent level. Then she picked up the cider and glasses and marched out.
Mr. Perriam dislodged Yatta and rose.
Oh, so gracefully.
Claris set the glasses on the table and sat on the bench, right at one end. He took the hint and sat at the other end, leaving feet of space between them.
Claris took a sip. “Now, Mr. Perriam, how may I help you?”
He, too, sipped and then put his glass down. “As I said, Miss Mallow, my distant cousin, Giles Perriam, knew your father in their younger days. He required me to come here.”
“For what purpose?”
“May I ask what you know of the connection?”
“You may ask, but I see no reason to answer.” Claris realized that was an error, implying that she did know. “Indeed,” she added, taking another drink, “how could I know? The acquaintance occurred before I was born.”
“Stories are passed down in families. In mine, we gnaw on an event many generations ago, when the Perriam lands were divided between two sisters, which led to one part being lost from the whole.”
He’d come to talk of his family’s history? At least that seemed safe.
“Lost?” she said. “Weren’t both sisters of the same family?”
“I salute your common sense, Miss Mallow, but property goes to the eldest son so that it may be kept whole. Keeping estates whole is a sacred trust.”
“Among the grand perhaps. The Perriam family is noble?”
She’d sensed it, but she still hoped it wasn’t true.
“My father is the Earl of Hernescroft.”
Heaven help her. “Then I’m even more surprised that you think you have business with me, sir.”
“Roots and branches can spread a long way. Your parents never spoke of the sad history of your aunt, Clarrie Dunsworth?”
Claris wished she were a better liar. “I know she died young and that my mother believed the blame lay with the man you claim as cousin.”
“Very, very distant cousin. The scion, in fact, of the younger of those sister heiresses, as I am a scion of the older. The two branches of the family are not fond.”
“Yet you come here at his bidding? Enough, Mr. Perriam. I have work to do. What do you want?”
Oh, he wasn’t used to being commanded, this fine gentleman, especially by a woman, and a woman such as she. Claris met his angry eyes.
“I, too, have work to do. My Cousin Giles is recently deceased, and his will requires that I marry you, Miss Mallow. I hope to do it as expeditiously as possible.”
Claris stared, truly speechless.
“Marry me?” she managed at last.
“Marry you. I am Giles Perriam’s heir, but in order to claim the inheritance, I must marry you. It might be some deathbed attempt to put right an old wrong, or even to deflect a curse—”
“—but it is assuredly an act of malice. Still, it must be done.”
Claris rose to her feet, needing a hand on the table to steady herself.
“I fear you are unbalanced, sir. Please leave.”
He, too, rose but made no move to obey. “I’m as sane as any man in this demented world. Come, come, Miss Mallow, don’t cling to the conventional response. The marriage will give you all possible advantages, and I pledge to be an amenable husband.”
“Amenable?” Claris echoed. “Be amenable, sir, by leaving this instant!”
For the first time she noted that he wore a sword.
She moved to one side, putting the length of the table between them.
“Miss Mallow . . .”
She glanced around for any weapon but didn’t even see a trowel.
“Ellie!” she shouted.
Stupid, stupid. What could Ellie do?
Then Ellie came out of the cottage, astonishingly with a pistol in her hands. Though it was a small gun, it seemed too large for her to manage, so Claris snatched it and pointed it, hands trembling.
“Leave, Mr. Perriam, and do not return!”
She’d never held a pistol in her life, and it was shockingly heavy. Could she bring herself to fire it?
“You heard Miss Claris, sir,” Ellie said. “You’d best be off before she does something she’ll regret.”
He suddenly laughed, eyes bright with it. “I’m tempted to test that. But how delightful this is, Miss Mallow. I very much look forward to our further acquaintance.”
His eyes in some way held hers, sending a shocking frisson through her.
But it didn’t feel exactly like fear, even if it did make her knees loosen and her hands tremble. She raised the pistol a little higher, trying to steady it on him.
Without urgency, he picked up his gloves, hat, and riding crop. Then he bowed, in an elaborate style that must surely be from court and power but was all insolence, and walked away. What was worse, he turned his back in complete disregard of the gun. Claris was tempted to shoot him for that alone.
Yatta leapt down and followed, perhaps pretending to himself that he was chasing the enemy away, but Claris knew the truth. They couldn’t have forced that man away if he’d not been willing to go. Even so, she kept the pistol trained on him until he rounded the cottage and was out of sight.
Ellie took the pistol from her weakening hands. “There, there, dearie, he’s gone now.”
Claris collapsed back onto the bench. “He’ll return.”
“Likely he will.”
“Then I will shoot him.” It was the frisson speaking. “Show me how.”
“It’s not a skill learned in a day, dearie. This one isn’t loaded or primed or I’d not have let you take it.”
Claris sank her head in her hands. She’d threatened him with nothing, and perhaps he’d known that. She looked up to glare at the gun. “Where did that thing come from? Why do you have a pistol?”
“We’ve been in some unruly places, Athena and I.” Ellie put the pistol on the table and sat beside Claris to take one of her hands. “Now, dearie, what did he do to set you screeching?”
Claris clutched that hand. “I’d think I’d dreamed it if not for those two glasses. And the pistol. Ellie, he proposed marriage! No, he didn’t propose. He stated that he was going to marry me. As if I had no say in the matter at all!”
“Perhaps he thought you’d snatch at the chance.”
“That’s it! He did. Said how comfortable I would be, how amenable he would be. How dare he?”
“Like I said, he likely thought you’d be honored, a fine gentleman like him. Though that could be a sham. Many a fine man eats oats.”
“Or any other poor food. If you’re thinking of it—”
“Of marrying him? Of course not!”
“I’m merely saying that if you were, you’d best confirm that he’s as prosperous as he seems. But then, why should he deceive you? That’s the line a scoundrel takes with an heiress.”
Claris shook her head. “I think you’re as mad as he is. I have no intention of marrying anyone, be he rich as Croesus, but certainly not a stranger claiming to be forced into it.”
“Forced? Now, that’s interesting. It’d take a bit to force a man like that.” Ellie pushed to her feet and picked up the pistol. “You tell us all about it when Athena’s home. But for now, I’ve the floors to finish and the stew to tend.”
Ellie looked at her. “Perhaps that’s best. Keep busy, dearie. And keep an open mind.”
“On marriage to that wretch? Closed as a tomb. I’m mistress of my life, and so I shall remain.”
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