'Secrets of the Night' excerpt
Secrets of the Night is the fourth novel in the Malloren series
North Yorkshire, August 1762
It was a simple matter to sin, wasn't it? Didn't they call it the "primrose path of dalliance"?
In the swaying, rumbling coach, Rosamunde Overton sat at equal distance from all panes of glass, fleeing back home, cowardly virtue still intact.
She'd been afraid of coach windows since the accident that scarred her face, but she hadn't realized how afraid of everything she had become. A person confined to bed loses the strength in their legs. She, huddled away for eight years in the quiet of Wensleydale, had lost all strength when it came to meeting strangers.
Especially when it came to sinning with them!
Sagging in her seat, she gazed at a landscape that seemed to reflect her mood. Scrubby sheep runs on rising ground were hung over by dismal clouds, remnants of the storm that had slowed her journey. Daylight was only a crimson memory, moonlight a pale promise, so she moved ponderously in the corpse-gray time between.
Sin had seemed straightforward enough when she and Diana had planned it. Her husband, her home, and all the people at Wenscote needed a child, but her husband couldn't give her one. So, she would wear a mask and surrender to the anonymous wildness of a Harrogate masquerade. As Diana had promised, there had been men interested in sinning with her. Interested -- though none realized it -- in helping her get with child without the man involved knowing who she was.
She closed her eyes. It should have been so easy!
Yet instead of encouraging any of them, she'd flitted from partner to partner, nervously seeking a seducer more to her liking. What on earth had she expected?
A handsome prince?
A dashing Lovelace?
A noble Galahad?
As the evening whirled on, she'd realized such dream lovers didn't exist, but by then she'd become too aware of the real men's faults. Fat bellies, bad teeth, lascivious eyes, wet lips, dirty hands, knock knees....
Even with a number of glasses of wine firing her blood, she'd lost her nerve and fled. At first light, before Diana stirred, she'd ordered her carriage to take her back into the dales, to safety, to Wenscote. Wenscote, a sanctuary she didn't deserve since she wasn't willing to save it. Without a child, the estate would one day pass to Edward Overton, her husband's nephew. Edward would immediately turn it over to his severe religious sect. Her husband was not a well man, and her failure might even hasten his death. Might kill the kindly man who'd given a wounded sixteen-year-old shelter. Dr. Wallace said that the worry was aggravating Digby's internal problems and dizzy spells.
It should have been so easy!
Rosamunde surrendered to an idyllic picture of a happy Digby, enjoying watching the child grow and learn about its inheritance. Perhaps with a child to think of, he'd even follow the doctor's orders about plain food and little drink. Tears stung her eyes, but tears of longing. The key, however, was not wistful dreams but sin and consequences, and there she'd failed-
Snapping out of her useless thoughts, she let down the window. "Stop!"
"Stop, milady?" asked the coachman.
"Yes, stop! Immediately!"
The coach jerked to a halt, coming to rest at a slight angle, so that Rosamunde's maidservant, bonelessly snoring opposite her, almost toppled her considerable bulk onto her mistress. She braced to hold Millie off, then eased her back onto her own seat.
"Is there a problem, milady?" Garforth shouted down.
"I thought I saw something lying by the road. Perhaps a person. Send Tom back to see."
The coach lurched as the young groom leaped down. Leaning out, Rosamunde followed his progress in the gloom. "A little further, Tom. No, further out. Near that gorse!"
"Heck, it is an all," the groom said, sliding down a slight dip and crouching. He looked up. "It's a man, Mr. Garforth!"
Rosamunde opened the door, held up her wide skirts, and jumped down to the road. "Is he dead?" she called as she ran over.
"Dead drunk more like, milady. Though what he's doing way out here..."
Rosamunde peered into a boggy dip. "He'll catch his death. Can you get him up?"
Tom shoved his big hands under the man's arms and lifted. He was a strapping fellow, but wet as his load was, and a dead weight, it took even him a while to drag the man onto the road. Rosamunde fell to her knees beside the bundle that reeked of wet wool and gin.
Grimacing, she felt his chilly wrist for a pulse. Alive, at least. Muttering at the dismal light, she checked by feel for wound or injury, but found none. As Tom said, dead drunk, even though they were miles from the nearest inn.
"What we going to do with him, milady?" Tom asked.
"Take him with us, of course."
"Nay, you don't want to do that. Who knows what he is? Not from these parts, and that's a fact."
And that pretty well consigned him to the devil. Rosamunde looked Tom in the eye. "Are we of the priests and Levites, then, to pass by on the other side of the road? Or are we Good Samaritans? Tell Garforth to back the coach to here."
With a shake of his head, the groom trotted off. Despite her biblical references, she was sure he was anxious to confer with the senior servant about her mad behavior. It wasn't mad, however. She couldn't abandon this man, even if he was a "furriner" and a drunk. Nights were cold up here even in summer, and soaking as he was, he might not survive.
As the coach began to creak backward toward her, the horses having to be coaxed to this unusual maneuver, Rosamunde studied her living parable in the fading light. Could he, like the man on the road to Jericho, have been set upon by thieves?
Unlikely. Even the dim light would have shown bruises or blood. No, he was doubtless just a wretch who'd drunk too much.
Not a vagrant, though, despite the stink and the stubble on his jaw. With careful fingers she assessed his sturdy cloth breeches and jacket. Respectable clothes with a modest trim of braid and horn buttons. His waistcoat was plain, his neckcloth untrimmed by lace.
It all spoke of a steady man with employment and responsibilities. That puzzled her. In her experience, drunkards came from the lowest and highest ranks of society, not from the hardworking, middling classes she knew best.
He was wearing riding boots. Perhaps that explained things. Perhaps he'd toppled drunk from his horse.
"A proper mystery, aren't you?" she muttered, and gingerly checked his pockets. She felt particularly awkward about sliding her hand down the ones in his snug-fitting breeches. She couldn't help but touch the shape of his flaccid manly parts. It was all for nothing. Apart from a plain handkerchief, his pockets were empty. Perhaps he had been robbed at that, or had drunk down to his last penny.
She used his handkerchief to gently wipe some of the mud off his face. As the coach slowly eased beside her, the lanterns threw a pool of flickering light on her task.
Despite stubble, scrapes, and a minor bruise on his cheekbone, he was doubtless some woman's darling, this one. Not a glorious face, but a pleasing one, with regular features well arranged, features that even unconscious hinted at smiles rather than frowns.
Suddenly tender, Rosamunde cradled his stubbled cheek in one hand, pleased she'd be able to return him to the people he smiled for. She could only hope he'd be wiser for his experience. He wouldn't have a chance if he caught an inflammation of the lungs.
"I'm doing my best, milady."
(They take the unconscious man to the nearest haven, the dower house of Arradale, the estate owned by Rosamunde's cousin, Diana, Countess of Arradale.)
It seemed an age before the coach swayed into the lane leading to the dower house. Rosamunde was sure the man's pulse was weaker. She eased from under him, and as soon as the coach halted, leaped down and ran over to thunder the knocker. There were no lights, but she knew the caretakers would be there in their own quarters.
The door was opened by gaunt Mrs. Yockenthwait, peering suspiciously into the gloom. "Why, Lady Overton!"
"I've an injured man in the coach. Can Mr. Yockenthwait help bring him in?"
In moments, the blanket-wrapped man was being carried through the door.
"The kitchen," said the housekeeper brusquely. "Can't have all that dirty water on the good floors."
Tom and wiry Mr. Yockenthwait carried the bundle down a corridor and into the stone-flagged kitchen, warm with the heat from the big hearth. The men then hurried off to help Garforth with the horses.
"You'll be staying the night, milady," said Mrs. Yockenthwait, and it wasn't a question. "It's late to be traveling."
"We've come from Harrogate, and the rains turned the roads into mire. Then we stopped to pick up this man. He was just lying there!" Rosamunde heard her own weak panic and made herself take a breath. "We have to get him out of his wet clothes."
"No doubt of that," said the woman, rolling up her sleeves. "Come on, Millie."
Millie had settled her bulk into a chair, but she prepared to heave herself out of it.
"Rest, Millie," said Rosamunde. "I'll help."
Mrs. Yockenthwait gave her a disapproving frown, probably for pampering Millie Igby, though it might be because she was about to handle a naked man. "I'm a married woman, Mrs. Yockenthwait," she said firmly, hoping no one guessed that in eight years of marriage, she'd never seen a man's body. "Anyway, don't you have a maid to help you now your daughters are married?"
"Jessie goes to bed with the sun, milady. I insist on it, for she's to be up with the sun, too. We're about ready for our beds ourselves."
And God fearing folk, it was clear, did not travel after sunset.
Rosamunde ignored the woman's bark, which had never been matched with a bite, and stripped off her gloves, hat, and cloak. As an afterthought, since there were no strangers here -- or no conscious ones -- she shed the lacy cap with the frills and lappets that hid the side of her face. She traced her major scar, however, up from her lip to the corner of her right eye. What would happen if he regained consciousness and saw her looming over him?
She gave herself a little shake, and knelt to help the older woman unwind the blankets. Being stronger, Mrs. Yockenthwait lifted him, while Rosamunde struggled to peel the sodden clothes from his upper body -- jacket, waistcoat, neckcloth, and shirt.
When it was done, she was hot and winded, but he was still clammy with cold. She helped Mrs. Yockenthwait rub him briskly with warm, rough cloths, and felt rewarded when he began to shiver, even if his teeth did chatter alarmingly.
"That's good, isn't it?" she asked.
"Aye, but we need to really warm him. I'll fetch dry blankets and some wrapped bricks."
Soon his upper half was swathed, and the teeth chatter stopped. Rosamunde grabbed a towel and dried his brown hair.
Then they started on his lower half.
It was terribly difficult to get his boots off. Rosamunde was afraid that they'd twist or even break his ankles, but it had to be done and when they tossed them aside to leak onto the tiled floor, his stockinged feet didn't seem to be out of shape. It took very little time then to rid him of the rest of his clothes. Though Rosamunde tried not to look at his private parts, she couldn't help getting a glimpse.
The hard thing that always seemed to hurt was rather endearing lying soft against his hairy thigh....
She hastily looked away, hoping Mrs. Yockenthwait took her red cheeks for exertion. She again helped with the brisk drying, deliberately taking the feet and calves, conscious of a strange, illicit pleasure in his well-made body. She'd never considered that a man's body could be so artistic, though she supposed she should have when it was so often portrayed in art.
When they turned him to dry his back, she decided that he could act as model for the sort of painting that hung in Arradale House. They had no such art at home. Digby preferred horses, landscapes, and family portraits. He'd commissioned a traveling artist to paint them as a couple -- she from the good side of course.
Wrapping the warm blanket around the man's legs, she sighed at her hurt over that. Had she wanted her blemishes recorded for posterity? No, but in some strange way she had wanted to be recorded as she really was.
She pushed away her idiotic thoughts and helped turn him on his back. "He's shivering less," she said, "but I think that's because he's warmer, now."
"Aye, but he'd benefit from a hot drink." Mrs. Yockenthwait tried to feed him some tea, but most of it dribbled away.
Rosamunde hovered anxiously. She'd heard of someone lying naked with a chilled person to warm them. She could imagine Mrs. Yockenthwait's reaction to that suggestion!
Suppressing a smile, she brushed hair off his forehead. In the heat from the fire it was drying into curls of a pleasant russet brown. His clean face was every bit as handsome as she'd imagined, even with bruise and stubble. She couldn't possibly let him die. If necessary, she would strip naked and wrap herself up in the blankets with him.
Sliding her fingers down to his neck, she found it reassuringly warmer, his pulse stronger.
While Rosamunde's touch was tentative, the housekeeper pushed her work-worn hand under the blankets, right onto his chest. "Better," she said after a moment. "Sometimes drink seems to preserve them. Now," she said, pushing to her feet, "let me get you some tea, milady."
Rosamunde stood too. By country time, it was late. Millie was already snoring.
As she accepted the tea, she said, "Millie and I will use our usual beds, but I suppose we'll need one for him, too." She looked at the long bundle near the fire. "How long do you think he could stay unconscious?"
"He could sleep the night away, milady. You want to put him in a bedroom?"
Rosamunde started, realizing it was extraordinary to provide such comfort for a vagrant. She looked at him again, a man with no hint of his status other than good looks. He could be the roughest, foulest kind of person. Something about him, however, suggested otherwise, and it was more than a face shaped for smiling.
She suddenly realized it was his hands. They were tucked away now, but as she remembered, they were not at all rough and the nails were neatly trimmed and tended to. And he'd been clean. Oh, he'd been mired up from his misadventure, but when he'd started out on his journey, he'd been as clean and well-groomed as any decent man.
"A bedroom," she repeated firmly. "Millie and I can take care of him. I don't want to give you extra work."
"Her?" Mrs. Yockenthwait said with a scathing look at the storing maid.
"It's not her fault. She gets tired. And cold, even bundled in shawls."
"Aye, her mother were the same. But she can't be much use to you."
"She has to work for someone, and I have little need of fancy care."
The woman shrugged. "Leave him down here, milady. He'll do well enough on the floor, and it's warm by the fire."
"When there are beds upstairs? That seems uncharitable."
Rosamunde knew her insistence must seem strange, but she was coming to understand her own reasons. He was of respectable origins, she was sure, and not out of place above stairs. More than that, he was hers. Her cause. Her living parable. Down here, he'd be out of her orbit, firmly consigned to the servant ranks. Upstairs, he would be hers to care for, just for a little while.
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