About the book
She was magic for his soul and light for his senses...
Cornelia Hill was born different.
Deemed cursed by her parents, she was raised among a band of traveling showfolk. Having spent all her days as an exhibit for people to marvel at, a new development throws her life in disarray: she has but a single night until she is sold to a wealthy stranger.
Archibald Serton, newly appointed Earl of Rochester, is a man with a title that he doesn’t want. In his life of few joys and even fewer acquaintances, the appearance of a peculiar woman seeking asylum fills him with newfound will to live.
But whoever is after Cornelia is not far behind and in his race to save her from a terrible fate, Archibald must face reality. Not only is Cornelia not who they all think she is, but like the proverbial snake in the bosom, he’s been harboring a traitor all along…
“Take a look at that, Archie.”
Archibald Serton, the Earl of Rochester, glanced in the direction his friend indicated. As they ambled amid the crowds of visitors to the Baron Barrett’s Bizarre Arcana, there was much to see and point at. They had passed the dancing bear, the lion leaping through flaming hoops, witnessed a huge man with more muscles than a breeding bull lift two men, one in each hand, and a juggler wearing the colorful costume of a court jester tossing a multitude of balls through the air over his head.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, seeing little save human bodies milling about.
“A girl,” Richard replied. “All white. It looks like she is on display like a statue.”
Archie eyed his friend sidelong. “A girl dressed in white? That’s not very unusual.”
Richard Sharp, the Earl of Whitstone, put his hand against his chest and sighed dramatically. “Clear the cotton from your ears, old chap. I said she is all white. As in skin and hair as well as dress. Come on, let’s have a look.”
Following his companion, Archie wended his way among the numerous folks who had come to witness the wild animals performing tricks, the sword swallower – who set his sword on fire before swallowing it – as well as the acrobats swinging on the tight ropes high above them. As the Bizarre Arcana had stopped at a village on his own estates for a week to entertain people, he had come at the urging of Richard.
As he passed among the milling, laughing, talking people, Archie nodded to his butler, Noah Sanders, and flustered his cook by grinning at him. Richard caught him at it, and asked, “Who are you beaming at?”
Richard paused to gaze down his nose, although Archie stood at an even height with him. “You let your servants come here?”
“Why ever not?” Archie continued on in the direction Richard had been headed. “They work hard and deserve a break now and again.”
He liked the people he employed, and had no compunction at all about permitting them a little free time to enjoy themselves at this rare opportunity. Richard dodged a servant’s child with an expression of mild disgust. “You should learn to behave like an Earl, old chap.”
Archie eyed him sidelong. “You mean stuffy? Like you?”
“Of course. Stuffy is as stuffy does.”
Chuckling, Archie followed Richard, a man of his own age of six and twenty, who had rich blond hair and blue eyes that tended to cut one to the quick. Even now, people parted for him after one glance at his face, while Archie himself never bothered to throw his considerable social weight around. He knew he never looked the part of an aristocrat, with his own dark red-brown hair kept in a ponytail, and his brown eyes that appeared almost sleepy to people who didn’t know him well.
“See? A pure white woman.”
Hauled up short by the sight of the woman in the glass case, Archie stared in awe. Richard was not wrong. She owned skin of the palest white, with wide eyes of a violet hue. Her long lustrous hair hung past her waist and cascaded over her full bosom. As if her coloring were not unusual enough, Archie felt his breath leave his lungs when he recognized her incredible, simple beauty.
The woman gazed out over their heads as though they were not there and staring at her with open mouths. No doubt she is so used to being gaped at, she never notices it anymore. “She is incredible, isn’t she?” Richard exclaimed as though the woman inside the case couldn’t hear him. “A beautiful specimen.”
Archie glanced at his friend, slightly annoyed at how callously Richard spoke of her. As though she were an exotic mushroom. “Specimen?”
“Of course. A human specimen. Such a rare occurrence, wouldn’t you say? To be born with such a pure color. Quite unique.”
Although he felt sure the woman was quite used to being talked about as though she weren’t there, Archie felt his annoyance with Richard rise into near anger. “You do realize she is right there and listening, do you not?”
Richard glanced at him with surprise. “I am paying her a compliment, old chap. She is not offended.”
How can you tell? She stares out of that case with no expression; she hasn’t even glanced at us. But Archie refused to say that aloud. He liked Richard of Whitstone, they’d been friends for years, and certainly didn’t relish a public quarrel with him. Especially when he’d wind up with Richard staring down his nose at him and be forced to listen to his slightly condescending speech about the differences between the high born and the low born.
His anger didn’t deflate as he gazed at the woman. “No person should be put on display like this,” he grumbled. “She’s not an animal, for God’s sake.”
Unbelievably, the woman’s expressionless violet eyes flicked to him, and met his own. Then she glanced away, up and over his head as though he weren’t there. Yet, Archie knew in that moment, that brief second when their eyes met and clasped almost physically, they shared something. What it was, he didn’t know. There had been a connection that flared between them, a sensation that he could only describe as a brief electrical charge, as though lightning flashed nearby and made the hairs on his arms stand on end.
“This is her job, Archie,” Richard explained as though to a child. “She is paid to stand there and let us gawk, just as it is your job to manage your estates, and mine, to, well, be me.”
Archie had had enough. He turned away, still angered. “It’s still wrong no matter how you paint it, Richard. I don’t have to like it, even if you do.”
Though he was fond of Richard, enjoyed his company and his offhand sense of humor, there were aspects of Richard’s personality that grated on him. One was Richard’s overblown sense of superiority over others; his belief that the lower classes were little more than the mud he scraped off his boots.
“Are you angry, dear boy?”
Richard followed him as Archie wended his way through the happy, chattering people of the lower classes, hoping that his friend stepped in some creature’s deposit, just so he could enjoy his discomfiture. That’s really grown up, Archie. Despite knowing how immature that wish might be, Archie still grinned inwardly at the potential sight.
“No, I’m not angry,” Archie replied, glancing over his shoulder. “I’ll leave that to you when your servants all come work for me and leave you to dress yourself. Do you even know how to dress yourself?”
“You’re angry and it’s my fault.” Richard sighed. “I never should have taken you to see that exquisite creature. Archie, old chap, you truly mustn’t take such things to heart. It will drive you quite mad in the end.”
“Oh, I’m quite certain I am well on my way.”
Archie, being the second son of the old Earl, and never thinking he’d be elevated to the position he had, tended to view everyone, both high and low social status, with equal respect. Had he the room for them, he would have adored seeing the expression on Richard’s face if his servants abandoned him to come work at the Rochester estates. He chuckled to himself. Grow up, boy.
“Come now,” Richard said as they left the crowded tent and its wonders behind. “Don’t pout, old chap. It doesn’t become one of your station. Forget the girl, though I fear I will dream of her for many a night. Perhaps I will create my own menagerie of fascinating, beautiful creatures.”
“Now who is mad?”
“Surely not I. I am as sane as –”
“The King?” Archie eyed him with humor. “Of course you are.”
Richard waggled his finger at Archie as they ambled across the fallow field Archie permitted the owner of the Arcana to set his tents and wagons upon. Peasant folks, children in tow, strode across it to the great tent, and Archie knew they would spend their last farthings on sights they may never see again. “Archie, old chap, you cannot win a battle of wits with me. Are we still on for hunting next week?”
“Think you can keep up?”
They reached their saddled horses, each bridle held by a liveried footman, who bowed in unison as their masters approached. Taking his reins, Archie swung into his saddle with a grin. Richard mounted his own stocky chestnut, who danced under him, restless. “My beast will best yours on any field, Archie,” he replied. “I look forward to the chase.”
“Good.” Archie swung his bay’s head around. “Don’t be late.”
Nudging his horse into a swift canter, he rode across the field to the lane that ran amid the various fields that grew crops under the skillful hands of his tenants. As he rode, his mind went back to the pale girl in the glass case, and an odd feeling of regret filled him. Regret that his anger didn’t force him to smash the glass and get her out of there, regret she was forced to be in there in the first place, regret that he didn’t speak to her directly.
“Next time, my lady,” he murmured. “Next time, I will speak to you.”
When the last of the visitors to the Arcana were ushered out of the vast tent, Cornelia stepped down from her glass case at last. As usual, her feet were sore from standing on them all day long without a break, and her legs were stiff. Taking a moment to stretch the kinks from her body, she sighed with relief at being able to walk again.
Peggy joined her in her stretching exercises. “How was your day in the case?” she asked.
“Spent it wishing I could join you on the high ropes,” Cornelia replied, thrusting out her hips to relieve the tension in her back.
“You know you cannot handle heights, dear.”
“Right now, I would, if it meant being able to move.”
“You have spent your entire life standing,” Peggy commented. “Your ankles and knees must be like iron.”
“They sure do not feel that way. Please, let’s take a walk outside, Peg. I need fresh air.”
“Is something on your mind?”
Cornelia glanced at her friend with a smile. “Something strange happened today,” she admitted as they crossed through the tent’s entrance and into the dirt packed solid by the number of feet that trod upon it. “A nobleman got angry that I spend my life in a box being paid to be stared at.”
“A what did who?”
Laughing in her throat, Cornelia gazed up at the bright stars overhead. “A nobleman did not like that I am on display like a two-headed cow. I thought it strange – and wonderful.”
“That is indeed strange,” Peggy commented as they walked, feeling the light wind of Northumberland caressing their skin with tender fingers. “The aristocrats usually think we low born fools are two-headed cows. I’m guessing he spoke to you?”
“No. To his friend. But can you imagine, Peg?” Cornelia asked, her tone eager. “Someone, for the first time ever, thought it was wrong for me to be gaped at. I even looked at him, and he looked at me as though I were – a person.”
“Truth be told, dear, it is wrong. At least people gape at me for what I’m doing, walking the tight rope. I’m an acrobat. Not because of what I look like. Everyone else here performs, even the animals. But you, you are so unique, dear, old Barrett rakes in the coins just for people to stare at you.”
“I have been doing this for so long, I hardly notice anymore. Except when my feet ache.”
Reaching the end of the field, Cornelia stared into the dark distance. “Will I ever marry, Peg?” she asked softly. “Will any man ever love me?”
Her best friend hesitated, and Cornelia had no illusions about what Peggy was thinking. “Cornelia,” Peggy began, her voice strained. “You have the sweetest nature and the purest heart of anyone I know. You have to realize you are so different from everyone else, so unique, that you frighten folks. They believe you to not be truly human.”
“I guess that was a bad question to ask,” Cornelia admitted, staring up at the stars. “Forgive me for asking it. It’s just that when the man spoke as he did, he made me think that perhaps others might share his views. And that someday, I might be seen for a nice woman, and not a freak.”
“You are not a freak, Cornelia,” Peggy snapped. “Never believe that you are. You are a precious gift from God, and as pure in your heart as the white stag of legend. Maybe someday you will find a man to take you from all this, and marry you, and love you all the days of your life.”
Cornelia smiled though her throat had closed off her breath. “But it’s still a dream. A fantasy. That is not for me, and we both know it.”
“Stop, Peg. I brought this on myself by asking the truth from you, and you gave it. Let’s just be happy for a while on this beautiful night.”
They walked on together for only a short time, chatting lightly on ordinary matters, sharing a friendship that began as children, when they observed a dark shadow, backlit from the lamps in the Arcana, hurrying toward them. Cornelia didn’t need to see his face to recognize the hunch-backed form of Barrett’s favorite toady, Mortimer.
He bowed to them in an oily manner that never failed to make Cornelia’s skin crawl. “The boss wishes to see you, Corny,” he said, his tone almost as slimy as the look he sent her.
“Thank you, Morty,” she replied, her tone cool.
Mortimer scowled. He hated being called Morty as much as she hated being called Corny. He had worked for Barrett since she had arrived at the small circus as a child, an orphan with no family. He had been old then, and never seemed to age a day since. Even her childish instincts had warned her that Mortimer was not a nice man, and never would be.
“Run along now,” Peggy told him. “Inform Barrett that we will arrive soon.”
Mortimer leered. “The boss wants her, Miss Wood. Not you. Only her.”
At her side, Cornelia felt Peggy stiffen. “Very well. Cornelia will be along. You are dismissed, toad.”
Cornelia stifled a giggle as Mortimer scowled. Sweeping his black cloak about him in a dramatic gesture, he stomped away toward the tents. “You shouldn’t provoke him like that, Peg. He has the boss’s ears.”
“Bah.” Peggy snorted. “Barrett knows I draw a crowd. He’ll ignore Morty’s complaints, as he always does.”
The pair walked back across the fallow fields, the soft dirt squishing gently under their shoes. “What do you think Barrett wants with me?’ Cornelia asked.
“Hopefully to sing your praises and offer to pay you more.”
“Now who is fantasizing?”
“Dear, I wish I knew. I’m off to strip myself of this outfit and lie down. I’m exhausted. Come see me before you go to bed.”
Cornelia hugged her and kissed her cheek. “I will.”
Separating from her, Peggy strolled toward the small tents that the performers and workmen slept in and held their personal belongings, while Cornelia strode in the opposite direction. Barrett Hill, the owner of the Arcana and self-styled Baron Barrett, had his own private lodgings away from the staff as though they smelled bad.
Cornelia owed him both her life for taking her in, and her livelihood, but held little affection for him. Walking toward his tents, uneasiness grew in her stomach. Barrett feigned his love for her, kissed her cheek in public and called her his “daughter”. In truth, she was well aware that he loved nothing save money, and would sell his own mother if she brought him a profit.
Cornelia halted in front of the tent flaps, gazing at the goon standing there. She knew him, Felix, a man said to have murdered another and spent years in Newgate Prison for his crimes. Now one of Barrett’s henchmen, he did whatever Barrett told him to do. Cornelia often wondered if that included killing.
“Barrett wants to see me,” she said, her tone soft and cold.
Felix bent, his eyes on hers, and opened the tent flap. That meant Barrett told him to let her in when she arrived. Walking inside under his cold stare, Cornelia tried not to shiver with dread. Her gut roiled in turmoil, her instincts screaming at her that this invitation was not what it seemed. No good would come of this, she knew.
Barrett emerged from an inner room, his round face smiling when he saw her. Though his expression was filled with warmth and welcome, his hazel eyes glittered like twin agates. “Cornelia,” he boomed. “Come in, dear, sit down. Your feet must be punishing you.”
Obedient, Cornelia sat on a small stool near a table as Barrett took a wooden chair at the table. A rotund man who liked to wear brightly colored robes and a flat cloth hat that hung from the side of his head, Barrett appeared like a chubby gnome with a black goatee and eyes that all but vanished within the folds around them.
“Wine, my dear?” he asked, reaching for a bottle and glasses. “A quick drink before supper.”
“Why am I here?”
He paused in the act of pouring the French Bordeaux. “Can I not have a glass of wine with my daughter?”
Cornelia bit back a tart response. “Barrett. I know something is wrong. Tell me.”
Barrett’s eyes vanished into their folds as he grinned, baring pale brown teeth. “You were always a clever one, my dear. Yes. I brought you here this evening to share some tremendously good news.”
Nothing in his manner or excitement reassured Cornelia in the least. Her stomach roiled alarmingly, making her feel as though she might vomit what remained of her breakfast, eaten just after dawn that morning. Still, she forced herself to smile. “What would that be?”
“Now you know I love you as I would my own flesh and blood, Cornelia,” Barrett went on, his tiny eyes all but vanishing within their folds. “Because of you, I now have two thousand quid in my little treasury. Why, I could retire, my dear, think of it. Sell my circus and spend my last days in Brighton.”
Cornelia swallowed hard, unable to retain her smile. “What have you done?” she whispered.
“I sold you. A buyer paid me handsomely to own you, my dear.”
Feeling her blood turn slowly to ice, her hands and feet numb, Cornelia stared at Barrett, her mind whirling. “Sold me?”
“Yes, yes, isn’t it wonderful? You won’t have to stand in a glass case any longer, Cornelia. You will be petted and cossetted and cared for all the days of your life. Live in luxury with servants to wait on you hand and foot.”
She scarcely listened. He sold me, he sold me, he took money for me, now I’ll be forced to live with a stranger. What will happen to me? “You sold me?” she repeated, unable to think coherently.
A hint of anger and impatience crossed his chubby features. “Now cease behaving like an imbecile. You will be sent for in the morning. I am telling you now out of the great love I have for you, to give you the chance to collect your things and say goodbye to the friends you have here.”
Still unable to feel her feet, Cornelia stood up. Without another word, she walked to the tent’s flap and ducked through it, past Felix and toward the performers’ tents. Unable to think, not knowing if she felt fear, anger or horror, she trod unseeingly past the lion in his cage, the bear pacing in a circle at the end of his chain, heading to the only place she ever called home.
Most of the performers shared tents, but because of her pale and starkly unusual flesh, most of her fellows refused to be near her. They balked at sharing a tent with her, thus, Barrett had given her a small tent of her own. At the entrance, she stared at her narrow cot, her dresses hung on hooks, the small trunk she packed for traveling. Needing something, someone, she turned and walked out, making her way by habit to the tent the acrobats shared.
Peggy stood up from her own cot the instant she caught sight of Cornelia in the entryway. The others, three women with athletic frames similar to Peggy’s, eyed Cornelia with disdain before turning their backs. Cornelia noticed, but in her wretched state she found it difficult to care. Peggy took her arm and hurried her away from the listening ears.
“What’s wrong?” Peggy asked when they were a short distance from the tents. “You look like you just fell from a trapeze.”
Cornelia tried to form words, but it took several long seconds before she could relay information from her brain to her lips. “He sold me.”
“Barrett. Sold me. Two thousand quid.”
Peggy stared, her mouth parted in a round O. “No,” she muttered. “He can’t. You’re not a slave, he can’t do that.”
“I have to leave in the morning.”
Peggy seized her by the shoulders, staring her fiercely in the eye. “Did he say whom he sold you to?”
Cornelia shook her head slowly. “No. He said I’d be cared for.”
“Barrett couldn’t speak the truth if he faced a firing squad,” Peggy retorted bitterly. “You can’t trust what he says. Cornelia, you have to run. Flee. Right now.”
Bit by bit, Cornelia’s comprehension returned to her. “Where will I go? Who will I turn to? I will be shunned where ever I try to run to, Peg. No one will help me, they’ll just return me to Barrett.”
“Not all people are hurtful, Cornelia,” Peggy replied, giving her a hard embrace. “Travel by night, the sun is harmful to you in any case. Find a monastery or nunnery to take you in. But go, please. I don’t know who that beastly man sold you to, but the thought of you in someone’s hands terrifies me.”
Cornelia nodded, her own terrors rising at the thought of what this “buyer” might do to her. He might treat her kindly, or he might be a wicked and cruel man. “I’m just going to get a few mementoes from my tent. I cannot believe this is goodbye.”
“Somehow, we will meet again. Hurry, please. I must return to my tent before the witches get suspicious. If no one sees you leave, you won’t be missed until morning.”
“Peggy.” Cornelia wrapped her arms around her friend, kissing her fiercely on her cheek. “I will find a way to get word to you of where I am.”
Never one for tears, a tough, straight-talking woman, Peggy wiped her face with her hands and sniffed. “God speed, my special friend. Go, and never look back.”
Turning, Peggy rushed through the narrow avenues between the tents, and disappeared from sight. Walking more slowly, Cornelia returned to her own, her fears dragging her feet. What if even the nuns shun me? What if they think I’m a witch, as so many people have called me in the past? Inside her tent, she packed what little jewelry she possessed, and the money she’d earned from standing in the glass case and hadn’t spent into a small cloth bag. Her dresses would only slow her down.
Leaving her tiny domain she’d lived in for so long, Cornelia slipped through the darkness like a ghost, constantly checking her vicinity for any watching eyes who might report her to Barrett. At this hour, most everyone was at supper, and though she hadn’t eaten since morning, Cornelia felt no hunger burning her stomach. No one witnessed her leave the shadows of the last tent, and stride quickly across the fields.
Though Peggy told her not to look back, Cornelia paused near a strand of trees and thickets to gaze back at the only home she’d ever known. With tears burning her eyes, she picked up the hem of her skirts and entered the forest.
Due to her very pale skin and violet colored eyes, Cornelia could not stand for long in sunlight. Even a limited exposure to the sun brought burning and savage pain. Spending her days inside the tents, she only roamed outside under the moon and stars. Thus, a creature of the night, she saw easily and well in the darkness, and had little difficulty navigating her way through the thin forest.
Crossing through it, she discovered it divided the fields, the fallow one she left behind and another sown with oats. A narrow lane ran along the front of the tree line, and she decided to follow it. Not knowing the region, Cornelia had no idea if there was a monastery or a nunnery nearby where she might claim sanctuary. To her thinking, lanes led to towns or villages, people who might give her directions before slamming the door in her face.
Her terrors still riding her, Cornelia paused at every strange sound, gazing around her for evidence that Barrett knew she had fled and even now hunted her. An owl coasted over her head to land on a tree, blinking down at her. A rabbit bolted out from under her shoes to vanish into the underbrush. Deer grazing on the shoots of growing oats bolted at the sight and sound of her rounding a bend in the lane.
What was that?
She heard what sounded like a man’s voice, but it came from ahead of her, not behind. Panic nibbled at her nerves. She heard the voice again, closer now. Standing still, indecisive, she had no idea what to do. Do I run across the field? I can’t go back the way I came. Rounding a curve in the lane, she caught a glimpse of a lantern bobbing as the person who carried it strode toward her.
Diving into the strand of trees, Cornelia wiggled her way into the brush, hoping that if she remained hidden, the man ahead of her would simply pass her by. Please, God, make him keep walking. Hide me from mine enemies. Trying to still her panic, she breathed slowly and shallowly, feeling her heart racing. Surely he cannot hear my heart, even if it seems loud in the night’s silence.
The light bobbed closer, and now she heard the sounds of his steps on the hard-packed dirt. He spoke to himself aloud, muttering about the weather, the damn deer, and whether the master wished for fresh venison for his supper. “Keep them varmints from eatin’ the crops,” he snapped under his breath.
Holding her breath, Cornelia crouched, frozen in place as the light and the man reached her. Staring, her eyes wide, she prayed for him to continue on, taking his lantern and his mutterings with him. She knew of robbers and highwaymen, and what violent men did to women they found alone. It might not be enough for this man to steal her jewelry and hard-earned money from her.
She might not live to see the dawn.
The light stopped. The man turned toward her, his mutterings halted. Her terror singing through her veins, Cornelia almost burst from her hiding place to bolt like the deer. But her panic froze her in place. She could not move, even if it meant running to save her own life.
“Hullo, little girl,” he said, bending down to cast the light in her eyes. “What you be doin’ there? The night not be fer fair maidens roaming loose.”
Cornelia swallowed some of her panic, moistening her mouth. “Are you going to rob and kill me?” she whispered.
“Me?” the man chuckled kindly. “Were I to do anythin’ save bring you to me missus, why I’d find myself plucked and gutted like a holiday goose. Come on out of there now, little girl.”
“Who are you?”
“I be Isaac Caine, gamekeeper to the Earl of Rochester. These be his lands you be trespassin’ on.”
He bent further, his smile wide and kind. “I know who you be. I done saw you at that circus affair, and I expect you just done run away.”
Now horror leached through her. “Please don’t take me back. I beg you, sir, don’t take me back to Barrett. Please.”
Mr. Caine snorted softly. “Now why would I do an evil thing like that? No, little girl, I be takin’ you to my cottage and let my missus have a go at you. She will up and feed you proper, little girl.”
He held out his hand toward her. “This be no place for you. His Lordship do keep his lands clear of varmints, but there still do be the occasional bad man roaming here about. Especially with that damn circus. It be drawing the eviler sort, like honey draws bears.”
His words both soothed and worried her further, but the kindness and good humor in them brought Cornelia to trust him. Tentative, she extended her hand and let him pull her from the brush. Standing beside him on the lane, she peered up at him. “I am Cornelia Hill.”
He grinned. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Hill. Come now. If I know my missus, she be cooking a nice leg of lamb on the spit, with fresh bread, and maybe even some of her butter beans. When was the last time you had any food in you?”
“This morning, sir.”
“Don’t they feed you in that place?” Mr. Caine started walking again, urging her along with him. “You be much too skinny, little girl. My missus will pitch a royal fit, seeing you with no meat on your bones.”
Listening to him natter on about his missus and her cooking, his work on the Rochester estates and His Lordship, the Earl himself, Cornelia’s fears eased. Though she didn’t know much about highwaymen or robbers, she doubted they would take her home to the missus before robbing her. To her knowledge, Mr. Caine was the first person, outside of Peggy, to accept her for what she was – different.
His small, tidy cottage sat a mile or so down the lane, and what she thought was several miles from the circus. Too close to it to feel safe, she hoped that Mr. Caine and his missus might help her get someplace where she would not be found by Barrett, or the henchmen she knew he would set to hunting her the moment he found her missing.
If Felix was a bad man and a murderer, his comrade in evil deeds, Maurice, was far worse.
Mr. Caine opened the door of the cottage to a warm, cheery place with the smells of cooking and hot bread baking. Instantly, Cornelia’s mouth watered, and her stomach rumbled. The small stone house had wide oak beams holding up the roof, with lacy curtains over the windows. His missus straightened from the haunch of meat roasting over the fire in the hearth, her blue eyes widening upon finding Cornelia entering in front of her husband.
“Isaac,” she exclaimed, bustling forward, her round face shocked. “Where did you find this girl?”
For a moment, Cornelia expected Mrs. Caine to announce she was not welcome here, and that she was a witch, then demand Mr. Caine take her back to Barrett this instant. It was inevitable. Though Mr. Caine accepted her and extended kindness toward her, it did not mean his wife would.
“She ran away from that circus,” Mr. Caine replied, urging Cornelia forward. “This is Miss Cornelia Hill.”
“You poor, poor lamb.”
Mrs. Caine put her arm over Cornelia’s shoulders and pulled her further into the house toward the stout table in the center of the room. “Sit, dear, sit down. My, what a beautiful young lady you are. I am Matty, short for Mathilda. You shouldn’t be out in the wild at night, dear, even if you ran away from that wretched place.”
Sitting at the table, Cornelia watched as Matty bustled away from the table to the stove, and pour hot water from a pot into cups. “You need some hot tea in you, dear,” she said over her shoulder. “Then some food. You are far too skinny.”
Mr. Caine sat down at the table with a grin. Seeing him more clearly in the light, she discovered him to have shaggy reddish hair and bright blue eyes, with a strong, robust frame. His square jaw was covered in a short cropped beard, and his face was as kindly as she suspected it would be. Matty wore her light brown hair in a bun and wore a dress of a pleasant copper shade. Shorter and stouter than Cornelia, she nonetheless moved with a sure-footed grace as she brought a tray with the tea to the table.
“As we fix our tea,” she said brightly, setting out the cups, “tell us why you ran away, even if you were justified in doing so. Were they hurting you, dear?”
Cornelia shook her head. “The owner, Barrett Hill, sold me to some man. I – I could not let him do that.”
Shocked, Matty stared at her. “Sold you? Like some horse or sheep?”
Mr. Caine, his own ruddy face now darker with anger, said, “Is he your father, child? You share the same name.”
“No, sir. Barrett took me in when I was a very small child, gave me his name though he is not my blood. He thought my birth parents disposed of me because of my – difference.”
“Is not selling another person against the law, Isaac?” Matty asked, sitting down, her pleasant face hard. “If not, it should be. Selling a young woman to the highest bidder. Humpf.”
“So I ran away,” Cornelia went on. “Maybe you could help me get to a nunnery. Where I can find sanctuary.”
Mr. Caine snorted. “I will speak to His Lordship on the morrow, little girl. He is a good and just man. He may protect you, give you a place within his manor.”
Cornelia breathed in deeply, then smiled. “Thank you. Thank you both.”
“Bah.” Matty waved her thanks away with an airy gesture. “It is our duty and privilege to help you, Cornelia. Seeing you on display like some – well, I cannot say. It is wrong of that man to do such a thing to you. Now, drink your tea. Supper will be ready soon, and you will eat.”
“Our son recently married and left our home to start his own family,” Mr. Caine said, his big hand around his tiny cup of tea. “You can stay in his room until we know His Lordship’s wishes.”
Sipping from her cup, Cornelia then asked, tentative, “Do you really think he will protect me?”
“I have little doubt,” Matty declared.
“But I am not like most people.”
Mr. Caine eyed her up and down. “Hmm. Two eyes, two ears, two hands. Hmm. You appear like most people to me.” With a bland expression, he drank his tea.
Cornelia actually laughed. “You know what I mean.”
“Rest easy, Cornelia,” Matty told her firmly. “Worry not about tomorrow. It will come soon enough, and worrying will not affect anything at all.”
Archie walked down the impeccable and scrupulously clean aisle of his stable with the stud manager, examining the horses housed within the roomy stalls. His father, the old Earl, had bred the best horses in the north of England, and passed on his passion to his second son. Archie’s older brother, Howard, preferred his books to horses, and seldom rode one.
“When will she foal, you think?” Archie asked, stopping at the stall of a heavily pregnant black mare.
Norris Saxon, the only man Archie trusted to properly care for and manage the breeding aspect of his estate, blew out his breath in a sharp gust. “She’s overdue as it is, m’lord. I’ve been sitting outside her stall of a night for three nights running. Her dam was a late foaler, too, you know.”
“Yes, I seem to remember that.”
The mare perked her ears at them briefly, as though acknowledging their presence, then returned to nibbling on the hay at her feet. “It’s her first foal, also,” Archie went on, studying the mare’s posture and flanks. “You never know what to expect when it’s their first.”
“She’ll do fine. But here, I wanted you to see this little colt.”
Norris led Archie further down the aisle to stand in front of a stall containing a copper colored mare and a pale, reddish-brown foal standing at her side. “He’s a grand one, eh? Born last night.”
Archie grinned, gazing in at the baby, who stared at them with wide, wondering eyes. “That he is, Norris. He’s even better than I had hoped.”
“I think he improved on his sire, m’lord,” Norris commented with his own grin. “That’s saying a lot.”
“It is. I’m certainly not going to geld him when he’s older.” Archie rubbed the side of his nose with his thumb as he leaned on the stall door. “He might just be worth keeping to stand at stud. Of course, I want him handled from the start. Have Dugan start haltering all the babies and teaching them basic manners. He’s jolly good at breaking the youngsters to hand.”
“Right you are. He’s very good at getting them to trust him. The dams, too.”
Regretfully, Archie ceased staring at the newborn and ambled on down the aisle to view other pregnant mares. Before he could ask Norris a question regarding the mare inside the stall, a groom burst through a side door and rushed toward Norris. He came to an abrupt halt seeing Archie, and he knuckled his brow. “My Lord. Mr. Saxon. He’s done it. He’s loose again.”
Archie cursed. “What do we have to do to keep him where he belongs?” he demanded of no one in particular. “Chain him up?”
“That would do precious little good, m’lord,” Norris said, running for the doorway. “He’ll just break them.”
Out in the wide stable yard, grooms rushed to keep the glossy black stallion hemmed in between the buildings while the horse chewed hay from a wagon parked there, then suddenly kicked backward with a squeal and dashed around the inner perimeter of the yard. His head and tail high, he bucked and jumped, charged the line of grooms only to wheel around and gallop back the other way.
Archie, a rope in hand, walked to the center of the yard and stood there, patient. Bucephalus, named for Alexander the Great’s famous beast, eyed him sidelong, then lowered his head and squealed as he kicked out with his rear hooves. Just three years old, Bucephalus hated being confined, and used his curious and inquisitive mind to undo latches and unhook chains or used his massive strength to simply kick his door down.
Knowing full well the young stallion had no meanness at all in him, and simply liked his freedom, Archie could hardly put him in such a heavy stall with an iron door just to prevent him escaping once again. Bucephalus never bit or kicked any of the grooms, and broke free every week or so. The rest of the time, he submitted to his training under the saddle with an easy good nature, and lipped Archie’s fingers while watching him with bright eyes.
“All right, lad,” Archie told him. “Fun time is over. Let’s go.”
Bucephalus reared, his front hooves pawing the air, then he wheeled to trot around the circle, snaking his head. Speeding up into sharp bucks, he sped past Archie toward the far end of the yard, the grooms waving their arms to chase him back, then spun around to gallop the other way.
Archie stepped casually into his path.
Bucephalus slammed his rear hooves into the soft soil of the yard, sliding on his rear end in his valiant effort to come to a halt. Half-rearing, he spun half around to avoid running Archie over, then stood still, his nostrils wide as he snorted. He turned his head, ears up, as his master approached with the rope. Stepping up to his massive shoulder, Archie stroked the stallion’s damp neck.
“You young fool,” Archie murmured, tying the rope into a halter around the horse’s head. “Don’t you realize you can get hurt playing like that? I know you like your fun, old lad, but you have to learn to contain yourself. Don’t make me put you on extra exercise.”
Norris trotted forward. “I’ll take him back, m’lord.”
Archie shook his head with a grin. “I will, Norris. Get the grooms back to work.”
Bucephalus ambled quietly at his shoulder as he led the stallion back to his stall, talking quietly to him all the way. The stallion had once again unlatched what Archie had hoped would be far too complicated for the horse to figure out. Yet, he grinned. “You are a clever lad, aren’t you? You are a damn nuisance sometimes, but I sure like you.”
Only a chain and a lock might keep the stallion in, but Archie refused to go that far. If a fire broke out, the grooms would have to get the prized animals out quickly, and a lock would take too much time to open. He would not risk Bucephalus’s safety in the event of a fire just to keep him from escaping now and then. Returning the rope where he found it, Archie headed out of the stallion’s stables, still grinning at the horse’s antics.
Glancing up, Archie found his gamekeeper, Isaac Caine, striding toward him, his hand up to garner his attention. “Isaac. Good to see you. How is your wife?”
Isaac bowed upon reaching him, smiling, his cloth cap in his hand. “Very good, My Lord. I heard Bucephalus escaped again.”
Archie laughed. “If the damn beast didn’t have such an amiable disposition, I think I’d be forced to cut him. But he hasn’t a mean notion in him, so I expect I’ll put up with his little games.”
“He’s young yet,” Isaac replied with a nod. “He’ll grow out of them one day.”
“I’m almost hoping he does not,” Archie said, still grinning. “He sure keeps this place lively.”
“If you have a moment,” Isaac said, sobering. “I have a matter that requires your attention.”
“Of course. What can I do?”
“It appears we have a delicate situation here on the estate,” Isaac began slowly. “Last night, I found a runaway from that circus a few miles yonder. She is in dire need of help.”
“Why would we not help her and why is this so delicate?” Archie asked with a frown.
“Because she ran away after the owner sold her to someone.”
Archie blinked. “Sold her? Since when is that moral, ethical, or even legal? We do not own slaves, Isaac, even if our former colonies across the sea do.”
“I know, My Lord. But that means the buyer has a claim on her, and if he becomes aware that she is being protected here, he might create issues for you.”
“Bah. I don’t care what he might think, Isaac. I have influence at court and among my fellow Members of Parliament. If I must, I can make her legally my ward. Then no one can stake any claims.”
Isaac nodded, his smile showing his relief. “Thank you. She is at my cottage with Matty.”
“I was just at that place yesterday with Richard of Whitstone,” Archie commented, reflectively. “Which woman is it? Perhaps I remember her.”
“Oh, you would remember her,” Isaac said with a wry smile. “She is pure white. Very unusual.”
Archie felt stunned, his breath gone. The girl I regretted not talking to arrived on my front step needing my protection? Now I see why that fat bastard sold her. She is remarkable. “Of course. I did see her. Isaac, please escort her to the house. I wish to meet her, and I will find her a position within my employees.”
“Very good.” Isaac offered him another short bow. “I’ll bring her directly.”
Watching him go, Archie’s thoughts spun. “Yes, there will be repercussions over this,” he muttered, turning back to pace toward his huge manor house. “Whoever bought her just might kick up a fuss if it’s learned she’s here.”
Despite his awareness of this, he would not change his mind. He meant what he said to Richard – no one deserves to be locked up in a glass box and be put on display. Recalling the strange connection he felt when their eyes met, Archie’s smile returned as he trotted up the veranda steps to enter his house. “My lady,” he murmured. “I cannot wait to meet you.”
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