Silk and Secrets
Click on image to enlarge.
by Linda Madl
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: American heiress Alyssa Lockhart has been banished to England in disgrace, ordered to find a husband who can tame her wild ways. Riding alone through the foggy moors, she arrives at the imposing gates of Penridge House--and finds herself under the unsettling gaze of its darkly handsome new master, Colonel Harris Trevell. Newly returned from India, he possesses an aura as deeply erotic and sensual as the gorgeous silks he imports. Alyssa is completely mesmerized by his smoldering eyes and masculine strength, but she cannot ignore the furtive whispers that Harris Trevell murdered his cousin for his title--and his wife. Now she must discover the truth about his enigmatic man. But it may already be too late. For as dangerous passion sweeps her into a whirlwind of delirious ecstasy, Alyssa knows she has found the only answer her heart demands--even if it puts her own life at risk....
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: February 2005
18 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [442 KB]
Reading time: 303-424 min.
"I'm being banished," Alyssa said aloud to the empty carriage. Involuntarily, her hand flew to her lips to stem the unhappy words, but it was too late. The syllables hung in the air, invisible, vibrating--so that she heard every dismal implication. She was alone in a carriage bouncing along a foggy lane in a foreign land--in Cornwall, to be precise. Her family, the Lockharts of Boston, had sent her away to a cold and dreary place.
Slowly she lowered her hand into her lap and waited. Listened. Banishment. It sounded just as harsh as it had the first time. So what happened now that she'd admitted the truth to herself? Did giving it a name change anything?
Nothing. She was still on her way to a place she'd never seen, to stay with people she'd never met. Even the tightness in her belly remained as uncomfortable as ever.
If Aunt Esther were here, chattering in her ear, as the dear lady had during the entire two weeks of the Atlantic crossing, Alyssa would probably never have uttered the word. Never admitted to herself that this was a trip into exile because of an unfortunate prank. Never faced reality.
"But you've always known the truth," she told herself. Once she'd spoken aloud, it hardly seemed strange to continue. "Yes, you've always known the truth, but it was so darned hard to face." She lifted her chin in defiance. "No, I will not view this as punishment. I will see it as a pilgrimage to the homeland of my favorite authors."
Her frown softened. Dickens, Austen, the Brontës, and especially Robert Louis Stevenson. She loved Stevenson's adventure novels--pirates and smugglers. He and the others had always made her want to visit England's green shores. The way her life had been going, she wasn't going to enjoy a European wedding trip from Mama and Papa, like Opal and Twyla had. Her sisters and their husbands had toured London on their honeymoons, and then they had gone on to Paris and Rome with a stopover in Munich. And no doubt Mama and Papa would provide an elaborate journey for her brother Winslow.
"No such fine itinerary for me," she muttered aloud again, taking in the shabbiness of the Trevell carriage. The crushed velvet upholstery was well worn and the brass lamp appeared to be out of oil and badly in need of polishing. She was traveling to Cornwall to spend the fall with the Trevells, distant country cousins upon whom Papa had prevailed to take her in. She knew nothing of these people beyond the fact that there'd been a recent death in the family. They couldn't possibly be glad to have a visitor at such a time.
She did know, however, without it being said, that her parents didn't give a fig whether the Trevells were in mourning or ruled a cottage or a manor. They just wanted her out of Boston, out of sight, and out of mind. She was an embarrassment, a scandal, and an unworthy daughter.
"And you have no one to blame but yourself, Miss Alyssa Marie Lockhart." Her frown deepened, and she pulled her Persian lamb jacket closer against the October chill. She was in disgrace, and she knew exactly why. "But I didn't have to let them put me on a steamer to Southampton," she reminded herself. "I could have run away."
Abruptly the carriage lurched to a stop, throwing Alyssa forward. She caught herself on the opposite seat, bumping her knees and knocking her Persian lamb hat askew. As she struggled to right herself, she heard men's voices shouting from the road ahead. Their tone was harsh with anger, but their words were unclear.
What on earth? she wondered as she scrambled onto the seat and straightened her hat. A thrilling thought made her gasp. Highwaymen? Like the legendary Dick Turpin? But he wasn't Cornish--and he'd lived a century ago.
She pressed her cheek against the cold windowpane to see what was happening. A line of workingmen on foot barricaded the narrow lane. No caped highwayman on a gallant steed, only forbidding, hollow-cheeked men in baggy clothes powdered with something white. Flour? Two men carried torches, flaming bright orange against the fog. Others carried long, flat wooden sticks that she recognized as cricket bats. From the fierce set of their mouths and the narrowness of their eyes, she didn't think they were out for a game.
One of the men wore a clerical collar, of all things. He was a tall graceful fellow whose black clothes were dowdy but brushed and comparatively clean. Separating himself from the group, he slowly walked toward the carriage. The reined-in coach horses whickered and fidgeted, their harnesses jingling. When he reached the equipage, he spoke to the Trevells' coachman, a thin, haggard man named Whittle who wore a mourning band on the sleeve of his blue livery. Whittle had met Alyssa at the Launceston train station. He answered from his seat, more anger in his voice than fear. A note of familiarity colored his tone, as if he knew the clergyman.
However, Alyssa couldn't quite understand their exchange. Since her arrival, she'd found that the Queen's English varied a good deal even in its homeland. More than once she'd had difficulty understanding what she was certain must be plain English to a Britannia native.
As she watched, the clergyman turned away from the coachman and shook his head in disbelief. When he caught sight of her with her cheek pressed against the glass, he smiled. Caught rudely staring like a schoolgirl, she pushed away from the window. But that did not prevent the man from striding up to the door and pulling it open. As he climbed into the carriage, it creaked and sagged under his weight.
Shocked by his forwardness, Alyssa hastily scooted across the seat into the far corner. He smelled of stale tobacco smoke and sour beer, like the stable boys at home when they returned from the tavern. She wasn't frightened, exactly. After all, the man appeared to be a churchman. Still, it was all rather strange.
With a grace extraordinary in so tall a man, he settled himself opposite her. For a moment they stared at each other. Alyssa kept her hands clasped in her lap and met his gaze without a blush or a blink. He was a handsome man, in an oily way. He sat back in the seat and made no move to remove his hat as he assessed her.
"Good day, miss," he said at last.
Alyssa nodded in reply. Nothing about him was what she would have expected from a clergyman. His long chin was covered in a dark, well-trimmed beard. Deep lines framed his mouth; and his brown eyes reminded Alyssa of someone, but she couldn't think who it might be at the moment. His white shirt was dingy, though his coat was brushed. His dark hair was pulled back in a long slick queue. What concerned Alyssa most was that despite the smile that spread across his face--more a smirk, actually--there gleamed in his dark eyes the light of a fire burning deep inside. This was no ordinary man. This man thrived on the energy of a mission.
"So Elijah told me true," he said, his smile still in place. "You're not who I thought to find here."
"And who might you be, sir? And those men with you?" Alyssa asked, flustered and annoyed with his bad manners. She'd never been one to stand on formalities, but the least he could do was introduce himself. "And whom did you expect to find in this conveyance, anyway? The Trevell crest is on the door."
"A Yank, are you?" At last he removed his battered, black wool cap to reveal a high forehead. "I am the Reverend Zebulon Whittle." His accent was understandable, yet more like a workingman's than a seminarian's. "Those gentlemen, those miners and their families be my congregation."
"Miners?" Alyssa glanced out the window once more at the white streaks on their clothes. "But the white dust?"
"Clay mines," the Reverend Whittle explained. "They dig out the clay to make the fine china you ladies like to put on your tables. Just as dirty a job as mining coal, only the dirt be white."
"Oh," was all Alyssa could think to say.
"And you're to be the houseguest at Penridge Hall? Miss...?"
"Lockhart," she supplied. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. How did you know?"
"Elijah, my brother, told me." He gestured toward the coachman's box above.
She realized that was who the reverend reminded her of--Whittle, the coachman.
The Reverend Whittle leaned back in the seat, his keen scrutiny unrelenting. "Elijah has worked for the Trevells since he was a lad. As a gardener, footman, whatever they require. Loyal to a fault, my brother is. And what would a handsome young woman like yourself be doing traveling to a place like Penridge Hall with no chaperone?"
"I have a chaperone," Alyssa corrected, lest this stranger misunderstand her circumstances. "My Aunt Esther broke her ankle in Southampton. She looked the wrong direction before we started across the street and a hansom cab knocked her a glancing blow. She is unable to travel. So while she is recovering with a friend, I'm going ahead without her. I'm expected at Penridge Hall shortly."
"Oh, have no fear." Reverend Whittle grinned as he flopped his cap back on. "I've no intention of keeping you, but I did think you should be told what you'll find at that fine manor, just on the chance that you don't know."
"Know what?" Alyssa asked, hesitating to engage in gossip, yet curious. "I know about Lord Penridge's death some three months ago, and that his widow and cousin are in mourning. I can only hope my stay will not be a trial for them."
The reverend smiled, the corners of his mouth turning up in what appeared to be genuine amusement--but not the sort a man of the cloth should enjoy. The expression made her tug at her skirts to be certain her ankles were covered. "I'll wager the new lord won't find you a trial, me dear. Oh, no. But do you want to go where murder has been committed?"
"Murder?" she breathed. What nonsense was this? "What murder?"
"Why, of Lord Alistair himself," Reverend Whittle said, lifting a hand with dirty fingernails into the air as if he could hardly believe she didn't know. "My brother is too loyal to utter a word against the Trevells, but I, on the other hand, feel it is my duty to inform you of what a house of transgressions you be walking into. Oh, yes, the new lord got old Doc Lewellyn to declare that his cousin died of natural causes. Couldn't have been too difficult. Old Lewellyn is so blind and deaf he can hardly tell the beat of a heart from the tick of a clock. But, 'twas murder, all right. Those two Trevells have fought over everything all their lives. Ask anyone in the county. Now the young Trevell newly returned from India has himself a title and a manor house. And his cousin Alistair lies amoldering in his grave."
Alyssa didn't know what to think or say. A rumor of murder was news to her.
The reverend leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. He lowered his voice as if to speak in earnest. "Now I ask you, is Penridge Hall a place for a young lady like yourself to be going?"
She took a deep breath and scrutinized the Reverend Whittle closely. She saw no reason to let his gossip unnerve her. People too willing to share rumors were always suspect. "If the doctor saw nothing to report to the police, then what you say sounds more like tittle-tattle than fact to me."
"'Tis more than atittle-tattle, I promise you," the reverend said, sitting back, clearly affronted. "I simply feel, Miss Lockhart, 'tis my Christian duty to warn you. I would have spoken to your chaperone if the lady had been here, but as it be--well, you know the truth of it now. The Trevells be a strange lot. The old lord ran things with an iron hand as did his father before him. Time will tell what we can expect from the new lord. But look well about you, Miss Lockhart. There be a murderer at Penridge Hall, and his title may well be Harris Trevell, the new Lord Penridge."
"I thank you for your concern," Alyssa said, fussing with the fit of her gloves and wishing the strange clergyman out of the carriage.
"'Tis a pretty place, Penridge Hall," he continued as he reached for the door handle. When he climbed out, the carriage bobbed back to its normal balance. He turned to face her. "You'll like the place on first sight. Everyone does. But the Garden of Eden was beautiful, too, Miss Lockhart. The garden was the doom of mankind. Remember that and beware. Beware. Good day to you."
Before she could say more, he closed the door and slapped the side of the carriage, the signal to the coachman. Instantly the vehicle lurched into motion.
Still curious, she slid back across the seat and pressed her face to the window again to see if the miners were still there on the road, but they were gone. Only the Reverend Whittle stood at the roadside. The way ahead was clear except for the fog.
The reverend raised his hand in farewell and soon disappeared into the gray mist behind them as if he'd never existed. The carriage moved on, the horses' steps quick and sure.
She settled back into the seat, relieved he was gone and mystified by his sudden appearance. Just what had all that been about? Murder at Penridge Hall? What nonsense. But she was glad that Aunt Esther had not been along to hear the story. The poor lady would have been shocked into a fainting spell, no doubt. She would have worried herself to a frazzle during their entire stay.
Alyssa turned the clergyman's mysterious hints of foul deeds over in her mind. Murder? This could be the beginning of an adventure. A real exploit. Of course, in time she would learn that it was a silly tale started by a gossipmonger, or a devoted friend of the poor dead lord, or possibly an enemy of the new lord. But who were those miners? And why had they looked so grim? And whom had the Reverend Whittle really expected to find in the carriage?
Another lurch, but this one only jolted Alyssa against the carriage wall. She grabbed the velvet cord handle to steady herself. They had turned at the top of a hill and started downward, into a valley. Woods and fog closed in around them, thicker and darker than ever. Cold apprehension wriggled in her belly.
What did she really know about these Trevells? They were cousins of Aunt Esther's great-great-uncle somebody, an obscure transatlantic relationship that had been respected down through the generations, since some long-ago relative had landed in Boston. Though the relationship had been maintained, it had never been held close. What did Aunt Esther or Papa truly know about them?
Alyssa took a deep breath. She knew there was a Lady Penridge, the widow, and a little girl and the new lord himself, Lord Penridge. Beyond that...
Until now she'd assumed they would be like Boston relatives except they would have that wonderful refined English accent and look like people out of a Dickens novel. But what if she were wrong? What lay ahead? A dark place full of shadows and ghosts? A house more a castle than a residence, full of dungeons with torture chambers and secret passages prowled by a murderer?
She pursed her lips. Maybe she should have run away. How far would her carefully hoarded pocket money have taken her? St. Louis? Kansas City? New Orleans?
"New Orleans," she whispered. Now that would have been an adventure. Maybe she could have learned how to use one of those writing machines and gotten a job with it.
Or maybe she could have gone farther west, to Kansas, and become ... what did they call them? Harvey girls? It was said Mr. Fred Harvey only accepted respectable young ladies to wait tables in his fine train station restaurants and that the girls often found husbands for themselves among the customers. Of course, she could hardly expect to find a man Mama or Papa would consider suitable at a lunch counter in an Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad station, but then she wasn't having much success in Boston, either.
She shook her head again. The fact was she hadn't had the heart to run away. She'd gotten no farther than mentally composing her runaway note when she'd had the vision of Mama reading it, then wailing over her disappearance.
Papa, grim-faced, stomping around the house and then sending a private investigator after her. The imagined tears, screams, and vapors had been too much. As much as she longed to try her own wings, she could not trouble Mama and Papa so. She could not inflict such pain--in addition to the family embarrassment she'd already wrought.
The horses' pace quickened. They must be nearing Penridge Hall. Full of doubts, yet more curious than ever for the first sight of her destination, Alyssa once again pressed her cheek against the windowpane.
Fog swirled ahead of the horses almost as if it had taken on a life of its own, arching up gracefully then falling away, parting miraculously as they approached a large, two-story gatehouse. The rooms above the arched passage were lit with lanterns, the yellow light casting a welcoming glow into the darkness. She only had a moment to note the crenellations above, topped with obelisks that gave the granite structure a deceptively delicate fairy-tale appearance.
The gateman, a boy really, waved at the coachman and nodded to Alyssa. She responded with a wave. The horses' hooves struck the graveled drive, and the carriage swung around the circular path. The fog seemed to close in around them again. She could barely see the outline of a sizeable mansion ahead. The coach turned again, forcing her to scoot across the seat to the other side to continue searching for a glimpse of the house. She squinted, hoping to catch sight of more detail.
As the carriage neared the door, the last wisps of fog magically fell away. At last she had her first real view of Penridge Hall.