A Midnight Clear
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by Mary O'Connor
Category: Romance/Dark Fantasy
Description: After a miserable marriage, widow Adelle Hawking's heart was as cold as London's winter weather, so when she met Jack deWinter she thought herself immune to the heat between them. But the chill in the air was the least of her worries when she was suspected of murdering her husband. Jack had one dream and he needed the beautiful widow Lady Hawking to save his humanity. As Christmas approached, somehow he had to thaw her heart, win her love and make them both burn.
eBook Publisher: Cobblestone Press, 2008
eBookwise Release Date: April 2009
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [72 KB]
Reading time: 42-58 min.
Hell had finally frozen over.
Adelle huddled deeper under the blankets and wondered why the maid hadn't lit a fire in the hearth. Surely Hawking had bellowed for it already.
Her heart skipped a beat and, in an instant, Adelle became wide awake.
Hawking was dead. Hell was no more.
She sat up and looked at the dull morning light coming through the windows. The draperies had not been completely closed last night. Too many things had distracted the servants. Hawking's death, the police, the visitors.
She pushed back the blankets and padded to the windows, wrapping her arms tightly around her. The frost on the windows reminded her that Christmas was now just a week away. She touched the glass, feeling the cold under her fingertips. Outside she could make out the crystalline branches of the bare trees. Perhaps by Christmas there would be snow.
Then she smiled.
It felt odd at first. She hadn't smiled in a long time. She touched her lips and her cheeks, marveling at the tightness that the expression caused after years of unhappiness. The sense of relief was like the shedding of a heavy winter coat. She felt as light as the air.
She turned away from the window and rang the bell pull as she walked past it to her dressing room. There was much to do that day. First and foremost, she had a funeral to plan, and she couldn't put Hawking in the ground fast enough. She prayed the ground wouldn't be too hard.
The maid scurried in a minute later.
"Lady Hawking, I'm so very sorry. It won't happen again," she spoke quickly even as she knelt to light a fire in the bedroom.
"It's all right, Clara. These are extraordinary circumstances," Adelle said as she came from her dressing room. She suspected her entire staff had thrown a party in the kitchens after she'd retired as a good, grief-stricken widow should. She wasn't the only one who hadn't smiled in ages, and now they were suffering the ill-effects of their merry-making. Everyone, including her and Clara, would put on the charade of grief though. No one would breathe a word of their relief beyond closed doors.
"It's bitterly cold this morning," Clara murmured softly, but Adelle heard her. The maid stood as the logs caught fire, and Adelle stepped closer to its warmth. Clara moved behind her to finish doing the buttons on the gown. "Breakfast is being laid out in the breakfast room as usual, Lady Hawking. Cook wasn't certain if that was what you wanted but she thought there might be more visitors."
"No doubt she's right." Adelle picked up her shawl from the back of a chair where she'd left it last night, knowing that it wouldn't be visitors coming to console her for her loss or to mourn Hawking's death. If anyone came, it would be the curious, those who hoped to carry back some bit of gossip about the poor beleaguered wife of the meanest man in London.
She would have to be on her best behavior.
Because if she wasn't, there was a very good chance someone would begin to suspect her of murder.
She smoothed her black dress and made her way downstairs.
* * * *
At breakfast, she ate in peaceful bliss. She laid the paper out across the table and read it from front to back. Hawking never allowed her to look at the paper, telling her women needn't worry themselves with the news of the day. He would sit and read and mutter to himself or laugh about something while she ate from the other end of the table, alone and silent.
Edwards, the head butler, entered with another platter of eggs. It was a common enough sight but today she shook her head. "No, Edwards, take it back. We've had enough excess to feed all of London. Perhaps there is someone outside on the street who would be able to eat it."
Edwards was a good man, and he hardly let his lips quirk into a smile. "Yes, my lady. Is that to be every day, then?"
She nodded. "Yes. Ask Cook to prepare a small breakfast for me, perhaps some toast and hot chocolate and that will be quite sufficient. No more waste."
"Yes, my lady." He bowed and left the room.
For a moment, Adelle felt a jolt of nervousness, wondering what Hawking would say if he came in and found his feast gone. Then she gave herself a mental shake. Hawking was dead and she needn't fear him. The man had the tightest fist when it came to money, but he always expected to have copious amounts of food before him, food that would inevitably be wasted when the remainder of what he didn't gorge on himself was thrown out. And he always insisted it was thrown out. Many a servant had been fired when it was discovered they had given away the food instead of disposing of it.
It was the first of many changes Adelle intended to make.
She turned back to her paper and folded it, thinking of the funeral arrangements and the additional black gowns she would have to order.
"My lady, there is a gentleman here to see you."
She glanced at Edwards who stood in the doorway. "Who is it, Edwards?"
"He said his name was Mr. deWinter. He says he was a friend of Lord Hawking."
Adelle quirked an eyebrow. "A friend? How curious. I don't believe I've ever met anyone to make such a claim."
"No, my lady. He's waiting in the drawing room. Should I tell him you're indisposed?"
She shook her head. "No, my curiosity is piqued. I shall see him."
The drawing room was across the hall from the breakfast room, and Adelle opened the door a moment later. The man stood at the far end, peering out the window at the street below. He was as far away from the fire as one could be which she found rather odd for a visitor just in from the cold. She frowned at the fire. It seemed rather low. She would ask Edwards to build it higher before showing anyone else into the room.
"Mr. deWinter? I'm Lady Hawking."
Mr. deWinter turned and she blinked at the vivid blue eyes that stared back at her. He was a strikingly handsome man, and she inhaled a sharp breath. As he walked toward her, she couldn't help but notice his build, so different from her late husband's. His shoulders were broad, his hips lean and he wore his suit quite well. His blond hair was cleanly cut but looked slightly tousled from the sharp wind outside.
"Lady Hawking, thank you for seeing me." His voice was deep and warm and sent a tremble through her. He bowed slightly to her and when he straightened, he held her gaze again. He appeared to be looking at her sympathetically, as if sad for her loss.
Shaking herself from her study of him, at last she found words. "Edwards said you were a friend of my late husband's."
"Yes, my lady. We were business acquaintances first, but we had much in common and became friends over time. I'm so very sorry for your loss."
Adelle frowned. "I don't recall him ever mentioning your name." The entire conversation seemed so very odd. She knew that she and the servants were not the only ones glad to see Hawking gone. But perhaps he had made people money, people like this Mr. deWinter, and they were genuinely sorry to hear of his passing.
"May we sit?" he asked.
She lifted her chin and walked past him to a chair. Once she had sat, he sat down on the sofa adjacent to her. "Lady Hawking, your husband was a good man, and I can see you are quite in grieving. I was wrong to come so soon, but I wanted you to know that I am here to assist you with anything you may need."
She stared at him. "Mr. deWinter, you say you knew my husband?"
He nodded. "Yes."
"Hmmm." She thought for a moment. The man was either completely mad or lying through his teeth. She peered at him as if she could see past his grievous expression. Then her heart nearly stopped. What if he was here as some sort of bait to get her to speak out about her husband, to deny that he was a good man and somehow entrap her into looking more like a woman with motive for murder? She felt herself go cold with fear.
"It was very kind of you to come out on such a bitterly frigid day, Mr. deWinter."
He inclined his head. "Not at all, ma'am."
"My husband has assistants who can help me with the finances so I don't believe I need any aid. However, if you could leave me your card, perhaps if I think of something I could send for you."
He smiled at her. He truly was a handsome man. She suddenly had a vision of him leaning forward to kiss her. She'd never known a man's seductive touch--Hawking was vile, horrible in bed and out. He'd done unspeakable things to her. Now she wondered if lovemaking would be the kind of assistance she could seek from this stranger before her. Something told her Mr. deWinter would be very different in bed. And, after all, she was a widow now. Widows did that sort of thing, didn't they?
She felt her cheeks heat at the thought and scolded herself silently. He still held her gaze with those icy blue orbs, and she wondered if he knew what she'd been thinking.
He didn't let on whether he knew or not. Instead he reached into his coat and withdrew a calling card which he handed to her. She glanced at it. Jack deWinter, Esquire.
She looked back into his blue eyes. "Thank you, Mr. deWinter. It's very kind of you to impose yourself."
"There's no imposition. It's my pleasure, my lady. I'm sure Hawking would feel better knowing your well-being was looked after."
"I'm sure," she murmured. Jack deWinter was a handsome man but he was a foolish handsome man if he thought Hawking gave two shillings for her well-being.
"I'll leave you then, and perhaps check on you tomorrow to see how you fare."
She imagined Jack deWinter at her door the next day and felt a thrill within her.
She stood and he did so, too, and when she offered her hand, he bowed over it and pressed his lips to her bare skin. It was bold and daring but the impropriety of it was lost against the sensation. His lips were cool, and her skin shivered under his touch then blazed with a lustful heat. It was an odd combination yet strangely provocative.
With another long look that made her wonder if he could see her naked, he turned and strode from the room. She heard a commotion at the front door and followed in time to see Mr. deWinter tipping the hat he'd just donned to the inspector assigned to her husband's case. She paused, gripping the door frame for support. Inspector Callum was frowning at Mr. deWinter and turned to watch him go down the steps and along the front walk to the street where a non-descript black carriage waited.
She wasn't an idiot. She knew very well what Inspector Callum was thinking. The widow of a man dead not twenty-four hours was entertaining men. It wasn't the proper sort of behavior for an innocent woman.
But then, she had no reason to worry, did she? Her husband had died at his desk, obviously the victim of a poor heart. One look at his unhealthy red-nosed complexion and his belly bursting from his shirt and one knew he lived a life of excess. His early death had been inevitable.
She straightened from the doorway and found a solemn expression to greet Callum with before he turned from his study of deWinter to look at her.
"Inspector Callum, this is an unexpected visit. I thought we were finished with your questions yesterday."
He nodded, handing his overcoat, hat and gloves to Edwards. "My lady, I apologize for my unannounced arrival. There are additional questions I have for you. Is there somewhere we can speak privately?"
She motioned to the drawing room behind her but turned to Edwards. "The fire is low, Edwards. Would you please see to it?"
"Yes, my lady." He followed her into the room but she stopped short with Callum at her side.
The fire leapt tall, the flames flickering cozily. "How strange," she murmured. She waved Edwards away. "Never mind. I see the fire has a mind of its own today."
"I'll bring coffee for Inspector Callum," Edwards offered, and he slipped from the room.
She motioned to the chaise and once they were both seated, Callum, sitting forward and watching her every movement, inclined his head. "Again, I apologize for the intrusion. But I have some grave news to discuss with you. It's a very serious matter indeed."
She steeled herself and leaned ever so slightly toward him. "Yes, Inspector?"
His gaze bore into her as he spoke. "Lady Hawking, the coroner has examined Lord Hawking's body and determined that he was murdered. Someone poisoned him."
Adelle inhaled sharply and knew what Callum had not said.
She was his number one suspect.