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Becoming the Witch | J.M. Davies



Becoming the Witch

by

Author J. M. Davies

This book is a work of fiction. Any reference to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2019 by J.M.Davies
Visit J.M.Davies official web-site http://www.jenniferowendavies.com/ for the latest news, book details, and other information.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Printed in the United States of America

First Printing, 2019



Author J.M.Davies

Cover Art provided by G.S.Prendergast.

Copyediting provided by Faith Williams from the Atwater Group.



Other books by J. M. Davies

The Rise of Orion series

Capturing the last Welsh Witch

The Witch’s Heart

Revenge of the Witch

Destiny of the Witch

Other titles

The Vineyards of Allegretti

Marnie’s Plan

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my writer friend, Jennifer Smith for her constant support as I thrash out plot outlines and writerly woes at Starbucks. Also, Dianne Donovan for reading through the manuscript with her critical eye searching for errors that I am blinded to. My editor, Faith Williams for her kindly worded prompts, which help me create the best story possible. I would not be able to complete any book without my husband Paul Davies, and my children who provide unwavering support while I write, which makes it all worthwhile.

Chapter 1

August 1815

The sun burst to life in a glorious blaze of pinks and purple streaks across the horizon, heralding the dawn of a new day. Miss Elizabeth Marshall pushed a snorting Arabian Spirit hard over the long row of thick hedges and galloped across the grassy field as sheep raised their heads, bleating. Everything would change after this fourteenth day in August 1815. Hawkswood Manor—her home—would belong to a distant cousin.

She gripped the reins tighter at the injustice of her life that gave her no choice in any matter concerning her own future. Letting her long hair blow wildly across her back in the morning breeze, she embraced the coolness as it ruffled through her thin cotton sleeves. In a few hours, she would belong in name and body to another; like a prized stallion, she had been bought and paid for. And as such, she would have to conform to the rules of society.

She didn’t expect Sir Charles to love her, but she hoped a fondness might grow and from that tiny spark, maybe something deeper would emerge. Refusing to let the tears fall, she charged over the fields as the hooves beat hard into the dark earth. Lowering herself close to Arabian’s silky ears, she whispered as he flew across the damp grass, feeling as one with the animal.

“But I will have you, my sweet. And we will win him over in our own way, for Sir Charles, I hear, is an excellent horseman. And I’ll wager, he enjoys a good race.”

She smiled and rubbed her nose, sniffing the familiar scent of the beast beneath her trousers, determined to make a go of married life. She would be a dutiful wife. As Arabian Spirit snorted and shook his head, she brought him to a stop and maneuvered him around to stare down over the clear rolling green hills of Gloucestershire with the fields, lakes, sheep, and cattle spread before her like a painting. The tears streamed down her cheeks—the only ones she would allow herself. Up here, all alone, she gave way to the tumult of emotions roaring inside her.

A short while later, back at the manor in the stables, light footfalls and a shriek made her shoulders tense as she stroked the chestnut and cream horse.

“Mistress, stop right there. You’re to come with me right now and get cleaned up. You’ve a wedding to get ready for.”

Elizabeth didn’t turn around. She knew her maid Kitty stood there with her hands clutching her motherly hips in an attempt at being annoyed. They were like sisters, telling each other all their secrets. A fresh surge of tears held her from turning, and she wiped her hands over her front, stalling.

“Come now, miss. Your intended won’t be happy with you smelling of horses, will he? You need some rose water to smell sweet for him.”

Elizabeth smiled to herself. She had confided to Kitty her nervousness about the wedding night and what that would entail. Taking a deep breath, she faced her friend, who covered her mouth with both hands as soon as she caught sight of her. Elizabeth wiped the back of her hand across her muddy cheek and stared at her filthy clothes. When she descended her horse earlier after the long ride, she had tripped and landed in a pool of dirty water.

“Oh, my good Lord, you’re a right mess. Come along. We don’t want Sir Charles to catch you looking like a common farmhand. Do you think he will let you wear those breeches you insist upon when you’re married?”

“Well, they are more suitable for when I’m mucking around in the stables. And I can sit astride, which is more comfortable. A dress is impractical with all the bending and shoveling I do.” She bent over, flashing her behind and making Kitty laugh.

“Oh Lizzie, I’m not sure getting married is going to turn you into a proper lady, but you must try, miss. Promise me.”

She nodded, knowing that her husband would have the right to administer punishment if he deemed it necessary. Not knowing the measure of the man, she didn’t want to give him any reason to find fault with her, at least not on their first day as husband and wife.

“I did not desire a husband and particularly not one I hold no feelings for, but I am resigned to my situation, Kitty. My parents are no more, my home is entailed to another, and my inheritance is bound with my marriage to Sir Charles. I will have nothing, unless I marry, and no means to support myself. I can play the pianoforte well, paint a reasonable picture, and sing without your ears hurting. Oh, and I can bake some tasty biscuits. But earn a living? What experience do I have of that? What good am I except to carry his heirs? No—I have no choice but to marry this man. But I promise you, I will do all I can to be a good wife.”

She knew little of the man she was to exchange vows with. But Papa said he was an honorable man. A friend. Thus, the marriage agreement had been drafted with his solicitor to protect her as he departed for the war in America.

Kitty stepped closer, avoiding the steaming piles of horse manure. She swiped her hand across Elizabeth’s face, where her thick, wavy hair stuck to her cheeks. “Don’t change too much, miss. The right man will love you for who you are, like my David.”

Elizabeth stared at her friend, whose bright-blue eyes bulged with tears. She took a step to hug her but stopped short, not wanting to dirty the maid’s clothing. Kitty’s eyes widened as if alarmed, but she stepped closer and breached the gap. Her mouth spread into a smile and she wrapped her arms tight around her. They hugged, cried, and snorted with laughter.

She leaned into the warmth of her friend and said over her shoulder, not wanting to see her eyes, “I thought I had more time. Papa said I wouldn’t get married until I turned one and twenty, but with him lost to me, that time is here. I don’t get the chance to find the right man, Kitty. I must make this work, or I will be miserable, so I will do my best to make him happy.”

“Aw, miss,” Kitty said, “once he knows you like we all do, he cannot fail to fall in love with you.”

Elizabeth squeezed her friend tighter, praying that would be the case. “I’ll miss you, Kitty, more than you will ever know. But your place is here with your loved ones, and I’ll not part you from them. I’ve been told I will have a good lady’s maid. I have been assured that I will be well looked after and educated in the ways befitting my station,” she said, repeating the exact words Sir Charles had said when he discussed the move to his ancestral home at Tregowen House, his main place of residence. She buried her face in Kitty’s shoulder, inhaling the light fragrance of lavender, and wished things were different.


~~*~~


Standing now in her wedding dress made of delicate white tulle with lace embroidered with tiny primroses and leaves felt surreal. Staring into the mirror, she barely recognized the young woman looking back at her with rosy cheeks and dark, tight side ringlets. The rest of her hair was gathered at the back in a tight bun with a pretty garland of rosebuds and green leaves sitting upon her head.

Holding her neck with her slim hand, she turned to examine her features again, wondering whether Sir Charles might find her a little pleasing. Kitty slipped on a three-tiered pearl choker, closing the clasp at her neck, and walked around to study her. Elizabeth ran her hands over the necklace that belonged to her mother, a woman she never knew.

“You are beautiful, Lizzie, and I wouldn’t be half surprised if Sir Charles doesn’t fall a little in love with you the moment he sets eyes on you. And before you know it, you will have several bairns to fuss over.”

As Kitty laughed, Elizabeth remained silent, staring long at her reflection in the mirror, touching the cool pearls. She wished her mother still lived, today especially, for there were many questions she wished to ask which were left unanswered. Not only was today her wedding day, but the anniversary of her birth as well as her mother’s demise. Today, she turned eight and ten years old. Trying to imagine being a wife seemed hard, but a mother? The walls of the room closed in and she didn’t have enough air to breathe as she clutched her chest, gasping.

“Maybe—maybe it will help fill this emptiness inside,” she said vacantly, not expecting a response. But Kitty broke down in tears and hugged her so tight she could barely catch her breath.

“No tears, Kitty. I will write to you often and you must write back with all your news. Who knows, if I am lucky enough to bear children, I will have need of your insight, having raised half your siblings. Would you visit if I have a need of you?”

“Of course, Lizzie. If the new master will spare me. I’ll be there to help in any way I can.”

“It’s a deal then. If the need arises, I will send a note, and I will plead with my cousin to spare you. There—it gives me great comfort to know I have you as a friend, Kitty.”

Loosening her grip, she sniffed and dabbed her face to restore her composure. Kitty handed her a small glass of mulled wine and, knowing the day ahead of her, she sipped, allowing the liquid to warm her inside. After the ceremony, they would return to Hawkswood for a simple wedding feast. The servants and some of the tenants would celebrate later after she and Sir Charles had retired, but she had left instructions with Mabel, the housekeeper, to ensure the staff all had wine and food to share in the occasion.

The walk from Hawkswood Manor down the winding gravel path to the small family church surrounded by dense woodland was quiet, and she was grateful because she couldn’t muster any words. Mabel and Percy, the butler, were the only people to accompany her and witness the ceremony. Staring above at the thick, rolling white clouds, hundreds of blackbirds swarmed the air, flapping their wings and cawing in the blue sky, flying away. A solitary bird dropped to the ground and landed, unmoving, at her feet.

She gasped at the sight of the small feathered creature and crouched to inspect it. She nudged its wing with her gloved hand to check whether it was dead. What a delicate beauty. How sad. As the tips of the glove touched the bird, an electrical pulse of heat burst from the pit of her stomach. The force of the energy that flowed through her veins and charged through her fingers shocked her, almost knocking her over.

A moment later, the dazed bird fluttered and flew away. She stared in amazement and fear. Did I do that? Glancing back at the servants, she saw they were caught up holding hands and missed the plight of the feathered creature. She removed her gloves and studied her hands, which throbbed with heat. Elizabeth rubbed them and replaced her gloves, putting what happened behind her as she stood and walked past the headstones in the graveyard, headed for the church.

The yew trees that edged the stone wall swayed and the leaves rustled on the floor. A brisk chill invaded, and her fingers continued to plague her. She clenched her hands up and as she did, the leaves flew skyward. She stared in wonder as they rose and fell as she opened and moved her hands. But growls at the edge of the woods drew her attention away and the leaves fell to the ground in a pile. Elizabeth had never known wolves to inhabit the woods, but her eyes zeroed in on a pack of large, vicious beasts that stood at the perimeter of the trees. One large gray wolf stepped forward, raised its snout into the air, and howled. She opened her mouth to tell the others, but the creatures twisted around and vanished from sight.

“Did you hear that?” Elizabeth asked, gazing at the servants.

“What, dear?”

“That howl? It sounded like a wolf?”

“Milady, there are no wolves around here. They have been extinct for years.”

How amazing. The creatures she saw resembled the wolves from the books in the library, and they stood still, as if sensing something strange too. Staring around, the air stilled, as if pausing to take a breath. She narrowed her eyes, staring at the edges of the trees, certain the wolves were still there in the shadows. Goose bumps broke across her flesh as the temperature dropped. A strong, earthy scent filled her nostrils, and more growls surrounded her. Other odors assailed her and a desperate need to run away called. But unfamiliar voices burst to life and whispered around, rooting her to the spot. Elizabeth swirled in a circle, searching to see who they belonged to. The light from the sun vanished and the world plunged into a blinding darkness.

Mabel screamed. “Oh Lord, have mercy upon us all! The world is coming to an end.”

Nothing scared Elizabeth and she peered into the inky sky, seeking the sun and mesmerized by the spectacle unfolding around her. She had read about a solar eclipse but had never witnessed such an event when the moon passed in front of the sun, casting a shadow over the earth. The eeriness surrounded her and swallowed her whole as terrifying voices whispered vile words to her, filling the silence.

You will hang. Murderer. Witch!

They echoed back and forth until she couldn’t bear it any longer; she covered her ears but stared into the dark, endless void.

Be careful, mistress.

At this warning, she jumped. This time, she recognized the voice even though she couldn’t recall the name. In that moment, time suspended, and the scenery changed. Elizabeth stood up high, perched on a wooden platform before a roaring mob. The executioner yanked her closer to the long rope that dangled in front of her. A giant of a man lifted the noose and placed it over her head.

No.”

“Don’t struggle, mistress. I’ll make it quick.”

The yells from the crowd called for her death. Rotten, foul-smelling vegetables hit her face and slid down her chest as she stood there. She would die today; there was no saving her, for they had judged her guilty, and she would pay with her life.

Elizabeth cried out, “No, please, I didn’t kill him. I helped him.”

Staring at the faces before her—neighbors and people she had helped birth their babes—not one stepped to defend her. With her hands tied, she stared up at the snowy sky, praying these last few moments would be over soon. May God forgive them. Glancing at her executioner dressed in black, she couldn’t see his eyes, but stared at the wooden lever where his hand rested. He gave a quick nod and she readied herself. The creaking and sudden jolt stole her air. The floor vanished from beneath her feet and she dangled, twisting in the air. The world blurred. She jerked and twitched, desperate for air. But in seconds, the yells dimmed to silence.

Two arms gripped her and jolted her hard, snapping the trance that swamped her. The sun peeked behind the gray clouds, and she stood in the church yard once more, with Sir Charles studying her with his cold, flat eyes. He spoke, but she didn’t hear the words, still lost in what had taken place. As he pulled her, she shoved his chest to free herself and realized what she had done.

“Oh, Sir Charles, I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to be so forceful. I had a fright and needed air.”

“A solar eclipse can understandably be scary, but it is a natural phenomenon, my dear,” he said in his nasally monotone voice.

She nodded at the man before her. Despite the age difference of some four and twenty, he wasn’t displeasing to the eye. Standing there, she observed his tall, well-built stature possessed an air of composed elegance. He sniffed through his small, slim nose and held his mouth tight. His manner of dress was impeccable without being over fancy, with the usual tight-fitted knee-length buff breeches, a white shirt, and black waistcoat complete with a matching tailcoat and leather riding boots. His small eyes narrowed and held hers far longer than any other man ever dared to before.

Did he like what he saw?

Straightening her back, she refused to allow his height to intimidate her. She would not cower to him. Elizabeth perused him in utter silence as he did her. The livid scar upon his left cheek added a wildness to him that she found alluring. Sir Charles raked his hand through his short hair and looked around before addressing her.

“Are you all right now?”

His eyes narrowed, waiting for her response. At his side stood the vicar. She could not begin to explain what she had experienced to him or anyone and frowned, unsure what to say.

“I’m feeling much better now, Sir Charles. Please, it is of no concern.”

“From now on, everything about you is my concern, dear. Pray, let us continue before the skies open.” He hooked her arm with his to guide her into the church.

Stepping inside, the light scent of lavender, roses, and sage hung in the air from the several garlands hung along the short aisle. Elizabeth tried to shake off the extraordinary start to her wedding and took one slow step after another down the aisle, with Sir Charles leading the way. Rain now splashed against the stained-glass windows as the solemn service got underway, and the voice of the priest bounced off the walls of the small house of worship. But Elizabeth stood at the altar, unable to shake off the new awareness rippling through her or the whispers inside her head.

As she stared at the walls, a deep voice repeated the words of the vicar. Elizabeth closed her eyes to block out the ceremony and she drifted away. As her eyes shut, a gargled scream rent the air and she clasped her throat as it tightened once again. She jerked and struggled, unable to breathe or swallow. Flashes of a mob shouting and cursing at her blinked in and out of her mind. The crowd called for her death.

“Kill the witch. Let her hang.”

“I’m not a witch,” she shouted.

“Lady Elizabeth, are you quite well, child?” the vicar asked, and she stared at them with an open mouth realizing she had spoken out aloud. The voices stopped but she shook with fear, unable to form words.

Sir Charles clasped her hand, his touch ice-cold, and he squeezed her hand tight.“What is it? You don’t appear to be with us at all. What’s this nonsense about a witch?”

She stared at him horrified he had heard her denounce being a witch. How could she explain any of this?

“Elizabeth.”

The use of her first name sounded oddly soft upon his lips. It was the first time he had used it.

“Nothing it’s naught but nerves, I assure you.” She looked from him to the priest, who smiled and nodded.

“Let us continue then, as I do not think this is the place for a fit of the vapors.”

Glad her explanation had been accepted, the ceremony continued. Elizabeth recited her vows, promising to honor and obey Sir Charles as he slipped the plain gold band on her finger. Lifting her head, she stared long and deep into the slate-gray eyes of the stranger who was now her husband and waited expectantly for something. But as the pensive Sir Charles stood at her side, he didn’t so much as smile at her, and when his black sleeve brushed against her skin, she trembled with the cold.

No kiss followed or warm greeting. He simply gathered her hand and folded it into the crook of his arm to lead her silently up the steps. Her stomach plummeted as an impeding sensation of being led to the gallows assailed her, and she swallowed down an invisible lump to resist the impulse to run. But it was too late. Staring at the black ink as she scrawled her name, Lady Elizabeth Dempsey, a woman’s voice whispered inside her head.

Be careful, lovey.”

Chapter 2


“Oh, milady, you look frozen half to death. Come through to stand by the fire. I’ve made a feast for you with all your favorites to enjoy before your journey. Congratulations on your marriage, Lady Elizabeth,” Becky, the cook, said. She gave a short curtesy rather than a hug, her normal greeting, but Sir Charles’s presence changed that.

Although the rain stopped, allowing them to walk to the house without getting wet, Elizabeth couldn’t shift her sense of unease. Standing in the church grounds, as her heightened senses reacted to the environment, something unlocked deep inside her. Even now, muted whispers spoke inside her head, and she clutched her arms to stop herself from shaking.

“Thank you, Mrs. Havesham. I believe Lady Elizabeth is chilled from the fresh air of the short walk. A good fire and some food would be most welcome before we leave.”

Becky gave a low, lopsided curtsy again, fumbling with her apron. They rarely entertained guests at Hawkswood, and her obvious discomfort was evident in her awkward manner.

“Very good, sir. I’ll have Percy ready the carriage when you’re ready and Lady Elizabeth’s trunk is ready in the hall as you asked.”

Elizabeth eyed her stiff husband, unaware that he had been at Hawkswood prior to the service to offer any instructions and wondered why she hadn’t been involved in making them. “Must we leave so soon? I thought we might spend the night here. And leave at daybreak.”

Her words spilled out before she had time to catch herself. Becky coughed, making her study the kind woman who welcomed her at the kitchen table and into her heart with all manner of tempting treats. Now, she shook her head, and Elizabeth pressed her lips together, but for naught. She lifted her head to glance at the man before her; his deep entrenched lines that curved around his mouth spread.

He bowed his head a little, sweeping his gaze over at her and back at Becky, who fumbled with her hands at her side.

“I’m afraid, my lady, as a high sheriff and MP, I have work that commands attention in London. We will be there for the next two months at my townhouse until my business is concluded. From there we will head for Tregowen, where I have arranged a party to celebrate our marriage.”

She knew little about her new husband, but the idea of traveling to London sounded exciting, if a little daunting. She had never mixed with the haut ton and wondered how she would be accepted.

“I see—well, of course, we shall leave as soon as you wish, sir.”

She could say more, such as why he had not thought it necessary to explain any of this to her beforehand. As mistress of Hawkswood for several years, she made most of the day-to-day decisions but being a married lady now would change that. Her husband would control everything. What would she do all day? She would need to discuss this matter with Sir Charles because she couldn’t lay idle, and she believed her opinions held value. Elizabeth could not be silent. She had been raised to speak her mind by her father, and he said he admired her help and support. After enjoying the assortment of breads, toast, ham and eggs, they made their way to leave after thanking all the staff. She held back the tears, refusing to cry until later. As Sir Charles shook hands with each person, he gave them a silver coin and thanked them. A most considerate and kind act, she noted. As she placed a step on the coach, a shriek from behind prevented her from leaving.

“Lizzie, wait.”

At the sound of Kitty’s voice, she charged over to her dear friend. They hugged each other tight as light sobs burst forth from them both. She sniffed and whispered, “Look for my letter. I will write and let you know how I fare. Write back.”

Kitty nodded and pressed a small bottle into her hand. It contained rose water.

She covered her lips with her shaky hands and nodded, clutching the bottle.

“Come now, we must be on our way for we have a long journey ahead,” Sir Charles said.

Elizabeth nodded, and Kitty slipped away. The emptiness inside her heart grew bigger at her departure and she slid inside the waiting coach. The remaining staff waved as she said good-bye. Sir Charles sat opposite, and he tapped the roof of the carriage to instruct the driver to move on. As the horses drew the carriage away from the only home she had ever known, the sensation of being watched from the thick crop of distant trees sparked her out of her reverie. The damp, earthy scent greeted her on the breeze once more. She withdrew from the window to shut out the questions that hovered in her mind and stared at her husband as she shivered.

Sir Charles leaned over her and tucked in a woolen blanket Mabel had handed him.

“Thank you, for being so thoughtful, giving the servants the extra coin.”

“Nonsense. Your father left provisions for them following your marriage and I am merely carrying out his request. Now, we have several hours before we reach the inn. I’ve arranged to spend the night there, so the horses can rest. I hope that will be to your liking?”

Elizabeth gripped the soft blanket, grateful for the tenderness he displayed toward her. “As you wish, Sir Charles.”

A smile skittered across his face as he leaned forward, pressing a hand on her knee and her legs quivered under his touch as he studied her face.

“My dear child, call me Charles. You must address me by my given name, for we are now man and wife and as such, it is only fitting.” As he spoke, his eyes held her.

She wasn’t a child and it seemed odd he would use that term, especially with reference to their married status. Does he see me as a child?

“Of course, Si—Charles. It will take some getting used to, I fear.”

“Of course, there are a great many things you will need to learn as mistress and lady of Tregowen, but I will help you, as will Enid. Now, rest, for it has been a long day already.”

Elizabeth wanted to stay awake and study the landscape as they traveled but a heavy weariness brought on by this morning’s nuptials and all that had taken place made it hard to keep her eyes open. She drifted asleep to dreams that morphed into vivid nightmares which made her cry out.

“No, please no.”

A cold hand brushed her cheek and she stirred awake. Charles strolled away from the bed, looking tense. He had forgone his long coat and stood, smoking a cheroot. Glancing around the warm room, she realized he must have carried her from the coach and brought her right upstairs. She quickly sat up, feeling shy at the intimacy of sharing a room and watching him undress. As Charles continued to remove his waistcoat, she noted the large tub in the center of the room.

“I did not wish to disturb you, but you seemed to be having a bad dream. You were pleading for your life. Crying, that you were not a witch. This is the second time you mentioned a witch. What is plaguing you?”

Elizabeth shook her head, she had not wanted to share this with Charles, fearing what he may think. “Yesterday, at the church, I heard whispers like an echo from long ago. I don’t know what to say other than, I felt, I had stepped into someone else’s life from the past.”

He didn’t laugh or shout at her, instead he nodded quietly, examining her, “And this someone, is a witch?”

“Yes, a witch. She was hung. It was awful.” She clutched her neck.

“Well now, my dear, I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits, nor should you. Those who have committed crimes are rightly punished. Perhaps, you heard such a tale through the servants, and being your wedding day, being a nervous bride, the mind played tricks on you. Anyway, we are now married. I am your husband. Let’s put this nonsense behind us my dear. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. Now, I thought you might enjoy a soak before, well, before we retire for the night.”

She gripped the sheets. This was her wedding night. A night to consummate their marriage. The warmth from the fire heated her cheeks as she ran her gaze over her husband. His shirt opened at the top of his chest to reveal smooth firm planes and she wondered what lay beneath the rest. She couldn’t move, unsure what to do.

“Do you need me to assist you undressing?” He edged closer and she pressed her lips tight as her heart raced.

“If you could undo the top few buttons, I can manage thereafter. Thank you.”

He did as she instructed. “There—I shall take my leave of you. I rather fancied a nightcap. I shan’t be long.”

Elizabeth hesitated long enough to allow him to exit the room and sighed in relief, for in truth, suddenly, the room seemed too small. Undressing before a stranger was not in the least bit comfortable, even if he was now her husband. Did that make her still a child? Letting out a sigh, she quickly removed her clothes, and placed them in a neat pile on the chair. She studied the large wooden four-poster bed she would share with Charles upon his return and knew what she must do.

Searching around, she thanked the gods her reticule had been brought up with her. Reaching inside, she retrieved the bottle of rose water, and added a generous amount to the water before slipping in. Forgetting all the worries about the day, she let herself relax. Soaking in the sweet-smelling water, she ran her hands over her long limbs and thought about the man she had married. Despite his serious nature, at times, he appeared kind-hearted, even gentle like now, getting a bath ready.

The room glowed amber with the fire and the candlelight. She closed her eyes as a stirring began inside her veins. Little tickles grew and pulsed throughout, making her crave something. At odds with herself, and unsure what these sensations meant, she opened her eyes and gazed out the window, which framed a full moon.

Later, as she lay in bed awaiting her husband’s return, she drifted away to another life. Her past called to her and harrowing scenes filled her mind, until a shift on the mattress and a slight prod woke her.

“Elizabeth, wake up. It’s your husband.” Charles lay on his side next to her with the sheet at his waist.

She stared in the muted candlelight, captivated by his rounded, muscled shoulders and broad, smooth chest as shadows flickered from the fire. Her heart galloped inside her ribs. “I’m sorry, I fell asleep, but my dreams are filled with such horror…”

“Ssh…” The heady, masculine smell of him mixed with the scent of brandy drew her to raise her hand to touch and explore him. He grabbed her hand and kissed the palm as he leaned over her. The weight of his large frame crushed her into the bed, but it wasn’t a disturbing sensation. When he lifted his head and sealed her mouth with his lips, she accepted his gentle advances. This was the first time any man had kissed her in such an intimate fashion. As Charles nudged and coaxed her lips, she opened for him, breathless, and mimicked his actions, kissing him back, wanting to please him.

A moan escaped from him and he bit her lip. As she tasted the saltiness of blood, she opened her mouth to plead with him to slow down, but he thrust his tongue inside. The fullness of him touching and tasting every corner overwhelmed her. She pushed at him, but he grabbed her hands with one of his to hold her still and, with his legs, forced hers apart. She wriggled and tried to relax, but instead she stiffened as his hand covered her breast, massaging the rounded flesh. A moan escaped her mouth as he flicked her nipple, but when he squeezed it, she jerked with the pain. When his teeth pulled on the sensitive bud and bit down, she cried out.

As his hands roamed over her skin, she tried to give in to his claiming despite his roughness. He pulled at her hair and grabbed her throat, squeezing as she choked, gasping for air. Shock filled her as he positioned himself, ready to take her, pushing her legs farther apart. She pushed against his great weight to force him off, but he wouldn’t budge. Charles lifted his hips, and his erection dipped at her entrance as he tightened his hold around her throat, cutting off her air supply and blurring her sight. As her vision failed, a clear image pressed into her mind: a woman swinging from a rope as she struggled to breathe. Thinking she would die if he continued, she thumped his chest several times with her fists and forced him away with a strength she never knew she had.

“Get off me.”

Instantly, he released her neck. She gasped and grabbed the sheet to cover herself, scrambling off the bed and panting like a wild animal, staring at the door, ready to flee. Blood dripped from her lip and her throat ached as she clutched it with her hand. Tears stalled in her eyes. Charles glanced at her, but she pressed her shaky arm out in front to keep him away.

He shuffled to the edge of the bed to sit forward with his head dipped low. “Fear not, my lady. I will not touch you again tonight.” With that, he got dressed and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

She slipped onto the floor, huddled in the sheets, crying. As promised, he did not seek her out during the night. In the morning, after a sleepless night, she devoured the warm bread and cold slab of meat the maid brought to her room.

She did not see Charles until he sat opposite her in the coach as they traveled through the countryside toward the great city of London. Gazing out the window at the green grass and sheep eating in the fields, she tried to put last night behind her, but her neck ached, and a red mark remained.

“Lady Elizabeth, pray listen to what I have to say. I beseech you.”

At his most heartfelt-sounding voice, she met his gaze, and his hand reached out toward her. But without meaning to, she flinched, and he sat back, looking away.

“I admit we are strangers. We know little about each other, and had we more time, perhaps we could have been better acquainted, but I have been away fighting for our king and country, like your father. After the Battle of Waterloo, duty called me home to you to fulfill the promise I made to him to take care of you, but I returned a different man, and for that, I make no apologies.” Charles rubbed the pink scar on his cheek and she could only imagine the horror he must have faced during the war. He sounded sincere, but he did not apologize for his actions. Did he not understand how he had behaved?

“Sir, I may not be able to begin to know what you experienced while fighting for our country, but I cannot accept your behavior last night was the action of a gentleman and my father assured me that you were. Was he wrong?”

Charles gave a quick smile and tilted his head to observe her straight on. He slid next to her and clutched her hand, which she accepted, although she stiffened at his touch. She wanted to relax because it would not help to be distant.

“No—Graham, your father, wasn’t wrong. I’m sorry if I scared you. My behavior was inexcusable. Blame it in part for how your beauty affects me. I forget you are an untouched innocent. Unaware of the ways in which to please a man, and I’m a battle-worn soldier needing comfort. Forgive my impatience.”

Taken aback by his comments, her cheeks flushed. Was she in the wrong to react the way she did? Was his behavior normal? He had accepted her peculiar behavior yesterday after all. She wanted to make this marriage work, and she squeezed his hand. He leaned closer and his brandy-soaked scent invaded as he kissed her lips. The reminder of the previous night caused her to shove him away as her heart pounded in her chest, remembering his hand around her throat, and she sniffed.

Charles wiped his mouth and returned to his own seat across from her. “I’ll give you time, Elizabeth. I will be busy in London with work commitments leaving you alone for most of our stay. Becoming a wife is a big adjustment, but I believe once you are with child, things will settle, and you will realize your rightful place.”

Elizabeth covered her mouth with her hand, lost for words, but hoped time would help the confusion that reigned inside her.

They continued the rest of the trip in silence.

Chapter 3

September 1815


Charles stood at the fireplace, lighting his cheroot and examining the two vastly different men who stood inside the office at his townhouse in London: Viscount of Warwick, his well-dressed, light-hearted close friend. The other, the Duke of Beaufort. The duke was undeniably the tallest of the three and a serious man of few words but who observed and listened to everything. Both were members of the Elusti, a secret organization designed to root out evil and punish those who would not conform or confess their guilt. Most of the members were from the upper ranks of the nobility who felt it their solemn duty to pass sentence over people who slipped through the overburdened courts. The interrogation and trial was often carried out in private when the prisoner’s guilt was substantiated by torture to extract a confession.

As a high sheriff, it was his duty to oversee the courts, prisoners, and execute the sentences, but on many occasions the process was far too slow. The Elusti’s way of serving out judgement was far quicker and swifter.

“Where is your good lady wife, Charles? You’ve been here a month, and every time I call, she is absent. Have you done away with her already?”

He stared hard at the viscount, whose notoriety with the ladies had given rise to his well-deserved reputation as a rake and bounder.

“Not yet,” he smiled eyeing his friend, “I’ve hardly seen her myself. Business has occupied my stay here,” he said flatly.

“By business, do you mean Elusti business or affairs of the heart?” Gabriel asked.

“Don’t meddle Gabriel, of course it is counsel business, damn you,” Charles shouted.

“Only there is gossip around the ton of your indiscretion with a certain Lady Rowena. Not that I’m one for idle gossip, but you might want to attend to such matters before your good lady wife discovers the truth of your whereabouts.”

Charles examined his friend and glanced over at the Duke, who until now remained quiet.

“It matters naught to me my friend. I have always maintained a belief that a wife should be without question, a lady of virtue, but in order for a man to be satisfied, one might require a lady of the night. If you get my meaning, but discretion is the answer.”

He sighed and his shoulders eased. A month had flown by, and after the failed attempt at consummating the marriage on their wedding night, he had not been in the right mind to venture near Elizabeth since. Once in London, his mistress had been relentless in her need of him, satisfying his lust. But he knew his duty and had been biding his time allowing his wife to adjust to the situation.

“Yes, well, women in general cause far more trouble than they are worth. But I am grateful for your advice, both of you. Elizabeth is a unique little thing. Right now, she is getting ready for dinner, and you know what ladies are like, fussing with their appearance until they are happy. Since we arrived in London, Elizabeth has been invaded by the ladies of the ton. She has been in demand and busy with all kinds of social engagements which fitted perfectly with my commitments but that will all change once we leave for Wales. But pray, where have you been, Gabriel? We did not see you at the Sherwood’s ball this past Saturday. Warming some whore’s bed, no doubt?”

Charles wanted to shift the attention from his private matters, not happy to be discussing his complicated affairs with anyone.

“Do not listen to all the gossip, Charles. I do not have to pay for a romantic liaison, and I do have affairs on my estate that require my attention from time to time.” Gabriel brushed down his sleek golden waistcoat while studying the other man intensely.

“Of course, you are both invited to dine with us tonight and you will have the opportunity to meet my beautiful wife then.”

“Alas, I am leaving right after our business here is concluded to meet with a certain lady friend I have neglected of late or I would take you up on the offer. Another time, perhaps,” Gabriel responded. The viscount poured himself a drink and sipped on the expensive brandy.

“Surely, you will be at Tregowen for the hunting season?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything. But I had thought you might wish for some privacy now you are married,” Gabriel responded.

“That’s preposterous. I have no wish for privacy after the horror of Napoleon and war. It is good to return to civilization. My door will always be open and my friends welcome, especially during the hunting season. It’s part of my life, and that will not change because I have taken a wife. What about you, Raphael? Will you join us for dinner?” he asked.

“Yes, I would enjoy that very much. Your lady wife, I presume, is of a Protestant faith, Sir Charles?” the duke asked. The imposing man opened his snuffbox and pinched some of the contents with his fingers, sniffing it into his nose.

Charles sighed and rubbed his forehead, wondering back over Elizabeth tale of the witch, assessing the man before him, who was his senior in not simply years but rank. He knew him through his dealings as an MP and the courts. Being a duke, he was a powerful man with connections right up to the throne. Charles stepped to the decanter and poured the liquor into two tumblers, handing one over to the man.

“Yes, yes, of course. Elizabeth has been sheltered away in Gloucester since childhood. Untried. Untouched. An innocent of the ways of the world.”

The duke, in his dark long coat and coiffed hair, raised his eyebrow. “Young ladies have such absurd notions these days about having the same rights as men. I find that sort of rebellious nature needs to be rectified immediately. Even the most innocent have evil thoughts and errant ways, you know.”

Charles knocked his drink back and replaced his glass on the desk, glancing over the documents the men wished him to sign. Elizabeth possessed an outspoken nature at times.

“I believe a firm hand will smooth out any flights of fancy Elizabeth may harbor from her secluded, rather relaxed upbringing, and once she is with child, she will not have the time to ponder such deviant thoughts.”

Gabriel laughed. “I have never had to resort to threats or violence to gain a female’s cooperation.”

Charles gave a short smile at his friend. “Neither have you a wife.”

The duke lifted the paper, slid it across to him and pointed at the place where he needed to sign. “If you need more time to consider your allegiance to the Elusti, I can delay a day or two.”

“No—that will not be necessary.” He scrawled his name, agreeing to act as a spy to seek out those who were freed through the legal system, but otherwise were a grave cause for concern. Adding his signature opened many doors to him and included a hefty monetary recompense that would aid his personal agenda in pushing the growth of his beloved Wales.

“Well, gentleman, if that concludes our business, I shall be on my way and bid you both a good evening.” Gabriel donned his long coat and collected his black wooden cane, headed out the door.

~~*~~


Elizabeth stood at Charles’s side as he introduced her to the Duke of Beaufort and she curtsied. The man eyed her chest openly, making her cheeks flush with embarrassment. She wore a green and cream dress styled in the latest fashion as instructed by Charles himself to the seamstress. Yet, she felt uncomfortable exposing so much skin, with the low neckline and tighter corset. For all the silk and satin that covered her, she didn’t feel relaxed and kept pulling at the front to cover herself.

Charles watched her and grabbed her hand to pull it down by her side, squeezing it tight.

She had thought her husband might be annoyed at his friend’s obvious distraction, but instead, he seemed to encourage it.

“Raphael, you are seated next to Elizabeth. Would you accompany her through to the dining room?” Charles pushed her closer to the man whose green eyes never left hers, making her shiver. She had no choice when the man extended his arm but to accept, and she found herself sat next to him at dinner, observing everything she did. Polite conversation and laughter surrounded her from the guests, and she longed to get acquainted with the smiling man to her right. But every time she started to speak with him, the duke would place his hand on hers and tap it, commanding her undivided attention.

“I would be interested to know how you find London, madam. Is it to your taste or do you prefer the solitude of the country?” He sniffed.

Staring up at her husband, who kept a close eye on her as well, she hesitated over how to respond but as the duke outranked the other guest, she smiled at him and replied.

“I had not visited London until Charles brought me here, and it is quite different from Hawkswood. It contains far more people than I thought possible, but for all the riches I have seen at the balls, there is such poverty here the like of which I have never encountered. The air, I fear, is not pleasant, whereas back home in the country the air is fresh and clean. But the theatre is wonderful and the dancing—well, I confess, I enjoy that the most.”

Once she started talking, she found herself getting carried away again and out of breath by the end, reaching for her glass of wine. She sipped the drink, but when the duke placed his hand on her knee and slid it up her thigh, she choked and spat the wine from her mouth. The red wine dribbled down her chin, between her breasts, and over the white tablecloth. Elizabeth shot up out of her seat, her cheeks in flames.

“Oh, God—I’m so sorry.” She pressed a white napkin on the tablecloth, anxiously trying to blot the stain as the maid stood at her side.

“Elizabeth, sit down at once. The maid will see to it.”

Distraught at the duke’s behavior, she did not wish to sit next to the man, but as she had already created a scene and did not wish to draw further attention to herself, she returned to her seat. The rest of the evening passed without any more disruption. She smiled and nodded in the appropriate places, answering any question thrown at her but wanting the evening to end. Each time she glanced at Charles, his anger burned right through her. As the front door closed on the last guest, he spun around and twisted her arm as she yelped in discomfort.

“What the devil are you playing at? The duke is a most honored guest and he couldn’t get a word in with you dominating his attention. You’ve imbibed too much wine, which is unbecoming in a lady, making you loose with your words. No wonder the duke refused to remain for a nightcap. You’ve embarrassed me beyond words, madam—you may retire for the night.”

Elizabeth stood dumbstruck at his scolding and dismissive behavior. She wanted to argue the truth of the situation with the duke, but her husband’s raised voice and one-sided view of things left her doubting her testimony mattered.

Two days later, they left London behind and Elizabeth hoped Tregowen would alter her husband’s mood and prayed things would improve. Charles barely acknowledged her after the dinner party, and she did not know how to rectify the situation between them. The journey to Wales took several long days. They rested at inns along the way, but after depositing Elizabeth in their room, her husband would disappear, avoiding her company at every occasion. By the time they reached their destination, her nerves were fraught. The sun had set, and Elizabeth ached all over, having slept fitfully in the coach. But even in the inky darkness, the magnificent red brick mansion stood out, illuminated in soft amber light.

Sir Charles swapped sides, pressing into her and pointing out the window with a youthful eagerness she hadn’t observed before.

“Tregowen House has been in my family for generations. We are one of the few estates in the entire land to have gas lights inside and out, although we are not fully functioning with them and still rely on candles in most rooms. But being a man of such influence in Wales, I insist on the best that money can provide. This is just one such extravagance. Inside, for example, you will see, in your room you have a copper tub lined with linen for comfort to bathe in. I believe very much in the value of cleanliness.”

Elizabeth studied the man who smiled when he talked about his achievements, and she gazed at the palatial mansion that was easily three times the size of Hawkswood. She hadn’t realized how impressive Charles’s estate would be. The red brick was unique, eloquent and breathtaking. She had never seen anything quite like it. What she could see bathed in the glow was certainly substantial, with its huge windows, and fine gray stone edges, the architecture elegant and neat. The coach came to an abrupt stop at the foot of the steps leading to the main entrance. Standing outside in a line was an impressive army of servants.

“Goodness, there are so many staff. How will I ever get to know them all?”

Charles smiled broadly and clasped her hand. “As with everything, my good lady, all in good time. Come. I wish for you to meet Enid, my trusted housekeeper, and my right hand as far as Tregowen is concerned. She is the only person of importance as she will educate you about the day-to-day running which, as mistress, you will need to learn, for my business will oft take me away.”

Pressing her lips tight, she accepted her husband’s hand as she descended from the warmth of the coach into the brisk night air and listened as he introduced her to each member of staff. She doubted she would remember each name but in time she would. Each person politely curtsied and bowed formally, giving wishes of congratulations. The last person Charles introduced did not smile. Her pale, sullen features peered at her with a frozen expression that radiated no emotion at all. Elizabeth stretched her hand out to shake the housekeeper’s, but the woman refused to accept it.

She slid her gaze at Charles instead and curtsied.

“Elizabeth, it is not necessary to shake Enid’s hand. You are the mistress.”

The last few days of silence and her tiredness finally caught up with her. She couldn’t hold her words inside, and she snapped, even though she knew speaking out this way would cost her.

“I know—but as you said, Enid is important. I thought it would be a good start.”

One of the servants gasped, and Enid instantly shot a gaze down the line, signaling the staff to leave.

“Your guests are inside, sir, and a dinner has been prepared for you and Lady Elizabeth in case you are hungry.”

Sir Charles gave a curt nod. “Very good, Enid. I knew I could count on you, but I’m afraid Lady Elizabeth is exhausted from her journey and would prefer to eat in her room. See to it that a tray is brought up for her.”

What he said wasn’t the truth and she couldn’t stand by and simply let him push her aside.

“Charles—I’m not too tired to meet your friends,” she said, shocked that he would command such a thing on her first night here.

Her husband grabbed her wrist and she winced in front of the housekeeper, who glanced away. “That will be all, Enid,” he called.

The housekeeper shot her a parting glance. “Very good, sir, and welcome home.”

“Thank you. It is good to be back.”

Once Enid entered the mansion, Elizabeth lifted her leg to take a step and tried to shake free of his tight grasp, but he held her firm and reeled her in against his chest.

“You would do well to remember where you are, my lady. Back in Hawkswood, your behavior may have gone unsupervised. But here—I am the master. My word is the law. Do not seek to defy or challenge me. I will not tolerate it. I am a patient man but push me too far and you may not like what you discover. Now, you will be shown to your room, and if you behave, you will be permitted to meet my guests on the morrow. Learn quickly, Elizabeth, or the consequences will be severe.”

He released her, and she rubbed the tender skin at her wrist, panting at his hurtful treatment. As he strode away without a backward glance, she pondered the stars in the pitch-black sky, blinking away tears. He’s tired; he does not truly mean to scare me, surely.

Making her way inside the golden light of the airy hallway stole her breath at the sheer opulence and grandeur of the rich interior that twinkled gold and red.

Dark wooden floors creaked under her feet as she tiptoed inside, gazing at her new surroundings painted ruby red. Rich tapestries adorned the walls. A mahogany fireplace dominated the room, with all manner of wild beasts carved in detail into the wood. A deer’s head hung above as a trophy, but the idea of these delicate creatures being killed for sport unsettled her. Although Charles mentioned he enjoyed hunting, she prayed she wouldn’t be expected to partake in that blood spilling.

To her left was a wide double door, from which raucous shouts and laughter spilled out. No doubt it was where her husband had receded to. Excluding her. Standing alone, she didn’t know where to go or what to do, feeling adrift and alone. Elizabeth stepped toward the forbidden room, but a swish of skirts at her heel made her turn.

“Milady, you’re to follow me. The housekeeper said she will send up your dinner shortly. I’m Abigail. I am to assist you.” She curtsied.

Elizabeth studied the young woman not dissimilar to Kitty and wished more than anything her friend was here. Perhaps this young woman would be an ally, for she sorely needed one. Remembering Enid’s quick glance at her, she did not believe the woman would be a friend, and she needed one desperately.


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