SPIDER SILK – book 2 in the KEEPER OF PLEAS series – is accessible to all my Patreon patrons here, and will be made available at all major retailers in summer 2017. You can read a sample chapter below:
for we all have
to return to
The note twitched in Edwine’s hand, then fluttered to the floor. Hastily, she picked it up. Had she read correctly? Yes, she had. There was no doubt. After all, he had typed it.
She felt herself blushing. Her gaze dropped back to the package. She brushed her fingers over shimmering fabric, and lifted the garment from its wrappings. Rupert had sent her the finest chemise she’d ever laid eyes on. Embroidered silk that would reveal more than it hid.
Edwine’s blush grew hot.
The room tilted. She sank to the mattress and clapped a hand to her heart, whispering softly to herself, ‘He will propose today. Oh my god! Did he speak to Father already?’
She looked up, wondering if her sister knew. She probably did. ‘You should have warned me, Frances! He should have warned me.’
Frances was oddly flushed. Much like an overripe apple. Her hair was in disarray and stuck to her sweaty temples. ‘What in all the heavens is wrong with you?’ Edwine asked. ‘Are you upset?’
‘The boy was rather rude.’
‘The boy who gave me the package, you goose! Rupert’s boy.’ Frances tried a smile, but it slipped off her mouth and her trembling chin.
Edwine’s fickle attention drifted back to Rupert’s present. The chemise. Oh gods, the chemise! How much had he paid for it? She picked up the chocolate that lay on a purple, heart-shaped paper, sniffed at it, and stuck it into her mouth. Intense almond flavours burst on her tongue. Marzipan was her favourite.
‘Fetch Ella,’ she said. ‘I need to change.’
‘If she’s to help you with this,’ Frances indicated the chemise as though it were a fat and hairy spider, ‘…she’ll tell Mother before we can make it to the coach.’
Panic tightened Edwine’s throat. She eyed her sister, her triumphant, but strangely nervous expression, and wondered if Frances begrudged her happiness.
Edwine brushed the thought away, and put on a friendly face. ‘Would you, dear sister?’
Frances pulled up a shoulder, as though she didn’t care either way.
When they reached the zoo, Edwine could barely contain herself. The prospect of seeing Rupert and being asked for her hand in marriage was making her skin prickle. Her heart felt unusually heavy, and she wondered if she were quite ready for him.
She clicked her tongue. Of course she was ready! She’d been wondering for a month when Rupert would finally ask her. In fact, both their parents must have met and come to an agreement already.
She stopped in her tracks. Why hadn’t anyone told her? Perhaps Rupert had asked her parents and her sister to keep it a secret until he could talk to her in person? So not to impose on her? That might be it. She smiled to herself, feeling lucky to have found such a thoughtful man. Suddenly, she grew hot. The chemise clinging to her bare skin was giving her impure thoughts. Bawdy, even! As if Rupert were already laying his beautiful hands on her. Her breath shortened. Was this what a woman felt in such moments? Odd. It was almost…painful.
She spotted the building where the large cats were kept. The stink of urine insulted her nostrils. How could Rupert possibly consider this place romantic? What was he thinking?
A wave of nausea ripped through her. The corset was hurting her, squeezing her too tight. Unbearable. Her legs felt like water. She stumbled, and her sister caught her elbow.
‘Frances?’ she whispered, as her vision blurred. ‘Why does it hurt so much?’
The world did a backflip and Edwine could no longer control her limbs.
Rose bunched up a handful of dirty-brown hair that she’d snipped off the neighbour dog’s wiggly backside. She added four matches she’d taken from Olivia’s room, and wrapped everything in a sheet of paper she’d found beneath Mr Sévère’s desk. She wasn’t supposed to enter his office. But then, she wasn’t supposed to do a lot of things she did.
While she worked, a summer wind sneaked through the window and lifted her hair. The tip of her tongue poked out of her mouth, curling up, snakelike. She caught herself, tucked her tongue between her teeth to hold it still, and gazed out the window and down to the courtyard. Higgins was grooming the horses. Everything was in place.
She struck a match and held it against the crumpled paper, then held her breath and let the burning missile fly. She watched its trajectory, a grin dimpling her cheeks as it landed in the courtyard with a dramatic poof.
The chestnuts jumped.
‘One. Two… Three.’
‘Aaaaaalf!’ Higgins bellowed from below.
Alf being the kitchen boy. He sported two very large ears, of which the left was more lopsided than the right. This condition alone had earned him Rose’s distaste when first they’d met.
He would get those ears pulled in a moment. She hated Alf, he was… Well, silly, clumsy, and naive was how one could best describe him. He was two years her senior and a brat. The feeling of dislike was mutual.
Alf often took a beating for things he hadn’t done. What a dumb boy! No one suspected her, of course. Not ever. Girls don’t build stink bombs, they don’t climb out of the attic’s top window, and traipse about the roof. And a girl would never throw a dead cat down the chimney.
Rose loved being a girl.
She waved whiffs of the stink bomb’s aroma out the window, then shut it, and tiptoed down the stairwell to the third floor, to the second floor, and — after making sure the servants weren’t around — she slipped into Olivia’s room.
‘You are late,’ Olivia said. ‘Quick, the buttons.’
Olivia sat on a corner of the bed, so Rose could easily button her dress.
‘Thank you. Your hair is a mess. Here, let me.’ Olivia turned and her fingers flew through Rose’s hair. Strand by strand, the braids grew longer. She tied them with green ribbons, and slapped the girl’s behind. ‘Off with you.’
A toothy grin, two fingers to her temple. ‘Aye, Captain!’ And Rose dashed from the room.
‘We had another incident,’ Sévère said when Olivia entered the dining room.
‘Is that so?’
He looked up, eyes narrowing. ‘I knew it. You are fraternising with the enemy.’
‘I would never.’ She took a seat opposite him, and reached for the tea. ‘Thank you for last night. It was very refreshing and enjoyable.’
He folded the morning papers. ‘We sound like a married couple.’
‘I’m working hard at keeping up the pretence,’ she quipped.
He stopped chewing.
‘That’s…not how I meant it, Sévère.’
‘Of course you didn’t. But to keep up the pretence it would rather help if you addressed me by my given name.’
She signalled neither agreement nor disagreement. The word Gavriel clung to her tongue, reluctant to slip out. She’d called him that when they’d consummated their marriage — it had been part of the contract that bound her to him for two and a half more years. He had whisked her away from an occupation she’d kept since the age of nine.
Occupation. Such belittlement of all that had happened to her as a child.
She gazed at the shimmering film that floated on her tea, and wondered why she couldn’t say that one word to him. Perhaps referring to him by his family name created the distance she needed in order to feel safe? Was she afraid of him? No, she certainly was not. But feeling close to a man was something she couldn’t imagine. Not in a hundred years.
Through her lashes, she stole a glance at him. How often did he think of her as a whore? How often did he wonder what it would take to get her into his bed? Would he try the stick or the carrot?
‘What are you thinking?’ he asked.
‘We do indeed sound like an old couple.’
He shrugged. ‘There are worse things, I’m sure. Now, I would appreciate it if you would tell Rose to cease her stink bomb assaults on Higgins and the horses, else I shall find myself unable to hold off an assault on the…erm… What might that thing up in the attic be called? Her dinosaur cave? A witch’s hovel?’
‘It’s a castle. I thought that was obvious. She and I conquered it. We drove out the evil king and his soldiers with cannon fire from our pirate ship.’
Sévère blinked. ‘You did what?’
Her mouth twitched.
‘Excuse me,’ he continued, ‘…but aren’t you a grown woman?’
‘You know, Sévère, sometimes I think a laugh would do you good. Shake off etiquette and do something silly from time to time.’
He opened his mouth, shut it, and smirked. ‘How, then, would you describe our nightly activities?’
‘Useful.’ She decapitated an egg with a swing of her butter knife. ‘Adventurous, reckless, and wonderful. Definitely not silly.’
He sighed. ‘Well, then. Let me be responsible for adventurous, reckless, and wonderful while you are responsible for silly and…whatever it is a woman feels the urge to do.’
Her shoulders stiffened. She placed the spoon aside, and cleared her throat. ‘Funny. I have an entirely different view of what distinguishes man from woman.’
‘Predator and prey, I know.’ He feigned a yawn.
Her jaw clenched.
‘You do know this is your weakest spot, do you not?’ he said. ‘Whenever I wish to discombobulate you, I let out an idiotic men are so and women are so statement. And every time you jump at it right away. You fluff up your plumage and look at me as if I were the epitome of prejudice. But it’s you who can’t overcome prejudice, not I. Otherwise, I would hardly have found myself able to marry you.’
She gifted him a sweet smile. ‘Oh, well. Fret not, husband, for you will be rid of me in but two and a half years. Then you can marry a decent woman who warms your bed whenever you tell her to do so.’
‘Whatever you wish, wife. Now, let us finish our breakfast in a civilised manner. We still have to get through said two and a half years without murdering each other. Besides, we are to visit Johnston at Guy’s in half an hour, and it would look suspicious if my eyes were gouged out.’
‘She collapsed yesterday at noon,’ Johnston said, and leant against the doorframe to his ward. ‘She and her sister visited the zoo. You’ve read the witness statements?’
Sévère grunted confirmation. The police had taken Miss Edwine Mollywater’s body to the morgue before anyone had thought to notify the coroner. Naturally, a herd of onlookers had trampled the crime scene before evidence could be secured.
‘She being young and healthy, the police wished to consult a physician. Dr Edison examined her. You’ve probably read his report.’
Johnston flicked his gaze to Olivia. He still felt a slight discomfort whenever Sévère mentioned discussing postmortems in detail with his young wife.
‘The results of my examination differ insignificantly from Dr Edison’s. The cause of death appears to be natural.’
‘“Appears” is not a word one often finds in your conclusions.’
‘I couldn’t find anything, Sévère. That’s the truth. You know me to be thorough.’
Sévère nodded, a frown carving his brow. ‘My intuition tells me someone sped up her demise.’
‘Well, my dear lad, in that case, it may be she was killed by witchcraft.’ With a wink, the surgeon bade his farewell.
Read all of SPIDER SILK on Patreon