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The Spinster’s Secret
This spinster is more than she seems…
Penniless Matilda Chapple is dependent on the charity of unloving relatives. Determined to earn her financial independence, she writes a series of erotic stories, purporting to be the confessions of a courtesan. Her secret is safe—until a battle-scarred Waterloo veteran, Edward Kane, agrees to uncover the anonymous author’s identity.
Can Mattie conceal the secret of her scandalous writings, or will Edward discover that the virginal spinster and the risqué authoress are one and the same person?
“I read it in one gulp. I couldn’t bring myself to put it down.”
~Miranda @ Goodreads
“Georgette Heyer fans, you must buy this immediately!”
~ Amazon reviewer
HIS LORDSHIP swiftly divested me of my gown, placing hot kisses on the skin he bared. “You are a goddess,” he breathed, as he untrussed my bosom . . .
Matilda Chapple glanced at the window. Outside the overcast sky was darkening towards dusk. If she hurried, she could mail this installment of Chérie’s Confessions before night fell.
Seizing me in his arms, he carried me to the bed, she wrote hastily. He pushed aside the froth of my petticoats with impatience. In less than a minute he had made his entrance and slaked his lust upon my . . .
Mattie halted, the quill held above the page, and squinted at her draft. What was that word? Feverish? Fevered? Fervent?
. . . upon my fevered body.
Mattie continued swiftly copying. Finally, she finished: We lay sated in the sunlight. For my part, I was as pleased by his lordship’s manly vigor as he was so evidently pleased by my feminine charms. I foresaw many pleasant months ahead as his mistress.
And on that note, dear readers, I shall end this latest confession from my pen.
Mattie laid down the quill. She glanced at the window again, hastily blotted the pages, and folded them. She sealed the letter with a wafer and wrote the address of her publisher clearly. Then she folded another letter around it and sealed that, too, writing the address of her friend Anne on it: Mrs. Thos. Brocklesby, Lombard Street, London.
Mattie bundled up the draft and hid it with the others in the concealed cupboard in the wainscoting. She crammed a bonnet on her head, threw a thick shawl around her shoulders, and grabbed the letter.
There was still an hour of daylight left, but deep shadows gathered in the corridors of Creed Hall. The stairs creaked as she hurried down them. The entrance hall was cave-like, dark and chilly and musty.
Mattie swung around, clutching the letter to her breast.
Her uncle stood in the doorway to his study, leaning heavily on a cane. “Where are you going?”
Mattie raised the letter, showing it to him. “A letter to a friend, Uncle Arthur. I’m taking it down to the village.”
Her uncle frowned, his face pleating into sour, disapproving folds. “I sent Durce with the mail an hour ago.”
“Yes, Uncle. I hadn’t quite finished―”
“Durce can take it tomorrow.”
“I should like to send it today, Uncle. If I may.”
Uncle Arthur’s eyebrows pinched together in a scowl. The wispy feathers of white hair ringing his domed skull, the beak-like nose, made him look like a gaunt, bad-tempered bird of prey. “Mr. Kane will be arriving soon.”
“I’ll only be twenty minutes. I promise.” Mattie bowed her head and held her breath. Please, please, please . . .
Her uncle sniffed. “Very well. But don’t be late for our guest. We owe him every courtesy.”
“No, Uncle.” Mattie dipped him a curtsy. “Thank you.”
Outside, the sky was heavy with rain clouds. The air was dank and bracingly cold, scented with the smell of decaying vegetation. Mattie took a deep breath, filling her lungs, feeling her spirits lift, conscious of a delicious sense of freedom. She walked briskly down the long drive, skirting puddles and mud. On either side, trees stretched leafless branches towards the sky. Once she was out of sight of the Hall’s windows, Mattie lengthened her stride into a run. She spread her arms wide, catching the wintry breeze with her shawl. It felt as if she was galloping, as if she was flying, as if she was free.
At the lane, she slowed to a walk and turned right. The village of Soddy Morton was visible in the hollow a mile away.
Mattie crossed the crumbling stone bridge. The brook rushed and churned below, brown and swollen, its banks cloaked in winter-dead weeds. She blew out a breath. It hung fog-like in front of her. Icy mud splashed her half boots and the hem of her gown, but a feeling of joy warmed her. She didn’t see the bleak landscape—the bare fields, the bare trees, the heavy, gray sky. Instead, her imagination showed her a cheerful boarding house with a cozy kitchen and a view of the sea through the windows.
Mattie inhaled deeply, almost smelling the tang of the ocean, almost tasting sea salt on her tongue.
Her grip tightened on the letter. Soon she would be free of Uncle Arthur, free of Creed Hall, free of Soddy Morton and Northamptonshire. Every word that she wrote and every confession that she mailed to London brought the dream of owning a boarding house closer.
Soon it wouldn’t be a dream, it would be reality.
EDWARD KANE, lately of the Royal Horse Guards, tooled his curricle over the low bridge to the clatter of iron-shod hooves on stone and halted at his first glimpse of Creed Hall. It crouched to his left at the crest of the hill, built of stone so dark it almost looked black, crowded by leafless trees. He grimaced. What had Toby called it? The dungeon.
“Ugly,” his bâtman, Tigh, commented from his seat alongside Edward.
Edward grunted agreement. A gust of wind whistled across the bare fields, and with it, the first icy drops of rain. He shivered, and urged the horses up the driveway. Guilt—a familiar companion since Waterloo—seemed to wrap more closely around him with each step the weary horses took. The Hall disappeared, then came into sight again, looking even more grim and inhospitable. He drew the curricle to a halt in front of the frowning, iron-studded door, handed the reins to Tigh, and clambered down. “Take it round to the stables.”
Edward rubbed his aching thigh. Guilt settled more heavily on him as he limped up the steps. Creed Hall loomed above him. It was ugly, but even so, it was Toby’s home. It should be him here, not me.
The door opened on grating hinges before he reached it. “Mr. Kane.”
Edward stepped inside, shivering. He handed his hat to the elderly butler, shrugged out of his fur-lined driving coat, and peeled off his gloves. Oil paintings hung on the dark-paneled walls, barely discernible in the gloom.
“Sir Arthur is in the library, sir,” the butler said, receiving the gloves and managing not to stare at Edward’s butchered hands. Or perhaps he didn’t notice the lack of fingers in the dimness. “If you would follow me, sir?”
The library was almost as dark as the entrance hall. The curtains were drawn against the dusk, but a lone candle burned on a side table and a meager fire smoked in the grate. A figure sat in a winged leather armchair beside the fireplace, shrouded in shadow.
“Mr. Kane, sir,” the butler said, and departed.
Edward bowed towards the armchair. “Sir Arthur?”
Sir Arthur levered himself from the armchair. Edward tried to find some points of similarity between his host and Toby. Height, leanness, a long face, but there it stopped. Arthur Strickland was thin to the point of emaciation, his high, domed skull bare except for a few wisps of white hair, his skin withered into pale, desiccated folds. Where Toby had liked to laugh, it appeared that Arthur Strickland preferred to frown. Lines of disapproval were engraved on his face, pinching between the feathery eyebrows and deeply bracketing his mouth.
Sir Arthur held out his hand, leaning heavily on his ebony cane, noticed the three fingers missing from Edward’s right hand, and hesitated.
“It doesn’t hurt, sir,” Edward said. Not much.
Strickland shook hands with him, a dry, limp clasp. “Waterloo?”
Interest sharpened in the old man’s eyes.
Edward braced himself for the inevitable questions, but instead Sir Arthur said, “Sherry?”
Strickland rang for a servant. Edward sat silently while the butler bustled into the library, poured two small glasses of sherry, and left. Sir Arthur’s gaze was on his face. Edward watched the old man trace the scars, saw him note the missing ear. Finally the perusal ended. “Waterloo as well?”
Edward nodded. He sipped his sherry. It was mouth-puckeringly dry.
Strickland sighed. He leaned back in his armchair. “My son . . . you were with him when he died?”
Sir Arthur glanced at the fire, blinked several times, swallowed, and brought his gaze back to Edward. “Would you mind . . . telling me?”
A rush of memory ambushed Edward. For a brief moment he was back at Waterloo. The smells of blood and cordite filled his nose. Toby’s shout rang in his ears—Get up, Ned!—as vivid, as clear, as if the battle had been yesterday, not five months ago.
Muscles clenched in Edward’s stomach. He gulped a fortifying mouthful of sherry. “Not at all.” He looked away from the old man’s face and began his tale.
THERE WAS silence for a long time after Edward had finished, then Arthur Strickland cleared his throat. “Thank you.”
The old man stood slowly. “We dine at six.”
Edward glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Half past five.
“My sister’s nurse-companion dines with us. I hope you don’t mind?”
“Not at all.”
He gave Strickland a few minutes to make his way slowly from the library, leaning on his cane, then summoned the butler with a jerk of the bell rope and followed the man up creaking stairs and along dark, chilly corridors to his bedchamber. The mutton smell of tallow candles hung in the air.
The fire in his room was as meager as the one in the library. The four-poster bed loomed like a crêpe-shrouded mausoleum, hung with dark green velvet. His valise had been unpacked and his few clothes neatly put away. The package of Toby’s effects lay on the dresser. Edward turned away from it. He’d deal with that later. He’d had all the memories he could cope with for the moment.
Tigh bustled in, stocky and middle-aged, his face weather-beaten beneath bristling eyebrows. He carried a jug of steaming water. “It’s colder than a nun’s monosyllable in ’ere, sir.”
Edward grunted agreement. He stripped out of his traveling clothes and dressed quickly in pantaloons and a fresh shirt. He washed his face and ran a comb through his hair. He didn’t bother looking in the mirror; no trick of styling his hair would hide the jagged remnants of his left ear or mask the scars that disfigured his cheeks and brow. The neckcloth took several minutes of concentration; the lack of fingers on his right hand made it hard to form the exact creases. He almost gave up and let Tigh do it, but it was an independence he’d fought hard to regain—tying his own neckcloth—and he gritted his teeth and persevered, while outside the rain drummed heavily down.
A glance at his pocket watch showed that it wanted five minutes to the hour. Edward donned his white waistcoat, shrugged into the black long-tailed coat Tigh held out, nodded his thanks to the bâtman, and retraced his steps to the ground floor. The corridors were dim, lit with the barest number of candles.
At the foot of the stairs he paused and looked around. A door stood ajar opposite the library. Faint light and the sound of women’s voices came from within.
Edward walked over and touched the door with his fingertips. It swung open. The conversation inside halted.
“Er . . . good evening,” he said, as the room’s two occupants turned to stare at him.
Their reaction was one he still hadn’t become accustomed to. Both ladies were well bred enough not to recoil, but he saw the startled widening of their eyes, the stiffening of their faces as they took in his appearance.
There was a moment of silence while they examined each other. His brain mentally cataloged them: one pretty and petite, one tall and plain. He knew what they saw: a hulking brute of a man with a scarred face.
Both ladies were dressed in the gray of half-mourning. The plain one was brown-haired and built on robust lines, with a deep bosom and wide hips. The pretty one looked as if she’d stepped out of a poem, except that her golden hair, blue eyes, and milk-white complexion were entirely real. A line flicked through Edward’s mind: Her tresses gold, her eyes like glassy streams, her teeth are pearl, the breasts are ivory.
His gaze swung between the two ladies. The larger one had to be the nurse-companion, sturdily competent, which meant that the ethereal little blonde was Toby’s cousin, Matilda Chapple. He focused his attention on her and bowed. “Miss Chapple?”
“I am Miss Chapple.”
Edward’s gaze jerked back to the brunette.
“You must be Mr. Kane.” Her voice was a low contralto.
“Yes, ma’am.” Edward bowed again.
Miss Chapple smiled warmly. “Welcome to Creed Hall.” She advanced across the room towards him, holding out her hand, a friendly gesture. She was even taller than he’d thought, all of six foot.
Edward held out his own hand. Miss Chapple saw the missing fingers, hesitated for a brief fraction of a second, and then clasped it. Her handshake was as warm and welcoming as her smile. “Toby spoke often of you.”
“And he spoke often of you.”
“He did?” He saw something in Miss Chapple’s eyes—a dark flicker of grief—before she released his hand. “He was the best of cousins.” She turned towards the pretty blonde. “May I present Mrs. Dunn?”
He was shaking hands with Mrs. Dunn when the thump thump of a cane heralded Arthur Strickland’s arrival. Strickland entered the parlor leaning on the ebony cane, an elderly woman on his arm. “My sister,” he said. “Lady Marchbank.”
Lady Marchbank was as cadaver-like as her brother. She was dressed entirely in black, from her black lace cap to the black hem of her gown. A female grim reaper, was Edward’s involuntary thought. He squashed it hastily and bowed. The resemblance between brother and sister was strong: the tall, stooped postures; the long, bony faces; the wrinkles folded into deep, disapproving lines.
A clock struck six somewhere in the house, a ponderous sound. “I should inform you, Mr. Kane, that we dine plainly at Creed Hall,” Strickland announced as the last echo died away. “And for the sake of our digestion we preserve the strictest silence.”
MATTIE STUDIED Mr. Kane surreptitiously while she ate. Goliath, Toby had called him, and she understood how he’d come by that name. He was an uncommonly large gentleman, taller than she was by a good half foot, and solidly built. He looked as if he could carry the weight of a coach-and-four on those broad shoulders.
Mr. Kane had dark hair and a tanned face crossed with pink scars. She knew his age: thirty. The same age Toby would be if he were alive.
Mattie traced the scars scoring across his brow, bisecting an eyebrow, curving down his cheek. She examined his left ear. Most of it was missing. Her gaze dropped to his hands. They bore scars similar to those across his face. Three fingers were missing on his right hand, and one on his left.
Had his sword been cut from his hand? Did that account for the missing fingers?
She imagined him weaponless, trying to ward off an attack . . .
Her ribcage tightened. Mattie looked away from Mr. Kane’s battered hands and forced herself to think of something else. Outside, rain came down in torrents. A cold wind leaked through the cracks in the window casement. The clink of cutlery was loud in the silence: the scrape of a knife across a plate, the tiny clatter of fork tines as her uncle speared a piece of boiled mutton.
What did Mr. Kane think of so silent a meal? Perhaps he was grateful. He didn’t look like a man skilled at small talk, a man who could turn a pretty phrase as easily as he could tie his own shoelaces. He looked like a fighter.
A fighter who’d lost a battle and had almost died.
Her gaze crept back to him. Mr. Kane seemed undismayed by the food. I’ll have no sauces in my house, her uncle was fond of announcing. No spices. Food boiled in plain water is all that one requires.
Pig swill, Toby had called it the last time he’d been home. He had gone down to the village inn to eat his dinner—and smuggled back a roasted chicken and a plum pie for her afterwards.
Grief tightened Mattie’s throat. She looked down at her plate and blinked back tears. I miss you, Toby.
AFTER DINNER, the ladies retired to the drawing room. Arthur Strickland poured two small measures of port. Edward sat back and braced himself for more questions about Waterloo.
“When did you return to England?” Strickland asked, sipping his port.
Strickland glanced at Edward’s ear, his hands. “I hadn’t realized you were so seriously injured.”
“I wasn’t,” Edward said, ignoring the broken leg that had kept him immobilized for months. “A friend of mine lost an arm. He contracted fever and almost died. I stayed with him until he was well enough to travel.”
“Gareth Locke,” Strickland said.
Edward nodded, and tasted the port. Too sweet.
The three of them—Gareth and Toby and himself—had been inseparable since their first day at school. They’d gone through Harrow and Oxford together, had caroused together, soldiered together, almost died together.
And now we are two.
Edward looked down at his port. The color reminded him of blood—and with that thought came another rush of memory: the blood-and-smoke smell of the battlefield, the din of cannons, the soft sobbing of a dying soldier.
Toby hadn’t wept. He’d died instantly. And lain alongside Edward for all of that terrible day . . .
Edward’s stomach clenched. For a moment he thought he was going to bring his dinner back up. He shook his head, breaking the memory.
“I hear Locke inherited a baronetcy from his uncle,” Strickland said.
Edward’s stomach settled back into place. “Yes.”
Edward remembered the expression on Gareth’s face when he’d bid him farewell yesterday. He shook his head again. “I think he’d have preferred to keep his arm.” And his sweetheart. Not even a baronetcy had been enough to reconcile Miss Swinthorp to marriage with a one-armed man. A brief statement had appeared in the newspapers two days after Gareth’s return to London, announcing the termination of their engagement.
Stupid bitch. Edward clenched his right hand. Even after five months, a dull twinge of pain accompanied the movement.
He unclenched his hand and looked down at it, at the stumps of three of his fingers, and felt the familiar sense of disbelief, the familiar pang of loss. Would it ever fade? Or would he always mourn his missing fingers?
At least he’d not had a sweetheart to be repulsed by his injuries.
Strickland grunted, and then struggled to his feet, leaning on the cane. “Please join us in the drawing room.”
Edward stood. “It would be my pleasure, sir.”
Strickland made his way slowly to the door. Edward followed. They traversed the corridor at a snail’s pace. “My niece reads to us in the evenings,” Strickland said, stopping outside a paneled door.
“How delightful,” Edward said, remembering her contralto voice. “Poetry?”
“Sermons,” the old man said, opening the door.
Sermons? Edward almost balked. If you can face Napoleon’s army on a battlefield, you can face an evening of sermons, he told himself, and he squared his shoulders and followed his host into the drawing room.
Like every other room he’d seen in this house, it was a bleak chamber, paneled in dark wood. The furniture was stiff, the fire too small for the grate. All three ladies had shawls draped around their shoulders. He thought he saw Mrs. Dunn shiver as she bent over her embroidery frame.
Edward chose a mahogany armchair. Despite its apparent sturdiness, the chair creaked beneath his weight. He shifted slightly, trying to make himself more comfortable. The chair creaked again, more loudly. He took that as a warning and stilled.
Miss Chapple presided over the teapot. “Tea, Mr. Kane?”
The clink of china was loud as she placed teacups on saucers and poured for himself and her uncle, not because she was clumsy—the movement of her fingers was deft and unhesitating—but because the room was so silent. “Milk?” she asked. “Sugar?”
Edward shook his head. Milk and sugar were things he’d learned to do without on campaign.
He accepted his cup and sipped. The tea was weak and tepid—but it rid the sweet taste of port from his mouth.
Her duties as hostess done, Miss Chapple stood and took a place to one side of the fireplace, where she didn’t block the meager heat. Edward drained his teacup and cast a longing glance at the door. Could he claim tiredness as an escape?
Not when it was barely half past seven.
He sighed, and placed the teacup back in its saucer.
Miss Chapple opened the leather-bound book. She looked at Edward. “I shall be reading from Sermons to Young Women,” she told him. “By the Reverend James Fordyce. Are you familiar with the work, Mr. Kane?”
“Er . . . no.” He sat back in the armchair, making it creak again, and composed his face into an expression of interest.
“Sermon Two,” Miss Chapple said. “On Modesty of Apparel.” She glanced at Mrs. Dunn briefly, as if some silent message passed between them, and then began to read aloud: “Let me recall the attention of my female friends to a subject that concerns them highly . . .”
Edward stopped paying attention. He gazed at the fire and allowed Miss Chapple’s voice to flow over him. She had a surprisingly attractive voice, low and melodic, lulling him towards sleep . . .
He jerked back to full attention. The clock on the mantelpiece had advanced twenty minutes. Miss Chapple still read from the book of sermons: “Is not a constant pursuit of trivial ornament an indubitable proof of a trivial mind?”
Edward glanced swiftly around. Had anyone noticed he’d fallen into a doze?
Lady Marchbank was listening with fierce attention, her lips pursed in approval. Arthur Strickland was watching his niece, nodding as she spoke, agreeing with Fordyce.
“Will she that is always looking into her glass, be much disposed to look into her character?”
Mrs. Dunn, blonde and pretty, was also listening intently, her eyes fixed on Miss Chapple’s face, but . . .
Edward narrowed his eyes. Mrs. Dunn’s lips moved silently, as if she was counting under her breath. He glanced at her hands. Her fingers tapped against her knee as she listened—tiny, almost indiscernible movements.
Was she counting something?
Edward returned his gaze to Miss Chapple. He scanned her from head to toe. She was extremely plain, her brown hair pulled back severely from her face and her mannishly tall figure garbed in an unflattering gray gown.
Edward’s gaze lingered on her breasts for a fleeting moment before he wrenched them away. She’s reading a sermon, he admonished himself. And she was Toby’s cousin. His favorite cousin.
Edward observed Miss Chapple more thoughtfully. Toby had spoken highly of her. There must be something more to her than was visible at first glance.
He closed his eyes for a brief moment. When he opened them again, the clock hands had advanced another fifteen minutes.
Edward sat up straight, blinking. He uncrossed his legs and crossed them the other way. The armchair uttered a creaking groan.
“The less vanity you betray,” Miss Chapple read, “the more merit we shall always be disposed to allow you.”
He focused his attention on her, trying to guess her age. She was well past girlhood. Somewhere in her twenties, but precisely where was hard to determine; her skin was as smooth as that of a girl in her teens.
Edward studied her, trying to see a resemblance to Toby and finding none. Miss Chapple’s hair was an indifferent mid-brown, her nose unremarkable and quite unlike Toby’s jutting beak. An ordinary face, although he thought she might have dimples when she smiled. The only feature of note was her mouth, which was too large for beauty. But a lush mouth could never be a fault in a woman.
Miss Chapple’s figure was as generous as her mouth; she had none of Toby’s leanness. The gray gown was overlarge, as if attempting to hide her abundant curves; it only succeeded in making her look heavier than she was. Edward found himself glancing at her breasts again, and looked abruptly away, fastening his gaze on Mrs. Dunn. Her lips moved infinitesimally as her fingers tapped lightly against her knee. What was she counting?
He watched Mrs. Dunn’s fingers and listened to Miss Chapple. “. . . has been thought the most common―”
Mrs. Dunn’s forefinger tapped once on her knee.
“. . . the rankest―”
“. . . and the most noxious―”
“. . . weed that grows in the heart of a female―”
Edward suppressed a grin. She was counting the thes. He settled back more comfortably in the armchair, ignoring the creak it made, and turned his attention to Miss Chapple again. How much longer could the wretched sermon be? Miss Chapple’s voice was as soporific as a lullaby . . .
The jerk of his head dropping forward woke him. The clock told him he’d lost another five minutes. Edward glanced around. No one had noticed. He swallowed a yawn and managed not to rub his eyes.
“. . . that leads the world,” Miss Chapple said, a note of finality in her voice. She closed the book and glanced at Mrs. Dunn. Her eyebrows quirked a silent question, her lips twitched fractionally, a dimple showed briefly in her right cheek, and then all expression smoothed from her face and she was dull and drab and nondescript again.
“Excellent,” Strickland said, in his dry, cracked voice. “Excellent. Don’t you agree, Mr. Kane?”
“Yes,” Edward said, his tone heartfelt. It was indeed excellent that the sermon was over.
MATTIE WROTE by the light of one sputtering tallow candle, huddled in her blanket. He removed my garters and my stockings swiftly, and then his hands skimmed higher.
And then what?
She laid down the quill and flicked through the pages of the countess’s diary, searching for a description of a similar moment. Ah, here was one that would work. Heat flushed beneath my skin and a wild eagerness began to rise in me.
Mattie dipped the quill in ink and copied the sentence. The hour was approaching midnight, everyone long asleep, but the house was far from silent. Hail battered against the window panes, the shutters rattled and banged, and wind whistled down the chimney, stirring the ashes in the grate and making the candle flame flicker.
She closed the diary and continued with her story: His hands roamed across my body, and there was such strength in his touch, such gentleness, that I couldn’t help trusting him. That I, a courtesan, should trust a man, seemed incredible, and that it should be this man, with his fierce pockmarked face and his brutal reputation, seemed even more incredible. But trust him I did, and I yielded eagerly to his passion.
Mattie wrote for another hour, until the candle was in danger of guttering, before finally laying down her quill. She looked at the pile of pages with satisfaction. One final chapter and Chérie’s Memoir would be finished. A whole book—the history of Chérie’s time as a courtesan—for which her publisher would pay a lot more than he did for each confession.
And when she was paid, she could leave Creed Hall.
Mattie hugged the blanket tightly around herself, shivering, building the dream again: a boarding house beside the sea. There would be no dark paneling, no fires that were too small for their grates. The boarding house would be bright and cheerful and warm.
She yawned and stretched, catching the blanket as it slithered from her shoulders. “Freedom,” she said aloud, to the rattling, banging, whistling accompaniment of the storm.