Excerpt from Forbidden

   
     Three people sat at breakfast in the chill and dusty dining room of Grove House in Sussex. The burly Allbright brothers noisily washed down rare beef with porter. Their sister, Serena Riverton, huddled in a heavy shawl nibbling toast and drinking tea whilst reading a book of poetry.
     Will Allbright stared blankly into space as he chewed and slurped, but his older brother, Tom, muttered as he went through the day's post.
     "Duns, duns, duns..." He tossed three letters toward the smoky fire. "Ah, this is more like it." He tore open a letter and read it greedily. "At last! Hey, Serry, Samuel Seale wants to marry you."
     His sister looked up, revealing a remarkably beautiful face. "What?" Then she went pale and rose, pushing back from the table. "Oh no, Tom. I won't. I won't marry again!"
     "No?" the man asked, filling his mouth with food again. "What're you going to do, then, Sister? Ply the streets?"
     Serena Riverton shook her head desperately, shocked almost to witlessness by this turn of events. "I can live on the money Matthew left me."
     Her younger brother Will, who was rather simple, turned to look at her. "That's already gone, Serry." He seemed surprised she didn't know, almost regretful. Serena knew better. In all their selfish lives, her two brothers had never regretted a wrong unless it got them into trouble.
     In looks they were both John Bull—big, solid, ruddy-faced men in simple country clothes. They had none of John Bull's solid worth, however.
     As she stood there numbly, Will shoved a final hunk of bread into his mouth and rose from the table to warm himself in front of the hearth. Having effectively blocked the sparse heat of the fire, he pulled out a guinea and began to toss it.
     Serena dazedly watched that glittering coin and tried to find a footing in all of this. "Gone?" she echoed. "How can my money be gone? My husband is only three months dead. Where can it have gone?"
     But even as she spoke, she knew. Gone where all the money in this dilapidated house went. To the tables, on a roll of the dice, on the speed of a horse, on the speed—for heaven's sake—of a cockroach!
     She tore her eyes from Will's coin to glare at Tom. "That's blatant thievery!"
     He forked up another lump of red beef. "Going to put the Runners onto me, Serry? 'Twouldn't do you a maggot of good. There's no getting blood from stones."
     Stones, thought Serena wildly. That's what they were. As heartless as stones, and as stupid.
     "You couldn't have lived on it anyway," said Will. Flick, spin, catch. Flick, spin catch.... "Three thousand? Loose change, that's what three thousand is."
     Tom grunted agreement. "Who'd have thought Riverton'd go through his fortune like that? We expected you to be a rich widow, Serry, or we'd have never been so keen to get you home again. Three thousand'd hardly keep you in gowns." His small eyes roamed over her very expensive russet cloth dress.
     It was expertly cut—as she knew only too well—to display her figure, but she hadn't expected to be looked at like that by one of her brothers.
     Serena clutched her heavy wool shawl around her for protection. "It would keep me in gowns very well," she said through her teeth. "I'm sure it's beyond your comprehension, Brothers, but it is possible to live a decent life on the mere interest of three thousand pounds."
     "It'd be a damned dull one," said Will in amiable incomprehension. "You wouldn't want that, Serry."
     Serena stalked forward and snatched his spinning guinea out of the air. "Yes I would, Will." She turned on Tom. "I want my money back. If you don't repay me I will take you to court."
     He burst out laughing, spitting food all over the table. "You need money to take someone to court, Serry, and even if you won it'd be years before the matter'd be settled. You won't get far in the meantime on Will's guinea."
     "It's a start." Serena tightened her grip on the coin, but Will grabbed her wrist.
     "That's my lucky piece!" She resisted, but he roughly twisted her arm until she cried out and surrendered the coin.
     Serena backed away again, tears in her eyes, holding her stinging wrist. She was forcibly reminded of her brothers' bullying cruelties. She'd been fifteen when she left her home, but she remembered. Why had she thought matters would be different now she was a grown woman?
     Tom saw her fear, and his eyes glinted with satisfaction. "Perhaps Seale'll pursue your rights for you, Serry."
     She met his eyes. "There is no possibility of forcing me into another marriage, Tom, but especially not into a marriage with Samuel Seale."
     "Don't fancy him, eh?" Tom seemed genuinely surprised. "Not a bad-looking man for his age, and rich as Croesus. All those mines, you know. Thought you'd prefer an older man like your first husband. You always seemed content."
     "Content?" Serena repeated faintly, her mind dizzied by such a vast misunderstanding.
     "Right-o, then," said Tom. "We'll wait for other bids."
     "You will?" Serena was astonished to have won; then she took in his words. "Bids? What bids?"
     Tom tapped a letter that lay open on the table beside his plate. "Seale offered ten thousand. Pretty fair, really. Father got thirty the first time round, but we won't get that now you're not a virgin."
     "Thirty thousand pounds?" Serena heard her voice climb toward hysteria. "Father sold me to Matthew Riverton for thirty thousand pounds?"
     "Guineas," corrected Will conscientiously, once more flicking his coin. "Towed us out of River Tick nicely at the time. Didn't you know? Course, you were only fifteen. Twitty little thing."
     Serena put a hand to her head and choked back a cry. Twitty little thing. She'd realized years ago that she had been a stupid child to go so blissfully into a marriage, thinking only of new gowns and excitement, and the feather in her cap of being the first of her group to wed.
     But to have been sold....
     Thirty thousand pounds. No, guineas. No wonder Matthew had been enraged when she refused to dance to his tune. When she tried to refuse....
     "Face facts, Serry," said Tom. "Snap up Seale. We're up to our ears in debt again, and you're not such a prize now. You've still got your looks, I'll grant you that, but your maidenhead's gone. And most men want a wife with a dowry and the ability to give him children. You've neither."
     "I had three thousand pounds," she said bitterly, but it was the other that struck like a blow.
     Barren. She was barren. As if it were yesterday, she remembered the doctor making that pronouncement like a hanging judge. And she remembered Matthew's rage. "Barren! What plaguey use is a barren wife? Especially one that takes no pleasure in bed-work!"
     His treatment of her had changed from that point on. For the first few years of the marriage he had merely been rough and careless of her feelings. After the doctor's verdict, however, he had started to demand more, to demand services that went far beyond her marital duties.
     If Serena could bear children she might re-marry for that joy, but since she could not, she would never again enter such a state of legalized bondage.
     But if she was penniless, what was she to do?
     What could she do?
     At the very least she had to leave this room before she gave her brothers the satisfaction of seeing her in tears.
     She turned blindly to the door, managing the words, "The answer is still no, Tom, so you can cancel the slave auction."
     For all his size, Tom was quick on his feet. He reached the door ahead of her and thumped it shut in her face with a beefy hand. "You weren't asked, Serry. You were told." His eyes, closed in with rolls of fat, fixed her malevolently.
     Serena wanted to hit him, to tear at his piggy eyes, but she was small and her brothers were big and brutal. "You can't do it!" she protested. "I'm not fifteen any more, Tom. I'm twenty-three and able to make my own choices."
     "Don't be stupid."
     "It is you who is being stupid! It's no longer possible to take a bride to the altar bound, and I'll go no other way."
     "Don't be stupid," Tom repeated flatly. "If you give me any trouble, I'll sell you to a brothel. I'd get at least a monkey for you."
     Serena swayed, knowing he spoke the plain truth.
     He opened the door with a parody of courtesy. "I'll tell you when the bidding's done."
     Serena walked numbly through and the heavy oak slammed shut behind. She heard her brothers laugh.
     She fled to her room. Twitty, twitty, twitty. It rang in her head. She'd thought her eight years of marriage, years of slavery, years of horror, had at least taught her something, made her wiser. But here she was, a twit again.
     She'd been so relieved, though, so incredulously elated when Tom had brought the news of her husband's death that she'd not stopped to think. She had simply packed her belongings and returned immediately with Tom to her family home. She hadn't given a thought to legal matters. It hadn't even distressed her when she'd learned that Matthew had gone through nearly all his vast fortune.
     What did money matter?
     She was free.
     Matthew would never again descend on Stokeley Manor and demand she play the whore for him. He'd never again punish her for refusing some intolerable indignity.
     She was free.
     Now she paced her chilly room, wringing her hands, trying to decide what to do. She would not lose that freedom.
     Samuel Seale. She closed her eyes in horror. Another like her husband. A big, coarse man, gone fifty and deep in depravity. And she suspected Seale had the pox. At least Matthew had not had the pox.
     She stopped her pacing, gripping a bed-post to halt the pointless movement. She must do something.
     What?
     Flee.
     Yes, she must go. Go somewhere.
     Where?
     Her mind scrabbled for a refuge and found none.
     There were few relatives, and none she'd trust to protect her from her brothers. During her marriage, her husband had kept her a virtual prisoner at Stokeley in Lincolnshire. She'd not even been permitted to mix with the local gentry, though truth to tell, few would have been willing to socialize with anyone from Stokeley Manor. No, there was no help to be found there.
     She went back in her mind, seeking a friend. Back to innocence. To her school days.
     Miss Mallory.
     Serena had attended Miss Mallory's School in Cheltenham. She had been taken straight from there to her wedding. That small school had been her last place of security and innocent pleasures. She remembered Miss Emma Mallory as a firm but kindly autocrat, and a staunch believer in women's rights. Surely Miss Mallory would help her.
     If Serena could reach her.
     It was a long way from Sussex to Gloucestershire.
     Money. She needed money.
     A search of her room turned up two pound notes, a guinea and a few smaller coins. Not enough. Where else could she find money?
     Even when in debt, her careless brothers left coins about. She'd find them.
     Clothes.
     She had begun to pack a valise when she realized that it would be impossible to leave the house carrying anything without raising suspicions. She began to replace the garments in the clothes press. It was terrible to be fleeing with only the clothes on her back, but all in all, she would be pleased to abandon her wardrobe.
     Every stitch she owned had been chosen by Matthew in London and sent to Stokeley as the whim took him. All the garments were of the finest quality, but all were cut to show, to revel in, her figure.
     Serena looked in the cheval mirror and let her shawl drop. How could russet cloth, finely trimmed, look so.... so bold? But it did. The bodice exaggerated her full bosom, the skirt was cut rather narrowly and the soft cloth shaped to her hips. Worst, though, was the perfume.
     All her clothes had been drenched in it before she received them, and her maid/jailer had repeated the applications. Serena didn't know its composition, but it had nothing to do with flowers. She knew it was a whore's perfume, and that it had amused Matthew to make his fastidious bride stink of it.
     Since Matthew's death, Serena had managed to wash the smell out of her linen and muslins, but she could not wash it from her heavier clothes without ruining them. Until her brothers released her funds she could buy no others.....
     Sickly, she realized there were no more funds.
     She seriously thought of dressing in one of her sweet-smelling muslins for her flight, but at this time of year it would be insanity. She did fold some underwear and stuff it into her reticule. Surely carrying a reticule would not sound the alarm.
     Her jewels! Matthew had given her many items of jewelry, though even then he had managed to make them part of his degrading games. She shuddered at the memory of those ornaments, but they could be sold and they were hers.
     She clenched her fists in frustration when she realized that she didn't know where her jewels were. She hadn't wanted to know, but now they represented survival.
     In Tom's room?
     She was suddenly consumed with urgency, fearful that her brothers would come to drag her to her wedding, or at least realize that she would flee. She grabbed her luxurious cape—camelot cloth lined with sable—grateful that it was very warm.
     Another memory: it had amused Matthew to take her walking in the garden, naked under the cape, the silky fur tickling her skin, her face red as he stood talking to an oblivious servant.
     One of his more innocent diversions....
     She shook herself free of these thoughts.
     Her heaviest gloves. Her sturdiest half-boots. Her few coins in her pocket. She only had one bonnet, for Matthew had seen no point or amusement in bonnets, and it was very high with a big brim. She intended to use the hood of her cloak for concealment, and the hood would not cover it.
     She went without.
     The rings she wore on her left hand caught her eye, and she smiled grimly. There was a large emerald and a gold band, so much part of her that she'd forgotten them. Surely she could survive for some time on the value of those.
     * * *
     Pursued by her brothers, Serena ends up making her way down a country lane on foot.
     * * *
     A noise penetrated her tangled thoughts. Horses and wheels. Fearing pursuit, Serena whirled around.
     A carriage!
     No, a curricle.
     A man.
     No one she knew, she realized with sweeping relief.
     All the same, her heart raced to be caught here alone by any man, but there was nowhere to hide. She turned forward and speeded her steps, though she knew she had no chance of outpacing the four-horse rig.
     It drew closer. The large, steaming chestnuts pounded past but slowed, slowed until the curricle was alongside and matching her speed.
     "May I take you up somewhere, ma'am?"
     An educated voice, but he could be up to no good accosting a woman on the road. Serena just prayed he would drive on.
     The curricle kept steady pace. "Ma'am?"
     Oh, why would he not leave her alone? Serena turned slightly, staying huddled in the deep hood of her cloak. "I need nothing, thank you." She marched on.
     The man didn't drive past. "Ma'am, it's at least two miles to the nearest hamlet that I'm aware of, it's cold, night's falling, and I suspect a storm is coming."
     As if to prove his point, a few drops of icy water blew on a sharp gust of wind.
     "I cannot leave you here," he said simply.
     Serena saw it was hopeless that he go away, and stopped to turn and look at him. No tame wool-factor, this. A blood, she thought with despair, reeking of fashionable arrogance from his tilted beaver to his glossy boots. His lean, handsome face was touched by wry amusement. At her.
     "I have no wish to alarm you, ma'am, but the weather threatens to worsen, and it hardly seems safe or proper for you to be alone out here. And consider my predicament," he added with a slight smile. "I've been very well trained in the gentlemanly arts, and am cursed with a kind heart. I cannot possibly abandon you. If you insist on walking, I will have to keep pace with you all the way."
     Serena was seduced by good-humor and kindness. It had been such a rare ingredient in her life that she did not know how to refuse it. A knife-sharp gust of icy wind decided her. She was in desperate need of shelter.
     Cautiously, she approached the curricle and raised her foot to the step. He stretched out a hand and helped her into the seat beside him.
     The very feel of his hand around hers, gloved as they both were, sent a jolt through her. Lean and powerful. She was not accustomed to lean, strong young men. Her father, her brothers, and her husband were all strong men, but heavy, with hands like bunches of rough sausages.
     Once, young and innocent, she had glimpsed such men as this, and giggled with her friends about them, wondering which one might be for her. Since her marriage, they had been no part of her existence. He frightened her.
     He did nothing alarming, however, but urged the team up to a cracking pace again. "Where are you headed, ma'am? I'll take you to your door."
     "Hursley," she said, looking firmly ahead and clutching the rail.
     Now she was raised above the hedge, she could appreciate the man's concern. Bare fields stretched on one side and bleak hills on the other. There were no nearby houses. Heavy, threatening clouds were rolling in from the east and in the distance skeleton trees tossed in strong winds.
     "I have to pass through Hursley," he said, "so there is no problem in taking you there. My name is Middlethorpe, by the way. Lord Middlethorpe."
     She flicked a wary glance at him. She had met few lords, and none she liked. Matthew had been a mere baronet, and his friends all lower still. Wealthy, to be sure, but not of high rank. The few members of the nobility who had hung around Matthew had been the desperate dregs. Another of Matthew's complaints had been that the cream of the aristocracy would not succumb to the lure of his lavish generosity.
     The lords Serena had met previously had been out-and-out libertines, and she was sure that honorable peers of the realm did not pick up chance travelers out of pure charity. She looked at the road racing beneath the wheels and wondered if she could throw herself from the carriage and live...
     "May I not have your name, ma'am?" he asked.
     "Serena Allbright." Then she realized she had given her maiden name.
     Why?
     Doubtless because she wanted to wipe away all trace of her marriage. And because she shuddered at the thought that this man of fashion might recognize the name Riverton, might know her to be Matthew Riverton's well-trained wife. How could she know how far her husband's drunken boasting had traveled?
     At least Lord Middlethorpe intruded no further, but concentrated on steering his team with casual skill along the winding, rutted lane. Serena found her attention caught by his competent gloved hands, so subtly strong on the ribbons. Eventually, her gaze traveled up his caped greatcoat to his face.
     He did not look debauched. His classical profile was quite beautiful, in fact. Since her own looks were flawed by a short nose and peculiarly tilted eyes, she had great admiration for pure lines.
     Why, what an idiot she was!
     Serena almost laughed out loud. She had been nervous of her rescuer's intentions when a short time before she had been planning a life of sin. Here, surely, was a candidate for protector. When—like the wool-factor and the half-pay captain—he tried to seduce her, all she had to do was succumb to his wiles and set her price.
     Brought so close to it, however, her mind balked. This man might be handsome, but he was still a man. He would expect what Matthew had expected, do what Matthew had done....
     But, asked her practical side, what choice do you have?
     And this time, if it becomes truly intolerable, you can leave.
     All the same....
     Lord Middlethorpe must have detected her shudder. "Cold, ma'am?" he asked. "Shouldn't be long now. But the dashed wind's worsening."
     He urged his horses to more speed. In moments, though, a rut caught a wheel and almost tipped them into the ditch. He threw himself over her to correct the balance as he hauled back hard on the ribbons.
      "Sorry about that," he gasped when he had control again. "Are you all right?"
     "Yes, thank you." Serena straightened, all too aware of the power of his body so briefly against hers.
     Then concern over that power was swamped by concern over the power of the elements. The wind was now tugging at her cloak like monstrous hands, and even buffeting the carriage.
     "Struth," muttered Lord Middlethorpe. "I feared we were in for a storm, but nothing like this. I see a farm off to our right, ma'am. Do you know if it would offer shelter?" He was shouting by the end in order to be heard over the wind.
     An alarming crack announced the separation of a rotten branch from a nearby tree. It whipped past the horses and he had his work cut out to steady them again.
     Serena couldn't hear his muttered words and rather supposed that was as well.
     "Well?" he shouted. "I'm not sure we can make Hursley."
     "I don't know," she shouted back. "I am a stranger to these parts."
     He gave her an astonished look but then steered the curricle into the rough lane leading to the farmhouse. A welcome light flickered through tossing trees.
     Serena had no time to worry about what he thought of her. The winds were surely of almost hurricane proportions. She saw a nearby haystack shredded to blow in the wind, and a particularly sharp gust almost tipped the curricle over.
     "We'd best get out and walk!" he yelled, and struggled down to go to the frightened horses' heads.
     Serena saw he could not help her, and she clambered down as best she could. Her heavy cloak was being flapped like a cotton sheet, and was as much hazard as protection.
     She managed to make it to the other leader's head, and reached up to grasp the strap, as much to anchor herself as to steady the beast. It worked to do both and they fought the wind toward the farmyard.
     When they staggered into the yard the force of the wind eased a little, blocked by the sheds and barns. But now, flying debris was much more dangerous. Serena let go of the horse and pulled her hood close as protection against the swirling dust and straw. She saw a bucket bowl along and collide with Lord Middlethorpe's shin; saw him jump under the pain.
     Serena clutched onto a stone horse-trough, wondering how she was going to make it to the house.
     A plank ripped free of a sagging manger and whirled just past her head to shatter against a stone wall.
     Francis saw her narrow escape, and her predicament. Lord, she was quite a tiny thing. He had managed to tow the frantic horses into the shelter of an open barn, so he abandoned them and grabbed her. He shielded her with his body as they fought their way to the farmhouse door.
     He knocked but no one would hear him in this racket, so he opened the door and pulled them both in, shutting it thankfully on the violence outside.
     They were in a stark tiled corridor, lit only by one small window. Muddy boots and pattens lined it, suggesting a good number of inhabitants. Heavy cloaks and coats hung on hooks on the wall.
     In comparison to the outside, the corridor was almost silent, and they were at last free of the raging wind. They both took a moment to catch their breath. With a deep sigh of relief, Serena Allbright pushed back her heavy hood and shook her head.
     Francis was transfixed. Even though she was tousled and pale, he had never seen such a woman in his life.
     No, he thought, that was ridiculous. He'd seen any number of beauties of all shapes and sizes.
     But not like this one.
     His dazzled mind absorbed blood-red hair escaping from a knot, and pale flawless features....
     No, not flawless. Her lips were too full, her short nose had a decided tilt, and her eyes....
     Her eyes could not exactly be called flawed. Deep-dark and huge, they sat tilted, under sensual, heavy lids. Despite the fact that he knew differently, those eyes said she was emerging, sated, from a well-used bed.
     The effect was being heightened, he realized, by a most extraordinary perfume. It surrounded her, not heavily, but unignorably. It had nothing to do with the flower scents his mother and sisters wore, but was composed of spicy, musky odors that spoke of sex.
     He realized with a jolt that the last time he had smelled such a perfume was on Therese Bellaire, the owner of a high-class House of Pleasure, and the most dangerous woman he had ever known.
     A whore. Serena Allbright had to be a whore.
     An available whore? his optimistic body asked.
     With a conscious effort, Francis remembered to breathe. With an even greater effort, he summoned caution. He reminded himself that Therese Bellaire had been a viper who had almost destroyed his best friend, Nicholas Delaney. To find a woman such as this wandering the countryside could mean nothing but trouble.
     She was looking at him quizzically. "They probably haven't heard us because of the storm, my lord. Don't you think we should tell the people here that they have unexpected guests?"
     "I am wondering what to tell them, Miss Allbright."
     "That we need shelter from the storm? In Christian charity they can hardly refuse us."
     "I was wondering rather what to say about you. I am about my business. On my way, in fact, to Weymouth. What of you?"
     She started in surprise, and he suspected that for a moment she had forgotten her circumstances, whatever they might be. "I have suffered a coach accident?" she offered tentatively.
     "Then we must by all means arrange assistance for your coachman and servants."
     Her lips twitched in acceptance that she had lied. "I have no good explanation to offer then, I'm afraid, my lord."
     "Miss Allbright, I need to arrange for my horses, so we cannot remain here exchanging pleasantries. What do you want me to say about you?"
     She raised her chin. "The truth, if you please."
     He shrugged. "As you will." It was going to present a devilishly odd appearance, though.
     Francis walked toward the door at the end of the corridor, but it opened before he reached it, spilling light, heat, and the welcome aroma of food. "Who be out there?" asked a gruff voice, and Francis saw the mouth of a shotgun pointing straight at him.
     "No malefactors, sir," he said quickly. "We are travelers seeking refuge from the storm. You did not hear my knock."
     Perhaps it was his well-bred accent that lowered the barriers, for the speaker came fully into view, proving to be a big, gaunt man with a long, black beard. Behind him Francis could see a kitchen full of people.
     "Never let it be said," the man intoned, "that Jeremy Post turned away good Christian folk in their hour of need. So who be ye?" Despite the words, the tone was grudging and the eyes hard and suspicious.
     In the face of this biblical presence, Francis made a snap decision. "My name is Haile, sir, and this is my wife. We will pay well for a night's shelter."
     A moment later he was doubting his wisdom, and he heard a stifled protest from his companion, and yet he knew it was right. It was all too likely that this patriarch would throw Serena Allbright back out into the storm if she didn't have a cloak of respectability.
     A plain mystery woman might just have been tolerated, but this erotic siren? Never.
     And if he was going to pretend to have a bride, it was definitely better not to give his title.
 
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