THE HOUSE ON THE CLIFF
by Kim Strattford
The house dominated the hillside, looking far darker in the fading light than it probably was. Arabella stood at the bottom of the serpentine drive as the wind whipped her hair free from the pins she'd carefully done it up with and would have blown her hat away if she wasn't holding it down. "Well, it's certainly something, isn't it?"
"It is that, Miss." She saw the coachman swallow nervously before he turned to her and asked, "Ready to go up there, then?" He sounded like he thought she shouldn't.
"Ready." She climbed back into the hired carriage, nearly tripping on her woolen skirts as she found her seat. She was used to lighter material, suitable for the tropics. She'd lived her life with bare feet and her hair pinned up haphazardly to let the breeze blow through.
Until her parents died, leaving her alone on Martinique with no funds once the creditors had finished pillaging the accounts. Her whole world now fit into the small valise at her feet and the battered trunk tied to the back of this carriage headed for the forbidding English house on the cliff.
Or it should be. Why hadn't the coachman started up the hill?
Reaching out the small window, she patted the side of the carriage. "Drive on."
There was no one waiting for her as they pulled into the portico. She climbed out of the carriage and stared up at the imposing door so soundly shut.
"You're sure they're expecting you, Miss?"
She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, a flicker of light in a window. Someone was watching her.
Then she felt it. Magic: warm, slightly dangerous. Someone was taking her measure. She closed her eyes and let the power wash over her.
Then whoever it was went deeper. Too deep. She felt as if tiny fingers were reaching into her, looking for memories of the things she'd loved and lost.
Anger flared, and she channeled it the way her nurse Nathalie had taught her, turning it to fire and sending the flames down the mystical connection, which was standing wide open—whoever was testing her was clearly not expecting a reaction.
She heard a shout, saw the coachman startle, and smiled. "I think they know I'm here now."
The door banged open, and a man strode out. On first look, he bore no mark from her magic. But inwardly—she had to bite back a laugh as she ran her own little check of him—inside he felt a tad singed, like damp shoes left too long to dry near the fire.
His eyes flashed, and she decided not to push him. Instead she dropped a small curtsy, one of politeness, not obeisance. He was her new employer, not her master.
He studied her. "When I hired you as a governess for my children, I did not realize you were so...advanced."
"It was not listed as a concern in your prerequisites for employment."
"I shall have to be more mindful of that."
Or perhaps he should not leave the interviewing to those with no magic. She smiled as gently as she could and pitched her voice low, so the coachman wouldn't hear. "Please don't worry. I'm perfectly housebroken."
His eyebrows went up, thick and dark, a perfect frame for his angry brown eyes. "That remains to be seen."
The coachman coughed softly, then louder, as he discreetly held his palm out.
For a moment, Landham's expression softened. "I suppose you lack funds?"
She looked down, making a helpless gesture with her hands. Did he think she was seeking employment for the fun of it? Her passage was supposed to be paid for—it was part of the contract. Was he the type of man to renege on his obligations?
Landham paid the man and watched as he manhandled her things from the carriage. Several servants appeared at the door, then hurried to take over the task.
As they moved her bags into the house, the sun started to set, and the wind became more chill—and even stronger—blowing salty air from the sea so far below them. She'd lived on the water all her life, but it had been warm water, blue-green like the turquoise stones in her favorite necklace—gone now, no doubt adorning the wife of one of the creditors. This sea was gray and stormy, the cliffs harsh and forbidding.
She had to grab for her hat again. Perhaps she would give up wearing one here if the wind was always like this.
"How do you find Devon?" Landham murmured. He seemed to be making an effort to keep his magic to himself. Not one brush of it touched her as he moved to stand next to her. But she could still sense it around her. Power that reeked of ironclad control of both it and the man's emotions.
"It's very cold here."
"You're a surprisingly strong woman, Miss Carruthers. I'm sure you'll get used to the chill." He looked out to sea, his gaze changing, turning soft again for a moment. "Devon has a beauty all its own."
The wind grew even colder. The sea melded with the blackness of the falling night. Soon the only light came from the dark and silent house. She followed him in, but glanced back at the sea one last time, as she used to do in Martinique. There her eyes would have been met with the orange ball of the sun disappearing into the sea. Here, it was just murk and cold, and stinging grit flung at her by the chill gusts.
She couldn't see that Devon held any beauty at all.
* * * *
Did you sleep well, dear? The wind was blowing so hard last night. I think it was to welcome you."
Arabella followed the housekeeper, Mrs. Morton, down the hall and presumably toward the nursery and schoolroom. The other woman chattered on in a sweet way that reminded Arabella of Nathalie.
"Is the wind always so loud?"
"North Devon is a hard land. With rough seas and winds. But no, that was strong even for our standards." Mrs. Morton winked at her, her round face beaming. She radiated warmth in a house that last night had seemed devoid of it. Was the woman impervious to the atmosphere here? Or was she new? "Have you served Mister Landham long?"
"I've been with him since he was a boy. I feel a certain...possessiveness I suppose is the right word."
"Like in some way he's your son?" Arabella knew Nathalie had felt that way about her. She'd certainly considered the woman a mother of sorts. Her parents were loving and kind, but in a distracted way, as if at times they had a hard time remembering who she was and how they'd come to be saddled with her. And they'd been frivolous, fond of parties and going out. She'd been left behind many times with Nathalie.
Which had worked out well for her magic, but perhaps not so well for the part of her that wanted her parents to be, well, parents. On the other hand, Nathalie had been everything she'd ever wanted, had loved her unreservedly, so it was unfair for her to think she'd been deprived of affection in some way.
Instead of answering, Mrs. Morton glanced at a door that lay ahead on their right, her mouth tightening.
Arabella reached out with her magic and felt a rush of power come back, pushing her away. Something precious must be inside to be guarded with that much of Landham's power.
"What's in there?" she asked, careful to keep her voice low.
"The...mistress is in there." Mrs. Morton took a deep breath. "She's very sick."
This wasn't the kind of power you used around someone with a wasting illness. But then sick could mean so many different things.
"She doesn't come out?"
"Never. The master goes in."
Arabella was about to ask more when a small girl came barreling around the corner and down the hall to them. Without exactly meaning to, Arabella checked her for magical power.
"Lily, this is Miss Carruthers who's come to teach you."
Lily shot her a huge, gap-toothed grin. "I've been waiting all morning to meet you."
Arabella was charmed by her energy. She knew from the interview that Landham had two daughters. One six—this little blonde moppet—and one eleven.
"So you've arrived." An older voice, resonant like her father's.
Arabella looked up and saw the other girl watching her from the end of the hall. This was Rose. Unlike her sister, she'd moved around the corner silently, and her face held no smile. She pushed back a strand of red-blonde hair and stared Arabella down.
Arabella didn't have to reach out for this one. Rose was pushing on her hard, magic hitting her in an undisciplined way.
"That's very rude," Arabella said, taking the opportunity to give Rose a quick, magical swat, and saw Mrs. Morton give her an odd look.
Rose's attack stopped abruptly as she rubbed at her shoulder. She looked afraid, and Arabella wondered if she was hiding the power from her father. "Don't tell," the girl said, confirming it.
She held Rose's eyes, forcing her to wait, to wonder, to want to behave if it meant Arabella wouldn't tell. "I trust you'll give me a reason not to?"
Rose nodded quickly.
"Well, I wasn't sure you two would get on. But look at you. Like two peas in a pod." Mrs. Morton beamed at them, her confusion seemingly gone. "Rose, you show her the classroom, will you?"
Arabella felt Lily take her hand and smiled down at the child.
Rose waited for them to catch up, watching her warily. "You're prettier than the last one."
"And the one before that." Lily beamed at her. "She had dark hair, too, but her eyes weren't as pretty as yours. Your eyes are like the sea."
She'd always considered her gray eyes dull, had grown up wanting the azure eyes of her mother or her father's hazel ones.
"Pretty doesn't build character," Rose said with a small smirk. "Or provide backbone." She looked secretly pleased with herself—and not a little bit mean.
"Ran out the other governesses, did you?"
Rose shrugged, but Arabella knew she was right. Magic, in small doses could be like nails run hard against a chalkboard. A constant barrage of it—perhaps accompanied by more mundane pranks—would send any normal woman packing.
Rose led them into the room that was set up with everything Arabella thought she might need. She wasn't entirely sure; her tutors had been excellent but informal. The island had been their classroom. Trips to the beach, to the volcano Mount Pelee, to Saint-Pierre or Fort-de-France had served as teaching opportunities for history, biology, French, and English.
"Have you actually ever taught anyone?" Rose looked sullen.
"Have you actually ever learned anything?" Arabella nodded at one of the chairs. "Go sit down. It's time to begin. We're going to start with French." It was a bit of a retreat, falling back on her mother's native tongue, but the children wouldn't know that.
"I love French," Lily said with a little laugh. The child probably loved everything.
"I don't," Rose muttered as she took her seat. But she worked hard at it despite her supposed antipathy. Arabella could feel her trying to fold her magic around her and wasn't surprised when the girl did a very good job of it—she'd have to be clever to keep her power from her father—although she did wonder where Rose had learned to do it. Natural talent usually didn't get you as far as Rose had progressed.
In any case, Rose seemed to be very motivated to keep him from finding out and was behaving far more pleasantly now than she had before. Arabella smiled as she set them to conjugating verbs. Blackmail might not be the most tasteful way to achieve her means, but it was a terribly useful educational tool.
* * * *
Arabella sat in a sheltered corner of the yard, watching as the wind blew past and set the tree branches waving. She pulled her shawl around her and tried to imagine she was back in Martinique, under the gentle sun, with the swish of bathwater-warm water lulling her to sleep.
The cold wind found her, laying waste to her imaginary moment. She shivered and reached for her magic, letting it settle around her like a downy quilt.
"Where did you learn to control it?"
She twisted around on her bench; Landham was standing behind her. He studied her, then seemed to come to some inner resolution as he walked over and sat next to her.
He went on as if she owed him no answer. "Were your parents talented?"
"Only a little." Their magic had run to as frivolous a use as their funds had: they'd used their ability to bind and charm others, keeping the creditors at bay all the years they were alive. "I learned from my nurse."
She turned to study him. His features looked hard and forbidding, yet he sat easily, his posture relaxed, as if they were old friends. She reached out ever so slightly with her magic to see what his was doing. It was calm, lying coiled like a great serpent. Ready to strike, but with eyes closed as it dozed. "And you, sir?"
He shot her a look as if to let her know he knew she'd been probing his power. "My father taught me. As his father taught him." He turned, and his eyes seemed to be drilling into her. "And you are no doubt wondering why I have not taught Rose."
Arabella was not sure what to say.
"She thinks I do not know that she is using magic." He laughed softly, a terrible sound. "But I do."
"Then why are you negl—" Neglect was such a harsh word, and Arabella hadn't been in the house long enough to judge that. Besides, there might have been days in her own past when some thought her parents were neglecting her. But she'd always had Nathalie—until the woman had died two years ago. It had been her first taste of loss. In some ways, it had been the hardest taste. "Was—is her mother talented?"
"No. She's like Lily." He made a sound, one almost of exasperation. "I mean, only in the magical sense. Lily in no way takes after her mother other than hair color."
She wondered if that was true, or if he just wanted his youngest to be nothing like her mother. "You keep your wife locked up. The magic is stronger on that room than anywhere."
"Yes. It is." He rose. "Curiosity is very unbecoming in a governess." He bowed slightly and strode off.
She watched him go, then turned back to the sea, not even bothering to try to imagine Martinique this time. She did feel warmer, though, as if some remnant of his magic was joining with hers, giving her a native's tolerance for the cold. If he had shared anything with her, she imagined it was an entirely accidental kindness on his part.
* * * *
"All right, girls, come along." Arabella had them both outside, walking along the trail that led through the woods to the neighboring property. "I want you to identify that tree up ahead."
Lily ran on, but Rose hung back. Arabella waited, but the girl said nothing.
"The tree is waiting, dear."
"I haven't seen my mother in two years." Rose met her eyes, and Arabella was struck by how old the girl's expression seemed. "Your mother's dead, isn't she?"
"She is. And I miss her very much." Although she missed Nathalie more and had been without her for two years, a loss made fresh again with the death of her parents. Why did some people experience loss so early in life while others evaded tragedy altogether?
"I don't miss my mother," Rose said, the words coming out as if she was spitting them. "I'm glad I don't have to see her."
"You don't mean that."
Rose unbuttoned her cuff and pushed up her sleeve to bare her right forearm. A long, raised scar marked the skin on the inside. "She did this to me. She was trying to hurt Lily, and I stopped her. And she got mad and grabbed the iron from the fire." She swallowed hard. "I hate her."
Arabella wasn't sure what to say.
"I'd rather have a dead mother I loved, than one I hate who won't die." Rose's lips set in a tight line that looked like a replica of her father's.
"She probably didn't know what she was doing, Rose." Arabella took a chance and reached over, pulling the girl in so they were walking together.
"That doesn't make it any easier to bear." The girl pressed against her, then she broke away and went to join her sister. She didn't pay attention during the rest of their nature walk, refusing to identify the tree or anything else for that matter.
Arabella didn't have the heart to chastise her.
* * * *
The wind whined through the windows, and Arabella plucked out a melody on the piano, trying to mask the moans of the storm.
She jumped. Landham was awfully fond of sneaking up on her.
She didn't turn to give him the satisfaction of seeing that he startled her. "Where are your girls?"
"Isn't that something you should know, Miss Carruthers?" His tone failed to convey if he was jesting or if he really thought she should spend every waking moment with his daughters.
She picked out a few more notes, then looked up at him in a sudden movement he clearly didn't expect. He was watching her with an expression she couldn't read, but it seemed to lack any censure. "Are you joking?"
"Yes but I confess I'm out of practice. No doubt doing it badly." He shook his head. "The girls are with Mrs. Morton. She makes warm milk and cookies, and sits with them while the storm rages. She has her own magic when it comes to calming them." He moved to the window and stood staring out into the blackness.
"Your wife should be calming them, though—that's what you're thinking, isn't it?"
"Is that what I'm thinking?"
"Isn't it what any good husband would think?"
"You're a very presumptuous young woman."
"That doesn't mean I'm not right." She hit a few more notes, then closed the piano cover. "Do you ever talk about it? About her and what's happened?"
"What possible purpose would talking serve?"
"It might make you feel better." She realized his control had dropped; she could feel pain radiating off him. Old pain, like the healed-over ache of an infected wound. She didn't think he was even aware how much distress he was broadcasting.
"There are many things that might make me feel better. I'll choose one of them over talking, if you don't mind." He walked to a side table, poured himself a glass of something, and drank it down quickly. Then he poured another, finally looking at her. "Claret? Or do you prefer sherry?"
What she would have liked was some rhum, served the way Nathalie had preferred with cane syrup and lime—or some of the aged spirit, which to her almost tasted like her father's beloved whisky, except less smoky. But she doubted Landham had any rhum, and even if he did, it would be most improper for her to ask for such a strong spirit. "Claret, please." Why did the English insist on calling Burgundy wine by such a strange name? So many things that didn't make sense in this country.
"Claret it is." He poured her a glass and handed it over.
She wasn't sure it was proper to be indulging, to be alone with him like this. She should excuse herself, go up to her small, lonely room and sip her wine in solitude and try to observe the boundaries of her new situation. But she missed the freedom of her old life. Nevertheless, etiquette dictated she at least give nod to the fact that she knew she should not be indulging with him. "This is most irregular, I imagine. Did the other governesses enjoy spirits in your company?"
"No." He studied her. "Do you wish to do the proper thing and retreat to your room?"
She closed her eyes and shook her head, then she took another sip of the wine.
"Very good, my dear. Rebel at staid principles." His laugh was harsh, and he moved closer than he usually did and seemed to be raking his eyes over her.
"You're being rude."
"That's because I'm drunk."
But he wasn't drunk. She reached out with her magic and felt him immediately shield. The lascivious look fell away, wariness replacing it. She pushed at him again, felt him weaken for a moment, and the sensation of pain grew stronger.
"I hope you teach better manners than you employ—are you teaching my daughter magic?"
"You didn't hire me to teach your daughter magic. You could teach her—in fact, it would probably be better if you did."
"If left untaught, her power will become undisciplined. Shouldn't you take an interest and—"
"Children are a blend of their parents, are they not?" He wasn't looking at her, was gazing at the fire. He sounded as if he was miles away.
"Of course. But we don't inherit everything." She took a deep breath and forged ahead. "Your wife is mad, isn't she?"
He nodded, apparently too captivated by his memories to lie or rebuke her for her bluntness.
"Are you suddenly an expert on madness and sanity? Are you Doctor Carruthers now?" His voice turned bitter, his lips inching up in a cruel way. "Tell me, little Arabella of Martinique, how do you know anything at all about my daughter?"
"She doesn't feel mad."
"Oh, doesn't she? And you know what made feels like? You poor ignorant girl." He threw the glass of claret into the fire, and flames roared up for a moment. Grabbing her hand, he yanked her after him, up the stairs, then down the hall, to the shielded room.
The web of magic slid aside for him, and he dragged her into the room. She expected him to slam the door, but instead he closed it so gently it made no sound at all.
"Tell me, Miss Carruthers. Does my wife feel mad to you?"
Arabella glanced at the woman in the bed, lying so still, breath coming easily. "She's asleep."
"No, she's not."
The woman sat up. She looked at Landham and laughed softly. "You've brought me company, Papa. I've been a good girl. See." She held out a hand scratched raw.
"I used to try to make her stop," Landham said. "But she wouldn't. And she never knows it's me. I have no idea what she sees when she looks at you." He took a deep breath. "Yes, Violet. Company at last." Backing into the corner, he left Arabella to stand at the edge of the bed.
"You're very pretty. Like a holiday. I love the holidays. The singing and the candles. And the smell—have you ever had a yule log rot from the inside?"
"Tell me what she feels like if you're so blasted wise," Landham muttered.
Arabella reached out with her magic, expecting that the woman's aura would give her some hint of her madness. But there was nothing. She probed deeper and deeper.
Violet laughed. "That tickles."
Arabella turned to Landham. "I thought there would be something."
He was staring at his wife helplessly. "I did, too. It's why I let her go on so long before I took steps to lock her in here. I kept thinking that I'd know if something were wrong with her."
"She hurt Rose."
He looked at her sharply. "How do you know that?"
"Rose told me."
"Rose doesn't talk about her mother."
"Perhaps it's only that Rose doesn't talk about her mother to you." She didn't mean her words to strike deep and realized too late they had. "I mean—"
"Please go. I'm going to build the shields up."
"I could help you. It might be easier with two."
"I said go." He stared at her with absolutely no emotion. "Good night, Miss Carruthers."
She quit trying to make things better. Nothing was going to do that at this moment. "Good night, Mister Landham."
* * * *
Lily ran along the surf-line, dodging waves and picking up shells as they caught her eyes.
"She's lucky. She's too young to remember we used to have a mother." Rose drew patterns in the sand, lovely intricate whirls and then flowers.
"You're talented. You should study art."
"Are you an artist?" Rose wiped them out and started again.
"No." Magic was the only creative thing she knew how to do.
"Arabella," Lily's voice got louder as she sped toward them. "Look at this." She flopped down next to Rose, leaning against her sister, her little hand tightening on Rose's skirt as she dumped her shells into Arabella's lap.
Rose pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. Not for the first time, Arabella felt a pang. In so many ways, Rose was the mother Lily had never had. But what was the price of that devotion. A lost childhood? The bitter, raging heart that Rose had stopped trying to hide from Arabella?
"Do you like my father?" Rose asked softly.
"Of course. He's a good man and—"
"I didn't ask what kind of man he was. I asked if you liked him."
Arabella met her eyes. "I don't know. I haven't spent that much time with him." Not since that night that he pulled her into his wife's room. He hadn't even apologized. The next morning he'd nodded pleasantly and his voice had been even as he'd bid her good morning. It was as if the whole awful encounter had never happened.
Rose hugged Lily closer. "He is a good man, though?"
"I think so. Yes."
Rose sighed, and Lily looked up at Arabella and smiled. "He likes you."
With a laugh, she asked, "And how do you know that, little mischief maker?"
"He has to like you." Lily looked up at Rose as if seeking support, but it was clear her older sister had no idea what she wanted from her. "Because if he likes you then he can marry you, and we'll have a mother."
Rose looked away, her jaw set.
"You have a mother, dear heart."
"But she never comes out of her room. We need a new mother."
"It doesn't work that way, Lily. I've told you over and over. We're stuck with her. Stop trying to pretend we're not." Rose let go of her sister and pushed herself up, then strode off.
"What did I say?" Lily looked like she was going to cry.
"Nothing, sweet one. Nothing at all."
She saw Rose turn, and their eyes met. Rose mouthed something.
"I wish that, too. All right? I wish she was gone." Rose shouted it at them, then she bolted, running headlong into the wind, her reddish blonde braids streaming behind her.
Arabella sighed. She imagined that if wishes were horses, both girls would ride forever.
* * * *
"Rose seemed pensive at dinner." Landham's voice was close to her ear, his breath warm.
"I wish you'd stop sneaking up on me." She moved away from the window and took a seat at the piano.
"Don't evade the issue."
Having eaten with Mrs. Morton in the housekeeper's room, Arabella wasn't sure what Rose had done. But she could imagine what her mood might have been like after their afternoon on the beach. "Lily said something that upset her. She'll get over it."
"What did she say?" He walked to her and sat down next to her on the bench.
"What are you doing?"
He didn't answer, just lifted the cover off the keys, and began to play softly. She was surprised—for some reason, she'd assumed the pianist was his wife. She started to rise, to leave him alone with the music.
"Don't go," he murmured.
She settled back down.
"I noticed she was pensive because, I think, she has been happier of late. I've become accustomed to seeing a smile alight occasionally on her face." He glanced over at her, and his playing slowed. "I believe I have you to thank for that."
"I've perhaps been some kind of friend to her in addition to governess."
"Yes, you have."
"You play beautifully."
"I wish I conducted all things so gracefully. I am sorry—truly chagrined—about the other night. Please, tell me you forgive me."
He sounded so distressed, she murmured, "Of course I forgive you, Mister Landham. I spoke carelessly. I don't know what you've been through with your wife. IÕm just sorry things are so difficult."
He shifted, and she was suddenly acutely aware that his leg was pressing against hers.
She swallowed hard.
He glanced over at her. "Are you all right?"
She nodded. Then was sorry she did when his leg pressed even harder. "Sir, what are you doing?"
He stopped playing, his hands hovering over the keys. "My name is Marcus, Arabella. No one ever calls me by my name anymore."
"Mister Landham, I can't call you that."
"In Martinique, we'd have been equals. You'd have easily called me Marcus." He let up on her leg. "You make my daughters happy. Is it such a stretch to think you might make me a little happier? It's only a name. And we are quite alone."
She felt the pain again, emanating from him, calling to her. Reaching over, she took his hand, trying to send support and warmth and some kind of healing magic to him, the way Nathalie had done for her whenever she'd been hurting.
"You are kind," he whispered.
"But very unwise." She was sending so much magic out to him that it was making her dizzy. The air felt close and hot, and she had to lean against him to keep from toppling off the bench.
She heard him murmur, "Arabella." Felt him move toward her. "Stop what you're doing, my dearest. Stop before I lose any will to fight what is happening."
"What is happening?" She'd never felt this close to anyone. Her power encircled him, was being drawn in by his own magic. She felt him rubbing her back then move his hand up to the back of her head, pushing her toward him.
She moved ahead of his hand, so that she was the one who kissed him. Her mouth opened to his by instinct, and she heard him groan.
"It has been so long," he said when they finally pulled apart. "And you are so lovely."
"I have never..." She was afraid she was blushing.
"I know." His magic licked up and down hers. It felt possessive. As if he'd laid claimed to more than just her lips. "I can feel it in the weave of your power."
She wasn't sure what that meant, was sure her face colored even more at what it might signify.
"You have a wife," she whispered. In Martinique, there had been a name for women who behaved as she was now. A name her mother would have washed her mouth out with expensive soap for using.
He let her go. "I would apologize, but I find I am not sorry." He looked at her. "Are you sorry?"
"I don't know what I am."
But that was a lie. She did know. And she didn't like it.
It was almost painful to pull away from him. She felt as if she was ripping off skin, not just unpeeling her magic from his.
But she did it anyway.
* * * *
Arabella stood at the door to Violet's room, feeling the magic in front of her. She thought she could get through, but what would be the use?
"Do you have business with my sister?" A harsh voice. High-pitched for a man and very nasal.
She turned and saw a portly man standing a few feet away, watching her. "I'm sorry. I don't believe we've met."
"And as you're no doubt the new governess, I doubt we ever shall. Be gone at once." He reached for the door and she sensed the shielding giving way to him. Not because of magic. Marcus—Mister Landham had obviously built it to let this man in. As Violet's brother unlocked the door, he glanced at her. "Are you deaf as well as ill mannered?"
She fled, hurrying down to the kitchen where Mrs. Morton sat sipping a cup of tea as she worked on the accounts. Without asking her what was wrong, the housekeeper got up and poured another cup, setting it down in front of Arabella. "He's a right prig, he is. Mister Masterson is the mistress's brother."
"So I gathered." She sipped at her tea, enjoying the tang of the bergamot. Nathalie had favored Earl Grey, too. "He comes here often?"
The sound of laugher drifted in from outside and Mrs. Morton grinned at her. "They're happier children. That's because of you."
Arabella smiled at the compliment.
"The master's happier, too. Makes an old woman's heart feel good. To see him smile again."
"I haven't seen him break into any earsplitting grins." She shot the woman a look, hoping she'd temper her hyperbole.
"Well, I've certainly seen a change." Mrs. Morton shook her head. "It's been no life for him. Having her here this way. She should be in a place where they can watch her. And he should be free."
Arabella frowned. Divorces in Martinique had been rare but not unheard of. Certainly it would have been understood in circumstances like this, where the woman was a danger to her own children. "He could end the marriage."
Mrs. Morton laughed bitterly. "Oh, yes, he could. And he'd wind up on the street with nothing to his name if that man upstairs had his way. And he usually does."
"I don't understand."
"I guess you wouldn't, would you? You've settled in here so well, I forget that you don't know the history." She sighed. "This house belongs to Charles Masterson. He's loaned it to Violet. But if anything were to happen to her or if Mister Landham divorced her..."
Arabella understood too well. "No wonder he walked around as if he owned the place."
"Yes. He hates the master. With a great deal of fervor." Mrs. Morton shook her head. "I hate to think what he'll do to us—how much pleasure he'll get out of it—once she's gone."
"He'd do that? Turn out the girls, too?"
"Oh, no, dear. He's made it quite clear he thinks the girls belong with him in Exeter if they can't be here. He has far more resources to pursue this in the courts if things turned ugly."
Arabella heard the girls' cries turn more strident and tried to imagine them living anywhere but here. They weren't made for the city anymore than she was. "But he hasn't pushed it so far."
Mrs. Morton gave her an odd smile. "No. Not yet."
"Well, it's time for lessons. I'd hate for Mister Masterson to think I didn't earn my pay."
"No, we can't have him thinking that." Mrs. Morton favored her with a warm smile before turning back to her accounts.
Arabella hurried upstairs to get a wrap—the girls might think it was warm today, but her blood was still tropics' thin—and passed the study as she headed for the door. She heard loud male voices, could only catch snippets of the conversation: "She's getting worse, and I..." "You'll do nothing, or I'll send you packing, so help me God."
Magic seemed to roil around the door, and for a moment she was afraid for Violet's brother. Then Marcus seemed to control himself, and she walked away, realizing as she did that she could feel his "touch" on her.
Had he been drawing from her magic to maintain control?
It warmed her to think he trusted her that much. It made her afraid, too. Primarily, because she'd never thought to stop him. In fact, she hadn't even noticed he'd linked his magic with hers—she was that open to him.
He was married and she was letting him in—in a way that almost felt more intimate than when he'd kissed her. What was wrong with her?
She heard loud footsteps coming her way and fled before Masterson discovered her lurking at another of his doorways.
* * * *
Lily and Rose sat on the ground, drawing detailed versions of the flowers in the garden, and Arabella sat watching them. She felt Marcus coming long before she heard or saw him, and knew he'd done that on purpose, that he'd wanted her to know he was on his way.
But she could also tell that he liked being able to let her know, this secret way that more mundane people would never feel.
He sat down next to her.
"Thank you for not startling me this time."
He nodded. "But I reach for you without thinking this time and before. It is very nearly a primal thing." He sighed. "I'm sorry. It was an unforgivable breach to draw on your magic that way."
"If I hadn't stopped to see what the shouting was about, I wouldn't have been available for you to use, so it's probably my fault."
"Arabella." He leaned in, his voice pitched low. "I'd have found you, I think. No matter where you were. It was just easier to take it with you standing right there."
"That's far less comforting."
"I agree." He leaned back against the bench. "My brother-in-law and I do not get on."
"Yes, that was evident. He didn't like me much, either. Caught me in front of your wife's door."
He turned to look at her. "What were you doing there?"
"I don't know." She met his eyes, trying to let him see she was being honest.
He nodded, as if accepting her answer.
"Father?" Lily threw her drawing pad down and ran to him, but stopped short of launching herself into his arms.
Arabella thought she wanted to, though.
"Hello, dearest." He pulled her onto his lap, and she cuddled into him, her face transformed by quiet joy. Then he turned to his eldest daughter. "Hello, Rose."
"Father." She didn't look back, just kept drawing.
"You seem quite absorbed in that."
"Miss Carruthers makes sure we have absorbing lessons."
"What are you drawing?"
"A flower." Rose's tone was just this side of surly.
"She's really quite talented. You should consider bringing in someone who's actually skilled in art to tutor her. I'm quite capable of admiring but I don't know the first thing about technique." She smiled gently, sorry that Rose wasn't giving him more, but wanting him to know how proud he should be of her.
Arabella felt something go out from him. Magic, barely touching her this time, headed for his daughter and loaded with love and regret.
Rose stiffened as it reached her, and Arabella could tell she was doing her utmost to shield.
"I've known for some time, Rosie. You can let go."
Rose shot her a wounded look. "You promised."
"Rose, I swear, I didn't—"
"She didn't tell me. I knew before she came." He handed Lily to Arabella, stood, and walked over to Rose. He studied the drawing. "But this is beautiful." He looked back at her, then reached down, lying his hand on Rose's hair. "Would you like an art tutor?"
Rose seemed unsure what to do, but finally she nodded.
Holding his hand out to her, he said, "Perhaps it's time for other types of lessons, as well?"
Rose eyed Arabella, as if unsure whether this was a trick or not. Arabella nodded slightly and sent a rush of magical reassurance to the girl, and she could tell by the frown on Marcus's face that he knew she'd done it, and that it bothered him that his daughter had to think about this.
But then a smile broke out on his face as Rose took his hand and let him pull her up. They walked off together toward the stables, and Arabella could just make out Rose's energy—let loose at last around her father—jumping off her like a happy puppy.
"Rose doesn't smile enough," Lily said, content apparently to stay in Arabella's lap.
"What about your drawing, Lily?"
Lily made a dismissive sound. "I'm not as good as she is. But if she's getting a special lesson, I want one, too. Tell me a story that Rose doesn't know."
So Arabella told her about Martinique and Nathalie and a little girl who played in the sunshine and the sea.
Lily seemed to love it.
She stopped before the story grew sad.
* * * *
Arabella looked at herself in the mirror, studying her reflection. Her skin had grown so pale here. In Martinique, she'd been outside often, riding or swimming or just lazing in the late afternoon breezes and her skin was always golden. Here, she was outside, but she'd not been offered the use of a horse, the water was bone chillingly cold, and the wind was far too harsh to sit for long in.
She looked older. Her skin seemed tighter, her mouth less free. But then she'd never had a thing to worry about in Martinique except to wonder where her parents were and, once she was older, which party she would accompany them to. Her life had been frivolous, and it probably would have continued that way if she'd married before they died. She'd had suitors but hadn't felt in a hurry to choose one. They'd all melted away once she was penniless.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed those memories away. She was here now. In this dark house where there were people who needed her. No one had ever needed her before, except for Nathalie when she was dying. It was the one time she'd felt useful, reading from the stories Nathalie had once read to her.
A knock sounded on her door. She hurried over and opened it.
Mrs. Morton stood with a tray. "I'm so sorry, dear, but Mister Masterson's visit has Cook at sixes and sevens in the kitchen. He's asked for some special dishes and—"
"It's all right. I can eat in here tonight." She took the tray, trying not to think about how much she hated to eat alone in her room. But that was how it was supposed to be for a governess. She was lucky that Mrs. Morton had taken a liking to her and invited her to sup with her most nights.
"I'll be so happy when that man's gone back to Exeter."
"So will I." She smiled at Mrs. Morton, then carried her tray over to the little table by the window and ate quickly.
She was reading when she heard the pounding of feet on the main stairs, then loud voices. Opening her door a crack, she thought she heard Marcus directing the servants to call the doctor. She hurried into the hall and down the stairs toward the source of the sound.
Marcus looked over at her as she walked up. Rose and Lily were at the end of the hall, being kept back by a maid.
She realized they were standing at a guest room door and moved so she could see what was going on inside. Mister Masterson lay on the floor, his face florid, eyes open and staring. "Is he...?"
"Yes." Marcus pointed to his daughters. "Stay with them? They'll feel better with you or Tressa—Mrs. Morton, and she's busy helping me."
Mrs. Morton looked up, meeting Arabella's eyes as if telling her not to blame Marcus for the familiarity of using her given name. "He's had a shock. We all have. But the man wasn't healthy, if you ask me. Ate too much rich food."
"I'm sure that's what the doctor will say," Arabella murmured. As she passed Marcus to go to his daughters, she let her hand brush his.
He jerked away as if she'd burned him. She got an impression of suppressed rage. And of relief.
She suddenly wondered if Masterson had heirs of his own. And if not, would the house—and all his other possessions—revert to Violet?
She met Marcus's eyes. Realized for all the attraction she felt for him, he was still very much a stranger to her.
"Please," he said, his voice taking on a desperate tone. "Stay with my daughters."
She hurried away, relieving the maid of Rose and Lily and urging them back to their bedrooms. They all ended up in Rose's room, sitting on the window seat and watching as the doctor arrived on horseback, followed a while later by a wagon.
"I never really liked my uncle," Rose said softly.
"He gave me presents." Lily curled with her head in Arabella's lap.
"But you never liked him. You just took his presents."
Arabella had a feeling Rose had thrown his presents back in his face. She was so like her father.
"He's been sick before when he visited here."
"Really?" Arabella saw them load Masterson's body into the wagon.
"He ate too much. Mrs. Morton always had to lay in extra fine things when she knew he was coming. And he drank and smoked a stinky pipe."
"Did he have a family back in Exeter?"
Lily nodded, the movement barely felt against her skirts. "My aunt Elizabeth. And cousins John and Richard."
Arabella felt herself relaxing. There were other heirs. Masterson's death would have gained Marcus nothing.
It pained her to realize how much that meant to her.
* * * *
Mrs. Morton seemed to be walking on air. She'd been so tense since Masterson's death, nothing like the cheerful woman Arabella had enjoyed being with. But now she found the housekeeper humming softly as she did her accounts. She looked up as Arabella entered and beamed at her.
"What's happened?" Arabella waved her back into her seat and fixed them both a pot of tea.
"I shouldn't tell you, but I know you'll keep it to yourself." Mrs. Morton waited until Arabella had sat down, then leaned forward. "The house is ours."
"I don't understand."
"Mister Masterson left it to his sister in his will. With her incapacitated, the master has control. I've been so worried we'd end up in the cold."
"Did Mister Landham know?" She felt her stomach clench at the thought.
"That the will was written that way?"
Mrs. Morton gave her a searching look. "Why, I can't imagine how he could have."
"Of course not." But what if he had? What if Violet had known and had said something about it, thinking she was talking to her dead father or her brother?
She didn't want to think that of Marcus. That he could be capable of...of murder. But she didn't know him, not really. She knew what his magic felt like, and it didn't feel evil, but she'd been unable to read any trace of insanity from Violet, either. Her ability to tell things just by feel was more limited than she'd ever imagined.
Or maybe it was just off here, in this cold place, where her blood ran slowly through her veins and she grew paler each day.
Arabella rose, no longer able to sit and make cheerful small talk. "I need to prepare my lessons."
"Are you all right, my dear?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" She gave her the most brilliant smile she could, then walked away as if she hadn't a care in the world.
But she did have a care, and her control wasn't what it should have been. Marcus found her in the library, staring numbly at the same page she'd been looking at for minutes.
"What is it? Your magic is whirling about you—I could feel it from the stables."
She turned and studied his face. "I heard."
His face fell. "Damn Tressa."
"Don't blame her. She was just so happy for you."
He moved closer, his magic crawling freely all over her. She knew he could tell what she was feeling, how conflicted she was.
"Arabella, do you think I did this?" He sounded utterly betrayed.
"Of course not." But she looked down and could feel his magic retreating.
He sighed. "You'll excuse me, my dear. I'm expecting the doctor. Violet is quite agitated. If I didn't know how disconnected from life she is, I'd swear she understood that her brother is dead."
"Agitated." She tried to reel in her feelings, to not let him see how much she doubted him.
"You think I'm behind that too, Miss Carruthers?" His voice had gone cold, colder even than the way he'd said her name so formally.
She had no answer for him, so she just fled.
* * * *
The wind blew like a thing possessed, slamming leaves and small twigs against the house. Arabella sat in her room, shivering, remembering the storms that used to come up in Martinique, the way the sand had been blown all around, filling the house, making them sweep for days to clear it and the palm fronds littering the courtyards.
A soft knock sounded on her door. She opened it, expecting to see Mrs. Morton with an extra lamp or perhaps a glass of warm milk, but it was Marcus.
"I don't like how things ended between us this morning." He pushed her gently out of the way and stepped into her room, shutting the door.
"You should not be here."
"I know that." Running his fingers down her cheek, he stared at her with the most helpless expression she'd ever seen him wear. "Are you going to leave me?"
She pulled away, just enough to free herself from his caress. She couldn't think when he was touching her that way. Even if he seemed to be making an effort to keep his magic contained.
"You should go. At once."
He moved closer and freed his magic. It licked at her in a concerted attack, wearing down her resistance, until she let it in and felt as if she might fall from the sensation. He steadied her, his hands warm on her back.
"I need you. I have not let myself need anyone for years, but you are so strong, and I cannot resist what you offer."
"I have offered you nothing," she murmured, but she was pulling him to her, mirroring what their magic was doing as she kissed him, as she wrapped her arms around him and gave in to feelings she did not entirely understand.
He lifted her, carrying her to her small bed. "You mustn't leave me." He began to undress her, tossing her garments to the floor.
She knew she should tell him to stop, tell him to leave her in peace. And then she should go. She should flee this man and his house on the cliff.
But she couldn't. It wasn't that she had nowhere to go. She was intelligent and could find another post. But she loved his children. And she—she wanted him.
Moaning, she began to tear his clothes from him. They fell onto her bed, and she felt as if the magic controlled them instead of the other way around. She was doing things to him that should have made her blush. He was doing things to her that should have left her just as embarrassed. But she didn't stop, and neither did he.
They finally lay still, pressed together on the small bed, and he kissed her forehead and held her tightly. She looked up at him, and he gave her such a sweetly lost smile that she had to pull his face to hers, had to kiss him again.
It was light out when they finally stopped making love.
He dressed slowly, staring at her as she lay naked on the bed. She knew she should cover herself. That only a wanton would lie as she was, letting him enjoy looking at the body he'd possessed all night. But she was too tired to move—and she liked how it made her feel to let him look.
Sitting on the bed, his back to her, he pulled on his shoes. "Are you going to leave me?"
She knew he'd saved the question till now so she could answer without the press of his eyes on her, without so much of last night intruding. "I don't know."
He nodded, and she wished she could see his face. Without turning to look at her, he got up and headed for the door.
He turned then.
She slipped off the bed and walked to him naked and aching and lost in the delicious and base combination of pleasure and guilt. He smiled, and she saw her emotions reflected in the twist of his expression.
"I love you," she said. It wasn't a promise not to leave. But it was something.
He took her in his arms, kissing her with more tenderness than passion. "I love you, too, my Arabella." Then he let her go, gently pushing her out of sight of the door as he opened it carefully and snuck a look into the hall. The coast apparently clear, he slipped out, closing the door softly.
The room felt empty without him, and she was suddenly chilled. Slipping on her nightdress, she crawled back into bed, trying to get warm.
She woke hours later, still cold.
* * * *
Standing at the sitting room window, Arabella saw Marcus out by the stables with Rose, working with what seemed to be an unbroken horse.
"He has a way with them. A magical touch to put them at ease." Mrs. Morton was as bad as Marcus, slipping in with no warning.
"Rose seems to have inherited that touch."
"She's very like him. Lily is more like the mistress." Mrs. Morton closed her eyes for a moment. "Only not in that sense, please God."
"What's wrong, my dear?"
"I'm just tired. I didn't sleep well." At least she'd finally warmed up.
"This house is a different place since you've been here, Arabella."
She looked up, surprised at the woman's informality. It had been Miss Carruthers and Mrs. Morton up to now. She wondered how long it had been since someone called the housekeeper by her given name. "I don't know that I've done anything special, Tressa."
The woman beamed at her. "Of course you have. You've given them something to smile about."
Arabella wondered if Marcus was smiling today. Was he remembering their night together? With pleasure or regretting it?
Tressa took her hand and held it lightly. "This place has been a dark house. And then you blew in here like a breeze from that tropical land you love so much. You brought light and hope." Her smile faded, and she stared hard at Arabella. "Whatever happens, you need to stay with them."
"Really, Tressa. Eventually the girls will outgrow me."
"They'll outgrow their governess. But they won't outgrow their friend." She let go of Arabella. "And the master'll never outgrow you. He's met his match in you, I think." With a wink, she left Arabella alone.
Images of the night before flooded through her. The way he'd learned her body. The way she'd traveled over his, exploring with lips and tongue. He had indeed met his match. But was that anything to be proud of?
* * * *
Marcus was in her bed again, making love to her in the agonizingly slow way he seemed to like best, making her squirm and beg him to finish what he was doing. He settled down beside her, kissing her and running his fingers down her body, easing her back into the life that existed outside of this heady pleasure.
"You are my world," he murmured, as he pulled her closer.
"As you are mine." She hated that it was true. Hated that she could not say no to him. She hated herself for being so weak, but she didn't hate him. In fact, her feelings for him grew with each touch, with each blending of their magic.
"I know this is hard for you, Arabella. The secrecy. The hiding. It will end, I promise you." But he sounded defeated, as if he wasn't convinced of the truth of his words.
She was about to pull him to her, to kiss him and tell him to stop trying to make their situation better, when a scream rang out. It was terrified and had the high-pitched sound of a child's fear.
"Lily," he shouted, flinging the bedclothes off and pulling on the nightclothes they'd scattered all over the room.
She grabbed her nightdress and robe and followed him out, not caring who saw them.
But no one did. The hallway was deserted.
Then the scream rang out again and Marcus ran for the stairs, heading for the main bedrooms. She followed him and felt a moment of panic when she saw Violet's door standing open. She reached out, sensed how the magical barrier was shredded. Felt something...familiar in the feel of the damage. But she didn't have time to stop and assess it because Lily screamed again and there was an answering cry, more wild beast than human.
She nearly crashed into Marcus as she rounded the corner to the girl's room. He was standing stock still as Violet stood between them and Lily. They were all frozen in this strange tableau, the silence broken only by Lily's frightened whimpers and the sound of harsh breathing from Violet and from them.
Rose's door crashed open, and Rose walked out, putting herself between her mother and Lily. She was holding a long knife she must have taken from the kitchen. Arabella wondered how long she'd had it in her room.
"Go back to your room, Mother." Rose sounded far older than her years. Her voice came out as a growl, and her eyes were dead and dangerous as she added magic to the threat of the raised knife.
Violet slapped at her head. "Get out. Get out of me."
Arabella frowned. Rose was strong, but the warning shot of magic she'd just sent didn't warrant Violet's reaction. Glancing at Marcus, Arabella saw he looked as confused as she did.
But he was quite a good dissembler. She had reason now to know that. Every time they met in the hall, for instance, with witnesses present and acted as if they were just master and employee was evidence that he could pretend one thing and feel something very different.
But she didn't sense any magic going out of him to make Violet act that way. And she knew the feel of his magic at a soul-deep level now.
Violet sank down to the carpet, crying softly. "I'll be good, Mother. Please, I'll be good."
"Rose," Marcus said very quietly, "get your sister into her room and lock the door."
Rose didn't stop to argue. With a last angry glare at her mother, she turned and hustled Lily into her room. Arabella heard the click of the lock.
"The wards you put up on her room were ripped through, Marcus."
"I know." He was staring at Violet as if he was unsure how to deal with her now that the immediate danger was over.
"There are only three of us who could have done that." And it had taken Rose an awfully long time to come out of her room. Had Violet reacted that way to an ongoing attack, not to the blast of magic Rose had sent as they watched?
The girl hated her mother. The question was how much and what was she willing to do for hate's sake?
Or was it just easier to think it was an angry daughter and not the man she loved who had freed the weeping woman who lay before them, clawing at the carpet as if she could dig her way out of the house?
Arabella pulled her power as tightly around herself as she could and tried to block out everything but the need to think clearly about this.
Marcus glanced at her. "You're shielding from me."
"We need to get her back in her room."
"Can I help?" A soft voice. Tressa, behind them. Had she been there all along, afraid to move for fear of upsetting the delicate balance of their standoff? And how much had she heard?
"Tressa, thank God. Yes, please help." Marcus pushed past Arabella, dragging Violet up.
His touch set her off, and she began to scream and kick. But Tressa was there, surprisingly strong, and she grabbed Violet's legs and hefted them up. She looked at Arabella and said, "There's a bottle of laudanum in my pocket. Take it out and go on ahead. The small glass on the table, fill it halfway."
Arabella did as she said, hurrying into Violet's room, which smelled musty and of unlaundered clothing. She found the glass and filled it half full, holding it to Violet's lips once they brought her in.
Violet thrashed with her head, nearly knocking the glass from her hand. Then Arabella felt Marcus's magic reach out. There was anger in it, and fear, but also some remnant of the love he must have felt at one time for this woman.
Violet calmed and opened her mouth, and Arabella poured the contents in slowly, not wanting her to choke. When Violet had taken it all, Arabella moved away, letting them get her back into bed. She found herself near the door, and closed her eyes so she could examine what was left of Marcus's shields. There was something so familiar about the remnant of power. She began to follow it and—
"Are you all right, Arabella? Do you need to sit down?" Tressa was staring at her in concern. "You're swaying on your feet."
She was, but it was the magic making her do it, not fatigue. "I'm all right." Looking over at Marcus, she saw that he was watching Violet closely, his hands clenched. She knew he would stay until his wife fell asleep, so that he could build the wards back up again.
"Good night, sir," she murmured, as she followed Tressa back to the part of the house they shared.
If he heard her, he did not reply.
* * * *
Arabella sat outside with the girls and tried to divert them as the doctor rode up.
"Afternoon, miss," he said seeing her. "Girls."
They echoed pleasantries, but Lily moved closer to her, her hand tangling in Arabella's hair in a way that was almost painful. "Is he here for Mother?"
"Yes, dearest." She glanced at Rose.
"They should lock her up now. Father can do it now that Uncle Charles is gone."
Lily perked up. "Would she not be our mother anymore?"
"She'll always be your mother, Lily." And always present, in some sense, for Arabella and Marcus. They'd never be able to come out of the shadows as long as she was still his wife.
She realized Rose was staring at her. "What?"
"You feel different. Have for some time. More...sure of yourself."
Arabella could feel herself flushing. "I'm just getting used to this place."
"Oh. Is that it?" The look Rose gave her was far too knowledgeable.
Had Marcus been seen coming out of her room? Had Rose heard some gossip from the servants?
"I'm glad you're happy," Rose said, surprising her with a kiss on the cheek. "I'm glad you came to us."
Arabella smiled at her, but she wondered if happy was the right way to describe how she felt.
* * * *
"She's getting worse," Marcus murmured as they lay spooned together on her bed. "The doctor thinks an institution may be the best option."
She knew she'd tensed at his words by the sigh that escaped him.
"I'm sorry, Arabella. I don't know what else to do."
"You must do what's right for her. And for all of you." Nathalie had taught her that long ago. That hard choices sometimes had to be made in order to do what was right. That what you wanted might not be what you got, not even with magic on your side.
"What's right is being with you. This: the way I feel when I walk with you and the girls on one of your little nature lessons. I look at the spot you should be sitting at the dinner table and feel an emptiness I've never known. I want you with me, Arabella. In every way that you could be with me."
"You want me as your wife?"
"More than anything."
She turned and snuggled into his chest. "That's a problem, my love, as you already have one."
"I know." His voice was muffled by her hair. "I know that too well."
She felt a surge of nausea, said, "Let me go," and slid off the bed, pulling out the chamber pot. She threw up several times, then felt him run a cool cloth over her forehead.
"This is not good," he said, worry clear in his voice.
"I must have eaten something that didn't sit well. That's all."
"When was your last monthly flux?"
She colored at the frankness of his question, then looked down at the chamber pot and felt horror fill her. "No."
"I don't remember it impeding our joining."
She met his eyes. They hadn't spent every night together, but he was right. Her hand seemed to find her belly by instinct, and she swallowed hard.
Had she thought magic would protect them from this eventuality? They'd taken no precautions, caught up in the passion and fire.
"We will sort this out," he said softly.
"I don't think there's anything to sort out, is there? In no time at all, our child will make an appearance."
It was his turn to swallow hard. "I will divorce her."
She went on as if she hadn't heard him. "There may be something I can take." People had gone to an old former slave for that in Martinique. The woman would make them a packet of herbs to steep into tea. A few days later, the people looked much relieved.
But did she want that? Her hand curled protectively over her belly, and she brought her other one up to lie over it. She met his eyes. "What are we going to do?"
"I will divorce her, Arabella."
"Masterson was smart. He may have left the house to Violet, but I imagine he put some caveat on that, didn't he? That if you left her...?"
He looked down and she knew she was right.
"We'll make this work," he murmured as he pulled her up and eased her into bed, as if she was fragile now and needed to be protected. His magic settled around her like a mystical coat of armor, and she sighed at how safe she felt.
Even if she knew it was an utterly deceptive security.
* * * *
Tressa sighed as the doctor rode away from the house. "He's here more and more."
Arabella knew that soon she might be the one needing his services.
"My mother used to tell me not to borrow trouble," Tressa said, taking her by the arm and leading her to the table. "And I'm going to follow that fine advice."
Arabella wished with all her heart that she could do the same. But hiding her head in the sand wasn't going to help things. In fact, failing to plan for herself and her child would undoubtedly make her situation even worse.
"Here, I saved you some lunch." Tressa pushed a small plate with a roll, some cheese, and an apple on it.
The tangy smell of the cheese hit her nose immediately, making her stomach clench. She ran for the privy, barely making it before her guts started to heave. She escaped as soon as she was done, the smell of the privy almost worse than the nausea.
Tressa was standing outside. Without a word, she put her arm around Arabella and helped her back inside.
"Something you ate?"
"Yes," Arabella barely got out. She noticed Tressa hastily removing the plate of food.
"Nothing to worry about, then." Tressa gave her a searching look.
She tried to answer her, but the words would not come. For a moment, she was dizzy, as if something was pressing in on her. She felt if she didn't tell someone else the truth, she'd explode. She heard herself whispering, "Not for eight months or so."
Tressa was staring at her in confusion. "What did you say? You mumbled."
Breathing a sigh of relief that her stupid blurting of the truth hadn't been heard, Arabella shook her head. "I was agreeing with you. Nothing to worry about."
"Good." Tressa got up and put the kettle on. "I'll make you something to drink. Plain, weak tea always helps me when my stomach is upset."
She sounded so like Nathalie that Arabella almost started to cry.
"My dear. Everything will be all right. We all get sick now and then—nothing to be worried over." She fussed with some herbs. "Some fortifying ingredients. Since you're not eating. And this for the upset stomach." She dropped a root into the teapot.
Arabella could feel her eyes closing as the tea steeped; she felt safe and warm, and Tressa sounded like Nathalie again as she said, "Here, my darling, drink" and held the cup to her lips.
It tasted nothing like Nathalie's concoctions, but somehow it still reminded her of home.
* * * *
Arabella lay awake, tossing and turning in her bed. Marcus hadn't come to her. He'd been busy with the doctor, and then she'd seen another man show up. A stranger.
The door opened, and she turned to see Marcus. Reaching out for him, she smiled as he came to her quickly, shedding his nightclothes as he walked.
He crawled into bed and pulled her close.
"Who was that man with you today?"
He kissed her cheek, his hand coming to rest on her slightly swelling belly. "My solicitor. I wanted to know my—our options."
She could feel herself tense and heard him sigh, but he didn't say more.
"We don't have many, do we?" she finally asked.
"No. We don't." There was an odd note in his voice.
"We might do fine on our own. America is a place to start over, from what I've read. For those who might not have much."
"No. I won't deprive the girls of their birthright just to make this better for us." She sighed. "There are stories that could be put out. I could be a girl who made a mistake. You the kind master who did not turn me out for lack of discretion with one of your servants."
His hand tightened on her belly. "You're talking about my child. Not some by-blow of the stable boy."
"The story would let me stay. We'll just have to be more careful in the future."
"I won't live that way. I won't have my child go unacknowledged."
"I could leave, you know. Take on a new name. Be Mrs. Someone or Other—the widow of a low-ranking soldier. Perhaps one in India—who would check that? And it might be for the best, I—"
He shut her up with a kiss. "Go to sleep, Arabella. We will sort this out. And soon. I promise."
She didn't think she'd be able to sleep. But between his baby making her sick and his body keeping her safe, she soon fell asleep and slept till morning.
He was gone when she woke.
* * * *
She went down for breakfast, truly hungry for the first time in a while, but was surprised to find no one in the kitchen so she went upstairs to look for the girls, taking the stairs two at a time in a burst of energy, but they weren't in their rooms. Walking to their window, she glanced outside, but saw no one.
She sighed and made her way further down the hall then stopped in her tracks, dread filling her.
The door to Violet's room stood open. The magical barrier was in tatters, sending a pulsating barrage of energy that was just...wrong. Again she felt the slightest tinge of something familiar in the magic.
She checked the room but as she feared, there was no one inside.
The girls. Where were the girls?
She turned and ran down the stairs, nearly colliding with Tressa who was just coming in. "Where is she?"
"We don't know."
"And the girls?"
"Rose is out looking with Marcus." If Tressa was upset enough to call Marcus by his given name, Arabella knew things were bad.
"We don't know." Tressa took her hand. "I was just coming in to get you. We're all out searching, and the doctor is on his way with more men. We'll find them. I saw Lily at breakfast, so if she's with her mother, they couldn't have gone far."
"How could she have escaped from that room?"
Tressa shook her head. "It's an old lock. Not that hard to pick if one has time and patience. She never had the patience before."
Arabella knew better than to add that she'd gotten through the barrier, too. For the second time. Was Marcus absolutely certain that his wife had no talent? Maybe she was feeling something familiar in the magic because it was like Rose's.
There were plenty of people in the woods, but she wondered if Marcus had spent any time really scrutinizing the barrier. She eased away from Tressa. "I want to help but I need to change my shoes to something more suitable for outdoors. I'll only be a moment."
She hurried back up the stairs, stopping to put on sturdier shoes before heading to Violet's room. Between the stale smell emanating from the room and the unpleasant twinges of magic torn apart rather than released more naturally, it was difficult to stand too close the door, but she did it anyway, holding onto it, trying to find the echo she'd sensed before, to go deeper this time.
Magic from someone she knew but she didn't think it was Rose or Marcus. She tried to go deeper but what was left of the barrier oozed away like quicksilver leaving only the tantalizing hint of something she knew she should recognize.
Finally giving up, she hurried outside and walked with Tressa, combing ground. A bit later they heard the sound of horses, and the doctor rode up with a group of men. "No luck?" he asked.
Tressa shook her head.
He glanced around almost helplessly. "Mrs. Landham's been in such a state lately. But I never expected her to do this."
"None of us did, Doctor, or we'd have had her moved to a safer location." It was bold of Arabella to speak that way, but the doctor seemed to accept it.
He wheeled his horse and motioned for the men to follow him. "We'll send someone back for you if we find them."
Tressa nodded and seemed to sink into herself. Arabella could feel Marcus from far off, the touch of his magic infused with panic. She searched for Rose and found her easily, no longer bothering to shield. Pure emotion filled the girl. Hatred for her mother and terror for her sister.
"They're up ahead."
"I know." Tressa met her look. "Where else would they be?" There were cliffs on one side, the empty heaths if they went far enough on the other. Only by going straight ahead would Violet find cover.
Arabella reached out for Marcus and realized he was closer than she'd thought. Then his magic surged in time with a growing panic, and Arabella didn't think, she just ran toward where she felt him Tressa close behind.
They came out of the trees into a clearing. Violet was holding Lily and was standing dangerously close to the cliff edge.
"Put her down," Marcus was saying, and Arabella felt him unleash his magic, pressing on Violet, trying to make her do what he said. But he was being careful. Too much and he might spook her right over the cliff.
"Let her go, Mum." Rose's voice was soft. "Please, let her go."
"You're so pretty, my darling." Violet's voice was raspy, as if she'd been deprived of water for a long time. She pulled Lily closer.
The stream of power got stronger, and Arabella realized Rose had joined her father, their magic so alike it was almost impossible to tell the streams apart. And there was less restraint in hers—less unwillingness to hurt. Her hatred flared and Violet cried out in pain.
Lily scuttled away, running to Rose, who ceased her magical attack on her mother and picked up her sister, retreating to where Arabella and Tressa stood, murmuring to Lily until she finally pulled away and said, "Leave off, Rose. I'm all right."
"What do we do now?" Rose asked, and Arabella was about to answer when she realized Rose was talking to Tressa and heard her say, "We wait for the doctor to get here."
"How will he know where we are?" Arabella asked, but then she felt it. A distinct tingle of magic going out toward where the doctor and his men had ridden, calling the men back to them even though they wouldn't know why they were suddenly headed back to them.
Following a trail of magic leading straight to Tressa.
Arabella stared at her. Then at Rose. She'd known that learning to hide magic the way Rose had done wasn't usually something a person could discover by trial and error. She'd known it and she'd let it go because...
She remembered something pressing down on her the other day, when she'd blurted out words that could only be taken one way. She'd thought Tressa hadn't heard her say she was with child, but realized the other woman had only pretended not to hear.
"This is for you, Arabella," Tressa said, a gentle smile on her face. "For you and the baby you carry."
Rose looked at Arabella in shock.
"And for the man who is like a son to me. For my dear, dear girls." She ruffled Lily's hair and let her hand settle on Rose's shoulder. "Violet is just in the way at this point."
Arabella desperately scanned what she could of the magic leaking now from Tressa. Had they been living with a monster? But all she could feel was relief that she didn't have to hide her power any longer.
And then guilt. But only a little.
"You killed her brother, didn't you?"
Tressa looked away. "His appetite for rich things would have killed him eventually. I just hastened the process. We needed him gone, for this to work. For you to have any kind of future. For my boy to be happy."
She turned to stare at Violet. "We need her gone, too," she said so low Arabella was sure the girls couldn't hear her.
But she could feel power gathering, so much power. How had she ever hid it from them?
Hoof beats behind them startled her and Tressa, too, because the power eased a little. The doctor rode into the clearing and dismounted, saying, "Mrs. Landham, please let me help you."
"I know your kind. Poke and prod and never give a body a moment's peace. There's no help from such as you." Violet moved like a caged animal with nowhere to go.
Nowhere to go but behind her, over the cliff.
Arabella felt Marcus let go of the magic that had been keeping Violet in place. He backed off, and she could tell he didn't want to panic his wife into jumping.
But Tressa's magic went screaming past Arabella, magic intended to hurt, magic that probably felt to Violet like a swarm of bees.
"Don't, Tressa. This is wrong." She put a hand on her belly and apologized to her child, but she knew that she was right.
"She stands in the way of your future. No one will question that she is mad when she jumps."
"I will always know what you did." She turned and met Rose's eyes. Calm eyes now that her sister was out of danger. Arabella didn't think Rose would shed a single tear if her mother danced off the cliff, but she also wasn't joining in to push her.
But Violet was getting closer to the edge, clawing at her hair as Tressa's magic did its work, her fingers bloodied.
"Tressa, stop this now." Arabella gestured for Marcus. "Help me."
He strode over to them, staring at Tressa as if he'd never seen her before. "You're the one who broke through the barriers."
"I'm the one." Tressa touched his cheek. "I love you, Marcus. You know that, don't you? I've always been a second mother to you."
"She's going to kill her," Arabella said, and Marcus stared at his wife. He seemed like a man torn between what was right and what would make his life begin again. She knew how he felt.
For a moment, it seemed like he was going to do nothing. Then he turned and looked at Arabella. "Promise you won't leave me. Promise that we'll start over, all of us. We'll do whatever we have to do—but not this."
He sent his magic toward Violet, enveloping her in it, calming her.
Arabella looked at Rose. "She's your mother. You have to help her."
"I don't care if she dies."
"Then do it because I'm asking you to. Because your father wants this."
Rose looked at Tressa. "I'm sorry." Then she added her power to her father's.
Violet was still inching backwards.
Arabella added her own magic—it felt as if it was coming from a place of pain and loss and guilt. She was giving up her future for this woman's. She wasn't sure it was fair, but she knew it was right.
Violet stopped moving backwards and stood sobbing, finally letting her hands drop from her bleeding scalp.
Arabella felt Tressa's hands on her shoulders. She whipped her around, and Arabella's magic was cut off.
"You're a good person, and I'll honor your choice," Tressa said. "I have no right to demand her sacrifice so that those I love are happy."
Arabella sagged in relief.
"But I do have the right to sacrifice myself for you." Tressa leaned in and kissed her cheek, laying her hand on Arabella's stomach and whispering something that sounded like a blessing. "It would be nice if you called her Tressa."
She turned, and Arabella reached for her sleeve, but the wind came up and whipped it the other way. The crash of the waves seemed to intensify, and she heard Marcus roar, "Tressa, no!" as Tressa ran across the clearing, slamming into Violet and carrying her the short distance to the cliff's edge.
Violet screamed, and the sound echoed as she fell. Tressa made no sound, but Arabella could feel the jolt when she hit the water, as every bit of her magic was snuffed out in the cold sea.
Rose fell to her knees, gasping and then crying—Arabella knew it was for her teacher, not for her mother. Marcus seemed to be holding himself like a column of marble, as if he would break apart if touched or talked to.
Lily just stood, staring at the place where her mother and the woman she had loved like a grandmother had gone over. "Tressa?"
Arabella picked her up and murmured to her, stupid things about Tressa and her mother being in a better place, but she didn't know which of them she was trying to soothe.
And while it might be true about Violet, Tressa had been happy here. Loved.
The doctor looked at Marcus. "We'd better get down there. Tide'll change soon."
Marcus nodded stiffly. "I'll just get my girls and Arabella home first."
Arabella. Not Miss Caruthers. The doctor didn't seem to notice, just said, "Of course. We'll wait for you."
Rose pushed herself to her feet and walked over to Arabella. She held her hand up and let it hover over Arabella's stomach. "May I?"
She nodded, felt the girl's hand press down. "Your brother or sister."
"She was right. It will be a girl." Rose looked up at her. "Will you call her Tressa?"
Marcus was looking at her, waiting for her to answer. She realized he wouldn't press the issue if she said no.
"I...I'm not sure." She glanced back at the cliff, afraid that it would take a long time before she remembered Tressa as anything but the woman who'd taken such a drastic step to free them all.
Would it have been better to let her push Violet over with her magic? Had Arabella been wrong about what was right? She knew what Nathalie would have said; she always said if what you wanted meant someone else had to suffer, then you needed to rethink what you wanted.
Marcus took Lily from her, and led them off, but Rose held her hand tightly, hanging back a bit.
Arabella let her slow their pace enough to put some distance between them and the others. "What is it?"
"When I was four, my mother made Father take us to a farm in Dartmoor for me to pick out my first pony. She and Father were laughing. They were happy once."
"And so were you, dearest."
"I was. I loved her back then." She looked up at Arabella, her eyes dry. "I should try to remember those times, shouldn't I?"
Arabella nodded. "The last few times she tried to hurt Lily, I think it was because Tressa was pushing on her."
"Maybe. But not the first time." Rose touched the sleeve that covered the burn scar. "The first time was all her."
* * * *
Arabella waited in the library, sitting at the piano and picking out the melody of a song Nathalie had taught her.
She caught a taste of Marcus's magic; he was exhausted, emotionally and physically. She could sense him coming back to her and waited for him, her hands in her lap.
The main door opened, footsteps clomping down the hall. The doctor followed Marcus in and came to stand in front of her. "Miss Carruthers. I'm Doctor Penwhite. Gordon Penwhite. I don't believe we've formally met."
"I don't believe so." She took his hand.
"Gordon's an old friend, Arabella," Marcus said. "I told him you'd be needing his services before too long."
She looked down.
"I'm not one to judge, my dear. I know the hell Marcus has lived through the last few years." He patted her hand, then let her go. "I'll leave you two alone."
Marcus sat down next to her, his shoulder pressing against hers. "Even if he weren't my friend, we need him on our side. We'll have to wait a short while to get married. I want this to look respectable."
"As respectable as it can," she said, putting her hand over her belly.
"The child will be born early. He'll put that on the documentation."
She nodded, knowing he was right to worry about such things.
Turning, he pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly. "Tressa was a second mother to me. I can't believe she's gone."
"I can't either." She turned and buried her face in his chest. "How did she hide her magic?"
"The stronger you are, the easier it is. I don't think my parents would have hired her on if they'd known. She must have figured that out and started hiding it then."
They sat in silence for a moment, the Arabella whispered, "You found her body?"
"We found them both."
Arabella drew a ragged breath. "It's my fault, Marcus. I wouldn't let her use her magic to push Violet."
"No, my love. We wouldn't let her use her magic to push Violet. Even Rose helped stop her. It wasn't just you." He put his hand over hers, pushing lightly. "We don't have to name her Tressa."
"I was thinking Nathalie Tressa. If it's a girl."
"That would be nice." He kissed her forehead. Then leaned in again and kissed her gently but quite thoroughly on the lips. "I love you so."
She pressed against him, her arms around his waist. "Play something for me. Something sad."
"I wish you wanted something happy. I wish I wanted to give you a happy song. But tonight..."
He began to play, a haunting melody that seemed to sink inside her and rip the pain out. She realized she was crying and felt him cradle her in magic even as he played on.
"Are you sorry you came here?" he whispered when he finished.
"No." She met his eyes, smiled and shook her head. "No, I'm not sorry."
She heard the wind whipping up, the sound of leaves hitting the window. "Storm's coming."
He nodded. Then he looked at the stairs, and she could imagine what he was thinking. Tressa always took care of things—always made everything all right.
She rose. "I'll ask Cook to bake some cookies and warm the milk. So the girls aren't scared." She took his hand.
"Thank you." He pulled her hand up and settled his cheek against it.
"We can sit the storm out together."
They had weathered much worse together than that, after all.
"Are you ever sorry that you came here?"
She leaned down, kissing him as tenderly as she could. "No. Even if you were quite cold to me when I arrived."
She got a small laugh from him before his smile slipped away.
It was enough.
© 2011 by Kim Strattford