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Mistress at Midnight

By:Sophia James

Mistress at Midnight
Sophia James

       Chapter One


June 1855-England

Stephen Hawkhurst, Lord of Atherton, felt the wind rise up from the  bottom of Taylor's Gap, salt on its edge. He frowned as he breathed in, a  smooth wooden railing all that held him between this world and the next  one.

So very easy to end it, to simply let go and fall into oblivion. Pushing  harder, he felt the barrier give and a few stones, dislodged by the  movement, hurled down the incline to disappear into nothingness.

'If you jump, you would need to land exactly between that rock and the  cliff,' a voice said, one small gloved hand pointing downwards. 'If you  veer to the left, you will be caught on those bushes, you see, and such a  fall could leave you merely crippled. To the right is a better option  as the shale would be more forgiving before it threw you over the edge  into the sea. However, if you excel at the art of swimming … ?' She  stopped, the implication understood.

Stiffening, Hawk turned to see a woman standing near, a black veil  hiding every feature of her face. Her clothes were heavy and practical. A  lady of commerce, perhaps? Or the daughter of a merchant? God, what  luck was there in that? Miles from anywhere and The voice of reason  close by.

'I may, of course, merely be taking in the view.' The irritation in his  words was unbecoming and he was a man who was seldom rude to women. But  this one was far from cowed.

'One would generally look to the horizon if that was the case, sir. The  sun is setting, you see, and it would be this vista your eyes would be  drawn towards.'

'Then perhaps I am tired?'

'Fatigue would show itself in a leaning gait and great exertion would be  seen in dust upon your boots.' Her head tipped down to look. Stephen  imagined her satisfaction when she saw his shiny new black Hessians. He  wished she would turn and leave, but she stood silent and waiting,  breath even and unhurried.

Surveying the nearby paths, he realised that she was alone. Unusual for a  lady not to be chaperoned. He wondered how she had got here and where  she would go to next.

There was a hole in the thumb of her right-hand glove and an unbuffed  nail was bitten to the quick. The hat she wore hid her hair completely,  though an errant curl of vibrant red had escaped from its clutches and  lay across the darkness of her clothes like rubies in a coal seam.  Beneath the notes of a heavier perfume he smelt the light freshness of  violets.

'I came here often as a young girl with my mother and she would stand  just where I am and speak of what was over the seas in all the  directions that I might name.' This was said suddenly after a good few  moments of silence. He liked how she did not feel the need to fill in  every space with chatter. 'France lies that way, and Denmark, there. A  thousand miles to the north-east a boat could founder against the rocky  coast of the Kingdom of Norway.'

She had a slight accent, though the cadence held the timbre of something  that Hawk did not recognise. The thought amused him for he was a master  of discerning that which people wished not to divulge. He had made his  life from it, after all.

'Where is your mother now?'

'Oh, she left England many years ago. She was French, you understand, and my father had no desire to stop her in her travels.'

His interest was firmly caught as he took a step back. 'He did not accompany her, then?'

'Papa loves poetry and text. His vocation is as small as my mother's was  large and a library filled with books was all he ever claimed to want  in adventure. Her journeys would have worried him.'

'The adventurer and the academic? An interesting combination. Which  parent do you favour?' The question came from nowhere, for Stephen had  certainly not meant to voice it, but the woman had a charm that  was … unexpected. It had been a long time since he had felt the sense of  aliveness he did here with her.

One hand crossed to her face, pushing the gauze closer to her cheek. In  The slanting light of sunset he could make out a finely chiselled nose.  'Neither,' she answered. 'The will to do exactly as one wants requires a  certain amount of spare time which is a commodity I can ill afford.'

'Because you spend the day rearranging your father's extensive library?' He found himself smiling.

'Everyone has a story, sir, though your assumptions lack as much in truth as any tale that I might fashion around you.'

Stepping back another pace, he felt the bush at his back, sturdy and green. 'What would you say of me?'

'I would say that you are a man who leads others, though few really know you.'

Such a truth cut quick, because she was right. He seldom showed anyone who he was.

But she was not finished. Taking his hand, she turned it palm upwards,  tracing the lines with her first finger. Stephen felt like snatching it  back, away from the things that she might or might not see.                       
       
           



       

'You have a high falsetto singing voice, seldom touch strong drink and never bet at the New Year races at Newmarket.'

Her voice held a note of humour, and relief bloomed. 'So very exact. You ought to have a stall outside the Leadenhall.'

'It's a gift, sir,' she returned, her head tipping to one side as though  measuring all that he was. Like a naturalist might watch an insect  before sticking it through with a pin. There was something in her  stillness that was unnerving and he tried his hardest to discern the  rest of her features.

'Do you have a name?' Suddenly he wanted to know just who she was and  where she came from. Coincidences were seldom as they seemed. His job  had at least taught him that.

'Aurelia, my lord,' she offered, a new tone in his given title, a tone he understood too well. She gave no surname.

'You know who I am, then?'

'I have heard of you from many different people.'

'And the gossip of strangers is so very truthful.'

'It is my experience that beneath the embellishment, tittle-tattle  always holds a measure of truth. It is said that you spend a lot of time  away from England and its society?'

'I am easily bored.'

'Oh, I doubt that entirely.'

'And easily disappointed.'

'An explanation that may account for your presence here at Taylor's Gap.'

He breathed out hard, the possibility of blackmail creeping in unbidden.

She faced him directly, now, and lifted her veil. Freckles across the  bridge of a fine nose were the first things he registered. Then he saw  that one eye was blue and the other dark brown. A mismatched angel!

'It was an accident. A bleed. I fell from a horse as a child and hit my  head hard.' This explanation was given in the tone of one who might have  often said it.

She was so pale the blood in her veins could be seen through the skin at  her temple. Like the wings of a butterfly, barely there. He wanted to  lean forwards and touch such delicacy, but he did not because something  in her eyes stopped him. He knew this familiar look of supplication, his  many estates holding the promise of a largesse that was tantalising.

But not from her. The disappointment of it pierced hard even as she began to speak.

'I would ask a favour of you, Lord Hawkhurst.'

There. It was said, and in the circumstances he would have to be  generous. It wasn't everyone who had seen the demons in him so clearly.

'Indeed.'

'I have a sister, Leonora Beauchamp, who is both young and beautiful and I want her to marry a man who would care for her well.'

As her words settled, fury solidified. 'I am not in the market for a  wife, madam, no matter what you might like to say of this encounter.'

Her voice shook as she continued to speak. 'It isn't marriage I  petition. I merely want you to invite Leonora to the ball I know you to  be giving next week at your town house. I shall accompany her to ensure  you know who it is to make some fuss of. A dance should do it, or two,  if you will. After that I promise to never darken your pathway again.'

The anger in him abated slightly. 'To where should I send the invitations?'

'Braeburn House in Upper Brook Street. Any delivery boy would know of it.'

'How old is your sister?'

'Eighteen.'

'And you?'

She did not answer and his heart felt heavy as he looked down at her. 'So you are Aurelia Beauchamp?'

The shake of her head surprised him. 'Nay, that is Leonora's surname,  but if you could see it in yourself to welcome my sister despite  any … misgivings, I would be most appreciative.' Removing one glove, she  delved into her pocket and brought out a pendant fashioned with a single  diamond in white gold. 'I do not ask you to do this for nothing, Lord  Hawkhurst, but if you say yes to the bargain between us I do expect you  to hold up your end of it, without excuse. Could you promise me that?'

Interest began to creep under wrath, the flush on her face as becoming  as any he had ever seen on a woman. She was a beauty! Beneath the fabric  of her other hand he saw a ring, bold against the sheen of superfine.

Was she married? If she was his woman, he would have not let her roam the countryside so unprotected.

He smiled at such thoughts. Unprotected? Lord, was he finally growing a  conscience? Thirty-one years old and all of them hard edged. The ends of  his fingers curled against his thighs and he made himself breathe in,  the souls of those he had sent to the afterlife calling close.

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