Secrets of Midnight, page 1
“It’s been five months since my last four-heart rating, but this book was worth waiting for. Miriam Minger’s Secrets of Midnight wins with a finely woven story … a marvelous tapestry of plots.” - The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
SECRETS OF MIDNIGHT
Copyright (c) 1995 by Miriam Minger. All rights reserved. With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the author.
Originally published by Jove Books, October 1995
Cover Copyright (c) 2010 by Hot Damn Designs
This is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Other Electronic Books by Miriam Minger
The Pagan’s Prize
Regency Era Romances:
My Runaway Heart
A Hint of Rapture
Table of Contents
Near Porthleven, Cornwall
“Did you see the groom, Corie? His face all red and sweaty and his bulbous belly out to here? Lord, the way he was leering at Druella all through the ceremony with those little pig eyes! If I saw such a sight walking toward me on my wedding night, I’d fling myself out the nearest window!”
Fling herself Lindsay Somerset did, quite dramatically, Corisande Easton thought as her best friend tumbled to the ground in a swirl of white petticoat and silky blond hair.
Corisande’s smile widened as Lindsay lay still as a corpse with her slender arms outflung and her pink-stockinged legs askew in a most unladylike fashion. Only the slight rise and fall of her breasts betrayed her. Imagining what that awful termagant Lady Somerset would say if she saw her stepdaughter behaving so wantonly, Corisande shoved away the unpleasant thought and focused again upon Lindsay as the young woman began to recite in somber dirgelike tones.
“Here lies dead a virgin bride, poor girl, wed to a man who resembled a pig. Perhaps if she’d been allowed to choose her own husband, she wouldn’t be dead, she’d be dancing a jig!”
Corisande’s burst of laughter was joined by Lindsay’s as she sat upright and brushed damp bits of grass from her gray merino walking dress.
It was good to hear Corisande laugh. Lately she’d been too serious by far, so many cares weighing upon her mind. So many things to do. So many local wrongs to be righted. But Lindsay was determined that their last afternoon together would be as lighthearted as possible, Corisande’s responsibilities forgotten if only for a short time.
For that matter her own worries as well, Lindsay thought as she glanced out across Mount’s Bay, the water’s surface blinding in the brilliant sunshine that had finally broken through the fog.
No, she simply wouldn’t consider the possibility that her stepmother might change her mind about allowing Lindsay to finally have her London Season. Her father’s second wife, Olympia, had been nothing short of despotic these past eight years since her marriage to Sir Randolph Somerset, but she couldn’t, couldn’t be that cruel. If Lindsay was forced to wait another year, she’d be twenty-one and well on her way to spinsterhood!
“A brilliant performance, Miss Somerset, and an even more apt observation about the groom.” Corisande’s voice broke into her thoughts, her friend pushing a stray lock of auburn hair behind her ear as she grinned down at Lindsay. “He did have the look of a prize Truro pig, and with an unpleasant nature to boot, but you have to admit Druella Simmons seemed quite pleased with herself, no matter that the marriage was arranged.”
Lindsay met Corisande’s smiling dark brown eyes, which were a color that Corisande matter-of-factly considered plain as Cornish mud but that Lindsay always assured her was quite lovely, especially with those amazing green tints. “Yes, I suppose Druella would be pleased to have captured a wealthy squire. She always claimed she would make the richest catch in the parish.”
“No, I believe she said something about the whole county.” With the gift of a mimic, Corisande affected a lofty nasal tone that sounded just like Druella, a local girl who had long lorded it over other young women of her acquaintance just because her father was a baron, albeit an impoverished one. “And then, my dearest, dearest darlings, you must all come to my beautiful house in Devonshire for tea.”
Lindsay gave a loud hoot of laughter, but her grin became a grimace as she shuddered, remembering how the groom had lasciviously pressed his girth to Druella’s slight frame after Corisande’s father, the Reverend Joseph Easton, had pronounced them man and wife at the small church wedding yesterday morning. The disgusting man had practically been drooling onto his boots!
“Druella’s won herself a marvelous big house and hundreds of pounds a year, truly. Each night at bedtime she’ll likely wish she’d settled for less coin when that great white whale of a husband flops under the covers with her and demands his due!”
Lindsay caught Corisande’s outstretched hand, her dearest friend’s own grimace melting into mirth as she pulled Lindsay to her feet. Arm in arm, they set out once more along the cliff, the strong late March breeze, laced with salt spray and smelling of the sea and the lush promise of spring, whipping their hair around their faces.
Corisande was never shocked by anything Lindsay said or did, and Lindsay loved her for it. There had been so many times she had escaped the oppressiveness of her beleaguered father’s manor for the comforting chaos of the Easton parsonage where she could be herself without any fear of rebuke. Just as she had fled this morning, climbing out a dining-room window when she heard Olympia trumpeting her name from an upstairs bedroom.
Heaven help her, she’d be damned if she spent her last day at home being lectured on the proper decorum for a young lady about to embark on her first Season! Not when her father’s elder sister, Winifred, Lady Penney, had no doubt been directed to torment her with the same rules and regulations once she reached London.
Sobering at the thought, Lindsay sighed as she glanced at Corisande. “I know I’ve nearly hounded you to death, but it’s not too late for you to come with me. We’d have the most marvelous time! I’ll just tell Olympia” —even saying the woman’s name was distasteful to Lindsay, who had never once been able to call her fathe
“You know I can’t go,” Corisande interrupted gently, trying not to be affected by the disappointment shining in Lindsay’s blue eyes. Cerulean blue, her wildly imaginative friend liked to call them, not out of vanity but simply because she enjoyed the sound of the exotic word upon her tongue.
In fact, Lindsay Somerset didn’t have a vain bone in her body, an amazing thing considering she was one of the loveliest young women in Cornwall. Her flawless skin, waist-length blond hair that was practically white, and hourglass figure were the stuff of King Arthur’s legends. No, if anything, her only fault lay in her being too kindhearted for her own good.
Lindsay had earned Olympia’s heated censure countless times when she had been caught taking food from the Somerset pantry to feed the parish’s hungry tinners and their families, or been discovered selling her own shoes to purchase coal to warm some unfortunate soul’s freezing cottage.
Corisande’s causes had become Lindsay’s; Corisande couldn’t have wished for a friend more loyal and true. Yet Lindsay’s life would have been much easier under Lady Somerset’s roof if she’d been less caring. For that reason, for Lindsay’s sake, Corisande was almost relieved to see her go.
“If you’re thinking you can’t go because you haven’t the money,” Lindsay began, clearly making one last valiant attempt to sway her, “I already told you I would share everything I have—”
“It’s not the money,” Corie broke in again, though, in truth, as a vicar’s daughter she had virtually no coin to her name.
“Well, don’t dare tell me it’s because you wouldn’t fit in,” Lindsay said with reproach, her beautiful sky-blue eyes flashing now. “You’re so pigheaded, Corie Easton!”
“Like you,” Corisande said with fondness.
“Maybe so, but you’re worse. Complicated, uncompromising, and full of the silliest notions. Like only pretty girls should go to London. You’re pretty, Corie, prettier than most no matter—”
“And you’ve always been far too generous when it comes to judging your friends,” Corisande cut in, the back of her hand brushing against the pale, grooved scar bisecting her cheek as she swept windblown hair out of her eyes. Wanting to change a subject that didn’t bother her nearly as much as Lindsay thought it did, she added, “London is no place for someone like me. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself there.”
“You could have fun. See new things, meet new people, have wonderful adventures—oh, I can’t wait to get to London!”
Corisande was glad to see that excitement now lit Lindsay’s lovely face, her friend’s eyes dancing with anticipation. Lord help her, if Lady Somerset did anything now to thwart Lindsay’s dreams, Corisande couldn’t say what she might do.
At the very least, she’d give that insufferable woman a tongue-lashing sure to straighten her sausage curls, something she’d longed to do for years, although Lindsay had prevented her every time. Lindsay simply loved her father too much to make his life any more miserable than it already was, again giving little thought to herself.
Just as Lindsay was doing now, insisting that Corisande accompany her even though she knew that Lady Somerset would never approve. If Corisande stepped one foot into that coach, Lady Somerset would have just the ammunition she needed to cancel the entire journey. Corisande’s friendship with Lindsay had always been a thorn in the old bat’s side, Corisande’s zealous determination to help the parish’s poor and needy hardly a pastime Lady Somerset considered suitable for a baronet’s daughter.
At least she agreed with the woman on that score, Corisande thought as she glanced at Lindsay, her friend’s eyes fixed expectantly to the east, as if she could see the roofs of London all the way from Cornwall. Not because helping those less fortunate than herself wasn’t suitable for Lindsay, but because she finally had the chance to do something for herself. To make her own dreams come true.
When she’d told Lindsay that only pretty girls should go to London, she had meant merely that Lindsay with her peerless blond beauty was born for such a glittering world, a fact Corisande didn’t begrudge her in the least. How could she? To experience life outside of Cornwall was all her indomitable friend had ever wanted to do. Just as staying in Cornwall where she was needed was what Corisande wanted to do. God knew, she had plenty of responsibilities to keep her busy, and with times being so harsh thanks to this damned interminable war with Napoleon and now America, too—
“Don’t, Corie. I know that look on your face.” Lindsay’s voice held fresh reproach as she squeezed Corisande’s arm. “You’ve got that tiny little frown between your brows, and I won’t have it. You’re not supposed to be thinking about all the things you have to do.”
“I wasn’t,” Corisande fibbed, although it was hard to forget that the cutter Fair Betty was due to drop anchor at a secluded cove near Porthleven harbor late tonight, which meant she would be busy helping to oversee the landing and dispatching of smuggled tea, silk handkerchiefs, and brandy until the wee hours of the morning
“Yes you are! There’s that frown again!” Lindsay blurted out, looking wholly exasperated. “You promised me, Corie. We were just going to enjoy ourselves this afternoon. No thinking about the villagers’ problems or the tinners’ problems—”
“I know, or their children’s grumbling bellies.”
“Or worrying about your father.”
“Or wondering whether poor Frances has been chased from the house yet by one of Estelle’s pranks.”
“Or whether your two other sisters are behaving themselves.”
“And least of all,” Corisande said wryly, her temples beginning to throb, “wondering if the king’s excisemen might be on the prowl tonight when we’ve a ship coming in from Roscoff.”
“That, the very least of all!” Lindsay rolled her eyes heavenward as if realizing the impossibility of a carefree afternoon. Then, just as suddenly, a wide grin broke over her face. “I know what we’ll do.”
Corisande watched, bemused, as Lindsay hoisted her skirt and clambered on top of a large lichen-covered rock. Once settled, she patted the place beside her.
“I know you don’t like to sit still for very long, Corie, but let’s rest here a while. I want to talk about husbands.”
“Exactly. And we already know what kind we don’t want.”
“No lecherous-eyed pigs for one,” Corisande quipped as she bunched a handful of her own frayed woolen skirt and climbed up next to Lindsay.
“Or disgusting white whales.” Lindsay gave a light laugh, only to become serious suddenly. “And I’ll have no man, ever, who would allow my stepmother to govern our lives.”
Corisande wasn’t surprised by the steely determination in Lindsay’s voice. Lady Somerset might have finally decided that it was time Lindsay found herself a husband, but Lindsay had her own ideas as to what sort of man she wanted to wed.
“Someone Olympia couldn’t intimidate,” Lindsay continued softly. “Someone who wouldn’t hesitate to stand up to her.”
“That rules out most eligible bachelors, I would imagine,” Corisande said half under her breath, unfortunately voicing a sad reality for Lindsay. Her stepmother had an uncanny gift for making grown men wilt like thirsty potted plants in her presence.
“Oh, no, I’ll find him,” came Lindsay’s fervent response, her eyes meeting Corisande’s. “I damned well won’t marry until I do. I swear it—in fact, we both should swear!”
“Lindsay, what … ?” was all Corisande managed to say as Lindsay jumped to her feet and hauled Corisande up beside her, both of them nearly toppling from the rock. Laughing, they regained their balance, Lindsay grabbing Corisande’s hands as she faced her.
“Say it with me, Corie. Neither of us can wed anyone less than the man of our dreams. Ready?”
Corisande felt foolish, but she nonetheless decided to play along,
“You have to really believe it,” Lindsay cut in, exasperated, as if guessing Corisande’s thoughts. “Otherwise our pact won’t mean a thing. You don’t want to end up with a husband like Druella’s, do you?”
Corisande knew she would never allow such a dreadful thing to happen, oh, no, not to herself. But for Lindsay’s sake—who could say what sort of undesirable character Olympia Somerset might wish for a son-in-law?—she squeezed her friend’s hands and shouted with her at the top of their lungs after Lindsay counted to three, “Neither of us can wed anyone less than the man of our dreams!”
“There, that should do it,” Lindsay pronounced as the wind carried away their words. Grinning from ear to ear, she looked quite pleased with herself. “It will be our secret.”
“Secret? They probably heard us all the way to Arundale’s Kitchen.” Thinking sourly of the tin mine that had earned such a name because of the hot, moist air at its deeper levels, Corisande turned to jump off the rock, but Lindsay caught her arm.
“Oh, no, we’re not done yet. You have to close your eyes and pretend he’s standing right in front of you, just as you imagine him to be—”
“Come on, Corie, it will be fun. Here, I’ll go first!”
Lindsay closed her eyes and tilted her face upward as if she were looking at someone. “Oh, Corie, he’s so handsome.”
“Of course he’s handsome, silly.” Corisande gazed wryly at her beautiful friend. “But that isn’t the most important thing. What kind of man do you want him to be?”