Penniless spinster, Matilda Chapple, lives at isolated Creed Hall, dependent on the austere charity of unloving relatives and under pressure to marry a man twice her age. In an attempt to earn enough money to escape this miserable existence, she writes a series of titillating 'confessions'. Her secret is safe -- until battle-scarred Waterloo veteran, Edward Kane, reluctantly accepts the commission to uncover the anonymous author's identity.
While staying at bleak Creed Hall, Edward finds himself unaccountably drawn to his host's lonely niece. Can Matilda conceal the secret of her scandalous writings, or will Edward discover that the spinster and the risqué authoress are one and the same person? And when Matilda feels the need to experience sex as her fictional courtesan does--will she lose her heart to Edward, along with her virginity?
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His lordship swiftly divested me of my gown, placing hot kisses on the skin he bared.
“You are a goddess,” he breathed, as he untrussed my bosom . . .
Matilda Chapple glanced at the window. Outside, the grey overcast sky was darkening toward dusk. If she hurried, she could mail this installment of Chérie’s confessions before night fell.
Seizing me in his arms, he carried me to the bed, she wrote hastily. He pushed aside the froth of my petticoats with impatience. In less than a minute he had made his entrance and slaked his lust upon my . . .
Mattie halted, the quill held above the page, and squinted at her draft. What was that word? Feverish? Fevered? Fervent?
. . . upon my fevered body.
Mattie continued swiftly copying. Finally, she finished.
We lay sated in the sunlight. For my part, I was as pleased by his lordship’s manly vigor as he was so evidently pleased by my feminine charms. I foresaw many pleasant months ahead as his mistress.
And on that note, dear readers, I shall end this latest confession from my pen.
Mattie laid down the quill. She glanced at the window again, hastily blotted the pages, and folded them. She sealed the confession with a wafer and wrote the address of her publisher clearly. Then she folded a letter around it and sealed that too, writing the address of her friend Anne on it, Mrs. Thos. Brocklesby, Lombard Street, London.
Mattie bundled up the draft and hid it with the others in the concealed cupboard in the wainscoting. She crammed a bonnet on her head, threw a thick shawl around her shoulders, and grabbed the letter.
There was still an hour of daylight left, but deep shadows gathered in the corridors of Creed Hall. The stairs creaked as she hurried down them. The entrance hall was cave-like, dark and chilly and musty.
Mattie swung around, clutching the letter to her breast.
Her uncle stood in the doorway to his study, leaning heavily on a cane. “Where are you going?”
Mattie raised the letter, showing it to him. “A letter to a friend, Uncle Arthur. I’m taking it down to the village.”
Her uncle frowned, his face pleating into sour, disapproving folds. “I sent Durce with the mail an hour ago.”
“Yes, uncle. I hadn’t quite finished . . .”
“Durce can take it tomorrow.”
“I should like to send it today, uncle. If I may.”
Uncle Arthur’s eyebrows pinched together in a scowl. The wispy feathers of white hair ringing his domed skull, the beak-like nose, made him look like a gaunt, bad-tempered bird of prey.
“Mr. Kane will be arriving soon.”
“I’ll only be twenty minutes. I promise.” Mattie bowed her head and held her breath. Please, please, please…
Her uncle sniffed. “Very well. But don’t be late for our guest. We owe him every courtesy.”
“No, uncle.” Mattie dipped him a curtsey. “Thank you.”
Outside, the sky was heavy with rain clouds. The air was dank and bracingly cold, scented with the smell of slowly decaying vegetation. Mattie took a deep breath, filling her lungs, feeling her spirits lift, conscious of a delicious sense of freedom. She walked briskly down the long drive, skirting puddles and mud. On either side, trees stretched leafless branches toward the sky. Once she was out of sight of the Hall’s windows, Mattie lengthened her stride into a run. She spread her arms wide, catching the wintry breeze with her shawl. It felt as if she was galloping, as if she was flying, as if she was free.
At the lane, she slowed to a walk and turned right. The village of Soddy Morton was visible in the hollow a mile away.
Mattie crossed the crumbling stone bridge. The brook rushed and churned below, brown and swollen, its banks cloaked in winter-dead weeds. She blew out a breath. It hung fog-like in front of her. Icy mud splashed her half-boots and the hem of her gown, but a feeling of joy warmed her. She didn’t see the bleak landscape, the bare fields, the bare trees, the heavy, grey sky. She saw instead a cheerful boarding house with a cozy kitchen and a view of the sea through the windows.
Mattie inhaled deeply, almost smelling the tang of the ocean, almost tasting sea salt on her tongue.
Her grip tightened on the letter. Soon she would be free of Uncle Arthur, free of Creed Hall, free of Soddy Morton and Northamptonshire. Every word that she wrote and every confession she mailed to London brought the dream of owning a boarding house closer.
Soon it wouldn’t be a dream, it would be reality.
Edward Kane, lately of the Royal Horse Guards, tooled his curricle over the low bridge to the clatter of iron-shod hooves on stone and stopped at his first glimpse of Creed Hall. It crouched to his left at the crest of the hill, built of stone so dark that it almost looked black, crowded by leafless trees. He grimaced. What had Toby called it? The dungeon.
“Ugly,” his bâtman, Tigh, commented from his seat alongside Edward.
Edward agreed. A gust of wind whistled across the bare fields, and with it, the first icy drops of rain. He shivered and urged the horses up the driveway. Guilt, a familiar companion since Waterloo, seemed to wrap more closely around him with each step the weary horses took. The Hall disappeared, then came into sight again, looking even more grim and inhospitable. He drew the curricle to a stop in front of the frowning, iron-studded door, handed the reins to Tigh, and clambered down.
“Take it round to the stables.”
The rain came down steadily as the curricle moved off. Edward rubbed his aching thigh. Guilt settled more heavily on him as he limped up the steps. Creed Hall loomed above him. It was ugly, but even so, it was Toby’s home. It should be him here, not me.
The door opened on grating hinges before he reached it. “Mr. Kane.”
Edward stepped inside, shivering. He handed his hat to the elderly butler, shrugged out of his fur-lined driving coat, and peeled off his gloves. Oil paintings hung on the dark paneled walls, barely discernible in the gloom.
“Sir Arthur is in the library, sir,” the butler said, receiving the gloves and managing not to stare at Edward’s butchered hands. Or perhaps he didn’t notice the lack of fingers in the dimness.
“If you would follow me, sir?”
The library was almost as dark as the entrance hall. The curtains were drawn against the dusk, but a lone candle burned on a side table and a meager fire smoked in the grate. A figure sat in a winged leather armchair beside the fireplace, shrouded in shadow.
“Mr. Kane, sir,” the butler said, and departed.
Edward bowed toward the armchair. “Sir Arthur?”
As Sir Arthur levered himself from the armchair, Edward tried to find some points of similarity between his host and Toby. Height, leanness, a long face, but there it stopped. Arthur Strickland was thin to the point of emaciation, his high, domed skull bare except for a few wisps of white hair, his skin withered into pale, desiccated folds. Where Toby had liked to laugh, it appeared that Arthur Strickland preferred to frown. Lines of disapproval were engraved on his face, pinching between the feathery eyebrows and deeply bracketing his mouth.
Sir Arthur held out his hand, leaning heavily on his ebony cane, noticed the three fingers missing from Edward’s right hand, and hesitated.
“It doesn’t hurt, sir,” Edward said. Not much.
Strickland shook hands with him, a dry, limp clasp.
Interest sharpened in the old man’s eyes.
Edward braced himself for the inevitable questions, but instead Sir Arthur said, “Sherry?”
Strickland rang for a servant. Edward sat silently while the butler bustled into the library, poured two small glasses of sherry, and left. Sir Arthur’s gaze was on his face. Edward watched the old man trace the scars, seeing him note the missing ear. Finally the perusal ended.
“Waterloo as well?”
Edward nodded. He sipped his sherry. It was mouth-puckeringly dry.
Strickland sighed. He leaned back in his armchair. “My son…you were with him when he died?”
Sir Arthur glanced at the fire, blinked several times, swallowed, and brought his gaze back to Edward.
“Would you mind…telling me?”
A rush of memory ambushed Edward. For a brief moment he was back at Waterloo. The smells of blood and cordite filled his nose, Toby’s shout rang in his ears. Get up, Ned! was as vivid, as clear, as if the battle had been yesterday, not five months ago.
Muscles clenched in Edward’s stomach. He gulped a fortifying mouthful of sherry.
“Not at all.” He looked away from the old man’s face and began his tale.