Cornwall 1801–For every smuggler, there is an exciseman who will hunt him down …
Destiny Rhodes was used to losing everything in one stroke. She’d just never thought it would be this stroke.
“I does, ma-am.” Lizzie’s voice tolled as befitted someone who was in the running to win the grand prize in the looking most like your surname competition at Penvellyn Fair. So, Here Lies Lizzie Tooms, Loyal Servant of the Rhodes, Now Gone as Them, Probably unto Hell, could have been etched into her forehead.
Ignoring the rattle of the chimney pots crashing onto the lawn outside, Destiny stared harder at her reflection in the mirror above the fireplace.
“And quoth I, seein’ as you be a’ askin’ and me havin’ spoken to him, far worse bells could be a’tollin’ for them what are cursed.”
“Do you know, I’m very glad you think so, Lizzie? After all, here was me thinking it could well be the man who did the cursing. So why don’t we all just look on the bright side and say a prayer of joy and thankfulness? I mean, it’s not like be haven’t got anything better to do. Where’s the captain by the way?”
“Lying drunk on the stable floor, you mean? Having managed to get here on his sodding horse but not off it properly? Oh, that’s busy, I suppose, if you can call such things busy.” She clasped the mantelshelf tighter in her mittened fingers, the image of Orwell meandering home beneath frozen stars, flickering through the flames. If only she was such a frozen star, instead of standing here, staring as the straw end of this place disappeared down a dark rabbit hole. Doom Bar Hall. The only thing in her life still standing. The bricks and mortar she’d poured herself into. Every flower, painting, tuck on every cushion, even her pine cone garlands that made this room a work of art at Christmas. Gone. On the turn of a card. “Yes, a fine thing to be as busy as that.”
“I can only reports what t’es my sacred duty to report, ma-am.”
“Well, it’s something of a pity you felt it was your sacred duty to come in here and report this.”
Maybe she should just fall down now on the fender and be done with it? Then at least she might be buried along with her garlands.
“Anyways, I be sure your brother’s done his sacred best.”
“You know, for once you and I couldn’t agree more. His level best, or should that be epic, to get drunk? His very best to lose this place. As for everything in it–?”
Yet, despite what she’d thought a moment ago, was this really so unexpected when Orwell inhabited the drinks cabinet the way fish did the ocean and would be sure to win the empty cider barrel in the drinking it dry competition at Penvellyn Fair. In fact, there was no might about it. The miracle was it had taken him this long. As for what she could do about it? Apart from winning first prize in the breaking her hand by punching a wall competition?
“Ma-am, I be sure that despite everythin’, he has this in hand.”
“Really? Well? That’s a first. A second first, I must say. You thinking and him having this in hand.”
“If he does not have it in hand, the Lord shall. You watch this. He will be our salvation, ma-am.”
“Oh, please do spare me. Truly. Unless you think a sermon to match the one on the Mount, is something I can stand tonight? Wait around for the Lord being me salvation, and first prize in the look at all them moldering bones competition is what I’ll win.”
“Then what do you require, ma-am?”
“Right now? Apart from a sodding great dose of arsenic, you mean?”
The strength to deal with this but that didn’t look like it was coming unless that sodding, great albatross that had just careered inside her velvet gown–a triple-weighted blind one at that—found some other gown to career into. Finally, ashes existed she couldn’t rise from, despite everyone always saying she should have been named Phoenix. Imagine that, when Lizzie was sure to have it broadcast all over Penvellyn by this time tomorrow, if not before, how Destiny had collapsed in the library fireplace and lain there, cursed, like all who’d passed down the long, dusty road to the charnel house before her, too?
“Ma-am, I know we have had our differences—“
“You can say that again.”
Mostly on the subject of accents. Destiny sounded like her mother who had come from up north. Yorkshire somewhere. And Lizzie only took instructions from those who didn’t, which made it even more ridiculous she took them from Orwell who was more refined than a glass of malt whiskey. Orwell who probably reeked worse than one right now and was in no fit state to open his mouth, let alone let an order fall out of it.
As for Lizzie’s pity? Another lecture on the Lord? Lizzie producing a bible from her apron pocket in another minute or so, in all probability, and asking Destiny to read from it? Well, Destiny wouldn’t want first prize for making the heavens fall down. Now, would she? Especially not when she’d already won the one for having her head panned in with the meat mallet. After all, it was vital she at least try to raise her chin, though what she was lifting it for she’d no idea.
“No. Don’t.” Lizzie parted her lips and Destiny hurried on. “Once is quite enough. Look, just send in this … this man. Me brother may be lying on the stable floor too drunk to deal with him. I’m not. Go on.”
Yes. Let those who thrived on the pantomime of her life, say her black heart dripped something so common as blood? Over her burned and beaten body. That would be death, not this, even if all of it was death now. How could Orwell do this?
“If it is yore wish and yore command, ma’am?”
“I’d hardly put it that strongly. But what else can I do? Still, fear not Lizzie,” she lowered her gaze from the mirror as Lizzie nodded. “Whatever happens, I’m sure the servants’ places will be guaranteed. After all, in my humble experience, everyone needs servants. Even a death knell one like you.”
Well? Everybody did. How very lucky to be one. Suppose she said she was? Found a mob cap, claimed to be the housekeeper? Bit an arsenal of bullets, swallowed them too, suffered the laughter, the snide remarks, the fact she wasn’t the only one to drag the family through the gutter? Endure the servants too? The ones who had so recently been hers?
How far a falling from a heaven too high.
What? Have it round the county that she qualified for entering the best servants competition because she cleaned boots and changed beds for her new master, fetched him his pipe and slippers, dusted his ornamental vases?
No. She’d sooner starve. After all, she wasn’t exactly likely to win it.
My God, if only Chancery had lived. Actually, if everyone who had ever touched her sorry life had damn well lived, she’d not be in this mess. But Chancery’s death, over that sodding Rose O’Roarke had started an endless procession to the charnel house. All beneath the winding sheet of one certainty. The hollow toll of another death would shortly follow.
Until the moment Chancery took up with Rose O’Roarke, he’d been heir to Doom Bar Hall, not sodding Orwell and sodding Orwell’s brandy bottles. Captain Rhodes, if you pleased, seeing as he, and them, commanded the local militia. Then the curse uttered by Rose’s grey-eyed brother, Divers O’Roarke, across her marble-veined corpse had come true. They were all rotting in hell. Destiny most of all.
Her shoulders sagged. She glanced back in the gilt framed mirror, wreathed in ornamental cherubs on their way to heaven—lucky them–the mirror she’d found in the attic and spent weeks cleaning, mending and wiping dead flies off. Gull sodding Wrysen’s mirror now. Well?
Unless she took it down, of course. Took it with her. It was heavy as an elephant. That much was obvious the second she reached forward to wrench it free. Not that she’d ever won any prizes for wrenching an elephant. No. There weren’t exactly many of them about in Cornwall. And any there were, were hardly likely to be nailed to the wall, the half of which she’d be trying to get out of the door next if any more plaster showered onto her fingers. And where would she put that?
No. This was over. Over. Over. The words ticked like the grandfather clock in the hall outside. All she could do was go with her head held high. Let the locals have their farthing’s worth. Well?
She fingered her throat. It was an idea. Even if she wasn’t quite sure where it came from.
“Dstny … ”
The French doors banged open in the gale howling over the cliff face. Orwell, staggering in here with wet boots and slurred apologies for losing her pine cone garlands, was the last thing she needed. Certainly, if she was really considering that idea. She slipped her gaze from her—actually, some might say, edifying as a dead viper’s–reflection. And they would be right. Some things had to be faced when it came to ideas.
“Goodness me. Orwell. Sit down, why don’t you? Preferably not in here, before your wet feet take first prize for ruining the rug, when it’s no longer ours to ruin either. At least I hope that’s from your wet feet.”
The spindle chair nearly went over beneath his backside as he collapsed into it. She braced for the crash. It would certainly be one thing less for Gull Wrysen to claim if it smashed.
Orwell sank his head with its untidy chestnut quiff on his chest and tried pulling his coat-tails from beneath his backside. “I say, old gril, l mean girl … I’ll need … that is, I’ll nleed to … I’ll need ver’ much to … to … ”
“What? Sober up? Stop drinking? Get Doom Bar Hall back? Likely as a chocolate doily surviving in hell that is, if you must know.”
“Mulst know? Well, I… I sullpose, I sullpose I do. I mean … Do you know, it’s the damndest thing … but I don’t knlow what I mean …”
“Oh, I think we can all see that, Orwell. Maybe we should hang a sign in Truro, saying, ‘This is Orwell Rhodes. He doesn’t know what he means but one thing’s for certain, he has lost Doom Bar Hall. Throw him a farthing someone, so he can maybe buy it back.’”
Hearing footsteps marching along the hall, she raised her chin.
“Yes Lizzie, what is it?”
“Milord Wrysen, ma’am.” Lizzie’s bobbed curtsy was probably the lowest the man towering in the doorway had ever seen. It was certainly the lowest Destiny had ever seen it. Start as you mean to go on her father had always said. Lizzie was starting well. Destiny should take a leaf out of that book.
“Should I fetch tea, ma-am?”
A good question. But no amount of tea in the best china cups Destiny had found moldering in the stables would sort this.
She flicked her gaze over the man opposite. About thirty? Black haired—not her preferred color–a dusting of stubble on his chin. Eyes like gleaming black bullets. A plain, if not inelegant greatcoat, and leather boots, flecked with mud. No wedding ring. It didn’t mean he wasn’t married.
In that moment she decided.
“No. I am sure His Grace here would prefer something stronger, Lizzie.”
She pinched her cheeks, although this Gull Wrysen could take her as she was. So long as he did take her.
It could be worse. Orwell could have lost the wager to Divers O’Roarke. Then she’d really be in trouble. It was common knowledge he regularly gambled the fortune he’d amassed designing houses and gardens in London.
Hadn’t the sun’s rays shone on him since he’d sworn that oath? Shone to the extent his chestnut hair must be burnt black while she looked more of a corpse than his sister, Rose.
This was the hand she’d been dealt. This was the hand she’d play though.
Smiles were beyond her. Gull Wrysen would see what he was getting and what he was getting was someone young enough at twenty five, to be thought attractive, despite her cropped hair and–all right–the fact she’d give a dead viper a run for its money in the looks’ stakes. But really, some might say, that was all.
As for what she was getting? Well? Doom Bar Hall was what she was getting. Very nice it was too. When nothing else mattered, she wouldn’t be the first, or last, to manage a few ecstatic moans where required.
Only think of the fuel for the fires of all these little effigies the locals liked to make of her. The fires that had been dying of malnutrition lately.
She settled her gaze on his face.
“Well, Your Grace? Do allow me.”
She meant a drink. Orwell was sitting there, after all. Besides Gull Wrysen was standing as if she was Medusa and he’d been turned to stone. But hopefully this was purely temporary.
“Thank you, Lizzie,” she added, seeing that only Lizzie’s jaw had moved and that was in the direction of the floor. “Yes. As you can see, I will deal with this. And please shut your mouth while you’re about it. It’s wholly bad enough you look like a tombstone. We don’t want you adding trout to the mix. Not when Mr. Wrysen and I have things to discuss, regarding the house.”
She waited for Lizzie to win every prize going in the collecting her jaw and sailing like a doom-ridden ship away competition, before setting out two glasses. Gold rimmed ones from the set that added perfection to her Christmas Eve when she finally sat before the fire in the cavernous, leather armchair and treated herself to a measure of port. Glasses she’d be keeping now if this went her way. Why shouldn’t it? She was cursed, not incapable.
Yes. This man wasn’t so bad. Fair hair would have reminded her of Ennis, who some might say, was probably birling ten times in his coffin. Not the man to think of and face this one standing in the candlelit shadows in his mud-spattered boots and greatcoat, holding his hat beneath his arm as if he’d no idea what to do with it.
Well, she knew, she knew exactly. She slipped the top off the decanter, inhaled the rich ruby scent. If it came right down to it here, she could cook and dust, if need be. If he wanted to bring in a woman, if need be, she’d say nothing. After all, there would be nothing to say anything about on her part. No jealousy. Nothing. She wouldn’t insult Ennis’s memory with that kind of thing that betrayed low moral fiber.
“But perhaps I am being presumptuous with your drink and your servants, now Doom Bar Hall has fallen to you, Lord … Lord …?”
“Me?” He shifted uncertainly, the ghost of a smile hanging to his lips. Totally unnerved. No bad sign. “Oh, good God, no. Miss … Miss Rhodes, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s not the devil incarnate, though there’s plenty round here certainly say so.”
“Good .. I mean … No, I mean I think there’s been some kind of mistake.”
She nearly clattered the decanter top onto the sideboard. Some kind of mistake? My God. Damn Orwell. And yet, Lord love him. A mistake. It was all a mistake. Thank God she’d had enough moral fiber not to open her mouth.
“I mean … You mean you’re not Gull Wrysen? And you’re not here to take Doom Bar Hall from me? Well, I never.” Especially given how close she’d been to offering herself. ”You know, I just can’t believe how I—well, never mind, have the drink anyway.”
“Gull?” Gull Wrysen lips twitched as he reached for the glass. “I’m not Gull Wrysen. Not that I know of anyway, unless I’ve been re-christened. I’m not Wrysen either. My name, so far as I know my name anyway, is Gil. Gil Wryson. And I’m not a gentleman either. Well … again… Not that I know of.”
Damn Lizzie. As ever, she won first prize in the being spat on by the Fates competition. After they fell about the floor laughing at her first. Why hadn’t she known no man would be called Gull? And Wrysen was a Cornish pronounciation? Still, she could surely weather a blob or two of spittle seeing as this was all a mistake?
“Although that’s not the mistake,” he added.
Damn the Fates to hell. Still, one mercy in a drought dropping from the heavens? She hadn’t danced about the floor waving her drawers in the air. Whether he was a gentleman or not, was neither here, nor there, when it came to getting him to agree to this. And she would, so long as her own name was Destiny Rhodes, she would. Now. She’d have to. Just swallow what rose in her throat, forget about the fact that when everything she touched turned to dust, the pity was he didn’t drop at her feet, and do it.
“Then … let’s get straight to the point. I’ve always been a frank talking kind of girl.”
“The point, Miss Rhodes?”
“Doom Bar Hall is not just my home, as well as my brother, Orwell’s, it has been my whole life since my husband, Ennis, died. You look surprised?”
“Only in that—”
“I seem young to be a widow? Well, I was and I am, I suppose. Of course I could have lived at Pangbury, the family home but we were guests there ourselves, him having a younger brother with family. So I put the money he left me into Doom Bar Hall, because it has been in the Rhodes family for generations. I returned to my maiden name too. I think you’ll find I’m quite a woman of the world, however.”
It was the most tactful way to put what she was about to propose, which was why she turned away. Not before she saw Gil Wryson’s gleaming black eyes were searching her face in bemusement. But perhaps he simply couldn’t believe his luck? She knew she couldn’t. Believe her luck that was. Certainly at having got this far.
“I suppose what I am trying to say to you, is that I am in this house,” she added. “Yes. It is in me even though you may have won it from my brother, Orwell.”
“I think you’re mistaken there, Miss Rhodes.”
“Really? Well I don’t. You did win it. I’m not going to argue about that, or how easy it probably was, knowing Orwell’s drinking habits, to diddle him of his left pinkie. His thumb too.”
“Perhaps. But it … ”
Must he keep interrupting her when she was doing her level best here to get up from the pit, soar to the sky and secure the roof above her head? And the desperation he might refuse, lay like a lather on her bones? She glided forward then turned to face him.
“Doom Bar Hall is too precious to me. As you will see when I show you around, I am in every scrap of this place. In fact you might even say I am this place. That is why you should also know something.”
“I come with it.”
Start as you mean to go on. Finish too. The blank cut-out she was inside meant it was nothing for her to stand here and offer herself like this. Once. Perhaps. But now? Given the alternative? Although equally, some might say, she had risen to this with a surprising fervor.
“Oh, I am too, Mr. Wryson, but I honestly have no choice.”
He blinked, as if he hadn’t known what was coming, or didn’t want her, although he did have the good manners to smile. “Am I to understand? Are you … are you suggesting … ”
Orwell’s boots scraped on the scuffed floorboards.
“Dstny. Dsny, old girl, thart’s what … you see … it’s like this … I relemmber now. …”
“Oh please, Orwell, do be quiet for once in your sorry life. Let’s just agree I’ll handle this, shall we? You can go to the devil for all I care. In fact, shall we say Truro marketplace if you don’t button up?”
Yes. Gil Wryson wasn’t the devil and he wasn’t Divers O’Roarke–not that the devil troubled her, if she’d to narrow that list down. Divers O’Roarke now? Exactly how likely was he to be here in Cornwall?
“Now then, Mr. Wryson, these are the terms I place honorably on the table before you. They are very simple. Doom Bar Hall is my life. I will not be separated from it. So if you take Doom Bar Hall, you take me, to do what you will with. I’ll be your queen, your housekeeper, I’ll be your whatever you desire, because no-one knows this place like me. If you can’t do that, if you have some other agenda, some other woman, for that matter, whatever you have, walk away now. I know I have not won Doom Bar Hall from you, that in a million years I may not have done that, but then again I never lost it in a devil’s hand of cards, played against a man too drunk to know his own name, let alone the family one he’s thrown away. These are my terms. I’m not leaving here, unless it is in a box. Do you understand?”
“Miss … Lady … ?”
Ignoring him, she lifted the glass to her lips. Courage flowed into her veins, all the way to her pounding temples. It always did when she made up her mind.
“In the circumstances, you may call me, Destiny.”
Orwell tried again to struggle to his feet. “Dstiny. Don’t. You … you don’t know … “
“Orwell, I asked you to stay out of this. What you do is up to you just as this is up to me. I am doing this. I am keeping our home.”
Her shell would anyway. What followed behind, a pallbearer at an unspeakable funeral might wince. She waited, a prisoner of the silence, the one existing in her soul, for Gil Wryson to speak. His lips cinched uncertainly, as if he didn’t know how to approach this. Gentlemanly of him, but not the point.
“Well, I … I’m sure I can call you that, Miss … Miss Rhodes, if that’s acceptable … ”
“Why shouldn’t it be? We’re going to be things to each other, after all. Let’s drink a toast to it.”
“But what I was trying to explain, maybe not terribly well, that is true, and perhaps your brother—“
“Oh, him? He doesn’t count for anything where this is concerned.”
“– is too, is that I didn’t actually win the game. So really … ”
Her heart beat in such hope it almost felled her, although hope was something that had lived in the dark for the last two years. Doom Bar Hall wasn’t lost at all.
Relief washed like an ocean, ambushing her as she stood there encased in tortuous, threadbare velvet. Her cheeks pulsed. To think she’d abased herself for nothing. But what did that matter? She downed the drink in one, wiped a mittened hand across her mouth.
“Then … if you didn’t win …?”
“No. I suppose that’s what I meant when I said I wasn’t a gentleman.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wryson, you will think me thick as a sea mist—“
“Not at all.”
“–but the truth is I really don’t understand what you being, or not being a gentleman, has to do—“
“I’m acting on behalf of my employer.”
So it was true? She’d lost Doom Bar Hall. Still, she’d made that decision before this man walked in here. How he looked, how old he was, who he was, had made no difference then. Why should it now?
“He thought there would be difficulties, you see.”
“Apart from me brother lying drunk I can’t imagine how.”
“Well he did. And that was why he asked me to spy out the lie of the land, if you will. After all, this is quite a house to lose–”
“Do you think I don’t know that? That is why my offer is the same because I don’t intend to lose it–”
“Especially when there’s past associations.”
“Past associations.” She resisted the urge to finger her throat, which prickled as if a moth’s wing was stuck in it somewhat of a sudden. “What do you mean?”
“I mean my employer once lived—not in the house itself—but on the estate, and is known to you.”
She swallowed the astonishment sitting cold as marble in her mouth. There was only one man she could think of who’d done that but of that one man, she didn’t want to think. Not when the blood drained from her face, the floor loomed so perilously close she struggled to stand in her black slippers and Orwell staggered to his feet.
“Dstny … I triled to tell you. But you … you … Anyway, you’re nlot seris … ”
“Unless the name Divers O’Roarke is unfamiliar to you, Miss Rhodes?” Gil Wryson’s voice was oiled velvet.
How did she say the name as if it was nothing to her, the name of the man who had cursed them, cursed her loudest of all?
Once he’d have died to possess her, now he just might…
Beautiful, headstrong young widow Destiny Rhodes was every Cornish man’s dream. Until Divers O’Roarke cursed her with ruin and walked out of Cornwall without a backwards glance. Now he’s not only back, he’s just won the only thing that hasn’t fallen down about her head—her ancestral home. The home, pride demands she throw herself in with, safe in the knowledge of one thing. Everything she touches withers to dust.
He’d cursed her with ruin.
Now she’d have him live with the spoils of her misfortune.
Though well versed in his dealings with smugglers and dead men, handsome rogue Divers O’Roarke is far from sure of his standing with Destiny Rhodes. He had no desire to win her, doesn’t want her in his house, but while he’s bent on the future, is there one when a passionate and deadly game of bluff ensues with the woman he once cursed? A game where no-one and nothing are what they seem. Him most of all.
And when everything she touches turns to dust, what will be his fate as passion erupts? Will laying past ghosts come at the highest price of all?
COMING SEPTEMBER 13th 2019 PRINT AND PAPERBACK FROM AMAZON