As a voracious reader and lover of family sagas myself, I wanted to write a series that would take readers on the kind of journey I've always enjoyed -- one that winds around a cast of quirky characters with faults and fallibilities, who sometimes make you shake your head, sometimes cause a little smoke from the ears, even occasionally a groan of despair. But then they make you laugh a lot, and ultimately they are forgiven and loved because you're on their side and you can't help yourself. Sort of like any real family.
In any case, that's my plan. ;)
Olivia Monday, an impoverished widow, has taken a position as "secretary" to an eccentric, scandalous rake - a divorced man with a brood of eight children and at least two gun-shot wounds. For six months, against the advice of her remaining family members, she agrees to live in his remote Cornish castle and put pen to paper on his behalf.
Despite everything she's heard about him, she's unafraid. Olivia welcomes the distraction this unusual post will provide— as well as the large fee— because the alternative of relying on relatives to put a roof over her head is intolerable.
True Deverell has decided it's time to set the record straight. He means to dictate his memoirs to this little widow who, according to the instructions he sent to his solicitor, should merely be plain and have a neat hand. Those are his only requirements. He doesn't want any distractions, has endured his fill of scandal and intends now to leave the "True Story" on paper so that perhaps, one day, people will forgive his mistakes.
But when Mrs. Olivia Monday arrives on his doorstep in her leaky boots and crumpled bonnet, True realizes that perhaps his story isn't over yet.
The young man stared in surprise, one hand on the door handle. He bore some resemblance to his father, but his face was softer, more spoiled, as yet unmarked by life and experience."Sir!" he exclaimed, "There's a stray, odd-looking female skulking about in the hall."
She hastily gathered her wits. "I was not skulking." Scrambling for an explanation, she added, "I was looking for...anybody." Since there had been no other sign of life when she came downstairs, Olivia went searching and followed the sound of raised male voices to this door.
Her new employer suddenly appeared beside the younger man, leaping into view— with considerable vitality for that hour of the morning. His eyes raked over her and then flared brightly, as if they were matches and she a piece of flint. "Ah, Mrs. Monday. Finally you rise. May I introduce my son. Damon, this is Mrs. Olivia Monday, a parson's widow from Chiswick, and my new secretary."
The young man scowled. "What on earth do you want with a female secretary?" His tone oozed suspicion as he looked Olivia up and down again.
"I'm dictating my memoirs, dear boy."
"What else would I want her for? Look at that pinched face, ready to disapprove. Hardly ornamental, is she? Not to be confused with a chorus girl from the Drury Lane Theatre."
"Your memoirs," his son repeated yet again.
"Quite so. I am writing my life story so that when I am dead I shall leave behind me the True gospel, by which you may lead your life. After all, when I am swept up by the Grim Reaper, who will there be left to guide you with wisdom? Even I —fine male specimen that I am—cannot live forever."
Damon gave his father another skeptical glance and then swept by Olivia with a low grunt, "Something to look forward to then."
The boy strode away down the hall with no further word to his father, who now left the door open, suggesting he expected her to enter. If she waited for a polite invitation, Olivia supposed her limbs might grow cobwebs, so she followed him into the room.
"I feel your gaze burning holes in my back," he muttered. "Your faun-like eyes hold a particularly intense quality, Mrs. Monday. You have questions to ask?"
"No, sir. None." She would watch her tongue today. However he behaved this morning, she would not comment on it. Who did she think she was— Great Aunt Jane? It was none of her business what he did or said or thought. As long as he paid her.
He swung around and propped the seat of his riding breeches against the front of his desk, arms and ankles crossed. "Your lips, madam, are so tightly stitched together, I fear they have something to withhold, but I would rather you keep nothing inside. A woman's thoughts, when not allowed air, are like thorns buried in the skin. They become infected if they are not plucked out the moment they stick there. So we shall be honest and straightforward with each other, Mrs. Monday, if you please."
"Shall we?" Ha! After the way he deceived her last night? She held her tongue, but only just.
"You will never get anything from me but the truth, however unpalatable. But then, I am a man. I don't have the deceitful tendencies common in the female sex."
She remained silent, knowing full well he wanted to prod her into an argument again. He reminded her of one of those very large dogs with too much energy— the sort that left muddy paw prints on a lady's gown and occasionally knocked her down with his cheeky enthusiasm. A dog whose undisciplined behavior was usually dismissed airily by its owner as "high spirits".
"What did you think of my son, Mrs. Monday? Too handsome for his own good, eh?"
Her answer was a tight, "Yes." For anyone's good, she suspected.
"You saw the family resemblance. People do say he takes after me the most of all my cubs."
"I'm afraid so." Oh, dear, she couldn't stop herself. Under no circumstances should she let this friction between their personalities become one of those sparks he'd warned her about, but there she was again, being scornful, when a simple "Yes" would have been sufficient.
"We have not impressed the parson's widow with our Deverell charm, I see. You disapprove of us."
Olivia's fingers began to hurt in their tense knot.
"Hmph. I suppose I should be glad of that," he added. "Wouldn't want you trying to seduce me, panting after me with your tongue hanging out."
"I didn't think that was one of the requirements of my position here." Why the devil couldn't she stay silent?
He laughed lazily. "So what do you think of me? Go on, Mrs. Monday, describe me— as I seem through your large eyes —in three words."
"I'd rather not." She'd said enough already, more than she'd meant to.
"Can't you think of any?" he challenged. "Don't disappoint me today by suddenly being shy with your opinions."
Olivia struggled for a moment, searching for words that were honest but wouldn't get her into trouble. "Large...loud... lively."
"Restless." The word that came to mind was 'potent', but that could mean too many other things and he would define it in some way to embarrass her, no doubt.
"Why was your plain little face so shocked just now?" he demanded. "No doubt you think my son disrespectful and you wonder why I would allow it."
Had her expression been so obvious? "If you knew that, why ask me?"
He walked around his desk to his chair. "Damon is sixteen. I don't waste my breath on correcting the inevitable." Pausing a moment, he gave her an odd look for which she had no apt description. Then he added, "Of course, you're not long out of that age yourself."
She almost laughed. "I am eight and twenty, Mr. Deverell."
"Really? I would never have guessed. I suppose it's because you're so small and nondescript."
"And I certainly never spoke in such a tone to my father, at any age."
He stared at her for a moment, then cleared his throat and ran fingers through his hair. "So I am a bad parent." She caught a slight smirk play over his lips as he dropped into his chair and swung his booted feet up on the desk. "I thought I'd get that particular criticism out of those terse lips eventually."
Olivia hastily replied, "I know nothing of being a parent. I am here only to write for you."
She'd never seen a man sit with his boots up on a desk before.
Such a pose was something one might expect from a naughty child but not a grown man. When he used his riding crop to scratch down inside one boot, Olivia didn't know where to look. The casual impropriety of the gesture seemed quite unconscious on his part, as if no one had ever troubled him with what was, or was not, the "done thing".
"I've seen you before somewhere, woman," he muttered suddenly.
"Where on earth would I have seen you? I don't usually forget a face."
"Well, it was a long time ago. And to be frank, I don't believe you saw my face. I didn't see yours either."
At once his gaze re-established that playful twinkle. "Now, I am intrigued. What parts of me did you see?"
She felt the urge to laugh, but held it strictly down. "Mostly your big feet. When I was eighteen, I often assisted at my father's office. You tripped over me there one day when you had an appointment with Mr. Chalke."
"You trampled some important papers, stepped over me, and never apologized."
"Ah. How much do you want?" He reached into his desk as if to hand over some bank notes or gold sovereigns there and then.
"What can you mean, sir?"
"I know how women hold bloody grudges. I suppose you've let that fester away for years and now you came here to make me pay. So how much does a lady charge for the inconvenience of being stepped over?"
She couldn't tell whether he was serious, or merely teasing her again.
"I don't do well with apologies," he added. "So I'd take the money, if I was you."
"Sir, I had entirely forgotten the incident until now."
Just after three o'clock in the afternoon, Tuesday, March 12th, in the year 1832.
He wore a long, midnight blue coat, beautifully made; buff colored gloves, grimy at the finger tips; and top boots of very rich looking leather. He had smelled of tobacco, brandy and spice. Of adventure, and daring, and everything forbidden. For those few moments her heart, like an over-wound pocket watch, had stopped...
Olivia bit her lip, turned away and stared out of the nearest window. A pointless exercise since there was nothing to see but that colorless cloud of fog. And, of course, his reflection. She was unable to escape the man. Again, Olivia thought of last night in the kitchen, when he let her mistake him for the handyman Jameson, and she had been struck by the overwhelming strength of his presence. Like the first time they collided with each other, she felt a connection, which was quite ridiculous in light of who he was.
She wished it had been possible to forget their first encounter, but now fate had brought them together a second time. It was a jolly good thing Great Aunt Jane was no longer alive.
"You are a girl with a dark and devious imagination, Olivia Westcott. I cannot think what will become of you."
"I shall marry Mr. True Deverell, shan't I? People say he's not fit for polite society either..."
"I see something through my window amuses you, Mrs. Monday."
She straightened her lips. "Your son returns to school today, sir?" she asked, changing the subject.
"Yes." He sighed gustily. "The brat could do very well there if he only applied himself more to his studies. But he thinks he can do without school. Arrogant chit."
"He seems very...confident. I'm sure you and your wife are proud."
Behind her, Deverell exhaled a taut huff. "He's not one of my wife's litter. Damon is the younger of my two sons by a mistress, Emma Gibson. When she died I brought both boys to live with me."
"Oh." Only a man with Deverell's excessive wealth and audacity would launch his illegitimate children into the world without even trying to mask the truth, without shame or apology for not marrying their mother.
She turned away from the window and faced him boldly. "It is a curious name— Damon. I do not think I ever heard it before."
"Greek. Loyal friend to Pythias, for whom he was ready to sacrifice himself."
"You are a student of Greek mythology, Mr. Deverell?"
He smiled at her, head tipped back against the leather chair. "I am a student of life, Mrs. Monday."
"Stories. I love people's stories. Don't you?"
His smile was pleasantly crooked. Olivia could see how some might find it alluring. Even infectious. "I never really considered—"
"For instance, yours, Mrs. Monday." His eyes simmered, like cool winter sunlight on ripples of icy water. "I would wager it's most interesting."
"A young, sensible woman like you, abandoning respectability to put yourself under my roof. What could have driven you here to me? What secrets lurk behind those big, round eyes of yours?"
"Oh, my story is very dull." She touched the back of her neck where a small curl of hair had begun to tickle. Her skin seemed more awake than usual, feeling and reacting to every tiny draft, any little contact.
"Well, let's see...Olivia," he muttered thoughtfully. "I like unusual names. I made sure to give all my children names that were uncommon, unexpected." He paused. "The name Olivia was first coined by Shakespeare, you know. Your parents must have enjoyed the playwright's work."
She walked away from the window and stood before Deverell's desk, trying not to see his boots and long, firm thighs stretched out. He smelled of leather, hay, sea water and wet sand. Had he been out riding already? She waited for him to invite her to sit, but no such offer was forthcoming. He continued to stare at her in a quietly amused way, now tapping the riding crop on the outside of his boot.
Before he could ask her another question, she said brightly, "Damon is your youngest child?"
"No. Rush is fourteen and the last of Lady Charlotte's litter." To her relief, he finally swung his feet down to the carpet where they should be. "There is also Bryn, my adopted son who also just turned fourteen. They are both at school together in Exeter. I thought it best not to send all my boys to the same schools, but those two are inseparable. You will meet them in the term holidays." He paused. "Should you stay, of course."
Olivia refused to reassure him, yet again, that she honored her commitments. Instead she said, "And there is only one daughter?"
"Yes." He looked away, staring at the bookcase. "Bloody women."
She took a breath and plowed bravely forward. "Shall we get started, Mr. Deverell? My term of employment has begun already, and we haven't written a word."
His gaze snapped back to her. "We can't begin work until we know each other, Mrs. Monday."
"Know each other?"
"We need to...sniff one another out."
She did not. Like. The sound. Of that.
"Would you agree to embark on a long, intimate journey with someone about whom you knew nothing?" he added, making his face solemn in an utterly unconvincing way.
"I'm not sure what sort of intimate journey you—"
"The journey of my life story, Mrs. Monday. I will be confessing all my deepest, darkest sins to you, commending my secrets to your hands. But how do I know I can trust you, since you keep hiding your fingers from me?"
She gasped. "I do not."
He pointed with the riding crop to where she kept her hands tightly clasped in a knot before her. "Show me."
Olivia slowly unwound her fingers and slyly wiped her palms on her skirt before she turned them for his examination. He leaned forward, his gaze sternly perusing her hands.
"I am adept at the art of palmistry, you know," he warned.
"I do not believe in that nonsense."
"Then you needn't be worried. Keep your hands still, woman, and let me study the lines."
"They are still."
"You're waving them about all over the place." He used this as an excuse to grab her left hand, and Olivia felt her pulse quicken. His grip was very strong, crushing her fingers.
She tried— she really tried. But it was no good. Unable to bear his scrutiny, she pulled her fingers away from his grip and put both hands behind her back.
"Mrs. Monday, you are being truculent again."
"I am not, sir," she exclaimed breathlessly. "I gave you long enough to study them. They are quite innocent and capable."
"Hmm. The former, I have yet to ascertain. The latter I will agree with, although what exactly they are capable of remains to be seen." He grinned in that lopsided way. "I confess I can't wait to discover it for myself."
He was testing her, she sensed. Trying his boundaries.
"You had better behave, sir, or you just might find out."
She knew she should never have said it, but there it was. He drew out the worst in her, it seemed.
Rather than be put off by this remark, his eyes gleamed polished silver. "Shall I be spanked and sent to a corner?"
"If that's necessary, sir."
"You'd have to catch me first. I'm very fast."
Olivia arched an eyebrow. Perhaps, despite his love of tales, he'd never heard the fable of the tortoise and the hare.
"But only when I don't want to be caught," he added slyly.
"I'll bear that in mind then, sir."
He fell back into his chair, making it creak loudly. "Shakespeare's Olivia, if I recall correctly, declares herself in mourning for seven years— until she falls stupidly in love with Cesario, simply because he has a habit of saying exactly what he thinks, not coating his words with honey for the lady."
"But it turns out that Cesario is a woman living in disguise as a man. So there is a lesson for you, Mrs. Monday."
"Never to fall in love with a woman dressed as a man?"
He laughed. "Or...first impressions can be misleading. People are not always what they appear to be, or... what they want you to believe."
Olivia suddenly felt as if he had somehow stripped her naked with the sharp edge of his steel-grey gaze.
It was, by no means, as unpleasant a sensation as it should be, but every pore on her body felt the wicked caress of that blade, whispering over the surface of her skin.
Copyright Jayne Fresina 2015