For all my readers, here is the promised excerpt from "A Private Collection", which was re-released in one volume this week. In fact, I decided to give you a full chapter, introducing you to the three Blackwood brothers and their father's mysterious house. In this chapter, the brothers have come home to attend eccentric Randolph Blackwood's funeral and they are about to learn that his last will and testament is not quite what they expect.
Well, maybe they should have expected it!
Adam’s carriage, having raced at lethal speed through the
slowed abruptly and lurched down a narrow, winding drive. Sunlight dappled the
carriage interior, fluttering between the yew trees that were once trimmed into
fat cones, but now prickled with straggling branches and strayed rebelliously
out of their neat forms. Under the crunching wheels, the gravel also showed
neglect. Speckled with pert dandelions and angry thistles, it no longer led the
way with surety and grandeur, but seemed only to suggest their meandering
course as if it really mattered little whether anyone found their way or not. Through
the trees, he sighted fields of knee-high grasses that were once rolling lawns.
He’d heard that his father, in a peevish fit, had dismissed all the ground
staff except for his gamekeeper. An under-gardener, apparently, had
inadvertently cut down his favorite old tree, or some such nonsense, and he
took out his wrath on the entire staff. village of East Lofton
As the carriage trundled down the long lane, Adam looked out with hard, resentful eyes. He hadn’t been to The Grange in a little over five years and it was a surprise to find the house still standing. There it was, coming into view now around the bend, sooty chimneys spoiling the innocent swathe of cornflower blue sky. The walls were now almost completely coated with ivy, but mellow gold stone showed through in places, catching the sun’s rays, absorbing them so the house glowed like pirate’s treasure trapped in a sprawling green net of seaweed.
With the knowledgeable, discerning eye of an architect, he could appreciate the fine, noble lines of the building, even under all the decay, and he sadly recognized the years of abuse it had suffered through neglect and carelessness. Beautiful houses sometimes fell into the wrong hands, he thought glumly, just as people often did.
Adam slouched back against the leather padding of his rocking seat. After a two day journey from
he was stiff and
sore, his mood decidedly sour. His father’s sudden death had caused him to
leave behind the company of Miss Matilda Hawkesworth, an impeccable young lady
he’d finally, after careful consideration of all the pros and cons, selected to
be his bride. He knew her family disapproved the match, but fortunately Matilda
was headstrong and already, at just twenty-one, in control of the fortune left
to her by her father. With his engagement newly forged and on tentative ground,
he hated to leave London
and, with it, young Matilda under the daily haranguing of her aunt. He couldn’t
risk the marriage falling through. Therefore, the sooner he got this wretchedly
inconvenient funeral out of the way the better. And why the devil their
father’s solicitor insisted on meeting all the sons here at the house he
couldn’t imagine. Surely all the finances were straightforward. The house would
be sold, the contents auctioned off. There was nothing he wanted to keep in
memoriam of his childhood in that house, or of his father’s reprobate life. Turning
a new leaf himself, he’d sooner forget all that. London
At last the wheels rolled up before the uneven stone steps, narrowly missing a broken urn laid on its side, a bunch of dry, crumbling, brown flowers spilled across the gravel.
Not waiting for the step to be lowered, Adam swung open the carriage door and leapt down, a long, disheartened sigh oozing between his tight lips. On the inhale, he swallowed the musty dampness of old earth and rotting leaves. A familiar, thick scent here in this place, no matter what the season. Except in the deepest snow of winter, he thought, reconsidering, remembering the last time he was there, Christmas 1882. The air had been crisp and clear, the ground coated in a fluffy blanket of several inches. The snow was always prettiest in the country. He’d walked in it that Christmas Eve, coming home from the church, insisting his brothers went on ahead in the carriage without him. Of course, he’d had an ulterior motive to walk in the snow and freeze his toes off. He’d wanted to see Lina and try one last time. Fool. See what he did for her? And she was never grateful.
He swore softly under his breath. Don’t start thinking about her.
Better get inside the house and get it over with. There would be memories, of course. He was prepared. He could deal with them. Shoulders straightened, fists curled, he took the stone steps three at a time, his impatient stride quickly crossing the threshold, passing through the wide open door and into the cool, dark house.
Almost at once he heard the echo of voices. His brothers were already there and they’d started without him. As the youngest, he was always insignificant in their eyes. They were probably dividing the spoils between them, not that he wanted anything. It was the principle. Cursing, he blamed his lateness on the damned carriage getting lost and taking a round-about route through the village. He would have been here half an hour sooner, if not for that mistake.
Following the sound of voices, he hurried along the narrow passage with its damp-stained, flaking walls and chipped tiles. Memories crowded in of walking along this passage in trepidation, sent for by his father who, having caught him in some misbehavior, waited to give him a few stripes with the cane. He remembered, too, playing skittles there when rain kept him indoors, the rolling rattle of the ball, the clacking of the wooden skittles as they bounced against the floor and the walls.
At his father’s library door he paused. A woman laughed softly. It didn’t sound like his father’s housekeeper, Mrs. Murray. In fact, he’d never heard Mrs. Murray laugh. Thrusting open the door, he strode in, ready to confront whichever young trollop his father had lately taken up with. She needn’t expect to get anything out of the old man’s will, no matter what she did for him. It would be just like
to take up with
some filly at the eleventh hour and indulgently write her into his will. Randolph
The angry words died on his tongue. The library was empty.
The drapes were pulled back, the windows open. The black hearth stared out blindly, all the cinders swept away, the coal scuttle standing empty. His father’s chair was moved against the wall, the rug rolled up so the floor could be cleaned. The tart scent of vinegar still lingered. On the mantle, his father’s old skeleton clock kept time. The polished glass dome reflected Adam’s tall shadow as he passed walking to the window.
He wondered if the voices he heard had drifted in from outside, but there was no one in view, just a bird perched in the ivy watching him with a curious black eye.
Flimsy sunlight touched his face, but not enough to shake off the chill of the room. He heard the laugh again, as if she tried to stifle it. Was that violets he smelled? He closed his eyes. He had no choice. Her hands were around him, her cool fingers covering his sight as she played this foolish game. His first instinct was to turn and confront her, but he banked it when he felt her move closer and the fullness of her breasts brushed teasingly against the back of his jacket. There was a slither of silk, a soft rustle of lace. The damned woman was half-undressed, teasing him with her body, pressing against him while she kept her hands over his eyes. And it was a sumptuous body, all tantalizing curves and intriguing crevices.
“Guess who?” she whispered.
His throat was dry, his tongue too thick. Lina. He couldn’t say it, but he knew it was her. He’d just never known her playful like this.
“Oh, young Master Adam! You did make me jump, sir.”
He spun around on his heel and found the scarlet-faced housekeeper standing in the open doorway holding a bucket in one hand, mop in the other.
“I didn’t know you were in here, sir. I didn’t hear you come in. Gave me an awful shock.”
His own heartbeat was still strangely scattered. “The front door was open, Mrs. Murray, so I didn’t ring the bell.”
“Well, I was just finishing off the floor, if you don’t mind, sir.”
After a beat, he realized she was waiting for him to leave the room. “Ah yes. Of course. Are my brothers here yet?”
“Not yet, Master Adam, but we expect them shortly. If you go through to the morning room, you’ll find a fire in there, and I’ll put a pot of tea on as soon as I’m done here.”
Tea? He needed a damn brandy now. Exiting his father’s library, he grabbed the half-full decanter and a glass from the tray on the sideboard. Liquor was one thing the old man always had plenty of. The walls could fall around his ears, but the wine cellars and crystal decanters were always well stocked.
“Oh, young Master Adam,” the housekeeper exclaimed as he was leaving.
?” He propped one
shoulder against the doorframe. Murray
“My condolences, sir.”
“Hmm.” He turned up his lip and swung away, pacing back down the passage. Lifting the crystal stopper with his mouth, he poured the brandy as he went, too impatient to wait until he reached the morning room.
Lina. He could still feel her whispers as if they were caught in his ears. Like those old spiders webs clinging to the plaster acanthus scrolls above the front door. Her honeyed lips were all over him, leaving sticky marks in some very wicked places. Miss Matilda Hawkesworth would not like that at all. She would probably faint at the mere thought of venturing near those particular places. If she knew they even existed.
He’d expected memories, prepared himself for them, but this was not a memory. It was a fantasy, and it was enough to make him reach for the brandy after six months of sober living to impress Miss Hawkesworth and her family.
Guess who? Who else? Lina. No other woman had ever affected him the way she did. Sometimes he thought it was simply because she’d rejected him and he couldn’t bear it. No other woman since he turned sixteen had ever turned him down. If he wanted a woman, he had her, no messing about, no poetry, roses, declarations of love and all that nonsense. No, it was always quickly had, quickly forgotten, never regretted. But the fantasy of Evangeline was so strong even after five years he could taste her scent in the back of his throat. And he’d never even kissed the woman.
He found the morning room, nudged open the door with his elbow, and crossed the worn carpet to a saggy, faded, chintz armchair. As he settled into the old, battered cushions a cloying, fusty odor rose up to assault his nostrils. He wondered when anyone last sat in the chair. It was once, apparently, his mother’s favorite room. He wouldn’t know, of course, since she upped and left when he was little more than a baby. She did him a favor, he reasoned darkly. His mother taught him early on never to trust a woman. They were flighty, unreasonable witches. Old
was right about that. Randolph
Raising a glass to his departed parents, he ceremoniously tossed back the brandy. It scorched the back of his throat and made the bridge of his nose hurt. Miss Hawkesworth would definitely not approve, but what the eye didn’t see…
Besides, although he’d sworn to turn over a new leaf, it was very difficult to be on one’s best behavior at all times and he had, after all, just lost his father. Ought to make allowances. Grief and all that…and Miss Hawkesworth was safely out of the way in
He poured another brandy and watched the fiery colors dance in his glass.
Just like her eyes.
Not Miss Hawkesworth’s eyes, which were…he couldn’t think suddenly, couldn’t remember what color eyes she had. Green? Blue? Brown? No idea.
But these other eyes, the ones that gleamed like brandy through cut crystal, belonged to Lina.
Damn her. For the past five years he’d tried not to think about her and, away in
with his busy life,
he managed quite well. Now those dangerous hankerings returned, as did the
painful, humiliating smart from her stinging rebuke. The wound was still green. London
“For heaven’s sake, you’re just a boy. Go away and grow up. Find someone your own age to play with. It’ll be a cold day in hell, Adam Blackwood, before I let you into my bed.”
Did she still live nearby? With her husband? She couldn’t possibly love that great stupid oaf. The village doctor was not on her level in so many ways, yet Lina married him to be safe from men like Adam Blackwood. Five years ago he hadn’t understood why she would marry a man like that. Now he was older and wiser about many things. People married for countless reasons of convenience and duty, seldom for passion.
A lot had changed for Adam in the years between. He discovered, however, that his turbulent need for her remained the same. If anything, despite recent attempts to curb his more troubling appetites for Miss Hawkesworth’s dainty sake, thoughts of Evangeline and what it would be like to have her were far worse than before.
His brothers used to tease him saying it was a case of Adam wanting every woman he saw until he’d had her. But he knew this was different. She wasn’t like every other woman.
He morosely contemplated his glass, chin sunk to his chest. Lina. The first moment he saw her, he wanted her. It was a new discovery for a young man of twenty-three accustomed to getting things when he wanted them. Walking across the common, a tall woman with perfect symmetry and regal bearing, she reminded him of an angel on an Italian fresco. He always had an eye for a fine structure be it made of marble, stone, or flesh and blood, and Lina was pure art, a moving statue of the Madonna. Shimmering rays had caught on a brooch at her throat and reflected up over her sad face. She was unearthly beautiful. He’d never seen a woman so striking, apparently careless of it. She’d looked out of place, making everything around her seem bland and dreary in comparison.
And then Alf White threw the punch that felled him.
He didn’t put on the gloves anymore. Miss Hawkesworth wouldn’t approve. She’d ventured a few, delicate inquiries about his broken nose, but he never told her the truth of how he got it, never told her about the first time he saw Lina, or how she’d haunted him ever since.
He drank another glass of brandy, hoping to somehow erase thoughts of her. But sprawling in and out of the chair, he suddenly felt her presence again, kneeling between his legs, her fingers skillfully working over the fastenings of his trousers. He was shocked. What was she…?
It was another fantasy, of course. He’d had them before, but never quite so….real.
He spat out a low curse, fueled by a lethal combination of brandy and pent-up desire. Resistance seemed futile. No one was watching. Miss Hawkesworth was two days away in
, he reminded
himself. And Adam Blackwood was a stranger to guilt. It was one thing he had in
common with his father, not that he’d ever admit it. London
In any case, it was only a fantasy. No harm in that. So he moved his knees further apart, a slow-burning heat gathering in his loins. Oh, she was good, her hands incredibly soft and yet firm, knowing their way around. Now here came her mouth, hot silk tantalizing until he wanted to squeeze his legs together and thrust. But he couldn’t because she was there between them, her shoulders holding his thighs apart.
He reached one hand down for her hair and felt thick, heavy, satiny locks fall through his fingers and caress his thighs. He didn’t have to look down at her to know her hair was dark, almost raven. Not like the fair-headed Miss Hawkesworth. Not at all.
He groaned, pressing his head back as she took him fully into her mouth and the damp silk tightened around him, her tongue wrapping around his crest.
He held her head with both hands, fingers entwined in her hair.
This was wrong. He should stop this, stop her.
She didn’t want him, gave him his leave without the slightest tenderness. She was a heartless creature.
But he couldn’t forget her, couldn’t give up the fantasy.
“There you are! I see nothing changes, little brother. Still can’t find a willing female, eh?” His eldest brother stood before him, laughing uproariously at his own joke.
Adam sat up, hands going immediately back to the brandy decanter. “Harry, I was relaxing.” The sooner he got out of here and back to
and civilization the better. He looked down at his trembling hand. Was he
coming down with something? He’d only been inside this house twenty minutes and
look what happened. London
“Relaxing? You don’t look very relaxed, little brother.” Harry crossed over to the fireplace with an easy swagger, still chuckling. Mud splattered his riding boots and fresh, spring air clung to his clothes as he passed Adam’s moldy chair. “Where’s Luke?”
“How should I know? Probably buried his nose in a book somewhere and forgot the time.”
“Don’t swig all the brandy. I’d wager my horse it’s the first thing he’ll ask for.”
Adam threw his brother a bleak scowl. “We shouldn’t encourage his over-indulgence.”
“What about your over-indulgence, little brother?” Harry eyed the decanter.
“I know my limits.” He raised his glass. “This is my first in six months.”
Eyes rolling, Harry turned his back to the fire and warmed his seat.
“You rode all the way here on horseback, Harry?”
“No, I’m staying at the Carbury Hotel. Came down yesterday.”
A sparrow chirped through the window and Adam’s fingers tapped against his glass. The brothers hadn’t seen one another in a few years and should have had a great many other subjects to discuss, but as usual they floundered in a mire of trivia.
Riding crop idly tapping his boots, Harry ventured, “Pleasant weather.”
“Yes.” Not that they could feel it in this house, which seemed to have its own climate.
all right?” London
Adam splayed his fingers around the rim of the glass. “All well and good until we got to the crossroads. Blasted coachman decided to take a ‘shortcut’ through
East Lofton. Set us back a good half hour.”
Harry chuckled wryly. “Didn’t go and make a pest of yourself with that doctor’s wife again, did you? Isn’t that where she lived, the one you were besotted with?”
“I wouldn’t know. I don’t remember.”
“I do. You cost me plenty when you took a fall in that fight, too busy looking at her to defend yourself. I’d never seen a man go down so straight and hard, like a damned tree.” Harry strolled back and forth before the fire, hands rubbing his seat. “Well, just make sure you don’t get any ideas in your head about her again, little brother. I heard her husband came here to complain to father about you. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s loading a shotgun right now, if he knows you’re back.”
“For your information I’m getting married soon.” Adam pushed himself a little more upright in the sagging chair. “Unlike you, I stick to one woman at a time.”
Harry laughed genially. “Always seemed like a terrible waste to me. A man is only young once.”
“Still spending time with those twins, Harry?” Adam couldn’t recall their name, didn’t really matter.
Not even to Harry. “Good Lord no. Kept calling ‘em by the wrong name in bed and they upped and left. Took offense, it seems.”
“One might imagine they were accustomed to the confusion, being twins.”
“Yes,” Harry gave a rueful grin, one hand scratching his dark curls, “but I called them by other girls’ names, not theirs. Never mind. More trouble than they were worth. Think I might give the two-legged fillies up for a while. Take a bit of a holiday.”
Dubious about that, Adam smirked at the toes of his boots. “How’s the cotton mill, Harry? Business doing well?”
“Well enough. Always room for improvement though. You should come up and visit.”
“Hmmm.” He sank his lips into the brandy, thoughts of a gloomy, northern, industrial town giving him further chills. Adam preferred the mellow country of the south. It surprised him that his eldest brother should take fondly to the north with its soot belching chimneys, low grey skies, and craggy, unwelcoming land.
“I hear you’ve done well for yourself, Adam. Aren’t they calling you the boy wonder since that last place you designed in
What was it, a museum or art gallery or something?” London
“I’m not a boy,” he murmured darkly, glowering at the carpet.
“It’s just a figure of speech.”
A figure of speech he didn’t care for.
Harry knew him well enough to change the subject. “Saw your coach horses in the stables, Adam. Handsome beasts. Must have set you back a pretty packet.” Women and horses were on an equal plain in Harry’s mind, just as appreciated and just as collectable.
A sudden ruckus in the hall announced the arrival of their brother. When they heard him curse wildly, falling over something and crashing heavily into the wainscoting, they knew it couldn’t be anyone but Luke. A few moments later he barged into the quiet morning room, rubbing his shoulder and limping.
“So the old bugger’s finally gone, eh? I thought this was just another trick of his.” He rubbed his tousled sandy curls and staggered for the brandy decanter. “I need a drink. And then we can get this over with.”
Copyright Jayne Fresina 2015