To Seduce a Stranger by Susanna Craig
After her much older husband dies—leaving her his fortune—Charlotte Blakemore finds herself at the mercy of her stepson, who vows to contest the will and destroy her life. With nowhere to turn and no one to help her, she embarks on an elaborate ruse—only to find herself stranded on the way to London. . .
More than twenty years in the West Indies have hardened Edward Cary, but not enough to abandon a helpless woman at a roadside inn—especially one as disarmingly beautiful as Charlotte. He takes her with him to the Gloucestershire estate he is determined to restore, though he is suspicious of every word that falls from her distractingly lush lips.
As far as Charlotte knows, Edward is nothing more than a steward, and there’s no reason to reveal his noble birth until he can right his father’s wrongs. Acting as husband and wife will keep people in the village from asking questions that neither Charlotte nor Edward are willing to answer. But the game they’re each determined to play has rules that beg to broken, when the passion between them threatens to uncover the truth—for better or worse. . .
Ravenswood Manor, Gloucestershire June 1775
For some time now, the parlor maid had been neglecting to sweep into the nook between the bow window and the high-backed sofa in her ladyship’s receiving room. The wide beam of afternoon sun- light was thick with dust motes that settled softly on the floor, dimming the luster of the damasked furniture and coating the hems of the rose velvet draperies.
The maid’s shortcomings suited the boy just fine. In the dusty, narrow crevice, he had built a world he did not wish to have disturbed. An entire battalion of soldiers stood perpetually at the ready, apparently unconcerned at their precarious field position; flanked on two sides by the wall and the sofa’s back, they could only advance or retreat, and as they were English soldiers, retreat was never an option.
On this day, however, they faced a new enemy.
Just yesterday, the boy had begged for a ship that he might expand into a navy, although he knew his father thought him too old for such playthings. Hardly had the request been out of his mouth before Father had erupted, insisting that no son of his would become . . . well, he wasn’t sure quite what his father had said, but it had begun with “arse,” a sure insult and one never to be spoken in front of a lady, which was probably why Mama had very nearly swooned when she heard it.
A heated exchange between his parents had surely followed, but the boy had been spared from it by being sent to his lessons. He ought to be there again now, but he had played truant instead and sneaked back to his favorite hideaway as soon as he could manage it. To thwart his father’s prohibition, he had pinched his mother’s sewing basket from the table as he passed, thinking it would make a fine pi- rate’s ship. Next, he set to work scraping the painted uniforms off three soldiers whose leaden expressions made them the most likely candidates for notorious men of fortune. With a flourish, he drew a wavy line in the dust on the floor to mark out the shore and positioned the ship with its broadside facing his unsuspecting troops.
As the pirate captain knelt to touch off his cannon, the boy heard his mother’s light footsteps, followed by a tread he could not immediately identify.
“So kind of you to drop in, Mrs. Henderson,” Mama said
Mrs. Henderson was the vicar’s wife, a heavyset woman with a prominent nose and hair the color of a mouse’s hide. But she always smelled of gingerbread and was kind to him and the other boys tutored by Mr. Henderson’s curate, Cummings
“Will you take tea?”
“It’s very kind of you, I’m sure, but I can’t stay, my lady. I only called to see if young Ravenswood was unwell. He wasn’t at his Latin lesson today, and Mr. Cummings seemed to think that he wasn’t quite himself yesterday.”
“Oh, that!” Mama laughed, a shade too brightly. “He was petulant because his father forbade him a new toy.” Her words made him bristle. “Boys will be boys, Mrs. Henderson. But I’ll see to it he does not miss another lesson.”
A long pause. “And you, my lady—are you quite well?” It seemed Mrs. Henderson was not content to let sleeping dogs lie.
“I? Why, yes, of course,” replied Mama.
The boy heard the click of the door latch, and before he could wonder who had dared to close a door that Father never allowed any- one to close but him, he heard Mrs. Henderson say, “My lady, I know it’s not my place. But that’s an ugly-looking bruise.”
When Mama had come in last evening to say goodnight, he had seen the bruise at her hairline near her temple, only partially hidden by her lace-edged cap. He could picture her slender hand rising now to shield her face from the other woman’s sight. “It’s nothing. I—I tripped and—”
“No need to make excuse, my lady. But perhaps a poultice—?”
“Oh, no, no.” She brushed the suggestion aside. She did not like anything that drew attention to her supposed clumsiness, he knew. Neither did his father.
He heard Mrs. Henderson’s footsteps cross the carpet quickly and when she spoke again, her voice was low.
“I know we mightn’t have much time to speak freely, my lady. Isn’t there anything a body can do to help you? Perhaps if Mr. Henderson spoke with his lordship?”
“Oh, God, no. Please, Mrs. Henderson. Say nothing more.”
“I will speak, my lady. I can’t do otherwise. It’s abroad in the village what’s become of your parlor maid.” His mother gave a hiccup of surprise. “You dared to speak on her behalf, I suppose.”
Someone stumbled to the sofa and sank down upon it—Mama, by the sound of it; the bulk of Mrs. Henderson soon followed. Their voices were quieter still, but now, only inches from his ear, he could not help but hear them. “I thought perhaps I could persuade him to let her stay on—in the village, of course, not here—at least until the child is born . . .”
“But he wants no evidence of his crime hereabouts?”
The sofa creaked as one of the women shifted. “What would you have me say, Mrs. Henderson? I cannot speak ill of my husband.”
“No, of course not.” Mrs. Henderson managed to sound at once wry and sympathetic. “Isn’t there somewhere you could go?”
“How could I leave my son?”
“Do you fear for his safety, then?”
Mama laughed again, but the sound was suddenly strange to him. “I fear for his life, Mrs. Henderson.” The boy crouched lower in his hiding spot, careful not to disturb the orderly ranks and files of soldiers at his feet.
“Dear God in Heaven! Do you mean—?”
“I mean that if left to his own devices, my husband will raise his son in his image. So now, while I can, I intervene. His mother’s influence may be the only stay against a violent nature.”
A violent nature? Did Mama believe he was fated to turn out like Father? People seemed to delight in telling him how he took after the man. In looks, certainly—he was big for his age, and dark where his mother was fair. Mr. Cummings insisted that must be where his quickness came from, too. Neither Latin nor algebra required much effort. But what if—the boy glanced down at the soldier still clutched in his hand—what if that is not all I have inherited?
“When he’s sent to school, however,” Mama continued, “I will leave. A visit to my sister’s—an extended holiday, we shall say.” He had never heard his mother use that tone of voice. It was something more than angry, more than stubborn.
“Oh, my lady.” Mrs. Henderson clucked her tongue. “But in the meantime . . . ?”
Mama rose to her feet and crossed to the door, opening it wide. The sudden gust of air through the room swirled the dust on the floor at his feet. A sneeze threatened, tickling deep in his nostrils, but he pinched the bridge of his nose to keep it at bay. “It was kind of you to call, Mrs. Henderson.”
The sofa protested once more as the vicar’s wife stood, and he heard her shuffle into a curtsy. “I am at your service, your ladyship.” They left, and the boy was alone again in the dusty silence. He rubbed his thumb back and forth over the figure he held, as if it were some sort of talisman. When the other boys had teased little Molly Keating about her freckles, Mr. Cummings had told him it was a gentle- man’s duty to protect a lady.
How he wished he were a pirate captain! What wouldn’t he do then to keep his mother safe? He would whisk her away across the seven seas, take her somewhere his father could not harm her again.
Alas, he had no ship, no cannon, not even a cutlass. He shoved angrily, impotently at the sewing basket, which plowed into the soldiers lining the shore, breaking their ranks. She could leave when he did, she had said. But he would not be going away to school for more than two years. Terrible things might happen in that time. If only it were in his power to leave now.
He studied the pirate’s painted face. Father was fond of saying that every Bristol merchant was a pirate at heart. And they had ships, the boy knew. He had seen them once when Mama had taken him to the harbor on an outing. If there were pirates so near as Bristol, he could run away and join them. He supposed Mama would worry about what had become of him. Mothers did worry, he knew. But she would forgive him if she were able to leave this place.
Away from his mother’s gentle guidance, he risked becoming more like his father. But what choice did he have?
His shoulders rounded under the weight of his decision, the boy began to pack up his soldiers. Perhaps his father had been right all along, for he suddenly felt far too old for such playthings. At the least, he would try very hard to be grown-up enough not to long for the day when he could come home.