Bound By Blood
The night was rent asunder with a cacophony of splintering wood, crunching metal, and terrified screams. Glass rained through the air like a thousand glittering daggers and the wail of dying horses mingled with all too human shrieks.
That was the only word she could detect among the noise from her helpless position. She saw every detail as clear as day, as though from every angle at once.
“William! Help me!”
She twisted and struggled but felt herself held back from the scene of the ruined carriage by shadowy, unseen hands. Blood filled the air, filled her mouth to stifle her screams as she wrenched herself in place in an effort to run to the aid of the poor souls who were dying before her eyes.
Another sound from over her shoulder. She twisted herself to peer in that direction and saw, as she shook her head in mute agony, another carriage flying end over end before exploding into a twisted wreck of blood and black iron. It caught fire as a lamp met dry wood, and like a matchstick, the wreckage turned into a vibrant orange inferno.
Another collision, this time from the other direction. Then another she could not see, and another. The screams grew louder and bled into an inhuman chorus of pain. She could not shut her ears, could not cover her eyes, or run away. When she opened her mouth to scream, she felt the insubstantial penumbral bonds leap into her throat and choke her.
With a pained cry that issued from the deepest part of herself, Diana threw herself forward. As ever, the vigour of her awakening was overmatched by the serenity of her surroundings. She fought to draw in one shuddering breath after another, and her nightly visitation receded once more into nothing more or less than the usual pall of dread that never lifted from her.
Diana blinked, looking around and trying to put together a coherent picture of where she was. The painting of Grandfather, she thought with a chill, her eyes roving over unfamiliar furnishings. It’s gone! And where’s my lamp, the one Father brought me from …?
All at once, her faculties returned to her. Diana sighed deeply, more despondent than relieved. Uncle James’ house. Of course. The same as yesterday, and the day before.
“Stupid girl,” she muttered, unclenching her fingers from the bedclothes. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and gingerly set her bare white feet on the elegant if threadbare rug. She rubbed her eyes, breathing in the stale air of the small bedroom that had been her home for these last three weeks.
Diana’s eyes fluttered back open. They flitted from one hateful detail of the room to the next—from drab, dusty curtains to an insultingly childish music box to the shabby armoire where the few clothes she was allowed were kept. Her eyes narrowed, infuriated at how … normal it was all becoming to her. She knew there was nothing really wrong with any of it. Not really, anyway. It would have been a perfectly nice room for a perfectly nice young woman.
But it wasn’t supposed to be Diana’s. She was supposed to be at her home, and her parents were supposed to be alive.
Sometimes I wonder if it would not be better to remain in a dream for the rest of my days rather than wake and face the terrors of this wretched world of ours, thought Diana with what was quickly becoming a familiar sense of misery. She shook at the thought; her mind shot through with vivid memories of the carriage wreck that came upon her each night. Come to think of it, perhaps waking is a kindness, compared to having to see that every time I close my eyes …
A sudden, jarring sound echoed through the chamber, once again setting Diana’s heart racing. She shrank from the sound, the primitive part of her brain sending electric fear through her limbs. It took her an eternity that lasted all of a second to realise there was someone gently knocking on the door.
“W–what do you …that is, ah, yes, come in!” Diana called, words slipping from her as though she were trying to take hold of the very air.
For God’s sake, Diana, pull yourself together! she thought, putting a hand to her chest as though willing her heart to slow its flight.
The door slid open quietly, revealing a ruby-red nose and a kindly smile. “Good morning, Missus Fessler,” said Diana in as calm a voice as she could muster.
The matronly old woman answered this greeting with a curt nod and a muttered tut-tut-tut. As ever, Missus Fessler hardly slowed her awkward shuffling stride from the moment she walked into the room, throwing open the curtains and picking linens from the floor even as she sang her melancholy song.
“More nightmares, I expect, Miss Diana, what a pity. I told Sir James that he must have a word with Mister Davenport about a sleeping draught or the like, you know, but he must not have had the time. And I know for a fact that George downstairs, in the kitchen—you know George, you must, with the port-wine stain on his neck? He has a bottle of something that he always shares with me whenever I catch a sniffle, and I’m sure it would do wonders for helping you sleep. But then, I suppose you don’t have much call to talk to young George, do you? Ah, more’s the pity.”
Despite the rock-hard lump of sorrow that stayed in its cold nest in Diana’s breast, she could not help smiling at the old housekeeper’s prattle. The woman’s capacity to talk truly seemed to be endless, but Diana still felt grateful for the crumbs of sympathy Missus Fessler never failed to scatter in her presence.
With a start, Missus Fessler stopped before Diana and looked at her as though for the first time, consternation on her face. “Well, just look at us, chatting the whole morning away like a couple of empty-headed hens! And with you having slept half the morning away! Don’t mistake me; it’s good to see you sleeping soundly, or at least late. But not today of all days, when you’re expected in Sir James’ study in a quarter of an hour!”
Diana grimaced. Ever since he had been named as her guardian, Uncle James always seemed to have some expectations or other for where she was to go and what she needed to do. “I thought I would break my fast here in my room for a change. Surely Uncle James can survive a meal without me,” she said glumly. A twinge of pain shot through her shoulder, and Diana reached back to rub it—her nightmares tended to leave her sore from hours of thrashing about and clenching her muscles, she found.
Missus Fessler gave her a wry expression. “I can’t say as I blame you, Miss Diana. Not sure I could stomach my own breakfast in Sir James’ company, not that you heard me tell you any such thing.” Diana giggled at this quip. “Only you and your digestion will have to wait until tomorrow for that. Your uncle has someone for you to meet.”
“What’s that?” Diana asked, trying to keep the dread out of her voice. “Uncle James didn’t mention any such meeting to me.”
There was a flash of pity in Missus Fessler’s eyes. She sighed, her stout body deflating. “Of course he didn’t,” she grumbled, turning to withdraw clothing from Diana’s armoire. “No need to say anything to Miss Diana, sir, of course not. It’s not as though she might have any opinion on how or when she might want to be introduced to Mister Dunn … or whether at all she even—”
“Dunn?” Diana’s mind raced for a moment before she put her finger on it. “You mean that Gerard Dunn I keep hearing Uncle James mention? The second son of a family in the … shipping business, was it?”
“Third son, I believe. Not that they tell me such things, of course. Er … begging your pardon, Miss.”
Diana swallowed, and the anxious pit in her chest descended to twist and churn in her stomach. Gerard Dunn … are you really in such a hurry to get rid of me, Uncle James?
Seeing the expectant look on Missus Fessler’s face and not wishing to get the kindly old woman in trouble with her employer, Diana gamely rose to her feet and let her body be carried through the motions of dressing and arranging her hair. All the while, though, as the housekeeper kindly if hurriedly assisted her with these tasks, Diana’s mind drifted back to the first moment she had set foot in the house that had become a prison to her.
It had all seemed like a mistake, then, like a dream or an amateur play, or some silly error that would be corrected before long, as soon as the responsible parties made their appearance and sorted things out with a chuckle. None of it had seemed real. Even as she was greeted by the man she was told by kind Mister Arnold would be her guardian, Uncle James—a man she knew only faintly from half-remembered family dinners and holidays—Diana had taken it all with a good-natured shake of her head and a weary smile.
It wasn’t until Diana had laid down in the bed in James Leeson’s guest room that she realised for good and all that this was a dream there would be no waking from. And that first long, sleepless night, Diana had been unable to rid her mind’s eye of the cold, cruel, mirthless smile on Uncle James’ face. His voice echoed in her ears, stealing the air from her breath as she realised this man was to be in charge of her, was to hold all of her affairs in his bony grey hand. This stranger, this miser—this man was to be her future.
I still can scarcely believe he and Mother share blood; they are so dissimilar. Diana stifled a sob at the thought of her beloved mother, who had always been so steadfastly kind, patient, supportive … everything a mother should be, she thought. And somehow she was sister to Uncle James, a man Diana learned anew every day was a crueller man than any she had ever had the misfortune of encountering. Yet indeed, such was her misfortune that in the absence of any other living relation, James Leeson was entrusted with her destiny. Diana was bound to him by blood as well as by law; he was her guardian.
When that thought truly sank into the firmament of Diana’s mind that night … that was when she began to cry.
She did not stop for three days or more. Neither did she eat nor drink. Trays of food were delivered and sent back or left to moulder on the table. There were times when Diana had prayed that she might pass away into whatever afterlife had claimed her beloved parents rather than spend another second in the same house as her wretched, grasping uncle. Eventually, that wish passed away into the numb, half-drowned misery that lingered over her still, and she allowed herself to go through the motions of life.
But even still, weeks later, when Diana remembered that this seemingly heartless man was her guardian, she felt her stomach turn.
“There you are, pretty as a picture!”
Diana blinked, suddenly pulled back into the moment. Reflected in front of her she saw Missus Fessler with a proud smile on her face, arms akimbo as she admired her work.
Still half-lost in her reverie, for an instant, the young woman Diana saw in the mirror before her looked strange and unfamiliar to her. The girl was indeed somewhat pretty, with a tangled mass of strawberry-blonde hair atop her heart-shaped face and icy blue eyes that looked as though they could cut glass. Her cheekbones were high and angular, and her skin as fair as milk.
Then Diana drew a breath, and she recognized a thousand changes to her appearance, as tiny as they were saddening. Her lips, at first looking rosy and flushed with health, now revealed little bloody marks from where she had worried at them with her teeth. The dark circles under her eyes that had been the cause of so much woe during her years of teenage vanity—they had widened now and darkened to the point that she looked as much a corpse as a girl of two-and-twenty. This effect was made all the more ghastly by how thin she had clearly grown over the past weeks.
“More a statue on a mausoleum than a picture …” Diana allowed herself to grumble, turning away from the mirror and towards the door, where Missus Fessler was already tapping her foot impatiently.
The housekeeper moved to scuttle in front of her, but Diana stopped her with a gently outstretched hand. “Thank you, Missus Fessler, but I know the way by now.” Missus Fessler opened her mouth, probably with some jape or another ready to fire, but contented herself with a half-hearted bow of her head instead as Diana strode away purposefully.
Uncle James’ house was not as large as the one where Diana had lived all her two-and-twenty years of life, though it was still a grand estate that belonged to one of London’s wealthier families. On top of that, it was a confusingly designed edifice; that was beyond dispute. There seemed to be no end of strange dead-ended corridors and identical studies and libraries and such. On the single occurrence when she was allowed a walk in the gardens, Diana had examined the house from the outside but found herself more puzzled than ever about its geography.
The first time Diana had left her little bedroom here in search of something to eat, she had become terribly lost in the winding staircases and ended up in a wide, airy bedroom that seemed to have been sitting vacant for some time. Stricken with curiosity for the first time since arriving, Diana found herself looking around in the room, inspecting the books on the nightstand and breathing in the strangely appealing musky smell that lingered on the curtains. Until, of course, Uncle James had appeared in the doorway and furiously ordered her back to her bedroom.
Diana had not dared to go exploring in the Leeson house since then.
Since that day, however, Missus Fessler had shown her the way to the only rooms that seemed to be allowed to her: her bedroom, Uncle James’ study, the ladies’ parlour. Strangely, Diana found herself with little desire to roam; once she would have ached to spend time poring over the extensive library or playing the dusty old piano in the sitting room. No longer. She hardly even saw anyone but Missus Fessler and Uncle James these days, having turned away visitors like her parents’ friends, the Arnolds, in fits of grief. Now she would give anything to see a friendly face again.
I cannot decide which would be worse, thought Diana as she climbed the stairs up to the third storey, clenching her teeth. Being confined to this awful house for the rest of my days or being sold off like a brood mare to the highest bidder as Uncle James seems to wish so badly.
The thought congealed into something foul in Diana’s throat. Uncle James had said little to her that terrible evening when she first arrived, and she had understood even less of it at the time, so deep had she been in shock. It was only deep in the night when she had teased out the implications of all he said he intended for her and her house, her mother and father still barely cold beneath their shrouds.
That very night he had announced his intention to sell his dear sister’s house, to dismiss all the Hann family staff—the loving souls who cared for Diana as if she were their own child. Most perplexing of all was his plan to find a suitable husband for Diana. This was a song he would sing often, it turned out; virtually every time Diana was compelled to share a meal or other excursion with her uncle, he talked of this bachelor or that whom he thought would be likely to take Diana to wife for a sufficiently cheap dowry.
Always money with him, Diana thought, trying not to grind her teeth down into powder. Never a question as to what I might need or want. Only concerns about how much more quickly and easily he can get his hands on Father’s fortune.
For herself, Diana had never given much of a thought to money. She was dimly aware that she and her family were reasonably well-off, with a full staff and a large house in a fashionable part of London and sufficient cash that she rarely, if ever, had to do without. Now, though, she was consumed by the thought that Uncle James was squandering her family’s fortune on himself, secreting it away so he could line his own pockets. Each time she asked after her financial matters, he grumbled something derogatory about women’s spending habits and waved her away. It was only after a particularly heated shouting match that she had even got him to tell her—
“Ah, there you are.”
Diana drew in a breath to steel herself. She had been hoping the door to Uncle James’ study might be closed, as it usually was; this would give her a moment to catch her breath and ready herself before subjecting herself to whatever scheme he had lying in wait for her. Instead, Diana saw two pairs of eyes gazing out at her from the ornately furnished room.
Eyes in the Shadows
James Leeson was not an unhandsome man. Despite the resentment she bore him day and night, Diana could not deny that he was always seen in the most stylish garments, and he obviously took a great deal of care in styling his grey hair and bushy moustache. This morning he appeared to have dressed himself to look even more impressive than usual, with a well-cut black suit and a diamond winking from his third finger.
Even so, it was plain to Diana that he was a man who was thoroughly uncomfortable with everyone and everything in his presence, starting with himself and his own station in the world. And though she now saw Uncle James in his preferred habitat, standing amid all his finest worldly possessions in his beloved study, she could scarcely notice anything at all apart from the ravenous hunger that suffused every part of the man.
Deciding she would tweak the man’s nose with a bit of sweetness, Diana smiled at him from the doorway, curtsying gracefully. “Good morning, Uncle. Did you have a pleasant night’s sleep?” From the sour expression on Uncle James’ face at these words, Diana could see that her feigned politeness had not fooled him. She could not help herself from feeling some grim pleasure at that.
“Diana Hann,” said James, gesturing to one side without acknowledging her question. “I’d like to introduce you to Mister Gerard Dunn.” Diana had the misfortune of catching sight of the suggestive lift of her uncle’s eyebrows at these words, and she felt her gorge rise for an instant until she turned to face the quiet young man.
Despite herself, Diana’s first instinct was to note that the man was hardly the monster she had pictured over these last weeks of hearing his name. Gerard had sandy blond hair neatly brushed to one side of his wide, lantern-jawed face. His clothes were clearly expensive, though they seemed ill-fitting on his lanky frame somehow, as though the stiff black jacket and deep red cravat had once belonged to a smaller man. Gerard’s dull brown eyes only darted up at her briefly before returning to look awkwardly at the floor.
What’s the matter with this man? He seems to want to be here little more than I do. What could he be so afraid of?
“M–miss Hann,” said Gerard, bowing stiffly. He reached out a hand, and for a moment, Diana feared he meant to kiss it, but he quickly returned his hands to nervously clutch in front of him. “It’s, ah … it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Their eyes met, and his crooked teeth showed in a warm, open smile.
What a perfectly … adequate man. I suppose this could have turned out much worse, Diana thought, finding herself returning his smile with a polite, thin-lipped one of her own. Then a flash of anger shot through her at this idea. It would have been easier if he had been a monster. Especially as I have no intention of marrying him.
Saying nothing, Diana turned back to face her uncle, feeling Gerard shift his weight awkwardly at her side. Uncle James gave her a meaningful look, jerking his head briefly in the direction of Gerard. A tempest of anger was raging behind his staid façade, Diana saw. The last time she had defied him in front of others, he had been furious with her. Sighing softly, she faced Gerard once more, awaiting whatever pleasantries he intended to assail her with.
“So, you … ah …” Gerard rubbed the back of his head with one hand, glancing around the room as if in search of an appropriate conversation topic. “How are you … that is, Sir James has a lovely home. Are you finding it to your liking?”
Diana looked at Uncle James with disbelief. Does he really expect me to act well-mannered in the face of this kind of questioning? The man’s shaggy eyebrows dipped ominously. “Yes, thank you,” Diana muttered in reply.
“Ah, good, good. That’s very … good.” As he spoke his answer to this, Gerard’s voice grew lower and quieter, trailing away into nonverbal utterances of assent. This topic apparently exhausted, Diana waited in silence for a long while as Gerard tapped his fingers against one another anxiously, occasionally looking up to flash her an embarrassed smile.
Evidently, I must not only allow myself to be courted but I am expected to do all the work of courting myself? Diana felt her eyes narrow with anger. And all for a marriage meant to please none but Uncle James?
The idea of marriage had once held great appeal for Diana, as she imagined it did for most girls. She could hardly count the number of times her mother or father had lovingly chastised her about her constant daydreaming about this or that handsome young man of the ton. One day, she imagined, she would be swept off her feet by the son of some minor lordling. In her more ambitious flights of fancy, she would be wooed by someone loftier if less likely—a dashing duke, say, or perhaps an exiled French nobleman. It hardly mattered who the particular gentleman was, she had said laughingly to her friends; no matter his identity, before long, she would meet her husband, have a grand wedding ceremony, and plumb the depths of nuptial bliss over hundreds of happy days and happier nights.
But then, that had been before everything had gone wrong. And now, when she was in the very depths of grief, when all her true family was barely at rest in the cold earth—now was when Uncle James expected her to be obedient and submit to a quick and inexpensive marriage?
Not on my life, thought Diana, her rosy curls dancing around her as she set her chin in determination. Uncle James may be my guardian and have the power to legally compel me to do as he bids, but he is not my father. No matter who he has chosen for me, I would sooner die than give him the satisfaction.
Though it felt like a year or more of waiting, in truth, Diana could only take half a minute of this interaction before she curtsied once more to Uncle James. “Thank you for introducing us, Uncle. I am always pleased to make the acquaintance of one of your friends,” she said, hoping her unspoken request to be dismissed would be received.
Uncle James folded his arms and snorted like a bull. “Mister Dunn has travelled all morning for this visit,” he said in a clipped tone. “As a member of this household, Diana, I thought you might be a good enough hostess to take him to see the Leeson estate grounds, as he has no doubt heard so much about.”
“I scarcely know the place well enough to get around myself,” Diana blurted before she could stop herself. Uncle James’ smooth, full face flashed an alarming shade of pink. “… But of course, I would not want to be an ungracious hostess.”
The would-be patriarch nodded, his stony features relaxing somewhat at this concession. “Fine. Have Missus Fessler accompany you. Missus Leeson and I will join you for a family luncheon in the dining room in an hour or so.” With that, he slumped back into his chair and turned back to his writing desk.
You can suffer through this encounter, if only to spare yourself unnecessary misery, Diana told herself, trudging out the door with Gerard in tow as she tried to restrain the urge to flee back into her room. An argument in front of strangers will only set Uncle James more firmly in his position, stubborn ox that he is. Save the argument for later. You don’t have to marry this man.
After all, it’s only a walk. What could possibly come of a little thing like that?
* * *
The Leeson estate’s grounds were not terribly large and were in ill repair for all Uncle James’ boastful talk. Even so, Diana found herself happy at last to be allowed to breathe fresh air and feel the warm sunshine on her face … as fresh and warm as such things were here on the outskirts of London, that is.
“Well. I say … it … it really is a fine day today. Don’t you think?”
Diana turned away from the path to crouch beside a cluster of thorny flowers, pretending not to have heard. It would be all the finer if I did not have to pass it in such company, she thought, forcing her face to retain a neutral expression.
Gerard cleared his throat, then sallied forth for another assault. “The, ah … well, I don’t know what flowers these are, but they’re quite lovely. I should say.”
“Oh, no, sir, those columbine there?” Missus Fessler laughed in disbelief. “No, I’m afraid those are just wildflowers. Sir James would have Christopher pull them up if he ever came out to see them—he prefers more … what does he say, cultivated blossoms.”
“Ah, hm. Really?” Gerard stammered in reply. Diana smiled darkly, still facing away from the two. She recognized the tone in his voice of neither wanting to be rude nor encourage the woman to speak further on the subject. You’ll have to try harder than that, as well I’ve found, she thought sardonically.
And speak Missus Fessler did. Her little steps carried her up to Gerard’s side, her voice continuing in her singsong manner, “’Course, we called them granny’s bonnet when I was a lass. A friend of mine out in the village, she and I once convinced a boy who was sweet on her to eat a whole fistful of them. Ha! Lad was sick enough that he soon enough left her alone. A pretty little flower, sure enough, but those can be the most dangerous of all, mind you me.”
“Yes, I—” he tried to interject.
“Now, daisies are a much safer gift for a lady you’ve got your eye on, Mister Dunn. That, or marigolds, though of course, those won’t …”
Diana rolled her eyes and continued to walk briskly down the garden path, closing her ears to the continuing prattle. Though the garden was not terribly large and provided no cover, still she glanced about in search of somewhere she could run and hide while her suitor and chaperone were distracted. Seeing none, Diana sighed and continued their walk along the path, staying a few steps ahead of her companions.
Unbidden, some old, familiar voice in Diana’s mind cried out in objection to this behaviour. What’s so wrong with chatting with, by all accounts, a polite young man? the voice chided her. What kind of rude, heartless creature are you not to even engage in civil conversation? How can you let this poor boy make an arse of himself in front of your eyes?
Diana snorted, as impatient with this voice as she was with all else intent on controlling what she did and felt. The very thought of engaging in societal niceties had become repugnant to her. Every raised eyebrow, every shaken head or wagged finger—she wanted to scream at them all, ‘Don’t you know my mother and father died, you merciless beast?’ The effort it took just to keep herself from melting into a puddle of grief-stricken sobs was so very overwhelming … what right did anyone have to demand still more of her than that?
And then, horribly, a gentle voice: “I … understand your parents recently passed away.”
Diana froze in place, a cold hand wrapping around her heart. All contempt for the man and this futile courtship evaporated, replaced first by surprise at his shift away from tedious small talk, then by all the sorrow she struggled so terribly to keep at bay every waking moment of her days.
She turned to look at him, feeling herself fill with anger at having her emotions so callously exposed. She felt him step closer to her, his wiry form no more than a few feet behind her. For half a heartbeat, she worried he would put a hand on her shoulder—it would take true self-restraint not to lash out if he took such a liberty.
But the man simply stood there on the dry, rocky path, his feet shuffling awkwardly in place as before. “You have my condolences. I know how terribly it must hurt to—”
“Do you?” Diana snapped. “That’s most interesting, Mister Dunn. Have you lost your own parents as well, then?”
The lanky young man drew back at these words as though fearing for his life. Timidly he answered, “Well, I … no, I haven’t. But I imagine it—”
“I see. You must have a most vivid imagination, then, sir. Not to say a terribly depressing one, to conjure such feelings without having lived through such an experience. My compliments to your mental prowess.” Lord, the tears are coming now, she realised. Diana drew up her mouth in a scowl, hoping she could frighten the looming despair away with a fit of anger as she had done before.
“I’m sorry. I know …” Gerard stopped, looking around at their surroundings for some clue on how to proceed. Missus Fessler watched from the side, answering his glance with a sober shake of her head. His eyes flitted back to Diana, lip trembling. “That is, I … I cannot know … but I wish that … that is …”
At last, Diana could take no more of this. Without a word of warning, she picked up her skirts and sped up the path that led to the front door of the Leeson house. Over her shoulder, she thought she could hear Gerard raise his voice in protest, then Missus Fessler saying something to him in a gentle tone of voice. Diana did not care—all she could think of now was getting away to somewhere she could dissolve into tears without inviting any questions or stares. And as she did not hear any footsteps behind her by the time she reached the door, she sighed with relief, confident in having escaped this encounter. The tides of sorrow that had loomed so large within her mind began to recede, comforted with the knowledge that her refuge was at hand.
Uncle James will be furious for my having run off so abruptly. Diana swallowed, the thought sending fear shooting through her even as her fingers mechanically turned the knob and pushed open the door. But that is an argument for another time.
Diana doubted she would ever view entering James Leeson’s estate as a pleasant experience, given her upsetting recent history in the home. But this time, she stepped across the threshold and was met not only with the cold dread that seemed to live in the very air of the place but with shock and alarm.
Just as she set foot in the entryway, hastening ahead of her walking companions in search of a moment’s quiet, she saw a pair of wide, shining green eyes peering out at her from the shadows of an adjoining room. For an instant, Diana was surprised enough that she stopped dead in her tracks, putting a hand to her chest as her breath seized at the sight. She could see little of the man in the darkened room, though she could make out a mop of dark tousled hair and a lustrous white cravat framing those striking green eyes, which still gazed at her with a disarming intensity. The man spoke not a word, his expression inscrutable as Diana finally forced herself to breathe once more.
Another one of Uncle James’ vile lackeys, no doubt, Diana thought, resuming her walk towards the staircase. Apart from the household staff, her uncle seemed to have a veritable army of unsavoury characters in his employ. Diana never exchanged words with any of these ruffians, keeping them in her memory as another thing to count against Uncle James’ integrity. Though there was something … strangely familiar about that man, she mused, worrying at the half-formed impression as if it were a sore.
Putting the man out of her mind, Diana continued to stride towards the stairs. I’ve been on this damnable walk. If Uncle James wants anything more of me, he will have to batter down my door and—
Diana jumped in surprise at the sound. Pausing in her advance towards the stairs, she was dismayed to see the green-eyed man standing but a few paces behind her in the corridor. Now that he was illuminated by the sunlight flooding through the windows, Diana could see that he looked most dissimilar from the ruffians with whom Uncle James usually met. He was younger than she had first thought, for one, with an appealingly wide chin and prominent cheekbones. Though his chestnut-coloured locks were long and untidy, it was nevertheless a handsome head of hair. From his visible arm muscles to his thick, athletic legs, the young man appeared to be the very picture of masculine English health.
However, she found herself unsettled by the man’s casual state of dress, standing before her in his shirtsleeves, hands in his pockets, and cravat loose around his neck. Most unnerving of all was the man’s bearing—his easy confidence and smug, bemused smile tweaked something within her, provoking a strange sensation of nervous energy Diana could not remember having felt before.
Before she could speak a word in defence or protest—she had not decided which tone was proper to take—the man opened his mouth, revealing glittering white teeth.
“I admit, my grasp of manners has not always been exemplary,” he said with a wry edge in his voice, “but I believe it’s still the fashion in this country to knock before entering a man’s family home.”
Irked, Diana replied more quickly than she could think, “I cannot speak to the history of your manners, sir. But as you appear to be unaware, it is considered quite impolite to lurk in doorways and stare at young women. In this country and all others I have known.” Diana folded her arms, hoping to look vaguely intimidating even as she steadied herself to keep from shaking in agitation at this confrontation.
Maddeningly, the man’s smile drew even more crooked, one end rising as though Diana had just uttered a witty bon mot. “In that case, I appreciate your lesson in comportment, My Lady. And how many countries have you known, then?” The man began ambling around the room, looking around the surroundings as though he had not a care in the world.
“I … well …” Diana spluttered over the sound of blood rushing in her ears, turning them frightfully hot. She had always longed to travel, though she had not had the opportunity to go farther afield than the occasional childhood visit to the English seaside.
He shrugged. “Forgive the question; it was only idle curiosity. I suppose it does not matter either way. The only rules that matter in a man’s house are his own, I have always thought.”
His house! Diana thought, feeling her cheeks colour with irritation. Who is this impertinent scamp? “I don’t know who you are, sir, or—”
“That much is evident already, thank you,” he interrupted her.
“But whatever land you may think yourself in at the moment, in actuality, this is the home of Sir James Leeson, a man as important and wealthy as he is short-tempered. And unless he is expecting you on business, perhaps it would be prudent for you to go back to wherever you came from before you are asked to leave in rather more impolite terms!” Diana smirked, a rush of pride swelling in her chest at her facility in dismissing this stranger.
But the man only turned on his heel away from the painting he had been examining and fixed Diana with a glittering smile, one more borne of humour than derision for the first time. “So you are not lost after all, then! And by the sound of it, you have had the pleasure of getting to know my stepfather personally.”
“For your information, I am—” She stopped, unable to prevent herself from drawing in a gasp. Stepfather? But that would mean …
Diana’s heart sank in her chest as years of memories flooded through her in an instant. She saw her mother sitting in her favourite chair by the fire, walking with her in the gardens, riding in a coach on a rainy day. She heard her mother’s voice carrying on about a stepson of Uncle James, expressing a wish that Diana and he could meet someday, that they would get along very well.
Diana blinked, realised her mouth was hanging agape and snapped it shut. Trying to ignore the twisting ache in her stomach and the brilliant red her cheeks must have turned, she drew herself straight with whatever meagre dignity she could muster. “Mister Colin Leeson, then, I take it?”
Colin’s smile flickered—for an instant, it looked as though he were truly in pain. Then his arrogant manner returned to him, and he bowed slightly in almost a mockery of the gesture. “Mullens, actually. My mother abandoned the name when she married my stepfather after my birth father passed away, but I have not been so … blessed, I’m afraid.”
Colin’s eyes roved across Diana slowly, taking her in from head to toe as though devouring a roast chicken. Though Diana felt strangely exposed by this examination, she resisted the urge to cover herself or flee, instead standing firm in a haughty posture. Even more vexing, he waited until she opened her mouth to ask a question to jump in with an answer.
“I have been away for the last two months, travelling with friends. If my stepfather has written me with any news of these weeks, I have not received it,” said Colin, drawing himself straight and examining his nails. He glanced at her again, his eyes cutting like a razor. “Charity is not chief among Sir James’ positive attributes, nor is entertaining lovely young houseguests on a whim. And from your dress, I would not offend by implying you are newly employed in the household staff. Loath though I am to admit it, you have confounded me, My Lady. So I have no recourse but to put your own questions back to you: who are you, and what the devil are you doing here?”
Of all the days for this arrogant, impudent jackal to cross my path…
Diana’s reason told her there was no sense in growing angry with this haughty young man for his ignorance of her position. But she was too exhausted by grief to listen to reason now.
“Diana Hann. Daughter of William and Catherine Hann. The late William and Catherine Hann,” she growled, feeling her fingers clench into fists at her sides.
This seemed to put Colin ill at ease. Diana could see his eyes flicker as he pieced together the implications of each of these details, connecting his stepfather James to Diana’s mother, making their relationship one of cousins by law, though not by blood. Seeming to put real thought into his words, at last, the young man sucked in his lower lip in a positively sensual gesture.
Diana shook her head. Where on earth did that thought come from?
“Here now, Miss Hann, who’s this? A friend of yours?”
Diana’s head jerked around to see Gerard Dunn and Missus Fessler, finally finished with their conversation and standing on the carpet in the foyer.
“Hello there, sir,” said Gerard, extending a hand to Colin. “Gerard Dunn. I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“No. You haven’t,” said Colin, walking away from Gerard towards the stairs. Not breaking his stride, he passed within a few inches of Diana, close enough for her to smell the air of musk and leather and dust on him. Colin gave her one last brief yet significant look as he disappeared up the staircase—she could not tell if it was meant to be apologetic, mistrustful, or something else she could not even begin to guess.
A son of Uncle James’ … even were he not a boor, this is a man I must watch with great care, Diana thought, her eyes narrowing. Even if Colin was not the man’s son by blood, every ounce of sense she possessed told her this was a creature not to be trusted.
“A Lady’s Wicked Revenge” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
After her parents were tragically killed in an accident, Diana Hann is forced to live with her despicable uncle. As if that were not enough, he wants to marry her off cheaply so he can rob her of her inheritance. Desperate with grief and furious with her evil guardian, Diana is devastated… Until the most unusual, tempting man appears. Who is this mysterious, witty stepson; a friend or a passionate admirer? Will he be the one to set her heart on fire or ruin her once and for all?
When living in the Devil’s lair…
The enticing Colin Mullens has everything he needs in life to thrive; education, a sharp tongue and a fierce stepfather, Sir James Leeson. Even if Sir James could be spiteful or arrogant at times, Colin will always be grateful. Yet, his perfect world begins to shutter when he gets to know better the tantalising woman living under the same roof. Is he really willing to risk his proper future as Sir James’ heir for his enthralling attraction to this intelligent, seductive Lady?
While dark family secrets are being revealed they will have to make a choice…
Diana and Colin discover in one another a burning flame more thrilling than anything they have ever imagined. No matter how much they long for each other, their love is tested when Diana discovers the horrible truth about her parents’ fate. Is it possible for passionate love to persist if it was built on a wicked scheme? Or will it vanish forever?
“A Lady’s Wicked Revenge” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.