Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Untitled M/F story.

Here are the first two chapters of a M/F historic romance that I started writing a few years back. I'm testing it out to see how readers respond to it. If it's positive, then I'll keep working on it. If not, I'll shelve it for now. I love the story and the characters, so I want to finish it at some point.

Keep in mind, this is an unedited draft. I need to research speech, etiquette, weapons, etc., for historical accuracy, so don't laugh too much. I wrote this off the cuff. Just curious what you all think.



As the wheels raced over the muddy, rutted roads, I clutched to the edge of the seat to keep my balance. The motion of the coach made my nausea nearly unbearable, but I could not take the time to stop and let my stomach settle; not when Glensbury Hall, my family's home, was burning.

The express rider had come to Oxford that morning, and the head boy hurried over to me to give me the note which read, "Master Lachlan, I regret to inform you that there has been an accident involving your family. Glensbury hall has burned. You must come to Devon immediately. —E. Paddington. Magistrate, Glenborn."

Within moments I had procured a coach and had set off for my home, and to whatever atrocities awaited me. As the coach neared the hall, I looked out the window and saw smoke hanging over the treetops. I darted from the coach at a run toward the house, slipping in the mud and sobbing with terror. I knew not what horror awaited me, but when I broke through the trees and saw the house, I stopped and stared, incredulous. The house had not burned; it was standing before me just as majestically as it when I had left it two months before.

Had this all been a cruel jest? No, for I had seen smoke from the road. I sprinted to the other side of the house to find the source of the flames. Behind the kitchens, I saw a large pile of wood burning in the dirt. I was completely stupefied and asked myself, "Why would someone have started a bonfire just outside the house? And for that matter, where is everyone?"

I opened the kitchen door and saw a strange man covered in mud and soot. In his hand was a pistol, aimed at my chest. If I live to be a thousand years old, I would never forget the hellish sneer that twisted the man's filthy face when he said, "Well, well… if it ain't his little lordship. 'Ello, master."

They were the last words I heard before searing pain erupted in the back of my skull and I fell into a deep sleep.

The sound of laughter woke me, and I found myself bound hand and foot, lying on my father's library floor. A filthy rag had been tied round my mouth to silence me. With my limited mobility, I twisted my head up to see who was in the room with me. I could see no one, but they evidently noticed my movement.

"E's awake," one of them said with a rough dock-worker's accent.

"Wot's 'e gonna do?" another asked. "Ain't goin' nowhere, is 'e?"

"But wot bout them down the kitchens? They're gonna be trouble, no matter wot Gus told ya."

"We'll just leave 'em locked up when we leave; let someone else deal wif 'em."

"Wot bout the family?"

"Just put the bodies in the drawin' room."

Bodies? They are dead? The world tilted on its axis and I felt bile burn in my throat as I listened to the men gloat over their grisly achievements.

"Gorf! Did you hear that girl tryin' ta curse me while I gutted her mother? It was 'orrible. But the little laddie didn't say a word, did 'e?"

"Not a peep outta 'im. Made a mess of 'imself though, 'e did."

My head buzzed with fear and grief and I wanted to kill them. They were talking about my family. Chuckling and reminiscing about murdering my family. Black rage surged through me and I struggled against my bonds. Pain shot through my throat when I tried to scream through the fabric, and the man who had greeted me at the door appeared in front of me, scowling.

"Shud'up!" he yelled, and hauled me up into a chair. I attempted to calm myself enough to escape this hell I had been thrust into. I looked round for some sort of weapon, and saw my father's silver letter opener lying under my mother's jewels, which had been dumped upon the desk. While the villains went round the house looking for more gold and silver, I grabbed the opener and began to scratch at my bindings. I stabbed myself twice in the wrists before I finally made it through the twisted fabric, and with my hands free, I cut the rope on my feet. With a sigh of relief, I noted that the murderers had also left my father's over-under Catalan pistol on the desk. I checked the load and hid it behind my back, waiting for my captors to return.

It was hell, waiting there for the men to come back to the library. The weight of the pistol and the awkward position in which I held it made my hand cramp, and the blood dripping from my wrists was slippery on the wooden grip. After what seemed like eternity, one of the men came into the room, calmly carrying a candelabra as though he was a footman bringing the master a candle. When he placed the item on the desk, he slapped my cheek lightly and chuckled. When he turned away again, I aimed for his head and fired.

The ball went into the back of the man's head and exploded out the front, leaving no doubt that he was dead. The smell of blood and gun powder stung my nose. I hid behind the door. Within moments, the dead man's partner ran into the room and shrieked at the gruesome sight before him. When he turned from the mess of blood and brains and teeth, he saw me and his eyes bulged. He had not even time to blink before I pulled the trigger again.

With the other man slain, I hurried first to the kitchen. I knew what awaited me in the drawing room, and I could not face the sight alone. The house had been completely ransacked, and the kitchen was no exception. I heard banging from the butler's pantry and raced to open the door. There were twelve of them in the small room, and I could tell they had been there for quite some time. My father's valet, Godfrey fell onto his knees and wrapped his arms round my legs. Tears streaked through the dust and sweat covering his hysterical face.

"Master Lachlan!" he cried. "The earl and the countess…"

"I know." I pulled him up and said, "Come out all of you. The men who attacked the house are dead. Their bodies lie in the library. As for my parents and Elizabeth and Joseph…"

Grief overcame me and I collapsed into a chair, screaming in anguish. Godfrey put a hand to my shoulder. "We should be sure that they are not… suffering."

The meaning of his words was not lost on me. The two of us went to the room of death and he pushed the door open. Immediately, Godfrey turned and vomited on the carpet. The bodies had been dropped on the floor in a disjointed heap, and I cried out in sickened horror. My father had been stabbed and his body horridly mutilated, and my mother had been eviscerated. Elizabeth, who was just sixteen at the time, had also been stabbed, and my brother Joseph, who was seven years of age, had been strangled. The garrote was still wrapped around his small throat. I sat on the stained floor and pulled his cold body into my arms. My tears dampened his cold cheeks.

Only moments later, the men of the village arrived, and the bodies were covered. I asked the magistrate why he had sent such a letter, but he said that he had sent no such message. It had been a neatly laid trap, to lure me to the hall and kill me along with those I loved dearest in the world.

Two days later, as I walked from the mausoleum, I knew that I would never love again.


The ball was hideously boring, and I wanted to escape, but when I started for the door, the Duke stepped into my path. He had visited my home a week before and demanded that I attend his ball in honor of his daughter's engagement. It had been a year since the murders at Glensbury Hall, and his grace insisted that I come into society once again.

"Ah, Glensbury," he said jovially. "Glad you could attend."

"Your grace," I acknowledged with a bow.

He raised an eyebrow and said quietly, "Certainly you are not leaving."

It was a command and not a question, so I smiled. "Of course not, your Grace."

"Excellent. Now may I introduce my daughter to you?"

Again a command. "I would be delighted."

He turned to the door and gestured to the duchess who stood just outside. She entered, followed by a young woman who was so pale that I thought her an apparition. It was only when I heard her cough genteelly that I was convinced that she was real.

The duke smiled sympathetically at his younger daughter and turned to me. "Lord Glensbury, may I introduce my daughter, Clara."

I bowed and said, "It is an honor, Lady Clara."

When I took gloved hand she offered, her thin fingers felt like small twigs, and I feared that even the slightest pressure might break her fragile bones. Afraid to hurt her, I dropped her hand. Her eyes fell and I felt like a villain. Obviously the girl was gravely ill, and I had been extraordinarily insensitive. I glanced quickly at the sharp, waxen features of her face, and knew that her sickness must have been well advanced.

To make some amends for my behavior, I asked, "Could I have the next dance, Lady Clara?"

The girl's eyes brightened, but her mother shook her head. "I am afraid she must decline, Lord Glensbury. The exertion would be too great."

"Mama," Clara said with a roll of her eyes. "Do stop fussing. Thank you, Lord Glensbury, I would be happy to dance with you."

We made our way onto the floor, and were followed by every gossiping eye and whispering mouth. They all shook their heads in pity. Here I was, a man who cheated death, about to dance with a girl who carried death about her shoulders like a cloak, waiting gracefully for its suffocating cloth to finally overcome her.

When the music began, the girl smiled and curtsied, and we commenced to trace the ritualistic patterns across the floor, weaving in and out and around the other dancers until the music stopped and I was once again across the floor from her. It was only then that I realized she had gone ashen, and was gasping to draw a breath. I hastened to her assistance and pulled her to a chair, assuring that she was not in a swoon before I went in search of her parents. The duke must have seen the panic in my expression, for he pushed his way roughly through the crowd and knelt at his daughter's feet.

"Clara?" he cried.

She smiled and gasped, "I am…alright, father. Only a…little…tired."

In a display of affection I had never witnessed in so important a man, the duke lifted his daughter in his arms and carried her out of the ballroom, much to the astonishment of their guests. The duchess had noticed the commotion and hurried toward the door. I felt wretched, knowing that if I had not asked her to dance, she would not have become more ill.

The appearance of three old school friends saved me from my self-loathing. One of the men, a tall, sturdy man named Stanwick Clough, hailed me. "Glensbury!" he called jovially.

It was evident that he'd forgotten that I had inherited the earldom after my parents' death, and that he—being only the second son of the Earl of Tundry—should have addressed me as "my lord" or "Lord Glensbury." Clough was always a self-righteous ass, however, so I did not correct his faux pas just then. I waited for a more opportune moment. The other two gentlemen, Thomas Hargrove and Percy Rindell, were sons of wealthy gentlemen, but not of the nobility, so they were quite aware of Clough's mistake.

Rindell covered his mouth and pretended to cough, and Hargrove said, "You forget, Clough, that our classmate is now Lord Glensbury."

I smiled at Hargrove and we enjoyed Clough's face as it lost its color. I, however, am not a cruel man, so I said, "Come, come, Clough. Do not trouble yourself."

"Well then, Glensbury," Clough said. "You are looking well. Indeed, I was surprised that you stood up with Lady Clara. With all the ladies in the room vying for your eye, why would you waste your time with a girl like that?"

My blood began to boil and I asked, "A girl like what?"

He leaned down and spoke quietly. "Compared to her sister, Clara is so plain. Nay, 'tis more than that. She has an unfortunate resemblance to a donkey, with her gaunt cheeks and large teeth. I opine that this illness is an act of mercy."

"Mercy?" I snapped. "To go through life, unable to draw a deep breath without unimaginable pain, knowing that at any moment death will come for you, and being absolutely powerless to stop it. That is mercy?"

He shifted nervously from foot to foot and said, "When you put it in such terms, no," he said, "but even before her illness, there was not a man who would take a second look. She would have ended her days a lonely spinster. She will be spared from that."

Fire shot through my veins and I clenched my jaw to keep from roaring in fury. Clough saw my posture and let his gaze fall to the floor. When I had composed myself, I spoke with a calm but firm voice. "I must say, Clough, that you are a disgusting ass."

He stiffened, and began, "See here—"

I paid no heed to his words and continued, "Now I remember now why I disliked you so much at school. You really are the most reprehensible bastard of my acquaintance. How can you be so malicious and evil-hearted to a girl who looks death in the eye every day of her life? And as for her appearance, there is a wicked sense of humor hiding behind those eyes, which I find to be most handsome."

The volume of my voice had risen somewhat and I realized that a large group of people were gawking unabashedly and listening to the conversation. I paid them no heed and continued to rake Clough over the coals. "Of course you would not have noticed her eyes, would you, since your thoughts were undoubtedly focused elsewhere."

"How dare you, Glensbury!" Clough hissed.

My ire was waning, but I could not control my rant. I remarked, "Excuse me, Clough, but you forget yourself. You should have cried, 'How dare you, Lord Glensbury!' As Hargrove so rightly pointed out, I am your better, and I dare say in more ways than one. I have stable boys with better manners than you! You have besmirched Lady Clara, and I believe that you should apologize for your cruel remarks and leave this house."

"This is not your house!" he spat.

Somehow I found the strength to remain aloof and replied, "I don't give a fig."

Every lady in the room gasped at my vulgar expression. Clough narrowed his eyes and said, "By God, you will pay for this."

"Certainly you are not challenging me? If I recall correctly, you were always a terrible shot."

Clough shook with anger, and he clenched his fist as if to strike me, but when his eyes focused on something just behind my shoulder, his posture slumped and he looked to the floor. I turned to see none other than the duke standing behind me. I considered what I had just done, kicking a man out of a house that was not my own and I blushed. "Your grace, please forgive the—"

He raised a bejeweled hand and asked, "Do my ears deceive me, Lord Glensbury or have you asked this…person to leave my house?"

I nodded and mumbled, "Yes, your Grace, but he was—"

Again the duke interrupted me by stepping between Clough and myself and looking down his hawk-like nose at my opponent. "You have offended my daughter and my family, and for that I am well within my rights to have you run through, but your father is a good man, and I would not want the shame of it to fall on his head. I will call for your carriage and you will leave my house."

The room was utterly silent, and Clough very nearly ran out the door. The duke then smiled valiantly and said to his guests, "I must apologize for such an outrageous scene. Please do enjoy yourselves." He waved to the band to start playing again, and then turned to me. With his black eyes piercing to my soul, he said, "Lord Glensbury, please wait in the library and I will join you directly."

I gulped and followed him into the library, and I found myself glancing about nervously, looking for weapons. The door closed quietly behind me, and the duke came to sit on a high-backed wing chair. He motioned me to take the chair opposite.

"Clara's heart is very weak," he began, "and has been since she was a girl. She has endured so bravely and with such a tender spirit that sometimes it is easy to forget that she may leave us at any moment."

The glow of the fire reflected off a tear, rolling slowly down his cheek. I felt a lump of despair lodge in my throat, knowing that this man would soon feel the same searing pain of loss that I felt for my family. Shame at my behavior made the lump grow to unbearable size. I had to speak.

"Your grace, I am truly sorry for my actions this evening. If you wish me to leave the house, I will do so at once. I will wait in the stables for my coach."

He looked at me with a quizzical brow and said, "Glensbury, I do not wish for you to leave. You have proven your loyalty to me and my family by your bold—if somewhat unorthodox—handling of that vile cad."

"Oh. How is your daughter? I feel quite responsible for her swoon."

The duke smiled. "Clara is relaxing comfortably, and please do not trouble yourself. Indeed, I have never seen her in better spirits than she is at the moment."

"Is that so? Why do you think has caused the improvement?"

"I have not a guess," he said sarcastically. "You cannot be so dense, man! You are the first man to ever ask her to dance."

"What?" I choked.

He inclined his head and told me, "I am not insensible of my daughter's physical appearance. For that matter, neither is she, but what I don't understand is why such a brilliant mind cannot be shared because of what she looks like."

The duke loved his daughter so, and I was deeply moved. I said, "You remind me very much of my father, your grace."

"I could say the same about you," he replied with a chuckle.

Just then the door opened and the duchess peaked her head around the panel. "Forgive the intrusion, but I must speak with you, Sussex."

He went to her and she whispered something in his ear. Then they both turned to me. A slight tremor of fear prickled down my arm, and I wondered what she had said to him. Fortunately, the duke assuaged my troubles. He smiled and said, "I know that this is irregular, but our daughter has asked if you would like to join her for coffee."

"I'd be delighted." I spoke the absolute truth. "Shall I proceed to the drawing room?"

The duchess bit her lip and shoved at her husband's arm. He stuttered, "N-no. You see, she is too tired to climb the stairs, so you can…sit with her in her…bed chamber."

My ears surely could not have heard him correctly. "Come again?" I asked.

"Oh, please do understand," Lady Sussex said, wringing her hands round her lace handkerchief. "She wishes to talk to you, and she has long ago gotten over the idea of romance. It is companionship that she longs for. The duke and I are sure that you will conduct yourself in a gentlemanly manner. Will you see her?"

A beat of pity strummed in my heart at the words. No romance? What kind of life was that for a young woman? I nodded and said, "Of course I will."

I started toward the door to the hall, but the duke grabbed my arm. "Not that way," he said. "Too many damned gossiping tongues. You can take the stairs."

He pushed a panel to the right of the mantel, and it swung inward. A winding stair was hidden behind the chimney flue. The duke handed me a candle and said, "At the top of the stairs, simply knock on the door. It leads directly to her chamber. I moved her into that room so I could reach her quickly in case…" He wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and said, "Be off with you."

The wooden panel closed behind me, and my way was lit only with the single candle I had been given. The spiral stone stairs were steep and narrow, and not half my shoe rested on each step. The passage was just wide enough to allow my shoulders to pass, and I felt my hair brush the soffit above. As I climbed, a spider's web wiped across my face, and I gasped in fear. I had a nasty experience with a spider on my pillow as a small boy and was from that day petrified of arachnids.

As I struggled to remove the silky strands from my face, I fell back against the wall and dropped the candle. It raised an unholy racket as it rolled down the stairs, banging and clacking against the stone. I expected someone to come to find the cause of the melee, but no one came. Plunged into darkness as I was, I decided to continue my ascent and hope that I reached the top step soon. Unfortunately, the door was right in front of me, so when I took the first step, my body crashed into the solid wood, knocking me to my knees on the platform. When the door opened, I was still on my knees, and Clara laughed at my predicament.

"Proposing already, Lord Glensbury?"