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The Earl's Captive

The Earl's Captive


Book excerpt

CHAPTER ONE 

“No! Martin, not the child, she’s just a baby. I don’t care what you do to me, but . . . leave her, Martin. Oh Martin, no!”

Her mother’s voice had risen to an agonized scream as a glancing blow from her father’s tightly clenched fist caught her on the cheekbone and sent her reeling against the wooden dresser. A sturdy blue milk jug teetered and fell, smashing into irregular pieces on the tiled kitchen floor. 

The moment was frozen forever into Lucy Swift’s memory: the blow, the rocking jug, the white explosion on the floor, the sight of her mother on her knees, a crimson mark on her face already turning blue, sobbing as she picked up the sharp shards of pottery, and her father muttering an oath as he swayed unsteadily towards the door.

Looking at him now, hearing him whistle through his teeth as he brushed the bay mare into gleaming splendour with methodical, circular strokes, Lucy could hardly believe that the brutal drunkard and this careful, tender man were one and the same person – her father. Yet her earliest memory was no fantasy.

Similar scenes had been repeated time after time during the eighteen years of her life. They had driven her mother, Ann, into premature old age. At thirty-eight, she was grey-haired and haggard, her body shrunken as if by her efforts to protect herself from her husband’s violent words and blows, her face lined and scarred from where he had once, during an exceptional bout of drunkenness, lashed her with a riding whip.

Lucy loved her mother with a fervour that had led her, from an early age, to stand up to Martin Swift. Once, at the age of four, she had rained blows on his knees with her childish fists as he sought to knock frail Ann aside, convinced that she was hiding a jug of ale from him. Her hot-blooded defence of her mother had often earned her a painful beating, but she knew she also had her father’s grudging respect, especially where horses were concerned. Not like her brother, Geoffrey.

As if reading her thoughts, Martin Swift glanced from the fidgeting horse to his daughter.

“Bet Geoffrey wouldn’t have made as good a job of it as this, eh?” he enquired, casting an admiring glance at his own handiwork. In the dusty yellow light of the stable, the pretty grey mare’s hide gleamed like moonlight on snow. He didn’t expect an answer, but dodged round to the other side of the horse and resumed his hypnotic brush strokes.

Lucy watched him while he worked. At forty-one years old, in spite of his over-indulgence in ale and spirits, Martin was in his prime, not a tall man, but wiry and strong, with the black hair and blue eyes that betrayed his Irish ancestry, although he, and his father before him, had been born in the same tiny Lancashire village where the Swifts still lived. Only his florid, weather-beaten complexion and broken nose bearing its route-map of tiny red veins gave a clue to his outdoor, rough-and-tumble life. Indoors, dressed up, with his body scrubbed clean of the smells of the stable, he could, in a low light, pass for the gentleman he thought himself to be.

Geoffrey was not a bit like his father, reflected Lucy, as she idly chewed on a piece of fresh straw. She missed her brother badly, even though it was three years since he had left Prebbledale, running away at fourteen to escape his father’s bullying. She had aided his flight and she didn’t regret it, even though she had, by this risky action, deprived herself of her staunchest supporter and closest confidant, probably for ever.  For Geoffrey, dearest, kind, humorous Geoffrey, with his fair curls and poetic nature, was far more like his mother than either Lucy or Helen.

“That mewling little milksop,” was his father’s usual derisive way of describing him. Born with a deep-seated fear of all large animals, Geoffrey would scurry for the nearest hiding place whenever his father came looking for him to take him into the stables and try to teach him some horse-lore. Martin Swift was known and respected all over the county and beyond for his skill in breeding, handling, breaking-in and training horses. Dukes and earls would send for him and ask his advice before parting with their money for a thoroughbred racehorse or a pair of carriage horses, knowing that his judgement was sound and unerring.

“No-o-o,” he would say slowly, shaking his head as some fine-looking specimen was paraded before him. “Not that one. Weak left hock. ‘Twould let ye down over the half-mile.” And Lord Highfalutin’ would wave the animal away and slip Martin a sovereign for saving him fifty.

The grey mare, Beauty Fayre, stamped a hoof and snorted, breaking Lucy’s reverie. Who knew where Geoffrey was now? In the East Indies, maybe, having worked his passage on a trading ship; or perhaps he was dressed in the uniform of a naval rating, keeping the look-out while he mentally composed an ode to the heaving sea. Unless he was . . . Lucy couldn’t bring herself to consider the worst fate of all.

A sound behind her, like the scuffling of a dog in the straw, made her turn her head. One shoulder and half an anxious face were poking round the corner of the cobwebby door-jamb as Ann Swift attempted to catch her daughter’s eye without attracting the attention of her husband. Giving an almost imperceptible nod, Lucy took two silent steps backward towards the door and spun quickly round the corner of the building, trying not to catch her skirt on a protruding nail.

She had totally forgotten that her sister, together with her husband John and twin sons, Toby and Alexander, were paying them a visit that afternoon. Her heart sank at the thought of having to play auntie to the toddlers, cudgel her brains to think of something to reply to John’s suggestive remarks and listen to her sister’s predictable, boring grumbles about servants, children and the latest London fashions. It was always the same.

“Not married yet, our Lucy?” John would bark, in his brusque attempt at a jocular tone. She would wait to see the beads of sweat break out along his forehead as his eyes raked her lasciviously up and down.

“Really, Mother, I just cannot understand how Helen can put up with him. He’s a beast,” Lucy complained to her mother.

“Shush, girl. He’s a good man. She could have done a lot worse,” replied Ann in her quiet voice, like a defeated whisper. They’d had this conversation many times before. It was a ritual warm-up to all Helen’s visits.

“But she’d never have married him, surely, if she hadn’t wanted to get away from Father so badly,” Lucy persisted. “She was only sixteen. Who knows who she might have fallen in love with if only she’d had the chance? She didn’t even know John Masters. Father fixed it all up. I think it’s disgusting – like bringing a stallion to a mare.”

* * *

 “Lucy!” Ann was shocked, but amused, too. Privately, she thought Lucy’s outspoken opinion was quite correct. She reached out and straightened a roaming lock of Lucy’s chestnut hair as the two of them sat side by side on the settle in the window, watching for the arrival of the visitors. How like her father Lucy was, with her straight back, her alert blue eyes, her plump, curving lips and her plain-speaking ways.

There was a vividness about Lucy that reminded Ann of her first-ever glimpse of Martin, as he stood in the marketplace of Weynford, her hometown, twenty-three years ago. To her, he had seemed to stand out from his companions as if surrounded by a kind of glow, undetectable to the human eye but nevertheless capable of being picked up by some sixth sense.

Even now, in spite of the years of torment and agony she had undergone at his hand, abuse that had caused her ill-health and a permanent nervous trembling, she was still in awe of him, still capable of feeling that same old wonderment whenever he looked at her kindly or gave her one of his special, half-cheeky, half-loving smiles. Whatever he possessed that gave him that unique power over people and animals, Lucy had inherited, and sometimes Ann feared for what life held in store for her younger daughter. Particularly now, with Martin so anxious about her unmarried state.

They had discussed it in bed just the previous night.

“Damn that kitchen maid!” Martin had expostulated, having sipped at his night-time beverage of warm ale only to find it stone cold. “Get rid of her, first thing tomorrow. And what are we going to do about Lucy?”

Ann, used to her husband’s abrupt changes of subject, had sighed and withdrawn to the far side of the lumpy feather mattress, trying not to incur her husband’s further wrath by drawing too many of the coverlets with her.

“Well?” he had snapped, reaching out in the darkness and digging his fingers painfully into her shoulder. “Well? Helen’s twenty-one and she’s got two fine sons already. I’m the laughing stock of the neighbourhood, having that strapping lass still on my hands at the age of nineteen. Why, only yesterday that cur Appleby had the damn’ cheek to suggest that maybe nobody would have her because she was soiled goods. I whipped the blighter to teach him to hold his tongue. Still, an insult’s an insult. She’s been on our hands long enough, eating our food, taking up room about the place, striding round like a . . . like a great lad.”

Ann had felt a chuckle inside, knowing full well that Martin did treat his younger daughter almost exactly like a son. She knew, too, that Martin found Lucy a great help with the horses as she had inherited every bit of his own natural talent. Even unbroken horses calmed for her and let her approach them. It was as if some secret understanding passed between beast and girl. Sometimes she wished that Lucy had been born a boy. She would have gone far in life, of that Ann had no doubt – and that life would have been a lot easier, too.

Martin was continuing his monologue: “I’ve seen the way they all look at her – tradesmen, stable lads, respectable gentlemen. They’d all like to get their hands on her. We could have married her off twenty, thirty times already.  If only I hadn’t been so soft with her, giving in to her every time she said, ‘No, Father, I won’t marry him . . . No, Father, I don’t like him . . .’ Spoilt and wilful, that’s what she is. Well, I’ve had enough. There’s a good man I’ve got in mind for her. None better. She’ll marry him and that’ll be an end to it, even if I have to take the strap to her.” 

Ann, with much nervous clutching and kneading of the bedclothes, had found the breath to whisper, “Who could this be?”

His answer had given her very mixed feelings indeed and caused her to lie awake the best part of the night.  “Old Holy Joe. The Reverend Pritt.”

CHAPTER TWO 

 “Here they come,” said Lucy, as John Masters’ coach swept down the lane, pulled by a pair of matching bays. Masters was a wealthy grain merchant and Helen, as she stepped from the carriage, was, if not perfectly suited to her middle-aged husband, at least perfectly dressed.

The two little boys followed, identically dressed in blue jerkins and knickerbockers, their brown hair combed and twisted neatly into shape.

Binns, the maid, announced them breathlessly at the door, “Mr and Mrs Masters and the two Master Masters,” then flushed, as if realizing that what she’d said had sounded most peculiar.

“Thank you, Binns,” said Ann, rising to her feet. “We’ll take tea in the drawing-room. And bring some apple cider for the children – watered, if you please.”

Ann was remembering one disastrous previous occasion when the maid before last had failed to water down the cider, resulting in two very dizzy small boys being sick all over the chaise longue.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Binns, dropping a brief, awkward curtsey and hastening out of the room as fasts as her lumpish legs could carry her.

“My dear,” breathed Ann, embracing Helen, who was taller than she was, and grazing her cheek on an amber brooch pinned to the shoulder of her daughter’s short cape of the most fashionable shade of lavender blue.

Lucy felt her hackles rise as the portly figure of John Masters confronted her and she felt his hot gaze travel up and down her body. The crude sexuality of the man disgusted her. She was always having to dodge his groping hands and try not to blush at his suggestive remarks. She, who had never kissed a man except in polite greeting, could not conceive of her sister in the arms of this fat, ugly, lecherous old man, doing all the things you had to do in order to get with child.

Lucy’s sexual knowledge was scanty but basic. Living in the country and working with horses as she did, she could hardly have avoided noticing the way they acted at certain times of the year. Her father always forbade her to leave the house when a stallion was put to one of his mares. What he didn’t know, however, was that Lucy’s bedroom was not the stronghold it appeared to be. An athletic person of either sex could, with a modicum of nimbleness, lower a leg from the windowsill, find a toehold in the crumbling, ivy-clad stone and from there, scramble sideways into the old oak tree, from whence it was a short and easy climb to the ground.

So, on more than one occasion, Lucy had heard the excited whinnying and snorting of the stallion and seen the mare, hump-backed and docile. Seen, too, the way in which her father and a helper aided the stallion by guiding that huge, terrifying, yet fascinating limb, thick as a man’s leg, into the mare. Watching the frenzied couplings, Lucy had felt hot, breathless, faintly disgusted, yet tingling with strange sensations, much as she felt whenever a handsome man looked at her the way her brother-in-law did.

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