A night of secrets a par.., p.2
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       A Night Of Secrets, A Paranormal Romance, p.2

           Lori Brighton
 

  Chapter 1

  Cumberland, 1857

  There was something deliciously wicked about being improper. But only, Meg decided, if no one was there to watch.

  “Meg, do hurry.”

  Her carefree mood was quickly destroyed by the impatience of the child in front of her. The surface of the water kissed Hanna’s knees, but the soothing motion did little to calm the child. Hands on hips and lower lip pushed into a familiar pout, she was obviously frustrated with Meg’s lack of speed.

  Resisting the urge to laugh at Hanna’s disgruntled frown, Meg settled onto the bank and set her knitting aside. With deft fingers, she slid off her slippers. The grass underneath was damp with last night’s rain and made quick work of soaking through her skirts and petticoats. Meg shifted, resisting the urge to curse.

  “Patience is a virtue, Poppet.”

  Hanna sighed the way only a child who’d had to wait much too long could. “Not one of Grandpapa’s sermons now.”

  Meg tucked her chin to her chest to hide her grin. The moment they’d stepped near the stream, Hanna had dropped her clothes like a heathen and now stood in her shift waiting for Meg to do the same. As if it were that easy for an adult to be so free. No, adults had propriety and rules to abide by. Still, as Julia had once said, one must test those rules upon occasion, if only to stir the tepidness that is life.

  Meg kicked off her shoes and stockings. “For Julia,” she whispered.

  She wiggled her toes, appreciating the cool, crisp grass that tickled her sensitive feet. With a contented sigh, she stretched her legs and dipped her toes into the stream. Just as quickly, she jerked her feet out again, goosebumps marring her flesh.

  “’Tis bitterly cold. Perhaps another day?” she teased Hanna.

  “’Twill warm soon enough, you’ll see.” Apparently, unable to wait a moment longer, Hanna cried out and splashed like a person having an apoplexy.

  “I’m a bit old to be playing in the creek,” Meg yelled over the noise, knowing Hanna wouldn’t give a fig, yet feeling the need to argue her case all the same.

  Hanna turned, her black hair plastered like tar to her head. With fingers still pudgy from youth she shoved the wet locks back. “Well, then I wish to always be young. Old people lead rather boring lives.”

  Meg couldn’t argue with that. Since Papa’s forced retirement and Julia’s death, she was too tired to do much more than the necessities dictated by life before collapsing onto her bed at night. Even with two sisters and a niece to share the responsibilities, there was still too much to do and too few hands and even fewer coins.

  “Do hurry,” Hanna pleaded, waving her over.

  Meg sighed and stood. “Really, you should be playing with Sally.”

  Hanna frowned. “Ever since she turned thirteen, she thinks she’s too old for play.”

  “Since when is thirteen too old to enjoy life?” She needed to have a talk with her youngest sister. There was no reason to grow up so soon. No, Meg knew first-hand how precious childhood was and how quickly it could be taken away. She loved her family, truly she did, but at times they were bloody exhausting.

  “Meg!” Hanna said once more, sticking out that full, bottom lip.

  The child was too sweet for her own good. Meg never could resist Hanna when she turned those pleading green eyes on her. With a quick glance around, Meg made sure the golden fields lay empty. The trees lining the creek would provide shelter from prying eyes, should anyone venture along. Since Papa had retired from preaching, they rarely had visitors. And the spot was shaded enough not to affect Hanna’s sensitive skin. Even so, she shouldn’t...

  “Meg?”

  Although it was dreary and overcast, it most likely was the last warm day of autumn. With a grin, Meg pulled her arms from the sleeves of her gown and let the dress pool at her feet as she’d done so many times as a child. Wearing only her shift and bloomers, she slid down the embankment. Black mud squished between her pale toes.

  “Ewww, Hanna.” The murky goo made disgusting slurping noises not fit for a gently bred woman to hear.

  Hanna giggled, her face flushed with heat and amusement. Meg frowned and tucked the skirt of her shift into the waistband of her bloomers.

  “Come out further.” Hanna waved her nearer. “The bottom has smooth pebbles and the water is clear.”

  “Best be,” Meg muttered.

  Hanna giggled again, pressing her hands to her mouth, her eyes alight. Meg fought her grin. It was worth it, the freedom, the joy on Hanna’s face, all worth Meg indecently undressing to her shift.

  Meg waded into the middle of the creek where the water rose to her knees. Small, gray fish fought the current, darting around her legs in their haste to do whatever it was fish did. She looked up and noticed the mischievous glint in Hanna’s eyes right before she cupped a handful of water and threw it toward Meg. The frigid droplets hit her face and chest, soaking her shift until the pinkness of skin shone through. If she hadn’t been indecent enough before, surely she was now.

  Meg swiped her face dry, flinging the water droplets from her fingertips. Then, she gave the child her best glare, but she’d never been good at punishing the younger girls, and they often used the weakness against her.

  Hanna pressed her lips together, her dancing eyes showing absolutely no apology. “Sorry.”

  “Hmm, I’m sure you are, little hellion.” She lifted the edge of her shift and dabbed her face dry. “Vicar Young advised his congregation to use wooden spoons on naughty children. Perhaps I should have listened.” Meg waded to a fallen log and settled atop, dangling her feet in the water.

  But Hanna merely grinned. “I heard the new owner has moved into Pease Manor.” She lay on her back, floating and splashing her scrawny legs. The child was obviously trying to change the subject, and Meg was curious enough to take the bait.

  “Really? So soon?” She peered through the trees. In the distance, the large manor sprawled across the rolling hills. Dark in stone, unlike the rest of the surrounding county, it stood out like a foreign demon come to infect the countryside.

  Hanna waved aside a green dragonfly as it danced around her head. “I heard there are ghosts that roam the halls.”

  “Hmm.” Meg tugged the ribbon from her hair and tied her damp locks further atop her head. She should just cut her hair. Not having to upsweep the locks every morning would give her precious moments to do other things.

  Hanna stopped splashing and stood, her solemn gaze on Meg. “Tis true, it is. My friend Annabel sneaked up to the windows and saw something white inside.”

  She looked so serious, Meg had to resist the urge to laugh. “Well, hopefully the new owner won’t mind sharing his place with the dead. Did anyone happen to learn his name?”

  Hanna shrugged.

  Meg frowned, wondering when she’d become so far removed from society she had to procure town gossip from a nine year old. She pushed aside thoughts of the new owner and focused on her current task, finishing her book. A sale would mean coins to buy new dresses for her sisters, books for Papa, someone to repair the roof.

  To gain Hanna’s flagging attention, she clapped her hands, the sharp sound echoing through the trees and sending a flock of squawking sparrows to flight. “Now then, enough playing. Do you see the flower?”

  No response.

  Hanna lazily stroked through the water.

  “Darling, have you seen the bloom we need for our book?”

  “Hmm?”

  Meg sighed, but she wasn’t truly annoyed. She could never be annoyed with the child. Hanna had changed so much since that night in London, in more ways than just her name. The terror was still there, at night when the memories and worries seeped into her unconscious. But Meg had no doubt with love and patience, Hanna would eventually forget. “You promised you’d help find the elusive bloom.”

  Hanna hopped to her feet and brushed away the wet locks clinging to her face. “Of course. Your Mim...Mimu...”

  “Mimulus guttatus. Monkey F
lower.” Meg slipped off the log and into the water with a small splash. It wasn’t often that Hanna could play outside. Her pale skin did not accept the sun well. A condition, according to Hanna, her mother had held. If the day was bright, the poor child’s skin would redden and burn, itching something fierce. Meg hated keeping her inside so much of the year, but what else could she do?

  “Right, Monkey Flower.” Hanna frowned and gazed downstream. “Perhaps I spotted it where the creek splits.”

  Meg rested her hands on her hips. “Poppet, you are certain you saw the flower?”

  Hanna shrugged and rubbed the bridge of her nose, a sure sign she was fibbing. “Rather sure, I’d say. It was yellow and resembled a monkey? Perhaps I should look further down and you can search here.”

  “Or perhaps you should go home and glance at the book to make sure you identified it correctly.”

  Hanna sighed and started up the bank.

  “And tell Sally she must come back and play with you. This afternoon is the only chance I have to work on my book.” And one of the few chances Hanna would have to play if the sun decided to return tomorrow.

  But Hanna had already disappeared into the trees and Meg was alone. Finally alone. She breathed in the fresh scent of the water and wildflowers, letting the gurgle of the stream and soft chirp of birds lull her into a peaceful state. Humming, she lifted her skirts higher and made her way into the current. Smooth pebbles massaged the balls of her feet, while weak light filtered through the trees.

  Her gaze slid to the daisies that lined the bank, hiding her in a heavenly cocoon where the burdens of life didn’t dare penetrate. She couldn’t blame Hanna for wanting to play. In fact, she felt the distinct swell of happiness just bursting within, begging to be released. Dare she enjoy herself? Dare she cease worrying about whether there’d be food on the table this eve? Or how they would afford the next week’s meals?

  She skimmed her hands over the surface of the creek and scooped up the water. Closing her eyes, she poured the liquid down her neck, letting the water slip between her breasts and wash away the heat and stickiness of the day. Certainly there could not be a more blessed moment. She grinned and wondered what it would be like to swim in the creek nude, completely devoid of clothing as she had as a child. She glanced at the bank. If Hanna weren’t returning, she might be so bold as to try.

  A rustle of leaves filtered through her hazy mind. Meg stiffened, her smile falling. Too loud to be a bird. The rustling stopped. Meg cocked her head to the side and listened. The shadows remained still, not a leaf moved. Even the wind seemed to have disappeared. Had she imagined the noise?

  From behind, a twig snapped. She spun around, her heart slamming wildly against her chest. Her dress still lay in a puddle on the bank, but too far to reach in time.

  “H…Hanna?” she called out.

  No response.

  Saints, if anyone from town noted her state of undress, she’d die of mortification. She pressed her hand to her neckline, where her breasts threatened to spill from the material. Why hadn’t she splurged on a new shift that actually fit instead of continuing to wear one two sizes too small?

  Another snap rent the air. A deer? A squirrel? Surely nothing else. So why couldn’t she calm her racing heart? She started toward the bank when the branches parted. A scream bubbled in her throat but refused to go past her lips.

  From the shrubs, a dark-haired man stepped into view not feet from where her dress lay. The scream died on her lips and her mind went fuzzy. A God? King of the Fairies? Perhaps a knight from King Arthur’s time? He was far too beautiful to be human.

  His gaze met hers and he drew back, seemingly as startled as she. Just when she thought he’d vanish, disappear back to the mythical realm from whence he’d come, his lips parted and she heard his soft gasp.

  The sound rushed her back to reality on a torrent of heated embarrassment. His attention traveled her form, from her toes in the clear water, up to her stomach, lingering at her neckline were the tops of her breasts glistened with moisture. Meg was painfully aware of the way her wet shift clung to her body, the way her damp tendrils hugged her neck, the way she stood practically naked in front of a strange man. Painfully aware, yet she couldn’t seem to move.

  “I…I apologize.” His deep voice surprised her, so strong, so unlike the quiet gentleness of nature. Yet smooth, like warm honey on a hot summer day. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”

  Oh God, he was real, truly real! Meg gasped and crossed her arms over her chest. Without a word she scurried toward the bank. She attempted to climb the small hill, while covering her breasts with her hands, but the deed remained impossible. With a cry, she slipped to her knees. Groaning partly from pain, but mostly from horrifying embarrassment, she glanced down. The neckline of her shift gaped open, showing the valley between her breasts. The thought of wading back into the creek and drowning herself held certain appeal.

  As if she needed further embarrassment, the tips of his brown boots appeared in front of her. Daisies reflected in the shiny leather and she had no doubt she’d be able to see her face should she lean forward. Why couldn’t he just leave and let her die of shame on her own? Swallowing hard, her gaze traveled up his muscled legs, clad in tight buff riding breeches, up to the wide expanse of his chest covered with a pristine white shirt.

  Hell, this could not be happening.

  Finally, she dared to look into the face of the dark-haired devil. A lock had fallen across his pale forehead, mussing his otherwise tidy appearance like a soldier out of rank. Stubborn, square jaw, firm lips that seemed to be molded into a permanent frown.

  He quirked a black brow, as if finding her predicament ridiculous. “Do you need assistance?” His deep voice rolled over her, sending strange waves of heat spiraling through her body, not unlike when one had a fever. The feeling left her confused, unsure.

  “No.” She tried to press her feet to the ground.

  Her heels slid across the wet grass. With a yelp, she started backward, toward the creek. Strong fingers grasped her upper arms, the man impossibly quick. His hold was tight, strong and sure. Even through his leather gloves, his hands were cold. Before she could break free, she was dragged upright. She suddenly found herself only inches from him, their breaths mingling…close…too close. For one brief, terrifying and oddly thrilling moment, she thought he would kiss her…she hoped…

  No. She drew back, attempting to get as far away as his grip would allow. Dear God, she couldn’t be…she wouldn’t be attracted to a stranger. “How…how dare you!”

  She jerked out of his grasp and stepped back, angrier with her body’s reaction to the man, than his bold touch. Her foot slipped out from under her and she felt herself falling. She squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the thud to her backside. But he was there once more. His sure grip tightened around her arm and he quickly pulled her upright.

  “I did apologize,” he said, although his voice certainly lacked conviction. He sounded bored. Bloody bored and for some reason Meg was offended. “I hardly see the need for you to carry on so.”

  More than a little annoyed, she focused on his face and realized with a start that he had green eyes, eyes the very color of the moss on the bank. Green eyes surrounded by thick, black lashes that any woman would murder for.

  Remaining traces of panic mixed with something long ago repressed...a tingle that spread from the spot where his fingers wrapped around her arms to the middle of her body and lower to the pit of her belly. And just as she was wondering if he felt anything, his nostrils flared ever so slightly, his lips parting almost as if he was breathing in her very essence. The blue vein on the side of his pale face jumped to life.

  “I know. You were only trying to help,” she whispered.

  How could she explain? She wasn’t daft, she’d heard the stories of innocent women seduced, whether they wanted to or not, by wealthy lords. And by the fine cut of his clothing, he was certainly wealthy and most likely a lord. She stepped out of reach, but
could still feel the sting of his touch. No, it wasn’t attraction…it was merely the heat of the day.

  Dancing around him, she snatched up her dress. “But you see, you shouldn’t appear on other people’s property when…”

  He stepped forward, so close she could see flecks of gold in his eerie green eyes, and something else…anger. Through the heady scent of earth and woods, she smelled him… male, outdoors and leather…spice of some sort. A wonderful smell that pulled at her, made her want to step even closer.

  “And grown women should not frolic like children wearing nothing but their undergarments.”

  Heat raced to her face. When she opened her mouth to rebut, he held up his gloved hand. “Besides, this stream runs through my property and I may walk here as much as I damn well please. I should not have to worry about women hiding in the reeds.” He pointed toward the fence that disappeared into the trees across the creek. “To that fence there, is owned by the procurer of Pease Manor.”

  His words sank into her stomach like her sister Mary Ellen’s cooking. Pease Manor? This arrogant oaf was the new owner? It was horrible, too horrible that he should live so close. Her breath came out in sharp pants and she had the sudden urge to run, to get as far away from him as possible. Perhaps he wouldn’t stay; perhaps he was merely here to hunt for a week or two.

  She rubbed her brow and shifted, uncomfortable under his scrutiny. He was obviously awaiting her response. “They aren’t reeds, they’re wildflowers.”

  He was silent for a moment, as if attempting to understand the sudden change in conversation. “What in hell are you talking about?”

  Her ire grew and her hands twisted her faded pink dress. “You said I was hiding in reeds, I’m merely pointing out that they are wildflowers.”

  His mouth fell open and she fought to hide the gleam of satisfaction that bubbled inside.

 

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